Friday, November 16, 2018

Interview on Solar Sound

I was contacted by Alex Nathanson, a graduate student in New York, for some questions relating to his project, Solar Power for Artists, and with his permission, what follows are his questions and my answers.

When did you start working with solar power and what drew you to working with it?
In 2014, I finally had a chance to design a long-running line of solar-powered touch instruments called Tocante. They work by storing solar power in a battery, and run anytime including night. They are normally off, saving battery power, until a slight touch on the surface activates them. Furthermore, playing electronic music by touch works so much better by battery, because the grounds are isolated and you get a really clean tone. You see, the whole concept of touch and battery power goes hand in hand, and battery power desires a little solar panel as source of what we call trickle-charge, a constant renewal of its chemistry during the day. Later, in 2016, I decided to use solar panels as a source of raw and immediate energy for Solar Sounders, which are essentially a larger 9v panel, an analog circuit, and speaker amplifier, all in a self-contained box. They are best in an ensemble, where overlapping voices in the same range create difference tones and interlocking melodies. Because each voice uses its own solar panel and speaker, they can be separated in space, and also their electronic responses to the solar environment can be unique.
Where did you learn the technical skills necessary for this work?
It's really simple, you just get a solar panel and try powering things with it! I've been trying to make my own cellphone charger for a long time, but cellphones are actually very picky about what voltage input they take. We'll get into this pickiness later.
What are your design criteria in regards to solar powered artwork?
It should work. And that means if there are separate mechanisms they work independently as power is starved, unless it is intended for strange behavior to arise during this starvation.
How has your process evolved over time?
The typical narrative of “becoming cooler as a materials artist” means you may use the resource for a specific task at the beginning, and then learn to design for the resource itself, use its quirks.
Do you consider the visual aesthetics in addition to the audio aesthetics?
Sure, but I listen to sound more. I'm a synthesizer maker so most of my time is spent critiquing sounds, but also, realize that solar sound art is usually outside, and its sound-mark extends over a farther range than its physical presence. It's like asking if the bird considers calls or plumage more important. Birdcalls signal danger or food, but plumage is basically for sex.
When I was talking with Daniel Fishkin, he talked a lot about the impact your solar circuits had on him. Could you describe your approach to designing circuits?
I'd like to point you to an article I wrote on designing the Solar Sounders for eContact! It's called Bird,Monk, Train: Three Approaches to a Solar Sounder Workshop. It is about emulating the calls of those three things for a solar sounder piece to interact with the long-term outdoor environment.
What resources do you wish were available to you when you started building PV based art?
I think electronic sound engineers and composers could work with outdoor metal artists more, because they have the facilities to cast a case that is weather proof. I keep my solar sounders in windows to protect them, and really my shed in the backyard is like a meta-case for the ensemble, but the fact is that most electronic sound engineers don't think about weather proofing because it is assumed for good reasons that their work is conducted in climate controlled, indoor environments.
What are misconceptions you encounter when you present PV art to the public?
Let's talk about any conceptions at all, I mean I think it's pretty unknown still. Most artists like to think of their art as permanent, solid, and thus would prefer to think of it as powered by the wall. That's a misconception right there, is wall power more permanent than solar power?
I don't think of an audience for solar sounders, they are just there. In my yard, I have them in a small potting shed painted red. I polished the windows and put a shelf in them so solar sounders can sit there and absorb the south-western sky. The shadow of the neighbors' cedar tree is a sort of pause in the morning ritual, especially on bright summer days. But don't underestimate the solar-power qualities of a snowy landscape, even on a cloudy day. Actually, I do think of the audience, but I'd like to expand that idea to crows, my neighbor raking leaves, and especially kids playing on a sunny day; isn't that a fresh ear for electronic music? I work directly adjacent to the kindergarten playground. I don't think most kids notice the sounds because they are a constant in their experience of the playground, but that's because they only play on sunny days. There's a whole other time of darkness, where the solar sounders are off, and the audience experience is more subtle then: a dog-walker hears silence. Actually this doesn't just have to do with solar powered synthesizers; when any synthesizer is off, is it dead or sleeping?
Are there concepts that solar power allows you to explore and/or express that other mediums would not?
Let's say for the point of the answer, that there are two kinds of solar power for art: regulated and unregulated. You can see where I'm going here; I'm interested in unregulated because it swings dramatically according to the movement of the sun and the weather. That said, I'm not interested in solar power as a gesture controller; I have made gesture controllers that I feel are more intimate and musical. Also the solar power is a great direct connection between light and sound; in solar sounders I don't use it to charge batteries, but there is a big capacitor that you do need if you want to drive a speaker and not jack the circuit. In regulated solar power, you would make it solid, or steady, for most of the range in full sun, but it would turn off or disappear when under-powered in dim light. I like to explore that lower range, and listen to the variations of nature with the naked power supply unregulated. My favorite are when the clouds are granular with spaces of clear sky between, and also the swaying of tree shadows in the wind. With multiple solar sounders, you can chorus and leverage these luminous effects.
Are there challenges which are unique to solar power or sustainable energy systems more generally that you have encountered while working with this material?
The solar sounders are some of the lowest hanging fruit available out there: just pick a simple electronic circuit and make it sing nicely at all light levels, think about voicing it. It's more of a resource and you can focus on your compositional problems, like voicing highs and lows, timbre, and pitch movement. The power transfer is direct. With Tocante, I designed a solar battery charger that works in all light by using an inductor to boost any energy and dump it into the battery. With that I feel like it was more of a challenge because I wanted to get the most efficient energy transfer and have it work in all circumstances. I remember doing a Tocante workshop in San Diego, and we tried to charge them in some really harsh California light, and they conked out at the brightest. We eventually switched out the inductor values and that fixed it, but it shows how doing a specific task with a variable energy such as solar is more challenging than just saying, “what can I make with a variable power source?”
What resources do you turn to when designing a solar power project? How do you problem solve and troubleshoot?
You should pick your panels first. I think the questioner here knows about that. On your website you seem to be working with interesting “shards” of panels, and micro-wiring them together. It's a comment on the waste materials of electronic industry, which can either go into the ground or we can try to keep up with them... Once you have your power supply, everything else seems to come from that, you put a motor in, I just used some of my work already with analog synths. I am interested in older, more primitive circuits and solar power was a great venue for that. My friend Dan Conrad gave me a toy phaser from the 60s. By listening to its little electronic sound, I could tell that it was made with discrete components, transistors, and it was analog. This is because of its action; on depressing the trigger, it swooped up with a little organic startup sound, and upon releasing, it did not immediately stop but made this wonderful sighing fade. The designers gave it this boinginess by putting a capacitor on the power supply, essentially making it variable like a solar panel on a cloudy day. So people have been using this variability since the 60s at least, and the circuits are out there; listen to the internet and click on your friends for help!
Do you have a sense of how many artists are working in this space? What does the community around solar power art look like?
Lucier did something in the 70s, and I think it used regulated power, even batteries. I've seen other solar art used in this regulated way, sometimes just an amplifier playing samples. To me, that didn't quite question the medium enough. I have a concept, called the “interrogajoke.” it is both an interrogation and a joke on some conception. Here, the interrogation should be about why hasn't anyone treated solar power as fundamentally different from wall power? The joke, for me, is about taking ones-self seriously. When I think of my skills at emulating a bird or a Tibetan monk with a transistor circuit, I do chortle to myself, but I'd rather poke around at the strange sounds that result than try to plan a piece from the beginning according to my own expectations. I want to see more people playing with the power supply, making jokes or whimsies with it, rather than composers or artists trying to own it with a definitive “piece.”
Can you describe the type education projects you're involvedd with? Who are the students?
I did a workshop tour last November, in Europe, where we assembled solar sounders as community arts projects. The thing about November in Rotterdam is that there's a lot of gray sky, however I did find one moment in the day where I could project some sounds into the Dutch alleyway. Also, in Stockholm it was dark by the time we finished but I checked them with some strong lights inside the electronic music studio. That was an interesting turn for me, I realized due to the contingency of the solar medium, that I won't actually be there for the interesting sounds, in the summer. I can remove my self that way.
Do you have a particular teaching philosophy or method?
The idea for the solar powered workshop tour was twofold: to have a capitalist part and a community part. The solar sounders are kept in community studios, such as Worm in Rotterdam, EMS in Stockholm, and Patch Point in Berlin. They are like a library, or part of an instrument library; if it's a nice day outside, members can check them out and put them outside, usher them around town to find some really interesting places for an intervention of solar art. The capitalist part was about individuals assembling Tocante kits to take home, a nice synthesizer for your art and collection.
How do you define learning objectives and successful projects?
Since the feedback is not immediate, such as I explained in the European winter for solar sounders, it takes time to trickle in. So, it's actually an open-ended project. Ideally though, the library of instruments should be protected, repaired, there should be stewards. Luckily there are some really good stewards in all the people who maintain their own or community electronic music studios.
Are there particular challenges when teaching projects that incorporate solar power?
Just what is evident about the relationship between the electronic music studio with its healthy complement of night-people, dramatic dim lights, and the outdoors, sunshine and weather.
In addition to the academic aspect of my research, the main public facing components I'm working towards are 1) a user friendly online archive of artists and creative projects involving solar power 2) a framework for solar power design 3) instructional resources for artists and designers interested in working with solar power. Would resources like these address gaps in available information in this space? Would resources like these be of practical use to you, other artists or your students?
I would just like to point out one thing, that at IRCAM in its heyday, whenever that was, they had a "diagonal" department, which cut across all the fields represented in the basement, computer music, composition, art, and engineering. The diagonal also represents a line of flight in the Deleuzian sense, that seeks to escape the constraints of stratification; it may incorporate other fields such as landscape design and sports, and other activities involving a sunny day.

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