Recounting the making of his famed “Erased de Kooning,” Robert Rauschenberg marveled at the generosity of Willem de Kooning, that titan of Abstract Expressionism, who declared “I want it to be something I’ll miss. And I want to give you something really difficult to erase.” The drawing to be erased was no mere sketch blithely scribbled in a few stray moments, but a work-in-progress mounted on an easel.
“He gave me something that had charcoal, oil paint, pencil, crayon,” recalled Rauschenberg. “I spent a month erasing that little drawing.” The traces, lines, and other visible leavings left by Rauschenberg made “Erased de Kooning” into something new.
Makers of traditionally notated music begin with a note, melody, or chord inked on a page or sounded from an instrument. A new piece unfolds from a single, usually small entity into something larger. A few composers, notably Franz Liszt, happily chiseled transcriptions and paraphrases from larger existing works (Beethoven symphonies, operas by Verdi and Wagner), however the results retain a co- authorship—and an easily discernible presence of being derived from something somewhere else.
In the early 20th century, recorded sound became pliable, susceptible to shaping, filtering, and other forms of erasure. Composers and sound artists could determine how much sound they wanted to embrace and encompass, from honing tiny note-sized snippets to chipping away on longer, grander objects. Recordable vinyl, magnetic tape, and now digital audio allow an unprecedented inversion of the sonic image: Tiny specks can molt into grand, elongated entities; such weighty, elephantine pieces may then be re-condensed into fleeting particles of sound.
Made in our noisy world, field recordings offer a rich starting point for transformation and erasure. Away from the confines of a well-built studio or remote, hard-to-find quiet of the wilderness, the rest of the world drones with traffic and centralized heating, electrical hum, and gentle room resonance. Stray sounds—a distant cough, a bird, a human breath—continually perforate our sense of quiet.
Field recordings are central to Novak’s work. “When I started creating my own compositions with a synthesizer,” Novak recalled, “it felt like every sound was available to me—and I couldn’t justify using any of them! Just because it sounded new or interesting wasn’t enough for me.” Instead, Novak began making field recordings, which offered him “a predisposed emotional connection to sound.”
Software makes subjecting the sonic richness of a field recording to digital processing seem easy, but Novak contends that erasure requires a careful balance. “Although my goal is to transform the field recording, I still want the tone and pace of the field recording to come through.” He characterizes the process as “like a duet where I have a lot of control but so does the field recording.” He describes a situation where a field recording “can throw a certain frequency at me that will light up the tools I’m using, create a horrible peak, and I’ll have to go back and adjust what I’m doing.” With good humor, he mentions that he likes “having my source material have its own life and its own opinion of what I’m doing.”
Novak is a master of the long fade-in, planning gradual increases in volume to create a kind of aural twilight. Novak explains that he carefully calibrates fade-ins to “cleanse the listener’s palate” so “listeners wonder what sounds around them are part of the composition.”
Memory remains and recollects amid transformation: Rather than present recordings of discernible places and events, Novak wants you to listen somewhere else. “I always want to be true to that location, that certain time, and the feeling of making that recording,” he states. Like those who make nature recordings, Novak treasures “finally being able to sit still and just listen.” Yet “by abstracting the recording,” he adds, “I can make an experience that conveys what I felt in that location.” And help us listen and remember anew.