Michael Junokas

By Edward Breitweiser

January 28, 2019


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.

Michael Junokas will be performing on Saturday, February 9, 2019 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: For the pt.fwd performance in February, we wanted to have a conversation with you so that we could get more familiar with your work. Today we wanted to talk about three different areas: history, region, and fun. So first, historically speaking, can you place the work you’re going to be performing for us? We ask that because part of the charge that we put on our pt.fwd performers is for them to bring something new that they haven't put in front of an audience before. They should be challenging themselves within their own practice, and challenging our audience, as well. How is this work new? How is it new to you? How is it new to the audience?

Mike: So, a lot of the stuff that I'm going to be performing is addressing mainly formalist tendencies and problems. I'm looking at things from a vertical standpoint. In a lot of my work I’ve been doing up to this point, you're sort of trapped in this temporal landscape where you have to go in a progression from the start to the end. So, what I’ve been doing a lot is wondering how you can make form from vertical perspective. So not thinking of it from a start to an end but thinking of it in terms of layers on top of each other, and how that static representation translates into something that’s inescapably temporal, like sound or music. And so there's a variety of different vehicles with which I try to achieve this and address these problems. I think each of them in their own way is sort of novel and new.

So one thing to think about with sound is interacting with sound and the physical mechanics and kinematics that you draw from to actually produce sound, and playing with that as a manipulation of space rather than time. I'm thinking about sound as a spatial component rather than a temporal component, and seeing how that changes the form itself. Addressing this metaphorically—so, manipulating sound in literal space, how you manipulate it physically—but how you structure the actual form itself. So rather than thinking about a perspective of events occurring one after the other, thinking of these events almost non-linearly. This idea of a nonlinear temporal landscape is not explored very much mainly because it's very difficult to wrap your mind around, but also because tools haven't quite been developed in that way for sound.

Eddie: Yeah.

Mike: So a lot of the work that I’ve been doing has been figuring out ways to, I hope, successfully address those problems. Ways to vertically structure what’s historically been almost a linear, inescapable time-space. That's the main thing. They're all sorts of different ways that I try to address this; metaphorically, physically (how I’m making these sounds), and algorithmically. Computers have gone a long way to help me figure out how to address these things without being married to components that require me to “be in time”. And they also help me address problems of indeterminacy. Not knowing where I'm going helps me think of it vertically instead of horizontally. Lots of elements there, but that's the central point - rather than thinking of a sound as a temporal base, thinking of it as a vertical, timbral, spatial component. That’s what I’m hoping to address.

Eddie: I appreciate what you said about how technology not only solves new problems but also creates new problems, too. Could you also talk about the tool set that you've arrived at? How some of the things that you heard  and tried to think about couldn't come out until you came across some of these technologies?

Mike: That's an interesting way to think about it; to think about technology addressing problems that you then create new problems for... A lot of the things I was getting frustrated with were at the limits of my cognitive abilities. Constructing forms, constructing pieces that were inescapably linear. The beautiful thing about algorithms and computers is that theoretically you can dive into these immensely dense, complex systems that are non-linear. If I even try to think of something non-linearly in the scope of time... I'm not a theoretical physicist so I don't quite understand how these quantum planes work! But I do know that I can construct something that theoretically can lay the fabric for that. So the fact that I had something that I could theoretically approach and then let play out then let me me approach what “non-linearality” means to sound.

Is there a way that you can even bear with that? Can you even deal with non-linear representations and mappings in a way that makes sense? Or, is it all just entropy - does it all just decay into nothingness? Those are things I just can't even think about it until I have these non-linear, strict structural forms that are found in computer science. It was a way for me to think about things non-linearly, but also a way to see if I could intuitively, intellectually respond to these very dense theoretical concepts. That’s just super interesting to me. Figuring out ways to get nonlinear representations of sound in form was something I couldn't even approach without having these tools at my disposal.

Eddie: You talked about indeterminate —or, broadly speaking, chaotic—elements that are brought in [to your work]. Maybe I'm not being fair in this interpretation, but in a sense you're expecting the technology to augment or to fill in the gaps in thought that we are incapable of doing as humans. I'm curious about how we’ve seen historical traditions in music that bring indeterminism as an an element of excitement and experimentation; classically, to remove the ego of the composer. Is that something that you were drawn to? Or, do we contrast that as listeners where we can potentially perceive some of the indeterminate systems that you’re trying to bring to us?

Mike: I think that’s a fair judgment in some sense. But I don’t think it’s fair to talk about indeterminacy as a utility for everyone. For me, it makes sense. For me, it makes sense to remove my ego and to allow myself to not know it's coming, which is amazing. To define a form that's very theoretically underpinned by me intellectually and not know what it's going to do is fantastic. That’s something that not only lets me submit the ego, but also submit the id. It lets me lose all of that, and lets me respond intuitively to pieces I've created. Now, the other part is a little bit trickier. I think having this as a vehicle for excitement is clearly there because that's what I want to do, but I want to think that that excitement is a shared experience with the audience and that they can hear those forms. Frankly, I don't know if I would be intellectually aware of what the structure of those forms are, but I hope that the consequence is something that indicates a different form. Does that make sense? Like, the idea of, “this sounds different; something different is happening here.”

Eddie: Mhmm, yeah.

Mike: That might be something that plays more from me than it does from the actual piece, but I do think there is something there. I do have a want for those structures to be realized as something different, you know? So, I'm very interested in what happens and I’m very interested in the resulting consequences because as a judge I'm going to be the one who defines what this means but I'd be lying to say I didn't want that form to be heard through. Y’know?

Eddie: Yeah.

Mike: I’m probably most familiar with it, but honestly I think that's something that will result from what I'm doing regardless whether I want it to happen or not. I think unsuccessful representations of these problems are going to be boring. [Laughs] I think people are going to be like, “oh yeah, that kind of sucks,” y’know? I think the successful representations are the ones that people are going to be interested in hearing.

Eddie: Gotcha. The reason I ask is because I’m curious to hear [whether we can listen to this the same way as music]. Traditionally speaking, musical form is used to organize thoughts and present them linearly so that you perceive things through repetition. You can have landmarks to understand the development of a musical idea. In a sense, you’re inverting that entire idea. So, my natural curiosity is to hear this. What does it sound like to us? When we're listening to deliberately formal pieces that are toying with non-musical forms that don't adhere to the same limitations - or strengths, in a sense - of musical form.

Mike: Yeah. Frankly, you kind of have to hear it. And then be like, “oh, well, it’s still temporally based…”

Eddie: Well, we don't have a choice but to experience it that way.

Mike: Right. I have issues trying to envision and mentally hear what that’s going to be like. Can you think of things that would approach that? I think of things like long-form, open, timbral pieces where everything is static and it just organically evolves to this place where you stop thinking about time.

Eddie: Yeah.

Mike: That's kind of a away I've been able to subvert it a little bit, but trying to organize it vertically is a good way to do it. But I don't know! It'll be interesting to see the result of a lot of these things and how people think of it because I'm not sure if that's something that will come through.

Eddie: Sure.

Mike: But the formalization of it is absolutely different, so... I don't know. We'll see!

Eddie: We’ll see!

Mike: Or, we’ll hear, I guess. [Laughs]

Eddie: Could you talk a little about where you live and work? With pt.fwd, we’re deliberately trying to shake the bushes in Central Illinois and in areas around us to find out what's happening here, and to find really remarkable works that are in dialogue with other currents in the region and the culture at large. I’m curious about your experience of the environment in Central Illinois and how this is informed your work. Challenges that have come about from living and working here, opportunities, those types of things...

Mike: I'm based in Champaign which has this really interesting balance of a “micro-urban center”—whatever that means, I don't know [laughs]. But it's got this really widespread global reach. It's a college town, and with that comes the benefits of having this intellectual sprawl all across all sorts of places and all sorts of things that are super interesting. Like dealing with quantum mechanics and then dealing with neuroscience, all intersecting in one building. All these awesome, bizarre intersections that you don't think have anything to do with your field. But then you get to talking to people and find the passions will intersect in these interesting, bizarre places. Like, non-linear representations in neuroscience fit in very well with computer algorithms that are non-linear. Like, neural nets fit in very well with this idea of vertical formalization in music and sound. So, you wouldn’t think that a neuroscientist would be hugely beneficial to sonic stuff, but it really is. That's a real, beautiful thing about being here, finding those intersections that are mainly due to the university.

One of the unique challenges here is that even though you have that wide global reach, the geographic nature of the location makes it physically remote and physically isolating. Which is good in some senses, but in a lot of senses it really makes you have to be careful about where you're being exposed, what you're learning, and where it's pushing you. Like, the diversity of representation in a macro—in an actual urban center—you have this spread where you can divine where you want your influences to come from from a physical standpoint, but in Champaign I could just dig right into neuroscience and start being a neuroscientist who is sonifying nonlinear patterns of the brain. That isolation can lead to very narrow paths, so that's something I have to think about very considerately when I'm doing these things and when I'm working here. So it's nice. It has this very vivid, vibrant community that’s reaching all over the world in all sorts of interesting places, so you just have to find those interesting places and be active to find those intersections that'll be productive for your work. That helps me, and works really well for what I'm trying to do. I can look for those non-domain-specific things to push me into metaphor, to push me into addressing these problems that are unconventional in a sonic space.

Eddie: Lastly, the informal theme for our first pt.fwd season is “Start a fire and they will come”. I'm curious if you have a “start a fire and they will come” moment. One where maybe you got inspiration from an unexpected place or anything that's catching your attention recently.

Mike: Let me think for a second...

Eddie: This one always throws people...

Mike: Being in Champaign, It's hard for me to not think about agriculture. I work with a lot of people who do very, very deep, very advanced physical modeling. It’s sort of the opposite of these non-linear, opaque systems where people are, “...ok, I guess that kind of tells us something…?” These physical models are defined so precisely, but the laws of dynamicism within these physical models is hugely inspiring [because of how people make them]. I base a lot of my stuff in opaque machine learning things.

A lot of physicists, a lot of biologists, a lot of ag people look at that and shrug and say, “well, we've already defined everything there is in the physical world, or everything that is physically pertinent to what I want to do. Why would I want to introduce something that doesn't tell me exactly what is happening with the water flows in my field?” [Laughs] It's insane because I sort of approach that and say, “What do you mean?” And they’re able to say, “I'm going to make a physical model of corn phenology. I'm going to tell you exactly how corn grows and exactly how that works. Yes, this is the most complicated thing you can possibly imagine…” Actually isn't but it's one of the [most complicated] things, but they say, “yeah, I'm going to do that.” And then they do!

They make physical models of corn on paper. And it's unreal. Unreal! And they've abandoned nothing to opacity. To think about marrying something like that with the work that I do - which is very reliant on saying, “I don't know...maybe? Maybe this works? I don’t know, we'll see what happens?”—is amazing. That's the kind of stuff that brings me super-excitement because there are people out there who are doing this. If you want to define the problem of how corn grows, then you can do that. You know how corn grows. If you want to figure out how to formally structure sound vertically as opposed to temporally, that problem isn’t defined. Figuring out how to define those problems of non-linearality, spacial representations of temporal aspects for these physical modeling geniuses to work on is something that’s super inspiring to me. These people are out there, they just need the problem defined in a way that they can structure it.

Eddie: Sure.

Mike: That’s amazing to me.

Eddie: I don't remember who said this—I think it might’ve been Sol LeWitt or Philip Glass—somebody said they don't think of art in terms of problems because in art there are no problems.

Mike: [Laughs]

Eddie: You’re making me think of that. In effect, any problems are created by you in order to solve them. Right?

Mike: Yeah, uh-huh. Even thinking about it in terms of “how do you structure a problem that this non-solvable”, right?

Eddie: Yeah, sure.

Mike: That’s what I think about a lot with these physical modeling guys. If they wanted to study acoustics, then they would. And they would do it, and they would say, “this is how you make ‘this sound’”. But what is ‘this sound’? That’s where they need that help. I think that's one of the beauties of art: to fabricate these problems that people don't even know how to approach. If they knew that the problem existed in a way that they can physically approach it, then it wouldn't be interesting.

Eddie: Arguably, it wouldn't even be art, right?

Mike: [Laughs] Well, I guess. That’s a good point. I don't even know. That’s a struggle not even of art, but of humanities as a whole. For the incredible value of humanities, thinking of it like that is a super hard thing to reckon with. Nobody pays for more problems, right? But it’s so important to think about those things. But, I don't know… It's hard. It’s as if we have to think about it in either this hyper-idealist sense, or you have to bring agriculture people or physical modeling people some taste of something and that's where it connects.

You have these people who are making these insane non-linear algorithms that nobody knows how they work, but they do things better than the physical modelers can and that's enough for them to be like, “holy shit, what is THIS? What are you doing here? We have to figure this out!” That sort of shines on the people who can figure it out, or people who aren't thinking about it physically, who aren’t thinking of it as a formalized structure, but are thinking of ways that break it and defining it that way. In a way that's not humanly comprehensible. That’s not profitable. Or, maybe it is profitable [laughs], maybe it is something that makes you money, because if you don’t think of it like that then do you make things that will address these problems better? I don’t know. That’s interesting to think about. I mean, I'm getting paid so who knows.

Eddie: [Laughs]

Mike: I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that more.

This article is part of Sixty Regional, an ongoing initiative by Chicago-based arts publication Sixty Inches From Center which partners with artists, writers, and artist-run spaces throughout the Midwest and Illinois to highlight the artwork being produced across the region. This work is made possible through the support of Illinois Humanities, which is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Illinois General Assembly through the Illinois Arts Council Agency, as well as by contributions from individuals, foundations, and corporations.

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).