Sarah Hennies is a composer and percussionist based in Ithaca, New York. Her website is http://www.sarah-hennies.com, and she also runs a label called Weighter Recordings. We spoke on December 16th, and decided to include a portion of our follow-up email exchange in this documentation of our interview.
Can you talk about one or two of your early or most meaningful encounters with experimental music?
The first thing that comes to mind is not necessarily experimental music. It’s a rock band, but they were like a post Sonic Youth, like a rock band doing weird things. So when I was 13, a friend of mine who was a few years older than me and could drive took me to my first punk show, which was like, one day, there was a Poison poster on the wall, and the next day it was gone. I was just like, okay, this is obviously what I care about now. And where I grew up in Louisville in the mid-90s had a really, really active kind of indie underground music scene. So I just started going to everything, and one of the shows I went to, I saw this band from Washington, DC called Pitchblende, and it just completely— And I think this is part of why I never got into Sonic Youth, because I heard some bands that were definitely influenced by Sonic Youth but doing weirder things than them. So by the time I actually heard Sonic Youth’s records, I was kind of already onto something more out there than them. But I remember seeing this band and just— I don’t even know what my reaction was other than, I just was so into it and excited about it, and bought their album and their t-shirt. And they were only around for three albums, but I was just totally obsessed with this band, and then through that band, that led me to all of these other things like The Ex and a lot of weird underground electronic music. And so that’s the first thing that I thought of without even really thinking.
Can you recall what was out there about them?
Yeah, they used weird rhythms. They did not look cool. They didn’t look like nerds either, but they just didn’t look like regular punk people. And they’re doing a lot with not noise, but dissonant things with guitars, and kind of wall of sound type things. I’m not being very descriptive.
That’s getting at it though, for sure.
But I think that I wasn’t confused by it, but I was just like, oh my god, what is this, and like, this is amazing. And I’m basically still like that. What I always tell people is that the music that I’m interested in is anything that can provoke that reaction in me, of being like, what is this? And I’m definitely consciously trying to do that with a lot of the stuff that I’m making myself, too.
That really makes a lot of sense. I’ve often thought about experimental music in terms of asking questions. So I guess I’m curious, is the what is this sort of a rhetorical what is this, or is it an actual, what is this thing?
I think it’s both. I feel like if you’re in a situation that provokes you to think, what the hell is going on here, then that already means that you’ve noticed something about the music that you may not have with something else. And that to me is a really interesting space to be in. And also, people always say they want to make things that stand up to repeated listening, but it’s like, if you make something, not only that you don’t immediately understand or recognize, but also makes you want to know what’s going on, then that to me is like the sign of a good piece of music. When I was a teenager, that was what I did. I heard this one band, and they became my favorite band probably because they were the first band that I ever heard that were in some way informed by experimental music. And then I just started going to the record store all the time and reading things, like the Trouser Press Guide, and really consciously seeking out what I thought were the weirdest things that I could find.
And then I think the other kind of proper experimental music thing, like first encounter is when after my second year of high school, I changed high schools to a school with a performing arts magnet program. And at that time, I had no knowledge at all of, for lack of a better word, Western avant-garde classical tradition music, like composer music, basically, and also did not know that music school was a thing that you could go to. I didn’t think of drums in the same way that I thought of cello when I was 14, and then switched schools and met these two percussionists who were already playing four-mallet marimba and were into percussion as a thing. And then that led me to, I think what it was is that I wanted to learn one of the Elliott Carter timpani pieces, and so I found a recording. There were hardly any recordings of those pieces at the time. I don’t know if there are now, actually. But the CD that I found, I special ordered, was this weird CD of all American composers whose names started with C. And so just because I was trying to find a recording of a timpani piece, and I ended up learning who John Cage and George Crumb were because of this timpani piece. And I heard Second Construction, and I was like, this is amazing. Where can I find more of this? And that was how I got into, for lack of a better word, composer experimental music, through buying recordings, because I wanted to play a timpani piece.
By Elliott Carter. That’s really amazing. So you found that recording, and then did you play some Cage following that?
Yeah, I played, the first time that I played Cage’s One(4) was on my senior year solos and ensembles showcase concert.
And it was one of these things. It’s a performing arts school, so everyone has a piece in it. And I remember— I’m so glad I get to tell this story in print, because I tell people this all the time, but it’s never come up in an interview. So this concert was just endless. It was so long. And I was playing One(4) by John Cage, and deliberately put in silences in it, and that kind of is going to happen no matter what, just from playing the piece. And at some point during one of the silences, I heard someone in the audience who was definitely someone’s parent do this. They went, [big sigh]. And I remember, I almost started laughing onstage, because I thought it was so funny. And then I ended up releasing a recording of that piece like 20 years later.
That’s so perfect.
Yeah. because I had a copy of the Steve Weiss music catalog, and my high school was across the street from the music library at the college at University of Louisville. So between those two things, I would just go look at stuff. And I had a CD with a John Cage piece on it, so I was like, oh, there’s a seven-minute-long John Cage percussion solo. I should buy that score and play it, not knowing that I was going to get this totally different thing. But I don’t think I even questioned it. I just was like, yeah, great, let’s do it. I can’t believe I forgot about that CD, because I’ve remembered that before as like, that that was how I found out who John Cage was.
So you started with percussion in high school then.
Hmm hmm. I had already been playing in a couple different bands since I was 13, and then when I was 16 is when I started doing percussion stuff.
Yeah, I had always been in the band in school. But I think I mostly, I liked playing in band and orchestra, but I mostly regarded it as a way to not have to go to a different class.
I think this has been touched on in your answer to the first question, but I always like to ask it anyway. It’s kind of a pair of questions. What is it that’s compelling to you about experimental music, and how does it connect with your experience more broadly?
Oh, god, that is a complicated question. I don’t know— Oh, god.* What I tell myself, that why I’m interested in it is because I like weird things and I like that weird things make the world more interesting. But then, and I was talking about this with Steve Smith too a little bit, of like, well that’s cool and that makes sense, but it kind of begs the question of, well why do you like weird things, and most people don’t? And I don’t totally know the answer to that, except that I, since I was a kid, have felt like a weird person, so it makes sense that I would be drawn to weird music, because if you’re 16 and you feel like a weirdo and you find out that there’s a decades-long tradition of people doing weird stuff, there’s definitely this feeling of like, oh my god, it’s my people, that you didn’t know existed before then. I guess I answered the question.
Yeah, I think so. It may develop further, but I can relate to that as well.
[The following three paragraphs came out of a follow-up email exchange on February 1, 2018. It was in response to my appreciative comment on the opening statement I asterisked above.]
Nick Storring was just interviewing me and we were talking about contralto, and I told him how when I asked people the question, “can you describe dysphoria?” (this is the question they’re responding to in the part of the film where they’re just talking instead of making weird noises) EVERYONE’S answer started with some variation of, “oh well… um… uhhh….” My whole “oh god, this is complicated…” etc. is a total deflection because I immediately knew the answer to your question and it’s really not complicated at all, I just instinctively got scared to give you the real answer. It is still hard and scary for me to just flat out say, “i feel weird because i’m a trans woman!” It’s this internalized thing where (I think, not to speak for others too much), we instinctively don’t think we’re allowed to be trans or express why we feel a certain way and we’re afraid to tell anyone, even if everyone already knows. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like this innate, “DON’T TALK ABOUT THIS!” feeling that is not unlike how it felt to be me at 16 years old.
The whole question of, “how does it relate to your experience more broadly?” Like… how much time to do you have?
So finding experimental music was like finding this completely OK acceptable and even respected way of being a weirdo and as soon as I encountered it I couldn’t get enough of it, and the more crazy of a thing I could find the more I liked it. This is pretty much still true today for me.
I took Herbert Brün’s experimental music seminar or composition seminar when I was an undergrad for two years, and he used the word composition in a way that meant, if you were composing, then that means you’re doing something that didn’t exist before. And he always said that the reason to compose music is because you like music and you want it to stay around a little longer. So you make your own thing because it makes it last longer. Like it was through this filter of information theory where everything decays and dies. And I still basically believe this, too. But his whole thing was that by composing music that is doing things that other people haven’t done before, that means that you’re making music as a whole stay around longer than it would have if you hadn’t have made the thing.
Oh, that’s interesting. So it’s sort of renewing and enlivening. I guess that leads me to another little question. Do you think the idea of experimental for you, is about doing things first, or about doing new things?
Definitely not doing— Well I guess they’re kind of the same thing, but I’m not worried about being the first to do something. But I believe that all people are potentially equally interesting, and that doing this kind of work is, at least is my way of doing that for myself. It sounds like kind of a cliché, like everyone’s a special snowflake, but I actually do believe that, in the same way that several years ago when I was doing Lucier’s triangle solo and all of these constant pulse pieces of my own, that I was telling somebody I stopped doing them because I found out that you could do it with anything. Because I was like, oh my god, look at this amazing thing that the snare drum does when you play it like this. And then it was like, oh, the woodblock does this too. Oh, and the triangle does this. And I realized that it worked with anything, that if every sound has the potential to create that kind of experience, which then I had to stop writing pieces like that because I just felt like if you could do it with anything, then that meant that I needed to do something else.
That’s interesting. Some people would have said, oh, I’m just going to do it with everything then. That’ll be my thing.
Yeah. Did you ever see that documentary, We Live in Public?
It’s really good. I don’t need to explain the whole movie for the purpose of this story, but it’s about this internet tycoon who was doing these weird art projects, and because he just had so much money, he could do all this crazy stuff. But he created this underground bunker in New York City that was sort of this constant surveillance thing. This was pre-Facebook or YouTube or social media, and he was basically predicting— Whatever, this is not important. The point is, he was doing this project, and it turned into total chaos, and he just stopped paying attention to it once that happened, because someone in the documentary said that he lost interest as soon as he saw that the project did exactly what he thought it would do. And so he just stopped caring and let it go crazy. And it’s not exactly the same with me, but it’s kind of the same idea, where it was like, I didn’t think of making those pieces as setting out to prove something, but I kind of inadvertently proved to myself that it’s just not that interesting to me to do the same thing a bunch of times, which is funny to say in the context of making pieces that’s one sound played over and over again.
There’s some irony there that’s healthy. I’m not sure if I want to keep this next question in the interview or not, but I feel like it could be interesting to ask you because you’ve mentioned it already. Do you identify with other musical genres or practices apart from experimental, and do you find that they complement each other, overlap, etc.?
Yeah. I definitely make it a point to tell people that I have a background in playing drums in indie rock. When I say punk bands, I don’t mean like the Ramones, but underground rock and roll music. And I feel like that informs who I am as much as anything else, and I still really like playing in bands and I still like going to shows, and even what I listen to, I listen to way more rock and pop music in my life than I do experimental music. And I actually was thinking about this in terms of the piece that you saw in New York, where I still want to do this. I want to make a full score for the piece, because one doesn’t exist right now. There are just parts. And a lot of the parts are text instructions, where it’s describing a type of action and saying, do this action until this point in the film. And I was thinking about, how far should I take making a score? How detailed do I want to get? And I sometimes have kind of a weird inferiority complex when I see these people with these beautiful, elaborate scores.
Those can be performances in themselves, I guess.
Yeah. And I don’t want to write music like that, but I always joke with people that I’m going to enter some competitions. When we were in Banff this summer, Michael Pisaro was talking about that too. I thought it was really funny that he said basically the same thing. He said flat out, like, come on, no one’s going to look at one of my scores and be like, that’s a contest winner. But anyway, I want to make a full score for this piece, and I do want to get a more precise score than the one that I currently have. But I realized that I would not want to compose it down to the last note, because I think part of the impact of that piece is that there is kind of a looseness to the ensemble. And I didn’t really know this until I heard it live, or even realize that this was a thing. But I think if people were intently reading a complicated score, then it would take away some of the kind of— Looseness is the wrong word.
Yeah, I think that it would lose some of the energy. And I just felt like I was really happy that it kind of came off as this whole, cohesive thing.
It really did.
I knew that I was going to like what I did, but I really didn’t know exactly what to expect. Until I heard it in rehearsal and I was like, oh, okay, this is doing what I hoped it would. But this is why Steve Schick says that he memorizes stuff, is because, one, as a performer, if you’re not looking at a score, then that means that you have energy to pay attention to other parts of the performance. But also from an audience standpoint, I feel like there’s a different feeling of watching some people who obviously aren’t buried in the page, that that feels more— I hesitate to say feels more like a rock band, but that’s how rock bands function. No one is reading music. Everyone is looking at each other or themselves. I really, really don’t want to give the impression that I’m making rock and roll crossover experimental music.
No, I don’t think anybody’s going to jump to that.
I don’t think so either, but I’m hearing the words come out of my mouth and just being like, nooo!
I’m not hearing it in that light at all. But there’s an attribute of that performance style.
Yeah, and I think that it would lose that if I decided to make a score that was written down to the last note.
That would be a completely different process, really, of composition and performance. It seems like it’s one thing if you want to just consolidate the instructions and align it with the film, and it would be another if you wanted to align them with each other in a very particular way. That would become a different piece.
Right. Someone was asking me about presenting the piece somewhere else just yesterday, actually, and were asking, basically how good do the musicians need to be? And I told them that they didn’t have to be, but it would help if they were people who were familiar with or engaged with playing textural improvised music. Basically people who have some kind of vocabulary or ability to make unusual sounds with their instruments.
Right. You don’t want them fighting with the musical premise of it. You want players who are sympathetic and not arguing, in any case, too, but I think in this especially. Most people I know in this field tend to have more than one type of role within it. What are the main roles you’ve taken on, and how do you find that they either complement each other or don’t? What comes up in those intersections?
I’ve been joking in the last year or so that I’ve finally moved composer ahead of percussionist in my bio. But I’m starting to write music for other people now, so obviously I’m a composer in that situation. But I’m in a lot of ways finding the role of performer and composer kind of inseparable. I have some pieces that are mine that I don’t want other people to play. And there’s various reasons for that, but part of it because I just think that I need to play them so that they’re done properly. And I guess I feel like I have to do everything, basically. Not even that I have to. I want to. I never, ever wanted to teach music, and now that I’m thinking about it in terms of being a composer rather than a percussionist, I actually think I would be good at that, and would really like to do it. I did an artist talk a year ago where my friend Matt Sargent teaches, at Bard, and his students were just awesome, and asked cool questions and were super engaged, and all had their own cool projects. And I think before that, I had done talks and workshops and stuff before, but I think that was the first situation I had been in where I was like, oh, there are people somewhere that I actually have something to offer them as a teacher. I’m still trying to get out of a lot of this weird inferiority thing, like I said, with making scores too. And for a long time, I’ve been composing music since— I guess the first piece I wrote that I liked was in 1998. It was a piano solo, and between 1998 and ten years ago, I always thought I was kind of a lousy composer because what I thought I was supposed to do as a composer didn’t work for me, and still doesn’t. But it took playing my own stuff to kind of give me the confidence to be like, oh, no, I am good at this. This is just coming about it in a different way than I was told or shown that I was supposed to be a composer. And the first piece, from the point at which I started making music that I consider to be part of what I do now, the first several pieces that I wrote never had scores up until this year, because I was just playing them myself. And the way that they became finished pieces is because I kept playing them live and trying different things until I finally had a finished version of them. One of the pieces on Gather and Release, the first piece with the waterfall recording, I had to get a live recording from a show in Providence, because I decided that that was the optimal version, and I couldn’t remember what I played. So I got a recording of the show and transcribed the part. I transcribed myself playing, and that was how that piece became finished. Originally, the first time I played that piece, I had to play a show locally, and it was a really very, very hard personal life time, and I was not prepared to play a show. I had this recording of this waterfall that was a test that was going to be for a larger project. And then I was like, oh, well I’ll just play that, and then I’ll play vibraphone with it, and I’ll see what happens. That was how that piece came about. I wanted to do it, but also it was a little bit out of laziness, basically.
But you were seeing what would happen.
I think that’s what experimental music, to me, means, is that you set something up because you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen at the end.
I guess it’s true for some composers that they have this vision— What’s the sound equivalent of vision? They sort of know something’s going to work, and they write it down, and then they give it to players, and it works, and they’re geniuses. That’s the sort of classical thing, I guess. But it sounds like your process often is about diving in and doing something, and discovering what works within that experience.
Yeah, and conceptually I do that really intentionally now. Like if I have an impulse to do something, I’ll just do it, and then often I will figure out later why I had that impulse, or what the piece is supposedly about. Because I realized this over the past few years. I started to realize that I had older pieces that a lot of times, things that I started and never finished that ended up being aligned with work that I make now that was really intentional, and realizing, oh, the things that are motivating me to make this music have been here for a long time, and I just wasn’t engaging with it or realizing it. And so now that I know that, I can do it intentionally, where I can write a piece and not be totally sure why I’m doing it. Or even from a more technical standpoint, like with Contralto the other day, stuff happened in that where I was like, oh, cool. I didn’t know that was going to be a thing. I wasn’t thinking that there would ever be a moment— The part I’m thinking of specifically is where the people in the film are singing long tones. And it hadn’t occurred to me that there would be an interplay musically between that sound and the sound of the musicians. And I remember hearing that in the dress rehearsal and being like, oh! So it’s great when stuff like that happens.
Yeah, that was super intense.
I guess I’m kind of off the topic of the question.
No, maybe, but it’s gone to a really interesting place.
I think, I just have this DIY— It’s not even DIY. I just have this sort of attitude that no one is going to help me, so I have to do everything. But also, I like doing everything. I like running a record label. I like doing lectures. I like playing. It’s both of those things. One, I feel like I have to, but also, I get a lot out of doing all of these things. Like when I started my little record label, it was with the intent of only releasing my music, because I had such a backlog of stuff that I was making that nobody was releasing. And then it turned into just a regular label, where I’m releasing other people’s music, and it’s great. I really, really like doing that.
Did that just organically happen?
Yeah, totally. For different reasons, like Tim Feeney’s CD came about because his school was funding the cost of the thing. So I had the money to do that since his school paid for it. And then Enrico [Malatesta]’s album was because I had heard of him because he at the time was one of the only other people using percussion in a way that Greg and Tim and I do that I was aware of, and it just happened that he wrote me out of the blue one day and was like, I have this album. Will you release it? And I said yes. And then Thomas Bonvalet, I sought out and really wanted to release something by him, just because he’s one of my favorite musicians, and gave me this duo between him and Jean-Luc Guionnet of a pipe organ and Thomas’s crazy banjo metronome setup thing. They’ve all happened really differently. And I think after the Bonvalet Guionnet thing, I was going to stop doing it, and then Morgan wrote me about doing something and I liked it, and I was like, well yeah, I’ll do this. And now I’ve got three more new things lined up this year.
It kind of takes on a life of its own, I guess, when there’s a need for something and it’s interesting to you.
And it sounds like— This might be totally obvious, but between performing and composing, it seems like that DIY, doing it yourself, you’re able to get in there and test things out and see how it works.
Yeah, and you can do whatever you want, which is really all I’m interested in.
Right. Why would you not do what you want? Why would you do what you don’t want? Your answers to all of these things are just so fresh and interesting. What are the communities that you feel most a part of, that in whatever way relate to your practice around experimental music?
I have a very hard time feeling a part of anything, which is kind of cool, but also very frustrating. But also, I kind of run away from it, too, which is partially self-sabotage and partially a genuine interest to not be part of a group, necessarily. But socially, it would be great if I had my people. Part of it is where I live. Yeah, I don’t know.
There are people that I’m friends with, and some of whom that I work with, that I definitely have a lot in common with, but I still feel like all of us are in our own space, to a certain extent. Even within Meridian, like Greg, Tim, and I are, that group works so well, and I really, really like both of those people as friends and as musicians. But the three of us have really different lives, and different things that we do every day. And also, we live far apart from each other, so there’s that too. So I don’t know. I guess I would really like to fall in with some kind of close-knit community, but I don’t feel like I’m in one. I definitely feel like there’s a vibe. It’s funny how this happens through Facebook, too, but I joke. I call it the experimental music mafia, which is an affectionate term. But there’s dozens of people I know through Facebook who I feel like they’re my friends, but I’ve never met them before, and that’s cool.
It’s not necessarily a support system.
Yeah. I have always felt fundamentally different from everyone around me, since always. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing for me.
I can relate in a lot of ways too. I think a lot of people within this universe, let’s call it, of experimental music, feel somehow on the margins.
Aesthetically, this kind of work sits there. And then, I don’t know, I wonder. I feel like it’s hard to know which is the chicken and which is the egg, because— What am I trying to say? I feel like for myself, I’m so accustomed to being outside of normal practice, that the idea of truly connecting with someone— It feels like such a revelation if it happens at all, on that aesthetic level. So I think sometimes it’s harder to form those communities within this set of practices because people are so used to being on the margins.
Yeah. If I meet anyone that I feel like I have a connection with, I try to make sure that that person is around. Like Jason Zeh is a perfect example, where Jason came down to Austin for a festival that my friends put on several years ago and stayed at my house. And we had met once at a show I played in Ohio and chatted, but didn’t really talk, because I was on tour and just in and out, and Jason stayed at my house and we stayed up until four in the morning just talking to each other. And I don’t really do that with people. So if I find myself doing that, then I notice that. And I was laughing that Jason and I just did this show together, and we’re supposed to make an album together that we’re slowly working on, but I knew about the work he was doing. It’s kind of performance art. It’s hard to describe what it is, but it’s great. And I knew about it, but I didn’t know all of the ins and outs of where he was coming from with this MFA project that he did. And he was giving his artist talk at this thing that we were doing in Milwaukee, and I just started laughing because I could not believe how similar it was to the exact thing that I was going to talk about in my talk. And I was just like, yeah, this is why you work with this person. There’s an entire section of Contralto called “easy onset,” which is a speech pathology term for a soft attack to speaking, that section where everyone’s saying words that start with H sounds. That’s called easy onset. And then easy onset showed up in Jason’s MFA project.
What the hell?
And I just was like, what? Like I’ve never heard this phrase in my life…
That’s so specific.
Until a year ago. And this person that I’m already working with also did not know that I was doing that. That’s the kind of thing where if that happens, I’m just like, okay, we’re friends. Like let’s do something together.
That makes total sense, and it makes sense that it’s sort of one at a time too, because it’s uncanny that it happens at all. So what are you working on now?
I have a bunch of stuff piling up, none of which I started on. But I’ve just gotten this rash of commissions in the last few months. So I have, there’s someone in Knoxville wants me to write them, in their words, a very, very long piece for cello and percussion. I told them that I liked long pieces and that I was interested in going beyond the one hour mark, and they were like, yeah yeah, great. We want like a three-hour piece. And I was kind of like, well, we’ll see. But there’s that, and then a cello solo, and then I just a week ago found out that these people in New York called Qubit Music— Do you know someone named Alec Hall?
Yeah, I do.
Okay. I don’t know them at all. They wrote me out of the blue over the summer, I think, saying that they were going to apply to these New York State Council for the Arts grants, and he was like, oh, we get them every year. It’ll probably be a few thousand dollars, and you can make a piece for us. And then it ended up getting, much to their surprise, funded to the full amount, which is amazing. But now I feel, not obligated, but I want to deliver them something large and cool. The thing that I proposed was kind of— I think I’m still going to do this, but the proposal was written in kind of a hurry, and they were like, oh yeah, just write whatever you want. We can change it later. I just need to turn this in. The thing I proposed was like something in a big space where there are several players, and each one is next to a speaker playing a field recording from a different location. So I don’t really know what it’s going to be yet.
What work or topics are you most excited about these days?
I just applied for a residency last night, and I realized this while I was writing the application, that I was proposing to work on these two commission projects while I was there, and I realized that both of them in different ways were about intimacy. Broadly simple answer, I think everything that I’m doing in some way is messing with or concerned with identity of some kind, which, that could mean anything. But I have recently had all these ideas for pieces that involve some kind of musical intimacy, or performers being physically very close to each other, maybe even touching. And actually what led me to that was thinking about this idea of making a piece for an equal number of percussionists and non-percussionists, and then trying to find a space where all of the players are basically doing the same thing, soundwise. This idea I’ve been talking about for a while, that the identity of percussionists is kind of unclear, because percussionists don’t have an instrument, and actually could be asked to play almost anything in a piece of contemporary music, which to me kind of makes the answer of what is a percussionist really kind of complicated, and not really knowable, exactly. So those things are kind of working together for the stuff that I think I’m about to make.
That sounds really promising.
Yeah, I think so.
And I’m sure it’s been explored in some ways, but I don’t think it’s been explored in the kind of depth that you’re thinking about. It seems like there’s definitely somewhere to go with that.
Yeah. This is what led me to wanting to go to grad school, is that I was thinking about this whole kind of relationship between percussion and queerness, and I was in the shower one day, earlier last spring or something, and I was like, oh, I think this might be a dissertation topic. That was a big part of the generative method for the music in Contralto, too, which was using so-called nonmusical sound, because that qualifies as percussion, like ejecting staples from a stapler, or crinkling a piece of paper or whatever. Actually, I’ve played pieces where I have to crinkle pieces of paper in them. And I told Steve Smith this in that interview that he did, too, that I really liked that Greg Stuart told me a long time ago that, something like, it had been two years since he held a mallet and struck something, and was kind of a little bit incredulous, and saying kind of like, well who am I if I don’t do the thing that all percussionists supposedly do, which is really fascinating to me.
I’ve been struggling with this idea of trying to put together a performance when I don’t consider myself a performer. I’m supposed to do a double bill with Katie Porter in January. I don’t really want to get up in the front there, and I just want to make something happen without any instruments.
Oh, that’s funny. One of the other things, that I don’t know if we’re going to get to do it or not, but my partner Mara is a visual artist, and has made all of these pieces using Shaker chairs as material. And for some reason I had some idea to make an opera where there are no performers. It hit me that she has this amazing drawing of this line of 60 Shaker chairs on top of rugs, and I was like, oh, we should just make this into a real thing, and it’ll be a set, and there will be sound and light but no visible performers.
That’s great. Do you know the Ablinger pieces where it’s rows of chairs in a space, and that’s part of an opera?
I think it might be different, though. I think you could frame it differently.
I’m sure it will be. I actually have two CDs of Shaker music sitting right in front of me on my desk right now with like 80 tracks on them. Oh, that’s so irritating.
No, I’m saying I think it’s resonant, but you can take a different direction.
Oh, there it is, chairs as listening places.
No, I don’t care. I’m in no danger of sounding like Peter Ablinger. Mara’s yelling from the other room that it’s not just chairs. And actually, it’s becoming more motivated by Shakers than it is like chairs, because both of us are interested in them for different, well, maybe not different reasons. I don’t know. But we like the Shakers.
Where were they geographically?
There were some communities in Kentucky. Like going to Shakertown when I was a kid was a very popular school field trip. But we looked it up. The first community was near Albany.
Oh, so there are a couple geographic connections for you then.
Yeah. I don’t think there were any in Ithaca that we know of, but they’re definitely from around here. And I can’t say— This is totally unfounded in anything, but there’s just something about the vibe of their furniture that reminds me of living around here. I don’t know what it is exactly. There’s a lot of Amish and Mennonite people around here, and Quakers also.
There’s something about the rigor. I picture Shaker furniture, and it’s fairly geometric, in a way, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s really sturdy and practical and repetitive, but they almost— This is how I got started with doing stuff with these little bells, too. It’s that they’re just around. They’re everywhere. I think Mara pulled one of these chairs off the street or something. For some reason they’re just around and they’re cheap, and kind of disposable, because Mara just said nobody wants to sit in them. And that was the thing with the bells too, is that I started buying them, and it begged the question of, who bought this in the first place and why? And why are there so many of them? They’re everywhere, and I don’t get it.
In the work of yours that I know, and I don’t know the full range of what you’ve done, but this idea of discipline and rigor and the directness of action. There’s an aesthetic alignment in some way with that. Maybe I’m drawing a tenuous line.
No, definitely. Yeah, the Shakers had these jubilant, ecstatic dances and singing and stuff, but then all they did was work. All they did was work. They had no sex. It’s like a weird contradiction that they have these crazy explosions, and then in the rest of their lives they’re just completely stoic. We’re proposing it to be part of this Cornell biennial next year, but I think if we don’t get accepted into that, we’ll just make the piece anyway with somebody else. But the impetus was to do it for that, because it happens to coincide with the theme of the biennial really directly. So we’re hopeful.
So that would be a collaborative project with Mara?
Yeah, and some musicians. I’m not exactly sure who yet.
That sounds great.
Yeah, I hope so. So I have a very long list of stuff piling up that I’m starting to become a little worried that I’m in over my head a little bit. But I’ll get it done.
Don’t let it become an albatross or something, because it sounds like there’s a lot of joy in it. I remember when I started composing, it was like, this is the best thing ever. And then it became, oh, shit, I have to finish a piece. Now it’s work. Dammit.
But it’s like good work. It’s work I want to do. I do hate making scores, but I like it in a way that I do not like going to my job. And I think that would be true of being a professor. It will still feel like you have a job to go to, but at least it’ll be something that you care about.
Has the current political situation affected how you’re thinking about what you’re doing? No is fine.
Maybe only in the sense of like how could it not? Like the thing that is on my screen right now, totally by coincidence, is that the CDC was given a list of forbidden words by the Trump administration that includes the words transgender, fetus, diversity, and science based. You know how the FCC has a list of seven forbidden words?
I’ve seen this.
It’s like that, but for normal, regular things that scientists and doctors should be talking about.
What is with these people?
Yeah. It is insane. But I think that I would be doing what I was doing if there was a different president. I don’t feel directly motivated by anything that’s going on. Well, that’s not true, because I just got done telling somebody that Contralto was a protest piece, which is basically true. But I think that that piece would be a protest piece regardless of who was in the White House. The same social climate would exist for trans people, regardless of whether Trump is the president or not.
Yeah, I think that could have been a protest piece several years ago as well.
Yeah. When I started thinking about it, he was not the president.
It’s a protest, but not specific to this.
Yeah. Well I think about this a lot too, where sometimes I feel like I should be more politically engaged, and it’s like, trans people don’t even have the energy to be politically engaged, because the whole world is at odds with them all the time. I definitely feel like that.
Yeah. I think choosing to be politically engaged is, there are varying degrees of bandwidth and capacity for that, depending on one’s situation.
Yeah. And Mara just whispered at me something that reminds me that one of my favorite bands, The Spook School, their singer is a trans guy. And in an interview, he said something about getting kind of worn out by being considered a political band. And he’s like, the only thing political that I do is that I’m on stage, that it shouldn’t be a political act for me to just be in the room, which I think is pretty true and also a really powerful thing to say.
Yeah, you should be able to just do what you’re doing.
Yeah. One of the trans women I follow on Twitter said this. I’m sure other people have said this too, but what the whole bathroom controversy about is not because people are scared that their kids are going to get hurt in a bathroom by a trans woman. It’s because it’ll make life so unpleasant, it’ll make going to school so hard for trans kids that they’ll just stop going to school. It will just get rid of them. That happens, because what 12-year-old wants to deal with that every day? But that the real, whether they know it or not, that the motivation behind that kind of legislation is to try to get rid of people.
What do you think could be done to improve or enrich or support this field, locally, internationally, whatever?
Well definitely, people, presenters of events should be more concerned with making sure that they’re representing a broad range of people. Which is something that seems to be all of a sudden, in the last year or so, a big thing, that people are kind of learning that they’re going to look like assholes if they book concerts with nothing but straight white men.
Yeah, this is pretty fresh as a topic.
Yeah. And I think that’s true in other areas too. One of the people in Contralto lives in Baltimore, and she was telling me that this bar, it’s one of the main rock clubs in Baltimore, and she was just like, yeah, black people won’t go there, because the kinds of things that they have there, and also the kinds of people that work there apparently. It’s not because some terrible racist thing happened there, but because it’s just sort of silently communicated that that space is not for them. And I think that’s true in other ways, too. You know like when that website came around last year, maybe, where someone had made that giant database of female composers online?
And it spurred all of this weird argument about whether there should be a list like that or not. And I remember telling somebody that the list is useful, if anything, just so someone can look at that, and if you went to an experimental music concert, you could very easily believe that there aren’t very many women or people of color involved. And that if there’s a website with 500 names on it—
Yeah, just tons and tons and tons of people. And for the most part, you’ve never heard of any of them. Or even, I follow Mary Jane Leach on Twitter, and she linked to a review of her record, Pipe Dreams, and the person writing about the record said that it was rediscovered or something. And she retweeted it and said, it’s not that I had it locked in a vault somewhere. She’s just like, yeah, I’ve been here. I’m around.
I’ve been making music. I’ve been doing my thing.
But yeah, I consistently saw that record referred to as something that was unearthed, not just as like a woman composer from the 80s who most people have never heard of because her male counterparts are more famous. And the music is incredible, too. It’s every bit as innovative as anything else going on then. It’s really good. So yeah, I guess that’s the thing. I could certainly say other things could improve it, but I feel like the thing that will just really practically make things better is if people try to book a wider variety of people and types of music.
Yeah, I think that would be actually helpful towards prosperity of the whole field, too.
I spoke with Richard Garet on April 25th, initially about the Subtropics festival which we’ll both be participating in in Miami next month, and then about the broader set of questions I’ve been discussing with others. Here are a few relevant links if you want to get a sense of his work before reading further.
Sound Art Installations Solo Exhibit
MAAS Performance 1 / 2
2 multichannel works streamed from Leerraum, Bern
Fridman Gallery performance
Times Square Midnight Moment Project
JG: Maybe we’ll start with talking about the Subtropics piece, just since that’s the most immediate thing. And I got some sense of it. What you sent was great, and I imagine it’s not finished yet, because it’s still a couple months off.
RG: For many years now I have known of Gustavo [Matamoros], because of the sound field interests and also because he’s originally from Venezuela, and although I was born in Uruguay, I have also lived in Venezuela ten years and change, from 1985 till 1996, something like that.
Oh, so you knew him there?
No I did not. Once I became very active in the world of sound and experimental music, a lot of people mentioned, oh, you probably know Gustavo, and I was like, no, I know of him, but we never met. We actually met in November 2015 in Spain during a festival in which we both participated in Valencia and Madrid. From the moment we met, I felt like I’d known him already. We hit it off. And we exchanged materials and kept in touch ever since. Time has passed and recently he invited me to be part of his subtropics programming that he’s running in Miami this summer of 2017.
About my work, I’m always working on a lot of things at the same time and I have pieces that are constantly evolving due to modifications and additions of material. My generative works for multi-channel systems are like that. I’m constantly working on the sounds, or adding on new ones, and so forth, seeking always to achieve an organic flow. It feels natural that way and in every new presentation they seem to mature and evolve. The timeframe in such cases vary depending on the approach. In a performance it can be something around a 30-60 minute range. If it is more inclined towards the installation approach it could be something that I leave ongoing in a room as long is necessary. In such installation cases the more it runs, the better it gets, organically speaking.
Nonetheless, I also compose durational pieces that are both stereo and multi-channel. However, they are composed and then the sounds become permanently fixed. For such multichannel compositions, a number that I became very fond of is 4 channel settings (quadraphonic). It’s a good approach to space, and limitations, too. I find it to be more efficient, functional, and significant to have a quadraphonic setup instead of larger numbers, because within this practice, spaces often are not ideal and quite irregular. So a larger number could become redundant and not as effective as it should be. I have been there. So I’ve been working on these quadraphonic pieces for a long time, now, and then when Gustavo approached me, I said to myself, I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do, but it will either be a finished quad piece, or I’ll do something more performative using an algorithmic patch, and then I can work on the spatialization in real time. However, when opportunities come up, I always tend to go with the last thing that I’m working on, if suitable, and that helped me make the decision in addition to the pressure to give a quick answer because of the programming. And I was like, okay, I think I should go with this quad composition piece that I’m working on. And that’s the information I sent you both. So I will be presenting a quadraphonic composition, and it’s not something that I’m really making in a specific space. In this case I will play the room, in terms of EQing the piece or making sure that the work suits the environment. It’s a listening piece that I’m arranging in my studio, and from the studio it will go to the listening space. So it’s mostly focused on material and listening. And then I think when I bring it to an environment; it will reach its full expression, because then it’s something that will become fully articulated for the environment, in a physical space, and in front of an audience. Therefore I believe the space will conclude the work. The materials that I’m using for the work are also what I described in the text I sent, and it’s pretty much my approach to sound, which is in a way outside of music, per se, because I’m not necessarily interested in harmony, melody, and tonality, musical instruments, or music notation. I’m interested in material, initially from a listening perspective, and secondly, from an ontological one. Process is also relevant to the work. Sometimes I listen to a sound and I like it, but you know, if it doesn’t really connect to anything that I find exciting, I tend to move on. So yeah, that basically is what I’m bringing in. And then in terms of titles, titles are personal, and they usually can be direct or scientific, or it can be something more personal and poetic. I would say in this particular title, it’s more imaginative, and it kind of provides the listener, the audience, something to grab and activate their imaginations as they listen to the work.
You talked about, it’s not really dealing with the space specifically, where it’s going to be realized. So do you envision it being transparent to the space, or that’s just where it comes into being?
In situations like this where I get invited to present sound work, I like to get to know the space. I like to have a sense of what the space is, in order to make my final decisions. In this case, I was fortunate because I happened to be in Florida in March and I visited the sound gallery. I asked Gustavo the important questions about the space and the speaker configurations, audience, etc. So that helped me also tailor the work imagining how sound could behave and exist in there. So if I get a proper sense of it, I can imagine it, right? And the Subtropics environment is quite intimate. It’s quite small. So in this particular case, I’m not interested in basically overpowering the audience with excessive amplitude or physicality, like in some other situations might be the case. For this particular case, I’m more interested in a focused listening approach, nuances, and subtleties of sound, and how things will integrate with the environment as people listen to the work. And this is going to be my approach here. And the piece itself, like I said, it’s a listening piece. It’s not something abrupt or dynamically abrupt. I think it has a good balance between low end and mid-high frequencies, textures, timbre, and movement. The movement involves panning and discrete sounds. So in this case, I think it’s going to be more directed to the ear than to the body. The work will be enveloping the audience with a listening purpose and less physicality targeting the body. And that’s also why I decided to bring this work, because considering the environment, to bring this kind of work made absolute sense. Though I also make pieces that are the opposite of what I just said, which are very physical, and with sensory overload qualities, and with everything in between. But for this particular situation, I’m bringing a more focused listening type of work.
That makes sense. Are there releases of yours that you would characterize along those lines as being listening pieces?
Yeah, I would say that all my releases, my CD pieces are along these lines.
So more like installations would be the other?
Not necessarily. I think each approach targets and considers a unique listening approach. Because, for example, I always try to aim to the psychology of listening and the headspace, right? And I feel that a CD publication for example, is something composed for intimate listening, and not about the sonic expansion and the acoustics of physical space. It’s about how we process that sonic information in our heads, because people will be listening to this kind of work in either a near field monitor or a boom-box, in their car, or headphones, depending on who you are, what kind of equipment you have, or what kind of audiophile you might be. So I feel that a composition that goes into a thing such as CD, or a cassette or something of that nature, has a higher level of refinement and focus that is more related to that headspace approach. In such cases you cannot really tackle down different ideas that relate to space, or relate to a certain degree of physicality. Right? You have to tailor the work in such a way that it fits the parameters of such a mediated context. So yes, I would say that my compositions that have been polished and articulated after long periods of listening and making arrangements to it have that sort of characteristic. If I perform live, then I tend to take things to the space, to the directness of executing a tactile approach to materiality, where all the sounds, or the sonic experience is constructed in the moment. I believe that such level of directness and physicality brings the audience and the performer together.
And if I do an installation such as a multi-channel sound piece, I think it has a balance of everything, because it’s somewhat sound that has been pre-made, tailored, but it might leave room for some actions made in the moment, while also having the capacity to make choices that target and shape the sound in the room. Also the relationship to material, space, and putting the work together is more expansive and more goes to it. This approach would consider speaker location and the acoustics of the space, the people visiting and moving around, and the entire phenomenon that occurs from experiencing the room. So I think a multi-channel installation or performance-installation per se may encompass all various approaches combined. And like I was mentioning, if I’m sitting down at a table working with my hands, creating a sonic experience, then I could do that either as a stereo output or go from there into more channels. But usually when I perform live, I like to think of it or approach it in such a way where the tactile and the directness of me working with sound is more present. So in my practice, depending on what I need to get done, things might take a different level of involvement, thinking, and process. It’s never the same. And then beyond all that, I also make objects, sound pieces that are more like for gallery spaces or site-specific spaces, which also means a different type of reception or experience. And that can be something with different levels of complexity, or something such as a simple gesture or a simple idea happening consistently over time. And that’s also a different approach that relates to function, objects, and experience too. It conceptualizes things differently with a reductive and parsed approach to sonic matter and its sources.
It’s refreshing to hear it differentiated so sensibly. I haven’t heard someone lay out the differences in approach based on situations so clearly before, and it’s helpful. It’s great.
It’s obvious in the way you’re describing these things that you’ve had a lot of experience with all of these different approaches, and you’ve thought a lot about what works and why it can work.
Thanks. Well I have thought about it a lot myself, and I tend to be my own critic. And in every situation, I try to imagine all possible questions and scenarios, and try to have an answer for that. Maybe that’s something that I developed out of grad school, because it was very critical in the sort of sense that you always needed to be able to talk about what you’re doing, and really dig deep into what it is that you do, so you can understand what you’re doing better and express it to others. But nothing really ever stopped me if I don’t have an answer for something in the moment, because also my work truly is very intuitive, experimental and empirical in nature. Meaning that when I’m embedded in the moment of working with something, I let the work take me where it needs to go. If I do not understand what it is, I just trust the work and keep going. Answers usually emerge later on and those tend to be significant discoveries because I could have not gotten there otherwise. I guess the opposite would be with control, reasoning, or by preconception. That also participates intermittently I would say when I take breaks. And then later on, as the work evolves, I try to answer those questions for myself, and I guess that’s how I really came to understand the differences in my work in relationship to material, practice, process, context, and how people are going to experience the work. Additionally, when I go to see or listen to the work of other people out there, I present those same questions to myself about their work. Therefore, besides taking the work in that’s what I think about in those moments too.
I was interested to hear that word empirical too, because when I got into this experimental music thing or zone or whatever, it was by way of, oddly enough, William James, the philosopher, and radical empiricism. That’s a long story in itself, but it connects in interesting ways. And he talks about, the most I can say to someone is, go to this place, and certain things may occur. But that interest in, something’s open and something can happen. I have questions, but I’m going to go have an experience. So it’s an interesting question for me too.
Yeah. You said it beautifully and I totally relate to that description. Also let’s put it this way and that’s something I figured out long time ago. Not every day we have a great idea of what it is that we need to do or we need to accomplish. So I realized that for me, it was important to be embedded in the work, allowing the work to emerge from the process of dealing with the work itself. I like what you just said, and that explains it well. Occasionally, I have strong ideas too. But I never let the idea dominate what I’m doing. So I always let it go to wherever it needs to go, and I try to be an observant of that process with optimism. So if something really interesting pops up, I’m paying attention. Let’s say if one is really attached to an idea, that sort of thing could be completely ignored, right? If so I feel the will of the idea is going to dominate. So in my case now, I start from something with potential that I’m responsive to, and then it goes from there. If the initial approach creates a process, such a process will trigger new responsive ideas that subsequently would also redirect the process, and this goes on and on. It becomes a measured, weighted, and balancing approach too. But I always try to keep it real and natural, and I try not to force my hand on this cycle of events that is occurring. And that’s how I got to develop an organic methodology in my work that’s always at tension, risk, and it tries to bring everything together as a full unity experience, rather than a mind dominating everything. For me, it’s like an integration of all the layers of oneself and the external world working together.
So like the space, the audience— What are those things? It’s just whatever elements or creatures are in the space, and the sound?
Well no, I was referring mostly to my level of intention, or my connection or my involvement in the process of making anything. Because somebody could easily say, that an idea dominates everything, from beginning to end. And that’s fine and an accomplishment in itself. And it can be beautiful, and it can function very well. But like I said before, to me, that does not work, because in one end you can really get a headache trying to come up with a brilliant idea of what the work is going to be. Also I need to feel the surprise and the progress in the work taking me to a fruitful discovery. So for me, it was more functional and effective, to get involved in a process in which the final outcome is something that emerges from being in the process. And that’s what I mean by being fully integrated. Nonetheless, no matter what format the work might take I feel safe to say that this approach applies to all of it. There are nuances and subtleties that can be articulated to activate the work and the listener, and it will vary taking into consideration what the approach is, but the discoveries are what keep it all interesting. And that’s something that I’ve been developing and evolving over the years, and I try to learn from each single experience I encounter.
That sounds really productive. Just one simple logistical thing. Is the piece going to be done in the studio, in the Audiotheque, or is it in a different space?
The Subtropics festival? My understanding was that it was going to be presented there, in the small gallery, because we looked at the space and we talked about possible speaker configurations, and he told me how the audience usually sits and spreads, and how he arranges the environment. And that totally registered in, and I’ve been thinking about that ever since.
So we can get into the other questions if you like now, unless there’s anything else you wanted to say?
No, that’s it.
Yeah. And I guess one last thing. Will there be live processing, or will you let it run once you’ve set it up?
My piece for the solo night will be ready, but the live maneuvering will focus on making the work suitable for the space and the listening experience. That’s what I meant before about playing the room and that means really responding to the room as the work plays out. So I guess the live aspect will be articulating the space. Because I may go there and do a sound check and have everything in place, but when people arrive it will be a different space and sound will behave differently. I will do a live thing for the marathon. Gustavo asked me if I was going to be part of that. So there will be a 20-minute live intervention, but I still don’t know what it is. And I will try to keep it as fresh as possible. So yes, on the 20th of July, I will present my piece. It will be an hour long. And then a couple days later, I will participate in this marathon. I believe it consists of continuing hours of back-to-back presentations of different people. And I will be doing something under 20 minutes long that I still do not know what it is.
Right. But there won’t be that component in the first piece that we talked about, probably.
No, I think it will probably be more direct instead of something very refined and composed.
Great. And then just sort of preliminary to this next set of questions, I just want to be sure that— Some of the questions include this term, experimental music. And I’ve seen you use that term a few times in your interviews and things, so I guess it’s something you’re happy to use, but I don’t want to assume that completely.
If there’s another term that you relate to more as sort of this region of interest in sound and working with sound, I’m happy to use a different term.
No, no. I’m very comfortable with it, and I’m very aware of what it means. To me, at least, it means two things. One is, experimental music versus the avant-garde music, avant-garde European experimental music, American, all embedded in the history of music and the school of John Cage, right? That’s just one meaning. And the other meaning, which it could be personal to each individual, is that when I mean experimental, I mean an execution of exploratory processes that uncover the work. That’s basically it. So when I say experimental music I’m relating to the second part. However, I also find it all very connected to the post-Cage, American tradition.
That lineage, yeah.
Experimental music, I mean work that is heavy on process, and emerges from exploring materials and trying things, and not knowing from the get-go an outcome or the imposition of an idea or of something specific that is going to make the work. Because some people might allow some experimentation, or some people might just know exactly what it is that are they doing, and they might have a specific idea they need to realize, and that’s the work. But in my case, I embrace experimentation.
Yeah, so as the verb of experimenting, not necessarily as the lineage back to certain people.
So along those lines, probably, can you talk about one or two of your earliest or most meaningful encounters with experimental music, or with this type of working?
That’s a great question, because you totally put me on the spot, and I need to think a little bit about it. Yeah, I would say, you mean throughout my whole practice from the beginning, what were the most—
Either earliest or most meaningful, so just kind of a light bulb moment for you, even if it was long after you got— It’s not so much a question of when, but of the impact that it had for you.
Okay, first of all, since I’m not from the United States, for me coming to New York in 1996 was quite huge and enlightening. I remember having the drive to make certain kind of works put me in the right path to discovering what was out there. Information traveled different in the 90s, back then the most advance thing I had was a beeper. So you had to dig deeper to access and discover anything. When I started I did not have as much information of the context or knowing other people doing it. Initially, what brought me to music were the interest in sound and the interest in having this intuitive necessity to listen to something, and trying to find it in my interaction with sound. So when first had the courage to try to make anything, I didn’t know how to play music, but I had a painted zebra electric guitar that was making all sorts of noise, and I was making tapes and cassettes, and recording from cassette to cassette, and making these tapes that were like these imaginative experiments, that to me, didn’t really have any relevance, because I thought, well, you need to learn how to play music. That was the inherited expectation. So then I learned how to play music, and I moved away from that around 1998. Over the years I heard of experimental music but not much made an impression. I guess something that I was trying to avoid by moving away from music was the sensed obligation of repeating the same work over and over. It felt that I needed to be doing something unique, instead of repeating the same all the time. I didn’t like it. And that was what took me to art school, because I was like, okay, I want to be in a place where you make one thing, and that’s it, and the next time you make something else, and that’s it, and I never want to repeating what I’m doing twice. That feels more like living and life in itself.
It sounds like that’s driven your practice really significantly since then.
Yes, completely, it seems like 30 years since that very first moment. And so when I started going to art school in visual arts, and I started making connections between visual arts and the development of the sonic field in the 20th century, I felt quite energized. Then learning about the experiments of Futurism and Dada, radio art, and then getting to know musique concrète and early experiments of computer music, was super exciting and inspiring. This was still way before the access of Google and YouTube and all these platforms that can give you anything today for free at few clicks. But the guy, and the works that I listened of his that totally blew my mind and freaked me out, was the electronic pieces of Iannis Xenakis, especially Persepolis and La Légende d’Eer. I wanted to know what the hell that was. I was like wow; this is what I want to do. How do I start? How do I begin to make things that start to sound just like it? And I didn’t know how. Anyhow, I can say now I know how to make works such as that, but I have no interest in making it. The love is the same though.
That was a catalyst.
It was like I really get this and I needed more. So then, in a way, I realized that a sound based creative practice can exist outside of music and that I could make sound pieces with an approach to material, rather than constructing a composition based on tonality, melody, rhythm, and harmony. So from that moment on, I started working with sound and experimenting with different things, and one of the rules that I made for myself so that I would understand the materials better was to completely get rid of musical instruments, and then just use anything that I could find that would be made as a starting point, and then obviously, when the personal computer became more accessible and available for us, that sort of became in a way like a big canvas where I could grab sound and treat it like I learned to do it with painting. I was also fascinated by Varèse’s comments from the early 20th century where he said that he wanted a machine that could play noises. He anticipated so much! I mean, crazy, right? So by coming from visual arts, working with a canvas and trying to paint with a tactile experience, where one shapes matter and try to arrange everything relationally within space, and by building layers upon layers within a perimeter, that somehow gave me a notion of what I could do with sound as well. I felt that I rediscovered sound. Then things started to make sense. And I went on doing that.
But to me, in the beginning experimental music was something that I was doing on the side, on my own, without sharing with anybody, without knowing whom else was doing that sort of thing. And then at the same time, because I was in New York, I got to know more in depth about John Cage and those around him such as Lucier too. Knowing about Cage’s work felt like he gave me permission to go nuts in trying out things, because he was all about that, right? Exploring and experimenting, and trying to remove himself from taste, also by permitting sounds from the world to partake as music, and by imitating nature’s mode of operation. Cage made sense and became a strong voice that helped people to channel their own personal curiosities and experiments. And that’s like, okay, well if John Cage can do it, I felt encouraged to go further too. He certainly paved the way. And I just went for it. And that’s how things started to evolve. Though I took from Cage what was functional and useful to me. But of course I also had different models, because even so, I was not making music or writing music in a traditional sense, I was listening to much music, and then I was reshaping sonic matter in time. I was very interested too in the work of Morton Feldman and the whole New York School at the time, and then in Europeans too, obviously Xenakis, but also I was listening to Luigi Nono and then Ligeti, Satie, Giacinto Scelsi and many others. And to me what was interesting in these models was the relationship to sonority, timbre, texture, duration and everything that expanded and pushed the limits from traditional music and entretainment. And those were my initial aesthetics that I was sort of taking into consideration. Someone else that made a strong impression was Bernhard Günter. Wow, he had an amazing run of incredible listening records. I believe he was much influenced by the same guys I mentioned. I mean those were the models for so many, but Günter was a pioneer in his own right too. Eventually in my exploration of sound I was able to find a good balance between aesthetics and the relationship between material and the significance of its source. And that’s pretty much how I started.
I went all over the place with your question, but I would say that Iannis Xenakis and probably Morton Feldman and Cage were the very first most significant ones. They were the three primary models from which I received the biggest impact that I had as a listener and sound-maker. Then of course in grad school and within the interdisciplinary program of Bard MFA, I had the great opportunity of studying with people such as Maryanne Amacher, Richard Teitelbaum, David Behrman, Miya Masaoka, Laetitia Sonami, Peter Ablinger, Bob Bielecki. Also in small portions, because they were visiting faculty, Toni Conrad, Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros and more. I witnessed very intimate presentations by artists such as Robert Ashley; he presented the full series of Perfect Lives and then spoke thoroughly about it. The 10 of us in the room, including Maryanne loved it very much. When the presentation started there were like 60 people there or more. That was something! Also Christian Marclay came while I was there and others too. Maryanne was without doubt a strong influence. We spent long hours just talking about ear tones, spatilization, the mysticism of speaker location, her tridimensional shapes, and her amazing stories of working with Cage and Stockhausen. She always blew my mind with her authentic love for sound and music and her responses took things to unforeseen territories of sound, space, and listening. Among us students, the ones that were devoted to her, we used to call her the oracle. She always helped see things in my work that I could not on my own. I have a work titled Electrochroma that I dedicated to her, and she gave me much feedback while I was working on it. I totally went with her suggestions and she was so right about it. The work was completed in 2009 I think and it is a single video channel and 5.1 audio.
It’s interesting. I spoke to someone else who had a similar experience of playing with tapes early on, and didn’t know anybody else who was doing it, but then sort of found out this was a fruitful thing. But it sounds like really quite a journey in finding the things that mattered to you.
Yeah, well I’m 45 now in 2017, and back when I was a kid, before I had these experiences, some people were very connected to radio. Some other persons were connected to vinyl records. For me, it was the cassette. It was the cassette, the walkman, and the boom box. It became my first vehicle for expression. That’s how I experienced music. And also the audiocassette was the place to record, chop, put together, overlap, splice, and do all of those things. I got my hands on digital media and the computer in early 2000s, so I went on with just the computer for quite a while, and it took a good amount of years to go back and realize that cassettes are very interesting, and magnetic tape is very interesting. And then I started to mesh it all up. I guess also because as technologies become more outmoded and disjointed with the sensibility of the moment, then analogue means became more and more enchanting. Perhaps I’m too romantic about the cassette, but it’s a very noble material that contains a unique quality of sound, with significant amount of ephemeral conditions and possibilities for transformation. I never became disenchanted with mediums from the past. On the contrary, I’ve found richness in combining the past and the present, and in creating a space were both are coexisting. Imagine starting from the void, and how one could build walls and created space. And the wider the walls are in relationship to each other, the bigger the space gets. So I think on one opposite wall, I have old media, and on the other, opposite, I have new media. And the more I expand within these parameters, the bigger the spectrum gets, and the more interesting and rich it becomes. Because as a listener, I also understood that there’s a very obvious set of aesthetics that are associated with any media. It’s something that’s very obvious for both digital and analog. But when you start working on meshing and transforming or collecting materials that do not discriminate, I found that I could find richness and a signature that is more unique to my work and to what I’m doing than to allowing the tool to become the primary voice and protagonist in the work. Also I do not like to reveal how I make my work. And I like when people cannot figure out how I make the work.
So then I feel like I’ve gotten some good glimpses of this already in what you’ve shared with me, but I’ll ask it directly, because you never know what will happen. What is it that is compelling to you about experimental music, and how does it connect with your experience more broadly? How does it connect with your life?
What is it about experimental music that—
Well it’s kind of like, why do you think you as a person care about it, or relate to it, in the way that you do?
To be honest, I think it’s beyond notion. It’s something that has become so personal that I cannot escape from. It’s almost like it’s not my fault. But I can understand what happens when I put the TV on the wrong channel and I hear the difference to then the next channel also is playing noise. I understand the difference between those two because I can hear each individually and when in sequence or combined their relationships. Also I have tried to do different things and I have failed, because it did not feel right. But this is something, that when I embrace what’s personal, what’s unique, what’s truly coming from a special place inside, this is what I encounter. And at this point in life, after so long of doing this, there’s no turning around. This is what I do. The hope is always that it progresses.
You can’t really decouple it from yourself.
Yeah. And something that I embrace more than anything is for the work to become personal. You know? Let all the weird stuff out, and don’t let that scare you. So that has become my rule, or my general rule, I guess, in what I do, is just really constantly digging into my practice to try to get that very thing that is more distinctive and more personal, more unique, and more surprising, and at the same time, progressive, because I’m constantly listening to what’s out there and I want to feel that the work is relevant. And I get turned off if I’m exploring something and I go to a show and somebody else is doing it similarly, it’s not like, oh, great. I’m going to go back to my studio and keep trying to do that. No, it’s like, oh, crap. I should be moving in a different direction or try something else. But this is more related to a tangible process or concept that relates to a specific element that may have the potential to enter the vocabulary and it gives you a distinctive result.
I imagine New York is a place where that would happen more than some other places.
Yeah. So obviously and not always but sometimes it’s really hard to escape from certain aesthetics and experiments per se. Because pretty much everything is generic and it belongs to anyone until you make it your own. But I guess what is personal to me and what’s significant to me is when you grab that thing and bring it to a place that it becomes truly yours and you establish a signature. It’s something that you do that has a unique touch that belongs to you. I cannot avoid if what I do is similar to the work of an artist that maybe I don’t know personally or his/her work. I also think that people may also arrive to similar places from complete different routes. That’s something that no one can avoid if it happens organically. And that’s okay. I can live with that. But in my approaches I try to keep my direction towards a very personal way. I guess the objective would be to create work that is equal to one’s shape, voice, etc. I don’t know if that answers your question.
It does, and in a very different way than anybody else has answered it, too. But it definitely does.
Yeah, because you know what? I think this is very important, too. I relate to my work in a very biological way, and I listen to my gut more than I listen to my mind. If we’re going to think in biological terms, when your bladder’s full and tells you to go to the bathroom, you have to listen to your body. It’s a real thing. It’s something very, very tangible. So when it comes to making anything creatively, I think your gut is also telling you things. It’s also telling you something that sometimes is more strong than what your mind might tell you, and your mind, in the way it works, is going to try to take over and it can be deceiving. For me thinking is intermittently involved and it happens after too. Thinking is what happens when you look at things from the outside in a way. So I try to avoid that when I’m right in it, and I try to be more connected with what’s happening in the moment. And hopefully if I’m having a good working day I can move faster than my mind does.
Yeah, plenty of things sound good and could sound good, but really connecting it with yourself and your circumstance. This next question is more general about what you’re doing in the field otherwise. Most people I know in this field tend to have more than one type of role within it. I could list some of those, but I think you probably kind of know. What are the main roles you’ve taken on, and do you find that they complement each other? I know there’s your label, for one thing.
What are the main roles that I take on in the production of my work?
Yeah, or within your artistic work. So the things I’ve listed off, because I’m talking to a lot of different people, like composer, performer, improviser, teacher, writer, critic, organizer, curator, supporter, producer. People are doing a lot of things. What are the main things you’re doing?
I do this full time, and I’ve been fortunate to have a full time practice as an artist in a city like NY. I used to teach art few years back. I did organize a live series from 2004-2013 and I do also run and direct (very slowly) the Contour Editions label. Artistically I do different things too, because I create multimedia work and have exhibitions in gallery spaces that are commercial galleries, alternative gallery spaces, and in institutions such as museums and private institutions too. In addition I have also done public projects and site-specific projects for dedicated places such as the one I did for the Midnight Moment in Times Square. All of this as a multimedia artist, right? Some of these pieces are with sound at its core. At the same time, I feel that as an artist, I have participated in two parallel worlds that occasionally overlap. The other one is my experimental work with sound, performing, creating compositions and sound based projects such as immaterial ones per se. I find it to be something that operates outside of the art world pretty much too. So to my experience living in NY alternative venues, artist-run series, and so forth is where it all happens when it comes to experimental music and performing live with sound and incorporating sound art approaches that are not necessarily object based. There is something unique about being an experimentalist and explorer of the confines of sound and listening, which to me, right now is one place where I can feel absolutely free without any kind of compromise. Such freedom to me feels like the last frontier.
That’s the best.
In contrast to such freedom of experimenting with sound, participating in the gallery art world can be more difficult. I feel things get complicated there, because there is a serious economy behind it and other people are financially involved as well. One feels a different kind of pressure there.
I’ve thought about that sort of issue as well. I basically made the decision not to try to earn money through music, and just to do something else for that. I wanted to do what I wanted to do in music, and realized probably no one was going to pay me for it, and it would be a lot less political and a lot less frustrating if I wasn’t trying to earn a living that way.
It’s true. And like with speech, no one should tell you what to say. If you want to do something because you want to make money, maybe you should be in something else. So in that respect, also, money and the desire for making money with what I do, to me was never the objective as a creative person. Although do not take me wrong because I wish to make a living with my work, but what I do not want is to sacrifice my integrity and the integrity of the work. That being said, I always did my work; even so with the work that I bring to galleries and other spaces, the integrity is always intact. I think I have also been lucky because for so long I worked in an anonymous state and I had the chance to develop a voice in a way that I cannot find a word for it. How would you say it?
Oh, obscurity, maybe.
Yeah, I was in total obscurity for too long, to the point that I was capable of developing a voice that was not affected and influenced by any power dynamics in that way. So by the time I got there, I didn’t need to feel the pressure of changing to please anyone’s agenda. But I understood that when you are with a dealer, when your work is placed in a commercial environment, there are things that can become quite challenging. There are production costs, there is this, there is that, the dealer is also investing money and all combined involve many concerns because things can go either way. I never felt that was the case performing or making experimental sound work, because there is a completely different system of operation in place.
If anything, I think the only economy that I find within it is sort of an economy of attention. Who’s getting more attention sometimes becomes a point of bitterness or struggle or something.
Yeah, that happens.
You probably got some of it around the MOMA show, too.
Oh yeah, yeah. Funny you mention that. When they told me, you’re going to be in the show, I was amazed and I could not believe it. So I said to myself I wouldn’t tell anybody until I see it happening, until the press release comes out. But they say, in the art world, you really know who your friends are. And when the press release came out, I found out. And then some people were like, you know, genuinely competitive, but also, they congratulated me and said, oh, this is great, man. Congratulations. And some people had this really weird, indifferent attitude, and mysterious all of a sudden. So you got a lot of weirdness and a lot of different emotions. For me, I remembered thinking that, wow, I mean, this is the most significant event happening in the field since a very long time, and it was very significant to me to be part of it. And I understand that other people who have been doing this for many years, felt hurt and left out. But I don’t know what to say about that. I mean, there’s nothing you can do about it. And it was all about curatorial vision.
I’d like to think that a show like that is a service to the field. Whoever is showcased in it, that’s great, and other people can benefit from that too, even if it’s indirectly. But I’m sure it’s all very complicated.
Yes, totally. Barbara London had a very unique idea, which was not to do a survey of sound art, but instead bring together the people of the moment that were more active or— What’s the way in which she said it? Innovative, I think! And that’s what she wanted to do. And also, she wanted to bring together different aspects of the practice. And after understanding that in an exhibition space, you cannot put together a group of artists where everyone is creating a sonic environment, because it’s not possible to put together a large group of sound pieces at the same time. So there were a lot of ideas behind what could be possible, and also a lot of limitations. It was a very small show for MOMA, even, with a limited budget, I think. So there was so much criticism behind that exhibition, and some sound people were so unhappy with it. You know how it goes. But of course a lot of people also liked it, and others maybe didn’t like the whole thing, but they understood what was going on, and they appreciated it for what it was. I like to think and leave it as a fantastic “service to the field”, as you said it. Thousands of people visited the exhibition weekly.
I know your label is something else that you do that’s another role within sound practice, or that world, anyway.
Yeah. So that started as a way of channeling works I like that I felt needed to be out there in the world. I wanted to present characteristics that I appreciate in the work of others, and that I consider are necessary to put out there in the world. I even went further eventually and I focused on material that was not necessarily my cup of tea but I felt it was important to present as well. I felt it was necessary to cover different approaches and aesthetics too, because it represented a different angle on things. And so it was more about channeling and creating a community, and allowing for people to put work out there, than anything else. Contour Editions was made out of love for the art and as a project in itself in a way. It was very active in the beginning, and as I became very busy myself with my own work and with my family, my capacities to keep things happening consistently started to decrease.
It’s totally understandable, and I think it’s fine if things slow down. I know for me, with my website too, I can’t post on it all the time. Other stuff comes up, and if I don’t feel guilty about it, then I can let it still exist and post when I have something to post.
Yeah, totally. Also, everything out there has changed so much, from physical releases to online systems in which work can be presented. Even having a website has become such a weird thing with little traffic, because other kinds of platforms get much more attention, and those allow to present work, sell it, and more. However, I have avoided doing that. I’ve been comfortable, and actually sympathetic with the idea of this becoming more rare and obscure, and a specific destination, to go to and explore the content of what I’m presenting. And now I’m even doing a more limited number of publications.
It’s still a lot.
Yeah. In the beginning I was doing 300 physical copies per release, and then I moved down to 150, and now 75 physical copies. In the future perhaps I will do even a smaller number I think and perhaps even doing both online and physical. In general I try to keep an open mind aiming to have a strong catalog of works. So yeah, that’s basically it. And I wish I could do more, and even tie that online presence with a physical space, where something else could happen. For a while, I did that with two other artists that are also in New York. We came together in a way where Contour Editions was like a portable gallery for sound based projects. And then we would find an empty space somewhere in New York, and we would do a multi-channel sound based presentation that was specifically related to space. And that was called Contour Editions installations. The focus was sound in space.
Was that with Wolfgang Gil?
Yeah, with Wolfgang Gil and Daniel Neumann. We created a great team. We did a small number of projects and then everyone’s life got quite busy. Recently, actually, I started talking with Wolfgang about the possibility of doing this again. So we might come up with some projects here and there. But it was very interesting.
I could imagine getting some decent funding for that if you found the right sort of match. It just sounds really practical, too.
It was great. It was a lot of work too, and we never went on looking for funding because of our busy schedules. That can be a full-time job in itself. Doing these installation projects required also a lot of work and effort. But every time we did it, it was very rewarding, and it had a great amount of attention. But at the same time, anything we did with Contour Editions, there was never any finances or income involved. Everything came and it comes out of love pretty much. And when people released their work physically, they received their share of physical copies, and if it’s online, there it is. So my label, in this sense, functions more as a space for the community of people alike finding an outlet to channel their work. My mission statement of what I’m trying to do is very clear I believe. And I found that putting work online, in some sense, overcomes the obstacle of being in a geographical place reaching an audience just in there, per se. For example shipping a record to Europe now costs more than the record itself. Ridiculous! What I like about online releases is that the work has the capacity to reach people really far away, and they can get to know the work.
That’s great. There are networks possible that wouldn’t have been possible without those kinds of platforms. I think you might have answered my next question in the last one, but you can add to it if you like. What are the groups or communities that you feel like you’re part of?
I’m definitely very much part of the New York City community of sound people and artists. That’s where I studied, developed a practice, emerged, and I still am very much part of and always active.
And then we talked about the Subtropics piece, but is there anything else you’re working on right now that you’d like to talk about?
Well, yes. I’m working on a lot of different things. Maybe the most tangible piece that I’m developing is this sound installation for the CIFO institution, the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation. They do a yearly grant award, where a curator in the field nominates an artist, and if the artist accepts the nomination, then there has to be a proposal, and a committee of judges decide if you are in or not. After the work is made and presented, the work is kept in their collection. The grant also pays the artist based on category. So it’s a great thing. And I got nominated as a mid-career sound artist, and I proposed to make a sound piece that exists inside of a wall. And in order to appreciate the sounds in the wall, you have to put your ear to the wall, and then the spectator interacts with the sound living inside of the wall space. And to me, the idea in this piece had to do with very mundane experiences, such as being in your home and then you hear noises. I got there intuitively over the years as a linking mechanism. When that happens sometimes you don’t know where they come from, and then you end up yourself putting your ears to the wall trying to identify what it is that you’re listening to. And I think we all in one way or another have sort of dealt with that kind of situation. So when it comes to actual pieces that are specific standalone artworks, like a sound sculpture, object based installation, something that goes beyond more than the listening approach to sound, let’s say, I think about ways in which I can objectify the ordinary. The process is long and intuitive too. But the thing one way or another consists of focusing on an isolated situation in which I can use that as a model and then make something new from it. So with this particular piece, I’m doing it as a generative work. There’s a custom made application that executes the work. It will be a Mac Mini, and four channels of audio, and a sound card outputting the sound. And then the sounds will come in a discrete or spatialized manner and move through the 4-channel arrangement. And inside of the wall, there will be four transducers distributed in a square configuration. The piece will play indefinitely and different everyday. And when visitors look at the wall from the inside of the gallery, they will see just a square drawn with pencil, and that’s it. That’s the only thing. And then placing the ear to the wall and start listening is what the work requires from visitors. The sweat of people’s faces, makeup, their grease, all the stuff that naturally we have on the skin, shall become part of the work, because as people start placing their faces to the wall to listen, they will leave an imprint of some kind. And that’s what I’m working on right now, and I have to have it ready by early July. So I’m really working with these sounds to have them ready, and basically making everything I need to have it ready by then.
That sounds really exciting. When is it supposed to be installed?
It’s going to be installed and exhibited this September. I think it will open on September 7th. So I will be down there in July for Gustavo’s festival, and then back in September to do this project. Yeah, and it’s very exciting. I appreciate that nobody’s getting involved or telling me how to do it. I’ve just been doing my thing. Sometimes people get too involved, and there are limitations or compromises like I was describing before. But in this case, it has been very free and supportive. Once it got approved, I got on it, and I’m getting it done.
That’s great. What work or topics are you most excited about these days?
It’s wide open.
I would say time. Time is the topic that is more significant to me right now.
And are you thinking about that in terms of your work, and the type of canvas you’re working with?
I would say in general and as a notion that is above and beyond everything. I think that themes and interests change. It’s like asking someone what’s your favorite thing. I never had an answer that I felt comfortable giving in response to that. I don’t have favorite things. I connect to subjects and things that are functional in the moment within relational structures. Outside of that I live and think very neutral. But as we progress in life these interests change or things that we use to ignore become more significant. When you realize that taste, utilities, and pretty much everything we like or not, is strongly connected to the experiences within the timeline of life, you may start to feel skeptical of favoritisms. Though I feel time always remains; in fact as we move forward it becomes more profound and relevant to me. Therefore a timeless objective can be more relevant because it breaks apart the attention of the moment, and seeking for an objective that does not lose relevance over time feels quite important.
Yeah, it’s sort of what are you thinking about these days.
I think that if I can grab something substantial, consistent, highly significant, and beyond everything, in my work that would be time. It’s a very basic existential notion that surpasses everything. It’s also a human notion and not fully understood. However, I would say definitely that time is the common denominator in all my work, in all my media that I deal with, because my work is durational and even when it’s static time is present. And also, I always think in abstract terms when it comes to structure and narrative. I found that in my work, there is always a time element to it, and it’s consistent.
I’m going to skip ahead to one of the last questions, because you sort of brought it up, and maybe you answered it, too. Have you been thinking about your work in relation to this current political situation?
Well, I think the work can be political, but for different reasons, political in its own way, because everything’s political, right? But I don’t think it’s connected politically to the political arena or social issues in terms of direct content. And I think that politically connects to what I was talking about before in terms of commodity and consumption. But I think it’s political in the politics of listening, or the politics associated to the materiality in my work, because something that I think about is that nothing just is because that’s it. I think when it comes to materiality and choices, everything is always connected to a source, and that particular source carries out its own history, and political weight; besides there is a sense of responsibility in one’s own work. Living in New York, and thinking about the noise, the sounds in the world in form of debris, yeah, I’m very interested in environmental noise and ecology. I always think, when we listen to the noise that is all around us, all that exists because each person within society contributes to it. In a loaded city like New York City that is so populated, so loaded with consumption and fragments from the actions in our lives, and I think that all of that is politically charged. And I connect sound with those sorts of things. The thing is that we’re not truly in touch with it, and that’s somehow encrypted. It’s also encrypted in my work, but it’s present. And that’s why I find environmental noise so interesting, because it’s rich, not only in its material potential, but also in the way it can be traced, uncovered, and articulated.
That really connects it. Do you have ideas about what could be done to improve or enrich or support this field?
What can be done to make it richer?
Yeah, or to support it better somehow.
Well, I think anyone doing it should become like an ambassador of it, and I think— That’s a good question. Let me see how can I put it. Well I think the moment people get more exposed to it, they can grow with it, or learn to appreciate it more. So that being said, I think the best way to expand or to make it to come up more to the surface is to increase the projects and the capacities of bringing this sort of work out there. But as we know, it’s very challenging, because there’s no economy behind it and we live in a capitalistic society. Perhaps it’s wrong to generalize because different cultures have different experiences, correct? So yes, I don’t know. I think it’s a very difficult thing, and it’s very challenging. And most of the things, even in a city like New York, where it’s one of the top cultural centers of the world, still, we don’t have a sound art gallery. We don’t have a dedicated room for multichannel sound pieces. We don’t have a lot of things that we should have. The cultural enrichment should be more valued than the financial one I believe. And that, to me, is just amazing. But I think it’s because of that, because it’s something so obscure culturally that it’s for the very few, and there is no one that takes on the mission to say, okay, I’m going to do this. The persons that have taken on such mission, have struggle the same that artists do. And the struggle gets in the way, and people get tired and eventually give up. Maybe in different places of the world, it’s different because of different relationships that people have to culture and capital and community. But in my experience, that’s what I have observed in NY after 20 years.
That’s really interesting to think in those terms. From what I’ve see, people will try things, whether they have resources or not, but they’ll often fizzle out because they’re not necessarily getting the either financial or social encouragement that would keep it going. It takes a lot to have that incentive and keep something running.
Yeah. And also, I think as a society, or in the world at large, everything now is so dominated by entertainment and social media and devices that take the focus away from things that require spending time with them. And sound and music require durational active and receptive practice, in the sense that you sit down and pay attention for X amount of time. And now, we are more ADD than ever, because we’re constantly multitasking. We have so much information coming at us at once, and so little time to educate ourselves properly and contemplate properly. I feel that we are constantly rewiring in trying to keep up with the world and that plays against of it all. Or maybe it makes us different and subsequently who/how we are right now. The capacity to focus and partake is constantly being challenged by the competitive overload of attention demand. Then also if a person never heard experimental music or avant-garde music before, and then somebody plays something to them, most people would say as a consequence of their references, that is something that I heard in a sci-fi movie. It sounds like a broken sound system, or it sounds like this or that.
Or the line, my cat could have played that on the piano. So maybe figuring out how to communicate something more substantive. Well, that’s a whole other project too, of education. Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you’d like to address?
I think we are good. Thank you very much Jennie for the consideration and the opportunity to exchange some thoughts about what we like to do. It has been a pleasure and a joy meeting you and talking with you.
Olivia Block and I began a conversation by phone on May 8th, and then continued by email with the more standard questions I’ve been asking. I think it would be a mistake to just share only the more formal interview, because there’s a lot that’s revealed in this first conversation, both about her piece, Dissolution, and about some of her most consistent artistic concerns. It wasn’t originally intended to be included here, so there’s no formal starting point, but I’ll just drop you in and I’m sure you can find your way.
OB: It’s this idea of impermanence, that things are so fleeting. I have all of this stuff. I live in a house, and a house is supposed to be very solid. Everything feels so porous and flimsy. It’s changed my perspective on everything in a strange way.
JG: Well it seems like your work, at least the piece that you played with the microcassettes, that’s playing with that sense of impermanence.
It’s not that you weren’t keyed into that somehow before, and sort of fighting it.
Yeah. I have a similar story to yours, in that when Dad died— I have two sisters, and we are dealing with his house now, which is why I was thinking about stuff. My dad had loads of radio scanners and walkie talkies and all these things that I’m totally interested in.
That’s your world.
Like these shortwave radios are much more connected to my dad than I thought—this fascination with communications technologies. He was totally into that stuff. Why did it take me this long to figure that out? It’s so weird. But now I have like all of his stuff, literally. His radios and stuff. And so I’m like, I gotta do something with these.
Yeah, that’s really special.
It’s interesting, because the piece that I played at Harvard had the microcassette recordings, and then it also had shortwave radio sounds. It was kind of about language and the voice, and how at some point, I realized, every day I hear so much language, and most of it I can’t understand for various reasons. So it’s about the transmission of language.
Yeah. It really ties together in interesting ways, and hopefully opens up more potential and ways to sort of go wider and deeper and whatever.
Yeah, I hope so. It’s hard to know what’s going to happen.
So really, it’s just basically to get a sense initially of what you have in mind for Subtropics, what you’ll be doing there.
I will be doing a more expanded live version of Dissolution—the piece with the microcassette tapes and the scanners and things. I’ll do a multichannel, a multi-speaker version of that. I think a lot about the tradition of cinema, and focus on creating a cinematic experience. So it’s about having the audience sit in a very dark room facing what would be a screen, but there’s nothing on the screen. There are multiple speakers all around, so it’s a very immersive experience in the dark. Because there is language in the content, it’s kind of about these little snippets of what might be narratives, but they never quite come together, and they’re kind of layered on top of each other, and they get of all tangled up in this web. So some of these sounds and these words are in some ways kind of imagistic. The audience can try to grasp some of these things, and make a weird narrative out of it, or not. But it’s really about that experience of just sitting in the dark and having sounds come from all around you.
It’s amazing, actually, because it’s so connected to what I’m doing the workshop about.
Oh, cool. Cause when we talked last, you were sort of still figuring that out.
Well I think I’ve known what it’s about, but I still need to work out quite how I’m going to do it. But it’s really about the idea of how sound is operating in relation to the listener…. I’m pretty sure I’m going to do an exhibit of scores for the imagination. Some of them are photography, but others are text scores, and different things like that. There’s no sound produced except in the mind.
Well this is very interesting, because one of the things that I’ve been doing actually with students in workshops is to show 35mm slides, too. I have this whole collection of these amazing 35mm slides. If you look at these photographs, you hear sound immediately in your mind. There is a group of photographs that I have of a wrestling match, or some kind of, it might be wrestling or something else, but there are these two coaches. And this is from I think the 70s or the early 80s. These photographs are of these two coaches that are just going insane. They’re all contorted in these weird positions, and you can tell something terrible just happened. One of them is on the ground. You can only see his head, because it’s on the ground. And then the other one’s in a chair, and he’s kind of leaning down, and his mouth is wide open, like he’s just screaming. He’s got weird sunglasses on.
Oh, so you hear it. It’s caught this intense moment.
Yeah, and when you look at it, you can just hear this guy’s voice. Especially in American culture, just having grown up watching sports on television, and you always see those sidelines with the coaches, and they’re always just going insane. And so I like to show some of these slides to students, and just have them imagine. What is the sound that you hear when you see this slide?
Oh, that’s cool. Would you be open to maybe including a couple of those in the exhibit?
That would be great.
Yeah, that would be so fun.
It just seems like what you’re doing really connects with these ideas of how— This is what I was writing about for the talk in the UK. What’s operating on the person experiencing the work to make them understand what’s happening, or to invite them into that? What are the points of access to that? And it seems like you’ve thought a lot about that.
Yeah. Have you ever read the book Audio-Vision, by Michel Chion?
I haven’t read it yet.
It’s about cinema and sound. That’s kind of the angle that he’s coming from. He has these categories of listening or modes that people employ, not necessarily consciously, but in film and cinema particularly, because sound and cinema, there are so many different reasons for sounds to happen. And so the listener is kind of switching, it’s almost like not code switching, but code listening switching, in a sense, because there’s the sounds that are more like diegetic. If you’re not seeing something fall on screen but you’re hearing it out of your left ear on the left side of the room, then that’s a diegetic thing, because you’re identifying that something is falling in this scene that you’re not seeing. And then there are other modes of listening–one of which is listening for codes or language, whether that is literal language or some other kind of animal sounds, or even music. I forget what he calls it. So that’s another strategy, or entryway. And then the last one that he talks about, he argues is only possible through listening to recordings, that it’s basically— And again, I’m forgetting the term that he uses for this. But it’s listening to sound for sound’s sake. So it’s listening to the textures or listening to the— Not trying to identify the source or what it means or anything like that.
So it’s a more abstracted sort of thing.
Yeah, totally abstracted. You are always going back and forth between these three strategies.
I should definitely read that.
Yeah, it sounds right up your alley, and it’s something that for Dissolution,
I think about a lot, because all of those things are operating for the listener, or at least I imagine that they are.
So the source material then is the microcassettes and shortwave radio?
There’s shortwave radio, microcassette tapes that I’ve collected. There’s a funny kind of point in the piece, and this is not on the record. This is actually just in the live version, of a walkie talkie exchange between these two young girls, I think they’re sisters. The story behind this is that I have these walkie talkies, and I had them on during a rehearsal. And I had forgotten that the walkie talkies were there. This was last December 24th. I was rehearsing, and all of a sudden there was this, hello, hello? There were these two young girls that had just gotten walkie talkies. I started to play notes and things. I would press the button and play notes. And so I was having this exchange with these two girls. It was really funny. I could tell which one was the older one, cause she was just like, if you’re not going to say anything, stop. So I have a lot of that going on in the piece in the beginning. And then there’s tonal stuff from an organ and from sine waves, so it’s tones and voices that are in various states of intelligibility. Some of them are very processed, and they’re really hard to understand because they’re very distorted, or the natural distortion from the technology is left present. So noise and what I call the epiphonographic information, which is like the information that the device actually brings to the sound and adds to it. It’s like the high hiss or the special kind of distortion that might be present in the microcassettes.
I know this kind of thing so well from doing transcription, and I have to live with it.
Yeah, exactly. It’s really interesting how you can listen to a recording of something and it’s very easy to identify what the technological recording device is. It’s kind of remarkable, actually. It’s less true now that fidelity is getting better, but in the latter half of the 20th century, that’s particularly true, because you can tell when things are recorded on phones, and you can tell when things are recorded on cassettes, and you can tell when you’re hearing something from an LP. You usually hear about people trying to take those out and get rid of them, but I actually try to play those up and enhance them.
That’s information that you want.
It’s information about history and time, because you can identify the time this sound was recorded in a subtle kind of way.
How long is the installation?
It’s actually a performance. I can send you a document about how I do the piece, which might be of interest to you or not. It’s mixed live in the space, and my sound checks are rather long, because I usually change the piece for the space. It’s basically a site specific performance. The piece gets completely rearranged sometimes depending on where the speakers are placed and things like that. But generally, the piece lasts about 45 to 50 minutes.
But there are other sort of arcs too?
Yeah, a lot of it is also from these broadcasts from scanner radios. There’s a national time broadcast that happens on the shortwave radio, so that is kind of like a metrical device in the piece. There’s this, at the hour, the time is 7 and 7 minutes, or whatever, and it’s counting in real time. So that comes in and out as a way to reference time. So that’s another thing about the audience listener’s experience of time. It kind of expands and contracts.
Can you talk about one or two of your early or most meaningful encounters with experimental music?
I remember when I was around ten or so in Texas, going to see a small screening of “Jackson Pollock” at a local university with my mom, and hearing unsettling music, which I later discovered to be Morton Feldman. The music accompanied images of Pollock dripping paint onto glass, filmed from underneath. I thought the whole thing was very strange. I did not connect with the music or images, but they made a huge impression on my memory because they were so different from anything I had seen or heard before.
Later when I was in my early twenties, playing in bands in Austin, the guitarist for one of the bands, Geoff, played a Hafler Trio CD in the tour van. I didn’t connect with the sounds at the time either, but I was very intrigued by them, and I wanted to understand.
When I heard the Halfer Trio, and similar noise music from the late nineties, I remember thinking that this experimental music put the rock music I usually listened to into a larger social context (although I wouldn’t have articulated it that way then).
When I thought about rock music from a different perspective, it seemed strangely formulaic, and designed to elicit particular emotional responses from the listener. I started to feel uncomfortable playing music I considered to be emotionally manipulative. I felt a lack of emotional response when I listened to noise music, but in a way, I appreciated the lack of response, and recognized that lack as a starting point for investigation into different kinds of music-making and experience.
Shortly after that time, when I was making my own solo experimental music, I heard some CD’s by Gastr del Sol (Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs). The music combined field recordings, noises, and instruments, using some frameworks from the rock music genre in a larger field of sounds. GDS utilized interesting studio techniques, like switching abruptly from stereo to mono, which changed the spatial awareness of the listener. When I heard their music, I thought, “this is the type of music I am trying to make.” I didn’t know that anyone else was trying to combine all of those elements until then.
Their music had some emotional content, but only in very well placed moments. The more traditionally “musical” aspects of their compositions were very affecting while at the same time, revealing social meanings of many genres of music-rock, classical, and jazz.
I also appreciated that those compositions were sold to people who listened to rock music, rather than more formal concert music. Those compositions, The Harp Factory on Lake Street, and Upgrade and Afterlife, are still some of my favorite pieces of music. They are masterpieces.
Around that same time before I left Austin to move to Chicago, I met Ellen Fullman. She was kind enough to show me the long stringed instrument and how she tuned it. But the most memorable thing about meeting Ellen was visiting her studio space, and seeing where she worked. I remember how she had two long pieces of white laminated wood in a corner formation with file cabinets as stands, creating a long desk and work table.
She had a desktop computer on the desk/table. The studio was a contemporary open space in an industrial part of town, not an apartment. Seeing her working in her studio inspired me. I saw that a woman could work in a studio on art projects as a job.
What is it that is compelling to you about experimental music? How does it connect with your experience more broadly?
It’s difficult to articulate how experimental music is compelling for me. I only know that I imagine situations or recordings with combinations of certain sounds, and I want those possibilities to be realized., sort of like imagining a film. Sometimes I improvise and discover something that energizes me, and that process is very gratifying and fun.
In terms of connection, on a personal level, I think experimental music serves a social function for me. Introversion and intermittent health issues often keep me from participating in regular social situations. Music making connects me to the world in meaningful ways with intelligent and interesting people. I think of art as a social process. Any given composition I complete would not have come to fruition without my partner or a friend listening to rough mixes and checking scores, or without the impressions left on me by previous audiences and students.
Most people I know in this field tend to have more than one type of role within it. What are the main roles you have taken on, and do you find that they complement each other?
My main roles are composer, performer, teacher, producer, improviser. I think the term “improviser” is inseparable from performer and composer for me. I often come up with ideas for compositions improvising on the piano, mixing sounds together in my studio, or spontaneously adding sounds to a space I am recording by moving objects I find there. Those events might then be added to a score I am working on. I also include moments for improvisation in scores and performances. I am not a “free improviser,” though. I usually have boundaries and guidelines around what I am improvising, or at least more than free improvisers usually do. I don’t improvise for the sake of improvising.
The role of teacher is the newest one for me, and one which I find gratifying.
A lot of my traveling jobs are teaching residencies now at universities, sometimes combining music and art department events, and sometimes visiting anthropology classes. I just did a residency at a boarding school in Ojai California. It was great! The high school students totally got ideas related to improvisation, listening practices, sound and mediation, etc. The electronic music students presented an excellent improvised concert.
What are the groups or communities (ensembles, groups of musicians, series, venues, online forums, etc.) that you feel most a part of, if any, within this field?
Over the years I have traveled inside festival circuits, encountering many of the same people in different situations. There is a sense of camaraderie in these repeated meetings. I got to know Maryanne Amacher that way, for instance, and had the good fortune of seeing her present the same piece in different situations and locations.
I am also connected with people locally in Chicago. There are a few different groups, and there is a lot of overlap—improvisers, new music composers, and noise people, among others.
Recently I am expanding my sense of connection to include organizations as well as individuals. I am interested in partnering with these organizations and creating larger scale free public works. The Graham Foundation, Lampo, ESS, The Renaissance Society are all local groups which have partnered with me in larger projects
What are you working on now? (organizing, writing, composing, rehearsing)
I just lost my father, and I am feeling a lack of motivation to complete anything right now, but I have several projects in process.
I just finished recording a solo piano and organ piece. That piece will be released in the fall. It has no title. Just my name.
I have been working with organs a lot lately—playing and recording pipe organs and vintage organs. I am trying to sort all of that material out and create a few different pieces. Some of those pieces are more melodic than my past works.
I have been working on an interesting collaboration with Julia Holter for a while. We are combining her voice and texts with field recordings, including a lot of wind sounds. Her voice has a wonderful breathy, close quality like wind through leaves.
I have a Danish ship building manual with beautiful diagrams including curves, lines and numbers that I am turning into a series of scores.
I am also in the planning stages of a few installation projects. One of them, entitled “The Sound of Prairie Grass Dividing” will include a landscape architect and/or builder. The installation is designed to be outdoors in a windy location. There is a particular park by the lake in Chicago I have in mind as the ideal site. There is a constant wind blowing off of the lake onto that peninsula.
I want to create a long corridor with tall walls of blowing prairie grass on both sides. The grass would be planted in parts of the wall structure but those built parts would not be visible. The person inside the corridor would hear wind through the grass and see the flowing movement on the corridor walls.
The idea originated in part by watching the Terrence Malick film Days of Heaven.
What work or topics are you most excited about these days?
I am interested in the writing of theorist Donna Haraway, particularly her ideas about multiple species and human exceptionalism. I have also been enjoying the writings of Lebbeus Woods, the architectural theorist, and some books on bird behavior.
Have you been thinking about your work in relation to the current political situation?
Given how dire things have become, I have considered whether or not my work should become more overtly political. I am an American artist, so I think of this in the context of what is happening in the U.S. with the assumption that I might have more opportunity to affect change here. However, I don’t think the most effective changes that art can make, like awareness raising or subtle commentary, are helpful now.
The people who like experimental music, generally, are aware of what is happening politically. While the awareness of sociopolitical issues is necessary and good, much of the discourse around these issues has become a divisive and toxic. The emphasis on individual needs and expression and the contrarian tone in this discourse seems to thwart collective action. I am afraid that, if I made more overtly political work, it might get caught up in this discourse and become meaningless.
I have decided that the best way to try and change things is through direct financial support to appropriate organizations, or through direct political action like showing up to protests or calling representatives, rather than through art, although those might not be the most interesting or personally fulfilling modalities.
All of that having been said, I think there is something powerful about facilitating a free, site specific public installation or concert.
I recently performed a pipe organ concert in the majestic Rockefeller Memorial Chapel in Chicago. There were speakers placed throughout the chapel playing prerecorded organ sounds to blend with the live music. The Rockefeller staff opened up the chapel so that people walked around the interior, including the little nooks and stairs and balconies. People listened to the way the sounds changed as they moved through the space. The lights were very low. The chapel was so beautiful and the organ sounded amazing because the pipes are embedded into the walls of the building. There were five hundred people at the concert, and no one talked. The only sounds were organ and quiet footsteps. It was amazing that so many people could be so silent, and so engaged with a space and with sound.
There was a palpable sense that the audience members were participants in the piece, and I think we all felt that we collectively generated something positive during the concert. The experience helped me to remember that gathering people together in a non-mediated context can be transformative, particularly if people are listening in a space differently than they would in their every day lives. While I am actually rather cynical about the power of art, I do think maybe some of the positivity generated in situations like that can trickle into the larger culture through individual actions. That subtle shift generated during an event is political, in a way.
What could be done to improve/enrich/support the field locally or internationally?
I think nationally and locally, more financial support would be helpful. More grant opportunities, support from city and state entities for new and experimental music and sound installation projects (although that is not likely in this country).
I wish funding organizations would take risks in terms of the artists they choose to fund. There might be artists who don’t have advanced degrees or impressive references or those whose ideas do not translate into writing as well as others on a grant application. Some of those artists might do some really innovate work given the support.
I am also interested in education programs for young kids through music and art. There are some organizations like Techne and Nameless Sound that teach kids how to build technological instruments or to improvise in groups. These experiences can be so profound for kids, and will change the field later, naturally making it more diverse as well. I wish these programs could receive more funding.
Who else would you suggest that I interview?
Is there a grand dame of experimental music? Like a cranky older woman who curses a lot? I want you to find and interview her!