“That’s why it’s called audiovisual music: because it’s not really one over the other, but they both complement each other, and are [as] equally important as each other.” -Sonia Killmann
Sonia Killmann is a Glasgow-based audiovisual composer and multimedia artist. Hailing from Belgium, Sonia studied at Royal Conservatoire Scotland with Linda Buckley and currently works closely with Glasgow organisation Cryptic as a Cryptic Artist; she has performed and collaborated with organisations and artists in Dnipro (UA), Edinburgh (UK), London (UK), Brussels (BE), Berlin (DE), and Yekaterinburg (RU), where she completed a residency in conjunction with the Pushkin Museum. Sonia also plays saxophone in duos Failed System Test and L.anc, having recently released records with both. Sonia spoke to PRXLUDES about her approach to audiovisual composition, her experiences in Russia and Ukraine, her collaborative practice with her duos, and her experiences working as a Cryptic Artist.
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Hi Sonia! Thanks for chatting with me today — how are you? What have you been up to recently?
Hi, great to see you! I’m well, thanks. I’ve recently been in Russia as part of the Creative Lab in the NCCA in Yekaterinburg. The residency was by Cryptic Glasgow, the Pushkin Museum and the British Council, which gave me and Raydale Dower the opportunity to spend 5 weeks in the city and be inspired! I gave workshops over there in Hydra — which is a live coding software on browser, made by Olivia Jack. I code visuals on that. It’s not using any sort of “normal” code, but she made a language specifically for [browsers], which is much easier than any of the other more common/official coding languages. And [I], as a person who doesn’t normally code, finds it very easy to naviagate — easy enough, at least, that I can already give workshops in it, after only using it for two years. I also gave workshops in Ableton, and making live electronic music. At the end [of the residency], we created a concert for everyone; and it was cool, because we gave the opportunity for people who had never performed before, or had never made visuals or coded visuals before, to showcase what they did by curating an ambient music evening, with loads of different acts from workshop participants. That was really lovely.
Did you perform, or have a piece performed, in that concert as well?
Yeah! I only really helped out the complete amateurs, or the people who had never really touched a synthesizer before. I helped them by sitting there with Ableton, and mixing them, and adding effects onto what they were doing, because they didn’t feel comfortable doing it by themselves. At the end, I did an impromptu improv with one of the more experienced electronic musicians, and that was really lovely.
What software do you tend to use when live coding, or creating visuals?
I use Hydra for live visuals, or I just create the visuals — [Hydra’s] an animation software, as well, so [I] can create the visuals on Hydra, screen-record them, and then put them to music afterwards. Sometimes I want to do a live audiovisual show, but I just can’t code visuals and play music at the same time, so often I prep one of them before; and usually, they’re [the] visuals, that I put into Mad Mapper and then I project with that.
So do you see the visuals as the first part of the process? Do you tend to start with the visuals first, or the music first?
That’s a difficult question. -laughs- It used to be music first, then visuals, but I think now it’s really developed into a thing of “I just love playing around with visuals”… layering videos, as well — two different canvasses, mixing them together, creating new colour schemes and glitchy imagery. That usually comes first, and then I see that and I make music [to it]. But I guess sometimes it’s also the other way round. It’s very flexible.
So they’ve got equal footing in the compositional process, and it depends on which one feels right?
I think so, yeah. I think that’s why it’s called audiovisual music: because it’s not really one over the other, but they both complement each other, and are [as] equally important as each other. There’s a book by Louise Harris that recently came out, that talks about a lot of audiovisual stuff, called ‘Composing Audiovisually: Perspectives on Audiovisual Practices and Relationships’. She’s amazing. [That] came out fairly recently.
As an example of how you’ve musically responded to your own visuals — I checked out your stunning piece ‘Them! There! Eyes?’, can you tell me a bit about your conception and compositional process for the piece?
‘Them! There! Eyes?’ is interesting. It developed because I was listening to a vinyl record, and I was playing on Max/MSP with visuals of a video clip that we went through in an audiovisual class at Glasgow University — actually led by Louise Harris. I was playing around with that, and I was listening to a vinyl record by Ella Fitzgerald, and she sang the song “I fell in love with you, the first time I looked into, them there eyes”… and I was like “woah”. Like, the clip I’m watching right now, plus that song, just… fit. Like, I don’t know why: Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’, and that record, just fit, and something clicked, and I was like “I have to work with this”. And then I created several versions of it: the first version was a normal, five-minute video clip that I did for Sonic Nights — at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland — that Alistair MacDonald hosts. I made that all in Max, but the end result was a video, so it wasn’t live.
And then I sent it to Cryptic for a Cryptic Nights thing, but lockdown happened, so they made it into Sonic Bites. They asked me to do a ten-minute version — so I basically [made] a ten-minute version of the audio, and edited the video in Premiere Pro [rather than] in Max. So I made the video a little bit more glitchy, and added more elements. I layered the original video of Metropolis with the glitchy stuff that I recorded in Max, originally. So that was a longer version of it, and more experimental. And then, in 2021, Cryptic asked me to go to Ukraine to perform ‘Them! There! Eyes?’ in Dnipro.
That sounds absolutely wonderful — how did you find the experience of performing in Dnipro?
That was so massively cool. It was my first ever live performance with audiovisuals, with Max, with all that. I don’t tend to use Max anymore, because it’s not ideal for visuals — but it was a good starting point, especially for someone coming from a musical background. Musicians use Max, so it’s easier to know what it can do if you’re not visually trained — but now, people would use Touch Designer, Resolume, Mad Mapper… all these things. There’s many more practical softwares out there than Max. That [performance] was one that I like a lot, because it involves me playing live: I sing into my vocoder, I do stuff on synths, I fade stuff in and out on Ableton, but there’s also pre-recorded music like the samples from the Ella Fitzgerald tune — and the colours and shapes of the film react to the audio. So it is a live audiovisual show. It lasts half an hour, I think.
That experience in Dnipro was really special. First of all, it’s a lovely city and the people are lovely. But also, I got to play in the Palace of Children and Youth, which is an old Soviet building that is now used for community activities for children. It’s also a big theatre that’s got really stunning architecture…
Were you controlling the visuals live in Dnipro, as well as the music?
I did control the visuals, in the sense that I had a sheet next to me that said “at ten minutes, switch [the visuals]”… So the reactiveness was the same — Max was set to react in a certain way — but it was dependent on what video I triggered, that it kind of looked differently. But the effect that was applied was always the same on Max. So I had a little sheet next to me that said “when you do this, put this video”; a lot of it was also not live reacting, but me triggering something, and then that would insinuate a next section of the performance.
It was a lot of fun. I forgot to record it, sadly, so I need to sit down one day and perform it again to myself. -laughs- I was too stressed — I had a really, really stressful experience with my laptop around five minutes before the performance was gonna start, because it basically decided not to work. So I had to postpone the performance by twenty minutes [while] I frantically tried to fix my laptop. It finally worked, but I was too stressed to record it. My brain was somewhere else.
I’m so sorry. I’ve absolutely been there…
It’s awful, isn’t it?
Do you see yourself doing more iterations of ‘Them! There! Eyes?’
Yeah. So that’s the piece that Cryptic commissioned me, so it is actually through Cryptic that people can book me to perform it. As part of being a Cryptic Artist, that’s one of the works that I’ve performed with them.
They’ve given me the opportunity to really explore and develop the work, as well. At the start, it was a small five-minute video, so they really pushed it to become what it is, and something I can be proud of. I’m really grateful to Cryptic that that’s happened. That’s basically given me the experience of travelling, for work, to perform a 30-minute live ambient set… For me, that’s a big achievement — travelling, meeting new people, making music.
How did you first get involved with Cryptic?
It was through ‘Them! There! Eyes?’ that I got involved. They spotted it in Sonic Bites, when I submitted it for the Cryptic Nights [event], and as soon as I graduated, Cathy Boyd — who is the founder of Cryptic — got in touch with me, and said that they would very much like me to become a Cryptic Artist. Which was amazing news for me, because I was at a stage where I was really looking for work, and trying to find myself as an artist, and then this amazing company comes up and says “we’d like to commission you more”. They’re not my agents, but I’m contracted to make works with them, and perform at their festivals, things like that.
Also, the support you get from it, as well: the artistic support, help with applications, help with writing blogs about your travels, the opportunity to travel internationally — there’s so much.
How collaborative have you found the experience — have you had the chance to work with other artists?
Yeah! Cryptic also give you the opportunity to collaborate with other Cryptic Artists, meet other Cryptic Artists, but also to collaborate with international artists. At Sonica, I had the chance to collaborate with Annabelle Playe, who is a noise artist and singer from France. She created a piece called ‘Ad Astra’, which was inspired by the scores of Julie Winters — based on astrology — and she picked a bunch of things like Venus, Aries, sections of that score, and created music to them. And I was asked to do visuals. That was my first gig where I just did visuals, and no audio; and that was something that was completely new for me, and a really interesting development opportunity.
Working with Annabelle was great. She was a really lovely human. It was a really cool experience to create audio-reactive visuals to music like that: loud noise and stuff. And it was also cool to basically sit there and do what I normally do with audio — twisting things on knobs, fading stuff in and out, doing live reacting stuff — but this time, I only controlled the visuals. We only practiced on the day of the performance, which was really stressful, but it still paid off because we had such a good chemistry together. We basically just looked at each other, and whenever there was a cue I had to twist and stuff. It was also really playing, and performing, which I had never done before with just visuals.
Do you see what you do as VJing, or would you say your practice strays from that?
It kind of [does]. Sometimes it is fading videos in and out, and I feel like that’s VJing, in a sense. Sometimes it is a bit more intricate, in the sense that with live coding, you create visuals in real-time, or you play with the music a little bit so you live react to what’s happening in the music with video; changing colour, or what-have-you, in real-time. Sometimes that’s also performing with visuals. It goes a bit beyond VJing, I think, but it depends on what your definition of VJing is.
Would you call yourself interdisciplinary?
Totally. I work, mainly now, audiovisually, but also I collaborate with dancers, I give workshops, I work with classical music. In the disciplines that I make, sometimes it’s audiovisual, sometimes it’s purely audio, sometimes it’s educational… I feel like I’m definitely an interdisciplinary artist, or some might say multimedia artist. I love being so involved in so many different things. I enjoy a lot of things, so I like to do them all; and I think part of my struggle as an artist has been to try and manage my skills, and trying to sometimes focus on one thing… because you have to get good at something at some point, you know? -laughs- There’s a danger of just starting everything, and then getting okay at everything, and not really developing.
For instance, I did a residency at Cove Park — also through Cryptic — where I was able to just learn a bunch of visual programs: mainly Mad Mapper, which is a projection mapping software, but is also really good for audio-reactive visuals, and VJing and stuff. So I spent ten days learning that, and getting really good at it, so I could then perform with it at Sonica, which I did.
I’m interested in how your background as a saxophonist feeds into the electronic and audiovisual elements of your practice — was it a natural progression, or did it feel like a departure?
I think it was totally the thing of, I can’t sit still and I just wanna do stuff all the time. I started learning the saxophone when I moved to Glasgow, which was when I was 18. And I basically dove into it, and became really really obsessed, practiced loads, and got good enough to play gigs and make some money with it, playing weddings and teaching. Which was awesome, because that got me into the music world, [and] gave me experience to perform. But I quickly realised that [with] wedding gigs and stuff, although they’re really good money and easy to do, I didn’t feel like that was my kind of world. I started getting into other stuff, like performing, and composing… Being a sax player also got me into improv groups, and in these improv groups — like in RCS, for instance — some people brought visual scores. There were visuals incorporated [in my practice] all the time.
Was there any kind of catalysing moment when it came to your interest in electronics and audiovisuals?
The thing that made me want to do sound art and audiovisuals, instead of other stuff, was way back in Glasgow University. When I started to do sonic arts there, our tutor showed us a field recording of something, and made us guess what it was. Throughout [the recording], I saw these landscapes, I saw these icicles dripping, and frozen water melting… all this beautiful stuff. And then the longer the recording went on, we realised it was an egg frying on a pan. -laughs- There was so much going on! That’s where I saw the power of sound, really, and recording; going beyond just musical instruments.
I feel like I’m really visually inclined. I’m not trained visually at all, I never studied visual art — I gave it up in school pretty early, because I’m not very good at drawing — but I see a lot of things, I see a lot of colours, when I listen. That kind of translates to audiovisual art, I guess.
I think there’s a beauty in that approach; you end up finding creative solutions to problems when working in a discipline you’re not formally trained in.
Yeah, exactly. And I think a lot of the stuff that happens… I’m really early in my career, still, and I’m still figuring out stuff, but I feel like the direction that I’m taking is because something comes up, and I’m like “yep, why not!”, and then something new happens.
Like, the [upcoming] theatre thing I’m doing in Edinburgh for the Wonder Festival came about because someone from the Tinderbox Orchestra — who I was involved with and played a lot of saxophone, helped out, and learned a lot [from] in my early stages — they recommended me as a sound designer, and that’s why I’ve now gotten in touch with them, and now I’m doing musical directing even though I’ve never done that before. I’ll see if I like it; if I like it, maybe I’ll do more. I just like it when events happen — and then it brings you into a new direction, and you explore new things, you know?
Did you initially do an undergrad in music, or were you trained in something else before moving to saxophone and subsequently onto sound art?
I did a music undergrad. I moved to Glasgow to study music and psychology, and I also started learning the sax [at the same time]. The reason I gave up psychology wasn’t because I found it too hard — I found it very interesting — but studying a science degree does mean that you have to study a lot. They require a lot of brain activity. Whereas music degrees generally tend to give you enough room to practice by yourself, and evolve as a musician outside of the degree, because that’s kind of the point. So that’s why there were less contact hours, less assignments, less exams.
I basically decided “I love this instrument; I’ve only been playing it for a year, and I’m really really bad at it, but I would be miserable if I had to give up on it already because I had to study.” I couldn’t do both; I knew I had to invest the hours that I would normally spend studying. So I dropped psychology, and started learning the saxophone outside of my music degree. I [didn’t] do the practical [degree], but the music history one. Further down the line, you got to specialise, and you got to pick stuff like composition, sonic arts, audiovisual things… They were all practical. I basically started doing a practical music degree alongside learning the saxophone, [and] teaching it. First I started having teachers, and [then] I taught it to myself. I had a jazz teacher for a while — Allon Beauvoisin, he’s really good. When I felt like I wanted to move on from practicing specific things, and working on finding my own sound, and ambient and experimental side of saxophone playing… Unless your teacher does it all the time, you have to explore [it] by yourself. If you’re at a certain level, I think it’s totally doable.
So I heard you’ve recently released an album you made in 24 hours with Sam Irvine under the name L.anc. Tell me a bit about the project — for a start, how do you pronounce L.anc? -laughs-
It’s just [pronounced] “lank”, because we’re both very tall and lanky. -laughs- It’s not really serious; we’re both lanky, we both have a lot of fun making music, we heard that Adam Neely made an album in 24 hours for charity and livestreamed it… Why the hell not? In my podcast Albumly, we talk about it much more in the most recent episode: if you’re interested to hear a lot more about it, go listen to that.
I didn’t realise you had a podcast!
I don’t publicise it a lot! It’s a very DIY podcast. I created it because I’m also a podcast editor, and having my own podcast has got me a lot of editing jobs — that was my backup plan, basically, in case I didn’t manage to be a working creative — but it is fun, that’s why I’m keeping it going. I did it with two of my closest friends in Glasgow, Sam [from L.anc] — brilliant composer, brilliant arranger, makes film music and library music [and] things like that — and Tara Duggin, [who’s] currently studying music with engineering — she’s an excellent engineer, she creates her own synthesizers, and microphones, and is a really cool person. We got to know each other through Glasgow University. We’re just pals who like music; we chat about music, have a pint if it’s in the evening, have a coffee if it’s in the morning. We’re gonna be releasing an episode in May with some of my Russian friends who I met in Yekaterinburg, about their music and the Yekaterinburg music scene.
In the latest episode, we talk about the latest (and first) L.anc album; we explain how we went to the countryside in Scotland, and what challenges that came with. Overall, it went really well. It was really fun, and we’re gonna do it again on the 31st of May.
So exciting! Where are you going this time?
We have a studio booked — well, the studio will be booked — in the East End [of] Glasgow, and hopefully we’ll be able to livestream it from there. It doesn’t have wifi, but I’ll just buy a dongle or something that [we can] use. It’ll be local, which means we get to sleep in our own beds and have a proper night’s sleep beforehand. That was a bit tricky… You know when you sleep in a new place, and it’s all weird anyway, and there’s sounds in the countryside that you’re not used to because you live in the city and it’s all a bit scary? We ended up not having any sleep for, like, 38 hours, rather than 24… -laughs- We were very delusional by the end of it. But it was so fun. We did it for AKT Charity, which is a homeless LGBTQ+ charity, who were lovely about it as well. This time, we’re gonna do it for charity again; we’ve not decided on a charity yet, but I think it’s appropriate at the moment to donate to Ukraine crisis charities, so we’ll probably do that.
Did you go into the process with any sort of artistic agenda? How natural did the collaboration feel?
Because Sam and I are such good friends — he’s also a saxophone player, an electronic musician, and a composer, he’s amazing — we merge well together, [and] have similar styles of music. He’s also one of the speakers on Albumly. We know each other so well, that when he got out the kalimba at 9am and was like “that’s gonna sound great”, I was like “yeah, let’s do it!” And then we started making music. It felt so natural and really organic, actually. Even when we had writers’ block, we were touching things, making noises, seeing “oh, we could make sounds with this, sounds with that”… It was actually really fun. Until 6am. And from 6am onwards, it was hell. -laughs- At 6am, we still had a tune to write, and it just didn’t work… We didn’t end up using it in the [album] at all. I didn’t want it to be on the album, not because it didn’t feel authentic — but we also felt really bad during it. We felt tired and exhausted. I didn’t want to listen back to the album, and have a memory like that. I had really bad associations with the song.
What does the album represent for you?
This album is like a memory card for me. It’s like a little gem that I’ll always look back on and feel really fondly about, because it was such a nice experience. It was hell, but it was cool. You know how you say that when people have children, that hormones kick in afterwards that make them forget how traumatic the actual birth was, so that they’d have children again? It’s a similar thing of during it, we were like “we’ll never do it again”, and afterwards — maybe five months later, after the trauma had worn off — we were like “we should do it again.” -laughs-
But this time around, you’re approaching it with experience.
Exactly. So this time, hopefully, it’ll all be good. The studio has drums in it already — and microphones — and I feel like with the change in instruments, we could change up the styles, as well. We couldn’t take a whole drum kit to the countryside of Scotland. -laughs- We were just inspired by what was around us; there [were] logs of wood, because there was a fireplace, so we did sounds with that. In the studio [in Glasgow], we won’t find that, but we might find someone’s empty crisp wrapper, and do something with that. It’s really up to the environment that we’re in.
How do you find the process of working with Sam, in comparison to your other projects such as Failed System Test (with Aidan Lochrin)?
I think L.anc… Me and Sam are just a duo that will make albums in 24 hours. I think that’s our thing. I think we will not do anything else; we won’t do any live performances. That’s just us. We do that for fun; we do it once a year, maybe twice a year, but not more because that’s too exhausting. -laughs-
Whereas with Aidan — who I also live with, they are amazing — our thing is mainly performing. It’s about live performance, it’s about improvisation, it’s about long chunks of music that evolve over time, that interact with visuals, that interact with the concert environment. They [Aidan] play electric guitar and bass. [They] have a bunch of pedals — have a bunch of new pedals that I haven’t heard yet, but are gonna sound amazing for Failed System Test! I usually play sax on that. With L.anc, I play sax, but Sam plays sax as well — so one of us doesn’t have to play sax (or we don’t have to play sax at all) — but Failed System Test includes saxophone and bass. That is the premise of it.
How do you approach electronics with Failed System Test?
[Failed System Test] is the only time I perform with electronics where I don’t use a laptop. Normally, in solo performances, I use field recordings or pre-recorded stuff — whereas in Failed System Test, that’s Aidan’s role at the moment. It’s a really unique experience for me, because I get to be off-laptop and just focus on the sound [of] the instruments that I have in front of me. I can’t suddenly add a delay on Ableton — I have to work with the pedals I have. That limitation gives me scope to explore more varieties.
Do your Failed System Test records differ from the live performances? Do you use the records as the foundation for your performances, or are the records just as improvised?
At the moment, the records are just as improvised as the performances. I have to say [that] the first record we did isn’t improvised at all; we made tunes [for] that. But we definitely evolved from that. We don’t sound like our first record at all anymore.
‘Disintegrations’ A and B — which are out on Bandcamp — are just improvised in the moment. ‘Disintegrations C’ — which is the gig that we had the chance to do with Sonica [and] Cryptic — was the thing that emerged out of that; the same environment, same style, but different instrumentation and different arrangement. I think what happened with ‘Disintegrations C’ — unlike A and B — is that those two were improvised in the moment over lockdown, over Zoom, and we did a jam on Ableton together. Whereas ‘Disintegrations C’ was a show that we developed for Sonica, so we had to practice it — and there were elements which we pre-planned. It wasn’t a total free-for-all. We did have some sort of vague structure, but it was 90% improvised. But that’s what I love, because that means every performance with Aidan feels very organic. It feels like we connect on a certain level, personally, when we get to play off each other. Especially in a performance setting — when there’s always a bit of pressure, a bit of stress — it feels like you’ve got each others’ backs. It’s wonderful.
Do you have any more records coming out, either solo or with Aidan?
We’re releasing our performance from Sonica, which will be awesome. We’re releasing it with the visuals, as well — because it was with live visuals.
During Sonica, I did visuals for the Royal Northern Sinfonia at Sage Gateshead — which is in Newcastle. That was a Classical Immersion experience, for the BBC Three After Dark Festival. That was another purely visual gig that I did, live-reacting visuals to a classical orchestra. They played ‘Dark with Excessive Bright’ by Missy Mazzoli, a John Luther Adams piece, and then Gavin Bryars’ ‘Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet’. It’s not a record release, but somehow, doing visuals now feels like releasing something, or creating [a] new project. That was a new work I created, and I felt very special to be able to be part of that experience. Even though that’s not a record, and you can’t see it anywhere on YouTube afterwards, for some reason that feels to me like a new, complete work that has been performed, that I had the chance to show.
What projects do you currently have in the pipeline? What work can we expect from you in the future?
Apart from the theatre thing, there are a lot of projects that I haven’t finalised yet. But there will be future collaborations with dancers. There’s a dancing company down in Cardiff called Rubicon Dance Company, run by Jamiel Laurence: I’ve worked with Jamiel before, and there might be something coming up [soon]. I’m gonna be doing a bunch of podcast editing, as well, which will be fun; and I’ll also do an [Edinburgh] Fringe show with Constant Vigier, who is a Scottish ballet dancer and excellent choreographer. And I will be collaborating with Cryptic in the future; there will be more things happening for me, as a Cryptic artist, and hopefully there will be collaborations with other artists who are also connected to Cryptic. Cryptic’s stuff is always good, so please check out all the other Cryptic artists — especially Ela Orleans, Kathy Hinde and Heather Lander — they’re really amazing people. I’m lucky to be a part of the Cryptic family now, so there will be future things happening with them!
Sonia’s work can be found at the following links:
Listen to Sonia’s podcast ‘Albumly’ at:
- Louise Harris, Composing Audiovisually: Perspectives on Audiovisual Practices and Relationships, Routledge (2021)
- Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie – ‘Them There Eyes’ (1963)
- Metropolis, dir. Fritz Lang (1927)
- Annabelle Playe – ‘Ad Astra’ (2021)
- Adam Neely – ‘Making an ENTIRE album in 24 Hours (Beautiful and Tragic)’ (2021)
- Missy Mazzoli – ‘Dark with Excessive Bright’ (2014)
- Gavin Bryars – ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ (1971)
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