AYA’s new dance theory
“You’re probably feeling quite melodramatic right now.”
It’s not a phrase you would expect a DJ to utter into a microphone during the emotional peak of their set. Most of us would be surprised to hear a DJ speak so intimately to their crowd at all. But this is par for the course for AYA – an artist whose live appearances strike a balance between heady critical theory and cheeky irreverence, respecting the vast heritage of dance music and its communal spaces while also, well, taking the piss. A typical night of DJing from AYA prominently features live commentary of the set as it is happening, hopping on the mic mid-track to offer up such quips. This is far from an act of trolling – for AYA, the thrill of a live performance comes from subverting the audience’s expectations, completely breaking down the wall that separates them from the performer, and pulling the rug out from under them.
AYA’s music acts in essentially the same way. Her 2019 EP and departt from mono games (released under former moniker LOFT), is ambiguous and hard to describe. It condenses an array of genres into a whole that is not quite dance and not quite ambient, coursing with an undercurrent of profuse feeling but pointedly denying the listener a chance to get their bearings or emerge with a coherent interpretation. It is brilliant through and through, but as a standalone work, it simply can’t convey the multitudes of a full AYA performance. In headphones, she is an artist who presents an evocative head trip through decades of club music, while in a live set she is a true character – replete with otherworldly make-up and the occasional accent – who actively guides the crowd through this journey, toying with audiences’ perceptions of the role of a DJ and the social dynamics of the club. Watching her play, I am reminded of nothing so much as a Commedia dell’arte performer, as if a student of the centuries-old improvisational theatre practice was given charge of the rave.
With that in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising to hear about AYA’s extensive art school training, though I am admittedly surprised by her unassuming nature and winsome conversation when we meet in Berlin. She exudes a homespun charm that grounds even the most lofty of our theoretical discussions with disarming sincerity. And even though her face is elaborately made-up in wintry shades of blue and white, I can’t quite comprehend that this is the same figure who can confidently, and dramatically, hold court with crowds of clubbers.
© Kevin Mason
Drama is a force that really began at home. Born in Birmingham and raised in Portisfield, her parents met at Birmingham School of Speech and Drama and eventually ran theatre companies. But a stereotypical ‘theatre kid’ AYA was not; her parents were running an abstract physical theatre company making “procedural, generative, theatre art.”
Music was a constant focus from an early age. AYA began playing drums from age six, perhaps the clearest indicator of things to come. Piano and guitar were to follow, but in such an esoteric household, it is little wonder that experimental music was never far from her, producing a precocious youngster who knew who Steve Reich was before most people could name a musician outside a children’s television programme. And aside from a brief teenage dalliance with the world of the salon – “There was a time when I was like, 14 or 15, where I was going to become a hairdresser,” AYA says wryly, “I was particularly good at dying hair and doing interesting things with dye” – music was always going to be the primary focus of her energies.
AYA was lucky enough to catch “the last of the real art school education that used to exist in provincial cities around the UK,” a formal training that was, in essence, a proper fine art course which AYA centralised around a musical focus. This meant that her core musical foundation was taught in tandem with Dadaism and installation art, a cauldron of aesthetic dogma that instilled the sense that divisions between artistic mediums were nonexistent. It was an enriching experience, one that included a healthy deprogramming of AYA’s once staunchly held beliefs. “I was a total elitist little shit while I was there at first,” she laughs. “And then it taught me to remove those prejudices as time went on. Learning the value in pop, things like that.”
For obvious reasons, AYA is a frequent club-goer. However, her approach to composition is informed by the fact that she began writing when she was still a teenager, well before she could step into nightclubs herself. This meant that her initial forays in creating electronic music were developed through a practice of mimicry, foraging for sounds online and attempting to duplicate them from the ground up. It accounts for the quality of craftsmanship in her work today. “I learned through imitation,” she explains. “I’ve spent time learning the techniques, learning how to repurpose them and use them as reference points that an audience understands. It allows you to shift people’s expectations of what a piece of music can be. But really, it’s about expressing this thing, the emotional core that comes before any of this intellectualisation. It gives a narrative to my musical experience but also allows me to communicate things to a bunch of different communities.”
© Kevin Mason
Relocating to Manchester was instrumental in kick-starting AYA’s career. The city is having a “real moment” as AYA tells it, attracting a broad swathe of techno and electronic artists working tangentially to where she was heading, i.e. “nervy club stuff.” It was through the city’s vibrant club scene that she would get to know a handful of peers with whom she would create the queer collective boygirl, a group of like-minded DJs who came together almost accidentally. “They are people that I’d met independently,” explains AYA. “But I only really saw them at [club] nights. After a while, a group coalesced around me somehow. I turned around and I was like, ‘Oh shit, I’m in the middle of a queer collective. How did this happen?’”
We discuss queerness as another form of societal deprogramming, one that AYA neatly compares to her approach to arrangement and composition – a conscious “undoing” of linear narratives that comes with the rapid tonal shifts between different worlds or manners of thinking. In the end, this process is about settling into, or reckoning with, identity. It is what compels AYA to wield an amorphous performing persona in constant dialogue with her actual self, stepping back to see how they are “growing and influencing each other.”
The and departt… EP serves as the acme of this dialogue. In a statement accompanying its release, AYA expounded on how the project was the manifestation of an “aggregate three years of instability” that stemmed from the dissolution of a relationship, addressing what had become a “functional drinking problem,” and beginning hormone replacement therapy. There are hints of darkness lurking beneath the surface of AYA’s work – the warped collage of recognisable pop songs on 2018 mixtape ell oh eff tea too oh won ate being the most obviously nightmarish examples – and though and departt… unfolds subliminally, its underlying sense of disorder is clearly felt. AYA describes its energy as “frantic”, a release concerned first and foremost with tension. Surely it is no coincidence that this project has become the final release as LOFT.
Even if the music comes from a personal place, AYA would not be able to see it through without actively considering how it would affect the energy of the dancefloor, or how it would sound in a club setting. “I’ve always made music for a purpose – to be played in a place,” she says. “I can’t write without intention.”
AYA has written for chamber ensembles and bands alike, but the intention of crafting music to suit the space or anticipate the needs of its listeners is the most pronounced in electronic music. It has a rigid sense of decorum that accounts for why AYA, with her acutely deconstructionist education, is drawn to subverting it. Her disruptive use of spoken word stands as the sharpest rebuke to such notions. “This is kind of ridiculous,” AYA says in demonstration of her onstage demeanour. “I’m one person with a microphone, and I’m playing other people’s music. Have you noticed that?”
Photography: Kevin Mason