A Closer Listen had a chance to talk with Patricia Wolf, who recently released her second album, See-Through, via Balmat. The exchange took place via email; we present the resulting text, minimally formatted and edited for clarity.
David Murrieta Flores (ACL): Hi Patricia, please talk to us a bit about your background, and how you came to be involved in the kind of music you do.
Patricia Wolf (PW): I am a musician, sound designer and DJ who primarily works with electronics, voice, and field recordings. My first music project was as part of a synth pop duo in which I sang and played synths. I eventually went solo and made music somewhat along the lines of house and techno. It wasn’t until 2017, when I was invited to be part of an event called Fin de Cinema, that I started making music that might be described as ambient. For this event, 3 different artists were asked to take a 30 min segment of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and write and perform a reimagined score for a live screening. With that project I felt it was more appropriate to slow down and try to focus on the atmosphere and emotions of each scene. I wanted to be careful not to distract too much with my music, but instead reinforce what was happening on screen. I really enjoyed the process of writing for this and how the music came out. It opened up my mind to the type of music that I wanted to make and I’ve tended towards that form of expression ever since.
ACL: Your work is pretty expansive and interdisciplinary – you’ve made sound art pieces (Cellular Chorus), field recording albums (Life on Smoking Mountain) and now something we could call ambient. How do these different sorts of work intersect?
PW: That’s difficult to say. I typically just follow my curiosity and passion and don’t really think about how all of the different things that I do connect to each other. If I had to try to make a connection, I’d say that these different sorts of works intersect through my preferred approach of letting music and sounds unfold naturally or at least without too much control or preconceived intention. I love to just be in the moment and see what happens. That’s definitely the case with field recording. You set up in an environment where you believe the conditions are ideal for an interesting recording, but you don’t actually know what’s going to happen millisecond to millisecond. As you listen and record, you’re in a state of deep listening and it’s quite exciting. Cellular Chorus, an aleatoric composition that is meant to be performed by a group of people, always has unexpected results. Once others are participating it’s out of my hands and I love to see and hear what people are doing with my sounds and melodies. That again just leaves me listening and watching closely as the composition unfolds. The way I usually go about creating music for recordings or live shows, is that I will set up a musical environment with a particular set of instruments/music tools and create some constraints for myself and just play and explore in that environment. I don’t like to go in with a theme or a genre when I write, I just make a musical system that is inspiring to me and play. There are a lot of unexpected things that can happen that way and I love it.
ACL: What kind of audiences do you have in mind when embarking upon a project? Do you picture the audience of your field recordings as different to that of your sound art pieces or your ambient work?
PW: It really depends on the project. In some cases it’s really important to consider the audience – for instance with Life On Smoking Mountain those recordings are meant for a virtual field trip for elementary students about the ecology of Mt. St. Helens after the blast. I need to make sure that I am just documenting what is there so I can give a more accurate representation of the sites being discussed in the field trip. If I’m using field recordings for my own music I give myself permission to manipulate the sounds as I desire. I am honestly not sure what my audience is and I am sure it lays across many different categories on a spectrum. For me it’s important to not feel bound to a particular genre or method of expressing myself. It’s more important for me to follow my curiosity and passion. I prefer to be free to just do what I want to do. The context of where my sounds or music will be heard comes into play with my decision making for sure. For a live event, I do think of the audience and setting and let it inform what songs I play. When I am recording, I just let myself be free to say what I want to say.
ACL: There is a communicative and poetic quality that crosses your work, which seems to center experience as an aesthetic category. What makes an experience meaningful to you and what role does music play in that process?
PW: Music is a place for me to reflect upon my experience of life and pour out my thoughts and emotions. It serves as a mirror for me. I let my intuition lead me to wherever it wants to go. I usually set myself up with some technical constraints with my instruments and create a system to play and explore within without any clear plan in mind. I pour myself into this environment and see what is reflected back. Oftentimes this process tells me a lot of things that I did not cognitively realize, but is perhaps understood or accepted in my subconscious. It’s interesting to see what will come to the surface.
ACL: I understand that I’ll Look For You In Others, your debut, and See-Through, your second album, are companions. Could you please talk about the relation between the two?
PW: I’ll Look For You In Others was made during a very difficult time in my life when I was struggling to process the loss of loved ones.
See-Through was made a year after that album and I noticed when I was working on that material that there was a lighter, more playful mood that presented itself. It was evidence that I was healing, finding a way to live with loss, and finding my way back to happiness again.
I didn’t set out to do this, but I think subconsciously the way the two relate is that there’s a narrative of resilience that I hope will give others hope that in time they too can find a way through their grief to a place of lightness in their lives.
ACL: I’d like to bring this back to experience: what would the connection be between the experience you seek to articulate for listeners in these two albums, and your own?
PW: I don’t have any particular intentions for how others listen to these albums. In seeing how my perspective has changed from the time I wrote the songs for I’ll Look For You In Others to what it is now I welcome people to approach it from any lens that they wish. When I started sharing the songs from I’ll Look For You In Others with friends I thought that it might be too sad and heavy for most people, but a lot of people told me it didn’t sound that way to them. Instead, they said it sounded hopeful. I think that is an emotion that I would rather leave people with, but I made it the mindset of someone deep in grief and hoped that it might be able to hold others in a similar place. I am happy to see that it can be more than that.
ACL: In the liner notes, you mention the surrealist technique of automatism, the result of which is arguably some of the most profoundly emotional tracks in See-Through. Beyond Cage’s chance operations, this is something I haven’t seen much in the music world, so could you please talk us through your method?
PW: When I was writing those songs, it had been a while since I’d been able to work on new music due to being really busy with work so it felt kind of unfamiliar and fresh when I got started again on something new. The prompt was that I had been invited to be part of an anniversary show for 9128 and was coming up on the deadline to share something. I didn’t want to play the songs from I’ll Look For You In Others so I just started working on new music. I didn’t have much time so I just quickly started writing MIDI sequences in my Octatrack to send to my synths and didn’t overthink it. I told myself to just have fun and not worry too much about how it sounds, just play and keep moving forward. I just kept stacking layers and layers of sounds and melodies that felt good to me. The songs are quite simple, but I feel they are full of emotion and worlds of their own. It was one of those amazing moments where music was just pouring out almost effortlessly. I think the time constraint was the magic variable because when given a lot of time to reflect on something we can sometimes overwork it and strip it of its magic.
ACL: This might be off-track, but I was reminded of Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?”, as a psychedelic form of communication in which the universe passes through you as much as you pass through it. Speaking of those “worlds of their own”, I’d like to ask you if there is something about the form of ambient music that you practice that you see as unique or perhaps privileged when it comes to connecting the inner and outer worlds of listeners?
PW: I prefer to keep myself completely open when I am working on music. I have no intentions but to play and see what comes out. I think this takes a lot of burden and expectation off of me and results in a more authentic expression on my part. I think having this sort of passive approach does allow for me to pick up on things going on inside me and perhaps the universe, and possibly flow with it. A lot of the music I make is cyclical which occurs so frequently in nature, perhaps I am tapping into some existing rhythm in a poly-rhythmic universe. I do think that ambient music gives listeners the opportunity to let their thoughts drift freely which is quite refreshing in our current world where technology is always demanding our attention and making us feel like we have to be task oriented at all times.
ACL: I’d like to start closing the interview up by talking about another regular feature of the work you’ve done, at least in field recordings and ambient: memory. How does your work deal with memory?
PW: That’s difficult for me to say. I think that my work leaves room for others to explore their memories or to daydream. I’d say there is a strong emotional quality to my work that has a basis in my experience of life, but I do think that others can relate to those emotions and memories from experiences in their own lives. I’ve learned that you can’t control how others are going to interpret your work and that’s beautiful because it just means that it can be so many different things. I have heard stories from people who have had profound experiences with my songs during an intense time in their lives and it’s interesting to hear how they experienced that song. It’s usually in a way that I hadn’t intended, but ended up being seen from a lens that met a need for them at that time.
ACL: What is the link between memory and experience? Is it like Hendrix’s, a double-pathway to know both yourself and your surroundings, and therefore find something peaceful, or is it something else?
PW: The link between memory and experience, I think, is to make sure that you’re taking time to reflect, learn, and grow. Our memories are lessons and hopefully they will lead us to live in harmony with ourselves and others as we learn and grow.
I think that [ambient music opens up that possibility]. I often listen to ambient when I am doing the dishes, going on a walk through my neighborhood, or settling in for bed. These are times when I am able to let my mind roam free. Sometimes while listening, a memory is dislodged or my mind wanders back to a past conversation and then I think more about what was said. Or perhaps I will think more about something I read in a book or give more thought to a problem that I am working through and come up with a solution. Ambient music is a nice backdrop to my thoughts. It doesn’t intrude on them too much. It leaves room for them, although it might color my mood a bit.
ACL: Thank you very much for your time, Patricia.
See-Through is now available at bandcamp.