“This is an overview of post-conceptual and multimedia artist Joseph Nechvatal’s sound collages and experimental music, from 1980s tape experiments to 21st century polymorphous, digital endeavors. Born in Chicago in 1951, Nechvatal studied art and philosophy before relocating to New York City in 1975. During the 1980s, he co-founded the non-profit cultural space ABC NO Rio and avantgarde music series Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine, and took part in many experimental cassette compilations, installation projects and avant-garde live events taking place seemingly everywhere in Lower Manhattan at the time.
I got interested around 2005, collecting Tellus Audio Cassettes and later archiving and documenting them on Ubuweb and Wikipedia, as well as on my own blog—eventually meeting Joseph personally in Paris around 2008, where he now lives. In retrospect, Nechvatal’s artistic career seems to have been a long tight-rope walk over a variety of epidemics, from AIDS-ridden NYC in the 1980s, to his viractuality concept coined at the end of the century, to today’s COVID-19 catastrophe. It is perhaps only natural, then, that his art deals with viruses, and his music with aural degeneration and sonic necrosis—his own personal view, perhaps, of the transient state of life on Earth.
The 1980s were a time of joyous, multifarious sound experiments for Nechvatal, from no wave guitar explorations (Dalychtocracy, 1985), to analog synth music (TRUE and FALSE, 1985), onto multiple tape collages. While all three genres are documented in this anthology, it is in rebus-like, caustic sound collages that Nechvatal reveled and found a vehicle for the shit-loads of flotsam sound detritus in his immediate vicinity. Whether coming from records, radio broadcasts, TV commercials, or political speech, for Nechvatal these aural excreta deserved to be transmogrified and dignified through sound art, just like Antonin Artaud elevated caca, or shit, to mythical, ontological status in his writings from the 1930s and ’40s. It is in this sound art Nigredo—the dark, alchemical art of transmutation, according to Carl Jung—that we might find a key to approach Nechvatal’s recent digital sound works as well.
During the 1992–2002 period, Nechvatal launched his Computer Virus Project for multimedia works created with programming code and auto-generative routines, which led him to exhibit corrupted data as art. From then on, all his work is deemed viral, being based on data manipulation, data corruption and cellular automata. First applied to computer-assisted paintings and video animations, his viractuality concept also ultimately found its way into his music after 2000, with some sound works merely consisting of the sound of a computer virus at work.
In 21st century works, Joseph Nechvatal’s sound art gained density and complexity as he composed longer and increasingly ambitious works. In this respect, the first version of the viral symphOny in 2006 acted as a manifesto and a blueprint for things to come. The viral symphOny is a vast collage of recycled sounds and corrupted audio data given a life of its own by cellular automata procedures and de-generative algorithms, assembled into a constantly shape-shifting, multisonant sound work. A first version was published on CD in 2006, then reworked and reprocessed at various stages in subsequent years, and finally given a complete reshuffle in 2020 under the title OrlandO et la tempête viral symphOny redux suite. During this long incubation period, a team of programmers, AI specialists and sound engineers contributed to the elaboration of the music, which appears to have been cultivated in a sonic Petri dish of some sort, rather than composed in a traditional way.
The spoken word is also a common fixture in Nechvatal’s sound works from later years, be it found sounds, text-to-speech readings by an automaton, or collaboration with readers in the flesh. Texts include his own space-filling prose poetry, his own cut-and-paste word collages, and excerpts from Classical literature, from Ancient Greek authors to Virginia Woolf and Antonin Artaud. The last few years have also seen a renewed interest in sound collage in association with found sounds and computer viruses, culminating in pour finir avec le jugement de dieu viral symphOny plague in 2021, a brilliant sonic transmutation of Antonin Artaud’s 1947 suppressed radio art piece. For Joseph Nechvatal, there is still a lot of shit to turn into gold, and the dark art of Nigredo remains a never-ending sonic process.”
– Laurent Fairon, 2021
In an edition of 100 pro-duplicated tapes with a 6-panel J-card featuring extensive track notes by Nechvatal and liner notes by Laurent Fairon. Digital version of the release on Bandcamp contains two bonus tracks. Mastered by Giuseppe Ielasi.