Name: Marja Ahti
Occupation: Sound artist, composer
Nationality: Swedish & Finnish
Current release: Marja Ahti's new album, Still Lives, is available via Students Of Decay.
If you enjoyed these thoughts by Marja Ahti and would like to stay up to date on her work, visit her official homepage. She is also on Soundcloud.
If you would like to keep reading, we have an even more in-depth Marja Ahti interview.
Can you talk a bit about your interest in or fascination for sound? What were early experiences which sparked it and what keeps sound interesting for you?
I recently remembered an experience from my childhood related to sound.
I was probably around six and was hanging out with the girl next door who was three years older than me. She made me a mixtape with pop songs recorded from the radio - Michael Jackson, Sabrina, lots of late eighties hits. I really loved this tape and I listened to it all the time.
One evening there was a pop concert on the radio and she was recording it so we could listen together the next day at her house. We pressed play, listened a while, then all of a sudden there was a shockingly loud boom coming from the stereo. It just interrupted the music once, then the show went on. I was struck with awe, completely terrified. At the same time, there was something deeply mysterious to this event and the next day I wanted to experience it again. We tried to repeat the actions that led to the sound explosion, listened to the concert, scanned it through, half wishing to find it and half afraid we would, but the noise didn’t return. As I remember it, her parents sensed that we were up to something unwholesome and took away the tape.
I have no idea whether any of this has had an impact on my interest in sound, but it’s a memory that I’d somehow forgotten that recently resurfaced and I was intrigued by it.
What types of sound do you personally prefer to work with? Are there sounds you reject – if so, for what reasons?
I’m often drawn to sounds with a visceral quality. Sounds that resonate in the body, tickle the ear or do something interesting in relation to a space or to other sounds, waves colliding, resonating or beating. I’m easily moved by elemental sounds like water, fire, air, sounds of structures and electricity. They’re like basic building blocks, very often used of course, but I keep returning to them.
I’m also interested in sounds that somehow sketch out the limits of the human hearing range, very low and high frequencies, like touching the frame of conscious aural experience.
Where do you find the sounds you're working with? How do you collect and organize them?
I always listen for sounds. It’s a habit and a way of appreciating the beauty of ordinary things. Sometimes I just want to enjoy it, sometimes I record if I have the equipment with me, or come back later to where I found the situation.
I could really improve the way I organize them. Usually it’s just a folder with the place and date. Still, when I go through my archives, I have a surprisingly good memory for what each file contains. This is probably why I’m so lazy filing them properly.
Some artists use sounds as a means for emotional self-expression, others take a more conceptual approach or want to present intriguing sound matter. How would you characterize your own goals and motivations in this regard?
My main interests are in the sounds as such and in the listening experience. What I would like to share is the sense of amazement and surprise when you really hear a sounding situation as something unique and beautiful. It leads me to present new sounding situations for others to hear or an expression of the experience itself as some kind of sonic poetry. The conceptual aspects are related to creating a coherent work and facilitating a way to approach it.
From the point of view of your creative process, how do you work with sounds?
It often depends on the circumstances.
Sometimes I start by going out recording, sometimes I start working on electronic sounds with a synthesizer. I begin somewhere and from there I see where it takes me. Sometimes the work at hand is tuning oscillators and listening for changes. Other times it’s putting pieces of recorded sound in order. It could also be focusing on one recording and transforming it in different ways.
Which tools have been most important and useful for you when it comes to working with and editing sounds?
I work in Reaper and use some digital tools such as Iris 2, GRM Tools, a bunch of other plugins. For certain things I use a Revox 77 reel-to-reel tape recorder.
In terms of creating and capturing sounds I have a few different microphones, electromagnetic pick-ups, a modular synthesizer, all kinds of objects, some acoustic instruments.
The possibilities of modern production tools have allowed artists to realize ever more refined or extreme sounds. Is there a sound you would personally like to create but haven't been able to yet?
I think technology is doing a pretty good job already. What we could use though, is more focused listening situations and environments.
Many artists have related that certain sounds trigger compositional ideas in them or are even a compositional element in their own right. Provided this is the case for you – what, exactly, is about certain sounds that triggers such ideas in you?
That happens all the time and it’s what drives my work. To be honest, it’s pretty much all that’s happening, engaging with sounds and making spontaneous decisions on what to do with them. I’m not so good at first imagining and then realizing the imagined. I need to step into the process and find out what happens.
I’m often at a loss to say what it is, exactly, that triggers what. It’s nice not to know, when there’s no room to overthink it. There are preferences involved for sure and I have a strong sense of what I like, but there’s also room for being surprised.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition?
Everything about sound has to do with space. Listening is experiencing space, recording is always location-specific. You orientate in space through hearing, experience yourself through space, as space. If I move the microphone a tiny bit in some direction, all is affected. Paying attention to this relation creates a kind of intimacy, a sense of being immersed.
Humans are often characterized as "visual beings". In your opinion, what role does our sense of hearing play in our understanding of the world? How do sounds affect you, compared to other senses like sight or smell?
The real mystery is how it’s even possible that we can experience seeing and hearing and smelling. There’s the eye and the ear, cells and nerves, but how does the consciousness of seeing and hearing come about? I find this more amazing and interesting than comparing the senses. This simple strangeness of being alive, being able to be affected through the ear and the nose.
I’ve trained myself to listen closely, so I’m often more oriented towards attention by the ear than by other senses. I just really like listening and sound moves me. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that sounding situations are always complete experiences. You hear the sound of wind in the trees, distant traffic and that moment is infused with the feeling of the breeze on your skin, the temperature, the way the light hits the leaves, the smell of the ground, the state of the nervous system, and the very attention to it.
In a way, you could think about all of that as listening.
We can listen to a pop song or open our window and simply take in the noises of the environment. Without going into the semantics of 'music vs field recordings', in which way are these experiences different and / or connected, do you feel?
I feel like it all arises from the listener and the situation. Sometimes you hear a soulful tune and it works on you in a profound way. Other times the whatever-it-is flow of sound, always on like an open faucet, is the thing that lets you know you’re alive. Or there might be specific encounters with particular sounds that somehow stand out. These experiences are not so different after all.
From the concept of Nada Brahma to "In the Beginning was the Word", many spiritual traditions have regarded sound as the basis of the world. Regardless of whether you're taking a scientific or spiritual angle, what is your own take on the idea of a harmony of the spheres and sound as the foundational element of existence?
Vibration and resonance are at the heart of everything. Some of it falls within our hearing range and we call it sound.
I think sound and music really invites you to experience the flow of reality and this experience could involve a spiritual angle.