Suzanne Thorpe is a composer, performer and sound artists from the USA. She has created and curated various site-oriented performances and events. This interview took place in Brussels in October 2018, a few weeks after I met her at the Global Composition conference in Dieburg (Germany), where she gave a lecture about relational musicking. Two works featued prominently in this lecture and the following interview. First, Listening Is As Listening Does: this is an installation for a Spanish garden in the Caramoor Center, north of New York City. This work simulates the navigation system that bats use to determine the location of objects via reflected sound. Second, Resonance & Resemblance: this is a sonic meditation, created for a beautiful (large) garden with a pond. Four recorder players were performing in kayaks on the pond while Suzanne was playing a fixed improvisation on electronics. You can watch a video of the performance here.
This is the website of Suzanne Thorpe.
HR: Is the presence of the performer‘s body, and perhaps of the audience and their bodies, relevant in your works?
ST: Yes, absolutely
HR: … because in an installation you are not sure of the presences of bodies.
ST: Actually, I am sure of their presence because there are bodies in both installations and performances. What gets accentuated in something that is installation-based – if we make this distinction between installation and real-time performance – is: the non-human bodies in the installation start to become more evident. Their participation starts to become more evident and that has been extremely intriguing to me and that’s what has been driving me towards making these pieces. All of a sudden my awareness of these other bodies and how they effect us, and their agency has become much more heightened in the works that are – for lack of a better phrase – purely installations.
HR: Is it important in these installations that the visitor/participant feels or experiences the connection with animals? That they hear them?
ST: I hope so. That is definitely something that I am opening the space up for, now intentionally. At first, when I started making these types of work, it was more about my own discovery. Then, as I was discovering this phenomenon, I have been increasingly making works that intentionally correlate and accentuate these experiences. For me it is something that I hope that the participant experiences and I have discovered that it’s true, they do experience it! If we change our perspective about how we are engaging with the environment with our musicking, then we can also engender a change in perspective on the part of the participants.
HR: Is it difficult as composer and organizer to create a situation in which the audience has a wider perspective and not – as usually – looks and listens to the performers?
ST: It takes a different kind of effort. I’m building a skill set around developing this type of an environment for the participants. I think this is something significant that is coming out of this work: I’m building an approach towards cultivating this type of sensibility. Your question was: is it difficult?
HR: If people are going to a concert, they usually look for performers.
ST: It’s a change in attitude that I have to cultivate for my listeners. I have to be conscious of the fact that I am asking the listeners and participants to change their expectations of how they are participating in the work. I definitely look for opportunities to initiate – so to speak – the listeners. One of the techniques that I use is to compose sound meditations, texts, that are almost like a guide on how to listen in an environment. It gives them something to focus on, it gives them a tool to work with, which is particularly useful for the uninitiated.
HR: In your presentation in Dieburg you also mentioned a sound walk before the performance of Resonance & Resemblance. Was this composed and is this the same text composition you are talking about now?
ST: That was different. The sound walk was part of the piece. If we think about the form, I see the sound walk as the prelude. We’re warming up the audience, we’re introducing our tropes, our melodies, our motives. But it’s also a time period to attenuate the listener to the environment, give the listener time to let their bodies adjust, to let their attention and attitudes adjust. That was a 20 to 25 minutes expedition. Then I also gave the participants sonic – better: listening – meditations that were text pieces. I distributed them as leaflets. They were for people that couldn’t take the sound walk, and also for the performing aspect: they helped them orient themselves within the piece. It gave them something to focus on. They were about seven short instructions: “listen to your breath, listen to you body, to the trees, etc.” Really simple instructions, but each one had a focus, that was intended to guide the listener’s attention.
HR: Could you describe the role and concept of technology in your installations and site-specific performances? How different is it from the usual application in contemporary and experimental music? Usually in concert halls technology artificially recreates a full sound environment and a whole sound world, which is existing totally on its own, mostly in a space that was silent or empty before the concert started.
ST: You articulate very nicely the different attitude that I hope that I’m hitting upon, which is: I focus on reception rather than projection. I try to maintain contextualization as opposed to extraction. You see how these attitudes are different from what is commonly used. We are usually very focussed on: how am I going to make this technology project, put out. I use my technology for input. I want to have a deeper knowledge of how the environment is functioning and that’s where I focus my technology. I incorporate that information into the work. I maintain the contextualization of the information. It depends, I use technology to varying degrees: sometimes the entire piece is generated by the technology, sometimes there is just a little hint of technology in the piece. At some point on the spectrum of composition and performance I engage technology to know my place, to get more familiar with it, and also to incorporate real-time behaviours and characteristics of the place. If we listen through technology, we can tap in to the real-time behaviours and responses of a place and start to fold that information into the act of musicking.
HR: In what way is this a surplus or added value compared to our usual human capacities to connect to our environment or a place?
ST: It is just another way of knowing. At this stage I am not going to put a judgement on it, as to if it is better or worse, I’m still experimenting. It is just another way of getting to know our environments. We know a lot, somatically, we do take that in. It takes a lot of time and practice to be able to identify and correlate what that is. There is the help that technology gives us to identify what that information is more specifically. The specifics are interesting too. Technology does allow us to get access to the specifics. For instance, we may somatically hear a low rumble or tone that comes through a space. But can we identify exactly what frequency that is? There are some pieces of information that technology can help us to focus on. I appreciate that aspect of technology.
HR: So it is a tool to connect both as a composer to your material and as a performer to the audience. And next, link the audience to the environment.
ST: Yes, it’s all about connectivity, it’s generating connectivity. I am also going to challenge that statement on ‘composer and my material’ and say: I am connecting to the material, as opposed to mine. I am going to challenge that sense of authorship and ownership of the environment. I don’t own it. It is going to do what it is going to do. The other thing that technology affords me, is an ability to adjust in real-time. That environment is going to behave the way that it’s going to behave at any given time. I don’t have control over that. What I have control over, is the reaction, how I am going to respond and engage.
HR: But the unexpected, indeterminate and uncontrollable remains, although you are using technology.
HR: We are talking about giving freedom to the environment, but on the other hand we are still talking about some kind of control to make sure that during the performance something will happen and that we can create this connection when something happens. How difficult is it to find and compose this balance?
ST: It’s difficult, sure. And again I am developing a technique around this. The clearest and most effective tip that I could give anyone is to keep it simple. Simplicity is the absolute … Simplicity of approach, simplicity of sounds, simplicity of engagement in composition, allows space and time to be elastic. That is my biggest skill that I have learned. Avoid the temptation to make things complicated, because the complexity is going to be in the entanglement of all these elements. I don’t need to be complex, the complexity is going to be generated.