Mark Booth

By Edward Breitweister

October 7, 2018

Mark Booth performing. Image courtesy of John W. Sisson Photography.

Mark Booth performing. Image courtesy of John W. Sisson Photography.

In partnership with pt.fwd, a new series of contemporary music and sonic arts performances featuring new work by local and regional artists in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, Sight Specific will be publishing conversations between the featured artists and pt.fwd director Eddie Breitweiser.

Mark Booth will be performing on Sunday, 10/13/2018 at 8pm at the McLean County Arts Center. All pt.fwd performances are free and open to the public. Follow pt.fwd on Facebook and Instagram for more information, including upcoming performance dates.

Eddie Breitweiser: The three areas I wanted to talk with you about are: history, region, and fun. For “history”, I was hoping you could speak a little bit about how this work that you're going to be presenting for us next week is positioned historically within your larger output. When you think about your work up to this point, how does this work sit there, and what made you select it for our show?

Mark Booth: Should I answer the first question?

Eddie: Yeah, go ahead.

Mark: [laughs] Well, where it is historically is a tough question. For me, lately anyway, I've been doing a lot of work that just involves experimentation and following my intuition a little more than I normally would. Last couple of things that I have produced are not like previous works. For the last, maybe, five or six years I've been working on a piece called God is Represented by the Sea, The Sea is Represented by an Irregular Shape and that's a very long text work. It's a looping work, and with each repetition of the main loop more lines are added. More material is added, so that the landscape of text has a sense of being a known landscape but with features that are constantly changing and being added to it. In a lot of ways, I think it's like a child's experience of the world where the child experiences where it lives then as they’re older that experience moves outward so that there’s greater knowledge of what's beyond the backyard, expanding into the neighborhood, into the city, and and so on. I've been working on that piece for a really long time. I’ve had two performances of it so far. The first performance was a little over 3 hours, and was two years ago at Sector 2337 in Chicago, which is a really nice performance space that's also a publisher of Green Lantern Press. I did an exhibition of the drawings that I used to access language; I use drawing as a sort of meditation so that the movement of the hand helps me to free my mind from my various filters that are preventing me from using my imagination in some ways.

Eddie: Yeah.

Mark: So, the drawing is a way of accessing a certain thought process and the writing comes out of the active drawing. Drawing is really close to writing anyway. Like, writing is a form of drawing and drawing is a form of writing. So, I've been working on these really long text pieces. The piece at Sector 2337, the God is Represented by the Sea incorporated about 40 performers and three improvisers so that the first weekend the performance was maybe an hour and after our fifth performance was maybe eight hours. My dream is to do maybe a 24-hour performance of it. I've been writing it for over two years and am continuing to add lines. This is a long way of explaining, but I've been working on a constraint based and process space form of writing for a really long time. So, this recent work is much more playful, and I'm not operating with the idea of  some larger structuring organizing principle. This is more of an experiment; of having a crazy idea and following it as it's happening. So it's really kind of nice. There’s a lot more fluidity. It's not so fixed, because I'm not trying to make something so large. It feels more free.

Mark Booth performing. Image courtesy of John W. Sisson Photography.

Mark Booth performing. Image courtesy of John W. Sisson Photography.

Eddie: Sure.

Mark: It's really fun. I did just did a recent performance that was an experiment. I'll be using some of the materials from that performance and new recorded materials for this upcoming performance. I'm really excited about it because I had a crazy idea about organs...

Eddie: Like, musical organs? Or, human organs?

Mark: Musical organs. I was invited to a festival in Copenhagen that was kind of this avant-garde organ festival. I spent a week improvising with this really beautiful Baroque organ made by The Klop Company. It's just absolutely gorgeous. It's a wooden organ with a super silent motor. I spent a lot of time playing with that smaller as opposed to a larger pipe organ in the performance space. I gravitated toward the smaller organ. I started thinking about the organ in relation to breath, and the idea of endless breath - like a breath that can just keep going on forever. And I thought about the possibilities of weather balloons for powering small toys. I have a number of these finely-crafted British mouth sirens. I recently did a performance for a poet Nathaniel Jones’s book release where three people were essentially inserting the small sirens into weather balloons, and having the weather balloons power the sirens instead of the mouth, and then using the mouth as an acoustic cavity and trying to find the resonant frequency to try to amplify the sound of the siren. What's really interesting about it is that it's a work for non virtuoso performers...

Eddie: Oh, sure. Yeah.

Mark:, basically I had to figure out an approach to using the balloons and using the sirens. [Laughs] It sounds really stupid, but I spent a lot of time finding what was possible and what got really exciting to me was using the mouth to act as an amplifier, and the idea of this breath substitute, and using the mouth like it's supposed to be used but not having the breath come from the lungs but from this other instrument. So, we had three people experimenting with trying to find the resonant frequency of the sirens in the room. I had two other performers who randomly selected tuning forks, struck them at the same time, and held them in front of a single microphone to produce some interesting combinations of frequencies. The interaction of all those things is really, really exciting to me. It's really simple and it's really hilarious. [Laughs] If I had endless money I would just buy all these sirens and give them out to everybody in the audience and it would be really enjoyable. [Laughs] I'm not quite there yet but it's really interesting. I've also been thinking a lot about fake electronic music...

Eddie: Fake electronic music?

Mark: Yeah, like what kind of acoustic experiments can fool the ear into thinking that it's not acoustic anymore.

Eddie: Ah, okay

Mark: What's interesting about the siren in the mouth cavity is that it's very difficult to place. It definitely sounds like a siren, but because of what's going on with the reshaping of the mouth there are all these changes; the pitch the siren varies because of air pressure in the balloon, but then also the impossibility of maintaining holding your mouth in a particular posture or configuration. So, that's the type of experimentation I've been working on with very simple instruments that's kind of playful. I spent years taking guitar lessons and part of what's fun now is to not actually know what I'm doing, and to have more of an experience of sound in the moment rather than playing something rehearsed where I know what I’m doing.

Eddie: Part of the the challenge that I had charged the performers in the series with is that we want to hear something new. Almost asking the performers in some way to step outside of the comfort zone of their normal practice, and to see the series as an opportunity to present to an audience that is open to that type of experimentation. Hearing you talk and knowing the work of yours that I'm most familiar with—those pieces like the God is Represented by the Sea - that are so monumental in scale, and deliberately incorporate scale as an element of the piece. In those, the scale is a result of a process. In a sense, a very obvious—poetic, but obvious—process is at work. So, I'm happy to hear that you're looking outside of your normal stamp to bring something to us.

Mark: [Laughs] I think what's exciting is that I've been in this collaborative duo with Michael Graeve, who is in Australia. He was in the Sound Department many years ago...

Eddie: At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago?

Mark: Yeah. At a certain point, we talked about doing something together, and I just went out to Australia and we hung out with him for 3 weeks. We did a concert together and an installation. A couple summers ago I was in Melbourne again for another exhibition, and we had another period where we worked together again and did another concert. And what's really pleasurable about our work together is that it's very process-oriented and purely fun. We don't know what we're doing—we just set off in a direction and some really interesting things happen as a result. It’s work that I wouldn't make on my own, I think, because I'm too uptight.

Eddie: [Laughs] Yeah.

Mark: When we're hanging out together, it's adult playtime. It's sound exploring images and exploring different ways to work together. It’s been really fun. That especially has informed the later work where I've been more interested in identifying the pleasures of process and not been so concerned with things being good or bad, but more about a sense of pleasurable discovery.

Eddie: Yeah. Absolutely.

Mark: So, that feels really fun and ridiculous and great.

Eddie: [Laughs]

Mark: And you know, I think with larger structure work there's a monumentality about it where the scale is large and even though the piece is made up of many small parts, the accumulation of many, many small lines or parts build something quite big. What's cool about these smaller projects that I'm doing is that it doesn't have anything to do with that at all.

Eddie: Yeah. It sounds like a very intentional counterpoint to the working mode that you’ve established so far.

Mark: Yeah, definitely. And I think what’s curious about it for me is that I've been thinking a lot about ways to defeat my own expectation of things.

Eddie: [Laughs]

Mark: I'll tell you a story. I was teaching in Ireland with Sean Decker and Noē Cuēllar was taking the class and we were teaching at Burren College in Ireland. We were on an island on a two-day trip. On the map for the island, there's this very famous blowhole on the coast. It’s this 30 foot diameter circle that goes down 50 or 60 feet to the sea and it has this amazing sound that's really wonderful. And I had this experience where Sean and I were going there specifically to record, with the intention of probably using this material to do a concert using the field recordings of this very unusual space. And I was really shocked and had my world turned on upside-down a little bit because Noē and a friend of his came out with us. They weren't in a rush to do anything: they just listened, and just had the experience of listening and of being in a place. And I think my experience was that I was just there to get something and to make something. That experience was really eye-opening because I think that all the burdens of thinking about, “oh, I need to make something” became apparent at that point. Rather than just living, just perceiving and letting a new experience flow over me, there’s always so much other stuff going on. Lately, I've been trying to model that behavior that I learned from Noah and his friend. It's really important to just go have an experience rather than to try and make something because you think you should make something.

Eddie: Right.

Mark: I think for the artist there are always times where you just want to make something because you want to feel better about yourself. Where you just want to make something just to have a sense of validation. I think that just to make something because it's fun, or to make because you want to learn something is a much better position to be in.

Eddie: RIght. Moving along those lines, I want to think about “Region”. Part of the the goal of pt.fwd is to highlight incredible work that's in our own backyard, and to create a dialogue across our region. In Central Illinois, we’re a bit removed from the metropolis, but nonetheless we're situated within a hub of really amazing artistic work—from experimental music to contemporary composition to sound art—being created all around us. I'm curious to hear how where you live and work and our environment have informed your work. Some of the challenges that it’s presented for you, the opportunities it’s created for you, just broadly how the work that you're creating today has come about as a result of where you live.

Mark: Yeah. I think the big thing is that being in Chicago and having been at the School of the Art Institute teaching since 2000, I've met a lot of people. A lot of my work wouldn't have been possible in the way it was presented without having people who are game to experiment, to go out on a limb and rehearse for a while and to try something. My experience is really that Chicago has been the kind of place for me where it's been possible to do things, invite people to participate and have them be a part of things. Composers are sort of a one-person operation. And I think a lot of the work I've been able to do here is about having people around whom I trust very much with very simple instructions or requests and who can operate within the kind of parameters that I'm asking. That's been really remarkable. With the God is Represented by the Sea at Sector, there were no rehearsals. There were just really simple instructions to anyone who was coming in to improvise. Just being able to trust people to contribute to the greater atmosphere rather than having to exercise an independent voice coming from ego, for me that's been the really big thing. The accessibility to people who are into it for the love of it rather than for anything else is one of the reasons I really like being in Chicago. There a lot of people having a lot of success—there are really great things happening—but it's a really DIY kind of place. I lived in Boston for five years before I came West, and I never had this community, or playfulness, or friendliness, or anything. For me, Chicago has really been a place where I felt like I've been a part and really supported. And I think also, it's been a place where I've been able to do my thing in my own time, rather than somebody else's time. That’s been really exciting, too.

Eddie: Yeah.

Mark: Those are the big things.

Eddie: It sounds like that kind of communal quality has really enabled you to tap into this playful, kind of “id mode”.

Mark: [Laughs]

Eddie: You think of composing music—or writing, even—as such a lonely enterprise, but there are so many different unexpected ways that a work can grow if you are in a supportive community and in a community that's willing to take risks with you.

Mark: Right.

Eddie: And, to push your work rather than just interpret or represent it for you. That model isn't something that you can just snap your fingers and have it happen. It's something that needs to be cultivated and really requires a village.

Mark: It really does. It requires a community, for sure, but also you need a receptive community. I feel like people are really out every night here seeing things. Just because they're curious. Not because they feel like they need to, or they have to. I think it's really super healthy.

Mark Booth performing. Image courtesy of John W. Sisson Photography.

Mark Booth performing. Image courtesy of John W. Sisson Photography.

Eddie: Lastly, our third, very open-ended category is “Fun”. This is our first season, hopefully of many, and our informal theme is “Set a fire and they will come.”

Mark: [Laughs]

Eddie: I'm curious if you have a “set a fire and they will come” moment or story.

Mark: Just in general? In someone's life?

Eddie: Yeah.

Mark: That's really interesting. I don't know! Is there another way that we can approach that question?

Eddie: Maybe another access point to it--is there anything unexpected that's been inspiring you recently? Maybe you’ve gotten a spark that's come from an unexpected place that's either pushing your work, or your life, or your thoughts in a different direction?

Mark: Yeah, I think so. I hope this doesn't sound trite or anything but one of the reasons that I enjoy teaching so much is that I'm always being surprised and I'm always having my own assumptions and presumptions about the world altered by what these fellow artists are doing. We talk about “the cultivation of our peers” at the Art Institute and I'm really aware of how beautiful it is to be around people who are much younger than I am, and people who are much older than I am, and having all of us united by the desire to make things or to think about the world and to want to talk about that. And to talk about the world and the way that these various individuals see it. And it's great to have these young people teaching me how to be a better artist daily. That's really amazing and wonderful. In terms of more general inspiration, I don't know if you've had this experience or not, but I'm teaching creative writing but I wasn't trained to be a creative writing teacher. I was trying to be a visual artist. My art just happened to use text and I've always been making work with language and sound, and at a certain point that contributed to this thing I do now--just being involved with this act of writing. And so I constantly feel like I'm I'm a non-professional.

Eddie: Oh, okay.

Mark: But in a really beautiful way. I don't have some of the presumptions around it that other people do. And apart of being in graduate school, I haven't really formally studied sound. I'm not a composer, but I compose things. Being somewhat oblique to each of these practices is a constant source of inspiration. I've been thinking a lot about difference. I was really, really influenced earlier in my life by Christopher Knowles, who is an autistic poet and artist. His work was used in [Philip Glass’s] Einstein on the Beach, in various Robert Wilson works. If you know Einstein on the Beach at all you'll know Christopher Knowles’s writing. It's fantastic. Super minimal, very exciting. His writing made sense to me as a dyslexic who approaches language from a similar place. So, I'm thinking a lot about mental difference and that's really inspiring. and disability is really fascinating - exploring my own disability in relation to these other creative fields is always really fascinating. Also, I'm just now encountering work that I haven't heard before. I've been really 100% blown away by composers working with really minimal materials. Giusto Pio is someone who I just keep coming back to again and again. There's this work Motore Immobile - do you know that?

Eddie: No, I'm not familiar with him.

Mark: It's so good. It's basically very simple instrumentation, and this melodic line that's carried through a number of different instruments. It's very spare. What I appreciate is that it's very much about the sound of the instrument or the voice and the next excessive act that happens after that. I've been super interested in Éliane Radigue. I've been listening to a lot of her work. Radigue is really amazing. I first encountered her from Lovely Records, and her record of Tibetan monks’ stories. I've been spending a lot of time with work that's very slow and very spare, and very much about the sound itself rather than the imposition or necessity of a speedy melody, if melody even exists. That's the type of stuff I've been gravitating toward lately.

Eddie: Lovely has been killing it lately. It's been a renaissance in the last 10 years or so of dusting off these under-represented--particularly female--composers of the of the second wave of synthesizers from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. There's so much rich stuff out there.

Mark: Yeah, it's really incredible. And part of the thing I think is so wonderful is this experience of discovering this, as you said, amazingly rich body of work by female composers whose work is just being excavated or located again. It's just so nice. I think what's so great about when CDs were first happening--or when the internet was first happening and we started to put out a ton of sound--this access to whole other worlds that we couldn't hear because they’re so very much about whatever cultures they were a part of. Like, there's this amazing experimental work made in Sweden that was only known to a few people. But having access to the whole Fylkingen text sound festivals is kind of incredible because you realize that you and I are part of this continuum. The people are doing this thing 30 years ago, or back when I was born.

Eddie: Right!

Mark: That's really cool. These international histories that we weren't receiving because of our cultural export are flowing and and it's really super beautiful.

Mark Booth is an interdisciplinary artist, sound artist, writer, and musician. His work in text, image, and sound explores the material qualities of language, as well as the ways that language functions (and does not function) to describe human experience. Having learned to read and navigate the world as a dyslexic, Booth uses his work to make sense of his own disjointed experience with words and meaning. His art is simultaneously grandiose in scope (attempting (and failing, of course) to describe the entire spectrum of human existence) and comically quotidian. Booth is on the faculty of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has exhibited and performed his work in Chicago, nationally, and internationally in a variety of known and obscure venues.

This article is funded by the Illinois State University Friends of the Arts.

Edward Breitweiser  is an Illinois-based artist, musician, and writer. Incorporating models from various intellectual traditions and bodies of knowledge, Breitweiser organizes particulars (software, electronics, audio/visual signals, text, networked distribution channels, improvisational music, performative activities) into arrangements whose products are the macro-result of the emergent interactions of all components at once.

His works have been presented at Festival MusicAlp (Courchevel, France); Network Music Festival (Birmingham, UK); the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago); Illinois State University Galleries (Normal, IL); MobileHCI (Stockholm); Salle Cortot (Paris); threewalls (Chicago); the Giorgio Cini Foundation (Venice); Illinois Wesleyan University (Bloomington, IL); the Fuse Factory (Columbus); and the McLean County Arts Center (Bloomington, IL).