Science Fiction Music – A Q&A with Equis

The music of Equis demands the type of introspective listening experience that doesn’t allow itself to go by unnoticed. Her latest tape, from Infinite Waves gnaws and claws at your attention through the opening bars with erratic and obtrusive saw-tooth wave murmurs ticking down like a clock until a vocal sample from some public information film approaches the subject of plants. The artist almost immediately brings in to focus the subject that the title No Plants: No Life seems to want to approach, but just like it arrives, it disappears into the next track, where improvised, noise moments find their way through heavily obscured samples and abrasive percussion.

While the storm mounts throughout the a-side, Fe quietude installs itself for inauguration of the b-side, O2 and shows two sides to the coin – Equis juxtaposes the harshness of her improvisation with electronics that build up to more introspective listening experiences. Here the listener is allowed the opportunity to wander out of the music for moment, but only for a moment before a tonal haranguing ensues again.

Equis’ music finds itself somewhere between the electronic experiments of Matmos and the forward-thinking philosophical discourse of Varése. Her music, much like the person behind the music is an enigma. There is absolutely nothing concrete to latch on to that defines the artist and this being her second release, it only raises more questions than it answers. With that we sent Equis a few questions over email to find out more about who she is and how her music is born into life, and through these questions the enigma slowly reveals itself.

I think introductions are in order. Can you tell us who you are and how you found your way into music?

My name is Xenia Xamanek Lopez. I’ve always been interested in music and I started out playing the saxophone at age 10. I still play the sax sometimes, to keep having a relationship with it, but it’s sometimes difficult when I keep on flirting with so many other directions of sound. Some years ago I was playing the sax on a serious level and at that time I thought I was going to be a professional saxophonist for life. I got into the field of jazz music and began to listen to a lot of jazz and the big saxophonists like John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman etc., which I really enjoyed. But all the time I had this feeling that I wanted to do something else, I didn’t really want to play jazz, I wanted to create my own music. I got more and more into the experimental field, started playing more free music and improv, and was attracted to the “avant-garde” and the people who where pushing the borders. Surfing around on Ubuweb… I listened to a lot of really different music. All the things you could do with sound, shit, it really overwhelmed me. I think, with listening to all that music I found out that I wanted to be a composer, I wanted to be one of those people who created these fascinating sounds. So I began to compose more and more, and then I started to use more electronics, less saxophone.

Were there any influences, musically or otherwise that played an important part in your artistic development?

So many things influences me, from everywhere, art, science, everything… But I’ll stick to music for now. And also A LOT of music had an impact on me, but I will try to make it not to long.

I discovered contemporary classical music from the 20th century, composers like Xenakis, Ligeti, Penderecki, Per Nørgaard, John Cage, Pelle Gudmundsen Holmgreen, La Monte Young etc etc etc ….

This music had a really big impact on me and I’m still very inspired by these composers. In relation to this – also early electronic music; I accidently heard Pierre Schaeffer because I borrowed a CD “l’oeuvre musicale” at the library and had it shuffling on my iPod. I didn’t really know who he was; I just listened to it, and thought it was weird and nice. Then, not before some years later, I found out that he was a pioneer in Musique Concrete. I think he had some kind of unconscious impact on me, and I think my iPod generally had, because it was a mix of really different music, and I always had it on shuffle.

I began to listen to more music made with electronics, and especially noise music. Noise, maybe in relation to free jazz like Peter Brötzmann etc., I really liked (like) energy music. But also these raw sounds and the way everything could become music. The apparently infinite possibilities in technology, made my interest in electronic music grow and I also started listening to more beat-oriented electronic music, techno and stuff.

Discovering old sounds from other places in the world that sounded so new to me also had a big impact on me… Like Indonesian music, pygmy singing etc.

Then there is the whole Copenhagen thing, a lot of people doing weird things at Mayhem and stuff. It’s a small city and the people doing more experimental music know each other. I got into this scene when I was around 17 so it had an impact on me for sure…

The way of thinking sound, to think about all sound as something equal and important, and the many possible ways of expressing something.

All the sound that can widen my impression of what sound is and can be, and how you can put it together, always inspires me, and makes me hungry for more. It gives me some kind of drive and energy to work with sound.

Tell us a bit about this new tape on Infinite Waves and how it came together.

It is created partly from improvisations, and just playing around with my live setup – really different from my first record, which was much more fixed compositions from the beginning. The compositions grew out of the improvisations, and I mixed some ideas I had about themes and samples, within the possibilities of my setup.

There seems to be an environmental statement in the music. Was there any particular issue that you were approaching on “No Plants: No Life” aside from the obvious one in the title?

It’s not that I’m trying to state anything specific with the music. But I have been thinking a lot about environmental issues and especially about what’s going on in Honduras, and how people, who are fighting for the environment and human rights, are killed. Recently there’s the case with the environmentalist, humanitarian and indigenous leader Berta Caceres, who was murdered, because she was trying to protect Honduras’ rivers and the local people with her campaign against Central America’s biggest hydropower project. Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world for environmentalists. The fact that so many powerful people are not interested in protecting the planet and are destroying both people and the earth, because of their own personal interests, is extremely sad. Read this article for example; http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/03/honduras-berta-caceres-murder-enivronment-activist-human-rights.

So the title is a statement yes, and I do agree with it, and think it is very important, but still I like to keep the title and work in general open for interpretations. I’m not trying to give any answers or direct messages with this music, (only the title; the fact that humans need plants to be alive) I’m more interested in giving some hints; impressions and fragments for the listener’s brain, memories and imagination to assemble by itself. And the hints can be political which I see as a quality, but they don’t have to be, that’s not the main purpose. Maybe you’ll start to think about environmental issues, maybe not. (I’m also answering some of the next question here)

The message is literally put across through those vocal samples, but how do you think something as abstract as your music puts that message across?

I think it’s the combination of this sound with these words that makes it both confusing and at the same time makes you think and create your own stories. The human voices, speaking a language that belongs to humans and they talk about very organic things that we know from our world like plants, iron, light, humans, and there’s the sound of water. But at the same time you can hear that there’s something artificial about this water and the voices. The artificial voice is saying some weird things sometimes, and together with these electronic sounds the humanity in the music is transformed into something else; you are not quite sure what is actually going on here. There’s some kind of alienation going on… I’m really interested in this field of mixing machines and humans, the synthetic voice and the synthetic human, and what can happen when you play around on this border. I like to think about this music as science fiction music. Creating sci-fi stories with just sound.

From which sources were those samples derived and what influenced your choices?

There are samples of people talking about the national garden in U.S; some recordings from China; computer voices reading text about iron; a verse from lotus sutra about light; parts from the poem Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters, recordings of water….

I think that my interest in combining something really organic with machines and my fascination in religious ideas made me choose these samples. Sometimes I think about the part with the iron text as some kind of religious text – a bible. I like the idea of seeing something scientific as poetry or as religion, and the possibilities of the voice in transforming the meaning of text just by the tone of the speaking.

On the second side, the message is especially less obvious with the lack of a literal interpretation from a vocal clip. I know if you add Iron (Fe) to Oxygen (O2) it combusts, but what do you get when you pull them apart like you have across two sides of the tape?

This work is also about the formation of something and the deformation, like tearing things apart, and looking at the elements in its pure form. That everything is made of the same few basic elements, and maybe you could transform any item into something else if you change the combination of elements. All material is connected and interdependent, and the distinction between objects is just a matter of combinations.

Your music relies and a tonal harshness that immediately demands the listener’s attention. Can you give us an insight into your creative processes and what personally appeals to you sonically?

I try to be as true to myself as possible in my decisions and choices, its more about; what do I want to say? And not what I think the listener would want to hear or where the music will be placed… But my music will always be a result of my own preferences and the things that inspire me at the moment.

When I compose, I often start out putting up some structures/limitations for myself. It could be, for instance the part with water, to work with the water samples and the phenomena interference as a main structure for the piece. Then it is quite open, what kind of sounds I can use inside the main structure. Sometimes it becomes very fixed compositions and sometimes it remains structures. The Improvisation and working intuitively is also very important to me.

There’s a unique randomness to the music, like a computer virus in the initial stages of gestation. Is your music meant to have a life of it’s own?

Yes it definitely is. It’s important for me to give the music the ability to say something on it’s own, although it is composed music, and I still have the overall control. I create the frames for the music and inside of these frames, the music can move around, but I still have the ability to change direction, if I feel like doing that. Like taking a walk with an animal on a leash, and sometimes giving it a longer leash sometimes very short. Especially when I play live, I think the open improvised parts keep the music alive and keep a tension and attention between the music and me.

Where does the artist’s control manifest itself in your music?

With the changes of direction, there’s someone leading the sound material, deciding what sounds the listener is going to hear and when. Showing the listener around in this universe of sound, like a director. I don’t consider the artist as being directly present in the music, it’s more about having these sounds telling something – not something concrete, more like images or formations ever changing and becoming something, and then it breaks or changes again – the deformations. But still somehow controlled by the artist.

There’s also this juxtaposition between the erratic moments and the more introspective moments, especially but not exclusively on O2. Are these two contrasting pretences to your musical personality, or do they express the same thing?

I’m not sure what you mean by the question, but I’ll try to give an answer. There are sometimes references to a lot of different musical “styles” in my music, and I think the erratic moments occur because of my many interests and the contradictions in my personality.

How would you like to follow up on No Plants: No Life, and what can we look forward to from Equis in the immediate future?

I’m planning to make some new music, but this time not with my live-setup. Just compose on the computer and drag a lot of different sound material into it, the collage style like my first record, maybe. I think the voice will be one central element. But nothing is decided yet, so lets see.

Live I might be playing some new stuff as well… have some concerts in the summer…