Fiona Soe Paing is a half-Scottish, half-Burmese composer, producer and vocalist based in Aberdeenshire. She creates ‘skeletal, off-world electronica’, based around minimal beats and interesting synthesiser noises. With a beautiful and unique voice and a full range of visuals, live performances are fascinating and compelling experiences which have earned rave reviews from all corners of the music and art world. Her haunting vocal melodies are sung sometimes in English and Burmese but are also supplemented by an invented No Man’s Language, with phonetics created purely for creative purposes.She is involved in a project entitled Colliderscope with New Zealand-based animator Zennor Alexander which was shown at the 2010 London Independent Film Festival.
Colliderscope has also received airplay on television in New Zealand and Italy and is sure to cause a stir on its DVD release later this year. I was fortunate enough to have Fiona answer a few questions for Aberdeen Voice, intrigued as I was to learn more about her inspirations and how she created her ethereal-sounding music. After all, anyone who has performed with ‘baked bean throwing performing artists’ deserves to be discovered…
Of her unique cultural background and its role in influencing her creative processes, especially the invented language, Fiona was very forthcoming and admitted her background played a hugely important role.
“It was never a conscious thing, but after a lot of experimentation and exploration, I realised the whole process of making my music had been about finding my own sound and identity with all the “unknown-ness” of my background, being half Burmese and brought up in Aberdeen knowing little of my Burmese roots.
“As for the language, if you are singing any kind of pop or non-western music, it’s almost impossible not to slip into the obligatory fake American accent, but since I’m not American I asked myself why I was singing in a mock drawl. I tried singing in a Scottish accent, but that didn’t sound quite right either, so I took a leaf from The Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser’s book and started using the random abstract sounds I had initially just recorded as dummy lyrics. I refined and rewrote them phonetically, learned them and re-recorded them as if it was another language. Then by an amazing stroke of synchronicity, I met a photographer and graphic artist, Daniel Burman, who designed a completely new font and alphabet to go along with the invented language! Zennor uses the alphabet a lot in the videos too.
“There ARE a couple of songs where I do sing in Americanese, for example Billie Holiday’s Deep Song, but they’re deliberately using blues forms as a reference, so I feel that’s justified, and I can get away with it.”
Our conversation moved on to Zennor Alexander, who Fiona first met when both were living in Brighton, the general concept of Colliderscope and the relationship between the music and visuals.
“Soon after we met, he had to go back to New Zealand for family reasons. At that time, I was writing the music for my album, and Zennor had recently started to do animation. After he went home, we kept in touch online and started collaborating on visuals and music. I’ve been to New Zealand for a couple of long holidays and the last time ended up staying for two years, working on videos for the whole album and putting the live show together.
“Colliderscope takes its name from the Hadron Large Particle Collider in Geneva – an experiment in smashing two opposing entities together at high speed to see what happens and hoping the world doesn’t spontaneously combust in the process!
“The general concept of the No Man’s Land show is that it’s a metaphor for the neutral borderlands area, between places and cultures, neither here nor there, not one thing or the other. The project blurs genres and styles, too – a cinema/music/art/performance fusion. The sun/moon imagery fits with the idea of the spaces between dreaming and waking, where Zennor and I do our work – on opposite sides of the world, in opposite time zones.”
Fiona has claimed that most of her music is merely a bunch of mistakes thrown together, but her writing process seems intriguing. For instance, is her preference for accident over design, or is she able to conceptualise pieces fully in her head before translating to recording?
“I never start out with any preconceived idea of what I want the finished product to sound like,” she admitted, “That’s what makes it exciting. Watching to see how it comes together, doing things to see how it turns out is much more of an adventure and the results can be much more satisfying than anything you might have planned out in your head.
“I usually start off by trying to find some interesting sounds on my computer (Logic on a Macintosh) and try to throw out anything familiar and clichéd-sounding, or anything that is too genre-specific. When something jumps out at me as being interesting or having character, I use that as the basis of a piece. Maybe a sound will suggest a rhythm or invite a melody then I just try to follow what the song seems to want doing to it. It’s really easy that way – I don’t really have to think things up, they just evolve naturally and if any interesting-sounding mistakes happen, then they get a prime time slot! Like the whole Colliderscope thing. That’s just an evolving process – you could never have planned that.”
Undoubtedly the unique nature of Fiona’s sounds present their own technical challenges in live performance and require a specific set up, based on two laptops.
“One runs the visuals and audio soundtrack without the vocals. The other laptop I have onstage with me, and I process my vocals through that, using the compression and delay effects in Logic.
“The main issue is finding a venue that’s set up for showing visuals, as bringing in a projector is always a bit of a faff, not to mention getting it set up so that my visuals/audio laptop is near enough the mixing desk for the audio out but also close enough to the projector. Finding somewhere for the projector is always a challenge too, of course! We did our very first gig in a cinema. That, or a theatre space with projection facilities, is the ideal venue for us.”
As for future ambitions and projects in the pipeline, Fiona envisages, “Just keeping on doing what I’m doing but on a bigger scale. I’d love to do some audio-visual festivals in Europe. We have just applied to be part of the London based One Dot Zero programme, adventures in moving image, which also puts on live audio-visual performances at the Southbank, so we are keeping our fingers crossed about that.
“The next big thing I have planned is an event at the Roxy Arthouse in Edinburgh called Is This a Test? It’s an audio-visual night with live AV performances, film and music video screenings, interactive AV installation and a VJ set. That’s happening on June 26th. Then I’m very excited to be performing with the Forest Fringe mini-festival at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Thanks to Fiona for taking the time to speak to us. For more information about Fiona and her projects, visit:
Article by Ross Cunningham.