Emotions Are Our Allies: An Interview with Grand River

September 9, 2021
Minute Read

Aimée Portioli is a Dutch-Italian composer and sound designer who records and performs as Grand River. Her work has been presented in festivals and venues across the world such as Berghain, Mutek, Mapping Festival, Nachtdigital, Le Guess Who, De School, Paral·lel Festival, The Labyrinth, Funkhaus, and many more. This summer, as part of Soundwork's participation to MUTEK 2021, Aimée composed De Partage, a minimalist and vibrant meditative piece enveloped in warm analog hiss. We sat down with her to discuss the cinematic dimension of her work, the role of music in expressing and transforming emotional states, her experience with meditation and her creative process on De Partage.

Photo by Marie Haefner

Your work has been described as having a cinematic quality. Listening to Blink A Few Times to Clear Your Eyes (Editions Mego 2020), I experience the album almost like a collage of lush, layered vignettes that trigger visual images and associations. They are not immediately connected, but somehow the experience forms a cohesive whole, a bit like an abstract piece of cinema. Do you think of your music in visual terms and does this ‘visual’ thinking influence your creative process? 

Honestly, I don’t think of my music or music in general in visual terms, I don’t consider myself to have a strong visual imagination. I am better at expressing an opinion about something visual when I see it, as I can not imagine it clearly beforehand. I accepted the fact that it’s not my specialty, it’s not my art form. 

This makes it interesting to me that my music has very often been described as being cinematic, but this is not because I am scoring a visual aspect. My compositions are somehow personal scores where emotions are given space and are translated into another language where every present theme is an expressed feeling. Music has the ability to transform emotional states from the audio sense to the visual sense, so it’s a big honor for me that my music triggers visual images and associations in people. 

You’ve also described the influence of minimal classical music on your ideas, fusing it with a sound aesthetic coming more from the experimental electronic music scene, particularly in Berlin where you live. Can you describe how these influences have developed for you personally and why, and any insights about your sound that has emerged from this fusion?

I have had many different musical influences, but what I always found extremely powerful is the practice of using limited or minimal musical material. An instrument is like a single voice, that sometimes alone can be much more clear and impactful than in an ensemble/choir, and sometimes I tend towards that. I often take the reiteration of musical phrases as a starting point from where to build more dimensions. 

Pieces that use only a few notes or pieces that are written for very few instruments always resonate with me. The piano and acoustic guitar were the first instruments I started to study when I was seven years old and this behavior of sitting for a long time with one single instrument still fascinates me and gives me great inspiration.

You have a personal connection with meditation, and you’ve created work for meditative environments in the past. What does meditation mean to you, how do you factor it into your life, and how does it influence your work? 

I have been practicing meditation actively for a few years and slowly over time it has become a constant in my life. I very much enjoy the effects of a regular meditation practice. It changed the way I respond to distractions, emotions and it positively affected my personality and empathy level. Meditation and mindfulness started to heighten my state of focused attention and helped me relieve stress and manage life and work differently. It helped me to improve my approach to things and I like myself more as a person now than I used to years ago. I started with group meditation courses and going to class every week was a special moment to me, like a gift I would make to myself.

In our recent conversations we talked about the nature of composing for meditation and how it differs from composing for, say, an album project like Blink A Few Times To Clear Your Eyes. De Partage, the composition you created for Soundworks, shares a similar tonal and textural palette to some of your recent work, but feels more restrained in how it develops. 

Tell me more about the experience of creating the piece - how did you approach it, and were there any specific challenges or areas you needed to consider? How did these lead you towards a piece of music that feels designed for meditation, rather than a more casual listening experience? What are the key factors to you?

In composing De Partage, my aim was to combine timbres and a textural palette I like to work with, with a flow that would support the meditation process. It took me quite a bit of research to find a balance between these two elements as well as self tests in order not to be pulled to one of the two extremes. With self tests I mean meditating to my own composition which I knew would not be easy as I would instantly focus on the technicalities of the piece instead of being a listener ready to meditate. 

With the composition I wanted to tell a story and I decided to bring the listener to an end point that is different from the beginning. I like rounded narratives but De Partage is not rounded on purpose, it’s a journey that wants to unwind and bring the listener beyond, somewhere where we naturally want and need to go, towards a very personal and subjective arrival throughout the listening experience. 

Music forces the listener to have a present-centered perspective because in order to perceive a musical piece we have to follow as it happens in real time. To me, composing is about scoring and externalizing an emotion, and emotions are complex. This is why often in my compositions that do not have a meditative purpose, there are multiple layers, intertwining melodies and details. In De Partage I reversed this and I focused on subtle movements and changes. What in a traditional composition seems like a small nuance, in a piece like De Partage becomes very noticeable and meaningful. I found a way to keep some melodic points to guide the listeners’ attention through the piece without being overwhelming.

Photo by Tiberio Sorvillo

To discuss it in more detail: De Partage conveys, at least to me, a comforting warmth tinged with melancholy. It’s enveloped in hiss and fuzz, like an old tape recording found in the attic many years after being lost. I really link it with distant memories, faded but still retaining their emotional depth.

Was this the intention behind the piece and was there some specific experience or emotion you wanted to evoke in the listener?

I wanted to take the wandering mind on a journey where to pay attention to the present so I was not considering the idea of memory. But the fact that I like and use warm analog sounds, which are often related to tape saturation in the analog recording chain, might bring people towards the past. This kind of sound has always been part of my practice. As mentioned before, to me, composing is about externalizing an emotion, it’s an externalization of my introspection. Everything happening around me and influencing me emotionally for a certain period of time is reflected in the music I make, so emotion is the core of it. It’s always about the message of the emotion. There is not a specific emotion I wanted to evoke in the listener as every meditative journey is very personal and subjective. All emotions are natural powerful forces and there is good in all of them. They are our allies and determine our outlook on life based on the events occurring around us.

Let’s talk a bit more about the listener. During the pandemic the live music industry, and club culture in particular, was on pause. It was a very challenging time for many without the ability to connect and share these experiences together. But it seemed a lot of artists used it as a rare opportunity for deeper self-reflection with more experimental works and concepts that were more revealing, intimate and honest. 

How did you focus your energies? Did you notice any shifts in focus in the music community in terms of the kind of projects, ideas and creative directions people were pursuing?

I am still not very confident in saying that the scene is opening back up again. While I am writing this it’s still summer and open air events are taking place but nobody knows what will happen in the coming months and the uncertainty of not knowing is scary. I would really not want to spend another winter like the last one. In the first few months of the pandemic, I was enjoying the extra time I had and appreciated not having to check my calendar. My days were open and free and this was an amazing feeling for a while. I had more time for myself to read, research, compose without any time limit, meditate, take care of my dog and plants and I found tranquility in this. 

In following health regulations during the pandemic we have begun to behave as if other people were potentially dangerous for our health and for the health of our loved ones. I found this deeply sad; months passed and I started to miss being around people, traveling, playing shows and I noticed that social isolation started to impact my daily life. 

Togetherness is a hugely important aspect of life, it unites us and I surely appreciate many things more now than I did before the pandemic. Another thing I learned during this time is that it is not always necessary to have productive days. Non-productive days are sometimes even more productive, but you can only notice this when you stop running.  

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