In Conversation: Atom Eye

Elsie Martins, who releases experimental electronic music under the name Atom Eye, on her November 2013 release, The Otolith Sessions, the creative process, and more.

Who are your musical influences?

Everyday static, found sound and all noises that surround us. Sound art that blurs the line between music and everyday sounds

Soundtracks which are part sound effects and part composed music - when the sounds emerging out of the scenery blend into the music that creeps into the scene. A good example of this, and one my favourite films, is Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. The score was composed by Eduard Artemiev. The film was made in 1979 but the ideas explored here still resonate a strong experimental and adventurous ethic to this day. Another film where the use of everyday sounds becomes soundtrack is The Conversation by Francis Ford Coppola. Such a great film. The opening scene is riddled with everyday sounds merging in and out -  no need for traditional music score here -  life is the orchestra. A lot of these ideas are direct influences and inspired me to record found sounds and include them in compositions.

I could also list hundreds of inspiring artists from Coil to John Cage, through to Eliane Radigue and The Necks…it’s almost impossible to compile a list.

Would you tell us about the “Audio Cookbook” that comes with The Otolith Sessions?

For The Otolith Sessions I wanted to share the creative process with the audience and I wanted the final product to fully represent the creative journey. The 50 page companion book that comes with the CD offers an insight into the process but also highlights the creative possibilities offered by working with tape. In the Companion Book there are a number of easy recipes for people to create their own experiments; like an audio cookbook. None of the materials listed in the book are particularly rare or expensive. Tape loops can be made using domestic cassette tapes for example, and tape delay can be created manually using cassette players (simply by re-routing the delayed signal  and feeding it back into the source -  there is usually a slight delay between the input and output; allowing time for the tape to pass from the record head to the play head).  It’s fun and doesn’t need to be computer precise…the idea is to be open to the possibilities and open to working with chance encountered results.

I want people to get excited with the possibilities of using this medium, in the same way that I have. Plus the book has loads of beautiful images of machines used and, in my eye, fully completes the record. The listener can immerse themselves into the music but also in the techniques used and the imagery of the creation process.


How did you first become interested in experimental music? What draws you to it?

I’ve always been fascinated with experimental, drone, ambient music and sound art. You can hear these influences very clearly on my earlier material with (dating back to 2005). In fact the last record I wrote with my old band Phantom (Smoke & Mirrors) was created using field recordings as rhythms and presented as a seamless record with each track blending into another using a backdrop of abstract found sounds. Working with found sounds and introducing elements of sound art into music has always been top of my agenda. Atom Eye is an opportunity for me to explore these themes further without any commercial or format pressures. It also allows me the freedom and flexibility I longed for.

Experimental music is about ideas and exploring other ways of doing things, other ways of seeing or hearing the world around you.  There’s a great quote by John Cage which goes: “Wherever we are what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments. It is now possible to control the amplitude and frequency of anyone of these sounds and to give to it rhythms within or beyond the reach of the imagination. We can compose and perform a quartet for explosive motor, wind, heartbeat, and landslide.” I think that anyone who has an interest in music, be it musicians, journalists, casual listeners to anoraks should look into these ideas and explore them -  challenge their preconceptions. It’s a healthy thing to do.

How will you perform the songs from The Otolith Sessions live?

I’ll be manipulating tape loops live and adding rhythms, effects & tonal changes to create textures & soundscapes – as well as playing guitar and looping everything live. The show is very tactile and visually exciting. Each performance is unique, ever- changing; in a digital world where laptops seem to conceal an artist’s creation process Atom Eye’s performance is pure live creation. We are in the process of booking launch gigs in the UK, so keep an eye out on the Atom Eye website for upcoming shows.


How would you describe your creative process?

The Otolith Session is unapologetic in its format and ideas. It’s an experiment in sound taken to its full potential. It’s  the realisation of a long standing curiosity I have developed for magnetic tape.  I have become increasingly fascinated with the medium -  the way it sounds, the way it works, and how it can be interfered with.  A significant part of my creative process involved manipulating sounds directly on tape: deconstructing, layering, looping, degrading, suspending…etc. I wanted the record the fully represent the creative journey and the audio cookbook is another insight into the processes and the labour of love that has gone behind making this record.

I record everything myself on both digital and analogue devices. The portable one I carry with my and always look out for inspiring sounds wherever I go. For the last few years I have been building a library of sounds to work with -  these have formed the base layer of Atom Eye tracks. Each sound is worked individually, arranged and interfered with (so to speak). In this process I use a number of techniques (material is rendered to tape, suspended, stretched, reversed, looped, chopped ect…) and the sounds that emerge out of that process take me into a direction. I never really know exactly where a sound is going to take me when I start the creative editing process…it’s a discovery for me along the way.  For this record I explored drones, steady pulses & gradual transformations and concentrated heavily on the use of tape loop repetitions and tape saturation; taking sounds and layering multiple additions on to itself.  The results were surprisingly melodic - if fuzzy and altered to the point of decay - and gave way to wonderful backdrops for new melodies to emerge. While working with the materials melodies, rhythms and arrangements come to me. I’ll then add guitars and/or chopped tape loops to make those melodies emerge out of the static. It’s a very tactile process, long winded but amazingly satisfying.

Living in the digital age, the precise nature of computer recording programs offer instantaneous results, but tape allowed me to take some of the creative processes and break them down in to more organic and tactile exercises (tape phasing, delay, echo etc.).   What I gained from working with magnetic tape was an added element of unpredictability, of losing control over what the exact results might be.  This spontaneity was very much the underlying force fueling the sessions.   Where did I learn those skills…? Curiosity pushed me to try it out; trial and error is the best way to learn.

I also have amazingly talented collaborators who provide their added touches to pieces. Pete Lockett created the rhythmic sound design on 2 pieces. Pete’s percussion is mesmerizing. I’ve worked with him on my last record (Trilogy 120) and felt he added such depth to the pieces. And he doesn’t need any direction from me. I’ll play him a piece and he comes up with the perfect arrangement straight away. He understands what the pieces need. Simon Fisher-Tuner is equally tuned into what noises and sonic landscapes work on the pieces. Simon provided fantastic sounds, rich, weird and wonderful – an inspiring injection of news sounds & ideas.  But the record wouldn’t sound as good as it does without James Aparicio. James produced the final product, and overlooks the mixing and dynamics of each track. I work very closely with James throughout the making of, and he’ll often provide an injection of new ideas. I rely on his judgement a lot when it comes to dynamics and final mixing.


What do you find most inspiring creatively?

Working outside the norms of conformity  - having no rules or formulas. If I like a melody I’ll play as long as I want (who needs bridges, choruses and verses when you can just explode and bleed out to your heart’s content).

What do you think of contemporary electronic musicians such as Burial who exclusively use software to manipulate "found sounds?"

I haven’t heard of Burial’s creative process before, but I imagine like a lot of electronic artists they use the technology available to them in a creative way -  which I think is great.

Would you please recommend some female artists working in experimental electronic music?

Pauline Oliveros, Marianne Amacher, Daphne Oram, Eliane Radigue, Delia Darbyshire and sound artists like Joan La BarbaraAlice ShieldsBeatriz FerreyraElse Marie Pade, Laurie Spiegel, Hildegard Westerkamp, Ellen Fullman down to contemporaries like Cosey Fanni Tutti , Jo Hutton (from Maesh), Fari Bradley (from Oscillatorial Binnage). The list is long…..


What are your plans for the future?

Live shows, very special collaborations with sound artists and luminaries. It's going to be a busy year. Watch the Atom Eye and Forwind websites for news.