Interview: Bartholomäus Traubeck on 'Years'


For people that are seeing Years for the first time, can you give a brief description?

It’s basically a modified turntable that uses a camera as a pickup and that samples a microscopically small image of the year rings. Those are then translated into sound by programming. It’s not a very direct translation. I tried it first and, I wasn’t able to build anything that really worked that produces sound output. So I went with translating the visual image into piano tones which sounds nicer.

So, you tried it by taking the data and having that make the tones rather than having it translated to a 12 tone system?

I really tried sonifying with opto-sensors. It’s just not really controllable what kind of image you get. You can only go for the brightness values of a certain point. It’s just not enough data. It doesn’t relate to the year rings actually, or not that much. And then again I tried just sonifying the image but it’s really hard because it’s a pixel based image. With analog media you can just input it and just change cables and put a video signal into a stereo if you want to. But digital it’s really hard to have it make sense. I just failed at that and I decided to make a generative sound machine that is being interpreted by the year rings.

So I guess it doesn’t follow the rings, but how do you get it to play the whole piece of wood?

The tone arm moves to the inside in a linear fashion. There’s a certain time that I set and it takes that amount of time to move to the center of the record. The year rings are so non-perfectly circular, that I couldn’t follow them. So whenever there’s a tree ring in the field of view of this microscopic camera, it releases an event.

Do you have a musical background?

Not at all. This is partly why I was interested in doing this. I really enjoy working with sound. Actually, I have a very visual background. I studied graphic design, mostly. Graphic design can be so limiting in some ways because you train your vocabulary. For me, I had these different vocabularies that I was always working in. It was hard to get out of that and since I had no musical background, it was very interesting to work (with sound) because you can produce ideas that would be very different from the approaches that you usually take. You’re losing a lot of your intuitive manners that you acquired over the years. You have to find a new approach. I like to work with sound and I enjoy this a lot but I really do not have any gift for composition and stuff like that. But then again, I like to produce sounding objects.

Like, with Years, I set a rule set for the compositions by programming and building this machine which has some kind of internal rules of how it works so it can’t just produce any sound but then again the composition is actually then being made by the tree’s data, which is not really random. Some people would say it is random but I think it’s not because it has a very special structure and follows certain rules that derive from other systems, like ecological systems. But there is always a rule-set to find in there.

It’s interesting you mention coming from a graphic design background. Something I see inYears is that it’s a very different way of experiencing a plant through time. I almost get this feeling that it’s an audio version of a reverse timelapse. Is there a reason that you picked audio to express this idea? Is that the idea, or am I just interpreting something?

No, that’s good. What you said is something actually I just stumbled over yesterday. For me, the thought of this compressed amount of time and the amount of time that’s actually needed to grow this structure and this data set is a very important interest in the medium of the physical representation of the time of the song. I didn’t specifically think about it when working on it. For me, it was interesting to compress this amount of time into this visual structure and then again make a song out of this.

On regular vinyl, there is this groove that represents however long the track is. There’s a physical representation of the length of the audio track that’s imprinted on the record. The year rings are very similar because it takes a very long time to actually grow this structure because it depends on which record you put on of those I made. It’s usually 30 to 60 or 70 years in that amount of space. It was really interesting for me to have this visual representation of time and then translate it back into a song which it wouldn’t originally be.

In terms of generative art and music. What are some of your influences. Do you see this work as part of a certain movement?

There’s a lot of works that I admire. Maybe the one that’s closest that I really like is. Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. I think it’s kind of similar, actually. I see them all as algorythms and rules. Certain systems for making another composition. This one really impressed me when I saw it because it’s, aesthetically very beautiful and in a way it can initiate some certain thought’s but it’s not too concrete and it’s far from esoteric. You can say, this is the song that the bird sings or plays or whatever but it’s certainly with the result of all of these influences and all of this environment and also the way a bird actually works. It’s very interesting.

Have you done any research in the field of bioelectronics and this merging of biological and digital?

I wouldn’t say research. I looked a lot into dendrochronology, the science of reading data out of tree rings. Then I went further and tried to see plants or trees as part of manifested algorithms. DNA is like a program that’s run and depending on which environment it’s running it will develop differently. I tried to see this in stone formations in marble but there is no algorithm because it’s not alive but it can still be an archive for data. I guess nowadays, everything can be data or can be an archive or a database.

I think we have this affinity towards seeing concepts as binary. There’s always this thing and then there’s its opposite and this is the very prevalent view; culture and nature or technology and nature. I try not to see it that way because just culture and technology is just a very far developed result of nature, actually… what we call nature, which would be life in general. Everything we do has to be a result of nature, I guess. For some philosophical thought processes, you need to make this division between culture and nature. Sometimes, it’s very interesting to just see it as one is the result of the other and it’s just an ongoing process.

The Ars Electronica is going very strongly in that direction. They have had a category for bio-art which is really interesting because this is something you do not come across in contemporary art.

Is there a reason you picked those particular sounds?

I felt that it would make sense to use the piano because, first of all, a piano is something you are very used to and it has a very long tradition. The piano itself always sounds the same for hundreds of years, probably now it’s been the way it’s played that’s always different. Second of all, the piano has a certain range of tones and there are no tones in between. In a regular piano, there are 88 keys, so this helped me make it a little more pleasant. Since there is no actual representation for the sound of wood, I guess, because there is no real sound of wood, I would say. I thought, I could practically use anything. It doesn’t need to be some abstract sine wave or modulation of something. And I looked into piano samples and it sounded good. It’s an instrument that you’re really used to, being socialized in a Western country. It made sense somehow.

Did you do anything with other sounds besides piano? Would you be interested in doing an audio-only piece like an album?

Actually, I’m doing that right now because, first of all, I was approached by a London label that wants to do a small release of different trees just out of this piano machine, which is something I was planning to do anyway, just for myself. I did not want to make a very long video with all of the woods but I thought to really hear the difference, it would be nice.

And then again, I’m working on something more abstract that’s a feedback experiment where there is one sound going in through all of these effects and there’s a very long stream generated. There was this mathematical experiment where they say every breath you take includes one molecule of the last breath of Mozart or Caesar. It’s been re-calculated and they say it’s a 98.2% chance that this actually happens. Inspired by this thought is that you just have one sound to generate this feedback loop and it generates this sound-stream that evolves and informs itself. But it’s not actually the sound. I mean, you can’t actually hear the sound you sent in anymore because the effects are taking over and they shape the sound. Then you don’t really know anymore. Is it a product of just manipulating the effects? But the effect itself cannot produce a sound without an input. So I was interested in that, so that might be something I do next.

So, there’s this loss of understanding between the source and what is being produced.

It was with the Years piece because the sound is coming from the wood but it’s also coming from me somehow. It would be interesting to blur these boundaries. Like with this piece again with the birds on the strings, I’m really interested in just building setups and rule sets that I can apply to something and then I’m not really involved in the actual composition or the making of the piece itself anymore. This is something that I find very interesting. I really like to more design processes and apply them to something. It’s not just random, it’s this interplay with this rule set.

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us.

Thank you, it’s been great.