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I8U in Conversation
By Richard di Santo
27 May 2001
Montréal based sound artist I8U released her debut CD on Multimedias Pandora Inc. last year. Featuring ten dynamic pieces of largely low frequency sound-sculpting, the CD has quickly become a fixture in my hi-fi. Played at loud volumes, I8U’s music reveals powerful, opaque and complex sound environments where the analogue and digital meet. Deep drones, hidden rhythms, complex harmonics and treatments are the results of digital soundwaves being processed through analogue filters. The material on this CD is based on I8U’s experimentation with low frequency content and resonance, and can truly be considered to be an engaging work; the sounds propel the listener to react, participate in and answer to the various sounds and transitions.
I had the pleasure of seeing I8U in concert in early May, when she came to Toronto to perform a solo set of new and improvised material (that evening also saw performances by Toronto ambient outfit ARC and DJ Greg Clow). Soon afterward I had the opportunity to ask her about her music, methods, experiences, origins and motivations.
I8U started out playing keyboards, and was trained first in classical music and then playing blues on the road for a couple of years. A chance meeting with fellow Montréal based sound artist David Kristian changed her musical directions indefinitely:
David suggested I try something different considering the equipment I owned at the time, so we planned for a jam session. What I discovered during these sessions was very simple, this music flowed effortlessly, I didn’t have to think, just play. I thought “This is what I’m supposed to do!”. David was instrumental in my move away from “traditional music” in the sense that he introduced me to the art of creating sounds, and listening to what he was doing simply made me realize that this is where I would be most happy because the possibilities are endless and only defined by one’s own limitations.
So, I embarked on a journey of learning and un-learning, learning about sound art and the precision in programming sounds, learning to listen to what I don’t want to hear, un-learning years of traditional music structures, acceptable melodies, chords and rhythms, therefore pushing my own limitations of what I expected to hear, and listen for the unexpected.
I8U further explains that she felt it necessary to un-learn the knowledge she had acquired over the years so she could “be truthful with my attempt at understanding this particular way of experimenting with sound.” This process of un-learning wasn’t something as simple as ‘forgetting’ everything she knew about traditional music structures; there are essential elements from both her classical training and her experience with blues which she says continue to exist in her work:
One element that is important to me in classical music is dynamics, you can be peacefully lulled into a state and abruptly awakened to utter chaos, or yet, you can be transported very gently and slowly into an amazing loud finale.
In blues, one of the elements I retain is, how to build a show and pull in an audience into what you are doing, creating an experience for the audience, making the listener part of the process. There is also an amazing sense of timing in blues, which has taught me a lot in terms of creating intensity and suspense.
In I8U’s work, the terms and elements of traditional musical structures are transformed into and exchanged with analogous terms and elements:
The structures become blurred; the melodies become more subtle and part of a sound as opposed to the main part of a structured song. The chords become textures within the sounds and those textures move very much like chords but not the way traditional music does. The rhythm becomes a very slight pulse, more like a pace, being created by all the various textures being used and how they become intertwined.
I would say that certain aspects might contradict each other, but they are not mutually exclusive.
Herein lies an essential issue in contextualising any kind of experimentalism. Experimentalism exists only in relation to accepted, established or traditional forms. It’s how we approach, challenge, negate or build upon these forms that constitutes the experimental, and is a freedom completely at the artist’s discretion. The artist’s freedom, the enthusiasm for discovery, is what keeps I8U so passionate about her work:
Once I learn something, I want to move on to the next thing, not knowing necessarily what that will be, but pushing my own boundaries. I never know what the trigger will be, but I recognize it when it manifests itself.
Refusing to become stagnant is a strong force in I8U’s personality. For this reason, she is always looking for the next challenge. It is probably for this very reason that improvisation is an important element in her work. Her concert performances are almost entirely improvisational. After assessing the conditions of the room in terms of sound and acoustics, but also in terms of a listening environment for the audience, she creates her set accordingly:
Although I know the sounds I will use [in a live performance], I do not know the order I will use them in or their intensity – that happens instantly. I have a general feeling of how the audience is responding and I feed from that and improvise following the mood. I am very big on transitions live, my biggest challenge is to bring the listener from one place to another without their knowledge. I mean, they realize that we’re now somewhere else, a different sound and feel, but they can’t explain how it happened or where precisely the transition took place.
This is quite different from the way she works in the studio, where it’s just her and the sounds, and where she attends to these sounds with a passionate attention to detail. “I can work in a very detailed manner and ‘orchestrate’ every second if I feel like it,” she explains, “I can perfect and really ‘baby’ each track if you will.”
In the studio, I8U utilises a handful of unique tools for sound programming: a Korg ES1 sampler, Doepfer MS-404 analog synth, EMU-Morpheus, a Sony Minidisc with various microphones, and a PC in the studio on which she runs Tassman, a modular software synthesizer based on physical modeling techniques developed by a Montréal based company called Applied-Acoustic Systems. On stage, she will mainly use the Korg sampler and EMU-Morpheus synth.
In the coming week, I8U will be performing the opening event at this year’s MUTEK festival in Montréal <http://www.mutek.ca>. She will be performing in collaboration with experimental improviser Martin Tétrault, whom she met at another performance in the fall of 2000, this time alongside Francisco López, at the Silo #5. The desire to collaborate further lead to their decision to plan a session together:
In our first workshop, we got to know each other, what we could do and it turned out to be very interesting. Martin and I are both experimentalists as well as improvisers; you mix the two and you get an interesting brew. Playing with Martin immediately puts you in a very relaxed state of mind, and when that happens, things just flow freely, it’s a lot of fun! We then decided to meet again and this time record the sessions, a CD of which I believe will be available at Mutek.
They met a second time, this time making a complete recording of the sessions. They have now finished work on their CD which is planned to be launched to coincide with the events at Mutek 2001.
So long as her passion for experimentalism and her restlessness in the wake of constancy persist, I8U will continue to create inventive and engaging sound works for a growing public interested in experimental musical forms. The name “I8U” is itself a ironic comment on consumerism, the very fact, she explains, that “music is a product which is marketed to reach the various groups that consume it. … We consume music and we are consumed by it”. The name also implies a certain anonymity (and thus the emphasis is being placed on the work rather than the artist). If it can be said that I8U “eats” her audience with her engulfing sound environments, then she also ensures that each of its members is conscious of the entire process of consumption. Instead of putting the listener in a merely submissive position, she prods us to react to the sounds and participate in the concert as something more than merely a consumed thing.