The math, music and magic mediums of Freida Abtan
Robyn Fadden - May 11, 2010
It only seems right that a highly unique sound world would be created out of Abtan's educational and professional background in math, computer science, electroacoustics and visual art. She doesn't favour one discipline over the other, but blends them into a sound that speaks to who she is as an artist. A long-time fan of band Nurse with Wound, she's worked with mentor and now friend Steven Stapleton, adding her talents to several albums as well as performing and creating visuals for their live shows. Abtan’s first album, “Subtle Movements,” also came out on Stapleton’s United Dairies label in 2007. She also plays in several band and new music projects, and provided music for a recent Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller instillation.
The 2010 MUTEK festival allows us a glimpse of Abtan's ongoing work, “The Structure of Skin,” (at A/Visions 2) echoing her 2008 MUTEK performance of “The Hands of the Dancer/The Temple of the Dreamer,” and bringing us further into how she experiences sound, while prompting us to ask how sound functions on conscious and subconscious levels in our everyday lives.
A still from Freida Abtan's video work, "The Hands of the Dancer."
For Freida Abtan, sound isn't only for our ears – it's for our entire bodies and our entire minds. Even if it seems like we're just dancing, we're always doing something more complex. That complexity thrills Abtan, who has been studying sound theory and making electronic music for several years – though her route there wasn't all that direct.
The way Abtan became an electronic music and video artist seems strange and unsurprising, circuitous and steady. When young she wrote and sang, thought she'd be an artist, but, under pressures of practicality, she skewed her formal education towards other deep interests: math and physics. “ I knew I wasn't going to stop making art if I pursued those interests,” she says. “If you're the kind of person who finds something meaningful in life, it's hard to ignore it. I don't think I'm very happy unless I'm pursuing art-making.”
Though an interesting, reliable career in software development followed her undergraduate degree, Abtan couldn't shake the feeling that she was somehow wasting her life, as much as she respected the work. So she went back to school in 2002, studying computational art alongside electroacoustics at Concordia University, later pursuing a Masters degree in electroacoustics and composition at Université de Montréal.
“It's hard to study music in school when you don't have a traditional music background. I was always attracted to the weirder electronic sounds anyway,” she says, adding that she learned more composition skills along the way and has done her fair share of traditional music work that has interested her, though she considers it a very separate thing from her primary artistic practice.
“My interest in sound is so much more of an experimental process,” she says. “I like to prepare materials and layer them against each other and manipulate them until new things come out. It's very transformational in that way, and I love the magic of that. It's more of a relationship between you and the processes you're using, rather than this idea of the music flowing right out of your head. That is, my whole idea of structure is different – I believe in making your senses speak up for themselves.”
In this way, electronic music becomes the perfect merging of mind, body, heart and soul – where the long-held distinctions between these inherently human, constantly debated concerns are broken down, revealing their true overlapping nature.
“I think electronic music is the most emotional music – it's pure spirit,” says Abtan. “What I love about electronic music making is the ability to reference the outside world and emotion. You can leave parts of the origins of sounds in the work you're doing or be totally abstract and original – it's about going beyond the physical realm into something purely luminous.”
Which is the reason Abtan makes music, exploring sound as a way of exploring our everyday lives as well as bringing to light what is beyond the surface. We have this idea that you make a sound and that's what the sound is – it's not true, sound never exists without place and conditions you're experiencing it in,” she says. “There are certain parts of the spectrum of sound that create different experiences in the body, and there's no question to me that so much of what I'm looking for, when I'm listening to sounds that I hope I can share with other people, really does use sound on this physical level.”
While Abtan's math and computer science background is clearly present in her art making, she doesn't defer to a stereotypical, empirical way of thinking. “ ;My personal music making comes down to things I find interesting and a process that I find beautiful, and cultivating it. I did try algorithmic music but didn't find it satisfying – again, things need to speak to our senses, and when I'm using my more analytical mind, it doesn't make things work in the same way that the senses do, as if I'm using the wrong part of my brain to speak to my heart.”
Yet Abtan does have a deep relationship with her tools and technology in general: “I don't think that human beings are very separate from the tools they use. These are artificial distinctions. Human beings have this idea that they are separate form the world they live in, but our everyday life is partly formed from the tools we use – they're deeper than an expansion of our senses.” This is the stuff of her PhD, heady and complex, but ultimately about how we exist in the world. Making music is part of wending through that intellectual and emotional understanding of life.
'In my music making, a lot of what makes something interesting for me and come alive, is when I have lots of strands of independent processes that move together,” she says. “In my music, I want to feel that the inorganic is being pushed into this organic pa ttern of breathing. I see a lot of the processes that we build and let operate around us as relating to the organic. Maybe they're simply imprinted by the organic just because we created them; they're not totally different.”
Listening to Abtan's music is a close-listening experience, but not a straining one. Like tuning into a distant radio station, we're drawn into the sound, not standing with an ear pressed up to it but within it as it flows through us, layer upon digitized layer, becoming more clear the more we listen. Rather than intellectually scanning her music for original sound sources, we realize that within the original sound are so many others. Using samples, her own voice, sometimes field recordings (if not saturated by noise), she pulls sounds out, dives into their spectrums, altering and layering them into a new experience.
Seeing is hearing
While sound is the centre of Abtan's artistic world, her visual work hasn't suffered, and is in fact greatly informed by it. She considers it an extension of her sound practice. “The way that I work on video is entirely the composition practice I use with sound – it's a time-based art, I generate banks of related material, I look at images under successive states of transformation, I link them together based on aesthetic similarity. The way that I'm interested in generating meaning in it is the same process.”
The video work she'll show at MUTEK shows how willing she is to experiment and trust her own obsessions, often investigating her own dreamscape images. “Dreaming is sort of our point of reference for those surreal moments when things that shouldn't fit together become unified and make sense and become consistent,” she says. “I see a very real and natural connection between a lot of electronic music practices and dreaming practices.”
Since everyone's dreams are subjective as far as attributed meaning goes, it makes sense that Abtan takes our own subjectivity into account when performing – an act she separates from the solitary, self-driven experience of making music. “The experiences people have related back to me about my video work is that they're in a trance, it reminds them of them own dreams. The content is about a state of transformation and trying to evoke something, giving you a physical experience while watching it.”
But what sounds and looks right to Abtan can only be in accordance with her own aesthetic principles, her own internal logic. Her work is an exploration of that personal way of thinking and feeling. “I'm taking sounds that aren't necessarily recognizable and don't necessarily make sense together, except in an aesthetic sense,” she says. “Fundamentally they're a collection of mismatched sounds that can give people an experience of how I find them beautiful and offer a bit of the meaning of what I'm seeing there and experiencing.”
Robyn Fadden is into the wholly physical experience of sound, but also just simply listens to music sometimes, or dances to it. It's a good thing she lives in Montréal then, where she also writes (and maybe thinks too much) about art, culture, music, science and the intersections between them all.
Music and video excerpts used with permission from the artist. Photo by Caroline Hayeur, Agence Stock photo.
Freida Abtan will be performing as part of MUTEK 2010's A/Visions series. For a preview of this series please see: