Listening for Textures: An Interview with Alexandra Spence

Alexandra Spence is a sound artist currently based in Sydney, Australia. Her latest release, Waking, She Heard the Fluttering is available on the Room40 record label.

We met in Toronto at a sound art intensive run by New Adventures in Sound Art, over five years ago.  What have been some highlights in your practise since this time? 

My practice has really solidified for me over the past 5 years. It feels strange to say that completing my MFA at SFU from 2014-2016 was a highlight. But honestly I think this program was the impetus for a lot of growth and clarity within my practice. Certainly, it nurtured the beginning of my experimentation with electronics, sound-art installation and performance.

At the start of my second year living in Vancouver I was asked to perform my first solo set at the brilliant but now defunct series Destroy Vancouver. This invitation also marked the beginning of an important step in my career. I’d never really performed solo before, but had been dreaming of developing my practice in this way for years. It led me to the set up I have now – a mix of field recordings, no-input mixer, sine tones, amplified objects, tapeloops etc.

At the end of 2016, I participated on a two-week field recording residency with Francisco Lopez – this trip was magic – hugely inspiring and taught me a lot about field recording.

In more recent times – a big highlight was getting to meet and be mentored by British sound artist David Toop last year. I was in the UK for three months, half of that time spent meeting once a week with David, the other half spent touring in the UK, and Europe. On this tour I was fortunate to share the bill with people such as Lucy Railton, Eddie Prevost & John Tilbury, Phil Minton, and Ken Ikeda.

You have a very extensive CV of projects. What has been your process for creating new works and having them be a part of shows?

My work is often led by my materials. I begin with a sound that I like. The feel of this sound will then suggest to me another. And so on, until a form is suggested, and then following the form, perhaps an overarching concept will reveal itself. I rarely begin with a concept. In this way making music, sound, art is a kind of working-through, exploring the timbral and tactile qualities of a sound as a form of phenomenological learning. I use sound as way to better ‘know’ the objects, subjects, places and processes that surround me, and as a way to connect myself with the places in which I’ve been.

I am cautious in regards to the origination of my sounds – if I don’t understand the cultural or historical context of a sound, then I am less inclined to use it. This is in part a post-colonial reaction, but is also due to the fact that the way I conceive of my work is through my personal experience and relation to a place. I try to respect and acknowledge the context of my field recordings – as this often becomes the basis for the work. For me, presenting field recordings within composition, installation, or performance is an exploration of the connections between sound, place, body, being and space. I believe that it is impossible to separate our individual contextualisations from our interpretation of sonic information. Experience is subjective. Thus I attempt to bring this to attention within my practice – an acknowledgment of a sound’s reason for being, as well as simply it’s being. Within my work I am not simply examining the potential musicality of everyday sound, but I am also interested in the social signals and possible narratives that inevitably co-habituate these sounds.

What do you use to create sound art and music compositions? 

I use a lot. Ha! I perform with an array of usual, unusual and DIY sound sources including: computer, field recordings, cassette players, tape loops, feedback, sine tones, voice, clarinet, no-input mixer, radio, amplified objects (e.g. rocks, feathers, marbles, wind-up toys, shells), tuning forks, transducers, electromagnetic coil pick-ups, hydrophones (water-proof mics) and contact microphones.  

I actually wrote a list of all the sound sources that appear on my forthcoming album, it’s included in the liner notes on the CD:

Serge synthesiser, aluminium foil, cassette loops, high school basketball game (New Westminister, Vancouver ’16), birds (waterhole, Mmabolela ’16), sirens near Notre-Dame (Paris, ’18), Vancouver bus ride (East Hastings St, ’16), sine waves, granular synthesis, my voice, breath, heartbeat, sferics (radio atmospheric signals, Mmabolela ’16), clarinet, Japanese Masterpieces for the Shakuhachi LP, google text-speech in Japanese, sponge, train ride (Nankai line, Koyasan, ’14), voice (Rebecca), tuning forks, outside Julia’s window (Kreuzberg, Berlin, ’18), air-traffic control (Paris Orly, ’18), unknown radio station (Hackney, London ’18), industrial drone (Hackney, London ’18), transducer on a biscuit tin, shells from a dry river bed in Mmabolela, foil chocolate-money wrappers, harmonium, voice messages (my own), Cairnwell chair lift (Glenshee ’18), wire fence (Ben Gulabin, Glenshee ’18), birds (Loch Beanie, Glenshee ’18), heath textures (Loch Beanie, Glenshee, ’18), a Scottish burn (Glenshee, ’18), no-input mixer, dawn chorus (Spittal of Glenshee, ’18)

Another important part of my practice is the incorporation of live processes and phenomena – I am interested in examining the vibration and resonance that surrounds us in our daily lives, as well as in exploring the temporal nature of sound. By exploring live processes within performance, my work acknowledges the unpredictable nature of everyday situations, and the serendipitous merging of intentionality and unintentionality that results from these unexpected situations.

Previous performances and installations have included placing contact microphones on the floor and amplifying the movement sounds of my body as I perform; placing microphones outside the windows of the performance venue to bring in the outside street sounds; placing microphones inside bottles and creating feedback that is ‘tuned’ to the resonant frequency of the bottle; using radios to tune in to live air traffic control transmissions…

What does your day to day life look like at the moment? Do you have any structure for creating new work? 

I have zero routine in my life right now :O ! I often joke about this with my partner (who is a very structured person).

Since completing my MFA (where I was also employed as a TA & RA for the duration of the program) I have taken on jobs that allow me to be flexible and require as little time commitment as possible, so I can dedicate most of my time to my art practice. Thus I feel like I am constantly quitting jobs when a music/art related opportunity arises. The last two years I have been fortunate and have been awarded residency-opportunities, last year in the UK, this year I am off to Hong Kong from April-June. These allow me the time and space I need to dedicate to my arts practice. Last year the majority of my album came together during my time in the UK.

As someone who has been in a handful of countries over the past few years, how does location affect the trajectory of your career, or do you feel agnostic to this by being able to use the Internet?

A lot of my recent work in performance and with field recording has been directly influenced by my somewhat-nomadic life over the last 8 years.

Most of my recent performances have used the idea of place and geographical identity as a kind of conceptual-structural device – using field recordings, text and objects taken from a specific geographical location as source material for music composition/performance.

Congrats on your new release out on Room40. Can you tell us a bit more about the album and how the project came about? 

As mentioned, this album came together during and immediately following an extended period of time spent in the UK and Europe in 2018. Some of that time was spent in cold, gritty London, meeting and talking with David Toop, some of it listening to fences vibrate in the Scottish highlands, some of it was spent swimming in nudist lakes at Grunewald forest in Berlin, lying in fields of tiny yellow flowers in quaint British towns, listening to sirens travelling across European cities, church bells ringing at midday, drinking expensive coffee and cheap pints, sharing music with audiences of five and audiences of ninety-five. Reading Dorothy Richardson, reading Hito Stereyl, reading Nan Shepard, Lydia Davis. Listening to Tyler the Creator, Laurence Crane, RP Boo and Sarah Hennies…

The whole time I was thinking about textures. David told me a story about a time when he was in Japan. He had visited a Zen garden in the springtime; there was a cherry blossom in bloom, and beneath it a black granite rock. The image of soft pink nestling rough rock is one I kept coming back to. How can colour and image become aural, how can the feeling of material (hand on sharp rock, hand against gentle flower) be understood not through sound, but as sound?

What advice would you give to your younger self about developing yourself in the creative world? 

Don’t worry if things feel like they are developing slowly – take the time that you need to make the work you want to make. Maybe it sounds obvious – but think about the visual and performative aspects of a performance – oftentimes I think musicians neglect to consider how their performance looks, as they are caught up in how it sounds. Music is sound yes, but a performance is still a performance. Always leave room for experimentation and ‘play’ within your art. One of the things I am interested in within performance – is the act of giving and sharing with the audience. Sometimes this means allowing yourself to be vulnerable. It can take a lot of courage to be vulnerable in front of an audience, but I think this is where the magic is created.

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