Interview: Sarah Feldman

Interview: Sarah Feldman

Perhaps you’ve been in this position too. You spot two lights pulsing at different tempi. On, off, on, off. Suddenly, the flashes synchronise for just a few seconds, oblivious to their kinship, entering into a chance alignment on their disparate illuminatory schedules. They slip away from eachother again. The sense of cohesion melts away.

Listening to the music of Sarah Feldman, I have this experience over and over again. Each instrument – a drum, a cymbal, a synthesiser – is adherent to its own clock, fixated on its own timing as it loops. Yet the music is littered with these little glimmers of collision, where numerous tunnels of time all veer seamlessly into one; a momentary, quivering illusion of single image, seamless for a mere moment, fated to pull itself apart and self-repair in an endless cycle.

Feldman’s wonderfully synaesthesic video for “Incomplete/Unresolved” is out today. You can watch that either here or below. Be sure to listen to her piece “Embracing/Accepting” right here as well. Her full-length record is due out next month. Below, we discuss physical modelling synthesis, the pitfalls of a purely analytical mindset and rediscovering pop music.

I’ve been puzzling over how you might compose music like this, as it’s so difficult to fathom your compositions as having a point of origin. There’s no “centre” that I can identify; it’s like a negotiation of incomplete parts, each somehow subordinate to those on either side of it. I’m fascinated by that. What’s your process for building these pieces? How does each composition begin, and how do they grow?

I usually start with a framework in mind and try to work my way through it intuitively. By doing this, I’m trying to give a guiding sense of organizational logic to the pretty abstract material I use. With a background structure set in place, I can focus on the actual musical product; the feelings expressed, timbral and spatial details, dynamics, etc.

In Embracing/Accepting, for example, my idea was to have two main voices going at different tempi and build the rest of the piece with ‘sub-voices’ synced to those main voices. After I decided that, I really tried to let go and let my intuition guide me. I used a sequencer that I made in Max/MSP to create the individual rhythmic patterns, and had it triggering acoustic drum samples and a bunch of synths.

I’ve been trying to suss out the division between electronics and acoustic instrumentation here. For instance, “Imperfections/Contradictions” sounds like a processed piano at some points, a synthesiser at others…I occasionally suspect there might be a guitar or pizzicato strings as well. What instruments are you using, and is the acoustic/electronic ambiguity a deliberate one?

At some point while I was working on this record, I caught onto physical modelling synthesis, which I ended up using alot. This kind of synth models the behaviour of acoustic instruments. The composer sets parameters like the stiffness of a string or a membrane as well as the size/shape/material of a resonator (imagine a drum skin stretched over a drum, or guitar strings stretched across its body). I used my modular synth and FM synthesis quite a bit too.

I kept running into this problem of needing sounds that could withstand lots of repetition while being consistent enough to be easily segregated from one another. If I have a bunch of rhythms going at different speeds but the listener can’t tell which sound belongs to which rhythm, it sorta defeats the purpose. If the sounds are too uniform, though, then the music sounds boring. Physical modelling synths are great for my purposes because the sounds never repeat in exactly the same way, much like a real acoustic instrument. This is not usually the case for most other forms of sound synthesis. I don’t think the reason for the acoustic/electronic ambiguity is a deliberate aesthetic one, but more a result of the limitations I set for myself and my personal preferences.

I’m forever drawn to the sound of disparate rhythms and tempi run against eachother. Often it feels as though the music is building itself without composer intervention. Does this process bring an element of “chance” and freedom to the final shape of the work?

In a sense, definitely. Not chance in an indeterminate way, but it’s true that on a note-by-note basis, there isn’t very much intervention going on. This is necessary for the effect of the overlapping patterns to be perceived. If I’m constantly changing the rhythms then each pattern will be impossible to segregate. I’m also a huge fan of minimalist development, like with Steve Reich, Phillip Glass or Wim Mertens. I love the effect of taking an interesting system and only nudging it one way or another, so it’s an aesthetic preference too.

You talk about your music as expressing the “coexistence of perceptibility and complexity, stability and instability, as well as passive and analytical modes of perception”. What is it about these premises that compel you, in sonic senses and otherwise?

As I’ve started to come into myself and mature as a person, I’ve realized that approaching problems, musical or otherwise, with a purely analytical mindset is unhealthy. I used to take refuge from difficult feelings by over-intellectualizing everything and I’ve learnt from that experience how damaging that can be. It totally stifled me creatively and kept me from reaching my full potential as a human being.

That statement, which I feel my practice now reflects, is about coming to see the power and beauty of imperfections and contradictions, without disregarding the value of a more intellectual approach. This is why using structural frameworks and my intuition together is so important to me. I used to be so focused on the structures of my music that I was hardly concerned with what it actually sounded like. I remember sending a piece to a mentor and being all “Conlon Nancarrow this… complex time that…” and he told me he thought it sounded like Laurie Spiegel. I was devastated! It took me like a year to understand that it did sorta sound like Laurie Spiegel and that that was a good thing.

I hope that the music itself reflects this notion too. It has the potential to be appreciated as textural/ambient and can be approached more analytically.

Are there any plans to take this music live? If so, do you have any thoughts on how that might work?

I did a show recently in Montreal! These pieces were originally composed for 5-8 channels and I mixed them all down to stereo version for the release. For live shows, I made 4 channel versions. We got the speakers set up in a square and everyone sat on pillows in the centre. It’s so novel to look around and see everyone focused on the music, which I feel is pretty rare at live events. People were laying down with their eyes closed and stuff. I really enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to few more shows in Montreal this summer.

You’ve been studying Electroacoustics at Concordia University. How has that been? Has the course had an impact on the way in which you compose, listen to and interact with music?

The first year was transformative. I had two professors there, Kevin Austin and Eldad Tsabary, who really changed my life. The program is centred around eartraining. I remember repeatedly listening to these tiny snippets of Stockhausen’s Kontakte and having to describe them in detail, or having to differentiate the pitches of two sounds differing by as little as 1/100th of a semitone. When you’re challenged to focus that deeply your whole perception changes pretty quickly. I used to get overwhelmed being in public because my hearing became so sensitive! Being around people who are so passionate about what they do is amazing too.

I had dropped out of university two years in a row before applying to Electroacoustics and I’m thankful that I found my place there. It gave me the tools to do what would have taken years to figure out on my own.

You also host Sarah’s Library on the online radio station, which is awesome. I was pleased to hear your latest episode kick off with an extract from Florian Hecker’s A Script For Machine Synthesis. I’ve been enjoying that one a lot recently. Does the show have a particular theme?

Oh yeah that record is such a trip! I’m trying to challenge myself to expand my library, so everything I play is stuff I’ve discovered in the 4 weeks leading up to each show. The whole experience has been really great and I love the community.

You’re also half of the band Watering alongside Bennett Dobni. I’ve listened to your Songs tape, which put me in an absolute spin (in the best way). Again, there’s a wonderful focus on the intricate interlock of individual segments. How and when did you start collaborating with Bennett?

I was sort of introduced to music making with Bennett actually. We grew up in the same city on the Canadian prairies, called Saskatoon. I was mostly interested in becoming a studio engineer at that point and was doing a lot of recording at my parents’ house. He played in a bunch of bands and had a studio himself, so that was our connection point. We eventually started making electronic music together with this really elaborate setup, including an acoustic drum set, multiple guitars, amps and pedals, with a bunch of hardware synths driven by two MPC1000s. I took on a much more serious interest in composing music at that point. We eventually moved to Montreal to pursue music further. Bennett is one of my best friends and our relationship has had a huge impact on me.

Does Watering scratch a different itch to your solo work?

Yeah it definitely does. Bennett has a whole other range of ideas and dispositions to bring to the table. We still work with electronic and live instruments, which is a completely different experience than doing everything on the computer. I love playing the drums too, which is my main role other than song writing. I’ve been playing since I was 12 and it’s had a huge impact on how I perceive and think about music.

This being said, I think both projects are driven by the same desire to create novel experiences. They’re both about challenging ourselves to discover things that are new to us.

What other music have you been listening to lately?

I’m just coming off a phase of being really into Japanese pop and ambient music from the 80s. Lots of Haruomi Hosono and Hiroshi Yoshimura, with some Susumu Yokota, Motohiko Hamase and a few others. It’s sort of the first time I’ve listened to mostly pop music since I was in high school probably, which is a shame in retrospect. There’s so much to enjoy about pop music.

Now I’m starting to get into Italian ambient/experimental stuff from the 70s-90s, like Lino Capra Vaccina, Roberto Cacciapaglia and Giovanni Venosta. It’s a very exciting new world to me.

What’s next for you and your music?

I’m working on a new record with Watering right now and I think once I get this release done I’ll start on more solo material. I’m hoping to have some longer pieces, as the record I’m releasing now is pretty short. I sort of think about these ones as studies in preparation for a larger work.

Sarah Feldman on Facebook:
Sarah Feldman on Twitter:
Sarah Feldman on Instagram: