At Mills College in Oakland California, far, far away from either of their homelands, Sophia Shen (born Siyang Shen) and Ingibjörg Friðriksdóttir started a band. The two, who were roommates while pursuing their master’s degrees in Electronic Music and Recording Media couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds.
Sophia hails from China, while Ingibjörg is Icelandic. Together they make up Apartment D, an ‘electro-improv’ duo that combines live electronic production with voice samples and the music of Sophia’s primary instrument the Pipa, a four-stringed traditional Chinese instrument that she plays with virtuoso skill.
Coming from such culturally and sonically different cultures, Apartment D (which in addition to the name of the group is the apartment that the two shared at Mills) is something entirely separate from any other music that’s being made today. Sophia attributes their sound in no small part to their cultural exchange.
“Ingibjörg is an amazing classically trained vocalist,” said Sophia. “Her singing is versatile. I learned pipa in the traditional style when I was in China. But we are both experimental in terms of creating music and we incorporate a lot of live electronic processing and improvisation in our performance. While communicating with each other in our second language, English, music has become our third language. Soon our native languages become distant from us, as we often use the rhythmic and tonal element of Icelandic and Chinese in our music, but detached from their connotation.”
Several of Apartment D’s performances are available to listen to here, and they’re definitely worth your consideration. Generally, I harbor a serious disdain for noisey music, that sort of inaccessible, pseudomusical stuff that’s become more and more popular in the last few years. Apartment D doesn’t invoke my ire, though. Ingibjörg’s haunting vocals pair up surprisingly nicely with Sophia’s Pipa, and the two together with electronic production creates a performance seriously unlike anything you’ve ever heard.
When discussing music, and more specifically the way that music sounds, the word haunting is often thrown around. Oftentimes reviewers will say something along the lines of “James Blake’s penetrating, raw voice on the third track is absolutely haunting.” That’s not haunting. What’s haunting is when you get halfway through Apartment D’s ‘Analog Improv’ track at three in the morning with the lights off, and Sophia’s manic, deft pipa play pairs up with Ingibjörg’s labored, freakish vocal performance. What’s even more haunting is when a poster falls off your wall at that same moment. Apartment D’s music is some real nightmare shit, but in a totally good way.
I’ve always subscribed to the idea that people like being scared. There’s a reason that we actively seek out scary movies, that we play scary games and tell scary stories. It’s a chemical thing, an adrenal thing. There’s not a whole lot in this world that feels better than that moment right after something scares the living shit out of you. Apartment D is the sort of music that makes you feel good, even if it’s frightening.
There’s more going on here than a simple spookshow, though. In addition to their absolute mastery over their respective instruments, the ladies of Apartment D are absolutely expert communicators. The stage and electronics serve as a medium for the conversation that occurs between Ingibjörg’s voice and Sophia’s pipa. The music is a constant give and take, an ebb and flow.
“You learn how to listen to each other when you improvise freely for a long time,” said Sophia. “We explore our cultures through daily conversations, sharing of food and various customs and began incorporating those elements in our creative practice. We learned how cultural differences manifest in a variety of ways, often complex and multi-layered, realizing unwritten rules which have formed our environment and behaviors within it.”
Currently, the duo are working on a sound and dance project with dancer Yang Yang.
“We’re currently working on a production of a short dance film ‘Between Heaven and Earth, Hovering,’” said Sophia. “It’s a collaborative work between music and dance. Originally it was a live performance that features our friend Yang Yang, an amazing choreographer and modern dancer from China. Different elements from both the Chinese and Icelandic cultures were carefully melded into a highly distilled and condensed performance experience. Yang Yang uses the traditional Chinese shuixiu (water sleeves) as an extension of her body and explores new pathways and movement patterns without referencing the symbolism of the traditional Chinese dance, while the music reinterprets the movement by blending the sound worlds of the Chinese traditional instrument pipa, Icelandic poem, vocal improvisation, live processed small objects and processed recordings from different locations. The music and dance reinforce each other and strive for the same concepts and aesthetics, developing into an immensely integrated theatrical performance that creates an imaginary reality from the distant memories.”
While you wait for that, feel free to check out Sophia and Ingibjörg’s respective websites.