Zahra Mani > Playing together and improvising represent a socio-cultural encounter

Zahra Mani > Playing together and improvising represent a socio-cultural encounter


On Festival in opposition you will participate in debate “Beyond Borders – Radio as Artspace”. Can you tell us a bit more about your work related to this topic?

Radio is a central part of my music and creation. Radio art is something beyond music. It can be related to music, in the sense that (in my approach to music at least) any acoustic moment can become a musical moment, but radio art is art that happens in, on, through and for the radio. Compared to other media, radio is unique in being exclusively audio – there is no distraction through visual elements, and that is something that keeps radio unique even in a time of podcasts and web radio, because any visual level on the internet related to radio programmes is not really anything more than decoration for the website – if the images meant something more, it wouldn’t be radio – so even online, that kind of illustrative image has nothing to do with the medium itself and the purely audible element remains central to radio being radio.Radio is also particularly personal and intimate. That is something which always becomes apparent to me, and still never ceases to fascinate me, when I perform live on the radio – the knowledge that you are entering the listeners’ personal sphere, their cars, homes, offices, has a magic of its own.

And importantly, radio is communication. Some of the radio art projects I have been involved in over the last twenty years were live-streamed simultaneous networks. The revolutionary aspects of telematic communication have of course been completely overtaken by the broadcasting-capable multi-media smart devices we carry around with us every day, but there is still something very special about artistic communication at a distance. We created pieces for 2 EU co-funded projects, “Phonart – the Lost Languages of Europe” in 2012 and 6 years later “Echoes from invisible landscapes”, which connected four public radio studios in realtime. We had musicians in Vienna at the ORF Funkhaus, in Pula at the HRT studios, in Slovenia at ARS and in Serbia at Radio Belgrade 3, who were playing together live over the ether. Each studio received the audio from the other three and there was a musician mixing the piece for the live broadcast in each country. So in the end, you have four different versions of the same piece, being created and broadcast live, simultaneously, in four different countries and audible all over the world. There are so many layers of communication in such projects, quite apart from the incredible acoustic worlds that we created collectively at a distance.


How do you see the importance of radio not only as a place for broadcasting art, but also as a place for creating/producing art as well? Do you feel that radio scenery in Austria (both from national and private sector) is open to this kind of exploration in media space?

In the Autumn of 2022, there was major uproar in Austria after the director of public radio announced that she wanted to cut back on the art and cultural programmes in order to reach out to a younger audience and to save money. The very public outcry of journalists, broadcasters, artists and cultural workers stopped the changes in their tracks but the fact that they were even taken into consideration remains worrying. The debate made it very clear how important the radio is for the entire artistic and cultural landscape in Austria at a number of levels. Of course, radio studios are fabulous places to create art, to record and produce and experiment. But programme formats that broadcast contemporary culture do a lot more than just playing the pieces – they create a platform and publicity, they support emerging and more established artists, and really importantly: they make contemporary audible art accessible to people who might not be able to access contemporary art otherwise because they are old, or ill, or live somewhere remote.It's also worth mentioning non-commercial independent radios, which have a different kind of outreach and also tend to have a hugely diverse programme because most of the broadcasts are created by amateurs and volunteers with a passion for a certain genre or topic. We work a lot with a regional independent radio station in Austria, AGORA, which is based in Carinthia and Styria and broadcasts in German and Slovene, but also in other languages. AGORA is a really fitting name for a channel that actively brings different communities together in the ether, and plays a role in democratizing and opening society through the radio.

As far as the ORF is concerned, Austria can really be seen, without exaggeration, as the home, or one of the fundamental pillars, of international radio art. Heidi Grundmann started the programme KUNSTRADIO – RADIOKUNST in 1987. Today, Kunstradio is directed by Elisabeth Zimmermann, whose dedication to radio art as a genre in its own right is incredibly strong, and has helped a number of international artists and broadcasters to participate in a dynamic radio art network across borders.


How do you relate to sound in your work in general, especially in terms of field recording, “non-musical” sounds used in a musical context, etc? How did you develop your own personal musical voice in this context?

Field recordings, along with the instruments I play, are the basic materials that I use to make music. Everyday sounds are the beginning of most of my pieces, which in some way are instruments as well as pieces (most of my pieces, especially for live performances, are composed of samples I create from my field and studio recordings, and each constellation of sounds is like an instrument in itself, where each sample is a note). I make field recordings, listening to acoustic moments and “capturing” them. I see a lot of parallels with photography, and believe in acoustic perspective and perception in the sense that I think my recording of a sound will sound different to yours, even if we’re in the same place at the same time. My music questions ontologies of sound, of what makes music music, where rhythms and melodies start or don’t, where slow and subtle microtonal shifts reflect momentous changes that you might only notice much later. It also has to do with the relationship or space between listening and performing, between perception and play. And between materials. So my field recordings, once I have dissected them into tiny snippets that I loop and process and transform, sound quite instrumental, and my instruments (mostly bass guitar when I’m playing live, but in the studio I use the double bass a lot, and other guitars and the piano) end up sounding like nature sounds – so there are layers of acoustic reflections that keep informing each other and transforming each other.

My musical language started to develop in this direction more than 20 years ago. I always played instruments and sometimes found it hard to decide what to play on stage. So that was probably the beginning of my using a laptop for live performance, where I played back samples I had recorded myself, through a max/msp patch built by Stephan Moore, who programmed Pauline Oliveros’ patches. Now I combine that patch (from 2004!), which I also use to process my bass guitar with effect parameters that I can programme myself, (which is also like building another kind of instrument, in some ways) with Ableton live and sometimes with basic physical pedals – delays, reverb, and especially equalizers. That’s basically how my muscial language developed and then, through performances and installations and compositions and with the field recordings I had already started collecting, it started growing into what it is today.


You’ve been active also in numerous organizations related to art and culture. When it comes to cultural politics, what are your main view and goals?

I’m not so keen on goals – they make everything sound a bit corporate and product-oriented. My – and our (we work in curatorial teams for almost all our projects) – approach is always based on process. Curatorially, we are committed to creating and upholding networks between artists and cultural actors, and also between creators and audiences. Our focus is on contemporary and primarily experimental art – not just music; depending on the context and project in question, we believe in inter- and trans-disciplinary perspectives and also how enriching the exchange can be between different genres and approaches.One curatorial “task” is definitely to uphold and foster a broad social awareness for the value of art and culture in society. Living creatively, it’s perhaps easy to forget that the value of art is not self-explanatory for a lot of people. Before the recent elections in Finland, one of the nationalist candidates described art as a “luxury”. That idea is really common across right wing politics but not just there – how can people who have been excluded from the arts because of demographics or class politics be expected to understand their value? It’s not just about access and involvement, it’s really about living creativity in the educational and public sphere and breaking down boundaries that should never have been there.Through audience involvement, residencies, interactive workshops and informal creative exchange during our events, we try to foster openness and understanding for the value of culture, and through the artworks and performances we present, artists and creators can show, through their work, how relevant and pertinent and important creative expression is for society in general.

As far as cultural politics are concerned, I obviously have a voice as a composer, musician and curator but also work in cultural advocacy as vice-president of ECSA, the European Composer and Songwriter Alliance, and I’m a member of the Austrian UNESCO commission’s working group and advisory board on diversity of cultural expressions. There are many things to advocate for and to work against – for more stable conditions for artists everywhere, including fair pay, social security and fair working conditions; against the exploitation of artists and artworks, particularly through major labels and online platforms; for cultural diversity; against funding cuts and populist politics… My major issues are fairness and diversity, and upholding the value of art and culture. And, of course, gender parity and not just advocating for but actually showing male colleagues, through our own work, how easy and normal it is to have at least an equal number of women involved at all levels of the creative process, from administration to performance. It’s incredible, in 2023, that we still have to fight for equal remuneration for the same work; that women still get paid less and the entire structure is built around male needs and networks. So easy to solve, with a bit of commitment and solidarity.


You’ve been involved in different kind of experimental and improvised music. Can you see your involvement in these music scenes also as part of musical activism or politics of improvisation/improvised music, something that goes beyond sounds and music?

I think that music and improvisation have the potential to be activistic and political, revolutionary even, but that doesn’t mean that they always are. All art can be “read” politically, and of course the political significance of an aesthetic moment has a lot to do with intention and interpretation. I do feel that freedom of expression is radical, and radically essential to having an “own” language. Playing together, improvising together, is a socio-cultural encounter. It will only work if the language is true – real, authentic, honest. Then there needs to be a willingness to exchange, not just to “give” by playing but to give by listening and responding. The moment it “happens” is when you don’t necessarily know who is playing what – there is a complex, collective, individual body of sound that, yes, can be heard as a reflection of human interaction, with a life of its own that persists far beyond the moment.


Photo: Zahra Mani by Janez Klenovšek © ACE KIBLA

Zahra Mani (UK/PK) is a musician, composer, and curator who lives and works in Austria. Her work combines field recordings, instruments and voices in an ongoing exploration of sound and music. As a musician, she performs live in various constellations, and creates multi-channel sound installations and radio art. Her curatorial work with non-profit organisations in Austria and Croatia focusses on border-crossing networks fostering contemporary cultural practice in a socio-political context. Her artistic and curatorial work challenges notions of boundaries, investigating and revealing spaces between and advocating for the value of art and culture in society. She is vice-president of ECSA, the European Composer and Songwriter Alliance and a member of the Austrian UNESCO working group and advisory panel for diversity of cultural expressions.