Published in: zweikommasieben Magazin #18
upsammy - Breaking Things
It is rare for the fragmented electronic music scene to agree on anything but disagreeing. Depending on the perspective, things are considered to be too weird, too streamlined, too mainstream or too predictable. Sometimes, though, everything seems to be falling into place and something or someone is ticking all the right boxes. Thessa Torsing, aka upsammy, from Amsterdam via Utrecht, seems like she found the magic formula. Producing music that sits comfortably somewhere between psychedelic, electronic and ambient, her work is accessible and complex at the same time. Her unique sound earned the young musician releases on Die Orakel, Whities’ Blue series and Rotterdam’s Nous’klaer Audio, her self-described home label. Next to producing, she plays records at a lot of important places on an increasingly busy schedule.
Torsing’s career is shaping up, which makes her an interesting conversation partner as she lays out her approach to all this. zweikommasieben’s Mathis Neuhaus met Torsing at EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam in August 2018, where an old experimental film she newly scored was shown during Dekmantel Festival. Their conversation touches on a recent installation project, Torsing’s view on promoting herself as an artist and the club as a spatial experience.
Mathis Neuhaus: I would like to start out talking about A Memorial For Conflict, A Symphony For Healing—an installation you completed recently.
Thessa Torsing: My starting point for this project was the desire to build an interactive monument. The idea of a monument is to remember something that has already happened. But I wanted to let people contemplate things that are going to happen. Because when looking at the history, you are also able to say something about the future. The idea was to build a united monument for the past, present and future.
MN: How did you approach this?
TT: I used found footage of scars in the landscape as symbol carriers—scars in the landscape in the sense of us humans leaving a mark, such as drone images of a destroyed Aleppo or old bomb craters in France. By using old and current footage, I wanted to depict that history keeps repeating itself and that humans cannot let go of the urge to build things up and break them down again. It is a bit pessimistic, but I found it important to make a monument to honor that. We do not always recognize it in our thriving for peace that we still continue to break things. Doing this work was caused by the tension that I feel defines all of us.
MN: Is this a field you have been interested in before?
TT: Destruction was a topic I have been interested in for a long time. I am fascinated by the never-ending cycle of things being built, getting broken, and then re-built in a new way. This constant evolution is something I was interested in pretty early on. I am fascinated by abandonment, too—old buildings that are vacant and falling apart and that are in a state of in-between, until someone decides to break them down completely and to build something new. The monument contains concrete blocks, a water pond and sand. After the exhibition was finished, I moved it to my grandmother’s garage, because the size of it did not allow me to store it at my place. I had to dismantle it though, which may have been a fitting decision for the installation.
MN: Was sound involved, too?
TT: Yes, I created a soundscape for it by using contact microphones. I created an environment with little stones that were laying on a wooden board and the microphone was attached to the board. I walked on the stones and the microphone recorded the vibrations, since it works in a way that only records the sounds that are in direct connection with it. So you could talk, but it would not record anything, and if you pressed your lips on it, the vibrations would be recorded. I also used some gun sounds, which I muffled and put in the distance. It matched well with the drone imagery, because it sounded like it was part of the footage. In a way, the monument looked like a ruin. So if you entered it, it felt like you would be entering a war zone, but at the same time would be very far away from it. One vantage point was a very close and painful one and the other was more from the distance, which allowed you to see how everything is connected.
MN: The installation’s title stuck in my head. Titles are also playing an integral role in your music, how do you approach this?
TT: With my titles, I usually refer to a certain feeling, at a certain time, in a certain place. In abstracted manner, of course, but that is what it always comes down to. These places and feelings are not made up or fiction, but memories that stuck with me. Sometimes I also use random titles, like “Dancing Faries.” A title with a story is “Words R Inert,” because it refers to my feeling that words are not the best tool I have to express myself—words are sometimes useless. Articulating an emotion with words is always obscuring it; music is more direct. That also plays into how I am producing: the tracks that I am most happy about usually come from working intensely for one day. That is when I know that a track captures the emotion I want to express most vividly. If I start playing with it afterwards too much then I destroy the emotion that led to producing it in the first place. Sometimes I also pick up old tracks and try to incorporate new energies that may shift the mood completely, but most tracks I make quite fast and connected to an immediate emotion.
MN: How does working visually relate to working with music for you?
TT: I used to be a VJ, and when I was doing that, I realized that videos can be a very important element of the nightlife experience. But the music is still the most important thing. When I was responsible for the visual element of the night, I always longed for being responsible for the music. I wanted to be the DJ. When I started to go to Hogeschool voor de Kunsten, I thought that I was going to do music videos. That was my initial goal, since I really liked music and videos. I began doing that and I think that allowed me to work more freely on my music, since it was not connected to an institution as much, and therefore was not required to fit in certain parameters.
MN: You recently scored an old experimental movie—Uit het Rijk der Kristallen, from 1927 by J.C. Mol—for a collaboration between the RE:VIVE and Dekmantel Festival. It seems like with this project you found the perfect middle ground between working visually and musically?
TT: Yes, and I want to maintain doing projects like this. What I hated in art school, especially in film, is the need to always tell a story. I do not want to tell a story, I want to give a feeling. And now, in my music, I sometimes think that I actually do want to tell a story. It shouldn’t only be about club music all the time and I do not want to commit to just playing in a club, because there is a lot outside of these limits that I really enjoy. Eventually, I want to play live sets and collaborate with other friends and musicians more to create audio-visual spaces that are not limited by an institutional framework that is a nightclub.
MN: How do you keep track of what inspires you? Do you have an archive?
TT: I used to have a dummy book, with papers, notes and scribbles. Nowadays, it is maybe my room. I like to surround my immediate environment with things that are inspirational, but I do not keep an archive.
MN: This leads up to something we have been talking about in an earlier conversation: Instagram and how to use it in a way that makes sense and keeps it interesting. Have you found a satisfying way yet?
TT: I think what I am trying to do with my Instagram is something similar to what I am trying to do with my tracks: I want to express certain moods by taking photographs that can be referring to the night ahead or behind. It is a different medium, so it cannot completely mirror the music I play, but it is also an immediate way of articulating feelings. I also only use my own images—I used to put up flyers from events sometimes and I noticed that I do not like having works from other people on my Instagram. It is an outlet for myself and having someone’s artwork on it felt like watering it down to having just another feed. It is difficult to maintain the balance, because I want to promote myself, but I want to do it in a different way that is my own. My general struggle is to keep things as true to myself as possible.
MN: Your career is picking up and I can imagine that you get approached by a lot of labels, clubs or just people who want to work with you. How do you deal with this?
TT: Lately, I have been ignoring a lot of e-mails—or, differently put—I take a long time answering. I need to really think about these things and do not like to rush into something that I would later regret. I like to do my own thing in my own ways and when someone else approaches me and suggests to do it differently, I feel like it is not about my own artistic expression anymore. But even though I take my time making decisions, a lot of it is intuition. I can be convinced to do something just because I like the way an e-mail is written. The question of how I want to shape my career took a lot of space recently and I do not necessarily like this, even though it is nice to be having this career. These questions distract me from making music and I want to make music freely, not thinking about if it will earn me enough money or get me the right gigs.
MN: The label you are associated with the most is Nous’klaer from Rotterdam. How did this relationship develop?
TT: I have known Sjoerd Oberman, who is running the label together with his two brothers, for one and a half years. He was the first person who approached me and asked for music to put out. It developed into a natural way of working together, not a forced one. I also like having a Dutch label as my home label. Sjoerd introduced me to this world and how it all works and was supportive from the very first day—offering help if I want to release on a different label and putting my music out there without any strings attached. It almost feels like a mentoring relationship, which I am very happy about. It feels real, too. I find it important to work with kind and warm people. It is also nice to grow bigger together, since the label became recognized more and more, too, in the last couple of months.
MN: Your work strikes me as creating a very strong environment and spatial experience. One could argue for that also being important in a club. Was that something that drew you into clubs in the first place?
TT: The first parties I went to were raves when I was 15 or 16. I really liked going to these random and mysterious buildings and I think that contributed a lot to the experiences I was having. Environments without regulation feel adventurous, not only because they are illegal, but also because they open up possibilities. The space is very important. Also, now that I am playing more, I realize that I play differently in different spaces. A very dark space, for me, does not fit very happy music. Some people may think differently about this, though. Sometimes I also prepare more, if I know what space to expect; with strict playlists and a lot of thought that goes into it. But then I get there and realize that it may have needed something else, so it is a constant struggle finding the sweet spot between preparation and flexibility.
MN: I imagine not every space you are playing in is necessarily the holy grail in regards to the spatial experience, or has so much character that it cries for a certain kind of music?
TT: That is true, but also allows more risk, since these spaces do not have as many rules and traditions. A long time ago, I played in a cellar in Groningen and I was also trying to imagine the space before getting there. When I arrived, it was the smallest club I have ever seen. Somehow that really worked for me, because even though I imagined what it could look like, I did not expect to be right. I learned that by refusing to think about a space too much, it can also be easier to take ownership of it, musically speaking. The other way around, there are those that have a reputation for a certain sound, and I would also be interested in challenging that. I would play something that is exciting for me, because I have to enjoy it in the first place. If I really enjoy it, people will hopefully join.