Yann Novak – “I am encouraging the audience to misinterpret me in exchange for their own deeper, more personal relationship to the work”

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The first shot shows a beautiful golden (painted, I suppose) amplifier with a statue (Buddha?) on it. Where does it come from? You did it?

It’s gold leaf! That is actually a piece my partner Robert Crouch made years ago that I just love. The Buddha was a gift from my mother. I have casually studied Buddhism most of my life, and my mother loved the symbols and statuary so it was a gift from her. When she passed away she had her own little collection of them that I happily inherited. The two objects together was an exercising in my love of composing and pairing things from people I love.

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In general, I can say that the pictures you sent me are beautiful per se, evidently done by someone that cares about visuals as much as music, and that’s something I notice from releases at Dragon’s Eye too. Also your recordings usually have a delicate and well balanced nature, similar to what I could see of your ‘art for the eyes’. Even your house seems to be aesthetically organized, the pictures you sent me could be used as front covers of albums in some cases! So you’re always so careful in what you place here and there?

I have always worn a lot of hats: artist, composer, label owner, designer… So I am almost always working on a project or three. Keeping the space around me tidy and orderly helps me relax and focus on the tasks at hand. The designer in me makes it pretty much impossible not to send a photo without at least a little post-production! I think it does relate to my work as well – I have always thought of myself as a composer rather than a musician. I think I am better at organizing things in space and time rather that sculpting sound, melody, or rhythm on a more finite level. I choose to create more randomized systems like field recording to drive those more concrete parts of my work. I should also say that I make this distinction out of respect: my mother was a musician who could hear something once and repeat it on piano or guitar, but with her own expressivity. I still dream of her playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise”, the notes filling up the house, in the way only she could play it.

You filed the shots “Yann’s Vinyls” or “Yann and Roberts Vinyls”, writing in a note that “two overall photos are my collection combined with my partner’s.” I am extremely curious about the musical relationships (and maybe fighting) within the house. I’ve collected some interesting experiences from Concrete Shelves participants about this subject, including angry wives of industrial journalists (Paolo Bertoni), daughters of experimental musicians (eg. Patrick Mc Ginley) or even cats and dogs (Yan Jun and Mark Nelson of Pan American). How does this work in your house? If records are mixed I suppose you have similar tastes…

Our collections complement each other’s nicely, similarly to the way we complement each other personally, and there is also a lot of overlap. My collection veers a little more towards 90s electronic and rave while Robert’s leans more towards metal and doom. When we got together over 10 years ago now, we were not ready to combine them not so much out of fear of having to divide them, but because as collectors we put so much work into the collections themselves. For instance, we both had a ton of Raster-Noton, LINE, 12k, Room40, and William Basinski‘s whole discography, but we each wanted to keep our copies with our specific memories attached to them. I purchased Bytone’s “Death Of A Typographer”, Alva Noto’s “Unitxt,” and Frank Bretschneider’s “Rhythm” at a concert of those three artists that Robert organized in San Francisco. As the organizer Robert of course has all three from that concert too, but that was where Robert and I first met, so there is no way I am going to give up my copies because that memory is attached to them. After 10 years though, we now just get one copy of things ‘for the house.’ The closest to an argument over music we get is when Robert will buy an album on vinyl and I will buy the same album on CD because we each want a different listening experience of that album.

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Dragon’s Eye Recordings was originally founded by Paul Novak, (Yann Novak’s father), in 1989 as the audio/visual arm of “Only Connect…Publications”. Paul was and still is a bread baker and avid record collector. “Only Connect…Publications” was his first venture to self-publish his bread recipes. Through his new publishing company, Paul designed his book on a Apple Plus computer, commissioned a friend and artist to create the painting for the cover, and recruited a musician to compose an original work to accompany bread making. Due to his love and passion for both music and record collecting, Paul created Dragon’s Eye Recordings to complement his publishing company.

[from Dragons’ Eye website]

Still on the ‘family topic’, I know that Dragons’ Eye was originally founded by your father, that you describe as “a bread baker and avid record collector. Only Connect… Publications was his first venture to self-publish his bread recipes.” I think it’s an amazing legacy… could you please tell me more about it?

This is quite a relevant story to this interview, the first part of which I have not told anywhere else! Before my father decided to self-publish the book, he was working at a record store as a buyer and ran a side business called Special Order Service (S.O.S.) through most of the 80s.
S.O.S. was basically Discogs before the internet: my dad had fellow collectors as clients that he would find rare records for, and there was a whole network of people like my dad that all had different genres as their specialties. So he would buy things from his distributor connections and then resell them to his collector clients. Through this network he became friends with George Winston, who is also a huge collector, and they bonded over a lot of overlapping music. My dad was a huge collector of early John Fahey and George’s first album was on Fahey’s Takoma label so you can imagine how that went.

Fast-forward to shortly after my Father’s mother died, my Father decided to put out a book of his bread recipes, and because of their friendship and shared love of music, he invited George to compose an 8-minute song (in the style of that first album on Takoma) to knead bread to. Because my dad was such a collector nerd this was his opportunity to get to name a label, give it a catalog number, logo, ISRC, all those little details that collectors pay attention to. So with that, Dragon’s Eye Recordings was born, but that was the only release my dad produced.

Fast-forward again to me thinking about releasing my first album and having no connection to a label… I thought back to the similarities of my father toiling away on his book on his Macintosh Plus computer and me on my Mac. My first release was a score for modern dance, his for kneading bread. It only seemed fitting that I continue the label instead of starting my own. Sadly, the other similarity happened about 6 months after I took the reins when my mother passed away, but the label served as a catalyst to bring my father and me closer together, which in turn helped us through that difficult time.

Thank you for sharing these personal history details, Yann, I really appreaciate. And this brings me to asking more, so please forgive me if I’ll try to go a bit further but… you mentioned many times people you love, and it seems that these strong and deep personal relationship are extremely important to you, also on an artistic level. You even made a work titled “We Love Our Parents, We Fear Snakes”. How is this ‘love’ conveyed into your music?

This is a tricky subject. I think it’s quite challenging to imbue abstract sound or music with emotion and meaning when every listener brings their own radically different subjectivity to the experience. My solution has been to attempt to find a middle ground between offering context and ambiguity, with the hope of creating deeper connections between the work and the listener. I try to add just enough personal history, experience, or emotion to give the abstraction context. This acts as an invitation for the listeners to imbue the work with their own interpretation of the original prompt.

It’s kind of like not knowing the words to a song, but thinking you do. You ascribe your own experience and feelings to the song not knowing if you’re “correct” but create your own personal relationship to it that may or may not be totally divorced from the author’s intentions. But in my case, I am encouraging the audience to misinterpret me in exchange for their own deeper, more personal relationship to the work.

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That specific work was originally a collaboration with visual artist Johanna Breiding and dancer/choreographer Marbles Jumbo Radio, and it was about the loss of all three of our mothers. We all shared stories with one another to inform our collaboration. I don’t want to share their stories, or how I interpreted them, but I can share my own. In the sound piece, I created a kind of clearing using a field recording of birds, but it’s not just random birds, it’s a recording on the back porch of the house I grew up in. The panning between the species of birds preferring the trees on the left and others preferring the trees on the right creates an image for me that transports me back to when I lived there as a child. I know no one else will have that hyper-specific relationship with that recording as I do, but in the original performance it acted as a catalyst to get me into the right space.

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Very interesting… I’ll listen to that piece with a different attitude now, the sounds of birds at the end of the piece are now talking to my heart.

Ok. So… talking about birds: my favourite photo is the one with the owl, the white folders, the plant… all surrounded by a pink light coming from a sort of hidden halo behind the closet. Can you tell me about these elements please?

Thank you, I didn’t know if it would make sense. I snapped it at the end and included just in case. The majority of it (the white binders and magazine holders) are my archives spanning from the first presentations of my work in 2003 to today. It wasn’t always this formal, but after 10 years of making work I felt like this artist thing was probably going to stick and I should take better care of all this stuff. They contain everything from master CDs, to flyers and posters, magazines I’m in, contracts, etc. I think being an artist often offers very little in the way of concrete measures of success: it’s not like we are saving lives or putting out fires. Instead we get congratulations at openings and performances or reviews in a magazine or blog, and it can be fleeting. One can forget very quickly what you have accomplished and the people you have touched and instead focus on being 40 without a savings account. It’s getting better with social media, getting these little reminders from fans that what you’re doing means something, but for me it still felt important to treat this collection of items and memories with care.

More and more I think record collectors are becoming archivists. I rarely listen to the CDs or LPs I own, they just get absorbed into the digital ether and appreciated that way. I think now their value lies in their ability to capture and archive that specific version of a recording. I think about pop stars like Kanye West, who was pushing new versions of songs to digital distributors up to a month after an album came out.  What happens to the first versions of those songs? What if someone liked the originals better? I am now old enough to be sitting here listening to the 25th anniversary release of F.U.S.E.’s Dimension Intrusion, and though I am excited to hear the extra tracks and appreciate the remastering, I also find the new tracks jarring as they break the flow of the album I had listened to over and over again in 1993.

The owl was a gift from the Empress of Thrift Store Finds, Richard Chartier. He knows I have a thing for owls and is always gifting me with these wonderful finds. His eye for finding hidden gems in unparalleled. It’s a skill I highly respect and sadly do not share. It’s another reason I keep the things in our space so sparse and organized: I get totally overwhelmed by too much stimuli, where Richard can let it all fall away and just see the good stuff. For me a thrift store is like an airport of things.

The light comes from a strip of smart LED lights, another obsession of mine. I love that they give me the ability to throw beautiful colored light all over our home, and they get me one step closer to the childhood promises of Star Trek… to be able to talk into a room and tell the room to turn on the lights.

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Yann Novak is an interdisciplinary artist, composer, and curator based in Los Angeles. His work is guided by his interests in perception, context, movement, and the felt presence of direct experience. Through the use of sound and light, Novak explores how these intangible materials can act as catalysts to focus our awareness on our present location in space and time.
Novak is a recipient of a 2019 California Community Foundation Fellowship for Visual Artists. His recorded sound works have been released by 901 Editions, Dragon’s Eye Recordings, LINE, ROOM40, and Touch, among others.
As a curator, Novak focuses on creating opportunities for artists and audiences to build communities that otherwise might not exist.

yannnovak.com | yannnovak.bandcamp.com

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Photo taken in Brisbane, AU, by Lawrence English.

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