Interview: Yiorgis Sakellariou

PHOTO BY JOHN GRZINICH

Yiorgis Sakellariou is a composer of experimental and electroacoustic based in London. Within his music, I hear an acute understanding of how to fabricate a rich, interconnected environment. Despite the fact that his audio is drawn from a whole array of locations and sources – field recordings made around the world, subtle electronic shadows and accentuated hues – his new record Stikhiya (released on Crónica) carries all of the immersion and intrigue of an ecological system in communication with itself, negotiating its disparate climates and flinching at the onset of environmental change, all while moving with the rhythmic deliberation of the most contemplative of European cinema.

Below, Sakellariou and I discuss the presence of intellectualism and impulse within composition, inner musicality and the decision to press record.

I understand that Stikhiya takes its name from the poetry of Aleksandr Blok, referring to “the fundamental value of primitive immediacy” in opposition to rationality, intellectualism and theorising. Wrongly or rightly, my instinctive tendency is to associate electroacoustic composition with a slower, more deliberate mode of thought rather than primitive immediacy. What is it that compels you about the premise of “stikhiya”?

When I was composing Stikhiya I was doing my PhD at Coventry University. The nature of academic research requires a rigorous and analytical approach on the field of study and I was doing exactly that for a series of compositions that were included in my submitted portfolio: examining thoroughly and scrutinizing the ideas behind the works and the methods of composing them. It was, and still is, an extremely fruitful and creative process that allowed me to develop myself as a composer in ways I could never imagine.

However, at some point I felt as if I needed a break, an opportunity to submerge into the act of listening, recording and composing without rationalizing every step of the process. That is when Stikhiya came in and allowed me to respond to my work in an almost exclusively emotional and intuitive manner. The paradox is that I discovered the notion of “Stikhiya” while conducting research in an attempt to identify, or at least try to describe, what my music practice is all about, what it aims at. Therefore, I should underline that the process of composing the piece did not exclude an intellectual approach on music making. I would say it revealed a – fragile – balance between systematic effort and sentimentality, between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, and ultimately so did my other recent compositions.

In regards to electroacoustic composition: Although obviously I cannot speak on behalf of other composers, in a way I agree with your comment. Indeed, electroacoustic music requires a slow and methodical way of thinking that, moreover, involves thousands of hours of focus and commitment on sound and listening. However, this does not necessarily contradict the idea of “Stikhiya”. I do not understand immediacy as a quick response to something but a profound one; one that cannot be translated to a verbal explanation, one that does not represent something else that exists outside the experience. For me “Stikhiya” in music is not something that just happens randomly and out of the blue, it is a product of hard and intensive work. The fundamental and primitive feeling is not even a pre-fixed goal but rather an indication that something works well, that something elusive and visceral is, somehow, affecting the listener.

Did this idea inform your approach to composing or recording the album? If so, are there ways in which the incorporation of stikhiya caused you to question or subvert your usual method of creating your music (that is, if there is anything usual/habitual about your compositional method)?

Indeed, I subverted my usual method of composing but that was not the result of the concept of “Stikhiya” imposing some sort of rules or restrictions. The reason was the cassette tape/digital download format of the release. I work regularly with barely audible atmospheres: low-frequency rumbles and nearly inaudible hisses that simply would not make sense on a cassette so I was “forced” to a priori exclude them from the composition. It was rather challenging as these atmospheres play a pivotal role in structuring my music.

Furthermore, playing a tape is different than streaming a file. The sonic material is the same but the listening experience changes significantly. I was considering that while composing, in an attempt to ensure that the music would work either way. This dual format – rather popular these days among labels and collectors – is a good opportunity to negotiate the relation between music and product/physical object, the nature of sound recording and the ways of engaging with new music in the privacy of our homes. Conclusions? Perhaps it is too early to make any, on the other hand, I could never predict when will the appropriate time to draw conclusions. I guess we will be in a constant examination of these subjects.

The album features recordings from Czechia, Thailand, Greece, Lithuania, Estonia, Morocco and the Netherlands. What brought you to these places? What is it about a place or soundscape that informs your decision to press record?

I went to Czechia, Greece, Lithuania, Estonia and the Netherlands to participate in artist residencies and making recordings was a major part of the creative activities. I visited Thailand and Morocco as a tourist and in addition to taking photographs I also recorded sounds that attracted my attention. The diversity of the locations and the different reasons to record them, indicates that the thread connecting the recordings is only their textures and the way I could combine them in the studio.

After more than 10 years of systematically recording environmental sounds, it is still unclear what exactly I find fascinating in a soundscape. Is it something in sound itself? Is it perhaps related with the act of recording, regardless of the quality or variety of the sonic environment? The more recordings I make, the more these questions intensify and new ones are raised.

The decisive moment of pressing record is a type of “Stikhiya” as I am in direct communication and conversation with the environment and my senses engage in a holistic experience. The sounds I listen to with devotion and attention are not merely aural phenomena, data to be documented; they act as revelations of an extended reality, they transform my understanding of the world, an in extension, of myself. This can happen unexpectedly, in locations that might appear, at first, sonically dull. Nevertheless, by unexpected I do not mean random or coming out of pure luck. Same as composing, recording is a combination of method and intuition.

yiorgis-concert

PHOTO BY STEFANOS KOSMIDIS

As a listener, I have no other option but to hear these recordings in the context of Stikhiya. I’m clueless as to how they would have sounded in their original setting. As the composer, do you hear and visualise Stikhiya as an amalgam of your experiences and memories from each of these places? To what extent does the digital processing divorce the sounds from their original connotations in memory?

The level of digital processing serves musical and compositional purposes related to structure, texture and atmosphere: when must a sonic event start, how long and how loud it must be, what should come after and so on. Sometimes sounds speak for themselves and the best I can do as a composer is to step back and allow them to unfold their inner musicality. Other times, my intervention might be more radical. All these are crucial decisions that are always made after extremely focused, and repeated, listening. I think it is safe to say I spend more time listening rather than editing my sonic material in order to “understand” better how it unfolds in time.

A recording can never capture or recreate the complete experience of listening on location, regardless of its technical quality. Working with recorded environmental sounds is not aiming at an objectified and realistic representation of places that exist somewhere else and events that happened in the past, but to trigger a here-and-now experience that will blur the limits between the real and the imagined. I am not implying that I am trying to delete or supress my memory of being in the field but that it gets combined with the experience of listening to the recordings to create new memories. This happens even with completely unprocessed recordings. As soon as they are recorded and relocated they are already “something else”, a ghost of themselves. I perceive this as a mystical revelation, signifying a transition from one world and being reborn into another.

I’m particularly drawn to your use of sounds that resemble air flow, ventilation and space. Stikhiya is full of emanations that have a ghostly, “billowing” quality to them: strange hums (often resembling distant machinery), circulating gases, the hissing of escaping vapour. The harmonics of these sounds are so transient and ambiguous, vanishing at soon as I acknowledge them – they sound like spaces in a state of stillness and dormancy, yet paradoxically highlight the inherent presence of movement and complexity in seemingly empty physical places. For example: the quiet whispers of air in the background 10 minutes into part 1, or the lingering, levitating hums at the start of part 2. Do you have a particular interest in sounds that behave/occupy space in this way? How much digital intervention is required to tease out the array of harmonics within them? 

In addition to stillness and movement, the sounds, as you describe them, can generate a sense of presence and absence. I am interested in this ambiguity that can make you doubt about the source and location, and even the actual physical existence of sounds. I think a composition (and the way it is mixed in the studio) is effective when it makes the listeners wonder if what they listen to is actually in the music, or coming from outside their window, or created by their imagination, or a combination of all these possibilities. This is how the here-and-now experiences, the revelations I described earlier, are generated.

The complexity of digital sound recording and processing technology is variable. I am working with basic and simple techniques such as filtering, pitch-shifting and time-stretching. I find them sufficient to achieve my aesthetic and musical purposes. 

There’s a beautiful narrative flow to the record. The combination of slow transitions and abrupt shifts often feels reminiscent of film editing. Are there any inspirations, sonic or otherwise, that influence your approach to generating a narrative progression within the work?

I believe that thoughtful and clear narrative is essential in electroacoustic music composition as it creates a condition of curiosity and alert that will encourage the listener to engage actively with the work. I am influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky’s methods of film editing. He claimed that editing brings together shots which are already filled with time and organises the structure of the film. In a similar manner, field recordings do not only capture sound but also contain time and what Tarkovsky called a “varying rhythmic pressure” that informs the tempo of audio editing. The shifts between sections, either slow or sudden, are carefully engineered and positioned in the piece. These decisive moments are influenced by Stravinsky’s compositional methods for The Rite of Spring where a series of diverse events ultimately form a developing continuity binding all separate passages together into one entity. 

I understand that you only perform in absolute darkness. When and why did you take the decision to do this? Does darkness, of any sort, feature into your compositional process in as well?

I consider darkness as an integral aspect of the acousmatic setting that separates the sounds from their source and emphasises on the invisibility, immateriality and ethereal nature of sound. It also intensifies the sense of the unexpected, the mysterious and otherworldly. Listening without a visual stimulation places the audiences in a “being-in-sound” condition while, in contrast, visualization divides, analyses and places objects in a distance. The condition of darkness encourages the audiences to become not mere receivers but performers of the work, active participants of music-making through the act of listening.

Moreover, I should point out that by focusing on darkness I am not suggesting that my music is dark, aiming at generating emotions of despair or sadness. On the contrary, and to return to “Stikhiya”, it is more about experiencing a sense of mystery and wonder about the world, an enthusiasm.

Yiorgis’ website – mechaorga.wordpress.com