Bodies & Water: An Interview With seah

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I don’t remember where I first heard seah’s music, but I was immediately enamored with the mix of sounds she creates. Her work is simultaneously otherworldly and grounded. She uses familiar environments as jumping-off points to create new, exciting worlds. Her latest, conduits of the hydrosphere, is a prime example. Using a variety of field recordings – including from her own body – something new and magical emerges. It’s a remarkable, memorable album, but even more, it shows the endless possibilities ahead for her. 

seah can be reached through her website, and conduits of the hydrosphere is out now on Somnimage.

First, I’d love to hear about some of your earliest memories of music and sound. What were some formative experiences when you were younger that have stuck with you through the years?

I was born in Germany, and we traveled around Europe quite a bit. I feel that something that has affected me is just the plethora of vocalized sounds that I was immersed in. Some I understood, some I didn’t. It was more about rhythm and cadence, less about knowing what was being said. My absolute earliest memory is the sound of sunflowers brushing against each other and the light/shadow pattern dancing on my face and the ground. This would have been the farm I lived on in Dampfach, Bavaria. I might have been 3 or 4 then. Another early memory is being in Barcelona and the smell of a camel skin purse my mom bought from an outdoor market, which smelled awful. My most profound memory comes from that trip. I am standing in front of the window in our hotel room. I can tell you every detail about the lighting, the curtain texture, the chair next to it. But it was the sounds from the street garbling about in my head and then this sudden realization of this “seeing self,” the presence literally behind my eyes, housed within my skull, that set me into a strange feeling that has never quite left. I think I was 4 or 5.

At what point did you begin to experiment with making your own works?

Well … I had a small drum machine and a keyboard as far back as I can remember. My mom tried putting me in piano lessons, but I had no discipline for traditional music or instruction. I think even as far back as then, I was interested in something else. Shortly after I turned 21, I decided to put my most necessary things in my car (a drum, a guitar, a four track, some clothes, and a sleeping bag). I basically roamed around the country for a year or so. During that time, I would find random campgrounds and state parks to seek refuge, experiment with my voice, making sounds with rocks, sticks, etc. I really don’t know why that happened. Other than that, I had a profound irritation with the reality I was being presented as a silent universal agreement that I didn’t agree to, and everything in me was screaming against. That was back in 1999, I guess.

Your new record, conduits of the hydrosphere, brings together your work with sound and your obsession with water. Where does the latter come from?

Probably that Barcelona trip! One of my other memories is that of the ocean and the sheer terror and delight I had whenever the waves would crash. I have spent so much time near oceans or seas in my life, and I feel like I have always had this whisper in my being that I am the sea and the sea is within me or something to that effect.

There are so many parts of conduits that I am fascinated by. Still, you talk about the aspect of the album that is about your body interacting with bodies of water. That comes through in this surprising sort of physicality to some of these pieces – I’m thinking “asteroidal origin of water” and “dinosaur piss runs through our veins” (also among the best track titles I’ve heard in a long, long time). How do you actually channel these interactions into sonic environments? 

The two tracks you mention are actually live performance recordings! During both performances, I held a hydrophone in my mouth for the duration. So there is quite literally the presence of my breath, the saliva in my mouth, and sometimes even my heartbeat, even if it is layered deep within the sound texture. Also, all of the field recordings (audio and visual) come from wearing the microphones and cameras. The microphones might be in my mouth, taped to my body, dangling from my body, or all three during one interaction with a body of water.

And does that process of expressing these experiences through sound give you new and different perspectives on these interactions?

I decided pretty quickly that I was not interested in simply re-presenting the recordings as archival compositions of my interactions. Instead, there is always a feeling space that I am trying to evoke that has something to do with the feeling space of my psycho-phenomenological, somatic experience of the interactions. For example, ova1 and ova2 – ova stands for “olla veden alla,” which is Finnish for “to be underwater.” The pieces were made from recordings I took while submerging myself in the Baltic Sea off the island of Korpoo, in the Finnish Archipelago. One of the recording hydrophones was dangling as far down my throat as I could get it, one was taped to my chest, and another was dangling from a wrist or ankle.

What are some things that really surprised you in the process of doing this project?

The process of moving from field recordings to emotive compositions – both visually and aurally. I put a lot of trust in this somatic experience, as I have trained for a very long time in Butoh, Body Weather Laboratory, and Noguchi Taiso – all these Japanese somatic movement practices in which listening to the inner body is something that we cultivate. Combining that body practice with a/v work brings lots of surprises.

The field recordings you use on the album are always interesting and engaging. There’s also this aspect where it feels like the sounds exist in some other world. Can you talk a bit about your process and approach when it comes to capturing the recordings themselves and how you go about picking the places and ‘things’ you want to capture?

I find myself near water a lot. Sometimes places I seek out – other times, water just appears. Asteroidal Origin of Water is an a/v composition built from a field recording I took of a puddle that likely had car oil in it. As I was looking into the puddle, I saw nebulas. In the middle of this very urban terrain of Walker’s Point, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I saw the universe reflected back at me – through the industrial decay, vehicular traffic, and the screech of trains. I follow thoughts and feelings by being very present in the moment I find myself in. I lived in a Tibetan Buddhist semi-monastic community when I was 23-24 years old. Between that and the Japanese movement practices, I cannot help to be very …. aware … of my sensationary experience in mostly all moments. Whether I’m dancing on top of a rock as a glacier is gushing down a mountain in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, or staring at a polluted puddle near an abandoned warehouse. Something about this “awareness” guides the recordings, what and where and how I record, and how the compositions are built out later.

What are some of the biggest challenges when it comes to recording water?

Not really knowing what I’m doing! Haha… But seriously, I am not so much a purist, thankfully. It is always both my water body and this other water body simultaneously. Extraneous sounds that one cannot help – other people talking, birds chirping, vehicular movement, etc … I find a way to work with what I capture because, again, I am interested in a feeling tone more than a re-presentation of the world.

Can you tell me a little about the “Fluvial Tracings” and larger “Water Tracings” projects?

These are small and larger tracings of water bodies, the earliest explorations of the worn cameras and microphones while moving with water. It started in South East Asia. My friend from Myanmar was with me – he has a crazy story of being a child soldier for a junta but escaped… anyways. He wanted to go to this mountain so he could stand on top and look across to his country, particularly the land where he had been forced to commit atrocities at such a young age. We decided that in order to do this, we would bicycle from Chiang Mai, following the MaeNam Ping River up into the mountains. We had already been having intense shorthand English discussions about land and boundaries and bodies due to sitting on the roof of my apartment on Penang Island, Malaysia, and seeing the lights from Rohingya refugee boats floating in the Andaman Sea, waiting for acceptance by some country. And so, after these experiences, when I returned to Oakland, CA, I carried these ideas and feeling with me as I started building this body of work. The first US site was at Spread Art residency in Detroit, Michigan, where I proposed to ride my bicycle from the top of Lake St. Clair, along the Detroit River, to Lake Erie. I was a novice at the time, and I learned that most of the waterway is privately owned, so recording my interactions became very limited. I created a live performance art piece with sound and audio while in this cramped plexiglass box for about 20 minutes. I have added a picture for you if you want to use it.

What are some of your favorite sounds in the world?

birds chirping, leaves and tall grasses rustling, waves crashing, water trickling, my inner body hum,, the cello, anything by Éliane Radigue

What’s next for you this year and into the future?

I am sitting on a couple of projects that need to be finished before I can give all my attention to completing the cloud compositions – you wrote some really lovely stuff about the first piece, “unfurling.” Before diving deeper into that, I have a small origami book of still images from a video I took with my phone taped to my chest while I climbed a tree in Oakland back in 2013… I have a/v composition called “iridescence and interference” that needs to be “packaged” into a book of stills, the video, and sound piece ….the philosophical text for conduits of the hydrosphere … and ummm…. this other project called “the man/land dream” – I want that to be wrapped up too. Then I won’t be so tethered by past things and can focus on the ethereal qualities of cloud movements.

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