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Sound Architect Bora Yoon Composes Multisensory Concertos

Equal parts artist, musician, and wearable sound pioneer, we spoke to the woman behind the immensely powerful new album "SUNKEN CATHEDRAL."

Images courtesy of the artist

Bora Yoon is pretty much as far from your 'average musician' as it gets. For one, the Korean-American musician and sound architect builds the majority of the technology she uses herself, with the help of a cadre of code-crunchers and technowizards including R. Luke Dubois. Second, her live performances are immensely immersive audiovisual experiences emotionally urgent enough to earn her a place as one of the 2014 TED Fellows

Equal parts artist, inventor, wearable tech pioneer, and psychoacoustic scientist, Bora Yoon is one of the most exciting creators working in the field of sound and performance today. Recently she spoke at the TED 30th Anniversary, and on May 1, she released her new full-length album, SUNKEN CATHEDRAL, all the while rolling out a major performance at Asia Society with accompanying artwork from past-Creator U-Ram Choe.  

Currently, she's in the thick of an Indiegogo campaign that seeks to launch SUNKEN CATHEDRAL as a multimedia graphic album for iPad (set for May 13), a double LP release (May 27), remix singles (Summer 2014), and a major theatrical performance, set to launch in January of next year. It's a major undertaking, of course, but given Yoon's accomplishments, scene cred, and your support, something we think will be hugely successful.

We figured there has never been a better time to interview Bora Yoon about SUNKEN CATHEDRAL, her idea to create "Sound Spas," and about how one goes about making sound architecture:

The Creators Project: How would you describe what make to someone who isn't familiar with your work?

Bora Yoon: I say I’m a musician and sound architect—I build sonic environments of music for dance, theater, concerts, installations, site-specific locations, film, and time-based art pieces.  

It’s easiest if I just list the instruments I play:  I sing, and play viola, piano, radios, turntables, cell phones, Tibetan bowls, found objects, water, phasing metronomes, various field recordings, and electronics—things that essentially make sense and make sound together. It can be utilized in these such ways.  

As a show, it looks like a kind of haunted house of sound, that slowly gets activated as the show goes on, a kind of storytelling or radio foley show of sound through sound design, gesture, music, and voice. It’s almost like a weird form of audio butoh, intentional movements that are completely sonically motivated. I realize it sounds very strange when explained this Western way where artistic forms are seen as very different schools of thought—but if you see it all through a Korean arts lens, where Music, Dance and Theater are considered all one and of the same thing and are completely inseparable and not seen as different art forms, my work described, is as organic and natural as it feels.  

Of all the instruments/objects you've used, which one was the most complicated to use to achieve the sound(s) you desired? Which created your favorite sounds? 

The most complicated sound to achieve was probably perfecting the sound and delivery of the Subwoofing spoons—an instrument I made w/ the LEMUR group (League of Electronic Musicians and Urban Robots) of Brooklyn in 2009. I was looking for the most organic and natural interface to pound out a huge subwoofing sound, but through organic gesture, my hands, and my feet. After analyzing movements, and an attempt at this with flex sensors in my boots it seemed the thing that would accomplish such a task most succinctly would be a set of Swedish spoons—hit between my lap and back of hands. So my colleague Boris Klompus and I put a contact mic on a set of Swedish spoons, and ciphened it through a Max MSP patch, and were able to doctor the attack / tone / decay to such a way that made it seem electric, and almost wrong-sounding, to make that tone ominous, gut-hitting, and wholly unignorable.

It’s featured in a track "In Paradisum" off the new record, which is both violent and peaceful, and [about] how those two opposing emotions can live in the same space together. We’re actually working on turning this now into a new interface with a stomp sensor, and making the floor then seem like a giant source of a heartbeat, to imply the fact that we are now in the visceral world within the body, and other various sound worlds, on stage.  

My favorite sound from an untraditional instrument? Empty 10 gallon water jugs, dropped in a huge huge reverberant space… THAT is a phenomenal sound. There’s also this set of rainbow chimes I was gifted which I cut loose, and started to find a way to play them as musical pick up sticks instead. And this really crappy “Lesley” I made with a record turntable, looping cell phones (programmed by Swedish design team UNSWORN), which rest on top of a turntable, swirling under a mic, so they collectively create the audio effect of an 8-bit Leslie of crap sounds.  

Large-scale untraditional instruments I still have yet to make music with, and really looking forward to: Helicopters, Fireworks, and the sound of breaking chocolate.  

What programs do you run, and technologies do you use to turn your tools and objects into your modern orchestras? 

My performance software is Ableton Live, with MIDI foot and hand controllers. I use the Keith McMillan Softstep, and AKAI hand controller.  

For visuals, my collaborator and producer R. Luke DuBois uses Max MSP and Jitter by Cycling 74 to manipulate visuals in real time. When the full blackbox theater performance is happening, we use Qlab for all audio and video, or a Watchout video system for projections.  

What I’m beginning to integrate now, is the use of a stomp sensor, in conjunction w/ the Microsoft Kinect infrared sensor through Max MSP to activate kinetic / gestural movements to sequence sound, beats, and make the (invisible) environment dynamic and curiously reactive. My aim is move the gestural language beyond triggering and being a demo, but actually being theatrically paradoxical and intentional about its gestural dual-meaning.  

Your soundscapes often evoke experiences, combinations of moods and textures that serve to produce many feelings, rather than just, say, sadness, happiness, etc. What is your process like to evoke these feelings, and how do you find your inspiration? 

My process is very intuitive and a lot of times it all starts from a curious sound that evokes something strange in me I don’t understand yet, or a melody that keeps persisting, and as a result, becomes a thread that feels important to keep pulling. Unexpected things come out. These fragments then get matched with another element in the junkyard o’ ideas, with some form of tonal information, timbre, or beat, found object, or field recording, and then the real cooking begins.  

It is often the negative space between those sounds in which a narrative can be implicated, and it’s only when I step back, further down the creative process, that I can look at it with some objectivity, and notice what I’m making, or know what this feeling is that I’m tapping into, is saying—to know what the piece is actually about.   

A great deal of SUNKEN CATHEDRAL has been composed this way. The subconscious mind is extremely powerful, and I’ve learned at this point in life to not deny these impulses, because the Head, Heart, and Gut levels work at different speeds and rates all the time, and (depending on the tempo of your city, and other factors) it may take some time for them to all get on the same page, to fully unveil what your subconscious creative mind may be unraveling.

During the record-making process, I was startled to see just how much of this record had to do with my cultural blood identity and Korean part of myself I have never paid much heed to.  Exploring why I am elementally made the way I’m made. As someone who has never really tried to be Korean, all her life—this record oddly has that thumbprint all over it. I guess at a certain point you ask yourself, why am I made the way I’m made? And at this age of 33, when you have enough life experience around you, and as a female, whose body is able and ready to give life at this stage in life, these elemental make up moments undeniably emerge from your blood.  

It’s a lot of setting deadlines, subsequently painting myself into a corner as the clock ticks, freaking out and squirming, and then finding a unicorn equation to totally transcend the corner. In the day to day: I try to really utilize the sleeping and waking process to draft things, and fully carpe diem the vastly different realms of thinking that come with being vertical, and being horizontal, in order to fully circle an idea; turn it in all ways of XYZ, from conscious, and subconscious mind states, to understand what its sinews may be, and where it wants to go.

A lot of times, when a really important idea breaks through—the mind immediately eclipses it, as if to hide it from you, and so I have to be diligent with this process, to keep shifting perspective around, to find its tail so it doesn’t stay eluded. Moving meditation of being on a bike, and train, or driving a car helps with the long-range view on them, and really envisioning the whole plan before starting. I know it’s a weird thing, but these are all signs I know an idea is powerful, and worth pursuing into reality.  

Your work rests on the intersection among music, architecture, and performance. What's your background in architecture, and are there any innovators or particular performances that have directly inspired you? 

My background in architecture comes purely from an acoustic lens, as a choral singer. Then of course, there’s the visual component, which is undeniable in affecting people’s perceptions of the performance.  

I see architecture through the lens of a musician and instrument-maker. It is essentially a large resonator, and a large chamber, in which resonance and vibration, and frequency can have full impact. Of course there’s the visual component, which is undeniable and hugely impactful to people’s perceptions of how a performance is received (it comes with its associations of era, style, history, aesthetic, and presentation)... Though it seems counterintuitive to performance, my aim is never to make a focal point of myself on the stage, but the negative space of the room, in which the chamber resonates, and where the audience and performer meet.    

My life work is to marry architecture and music together—to literally build actual architectural structures which feature music’s power to build community, express, heal, and connect, in spatial ways for the public.    

I want to create Sound Spas—spas specifically designed to feature the healing and transformative properties of sound and music. Also, I plan to build a structure called the Music Box, in which the entire structure (stair steps, tension rods, chambered tile flooring) is pitched and able to become a huge musical instrument, installation space, and architectural instrument, at a very high level of design and instrument craftsmanship.

I want to illuminate that music is indeed everywhere, can be made from anything, and that everyone has the ability to access this creative source within them, at a place as conducive as the Music Box, to bring out their innate abilities.  

Performances that have directly inspired me: Noemie Lafrance’s Agora in the McCarren Pool, Songs of Ascension by Meredith Monk in the Ann Hamilton tower / Guggenheim. The work of U-Ram Choe, Laurie Anderson, Michel Gondry, Haruki Murakami, Nam Jun Paik, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Sekou Sundiata, Alfonse Mucha, and others who transcend their craft into new places.  

What upcoming projects do you have in the near horizon? 

Sunken Cathedral will continue as a year long release, with a graphic album video trilogy on a new iPad app and platform called “Gralbums”—it's an iPad app that turns records into a multimedia experience. Gralbum will feature a trilogy of select tracks from the record, accompanied by the otherworldly kinetic sculptures of U-Ram Choe.

This Summer and fall, there will be a series of music videos, and art films released by acclaimed filmmaker colleagues, remixes by DJ Scientific, King Britt and other. Everything will culminate as a staged multimedia theater performance, January 2015, at PROTOTYPE Festival, NYC. It will include the gestural performance controller called the Body Electric, developed with R. Luke DuBois, Greg Brown, and Harvestworks Digital Media, which will marry sound and gesture together, in a way, beyond controller / gesture, but takes them to an ironic place, of theatricality.

Finally, what advice would you give artists for whom you're an inspiration? 

Never lose sight of the fact that the Journey is the reward. It’s the most valuable thing there really is. 

Above, a few instruments in Yoon's arsenal.

To help make SUNKEN CATHEDRAL into a graphic album for iPad, click hereClick here order the album itself, and, to learn more about the artist, visit BoraYoon.com.

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