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Syna So Pro’s Electronic Music, Forged At CAM, Provides A Soundscape For Art

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Tonina Saputo
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Syrhea Conaway
Syna So Pro wrote and performed new music for nine First Fridays at CAM. She's culled some of that work for a new double album.

St. Louis-based electronic musician Syrhea Conaway, who performs as Syna So Pro, set a goal for her nine months of performances in residence at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis in 2019. She wanted to write and perform two hours of original music for each monthly appearance, inspired by the art on the walls.

Conaway didn’t quite go that far, but she created about an hour of new music for each occasion — which still adds up to a massive amount of material. She pulled it off while juggling other work, including a commission by Chamber Music Society of St. Louis and her duties as an adjunct faculty member at the COCA arts center in University City.

More than an hour of that music is available on her couple album “CHILL/HYPE,” released on digital platforms today. She’ll perform some of it Saturday on the bill for the reopening of Lucas Schoolhouse in St. Louis.

Conaway grew up in Rolla and moved to St. Louis to study to become a pharmacist. But she soon decided to be an alchemist of sound instead. She conjures soundscapes from interlocking digital loops and synthesizer parts.

She spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy Goodwin about her new album, and how childhood experiences may affect her music.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: How did you go about creating music to accompany the work at CAM?

Syrhea Conaway: I wanted to curate an emotion inside the space. When folks are listening to music, they hone in on the lyrics, on the story, and I wanted the story to be the visual art and anyone’s open interpretation of that. I deliberately did not want to use lyrics.

Goodwin: I remember the first night you performed at CAM. And I loved the music, but it felt like maybe you and the audience were still figuring out how to act in this situation. Is this a dance party? Are we supposed to sit and watch the artist carefully and applaud?

Does that match at all with how you experienced it?

Conaway: To be honest, I’m not sure if I was paying the audience any attention. I didn’t want it to be really about me so I deliberately wasn’t engaging with the audience at all. Of course the two-hour sets were seamless so I made no time for the audience to even applaud, period. I just didn’t want clapping to take place in the gallery. I thought that would interrupt whatever experience other people were having while they were viewing other pieces of work.

I know it sounds really weird. Like, “Hey, I’m writing all the music and I’m playing all the parts and playing all the instruments and come to my show, I’m the only person in the band — but it’s not about me!”

It sounds kind of silly, but honestly that’s what’s in my heart. Although I’m very much an extroverted person, I definitely know when to take space and when to make space. And when push comes to shove, I’m totally fine with stepping in the background and being the person behind the scenes. And that’s how I treated the residency, as far as audience participation.

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Tonina Saputo
Syna So Pro wanted to "curate a mood" while performing at the Contemporary Art Museum.

Goodwin: Your personality comes out so readily when you talk about your work. I suppose you find other ways to express it, other than using words.

Conaway: Change is constant. I like to challenge myself. What’s the next challenge? I’m very grateful for the residency at CAM because I was low-key, feeling a bit burned out on what I was doing, and it presented a new challenge for me.

I really feel it came in this synchronistic way, where I put this challenge on myself to take from the visual and make some sonic compositions and I’ve never really done that before. And the next thing I know, I’m writing music for plays for several theater companies. I’m being commissioned to write a classical piece for the Chamber Project of St. Louis. It’s opened up a new pathway for me to express myself as a human and a person and also to connect to other people through emotion and experience, and I’m extremely grateful.

Goodwin: When you’re in your studio, you’re the boss. It must be very different when you’re working with directors and choreographers and people working in different art forms, on the same project.

Conaway: There’s different rules that apply whenever you’re working with theater companies. My approach is to really listen to what everybody is doing and then find my spot. A lot of the time, I’ll find it right away. But if I’m struggling a bit, I’ll just sit a minute and take a moment to really find where I am needed.

I overthink, and I’m working on it. My brain does not need to be hyperactive all the time.

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Tonina Saputo
The musician says her habit of "overthinking" things may be reflected in her dense compositions, often filled with carefully interlocking musical parts.

Goodwin: Do you hear that in the music sometimes?

Conaway: It’s interesting because the slowness of 2020 made me look at myself as a person in many different ways. And I was doing a lot of unpacking of childhood trauma and I didn’t realize I was perpetually kind of gaslit in many different avenues as a child. Especially being the only Black person — I’m not talking about Black girl; I’m talking about Black person — in my class that graduated from Rolla [High School].

So having my voice kind of being ignored and me made to feel that I’m crazy or this, that or the other, I think came into me overexplaining myself. It’s just me having learned that I have to have absolute proof to everything or no one’s going to believe me.

I wonder if that has bled into my creative output of literally overcomposing with so many different parts everywhere and so many different layers. Every little thought that goes on in my brain has to have its own score. And how can these scores work together? I’m wondering if that’s where that came from. Because I’m very much drawn to big, orchestral, many-moving-parts pieces, and I think that’s kind of how my brain works.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

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