Interview with João Pimenta Gomes, author of Umbigo’s cover of the month
The Gallery of the Portuguese Embassy in Berlin opened on September 16 the new solo exhibition of João Pimenta Gomes, called Clouds. Visual artist, musician, performer, he gives preference to the first designation, stating that all his interest is centred on works exhibited in a different context from his work as a musician and producer. We talked with him about Clouds, about his formation and consequent aesthetic language.
Miguel Pinto – First, I want to ask you about your education. You attended the Sound and Music Production course at Restart. You have done work as a producer and musician, but also as a sound artist and even multimedia in this context. Are there any boundaries between this role of musician/producer and sound artist for you? Or are they part of the same universe, do they feed each other?
João Pimenta Gomes – For me, there’s an obvious distinction and a line that I never cross. As a music producer, I’m a service provider. It’s a working idea. I’m making something. The record belongs to an artist and I’m trying to make the record in the best way to help him. The record is never mine. Sure, I have an aesthetic intention, that’s why I’m chosen to produce the record, but it’s not an artistic object of mine. It’s an artistic object of the artist. It’s a distinction I’ve always made as a producer and a musician. I played for many years in a band with Tiago Bettencourt and the reality was the same. In other words, in the band, the music belongs to Tiago, and I’m happy if I can be a worker. In the plastic arts, I work with things where the central point are my artistic concerns. But they’re always connected to musical issues. They’re never things from the field of painting, photography. They are very music-centric things. But then the centre of the action is me and that principle makes all the difference. However, almost everything comes from my work as a producer and my work as a hired musician. When I am working as a producer, an issue in terms of mixing, miking or a musical problem can trigger a future piece, to be conceived by me less or more consciously, or as a musician playing live in the context of a rock band. The relationship of our body with the musical instrument is very ancestral. Everything comes from there, from that part of the profession that is beyond the fine arts.
MP – I think there is something that combines very well these two realms in your work: the importance you give to rhythm in your compositions. I remember the exhibition you did last year at Appleton Box, called Micro Resonances. What role does rhythm play in your work? Why is it such a central element?
JPG – Everything I do around those rhythmic ideas could be transported to melodic ideas. A melodic idea also has a rhythmic part implied. But I really like to use the idea of the drums. For now, I can work on a very basic issue of the music that I listen to and that interests me: pop music by The Beatles, music that depends a lot on the rhythm of the drums, of the drummer as a bandleader. It’s not like that in every song. But, in this music, it’s the drummer as bandleader that interests me a lot, and the question of tempo being something usually very stable and steady. In these pieces of mine, I stretch that idea of time and elasticity. In what ways are we as listeners perceiving time in that way or are we being induced into another? And that elastic idea of piece interests me a lot. It’s quite present in me. It’s also very important for me to use specific instruments: to be faithful to the drums or the percussive sounds. Actually, I can make drum sounds with anything. I could even make drum sounds from this conversation. But I am quite loyal and that rhythmic part is important because of the elasticity that I can give to a piece, your perception of that piece.
MP – Your exhibition Clouds has a title that, at first sight, seems to point to a more ethereal, more ambient component. How did this rhythmic idea come into play here? Was it a kind of cut or continuity concerning your previous projects?
JPG – I don’t think it’s a cut. It’s just a continuation of ideas. Here, the centre of the exhibition is the videos that I filmed in New York in 2019. I can tell the story briefly: my wife, Carminho, was about to do a tour in the United States. We travelled to New York but had to stay locked in the hotel for seven days. Carminho was pregnant, she had a placental abruption on the trip there, and could only get out of bed to sing. We started to get bored, I’d look at the ceiling and see those fumes that kept appearing. With the little camera I had in my hand, I started to take various shots that went out of place. When you see one and another, you can’t tell if they’re in the same window. Some don’t even let you realize they’re New York. I took that to the studio without any intention whatsoever. And, when I started working the other day, I thought that those clouds could be very abstract scores, not musical scores as we are used to. For example, I’ll give you a score and you can read what music it is, you can play it, if you’re good at reading and playing at the same time. But you can do some modulations on the sheet music; that is, the music is pre-written in the exhibition. It’s all a detailed composition, which I did for quite some time to make it sound slightly random. But the modulations are given by the movements of the cloud. I created a kind of map: if the cloud goes right, it creates a higher voltage; if it goes left, it creates a lower voltage; if it’s a puff, it’s a short voltage; if it’s a long one, then there’s a long smoke… the modular synthesizers that I work with in my exhibitions communicate by voltages. From there, I can get the whole system mined with that score. As far as rhythms go, I don’t think it’s a starting point for anything else. I still use a lot of samples, a lot of drums. The whole piece is marked by drums that appear here and there, although there are more sounds. Unlike what I did in other pieces, I started by thinking about the arrangement of things, the way they come together. And then I made music as it is normally made – based on a harmony, a melody. It’s almost a collage, but not totally, because there are things that don’t fit together musically. You must make adaptations, but it’s still a rhythmic piece. Although there were some ambient parts, the title suggests that. I think it’s more about the way you, as a spectator, are in the room and can move around. There are five speakers and five independent voices, like five band members, and you can approach the bass player, the drummer or the singer whenever you want. And, as you get closer to the bass player, you get further away from the drummer, for example. I was very interested in exploring the idea of space and environment. So Clouds is born more out of how you move in space than how I made the music. And, of course, there’s a direct connection to the videos and a specific module. There are slightly geeky connections that I can go on to say: Clouds is also a term often used in granular, which is a kind of sampling, breaking up a sound into many tiny parts and then distributing them. That cluster, in model systems, is called Clouds. So there were several references to that Clouds and always this idea of space, of relation. For me, the musical issue of the CD and the live show is quite well solved. The question of stereo – you put on some headphones, listen to a CD and we manage to create spaces, distances in the spaces. In the live show, it’s the same thing. You don’t go to a live show to walk behind the speakers and the musicians. You’re seeing something else. And I’ve always thought that this was properly settled. I think it’s necessary to explore more our physical relationship with the speakers, with the instruments, and that’s where part of my work operates in the space. In your relationship with these giant speakers that I put up, with them playing bass while you have an almost equal bodily relationship, because some are almost your size; for example, I create a piece that is half an hour-long, but you can stay for a minute and unlock the piece inside you, wanting to come back or not… when you listen to a CD, you know you’ve already heard that music. You recognize that song when you hear it again, but do you recognize it if I play a very specific sound at a specific time? Do you feel like you’ve fulfilled that cycle or not? It’s in those circular ideas about piece, physical and musical, which emerge when you’re listening to something all over again, that the work emerges. Clouds continues the same idea I had at Appleton. That piece also circulated at some point. So, I think it’s a pretty close extension of that work.
MP – It’s curious what you are saying. You say that this work is not exactly ambient. But your description reminded me of some of Brian Eno’s compositions, in the way he works with time. Even the idea of Clouds, in the context of experimental music and ambient music. I don’t know if you agree with me, but this is almost canon. It’s not a theme directly explored, but it’s implied in the compositions. In the press released, you added a quote from Sun Ra. His work, despite being more jazz, also plays with a notion of cosmology, which seems to me somewhat related to Clouds. You’ve more or less explained that to me…
JPG – I didn’t, but I can, I guess. Obviously, a piece like Music for Airports by Brian Eno works not only on time, on our musical perception, but also on what he was saying about it: your ability to understand a song and it being so good whether you understand it or ignore it. But music always has this temporal and special relationship. But when you’re stuck on a stage, as Sun Ra was, the relationship is totally different. Of course, I’m part of my plays. And, after so much jamming, it’s hard to say I’m not there. But it’s totally different. For example, that happens when I do a performance. I did a performance here in the gallery space. I was not right in the centre, but leaning against a speaker, slightly behind it. This allows me to create a kind of a stage, a sort of a very big division between audience and performer. Nobody ever saw what I was doing, anywhere near me. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s several years of separation. On stage, we don’t move things around. If there’s no stage, I might even mess with the instruments. And I think that’s broken when we leave the stage. For example, in a gallery space or in a more open space where there’s nobody, where we can be alone with the piece. It’s your listener relationship with the instrument. I see each of those installations, those pieces as a musical instrument, just like Hendrix saw his guitar. When I say instrument, I mean the synthesizer that’s there, the video that’s there, and the speaker: the whole thing is an instrument, it’s like it’s just a guitar. A big part of this notion of instrument comes from this relationship I have, which is very important in music, between the musician and his instrument, of learning to play an instrument, of investing hours in playing it, of creating an intimate relationship with it. But you go to see a live show and the space is not given to you. Whether it’s the smallest place in the world, like the one where I played in this gallery, or at NOS Alive. There is a barrier that you can access. And I think that this barrier can be totally removed. And you can see that when there isn’t a performance. People get close to the instruments and I think that when I’m not watching people even touch them. You’re not allowed to touch them, but I think they do and nobody would ever touch the guitar, the amp of a person who’s playing in a live show. Yes, we are working on canons, working on ancestral things in music: tempo, harmony, melody, but we are also working on things that were not possible to do until now due to technical difficulties. Sixty years ago, we didn’t have the possibility of reproducing a half-hour piece. And, here, it’s not a recording. Things happen at that moment. It’s not that that’s more important than anything else. But it is what it is.
MP – In this case, besides the sound that you worked on here, you have also talked about the performance and the image. How was the creative process? How were the ideas articulated?
JPG – My daily work in the studio is very simple. It’s extremely technique-centric. Everyday, I work with synths in my studio, I work with technical issues. It can be something very focused on how the synth works or much more abstract things, like harmonic techniques, scales, tempos, rhythms… For example: why does a beat jungle work this way? How do I make it sound different? If I want to make a classic beat jungle, how do I proceed? How do I add it to a piece of mine? I do this without ever thinking I’m going to make a piece, but I work every day with musical ideas or listen to records. I have a kind of regime about the records I listen to. They all more or less focus on a question that I’m interested in at that moment. As I listen to them, I’m thinking about them and searching. How were these records recorded, what equipment, studios, etc. were used? What musical issues do they present? Do the musicians care about these or not? I had never heard of a specific scale or one of a team. How do I learn that? It’s all geared towards the music. It’s very simple, the way I expect a musician to work. It’s all centred around the exercise, the skill. The skill is the most important thing for me. The poetic or philosophical question of the pieces comes up only afterwards, if it even comes up at all. On a day-to-day basis, I’m not stuck on those things. I’m reading books about music or watching movies. But it’s all directed towards the music. And listening to records is the most important part. I’ve been listening to records since I was ten, three records a day, always. This is the part I’ve been doing since I was a teenager. I listen to a record and write down who the producer is, who the musicians are, where it was recorded, in which studio, who the mixing technician, adaptation and mastering technician is. Then I try to find the microphone used in the recording and how the record was done. When I was a teenager, I would sorts records by producers, not bands, and start cross-referencing. “Ah, so Rick Rubin, when he produced Tom Petty’s record, had these musicians, and when he recorded Johnny Cash’s record, he also called Tom Petty’s musicians. It’s the same technician and it was recorded in the same studio”. These things always intrigued me, why that happened, what he saw in those musicians. I never had any answers, because I never talked to him in my life, it’s not even important. What is important are the reasons why a person makes those choices. And of course they are always more natural circumstances, but there is this fantasy around why: Why this scale? Why this rhythm? Why this brand of drums and not another? These are the things that I work on every day. That’s my creative process around ideas.
MP – It is the interest in sound. What is there beyond sound? And, in that sense, the performance that you did was also geared towards sound, not so much in the usual dynamic of performance, geared towards the body, but more in a sort of show, isn’t it?
JPG – Yes, it’s a piece that I’ve been working on for a while, it was months ago. I was studying a Harry Partch scale and I had a whole scale recorded with a piano that sounded a bit sketchy. Then I asked o Carminho to sing all the notes with different articulations. She managed heroically to sing, because the notes are all very close, and divided that. I got the instrument of Carminho’s voice in different one-shots to make a new piece. I’ve been working for a long time on that piece. The basic techniques of melody, harmony and rhythm. The performance was part of that piece, with new voices that I’ve been recording and a mixture of the two things. In that sense, it was a concert. I would play the piece and at the end I would get up, put the synth on the floor, activate Clouds, the installation, remove the cables that were connected to the speakers of the synth I had just played, leave and the piece would be activated. It’s kind of a confrontation between a stage issue. As soon as I leave, as soon as I remove the cables from my synthesizer that were connected directly to the speakers of the installation, people start watching and the stage collapses. There is no longer a performance, it’s just an installation, a piece that people can see, that they like, they take photographs of, they move away. It was interesting to see how these two realities are so close – the performance, the relationship with instruments and the assembled piece. The way they fit together, come together, or when they are separated.
MP – Another dynamic that seems relevant to me in your work is your quest for a kind of organicity. Not only in the way you play with this concrete music that inhabits space, time and its very physical relationship with people, but also in the case of other works of yours, where you use natural feedback connected to plants, for example. Is music a kind of attempt to understand what surrounds you?
JPG – My world is quite small, as you know. I live to make music, to think about music every day. I live with an amazing musician, a person who inspires me every day to have that attitude. My life is very much centred on that. The pieces derive largely from my personal interests. In the world, I don’t look for things for my work. My work is exceptionally focused on my records and the musicians that I’m interested in at a certain moment, the synthesizers I’m studying, a drum set I’ve discovered, a phrase that Sun Ra said. But I don’t find these things. They are inside this world in which I walk every day. What comes from outside or inside has no influence. In that sense, the plant was easy, because it was my studio’s plant, for instance. When I wrote Micro Resonances for Appleton, I composed that piece rhythmically. It’s all programmed, written. I could write its score, everything would fit together. But, at the same time, when I was in the studio creating the modeling and I was fiddling with my hands on the synthesizer, to know when to step back and get out of the piece, I came up with this mechanism of adding the plant, functioning as a living thing. Just like anything organic would work. The plant created modulations that I could create with my hands. I think it has to do with the records I listen to, the interviews of musicians I read.
MP – Is it a process of discovery, trying to understand what works?
JPG – Yes, I believe very much in the experimental process of things. I am not interested at all in discovering something that I already know. I already know how to make sounds, songs. If I want to make a song that fits just right, that you can hear and recognize, I know how to do it. But those things are not interesting to me at all. What’s interesting is what I can’t do, what I don’t know how to do and mix. What if I mix a Black Sabbath beat with something else, with a much faster or much slower rhythmic notion? We always come back to the same thing, it never goes anywhere. I’m never reading Deleuze or Foucault looking for things for my work. If someone makes those relationships, no problem. But, in my work, I’m not reading those things. I’m reading a book right now about Anthony Braxton, about how he makes his music. I’m never looking for things in the world outside. I walk in this world, in this idea of music and records and synthesizers.
Clouds is at the Gallery of the Portuguese Embassy in Berlin until October 29.