Interview with Saun Santipreecha
SAUN SANTIPREECHA is a composer and sound artist from Thailand whose work often explores the inescapable interiority of experience and those singular moments which cast a shadow across the plain of one’s existence, examining and questioning this from a multitude of angles. On a thematic level, these inquiries resonate outwards towards exploring the relationship between ourselves and nature through technology, creating a sonic womb within which opposites, reflections, and refractions bounce back and forth, often juxtaposing moments in time to create an impression of timelessness and allowing the audience to engage in both internal and external dialogue. Aside from his solo work, he often collaborates with artists from various fields including filmmakers, singer-songwriters, fashion designers, and writers.
What got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
I grew up loving the visual arts (painting particularly) and literature and wanted to be a writer or a painter, both disciplines of which are always present in the way I work with sound and music as well. My love of film came around the same time and it was wanting to be a filmmaker which ultimately led me to working in film music. Ballet was my first conscious contact with music; I was the prince in The Nutcracker when I was six so Tchaikovsky is definitely a big part of my musical roots. Then came piano when I was seven which led into performing as a concert pianist and ultimately being part of an opera choir in Bangkok when I was fifteen or so. By then I'd decided I wanted to leave music behind and turn to filmmaking and was making short films with some friends in high school. It was during the editing process on one of those films that my friend who was directing turned to me and asked if I wanted to try scoring the film since I was the only one who had a musical background amongst us. So I made my first film score for that short in Garageband on my laptop which was a very rudimentary homage to Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score (I was and still am a huge fan of Hitchcock's films). That process was very rewarding for me and honestly was what made composing make sense for me. I was always asking what drove the music? Why this note after the one before and not another one? The answer for me then was story. In many ways it still is but I've progressed to understanding and embracing ideas and intent which doesn't necessarily have to be narratively driven. My latest album Dandelye is a good example of this. While it is still preoccupied with what I call the 'interiority of experience', the exploration of how we experience everything through the veil of our past experiences and how certain events in our life, such as trauma, can take hold and cast a shadow throughout the years, it is not strictly narratively driven. It is this fascination and interest in exploring how we experience the world through the interiority of our life experiences that grounds and connects my solo work and my work in film, fashion and other mediums.
The answer to what I would be doing today if not music could be any of those other fascinations that I had and wanted to be, painter, writer, poet. I still write and explore poetry in my spare time, writing in English using an adapted form of an ancient Thai poetic form called Khlong.
What do you like to do when you are not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
I love learning everything I can about all sorts of things. I love watching films, reading both fiction and nonfiction (philosophy has been particularly eye-opening), listening to many different kinds of music and sound works, reading and looking at architecture, looking at and going to art exhibits. They all feed into my work. For me, it's so important to engage in things that are outside of the bubble of your art form or preoccupation. It often helps you return to see what you are working on or your craft from a different angle. For example, architecture has had a lot of influence on my work, particularly something like Dandelye. I see each work as a kind of architectural structure or sculpture that the listener can move in in real time. This affects how I choose to use things like space (reverb, delays etc.) and I often like to create a shifting impression of space over time. My medium really is the recorded one. Though I come from a live performance background, my fascination is with what we can live through and experience in a studio, cinema or headphones/earbuds. I draw a lot of this also from my love of musique concrete founded and explored by Pierre Schaeffer in France in the 40's onwards. Poetry also has an unbreakable bond with music and reading for example Edith Sitwell's essays on her own craft of poetry (she is one of my favorite poets) has been hugely inspiring in the way she uses the musicality and tonal colors of words in her poems. This of course can allow me to return to music with a fresh perspective or re-evaluate my approach. Edith Sitwell kept what she called a Poet's Notebook where she wrote down quotations and phrases from various artists which, as she says, 'will cast some reflection on poetry'. I've found this incredibly useful and I myself keep a rather haphazard version of my own Poet's Notebook.
How long has music been your career?
It depends when you're counting from. I would say professionally as a composer I began with my first feature film Dark Woods (released as Forbidden Attraction) which I scored in 2009 (as S. Peace Nistades) so I would say it's been since then.
Where are you based out of and how did that influence your music?
Los Angeles, CA and but I wouldn't say that is the chief influence on my music. LA is primarily an industry town and from a film perspective of course, Hollywood is here and Hollywood uses a certain kind of music often in its scores which serve a certain function. Of course I grew up with the greats; Bernard Herrmann, James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith were some of my favorites and of course film music was a big part of my musical upbringing but I also take a lot of influence from many other artists. I would say for instance that if I had to choose the single greatest influence artistically and personally for me that truly changed me, it would be the works of Samuel Beckett. He still remains a giant for me and his use of pointillistic motivic fragments which zoom out the further you stay with the work into the real picture of what the work is really dealing with, the darker underbelly which is always very deeply human and very much in contrast to and the impetus for the absurdity (often with a comic tinge) on the surface remains so powerful and personal to me.
Tell me about the best and worst shows you have played.
I haven't played a show in a long time but I recently returned to perform with my dear friend, the violinist Anna Kostyucek and her friend, fellow Ukrainian violinist Myroslava Khomik, at a benefit concert for Ukraine a few months ago. We played a beautiful piece by Ukrainian composer M. Skoryk called Melody and a new arrangement of one of my early pieces from 2008 Mississippi Hour which Anna performed for me back then. It was an emotional performance for obvious reasons and also because there was such an eclectic range of musicians there from John Waite to the Doors guitarist Robby Krieger to Craig Taubman and Sharon Hendrix. It was incredible to see everyone come together to support Ukraine.
I'm afraid I can't really remember too many shows and fortunately not a lot of them went wrong but I do have terrible stage fright so each time I perform is always very nerve wracking.
Tell me about your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you have not already?
I think the best venues are the ones with the most open audience. Of course there is a technical aspect to the venue and of course there are phenomenal venues out there, the Philharmonie Hall in Berlin is one of my favorites, Disney Hall here in LA is superb as well. I would hope to perform for an audience that would be open to engage in and go on the sonic journey with me, particularly with something like Dandelye.
If you could play any show with any lineup, who would be on the ticket?
Oh well there are some amazing artists I follow and love such as Lea Bertucci, Claire Rousay and Loise Bulot. It would be an honor to perform in the same space and lineup as them. I also love Rezz but I don't think I would fit into being on the same lineup as her haha.
What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into music?
Find your point of view. I say that as opposed to 'voice' because for me point of view is more important and ultimately will lead to your voice. That has been my biggest journey all these years, stepping back far enough out of the trappings of genre and style to think about ideas and intent. Philosophy is hugely important in this and though it can seem daunting I think it is absolutely important for any artist to read and learn. Ultimately philosophy is just the study of being, of 'understanding the fundamental truths about ourselves, the world we live in and our relationship to that world' and isn't that the point of all art? So for me, while it is very important to develop one's technical craft, to be able to truly express something that can hopefully stand on its own feet, one has to also develop and shape one's point of view which of course will be ever-evolving. I honestly wish I had delved into philosophy much earlier than I did, but also learning, studying and experiencing forms of art that isn't your own is hugely important and is often more helpful in allowing us to think outside of our box than only trying to draw inspiration from other artists within our own forms.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice, what would it be?
Study philosophy haha.
Of your songs which one means the most to you and why?
Probably Dandelye but honestly this entire album which really was conceived as a multi-movement piece like a symphony. They are interconnected. The arc isn't complete in any single piece on the album. The sonic and musical motifs and ideas grow and develop and return throughout the album.
Which songs are your favorite to play and which get requested the most?
As I said I haven't performed much as I am mostly studio-based but I think a piece like Mississippi Hour has a certain appeal because of its minimalist, emotion-based arc. I say emotion-based because I believe not all music or art should be necessarily 'emotional'. What is 'emotional' to us is naturally pre-determined by what has already affected us emotionally in the past which doesn't always have to do with the piece itself but more about the life circumstance around the time we heard the piece (breakup, loss, love, etc.) and I think only listening or approaching art to look for what is 'emotional' to us can be limiting as there are many evocative and powerful experiences of art that may not fall under that category at all and may perhaps be more visceral or create internal dissonance which leads to a new discovery.
What is the creative process for you, and what inspires you to write your music?
It always starts with an idea or some kind of feeling I'm looking for or experiencing in my head and wanting to explore. Dandelye for instance was about trying to create a space where opposites, reflections and refractions co-exist in a kind of sonic womb that wasn't dictating clear-cut emotional broad strokes for you but allowing you to experience it like a dream where you seem to be co-inhabiting multiple spaces at the same time. I do this a lot through Dandelye, juxtaposing recordings made at different times and places together which create a sense of timelessness, a dreamlike way of time-travelling. This is true also of memory and the way memory works within the fabric of our daily lives, constantly reframing one or the other.
At times it can also be a concept or shape. The first piece in the album for example, Seeds Across An Ashen Sky, was conceived as a single brush stroke, a kaleidoscope of constant reframings beginning with that first neutral note whose 'meaning' changes when the second note reframes it, then again on the third and so on.
The inspiration to create sound and music for me is to ask questions and create a space in which discussion and dialogue may be had—how does an event from our past take hold, morph, distort, reshape our present and future, how do we experience the external from the internal—often through the reframing of the question or looking at it from a different angle.
What kinds of messages do you like to get across in your music?
In my solo work, I'm not as interested in embedding messages within the music. I'm more interested in creating a space for dissonance and complexity of emotion, for lack of a better word, to thrive and co-exist. For me it is that challenge that is so necessary for growth and new discoveries. For me, ambient music which Dandelye broadly falls into, for example, shouldn't only be about being calm, soothing or relaxing but should allow the audience to engage in a dialogue, both internal and external to the work and to themselves.
Do you ever have disagreements when collaborating and how do you get past them?
Oh sure, it happens from time to time. It depends on the nature of the collaboration. Often with film, fashion and other mediums there is a sense of whose work it is and so the disagreements fall into whether it serves that film or fashion collection through the lens of their creators. On something that is more equally collaborated on it can be tougher because as I like to say, it's hard to have two people driving the same car with two different steering wheels. That's why I tend to choose my collaborations carefully, not necessarily because of what they do but how they think and if we're on the same wavelength. The hope is that there will be a shared mutual agreement on what the idea or aim of the project is and so we can defer to that in tempering disagreements but of course it's possible that two people won't agree on what's best for it so as I say, choosing collaborations like that where you feel secure in being on the same page is very helpful.
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
I have several collaborations in the works which I'm very excited to share and another studio album I'm starting to experiment on where I'm engaging with language for the first time in my solo work: the poetry of my mother. She writes in the Khlong form I mentioned above but in Thai and I've helped her translate/transpose them into the adapted English forms I've been working with. On this project I've recorded her reciting some of her poems in her original Thai and I'm in the phase of exploring how I will interact with them and what the overarching form of the project will be. I do find it very important to take time to experiment after a big project and go off and make mistakes, try new things, explore various aspects of a technique or tool and allow yourself to grow and change before diving back into another big project. The novelist Ian McEwan whose works I love as well said something similar about needing those breaks between novels to change and grow. It's important to challenge one's point of view and one's past work. While I feel that I've found some solid ground with regards Dandelye and knowing the direction of exploration I want and feel right to move in going forward, I am very conscious of not wanting to simply be repeating myself or repeating those points of views I've already explored. Each work should be a hopefully more developed one, casting a different light perhaps upon the same object so as to see and document a different shadow cast across Time.
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/Saun-Santipreecha-103289922437539