SOUND | [in sounds not chosen] | John Boursnell and Holly Rumble

For the third installment of [in sounds not chosen] Soundfjord take a step back and allow artists John Boursnell and Holly Rumble to interview each other. They discuss their work, the philosophical aspects of science, and the conflict between academia and practice.

[in sounds not chosen] is a collaboration between Jotta and SoundFjord and takes place over two websites. Its connected page, [on sounds chosen] details an individual artist's close connection to specific sounds, and may be found at:

On the occasion of our latest interview, the template is changed. Here we take the backseat, and instead you will find an interview between John Boursnell and Holly Rumble, and Holly Rumble and John Boursnell - two ‘live artists’ [term open to debate] that have worked in a quirky and deceptively understated manner in and around sound for over a decade, their practices embracing a variety of unusual and unexpected methodologies whilst following their creative paths. In fact, Holly is currently to be found surrounded by a floor “covered in cut-outs of the solar system, 40m of thread, and a signal generator”, whilst John is most probably mastering the art of ball-bearing spitting/concealing (for sonic effect no less)…

[Here we begin to eavesdrop on their conversation…]

J: You have two pieces coming up in Japan, One Minute Birdwatching, and Hear A Pin Drop Here – how would you describe them to someone not familiar with your work?
H: Depends who I’m describing them to! I think they’re both alternative ways of experiencing a city. For my Edinburgh publicity, One Minute Birdwatching was described as “a short noisy survey of Edinburgh’s bird population”, then the instruction: “whenever you see a bird say either its name (if you know it) or BIRD (if you don’t)”. 
Hear A Pin Drop Here said “Holly Rumble is surveying the streets: It’s August. It’s Edinburgh. Can you hear a pin drop?”
I’d describe both of them as sound-based instruction pieces.
J: Both these pieces you’ve done before, but in different locations – Finland, Edinburgh. How important is it that you can take these instructions to lots of places?
H: I like to make work that’s site-specific because I’m interested in the experience of being in a specific location, but it’s useful to have a set of parameters that can be applied to any place, and produce something that is unique to that place.
Using Hear A Pin Drop Here as an example: the restrictions that I end up setting myself - days of walking slowly down every publicly accessible street within a certain radius allows me to hear and see parts of the city that other tourists won't. In Edinburgh, I went down every single alley or wynd, including the less salubrious ones!
J: And people can do it themselves?
H: Both pieces are instruction-based deliberately so that I can pass the activity on to others – I even found a group of American tourists doing OMB at my site twenty minutes early because they’d mistimed the visit.
J: Science! You are good at science. Discuss.
H: Ha ha. I’m not, but I’d like to be. I find some of the philosophical aspects of both maths and physics exciting, but I can’t ever fully comprehend them. I think I’m good at aspects of science, on a very hands on, mechanical level. Vibrations through materials, basic electronics, that I can do.
J: You’re working on a performance called Passing Pluto (for the Minories Art Gallery in Colchester). What have you learnt for that?
H: I tend to research the scientific content of each performance, but I’m not sure how much of it I retain. I learnt that elephants use infrasound to communicate, that this can cover 30 square km; Belugas have a ‘trilling’ call that has earned them the name sea canaries; divers feel whale song as waves of pressure.
J: And what have you learnt about space?
H: Pluto is a very long way away! I’ve translated, downscaled the solar system so that one astrological unit is one metre –the earth is one metre from the sun; so Pluto is about 39 metres away. 
I think my relationship with science is more a question of learning and applying facts, rather than having a full comprehension, which is a shame…
J: Are outdoor spaces/sounds/landscapes more interesting to you?
H: Yes. The pieces I’ve done indoors (An Audio Guide to Varo’s Harmony; Passing Pluto) are almost like physics demonstrations exploring sound as a material, but I like working outside because you then have naturally occurring acoustics to explore and the movement of people, traffic, wind. This provides the content for you.
J: So the pieces you do inside are demonstrations, whereas the pieces you do outside are experiences?
H: Yes! I’m just about to give up my studio space, because I just use it for storage. I find it incredibly difficult to make work in a static location and the majority of my thinking takes place when I’m walking around. Just the other day I was walking through some woodland when the snow was just starting to thaw, and all I could hear were millions of little drips from the trees.
That’s better than staring at a white wall and tired office carpet! 

[PULSE Fringe Festival – 3-minute showreel version]
J: Sound art/live art/site specific art. Are these useful ways to describe what you do?
H: I think of those three, live art is the one I use the most, despite my Wordpress site being ‘’. Even though sound is the root of what I do, over the last few years it’s become about the live experience of sound, rather than field recording, installation, composition. And also occasionally I might produce work that isn’t in any way sound art; site specific is problematic as a term, and I’m guilty of using it when its not entirely accurate because I don’t always refer to the specific history of a site. Actually, you know what? Things like One Minute Birdwatching and Hear A Pin Drop Here – they’re almost closer to landscape photography in as much as that is site specific.
J: Do you find the Live Art Development Agency definition of live art useful?
H: Yes – actually that bit of text made me a lot more comfortable with just getting on with my work! The one thing I don’t describe myself as is a visual artist – I think that discriminates against sound practices.
[Now the ‘interviewer’s hat’ is given over to Holly…] 
H: With that in mind: Sound art/live art. Are these useful ways to describe what you do?
J: Your answers are better than mine. I think they’re useful if you’re applying for something and you need to explain that you’re not a painter. I’ve put live art on the last couple of applications, but they were for live art things. I never really imagine people wandering about, saying to themselves: “I’m a sound artist”. It’s nice when other people describe you in a way that you agree with.
H: If sound art and live art were to fight, who would win? 
J: It depends which version of each we’re talking about! I think live art would win. Because it’s not a genre. But then sound art isn’t either, really, unless you start putting it in books titled ‘Sound Art’. There are just as many things in that Alan Licht book that I would describe as conceptual art, and we’d both be right.
H: I remember Leigh Landy giving a brilliant ranting lecture in Plymouth about the various useless definitions of sound practices. Let’s leave it there.
J: Sound-based music, sound art, you could have a piece of work that’s in two categories simultaneously and sometimes is in one rather than the other, and I’m more interested in that than pinning things down.

H: I have a problem with academics ruining practice. You’re doing a practice-based PhD. What’s that about then?
J: Is there anything I can respond with here that won’t make you cross?
H: Ok, how has framing your practice in a set of academic criteria developed your work, and what ‘contribution to knowledge’ has it produced that you wouldn’t have managed by just performing at the unrelated festivals?
J: Regarding the first part of your question: it’s been an odd relationship because I find myself worrying about a lot of my practice within that narrow academic version, because I’m aware that I have to ‘write it up’. Having said that, I don’t think that my supervisors would say that the way I’ve written up my practice is academic or scholarly in any way. I don’t think that practice-based PhDs are necessarily a good idea at all, especially the way a lot of them are written. I think the way they’re written should follow the subject: like experimental fictional poetry. If I were writing about appropriation for example, it would be fitting to write in the style of David Shields or Kenneth Goldsmith. If I were writing about formal concrete poetry, the form of the PhD writing should reflect that. Having said that, there are definitely books and ideas that I wouldn’t have come across if I hadn’t taken this slightly circuitous route.
H: Yes, but that’s about writing, not making the work. How do you make work other than as an illustration to an academic theory?
J: I think actually my problem with the idea of practice-based PhDs is exactly that, but the ideal situation is that it’s not one shoring up the other, or vice versa. It’s that the whole thing is the work, and its materialisation is the process, I suppose. At the moment I have no idea whether I can pull this off, because there’s I’m definitely aiming towards something specific, whether or not anyone else agrees that it’s a ‘PhD’ .

H. So writing is an equal part of your process. Can you talk a little about text, instructions etc. and the way you use them?
J. I like instruction pieces, whether it’s work that I’m thinking about, or your work, or historical examples, because they’re fixed and open at the same time. There’s a freedom to the idea that you can take a simple kernel of an idea and really run with it. But, also that these pieces almost don’t have to be performed or realised, and there’s a poetry in that. For the 5 Actions piece I used a lot of text that I commissioned Sam Riviere to write. I liked that this meant I could remove myself from the content. Even thought the performer is present the authorship or origin is deferred.
H: That’s how I feel about One Minute Birdwatching, the success relies on passing authorship to the participants, and that’s quite liberating.

H. One of the pieces you are working on at the moment A Young Person’s Guide to Musique Concrète, has an audience of three seated around a table with you. What was the thinking behind that?

J. I like having, for want of a better word, the audience literally at arm’s length. I like creating the kind of space that feels small, and that’s done with tabletops and small sounds and being at eye level with the audience. One of the motivations for making this piece was to really force that environment, to deliberately make it more theatrical, because I’m not comfortable with that as a performer. I want to see what happens if it’s closer to A SHOW. I just want to push myself a bit
I’d like to point out that this isn’t a first step on the path to a career on the stage.

[The metaphysical curtain closes on the conversation.]
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Posted on
04 February 2013
By SoundFjord