We first discovered the altruistic sounds of the NYX Drone Choir in 2018, when they performed a live collaboration with Gazelle Twin at London’s Oval Space. Harnessing the collective power of the female voice and distorting it with the use of electronics, mics and software, the choir – who are musically directed by New Zealand-born Sian O’Gorman – create captivating soundscapes that enrapture the senses and push the boundaries of what a conventional choral performance can be.
Their latest project is a Remix EP of their own track ‘Mutualism‘ featuring MA.MOYO, released via their own label NYX Collective. The EP features contributions from Anna Wall, Deena Abdelwahed, LCY and Sian, with each re-working attributed to one of the four natural elements. The single and EP aim to “look at our relationship with nature, symbiosis transformation and collective consciousness.”
We caught up with Sian to talk about the Mutualism project, her route to becoming the choir’s director, the immense power and opportunity that collaboration has brought into her life, and creating & performing Deep England alongside Gazelle Twin…
Hello Sian! Can you remember who or what first inspired you to start singing and creating music?
This is embarrassing, but I was definitely one of those children who was always like “I’m going to do a show, everybody gather round!” I was always very into singing and performing, that was always a big love of mine. I grew up singing in opera choruses when I was a little girl and then started singing in a couple of national choirs in New Zealand. I then studied classical singing at university and I completely screwed it up a bit, to be honest. It made me realise I didn’t want to become a classical singer. I wasn’t really connecting with the music or the people. I really enjoyed the technical side of it, but I really struggled because it just wasn’t my kind of music. I was more into alternative or contemporary classical. I also loved singers like Bjork, PJ Harvey and slightly more left-field stuff when I was younger, so that definitely drew me in to starting to create music that was a little bit different.
I don’t think you “screwed up” at university. You didn’t follow a “traditional” route perhaps, but look where that’s lead you – you now direct the NYX drone choir! Tell me how you first came to meet the women that you formed it with…
I’ve always loved harmonising. Even as a little kid, I remember singing along to the radio and I loved singing with other people. I think through the classical route, apart from the choirs that I sang in which were always really inspirational, the solo singing at university became a lot more intellectual and it got very competitive and egotistical, so I just broke away from that. I started to get a lot more into yoga and meditation, plant medicines, retreats and things, and I really started really expanding my mind out. Through that, I realised the reason why I loved singing so much was because of the celebratory aspect of it, being with other human beings and using your voices together. The power that all these individual could voices feed in and create this amazing synergetic explosion of sound that was so much more than the sum of their individual parts.
Before I started up NYX, I was getting really heavily into more ambient music, using my voice and layering it on top of itself, and I thought to myself “wouldn’t it be amazing to have a group of women, all standing in a circle, creating a sound bath, using the power electronics to assist and maintain that kind of drone sound?” That was the initial idea. So NYX started out as me just jamming with a couple of friends. Then I talked to my friend Phillipa about it, who is an amazing creative producer and fundraiser. She just makes things happen. She was working on Convergence Festival with Josh at the time, and they said they wanted to do another project together, and he was really interested in the idea as well. So the three of us started producing and bringing everyone else together.
It sounds like the perfect meeting of minds. You’ve achieved so much together since then, including releasing this Mutualism remix EP through your own label, NYX Collective. Talk me through the idea behind original track, the inspiration for the EP and how it all came together…
The concept for ‘Mutualism’ was kind of just a seed of an idea a few years ago, and now it’s grown into a tree, and the branches of that tree are reaching out everywhere. It started taking shape around the first lockdown – because that’s how we describe the timings of things now. I wanted to create a project that involved all of the members of NYX, but it was also kind of technical experiment that we could all do remotely. I wanted to get everybody really good at recording at home, experimenting at home, and passing things on to each other.
At the same time, I was also really starting to get massively blown away by the division and the way people were communicating with each other in lockdown, especially the way we were seeing the world, our friends and our communities play out, which seemed to be on social media a lot of the time. I was overwhelmed with this narrative of fear that was dividing people, so I really wanted to create a piece that questioned how we could repair this relationship with ourselves and with each other, which to me, is also the relationship that we all have towards the planet. I know that sounds a bit cheesy, but I really do see the connection when people disconnect with the earth, they also disconnect with others and then with themselves.
So, I introduced these concepts to Belinda Zhawi, who’s artist name is MA.MOYO. She actually opened for us at Oval Space back in 2018. I’d always wanted to create a piece with her because I was so moved by her spoken word. Every time I’d seen her, my whole heart would just explode with the magnificence of the way that she crafts words. I then spoke to our core team, which includes visual artist Nick Cobby, our movement director Imogen and our sound associate Peter Rice. Together, we came up with this concept of “mutualism” which I interpret as mutual dependence on one another. It’s not a desperate type of dependence, it’s a real true trusting connection between people, between animals, between creatures, between plants. It’s a true supporting of one another and a finding of the middle ground.
We brainstormed a few things and we came up with some images, videos and text that connected with these idea. We had the image of Marina Abramović for her Rest Energy piece, where she’s holding a bow and arrow with her partner Ulay, and we had some amazing videos of nature as well. I then made a heartbeat-type of noise that I sent to Belinda to get a tempo from her. Then she laid down this poem in response to those images and sounds, which I passed on to all of the NYX singers. They each went away for a couple of weeks and just responded to that poetry and those images. One of the girls went into a bunker in the middle of Devon and recorded this amazing stuff with crystal glasses, singing into the earth and a cave. One of the girls sat with an organ and a clarinet, and other people involved were gathering field recordings from all over. So, I took all of the recordings that everybody had made, which as you can imagine, was hours and hours and hours of stuff. I sifted through it all and I picked out pieces from a number of different contributors, and I began to piece the music together with the poetry, and then I got my friend Dave who is an amazing saxophone player to feed in some more sex layers towards the end.
So once the initial track ‘Mutualism’ was completed, we exclusively launched it along with the interactive 360° video that Nick shot at Rewire Festival in April. With this particular track though, we knew from the beginning that we really wanted to remix it. That also really fitted into this idea of wanting to keep passing things on and re-evolving. We managed to secure funding from PRS for their Women Make Music fund. With that, we basically pitched that we wanted to create an EP of remixes from female and non-binary identifying people, and create an evolution of this piece. We have a massive list of people who we already love working with, so we passed it out to people who we thought would like to get involved. Working with LCY was such a joyous experience. They responded so well, so did the amazing Deena Abdelwahed, and our beautiful friend Anna Wall, who also opened for us at the Oval Space performance in 2018.
We didn’t really define what we wanted from them, we were just like “we know that you know yourselves, we really want you to go crazy with how you interpret this.” I also wanted to do a remix because I’d been working on these stems so much, I really wanted to play around with the choral stuff at the end. So we all created these pieces and when everybody started sending them back, I heard them, and I was like, “wow, these seem to personify all of the natural elements Belinda is talking about in the piece.” Re-mixing the tracks to represent a certain element wasn’t in the original commission. It wasn’t even an idea until I heard all the pieces together, so we ended up naming them after the four elements after that.
I think that’s such a wonderful achievement, to let everyone bring their own ideas to the piece, then simultaneously find a theme that unifies each of the different works. Surely that’s the perfect type of collaboration?
What do you personally think makes for a collaboration as strong as this? Do you think it’s just like-minded people working together, or do you think there’s something else in it as well?
That’s such a good question. I often just sit and ponder this. I don’t know what it is, but every single person we work with, is just fucking awesome. We work with such a diverse range of people from all different worlds – I mean, even our lawyer is such a good dude and our accountants are lovely people! That’s a pretty collaborative process too.
I think for me, collaboration is listening. It’s listening to each other, hearing what you can offer, hearing what others can offer and meeting in the middle. It really is like the lyrics to ‘Mutualism’ – “meet me in the middle”. I mean, it’s the nature of a choir to be very collaborative anyway, but the way in which we run NYX projects is very open. It just really feels like everyone that we collaborate with instantly feels like they’re a part of the family and part of something. So I guess collaborating is about recognising and celebrating people’s differences, celebrating the uniqueness of everyone.
That’s a really lovely way of describing it. I remember reading something that Gazelle Twin (Elizabeth Bernholz) said after she worked with NYX on your collaborative album, Deep England. I’m paraphrasing here, but she mentioned that she usually prefers to work solo and shies away from collaboration, but working with NYX was beautiful because you all shared and enhanced the same vision.
As a huge fan of the work you all did on Deep England – I was blown away by your live performance at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2019 – can you talk me through some of the highlights of working on this project with Elizabeth?
Of course, thank you so much for your support! When we first started NYX, we already knew we really wanted to collaborate with female and non-binary electronic musicians. Particularly because we had friends in that world and they often talked about how lonely it was, and how isolating it can be. I had loved Gazelle Twin for years, and years, and years. She was absolutely at the top of my list for collaborating. We sent a pitch out to her and straight away, she said yes. We’d never even met her, but as soon as we had this talk with her on the phone with her and her manager Steve, we instantly had this great connection.
When I initially approached her, I’d already had ideas about her existing work and how I could interpret it. I’d gone through her old album Unflesh and chosen pieces that I thought could work, but she said she was about to release a new album called Pastoral. She mentioned that it was based on British paganism and folklore with some existing choral elements, so she sent it to me and I immediately thought “this is going to be great.” This is already a piece of genius in itself, and I can see how NYX can expand this out.
Elizabeth is a master of disguise through creating these characters on each of her albums, so I had no idea how technically insane her voice was when it came to singing. When she first came into the room with us, we all did an acoustic vocal warm-up together, and I think a lot of us were just like – “wow” – she’s phenomenal. She’s a joy to work with, because there’s just such a lack of egotism. Along with her manager Steve, they both supported our idea to release the Deep England album on NYX’s own label. They were great at mentoring us through that.
Elizabeth just has this really fantastic kind of emotional strength, but also this kind of beautiful giggly side to her as well. I think we all just enjoyed working together so much that after the Oval Space show in 2018, we realised we wanted to perform together again so we took it to Southbank Centre, and then we found some funding so we could record an album. We recorded Deep England in a day and a half actually. We co-produced it with Marta Salogni, who’s the most amazing engineer. It just felt like the most magical team of people working together, which just gives evidence to the fact that you can really create something magical when you pass it over to the collective and look beyond yourself. It’s really special and I’m so happy with how many people have heard that album, and how many people really, really enjoy it.
Huge thanks to Sian for answering our questions!