Chloe Alexandra Thompson works in sight, sound and somatics. A fluent technologist, her site-specific, digital, and performance works are deeply attuned to our perceptions. The Cree, Canadian composer and sound artist incorporates sources from audio coding language software such as Max and Pure Data. Using coding to invent amorphous digital instruments, her work is brought into physical form through spatialized speaker arrays. Her installations of multiple loudspeakers are programmed to distribute sound in intentional patterns and locations. The result is intricate, heady and difficult to convey in words. At the crux of art and technology, these experiential sonic pieces play on our somatic perceptions in surprising ways.
Sonically, her work feels vast and abstract, like radio emissions from outer space. Thompson’s 2022 release They Can Never Burn the Stars, recorded while in residence at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works, is eerie, dark, and rough-edged. Her sound has precedents in the minimalist and avant-garde histories of spectralism (a composition style informed by mathematical and sonographic analyses of the sound spectra generated by acoustic instruments), musique concrète, early electronic music, and acousmatics (meaning “sound from an unseen/unknown source”). Moiré (2021), an audio-visual desktop application created in collaboration with Matthew Edwards functioned as a visualizer and audio album, and was reimagined in 2022 as House of Moiré, a virtual reality environment commissioned for Montreal’s MUTEK digital art exhibition. The work is further available to experience on Steam VR.
Thompson is also a prolific collaborator on dance and theater works such as James Allister Sprang's “Turning Toward a Radical Listening” at The Kitchen in New York, and commercial audiovisual projects like Parallel Studios' Exchange, an interactive public light and sound installation. Her sound work for films includes Mariama Diallo’s 2022 Master (as a score assistant for composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe). In a moment where AI-assisted art is making headlines and raising fears around the meaning and possibility of artists working with emerging technologies, practices like Thompson’s offer a deeper and more complex view of creativity where machines and humans meet. Here, Thompson shares thoughts about both learning and teaching creative coding for audio visual art, her decentralizing approach to performance, and the persistence required to learn new tools and develop creative ideas.
I’m interested specifically with sound, in it being this force that’s so physical. And even if people don’t have access to hearing, you have access to sound, through these ways of feeling it in your body. We have so many very core survival mechanisms and emotionalities wrapped up in sound.
Your work often taps into the spatial and sculptural qualities of sound. How did you first connect with deep listening practices, and what are some of your aesthetic and artistic influences?
I guess my first experiences with deep listening were when I was younger. I had this little Olympus digital recorder, which might have been a micro-cassette. I would walk around Vancouver and just play with the gain, sort of make sounds feel like clipping out, or closer or further away. I’ve always been interested in listening to my surroundings.
I feel really lucky for where I grew up. Every time that I go back to Vancouver, I still feel drawn to the acousmatics of that space: the humidity, the water, and how these things reflect sound. Like, sitting in the back of somebody’s studio with the window open, and somebody biking by with a boombox, and hearing the doppler effect and realizing, ‘oh, sound does weird things when it’s traveling at speed and echoing,’ and that’s where I started thinking about it that way when I was pretty young.
Then I was lucky enough to be exposed to a lot of alternative forms of sound making through Fake Jazz Wednesdays, and the Emergency Room, and different venues that existed in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, and some of the sound art about that area. Then I got more involved in making [sound] when I moved to Portland, Oregon, which has a pretty tight DIY-focused scene around creative coding [and] electronic music, and people will pool resources to make spatial audio possible in these venues like churches that we could get for little or no money. People really collectivized to be able to make the work that they wanted to make as part of bringing together project spaces in that city.
I was making my own work as well, and through those forms of interactions, I was able to investigate spatial audio more when I started working with dancers. Oftentimes in dance you get these long-term residencies, where you have a space and access to their tech, and you have this support. A lot of times, at least in the US and other parts of Canada too, that type of resourcing isn’t [allocated] to sound artists. And so through being in these production residencies with performance artists and dancers, where we would be able to have physical space and access to these tools, really, that space and time allowed me to start investigating spatial audio more.
That started super simple, like doing quad setups and things like that. I was building out these rudimentary panners using Pure Data, and I really had no idea what I was doing, but I was like, ‘I really like this sound over here’, and then eventually I got into vector-based amplitude panning and more of the technical aspects of ambisonics as my access to those tools expanded. I started hacking together my own system at home with mismatched speakers and things like that. There was a lot of self directed learning in that.
I’ve been lucky enough to make work, either for myself or other artists, across several high density loudspeaker arrays and wave field synthesis, and all these forms of spatial audio or ambisonics are actually hard for people to access. The only way I’ve gotten those opportunities is through figuring it out myself enough that then somebody sees that and is like ‘oh, here, you’re perfect for this.’ And now it's something that’s in my rider, and I’m able to request more.
Ultimately, my computer is just an instrument, you know? And like any instrument, it could be played in a scripted way, or it can be extended or manipulated beyond what I had originally planned.
The technical is how and why I can do those things or started doing those things. The points of entry and interest into that have always been: what is decentralizing yourself in performance? I feel so often, we’re in these modalities as artists where we’re on a stage, and we’re making sound to people, and they’re watching us, and it’s this elevated, separate experience. And usually what we’re hearing [from the artist’s perspective onstage] is these monitors, and they may not sound the same as what’s passing out there. It’s these two distinct and discrete experiences [for the audience and the performer]. I’m not really interested in that as a person making art.
I’m interested specifically with sound, in it being this force that’s so physical. And even if people don’t have access to hearing, you have access to sound, through these ways of feeling it in your body. We have so many very core survival mechanisms and emotionalities wrapped up in sound. [Rather than a performance being] ‘I’m doing a thing, and it’s centered on me,’ [I prefer] to flip the experience as much as possible, decentralize, and make it about highlighting these different experiences we have in a space. Like, you’re gonna hear something different [based on] where you are and where your body is, how your body’s moving through that space, and how your body is able to move through that space or access that space.
So to be able to customize those experiences in working with audio and the space and architecture itself, and who that space was made for, has always been a point of interest into the ‘why’ of the technical. And of course [in terms of] theory I’m back [to] reading stuff related to Salomé Vogelin’s work, or Brandon Labelle, so many amazing artists and theorists who have worked with sound, not as material - we are all working with sound as a material or medium - but thinking about the medium as what it could be beyond our own ownership, and [sound’s] multiplicities, of invisible action, event, the ephemeral nature of these complex structures we’re creating and sharing with the participants.
Your work is usually presented as live performances on stage, or site-specific installations. Can you tell me about how you approach that and what kind of preparation is involved? How much of it is pre-programmed versus spontaneous, and how do you treat that scenario?
When I’ve been asked to do something and I start working with a presenter or venue, I try to get an idea of what resources they have, what I can do in that space, how far I can push it, and what’s feasible. Ultimately I’m pretty self-sufficient technically, so I can kind of do whatever, but I also don’t wanna be in a situation where I don’t get to be an artist because I’m being a technician the whole time. So there’s a bit of negotiation around, well, what can I do? What is ok here? What is a good healthy balance for both parties in this situation?
One of the most recent examples of being able to do something that feels more decentralized was working with PICA in Portland at the Time-Based Art Festival [last] September. I collaborated with DB Amorin, who’s a Pacific Islander visual artist. We've been working together for some years now, and in that space we were able to perform off the stage and used the expanse of stage as a projection surface. We were able to distribute visual representations throughout the space and alter the seating chart so there were groupings of chairs facing every direction, and [the audience would] still have something to experience both sonically and visually that wasn’t all of them, like, head-on looking at us. Of course, some people still did that, but creating the space for options, encouraging people to walk around, that was so ideal in that way where it becomes about people having agency, and being informed of their agency in a performance space.
People were still respectful, not talking, not shouting, or anything - it was pretty ideal - but it allowed people to be pretty immersed and choose how they wanted to interact. In a way I think that helped people relate to the work. A lot of the work I make is kind of inaccessible if you think about it [laughs], it’s weird. In doing really abstract things, it can feel a bit weird to be on stage and very central. I’m doing something with certain frequencies that might actually make your body uncomfortable at times. And you [may] feel that you need to stand right there, [but] you don’t, and in fact, you might experience this better if you move around or if you sit. So having those options open felt really good, and that was something we were able to negotiate well in advance. A lot of times to really achieve the goal, that’s what needs to happen: a lot of communication in advance, and a lot of planning.
On the technical end of things, I perform using Max, so I’m playing patches live, and sometimes I play with samples or field recordings that are pre-existing and I’m manipulating them; a lot of times I’m using synthesizers, sometimes I’m making those samples live as well and then manipulating them. Ultimately, my computer is just an instrument, you know? And like any instrument, it could be played in a scripted way, or it can be extended or manipulated beyond what I had originally planned. I do rehearse, and I also totally improv, but it’s a tool and I need to generally have something a little ready in advance.
I’m trying to think of a relevant example. I guess it would be like if someone was playing a saxophone in a classical sense, and then they were doing extended techniques in portions, and that was part of their improv, the difference is that I’m building the saxophone. The saxophone isn’t a saxophone to begin with, and then I have the option of manipulating what the tool that I built does in the moment intentionally, and I can stick to the script or not.
So it’s something that is also planned in advance, like the recent show I played with Raven Chacon and Mark Trecka at Basilica Hudson was totally improv’d. And I played with similar tools in Montreal when I played at Eastern Bloc. That’s where I made the tools - in a hotel room, two days in advance of the festival! I played with those again, but it was very different because the way I played them was completely different.
Ultimately, I’m just a fan of trying to read the room. And also sometimes, I’m reading the room, and I’m like, I didn’t bring the right tools for this room. Generally that’s not the case, but I think that’s also being self-conscious at times. I’m like ‘I don’t know if this is landing’, and then I’m like, ‘I guess I didn’t bring the right tools today’. I think a good show is this shared agreement that can happen with the audience where things can shift.
For last year’s Mutek Festival in Montreal, you created an extended reality piece with Matthew Edwards, House of Moiré, which is now on the gaming platform Steam. It was made using the game engine Unity. Tell me about the concept behind that piece, and what it was like to work in that medium.
Matt and I have been working around moiré patterns and the linkage between interference patterns visually and what comes with that, and psychoacoustics, for a few years now. And we were commissioned by Mutek to build an XR piece. Neither of us had worked with the [Oculus Quest untethered headset] before, and we both signed up to do this untethered experience, which is to move something that typically runs on a giant gaming PC to the equivalent of a smartphone on somebody’s face [LAUGHS], which is a lot!
I don’t think we understood how much it was when we signed up, but we were like ‘yeah totally, we’ve got it!’ And because we had been working on the project for so long, it was also this opportunity where we had some funding and some time to explore, well, what does it look like to make this a thing? Is this a virtual environment? An XR space? Is this a game? How do we want to do it?
Technically you’re in a gaming engine, and technically in most oculus experiences…there’s a lot of art experiences available in VR, but right now most things are games. Like, do we want to play with this weird idea? It was interesting to really use Unity as a storyboard, as a way to explore - because we both have experience with Unity - what we could do, and also what the cellphone on a face could handle, what the quest headset could handle us doing in real time, which is a really valuable experience for anyone to do, because you get a little bit far, and then you realize you actually have to start your idea thinking of optimization. Also, things can look a very specific way in VR, in a VR headset, and that’s not always the point.
I think - for myself as somebody who works a lot with technology, and these different forms of technology, I actually really love when I see art that’s about art. And it’s not about the medium, you know? It’s using the medium to an extent where it's not reliant on it, and it doesn’t fit into this genre of very typical cold-feeling generative work, or gaming-based work. That thing you can’t really put your finger on is still there - why we like art - it still exists.
Yeah, definitely. Your work is all based in technology: you’re often working with programming languages like Pure Data and Max, as well as physical technology like speaker arrays, to create these immersive environments. What’s it like to compose in this way and how does it differ - as you mentioned earlier with the example of the saxophone - from using traditional instruments, or even analog synthesizers, which are an instrument that already exists, versus working with programming?
I have my analog synthesizers, and I don’t use them in the work I perform, but I’ll use them for sound design for other people, or different types of projects. In recording and song structuring – in this way of creating a song, or a composition, I should say – [I’m] always thinking about timelines and arrangements.
It’s about how to structure these layers of being into a form that makes sense over time. Specifically, when I’m thinking about recording or working with recorded media, I’m thinking about how, compositionally, this is going to unfold and resolve within this frozen time-based context, which will then be mixed and mastered and delivered and then it will just exist as that. So it’s very final, if that makes sense. I actually approach that pretty differently than I approach performance or installation. Of course, those things end up being final, [but] with instrumentation, it’s finding a melody or finding disharmony and focusing on those things, and how that interplay happens, and then using that as an inspiration or a jumping-off point.
When I start building the instrument [using programming language], then it’s this whole left/right brain interplay thing where part of it is very technical. And I find I end up doing these things on separate days, or I have to do some of the technical stuff, and then I go into, ‘okay, is this behaving how I want it to behave? Can I create with this?’ So it’s mixing the paint, putting it on the canvas and going ‘oh, that’s not the right color’. And then going back to making the paint.
Then there’s the whole technical ability involved in that, and often it comes down to problem solving stuff. So there are two different ways of looking at the same thing, but ultimately, regardless if I’m using a violin, or a voice, or my breath, or a computer, or a synthesizer, it’s all, at the end of the day, a means to express or expel something. And then the difference between how long it takes to get there is how long it takes me to build it, or if I’m happy with what I’ve built, or if, halfway through building I’m struck with an idea that’s actually ‘wait, why am I doing this, what if this was actually this whole other thing?’
And I think that actually the cool part of building something is, like, ‘wait, this already exists, I could just use a plugin’ [LAUGHS], you know? Which I don’t, but really this is already something that exists, what is actually something that’s worth this effort? We have all these tools. I don’t always feel like I need to reinvent the wheel. It's part of why I got into creative coding. It was so much more accessible in terms of cost, to be self-sufficient in that way. It’s interesting. As time has progressed, I’ve had different resources and things, so why I continue to do it is very different, actually.
In terms of the programming languages you use in your work, from what I understand, you’re self taught. How did you approach learning these technologies and what advice do you have, if any, for artists or musicians interested in getting started with these? How, in your opinion, could they be made more accessible for artists interested in learning these skills?
I guess I am self taught, [although] I did study a bit of computer science in college. There are some graphical user interfaces for Python and stuff, but you’re still dealing with lines of code, and how I choose to code artistically is with objects and pulling strings together, it’s a little different. I do Arduino stuff too, which is a lot more lines of code, it’s a different kind of structure.
When I was doing work with more web development and building web applications, I chose to work in Pure Data specifically, because it felt separate from my job. I think a lot of people got really into Supercollider, or Faust, these other forms of, like, really just coding, and I was like, ‘I’m bored of looking at a screen and I have a really technical job, what is the answer here?’ I watched a lot of Youtube videos and did a lot of projects that failed. I totally wanted things to sound a way, and I couldn’t make them sound a way for a really long time. I spent a lot of time watching Youtube, reading books, not doing what I wanted to do, and then eventually it would click.
It just took me so untenably long to get there in my head, even though it was a week or something of just, like, ‘why can’t I be here already?’ [LAUGHS] But I persisted. I think with anything technical, and really anything to do with art, persistence is a huge thing. It’s really undervalued. If you want to do something or you love making something, if you keep doing it, eventually it works out. You just have to keep going, you know? And then things line up and it starts making sense. I think when we do things, the why becomes present. Those opportunities come and it just works in that way.
In terms of accessibility, Music Hackspace has a bunch of free workshops on Max specifically available, and there’s been a lot of effort around people open sourcing more learning materials. If I had more time, I’d be doing more of that myself right now. It’s always something I’ve wanted to do more, but I end up taking other work or something like that.
Why I moved more towards Max is, despite the fact that it’s closed source and costs some money, [is that] if you’re ever lost in a project, you can always right click and open a help menu, and then it shows you how to use something. That was something that was really difficult when approaching Pure Data. There’s not a ton of information that’s centrally located for it. There are a lot of forums and people are really helpful, and also a lot of trolling vibes sometimes in those communities. I don’t always want to ask for help, I want to be able to find it. Especially with the way that I’m read, it doesn’t always feel like the most approachable environment. A bunch of tech vibes, you know? So I’ve always been a fan of researching in the background quietly, and asking some pointed questions when necessary, which is how I learned. And I also don’t think that’s the right way to learn, and I think that that is something that shouldn’t be encouraged, so do not take that advice! [LAUGHS]
I’ve found that, especially post-pandemic, stuff has been coming up more on Youtube and in free workshops. A lot of the point of workshops is to give people enough knowledge so they can start and get excited about it. They’re also not the place that is gonna teach you [everything].
I’ve done private tutoring, small group tutoring, and also developed curriculum for college and things like that on a larger scale. Something I hope more people can integrate into [their] teaching pedagogy is that, yes, there are extremely technical terms that we should or could use to describe things, but those are completely meaningless if there’s not an ability to actually practically explain why. And I think that’s the main gatekeeping from these tools feeling accessible to people. It’s semantics [perpetuated by], essentially, academics, who ultimately care, but are encouraged to speak in a way that doesn’t really open the conversation to anyone who hasn’t already studied.
I did a guest lecture in a masters class recently, and we were discussing spatial audio, and I was just doing a really casual and practical demo with this class, and this one student raised their hand and said ‘wait, I just wrote a paper on ambisonics, and I had no idea.’ And I was like, ‘yeah, because you wrote a paper on a thing you only read about, and this is about experiencing. You need both.’
Especially coming back to in-person [learning], people are learning so much without being able to try anything, and I think our generation, and the ones after, have been so modeled to present well, and curate, that a lot of people haven’t gotten to get messy and try to make things and have them sound not the way they want them to sound. Because we’ve all just been huddled on computer screens for a few years. I hope coming back, people feel empowered to be messy. Getting your hands dirty is what makes work meaningful. Theory does too, it’s important, but theory and practice both need to be there.
I love that message. As you mentioned, you’ve taught a number of workshops, and you were also part of the first cohort of Max for Live instructors, along with many other teaching situations. How do you approach teaching sound technology? Is it more hands-on and practical?
I definitely have done more ‘this is the history of this thing’, but what I find is the best match between what I have to offer and what people want from me is more project based, that can be coming up with [course] concepts like ‘introducing FM synthesis.’ But a lot of times where I feel things work out best in introducing someone to a new technology is when they have an idea of what they wanna do, and then we can work through all of the steps together, so it’s part consulting and part teaching. Because it’s practical.
I remember when I was studying math, I thought I was terrible with math, and I struggled with pre-algebra and pre-calculus. Then once I got into calculus and algebra, I excelled. Because we were actually dealing with real things. So much of that pre-work that happens in school before college is based on, like, ‘build a fence on three sides of a river with math!’ And those exercises, I guess are a great way to create muscle memory, but there’s no need to attach or remember them, they’re meaningless. If you were actually building a fence on three sides of a river, you’d measure the land. [LAUGHS] That’s not a math equation, you know?
But things that matter – like logarithmic stuff really does matter when you’re thinking about half lifes, and health, and finances and stuff like that – it starts to make more sense. And I feel like a lot of the time with teaching or learning, these [less relevant] examples come up, and they are valuable because they teach you something, but what I’ve found to be the more effective learning tool for myself, and for the people I work with, is handing people something that they can play with that’s already functional.
And they get into it, and then I say let’s go through how we made this, and make it together. Because they’re into it, then what do we want to change about it so then it becomes theirs? That is something that’s generally also based in Cree methodologies of learning, which is, ‘I’m building this thing, come watch,’ versus, ‘I’m going to show you how to code a math equation so that you know how to use math objects,’ and not explain why that’s important. I feel like they need the motivation of ‘why.’
You’re prolific in creating your own work, but also in working as a sound designer and consultant for artists on other projects. How does your work as a sound designer influence your work as an artist, or vice versa?
My work as an artist is actually highly influenced by everything. Even when I’m making a solo work, it’s inspired by the books I’m reading and the conversations I’m having, walking down the street and listening to traffic… it’s all of those things. Or sitting in nature. All of these things play into my practice as an artist.
Working as a sound designer is different, because it’s about integrating into someone else’s work. And a lot of time with theater-based sound design projects, specifically in dance, you’re in the black box, and everything is happening in the moment. It’s about responsiveness. There’s sort of a built-in dramaturgical effect to it, because I’m either responding to a composer, or I’m also the composer, and I’m responding to bodies in space, and what is being decided is the fabric that brings us together. And responding to critique or engagement.
That’s sort of a different way of working, but I feel that it has gotten me to be quite fast, and that’s improved my skill. That goes back into artistic practice and audience, or performance. Somebody says they have a totally new idea and I have to come up with something in 30 seconds and implement it in five minutes. I can totally do that. That’s also influenced how I improvise, or how I build flexibility to perform over the years.
For filmmaking sound designing and composition, or thinking about the VR project, which is an interactive sound environment, it’s a different thing too. Because when working as a sound designer, or on a film with a composer, it’s about this connection to image and connection to director’s vision, and connection to what’s happening visually and sonically already. And then all of that stuff goes through studio approval, endless endless approval. Then you get something back, and you’re not always sure that the thing you put in is there [LAUGHS]. But it might definitely be there, and sometimes it definitely is there, but it’s a very transformative process involving many, many people making many decisions.
That’s very humbling, but also really beautiful. With any sort of collaboration, I feel like you’re always responding to each other, and responding to a film is different from responding to someone who’s sitting next to you. I guess that’s just the differences of commercialization. But in the end, all of these aspects of things influence what I’m doing also.
On another note of presenting work in other formats, you’ve presented your work in community spaces, DIY spaces – you and I first met at a DIY show we were both playing at – as well as at contemporary art institutions and large festivals. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of presenting sound art in these different venues, and do you think there’s an ideal type of space for sound art and what that might look like?
That’s a complicated one. I will add that, at the show we played together, I didn’t use a computer at all! I rarely play a show with no computer. I think that might have been the only time in a really long time. A blue moon. So it’s funny, as we’re talking about computers and sound art. [LAUGHS]
If I’m talking about formalist aspects of sound art, if you wanna get into that whole thing, then, yeah, there are ideal places. I think honestly, the ideal place for me is a place where I’m able to spend time and be in relation to the space itself, and I have an idea of the audience around, and I get to have long conversations and decide support in collaboration with the venue or the presenter. I’m a big fan of relationships, and I like working with technicians. I like working with everybody to realize something, and I really appreciate when there is space and time and resources to collaborate on making something the best it could be.
I think that venue exists, and I’ve experienced it in a lot of places, and I’ve also experienced that in a lot of DIY situations too. Where it’s a bunch of people coming together to pull something off. I think those approaches are two very different things, and the difference is generally boiled down to compensation for labor. That compensation [allows] more time investment and freedom and less stress in creation.
But there’s also a lot of freedom to play in these DIY spaces or community centers where we don’t have a real sense of institutionality. You get people who might not be so inclined to pay the higher ticket price or go to this strange gallery, or theater somewhere. You get a different type of interaction, and that’s why I like doing things in different places. It’s great to be able to interact with different types of people.
Definitely. It's not either/or. Not being locked into these career boxes, and still being able to, as you said, have space to play as an artist.
Yeah. I think it would probably be easier for a lot of reasons if I was more open to being locked into a career box. But I’m still more interested in figuring out what it is I’m doing and why I'm working towards something, than I am in knowing what boxes to check.