Norman W. Long: Building Communities through Sound

Norman W. Long: Building Communities through Sound

Norman W. Long, a sound artist from Chicago, was AS220’s Artist in Residence for the month of June 2017. His time here was made possible by a Residency Fellowship from 3Arts, a non-profit that “works to sustain and promote artists in the six-county Chicago metropolitan area” with which AS220 is a partner through the Alliance of Artists Communities. Hear more from Norman here and here! Interview by Connor Sullivan.


Norman Long at AS220’s Psychic Readings space, 6-28-2017, by Chris Anderson


Can you explain the medium(s) you work in?
Mainly I’m an artist that works in sound. Or with themes in sound and landscape. These themes usually manifest themselves in performance, installation, composition, and audio recordings.

Your mission as an artist mentions creating spaces that “reflect history, culture, and diversity of community/ecology.” In what ways does your work reflect your community of Chicago?
I’ve been working with environmental or field recordings since 2001, and have been incorporating them into my compositions and installations ever since. What interests me are everyday sounds — and how those everyday sounds make up a community or culture. Usually I work with communities, landscapes, or ecologies in specific areas of Chicago. For instance, I did a series of recordings and soundwalks in a park called Washington Park in Chicago, IL. It’s in the South Side of Chicago and is a historically African-American community. It’s now sort of mixed with the University of Chicago. So it’s surrounded by a community center, with a shopping plaza on one end and on another end the University of Chicago hospital and clinics. And towards the south end you have more residential areas. It’s a mix of cultures. But mainly the folks that use the park are African-Americans and black folk. It’s one of the parks I’ve been using because it has diversity built into it. Frederick Law Olmsted built it as a way to have both an urban and natural experience. What was also interesting about it was the usages of the parks by artists and composers like Sun Ra, who used the park as a platform for not only espousing their philosophies but also for engaging with street creatures, socialists, and philosophers who would meet and perform lectures in the park. It has a black intellectual history. I also did a lot of my own recordings and readings from one of Sun Ra’s broadsheets. I mixed that with some of the summer activities that go on in the park during different festivals, and also on days when the parks weren’t particularly busy. Just all sorts of interesting ecological recordings.

So are you yet to make field recordings of Providence spaces?
I’ve only recorded parts of PVDFest. I was taken for a really interesting walk by a local architect that lives in Newport, though. We walked to that area of Empire Street designed by I. M. Pei (ED: Cathedral Square), which was interesting. And walked around the river. But I haven’t done much recording yet. That’s one of the things I will be doing more of. I will be doing a soundwalk on June 24th at noon and we’re going to start at AS220 Labs. We’re just going to be walking for an hour around the city. Basically what a soundwalk is a guided listening tour. It has several purposes depending on your discipline. I, for instance, am interested in getting people to build their communities and explore how to build these communities through sound. There could be soundwalks in several different parts of the city that people can organize. One of the groups I’m involved with, the American Society for Acoustic Ecology, organizes a day called World Listening Day that’s on July 18th. It’s pretty much a day where people take time to listen to their environment and how their environment sounds to gauge the health of their ecologies. They pay attention to ecological and urban histories and all sorts of sound. It spans from culture to ecology. There are cultures that do more privileged listening than others or there are particular landscapes that are preserved for listening. It’s a broad sort of thing. This year, we have decided that the theme will be “Listening to the Ground.” That was brought up by Pauline Oliveros, who was one of the pioneers of electronic music. She had passed away over the Thanksgiving holiday and one of the last things she wanted to organize was that theme.

(Long pulls up the World Listening Day site)

This is written by Eric Leonardson, who I work with a lot in Chicago. “In 1971, following a period of introspection during John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the Vietnam War protests, Oliveros published her Sonic Meditations, a set of 25 text-based instructions meant to provoke thoughtful, creative responses for anyone to carry out to expand consciousness and healing.” This was one of the things she would later call “Deep Listening.” And Pauline defines this as “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing. Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, or one’s own thoughts as well as musical sounds.” She urged us to take a walk at night and to walk so silently that “the bottoms of your feet become ears.” And Andrea Williams, another writer, wrote “Let us all slow down enough to let our feet become our ears. Let us listen to the ground on 18 July, World Listening Day 2017, in honor of composer and deep listener, Pauline Oliveros.” So that’s essentially what deep listening is and what all the soundwalks are for.


Was engaging in activities like this apart of your original goal for this residency?
Partially, yes. I knew going in that this was a really nice community organization. Trying to involve the community in listening and reintroducing them to their community and soundscape are things I want to do. With the listening and soundscapes, each particular experience and residency is different so it’s never something that’s monotonous or something where I’m creating the same thing wherever I go. I have a similar process, sure, but obviously this is a completely different soundscape or urbanscape from where I live.

You’ve worked everywhere from Chicago to San Francisco. But you’ve also worked in Ithaca — a clear rural anomaly to the urban ecologies you operate in. What was your experience working in a more providential area like?
I studied landscape architecture while there at Cornell. The art department there has a history of land art. One of the first land art exhibitions was held at Cornell, featuring, I think but I’m not sure, Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim, and Gordon Matta Clark. Which I thought was interesting. When I was there, I wasn’t particularly thinking of continuing my career as an artist. I was taking this opportunity to change careers. The plan was I’d still be doing my own projects, but be able to fund my own things through a career as a landscape architect or designer. At Cornell, I wanted to continue working with sound so I was able to work with the Center for Electo-Acoustic Music. And I was able to some field recordings and work with their facilities there. I was able to do a series of recordings at the Cornell Botanic Gardens, which was really fun. Previous to those recordings, I had to go there to study plants and to identify all the plants during the summer or winter. It was a requirement for the degree.  

When did you begin to achieve a sense of place and a shared ecology through sound?
I had some interesting ideas around 2007, which was an interesting part of my development. But I didn’t see it as important or interesting at all–it was just something I was doing. Probably by 2009, I was able to start executing these ideas. One, because the market crash sealed my fate as far as that particular career went. I still was able to produce art and make recordings. I was able to do a series of field recordings at Lincoln Park on the North Side of Chicago. And was able to propose something for experimental sound studies for sonic series. They have a fern room and four channel speakers. So they have artists come in and do sound installations. What I proposed was processed field recordings that are in surround sound and that would fit well with the fern room. The Lincoln Park Conservatory has a zoo and a park. I took people around the block and was able to capture the character of that neighbor and able to reinterpret it, sort of like how a dub engineer such as King Tubby would, having some of the footsteps and leaves echo. Processing it, while not losing the ambiance of the area.  

Can you describe some of the work you’ll be displaying here?
One of the pieces I’ll be doing is a soundwalk and the other, more towards the end of the month, will be a performance. It’ll be a mix and presentation of the different field recordings I’ve done. I’ve also been working on some drawings since I’ve been here. I don’t typically do drawings, but I’ve finally had the time and space to do some. They’re drawings of certain paths I’ve walked on soundwalks and things like that in Chicago. Paths that flow.

How has your residency been going?
Good. I’ve been enjoying the time and privacy. And I like having so much space and resources. All those things have made this residency unique and different from the other residences I’ve attended. And the community and context are different. I’m really enjoying being able to build mini synthesizers and learning new audio programs. I’ve also been working on a video project for a show in Chicago. Or even just having time to read.

What have you been reading?
Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates–the first volume. Still need to read Between the World and Me by him. I finished Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which was pretty good. I have other things I want to read too. I’ve been trying to find James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, but no places seems to have it. I’ve read parts of Richard Wright’s Native Son. What partially brought me to Chicago’s Washington Park area was the way Wright interacted with socialists and communists there. He lived there for a while before he moved east.

When you do catch a break, what spots in Providence do you like to hit?
I do like the AS220 bar. I’ve met with people I went to school with in both San Francisco and Ithaca here. They’ve been able to show me around and we’ve had really fun experiences at restaurants and everything. I’ve always eaten ramen, but having Ken’s Ramen for the first time was incredible. The food here is really awesome. I think I’m gonna spend more time at the AS220 Labs. I like Aurora, especially vinyl night. I love how walkable everything here is. I love walking, but it’s different here. There’s definitely more traffic. I’ve been easing myself into this experience so I’m looking forward to doing even more focused listening.