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Finding Resonance: artists Arman Nouri and KMRU on power, sound and practices of listening
Berlin-based sound artist Joseph Kamaru and London-based artist Arman Nouri reflect of and between their respective practices, exploring the potentials of sound in space.

Berlin-based sound artist Joseph Kamaru — a.k.a. KMRU — has been described as an artist who draws from a rich experience of listening, in response to various global and emotional contexts. Arman Nouri — a London-based artist and half of Kin Structures — has been experimenting with programming sound-based events to gather people together, building political and community resonance. Their conversation reflects a rich reflection of and between their respective practices, exploring the potentials of sound in space.

Arman and Kamaru submitted songs as a gift to each other and to Kooz readers. You can find a collected playlist here.

KMRU I like conversations, let’s see how it goes. I don't know much of Arman's practice, so it's exciting to find some meeting points.

ARMAN NOURI I understand more about myself through conversations too. I might not have the succinct words to describe my practice right now: I'm in that process of becoming. Music has been a part of my life always; I started off singing when I was about seven. As I moved into my 20s, my music practice grew around DJing, curating, programming, putting on parties, even writing about music a little bit.

In recent years, there's been more emphasis on how music can be used in kind of gathering contexts — people gathering in space — engaged with music and sound, seeing what emerges out of those kinds of spaces. So a lot of facilitation and community based work, really using sound as a tool that allows us to learn about ourselves, about our histories, about our bodies, about our ancestors.

The clearest manifestation of that has been the Sound & Solidarity series, with Sound Advice; that was a really good example of an organic or unexpected flow, which just blossomed into something beautiful. Other things feel more intentional, like this framing of context: what is the relationship that I want to have with sound and music that feels most right for me, my community, my city?

"Coming from Nairobi to Berlin, I realised that I was thinking about sound in a very different way from what was being taught in school. So I was having to reposition myself in this situation, consciously recognising how my listening is or what my ideas of what sound or like listening practices are."

- KMRU

KMRU This sonic journey that has been building up to where I am now; I still feel like there's so much that is still evolving and growing. Picking up on that notion of time, I think I'd want to go back to my grandfather; he was a musician also, but with more of an activist position as a political figure in Kenya, in the 1950s. His music was very at the forefront during independence — very different from what I'm doing, but there's some connection and similarities with both our worlds. We share the same name — Joseph Kamaru — and of course, my artist name is KMRU.

I also used to sing at some point and I played guitar, but increasingly, I find myself leaning towards sounds from the outside — like, field recordings. Coming from Nairobi to Berlin, I realised that I was thinking about sound in a very different way from what was being taught in school. So I was having to reposition myself in this situation, consciously recognising how my listening is or what my ideas of what sound or like listening practices are. For me, there’s always this process of returning home to ground myself again, before coming back — a reorientation of my body and mind. So I feel like there's a connection with both of our conversations, in the terms that we've mentioned.

ANThank you for sharing that.

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KOOZ What seems to be pivotal in understanding both of your practices is this notion of where you want to situate yourself. Arman, what do you mean when you talk about the importance of context, and how do you include community in that?

AN To paraphrase my friend Rabab — who runs an amazing organisation called Gentle Radical — I am drawn to art that is at the service of social and spatial justice.

In order to practice that, it’s important for me to understand what my context is, and to ground myself in it. Personally, I feel very rooted in a place. One way of speaking about that is to say it's London: the city where I was born and have spent a substantial part of my life. But even in London, my context has multiple scales and arenas. There's also Mile End, where Soanes Centre is — which is a space that my creative partner Kwame and I are co-stewarding at the moment. Other contexts to which I’m trying, in relation, to understand myself include: my body, ancestors, my history and ancestry. At the moment I am trying to learn how, as an artist, I can be in relation to these different contexts in which I’m situated.

"In the most expansive sense, music is not just what's heard between the beginning and end of the song. It's everything: the musicians, the promoters, the sound system, it's the record, the lyrics, the feelings, the textures that come when you're listening to music — it's the whole thing, right?"

- Arman Nouri

One context that I didn’t mention is community — the interpersonal relationships that I'm a part of, which have shaped me. My being in London is an intimate relationship, or rather a tie to many of these. In the most expansive sense, music is not just what's heard between the beginning and end of the song. It's everything: the musicians, the promoters, the sound system, it's the record, the lyrics, the feelings, the textures that come when you're listening to music — it's the whole thing, right? I'm trying to get a better sense of how sound and music can be a tool in service of all of the contexts that I just described.

The programme that we ran a few weeks ago, at the Soane Centre was, I guess, in some ways, the first iteration of trying to test that. If we're going to translate this into cultural work — work that by its definition is public, that is about expressing ourselves in safety and in our fullness — how does sound allow us to understand our relationships with our bodies, with our communities, with our ancestors? What is created and provided for in these reconnections?

"We are in a landscape of fundamental disconnection. I think we've been disconnected from a lot. I see sound and music as one way which allows us to reconnect with the things that are sacred and foundational to us, our bodies, our families, our friends, the land."

- Arman Nouri

I do see them as reconnections because as diaspora people — and we are a global majority, especially in a context like the UK — we are in a landscape of fundamental disconnection. I think we've been disconnected from a lot. I see sound and music as one way which allows us to reconnect with the things that are sacred and foundational to us, our bodies, our families, our friends, the land. I see sound and music as really the most powerful medium that we have to engage in those reconnections.

Sound advice © Kin Structures.

KMRU When I first got involved with music in Nairobi, we started off doing workshops and inviting all sorts of musicians, producers, or singers: we would just spend time trying to get a sense of what we were doing, as it had been very individualised before then. It is just amazing to see how enthusiastic people are to share; people 's different perspectives, learning from each other.

Moving away from that and coming to Berlin, it was initially very hard to find this grounding sense of community and that got deeper during like COVID, being at home and stuff. I remember struggling with a professor over the idea of context. I was really asking her, why do I have to put myself in this framework? I decided that all my projects are going to be based from home, from Nairobi or a Kenyan context, which was a bit hard for some of my professors to understand and to negotiate my position — between this and that.

Through my practice, I have had the chance to perform and be part of different spaces or like cities, performing in very different contexts, and getting emotional reactions or conversations from people who have maybe never encountered that particular way of experiencing sound. Sometimes they have to sit back and think about what happened. I try to understand these reactions; it might seem like a simple thing that I did, in performing. But for some people it can be something more on a bigger scale, something new to appreciate or experience.

"When I talk about sound as a unifying experience — to being among or in sound — it pours into you and you absorb yourself inside it, in sound."

- Arman Nouri

AN You touched upon something really fascinating for me: you mentioned people who maybe haven't engaged with sound as a medium, who may have been really touched by the power of being in that kind of space.

I believe there's something really unifying and also very grounding in sound. As the blood flows, vibrations emerge. It has felt really important to think about sound that way: it's ancient, ancestral. Our oldest artistic histories have sound and music at the core — ultimately it is our biology that really laid the cultural foundations for how we relate to sound and music.

When I talk about sound as a unifying experience — to being among or in sound — it pours into you and you absorb yourself inside it, in sound.

KMRU It is always fascinating to see how people would listen to sounds that they are familiar with. I also wanted to explore this idea of collective notion of listening together. Sometimes I’m in a situation where you can hear people listening, in a performance context. It changes so much, this collective act of listening together. There's this sense of fluidity or permission, just togetherness that happens, and all of us get lost in the whole situation of sound and the listening together. Sometimes I forget that I'm also conducting or orchestrating this performance.

I think listening became more of my focus, my practice — initially because I was recording a lot and then also because of the differences of Nairobi and Berlin — Berlin being very silent for me and Nairobi being quite vibrant, having to navigate through the space within the ever-present sounds.

Berlin. © KMRU

KOOZ Tell me a little bit more about your field-recording practice, that you started back in Nairobi — how did that develop as a practice?

KMRU Initially, I was still making music and I needed a device for my setup, which ended up being a microphone. I think it changed how I was listening; suddenly, I had this mediator. Being able to listen to my environment with this device was fascinating. I didn't know I could accentuate or extend my listening, so I was trying to bring that into my practice more and more. It was very naively done; I didn't know this was a practice, or that there was a discourse of field recording.

I also remember coming to Berlin for the first time. The fact that when I close my windows, I cannot hear what's happening outside — this was shocking to me. I was always playing recordings from home to become familiar, and to not to be in this really low-decibel environment. My music became a bit louder when I moved here because of the sense of quietness. Germany has strange rules: we cannot make loud noises after 10pm, or on Sundays, which is fascinating.

AN I'm really interested in what you said about [how] you felt that your music got louder in Berlin. Has the inverse of that happened? When you've gone to Nairobi, has your music got quieter?

KMRU When I'm back in Nairobi, I do think “Let's try and make it more quiet, at a slow pace”. I think it's because the environment there is sort of loud, or maybe there's already a threshold, a noise-floor of the city, which is already quite full. Coming to Berlin, there is so much space, and you want to fill this space.

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AN That's so distinct from the way in which we hear about musicians responding to their environment. We are so often in dialogue with and actually shaped by space, in alignment with it. The example that comes immediately to mind is techno in Detroit: such a mirror of the sounds and the industry of the city, where actually the sonic feel really aligned with its dynamics.

But what you're describing is actually like a response to Berlin being quiet. You felt like you needed to take up that space and project yourself into it, which I think is so interesting, I think that it's beautiful to be so attuned to that answer to that. And I think it's also really exciting to think about that in relation to other environments you might step into as you as you as you proceed with life, and what that then offers for your music.

KMRU I think it goes back to this grounding of my listening practice in Nairobi, and then being extended to different cities. I’m trying to always relate or reorient myself back to how Nairobi. That’s what brings forth this idea of Berlin being a quiet city, because sometimes it brings this sense of discomfort of the city in a way that you want to fill it up with sound, or make it something that you can relate to more.

Silence could go in different contexts, like in situations where there's so much noise that silence needs to be voiced: an intentional silence that is probed by someone, in a way that's maybe not generative in a musical sense. Or to host silence and invite people into this sort of discomfort of not having sound.

"We are constantly bombarded with sound. We don't have any choice about whether we can engage with that sound or not. We could name that as the colonial capitalist continuum, which is obviously very present in our respective Western European cities, but also is present all around the world."

- Arman Nouri

AN Yeah. I have a collaboration with an artist, and friend, whose practice (under the name Hui) is rooted in traditional Chinese medicine. She's been using food and the seasonal points of the traditional Chinese medicinal calendar as a way of opening up conversations about emotions and our bodies.

We've kind of combined our work into a new format, which we called Music Before Medicine. Initially it started off as a very intimate space that we facilitated: it was a way for us to be responsive, first and foremost, to what we felt we needed and what our community felt like they needed.

We did the first truly public session a couple weeks ago, and we decided to do it in silence. And it was honestly one of the most fascinating experiences that I've had. We had, in response, a lot of conversations about what silence is to us. For me, right now, it’s this: Silence is a way for us to listen to what we want to listen to, on our terms. I think — and you will relate to this based on your experience in Berlin and Nairobi — we are constantly bombarded with sound. We don't have any choice about whether we can engage with that sound or not. We could name that as the colonial capitalist continuum, which is obviously very present in our respective Western European cities, but also is present all around the world. Loudness is the default in the colonial-capitalist continuum in which we are all enmeshed. In this context, noise is a tool of control and those noises which are the loudest are most often in service of perpetuating this continuum, and keeping us locked in it. It becomes a way of affirming the values in how that system is perpetuated.

What gets lost is a whole set of other sounds, which are not in service to that. For Hannah and I, silence in that specific format was really like an invitation to people to gather. It was amazing to see what emerged from that in terms of how we relate to each other. We had no verbal communication, and it was amazing to witness the ways in which people related to each other. It became about gestures, body movements; about eyes, about the music that we played at the end of the session.

"In silence, things emerge: other possibilities emerge, other ways of understanding life emerge. When all the traffic and daily noise went during COVID, suddenly, the birdsong could be heard. That's a different kind of life, which we don't typically hear."

- Arman Nouri

I'm really fascinated by cultivating a practice of silence. We're not afforded silence in our lives… and the silence of stillness is generative. In silence, things emerge: other possibilities emerge, other ways of understanding life emerge. When all the traffic and daily noise went during COVID, suddenly, the birdsong could be heard. That's a different kind of life, which we don't typically hear.

So I think silence allows us to witness other forms of life, which are fundamentally subjugated by colonial capitalism. In that context, silence is such an important thing for us to figure out how to collectively cultivate.

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KMRU This ties back to a recent event in Sharjah Architecture Triennial this year, where I was supposed to do a performance. All the music performances were cancelled and have a space for silence, as so many people are affected by the war and the genocide happening in Palestine now. Instead, there was this sense of coming together in silence, inside this structure [eds: the concrete tent, by DAAR] that was built as an installation in a desert. The sense of collective being together, and in silence, is magical. This nuance emerges not from wanting to speak, but from wanting to stay inside, embracing either discomfort or comfort. It provokes something new.

Not so many people can accommodate silence and being okay with that. And as you say, it's like this sort of propagation of the Western thought; of ideas and things that are happening very fast, where the silence is always trashed, and where the voice is brought to the fore.

"The sense of collective being together, and in silence, is magical. This nuance emerges not from wanting to speak, but from wanting to stay inside, embracing either discomfort or comfort. It provokes something new."

- KMRU

ANI'm really interested in the cultural specificities of silence; where a conscious silence is a part of people's daily experience or practice. I do think on an individual and collective level, that makes people more comfortable in silence. I’m trying to get a better sense of how I can incorporate those into my work in a way that still aligns with my point earlier about art, [in] service of social and spatial justice.

The question I'm asking myself is how to cultivate that, and what are the architectures for that practice? There's a space for what you were describing, Kamaru: that is, institutional spaces where certain dynamics make space for this kind of practice — but that can't be the only space. So for us, as practitioners rooted in particular contexts, the question is what are the everyday spaces in which silence and slowness can be cultivated?

We need to do that in a way which is very much aligned with our politics and our values, in full conscience how power interacts with both space and sound, otherwise we end up reproducing the same structures that we’re trying to move [away] from.

"For us, as practitioners rooted in particular contexts, the question is what are the everyday spaces in which silence and slowness can be cultivated?"

- Arman Nouri

KMRUYet there are instances where silence sort of obscures things in its opacity; when silence doesn't transform, or when it does not generate an action or reaction. In some situations, the voice has to be voiced and even to be loud. But there can be ways to be disruptive with silence too, as a demonstration or in a collective. Like walking in silence, during protests in Berlin; it has been very strange during demonstrations, because words are really being silenced.

AN Yeah, I mean, it's a tactic, right? Silence is a tactic that people use in different ways that fit their agendas. We've been talking about it in the context of community, of how we can ultimately feel safe in our environments, and witness each and life in a way that is affirming. For me, that’s the context in which this conversation about silence has been unfolding.

But as you said, there's the other context in which silence is a way of preserving power, and a way of continuing those structures of order. We're seeing that most acutely at the moment with the genocide of Palestinians, enacted by Israel — and not just at a state level but supported by a whole range of institutions at various scales, in various places. And it is in their silence that we see their position as supporters of genocide. It's an important thing to note that we're seeing this whole set of scales and whole set of geographies. Who is silent? Who is supporting the genocide right now? In relation to that silence, what is it serving, and why?

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KOOZ Let me ask you to share maybe one or two of the projects that you've been working or collaborating on.

KMRUThe Sharjah project was quite interesting for me because I've never been in a space where it's very different working with architects, and specifically those who think so much about sound and appreciate its physicality.

This project was the result of an invitation by Cave_bureau, which is a practice of researchers and architects, based in Nairobi, in Kenya. They invited me to create a soundtrack for their piece for the Triennale in Sharjah, like a really specific field recording. I remember being in the site, which was a slaughterhouse — I think in September — and sort of negotiating this space trying to think through what a slaughterhouse means. So I flew to Sharjah, and recorded in this intense situation, with really extreme heat, and I had to make a soundscape around this.

It was an interesting collaboration working with Kabage (Karanja) and Stella (Mutege), who run Cave Bureau — they work a lot with caves and remapping caves and mapping caves in Kenya, and thinking about caves in Anthropocene as spaces where people used to hide or find a sense of togetherness during times of violence. I think it's one of the projects that makes me appreciate thinking about space from a sonic perspective, which for me, feels like an ongoing conversation or project idea that I want to explore further.

"This idea of repatriation has been happening a lot with objects from museums in Europe, trying to give back to them; I see this happening in various ways. I was focusing more from a sound perspective."

- KMRU

I also want to talk about an ongoing project about archives and museums in a colonial context, called Temporary Stored. It’s a kind of interaction between the academic and non academic world. This idea of repatriation has been happening a lot with objects from museums in Europe, trying to give back to them; I see this happening in various ways. I was focusing more from a sound perspective. There are historic sound recordings which were extracted, and trying to think about them and make them more accessible to people in a way that they can listen to in a more nuanced way, without being beholden to the ways in which they're catalogued and kept private. It's very different from what people expect from my work, and engages very politically, outside of other stuff that I do — it got a mention for the Prix Ars Electronica, and I had to set up the installation.

AN Thank you for sharing that. I’ll talk about Soanes Centre which is where the collaboration that has been most present in my life for the past few years, the practice I share with Kwame Lowe — is currently rooted and growing.

Our work is about building and sustaining cultural and community infrastructure. We have been rooting ourselves in a community centre in London’s Mile End, called the Soanes Centre — which is first and foremost an educational space for children and young people, which has been thriving and doing an amazing job for the last 30 years. Thousands of school children come every year to learn about the ecology of the area, using the Soanes Centre as a starting point before exploring the adjacent Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park (a 30 acre woodland site) in the heart of east London.

We’re working strategically with Setpoint — the charity which runs the centre — to make sure that it still is able to do the work that it does in 50 or 100 years time. Because Kwame and I are both artists, we are doing that through art. What we're really interested in is creating an infrastructure that supports cultural practice, which is in dialogue with the various contexts that I mentioned earlier.

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So we need to engage with cultural work that allows us to have a good relationship with our bodies, with our communities, with our environment, with our ancestors, with lands that are still very present in our bodies, [but] that we might be disconnected to as diaspora. Essentially, what we want to create at the Soanes Centre [is] a space which facilitates that kind of cultural work.

Some of that will be led by us, but some of that will be led by others, and that's [been] a beautiful thing to be spending a lot of time on for the past year. The programme that we ran recently — called "Where Pathways Meet" — was the first iteration of a school that I'm hoping to establish next year at the same centre, hoping to create the ideal conditions for studying with sound. And I use the word study, intentionally. Study as something that's in line with what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney said about study: something that is really in line with community, it's really grounding and is really a way for us to challenge and oppose structures that are harming us.

I'm really fascinated by the conditions that allow us to really optimise what I think are the inherent healing properties of sound. There are so many spaces which we are forced to practise in, and forced to be a part of — in the UK at least — where the conditions just aren't right. And the conditions result in us being burnt-out, the conditions result in us being ill, sick. And yet, we're still asked to be in those spaces and take part in cultural experiences, which feel really incongruous with what we need and what the space is asking of us.

So I don't know what the school looks like; I don't know what the architecture of it is. My job over the next few months is to figure that out.

KOOZ So exciting. It's really been such an honour to have listened to you both.

KMRUI really appreciate the conversation, the way it unfolded.

AN Thank you, that was really nice.


Playlist

Tracks selected by Arman Nouri
ocean in your eyes | Lionmilk
Vestry | Coby Sey
猫が眠っている、 NIYAGO | Kenji Endou
Explore inner space | Shabaka

Tracks selected by KMRU
Yulquen | Autechre
Sehnsuchtsvoll - Reverso | alva noto
Belleville | Coby SeyJames Underwood, Laurel Halo, Lucy Railton
Oh Me, Oh My | Lonnie Holley, Michael Stipe
Nazama | Nyokabi Kariuki
blueprints of us | Ouri
Change | Big Thief
Space of Uncertainty | KMRU
Day Dreams | Kuniyuki Takahashi

Bio

KMRU is a sound artist and producer born in Nairobi and currently based in Berlin, whose methods include field recording, improvisation, noise, machine learning, radio art and drones. His music has earned praise from NPR, Pitchfork, Resident Advisor, DJ Mag and Bandcamp.

KMRU’s "Stupor" album is out now as a collaboration between Other Power label and PUBLICS, Paul O’Neill’s vanguard curatorial agency renowned for its exploration of social critique, contemporary art, and public engagement in Helsinki.

Arman Nouri is an artist and educator working in and between the spaces of cultural and spatial practice. Arman is co-founder of Kin Structures, a collaborative arts practice shared with Kwame Lowe, building and sustaining cultural and community infrastructure. Their first project Orchard Gardens (2022) saw them take up residency at the Orchard Gardens Community Centre in Lewisham, south London, where they worked with local residents to imagine new futures for the space and wider neighbourhood. Arman also co-hosts Sound & Solidarity with Sound Advice. Solidarity provides space for collective listening and discussion about music and beyond. Held since 2021, previous gatherings have taken place at The Mosaic Rooms, SOAS and the Roundhouse. Arman is also a DJ and a founding member of music crew Houseplants. Previously, he led the Mayor of London’s Culture & Community Spaces at Risk programme.

Shumi Bose is chief editor at KoozArch. She is an educator, curator and editor in the field of architecture and architectural history. Shumi is a Senior Lecturer in architectural history at Central Saint Martins and also teaches at the Royal College of Art, the Architectural Association and the School of Architecture at Syracuse University in London. She has curated widely, including exhibitions at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Institute of British Architects. In 2020 she founded Holdspace, a digital platform for extracurricular discussions in architectural education, and currently serves as trustee for the Architecture Foundation.

Published
12 Dec 2023
Reading time
25 minutes
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