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Misfits and Hooligans Interview: Veronika Krausas

26 Apr

The third in our series of interviews with artists leading up to the Misfits and Hooligans concert at Beyond Baroque on April 28, we talk to composer, producer, and Catalysis Projects Core Artist Veronika Krausas.

Can you tell us a bit about your work that’s being presented on the concert?

I’ve got two pieces on the program – one a little older and one a little newer.  Let’s say the older one is the hooligan work.  It’s my double bass trio called Gardens of Stone.    This piece was inspired by a poem by the Canadian writer André Alexis:

 out of silence, to another silence

 from sun and water, dry white salt.

time moves like that, crest to crest,

and our selves, yours and mine,

are what is left from sea …

 I had a series of works that used texts around stones by Alexis.  Some of them had the text read, some sung, and in this piece it’s simply the inspiration seed.  I wrote it after hearing the marvelous bassist Stefano Scodanibbio perform at Darmstadt.  I was enthralled with the range of sounds that he was able to achieve.   My work can be amplified but for Saturday’s concert it’ll be acoustic since it’s such a small space, the real estate is at a premium!

The second work – my misfit piece – is Jonas for solo harmonica.   The supreme master of the harmonica, Bill Barrett, asked me to write a solo work for him a few years ago.  It’s finally getting its première this weekend.  The structure of the piece is 8 phrases, each ending in exactly the same, definitive way.  Along with the piece is a great text and film by Quintan Ana Wikswo called The Anguillidae Eater.

The text is about the migration of eels to the Coronian Spit in Lithuania (which is one of my favorite places in the world) with a surreal twist.

Curonian spit - Lithuania

Here’s what Quintan says of the work:

The Anguilladae Eaters inhabits an obscure spot upon the earth – a tiny spit of land in the Baltic Sea where ancient and ferocious female deities are still known to roam. Over the centuries, their alchemical, cryptic seaside has been invaded by Vikings, Russians, Catholics, Nazis – each wanting to plunder, subdue and control this disconcertingly female ensorcelled slice of earth. Yet there are pilgrims, too – the Anguilladae eels journey ten long years from the Sargasso Sea in the Caribbean, just to mate in these icy, enchanted waters. And they’re not alone. All manner of travelers are drawn here, even today, where these deities remain with powers far stronger and more fierce with age. Travelers today find themselves unsettled: are the local women truly women? Or are they themselves the cryptic eel goddesses – immortals in mundane disguise? Were the eggs at breakfast enchanted? Taken not from chickens, but from the plundered nest of an eel queen, stalking high along the dunes?

The images in her film are of eggs and the sea and the sand and an eel rake!

eel rake

It goes perfectly with the harmonica music.  The piece is named after my grandfather Jonas, who loved harmonica and smoked eel and was Lithuanian.  He was probably more of a friendly hooligan that a misfit.  I still have his harmonica in my studio.

Do you consider yourself a hooligan or a misfit? Or both? Or neither?

 

I’m a misfit but really my goal is to be a hooligan … it’s one of those things that I’m working on.  The definition of hooligan really depends on which country you hail from because in the lands that enjoy soccer (aka as non-American football), a hooligan might have a slightly less savory connotation than a hooligan in my less aggressive-less violent-more mischievous-Edward Gorey-esque usage of the term.

 

Edward Gorey

Tell us about the most memorable oddball instrument you’ve ever encountered.

 

I’ve always been perplexed with the ondes martenot.  The effects of the instrument are fantastic in Messiaen’s music and in the hands of a great performer, like Cynthnia Millar, it’s exquisite, but the method of performing on it has always messed with my brain.

I remember once hearing a bagpipe in a closed room – that was memorable.

I remember once seeing and hearing someone play on an amplified toothbrush – that was oddball.

And of course, there are those moments where all of a sudden you forget how to spell was or for a split second something that is habitual becomes an unknown action.  Sometimes, very rarely actually, I’ll be sitting at the piano and I’ll see myself from the outside, as if an alien watching who has no idea what a piano is, and think, this is strange – sitting at a table and hitting it with my fingers!  I guess that’s more just oddball rather than an instrument really.

 

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Misfits and Hooligans Interview: Tom Flaherty and Quintan Ana Wikswo

25 Apr

In the second in our series of interviews with artists leading up to the Misfits and Hooligans concert on April 28 at Beyond Baroque, we talk to interdisciplinary filmmaker/visual artist/writer  (and Catalysis Projects Core Artist) Quintan Ana Wikswo, and composer Tom Flaherty.

     

Can you tell us a bit about your work that’s being presented on the 28th?

TF: “Shepard’s Pi” a piece that explores weird sonic characteristics of the toy piano, whose lowest notes can sound higher than its highest notes. The live toy piano is accompanied by electronic transmogrifications of itself, and the player gets to dance with a funhouse mirror of his or her playing.

QW: I have two new pieces on the 28th – one is a collaboration with Veronika Krausas: her music JONAS with my poem cycle and 35mm film suite, called THE ANGUILLADAE EATERS. The second piece is my film projection APIMANIAS, which I created to go alongside Aron Kallay’s phenomenal toy piano performance of Tom Flaherty’s equally-phenomenal and intriguing SHEPARD’S PI.

film still, APIMANIAS by Quintan Ana Wikswo. 35mm film. 9 minutes. 2012.

TF: Named after cognitive psychologist Roger Shepard, a Shepard scale is an audio illusion in which a scale seems to rise endlessly, without getting higher. The constituent pitches consist of several simultaneous octaves, which fade out at the top of the scale and fade in at the bottom. Taken out of the moving context, the actual octave register of a note is ambiguous to the ear. A toy piano displays similar ambiguity: as the length of the sounding rods at lowest keys is too short to produce a true bass note, its overtones are louder than its fundamental pitch. Taken out of context the lowest F can sound more like its C overtone, an octave and a fifth higher. This ambiguity is part of the charm of the toy piano, and Shepard’s Pi enjoys playing with that charm, with lots of scales that seem not to get higher, sonorities whose octave register is ambiguous, and moments where the meter and tempo could be heard in several different ways.

Oh yes, pi. Just as pi = 3.14159265. . ., so too Shepard’s Pihas slightly more than three electronically produced sounds (all derived from the sound of the toy piano), sections, and tempi.

QW: When I first encountered Tom Flaherty’s “Shepard’s Pi,” the word “apimanias” began spiraling through my mind alongside the music. I find the musical work quite charming and endearing – it suggests an obsessive, insistent structural precision, a kind of auditory engineering that is similar to the unrelenting, exciting din of skyscraper construction – something rising, and yet never seeming to finish. Admirable, and inexorable, it’s the din of highly controlled creation. I immediately thought of bees. The preoccupying, intrusive, dominating and yet subtly complex sound of their wings spiraling in circles of flight – annoying, but breathtaking, and also quite gorgeous. As I read the score of Tom’s piece, the carefully nested progression of concentric octaves somehow echoed the precise mathematics bees use to build the structure of their hive. The Greek mathematician Archimedes approximated Pi by inscribing a hexagon into a circle: that is at the heart of bee geometry as well – their honeycomb is a mass of hexagonal wax cells that contain their larvae, honey and pollen. And dreams. The word Apimanias means “an excessive interest in bees.” And hidden within the word Apimanias is another word: pi.

While I was working on my B/ee-Movie, I became obsessed by the posture of the bees – their hunched backs bent down intently over their mathematical task. This ominous, slightly maniacal physical shape that suggests obsession and inexorable focus. During this time, I saw a video of Tom’s piece in performance and recognized an uncanny similarity between the bees and the toy piano player – both hump-backed and crouched, singlemindedly constructing geometry within a creation device…I suspect the honeycomb and the piano may serve the same function for two different species. Or perhaps, not so different species. I know pianists have very good posture, especially Aron.

film still, APIMANIAS by Quintan Ana Wikswo. 35mm film. 9 minutes. 2012.

Do you consider yourself a hooligan or a misfit? Or both? Or neither?

TW: Definitely misfit. That used to be a requirement for admission to the Composer’s Union, though they may have relaxed their standards in recent years.
Perhaps hooligan, to my students.
film still, APIMANIAS by Quintan Ana Wikswo. 35mm film. 9 minutes. 2012.

film still, APIMANIAS by Quintan Ana Wikswo. 35mm film. 9 minutes. 2012.

QW: I am probably mostly like a bee: both a misfit and a hooligan. Currently, there is an astonishingly large, obnoxious and ungainly wood-boring bee attempting to drill through the wall of my studio. At first, I thought it was a lawnmower. All that trouble from just a little fellow. There is a punk quality to its uncaring response to being in the way, being noisy and obstreperous, and generally being just not much of a joy to have around…but it’s just being a bee. And honestly, there’s also something quite silly about them in their ridiculous fuzzy carapace and ungainly wings and their sentimental affection for overwrought flowers. Yet nevertheless, bees can kill people. Lots of people are terrified of all sorts of bees – perhaps because they’re also very unpredictable. One never knows if a bee will kill somebody – they’re just as likely to land on your fingertip and slurp up a bit of tasty sweat as to put one into the grave.

But getting back to your question – it’s just the bee’s nature to drill and buzz and annoy and terrify and make life happen, and pollinate, and cross-polinate, and create. They are the best sorts of misfits and hooligans.

As far as new music, I think that Saturday’s concert – and new music in general – won my heart a long time ago with its ability to be the bee…to cause shock and horror, discomfort, and make enemies without even trying – but also to be a bit silly and ungainly, and wobbly and fragile and peculiar. Invariably someone seems to walk out of a concert once they realize the violin in never going to sound like Debussy. They seem partly ashamed of themselves – as if they know they must be missing something – but also betrayed by their friend, the obedient violin. So much new music invariably horrifies unsuspecting audience members who want to expect the expected. And that’s really quite thrilling to be within.

film still, APIMANIAS by Quintan Ana Wikswo. 35mm film. 9 minutes. 2012.

Tell us about the most memorable oddball instrument you’ve ever encountered.

TF: There was a vegetable orchestra in Vienna a couple or years ago. That’s got to rank pretty high on the list. But clearly this question deserves greater thought.

QW: I grew up in the Cumberland Valley of Tennessee way out in the country, and my brother played dulcimer at Appalachian and mountain music jamborees. Jamborees are a glorious experience in making a lot of something from nothing. And for truly transcendent expression to come from the least likely situations, and equipment. I was probably about six years old and we were in some mountain hollow filled with hickory smoke and crickets and desolation, way out there in the Smokey Mountains.

Up on stage come these tiny blonde triplets in overalls, each holding a pair of spoons. Honestly, at first they made me really hungry. Everything in the south will make you hungry if you look at it the right way, but spoons just looked delicious. I kept thinking of what they were about to eat on that little rattletrap wood stage, and what it had to do with mountain music. Then it was just like a lightning storm descended into their little pink hands – flashes of bright white shining light and all sorts of glorious rhythm and vibration and clattering whirring cadence. They played a waltz. And a hoedown.

And a “fiddler’s choice” piece that probably belonged in a temple to some unknown displaced haint. They’d hit those spoons on the snaps and buckles of their little overalls. Just to get more range. I guess I’ve been waiting my whole life to hear something equally transcendent and shocking, but it hasn’t happened yet. Those girls really knew how to play their spoons.

film still, APIMANIAS by Quintan Ana Wikswo. 35mm film. 9 minutes. 2012.

Misfits and Hooligans Interview: Isaac Schankler

22 Apr

In the first in our series of interviews with artists leading up to Misfits and Hooligans concert on April 28, we talk to composer, accordionist, and Catalysis Projects Core Artist Isaac Schankler.

Isaac Schankler

Can you tell us a bit about your work that’s being presented on the concert?

Sure! Two of my compositions are being performed. Daniel Corral and I are playing Chocolate Phase for accordion duo and electronics, which is inspired by a song called “Chocolate Rain” by Tay Zonday. “Chocolate Rain” was an unexpected hit on YouTube in 2007 (I can’t believe it’s that long ago already). It’s a pretty strange song, very repetitive — the chorus and verse share the same melody — but also oddly compelling. The production of the synths and drums make it seem kind of goofy at first, but over time it begins to acquire this cumulative power of a litany or a recitation. And the words actually detail this pretty scathing picture of institutionalized racism.

Of course, the popularity of the song, or at least what people were saying about it, seemed to have little to do with any of this. It seemed to be more about the incongruity of Zonday’s deep voice and his nerdy appearance, or his odd mannerisms like moving away from the mic to breathe. I’m fascinated by this process. What does it mean when a musical artifact takes on a life of its own, and becomes appreciated for reasons completely outside the artist’s intention? Despite this disconnect, I find myself unable to let go of the idea of music as communication or expression. So I was curious to find out what might happen if I took musical material from the song and presented it in a different context.

Chocolate Phase takes the song’s main piano riff and runs it through a bunch of phase processes, where four versions of the riff gradually shift out of unison. It’s similar to what you’d find in Steve Reich’s early minimalist music (Piano Phase, Violin Phase).

It’s actually a great riff for that purpose; there’s a nice compound melody with multiple lines embedded in it, so when you phase shift it, all these things come tumbling out.

I guess in a way this was an attempt to render the musical material in a more “abstract” setting, more distanced from the specific qualities of the YouTube video. The irony is that of course it’s connected to a very specific musical tradition of late 60s minimalism. Zonday himself has a very idiosyncratic attitude toward musical traditions:

In many ways, I feel like a musical orphan. I’m not sure who my influences are. Growing up, I learned to hide the fact that I had any passion or enjoyment for music or life. Being ‘influenced’ to laugh or dance was always a sickness or pathology. It made my parents fearful that they were losing their kids. To this day, I’m not sure you could get me to admit that I was influenced by anything. It’s just beaten out of the way I think. Perhaps people call my music ‘unique’ because I don’t feel beholden to any influences.

I love Zonday’s heretical idea of a music without influences — take that, Western canon! — and the fact that he felt compelled to make music despite his restrictive upbringing. Chocolate Phase is really an homage to that attitude, and I hope it’s appreciated in that spirit.

The other piece, Mobile II (“Dear Mr. Edison”) for viola and electronics, is another kind of animal entirely. It uses two source recordings from the very early days of recording technology. The first is a speech given by composer Arthur Sullivan in October 1888, thanking Thomas Edison for his invention of the phonograph. One part of the speech stands out:

I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the results of this evening’s experiment — astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever.

It was only natural, then, for me to consider his speech itself as musical material. My approach here owes a debt to the music of Austrian composer Peter Ablinger (Voices and Piano).

The second recording is  an excerpt of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt performed in June 1888. Recorded from over 100 yards away and subject to over 100 years of decay, the chorus of 4000 voices is almost obscured by noise artifacts from the degradation of the wax cylinder. Often the technological medium itself seems to have its own musical agenda; the piece explores the wonder and terror conjured by that agenda. Alma Lisa Fernandez (of the Eclipse Quartet) is playing the viola part, and she’s doing some amazing things with it!

Do you consider yourself a hooligan or a misfit? Or both? Or neither?

I like the construction of the word “mis-fit” — taken literally it’s not even really an insult. It just means something that doesn’t quite gel with other things. Most of my pieces are probably misfits in some way. They don’t even fit with each other. Someone reminded me recently that “eclectic” can also be a compliment or an insult.

Tell us about the most memorable oddball instrument you’ve ever encountered.

From recent memory, I have to say I really appreciated the melodicas with foot-operated air pumps in the premiere of Oscar Bettison’s Livre de Sauvages by the LA Phil chamber players. As an accordionist I think about breath a lot, but the breathing of the accordion bellows is always kind of incorporeal — it happens outside your body. Bettison’s piece featured the most visceral aural depiction of the bellows that I can remember hearing, almost like the ragged breathing of some dying animal. In the best possible way!

Blocking the Exits: The Slowpocalypse is Here

11 Aug

Notes from the Studio: Catalysis Project’s Resident Artist Isaac Schankler talks about his recent collaboration with video artist Christopher O’Leary, Blocking the Exits (currently on display at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions).

What is the nature of our culture’s fascination with the apocalypse? This dystopian thread connects so much of our literature, our films, our popular consciousness. There’s something riveting about the spectacle of it all, something that seems to mask a hidden desire, or at least conflicting impulses. What does it mean when you take something horrifying and render it beautiful? What are the aesthetics of the apocalypse?


These are some of the pointed questions implied by video artist Christopher O’Leary’s Blocking the Exits. In his words, the project “depicts an apocalyptic world where four characters have the final experience of crumbling pillars of civilization: water, food, energy and communication.” When Chris asked me to supply a soundtrack to this quasi-narrative video, I jumped at the chance (since I too am not immune to the fascination of the apocalyptic).

The visual aspect of Blocking the Exits consists of still photos that are then animated through morphing algorithms. Chris’s images are extremely stylized; there’s no attempt to disguise or apologize for the influence of comic book art. For a composer like me this is wonderfully inspiring; his images are so evocative that when he first showed them to me I had almost immediate sonic “images” come to mind.

There’s also a mesmerizing slowness to the morphing animations, and this led me down some musical paths that are a bit unusual for me. I composed four electronic musical vignettes, one for each “character” in Chris’s video. Each vignette follows a very simple process from one sonic place to another (e.g. low to high, sparse to dense, and so on). Each process is drawn out so that the development is almost imperceptibly slow, and the video also dynamically cuts between characters, making the processes even harder to track from beginning to end.

Usually when I’m working out a composition I feel compelled to subtly shade these processes, to round off the edges and hide the seams — or if I’m feeling more antagonistic, to disrupt and complicate these processes with even more processes! But in this case it seemed to fit the project to doggedly pursue something to its bitter end. Here the end of the world doesn’t happen with a bang but as a dull, persistent roar. It happens while we’re not looking or listening: an ongoing, inevitable, eternal moment.

Blocking the Exits is on display in the Speculative exhibit at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90028) until August 28th.

Rules are Stupid (An homage to Zarathustra):

22 Jul
Jeffrey Holmes: Blog for CATALYSIS PROJECTS, July, 2011.
The actions of being an artist are those of the exception to the norm, not the norm that the majority is engulfed within.  The only rules we are to follow are those of nature.  It is mankind’s instinct to try to govern and document those aspects of nature, all without mandate.  It is our hangover from a monotheistic aeon.  Prior to the spread of monotheism, mankind lived amongst nature and “worshipped” natural gods that provided explanations for natural occurrences that could not be explained by reason.  As monotheism encroached upon society, there became an irrational desire to separate from nature and dominate it.  The early Judeo-Christian liturgans chopped down trees to build wooden churches to demonstrate their dominance over nature, while the pagans lived amongst the forests in collaboration with natural elements.  This need for dominance all springs from a fear of the power nature had over their lives and their desire to control it, in order to ensure their own survival.  In our current aeon, we are generally unthreatened by nature in that same way.  Of course, we can be killed by earthquakes or the by the sea, or large storms, but we understand this scientifically and are comforted by the control we gain from that knowledge.  But most people are unlikely to get killed by a bear or wolf or band of marauders or something wild as they walk from their secure home to their secure vehicle (weather a car, train, etc.), to their secure job or through their secure life.  So some of us, the majority, are clinging to a divinity that dominates nature, but without the spiritual rationality of a reason for doing so.  This always leads to criticism of the minority, by the majority.  Criticism often leads to bias, and then to conflict and finally, attempts at extermination.  It is our political and legal doctrine in our post-modern era.

1. Rules are Stupid:

Historically we privilege the exceptions, and are bored with the norm.  My hero is Beethoven.  His value that we now derive from his actions is that of a progressive one.  This is why we separate him from his now generally considered “lesser” contemporaries like Dittersdorf, Vanal, Gottschalk, etc., all of whom followed conventions of their day.  Beethoven, however, is praised for breaking the rules and defying the norm, and that is why he is taught and studied…his exceptions, not his submissions.  In fact, in our current society, he would probably be ostracized for his adherence to his believes and unflinching integrity and his obstinate, brash personality.  Even late in his own life he was ostracized…having children throw rotten fruit at him on the street, being arrested for vagrancy, and his for his increasing social isolation due to his stubborn and offensive attitude.  It is no surprise that his main source of inspiration was always nature.  Even though his works do not reveal this on the surface through their titles, his journals reveal that his daily walks in the forest was where and when he conjured his ideas.

2. Rules are Stupid:

This brings me around to the point of sharing my thoughts.  I have been told by everyone around me, that I am bound by my employment, bound geographically.  Even if that has caged me into less of a fulfilled life than I demand for myself.  I have recently broken these rules and moved away, far away…to the top of a mountain.  When I was a lost and searching 12 year-old, I was permanently inspired and shaped by Fredrick Nietzsche’s Thus Sparch Zarathustra.  This fictional tale describes a thinker/poet who was not a part of the norm of society.  He chose to live in on a mountain-top, away from society, to regain spiritual and personal clarity.  When he returns to society ten years later, his impressions are profound.  It is no coincidence that Nietzsche’s selected name for this character “Zarathustra” is a pun on the word “Zoroastrian”, which is the name of the first mono-theistic sect in recorded history (that either Nietzsche or myself are aware of), and is an obvious illumination of the conflict between mono-theistic divinity and the natural order of our world.  So I have finally rejoined my 12 year-old self.  I have become Zarathustra, and have claimed my mountain-top.

3. Rules are Stupid:

As I embark upon a collaboration with fellow Catalysis Projects artist Quintain Ana Wikswo, I am reminded of the natural element in art.   We are creating a work that from my end is to be titled “Pastoral”, which is the evocation of nature.  This is not a literal depiction of natural images, that feat is only for God or Satan.  Instead, this is a symbolist portrayal of my internal feelings that arise when submerged in, or deprived of, nature.  From here upon my Zarathustrian mountain-top, my Beethovian artistic sensibility is free to roam.  Quintain is similarly progressing into nature.  She is creating her part of this work from the Catskill mountain range in New York.  Our two works are to collide into a third work, either unifying peacefully, or as Beethoven said “lying back to back, like two grizzly bears in a cave, unwilling to fight or to merge but somehow coexisting and informing one another”.

Like Zarathustra and Beethoven, we are adults and artists, we are exceptions to society, we do not need rules.

Exploring in Novels and Music

8 Jul
 NOTES FROM THE STUDIO:  Catalysis Projects’ Core Composer Veronika Krausas muses about the similarities of traveling and exploring in novels, on land, and in musical composition.

Space… the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before…

The reason I bring up Star Trek, not because I’m a trekkie, although I loved the new movie with the cameo by Leonard Nimoy (always a hero – logical and mathematical) and did watch the series as a kid (Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scottie and the gang always kicked ass, just like Batman and Robin except in space), it’s the quote from the beginning of the show/film etc. that pertains to my blog this month.  …to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations…

Right now I’m in the middle of two things:  I’m reading Embassytown, the newest work by one of my favorite authors, China Miéville and I’m writing a new piece.  Interestingly they both have something  in common – the process of acclimatization.

Miéville’s novel is set in the future and humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak.

Diving into this novel is like arriving in a new city or starting a new piece.  There is little or no familiarity with things:  understanding the syntax of new words and ideas, the new streets and buildings, or the harmonic language of a new composition.  Your legs feel wobbly; your brain is in overtime to make connections and link concepts, ideas, notes, street names!

As the story progresses with these unknown words and concepts—that are slowly revealed or you have to work out for yourself—there’s a level of comfort reached when the comparisons turn to understanding. It’s like learning a new language – constantly translating words to English until they attain the status of becoming their own entity without being a comparison or needing a definition anymore.

I think about explorers first encountering a new culture and new language and new everything!   There was movie called the 13th Warrior a few years back and what I remember about this movie is one brilliant scene when the hero (I think Antonio Banderas) was thrown into a group of Vikings (or some bearded types) and didn’t speak their language.  It showed his progression of recognizing and understanding individual words and over time grouping them into sentences, and then into meaning.  I loved the way that the writers didn’t just assume everyone spoke English in Medieval Europe.  So it’s a process of acclimatization.

With writing novels (I’m assuming) or music (which I know) it’s the creation of a new universe and even in that creation there’s the period of acclimatization for your own internal understanding.  This is a tough period and often very elusive – nothing makes sense in your brain and very unrelated and strange things achieve great importance (such as the sudden need to clean behind the fridge).

Getting over that hump is a great relief and then links are made more easily and naturally (and who cares what’s behind the fridge … you can’t see it anyway!)

Interview with Chris Kallmyer

27 Jun

INTERVIEW BY ISAAC SCHANKLER.  Back in April Chris Kallmyer invited the ensemble TempWerks (Casey Anderson, Scott Cazan, Andrew Tholl and me) to perform in FERMENT[cheese], a concert and cheese tasting event at the Berkeley Art Museum.  (You can see video of it here.)  Since then I’ve wanted to ask him a few questions about his practice, which crosses so many interdisciplinary lines — as a performer, composer and sound artist he’s just as likely to be influenced by architecture or the outdoors as something of musical origin.  Additionally, Chris is the Curator of Sound Programming for the Machine Project.  Chris, thanks for letting me interview you! -IS

 

One of the things I really enjoyed about FERMENT (and that I’ve noticed about your music in general) was the sense of place/space — both in the sense of how it really utilized the unique qualities of the space and how it evoked a really strong sense of (an altogether different kind of) place.  I wonder what role you see place/space having in your music and how it affects your creative process.

Usually, I don’t create music before I visit and try to understand the space/place.  When I spend time sitting in an architecture or environment I begin to get a sense of what sounds I’d like to hear there — or what sounds will best expose the nature of that space to a listener.  Conversely, with a project like FERMENT, I’d like to graft the sense of one place or tradition (cheese making) onto the present space (the environment at the Berkeley Art Museum).  Focusing on place, is another way for me to focus on the present moment.

More recently, you wrote a giant piece for 100+ musicians that was part of the Northern Spark Festival in Minneapolis.  Are the things you write “bound” to specific places somehow?   What happens if that piece then happens in another place?  Is the music you make in California somehow qualitatively different from the kind you make in Minnesota?

Most of the things I create are bound to a space — but can be moved and altered to better fit different environments.  For a piece like FERMENT[cheese], I had already done two versions in the past, a six-channel rendition for Machine Project, and one with three home stereos for the Little William Theater (a coatroom at the Hammer Museum). Both of these versions were too active for the resonant space in Berkeley, so the project got redesigned into a two-channel (8 speaker) installation built from Max/MSP.  Furthermore, I wanted to invite [TempWerks] to perform inside the installation, and had to create version with room for the group.

I try to create music that is specific to context.  So, if the piece is created for Minneapolis, I’d like to use local musicians, local resources (the Mississippi river), although I fully recognize that I’m also tied back to my own aesthetic — so I’m afraid that my Minneapolis music (although inspired by, and created for that place) may have aspects similar to other works I’ve done recently.

Has your experience curating for Machine Project affected your practice in any way, unanticipated or deliberate?

I think it has.  I now think more about design, and how people interact with sound or an event.  In an unanticipated way, I’ve become fairly obsessed with creating site-specific design prompts – and because of this, have had a hard time developing projects that can easily tour from one space to the next.   But then again: this is an issue with design!  To tour, I need to create a project that fits in a suitcase, and would work in the average gallery setting.

I also kinda believe that composing is curating on a micro level.

The LA Times once said of one of your compositions, “not everyone would call this music.”  Dare I ask what your reaction or response is to a statement like that?

Ha! I think it is a great quote.

I hope to bring my music closer to the sounds we experience every day . . . so I run a risk that people will see my music as abstract or mundane.  But music should be mundane — like life.  I like sounds that are earthly, rough shorn and chaotic — but also beautiful and clear at times.  When people stumble into one of my pieces they often don’t know how to engage with it, or don’t know its going on.  This discovery of sound opens them to see it in different ways, or to fully ignore the piece!   People are welcome to do either.  Both are valid.

Well, and you present music in situations where you might not expect to find it otherwise.  Is this because you’re not satisfied with the traditional concert hall ritual experience?

Despite my usual mood about traditional concert ritual, I secretly love it.  I didn’t grow up going to see classical music, so its still very exotic, exciting, and fulfilling to me.  There is something very essential about sharing a sound with another person: sitting across from a musician in a comfortable environment, giving the gift of attention, and receiving a graciously prepared performance.  This form has lasted for thousands of years from early story telling to the present time.  I just think most of our performances are equally handicapped by this ritual, or limited arena for listening.  Our experimental music is presented in a traditional context, and I think we should experiment with the ‘container’ of our performances — and let each new environment or context dictate the music we play.

It seems to me you had a pretty roundabout path to being a composer, too.

I did have a bit of a roundabout path!

I used to play in an indie rock band in Washington DC, where I grew up in the Maryland suburbs.   I then went to music school to study trumpet where I heard classical music for the first time.  This was a huge.  Mahler, Strauss, Reich, Reiley, Bach, Machaut, etc. . .  I dropped my Music Education degree to prepare myself as an orchestral trumpet player.  I spent some time in northern Italy where I studied more trumpet, prepared for auditions, and played with orchestras passing through our small town of Alba (like the Romanian Symphony and the Orchestra della Valle d’Aosta).  I had a great time (wine, coffee, food, culture), but was totally miserable playing with these groups!  There was no sense of community, or camaraderie — so i quit doing that and applied to CalArts to study new music as a performer.  While at CalArts, I stumbled upon the writings of John Cage, James Tenney, R Murray Schafer, etc. . . and consequently began to compose dispersed works for brass musicians and car horns in our parking lot. In 2008, I started working with Machine Project on site-specific works for elevators, igloos, coatrooms, and bison dinners.

I’ve become comfortable with my hybrid practice as a trumpet player, sound artist, and curator.   In Los Angeles, I can fulfill all parts of my practice, collaborating with my peers on new projects, participating in the experimental music community, and working with local collectives like Machine Project and wild Up.

OK, thanks!  One last stupid question.  What is your favorite animal?

Right now, I’m very fond of cows.  Jersey cows.

REVIEW: Microtextual at the Microfest 2011 concert series

5 Jun

MicroTextual

Catalysis Projects

April 16, 2011

MiMoDa Studio, Los Angeles

Review by CP composer Veronika Krausas

One of my favorite things is bilingual poetry books – English on the right side and the original on the left.  Sometimes it’s a foreign language I understand but often not. Still, it makes me feel a little bit like a traveler to an exotic place – comparing the alternate versions.  It feels like a magical and secret world that is private and I’m opening up a little cabinet of wonders to enjoy and watch sparkle. 

CP’s MicroTextual, curated by Aron Kallay, for me was just like that – a land of wonder, from the moment you walked into MiMoDa.  The space was transformed to an art exhibit with soft lighting and mysterious scrolls hanging from the ceiling and paper-origami-poof lamps  (my term) and a super cool vibe.  This concert featured many of the Catalysis Projects artists and what a collection of creativity and performances it was.

The reason I bring up bilingual poetry books is that the work of Quintan Wikswo is a 3-D version but so much more.   Her ‘cabinet of wonders’ included two wonderful works combining her texts with sublimely beautiful video footage.  They’re from her Floriography collection:  Floriography I (Coimbra 1541) and Floriography II (Bavaria 1543).  Her term is a “diptych of text-integrated video installation.”  

Wikswo "Floriography"

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the back wall, in amongst the mostly red images floated text, in English, while Rafael Liebich read, as an echo, the same text in Portuguese, with trombonist Matt Barbier playing a microtonal composition by David Rosenboom.  In the second work, the texts were read in Hebrew to a soundscape of flies and frogs.  These pieces were a visual realization of bilingual poetry books.

Wikswo: FLORIOGRAPHY II: COIMBRA 1453

Starting the program was the amazing Honey, Milk and Blood, a collaboration by composer Isaac Schankler and visual artist Kim Ye, inspired by the ideas of Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla.  The scrolls were explained – they were functional art!  It was the score for the dozen singers, dressed in off-white flowing clothes.  The soprano soloist Andrea Zomorodian was herself a sculpture, a kinetic sculptures by Ye, a mermaid plant with a long root carried out by her attendants.  LOVED the music, LOVED the kinetic sculptures – it was the first sparkle opening up the cabinet of wonders.

Schankler/Ye: HONEY, MILK AND BLOOD

And what microtonal concert would be complete without some quintessential Harry Partch, the grandfather of American microtonal music?  The Barstow:  Eight Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions by Partch was brilliantly performed by baritone and guitarist John Schneider, one of the co-directors of the Microfest series this year and Aron Kallay on chromelodeon.  

The second half of the concert started with a minimal and very serene work by Cat Lamb, The Field (for Agnes)There was a world premiere by Jeffrey Holmes, Fragments for soprano and piano.  The vocal line is more of a chant or what Holmes calls “a spell” in a series of images that use text from a variety of anonymous Latin sources. It was a Teutonic saga full of rich harmonies and virtuoso piano writing.  The virtuoso piano part was expertly performed by CP member and organizer of the whole evening pianist Aron Kallay

Holmes: Fragments

The most amazing thing about this piece was visual and completely accidental. I just happened to be lucky enough to be sitting in the exact spot to notice – Katherine Giaquinto, the singer was standing in a spot that when I looked in the mirror on the opposite wall, her body was replaced by the reflection of one of those paper-origami-poof lamps.  This alternate body was like another sculpture by Kim Ye and added to the chant-like Latin text’s magical and removed quality.

The concert concluded with Luminenscence, a gorgeous work by this year’s other co-director of Microfest, Bill Alves.  In his program notes Alves writes:

… an oton [is] a ritual that is performed 210 days after the birth of a child when the baby’s feet touch the earth for the first time. Before that time she is considered still too close to the realm of the gods to be allowed to touch the ground. The only music at this ceremony came from the chanting of the officiating priest and the small bell whose sounds he wafted to the fascinated baby’s ears.  Those chants, or mantra, are … a way of tuning oneself to the vibrations of the universe. These are in a very real sense the sounds of the transition from the celestial to the terrestrial world.

The singers now changed from white to black – from light to dark – balancing the visual and aural in the concert, touching the audience’s feet to the ground.  The whole evening was a wonderfully surreal and dreamlike experience.

PS

If you, like me, love bilingual poetry books – definitely check out The Madness of Amadis by Jean Cassou, translated by Timothy Adès  (Agenda Editions).  Cassou (1897-1986), was a war-time Resistance leader, created France’s National Museum of Modern Art, and a poet!  It’s wonderful poetry and a brilliant and sensitive translation.

PS #2

The concert was part of the Microfest Concert series that started in LA in by the fabulous John Schneider in 1997.  www.microfest.org

MicroTextual Musings: Isaac Schankler Interview

11 Apr

In the last of our interviews leading up to the April 16 MicroFest event, composer/performer Isaac Schankler talks about the composer as abacus, the omnipresent 60Hz hum, and science fiction eeriness.

MicroTextual will premiere Isaac’s piece Honey, Milk and Blood, with soprano Andrea Zomorodian and conductor Troy Quinn.  Here are the particulars:

MicroTextual:  music with words | words without music
Saturday April 16 | 8:00pm
MIMODA STUDIO
5772 W. Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90019
Enter though Paper or Plastik Cafe
$15/10 online or at the door
CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE AND BUY TICKETS:
www.catalysisprojects.com/microtextual.html

CP-Text can be understood as a code – a symbolic mark-making that some others can “read,”  but yet completely unintelligible to people not fluent in that language.  How important is it to you whether your “text” conveys a comprehensible meaning or communication to your audiences?

IS-Honey, Milk and Blood incorporates a text by Jillian Burcar, a wonderful writer who I’ve collaborated with a few times now.  It’s inspired by an old interview with the inventor Nikola Tesla, who had these radical predictions for the future, including this notion that society would become matriarchal and have this hive-like collective organization.  Jillian’s text is, in a way, a depiction of this society, but what’s great about it is that it’s this very open-ended and free-flowing amalgam of scientific language, poetic symbolism and almost violent imagery, so you can focus in on different aspects of it and come away with very different impressions or conclusions.

I’m drawn to things like that, where things seem to be on the cusp of a comprehensible meaning without ever fully resolving, and it’s something I think music can do really well.  We tend to think of music as emotional or expressive medium, but these emotional associations can vary a great deal from person to person or from culture to culture.  I think in the 20th century there was a lot of skepticism of this and so you see movements to make music totally abstract, to make it some analog or elucidation of a mathematical or objective process, in everything from serialism to minimalism.  But if you rigorously adhere to that process something is lost — you’re not operating as an artist but some kind of glorified abacus.  So for me at least, the process becomes some kind of negotiation between abstraction and expression, and the inevitable imperfections that result are what gives music its beauty and meaning.

CP-Why do you choose to compose in a microtonal language?

IS-I don’t always compose in an explicitly microtonal language, but when I do I’d say it’s largely driven by my background in electronic and electroacoustic music.  When working with electronics it’s really trivial to produce any frequency you want, and if you do any kind of electronic analysis it’s impossible not to notice that all music is inherently microtonal, in a sense.  Almost every sound is made up of harmonics that don’t fit in the equal tempered scale.

The kind of microtonality explored in Honey, Milk and Blood came out of some research I was doing for Light and Power, a chamber opera about Nikola Tesla commissioned by Juventas New Music Ensemble that Jillian wrote the libretto for.  I found out that Tesla was directly responsible for making 60Hz the operating frequency of alternating current throughout North America.  So this low 60Hz hum you hear everywhere, coming off power lines, appliances, stereos, florescent lights… it’s all Tesla’s fault.  It’s normally an unwanted sound, a sound you want to try to weed out or minimize, but I thought it would be interesting to use as a foundation instead.  It’s an especially troublesome sound because it doesn’t fit in our equal tempered tuning system — it’s almost exactly halfway between a low B and B-flat.  So I built a kind of ad hoc microtonal scale based on harmonics of 60Hz and harmonics of 49Hz (basically a low G).  For me this scale became a kind of link between our world and the world of Tesla, and there are some mesmerizing sonorities that came out of that.  There’s not really any grand scheme or theory behind it, though — it arose from the needs of the piece, and the next microtonal piece I write may have a completely different approach.

CP-The term microtonality is generally applied only to music that uses a tuning system other than twelve-tone equal-temperament.  However, we believe that, because microtonality breaks down one of the fundamental building blocks of western music (the tyranny of the twelve), it is a term that can be applied to other disciplines of artmaking.  Do you see microtonality in your, or other, fields?

IS-Well, one thing that’s exciting about microtonality is how it can break down our most fundamental ideas about what music is or how it’s constructed, and how it challenges us to build something new from scratch, from the ground up.  I think one of the things that drew me to Kim Ye’s work, and made me want to collaborate with her, is that she seems to be doing something similar in the physical world, breaking down these concepts of how our bodies are constructed or what our relationship is to our bodies.  Not to mention how Jillian’s text breaks down language, how we write and speak, and how Tesla’s ideas poke at how civilization is put together.  It just all seemed like a natural fit.  Plus there is, I have to admit, a common thread of science fiction eeriness that links them.

MicroTextual Musings: Quintan Ana Wikswo Interview

7 Apr

Quintan Ana Wikswo is an interdisciplinary artist whose projects integrate a constellation of works in photography, original text, video and installation, as well as performance collaborations with composers and choreographers. Catalysis Projects interviews her about synesthesia, washing dishes with kitty litter, and microtonal fantasies.

MicroTextual will premiere Quintan’s Floriography I/Coimbra 1452 (with Rafael Liebich) and Floriography II/Bavaria 1543 (with Philip Shakhnis), a diptych of video-integrated text performance works about medieval botanical and ecological life at Inquisition convents and Crusade villages.  Here are the particulars:

MicroTextual:  music with words | words without music
Saturday April 16 | 8:00pm
MIMODA STUDIO
5772 W. Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90019
Enter though Paper or Plastik Cafe
$15/10 online or at the door
CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE AND BUY TICKETS:
www.catalysisprojects.com/microtextual.html

CP-Language can be defined as a system of symbols that convey meaning. In your artistic practice, how do you convey meaning? In what way do you use your medium to create your own language?

QAW-This summer in Czech Republic – where the character system and language are completely different from English – I spent a long time in a shop trying to distinguish a box of dishwasher crystals from a box of cake mix. Both were cardboard containers of white powder with images of a kitchen and a cat and a half-eaten slice of cake on a plate. I stood there giggling happily while the workers glared at the demented Gypsy lady who might steal the box of cat litter.

A few years ago I was told I have synesthesia, which tends to tangle up meaning through some aberrant neurological and cognitive wiring. As a visual artist and writer, this is a big tangle. For instance, the color yellow makes a sound, and thus has stronger auditory than visual meaning  – yellow is not a “color.” Likewise, letters are very visually and emotionally evocative – much as human faces convey very distinctive personalities.  When I make words, I make little villages. Sentences are civilizations. The integrated text-video-performance pieces for MicroTextual (Floriography I and II) explore mass slaughter and genocide, but I built the texts using letters whose personalities are extremely gentle and pretty and demure. A bit shy, with the tendency to daintily cringe away from any unpleasantness.

Clearly, there’s no way an outside audience could share in that kind of personal language. Yet every creature is fairly clueless about what its fellows are trying to say, and at some point it’s the process of conveying meaning that can be most mesmerizing – watching someone try to wash dishes with kitty litter, or bake a cake using dishwashing powder is more intriguing than doing it just like everyone else. This struggle about attaching symbols and meanings have resulted in psychiatric asylums, Carnegie Hall, and the Crusades. It’s nice to imagine that as artists we finally have the right to draw our own conclusions.

CP-Text can be understood as a code – a symbolic mark-making that some others can “read,” but yet completely unintelligible to people not fluent in that language.  How important is it to you whether your “text” conveys a comprehensible meaning or communication to your audiences?

QAW-My most fertile conversations begin with misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and errors of interpretation. Otherwise, there’s no friction. No rough edges to catch against. I find a perverse pleasure in being artistically uncomfortable and confused and disoriented. Over time, this sensation has become a barometer that monitors my stagnation and aeration. I never create a work from a tidy place of comprehension – my own works are documents of an awkward struggle to understand something I find unwieldy.

As artists and audiences, I think it’s very important that we get excited by – rather than intimidated by – disorienting, perplexing, unfamiliar communication. I rarely want anyone to pre-digest anything for me, and I try to carry that philosophy forward to audiences, whether they like it or not.

Overall, I think it’s fruitful to resist the marketplace-driven phobia about being misunderstood – the whole idea that everything must be distilled to a tits-out elevator speech where god forbid something isn’t quick and easy and sexy. It’s repellant, but not in the fun way.  Likewise, the attempt to control the outcome for an audience is very dull and stultifying – when artworks are presented with a hegemonic surveillance around “the right meaning” it completely kills the chemical reactions between artist and audience.  It makes artworks that smother rather than kindle.

A lot of my work is politically engaged, and so for me to try and control or police meaning would get really ugly. The pieces being performed at MicroTextual explore epic historic genocides, and of course I have various points to make. But it would be splendid if someone just gets that there are green butterflies in a field. When someone attaches a new meaning to my work, it means the piece sprouts renegade tendrils and grows weird vegetables in someone else’s brain. Birth is meant to be a struggle for everyone involved.

CP-The term microtonality is generally applied only to music that uses a tuning system other than twelve-tone equal-temperament.  However, we believe that, because microtonality breaks down one of the fundamental building blocks of western music (the tyranny of the twelve), it is a term that can be applied to other disciplines of artmaking.  Do you see microtonality in your, or other, fields? How does your work on the April 16 concert find the small spaces between the keys or between the words.

QAW-I realized recently that I have developed an little fantasy about microtonal music being an arcane, Kabbalistic, alchemical treasure hunt where secret notes are hidden between the visible notes.  Rather like an auditory wormhole through which one can vanish out of mundane do-re-me territory and emerge someplace altogether fantastic. Like sailing to the edge of a flat earth and expecting to fall off, only to discover a sphere…or vice versa. How lovely!

Microtonal music is also such a wonderful imposition on musicians and audiences who might otherwise fall into a rut of twelve – let’s make it fast! Let’s take the interstate, instead of Route 66.  I love how microtonality forces participants to navigate unfamiliar, disorienting situations, and requires people to grow new perceptual antennae to sleuth out what’s going down. The risk is feeling foolish, vulnerable, overwhelmed, annoyed and exhausted, but the reward is gaining a new auditory knowledge that’s a bit secret and arcane.

When you approached me about contributing works to this event, the challenge was to find a analogous “microtonal” tuning in literature – a way of composing and performing text that involves that sense of striding off the map, sailing over the edge, spending time in uncharted waters. I thought about how much I love spending time in countries where I’m illiterate in the written and spoken language because I’m forced to embark upon that treasure hunt for other clues of meaning, like gesture and expression and context.

So I created two works for the April 16th concert that involve finding the small spaces between languages – each text piece is visually projected in English, while being overspoken in other languages such as Russian, Hebrew, and Portuguese. In a sense, the audience is the performance, occupying that space between the two languages where a third meaning emerges.

I’m very excited to hear everyone’s pieces at the April concert, especially so many premieres. It’s impossible for artists to really play it safe within these creative parameters, and that’s tremendously inspiring.  Besides – if the world doesn’t turn out to be spherical, the ship will make a lovely crash as it falls off the edge of the world.