Architecture of Sound: Wilted Woman at Silver Road
Ahead of Wilted Woman’s show at a former water tank in Lewisham, SIREN – the collective behind the event – took part in a conversation with the Berlin-based experimental producer to explore the politics of space, sound and memory
London’s love affair with techno is strongly linked to our rave history: rarely do we see dance music presented away from a dancefloor. In a city of ever dwindling club spaces, SIREN wanted to push against what is considered a ‘fitting’ space for dance music, and so invited noise-magician Wilted Woman over to London to perform at Silver Road; a gutted water tank in Lewisham. We spoke over Skype to discuss the ways in which scenes and spaces have fed into Wilted Woman’s sonic journey.
WW fits the archetype of very warm people who make very twisted music. Initially trained as a classical violinist, she changed tack at 14 and decided that she did want to make music, but that she “didn’t want the sounds to be violin”. Eventually she found her way to the music she makes today: avant-garde techno she calls “anxiety rhythms” – via New York basement noise shows. Wilted Woman’s sound ranges from whimsical to abject; with an eel-slipperiness that resonates with both a previous moniker (Eel Burn) and her elusive online presence. We were intrigued by the thought of situating this music within a space that could play its own part in the sound, as opposed to simply ‘hosting.’ As a huge echo chamber, the tank acts as another effect, adding its own steely reverb to the existing tracks.
At this year’s CTM festival, NON Worldwide founder Nkisi mentioned her view of sound as its own form of public space, effectively layering on top of the shared environment of the dance / listening floor. Those choosing to be in the space simultaneously participate in the shared transmission of vibrational knowledge, becoming both sonically and physically ‘present’. A distinction between gigs and dance music events is the often even distribution of sound across the venue: electronic music can be more democratically spread throughout so that everyone has access. The audience do not necessarily attend to watch a performance, but to create their own experiences via the music.
We chat about the types of spaces WW prefers to perform in. These tend generally to be smaller, and not necessarily part of a normal club; ideally a house party as “people are more receptive to what you want to do”. You’re not there to “fill a certain part of their concept of what the night should be:” a framework you can still fuck with, but “can result in half the crowd walking out while you’re playing”.
Zooming out from the physical impact of spaces upon sound and how the room sounds, as WW explains to us, you’ve got to think about who will be there and what other acts are performing. Different spaces can facilitate sounds in different ways: “If you’re playing in a gallery or an in-store thing, then you can’t play kick drums because it sounds like a joke. If all the lights are on and everyone’s sitting on the floor you seem like an ass.” From a more conceptual perspective, Lia Mazzari of Silver Road explains that: “The aim is to use the space in order to really experience and reinvent a story every night. I think that is one way of bringing a space alive.” Performers are asked to engage with the unique architecture of the tank; shows are not tied to any specific genre but instead the artist should integrate the sonic and visual properties of the space into their work. “A very good example of this was Penultimate Press Label night with Áine O’Dwyer, Mark Harwood and James Dunn as a duo. The artists fully engaged with the structure by climbing on it, using the materials they found there and moving in and around the space. It was mesmerizing because they all had a very personalized approach to the structure and caused diverse musical outcomes.”
Silver Road’s magic lies in its singular appearance and acoustics, and the way it sidesteps expectations of conventional music spaces, which often weigh heavily on event programming. Yet that this space faces imminent closure speaks to the battle faced by unusual and experimental venues in London. The impact of increasingly few spaces in the city has myriad effects, including the way we experience nightlife. Memory is highly spatial, and plays a key role in our experience of music. When we are forced to experience a wide array of music within the same physical spaces over and over, eventually it can collapse in our mind into one blurred experience. From this perspective, completely new and unique settings might always be the best means of experiencing avant-garde music.
WW thinks of the excitement of a makeshift festival she went to over the summer, hearing Asmus Tiechens, Rashad Becker, Parabelles, and Felix Kubin play in a field on the outskirts of Berlin. Organised by 90%wasser, a collective of “long standing experimental industrial music people”, she described it as a gathering at a family house outside of the city. “It was really amazing. It was down this old dirt road, and they built this little stage in the field, and one guy who had a van would go and pick everyone up from the train station.”
Hearing underground music in unexpected DIY or makeshift venues is the all too common result of the lack of financial and cultural support for these scenes. Whilst living in Providence, WW recalls the development of a diner bar called Tommy’s, “It started as a really depressing diner bar place, one of those really dimly lit, open all day places that served breakfast.” This then “turned really quickly to the place where shows started being held” once a friend got a job there. He was permitted to organise events on the understanding that if his friends came down they would buy drinks. The popularity of Tommy’s was set against the backdrop of Providence nightlife, where the underground scene is still forced into warehouses and communal living spaces, and where for security reasons, “if you don’t know someone you’re not welcome, or won’t even be able to find it.” As WW explains, “since Tommy’s was just a bar it was open to everyone who has an ID, anyone could find it. It was just this year of it being a really unexpected venue. It had everything from noise shows to dance music, Wolf Eyes played there, a lot of queer nights happened there.”
The flip side of these circumstances is that grungy diners are often grungy for a reason. “There were huge fights outside. Providence is a really fucked up city, especially downtown there’s a lot of people really strung out on meth and heroin or just alcohol, and who will be really aggressive. It’s a lot of street harassment, you can’t go outside as a woman in summer and not get hassled every five seconds.” The balance between finding a space which is accessible, affordable, and as safe as these spaces ever can be, but also conceptually exciting can leave very few options. As was so tragically the case in Oakland; spaces which can be welcoming and socially safe for queer underground scenes, can be physically very unsafe. In Providence at Tommy’s, eventually “there was one night which was specifically queer acts: Big Ded, So Brite, Herbs Chambers and Bridget Feral. Some drunk guy starting yelling and took off his shirt and tried to start a fight. But the coordinator of these shows was a cis white man who knew his responsibility to immediately intervene in cases of aggression which was really helpful.” However these are not the only politics at play: you can’t ignore the role that flocking to these places plays in gentrification, even when carving out spaces for queer people.
Towards the end of our chat, I ask WW what makes performing live in a space special for her. “When everyone sets up their gear at the beginning and leaves it in place all night, then it becomes a sort of sculpture in the room, especially when it creeps out from behind the booth so the crowd is forced to deal with this physical thing in the room. No hate to laptop performers but the noise table is definitely a dying art!” It’s also about being physically present in front of the booth, so you can experience the same sound as those you’re playing for, without the mediation of monitors. In a culture that seems increasingly to position the DJ up in the booth, looked up to by the crowd, it’s refreshing to feel that in Wilted Woman, her approach still seems rooted by the fifteen year old experience of being one of five people at the noise show.
Wilted Woman plays at Silver Road, Lewisham on 24th February, alongside live analogue visuals from Letty Fox and support from Object Blue.