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In Conversation with Sound Artist Thembi Soddell

"For me it’s more intimate and personal, a direct line between the sound and the listener, where everything external to that can fade away."

Exploring the sound and the silence of trauma can be a confronting experience, but also a therapeutic one says Held Down, Expanding creator Thembi Soddell. As part of Liquid Architecture’s Polyphonic Social, Soddell’s creation invites one listener at a time to surrender their senses and to step into the darkness. We take a peak and see what’s inside.

Held Down, Expanding explores trauma and mental distress. Does the work come from an autobiographical place or has it been created purely with the intention of triggering certain responses in the listener relating to those themes?

It’s autobiographical in that it draws upon multiple aspects of my life experience, as well as research into others who have experienced similar things and theories that surround it. I never set out to trigger a specific response in a listener, I’m more interested in designing experiences that leave audience members to fill in the gaps.

Can works that explore trauma be therapeutic?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t make work about trauma if it couldn’t. Re-experiencing difficult experiences within a safe context is an important part of processing trauma and learning to manage it. Art is a great space for this.

Listeners are invited to share their experiences in a journal after each performance. Have the responses been in line with what you thought they’d be?

I’ve not had a chance to read many of the responses yet (the first time I’ve tried this aspect of the work has been for this presentation). But I have zero expectations about how people will respond. That’s an exciting part about gathering responses – seeing the way we all perceive the same experiences in such different but interconnected ways. That’s one of the main reasons behind journal, alongside inviting people into a space of reflection, which is what making the work was for me.

Do those reactions shape your future work, or is there different purpose for that feedback?

I can’t say for certain that it wouldn’t shape future work, but it’s not there for the purpose of feedback. It’s more so people can get glimpses into how others experience the work, as over the years I’ve always found what people tell me they’ve experienced when listening to my sounds to be fascinating. The things people create in their minds can be amazing! I also like the idea of an individual experience becoming a collaborative creation.

If asked to describe ‘the sound of trauma’, you might assume people would say ‘something cacophonous and violent’. Do you play on those kinds of assumptions when composing something like Held Down, Expanding?

I wouldn’t say I’m playing with those expectations so much as reflecting on how the nature of trauma in the context of a full life experience is far more complex than might be assumed. I would also say people are often more likely to experience trauma in silence and that, from an experiential perspective, it holds many paradoxes.

Live music events are usually shared experiences, but this work is designed for an audience of one. How does that change the way people listen and experience music?

I don’t think I could speak for everyone, as different people have different relationships to being alone. For me it’s more intimate and personal, a direct line between the sound and the listener, where everything external to that can fade away.

The duration of the work is roughly 20 minutes. Is this in part due to the practical limitations of only allowing one audience member at a time?

Yes, it was a practical decision. I am interested in making a longer-form work in a similar style if I can find a presentation situation where this will work.

Were you conscious of trying to remove distractions from audience members when designing the isolated world that is Held Down, Expanding?

I didn’t think of it so much as removing distractions as creating the best environment to shift attention to an internal experience or a direct relationship with sound and perception.

Do you have more performance plans for 2018?

This piece will be showing in Clunes during the Booktown Festival on May 5th and 6th. After that, I’ll be locking myself away to finish writing my PhD dissertation. So, nothing more until that’s done and dusted!