It’s easy to take the accessibility of music for granted these days. Music lovers in the 21st Century have the means to explore a dizzying expanse of sonic culture in a short space of time, following their interests in hyper-specific routes through new and old music. That’s yielded its own interesting effects on contemporary music, as overarching ‘scenes’ with specific style tropes give way to more individualistic artistic approaches.
Before she moved to Canada six years ago, Yu Su wasn’t familiar with much modern Western music. Then she found herself in Vancouver, experiencing the music of local house music explorers Mood Hut and other visiting DJs and live acts, which drew her into her own journey of discovery and creativity. A classically trained pianist, she already had an affinity for music, which she proceeded to rigorously apply to the boundless world of sound she had been newly introduced to.
Since 2014, Su has forged a fast and brilliant path into electronic music herself, absorbing and channeling influences, unbound by the tired, systemic notions of what’s fashionable or deemed ‘tasteful’. Crucially, she’s expressed this inspiration with her own distinctive voice, coming through with an honest and joyous sound that moves enthusiastically from style to style while possessing a natural flair that has seen her rise to prominence on an international level.
The path to production
On arriving in Vancouver, Su found herself swept up in the city’s buoyant electronic music scene and especially the Mood Hut parties. This West Coast crew, made up of artists such as Pender Street Steppers and Cloudface, were instrumental in defining a particular strain of woozy dance music, but they were also connected in spirit to other energies across North America and the rest of the world seeking to push the time-honoured tradition of house music in interesting directions. Su namechecks a Floating Points show in an art gallery basement as a seminal experience, as well as the impact Washington DC crew Beautiful Swimmers had on her.
“There’s a Beautiful Swimmers track, “Cool “Disco” Dan”, from their album Son,” Su explains. “Also Pender Street Steppers’ “Temple Walk” and “Jump Rope Music” by Takuya Matsumoto – those are the tracks where I was like, ‘I need to learn how to make those drums.’ The kind of beats that are always moving forwards, instead of up and down.”
Su took a particularly methodical approach to entering the world of music production via Live. She took the tracks she was specifically inspired by, dropped the audio file onto the Arrangement View, and in short looped sections would identify the individual components of the track and try to rebuild them herself. A friend suggested she should check Live’s 808 and 909 kits to source the right drum sounds. It was a slow process learning music production terminology while simultaneously learning English, but through this forensic analysis Su was able to ascertain how to put tracks together.
“I think what I learned the most from that process was these fundamental structures of beats for dance music,” says Su, “and what effect different sounds would have. Like why certain snare sounds from certain drum machines have certain effects. But I also learned a lot about how to write basslines, and how the bassline can change the vibe of the whole track. The composition is so important.”
Su first released music in 2016 alongside Scott Johnson Galley as You’re Me – an ambient collaboration resulting in a self-titled cassette and the Plant Cell Division album. Her first club music followed soon after, making a sizable statement with the single-sided 12” Infi Love on Washington DC label Peoples Potential Unlimited. There’s an ethereal quality to “Infi Love” and its companion “Soon (Moa Mix)” – clearly a product of her surroundings in the Vancouver house music scene – but the tracks equally twitch with their own idiosyncrasies which marked Su as an artist worth keeping an eye on. The subsequent Preparations For Departure 12” on Arcane further built on Su’s style of deeper-than-deep dance music, marked out by aqueous excursions with rounded subs instead of kick drums, pattering percussion mantras and liberal doses of reverb-soaked pads.
“On Preparations For Departure, most of the tracks were recordings from the first ever live set I did. It was just me and my friend who plays fretless bass. Then I built the tracks using that material – a lot of the pads were made with a Kurzweil synth I had in the studio for a while, layered up with some of the default synths in Live,” Su says.
Casting a wide net
As well as exploring the new frontier of production, Su was getting a crash course in music spanning eras and genres beyond the house music that initially inspired her. Her standout moments of inspiration range from the “chuggy” groove of Talking Heads to the needlepoint hi-hat programming prevalent on the Hessle Audio label, which she channeled on the recently released compilation track “223”. She enthuses about the impact of Phil Collins’ heavily reverbed drums on the spellbinding early ‘80s track “Please Fall In Love With Me” by John Martyn.
“[Please Fall In Love With Me] was my earliest discovery of this ‘80s sound that has so much acoustic space,” she enthuses. “It’s so powerful, but so settled and warm, and it truly helped shape the sound I’ve made since then. I know this kind of sound isn’t anything exceptional, but for me it's brand new. I didn't know that's, like, the sound of the 80s.”
Su’s sound seemed to reach a new level of maturity and focus on Roll With The Punches, which came out in 2019 on Second Circle. As well as channeling that expansive sense of space from “Please Fall In Love With Me”, a great deal of inspiration on this particular release came from Laurie Anderson’s 1984 album Mister Heartbreak. You can hear the production values of the era in the slick finish of the guitar on “Tipu’s Tiger” and the hiccupping re-pitched samples on “Words Without Sound”.
“The way the percussion was laid out in Laurie Anderson’s “Kokoku”, and also the Art of Noise track “Moments in Love”, taught me so much,” Su explains. “The whole Second Circle record was inspired by those two tracks. I was more comfortable with the technical stuff, so it was more just the feeling of the tracks. Like, ‘How can I make music that has this very open space?’ Layering was important. There are so many little sounds everywhere. It's so full, but so precise, but it also sounds loose... I never studied how Laurie Anderson made “Kokoku”, but I would imagine she had a band playing real instruments, so I was trying to achieve that, in [Live].”
“Because the music I make is very melody driven,” she adds, “something I realised is that I can have 20 different layers of melodies going on, but I have to have a focus – a driven main melody, and that melody has to be very grounded. Otherwise, it would sound empty. There is so much going on in “Kokoku”, but there is a core melody. It has a lot of notes, it zig zags up and down, but it has a focus. It's just genius.”
As Su’s tastes and knowledge of music have deepened, the way in which she has assimilated inspiration have become more subliminal. On Roll With The Punches, it was more apparent that Su had reached a sound all her own. Less dancefloor-oriented (even than the relatively hazy Preparations For Departure), Su instead reached a relative nonplace, where the lilt of organic percussion and loose timings meshed with languid melodies shaping out evocative terrain. She’s not the first to conjure up such imaginary places with her music, and while it’s easy to think of the fourth world musings of Jon Hassell and Brian Eno, or indeed the exotic expanse of Mister Heartbreak, Su’s palette is more subtle, using less trite notions of “folk” instrumentation and focusing on her own rhythmic and melodic intuition to shape out a borderless sound.
Given her Chinese heritage in the surroundings of a Western scene, the perceived geography of her music was a concern for Su, particularly on Roll With The Punches. While she didn’t want her music to be associated with any particular cultural identity, she also wanted to subvert notions of Orientalism by creating subtle hints of Chinese musical heritage within her compositions.
“Haruomi Hosono talked about this idea of sightseeing music,” she says. “It's interesting to me because ‘ambient music’, ‘fourth world music’, all these terms and genres were coined by Europeans, and as someone who comes from the culture, when you make it is that ‘world music’, is that ‘ambient music’, or is that just you?
“With the Second Circle record I wanted to do something that would obviously fit in the ‘fourth world’ genre as a way to make fun of or criticise it. I don't talk about politics in music in a public, verbal way, but I want to talk about this through the music. Because people with different backgrounds can perceive each sound differently, and that's what I want to achieve.”
Trying new techniques
Beyond the meaning of the music, Su’s creative and technical approach on Roll With The Punches imbued the record with its own captivating energy. There’s a discernible open-ended structure to many of the tracks, in particular “Tipu’s Tiger” which features improvised guitar and synth work from Pender Street Steppers. In this and other instances, Su encouraged a freeform approach for both her and her guest musicians by using a simple piano plug-in loop as a basis for the musicians to jam over. The resulting track was drawn from this long-form tapestry of sound.
“Jack and Liam from Pender Street Steppers have extensive band backgrounds,” Su explains, “and I was just thinking the other day how lucky I am to finally have this sort of band, jamming-like experience from making music with them.”
Hand-playing certainly informs a lot of the natural energy bristling throughout Su’s music. A lot of the percussion, which sounds on record like mic’d up hand drums, was actually made by dropping samples into a Drum Rack and playing them in on a MIDI keyboard. It’s at this point we discuss Su’s background in classical piano, which she learned rigorously in China from an early age. It’s something which informs the repeating melodic phrases on “Words Without Sound”. She mentions some of the intensely technical classical pieces she had to learn when she was younger, such as this piece from Chopin.
““Words Without Sound” is one song with two different parts. I was playing the melody at the beginning, and that melody isn't really on a 4/4 rhythm… I don't know what rhythm it is on! [laughs]. So I turned that melody into MIDI notes, and then I sent that MIDI pattern to some 909 percussion and other layers of MIDI drums, and because I made it into many, many layers of drums everything is kind of off, but on. The tempo is kind of changing throughout the entire track. I think that's my favourite thing I've done in a track.”
A fundamental element of Su’s musical approach is the way she balances the formal training of her classical piano background with her open-minded forays into contemporary music production. Unconstrained by notions of how things should or shouldn’t be done, she’s approached the available tools in her own free-thinking manner. This applies to Live’s native delay device, Echo, as much as any other device in her studio setup.
“When I first tried the Echo plug-in it reminded me a lot of the characteristics of the [Roland] Space Echo, and I’m particularly obsessed with very reverb-heavy and slightly distorted delays,” Su reveals. “I would add different amounts of those effects to almost all percussion and drum channels to have layers of different rhythmic space. Additionally, I would record even the slightest real-time movement of these parameters. Think of me trying to have an imaginary band made of people using random delay and reverb pedals that they aren't necessarily familiar with.”
Universality of sound
This push and pull between learned technique and instinctive experimentation hold sway for Su beyond the horizons of her musical output. Her interest in sound overall has led her to engage with more academic and gallery-based endeavours, from sound art to field recordings. In February 2019 she performed a sold-out show at Vancouver’s Western Front art centre, showcasing the venue’s octophonic speaker system with a performance that diverged from Su’s more fulsome recorded output.
“It's different every time I do an installation or a sound performance in a gallery setting, because they all have been for different purposes,” Su explains. “The one at Western Front was specifically a composition for an octophonic system, so the sounds were basically all designed to be spatialized although the composition was still heavily musical as opposed to maybe the classic sense of sound design and sound art. At Vivo Arts Centre I used CDJs to play chunks of techno techno as stems, mixing them with droney samples or very Chopin stuff.”
“Dance music is designed for a certain kind of space,” she continues, “but when it comes to sound art or deep listening, especially in a gallery setting, it's a bright clean space, everyone's sitting down, no one's talking, because it's designed to fit a certain code. When I DJ or make music and when I make sound installations it's completely different stuff, so I wanted to combine those things and blur the lines between those codes that were designed to separate people.”
This irreverent spirit extends to her thoughts on field recording. As part of her fellowship with the 221A arts initiative, Su oversaw a semester of research and programming alongside Vincent Tao. Titled the Pollyanna Sound Archive Prototype 01, this project encouraged participants to engage with field recording in a more animated and playful way. Viewing a majority of sound archiving as a solemn cataloguing of captured noise, Su’s view was that there should be a playful and inclusive quality to this work, culminating in field trips around Vancouver’s Stanley Park to capture sound which is now accessible as an open source archive.
“[Pollyanna Sound Archive] was very community-based,” says Su. “Field recordings and sound research are always designed to be exclusive – exclusive language and exclusive dynamics – and I don't want that to be a thing. We did a lot of field trips and it was so fun seeing people listening actively and noticing so many things they wouldn't normally pay attention to. Turning that into an open source archive I think was also a good way for me to give back to the community.”
Methodical and accomplished across diverse fields of sound she may be, but Su’s defining characteristic as an artist is her openness to possibility. She’s spoken before about her embrace of Daoism as a key tenet of her work, and so this sense of balance between the learned and the instinctive makes sense. As someone who has keenly attuned herself to new modes of music in an extraordinarily short time, she’s been able to respond to her inspirations in a more reflexive way compared to those who might spend decades moving through different spheres of musical interest to reach their present.
“I always actively think about, ‘what is the point of making a so-called innovative sound?’” she muses. “The technology around creating sound or media will just get crazier and crazier, especially when it comes to sound design, so what is truly innovative? I see things like the ancient and the futuristic in a loop instead of one-directional, so when I make music I want to make things that are truly human despite the fact I make everything on a computer. I want my music to be able to trigger human emotion instead of being purely futuristic...”
Embracing the technology to find her own natural groove, shunning hackneyed cultural codes while teasing at fourth world concepts, and mixing critical thinking with creative instinct, Su’s approach keeps her free of constrictive expectations. That leaves the possibilities wide open for where she takes us next, wherever the inspiration may come from.
Text and interview: Oli Warwick