Words + Photo by Antonio.
“// ~ | ~ \\,” “Autoharp Through the Cat,” and “Singing Frogs Ate My Afterbirth are the titles of some of Sydney Spann’s most recent offerings working under the name Sunatirene. A sound artist by training, Sunatirene creates complex audio excursions, gathering a variety of instruments and melodies along the way. As each song progresses, elements are abandoned, reshaped, or re-tooled entirely. Often, Sunatirene leaves the listener with only what she provides at the beginning: a bright arpeggio, a wispy synth pad or sparse percussion.
Before Sunatirene prepared for her set at March’s Kahlon party, organized by Abdu Ali and True Laurels, Sunatirene discusses how she began making sound art, how the Sunatirene alter-ego developed, and why Kahlon is so important to the music scene in Baltimore.
Q: What is your musical background?
SUNATIRENE: I have no formal musical education. I started studying Sound Art at MICA my freshman year and began making music then.
Q: What is Sound Art? Is that music theory with a hardware component?
SUNATIRENE: It’s like hardware with software. I learned software first. At MICA, it’s a small department, so they teach you basic audio editing to use for larger sound installations. But “sound art” means a lot of things, though experimental music is included, and it’s more of a sculptural focus.
“I was doing a lot of non-audio performance and a lot of visual installations, I just found that sound was the perfect malleable medium”
Q: So when you decided to study Sound Art, what was the goal?
SUNATIRENE: I was doing a lot of non-audio performance and a lot of visual installations, I just found that sound was the perfect malleable medium. It was a solo endeavor.
Q: How did you come up with your stage name?
SUNATIRENE: It comes from a Brazilian film called Quilombo, it’s second half is borrowed from the name of one of the main characters in it- a community leader/elder named Acotirene. I was looking for a moniker that would fit an alter-ego that I was exploring in my non-sound performance work, and I wanted to keep the “S” of my name, so I added the “Suna” to Acotirene, and it kind of sounded right.
“Performing and using my body in space felt really right. An alter-ego grew out of that”
Q: When you say alter-ego, do you mean as in your visual artwork?
SUNATIRENE: Doing more performance-sound work was a way for me to explore some ideas that I couldn’t with object-making, and performing and using my body in space felt really right. An alter-ego grew out of that.
Q: Are you nervous about tonight, given that there’s a lot of press and hype for tonight?
SUNATIRENE: I’m not nervous yet, but I will be ten minutes before I play.
Q: What was it like working with Deacon at the Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church for that project?
SUNATIRENE: His performance involved MIDI-mapping the organ there. I was really glad to be involved in that show because I get very excited by atypical music listening experiences. And he made it special with a simple gesture, just by letting the audience know that they could lie down on the floor if they wanted to, to suggest that this wasn’t really a “show” to see but a way to appreciate how sound behaves in the space.
Q: Going back to some of the earlier songs on your Soundcloud, can you talk a little bit about “Eating Red”?
SUNATIRENE: That was the first piece I ever made for a class, actually. I was doing more visual performances where sound was a secondary element. I used to perform with props to flesh out my character, and I used longer, more texture-heavy songs to set her stage, kind of. I thought of composing music in terms of first developing a background for my character to exist, and putting in one-shot sounds that allow her to act within that ambient background, with melody and lyrics added later. “Eating Red” was a very early experiment in translating the visual imagery that creates an environment into sound.
“I thought of composing music in terms of first developing a background for my character to exist, and putting in one-shot sounds that allow her to act within that ambient background”
Q: It seems as if there was more urgency, more of a frenzy, than in your later songs. How do you think you have progressed since that song?
SUNATIRENE: I started off making collage pieces, and that way of working – stitching found sounds together – is a pretty frantic one. I didn’t really care about melody or structure since these songs were meant to act as architecture, but then I started writing songs and lyrics – and they got more repetitive. For some reason, I wanted to find a connection between more sculptural sound collages and story-telling with lyrics and songwriting.
“Kahlon is pretty important in the Baltimore music scene”
Q: How would you describe the “Baltimore scene.” I know that’s a broad, maybe lofty, question. But for people reading, and may not realize how much going on, especially now, which is a very good time.
SUNATIRENE: The Baltimore music scene is really beautiful and important in that there are a lot of different styles and everyone is pretty supportive of all genres. For an arts community it’s been a big influence on me at least. Kahlon is pretty important in the Baltimore music scene. We like to say that it’s pretty diverse, but when it comes down to it, it’s about demographics, really. That’s the disappointing part about the Baltimore music scene. Nonetheless, it’s a very nurturing community to be in.
Q: Where will you be in 5 days, 5 months and 5 years?
SUNATIRENE: In five days, I’ll be in my “Intro to Robotics” class at MICA. In five months, I’ll be in the first semester my senior year. In five years, I won’t be in Baltimore.
Q: Where would you like to be?
SUNATIRENE: I don’t know. Not anywhere, but I just know that it’s my turn to live somewhere else, because I grew up here.