Meet the Syrian-Armenian-American electronic musician and ‘visual composer’ whose soaring, operatic music has been endorsed by Björk and Marina Abramovic
K Á R Y Y N is very attuned to her surroundings, though you get the feeling that’s not necessarily by choice. “I’m a hypersensitive,” she says, motioning around the café we’re meeting in. “These conversations? I can hear them all.” As she talks, I pick up my cup of tea, the saucer lifting lightly before clinking down on the glass table. The noise isn’t loud, but K Á R Y Y N jolts. “At times I feel accosted by sounds,” she says. “At other times I feel soothed by them. I definitely respond to my environment like this, so I sit in silence a lot. I have to.”
This perceptiveness towards sonics and space becomes more obvious when you listen to K Á R Y Y N’s music. The Syrian-Armenian-American electronic musician and ‘visual composer’ has developed a unique language for her music, defined not just by her soaring, layered vocals and unconventional production style but by the negative spaces and liminal zones that surround it. Almost every sound in her newest song “MOVING MASSES” was made by the human voice, the track building in intensity before dropping to a slow crawl. It’s physical music – you can feel the voices strain.
“MOVING MASSES” first appeared in the opera Of Light. First performed in Reykjavik, the opera was seen by Björk, who raved about both the show and K Á R Y Y N’s music in The Guardian. Of Light itself was directed by K Á R Y Y N’s friend and collaborator Samantha Shay, an American director who was mentored by Marina Abramovic. “Marina is Sam’s mentor and Sam is a brilliant artist,” K Á R Y Y N says. “They did the show together and it was amazing and Marina was very supportive. And it was very encouraging, because when Marina did hear the music I’d been making, she was like, ‘This is brilliant!’”
But Reykjavík is just one of the many places K Á R Y Y N has spent an extended time in over the course of her life. She was born in Alabama and raised in Indiana, she moved to Los Angeles when she was ten, and she’s spent time in places like New York and Berlin. Growing up, she spent her summers in the Syrian city of Aleppo – she says she’s been there 33 times, but her visits came to an end following the breakout of the brutal proxy war that’s been waging across the country for over half a decade now. Her memories are captured in her song “ALEPPO”, the video of which is made up of her own home video footage from the the city.
“Home is wherever my family is,” K Á R Y Y N says. “Anywhere where my close people are, but really where my parents or my sisters are.”
The interviews you’ve done so far have talked a lot about your summers in Syria, but what are your memories of growing up in Indiana?
K Á R Y Y N: Indiana was awesome. The climate was different then, so summer would start earlier and last longer. I think of the bristling sound of the fields, I think of the sun, I think of when it snowed and how crunchy it’d get. I think of the tar on the pavement and how it’d sizzle, and how I’d pick out the tar and pretend like I was fishing in a puddle with a stick. I think Indiana is what draws me back to the country now. I really want to live in the countryside again. It’s just where I became me, really: introspective, taking the time to listen and to use my imagination.
How long did you live there for?
K Á R Y Y N: I was born in Alabama. At one (years old), we moved to Indiana. My dad’s a physician, so he was the only surgeon for many many counties. I was there ‘til I was ten, then we moved to Los Angeles so that he could basically heal Armenians – he wanted to go somewhere where there was an Armenian community. (Although) I was born in Alabama, I was taken to Aleppo and christened there. Between May and September (each year), we’d be in Aleppo.
“‘ALEPPO’... is about my memories. I wrote it two years ago. The streets I knew, the place I knew, was crumbling. There’s a whole world of people there in my head and they’re gone” – K Á R Y Y N
Tell us about ‘ALEPPO’.
K Á R Y Y N: In 2001, my first boyfriend was Syrian, and I’d just got a camera. I’d be going around the city using my camera, just filming the streets instead of him and me. But I’m so grateful, because I have so much footage of detailed things. You could be like, ‘Why are you filming the ceiling again?’ but that’s what ‘ALEPPO’ is about. That song is about my memories. I wrote it two years ago. The streets I knew, the place I knew, was crumbling. There’s a whole world of people there in my head and they’re gone – they’ve had to flee, their house has fallen.
A lot of the sounds I use are there to mimic (the sound of destruction): what does it sound like if a bit of shrapnel flies by you in slow motion? When I produce, I’m really thinking about how I can be in the middle of the song, structurally.
Is that what you mean when you describe yourself as a ‘visual composer’?
K Á R Y Y N: When I compose, I start seeing the visual accompaniment to it. Right now, I’m working on a song that’s gonna be all shapes. What would that sound like? I’m always feeling textures; I’m trying to put together an architecture of sound.
How does your hypersensitivity to sound translate into the music you make?
K Á R Y Y N: (Regardless of) whatever’s going on around me, I always have to be in some sort of very still place. Technically, I make very minute changes to a sound to make significant changes to a song. I like to magnify something small. I translate that emotionally – no matter what shape, colour, or whatever I’m seeing, this is a very human, emotional response.
Do you have synaesthesia?
K Á R Y Y N: No. I have a friend who really has it. You touch her and she sees it! For me, I don’t know what it is. It’s almost like films are happening through shapes. Every time I go back to the song it’s the same thing. So I don’t know if I have it or not, but I definitely have a very specific thing that happens (when I make music). I’m letting it affect me, and then I’m responding to it. I start thinking, ‘Oh, so that’s what it’d sound like if I were breaking up.’ And I mean that viscerally, if my body were breaking up and separating, this is what separating would sound like.
“‘MOVING MASSES’ is about the pressure of feeling like I need to move through and get over and move on from something I’m not ready to – that expectation to keep going and keep going” – K Á R Y Y N
In this song I’ve got coming up, ‘EVER’, there’s this pink noise alien sound like (makes crunching noise), and to me that sounds like wet tape bursting through a metallic wall that at first is hard and then suddenly becomes malleable, and the tape comes out and it’s wet and it just kind of hits you in the face and comes back. And the next time it does that and it’s out and it’s really fast, it just sloooows down and the tape gets heavy and it becomes structural. That’s how I think of it. It’s not like I’m thinking of the shape, I’m in the shape; I’m in the movement.
Björk gave you a shout-out after she saw Of Light in Reykjavík. What can you tell us about the opera?
K Á R Y Y N: Me and my collaborator Samantha Shay did several workshops out there. It was her original idea to do it based on this poem called Library of Light. It was my first time doing something (musically) that wasn’t about me. It takes place in the dark, but it’s about moving from darkness to light. It’s about the dialogue I’m having with another artist – her experience, her feelings, her movements, are mine. I wrote the work in two weeks in Berlin in 2014.
‘MOVING MASSES’ is about the pressure of feeling like I need to move through and get over and move on from something I’m not ready to – that expectation to keep going and keep going. It’s (also) about technology, how things are moving very quickly and we don’t sit with anything anymore. It’s my voice, but it was made as a piece for different singers to sing at once. It’s an exercise for the different singers to keep pushing through. I wanted to put the performers in that state, where (one singer from the choir is) going ‘UH UH UH,’ and then, ‘SLOOOWLY’. She’s the one who has to slow it down. If one person puts their heel down, the rest have to follow.
Lead photo by Derek Hutchinson. K Á R Y Y N tours Europe throughout October and November