Amanda Irarrázabal’s Bass is an Entire World

Photo by Rodrigo Vázquez

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There’s something so incredibly satisfying about a good solo bass record. When I first heard Amanda Irarrázabal’s Desprendimiento, I knew she was an artist I needed to learn more about. There’s something about the way she plays her instrument that is filled with emotion and curiosity, but her technical ability allows her to create otherworldly expressions that, at times, seem impossible. 

Outside of her solo work, Irarrázabal has done numerous memorable collaborations, most recently on RAYAS with gabby fluke-mogul. Her project, La Corporación, with Cecilia López and Cecilia Quinteros is essential listening. The further down the rabbit hole I went with Irarrázabal’s work, the more I wanted to know how she arrived at her approach and practice. This interview was done earlier in April. 

Amanda Irarrázabal can be found through her website and BandcampRAYAS is out now.

I guess the first thing is how have you been holding up these last few years?

It has been difficult, times of change, in my case the pandemic just came together with my decision to return to live in Chile… I was living in Mexico City for two years, and I had already decided to return to Santiago. With the beginning of the pandemic, I had to bring forward my trip a couple of months, seeing that the situation was going to get worse to move later.

And here the quarantine was very strict, with a curfew, and a very delicate climate that was already coming from el estallido social (the social outbreak [in Chile] of 8/10/2019)… so the connectivity from streaming, distance projects, and some classes were what in my case helped me to stay afloat.

Okay, so I always love to hear about early music memories and get an idea of how people got started down their current paths in music. What are some of your earliest memories of music from when you were young that have stuck with you through the years?

I guess the first sounds that I’m aware of that have resonated with me from a very young age is the sea. And on the other hand, I think I was lucky that my parents listened to a lot of music and it was very diverse! I remember dancing wildly with my father with Jimi Hendrix’s guitars, listening to Bach, Victor Jara, Violeta Parra, Palmenia Pizarro, Cuco Sanchez, and Satie with my mother… I feel very grateful to have had those experiences since I was a child!

When did you first start playing an instrument and what motivated you to do it? Did you start on bass?

No, my first instrument was the piano, my older sister started to study this instrument, I was 8 years old, and I really liked listening to her, and I started to play by ear what she was studying… then my parents put me in classes too. I studied until I was 13. Then at 17, I started playing electric bass, and at 19 the double bass.

You were born in Chile and you’re based in Santiago now, right? How did your environment and growing up in Chile influence your creative thinking?

I come from perhaps the last generation that had to live under dictatorship. When I was 7 years old, Pinochet left power. I remember very well having participated in some protests at the end of the dictatorship, to which my parents took me. I could say that we still resent the climate of fear that was installed in my country during 17 years of dictatorship, although fortunately it is passing, and I think we are now in a better moment, with hope and new airs. I lived 8 years in Argentina, and then 2 years in Mexico, and I think that this need to leave has a lot to do with this feeling of stagnation, of difficulty for development, especially if you are looking for new things. This mixed with the impotence that comes from being in a country where the power is so installed that it goes over everyone’s head, to an unusual and shameful level.

 I’m really drawn to the way you play because you don’t sound like any other bassists to my ear. I was listening to Desprendimiento the other day and thinking about how it’s such an incredible mix of these almost stark, desolate atmospheres, but there’s a lot of incredibly technical playing too, yet all of it has a real emotion to it. I think that last part is what always draws me in the most, but I wonder what you think of as the most central aspects of how you play and how you approach the bass?

On a daily basis, I try to maintain my technical base that comes from having studied a few years of “classical” music, and that gives me foundations for playing with the bow, which then I guess I disintegrate almost completely… I think there is a lot in my playing that comes from the practical experience I’ve had over the years, and having the focus on taking apart patterns, and established forms. By this I mean the approach I have to the instrument, the freedom I try to give myself to sing with it, to be a rhythmic base if I want, to look for more noisy sonorities, extended techniques, but that I have never studied… you could say that especially when it comes to improvising, and using my instrument in an “experimental” way, I am totally self-taught. By this I mean that I play extended techniques, but nobody taught them to me. I don’t know the names of the things I do, they come out when I feel necessary to get to what I want to express, and listen.

I like to think of my instrument as a complete world, through which I travel in different ranges, heights, sinuosities, climates, plains, volcanoes…

And obviously, you don’t just play bass, you have a lot of other pieces to your musical practice, but I want to ask about using your voice. Sometimes you are a singer – like “No en Palabras” on CAUDAL – but then there’s also the more visceral use of your voice like “Termómetro.” What do you like most about singing and using your voice in these various ways? I love hearing the huge range you’re able to use.

Thank you! I think just like with the double bass, I like the idea of having all the resources at hand that I feel I need for the music I’m making; I like singing melodies as much as I like the ripping screams or air sounds and the myriad of textures that can be achieved… I feel like I’m in the process of still exploring my voice to get to do everything I’d like to, there I go.

While I’m thinking about CAUDAL, that’s another great solo record, but it’s very different from Desprendimiento in that there are a lot of components like voice, modular synthesizer, etc – it almost feels like a ‘full band’ record. How did you develop the ideas that led to this record and what were some of the challenges you dealt with in making it?

I’ve been writing songs for several years, but I used to play them with a band, and at one point, a bit tired of what it means to bring a group of people, production, and all the things around the music itself, I decided to try to do a solo set with that music for a concert I was invited to. I found myself with the elements I had to play: the double bass, the effects, the modular synthesizers, and the voice. And I started trying out what would work for each song. It was very rewarding, it led me to a simplicity that I think I was unconsciously looking for. I like what it generates to sometimes play a song alone with a bass line and let the space between it and my voice be filled by the imagination, as much as just valuing it as it is, as a whole. Because also the double bass doesn’t have a virtuosic role in this music, it doesn’t pretend to fill the spaces in a normal song that would have more instruments playing. I really like to sustain with little… and also to use synthesizers to achieve textures, atmospheres, and sometimes something like amorphous bases.

You’ve also done a lot of collaborations over the years and so many with other artists I have a lot of affection for and I wanted to ask about a few of those. You were in La Corporación with Cecilia Lopez and Cecilia Quinteros. How did you all start playing together and are there any future plans to play and record again?

I love and admire both Cecilias very much. I have known them for several years now, from the time I lived in Buenos Aires. The two albums we released are from concerts we gave there… now we are in different countries and I really don’t know if and when we will play together again, but I would love to!

And of course, most recently is the album RAYAS with gabby fluke-mogul. I love how the way you each approached your instruments worked in tandem during that session. It’s such a great combination of the different styles playing off each other and then also coming together to form new ideas and approaches. Absolutely fantastic. Where did the idea for RAYAS come from and what was the experience like for you?

As a result of the trip I made last year to New York, I contacted Kevin Reilly from Relative Pitch Records to see if I could manage a concert there, and he agreed and proposed I play a duet with gabby. I didn’t know their work, and I loved what they do. It was a beautiful encounter, I feel that we understood each other in a very natural way as if the music came out by itself, a beautiful and intense dialogue between two instruments, two players, and two heads that worked as if they knew each other for a long time.

The concert was recorded thanks to Kevin by Randy Thaler. And listening to it after a while we were very much in agreement that we wanted to make that music into an album.

More generally, what is it about collaboration that you so enjoy and is so important to your own playing and continued learning?

I think the best way for me to communicate with the outside world is by playing, and especially by improvising. I really enjoy collaborating with other musicians, generating a conversation in which sincerity can come out in such a beautiful way for my taste. Listening, proposing, both the possibility of the homogeneous and the heterogeneous, taking a risk in complicity with the other person(s).

And with respect to my way of playing and continuous learning, I could say that what I feed on most is to have my senses as open as possible to have a good palette when playing… I consider myself quite instinctive and observant; I process what interests me to have it as a tool when creating…

With the sounds, and music that interests me, as well as the visual and literary and the environment in which I find myself. Also to keep myself in a good balance within my own parameters between the technical and the visceral… also the error and the clumsiness, which in many opportunities lead me to places that are very interesting and inspiring for me to develop ideas.

Lastly, what is coming up for the rest of this year? Any new music on the way we should expect?

It’s coming up very well this year!

In June the album called “Fauces” will be released as a duo with violinist Miriam Den Boer Salmón, which we recorded in Amsterdam when I was touring there in 2019. It will be released by 577 records from NY.

In August I will release an album on cassette called Grips on Tripticks Tapes, also from NY, a duet with double bassist Nat Baldwin, a record of a concert that happened last year in NY, and just like RAYAS, the music flowed in a very nice way and was very well recorded by Lester St Louis.

I have also been working on a project that Bella invited me to, a musician from Brazil, with her and Inés Terra we have been making music from a distance based on dreams, and that work will be released in November.

And about travels, in August I will go to Mexico City where I am sure many good things will happen, I have several projects there, and I am composing now for a new project that has me very excited, which is called Solar Trepidante, which I have that is a concert in which there will be only instruments of low frequency.

I am also waiting for the confirmation of a trip to Chicago, which would be the second part of a beautiful project that started in Mexico, an exchange between improvising musicians from CDMX with others from Chicago, … and there is a possibility that I will play in Valencia and Berlin at the end of the year, but it is not sure yet.

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