Q&A: “Ceremony is always imbued with sound”: Composer Peter Adjaye on soundscaping Toyin Ojih Odutola’s ‘A Countervailing Theory’

Ceremonies Within, Peter Adjaye & Toyin Ojih Odutola.
(Music For Architecture/The Vinyl Factory)

Peter Adjaye is a contemporary conceptual sound artist, specialising in cross disciplinary collaborations. He is a musicologist, composer, DJ-producer and musician. His unique set of skills and vast experience have enabled him to work closely with his brother, the award-winning architect, Sir David Adjaye OBE, for over 15 years. This work has culminated in projects such as the publication of Dialogues on Music for Architecture Records in association with Vinyl Factory Records, installations at the Queen’s House at the Greenwich Maritime Museum, soundscapes for ‘Camden Alive’ (London Borough of Camden), and most recently the collaborative creative project with Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola for her exhibition A Countervailing Theory at the Barbican Centre in London. A limited edition vinyl album of his soundscape for this new exhibition, Ceremonies Within, is available to buy from 18th September, with pre-order available now, through the Vinyl Factory website.

We had a chance to speak with Adjaye on the opening of Ojih Odutola’s exhibition. A Countervailing Theory is the artist’s first-ever UK commission, a site-specific installation in the 90-metre long Curve Gallery at the Barbican Centre. The exhibition unfurls across the entire space, exploring an imagined ancient myth conceived by the artist. Executed in pastel, charcoal and chalk, the installation features a series of 40 drawings, each work acting as an individual episode within the overarching narrative. Set within a surreal landscape inspired by the rock formations of Plateau State in central Nigeria, A Countervailing Theory depicts the tale of a fictional prehistoric civilisation, dominated by female rulers and served by male labourers. The conceptual immersive soundscape by Adjaye fills the space in response to Ojih Odutola’s work, using the terrain of the fantastical world to transport the gallery.

Ellen Addis: What were the inspirations or directions that Toyin Odih Odutola asked you to keep in mind when composing the soundscape for A Countervailing Theory?

Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Forbidden Impulse from A Countervailing Theory (2019) © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Peter Adjaye: The one thing Toyin said to me was, “you can do whatever you want, but just don’t use any speech, don’t use any words”. This was fantastic as it gave me the freedom to really let go. I started to create an instrumental soundscape where the specific instruments chosen gave voice to the characters in the drawings, and also the sounds together are a description of the specific geographical landscape within the drawings and the narrative, so that the listener really feels that they are encapsulated in the world of the art work.

It’s a combination of what is this landscape going to sound like authentically to this myth and the real place called the Jos Plateau area, and what’s there? What materials are available in that area for that culture to be able to use? For me, it’s about researching the geographical terrain, which in this case includes palm trees, bamboo, rocks, stones, waterfalls and lakes. These naturally occurring and available materials form the basis of instruments in that culture and society.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, This is How You Were Made; Final Stages from A
Countervailing Theory
(2019) © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and
Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

There’s a part of the series of drawings where the humanoid males are constantly mining for metals which is one of the key elements in the terrain. The metals make incredible gongs, bells, ankle bells, etc. There’s a particular type of bell from the Jos Plateau area called an ‘Oghene’ which is a double-headed bell. Because these sounds are natural, they have this truly organic resonance. I wanted to try to create a soundscape that is not synthetic, but still has a contemporary sound to it. There are a lot of different types of instruments of different materials that are mostly from West Africa and specifically the central Nigerian region. For instance I also used the sounds of a clay pot, a slit drum of a hollow tree which appears in the middle of the second movement, all of these specific percussive sounds creating a pulsating rhythm were mixed with electronic synthesizer and orchestral arrangements using a dynamic method layering to create a depth and density of space. 

EA: And they’re playing at different points in the exhibition too?

PA: Yes, and that’s the fun part! We have twelve channels of speakers in the exhibition, with three movements that have each movement situated within four speaker groups. The movements are designed to ‘bleed’ into each other.

The music became such an important and powerful part of the exhibition experience as it feels so immersive and continually draws you in and around the drawings in an emotional and dramatic way. So it seemed to be the natural step to release the soundscape as an album as it also feels like its own entity in itself. The soundscape is called Ceremonies Within (2020) and it is about the coming together to form a larger whole. The ceremony is always imbued with sound.

EA: Is that on vinyl?

PA: Yes, I am passionate about vinyl so it could only be released on limited edition vinyl, in partnership with my record company Music for Architecture and The Vinyl Factory. 

EA: If I remember correctly, you did your first album, Dialogues (2016), which was in collaboration with your brother, the architect Sir David Adjaye, with Vinyl Factory too?

Dialogues, Peter Adjaye and David Adjaye (Music For Architecture/The Vinyl Factory)

PA: Yes, it was a collection of the soundscapes I collaborated on or soundtracked with his [David’s] projects.

EA: I love how in Dialogues, and the soundscape for this exhibition too, you take the material thing and find the sound for that – sonically reacting to space – and like you say, using the organic materials to find music within them. In Dialogues, you take inspiration from the materials used in David’s buildings, using kettle drums and synth pads to create metallic sounds – and in ‘Echoes’, your response to David’s Asymmetric Chamber, his first temporary art/architecture structure – you use mostly wooden instruments as the structure is made from recycled timber.

PA: Yes, I used the Japanese Koto instrument for that [a stringed instrument made of paulownia wood, with strings strung over movable bridges used for tuning], which I love. 

The Asymmetric Chamber © Lyndon Douglas

EA: I also really like your piece ‘Reflections of a Golden Dream’, a meditative on the Stephen Lawrence Centre in Lewisham. [The Centre is a memorial in honour of Stephen Lawrence, the British architectural student murdered in 1993, and is dedicated to improving opportunities with inspiration and resources for young black people in south London.]

PA: Oh man, you know something, I want to perform that piece live! I’m going to make a call out there. We need to do something, we need to get some more diverse compositions out there, performing contemporary music, but also stretching the idiom. This is what my soundscapes are about, they need to be played live!

Anything that’s not Western music is called “world music”, or “popular music”. It’s always been like this in the West, when so clearly people like Brian Eno and Talking Heads are massively influenced by artists such as Fela Kuti. Steve Reich, one of the most so-called important contemporary composers, his most seminal piece ‘Drumming’ is borrowed directly from West African drumming rhythms from Ghana. But when you look at African music, it is not called classical music, but yet it is African classical music.

The Stephen Lawrence Centre © Lyndon Douglas

EA: Would you say that this sort of hijacking of classical music has happened in a way with techno music, a scene that you were involved in in your twenties? Techno has become something that is thought to be centred around Berlin and as European, but it began in Chicago and Detroit in the African Diaspora with the so-called “greats” like Jeff Mills. 

PA: Yes, techno’s become about the lowest common denominator and making it hard and fast which takes away from the idea that it’s actually an art form. Techno in that way has turned way too commercial. What’s the instantaneous thing? The drum, the bass, that’s it, done. Not the progression, not the movement, not the dynamics, not the subtlety of one to the other. Having one banging tune is great and all the greats have that. But if you ask them to play, they won’t just play banging tunes for three hours: they would give you a journey.

EA: Would you say that’s a similar aim in the dynamic of your soundscape for A Countervailing Theory?

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Establishing the Plot from A Countervailing
(2019) © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and
Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

PA: Yes! It is for sure a journey. It allows the listener to embark on a journey through the terrain, through the movements, and feel like they have reached ‘the end’ only by the end of the third movement. It is ever-changing and the vast curvature of the 90 metre gallery [The Curve] keeps you wanting to see and hear what is round the corner.

EA: Like you say, a DJ set can also create a soundscape. How do you see the environments of the soundscapes you create, like Ceremonies Within, as different from those of a DJ set? 

PA: I think it’s very similar. I think you’re right – all these amazing DJs will all talk about the idea of a journey. We have a starting point, obviously where you set the scene, and you definitely want to bring people to a certain place. You want to take them through comfortable areas, uncomfortable areas, unknown areas, mysterious and enlightening, celebratory, spiritual and then a landing back into a recognisable place. Just like a soundscape, the great DJs and the great sound people think about the idea of not leaving you on a high – you can’t leave someone on a high and then just open the door and switch a light on! 

We talked about something like this before, when you mentioned about how you thought it was a shame that the exhibition was closed down at the beginning of the pandemic? I actually see the closure of A Countervailing Theory at the beginning of the pandemic as a blessing because what I instantly noticed was the importance of sound in terms of connecting people. We were isolated, but I have had many conversations with other artists who all agree that music helped us through this.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Suspicions Left Behind from A Countervailing
(2019) © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and
Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Hopefully this will allow other parts of the industry, let’s say the visual arts world, to realise how important sound art is in engaging the senses, as at the moment the visual arts is the only form and medium available in many spaces. This exhibition is an antithesis of that. For people to come out of the lockdown and come to this exhibition – this is trying to set a new level. I’m not saying that every exhibition has to have sound, but yes, it does [laughs]. It doesn’t have to be a forced composition, it can be just what is needed, but a silent space doesn’t feel right. 

EA: Yes, exhibitions and galleries aren’t often so inclusive, and this is probably the only exhibition that I’ve been to with it’s own soundscape.

PA: This is the first exhibition you’ve been to with sound, and what does that tell us? There’s a screaming out loud thing here saying that there’s something missing. In the sixties they were doing a lot more with art than we are doing now. They had John Cage or Mercer performing, Yoko Ono cutting her dress at the same time, exploring art, performance, sound and painting all at the same time. What have we come down to? It’s so conservative. We’ve reduced it back to separating all these art forms and putting performance art here, visual arts here, sound here. We’ve undone arts. It seems crazy to me that there isn’t more sound with visual art. We’ve surely got to open up what’s possible – that includes what I said about classical music, and bringing together different diverse stories to allow things to grow because at the moment I think those classical arts are dying.

I think what’s beautiful here with Toyin being African-American and me being African-British, is that we’re working across continents which is really interesting. I think there’s a really beautiful idea of mutual respect.

EA: How do you see the role of history in A Countervailing Theory?

PA: There’s a lot of emerging history and this is really interesting when we think about the exhibition and the archaeological aspect. Now because technology is improving all the time, we can carbon date artefacts more precisely, we can check DNA, we’re discovering things. The reason why things are unravelling, it’s not because people are unravelling it and they want to change history, it’s because we’ve got technology helping us to more accurately discover and attribute artefacts and timelines. It shows that history is dynamic and not static.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Parting Gift; Hers and Hers, Only from A
Countervailing Theory
(2019)© Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist
and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

I think the Egyptians very much understood the idea of describing their own history and making the history last for as long as possible. What is interesting about that, is that you get a separation of what Egypt is. It’s all of a sudden Egypt, not in Africa. Obviously, the original peoples of Egypt aren’t necessarily the people who are there now because the original people the Nubians migrated across to West Africa. I love people like Sun Ra who talk about this.

EA: And George Clinton!

PA: Absolutely. They talk about this idea of “otherness”, claiming, “if you’re going to treat us like aliens, then we are aliens.” But then who’s to say that’s not individualism? That’s about knowing who you are and actually embracing that, and not doing things in the way that you perceive it to be, but connected to the ancient. From the past you’re able to create the future, this idea of afrofuturism.

EA: Similar to Drexciya’s mythology.

PA: The techno group, yes. They would rather throw themselves over into the sea than be slaves and that’s when they formed a new race underwater.

EA: And a lot of Drexciya’s music uses acid – the sound of water, the sort of squelchy, underwater sounds influenced by their so-called “Birth Story” – which was inspired by Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic. This reminded me a lot of your soundscape for A Countervailing Theory also, reacting to your environment in an afrofuturist way.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Mating Ritual from A Countervailing Theory
(2019) © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and
Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

PA: I love that. Yes, you’re absolutely, right. It’s funny because a lot of people don’t realise that in techno music that “squelchy sound” is actually about organic water. Then when it gets commercialised, it becomes “acid house”, and it’s this whole thing about taking it out of context to make it then seem quite worthless, just like hip hop. Hip hop came from people expressing themselves with positive messages such as “don’t do drugs”. ‘The Message’ by Melle Mel, and the forming of hip hop nation by Afrika Bambaataa was about getting kids out of gangs, about giving them something to do. Hip hop wasn’t always about the music, it was also about fashion, breakdancing, graffiti scratching, DJing, and MCing, but now nobody even knows that. It was just taking out an element. It’s a community thing again, similar to my soundscape for A Countervailing Theory, to Ceremonies Within.

Peter Adjaye

Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory runs in The Curve gallery in the Barbican Centre, London until 24 January 2021. Admission is free, and you can book your place online here.

You can find more about Adjaye via his website www.peteradjaye.com, and his Instagram @music4architecture. Adjaye’s soundscape, Ceremonies Within, is available from the Vinyl Factory or the Barbican shop.


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