Proms 2021: pre-première questions with Shiva Feshareki

by 5:4

This evening’s Prom concert, in addition to new works from Bernard Hughes and Nico Muhly, features the world première of Aetherworld by UK composer Shiva Feshareki. It’s a rare and very welcome instance of an electroacoustic work of contemporary music at the Proms, and in preparation for it here are Shiva’s answers to my pre-première questions, along with her programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Shiva for her responses.

1. For anyone not yet familiar with it, could you give a brief summary of your music, i.e. characteristics, outlook, aesthetic, etc.?

All of my music is conceptual and based on the motion and physicality of sound in space. I focus on the essential nature of sound and how it interconnects – as one – with all of our existence within the universe; how the same structures of sound are at one with anything from an atom to a galaxy. My main focus is composing in a way that involves the dynamic of the acoustic space as part of the music.

My output is very broad and wide-ranging. I score acoustic music, and the process varies from very intricate and precise notated music, often in spatialised form, where I embark upon an exhaustive process of my own 3D orchestration, to acoustic compositions that I compose in a way that allows the composition to manifest within the moment of performance.

This also links to my live electronic composition process, which is all live-composed, and live-produced within the moment. I repurpose many technologies from different eras, most notably the turntable, and use these technologies as expressive musical instruments where I have developed my own techniques over time, to fit my artistic curiosities. I transform any music or sounds live in the moment, using the motion of the spinning discs at different speeds and directions to expand the sounds to new perspectives and dimensions. When I perform my electronics, it is all in response to the space and energy, and so no two performances are ever the same twice: I jump on for the ride, constantly responding to sonic events that occur, and I build from there. Just like I spatialise acoustic instruments, I spatialise my electronic music but using live ambisonic technology. The former is scored and fixed, the latter is spatialised live within my performance.

2. What led to you becoming a composer? Did/does it feel like a choice?

I have never seen myself as anything other than fully dedicated to music. Even before I knew what composing really was, I was composing, creating sounds from everyday objects and a small Casio keyboard we had at home. This was when I was around four, and they are my earliest memories of composing music. Since then, I have been obsessed with and dedicated to sound and music; a fascination and urgency beyond choice, more like a trance.

3. Where did you study? Who/what have been the most important influences on your work?

I studied at the Royal College of Music, both for my undergraduate and my doctoral studies in composition. At the same time, I studied psychology which is what made me so fascinated with the psychology of music and how we perceive sound. My influences range from psychology, physics, mathematics, architecture, geometry, ancient traditions relating to sound, healing and spirituality, as well as leftfield, avant-garde composers of the 20th and 21st centuries such as James Tenney and Éliane Radigue.

4. How do you go about writing a new piece? To what extent do you start with a ‘blank slate’ and/or use existing methods/materials?

All my music is interconnected, and so one piece evolves, transforms and morphs, into branches of many other pieces. This links very much to the way that I use the turntables and manipulate material into new perspectives from their original form. This means my music is in a constant state of flux through time, as well as space (which I touched on before).

5. How does the piece sit in relation to your previous work? Why did you particularly compose this piece at this time?

Aetherworld is a piece that forms a part of my current fascination with the most natural of sound: the human voice, paired with spatial / immersive electronics which I create in direct response to the acoustic space of the Royal Albert Hall, live in improvisation. All the different elements of the piece – the choir, the immersive electronics and the organ – connect to the physicality of sound in space in different ways, to create a deeply immersive experience, manifesting live in the energy of the moment, focusing on the essential nature of sound and its connection to the physical and spiritual plane.

6. If people really like your piece, what other music of yours would you recommend they check out?

One of my most significant compositions to date is Opus Infinity, a spatial composition for live ambisonic electronics and ensemble, which I performed with Ensemble Modern in February 2020 in Frankfurt. You can hear it on BBC Sounds for another 20 days or so.

There is also Nebula, which is my electronic transformation of Opus Infinity.

7. What’s next?

An October tour with the Netherlands Chamber Choir to continue my fascination with choir and turntable music, a research fellowship with the Electronic Music Department at Oxford University on Immersive Sound and its Socio-political implications (as well as sonic), the première of Seismic Wave Orchestra with Zwerm Electric Guitar Quartet and Stephen O’Malley in December, to name a few upcoming! Everything is on my Instagram or website if you want to know more.

Aetherworld: programme note

Aether was the fifth element in alchemical chemistry and early physics. It was the name given to the material that was believed to fill the universe beyond the terrestrial sphere. The belief in aether as an element was held by medieval alchemists, Greeks, Buddhists, Hindus, the Japanese, and the Tibetan Bon. The concept of aether was used in several theories to explain several natural phenomena, such as the traveling of light and gravity.

Aetherworld exists to connect us physically and spiritually in time and space, allowing our minds to expand in any direction or dimension, within a shared moment. The piece focuses on the natural harmonics of the voice, with the choir material based mainly on harmonic overtones. This is found in ancient music traditions from many different parts of the world, most prominently in the East. Overtone singing reveals the structure of a sound, revealing the infinite harmonics nestled within a single fundamental pitch, and so by doing this connects us to a whole host of other phenomena of creation in our natural universe, which are built and structured in exactly the same way.

The piece is an intricate duet between immersive electronic and natural acoustic sound, based on the fractal geometry of sound. Specifically, the geometry is displayed within the acoustic overtones of the voice, and within the improvised electronic sound that I will move around the space in sonic shapes, connecting space to sound. I will be creating the immersive electronics using turntables and other technologies that I subvert from their conventional use, and repurpose for my own creative intentions. I use a recording of Josquin’s Qui Habitat which I manipulate into new forms, live in improvisation. This will include varying the speed and direction of the spinning discs. These sonic transformations are live-sampled immediately, creating new perspectives on the piece’s original form. The technology I use spans new to old, including vinyl, turntables and CDJs, all processed through vintage analogue tape echo (Re-201), and a cutting-edge immersive software designed by creative-technologist Andy Sheen, who designed the software especially for me, to transform the circular motions of the spinning discs, into circular motions of sound within space.

Aetherword (2021) is connected as a diptych to Otherworld, premiered by the National Youth Choir GB at the Three Choirs Festival (2021), where similar sonic material is transformed into two different compositional perspectives.

—Shiva Feshareki

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