In 2009 she was awarded the first of many accolades for My Secret Heart, an installation featuring the voices of 100 choir singers. She has collaborated with fine-art stars such as Conrad Shawcross, worked closely with some of the most revered art and classical music institutions in the world, and devised some truly incomparable audiovisual concepts along the way. Ahead of her performance at Warp25, in conjunction with Kraków's Sacrum Profanum Festival in Poland, I caught up with Passamonte to find out what fantastical creation she had in store.
Can you tell us about what you'll be performing at Warp25 with the London Sinfonietta?
It's a piece called Nunu, and it has live insects performing with little microphones. They're in a glass tank. I use crickets because they are rhythmically very accurate, more accurate than any human being. There's actually an insect rider for this piece of music, which is quite fantastic.
How exactly will the crickets be performing?
I am obviously not going to be controlling them; they'll be doing their own thing. They'll be performing by just going about their business, and I am using the sound of them within the actual piece. It's what I call "devised-improvised," in that it is notated but has a huge amount of improvisation involved. We do the improvisation in rehearsal, so we know exactly what we are doing and it has a structure, but there is a certain amount of freedom within the piece because the insects at every performance have been different. So they make every performance unique.
Tell us more about this cricket rider.
It really depended on where we've been in the world, because this piece actually toured quite a lot. It's really varied. Some have come from all sorts of places, but I have to send the rider through ahead of schedule and just make sure they're well cared for, watered. Normally they have some lettuce.
I think the first time it happened, because it was at the Royal Festival Hall, when I sent through this request I thought someone was going to tell me to piss off. But they didn't, they said, "What would you like?" and they sent me an insect handler.
Can you explain what the piece is about?
It derived from a commission for the Natural History Museum in Geneva. The only rule with that piece was that you couldn't add any instrumentation; you had to just use the insect sounds. You could manipulate them electronically but you couldn't add other sounds. I started working with wasps, slowing down wasp sounds.
I was really working with the idea of using them as strings, strumming instruments. The idea arrived to take what is mostly a string ensemble (for me) and basically swap them round, so the players actually make sounds of insects while the insects actually sound more like orchestrated instruments.
As well as the live insects, I have prerecorded insects that I play off my laptop. So I have coming into my channels live insects and this sort of prerecorded structure and these wasps, which now no longer really sound like wasps, they sound much more stringy. All the pitch material actually comes from the prerecorded insects, which the players are working against. They take the place of the insects, if that makes sense.
Is there something especially resonant about this piece of music for you?
It is a piece that I am really attached to. It's this wonderful thing and it's always different. The players vary—it's always been with the Sinfonietta, it's a piece for them—and like I said, the insects change. I remember Riga in particular, because they had done such a beautiful job when they created the box. It looked absolutely beautiful; they put all these little Bonsai plants in. In other places it had been much more brutal.
So it's something that's continued to evolve, despite being one of your older pieces?
Yeah, and I'm altering what I'm doing every time, reacting to the players and the situation. The live insects really do make a difference.
How did you start working with the London Sinfonietta? Did you collaborate before Nunu?
That was the first piece. I did quite a lot after that; somewhere I just wrote a score that was a bit less improvised. I got on really well with the piano soloist and one of the other principals, and we broke away and started doing other work from that. So it kinda spawned quite a lot of stuff.
Probably another reason why I have a big sentimental attachment to this particular piece is because it was the point that set me off more on that way of working with a combination of orchestral elements and electronics, which is mostly what I do now.
Definitely, through the people I met there and the experience. You know, I'm a self-taught musician, so the first time you walk into that environment, if you can't read or write music—I can now, but I couldn't then—it was quite like, "Are we going to understand each other?" And we understood each other perfectly. That in itself was a great encouragement for me to just continue down that path.
It was something I was really interested in. Not so much the "I want a big orchestra to play my tunes," but actually I wanted to write, understand and incorporate that into my actual everyday practice. The openness of the players had a huge impact on me.
How did being self-taught affect the way you used to approach huge orchestral projects like this?
Because I was just writing by ear, I think you're less encumbered by any rules. You have a certain naivety, which can totally work in your favour—and I'm sure at times work against you. So there is a different way of working but ultimately everybody—whether they're a folk musician or a classical musician or an electronic musician—loves music. And it really is all the same language that you have communicated, with slightly different squiggles. That is literally the bottom line, the way I see it.
Do you feel like it empowered you, to some extent, to be more experimental than most?
I think you instinctively just are. You're not sitting there thinking, "That's this. Is that a perfect this?" Instead you're just going, "I like this, I like that." And that's not to say classically trained people don't subvert rules, because of course they do, but they are more aware of those things. But you may do them very naturally because obviously you listen to a lot of music, and so you just do things without necessarily knowing what things are called. That's what I mean by naivety, you have a freedom because you are blissfully unaware.
So do you feel that over the last ten years you might have gotten safer the more you've learned?
I don't feel safer. I think perennially I'm going to be the odd duck in the sense of what interests and excites me is probably less conventional, so I'll probably live slightly on the outside. But I am quite happy with that. But I think, especially being able to notate and write for those instruments in a way that I couldn't before is a huge help, because it means I can communicate a little bit quicker and better. It's opening things up in that sense. But it also feels like I'll never stop learning those rules. Music structure in itself is like English grammar: there are so many incongruences that you are forever learning and questioning, "Why? Why do they do it that way?" So that's great, I like to learn. I like to feel like I am always doing something new.
Have you always been drawn to classical music?
I really loved it as a kid growing up, and I've always been crazy about real instruments, particularly real wooden instruments. I've always loved it because, like electronic music, it was mostly instrumental and the structures were quite open and fantastical, and you can really take from it what you want. It's very clear and descriptive and narrative and yet it—I mean, I love lyric-based music—but it doesn't tell you exactly what it's about.
Do you have any favourite contemporary composers?
A perennial favourite is a woman called Kaija Saariaho. She works a lot with electronics. She spent a lot of time at Ircam in Paris, classically trained, still alive and working and doing really beautiful work. She does operas but also a lot of work for small ensembles or single instruments. She really uses an orchestra with frequencies; she almost works like an electronic producer, really mixing the orchestra. I think it's amazing.
I am also a big fan of Ligeti. I think there's a piece of his in this program. But there are so many. I think it's also about looking beyond. People will know Stockhausen for obvious reasons, but there are so many people beyond that. It's definitely worth exploring.
What sort of role do electronics play in your own practice these days? Is it something you've been involved in less and less the more orchestral-focused your work has become?
It's still there but I have spent much more time wanting to know more about orchestration. The electronics have sometimes been there but only really minimally. I've just done this piece, which will actually happen at Frieze, with a sculptor called Conrad Shawcross—because obviously the thing we haven't touched on is that I've been working on a lot more installations, spacialisation.
But even when I am working with real instruments, I am mixing everything electronically, and I'm adding minimal electronics or working for multiple diffusion systems or big 48 speakers. So in that sense I have been very electronic. But, again, for the more "arty" side of electronics, that doesn't really transfer to a release particularly well because it is obviously all about the space, how you make these things move around the room.
You're actually showing right now at the Barbican in London. Can you tell us about this piece?
It's a collaboration with a video director (but he really works in installation now) called Chris Milk. He's based in LA. We met and decided to work on this piece called the Treachery Of The Sanctuary. We had this chance encounter—and that is a very long story—but it was about creating a much more emotional context.
My job was completely and utterly [the] sound. I came to work with him on that part of it and to really work out the maths of making it always feel harmonious, because that was a piece we didn't want people to feel ugly—we always wanted it to feel quite beautiful.
I've only seen videos and read articles, but as you mention, the music had to be completely right to avoid this being otherwise quite a dark piece. Don't you get eaten by birds at some point?
Music can really push and instigate an emotion. You know when you see a movie and the music is shit, it's because you've noticed it. It's that classic thing: if you didn't notice the music it was probably really amazing, because it all made sense. If it constantly jarred, there's something wrong. It needs to feel emotionally accurate at all points.
But, as usual, I started off with something complicated and just simplified and simplified until it always worked in time, in the sense that there can be three people there, or one person. It's lots of problem solving, and it's lovely to collaborate with other artists as well because you learn and you discuss and work things out. There is so much technology—like you said before about electronics, I am probably using more. Both with that piece and the Momentum piece and Nothing Is Set In Stone, they're all so technologically complicated, but invisible. Nothing Is Set In Stone looks like a pile of rocks. Inside is a very complex set of things, but what you hear is nature. And what you see is nature.
Wasn't this your first fine-art piece?
Nothing Is Set In Stone was my first sculptural piece and I am working on a new one, a new big piece that will premier next January in Australia. It is completely different. I am working in paper, actually. Nothing Is Set In Stone is this monolithic rock, seven tons of a song, and I really saw that as a physical manifestation of a song. But the only way you can experience that piece was to go there and actually hear it in this field.
What is the biggest pull about making these site-specific works compared to more traditional music performances?
It is non-reproducible. You have to be there. I love doing performances, but the amazing thing about installations is that they run for months, so you are literally performing for months on end somewhere, and nobody gives a damn that it's you. They either really like it or they don't, and there's something in that that's quite pure and really appeals to me. It's very honest how people react to work and it has a very different kind of timeframe. It's more like an album than a performance in that it exists.
It is literally the opposite. It's the joke we make when we start creating these things: it's going to look really shit on Vimeo. It is really about the space and taking the performance in another direction. What excites me is creating or building in or around an entire environment. It's taking the club or the concert hall, or whatever the hell it is, but really just taking the whole space, how everything is going to sound. You're creating this whole environment to hear this thing.
Do you feel like you've reached a point where you're not really interested in making music to be released?
I think it will come if there is an idea that I know will absolutely work in stereo and totally make sense for that. But I don't think those days are over. It's just been that for the last few years the interest has been somewhere else, so I have been so busy doing that, which I felt hasn't translated to a release, so I haven't bothered.
What has been the most difficult or challenging project you've taken on?
That would be a piece called Chorus. It's a piece for eight swinging pendulums and eight surround-sound speakers at the bottom—so 16, of which eight things are moving. That was very complex. Basically in writing this piece of music I had to choreograph these eight pendulums. It involved having to make software along with other people—I'm not a software maker, and that was a piece created with UVA—to create a system to compose for what really turned into a big instrument, a physically massive instrument.
That was really challenging, but as a result, again, one of my most favourite things I have ever done—figuring all of that shit out and seeing it working. That went into Durham Cathedral, and you can't really rent Durham Cathedral for three months to hang the shit to write it, so I had to write it in stereo, in a sense. I made it with 2,000 samples that were triggered by these things moving. We actually discussed it with some mathematicians who used this as a problem to be solved at university. So it was such a complicated thing. I loved doing that piece but it was so difficult.
Where did the concept come from?
The idea for creating the pendulums came from UVA. The commission was originally for Opera North, a classical company, for their new space. It was really collaborative because one part of that piece doesn't exist without the other—as in, nothing moves unless there is sound, but if nothing moves there is no sound. It felt like a real 50/50 collaboration.
I like collaborating when it feels like one thing doesn't really work without the other. That's when it's interesting, otherwise I'm just putting sound to a picture. I like the problems. I like to be scared. I say yes even if I'm not sure how I'm going to do something. Then you do have to figure it out, because you have no option.