Soundpapered Interview \\ The art of watching live music

New York based artist Rachel D. Abrams encourages gig-goers to swap phones for sketch books with her movement, Soundpapered. She talks to Nina Fine about the art of audience participation and how she made an impression on Robert Glasper.

Enjoying live music can be euphoric, but can often come as part of a formulaic order of events; make way to the venue, watch the artist(s) play, and immerse yourself in sound. This experience, however, is not a lone one. Instead it’s intertwined with loud talking, drinks clinking and and phones obstructing our sight as the audience members in front of us watch their idols through a lens. When it comes to consuming live music, have we lost our way?

Thundercat soundpapered jazz standard

Thundercat (Motorco, 2016) \\ © Soundpapered

Soundpapered, founded by Rachel D. Abrams, translates music into image; musicians into sketches, moments into detailed memory. It was born “somewhat by accident” at the first Art of Cool festival in 2014. As a simple drawing exercise, Rachel decided to draw Mark deClive Lowe with a giant grey marker pen. For the map-artist turned sketcher, live shows have never quite been the same since.

Swapping the phone for the pen to capture live music, Rachel explains how Soundpapered makes the listener even more present; “Soundpapered is an active expression of the relationship between audience and performer, stage and crowd, player and listener, to acknowledge that we have agency, and there’s an exchange, and if we’re lucky, a rapport, chemistry.” While the mobile phone detaches the listener – swapping eye contact for screen – sketching continues to rely on eye contact, but takes involvement that step further. As she continues, “Drawing these musicians also asserts that the audience too has agency, a stake in what’s happening on stage. To ‘capture’ a performance is to recognise that the experience is both visual and temporal, and done right, it’s fully immersive.”

“I’ve learned trumpeters’ hand positions, how vocalists block the stage, how drummers and bassists gesture to each other.”

A mobile phone is passive. It demands little of the individual beyond holding an object at an angle, and usually one that’s unsatisfactory. But sketching demands heightened awareness of space and time. The gaze is important; it informs how we receive the music visually, emotionally and conceptually. Soundpapered moves towards active listening experiences. The idea is to watch with intention as opposed to merely receive information passively. It’s this realisation which led to the conception of Soundpapered: “Before the project began, I’d already started to feel like being in the audience – an observer of one sick talent after another – was too passive, that merely listening almost wasn’t deep enough. That sounds like I was bored…it wasn’t that at all.” Rachel’s statement is not about stimulation, but of connection. It’s not about just turning up to a gig in order to claim that you were there; Soundpapered asserts that it’s about contributing to your own experience.

terrace martin soundpapered jazz standard

Terrace Martin \\ © Soundpapered

Our conversation recurs to a need to be present, to connect, and in Rachel’s case, connection comes from activity in the present reality. She tells me, “The winter before that first Soundpapered sketch, I’d been deep in a client project that was all about virtual reality, technology that promote the kinds of experiences that ‘promised’ to disembody us, to make geography uncoercive if you will”. She adds, “after all that speculating on jetpack futures, I had this thirst for analog – I wanted off-screen experiences, to create with my hands, in ink, and be around others using instruments as extensions – not negations – of their physical selves.”

Amber Strother, King soundpapered jazz standard

Amber Strother of King (the Hayti, April 2014) \\ © Soundpapered

Rachel ponders about people-watching amongst members of the audience: “The gaze of the audience is about many things. I often watch people nap through seated shows, like they’ve come to meditate, and others – usually young beardy lads – lose their minds because the men on stage make it safe to do so.” Through her sketches, there is a heightened sensitivity to the relationship between the musicians playing, the physical presence of the audience, and then the spiritual atmosphere at work on all participants. With this dynamic, it’s even more intriguing to consider that sketching has, as Rachel explains, the ability to unlock the interaction and even expose these forces at work in ways the general eyesight cannot, as the intention is not specific: “I concentrate a lot harder on the details of a performer’s playing than the average person in the audience”, who she explains are “filling up their phones with footage they’ll never watch again”. She adds, “I’ve learned trumpeters’ hand positions, how vocalists block the stage, how drummers and bassists gesture to each other. It’s nothing but precise – structured and improvisatory – like the music.”

jose james soundpapered jazz standard

Jose James (Le Poisson Rouge, January 2015) \\ © Soundpapered

It’s in the name. Soundpapered; sound translated to paper. It’s fair to say, Rachel has taken on a huge task. From Kandinsky to Plato, we are familiar with our human need to translate experiences into more tangible, arguably more familiar forms. In fact, we do it all the time, when we describe our experience of a gig, we tell the story – the lighting, the sound, the solo, the style. Like excitable children, we love translating (story-telling) in order to relive moments and to include others in them. There are other elements involved however. By translating a gig onto paper, the music is reformed but also silenced. If you look at the sketches without context of the music playing, you’re simply left with a visual projection from the viewer’s perception. Rachel explains, “Some sketches too feel disconnected from their context because, like graphic novels, they’re silent about the action they depict. I’ve attended to that lately by animating sketches.”

“I woke the next morning to find that Thundercat, Amel Larrieux and others had responded to [my sketches] and retweeted them”.

By only drawing live and without an eraser, Soundpapered translates present moments. Rachel notes that it does fall into making a record of “you-had-to-be-there” moments, but then, is that a bad thing? Another side to the sketches is the space; “I realised this whole drawing thing was really just a mapping exercise too; more soulful, more subjective, and a map with no edges.” Describing the sketches with no edges highlights the honesty of the process. it’s not a clinical report image to convey exact precision. It conveys the expression of an experience in as true a way as possible, embracing the isolated viewpoint.

kenyon harrold soundpapered jazz standard

Keyon Harrold (The Jazz Standard, Feb 2016) \\ © Soundpapered

Off paper, we are living in a material age – of wanting to belong and to seek experiences. In this context, we yearn too for history and a mapping of ourselves and of our personal narrative. We often seek satisfaction by uploading images or ‘checking-in’ on Facebook. Rachel explains that Soundpapered moves past this to an extent, for there is “something levelling about these sketchbooks – newcomers are side by side with the heavyweights, women backing singers alongside the most famous titans, and, for the duration of a set, they all become life models, wilful and unpredictable noisemakers as we want them to be, but dependable, repetitious in their gestures.” In what she describes as a “balance” of importance between the act of drawing and the subject, what is key is a sense of captured history and in this, everyone is on the same level.

There is an exchange, as Rachel puts it: “a back and forth.” It’s not just the audience who access these drawings, but the artists do too, experientially and post event. So how do the artists feel about it? Rachel shared some of the sketches on Twitter “for a laugh” following encouragement from friends; “I woke the next morning to find that Thundercat, Amel Larrieux and others had responded to and retweeted them. All it took was a little flutter of internet attention, a little ripple from the network.” Rachel’s support from artists carries over into the offline world where the sketches were born. I ask her for some favourite moments: “I’ve loved drawing trumpeter Keyon Harrold. It was a running joke with him for a while that I just flatly could not get him right. He started egging me on on Instagram until eventually I did him proud.’” She adds, “my drawing of Bilal is a stick figure, bent back on his mic like a reed, a gesture sketch, done in 30 seconds. Robert Glasper burst out laughing at that one; ‘That’s exactly what Bilal looks like.’”

Bilal soundpapered jazz standard

Bilal (sketchbooks, from The Hayti, 2014) © Soundpapered

Live music is an incubated space of pleasure, newness and people. You can feel both wholly connected to a crowd and at the same time entirely alone with the artist(s). But, we are still in a  culture that uses phones to capture moments which we are unlikely to view again. We bare an insatiable pressure to post about where we have been and who we have seen. Soundpapered is a positive example for us as to how to step away from our phones and a leap into real music appreciation, without distraction or second agenda.

See more images and find out more about Soundpapered

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JS | Nina Fine

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