Done right, club based visuals can add an extra layer to the music which they accompany, creating an experience for the observer which has the potential to be transcendent. Striving to, “create an exploration within the senses”, London based artists Florence To has rapidly become a name in demand for musicians looking to ally their sounds with visual stimuli that is capable of unlocking an interactive element for the audience within their performance. The last few years have seen her studied approach to visual design appplied in tandem at installations with the likes of Techno warrior Speedy J , Japanese found sound savant Yosi Horikawa, acclaimed Ghostly International beatmsith Shigeto, hi-fi specialists Bowers & Wilkins, Amsterdam based audio innovators 4DSOUND and Scottish Techno producer Alex Smoke, with plenty more projects in the pipeline for the coming months.
After many years immersing herself in the frequencies of the music she performs alongside, To is now keen to try her hand at a wholistic take over a space – by combining her innate understanding of the potential of spaces with a growing aptitude for sound design. As she ventures further down her creative path, we managed to rope her in for the latest edition of our Back In The Day series, to talk about her youth in her native Scotland, her route into her current profession and where she wants to take things going forward.
Early musical education
When I was a kid I had quite strict parents so I wasn’t really allowed to go out that much and I had two older brothers so I was the one that was always left with nothing to do. I read a lot of books and I would always make things. One day my mum or my dad gave me one of those books-you know the ones with those built in pianos? I think thats when I started to pretend I had a piano. My mum eventually got me aelectric one and I would just play around with it. It was a Technics one with MIDI pads on it. I learned to play on that for like seven years then switched it for an upright piano. I don’t play the piano so much anymore. I do have other instruments I play with now-electronic wise.
I played the drums from the age of 11 for about five years. My school wasn’t really influencing us to be creative, that was the hard part. When I chose art they told me I wasn’t allowed to have lessons anymore in drums because they said I couldn’t choose both. With piano I’d learnt through my mum’s friend who was a teacher so that worked out better. When I went to do my fashion degree I just quit because I’d moved away. I play when I go back to my mum’s but I live in London so I don’t have a piano in my house but I do have a synthesizer which helps!
Starting out with visuals
I quite like how frequencies work in sounds. The frequencies create the initial direction in how I programme the visuals. Like I said, I studied fashion first, in my first year I did textiles and specialised in weaving, then I quit that course and I went into fashion design for industry which is more constructing patterns for clothes. Then I got into tailoring for three years and it’s through my skills as a tailor that I ended up creating shapes and constructing sculptures for events.
I wasn’t much of a clubber. I was the kind of person that would stay in and work all the time. When I moved back to Glasgow in 2007 to do a masters at art school in Fashion and Textiles, I partied quite alot then…when the year had finished I moved back to London to do tailoring and fashion shows. Later I realised I wasn’t earning enough money with my job so I decided to move back to Glasgow for three years.
When I moved back my friends and I decided we should start a monthly night, they would play records and I would do this sort of visual thing. I didn’t even have a projector or anything to create visuals with – I had a crappy little camera, one of those late 90′s battery cameras that only films about 9 minutes. I would construct some sort of surface and use that as a projector to create colours and textures. That was my first project I suppose, when I did visuals. When we did the first night I wanted to do something interesting, and because I didn’t have access to any kind of visual software when I wanted to do something creative I would have to make it by hand, then film it and play it on my laptops video player (laughs)
Learning with basic equipment
I think restrictions are really good for you. You learn how to do things with what you don’t have. If you’re really determined to do something that’s really good quality but don’t have the money or access to equipment to do that, it kind of makes you be creative in other ways.
When I was doing the monthly event for about a year, that’s when Sub Club came to me. I was setting up screens for this book launch and Octave one had came in to set up their kit for the night happening later. They saw my work when I was setting up and they asked me to come on tour with them, that was after only a year of doing visuals so it was a bit crazy. Then Sub Club asked me to be a resident there, because there wasn’t really anything visually interesting happening in the club, they were more known for their line-ups and the artists they would put on. I did a residency at Subculture every Saturday and used their space as a canvas. I would try to make the space look better with projections, using transparent screens. I was there for a year and it got to the point where I couldn’t really do anything more with the space so I moved back to London.
I don’t plan to do anymore clubs. I really love doing the more conceptual shows and installations. The stuff you see with Alex Smoke is based more on theory and research.
I actually want to just start making my own sounds as well-I have been for the past year but it just been quite hard when I’ve been working with other people. I enjoy working with other producers, but the more you do something the more control you want.
Working with sound
I do prefer experimenting with different types of sounds and textures and seeing what comes out of it. I like to experiment with how to make the sounds first and what tones come out those and then the arrangements come second. Whatever happens in production, I don’t like to dictate ‘this is going be this, this is going be that’. Its like with the sculptures I create for installations, its more a case that I use the restrictions of the space and how it is at the end is determined by what I can’t use.
I was quite influenced by classical music while learning those instruments growing up. Learning to play classical music since I was 9 had an effect on the rhythms that I was attracted to. When I began to discover more about music that was when I started using the internet, I use to go on music chat rooms to find new music then there was MySpace which was great in finding weird stuff, at that point I found my love for noise…this was a great platform for discovering new music. I really couldn’t name my biggest influences as I was finding so much that I really loved…some that I haven’t even listened to in a long time. I was quite influenced by Phillip Glass, Arvo Part, Terry Reilly then when I started to move on from classical I really got into some of the (experimental L.A based label) Anticon stuff in the early 2000’s which lead me to search for older Beats/Hip Hop type stuff to music theory types such as Iannix Xenakis and Stockhausen…and early Warp of course, that’s when I knew I wanted to work with Speedy J.
Its frequency levels isn’t it? I think when I started doing visuals it was the frequency levels that I would hear and I would relate that to some sort of visual element. All the visuals I create are based on frequency levels and its something that I get quite intrigued by because there’s always something different happening with how these levels are arranged.
Working with Yosi Horikawa
I met Yosi a year and a half ago. I knew of his work and I loved his music, he messaged me saying he had this new album coming out. I love how he makes his textures and sound recordings, its something I could really relate to. That to me is really important. His music is really emotional, when I did the installation for him I did a lot of recordings, I filmed a lot of stuff in nature. I don’t normally do that, a lot of my stuff is quite generative, so I did a lot of recordings to fit with the sound recordings that he did. It just felt right because there was so many natural sounds coming out.
It was all based on his Kalimba which he made himself, it’s a beautiful instrument and I used it as inspiration for the shape of the installation. The surfaces were made of optical mirrors and I chose those surfaces because when light hits them it has a really nice glow…a bit similar to how we see light from the inside. It’s not like when you project on other surfaces that you see pixels. Those surfaces have a mirror behind them so it reflects off the light and makes it really smooth. That was part of the installation to make the sound flow really well with the rhythms, each section was a rhythm for his composition.
Music as a stimulus for visuals
It’s all about enhancing that emotion with what you see and feel in the rhythm. When I started doing visuals in a club environment, I would create visuals to how I felt with the music and working to that vibe. I would generate those visuals live using the frequency levels coming from the music (through the mic) then change their position through x,y,z. With installations such as the one with Alex, we are creating an experience for the audience as a performance/live exhibition. It’s a completely different setting to how it is done in a clubs. When working with space you can challenge the audience in the physical presence of the space, work with their senses and create a unique experience they would never get in a club.
I spend quite a lot of time researching in optics, psychology, sound and space theory. When I did fashion all my inspiration was based in architectural theory and psychology which are still a big influence on my work. When I started creating installations, I was quite influenced by Russian artist Naum Gabo, who created the Russian constructivism movement in the 1920’s. Although I’ve been researching in how we see light in relation to the effects of time and darkness which can change the perception in our senses. I find this is really interesting as you are playing with the mind and learning how to challenge it, the longer I do this the more I want to challenge the audiences perception in live performance.
Music buying habits
My mum had a lot of tapes stored in those briefcases, so I used to raid through them. Every weekend I would sit by the hi if stereo with head phones going through each tape one by one, a lot were spoken words….don’t remember what there were of. I would also record the radio and try to find a pirate station. I didn’t really buy any records until later on, we didn’t have a record player . I do remember buying this CD in a shop called Mono in Glasgow, it was the artwork cover of a’Do Make Say Think‘ it had Braille on the front and the texture of the card used was beautiful, in terms of graphics this made me quite aware how presentation was just as important.
I suppose I would like to try and focus on doing the whole thing myself at some point to be honest. To do my own sound and visual installation and see how that works out.
For more information about Florence To’s work, you can visit her website here.
Interview: Christian Murphy