The cold + the stomach-acid-warm: Recovery from trauma + hope in silence via Swan Meats brutal + visceral music in light of ‘issues’

Reba Fay is a poet, producer, audio engineer and DJ, who performs under the alias Swan Meat. She creates music that can adequately be described as raw – likewise in its brutality as its openness, viscerally exposed. A lot of the online narrative around the Cologne-based artist’s music has noted a connection to her experiences with chronic illness; Fay’s debut EP, Bounty, released on the Parisian PERMALNK imprint, explored recovery from bulimia nervosa through the lens of Samus Aran – a character from the Metroid game series.

Swan Meat (2018). Courtesy the artist.

Even so, despite the fact that for a long time “life was a revolving door of hospitals, surgeries, psych units, cold hands [and] strange smells,” the American producer prefers not to make these experiences the centre of conversations about her work. “Most of the tracks I release are just me having fun with sound design and software,” she explains over email. Indeed, Swan Meat builds her own instruments and plug-ins using SuperCollider, Max, and ChucK. At the same time, she’s eager to downplay the significance of building sounds ‘from scratch,’ acknowledging that the use of presets within the ‘producer community’ is often vilified.

Fay’s jarring compositions incorporate a range of influences, from Suicide and Sonic Youth to Mozart and Pauline Oliveros, and are often paired with poetry and spoken word. The name Swan Meat is in fact derived from a poem by Natalie Eilbert, whose debut collection of poetry, Swan Feast, is “a beautiful, grotesque collection of poems” that Fay reads as being about “womanhood and hunger and the fraught, terrible, inevitable interweaving of both.” In our written exchange, she quotes a line from one of Eilbert’s poems:

“What are you doing, neon goose, with your hair and your split tits and this hip to waste ratio.”

“That pun on waste/waiste always gets me,” writes Fay. “The first songs I made under the Swan Meat alter ego were vomit, I think, sound-vomit, bits and pieces of the hunger – literal hunger, food-wanting, that I couldn’t satiate in my body and as such had to fester elsewhere. Music was a second stomach I could gorge endlessly – or, at least, as much as CPU allowed. DAW-as-stomach, OMG. What a concept.”

Swan Meat plays at the upcoming Progress Bar club night in Amsterdam – part of Sonic Acts Academy 2018 – on February 23, alongside other artists including M.E.S.H., Kilbourne and Born in Flamez. In anticipation of her performance, we spoke to the artist about her path into music, her practice of programming and her interest in language. The day of our conversation is her birthday, for which her partner has given her a “gorgeous ‘coffee table book’” – namely, a retrospective of Magic the Gathering lore and artwork. She explains that she has just spent the morning watching a walkthrough of a bizarre Legend of Zelda spin-off game called Freshly-Pickled Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland, and also ate three croissants. “Life feels good,” she says.

Listen to Swan Meat’s track ‘Cream’, which premieres on AQNB, and read the interview below.

 

** What significance do you find in building your own sounds from scratch?

Reba Fay: Let me just say that for each time I’ve made a sound ‘from scratch,’ there’s an equivalent time I’ve used a ‘straight-out-of-the-box’ synth preset or a tom hit from a cinematic sample pack, not because it was expedient but because that ‘pre-set sound’ – with a little tuning, a little reverb, a little distortion – did a better job than what I’d built on my own, or fit the narrative of a track far better than, say, one of the synths I’ve made in Sampler using a field recording of, you know, rotten milk being poured into a steel bowl.

The fact that there is still the tendency to disparage presets in the ‘producer community’ is mind-blowing, honestly. It’s cruel, it dissuades new learners. There’s a certain kind of idealism, a certain kind of self-deceptive kitsch, in equivocating the ‘obscurity gradient,’ for lack of a better word, of a sound source with its emotional depth. Crafting a snare out of ‘woman_crying_sad.mp3’ doesn’t make said perc inherently tragic, and the plug-ins at our disposal work according to a kit of algorithms determined by a group of manufacturers adhering to, you know, the fourier transform. Nothing is ‘of air,’ nothing is truly ‘of scratch.’

Swan Meat (2018). Courtesy the artist.

At best, building a sound in this way will lead one to discover strange and fun textures, which is great. I also really like planting little easter eggs in tracks, albeit for myself. I recently made a bunch of risers out of these videos I found of akita dogs howling, and have included them in something yet-to-be released, and building those risers and subsequently including them as pith in the track made the production process a lot more exciting, ‘cos I have a tendency to get bored and distracted quite easily.

**Your debut EP Bounty was partly inspired by Samus Aran from the Metroid video game series. What do you find provocative about this particular character?

RF: Bounty was inspired by Samus but mostly by the general milieu of Metroid, the feeling of profound loneliness – not loneliness, no, of isolation – these games capture. For me, it was all in Hirokazu Tanaka’s original Metroid score, which is minimalist and terrifying. It’s rife with silence: a powerful instrument. You’re exploring this hostile planet, Zebes, totally alone, and the end goal is to destroy the ‘Mother Brain’ – in this general arc and various bits of lore I found parallels with recovery from trauma. Not to sound corny, but what is recovery if not a lonely, oft aimless journey to destroy your own (Mother) Brain – this fleshy monster within planet-body, leeching off your own vitality, telling you your body is fat, unwilling, worthless?  

Bounty was a sonic logbook, a reworking of bits of the score that felt especially important, since I was in recovery, and felt so much like Samus, because of course in these early games she’s a blank slate, a video game character, a you/me proxy. This is such an inadequate tl;dr answer – these games (especially the original and Prime) are so important to me for so many reasons. Maybe the best bottom line, here, is that playing Metroid, being Samus, was the first time I felt powerful after a long period of hopelessness and doubt, even in the thick of this cold soundtrack, cold planet. Metroid was and is a framework for hope, hope in silence, hope because silence.

**How have your experiences with illness informed your work?

Swan Meat, ‘Cream’ (2018). Artwork by AMEN. Courtesy the artists.

RF: I was first hospitalized for anorexia when I was nine. When I was 14, doctors discovered this huge-ass tumor on my pancreas – another Mother Brain, if you will. For the longest time, life was a revolving door of hospitals, surgeries, psych units, cold hands, strange smells. I don’t want to make this the center of conversations about my work because while records like Bounty and Knife Splits Ice, an EP I made with Yoshitaka Hikawa, are more directly engaged with medical trauma (the former narratively, the latter due to sound selection, i.e. on ‘Casual Surgical Slang’), most of the tracks I release are just me having fun with sound design and software. I don’t want having-been-ill to excuse any shitty songs I might make, especially since most of them are just tracks: the last thing I released was a track on Bala Club called ‘Devious’ that began with me trying to make a synth sound/melody reminiscent of Basshunter. ‘Blood Echo/Wraith’ is a track built around epic drum arrangements & mega-processed samples of C’Thun’s battlecries in the Hearthstone DCCG. Illness factors into none of that.

On a purely textural level, the hospital has inspired – I know its ins, its outs: steel and bile; barium and OJ. I prefer music that oscillates between these discrepant elements, these humors: the cold and the stomach-acid-warm; red, red, red, yellow. The smell of Isocal nutrition beverage mixed with the stink of cafeteria food cutting through the soundtrack of the Pokémon game Mom and Dad gave to you during visiting hours. 8-bit and blood-bit. Lavender town.

**Your music frequently pairs sound with poetry and literature. How do sound and text respond to each other in your work?

RF: Frequently, but not always. Above everything, I’m concerned with the sonic material of language, how not ‘the capital-V voice’ but poetry and its corollaries: spoken assonance, consonance, rhyme, etc. might function as actual instruments. In some of the earliest things I made as Swan Meat, I would bring a dry audio recording of a poem into Ableton and literally build a track around it; in this way poetry served as musical notation, words and passages and articulations being guideposts for rhythm, sound selection, melody.

**When did you start writing poetry?

Swan Meat (2016). Photo by Jamie Morgan. Courtesy the artist.

RF: Well, I’d write songs when I was younger – this is why the ‘musical journey’ question is so hard to answer ‘cos I even went through this singer/songwriter phase; the first-ever thing I posted online was a recording I made on my iPhone, where I’m strumming an Am-C-D-F chord progression singing ‘don’t be surprised when your veins illuminate / they are leading you back to me’ and various other not-good lines. Writing always felt natural: lyrics, then poems. Words just sound so good, look so good.

**What are your favourite pieces of literature?

RF: Currently, Nier: Automata. I don’t have favorite pieces of literature, but I do have works of art that have stuck with me, that live with me, or broke me: Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha; the Earthsea series and also The Left Hand of Darkness;  Susan Howe’s poetry; Wisdom Eye by Alice Coltrane;  Meredith Monk’s Possible Sky; Octavia E. Butler’s short stories; Bloodborne; of course Metroid.

**Do you find certain issues easier or more effective to convey in either sound or text?

RF: Well – who is listening? I don’t know. I think it’s a bad idea to draw this kind of dichotomy between the two, in the same way I think the notion of traditional musical notation needs to be upended. Text is notation, text is sound. I just finished Nina Sun Eidsheim’s Sensing Sound, which is a great read, because it challenges the notion that audio’s default transmission medium is air, air only. Eidsheim discusses Juliana Snapper’s ‘underwater operas,’ which quite literally drown language, drown music, with muffled, underwater warbling as their stand-in. This conveys just as much, if not more. I guess what I’m trying to say is Snapper’s work is reflective of what it means to make art (music, text, whatever) in light of ‘issues,’ if you choose to do so. Whatever Snapper’s operas might convey is rendered inaudible (or at least inaudible according to generally understood notions of ‘the heard’); the project succeeds because she hasn’t drowned, and this is enough, this is everything.

Swan Meat (2016). Courtesy the artist.

** You recently released a collaborative cassette with Yoshitaka Hikawa and have previously collaborated with artists, including ssaliva and WWWINGS. How does working with others affect your creative process?

RF: Collaborating is just fun, and I always learn something new from the people I work with, because we’ll be sending stems back-and-forth, and sounds that I made will be re-contextualized, re-formatted, rearranged, what have you, and that opens me up to possibilities I would have never before considered. Collaboration also forces you not to be so possessive about your work: ‘these sounds are ours, no longer mine,’ and they will be stretched, de-pitched, maybe even completely written out of the track’s final version. And that’s okay. Working with someone else’s audio is always a challenge, too: I’m pushed out of my comfort zone, and want to experiment and rework, naturally, but also need to remain true to the original feel of the stems I was sent. I think it’s always good to shake up workflow like this.

**Can you tell us a bit about your track ‘Cream’, which premieres on AQNB?

RF: ‘Cream’ is a track I began working on – and finished, really – in a hotel room in Amsterdam when I was bored and as usual chopping up vocal samples and found this bit that I liked because it sounded like a not-quite-right gated trance synth. I just built from there. It’s definitely one of the ‘simpler’ tracks in my archives but since it’s a staple of my current live set, I felt as though it needed to be heard in its ‘original form.’ The lyrics are about gorging oneself on, well, swan meat, I guess, but they were directly inspired by the lyrics to Hole’s ‘Doll Parts,’ which for a while I always covered during my live sets: “swan mouth / swan legs / swan feast / swan cream / looking at the stars eating swan meat.”**

Swan Meat will be performing at Amsterdam’s Progress Bar at Paradiso Noord – Tolhuistuin on February 23, 2018.