It's the quiet ones you have to keep your eyes and ears on. This axiom applies to sound designer/visual artist Yann Novak, one of Seattle's foremost microsound producers.
Novak has just released his debut album, Fade Dis/Appearances. A commissioned score to a Crispin Spaeth Dance Group performance, Fade vividly animates infinitesimal electronic and organic sound granules. You'll wonder how dancers moved to these microbial soundscapes, save for "OCD Variations"'s intricate drum 'n' bass rhythms amid hospital-equipment ambience.
Before he began applying Mies van der Rohe's minimalist principles to audio production, Novak raved and DJed trance/breaks in his Madison, Wisconsin hometown. After a brief, disastrous time in Phoenix in 1997, he returned to Madison to get his mind together after a dalliance with drugs. Shortly thereafter, Novak had several epiphanies and started making his own music.
"Life was pretty rough then," Novak recalls, "and I was kind of lost. Then I saw the Terre Thaemlitz video for 'Silent Passability' and his interview in the [film] Modulations when he talks about ambient music being about 'tripping out,' and how he adds disruptions to his music to snap the listener back into their environment. Right there, something clicked. I suddenly started diving into all these other more intellectual places."
Novak views his visual and audio work as essentially complementary. "I was doing a lot of collage when I was DJing," he says. "Then I did a series of paintings about repetition. Strangely enough, when I moved to Toshiro Kaplan Building, I stopped painting altogether to pursue music full-time. I don't want to stop doing visual work, but I think it's going to take a twist toward sound installation."
Novak's also recently released a CD of field recordings accompanying local zine Ong Ong's inaugural issue. Besides birdsong, airplane-engine drones, and splashing water, the disc bears something that sounds like a black hole sucking matter into its maw.
"I am looking for a venue to do an installation involving the Ong Ong field recordings, but a different aspect of them. I find it interesting that whenever I listen to them, I can hardly pay attention; our brains are so accustomed to tuning those noises out. I want to make installation work that takes that idea a step further, where [one] will be forced to actively listen to even hear the work. The visual work I do in the future will be about sound in relation to space."
A minimalist to the core, Novak asserts, "The power of simplicity has always had a great impact on me, from buying the [Plastikman's Sheet One], to seeing Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames in high-school math class. The idea that something can have just as much impact when stripped down to its simplest gesture, as when it's exploding with meaning—that is perfect to me, like good design." DAVE SEGAL