Name: Ester Poly
Members: Martina Berther, Béatrice Graf
Occupation: Bassist, vocalist (Martina Berther), Drummer, vocalist (Béatrice Graf)
Current release: Ester Poly's sophomore album WET is out via Hummus.
Martina: King Kong Théorie - Virgine Despentes; Abul Mogard - Half Light of Dawn
Béatrice: King Kong Théorie by Virginie Despentes and a dictionary.
If you enjoyed reading this interview with Ester Poly, visit their website for a deeper look into their world. Or head over to their social media profiles on Instagram, Facebook and Soundcloud for more music and updates.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Martina Berther: I started composing when I was about 23 years old. In the beginning I was inspired (and I still am) by composers like La Monte Young, Morten Feldman and Arvo Pärt. Later, bands like Sunn O))), Girl Band, Radiohead and luckily female composers, musicians and bands like Selvhenter, Savages, Joëlle Léandre, Meshell Ndegeocello, Sidsel Endresen, Sarah Davachi and many more came along.
[Read our Sarah Davachi interview]
I also like to listen to light pop/rock and electronic music. But I think, in the end, music with a certain focus or reduction fascinates me the most.
Béatrice Graf: I began composing 30 years ago. I come from jazz, alternative rock and improv music.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Béatrice Graf: I started taking drum lessons at the age of 16. I followed a jazz course at the conservatory. At 19 I earned my first fees with a ball orchestra. At 22 I did my first tour abroad: a live session on BBC radio one in London with a female punk rock band from Biel. I gained experience by playing in hundreds of bands with different styles. Jazz, rock, world music, blues, electronica, theatre, dance, performance etc ...
The transition to my own voice has been a gradual process.
Martina Berther: For many years I was touring as a sidewoman in different bands. At some point I realised that I had a lot of ideas of my own that I wanted to pursue without constantly compromising. I also wanted to find out what I was capable of as a musician without hiding behind a band. So I started to delve deeper into the subject matter and to take care of what I really wanted and what really interested me.
This process is recurring. It’s always about searching, finding, losing, searching, finding, losing. But there is also always a thread that I hold on to: curiosity and intuition.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Martina Berther: I think they cover each other.
Béatrice Graf: I try to stay open to new aesthetic sounds while knowing where I come from.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Martina Berther: Looking back, the most difficult thing as a young female musician was to find an environment, a kind of a safe space, where I felt comfortable and dared to try things out.
Today, I find it most challenging to earn a living with music while not forgetting the meaning of being a musician and while having a good work-life balance and staying healthy.
Béatrice Graf: My main challenge at the beginning was to transform my songs into scores.
I am still bad at writing music. I delegate this task to friends who do it much better than me.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Béatrice Graf: I stay very low-fi in my setup: a looper or two, acoustic instruments, maybe some effects pedals. When I record, I hire people whose job is exactly that.
Martina Berther: My main instrument was and still is the bass. But I am always very curious and want to learn new instruments or try out new ways of making music. Another reason which keeps me going is the fear of standing still / stagnation.
Technology, which is unavoidable today, remains rather challenging for me. I sometimes have to fight my way through it but once I have taken a step, I am happy about the new possibilities which motivates me to continue.
But with all the technological possibilities, it is important not to lose sight of the basics: My connection to the instrument, my creativity and my musicality. It still touches me the most when I can create a lot of content with little means.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Martina Berther: No, not yet. So far it has not profoundly changed the way I make music but supported my way of making music even more.
Béatrice Graf: Technology or instruments are just another way to convey emotions. Whether it's on an acoustic drum kit or using electronics, my vision of composition remains the same: to convey emotions.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Martina Berther: I get a lot of inspiration from a good collaboration. There are times when I appreciate collaboration, but there are also times when I prefer to retreat and work alone and focused.
The way I collaborate depends on the music and the constellation. I don't have any preferences.
Béatrice Graf: I love going to jam sessions. As I don't teach, it's in this kind of place that I discover new musicians who are active on the scene.
I also multiply collaborations with all the performing arts. Theatre, dance, authors, contemporary art, multimedia, street arts, I am very curious about others.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Martina Berther: I have no fixed schedule, every day looks different. But a perfect working day for me consists of unrestricted time in the studio or rehearsal room, good food, some exercise outside and meeting friends or listening to a concert/record in the evening.
Administrative tasks are definitely not part of it. But unfortunately they are unavoidable.
Béatrice Graf: I don't have a "typical day", but there are things I have to do on a regular basis: working on my instrument to maintain my skills, answering emails and doing all the organisational and administrative follow-up work.
Everything is linked and everything takes time. Ensuring a career is a titanic task.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Martina Berther: There are several small ones. All of them are moments when I ventured completely out of my comfort zone. Like my first solo concert, or my first electronic remix that I produced, the first recordings I made myself in the studio, the first concert at which I played synthesizer or sang etc.
Most of the time there is a vision or just pure curiosity behind it. I kind of started and suddenly I'm so deep in it that I can't stop before it is finished.
Béatrice Graf: In 2001, I changed my rehearsal space and found myself in a cellar. I was only composing depressive music. I needed the sun, to be outside, to have daylight, so I built a suitcase drum kit to work on my instrument outside my house in the neighbouring park.
Over the years, such outdoor drum sets have become instruments on which I perform, and with which I set up projects. Examples of that would be "Transhumance" in 2008 or the "Cycloton", a musical tour of Switzerland, during which we travelled by bike while carrying all the sound equipment.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Martina Berther: I prefer a quiet place, no distractions and a clear head. One strategy is certainly not to have internet access.
Béatrice Graf: To be creative, you first have to accumulate a whole palette of colours, so you have to work for years on the technique of the instrument. Then you have to detach yourself from this training and see what comes out naturally. From these improvisations, which you'd have recorded, you can start to compose pieces.
There are many distractions (smartphones etc.) and everyone finds their own strategies. Sometimes the inspiration is not there and you have to accept that you have no ideas or that the ideas are too weak artistically.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Martina Berther: I have experience with both. But as a universal language I think that music can bring us closer together. It is an important breeding ground for a healthy society.
Béatrice Graf: I have a 55 dB hole in the 4000 - 8000 Hz frequency with a peak at 6000 Hz and permanent tinnitus. Yes, music has hurt my ear, but it is also a choice I made to listen/play music loud. Music is a medium shared by the whole of humanity.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Martina Berther: Addressing the issue of cultural appropriation is very important to me. And I try to be aware of it. Basically, however, I find it more exciting to find out what there is to find in ‘my culture’ than to steal interesting things from another culture. That is too simple and too short-sighted for me.
By the way, it also makes me sad and angry to see what the patriarchy has appropriated from women so far.
Béatrice Graf: Many European musicians are great specialists in world music – Africa Asia etc. Lying by omission is a frequent occurrence in the world of music. I don't have a problem with copying or making a cover of someone else's work as long as the person who does it clearly announces who the text or the music is from.
Yes, there are also opportunists who ride the wave and do greenwashing or pinkwashing. It's only in the long run that you can see if it was based on real convictions or a mere marketing strategy.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Béatrice Graf: Music is everywhere: you can swim with headphones in your ears, go to an art exhibition and have a QR code under each painting associating a song with it ... Sometimes this networking of the senses increases the impact of the music, but sometimes it reduces the importance that music could have if it were alone. As the song "Video Killed the Radio Star" tells.
Martina Berther: For me, there is a lot of overlap between the sense of hearing and the sense of sight. One inspires the other. With the help of the sense of sight I hear things differently or vice versa.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Béatrice Graf: For me everything is connected. The musician, the citizen, the mother, are all one. This is also why most of my projects question what makes sense in 2021, possess an activist content and are therefore eminently "political".
Martina Berther: Society with all its structures influences/moves me and thus also my activity as a musician. Therefore, my music is always politically or socially critical.
Of course, it can also be an end in itself, but if I want to do something good for myself, I prefer to take a hot bath.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Béatrice Graf: Other emotions. Music is the healing force of the universe.
Martina Berther: Music as a universal language knows no limits.