Zen Sounds Interview Series 001: Patricia Wolf
The Portland ambient/experimental artist about her musical biography, her life inspirations and a field recording trip to Mount St. Helens
What a year for Portland, Oregon, based artist Patricia Wolf.
Wolf broke out in spring with her debut solo album »I’ll Look For You In Others«, which came just at the right time for me. In the period writing that record, the ambient artist had lost two people close to her, and naturally it turned out deeply melancholic, but hopeful as well.
»See-Through«, released just a few weeks later, came into being after Wolf had apparently processed those events, and of course it happened to be a much lighter, more playful affair. Both albums equally showcased an exceptional talent.
Later in the year, when Patricia Wolf visited my hometown Berlin for a concert in a small ambient bar, we met over coffee and chocolate cake in a Neukölln café, a former cemetery chapel. Our inspiring talk spanned music, politics, and personal stories. I left the café feeling I had met not only an interesting artist, but a beautiful human soul and a like-minded spirit. I am looking forward to hearing more from her in 2023.
The following interview had been conducted over email a few weeks before our meeting. It hasn’t been condensed, just slightly edited for readability.
Patricia, you released your debut album in early 2022, but you have a history in the Portland music scene. How and when did you get into that music? Could you go a bit into detail on your musical upbringing and early projects?
It wasn't until 2017 that I started making music that could be described as ambient or experimental. My first music project from 2010 to 2017 was with a synth pop duo. I was its singer, co-songwriter, and played synths.
In 2016, I began working on a solo project making ambient and industrial techno-ish music. It wasn't until 2017, when I got an invitation from Gina Altamura, the live event producer and talent buyer for the Portland, Oregon arts and music venue, Holocene, to create a live reimagined score for Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast that I started making »ambient« music.
This project inspired me to approach music differently. This is also where I first started using field recordings in my work such as a rooster crowing, an arrow being shot, the guttural chanting of a monk, wine being poured into a glass. I loved working with these sounds – manipulating them – using them to help reinforce images on the screen.
I had assumed that writing music in this style would be a brief affair, but it was actually a turning point in my way of expressing myself. I had already been a listener of ambient music, but it wasn’t anything that I had ever tried to make before then.
You had been running a music venue in Portland up until the pandemic hit. Can you share some insight on that time and your philosophy?
In 2017, my husband and I opened a sound art and modern composition gallery called Variform. For the first year we did not host any live performances. Every month we presented a new commissioned work from sound artists around the world to be deeply listened to in our space.
We wanted to provide a place for people to show their work that didn't quite work well at a bar or music venue. It was a place to listen. Almost all of the shows were free and open to the public and we did not serve alcohol or food. Just a place for you to feed your ears.
There was an art walk that took place in the neighborhood every first Thursday. We'd get a diverse variety of people coming in to listen to the sound installations. Some were enthusiastic and fascinated, some were curious and came with lots of questions, some were neutral, and some were annoyed and even angry with what they were hearing. It was an interesting study of human nature.
The next year we started to integrate in-person durational performances and sound installations with artists in our city. Those were much better attended and felt more exciting for me because we’d see artists trying new things that maybe wouldn't work in the spaces they’d normally present in.
We also hosted some events that we had curated in public places around the city and at larger art spaces. You can read about some of the events we put on at Variform.org.
You are using a lot of field recordings in your newer work. What do you love about working with nature sounds? Which artists and composers have been most influential to you in general?
I love listening to field recordings and natural sounds for their ability to take me to another place. I can imagine in my mind what the place may look like, smell like, feel like. The field recordists that have inspired me the most are Hildegard Westerkamp, Lawrence English, Bernie Krause, Annea Lockwood, Joseph Kamaru, Melissa Pons, Ian Wellman.
In 2021, you went to Mount St. Helens to record nature sounds. What is so special about this place to you, and how did you experience recording there?
What's special about this place is how it went from being a completely devastated area after the 1980 cataclysmic eruption to a place full of life in such a short period of time. Ecologists thought it would take many years for life to return, but what they found was that it only took weeks. The resilience of the land defied everyone's expectations. It's an inspiring story.
I was there to record sounds for an educational virtual field trip for elementary students about the recovery of the area. It was a great experience for me because I want everyone to know this story. Hearing the sounds of life there is a big part of the experience of observing how life returned.
»I’ll Look For You In Others« was a melancholic and moody affair, inspired by the loss of two people close to you. Would you mind explaining how these events influenced the music? Would you confirm it was a form of therapy? Can music heal?
Losing people close to you is a life changing experience. In the aftermath of those losses I found it difficult to do the things that gave me a sense of purpose. I felt completely lost, but wanted to find my way to acceptance and return to my plans, my dreams. It wasn’t easy.
I felt unmotivated and all the music I had been working on just sounded empty to me. I didn’t want to lose my interest in music and thought that trying to do things that I had enjoyed before would lead me to a happier place. It wasn't until I tried a different approach with my music, using Spectral Processing of my sounds and melodies that I started to feel connected to my music practice again.
I do think it was a form of therapy for me, but I did see a therapist regularly at that time as well. I think music has the power to resonate with or influence our emotions and in that way, if we are open to it, I think it can have an effect on our mood. It can make us feel understood, it can make us feel empowered, it can break our heart, it can scare us if we open up to it.
Your new album »See-Through« sounds much more positive and uplifting, as if you had overcome the struggle with these losses. Please tell us about the genesis of this album and about your mindstate during the recordings.
I wrote the music for »See-Through« about a year after finishing up »I’ll Look For You In Others«. A lot can change in a year, which I hope can be encouraging for anyone reading this who is currently having a hard time.
Life is full of change and loss, but it's also full of beautiful things: new friends, new life, a deeper appreciation for the time we have with the living. I’d say that realization is what made its way onto »See-Through«.
There is one song on the new album (»Pacific Coast Highway«) using programmed beats. You are mentioning in the liner notes that there will be more music like this on the way…
The funny thing is that when I first started making music, it was very beat oriented. It wasn't until 2017 that I started making beatless music. I think what made me go back to it was longing for more social experiences. After a couple of years of pandemic isolation and then having the chance to go to shows again, meet up in groups, I was missing more socially engaging music. A lot of the music I was making before works best for mellow, quiet, solitary experiences.
Are you practicing meditation, yoga or zazen? Would you say you are following a specific spiritual tradition or school of thought? Are you interested in Eastern philosophy, and if so, how has this shaped your music?
I don’t have a practice that I strictly adhere to, but if I were to name someone as my spiritual guide it would be [buddhist monk and teacher] Thích Nhất Hạnh. I am interested in Eastern philosophy and I think that my music is somewhat shaped by what I have learned from Taoist teachings.
New Music had been white cis-male dominated for such a long time. Do you see a more diverse future on the horizon? As a woman in modern composition, specifically ambient/experimental, have you faced discrimination in the music scene? As a younger woman, did you actually feel empowered to start playing and composing?
I do see a more diverse future on the horizon. Without any intention or effort I find myself listening to so much music by women simply because their work is fantastic and it’s more common now for women’s music to be given a platform to be heard. Historically, it's been hard for women to be taken seriously or given as many opportunities as men, but I am starting to see that change and it's good.
I have experienced discrimination in the dance music scene. I haven’t experienced as much in the ambient/experimental scene, but it may be because I came into that scene more recently - after the #metoo movement, after the calls for more representation of women on show and festival lineups. I am so grateful for those movements and to the brave women who came forward to demand justice and equality. I am sure the ambient/experimental scene was discriminatory before those movements, I still get weird vibes from certain men, but thankfully there are plenty of pockets where women are welcomed and treated with respect.
I feel more comfortable now when I release music, but I think if I were releasing my music 10 years ago as a solo artist I'd find myself in an extremely hostile environment. There's still a lot of work to do in this regard, but I do see a massive improvement. Hopefully with each woman who releases a fantastic album it will become normalized that women are just as capable as anyone else to make important art and music.
What music inspires you right now?
Lately I have been listening to Carmen Villain, Sofie Birch, Jenny Hval, HTRK, KMRU, Fennesz, Palm Dat, Mary Yalex.
Which book should all of my newsletter subscribers read immediately after this interview?
It's highly likely that your newsletter subscribers have already read this, but I have to shout out »The Soundscape« by R. Murray Schafer.
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