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Sunday, December 13, 2020

Judith Hamann, an Interview

Judith Hamann. Photo by David Lantran

Interview with Judith Hamann by Fotis Nikolakopoulos

1. Two releases on Blank Forms and Peaks on Black Truffle.It seems that dystopian 2020 finds you with three albums. Does that mean you had more time to work, to reflect, less time for travel maybe? How has 2020 been for you so far?

It’s been a difficult and strange year for me, but I feel very lucky that it’s not any worse than that. I’m safe and miraculously sort of managing to get by so far. I was a full time touring person before this, without a home at all, just moving from show to show, so it’s also been a complete upending of how I did my life, and I’m still trying to figure out what on earth I’m doing/going to do. I think that stopping moving for the first time in many many years has been a good thing, but it has also been hard to not be able to travel to any of the places I do think of as ‘home,’ and to have to try to forge a sense of home in a new place in such a strange time.

I know, it does seem a little weird that there are several solo releases coming out at the same time that my (and everyone else’s) daily reality is so turned upside down. That is more an accident of various timelines being pulled around by the pandemic than that I’ve had some kind of wildly productive year. The Black Truffle record I actually made about a year and a half ago, and the Blank Forms records are documents of a long term, ongoing performance practice/research area, so while it probably feels sort of sudden that they are all coming out at once, it’s actually a result of a fairly long lead up times.

There is actually a fourth (I know! Ridiculous!), coming out on Another Timbre, which was the only thing where the whole record was made this year, a ‘quarantine commission.’ I made it while in lockdown on an island in Finland for three months at the start of all this, and that record is more closely connected to the sudden shift in our lives, how we might navigate or move through them.

2. Going back to the two releases on the wonderful Blank Forms label, how are the two related? The title of the cd, Music for Cello and Humming makes me think of children's playfulness. What is music or sounds to you? A game? A way to think, act or react maybe? Something else?

Humming is that sort of thing which has such differing but strong associations for different people, I find that really interesting that it leads to play, or a childlike sort of musical space for you! For me though, it’s a very different thing, and I suppose very much about an embodied performance practice. Humming traces a particular kind of interior space, physically and emotionally, and I think there is an intimacy and vulnerability in a close-mouthed hum. For my voice, it’s an almost breakable thing particularly when it’s soft, on the edge of speaking and not speaking, like a kind of multiphonic state between sounding and not sound, or attempting to sound, trying to speak.

I think for me it’s a lot more about working with a specific kind of interference with the cello that is at once so identifiably human (voice), something very intimate, yet also something ambiguous, something unstable. I’m very much interested in the richness of sound as an artifact of an attempt at a task, so, the debris becomes instead the focus and working with humming has been very much about that idea.

The question of what music is to me…. well that is maybe too complicated to answer without rambling in the direction of a very long essay I think! Perhaps it’s easiest just to say that it is many things at once to me, and many of them occupy very close, or tender spaces.

3. On your site I read that you are "a champion of new and rarely performed music, immersive approaches to sound". Is there, really, anything that hasn't been performed, improvised, sonically manipulated? Would you say that everything has been done in the past? If yes, what can a performer/musician present right now? If no, which paths would you say are the least traveled?

I think that ‘rarely performed music’ was meant more specifically in terms of composed music which is, for various reasons, not part of the sort of “canon” of musical repertoire, so in that instance it has been (probably) performed before, but perhaps it hasn’t been realised live for a long time, or it’s never been recorded, or its sort of musical existence only occurs in the navigation of its performed self.

I wonder about the whole idea of whether things can ever really have ‘been done’?

I suppose many things have ‘been done’ but I’m not sure that just because a sound has been made, or captured, that there isn’t a reason to continue living and working with that sound. I suppose these principles play out in the realm of performance or repertoire: we continue to play pieces which have been played by so many people because of the value or the magic that occurs, perhaps because it makes these things alive and experiential: through the collision of performer and space and time and the irreplicable nature of live performance.

I think even the sounds which might be overly familiar, or even a bit hackneyed are still worth poking around at, burnishing, looking underneath and around them. People are still finding ways of improvising or composing or meditating on things that bring something to those sounds, or that alter their meaning and associations. I think that the act of reiteration (rather than repetition) of sounds and gestures is a continuous and collective shifting, it (ideally) creates a richness of meaning rather than wearing something out. I feel like sounds only feel ‘worn out’ when people aren’t caring for them, when it doesn’t connect, if it’s just a going through the motions you know?

4.I'm asking about your solo releases but you have made so many collaborations.Name the main differences between working solo and collaborating.Do you see making music as mostly a social act or personal expression?

You know, I think of my solo work as very much collaborative as well, it’s just that I’m not collaborating with a human being, but I am still very much working responsively. I tend to need something to respond to when I’m making things generally. So, I consider the cello a collaborator, but also so many other things: spaces for instance… I am not sure that working collaboratively with people is really so very different than, say, working collaboratively with a Finnish island, just speaking across different languages and time lines perhaps.… But also I do really love the process of creating and thinking with other people, and pre-pandemic I was absurdly social and most of my life was definitely focused on creating with/in response to others.

I think that the mythology of the solo artist, the independent creator, the self made genius has not been a very helpful idea, and is very much a European settler-colonial kind of thinking about the making of creative work. We love the myth of our lack of dependence on things, but we’re much more interwoven than most people might like to believe. I think this is also part of why I call so much of my work ‘studies,’ that was kind of a way to try to resist that sense of composer as author. I don’t think any of the work I’ve made comes from a place of having some kind of singular idea or vision and working to realise that, it’s much more about working with the material from the inside out, and being porous, receptive to the kinds of trajectories and gestures and shapes and shadows which appear when you are open to them.

5.You are a traveller, even a nomad as Blank Forms has written for you...But you come from a very isolated place on this planet. Has geography, isolation and your upbringing played a significant role for you? Is, finally, even in this globalised world, our different cultures, places, ethics important even now?

That’s such a rich and complicated set of things to answer, and I think now that the pandemic put a stop to my more orbital based way of living, I am learning a lot about the relationship of travel and distance for me.

The idea of distance coming from Narrm/Melbourne is an interesting one, and I think that there was, when I was growing up anyway, a real sense of isolation from ‘the world’ and an insularity belonging to the whole kind of invention of ‘Australian’ identity in its colonial sense, this strange sort of mixture of shame and exceptionalism, while being shadowed by a kind of collective inferiority complex to Europe, and the United States. I think that this has to change, but it won’t without a real reckoning with the whole construction of ‘Australia’, without acknowledgment of the ongoing violence of our existence as a settler-colonial state, without treaty and justice and reparations, and a real shift in identity.

For me on a personal level, there have been many times where the kind of cultural distance I grew up in, as compared to people I knew who grew up in close proximity to the musicians and artists who have shaped and defined what we loosely term ‘experimental music’, collided in weird ways. There have been a lot of moments since I stopped living in ‘Australia’ where I felt very much that classic imposter thing, that at any moment everyone might find out that the where and the how of my life was so very FAR in multiple senses: geographically, economically, culturally…

But in many ways I think that the relative physical distance of ‘Australia,’ and of Narrm/Melbourne, also created incredible communities of artists which have so deeply shaped who I am. Shifting my thinking over my life about what is valued, what is precious culturally, away from the kind of euro-centrism of classical music training and academia which is so much of how we construct education in ‘Australia’ by looking to Europe, and towards the kinds of embodied knowledge, and non-hierarchial knowledge systems, towards non-institutional knowledge systems which I was also lucky enough to grow up in contact with at times: this is part of changing the sense of that. The distance I once perceived as a liability, has perhaps assisted me in other ways. I’m still untangling this whole thing though…

I realise that also, just on a practical level, I think about distance in very different ways to say, people who grew up in northern Europe. My relationship to land, horizon, plants, environment is different. This is the first time I’ve lived somewhere landlocked, in Berlin, where it’s so rare to see a clear horizon and it affects me much more than I could have expected. I was just in Norway doing a recording project and the sense of actual physical, felt relief to stand on the edge of a large body of water was very strong. I find I miss landscapes and people equally some days, perhaps because they’re entwined. For example, when I’m missing the feeling of the desert that usually means I’m equally missing the people I love in southern california, or vice versa, they all get kind of braided together.

6. My feeling, by listening to your music, is that you try through it to be more free, maybe to let loose from the constraints of normality. If yes, in what ways? Is music, art in general, a medium to achieve this?

I think a lot of questions about freedom or normality are dependent on how you see or experience those terms: for instance there’s a big difference (for me anyway) between say, performing as something which might allow us access to a space outside of ordinary quotidian time, versus pushing against hegemonic structural norms ie. social norms. So yes, I suppose I am probably considering both of these things in different ways…

A lot of what I’m trying to do, especially in the shaking material, is a slow and long process of undoing or transforming my relationship to performance and my instrument that is outside of certain ‘norms’ of performance practice, or thinking about how one might play the cello. I don’t mean this at all in terms of techniques, or finding ‘cool sounds’, but more in terms of how I might undo the idea of mastery over my instrument, how I might construct a relationship between our respective bodies which is not about disciplinary thinking, but more about collaboration, responsiveness, a compassionate space.

I think there are many ways we can imagine change, different versions of a world, and for me I suppose this is one of them: to try to enfold certain ideas which live in proximity to queer theory, decolonial thinking, vibrant materialism, and anti-carceral thinking into a way of working more generally. I’m not saying that what I’m doing is at all ‘useful’ to those larger human projects or that I’m helping anyone necessarily with my weird niche music! But more that these ways of reorienting oneself are part of how I work, it seems an important part of a practice to keep working on both dismantling certain structures, and trying to imagine and build new ones.


Keith said...

These are some thorough, enriching answers for an interview! Thanks so much to both of you!


They say (at least in Greece they do) that the questions make the answers but, this time, i think its vice versa...

Paul said...

I click "like" on your comment Fotis!