Here it is, a very interesting interview with Australian sound artist and electroacoustic producer Thembi Soddell, following the listening of her recent album “Love Songs” (coming out on Room40). Published alongside an extensive book outlining more literal readings of her ideas of sonic affect, contemporary relationships and the nature of becoming, Thembi explained its title as follows: “The title Love Songs is a little darkhumorr on my behalf. As the compositional process evolved the work became a meditation on the lived experience of insidious forms of abuse within supposedly loving relationships, in connection to certain forms of mental illness. These experiences are ones of extremes and emotional intensities; the tensions between horror, beauty, rage, desire, confusion, love and perceptual annihilation. Also, a good deal of the source material for the album is voice. I asked Alice Hui-Sheng Chang to vocalise perceptual collapse, which I sampled and manipulated into expressions of these themes. So, these are my love songs.” We tried to dig even deeper into this awesome release guided by its talented author.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi, Thembi! How are you?
Thembi Soddell: Grateful for your interest in chatting with me, and hoping I say something of interest!
Chain D.L.K.: Well…let’s start from the beginning…can you tell us something about your training in electronic music?
Thembi Soddell: I studied sound art, as well as photography, video, and animation, at RMIT’s Media Arts course in Melbourne back in the late 90s-early 2000s. The first sound-related class I took was with Philip Samartzis, who introduced me to field recording, tape manipulation, and digital editing. My practice is a direct result of this. You might also say that my education began long before then, though, from having a father obsessed with experimental music. He was always listening to all sorts of sounds from the fringes for as long as I can remember, and I’m sure it sank in. I remember once at RMIT being in class listening very stiffly and seriously to a Kraftwerk track, then being asked to critique it, and all I could picture was how I would dance around the lounge room with my sister to it at a very young age. It was a strange juxtaposition.
Chain D.L.K.: There’s a strict relation between psychology and perception of sound, and this seems to be one of the keys to understanding your work…do you think that any thought, emotion or cultural meme could be translated into sound?
Thembi Soddell: That depends on what you mean by translation. If you mean in a literal sense – in the way that if you translate from say, Spanish to English, then readers who understand each language can have a shared understanding of the text, then no. I don’t think abstract sound can communicate clearly in that way. That said, as a composer, I do often work with sound as a metaphor, where ideas and experiences become connected to the sounds and compositional choices based on that. This is a type of translation, but not one that could be understood in a literal sense by anyone other than me. There are also certain ideas that lend themselves better to this process, ones that in some way share a connection to the invisibility and ambiguity of acousmatic sound. I also like using sound as a language because, unlike words, it can be interpreted in multiple ways in any one moment and through different senses. This is a bit more like how my brain works when its thinking, with layers upon layers forming connections between perhaps seemingly disparate ideas, not always with words, allowing contradictions to sit together with comfort. I also find it interesting because, like you say, perception is linked to psychology; I believe the way we perceive sound can reflect something of our own psychology, so I can learn a lot about myself or others through my relationship to sound. As Eliane Radigue has said, “sound always reflects something of the mind.”
Chain D.L.K.: Is there any composer or essayist that you recommend in order to understand the above-mentioned relation?
Thembi Soddell: Diana Deutsch’s work ‘Phantom Words’ and her writing around it illustrates this connection between perception and psychology in a very neat way. She’s a musicologist who studies the perception of sound and music, and she designed this track to make people perceive words that aren’t there. This illustrates the way our perception fills in gaps when the input is limited. Deutsch noted that when she performs this exercise on her students, she can tell things about their situation at the time, like those on a diet are more likely to hear the words “I’m hungry,” or at exam time, phrases such as “I’m tired” or “no brain” are more common. For an artist’s perspective, Camille Norment has some installations that explore psychology and perception that are well worth checking out.
Chain D.L.K.: I read that you’re involved in a practice-based search at RMIT University… Could you tell us something more about it? Did this research influence your music research?
Thembi Soddell: Making music is a major part of my PhD research, and most of my work from the past 8 years has been connected to this in some way, even the things that aren’t officially part of the research. The PhD is based on the idea of creating a first-person madness narrative using sound, which is any text written by a person with lived experience of what might be called mental illness (although I don’t think this illness model of understanding these experiences always fits), reflecting upon their experience and interaction with the mental health system. The idea behind the research was to attempt to use acousmatic sound to create a narrative (or non-narrative, as the case may be) of this sort, drawing on some of my own experiences of depression, anxiety and trauma and the problematic treatment I’d experienced through the mental health system. My new album Love Songs is a result of this research.
Chain D.L.K.: I like hyperactive people…and you seem to belong to this high part of mankind! Can you tell us something about your activity as a sound designer for theater and dance as well?
Thembi Soddell: I actually don’t like to spread myself too thin. I prefer depth, not breadth, and have limitations on how much work I can do due to chronic illness. This means I’m picky about what I do and don’t work on. In terms of dance, I have an ongoing collaboration with choreographer Tim Darbyshire. His most recent work, Tainted Title, is concerned with this idea of translation – translations between thoughts, movements, sounds, emotions, examining the spaces between what is said and felt, highlighting misinterpretations and the absurdity of experience. We’ve not had a chance to finish it off and make it public, but I can’t wait until we do because the last iteration brought me to tears, and I can’t even say why. It also made the audience laugh hard. The perfect combo! I’ve also done some sound design for theatre director Rebecca Russell for her work Triggered, which explores the state of dissociation that can happen as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Since my PhD, I’ve gotten pretty good at representing first-hand experiences of trauma in sound, so it made sense to work on this. I would love to do more sound design, as I love being brought into someone’s artistic process and to help them to realize what’s in their imagination, so long as the projects are a good fit.
Chain D.L.K.: Before focusing on “Love Songs,” would you introduce your previous releases?
Thembi Soddell: My first solo album was a short one (about 25-minutes) called Intimacy, released back in 2004, which was based on field recordings I’d made during a hospital stay for a major depressive episode, sampled and transformed. It was my first attempt at trying to shape my external world into representations of my internal experiences. It’s somewhat of a precursor to Love Songs. My second was a full-length album called Instance, which was based on a series of intense dreams I was having at the time of composing. I also have two collaborative albums with cellist Anthea Caddy – Iland and Host. Our sounds blend well because they’re both full of tension, drama and anxiety.
Chain D.L.K.: Many people could find a title like “Love Songs” as misleading as “A Lover’s Discourse Fragments” by Roland Barthes… How do you explain such a title to them?
Thembi Soddell: I am being a little facetious with the title, but I also think it’s quite fitting. When I was composing the album, I was also reading the book ‘All About Love’ by Bell Hooks. Some of the ideas in there influenced my thinking around compositional decisions and the collection of text fragments in the accompanying book – in particular, the idea that once somebody has experienced abuse in a loving relationship, it can become difficult to tell the difference between love and abuse in future relationships. When someone is hurting you, you think they are caring for you because that’s what you have known. Abuse can come to feel like love. When I listen to the work, I feel like there is a darkness to it, but also a beauty. It seems to hold this tension between love and abuse quite well. I also don’t believe this skewed picture of love comes from abusive relationships alone, but also from the way we are fed ideals about love and romance through love songs and other aspects of popular culture, which are in truth reflecting an unhealthy, flawed notion of what love is. The title is somewhat of a comment on that. On a different note, I also figure if people call my work music, then why not call these works songs? After all, they are constructed from a good deal of voice. There’s also something about the absurdity of the whole thing as a package. Thinking about some of the claims some people have made about loving me while simultaneously hurting me, well…it makes me laugh when I call these tracks love songs in a similar vein to the empty declarations of love that occur in the context of abuse. It’s a bit of an eye roll to the things people think they deserve and can get away with, when they say the words, “I love you.”
Chain D.L.K.: Many readers could be interested in knowing how you worked on the (amazing) sounds you packed in Love Songs… Any word about this aspect?
Thembi Soddell: I work with a sampler, which I find to be a magical instrument in the way it can reveal information in recorded sounds that may not be discernible in real-time. I try to highlight those aspects while working. I often use a sampling technique I’ve started to refer to as ‘temporal expansion,’ which involves selecting a portion of recorded sound that will loop in a way that doesn’t sound too much like a loop, creating multiple layers of varying pitches and then spreading them across the stereo-field to further mask the loop. This transforms a short fragment of sound into a monolithic texture that extends well beyond the time of the original sample (hence the term temporal expansion). Of course, with a sampler, I also need to have sounds to sample. I usually record sounds, either environmental sounds or played found objects, but for this album, I asked several peers if they’d contribute something. As well as objects played by me, there’s some flute from Jim Denley, electric bass from Cat Hope, field recordings from Martin Kay and voice from Emah Fox. But most of the sounds are derived from samples of Alice Hui-Sheng Chang’s voice. Even though they underwent significant transformation, meaning it’s hard to pick these sources, I still feel they retain something of their essence. There’s something about recorded real-world sounds when they are sampled that creates this interesting tension between a real and imagined space, which I love.
Chain D.L.K.: One of my favorite aspects of Love Songs is the impressive dynamics and physicality of the whole sound…really emotional! How do you decide that a track is ready to be deployed to listeners?
Thembi Soddell: I’m not sure I know the answer to that, but I do respond to the emotional content of the sound. If it’s making me feel things, I figure it will make others feel things too. Perhaps it’s as simple as that. I’m fussy though, too. I spend a long time working on things and have a clear sense of when it’s ready and when it’s not. I don’t want to waste a listener’s time, so I consider every aspect I put in there. I’m just not sure I have a conscious awareness of how I know when it’s reached this point. I will think about it!
Chain D.L.K.: What did you say to brief Alice? How did you meet for the release of Love Songs?
Thembi Soddell: Alice and I have known each other a long time through the experimental music community in Melbourne. I like what Alice does, and we also share an interest in the way sound and the psyche connect, which is why I asked her if she’d be willing to contribute sounds. I gave her a short, written summary of my PhD research and asked her to create sounds with these ideas in mind. The summary focused on describing five categories of an experience I refer to as perceptual collapse, which is a term I took from a Ted X talk by a mental health advocate Mark Henick called ‘why we choose suicide.’ He refers to aspects of his experience of mental illness as times when his perception collapses. This rang true to my own experience, so as part of the research I observed this sensation and broke it into categories that formed connections between that experience and aspects of my compositional practice. I came up with five categories – temporal expansion, emotional weight, perceptual disorientation, experiential paradox and protective disrupture. I asked Alice if she could attempt to articulate some of these ideas using her voice. I sent this same brief to all the artists who contributed sounds to this album, and they each interpreted it in their own way.
Chain D.L.K.: Some words about the choice of the titles of each “song”…
Thembi Soddell: I often refer to my process of composing as one where I meditate on a range of ideas and felt experiences, where sounds become part of a metaphor-based thought process. The titles came from some of the ideas I was thinking about when composing this work, mainly connected to the history of psychoanalysis and experiences of insidious forms of abuse within relationships. Repetition Compulsion is my favorite title. It’s a term taken from Freud that he used to refer to an observed tendency in people to repeat the traumas and “unpleasures” of their past. Not a conscious attraction, but something operating on a subconscious level, with some people theorizing that it comes from a desire to master our failings from the past. Repetition is also fundamental to my formal processes – my samples repeat, and I often repeat the same gestures over and over again. I like that it could refer to the concept of trauma as well as dictate my approach to form.
Chain D.L.K.: Have you performed Love Songs on live stage yet? Any feedback?
Thembi Soddell: Yes, a few times. I’ve been excited by the positive responses. The most interesting have been about the shifts in perception – the feeling that people lose their sense of time and space or the ability to know what’s real or perceived. Sometimes people describe physical sensations, such as prickling of the skin, or feeling like the sound is almost physically touching them. Which it is, of course, but people aren’t always so aware of this. And this feedback seems more specific in terms of the shapes of the sound touching, or about to touch, them. There have been people who’ve said they feel like they’ve gone on a journey on a spaceship, with all the existential angst that accompanies it, while others are shifted to a darker space where past traumas re-emerge (apparently in a helpful way, thankfully), or they invent distressing narratives that go along with what they’ve heard. And some people have felt like it’s a peaceful, group meditation, or have drawn connections with the flow of the king tides. I love hearing people’s responses. They’re so unique, yet all seem to have an essential connection to some aspect of the ideas I was exploring when making the work. I think the most negative response was someone telling me they thought some sections went on for too long and got a bit unbearable, or that some gestures were repeated too much, but I kind of liked that too because I wanted to create that feeling of frustration when you wish something would end but it doesn’t – that feeling that you can’t escape. That’s trauma for you!
Chain D.L.K.: Any work in progress?
Thembi Soddell: I’ve been working on a sister piece to this album called Held Down, Expanding for a few years. This is a 14.2 channel sound installation inside a large black box, designed for a single listener at a time. They are guided in, placed within a reclining chair that is then raised up and rolled backwards so the person’s head is in the exact right position for listening. The lights are then turned out so they listen in pitch black to an altered, spatialized version of the first track from Love Songs. I designed the speaker system so I could create the feeling of the sound expanding and contracting around you (almost like it’s coming in and out of your head), with the hope of disorienting perception of time and space. It premiered at MOFO 2018 in Tasmania, so it’s mostly done now, but I’m still experimenting with integrating text and the collection of audience members’ responses to create a context around the experience. I’m also very keen to continue making more work in this vein once I next get the chance. Asides from that, I’m writing my PhD dissertation, so that’s taking up all my time. I’m due to submit in December this year, so I may not have the time to do much else until after then. Please cross your fingers and toes for me that I can make this deadline! This is my eighth year…time to move on!
visit Thembi Soddell on the web at: www.thembisoddell.com