Amina Hocine is a composer, sound artist and instrument creator from Sweden who is currently studying for a master’s in electro-acoustic composition at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. Her current work is centred around an instrument she has created called the foghorn organ or The Instrument. It’s a compressed air-driven organ, built out of PVC pipes and various HVAC bits, inspired by the sound of foghorns. Her compositions revolve around timbre, deep listening and narrative, and she draws inspiration from the spiritual sciences.
You developed the instrument that you created, the foghorn organ, during your studies in electro-acoustic composition at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. Since then it has become an integral part of your work. What inspired you to make it, and can you describe the process of creating it?
I’ve always had a huge obsession with the sound of foghorns and sirens. For me, it’s as if the sound has agency and speaks to me directly, which I guess is actually the purpose of the sound. But also personally, one of my earliest memories of sound was when I was in kindergarten. I was maybe four or five years old and alone on a swing, and Hesa Fredrik (the emergency warning sound that is tested four times a year and broadcast in towns all over Sweden; we call it ‘Hoarse Fredrik’) came on. I had a profound feeling of loneliness and I remember feeling as if I were stuck in the swing. It was just me and this warning sound. It’s the kind of anxiety you can only experience as a child. The helplessness of not being able to communicate properly and assess your own needs. This experience really stuck with me, not as a traumatic memory, more as just a really strong feeling of getting in touch with life. So, I played with the idea of building an instrument that would let me control and play these sounds. But it was way too logistically annoying, so I started looking into alternatives. I had a lot of help from my friend Rasmus Persson and we found this DIY foghorn with open-source 3D printed parts which you put on a regular 75mm PVC pipe.
And when I tried this for the first time (with a 2m PVC pipe, ca 40Hz) I was absolutely shocked and amazed by the sound. So then I started to think of ways to connect a number of pipes to be played simultaneously and just followed the HVAC route with ball valves and tubes, with an air compressor as the air source, and I was very lucky because it sounded amazing at the first try. As I’ve got to know the instrument (it’s more or less eighteen months since it all came together), the memory of the foghorn is not as important as the psychoacoustic effects it produces. I’ve noticed that without me having to communicate it with words, when I play live, the audience starts to move their heads and bodies to the sound in order to experience the sound prism that emerges. This is one of the biggest successes of this project, that communicating only with sound is possible.
Do you also incorporate elements of psychoacoustics in your work?
Yes. The instrument produces profound psychoacoustic effects in a way I’ve never experienced before. I call the phenomenon a sound prism in relation to the instrument because that’s how physical it gets. If you just turn your head slightly the pitch and overtones change and this allows the audience to quite literally play the piece with their own bodies while I’m playing. And it translates surprisingly well into recording. My friend Luka Aron and I recorded the instrument droning by walking around it with a zoom recorder suuuuuper slowly, playing the psychoacoustic effects with the recorder. And when we mixed it, we found that it did not respond well to normal mixing techniques; for example, just a little bit of compression totally changes the sound structure. So the work on getting to know how the instrument behaves has now moved into the studio. It’s ongoing research.
Is it important for composers to be able to create their “work tools”, so to speak? Is it something that has become more common, do you think?
For me, creating the instrument is more a way of composing with physical matter. There is not really any difference between this instrument and if I’m writing a piece in a DAW, Sibelius or SuperCollider. The only difference is that it is physical and that does give the sound a lot of agency. I look at the instrument as its own entity, almost as if it is its own person, with wants and needs. I’m trying to follow what it wants me to do, and even though this happens to me with non-physical compositions as well, it’s much more exaggerated when it’s physical. Also, because the sound-generating part of the pipes is a rubber sheet (like a drum), it’s more unpredictable and super sensitive to the air pressure. But generally, I think yes. Most of the composers I’m surrounded by want to be surprised by the sounds they work with in some way and creating your own new tools can really help with that. It also gives you a connection to the sound, which can feel special. But I’m also all for not getting stuck in the prestige of the sound source. If it sounds great that’s great, whatever produced it.
Besides technology, you are also interested in deep listening and spiritual sciences. Which aspects in particular do you explore in your work?
Every piece I make has a deeper narrative about why the sounds are interacting. For example, in my latest piece, ātamōn (a life unit), eight pipes are placed around me, each pipe having its own identity representing an archetype in my life. Mother, Original Face, A Safe Place, Gollum, Superior-protector, Available to Love, Hyper-responsive, Hyper-arousal. These archetypes were found in collaboration with my therapist, with whom I work both psychologically and spiritually. In the piece, they interact in the way they have done in my life. Original Face stands for the eternal self, which is untouched by whatever is happening, but might seem to drown in the drama of life. Hyper- responsiveness and Hyper-arousal are two aspects of anxiety, which pulsate and create an alarming motion, until I stop and give them space – then they finally settle and find a beautiful place in the whole. But when the alarm is pulsating on its own, it has its own kind of beauty. It is my belief that everything is very good, and you should not deem things/experiences/sounds bad just because they might cause discomfort at first. If I give it space, everything has the possibility of beauty.
You have also worked in film and theatre. How do you approach this “applied arts” work, and do you have a favourite collaboration?
I was obsessed with film scores as a teenager and learned a lot from movie composers like Badalamenti and Morricone. They showed me that it’s possible to create sonic landscapes that live beyond the picture. The easiest way for me to do that was to reduce the sound source. For example, for one play I wrote the music for a couple of years ago, almost all the sound was made on a big old Yamaha electric organ that I played live on stage. It was super effective in shaping whichever world we were navigating. But my latest collaboration is probably my favourite; it’s a short film by Danish artist and film director Majse Vilstrup called Being Seen Seeing, which had its premiere at CPH:Dox this year. I worked with my instrument and a saxophonist as both instruments have similar timbres. It gave the movie a vivid feeling of urban solitude.
What are your current projects, activities?
I’m currently finishing my master’s in electro-acoustic composition at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, where I’m researching how I can transpose the work of The Instrument into other compositions, working with musicians, multichannel pieces and a modular synthesiser. I’m also in the process of releasing new music for the first time in six years. Firstly, an EP with two pieces called Jordprov (earth test or earth sample) at Thanatosis on November 24th. Secondly, ātamōn (to breathe, in old High German), a full-length album that hopefully will be released in the spring. It was recorded at Ställbergs gruva, an old mine in Sweden that has been transformed into an art centre. These two releases will be my instrumental debut. I’m also playing live at Musikprotokoll in Graz on October 7th, Mutant Radio in Tbilisi on November 11th, Lyssningsrum in Stockholm on November 24th, Café Oto in London on December 6th and Copenhagen Organ Sound Art Festival on December 15th. I’m also preparing some fun collaborations :^)
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova
Photo: Mai Nestor