Opening to the World of Sounds: Marja Ahti in conversation with François Bonnet
François Bonnet: You’ve been releasing music for ten years but only recently decided to credit your work under your own name. Does this signal a new step in your musical evolution?
Marja Ahti: The decision to work under my own name was a result of a gradual shift in perception, followed by a veritable learning explosion concerning both listening to and creating music. There is a before and after, so this change was an appropriate mark.
FB: You also make music in the duo Ahti & Ahti. What do you consider to be the main difference between creating solo and in a duo?
MA: My solo work is an intuitive everyday practice. I can put thousands of hours into my solo work because I love spending days in the studio, trying out sounds and thinking about the task at hand. The duo work happens during more intense work periods. It involves a lot of discussions, sometimes even more than playing. We also record a lot when we travel together, so much of our personal history goes into the work. Maybe my solo work tends to be more abstract and elusive for this reason, compared to the more down-to-earth tone in our duo work. Both ways of creating bring different kinds of surprises.
FB: Your last record, Vegetal Negatives, drew inspiration from one particular text by René Daumal. How do you use literature in your music?
MA: Acousmatic music as an art form is inherently narrative, one could argue, because the use of ‘real-world’ materials invokes references to that world, much like words and images do. So, if a piece of music is also a web of loose references or associations, you can work with that as a parallel level to the musical form. With Vegetal Negatives, I decided to try and take this quite literally; to pick certain ideas from the text and find a way to interpret them in sound. In my recent work, I’m not using text as a starting point, but the approach is similar.I am simultaneously approaching sound as something physical and material and as elusive poetic images. I don’t see music as isolated and as a self-refer- ential system – music leaks into life and life leaks into music. As listeners, we bring all our luggage into the act of listening, but we also, at times, dissolve into the physicality of the experience. So, on the one hand, you have this sense of direct experience, transcendent even, and on the other, a mess of associations and conceptual entanglements. I like to consider both.
FB: There is a trend in the acousmatic dogma to think of this kind of music as a purely abstract form that eliminates the pre-embedded meaning of sound in order to allow pure sonic form. Thinking about what you’ve just said, perhaps the narrative dimension is lost with this approach. Do you also consider your music to be ‘formal’, meaning it also abandons narrativity?
MA: Of course! Just with a shift of attention. Reduced listening is a great exercise: practising zooming in and out between attending to form as it appears and your attachments to it. I’m not a scholar, so I’m just speaking as a listener, but I don’t think it’s possible to sustain a reduced state of listening, the level of attachments reveals itself. The interesting thing is to notice these shifts. It might teach you something about yourself and being in the world. Again, speaking on a personal level, I feel that a certain aesthet- ic of reduction in music might have the opposite effect: detaching you from the universe of forms that is actually hovering all around you in an isolated realm of technology. I admire people like Annea Lockwood and Luc Ferrari, who have made inspiring works that invite you to enjoy the energy and form of sounds while still maintaining a sense of being alive in the world. Toshiya Tsunoda’s field recordings is another example of music that highlights observation while remaining completely transparent; inviting you to experience something familiar in a new way. Compared to this, I feel that my music is often unnecessarily cluttered – all over the place. Then again, it’s a different thing. I also enjoy a bit of dirt.
FB: What are your thoughts on playing live? Do you feel close to the acousmatic approach, where the concert is a moment of unfolding an existing piece of music in space, or do you ‘create’ electroacoustic music in real-time?
MA: In my solo performances, I’m usually live-collaging compositional elements with additional textures and tones from synthesizers and sometimes acoustic sound sources. The pre-recorded elements consist of both pre-composed parts and single sound objects that I process live, mostly field recordings or samples from a small Buchla system that I keep returning to work with at the EMS studio in Stockholm. It’s still an acousmatic approach, but in a deconstructed manner, letting a piece of existing music come apart and be reborn in space. Our duo performances are more about creating sounds in real-time, including sounds of almost mundane, task-based activities.
FB: Are you used to dealing with space in your music or shows? Do you have a particular way of thinking about the multi- channel possibilities or how experimental music should be presented for a concert?
MA: The performance at Sonic Acts will be the first time I have worked with a multichannel setup, so I’m very excited about trying out different ways of realizing this. My music usually deals with space more in the sense of how recorded spaces are incorporated in a compo- sition, exploring acoustics in field recordings and using this as a compositional tool. I want to explore the speaker setup not so much as an orchestra, but more as an environment. The piece I’m working on will take the listener through different possible and imaginary cli- mates – a bit like moving between layers of the atmosphere. I would like to explore the range between a subtle sense of a room that’s alive and more dynamic movements in the space.
This interview is part of Sonic Acts Magazine 2020.