Kristin Norderval: Permanent and Impermanent Sonic Moments
Composer/vocalist Kristin Norderval’s output has been extraordinarily diverse but addressing societal wrongs is perhaps the one common focus that unites decades of work whether she’s improvising vocals and transforming sounds on her laptop alongside other musicians, performing with the viol consort Parthenia in a song cycle she wrote for them, creating electronic scores for dance, building sound installations involving upturned pianos or repurposed trash, or starring in her own evening-length opera about an abduction during the Argentinian junta, The Trials of Patricia Isasa, which premiered last year during the 2016 OPERA America conference in Montreal.
There is a long tradition of artists creating socially conscious work. Some would say it should be an obligation, especially now in these uncertain and divisive times. But addressing societal wrongs is perhaps the one common focus that unites decades of work created by composer/vocalist Kristen Norderval.
Norderval’s output has been extraordinarily diverse. Her activities include improvisations singing and transforming sounds on her laptop alongside other musicians, a song cycle featuring her own voice accompanied by the viol consort Parthenia, electronic scores for dance, sound installations involving upturned pianos or repurposed trash, and an evening-length opera, The Trials of Patricia Isasa, which premiered last year during the 2016 OPERA America conference in Montreal.
When we met with her across the street from her northern Manhattan apartment surrounded by nature in Inwood Hill Park (which she described as her back yard), she credited the central role that various progressive causes have played in inspiring her music: “As the eldest child of two political scientists, I have always been interested in politics and events in the world. Politics was in our house all the time. So I’ve always been aware and my music has been very centered in wherever we are as a society.”
One of her earliest realizations, soon after she began writing songs, inspired by Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joan Baez, Odetta, and Yoko Ono, was the lack of visible female role models for women who were interested in composing large-scale works. “I could see myself as a singer-songwriter,” she remembered. “I can see there’s an identity. Whereas a composer seemed like what you do if you write for orchestra or at least for string quartet, or these other things that I didn’t know. I didn’t know other female composers growing up, so it was hard to think I could be that.”
But she persevered, studying both composition and voice in Seattle at the Cornish School and the University of Washington, despite one of her teachers claiming there were no historically significant female composers: “I just knew that was wrong. … It can’t start with me; I’m not that brilliant. So I went looking as an undergraduate. When I did my recitals for voice, I always included female composers, like Hildegard, Strozzi, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, up through the contemporary composers that I was discovering.”
One of contemporary composers she discovered was Pauline Oliveros who, during a campus talk for teachers, got the participants to perform one of her deep listening text scores. Norderval was astounded. Shortly afterwards in the school library, she read Oliveros’s introduction to her Sonic Meditations in which she outed herself. “’I am a human being, a lesbian, a two-legged person, living with cats.’ All these different categories. It really blew my mind because this was the ‘70s. I was out, but it was a very different time.” She went on to apprentice with Oliveros and worked with her for many years, ultimately organizing the last deep listening retreat that Oliveros was part of, in 2015, just a year before her death. Norderval’s immersion into Oliveros’s music and philosophy gave her an aesthetic framework that allowed her to embrace all sound, as well as to pay equal attention to sonic events that are permanent and impermanent.
“If I’m doing an improvisation, and it’s just for here and now, that’s my chosen impermanence,” Norderval explained. “Or if I write a score that has instructions and motives, so it can be done in different ways, the one version is impermanent, but the next version is just as valid. … The voice is always flexible, but … once you’ve got a sound file that’s a fixed sound file, it’s totally inflexible. It’s interesting to me to make a permeation, but also, when I’m working with pre-recorded sound files, I’m processing in the moment, often with several files, and choosing in that moment: Okay, I’m only going to use this little tiny bit of this file. Now I’m going to expand it to the whole thing. Now I’m going to pitch shift. Now I’m going to delay feedback—pretty basic processing tools, but everything is in the moment, so it’s like drawing from a palette that I know. I know the sound files, and I’ll do it in a different mix the next time. It’s like cooking up a different stew.”
Another inspiration for Norderval’s approach, especially for her fascinating installations—many of which she has created in collaboration with her partner, choreographer Jill Sigman—was working in Norway with a Sami sculptor named Iver Jåks who assembled Arctic stones, wood, reindeer horns, and leather and give curators free reign in putting them together. “I thought that was so wonderful,” Norderval recalled. “I remember a phone conversation we had—I ended up recording part of it and using it in a piece that I made about him—where he says, ‘I’m not going last forever; why should my artwork last forever?’”
But nowadays, she acknowledged, she has “come to a combination of notated and improvised.” One of the most precisely notated of her works is the opera The Trials of Patricia Isasa, which is based on the real-life story of a woman who was abducted during the Dirty Wars of the Argentinian dictatorship and who finally brought her torturers to justice 33 years later. It is a poignant and deeply moving work that, while being very much an important story for our own time, has deep resonances that will hopefully earn it a permanent place in the operatic repertoire.
“I think it’s very much our story because the U.S. was behind the whole Operation Condor that supported all those dictatorships,” she explained. “The Ford factory was encouraging the military dictatorship to impose certain economic policies, and they used the Ford factory as a place for torture. My feeling and [librettist] Naomi Wallace’s feeling was that when we look back at a story about this historical period—and it’s not that far back because 2009, when she got a conviction, is very close—it’s a way of saying this is what happened there and this is what could happen here. For me, the important part was the accountability part, because my concern for us as a nation is that we have had no accountability for an invasion of another country that was based on lies and no accountability for torture. The torture and war programs that are committed in all of our names are also related to our prison industrial complex, our mass incarceration, the fact that it’s only been 50 years since we dismantled the legal apartheid system of Jim Crow in this country. I was ten-years old when interracial marriage was finally legal. That’s crazy. People have been working to try to dismantle that ever since, and that’s the period we’re in now. We’re in the backlash period. We have to look with a big historical overview to see how to deal with those effects and issues with some kind of accountability. That, for me, was the story. And that is our story. That, plus Patricia was involved in the whole thing. So it’s our collective story.”
Frank J. Oteri: Here we are in the middle of all this nature, yet we’re still in New York City, a non-stop, high-tech, 21st-century urban metropolis. It seems like an apt place to talk with you about your music, since your music seems to have two different things going on within it which often seem to be in contradiction. One is that it’s all about sheer physicality—mostly the sound of your voice, but it’s not just the sound of your voice. There’s this wonderful passage in your score for a dance piece called Rupture where a dancer is walking, literally, on eggshells. And it creates a remarkable sound. I probably wouldn’t have realized how that sound was produced if I hadn’t seen it in an online video, but I think it’s an excellent example of paying a great deal of attention to the properties of sound created corporeally. However, you also employ a great deal of electronic manipulation of sound as well as electronically generated sounds in your work. Those two things seem like opposites to me, but maybe they’re not for you.
Kristin Norderval: To me they don’t feel like opposites. The technology of electronic sound recording allows us to bring all of nature’s sounds into our art music. Also, working out that interest in physicality is one of the reasons that I worked for Jill Sigman, my partner, on Rupture. Those sounds of the eggshells—that was her exploration of that. So that becomes a sonic element, but it’s starting from her choreography. That wasn’t in my score, actually; that was her physical exploration in the piece. But there’s a place where we overlap. Both of us are very interested in exploring physical presence: the quality of sound and how you do it, or the quality of movement and how you do it.
FJO: Of course, in terms of being focused on physicality, your instrument is you, since you’re a singer.
KN: That’s right.
FJO: You also still actively sing other people’s music in addition to your own, so you really have a double life as a singer and as a composer. What came first, and how did you realize you had this instrument within you that was capable of such a wide range of sound?
KN: That’s a big question. The first memories that I have as a young, young kid—before I was two—are sounds. And I was singing, people tell me, around two or maybe before. So I was always singing. I started writing songs when I got my first guitar. I used my babysitting money and bought a guitar at age ten and started writing songs. So they’ve always been intertwined, but it’s gone through big changes in focus at different times in my life. When I was writing songs for guitar and voice, or piano and voice, I was performing in coffee houses, doing that whole kind of thing. I remember as a teenager saying, “I know how to write chord symbols and write out the words of my songs, but how do you actually write music?” I could read music, because I’d been taking piano lessons, but I didn’t have the concept of how to actually notate music. So my goal as a teenager was to try to figure out where I could go to learn to write down what I heard in my head and to be able to hear in my head what I saw on the page. That was my goal when I went to the University of Washington.
FJO: I don’t know your earliest music, but on your website you list a solo piano piece from 1980 with a very intriguing title—Aggressions. I’d love to hear that one day.
KN: I’d have to dig that out of my archives. It’s a hand-written manuscript.
FJO: Clearly you did figure out how to write down music that was in your head then, or at least some of it. But a great deal of the music that you do nowadays, which uses extended vocal techniques and electronic manipulations, is much more elusive in terms of music notation since a lot of it defies what that notation was developed to notate. When did those kinds of sounds come into your head?
KN: As a kid, I loved the sound of my dad’s diesel car. I could tell the difference between motors and I loved being on a bus or in any kind of car when the windshield wipers were out of synch; it was fascinating to me. All kinds of mechanical sounds were very interesting to me, which is another way that I think about electronics. If you go back to steam motors, maybe that’s not electricity, but for all those mechanical sounds, we need power to make them sound and so that’s always been a fascination of mine. But how do you notate that? It’s a good question. It’s still a question to me. I have things where there are instructions or, if it’s working with a sound itself, then the sound file is the thing. How do you notate within a metrical or semi-metrical language something that has to be flexible enough to listen to the variances that happen in the sound, like the airplanes going over us?
FJO: Right. And obviously, notation’s the enemy of improvisation to some extent since musicians who are trained to be really good at seeing what’s on a page and replicating it precisely—which, mind you, is a really incredible skill to have—often find it somehow counterintuitive to be told they should come up with something on their own. It requires a different headspace.
KN: I really like both. There are places in my scores where it’s very specific, and it has to be metric and precise. And there are other places where one thing is precise and another thing can be fluid over it and change with elbow room or breathing room or room for a different gesture. Then there are some text scores. I was just working with a group of five actors in Oslo on a theater piece, and I worked with them on deep listening exercises. My wonderful mentor Pauline Oliveros was a big influence on me. That kind of listening work and work with improvisation is really central to getting people to the skill sets that they need to interpret a text instruction. What are the tools you have to interpret that text instruction? You can interpret it simply or you can interpret it in a more complex way. That’s where training in improvisation or in listening to sound in a different way comes in.
FJO: So to get back to high school. You were a singer-songwriter, playing guitar, taking piano lessons, so obviously understanding how to read music, but not quite understanding how to make that work for your own work. But you were also intrigued by windshield wiper sounds. At that point, were you aware of people like Pauline Oliveros, Meredith Monk, or Joan La Barbara?
KN: I was not. But I was aware of Yoko Ono. She was inspiring. Of course the Beatles were also inspiring, but Yoko Ono was really inspiring! I had her book Grapefruit in high school. We were living at that time in Canada in a steel town—Hamilton, Ontario. I worked with a Grotowski-based theater group for a summer and then continued with them past that. That exploration of physical theater was really interesting. But I was also interested in musicology. I was interested in singing. I was interested in ethnomusicology and composition. But I didn’t really know any professional musicians until I had checked around the States looking at music schools to try to figure out where I would go. I ended up going to the University of Washington. They had a program where you could enter as a general music major and then decide over the course of your studies what you were going to major in. I ended up auditioning for voice, piano, and composition, and I ended up getting a double degree in voice and in composition at the end of that.
That was the start of my opening up to singers like Jan DeGaetani and Leontyne Price. I had a workshop with Kenneth Gaburo at Cornish which was just like opening the whole world. I was in the improv group with Stuart Dempster at the University of Washington; he and William O. Smith, Bill Smith, were running that. Bill Smith was my composition teacher, one of my important composition teachers, along with Diane Thome, who is a wonderful composer for instruments and electronics. That was also where I was introduced to Pauline Oliveros. She was giving a talk for teachers. I was there, I guess, on the recommendation of Stuart Dempster.
Pauline gave the audience the score of either the Tuning Meditation or one of the simpler deep listening text scores. And I was astounded. I thought, “They’re not going to do this!” But they did. She was so trusting in that it was going to be cool. And it was. It turned out really cool. I remember going into the library at the University of Washington and finding a very early edition of her Sonic Meditations with her handwriting in that early score and a picture of her and her introduction where she outed herself: “I am a human being, a lesbian, a two-legged person, living with cats.” All these different categories. It really blew my mind because this was the ‘70s. I was out, but it was a very different time. Then I had the pleasure of hearing her in San Francisco in concert. When I moved here to New York, I actually was able to work with her and do the whole deep listening apprentice work. I ended up organizing the last deep listening retreat that she, Ione, and Heloise did together in the Arctic—in Norway in 2015.
FJO: It’s hard to believe she’s gone.
KN: Yeah. Working with her changed the way I make music and the way I listen, the way I relate to all these sounds around us all the time. She’s amazing. And she’s still listening, as they say, and so are we.
FJO: Even though you didn’t know any musicians growing up, your parents seemed to have been supportive of your going in this direction.
KN: My mother was a very good amateur pianist. I think as a young person she might have had dreams to follow music, but it wasn’t at all in the cards. She’s Norwegian and she grew up in Nazi-occupied Norway during the Second World War, so there really wasn’t much opportunity for professional artists. She went into political science and journalism. My dad was also a political scientist. He was American. He was also an amateur violinist, so I knew music.
FJO: And he was also an instrument collector. You showed me some of his instruments in your apartment.
KN: That’s right. There were instruments from Southeast Asia in my childhood home, plus recordings from Indonesia from various villages he’d gone to visit. And home movies. We lived in Malaysia for a while, and we were in Norway many summers and then lived there for a while when I was a teenager. Then we lived in Canada and various places in the States. So I had all kinds of musical influences.
FJO: We talk to a lot of composers about their role models. You mentioned Yoko Ono and Pauline Oliveros.
KN: And Joni Mitchell.
FJO: What’s interesting in terms of your role models is that all of the people you mentioned are women. We’ve talked to a lot of composers over the years and especially those from earlier generations, like Pauline, talked about the difficulty in finding female role models. It’s not like there weren’t role models. There have been all of these significant female composers throughout history, but they’ve been relegated to footnotes. I don’t need to tell you this; you’ve edited a collection of Clara Schumann’s songs. So I know that you’re aware of this history and there’s a certain empowerment through knowing that history, I would think.
KN: Yes, there is. I have to say, when I was writing songs for voice and piano and for voice and guitar, I had inspiration from Odetta, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, as well as Bob Dylan, the old blues singers, and Pete Seeger. I was very influenced by all of that. So I could see myself as a singer-songwriter. I can see there’s an identity. Whereas a composer seemed like what you do if you write for orchestra or at least for string quartet, or these other things that I didn’t know. I didn’t know other female composers growing up, so it was hard to think I could be that. But it wasn’t so hard to think I can learn how to notate so that I can put what I have in my head onto paper. It wasn’t a definition that way. When I was preparing to try to get into the University of Washington, I took composition study at Cornish. And I remember, I was asking this of my first composition teacher—I was notating some simple things, for solo piano and maybe something for a small instrumental trio combination—and I asked, “Who are the other women composers?” And it was like, “There aren’t any of importance.” I just knew that was wrong. I totally knew that was wrong. It can’t start with me; I’m not that brilliant. So I went looking as an undergraduate. When I did my recitals for voice, I always included female composers, like Hildegard, Strozzi, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, up through the contemporary composers that I was discovering.
FJO: No doubt the person who said this to you was a male composition teacher.
KN: It was a male composition teacher.
FJO: Now was this around the time you composed a choral piece based on poetry by Emily Dickinson called Passenger of Infinity?
KN: That piece actually came after I was finished with my undergraduate degree and I’d moved to San Francisco to do a master’s. Actually, I just worked first, then I got into the conservatory and did a master’s in voice. That was during the AIDS crisis. The San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Chorus was doing some commemoration concerts and fundraising concerts and dealing with the deaths of a lot of colleagues and friends and singing in a lot of funerals. So they commissioned a work. That was written for them. I recently just redid the last movement of that piece for a cappella [chorus]. The original version was SATB with piano accompaniment, but the last movement had a pretty simple piano accompaniment so I figured it could work as an a cappella piece. A little chorus in Montreal, the chorus that sang in my opera in Montreal, just did that on a concert in December, the new a cappella version.
FJO: Oooh, I want to hear that. So you still keep that piece in circulation?
KN: Well, I have the score, but it hasn’t been performed in the version that I did for San Francisco since the original performances. I’m not the greatest about trying to promote and get re-performances or get my scores out there for multiple things. I tend to write for specific occasions and specific ensembles or soloists, people that ask me for music. It’s a weakness of mine in terms of promotion, I guess. But on the other hand, it’s a very personal thing. The music becomes very much a part of that performer or that ensemble’s identity and experience.
FJO: That, of course, is the other contradiction in the world of notated music. You create a lot of work that is intended to exist in the moment, but once you write something down, you fix it for all eternity theoretically. Suddenly there is the possibility for a piece to have an afterlife after the initial performance. It’s interesting that you don’t really think about that.
KN: Maybe that’s because there’s that inherent contradiction. I worked with a sculptor in Norway who is a Sami sculptor, he’s not alive anymore—Iver Jåks. He would work with Arctic stones, wood, reindeer horn, leather woven in a traditional Sami way, and various other things. He’d assemble these pieces and then say to a curator, “Okay, you put it together. Here’s the sculpture.” And I thought that was so wonderful. We did a whole school tour with an ensemble up in the Arctic, taking his pieces and getting school children to act as curators and put together his sculptures.
Then I did the same with sound. I said, “Okay, let’s go record some sounds. Now you put the sounds together.” And it would be different for each group. That was very liberating. I remember a phone conversation we had—I ended up recording part of it and using it in a piece that I made about him—where he says, “I’m not going last forever; why should my artwork last forever?”
FJO: A lot of your work is impermanent. I’m thinking, in particular, of all of your sound installations, many of which defy replicability. You even have one you did outdoors using objects that had been thrown away that you called Our Lady of Detritus.
KN: That was a collaboration with Jill. We both wanted to work with this theme of repurposing and recycling and looking at waste and the issues of waste. I had been working with hemispherical speakers and a small digital amp. I knew Holland Hopson had designed hemis for the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, so I used the recipe for the Princeton Laptop Orchestra’s small hemis that have digital amps built into them. I wanted to see if it would be possible to run that on solar power. So we contacted an engineer and figured out how many panels we needed and how many hours of daylight to charge up a big battery and how long we could perform on that battery. It was a really interesting project to do.
FJO: But a really hard piece to document.
KN: Yes, it was.
FJO: I was particularly intrigued by piano, piano, pianissimo… because you’re not only changing people’s perceptions of what a piano sounds like, but also changing how we respond to them as visual objects by mounting all these broken pianos at different angles.
KN: That piece came about as a study piece for my opera. I was already involved in the libretto development. I’d been to Buenos Aires, and I’d made a lot of interviews with Patricia Isasa and other survivors [of Argentina’s military dictatorship]—children of the disappeared, and the surviving mothers and grandmothers. I wanted to do a study piece to start working with the sounds. My very first image from my impulse to work with Patricia Isasa’s story was of a piece that would be for voice and a kind of trashed piano where the piano would have sounds created out of things that were to done to it coming through its own body. I used the sound installation as a study for those piano sounds, then channeled those sounds through each of the pianos. It’s an eight-channel installation and each piano has a transducer affixed to the soundboard, so the piano itself was the loudspeaker. The sounds that were coming through the pianos were sounds that I had recorded of me doing things to the pianos. Either scraping on the strings, detuning, hitting strings with metal objects, clipping strings, knocking on the boards. Some of them are very intense physical sounds. The idea was that the piano as a body was recounting its own sonic history. It’s a very bourgeois instrument. It’s an instrument that’s associated with a certain level of stability in society. When things up-end that stability, it has a hard time existing in the same way.
FJO: So the upturned pianos are a metaphor—
KN: —for all the upturned political upheaval. There was also a sculpture in Buenos Aires where there are two units that are strangely balanced on each other, a sort of box/house unit. That gave me an idea for these balancing things. Then I asked Jill to come in and work with me. So she helped in making the final configuration of the pianos in the space. Then we had her painting, inscribing the names of the victims of the disappearances on the wall, over the whole week that we were there in the gallery. She was painting every day that the installation was up and in the course of a week she only got through about 1,600 names. If it takes a week to just write 1,600 names on a wall, it gives you more of a sense of the vastness of 30,000 people being disappeared.
FJO: I’m very eager to talk with you about the opera in greater detail, but before we get there I find it fascinating that prior to you ever having had a work done on the stage of an opera house, you created an installation for the lobby of the Oslo Opera. Were there other performances going on in the house when that was done?
KN: Yes. Again, that was also very much Jill’s project. She was the main instigator in that particular project, Hut No. 6, as part of the CODA Dance Festival. They had dance performances on the main stage, on the small stage, and all around the city. Our piece was a performance installation in the lobby of the opera house that went on for over a week. We were there every day for five to six hours, interacting with everybody who came through the lobby. My part was the sound installation that used a hand-powered generator—I used an old bicycle wheel to help people generate their own power. And an installation inside of Jill’s hut that was ongoing that had interviews with people about how they felt about home in Oslo. Then I was singing in the performances every day.
FJO: What unites all of these projects, I think, is that they all go against the whole hagiography of the canon and this idea that the goal of making art is to create timeless masterpieces. These are very much things that were created for a specific time and place that are not necessarily capable of ever being done again, which is very different from pieces you’ve done which have notated scores.
KN: Music actually functions on a lot of different levels for different pieces. I want some of my pieces to exist past me. So I would like to have a score that can be done by other people. Other pieces are done specifically for a particular theater piece or a particular dance; it’s not going to be a repertory piece. Other things are done as an improvisation in the moment. They can exist as a recording and have a life on a CD, but they’ll never exist in real time again because that was that moment and it’s not re-creatable.
One thing I want to comment on here brings us back to talking about role models and female composers. I’ve told this story, so some people who know me will probably recognize it. When I was doing my doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music, I was also working at the Library for the Performing Arts. My boss knew I was interested in women composers and how women composers have been represented in the music industry. So she asked me to make an exhibition, in one of their big cases at the library, about women and recorded sound. It was a real learning experience for me, because what I was seeing, when I’d go back and do the research, was that every single stage of recorded sound had female composers from that era, but when the technology changed, those female composers didn’t get re-recorded on the new technology. We had a big push of recordings on LPs in the ‘80s and the ‘90s; women musicologists were bringing up historic scores and more female composers were getting trained and became able to record their own contemporary works. But lots of stuff on LPs never made it to CD. And a lot of stuff on CDs now hasn’t gone over to streaming, either it doesn’t go over or it doesn’t get credited. Streaming information is not good. You could have a collection of pieces on an album, and maybe you just have last names. How do you find out who’s who? I have recordings with Monique Buzzarté in our ensemble ZANANA, but you can’t search for Norderval on Spotify or other streaming searches. It has to be only ZANANA. Then maybe they credit me as a performer in the duo. So there are a lot of problems with actually knowing what existed at various times and making it over to the next stage. Who decides what is worth keeping and archiving?
FJO: I’m going to tell you something that’s probably going to make you very mad; it made me very mad. Just about a week ago, I chanced upon a blog post which was a few years old, but it was linked from a much more recent post, which is how I found it. It was posted by a woman in England who is a musicologist, but she was just starting out when she wrote it. It was a 2014 post. Anyway, the post described how when she was in a library looking at older editions of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, she saw that each of the earlier editions had a number of female composers in them, but then when you went to the next edition—
KN: —they disappeared. Same thing. Exactly. Yeah.
FJO: So I found her email and wrote to her. I wanted her to know that when I was asked to update the articles about chamber music and orchestra music for the new edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music, I also added in female composers who were not mentioned in earlier editions. I also asked her for a list of the female composers whose biographies had appeared in one of the editions of Grove but were omitted in later editions but sadly she didn’t keep a list since she wrote that post before she embraced the musicological discipline of strict note taking. At some point, we’re going to have to have a group of researchers reconstruct this list to find out who all these composers are. But it does tie into this notion of impermanence that we were talking about earlier.
KN: But there’s a difference. There are different kinds of impermanence. If I say I’m doing an improvisation, and it’s just for here and now, that’s my chosen impermanence. Or if I write a score that has instructions and motives, so it can be done in different ways, the one version is impermanent, but the next version is just as valid. But the impermanence of just being not taken care of is a different thing. I think of composers like Eleanor Hovda. What an amazing composer! Her work hasn’t been highlighted and preserved in the way that it should be for that amazing level of work. She’s just one person right off the top of my head.
FJO: There are tons of stories like that. So what can be done to safeguard your work so that it isn’t lost? Is that an issue for you?
KN: Maybe it’s not an issue about my work, but it’s an issue of education in general for composers, especially for female composers, for composers of color, and for composers who are working in non-mainstream ways. I think we have a crisis of education right now at all kinds of levels. When I was growing up and moving around, at every single school I went to in all these different towns that we lived in, I would choose a new instrument in the school band. So I learned a lot, not very well, but enough. But there are no school bands anymore. That’s not a part of public education.
FJO: Well, there actually are still quite a few really amazing school bands.
KN: Yeah, but it’s not automatic. It’s not seen as part of what we really need to be full human beings.
FJO: That’s definitely true, and it is unfortunate. But for the past two years I’ve attended the Midwest Clinic, which is a major event for wind bands and other community, school, and military ensembles. There were some amazing groups from high schools. Last year there was a string orchestra from a high school in Nevada that played Penderecki’s Threnody and it was incredible. But, sure, this isn’t happening everywhere. Music isn’t valued as much as it ought to be, and I think it’s a larger societal problem because one of the things that music teaches you is the lesson of listening, to get outside yourself and to actually pay attention to someone else’s thoughts. If you can’t get outside yourself, you’re just in an echo chamber, which is the zeitgeist now in part because we don’t learn how to listen to music in the same way.
KN: Or even doing it and making it together.
FJO: There’s a special kind of listening I think that comes when you’re making music with somebody else. You have to listen, especially in an improvisatory context. I want to talk about that in terms of the improvisatory projects you’ve done—both the duo with Monique Buzzarté and the more recent trio recording that came out last year with two musicians I hadn’t heard before. With projects like that, I imagine there’s a whole lot of listening to each other that has to go on in the moment. But before you go into the studio to create work like that, how much pre-planning is there? How much rehearsal?
KN: For the recording Parrhésie with flutist Ida Heidel and pianist Nusch Werchowska, we spent time listening together outside the recording studio and doing slow walks, opening up our ears to the environment and to each other. Then there were certain texts that we might say are an inspiration. Let’s use this for how we focus in, even if the improvisation didn’t contain a specific text. There were some where I’m singing text, but there are some where we had just taken a line and, okay, that’s what we’re going to all focus on. We’d spend a moment, and then we’d go. The pre-planning is different in different situations. With Monique and my work, some of the pieces were completely free in the moment and others had a structure that we had worked out, that had some things fixed in terms of motives or direction or that kind of thing.
FJO: So if you’re doing a tour to promote these albums, what do you do when people ask you to play what’s on the album? You can’t.
KN: Right, not really. But both on my solo album and on the ZANANA album, there are some pieces that we could do. It would be a little different, but they have a structure that is repeatable and you would recognize it as the same piece. But others were just created then and there.
FJO: Now what I found so interesting about the solo album is that in your program notes you described some tracks as being pre-existing electronic pieces that you just sang over when you mixed them in the studio. So they became something else in the moment. It’s a way of taking something that was fixed and permanent and making it more organic and alive.
KN: That’s interesting. I wasn’t thinking about it specifically like that. The voice is always flexible, but the tape—once you’ve got a sound file that’s a fixed sound file—it’s totally inflexible. It’s interesting to me to make a permeation, but also, when I’m working with pre-recorded sound files, I’m processing in the moment often with several files and choosing in that moment: Okay, I’m only going to use this little tiny bit of this file. Now I’m going to expand it to the whole thing. Now I’m going to pitch shift. Now I’m going to delay feedback—pretty basic processing tools, but everything is in the moment so it’s like drawing from a palette that I know. I know the sound files, and I’ll do it in a different mix the next time. It’s like cooking up a different stew.
FJO: At the heart of it all is a spirit of collaboration—even those solo pieces. What I found so interesting about the solo pieces is that you’re collaborating with yourself.
KN: Yeah, on the computer which sometimes gives me things that I’m surprised by, then I get to respond to what it’s given me.
FJO: This is me then; this is me now. You’re in a dialogue with yourself.
FJO: But it also erases this idea: Oh, I’m a composer and I create these masterpieces in my room; I’m not influenced by anybody, and these pieces are completely mine and now you must do what I wrote, for all eternity.
KN: But I have come to a combination of notated and improvised, and I’ve realized I actually have some specific ideas about the improvisation. So in the process of working with another performer, I either give instructions verbally, or I think now I need to add that to my instructions on the score because you’re improvising, but I didn’t really mean that.
FJO: So it’s possible that people can perform things wrong or incorrectly?
KN: It’s possible that they would perform things that aren’t in the range that I would prefer, and then I have to figure out how to re-articulate my preferences.
FJO: Now, to get back to this idea of collaboration. A lot of works—even many of your solo pieces—grew out of works that were collaborative to some extent, since they were created to be presented with film and dance.
KN: And theater.
FJO: You’ve done tons of work with Jill Sigman, who is somebody with a very similar aesthetic to yours. Her choreography really comes out of this idea of a raw physicality that is also somehow being altered. I’m thinking of Papoose, which I find wonderful and disturbing at the same time, because it’s doing things with a body that are obviously natural but also somewhat unexpected. It’s almost like what you do when you take your voice and then manipulate it electronically. It’s taking it to another space.
KN: Yeah. Totally. I learn from those collaborations a lot. It opens up ways of thinking about development and processing and contrasts.
FJO: A lot of your pieces don’t involve text, but when you do have a text, you’re also collaborating with the text.
FJO: Going all the way back to that early Emily Dickinson piece of yours again—those words already existed. But you’re adding something to them which theoretically brings certain things out and it also becomes something else in the process. It’s sort of an involuntary collaboration, since she’s not around to collaborate with. Similarly in Nothing Proved, the piece you wrote for Parthenia that you’re in the studio recording this week, you worked with texts by Elizabeth I before she was a queen. Once again, she had no say in the music you composed, since she’s been dead for hundreds of years. But because she wrote that text, it ties your hands in terms of what you can do.
KN: Yes, it does, certainly rhythmically. Well, you could consciously go against the rhythm of speech in terms of accents on syllables, but then it’s going to have a particular effect that you’re ac-cen-ting other sy-lla-bles. I like to keep the intelligibility of the text. Usually there’s something in a particular text that I choose that is already giving me melodic content. I’m hearing some beginning of a motive right away. I have no idea where it comes from. My piece Elegy: for Gaza is from a poem by Timothy O’Donnell; I read that poem in The Nation on the 1 train and it was already singing to me. So I had to do this. I had to find out who this guy is, write to him, and get his permission. There are pieces like that that just jump out. Then, there are other times, like in the opera, where there are certain places I had that relationship but there are also other places where I had to find ways to include a text because it’s important to further the story, or it’s part of the relationship of the characters, and so I had to find a way to deal with a lot more text than I’m usually dealing with in a song cycle or a single work with text.
FJO: With your opera The Trials of Patricia Isasa, you’re dealing with something else as well.
KN: A living person.
FJO: And a true story.
FJO: A really horrible story that has, I don’t know if I’d call it a happy ending, but at least some resolution.
KN: A victorious ending.
FJO: You said earlier that at first you conceived of a piece for voice and a trashed piano and then it evolved into an opera. I’m curious about that transformation, but also how you first became acquainted with Patricia Isasa’s story and what made you want to create music inspired by it.
KN: I’m going to tell you the long story.
FJO: I love long stories.
KN: As the eldest child of two political scientists, I have always been interested in politics and events in the world. Politics was in our house all the time. So I’ve always been aware and my music has been very centered in wherever we are as a society. But after 9/11 it became even more so. I did a lot of pieces where I felt like I had to give expression to where we are going and why we invaded a country based on lies, why this stuff is happening and there’s no accountability. One of my big pieces that I did in Oslo was a multimedia piece that came out of my disgust over Abu Ghraib and the whole situation with renditions, the kidnapping of people from all kinds of places and sending them off to black sites. And my question was: How is it that Western Europe and North America and all these other nations are going along with this? How does it happen that populations are sucked into agreeing to these policies that are obviously abhorrent and against international law? I researched the torture memos. I started looking at all of the work that the Center for Constitutional Rights was doing. I got a lot of information about what was going on. That piece was a collaboration with Jill, another dancer in Norway, actors, a sculptor, and some other musicians in Europe. At the end of that piece, I felt I knew a lot about torture and wasn’t done with it. It wasn’t enough to explore what it is about us that makes us drawn into groupthink. Was there somewhere I could explore how we see accountability? I was keeping my eyes and ears open for a potential subject.
At some point, I was thinking I wanted to do a piece on Chelsea Manning, but it was before the trial, so it wasn’t a finished story. It was in process. Then in 2010, I heard an interview with Patricia Isasa on Democracy Now where she was recounting her recent victory, in December 2009—successfully prosecuting and convicting six powerful people in Argentina who had been part of renditions, torture, and murder during the Dirty Wars of the military dictatorship. Her case had come 33 years after her abduction. I thought, “Wow, that’s amazing!” Her spirit, her strength of character—she had so much energy, so much conviction, and she got a conviction! So I was inspired by that. I found her website and I wrote to her. And I got a response. The next thing we were writing back and forth. At that point, I didn’t know it was going to be an opera, but I knew I wanted to work with her story somehow. She was coming to New York, and I said, “Come and let’s talk.” And she ended up staying with me. For several days, we just talked and talked and I recorded interviews. Then I started trying to work with those interviews.
At a certain point, I realized that this really is such a big story and such a difficult topic, so it really needs an excellent writer to put this together. So then I was going through who I knew—what plays do I know? I liked the work of Naomi Wallace very much, but I’d never met her. But again, I took cold contact with her through her publisher. She ended up agreeing to a workshop period that I was able to organize in Oslo with a retired dramaturg from the Norwegian [National] Opera. No strings attached. I said, “We’ll work for a week; if we can get something together and we hit it off, we’ll take it further. If we don’t, we all go off and do our own thing.” And she was very generous. It was an amazing process. We came away from the first week with a rough idea of the course that we wanted to look at. We fleshed out what we wanted to center on in the storytelling. I came away with several aria-type texts, and I wrote three character studies. Those three character studies were done by Ensemble Pi; they ended up in the opera pretty much as is. Then the process of working with Naomi over the next year on the full text was great, and it went from there.
FJO: It was very fortuitous that it was staged in Montreal last year during OPERA America’s annual conference, which will hopefully lead to more productions of it in the future. I wish I could have been there for that, but luckily the company put a video recording of the whole thing online which also hopefully will get more people excited about it.
KN: Thank you.
FJO: One of the things I find so fascinating about the opera, and I say this in a positive way, is that in some ways it’s your most conventional piece.
KN: Yes, it is.
FJO: But there’s also something that’s very unconventional about it—the main character is actually three different roles. There are three Patricias. There’s Patricia, the 16-year old who’s abducted. There’s the Patricia of the near present, who manages to get a conviction of these people. And those are two different singing roles on stage, and they even sing duets with each other.
KN: The inner self that is propelling you forward to do something. When Naomi had the first draft of the libretto finished, I went to Argentina and read it through for Patricia. We sat on a roof in Buenos Aires. Where I had little bits of motives, I sang; otherwise, I just read. That was really, really interesting. There were some things that she made comments about, but she could totally relate to this thing of having the two characters. That was good to have her blessing. She had come to one workshop in Oslo, too, before that first draft was finished.
FJO: And then there’s a third Patricia. She’s in the opera as herself as well. In addition to the two singers on stage, documentary footage of the real Patricia’s image and voice is projected to the audience. That definitely makes the story seem more real and more impactful. But there’s also the impact of the actual music, which sounds very different from a lot of your music. There are Argentinian elements in it—tango-ish sounds at times, a bandoneón.
KN: That was partly in response to the text and the subject and partly that I knew I wanted to work with these instruments that would locate it geographically and timewise. I felt like I needed to use the instruments, but I needed to meet them on my own terms. I didn’t want to imitate tangos, but I do have a tango-inspired section in the courtroom because it felt like a dance. It’s a court theater. I listened to a lot of tango and a lot of nuevo tango. I also listened to a lot of other Argentine composers, especially composers that were working with the sounds of Buenos Aires.
FJO: There’s a big debate these days in the visual art community about who has the right to tell someone else’s story. There’s been a huge brouhaha over this abstract painting by Dana Schutz inspired by the famous photo of Emmett Till’s open coffin that’s in the Whitney Biennial. Then there was an installation sculpture that recreated a scaffold that was the site of a massacre of Native Americans that was being set up at the Walker in Minneapolis but was later removed and destroyed with the consent of the artist after protests from members of the Dakota tribe. In our current climate, it’s possible that someone might question a North American’s desire to create a work based on this Latin American story.
KN: I think it’s very much our story because the U.S. was behind the whole Operation Condor that supported all those dictatorships. That comes out in certain places in the opera. The Ford factory was encouraging the military dictatorship to impose certain economic policies, and they used the Ford factory as a place for torture. So it’s very much an American story. My feeling and Naomi Wallace’s feeling was that when we look back at a story about this historical period—and it’s not that far back because 2009, when she got a conviction, is very close—it’s a way of saying this is what happened there and this is what could happen here.
For me, the important part was the accountability part because my concern for us as a nation is that we have had no accountability for an invasion of another country that was based on lies and no accountability for torture. The torture and war programs that are committed in all of our names are also related to our prison industrial complex, our mass incarceration, the fact that it’s only been 50 years since we dismantled the legal apartheid system of Jim Crow in this country. I was ten-years old when interracial marriage was finally legal. That’s crazy. People have been working to try to dismantle that ever since, and that’s the period we’re in now. We’re in the backlash period. We have to look with a big historical overview to see how to deal with those effects and issues with some kind of accountability. That, for me, was the story. And that is our story. That, plus Patricia was involved in the whole thing. So it’s our collective story.