Name: Sian O’Gorman
Nationality: New Zealander
Occupation: Composer/ Vocalist
Current Release: Deep England on NYX Collective Records
Recommendations: Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice by Pauline Oliveros. This book has transformed the way we approach making and experiencing music. Using the sound as the central point of deep meditative focus, Pauline Oliveros reflects on the profound effects conscious listening can have on the body. A guide to bringing Deep Listening in as a holistic meditative practice into everyday sonic spaces. / Marta Salogni x Music Production for Women podcast. Our favourite music producer, engineer, mixing ninja warrior queen and dear friend Marta talks to MPFW about reverb (did we say how much we love reverb?)
Learn more about the NYX community, projects and music at the website nyx-edc.com/
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?
My earliest writing began more as arranging (mostly choral) work - I’ve been creating harmonies, countermelodies and musical loops in my head for as long as I can remember. As my voice is my main instrument, this has always been the foundation of how I write / arrange / record / produce and perform music. My earliest memories of falling in love with this was growing up and singing in church. We had a huge Samoan community in our local parish (in New Zealand) and the way people of all ages would belt out these huge vibrating four part harmonies was my original experience of the potential power of collective singing. It summoned all of this joy and community spirit and sacredness that I've been trying to embody through different musical forms ever since.
As a child I loved powerful harmonies and particularly the interplay between dissonance and resolution - I remember falling asleep with my discman every night listening to William Byrd’s masses for 3/4/5 voices, belting out Crosby Stills & Nash with my Dad in the car or walking to school with my little sister holding hands and singing duets we’d make up about nonsense things we’d see around us. I grew up in opera choruses, musical theatres and national choirs. And although I loved playing characters or being given solos or lead roles, the most joyous musical moments for me were always the parts where everyone blended perfectly together - that feeling of being fully subsumed into the collective sound.
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?
I studied performance voice at university and had some incredible singing teachers, but the further down the rabbit hole of classical music I fell, the more I felt my voice and my body were resisting - this wasn't really the music I wanted to make or the world I wanted to sit within. The vocalists I loved to listen to at that time - Bjork, PJ Harvey, Cocteau Twins, Karen O, Peaches, Kate Bush (etc) - they felt like a more vibrant and original type of opera and vocal theatre to me, a force that my ears were much more drawn into. I stopped singing for a while and just listened. I moved from New Zealand to London and started going to loads of gigs, chewing into UK festivals and heavy live electronic music and sweaty loud pub shows and epic Barbican performances. Slowly my awareness started shifting toward artists that were fusing their classical training into cathartic contemporary musical experiences. I was particularly drawn towards people who were designing epic soundscapes through ambient or noisy drone music (Sarah Davachi, Mogwai, Sunn O))), Stars of the Lid, Explosions in the Sky etc) and very into musicians that were experimenting with acoustic and digital vocal manipulation (Holly Herndon, Gazelle Twin, Aisha Devi, Sainkho Namtchylak to name a few). I was also falling back in love with contemporary choral and instrumental composers and fell deep into the modern spiritual realms of Meredith Monk, David Hykes, Terry Riley, Laraaji. All of these were incredibly present in my voice and my musical structuring as I started to play around singing through gear at home (mainly guitar pedals or vocal effects units), and were the foundation of how I began to compose with NYX. It was shifting the role of the voice into acting as an instrument - telling stories through fully embodied vocal noises and creating vast soundscapes rather than lyric based songs.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I feel like I am an ever-evolving human being, shifting through different forms of myself - slowly trying to peel away the layers of learned behaviours, honouring my past and where I’ve come from, but also identifying what feels authentic and powerful each day and letting go of what doesn’t work. This is mirrored in the flow of how I create music, singing and community - I feel like I'm learning each day to slowly let go, soften into new possibilities, and open up into the deeper, darker, lighter and more expansive parts of music and life. What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time? Being incredibly critical of myself and others has always been my biggest creative challenge. My idea of “perfection” has certainly shifted in the last few years, as I’ve come to understand how much making mistakes or being incredibly challenged is actually where a lot of the creative treasure lies.
In my Music Director role with NYX I hold space for other singers, so I need to be constantly coming back into compassion and respect for them and how they work, which in turn has helped reflect this back onto my own practice and how kind and loving I can keep on trying to be towards myself (particularly when I’m struggling to hold my shit together).
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? As my first instrument was the voice - I’d have to say the tool that has inspired me the most is reverb. It’s a sublime feeling to hear your voice swimming in an ocean of echo, dancing inside the cosmic frequencies of a cathedral, blending into the eternal depths of a cave. Like the role of a drone, I think reverb helps singers to feel safe and calm. To really sit and enjoy the luxury of feeling your voice continue to sing all around you even after you’ve let it go from your immediate physical body.
NYX to me has always focused around the exploration of expansion of female voice - how can we continue to deepen our understanding of acoustic and digital manipulation to stretch these very human instruments out and let go of limitations. Reverb is one of these tools, but we also use a lot of live free time loops, reversed vocals, pitch shifters and distortion.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I actually think Zoom has had the biggest impact on how we create in this new paradigm of life in the UK. Being socially distanced has completely altered the way in which we make music - and the only interaction the entire group has together for over a year now has been online. We’ve managed pockets of in-person rehearsals but the way in which we interact with each other (which to me, is just as much the music as anything else) is currently almost entirely via these little screens. We hold Deep Listening parties together to connect in and listen to albums or podcasts together. We recently designed and produced a project with an amazing initiative called Body & Soul and our Embodiment Director Imogen Knight - taking 16 womxn and non-binary singers and non-singers through a 5 week course called The Power of Sound. Each week we would delve into a different form of empowerment through voice and movement (as it related to environment, or the body, or breath etc).
With everything created in a safe space via Zoom, participants would work through these themes, then send me small audio recordings from their phones or via WhatsApp which I would then weave into pieces of music to play to them the following week, and eventually form into a collaborative EP. So to me these technologies that have been designed to connect people when they can’t be physically close have been the biggest changes to my music practice in the last year for sure.
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?
When we first launched NYX in 2018, we started with a collaborative series, working with four solo female electronic artists. This was a way for us to connect, focus and refine our sound and expand the potential sonic and performative possibilities of these musician’s existing works. What we learned from this experience (and each collaboration we’ve undertaken since), is that everyone works in a completely different way. Each artist has a unique methodology, and so much of the sound and the joy of working with these people was found in their diversity of approaches to music making.
Some people are very hands-on and want to be right in there every step of the way, others give us a huge wide-open space to expand and mess with their work - but there is a huge amount of creative respect for both parties in every version of this. Personally, my favourite approach is file sharing as I like to have time to work on things and craft pieces to a certain level before I hand them back over - as much as I enjoy jamming with people in real time, I feel my best work comes when I’ve had time and space to consider things or focus on my own in a room before I feed-back my musical ideas to the collaborative partner.
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?
I live in the countryside in Norfolk in an old converted Bedford Truck on a communal piece of land. Everyone I live with is an amazing musician in their own right, they all play in various bands and sing and all produce their own music too. So if there’s enough sun to power our solar panels (it’s England, so for a few months of the year there really isn’t), I’m usually in my van having creative planning meetings with my Co-Creative NYX Directors Josh and Philippa. The three of us spend a great deal of our time plotting out ideas and concepts and producing work together. This is really the foundation of NYX. The three of us are beautiful friends and are very inspired and supported by each other's work ethics and skills - it's a really magnificent creative trio. When we have a project on and I’m in the stages of music writing & production I usually have the back door or my van opening out into some kind of forest or open natural surrounding - it’s an amazing feeling to feel half of your body in the outdoors and the other on a computer - and my physical setting is most definitely feeding into and responding with the music as its being formulated.