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NYX is a choir that embodies live electronics, drone and extended vocal techniques. Ahead of their concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall (25 Feb 2024) we speak with the choir’s composer and creative director Sian O'Gorman about testing the limits of collective vocal performance. Photo: Nathan Goldsworthy. NYX website: https://www.nyx-edc.com Ticket link: https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/gigs/roger-eno-nyx

PodcastInterviewSian O'GormanElectronicChoirDroneGazelle TwinDeep EnglandSouthbank CentreNYXQueen Elizabeth Hall


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 and my guest today is Sian O'Gorman, composer and creative director of the NYX electronic drone choir. NYX, which is named after the Greek goddess of the night, is an all-female choir that embodies live electronics, drone and extended vocal techniques. The project, which began in 2018, tests the limits of organic and synthetic modulation to explore the full spectrum of the voice as an instrument and thereby aims to reshape traditional notions of what a female choir can be. Listeners may draw parallels with other composers who employ electronics to modify their voice such as Holly Herndon and Lyra Pramuk, the avant-garde artist Meredith Monk, as well as polyphonic vocal traditions from various cultures across the world and of course the deep listening practice of Pauline Oliveros. NYX is a self-managed collective that has performed at London Design Festival, London Fashion Week, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Rewire Festival, Kings Place, the Barbican, Dark Mofo Festival among many other festivals and venues. They have also collaborated with Ableton, D&B Audio, MONOM Sound and the sound therapy provider Wavepaths. Their collaborative album with Gazelle Twin, Deep England, explored the contrasting themes of English paganism and the country’s isolationist political present. It’s an eerie and a somewhat unnerving journey but that didn’t stop the album being recognised by the Guardian as one of the top ten contemporary albums in 2021. The choir has also collaborated with other artists including Laura Misch, Hatis Noit, the spoken word artist MA.MOYO aka Belinda Zhawi and many others. On Sunday 25 February 2024, NYX will be performing at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in a double bill with Roger Eno. They will also be facilitating a series of vocal workshops on the 28 March, 25 April & 23 May at the Royal Festival Hall, introducing singers and non-singers alike to using their body and voice as vessels for connection. My conversation with Sian took place over Zoom earlier this month. IR: I often begin with the same question with all of my interviewees, and it is what is your first sonic memory? When did you first become aware of sound? I think the thing that's like really sticking out to me is I used to be, I grew up in New Zealand, and I remember very vividly living in a very kind of suburban area and being forced to take naps as a child and being put into bed, but I couldn't sleep a lot of the time. SOG: So all I had to do was to listen to the world outside. And I vividly remember like a lot of lawn mowing, a lot of cicadas, a lot of noise from the motorway, and kind of that becoming like a picture of the outside world that I would have rather have been in. But instead, all I could do was listen to that outside world until it was time to jump back into it. And also the voice of my neighbour, Sophie, she used to call over the fence to myself and my sister to see if we could come round to play and like the sound of her calling over and no one responding because we were forced to be having a nap. That's my earliest memory, I think. That's the first thing that comes to me anyway, when you ask that. IR: That's interesting that the distant motorway and lawn mower are mentioned in there because Nix is a drone choir and drone is a big part of what you do. So it must have been quite influential, actually. SOG: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, my earliest drones. IR: So you've had classical music training at university, but you turned away from kind of more traditional modes of choral music. Was this a conscious departure? And why did it occur? SOG: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I grew up my first, my first connection to singing was in church. And then I could very quickly joined the opera, like the opera chorus as a little kid. And so I was instantly singing in quite an amazing kind of quite fantastical world and being on stage and being surrounded by loads of different voices. But it also meant that I was then kind of funneling and tunneling my way into a very specific style of using my voice. And then I ended up going into classical music training at university and going on this kind of big path of wanting to become an opera singer. And that world is very much very hardcore, almost like Olympic level athlete type training. So you're really kind of opening yourself up to becoming a really disciplined, very strict, very formulaic user of your body for a specific use. And I think part of me began to shut down because I think that it wasn't necessarily kind of running very parallel to any sort of actual real authentic creativity being developed. It really felt more like I was kind of putting myself into a box of what a singer needed to be in order to work in a specific world. And so I think slowly my voice actually started breaking down and I, by the end of my second year of university training, I actually lost my voice completely. And I had to go to the ear, nose and throat specialists and they were all saying, oh, you know, it's because of your speaking voice and you speak too low and you need to train yourself out of that. And then, you know, only on reflection now, very, very far further down the journey, I can see that it was because my throat was shutting down because I wasn't really enjoying what I was doing. And it was the body responding and being like, this is not for you. So I also, you know, I love opera. I love classical music of all ages. And I loved, I also can't even begin to say how lucky I feel to have had that foundation of training, of physical training. And it's definitely one of those cases of, you know, being given these opportunities to get into very deep into this world and then decide to break out of it is to me quite a huge privilege. Then I also, you know, the music I was listening to in my spare time was nowhere near, well, it was opera of a different level. I was listening to a lot of Bjork and Peaches and, you know, kind of like quite riot grrrl stuff and like just quite, just a lot of women using their voices in a lot of like a different, still very operatic to me way. And that was the music that my heart was drawn to was quite like punky pop alternative contemporary music. Then I left New Zealand and I came to London. And that for me felt like an opportunity to kind of wipe the slate completely clean and just be an anonymous person that, you know, hadn't trained in the opera and was just open to a whole new world of making music. And then I got involved in some more kind of contemporary, alternative contemporary, still quite classical choirs, where I kind of started to become more of a creative director role in arranging a lot more music for voices. And I loved that. And that took me through for a few years and I did a lot of session singing for a lot of artists. I worked with loads of amazing people on big stages and did a lot of great stuff. But I think I slowly started to get this feeling of like, it's not enough for me to just stand in the background and sing these kind of perfect notes and look very perfect and everything be very like prim and proper. Because even in the world of like alternative contemporary pop music, when people are bringing a choir and they still want that choir to sound a certain way, that choir is still very much like a texture. It doesn't really a lot of the time have that much individuality to it. And it definitely doesn't explore all the spectrum of the voice. It's like there are certain tones that are acceptable and certain times that aren't. So then I started getting in much more into kind of ambient, expansive, electronic music. And then I started getting pedals using Ableton, actually at the time, probably just using Logic. And playing around with effects and how that responded to my voice. And as everyone knows, when they get inside a cave, even in real life and start making sounds like the experience of singing in a really reverberant space, whether that's in your headphones or in a giant cave by the sea is so joyful. And I just kind of rediscovered how much I love to sing with the kind of expansiveness and joy and kind of safety of singing with effects, I think. And then as I was doing that, I kind of thought to myself, imagine if there was a group of us all doing this and playing with not just our individual voices through the effects, but the power of a collective close harmony experiment through all these pitch shifters and all these delays and all these reverbs. What would that sound like? And then that's when I started NYX. Yeah. IR: NYX began in 2017, 2018, is that right? Are the same people still involved now that were there at the beginning? SOG: Yeah. I mean, so the collective itself has definitely, the collection of singers has evolved a lot since that time. It was a group of us at the very beginning. It was incredibly DIY. We were all very new to any kind of music production or any kind of live electronic anything. We were all just kind of learning how to plug our mics and our pedals and stuff into a mixer and make that even work. And why is all the feedback happening and whose loop is running? And that was a really fun, very formative experience. And that was also me just really gathering as many friends as I could to just come and hang out with me and do these things. I almost felt like I had to make everyone dinner so people would come over. And yeah, there's a few, like life happens and people have got their own stuff going on. Obviously, the pandemic happened and a lot of us shifted out of London. So that made it more difficult to reconnect when we did come back in. And then, you know, now we're in a state where we kind of need people to be based in London because the costs of everything have gone up a lot to get people places to rehearse, to fees have gone down. So context and the environment that we're in now has definitely dictated a lot of it. And people, yeah, people have just gone through different journeys, but there's definitely the wider collective still has everyone in it. The actual performing group for the gig that we've got coming up is mostly different. Actually, there's a few of us still from the very start, but it's mostly different. But then we're getting into the studio to record our debut album quite soon after that. And we're getting all the OGs back in town. Well, as many as we can to record these pieces we've been working on since that time. IR: How have these pieces changed since the beginning? And you're now six years, seven years down the line from when it all began. SOG: Oh, my God, they're still changing. They change on a daily basis. The very first project that we opened up with was a collaborative series with four female trans non-binary artists from that were solo artists in their own right, solo kind of electronic, sometimes vocal, sometimes instrumental artists. And we made this series of four events over four months, which is honestly the craziest thing I think I've ever done, but four totally different shows in four months with a totally brand new group of people. We put the series on and through that act of collaborating, and that was me taking these people's existing music and expanding it out into this electronic choral world that we were experimenting with. And through that process, I started to develop a language of what is the sound of next. It was really amazing because it meant that I was able to go into four completely different genres and extrapolate their sounds and make them into our own world. And it meant that then that informed how I started to compose my own stuff. So then the music that I started to compose from there, we did an initial performance. I think the first place we performed, it was somewhere in the Netherlands. And yeah, it's funny to think of that version of it now versus what it is, that version of what it was before versus what it is now. It's just gotten a lot deeper. It's expanded a lot more. And it just really responds to who is in the group at the time, because I'm composing with my voice, with the way that we work as a kind of... I compose things into layers on an Ableton file, and then I label them. And then I offer that out to the singers, and I say, okay, your part's in red, your track one. And then they can listen to that, and they can see, they can turn on and off the effects that I've put on just for reference. And then they can start to plot and learn and think about how their voice could do that part with their own equipment station. So it is quite free form, but it is still kind of designed. So whenever a new singer comes into the process, that does really dramatically transform the sound. So the fact that we've got all these new people that have come through the process at different times has meant that the music has changed. And also every time I start a new project or a new job, my language of electronic choral music expands. It just feeds into the rest of the music all the time, because I learn little tricks, or I'm like, oh, I love this sound, let's try and put this sound in somewhere. And I'm working a lot more closely with Alicia Jane Turner, who was one of our original collaborators in that series, and now they're a very kind of core part of the collective of the group. And they sing in the group, but they also, they're the kind of affected string player who you'll hear a lot of, and their influence on the sound has been very huge as well. IR: So does improvisation and things like field recordings, do they play a vital role in what you do? And to what extent is composition a collaborative process? SOG: Yeah, that's a great question. So I'll start with like field recordings. I love field recordings much. And I'd also say because a lot of our work is very much derived from almost psychedelic experiences with nature, and like the depth and the creative expansion of connecting to the world around us, whether that's kind of like through stones and crystals or through trees or through water or through air, we have quite a kind of elemental connection to composition. And that comes through both my own practice of like having quite a lot of natural and very kind of visual based meditation practices outside. And also from the fact that it seems to kind of have this effect on who contacts us, we get a lot of people getting in contact to do collaborative work, like a lot of artists that work in light or photography, especially to do with natural things or like installations to do with trees or crystals and all these sorts of things. So like that informs the practice. I don't know how it seems to happen. It seems to be magic. The things that I'm always seem like I'm focusing on in my kind of spiritual world seem to come through the email inbox. Someone will email us and be like, I've got a project with clouds. And I'll just be like, wow, that's exactly what I've been thinking about. So it does seem to be some kind of magical element of that. Improvisation, as I kind of said before, yeah, I feel like it's a slightly more like, it's almost like a jazz realm of work in that there is a formula, but the way in which things are carried out are essentially coming from the body and are quite improvisational. I think like the people take the concepts that I give them, the singers, if it is a version of us performing live together in a group, because there's various iterations of mix, and that's just one of them, us performing together in a group, yes, I will. I'll kind of hand over an idea of the sound, and then it's my decision overall kind of how I want that crafted. But I often am really interested in how that singer will take that away with their own unique timbre and their own unique kind of way of creating sound and their own unique way of interacting with the technology, the equipment. And so that's one form of the improvisation. The other form is that my compositions, I'd say, are purely improvised. I will a lot of the time just head outside, or I will sit down and I will completely just go off on an improvisation thing. And then what I'll usually do is I'll record that whole session, and then I'll just cut up and extrapolate bits that I feel work really well together, and then I'll start sewing them together. So everything starts as a form of improvisation. The other thing is that we work with an embodiment director called Imogen Knight, and we've also worked with two incredible singing witches who are also very much embodied sound practitioners, Bethan and Katya. And a lot of that deep work is coming into being very present in the body and letting the body sound itself. So it's a very amazing way to go through a number of different kind of psychological, spiritual processes. But in terms of music, it's an incredible point to come from. And it's always where we try to come from on the stage. It's like, how can we be fully embodied in this process of performing electronic music? And how can we kind of connect to the audience through our own bodies kind of channeling that? So that feels in itself very kind of improvisatory. Yeah, and then how much of it is collaborative, the composition process? I mean, again, that is just completely in the context of whatever we're creating. We do this work that we're coming up to perform at the Southbank very soon, and that we're recording into the album. The majority of, I'm going to say that all of that stems from my own compositions. But a lot of that is me feeding ideas back and forth to people, and then them responding, and then me taking things away. So I'd say, at times, I feel like I'm composing and people are responding. And I'd say, at times, I'm composing and people are feeding in other ideas. So that becomes a little bit more collaborative. And then we kind of go back and forth and kind of Frankenstein this kind of creature together. Then often I work with other musicians, and then the level of how collaborative we're going to be is kind of up to the relationship that we build. Sometimes people are totally happy for me to just completely take their music and just do whatever I like to it. And other people are kind of a little bit more like, okay, what if we did this, and what if we did this? And I'm up for all of it, really. I love it. I love every step of it, because it's so interesting how different people respond collaboratively. And I don't think there's any one formula that works. It's just like finding a language and a level of safety and comfort together that you can kind of, that you both feel like the boundaries set to be truly creative, and you're not kind of compromising too much, but you are getting to a point where you're, where you feel free to kind of feed your ideas in. IR: I get the sense the idea of collective support is very important to Nyx, and not only in relation to the group dynamics and how you perform together, but also in the workshops that you facilitate. And there's an element of like guided meditation, collective visualization, and you've worked with female trans and non-binary artists, people who've experienced trauma, and who have social support. And also you'll be running a series of workshops at the South Bank in relation to collective vocal work. So I'm just interested to find out, like, what is the purpose of these workshops? What kind of feedback do you get from the participants that engage with them? SOG: So I think there's been a huge revival in this kind of work, and people are coming out of the woodwork, and there's a lot more work to do with kind of meditation. You know, yoga is becoming really big. People are getting into using their voice. People are getting into like dancing and embodiment and somatic practices that seems to be coming a little bit more into the collective language. And I think we're very careful that we are holding a space that helps people really dive into how this work can expand their kind of creative practice. I think, you know, this work can be framed in a number of different ways. I think when you're working with the voice and with singing, and especially collective singing, and you're going really deep diving into where the sound comes from, where there's blockages in your body, it can turn into quite a therapeutic practice, and it can turn into a place for trauma to be released and for trauma to be worked on. And I think we're very careful to make sure that the process can be therapeutic, but this is not a therapy space, because we're not trained therapists. And I think it's really important that if people are wanting to go to work on kind of releasing their voice in a much deeper way, which there's a number of amazing people that do like very big, like week long, 10 day long, big, deep dives into it, that it's supported really well, because it can bring a lot of stuff up for people. But I think what we're holding is a space where people can come together and experience what it feels like to be kind of held by a collective experience of sounding. Our sessions are usually, you know, anywhere between one and three. Sometimes we did actually did a workshop the other day at the ICA for about six hours, which was incredible. But I think a lot of the time it's kind of shedding the layers and shedding this kind of learned belief that you can't sing or your voice is somehow unacceptable, or, you know, you're not a singer, so therefore you can't benefit from singing. And I think that's just to me, that's like one of the most ultimate, sad things to think about is like, not everybody has a voice. But for those of us that do, just the act of sounding, of making sound through your body, is such a beautiful, like kind of cathartic release, let alone when it's done in a room full of people, it can be so joyful and so silly. And it can bring up such beautiful kind of collective, connective emotion. So yeah, we work in a number of different ways, but it's usually myself and Imogen, Imogen Knight holding the space. And we do a lot of deep work into kind of getting into the body, like really, really like connecting in with the body, which in itself is quite a profound practice, especially these days, especially in a city, because we are very caught in our heads. We're walking around just thinking a lot of the time. So even just being given the permission to drop into your feet, to drop into your legs, to see how your belly's feeling that day is amazing. And then we work into like warming up the voice and waking up the voice and toning into different and through different parts of the body. And then we do a lot of kind of collective, creative, imaginative sounding soundscapes. So that could be like people sitting in a circle and being given a prompt like, okay, we're going to talk about the texture of melting ice. And instead of actually speaking, we just create the sounds of melting ice together. And it can be really funny and it can be really amazing and very profound. And then we have moments of kind of like chanting or singing together, coming up with collective moments of song. And again, it just helps people drop out of this feedback loop of, I don't sound very good, you know, like kind of referencing what's happening and just being with what's happening. And afterwards, you know, we always go around and ask people where they're at, how they're feeling. And the difference between people from the start to the end is just phenomenal. Like people are always a lot clearer, like their eyes look clear. They've got a sparkle to their face. Everyone kind of reports feeling very relaxed and very expansive and very alive and very connected. I think that's the other thing. It's like just the process of having people in a room, like singing together, sounding together, it's such a lost experience because there's still so many places where people can go out and dance and kind of be together through, you know, shifting their bodies and listening to music together. But there's not really very many situations apart from going to church or going to a sports game even, where people are actually just in a room singing together. You know, maybe you can head to some pubs and some far off places in Wales and Ireland and Scotland, and you'll still find people standing around a piano singing some songs. But in general, there's just not that many places for people to just sing or to just sound. So it's just, yeah, creating these spaces and getting people to kind of expand their creative world and their creative kind of art practice through their bodies. IR: So there's a lot of kind of positivity around what you're doing. And this is going to be a bit of a long question, so bear with me. So the choir name is a reference to the Greek goddess of the night, and that alludes to like a sense of darkness, a sense of shadow self that you embody to come through into the singing practice. You've also done a collaborative album with Gazelle Twin, which is called Deep England, which is a choral reworking of her album Pastoral, which alludes to Britain's pagan past and makes connections to where the country is politically right now. You're a choral collective, but you yourself also lived on a collective, collective land in the countryside. And to me, all these ideas, they sort of suggest that NYX is a temporary autonomous zone that is standing in opposition to established notions of music composition, what it means to make music, what it means to experiment collectively, and yet a safe space as well. So would you kind of agree with this interpretation? And do you feel like it's a conscious decision to work within this framework? And would you ever want to deviate away from that, develop another form of working? SOG: It's amazing to hear it framed like that. I have been a lot more reflective about all of this lately and how it all ties in together. Because I don't think I initially even started, even though I have talked about how I was kind of coming from a place of rebellion against traditional choral spaces, I don't think I ever really kind of imagined it would become, even in its way of kind of administration and existence, that it would become a place of working through much more of a political ethos. But it has become that, and it's become that in every layer of how we work, from how we interact with the singers and the collective. It's myself and Philippa Neels who run the project, and Philippa is very much an incredible creative brain as well. And she's also very much in charge of how everything works behind the scenes, whereas I'm kind of slightly more on the ground composing and performing. Philippa is behind the scenes kind of designing the experience of how we work and the spaces that we come into. And for us, the daily existence of mix is very mundane. And it is like the daily existence of being a musician now is a hustle. You're hustling every day, especially if you're working outside the mainstream. We're an independent collective still. We don't have a record label. We don't have booking agents. We don't have anything like that. So we're doing everything ourselves. And although that's incredibly tiring, it's also amazingly empowering because it means we get to kind of work with all these people that we love. We bring on kind of collaborators when we need it, but it also means we can become so skilled in so many different areas. It means that we can kind of really craft all the elements of the project in a way that we feel is authentic. And I'd say that is reflected in the music kind of slightly more obviously, and just that we are embodying a lot of sound that was in my previous choral life deemed kind of inappropriate or not fitting or not working. The other thing of being in a choir or a chamber group that's a lot smaller, which is kind of almost what we are because we're usually a performing group of between six to eight. And if you had a choir of six to eight people, you would usually be picking people that were perfect blenders and didn't really have their own kind of unique timbre of voice so much. You'd be picking people that were incredibly crafted at blending together to make one sound, whereas we've actively chosen musicians and vocalists that are incredibly unique and their timbres don't necessarily blend so easily with one another, but they're bringing this kind of individuality to the group that is to me so much more interesting and so much more magical. And you can kind of hear that reflected in the sound and you can also really experience a scene on the stage. Everybody's got such a different energy that they bring and it's like kind of like this collective kind of cauldron of vulnerability from everybody, whether they're quite an extroverted large energy or they're quite a small introverted person, their kind of uniqueness is really kind of expanded in the collective. It's almost like all of us individually are one thing, but when we're in a team, it just makes something so much more than the sum of our individual parts. So that to me has always been really interesting. It becomes musically, you know, that's also what's funny about Nix is she's born out of chaos, like big bang energy. And that is also what it feels like on stage. Like we're trying to bring forth a sense of, yeah, we're trying to make sense of the chaos and trying to bring in hopefulness and bring in, I wouldn't even say it's a light and dark thing, because to me it's all like there's so much darkness and there's so much light in what we're creating all of the time. It's just like a beautiful spectrum that we're taking the colours of one and the colours of the other. And we're kind of painting together a piece that involves all spectrums of the human psyche, of human emotion that becomes more and more kind of important as we go along. I also think for us as well, like having come from such an independent space and kind of really quite strongly holding to that form of being independent and being authentic and being ourselves and trying to do things differently means we are constantly in a state of evolution, like we are constantly shifting how we work, who we work with, how we process things, how we speak about how we work. We're trying always to remain incredibly transparent with our processes, with the people close to us and the people that we love. And that also feels in like today's world, also pretty badass and a political statement, because there's a lot of stuff that just gets left unsaid. I watch a lot of people get totally chewed up and eaten out by the... eaten out? that's definitely not the word – that sounds more fun – but eaten up by the music industry. And we've got to do something different. We've got to like break free of this because it's causing so much harm to creative people, to be pushed so hard, to have to work so hard and yeah, not even be able to kind of financially support themselves. It's just, yeah, we're trying, we're trying. IR: You've been listening to a conversation with Shana Gorman, composer and creative director of NYX, the all-female electronic drone choir. If you'd like to find out more about the project, head over to nyx-edc.com or follow them at nyx.edc on Instagram. Tickets for their Queen Elizabeth Hall concert are available from southbankcenter.co.uk. I'm going to play out with 'Mutualism' featuring MA-MOYO (NYX Air Remix). Thanks for listening.

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