Silicon Valley Nightmare
How did it all begin? When did you start using sound in your artistic practice?
My practice is rooted in singing and sound. I started singing when I was young – folk music, then in women’s bands playing new wave, post-punk music. Later I became interested in Turkish and related music and also Greek Rembetika. I still sing Rembetika – the Greek Blues – but in more electronic and mutated ways now.
During the late 70s and early 80s I had also been introduced to free improvisation, which has been very important for me. While I still perform both songs and improvised music, in the 1990s I started to take voice into the area of sound art. Two events triggered this:
One was volunteering on a brand new art radio station run by the London Musicians Collective, called Resonance fm. It started in 1998 and was the first time I’d heard so much sound art. I was very affected by composers like Hildegard Westerkamp and Barry Truax who work with the idea of our sense of place. That was something I’d always been interested in: Why do certain places affect us? How do we develop attachments to places we know well? These composers were using field recordings and electronics. Was it possible to make this kind of work but use singing?
The second event that happened around the same time was meeting and hearing the composer Pauline Oliveros. I did a workshop with her on her method of Deep Listening. Her approach is to try to listen to everything all the time, without judging the sounds. This reinforced the interest I already had in those everyday loud city sounds that it is often tempting to block out or ignore. I decided to bring them into my work.
I started to think about how to combine these ideas of place and improvised voice. Walking seemed the obvious place to start, as it is an activity I do almost every day. My first attempts, in 2002, were called Vocal Strolls and became a regular show on Resonance fm for a few seasons. They consisted mainly of wandering through London while listening to the environment and responding with improvised singing.
On certain walks I often noticed a strong sense of connection, as if the walk belonged to me alone. That led me to wonder about walks that other people take in their home towns and how these might connect them to their “sense of place.” James Joyce wrote that places remember events and I found this idea very engaging – as if everything that happens leaves traces that we might be able to sense. If a person walks through particular places repeatedly, along the same route, does that ground retain traces of the person’s own history and memories? This question led me to create the ongoing project Shadow-walks, which is an attempt to make a person’s traces – their shadow – audible.
To make the work I go to a new place and ask local inhabitants to take me on a special walk, one that’s been repeated many times and has some meaning or significance for that person. While walking together, I record our conversations and the sounds of the place. Later I go back along the same route alone, trying to get a sense of my previous companion’s traces on the walk. Then I sing what I feel using improvisations. These recordings are taken back to my studio, selected and edited together to become the final work. Shadow-walks have so far occurred in twenty one sites in Europe, USA, Asia, Canada and Australia.
Who are your artistic references for what regards your work with sound?
Composers Hildegard Westerkamp and Pauline Oliveros are influences and inspiration. Writings by anthropologist Steven Feld on the practice of “song paths” by the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea helped me formulate ideas that led to my Shadow-walks series. Too many singers to mention have thrilled and influenced me over a long lifetime’s listening. Some of my references also come from artists whose work includes walking, such as Richard Long, Janet Cardiff and Frances Alys.
Can you say something about Silicon Valley Nightmare, the piece you will present at Helicotrema 2016?
Silicon Valley Nightmare is one of my Shadow-walks series. All the recordings used in it were made during a month-long composer residency at Montalvo, California, close to Silicon Valley. The young woman that you hear speaking took me on her special walk, which starts on the Google campus where she works. I was fascinated by her ambivalence towards the company and her description of a nightmare where Google runs the world and creates 2 classes of people: the Googlers and the non-Googlers. I then sang my response to her walk and later collaged her words, the sounds of the environment, and my singing together to make this piece.