Name: Lola de la Mata
Occupations: Composer, sound artist, curator, performer
Current release: Lola de la Mata's "KOH - Klee - uh" is out via SA Recordings. It deals with de la Mata's relationship with tinnitus and kicks off a series of recordings titled The Hearing Experience said to "explore the artist's relationship with the act of listening." SA Recordings has featured work by Nyokabi Kariūki, Mabe Fratti, Hainbach, and Spitfire Audio and the series will include commissions from Astrid Sonne, Canilla, and more.
[Read our Astrid Sonne interview]
[Read our Mabe Fratti interview]
[Read our Nyokabi Kariūk interview]
If you enjoyed this interview with Lola de la Mata and would like to know more about her work and music, start your journey on her official website. She is also on Instagram, twitter, and Soundcloud.
The human body is an ongoing focus of your creative work. Why has it proven to be such a fertile field for you?
Some of us I guess are handed natural talents. I was handed a demanding body with its own temperament and restrictions which I would say don’t always align with my own. It enjoys randomly falling asleep, changing my vision just because, swelling at the drop of a hat, weakening my hands and holding me to being in bed by 11pm or else.
I make work in order to … befriend my body? To understand it I guess. Fighting against it for most of my 20s didn’t get me very far, so now I choose to make work with it as subject.
The ear, it would seem, is an underexplored organ of the human body. What did a book like Azimuth, the Ecology of an Ear tell you about the ear which may not have been obvious before?
Patrick Farmer’s deep research approach aligns with my own, focusing in, looking for details and alternative truths in horizontal fields. His mind is attracted to quantum physics, natural histories, Gray’s Anatomy, memory and water. My research and reading does not take me down these paths so it felt refreshing to encounter poetic output dancing around ideologies and images I would not have met otherwise.
I would be lying if I said I understood all he printed, but enough to help me bring the internal ‘hidden’ structure of the ear out before me and look at it from different perspectives.
What was your personal experience with tinnitus like?
Honesty, it is a challenging condition. You can never get away from it, you can’t turn down the volume or mute your ears, it has a life of its own.
Surprisingly I didn’t get tinnitus from playing violin or from working with feedback or making electronic music. It was in some ways an insignificant moment at a restaurant where I was finishing my glass of sake after dinner and a guy plugged in an electric piano without checking the master fader was on 0. That’s it. After that I couldn’t hear much from my left ear except for unexpected tones or thunderous sounds which would wake me up at night. It was freaky as I often couldn’t tell what was ‘real’ and what was my ear.
Some months passed and I was referred to an audiologist who suggested I stop playing violin or listening to music - which is obviously a mammoth request if your mode of expression is through sound … After 18 months of minimal sound making my left ear found a new balance. It can hear, but not like before.
I would assume that you spent time trying to understand the reasons for your tinnitus. What were some of your findings? What, at its core, “is” tinnituts?
The referral process was interesting. Hearing tests if you are into noise / abstract sound are really exciting. With each test they performed I was like - this is so cool! Can I record this? Needless to say I didn’t captivate them with my excitement so I continued to follow a finger, wear camera goggles, press a button or be fed into an MRI scanning my brain for the nth time.
Findings wise - the offensive phrase “your ears are fine” was repeated at every stage so I was passed on to a tinnitus therapist, which I didn’t even know existed. I was a little dubious to begin with but it will be no surprise to anyone that it was in fact the most helpful form of ‘medical support’ or however you wish to call it. Beautifully put, my tinnitus therapist suggested I shift my thinking from having ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’ hearing, to acknowledging my tinnitus as the functioning of the ear, just how you might take your pulse, or hear your heartbeat when you put your ear to a pillow.
I now talk about my tinnitus as the noise floor of the ear, or as my own personal filter or frame to my listening. It’s not to say that it has resolved my tinnitus. I do struggle with it, but it’s always helpful to have an internal monologue to help calm myself when it feels overwhelming.
Your upcoming release on SA Recordings emphasises the psychological impact of tinnitus. Can you talk about this a bit – especially in the light of the fact that it is a "non-emitted" and thus, "unsharable" sound phenomenon?
Treading along the classical composer circuit in London there is still this idea of the genius who hears music in his head. My personal experiments with sound had never been to make audible something I have in my mind, but specifically about listening and allowing tangible sonic moments to reveal themselves in relation to a concept.
Amusingly I now literally hear sound in my left ear all of the time, which changes depending on my mood and my surrounding. In a sense I have never been made so aware of how I hear and the subtle differences brought on by room acoustics and setting.
I was quite lonely in my tinnitus, as I spoke with people while making this work I found out that plenty of people around me suffered from / experienced tinnitus, or forms of deafness. Each time someone spoke to me about it, they swiftly followed up with - I don’t usually talk about this, or I haven’t told anyone before. Although speaking about tinnitus is triggering for those who have it, it is also a relief to not feel alone in it.
What kind of impact did your tinnitus experiences have on your creative work and perspectives?
In the music industry there is this strive to find the ‘purest sounding’ gear. The reality of our industry is many of us have tinnitus. If anything my tinnitus shook me up and led me to start an exploration into the word ‘hearing’ and its application to sound and silence.
Hearing is something that we all do no matter where we fall on a ‘hearing spectrum’. We do it with our skin, our eyes, our bodies, our ears. With all these hearing tools there is a translation that takes place, and how we translate varies from one person to the next.
"KOH - Klee – uh" is part of an effort to "create individual pieces based on different parts of the ear in relation to tinnitus." What, concretely, does that mean?
Well, the piece "KOH - Klee - uh" manifested itself after the initial plan was to make a piece around the Rhine & Weber hearing test which uses C2 or C4 medical tuning forks for air and bone conduction placements to the forehead, behind the ear and hovering above the ear canal.
Concretely - I guess like with any of my work, it’s about getting to know something. Spending time with it instead of just being at its mercy, but studying it, sketching it through sound, which is simply my medium of translating my thoughts or summing my emotions.
I find it interesting that the piece consists both of the expected high pitched tones as well as very deep, bass-rich resonances. Why is this?
Because it comes from the body, from the bone, from mass and fluid.
The cochlea is this spiral covered in hairs riding vibration waves and home to crystals. Before the cochlea we have the hammer and drum, and before that we have air. It’s extraordinary, this precise and vulnerable architecture we carry with us. Yes, there is the frequency spectrum we hear, there is the tinnitus filter. But there is also the imagined sounds of the flesh architecture in macro.
Tell me a bit about the compositional process for "KOH - Klee – uh", please.
I saw Joby Burgess perform some pieces on the Canna Sonora back in 2019. If you don’t know what this instrument looks like - Think scaffolding rods meets harp. I was excited by the unusual nature of this percussion instrument which is played on a vertical plane and activated with friction (powdered rosin gloves) to make piercing sustained tones ranging C6-C8. I also love the fact it is known by the hilariously not PC name “rub rods” in the film industry … but that is not part of my compositional process.
Anyway so I went to Joby to record the tinnitus material, with clouds of pitches alongside poems I had written to support the improvised workshop type recording session.
Working with double bassist Marianne Schofield I was interested in the 3D space. The role of the double bass acted as a solo / melodic part, narrating elements from the ear mechanism. It was important to me to work with a classical instrument which is usually used to provide body and texture to orchestration, and explore it centre stage with a percussive approach.
Inspired by Laban Notation principles, we developed material thinking about what oblique, horizontal and vertical sounds could be - as embodied by her and in the sounds themselves. We spent a day finding sounds, plucking overtones on microtonally tuned strings and finding wood / muted qualities against metallic rattling sounds.
Outside the recording workshops I follow my text scores or text maps I should call them to support the editing of the piece into finding its compositional arc.
I personally found the experience of listening to the piece intense, but not so much frightening or unsettling. What is your personal hope what listeners take away from it – if you have such concrete hopes at all?
I hope I am not frightening anyone! I guess it’s true that body subjects can make some people feel uncomfortable. I only wish to activate the ear, not just allow it to be a passive hearing device but draw attention to it, allow the audience to tune in to its intricacies. I am in awe of its structural and material complexities and hope to bring to listeners minds movement and landscapes taken from the mechanism.
Can you very briefly talk about some of the other "tinnitus pieces" you're working on?
I would say the ensemble of pieces are centered around the ear as subject but developed with intention following the onset of tinnitus. The plan is to explore various states of vibration as it moves through the ear, also to incorporate some of the hearing tests, and in at least one of the pieces spoken word and extended vocal expressions.
Do you still have tinnitus at the moment? If not, have you made any attempts to try and prevent it from returning?
Slow … down …
In a sense this is a complicated question. I have taken steps to support my body. One of them was to move out of London so that I could work more flexibly, and when I open the window to alleviate my tinnitus I am in nature.
Granted this is perhaps an unusual take on living with tinnitus and other chronic conditions but so far it is supporting me. I spent almost two years tangentially working with sound through teaching and curating but I missed sculpting with sound. My tinnitus is definitively here to stay, so I am learning to create with a different ear.