Recording

New York Metro, June 2009

For artist On Kawara’s gallery exhibition, One Million Years, pairs of people are continuously recorded live reading dates from one million B.C. to one million A.D. 6/01/2009 8:00 AM Eastern
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Scott Fulmer (left) and Neil Benezra focus on One Million Years.
Photo: David Weiss

Can something be massively complex in its minimalism? Absolutely. Audio merged with conceptual art in New York City this spring, embodying this dichotomy in the epic exhibition One Million Years by artist On Kawara.

Neil Benezra of Brooklyn Sound Society oversaw a deceptively simple audio installation in this latest portion of the show, which took place in the wide, white expanse of Manhattan's David Zwirner gallery. Now get your head around this: One Million Years is a 20-volume collection, comprising One Million Years [Past] — created in 1969 and containing a list of the years 998,031 B.C. through 1969 A.D. — and One Million Years [Future], created in 1981 and containing the years 1996 A.D. to 1,001,995 A.D. Together, these volumes make up 2 million years.

Multiple audio presentation/recordings of the volumes have taken place since 1993. For the first time at the David Zwirmer gallery, the reading of the One Million Years was recorded live while visitors were able to view the process of CD production.

“For On Kawara, it's absolutely no different from making a painting — he just chose to do this artwork with audio,” says Benezra, whose experience in audio post, live sound recording, art installations and studio work won him the project. “His work is very static and minimal, and I try to match that with the sound.”

Step One: Build a free-standing recording booth in the middle of the gallery, where a large pane of glass allows visitors to watch male/female pairs of volunteer readers read the latest volume, year by year, changing readers every two hours, five days a week for five consecutive weeks.

Benezra constructed a VO booth that had to sound good and keep out noise and vibrations from the building construction across the street. “The best way to build a soundproof room is a lot of separation,” he states. “If you build an exterior box and an interior box, the vibration won't pass through.”

According to Benezra, clear communication between designer and client trumps all other factors when you're soundproofing on a budget. “I present the best-case scenario. I say, ‘This is what we should do for the best possible outcome.’ If the client decides it's not in the budget, I make it clear that if we take away ventilation, people will very well become uncomfortable; if we take away the floated floor, there will be vibrations.”

Step Two: Execute an excellent, error-free live CD production process as gallery visitors observe and interact with you.

Benezra and engineer Scott Fulmer recorded each pair of readers' Audio-Technica AT4040 mics at a table 25 feet from the booth. A Digidesign Pro Tools 002 rig captured every additional year read from the One Million Years volume at 16-bit/44.1kHz. With both engineers and readers monitoring on headphones, a Mackie Big Knob facilitated talkback. Meanwhile, an array of JBL speakers around the gallery allowed visitors to hear the years recorded live in a trade-off sequence: “71,469 A.D., 71,470 A.D., 71,471 A.D.”

“The big challenge was dealing with two people in a VO booth, every two hours for five weeks, many of whom had never been in front of a microphone before,” Benezra says. “The big thing is making someone comfortable in this situation.”

Benezra's people skills also paid off in his choice of co-pilot Fulmer. “The engineer has to be prepared to answer questions from the public,” he says. “Scott had to watch every number, because people would often mistakenly jump 10 years and he'd have to catch it. He had to keep the sound consistent, keeping people focused and close to the mic.”

Step 3: Edit, edit till you drop. Edit, edit never stop.

“In my Brooklyn studio, I cut out every number that was repeated, plus every cough, sneeze and microphone bump, and adjusted for phasing between the two mics,” Benezra says. “There was two to three hours of editing per recorded hour, equaling 300 hours of editing for this 100-total-hours show box set of 100 CDs.”

It is believed 2,700 CDs will be needed to complete the readings of One Million Years [Past] and One Million Years [Future]. That means that, on average, if 27 CDs are produced yearly, the entire project will take 100 years to complete.

Benezra further maximized the recording quality in a number of ways, such as matching different EQs to the variety of voices he encountered. “I always have the same background, but I'm working with hundreds of different voices,” he says. “So I could focus 100 percent on a voice, and that's how I keep things interesting. I always find something to take out of a situation.”

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