Maya Shenfeld: A Sonic Adventurer

Maya Shenfeld talks Berlin, her album Free Fall, and her upcoming workshop with Ableton’s Loop Create

Words By Alice Connolly O'Brien

Maya Shenfeld is a Jerusalem-born Berlin-based musician and composer. Though a classically trained guitarist, Shenfled isn’t afraid to experiment, tamper with, and test the limits of music, and her recent album titled Free Fall is a fine example of that. Whether it be through hallowed recording locations or unconventional inspirations, Maya continues to evolve her music in a way that keeps her audience on their toes, and this month, she’ll be sharing her industry knowledge via an online workshop with Abelton’s Loop Create. Discover more about Abelton’s Loop Create here.

Born in Jerusalem and based in Berlin, your personal identity has been influenced by two cultures that are notoriously rich, layered, and distinctive. How have both informed your creative voice?
This might sound like a cliché but Berlin’s openness and avant-garde music and art scenes have definitely informed my practice. Encountering a culture in which being an artist or a composer can be recognised as a full time profession [although it might not be easy] rather than a hobby or a side hustle, or a thing just for the lucky few, has been a pivotal moment in my life. I had so many sonic adventures here: between my classical music studies at the UdK, performing at the Konzerthaus and Neuköllner Oper, playing with indie rock bands in Internet Explorer and Loophole for a while, to performing my own electronic sets. Though despite having lived in Berlin for over a decade, Jerusalem is still a huge part of who I am generally, and musically. Especially the old-world, rigorous classical music conservatory I attended from a very young age, and  later rejected – just to rediscover that so much of what I know and the love I have for music is thanks to the years I spent learning and performing there. The Sehnsucht to Jerusalem, and a bit of a heartbreak over to socio-political complexity it unfolds find their way into the music. But it’s not just sadness, it is the sunny land of milk and honey, and I think that there’s something about the warmth, kindness, and love that I carry with me (especially after visiting) that I hope are a part of the music too.

How does the Berlin of today inspire your music and performance?
I feel like we’re still coming out of the pandemic, and so it’s difficult to say in what ways Berlin influences my practice at this point in time, since a lot of the focus shifted inwards in the last years. I think it’s no coincidence that both the Tate Modern and the Venice biennale had central shows revolving around surrealism this year, Surrealism Without Borders at the Tate, and the Milk of Dreams in Vennice. It is as if we’re all waking up from a blurry dream, and whilst we were in it, we were dreaming of alternative realities, bodies, futures. Both shows were incredibly inspiring, but I’m also ready to get back to the here and now, celebrate the culture that’s around us, influence and be influenced. 

Though your catalog and creative voice are incredibly distinctive, you list artists such as Coleen and Emptyset among your creative inspirations. Talk to me about how these artists, and others, have inspired you to forge your own sound path.
With Emptyset it goes beyond inspiration: James Ginzburg is a close friend, and has been incredibly supportive throughout the process of making the record. We worked together on the sound design of the track Mountain Larkspur, featuring the Bethanien youth choir. James has a very distinctive sound sculpting approach (lots of compression is a big part of it), and he’s always after a deeper meaning and expanding the boundaries of our sonic experience, I feel very lucky to have collaborated with him. One of the many things I love about Colleen’s music is that for each record she works with a very distinct sound palette and makes the most of it. There’s something unique about the way she strikes the balance between a singer-songwriter’s approach, to electroacoustic composition, with some meditative drone influences.

What other artists are inspiring you right now?
This one’s a never ending list, but off my mind I’d say I really like Aya, her show is one of the best I’ve seen this year. Bendikt Giske’s Cracks is such a finely woven record, I feel like I discover something new with each listen. Caterina Barbieri keeps on being one of the most inspiring voices of our present moment, pushing the boundaries of synthesis, drone music, and minimalism. Amnesia Scanner’s goose-bump inducing futuristic reggaeton doom is at the top of my list. And Midori Hirano’s Invisible Island is one of my favourite recent electroacoustic records.

You released your debut solo album In Free Fall early this year and it was welcomed with much acclaim. The album is said to have been named after German-Japanese artist Hito Steyerl’s essay of the same title. What was it about this essay that triggered such a creative chord in you?
Things came together in parallel, during the final stages of working on the album I was playing with the idea of free fall, as a way of describing the sensation of falling, floating, shifting perspective, in other words, losing grasp, or any sense of a stable horizon. When I mentioned this to a close friend he sent me Steyrel’s essay, in which the starting point is a sense of groundlessness ascribed to the present moment by contemporary philosophers. She writes “As you are falling, your sense of orientation may start to play additional tricks on you. The horizon quivers in a maze of collapsing lines and you may lose any sense of above and below, of before and after, of yourself and your boundaries. […] This disorientation is partly due to the loss of a stable horizon. And with the loss of horizon also comes the departure of a stable paradigm of orientation, which has situated concepts of subject and object, of time and space, throughout modernity. In falling, the lines of the horizon shatter, twirl around, and superimpose.” Steyrel’s essay was published in 2011, but the opening paragraphs felt as relevant as ever, something about this feeling of being “in free fall” rings true with the bodily and emotional experiences I’ve had producing, performing, and listening back to this music.

The album features collaborations on tracks such as Cataphora, Voyager, and Mountain Larkspur, James Ginzburg form empty set, Berlin-based brass instrumentalist Kelly O’Donohue and the Bethanien Youth Choir among others. Did you begin these tracks without the aim of collaboration or did you intentionally source artists’ sound/expertise for certain tracks you had already envisioned?
The collaborations with the youth choir and Kelly O’Donohue (trumpet) were in the framework of projects I initiated since I was motivated to compose and record both the choir and brass instruments. The collaboration with James evolved more naturally through our friendship.

The last track I mentioned, Mountain Larkspur, contained sounds that were collected at an abandoned 1902 swimming pool in Berlin. What power does such a recording location lend to a track?
I think the main thing was actually the way it impacted the performance of the choir. The score I wrote for this is quite flexible, and so the choir could sustain notes for as long as they wanted to and play with the resonance of the space. And I think that the atmosphere in the building and the space itself also had an affect on the general feel and sound they created together. I was just lucky I captured this moment recording with my phone, it was never a deliberate plan for this project to end up being a part of the record, it all evolved pretty spontaneously.

You’re due to be taking part in Abelton’s Loop Create, a day of online activities for music makers of all experience levels, later this month. What can participants expect from this event?
It’s going to be a very inspiring day revolving around music making and collaboration, with no prerequeisties, open to all levels of experience. I think it’s an exciting opportunity for music enthusiasts to explore, discover, learn important and timely (after the pandemic during which jamming together was pushed to the sides). I think it’s fantastic DAW’s and music making apps are more available than ever before, but I’m also wondering if it might be changing the way we collaborate musically. And so I’m all for thinking of ways to demystify musical collaboration, and reflecting about processes that might motivate our music making community to collaborate more.

What will you be offering via your own workshop?
My session is about using text scores to create a framework for collaboration as well as explore less conventional music making approaches. In the studio, we can often find ourselves stuck while trying to compose that perfect hook, chord progression, or beat. Collaboration too, can be intimidating sometimes, where do does one start? What should everyone’s role in the studio be?

Text scores, or in other words, instruction based music, offer a conceptual approach in which any idea or inspiration can be turned into a musical experience, and anyone can participate: no particular skills are required. Leaning on this process can also help blur traditional roles in the studio and create an equal ground for collaboration. During the session, we’ll talk about the lineage of artists working in this way, you’ll see me working in the studio with vocalist and producer Lani Bagley (Ducks!) and double bassist and composer Caleb Salgado, and most importantly we’ll be making our own text scores and make music following them.

In addition to your own workshop for Loop Create, creative minds such as Juba, Sam Slater and Aquarian are also on the lineup. Are there any sessions you’re particularly looking forward to yourself?
There’s something for me in all of the sessions, and if I won’t make it to some during the day I’ll definitely stream them later. But some of my highlights include Hildur Guðnadóttir and Sam Slater’s session, collaboration around composition and production can be tricky to navigate, and I’m excited to learn from them. Aquarian’s topics: remote collaboration and ‘hybrid music’, pushing the boundaries of musical genres, are right up my alley, and I’m sure there’ll be lots to discover during this session.

Thus far in your career, you have explored a multitude of modes, projects, and instruments. What is next on your creative bucket list?
This year, I’ll still be touring quite a bit, I’m looking forward to the show at the Elb Philharmonie in Hamburg this November, and the short documentary I scored this summer titled The Flagmakers will be coming out on National Geographic and Disney+ in November, so lots of excitement. I’m also working on a collaboration with video artist Pedro Maia, we’re planning to premier an A/V show next spring, which I’m very much looking forward to.

Hit up for all her upcoming gigs and news, and join Maya for a day of creative music making at Loop Create on Saturday October 29.