IMAfiction Portrait #10 | Elisabeth Schimana

A portrait by Seppo Gründler & Johanna Moder (2018)

Solar Winds (Milena Meller, 2018)

At the end of a public transport line that runs on piers, tracing a wide arc through yellow fields, is a station called Seestadt. From there it is a short walk to Sonnenallee, a wide treeless road that leads to the place where Elisabeth Schimana will perform Into the Sun.It is hot at the end of Sonnenallee, which dead-ends in a vast construction site. At the edge of the site stands a plain hall on sandy ground. This is the venue of the festival for electronic music that Schimana will be opening. It is so hot that the doors on the long sides of the rectangular building have been thrown open, allowing the desert wind to blow through. It is so hot that Schimana had to shut down her laptop because it was already overheating during sound check. People lie on the floor, listening intently, a small lamp illuminates the artist’s console. The sun piece starts very quietly, and the refrigerator behind the bar drones loudly. The clouds have formed a dark wall. Outside, whipped by the wind, something bangs loudly against the building. Later Elisabeth Schimana will talk excitedly about how wonderfully these disruptive noises mixed with her composition. The solar oscillations fill the dark room and make the space vibrate more and more with each new deep-frequency layer Schimana adds.

Fertile Ground, Roots, Paths
In the context of her work series Virus, Schimana speaks of the various fertile situations that have allowed the project to grow. Tracing these points, it is possible to roughly mark off the entire field of her work:Virus, she says, was in many ways inspired by a performance she heard of Iannis Xenakis’ Terretektorh (1965/66). Another source of inspiration Schimana mentions is her ongoing collaboration with ORF’s Ö1 Kunstradio. Also, the influence of Eliane Radigue and Maryanne Amacher, two pioneers of electronic music. In addition, Schimana cites as “one of the roots” of her work the ideas of Musique Concrète, which Pierre Schaeffer developed from the 1940s on, especially in regard to “reduced listening”1.

Her stance is also reflected in her academic path: She exploits the potential of reciprocal enrichment at the interface of a scientific and artistic approach to the world. First she took private singing lessons, then went on to study Fundamental Harmonical Research at the University for Music and Performing Arts Vienna. There, she also studied electroacoustic and experimental music (with Dieter Kaufmann). Other important influences include her sojourns abroad, especially in Moscow where she immersed herself in the study of the theremin at the Theremin Center for Electroacousic Music. Over the years: prizes, scholarships, residencies, concerts and performances throughout the world – at electronic festivals as well as contemporary music festivals. Lecturer, workshop instructor, editor, and curator. In 2005 her probing approach led her to found the IMA Institute of Media Archeology. IMA, which continues to be run by Schimana, develops and produces this portrait series, which is living proof of Schimana’s commitment to encouraging the widespread perception of female protagonists in electronic music.

Bodies, Spaces, Notations
And Elisabeth Schimana is one of their pioneers: With interdisciplinary and performative projects, sound installations and radio pieces, experimental set-ups in social as well as virtual space, with projects in the techno context and live compositions in the most diverse constellations, she has been pushing the boundaries and exploring new fields since the 1980s.

Hearing Space
“[…] Since I first started composing electronic music, I have explored positioning sound in space. When I speak of space in this context, I also mean spaces like radio space or the Internet. […] I try to work more with the specific peculiarities that an architectural space or other room has to offer. This cannot be calculated mathematically; it has to be heard. I always ask the space: What are you telling me, how can we sound together? […]”2
In live-electronics projects Schimana explores real architecture. In on tesar (2006–08, with Cordula Bösze on flutes) she plays in the specific space designed by the architect Heinz Tesar. In addition, she also works with his architectural-poetic-philosophical formulas, from which she derives her concept and score.

She explores radio space in the context of Ö1 Kunstradio in diverse ways, whereby it is also about the theme of communication: not only as a genuinely musical theme, but also about “calling into question communication technologies and their applications, the many artistic projects with other artists in which one is simply one node in a network. “[…] Being part of a communicative process, whether through the electric wires of a network or the sound waves in a room.”3 Early on, she starts experimenting with constellations that combine radio and the Internet, for example The Fugue (1996), a live radio mix based on material generated by her on a boat on the Morava – the border between Austria and Slovakia – from which she and other artists in Fujino, Helsinki, Berlin, and Vienna react to each other with time lag. In a village does nothing (2000–01) she and Markus Seidl design an experimental situation for the social space of a small village community. A widely received, timelessly relevant, exemplary investigation of the spaces of performance and action.

Hearing Bodies
“I think in bodies. I’m an electronics musician.”4
In Autopsy (1996) Schimana works with the recordings she makes of corpses being dissected in the autopsy room. The sound material is treated in a way similar to dissection, individual sounds are cut out like organs. The theremin requires distance, does not allow physical contact, creates an invisible aura around it. She doesn’t just see it as an instrument, but also uses it as a controlling device. Several diverse projects attest to this. The simplicity of the theremin juxtaposed with the overwhelming complexity of the Max Brand synthesizer. Here, too, moving corporality: It is a bulky, room-filling organism composed of countless handmade interconnected joints, unfinished and neglected. Elisabeth Schimana explores its mysterious inner workings and, gradually grasping its possibilities, concocts organ-like sound masses: Hell Machine (2009), a sound event performed with keyboard virtuoso Manon Liu Winter and Gregor Ladenhauf.

Hearing the Score
In the great score (2001–06) Schimana develops a score in collaboration with Seppo Gründler. Its basic structure determines precisely defined work steps in which the musical material is generated and processed using programmed computation processes.

By continuing to ponder the theme of the score, she shakes its foundations, redefines it in her Virus series (from 2011 on): In the case of the conventional written score “a reading process intervenes.” If, however, “sound per se is the score, we skip the reading process and the translation from one medium to another.”5 She develops the concept of a listening-score that generates a non-written live composition. The image of a virus serves as a model that describes the reciprocal dependency of those involved in a setting that demands from all participants the utmost dedication, concentration, and precision and redefines the concepts of score, composition, and musical communication.

Fringes, Layers, Stars
Whether it is a barely perceptible rustling of distant eruptions or the deafening noise battles between superimposed layers of densely woven sound textures: Elisabeth Schimana’s music hovers at the fringes, in extremes. And at the same time keeps a low profile, renounces flamboyant gestures, and rejects spectacular catchiness.

In the field of tension between concept and experiment she often transforms extramusical construction principles into musical structures, translates scientific data into musical data. For Into the Sun (2016), for example, she was inspired by research on solar oscillations. These conjure in her mind the “notion of the sun as a gigantic resonance body for acoustic oscillations”. In addition, there is “the awareness, when observing the processes on and in the sun, that one is always gazing at the past – a paradox when working with the medium of sound, which can always only be experienced in the moment.”6 She creates an 18-voice composition out of 48 pure tones, which are continuously transposed in time and frequency throughout the piece. She draws up tables with elements that she assigns names from particle physics and orders operations based on the Fibonacci sequence. The result is poetic and sensuous. What is essential here is always leaving space for ambiguity, for (re)action at the moment of performance.

Compared to the usual musical analysis, her music presents itself as unapproachable. Her music is about listening. About superimposed layers, interlocking threads, densely packed lines, sound layers. Divergence, shifting, friction, disrupted pulse. With an alert mind, enormous energy, persistence, and imperturbability Elisabeth Schimana creates music that, in its pure radicalness, implants itself both vividly and subtly into our ears in a lasting way.

1 Elisabeth Schimana: “Virus#3” – master’s thesis at Institute of Electronic Music and Acoustics, University of Music and Performing Arts Graz, 2014: p. 3–6.
2 Elisabeth Schimana: “Virus#3” – master’s thesis at Institute of Electronic Music and Acoustics, University of Music and Performing Arts Graz, 2014: p. 11.
3 Elisabeth Schimana: „Virus#3“ – master’s thesis at Institute of Electronic Music and Acoustics, University of Music and Performing Arts Graz, 2014: p. 6.
4 on the project Virus#3.
5 Elisabeth Schimana: “Im Freien Feld” (In the Field) in Heimo Ranzenbacher (ed.): Überschreitungen I, Liquid Music, 2014, p. 121.
6 on the project “Into the Sun”
  • IMAfiction Portrait #10 | Elisabeth Schimana
    gedreht im Studio Elisabeth Schimana, Studio FH Joanneum

    Interview & camera: Seppo Gründler & Johanna Moder
    Film & sound editing: Seppo Gründler Technical assistance: Chistoph Neuhold Music: Elisabeth Schimana
    Subtitles translation: Kimi Lum
    Graphic design: Nora Bischof
    DVD authoring: CSM Production
    Photo credits: Archive Elisabeth Schimana, IMA Archive, Max Brand Archive, Markus Gradwohl, lichtschalter, Reinhard Mayr
    Film credits: Archive Elisabeth Schimana, The ARS Electronica Archive, ORF Steiermark musikprotokoll Archive, Ina Pillat – Atelier Nord, Reinhard Mayr