Vadi Sound Talks – Meet Éric La Casa - Sound Artist and Field Recording Specialist
“My preliminary question was: what is the city made of when nothing happens? To choose moments when the city sounds like a monochrome, a sound continuum with no event. What does this mean in terms of sound? What did it mean for my listening? From the background noise to the calendar event. A representation of what makes me up through my listening to my own environment.”
Éric La Casa a Sound Artist and Field Recording Specialist. He lives in La Villette (Paris). For 25 years, he’s been questioning the perception of reality and has tried to expand the notion of infra-ordinary, from background noise to the inaudible, both in his field practice and in his studio creation.
Éric La Casa and Aslı Yalçın had a written conversation around the things that shaped Éric’s sonic art and projects that touch upon the importance of listening and his philosophy l'infra-ordinaire. For Tarek Atoui’s “The Whispering Playground” project at the 17th Istanbul Biennial, Éric La Casa recorded the docklands of Istanbul together with Vadi Sound team.
Thank you Éric, it’s been a pleasure hearing your reflection on sound and especially your approach to sound and it’s part in the perception of reality.
Listen to Éric’s recordings here: https://swarmingradio.bandcamp.com/
What inspired you to begin sound artistry / field recording in the first place?
Most probably, encounters, friends, artists...
Then, for me, I think that the sound was a fantastic laboratory of experimentations on an artistic level and also on a personal level. And for example, I still remember this moment with my very first equipment (boom/micros/portable DAT), along a river. I was very happy to be able to finally practice this form of listening and thus this new stage in my relationship to sound. It was only an evolution in my journey because for several years I had been working with sounds and sometimes I recorded with a Walkman. With this boom and these microphones, I had finally found a way to enter the sound by listening, and be in the landscape and the expectation.
How do you choose your locations?
There were and still are several ways. From the beginning, if I don't have a specific subject, I take the time to listen in a very open way, without expectation. At the beginning I recorded elements of the landscape (water, wind...) and I was interested in the way they resonated differently in the spaces, depending on the moment. Then the notion of project came. I learned to work with sound by defining research projects, aesthetic experiments, and even documentaries for the radio.
In other words, today, sound allows me to explore questions that arise from the field. I am attentive to my environment, and I find a question to which I try to respond.
What is your choice of equipment?
It depends on the project. I try to use equipment that gives me the best possible bandwidth for the project. It's a compromise between quality, cost, and size. In the field I am very mobile.
I'm as interested in vibrations in the air as in solids ... and possibly in those I can't hear. In any case, once the material is decided, you must be able to rely on it. That's why I've never parted with my stereo mixer to amplify my pair of cardioid mics at the end of my boom. It's been with me for 20 years. It's my reference. I am not a sound technician and I buy as little as possible.
Are you interested in acoustic analysis and research and tools?
When I'm editing and mixing, I use signal analysis tools - plugins like phase or spectrum real-time analyzer - all the time.
How do you define your approach to field recording / sound design?
During this last decade, I like to think of my work in my everyday life, in this ordinary, at the liminal border of the extra-ordinary / infra-ordinary. A constant exploration based on an aesthetic experimentation of time (waiting, pause, ordinary, everyday...), and space.
Where were your latest field recording locations?
Near my home, in my neighborhood, in La Villette (Paris). Otherwise, for my radio documentary, I also went to make recordings in factories in France.
What is your advice to those who will start their SFX / soundscapes library from scratch?
Start with your daily environment.
I have often thought that it is most relevant to listen to and record what you think you know best: your everyday life, for example. You don't have to go to the north Pole to start listening to and recording the world. From your home you can also start listening to the world. Besides, I think that in your own environment there is already so much to do.
There are so many things/spaces to experience in your environment. Thus, your listening will be stronger because you can stay in your environment for as long as you want. An experimental practice always takes you a long time.
How about the technology, what’s its role in your sound design routine?
It guides the way I listen and work, and therefore the way I record and design a project. It mainly frames my recording practice.
But the field constantly reminds you that your presence, your listening is always the first important level in a daily context. The technique is essential but remains a tool, an extension of yourself, a precious help sometimes, because of its reliability. But it is up to you to be creative, inventive, technology does not give you ideas but can help you to realise yourself.
Can you tell us about your philosophy l'infra-ordinaire and the perception of reality phenomenology?
Wow, that's a big question. I will try to be short. On the one hand, since the beginning, I've been interested in representation, primarily that of reality. From reproduction to story, the question of phenomenology is a good entry point to the question of reality. How does everyone perceive the world around them? And is what I perceive real? For me, each person tells his or her reality by trying to propose it in a collective story. On the other hand, there are holes in the racket of our perception. To increase our awareness on sound to certain registers of listening to the world, I use a corpus of words referring to the interval, the infra, the ultra ... I like to think that reality is a narrative whose materiality is constantly expanding in my perception of the world. The more we think we are coming to a resolution, the more we are only crossing thresholds. Our present, the reality, is made up of our knowledge as well as our ignorance.
How does being a seasoned musician play a role in your sound design / field recording projects?
I don't know if I'm a musician or a researcher. In any case, yes, it is an important parameter like others, just as essential: how do you feel, what is your society, the state of the world...
Please tell us more about your Paris Quotidien and Home projects.
It would take too long to explain the processes of these two projects. Again, I will try in a short way. Paris Quotidien is a project of listening to my immediate environment (from my windows and inside my apartment) for 2 years (and beyond since I also continued with my project "interiors"). At the beginning, it was based on the fact that I absolutely wanted to spend time in my environment, in my local dimensions and work with my everyday life. It was also a way of getting deeper into my ordinary life. I had wanted to do this project for a while: to act locally, in my most everyday environments. My preliminary question was: what is the city made of when nothing happens? To choose moments when the city sounds like a monochrome, a sound continuum with no event. And then, as the months went by, the events around my home (always from my windows), and in my building, called on me more and more. And I became interested in my way of living here, at this address. What does this mean in terms of sound? What did it mean for my listening? From the background noise to the calendar event. A representation of what makes me up through my listening to my own environment.
That's what the Home project is about. How do people listen to music at home? What if we asked them to choose just one music, the one of the moments, the one of all time. What would it be? Music becomes the key to meeting people in their homes and trying to record the spirit of the present time. We share together around their music, and in their private space (a way of considering music outside the concert hall). And then we invite musicians/improvisors to come and perform a version of this documentary, on stage, in the context of a concert, in the presence of one audience. The field documentary becomes documentary music. The real becomes a narrative which itself becomes music. And in this I feel close to Paris Quotidien: a thought about the today world, as close as possible to everyday life.
In your 2022 interview with Kristen Sharp, UNLIKELY, you said you like working in domestic spaces. How do you interpret sounds of domestic spaces in relation to your approach?
I think that working in your own environment and with what you have known for a long time has become extremely important to me. I like to think that time and terrain need to infuse for a long time to settle in my mind. With what I know best, I bypass the obvious and immediately become interested in what is rare, what is also mostly hidden. To put it another way, I can take an interest in small signals, that city of low noise, and thus get away from the obvious. Sometimes the obvious also requires my attention because it is often caricatured. And I don't like a priori in listening, and in life in general.
Please tell us about your Istanbul Biennale recordings project “The Whispering Playground” with Tarek Atoui – which we also contributed to with recording Istanbul docklands. How did you take the project forward and were there particular elements specific to Istanbul soundscapes vs other harbor recordings around the world ?
With Tarek we chose places that you hadn't done: the shipyards in Tuzla. And compared to the other ports we have recorded; this is the first time we have done big shipyards. I can't really compare because it's a first. These yards with these workers are unique, I think. Thanks to the organisers, I think we were able to really explore these territories, these situations... and sometimes get on the boats.
(An interview will be published soon by the Mudam Luxembourg about my experiences with Tarek Atoui)
You can read and listen more on the works and recordings of Éric La Casa here: