February 6, 2024
With Gear Talk, we learn about the set-ups and instruments of our favourite artists and experimentalists.
Danish composer and viola player Astrid Sonne has had an inimitable start to 2024. Kicking off the year with the early standout album Great Doubt, Sonne has changed her approach once again, moving away from the ambient experimentation of previous works and finding her voice and melodic sensibility.
Starting from a classical background before moving through roles as a producer and now singer-songwriter, Sonne’s greatest asset is the fluidity in her form. We catch up with Sonne in the aftermath of Great Doubt to find out more about the tools that contribute to her sound and the interplay between electronic music and classical.
I read that you started composing at the turn of your 20s. What instruments and gear did you start with?
I come from an instrumental background. I’ve been playing the viola since I was a kid, so naturally the viola was my first piece of equipment, you could say. Besides that, I had a zoom recorder and a really bad crack of Sibelius on my laptop. After a while, I got another bad crack, but this time, it was of Ableton. I slowly started recording and experimenting with the software and it opened up a new world to me.
I never watched tutorials, and I didn’t share my music-making space with anyone, so Ableton was a bit of a tough nut to crack. Then I bought the OP-1 Teenage Engineering, and it became my way into music-making and production. Both the design and interface were so playful and fun. It allowed me to be intuitive and creative, and I was so excited about it. Later, I realized that many of its features were already integrated in Ableton and I sold it in 2019, but I’m actually thinking of buying it again because it’s so much fun.
Having a background in classical music, what caused you to move into the electronic sphere?
I played classical viola until around age 18. I remember having a feeling of not being able to express myself the way I wanted to and feeling creatively limited. I was pulled towards making music in an electronic sphere because there wasn’t the same set of rules to apply to and the amount of possibilities were just endless. I think that appealed to me, plus it was something I could explore on my own without having anyone to monitor how I was doing things.
Do you feel that your experience with both classical and electronic music has a unique impact on how you approach composition?
I think it has influenced the way I work, but I’m not sure there’s anything unique about it. We all come from various backgrounds and we bring those experiences into our practice. It’s good to think about it from time to time but more to realise what your habits are and how you can challenge them.
What equipment is essential to you both in the studio and performing live?
I’m a very basic gear person. I’m happy as long as I’ve got my laptop and my Beyerdynamics DT 1770. I work a lot with sampling and audio processing, so I’ve got everything I need in those two essential pieces of equipment. When doing recordings, I have a Sony C-100 condenser microphone, which is incredible.
I’ve changed my live set-up so many times, but at the moment I’m only using my viola, my H9 Eventide FX pedal and a Midi Fighter Twister. The Midi Fighter Twister I’ve been using for years and it’s just so good, it’s simple, I like the design and I’ve had this one for years now and haven’t had a single problem.
Is there one piece of equipment or instrument that you couldn’t live without?
At first, I thought I was going to say the viola but, if I’m being honest, I actually think it’s my laptop. I love doing recordings and playing on all sorts of instruments, but I must admit I just love making music in the box.
What role do Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) play in your creative process?
It depends. Sometimes it plays a huge role, sometimes minor. The most important thing for me is to try and challenge myself and figure out new methods of composing. I’ve never had a fixed method when I begin a new piece of music. Every time I feel like I’m starting from scratch, which is really annoying but also exciting, I guess.
How do you approach writing music? If you have had a moment of inspiration, what step comes next?
I take it as easy as possible and try not to think too much about it. I used to push myself on how much time I spent on doing music. I guess it was a good practice, and sometimes I did get inspired during the process, but at some point, I realized that the music I was doing out of duty definitely wasn’t my best work. After the realisation I started developing a more relaxed attitude towards making music, which has made me want to do more of it again, so I feel you need to trick your brain a little.
In terms of moments of inspiration, I write notes on my phone, record, draw, whatever is at hand at the moment and then I might take up the idea at another time, might as well not. In general, I’m not too worried about these moments appearing and disappearing. I just take it as it comes.
Do you have a specific approach to sampling for your work? How do you discover or identify sounds?
Sampling has always been one of my core methods when making music. I love the unpredictableness sampling gives you and it’s a tool I continue to find more ways of working with. In terms of discovering sounds, I don’t have a fixed place where I look. Sometimes I sample my own recordings (synthesizers, viola, vocal) other times I surf the internet and look for bits and bobs that excite me.
The most important element for me is relatedness. Do I feel something when listening to the sound? What is that feeling and is this something I can expand on? The mood of a song can come entirely from a random 30-second audio file and I love that transition.
What informs and inspires your work? How essential is pushing boundaries and experimenting?
It’s essential for me to be experimenting and pushing boundaries because I would feel like I wasn’t moving if I didn’t. I admire people who can stick to one subject/method/aesthetic and unfold it, but I just find it quite difficult.
When I enter a new musical territory, I feel like I can set myself free creatively because I feel like I’ve got nothing to lose. It’s kinda like doing music under an alias, it sets you free. Pushing boundaries like this also contributes to me making loads of mistakes and failing badly, but I’m all in on the challenge.
In terms of inspiration, it can come from everywhere but I’m really grateful for my friends and people around me making amazing work that inspires me al ot.
Are there any instruments that you would love to work with more?
I just came back to London from a residency at EMS in Stockholm. Here I had the chance to play on a Halldorophone for the first time. It’s a hybrid electro-acoustic string instrument for working with feedback made by Halldór Úlfarsson and I don’t think I’ve ever played on an instrument like it. Managed to do some recordings but would love to have another go another time.
Astrid Sonne’s Great Doubt is out now.
Read more: Gear Talk with Takuya Nakamura