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Ebe Oke debuts album SPECIES. Interview with Matthew Stone.

[Photo Credit: Enrico Policardo]

Ebe Oke is a composer and transmedia artist working predominately with sound and performance. Their experimental compositions are inspired in part by a childhood spent on an exotic bird sanctuary in the Deep South, Georgia and incorporate the sounds of birds and insects. Ebe has studied composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen and counts Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson as personal mentors and collaborators. Ebe's work has also included the scoring of dance, film, theatre and art installations.

On Feb 28th Ebe will present SPECIES in a curated event at The Courtyard Theatre in London.

The album features Brian Eno alongside artists including Takako Minekewa and Jah Wobble. It was researched and developed during residencies at The Watermill Center, Pioneer Works, Museums Quartier (Austria) and then completed in Reykjavik at Greenhouse Studios.

Here, Ebe talks with fellow artist and friend Matthew Stone about the making of their debut album, the equally courageous and cathartic creative process, the collaborations, and taking strength in 'acceptance and release'.

Matthew Stone: How are you preparing for the show?

Ebe Oke: On a personal level I'm observing my thoughts and rooting out beliefs that may stand in the way of me giving myself fully as an artist. On a more practical level I'm discovering different approaches to choreography with Justyna Janiszewska, the dancer I'm collaborating with for the opening performance called "Point of Contact". I'm writing parts for Pasha Mansurov on flute and for Charlie Draper on the ondes martenot.  

Today I'm meeting with Amechi Ihenacho, the tailor who has done a remarkable job in helping me realise my costume designs. There are regular rehearsals with the string quartet and workshopping ideas with Alexis Michallek who will be processing my voice, the strings, and sound effects made by Nissa Nishikawa plus projecting the electronics from SPECIES live with the use of Mi.Mu gloves.  

All the people involved inspire me so much! I'm also taking a lot of yoga and dance classes to feel more grounded and aware of my physicality. My friend Martin Tomlinson of Selfish Cunt guided me through some processes the other day to increase my awareness. He's a formidable performer.  

Matthew: What has been your process?

Ebe: There is no fixed process as each piece is a quest to discover something new. I'm more interested in the wild paths than the trodden ones.

I've found certain techniques and approaches which have been helpful in the making of this record. One of which I returned to multiple times is the act of putting myself into a trance with a recorded drum beat at about 205-220 beats per minute. I'd blindfold myself and carry a question or a title into the trance, throw it into my subconscious and wait for a response which usually came in the form of a visual metaphor which I'd then come out of the trance to interpret. Sometimes I'd return with a melody.

There is also a website I use called soundmap to pinpoint wild locations across the Earth and listen in to their individual biophonies. One of the many reasons I've been so interested in these sounds is because they open up new possibilities for rhythm, melody and structure. 

Approaching such recordings with a sense of blurred listening (equivalent of a soft gaze, I suppose) allows me to find compelling sounds and their juxtapositions which I can then respond to. If particular sounds stand out to me I call up a species list of the area and start listening through sound archives to the individual species until I find the ones I'm looking for - and then utilise these sounds alongside my own field recordings to create virtual instruments. It's laborious but I'm more drawn to the mystery of these sounds and what they can become through processing than prepackaged plug-ins.  

Another important part of the process were the times I spent in residencies like the Watermill Center in upstate New York at Robert Wilson's creative laboratory. It's like a zen oasis with an exceptional library and art collection that you can borrow from to bring into your studio.  

I must also acknowledge the ornithologists, like David Rothenberg a fellow bird nerd, who have introduced me to new species and their sounds. David is also a musician who is interested in interspecies improvisation.  

Matthew: Did you start with a fixed idea? Is this a concept album or is there a concept and the album emerged from it?

Ebe: I'd say the music emerged from a concept. Since I was very young I've looked at the idea of what I call the creature-self. What am I before human identity, gender and the calcification of societal conditioning? Growing up in the rural state of South Georgia in the United States, spending a substantial amount of time on my own in nature my imaginative mind questioned whether I was actually fully human. I see this now as a reaction to isolation and feeling alienated. It was a very formative time which informs a large trajectory of my creative work. It's a rich source of inspiration.  

I also grew up with exotic birds and wild animals which I raised from incubation or bottle fed. The sounds of these birds coalesced in my mind with the classical music I was listening to and I thought that one day I would make a record exploring the sounds of birds.  

SPECIES has multiple threads which weave through an invented landscape created with these processed sounds. I see it as a protean odyssey of songs, non-songs and sonic landscapes.

Matthew: Is any of the album composed via more traditional methods?

Ebe: Yes. The melody for "Ganymede" began as a recorded improvisation on the piano which I transcribed and transferred to synths made from bird sounds. "Ghost Throat" was created with Brian Eno using methods we devised in the studio. "Hyphae" was an act of getting lost without a destination and "Moral Injury" was inspired by a melody I heard in my head while I was biking through London so I pulled over on the sidewalk to take note of it.

Matthew: Is the music all electronic or are there instruments on it?

Ebe: I love writing for string quartet and quartet arrangements appear throughout the record. I worked with some brilliant string players like David Barbenel, Matthew Stevens, Ben Trigg, and Davide Rossi - who can create the sound of an orchestra with his electric violin. There is some percussion like the Jing Bo or Peking Opera gongs which I found in San Francisco's China Town. Jah Wobble played a driving bass line on "Stranger Within" which gives it a completely unique feel. 

Matthew: Emotionally I feel there is an aspect of you meeting and healing parts of yourself within the process of making this music. Is making the music part of a healing process or is the music about healing?

Ebe: Definitely. Healing or how it can be shared vicariously is often a motivation. The creative process can be healing when it addresses the uncomfortable aspects of ourselves. I use fear as an indicator of where I should look next. I attempt to befriend my dragons.  

Matthew: What does healing mean to you?

Ebe: Acceptance and release.

Matthew: Which songs from the album most deal with those things?

Ebe: "Threshold", "Woman In Me" and "The Wild".  

Matthew: What's "Threshold" about?  What is the threshold?

Ebe: "Threshold" began as an exercise that Laurie Anderson suggested to me to create the dumbest work I could make. I started by guiding beats through all manner of different LFO's which gives it a very tense and unhinged feel. I also took a 'wrong' approach to everything from lyrics to string arrangements and remained open, allowing it to lead me. I created bass from the cassowary, the most dangerous bird in the world and experimented with overtone singing and recorded a construction site.

There are new meanings for me each time I hear this piece but I can see it's me doing my best to give form to the formless creature-self. To capture a snapshot at least. The threshold is an embodiment of this quality; an immersion into a river of flux situated between the unified field and human identity.  

Matthew: What can people expect of the show?

Ebe: We'll be doing things with technology that haven't, as far as I know, been done before with the level of live processing and our approaches to this. I'm working with an incredible team of people. I'll be presenting my first dance piece. In the foyer and performance space before the show begins I'll be projecting FIELD and AVALON two works that I created for installations with artists AA Bronson and Fredrikson Stollard. I'm certainly expecting to discover something new when this record is brought to life, connecting with the audience is an important part of that process for me.  

Matthew: Where do you feel you fit in as an artist and musician?

Ebe: I feel I've got to define my own path completely.  

Matthew: Does it feel like there is a space for you to do that?

Ebe: Yes, I'm making that space.


Ebe Oke
Thu 28 Feb
The Courtyard
Info and Tickets: Eventbrite.co.uk

ebeoke.be | Soundcloud | Twitter | Instagram

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