“James Webb Space Telescope”: A sound-based conversation with the other James Webb


James Webb, interdisciplinary artist and experimental musician from South Africa.

In April, James led a series of workshops exploring the soundscapes present in and around the King Ghazi Hotel.

Garrett Rubin is Fulbright-mtvU Fellow and community musician from New York.

Here, Garrett interviews James using sound-based questions. After playing four unidentified sound clips, James was asked to name and describe the sounds.

James: <listens> Very nice. So you’d like a name for the sound? I’m going to call this sound airy (Garrett hears it as Mary).

Garrett: Mary?

James: Mary, yes I’m going to name this sound Mary.

Garrett: Ok great (laughs). I thought Mary was interesting because, for me, the sound evoked sort of quasi-spiritual connotations, which, of course, reminded me of the work you do with religious sound.

James: Well, what I found interesting about that sound – well not that sound because there are many sounds there – but what I found interesting about that recording was to hear that bell-like tone and to hear it interchange a bit, and to hear the sounds in the background of the room. The bell-like sound created a sort of a base for me to appreciate the other sounds around it. I was also curious about the space that that bell was happening in. To be honest, it didn’t seem very religious to me at first – it felt maybe like the beginning of a story.

Garrett: If we’re being honest, the sound seemed spiritual to me because it reminded me of yoga class. And I’ve been to a total of three yoga classes in my whole life. So how’s that for shallow?

James: (Laughs) I think that sound is associated with spirituality quite often because it’s disembodied and comes from the air. Sound is activated air. It leaves its source and travels to somewhere else. I suppose metaphorically it’s very spiritual – it’s mysterious in a way. The whole religious basis has been built around sound to carry a voice, to make certain sounds – whether they be vocal or musical or whatever – to be sacred, in some shape or form.

Garrett: Nice. Shall we do our second sound?

James: It’s a lovely sound. First off, I’ll give you a name. So I’ll call it… Lars.

Garrett: (laughs) Great.

James: And Lars comes from Norway

Garrett: Lars from Norway… I love the direction that you’ve taken in naming the sounds. Okay, yes, tell me about your experience listening to Lars from Norway.

James: I love the rain very much but not necessarily when I’m in it. This sound has got an amazing intensity about it – but I once read that rain sounds recorded for film are improved and overdubbed in post-production through a process called “Foley” – which is when sound engineers use an unrelated sound to generate a sound found in the film. For instance, if you want to get a really good sound of someone frying bacon, then often they’ll use the recorded sound of rain – and occasionally, I think, if you hear the sound of rain, atmospheric rain in the background, you might be hearing the sound of frying bacon. Its quite exciting to think that the ear hears something and the brain thinks something else. So for a moment, a very small moment, I thought there could be some very intense bacon frying.

Garrett: Amazing. Okay, my favorite sound is next.

James: Okay. I’m going to call this “sound two, played third”. I heard sounds that I would call sharp that have a rhythmic breathing-like inhale-exhale-like rhythm. It sounds like what appears to me as one object that is activating another object. I can’t make out quite the environment it is done in. It doesn’t seem like a very reverberant space. So I don’t think the floor is made out of a stone or anything… But if I had to make a very big leap, this sound makes me think of a wonderful work by Robert Morris – made in 1961 – titled “Box with the sound of its own making”.

Garrett: What a name…

James: Yeah, I had a problem with the title.

Garrett: The dichotomy never dies.

James: Exactly. But I am wary of how we often listen and view the world looking for references. I catch myself – and I’m nervous about this – immediately comparing things that I see or hear to artworks. Which would be a bit like walking into an aquarium and seeing a shark and thinking “Damien Hirst”, or hearing a sawing sound and thinking “Robert Norris”. I think this is connected to a certain art economy where artists are nervous about having similar ideas to other artists.

Garrett: Is that a concern you also share for viewers of your own work, or is that a concern specific to your role as an artist?

James: I think it’s both. To be brutally honest, I think it is economically and historically advantageous for artists to be associated with certain styles because then they become brands. I studied advertising, so I have a big awareness of brands. And I’m aware of their advantages…but I’m also aware of their artistic and creative disadvantages.

Garrett: Okay let’s end with one more sound.

James: Okay, I name it ambient fly through. This is a scene of a film where the characters have just escaped a disease stricken space ship. This sound comes in to move the film from one scene to the next, which is 50 years later on a special moon colony. So much cinema is made of those kind of sounds – there’s so much movement, definitely a kind of transition – but there’s no rhythm, there’s no real identity… it’s sort of an amorphous sound.

Garrett: I like thinking about how technologically produced or affected sound also becomes – in a sense – dated.

James: I think technology has a certain sound, such as the sound of vinyl, which is different from the sound of mp3s. I think what’s very interesting is listening to how Sci-fi films in the 50s and 60s imagined the sounds of the future. And I think we spend a lot of time not thinking about the future. We spend a lot of time thinking about the past and ourselves or the very immediate future – in terms of “what can I get now?” That being said, historically speaking, one of the most formative pieces I encountered when I was younger was Orson Well’s 1938 radio broadcast “War of the Worlds”. Do you know it? He took a story about Martians invading Earth from the novel by the same name – written by the author H.G. Wells’ – and dramatized it as a live radio broadcast about aliens invading New York. People thought it was real and so they fled their houses, running from aliens. I heard it when I was much younger, and so that for me was the beginning.

Garrett: I am sure that in the future, people will laugh at the things we believed after hearing them on the radio, but that’s a conversation for another time.


Order Original Sound Name Sound Name Given by JW
Sound I Tibetan Sound Bowl Mary
Sound II Hail Storm Lars from Norway
Sound III Hacksaw Sound two, played third
Sound IV Intro Wind Sound Ambient fly through

Sound Index


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