ADRIAN ÅSLING SELLIUS at Water Tower Arts Festival
We spent 7 days this month at the Water Tower Art Fest in Sofia, Bulgaria. The festival shows the work of emerging and established artists from across the world, in disused and abandoned spaces.
There is a diverse range of approaches and art forms, many of which are site specific and respond to the unique physical and political circumstances of the festival.
Adrian Åsling Sellius is a young Swedish musician from Gothenburg who plays saxophone and clarinet. Adrian’s free improvisational saxophone and experimental sound performance was a highlight of the festival.
Before anything else, I would like to share my stream-of-conciousness notes taken during the last part of the performance.
Breathing sounds- from the recordings. Squeaking and rasping from the sax- fingers on keys. Adrian’s breath, eyes closed. Caught in deep communication with the space. He brings us into contact with the inner life of the building itself. An exploration of resonance. Sounds like the human voice. We engage on a physical level- we engage all our senses by-proxy through Adrian. The shafts of sunlight pass over him and fade out in perfect synchronisation with the end of the performance. Live engagement with the past- recordings and live material. Past and present collide once again at this festival.
We had caught up with Adrian before the festival began, in the vast, disused industrial building he would perform in later that week.
He is a lovely guy, who approaches his work with sincerity, and seemingly genuine curiosity toward music and sound. For hours he crawled around inside the old machines- banging the metal and releasing clouds of dust, searching for unusual noises to record and then digitally manipulate. In his performance, he played these recorded sounds back into the same room he took them from, like ghosts returning – transformed and removed from their physical origins.
Adrian accompanied these ghosts on his saxophone, in a raw, flesh and blood performance that filled the vast space with trembling electricity. Unlike his gentle character, Adrian is an intense performer. Whilst performing, he transmits, and seems to receive, powerful emotional content.
Before leaving Sofia, we met with Adrian in a coffee shop. I wanted to know more about Adrian- to try and understand where his performance energy comes from and how it feels to experience such a deep encounter with the physicality of sound and space.
CWE: Could you tell us about the idea behind your project ‘The Holistic Detective Agency’?
AAS: The project was to find something that you might not normally see or hear. So with my sound performance, I recorded sounds from the place where the performance would be and then put them into the computer and just investigated what it sounds like. Like, I used the sound of the room [that the performance took place in] but played the sound back 8x slower. I like that contrast- you still hear what is in the room at that time, and of course, we are also there, and then I try to respond to that on my saxophone.
CWE: Yes, so you arrived in Sofia with an idea of what you would like to produce, but a lot of the process is left to chance, and responding to the space and situation. Are you familiar with this way of working- where the final result is unpredictable?
AAS: Well, yes, I think you could say that. A lot of the projects I have done have been very short, where I have a week or so to come up with an idea, realise it, and then perform. It’s an interesting way of working, and you have to be spinning ideas over in your head the whole time.
CWE: Is there a part of the process which gives you most anxiety?
AAS: Yes, the anxiety is mostly from the fact that you don’t know what the outcome will be. But it is always also a fun way to work. It’s like an investigation, so sometimes you get something really good and other times you get something not so good.
CWE: So in a way you embrace the idea of failure as an outcome?
AAS: Yes, absolutely!
CWE: How has your experience of collaborating with the visual arts influenced your thinking about music?
AAS: Well, both are creative works, so I think they inspire each other. And there is also the whole conceptual aspect to what we are doing with ‘The Holistic Detective Agency’.
CWE: Yes, you are working with your father, Lars Åsling and I’m interested in how that collaboration came about…
AAS: Well, since I moved back to my home city [Gothenburg], and he lives there too, we have talked about doing some performances with free improvisation and free painting and that sort of stuff. There is a club, or a venue, near Konstepidemin where he has his atelier, and that place has a lot of experimental sound and visual performance.
CWE: Are you involved with a particular music scene?
AAS: Yeah, I think free improvisation is the most active scene I’m in.
CWE: And who are your musical influences?
AAS: There are many I think, because I try to keep an open mind and listen to all kinds of music. I can get really into one thing for a few weeks, and then it’s another thing. So now recently I have listened a lot to Mongolian throat singing which is really interesting. And then there’s alternative rock music. There’s a very cool band called Deerhoof. But then there are those free improvisationalists that I listen to a lot. Mats Gustafson is a big inspiration- a Swedish saxophonist who plays only improvised music and that is all he has done. He is really famous, and he is very very good.
CWE: Your performance at Water Tower Art Fest combined multiple layers of sound with recordings and live improvisation. My ears were constantly shifting from the expansive sounds right down to minute events such as your breathing and fingers on the keys. The magic for me was in these details…
AAS: Yes, definitely. When you play this sort of thing, at least for me, I don’t know how other people feel it, you start by listening and trying different things, then you get a sense of direction in the music. After a while you remember a bit of what you have done, or at least feel what the music has been before. Then you start to tie it together as a sort of composition.
And now, with this recorded sound I introduced another aspect, because I am not playing all by myself. It was already decided what that would be, and then I had to play to it.
CWE: I noticed that you had your eyes closed almost the whole way through.
AAS: Yes, I find it easier to play that way because you don’t get distracted by what you see. But if you work with visual art then you would have to have your eyes open because you have to see in order to respond.
CWE: For me, part of the enjoyment of the experience was watching you have that experience. I could feel the music through the energy of your performance.
The performance was very spatial- it drew attention to the physicality of sound moving through space. I can’t help imagining how you might work with a contemporary dancer. Is this something you have considered?
AAS: Yes, definitely. It would be amazing to work with something so physical. Like Butoh dance or something. I think it would be really cool, if I get the chance I will do it.
CWE: I think it would be fantastic. I was wondering if the space [of the WTAF] itself inspired you- it was a big industrial space…
AAS: Yeah, the acoustic of the space was really amazing. Especially on the saxophone- it goes out from the bell and if it’s a big room, with these sorts of walls and windows it amplifies the sounds a lot. I thought about that big metal box, some old industrial machine I think, the inside of that would be cool to play in too- then the sound of that would be amplified even more.
CWE: So, how did you record the sound? I know you spent a lot of time in that space, crawling around inside old industrial machinery…
AAS: Yeah, laughs, well I had this idea about the box, because it looks like a resonance box- like on a guitar. The inside of this box bounces the sounds around and you can hear these notes that you can’t hear if you just hit something on the outside.
And then there was this plastic pipe, I don’t know where it went, but it was inside the building in the room and then it down somewhere far away and you could hear the voices of the workers outside through it. It sounded like they were singing because the sounds were coming three times!
CWE: It’s great to explore a space in such a focused way- only thinking about the sounds it makes. Has taking part in the WTAF changed the way you think about your own work?
AAS: It definitely made me think a lot, and I got inspired in a lot of ways. I want the debate today about organising and artist run initiatives, and that sort of stuff is really interesting. I think there are a lot of possibilities, and I want to think about starting something like that.
With my music, being at WTAF has made me realise that there is so many different ways to work with the arts.
CWE: Yeah, I think it is great that we can blur these distinctions between the art forms and introduce new audiences to different work than they might be used to. Music is often understood as something to be experienced intuitively, on a purely emotional level, so it is interesting to approach it conceptually.
AAS: Yes, usually music is just played and enjoyed, a conceptual approach is not done so much. Of course there are people doing it.
CWE: It has also been really inspiring for us to think about music in new ways. Especially the power of your performance made us consider collaborating with free improvisationalists in our video and performance work. So, what’s next for you this summer after you leave Sofia?
AAS: Well, I’m going to play with a free improvisational trio on Gotland in Sweden, and then maybe I’ll head up to Umeå and play some with a duo. So it’s a little bit of playing, but I’ll do a lot of thinking too, about what I will do in the autumn. It would be really great to do something involving all art scenes in Gothenburg.
CWE: Great! We have found that spending time with artists of other disciplines is such a rich way to gain inspiration.