Artist, composer and curator Doron Sadja spoke with us about how learning how people digest music brought him around to using visuals in his exhibits, the power of letting one’s mind enter an alternative head space, and how rhythms created with light can both complement and alter how we hear sounds. You could read the interview below, but this stuff deserves to be seen and felt, not just read about! Doron has two exhibits at OPUS 1, October 7th at Symphony Woods in Columbia.
Projects: Color Field Immersion & Standing Waves, Falling Air
Looking at your work, it is both heavily audio and heavily visual. Is there a hierarchy of your art forms? Are you first a musician, and next an artist who works with light and space? How do visual media inform your compositions, or vice versa?
I studied electronic music as an undergrad at Oberlin College but it was kind of a mixed media major. It was in the music conservatory and it always had a visual element. I definitely come more from a musical perspective my projects really vary in terms of how I work: whether it’s music first or visuals first, or whether the concept is more audio or more visual. I never studied visual art but I arrived at doing visuals through music. I’ve always felt that the way we perceive sound is so contextual. It’s so influenced by all of our other senses, by what our surroundings are. There are obvious reasons why one sound might sound different when played in a club, or in a church, or a gymnasium, where the acoustics are all different. But I think the way that we feel music, the way that we interpret music, is so heavily dependent on our environment. Having this feeling when I was performing is what led me to want to control more of the visual aspect of the performance. It varies project to project which is more dominant or which I focus on more.
Your work seems to hint at synesthesia, or at least play with this idea. Is this something you experience?
It’s not something that I’ve experienced but it’s something that I definitely think about. With Color Field Immersion for instance, I’m thinking about how we react to colors or a frequency of sound and what kind of relationships I can create between them. The fist time I did Color Field Immersion I did it in a little gallery space in Berlin and it was an interesting experience. Instead of doing one big performance, I had a whole week of performances and people could make one-on-one appointments with me. A stranger would come into the gallery and I’d do a 30-minute performance for them and then we’d spend 30 minutes talking. I responded so strongly to certain colors or textures or sounds and I wanted to try to figure out a way to develop a system and understand what colors worked the best. But I quickly found out from these talks that everybody had such radically different experiences, and that it was not worth trying to figure out a language for this. Rather it’s about developing things that I’m happy with and experimenting with them.
Hallucination is also something that shows up in a lot of your work. Where does this fascination stem from for you? Were you one of those kids who sat around rubbing his eyes until colors and sparks appeared?
I think hallucinations are something really special in general. You get to enter these states where you lose control and they’re so imaginative and creative and allow you to see the world in a different way. I went to a hippie school, you know. I think that psychedelic experiences change your life, but I don’t think that you necessarily need drugs to do that. There are a lot of different ways that you can manipulate or trick your mind, and Color Field Immersion is one of those. I find that there’s something fun and playful about working this way. I come from a world of very serious electronic music and I feel that it’s so important to give people these overwhelmingly beautiful, immersive experiences. Beautiful not in the way that everything is pretty – beautiful could mean harsh noise – but in the sense that it gives people experiences that are completely otherworldly and unlike our normal life. I’m not sure if I really think of it as hallucination, but the idea of entering an alternative space is very exciting and really powerful. I used to release albums, but one of the reasons I stopped wanting to record music was that there’s so much music out there and we listen to so much of it on the go – on our phones, our computers. Meanwhile there’s something so unique to a performance or an installation, something where you have to be there in the moment. That’s what these immersive hallucinatory experiences can give people. It’s something that they can’t do at home on their stereo or while listening to their iPhone on the subway. That’s what I find so exciting about performing.
Color Field Immersion makes use of the Ganzfeld effect, where the brain essentially seeks to make sense of a minimally defined visual environment. Is there an equivalent to this in sound?
There is an equivalent to the Ganzfeld effect in sound, actually, when you wear headphones and play white noise at a loud volume. White noise is the presence of all frequencies of the audible spectrum. It’s every frequency that you could ever hear, all at the same volume at the same time, so your brain is overloaded by hearing so much that after a period of time you don’t hear the noise anymore and you can start to hear melodies or voices. One of the things I always found fascinating about noise music is that it has such rich harmonic content, so much sonic material that it’s like a choose-your-own adventure. Even within harsh noise you can hear melodies and chords and things that may not actually be there, but because the spectrum is so rich and dense you can pick and choose.
How do you use sound to amplify this effect in Color Field Immersion?
There is a dynamic and a synchronization between the sounds and the lights when I perform. Some of it is built to fit together. But one of the things I like about working with light is that you can create rhythms with the light that aren’t present in the music, and it really changes the way that you hear the sound. Projecting visual patterns even with a drone sound creates a sense of movement to the drone. And it works the other way, too. Even though you’re aware that there’s a separation between the light and sound, it completely changes the way that you listen or the way that you see. It makes both levels so much richer when the connection between them is not as obvious. We have so many senses and they’re all firing at the same time. In music school, all the experimental composers nerd out about Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total encompassing artwork,” which is a concept that resonates deeply with me. It’s not about creating a masterpiece but about dissolving everything. It’s cheesy to say that life is art, but there’s such a variety of experience in life and so many senses. My work is about figuring out how to manipulate each one to give a richer experience.