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TOMOKO SAUVAGE, on exploring the sonic properties of water

Interview by Agata Kik

Yoshihiro Inada
Photo credit: Yoshihiro Inada

Tomoko Sauvage has been exploring sonic properties of water in different states for over ten years. The title of one of the artist’s projects waterbowls comes from the name of the ‘natural synthesiser’.  Through the sounds coming from water bowls, the artist investigates the sculptural properties of music and the spiritual potential of vibrating matter.

The ‘natural synthesiser’, which the artist uses as an instrument in her performances, is made out of ceramic bowls filled with fluids, light and an underwater amplifier. From the microphones submerged in water, the artist uses hydrophonic feedback flowing both with water waves and within airy bubbles released from porous ceramic surfaces.

The performance incorporates the surrounding environmental conditions such as architectural acoustics, humidity and temperature, while joined by the human presence of the artist to absorb and combine all of these outer elements into her reverberating instrument to release that as resonance finally. Her practice points to the sonic properties of the natural environment and shows how these can be used as tools to compose music. 

Waterbowls is also about what man can control and what lies beyond our seeing. Tomoko plays on the boundary between the known and this that we cannot foresee. These fluid vibrations of water bowls can be listened to in Musique Hydromantique, Tomoko’s second solo album after Ombrophilia, which was released last year. Every track in the album comes from a different location in France, and each of them responds to the environmental conditions found in the place.

In this way, Musique Hydromantique is a form of music which is composed of improvised joint human/nature action. One of the tracks, Calligraphy, for example, was recorded in a former textile factory, a natural echo chamber, where the resonance of a single sound would sometimes even take up to 10s. In Tomoko’s practice, the waves of sounds spread in the air and travel with the waves of water filling up the ceramic, while all is influenced by the artist, whose hand sculpts the kinetic liquid.

For this year’s Unsound festival, Tomoko is joining Paweł Romańczuk, the founder of Małe Instrumenty (Small Instruments), a band exploring possibilities of sound through diverse combinations of small objects. These include professional instruments, sound toys and any naive and strange musical inventions that are not necessarily instruments but still produce sound, with the objective of searching for creative sonic solutions through experimentation. With her performance, the artist will show the festival audience how she uses the properties of water to embody the festival’s theme Presence genuinely.

You have spent years investigating the sound and visual properties of water. For those that are not familiar with your background and practice, could you tell us more about the intellectual process of your practice?

My instrument, “waterbowls” is composed of porcelain (and sometimes glass) bowls filled with water and amplified with hydrophones (underwater microphones). I use hydroponic feedback that undulates with water waves, bubbles coming out of porous ceramic and so on… The music is pretty much based on performance practice that uses environmental factors (room acoustics, humidity) and coincidences as compositional tools. There’s an aspect of non-control. My role is to find a balance point between mastery and hazard.

Musique Hydromantique is your last album. What was the intellectual process behind it?

First, this physical sound experiment was without any intellectual thoughts. But after finishing the album and thinking about the titles, I had many things on my mind as I played this instrument for many years. About bubbles – this was easy – I already had the title “fortune biscuit”, which says everything. I’ve also worked for a long time on the dripping water, so I had random thoughts on water clocks and elastic time.

And somehow, everything was pointing in the same direction – everything was coming together around my hands, gestures and objects I use. When I learned about hydromancy, a method of divination using water, that was it. I particularly thought about the “omikuji”, the paper fortune, that we used to pick up from a box at a shrine in my childhood in Japan. A gesture of a hand that determines the future… that you believe or not…

And what were the biggest challenges you faced when developing water bowl compositions?

Well, this instrument has been developing through my numerous performances for many years. There were always small challenges at each concert. I made more or less small errors each time. I’ve had to learn things, try new things and make modifications gradually, still today.

For Unsound 2018 you are presenting a show called Archive in which Poland’s Paweł Romańczuk of małe instruments will compose music featuring your work. The visual side of Archive will be created from Rydet’s photographs by Elektro moon vision in collaboration with Karol Hordziej. Could you tell us the intellectual process behind it?

This is a one-off session project commissioned by the festival. I rarely do collaborative work as it needs lots of commitment, like a marriage – if I do it, I really want to work on it. Also, water bowls are a very fragile instruments. I need to listen to every subtle frequency ringing in the room. This collaboration will be more improvised with my performance featured in the work of Paweł Romańczuk and Karol Hordziej. I was intrigued by Zofia Rydet’s work, thanks to this project.

It’s nice to see more deeply local elements as a travelling musician who often stays only 12 hours in one place and leaves for the next. Actually, we haven’t talked about the artistic process yet. I’m looking forward to it.

This year’s Unsound theme is Presence, which can have very different meanings. What does Presence suggest to you?

The last time I remember I heard this word was when a young philosophy student and musician came to see me for an interview to write his thesis on aesthetics. He said he saw my concert and really thought of this word, presence, unlike his general attitude being “blasé” about the music he listens to on youtube.

I think there’s something about connectedness and shared energy, time and space in a live setting. In most of my shows, there’s a magical moment where I feel a magnet-like interconnection between the water, ceramic, my hands, space and the calm but intense energy from the audience.

What directions do you see taking your work into?

I don’t know. It’s a period when I really feel like studying. Reading, watching films, discussing with people from different fields, trying new methods of artistic practice while continuing my old ones…

What is your chief enemy of creativity?

Lack of discipline. At the same time, I often get good ideas while I sleep so a lack of sleep can also be my enemy of creativity.

You couldn’t live without…

Good health, for which I do everything I can think of. When I’m tired, I do everything wrong, and feel bad, which affects my environment and makes a vicious cycle. When I eat and sleep well, everything goes well.

(Media courtesy of the artist)
On Key

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