Q&A with Stefan Thut and Ryoko Akama about 'about'
"These silences are soon getting replaced by something else: by the sounds from before,
by the sounds in expectation, by thoughts."
YZ (Yuko Zama): Ryoko, I heard that you were the person who initiated this recording project. How did you come up with the idea of this project?
RA (Ryoko Akama): I moved to the North of England in 2012. Since then, I had occasionally organized concerts and eventually set up 'ame' in the autumn of 2017, a creative hub to commission performances and sound installations in our rural area. I wanted to invite Stefan and lo wie, two of my favorite composers, to the first ame project and that was how it started.
YZ: Why did you decide to ask Stefan Thut to write a piece for your ensemble?
RA: I enjoy what his music delivers in every aspect, in terms of composition, performance, and aesthetics. Stefan's music is sensible and delicate, but also is very determined. I like how he integrates ideas of the musical and the non-musical into a piece. The same respect goes to lo wie. I appreciate the time talking with them about music, art, and even trivial matters. I admire them as human beings. Another important thing is that ame targets at inviting people whose practices have rarely been exposed in the North of England, regardless of whether they are established or emerging. ame aims to introduce inspirational but still locally unknown works to the local audience without traveling to bigger cities. So, it simply had to start with people like Stefan and lo wie.
YZ: Stefan, when Ryoko commissioned you to write a piece for her ensemble (for six musicians), what came up in your mind as an inspiration or idea?
ST (Stefan Thut): The project underwent several stages, and at a certain point one of my first thoughts was: what a fantastic ensemble it would be and what a great opportunity for me to do something with these musicians. The ensemble was comprised of musicians from very diverse backgrounds. Apart from music, poetry, and literature, or language in general, are very much present in their works. And what I also found fascinating was the situation of a multilingual potential regarding language. There are four different mother tongues among the six people. This I wished to somehow be part of the composition.
YZ: Ryoko and Stefan, what led you to decide to record this piece with this particular ensemble of six musicians (including Stefan and you)?
RA: We had an afternoon workshop and evening concert a day prior to the recording session at Access Space, Sheffield. Stefan composed a piece ‘away’ for a trio of himself, lo wie and myself for this evening and 'about' for the sextet recording session. Forming this ensemble was like a flow. I perhaps asked those who would be interested in and appreciated Stefan’s aesthetics, but it was not explicitly intentional at all.
ST: Ryoko did not directly ask me to write a new piece for the occasion. She suggested to meet, play, and record some of my music. Then I had to find out what 'my music‘ could be for the project. Of course we could have worked on some already existing score. But knowing that there would be a decent recording engineer at hand, I wanted to make small sounds to be the main subject for the group. (Not just for recording reasons - see later on). Also I wanted to continue working on a material derived from prime gaps, which is for example reflected in the composition 'away'. (There is an excerpt on vimeo)
YZ: Why did you name the title of the piece 'about'?
ST: The title came from the activity of 'walking about'. I knew the space from a performance of my sieben, 1-4 at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. The dimensions of the space allow the musicians to make many steps and therefore to interrupt the activity of playing sounds. (In addition to playing their instruments, all of the musicians were also involved with physical performance activities.) Not knowing the reason for this word to make the title opens for many readings. I decided to label my recent scores by a preposition, because I like the ambiguity of those words in the context of composition. I have started with the letter 'a' and I am still there. My recent pieces are named anew, afore, along, around, apart, atop, amidst, away…
YZ: What was the main concept (or an idea) for this composition ‘about’? Or, what did you and Ryoko want to achieve via the realization of this particular piece?
ST: With this composition, I was interested in how to attribute a meaning to silence while basically playing sounds throughout the entire piece, though with pauses. This may sound contradictory at first sight. I was looking for a specific kind of sound that made us want to let time pass before playing the next sound. That is why there were short sounds occurring, mostly hit, plucked or bowed shortly. The most important element was that of the ringing material, the vibration of the string after having been set in motion, the activation of the air inside the bottle by ear aid devices. This again is connected to our recording situation.
YZ: This recording gives me a unique sensation of experiencing the sounds synched with me 'inside' my brain, while I also feel the sounds coming from far from 'outside'. There is this really nice open feel in the piece, and at the same time, it also contains the sense of "unity" or a silent intensity in the atmosphere, without each musician's sound scattering around with random activities at all. This experience of feeling different perspectives (inside and outside) in a sense of unity is very interesting to me, and seems to give the piece a very wide open, free space for the listeners to experience the "sounds" and "silence" both inside their minds and outside their realities at the same time. Did you intend something like that with this piece?
ST: Thank you for the beautiful description - reading this tells me about the intertwining of listener - performer - composer. I think here your sensation has to do with the nature of sound also. As stated before, the sound is of mainly fading nature while only very few sounds are maintained. Most of the sounds appear repeatedly with a few exceptions. There is a barely noticeable tendency of lower sounds appearing over the course of the piece. I think this quietude on the level of composition supports your listening experience, doesn’t it?
By the way, your words remind me of Rilke’s first verses of the opening of The Sonnets To Orpheus:
There the tree rises. Oh pure surpassing!
Oh Orpheus sings! Oh great tree of sound!
(in the German original, literally: oh great tree inside the ear)
And all is silent, And from this silence arise
New beginnings, intimations, changings.
(Rainer Maria Rilke The Sonnets To Orpheus, English translation © Robert Temple 2010)
YZ: Fascinating connection! There is a large amount of silence in this piece, but what did you intend to attain with these silences in this piece?
ST: Structurally speaking, there are silences occurring again and again. On the other handthese silences are not really long, are they? And I have the impression that these silences are soon getting replaced by something else: by the sounds from before, by sounds in expectation, by thoughts.
What I am interested in here is to not just leave space with silence but a group situation wherein silences occur as an outcome of the musicians' activity. Here each performer follows the vanishing of sound and only thereafter continues with the next sound. This process is multiplied by the number of performers: six pairs of ears are aware of the decay of sound (according to the score). For me, this kind of focus on 'something vanishing' created a state of pure attentiveness.
YZ: What did you like about this particular ensemble of musicians?
ST: I was impressed by their carefulness, their curiosity about their own sounds and the sounds of the others. It is a rather unusual and unique situation to get together in a certain setting to record immediately without a preliminary performance. I think Ryoko had the genuine intuition that this was going to work.
YZ: In our early email, you mentioned that all the musicians felt as if they were 'elsewhere' after the performance. Can you tell me more about the special experience (or sensation) that you and the musicians felt after the performance? And what sort of natures (in this music) do you think brought you all to this special feeling?
ST: I think this kind of music provokes a drifting of the mind. In my experience it is inevitable. Also the evolving texture and the high-pitched sound allude to distant places. Highlands, high altitude, snow fields, very wide landscapes, a calming down of the mind. After the recording, I went to talk to Stephen Chase who was still‚ 'disappearing‘.
YZ: If there was one (or more) thing which all of your musicians were sharing during the performance, what do you think it was (or they were)? Was there any particularly strong sense of a concept that all the musicians kept in their minds during the performance?
ST: What we all shared was the possibility of having two states of being organized: that of acting in the group and that of ‘being on one’s own’ by standing up, making a few steps, and saying a word. The latter was not necessarily addressed to the group. The words appeared for themselves, as if thinking aloud. We all went back and forth between the two activities (as a group and as an individual).
YZ: If there is anything else you have in your mind about this piece and the recording of these musicians, or anything particularly impressed you concerning this collaboration?
ST: Each word was meant to be a sound that had one impetus, reminiscent of the sound quality of the previously performed tones on each instrument. With the use of monosyllabic words, the level of semantics is not apparent. The multilingual situation makes the words even more undecipherable. I am really touched by the occurring of those words. I was hoping that the musicians would get inspiration from playing a single sound to do the parallel activity. And they did.
YZ: Ryoko, how did you (and other musicians) feel after performing this piece together?
RA: I personally find it hard to use my voice in performances. A non-vocalist tends to get self-conscious about his/her own voice. Moreover, this piece asked performers to ‘walk around’ the space. This is also quite a challenging event to do, without feeling too conceptual or theoretical. It can be pretty awkward and even awful. I would never know how a performance might end up until we actually do it. Performing a text score is like a gamble! - depending on performers and their moods at that time, the result can be either polar opposite.
RA: The recording happened in Phipps Hall at the Huddersfield University. I chose the space for some practical reasons, the acoustics, equipment availability and flexibility. We performed in a semi-circle shape for the engineer Simon Reynell’s mic setting strategy. I liked it as I could see what everyone else was doing. I tend to look around the space, audiences and performers when performing because, for me, a performance is not only about listening, but also sharing, interacting and seeing. I like micro-macro relationships between things. Each element - whatever we talk of a human, a phenomenon, or a thing - reacts to an individual situation, but after all, it all affects and interrupts each other. Likewise, at the airport where you see a person on a phone, reading, chatting, waiting, running, sleeping, alone, in pair or in groups. And various sounds coming from all directions. I could segregate myself from being in there and concentrate on my stuff, but no way! I love looking at the situation. Here, I am one of the audience, a performer and even a composer. The world is still beautiful - with these individual lives that endlessly go on and on.
Strangely enough, performing a score like ‘about’’ has a similar mentality. I felt that sort of sense when we performed the piece. The first take was a little awkward but the second and the third were more naturally embedded into the situation. Stephen concentrating on his guitar and forgetting everything else around him, Eleanor plucking piano strings so gracefully, Stefan observing and carefully listening, lo wie feeling subtly nervous with tingsha in her hands, and Patrick rubbing and shaking percussions and smiling. I just loved experiencing all the performers’ personalities and carrying out together. Stefan’s compositions have a magical essence to accept and allow. His other compositions such as five and three boxes or many, 1-4, have a similar energy.
Listening back to the piece is a different matter. Now, the music permits another environment. I am more objective, in a room away from where I was. Now, I experience silence differently, and silence is different from what it was then. The piece evokes a new scene in my alone time. This is a beautiful metamorphosis of a score. I wonder if I can call this moment - an afterlife of the score - the ever-changing translation and the rebirth of a creative work?
(Interview conducted by Yuko Zama, September - October 2018)