The sonic art platform's founder Stephan Crasneanscki and producer Simone Merli discuss their latest project, scoring the soundtrack for Nan Goldin’s autobiographical documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. After previously collaborating with Goldin, in this project, they seek inspiration from the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin to create a sonic identity that explores the themes of the fragility of life and creation.
The Collective's approach to sound is interdisciplinary and experimental, often involving collaborations with artists from different practices to create immersive and poetic sound installations that explore uncharted sonic territories. The soundtrack for the documentary was recorded at Analogue Foundation's recording studio in Berlin and will be released via the foundation's new imprint later this month. Of their recent releases, you can listen to Schimmer Sanft den Klang des Tages and Sisters I.
First off, would you mind introducing yourself and your work to anyone who may be unfamiliar?
Soundwalk Collective is the sonic art platform and studio led by artist and founder Stephan Crasneanscki and myself (Simone Merli) in capacity of producer and collaborator. We met in NYC sometime in 2008 and that’s when I joined Stephan’s studio. The first project I took part in was a 3-month sailing journey in the Mediterranean Sea following the route of Ulysses in the Odyssey, recording hertzian frequencies, radio interceptions and fragments of sound over the sea waves, along all countries around the Mediterranean basin. This was a commission from a foundation that is operating in the protection of the oceans, and was later shown as a sound installation part of documenta14 and the Manifesta biennale in Palermo. Following this incredible project, we continued to explore geographies and vastly unexplored territories to record sound following specific narratives, and our work progressively expanded from pure field recording practice to interdisciplinary exhibitions and installations.
Sound archives also fascinate us. Stephan had a long relationship with the archives of Jean-Luc Godard and we had the chance to recompose them to create What We Leave Behind, a project that was presented for the first time at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, and later at The Long Now festival in Kraftwerk. We essentially had access to all the unused reel-to-reel tapes of Godard’s film sets, the recordings reveal the moments before and after the camera rolls, stage directions and on-set rehearsals, false starts and outtakes.
Fast forwarding through time - we scored Sasha Waltz’s Kreatur, Exodos and Women; resonated the architectural structure of Berghain; composed a commissioned sound piece for the permanent collection of Louvre Abu Dhabi, among other projects.
Our latest exhibition Evidence was shown at the Centre Pompidou in Paris over the past 6 months - it was based on a 5-year collaboration with Patti Smith following the release of three records together on Bella Union (The Peyote Dance, Mummer Love, Peradam), that were inspired by the physical and mental journeys of Antonin Artaud in the Sierra Tarahumara, Arthur Rimbaud in Abyssinia, and René Daumal’s ascent of a utopic mountain that materialised for us in the Nanda Devi. It was always part of our working practice to venture into untapped sonic territories, discover the poetics behind them, and explore how we (as humans) relate to them.
Voice has always been a central element in our work, from both an experimental and narrative perspective, and over the years we established collaborations with incredible artists and voices (Patti Smith, Nan Goldin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and more recently Lyra Pramuk, Lucrecia Dalt, Paul B. Preciado, to name a few).
In terms of how we operate, Stephan always had a whole sound research and production team in place. There are often constellations of artists and experts from different practices who take part in our projects. The Collective is a breathing organism, continuously reshaping itself and its discipline around experimental sound and contemporary art.
More recently we became part of Analogue Foundation, an initiative promoting analogue culture, supporting local music communities and nourishing artistic collaborations. The soundtrack for All the Beauty and the Bloodshed was recorded at its high-end recording studio in Berlin, Brewery Studios, and is being released via the new Analogue Foundation imprint later this month.
Can you tell us about your creative process for scoring the soundtrack for All the Beauty and the Bloodshed? How did you approach creating a sonic identity for Nan Goldin’s story?
We’ve been close to Nan for quite a few years now. We performed together at the CTM Festival in Berlin back in 2015, where we presented Memoirs of Disintegration, a piece inspired by texts and films of David Wojnarowicz, who was very close to Nan and died of AIDS in 1992. We later scored her photographic installation The Women’s March, 1789 at the Palace of Versailles in 2019; more recently we scored part of her latest slideshow Memory Lost. We were always fiercely inspired by Nan, and admire Laura Poitras’ work incredibly. Upon seeing the film, Stephan freely associated and drew connections with the work and life of German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, who was removed from society through confinement in institutions. In his last poems, written as fragments, while he was plagued by mental illness, Hölderlin renders nature, in all its fragility and ephemerality. The theme of the fragility of life and creation emerges in Laura's portrait of Nan and served as inspiration, and was taken up in Hölderlin’s work for the composition of the choral songs and cantus within the soundtrack. In the first studio sessions we invited Mulay Winter and Youka Snell, two wonderful voice artists and musicians whose practices span through classical, experimental and contemporary music. We started to play with Hölderlin’s words and texts and had them repeated as mantras, trying to find a structure and harmony that was essentially dictated by the syllables and phonetics of the words we chose.
Through repetition and layering, and echoing various styles from sacred music to modern minimalism, the lyric scansion became almost like a language possessed, forming cyclical patterns that would overlap multiple times and expand in intensity producing a sort of trance, oscillating between grace and madness.
How did you collaborate with Zacharias Falkenberg and Johannes Malfatti on this project? What was it like working with them?
The soundtrack is composed of voice choirs, string quartets, a 40-piece string orchestra, and electronic music. Zacharias was incredibly helpful in the conducting of the voices, and arranging the score for the string musicians. He was present at each session and we worked very tightly together with him to find ways to bring all the experimental approaches and ideas into expanded and structured musical pieces. Johannes was involved in the sections of the film that essentially required a bigger sound. He developed three works that were later recorded with full orchestra and resulted in something very moving and powerful. It has been an enlightening experience working with them both in incorporating experimental and improvisational techniques in classical and orchestral music.
Your work often engages with the narrative potential of sound across different mediums. How did you approach creating a soundtrack that complements the visuals and storytelling of the film? The film focuses on Nan Goldin’s personal and political struggles, including her fight to hold the Sackler family accountable for the opioid crisis. How did you reflect these themes through your music?
The film interweaves Nan’s past and present, the deeply personal and urgently political, from P.A.I.N.’s actions at renowned art institutions to Nan’s photography of her friends and peers through her devastating The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and her legendary 1989, NEA-censored AIDS exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing. In these works, Nan captures her friendships with beauty and raw tenderness, and through the film she exposes her relationship to her family and her sister Barbara, and how it has influenced her artistic practice in documenting the beauty and the struggles around the ones that are marginalised by society.
These narratives continuously overlap throughout the movie, and are reflected in the music through a continuous interplay of light and darkness. While the cantus and whispered voices reflect the most intimate moments of Nan’s recount of her sister’s struggles and suicide; quivering strings and swells, de-tuning and lingering, reflect the fragility of balance and ephemerality of life.
Your collaborations have spanned across different genres and art forms. How does working with a diverse range of artists and musicians influence your creative process?
Soundwalk Collective’s projects are generally concept driven and rooted in research, literature, narrative. Every step of the research is often realised in collaboration with experts and researchers in specific fields, taking us onto potentially new production and creative processes at each iteration. Collaborations with other artists are mostly chosen based on common interests on the nature of a given project, but also the necessity to expand into artistic practices that are out of our field of knowledge, for the purpose of its realisation. Every collaborative work will inevitably drive our creative processes into a slightly different, or very different direction. We don’t think our practice can stay unchanged. As humans, we are in constant flux, and our perspectives keep morphing.
How has your practice evolved over time, and how do you continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in sound art and music?
Over the years, our projects have become multidisciplinary and cross-disciplinary, especially in the context of installations and exhibitions. Always starting with sound as a point of departure, we have recently produced works that expanded into film, sculpture, biology, ecology, technology, fine arts, and architectural interventions in the exhibition space. Avoiding the comfort zone of what is known is one way to open doors and continuously expand to other possibilities.
How do you see the role of art and activism intersecting in your work, especially in the context of this particular project?
Art and activism are one and the same.
You have performed and exhibited at a diverse range of arts and music institutions. What has been your most memorable experience working in this field, and why?
Maybe the most recent experience is right now the most memorable. We have just premiered our new collaborative project with Patti Smith entitled Correspondences, at Rewire Festival in The Hague and Volksbühne in Berlin, earlier in April. The project reflects an ongoing collaboration and conversation between Soundwalk Collective and Patti that has spanned over 10 years and across multiple geographies, uncovering the sonic steps left by poets, film makers, revolutionaries and extraordinary events that have taken place in specific locations.
Stephan has explored remote places all over the world to record and collect extensively in order to establish a sonic grammar that is underpinned by our instrumental experimental compositions. All in the effort to create a musical space for Patti to inhabit with her own poetry and voice. From a collaboration with TBA21–Academy exploring the destructive impact of seismic airguns and human interventions in the oceans, to the resilience of Nature in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, to the decentralised societies envisioned by Peter Kropotkin, to the wastelands of Pasolini’s last night - the pieces presented are an immersive audiovisual journey, almost as a travel to a sonic cinema. Featuring live films and director’s cuts, Correspondences was performed by Stephan Crasneanscki and Simone Merli, Patti Smith, Lucy Railton, Diego Espinosa and Nicolas Becker, with visuals by Pedro Maia.
Staging these works after a few years since they were initially recorded in studio gave us the opportunity to revisit their composition and find a new sonic dimension especially for the stage. Much of the original field recordings were recreated live via foley sound practices (breaking of ice blocks, cracking of a car windshield, generating seismic underwater explosions, resonating bells, cracking of cello strings) allowing for a physical dimension of sound that speaks directly with the audience in an intimate and powerful way. Patti sets the rhythm and pace of each piece through her words and singing, and all musicians are navigating these novel territories, supporting each other and working the dynamics of the performance live around her voice. It is certainly the most directly communicative expression of our artistic practice, extremely engaging and inspiring for both performers and listeners.
What do you hope listeners and viewers take away from the soundtrack and the film, respectively?
Among the battle against the Sackler family, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed examines Nan’s personal life, her evolution as an artist, and her later turn toward harm-reduction advocacy, and understands them to be part of the same journey. Upon watching the film we strongly hope viewers will reflect on the power of art and community action and are reminded of the importance of fighting stigma. We wish our soundtrack to simply be a vessel to this powerful and inspiring story.