Electronics meets viola – a remarkable duo makes waves with ambient music
Jeremiah Chiu and Marta Sofia Honer met in Chicago, where they were both taking part in a performance of Terry Riley’s famed minimalist work “In C.”
With other hats on, Marta has played for Lauryn Hill and Beyoncé, while Jeremiah is an Assistant Professor teaching graphics at Otis College of Art and Design. He also DJs at dublab, a community radio and internet station in Los Angeles.
After working on several projects together, they found themselves helping friends to set up a hotel in Finland – more precisely, on a tiny island in a Swedish-speaking archipelago called the Åland Islands. Both were inspired by the experience to return and make field recordings that formed the basis for a new album of ambient music, consisting of duos between viola and modular synthesizer. They performed recently at London’s King’s Place, which is rapidly becoming the city’s major centre for innovative music (Synth and Software recently interviewed Robert Henke playing in one of the venue’s two halls).
Jeremiah, the modular system you’re using now must have taken a great deal of development. What phases did it go through before you settled on the final configuration?
The modular system that I perform with live is always in a state of change. Depending on the tour/performance, I will swap modules in and out to execute the specific set of pieces being performed.
I maintain a larger studio of modular and vintage synthesizers that I have been working with for the last two decades. These are things like the Roland Jupiter 4, Juno 60, SH101, Oberheim SEM, Pearl Syncussion, Yamaha SY1, etc.
For a long time these pieces would also change frequently, but the current marketplace for vintage synthesizers has made this more of a permanent configuration.
Marta, I was interested that on this album you process the viola less than you might do. Is there a specific aim to keep it more distinct from the electronic sounds?
Yes, especially for this record I was looking to keep more of an acoustic timbre throughout for my instrument to contrast with all the electronic sounds. I feel like it fits well with the rawness of the captured field recordings and overall sound story that we created.
There are a few moments of treated strings with granular synthesis or conversion of a string line to MIDI to create an electronic/acoustic viola duo, but beyond that we kept things fairly pure.
If a piece starts off with unpitched field recordings, maybe nature sounds, how do you
decide what key and scale to join in?
There were some instances (like bells) in which there was more of a pitch center that helped delineate key choices, otherwise I did not find the field recordings to really play a specific role in key choice, as they felt neutral enough or were added in a bit later in the composition process.
As well as the local sounds, did you pick up influences in your playing from local traditional music? I thought I discerned some of the typical playing style of the nyckelharpa.
So interesting that you bring this up! I do love the nyckelharpa, and have spent quite a lot of time listening to Swedish folk music in the past. However, it did not really direct influence on my performance for the record. Everything played on the record was purely improvisational based on the moment or reminiscing on our experiences in the archipelago.
Jeremiah, you make great use of the Yamaha CS01. Is there a particular approach to playing it that gives it a very organic sound?
The CS01 is one of my favorite synthesizers I’ve ever had. It sounds excellent, is battery operated and small, and very playable. It’s on almost every recording I’ve ever made, as it always finds a way to fit nicely into the mix.
I think its organic sound is due to the fact that it has to be played versus being sequenced. It has its own feel because of the size and lends itself to a unique performance.
Do you have a power configuration for playing in remote places, or are you confined to indoor mains power?
I mainly performed using standard power – though I have performed a great deal outdoors using battery operated PA’s and various power generators.
You also include a couple of classic analog keyboard synths on the album. What is it that you like about their sound?
I intentionally work with vintage/analog synthesizers because they create a unique dialogue with the performer – no two performances are the same. I love the “dust” in the sound, the idiosyncrasies of each instrument, and the ability to connect them to each other via CV/Gate or other methods that create a hybrid sound or performance.
When playing something like a piano, the interaction is more “one-to-one” – i.e. when I press this key, it plays this sound – whereas with each synthesizer, the relationship of keys, knobs, and patches can be wildly different depending on how it is set up – of course noting that you could prepare a piano this way too…
On the album, nature sounds often open a piece and gradually sink into a wash of modular system sounds, while the viola rides over the top more or less unprocessed. Sometimes you realise you’re not listening to two violas, and these are the points where a small looper module or an audio input to the granular synthesis modules of the system are at work.
Jeremiah’s system includes several more or less independent synth voices, and all of these can be sequenced or routed to control one another. You can see a very interesting performance from the album on YouTube, from a session shot at dublab in Los Angeles.
There’s another session with a more detailed look at the modules in use, shot at the Perfect Circuit store in Burbank.
“Recordings from the Åland Islands” has been released by the Chicago-based label International Anthem Recording Co. and is available in various formats through Bandcamp.