Name: Damsel Elysium
Occupation: Sound artist, bassist
Recent release: Damsel Elysium's latest single "Echoes of Lalia" is out June 29th as part of SA Recordings single series The Hearing Experience.
Recommendations on the topic of sound: Atmospherics by Jon Hassell
If you enjoyed these thoughts by Damsel Elysium and would like to find out more about their work, visit them on Instagram and Soundcloud.
Can you talk a bit about your interest in or fascination for sound? What were early experiences which sparked it?
Well to put it briefly, I’m neurodivergent and sound is a high sensitivity for me. It can cause a great deal of stress for me. But in the right environment it can be equally as pleasurable.
As a child (and now) I repeated sounds or words that felt good in my mouth, listening to songs on repeat. I had always been drawn to big epic orchestral sounds, whether soundtracks to films or the orchestras for BBC Proms. I started playing violin at 6, I was totally besotted with it. My experience with studying it in an elitist environment killed that fire and I stopped playing around 15 after a somatic injury.
It was only recently that I had become more involved with sound after discovering my neurodivergence and the greater impact it had on my daily functioning.
Which artists, approaches, albums or performances using sound in an unusual or remarkable way captured your imagination in the beginning?
As a kid, I held Vanessa Mae close to my heart. More recently, Oliver Coates showed me the gargantuan power a string instrument had outside of classical. I saw Coates at Jazz Cafe back in 2019 which triggered the deep desire to reconnect with my violin in a new way. FKA Twigs and her Magdalene album presented so much of what I was holding back, she showed me I could do anything with the right determination.
Jon Hassell, I sadly never got to see him live but I’ve seen recordings and it has been completely mesmerising, I love watching him play. It’s like watching a nonchalant magician. I love harmonisers and tape delay, it makes my instrument feel like another being.
What's your take on how your upbringing and cultural surroundings have influenced your sonic preferences?
I grew up in quite an eclectic environment.
I was born to a multi ethnic family. Both my parents are artists and musicians with a unique style and attitude towards life. They introduced me to jazz, instrumental hiphop, french house, classical … pretty much everything. But growing up in a city like London, you’re exposed to so much, it’s hard to narrow down to just a few things.
My dad made it his mission to make sure I absorbed more unusual culture and encouraged me to imagine the impossible. My mother allowed me to freely explore nature without fears of injury. I had a profound connection to fantasy worlds and anime, paganism and astronomy.
I was digesting so much while young, imagining extremely vividly even to the point I would confuse dreams and reality. But sound is where I can share those experiences.
Working predominantly with field recordings and sound can be an incisive step / transition. Aside from musical considerations, there can also be personal motivations for looking for alternatives. Was this the case for you, and if so, in which way?
Hmm, I wouldn’t say I was ever looking for it or trying to do anything super leftfield, sound is just always there, it’s what makes the most sense to me. It’s a language in its own right. I hear whole symphonies when the tube screeches and hallows. I was always contemplating about capturing it: “oh, if only I could record that…”
When I realised I didn’t need anything fancy to capture it (just been using my phone), I was content. Simple as that really. But this is definitely just the beginning.
How would you describe the shift of moving towards music which places the focus foremost on sound, both from your perspective as a listener and a creator?
It's really exciting, I think it’s the Era of Sound. Lockdown brought such a silence to us and learning to return to the detail of sound became a real mission for me. A lot more artists are thinking about the sound of the world as an instrument and I certainly believe that to be true. Klein, I feel, is one of those artists thinking about sound in this way.
Even though I have partly, fragmentedly, trained as a musician, I don’t think I could call myself that. It’s why ‘sound artist’ feels right to me because with composing or musicianship, it’s a different style of thinking. That isn’t to say a sound artist cannot be a composer and musician at the same time, but I certainly feel that navigating the way I create work has changed.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and working with sound? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage when it comes to your way of working with sound?
I am trying to be a blur. Actually, not even trying, I just feel that way. I’m not part of tradition even though I use traditional instruments. I didn’t even complete learning the instruments in a traditional way. I do however want to create a new moment in time.
I think my approach to music and sound is somewhat sacrilegious, because it's mostly instinctual, reactive and visceral which I think in our current Western landscape we are more focused on formula and perfection (not all musics though!).
I am still in a stage of experimentation so it is still fresh to me and my opinion might even change, but I’d say my principle approaches right now are: acknowledging silence, working with the space or nature, and thinking about sound as a texture. Something I can physicalise in mind and sight.
What are the sounds that you find yourself most drawn to? Are there sounds you reject – if so, for what reasons?
I like the sounds of trains coming and going and the sound of the electricity sparking on the tracks and overhead cables. I like the sound of bristling trees. I like passing conversations on the street. Or the tiny sounds of a moving bug or working mechanics of a small watch. Everything fascinates me, and everything makes sound, even the things we think are still, like trees. They speak.
But hearing all the world at once is my weakness, my anxiety inducer. I hate loud sudden noises like feedback from a speaker or a motorbike or people dropping things. I got earplugs for adventuring outdoors though.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, from instruments via software tools and recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you personally starting from your first studio/first instruments and equipment? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I came back to playing violin in late 2019, struggling with classical music once more. In that time I discovered a bunch of amazing string players using classical string instruments in new innovative ways (Oliver Coates, Kelsey Lu, Lucinda Chua, Matthew Jamal…) I was swooned by the double bass and the raw dark texture it held shortly after.
I am very much a believer that the instrument chooses you. It was one of the first times I was experiencing an instrument without being taught it. I was drawn to the bass as a texture and started finding sounds in it that just felt good to my ear rather than practising what was ‘right’. Sometimes I incorporate my voice as an undertexture but I’m not a singer … I started using a loop and effects pedal to explore my ideas and in small live set ups. The lockdown really made me into physical electronics.
Studio wise, I’ve never had anything fancy. My first demos which sit on my soundcloud are all made and recorded from my iPhone. I consider myself quite a luddite technologically, I prefer to use natural reverb of a room or find the sound I want in real life. I now use logic and got a few equipment bits loaned from some friends, then effects being the very last step of a piece of music.
I mean this may change, but I quite like my bodge-job studio set up at the moment, it’s uncomplicated and gets what I need. My next investment is an instrument, not equipment.
Where do you find the sounds you're working with? How do you collect and organise them?
There is no order unfortunately, just me and my phone wandering the streets. If I hear something I like I will stop and hit record, though I am quite slow and there have been so many precious moments that have just slipped away.
I’m totally unorganised, most things are unnamed, but I have eidetic memory so I often remember “New Recording 149” is associated with that weird buzz I heard at Victoria station. Maybe I need something a bit formal …
From the point of view of your creative process, how do you work with sounds? Can you take me through your process on the basis of a project or album that's particularly dear to you?
I am a servant to my ears. Sound is my way of understanding the spaces or people I’m around. One thing about being neurodivergent is you’re basically like a human receiver. I can hear everything and everyone making noises all at once.
Let me paint a picture. I hear the electricity in the light bulbs and the man with a deep voice speaking across the other side of the room is vibrating the table my hands are on. I hear echoes in specific corners of the room of other conversations or rustling of paper, someone is walking across the room and I can feel their footsteps in my chest, there is also a fly nearby.
It can be really overwhelming being that sensitive to sound. In fact sound is my biggest trigger in shutdowns, it can take simply a bit of feedback from a speaker and I am out. So when working with it creatively I have to tune in finely, take what sounds pleasing (sometimes that might actually sound quite intense or unpleasant).
For example my latest single “Echoes of Lalia” all the recorded sounds were from my many times travelling around the city. Being amongst so much sonic information there is usually something I can resonate with. I like what I call “the natural sounds of man made objects”. That was the basis of the piece and the instrumentation was the response to these sounds and paints the world that I am actually experiencing.
The possibilities of modern production tools have allowed artists to realise ever more refined or extreme sounds. Is there a sound you would personally like to create but haven't been able to yet?
The sound of a note being plucked and bowed at the same time.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition?
For me, one cannot exist without the other. I think Xenakis is the best example of this idea.
The idea of acoustic ecology has drawn a lot of attention to the question of how much we are affected by the sound surrounding us. What's your take on this and on acoustic ecology as a movement in general?
Well considering my own sensitive relationship with sound, this seems almost fundamental to my thinking. I’ve actually not heard this term until now, but glad to see there is a word for relationships to sound and environment.
Soundscapes are the only way I can understand and describe a space.
We can listen to a pop song or open our window and simply take in the noises of the environment. Without going into the semantics of 'music vs field recordings', in which way are these experiences different and / or connected, do you feel?
When I’m recording something in a space, I’m usually trying to hone into one or two sounds that are happening. There are probably other surrounding sounds too that I happily have to allow in the picture, I’m not fond of excessive ‘cleaning up’ audio. I’m asking myself and the listener to focus on the intricacy of the object. It might sound foreign to the ear or you may know exactly what it is, or you may have never heard the object in that way.
When you open a window or walk down the street, you are probably not paying too much attention to anything other than your direction, your thoughts or task …Field recordings allow me to show how loud the world really is but also meditate on intricacy. It’s the details we usually ignore.
From the concept of Nada Brahma to "In the Beginning was the Word", many spiritual traditions have regarded sound as the basis of the world. Regardless of whether you're taking a scientific or spiritual angle, what is your own take on the idea of a harmony of the spheres and sound as the foundational element of existence?
Well from both the perspectives of the scientific and spiritual, everything is vibration, and we experience it in so many different ways, sound, light, colour etc … It only makes sense to me that sound is foundational, music is like taking those base materials and creating new metals.