THE AMBASSADOR OF SOUND
A Conversation with PLUS AZIZ
By Lori Zimmer
Sound art has always been somewhat of a conundrum for me. I realize I’m not alone in this thought, most of my friends are immersed in the art world in some way or another, but when asked about sound art, just sort of avoid answering the question. It’s not because we don’t like it, but more because we’re afraid to admit that we don’t know too much about it. Other than John Cage’s whole Fluxist movement and Max Neuhaus’ piece in Times Square (both of which I love), I haven’t been exposed to enough sound art, thus my hesitance.
This is where Plus Aziz comes in. +Aziz is one of those guys who excels at everything–he is a trend spotter, a writer, a musician, a break dancer, and an artist. And it is precisely this well-rounded background that makes him the perfect ambassador to introducing sound art to a skeptical audience.
Last month, +Aziz helped to curate a two day event called UNCOLLECTABLE at the gallery-meets-salon (think French, not hair) Hotel Particulier, a performance survey that discussed the intersection between sound art and music. The program gently welcomed the crowd into the realm of sound, with orchestrated music performances, a beat boxer, violinist, blindfolded sound experience, and even audience participation–in the form of a music video with Plus Aziz himself. The crowd walked away not confused, but instead feeling like a part of something. And best of all, now I can say that I’m a fan of sound art–and will definitely seek out future performances.
Lori Zimmer: You’re a trend spotter by trade and a songwriter by passion. Do you feel both of these roles are interrelated? Do they influence one another?
+Aziz: I don’t think there’s a natural fit between the two fields, but I bring them together in a way that works for me. Most trend spotters do consulting for brands, develop apps, or websites (think PSFK, iCoolhunt, or CultureScouts). I want to harness the field to develop cutting-edge experiences for music and to shape opportunities to work with other creatives.
I hope to continue doing both down the line because I find both fields equally compelling and important to the advancement of Middle Eastern culture and rock music.
LZ: How does the life of an indie songwriter differ in the Middle East vs. the US?
+A: The Middle East is not a single unit: Morocco, Egypt, and Lebanon have thriving indie and DIY scenes with great songwriters. Oil-rich countries like Kuwait have not done nearly enough to prove themselves to the rest of the Middle East although there are a handful of shining examples. The story is entirely different when it comes to music because Khaleejis (or people from the Gulf) see music as a hobby.
This can be traced back to the lack of institutional diversity in the Middle East’s music industry. Most of what you have are people setting up personal/technical studios (which are hit or miss) and then there’s powerhouse production facilities like Rotana which specialize in making garbage for the TV. The indie music scene is active, but it is exceedingly fragmented and that impacts long-term motivation. This isn’t to say that indie artists in the US are making bank, but they certainly have an important role in the larger music industry that enables them to keep calm and carry on.
LZ: Do you feel Middle Eastern artists relate to you, now that you’re living in New York?
+A: Local impact is possible in living abroad but I don’t know about the question of relating to me. I don’t really expect any artist to relate to me because they tend to be very absorbed in their own practice and the parameters they’ve set up for themselves. Moreover, Arab artists understand that you can’t build a reputation of for yourself solely based on local support, unless you’re doing something relatively conventional. The story is different in places like Lebanon and Morocco, where local support is sufficient to catapult an artist into working on an international level. Morocco especially has a robust infrastructure for music and art.
At the end of the day, audiences are more likely to start seeing your value once you are acknowledged beyond your home country’s borders. I just know that where one is based is less important than demonstrating your interest in bringing your talent and skills back home. I’m confident that I will manage to pull off some amazing things as long as I grow my relationship with people that care about music.
LZ: How do you think songwriting and music have changed in recent years.
+A: There’s a lot of technological experimentation going on; some of it has implications for how songwriting is evolving, but the core of the craft has not changed much. What has evolved is the form of output and the threshold for audience participation. For example, Ericsson recently sponsored Sweden’s DJ Avicii to develop a crowdsourced track. The Vaccines created a music video for Wetsuit out of Instagram photos submitted by their fans. These are two great examples of co-creation. The DJ Aviicii initiative is particularly interesting because fans had a window of time to submit layers that shaped the DJ’s melody, beat, effects, etc.
Another important artist for me (on a visual and methodological level) is Amon Tobin. I got to see his ISAM show in Brooklyn back in 2011 and my thinking about music just hasn’t been the same since meeting him and his crew.
LZ: Your most recent project, UNCOLLECTABLE, is a project that is performance-meets-exhibition celebrating and exploring sound art and music. What do you think defines sound art today? How do you think sound art and music affect each other?
+A: Joshua Liebowitz and I have talked about this many times. The short answer is that sound art and music draw on each other but are quite distinct; also when push comes to shove, it will feel like music is more easily commercialized and therefore removes sound art practices from the realm of ‘art’ to the realm of ‘consumer culture.’ When we first started to kick ideas around, we weren’t sure how UNCOLLECTABLE was going to work. At one point, Josh mentioned that having music and sound art in proximity of each other, sharing the same space would be sufficient. But I wanted to drive towards integration as much as possible. Here are some ideas on how they co-mingle:
The first issue was that sound art resists being reduced to an instrument or being a part of the band. That’s why as a songwriter, I had to stop thinking about my guitar as a tool, and approach it as an idea. The program itself is a series of four movements, not just a playlist.
Secondly, sound art is much more concept-centric than music. I’m not even sure if sound art would have any value without a concept. In the case of music, it actually disseminates and spreads faster without the weigh of a real concept. Concepts are typically leveraged for commercial and branding purposes, and rarely something indivisible from what is being produced.
Thirdly, sound art tinkers with audiences’ comfort levels. It doesn’t necessarily need to be noisy like what you hear in bands like Sonic Youth or The Mars Volta, but it oftentimes requires patience while music skews towards instant-gratification.
Both fields are concerned with variables like composition, human emotion, and tone/timber/balance, but sound art is also less concerned with melody, rhythm, catchiness, etc. Sound art also feels infinite and boundless while music has a hard start/stop.
LZ: What inspired such an intensive interdisciplinary program like UNCOLLECTABLE?
+A: I don’t think an idea is worth pursuing if it’s not interdisciplinary, but the complexity of my idea stems from the organic way things came together. I presented cultural trends re-shaping Middle Eastern culture at a design conference last year in Dubai and then again in Kuwait. UNCOLLECTABLE ART is one of the trends I identified. My hypothesis was that contemporary Middle Eastern artists were turning towards site-based work and sound/performance art because they were working to resist the emerging commercial infrastructure of the Arab art world.
ArteEast reached out to me soon after and asked if I’d be interested in guest editing their quarterly eMagazine. My proposal had literary and performance components. I worked closely with ArteEast’s Barrak Al-Zaid to think about the dynamics of collecting beyond the art world. I began looking into the reality of my hypothesis by connecting with artists, curators, collectors, ethnomusicologists and cultural tastemakers. That’s when I began to evolve a complex web of ideas such as how nation-states attempt to collect history in a way that creates a hegemonic patriotism. Or how certain musical practices like freestyling, jamming, or DJ convey a never-ending, stream of musical expression.
The final piece of my initiative came when I began a series of intimate discussions with Frederique Thiollet, founder of Hotel Particulier. She became my lens to develop a highly distilled program for the performance and we also found a mutual interest shaping an art exhibit around the question of collectability and the ethereality of certain artworks.
LZ: What makes UNCOLLECTABLE different than the average exhibition?
+A: It’s a rotating exhibit and the work can’t be bought. We decided to go with a rotating exhibit where the work is site-based and the message is to be experienced corporeally. Rather than limiting ourselves to sound art or Middle Eastern artists, we opened up the concept to a handful of artists from various disciplines to convey different perspectives on the question of collectability.
It’s different also because it balances sound art and music. An average exhibition would prioritize sound art and a music venue would prioritize the music. But Hotel Particulier is a venue that is neutral and thus enables the development of a platform that upholds both as equals.
As a perk in my crowdfunding campaign, I’m going to be hosting gallery tours. This means I’ll be in the gallery every time the art changes up, livestreaming myself to supporters that donated $500 or more. That also differentiates it from the average exhibition.
LZ: How do you foresee the future of indie song writing?
+A: Indie songwriters have become increasingly dependent on their fans and supporters; Amanda Palmer was right on point in her TED talk but the real insight lives in the critical perspective Nitsuh Abebe provides. His argument centers on the economics of art and “fairness,” something UNCOLLECTABLE addresses:
“The web offers an opportunity to fall into the open arms of fans, in ways that weren’t available before. Here’s the catch: The web also makes it near-impossible to fall into the arms of just one’s fans. Each time you dive into the crowd, some portion of the audience before you consists of observers with no interest in catching you. And you are still asking them to, because another thing the web has done is erode the ability to put something into the world that is directed only at interested parties.”
There are numerous implications here: one take-away is that we must improve their targeting and create layers of outreach/participation. Another take-away is that we must figure out ways to pay our collaborators and fellow performers respectable sums of money (preferably at a rate they provide and not one we dictate).
Again, the nuts and bolts of the craft of songwriting are still very much the same and lyrics are the core of it all for me. The way we bring our audience into our experience and creative process is a reflection of our time and hopefully we will continue to see great examples of broad musical collaborations.
+Aziz is a trend spotter, a writer, a musician, a break dancer, and an artist.
Written by Lori Zimmer
Photography by Hadar Pitchon
Design by Marie Havens
Plus Aziz, 2013, Photography by Hadar Pitchon