Happy Birthday Aaron Ximm!

by Caitlin Meehan

I was able to do a small interview with sound artist Aaron Ximm, who provided part of the soundscape for DisArmed, which I choreographed in 2011. He had quite a lot to say about his work! He has a website called the Quiet American where you can listen to some of his recordings from his travels and read about what he does.  Also, he has a birthday later this month, so wishing him a Happy Birthday too!

C: First of all, the concept of the Quiet American is fascinating! What made you first want to record sounds on your travels, instead of (or in addition to) taking photographs?

AX: Despite our visual fixation documentary sound is a extremely powerful medium -- the challenge is just to get people to engage it in these breathless, multi-tasking days.

Temporal media generally have the capacity to engage us in a deeper way than static ones; it is easy to let ourselves believe that by glancing quickly (and most likely superficially) at at an image or even sculpture or installation, that we have 'seen' it. Temporal media -- and that includes dance and drama of course -- afford no such opportunity. They demand an investment of time, the construction of a mental space and its inhabitation. They generally operate not in what they are but in how they change; this dynamism is also engaging to our questing minds.

Sound without image has the opportunity -- if only people are willing to accept it on its terms, without distraciton -- to be more powerful still, because sound without imagery inevitably engages the confabulatory mind. Absent imagery to account for what we are hearing, our minds will *make* imagery for us, abstract, coherent, narrative, or otherwise.

This participation as a function of our own attention to this 'second sense' is why I find sound so powerful a mechanism.

Documentary sound like I work with is of course a small subsection of a medium that also incorporates music, its queen. I like documentary sound for several reasons. First, by removing agency, a field recording reminds us that the seat of the artistic experience is in the framing and perception of experience -- that what the artist does is offer objects or moments within a rich dialog of material that is not itself art, but only a vehicle for artistic experience. Remove the auteur as genius and you teach the capacity to appreciate the aesthetic wherever it is encountered. I think that's an important education in these late days.

Also, technically, there is a profound timbrel and spatial richness in every-day soundscape -- much more so than in almost all music, no matter how highly and carefully produced. Such richness affords fabulous material to manipulate and juxtapose.

And finally, speaking of juxtaposition, I am personally delighted in field recording by the experience of fabulous serendipity. Capturing or recapitulating chance juxtaposition which would seem -- seem -- to be the expression of capricious artist genius or humor is great fun and a great teacher. That notion -- of the accident as greatest inspiration -- has really come to pervade my relationship to almost everything.

C:  This is fascinating! Once you have made recordings, you layer and manipulate them to create the tracks that people can listen to. How do you decide what to change about a recording, what to add or subtract, lengthen or shorten?

Much of what I do these days is NOT make such editorial decisions. There are really two strands to my work: the highly and meticulously composed, like the track Malaria that Nicole used, and the un-composed or 'naked' re-presentation of soundscape.

Over the years I have never lost my love for making very musical work with a musician's sensibility and commitment to editorial if not performative wizardry -- and the satisfaction of that work, especially at a musical level, never dims -- but I think the most aesthetically interesting and serious work I do has left that essentially behind in favor of work that uses soundscape in very different ways. E.g. that allows chance and scale and context to encourage reflection on, appreciation of, or engagement with, the richness and quality of essentially unedited and often un-ending soundscape.

I've even gone beyond that in fact, to making work that is interested in the question of what happens when documentary work is itself no more intelligible or digestible than the moments it is understood to have captured. E.g. by making work with very very long recordings (8 hours or more, 24 hours or more...) and then presenting them in a way that poses the question: do you have the time to listen to this? To sit with this? What are you missing if not? What would you gain if so? And so on.

C: In some ways, I think this could be likened to modern dance. Some pieces don't have a narrative or anything "set" about them, while others do. So what is next for you? Is there a place you have always wanted to visit and record, but have not yet had the chance?

At the moment my ability to work is very sparse; I have two young children and the demands that places on me -- combined with the necessity of maintaining a full-time day-job -- prevent the kind of time-intensive studio work that I did ten years ago.

I hope and trust that will change, but in the meantime I take my aesthetic rewards in smaller ways, e.g. through my return to un-mediated music making through my obsession with a contemporary instrument form called the handpan -- melodic steel percussion that looks like a UFO held in the lap, but sings like an angelic harp made of ceramic.

My next large-scale sound project will most likely be a marrying of field recording with the (manipulated) sounds of those instruments.  You can read more about my fascination with such instruments here.

C: Fantastic! Thanks for giving us some insight into your work! Looking forward to what you do next.

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