Prism House

Artist Interview

February 23, 2020
Prism House is the ongoing composition, sound design, and performance project of New York-based musician Brian Wenner. Prism House is largely focused on merging sound with performative, visual or experiential elements. He has composed for dance, theater, multi-channel installation, and digital release. He most recently debuted a 42 minute audio-video collaboration entitled 'Separator’ that screened at SXSW and Art Basel in 2019. He is currently composing the score for a theatrical production set to debut at JACK. Brooklyn in March of 2020.

Hello Brian, we are so glad to have on De:Formal. Can you start with telling us about yourself and Prism House?

Hello! Thank you for having me. My name is Brian Wenner and I am a composer, sound designer, and performer based in New York, NY. I create work under the alias ‘Prism House.’ Prism House is a creative outlet that focuses on merging sound with performative, visual or experiential elements. I have composed sound for dance, theater, multi-channel installation, and digital release. I’ve been actively doing Prism House since 2013, but I’d say within the last 3 years or so I have become increasingly focused on collaborative and larger scale projects involving visual artists, dancers, choreographers, etc.

How did you first get into sound design and music composition? Who did you look up to when you first started?

I started playing guitar when I was 14 and had been writing songs all throughout high school, but it wasn’t until I was a freshman in college that I started to become interested in sound design and music composition as it pertains to how I’m working today. I enrolled in a “History of Electronic Music” course in school that really inspired me and instilled in me some creative processes that I still use today. It was in this course that I first learned about Musique Concrete, which is a style of music composition formed around the idea that any sound in our environment can be used and manipulated for musical purposes, and that organized sound is music. Part of my studies involved having to create my own compositions that correlated to this Musique Concrete set of creative ideals. I would walk around campus recording ambient sounds and other things and then cut the sounds up and pair them with synthesizer tones or other soundscapes on my laptop. It was also around this time that I bought this musical software called Reason and kept making electronic music on my own time. I was pretty much hooked.

I didn’t have anyone in particular that I looked up to when I was starting out with electronic music, but I think like a lot of young people I was just taking in so much different music all at the same time. I was (and still am) a fan of Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada…a lot of the Warp Records stuff. I’ve always been drawn to technically intricate or challenging music that also has ambient or darker elements within it.

What is your creative process like? Where do you find inspiration?

My creative process is rooted in this idea of “collage composition” or sound collaging. I’m interested in taking a bunch of seemingly unrelated sound ideas and layering them and editing them together to make something new and coherent. Lately, I’ll just record something like 5-10 minutes of a performance involving either a synthesizer patch I designed, or running sounds through chains of effects in the software environments Ableton Live or Reaktor. I don’t worry so much about if the entire performance is going to be usable for a composition, but rather I just want to generate a lot of ideas quickly. I’ll do this over the span of a few months and have hundreds of ideas. At that point, I’ll start listening back to what I’ve recorded and then layering sounds together and see what sections of recordings work well together. Eventually I’ll end up with fleshed out compositions. I find that if I take some time away from the ideas and then revisit them later that it is easier for me to begin the editing and “composition” aspect of the process.

I also really love to sample sounds off the Internet from sites like Vimeo and YouTube. I have gotten into the habit of using ASMR videos for textural and background type sounds. Sometimes I’ll open multiple browsers and record different videos simultaneously. A lot of what I do is just experiment and try out new things. I also recently started building a hardware modular sampler so I’ve been experimenting with building sound ideas using that piece of equipment.

I find inspiration in a few different things I suppose. Watching a great movie with an amazing soundtrack is something that always gets me wanting to write, or going to a live performance whether it be music or theater. Sometimes just walking around the city with headphones on or going to a museum helps also.

No items found.
No items found.

How did you start collaborating with performers and visual artists? What do you like about collaboration and what are the challenges?

I started collaborating with performers and visual artists from the very beginning of Prism House. This project has always been intended to be collaborative and with a focus on merging sound with visual art or dance. I think the initial inspiration to make this an audio/visual/performance centered project stemmed from a frustration of how those worlds can feel a little disconnected at times. I'd often see work where it felt like sound was an afterthought. Like “Oh, well we made this video piece, I guess we need sound?”. This inspired me to want to be involved in a project that aimed to make both elements equally important and intertwined. That’s always been my goal is to work with people who view audio/visual cohesion as important and something worth striving for.

I like collaboration because it forces me to have to consider how sound is going to work in the context of a larger piece or performance where other elements also need to be given room to breathe. I’ve learned that collaboration is essentially like having a conversation. There should be some back and forth between the elements of a show or an audio/visual piece if you want things to feel balanced and cohesive. Figuring out this balance is something that comes with trusting the people you are working with and also making a habit of working with different artists. I don’t think you necessarily have to compromise on things but there should be some discussion about what everyone wants to bring to the table during a collaboration. It is a great feeling to pull off a well executed collaboration, and it has kept me inspired to continue seeking that out.

The biggest challenge that can arise with collaboration is figuring out how to please both yourself and the people you are working with. It’s rare, although not impossible, to do something that you are 100% satisfied with personally and creatively and that your collaborators are also 100% satisfied with. Sometimes you simply aren’t going to meet eye to eye on what makes sense for a production or project. I’ve learned that meeting your collaborators in person (if possible) and discussing expectations and goals prior to a project beginning is really helpful. Gauging your expectations with what a project is going to become can help to avoid issues down the road. Every once in a while you come across someone that is just a nightmare to work with though and at that point you just have to keep your head down and get through to the finish line.  

Your collaborative work spans across video, performance, and installation. They are sometimes prerecorded and sometimes improvised live. What is it like working on so many different genres? Do you have a favorite? Is there anything you would like to try but haven’t had a chance to?

I’ve really pushed myself the last few years to work on a variety of projects and genres of sound work. Working on so many different genres forces you to have to consider what the purpose of the sound will be in a larger context. For instance, when working in theater you have to consider if there will be dialogue overtop of your composition, or will there be choreography? Both? Installation work requires you to know if there are going to be multiple speakers, or will it be a headphone installation? Is there a video component to the installation? How long is the overall piece going to be and how are people going to view and listen to it? These are all things that come into play when I’m writing music. I love this because it keeps you on your toes and keeps the writing process fresh.

Figuring out whether the sound needs to be prerecorded or improvised live really depends on the what the show or performance demands. My solo performances are often more freeform but my work for theater is often pre-recorded due to the nature of the dialogue and the way a show must unfold the same each night.

I think my favorite medium right now is working with multichannel sound for installation. I’m really interested in spatial sound and how using multiple speakers in a space can create a greater sense of immersion for the spectator. Pairing this with visual elements can make for something really impactful. Separator, which was debuted last year, was my first effort in this area. The piece combines 4 channel quadraphonic sound with single source video projection. The result is something that falls between a film screening and an installation.

I’d really love to work on a production that blends installation and theater work into something that feels like a spectacle, and where there isn’t a distinct line between the stage and the audience. Multichannel sound, multiple video surfaces, and dance and dialogue would all be blended into one thing. My work on Dirty Secret II and The Awakening had elements of this, but it would be cool to push even further into that world. I guess the phrase for it is ‘immersive theater.’ That seems like it would be a fun challenge to take on.

What approach do you take for your solo work and albums?

I approach my solo work in a more relaxed manner than I do collaborative work. I think that is because I know that my solo work only really needs to excite me exclusively, and I can take whatever approach to the creative process that I want. I always try to do something new on every solo release and explore some new method of composition or sound creation to keep things moving forward.

I described my process a bit earlier, but I tend to write a lot of material initially and then pick through whatever sounds or moments are interesting to me from these improvised “jam” sessions. From there, I edit and combine ideas into a fleshed out composition. I gather sound from all types of sources such as field recordings that I record on my own, synthesizer sounds, effect chains run in parallel to process sound, Internet-ripped material, etc…I’m pretty open to how I gather sound for my music as long as it is interesting or has some unique quality to it.

Ideally, I want a solo release to have a distinct vibe or tone to it, and it should stand on its own as a singular idea. If I have a lot of ideas that don’t make much sense together, then I’ll save things for future projects. Always revisit ideas you do not initially have a home for! I’ve written music that has sat on a hard drive and then one day a project comes along that it fits perfectly for.

Can you tell us about your album, Momentum?

Momentum is a solo full length album that was released in September of 2017. I’d describe it as my most meditative release up to this point. The album came about after a desire inside myself to change up my writing process.

This desire for change occurred because of a couple reasons. The first reason was that I was really burnt out on trying to write hyper-structured and rhythmically complex music. I felt like I was going through the motions and the music I was making previously to Momentum just didn’t feel right. It felt boring in its complexity. The second reason was that I was going through a really rough period in New York and had turned to ambient music and contemporary-classical composition as a means of calming myself down. I thought it could be a good exercise to try my hand at writing a few ambient compositions. I never intended on releasing an entire record, but I was loving the process and the results felt good. The record is meditative but it’s still dense and dark. It’s by no means some beautiful, whimsical ride.

Technically speaking, Momentum was crafted by creating a series of long, evolving textural ambient soundscapes that act as a soundbed for the compositions. These soundscapes were then imported into this software instrument called Izotope Iris for processing and editing. The album also relies heavily on Internet-ripped found material, specifically ASMR and meditation video content.

I worked with visual artists Matt O’Hare and Justine Durand for the videos that came out with the album. I’m very proud of this record and still listen to it periodically.

Your audio-video collaboration, Separator, was recently screened at Art Basel 2019. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

Separator is a 42-minute audio-visual collaborative piece that I made with visual artist Matt O’Hare. It is intended to be experienced in a darkened cinema equipped with a 16:9 projection surface, four loudspeakers configured for quadraphonic sound, and a subwoofer. Separator was most recently shown at the Contemporary and Digital Art Fair (CADAF) as part of Art Basel in Miami. It has previously been shown at the Satellite Art Fair in Brooklyn and also at SXSW among other places.

The audio content of Separator relies heavily on Internet-ripped material, field recordings, and re-sampled synthesizer tones. The visual content that Matt created is comprised of a variety of found video material including architectural simulations, video game screen-captures, animations of surgical procedures, and hundreds of elements taken from Internet advertisements. The result is something that feels a bit like a fragmented environment that moves between extreme dissonance and harmony.

Matt and I always intended on Separator being screened as a film, but we have also done a performance version and an installation version with headphones and a TV. The full version of Separator will likely be on the Internet this year, and will coincide with a release of the audio as an album that will be available on my Bandcamp and Spotify.

We are both very proud of Separator and I feel like it’s a level up for both of us. It is the longest and most complete collaborative piece we have finished thus far.

Have you seen, read, or heard anything recently you find inspiring you’d like to share?

I recently watched the new Safdie Brothers film Uncut Gems that really blew me away. It features Adam Sandler and a score by Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never), which was reason enough for me to check it out. The entire film is just so stressful and intense, but also really well thought out. Every shot and scene is essential to the plot. I also really loved the film Parasite too. The score is fantastic and really understated.

Music wise, I’ve been listening recently to a good amount of current experimental artists. This record Le Lisse Et Le Strie by Kassel Jaeger is really great. The albums Felder by Jan St. Werner and Agora by Fennesz are also both super interesting and inspiring.

No items found.
No items found.

What are you working on these days? Are there any upcoming projects or exhibitions we should know about?

Right now I am finishing the music for a theatrical production written by Amanda Szeglowski that is debuting  in early March 2020 at JACK. Theater in Brooklyn. I worked with Amanda and her dance troupe ‘cakeface’ in 2017 for the show ‘Stairway to Stardom’, so it is nice to work with them again. The score is coming together really nicely for that and I’m getting excited for people to check out the show. I won’t say much more about it for now!

I am also beginning work on a new multichannel sound piece that is going to coincide with custom made LED structures. The music is written and now I’m beginning to figure out the visual aspects for the installation. I’m really excited to see how this takes shape and I can hopefully debut this later in the year.

Aside from that, I am slowly learning this visual software program TouchDesigner to try and begin developing my own visual content to pair with a live and improvised set of sounds that I generate with my modular hardware sampler.

Do you have any bad habits? How do these affect your daily life?

I’d say my worst habit is getting sidetracked watching YouTube videos or reading stuff on forums when I should be working on music. I guess it comes with the territory of working on the laptop. I also really love to read reviews of equipment or software that I don’t need or can’t afford, which is a relatively new bad habit of mine. Overall, I’d say I am pretty good about finishing projects in a timely manner and don’t have any habits that are too detrimental to my daily life. Just normal procrastination things.

Do you have any advice for aspiring sound artists/designers?            

My advice to aspiring sound artists/designers is to get involved in as many different projects as possible, and don’t necessarily limit yourself to only paid projects. Paid work and bigger projects will come along with time and practice, but at first your goal should be to build great relationships with a variety of artists. On a more technical side, I’d recommend sticking to just a few pieces of software or hardware and learning those pieces really well. It’s different today than it was for me getting started in terms of the sheer amount of really powerful software and instruments that are on the market. Keep your setup small and simple and maximize what you have. Oh yeah, and buy a field recorder and get out there in the real world and start creating and recording your own sounds. Don’t settle for using pre-made online libraries or other people’s stuff. You’ll thank yourself later for that.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us? Any fun facts our readers can learn about you

Stay hydrated and don’t take yourself too seriously. Thanks for the interview!

For more of Prism House:  |  @prism_house