Susie Ibarra: Hybrid Culture
Susie Ibarra’s collaborative approach has informed her work with jazz, classical, indie rock, and traditional Philippine musicians.
A week before I finally had a chance to have an extended conversation with multi-genre composer and percussionist Susie Ibarra, she performed at Roulette–her first concert with a group in front of a live audience since the pandemic shut everything down around the world. To say it has been a challenging 16 months for everyone is a tremendous understatement, but for Ibarra–whose artistry has been so deeply shaped by collaborations with other musicians–it could have proven stifling. And yet, this strange period has been remarkably productive for her.
Thus far this year, she has released two albums. First, Talking Gong, a spellbinding New Music USA-funded debut album of her new poly-stylistic trio with Claire Chase and Alex Peh. Then Walking on Water, a deeply moving homage to the victims of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsumani created in collaboration with visual artist Makoto Fujimura which uses the sounds of water as a central musical element. Both of these albums were recorded in studios over the course of last summer as COVID-19 cases were raging; musicians were tested before each session, remained masked whenever they could, and maintained physical distances. Susie Ibarra was also able to continue another strand of her output, her remarkable series of solo percussion explorations. An extraordinary performance she gave in a surreally empty hall at William Paterson College back in February is thankfully still available to stream. And a few months before that, in December 2020, she launched the Composers Now Impact series of composer presentations with a fascinating audio-video stream about her music.
Obviously we talked about these unprecedented times in which we are still living; it’s pretty much impossible not to talk about it. But we also talked about a wide range of other topics during the hour we spent together over Zoom. The very first time I ever heard Susie Ibarra, she was part of the legendary David S. Ware Quartet alongside Matt Shipp and William Parker. So I was eager to find out more about how she found herself in her 20s as part of this legendary free jazz quartet as an equal partner in what many aficionados consider to be some of the most enduring music of the late 1990s. I was also curious to learn more about her stint playing with the New Jersey indie rock band Yo La Tengo and the collaborative improvisatory trio Mephista she performed in with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and laptop artist Ikue Mori.
We were all just happy to be in the room and back into our practice of attending or performing concerts. I really missed that a lot.
Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
I played that performance the day before one of my dear mentors passed away. Milford Graves passed the next afternoon. I had a kind of spiritual visit from him while I was playing and in one piece, I ended up playing some rhythms that he had directly taught me.
Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
Putting gender to instruments has always been a strange thing for me, ‘cause it has affected all of us as human beings. And it’s all these inanimate objects that we culturally have put gender on.
Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
When I hear younger generations, and their voices, and how they’re able to voice this politically right now, and socially, I’m really happy and hopeful. In my generation, I think there are certain things that just weren’t even touched or addressed.
Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
It wasn’t that I was buying albums. I had some, but I wasn’t a giant collector. I wanted to go to the live performances.
Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
I was just so happy playing music. It's the best way to keep growing and learning.
Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
Sometimes when we were playing pieces, you don’t know who’s making what sounds. I love that actually, ‘cause we were all really integrated in playing that music in the moment.
Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
It was never like: "Susie, you can’t do this because you’re a woman." I didn’t come from that culture. So I feel really lucky. … But I certainly got schooled on how society saw it.
Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
I grew up with a hybrid culture. So it’s what I know. I don’t know anything otherwise. … I love that aesthetic that everybody has their own thing that’s really special and it’s different.
Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
I love rehearsals in any situation. It’s great when you get a lot of players that just want to play, and we want to play and see how it’s going to grow.
Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
At one point, I was living the winters in the Philippines. It was like having two lives.
Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
We felt that particularly with water rhythms, listening to climate change, we are personally inviting the listener in to have a more personal experience and to connect, because everybody’s had a connection to water.
Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
An undercurrent that runs throughout Susie Ibarra’s career trajectory is that many of the activities she was engaging in–performing in genres such as free jazz, particularly as a drummer–were unusual for a woman back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Her memories about that era were particularly illuminating:
“Having been a young musician, I definitely went through it, like with the naivete of all of a sudden having to wake up to that–wow, oh, the world is like this. Because I was raised by a very strong mother. She was a doctor and grew up in World War II in Manila. She’s very bright. She skipped three grades. She graduated from med school when she was 22. It was never like: ‘Susie, you can’t do this because you’re a woman.’ I didn’t come from that culture. So I was really lucky. Really lucky. Because in that particular style, whatever genre of jazz it is, it’s very socially difficult to a point where you think: Well, I can be empathetic and supportive to issues that are going on, but I also know that what my life path is is different than other people who are born into their life paths. So I also can’t just take on giant, heavy stones on my back that are not going to serve a purpose or be useful for anything. So initially, I think I just loved so much a lot of this music and playing, and I was also raised in a certain way. I didn’t see it that way. But I certainly got schooled on how society saw it. And then it’s the question of: do I want to accept that, or do I want to not accept that.”
Another thing that has given her tremendous strength and perseverance has been her immersion into her Philippine heritage. As she would later learn when she began to spend time absorbing the myriad musical practices in the Philippines, percussion instruments were traditionally played by women. So the way that cultures have gendered certain musical instruments is by no means universal. However, being born in California, raised in Houston, and coming of age as an artist in New York City, no single cultural force has exclusively shaped her approach to making music.
“I grew up with a hybrid culture, so it’s what I know,” she explains. “I don’t know anything otherwise. … I love that aesthetic that everybody has their own thing that’s really special and it’s different.”
Read the Full Transcript
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Susie Ibarra
June 18, 2021—Noon EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: You actually had a live concert last week with a group of people. You were performing, and there was an audience there.
Susie Ibarra: Really wonderful, right? I was in shock at first, to stand up and greet them. We talked about it with the ensemble: “We were going to play a non-stop program. I guess I’ll be talking to audiences that are in the same room with me. I don’t know how emotional I might get about that.” I did a bit, but it was fine. It was shocking in a wonderful way, but it was shocking. Here are we all together, and they were so attentive, so kind. We were all just happy to be in the room and back into our practice of attending or performing concerts. I really missed that a lot.“We were all just happy to be in the room and back into our practice of attending or performing concerts. I really missed that a lot.”
FJO: I’ve been talking to a lot of people about this as we’re slowly transitioning back. There are things about the last year–it’s almost a year and half–that have been very challenging, but there are also things that have been very good, music-wise. It’s great that you can now see and hear performances that are happening all over the world. You can experience it live, as it were, but it’s also there after the fact. I wasn’t able to be at the Roulette performance that you gave last week, but I watched it on Roulette TV. And I saw it, and I heard it, and you know, this is incredible.
FJO: I hope that that continues. Obviously, Roulette was doing Roulette TV before the pandemic; they have a tradition of making their live performances available to the world through the internet. But a lot of other people haven’t and maybe now this will be something that people do regularly.
SI: To have it also live streamed and archived.
SI: I think the one thing for Roulette is that they could archive really well. Everything’s being archived well and I think that’s a plus.
FJO: While this was your first performance with an audience, obviously the new album, the Talking Gong album, you were all recording in the studio last summer, during the height of the pandemic, July 2020. I’m curious what that experience was like.
SI: Very special to be able to do that together in the heights of the pandemic. We were in a hall here at SUNY New Paltz, which seats about 500 people. So it was a large stage. So we decided to record in the hall, and the piano’s very good in the hall, too. And then I brought in an engineer, Eli Crews, and he brought all his gear in. So it was just the three of us. Eli recording and then, Tony Cenicola was taking photos for the album. Those are the only people that were in that hall. I was also set up on the ground where the audience was. There was a piano up on the stage. And then Claire on flute was on my left. So we were pretty spread out. Obviously when we weren’t playing, we were masked. And then also the two tech crew. But it was just us in this hall. And we had tested before coming in. I think we were very fortunate to be able to do that.
FJO: Yeah, it’s amazing. You might have been physically separated in the studio, but it sounds like any chamber recording where people are all together and they’re interacting with each other and there’s a real kind of camaraderie in terms of the sounds that are happening. Obviously, Claire, as a player of a wind instrument can’t mask up, and the most dangerous instruments are wind instruments and our voices. It’s terrible that these things that are so precious, and that mean so much to us, have now become potentially life threatening.
SI: When the album released, we did another film recording of certain pieces. And I think just before, between that time when we had recorded the album, we’d had another kind of wave in the pandemic, so we were still socially distanced in this hall, but at that time, even performing, Alex and I on piano and percussion, we were masked, and Claire was not masked. When it was a solo piece, we were unmasked. But everybody else, also the tech, it was like two tech people and in a very large space, just having everybody testing, making sure that everybody was testing right before coming in with it. That’s what we have to do now.
FJO: Yeah. It’s extraordinary. That was last summer. That was before there were vaccines available. Everything keeps changing. I’m delighted that you released it on LP. But now that we’re in this new era, we want to avoid anything that’s physical, ‘cause anything could be contaminated. Hopefully we’re getting past that. But, in between those things and before this live performance that just happened last week, you also were able to do a solo performance at William Paterson College.
FJO: That’s one of the few things that musicians were able to do this last year, perform alone. That’s like the safest thing you can do.
SI: Payton McDonald, who’s a marimbist and in the percussion department there, invited me to come out and I also spoke with the students. Well, I spoke with the students later on Zoom.
SI: I came in for that recording of the performance, and again, we were set up, playing in these empty halls. It’s all set up, you think a concert’s going to happen, and it is. But it’s just a couple of people. They introduced me, and I played and spoke. That was it. I was just on stage, but nobody else in the audience. I feel it’s period music and period art, you know; I’m accepting that. And I always, if I’m in a situation that if I’m recording, performing, asking also the other performers, even though we’re starting to open up here, how comfortable are they. And that was one thing for Roulette, they were still under quota; We decided to limit the audience even more, and I wanted, honestly the performers to feel comfortable and not feel nervous in that way about being endangered with or endangering anyone, even though we’re all vaccinated and took COVID tests before this. We still have this feeling, right?
FJO: Of course. It’s gonna take a while for that to transition out. But, to the positive aspect, one of the things that struck me about the William Paterson gig which I thought was amazing, is it allowed me to see and hear you as a musician, as a creator in a different way. I’ve listened to all these recordings. I’m just hearing them; I’m not seeing them. And then when I’m seeing a performance, I’m in the audience, so I’m not like in front watching you do what you do. But it was just incredible to have the camera work on that and to see you seamlessly go from playing one of the drums in the drum kit with your hands, and then rubbing the surface, and then going to brushes, and then going to sticks. It was just this wonderful evolution of sound that you’ve probably done in other contexts, but I wasn’t cognizant of it because I was not able to experience it with that level of detail, which we now can have being able to see this thing.
SI: Oh, that’s wonderful.
FJO: I thought it was a great jumping off point because obviously the thing we want to talk about is music, not the coronavirus.
SI: I’m happy you heard and saw that. I felt really good coming out of that performance. Also, it’s very sentimental to me. I played that performance the day before one of my dear mentors passed away. Milford Graves passed the next afternoon. I had a kind of spiritual visit from him while I was playing and in one piece, I ended up playing some rhythms that he had directly taught me. I also got to share that with his wife afterwards. I was very happy when it happened. It was a very joyful feeling.“I played that performance the day before one of my dear mentors passed away. Milford Graves passed the next afternoon. I had a kind of spiritual visit from him while I was playing and in one piece, I ended up playing some rhythms that he had directly taught me.”
FJO: Wow, it’s so interesting ‘cause I heard Milford Graves; I actually did. You know this is amazing. I didn’t connect the dates; I obviously listened after it happened. I’m thinking to myself, what an unusual thing solo drum set is as an experience. I mean, you’ve certainly done several projects like that, but before that, there’ve been only a handful of examples. Max Roach’s Drums Unlimited. Ginger Baker did some solo percussion stuff, British rocker in the ’70s. And then Milford Graves. The melodies of the drums, bringing out all of that stuff: I totally heard that.
SI: Oh, that’s wonderful. It was a special moment. I’ve said this before. I always do, when I sit down at the drums, I meet him, because he’s one of my great mentors, and he was brilliant. So it’s a part of my language. A lot of a people studied with him, but I was very fortunate to study drums with him.
FJO: I wanna go all the way back. You were playing the piano when you were four-years-old.
SI: And also I sang in choir. Those were my first instruments. I didn’t start playing percussion until I was a teenager. Most of my siblings played piano and guitar and also sang. I think, pretty much all of us, except for one of my brothers. So there’s five of us.
SI: And my mother wasn’t a musician, but she was a serious aficionado, you know. She loved music and so she was the one who put me both in music and in visual art. And then I grew in Houston going to the opera with her ‘cause my mother loved opera. So I grew up going to the Houston Opera with my mom. I was a lucky one. I think all of it just kind of seeped in.
FJO: And actually, when you were there, that was when David Gockley was running the Houston Grand Opera, so you got to hear new operas, too. Right?
FJO: But also you played in punk rock bands.
SI: I did in high school. I sang in choirs in school and in church, and then we used to, in the community, host Philippine choirs that would come through. So I played piano and organ in church, and then I started playing drums when I was 16. And I got invited into this punk band and the only thing was that I couldn’t play on weeknights. I wasn’t allowed to play shows on the weeknights ‘cause it was school nights. Kind of makes sense, I mean, I think about that as a parent. It makes sense.
FJO: But in terms of the aesthetics, church choir and punk rock are total opposites.
SI: I know. It’s so funny.
FJO: Your family was okay with the punk rock?
SI: Yeah, I don’t think they knew to what extent the whole, you know, oh, Susie’s playing drums. I think if things were falling apart, they might question, what are you doing? But yeah, I was just playing music.
FJO: Now you mentioned Philippine groups coming in at that point, but this is before any of your immersion into traditional Philippine music, I imagine.
SI: Yeah, This is before. This was all choral music, so we would have choirs come through. I don’t think I ever saw a kulintang gong instrument until I was at my uncle’s. Also as a teenager. And then in New York, I had played in three gong ensembles. That was really important to me sonically. It’s interesting. When I was also studying on drum set, there were certain sounds that I heard and then where I gravitated to, but then when I would go to the studies, I was obviously studying a lot of the sounds that I wasn’t hearing naturally, because maybe my palate in there was much more metal. Metal–brass and copper; also bamboo. But how to move more onto the skins than the wood in certain things? Just how to bring those elements together. I thought I would go to certain teachers at that time to study sounds that I was gravitating to, and it would be completely opposite from what my ear wasn’t yet hearing.
FJO: We talk about mentors and looking for role models for things, I’m thinking about how unprecedented it is to feature a drum set as a soloist, or alone. But the other thing that’s unusual, now less so, but certainly 25 years ago more unusual, is having a female drummer behind a drum kit. But I know you’ve talked about in Philippine tradition that the men traditionally play the strings, and the women play the percussive instruments, which is the opposite of so many world cultures. But you weren’t aware of that yet.
SI: I wasn’t aware of that until I was a young adult. I think Korea has some of that. They have specific percussion music that’s more women specific. But this literally was from a matriarchal society. Putting gender to instruments has always been a strange thing for me, ‘cause it has affected all of us as human beings. And it’s all these inanimate objects that we culturally have put gender on, and I’ve thought about this for years, how strange it is. You know, it depends on the lens you’re looking or listening at it from culturally will put a gender on instruments. It affects us.“Putting gender to instruments has always been a strange thing for me, ’cause it has affected all of us as human beings. And it’s all these inanimate objects that we culturally have put gender on.”
FJO: Certainly the way it plays out in various genres. You were playing punk rock; there are very few examples of women drummers. You know, the Velvet Underground.
SI: Right, right.
FJO: In the early ‘80s Ikue Mori began her career as a drummer in DNA with Arto Lindsay, but there are very few role models aside from all-girl bands, and then in jazz, even less so.
SI: Here in the U.S., I feel hopeful for the younger generations. And hopeful about all of these very difficult issues on gender and race and how it’s playing out. It could be in a moment for change. Hard change. So when I hear younger generations, and their voices, and how they’re able to voice this politically right now, and socially, I’m really happy and hopeful. In my generation, I think there are certain things that just weren’t even touched or addressed because there were still other things which is loads of problems. And not being able to find how to connect with others who may be feeling like “the other,” or minorities, or so forth where I think we have a moment, especially with all this technology, we can connect today.“When I hear younger generations, and their voices, and how they’re able to voice this politically right now, and socially, I’m really happy and hopeful. In my generation, I think there are certain things that just weren’t even touched or addressed.”
So that is different, right? I mean, sometimes it’s tired because we think, wow, things haven’t really changed. We have the same problems. This has been going on forever; it’s really exhausting. But I think with the way we are interconnected right now, it is a possibility. And I would have made different choices probably, how I would have addressed things than how I would deal with things earlier.
FJO: Well you leapt right in, or so it seems.
SI: Oh, that’s kind. I also decided to move in directions, ‘cause I just really wanted to be able to create great music and be around people who wanted to create music and art and not be a token that was politicized for other people’s ways, for them to write the stories of what is socially going on. I just wanted to create music and art. So I thought, I need to gravitate with like-minded people who are putting that first.
FJO: So the story of you getting aware of jazz, growing up jazz wasn’t really a part of your world. I heard this story somewhere. I’d love to hear your version, of being a college student at Sarah Lawrence and going to a Sun Ra Arkestra gig.
SI: I first heard jazz, though, in Houston. Thelonious Monk was probably the first artist I heard that was a jazz artist that really made my head turn. It’s like: what’s that? Who’s that? And I went to my drum teacher and I said who’s this? My mother liked mostly classical music, but she also and my dad liked big band music, old school big band music, so I did hear that or some of the singers that my dad was big fan of–Nat King Cole. So thinking about Sun Ra and how he was connected to Fletcher Henderson and that’s also big band; Sun Ra was big band music. I didn’t connect that ‘til we’re talking about this now, Frank, actually that it is connected with me listening to music of my parents, ‘cause they loved big band. And when I was young, they visited, I was able to bring them to a show, and they met him, and they met one of my former drum teachers at a show. It was a wild show. They had Brazilian fire jugglers; we were in this club that I think was called Indigo Blue. And we had gone to see a Broadway play. We had gone to see Tony Randall play M. Butterfly.
SI: And then we went afterwards to see Sun Ra at this club, and I swear there maybe was like ten of us in the audience. My parents and I are hanging out, sitting right there and all the performers and June [Tyson] came out singing and Sun Ra playing, and these Brazilian fire jugglers. They loved it because their first port of entry in from the Philippines was the Bronx. They used to live in the Bronx. They were interns. They were physicians and they used to go down to Harlem to listen to music. I remember I had a book by Art Taylor Notes and Tones, and my dad had picked it up. “Is so and so still around? Is so and so still around?” That’s when I knew: oh, they were going out to the shows. I just didn’t think about that. My young parents in their early ‘20s, going to Harlem listening to these shows when they just immigrated to the States. It’s such a fun thing to think about.
FJO: Well the thing that I think about with Sun Ra and making the connection with you is yeah, it’s big band. It totally comes out of Fletcher Henderson. In fact there are some earlier albums of the Arkestra, like Sound Sun Pleasure, where it’s really kind of trad swing.
SI: Oh, I love that album.
FJO: But then, he does this thing where the music gets liberated; it gets liberated because of the percussion. Suddenly the percussion is this whole world, and it isn’t just a drummer. It’s a section. You know, often there’ll be several percussionists. Often he’ll have members who play other instruments suddenly play percussion and it’s about this whole universe of sounds.
SI: Also that he was one of the first to bring in the Moog synthesizer within this kind of style with the piano. And what he did with that was so ground breaking. I had heard Sun Ra on like a Disney album. They had done a cover of “Pink Elephants.”
FJO: That’s right!
SI: So I had heard “Pink Elephants,” and they were coming to Houston. They were going to play at the Miller Outdoor Theater, and I missed the show. Maybe less than two years later, I’m in New York. And I’m studying, and I convinced three of my friends to come out with me into New York City to Sweet Basil’s to hear Sun Ra Arkestra. I wanted to hear it live. They fit in this small club; the whole orchestra fit on stage. It was not a big stage in that club, and you know, of course, they came out, and they were in all of their performance costumes, and it was magical. I thought I was just going to leave after, but I ended up talking to the drummer of Sun Ra. I don’t know how because I was not a very outgoing person at all. Definitely not. It’s like something I’ve had to learn to be later in my life and being a parent, but I was a very, very quiet person. Somehow I talked to the drummer and for a while, I started studying with Earl Buster Smith and he used to play with Oscar Peterson.
SI: I think New York gave this to me early on because you really could go to so many live venues and hear many of the masters in the style that I had a foundation of being able to hear this live. It wasn’t that I was buying albums. I had some, but I wasn’t a giant collector. I wanted to go to the live performances.“It wasn’t that I was buying albums. I had some, but I wasn’t a giant collector. I wanted to go to the live performances.”
FJO: How did you get connected to William Parker?
SI: So I was invited. I moved to studying at Mannes. He was starting an orchestra, which is the Little Huey Orchestra. He was just starting it. Or I’m wondering if he was re-starting it. I wonder if he had any iterations of it prior. I don’t know.
FJO: But you’re on his first album as a leader with that orchestra.
SI: Oh, okay.
FJO: So that was the beginning. They might have played live before, but they certainly didn’t document it.
SI: In my memory, they were just starting it. So I was invited to rehearsals downtown. I basically would come down after class, from uptown to downtown when Mannes was on 85th and then I would do rehearsals, and back a ton of horn players. And William had a regular gig at CBGB’s gallery, so we used to play weekly there. It was really fun to have a weekly gig in New York with a large band. And I ended up playing in a couple of ensembles with William. I think we were like the rhythm section in seven bands.
FJO: The very first time I became aware of you was on this amazing album Go See the World, the David S. Ware Quartet, which is one of the great ensembles. It’s four incredible musicians. You, Matt Shipp, William Parker, and obviously the now sadly late David S. Ware, but that record is a watershed album in so many ways. ‘Cause it’s like this free group, but it’s on a mainstream label, so it was distributed all over the place. What you did as a quartet on “The Way We Were,” to my ears, is akin to what John Coltrane and his quartet did with “My Favorite Things.” It’s that level of music making.
SI: David had such a sound. Wow. it was really powerful, really big, and tremendous and I kind of flew, I moved through the music. That was a special album.
FJO: There you were in this quartet of these giants of music; you were just starting your career and you’re an equal partner with them.
SI: I was just so happy playing music. It’s the best way to keep growing and learning. I was really a sponge just where I loved to play, and wanted to play all the time. I still feel that way, but it expresses differently. It expresses differently in different times in my life, so it manifests differently. That was very physical, wanting to be on the stage all the time.“I was just so happy playing music. It’s the best way to keep growing and learning.”
FJO: Something very different from that that you did soon thereafter is you were invited in by the indie rock band, Yo La Tengo, to be part of several of their albums. So I’m wondering you know, how did happen?
SI: They love jazz and experimental jazz and free jazz. So they very much loved the aesthetic. I came in to play to percussion with them. I’d just play small percussion. I also came in and played timpani on one piece like a bass. I played these kettledrums that Butch Morris gave me and that Gil Evans had given him.
FJO: Wow, talk about a lineage.
SI: They’re now housed in Spillway Sound with Eli Crews. So they’re being played; it’s important that these keep being played. But they have the old style, so I was playing like bass lines on that.
FJO: That’s amazing. So the pedal doing a bass line?
SI: Yeah. I studied some vibraphone with Warren Smith early on, but I really wished I had studied timpani with him. I don’t know if you’ve heard him play his walking bass lines in M’Boom.
FJO: Back to Max Roach again who really brought out the melodies of drums;, it’s melodic playing. There’s often this ridiculous thing people say, drums are unpitched. It’s so stupid. Right?
SI: I know. Thank you, Frank. Thank you. Who decided on that for the vocabulary?
FJO: Another early group I want to talk about with you a little bit before we talk about your own projects is Mephista, because Mephista was another one of these equal meeting of the minds with you, Sylvie Courvoisier and Ikue Mori, who was originally a drummer, but then was one of the first laptop virtuosas. It’s interesting to compare that with the David S. Ware Quartet. On the one hand, you had this group of all towering equal musicians, but in the service of David S. Ware’s sound and vision, and his compositions mostly. Whereas, with Mephista, you’re all collaboratively creating music together.
SI: Yes. Those are my dear old friends. We were playing music for a long time, and they’re tremendous. They’re maestras, both of them Sylvie and Ikue. That was like a super group for improvisation. We did have also certain conceptual composition pieces, but we also did a lot of improvisation together. Sometimes when we were playing pieces, you don’t know who’s making what sounds. I love that actually, ‘cause we were all really integrated in playing that music in the moment. Was she playing that? Was I playing that? Who’s playing that?“Sometimes when we were playing pieces, you don’t know who’s making what sounds. I love that actually, ’cause we were all really integrated in playing that music in the moment.”
FJO: In terms of the dynamics, in the David S. Ware Quartet, you’re the only woman. Right?
FJO: And then in Mephista, it’s all women.
FJO: Did that make a difference? Should it make a difference?
SI: It does make a difference. I think those dynamics and politics are still here, even though that was in an earlier time. And Sylvia and Ikue are dear friends. We’re overdue to play. But it does make a difference. I think so many directions I could go with discussing that question. I’m not sure which direction we would jump into, ‘cause everything kind of floods at the same time. Does that make a difference? Does gender make a difference? What do you mean by the question?
FJO: I’m not sure what I mean, because part of me doesn’t want it to make a difference. We want to get past all of this stuff.
SI: We’re not, though.
FJO: No, of course not. And we certainly weren’t 20 years ago, but I wonder because one group, even though you’re all master players, had a sort of hierarchy to it. It was the David S. Ware Quartet. Whereas, Mephista, by even that name alone, it wasn’t any one of yours; it was collectively led. So that’s a different kind of thing. But also, you’d obviously already done with stuff with William Parker, so you had a connection there.
FJO: But you were a relatively young player at that point. Even though you sound like equals when you hear the recording, obviously there are hierarchies; whereas, with Mephista, there weren’t. Or at least I don’t hear them. And I love how you say you can’t tell whose making what sound, and that’s what’s so exciting. In the back of my head when you’re saying, “Oh we need to play together again,” I’m like: please do it on video so I can tell who’s playing what.
SI: Yeah. I’m sure there will be a video, now that we’re moving into this new era. These are really great questions. I think the way that you word them allows me to think about these moments in my personal history in different ways that I maybe haven’t had a reflection, so I do enjoy being able to articulate it with you. I haven’t always articulated a lot of things that may be been really politically loaded. You know? Having been a young musician, I definitely went through it, like with the naivete of all of a sudden having to wake up to that, wow, oh, the world is like this. Because I was raised by a very strong mother.“It was never like: ‘Susie, you can’t do this because you’re a woman.’ I didn’t come from that culture. So I feel really lucky. … But I certainly got schooled on how society saw it.”
She was a doctor and grew up in World War II in Manila. She’s very bright. She skipped three grades. She graduated from med school when she was 22. It was never like: “Susie, you can’t do this because you’re a woman.” I didn’t come from that culture. So I was really lucky. Really lucky. Because in that particular style, whatever genre of jazz it is, it’s very socially difficult to a point where you think: Well, I can be empathetic and supportive to issues that are going on, but I also know that what my life path is is different than other people who are born into their life paths. So I also can’t just take on giant, heavy stones on my back that are not going to serve a purpose or be useful for anything. So initially, I think I just loved so much a lot of this music and playing, and I was also raised in a certain way. I didn’t see it that way. But I certainly got schooled on how society saw it. And then it’s the question of: do I want to accept that, or do I want to not accept that.
FJO: Right. But in terms of comfort levels, were there things that you felt you were able to do? Were there risks that you were able to take, maybe with Mephista that you couldn’t necessarily do in the context of the David S. Ware Quartet? Maybe there weren’t. I don’t know.
FJO: Musically. Yeah.
SI: I don’t think I thought about it that way. Because I’m playing with different musicians. I’m really kind of thinking in the moment, what do I need to play to create this music in the moment with these people in the room? And it’s always different. Even if you think you’re playing the same piece of music, if different musicians come in, even if it’s the same musicians and you’re playing the same music, it’s going to be different every night. But these are different musicians. Different music. Different bands.
So I’m not really comparing. Maybe if I was comparing another trio that had a certain aesthetic and instrumentation, or another quartet that had a similar instrumentation and aesthetic of that quartet, then I think maybe a comparison would have come in. But they’re really different. I was aware of that and how both Sylvie and Ikue are very special. Ikue’s vocabulary, and Sylvie and I being acoustic instruments and coming from different traditions, that I would purposefully not play certain musical references for Mephista. That was really not about jazz. I always put these limitations on myself of which vocabulary I was going to jump out of to not bring it into something that would maybe not be compatible with the other aesthetic of the other artists.
I really never talked about it. I’m kind of sensitive and knew that we were creating so that would happen in different ensembles. I know that certain moments, I want to bring out this vocabulary ‘cause I can hear it. And other vocabulary for other musicians that I’m playing with or other bandleaders or composer’s works. And then what’s really great is when you come into a situation, whether it’s at an equal collaboration or if I’m playing a composer’s work, that they can bring entirely new sounds. So Ryuichi Sakamoto is a composer that can get that out of me in the studio. I feel very lucky like that I can come in and not just play my vocabulary differently, actually come out playing totally new things that I never played.
FJO: Where I wanted to take it, which is why I wanted to spend so much time talking about this, is I think that collaborative aspect and you wanting to bring out what the other musicians are doing is something that transfers over to things that you’ve created, ensembles you’ve led, things under your leadership, and compositions that you’ve written. What strikes me is how you put musicians together in ensembles who come from totally different backgrounds, then bring out what they’re able to do from the traditions they come from, but then take it to places where none of you have been. Or to take it to something else you know, Obviously the new group, Talking Gong: two musicians come out of contemporary classical music practice, which is a very different world than the improvisatory realm of jazz and free jazz. But even before that the trio that you had with Craig Taborn and Jenny Choi. He’s coming out of the jazz world. She’s coming out of classical music. And then the three of you perform together, and it’s not classical, and it’s not jazz. You’re having them do Philippine traditional stuff. I’m thinking of Folkloriko which has just such a wonderful range of stuff that’s beyond the experience of any of these musicians, but they took it and made it their own through what you did.
SI: Oh, that’s wonderful. I’ve always had an affinity to have these virtuoso musicians that come from their crafts, but are different. I’ve grown up in a hybrid world. I grew up having my parents and siblings as immigrants, and I was born here in California; I grew up with a hybrid culture. So it’s what I know. Right? I don’t know anything otherwise, and perhaps that’s why it’s affected culturally my music, but I love that aesthetic that everybody has their own thing that’s really special and it’s different. What does it sound like when we’re trying to create some music together? That sound, I’m not gonna get that from a classical violinist. That’s gonna come from her background. Right? If I bring a violinist from a different tradition, it’s not gonna have that same sound. And vice versa.“I grew up with a hybrid culture. So it’s what I know. I don’t know anything otherwise. … I love that aesthetic that everybody has their own thing that’s really special and it’s different.”
FJO: So, in terms of the strengths, obviously people with a background in western classical music come out of a score-based tradition. They’re used to getting notated music on a page and the more articulation marks on it the better. Everything has to be very precisely fixed. Whereas, people coming out of jazz, maybe you’ll get a chart, but you’re expected to bring your own interpretation to it. And then, people coming out of folk traditions, that music is passed around orally to each other. Those are all very, very different learning modalities. Rehearsal modalities. So I wonder in process, when you’re composing, how much of it is writing? how much of it is interpretation? How much is improvisatory. Are Jenny Choi and Claire Chase improvising on these things?
SI: Yes. They are tremendous improvisers, so also, to break that taboo, you know that classical musicians can be tremendous improvisers. We know that’s it’s not schooled for them. Whereas in jazz, that’s very much in the school. So how they arrive there is amazing. I mean Claire is a phenomenal improviser. I think that regardless of the background that the musicians that I am also currently playing with, ensembles, they’re also really wonderful improvisers. So it depends. For example with Fragility Etudes that I just premiered and finished–a four-year work! It was a new iteration of it into a music film that Yuka C. Honda magically filmed and directed, as well as she’s one of the star soloists. They’re all very different musicians, especially two electronic musicians: Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe and Yuka Honda. So my scores for them, or their solos are very different and how they read certain motifs when they do conduction pieces is different than what I give to the acoustic instrumentalists.“I love rehearsals in any situation. It’s great when you get a lot of players that just want to play, and we want to play and see how it’s going to grow.”
And even the aural side of it, the necessity when you bring this hybrid experience, the necessity for rehearsals. I love rehearsals in any situation. It’s great when you get a lot of players that just want to play, and we want to play and see how it’s going to grow. We were in a one-week residency on Claire’s project. She had invited us into The Witness by Pauline Oliveros. So we were also rehearsing for our program, for our concert last week, and we were recording in all of these amazing nature spaces. So the music just kept getting better and better.
FJO: Yeah, the other half of that question then is how much is pre-notated?
SI: Okay. Um, let me think. So for example with Fragility Etudes, these are studies in rhythm. So with electronic musicians, having them play these polyrhythms, part of it is graphic and numbers. And so I am giving them measures and stuff, and then I give them these phrases, and then I give the freedom to how they want to interpret it. So I don’t want to dictate ‘cause they also have to program and move through it differently. If I have a full ensemble score, and I’m conducting it, they can’t just come in like acoustic musicians can come in. There are certain things they may have to set, pre-program, to bring in. So that can be very stressful for them. I know also on the ensemble’s part, for conducting, that there’s certain motifs that are gonna work with electronic musicians. And then sometimes going to ask them to enter as a soloist and improvise with that, there are certain phrases that I’m not gonna conduct in the moment that quick, ‘cause that’s a stressor for them.
FJO: You also wrote a piece for Kronos Quartet. That obviously has to be something that’s completely notated.
SI: With Kronos, it was fully scored, but they’re also terrific improvisers. I don’t know much improvisation is taught throughout classical music. Maybe you could let me know for input. Those that want to spend time making music together with me, they all love improvisation. But that is a fully scored piece. We just took a very brief section where we had some violin and cello in between embellishment, Sunny’s improvising in that short section.
FJO: I guess where it becomes tricky in the classical music world is if you’re dealing with an orchestra. Right?
FJO: Because you get two rehearsals and then there’s the performance. So everybody’s expected to just kind of read through their part. They touch it up in those two rehearsals, and then, boom, go. The American Composers Orchestra, several years ago had this initiative called ACO Improvise to try to introduce improvisation into orchestra music. But it’s very hard, just because of the structures of how it’s set up and how it works. And, I know you’ve written for ACO, but it wasn’t part of that, so I imagine you did a fully notated piece.
SI: I did.
FJO: Which you had to.
SI: But I played as a soloist with it. So I had moments where I was improvising.
FJO: But no one else was.
SI: No. They were fully scored.
FJO: Which is a whole different aesthetic. When you create collaboratively with people, part of the energy of the composition is to leave space for others to make it their own that way, which you really can’t do unless we re-think how those structures work, which some people are trying to do. But it’s tricky, because it’s a lot of people, it’s a lot of money, it’s a lot of time.
FJO: When you first immersed yourself in traditional Philippine music, and went there and studied it and recorded it, I’m just curious about what that experience was like for you. Obviously your parents came from there. But you were born in California, you were raised in Houston. Did they accept you as a member of the community, or were you an outsider?
SI: Oh, I have a lot of family in the Philippines, so it was a really easy homecoming, I think, when I started to go back, because my parents originally sent me on my own. I was a teenager. They said, “You’re going! And you’ll be back in a month or five weeks. This is your ticket. Your aunt will pick you up at the airport.”
FJO: Wow.“At one point, I was living the winters in the Philippines. It was like having two lives.”
SI: When I started to go back as a young adult and also a touring musician, I knew it would be a homecoming personally, but I didn’t actually realize artistically as an artist what a big homecoming it would be. I just kept meeting more and more artists, both traditional and contemporary that I connected. At one point, I was living the winters in the Philippines. It was like having two lives. I then also started to do field work where I was recording with seven traditional and indigenous groups, and I became friends with a lot of traditional and indigenous artists. I wasn’t asking to be accepted. I was really there to make friends and appreciate and document their work that I loved so much. So with a lot of the traditional artists, I had a lot of friends. We were very different, but we got along, so I think that was that.
FJO: I was so thrilled that you also sent to me Walking On Water; it’s so moving. It might be a favorite recording of yours for me now. There’s just something about it that’s so tender and so fragile and so emotionally charged. It goes from being almost indie rock-sounding in the beginning and then the water takes over. You created this thing as a memorial to the tsunami victims, which was this horrific, awful thing where everybody’s deluged and they lost their lives in this, but while it’s horrific, it’s also extremely beautiful and extremely poignant. The sounds of the water and how they become music. How they become almost a percussion orchestra. It was like a string orchestra of water…
SI: Oh, that’s so nice that you heard that in the water specifically. I love recording water. That is an album of spirituals, so I’m very happy that you could feel that. They are spirituals there. It should be celebrating; it is meant to be celebrating the beauty of all of these people and also all these places that are very important.
FJO: You recorded these with an underwater microphone. How does that work?
SI: So they’re hydrophones. You have different kinds of hydrophones, obviously they’re waterproof, and you have these cords so you can drop them in. You usually hear more sound if there’s a lot of movement in the water. So if there isn’t a lot, you may not pick up a lot of movement, One of the places I’m documenting is the river Ganges. Certain places down in the sink can be quite slow, if you’re not hearing movement of people swimming by, or sometimes picking up, if there’s the washing, and you can just kind of hear more of the ambience, or the rowing of the boats. You maybe won’t hear a lot, but of course if a waterfall is raging, or coming through a stream, or depending if the glacier melt is really strong, so whatever time of the season, then it might be really loud.
FJO: You also use the sounds of water in this fascinating project that you did about climate change that you sent me that wonderful audio file of–that sound installation. Which makes me wonder: music is such an abstract thing. How do you find ways to attach things to it so that someone hearing it can get these larger meanings, whether it’s memorializing people we’ve lost in the tsunami or making people more aware of the dangers if we ignore climate change and don’t do anything about it? Can music bring you to a better understanding of that? And if so, how?
SI: I really believe it can, and also my friend and collaborator, climate scientist, Michele Koppes, who’s also a glaciologist, she also believes so. So we felt that particularly with water rhythms, listening to climate change, we are personally inviting the listener in to have a more personal experience and to connect, because everybody’s had a connection to water. Even if we don’t realize the kinds of connections, it’s pretty profound. I started to do transcriptions of the rhythms of these waters and it was mind blowing, Frank, because we’re just playing all these rhythms–you know, like that’s a Haitian beat over there. Oh, that’s a dance beat here. Oh, that’s from here. It’s all in there. We’re just playing all these rhythms and also the BPM, the tempos, which the water flows, it’s really the sweet spot of so many popular songs across cultures.“We felt that particularly with water rhythms, listening to climate change, we are personally inviting the listener in to have a more personal experience and to connect, because everybody’s had a connection to water.”
FJO: That’s amazing.
SI: So it’s like a heartbeat. You know, it really is a life source.
SI: The thing is, we don’t contemplate. We take it for granted. We’ve had it, it is what we’ve lived in, and we certainly have taken it for granted. Right? Can’t even imagine that it’s not here. You know, two thirds of the Himalayan glacier water is melting, but we can’t even fathom this. I was standing in the other room, and this humming bird just came, I didn’t even have a feeder. It just came up to the window, it was buzzing around right there. Or there’s a flower blooming. We can’t even imagine that that’s just not going to be there one day.
FJO: But maybe through music. I often say that music’s abstract, but maybe because it doesn’t have direct meanings it can go deeper; it can reach your subconsciousness somehow. It can get in there and affect your emotions and make you change the way you perceive the world ideally.
SI: You hear a piece of music, and to you, it will mean something. It will take you to a moment. It’s power. Or to a memory. A sound can just immediately bring you there to an experience that you’ve had.