Interview: Shabaka HutchingsGuest Editor
“Music is a communal endeavour. Music is something that I think brings people and societies together to experience, for certain…
“It’s so much bigger than music itself. It matters because it creates dialogue, an opportunity to increase respect, understanding, compassion. In those ways, it’s essential that we make music with musicians from other cultures”
Nathan Riki Thomson is a musician and educator from Australia, based in Finland. He was interviewed as part of Sound and Music’s newest podcast series, and features alongside Anthony R Green and Amble Skuse in Episode 4: Portals which you can listen here.
There’s many things that Covid has put into perspective. For me, one of those things is the power of music in terms of connecting people, regardless of where they’re from, or how they’ve grown up, what their background is, or how far away they are from you. I had two experiences like this — one I was forced onto the online environment, where we suddenly had to work out ways of making music together when we couldn’t be in the same room together. The actual act of communicating through sound in whichever way, that same power of connection was there.
Another experience I had was being forced to play outside. I recorded a duo album with Adriano Adewale and it was made in different locations in the forest. Somehow the connection between us was strengthened because of being in this outdoor environment, and because it was not just the two of us but it was all the other sounds happening around us as well. It is some kind of enhanced listening.
Just by being outside and being in that environment, your ears get bigger or widen and you start really paying attention to all the subtleties in the sound, and that then spills over into the listening between musicians because your ears are wide awake. There is some kind of freedom that comes with that. You get out of yourself a bit more; you stop thinking about the sound you’re producing so much and start thinking more about how it relates to everything else around you.
Part of the initiative for the album was to set up a series of dialogues with musicians from different backgrounds, different cultures; the other side is to do with the double bass and augmenting the instrument through my experiences of working with musicians from diverse backgrounds.
A big part of this connects to my time in Africa where I lived for five years, and particularly the influence of a sonic aesthetic that uses buzz, buzzing sounds or acoustic distortion. Some of these ideas have been transferred onto the bass, and I work with an instrument maker to make a series of attachments that buzz and rattle and attach to the bridge of the bass. The other augmented element is an electronic element at times — electronics are driven into the body of the bass, and these merge with the acoustic buzzing attachments.
I’m also thinking about resonance in terms of how people connect and how we find points of connection with one another, and particularly when we are from diverse backgrounds and different cultures, how do we find those points of connection or resonance.
I looked at this idea of third space: for example, when we have two musicians working together from two different backgrounds, there is this process of dialogue that starts to happen but there is something that starts to emerge in between those people that becomes a third element. It doesn’t belong to either person but is somehow the result of this meeting and the things that emerge from this meeting.
Seeds is a solo bass piece which explores particularly those rattling attachments, some of them that contain seeds in them. But seeds also refers to new beginnings and things growing out of contact with others and also this has a connection to me with my own children, seeing them start to grow and develop.
The recordings have the children there — actually it’s my youngest son who was about three at the time and he was at that stage of working out how language works. We were in London at that time and he had English all around him, but his mum was speaking Finnish to him every day and he was at that time mixing the two languages all the time. Some of those recordings were made being fascinated with how he was discovering sound and language. I think it is a great metaphor for that same process that happens with musicians from diverse cultures and backgrounds, and maybe it’s that mindset thing again: when you enter into that dialogue with that openness and that acceptance of all approaches to sound and you start working with that, it produces really interesting results.
There’s another track on the Resonance album that was a dialogue with Sámi singer Hildá Länsman, and that was a really resonant experience for me as well. There’s something really powerful about a duo dialogue and in this case, Hilda’s way of using her voice and her connection to the joik tradition was so powerful and so resonant in the space, it goes right through your body. This affected me deeply in terms of working with her, and I think translated directly into the way that I played in that dialogue as well. It was a very clear example of encountering a musician from a different background and being inspired by what they do and how they approach sound, and seeing how that affects you and how you absorb that in your own way.
Even though it was more composed and structured, I gradually got rid of material, got rid of some of the rigid bits of the structure and let things emerge more as we worked more and more together. So, in that way I think it is more about facilitating, about providing a framework and an impetus, a seed of an idea, a vision, but allowing that to mould and change and letting go of things and allowing the real uniqueness of that meeting between those two people emerge and take on a life of its own.
It’s so much bigger than music itself. It matters because it creates dialogue, an opportunity to increase respect, understanding, compassion. In those ways, it’s essential that we make music with musicians from other cultures because the qualities that emerge from that process are human qualities that are crucial to the world we live in. For me, it is endlessly fascinating musically and inspiring, and that’s a good reason in itself to make music with musicians from other cultures. But it’s so much bigger than that — it extends right into these core qualities that are needed to really increase dialogue and understanding amongst cultures.
Practising that ability to embrace difference and to be curious and want to nurture difference and look after difference — we start by recognising that in ourselves, that we have these multiple aspects to ourselves. Then it becomes easier to embrace that in others, and perhaps this is the most important thing: that we cultivate this sense of acknowledging that we are all different, we all have these multiple strands to our identity and we are not able to put ourselves in defined boxes — and this increases our acceptance of difference.