Synthesist Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith might not know that her name translates loosely to “smith of purifying gold”, but her music knows — and her listeners rollick in it. Her new album, Let’s Turn It Into Sound, showcases Smith’s ear for infinite possibility. Smith isn’t afraid of alternative forms of emotive communication in this album, all the while exploding the boundaries of music — and even the physical body.
The title, Let’s Turn It Into Sound, is both an invitation and an instruction. The phrase whispered to Smith as bookends, an apt container for Smith’s unique — and at times, unwieldy — melting and welding of feelings into sound: “I’ve felt helpless in the amount of stuff happening in the world. And so my response to those feelings is, ‘Well, okay, I can at least make sound.'”
While the phrase Let’s Turn It Into Sound feels like advice or an imperative, it is also playful. “Sound is something that’s always been playful for me,” explains Smith while speaking to PopMatters. “It’s an area where things can simultaneously make sense and not make sense. And I think of it like a freedom practice in the sound play.”
Smith praises sound’s subtle powers, saying, “Let’s play with it. Let’s just make art. And so it felt like a return to the original intention with art — [which is that we] don’t know how to communicate. And ‘let’s make art’ sounds so basic, but that’s really what the core inspiration was for the album.”
Formally, her fiddling with structural norms allowed Smith to compose into newer realms: “I always love to play with extreme versions of going from really opposite points in the harmonic circle, like: ‘let’s find like the biggest dissonance gap and try and connect it, and that makes me excited. On a philosophical level, that’s something I personally experienced in the last few years. There were a lot of really big extremes and huge gaps.”
Experimenting with the transgressions of sound, Smith incorporated “a lot more edges of sound. There are peek-a-boo sounds in the album, and if you listen closely, you can hear me going ‘hiya’ — there’s just a lot of little Easter egg sounds.”
Given that Smith interacts organically with her instrument, the Buchla easel, it isn’t any wonder the relationship is symbiotic. “Playing with the Buchla began my more intentional listening journey because of the limitations of the synthesizer,” she notes. “I started with one or two tones and would do these like deep zoomed-in listening sessions. So it was a deeper practice in the overtones series, something I always return to before writing a new piece because it’s the original ingredients to all sounds.“
In turn, the Buchla beckons its players to position themselves in time and space, locate themselves within a machine, and act like a conductor; One must be in relation with it. Indeed, Smith’s album emphasizes location and perspective, with song titles like “Locate”, Let It Fall”, ” Is it Me or Is It You?”, “Pivot Signal”, and “Unbraid: the Merge”. Smith confirms that “this album for me was so much about transition, and not landing fully, just being in constant transition time and how to play with that transition time.”
Smith insists that listeners hear sound somatically, with their bodies. “There are certain frequencies I feel in my spine, and looking into the psychosomatic experience of listening, there’s a lot of research about how certain frequencies we don’t hear with our ears, but we feel them on our hairs. Like our hairs are listening.” For instance, when someone has “a spooky feeling — like a haunted feeling — that is actually a frequency that they’re feeling and not hearing.”
Music-making for Smith is so fully embodied that her artistic disposition has the fullness of influence, from electronic pioneers like Wendy Carlos and Steve Reich to experimental music’s darlings Laurie Spiegel and Laurie Anderson to John Adams and recomposer Max Richter to Moondog and even the acoustic inspiration of Bulgarian female choirs. When PopMatters compared Smith to medieval composer Hildegard de Bingen, Smith cautiously agreed there is a “parallel resonance”. They are two inter-disciplinarians skirting definitions while interested in a spiritual concept of lifeforce infusing the natural (and, in this case, the less natural) world.
Smith’s animus also stems from dance, Butoh, sculpture, geometry, and fashion — all forms that constellate around space and dimension. Working with director Sean Hellfritsch, Smith donned a Rokoko motion capture suit to create a video that will also be visuals for her live performance.
Smith openly mutates color, movement, and technology as if a postmodern alchemist, sucking in elements around her to transform them. Sure enough, in Let’s Turn It Into Sound, turbidity, warping arcades, tripped-up machines, blips and bloops, TV trailers, rocky discombobulations, and layers of wavering noise ferment as each song, or what Smith refers to as vignettes, tumble by in a kind of symphonic poem. Then, when we apply an inquisitive listening to it — it foments new music gold.
Such ability includes an accidental talent for making “material” out of her neighbors. Through uncanny connections, Smith serendipitously turns her physical locations into resources. On Orcas Island, there was the Terry Riley fan who introduced Smith to the Buchla easel. Smith and Susanne Ciani discovered they were both Buchla players and neighbors in Bolinas, destined to collaborate. And during the pandemic, Smith met a musician who was also her neighbor, Emile Mosseri; together, they released an album, I Will Be Your Dog.
Smith admitted that Let’s Turn It Into Sound has a “lot of mystery feelings to it”. For certain, Smith synthesizes forms, such as her remixes; they are not limited to others’ music (like psych phenoms King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard), but she also churns creative risk into real substance, sparking magic in sounds’ edges, strangeness, and surprises.
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