Interview: Martina Lussi

I spend 35 minutes in a state of uncertainty. Selected Ambient is the latest album by Switzerland’s Martina Lussi, and despite the fixed nature of the recorded format, these four compositions seem to be pressing against the solidity of their capture. Different instruments and spaces emerge from within the mist of electronics: softly strummed guitars that tug the music into isolated contemplation, factory echoes that dwindle me in their emptiness, electronic beats that punch assertive holes through the fog of ambiguous change. There is tension in the negotiation of these states. Ambience repels guitar noise, which recoils in the presence of intimate field recording, which perches awkwardly upon techno synth loops. Instead of pursuing any one of these ideas, Lussi holds them all in a state of nascent becoming. The beauty of Selected Ambient resides in the preservation of unfulfilled opportunity.

You can buy and listen to Selected Ambient over at the Hallow Ground webstore right here. Below, Martina and I discuss persistent strangeness, additive process, and rolling metal sticks around factory spaces.

Each track on this album is named after a gemstone. As mentioned in the album’s accompanying text, this could be seen as an allusion to the esoteric connotations that surround certain strands of ambient music. Could you tell me about your decision to use gemstones for the track titles on this work, and how you think about gemstones in relation to ambience and esoterica / spirituality?

“Sodalith” was the first piece that I named after a gemstone (back in 2014). I chose this title because at that time I often wore a sodalith. I got the stone in the first place because I liked its pattern and colour. After I bought it I read a lot about gemstones and I found out about all the “positive powers”. I don’t believe in those per se. But as I was trained in fine arts I believe in the aesthetic expression and the power visual things can have on the viewer. Obviously, I think the same goes for sound.

I don’t know if ambience has a direct connection to esoterica or spirituality. If yes, it’s maybe because it creates an atmosphere somehow connected to our reality, although it seems it could rise above.

On a similar note, I’m intrigued about the album title. While the definition of “ambient” can often feel vast and ambiguous to the point that it eradicates its communicative ability, I feel like your record sets up a framework of “ambience” in order to press against it. There’s an urgency and physicality to certain moments of this work that almost threaten to burst beyond the quintessential characteristics of ambience. And then there’s the fact that it’s called Selected Ambient, which I’m guessing is a nod toward Aphex Twin (although please correct me if I’m wrong), albeit left hanging open on an adjective. How do you perceive this music to relate to the idea of “ambient”, and how did you arrive at the title of this record?

I don’t really care about genres. But as someone asked me how I would describe the music I make, I answered “ambient”. Maybe I said so because if you understand ambient as atmosphere it includes everything that surrounds us. And to me this term is the most open description that still would classify as a classification. That’s maybe also why I choose to be an artist: it’s the job that allows the most freedom for me.

Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II is an innovative and lovely body of work and it’s quite different of mine.

To me, it feels like numerous recording approaches overlain: there are recordings of vast and echoing rooms, intimately whispering guitars, and electronics that evade all notions of physical space entirely. Could you tell me about the process of recording Selected Ambient

The process of each piece is quite different. But I think you got it right—the combination of these three different types of sound are often combined in my pieces.

I often start with the guitar or a field recording. Sometimes while working with those recordings, nice mistakes or strange sounds come up and I start to focus on those parts. Sometimes it’s also just the most beautiful sound within those recordings that appeal to me. In the end I take what strikes me as the most powerful part.

I work mostly additive – I play around and then reflect. On the other hand, I can have an intention in the beginning and make a sketch. I know some sound textures, the time frame and what expression a piece should have, and later I connect the dots with material I come by. I discovered that it’s the best if I switch between these two approaches when working on a piece. It’s about changing between a more unconscious and conscious state.

For example, “Achat” was initiated by some random guitar playing combined with effects, that I recorded without a purpose. The recording sounded a little too “kraut” to me and I thought I should break it with sounds that slice it up and drag it to another place. In the end it was a quite strange mixture, and I felt that this was ugly enough that it was strange and interesting again. Yet I let it be for half a year or so and after I listened to it again, I thought it was still strange. I said to myself, that if something can stay in this extreme position that long and still is interesting to me as a listener, it might be worth showing it to someone else. But that’s just one example.

I’m intrigued by the distant voice drenched in echo on “Citrin”. It sounds like it was recorded in a factory space. Could you divulge what I’m hearing there? Is that your voice?

Yes that’s my voice. My studio is in a huge factory building and there is an empty hall which has this giant echo. I was doing some research for an installation and I recorded some sounds in this space. In fact I was rolling a metal stick on the floor to create this ringing sound you could hear in “Citirn”, and then I saw a friend of mine who works nearby passing by. I opened the window and called her.

I see that you were playing the material on Select Ambient through performance prior to its release on record. Has the process of performing this pieces live – over speakers, to an audience, within various acoustic settings – led you to think differently about this material? 

As I also listen to my music on loudspeakers in my studio and see myself also as an audience, those performances didn’t make a difference in terms of the material itself, but how it is perceived.

In installations I do for exhibition spaces, I try to create settings where the listener can experience the sounds with the highest possible concentration—as I do in my studio. And I only think of one listener. So I try to invent artificial arrangements which allow exactly that within an exhibition space. For example, “Opal” was made for an installation called Komposition für einen Kreis. The installation includes a spotlight that hangs on the ceiling and draws a circle on the floor. On the wall there’s an instruction for the audience that invites everyone to walk on the edge of that spotlight while listening to the sound of “Opal”. I came up with this idea because I am often walking in a circle while revising sounds I have create in my studio and at some point in the process it was clear that the piece correspond to that way of movement. So now everyone who has an LP should do that at home too.

As for a club or a “concert” situation I am still not sure about the best way to listen to a piece of music. Should the audience really be focusing on the performer? What is my role on stage? Does my presence make a difference at all? That said, I don’t “perform” my music with dance moves; at the moment that doesn’t make any sense to me. I see those “live” situations as presentations rather than performances. Yet, I feel that if I’m concentrating on my work—mixing the sounds and parameters—the audience is also concentrating on the music. So I think of myself on the stage as a kind of representative of the audience.

I’ve seen it mentioned that the body of the spectator always plays an essential role in your pieces. If you still feel that it’s applicable, I’d love to know more about this. How does the spectator feature in your work, and how do you think about the idea of “body” in relation to listening?

I think that what I just said gives you a feeling for it. It’s about the best possible listening position, movement or state of mind in which you can perceive sound. In the end it’s only about one person, because I can’t perceive for two. But as an artist I try to anticipate other people’s perceptions so I can give them a hand somehow.

Maybe we should think about a variety of listening settings from which one can chose depending on the music and the intention of the artist.

I see that you also recently put out a beautiful track for a split release with Goner, which feels like it has more of a “refracted acoustic” quality compared to Selected Ambient. Was this piece put together during the same sessions / time period as Selected Ambient? What led to the decision to include it on this split release?

It’s the most recent piece I did. It was not completed when Remo Soland from Hallow Ground asked me to hand in a piece of music that he’d cut on a limited amount of 10” dubplates in order to promote a Hallow Ground showcase at Lucerne’s Klub Kegelbahn hosted by zweikommasieben Magazin. At the time I was working on a piece I wanted to include in an installation, and the last part of the sound I composed for this installation just wouldn’t fit. So I had this relict and I knew that I would use it once for something. So that was the right moment to finish it.

What records have you been listening to recently?

Felicia Atkinson’s Hand in Hand, William Basinski’s 92982, Sarah Davachi, Bernhard Parmegiani, M.E.S.H `s Hesaitix and Hildegard Westerkamp’s Kits Beach Soundwalk 

What’s next on the horizon for you?

I don’t know really. Sometimes I don’t even see a horizon.