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Meet the artist - Roxanne Nesbitt


Meet the artist - Roxanne Nesbitt

Roxanne Nesbitt

MEET THE ARTIST is a series of short interviews given by GlogauAIRs resident artists. The aim is to provide the public with the opportunity of getting to know the artist behind the art as well as to get a glimpse of the creation process that can rarely be seen.

This time we are presenting Roxanne Nesbitt. Her work is inspired by the subtlety and specificity of timbre, attempting to balance blunt and obvious cues to listen, with ambiguous and ineffable shifts. The investigations are deliberately acoustic, tactile and tangible, focused on exploring the sonic potentials of both materials and detailing.

You are both a musician and trained as an architect. Your artistic work is very much based on
the intersection of these two apparently very different fields. When and how did you first
become aware of the possibility of overlapping them?

I started to think about space and its relationship to sound during my music undergrad. I remember
starting to listen for the way my voice changed in different rooms. I studied in this massive concrete
building. It was visually heavy and oppressive but allowed the body to be heard in interesting ways. I
have some really naïve early drawings of instruments that are a whole room. This came out of a
intensive study that I did of the design of traditional string instruments and starting to think about
how it would feel to be inside a string instrument. I got to test some ideas about large scale spatial
instruments at the Banf centre during a residency in 2009. I suspend a viola in this reverberate
stairwell in a way that facilitated playing both the instrument and the surrounding enclosure. That's
where the idea of studying architecture started to germinate for me.

At GlogauAIR you have been focusing on creating instruments for the pedestrian body. Can
you brief describe the project?

I have been working on a series of tuned concrete tiles that make up an installation called
Augmented 5th. They are supported similarly to traditional idiophone instruments ie. Xylophone,
marimba and resonate when stepped on. You experience a huge range of sound and vibration based
on the gesture of your step, where it's placed on the tile and what kind of shoe you are wearing. I'm
really interested in those subtle changes and the idea that your sonic impact on a space could be so
different based on these factors. I started developing the tuned tile design during my architecture
thesis. I was exploring strategies the body could create and experience sound in public space, and
ways that spaces to be designed to encourage listening.

What is your usual creative and working process?

I have different processes for different types of work. I also write a lot of music and make videos,
the processes are all constantly evolving. For the project at glogauAIR, I started with drawing, trying
to anticipate and solve as many problems as possible. I then looked for materials and did some
testing at full scale with recording. I focused on the sound for a while at this point writing phrases of
notes for specific paths on the tiles. I used the phrases to construct a platform and then a full-scale
mock-up of the Installation.

Sight is probably the most dominant of our five senses in our time. However, when we talk
about sound the word soundscape is often used. This concept implies the possibility of
mapping a space by only recurring to the existing sounds in that same place. How visual do
you think sound can be? Or does sound give us a whole different way of perceiving the

For me, sound is so powerful because it takes us beyond the eye. It bleeds and surrounds in a way
that sight can't. Our other senses can be more powerful in many ways because they aren't targeted
as aggressively by marketing and spectacle. I rarely remember the images I see in the u-bahn
stations but if I hear or smell something different, it stays with me.

Every space has its own soundscape, like a sonorous identity. They have been naturally
changing depending on historical periods. How would you describe our time’s soundscape?
And how would you describe Berlin’s soundscape?

Soundscapes are really different from place to place. There is also a sameness between the
ones I've experienced. The similarities are in some ways as interesting as the differences.
The cars in Berlin are really similar to the ones driven in Canada so in many ways the traft
sounds the same, unless the cars are driving on cobble stone and then it sounds totally
different. I wonder about how globalization effects the soundscape, with the availability of
similar products and music globally -do we lose a bit of our sonic identity?
I'm staying in a apartment with a courtyard right now, so I have this beautiful moment every
time I enter the building where I totally leave the street behind and experience this quiet
that is hard to find in Canadian urban environments. Because I don't know much German,
the hum of people talking transforms from language to sound field. It's so different from
building to building and neighborhood to neighborhood, I don't know if I can summarize
Berlin, I can only say what I heard here.

As it has been mentioned before, you are a trained orchestral musician. This means that you
used to work with music, which one can say that are sounds produced by a regular
instrument, ordered in a very specific, classical manner. However, you are working with
sounds which you cannot really fully control. Do you tend to order them or you just accept
their roughness and randomness? How do you manage these two very different

I like surprises and I like mistakes, so in general I embrace the chaos. I use a organized logic to design
my work, like ordering the tiles in my Augmented 5th installation based on musical phrases. In the
piece itself so little of that logic comes through. That's interesting to me, that there might be a 10%
chance that anyone hears what I wrote into the piece. Other interesting things happened as well,
like once I was working with dancers the tiles started to break. They never broke when I had been
testing them on my own. For me it added an extra level of excitement, it wasn't a failure, just a
different outcome. I was happy to let go of the rigidity of the classical practice. I appreciate amount
of concentration and discipline that goes into traditional music but that's not what I have to offer to
the world. Most of the classical music that is performed today is historical. There is a place for that.
I'm more interested in new music and new instruments for a current context. It's important for me
to question why you play a specific instrument or piece of music and not just do something because
that's the standard for someone somewhere else. Music as an industry and practice is still saturated
in misogyny. I'm interested in making new instruments as an exploration of timbre and ways of
generating sound but I'm also interested in breaking from this really male dominated practice, and
making something divorced from that tradition.

Probably your background in architecture made you particularly conscious about all the
different peculiarities and details necessary to dealing with different materials. You have
been designing and creating your own instruments. We can see some of them in your
performative installations Tuned Concrete Tiles (2017) , Mutual Instruments for Movement and Sound (2016-ongoing) and in Self and Self-Portraits (2013). At the same time it seems that you have been distancing yourself from what can be traditionally called ‘instruments’, which were still strongly present in your first works Score Sketch B (2009) , Distaf Sketch B(2010) and Solo viola and the behave well (2009). How would you interpret this shift in your artistic practice?

The new works are from after and during my study of architecture. Before I studied architecture, I
was modifying instruments, adding strings to them, changing them slightly. After I studied
architecture I had more skills to make and draw other ways to create sound. I also did a directed
study about acoustics and sound art in 2013 that really opened-up my idea of what an instrument
could be because I understood how sound worked on a much deeper level.

You have been a resident artist at GlogauAIR for three months. In which way do you
consider that Berlin has influenced or contributed to your work?

The different materials that I was able to find here definitely influenced what I made. For example, I
used aerated concrete tiles in my installation which are not readily available in Canada. The lifestyle
is different than Vancouver. It seems that more artists are working full-time on there craft, so if you
want to collaborate with someone, everything can come together quickly. I also met so many people
who are making instruments here, it feels for me that the practice is really alive and well here, which
is inspiring, for me.

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