Shiva Feshareki is an experimental composer and turntablist who hosts NEW FORMS on NTS Radio. She repurposes the turntable as an instrument — using live manipulations to take existing records and create completely reimagined works. SSFB talks to her about her practice.
In 2004 Shiva Feshareki stood fiddling inside the Royal Albert Hall. Since it opened in 1871 the concert hall has been a flagship for highbrow British culture. Its structure and crimsoned opulence remind you of Rome’s Colosseum, and the commotion it harbors often similar to a gladiator contest. For Shiva, the stakes weren’t much lower. She was there to watch classical musicians perform her composition “In The Attic”, a piece which requires modifying one piano in order to change its timbre. This modification — made from a rotating brush attached to a cylindrical tube of Lego — can be adjusted, allowing for real-time manipulations of the timbre and texture. It wasn’t the first time Shiva had modded a piano makeshift-style (she remembers jamming screwdrivers down the school’s piano strings ) but it was the first composition she’d ever physically written. She was 17.
Before leaving school she’d earned a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music. Aged just 18, she was thrown head-first into the fascinating but archaic labyrinth of professional composition. Shiva was tutored by the classicist Mark Anthony Turnage, a contemporary composer whose prolific output contains dozens of balletic and orchestral scores — along with an opera about a playboy bunny who married a billionaire. Shiva describes Turnage as “an amazing teacher to have,” and these roots are still important to her: “I hear about so many classically-trained musicians rejecting their education. When I do, I think ‘oh God! How can you do that? You’ve been given such an amazing toolkit. You have to use it.’”
Shiva still uses her toolkit, and this training has acted as overture to her current work: Live reinterpretations of vinyl records — deconstructing, dissecting and distorting samples through unorthodox manipulations of her turntables. A show by her features unending musical tangents from very few sources, made possible by controlling pitch, speed, tone and direction and by her swift, often instinctive reactions to sonic textures which creates a feedback loop of crooked drones and anarchic rhythms. She carries out her musical autopsies alone, or accompanied by acoustic musicians: anyone from lone jazz organist Kit Downes to full symphony orchestras. Her collaborations, along with her record choices (from 1930s musique concréte to the skittish jungle of Photek), means that Shiva floats in a peculiar sense of limbo: between the classical and the contemporary, the established and the experimental.
“I’d describe myself as genre-fluid” she explains. “One day I might have an orchestral recital, the next I’ll be performing in a smoky basement.” I suggest this double life goes further than venues — that the importance she places on improvisation runs against all of classical music’s dogmas — and she laughs. “I don’t focus my energy on who disapproves of my work,” she says. “What I love about improvising, especially with my turntables, is the physicality of the sound. What you’re creating has a direct relation to that spinning platter. When you can connect sound to movement in this way it feels so honest and easy to improvise with. It’s impossible not to feel deeply connected to these manipulations when you’re improvising like this.”
With such a strong sense of sound’s physical dimensions comes a heightened appreciation for site and situation, and particularly how it interacts with light, space, architecture and movement. Shiva has taken her turntablism to an unlikely set of places: the sobering expanse of the St John-at-Hackney church, a suburban London bridge with fascinating acoustic chromosomes, Belfast’s experimental hotspot RESIST — and a cave in the Lake District with Lee Gamble. “When I think of the space-time continuum of sound, I think about it interacting in several ways,” she says. “There’s the architecture of the space, the acoustics of the space, but also the actual aura of the space. What is its purpose or its repurpose? All these elements greatly influence the sound I create.”
A remarkable trait of Shiva is her economy — her ability to craft such a wide sonic palette from such scarce resources. Often her NEW FORMS show will feature the same few records, eclectic though they might be: Photek, Pauline Oliveros, Stravinsky and especially Berlin-based M.E.S.H. “I love working with M.E.S.H’s records, especially his first LP — Piteous Gate,” she explains. “The absolute variety of timbres and textures he creates in that record is astounding. It’s so diverse and intricate I could spend hours manipulating it.”
So is it a conscious decision to use such a restrictive approach? “Absolutely. One of the most fascinating things to me about music is perspective. Taking one record, recycling it in endless ways and manipulating it into various forms right in the moment shows a listener the expansiveness and pure endlessness of perspective. I think it’s related back to the concept of understanding: I believe most human conflict arises from misunderstanding, trying to bridge this divide has to be one of the most important roles for an artist.”
Such economy also extends to her setup: Asked why she uses a Korg KM-402 — a €300 mixer, she sighs. “Ah, the Korg. It’s a shitty mixer,” she admits. “But it’s my mixer.” It can be seen as fallout from her classical training, where students often develop restraining order-worthy attachments to their instruments, but it’s also come to define her sound: “After practicing every day with it, it becomes your instrument — and I think the restrictions on it are actually incredible. The lack of features or technological freedom forces you to make hard choices. Choices which are essential to my sound now. It goes back to practicing technological economy, which is very important to me.” I suggest she might be an Amish musician. Another laugh. “Less Amish, more symbolic” she says.
I believe most human conflict arises from misunderstanding, and trying to bridge this divide has to be one of the most important roles of an artist.
Although she doesn’t see herself this way, Shiva is the most contemporary, cutting-edge expression of turntablism: the perception of a turntable as an instrument to ply and wield. Such a view has a long history, extending further back than Grandmaster Flash or DJ Qbert would have you believe. Experimental composer John Cage wrote “Landscape No. 1” in 1939, intended for two variable speed turntables, muted pianos and a cymbal. In 1942 electronic music pioneer Daphne Oram composed an orchestral piece entitled “Still Point”. It blended acoustic sounds with live electronic manipulation and incorporated turntable playback to reposition recordings as instruments in their own right. The piece was almost lost to the world — shelved by an indifferent establishment, and skewed by scattered and sometimes illegible notations. In 2016 “Still Life” was brought to its 75-year-old debut, and Shiva was one of the main researchers and composers who worked on bringing Daphne Oram’s vision to life.
Shiva also taps into a strong vein of late — that of classical’s partnership with avant-garde or electronic styles to further explore its possibilities and retain relevance. Symphonic interpretations of Jeff Mills tracks are the most obvious examples, but what Shiva Feshareki does occupies an even stranger duality: the turntablist who packs out opera houses, the composer who sells out raves, and perhaps the kid who never really grew out of jamming screwdrivers into piano strings. “It all comes back to playing with the idea of perspective” she says. “You can use perspective in so many ways — every time as a completely different medium of communication.”