Being There: A Conversation with Nat Slaughter and Daniel Clay

You’re at a football game. People are cheering. The music blares out like announcements. The crowd is a fluid body writhing through the masses, and it carries you. Now, you’re at the foot of the beeping mass, and it is a machine that belches recycled sounds: an arcade. A bus stops in front of you with a series of screeches and sighs as a far off drip drop grows closer.

You’re not really at any of these places. Instead, you’re at the Eyedrum watching Nat Slaughter and Daniel Clay as they work over a laptop, feeding these sounds into the room. It is dark. Everyone is quiet, attentive.

Nat Slaughter (left) and Daniel Clay (right)

First used by researchers and ethnomusicologists to capture everything from birdsongs to dying languages, the idea of field recordings was later made into an art form with the rise of artists like John Cage and Pierre Shaeffer. These artists noticed that the most mundane sounds became interesting when you paid attention to them. As musicians like Matmos, Richard Devine, and even Bright Eyes are making use of field recordings in their music, the boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred. Even the act of sampling is a way of borrowing from a field of music that exists like cultural artifacts, modern birdsongs in a way.

So Daniel Clay and Nat Slaughter are participants in a long tradition, but also in a new one they are creating. Their performances are immediate and improvisational. For this particular evening, they have chosen to play only sounds recorded that same day. As it turns out, they often set parameters for themselves to work in. Other examples would be taking recordings from the same place, but at different times, or recording different spaces at the same time. “I’m really interested in blurring, the kind of gray fields that occur when you subtly tweak a parameter,” Nat says. But sometimes the space itself is a parameter.

About a week later, I saw them perform again at the 11:11 Teahouse. It’s a smaller venue and the audience wasn’t paying as close attention. They were socializing, looking at the artwork on the walls, sampling the wine. At the Eyedrum, they were the clear performers; here Nat and Daniel were more like participants in a party, adding textures to the room. Some of these textures were recordings of people talking at a party, further blurring that boundary between performer and audience, a cannibalistic feedback loop. “I’m pretty sure we were influencing how loud people were talking,” Daniel tells me later.

“It’s a continuum. There’s always some level of attention that people are giving you, even if it’s not conscious ... I don’t necessarily have a preference for any one part of that spectrum,” Daniel says. “I like to get up and walk around when we’re [performing]. At one point I saw someone I hadn’t seen in a long time and he said ‘I heard you’re playing tonight’ and I said ‘Yeah, I’m playing right now’ and he said ‘Really?’ and I said ‘Yeah, you hear that?’,” He points up. “I love that!”

Mapping of recordings (the circles) within a specified spatial envelope (the photograph). The recordings were used for a performance which occurred inside an abandoned barn.

In the movie I’m Not There, about Bob Dylan, Dylan is literally “not there”. Instead, he’s played by people who weren’t there, by Cate Blanchett and Marcus Carl Franklin, an 11 year old black boy, among others. The goal is obviously not verisimilitude. What I realized, as I watched these series of substitutions, is increasingly that I wasn’t there. That void on the audience’s part is what makes film possible. Not just film, but any art form in which the space is being called up imaginary and filled into my mind. If I were there, it wouldn’t have to be conjured as light and sound, and my identity as observer, watcher, critic becomes too close for comfort, dissipates: I wasn’t at the football game. Nor was I at the arcade.

I’m thinking about this as Nat and Daniel are talking to me. We’re at a cafe, and Daniel is sporting his field recording equipment which consists of a minidisc recorder and a pair of binaural microphones, which fit neatly in each ear to simulate a stereo recording. Nat is telling me about auto-amputation, a concept that Marshall McLuhan used to describe the way we use technologies to extend our bodies. “The car is an auto-amputation of our foot,” he explains. “Instead of walking we separate that part of our body and that action by pressing on a gas pedal. [McLuhan also says] our media is getting more abstract.” I look over at Daniel, who is listening attentively with microphones in his ears.

Nat continues. “This company in India makes a machine that will shut down all cellphones within a certain envelope. There’s this emerging technology, a kind of guerilla approach, of shutting off media. What would performance be like as a negative quality, where you extracted things instead of introducing them?”

Perhaps this negative quality is what makes field recordings effective, and even possible. The ability to be transported into a different space comes from our imaginations trying to fill in a negative space, when the myriad associations we’ve formed connect with the familiar sounds we’ve grown accustomed to not hearing. It becomes more real than being there.

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Daniel Clay and Nat Slaughter are both part of a loose collective called Public And Private, along with pianist/composer Brian Parks. Daniel Clay is a musician whose first record is “The Protestant”. He lives in Athens but will soon move back to Atlanta. Nat Slaughter is a designer living in Atlanta. He is also involved in various projects including 21 Cities At Once Performed. Visit Daniel and Nat’s myspace page.

Read the web-only transcript of this conversation!