THEA SOTI (HU/SRB) is a multi-disciplinary artist working within the fields of experimental vocal music, electronic sound, installations, text-based media and video art. She uses digitally manipulated sound, the human voice and poetry in various formats. By continuously manipulating, recycling and processing her own voice, re-imagining folk-songs and improvising in unknown languages, she questions the contemporary meaning of binary gender, geographically defined cultural heritage, borders, traditional social codes, etc. In our technology-infused world, where reality is shifting towards machines and virtual entities, she explores the legacy of the human voice: how far it can still carry a human expression and how it collides with post-human and virtual identities. Her debut solo album ØVER+  has just been released on the Paris-based experimental label Planisphère.
“it is about arriving at parallel universes through the manipulation of the human voice we embrace a new existence where gender and origin dissolve” is how the liner notes to your new album ØVER+ start. Can you talk about how this album was born and what themes you are exploring here?
At the beginning of 2021, I finished my residency at Cité internationale des arts in Paris and returned to Berlin. It was a truly strange period of time, when I felt overwhelmed and challenged in many ways. I spent the lockdown in Paris but I barely got familiar with the city as it was frozen by Covid, and I returned to a city that I knew very well yet hardly recognised. I felt like an alien without a planet.
Musically speaking, I simply wanted to make an imprint of the last two years when I started experimenting with building and designing virtual / digital environments for my voice. I recorded many hours of improvisations, story-telling, collected fragments of melodies, words, ambiences; anything that wanted to flow out, I let it. Berlin was dead, like in a movie after a futuristic apocalypse. At home, I spent long weeks breeding my own extraterrestrial world. My channels in Ableton were called “space choir, alien lullaby, glass voice, monsters’ story, galaxy folk song”, etc. This album grew out of my personal existential confusion and ended up making a controversial statement: I produced an album that was specifically built on my own voice (which is very intimate) but transformed this voice digitally to the point where it only carried the memory of anything human (very estranged). I guess this album was, in a way, my coping mechanism: singing a lullaby to myself from an unknown place, sent from the future.
As alluded to in these liner notes, the voice is your primary tool of expression. Disembodied, transformed, mutating, alien, and human, fragile, and raw. Sound poetry. What role does the voice have in your work, and how do you deconstruct it, since it’s one of the most primaeval and characteristic ways of personal expression.
The human voice never ceases to fascinate me. It is one of the most effective tools for receiving and sending information about ourselves. The human voice is the index of our identity. It is a key transmitter, and its qualities help us define who we are, both as unique individuals and as social beings. If you only hear a voice speaking but don’t see a face, you create an idea or picture in your mind about what that person looks like, where they come from, etc. The human voice defines us and it instantly generates stereotypes about our gender, age, origin, heritage, social status, personality, nationality, etc…
In my solo research, I explore how (the perception of) identity changes if we manipulate our voices. If my digitally manipulated voice doesn’t carry known characteristics and thus can’t help identify my age, gender, nationality, social status, etc, then I can also create “new humans” who have a liquid identity. If my self-made, imagined folk songs don’t sound like anything you have heard before, if my language cannot be categorised and thus connected to a geographically defined territory, my origin will be re-defined. In a world where avatars and robots are conquering our reality, where we already live half of our lives in a cyber-world, where we can travel and be anywhere in just hours, where our identities and social codes mix continuously at the fastest pace, why do we still think using old-fashioned concepts, believe in binary gender, in country borders, in nationalities, etc. By creating a manipulated, parallel reality through my digitally manipulated voice, I can bravely reflect upon these topics and question again and again which social constructions might limit or empower us. For a few minutes, I would like to try out what it means to exist without them and be judged purely by the auditive material.
What is interesting is that your work also questions the notion of voice and language as signifiers of specific locations. The borders, heritages, traditional tropes.
Our voices can liberate us but also imprison and discriminate against us, and what´’s more, re-affirm the already existing social structures we are born into. Social constructions such as gender or nationality. I am super curious about what would happen if we could leave all this behind. What if, by manipulating the voice, we could create new identities, new personalities, new categories, new languages, re-write our stories, maybe even our histories? Or perhaps we could finally escape the defined categories and match our being with a voice that is not full of preconceptions. All that defines and discriminates us is based on our experience of the current world and social codes. What if we created voices and songs that are unknown, uncharacterisable, unrecognisable, cannot be put into a box, and thus liberate us towards a more fitting reality?
How does technology play into that?
Nowadays, technology allows us to digitally manipulate sound on almost every level. The user-friendly digital audio workspaces (DAW) allow us to get easy access to music production and creative audio processing. I am interested in researching what technology can do to our voice (recorded or performed) and how that might affect the way we are perceived or how it shapes our own identity from inside.
How does our identity shift when the voice no longer carries the common traces of a person? What happens to our understanding of languages when we hear non-human, digital languages, voices reduced to signals? Does manipulating the voice also manipulate the identity? Does a completely manipulated vocal sound still carry a human touch? Can we tell if a strongly processed digital sound is originally based on a human voice recording or on computer programming? Where does it end or begin to be a human in a digital context?
Your work oscillates between performance, video, collaborations, recordings. Do you have a preferred medium to work in?
I have noticed that from the outside, it might seem that I work with very different mediums and do very different things. Yet to me, it all functions as an inseparable whole. All is closely connected, just always appearing in varied formats. I rarely sit down to “just” write music. I always sit down to imagine an experience. Sometimes it all starts with a specific vision of light, sometimes a situation, a movement, sometimes a conceptual idea or text. These art forms, to me, exist all together at the same time. For example, my solo album ØVER+ is also an audiovisual work as the tracks correspond to videos created simultaneously with the music. Originally, this album was planned as an immersive audiovisual installation that you can literally “walk through”. The videos move between music video, installation and performance. A part of this audiovisual installation will be presented at my Budapest release concert in the House of Music, Hungary, in September.
Recently, I´ve been doing more installation works, radiophonic pieces, and got fascinated by durational performances. I’m interested in creating weird situations that last and allow both performer and audience to search for new strategies of existence. Being inside of a durational piece drives me to understand better transformational processes, states of mind, and challenges my ways of performing. A very fragile and complex format that I would like to explore more.
Your work also reflects on issues such as modern escapism, non-binary identities, beauty myths and collective fear. What do these themes and issues mean to you, and why are you reflecting on them in particular?
Creating, to me, is mostly a way of communication. I cannot stop wars, change politically extremist states, or correct things that disturb, sadden or frustrate me. So I scream in the best way I can. I want to believe that listening to an experimental piece of music, experiencing unknown sound qualities, and being part of an immersive happening might give people a kick. An unexpected push. A transformative experience that brings them out of their comfort zone and might transfer to other parts of their lives. I want to believe that change is possible when we share, exchange, communicate and, above all, if we “listen”.
Your modus operandi is quite nomadic. Your origin is Hungarian-Serbian, though you are mostly travelling across Europe, engaging with various artistic communities and endeavours. Does this influence your work and workflow?
I am still doing what I do because I am surrounded by people (and projects) who inspire me and make me listen, ask questions, fight, teach me to be curious, and help me to continue. They are also part of the reason I actually feel at home wherever I go. But if I am honest, it is not always easy to float across Europe and my need for a classical “home base” is becoming more articulated these days. I feel the need to recharge, exhale and safely fall into pieces. If I have learned one thing in these nomadic years it is that it is easier to leave, if you can sometimes arrive.
What are your dreams?
A sea-side house.
More vegan ice-cream.
Interview: Lucia Udvardyova