Thembi Soddell is a sound artist, electroacoustic composer and practice-based researcher with an interest in psychology, perception, extreme emotion and the subjectivity of experience. A PhD candidate, her research is focused on the articulation of firsthand experiences of mental illness and psychological distress in sound art practice. ‘Love Songs’, her latest work published on the Australian imprint Room40, is provoking above everything else. We had a pleasant interview talking about the ideal context for a performance, her PhD project, sound art practice and more.
Cyclic Defrost: What have been your best experiences performing live?
Thembi Soddell: It was so long ago now that my memory of the gig is quite poor, but I have such fond feelings of performing in Porto, Portugal back in 2006. The fragments of memories that remain involve a beautiful sounding PA, wonderful hosts, my first taste of a blood sausage and a sandwich quite like no other – covered in cheese and maybe beer. It was fantastic! It was during my first European tour, too, which had its own special kind of magic.
I also did a performance in the ACCA foyer in Melbourne a couple of years ago and loved the way the sound interacted with the space. The foyer is an unusual shape, with various textured surfaces pointing in many directions. I was performing through a stereo PA positioned at the front of the room, but the way the sound bounced around the room made it feel like there were multiple speakers throughout. I love those kinds of serendipitous acoustic interactions that complicate the sonic experience in unexpected ways. Another one was in Brisbane at the IMA, where the subwoofers shook the lighting rails in the gallery so I was scared for half the performance that I was destroying the room and/or the sound system. Sounded great though! And after both these performances I had several people give me fascinating descriptions of how they perceptually experienced the sound. I always enjoy hearing about that.
Cyclic Defrost: Besides performing in total darkness (or as close to it as possible). Which would be the ideal context for one of your performances?
Thembi Soddell: Acoustic spaces that carry their own sense of psychological unease and sense of power or control over the audience. I’m imagining a cavernous, bunker or catacomb type space that can only be reached via a trek (preferably through a breath taking natural landscape) with unusual acoustic properties. It would also need a good PA. That’s a must. Always.
I’ve also been finding when I perform in the darkness in venues with windows that can’t be covered there can be some nice interactions between shadow, light and sound. I did one last year at Ausland in Berlin, where at one moment a car went past and created a beautiful shadow moving across the ceiling, from the light shining through a tree outside. At that moment, it seemed to match perfectly with the sound. So, if I can’t have darkness, this is the next best thing. It does change the experience of the sound though, becoming more environmental than psychological, which is not so much my aim.
Oh, and, although it may not work for my current work, I’d be very curious to work somehow with mountain acoustics. I visited the Swiss Alps for the first-time last year (specifically Mount Rigi) and I was blown away by the acoustics when I was staying right next to a cliff face toward the bottom on the mountain in Lucerne. It was incredible! I still can’t believe such a place exists and would love to hear how amplified sound would work bouncing off the mountain walls.
Cyclic Defrost: What was the hardest thing you had to overcome to dedicate yourself to the arts?
Thembi Soddell: Chronic illness – both physical and mental (in fact I’m not a huge fan of the conception of a divide). I have many project ideas that are difficult to realise because I am forced to spend a lot more time managing my health than engaging in my art practice. There is also a lot of insidious ableism in the experimental music scene (as there is everywhere), with unrealistic expectations that make it difficult to participate in. This goes for the arts in general too, where there are expectations to work around the clock, meet unreasonable deadlines, operate with no future job security, to complete projects with the smallest amount of money and resources possible and offer a huge amount of your energy and expertise for zero pay. This is difficult for everyone, but even more so for anyone dealing with chronic illness, which in itself drains a lot of money, resources and energy. I would love to do much more than I do, but I just can’t. Of course, the flipside of this is that my art practice is also a life line in many ways, so I’m grateful that it creates a space where my difficulties with illness can also function as an asset to some degree.
Cyclic Defrost: I’d like to get some insights on your PhD project. Your research is about artistic representation of states of distress, mental illness or trauma. First I’d like to know what made you choose this topic in particular.
Thembi Soddell: Most of my adult life has been consumed by managing mental and physical illness and engaging in sound art practice. I always felt there was a link between the two, in that my sound practice represented something of my experiences with mental illness (for want of a better term). The PhD research was a chance to better understand this connection. I had also had many negative experiences with the mental health system and was inspired by mad pride and affiliated movements, which seek to critique psychiatry and push for positive change in the mental health system or create alternatives to it. Through the research, I have sought to develop my practice in a way that might contribute to this field, while also indulging my general fasciation for psychology, human behaviour, imagination and the unconscious.
Cyclic Defrost: And talking about sound as an artistic representation, which is the conclusion that you arrived to that surprised you the most?
Thembi Soddell: During the PhD I was researching trauma theory and acousmatic theory concurrently, and I came to realise there was a clear link between the ontology of the two. In Brian Kane’s book Sound Unseen he discusses the ontology of acousmatic sound as the being of the gap – that for sound to be experienced as acousmatic the listener must be experiencing a gap between the source and cause of a sound and the experience of its effect. In my reading of trauma theory, I could also see that trauma, too, could be defined by the experience or being of a gap – where there is a spacing between the event of the trauma and the experience of its effect (i.e. the emotions, flashbacks etc.). I think this makes acousmatic sound an interesting medium to explore the experiential impact of trauma. The way I can think through sound in an acousmatic context feels more connected to the way the mind orders and engages with traumatic memory.
Cyclic Defrost: What’s the latest thing that blew your mind?
Thembi Soddell: Donna Tartt’s writing. I read The Goldfinch earlier this year and now I’m on to The Secret History (and by “read” I mean listen to the audiobook – her books translate especially well to this medium). She writes juicy, page turning books that delve into the grey areas of human psychology and morality, which are areas of fascination for me. She is also brilliant at writing detail, so I become completely immersed in the story’s world while listening.
Cyclic Defrost: And the latest great piece of music that you’ve heard?
Thembi Soddell: I just revisited Scott Walker’s album, The Drift, and it once again blew my mind. Within my PhD research I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of conveying psychological narrative through metaphor and abstraction, and Scott Walker does this brilliantly.
This is a part of an interview with Thembi Soddell that was originally published in the second issue of Soundest Zine, limited to 100 copies.
You can find Love Songs here.