Rolf Julius explains why sound and vision are simply opposite sides of the same coin. By Rahma Khazam. This article first appeared in The Wire 261 (November 2005).
“The surface of a sound interests me,” Rolf Julius once wrote. “Is it round or angled? Raw or smooth? I’m also interested in the distance of a sound. Does it sound different close than further away. And if you bend down to pick up a sound…?”
These are questions that go to the heart of Rolf Julius’s work. “I even made a piece where you lay on your back and put speakers on your eyes, so you could look into the sound,” reminisces the Berlin based sound artist, sitting amid the hubbub of a noisy Paris cafe. For the past 30 years, Julius’s minimal pieces, which have made him one of the leading exponents of contemporary sound art, have been teasing out connections between sound and visuals. Take the pieces he is currently showing at Paris’s Galerie Lara Vincy, a longtime supporter of his work. The lid on Japanese soup cup opens up to reveal a speaker covered with powdery black pigment. Muffled gurgles escape from the cup as the pigment twists and contorts, making the sounds visible. A little way away, two small stones topped with tiny speakers are engaged in a muttered dialogue. Meanwhile, by the window, soft chirps issue forth from a speaker attached to a bowl of water, breathing life into the image of rippling water on the video screen close by. As Julius comments: “Water in a bowl, a speaker, sound: what is it? Nothing. But when you put them together in a special way, then all of a sudden, if you’re lucky, it’s a piece – it’s as if it’s living its own life.”
Julius discovered his passion for sound and visuals the very first time he used them together. Born in the German port city of Wilhelmshaven in 1939, he studied visual art in Bremen and Berlin. It was not until the mid-70s that he began using sound, while working as a photographer in Bremen. He invited members of the public to enter a booth one by one and bare their backs, which he then photographed. “People were very nervous, so I put on some music, pieces by Robert Ashley and Pauline Oliveros, and they liked it so much that they relaxed,” he recalls. “It was something different and they [realised] it was art. From that moment, I became aware that music or sound could change situations.”
Towards the end of the 70s, Julius moved to Berlin, where he discovered the budding sound art scene. “I was very impressed by it,” he says. “I also wanted to create music [for my pieces], but I couldn’t because I did not know how to compose. So I started with one note.” Julius is referring to that first note he made by striking a piece of iron with an iron bar and recording the resulting sound. He then copied it onto a lower grade tape, obtaining a slightly different sound. He had taken photos of a dyke and decided to combine his two sounds with the photographs. Each photo showed the slight curve of the dyke against the horizon, taken from a slightly different angle. “I had a line of six photos and I put a speaker at either end,” he explains. “Then all of a sudden the small curves started to move up and down, they began to dance!” He showed this work, titled Dike Line (1979), to art activist and curator René Block, who immediately invited him to take part in his forthcoming show in West Berlin’s Akademie der Künste. The year was 1980 and the occasion was the mythical show Für Augen Und Ohren, which brought together works by the likes of Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Luigi Russolo, Nam June Paik and Bill Fontana for the first major exhibition on sound and the visual arts yet to be held in Europe. It was also around that time that Julius launched a concert series comprising such memorable pieces as Concert For A Frozen Lake (1982), in which recorded piano sounds were played on the edge of an iced-up lake. He used the same method as Dike Line, although in this case the recordings bore little resemblance to the original sound, due to the quality of the tapes. “This music was more like a vibraphone than a piano. It was perfect for a frozen lake because it evoked the material of ice,” he observes. Soon after the Berlin concerts, Julius moved to New York on a grant and was allocated a studio at PS1. His career took off as he gradually began giving performances and creating installations throughout Europe, Japan and the United States.
In the meantime, Julius was pursuing his experiments. Music For The Eyes (1981), in which the viewer placed small speakers over his eyes, demonstrated that, in the absence of any visual input, listening becomes a physical experience involving the entire body. Another important discovery occurred when he was working on the idea of having sound come from the inside of a stone. “I wanted to put sounds into a big stone by making a hole in it, but it was too complicated,” Julius says. “Then I discovered that when I placed a speaker on top of a stone, the sound appeared to be coming from inside it.” Getting stones to talk was also a way of drawing attention to his materials and their intrinsic properties, which is another abiding theme in Julius’s work.
He was likewise developing a better understanding of the relations between sound and visuals. “If you go from one medium to another, there has to be a link,” he insists. For Julius, a sound goes with an object when it reflects the object’s surface and texture. “If I combine a normal clear piano sound with a dirty red pigment, it will strike you as odd,” he remarks. “This is the kind of experience a sound artist acquires because he knows about the texture of sounds. A composer would not work this way. He doesn’t know about the texture, or what I would call the surface of the sound.”
Although Julius’s work is often spoken about in terms of synaesthesia, he takes exception to the tendency. It is the combined effect of sound and visuals that interests him. “In my work,” he says, “you concentrate on both the visual and the acoustic elements and, taken together, they result in something new.”The soundworld that Julius uses is highly specific. Utilising processed natural and instrumental sounds as well as simple devices such as buzzers, he produces what he calls “small sounds”. These soft, yet compelling, murmurs or hums retain a natural feel and are often suggestive of frogs, crickets or birds. “My artificial sounds are sometimes more natural than natural sounds because there is a relationship to nature. Crickets, for instance, do not sing with their mouths, but move their legs; a buzzer does the same, it’s mechanical,” Julius points out. Most important however, are the pauses between his sounds, which orchestrate the viewer’s experience of the piece. “Say you have a piece consisting of red and black pigments,” he explains. “You play a sound, then the pause is too long, so you look at the red and black. Then you play another sound, then you look, and so on.”
In Big Gray (1994), sound is conducive to concentration and stillness. This piece was created for a building situated in one of the noisiest streets in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Rather than fight against the ambient din by raising the volume of his piece, Julius went one better: when the viewer concentrated on the sounds, he became oblivious to the noise outside. “I found that my senses relaxed and I was able to listen to the entire composition without paying attention to what was going on elsewhere,” he says. The notions of concentration and stillness crop up in many of Julius’s works. The calm, meditative atmosphere emanating from his pieces stems from the hypnotic intensity of his soft whirrs, which hold the viewer’s attention. Creating stillness by means of sound is a notion that harks back to John Cage, for whom stillness, or silence, necessarily comprised of sound of some kind. It likewise stems from Julius’s experiences in Japan – a country that immediately took to his work and with which he has many natural affinities. “Japan helped me to understand silence,” he says. “You go to a Zen temple, and you can understand something about it.”
The Zen-like detachment and simplicity that run through Julius’s work mark him out from the majority of contemporary sound artists. He has a close affinity with Japanese artist Akio Suzuki, whose work likewise references nature, while displaying a similar freshness and economy of means. He also feels a proximity to Morton Feldman, whose pared down aesthetic is mirrored in the minute differences between the six photos constituting Dike Line. Even more important, however, is John Cage, whose conception of silence and openness to all sounds were a liberating influence. Yet Julius has always kept his distance from Cage. “It’s very difficult to become an independent artist when you are close to a figure like John Cage,” he says. “Most artists connected to him could not move by themselves. They were always saying, ‘John said I did a good piece.’ In my case, [Takehisa] Kosugi knew him very well and told me stories about him. But I was too shy to talk to him and I am happy I only watched from a distance.”
Julius’s forthcoming projects testify to his continued independence and creativity. He will be showing some of his video images in Berlin in November, while next year’s Märzmusik will feature pianist Aki Takahashi performing one of his graphic scores. This is by no means his first attempt at composing for others. Vocal ensemble die maulwerker presented a memorable performance of a series of graphic scores titled Songbooks 1-6 in Cologne in July 2004. Meanwhile, Julius is preparing for a major show in Bochum next April, which will probably include a symposium and contributions from like-minded artists and friends, ranging from Akio Suzuki, Takehisa Kosugi, Miki Yui and the dancer Junko Wada,to John Cage and Kasimir Malevitch.
Julius may have been at the forefront of the nascent German sound art scene in the 1980s, along with the likes of Christina Kubisch and Hans Peter Kuhn, yet he remains modest about his achievements. “I was like a kid next to people like Kosugi and David Tudor,” he says. It is not for nothing that Julius considers Kosugi and Tudor as precursors. They may not be sound artists as such, but David Tudor’s Rainforest, for instance, broke new ground in the 70s in terms of its sound sources and their placement in space. As for the new generation of sound artists, they are not as obsessed with sound as the artists of Julius’s generation, who had to contend with the resistance of the art and music establishment, not to speak of the public. “[Today’s sound artists] are more open,” he concludes. “They don’t care whether they are working with sound or visuals; they mix everything. Thanks to the people who came before, they have realised that sound is not such a big deal – it’s just a material like any other.”