Our Lady of Stars: An Interview with Sorana Santos

Sorana Santos is a composer, writer, and multi-instrumentalist. She is currently touring her self-produced album Our Lady of Stars and its corresponding book of poetry, Books of Hours. John Wadsworth talked to Sorana ahead of her concert in Oxford on Thursday July 30th, part of Oxford Contemporary Music’s Warneford Chapel series.

How do Our Lady of Stars and Books of Hours overlap?

I wanted to make a multimedia work that explored the relationship between music and language; they always felt like very similar things. When we look into this relationship at a deeper level we find that they are related at evolutionary, developmental, and neuroscientific levels, and so therefore they are linked at creative levels too.

When I came to explore this relationship in the making of Our Lady of Stars / Books of Hours, I wanted to do so in a less obvious way than just having the poems of the book be the lyrics of the album. I had wondered for a long time whether the techniques used to create either song or poetry could be imposed upon the other medium and began to experiment with this back in 2006. From then on this was largely how I built both my literary and musical works.

Eventually, what I decided to do in this instance was to link both the music and the poetry at a structural level instead of at a purely aesthetic level. Both the book and the album apply contemporary music techniques to traditional structures in songwriting and poetry. This transforms the material into something altogether different from its starting point.

Thematically, they’re not devotional works in and of themselves, as I am not a practitioner of the Christian faith, but they are intended to be a commentary on the similarities between devotional worship and romantic love. I decided to present the works based on the beautiful geometry found in the devotional rituals of The Book of Hours, The Seven Sorrows and The Stations of the Cross. Using these structures as frameworks for the pieces enabled me to build in even more links between the book and the album, such as illustrations in the book corresponding with sound design elements in the album.

Sorana Santos

Do you take different creative approaches to poetry and lyric writing, and if so, why?

I think we’re sensitive to the feel of words differing between text and speech, which is why we’re so careful with the wording of emails and text messages compared to how easily we get someone’s gist when we’re talking face-to-face. Since music shares so much with language it has that same inherent difference built into it too.

I first came across this phenomenon when I was growing up. I ritualistically bought an inordinate amount of music. One of my favourite things to do was to open album inlays on the bus home from the record shop to see which lyrics read well as poetry on the page. Then when I got home I would listen to the song I felt had the most poetic lyrics to see how they felt when lifted off the page and coupled with music. I was often disappointed to find that the lyrics that scanned so well as poetry lost some of their verve when sung, while lyrics I’d overlooked as they didn’t seem so strong on the page could suddenly stand out. I slowly began to realise that lyrics and poetry were not necessarily the same thing and I became mindful of using a different approach to each one.

It’s easy to think poetry and lyrics are almost the same medium as they both deal with rhythm, tempo, tone, structure, expression, and so on – as does music – but bringing music into the equation definitely alters the feel and quality of the words as there are suddenly two mediums at play and it can be hard to strike a balance. Lyrics can be more direct than poetry, for me, and have other considerations that poetry doesn’t, such as how it is placed inside the voice so that it sounds natural when sung, how certain vowels come across better in certain parts of the voice than others, and how to gracefully place lyrics so that they sound like the same ‘ending’ or ‘beginning’ the music is suggesting.

That said, I think Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell are two excellent examples of songwriters whose lyrics can look as strong on the page as they are when sung. Another great example of this is found in Portuguese Fado (also known as Poemas Cantadas, or ‘sung poems’) and in other Hispanic songs, for example, Violeta Parra’s ‘Gracias A La Vida’. The successes of these types of songs and songwriters really inspire me, and were very much my focus when I was writing ‘Ruth’.

I think where my lyric-writing and poems find each other is in the subject matter. I love reading about archetypes in psychoanalysis and consequently have delved a little into researching the occult. I also have a fascination with what Clarissa Pinokla Estés calls the life-death-life cycle. Much of my lyrical and poetic content is structured around the symbology of these archetypes, and how in or out-of-touch each song’s character is with their own medial nature.

You studied Composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Do you think that this classical training is reflected in your music?

Definitely, and in quite an obvious way too, especially in Our Lady of Stars where every song in the album is based on the essence, structure, or technique of a Contemporary Music work. For example, every musical element of ‘Mary’ has its own isorhythm, ‘Salome’ is derived from a Stockhausen tone row, ‘Sophia’ (sorry for the spoiler – this is the hidden track!) magnifies Reich’s phase shifting technique as, and the form and chord progression of ‘Sarah’ was constructed using the Fibonacci series. I don’t think I would’ve developed a deep enough understanding of Contemporary Music, or creativity itself for that matter, without Diana Burrell’s input. It was pivotal.

Because I’ve always loved singing and piano-playing so much I’ve often berated myself for keeping voice and piano as second studies during my time at Guildhall. Everyone who knew me in my school days was really surprised that I had taken this route, but I felt that while a good voice or a strong piano technique is always nice thing to hear, in the long term the quality of a song or composition is what stands the test of time – I think this is true whether someone is a trained musician or not. I wanted to be the best possible composer I could be and I’m glad I stuck with it. What I learned most was that all the music I loved most struck a balance between heart and mind.

Sorana Santos

How has session singing and your voiceover work informed your own music?

Doing session and voiceover work can make me find areas of my voice I’ve not explored yet. When I first stood in for Florence Welch [after replacing Welch as the lead vocalist of the band Ashok] it was some of the hardest vocal work I’d ever done – constantly belting notes right on my break gave me great stamina and forced me to expand the range of tones I could make with these pitches. When I came back to my own material it definitely changed my outlook towards writing for my own voice and I was prepared to play it less safe.

I studied the Estill Method with Lynda Richardson for over a decade and it completely transformed the way I sang, giving me lots of choices vocally. In the Estill Method you learn the techniques of different singing styles and it means that whether I want to sing as more of a rock singer in ‘Sarah’, the church choir in ‘Jezebel’, or the more Classical plainchant in ‘Hannah’, I can alter a few positions here and there to allude to the sounds I want to make while still hopefully sounding like myself.

As for voiceovers, that happened completely by chance but it seemed to tie in with my studying Estill Method and also the bank of impressions, voices, and characters I’d built over the years with my friends and siblings.  I used to feel very nervous about talking – a remnant of English not being my first language – and consequently had an uncomfortable speaking voice that never quite sat right in my body. Then one day I realised that must have changed because I was put forward to audition for ITV by Fiona Neeranjohn – I believe this was due to my work with Lynda and the Estill Method. This led me to getting a foreign voiceover agent, which keeps me on my toes linguistically and feeds back into my creative practice. I have Hispanic heritage and enjoy singing Portuguese Fado and various Hispanic Folk Songs; at the moment I am thinking about writing in my original languages.

When it came to making Our Lady of Stars / Books of Hours, I made an audiobook component to Books of Hours as a further comment on the differences between written and spoken poetry. My work in voiceover enabled me to find the characters, tones, moods and voices for reading both the traditional poems and the more contemporary ones, which were a challenge to voice.

Our Lady of Stars

You have written for The Guardian and elsewhere about the costs involved with being a professional musician. Why do you feel this is such an important issue to discuss?

How we measure value and where we place value in our society fascinates me. Personally, something is of value to me based on whether it divides or unites people, whether it creates a win-win situation for both the giver and the provider, and whether it has the potential to bring joy to the individual and/or society. Music definitely fulfils those criteria, and is more beyond: music is an art but it is also a language, performed with a sportsman’s mentality, based on the laws of physics, and when analysed mathematically, the balance and geometry are simply astonishing. It has numerous proven benefits in both developing and improving cognition, co-ordination, communication, and as if that weren’t enough it also brings people joy. So by my reckoning (and bias) it is greatly undervalued.

Given the amount of value music brings to those learning, performing, and listening to it, I would argue that its value proposition was high. However, this is at odds with how it is viewed in our society where the true benefits of the arts aren’t seen in quite the same way on the whole, and seem to be viewed almost as an appendage luxury item. Consequently the level to which musicians train is not necessarily reflected in their career progression or salary, which isn’t standard practice in most professions.

I also think that there’s something around the subject of music and money at the moment, particularly since the music industry’s model has changed so much in the past decade or so. I have a few connections to the creative startup scene here, and while there are many companies and academics researching how to monetise the music industry, the general advice is to run a mile from trying to solve the problem of monetising music in the digital age. I’m convinced it can be done, though; music has gone through many other such shifts in its time: the shift from printed to recorded music and the introduction of radio playing music for ‘free’ to name but two. I think human problems have human solutions. We just haven’t hit on a good enough solution yet.

What can the audience expect to hear at your Warneford Chapel concert?

We’re playing trio at Warneford Chapel; just Joe Wright [saxes/flute], James Maddren [drums] and I. Joe has done some unbelievable things with this project. For one, he made a vocal microphone out of a tin can and processes the sound that comes out of it.  This not only makes a few of the songs come alive, but actually enables us to play them live! As well as playing his saxophones and a couple of other homemade instruments he’ll also working with Max MSP patches and doing some sound processing too. You’ll also hear James being the genius we all know him to be. And then there’ll be me, being the most me I can possibly be at my magic piano!

John Wadsworth

For more information about OCM’s forthcoming events, please visit their website. You can listen to Sorana’s music on Bandcamp here.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook.

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