An interview with Sofia Hultquist, whose compositions for fashion and film focus on the stimulation of human senses.
Through her work as an artist and composer, Sofia Hultquist is pushing the boundaries of music and film, using technology as her paintbrush to color the senses across a canvas of limitless heights. A Masters in 3D audio from NYU and a lifelong obsession with fashion have given way to an evocative conversion of sight and sound. To witness her work is to get a glimpse into the future.
"I just thought it was one of those 'old white men' careers," Hultquist admits, when first discovering the world of composing and film scoring. "I never thought that it would be something that I'd be able to get in to. But there was something that made me curious about it."
Sofia, whose is known in professional circles by her stage/composer/artist name, Drum & Lace, now boasts an impressive resumé and client list. With projects ranging from writing music for fashion films for designers like Rachel Comey, to composing for feature-length films, and co-scoring the fashion documentary The First Monday In May, which opened the Tribeca Film Festival 2016.
It was long before her days of creating works for fashion and film that Hultquist felt the connection between sight and sound was one worth exploring. "I realized much of the music that I'd ever written with a guitar, or whatever, was always based on a visual image that I created," she says.
As one of the few women in the field of music composition, Hultquist was unaware that using technology to make music was in her grasp. As an undergrad at Berklee School of Music, Hultquist first viewed technology as a foreign and daunting undertaking, recalling one of her first experiences with technology saying, "The one class that I nearly failed in undergrad was music tech, which was a requirement for a semester. And I just remember nearly having this guttural rejection to anything technological, because I was brought up traditional in like, 'Men and boys do stuff with technology, and girls, it's just not cute.' So, I think that made me legitimately scared of not understanding technological concepts."
But instead of giving in to such stereotypes, Hultquist viewed technology as a challenge, and a way to empower herself. "I wound up getting a math tutor, and a tutor for digital signal processing because they were concepts that weren't extremely natural to me. I really pushed myself - I used my understanding of the basics of sound to get me through it." She credits her ability to get past her fears to diving into learning how to use Max/MSP. "It was an integral part of understanding how machines and technology work inside and outside of the box."
Growing up in Florence, Italy, Hultquist was exposed to the tailors and dress makers crafting garments for the world's top designers. As a result, Hultquist possesses an inherent appreciation for fabrics and their nuances, which she translates to a palate for her sounds and visuals. "There are times during the year that the streets smell like leather," she exclaims. "Just knowing how silk feels or knowing the difference between something that's linen, and something that's wool - it feels really good when you're able to write something that fits a mood."
In fashion, runway shows and video look books beg for a fluidity - between what you're seeing and what you're hearing, and often there is a disconnect. "When I started venturing into writing music for fashion," says Hultquist, "I felt like everything was kind of flat. They were putting music on that they were liking, but they weren't thinking about their line, or their mood, or what their season was really saying."
Hultquist has the foresight to recognize this and works to conjoin the two pieces in sensorial harmony. Sharing a recent experience, Hultquist recalls, "I got to work with a designer a few seasons ago, and their whole mood and aesthetic was inspired by the Bauhaus Ballet. Everything had stripes and red and these surreal shapes, and it was just really cool because instead of going with the particular sound they are known for, they wanted a modern version, which was a little Prince inspired."
She goes on to explain how she works to fulfill a client's vision in fashion versus film, "So it's like, 'Ok, how do you take this kind of shoot-for-the-moon, galactic thing and take the reference that they have regarding their fabrics, and put it all together?' It's always a fun challenge. It's a more fundamental step, compared to film, because film is such a composite, whereas fashion is just one of those elements. It's a great, kind of pure exercise in writing based on something that is just visual and not even moving."
The ability to elicit emotion from an audience is what most artists aspire to achieve. How to do so depends on a variety of factors, many of which have nothing to do with talent or a more profound understanding. Hultquist believes, "There are trends in music that make people feel like something is pleasing. The reason why I've been able to work and do a lot of things is that people see beyond those trends.
Of course, there's a benefit to playing the game and doing things one way, because it leads to that kind of instant, exponential success. I think it's more interesting when you can create your own formula, or at least sound consistent and have your own sound regardless of what people think is pleasing at the moment."
Today, the way we absorb information is more visual-focused than ever. With the advent of YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram, visual consumption has become the favored mode of intake. As an artist communicating to the world through sight, another dimension of their work has become a necessity for a visual identity. According to Hultquist, "Visuals, live shows, and music videos have become such an additional way to express yourself, and to root yourself in an aesthetic, and for a lot of musicians and composers, that kind of help in creating your own sound and something that people seek you out for.
"There are trends in music that make people feel like something is pleasing. The reason why I've been able to work and do a lot of things is that people see beyond those trends." - Sofia Hultquist
Especially with things like Instagram, the visual curation of that is so important. Having a visual identity, whether it's for show or just in general is really important, and it's going to keep evolving."
This need to build an individual brand as a marketing tool has lent to creators becoming more multifaceted in their talents and efforts to be successful. Hultquist argues it's part of the evolutionary process, "Nowadays, we're so used to constantly seeking stimulation. As a musician and composer, you have to record and produce, and just kind of do everything, because there aren't budgets to do anything better. That's just become the modern musician; it's become the standard. At the same time, you have to work on having yourself look and sound a certain way."
As saturation of the market has matured, a creator's ability to exercise restraint has become a valuable tool when choosing what equipment to use. A sentiment Hultquist believes leads to more ingenuity saying, "If you focus on the 40 things you know how to do really well, instead of going for the 1,000 things out there, in the long run, that'll help to curate and better create your sound, while giving you have a better understanding and more knowledge of technology."
The concept of 'less is more,' has become a powerful one, urging artists to delve deeper into the capabilities of the tools they already own. "There are so many ways of approaching different tools. I use the OP-1 synth, and the possibilities are endless. You can record things into it, and you can chop things up as you're playing it."
As with artists' need to do it all, equipment that offers simplicity and the willingness to be malleable, allows the user to create without technical limits or reliance on canned sounds. Talking about the tools Hultquist is currently working with, she says, "We just got a Novation Peak, which has been incredible. My husband did a whole ambient set on it. It's been a lot of fun to play around on. The sounds are just so big without really needing to do too much, which is pretty incredible."
Despite being a masterful sound designer, excited to experiment with synths, modulars and more, as a woman in the music tech space, Hultquist's career has one fraught with doubt. "There's still a bias," she says. "Not believing that women can write music. There's a skepticism that has probably been ingrained for years and decades."
"[Studying 3D Audio at NYU] has given me a deeper knowledge of technology, and a chance to break the rules." - Sofia Hultquist
When asked what she does, she's met with something of a double-take, "They're like, 'Wait - you write music? Or 'Wait- you use the computer to do this?' There's always that extra skepticism that somebody like my husband, who's also a composer, never gets. I've kind of gotten used to it. They always expect that you're just the plus one."
Discussing the experience of being, a 'woman' in the music tech space is a double-edged sword. Wanting to be recognized for her work as a composer and creator, Hultquist believes recognition of women in the field still requires more than it does for their male counterparts. She sums up the idea with a Madeleine Albright quote, "There's plenty of room in the world for mediocre men, but there is no room for mediocre women. You have to work. You have to work exceptionally hard, and you have to know what you're talking about."
As the societal pillars of traditional gender roles begin to chip away, Hultquist is hopeful about the future of women in music tech. "Today there's a lot more role models for women, and there are a lot more people who are being vocal about it."
With a diverse arsenal of experience and accomplishments, Hultquist has been able create new worlds that celebrate the senses and evoke emotions. She credits her success to a willingness to experiment and go beyond what's already been written, saying "I feel like grad school - where I focused on 3D audio and learning to use field recordings to recreate environments - has given me a deeper knowledge of technology and a chance to break the rules that I was originally taught."
"This realization that I maybe have a knack for music tech has motivated me to push the boundaries for myself as much possible. I would love to be even a little role model for other women or girls, who like me, had no idea that somebody could do stuff like this when I was 12, or 13 or 14."
Drum & Lace's newly released single 'Snakeskin' is now available on all digital platforms. Upcoming performances include an ambient set on March 11th 2018 at The Pico-Union Project in Los Angeles, CA as part of the Naked Art Happening immersive concert series. You can follow Drum & Lace on Soundcloud, Instagram, Twitter, Spotify and Facebook.
Words: Andriana Albert
Photos: Chris Mayes-Wright