Name: Sophia Jani
Current Release: Sophia Jani's Music as a Mirror is out via Neue Meister.
Recommendations: I highly recommend checking out the work of the lovely people at Squama, a Munich based record label focused on contemporary jazz. A good place to start would be to listen to the debut of Runden, the releases of jazz drummer Simon Popp or those of singer Enji Erkhem.
Also one of my more recent discoveries that is absolutely worth listening to: the wonderful compositions for solo piano titled "Glass Houses" by Anne Southam, recorded by Christina Petrowska-Quilico (her playing is beyond!)
And finally a piece I listen to on repeat these days:"Toki No Mon“ by Somei Satoh.
If you enjoyed this interview with Sophia Jani and would like to stay up to date on her music and live dates, visit her official homepage. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and Soundcloud.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I became interested in composition toward the end of high school.
Growing up, I was fired up about classical music (no one knows exactly why, my parents weren't into classical music at all) and wanted to become a classical pianist. I was of the cocky opinion that modern composition was for people who weren't good enough at their instrument, so it wasn't attractive to me (I've long since gotten over that thought!).
Finally two experiences sparked my interest in composition: first, I met my partner, who was a drummer in a hardcore band at the time. I obviously loved the environment in which this music took place: no parents, people my age were active and in charge of the venues, and the music making that happened there felt so self-determined and urgent. I wasn't really involved and more of an observer in these spaces, but the energy in the venues made me realize in some way that music is more than just sound or little dots on paper, that the spaces where music takes place matter, that thoughts and philosophies around it matter, that you can either watch or be an active part and contribute to creating a scene.
It was also at this time that I started to explore the G-major Piano Concerto by Maurice Ravel, whose harmonic language and orchestration is uniquely beautiful and creative. This simply gave me an incredible desire to think creatively about music as well and to make sure there is more music in the world that is that beautiful.
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?
First, I would like to note here that I would not say that my development as an artist is in any way complete. I am in a constant process of discovery, so my perspective on music and therefore my voice is constantly evolving and changing. That's quite important to me, and as an approach, is perhaps an aspect of my voice as an artist itself.
In my own development, consciously trying to imitate another artist stylistically - except in music theory class, where it was part of the curriculum - wasn't at the center of how I spent my time. From the beginning, I was more concerned with the question of what kind of experience the music I wanted to compose should create. What are the parameters in question and how should they be shaped in order to get there?
For example, when I started, I was interested in non-virtuosic simplicity, simply because the music I was playing at the time (mainly Romantic concert music) was always so insanely based on virtuosity, and at some point I wondered if that even needed to be part of a piece of music. Or what if the concept of virtuosity referred to another parameter? Virtuosity in terms of dynamics? Of articulation? As opposed to virtuosity in the sense of very fast playing.
I've always preferred to ask questions and try to find possible solutions rather than listen to someone and imitate them.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
As a woman active in the field of notated music that has been very (white) male-dominated from its beginnings until today, I draw a lot of inspiration and motivation from the tension that being part of an under-represented group brings.
I often have the impression that my white male colleagues look at things in a much more one-dimensional way, they question less, they draw their creativity from a kind of linear heritage of the classical canon. For women (and/or PoC of course), on the other hand, it is not really possible to find female identification figures in the same canon.
Intuitively, when I started writing music, I identified with women who had a classical background but ended up in electronic, ambient or experimental music, like Laurie Spiegel, Meredith Monk, Laurel Halo or Poppy Ackroyd. This opens the horizon and leads you further and further away from the point where you started. When (or if for that matter) you come back, you bring completely different ideas, a different perspective to the table and start questioning the existing structures and aesthetic premises that prevail.
[Read our Poppy Ackroyd interview]
It's a wonderful thing to say "I like the string quartets of Haydn, Beethoven, Shostakovitch and Dusapin, I should write one myself!" But to me that's not enough. It's far more interesting to do the same thing, after having taken a couple of detours, understanding the reasons and then contributing, because you feel something is missing.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
It took me quite some time to figure out what kind of music I wanted to make, since I never really felt like I identified fully with a certain scene. So developing this sense of independence and feeling confident about it was quite a challenge.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
It is interesting that measured time as a separate artistic parameter is not talked about that often. Usually proportions or form are analyzed, which could probably be described as a combination of time and material. So maybe it doesn't make so much sense to talk about "time" as an isolated parameter, because you can't really separate material and duration in a meaningful way after all. However, the more repetitive the music, the more sense measured time as parameter probably makes, because the music works much more technically, I guess.
In my music, I think more about proportions than about measured time per se. How often can I repeat a motif, when should it start to change, when does a completely different part begin, how long should it be in relation to the previous section?
I also like to play with the listener's memory by bringing back material in a varied form after the music has wandered through other worlds, creating a kind of musical narrative. The decisions I make regarding duration are solely based on intuition.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I don’t think in today’s world you can’t really get away without thinking about the sound aspect, even in concert music.
I am constantly torn between these two worlds - on the one hand I am writing music that is supposed to work in a classical concert hall on the other hand I want it to work on a record. And I think trying to make the music work both ways definitely effects the compositional stage.
There is much to explore in this area of tension, and there are many opportunities for originality and innovation.
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?
Lately I've been focusing exclusively on notated music, which means I write down the music in great detail and give it to classically trained performers to play, so what I do is based on collaboration at some point.
New music in the classical music industry is usually created as a commissioned work; an ensemble gives a commission to a composer who then writes that work, often without having much contact with the musicians. From a structural point of view, this makes sense, especially if it's a larger ensemble. In this case, there is also little other option.
Personally, I'm still very influenced by working in the studio, where you retreat and work on exactly the product that you want to end up on the record. I can transfer that best for notated music by working very closely with soloists and smaller ensembles over a longer period of time, trying out a lot, rewriting, involving the musicians.
I'm a big fan of working closely together over longer periods of time, so that a kind of shared mindset can emerge and the result is as organic and convincing as possible.