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Omaha Magazine

To See the Sounds of The City: Juanjosé Rivas Crosses Boundaries

Jul 07, 2020 11:34AM ● By Virginia Kathryn Gallner
Juanjosé Rivas in front of Bemis

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

"When I think about sound or experimental music, I think in a physical way,” said Juanjosé Rivas, as he touched his hand to his heart. “There is no rhythm, there is no harmony, there is no[thing] musical.”

Rivas approaches sound experimentation as a sculptural process, using the tools and technology of sound engineering to create auditory environments. He studied visual arts at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado, also known as “La Esmeralda,” in Mexico City. 

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts invited Rivas to participate in their sound arts and experimental music residency last year. He agreed, and his residency was from Jan. 22–April 17, 2020.

Rivas lives in the center of Mexico City. When he wakes in the morning, the streets are filled with noise. In Omaha, he awoke to the sound of birds chirping and trains rolling by near his temporary home at Bemis Center. There were new sounds as well, such as snow crackling underfoot.

“When I go from one country or city or place, I always think about that relationship with the sounds of the city. For me it could be noise. For you, music.” When listening, he wants to “know the space, to see the sounds.”

Environmental sounds are only a part of his palette. Rivas builds his own digital and electronic instruments. He does not use traditional instrumentation or compositional methods in his work, instead working with circuitry and synthesizers. He likes the challenge of creating something new every time. 

“The simplest instruments are those that cannot be played in a normal way. I really like these interfaces because they [offer] another type of connection between player and instrument.”

For Rivas, sound art is all about experimentation. In most orchestral and popular music, there are the traditional ingredients of scales, harmonic information, and structural patterns. In the world of experimental music, “you make something that you can never repeat. You put another kind of energy, electricity into the instrument. It’s always changing.”

He said he finds the creative process liberating.

“When I talk with [other] musicians…they told me ‘you have a lot of freedom because you don’t know what you are doing.’” His lack of formal education in classical music allows him to experiment in ways that may not occur to others. 

Working with physical space is an important part of his craft as well. He has created several sound installations, site-specific projects such as his 2015 Escombro project at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Oaxaca, Mexico, where audiences could move through the exhibit and experience the sounds around them. 

“The body is an amazing instrument. You can talk, you can make muscles mumble. [You] just need to amplify, reorganize, rearrange the way you [produce sound].”

Rivas does not always create alone. In Mexico City, he hosts the VOLTA concert series, where he invites different artists every week to create a new work around a common theme. He approaches this as a multidisciplinary project with artists from many mediums, and he views it as an opportunity to share knowledge. 

Physical space and architecture are equally essential to performance, and often forgotten. Rivas wants to cross the boundary that separates artists from audiences.

“There’s the public, and the space for the music. There is that distance.” He described different ways of arranging the space for his concerts. “[In VOLTA,] there is no stage. I put the people on the floor, on the same level of the public, in the center, in the corners, moving with the public. We need to break these forms.” 

He breaks this barrier through educational workshops as well. But he teaches more than sound experimentation.

“I’m not teaching improvisation. I’m teaching how to question relationships with technology.” 

Most of the time, Rivas explains, people accept technology like it is finished. He encourages students to push the limits of these relationships. “In my workshops, [we] build sound system circuits, like little synthesizers or speakers, or radios with very simple circuits. The really important thing is they can learn how or why it’s working in that way.” 

People tend to be passive consumers, he laments. If something is broken, we throw it away. But there are ways to reverse engineer this technology, to open the circuitry and find out how it works. 

“We have two options: to be technophobic, or technophiliac,” he said.

Technology is a tool. When we push its potential, improvisation is always the result. “If you don’t know how it works, then you can try it. The result? It doesn’t matter. The most important thing in my work is the process.”

For the culminating performance of his residency at Bemis Center, Rivas created a unique audience experience: a deep listening session, incorporating soundscapes and environmental textures from Mexico City. 

“This kind of work helps you to discover your relationship between sounds and the world…your way to see the world or explain the sound in your body, in the space, in the city.”

Visit juanjoserivas.info for more information and to listen to Rivas’ work.  

This article first appeared in the June 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.