Carsten Nicolai, An architect becomes a sound artist

"I do not think that architecture, in its honest, truth will change much. "

By Nota Tsekoura, on 27th Jul, 2013 13:14

Carsten Nicolai, sound & media artist 

Carsten Nicolai is one of the pioneer figures of our times on sound composition and sound art. Having created a long list of successful projects, installations, concerts and exhibitions, he holds the position of one of the most influential artists nowadays. Studying architecture before becoming an artist, among others, helps him to bring through his work an important link between rhythmic and spatial structures. The relationship between the physical and sonic environment and his approach towards his profession, where some of the key points that empowered our very special conversation, filtered through his architectural identity.

Short audio part from our interview with Carsten Nicolai

The interview    

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 Nota Tsekoura  What is your favorite place in the globe and how often do your visit?

 Carsten Nicolai  Probably my home is one of my favorite places.

 NT  So you visit quite often..

 CN  Not really, no. I travel a lot.

 NT  What would you say is the most interesting relationship generated between the physical and sonic environments in your work? As you know the sonic environment is not one of the common layers included in architectural projects.

 CN  Sound is a very interesting material. Even if it is immaterial, it is a physical material for me, and as i studied architecture as well, I see the possibility to build with that material. I do not mean creating specific social environments, but I really think you can build physically with sound, you can make walls, you can make lines, define spaces, I really believe that sound is a building material too, but it is not really fully exploited, I do not know anyone that builds with sound.

I started writing a little paper a year ago, in which I describe how you can physically build with sound, 

how you can involve sound. You could produce a membrane in a middle of a space, or a line, or define spaces in a very different way. And if you think about architecture, it is all about the definition of space and of course how the space works socially, meaning that it needs space and it needs time. Sound has the same possibilities, it needs space and time in order to exist; two main factors that really emphasize the possibility of sound being a building material.

 NT  Do you think that time is a factor neglected in Architecture?

 CN  I think that time is a huge problem in architecture, some time aspects decide if architecture is good or bad, practical or not practical. With time aspects I mean what happens in a building through time / duration, sometimes it becomes better some times worse. We all know that sometimes you cannot really foresee what will happen to your idea, to your design as an architect, you sometimes just feel, you just believe in this idea and you like to execute it and then you realize that it is not going to work out. Many buildings that have been build are kind of useless, or become useless cause they simply they do not function.

 NT  Architecture, mainly academically, experiments on more hybrid projects that flirt with other professions. Using their tools too, architects of the new generation may understand environments through them. Could this change architecture essentially?

 CN  Of course the tools, the possibility of tools, are changing the designs. They have a big impact on what you design and which way you design it. 

In general I think that tools only extend the possibility of design. I do not think that architecture, in its honest, truth will change much. 

I think that the very basic level of architecture will always be the same. Of course we have more tools, maybe we have the impression we can involve things that we have never involved before, but in the end whatever you build has to deal with the space inside and outside, with the social relationships, historical relations and much more of course, and this will always be the same however the building will look.The other thing I see that is interesting, is that the term of architecture is expanding. We consider things to be architecture thatmaybe used to be sculpture before. I would say it is a kind of a grey-zone. And this is quite fascinating, these kinds of experiments.

 NT  Do you think that this kind of experiments are happening in other fields of arts as well? In music for example? And what is the dynamic of tool possibilities in this field?

 CN  Music is a very good example because in music we are strongly depending on the tools. Many music styles are defined by music toolsIf you think about it, from the moment sampling was possible, it had a huge impact on the music styles, this was in the '80s. Another fact that is even more important is the accessibility of tools.

Of course we know there are tools that maybe only one or two people in the world can use, if they can afford them. But at the moment these tools become available on a broader basis, they become more democratic and they can trigger a much bigger impact into daily culture. 

They can leave a bigger trace. And this is happening in music production. For example, the machine that was designed to be a bass line generator for entertainers in the end defined techno, more or less defined a complete area and time period of music in an incredibly strong way. Today the computer is a tool that everybody has access to. We have a great freedom of production tools, because everybody who owns a computer has a potentially professional production tool. There have been only a few studios in the 1960s and 70s that had the possibility to produce electronic sound because the synthesizer was extremely expensive.

 NT  Here maybe we can refer to Iannis Xenakis and his work.

 CN  Yes, Xenakis for me is one of my heroes you could say. Xenakis is incredible. We have a similar history in a way. He also studied architecture, he worked for Le Corbusier, and more or less the Philips pavilion was his kid as much as Le Corbusier's kid I think, but you can see, in what he wrote later, his former work shines through. You can observe this in his compositions, his work as architect and its transition into music, as well this connection with mathematics.

 NT  So, you could you say that the Philips pavilion is one of the projects that influenced you.

 CN  Yes, very much. I did a project that was very much inspired by it, it is called syn chron(2005)an architectural body combining light, space and sound.

 NT  Do you often recognise architectural decisions that conflict or do not collaborate with the sonic (sound) reality given?

 CN  Oh yes, definitely. The most basic example is probably when you perform in concert halls; I would say most of them have been defined by chance. I think that sometimes people know that it is not going to work, but still want to do it. They want to achieve a certain functionality in a space although they know that this will not work very sufficiently.

 NT  Through your practice have you shaped some perspective tendencies to understand built space that differ from the ones you had when you were studying architecture?

 CN  Yes, absolutely true. I was incredibly lucky. I studied architecture but decided not to be an architect. Instead I worked as an artist, then started using sound and ended up making music. And these have been all fields I was very interested in. I will never call myself a composer or I never thought about becoming a musician or something. It took some years, maybe a decade at least that I had the possibility to combine these mediums whenever I need them. It took a while, but soon people accepted it. But this was all possible because I mainly did art and this gave me incredible freedom. If I would work as an architect, or as a composer for instance, that would have hardly been possible, I am sure.

I basically do not make separations. I simply think that we all do not need to do that. Maybe we need separations sometimes to create an order, to have some kind of orientation. 

But I do not mind watching a movie and listening a concert and making a drawing, or preparing a machine on the same day. This is what I do, and I do not feel its is a problem, it is a natural thing.

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+ Learn more about  Carsten Nicolai