Interview: Untangling Zoë Mc Pherson’s String Figures

Belgium Belgium

Most people’s understanding of the string figure tradition starts and ends with the cat’s cradle, but Zoë Mc Pherson is not most people. The Brussels-based artist’s new project explores the history of string figures through an array of sonic and visual textures, and the result is a relentlessly future-facing vision that should see her mentioned alongside the likes of Actress, Holly Herndon and Gazelle Twin.

The germ of the String Figures concept came from Mc Pherson’s anthropological research into Inuit culture, with both original and archive throat-singing recordings resurfacing throughout the record. However, this was just a jumping off point; unpicking the many strands of String Figures is a deviously enjoyable challenge. The album threads itself through pulsating electronic and acoustic terrain, taking in everything from squalling saxophone drones to trotting Turkish field recordings via a series of dynamic rhythmic flourishes.

It’s a multi-media and multi-participant creation spanning anonymous samples, distant stories and Alessandra Leone’s continuing work developing an impressive visual aspect to the project. As Zoë Mc Pherson theorises, “Folk music is considered anonymous common property in a culture and that’s what a lot of computer music and other kinds of music data may end up becoming”. In this sense, it’s not hard to see why she sees String Figures as part of “an indigenous of the future” – rarely has ancient and modern culture been tethered together so tightly.

It’s a fascinating record to untangle, and Zoë Mc Pherson was kind enough to assist us via the following email exchange…

MusicMap: Your debut album was originally inspired by your research into Inuit culture. What led you to that field of study and how did it influence your music?

Zoë Mc Pherson: This obsession period about Inuit culture came when finding a book in my grandmothers’ boxes. I just dove into it, utilising the worldwideweb mostly. It is fascinating to read how it has evolved so fast, their “diet”, the seclusion they had to live through, forced into boarding schools, the way they were told not to pursue hunting, not to speak Inuktikut (ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ), etc.

Pretty f violent. I mean check out Tanya Tagaq’s twitter if you wanna know lots about what’s going on still today. I had honour to open up for her last year and interview her. The world needs ppl like her.

The hunting part I find fascinating. The animalism within it. The respect. Not like huge meat factories treating animals like shit and then eating it. Thanking the spirit of the animal to let them feed your family. This deep respect.

Yet nowadays, the big drinking problems, unemployment, food is extremely expensive. I have never been but spent ages online digging whatever I could find on this culture a few years back. It’s through this that I discovered the practice of String Figures, extremely beautiful and complex shapes. The stories around making string figures. And I found out, this practice happened all over the world, since ages. This human connection is there, even without being able to communicate.

Shapes ressemble each other sometimes, or are very particular, they represent animals and moments that belong to its context. From Polar bears to snakes, depending on where you live. I love this transmission aspect, from a grandmother to a little daughter, through the strings. Maybe this is actually the hidden theme of this debut.

At what point did you decide it would be an audio-visual album (and when can we expect to see the next episodes)?

I’ve always been into transmedia stuff. Performances cross media, audiovisual etc.

I met Alessandra Leone at a female:pressure meeting in Berlin two years back, when I was looking for a director to collab on my next album. She got hooked on strings too and we really clicked together on the whole project. It is very intense and amazing to work together because we’re both perfectionists, have similar aesthetic ideas, and don’t really stop working. She’s a powerful woman and artist.

Each track is a chapter – as we called it – as it is a video as well and is an audioviusal album all in one! We imagined this audiovisual album together with Alessandra, and commissioned pretty amazing visual artists, choreographers, costumes designers, DoP etc. We’re currently still working on forthcoming chapters! And of course live, we play an audiovisual show.

Next episodes will be out within the next days & months, we got some beautiful movements, improv, choreography, 3D and shots waiting for you. It’s super exciting and fulfilling.

String Figures features a range of field recordings from all over the world. Is there any particular ‘string’ that links them all? And which one brings back the most vivid memories?

I got this question many times 🙂 It’s funny. There’s no particular moment that would be so interesting to write down.

But for sure, it is a very “inner” activity, you’re in your own world (headphones), although listening to the outside world. It’s like disconnecting but connecting at the same time.

I find parts of the record unsettling, parts of it meditative and parts of it liberating, yet somehow it all feels cohesive. How did you achieve that and what do you hope listeners take away from the experience?

Haha well that’s great, happy to hear. I didn’t do anything on purpose, so not sure what to answer.

I’m already impressed by what people tell me from their listening experience. I honestly didn’t know it could touch other people and it makes me very very deeply happy that it is now a shared experience!

Mmh let me think further. I hope ppl get on a certain trip inside/outside, connect some points, let go, shake with some beats, stop and shake the other direction when another beat comes in maybe.

What was your first experience of playing music, and what music were you exposed to growing up?

Again.. haha!!! Played the fiddle, then played drums, looking forward to playing that again btw.

My mother is a singer songwriter and guitarist, she played a lot of Rhythm & Blues and Soul records. Let’s say Curtis Mayfield’s voice would be what brings me straight back to this comfy zone. I listened to a lot of Irish folk too, as Gillie collected songs and tunes back then in the ’60s in Ireland.

How does performing your new material compare to your experiences playing jazz?

Performing is awesome, we play as a duo with amazing percussionist Falk Schrauwen. We’ve worked hard to make an interesting live [show], mixing organic and electronic sounds. Take into account the live aspect of electronic music, as well as being able to be free, and improvise as much as possible.

I do still have a link with Jazz though, here through saxophone player Sam Comerford who I invited on my first EP and this LP to perform on it.

What led you to Brussels, and how would you describe the music scene there right now? Any names we should be looking out for?

Oh well, ‘Bruxelles ma belle’ as we say. It’s diverse, it’s underground. Ppl are very nerdy and aware of very good music.

Names: Why the Eye are my big brothers, they play crazy DIY instruments and turn the crowd into a trance rave zone. Ppl go mad. A lot of good stuff I have to say. Jazz scene is incredible, with De Beren Gieren as my favourite trio. And they are finally getting their deserved recognition, after about 10 years playing as a trio.

Can you send us a photo of the view from your window?

It’s raining, so no. I’d have to wait until there’s blue sky or snow to make you think life is always wonderful on Instagram. Unless you like greys.

If you want to know more about Zoë Mc Pherson’s String Figures, head to the official website here.

Photo of Zoë Mc Pherson by Camille Cooken
Interview by Kier Wiater Carnihan

by Editor
March 22, 2018

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