Los Angeles-based sound artist Yann Novak has been busy, having released both this recent performance recording on Touch as well as a two-hour album last year on his own Dragon’s Eye imprint, Idleness, Endlessness. For those unfamiliar, Novak’s repertoire focuses largely around highly minimal drones and field recordings, often supplemented by light-based visuals. Ornamentation is a live capture of one of Novak’s performances, and it falls right in line with other works in his œuvre. Like some of Novak’s other work, Ornamentation is perhaps best understood by means of its conceptual underpinnings. Rather than rewrite the press release, here is what Touch has to say about it:
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.
I find this interesting in the sense that Novak eschews ornamentation in any traditional way, but he also is creating music whose utility isornamental by nature, albeit one that largely has no shape or definition in any conventional sense. There is none of the elaborate intricacy found in the works of Louise Nevelson, nor the highly detailed filigrees of rococo, as two more sculptural examples that come to mind, but perhaps I’m merely bringing my own baggage to the table in what “ornamentation” means.
It’s that paradox that makes Ornamentation perhaps most compelling; it’s simultaneously hinging on its own elaborate, laborious nature of construction and execution, and yet the finished product’s ornamental nature is diffuse, minimal, additive but reserved. It’s simultaneously concerned with a highly labor intensive methodology in execution, and yet largely free of obvious decorative gestures or adornments; all an applied means to a decorative, arguably ornamental end without any of the formal results that one might associate as such. So while his methods and approach may fundamentally have deviated from what would be more personally familiar, Novak’s end result does not feel so removed from his greater body of work. Those familiar with a past release like his Line album Relocation.Reconstruction may not be surprised by Ornamentation, for example. But while they may not be surprised, they will no doubt be moved by its sublime beauty and gliding elegance. Ultimately, Loos be damned, Novak has crafted another sublime field of drones that I highly recommend.
— Matt Mercer, Ear Influxion
Yann Novak‘s inquiry into ‘presence, stillness and mindfulness’ via ‘the construction of immersive spaces, both literal and figurative’ resumes on Ornamentation (Touch). There’s a conceptual riot goin’ on as he ‘resists modernism’s problematic relationship to race, class and labor,’ to ‘decouple contemporary minimalist sound work from this historical precedent.’ Say it ain’t so, Adolf. That’s Adolf Loos of Ornament and Crime, 1908 manifesto depicting the desire for ornamentation—of architecture, body, objects—as a primitive impulse, with proper evolution of Western culture reliant on its removal from daily life. Uptight Herr Loos equated it with the degenerate, though his examples—tattoos, fashion, style, painting—‘predictably fell along divisions of race and class, coding modernity as the next outward manifestation of white, capitalist patriarchy’. Nuff critical theory—howzit sound? Faulty field recordings with clunky disrupts, lo-fi ‘phone grabs, flakey frequencies—difficult sounds forcing forsaking of familiar reductions for more dynamic increments; minimalism, modernist warts and all, ‘sound art’ with its conceptual slant, are nodded to, but at a remove from their conventions as ‘a meditation on beauty, labor, and aesthetics.’ Drone deal.
— Alan Lockett, Igloo Magazine
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’.
Is this an ‘ornamented’ drone? Or are the original recordings stripped of their inherent ornamentations?
It’s impossible to say. One wonders what Adolf Loos would have to say about a recording like this.
— Peter van Cooten, AmbientBlog
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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, Fluid Radio
It arrives in between two other great recent Touch releases: Yann Novak’s Ornamentation and Claire M. Singer’s organ-heavy Solas… Novak’s release boasts a cover that reminds me of Last Year At Marienbad and boasts the sort of displaced soundscapes that I’ve always felt a silent version of that film would benefit from.
— Benjamin Bland, Drowned in Sound, Articulate Silences Ambient Sounds 30 – End of 2016 Edition
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.
— Sam Davies, The Wire
Interesting stuff from Yann Novak here, with a record that is intended as a specific response to the modernist theoretical writings of Adolf Loos. Ornamentation is about rejecting the exclusive elitism of Loos by using supposedly ‘low quality’ elements like field recordings taken from his phone. He mixes such things with his modular synth-work for a simmering abstract meditation on labour.
— Norman Records