Conversations about ‘Conversations’ by Brandon Locher with Brandon Locher
“I have increasingly used this form of working: to develop the piece from a nucleus and to discover all the transformations that arise from a single conceptual idea.”
By David Bernabo
Musician and visual artist Brandon Locher rivals anyone who thinks they produce a high volume of output. This past March, Locher’s My Idea of Fun imprint surpassed ten years of existence. To celebrate, Locher compiled a 54-track, 3+ hour compilation that selects bits from the imprint’s 340+ physical and digital releases. Much of that music is his, recorded under his own name or through a collaborative project. In the visual world, Locher’s incredibly detailed ink drawings, collectively titled Mazes to the Motherlode, now number over 50 works. High output is fine, but the work needs to be good. And it is. It’s very good.
Over a series of Google Drive conversations, Locher and I discuss his work. We let the conversations go where they may. We start with a conversation about Conversations, a fascinating audio piece where Locher calls someone in the phone book, records their response to his silence, and then plays that recording back when calling a second person. This loop continues, slowly building longer conversations between a real person and a recording of a real person. Let’s dive in, because Locher explains it better than I can. But first, take a quick listen to a recent example from the Conversations project.
David Bernabo: I can’t remember when I was made aware of your label My Idea of Fun and your massive amounts of output, but I do remember that when I first heard “Conversations,” I was converted. The initial iteration of that piece blew me away. It seemed like a classic work, such a brilliant concept. Can you talk about your approach when making a long-term, time-based work like Conversations? Does the project have an ending?
Brandon Locher: There are some projects that I have that are long-term projects, for instance “Conversations” developed over a period of 10 years. I’m currently recording and assembling a final installment from all 48 Continental United States, consisting of one single serial chain of phone calls. “Conversations” is a work that demanded increasingly long periods for their development and realization. In my current recordings, the participants have mentioned time-sensitive events like “Merry Christmas!” and watching the 2017 Super Bowl. The listener can reflect on their perception of time as both an abstraction and the physical awareness to this captured moment from any section of this 5+ hour piece that was recorded over the span of 10+ months.
I have increasingly used this form of working: to develop the piece from a nucleus and to discover all the transformations that arise from a single conceptual idea. I generally start with a premeditated “super-formula” on which the whole following work is based. The initial confused answerer is recorded and then used to playback in a new call to another randomized receiver. That person’s response is then taped and played back for another confused recipient, over and over, State to State… although the 48 Continental United States recording will be the final installment in this series. I made “Conversations” works in 2006, 2012, 2013, and 2016–2017.
DB: Before you started making the phone calls for “Conversations,” did you foresee how humorous the concept would be?
BL: On November 21st, 2006 I woke up and started the process of building conversation and response by calling and recording random people in the Johnstown Pennsylvania Area Phone Book. I used a contact microphone to record my cell phone (photo attached) and on the (2006) recording you can hear audio interference and distortion coming off the cellular device at times. On that early morning in 2006 when I had the “super-formula,” I realized that anything was possible inside of this conceptual outline and form. At a point very naturally the participants stay on the phone line trying to help or make sense of the person that they are reacting and speaking to. Naturally, as the poetics develop and more information is processed into the piece, the Conversations and exchanges become more complex on multidimensional levels. In 2012, I realized I needed to make a “Conversations” by calling and recording every store in a shopping mall in Western Pennsylvania, followed by a 35 minute recording in 2013 using only the residential Johnstown Pennsylvania Area Phone Book. When I listen to “Conversations” as music, the role is to reveal that life invisibly flows in and through us at all moments. That music is continuous, it is only we who turn away. “Conversations” can literally be happening at any moment.
DB: Do you ever feel guilt when making these calls?
BL: No, I don’t feel any guilt. This very small experience in any of these people’s day becomes just a blimp in their consciousness, even if they think of the experience ever again, or if they may think they are talking with somebody they know — it’s all very fleeting.
DB: I’m interested in generative art, but more of a loose definition. Instead of a completely autonomous system, I like having a human, slightly variable procedure that can be followed many times with fruitful results. It seems like with the first iteration of Conversations, you found a winning formula. Are the latest editions of Conversations easier to produce than a brand new work or concept? Do you actively try to find replicable systems for creating work?
BL: Lately I’ve been spending very little time working on Conversations. Over time, I’ve discovered it’s easier to get better results and more people seem to answer on the weekends, so generally over the weekend I’ll call and record a few States a week. The latest Conversations has become almost more difficult to produce because it’s “conceptually” finished, and at times finding that personal and physical drive to finish the work is a challenge because I would selfishly rather be working on new music or just sitting around spaced out thinking of new possibilities and ideas. There are periods in my practice where I won’t allow myself permission to draw for over 12 weeks — I guess even that is a system for creating work. My drawing portfolio Mazes to the Motherlode titles are organized by roman numerals. I think of these titles as an opus number from my visual oeuvre. Since the New Year, I’ve been drawing pieces from the Motherlode series a second, third, or even fourth time.
DB: You seem to be very patient or at least are ok with tedious tasks. Conversations seems like an epic work in file management and your visual work — thinking of the illustrations — are wonderfully detailed. Does your attention span for project vary by medium? For me, I can work on a film for a year, but when writing poetry, I lose interest if some magic doesn’t happen in the first thirty minutes.
BL: Yeah, totally. I often need to spend various amounts of time outside the studio just living and experiencing life before the next idea develops to keep continuing the process for different mediums and works. I’ve realized that producing work is a lot of decision making, committing to these decisions, and then continually moving forward with the pieces. For example, my visual works are very premeditated and it generally takes several hours or even days to physically complete a simple visual concept. Luckily over the years of art making I’ve developed patience and discipline that allows me to not get distracted or bored with these very tedious tasks. Visually, I generally always have a large backlog of ideas that need executed to finish or start new pieces — I could almost always be at the drawing table. Writing and producing music is a bit different, because it typically takes much more downtime to generate the next idea. While making music, I get up in the morning and read, make some music, go to the park, come back, make music, cook dinner, make more music. I feel like the “music” is happening all the time.