The long read: Tom White

Tom White is an award-winning sound artist known for his innovative style of sound layering which has seen him take samples from an ice factory, the London canals and their locks. Having toured as far and wide as Japan, White now takes to the Emerge stage with an audio experience created exclusively for the festival. An interview by Natascha Rimo.

“I’m interested in texture and tactility of sound but also the exploration of memory and emotion”

– Tom White, 2019

Do you perceive the world surrounding you mainly as audio or as visual? Would you call your art a synesthetic venture?

Working predominantly with sound has certainly made me more attuned to the sonic environments of the everyday. I have learned to listen more carefully, perhaps noticing sounds that others might not pay attention to. This can be very subtle, but they are always there, it’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to listen. Sometimes this can have a detrimental effect, particularly in navigating urban spaces with so much noise bombarding us. This is now almost an accepted way of life, but it doesn’t need to be. Often the sounds I work with are also very visual, or evocative of visual language so to be honest I’m inspired equally by both. I also come from a background of making films and painting, and still work visually so I’m used to communicating ideas in both respects. I wouldn’t say my art is a synesthetic venture, as I don’t experience sound as colour for example as many artists have reported to, rather interpret sound often as a corporeal sensation, enhanced by the architecture and the spaces we inhabit.

Through your compositions, you tend to create a pattern of sounds that keep repeating themselves. Do you think that repetition in your case is more of an alienating action to naturally distort a sound without really distorting it?

Working on pieces I will layer patterns and re-record in endless combinations, listen on short loops and live with the sounds for long periods of time, usually until I find something interesting or end up scrapping it completely. Even by playing 2 sounds you can reveal frequencies and textures that excite one another and become audible all of a sudden – e.g. two simple sine waves played simultaneously wobble and dance together in aural illusions. This process can creep into the final works. It’s been said often, but through repetition you can create new meanings, which is quite a powerful method, without the need to use extra processing or as you say distort the sounds. Repetition can often be a mischievous way of playing with the listener’s expectations or even your own as the maker. Just as a passage becomes familiar to the listener, suddenly you can move into a whole new direction.

What thought process do you go through before creating a piece and what is your creative process?

 Each project is different, and it all depends on whether I’m working on a solo piece or with collaborators. The situation often determines the thought process. A work like Run Amok (Glistening Examples, 2018), started with an urge to visit the exact location where Werner Herzog shot Even Dwarfs Started Small in Lanzarote and led to a much bigger exploration of the environment and interpreting the other spaces through actions within the recording. I hope to surprise myself during the process of making work, or it becomes predictable and formulaic. For Slow Time (commissioned by Emerge / London Canal Museum) it was clear very early on that the spaces in the museum were very special and the past uses dictated a direction that I was keen to explore. That being said, the past few months making the work I’ve moved through directions and processes I didn’t expect to and that is always very satisfying.

You seem to appreciate disassociation as a means to interpret life and normality through a different lens. What is the desired effect you want this to have on the public?

P.S. (Displacement Sites – reminds me of shattered souvenirs in a child’s fragmented memory) 

I can see why Displacement Sites (2011) gives that impression. I had assigned myself rules for filming by editing in-camera with particular shot lengths, variations of framing etc. which is quite easy to do on a 16mm Bolex camera. But as things developed over the course of a single weekend, the rules were abandoned, and things became more and more fragmented. The combination of the abstract and depictions of real life sit beside each other. Perhaps this is reflected across my sound work now too, the distortion of realities manifests itself when the information presented is broken apart.

Is there usually a narrative to your soundscapes? Run Amok sounds like it does – it involves a journey, detailed with movement and I think that listeners are there waiting for you to reveal more.

 I’m glad that comes across in Run Amok – it was certainly the intention. I’m interested in texture and tactility of sound but also the exploration of memory and emotion and how you can manipulate those feelings through narrative situations, but also I don’t want to be too explicit in that, I try not to underestimate the listener and the power they have to interpret this on their own. Each person will bring something different and also the environment they choose to do that. You have no control unless it’s an installation or live performance of course then you can manage the conditions to some extent, but not their emotions. Run Amok, takes you through so many variations from densely stacked barrages of noise to near silent passages or wind in the distance.

What is the best sound you have ever recorded?

Not sure about best, but one that springs to mind – and perhaps not that illustrative of the rest of my work – would be when walking around a small town in Majorca I heard someone singing and playing piano wildly from an open window. I quickly rummaged through my bag for the recorder (at which point the sound usually stops!) and managed to record most of her song. I had a rush of adrenaline that is quite rare when you’re not expecting to hear something. We stood by the open window and applauded her, she was teaching a young student and wasn’t expecting a captive audience. It features at the very end of my Automated Evangelism (Vitrine, 2016) release.