Part 2

Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

I’ve done a lot of research into things that help support physical and mental health and try to incorporate aspects of these into my morning routines. Although it’s not fixed and I adapt to my situation at the time, generally I aim to wake early despite my leanings towards being a night owl and mornings always involve transcendental meditation (and sometimes other meditation techniques or breath work on top of that), gentle exercise like walking or dancing, bright light exposure, a five-minute journal (which is a gratitude and reflection app) and healthy breakfast. I aim to start work once my morning routine is finished and do as much or as little as I can manage that day based on where my health is at (I deal with chronic illness). I always try to put creative work at the beginning of the day so that if it turns out that I can’t manage it for long I at least feel like I’ve engaged with something meaningful that day.
Working hours often involve a lot of rests to help manage my chronic pain, which is also part of why I compose slowly and do a lot of thinking around my work or just listening to single sounds for long periods of time. The boundaries between my life and art practice are almost non-existent, in that my art is fuelled by lived experience and I apply the creative approaches to thinking that I develop through my art practice to living my life. I’m a big fan of finding creative ways to work around my limitations or use them to my advantage when I can.

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?

With my most recent album, Love Songs, I refer to the working process as one of meditating on ideas related to trauma and insidious forms of emotional abuse in their relationship to so-called mental illness. Composing was somewhat like an enacted thought process relying on metaphor, where an abstract sound becomes a metaphor for (as well as a provocation of) a thought, feeling, experience or idea, and the compositional process an act of thinking about interconnected aspects of that metaphor. It’s not quite as simple as it sounds, though, in that what I like about using abstract sound to “think” is that a single sound can hold multiple meanings, often paradoxical, as well as no meaning at all or exist as pure affect. It’s a way of developing an ambiguous language of multiple meanings and accessing many layers of thought, imagination and experience in one instance, which I then use as the basis for compositional choices. It’s difficult to explain linearly, but the process for composing Love Songs went something like this:

I began by collecting sounds from a group of peers who I’d asked to articulate the experience of perceptual collapse using sound, based on a brief I’d given them. The starting point for the album came from a sample of Alice Hui-Sheng Chang’s voice. The way it transformed through the sampler when played at a pitch much, much lower than she had performed it made me think of a quote by EM Cioran, from his book ‘On the Heights of Despair’:

Most people are unaware of the slow agony within themselves. For them, there is only one kind of agony, the one immediately preceding the fall into absolute nothingness. Only such moments of agony bring about important existential revelations in consciousness. That is why they expect too much from the end instead of trying to grasp the meaning of a slow revelatory agony. The end will reveal too little and they will die as ignorant as they have lived (Cioran 1992, 27).

In creating this first movement of the piece I was meditating on what this quote meant to me. What is this slow agony? What lies beneath it? What might I be ignorant to? The way this sound held the presence of Alice, while she also remained absent (in that there is no way to tell that it is her voice) also made me think of the idea of object permanence, which is the ability to retain the concept that something exists even when it is not in view. By extension, the idea of object constancy came into play, which is drawn from object relations theory (an off-shoot of psychoanalytic theory focused on the interpersonal realm), where a person who lacks object constancy may have difficulty experiencing people as trustworthy or consistent even when they are. So, within this movement the compositional choices and the process of enacting them was part of a meditation on the interaction of these themes, which came to connect with the experiential impact of emotional abuse within interpersonal relationships.
These ideas then set the scene for the remainder of the composition, with each movement exploring ideas entangled with this starting point. These included the societal silencing of women’s pain as a tactic of power and control and its connection to mental health treatment, Frued’s notion of ‘repetition compulsion’, where a person is thought to repeat the traumas of their past and the question of whether or not this places blame on the victim, the lived experience of trauma as a disconnection between the event of the trauma and the ability to experience its effect. Many of these ideas dictated the way I made compositional choices, with key factors for exploration being the manipulation of time perception, temporal dislocation, drama as emotional intensity and repetitions of gestures or forms.

Of course, I do not expect that these ideas will be communicated in a literal way to the listener, especially as the sound is so abstract. However, I did create a body of text to sit alongside the work, to create context and perhaps somewhat shape a listener’s engagement. I approached this in a similar way as I approached composing the sound – taking quotes from others out of context to transform them and heighten ambiguity (which is at the heart of acousmatic practice) and create a narrative with multiple ways of being perceived.

In some ways, I think of the final work as an experiential narrative of the trauma of emotional abuse, in that it emphasises the experience of affect, ambiguity, temporal displacement and gaps in understanding inherent to this. In other ways, I just think of it as pure sound and that these themes were just a means to create an end that’s disconnected from the process. And the way that audience members respond can vary drastically from person to person, often reflecting more about their own experiences than mine, or finding a point where they intersect. I am very open to it becoming something different than what I intended. My processes are a starting point not an ending.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

Being creative requires letting go of judgement and letting yourself play. The best way for me to get into this state is taking care of my health, which decreases the likelihood of getting distracted by negative thoughts, feelings, behaviours or habits. Things like floatation tanks, meditation and breath-work, therapy, healthy eating and not spending too much time with assholes all help put my nervous system into a calmer state where creativity becomes more possible. Although, admittedly that last one has inspired a few albums after the fact so I guess that’s in a grey zone. Ha!

How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?

Playing live and writing music are very different for me. In the studio, I spend a lot of time listening and imagining. I’ll take a sound, sample it, then engage in long periods of listening to a single sound to understand it – what does the sampler do to it? How does that sound work? What does it make me feel? What does it mean to me? What might it mean to someone else? I then start to imagine how it might work within a composition and begin taking steps to make that happen.
It is a slow process and not always easy and involves the tedious labour of figuring out how to make the sound do what I want it to (and the frustration when I can’t) and improving my technical skills and knowledge.
It can sometimes be quite therapeutic too. In a live context, I am less focused inwards and more focused on the experience. I am not composing, but attempting to give the audience a specific, sculpted experience in real time. It is also more about playing the acoustics of a room. The composition is mostly set and the live context becomes about working that composition within the space and understanding how they interact. The level a sound is played back at can completely transform its effect, as can the way it moves through space, so I am very attuned to that in a performance context. My live work is about the interaction between sound, space and audience and how that transforms a composition; my studio work is about creating that composition and would not be interesting for an audience to listen to.

How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?

I guess I would say the sound aspects refer to specific sounds and their effect, while compositional aspects refer to the juxtaposition of different sounds, the transitions between them and the development of sound overtime. But drawing these distinctions doesn’t make a lot of sense to me when I’m thinking about process. It’s too blurry for me to tease out in much more depth.

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?

I listen infinitely better in the darkness. I can spend more time immersing myself in the details and sensing the emotions and internal experiences it triggers – it’s a better way to understand sound and its effect. I also find audience members have the most profound responses to my work when a space is pitch black or close to it. Visuals can be a distraction and take a lot of brain power to process. If you take that away there are more resources available to experience the other senses and really become immersed in sound.
I’m also very attuned to the connection between sound and fear. Sound travels far and by extending beyond the boundaries of the visual space it can provide warning well before a threat may be close enough to do harm. Being well attuned to sound can keep you safe. This sense of threat can be enhanced by physical sensation – the closer or louder a sound, the more likely we are to feel as well as hear it, which correlates with its ability to do us harm. Listening to a sound in disconnection to its cause (as happens in an acousmatic situation), and heightening the physical experience of sound through subwoofers, can toy with its relationship to fear. This is central to my performance work and is part of what makes it such a great medium to explore anxiety through.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

To be frank, life can at times be a real mother fucker and I use art to deal with it. Making art out of traumatic or difficult life experiences can create meaning from them, which helps me from falling into a nihilistic, existential hell. There is something about representing these feelings and experiences that are in other ways unsayable or unknowable that makes them more okay and more manageable. And they also make for good music!
But the best part is, in doing so I also find it helps others find their own similar experiences more manageable too. So, music and other aspects of my life are deeply entangled.
I’ve been doing a practice-based PhD for the past eight years (and still going!), which looks at how lived experience of mental illness, emotional distress and trauma might be represented or understood through sound. This research also provides a means to deconstruct the idea of emotional distress as an illness, which I’m critical of in the way that it can perpetuate oppression, where an illness can often be a natural (and I’d say healthy) response to social oppression or abuse.
For some, this model can perpetuate abuse and we need to be careful with the language we build around these experiences because of what a profound effect it can have on how a person relates to themselves and the world around them. Sound can be a great way to explore these ideas without a need for language, bypassing this problem. I am also really into the idea that these very abstract and, what some might argue, meaningless sound experiences can be dense and layered with meaning if we like to make it so, which says something about the way we create meaning in the world as well.
There is an inherent tension between lived experience and narrative – where narrative is not inherent to experience yet is necessary to help us take actions and understand context. More recently I have also become interested in the idea that acousmatic sound might be a way to facilitate a discussion of ideas beyond sound in itself. Life is complex. Multiple truths exist within any one moment. Experience can be narrated in multiple ways. A single way of reading any situation is limited. I like the idea that acousmatic situations can facilitate reflection upon the multiple ways we understand experience. This can be a good springboard for discussion of these philosophical issues that have a profound effect on our mental wellbeing.

It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?

I’m not sure that I know what this agreed upon basic concept of music is or what its current form is. But I do like to imagine it could expand to a more multi-sensory and perceptually deeper experience. It would focus on evoking feeling states that can’t be understood through visual or word-based languages, but lend themselves to multi-sensory experiences. But there would still be an absence of visuals. This is important for me because once visuals become a part of it, somehow, it’s something other than music. Although, I could maybe argue with everything I’ve just said. I’ve never been one to think or care much about definitions of music and its boundaries. Why must everything be categorised and defined?

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