Whitney Johnson (Clearfield, Pennsylvania) is an artist who interprets the unknown with sound. She composes, improvises, and collaborates with the viola, as well as sine waves, tuning forks, electronics, organ, and vocalization. Her techniques reproduce meaning through a range of historical material processes, including reel-to-reel tape looping, cassette tape sampling, and field recording. Her latest release Sonescent (2022, Drag City) recreates the experience of 10 days of silent Vipassana meditation in Joshua Tree, CA where she heard “the last minutes in the life of music.” Three recent works have engaged with skepticism and belief in the effects of sound on the body.
Huizkol (premiered at Lampo), The Tuning of the Elements (curated by the Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago), and Fundamental 256 Hz (commissioned by Longform Editions), each considered the possibility of brainwave entrainment, an alternative healing technique that uses binaural beats to induce a relaxed or energized mental state. In the Matchess Trilogy (2013-2018, Trouble in Mind Records), she used the limited palette of a 1960s Ace Tone Top-5 combo organ, an analog Rhythm Ace drum machine, viola, and voice to craft transient sound collages on beds of droning ambient noise. In tandem with her sound practice, she received her doctorate in the sociology of sound from the University of Chicago in 2018, writing a dissertation on the cultural value of embodied sensory perception, particularly in the discipline of sound art. She is currently an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Sound and Liberal Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a postdoctoral researcher on sound and technology in the Centre for Gender Research at Uppsala University in Sweden.
Matchess is playing her Berlin premiere at our Kiezsalon, alongside Alison Cotton and Ichiko Aoba at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Wednesday, 7.9.2022.
1. What I know tomorrow will be different from what I know today in ways I can’t predict.
2. Much of what I knew in the past has turned out to be different from what I know today in ways I couldn’t have predicted.
3. If knowledge is power, then I prefer to exist in the unknown.
1. What is the biggest inspiration for your music?
Is it circular to say, “making music”? Nothing inspires me to make new music more than the practice of making music. Sometimes it comes like a flash BAM as soon as I sit down, and sometimes it appears out of the haze of days.
2. How and when did you get into making music?
At age 6, I moved from the Allegheny mountains of Pennsylvania to the steel mills of Indiana. When I came back for a visit, I remember my friend asked, “Are you still making up songs?”
3. What are 5 of your favourite albums of all time?
Liftoff in an airplane: Eliane Radigue’s Feedback Works
Standing in the kitchen at twilight: ABBA’s Super Trouper
Getting ready to do something despite feelings of uncertainty: Ruth White’s Flowers of Evil
Sitting in the grocery store parking lot before Thanksgiving: Sonny and Linda Sharrock’s Black Woman
Changing a party: Les Rallizes Dénudés’ Heavier Than a Death in the Family
4. What do you associate with Berlin?
An empty apartment with nothing but a mattress and a tall mirror, a hardcore show in 2008 somewhere near the wall, singing the intro to “Being It” by Arthur Russell in Teufelsberg, Nico’s grave nearby, a long walk at night to find salad, Robyn DJing at noon at Berghain.
5. What’s your favourite place in your town?
When a friend moved away, I inherited these massive houseplants. They now live in a room in a warehouse that has a wall of glass blocks, and I think they’re doing pretty great. I haven’t seen them in three months, and I won’t be back there for another month still. A friend of mine says she waters them.
6. If there was no music in the world, what would you do instead?
Without sound, the physical properties of the universe would be different in ways that preclude human existence. I know I’m supposed to say, “I’d be a veterinarian,” but seriously!
7. What was the last record/music you bought?
Red Crayola, The Parable of Arable Land
8. Who would you most like to collaborate with?
Oh, Keiji Haino
9. What was your best gig (as performer or spectator)?
After a show in Flagstaff with weird-party energy, we decided it wasn’t a good idea to sleep there, so I drove all night through New Mexico listening to an audiobook. Came very close to running out of gas, bless this mess.
10. How important is technology to your creative process?
Is the human voice a technology? I think so. Over time, our species has applied its growing body of knowledge to the larynx, lungs, etc. What could a creative practice be without technology? The singularity!
11. Do you have siblings and how do they feel about your career/art?
My brother is 3 years younger than I am, and my sister is 7 years younger than that. I’ve never asked them directly how they feel about my art, but perhaps this questionnaire is a good opportunity to do so. I have a feeling it’s pretty good.