Get to know Esmeralda Conde Ruiz, an interdisciplinary composer, sound artist, and our 2022 Fellow.
November 26, 2022 | by Creative Armenia
Buzzing of the washing machine, whistling of passing-by cars, dangling of keychains – for most people, these are nuisances. For Esmeralda Conde Ruiz, however, these miscellaneous sounds are infinite sources of inspiration. An award-winning interdisciplinary composer and audiovisual artist from the United Kingdom, she has worked with numerous global artists including Yoko Ono, Olafur Eliasson, Nick Cave, and Matthew Herbert and directed massive-scale projects for the Tate Modern in London and Dresdner Philharmonie. All that would not be possible without her acute attention to sounds, voices, and noises that pass between most people’s ears.
A generous artist, Esmeralda Conde Ruiz let us listen into her world. Get to know our 2022 Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow, her inspirations, what made her feature the Armenian language in her most recent creative work Cabin Fever, and more.
Creative Armenia: Tell us a little about your journey of becoming an interdisciplinary composer and sound artist.
My journey was not straightforward. I have always worked in music but it took me a long time to find the corner where I felt I belonged. In music, there was always something essential missing to me: the visual component, concepts, and exploration of topics. I was lucky that I met many contemporary artists early on in my life and through them, I learned that there was a space where I could combine those needs.
The one constant thing in my journey though was the voice. I have always worked with human voices and choirs and my fascination with this particular human instrument has never failed me. Until today I don’t seem to get tired of it and explore as much as possible through the voice as material.
CA: Tell us about your creative inspirations – whether those are people, things, or phenomena – and what you have learned from them.
There are usually three things that inspire me:
The first one is a certain topic. The topics that inspire me start often with a gut feeling and an extensive research phase to see if there is something in there worth following. The research consists of reading, talking to people, and trying to find more information. I call it the “honeymoon” phase of artistic research. Where everything about the topic is exciting and inspiring. Then comes the ugly bit where nothing makes sense and one doesn’t know where to go next. Nothing seems to make sense anymore. With time, you learn to trust your practice. It takes a while sometimes but then it becomes crystal clear.
The second one is background noises. Sonically, I am very inspired by domestic and machine sounds, little buzzings, and those microtonal background noises that we don’t give our full attention to but are surrounded by. I am always listening out to them. There is never just silence if you truly listen. Currently, for example, I am listening to sounds that we recorded on a server farm in Germany. I listen and study them until I can hear in my head what I want to do with them. It’s a form of aural sculpturing. The material inspires me and I keep shaping it.
The last one is visual. I am constantly looking at colours, books, spaces, exhibitions. Often when I am stuck with the sound I go back to the visual idea. I always start with a visual inspiration that then develops into sound. One can never exist without the other for me. In my practice, they are equal partners and develop together.
CA: You are an award-winning interdisciplinary composer and audiovisual artist, who has worked globally and led many major productions, composed a number of award-winning film soundtracks, and worked with many renowned musicians. What would you say motivates you to take on a challenging creative venture?
I often get a call where I am told, “This is a complicated project and has never been done before, can you help us?” The challenge is exciting and often really tiring. Managing my energy and saying yes to the right projects has been the biggest challenge for me over the years. What motivates me to collaborate is getting to know another perspective, another artistic world, and trying to meet in the middle and create something together. To do that right, one needs mutual respect. One needs to be looked after and listened to. Otherwise, no good will come out of it. It just leads to a lot of stress and frustration.
Another motivation for me is doing it for the right reason. Not to get press, money, or fame. Working with the right people and trying to create something beautiful together – that journey is priceless and more rewarding than anything else.
CA: Currently, in your Fellowship year you’re working on Cabin Fever, an ambitious audiovisual online artwork that unites singers across the world and timezones. Can you tell us a little more about Cabin Fever? What qualities of the Armenian language and music made it a good fit for the project?
Many years ago in 2018, I was invited to a concert and a children’s choir from Armenia was part of it. I had a chat with the conductor afterward as he was sitting next to me and he gave me his card and the score. The Armenian written language looked so beautiful. It was unlike anything I had ever seen or heard before. I wanted to learn more about Armenia. It was the Little Singers of Armenia choir. I went on with my life and forgot about this encounter.
That is until I started researching for my piece Cabin Fever. I wanted to create a durational 24-hour-long piece that featured real dreams of people, sung and spoken in different languages. An audiovisual artwork that explores vulnerability and dreaming, composed for an ensemble of singers, domestic sounds, and Zoom. I wanted to explore the sonic potential of the digital space, creatively playing with the latency and parameters of the technology whilst traveling around the world and featuring singers from over 80 different countries. Visually, it became a large mosaic of colors created by the singers themselves as I asked each performer to manually cover their cameras with a different commonplace item in a specific colour, creating a living mosaic of colour.
As the piece is digitally created, I focused on time zones rather than cities and found singers who could work together from different time zones or countries. Whilst researching different time zones, I came across a video of someone from Armenia jokingly imitating different dialects. Even though I didn’t understand the language, I could hear sonic differences. It is a beautiful experience to listen to a language that you don’t understand. That is when I knew I wanted to feature Armenia. Hour 21 of Cabin Fever will heavily feature the Armenian language and I am very excited to share this experience with everyone.
CA: Throughout your career, you have primarily focused on the exploration of voices in their many forms and shapes – be it through choral or vocal pieces. What is it about the subject matter that excites you?
There are no identical voices. Every voice is absolutely unique. Think about it – in a way, there are all incredible instruments. Then, if you add cultural elements to a voice such as choirs and languages it becomes even more unique. It is the most human instrument on earth and the most moving one. There is so much to learn from other cultures. I feel like the topic is always interesting. Especially now that technology is so advanced that we can generate artificial voices. Where will that lead us? What might we all sound like in the future?
I am also really interested in exploring what having or not having a voice means. What about internal voices? How does a choir of internal voices sound? For me, voices are like material such a rich and never-ending source of inspiration. I never stop learning, that’s the best way of describing my fascination.
CA: What project of yours are you most proud of? What makes it special for you?
Hard to say but looking back probably Peter Liversidge’s The Bridge in London’s turbine hall at Tate Modern. It didn’t feel big at the time but every project that came afterward just showed me how well we all – choirs, the institution, and collaborators – worked together. So much could have gone wrong but it didn’t. Tate Modern really made sure that Peter and I spent enough time with each other to truly create together. And Peter was is a true collaborator at heart. No ego, so much kindness and attentiveness.
Together we created a site-specific piece during massive building works. That in itself is challenging enough. On top of that, we had to bring together 26 different choirs to rehearse a 40-minute-long sound artwork. Imagine, a 500 singers choir that learns how to sing with intense latency, surrounded by volunteers ushering them into and out of the building site. I will never forget those rehearsals! Neither I will forget those 8000 people watching us on an opening day. The turbine hall suddenly transformed into something else, a human space through the human voice. For every participant and audience member, that moment will forever eco there.
CA: What is your long-term vision for your creative career?
I hope to continue creating meaningful works that inspire others around the world. I want to continue pursuing opportunities to share my work at festivals and exhibitions to see where the next project might lead me to. To understand my own work better and see it grow.
It's like gardening. You plant a seed, protect it, water it, and watch over it but at some point, it gains life on its own. It is a beautiful thing to observe. It doesn’t feel like your own work anymore. it has a life of its own life. Like a parent, I hope to be around to see my pieces grow and age.
CA: What do you plan on doing as a Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow and, later, as a creative ambassador for Armenia?
I am so honored to have been invited to explore the Armenian culture further through this fellowship, create the Armenian dreams for Cabin Fever with its help, and feature Armenian singers and locals.
As Cabin Fever is a long-term touring work, I hope to give the world an opportunity to listen to dreams and get to know other cultures. Thanks to the fellowship I had the chance to meet wonderful Armenian curators and together we hope to exhibit it in Armenia and abroad.