Tuesday, January 5, 2021

INTERVIEW: SAMAROBRYNTERVIEW: A Chat About Distance, Absence, Imperfection, and Sound with Cissi Tsang



A Chat About Distance, Absence, Imperfection, and Sound with Cissi Tsang

I’m fairly sure I discovered Samarobryn through the wonderful Dog Park label out of Western Australia, maybe 
as part of a compilation I was on with one of my own projects, maybe not.  However it actually happened, once 
I’d discovered the luxuriant data-drenched field-concrete soundscapes of Samarobryn, I was hooked, and the 
more I researched, the more I liked.  
Cissi Tsang, the polymathemagickal mastermind behind the project, spoke to me from their secret base deep in 
the Western Lands...    


MB: “Samarobryn”, as far as I have researched, is some place prophesied by Nostradamus, which is basically some anarchist utopia where they live “without law, exempt from politics”.  Oh, and it might be in space.  What’s your connection to this “Samarobryn” concept?

CT: I was really drawn to the idea that there was this sentient observer floating, as the quatrain notes, "10,000 leagues above the sea". I often feel like some strange, detached entity observing the world as well - I think that's a typical sentiment for anyone who is autistic (to clarify: I am autistic). When I was younger I used to feel I was observing the world with a panel of glass between myself and others, and while that feeling has become less acute over the years, it's still very much there in the background.  

I never really thought about the anarchist utopia side, but let's say I'm not opposed to such an idea!

MB: That’s interesting - based on the concepts and issues dealt with by Samarobryn releases, I had just assumed Samarobryn was a very political project.  So it’s more personal than political?

CT: At its heart, the project is a very personal project. It's about expressing how I feel - about a place, memories or about a topic (like trauma). Sometimes the topics can become 'political' - for instance, I've been really looking at climate change in a lot of pieces.

MB: Is it hard to find something to say about climate change that isn’t basically “oh shit we’re fucked”?

CT: Yes, pretty much! I guess that IS the reality though - we really are fucked. I don't advocate a defeatist attitude towards the issue though, and I hope noone interprets my work in that light at all. It's all about how less fucked we can make the current situation. Damage mitigation, if you will, and thinking about everyone's futures. 

MB: Do you feel that “observing the world through a pane of glass” has helped or hindered your art? 

CT: That's an interesting question. Honestly? I really don't know, mainly because I don't know how it feels like not to have this pane of glass between myself and the world. It's always been there. I guess in some ways, it has helped in that I've had to develop idiosyncratic ways of relating to the world because a lot of the time, people don't make sense to me. Which probably comes through my unconventional approaches to music and music-making. 

On the other hand, it's probably hindered me in that I'm not very good at self-promotion, or networking or the like. A lot of the time my impulse when someone wants to talk to me post-gig is to run away, and I wonder if people think I'm being rude or aloof and therefore I might've missed out on some future opportunities. 

MB: You have a great interest in converting information into sound – making music from the details of a contour map or a graph of covid data.  What are your aims here?  Is it about communicating this data in a new way – meaning that the listener “gets” the data through listening – or is it about making music in a new way – where it doesn’t matter if the listener “gets” it or not, as long as it sounds awesome?  

CT: Much of it stems from acknowledging how aspects such as the contours of a landscape or data sets can be incorporated into a larger narrative. With landscape, I've always been interested in how being in a place can trigger memories and emotions in people, and how might I convey this in a soundscape. Similar thing with data sets - how might they be used to convey emotions and narratives?

So for contour lines of a landscape - I feel like it's another way in which to incorporate place into work, alongside other audiovisual methods such as photography and  video. It's a way of having the physicality of a place to drive some of the audio aspects of a work.  

Sometimes I would like to use sound as a way of conveying information in a new way - like with Outbreak that featured COVID-19 infection numbers using audio - because sound is a very visceral medium. Being presented with numbers by themselves can look fairly abstract, but when you put it to sound and you can hear the rising numbers (being represented by the rising tones), it really brings the message home. 

I can never predict if people will like my work, but if they do then that's awesome!

MB: So is the communication the driving force, or is generating sound in interesting ways the driving force? 

CT: I would say the former - in my opinion, for a soundscape piece to work, you need a cohesive narrative or an overarching theme. I think about what feelings and thoughts I have and that informs what sounds I use, and how they might be used. Once I have an idea of what I want to convey, then it gives me direction for what sounds to make. 

MB: And as follow-ups to both those questions, if the communication of the data is more important, why use music to convey it – or if making sound is more important, why use data at all?

CT: I think this depends on the theme of the piece. One of my preoccupations lately has been climate change and wanting to communicate the drastic changes that are happening in the world, and for that I feel like using data sets is an important facet in the compositional process. 

On a broader level - I do enjoy having part of the compositional process being taken out of my control, so to speak. I don't have control over how a dataset or landscape looks. It can be quite unpredictable and reminds me that I'm just a part of something greater in the world :) 

MB: So is the basic idea something like: a) sound is an emotional tool, b) raw data is unemotional but important, so c) if data is expressed through sound it can trigger more of an emotional response than the raw data, and therefore the importance of that data is more viscerally registered?  Am I on the right track here? 

CT: Yes, that's a good way of encapsulating it. Sound can be a great vehicle for expressing all sorts of information. A lot of the time, just looking at raw numbers can make something feel abstract and disconnected from you, but putting the numbers into sound [or visual] gives the numbers a more tangible feel. For instance, the piece I did for MIUC [Outbreak] sounds all the more disconcerting because the rising tones are [literally] the rising numbers of COVID-19 infection rates.

MB: That piece was amazing.  And you’re totally right, that massive peak of sound was completely full on, you could really feel the angle of that curve, and the implications of what that meant.  I guess the idea of representing data through abstract means to make them more visceral isn’t actually a strange one at all, is it - we’ve been doing it with graphs and charts forever - as much as the fact you’re using sound instead of sight.  We really are such a sight-biased organism, aren’t we!

CT: Thank you! I think many of us are quite sight-orientated, which is why a lot of times, information is presented visually as images, etc. It's why infographs have become increasingly common-place now, because they can be quite effective for concisely conveying complex information and concepts. I like to think of sonification as an extension of that, by offering people alternative methods of obtaining information. 

MB: I love how you clearly have an intense relationship with “the guitar”-

CT: That's putting it lightly ;)

MB: -but also make so much music that is completely the opposite of “guitar music”.  Are these parts of you parallel things that have no connection to each other, or are they enmeshed into a greater approach?  If they are, what is this greater approach?

CT: Good question. It's something I've often asked myself, and I'm still wondering if, or how, I might incorporate the two. At the moment they are increasingly moving in parallel, although for a few years I tried to combine the two. 

I think the main challenge in incorporating the guitar into my soundscape practice is that they are essentially fundamentally opposed. The guitar is a melodic instrument. My soundscapes are fairly atonal, if there's any melody at all. So combining the two just feels forced, with one often taking precedence over the other. 

That being said, I'm pretty happy straddling different genres - stops me from getting tunnel vision and gives me new perspectives in my practice. I love doing weird experimental shit as much as I love playing in rock bands.

MB: Interestingly enough, I asked this question before we had ever collaborated together, and it turns out our collaboration was exactly this kind of guitar-meets-abstract-soundscape kind of proposition, with me using Gristian randomisation and loopery to rework your epic guitar riffage.  I’ve gotta say, it totally didn’t feel forced from my end, your guitar and my soundscapery seemed to supersmoothly fit together to me!  How did you feel about the way that collaboration came together, and the end result?

CT: Great! I'm glad you enjoyed the riffage! I thought our collaboration worked very well. I can't claim to understand your approach in GRIST fully [still], but I loved the results. One time I was over at a friend's house and we were listening to the SAMAROGRYST collaboration while a storm was rolling in - and it was the perfect soundscape. 

MB: Magnificent! Which leads us nicely into the subject of field recordings – where do you gather them, and why do you use them?

CT: I often use field recordings as a way for me to reflect on my feelings about a place. Sometimes I feel like I've been "called" to visit a place because of its history, and while I'm at a place, I'll make a mental list of key words of my impressions. Or sometimes I read something interesting - like one time I read an article about the declining numbers of insects - and think of what sort of recordings I could use to convey that sense of unease. I think using field recordings from a place to create recordings also encourages a deeper sense of listening and understanding about said place, and also makes me more appreciative of the soundscape of an area.

I'm not afraid of artifacts in the field recording - I don't aim for "pristine" recordings. I aim more for feel and texture. So, if my recording is full of wind noises because it was a windy day, then so be it. Or if there's the constant sound of traffic or other human-related noises while I'm recording birds - that's also fine. It's whatever the day and place decides to give me while I'm recording. Sometimes I will consciously record myself in the place as well. I'll often record myself walking along a trail, like a spectral presence that is there, just out of focus.

In terms of where - lots of places! Too many to list here. They range from overseas, like Finland and Scotland, to the front of my house :) That being said, there is a preponderance to Western Australia, but that's more about my location [WA, hardy hah] and less about anything particular about the state. 

MB: Yeah, there’s a certain “realness” that the sound of wind on a microphone adds to a field recording, it’s like it highlights that this is an actual recording, actual microphones were in this place.  Sometimes all the attempts field recorders make to “erase” themselves from their recordings can actually result in a recording that feels somehow less engrossing - like the listener has been erased as well, or something, if you know what I mean.

CT: I agree with how richer a field recording sounds when you can feel the presence of the recordist themselves. There's a sense of narrative that comes with understanding the motivations behind the recordist - like how, and why, they chose a place and the types of recordings. This richness of understandings goes for both recordist and listener. For the recordist, there's a potential to develop a deeper understanding of their practice, and for the listener, there's potential for greater engagement. 

My approach to field recording has been inspired, in part, by the visual artist Richard Long. Richard Long works with line-marking in the landscape - for instance, one of his formative works was A Line Made By Walking (1967) where he photographed a line that he made from walking up and down a field. When looking at his works, it feels like you've just missed someone as they've gone about their day, they are just outside of your view...and that's what I like to convey in my works. That someone is/has been, but has just gone - but their presence is still very much felt.  

A caveat though. I guess how someone approaches their field recording practice also depends on their conceptual practice. People like Bernie Krause, for instance, or Leah Barclay, would have more pristine recordings than someone like me because they are using field recordings as part of a wider narrative about documenting the health of the ecosystem they are recording. 

MB: You also seem very interested in “musical games” (or if not “games” then at very least “unusual approaches to creativity”), where your musical pieces spring from the idea of a specific prompt or a particular task or a collaborative puzzle or something – I’m thinking here not just about the surrealist “exquis cadaver” project Little Songs of the Mutilated that I asked you to participate in, but also the Disquiet Junto collective you’ve been involved with for several years.  What’s the appeal of this kind of creativity?  

CT: What I love about these types of musical games and asynchronous collaborations is that they challenge you to think and respond quickly. Particularly with the Junto - I initially joined because I felt like I was in a creative rut at the time and needed some help with re-starting my creative process - and the prompts have really opened up my practice. It introduced me to new techniques and encouraged me to try new [and old] things that I might have never tried otherwise. For one Junto piece I tried out a virtual modular synthesiser, which I'd never tried before. I still don't know what I'm doing with modular setups but I have a greater appreciation for those machines. A few other pieces had me compose a piece formally, using notes and scales and all, which I haven't done in years!  

It's also great to be exposed to other people's compositional approaches. I've learnt a lot, from using different techniques to thinking differently about arranging soundscapes. 

MB: And what do you find challenging/difficult about working this way?

CT: I think the most challenging are the deadlines. Usually, I won't agree on joining anything unless I'm sure I can do it, but curveballs happen despite the best of intentions. So I find myself not actually enjoying the process of creating a piece because I'm feeling pressured, which is unfortunate. This is a problem I've continually faced this year, because it's been a particularly challenging year on a personal level. 

MB: Do you ever find yourself working with something where you’re like “nope, I just can not do this”? 

CT: I've only had the one time where I had to pull out of a project, and it was because it was taking up too much of my time. I had told this group repeatedly - from the get-go - that my availability for their project was limited. Initially they said, "no problem", but it quickly became obvious that they weren't going to respect my limitations and it wasn't going to work. I made sure to give them a lot of notice so that they could find a replacement.     

MB: Which leads me into the concept of “community”.  What’s the definition of – and the importance of – “community” to Samarobryn?

CT: Interesting question. I try to surround myself with like-minded people - people who are respectful of others, who are interested in sharing their creativity -  and that's my community for me. It doesn't necessarily have to be a physical one, or even a musical one. I enjoy working with dancers and theatre makers and visual artists as well - end of the day, we're all trying to convey narratives to people, just in different mediums. 

Being able to discuss and share ideas and concepts is very important for me, and I think more broadly for anyone in the creative fields. Noone ever works in isolation. 

MB: Your “Cissi and Yanni” release is one of my favourite things, I’ve been smashing that into my ears almost non-stop since I found it.  What was the impetus/motivation/process with that release? 

CT: Thanks! I'm so chuffed that you've enjoyed it!

So a bit of a backstory - Jon Murphy [aka Murphy] and I go back a few years. We were on the same lineup at a gig in Perth, and we stayed friends after he moved to Melbourne. When I was in Melbourne for the JOLT Music Festival in 2019, Jon and his partner generously put me up for a few nights. 

One afternoon we huddled in Jon's studio and jammed for about two hours straight, completely improvised. Jon recorded the whole thing, and the edited version became 2746. I've always wanted to do something collaborative with Jon because he's such a great musician with an ear for these minimalist, yet catchy hooks. It's also such a joy to play with Jon because he really listens while he's playing. He's one of those musicians who isn't afraid of silence and that's a wonderful skill because it gives a piece room to grow. 

A few years ago we did a gig together at the Make It Up Club with Jon on modular and myself on guitar and field recording, which was great fun and also largely improvised and I've always regretted not recording that, so I'm happy we finally got a recording out together!

MB: Definitely one of my favourite releases of the year.  It’s the perfect combination of textural environmental stuff and repetitive-but-never-boring synth stuff, it’s super evocative and moody.  Which also perfectly described your collab with Nat Grant, another of my all time favourite Australian sound artists - can you tell us a little about how that collaboration happened, and how you both went about creating it?   

CT: Here's another backstory! I first met Nat at the inaugural Gender Diversity in Music Making conference in 2018. We also had a mutual friend in Claire / Furchick. In 2019, when the second GDIMM conference happened in Perth, Claire passed on my name to Nat as someone who could play percussion during their talk/performance. Which was an awesome experience because on the day, we had a group of people just improvising together making this percussive soundscape for about 15mins. I was also quietly shitting myself on stage because I'm not that great of a drummer (I don't even know if I would call myself a 'drummer') and playing with all these proper percussionists! 

Anyway, Nat got in touch with me in 2020 and asked if I wanted to collaborate on something. I jumped at the chance because I love Nat's work. We both took our time with it and didn't set a deadline, which I think is reflected in the thoughtful, journey-like feel throughout the album. We both presented the other with tracks - field recordings, percussion, guitar - and then the other would work with the tracks. 

I guess a lot of the work was informed by the feeling of isolation and lockdown. We were surprisingly in sync with each other - once we had finished the album and had a listen to all the tracks, I remember saying to Nat something along the line of, Oh my God we just created the apocalypse! 

We had a really good response to Ghost Light so it's likely we'll do a second album next year. Watch this space :)