Miguel Isaza interview

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Brief list of credits

Designing sound, Sonic terrain, resonancia, infinite grain.

Tell us a little about yourself and what you do for a living?

I live in Medellin, Colombia.I’m dedicated to sound and philosophy and I use to work freelance on projects, events and publications. Nowadays I’m mostly into research projects and educational activities, mainly workshops on sound/listening. I also run a sonic laboratory called Éter with my friend Alejandro Henao.

What is your niche or specialty, that makes you stand out from rest of the audio professionals?

I don’t consider myself as an audio professional and don’t pretend to be one. I like my niche to be uncertain and I prefer to not compare with others. I think I just explore sound in several ways, always moving around. That task of naming my role in the game is something I just leave to others.

When do you find you are most creative?

Perhaps I’m most creative when I’m not thinking too much. In that way, I try to feel creativity as natural as possible, following an intuitive process. I guess I’m most creative when calmed and still, staying inside listening. Silence is important for that because its practice is what allows me to be aware of what’s happening, what I’m doing, not only with sound but anything, not just when doing some audio workbut also in every moment. By becoming more present, I find creativity in that natural position, no matter the activity. It triggers my sensibility and helps meto choose the route to follow.

What is your usual process for creating audio content for different media?

Well, I don’t work on tv, films or videogames and I really respect and admire the artists involved in creating audio for “media”, so I don’t see myself as a sound designer. Most of the time I’m more involved in creating invisible stories, not aimed for other media, however I’ve created audio content for other kind of projects, in which the process varies a lot and it is pretty much about experimenting, trying in some way to question the boundaries between categories in order to find certain ways of working. The “usual” process is not fixed to a certain workflow… I just try to contemplate the main ideas, to talk with persons involved in the project and to have it present in the mind, hoping to catch emotional directions, narrative/conceptual aspects or just abstract interpretations. I could start by putting something on paper, collecting objects, taking pictures, searching for symbols, gathering field recordings or just listening. It’s always different, trying things, investigating, but in the actual audio creation I try to be spontaneous. I like being a server of listening instead of an owner of it, so I don’t usually work with a fixed objective necessarily, but just an impulse. I let the process guide me on the way and I think sound itself has the power of telling everything with its own language.

Could you give some examples of those processes in projects you’ve had?

You know the process usually depends on the project and the people whom one is collaborating with. To give you some examples, I recently collaborated with a haiku poet for an audiovisual piece that was presented at the dome of the Planetarium of Medellin, where (with my friend Alejandro) we composed music/sound based on 30 haiku and some galactic visual works. It was very interesting to get into the aesthetics of the poet and haiku, and also to create soundscapes for the cosmic atmosphere of the visuals; even the timing and sequence order was very interesting to explore, since it was based on day-night cycles, which allowed us to do some curious things with the combination of field recordings and instruments. It was a fun collaboration and we were able to explore different aspects, from designing spaces to improvising new sounds and creating invisible landscapes forbeautiful poems inside such special space as a dome is.

I also recently did sound for a contemporary dance piece called “Impronta en susojos” (mark in her eyes) by director Elsa Valbuena. There I was able to collaborate not only with the director and the producers, but also with the dancers, the stage designer or a video artist who was also involved. It was a great experience because I had to create sound for dance movements and also there were several dancing pieces basically driven by what I was doing, such as one piece where the dancers moved around a soundscape made of field recordings of the sea and some bowed stuff. The performance had some classical and modern music as well, so my job was also to mix those pieces with the sound tissue I was creating. I built a lot of the soundscape by actually going to the practice sessions and interacting directly with the dancers and the team, putting some sounds for them and feeling their reactions. I didn’t want to just go to the studio and create stuff, but to have a closer relationship with the people and process, integrating sound in other stages of production, not just at the end. I remember making scratches on paper based on the dancers’ movement, also improvising with field recordings or instruments in real time and even recording the dancers’ actions with contact mics. The director was so great and open-minded, I remember one particular direction she gave me: “What do you feel? I want you to do the sound you feel, I don’t want my sound or the sound we could describe. I don’t have a story of words for you, I just have a story made of movement, so come here and feel it”. That kind of ideas gave me freedom and at the same time a lot of good challenges because it was sometimes hard to shape (the piece was 80 min long) but the result was great.

Another example could be a work I did some months ago for the Modern Art Museum of Medellin in which I was asked to build a sound environment for an exhibition dedicated to feature old paintings by artists DeboraArango and Ethel Gilmour, all related to the Colombian political conflict. That was very challenging, shocking and interesting to do, to find connections with such content and also to be able to use the whole space where the museum is located, which is an abandoned factory from the past century and the reverberation is amazing. The art works I had to explore were really great, but also touching and hard to see because they carry the sadness of my country and our human incoherence. I visited the museum and studied the art pieces, also gathered some information about the context in which the pieces were painted years ago. I decided to use old cassette recorders, static noise, sounds from the sea, some effects, and no computer. I approached the piece in a way I could make the space talk, to create some experience of immersion. And in contrast to the vastness and desolation I was able to experience with the paintings, I wanted to create an atmosphere for reflection and introspection, developing a sonic space able to trigger some kind of environment in which people could feel the paintings differently, as a synesthetic exercise. The visitors were walking around the paintings with sounds being played simultaneously, so the field recordings I combined and the experiments I did were very influenced by that moment, doing some kind of mix between design and performance. It was a result of a lot of trial and error, trying to feel the experience in different ways. There were always some rational elements here and there, but I think it was more driven by listening itself.

Can you give us a brief summary of the equipment you use regularly?

Nowadays my studio is pretty much a laptop and two speakers, also a tablet mostly for controlling. I record stuff with a pcm-d50 and a cassette recorder. When using hydrophones, contact mics, guitar pickups, etc, I add a sound devices usbpre2 as preamp, which also serves as soundcard.

What are your go-to plug-ins and software? (virtual instruments, audio processing etc.)

Live and Max as main software. I also use Snapper a lot, really cool for quick editing/preview. Regarding plugins, I like soundhack kits, GRM Tools complete and 2C-Audio’s reverbs. In the iPad, the Samplr app and also TouchAble and Lemur for controlling.

Are there any particular secrets to your creativity?

I’m not sure if any of the ideas that surround me are “secret”. As said before, I think creativity is a natural position; therefore my “secrets” and techniques are about getting into that state of mind. I just listen and follow the sound, that’s where I think the magic truly is, and most of the time the way to those creative states is actually a result of reducing and leaving things in order to be intuitive. More than adding something, I’ve been taught to work in a non-linear way in which it is very important to reduce layers, to attenuate decibels, to hide frequencies or avoid certain sounds. That is not really a secret and it’s actually very ancient: that is to reduce before thinking of adding; to not only ask about what is needed but realize about the unnecessary. For me, that has became very important in what I do, and more important than applying it to a composition, I think about applying it to myself.

Do you have any audio creation techniques that resulted in something interesting?

There are so much ways of doing things with technology and I’m constantly discovering new combinations, although using the same stuff most of the time.I think the best techniques are not found in external tools, but in the way you concentrate and perceive, in the actual relationship with the listening experience itself, both in the audible and inaudible realms. Techniques are usually more with myself than with the computer, the recorder or whatever instrument I could be using. I value this work as spiritual, so I think the person in charge of creating sonic experiences of any kind has a very important responsibility and a lot of influence because of his/her own experience and mental process, which always shows something different. Many times I just need to change my perspective or perceive in other ways, rather than implementing a trick for developing a new sound in the computer or something like that, although that is also present. Take the example of field recording, where capturing audio data is important, but your attention to the sounds and the possibilities you find with them, is what ultimately matters, and that part is up to your own way of experiencing.

Any specific “lessons learned” on a project that you could share?

All projects teach valuable things, but I specially remember a research project I started some years ago, dedicated to explore the conception of sound in ancient traditions, mostly from the indigenous cultures of my country. I was doing interviews, learning about their sonic processes, their soundscapes, etc. There I realized about a very special way of valuing sound, as pure nature. I learned that the listening activity is actually a deep practice in which sound is found as a cosmic force present on everything;very powerful and delicate, vast and infinite. Many of those traditions teach that the only way of truly learning about this sonic flux is in the practice of listening, and if we read about researches on several ancient cultures we find that this “law of silence” has been present for a long time.Listening is primordial.

That project changed a lot of things for me and opened me new possibilities for dealing with sound. I think I’m still learning a lot from it and I try to have it present on each project I work on. That silent process always returns me from this world of concepts, categories and theories to a position in which I find how fundamental is the act of detention and detachment towards sound itself,to value its ephemeral quality and to abandon pre-conceptions of it in order to go directly to its roots, as happens in these oral traditions, where there’s wisdom that is not in books, knowledge or even in the vibration at all, but in the silent sound of listening.

Any tips, hints or motivational speeches for the readers?

Live slow and teach yourself to listen.