Originally published by Chicago Soundweb, Summer, 1995.


An Interview with Sabine Breitsameter on Sound and Radio Art

by Eric Leonardson

Sabine Breitsameter is a free-lance journalist, curator, and radio artist at Sender Freies Berlin (SFB), one of Germany's largest public radio stations. She produces a weekly radio program at SFB called Internationale Digitale Radiokunst, presenting radio documentaries, sound art and radio art.

I first met Sabine in 1990, at the Sound Art Festival: Second Acustica International, in New York. In 1993 I had the opportunity to meet with Sabine again during the First International Conference On Acoustic Ecology: Tuning of The World at the Banff Center for the Arts (in Canada), where she conducted a presentation entitled "Acoustic Traveling-Acoustic Experiences: The Acoustic Identity of Places and Spaces."

This year [ 1995 ], in a very hot, late July, Sabine came to Chicago to visit and listen to the work of local sound and radio artists. The Experimental Sound Studio (ESS) hosted an evening where fellow artists were able to meet, play samples of their work, and learn a little about the conditions for making work in Germany compared to our situation here. With the works she heard at ESS, Sabine was armed with enough material to make two SFB programs on Chicago sound and radio art. This interview was conducted on August 27, just as Sabine was putting the finishing touches on the second broadcast.

Sabine also conceived and curated a festival called Klangum Welten ("Sound Worlds"); an exploration of the relationship of sound and environment, which was held this last April [ 1995 ] in Berlin.

SOUNDWEB: Can you tell me about the Klangum Welten festival?

SABINE: The festival wanted to ask about the relationship between the field of music and the field of everyday life sound or natural, or urban sound. It not only deals with perception of these two worlds and the interaction between these worlds, but also how to influence and alter the soundscape of nature or urban living; what we could do to make them better in the way that R. Murray Schafer always wanted, since the quality of the natural soundscape has been decreasing during the centuries, becoming poorer and poorer. So the festival had not only been describing this acoustic soundscape, which some people did in everyday life as well as in art, but also asked the question: what could we do to alter it, to change it, and to have new ideas.

SOUNDWEB: Did it also talk about how our sound environment influences the way we hear music or even create music?

SABINE: Well it dealt with the question: in which way do composers, or people working in an artistic way with sound, have an relationship to the sounds of environment, and what comes out of this relationship; what artistic statements come out of this personal or special that relationship artists, composers, or radio makers have to sound, and what do they do out of this special relationship. And so we had some people there who spoke about their relationship to sound and their artistic work. There was one [workshop] with Hildegard Westerkamp. Another one was the radio maker René Farabet from France.

SOUNDWEB: What did you find out about this relationship? For example, Hildegard Westerkamp uses recorded sounds from the natural environment. I heard a piece she created (Cricket Voices ) using the sounds of insects and cactuses in the desert. She recorded these, then used the sounds in the studio to create a composition. But she does it in a way that allows you to recognize the original sound sources.

SABINE: What I think the general approach of Hildegard Westerkamp is, is to treat sound, on one side, as a sign and to allow the sign to direct her step by step, and [evolving] slowly, slowly, and slowly, until she finally gets back to the sign character of sound so it always keeps some narrative touch in her composition. And so it is close to what radio art could be. Not only abstract sounds, but also a kind of discovery of narrative structures besides the conventional narration we have in literature as well as acoustic art.

SOUNDWEB: I think that leads me to another question. How to you define radio art or audio art? These are terms that are not widely known in the United States, especially with radio. . . . Do you have a way of defining what radio art is that makes it different from music composition, or avant-garde music, or sound art?

SABINE: Oh yes. I think radio art is media art -- an acoustic media art. That's radio art to me. It's an acoustic art form which enhances its aesthetic substance and artistic intention by using the processes of media reproduction, and the process of media reproduction consists, on the technical level, by reflecting the use of microphone, tape, loudspeaker, transmitter and receiver. And so this is I think the basic thing for radio art; that you use these things and you find this use of things reflected in the special art work which you have produced.

But, it is not only a technical thing. I think radio art is also always a political term because radio is media that always goes through a political process. This political process is different in every culture or in every state and every place of the world. So you can define radio art also on an institutional level by reflecting the medially inherited patterns of content and form; on the types of discourse radio usually used in this or that country. And if you reflect this use, and you go beyond that "normal" use, you also go into the direction of radio art . . . you also go into the direction of radio art if you reflect the different types of discourse, which you usually can hear on the radio in a certain culture or state. You also go into the direction of radio art if you reflect that and take up another idea because of this reflection.

It is political also, because it reflects or it can reflect, it should reflect, habits of sensual perception and structures of political power in media. Because electronic media is always a medium of political power. If we make radio art we always want it to be broadcast and we always have to deal with people who are in power, or the structures that create power, or those who represent power. This also is a part of media art: reflecting and being aware that we have to deal with political structures as well.

There is also a philosophical level of radio art, I think, because if you are using sound of any kind, radio art is the representational status of the acoustic material and the acoustic artifact you are producing and its relation to our inherited models of world and cognition.

SOUNDWEB: So radio art tells us something about how we think about sound. At the same time what this tells us can tell us something about how we see the world, regardless of how we understand ourselves and the world we live in.

SABINE: Yes. How we perceive the acoustic world, and this again leads us to the question of soundscape and Hildegard Westerkamp and of acoustic ecology, if you want, because as a radio artist, you have to have a relationship to sound as such, as well as sound in the environment. This special relationship is the important thing for creating your very special type of radio art.

SOUNDWEB: Did you notice a difference between the discourses or culture of radio in the U.S. compared with Germany?

SABINE: I didn't listen to too much radio when I was in the U.S. There wasn't enough time. But what I did listen to was much more specified for each group of "customers," let's say. You have the rock 'n' roll radio here and you have the radio for the housewife there. It's more defined by distinctions, categorization, much more than in Germany. The talking that had been going on this radio was small talk. It was nothing new, it was nothing interesting, it was nothing special and I was never interested in what was going on, because there was no content, no information. It was a very, very small and light kind of talk. Now we have the same thing here. It started 8 or 10 years ago and came up slowly at private radio stations. But in Germany there still is very important public radio, which is not in doing the same thing, especially in its cultural programming. We have very meaningful talk and not this small talk that I experienced so much when I was listening to the American radio.

SOUNDWEB: When you were in Chicago you had an opportunity to meet a variety of different sound artists here. I was wondering if you found any differences between what sound artists are doing here compared with artists in Germany?

SABINE: It's not easy to describe, but I think that there are differences. The first characteristic of Chicago audio or radio artists is that they are, in my opinion, working very close to music, a certain type of music. I don't know if it's the right term in English; to a very high type of popular music, or in between pop and jazz. I don't know how to describe it properly in English.

They very much like dealing with loud, and strong, and technical noises. And they like to use noises in a strong way, let's say in a not very elegant way, but in a way where you really can feel physically the strength and aesthetic ambivalence of these technical noises. This was very interesting to me because here you would not find so many composers using these types of sounds in that way. Sometimes when I listen to the pieces of your artists I found that you really don't make these sounds nice. You use them as brutal as they are, at the border where you can't bear them. And unconcsiously you have to decide, "do I want to listen to this now, or not." It starts a process of thinking, and you can feel that the artist is reflecting that process.

SOUNDWEB: It would seem that artists who do this risk losing the involvement of the listener.

SABINE: I don't think so, because it makes something happen in the listener. The listener starts to think about what he is listening to. It's maybe very interactive. These kinds of sounds I don't reject it at all. I really find that it affects me very much, and it involves me into the piece, on a physical level and an emotional level.

SOUNDWEB: In the work that German artists do, is it less musical and more intellectual?

SABINE: More that there's a different concept of music. It's not so much a popular concept of music because our tradition of radio art comes from the contemporary classical background. That's the tradition here, which doesn't mean that everyone here is referring to this background, but you can always feel it. You can always feel the intellectual debate going on and that the composer knows this debate and is reflecting them in the process of production.

SOUNDWEB: You said that radio art is partly a technical art, using microphones, tape recorders, loudspeakers, transmitters, and receivers. I've been aware of a tendency for technically based art forms to be male-dominated. Do you find that there are fewer women working in radio and other technically based media?

SABINE: I don't find it difficult for me. I think the situation for women in public radio [in Germany] is not so bad. Sometimes I experience that the technical knowledge of engineering is sometimes used as a kind of power. You have to learn to deal with this, but it's not too bad overall.

Then there is the question of what are the conditions of the female artist in this medium. An acoustic artist who has not yet been represented in radio art, Christina Kubisch, told me once that she decided to work with electronics because she didn't want to be dependent on an orchestra, or on instrumentalists, or on singers: people who had to interpret her compositions. She decided she could work at home, independently with electronics and not have to deal with the emotional difficulties people have with working with a woman composer. That was her decision. Personally, I'm not very much interested in technical things. If I have the choice to read the manual to ProTools software or a book by Heidegger, I'd choose the Heidegger.

(Thanks to Arlene Walters for her help in transcribing and proofreading this interview.) E.L.

Eric Leonardson [ email: eleon@ripco.com ] is a Chicago-based electro-acoustic composer and sound designer with a background in visual and performance art. Currently, he is a member of the experimental group Wormwood. His radio works and sound compositions for dance, theater, and video have been heard on public television, radio, and in performances locally and in the US, Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, and South Africa.

This spring [ 1995 ] he was nominated for a Jeff Citation for his sound design in the Prop Theater's award-winning production of Never Come Morning . His latest sound compositions for theater can be heard in Door Slam at the Chopin Theatre (227-6487) till Oct. 14. He is also a founding member of the Experimental Sound Studio, a not-for-profit organization for the sonic arts in Chicago.

Copyright © 1995 Chicago SoundWeb (http://www.soundweb.com/) on behalf of the author. All rights reserved.