Ximena Alarcón

Ximena Alarcon
(Photo: Yohan López, courtesy of Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín)

Ximena Alarcón is a Colombian sound artist interested in listening to interstices: dreams, underground public transport, and the migratory context. Her research focuses on the creation of sonic telematic performances using Deep Listening, telematic improvisation, and interfaces for relational listening. She has a PhD in Music, Technology and Innovation from De Montfort University (DMU), and has received post-doctoral funding from The Leverhulme Trust (IOCT) and CRiSAP (LCC-UAL). She has been awarded a Marie Skłodowska Curie Individual Fellowship (University of Oslo), to develop her project INTIMAL: a novel physical-virtual "embodied system" for relational listening, interconnecting Colombian migrant women’s memories of Diaspora.

Why do you make music?

Because it makes me happy. It helps me to develop creative forms of connection with myself, with others and with the world. It teaches me to listen. I like to stimulate the making of sonic conversations between people. I enjoy the mixture between the sonic elements and the surprises that come with it.

What music do you make?

I make individual and collective improvisatory music. I have created an online interactive sonic environment (Sounding Underground) and in the last six years I have focused on the making of Telematic Improvisatory Performances.

How do you make music?

I use spoken word, and also field recordings, and I use streaming technologies and interfaces as mediations. I first listen in my mind for what I would like to happen for instance, in a telematic performance. I imagine the process of listening and sound making with people (who are not necessarily musicians) who will connect, and the final collective situation, which audiences will listen to. I explore the sounding and listening possibilities, reflecting on the context, my artistic intention, and the technologies available. I structure the process, and improvise on my own with words, figuring out the exercises which I create as part of the process with others. The process involves Deep Listening practice and improvisatory, meditative and playful sonic scores.

Is any of your sound-based work not ‘music’ as such and, if not, what is it?

I consider all my sound-based work music. The question is interesting because although I consider it music, I call it mainly Sound Art to distinguish it from traditional ideas and expectations that the audience might have about music. Depending on the venue and the context, I call it sound art or experimental music. I think it is important to leave audiences an open frame to connect with these works.

How do you describe yourself (e.g. are you a performer, a composer, a technologist, an engi­neer, some combination of these or, indeed, something else) and why?

I describe myself as a sound artist, as I find the reflection on my creative process has been more in tune with sound art practices than with electroacoustic music. My music is nourished by process with people. I feel almost as an architect of a situation happening between a number of people, mediated by technologies, and I create the setting, state the context and my intention for these interactions to happen. In that sense, I play the role of a composer. Also in some occasions I am a composer and a performer, or only a performer (in free improvisation). To create and imagine the setting and the mediated interrelations, I am a technologist. Technology is part of the performance and it states the flow of the streaming, the amplification possibilities and the sounding devices used. Also I have done programming for some of my works, and would like to find my best technology tool to be again into programming (to structure possibilities for the sound flow). I feel all of these roles are roles rather than fix labels.

What is the cultural context for your work - how are you influenced by music from other cultures or the other arts?

Urban space, geographic dislocation, and human migration have been the contexts of my work. I am influenced by listening to everyday life and by spontaneous practices of world and people’s soundings. For instance in the interactive sonic environment Sounding Underground I brought together sonic experiences from different cultures who use the same infrastructure technology (underground transportation). In the last years I have been influenced by Pauline Oliveros’ music making, and the different experimental practices by Deep Listening artists. In the UK, I am influenced by improvisatory music by Maggie Nichols, Eddie Prevost, David Toop, and Blanca Regina. I am inspired by Remote Encounters’ artists such as Annie Abraham, live art, and performance art exploring migration such as Natasha Davis’. I am also inspired by artists who have explored dislocation such as Ana Mendieta, and in process work of self-discovery and community creation by dream specialist, writer and performer IONE. Recently, the movement of environmental artists, promoted by Brett Bloom and his project Breakdown, Breakdown, has been also very inspiring for my work.

What skills and attributes do you consider to be essential for you as a musician?

Deep Listening skills (developing a deep awareness of the body, dreams, and sonic environment that surround us). Mastering technical skills in the software that I need, for instance telematic software (various) and interactive visual programming (PD and Max/Msp). Developing awareness of how sound mediates and moves in acoustic and cultural spaces. Developing strategies for working with small groups, accompanying individual creative processes, and leading collective work. Being able to understand structures, processes and contexts in which creative sonic processes and technological mediations are created.

What is the best way to listen?

I am very influenced by Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening practice and have learned that a balanced listening is the best way to listen, and also listening beyond your ears. I describe it as developing a full awareness of what is going on with myself, the others and the surroundings, my intentions, my tools, the spaces, the audience, the context: all progressively and at once.

How should we listen to digital and electroacoustic music?

In many different ways: walking, moving, in stillness, lying on the floor, with headphones, without headphones, in a soundproof room, in a concert hall, using mobile phones, iPads, in a very busy street or train, in a family reunion, and in many different spaces that were intended or not by the composer. I think we should listen to it as a whole inclusive sonic experience. Sometimes listening to it in a contemplative manner, and other times also in a playful manner.

Do you have any other useful or relevant things to say about being a musician in the digital age?

A great advantage of being a musician in a digital age is the freedom. Not only the freedom that technology offers regarding tools for the making, processing and editing of sounds, but the freedom of imagining situations mediated or not by the digital devices; the freedom of playing with metaphors of connection, and with the porosity that the digital texture offers; all of this helps you to expand your listening. Do your work from the heart. Ask people to listen to it, and listen to their responses. Work, improvise and compose with others.