Interview – JLIAT

JLIAT (aka James Whitehead) is a British noise artist who has pushed the concept of anti-music to it’s absolute extremes. For example, his most recent work is a 1 terabyte MP3 lasting over 600 days in duration. M3 asked James about new distribution methods, and found out how the digital age has affected our perception of ‘music’ itself…

M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
JLIAT – O.K. This kind of thing I find difficult so I’ll use some quotes. “JLIAT /AKA James Whitehead :UK conceptual/ drone/ noise artist, who is seriously posing what might seem to be the unanswerable questions of music.” “Since the nineties,  has brought out about a hundred extremely radical productions in England. His first works were very much like ambient pieces with lots of drones, but his later pieces are very varied in style: guitar noise, conceptual records of silence, pieces with war sounds and pure noise. Some people describe Whitehead as the composer who has taken the concept of anti-music the furthest. In any case, he seldom makes use of the full auditory spectrum: you either get absolute cacophony or are subjected to silence.”

I have degrees in philosophy and Fine Art.

Performances and installations include- Argos Brussels with Charlemagne Palestine and Guy Marc Hinant, uninstal at Tramway, Glasgow for Arika along with  Christian Bök: Craig Dworkin and Esse Est Percipi? exhibited @ Non-Cochlear Sound Diapason Gallery New York.

I write reviews of “Noise” for Vital Weekly, and I’m interested in current developments both in music and philosophy.

What inspired you to start making music? What is your own musical background?
I studied Fine Art / Painting At Falmouth School of Art in Cornwall. Falmouth had a tradition of engagement with music, especially Modernist Music. AMM, Music Improvisation Company, Fluxus were regular visitors. It had an electronic music workshop ran by Howard Rees, and it’s there I became fascinated with tape pieces and programming, the workshop centred around tape machines, mixers and a VCS3.

Here I met with John Cage (on a visit to London), John Tilbury and Harrison Birtwistle amongst others who gave classes and seminars at Falmouth. Within a group of lecturers and students I performed works including ‘In C’ and was part of an improvisation percussion group. On leaving Art School I made my own electronic workshop based around a Synthi AKS and Tape machines. Over the years I’ve developed my practice, now I use mainly computers and software I write myself. I made a living for much of my adult life since college as a Computer Programmer, Systems Analyst and University Lecturer in computer science, so my interest in digital music is a result of this knowledge and an interest in the concepts and possibilities within digital “musics” themselves.

Do you think recent developments in technology have reshaped what people consider to be ‘music’?
Absolutely. And Western music historically has been shaped by technology and the development of Western thought – through the Renaissance, the printing press, liturgical music, the technologies which developed the classical orchestra from primarily stringed instruments with the use of value instruments. The whole Romantic movement which flourished as a result of the industrial revolution, and a bourgeoisie middle class.

How the symphonic form developed and other genres such as opera and lieder for instance, right through to the phonograph, the length of the song / songs which could be placed on a 45 rpm single or L.P…. Recent developments are part of this process which I think not only change the way people listen to music, and what is considered music, but the nature of music itself. Obviously the digital media, not only CD, MP3 but also the use of sampling, from the early Steve Reich tape based works through to Rap music, and the technologies employed by DJs. I think we are currently at a moment similar to that of the industrial revolution where technology will effect a paradigm shift in what is music, how it’s made, distributed and consumed. Its difficult to predict this trajectory, but more and more people with the use of digital technologies, huge MP3 libraries stored on computers, and mobile phones, with personalized playlists are in effect taking a more direct interaction with music and what it is.

What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (e.g. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
As a reviewer for Vital Weekly I get most of the material on CD, though increasingly I will listen to work on the internet on SoundCloud and the like. That’s where a lot of young people who are interested in music creation place their material.  So here is the problem, the technology now means that almost anyone can produce a CDr, MP3, cheaply, posted online is even cheaper – free – so the amount of material out there is growing exponentially! It can be overwhelming, and a lot of material is not first rate, you tend to think and work more carefully when making a vinyl, the costs! I can see MP3 and CD are perhaps the most convenient at the moment, but not for long.  I think the future will be personal connectivity to “The cloud” and sites like SoundCloud, using mobile devices. My preference for that will be because that is where exciting things are and will be happening. Just as when Liszt, Mendelssohn et al. took Europe by storm because of the technology of Newspaper printing – mass media, and Rail Transport, mass communication.

Your most recent work, a ‘1 terabyte MP3′ consists of 233 disks & has a 600+ days running time. Could you tell us a bit more about this work, and how you are planning to distribute it?
Ah! Through my interest in PCM data and digital technologies I began to explore what could be made using the format. A good example was the discovery of 65536 possible digital silences. Which I have since “actualized”. I then became interested in time, as I mentioned the length of a Symphony, or CD or Pop Song, rather than being arbitrary was sometimes a social requirement, an evenings entertainment, a short dance, and also the technological restrictions, 4-5 minutes playing time of a 45 single. So I began to see how small you could go, 1/44100 of a second on CD – which as fairly easy to make. Going the other way is very interesting. I hit a block at 4 gigabytes. PCM wave files cant be greater. So I switched to MP3, and I think that size is unlimited, except by the computer’s O.S. So it was a bit like discovering this huge mountain. 1 terabyte struck me as fascinating, a trillion, we are now getting familiar with in the current economic climate, but to work with such a number,  you can’t count up to a trillion, life is too short. So it was a challenge. Recording a 1 TB MP3 in real time would take nearly 2 years constantly without a break. Eventually using software I’d written I could reduce the time needed and see it as an actual possibility. I decided on DVDs as they are a little more permanent than a hard drive, and you get a physical object.

An object which is music, perhaps, but it would be a task bigger than my making it to listen to it all. As for distribution at the moment it’s a one off. But it needn’t be. I like as an artist presenting distributors, manufacturers and curators with such problems. I’ve worked with Barry Essen @ Arika, an organisation which promotes “New Musics”, I’m hoping he is up to the task of dealing with this “monster”.

Some artists have begun to distribute their work on SD cards and USB sticks. Do you think that items like these could ever overtake CD and vinyl as music’s primary physical distribution method?
No. SD and USB are very volatile. I think “The cloud” will be the primary method in future. People will not then need to keep their material at home, they can and already are storing their material in the clouds!

It would be great to upload my 1TB piece….!

In some ways digital media frees the concept of the album from physical length restrictions, and yet many online music platforms seem to cater to short attention spans with a kind of ‘quick fix’ listening. Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?
Yes the digital age has undermined the LP – replaced it with personal playlists. Though I think the LP generated an art form back in the 60s and 70s, just as the symphony orchestra did previously. I can’t see another Sgt. Pepper or White Album, but they – the originals – will still be valued, perhaps even more so, by future generations as complete works of art in their own right.. That is while people now will want their own playlists of material, short songs? There will, I think, be a demand to sit down and listen right through something like The Who’s Tommy, as a kind of cultural event, much as people will go and sit though a classical concert.

Much has been made of the supposed death of the record store in recent years. Do you believe the digital age has killed the record store, and if so, do you think that this is a necessary part of progression, or a tragic loss?
Record stores are certainly dying, and they would be a loss. However look at bookshops, they seem to be managing to keep going. I think the owners and managers of record stores just have the wrong model. They seem very “kid” oriented, which is OK, but kids will download illegally, they wont have the spending power of ‘older’ people. I find record stores very unattractive, quite aggressive and masculine. Look at the book stores, carpets, comfortable wide spaces, and décor. A coffee shop, somewhere to browse and relax. Yet Virgin or HMV – its racks close together – not the place you can relax, make a decision about your purchase. Even back in the 60s you could go in a booth and listen. People love to shop, and not just online, but it needs to be a pleasant experience. I hope someone from HMV or Virgin will read this and take note.

Do you think the internet has rendered traditional concepts of copyright obsolete, or do you think they are still relevant?
I think copyright is a big problem. First I’m aware that many of my releases have been copied and that directly effected me in cost terms. When I made CDs using a professional plant I knew the low cost of production. The big companies have only themselves to blame. Again look at book publishing, a book if it was a CD would fall to bits after a few days. CDs are badly packaged, badly designed, with little in the way of artwork, DVDs are worse. Bonus material is normally useless nonsense.

Compare those with a gate fold LP. Again The Beatles work with Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton, The Stones with Warhol, they were and are works of art, something worth buying and keeping. Something which can gain in value (and some of my LPs have)! Also I tend to buy DVDs legally, and its so annoying to sit through introductions about piracy and copyright when I’ve paid money, and yet these “warnings” are probably edited out on illegal copies. The solution is simple, if you make something worth its value it wont be copied.

So the big companies will make money with massive promotion and live tours of the likes of Justin Bieber. The small guys will use CDr and the web. OK so digital media is easy to copy. Make the product worth the value. Decent case which will last years, good artwork, plenty of information. CDs and DVDs used to have booklets! Now you can pay £12.00 and get a plastic case which falls apart, a CD with no design on the cover and a folded sheet with a track list!

Finally, what does the future hold for JLIAT?
The area in which I’m working has opened up strange new territories. My work relates very much to a genre in music called noise, specifically Harsh Noise and Harsh Noise Wall. Philosophically there is a current movement known amongst other titles as Speculative Realism.  The speculation is about breaking free of “human” centred thinking. So you get things like ‘what will the universe be like in a trillion years time’, what does that do to ‘our’ thoughts about reality..?  And there’s that number again!  So in one of my projects I’m using the “playlist” idea and the random shuffle you get on MP3 players, only these works will be big.  Each track is only 6 seconds – that attention span thing you mention! But the first piece will be over 19 million tracks, that’s 2.19 terabytes…….. 4.27 years playback…

For more information about JLIAT, you can visit his official website.


About M3 Event

The music industry is rapidly changing. The internet has enabled widespread piracy, as well as a variety of new business and distribution models. We want to offer an engaged audience in and around the Euregion an opportunity to develop a coherent and detailed picture of the future of music distribution. On the 31st of May 2012 a music conference in Maastricht, consisting of oppositional debates, creative workshops and lectures, will provoke opportunities for intellectual stimulation, debate, as well as networking. We hope to utilise the skills and ideas of some of most forward thinking minds and operators in the industry in order to highlight some promising new ideas and areas which can be improved upon.

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