Sarah Peebles: Electronic Bug Culture

This was originally published in the May 2003 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

“I really enjoy the sound of hummingbirds,” says Toronto-based composer Sarah Peebles. “In New Mexico there are a lot of them and I recorded them. That sound is really interesting and when you cut it up and slow it down, to me there’s a transformation that occurs, especially since I have a memory of when they were flying by.” On her recently re-released CD Insect Groove, Peebles has opened up an astonishing sound-space in which natural and synthesized elements co-exist, in such a way that they become indistinguishable from each other. The Japanese reed mouth organ, the shô, played by Peebles and Ko Ishikawa, sounds like a droning just intonation tuned synthesizer, while Peebles’ real time software based sampling and programming transforms recordings of night-time insects, gongs, or railways into warm, bubbling pools of sound. This is a music that does not wear the listener out through relentless repetition, the way so much electronica does, nor does it have the sometimes saccharine serenity of ambient music. It is intense, slow, focused, neither natural nor unnatural, full of delicious singularities – another kind of fourth world music. Peebles grew up in Minnesota, and studied music at the University of Michigan, where she began broadcasting the ongoing radio show The Audible Woman, devoted to showcasing what she calls the “kick-ass activity” of women in classical and experimental music. In 1985, she made her first trip to Japan, where she lived on and off until 1993, and made a multi-year study of gagaku, the hypnotic Japanese court music beloved of La Monte Young et al, and kagura bayashi, a form of masked dance drama performed at Shinto festivals. Her work from this period, collected on Suspended in Amber (Nova, 1996), mixes traditional Japanese instrumentation and forms with electronics. The remarkable “Tomoé” recorded live in a Shinto temple, is at once a site specific electro-acoustic recording, a “traditional” ritual using temple bells and the space of the temple’s hall and garden, a performance piece featuring calligraphy and light, and a sound-work using field recordings of insects and water from Toronto alongside the sound of the shô. Peebles, who relocated to Toronto in 1990, recently composed 108 – Walking Through Tokyo At The Turn of the Century, a fifty minute edited set of street recordings made in Tokyo which continues her interest in Japanese sound culture and environmental recordings. “If you ask a Tokyoite to shut their eyes and give them a tour around town, they’ll tell you where they are without opening their eyes. There’s a consciousness of sound that goes with their culture that’s different to mine,” she observes. “Take bugs, for example. I noticed a real affection for insects, even in the inner city. There’s a history of bug collecting. And now there’s an electronic bug culture of toys too. It extends to seasonal appreciation too. When you’re going to send a card or a present, you think in terms of seasons. I know other cultures do that, but that was my first exposure to that. Sound goes with occasions. Occasions demand sound. The ringing in of the new year, the buying of a ticket, restaurant greetings and farewells. The doors in the subway: there’s a song for each subway station! And the fact is it occurred to them to do that, while in Toronto, all you get is the same boring voice for each station!” Peebles’ current work involves the possibility of creating music made to accompany natural visual phenomena. She describes a work in progress called “Music for Incandescent Events” that can accompany “light events”, such as sunsets, the northern lights – and live volcanoes. “ I just took a trip to an active volcano in Hawaii, and you can watch lava flowing, but it changes hour by hour, so it would be hard to put the music in a place where its not going to get covered by the active volcano. Unless you put it on headphones. But volcanoes are so profound you wouldn’t really want to add any sonic event to them. We saw a very slow quiet molten oozing lava – and loud tourists! I asked someone to shut up so that I could hear the sound, a really delicate sound, of the crust that begins to form on the hot stuff as its moving – it flakes off the surface from the heat – little metallic sounds. Very delicate.” Still on the look out for some grand statement about nature, the environment and sound ecology, that might explain the way Peebles uses field recordings as raw materials for her Max programming and live, in situ manipulation of samples, I ask her “is all sound just sound then?” “No!” Peebles replies, sounding genuinely surprised. “There’s emotions associated with sound. And memory. Most of the sounds I use I’ve recorded, and I have visceral memories of the sound, the day I recorded it, what the day was like and what I was feeling like. Sound has the capacity to evoke visceral memories.” If there’s a key to Peebles’ work, it’s her ability to place things in relationships with each other: whether they be instruments, sounds, people or media. Most of Peebles’ work is in some sense collaborative, whether it be her work with the excellent Sri Lankan born Canadian mutant Hendrix drone guitarist Nilan Perera as power-duo Smash and Teeny (touring the UK this month), or Cinnamon Sphere, featuring Perera and Korean-Canadian calligrapher Chung Gong Ha, or her recent work with Canadian live video performance duo _badpacket_ , or Cream Test Centrifuge, her collaboration with The Wire’s David Toop, Perera and Canadian composer Darren Copeland. Peebles’ work celebrates the possible relationships between things, wherever they’re from. “I like to watch the stars, I like to listen to insects in the summertime, and I like to sit and watch the clouds. I like to play music. I like to think up music – I guess we call that composing! It’s just an exploration. It’s an exploration to get together with a dancer, to see where that goes. And it’s an exploration to get together with a sunset, to see where that goes too.” Insect Groove has been reissued on Cycling 74; 108-Walking Through Tokyo is out on Post-Concrète; Smash and Teeny will be performing live in the UK in May.