The Finnish-English artist is best known for masterminding immersive spaces that unearth hidden connections between people, places and local lore, and has travelled across continents to inform her work.
For recent projects she’s delved into singing lexicons, vocal androgyny and aural topographies in places as diverse as rural India, the Scottish highlands and islands, Liverpool and Glasgow.
Her latest multi-sensory installation, SOURCEMOUTH : LIQUIDBODY, is on show at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, India, until the end of March and has been shortlisted in the inaugural Scottish Awards for New Music in the Sound Art / Electroacoustic Work category.
Here, she lets us in on her avant-garde creative processes and explains the thinking behind her groundbreaking nominated work…
When did you first begin composing?
I’ve sung and written songs for as long as I can remember, but the process of composing longer form pieces emerged gradually. While I was at art school, I began working with sound as a material to create installations and performances. At the time I was also playing in various bands and improvising with musicians. Slowly I began to explore my voice as an instrument in itself, experimenting with layering my vocals in ‘demo-sketches’, and this was the way I began to write longer compositions. The real turning point was my project Away with the Birds, a multi-disciplinary body of work that was developed over four years, investigating the mimesis of birds in Scottish Gaelic song. At the heart of this was a vocal composition for a female ensemble, which was eventually performed on the Isle of Canna, in the Hebrides, in 2014. The music weaves together fragments of songs and poems that are imitative of birds into an extended soundscape. The performance took place in the harbour, emerging from and responding to the landscape, using an innovative sound system suspended above the water.
How important is the human voice in your work?
Though I work across different media, the voice is central to my practice – my first love is to sing and I compose for and with the voice. Singing and extended vocalisation are a process of discovery, a way to release and communicate what is invisible and undefinable. I’m interested in the roots of language and music, and in accessing a space beyond – or before – language, where the focus is not on semantic meaning, but rather on the emotional, mimetic, and relational aspects of expression. For that reason I tend to compose with vocables – non-lexical sounds – or particles of words and fragments of phrases.
Within my sound and film installations, I record layers of vocals which I also develop into notated scores, unconventional in their form. For live ensemble performances, I play with different ways of notating sound, treating scores as mnemonic devises, or as aids to learning – the ultimate aim being an embodied performance without the need for referring to a score. I like to work with musicians from a non-classical background, paying attention to the individual qualities of each voice, and often workshop material with other vocalists in a back-and-forth process, creating spaces for improvisation and discovery.
I’m also conscious of bringing the body into this conversation – after all, the voice comes from the body. Composing with the voice feels very close to choreography, and more and more, I find myself working with gesture as an equal element of the work.
I have never felt like I want to limit myself to one kind of creative practice. As a society, we’ve separated out different art forms into boxes, but music, dance, theatre and visual art were not always discrete disciplines. I feel a strong relationship between different modalities – for me, music is very visual, and drawing, mark-making and gesture are very musical. I am interested in synthesising different ways of working to create multisensory, multilayered experiences. I work with a range of media, including musical composition, choreography, visual-scores, text, pen-and-ink drawing, site-specific performance, audiovisual installation, sculptural objects and interactive new media.
How does it all fit together?
It varies from project to project, but ultimately all these ways of working are grounded in research processes. Generally speaking, I am interested in how sound, gesture and language frame our connection with places and one another, and specifically, I work with different ‘satellite’ elements that fit and resonate together, to shape and expand the overall meaning of a particular focus. For example, a visual score might open out elements of process, subject matter or narrative. Film and sound recording can be a way to document a site-specific performance or a medium in its own right. Costume, props and set direct attention to a specific meaning within the work, and become a relic or residue after a performance. A single gesture may be the starting point of a sound, and a larger choreographed shape may be a way to journey through a performance or film.
What inspired your Scottish Awards for New Music-nominated work?
SOURCEMOUTH : LIQUIDBODY was commissioned for Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, India. I knew early on in my process that I wanted to explore what I call ‘mnemonic topographies’, or ‘mnemonic landscapes’ of India. By this I mean the relationship between cultural perception, lore, place and land – the land encoded in the song, the lore embedded in the land. Rivers have long played an important role in India’s cultural identity; perceived as purifying and life-giving, they are a focus of sacred observance, venerated as holy places, and personified as deities. While researching Indian river-systems and how they are represented within the traditional performing arts of South India, I met Kapila Venu, a leading practitioner of Kutiyattam – a form of Sanskrit theatre where narratives are told through stylised and codified gestures of hands and eyes. It is one of India’s oldest living performing arts, originating more than 2,000 years ago, and is officially recognised by UNESCO.
Kapila demonstrated a sequence of gestures from the Kutiyattam tradition, known as Nadi Varnana – River Description, which represents the river cycle as a sequence of codified movements. This kind of mimesis of the more-than-human-world felt familiar to me from my previous work on the imitation of birds within the Scottish Gaelic song tradition, and I was immediately drawn towards learning more about this gestural embodiment of rivers. As someone with a voice-centred practice, I’ve become more and more interested in shifting the initial focus of my process from purely vocal sound to proceeding from body movement, and so it felt right to learn and explore the Nadi Varnana sequence with Kapila as my guide. This sequence then formed the nucleus of my project for Kochi.
I created an audiovisual installation, which flows between gesture and sound, featuring a visual-score, and suite of films incorporating choreography, vocal composition, and costume. At the heart of the work is the Nadi Varnana sequence. Through a range of exaggerated gestures made with the eyes and hands, this sequence embodies the watershed mimetically, representing the river cycle as a succession of codified movements – the first rain on the mountaintop, rivulets becoming mountain streams, fast flowing river, and, the completion of a slow meander to the sea.
Adapting this into a performance-to-camera, I created three interlinked films. In the first, on the largest of screens, multiple repetitions of my silver-costumed body enact each stage of the river’s journey – a liquid body flowing from source to mouth. Alongside this, I created a vocal composition from multi-layered vocals, imitative of the percussion (drums and cymbals) that traditionally accompanies the sequence, evoking the river’s formation and flow. Projected onto another screen, above a doorway, the second film is a close up of my eyes performing choreographed gestures that signify the same transition from river source to mouth. As my eyes close shut, and the stage falls empty, on a third screen, through the open doorway, my disembodied mouth begins to incant instructions for the performance, using a melody that draws on the vocal chanting style of Kutiyattam: ‘take your eyes to the top of the high mountain, trace the summit with your fingers, open the brow, wait for the rain to fall…’ Two visual scores are displayed nearby, transcribing the stages of the river embodied movement. As the mouth closes, bringing an end to the song, the body gives expression to the lyrics, beginning a new cycle of the river score.
Now the project has been fully realised, how do you feel about it?
I’m not entirely certain how I feel about it yet – it is still so fresh. The installation is on show in Kochi until the end of March, and it usually takes me a bit of time to reflect on my process and resulting outcome. Maybe I can answer this question in a couple of months’ time!
How has it informed your creative processes going forward?
I really enjoyed shifting my initial focus from purely vocal sound to proceeding from body movement and I’m keen to further explore the connections between different modalities of voice, gesture and mark-making. I also loved working with film, and anticipate going deeper into this medium in the future.
What’s next for you?
I am working on a number of new performance and audiovisual projects, including a vocal piece exploring tidal language, and a composition for voices and singing saws created from fragments of Finnish forest-related songs. This year, I am Leverhulme artist-in-residence in The Centre for Language Evolution at the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences in The University of Edinburgh. And I’m also beginning to slowly plan how I can take some older projects such as Away with the Birds on tour, and perhaps even release a record or two. We shall see!