Dan Tramte: Each work of yours that we have featured on score follower seems to center around a lightly manipulated long-form field recording. You then draw attention to musical features of the recorded environment through voice or instrumental writing by transcribing embedded melodies, and interrupting or enhancing harmonically rich sounds with complementary chords. Is this an accurate summary of your workflow and style, could you elaborate on this technique, and talk about when you started doing this, and what inspired it?
Joanna Bailie: Yes, although I would add that sometimes, instead of field recordings, I use other borrowed material, such as heavily-processed recordings of music that I didn’t write, or sounds captured from a radio. When I first started composing, I was writing quite dense and complex instrumental music, and at some point in the early 2000s I think I hit a brick wall, probably because I was not writing the kind of work that I needed to. I’d studied electronic music in The Hague back in 1995, and even though I found it interesting on many levels, I hadn’t pursued it. I always go back to this metaphor of composers either being painters or sculptors (categories that the composer Christopher Fox came up with). I was trying to be a painter, someone who starts with a blank canvas and just makes stuff up, when in fact I was a sculptor, a composer who likes to find forms in already existing things. I have a piece from 2002 called 5 Famous Adagios. It’s for string quartet and all the material is derived from filtered recordings of the cadence points of Bach Adagios. I transcribed all of the electronics I made and the piece itself is purely acoustic. It was certainly the start of me finding myself as a composer, though when I hear it now I feel the lack of electronics, it’s much too abstract. The presence of an electronic part, especially one that is “concrete” in some way and refers to something beyond a contemporary music concert, allows me to play with context and meaning in a way that I couldn’t before. It also opens up a whole world of possibilities regarding the combination of sounds. I feel that the world is just full of potential music lying dormant in real world sounds and other recordings, and it’s my job to coax it out somehow, through manipulation, contextualization, selection — to transform it into something new. In terms of my inspiration I guess I would point to American composers such as Lucier, Cage and Ives, and in terms of European music to Ablinger and Ferrari. When I first started composing I never really appreciated these composers, and certainly not music in the experimental tradition. But I had a few experiences with these kinds of music around the time of hitting the brick wall that were revelatory. I liked the way that my attention could be framed in different ways, that something that started one way could turn out as something completely different (I am sitting in a room), and most of all I enjoyed the experience of making field recordings with the small device that I bought on a whim in 2008.
DT: Some of your works incorporate voice-over narration. The calm environments you create, paired with the strong presence of the voice audio in the mix resembles the production style one finds in guided meditation videos. Is there anything to this observation? Could you explain the importance of narration in these works?
JB: I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a meditation tape before! I don’t meditate at all, or do yoga or anything. The closest I get is doing some breathing exercises to calm me down a bit during anxious moments. So, I’m not the kind of person that you thought I might be! That said, and maybe this is relevant, I must say that during the process of making field recordings I find myself in a slightly altered state of consciousness due to the way that it encourages you to attend to the randomness of the world in a focused way. It’s an experience that I enjoy a lot, and maybe it acts as my own personal therapy/meditation. I also enjoy dreaming quite a lot, and those experiences you have just before falling asleep, though I do have to be careful to avoid sleep paralysis episodes (which are quite terrifying). I write down my dreams too, and as my friends will confirm, I enjoy recounting them at great length. I think dreaming is probably the opposite of meditating in terms of things our brains can do, they are chaos, randomness, an inexplicable and unpredictable combination of things. I don’t intend my pieces to be meditative at all, but of course people are free to experience them as they wish. Maybe it’s to do with the way that time goes by, the tendency towards slowness, and the fact that I have quite a calm speaking voice that makes people think of meditation. The voice overs in general are there to add even more context to the piece, to further concretize the work. Adding text in this way allows me to do things and shape pieces in ways that would be impossible without it. Of course, it’s more usual for composers to set texts to music and have someone sing it in order to create this extra dimension. I’ve never done that, it’s a tradition that does not interest me at all. First and foremost I want any text I use to be immediately understandable.
DT: Do you run your field recordings through analysis tools to aid in transcribing sounds? Are there any other technical steps in your composition process that you would like to discuss?
JB: I use a program that makes a sonogram of the sound and then I use the sonogram to help me transcribe time-codes and pitches. The particular program that I use has a tuning-fork function that plays a partial when you click on it. But in general I would say that I make the transcription ‘by hand’, going through the sound file slowly, trying to notate the most important and/or interesting things that I hear. It’s only ever a partial transcription and the slowness of the process that I use allows me to really grapple with the ‘musical material’ that I believe is embedded in the field recording. I don’t use programs like open music or orchids because of this desire to get to know the recording as well as I can myself. However, I did recently buy a plug-in that effectively takes away the noise from a recording, the transient partials, to varying degrees that one can stipulate, and I find it a very useful tool, one that enables me to make transitions between concrete sounds and some kind of harmony.
DT: What does the “Artificial” in “Artificial Environments” refer to? What is this series about?
JB: In fact I would say it started a bit earlier than 2017. In 2011 I made a piece for string trio and camera obscura called Analogue, and in 2015 a standalone film called The Grand Tour. I think I’ve always wanted to make audio-visual work, it was just something that became more possible — I assembled the tools to do it and the people organizing contemporary music concerts became increasingly willing and able to program things that required a bit more technical set-up. I think my love of the visual probably lies in a profound interest in photography and all the things that it entails: the magical simplicity of how it operates (the camera obscura being the simplest manifestation), its uncanny and somewhat complicated relationship with memory and reality, and the way time is captured, cross-sectioned or sometimes represented in a paradoxical way (like in a long exposure photograph). Two of the films I’ve made, The Grand Tour and Roll Call, are both made almost entirely using old family photographs. I enjoy working with a (non-theatrical) visual element a lot, it can change the music in strange and unexpected ways in terms of ‘atmosphere’ and there is a certain fun in editing a film in tandem with a tape part — it’s tricky but I think there is room for the creation of a new element of musicality there. I also like trying to adapt techniques from sound manipulation onto visual-media and vice versa. The ‘freezing’ effect that I use in some of the Artificial Environments is an attempt to mimic this cross-sectioning of simultaneous events that you find in a photograph. More recently I’ve been experimenting with a kind of ‘granular synthesis’ in film — trying to make a different kind of slow-motion by cross-dissolving individual frames or photographs onto one another instead of having just a succession of frames one after the other.
DT: Can you talk about how video in your recent works impact the musical experience? I ask because your use of Luc Ferrari-esque field recordings traditionally promotes listening experiences where the recorded environments are meant to be [visually] imagined. How does that experience pair with the experience of watching a video along with these field recordings?
JB: I don’t think I really know how the video in my pieces impacts the musical experience! Perhaps I’m not the right person to ask because I become so familiar with the material and how it fits together. I am interested in the idea that video allows me to go even further in creating a world (environment) for my piece. The idea is to create what Michel Chion would call moments of syncresis, unique audio-visual objects. I use a lot of precise synchronization in these video works for that reason — in a way it’s just an extension of the tape/instrument synchronization that I rely on a lot in the purely audio pieces. A rhythmic unison/synchronization is a powerful thing and there is a lot of scope to play with this in new audio-visual work. Did you know that a flash and a bang, when synchronized, result in more brain activity than would be predicted by adding up the results of a flash and a bang separately? Synchronized things are more than the sum of their parts. I like the idea of being able to find strangeness in unexpected combination of audio-visual things. For instance, I have a piece called Radio-Kaleidoscope that combines the images of a turning kaleidoscope with a radio being tuned. They may seem like unrelated things, but for me they are connected by the idea of constant turning/changing/tuning and the randomness associated with that. And there is something about discarded technology there, an old-fashioned toy and a medium on the brink of obsolescence (in its analogue form at least).
Interview conducted and edited by Dan Tramte for Score Follower
More info @ joannabailie.com
Score permissions generously provided by Joanna Bailie.
Bailie, Joanna. “Joanna Bailie in conversation with score follower founder & director Dan Tramte.” Interview by Dan Tramte. 29 Oct. 2020, https://scorefollower.org/featured-composer-bailie/