Name: Thembi Soddell
Current Release: Love Songs on ROOM40
Recommendations: Anything by Chiharu Shiota and Camille Norment, with particular attention on Shiota’s Conscious Sleep and Absent Bodies and Norment’s Notes from the Undermind, Groove and Driftglass.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview withThembi Soddell visit her website thembisoddell.com
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started experimenting with a four track in high school but it wasn’t until I was an undergrad studying Media Arts in my late teens to early twenties that I began taking it more seriously. I started that course with a major in photography, something I loved and had been filling my spare moments with from age 15 onwards. I tried most classes they offered and discovered I loved working with sound even more; being drawn to it (and away from visual art) because there didn’t seem to be such a clear sense of an agreed-upon sonic language or set of rules. Sound art (as separate to a musical language, which was not something I was so interested in) compared to visual art. Some of the key things I’d been interested in in my visual arts practice – ambiguity, trauma, surrealism, unsayable experiences of feeling – could be developed in more profound and intriguing ways with sound. It created a felt sense of place, narrative, emotional experience and meaning that wasn’t literal or easily explained or framed and I found that exciting.
In those early years, there were many things I was listening to, but I was especially obsessed with David Lynch’s film Lost Highway, from both an aesthetic point of view and the way he was dealing with trauma, abuse against women and dissociation (I was processing my own experiences with a recently ended abusive relationship and this film became entangled in that). I transferred the whole audio soundtrack to DAT, burnt it to disc and then listened to it over and over like music, often while falling asleep (and by soundtrack, I mean the sound design of the film, the full 2+ hours including dialogue and atmos, not the music). My early work was heavily influenced by that, and that’s still evident. I use a lot of compositional devices drawn from film (thinking in terms of scenes and cutting from one to the next, building and releasing tension etc) while removing literal storylines, creating a sense of narrative without actually writing one.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I think sometimes attempting to emulate others and failing is a way of finding your own sound. Even more so if you emulate multiple people within the one work. You start to find what you can do that others can’t and vice versa.
I remember one time at university I played a piece to a lecturer and he said, “this is very strong and competent and sounds a lot like what other people are making – is this what you’re aiming for?” (or something to that effect). It was a very clever way to throw shade and boost my confidence all at once. My thought process was like “well, fuck that, I don’t wanna sound like every other dude around here, no matter how well I do it”. I sat back and looked at what parts of my practice were unique and what parts were sounding like everything else. From that point on, I focused on developing my sampling techniques, which seemed to create more unique sounds, and I steered clear of effects (and still do). That was when my own sound started to emerge. Not that I totally shed emulation from that point onwards.
In my first duo album with Anthea Caddy, Iland, there was a track where the file was named “Penderecki section” for months before we had a name! And when people ask me what my work sounds like I often refer to Francisco Lopez because it’s an easy go to and he was a big influence in my early days. This set me on the path of using abstract sound to explore my emotional world, which is still at the core of my practice. It was more about taking the aspects that were meaningful to me, then putting my own spin on them.
My most recent work also involves text and my choices around how to work with it design-wise were heavily influenced by Mark Z. Danielewski’s book House of Leaves. Combining multiple voices in unusual ways can be at the centre of creativity. No one exists in a void and nothing is truly our own, not even our thoughts. Which, incidentally, is one of the ideas underpinning that work.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Working in the digital realm in the way that I do, lacks a certain tactility and spontaneity that can, at times, frustrate me and create awkward results. With my setup, improvisation and real-time responsiveness can be difficult, which makes it hard to get into a flow state that’s good for creativity.
Combining and arranging sounds is more of an intellectual endeavour – you’re always having to think about your next step and programme it before making it, rather than just feeling and creating in the moment. It’s tedious work. Instruments that exist within the real world are a lot more fun to play, but the sounds I can create with a sampler are just so enticing that I persist despite these frustrations.
These challenges have remained the same throughout the years and I imagine will always be an issue so long as I’m working in a virtual realm, which I don’t think is best suited to the way my brain works. But the trade-off is worth it for the results I can create. I’ve also learned to make those limitations part of the practice – there’s a certain awkwardness that results from this lack of tactility and that has become a part of my sound.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I started accumulating gear while I was at university based on what I experimented with and enjoyed. Field recording came first, and the first setup I owned was a mini-disc recorder and a pair of soundman binaural mics. I would walk everywhere with those and no one would know I was recording. It was easy and invisible, which I liked because I’m not a fan of drawing attention to myself in public. Then I did a midi class where we used an ASR-10 and I fell in love with the sampler. I sold my enlarger and used the money to buy and EMU ESI-2000 with a midi keyboard and a Behringer mixing desk and composed my first album with that.
The setup was running four channels out of the ESI into the mixing desk, with another two channels straight off the minidisc, then recording the live mix into a computer. This was also how I performed live. I loved this way of working because the main aspect of tactility related to the loudness of sound, which made me develop a practice around dynamics and I spent a lot of time learning to ‘play’ faders.
I also liked how the hardware sampler removed the visualisation of sound that the DAWs I’d worked with had. It meant my practice became focused on listening and I could do a lot of work with my eyes closed.
My basic setup these days is the same, just upgraded in terms of practicality and sound quality. For those first few years, I would spend at least 20 minutes before gigs loading samples from floppy disc, loading one after the next, after the next, after the next. It was kind of insane. At one gig with a short set up time, I was literally hiding under the table loading samples while being introduced! It was also a hell of a lot of gear to lug around on tour. I somewhat begrudgingly switched to software sampler (Kontakt) so I could have more outputs and RAM and less in my luggage, upgraded to a Mackie desk so I could kiss those hissy Behringer preamps goodbye. After many iterations of field recording setups, my favourite is now a Nagra SD with a stereo pair of DPA 4060s on a home-made 35cm jecklin disk. I suspect I’ll be working with variations on this setup for a long time. I like to focus on learning how to do one or two specific things very, very well, rather than accumulating lots of different gear. Depth not breadth works best for me. I also own a lot of little Genelec 6010/8010s and a few different subwoofers for experimentation with multispeaker installation.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Machines are good at remembering and repeating to exaction. Humans are good at imagining and fashioning their environment through their ideas and perceptions. My work relies on a machine remembering and repeating, which allows me to focus on small details within a sound and imagine new possibilities for it. The machine and I then work together to fashion the sound into a reality reimagined.
As a sound artist, the field recorder/sampler is to me what the camera/enlarger was to me as a photographer – a means through which to capture then reimagine the world around me. Together we create work that is grounded in reality while becoming something beyond it. I like this in-between space. It’s most like a dream – both real and not real.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
Sometimes I feel like the sampler is more responsible for my work than I am. I spend a lot of time listening to what it does to the sounds I put in there and then a composition starts to grow from that. I also instruct the sampler too, but there is a feedback loop going on, between what it does and says to me, what I hear and what I want it to do. It doesn’t always do what I want it to either and I like to embrace that. It makes the process more exciting, knowing that what I create is not something I could ever imagine, but something that comes through the process of engaging with my tools. The sampler has become an external part of my thinking process about things to do with sound as well as things beyond it.
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?
I do a lot of solo work and like working alone for several reasons. One is that it opens a dialogue and connection with myself that I can’t have in a social space, one that helps me understand concepts in a deeper way. Another is that I often get a specific idea in my head about how I want things to be and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for someone else’s creativity, which is not useful in a collaborative space. The tools I use can also make collaboration difficult as they are not geared towards spontaneity. There’s always a thought process necessary to create the sounds and gestures I want to use so I can’t respond in the moment to external factors.
When I do collaborate it’s better to do so with people that are comfortable doing a lot of talking and planning. Or with people who are willing to hand recordings over to me to work with, giving me time to engage with them in more depth. More recently I’ve also been asking people to create sounds based on certain briefs for me to sample and compose with, which I enjoy because it expands my palette and introduces aspects to the work beyond what I could imagine or create myself, while still allowing me to work alone.
I thrive on discussions with others. I have a close group of friends who I bounce ideas off and those discussions influence my work a lot. Making music or art only for yourself seems very empty to me; I want it to mean something to other people or do something for them in some way, and these conversations help me understand how I might achieve this.
I also do some sound design work for theatre and dance. The aspect of collaboration that I love in this context is that I am serving someone else’s ideas and helping them to achieve their goals as best I can. That’s pretty satisfying. In that space, I am able to let go of so much control and focus on their wants and needs more so than mine.