Written by Caleb Oldham
Aviv Cohn makes sonic paintings, musical representations of objects. At a recent performance at Babycastles it's raining outside, and he plays an atmospheric loop that swallows the room like a thick smoke. After he's done he mumbles, “That what’s happening outside.”
The Widest Smiling Faces, Cohn’s moniker, has a Bandcamp description that reads “I’m sorry.” This, in part, captures the vulnerability of the New York-based artist’s music, which often sounds like a spiritually uplifting sigh. The moments which Cohn chooses to captures in his music are beautiful (“Boardwalk run,” “flying a kite on a nice day” [sic]) as well as haunting (“rip me in half”) yet they all share an ineffable quality so often present in ambient music, that celebrates life and its subtleties rather than bemoaning our insecurities.
I had the chance to meet up with Aviv and talk about his approach to songwriting, surviving as a musician, and intellectualizing music.
Rare Candy: Why do you make music?
Aviv Cohn: I’ve been making art since I was a little kid. I used to write music in my head before I knew how to play any instruments. Coincidentally, I’ve always felt more connected with visual artists more than musicians, but I can’t really draw the way I’d like to. I’ve got these images in my head but I can’t make them with pen or paint, so I try to express those images through music.
RC: Is there something in your mind that you’re using the guitar as a vehicle to get out, or do you tend to strum and gradually shape out the song as you go along?
AC: Sometimes it’s in my head, while other times it forms as I’m writing the music. For a long time I had this exercise in my head where I’d look at an object and try to create the musical representation of it. These would often take the shape of ambient loops, and that has inspired a lot of what I’m doing now.
RC: Are you trying to evoke any particular moods in the listener with your music?
AC: As long as there’s a strong feeling for me, I think it’ll usually come through, or not. Usually the music of the image, or the music or the art, comes first and then the emotion arises from my response.
RC: What was the reasoning behind putting "I'm sorry" as your Bandcamp description?
AC: There was an emotion behind that which I felt went well with the music. Sometimes I’ll say phrases, like when I released the album I think I said “Thank you,” which I guess makes more literal sense. But they both have this emotion behind them.
RC: How do you survive as a musician in 2015 living in Brooklyn?
AC: What’s the definition of survive?
RC: Being able to eat and pay rent.
AC: I don’t fully support myself through music. It was almost freeing to give up on that idea, and make art for art’s sake instead of for money. That definitely helps me survive. Maybe twenty years ago it was different.
RC: How long have you been playing and recording?
AC: Since I was fifteen years old — but I was writing songs and poetry before that. Therefore, a lot of the emotions you find in the songs existed in me before I started playing any instruments.
RC: What did you grow up listening to?
AC: Growing up I would listen to a lot of poppy stuff, and I would try to extract things from it. I would listen to U2 and hear what I would later learn were ambient sounds, though I didn’t know that type of music at the time. It wasn’t long before I got to Radiohead and Sigur Rós, and then I just kept going deeper and deeper.
RC: Do you remember what your worst show was?
AC: I had a whole string of bad shows for several years because I used to play a lot in bars in the Lower East Side. I’d be trying to do this ambient stuff, that I feel requires something from the audience — it’s not loud rock music that can be experienced viscerally, there has to be some sort of intellectual engagement.
RC: Do you think that it’s better to "viscerally" feel music or intellectualize it?
AC: I don’t think either is better, and they’re not mutually exclusive. One of the reasons that music is so central to our lives is that it resonates with us in almost every way. Even people who are deaf enjoy the vibrations. I don’t think either way is better, everyone experiences music differently. For me, when I say “intellectual engagement,” it’s not intellectual in the same sense that reading a TS Eliot poem is. It’s similar to how you couldn’t have a visceral response to a painting if you were just walking through a gallery — you'd have to make an effort to actually look at the canvas.