Bit-makers - with Diana Soh

Bit-makers vol.2 is the second serie of interviews of artists about artistic research. The title of the series is a wordplay with "beat-makers", for pulsed music producers. Most of the artists develop their own creative tools, in the form of computer programs producing "bits".




Do you recognize yourself in the term "Composer-researcher"?

As soon as you define yourself as a composer, it means that you are looking for something. Researcher is a title. As I do not belong to any institute, I cannot claim to be one. But this notion is already included in the definition of a composer. To be a composer means that one is already seeking, searching, or that one is working to reach a certain transcendence.

So the notion of "researcher", with its scientific connotation, doesn't suit you?

No actually I don't recognize myself in this term. As a composer one is already researching, carrying out musical research. That is the priority. The purpose is not to use the most advanced technology or to be the first to use a new gadget, the purpose is to make music. Technology is only a tool.
We first look for what music we want to make, and only then we discover what technology is useful to us to make it. That's how it works.

So you define yourself as a composer?

Yes, without a doubt.

What does this job entail for you?

What does it entail?! (laughs)
It's a construction job. And a problem-solving job. We solve problems. There's always a problem somewhere in the music, and so we look for solutions. When we present a work there is always an issue, and our job is to respond to it. That's what musical research is all about.

What kinds of problems? Aesthetic, technical?

It can be anything... in fact I see everything as a problem!
It can be a design problem: how to express the concept of the piece in its musical form? Or, when working on a sound material, how to make the listener (like the composer) recognize it as a musical object? How to transform it? It all comes down to finding a solution each time. And sometimes we realize that there is no solution. Our work, the writing of a piece, is our way of asking questions.
I would even say that it's not enough to just ask the questions, you have to be able to formulate them. It's a construction game and that's our job. To build little by little, like using clay.

Is asking questions in writing, is conceptualizing a way to answer these questions?

Not really, I don't conceptualize much.

So your answers can be made immediately musical?

I don't think so. I believe that there are hard and fast, dry types of music, in the sense that they are developed only in relation to the sound, only in relation to what is written on the page. But in my case, many external elements come into play, whether they are socio-cultural or political. As is the case in music that includes text, dance... You have to be attentive to all the elements that make up a whole show. To say today that we only make music is a bit too simplistic.
We no longer live in an era where we go to concerts because we can't listen to music at home. There's a lot of things around us and we have to take that into account: we have Netflix, Deezer, Spotify, there's noise in the street, screens that are asking for us all the time, everywhere. I'm not saying that it's something you have to systematically incorporate into your creation, but you have to be aware of it. The context has changed.

So how do you approach this problem, going further than "just making music"?

I think every piece is different. But what I've been trying to do for some time now is to find out how I can make music that makes people want to leave their houses and come to the concert hall.
I'm not talking about gimmicks like putting transducers on the seats or things like that. Even though it can be interesting, what really counts is make the time out valuable. Really, make the time out of people's homes valuable.
You only have one life, you have a limited amount of time. How do people want to spend it, when their time is already stolen by movies, by daily life, by children, husbands, everything! And by Netflix and everything else at home at your disposal!
So, when you create something you have to take all this into consideration. Otherwise it's pure selfishness, narcissism: "Yes, I'm a composer, I do what I want!". If you do this, then there is no relationship with the audience. The time when creators don't take the public into account is finished. We really need an audience. Contemporary music could reach an audience that doesn't have access to it.
There's something that I often see and regret very much. Let's put on a piece of chamber music that lasts ten minutes. We change the set and that takes fifteen minutes. Then, we have eight musicians on stage. Change the stage again, and another twenty minutes pass, and we play a ten-minute piece. So what happens then? How do you compete with shows? You can't!
In any "commercialized" show there is a common thread, a kind of staging. We ask ourselves the question of how we link the pieces together, how we give a clean and clear experience. Otherwise we lose the audience! And that's a shame.
When you compose, in this little room that you build, even if it only lasts seven minutes, there are a lot of things that you can bring to people. Many composers can bring a lot to an audience that is larger than the one we have. We always see the same faces at contemporary music concerts...
So we either accept it, or we try to make others understand why we like to do it, why we love this music and why we can love it. But you have to give it a framework. And it's not marketing, it's just a smarter way to approach the subject.

Is the classical music scene too “old school”?

It’s full of dinosaurs.

What can be done to change this?

I'm not saying that we should put lights everywhere, that we should turn every concert into a big production. Simply taking care of the entrances/exits, making sure the direction is strictly musical, taking into account the audience’s feelings. The Pairing Programming (Editor’s note: associating in a concert pieces with different inspirations on the same subject) is also very important. A lot of things are possible, one just needs think about it a little.

We get the feeling that this relationship with the public is very important to you. What do you have to say to the audience through your music?

Many things. I had a sudden click after the birth of my daughter. I became aware of our social responsibilities. You quickly realize that we are very privileged. It's a luxury to write music and I experience that every day, knowing that the other part of the world lives in misery. And when you think about the misery, you can't compose anymore.
When I'm in my studio, I take this artistic time for myself, for my own construction. But in this studio work you have to have a connection with real life. That's what I want to do. I don't write in a bubble, closed off to everything that's going on around me.
This means I can work simultaneously on two types of projects: "artistic" projects, which are in line with the requirements of the productions, and other projects that are more anchored in reality.
For example, my opera project is called "Tragic Ways to Kill a Woman." This project deals with issues surrounding women's rights, femicide, and domestic violence, which is an important topic for me.
At the same time, I have a more accessible project that directly touches on this issue: I went to Gennevilliers where there is a center for women's rights, and there I met several immigrant women who came to France ten or fifteen years ago but who cannot assimilate for reasons of language and because they are stuck in difficult family situations. They don't get out, at least not culturally. So I have built a project that deals with these problems on a daily basis. I'm an immigrant myself, and I'm lucky, much luckier. But I am the same. I came out of the world I grew up in and I live in a completely different world than the one I knew.
So, when I go into my studio it gives me even more strength, I feel like I'm really in touch with my subjects. It's not like I'm talking about migrants in Syria and I've never done anything in Greece.
All my plays are not political or social. I can also write a string quartet "just like that" and I have no problem with that. But nowadays, I am more and more interested in doing projects that are directly related to the "outside" world.

You refer to this project as "more accessible". Is there a big musical difference with your other projects?

Of course, because basically, in a "pro" project the goal is artistic. So in my studio I do what I want to do. The other project is called "Seeing Women" (it's a working title) and here the goal is more to create a framework in which the women I met can go beyond their comfort zone and give themselves permission to create with me.
It's a kind of guided creation. I create with them, I listen to their stories. It is very cathartic. Even if it's only an hour for them, without children, without a husband, just an hour to discover or rediscover themselves, it's important.
So the music for this project shouldn't be completely shocking, too abstract. This is still a problem to be solved! It is necessary to present things differently; the goal is not to remain clinging to my very contemporary style. It's a one-year project. I don't have a problem changing my style. There is always my stamp on my projects, anyway.

Has this project changed the way you work in the studio? Compared to other pieces that could be "just for you"?

Of course it has! It's not easy to define, to quantify what changes. But it clearly affects the music. It's something global. But since I've been doing this kind of work, pairing, that is to say doing a work turned towards the other and a purely artistic project on the same theme, it gives me a lot of energy, I have the feeling that I can go further.
To compare, when we listen to a lot of contemporary music, sometimes we come back to Haydn and that makes us feel good. In the same way, if you listen to too much classical music, you have to listen to a bit of jazz... It's a question of balance.

What would be the main characteristics of your music?

Difficult question! Already I have a preference for high-pitched sounds. I also like rhythms in which there is a textured, fluid aspect, where a lot of things are happening all the time, and whose timbre changes quite quickly. There's a kind of nervousness there.
Maybe that would be the main characteristic, these elements of rhythm and a high timbre...

In your bio, you say that the physical aspect is very important.

Very important.

What do you mean? Is it physical at the time of writing or are you referring to the musician's gesture?

Both. To begin with, I write standing up. I have like a table above my piano, which my husband made for me. I can fold it up because it's in the wall, so I can play normally and unfold it to write.

Do you write by hand?

Yes. Except when I can't, on the train for example, then I use Sibelius. But by hand in general, and I have the advantage of having a great copyist!
Standing up for me changes everything. I am very noisy when I compose. I play, I sing, I type. I also direct, so I have a sense of what will be set up. I want to convey this physical, visceral side to the audience. I really want them to feel that. Even in my long pieces, and I have a few of them!
You get the chance to manipulate and control people's breathing. It's like in a sophrology session: you come out of a session with your breath adjusted to the level you've defined with the sophrologist. And that's what I do with a piece of paper, filtered, performed by a musician and transmitted to the audience.

Is this nervousness fed by exterior elements? Beyond this physical need are there things that inspire you?

The deadline inspires me a lot, yes! (Laughs), but that’s the same for everyone. I would say that this nervousness is really in me. And I feel like it's getting worse and worse, so I do a lot of sophrology to try to control it a little bit...
When I was younger, I had the impression that this way of composing let me channel my energy, that writing calmed me down. But as soon as it becomes a profession we do it all the time and it doesn't calm anything down anymore!
I'm already nervous enough, adding the city, the metro, Parisian life obviously plays a role. I can feel it on my breath. We don't breathe here like in the mountains. You have to take this environment into account.

Can you use this environment as a driving force for your creation?

No, never. On the contrary, I would like to run away. I would like to put positive things in my music. Maybe it's a bit New Age, but I still believe in the energy we give. For example, if emotionally I feel bad, I'll avoid writing immediately. I'll try to focus before I write. I'm more objective that way, because I have to analyze what I write and what I rewrite. And on the other hand, I don't put any sort of dirt in my music, so that people don't get this negativity.
Again, we're in a privileged situation, so you have to use those privileges to do something good. That's what I want to do, to give like a ray of sunshine. Maybe that's why I tend to favor high heights! But I don't know if that's really the reason?

Is it difficult to find the balance between this desire to give something positive and the desire to move, to shake up the people you were talking about earlier?

Yes, it is very difficult, you have to find a balance. And it is necessary to reconcile the demands of the patron, those of the ensemble that will perform - the group itself has its own energy that balances everyone - and at the same time I need to break the usual listening. And, of course, I myself as a person and as a creator want to experiment.
Composing in my studio is for me a kind of discovery, a rediscovery of myself and experimentation to make me grow. I challenge myself by proposing projects that I don't know how to realize. And I'm always very honest with the producers. I tell them: "I want to do this because it makes me move forward in the short term, in the long term, but honestly I don't know how to do it. I don't know how to do it yet."
So, it's the job of the artist, the composer, and therefore the researcher to find a way. So, it doesn't please all the producers obviously...

You have described your music as "Interruptive oppositions between surface activities and passivity". What do you mean by this?

I wrote that a long time ago, so it can change, and it must have changed. To explain, I would say that if an activity is maintained, you get used to it and that activity turns into passivity. Like a complex movement that by becoming a little bit uniform, offers other possibility of interruptions, of development. It is once again a question of balance and of playing between what is active and passive.
Like a conductor who cannot perform only active gestures, nor only passive gestures. The idea is very simple but its written realization is very complicated.

Do you need to find technical or technological solutions on your own or can you find help?

During the two years of the Cursus program, I searched a lot by myself, with all the advice and guidance I received from my teachers and IRCAM''s teams. But since I graduated, my approach has been a little different. Because the way IRCAM works is a utopian world! In the real world, outside it doesn't work like that. In terms of production, supervision... of everything, in fact! We have less time to devote to the abstract, to things that "could" be interesting.
A production is a production, with its constraints. If something doesn't work, we manage to make it work.

Does technology play a big role in your creation?

Well, in reality, not really. A little. Yes of course for parts that use electronics. I'd like to use more of it. But for that, I need a team to help me.
You always need help. It's not our job to be a researcher, we don't know all the subjects as well. And from time to time, it's even better not to get into it at all and let real experts do it. We're here to say, "Here's the big picture, what can you offer me so that I can do this?" as straightforward as possible. So, I don't end up soldering cables, for example, that's not my raison d'être.
On two recent projects I asked for assistants. For example, I did a project with France-Musique in which the audience could use a telephone to vote on the sequences of the work. And for me it's not important to create this application myself. What is important is to make music with these tools. When I talked to my assistant about it, he said yes, it's very simple. You just have to come and choose the colors!
In another project we planted twenty-four loudspeakers under the floor, in the ground. At first, I thought I could manage these speakers: twenty-four is not that much. But in reality, I was with the musicians, I had to manage the electronics, the composition... in the limited time of the production, I didn't have time to manage these loudspeakers. So in this case it's the computer music designer and his team who will take care of it, who will fix everything that doesn't work anymore, and in the open air that can happen quickly!
It has become a collaboration based on trust, and I myself have received a lot of advice on my choices. You have to know how to let go.
On the other hand, I have a project that includes sensors and this one I want to dive into it personally, to make the patches myself... with assistance of course. It's yet another approach and it is possible because I have the luxury of doing only this piece over a year.

Is this the future you foresee for music: to move from team creations to pieces that you can make on your own? Will you have to do this more and more?

Don't fool yourself, it's always a team effort. I would find strange a composer who says, "I did everything myself”. It would mean that they don’t take into account the help they received before or after.
We often hear that the composer is very lonely. This is true at the time of writing, when one is often alone in one's room! But as soon as we touch technology, as soon as we touch productions, we are no longer alone.
In fact, I find that in my generation, composers increasingly like to work intimately with performers. At first you can sense what kind of performer he or she is. Then you ask him or her strange things, you experiment. You work in the studio and then you come back to the performer. And that's the kind of back and forth that my generation likes to do. And the generation before that too! And it goes even with technology, there are always back and forth.
For my opera there are also elements of technology in the background, but it's hidden. It's not just to use technology in an opera; it's a need I had for the staging. Not a desire necessarily, just a need. If you don't need it you don't use it. Like pencils... or Sibelius.

Interviewed by François Vey.