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SABIWA is an experimental audiovisual performer. In her compositions, she manipulates and fragments the source material to the point of it becoming unrecognisable, leading to mesmerising and transcendental new dimensions of sound. Drawing inspiration from ancient music that imitates nature, she incorporates her own voice, drawing from the musical traditions of the native tribes of Taiwan, resulting in a remarkable psychedelic narrative. She collaborates with numerous forward-thinking artists and musicians. Her live performances encompass various formats, including live A/V shows with single or multi-projections, installations, and body performances.

How have you been and what have you been up to?

Busy and happy as always.

I just did a super fun residency programme in Latvia with Skanu Mezs and the Maboca festival. I was hugely inspired by the freedom, people, nature and team partners (Sarma Gabrēna and Andrejs Zālītis) as well as working on the idea of connecting memory and sound and just the idea of pure having fun, of being present and only being in the moment. I also created some spontaneous mosquito and mosquito bites score compositions and a baby frog score. 

All the compositions were composed out of the experience of living there and were performed for that moment, and those spontaneous, one-off shows made me feel extremely precious and now it has become the new direction I want to develop. 

You mentioned that you started making music relatively late – around 10 years ago. Before that, you’d primarily been a visual artist, and making music was at first more about creating sound for your videos. Can you recollect this journey to producing music? And when did that moment come?

Until now, my work still pretty much works in this way; music always comes with the visual. At the moment, I’m still studying film at university, so my main approach to sound is still based on footage and some kind of abstract narrative story.

What role do memory and the concept of time play in your work? 

They’re super important at the moment. I often change my interests, but this is what I’m currently interested in and all the projects I’m working on at the moment are based on the concepts of time and memory. I was inspired a lot by funeral ceremonies and how people move from a 3D body to a pure 2D and digital identity after death. I have also been inspired by life in Taiwan. I’ve been away from my home for more than 10 years, but every year I go back and everything remains the same. And for me, the life of my entire family there is basically a loop from Monday to Sunday. When I look at the diary I wrote 20 years ago, time becomes a spiral, and I also feel that if I filmed each family member from Monday to Sunday, I would basically have filmed their entire life. So at the moment, I’m still developing this concept in a lot of different projects and exploring what it is.  

You released a conceptual album called Island no. 16 – Memories of Future Landscapes in 2023. On this album, you recontextualise traditional Taiwanese folk music. Can you talk about this record and what it means to you?

For me, this album is more like an intro to all my shows from January to May. I used it to collect what I felt was valuable and wanted to keep, and I was also reflected in all these memories and played with writing and script writing. So as of January, all the shows are based on this album, but I also use a lot of other recordings I collected that are not on the album. I want to use all of these different kinds of material, and time and space to convey the idea about time and memory, and on the other hand, there are also many hidden messages in the recordings, some of which only appear in the live shows in cooperation with the script I wrote. It’s about criticising the social system and colonisation through the jokes of the people in the countryside who are defined as subalterns. There are also sounds of the streets during the presidential election period in Taiwan.   

How did you approach the production of this album, which incorporates a plethora of sonic material – including field recordings, samples, etc. 

Originally it wasn’t meant to be an album, just my personal collection of recordings and writings for the future world from past diaries. And I’ve edited it like a sound diary from time to time in the past few years. But it’s been a process that’s taken many years of collecting and editing according to the mood of the moment, so I also really don’t know how to describe it, it was just organically shaped.

Is it difficult to work with one’s own country’s sonic traditions and heritage?

Yes, definitely. 

It’s difficult in terms of understanding the exact background story of the sonic heritage, especially for someone like me who was born at the end of the so-called period of “traditional” existence. The challenge is how to catch the last part of the “local” before it is all westernised and becomes universal through systemic and educational change.  For example, the soundscape has changed so much. 

All the traditional music is related to certain events (like planting the rice fields or harvesting), and now we no longer see herds of cows on the street going to work in the rice fields and farmers singing to kill the time as they do their intensive work. Instead, the sound of the machine has taken over the entire sound in my town, and those traditional sounds disappeared before sound recorders became easily accessible or people realised the value of preserving “tradition” and the soundscape. It’s the same with colonisation, for instance, in the music of the Indigenous tribes of Taiwan or many other places in Asia, Jesus appears many times in the lyrics instead of their own gods because of the missionaries. And the traditional tunes they sing are influenced by hymns. Anyway, there are always questions and challenges in exploring the background and defining my own relationship with tradition. 

At the Prague artist meetup, you mentioned several of your projects, and one of them is research and a project concerning deaf people. Can you talk about this project and what it taught you about sound, silence and perception?

This brilliant project was founded by Berlin-based artists Rob Blake and Emin Aksoy.

It totally opens up a new perspective on thinking about sound and memory. It also reminds me of when I was at elementary school in Taiwan. We had this class in which we had to experience some kind of inconvenience. And every week we had a different topic, for example, we covered our eyes to experience blindness, or sat in wheelchairs, or tied a basketball on our bellies all day to experience pregnancy. Now that I’m grown up, I realise that this is something I forgot for a long time but now it’s really inspiring me a lot!

For example, I’ve recently been writing a new script about the concept of imaginary sound and also a visual project that combines an installation with a live performance. I would like to collaborate with other performers and artists on it. The installation part will be videos of everyday occurrences, things like something falling on the floor, a flower opening, etc. And there will be a re-making of the sounds and a text about an imaginary visual from the re-created sound (written by both the viewer and the performer). Then the performers and I will build up a strange landscape and soundscape based on the text from the remade sound and the installation, and make it into a stage play, including dialogue about this theme. So there will be a kind of snowball effect, rolling far away from reality but creating another new reality.

Interview by Lucia Udvardyova

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