Name: Chloe Alexandra Thompson
Occupation: Composer, sound artist, sound designer, educator
Recent release: Chloe Alexandra Thompson's They Can Never Burn the Stars is out via SIGE.
Recommendations on the topic of sound: In addressing spaces I consider both the physicality of the space, how that plays into its acoustic properties as well as the function of the space: who has access to this type of space as well as who is the “audience” for it. I have been very interested in how the concepts outlined in Salomé Vogelin's recent trilogy of books and Dylan Robinson’s Hungry Listening outline some means to integrate as well as interrogate sound and listening in a socio-political way. In talking about sound and space you cannot leave out terms of access to spaces and institutions, or how we situate our works in these ways
Some books I have had on my shelf for some time that have been educational or found their ways into my work: Hito Steyerl’s Too Much World, Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, among others; Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, The Almanac of Death and The Turquoise Ledge; Sound Agency by Brandon LaBelle; Barthes' Image Music Text and A Lover’s Discourse; The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard; On the Sensation of Tone; Love After the End, edited by Joshua Whitehead; Karen Bachard's writing, too much science fiction, and the Atlas of AI among many others.
Historical: Sound By Artists, Text Sound Texts, an anthology on sound poetry; Éliane Radigue’s recent publication; Salomé Voegelin’s three works Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art; Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound; and The Political Possibility of Sound.
Programming related: Computer Music Tutorial by Curtis Roads; Electronic Music and Sound Design.
If you enjoyed this interview with Chloe Alexandra Thompson and would like to find out more, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, and Soundcloud.
Can you talk a bit about your interest in or fascination for sound? What were early experiences which sparked it?
I spent a lot of time alone as a child listening to the world, it was a large part of my development. I’ve always found a certain reprieve in music and sound.
My first real memory of experimenting with sound was when I was very young, listening to the radio. I noticed that the fabric of the speakers was moving and was perplexed at how sound was behaving as wind would. I strung up string all around the living room and made little paper tents then blasted the radio and switched the dials to see how different sounds interacted with the objects. I was enthralled. Since I have been trying to hold onto that feeling of being as enthralled with the physicality of sound as I was in that moment.
I am still interested in the kinesthetic qualities of sounds in my practice. I use the space and objects in the space as instruments at times which is completely relative to my childhood experience. The digital bonus track on the record, Touch Modality is a subass only composition which was performed on a 14 subwoofer array which included infrasound. The mics were placed in various areas of the room, and the only sounds audible about 100hz are the room, and the vibration of objects in the room that were contact mic'd.
The first time that I performed a sub bass only piece was at Oregon Contemporary (Formerly Disjecta) for a small festival put on by Variform Gallery featuring PITA, Strategy, Jamondria Harris, and Myles deBastion. I tuned the piece to shake dishes in the kitchen and other objects to act as snares and accompany the work.
What's your take on how your upbringing and cultural surrounding have influenced your sonic preferences?
I was born on Treaty 6 Territory in Canada, near where my tribal nation is, but I primarily grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, which is a small city but a rather dense urban environment. I was isolated from my Cree family and culture but my culture has continued to inform a lot of my decisions as an artist as I’ve been able to reconnect more.
My first show was D.O.A when I was 12 at an all ages venue I would attend called Seylynn Hall, it was a rowdy space with a skate park near a river where the underage punks would go off to party out of sight. I really got onto something when I started going to Fake Jazz, a weekly noise show, at an old dive bar called the Cobalt in Vancouver when I was 14. I became interested in Industrial music and noise around this time.
I remember seeing Sick Buildings (Josh Rose) perform with tape loops and a balloon at the Emergency Room, a venue that was a mainstay within the Vancouver “Weird Punk Scene” when I was 15 or 16 years old. His stark minimalism and steady movements really changed what performance could look like for me. Jesse Taylor of Twin Crystals / In Mirrors had me over to play with the band on synths, I would have DJ and art making get togethers with Florist (DE), and Jeffro Halliday, and through interviews I was conducting for a local magazine I was able to learn more about what people were doing artistically with their music. The openness to engagement within this scene allowed me to engage with artistry through experiential learning as a youth.
What drew me to these works initially as a teenager was the intensity of the work. In my own practice being around these types of brutalist structures really furthered my own curiosity and interest in experimental / punk music as the act of making rather than the ideal of some perfected packaged product. Considering the message above the medium this is the most valuable takeaway from what I was exposed to at that time.
Which artists, approaches, albums or performances using sound in an unusual or remarkable way captured your imagination in the beginning?
As a teen outside of a local / underground music context I was interested in Merzbow, Public Image Limited, Wire, Les Rallizes Dénudés,l Velvet Underground, Broadcast, Bush Tetras, X, Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, COIL, and other Industrial acts and how performative many of these acts were, working across genre integrating visual aspects (although some visuals proved to be problematic), as well as the sounds from campy horror films.
As I grew up and continued on to explore sound art I of course found the work of Maryanne Amacher, Éliane Radigue, Robert Ashley, Laurie Spiegel, Laurie Anderson, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier, Cage, and other Fluxus composers. It was inspiring to see work at the intersection of music, sound and conceptual art. I also became drawn to a need to build strange structures present in this work, allowing something potentially of chance to become a beautiful apparatus.
[Read our Merzbow interview]
[Read our Cosey Fanny Tutti of Throbbing Gristle interview]
[Read our Pauline Oliveros interview]
From the point of view of your creative process, how do you work with sounds? Can you take me through your process on the basis of a project or album that's particularly dear to you?
My process is really based on the project I am working on, if I am collaborating with a visual artist or dancers, if I have a deadline for presentation or if I am in a research phase also comes into play.
For They Can Never Burn the Stars, I began the work while in collaboration with visual artist DB Amorin who makes work focused around glitch as it relates to his aesthetic as well as personal experiences for a project I was working on during the pandemic called Haptic Paradigm. Haptic Paradigm was an interactive website where the audience could take turns interacting with an installation in real time through a livestream of the work. Participants could manipulate simple slider controls on a website and experience the feedback they were having on the audio and visual components of the compositions. I began working on building the instruments, and collecting field recordings, used on the album while in quarantine during a visit to Coast Salish land near Victoria, BC.
I would take walks down to the ocean and jump in even though it was late September and cold. I got to see some otters and seals, and being able to connect with and make offerings to the water was really important after spending most of the year in a tiny Brooklyn apartment, and I was able to make some recordings with the ocean, the rain, arbutus trees moving in the wind, and their bark that sheds to the ground. These moments were really important to me - having grown up where I did, I thought that sea enemies and starfish existed in every area of the ocean before moving away from them. With the environmental changes happening which affect the ecosystem, it is sad to think that there’s a chance that my visits will become less full of this precious life.
I work a lot with hidden meaning - or ambiguity and abstraction. I have always been interested in how, through art, we can communicate some knowledge or feeling that words may not adequately describe, and how through codifying these bits and pieces, sometimes that feeling can be interpreted or felt in surprising ways by people who are engaging with the work. While working on this project I was having a lot of discussions with both my cousin and uncle about our family and culture, and working with our traditions across all that we do.
Through the process of making this album I was involved as a co-editor on a paper that my uncle was writing, which shares a name with the album. His work was discussing the research methodologies he implemented as part of co-founding the Two-Spirit Dry Lab - the first health research group to be specifically focused on the experiences of Two-Spirit people and communities. One of the main overlaps that really influenced the work on this album were how fundamentally our traditions, blood memory, and connection with spirituality can have a way of transcending interruptions such as cultural ruptures, genocide or land destruction, which brings up a lot of hope and grief simultaneously. While working with these seemingly disparate themes (making an interactive A/V work, working on a paper with a family member), I started to build a representation of what I was gaining from both of these frameworks into this work.
There are a lot of elements in the album which are present throughout a piece, but not exactly heard until another element, an effect, or tone, slips away, a sort of unveiling. I became interested in how to work with other-than-human kin, like water, both directly, and as raw data alter different sonic elements or structures throughout the work. This is not new, I think that a lot of what we work with as artists and sound designers share analogues with our other-than-human-kin. In some ways the ocean is the original filter sweep on a noise generator and has affected our understanding of synthesis and while you can use a filter sweep to mirror a wave; it feels more pertinent to my process to acknowledge that relationship and original inspiration.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and working with sound?
I am interested in relationships built into tuning systems and music theory, as well as breaking the inherent expectations we have of these relationships in traditional composition. I am seeking to use tonality and frequency as a way to affect the listener in both a psychoacoustic and kinesthetic manner, taking advantage of the core responses we have to sonic material based on our survival mechanisms.
I focus on sitting with the sounds I am working with and listening to where they might want me to take the work. In some ways making work feels like building a puzzle or cypher around some meaning. I am also interested in building structures and then stripping away as many elements as I can while maintaining the original essence of the work. Sometimes the root of a composition can come from a simple prompt to make the pretty parts harsh, and the harsh parts beautiful. Sometimes a composition is built around frequencies that have a psychoacoustic or kinesthetic affect on the listener.
The possibilities of modern production tools have allowed artists to realize ever more refined or extreme sounds. Is there a sound you would personally like to create but haven't been able to yet?
I feel very lucky to have been able to make work with Infrasonic Subwoofer Arrays, High Density Loudspeaker Arrays, Wave Field Synthesis Arrays and other modes of spatialization that create sound holograms. I also feel lucky to primarily work with audio programming softwares to create custom instruments and FX. I occasionally construct crude instruments as well. I work primarily with Max as a tool for generating and altering sound. When I am working with as a sound designer with a touring live performance I often work in Ableton Live sessions as that can be a bit more simple to pass on to another designer or touring assistant designer, when I am doing sound design in the studio I work with Pro Tools for editing recordings.
I am most interested in exploring the relationship we have intuitively as people to sound and music; the fundamental understanding of acoustics that can be gained through our experiences in relationship to this earth, sounds interactions with our atmosphere, and how sounds move in natural space. I am also interested in the intersections and differences that many cultures have regarding their own relationships to sound.
Working with these threads feels more fruitful and creative than letting my own ego begin thinking that in making a sound that is new to me, that it has never been experienced in some way and having some want to take ownership over it … In making, once my ego gets involved I don’t allow myself to be completely honest in my creative process. Ego can get wrapped up in a binary of winning or losing and that isn’t what making is about for me.