Interview: Sound Awakener + Dalot

On the new collaborative record between Vietnamese artist Sound Awakener (Nhung Nguyen) and Greek artist Dalot (Maria Papadomanolaki), I hear the imprint of both physical distance and immaterial intimacy. Little Things was created during an 18-month exchange between the two artists, during which they traded sonic materials and shared their thoughts on how the album was unfolding. This blurring of field recordings and gentle tones – with cityscapes drifting in and out of synthesisers, and footsteps crunching into echo – captures the intertwining of disparate geographies, memories and emotional circumstances, diffusing one life into another, flowing tidally between bouts of outward expression and recessions into moments of private listening.

Fluid Audio’s beautiful physical edition has now sold out, but you can buy the digital version right here. Below, Nhung and Maria discuss dream analyses, soundwalks in London and finding beauty within the ordinary.

First things first. How did you both meet each other?

Maria: Via the internet. Nhung first contacted me for an interview on her blog and that eventually led to us making music together.

Nhung: It all started back in 2015, via the internet when I interviewed Maria for my blog. After that we made one track together, which eventually became the track on the album titled “Everyday Happiness”.

I understand that Little Things is the product of an 18-month exchange of ideas. Could you tell me about what this exchange looked like? How often were you in touch with each other? What sort of material were you sending back and forth, and what forms did this material take?

M: For me it was a rather unique experience. Usually, when I work on an album it is all like a whirlwind; I enter into the zone and finish the album in one go, especially for my Dalot releases. With this it was a drastically different process, marked by significant changes in my life where I had to take a break from many past ways of thinking and doing, and where I had to begin from the start, take it slowly and consider things more carefully – more holistically. For example, the collaboration started when I was still pregnant with my daughter and continued after I gave birth, completed my PhD, through to a year of full-time parenting and a sudden return to full-time employment. All these different steps, also marked by changes in the seasons, the passage of time and my inner changes, have somehow defined the timeline of my exchanges with Nhung.

We started by exchanging drafts or sketches of ideas and each one of us would work on them individually. In my case, that could take a week or a few months depending on the period I was in. It involved me listening and re-listening to the sketches and each time adding a different layer. I would re-listen to what I had done five months ago and extract, sculpt and tweak. I would then send it to Nhung to listen, feedback and respond and so forth. We kept on sending these work-in-progress audio files back and forth – sometimes with a big gap in between but with a lot of thinking, listening, extracting happening in the meantime. We would also exchange emails with ideas and thoughts about the concept and mood of the album-in-progress, how it made us feel, and what sort of things fed into it when working on it. Like a mini-psychoanalysis almost or a dream analysis, if you like.

N: I agree with Maria. The experience has been very special for me. I treat this album as a chance for a lot of personal sonic experiments and self-reflection. The period spent on finishing Little Things was a challenging time of my life and my motivation to make this album was to seek solace in everyday life and reflect upon all the simple, small things around it. We collaborated via the internet, so email and cloud storage were the main tools for exchanging ideas and drafts. We usually started with a simple element, like a field recording, some synth patterns or a drone sketch. Then we worked on each element, individually, until it became a track. There is one particular memory I want to mention: when we started working on the first track, “Everyday Happiness”, Maria sent me three long soundwalk recordings from around the city. That was an inspiring beginning and I had much freedom to cut, loop and process those field recordings.

PHYSICAL EDITION OF LITTLE THINGS (BY FLUID AUDIO)

I understand that you paid particular attention to the quotidian, oft-unnoticed details that reside within busy environments. Do you have any thoughts on why this turned out to be a pertinent subject for you both?

M: For me, the whole process of durational listening and revisiting opened up a different engagement with the source material: a more refined one, focused on small, minute elements.

N: Due to the amount of challenges I faced with my life and career at the same time as I worked on Little Things, I started observing all the small, ordinary things around my life and discovered how to find beauty within them. So that turned out to be the approach in the making of this album for both of us. Personally I usually collected very short, simple sounds to work with Maria’s sketches: a DIY tape loops, a synth pattern, a simple piano melody.

The text accompanying this record makes reference to a quote by poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “the only journey is the one within”. Personally I’ve found that these “inner” journeys can lead to experiences that, while wonderful, are often difficult to externally express. How did you find the experience of exploring these internal landscapes together, and articulating these internal journeys to each other? 

M: Working with sound offers the potential to overcome such barriers I think. Our exchanges gradually led us to finding a common dialect for our different perspectives. It was an interesting process for me to see how a person from a totally different culture interpreted my ideas and to actually realise that we were not that far apart.

The record is teeming with these tiny fragments of place and dialogue. One of the most compelling aspects of the listening experience is how many of these field recordings seem to evaporate as soon as I turn my full attention to them, like memories skirting the edges of my recollection. There’s something nice about not knowing the source of these field recordings and extracts of conversation. Nonetheless, I don’t suppose you could both divulge a story about a particular recording on Little Things (i.e. where it’s taken from, how it was recorded etc)? 

N: Maria collected all the field recordings in Little Things, so she knows the story behind them much better than me. I enjoy the field recordings on the track “Strangers In The City” most. They are originally from Maria’s soundwalk around the city (London, I think) when she captured the sounds of urban environment, e.g children playing and running and the sounds of the traffic. That’s very similar to Hanoi, where I live. I found the connection between two different places to build a sonic atmosphere that both me and Maria felt comfortable to work on.

M: The basis of Little Things is formed of a series of recordings of soundwalks I did in November 2015 in different locations around West London, where I live. These were done with a pair of binaural microphones and a digital recorder. I chose locations that had a variety of sonic textures and atmospheres and I also chose different times of the day. As Nhung said, they were a source of inspiration and a good starting point. For instance, the sounds on “Sailing” are taken from a soundwalk I did across the Thames Path towards Kew Gardens. On “Strangers In The City”, the sounds you hear are from Ravenscourt Park and the nearby high street.

What draws you to working together? Could you pick out one particular characteristic about the other artist that appeals to you, in terms of how they approach working with sound?

N: I love and appreciate how Maria collects, chooses and layers each sound carefully in the piece, especially the efforts spent on collecting field recordings.

M: Working with Nhung was a wonderful experience. She has a particular way of sculpting her piano sounds; a very delicate and calculated one.

How easy was it to decide that Little Things was “finished”? There are so many minute details on this record, and I imagine that it’d be quite easy to keep tweaking and adjusting the edges ad infinitum…

M: After a certain point we both felt that the project was completed. Of course, Little Things is not really finished. It is a work in progress and the listeners are the co-creators. 

It’s great to see that you’ve been working with Fluid Audio for the physical edition. The pictures of the release look beautiful. Could you tell me about the artwork for the release?   

N: The artwork and design for this release was wonderfully crafted by Fluid Radio’s owner Daniel Crossley. Every detal is hand-made and I enjoy how he collected antique and rare material, such as the glass slide or bontanical prints. I’ve been really into analog photography and crafting recently so I’m very happy to see the physical edition of Little Things.

What music are you both listening to at the moment? 

N: I’m into Vietnamese traditional music and 20th century microtonal music nowadays. And as usual, I do listen to a lot of sounds around me – Hanoi, where I live, is never a quiet city.

M: I do not listen to any music at the moment – mainly the sounds around me as Nhung does.

What’s on the horizon for you both?

Nhung: Some of my new art projects will launch this March. And other releases are scheduled to be out at the end of this year. I also formed a new duo called Oblivia with my friend Tram Anh in Hanoi ,and we hope to put on some shows this year under the new alias.

M: I have a couple of performances and research residencies planned later this year.