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Sascha Ley is a successful German-Luxembourgish actress, director and producer. She is also a talented singer, songwriter and composer who revels in the freedom of improvised jazz. Rhona Richards found out what inspired her to become a performer and why she chose to follow an unconventional musical path…
What came first music or acting?
I started to learn music when I was five and learnt to play the flute andlater the piano. But, I also wanted to sing, to act, to dance. Sometimes I think it’s because I watched so many films as a child, all the old musicals! I remember seeing ‘West Side Story’ when I was nine and knowing that I wanted to be part of that world.
You’re an award winning actress (In 2005 Sascha was named “Studio Hamburg European Shooting Star” at the Berlin Film Festival) Did you always think you’d be successful?
No! I was turned down by many acting schools so decided that I should go to university to study linguistics in the meanwhile. However, I never stopped being passionate about acting and making music and after one semester and a heavy accident I decided that I had to focus on what I really wanted to do. During the auditions I often felt that I didn’t fit in and also I was quite shy. I could be confident on stage but I wasn’t the sort of person who could walk into a room and say “Hi, I’m Sascha. Look how great I am.”
I’ve learnt how to put myself forward through working. There’s a definite difference between my public life and my private life. I’m still not an exhibitionist and, whether it’s when I’m acting or when I’m making music, I don’t want it to be just about me. It’s the project as a whole that is important.
What attracted you to jazz?
Again, the old movies were an influence and my parent’s records as that’s where I first heard jazz. Of course, that was a more traditional sound and rather different from the music I compose. But, I just loved the sound, the harmonies and the rhythms. Later I realized that jazz doesn’t have to follow a particular path. You can take a standard and suggest your own interpretation. What a wonderful challenge!
For a while I stopped listening to vocal music and just listened to instrumentals. That’s when I started to understand the art of improvisation. My researches in terms of improvisation and various styles, from classical and contemporary to modern and also folkloristic music, taught me to create my own music and my own sound.
I think your vocals have a primal resonance. It’s a unique sound. What encouraged you to follow a more unconventional musical path?
I took my first singing lesson when I was eighteen and my teacher was terrible. He destroyed my confidence and within three months I couldn’t sing in front of anyone. I loved singing so much but now I was inhibited.
During my stay in Germany, I eventually went to a different singing teacher who helped me to rebuild both my confidence and my technique. I realized that there is more than one ‘right’ way to sing and that what matters beyond any good technique is the dialogue between the music, the vocalist and the audience. Free Improvisation allows me to express myself in a way that feels completely natural. When I’m improvising I feel at home.
A lot of singers find the idea of improvising absolutely terrifying…
It can be risky but it’s also liberating. The free improvisation is something you have to learn and practice as well, in order to discover and develop your own vocabulary.
I am not a fan of boring moments, so I feel when I need to move onto something different, a new sound or beat. And, being totally in tune with the fellow musicians, it’s the most wonderful feeling.
Do you use improvisation when you’re creating a character for theatre or film?
For every character I have a different approach. Sometimes I first explore the character through the movement, sometimes through the words right away. Movement is very important to me. My first appearance in front of an audience was as a dancer and it’s only when I find the physicality of a character that I fee I really comprehend the person I’m playing.
Your character develops during rehearsals starting by trying out what could be true or not – which is also a sort of improvising. This long progress of grasping the character is what I enjoy most on stage. I enjoy film as well, particularly when it comes to rather offbeat productions.
Musically, I would like to continue to travel and learn more about different musical cultures. I spent some time studying in India and I found it such an exciting and fundamental experience. The travels (in persona and only with my ears as well) dramatically helped me to expand my musical vocabulary.
I’d also really like to visit Africa because I’m fascinated by the way some of the African tribes use and create sound, that only exists there or at least has been born on that continent. Some use their voices in a way that is totally different from the way we vocalize in the West.
With improvised jazz I feel that there is still so much to discover, not only about my voice but also about the way in which different objects can be used to make sound. I’ve started to explore instruments and electronics and that’s something I’d like to incorporate into future work.
For more information about Sascha Ley and details of all her upcoming concerts and performances visit [www.saschaley.com]