Compact disc in wallet – 1 track – 49:00
Artwork & photography by Jon Wozencroft
Release date: 11th November 2016
Presented live in Los Angeles. Source material includes field recordings captured throughout the United States and Canada from 2006–2016 and modular synthesizer recordings, all digitally altered.
Yann Novak is a multidisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles. Ornamentation is Novak’s first physical release on Touch and continues his investigations of presence, stillness and mindfulness through the construction of immersive spaces, both literal and figurative. On Ornamentation Novak resists modernism’s problematic relationship to race, class and labour, and attempts to decouple contemporary minimalist sound work from this historical precedent. The title refers to Adolf Loos’s notorious 1913 manifesto, ‘Ornament and Crime,’ in which the author argues that the desire to adorn architecture, the body, objects, etc., is a primitive impulse, and the proper and moral evolution of Western culture depends in part upon the removal of ornamentation from daily life. Loos devalued the labor traditionally associated with aesthetics and beauty, and equated ornamentation with the degenerate. In this context, one could consider ornamentation as a way of viewing decay. His examples as such (tattoos, fashion, style, painting, et al.) predictably fell along divisions of race and class, coding modernity as the next outward manifestation of white, capitalist patriarchy. Throughout the process of creating Ornamentation, Novak attempts to sidestep some of Loos’s modernist intolerances by focusing on the labor of composition itself, rather than particular processes or structures. Novak began by incorporating specific field recordings from his archive, deliberately selected for their poor quality; awkward interruptions, low fidelity smartphone recordings, problematic frequencies. The selection of these difficult sounds, processed alongside recordings of his modular synthesizer, created a unique set of challenges for Novak where the familiar, reductive approaches would fail to be useful and ultimately abandoned in favor of more dynamic, additive, and laborious process. Unlike minimalism with its roots in modernism, or “sound art” with its conceptual biases, Novak creates a work that acknowledges these conventions, yet stands apart as a meditation on beauty, labour, and aesthetics; Ornamentation as an adornment of time itself.
Headphone Commute (UK):
For his latest release, Ornamentation, the man behind Dragon’s Eye Recordings, lands on another highly regarded UK label, Touch. This is the imprint, of course, that brought us recordings by Fennesz, Simon Scott, Anna von Hausswolff and Lustmord, just to name a few released in 2016! Besides Richard Chartier’s Line label, for which Novak has already released back in 2010, and Fabio Perletta’s Farmacia901, on which an Undefined collaboration with Chartier appeared in 2013, Touch has been a place, in my opinion, that would always suit this Los Angeles-based sound designer. Add the obligatory cover art by Jon Wozencroft, and the mastering ear by the one and only Lawrence English, and you’ve got yourself a very nice little package, archiving a live performance, presented in LA in fall of 2016.
As is expected from this master of drone microsound, the sound on Ornamentation is abstract, its structure absent, the future obsolete, and stillness absolute. Here we find ourselves in the present moment, immersed in tranquility, nominal hum, and crackling transformation. The vibrations of this continuous din fully penetrate your being, enveloping your ears with endless sonic buzz, until they merge with your consciousness and become as one with all of the silence. This is where sound nearly ceases to exist, as your mind pushes its perseverance to the outer edges of awareness, where it melts into the void of daily noise and harmonious drones, like fuzz of the power lines, or the whir of your laptop fan, or the purr of your neighbor’s refrigerator.
Using field recordings from his archive, captured in various settings in the last decade on numerous low fidelity devices, processed through a complicated chain of effects, along with a recording of a modular synthesizer, Novak creates atmospheres that are also pregnant with a conceptual message. On Ornamentation Novak “resists modernism’s problematic relationship to race, class and labor, and attempts to decouple contemporary minimalist sound work from this historical precedent.” The title of the album mirror’s Adolf Loos’ 1913 manifesto, “Ornament and Crime”, in which the author claims that human desire to embellish our environments, personal spaces, and bodies with decorations is a primitive impulse, which we must avoid.
Loos devalued the labor traditionally associated with aesthetics and beauty, and equated ornamentation with the degenerate. In this context, one could consider ornamentation as a way of viewing decay. His examples as such (tattoos, fashion, style, painting, et al.) predictably fell along divisions of race and class, coding modernity as the next outward manifestation of white, capitalist patriarchy.
Attending to some of Loos’ claims, Novak constructs a composition with a focus on the labor thereof, rather than the extracurricular process of adornment and garnish, that would often distract a listener from its inner core. On Ornamentation Novak concedes to the necessary conventions of today’s modern sound art, but focuses solely on the beauty of the labor itself, as the primary aesthetic. This is a beautiful recording on the meditation of sound and time, which will mesmerize as well as challenge one’s senses. Recommended for fans of simplicity, purity, and calm.
Fluid Radio (UK):
1913: Adolf Loos publishes his manifesto ‘Ornament and Crime’, decrying the obvious display of labour through ornamentation as primitive and degenerate, and proposing instead the use of stripped-down, unadorned surfaces in architecture and design.
1967: In his essay ‘Art and Objecthood’ Michael Fried attacks the perceived theatricality and literalness of the emerging minimalist art movement, instead praising art that presents a single, instantaneous, timeless experience to the viewer, arguing that “presentness is grace”.
2016: Yann Novak releases “Ornamentation”, with which he critiques Loos’ aversion to race- and class-related traditions of labour and adornment through a labour-intensive, highly crafted approach to making ambient experimental music using poor-quality or technically challenging field recordings.
Novak’s critique isn’t immediately obvious when listening to “Ornamentation”, mostly because the sounds themselves don’t betray any obvious manifestation of the substantial work and effort that went into creating the music. Processed field recordings are used alongside electronic chords to produce textures that vary from the heavy ephemerality of a cloud of fog rolling down a valley to the mechanical rumbling and clank of a goods train. At times, regular pulses or chord oscillations provide a strong sense of movement, while echoing clatters, clangs, and scrapes serve to situate the sounds in an urban or industrial context. Novak’s skill in balancing broad, immersive sound spectra with dynamic energy and temporal unfolding makes for an intense experience well removed from that of stereotypical ambient wallpaper. Yet the reversal of Loos’ rejection of working-class and racially-diverse traditions of ornamentation is far from clear.
But take a few steps forward through the history of modernist art criticism, from Loos through Afred H. Barr and Clement Greenberg to Michael Fried, and perhaps things start to become a little clearer. By 1967, when Fried was busy defending modern art from the minimalist sculpture of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and others, modernism had moved on from promoting the morally beneficial effects of certain types of surface finish to promoting the morally beneficial effects of a certain subjective experience of art. The kind of experience offered by truly great art, Fried argued, is one akin to a revelation: “a single infinitely brief instant,” he claimed, “would be long enough to see everything, to experience the work in all its depth and fullness, to be forever convinced by it”. This is contrasted with the time required to consider a minimalist sculpture such as Judd’s ‘Untitled 1966’, which can’t be seen all at once, but only from different incomplete perspectives. In Fried’s version of modernism, instantaneity replaces Loos’ “smooth and precious surfaces” as the mark of eternal truth and value.
Novak’s work is not averse to a bit of absorbing presentness and ‘nowness’, in the sense that a piece of his music can be experienced as a single intense moment. Yet what his music resists is the claim that any such moment could offer a complete and fixed manifestation of a given thought or idea. Novak’s music is always unstable, constantly in flux, shifting from one harmonic and textural state to another, “simultaneously approaching and receding” (as Fried wrote disparagingly of theatre); it is contingent and indefinite and durational in ways that make it subtly different every time you hear it, a property that would likely horrify both Fried and Loos.
What the two modernist critics were aiming for, despite their different foci, was an art that is free from the social and historical context of its production and use, transcending the changes wrought by people and their divergent worldly traditions, habits, viewpoints, and relationships. It is this ideal that Novak’s music steadfastly refutes in its embrace of multiplicity and flux. Nowhere is this refutation as clearly and as cogently expressed as on “Ornamentation”, where low-fidelity rumble and hiss connect the music palpably to a constantly changing world, and the oscillating chords, subtle pulses, and irregular incidental noises splinter the apparent unity of the moment into a thousand shards of potential. [Nathan Thomas]
The Wire (UK):
There’s an elaborate thesis behind Yann Novak’s Ornamentation, which is meant to work as a refutation of, or at least rejoinder to, an Adolf Loos essay of 1913. Loos argued that the desire to ornament or decorate (skin, clothes, buildings) was primitive, and to be rejected stringently by true modernists. Novak’s objection is that this boxes off modernism in social terms, producing a very white, very middle class minimalism. None of this debate is legible in the piece itself, a wordless 45 minutes of soft white to pastel noise in a state of slow, persistent churn. Why not vandalise Loos’s whitewashed walls with the working class, non-white culture he found beyond the pale? But the piece does throw up a description of music I’ll remember as the “ornamentation of time”; and on those terms, Novak has designed some subtly effective wallpaper.
On his very first physical release on the Touch label, Yann Novak “continues his investigations of presence, stillness and mindfulness through the construction of immersive spaces, both literal and figurative.”
The title of this 49 minute soundscape refers to a 1913 manifesto of Adolf Loos, arguing that “the proper and moral evolution of Western culture depends in part upon the removal of ornamentation from daily life”, because “the desire to adorn architecture, the body, objects etc. is a primitive impulse.”
Loos equated ornamentation with the degenerate – an interesting viewpoint to ignite a heated conversation in a contemporary tattoo-shop on a saturday afternoon, I guess.
For this composition, Novak carefully selected poor quality field recordings from his archive. “Difficult sounds”, low fidelity smartphone recordings, full of awkward interruptions and problematic frequencies.
This selection forced him to approach the material in an entirely different way: “the familiar, reductive approaches would fail to be useful and ultimately abandoned in favor of more dynamic, additive and laborious processes.”
The result is ‘an adornment of time itself: a meditation on beauty, labor and aesthetics’.