Larry Achiampong on Embedded with the British Library Sound Archive
Every year, Sound and Music shine a light on the work of the composers who are currently in residence on our Embedded and Portfolio programmes. These are our New Voices of 2016. They are creating new, exciting and innovative music, across disciplines, all over the UK.
Composer Larry Achiampong revisits his Ghanian roots in his residency at the British Library Sound Archive, where he performed at the Late at the British Library event, Ghana Beats. Achiampong is known for his works that intimately explore ideas of ‘cross-cultural and post-digital identities,’ focusing on the notions of human expression, communication and contemporary culture. Touching on the Internet political movement, #BlackLivesMatter, he describes the implications of his latest collaborative video-based series ‘Finding Fanon,’ and how his research might reveal answers to the post-colonial condition…
Describe your music in a few sentences.
I take an eclectic approach to audio sampling, whether it is a drum loop, groove or an engaging harmony. I like to weave together moments from varied environments by splicing them together. I tend to think of the work as an approach to time-travel, and by sampling I am reaching into the vaults of history sometimes from a socio-political angle. My most recent work has had a focus on my audible heritage, (‘Meh Mogya’ and ‘More Mogya’), the history of Ghanaian Highlife music and what these legacies mean to me as a Ghanaian-British person. I also produced an antithesis to this work based on an alter ego I call The Blackph03nix. You can find that work on my Bandcamp site. I also produce audio work independently of samples - I recently scored my first soundtrack for a collaborative video-based series titled ‘Finding Fanon’.
What attracted you to apply for the Embedded programme with the British Library Sound Archive?
I’d been interested in working on a project with Sound and Music for a long time; they have a great track record for pairing artists with organisations that will allow aspects of their practice to grow in ways that would be very difficult to achieve individually. In addition to this, having a huge curiosity in the role of the archive where my practice is concerned, I used to dream of the idea of having access to an archive the size of British Library’s. So when the announcement was made that Sound and Music were looking for artists to participate on the residency it was really a no-brainer to try my luck at applying for the opportunity.
How is the residency going? What has been your highlight?
The residency has been positively overwhelming! All of the staff at the British Library have been really welcoming and generous with their time through introductions to the specific field/s that they work in; whether art, literature, news and broadcasts, popular music… the list goes on! You really get a much deeper idea of what is going on here. Having had that access, and more importantly time, I’ve been able to map out exactly the kinds of things that I have been looking for sound-wise which has brought about a plethora of new ideas and potential projects that I will certainly be looking to develop in the future. The Highlight so far has probably been the opportunity to perform at the ‘Late at the British Library’ event: Ghana Beats. For the British Library to have had an interest in the work that I am developing, the unearthing samples from nations throughout West Africa and being offered the opportunity to present the following work in a public context, was exciting. Adding to that, being on a bill with acts like The Fokn Bois and Yaaba Funk, and Volta 45 was a real treat. I even collaborated with fellow resident Aleks Kolkowski with some new performative ideas that we had never tried before, by mixing analogue and electronic produced audio samples using wax cylinders and some sampling machines (MPC1000 and SP404sx).
There is still a little way to go and both Alex and myself are each preparing works to present around October when our residencies end, so do look out for that!
What have you got planned for when your project has ended?
I have a few things in the pipeline. I’ll be exhibiting my debut international solo show at the Logan Center in Chicago, from September 16th through to October 30th. I also have a residency at Wysing Arts Centre, in Cambridge, with David Blandy coming up in October. I’ve also recently been selected for the Artsadmin’s Artists’ Bursary Scheme for 2016 – 2017. I’m looking at ramping things up a bit; I have a lot of ideas I want to explore, so there will be a lot to look out for over the next year.
You often work in collaboration. How do you think your practice changes when you work solo, and with others? Which do you prefer?
For me collaboration is very healthy in the sense that in solitude, you explore ideas from a single dimension. In a collaborative environment there is a lot more ground that can be covered as you have the increased resources to bring to the table, and then there is the challenge of making something work when the chemistry of each person is different. Another element I find to be important in collaboration is understanding that there is more to an artistic career than being this individual enigmatic type. The ego is imperative, as is the place of expression that one personally builds, but sharing and learning are at the heart of my practice and there are things that I would not be able to achieve on my own that I have with TheNetwork11 and David Blandy. I think the notion of always working independently or discreetly can be boring and to a larger extent dangerous for the culture; it especially teaches young artists that there is only one way of doing things. I don’t find it to be an ‘either or’ type of situation - both strategies are equally important.
When did you first begin to take an interest in the influence of the Internet?
That interest goes back to school – I remember having IT classes where our teacher at the time explained that this ‘thing’ called the Internet was going to change the world as we knew it. From the way we share information, express ourselves and so on. My Mum also bought a cheap PC for home, to help my siblings and me with our learning. I’m also an avid gamer, too, and have witnessed the rapid increase in what the Internet has to offer in (some) social environments. My most recent experience of how this would affect my practice took place between 2011 – 2013, when I chose to participate in an online music production collective called The Weekly Beat Sessions.
What do you feel is the most important consequence, ‘IRL,’ of a constantly expanding and ever-revealing Internet?
I think the shape in which we distribute and the ability to instantly share information is a big deal. If you take political movements like #BlackLivesMatter for example - the social networks are an important component for being able to get the voices that are unheard and information regarding the injustices that recur, to the public without constant control from corporations.
Education as we know it is changing as well, and it’s a fact that a University education in the UK can only be afforded by the elite - the highest bidder. Whilst in the same breath, the democratisation of technology is allowing people without a University degree to question, learn and develop their knowledge. My own personal knowledge of sound is owed to having access to the Internet; I never studied music formally, and I have no formal qualifications in that area. Music-based Internet forums, jamming sessions organised via Gumtree, YouTube videos and contributing to practised-based groups like The Weekly Beat Sessions have become my degree in sound and music. I’m very proud of that aspect of my own learning and critical thinking that has withdrawn from formal modes of learning and practice.
How do you feel cultural identities fit into a post-digital world?
I think that there are certain identities that already have a place in the world; they are largely of the Western world and patriarchal. What is more appealing to me is how the people of colour, the female voice, and LGBTQ communities exist, and how the old elitist models are torn apart and new ones are built. To give an example, I came across this problem with David Blandy when we were creating avatars within the Grand Theft Auto 5 videogame engine for Finding Fanon 2. I spent a lot of time creating our character models last summer and noticed biases regarding gender and racial characteristics. I was looking for a hairstyle style called interlocks, but GTA only caters a few generalised hairstyles for black people – the Afro, Fade, Cornrows and Generic locks. We also noticed a lack of ‘dressing’ options for females when designing avatars for other people who were participating in the project. Not to mention, a lack of transgender options for characters. So the problem here is that the creators of GTA are largely male, white and from privileged backgrounds, and with that comes their impression of what that world looks like. Now, of course, one can say that it is only a videogame, but I think it is bigger than that; GTA is a worldwide phenomenon. I think many of these spaces within the digital realm need to be challenged. Hacking brings about a new potential, but I think new systems need to be built.
Tell us about Finding Fanon…
With the Finding Fanon series, myself and David Blandy wanted to think about the nature of identity in the digital age: how we reconcile a history of violence and exploitation, of colonialism and cultural appropriation, with a present day reality - a friendship between two people from different cultural backgrounds. One is from a black working-class background, and the other from a white middle-class background.
Frantz Fanon’s work is the seed for the entire project. Frantz Fanon was a psychiatrist, philosopher, and revolutionary humanist whose practice dealt with the psychopathology of colonisation and the social and cultural consequences of decolonisation. The project focuses on not only his writings, but also on how Fanon wrote three plays that were never performed or published because he ordered them to be destroyed. I learned about this after a conversation with Kowdo Eshun (we were geeking out over science fiction) about Afrofuturism and the link with Fanon’s work. Kodwo told me about these plays Fanon had written. I had become very familiar with Fanon in the previous years, in particular the book, ‘Black Skins White Masks’. That book really opened a whole new dimension and understanding toward my black body and the West’s (mal)treatment of it. Yet, I had never come across this information regarding Fanon’s plays. The idea that there were these fictions containing possible answers to the post-colonial condition, written by such a powerful theorist, led us to bring forth our own narratives in the for a search for these lost plays.
Your work deals with contradictions. What do you think is the most contradictory thing about yourself?
That my ideas are in constant flux! But I think that is at the heart of the human condition - constantly questioning and challenging established ideas, and that is where my fascination with the internet comes through. Someone explains something and then there will always be another person to counterbalance the argument. I think that explains my personality in a nutshell and the alternate identities that are a part of me i.e. Cloudface, Black Ph03nix, Harry H'atchiampong (of Biters), and also the Larry before fatherhood and the Larry during fatherhood. These identities all have valid points of existence and yet they operate on different terms.
Do you have any recommendations of composers/artists to look out for in the next year?
Yup! I’ve had the pleasure and opportunity of either working alongside or experiencing a range of works by these artists. They’re all doing amazing things with their own styles, working across the board of what art can be. BIG shout-outs to:
Bobbi-Jane Gardener, Appau Jr Boakye-Yiadom, Martine Symes, Gary Zhexi Zhang, Beverley Bennett, Lawrence Lek, Evan Ifekoya, Ima-Abasi Okon, David Blandy, Phoebe Boswell, Kojey Radical, Jesse Darling, The Beetz, Rynea Soul, Shepherd Manyika, Inkswell, NT, DJ Juls, Jade Montserrat, Ibrahim A. Ahmed Hannah Black and Sorryyoufeeluncomfortable.
Larry will be performing with Aleks Kolkowski at the British Library Sound Archive on Tuesday 12th July! Find out more about the free even here>>
Interview by Emma Sugarman (Communications Intern - Sound and Music)