Tunnel Vision – A Q&A with Jonathan Uliel Saldanha

Jonathan Uliel Saldanha’s latest creative offering to the world, Tunnel Vision is an intriguing musical anomaly that’s piqued our interest for its incredible textures and conceptual framework. As a work originally recorded to soundtrack a Raz Mesinai film of the same name, it’s recently been revisited as an album, moving the music to the foreground where it acts as the lead character, and completely re-contextulising its narrative in the album format. Recorded in the underground caverns and tunnels of Porto, the music thrives in the darkness, where discord, inharmonic-arrangement and impetuous rhythmical extemporizations live. Saldanha explores some of the same percussive electronic arrangements that we’ve come to know from him as HHY & The Macumbas but they are mostly shrouded in dense mysterious textures for this work. The sonic structures very much embody the physical dimensions of the spaces they occupy, with common themes like low-lying drones, endless reverbs and dissonant echoes reacting with their consonant sources in tense cinematic textures.

As an album Tunnel Vision works as well in the framework as it did as an innocuous bystander for the film, exposing elements and parts that in their narrowing of distance between the listener and the composition become as intriguing as the avant garde film from which they were born. It’s cerebral music that speaks to something corporeal and primitive in the listener, and the listener can experience as such if s/he chooses, but for those that want to scratch beyond the surface of the music, it brings up a host of questions. So, we sent Jonathan a few of these questions via email to find out more about his work and some of the intriguing aspects of Tunnel Vision.

Can you introduce yourself and give us a short summary of your musical biography leading up to Tunnel Vision?

Hi, I’m based in Porto and I work with sound, gesture and light. I  started my sonic path by playing tabla in a Hindustani music ensemble. This practice has shaped my interest in non-western forms of music and sound. Shortly after this I founded SOOPA, a proteiform collective of artists working with exploratory music and performance, curating shows in some of Porto’s most active venues during the early 2000’s. This collective was programming intensively from 1999 until 2012 and since then has become a structure/platform for the production of scenic and music pieces. This period was a vast terrain for exploring non-idiomatic music construction and composition and was the foundation for many projects and collaborations that are still active today like the band HHY & The Macumbas. Since then I have started to be more and more involved in my own compositions, working in the studio or with various ensembles and choir’s in order to be closer to the fundamental and ontological elements that pulled me into music and to go deeper within my cosmological obsessions.

Watching that film, the music plays an important part in the narrative like the film was created around the soundtrack. How much did the music affect the outcome of the film?

It was a feedback relation. Sound and image influenced each other in a shared vision that was referential to the experiences that Raz Mesinai and me have had in a specific set of tunnels. This very peculiar and quasi-synesthetic feeling developed a kind of chthonic revelation for the development of Raz’s movie and my soundtrack!

There are times when the screen actually goes black and the music is the only character in the film. How do you perceive the role of the music in the film?

There are not many words or dialogues in this film, so sound becomes the word, the “wordsound”, becoming a unifying narrator, that unfolds movements and characters within a very prismatic narrative.

What kind of direction did you get from Raz Mesinai for creating the soundtrack?

We worked together on the production and shooting of the movie, so my mind was very close to the fundamental visions. Then Raz went on editing and constructing the film and I went on composing the music separately. But the connecting points were already there, like we had a third rhythm puling together the key moments in our mind.

Did Mesinai or his work as Badawi have any influence on the result of your compositions, either directly or indirectly?

It’s impossible to stop sonic influences to come in; the ear is an open wound. And I’m a huge fan of Raz’s music work! We discussed allot about the motivations of the film and its sonic environment, but I cant say there was a direct sonic influence, I had total freedom to bring my sound world, an hecatomb of percussions, horns and echo.

How does the creative process differ for you when you approach a film soundtrack? 

Film in its deepest origins as an instrument for illusion, when emancipated from text logic or theatre form, has a lot to do with how I perceive music.

It becomes a spectral mirror and a specular lens for time and all its manifolds. So I cant say that I had a totally different way to approach the soundtrack, it just made me acknowledge the intention of what we were building, in a dialogue with a concrete sequence of images.

I identify a theme that touches on underground music culture from time, especially when I hear some of the narrative auditory samples in the music and when the film references it in the club scene. Is this something that specifically influenced the film or the music?

Vibration and architecture were key words for us. We were thinking the tunnels has one stone organism that breathes underneath the surface, a presence and a sound system, the fundamental vibration that breathes trough underground spaces and electricity. The analogy of a massive hidden sound system became clear, a spectral club, a place where we wanted to go and listen to this ultimate sub and to be mesmerized by the unfathomed figures he would project in our body and mind.

There’s a physical dimension you added to the overall theme of the work in recording the pieces in tunnels and cavities around Porto. What role did the locations of the recordings play in the creative process?

We started to visit tunnels and caves in and around Porto, and soon we discovered very special places, like a very deep roman mine were we found our visions and listened to the deepest tones (standing waves, product of air passing by and a complex set of resonances). These places became so important that I made some of the recording sessions for the soundtrack / album in there, recording musicians, tones, or simply playing back the sounds I recorded previously over and over into the tunnel. I was very much interested in letting all sounds be contaminated by the acoustic body of those cavities, giving them a distinct acoustic imprint and making the spaces talk through sound.

Is there anything interesting that you learned from the recording process that you would take with you into future works?

I confirmed and systematized a method. Before Tunnel Vision I used similar processes, using smaller objects to resonate distinct sounds. Specially a set of animal and human skulls were used as echo chambers, were I would send a sound to it and record the filtered/resonated sound from its cavities with small microphones. This process was used many times, for example in the piece Black Hole Stigmata (soundtrack for Regina de Miguel). Also in my work for voice and choir I tend to give a massive importance to architectural resonance, to what can be called “vibrational mediation” between the guts and the environment.

In the PR it mentions that the work was mixed as a dub record set for a sound system of the future, in process that you refer to as Skull–Cave–Echo. Care to elaborate on how the idea came around and what it entails?

Actually this process is the filter/resonance method, were sounds are embodied by a distinct acoustic cavity, rooted through a mixer. Becoming a Black Box for input and output operations.

I believe you draw on quite a few influences in your work. Was there any one of those that were central to the creation of Tunnel Vision?

No central influence. Influences come from all prismatic reality that surrounds us, so every particle has the possibility to change perspective or trigger a vision. I have my own recurrent set of triggers, some are conscious others are very much a consequence of an unconscious set of events. Within the human scope I can say that I’m very interested by the environmental qualities found on Robert Smithson and JG Ballard work, and as well, the films of Tarkosky, Ozu, Kenneth Anger, and many many more (cinema is one of my preferred languages). On the music side I have a visceral tendency to love percussion as well as inharmonic sounds, so I’m touched by the works of Xenakis, Varèse, Elvin Jones, Maceda, Radigue and Scelsi, has well has the spatial way that some Dub producers placed sound in tridimensional perspective, King Tubby and Sherwood among others. All this operates the backbone of many of the decisions that you can find in the Tunnel Vision album. In a more direct way the fact that I worked with a group of people/musicians that I know well and that are a clear influence on the soundtrack and that have trigged many options (Gustavo Costa, João Pais, Jessika Kenney, Àlvaro Almeida, Catarina Miranda, Rui Leal). 

You’ve recomposed and re-edited the music for the film into an album. What process did you go through to realise it as an independent creative object, and how do you think the end result differs from the original score?

Quite some time after the film was finished, I went back to listen to the music in it and found that some elements had their one singular breath. I isolated them and started searching for the written notes I had previously made for those moments, usually associated to specific acoustic spaces, harmonics, imaginary architectures and movements. I took those notes to help re-edit the score into shorter autonomous forms.

How do you think the audience will experience it in this new format that will differ from their initial experience of the film?

It’s hard or even impossible to know what people will experience. I think there is a lot of space for the listener in this record, he can make the Situationist walk trough an architecture of tunnels, concrete spaces, angles, horns, percussion and voices that together resonate in the reminiscence of a more essential architecture, a telluric formation that is the birth of myth and the hidden place for ghosts.

I found myself engaging more with the sound design, and listening to distinct songs rather than a continuous piece of music constructing a narrative, almost like it was intended to be an album all along. Did you ever think to turn these pieces of music into an album when you first got the commission to do the soundtrack?

Not at the exact moment where it was constructed, at that moment I was too concerned with overall flux, but some months after this, it started to be clear.

The album will come out in September, which means that some of these pieces will undoubtedly be making it into your semibreve performance. Have you started working them into your live set, and how do you think they might change in the live context?

Elements of the album will appear within the electric blood of the mixer, so their form will be less tangible. They will change, and become part of a different flux, were I will add some of my other recent work, featuring unbodied voices and choir pieces.

You’re no stranger to the stage I imagine based on your work with HHY & The Macumbas. How will or does this experience change for you as a solo act?

HHY & The Macumbas started with the desire to turn some of my more percussive electronic works into a live situation with musicians, and now it has a soul of its own, mainly because of the intensity and dedication of the musicians that play inside its core.

After playing regularly with The Macumbas and all the pieces I’ve been doing with larger ensembles I felt complied to go back to a more solitary act.

It changes a lot in the sense that on one side you loose the human breath of people playing an instrument (something that I love and relate deeply) and on the other, you gain more presence of the electric breath of the mixer. I will continue to play solo sets, a kind of vertical axis were I can regularly inform and integrate all the other processes into one mix, one version, for the soundsystem.

And besides the performance and the release of your album, what else can we expect from Jonathan Uliel Saldanha this year? 

This year I still have some intense work and collaborations coming forward. I’m currently collaborating with Banda Marcial da Foz, an ensemble of horns and drums from Porto, in order to create an original piece. I have the debut of the soundtrack for BOCA MURALHA, a dance piece by Catarina Miranda. And I have the debut of a soundtrack composed for an epic theatre piece (6 hours) based on Karl Kraus’s “Last Days Of Mankind”, and staged by Nuno Carinhas, signalling the 100 anniversary of WWI that will be presented in the too Portuguese national theatres. Also, I’m finishing the new HHY & The Macumbas record!