Text by CLOT Magazine
The next instalment of our Mixtape series comes by Johanna Sulkunen, a Finnish experimental vocalist, composer & improviser based in Copenhagen, with a mix of minimalistic combined with vocal compositions to welcome the spring season.
For Johanna, the symbiosis of vocals and electronics have been at the centre of her career. A frequent collaborator with iconic jazz & improv musicians such as Tomasz Stanko, Axel Dörner, and Koichi Makigami and originally labelled as an exciting voice on the alternative jazz scene, Sulkunen has expanded her range from jazz and alternative pop to free improvisation, electronic music and avant-garde.
Only a few months ago, Johanna released Terra, a collection of tracks where the artist invokes imaginary landscapes with her voice, electronics and a stellar ensemble. Terra also represents the second part of her trilogy with the solo project Sonority, in which the Finnish experimental vocalist creates a global vision while trapped in Copenhagen and invites the listener to question our modern life and its often destructive relation to nature.
On Terra, she continues the work with Zen Buddhism and the koan, as in her first release with her solo project and her own lyrics. Still, she expands her musical space considerably. She explores the transformation of the vocal language into instruments such as strings, horns and drums, letting the qualities of texts lead to the result.
For this mixtape, she’s selected a mixture of very minimalistic sound compositions, some vocal works, and some more ‘embracing’ with strings and electronics: I think it intrigues you to listen to the details and lets you let go of thinking and drift along with sound. I’ve been preparing the mix while sitting on a tour bus (or more of a tiny, totally packed car) and taking my own time between the concerts sitting alone with my headphones.
What was the creative process like for producing your last album, Terra: What were you technically and conceptually (if so) exploring with it? And also, how related to the isolation you went through?
My album Terra is a continuum from my process on the album Koan. They run under the same umbrella project, ‘Sonority,’ and the third part of the trilogy is already in the making. ‘Sonority’ is a study of a voice and its resonance. I worked with my voice, text, and textures in Zen Buddhistic Koan texts on the album Koan.
Terra’s approach was to expand this universe, reaching the actual physical nature. As the covid restrictions came, I stayed in Copenhagen instead of Iceland’s raw nature, where I planned to make field recordings in nature.
In isolation, I felt that since the world got suddenly very small between the walls of your home, the image became very awake and flourishing. I worked with some compositional structures with circular motions of planets and some prerecorded field recordings and sounds of falling ice. My voice is also present more traditionally (than in Koan), and I use texts and melodies. Some of the texts are my own, and Koan’s texts inspire some. I wanted to let intuition, and improvisation have more space on TERRA.
The field recording element was out of the question since my field recording trip to Iceland didn’t work out because of covid restrictions. As a result of all this, I think the album became rather ‘visual’, like paintings on the canvas of my mind. I got a lot of images and pictures of the distant beautiful, and untouchable nature that led to a different angle to the production. I had a great producer and friend Aske Zidore, help out at the end, which I found very useful in this changed situation.
What are your main inspirations for your productions these days? Has it changed after pandemics?
I was calm during the pandemic and enjoyed working in my home studio a lot and the slower tempo of life. First, it was freeing and nice to have the physical and emotional space and a little bubble without the expectations from the outer world. But after a while, I started missing the interaction with playing and meeting with people.
It was great to recently play a live concert in the beautiful Koncertkirken in Copenhagen with the whole TERRA band. Inspiration for my productions these days is still the voice. But not only my voice but the voices of others too. It is also very intriguing to think of the possibilities of machine learning in the context of my next production. More about that later… 😉
What are your main inspirations for your productions these days, and towards which direction do you see your interests develop after this release?
Sonically speaking, I’d like to keep exploring the endless possibilities and combinations between analogue gear and technology. Everything really. Collaborating with other artists is definitely something I would also like to continue and develop after this release, hopefully widening up the spectrum of my influences and inspirations and pushing boundaries by collaborating with many different artists.
Your sound feels very delicate and intricate, felt to be fully enjoyed in an immersive environment in deep listening. Are you consciously trying to awaken deep listening feelings with your music, or is it something that comes up naturally (somehow inherent to the nature of the music you produce)?
I tend to have big respect for details and, on the other hand, the immersive sound and listening experience. I feel that I can enhance polarities and contrasts in music and play with them. I think the combination of improvisation, electronics, and detailed production is maybe what might create the sonic environment. I love it when the feeling of being one with the music occurs, either by listening or making it. In a way being the one that the music flows through. I
have been in deep listening practice through my field recordings and practising voice meditation of some kind through the years. Music has always felt as natural and essential as air, water, or other natural elements. You need to give yourself to it and let it flow. Of course, there are challenges on the way now and then, but I try to keep focused and find my way back. All that comes on the way are human challenges that I try to find a way to conquer.
You used field recording in your past album Koan, and also, you had planned to record some in Iceland. What do field recordings bring to your compositions? And how have you used them in your last productions?
When I first started using field recordings, it was somehow like a real revelation to me to get back to listening in a way I heard when I was a child. A childish realization that all the sounds are music, all in one, I am one. It was an awakening. Since I studied music professionally in an institutionalized jazz school environment, I got further away from a deep understanding and sense of sound. The education and conservatory environment brought me many valuable skills and unnecessary things, so I have tried ever since to find back the core of making and sensing music.
I found myself back in this room, starting to use the field recordings. First, in Koan, studying and listening to the environment of the temples, monks and gongs, and much more. It gave me a whole other approach and perspective to what I was doing. Sonority is about the detail of the sound and resonance and meanwhile expanding to touch upon the big questions of being and the whole universe…
And what about voice? What does it mean for you to express your art with your voice and to explore what you say and how the voice resonates with nature?
Voice is such a special and multi-faceted instrument that I’m still trying to find peace with it. It’s so closely intertwined with the personality, everyday use with other people, private and public communication. Voice became my main instrument only after being an instrumentalist for a long time. Dealing with voice means also dealing a lot with yourself and your emotions, personality, and physical manners. What I mean by resonating with nature is two-folded. First of all, we humans are part of nature, water, made of cells and molecules, so we are nature. Second, the resonance of our mental and intellectual need to be in touch with nature is essential and resonates in various ways.
R. Murray Schafer devised the term “sound ecology”, do you think sound recordists should promote a less polluted sound environment, or this is a matter of the inevitable evolution of the landscape?
Working with field recordings naturally increases the awareness of the environment’s sound. Therefore, including field recordings in my work inevitably promotes a less polluted sound environment. I am very sensitive to sound, and I need periods of full silence to be able to be in balance as a human being. I think people have different quotas of taking in sound and sound sensitivity. In general, we should absolutely be aware of it and limit the unnecessary sound pollution, as much for the well-being of people and other living beings.
What is your relationship with novel technologies nowadays, how do you use them for your practice? And how do you cope with technology (screen/digital) overload?
There is a lot of good, but for sure also something to be aware of in novel technologies. We are surrounded by technology all the time, all over the place. It’s part of being a human these days. It can become a problem like almost anything else in life in the form of addiction of some kind. My relationship with it had changed a lot in the past years, for example, compared to my childhood when I didn’t have daily access to a computer and lived in a quiet environment close to nature. But being conscious of the use of technology and self-aware of its consequences is, of course, wise when living in Western realities.
Technology is a great tool for expressing and producing artistic ideas. Also, working with electronics, I’m intrigued by the feedback it creates. I feel the computer has become a very close and intimate extension of my music-making, allowing me to express some things more directly than before.
But of course, taking ‘time off’ when I consciously take breaks from screens and digital overload is very healthy and calms the nervous system.