In response to calls by groups such as Sounding the Feminists to hear all composers, our latest interview series seeks to provide a platform for a more diverse range of composers, performers, sound artists and music professionals.
In our first interview, we are joined by composer, educator, improviser, academic and adventurer, Karen Power. Having produced commissions for RTÉ, SCAW, Sonar Quartet, Ensemble Mosaik, Ultraschall Festival, MikroMusick, and received national and international awards, Karen’s work has taken her across the globe in pursuit of new sonic experiences.
Despite this, she says: “When people ask what kind of music I write, I always find that quite a difficult question, because it really does depend on what’s coming.”
We catch up with Karen to talk sonic explorations, far-flung adventures, ‘panic recording’ and testing recording equipment to the limit.
Tell me a little about your compositional process…
As with anything else it’s something that evolves and changes as I evolve and change. Hopefully I’ll be saying that for the next thirty or forty years! My interest has always been in trying to represent a musical idea in any way that feels necessary to representing that idea.
So if the impulse is a sonority that I feel would be best represented by an orchestra, then that’s what I’ll do. If it’s something that I find had components that lie outside of music, then I’ll think about collaborating with a visual artist, or a video artist.
When people ask what kind of music I write, I always find that quite a difficult question, because it really does depend on what’s coming, that particular musical idea.
Electroacoustics have played an important part of your compositional repertoire. What drew you to this initially?
I came quite late to composition, in the third year of my undergraduate. I had been doodling, but then wrote my first piece kind of accidentally. I had always been listening to music, and as an undergraduate I had studies everything that I could possibly get my hands on.
I think it was the same with electroacoustics. I did a course on Csound through the Ennis Compositional Summer school. It was two weeks of intense programming. I had done nothing like it before. On our day off, we got taken to the Cliffs of Moher. We were supposed to divide and mix with the other students, but it ended up that all of us doing the Csound course ended up in the same car.
As it happened, the instructor had packed a few microphones, and we spent our day dangling microphones down the Cliffs of Moher, I always think of that as being the start. Of course it wasn’t, there is no one starting point. But for me being able to record something and consider everything about that sound as potential compositional material, and being able to imagine on the spot what the composition could be was far more intuitive for me that notating something on paper and imagining what the musical result would be.
It seems that you’re particularly interested in the concept of place and soundscape in your compositional work, what attracts you to this?
I started very seriously field recording in 2011 – 2012, and there I made a major financial investment in proper equipment and started really thinking about elements of location. For me, listening to any environment, it makes everything clear, it makes the idea of music not being this isolated art form that exists in a vacuum, but something that surrounds us and shapes us, everyday.
And from that comes the idea of place, and that the place has its own sense of time, sense of place, timbre, colour, all these things we talk about in music, but maybe don’t relate to anything real. So a lot of my practice has become about a very simple idea: connecting music, a humanly constructed art form, and acknowledge that this exists naturally. So when I’m field recording in these locations, I’m listening to them as pieces of music.
Your work has taken you on some far-flung adventures, from The Arctic Circle to The Amazon Rainforest. How do you cope with the demands of such differing environments while working on your projects?
The more inhuman the place the more challenging the situation! When you start to consider field recording as the first creative or compositional act, you consider all of the chances that come out of that. The danger element, or the isolation element, is a core part of why I chose that location. I suppose you prepare for it like anything else.
What’s more difficult is to find a safe way to get to these places. The Arctic Circle was a residency, so at least you were guaranteed that there would be similarly minded people there. But saying that, most of the artists were visual artists, so trying to ask twenty-seven other artists to please be quiet while you record because you’re in a constricted environment for safety reasons, because there are polar bears and things…
I had all sorts of plans to drill holes in the ice and stuff like that that I managed to do, but I had to take some extreme safety measures to do it. It’s dangerous, but I don’t know, I think it’s worth it.
And then the Amazon, you have the other extreme. It’s humid and so hot. Any of the equipment, yes, it’s made for extremes, but I certainly feel that my equipment has been tested to those extremes. Perhaps a lesser extreme was recording in the bunkers in Berlin, an area that hauled a past, a particular past, and yet there’s no sound, like in the Arctic.
It’s safe to say that in the Arctic, two thirds of what I did I’d call panic recording. I have a system: normally in a recording situation the last thing I do is press record, everything else is the work I do beforehand.
Out there, you just want to get everything down. It’s very cold, your limbs are freezing off, it was a very different work experience than somewhere you can sit and listen for hours before making the recording.
This experience of ‘panic recording’ in the Arctic, has this shaped your approach to recording since?
Any field recordist will tell you, once you choose to work with anything outdoors your level of control becomes diminished. So I guess you become kind of an improviser. Obviously I need to travel with my equipment on my back, so everything needs to be small, everything needs to be flexible.
You’ve got to be able to respond and react quickly, so I’ve spent as much time gathering equipment as I have recording, to find the right set ups. I think the Arctic was the most challenging situation, it was the first time I really thought ‘How badly do I want this sound?’ and ‘What am I prepared to do for this sound?’.
Are there any places, real or imagined, that you feel you have yet to explore in sound?
Oh absolutely. The world is still a big place, and I haven’t finished. It’s very difficult, because the nice thing about field recording is the amount of surprises that it holds. The not nice thing is that you have to listen in order to know whether your interested in recording it or not.
I don’t go anywhere without my equipment at this stage! So there are isolated locations that I still need to get to, for example a number of deserts I want to make recordings in. Probably the biggest place to be explored would be Antarctica. It’s always been my plan to do bottom and top. As of yet, it’s very difficult to get there in a way that could work. So I’m still trying to figure out how that’s possible, but I’ll do it.
Your work in the Arctic Circle, Sound like the Amazon, and Sonic Pollinators all draw attention to a sort of wilderness or communion with nature. Would you say that there is a level of ecological consciousness to your work?
My only answer is that first and foremost I’m a composer. Of course, you can’t but be in these places and be affected by them. If one was choosing to spend so much of your time in such isolated spaces, it would have to be because you enjoy it.
I love to be in a place my own, to listen, to be in that space. Obviously, I’m aware of a different perspective, but its not the primary focus, for me that’s sound. I will never put an ecological or climatic idea into someone’s head deliberately. For me it’s about highlighting something that surrounds us all the time and drawing your own conclusions.
Do you feel, from experiences with your students, as a performer and composer, that the place of music such as your own is changing in Ireland?
I think it is, very gradually. Different places respond differently. Just a few weeks ago I was in Offaly with the Sonic Pollinators piece, and we had a room of seventy people, none of whom are artists or musicians, and they sat in a darkened room, fully engaged, for forty minutes.
You could have heard a pin drop, and I don’t think you would have had it ten years ago. I do think that there’s still a notion that what I’m doing, and what people like me are doing, is not music.
People are constantly surprised that I do work with notated music, and with ensembles, and I guess there will always be that sort of challenge. I certainly feel that in areas of music there’s a more communal language being spoken, say the relationship between jazz and classical music, and maybe an acknowledgement that notated music is something that belongs to a certain period in music, and isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, which is probably a good conversation to be having.
You’ve mentioned that people are surprised that you work with notated music and ensembles as well as your field recording and electroacoustic work. Do you ever find it difficult to reconcile the two yourself?
That has been probably the main focus of my work for the last four years. The overall aim was always to put these two worlds together. I fundamentally believe that when you bring together a musician with all of his or her context, his skills, her skill, their instrument and all that it can do, and an environment with its own sense of time, sense of place, its own harmony, what you get, if the two are listening, if the two are adaptable, you get a third space.
This is a space for the composer, performer, the audience, that’s the magic area. It doesn’t always happen, but this is something I’ve been working hard to improve, that method of communication between the natural and constructed.
The ultimate aim is to have an aural score that replaces a notated score, and individual aural parts for each musician. So if you’re working with an ensemble, you’ll have the main aural score, which may be what the audience hears as a tape part. Each musician has an aural part which like a musically notated score, and has information that that player needs to know where they are and what their function is within the ensemble.
Depending who I’m working with this will be more or less precise. In the case of Quiet Music Ensemble, [it can be] fully improvised, as I know them very well, they know what I’m trying to explore. If it’s an ensemble that I’ve never worked with before, we’ll work together and figure out what needs to happen. It sounds very complicated, but I believe that these pieces, they become living spaces. When it comes good, when it works, you hear it working. That’s the only way I can describe it.
It also means that these kind of pieces, because they’re living, they go on living. The engagement there, between performer and piece, it’s a tangible engagement. It’s taking music away from this idea of being an abstract, isolated experience, and bringing it into a living one, one where its simply part of the world and how we engage with the world.
Karen's sound installation location location location (commissioned by New Music Dublin) will be at National Concert Hall, March 1st - 4th, 2018.
All images by John Godfrey