The atmosphere in HiFi Listening Room Dream No.1 at New York City’s Lisson Gallery is more like a tea ceremony or a guided meditation than what most would associate with a music listening session. Visitors’ shoes are scattered on the floor outside the door, removed out of respect. There is a sense of anticipation as Devon Turnbull, the master of ceremonies for this spiritual gathering, aptly unwraps a record from Brian Eno’s Music For Installations and places it on the neon turntable.
Breaking the silence in the room, the first track streams through the show’s 10 purpose-built Ojas hi-fi equipment, and it’s clear why the listeners behave the way they do. The sound is special. Compelling and dynamic, as Eno’s music oscillates and booms through the massive gray speakers, it washes over you in waves. This is a sound bath, not a hangout, and showgoers experience Turnbull’s audio lighting.
If you recognize his name, it’s because this is far from Turnbull’s first appearance in the cultural zeitgeist. According to him, this could be his fourth creative life, although he corrects himself by saying that his close friend, the late Virgil Abloh, would disagree with that assessment – it’s all one body of work. The Ojas name, under which he now operates his bespoke audio practice, has been around since the beginning: first as a DJ and graffiti writer, later as co-founder and designer of the influential streetwear brand Nom de Guerre, and now as a loudspeaker sculptor and sound designer. guru.
The Lisson Show will be shut down by the time this piece is published, but it’s far from the only place where Turnbull’s work is installed. His handcrafted monolithic loudspeakers can be seen and heard in NYC and Supreme stores Saturday, at the New York City Ace Hotel and Public Records in Brooklyn, while two high-profile openings earlier this year – Nine Orchard in Manhattan and Virgil’s Figures of Speech exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum – offered more people the chance to discover his work.
How would you describe HiFi Listening Room Dream No.1 to someone who hasn’t had the chance to see it?
The listening room is part of a group exhibition of sculptural works. To use the words of a mentor of mine, Herb Reichert, “It’s a shrine to music.” The hardware is the work. In that sense it is a sculpture, but it is also a venue for music. In my work, form always follows function, but function and form are both extremely important. It sometimes frustrates me that so many people discover my work through photos. This was my first real chance to properly present a sonic sculpture…that was all. That’s what it is.
You’ve described yourself as a “hobbyist,” but each of your recent projects feels way beyond what an ordinary person would consider a hobby. Was there a point where you felt like you were crossing a threshold into the art world?
When I initially started building my own system, I was still doing Nom de Guerre, and my vision was to become a folk artist – one of those guys who spends his life working on something. Then maybe after his death it will be discovered that he has made incredible things and that no one knew about it. It’s other people’s acknowledgment that contextualized it as something other than a hobby for me. But hobbies are everything. If you don’t have a hobby – shit you like to do for yourself, for selfish reasons and just because it makes you feel good – I worry about your mental health. Maybe puzzles are your hobby, maybe playing video games is your hobby, but whatever it is, it’s an activity that gives you great satisfaction. I am lucky that at the moment my hobby is my job.
“I promised myself early on that I would do this until I can’t hear anymore.”
When Nom de Guerre closed in 2010, you were exhausted. What is it about Ojas in his current incarnation that brought you back to life creatively?
Its timeless quality. I don’t feel obligated – just for the sake of a business cycle – to get rid of my stuff and reinvent it every few months. It’s heartbreaking to throw yourself into something and have it last for a month. I promised myself early on that I would do this until I can’t hear anymore; to run this thing to keep it fun. That is very difficult in fashion. It becomes an exhausting cycle. If I were making clothes again, if I didn’t want to make a collection this season, I just wouldn’t.
Commitment to doing it on your own terms. Can you talk about your upcoming projects through that lens?
There’s a new room we’re opening up at Public Records that’s really on my terms. It’s not an Ojas location, but they gave me carte blanche with the audio aspect. l [decided] to build a large-scale two-channel hi-fi system on which music can be listened. There’s not the murmur of someone ordering a coffee drink and then milk being steamed in the background. There isn’t anyone shaking a cocktail, there isn’t even the distraction of just having a drink. For me to really do my thing, to be like, this is my job, pure, nothing else is happening. Because that’s how I use things. Music is the most powerful art form, so why don’t we have locations to appreciate it? We have concert halls, we experience live music, that’s a really cool way to experience music, but for a lot of music, the recorded music becomes the masterpiece.
You can’t perform [the Beatles’] Magic mystery tour. There’s way too much going on in the record. You are supposed to sit down and listen to it. Jazz is about capturing energy and tapping into a collective consciousness between different players. That can only happen once. And we’re lucky that many of those performances were captured in a very special way. You need a two-channel hi-fi music system to listen to that stuff.
What are your go-to records for testing a new system like the one at Public Records?
I usually put on the song “Mule” from Kenny Burell’s Blue. I’m listening to something from Miles [Davis] or [John] Coltrane. [Herbert von] Karajan conducting Beethoven’s 9th is just insane. And then I usually throw on some Aphex Twin or Squarepusher. These types of systems are not designed to play dance music, but I want to be able to listen to electronic music, and that should be satisfying.
“Music is the most powerful art form, so why don’t we have venues to appreciate it? We have concert halls, we experience live music, that’s a really cool way to experience music, but for a lot of music, the recorded music becomes the masterpiece.”
What elements remain consistent across these projects as you work on more high-profile and technically demanding projects?
There is definitely an aesthetic that has been continuous. And there’s a sonic aesthetic. The term “presence” is a big part of it. Modern music is very compressed. Music from days gone by and mostly the music that audiophiles are interested in is very uncompressed. All this new spatial audio stuff, like Dolby Atmos, is an attempt to make you feel more engrossed in music – highly efficient speakers do that extremely well. To make a fashion parallel, Visvim is a brand that references design traditions and heritage materials and then re-approaches them in an updated way. What I do is more of that than being nostalgic about using a 1930s tube. It’s not meant to be old fashioned, it’s that those things have never been beaten in my opinion. I think a lot of people feel that way about vintage denim, right? It’s not that it looks old, it’s just that it looks better.
Is there any danger of Ojas becoming a widely recognized name if you get recognition?
Only if I have to start making things I don’t like. I have two goals. To be able to find locations to express the kind of systems and equipment I want to build. I vowed to make one-off things. They become my visual art. The other goal, which is completely different, is to promote the DIY hi-fi hobby. The highest number of my success for me is more people doing what I do. I am so inspired by this almost dead culture of audio building in Japan. There was a moment of it in New York in the ’90s, and there’s a little culture active in Europe. I kind of participate, but I’m decades younger than the next person to do it. I will be incredibly happy when in 20 years there are four, five or twenty other people who are making this kind of work in one way or another. It’s like we’re the Jedi, making sure the Force isn’t lost.
HYPEBEAST Magazine Issue 30: The Frontiers Issue is now available on HBX.