Name: Alexandra Hamilton-Ayres

Nationality: Belgian
Occupation: Composer, sound artist
Current Release: Alexandra Hamilton-Ayres's Play Echoes, a collaboration with Her Ensemble, is out November 18th 2022 via Nils Frahm's LEITER.

[Read our Nils Frahm interview]

If you enjoyed this interview with Alexandra Hamilton-Ayres and would like to stay up to date with her work, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, Soundcloud, and twitter.

When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

My mum first inspired my love of piano, playing with me on her lap until curiosity took over to play myself. There was always music at home, radio or tapes in the car. I later started clarinet and loved story telling in music and music in film.

I started producing more in my 20s and really enjoyed exploring putting sounds together. That’s when I scored my first films and started collecting a few interesting instruments to see what sounds I could make with them.

I think genre styles help the listener more than the artist, but I know I really loved some of the minimalist classical works alongside my love for artists like The Prodigy, Moby and Fatboy Slim.

When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?

To create a piece of music is a very subconscious process. It’s hard to remember what I am experiencing when writing and hearing things that are working. I think if I thought about these things too much, my music would be very academic.

When I reflect on something I have written, there seems to be a lot of hidden meanings and relationships that I didn’t necessarily think about whilst writing so the process is obviously doing something I don’t know about.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?

Development is also such a subconscious process, it is very hard to sit back and reflect upon.

With my latest album I am very glad to have had the opportunity to expand my sound with other performers. This is something that happens more organically in my film work than solo work and allowed me to invite performers into my sound world and to understand their own sound and value in terms of personal expression and what that can add to something I am trying to sum up myself.

Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.

Home and identity are complicated for me.

I was born to a Belgian mother in London, where I was raised, christened in Charleroi, Belgium, and surrounded by French speakers throughout my childhood. We left behind this multicultural urban upbringing for the Cotswolds, where I also lived with my grandparents of mixed European ancestry and Malaysian upbringing.

On Play Echoes, ‘Sept Douleurs’ is named after the church in which I was baptised and came to express a spiritual reflection on family roots and heritage, a sense of longing to be closer to everyone, but it being impossible with everyone moving further away – and closure on leaving the home I grew up in.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?

Something has to resonate or connect or create a feeling. I guess for me personally by the end of a project, it has usually helped me find a sense of peace or understanding to something going on in my life.

In Play Echoes, that was dealing with the emotions of packing up the house I shared with my family as a child.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music?

As an artist you have to be true to yourself and not think too much about these things. If you try too much to be anything other than what you feel a need to express, the bluff is fairly transparent.

In terms of perfection, we are all human and I think that sense of humanity and vulnerability is an important part of creating something. There is always a gut feeling if something is going well or not, and I try to stay true to that.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?

The piano has always been at the foundation of most of my work as it is always the starting point for composition — sitting down at the keys.

My favourite way to write is to play and play until I want to hear something again.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.

Every good day starts with a cup of coffee — the rest rolls on from there.

Depending on the projects I am working on, days can look very different. If I am writing, I tend to work long and late in intensive sessions so I don’t get distracted.
Could you describe your creative process on Play Echoes, please?

After writing on a piano tucked away in Cornwall, I spent 2 weeks in Leiter’s studio in Funkhaus and had a kind of plan for the number of tracks I wanted to cover in that time. We focused on one track every half day and then came back to them when Her Ensemble arrived to record strings.

Then I found myself going back to the hotel at night and writing for the sessions the next day overnight. It was an adjustment to work so intensely with a team of amazing engineers where I could work without being in front of the screen until we were more focused on mixing.

We mixed the tracks a bit as we went along and then I came back to Funkhaus to finalise this a couple of months later.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?

The preference between collaboration and solo work oscillates for me and I find both are equally interesting, but separate approaches.

Every so often I have the need to try and figure out something in my head that I can’t express and that becomes a very personal journey such as this album. Working with a team on this, I wanted to listen to their valuable opinions, but also had an overarching idea of the direction that the music and project needed to take.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world?

I like to tell stories with music and if that resonates with anyone then that is great.

In my film work, there are some bigger questions and stories being approached, such as climate issues and confronting mortality. In my personal work, it’s my inner ramblings, like a diary and a personal journey.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?

It’s always been a way of trying to understand these things. Something I can’t express in any other way.

Deep emotions that never quite make it into conversation seem to surface through making something musical and I find that very therapeutic.

How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?

Science puts music into a more physical realm.

On Play Echoes, I was interested in how technology had changed since my 80s tape player that was a starting influence through to using a real chamber for reverb.

I wanted to capture the sense of an empty house and a sense of space and I think music can allow for those memories to be captured when it is thought about this way.

Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee?

I’m more likely to remember the method for making coffee than music. I think these things can be compared though.

You can cook something many times and it will be slightly different each time. What you record becomes a captured moment in time and there will be maybe one time you make it that it really works and others it’s not so good.

Sometimes if I haven’t written for a while, I get nervous to write again in a worry that I will forget.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?

I think music is a language that as humans we read things from it and that allows us to tap into an unlocked space.

If you are listening to music live, it is travelling into everything in the room and that immersive experience can be overwhelming. Sound waves in the music are clearly resonating in a way that causes our bodies to experience a chemical response.

Even if anxiety takes a hold before a show, nothing quite compares to the endorphin release from performing.