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Talkback: Galya Bisengalieva

Composer, Producer & Instrumentalist By William Stokes
Published February 2024

TalkbackPhoto: Nicol Vizioli

Galya Bisengalieva is a composer, producer and instrumentalist, whose violin playing features on works by Thom Yorke, Suzanne Ciani and Actress, as well as numerous film soundtracks including The Matrix Resurrections. Growing up in the Soviet state of Kazakhstan, her musical upbringing was shaped by a strict classical education and her grandfather’s playing of the long‑necked Turkic folk instrument, the dombra. “We weren’t allowed Western influences up until the ’90s,” she explains.

A scholarship from the Royal Academy of Music brought Bisengalieva to the UK, where she has developed her writing and production techniques alongside her instrumental skills. In 2019, having released two EPs, Bisengalieva set up her own label, Nomad Music Productions. “That was a monumental shift for me,” she says. “I self‑released those two records and also collaborated with a few amazing artists. That really shifted my thinking: it was not just about performing, but also producing a record from scratch, basically.” Bisengalieva’s latest solo album Polygon explores the story of the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan, and the 456 nuclear tests there that exposed over a million people to radiation.

At the moment I can’t stop listening to

So, it’s actually an app! It’s an app called Radiooooo. It’s like a musical journey in time, across the whole world. You can pick from most countries. And it’s made for loads of new discoveries for me. It goes from, like, the 1900s, all the way to the present day. It’s amazing. And actually, it’s been a way for me to stay connected to Kazakh music because people can upload tracks to it; so I’ve been listening to a lot of music from the 1970s, a lot of folk music from Kazakhstan. I’ve been listening to Kazakh artists like Dos‑Mukasan, and Roza Rymbaeva, too. Dos‑Mukasan are a band; I think they were quite heavily influenced by the Beatles in the ’70s. Roza Rymbaeva is a famous singer, also from the ’70s and ’80s. She’s actually originally from Semipalatinsk, which Polygon is based on. Yeah, these people were very prominent during that time. Radiooooo is such a great app. It just feels... communal.

The project I’m most proud of

I guess it’d be my first EP. It was just such an epic undertaking, also with setting up the label. It represented a transition from being a classical performer and improviser into a composer‑producer role, shall we say! It just felt like a big step. A really nice moment was when Actress remixed ‘Tulpar’, and it was so great because we had collaborated together before that. We made a track just called ‘Galya Beat’! It was just such a nice place to be in. To have a track of yours being remixed by such a great artist. He’s amazing.

The first thing I look for in a studio

The red Persian carpet. Like, the ones you see everywhere! Why do I feel like studios are always so dark? Maybe because they’re often down in the basement? But in seriousness, it’s simple: I record mostly at home. Nigel Godrich introduced me to the Soyuz mics that I use now, and they have been very instrumental in my very simple setup. I just need good mics. And I need a positive headspace. I actually finished Polygon in Deptford, in Unwound Studios. And that was really nice. There, I guess I would look for the microphones, since the ones I use are pretty great! But I don’t need an extravagant setup. I’ve been part of sessions at Abbey Road, at RAK, all the big studios. But for me, for myself, I just need something very simple. So it mostly takes place at home. I just have a very simple pedal setup with a [DigiTech] Whammy and a [Source Audio] Collider, delay and reverb. I love to start with the acoustic sound of the violin and then manipulate it, as opposed to going into electronics straight away.

The person I would consider my mentor

This one is difficult! I’ve been involved with a lot of collaborations in the past with people I admire, like Pauline Oliveros and Moor Mother, and Darren — Actress — has been a big part of my life. These people have all really inspired me. Pauline Oliveros, meeting her, you get every single feeling that is in her music! She’s amazing. We did this rock piece: literally, we were hitting rocks. I still have them! If there was one from Kazakhstan, it would probably have to be my grandparents. Growing up with the sound of the dombra playing, and hearing my grandmother singing. I think maybe that’s why I gravitate towards taking folk elements into my composition.

My top tip for a successful session

I guess, for myself, it’s to keep it short, and keep it concentrated. I finished my album in December, and I only had about three hours per day to work on it, because I had a baby very recently. So it was at very specific times that I had to work. I had to have a clear goal, and not overstretch myself. And those sessions felt very proactive, because I had those time boundaries in place as I was going into the studio. So going in with a clear goal actually made it possible to finish the album. Polygon took me three years. And that’s why, this time, at the end it felt so good. I mean, I have had those sessions as well, where you have all the time in the world to create — and that can be very fruitful as well. But at some point you need to say: “This is it!”

The studio session I wish I’d witnessed

It would be, like, one of Stevie Wonder’s early sessions. Or the Beatles: I love going into Abbey Road and just feeling that presence! I mean, with the Beatles, when I was growing up [in Kazakhstan] I’m not sure they were even legal — export at that time was basically not allowed. But it’s shaped a big part of my musical tastes. I watched the Get Back documentary — it’s so great that we’ve got an insight into that. So I’d probably say the Beatles' White Album.

I just love the way those albums were recorded. The sound world. I can just hear how good the arrangements are. Like, the string playing, I love the reverse tape, all the magical effects, that I suppose they kind of created! So yeah, it’s all those innovations, but also the little hidden things that I can hear — certain things in the strings — all those elements. The quality of it, I just find it amazing.

But you know, I just feel so lucky, I’ve got to work on some of the best projects there are, in my opinion! Some of the best things that have come out recently. I’ve mentioned some of them already. But the most recent one is Sigur Rós, their latest album, ÁTTA, I did some solo violin and then we just toured with them. Hildur Guðnadóttir, on a soundtrack, working with her has been great. The National, Taylor Swift...

Galya Bisengalieva: The violin is of course such a melodic instrument: that’s what most people envisage, but I like to try to dispel that.

The producer I’d most like to work with

I think, TOKiMONSTA. She’s a Korean‑American producer and DJ. She’s cool, she’s a DJ but she has nice jazz vibes. I like the rhythms she creates. Lune Rouge, that was her album. That was quite famous. She would be my pick. I would love to meet her and work with her. Probably do something beats‑driven. I love experimenting with beats. Most of the rhythms on all of my recordings are created on the violin. Either plucking or stopping the sound or hitting the wood... I try and find really interesting ways to play it like that. The violin is of course such a melodic instrument: that’s what most people envisage, but I like to try to dispel that. So, most of the rhythms are not from percussion, they’re from that instrument. It would be cool to get a different perspective, maybe from a more electronic, eclectic‑sounding world.

But also, Missy Elliott. No, Björk! She produces most of her stuff, her sound world is incredible. The arrangements also. I mean, I’m coming at it from a string world. The way she manipulates more traditional sounds and creates them into a new thing. Yeah, I’ve been listening to Fossora, her recent album. She’s comfortable with experimentation and atonality, and not all big stars are. It’s just cool.

The part of music creation I enjoy the most

I guess it’s mainly to do with foreseeing the whole project. And telling a story. I tend to visualise my musical compositions, and they tend to tell a story in some way. I think tackling hard subjects and serious subjects has been a theme, although it wasn’t always planned, but I tend to just go there. So that energises me — and it’s not just music, it’s artwork as well. Like, the photography on Polygon is from Philip Hatcher‑Moore who worked with National Geographic, and he went to Semipalatinsk and he spent time there and interviewed survivors. And because it’s still an ongoing subject, with scientists and researchers, and the people who have been affected by the radiation. There is still so much work to do, because there has been a lot of impact on people’s health in the area. Even though they’ve closed the site, that doesn’t mean that it’s finished. I like to tell those stories, because they’re not very well known in the West. I like to try and shine a light on that.

The advice I’d give myself of 10 years ago

My advice is to do with my classical history, because I was primarily taught to interpret other people’s music, to honour and be subservient to that. In the classical world, it’s so serious. Composers and instrumentalists are really separated in that world. And I have come out from that and gone into all different areas. I love the genre‑less music world. I think music just has to be good in its content, and that’s something you can find anywhere. To have that freedom and to have your own voice. I think that’s really important. And I wish I had started that journey sooner. It all came from improvisation, collaboration, and gradually became composing and producing. So that’s been a slow journey. But I probably would tell myself to do it sooner. I mean, if you’re philosophical about it, then you can just think: This is the amount of time it took. And that’s OK.