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Sonic Arcade: Interview with Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe

New York-based artist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe works with voice in the realm of spontaneous music. He is interested in sound art and performance as gestural, and often incorporates his own voice into collaborative performance with analog synthesizers and sound sculptures. For Lowe, voltage is an unpredictable, malleable and living material whose manipulation is capable of carving the air with sound. Describing the process as ‘intuitive’, he seeks out sounding objects that allow him to cultivate, rather that learn, technique. Lowe curated Subject to Gesture, a nested exhibition that is part of Sonic Arcade: Shaping Space with Sound. It features a selection of ephemera, artworks, and contemporary analog synthesizers that influence his thinking and work in sound.

Subject to Gesture is on view through February 25.

1. Tell us a bit about your background coming to and working with sound as a medium. 

Sound became a major part of my world at about the age of fourteen, so well over two decades ago— over twenty-five years, actually. I was making a lot of racket and playing in punk bands. Before that, it was all visual work, mainly works on paper, which I have continued to do. Recently, I’ve come back to that full circle, working within the realm of physical, plastic work alongside sound.

2. In what ways do you consider sound “material”? 

When you are working in sound you are carving the air. Sound is vibration. Humans understand sound because of the cilia in the ear, which are vibrated by moving air. You are sculpting that air, you are carving and curving that air to create certain frequency responses that are understood by the vibration in your ear. In terms of analog synthesis, you are working with voltage as material, and electricity can be unpredictable. You can get into analog synthesis and have a very strong idea of what you want to create, but the machine itself exists as its own organism that can take that idea to a different place. So you’re dealing with variables that you wouldn’t necessarily be dealing with inside of music software, which is written and fixed. The machine works in a very organic way; you can create patches with the synthesizer exactly how you’ve done it before, but there will always be a variance due to the fact that it’s really alive. As humans we are also made up of electricity, so there is a kinship between these electronic machines and humans, creating a kind of symbiotic relationship with the instrument, which is engaging with the world in a slightly different (electric) way than we are. It is like having a collaborator, a nonhuman collaborator. 

3. Is there any pattern that you see in the renewal of interest in electronic music, specifically the analog? 

Absolutely. There is a tactility with synthesizers, specifically with modular synthesizers, because you are plugging cables into jacks, you are turning knobs, and you’re doing this stuff in real time. There is an energy and a flow that you get with that particular gesture that you don’t get with moving a mouse on a trackpad. I think that a lot of people have felt a pull back to older notions of technology because you can engage with it in this material way. I think people have also found their way back to analog synthesis through learning on a digital platform and then wondering what it was really drawing from.

4. A lot of different kinds of people are interested in buying analog synthesizer components and working with them, including a robust amateur community with no interest in pursuing careers as musicians. Can you talk about what makes these components so compelling? 

They are beautiful objects and there are no rules. The fact that you build a modular synthesizer from the ground up, creating your own particular instrument, is something that is really appealing to people. I think people are more comfortable engaging and taking risks and discovering things when it’s something that’s fun for them, as opposed to being seated in front of a piano and having to sit in a certain position and hold your hands in a certain position as you play it. Even though those rules might not necessarily apply, or can be bent, there is a sort of lineage for these particular instruments that has been laid out in a way that dictates how you approach playing them. A modular synthesizer has no rules; you can do exactly what you want.

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