Mecha/Orga, aka Yiorgis Sakellariou is a sound artist/composer from Greek, currently living in England. He has done CD and virtual releases, composed music for theatre and film, lead workshops and concerts, and since 2004 he has curated the label Echomusic.
The palette of sound he presents is really wide, where the use of field recordings is a must. His works are often mysterious, shaped in profound ways, using a particular way of blending all kind of materials and recordings characterized with a very special criteria around texture and continuity. Anyway, better than me talking about that, is Yiorgis, who kindly accepted me to ask some questions about his work and way of listening and working with sound:
Hey Yiorgis, could you tell us how you get started with sound and how your connection with it has evolved through the years?
Ever since I was a little child I was attracted by the surrounding sounds and all the time I was listening to and imitating them. The washing machine while working, the sound of the car being driven on a bumpy road, my younger brother when he was making his first baby sounds. I also remember sounds that I have never really heard. When reading Homer’s Iliad, the description of the epic battles of Troy was generating the most powerful noise in my head and imagination. In my early teens it felt natural to start playing music. For many years I studied in the conservatory, guitar and oud (a type of middle eastern lute), and since high school I was forming bands with which I was playing my own songs. At that time I started developing my interest in the actual texture of the sounds and not only in the rhythmic, harmonic and melodic context of the music. I remember I was experimenting with a borrowed delay pedal, creating ambiances and noises with my guitar. However, I started doing more methodical work in 1999 when I bought a synthesizer and a bit later a computer. With the use of that technology, my random experiments were becoming completed and recorded compositions. A couple of years after that I made my first recordings of environmental sounds. Mostly I wanted to use them as additional sonic material for my electronic compositions but fascinated by the variety of sounds and excited by the activity of recording in the field, it was not long before I started composing using environmental sounds as the exclusive sonic material. In a way, I returned to my childhood’s mindset. I am getting immediate inspiration from my environment and reveal a sonic word filtered through my ears and memories. Back then my tool was basically my voice but now it is replaced by microphones, recorders, computers, speakers and mixers. I guess the older kids get, the more toys they need.
I wonder how do you relate your work on short films and theater with field recording and composing…
For theatre, videos and film music or sound design I am using any sound source imaginable, not necessary field recordings. Acoustic instruments, vocals, samples, synthesizers, sinewaves and other computer generated sounds, anything that fits better with the images of a film or the action of a play. Of course, many times field recordings work great but almost always I process them. Untreated field recordings within a visual or theatrical context usually work more like “sound effects” rather than musical elements. When working with a director I am setting aside my personal philosophy on sound and I am using music in a way that deepens his or her vision of the work. Music is not autonomous in these situations, it is used in the narration of a story or to accompany an image. Therefore it must often be discreet and always effective, according to the demands and the structure of the work and also must never overshadow the overall result.
Could you talk us what led you to work on Echomusic and how’s your interest and curatorial process with it?
Back in 2003 I was visiting the small, independent record stores in the centre of Athens and I discovered the underground and DIY Greek labels. Their mentality and ethics inspired me to start curating my own. At first basically I wanted to release only my music but with the encouragement and support of Themistoklis Pantelopoulos (the curator of the label Triple Bath) I started releasing albums of other musicians. Nowadays, I consider Echomusic a platform for sharing adventurous music. I think what I enjoy the most is the communication I establish with the contributing artists. Furthermore, I consider it an honor when a musician trusts me to share his work with the public.
In an interview for kulturterrorismus one year ago you talked that some time ago you decided to stop releasing CD-R releases at Echomusic and you like the idea of releasing stuff over the Internet only. I wonder how has been the response to it. How is that experiment going and the experiences you’ve had with the latest releases towards that decision? Do you think it was a great choice after all?
Until 2011 Echomusic albums were released on CD-R limited editions. That year I moved to Lithuania but I wanted to continue publishing music. Primary it was for practical reasons that Echomusic was turned into a net label, releasing albums only online but it was not an easy decision. I asked fellow artists how they feel about online music and what are the pros and cons on a practical, aesthetic and ethical level. Sound quality, playback conditions and listening habits, cost, availability and prestige of the release; everything is negotiated and questioned upon. I still haven’t reached a safe conclusion but I enjoy the debate about the issue. There are musicians that hesitate to make the jump to cyberspace and do not consider online releases as ‘real’. There are net labels like Impulsive Habitat that have established a status and attract wide public attention but undeniably there is a strong chance that a net-only release can go unnoticed and lost into the internet’s ocean of information. On the other hand, the extra effort, and money spent by a label to publish, for example, a vinyl release perhaps shows bigger trust in the work and a devotion to its promotion. Vinyl seems to be the most commercial format these days. However, besides having restrictions such as the limited available duration (very often those 20 plus minutes available at each side is just not enough time) also adds a value to the release that may possibly be false and misleading, shifting the focus and importance from the actual music to the material that it is played back from. Besides, a vinyl release is usually quite expensive and the limits between a devoted collector and an elitist consumer can be blurry. In the end, I think what matters is not the format but the actual music and the impact it makes. I really doubt that a genuine music lover and enthusiast will deliberately ignore and look down upon a release just because it is not published on a physical format. We all just need to adjust to the new conditions of distributing and listening to music. There are 15 online releases, published by Echomusic. That is a rather small number but still a good reason to make me feel satisfied about my decision.
Talking about your personal process, what is the manipulation you use to like to do in a recording. I mean, not necessarily what techniques or methods you like to work with, but the way you use to shape materials. I know you have a very wide perspective towards this, but is maybe there are some kind of perspective towards aesthetics of manipulation and/or composition?
I don’t think I have a certain aesthetic approach on sound manipulation or compositional methods. The aesthetic values of my music are embodied in the final outcome, the finished work. When I compose, I start from intuition but I combine it with a devotion to structure. The compositional process includes critical decisions but they are not taken within a strict set of aesthetic rules. Listening is also a big part of the procedure, I always trust my ears and I’m letting the sounds “speak” for themselves and dictate the progression and paste of the piece.
So you like to play in complete dark in order to create some specific kind of experiences for perception. I wonder what is behind that decision and what have you obtained with that, talking about the experiences you’ve had both personally and with your audiences.
Sound is a ghost and our eyes need not to see in order for the ears to listen therefore total darkness serves several purposes. The lack of visual distractions intensifies the focus on sounds, their shapelessness and ethereal aspect thus inviting the audience in a realm of awareness and alert, challenging them to invent their own cause and meaning in what they are listening to. Any light in the room would reveal and expose misleading information about equipment being used, speaker settings and other technical specifications therefore rationalizing the outcome and limiting its potential which for me is not about the objects and how they might be producing sound but about how we listen to what is heard. When I play in complete darkness my concerts are much more powerful and since my goal is to make the audience’s experience as intense as possible, I always wish for this condition to be achievable.
Last year you did a great collaboration with Roel Meelkop for Monochrome Vision. Could you tell us how was the collaboration process and how did you shaped such interesting compositions from those kind of sources?
The initial idea was to collaborate and compose a piece with environmental sounds which we would record in Rotterdam, Roel’s home town. Before traveling to the Netherlands I received an email from Roel telling me that he wanted to work with the analog synthesizers that are available at Worm studio, the place were we did our residency. The idea of experimenting with analog synthesizers and combining them with field recordings was challenging and intriguing. For the first couple of days we recorded on several locations around the city such as the harbor, a half-finished parking space, the pedestrian tunnel under the river and a building under construction. Pretty soon we had a lot of material and felt confident to proceed to the next phase, the experimentation with the synthesizers. Again, we spend sometime recording samples from the machines, Worm studio has a great variety of synths available, and many interesting sounds came out. After we gathered all the material we started working on the piece’s structure. Since we had arranged to perform in concerts right after the residency, the piece has a lot of real time manipulations. We played it for several times in the studio and through performing we finalized all the details. It was quite natural to blend analog sounds with filed recordings since we were constantly trying different combinations and were always very focused and concentrated on the work. We spend a lot of time listening over and over again the sequences we were preparing and then talking about how they work and what changes we should or should not make. It was a great pleasure to work with Roel and I was very excited when Dmitry Vasiliev announced to us that he wants to release our work on Monochrome Vision.
Another release from you I’m curious to talk about is 40:31, which you published at Impulsive Habitat. I find it very interesting mostly because of the length and the way you work with progressions and dynamics, since each track drives you in a singular way and has a very peculiar sonority which creates an amazing acousmatic experience from where you can even start to go through a lot of possibilities of what those sounds could be from. Could you tell us what was your approach and process?
It is not my intention to attempt to recreate a realistic experience and present a type of audio documentary about a location. I would encourage the listeners to discover the inner world of sounds and appreciate them from an acousmatic perspective. Otherwise there can be a risk of reducing an immersive experience into a pointless exoticism, a shallow “hear-and tell” game, spotlighting on what we hear but without really listening. The sounds used in ’40:31′ were recorded in late 2011 at several locations in Lithuania. Nonetheless, the album is not about how Lithuania sounds but about the transitory tension and mystery created from the listener’s sonic awareness in combination with what is coming out of the speakers and how it unfolds into the listening room.
Although sounds have an abstract nature, the structure of ’40:31′, and of all of my compositions in general, is concrete and methodical. Structure drastically shapes passing time. A detailed and thoughtful compositional form, with its arranged passages, alternations and dynamic shifts makes marks in time and consequently leaves traces in the memory of the listener. I want to place the listener in a condition of awareness and alert and I am not interested in creating a calm sonic environment where sounds float undisturbed and the audience can meditate. It is important to point out that structure is not used to provide a finished and calculated result but rather it is an attempt to express the absolute, the sublime and what lies beyond the form.
Do you recently published a great composition in our World Listening Compilation release. It has a lot of variation and some wonderful mixture of sounds. I know you did it during a residency at Poland, so could you tell us what did you do there and how you developed the piece from those recordings?
I was artist-in-residency in Gdansk, invited to work on Sound Around, a collaboration project between the cities of Klaipeda, Kaliningrad and Gdansk. The main focus was on collaborations between participating artists and the sharing of cultural experiences. I met and worked with great people during those 10 days. Naturally, I took the opportunity to make recordings around the city and gather new sonic material which later I used on my World Listening Day composition. Although the sounds are not processed my main compositional approach remains intact. The progression of the piece is not made with filtering, over layering or volume adjustments but by placing diverse or similar sounds in a linear form, according to an acoustic coherence. The result is not a sonic post card from Gdansk but a piece of music that evokes a certain atmosphere and brings forth a world of sound.
Talking about works where your field recordings are not radically manipulated, do you have any specific way of looking at the context or the spot where the captures took place or are you more interested in an experience of “sound only”, or both?
Firstly, a “sound only” experience is not something as simple as it sounds. It has a very strong concept and requires a lot of attention and devotion from both composer and audiences. It is not passive or unbiased but a very profound and energetic notion. The idea of music as sound per se is not a neutral statement. This “only” that is contained in sound-as-such is actually a very intense exploration of life’s mysteries and irrationalities.
Recording in a new, unfamiliar place is always a very strong personal motivation to compose and the captured sounds are significant in my memory. I am aware of their source and original context but I do not impose any of non-sonic characteristics into the music. Sometimes I hear that we need to expand the reduced listening discourse and add political and social dimensions in sound. I believe that people make this claim in an attempt to hide a lack of faith in the power of their music. It is a confession that sound, in the way they use it, is not sufficient for an intense experience. Usually work that follows this claim is impressive technically and it is perfectly backed up conceptually but does not have a deeper transcendental dimension.
Is there a specific way of listening for you? How do you think we could listen “better”? Also, do you find any difference on listening while recording and while not doing it?
No, I don’t really have a specific way, I just try to focus on sound as much as possible. I could not suggest to anyone how to listen, that is quite subjective. Listening, as an autonomous activity, is a deep and personal action and it can become an incredibly powerful and ecstatic experience. Recently I was amazed by the painting Beethoven by Lionello Balestieri. It depicts a violinist and a pianist playing in a small room in front of a handful of people. These five people in the audience do not just stay quiet and listen; they are in exaltation towards the spiritual realm, individually participating in a sacred ceremony. That’s an incredibly profound dimension of listening and I admit it’s a condition which I aim to reach as a musician and listener.
There are differences when listening while recording and while not. Firstly, I am not recording all the time. On the contrary, there are numerous occasions where I’m ignoring my urge to record an interesting sound and I just sit and enjoy listening to it. Besides being pleasant, that is an extremely useful activity for my artistic practice. I’m always learning how to listen, I constantly need to, and must, improve that skill. On the other hand, to record requires making several objective and compositional decisions. The location, the time, the choice of microphones, their positioning, all these are included in the early, but extremely essential, stage of a composition. In other words, when I am recording, I’m already composing.
Finally, could you recommend us some sounds, places, field recording releases, labels, films, books and/or artists you personally think our community would enjoy?
I would not feel comfortable to name fellow artists or make a list of interesting labels and releases. Firstly that list would be too long and secondly I’m afraid I will forget to mention a lot of fascinating musicians and works. However, since I’ve been reading a bit lately, I feel I can reference some books that I found really interesting. They are not necessary related to field recordings but they gave me a great perception on sound, silence and listening.
Toru Takemitsu – Confronting silence: selected writings
Beautiful texts, perfectly reveal Takemitsu’s artistic thoughts. Very valuable reading.
George Michelsen Foy – Zero decibels: the quest for absolute silence
Writter and journalist George Michelsen Foy gets too exposed to bursting New York noise, gets fed up with it and starts searching for the exactly opposite: total silence. Very interesting to read how an author describes silent conditions and thoughts on quietness.
David Hendy – Noise: A human history of sound and listening
The role of sound and listening throughout human history. I enjoyed very much reading about cavemen, shamans in northeast Russia and the ritual aspect of listening to Beethoven.
David Toop – Sinister resonance
OK, maybe that is a rather obvious proposal. Nonetheless, Toop’s books have been a great inspiration to me and my music, much more than many albums or concerts that I have listened to.
Pierre Schaeffer – In search of a concrete music
Yes, another apparent suggestion. However, Schaeffer’s writing is very personal and inviting, especially his journals. It was very interesting to read about his frustration and failures when he was inventing musique concrete.