Nothing stands still: An interview with Grand River
Aimée Portioli is a Dutch-Italian composer and sound designer who records and performs as Grand River. Her music infiltrates electronic experimentalism with a cinematic touch, placing an atmospheric lens over complex rhythmic structures. Influenced by classical minimal music, Grand River’s work integrates a large variety of sound structures and symphonic calculations in which she crafts absorbing experimental and ambient narrations combining traditional composition with contemporary sound research.
In 2020, Portioli released her sophomore album “Blink A Few Times To Clear Your Eyes” on Editions Mego, following the album “Pineapple” released in 2018 on Spazio Disponibile, along with features on Ghostly International, Tresor and the Australian Longform Editions. Grand River works with the visual artist Marco Ciceri, with whom she runs the record label One Instrument and sometimes presents A/V performances.
Hi Aimée, where and how are you at the moment? Can you send us a photo of your environment?
Hi, I am well, thank you. At the moment, I am traveling as I have a mini tour ahead. I am now on the train to Cologne as I will be playing there two days in a row at the Ambient-Festival “Zivilisation der Liebe”. From there I will go to Spain and Belgium, but today I am enjoying the time I have watching the landscape pass by while I listen to music and do some things that I have been waiting to do.
What is your definition of the “perfect sound”?
According to the Oxford dictionary, the word “perfect” means, “having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be.” This being said, I don’t believe in the “perfect sound”, I don’t even know what it is and I don’t think it exists. Everything in life is subjective, the most basic reason is that everyone has a different perception of “perfect”. How we judge perfection is entirely based on our own views, experiences, beliefs, expectations, and numerous other non-quantifiable factors.
Your music career has been diverse. From playing instruments and singing in choirs since you were six years old, to music schools, working for an Italian national radio station as a sound engineer and composer, label owner, and, first and foremost, composer and producer. What were the most important turning points or highlights, in retrospect?
Starting to work professionally as an audio engineer at the age of 23 for a radio station was an important moment for me. Before that time, I had been working with music and sound in many ways but I had never been able to live off of it completely. It was a great feeling and an important milestone for me. Another turning point was when I moved to Berlin from Milan in 2015. This changed many things, musically and personally. Shortly after that, in 2017, my first release as Grand River titled Crescente came out. That was a very important debut for me. If it wasn’t for Crescente I wouldn’t be where I am today.
How important is it for you to be innovative in your work – to generate new ideas in what you do, to push the boundaries and create something new?
Change and innovation are necessities for me. Nothing stands still, so I don’t think music can either. I slowly evolve every day, so my music evolves with me. If it didn’t, it would mean that I would force myself to remain stuck in a certain period of time.
Of course, I try to stimulate this process because generating new ideas, approaches and methods is highly rewarding to me. It’s what I want to keep doing.
Sometimes change is scary, but it can also be beautiful and the creative chaos before the change is such an interesting moment.
When the chaos hits, we don’t connect it with our desire for deep and lasting growth. The loss of control is the essence of that moment.
What does your name “Grand River” denote?
When I chose the name Grand River I did so because I liked the phonetic sound, the correlation with nature and the embodiment of movement, the idea of a flux. I think this suits both me as a person and my music quite well.
I like the evocative aspect of it.
Are you influenced by the history of music? If so, which period chimes with your work?
If I think about periods of music, definitely Renaissance and Baroque choir music have influenced me and still do.
I am certain I owe this to my grandparents as they used to listen to many magical and extremely fascinating choral works in church or in their home and I would listen with them.
The technique used in Renaissance choral pieces tends to blur the voices and in order to do so it keeps the voices independent, which is essential to performing any polyphonic work. I do the same when I mix layers of the same instrument together.
Is there a specific sound that you would say is definitive to your work? Or a certain technique?
There are specific timbres that are often present in my work, which I like to work with more than others. It’s not about the instrument itself but more about refining single sounds and the way of mixing them together.
I don’t think I could describe this in words, but if you are familiar with my music I think you would recognise it.
My composition techniques subtly and slowly change over time; it’s a natural and moderate transposition that happens organically without me deciding that it happens.
It’s been a year since you released your acclaimed Editions Mego album, Blink A Few Times To Clear Your Eyes. It’s an immersive voyage, a journey into synth-laden soundscapes that is soothing. Your work as a sound designer is also audible on there. How was this album created and are you working on new material? If so, how does it differ / evolve from there?
With Blink A Few Times To Clear Your Eyes I wanted to reintegrate acoustic instruments into my music, which I did not do on Crescente and Pineapple. Long before starting to work with electronic music, I was playing the guitar, piano and a bit of cello. My approach with this record was more experimental as I was including acoustic instruments this time that I was not playing in a traditional way, but I was manipulating them.
Yes, I am always working on new material, both for future releases and installations.
In the compositions I have been working on lately, I went even further with the acoustic integration in the pieces. Sometimes my composing is quite slow as I also like to dedicate periods to research. When I am researching, I am unable to be creative; probably in that moment I am in the middle of the chaos before the change.