Fernanda Aoki Navarro, a composer and a 2019–2020 Radcliffe fellow, doesn’t recognize artistic boundaries. Her genre-crossing pieces have involved performance, installations, and electronics, with instrumentation ranging from toy pianos to full orchestral ensembles. At the moment, the São Paulo–born artist is working on “Surveilled / Surveyed,” a multimedia project that explores issues of surveillance, data collection technology, and the corporeality of the performers. We spoke with her in her Byerly Hall studio, surrounded by the tools of her trade: an upright piano, a talking drum, a computer, books, projectors, and a life-size mannequin.
On the multimedia nature of “Surveilled / Surveyed”:
I like to understand the physical and psychological aspects of how [performers] make music. Not only how they play an instrument—how they feel their bodies, how they communicate with the audience. For me it’s very important to bring that corporeal realm back to performance. I try to find ways to make that visible to the audience. Part of it is to understand how, for example, the vocal apparatus works. My plan is to get MRIs, X-rays, and other images and project those back onto the performer’s body while they’re singing. It’s important for me that we don’t take for granted that performing is easy, simple, or “pretty.”
I have training as a classical pianist and a composer, but I’m very interested in things that are outside this area. So I need to learn a lot of stuff that’s out of my comfort zone. I spend hours and hours learning about technologies unrelated to music and collaborating with other people. But sometimes what I want to create isn’t yet doable, considering the current technology. Then I come back and they’re like, “Oh, whoa, that won’t work.” It’s hard in that sense, but it’s really fun.
It’s a project-to-project kind of thing. I’ve been realizing that my general process is that I spend a long time brewing ideas. There might be stuff that I’m reading in the newspaper, or a friend complaining about politics in their country. My personal angsts, or, you know, it could be just about feeling cold. I take notes, I write a little bit—mostly in English, but sometimes in Portuguese—and I draw things and I write a little bit of music. And sometimes I see images or videos or interesting things on the internet. I save all those feelings, impressions, and knowledge and create this massive mental folder, which is really a delightful mess.
On shaping a project:
The initial process is my favorite, because I’m just taking in so much. It’s pure freedom, and I love it. Then things start to take a weird shape, and I embrace the weirdness as much as I can, but I also need to put some sort of order into the chaos. I need to actually shape this into something. There are the constraints. The piece needs to be—I don’t know, 30 minutes long, for example. It will be performed by x performers at a y venue with z amount of rehearsal time, etc. That’s the difficult part for me—materializing and freezing those wildly free ideas into a tangible work for the audience.
On mixing work and life:
My partner has a very “normal” life. He goes to work at eight, comes back at six. His life has a very clear structure. But that kind of temporal structure is very destructive for me. I like to stay up until two or three, when everything is quiet, everyone is asleep and I’m alone. I don’t like to wake up until eight hours after that, which brings a lot of guilt, because in our society we think that if you wake up at six, you’re winning in life.
I’m not an athlete at all, but when I’m really stressed out and I can’t organize my ideas or deal with my emotions, I run as fast as I can until I get really tired and my whole body hurts. Then I’m like, OK, I exist in this body; I’m not only the ideas.
I like to do my nails, not necessarily because of vanity, but because when my nails are wet, I can’t do anything. It’s an exercise in being patient.
On finishing a project:
I really like the process, but once you finish the piece, it’s over. This beautiful world that you were living in—it’s gone. It’s a little bit of a relief, but it’s also mourning. And then you feel empty, and then you need to find other problems to solve or think about.
Interview was edited for clarity and space.
Clea Simon is a novelist and freelance writer in Cambridge.