Aqueous & Tactile: An Interview With Alexandra Spence

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Alexandra Spence’s latest for Room 40, Blue Waves, Green Waves, has a tactile quality to it buoyed by mesmerizing field recordings and engaging spoken word passages. The music comes in interconnected fragments that lithely trace an invisible path that is both felt and unknown. Dichotomies play out in unusual ways forming unexpected connections with an ever-changing world.

To experience Blue Waves, Green Waves in a different manner, Spence worked with Rachael Archibald who created a full-length video for the release. Using synthetic abstractions of light moments and water feelings, Archibald transforms these tangible compositions into otherworldly journeys. The effect is powerful as the two develop a combined visual and aural language that heightens the sonic expressions.

Blue Waves, Green Waves is out tomorrow, June 24, on Room 40. Pre-order the album HERE. Alexandra Spence can be reached via her website and Rachael Archibald can be reached via hers.

Before getting into the new record and this film by Rachael Archibald, I always like to go all the way back to the beginning. With that, can you tell me about some of your earliest memories of music and sound? Are there any experiences or songs that were formative at a young age and have stuck with you?

My dad is a jazz pianist and improviser – so I grew up in a house full of music. But also my dad would often comment on the sounds around us, one memory, for example, is of my dad cooking dinner, accidentally bumping a kitchen pan as he cooked with it, and then commenting on the resonance of the pan. I also grew up in a very inner city neighborhood underneath Sydney’s flight path. Growing up in this atmosphere, listening to my dad practicing the piano whilst lorikeets screeched in the bottlebrush tree outside the windows and planes flew overhead, sparked the beginnings of my interest in sound and in listening; and the beginnings of my attunement to the world of sound outside of what is conventionally musical.

From there, when did you start playing music and composing your own work? Was there a certain impetus for it?

I started music lessons at a young age, first piano, then clarinet, but I always knew I wanted to do my own thing, I didn’t want to play jazz like my dad, and performing classical clarinet music in the appropriate style stressed me out. Perhaps it’s similar for most people working within a niche or experimental field, but it took a long time for me to find my way to the music I wanted to make. In my early twenties, I traveled a lot, and I had a tiny microphone that I could plug into my iPod and make field recordings with. Also around this time I was obsessed with John Cage and fell in with Sydney’s improvised music scene, all of which were hugely formative for my interest in field recording and environmental sound, as well as in the spatial and temporal nature of sound itself. But I didn’t really commit to music or discover the sounds I wanted to make until my partner and I moved to Canada in 2013. There I enrolled in the MFA program at Simon Fraser University, discovered acousmatic and soundscape music, and began to experiment with DIY and analog electronics. 

At the start of 2016, I was asked to perform my first solo set at the brilliant but now-defunct series Destroy Vancouver. This invitation also marked the beginning of an important step in my career. I’d never really performed solo before, but had been dreaming of developing my practice in this way for years. It led me to the setup I have now – a mix of field recordings, no-input mixer, sine tones, amplified objects, tapeloops, etc.

I absolutely love this line in your bio, “she holds the belief that electricity might actually be magic.” What is it about electricity that you find so fascinating and magical?

When I talk about electricity I mean as a natural phenomenon, I’m not referencing energy politics or our problematic approaches to harnessing energy as a resource, creating electricity via burning fossil fuels, etc. But the simple fact that energy is just around us, and can be transformed into electricity, and that electrical energy can be turned into sound and vice versa – it kind of just blows my mind. Perhaps it’s a naïve statement from someone who hated physics at school, but I’ve been chatting with an astrophysicist recently for a project examining earth’s material relationship with space and the historic connections between space exploration and early electronic music, and I’ve been learning a bit more about electromagnetic energy, trying to wrap my head around it, and I remember bringing this up with Cor Fuhler, and he agreed, and Cor was a beautifully skilled and talented sound wizard. Oh, and my other validation source is the anime Mary and the Witches Flower by Ghibli offshoot Studio Ponoc where they literally state the same thing “electricity is a form of magic, you know”. A big part of my practice is the incorporation of live processes and phenomena – I am hugely interested in sound as phenomena, and the vibration and resonance that surrounds us in our daily lives, and this interest extends out to the magic of energetic phenomena. 

You did a brief mentorship with David Toop a few years back. How did that experience and learning from David challenge you and what impact did it have on your process or approach to composing?

Spending time with David in 2018 was hugely influential for me. It’s hard to articulate in what way, as these things are quite intangible. I had thought we might improvise together or that David might suggest music to listen to, but instead, we met up each week and simply chatted for several hours, and the media David did suggest to me were fictional novels such as Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. At the time I was quite hung up on academic distinctions and definitions – music vs sound vs noise, was I a musician or a sound artist, that kind of thing. I was also experiencing a lot of ecological grief and was trying to work out whether music-making was a meaningful contribution. David gently and generously encouraged me to find my own voice amongst it all. We also talked a lot about texture, I had (and still have) a strong interest in the relationships between material and sound, David had told me a story about visiting a Zen garden in the springtime and seeing a cherry blossom blooming above a black granite rock. The image of soft pink nestling the rough rock, how color and image can become aural, how the feeling of material (hand on sharp rock, hand against gentle flower) can be understood not through sound, but as sound – these thoughts strongly impacted my 2019 and 2021 Room40 releases.

This new record coming out on Room 40 soon, Blue Waves, Green Waves is such an aqueous album. Listening to it I feel as though I’m transported into another dimension where I’m able to explore all these facets of water that, until now, seem impossible. What is it that draws you to bodies of water and the sounds they make?

Growing up in Sydney, the ocean has always played a big role in my life. Some of my earliest memories are of the sea, my parents took me on regular beach camping trips from a very young age, in fact, my first memory is being put on my dad’s surfboard and pushed onto a wave. Unfortunately, he’d forgotten to undo the leg rope from his leg and so the memory is also a mild trauma – inhaling the salty water and spinning around in the wave as I was dumped and the board bounced backwards to him. But these childhood memories – befriending a stalk of seaweed and dragging it around with me for an entire summer holiday, peering into the aquatic terrain of rock pools, gently popping air bubbles in the sand with the ball of my foot, squeezing water from cunjevoi, touching brittle, curly sharks eggs, and transparent, wobbly jellyfish washed up on the shore – are very phenomenological. Then when I moved from Toronto to Vancouver the Pacific Ocean became a way to connect the place I was in to the place I was from. (I made my first buried tape work about this). Then during the pandemic, I took up ocean swimming with two of my closest friends, and this became a really important practice for me during the sad weirdness. So the ocean feels like a support network for me, and my relationship to it is a feeling. I wanted to capture this somehow. 

What surprised you the most when you were making this record?

The album came together really quickly, and I wasn’t expecting that. I had initially intended to release a different album when Lawrence asked if I wanted to release a quick EP as lockdown homework. So I paused the other album to re-work a longform track I’d written in 2020 ‘Blue waves, Green waves’. I had meant to turn it into two tracks only, but as I kept working on it, it kept unfolding. The very first track on the album came together very quickly through an improvisation on a Casio keyboard, by chance I layered it with a field recording and then decided to ad-lib text over top. It’s probably the quickest I’ve ever made something, yet somehow the album also feels more concentrated and refined for me. And perhaps also more tonal.

The video from Rachael Archibald – which is utterly fantastic – turns this music into an otherworldly spectacle. It really heightens the whole experience and makes it feel like you’ve built entirely new worlds from sound. First, I’m curious how you came to work with Rachael on this project? 

Rachael and I met at a pub in Brisbane through a friend of a friend. I was in town to bury tape loops along the Brisbane river for an upcoming exhibit and she let me bury one in her backyard. We bonded over a discussion including seed pod and mushroom suit burials, and I was instantly drawn to her unique art practice.

And second, how collaborative was the process with the video? Did you all come up with conceptual ideas and frameworks together, or is this more her interpretation of these sounds? It’s all quite remarkable and offers a different listening experience that almost makes it feel like two different albums. I love it.

It came together over a period of maybe six months. Rach did the video for the single ‘Blue waves’ first, as the music for the album was still developing at the time. I had suggested a mixture of 3D sculpting, stock film footage, and closed captions to visualize the concept for the album at the time – exploring my interest in bodies and their connection to water, specifically the spiritual, tactile aspects of the Pacific Ocean as framed through a reading of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. But I largely wanted Rachael to be free with the aesthetic and design it in a way that felt right to her. We chatted a lot about the concept in email and on the phone…

A.S: “The depictions of light, color, and sound within Woolf’s writing offer breath, movement, and sentience to non-human forms and objects. I’m interested in the ability of sound to animate and reimagine ‘non-sentient’ landforms and objects alike.”

Rachael asked me for images from the beach or water that she could integrate into the video to use as textures and reflections. 

R.A: “In another video, I used light reflections on the water as the images projected onto the 3D object.”

I had wanted to use some text as a way to illustrate the concept too, and Rach came up with the idea of this being written in my handwriting. I sent her a redacted version of Woolf’s the waves, where I had blacked out everything in the prologue sections except for references to light, color, sound, and the sea. 

R.A: “It reminded me of the junk in the ocean. Because everything is abstracted from the sentence it’s almost like a list of objects in the sea.”

We also chatted about our experiences of growing up on the east coast of Australia and the sensation of the beach and ocean.

R.A: “I grew up at the beach and there is a sense of blindness when I think about what the beach is. Unbearable brightness in a way that you almost can’t see.”

A.S: “I like how much of this process is about feeling and material and sensation – the light and the discomfort it can bring, as well as delirium. The sea spray and bubbles of waves – I love the fizzy sound when a big wave breaks overhead and you end up covered in foamy white water. And I’ve been thinking a lot about how to create the sense of being inside a wave. The murky low pass filter that happens when you move your ears from above water to underwater.”

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