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Lola de la Mata

Lola de la Mata

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Lola de la Mata’s practice evolved out of weaving, printmaking and Labanotation and crosses over performance art, installation and sculpture. In this interview, Lola talks about her upcoming album 'Oceans on Azimuth', which reflects on her experiences of tinnitus. Her new compositions feature sonic landscapes crafted from throbbing heartbeats and otoacoustic emissions reimagined through musical instruments made from metal, glass, ceramics and ice. Photo: Rosie Terry Toogood

PodcastInterviewLola de la MataOceans on AzimuthTinnitusSpontaneous otoacoustic emissionsExperimental MusicLabanotationSound ArtSculptureIndustrial
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Hello. You’re listening to the Audio.com podcast where we speak with musicians, artists and other practitioners about their work in sound. I’m Ilia Rogatchevski. My guest today is the French-Spanish conceptual sound artist, composer, and curator Lola de la Mata. Born in London, but currently based between Liverpool and the capital, de la Mata’s practice evolved out of weaving, printmaking and Labanotation – a form of dance notation developed by Rudolf von Laban in the 1920s. Lola’s work crosses over performance art, installation and sculpture, often developed in collaboration with other musicians, dancers and queer performance artists. She was an associate composer at nonclassical between 2019 and 2021. The label supported her curation of “The Gaze” – a sold out cross-disciplinary night presented at the experimental music venue IKLECTIK that focused on women, non-binary and queer composers and artists. As a self taught composer who works outside of traditional western notation, her approach to score making incorporates text, photography and monotypes as graphic scores. Lola’s current research and artistic practice centres around experiences of chronic fatigue, tinnitus, and personal assistant AI’s use of a ‘neutral’ female voice in corporate products. Lola’s upcoming album Oceans on Azimuth, which is due for release on 8 May 2024, chronicles her experience of tinnitus and vertigo. Upon diagnosis, de la Mata was told to give up her music-based practice in order to preserve her hearing. Instead, she chose to listen with a new ear, and reached out to A.J. Hudspeth in New York who runs the sensory cell lab where they study the cochlea. There, she found collaborators in biophysicists who offered her the unique experience of recording her tinnitus. Lola’s new compositions feature sonic landscapes crafted from throbbing heartbeats and otoacoustic emission reimagined through musical instruments made from metal, glass, ceramics and ice. She is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Liverpool where her focus is on tinnitus, spontaneous otoacoustic emissions, and the work of the American composer Maryanne Amacher. If you like what you hear, you can catch Lola De La Mata live in London for the launch night of Oceans on Azimuth, at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery on the 15 May, or at WORM in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, on the 27 June. Our interview took place over Zoom in March 2024. I grew up on Labrador Grove. I lived in this really tiny one-bed flat with my parents. We were crammed between all of my dad's vinyl. I think most of the sounds I could hear were the children in the schoolyard of the Spanish school. It was this big concrete square, and then our apartment was directly on it. We had these high frequencies of screaming and talking echoing into our apartment against the reggae that my dad was playing. I actually wrote to him, I was just like, you know, does this match kind of like how you remember me as a baby? And he was like, well, actually, at night when you couldn't sleep, I would play really softly, a load of rock and roll, but mostly I didn't know. So I was interested to kind of read a little bit about your career history. And I found out that you have a BA in printed textiles and surface design. And your sort of beginnings in composition were sort of tied to graphic scores, and you started from the visual side of things. So I'm just interested to find out what exactly made you turn towards composition and experimental music? Yeah, I think that's a fair question. Especially as I find myself in a composition department right now doing a PhD. I should say that the textiles, it's a very tactile medium. I understand that printed textiles, surface design, it makes you think of, you know, a digital kind of realm. But really, I started as a maker, I was a weaver for the first couple of years. And I just had a lot of health issues. And so I had to unfortunately leave weaving behind and switch to printmaking. But my way of kind of keeping the semblance of the body involved in the printmaking, I based all of my research on dance notation, on love and notation. And love and notation is dance notation, which allows you to score things vertically. So just like you have music and you read from left to right, this you would read from bottom to top. The way that the columns are aligned, it kind of splits the body down the middle and gives direction for the body going outwardly to the sides, and almost like forward. So you start at the bottom of the page as if you're stood still. And then you kind of walk or move or twitch any which way. And so that was kind of my first experience of encountering a graphic school, right? In the same city, there was a composition department that was quite experimental and had like Michael Waters teaching there. And some of the students kind of got me involved in some of their projects, and I was not ready for it. I was very shy, I wasn't very comfortable in my body. So improvising, experimenting, I kind of just stood in the corner, sometimes facing the wall. I think I really wasn't prepared for it. But you know, it really opens me up just seeing it, taking it in, soaking it in. And then as my kind of textile degree came to a close, the kind of graphic schools that I'd been developing became more like installations. One of the composers, Liv Dean, helped me to transform some of my printed matter into sonic matter. And that was like, I guess, the beginning of being exposed to composition, but it took a while for me to get in there. I think I just became more interested in, once I was aware of graphic schools, my mind was changed forever. And even though it took me maybe a few years to start improvising on the violin and kind of wanting to seek out more sound art practices or anything like this, it was there, you know, my brain had been turned into a composer brain, I think. Have you played the violin from a young age? Or did you pick it up a little bit later in life? It was definitely something that I played as a child, probably from the ages of like nine and up. I think I was quite late to a lot of things. And I just did it, I went to like the kiddie version of the Guildhall School, which was incredible. And it was a lot of like ear training. So it was kadai and elk rows. And there were like ensemble works. And I mean, I never learned music theory, but I enjoyed the physicality of playing. I really think that my body and my ear were the things that were getting trained rather than my brain. And so still to this day, I don't know music theory, although it doesn't prevent me from playing with people or, you know, playing the violin, but the violin was something that I left behind, probably when I was about 17. And when I was about I think 24, I picked it up again. You did a master's at Brunel, and you studied improvisation with Jennifer Walsh. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience and how it influenced your own approach to composition? So I studied experimental music, it was a master's, and it was over two years. And it was quite free. It was really self-led. The improvisation classes I did with Jennifer Walsh were actually for undergrad students. And it was almost like what I wasn't prepared for when I was doing my undergrad in my textiles, you know, meeting all these amazing composers and the sessions that they were holding. I wasn't prepared for it then, but I was prepared for it in the undergrad sessions with Jennifer Walsh. What I found extraordinary was just all this context that was floating in. And it was a reference to all these different tech schools that were coming in and the presentation of practices that were really approachable, that were really open, and anyone could technically partake in them. So I think that really informs how I then thought about working with people, because as a composer, that's kind of the At some point, you have to meet someone else. A lot of the time, I guess it's, you know, you write something down, you give it to somebody else, and maybe you're not there. That's not really how I like to work. Maybe that does come from these workshops, where you just kind of see the energy and the dissonance, but then also the play. I really like how improvisation forces an adult to remember that they're allowed to play, which is something that I had lost, desperately lost. I think I was too scared of what it might mean for me to be perceived as playing. I've been teaching some improv classes at the moment, and I see the same thing happening in some of the students, kind of struggling to give in to the permission of play. So I think that's probably the best thing that anyone could have ever offered me, was this permission. I want to move on and talk about your album Oceans on Azimuth, which is coming out on May 8. And it has a really interesting conceptual idea behind it. It's based on your experience of tinnitus. And I want to find out when did you first start experiencing the condition? When did it become diagnosed? What was the context around that experience? It was probably towards the end of 2019. So it isn't actually as a result of catching COVID, although it is possible that it has impacted other things in my body that kind of make my tinnitus worse. It was actually, I was just in a restaurant and somebody had forgotten to turn the master off when they plugged in a speaker. And I was sitting right next to it. I wasn't aware that there was going to be music. And it actually just basically caused an ear trauma. I guess my ear didn't have enough time to respond to kind of tense and my hand didn't have enough time to cover my ear. And so for quite a while, I had either no sound or lots of sound. Sometimes I'd wake up and hear thunder. It was my left ear, which is my violin playing ear. So I haven't really been engaging with my instrument for over three years. When I was seeing audiologists, you know, they did lots of tests and they kept saying, you know, you're hearing fine. It's fine. It's in your brain. You know, just ignore it. But the reality was, I kept getting, as my ear was kind of waking up from the no sound to the thunder sound and my ear was left with all these tones and I couldn't hear speech. And so it became really isolating. And, you know, when something's going wrong with your body, there's always fears. If it's literally your, you know, your creative practice revolves around your ear and hearing, having kind of any sort of damage or changes to that can be really, well, it can change. It can feel like it's kind of changing your identity and your capacity to do what you do. I was really strongly discouraged against playing and making. So I actually took a break from making for a while. I think they were making me really fearful that I was going to potentially harm my or change my hearing even more. So I actually took on some teaching and I was teaching the history of electronic music rather than making. And I was curating some events. I worked with the Feminist Library on some things. I'm pretty sure the non-classical event happened around the same time that I curated Eclectic. But from doing those projects, loads of work in commissions kind of arrived. And so I was composed for other people, but I wouldn't really listen to audio. Wearing headphones is impossible for me now. I just get immediate pain. So I work, I work really quietly with speakers now. But yeah, and so one of the things I did was, well, I was dissatisfied with the answer I was getting, which is it's in your brain. So I did some research. There wasn't very much out there, but I did come across Wikipedia, believe it or not. Jim, James Hudspeth, who runs a neuroscience lab in New York, him and there's also a neuroscientist in Paris. They were both getting granted to do some experimental research around the cochlea and hearing. And so I just wrote to him. I think it was on the 26th of December 2022. And I think he wrote back to me like two days later. And we met, we had a Zoom and very quickly I was invited to go to the lab. Basically, I just, I learned a lot about how my hearing works, which is actually something that I didn't know, which is quite surprising. If you think about musicians, composers, and I mean, anybody, everybody has a set of ears, they will work differently. But the fact that we don't really understand how they work is a bit shocking. Like that should just be part of our education. And so yeah, so there I met some biophysicists. I also met a resident musicologist who shared a similar appreciation for Marianne Amaché, whose archive is also in New York. And so yes, they became collaborators. And I can go into lots of detail, but I might let you interrupt me now. So in New York, as far as I understand, in the lab, you had your tinnitus recorded. And I didn't even know that it was possible to record autoacoustic emissions from your ear. How did that make you feel? Did you go in there realising that this might become an album? Or were you thinking, let's record everything just in case all these conversations and then use them for research, maybe they'll become useful later? Yeah. So I'll start with the spontaneous autoacoustic emissions, which are basically just emissions that happen to come out from your cochlea. I also was unaware that our ears produce sound. It isn't present in everybody, but you can capture it. They say it's about 70% of ears. Obviously, our ears are separate. Your left and your right are completely separate. So you might have sound in one ear and not in the other. You might have sound in neither of the ears or both. Like in my case, I guess what was unusual. So I have to be really clear. So this lab, they don't study humans. And so they were not studying me. I just borrowed their equipment to record my ears. And they have these little anechoic chambers that are meant, obviously, for the study of animal cochlea. So kind of like my head was next to this micro anechoic chamber in a partially soundproof room that had a lot of machines in it. So basically the recordings, we didn't do anything particularly advanced. There was a small foam earpiece put in my ear and in the centre of it we placed a tiny microphone. You've probably heard of recordings you can hear my breath. You know, you can kind of hear creaks of my bone. You can hear my blood pumping and you can probably hear me swallowing, although I tried not to move because obviously any movement, any twitch vibrates microphone. And so you can also get some of the noise around the microphone. So, yeah, so what was unusual was the tinnitus that I hear, that I perceive actually matches the spontaneous autoacoustic emissions. And usually you wouldn't hear your spontaneous autoacoustic emissions. But this is kind of something that I want to find out. Is this actually usual or is it just that we don't make these recordings? And so are there other people with tinnitus who also are actually just hearing these emissions? So it's kind of something I'm doing with my PhD. But in terms of the album, I had presented a piece with SA Recordings, which was part of a single series that they had kind of taken inspiration from my single to kind of turn into a mini project. So from developing that composition, which is probably the longest one on my album, actually, because of what I'm hearing feels like electronic tones. It really feels like a sine wave that are kind of like floating and moving around. Like I always say around my vision, because I always feel that the way that I hear is through looking, you know, like when you when you're speaking with somebody, you watch them speak. And so I know now when I struggle to hear somebody, I like squint my eyes as if that's going to make any difference. But yeah, so I always kind of imagine these tones kind of drifting between me and everything else, mostly because it's almost like a filter that's on 100 percent of the time. So it was really important for me to work with acoustic instruments to try to recreate something that's bodily, something that's physical and real out of other kind of real acoustic sources rather than sampling. And so that kind of desire to keep extending that and thinking about that as a wider project became a pitch to SA Recordings, who originally I was going to make this record with before they were shut down. I already knew that I wanted to maybe build instruments, that I wanted to kind of harness tinnitus in different materials and like glass and metal. But I wasn't sure exactly what the pieces were going to look like. So when I went to the lab, it was just absolute and utter discovery. You know, everything they were telling me, I didn't know. Everything they were showing me, I just couldn't believe it. You know, we have these little instruments on each side of our ear and they're always open. You know, there's no consent over what comes in. And so it was fascinating to see this group of people that had come together from all over the world had slightly different interests and were all kind of putting all these hypotheses around what could be happening in the structure and in the aliveness also of the cochlea. I'm intrigued by the instruments that you used for some of these recordings. The textures are really interesting. So the track that you mentioned, Cochlea, has Jobby Burgess performing on the canesonara, which is an instrument that looks like a large harp made out of vertically aligned aluminium rods. And it's played with gloves that have rosin on them. So you kind of create these long sign tones that sound like electronic pulses. And when I first listened to that track, I thought it was electronic. Actually, I didn't realise it was acoustic. But there are other instruments, including things like ice and an ear shaped gong. So do you mind talking a little bit about the process of making these instruments? Yeah. What kind of inspired you to move into the creation of these things? I guess, how do I start this? Maybe with Marianne Amacher. So there's a piece that Marianne Amacher made called Head Music. And it's a series of tone pulses. And you would play it out of a bunch of speakers, preferably more than two. And so you can move around the room. And there are certain points where your ear catches tones from the different speakers and then kind of gathers them and emits its own tones. So this kind of idea that you could play the ear was new to me. Obviously, distortion products exist in all music, especially like classical music, when all these timbres cross and you get all this distortion. And it's pleasing, right? Like we enjoy this kind of buzzing and fuzz that happens between all of the pitches. It makes it richer. So now that I was thinking or aware that the ear was an instrument, I guess I wanted to hack that. And it's made up of all these parts. And every part plays a significantly different role. Something I also wasn't aware of was that the cochlear was full of water. And along the edges of this kind of snail shape, you have hair bundles. And these hair bundles ride the wave that comes in from the outside. So you've got the air, the wave carried in by air that goes into the ear canal that kind of vibrates this eardrum that moves the three little bones that knock on the cochlea. And then the cochlea obviously is full of water that creates waves. And then the hair cells move back and forth. All of these structures have different textures about them. They have different forms. And, you know, you've got flesh, you've got bone, you've got air and you've got water. All of these things already have different sounds to me. And I guess the creation of the instruments was to try and touch something that I can never access. Like I can imagine it. I can imagine myself moving through all of these parts. In fact, I do a lot. I imagine myself in all these different architectures. But there's no way for me to actually get in there and look at it and touch it. And so making these instruments, I guess, was my way of getting closer to the ear. In the track Calibration God, the biophysicist Francesco Giannulli talks about the impedance matching and compares the violin, its strings, bridge and body to how sound travels from the outer ear to the cochlea, which is what you just described. Did that interview come out of the research that you were talking about earlier, where you went to New York and just kind of finding more about your own body? Yeah. So now I know it's not easy to talk about it. I didn't I didn't have language for I still don't have language for most of what happens in that lab and the ideas that they have. I wasn't entirely sure what I was going to find there. I knew that they had zebrafish and zebrafish are these translucent fish that grow hair cells on the exterior of their body. So they're able to study them without harming them by looking at them. So you have a living organism. And I understood that there was some study of cochleas from gerbils, which obviously because cochleas are inside a skull, you do have to unfortunately put the animal down in order to have access to a cochlea. And so they were kind of explaining to me what studying a cochlea looks like in this lab. Right. There's all these different avenues. You've got biophysicists and you've got more biologists. And so I guess the biologists were looking at like the city planning. So I'm doing air quotation marks, which is not helpful for audio. But it's like, how do cells organize themselves in the way that they do so that you get this whole mechanism that works holistically? And I guess the biophysicists are looking at, you know, what they specifically were trying to prove spontaneous or acoustic emissions and study them and look at the relationship between distortion products and lack of distortion products. And so Francesco was showing me a lot of machines. And in order for me to understand, I guess, like how all of these things interacted. He went on to explain the impedance matching. So his background is actually as a violin maker and he did a master's. In well, it was it was physics, but he was essentially working out equations that would be able to if you put in all of the dimensions and the wood type and the depth and everything of your violin, you could then use an equation that would allow you to create the perfect bridge for it, which is extraordinary. And we'll be publishing something. I'll be publishing something with him on that later this year, actually. So a lot of the interviews, they were basically just trying to express what was happening in front of me rather than I was specifically asking them questions. And then you even I think at one point you could hear him opening a pen cap and the cap falling on the floor and he's drawing all these equations on a whiteboard. But it was very, it was very relaxed. I mean, the audio isn't necessarily, you know, perfect audio. It's terrible in a sense, but it doesn't really matter, you know, and all of the noise that you hear on top of it. I went in with an electromagnetic recorder and I was basically just moving through all the machines during different points of the experiment. I mean, it's a really, really noisy environment. It's something that's meant to be testing sound. I was really surprised. And in fact, they had never heard the machines, so they were all having a go. Everyone in the lab and the coders, they kept coming in, taking my headphones and like listening to everything in the lab. It was a really, really special exchange. Yeah. So one of the last things I wanted to ask relating to potions and asthma is the track wetware, which is sort of a remix, as I understand it, of Cochlear, and it includes Holly Herndon's Holly plus AI instrument. How did you come to use Holy Plus and in what way did it contribute to the piece? So I have to be honest, Holly's first record probably pushed me to want to make music more than anything else I've heard. She's always kind of in my studio around me in that in that way. I guess the whole record is about translations, right? On different ways of hearing different ways of connecting two things together or three things together. I guess you've got your brain, your nerves and then the air for the acoustic. Cochlear was really about the functioning of the body and this tinnitus. And wetware, the bizarre remix, I guess was like you've moved from the wave form that's hitting the ear and you've like gone into the nervous system and like into the brain. And so the reason for using Holly Plus's voice was because it's a trained algorithm. It's something that has a sort of memory of her voice, but then produces something entirely different. And I guess this disconnection between what tinnitus is and how you hear and the air, I don't know. Conceptually, it made sense for me. Maybe I'm making it make no sense at all. But I did really like this, the capacity for the Holly Plus algorithm to sing back like a double bass. So because a lot of the time, you know, you think, oh, great, an AI voice. You don't think about its origin. You don't think about its capabilities. You just it gives you free material. But I think I was I liked it more for the conceptual capacity of like a neural network brain translation of like what I was saying was like my tinnitus. You had a project where you investigated AI, more specifically, the smart assistants that you have, and the fact that most of them, the default voices are female. Can you talk a little bit about that project and what your what came out of that? So the project was called Nella O, a monolith. It was a project that took quite a long time to, I guess, get funded, maybe three years or so. So it came out a little bit later than I had hoped. But the conversation was, in a way, more active around this idea of the use of female voices in personal assistant products. It's not necessarily that I have an issue with AI having voices. I think it's more about the datasets and who's coding them, what they're being told to say and how they then perpetuate certain misogynistic expressions. I run the project as kind of like interview based community. It was a very small community project. I kind of have a problem with that term community project because it can mean a million different things. But basically, I had put a call out for individuals who had lived in the UK and had English as a language, but it didn't have to be their first or second or even their third language. And so we just had these meeting points where we were talking about their voice, their internal voice, the sound of their voice, their kind of personas and how it related to like their gender, their race or class or these different experiences and kind of boundaries of person and voice. The project was really run as like an experiment in a residency. And so it was like the first time that I was looking to turn, I guess, the content from the workshops. We also did like a manifesto writing workshop around the idea of the common voice, which everybody rejected. We broke this kind of chaotic, multi-voiced manifesto. From those conversations, I then collaborated with the Grace Woodcock, who's a sculptor, and we produced these series of throat, mouth, gagging, kind of semi-flat, but with some sort of textural depth, sculptures that had glass elements. So I think that was kind of the beginning of wanting to make work that could be potentially touched, or at least with the eyes, you know, gave you, because it was the materials we used were latex and suede, obviously glass, but also there were all these kind of like ball bearings that were like understretched plastic. And there was this idea of wetness and of kind of elocution lessons and all this around them. Yeah. And a bit of fetish too. Is that what started your journey making glass sculptures and glass instruments? Yes, it was actually. It's a journey that I need to go on more, but just with the energy prices, working with glass has become almost impossible because of the gas prices and you have to have the furnace on all day long. And so it's very costly and there aren't that many places to do it, but it's an extraordinary material to work with. And it's incredibly strong. It's funny thinking of the tools, you know, when you think of glass, you think, oh, you have to be careful. And, you know, we don't interact with glass that much in our everyday life other than, you know, our phones and we pick up glasses of water. So we think of glass as being precious, but really the way that you work with it is you're getting metal tools and lots of flames and you need a load of people and there's fire and it's a really exciting process. And I think that there's some of that in some of the pieces, actually, there's this intensity. I think the materials that I work with and the instruments have definitely, like maybe the process of making has found its way in like the intensity of the pieces. So how do you draw sound from them? Do you bowl them? Do you hit them? Do you have different sculptures for different purposes when you play? So a lot of these instruments that feature in the album are prototypes. I still need to go and make some that are more durable and will maybe talk with me. I'd say they're still very much in sculptural form. Some of them were made through glass blowing. Some of them were made through fusing. And the thing about fusing is you're able to create a lot of openings. You can layer things on and then you can create more like mesh, which is what I did. I found ways of creating almost like a glass symbol that had all these holes. And so that particular sculpture you can play by tapping and depending on the thickness of the glass and how much structure is connected to it, you get a different pitch than in another area. And the larger the structure that you make, the lower the pitch. And it really is incredible. And that's an instrument that I'm going to carry on prototyping because right now I've broken all of mine. Then I worked on making things that were closer to a gerbil's cochlea. And unfortunately, you know, the sounds I got from that were not particularly exciting because everything makes a sound and you can always use it and you can always transform it. But I was really trying to create instruments that gave me their own unique sound when played acoustically without processing. I made some vessels that I blew into, some vessels that were kind of mimicking an ear canal. And I could fill that with air and then I could get these incredible bellowing tones. I think that's actually my last track. So yeah, I do love that sound. And it's very simple, but it's just really epic. It's a really epic sound. you

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