An Interview with Jessica Ekomane
One of Jessica Ekomane’s works imagines what a church bell might sound like inside a baby’s mouth; another explores our perception of rhythm through a spatial field with quadrophonic sound. The later example was from a performance at the We Make Waves festival a couple of weeks ago in Berlin, an event that was fully immersive and potentially disorienting.
I caught up with Ekomane one evening during the rainy autumn of a year that has seen her perform in Japan, Australia, and Europe, to talk about her shift from sound artist to performer, the accessibility of the electronic and classical worlds, and cold calling Pierre Boulez.
VAN: I recently saw you perform using quadraphonic sound at We Make Waves Festival, for women, trans, and non-binary people in music, in Berlin. How did that piece come about, and what pushed you to start performing?
Jessica Ekomane: The idea came out of an installation [“Unrealities, 2015”] I did maybe three years ago with metal plates and transducers on them. I had this idea for the opening to do a concert inside the installation, because whenever I do installations I’m always a little bit frustrated that I create these objects and then it feels like they don’t live so much. That’s why I like [performing] live, because it’s such a short time, and you have to be present yourself.
My approach to working with quadraphonic sound is a bit different because it’s not about moving sound—the sound doesn’t move at all. Everything is really static, but actually if you move inside the field you will hear things differently. It’s a psychoacoustic effect that happens because of the way those sounds interact with each other.
But then people—and I was guilty of this too—were sitting down. People see you performing in this way and they treat it like a conventional concert. Is that a danger when you move from sound art to live performance? Do you risk anything?
For this performance, we took out the chairs—it’s a bit more relaxed with people sitting on the floor anyway. I’m actually quite open to how people experience what I do, so I don’t mind that they were sitting. I don’t like to give directions and I don’t like to announce that you can move within the field. They might notice that themselves if they move their heads. I’m trying to bring some notions that don’t belong to music into the music format.
Is the piece different with every performance?
It’s a bit different every time. What I do is not written—I have the main structure or core, but it’s not always the same length, so there’s a bit of room for improvisation there. I like this idea, because sometimes when you play electronic music you can be a little bit safe, and I want to have an element of danger for myself, like maybe I can fail. There’s the possibility of failure and I like that.
Do you make mistakes in performances?
I’m interested in mistakes. I hate to go by the book. In the set at We Make Waves, it started with this rhythm which is a click, and actually it was a mistake because normally you try to avoid clicks in a loop where it starts again—you try to erase it—but I decided to use it as a rhythmical element. It wasn’t a mistake anymore, it was a part of the composition. It was connected in some way to this idea of bringing forward voices that are normally in the background. I’m a perfectionist—but my idea of perfection is full of mistakes, and full of things that aren’t beautiful.
How helpful are events like We Make Waves in opening up the music world for audiences or artists who might not have access otherwise?
It’s hard for me to have an overview of how these events are going to change social structures. I can only speak for myself. I know that events like We Make Waves have really supported me, or the Incubator program at Berlin Community Radio. I think the music I’m doing is a bit challenging to listen to. I think in this way they’re successful in bringing somebody like me, somebody exploring the margins of music, to a wider audience. I’m also more from a working-class background for example, and these kinds of initiatives can be helpful when the way you see yourself in the world, and your approach, is quite different from the otherwise undisputed values of those in power. We Make Waves created this community feel.
When I was a teenager in France, I started to discover things like the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM), [which represents a] more academic kind of electronic music. I was really interested, but I was always wondering, “How can I get in there, how can I meet these people? They will never want to talk to me because I don’t have a connection to them or anything to say to them.” It made me a bit depressed at the time. I mean, I still wanted to go for it, but I was stuck in this little city, and if I shared my musical taste there it was weird. You’d see these people and they were all old white men somehow, with a certain social position. I always felt like, “Yeah, maybe I can go over there, but people will have preconceptions about me, what I like, how I’m going to behave, what I’m able do.”
I was studying art history, and a guy there told me he was helping with field recordings at IRCAM from time to time. He told me to just ask them—call and ask for Pierre Boulez [laughs]! So I thought about it for days, and I had the telephone book, searching for IRCAM. And then at some point I just called them and I said, “Can I talk to Pierre Boulez?” So this person obviously just said, “Who are you, what do you want?” But I think because I was so naïve they said, “OK, just come by, we’ll give you a tour.” They showed me all the facilities, I had stars in my eyes. I didn’t end up meeting [Boulez] but it gave me strength and kept me going.
Do you think the electronic world has a way of opening up parts of the music world to those who might not otherwise have access?
I think so. I’m not really in the classical world actually—I think it’s still the same. But I think more people are aware, or things are being discussed, which is good. I mean, maybe I could have become a classical musician if I wanted to, but first you have to get past the fear of being in this world and feeling you don’t fit or you don’t talk like these people, maybe you haven’t been raised in this environment with the same cultural baggage. When I was younger it made me feel a bit worthless and self-conscious.
I think at the end it’s not only about doing open calls or trying to search for different kinds of people, you also have to change the way this power structure works—go to the roots and make people more interested in studying in the first place, if they don’t have the access. I know with art when I was younger, I even felt a bit dirty, or I didn’t feel intelligent enough, or like I had the credibility to have a conversation with these people. When I studied art history, part of it was to bring us to these events, and then I felt a little more comfortable being there, it gave me the key to do it. It’s not only about people’s expectations, but about how you perceive [those expectations] too.
People find it easier to move into the electronic world from the classical world than...
...than the other way around, yeah. A lot of bigger projects I’ve seen with electronic and classical musicians, I’ve found a bit tacky. They’d take somebody famous in electronic music and that person would just layer over some nice chords or something. If it’s about replaying something that’s already played all the time anyway I don’t like it so much, unless you bring something really new.
One of my favorite composers is Ligeti, I really love him. I learned piano when I was younger (not at a professional level), and when I discovered his piano studies it was like, “Wow! I can’t play piano anymore!” But also for me, these are electronic pieces, he was working toward sounds and not just notes or notation. I read some of his texts, he was very inspiring for me, the way he thought about concepts first—“The Devil’s Staircase,” for example.
Do you feel like electronic instruments or ways of producing sound are respected enough?
There was something that happened in electronic music at the beginning: for example, Wendy Carlos did these Bach reinterpretations and the music for “A Clockwork Orange.” I really like it because it fits to the atmosphere of this film, but when you think about whether it brought something to electronic music, I think it was just a way to make the electronic instrument more noble, or accepted as “proper” music, which is why they did it. I feel like it started to be more interesting when people started really playing with what they had, with what their instrument could do, and not just repurposing.
I think much more so now than 50 years ago, for sure. I think the people at IRCAM or those more academic people are seen more as part of a serious musical tradition too. The same with club music now. So we’re going in the right direction. ¶