Postcard Static: An Interview With No Translation

Emma Palm’s No Translation project first came across my radar thanks to Matthew Sage’s fantastic longform streaming series last summer. Her performance was captivating in its gentleness and vulnerability. After that, I began digging into her work on Bandcamp and immediately purchased her first Music For Postcards release. The visual element to her work is striking in a different way, the color palettes and imagery less subdued but still intimately connected to her music. In combination, it has a certain magic to it and leaves a lasting impact.

What are some of your earliest memories of music and sound? Memories you have where something in your brain kind of clicked and it sparked your interest in sound?

I remember being really captivated by the beauty and excitement of music at a young age, but I didn’t realize that explicitly. Growing up, there were a lot of kids my age or older in the neighborhood and we would always hang out as a group on the street or in my garage listening to music, dancing, and playing every night we could. I had a lot of fun then, and I think that first introduced me to the joy and color that music can bring in life. I also went to a lot of concerts in high school and would take a lot of trips driving from the suburbs to go to LA’s Amoeba with my friends. And I had an upright piano at the home I grew up in and that was the first instrument I learned and started to compose with. I still love the sound of a piano and the way that it feels to move your fingers across it. 

It wasn’t until later in life when an ex let me borrow their field recorder and I started to learn to pay close attention to the sounds around me. Environmental sounds, natural textures, and everyday moments and people. That was the start of me being more interested in the details and possibilities of sound.

When did you start learning and playing music yourself and what motivated you to take that step?

I started piano lessons when I was around six till some of high school and also did marching band and drumline (playing a midi keyboard synth and an SP404 sampler lol). I wasn’t always excited about taking lessons and practicing growing up, but it gave me some background to compose my own music. I would mostly just write short melodies, riffs, and sing too. I was very private about it though and would only play when I was home alone, which was often. It was a time for me to experiment, play, and be an outlet for me to express my emotions since I was a very emotional teenager (still can be haha). Even though that was something I really enjoyed doing, it never clicked with me that music was something I liked so much that I could explore and pursue it further. I kind of stopped after high school when I didn’t have a piano with me anymore. 

So years passed where I barely touched an instrument. I did get back into it eventually, but it wasn’t until I had a major scooter accident when I was living in Taiwan, where I strongly felt the need to play more music. While healing from jaw surgery and a fractured foot, I couldn’t do much, so I had a lot of time to reflect and music was a big part of that healing process. Both listening to it and playing my little ukulele that I traveled with. It reignited that interest in me to the point that I had to do something about it. From there, I spent a few years living nomadically while teaching myself as much as I could about music, sound, synthesis, etc. It took time but eventually, I started feeling comfortable enough to release music and play live. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m happy to be experiencing this journey.

One thing that always gets me about your music is that it has this transportive effect to it, where I feel like it creates this world of its own when I really stop and listen. I’m curious what your process is like and how you approach composing new pieces – do you have certain ideas or imagery in mind or is it something totally different?

The approach can vary. I have field recordings that I like to improvise and experiment with. I love organic moments and textures of life..improvising along with them becomes a kind of meditation and reflection for me. So a lot of times I use those as a starting point and I see where it goes from there.

Sometimes I have a specific theme, mood, thought that I want to explore and that will be my point of reference. I’ll also just play and experiment with my setup until I make something that feels right and then expand upon that. But generally, I don’t like to plan anything out too much. I like to leave room for experimentation and play. A lot of what I create reveals itself as it’s being made.

Why did you decide to call your solo project ‘No Translation’?

When I started making music and beginning this project, I was traveling, moving through, and living among a variety of languages, cultures, people, and environments. It was a beautiful experience. But I often found myself struggling to find the right words or the accurate translation for whatever deeper, nuanced, emotion or experience I wanted to share or express with others. Even in English, I found that words could be limiting. 

The term “no translation” came upon me when I was on a train ride in Germany. It came from an acceptance that sometimes there is no perfect translation. Not just in terms of translating between languages, but communicating and connecting to the world in general. Accepting the limitations of words, opened me up to all other possibilities of communication…through sounds, through art, through movements and gestures…

I find language fascinating though, but it’s only one form of communication. The varieties and possibilities of how communication can look/feel/sound like are what really interest me.

I love the visual element to all your releases – well, and your art in general. How did you first get into making art and where did the idea of doing the ‘postcard releases’ come from? Those have been some of my favorite releases the last few years and I just love the concept generally.

I am self-taught when it comes to visual art. It’s another thing that I really liked at a young age, but didn’t realize it was something I could do. I did a lot of collaging when I was a kid and would do a lot of various crafts. During the time I started making music as an adult, I got into photography, digital collages, drawing, and video. 

As for the postcards, I got the idea during the beginning of the pandemic. I wanted a simple way to share music in the form of a physical object that would be easy to make, send, and receive. A simple way to connect and share art in a time of collective isolation/separation. 

The music from the most recent postcard release, How Soon Is A Memory, has this feeling to me of stillness and recollection. It’s like each section of the song is a vignette about a specific memory or experience, and the incorporated field recordings really add such a personal layer to it where it brings the listener into these specific moments – especially in the early part with the various voices and conversations taking place. A couple of things I am curious about – first when you’re incorporating field recordings into your work, do you have specific feelings or ideas you’re trying to express with them or is there some other thought process you work through?

With How Soon Is A Memory, I made the music shortly after the recordings. At the time, I was thinking about how certain memories can feel very distant and far away when they happened a long time ago, but they can also be from just yesterday, this morning, or two minutes ago. That relationship between memory and time is very interesting to me. So in this piece and a lot of the field recordings I use are about how time can be ambiguous and memories of place, time, people, and events can blend, blur, and transform in their meaning.

It starts with the act of field recording itself. When I hear something that interests, inspires, sparks curiosity, or makes me want to remember the sounds of that place and time, I’ll start recording. That practice of turning on the recorder instantly puts me in a place of being a more active listener, and I remember those moments really vividly when I listen to them later on. I’m often struck by how the recordings put me in two places at once. Like I’m in the present moment, listening and seeing the things that are happening in the moment. But I’m also listening to another time, put into another place, remembering the past in my head. It’s that sense of duality that’s really interesting. And as I use some recordings multiple times, the memories with those specific recordings grow and the feelings and connection to the sounds and memories shift and expand. Using a bunch of different recordings and adding effects or processing them also blurs that sense of time and place and the personal connection to them evolves and grows. I find that to be a really interesting quality and phenomena about including personal recordings in the music I make and it’s often what I’m thinking about when I use them.

This piece, in particular, also has this layer to it of searching for connections and shared experience, something I’ve thought about a lot in the past 18 months when it comes to the power of music to bring people together – both physically and emotionally. How are you thinking about the ideas of shared experience in sound and music and its importance these days? Has that thinking shifted at all in the past year? 

I think the same sentiment goes for a lot of other people but I’ve really realized how important live shows are. Live music is such an experience, and just listening to recorded music and watching a live stream really doesn’t inspire or facilitate connection in the same way that hearing/ seeing something live does. Being at a place and time with other people to have a shared sonic experience is really special because music can be so transportive and when you’re with others, it’s really like you’re going on a journey together. Plus you get those chance opportunities to meet new people or have a totally new experience you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

But also, being alone and listening to or playing music in solitude has reminded me of a more innate connection. This year I’ve thought a lot about the Buddhist concept of the interconnectedness of all things. How, for example, a chair is not just a chair. Someone came up with that idea a long time ago and it’s been recreated and improved and designed in many ways over many years by many people. And the wood and materials come from other living and evolving things. It’s not just an object alone. It’s inherently connected by people, history, and living parts of the earth. Its existence reverberates and is connected to so many aspects of the universe. So with music, instruments, and sound, I’ve been realizing and meditating on this inherent interconnectedness more and more. 

Are there any specific moments or memories you remember where music or sound really helped you connect with someone or even some part of yourself in a way that surprised you?

The most recent and strongest connection over sound has been with my mom. We’ve had a difficult relationship and haven’t seen each other in over four years since she lives in Taiwan and I’m in the US. But we’ve slowly gotten closer over the long-distance phone calls and eventually started exchanging field recordings of parts of our daily life last year. My mom didn’t really know anything about field recording but she really likes to make them and continues to send me recordings. I miss my mom and I miss Taiwan, so it’s been special to hear her voice, the sounds of where she lives, works, and walks around in Taipei. It’s helped me feel closer when we’ve been so far away. 

I actually first heard your music during Matthew Sage’s livestreams last summer. I really loved the performance you put together. How did that opportunity come together?

Matthew Sage reached out to me to perform and I was happy to do it. I remember starting to feel a little tired of the live streaming thing, but I had a new setup I was excited to use and it came together pretty nicely. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

So far, you’ve mainly released shorter works – single tracks, EPs, a couple longer pieces on their own… what are you working on these days? Any plans for an album?

Yes! I have an album that’s finished and will be out later this year, around the end of fall. It’s a really personal album involving the field recordings exchanged between me and my mom in Taiwan. I’m also working on another project involving the quqin, an ancient Chinese instrument that I recently picked up. I have more tracks on compilations coming out and a lot of projects and ideas for the future. 

What are you looking forward to most in the coming months and into next year?

The album release and hopefully more live shows!

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