Breathing Ghosts and Dancing with the Devil: Sxip Shirey’s Fractured Sonic Fairy Tales

Is Sxip Shirey an overly serious novelty composer or an underly serious experimental musician? Either way, he’s completely committed to creating music that carries a sense of wonder and awe into the ears of his audiences.

Written By

Molly Sheridan

Brooklyn, New York
October 30 and November 27, 2007
Interviewed and edited by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation by Randy Nordschow

If your tastes run to serious music, Sxip Shirey might be easy to accidentally dismiss. With his wild curls, impresario suit jackets, and tables of stacked toys, you might assume his musical world is not for you. But then, if you’re lucky, you hear the faint tinkling of a bell, the soft whisper of a tune, and before you know it you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with 100 similarly entranced folks, and you are holding your breath because you don’t want to miss what Shirey is doing with his.

Or at least this is how it happened to me more than a decade ago, and in the intervening years, I’ve brought other friends to see Sxip in action. I’ve never been able to adequately explain his work in advance of these adventures—how a man with a few harmonicas in his pockets, some duct tape, a few delay pedals, and a flea market-worth of old toys could leave you feeling like you’d gotten a sugary buzz off some cotton candy—so Randy and I took a trip behind the looking glass to find out how it all works when the curtain is down and the house lights are up.

Sxip threw open the doors, opened all the closets, and invited us to stay—permanently, I think, if our schedules had been clear. Sadly, we could not run away with the circus (in his case, the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus) or his band of gypsies (the Luminescent Orchestrii). But we did get away with this pied piper’s secret.

“If you take a child from the city and show it a horse, that’s an experimental moment,” Shirey explained, “but the child doesn’t go, ‘Hmmmm, let me think about the entire history of evolution and how horses came to…’—No. What they do is say, ‘Oh my God, that’s so huge and frightening, and I want to get closer to it.’ So I want to create music and art that is totally huge and frightening, but also so delicious and wonderful that it makes you want to be part of it.”

Looking around the room at the open trunks spilling over with spoils of his world travels, it was clear he’d put some shoe leather and serious commitment into making sure his audiences experienced that enchantment. “I take my compositions entirely seriously, but I’m composing music with stuff like this,” he said, gesturing to the piles of second-hand instruments and novelty toys. “It’s absolutely funny, but it’s absolutely serious.”

Out of the Woods, Into the Streets
Which Way To Neverland?
Telling Bedtime Stories
Pallet of Sounds: Learning How Things Work Opening Pandora’s Box

Out of the Woods, Into the Streets

Molly Sheridan: I first saw you perform in a little bar in Athens, Ohio, and you were playing this amazing piece that has been stuck in my ears ever since. You were telling ghost stories and using the flute and your breath to create almost all of the drama. It was completely bizarre, but you had the audience in this small Southeast Ohio town just enraptured. You’ve come a considerable way since then, but before we get into it, how did you get to that point as a musician?

Sxip Shirey: I think I’m an experimental musician who comes from a rural tradition rather than an urban one.

I grew up listening to lots of folk music—the Beatles and stuff like that, but lots of folk music, basically. I’d say the album that really affected my life was the Resurrection of Blind Joe Death by John Fahey. Fahey was a white guitarist who was taking a lot of finger-style blues traditions and then putting a kind of modern dissonance into the sound, but with really direct melodic statements. I think that influenced me tremendously because from the get go, I’m like, oh, folk music and experimental music are the same thing. So that’s where I was coming from.

When I started composing for the modern dance department at the university I was at, I wanted to find some different sounds. This was pre-Internet, so you couldn’t go on websites to find out about cool things—you had Option magazine, and it was so exciting to read it. It would have tape reviews. Roger Miller, who had been in this post-punk band called Mission of Burma, put out an album called Maximum Electric Piano. He had an electric piano, and he was preparing the bottom half and getting this kind of industrial rhythm, looping it, and then playing these beautiful songs and piano passages over it. And in the exact same issue was Diamanda Galás, and that was huge: discovering both those artists really influenced me.

But I’ve been to Romania and played music with gypsies; I’ve been in Appalachia, played music with people in the Piedmont area. I have a saying for myself, which is that all good music or all good art is born out of necessity. The first person who put a butter knife up on a guitar and made a sliding sound—that’s an experimental music moment. That comes out of a tradition where they would put a piece of wire on a barn door and play it with a bolt or something and mimic the human voice. The guy who discovered that people dance most in the funk breaks at parties and got two identical albums and created break beat, essentially—that’s an experimental music moment. So I’m interested in the moment where folk music and experimental music become the same thing. I’m interested in that moment when someone needs to make music and make a sound for a very root reason, for the same reason that most people on the planet need to make music, which isn’t for intellectual reasons: It’s “I need to make a song so I kill a possum, skin its hide, put it around a hoop, and I make my own banjo,” you know. That’s what’s always interested me. But I do live in cities, so of course that informs my music. Often I work with human beat boxers. That’s an urban folk tradition and that’s, for whatever reason, the way I’ve always accessed this stuff.

MS: How does that sense of rural experimentalism separate you from what you’ve experienced of an urban one?

SS: What is experimental music? You know, if I play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on tuned sides of roast beef, is that experimental music? It’s “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” Maybe that’s not an experimental piece of music, but the process—is it experimental? Let’s say I take some 12-tone music and I play 12-tone music on tuned sides of roast beef. Is that experimental? Well, 12-tone music isn’t new, so all right, no. Alright, so if I got the music of a new music composer, someone who just wrote something—see, this is a problem. At what point does it become new? Is it new because I’m playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on sides of roast beef, which is sort of the kind of musician I am? I use very, sometimes very obvious romantic melodies on odd things. Okay, this makes no sense whatsoever…but I’m trying to get at something right here, like what the hell is new music? Like what does that mean?

For me, anyway, you can take something fairly traditional sounding and put it in a new context, played on something you wouldn’t expect to hear, and that opens up my brain and makes it exciting. But I’m also excited to hear the Carpenters. And there isn’t much of a difference for me, seriously, when I listen to the Carpenters or if I hear something newer and odder. There’s kind of an odd equal value in my brain. Like I sit and run stuff through the pitch shifters and tweak tones and then go and play gypsy music with my band, and it’s all kind of in the same realm.

Alright, so that doesn’t answer the question. I think that everyone’s environment affects their music, and I think, without thinking about it, I’m using footprints from my childhood. Like when I picked up pennywhistles, this was a pleasing and an interesting sound to me. This was a sound that I could communicate things with. But what I realized is, it was the crickets and the peeper toads that I heard all through childhood. And somehow that’s in my hands, that’s in my ears, and so that’s what I’m saying from a rural experience. If you grow up in an urban setting with cars and giant boxes that you live in, and walking on concrete and that hum of the city, that’s going to be your sonic footprint. If you grow up in the country with the sounds of birds and the wind and gutting chickens, that’s going to affect your music.

When I was in school, we took a field trip and we went to the city swimming pool. For some reason the pool was closed, so we had a picnic outside the swimming pool at these little picnic benches. And this bum came by. I don’t think any teachers now would let their kids talk to a bum, but she didn’t care. And I remember him saying, “I invented my own musical instrument.” He had taken a piece of fishing line and the cap to an aerosol can and tied it in there; he would hold it in his teeth and the cap was the resonator. And then he played a tune on it. I just remember being fascinated. It’s weird; I can remember exactly what he did—I was pretty young when I saw this, but it made a huge impression. That, to me, that’s how you should make music: You should pick up things and you should experiment with them. My father always mentions that when we would haul wood together, I would always find the pieces of wood that he had cut with a chainsaw and I would line them up like a xylophone and play them as the pony was hauling the cart. I didn’t take piano lessons, but I was like “Wow, if you just play notes at random and this hand at half the speed of this hand, that makes music.” So I think that’s naturally how I make music—I experiment with things and then it pulls at something basic inside me.

MS: So you couldn’t really be the musician you are without the life experiences that you’ve had.

SS: Yeah, I would be a very different musician. I think my choices have always been weird because I compose by picking up things. I’m so slow at learning melodies. I have an embarrassing lack of knowledge of some basic musical things that I’m always discovering for myself and I’m like, oh my goodness. But I’ll just sit there and poke at it until it sounds true, and it’s usually this really narrow moment. Then you push it to this side and you push it to this side, and while it’s true here, here is sounds like cheesy shit. So push, push, push—ah, no, no, no. And so you create a palette of things that work for you.

Which Way To Neverland?

Molly Sheridan: Was it hard, then, crashing into New York City? You’d been working in folk, interested in all those rural expressions, and then you came here…

Sxip Shirey: Not really, because I’d lived all over the country. I just avoided New York for years. Maybe, arguably, I should have come here 15 years earlier when New York, and the U.S., had a more vibrant arts scene because there was still arts funding in this country. But at the same time, yeah, it was hard. I never used to live in the cities. I lived in Austin, Texas. Beautiful, wonderful place. I had a lot of support, but I was one of five experimental musicians there. Some people wouldn’t even consider me experimental here, you know. So there you go.

MS: In all those musical meetings, were there some watershed moments over the years where you were like, “Wow, that turned me around, opened a door”?

SS: The weird thing is the watershed moments have always been when I’ve been living in some shitty place and no one’s been around. I don’t compose that well in the city. I really have to force myself. I get inspired, but I really compose best in isolated places. And I don’t necessarily have to be in a good mood to do it.

MS: Do you get to escape off to artist colonies and get grants to do the kind of music you’re doing?

SS: If I was smart, I probably would. I think in many ways I haven’t chosen a wise career path because I’ve always done what I’ve wanted. So I get about one or two really good composing gigs a year. I was composer for the Minneapolis Children’s Theater last year, then nothing. I’m doing a lovely thing at the Museum of the Moving Image. They’re showing A Trip to the Moon, that film from 1903, and I’m scoring it now. So I get these gigs and then I have this Gypsy-Klezmer-Punk band where I play rhythm guitar and we tour and then I do the circus music stuff, and I do the solo stuff.

MS: You’re not just a performer, but also an almost old-world impresario in many of these situations. How does being a composer fit in with that? Are they separate or do the roles compliment one another?

SS: They are and they aren’t. It’s really hard for me to do the solo music. Sometimes I’ll get one of the human beat boxers to do it with, because with the beat boxers it changes the context of the music—it’s just fun and snappy and it’s all about the surprising quality of sound. But the solo music, if I’m really into it, it digs from such a deep place. It’s hard to switch into that thing. But I did have an epiphany in Boston at the American Repertory Theater Company the other day: I finally realized, like an idiot, not to think of them as separate things. Think of the entire show as the composition and then the climax for me emotionally is when I do my solo piece.

The problem is I have a real split focus. So when I first came to New York, I was composing and then the band took over. When I first started the band, everyone was like “Oh, this is Sxip’s band, the guy who does all the crazy shit.” Now it’s reversed. “Sxip, I didn’t know he did all this other stuff.” I needed to get away from the solo music for a while and rediscover why I did it, because when I was in my early 20s, there were a million reasons I needed to get on the stage and go [demonstrates]. And now I don’t need to do that, so I had to refigure out why the hell I want to get on stage by myself and do something. It’s much more fun when someone else is there, but obviously it’s not about fun. You know, I think of each of those solo pieces I do as a prayer to something. And so in the way that you pray, you just really have to take that full self, that full breath—all your internal organs pumping at slightly different rhythms and doing this expression from a really pure place.

MS: And so much of your work is literally about breath. You take it really far.

SS: Yeah, what an easy way to communicate with people. It kind of evolved out of two things. When I was coming of age as an artist, you had Diamanda Galás—everyone looked up to her—and everyone looked up to Annie Sprinkle. Annie Sprinkle was this post-porn modernist who would do these Tantric breathing workshops where she would basically give your brain an orgasm. And my girlfriend at the time was into Annie Sprinkle and she went to it and it worked for her. It never quite worked for me but we’d do these breathing things together and circulate the air, the breathing energy and all that stuff. Then Diamanda Galás just showed me how far you could go with conviction in sound. Just over the fucking top, you know. So yeah, I just really ended up tuning into breath and using that as an expression.

If my music is about something, it’s about how everybody’s intimate experience is epic to them. We all live epic lives. To us, you know, it’s not a series of small events; it’s a series of major events every day. Life is a gripping experience and so I think my music, my composition, my performance is about that. I try to create an opportunity so that I and the audience can be present for our own living—just to really put people in their bodies and into the realization that they’re alive at that moment.

MS: How do you make that happen, or project that during a show though, in a room full of people who are gathered to hear you play?

SS: You’re very generous, and you’re very kind, and you’re very direct with them. And then, you take a deep breath and you play as honestly as you can. And that can be folk music, and that can be classical music, and that can be experimental novelty music. It doesn’t matter what it is. You can still use a persona and you can use the bigness of your character. But the idea is to just be kind; just be really super kind. If you’re a kind person, you can communicate so much with people. And people really respond to it, too.

When I first came to New York, I went to this experimental music night. And this guy came up to me and afterwards he says, “Oh my goodness you’re great. You know, when you walked in here with that flute, we were all like, ‘Who’s this guy?’, you know, but wow, you’re great.” Blabbity-blah. And I thought, fuck you. I don’t need this shit. I really think a lot of the art world is created by people who weren’t popular in school, like myself, and then they create a social caste system where they’re at the top. There’s a smugness to it. And that’s not interesting to me. I have geeky intellectual music, but basically I want music for me to do the same things it does for the good 99 percent of everybody else on the planet, which is to convey spiritual, emotional, and, most important, sub-lingual information. Things that if you define it, you don’t get.

MS: How do you hope your audiences react to your music specifically?

SS: For me, the best response to art is more art. I’m a huge fan of other artists, to a fault at times because I’ll put aside my own stuff to get into it, but what I’m talking about is just generosity. I don’t care if it’s art that I don’t like, at least people are doing something. It’s just weird for me here, but not so much in Europe, funnily enough, because there’s a certain intellectual discourse here. We’re kind of stuck in this post-modern—they’re probably calling it post-post-modernism now—but we’re stuck in that discourse. This is why I got into circus: I can play some big modernistic chord clusters for a bunch of people standing like this [stares deadpan into the camera], or I can play some modernistic chord clusters while someone puts a sword this long down their throat. Or hangs from a rope. And if I do it in conjunction with this stuff, you have an audience full of people really appreciating it on this real level. And it’s so exciting. If you have someone hanging from the air, the message is simple: If they fall, they die.

One option with experimentalism that is very hard for me is that you listen to a piece of music and you think about the entire history of music and what form this is and why this person is doing this and blabbity-blah, blah, blah. If you take a child from the city and show it a horse, that’s an experimental moment, but the child doesn’t go, “Hmm, let me think about the entire history of evolution and how horses came to…”—No. What they do is say, “Oh my God, that’s so huge and frightening and I want to get closer to it.” So I want to create music and art that is totally huge and frightening, but also so delicious and wonderful that it makes you want to be part of it.

MS: What makes your audiences feel safe enough to do get close to something so intimidating, do you think? What makes that possible?

SS: You’ve got to know who your audience is. If you want your audience to be other experimental musicians and the only other people who can understand it are the other people who have done this course of study, then you know your audience. And then they’ll clap and that’s the dialogue, that’s great. But I don’t want to play for other experimental musicians, mainly. That’s not exciting to me. I’m interested in having a dialogue with different kinds of people. In New York City we’re all choosing our communities. I want to live in a very visceral, loving community of people doing really interesting things, and I definitely have found that here.

When I’m performing, I consider the audience part of the performance. I consider the audience part of the composition. I consider the building part of the composition. I consider what I ate that day part of the composition. And when I’m really on, I always have this realization that everything I’ve been doing has been a work up for this moment, which could be true with every moment in life. But I become really aware of it at that moment, and it’s like, oh, everything’s fine. Then I just really focus and do the performance.

The reason I got into gypsy and Balkan stuff, I was tired of going to rock shows and watching people treat it like it was a classical concert. So I was like, I’m going to put on a show where white people dance. White people will dance if there’s the mask of ethnicity on it. I put on these parties and we dance, we have a good time. People want to have a good time. I tend to be friends with puppeteers because they’re people who come, like me, from different studies and they do this form of theater that doesn’t have this huge range of critique around it and communicates very directly. Puppeteering, good puppet theater for adults, is like music: Effective—you’ll respond to it before you think about it. One puppet will kiss another and everyone will go, “Awww.” But if one human actor kisses another people go, “Whatever.” They’re going to try and figure out what it’s about.

MS: What attracts you to the lack of critique around puppeteering?

SS: Not many people who are professional puppeteers went and studied that. And so they come from different disciplines, and they tactilely figure out what they need to do and how they’re going to make their statement. I was at a dinner after one of our performances at some college on the East Coast and one of the people asked, “Why did you guys get into puppetry?” And each person had this eloquent explanation. And I realized, we never talk about it. Puppeteers don’t sit and pontificate with each other. They don’t BS about their work. They get in there, and they do it. There may be part of the puppet community that can talk about critique and put out a lot of words about it, but in general, that’s not how puppetry’s done in my experience. It’s not part of the construct of seeing the work. Whereas, with new music and the visual arts and modern dance, the critique and the history are so much a part of it—it’s a lens that you put on your face or your ears to even begin to understand the work. I’ve never been that interested in that.

Like I said, I really want to play for plumbers much more than I want to play for a bunch of experimental musicians. I’m not even sure why that is. Of course I love musicians being in the audience and getting into good conversations and being reinforced by my peers. But I’ve always found it much more exciting if I can do this stuff at a party. I want to have such focused intent with this crazy stuff that I can say: I’m going to take this marble right here and I’m going to put it in this bowl, and you’re going to listen and be fascinated with it. That’s an interesting relationship to me. I do feel like performance for me is part of the composition. Like in jazz, you know the composition’s happening as you’re standing there. I feel that relationship with the audience and the space. When it’s really good, you’re working with each other; it’s all part of the same thing.

But anyway, back to puppetry. Yeah. I relate to puppeteers because I do music the same way. I put so much thought and energy into it, and it is very object-oriented to me in a lot of ways. But I’m not so interested in talking about it a lot while I’m doing it. I don’t need to have a verbal conversation, or even a slightly sub-verbal conversation about the history of what I’m doing to do it.

MS: So you prepare for your audience very, very carefully. What are you hoping that they carry away with them?

SS: This sounds so silly but it’s true: I want them to be excited about art again—really excited about art, like a child is excited about art. The best response I get is from people who say, I went home and I did this. I composed this. I did this painting. That’s so awesome. I mean, that’s what happens to me when I get excited about something.

I realized I had to come up with a way of explaining why I do what I do artistically in New York really quickly. And I came up with this: Art is a tool for living. I need to put a painting on the wall, I get a hammer. It’s a tool. I have a nail. Wham, wham, wham. Put the painting on the wall. I’m sitting. I look at it. I have a painting of the city of New Orleans—an old print made years ago showing the city. Every day I eat breakfast, I look at that painting, and I think about New Orleans. And I think about the places I’ve lived. It’s a good tool, you know. So, with my art—for whatever you get out of it—I want to create a good tool for myself and for the audience. Just like Diamanda Galás and Roger Miller and John Fahey and the Beatles and John Cage have all given me good tools. I can use it to create music, and thus it helps me get through life.

Telling Bedtime Stories

Molly Sheridan: Let’s talk a little bit about how a marble and a Pyrex mixing bowl became a piece of music.

Sxip Shirey: Somehow, I got a hold of a marble and a mixing bowl and did this [demonstrates rolling the marble in the bowl]. And then, different bowls have different tonalities [demonstrates]. I can send them through the pitch shifters, or I don’t. I’m getting someone to build me a chromatic set of ceramic ones. For me, it’s a cross between a Tibetan bowl and an alarm clock. I’ll set up 15 of them on the ground and you can really trance out to them, but it’s alarming, too.

The ceramic ones are actually louder, but glass ones on stage look better because you can see what’s going on. I’ve really gotten into it. I’ve gotten into task-oriented composition right now, so I could say to you, Molly, here’s 15 bowls. Play. The goal is you have to roll the marbles in the bowls. I could say I want you to play them in this sequence, or I just want you to play them, or I want you to play this group of them and then, when you’re ready, play this group of them. Basically doing compositions that anyone could do, but that are compelling.

I did another task-oriented piece where I internally mic my mouth or another person’s mouth, and I simply have them breathe in and out of another person, so you hear the intimate sound of their breath going back and forth into each other’s lungs and that’s amplified through the room. Another thing that you can do then is have one person sing a tone, the other person sing a tone. You pull them slightly off of each other and you get a wah-wah-wah-wah-wah, you get the beat frequency from it. So again, that’s a task-oriented composition you can do. You can do it with anybody, but they’re compelling situations to put people in.

MS: So Cage meets public access TV?

SS: Yeah, Cage meets public access TV meets performance art.

There’s this amazing video with him on I’ve Got a Secret. Cage had a stage full of things. He had a bathtub. He had a coffee pot. He had a potted plant. He had a piano. He had a tape machine. He had all these kitchen and household items. And he had four radios, which, in John Cage-style, he was supposed turn on and off according to a stopwatch. Except I think the stagehands’ union and the electricians’ union got into an argument, and they couldn’t plug in the radios so instead, when he was supposed to turn on the radio, he hit the radio, and when he was supposed to turn it off, he’d push it off the table. So here’s John Cage with a stopwatch making all these sounds, doing all these different things for about ten minutes, and the audience is laughing. They’re laughing the whole time. They’re enjoying it. He gave them access points.

I’ll write a real dense harmony, but I’ll give a real direct rhythmic statement or direct live statement, so the listeners, even if they’re unfamiliar with dissonant sounds, have an easy way to go through it.

MS: Do you notate any of your compositions?

SS: I notate the stuff for the band sometimes. Not this stuff with the objects. I notate only when I’m doing theater, and I need to remember what object to pick up. I draw little pictograms, essentially, little squiggles for me to remember the general shape. And then if I have chordal harmony, I notate that.

MS: If you had a few extra days in the week, is this something you’d like to have? Would you ever want anyone else to play any of this music?

SS: Well, the original title of [the bowl piece] was “A Sxip Composition You Can Do Yourself,” because I have all these 16-year old fans now, which is insane.

MS: MySpace?

SS: Yeah, they find me on MySpace. How is it that a 40-year-old man who does this stuff all of a sudden has 16-year-old fans? But then I think, well, yeah, when I was young, my brain was being opened to Kraftwerk and Laurie Anderson, but I couldn’t e-mail her. That’s the big difference. People were bugging me for more music, and so I thought maybe I’ll make a composition and tell them how to play it. Then I did get an e-mail from some kid: “It didn’t work as well, but we went out and got bowls, and we did it.” And that’s great. There’s some kid in some ratty bar in some Podunk town. They went out and got mixing bowls and marbles, and I think it’s great. I would love it if someone else did this stuff. But I’m a very physical composer, so I just never think of it that way.

MS: Your performances are so much about connecting with people who are really there in the room, but a fan can get your new CD off CD Baby, people can experience your music via YouTube: Is that weird to you?

SS: I’m getting over it. I think when I listen back to it, I hear it how it actually sounds and I want to get it there and control it, which I can’t. Which is ridiculous because if you see my shows, stuff is falling off the tables, usually things are broken, I’m laughing with the audience. But it’s so much about the live performance for me, I haven’t been able to make it translate to CDs.

Pallet of Sounds: Learning How Things Work

Sxip Shirey: Sometimes I call what I do overly serious novelty composition, or utterly serious experimental music, but both are bullshit. I’m totally serious about this stuff. That being said, these are literally three canister music boxes taped together, with me putting markings on them so I know which order to play them in, and a bunch of bells in a bowl. It’s just a simple melody.

Usually what happens with this stuff is that I find myself with these objects and then I feel like I’m suddenly in the middle of a puzzle and I have to work my way back to the melody. I’m using the Zube Tube, but that’s a compelling sound. This says something so nice to me; that’s a unit of expression for me.

I also love harmonicas. I don’t know if I have the right ones together right now because I tend to blow ’em out, but they’re really fun with pitch shifters. You can stack them to get more interesting chords in places. I call these obnoxophones when I’m playing a gig—sometimes I’ll work with human beat boxers and just do a kind of dance thing. I don’t have any a-minors? Hmm.

Molly Sheridan: I like that you just checked your pockets for your a-minor harmonica.

SS: You just never know.

I got this off eBay. It’s the holiday symphonium—a disc music box. This one is “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” See, it has little music box tines. What’s really nice is it sets off these bells that aren’t really in tune. Then you can flip the disc backwards, and it doesn’t exactly sound backwards like you’d expect. It seems to have its own interior logic. I call this Muzak for new music composers. You can just put this on and walk around the room and clean your house and your brain’s still trying to figure it out. I like it because it’s so nonsensical in a way, but as soon as you hear it, it moves forward and it makes sense. So then I become very curious: How are people hearing this? Does this seem random to them, or does it seem substantial to them? I’m very interested in off-kilter things, but with a very direct melody or music statement that makes everything feel like it’s moving forward.

All these things I’m showing you now are pretty new things that I don’t feel that I fully have control over or an understanding of yet. This is a parade horn from communist Bulgaria that my friend the puppeteer Chris Green gave me. It’s kind of instant John Zorn. It gives you nice tritones. I’m still working at it. I bungee corded this Acme siren whistle to it and actually grafted two different whistles together, so the top doesn’t want to stay on. I used to use duct tape, but man, bungee cords are awesome.

I sit with these things for a long time and with each of them, I think: What are the different sounds they can make? How do you control them? Then, if I’m playing multiple things, how do I do that? I’ll sit for a long time and just tweak.

MS: What’s on the floor down there?

SS: I have these pitch-shifter pedals that they’ve stopped making, and their sound quality is awful. And they track slowly. But I’ve tried better things and I’m not getting the same sound. I think part of what makes it work is it squashes the sound, and it also plays behind the beat. For me, it makes it breathe in this weird way. Now when I’m doing keyboard, it’s good because it makes everything sound like it’s coming out of a 78rpm recording with good low-frequency response, which makes me happy.

Opening Pandora’s Box

Sxip Shirey: I can show you now what happens once I have an understanding of how things work. This piece is called Pandora. It is for seven canister music boxes that I found in Grand Central Station, bells, train whistle, and sometimes something else. Another problem with my pieces is that I can’t always do them again because since I use toys and things that aren’t musical instruments, they break. And even the musical instruments break and then you can’t get them anywhere.

Okay, when I lived in Austin, Texas, there was this park of these little Winnebagos from the 1950s, and these fairy goth girls lived there. This was before this stuff totally infiltrated mall culture. I think a lot of them had really hard lives, and they were creating a community for themselves. They’d take little dolls and make amazing dresses for them and all this stuff. There was one woman by the name of Pandora, and she ended up dying. It may have been a suicide, or it may have been an overdose. I’m not sure what the details were, but she was really well-loved by a lot of people and I was thinking about her a lot. So this is a send-off for Pandora.

When I was in my 20s, I was living in Montana for a while. There was this hotel, and the proprietor obviously populated it with people he liked, which was old gamblers and young hippie girls. I was neither, but I had a girlfriend and got in, in a strange way. One night, I woke up and I heard this incredibly, incredibly beautiful sound, and I realized that trains were making the sound somehow but I wasn’t sure how. Later when I was living in Austin, Texas, I saw a train and the wheels made a high-pitched tone as it was moving around the bend. And what I realized was happening in Montana is that you have these really long trains and they slowly go around these bends. The wheels were making different tones, and the train was harmonizing with itself and that was echoing off the mountains and it made this incredible sound. So I had moved to Austin, Texas, with the woman that I had lived with in Montana and she left me and went back to Montana. And I had this image of pressing my head to the tracks and hearing her train go farther and farther away.

What I’m using here is paperclips and gated reverb. Normal reverb elongates the sound, and it has a tail. A gate cuts off the tail, so instead of brrrzt, you get brzt. All those really bad snare drum sounds that you heard in the ’80s, it was because of gated reverb. And now I’m gladly bringing it back.

This is called Trains. I’m just going to do a little bit of it.

This is one of the earlier things I was doing. I was composing for modern dance, and I got interested in how the keys sounded on the flute. And so I wrote a piece, tapping the keys and breathing into it. It’s a very mellow piece. I did it totally acoustically in the room and then I recorded it with a $35 Radio Shack lapel mic in a cork—a trick my friend David Weber, a sound engineer, showed me.

Then I was living in Denver, Colorado, and there was this place called Cricket on the Hill that had an open stage. All the punk rockers, and stoners, and coke heads, and drag queens would all go to this bar, and I thought, I’ll play the flute tonight. The thing is, I had never really played it through a PA system. And the way the room was set up, the mics were picking up my foot stomping, so it was this big, pounding, foot stomping thing. So, that’s how I started playing with breath and flute. I find using breathing as a kind of elemental unit of composition is super effective because we’re all familiar with that rhythm, we’re familiar with that sound, it’s so deep inside us. This tune is called La Sirena de la Luna.