Brenda Hutchinson: Expanding the Ordinary Moment

Brenda Hutchinson: Expanding the Ordinary Moment

Composer, sound artist, and performer Brenda Hutchinson is a natural storyteller. Her great love is documenting the stories and interactions of others, creating oral histories that reveal the transformative power of everyday moments.

Written By

Alexandra Gardner

At the home of Brenda Hutchinson, Brooklyn, New York
June 20, 2012—1:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Alexandra Gardner
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Brenda Hutchinson is a natural storyteller. Whether she is talking about her latest performance project, an event from her childhood, or about choosing tiles for her Brooklyn apartment (she is based primarily in San Francisco but spends a portion of each year in New York), the composer, sound artist, and performer has an evocative memory to share. She revels in the small details of who said what, exactly how the interactions took place, how her thinking changed as a result of the event in question, and what sounds could be heard at the time.

Interestingly, this gregarious and sparkling personality was born out of fear and shyness. Hutchinson’s first sound recording projects were attempts to curb her fear of speaking to strangers; she would wander the streets of New York City and record anyone who would talk to her. She found willing subjects in the homeless community, and later in mental institutions. She created collages of spoken word and field recordings documenting the experiences, the thoughts and dreams of complete strangers woven into poignant sound portraits. Several of her sound works have had successful lives as award-winning radio art—How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? documents a cross-country trip she made with her childhood piano in tow, during which she recorded people playing the piano and telling their own piano stories at every stop. Similarly, for The Violet Flame, she spent months interviewing members of the Church Universal and Triumphant in Montana and documenting their rituals.

Over the years, her projects have becoming increasingly performance oriented. In 2008, as a reaction to the political situation in the U.S., she started The Daily Bell, in which she—and anyone nearby willing to join her—rings a bell at sunrise and sunset every single day. As she says, “sunrise and sunset are things you can’t argue about.” For the first year she documented every single ring, and now continues the tradition with less documentation, but with no less enthusiasm.

The greatest overall challenge Hutchinson has encountered in her projects has been finding the right questions to ask; questions that will persuade passing strangers to stop and participate in whatever is going on. For example, when “Hey, do you want to play my piano?” yielded disappointing results, she switched the question to “Would you play my piano?” because she found that people were more willing to provide a favor, and she continues to experiment and refine these questions to this day. In fact, she has become so focused on the question itself, or rather the production of that microsecond of space in time in which a person will decide whether to engage with another person, that her latest performance project, What Can You Do?, is laser focused on creating such moments. She is assembling teams of fellow performers in various cities (the next installation will take place in NYC’s Tompkins Square Park on August 18 and continue at The Stone on August 22) who will ask passing strangers to show them something they can do—snap their fingers, tap dance, anything—and document being shown how to perform that action. Hutchinson states that she’s had so much experience with encounters like this herself that she wanted to break down the process and share it with other people, stressing the potentially transformative nature of these personal interactions.

While such events may not at first glance seem to be directly linked to music, Hutchinson considers herself very much a composer. For her, the music is contained in the performance aspect of the work, and in the frame and content of the stories themselves. She studied music and focused on computer music, landing at Stanford in the early days of computing, but she says, “I went to music school because that was the only way you could study the aesthetic use of sound.” She continues, “So once I was recording people, and sounds and stuff, it’s like, O.K., these are the sounds that I really like. I actually really love the stuff that’s attached to it. It matters. I don’t want to make a voice abstract beyond recognition. I like the story. I like when the emotion gets in the voice. That’s the stuff that I really connect to. It’s about the sound and the pitch and the story. It’s the glue that connects us all.”

Alexandra Gardner: One of the things that I really appreciate about the work you do is that you always think of really interesting, very large conceptual projects that take a long time and require a substantial amount of effort to make happen. And you’ve been doing this for years.
They are normally the sorts of things that people chat about idly, saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we drove a piano across the country in a van? Everywhere we stopped we could record the local folks playing the piano and telling their stories about pianos.” And the other person says, “Yeah, that would be awesome!” And then you never hear another word about it. So what is it that sparks you enough about these big ideas to bring them to life?

Brenda Hutchinson: You know, I don’t think of them as big ideas—I don’t think of big ideas. The things that really interest me are people and intimate things; intimate connections with people, and stories, and the familiarity that you have with your environment and the people in your life. I started with recording my grandmother. When she got Alzheimer’s, and her stories started to change, I thought that I wanted to capture them before they changed. So that’s where I began. Then I recorded everyone in my family. I did pieces with all of the women in my family; my grandmother, my mother, and my sister. I also recorded my father, my grandfather—I don’t really know what to do with them—and I was waiting to record my brother, because he was my baby brother and I thought, well, he doesn’t have much to talk about yet. I’ll wait until he’s a man. But then he passed away, so I never got to record him.

I understand the value of those stories. There are those stories that you are familiar with, but then you realize, well, everybody’s got them. Everybody has stories. And once people start listening to other people tell stories, they have a story of their own. “Oh, that reminds me of…”—you know? Suddenly, everybody is connected in a really intimate and powerful way. And so my joy, I guess, is to find ways to continually extend that. I started [recording stories] with people that I didn’t know. When I first moved to New York, I was outside all day on the street, and at first I recorded everywhere. I was really afraid to talk to people that I didn’t know, but then I thought, O.K., you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to bite the bullet, and so I started talking. The first people that I recorded were the bag ladies living in the bathroom at Penn Station. I knew they would be there because they lived there. And I was really terrified. Thinking, how am I going to get them to talk to me? What am I going to say? And I get there and they’re just sitting around mostly sleeping, but there was one woman who was sitting there just talking to herself, really loud into the space. So I thought, oh, I’ll go sit next to her. I sat next to her, and she turned and just started talking to me. So I take my tape recorder out, and the microphone, and I showed her, and I said I’m interested in recording people. And she says, “Oh, well, come back here on Wednesday; Wednesday is when everyone does their laundry. People wash their things in the sink, and then they use the hand dryers to dry everything. And they wash their hair, and they do everything.” So I did come back, and that was my first piece that I did with strangers. And I just went all over New York for two years, and I recorded people that I’d run into on the street—mostly homeless people, or people that were out there in dire circumstances, because they would talk to me.

I went to music school, and then I did the summer computer music workshop at Stanford. It was pre-real-time computing. You’d program, and then you would leave and it would go chunka-chunka-chunka-chunka all night long. You’d come back the next day, and you’d get beep, boop, boop. I was like, shit, what’s that? And I was the only woman. But I realized, too, that there were very few places that had these kind of resources, which I would still get excited to use, even if it took forever to get, like, three notes.

I thought, you know, I can spend my time and my energy trying to get into these places to do what I would like to do, and get beep, beep, beep out of it, or I can figure out what I have access to that I can spend my time doing so that I can work. I thought, I have my life. I have the everyday thing. Here it is. It’s all here. That was a really important recognition of the value of working with your own life. And by extension, every time I have a realization, I think wow, if everybody knew this, it would change the world. If everybody felt that way about their own lives, and their own things—the just mundane thing of your life, that this is the real stuff—it would change everything! So that’s kind of where I started from. And I thought, instead of making pieces and things which are like your masterpiece each time, I’m just going to document this process as I go along. And those will be the pieces. So that’s pretty much how it is.

When you listen to someone tell a story, and you enter that space, it’s a gift. And you know, having received so many gifts from so many people, I’m the person that got transformed. And I thought, O.K., how can I get it so other people can be in this position? How can I create a context for this? So for me, the composing has drifted into creating a context for something—some kind of exchange or interaction, or something usually to do with intimate kinds of connections among strangers. And it started with the piano piece [How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?] because the piano piece was a commission. Mary Ellen Childs of the Corn Palace in Minnesota asked me to write a piano piece. And it was for, you know, money, and I’m like, O.K., sure! But then I thought, but I don’t like to write notes. I don’t want to. I could do that, but what kind of piece would I really like to do? I would record people telling stories about the piano!

I was much more interested in people’s relationship to the piano. When I first moved to San Francisco in the ’70s—oh my god, I’m so old!—there was a guy who had a white upright piano in a pickup truck. He had a white rose in a vase on the piano, and he dressed in a white tuxedo with a white top hat. He would park, and he would play the piano for money. I went up to him and I said, “How can you do this? Are you allowed to do this?” And he said, “As long as the piano is not on the ground you don’t need a permit.” So I remembered this, 20 years later. I thought, hey, my piano is in New York. What if I got a truck, and I drove my piano all across the country, and I could ask everybody to play my piano and to tell me a piano story.

So, that’s how that How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? happened. But I was thinking, here’s a piano on a truck. Everybody in the world’s going to want to play this. Nobody wanted to play it! I would take it places, and I’d open the back of the truck, and I’d ask people, “Hey, would you like to play my piano?” And everybody said, ”No thanks, I’m O.K.” It’s a refrain now. I’ve been hearing it for years and years, as I do these things. No thanks, I’m O.K. Anyway, this went on for like thousands of miles, and I thought, this is hard. One in ten people would come up and—the curiosity would get the better of them—they’d look inside, and yes indeed, there was a piano in there. It was really hard to get people to stop because I think people are mostly used to public spaces being about commerce. You buy things, you sell things. You expect people to ask you for money. Sometimes people will hand you things that lead to money, or to convert you to some religion.

The “Would you like to play my piano?” wasn’t working, so I thought, let me change the question. Then I tried, “Would you play my piano?” Well, people were much happier to do me a favor; people like to do you a favor. And I found that more people would stop then, and once people would stop, you could engage in a conversation. By the time I got to Oklahoma, I was thinking, I’m going to be home pretty soon, and this is not turning out the way I was hoping. So then I switched to the question, “Have you ever played the piano?” It was a much better question. I’ve found over time that I’ve gotten much better at asking the right questions.

I drove around with a big bell, too. I had worked at the Exploratorium and they had a bell there that belonged to Frank Oppenheimer. The Exploratorium was the first of the sort of hands-on science museums, and the idea behind it for Frank was that the world is understandable if you can engage with it directly, and that people know a lot more than they think they know. (I worked there for ten years. It was a perfect place for me.) And so they had a bell that had belonged to Frank, and they would ring it at the end of every day, to get people to go home. Well, after he died, his son took the bell. I missed the bell. I found this guy in Brooklyn, Michigan, who collected bells. I went online and I looked—Robert Brosamer was his name. And I called him on the phone, and I said, “Do you have any really big bells? Really loud bells? Big loud bells?” And he said, “Oh yeah, I have one, and it’s loud.” So I said O.K., and I towed this bell hitched to my Honda. I thought it was only going to be like 5,000 miles, but I went from New York down to Florida, across the South, and up the other side. I thought, oh, a bell. Easy! A bell would be easy. It requires no skill. I asked people, “Would you ring my bell?” And people were willing to do me a favor. But that was really not the point. I really wanted people to do it for their own reasons, and you know, people would ask, “Why?” I would say, “Well, I have my reasons, don’t you?” And in the South, people did. Through the regions affected by Hurricane Katrina, people would ring the bell before we were stopped, like when we were stopped at traffic lights, and I drove it into Mexico and there are bells everywhere in Mexico, so it was regionally interesting to find who would ring the bell and who wouldn’t.

The encounter with the piano, though, was where I really thought, how do you get to the teeny-tiny millisecond where people are going to decide whether or not they’re going to stop and engage with you? That became my focus—like, that’s the piece right there. How do you create a frame and a context to get to the point where you can have people who don’t know one another get into this really intimate space? It’s so empowering. It changes your life forever. That’s pretty much what led to a whole series of works where you get people to come up to do things in public, or in front of their neighbors. I’ve done a bunch of those; Vagabond Vaudeville, the Fun Show (which is a dangerous name for a show if you think about it, because it might not be fun), Tiny Offerings. You ask people to come up in front of an audience and do stuff. It was really about doing things like your hobbies, and things that you love. I did that and it was very successful. It was really good.

AG: One of the questions I wanted to ask related to that is, how do you see yourself as an artist? Where on the continuum of artist, composer, or sound artist do you feel like you fall?

BH: Music is for me—it’s really a subset of sound. All my training is as a musician—I played instruments, and I studied composition. And I enjoyed that, but I went to music school because that was the only way you could study the aesthetic use of sound. I’ve always been interested in sound. So once I was recording people, and sounds and stuff, it’s like, O.K., these are the sounds that I really like. I actually really love the stuff that’s attached to it. It matters. I don’t want to make a voice abstract beyond recognition. I like the story. I like when the emotion gets in the voice. That’s the stuff that I really connect to. It’s about the sound and the pitch and the story. It’s the glue that connects us all. I find that the kind of experience that musicians have with music as composers, as experts, as trained listeners, everybody else can get with the world that they live in if they just pay attention to it. That’s how I ended up sort of in that field. But the thing that still connects me to music, I feel like, is the performance thing, and the relationship thing. In the same way that you might zoom in on a timbral relationship, like the breath that a person takes when they play a note and how that might blend in with the sound that the note itself makes, or different ways that things relate to that, it’s like creating a place for people to enter that spot, and to open that up so they can experience what that’s like. That’s where I feel like I work as a composer. I think of myself that way. And sound is my medium. That’s what I love. I never liked performing because I was terrified. I think I share that with most people. People don’t like being the center of attention. The idea of talking to strangers on the street is terrifying to me. It’s still kind of scary for me. So I get that. And now I’m asking people to do that with me.

AG: That’s What Can You Do?, your most recent project. Tell me about that.

BH: What Can You Do? is like the best question I’ve come up with yet. We’re going around asking people to teach us something they can do. You work with another person. One person’s the learner, the other person is the witness or documenter. Almost everybody says, “Well, I’m boring, I can’t do anything.” And then five seconds later, they’re showing you something—something weird they can do with their tongue, or they can wiggle their ears, or they’ll teach you a song, or they know a dance, or a handshake, or, you know, something. And so it works. It’s really good, and I’ve tried this now in a number of different situations. It’s really interesting because the people who are doing it are just regular people who are asking other people on the street.

I’ve had so much experience with interactions like this that now I can break them down into parts and divvy them up; you can be the witness, you can be the documenter, you can be the teacher, you can be the learner. It’s like a little army. And you can switch roles, so you can really concentrate on what you’re doing in relation to this other person.—Oh, all I have to do is learn what they’re teaching me. Or all I have to do is watch. All I have to do is pay attention to what they’re doing and then document it.—You’re basically asking a stranger on the street to show you something they can do. So that’s What Can You Do?

As a composer, you write a piece and people perform it, or you do an electronic piece and you present it. More or less what you had in mind is getting out there. But if you’re working with trying to create a space where what is important is the interaction that happens in that moment during that time—that is so ephemeral. You cannot capture that.

The only way you can capture it is as a re-enactment. When I would present the documentation for this kind of work [in the past], I would just get people in the audience, give them the instruction and ask them to do it. Here, [for What Can You Do?], the witness is the documenter; the witness is part of the process, and they’re the careful observer. Whatever it is that they are experiencing, they’re going to interpret in some form, and that becomes the artifact that’s generated from that interaction. People write poems, draw pictures, scratch notes, take photographs or movies. iPhones are great—everybody’s got them. The ones that work the best are the ones that show both people, the teacher and the learner.

AG: You’re going to do it in New York City.

BH: At Tompkins Square Park. Pauline Oliveros is curating August at the Stone, and I thought, O.K., I want to do this. I want to do this piece there. And Pauline writes back and she says, you know, John Zorn’s really kind of adamant about The Stone being a place for music. And I said, well, I really think of this as music. This is what I do. I think of myself as a musician. And so she’s like O.K. It’s not exactly what people are going to expect at that space, and that’s part of the reason I want to do it. I’m going to have people come to Tompkins Square Park on the weekend, and then, do whatever we do. I’ll gather the media documentation, and then for the presentation at the space, I’ll have documentation from the thing, and maybe people will show up that were there. And I’m going to ask the audience to do it also, so that everyone will do it. I’m hoping that works out.

AG: Another similar project that has been very long term is your piece Daily Bell.

BH: Oh, the Daily Bell. I had gone to India—we were in Varanasi. Every night, when the sun was going down, the bank of the Ganges was lined with thousands of people—people who lived there, tourists—and instead of street lights, they had poles with bells on them, big giant bells with ropes hanging down. And people would just stand there and ring bells. And then, when the person next to you got tired, they’d hand you the thing and then you’d stand there and ring it. It was so incredible. I thought, oh, I want this where I live!

And I thought, wow. This is something people want to do. This observance of the cycles of the earth in community with people is something that’s really basic and important that people want to do. And so, this sort of thing came together. It was two days before New Year’s Eve, and I thought, this is what I’m gonna do: I’m going to ring a bell every sunrise, and every sunset, and I’m going to document every occurrence. My husband Norman’s father had a bunch of bells on his farm, and we saved one—a one hundred pound cast iron bell. It was in the backyard, all rusty, very heavy, nasty looking thing. It was full of spider webs. I got out there with a hose, cleaning it off, and Norman got the blow torch and he cracked the bell trying to get the bolt undone. On New Year’s Eve, the bell was in the shop, upside down. But I went out there, and I whacked it with a hammer. So it took a couple days into the New Year before it could actually swing. But I did that, and after the first year, I thought, I’m just going to keep doing this. This is a really good thing. The sunrise and sunset are things that you can’t argue with. People can’t argue about it. There is a very particular moment when it’s happening. It’s something that everybody in the world can agree on. The sound of a bell travels farther than your voice, and you can hear when somebody else is observing that moment with you. So my idea would be to create this network around the world that just follows the sunrise and the sunset. And we recognize how we are connected to each other and to the natural world through this observation, this act. So, that’s my Daily Bell. I sound like an old hippy!

AG: Ha! And it’s still going, right?

BH: It’s still going. This is year five now.

AG: That’s amazing. I also just remembered that you have an instrument called the Long Tube.

BH: That’s my instrument, and I started playing that in 1990. When I was working at the Exploratorium, some guys came from Bell Labs. Bell Labs has done so much experimentation with the voice and communication. Mostly so they know the least possible bandwidth that you need to be able to communicate—to be able to have speech be intelligible so it’s economical. But they were experimenting, and the guy said they were playing electronic tones through very long tubes and some of the notes they played didn’t sound. And I thought, that’s really interesting. So, I went out to the machine shop, and they had a metal rack with lots of tubes all over it. They were all dusty and yucky. And I was singing into a bunch of different tubes. There was one tube with a lot of notes I couldn’t sing, so I pulled that tube out, and it was a nine-foot tube. I thought, you know, this is a little high for my voice. I have to hit these notes. So my tube now is nine-and-a-half feet. It matches the range of my voice starting at the third harmonic. When you sing into the tube, your voice comes out the bottom and some of it bounces back up the tube. But the notes that are exactly 180 degrees out of phase with the closed end of the tube, which is your vocal cords, cancel out. So it’s like somebody’s touching your throat, and you can’t sing these notes. But if you try really hard, you get all this weird stuff happening because there’s all this interference with your vocal cords.

You have to practice because you have to really find those places, and then start to do shapes with your mouth and different vowel sounds. And you can actually direct the thing. It’s a bionic thing. I can feel my chest vibrate. I can feel different parts of my throat vibrate. So, that became my instrument. I liked having an instrument to practice again. I played piano and violin when I was a kid. I still felt like a musician, or an artist, because at least I was playing the tube. And I played it a lot. But I played it without electronics for probably almost a decade. Because I didn’t want to spoil it for people—I wanted people to think, yeah, this is really cool. I could do that. It’s just a tube. But then I realized finally that people were not interested in playing it themselves, so I thought, well, I might as well make it more interesting for myself! And so I added triggers and all kinds of stuff. It’s much more fun for me to play now.

AG: And so now you have a Max/MSP setup for it?

BH: I do. I made this whole gestural interface—I used a BASIC Stamp and I hooked it up to the computer. I use Max/MSP and I can record myself doing things, I have random tables of probability so I don’t really know what I’m going to do, and I can trigger sounds. Now I’ve even gotten rid of the bottom half of the tube and I just use the top three-and-a-half feet as the controller. I can do work with real sounds, which is what I like—both pre-recorded and live. I’ve done dance scores, and I’ve played with other people, and sometimes I sing into it. I actually enjoy that, and I don’t usually enjoy performing, so that’s different.

AG: It’s a very visceral experience.

BH: It’s totally visceral.

AG: So will you ring a bell for me? Would you ring a bell when it’s not sunset?

BH: Yeah. Yeah, you want to ring together?

AG: Sure. You can pick one.

BH: You pick one. You can lay them out.

AG: I like this one.

BH: O.K., so it’s interesting you chose the camel bell to ring because, see, it has a loop. And I usually have these in my car because if I’m driving when it’s sunrise or sunset, I don’t have to pay attention; I just loop them on my finger and I can drive. On the freeway, if you go really fast, with just the motion of the car, you get this constant ringing for miles and miles.

AG: Do you seriously keep it on your pinky when you’re driving?

BH: Oh, I do! Sometimes I have three at one time. And it’s really nice because they’re all really different. See there are several pitches here. [ringing] That’s a pretty one.

AG: Yeah, it’s nice.

BH: I buy lots of bells to give away. When I buy the little ones, I save the ones that sound really good, and then the rest I give away.

AG: You should hang onto this one.

BH: Yeah. That’s why it’s in the bowl.

AG: So it seems like a lot of your projects have been based on challenging yourself to overcome fears.

BH: Yeah. I did that. That’s what I did first.

AG: So what now?

BH: Well, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I feel like I understand certain things about how to make these projects happen, and how to make people feel comfortable. I have gotten the benefit of all that transformation for me as a person. So now, it’s like, O.K., how do I get other people to experience that?

For What Can You Do? I have little name tags that we wear, little cards that we hand out. We do orientation practice sessions, and I do a long series of emails, to gradually introduce people to more and more sorts of things. By the time they do actually show up, they’re confident, and they trust me. And then once they’re out on their own [snaps fingers], it starts to happen. It’s amazing. Everybody gets to be changed by that experience. So it’s just like you go and see a piece of art, or you hear a piece of music and you’re like, “Wow, that was amazing. I will never look or hear something in the same way again”. This is what I’m hoping that this does for the people, both those who do it and those who are on the other end of it. Even if it’s just for that moment, that’s something.