Meet hieroglyphs — aka Siobhain Ma — Glasgow-based sound artist, musician and co-founder of collective Sister (with Cass Ezeji) and creative partnership Roly Poly (with Lauren Law). We caught up with Siobhain in the lead up to the release of the new hieroglyphs EP, Zenith, to talk about nature, nostalgia and not spending money.
Can you talk us through your choices for the tracks?
Pauline Oliveros is someone whose work helped me examine what I was making in a new light. She pioneered the theories of deep listening and sonic awareness, two concepts which I find particularly interesting. I could have picked any one of her pieces but Traces is something I listened to when I was exploring ideas for ‘4 SURE?’, an exhibition I did last year. It just stuck with me and encouraged me to play around a bit and not restrict myself to creating something structured. Whenever I have a creative block I listen to Pauline Oliveros.
I think Forever by Sleep ∞ Over is one of those albums that I instantly loved and kept coming back to, it never gets boring and I suppose Fatima Al Qadiri’s Genre-Specific Xperience EP is a recent example of something that had that effect on me - I just really like it. I think both of them conjure up images or atmospheres which is what I want to be able to achieve, creating these weird spaces in your mind.
I was trying to decide whether to include a piece from Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin or a Micachu track because both are so interesting in different ways. I find her range of creativity so inspiring. In the end I picked Low Dogg because it’s just really good and fun.
I saw Grouper at St Giles in the Fields church about 5 years ago and it was such an otherworldly experience - it sounds ridiculous but it’s true. There’s a dark and kind of sinister side to her music which really appeals to me. Again it takes me to this dream-like place in my head. Her music feels like an escape.
Can you describe your working process?
Whether working on a sound-art project or something for hieroglyphs, I generally do quite a bit of research before I start work. I gather up a lot of images which I find interesting or relevant. Most of the sound art I’ve done specifically for exhibitions has involved working alongside my collaborative partner Lauren Law who’s a set designer. So I’ll usually talk with her about themes or aesthetics we both like and come to some kind of consensus about what our piece will be. Then I’ll go off and start working on some sounds which I feel reflect or compliment the visual side of things. We consult each other a lot throughout the process until we have a cohesive whole.
With hieroglyphs, it’s just me so I have a bit more freedom to change my ideas once I get started, although I think once I’ve done a lot of research around a topic I generally stick to that. My set-up is very basic — I mostly work with just my Macbook and an M-Audio Oxygen49 keyboard. For a long time, I felt like my set-up wasn’t ‘professional’ or ‘legitimate’ enough but it works perfectly for me for now. Sometimes I think overcomplicating things can lead to clouding my vision.
There’s a great quote my friend sent me from Brian Eno which says “one of my mottos is that if you want to get unusual results work fast and work cheap because there’s more of a chance that you’ll get something that nobody else did. Nearly always, the effect of spending a lot of money is to make things more normal.”
How did you get into production? What have been your influences?
I don’t particularly think of myself as a producer but I suppose getting into making music was kind of a fluke. I was just messing around with pre-existing loops and it went from there. Making sound art has been a relatively recent development but I find that it gives me a bit more freedom to be a more abstract than what I produce for hieroglyphs. Philip Glass (specifically his work for Koyaanisqatsi), Steve Reich and Brian Eno are the big influences along with Pauline Oliveros. I think there’s a serious lack of women in sound art and experimental music so when I find women who create that kind of work it’s amazing.
What is your favourite bit of gear and why?
I don’t really use a lot of gear so I don’t have much to choose from. I guess all I really need is my Macbook and then I’ll use other instruments or objects to create sounds as well as sampling pre-existing sounds. For the track I produced for ‘4 SURE?’ I started by sampling a finger piano and the track just grew from there. I also used a lot of samples of the Hong Kong MTR announcements in that too because I felt very homesick for Hong Kong at the time, and I was thinking lots about the idea of capturing the feeling of nostalgia in sonic form.
What is your personal ‘top tip’ for producing?
Try new things, don’t be scared to just play around. I don’t think you need to have all the technical knowledge to create something interesting, if you’re coming at it from the perspective of being playful and making sounds that you like then that’s a good place to start.
What are your future projects?
I’m finishing up the second hieroglyphs EP, ‘Zenith’. It’s very much based in nature and inspired by natural phenomena. Growing up in and living in a city means I don’t really get to be out in the wilderness very often. The idea of being in the middle of nowhere and being isolated is quite alien to me, I find that there’s something sort of supernatural about it which appeals to me.
Other projects include working towards another exhibition with Lauren and hopefully doing some more work with Cass Ezeji on our project Sister, which is about exploring the issues and experiences of being mixed race women in Glasgow. Also some more collaborations with interesting people.