Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Anosmia

Navel-Gazers #14 is an interview with Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman who is going to talk to us about Anosmia. 'Anosmia' is a 43-minute piece of "Afrique Concréte" which was commissioned for a programme called Fearless Radio on Radio-1 in Austria in 2014... prior to listening, I don't know that I could imagine anything other than a somber, documentary approach to this subject matter (the Rwandan Genocide), and yet 'Anosmia' is a work which simply crackles with spontaneity and life. Like much of Aurélie's work, the piece revolves around field recordings from Africa, which appear here alongside prepared piano, bold manipulations of analogue tape, and the permutation of the human voice - both Aurélie's own voice and those of local Rwandans whom she interviewed for the project concerning the topic at hand. I have so many questions on this one - even though the historical context and the topicality are a little more 'on the nose' than most recordings, repeated listens are only leaving me more thoughtful and intrigued and it's such a great privilege to talk to Aurélie. Let's get the scoop!

AC: Firstly, I don't mind sharing with our readers that unlike most of the interviews here at Navel-Gazers, we're doing this over Skype. How appropriate! The beginning of 'Anosmia' is also a recording of you talking over Skype, and that's just the first of many surprises the listener will encounter along the way.

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Most of the field recordings and dialogues, including those that you hear from the first second, I personally would have been embarassed to show them to anyone other than myself - it's almost an accident you could say. When I was in Rwanda in 2011 and recording a lot of stuff, I had understood that it is by law forbidden to make any recordings. But despite initially being heavily discouraged by that rule I felt even a bigger urge to collect sounds,... and by sounds I mean "any sounds". And so I started recording in any case. And I did this with the idea that I'm anyhow not allowed to do it, so why would I bother with the sound quality? It's more important that I'm recording.

AC: It's something of an audacious placement at the start of the piece and it's got me thinking more generally, how did you conceptualise all this? Where did the idea for this piece come from and how did it develop?

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: I'd say in the beginning there was no idea at all! It was never intended to make a piece with the recordings that I had collected. At some point, they just happened because I had an urge to record, and to do something creative.

So it's only a few years later in 2013 when I got a phone call from a radio art oriented organisation and platform, Saout Radio based in Morocco and in Belgium, and they asked me if I wanted to make a piece that was dealing with a certain topic, and the topic was "fearless speech". Also sometimes referred to as "parrhesia". It's a topic that the French philosopher Michel Foucault had thought and written a lot about... so they thought if I could respond to the topic of fearless speech, and I could make whatever I wanted, within the field of radio art. And also I think it took very little time or effort, I sat down and I quite quickly knew I wanted to do something with those recordings which I actually made in 2011 but thought I would never use, that I almost wanted to throw away. So when that topic fearless speech and the theme of the whole project Fearless Radio was proposed to me, I was reading Foucault and I right away knew - damn, I just really have to do something with it, I have no excuse. The concept was kind of offered to me but it resonated with things that I had experienced while travelling and recording in Rwanda.

I'm trying to think now how the idea came. I often have a very clear idea and a clear structure I want to deal with, and then I sit down and start to work on it, and I throw away all the ideas and the structure and the planning and I start to work quite intuitively. I improvise my way through the material, then I listen back to every bit, every small piece or chapter or scene that I create, and each time go back in time and listen as if it's for the first time I'm listening, and then at some point get a whole piece. I usually have a plan but they never stay long, they just end up in the garbage!

AC: That's a very organic process and I'm sure other artists can relate.

Does the idea of "radio" factor into the concept in some ways?

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Yes, I think at some point I realised I wanted to play with my background as a radio journalist, and play with the rules that I have learned in my training - play around with it and maybe go against it, so maybe part of the concept was trying to understand how radio has formed me as a maker, even if I'm not really working for mainstream radio any more, that I still use elements of it, how has it formed me and how can I emancipate from it. That was a part of the concept, how can I think about radio in a more conceptual way.

Usually radio is a very functional medium, you try to either entertain or to give information to your audience, and I wanted to stretch it and go a bit further and deal with reflecting on the aesthetics and on ideas and a sense of truth. Questioning ideas of beauty and ideas of truth, and of how radio is perceived as a medium, where it's supposed to be a very neutral and objective medium, and journalists are kind of the gatekeepers of truth-finding. But I was getting aware that by assuming radio is the one medium that deals with truth in a very ideal, pure way, that actually we forget that it isn't neutral at all! It's never been neutral and it's never going to be, and so the fact that I chose to go more towards a radio art approach gave me the possibility to play with that. So all the elements that come together in 'Anosmia' play with the fact that I can emancipate myself from what I had to do when being a radio journalist on national radio in Belgium, and how free I can become in dealing with all the radio elements when I'm a composer, or let's say a sound artist.

The way I tried to think metaphysically about radio resonated with these fearless speech ideas of Foucault and the Fearless Radio project, and in a very natural and spontaneous way started to embody the things that Fearless Radio wanted to reflect on. Somehow it was just the right commission, in the right moment.

AC: You've actually hash-tagged 'Anosmia' as a piece of radio art - a medium to which I've personally been a bit of a latecomer as both a listener and an artist but I've got a few friends who often produce these kinds of dedicated works for radio. Is it important to you that 'Anosmia' is radio art rather than an album or a sound collage or an acousmatic composition or whatever? How might you characterise radio art in contrast to these other forms?

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: I think my work is radio art but my method is often sound collage. I've been inspired by Surrealism and Dadaism for using collage in a sound art environment. You could call it acousmatic composition as well because I deal with loudspeakers and microphones, and all the techniques used in acousmatic compositions. I am part of that tradition you could say, but I think it's more my choice to label my work as radio art very deliberately and consciously. I could call it "sound art" in general, but I feel that sound art, if you would talk about it with people have no idea about contemporary music and so on, they would probably think about these weird bleeps and beeps, very abstract and machine-like and industrial, and I think that's just one aspect of what sound art could or should be.

With radio art for me, it embodies everything sound art can be. It can be these bleeps and beeps and abstract stuff but it could also be very musical, very lyrical, it can be voice, it can be song, it can be speech, it can be environmental sounds, it can be noise. For me radio art is just allowing me to take the freedom to do whatever with whatever sound source, whatever sound quality. The sky is the limit when I use the term radio art, because it's thinking about sound as a source of material in a more inclusive way. That's just me, I don't say that everyone sees radio art that way, but it just helps for me to be reminded each time that it's more than bleeps and beeps.

AC: I like your commitment to that. Gotta go beyond the bleeps and beeps. Abstraction has its limits...

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: I love dealing with abstraction but some people I've spoken with before, also in my training as a composer, they would really choose to go all the way in pure abstraction, and say that's the only way to do it because all the rest doesn't matter. We would have long discussions about it and I would be confused by people saying that abstraction is "it", because I think that even if you make something unintelligible, it's still a human being who has made it, or perceives it. So it remains something that will be interpreted whether you like it or not, so I find it very strange that you would just go for abstraction because that's the purest thing.

AC: Yeah I agree with this... I wonder how you got to that conclusion?

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: I think I just believe in very hybrid approaches and styles. Humans can enjoy abstraction and have done that since the beginning of time, but radio art also embodies the fact that it's communicative, so some people, when we discussed what art should be, or sound art or composition, they really wanted to leave out anything human or anything dealing with communication wheareas I find it a very nice quality even if it's exteremely abstract. I really love it how even if you have no idea about the reason a piece has been created, or which context it has been shown, it always has that communicative quality.

Radio to me is very communicative, the most communicative medium you can imagine, even if you deal with the artistic form of it. It's a connection also between the listener and the maker, the person who "transmits" the piece. Radio art also questions the traditional listening environment, in terms of audio but also in terms of concert and exhibition spaces, and that's also an aspect that I love to be aware of - that I can always deliberately choose how and in what context the piece will be presented. So it's also questioning the idea of audience, of who has a right to transmit, who holds the microphone, so again the metaphoric approach to how a radio piece or a composition can be constructed, making visible the "stitches" if you were to have fabric, or the canvas if you were to have a painting.

As for an "album" it could also be that, but that's maybe a more commercial way for saying "this is a piece".

AC: It's funny these terms, earlier you mentioned "sound art" too which is one I hadn't even asked you about. Incidentally in my previous interview which was with some musicians from China, I referred to one of the guys as a "sound artist", erroneously... apparently in China this refers to people who work with audiovisual installations and that sort of thing. I personally find the term a little confusing. Is this just a broad, catch-all descriptor?

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Yeah I think traditionally sound artists might be indeed people who deal with things like installations.. but anyway how did he prefer to be perceived, the artist from China?

AC: Oh, he was happy with just "musician"! "Sound art", I don't know. It just always gets sort of messy with that term.

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: I think it is messy in general but I embrace that messiness! And prefer to stretch it even further. And I think radio art has the whole spectrum there, even people who have never launched any piece on radio with a radio transmitter and who have never done anything with the ether, while actually radio traditionally goes over radio waves, but how many people these days are listening to analog radio? Even myself included, I'm not sure when was the last time I listened to analog radio because it's getting out of phase and it's easier to have radio on the internet, streaming, and usually you have your phone and your computer open. ...unless you're in a car, maybe that's the only place but I don't have a car!

So the radio art community is very aware of that and it's reclaiming the term radio art in a new way and saying it doesn't matter whether there's ether or radio waves, it's the mentality, the attitude, the approach... I've also had some discussions with people about radio art and it's possibly a more political approach and taking a more political position than sound art, where sound art is for the sake of art and the context is less important, maybe important for the makers themselves but in a larger sense it's less important. I think radio art is more aware of the sociological aspects of listening and creating and also who chooses when you listen, what you can listen to. I'm not a theorist so I'm not sure if radio art has always been that way, but I'd say that people I've engaged with and talked with consider radio art as something not neutral. Even sound art isn't, but sound art is making less of a statement about it.

AC: I'm not a theorist either but that sounds right to me!

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: And maybe music is even less of a statement, I think if I were only to say music.. I'm very proud to be a musician but I'd probably feel like I'm narrowed down to being an entertainer in a certain way because that's how society percevies musicians: you just have to be beautiful and nice and so on. So with radio art again I'm questioning, what is being beautiful, being truthful?

AC: Yeah with musicians, it's almost as though one needs these qualifiers in order to assert: I'm an artist and this is my artwork! rather than a commodity, and all the other expectations that seem to come along with music.

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Exactly, totally agree!

AC: One thing I like about your work is how on the one hand, there's this incidental quality where silence is allowed and "fumbling" is allowed, and then there are other passages of an almost extreme deliberation and focus. On the Skype section for example, you left in all the awkward pauses, the connection being interrupted etc., almost as though you've just left the tape rolling and then suddenly the voice and the prepared piano intercede in perfect unison, like clockwork. Do you strive for this kind of contrast, is it part of your aesthetic?

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Yes! It's absolutely a very deliberate choice. I am a vocal improviser, and love the unexpected mind-blowing outcomes you only can get from improvisational strategies. And I especially love them when delicately intertwining or juxtaposing them on top of "through-composed" passages. Because, as much I am an improviser per se, at the same time I am also highly fascinated by form and structure. And - though not necessarily in a mathematical way - I tremendously care about precision and detail in the same way e.g. an architect, or designer would.

The combination of "free" and "strict" passages are also inherently part of my aesthetics due to what happened in my formative years as a radio maker: I remember making a documentary, completely at the beginning of being a radio journalist.. I had gone very far compared to what my colleagues would do at the national radio - I think for sound art it wasn't that far but for pure, mainstream radio it was going pretty far..

Well, I have to go back to small anecdotes on this. It's a long story but I will try to make it short. I grew up in Belgium, but I was born in Rwanda and I went back to Rwanda for the very first time in my early 20s to find out if I am an orphan after all or not. So I do that whole journey, I record my journey and make a documentary out of that. And there were some revelations in my journey that nobody could ever have predicted, like I was really an orphan and I came back with my whole family, having found my whole family, both my parents being alive.

AC: That's incredible!

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Right, so in the moment I discovered that I do have family and both my parents who were supposed to no longer be there... When I met them I had to make bold decisions: I had to make recordings that if I had followed the rules of public radio.. I could not have used some of my most essential sound recordings on national radio, because they were distorted, they were loud.. Mostly just because the circumstances were so unexpected when I discovered my story, that you couldn't compare the sound quality to say a BBC, clean, beautiful sleek radio product!

So I found the material I had collected way more important than the fact that I had crossed the boundaries of what it is to make high quality, high fidelity radio. And I definitely had learned to reach those professional standards, and was always aware of when and how to hold the microphone and do it properly. To such a degree that it's almost traumatising,... e.g. you could lose your job if you're editing in such a way that you could still hear cuts and bad transitions. Nowadays it's becoming a bit less strict on the radio because the news cycles are going so fast that more and more you hear cuts that are actually very ugly, which is fine, but anyway that's another topic..

... but I'd say that when I made this first documentary about my family, one of the first remarks I had off a colleague - a much older colleague - was: "Oh, you get away with stuff that I would never get away with and it's not fair!" And I said I know, I'm aware that certain sounds were not perfect, but can't you hear that it was just so important for the narrative, for the dramatic tension, it's just so unique what I have experienced that in the end, ... who cares? But he was trying to diminish me and say that I "wasn't worth calling myself a journalist". And so on.

So that has followed me, for the rest of my life! Up to the moment that I had those recordings, that I thought I would never use, and then Fearless Radio came up with the commission, and Kunstradio at Radio 1 in Austria was going to broadcast it and I realised, this is my moment to come clear with what happened back then, the traumatic experience with this colleague who was frustrated with me getting away with stuff.

AC: It sounds like in a way, you doubled down.

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: I stretched it! I said ok, I can use distortion and I can use noise and this and that, I'm just going to do it all the way! So playing around with all those elements, using bold cuts, and seeing it less and less as a problem, it became part of my aesthetics.

What I also realised, when you listen to ambient music... my sound art has an ambient quality, a lot of soundscapes and also collage technique.. I'd be listening when I was starting out and going for the radio art approach, I'd do research and listen to a lot of field recording artists and sound artists and... I would just fall asleep! One piece is fine but another and another that is just not going in any direction and it's all very beautifully made but I felt: what are you actually trying to say? Why are you so afraid to be present in your piece?

It was like an unwritten rule in radio art as well that it has to be "this" and "that", it has to be recorded in a very quiet environment, in a sterile situation with the perfect microphone and very intelligible BBC English. So you had that within mainstream radio, but the same with sound art! I was discovering that everyone is just going for the same aesthetics. I love that aesthetic in itself but if everyone is like that it's a bit weird. So I thought I'd just see how I could break free from those rules - if I want to make an ambient piece that makes you fall asleep that's fine but if I want to break free from it I should be able to do that as well. I started to play with bold cuts and distortion and have more of a punk attitude in the sound/radio art environment, while at the same time have very poetic moments and very delicate and fine moments as well.

So it's not that I want to diminish or say that all the field recording and sound artists that I discovered are terrible artists, on the contrary.. but we are very easily making our own prisons I've realised. That's the thing about being an artist, you have the freedom to break from certain rules, so why not try once in a while when you feel like it?

AC: Yes! I really agree with this and it's not to denigrate anyone else but it's how you find your own voice, by challenging those conventions've touched on something in a few of your responses which is: in an artwork where do we find the humanity? You mentioned Surrealism, I love Surrealism and I always think there's something there which certainly does resist pure representation, but also resists pure abstraction - there's this tether back to reality and humanity and conscious experience and the value of that form lies in the tension along the spectrum. So I think it's a similar kind of tension that you're working with here, the contrast just hits the listener and really this is what makes the piece!

I like the description of 'Anosmia' as 'a reflection on an absurd fact'. I wonder if you could talk me through the "Politics Of The Nose" in Rwanda in the 90s and why you decided to focus on this aspect of the history? You're from Rwanda, but were raised in Europe - how much of a personal connection do you feel to these stories?

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Well I never wanted to deal with that because I just thought the Rwandan Genocide as a topic was just too big. I was not there myself and so much has been said about it already, so why would I also make something about it and have another opinion? So again this was not planned. From the research that I did myself when I first went back to Rwanda, I knew the general story that everyone knows from articles, interviews, documentaries and movies, that it's supposedly about two groups of people.

But when I first went to Rwanda I also met the poet that is part of my piece, David Mwambari, who wrote the piece "Politics Of The Nose". We became friends and I stayed in touch after my first trip and we had a conversation when he visited a few years later. We occasionally would have these very brief conversations of maybe a half hour, in a station, hotel lobby, a bookshop. Often because he's very busy, he'd be on the way to somewhere else or coming from somewhere else.. quickly catching up but always very dense and layered conversations and one of the things he once right away talked about was "the idea of the nose", how that was very important in Rwanda, more so than these two groups that are supposedly very defined but that are not at all, and it's hard to say who's who.

So I'd have to go back to what people thought was historically correct in Rwanda, and how it evolved in the war. I'd have to tell it in short for those who have no idea.

AC: Yes please including me, I know very little about it.

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Ok! So it's very important to know the story of how Rwanda was colonised. Rwanda was a German colony for a short period. You have the Belgians who get Rwanda as a protectorate right after Germany has lost the 1st World War. The Belgians install a kind of rule-and-divide politics. And part of this was creating segregation a.o. by giving everyone an identity card for the first time and putting a stamp on who you are: Tutsi or Hutu. That installed a conflict several times in several ways that maybe are now too complicated to explain everything in short, but it led up to another conflict in 1994, now known as The Rwandan Genocide, where Rwandan citizens were becoming enemies from one another. It became a civil war where you had two so-called "camps" of people, the Tutsi and the Hutu, but it's very hard to see these as two clear groups because everybody is intermarried.

There were so-called "features" that the Belgians had installed, to say this is the way to recognise a Tutsi and this is the way you can recognise a Hutu. And one of these features was a physical feature, the length of the nose - the length and the form of it. So if you had a long and slim nose you were called "Tutsi" and if you were a "Hutu" you supposedly had a thick and short nose.

And so you had families who were mixed and who knew they were mixed, but in the midst of the Rwandan Genocide things were very confusing. So sometimes you had to choose quickly who was on which side. Sometimes people would just decide the nose is the final thing... whereas there were so many other aspects to take into consideration - historically, culturally and so on. Other aspects that could have made it much more plausible to decide if someone is one or the other. But the problem if you were intermarried was that, during the war in 1994, also within one family you'd sometimes have to choose which side you're on. It had such a dramatic, problematic, drastic result - people would sometimes kill one another within one household and one family, just based on the fact that you don't have the right nose size or shape.

So when I got to hear that in one of these really short conversations with my friend David, that was just insane for me! I had already decided to distance myself from anything relating to the Rwandan Genocide since I wasn't there, but he said "you cannot say that you're out of the story of the Genocide yourself. Because you look like one, but your nose looks like the other! So, even if you accidentally would have visited Rwanda in 1994 and stayed neutral, back then you might not have survived it. Because often in moments where people had to decide quickly whether you were one of them or the enemy, they would just look at your nose and decide whether you could stay alive or not". For me that struck home and it was just so horrible to figure that out.

Sometime later, in Spring 2011, so a few months before I would decide to travel back to Rwanda, David sent me some of his brand new and unpublished poems and I read them. And his poem "Politics Of The Nose", that one hit me so hard, I absolutely wanted to do something with it. And so I suggested to him to do something with it, and first I felt more like slam poetry style or rap.. but it took some time before I knew a good musical and oratory form for it. And it's when I got approached by Fearless Radio, in Fall 2013, that I decided ok, I'm going to probably incorporate the idea of the nose and I'm going to ask David if I can use his poem for this.

AC: So by the end of this whole process actually you felt a close identification with the topic, through the poetry and through your travels to Rwanda, which you hadn't before. What a journey..

Let's talk about language. There are a few different languages heard on 'Anosmia'. I do not speak French and I doubt many of our readers are fluent in Kinyarwanda! so I wonder if there's anything we're missing, particularly at around 8:30, there's a lengthy passage and I'm curious what it is we're hearing.

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: My first answer here would be actually a question back to you: when you hear this passage what do you imagine, what do you experience, what do you believe, see, smell, feel, when you listen to it?

AC: The only inference I can really take from this is just by the fact that it's not in English! I suppose that for some reason the various discussions are in one language or another.. which is always an interesting sound to me because I only speak one language. Then also, it sounds as though you're outdoors where maybe it's a bit easier to blend with the other conversations around, more discreet?

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: I'm okay with some listeners not lierally understanding every word, so you can experience intelligible language as a form of sound poetry. The location is actually indoors, probably with open windows. And it might have been the choice of the person I was interviewing that we ended up there. But actually it's very nice you saying you're used to the idea of knowing one language... as with mainstream radio you would have the whole story of colonisation and so on, you'd literally make reference to it in a kind of exposé or voice over. But I prefer to sonically showcase how you could be witnessing the effect of colonisation just by how people use language in Rwanda. So the native language is Kinyarwanda, everyone speaks Kinyarwanda, this is the one original language, but some people would speak French because of the former colonisation with Belgium. That used to be the one language used for formal stuff and official stuff since independence and since colonisation.

But then after 1994 there's a new regime, who mostly grew up abroad and came back to Rwanda, all are English speakers, they all worked in Kenya, in Tanzania, Uganda... and they installed from one day to another without any explanation or preparation, to switch from French to English. So all the people who had high-level, very important jobs and great careers, they were screwed! Also teachers, they had to learn to do everything in English from one day to another. So for some Rwandans that has been a very traumatic experience. But people are just trying, they're just doing it.. like you can see here with corona it takes about six months before a decision can be made whether a mask is used or not.. in Rwanda it was just right away we do this and it happens. But of course this kind of decision making has a huge effect on people's lives. So, e.g. I find it interesting that sometimes I'd talk with someone and I'm speaking in French, and within the same phrase I have to switch to English and perhaps back to French which can be very confusing for all of us involved.

These multilingual conversations occur often because one person's vocabulary is limited or... rather spread over several languages ! Or perhaps translation is needed because a new person joining in, speaks only one of the colonial languages fluently...

AC: That kind of fluency, the flexibility with bilingual people to me is always astonishing..

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: At the same time is also shows the flexibility of how a lot of African people, not just in Rwanda, are changing languages all the time but also navigating between a world that is more linked to before colonisation and post colonisation. Actually within just a few minutes you can already feel that aspect.

Then the fact that my interviewee - I think he might have spoken English too - but I'm guessing he was probably in an environment where he thought, if I switch to French, I can be more private... because you can also know who speaks English and who speaks French more fluently, and there is no idea of privacy in an African context in general. For Europeans and Westerners, privacy is holy - you don't mess around when someone says this is my boundary and you don't just enter my house... and people will organise their lives so they can have an individual life and they can have their privacy.

AC: Yes... for me it was only after I started travelling that I began to see privacy as a very Western value and a cultural thing.

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Surely Rwandan people also like privacy but it's not something you can demand so easily. So the way to get privacy if you have to talk about a subtle topic is sometimes whispering, switching languages.. what also helps is that it's never quiet in an African environment, which is very problematic as a radio artist because once you are back in the studio you want to be able to make easy cuts and transitions. But in Africa there's always too much background noise! So I decided to leave that in, that's part of where I am, that's the context. That's where radio art becomes a more sociological thing as well, the context, the environment, the way people are living, it can be "heard".

I could also have asked the interviewee to go to a quiet place, I could have forced it, but I found it more important to keep it natural and to also break away from the sterile studio situation.

So I think the people here are speaking Kinyarwanda, it's in a small college, a boarding school, we're sitting in the bedroom of the person that I'm interviewing, and I don't know if you want to know what he's talking about?

AC: Oh yes definitely.

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Well he's in fact the first person who dares admit on the mic that you're not allowed to record in public.. So it was interesting that he was switching to another language, in that bubble of sound.. we sometimes create a bubble if we go in a public space. The public space is somehow everywhere in African society, you never have these great boundaries between privacy and being part of the community.

We have sometimes the same issue here in the Western world when we go into a public environment, we sometimes also would like to have our own space, and we might do it sometimes with just putting headphones on. So many people use headphones all the time.. for me it's a very bold statement of saying, I want to be my own thing, an individual.

Also in Rwanda - even if the country is actually famous for being a lot quieter than most other African countries I have visited - there's never silence. In ways people are, through sound, interfering with one anothers' private space. Because of that - at the same time they're creating a private space as well, almost as if a sonic curtain. Because it's so loud, it means that I was able to undisturbed (!) talk privately with that person about an important topic!

AC: Right! I've never thought about this, that's very true of loud spaces.

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: It was also revealing this colonial history, where something like language has a huge impact on how people function, and at the same time, how you deal with the current rules of the country, and how you break free from it by talking privately in this kind of bubble.

AC: Yeah, I like the idea that even with zero understanding of the language I could infer some of this using a bit of historical and sociological context and just observing carefully. Like the fact that it's one language or the other, or whether it's indoors or outdoors or in a loud or quiet space.

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: I wanted to show these things within the scene, within the action.. And if we're talking about fearless speech: what can you say or not say, which rules do you have in certain contexts, culturally, politically etc.. By the way, that is something you have in every society, you always have things you can or cannot discuss. So fearless speech is all about that - when can you say certain things, are you allowed to, is it necessary, is it forbidden? I wanted to deal with that idea of fearless speech in a metaphorical way, and I think that section at 8:30 that you're pointing out, it's actually smart that you point out that one!

Some of it that I'm telling now I did in an unconscious way, I got to that form sometimes intuitively but now thinking about it I know that's the result I wanted. It is, in a metaphoric and metaphysical way, telling everything that I couldn't explain so nicely if I had to tell it in an encyclopaedic way.

AC: I guess that's what makes a work of art!

Concerning art and "the nose": although we experience art through the senses, it's sight and sound which generally dominate. So the nose would even be an interesting theme for that reason alone! There's a clear representation with a trombone, and then the more I listen I also start to hear noses everywhere on 'Anosmia': in the sound of a car engine running, in the convulsions of the analogue tape machine, even in the random shuffles of the recording equipment. Musically, what was your approach to this "nasal" theme and is it something you've ever thought much about before?

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Well it's really similar to what we were discussing earlier about this 8:30 moment. It's also a metaphoric approach to the idea of the nose, to the idea of language.

There are two things I tried to translate in the piece - it's a translation piece in many ways. It's trying to deal with the nose by choosing the trombone, which by form already you can think of as a nose-like instrument. Then translating the voice, in noise, abstract sounds and musical notes and rhythms. Also with the analogue tape sounds in the middle of the piece, when you have this big long distortion moment, you hear bits and pieces of the "idea of the nose" coming through... At some point you know exactly what the topic is and you just intuitively find all sorts of things that gradually start to fit your concept, as you create.

AC: Let's talk a little more about those instrumental elements - the trombone, the prepared piano, the analogue tape machine.. there's such an unusual musicality in the way you're arranged all this. What was your thought process behind the choice of instruments and their interplay with the talking and with all the other sounds? And tell me about your collaborators, besides David Mwambari: Francisco Couto and Momoko Noguchi.

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Francisco Couto is a brilliant Portuguese trombone player whom I met when I was studying composition, and Momoko Noguchi is a fabulous Japanese visual artist, composer, and classically trained piano player that I also met when studying.

Momoko was quite shaken up by the history of the Genocide, and did so much extra research, also by herself. With her genuine curiosity and all her deep questions, often from a very Buddhist and a completely non judgemental point of view, she helped me sharpen my mind, and therefore indirectly helped conceiving the piece. And there was a lot of work we put into it that in the end didn't arrive in the piece itself. I also learned a lot about the anatomy and mechanisms of the piano, about scores, about notation, about what you can notate or better just do by improvising.

At first I was too shy to try the piano myself because I'm not a piano player, I'm a vocal artist. I know how to play because I had a few years of training, but my piano skills are very basic. But once I found the confidence I improvised my way through most of the prepared piano parts. All while thinking of Rwandan ballet and folk music that I had listened to years before. It's a lot of 5/8 and 6/8, often with breathtaking perpetuous syncopes and polyrhythms.

5/8 and 6/8 are not such common rhythms because we mostly grow up with 4/4 in the West, and maybe 3/4 and 6/8 here and there. But definitely not 5/8. So I tried to remember those Rwandan traditional musical elements and rhythms. And that is how I ended up having some material that I played myself on the piano.

AC: So that was separate from the material with Momoko?

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Right, the material with Momoko I got by transcribing the poem that David had written, the "Politics Of The Nose", putting that into some DAW software, "extracting" notes out of the way it's spoken, selecting recorded speech and translating that into musical material. And that's what gives these weird mechanical piano parts that you also hear sometimes under the poem.

For me it was trying to translate the poem into music, sometimes into noise. It's like a loop, a dog biting its own tail, where everything is translated into some of the other elements, the trombone as well.

AC: Wow, on this last point, I had no idea.

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Prior to 'Anosmia', I was already doing a lot of research on.. being a vocalist myself and how can I think about the voice from a bit more distance, instead of thinking about virtuosity. All my life I wanted to become a better vocalist in just a technical way, again according to certain standards of beauty and aesthetics. I thought, let me get free from that as well and think of the voice in a more metaphorical way, and maybe the method is to break it up, put the text into different methods, translations, machines, and so I was looking for instruments that could become more "like a voice". I was thinking, how could I get the instruments and the voices closer to one another? Because in the origin I think that all instruments are a kind of imitation, or at least that they aspire to be "like a voice".

The human voice is extremely versatile: it can be very expressive and meaningful. But it can also be abstract or just hauntingly beautiful. And this in so many different ways, that it is actually incredible that a human body can produce all those different sounds. Throughout history a lot of composers and instrument inventors have, consciously or unconsciously, been captivated by the human voice. To that point that even today when you learn a musical instrument, very often the teacher will train the student to play as "vocally" as possible.

So I thought let's see how I can get that research on the voice also into this piece e.g. by getting the voice and the instruments and all the other sounds closer to one another. Previously I have enjoyed using my voice as an "instrument". And here my strategy was to approach instruments as "speaking objects". Objects that have their own - perhaps broken - quality, simply because they are not a voice. But I found it an intriguing thing to see how I could make my performers play around with that "handicap". And just wanted to see what would be the outcome.

That's also where the prepared piano comes in, rather than having a perfect, Western instrument that resonates, let's break it up and play with the "broken" sounds!

AC: This more than anything else we've talked about makes me want to go back and listen again. Of all the elements I suppose the instrumentation is the most abstract, so while I had all these thoughts and theories about the sections with the speaking, I certainly wouldn't have pieced together for example that certain parts of the prepared piano are an interpolation of the poem.

Taking things up to the present... anosmia itself, that is the chronic loss of smell, is a more familiar concept to people nowadays than it was in 2014, since it is said to be one of the telling symptoms of coronavirus, But there's another theme of this piece which also reminds me of our pandemic world and that's the distrust and betrayal between the Tutsis and the Hutus... Skepticism of foreigners is sadly nothing new in Europe or America or anywhere but lately it seems like even within our communities, societies, organisations, families, there's a growing erosion of trust, more than before. I've noticed it in myself and others.

Are there lessons we can learn from these stories?

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Yes. Well first of all, I didn't tell you, but Anosmia is also referring to my personal journey, because I can't smell!

AC: Really?

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: All my life, yes. I'm right now for the first time trying to get a doctor to see me, I just had a CT scan, and I will on Monday night go to the doctor and we will figure out whether maybe something went wrong when I was born... But I have had anosmia and chronic sinusitis all my life and probably one is linked to the other. I've had surgery four times when I was 8... so again the whole poem reflected very well what happened in Rwanda, in a poetic way but I also refer to it because of the length of my nose in relation to the Genocide, and also me having issues, with my nose!

And then... a part of David Mwambari's poem has the lines:

" of nose/
flowing Karisimbi lava/
sinus of nose/
killing a queen's lover.."

When first seeing the poem, I just said: "This is me!" For the record, I am born on the volcano Karisimbi. All my family is from there... And yeah the word "anosmia" is also actually referring to me, not being able to smell, and what do you do if you no longer have the nose, or don't want to have the nose, or don't want to have that specific nose, so I just realised.

AC: Well this is an important detail! I'd glad I asked as it isn't mentioned in the description or anything on Soundcloud...

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Yeah that's true. I distanced myself a bit from it because I thought also it doesn't have to be about me when writing program notes. But it's of course a lot about me as well, and how - without me realising.. - the topic of the Genocide all along had been an inherent part of my own personal story too.

AC: Right that makes sense.

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: And so yes, your question about mistrust and how we can take lessons from it... well also myself, in times of corona,... I don't trust my own hands these days, when I touch something I'm scared that I will contaminate myself or someone else. I'm in the midst of conversations with an organisation in Belgium where I have workshops next week for two different choirs. I'm so scared to go! And it's the one thing that I love doing most: teaching people who have never used their voice before, or never dared to just improvise, to just go freely but.. if I open my mouth I know I will perhaps spread the virus, so I'm awake day and night because I'm always dealing with it, so let's say that's from a personal point of view.

I would say also from a political point of view, away from corona, I see that, especially talking to people who have an American background who identify as black, I've noticed things that I see in relation to what I know about the Rwandan Genocide and I'm trying to warn them. So let's say the whole topic of Black Lives Matter is parallel to the whole pandemic of corona, and one specific topic that I have to think about is, well... I can give you a small anecdote that hopefully explains it.

So I went to a 'safe space' around a year and a half ago. For the first time in my life an activist organisation, advocating for people of colour, had invited me to talk about what it means to be black in a white environment, in Europe. And we're in a bar in Brussels, that's really reserved for us to talk about stuff that otherwise we could never talk about, and by accident two white people come in... and they're chased away. They're chased away, just because they're white, and I totally understand the desire of talking freely in a safe space, but the way they said it was for me so harmful and unlike what I would have said that I had to speak up.

And so whereas the whole weekend we were so-called one community and we all are facing the same issues, something became obvious: that I'm not allowed to have my own opinion, and they were assuming that everyone who's black or identifies as black is supposed to have their nose in the same direction. But I was trying to point out to them: you have a right to create your own space, especially for the reasons that you named.... and at the same time there are different ways of communicating and also there are ways of using language, that in certain contexts have a justification but in other contexts might become dangerous - so be aware of that.

AC: This sounds like an incredibly difficult conversation, so how did that progress?

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Well the extra problem was there were people who were mixed, they have a white father and a black mother, or the other way around, so they were forced to choose one side or the other, and they tried to explain as well, look we understand you chased away those people that were not invited, but it could have been in a different way. And it became such a horrible conversation that blew up. I tried to explain: I totally understand the pain that it comes from, but really you don't "know" who's white or black. And there might be people who look completely white, but might be with a mixed background, who might have coloured family members, lovers, siblings, children, or whatever.. you just don't know!

So then I explained how in Rwanda people during the Genocide had to choose one or the other within the same household, you know, mother or father. This is problematic.. be careful before you start to objectify people based on a feature, on the skin colour or the nose or whatever it is, be careful because it can have huge consequences. And because of that be thoughtful of what language you use in certain contexts.

AC: We talked earlier about "fearless speech", whereas this is something else, maybe some kind of a reckless speech where we're really underestimating the power and consequences of language. I wonder how we can be more conscientious?

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Reckless speech... spot on! It doesn't mean you cannot raise certain problems, for sure you should, and more than ever. It's opened my eyes, that weekend.. there are things that I've been blind about, because I grew up in a white environment, etc. but still I have this alarm bell ringing, even if certain things need to be said that are just on the edge of being divisive... be aware of it. Being 'woke' doesn't mean you can get away with whatever, and being black doesn't mean you cannot be racist - there's structural racism, there's systemic racism for sure... there's also internalised racism, reverse racism. I really experience more racism when I'm in Africa than anywhere else, when I'm in Rwanda... there, it's African people doing it against me, against other Africans.. so don't be blind to that sort of thing.

I'm super proud that during the first wave of COVID-19 the whole world decided to stand up against racism and support the Black Lives Matter movement, and I hope it will continue, that it's not just another Twitter trend. At the same time we need to be really alert that we don't put ourselves into camps, because it's not black and white, just like with the noses, it's very hard to put me in one camp just because of the size of my nose! and for so many other reasons.. So I hope people are not trying to put the whole Black Lives Matter movement, and anything else in the world, that they don't put it into these black and white conversations where there's a lot of 'grey' perspective needed.

Even with the anxiety of corona, ok we have anxiety but try to stay open and try to find solutions, we have to live with this.

AC: Indeed we do. Well I certainly appreciate both your advocacy and your appeal for caution and consideration in the approach to this stuff. I rarely ask about such current affairs in these interviews but with 'Anosmia', and the more I began to understand your treatment of the Rwandan Genocide in the piece, there was a resonance and relevance to the current moment which was the reason for my question and you certainly got to the core of it. Your perspective - a unique African/European fearless-speech radio-art perspective - is immensely valuable! so thanks for sharing your thoughts.

What's next for you? I have to imagine it's nearly impossible to make a piece like 'Anosmia' at the moment but you are such an eclectic artist so I'm sure you are keeping busy!

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Too many things! I'm almost paralysed by it. I have to say I was not that productive in corona times, I took time off to sit down and reflect on a lot of things, reorganise myself, think about my health, mentally, physically, and reboot. So now I'm ready!

If corona allows it, then I go to Berlin for a residency to do some research. There are some archives that might have some documents and artefacts from when Rwanda was still a German colony... and doing research to understand a bit better the life of Kanyoni Ladislas, my grandfather. So one of the projects that I'm dealing with is going back to Rwanda as often as possible, I'm going back in January for six weeks, and I'm going to interview my grandfather again, who turns 111 then! and probably one of the last traditional hunters and doctors, so I have a big responsibility to try to talk with him and engage more with him, to get to know him better.

The second thing is when I'm in Germany I will also do some research for an exciting new project with SAVVY Contemporary in Berlin.

AC: Well I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to talk to me during such a busy period. This has been the most in-depth and certainly the longest discussion in the short history of Navel-Gazers but I don't intend to cut any of it because you are truly an artist with things to say and stories to tell!

Safe travels in Germany, and Rwanda and beyond!

Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman: Thank you Andrew, it's been a tremendous pleasure to share my ideas with you. Thank you for listening !

Aurélie can be found at her website,

All photos (c) all rights reserved Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman unless indicated otherwise.

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