#IWD: in conversation with Sophia Jani

Here at Women of Noise, and all over the world, March is a very special month. It is the month of International Women’s Day (IWD) and this month is particularly meaningful for us. Women of Noise began in 2018 and had its launch that March for our premiere International Women’s Day concert in Brisbane, Australia. Over the years we have been graced with wonderful contributions from female-identifying musicians, non-binary peoples and creatives from our community in Brisbane to those all over the world. The concert has included commissioned works, World premieres, Australian premieres and pieces that we know and love by a vast array of creative voices. In our future endeavours, we hope to see this list continue to grow in diversity and showcase more artists and works. We always love to hear from more female-identifying and non-binary creatives so that these voices can be part of our future programs and projects, so if that’s you or someone you know please reach out!

This year marks the third year of the Women of Noise International Women’s Day Concert. This year the United Nation’s theme for IWD is “I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights.” Women; those who identify as women; all those with women in their lives… EVERYONE, regardless of culture, religion, sexuality, social and economic background, deserves respect and equality, and this is not exclusive to the International Women’s Day concert. It is everyday. We keep this in the forefront of our minds as we organise projects here at Women of Noise. And we really can’t wait to share with you what’s in store this year!

As we lead up to our IWD concert on Friday the 6th of March, our Women Write Now interview blog will be featuring interviews with some of the composers whose works have been programmed. First up we have the Munich-based composer, Sophia Jani, whose work ‘everybody was so young’ is receiving an Australian premiere in our upcoming concert.

Phoebe from Women of Noise: Welcome Sophia! We’re stoked to have you for this Women Write Now Interview. So we can get to know you, could you tell us a a bit about yourself and your musical background?

Sophia Jani: My name is Sophia Jani, I am a composer from Germany. I was trained as a classical pianist at an early age, but when I finished high school, a conservatory was the last place I was drawn to. So I took a year off, moved to Bordeaux, France, and found myself immersed in the city’s artist community. Here I started to discover many different ways of making and perceiving music and art, which has not stopped until today. Along the way I earned a degree in Economics and one in Composition, but at the moment I concentrate exclusively on composition. As a composer, I started at the piano, rather improvising than composing, and eventually moved on to electronic production. Later, during my studies at the conservatory, where I was enrolled in a very open program that did not focus on a particular musical aesthetic or even genre, I had many opportunities to work with extremely talented instrumentalists and rediscovered this “classical” approach to music making. Classical composition is a wonderful approach to making music and should definitely continue in the 21st century. Not only because it is a cultural achievement that should not be lost, but above all because it allows a high degree of freedom and therefore serves as an alternative to the standards of the market-driven music industry. I think scenes like the one around contemporary music are extremely important for a society – to keep its spirit fresh and to fight for a diverse, less gentrified world. My day revolves mainly around music, both professionally and privately. When I am not making music, thinking about it or listening to music, I like to move around or meet with friends. So in my spare time I like to go for a walk with dear friends or follow a fairly regular yoga practice.

Phoebe: How would you describe your compositional identity and musical practice?

Sophia: In my work it is very important to me to keep an open mind, so that I don’t get comfortable with some kind of recipe that serves as a template for every composition. I work very hard to keep my mindset well-rounded in order to draw inspiration from different styles, cultures, compositional approaches as well as from non-musical areas. Before I start a new composition, I have to be aware of the specific aspect of music that interests or inspires me at the moment. This can change completely for the next piece, but I have to be clear from which angle I look at the music at the time in order to have a focused starting point. The compositional process itself is very strongly led by intuition. That is important to me. Conservatory trained composers tend to emphasise their training in music theory, instrumentation or their aural skills. Composing can be frightening since you express your inner world in order to present it to an unknown audience. Also, there is often very little time to rehearse, and you can never be 100% sure that the piece will work. Relying on a somewhat structured knowledge can act as a kind of safety net. But I believe that the moment you start writing, you have to let it go. That knowledge is somewhere in your musical DNA, you have to trust that it is there, but clinging on to it won’t help your creative journey. Beyond that, for me music is a way to connect with people – with the audience as well as with other artists. That’s why I love to work with other artists and contribute music to dance productions, theatre plays or films.

Phoebe: What aspects of your upbringing and experiences have helped to shape the music you have written?

Sophia: Certainly my classical education is the basis of my musical identity. I do not come from a family of musicians, but had a rather pressing piano teacher who valued regular studio concerts, competitions, music theory and aural training as well as experience in chamber music. Therefore I received a sound classical music education at a very early age. My family background is more in the visual arts – my mother is an architect, my uncle is a visual artist (my father’s side is not in the arts at all), which probably added the freethinking part to my upbringing. At first I didn’t want to train as a professional musician, I rather wanted to discover music on my own without professors and teachers. Through my partner I came in contact with an independent music label that features experimental pop and electronic music. This was certainly a very influential environment, and since most of the signed artists had a conservatory education, it eventually inspired me to look for a suitable program myself. I think this rather unconventional approach can be heard in my music. By starting as a classical musician and detouring through independent pop and electronic music, only to return to classical composition, gave me the opportunity to approach this world with a very free way of thinking.

Phoebe: Is music a vehicle for you to express certain issues, confront them and/or to empower/ inform others?

Sophia: This is definitely something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Since we live in very political times and political issues are becoming more and more present in our personal lives, I feel the need, on the one hand, to develop a voice through my art that takes a firm stand for the ideas I believe in. On the other hand, I see my way of dealing with music even as a political statement, as it does not take into account the demands of our capitalist system. In this respect, focusing on music for music’s sake is already a very strong form of political expression.

Phoebe: Previously, how has your music been received? What reactions have been elicited?

Sophia: That’s always interesting. Whenever my music is presented to a diverse, international audience with a broad musical background, my music is simply perceived as “beautiful”, “dreamy”, “emotional”. It is received very directly and the whole thing is very uncomplicated.
When presented within the German composer scene, which is more rooted in the avant-garde tradition and generally concentrates on a rather small aesthetic spectrum, my music is perceived as the result of a rebellious attitude. This once led a composer to say that he liked the “middle finger aspect” in my music. I took this as a compliment, although that is not my intention at all. I am not a rebellious person. But I also don’t blindly follow rules or traditions. In my opinion, it is part of the job description of an artist – or actually any responsible person – to ask and possibly answer questions, to think original thoughts and to be true to oneself. What has surprised me most on my path as a composer so far is how easy it is to insult people unintentionally when they are not able to put you in a pigeonhole, or when you do not follow the principles that the majority of people have chosen to follow.

Phoebe: Your piece ‘everybody was so young’ for alto flute, clarinet and violoncello is receiving its Australian premiere in our International Women’s Day Concert. Tell us about the background
inspiration for this piece.

Sophia: I draw a lot of inspiration from the fact that everything that is present now will be gone at some point in the future. The idea that we as human beings and our surroundings are so extremely fragile, yet we cannot fully understand this fact and cannot do much about it, holds an extreme beauty and sadness at the same time. To face this fact with respect makes it a feeling of strength. When I started to work on “everybody was so young”, I came across an article in The New Yorker of 1961, an interview with Sarah and Gerald Murphy – a wealthy American couple who moved to the French Riviera in the early 20th century. With their generous hospitality and flair for parties, they created a lively social circle, especially in the 1920s. Among them were numerous artists and writers such as Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who used the Murphys as a source of inspiration for the couple from his novel “Tender is the Night”. Later their lives fell apart when two of their three children died. They moved back to the States and lived a rather secluded life. When they talked about their memories in France, Sarah Murphy paused for a moment and said “and everybody was so young” – a statement without being too melancholic – rather surprised but accepting. This feeling spoke to me and I wanted to find a musical equivalent for it. The result can be heard in the first movement of “everybody was so young“.

Phoebe: What guidance or suggestions can you give to musicians learning and performing your works?

Sophia: Find a good pace, listen closely to each other and know your role in a specific moment. And do not hesitate to get in touch and ask if you have any questions. Also just have fun and enjoy!

Phoebe In Munich and greater Germany, what opportunities are available to you as a composer?

Sophia: Since my music does not really fit into the aesthetics of the contemporary music scene in Germany, I am not so familiar with the structures that this scene offers young composers. There are certainly good opportunities for young composers, but I am not particularly informed, I have to admit. At the moment, I’m rather following an independent path and creating opportunities for myself. I am working with an excellent young woodwind quintet, as well as with a wonderful young string quartet, with whom I plan to present contemporary classical music together in Munich’s most renowned techno club “Blitz“.

Phoebe: Is there an interest and push for in ‘diverse’ programming from arts organisations, musicians and audience?

Sophia: There are organizations that focus on women in contemporary music, but diverse programming is not as present as for example in the US. A fact that has to be changed!

Phoebe: What are some upcoming projects that you are looking forward to?

Sophia: Currently I am concentrating entirely on an album with my own chamber music compositions, for which I am working very closely with the Munich chamber music ensembles already mentioned – the Woodwind Quintet and the String Quartet. I’ve been working really hard on this project for the last 2.5 years and I’m very happy that I finally got a date for the recording! “everybody was so young” will be part of it! I am also in the process of establishing a concert series in Munich together with three friends. two extremely talented composers and a brilliant violinist. As also mentioned earlier it will take place in Munich’s hottest techno club “Blitz” and will focus on non-European traditions. It is intended to give artists who do not really fit into the contemporary German music scene the opportunity to write for ensembles and to bring this kind of music to an audience that might be interested but has not yet had the chance to stumble upon it.

Phoebe: Who are some figures in your career that have inspired creativity, empowered you as an artist and reinforced your goals?

Sophia: The 5 most influential artists for me are probably Ryuichi Sakamoto, Björk, Tim Hecker, Arvo Pärt and the Bang on a Can collective.

I admire Ryuichi Sakamoto because he has found his voice and musical language – which I love! – but at the same time he is very versatile and moves freely between different projects. When his last solo album “async” came out, it was in an endless loop at my home for at least 3 months. Whenever I get stuck in a composition or feel uninspired, I listen to Björk‘s music, because it contains strengths and creativity. Her energy really makes me want to be creative. The album I have listened to most is her break-up album “Vulnicura” – simply a masterpiece… like any of her albums.
Tim Hecker had a big influence on me as a producer. His work is very unconventional, but at the same time very modern. My favourite album of his is “Love Streams“.
For my language as a composer, Arvo Pärt plays a big role. When I took my first steps as a composer, I wondered why so many composers claim to write in the tradition of e.g. Schönberg, Bartok, Ligeti, Messiaen, Riehm etc., and few ever mention Pärt in this context. In the meantime I know the rather simple answer – he was not teaching! But does one really need to be taught by someone personally to continue his tradition? Anyway, his music was a great inspiration to me, especially “Tabula Rasa” and “Fratres“. Probably the biggest influence on me at the moment is the “Bang on a Can” collective. Not only do I love the music of composers Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Gordon, but I also admire the fact that they have simply built their own universe in search of their place and through this initiative have changed the musical world around them.
Participating in the Bang on a Can Festival last year was very motivating and empowering for me. Probably the most influential moment was the way they presented “Schnee” by Hans Abrahamsen during the final week of the festival. David Lang described it as the quietest masterpiece ever written and made clear that it is super important for the audience to be as quiet as possible. As a result there was a great concentration in the room and the music really felt very present. What I took away from that is the fact that music that doesn’t fit the current state of the world sometimes needs a little more attention when it comes to where and how it is presented. But when you create a space for something that otherwise could not live, it often works surprisingly well. People are generally so busy adapting that they completely forget that trying to change the current state is also an option. But this often works better than we think and is so important!

For more on Sophia and her projects follow her on Instagram, hear her recordings on her Soundcloud and hear her piece ‘everybody was so young’ in our International Women’s Day Concert on the 6th of March. A live stream of the concert will be available so follow our Facebook page, Instagram and website to stay tuned.

Photo credit: Georg Stockinger

Don’t forget to ‘follow’ Women Write Now to be the first to read about creative women and non-binaries around the world.  Twice a month we’ll be in conversation creatives across the globe, and taking a deeper look into their perspectives and the work they are doing in their communities and beyond.

Are you a ‘Woman of Noise?‘ We are welcome to suggestions for who you might like to see featured in Women Write Now interviews. This could be you, someone you know, an artist you admire, anyone! Drop us a line and we’ll be in touch!

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