Martina Lussi: “I felt that art wasn’t something that helped anybody.” Interview by David Sullivan

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Martina Lussi is, at the moment, primarily a sound artist from Lucerne, Switzerland; a small city with a supportive and productive arts scene. Inspired by drones and field recording experimentation, Lussi released the intriguing four track LP Selected Ambient in November 2017 and has since released another cassette, the eerie and ethereal Installations 2016/2017 earlier this year. We chatted via Skype about Lucerne, field recordings and her residency in Cairo during the revolutions.

Scene in Lucerne

Lucerne is quite a small city, but there’s an interesting scene here around zweikommasieben, which is a magazine for contemporary music and sounds. It exists since 2011 and a small group of producers, DJs, writers, graphic designers, etc. have gathered around the magazine. It’s people like Samuel Savenberg (aka S S S S), Belia Winnewisser, Rolf Laureijs, Guy Schwegler, Fabian Riccio (aka El Tigre Sound), Remo Bitzi, Marc Schwegler, Michael Volken, Kaj Lehmann and more. It’s a small and supportive scene. The magazine does also quite a lot of events with international guests, which made the network grow outside Switzerland as well.

Komposition O08 being more acoustic / Selected Ambient more digital

In my teens, when I made my Bachelor degree in fine arts, I learnt how to record stuff and how to edit it on the computer. I started to record the electric guitar and sample it. My first piece was an extremely dark drone piece (I made together with Jonathan Ruf of P.Nior) presented on 4 channel in completely dark room. It was quite radical for me back then to understand that what we did was a piece of art.

Later for Komposition O08 I decided to use mainly the acoustic guitar. I did so because there was one at hand. I learnt how to play the acoustic guitar when I was young. I used it the same way I used the electronic guitar and I was curious how that would sound like.

Besides working with samples and synthetical produced sounds I work also with field recordings —as for example on Selected Ambient. Making field recordings is for me an inspiration and first of all a practice of listening. I try to understand what layers of sound are around me. Some sounds I try to rebuild. It’s like a painter starting to see things and trying to understand how they work and then starting to make sketches.

The importance of having fun whilst making your art

Having fun is the most important thing when doing music. I was born in a country and situation where I have the possibility to live a free and happy life. That is why I think I have to go for that. I’ve changed more and more to making only sound because it’s the only material I can really dive into… I forget time, I forget to eat and I forget to drink while working, so I have to set an alarm to stop myself so I can take care a little bit of my social life too. Working with sound on my own rights, that’s pure happiness!

Field recordings

The most recent piece I made for an installation is called ‘Movement in Mono’. I had the chance to compose a piece for 10 speakers that are installed on the ceiling of the exhibition space. It’s really shitty speakers, to be honest, and you only can put a mono signal on it. So I asked myself, “what can I do with that specific situation.” Because the space is surrounded by a street I was thinking about the Doppler effect, like when a car approaches and the sound of it gets louder and it pitches up, just to vanish and pitch down again, once it passes you. With that you can have sort of a feeling of space and movement in the sound. So I was recording the street from the exhibition space with open windows. To make the piece more extreme and controllable I also used synthetically produced Doppler effects.

Field recordings are little bit parasitic, because you can record all the spaces you don’t own.

Cairo residency

I went to Cairo as part of a residency program. I was working with someone else back then; we made performances, videos and installations. I didn’t work much with sound at that time. It was in 2013 — two years after the first revolution — and just when we were about to leave the revolution started again. You would hear a lot of people yelling and clapping, in the beginning it sounded as if there was a football game, as we have it in Europe — really positive feelings, nice to see. But then it suddenly changed. It’s difficult to explain because everyday life goes on, so you live somehow the life you got there, but you know that bad things happen around you — maybe just around the corner. And sometimes you’re just lucky to not be in the wrong place at the wrong time… That’s a stressful situation. And then there were always helicopters and jets in the air, so it was really loud — it was an extreme sound experience. I couldn’t sleep the whole last month I was there.

When I arrived back home in Switzerland I was really stressed out. And I wasn’t sure if I should continue to do art. I felt that art wasn’t something that helped anybody. Basically, I was watching bad things happening and I had no idea what I could do to help the situation. A bit later on I started to work again with sound and on my own. With sound I can express things without using words. I can also express things I don’t understand the moment I do it.

Were you fearful for your life?

When I look back I think I should have been, but I was not actually. Sometimes we were passing by Tahrir Square and only ten minutes later someone was stabbed exactly there or there were shootings, and you could have been there but you weren’t for some reason. It was more about being aware and not being afraid, I mean being afraid does not make sense in that situation. I wasn’t afraid, only stressed.

Recordings from Cairo on Selected Ambient?

No, there isn’t. But on my release for Prehistoric Silence, an Italian label, there is a recording of Cairo. It’s people yelling on the street. The release is called Installations 2016​/​2017 and it includes four tracks I’ve made for installations in 2016 and 2017.

Are you working on anything visual at the moment?

No, at the moment I work on sound exclusively. Actually, combining sound and visuals is also a problematic thing for me. To be honest, I have never seen a piece featuring both that was really perfect… It’s extremely difficult to have the right balance between sound and visuals — I know that from when I’m working on installations featuring sound myself. I’m just not sure if it is impossible. Maybe that’s why I continue trying.

I think the purest way to listen to sound is in a dark room and you just listen — that’s the sweetest spot I think.

You can find Installations 2016​/​2017 here.

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