Sawako: Fifteen Questions

Sawako talks Sound

“We may be able to compose in 5D. But our 4D brain can’t recognize that world.”

Name: Sawako Kato aka Sawako
Occupation: Composer, producer, sound artist 
Nationality: Japanese
Recent release: Sawako’s Stella Epoca is out via 12k.

If you enjoyed these thoughts by Sawako and would like to find out more about her work, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, and Facebook.

Can you talk a bit about your interest in or fascination for sound? What were early experiences which sparked it?

When I was in high school, my bandmate had guitar effects. I started random experiments with my voice, a cassette multi-track recorder and effects. At that time, I didn’t know about the existence of sound art and experimental music at all, and I was listening to punk rock and techno music. The experiments were so fun for me, but none of my friends in high school understood the music.

At university, I encountered a computer music class and started working with sound waves in Super Collider. I was so fascinated with it, because waveforms are so cute, like tiny creatures in a petri dish. I also enjoyed experimenting with feedback and resonances of several hundred tiny sound waves with Max/MSP. My professor called the data for sound synthesis “woods and trees.” 

I felt that sound synthesis was something like a sci-fi garden to create a convoluted pomato (potato + tomato) or chimera of time and space. 

It was the time of glitch, lowercase sound and microsound (both the mailing list and the book). At the same time, I started to work at an art gallery, and the gallery manager introduced me to the works of Fluxus, Felix Hess, Steve Roden, Brandon LaBelle, Alvin Lucier and so on. 

Frequencies and sound waves are cute. I am interested in inaudible sound (for human beings) as well as wave shapes in general. The theme of my thesis for my master’s degree was a sonification & visualization of wi-fi signal data, and the thesis title is “no[w]here.”

Additionally, I was interested in artistic fieldwork with a video camera when I was a student. At that time, the CPUs of PCs were not enough to realize my ideas for using moving images. So I started artworks only with field recording sounds – without any visuals. 

I like traveling, and I thought the artworks would help me travel to many different places. I like walking around in cities and woods with recording gear. It feels like I become an invisible woman – only with ears wrapped up in the sound cocoon. 

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and working with sound?

All things in everyday life. Especially sparkles of ephemeral things.

Each story which is woven by collaborators and me on the planet.

Things which are told by sound. The world which sound shows us.

What are the sounds that you find yourself most drawn to?

Invisible. Intangible. In-betweenness. Fluid. Like a fog or smoke. Sounds that create an ambience both consciously and subconsciously. As an artistic medium, I can simultaneously use both controls and intentions and let-things-go and indeterminacy. 

As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, from instruments via software tools and recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you personally, starting from your first studio/first instruments and equipment?

I am a person who can enjoy both cheap and expensive and old and new technology and equipment. All things have a unique character, so I am happy to work with them. 

However, recently I have had the chance to meet amazing engineers who can create custom-made software, speakers and hardware for me. They expand my sound world with a fresh viewpoint and give me much inspiration.

About my memory of my first studio gear, when I was a student, MOTU was the Mark of the Unicorn, with a logo of a unicorn illustration on the gear. I put a sticker of a unicorn on my gear and was thinking, “I will get the cute logo gear when I grow up.” Several years later, when I had actually grown up, MOTU’s logo had changed, without the unicorn. It was really a sad thing. So I still put stickers of unicorns on my gear. 

The possibilities of modern production tools have allowed artists to realize ever more refined or extreme sounds. Is there a sound you would personally like to create but haven’t been able to yet? 

The 0.1-second sound which embraces and condenses all emotions in the universe. If I am able to realize and to listen to the sound, maybe my mind and existence itself will collapse.

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition?

Composition in 2D is pictures, 3D is sculptures, and then 4D is sound – or something with space and time. With technologies like XR/VR, we may be able to create compositions in 5D or higher dimensions. We may be able to create a 5D composition only with sound, but our 4D brain can’t recognize the world in the correct way. 

Since I was a child, I have been interested in topology, multidimensional geometry, nonhuman spatial cognition, layers and matrixes. If you are not familiar with the differences of dimensions and can’t visualize a 4D object in the 2D world, the novel Flatland is a good book to start. 

From the concept of Nada Brahma to “the Beginning was the Word,” many spiritual traditions have regarded sound as the basis of the world. Regardless of whether you are taking a scientific or spiritual angle, what is your own take on the idea of a harmony of the spheres and sound as the foundational element of existence?

From the viewpoint of sound as vibration, we can say the Big Bang was sound. Expanding outside the cognitive limit of the ears of human beings, the world is filled with various frequencies, waves and vibrations. I think many spiritual traditions and old myths express the same thing about these vibrations based on the beliefs and languages of each culture. 

For example, there is a Tibetan practice using sound, color, character, image, mudra and body posture simultaneously. Modern people think, “I need to do so many things simultaneously,” but the practitioner feels it (and become) as one vibration. 

“Scientific” things of 2022 may become “ancient spiritual” things in 3033. The reality of the world captured by the sensory organs of primordial people may be totally different from the modern human body. The possibilities are so open.

The idea of acoustic ecology has drawn a lot of attention to the question of how much we are affected by the sound surrounding us. What’s your take on this and on acoustic ecology as a movement in general?

First of all, since there are so many different viewpoints, research methods, and approaches of artists, activists, and researchers in different areas of the world, it is difficult to talk about “a movement in general.” 

On the topic of “how much are we affected by the sound surrounding us,” most people tend not to perceive the sound surrounding us very much, so when I hold a sound walk workshop, participants often say, “I was really surprised that so many birds were singing in the city. I didn’t realize it at all!” 

On the other hand, artists and engineers have sensitive ears. When I create a recorded work or a soundscape, I design it while thinking about the subconscious effects for both regular and sensitive ears.

Personally, I am interested in not only sound but also other waves and frequencies – electromagnetic waves, sunlight, infrared beams, inaudible sound (for human beings) and so on. The senses and “ears” of human beings in the future might be able to catch the frequencies which we can’t capture now.