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Soundwalk Collective: “The soundscape is a layering of memories”

Soundwalk Collective is a project that exists on the verge of sound art and electronic music. Founded by sound explorer Stephan Crasneanscki in 2000, it has subsequently evolved into a collective involving artists from every possible field, from Jean-Luc Godard and Charlotte Gainsbourg to Mulatu Astatke and Lyra Pramuk. Through multi-hour sessions in various locations around the world, Crasneanscki and Simone Merli, the second regular soundwalker, explore conceptually different themes, such as the music of small ethnic communities (Sons of the Wind, 2014), the aura of sacred places (Peradam, 2022) or prestigious conservatories (Before Music There Is Blood, 2017) and sexuality in a time of artificial intelligence (LOVOTIC, 2022).

The list of Soundwalk Collective guests is constantly growing. The most active of them is Patti Smith, who in particular has joined the new audiovisual project Chornobyl — in it the soundscape of the exclusion zone becomes a metaphor for the nuclear threat and the multidimensionality of memory.

Chornobyl had its world premiere in Kyiv at don’t Take Fake’s contemporary art exhibition in the MOT art space. DTF Magazine talked to Stephan Crasneanscki about his Ukrainian roots, the connection between sound studies and electronic music sets, as well as about his fruitful collaboration with Patti Smith and human nature

Soundwalk in Ukraine

— This is not your first project related to Ukraine. Tell us about your previous recordings made in Ukraine. How did you start working here?

— These are my roots. My father and grandfather are from Odesa, so part of my family comes from Ukraine. I used to visit my relatives when I was a kid, and from the 1990s to 2021 I came regularly to make recordings — in Crimea, in Bessarabia, in northern Ukraine. The topics were often different: mass gravesites, Roma music in Bessarabia, in particular in Izmail, and, for the last 10 years — the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone.

— What are the specifics of the project presented at MOT?

— I was struck by the idea of Chornobyl as a musical city: it had one of the best piano schools in the Soviet Union. When I went there for the first time, I saw hundreds of pianos: since 1986, they were rotten and decayed, but physically they were still there, like piano skeletons. I started recording their sounds and collected a lot of sound fragments, little by little they formed into the Chornobyl project. These pianos, their mutilated bodies, are silent witnesses to a great mistake that forever changed the space around them. Patti Smith and I viewed this condition of pianos as a millennial dream, and she wrote a poem about it.

Кадр з проєкту «Чорнобиль», який до 14 травня можна побачити в МОТ у Києві

I was interested in the children’s aspect of the story, because there were children playing those pianos. I filmed children living in the exclusion zone today — some people returned there for free housing, and among them there are families with children. The recordings show children playing in the forest, having fun, imitating nature: the sounds of birds, for example, or bears. They look as if nothing terrible is happening, because you can’t see the radiation.

They could have been children in any Ukrainian forest, but they live in an exclusion zone on abandoned land. Nature is abundant there because there are no hunters: there are many wild horses, bears, and wolves. Nature has adapted in its own way, as have these children, with their naivete and unawareness of what once happened. I see it as a return to the original wildness.

I thought about how nature fills everything around us with life, even in places where we are not present, even in places of disaster. From a human point of view, this place looks very apocalyptic. But from an animal point of view, it might look like rebirth.

Кадр з проєкту «Чорнобиль», який до 14 травня можна побачити в МОТ у Києві

Chornobyl and the instinct of death

— You formed the concept before the full-scale war. Did it change in February 2022?

— In November, December, January 2021-2022, I took my last notes at Chornobyl. When I hear news of the unstable situation at the nuclear plants, I realize again and again the absurdity of this war and the new nuclear threat. The project that Patti Smith and I came up with is a metaphor for the use of nuclear energy in a larger context. It is about the eternal human game with fire, with forces we cannot control.

In the context of the current war, it can be seen as a warning of more dire consequences. Even the word “nuclear”… We hear it in the news all the time, it has become routine, as if it were just another weapon. People don’t seem to understand what we’re talking about. Humans as a species have a tendency toward destruction, an instinct of death. Our destructive nature sets us apart from all other animals. All humans have good and bad traits, but in the face of lack of information, misinformation, disorientation, everyone can be capable of bad things.

In the video for our installation, we show children whose thoughts are pure: like animals, they know no limits, they do not know what they are and are not. We begin life as innocent human beings, we have many possibilities, but the situations we encounter transform us — sometimes some people can stray far from their true nature.

Кадр з проєкту «Чорнобиль», який до 14 травня можна побачити в МОТ у Києві

With the Chornobyl project, we ask: is this really true human nature? Or are we moving farther and farther away from it? Our true nature is much simpler than all this. Perhaps nuclear power and nuclear weapons are the farthest points opposite to human nature. Chornobyl as an accident site, where we hear echoes of war today, reminds us how vulnerable life is and what consequences our actions have for the future. We cannot see far, our lives are short, but our children follow us, other children follow them — we will leave this world to them.

Between clubs and galleries

— You consider yourself more of a sound explorer than a musician. But Soundwalk Collective plays in clubs and music festivals as much as they do in galleries and art spaces. Do you feel the difference in such performances? How clear is the distinction between music and sound art today?

— When I was studying art in New York, I felt that sound, compared to other branches of art, was not very well researched. I took this feeling as the basis for my research: I traveled a lot, made recordings in different places — narratives, stories that eventually turned into music, developed into compositions. In a way, I became a musician, but primarily through sound. Sound remains my first medium.

Sound gave me the opportunity to dive deeper into the narrative and apply a more sophisticated methodology to it. It often happened that I decided to go to a place with no ready ideas, and I let the sound guide me. Every place includes truth, and sound — because it is invisible, it cannot be touched — it is like a scent that reveals itself to you. It’s an experience of insight when you encounter something in sound and think: “Wow, that’s very interesting!”. But these are very subtle things, they set a direction, they set a vision, but they are not easy to grasp.

I am not a musician, because musicians work with existing things, they look for melodies. When I record a soundscape, it has nothing to do with a melody, it’s the opposite: different types of sound occur simultaneously and create an unexpected composition. That’s how I started Soundwalk Collective: soundwalk is exactly what I’ve been doing for years.

The idea of the “collective” was born when I realized that after the accumulation of sound material I could invite other artists to share these moments with me. I create a soundscape composition and bring it to Patti Smith’s studio, for example. I also often transform recorded material with loops and samples and play them in clubs. That’s how I make experimental dance sets — I like that too, because dance is beautiful.

Loops in the grammar of electronic music turn into rhythmic patterns, the sound for dancing is as valuable as an installation in a museum or an ambient vinyl record. I don’t place these activities in a hierarchy, they are all equally important.

— Your projects often involve the sound reconstruction of one space in another. This idea is at the core of the MOT project. Have you thought about this and how did you accept the invitation to participate in the project?

— First of all it had to do with my roots and what is happening in Ukraine right now. I wanted to support Ukraine in the face of war, at least in the art space, so I didn’t think long about this proposal.

I like the idea of a temporary museum. Our work is about Chornobyl, so it’s not about the temporary, rather the opposite. The idea of a temporary museum echoes the tragedy of the war and makes us think about mistakes that can lead to long-term changes, perhaps even irreversible ones.

When Fabrice Bousteau, the curator of the exhibition at MOT (read our interview with him here. — Note from DTF Magazine), with whom we have collaborated on many projects, told me that they were creating such a project in Ukraine, in Kyiv, I immediately said yes. Patti Smith is also a supporter of Ukraine, so her answer was obvious.

Meeting with Patti Smith and a joint project at MOT

— You’ve been working with Patti Smith for over ten years. How did it all start?

— Together with Patti Smith we made five albums. Chornobyl, the last of them, will be released in autumn, and it will be premiered in Kyiv. It is a great honor for us to present the work in Ukraine in the current conditions.

I met Patti on the plane. I was recording Roma music in Izmail and also in Moldova and Romania. Like Patti, I live in New York, so I had to fly from Bucharest to Paris, and in Paris I had a layover. Our seats were next to each other on the Paris — New York flight. She had just flown in from Tangier, and we were both energized by the new experience. We talked for the whole eight hours of the flight, and the next morning she came to me saying: “What are you working on now? I’ll record whatever you need”.

At that moment, at the same time as I was working on a project about Roma music, I was working on a project about the singer Nico. She died in Ibiza in July, when the crickets are incredibly loud. Over the course of several summers, I recorded the sounds of crickets there — that’s how work on our first joint album, Killer Road, began. The way we usually work is that I show Patti records that inspire her to write lyrics or review poems by other poets. Even in the first project, we realized that sound and poetry were mutually reinforcing, that we could both go further, get to places we’d been searching for a long time.

Memory in the landscape

— The idea of memory is important in your work. For Ukraine today, memory is a source of liberation, but also a problem, because much of our memory is connected to russia. Do you consider memory in the dimension of post- and neocolonial issues?

— It’s hard to say. I try not to be at the center of the creative process. The sound dictates to me the story that has to be revealed, so when we perform, the listeners invent their own means to move in this process, they give identity to the sound.

When we look at the landscape, it belongs to no one. But people use rivers and mountains, humanity forms the landscape. Victor Hugo once said: “The landscape is indifferent to us”. Nature is indifferent to us, to our suffering, to the pain we cause.

When I reflect on the soundscape and memory, the landscape appears as a layering of memories. It coexists, for example, ancient memories, nomadic memories, as well as more recent memories, such as the horrors of the current war.

All of these memories contain messages for the listener. As an artist working with audio recordings, I give the listener the opportunity to search for the final meaning of the piece or to come to some conclusion. Art gives us the opportunity to see things from a different perspective.

There is no easy answer to your question, because what is happening now was impossible to imagine. Even today, I am short of words. This tragedy seems like something from other times. But I also believe that after this terrible experience Ukrainians will gain new knowledge, new ideas. Every tragedy contains a grain of hope.

The audiovisual project Chornobyl by Soundwalk Collective and Patti Smith can be seen in Kyiv at the exhibition of contemporary art in the MOT space from February 17 to May 14. The theme of the exhibition is devoted to the concept of Temporality.

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Development — Mixis