Interview by Ken Farmer
Merriweather Post Pavilion’s OPUS 1 kicks off next week (it’s free! RSVP now!) and we have another fantastic artist interview to get you excited for what’s to come. Doron Sadja is a composer, curator and artist who experiments heavily with light and sound. His piece, the Color Field Immersion, will be one of the many amazing things you can experience OPUS 1. Dive right in and then get ready for one of the coolest weekends of your life.
Looking at your work, it is both heavily audio and heavily visual. Is there a hierarchy of your art forms? Are you first a musician, and next an artist who works with light and space? How do visual media inform your compositions, or vice versa?
I studied electronic music as an undergrad at Oberlin College but it was kind of a mixed media major. It was in the music conservatory and it always had a visualel ement. I definitely come more from a musical perspective my projects really vary in terms of how I work: whether it’s music first or visuals first, or whether the concept is more audio or more visual.
I never studied visual art but I arrived at doing visuals through music. I’ve always felt that the way we perceive sound is so contextual. It’s so influenced by all of our other senses, by what our surroundings are. There are obvious reasons why one sound might sound different when played in a club, or in a church, or a gymnasium, where the acoustics are all different. But I think the way that we feel music, the way that we interpret music, is so heavily dependent on our environment. Having this feeling when I was performing is what led me to want to control more of the visual aspect of the performance. It varies project to project which is more dominant or which I focus on more.
Can you walk us through a bit of your creative process? Where do you find inspiration? How do you do research, and how do you go about envisioning your ideas?
Every project can be really different in the path to discovery. I’m definitely somebody who works obsessively. I like to stay at home and work a lot, and most of my pieces will just come out of play -finding a material on the street, or putting something in a random order, or trying out a new sound. It’s a lot of playing around with things and discovering what can come out of it. What are the inherent qualities of a sound that you find? Or the ways you can work with a found material?At some point something comes out of it that you don’t expect and it takes you down a path that wasn’t premeditated. A lot of the work that I do starts that way.
But sometimes there are more conceptual ideas about fracturing light or the spectrum of sound, for instance.Then that turns into playing with materials. Ina lot of ways I‘m like a collage artist. It’s all my own material, but there’s a lot of play and developing things and figuring out how to piece them together.
I’m also a bit of a nerd, so I do a lot of coding to build my own instruments. I like not having control over what I’m doing to a certain degree. I like some push back from the material that I’m working with. So I build instruments that have chaos built into them, whether it’s for sound or for visuals. I like to have so much stuff going on that I can’t possibly control it. I find so much inspiration by developing systems that I don’t understand or can’t control. I stumble on something and it speaks to me in a way and I build with it.
Your work seems to hint at synesthesia, or at least play with this idea. Is this something you experience?
It’s not something that I’ve experienced but it’s something that I definitely think about. With Color Field Immersion for instance, I’m thinking about how we react to colors or a frequency of sound and what kind of relationships I can create between them.
The first time I did Color Field Immersion I did it in a little gallery space in Berlin and it was an interesting experience. Insteadof doing one big performance, I had a whole week of performances and people could make one-on-one appointments with me. A stranger would come into the gallery and I’d do a 30-minute performance for them and then we’d spend 30 minutes talking. I responded so strongly to certain colors or textures or sounds and I wanted to try to figure out a way to develop a system and understand what colors worked the best. But I quickly found out from these talks that everybody had such radically different experiences, and that it was not worth trying to figure out a language for this. Rather it’s about developing things that I’m happy with and experimenting with them.
Hallucination is also something that shows up in a lot of your work. Where does this fascination stem from for you? Were you one of those kids who sat around rubbing his eyes until colors and sparks appeared?
I think hallucinations are something really special in general. You get to enter these states where you lose control and they’re so imaginative and creative and allow you to see the world in a different way. I went to a hippie school, you know. I think that psychedelic experiences change your life, but I don’t think that you necessarily need drugs to do that. There are a lot of different ways that you can manipulate or trick your mind, and Color Field Immersion is one of those.
I find that there’s something fun and playful about working this way. I come from a world of very serious electronic music and I feel that it’s so important to give people these overwhelmingly beautiful, immersive experiences. Beautiful not in the way that everything is pretty –beautiful could mean harsh noise –but in the sense that it gives people experiences that are completely otherworldly and unlike our normal life. I’m not sure if I really think of it as hallucination,but the idea of entering an alternative space is very exciting and really powerful. I used to release albums, but one of the reasons I stopped wanting to record music was that there’s so much music out there and we listen to so much of it on on the go –on our phones, our computers. Mean while there’s something so unique to a performance or an installation, something where you have to be there in the moment. That’s what these immersive hallucinatory experiences can give people. It’s something that they can’t do at home on their stereo or while listening to their iPhone on the subway. That’s what I find so exciting about performing.
Color Field Immersion makes use of the ganzfeld effect, where the brain essentially seeks to make sense of a minimally defined visual environment. Is there an equivalent to this in sound?
There is an equivalent to the ganzfeld effect in sound, actually, when you wear headphones and play white noise at a loud volume. White noise is the presence of all frequencies of the audible spectrum. It’s every frequency that you could ever hear, all at the same volume at the same time, so your brain is overloaded by hearing so much that after a period of time you don’t hear the noise anymore and you can start to hear melodies or voices. One of the things I always found fascinating about noise music is that it has such rich harmonic content, so much sonic material that it’s like a choose-your-own adventure. Even within harsh noise you can hear melodies and chords and things that may not actually be there, but because the spectrum is so rich and dense you can pick and choose.
How do you use sound to amplify this effect in Color Field Immersion?
There is a dynamic and a synchronization between the sounds and the lights when I perform. Some of it is built to fit together. But one of the things I like about working with light is that you can create rhythms with the light that aren’t present in the music, and it really changes the way that you hear the sound. Projecting visual patterns even with a drone sound creates a sense of movement to the drone. And it works the other way, too. Even though you’re aware that there’s a separation between the light and sound, it completely changes the way that you listen or the way that you see. It makes both levels so much richer when the connection between them is not as obvious.
We have so many senses and they’re all firing at the same time. In music school, all the experimental composers nerd out about Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total encompassing artwork,” which is a concept that resonates deeply with me. It’s not about creating a masterpiece but about dissolving everything. It’s cheesy to say that life is art, but there’s such a variety of experience in life and so many senses. My work is about figuring out how to manipulate each one to give a richer experience.
In your work you speak of the physicality of sound, and the way it interacts with space. Do you have a dream place you wish to play one day, because of its architectural or spatial qualities?
I don’t know if there’s a singular place. I find the way that sound interacts with space so fascinating. Big spaces can have very interesting acoustics, but really small spaces can too. I have been to a tiny reverberation room, where you sing one note and your voice continues for seven or eight seconds with this really rich reverberation. Recently I’ve performed in some nice old industrial spaces or chapels, and I find those really inspiring places to work. There was one place I went to in Jerusalem, a church in a little courtyard off the street where Jesus walked with the cross, I think. And this little church had the most incredible reverberation I’ve ever heard in my life. When you sing a note, you can’t tell when you stop singing because the reverb is so rich and pure and loud that your voice continues at the exact same volume after you stop singing.
How do you go about creating visuals for Color Field Immersion? How do you collaborate with your computer (or whatever tools your using) to create them?
I have hundreds of these patterns that I’ve made –a color gradient that slowly changes, or lines that move back and forth, or dots or firework animations. I try them out on myself at the studio to understand what kind of feeling they create. When I perform, I have a program that I use to move between the animations and I can layer them to create poly rhythms. Each animation can have elements that are sound reactive, too. In the performance, a lot is improvised –both the sound and the visuals. I have a loose score and often start with the same music, but the rest is basically improvised. When I’m on stage, I’m thinking about how I would feel to have those visuals on me, and I look at how they react to the sound. I like doing things live because it’s unique to that one experience.
Can you tell me a bit about Standing Waves, Falling Air? What was your inspiration for it? Where does the name come from?
That piece came out of a frustration with a performance I was working on, where kept having to do more and more proposals because, for one reason or another, things weren’t going to work out. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this material, but I found a kind of cheap plastic that painters use to cover the furniture in a house. I started playing with it and was initially just interested to see if I could project onto it. Bu when I opened it in my studio I realized that it had such an incredible way of moving, like a massive sail that just a little bit of wind could really excite. It just naturally looked like it was moving in slow motion and I fell in love with it.
I’m a big fan of strobe lights, too. They can give you hallucinations, they heighten the intensity of things and are very dramatic, but they also create a different sense of time. A strobe slows things down, and when you play with two different strobes in poly rhythm you can create these disjointed senses of movement and time. I loved the way the plastic itself felt like it slows down time, but I wanted to be able to manipulate the sense of time myself in synchronicity with the visuals, so that’s how the whole piece came together. Some of my pieces have a conceptual idea like the Color Field Immersion. Standing Waves, Falling Air doesn’t have much concept behind it; I just think it’s beautiful. The material is so sensual, and it’s just so much fun to play with and people respond to it.
A standing wave is this phenomenon that happens in sound, and also in water. Each room has a fundamental frequency –the resonant frequency of the room is dependent on its size, which can be calculated. If you play the right frequency, you can have a sound wave that travels through the room, bounces off a wall, and bounces back inverted. It then creates nodes in the room where you have complete silence, and other areas in the room where the sound is twice as loud. It’s almost like a magic trick. I just find it a really inspiring idea.The same technique is used in sonic levitation. They use ultrahigh frequencies in a grid of speakers, and they can move little objects by changing the frequencies.