Tag: noise

Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen): The Landfill of Meaning

Victoria Shen NMBx SoundLives Banner


Beyoncé’s latest album Renaissance made international headlines last week when Australian disability advocate Hannah Diviney called out one of the album’s songs, “Heated,” for using an ableist slur in the lyrics and Beyoncé subsequently agreed to re-record the song without that word and replace the track. Earlier this summer, the electronic music community was up in arms when an advance promotional video for that album made for British Vogue showed the pop icon scratching an LP with her fingernails. It turns out that it is a performance technique created by San Francisco-based experimental artist Victoria Shen, who performs under the moniker Evicshen, and she was not credited. But soon after the outcry, the appropriation was acknowledged and Shen was offered an apology. Both of these stories show that even if Beyoncé’s creative team is not always completely careful choosing all the details, they are paying very close attention to how people are reacting to her work on social media. And in Shen’s case, it actually gave her a new level of notoriety.

Victoria Shen's needle nails

Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen) and her needle nails. (Photo by Caroline Rose Moore, courtesy Victoria Shen.)

“The fact that my work was able to reach a much broader audience than I would have been ever able to have, even if it wasn’t credited at first, I think, is kind of amazing,” Shen said when I spoke with her over Zoom a few weeks ago during her residency at Wave Farm. She also pointed out that the concept, while visually startling and aurally fascinating, is perhaps not the most radical idea. “It’s just kind of like a natural thing. I also used to do nails, so this is a kind of thing where you think somebody would have done this already. It’s sort of low hanging fruit. But of course it takes both someone who used to do nails professionally and does electronics that had to make the bridge.”

As I would soon learn upon digging deeper into Shen’s creative output after she was first mentioned to me by my New Music USA colleague Ami Dang, who also creates electronic music and is a huge fan of Shen’s work, the needle nails technique is just one of many new approaches to making sounds that Shen has used in her performances and sound installations. After hearing and watching a segment of her extraordinary Zero Player Piano, in which disembodied piano strings and hammers are positioned along an ascending staircase and triggered remotely, I knew I had to talk with her.

“That was the gateway into more physical, electro-acoustic things I’m interested in now,” Shen explained. “To me, it was definitely a Modernist strategy … Something that’s self-reflexive. Something that is medium-specific. Like: what is a piano? How far can you push it to its logical conclusion while still maintaining we’re still arguing that it is within the medium of piano?”

Although some of her work can sound quite austere at times, Shen is ultimately suspicious of Modernist aesthetics. “I do like the Modernist kind of mission,” she admits, “but I know that it ultimately fails because all value divides contextually, arbitrarily. It could go in one eye and go out another, or it could be worth something based on some arbitrary factor which is like some institution assigns value to it. Or some kind of cultural capital gets ascribed to it. That’s bullshit. And we all know that, so how can we use things that are hyper, or super full of meaning, I call it the landfill of meaning. I use that in some recognized tactical way. I think I try and create this interface between non-meaning, that which is noise, and that which is over filled with meaning, and then take that interface, that line, and mine that for different conclusions as to how we derive our sense of value.”

Shen is also ambivalent about whether or not she is a composer, even though all the sounds she makes are completely her own, often including all the devices she uses to make them.

“I’m not a composer, I think mainly due to the fact that I don’t work with other people. I think composers really shine when they’re able to provide a set of instructions for other people to execute their work. … I think I’m much more of an improviser than a composer. I think part of composition, at least traditionally, is all about having a pre-packaged work being shipped out and executed, realized anywhere. And so for that, you want to control expression of your piece. You want to control the space in which it takes place. And it’s all about control, control, control. To me, it’s sort of the McDonald’s of sound.”

As for Beyoncé, Shen remains a fan though she doesn’t imagine that the two of them will ever collaborate.

I really doubt that she even knows I exist. I think her PR person knows I exist, but that’s as high as it goes. … I would just love to play at her mansion, to play a pool party or something with needle nails, it would be great.

Victoria Shen carefully scratching a home made record with audio playback styluses affixed to her fingernails during a performance.

Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen) during a performance on February 23, 2022. (Photo by Matt Miramontes, courtesy Victoria Shen.)

  • I just like being able to put in different sounds together at the same time. So Chinese opera, ltalian opera, swing music.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I’m a very technical person, but everything I do is by feel and not by the interest in pure math or manipulation in numbers or anything like that.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • My identity is something that is completely inescapable. I do like the Modernist kind of mission, but I know that it ultimately fails because all value divides contextually, arbitrarily. It could go in one eye and go out another, or it could be worth something based on some arbitrary factor which is like some institution assigns value to it. Or some kind of cultural capital gets ascribed to it. That’s bullshit. And we all know that.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I think I try and create this interface between non-meaning, that which is noise, and that which is over filled with meaning, and then take that interface, that line, and mine that for different conclusions as to how we derive our sense of value.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • The rules of music are also arbitrary. So anything that exists outside of these rules is considered experimental or noise. But that’s the freeing thing; there are no rules here.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • In anything that I’ve released on vinyl, on tape, on Bandcamp, digital, I think I’m playing the role of composer with those pieces. But otherwise, I’m not a composer, I think mainly due to the fact that I don’t work with other people.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • Part of composition, at least traditionally, is all about having a pre-packaged work being shipped out and executed, realized anywhere. And so for that, you want to control expression of your piece. You want to control the space in which it takes place. And it’s all about control, control, control. To me, it’s sort of the McDonald’s of sound.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I always loved experimental music. I was listening to a lot of noise rock and IDM and even psych-folk stuff in high school. But harsh noise was something that was cracked open for me by Jessica Rylan.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I like to dance a lot. I don’t necessarily consider what I do in my performances as dance, but it could be considered movement.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • For me there has to be some kind of grounded-ness, some kind of gold standard. And the gold standard I think for us is always going to be the human body.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • This is why I think improvisation is so good. It’s because you’re risking it all. With composition you can feel really safe because you have an expectation and that expectation is met. If it’s not met, if it’s underwhelming, then oh well who cares, right? But risk and the position of possible failure I think is very important. ... Failure happens all the time! I’m like, oh I have an idea, it’s spur of the moment improvisation. Let me try this out. Uh, will it fail? Sometimes. Is it embarrassing? Maybe. Move on. You know, but I think that is a point that is compelling for people.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I did not grow up with records. My earliest memory is listening to Peking Opera on a cassette tape with my mom and we were splitting the ear buds. I wasn’t around records. I had some records, but never really messed with them.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I would just love to play at her [Beyoncé's] mansion, to play a pool party or something with needle nails, it would be great.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)

Raven Chacon: Fluidity of Sound

Banner for the Raven Chacon episode of SoundLives featuring a photo of Raven writing music on a piece of score paper.

Raven Chacon in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded Wednesday, June 8, 2022 at 10:30 A.M. over Zoom
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

When Raven Chacon was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in April for his composition Voiceless Mass, quite a lot of attention was given to the fact that he was the first Native American ever to receive this accolade. He is also perhaps the most experimental composer to get the nod, and that is true even considering that previous honorees include Henry Brant and Ornette Coleman. But while his idiosyncratic graphic scores are stunningly original in their conception and have been recognized as works of visual art in their own right (several are in this year’s Whitney Biennial), they have a larger social purpose.

“I think a lot about people who didn’t have the privilege to come up in an academic music setting or western music education,” explained Chacon when we spoke over Zoom earlier this month. “I think about the students I teach on the reservation and their lack of access to classical music, or western music education. Even having an instrument is a privilege for students out there. And so a lot works that I’ve made, especially these graphic scores, they’re done because they want to include more people. They aren’t these kind of esoteric languages that are hidden from everybody and they’re also not open interpretation kind of documents either. They have a language that is shared with people who want to contribute to their meaning, to add to the possibilities.”

The ideas that generate Chacon’s often highly experimental sound results are charged stories with deep implications about ecological concerns or social justice, such as Tremble Staves, an immersive work about the environment created for the San Francisco-based duo The Living Earth Show, or American Ledger No. 2, a visceral aural as well as visual response to this nation’s shameful history of enforced repatriations which received its world premiere in the parking lot of the Oklahoma Eagle in the Greenwood District of Tulsa.

“It’s thinking about this space that is existing in a city where there’s folks who don’t have privileges and resources,” Chacon said of the latter work. “Also talking about the policy of forcing native peoples from other tribes into Oklahoma. Once these minoritized communities become successful, such as the black community of Tulsa in the early 20th century, they were then driven out. Were forced out. And so sonically, I was interested in seeing what this system does. Does it create chaos? Does it create organization? Does it create a steady beat? Does it create voice? What happens inside of this?”

To hear Chacon speak of sonic experimentation this way makes his often intentionally inaccessible-sounding music extremely accessible. His occasionally jarring sonorities are always a means to an end. It isn’t always something that even he himself finds pleasant to listen to as he acknowledged when talking about his wind band composition American Ledger No. 1:

I can’t say that I particularly like the sound of the chopping of wood. I was thinking about this as an instrument and realizing I didn’t think it was a good way to make music. And I had to work with that. I had to think if I’m just making music that should be something that I like to listen to. And even if it’s a sound that nobody likes to hear, I wanted to weigh the meaning of what it could mean. And so in the case of American Ledger 1, the chopping of wood signifies the building of ships. It signifies the building of the colonies that happened in the place after the ships arrived. And it has the potential to talk about then cutting down those buildings–chopping them down with an axe, lighting them on fire. A matchstick is another instrument I use in American Ledger 2 and in Tremble Staves. And I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.

One of the most extreme examples of this is his early composition Report in which an ensemble of eight people fire shotguns according to a precisely notated musical score. His feelings about that work now and around whether to let future performances of it occur in an era when mass shootings occur somewhere in the United States every week, are understandably extremely complicated.

Because societal awareness is so central to Raven Chacon’s aesthetics as an artist, he has proven to be a natural collaborator, often placing himself in situations where few composers would feel comfortable. For the opera Sweet Land, which was produced by The Industry just before the pandemic lockdown began in 2020, he immersed himself in a total collaboration with another composer, Du Yun, both contributing their own music as well as harmonizing, orchestrating, and further developing ideas of each other. His collaborative sensibilities were on display most recently in the score he composed for Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli’s documentary film, Lakota Nation vs. United States, which just received its premiere screening at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

“I appreciated not being in the foreground for anything,” Chacon said. “I appreciated being able to reach into archives of things that I have that didn’t fit my normal music. You know, like Baroque fugue or something, why couldn’t that end up in the documentary about the Lakota nation, you know? Because we’re contrasting different times of American history. And sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict. What we’re talking about throughout this documentary is conflict, encroachment. … That was how I approached it because again the last thing I wanted to do was bring new age, reverbed wooden flutes to this score. That’s what’s expected. And so the producers and directors had known my music, and that’s what they wanted. They wanted noise. They wanted the things that one does not associate with native people. Because to do so, might place them in the past. And we’re talking about an ongoing disrespect of Lakota treaties and people that something had to bring it at least into now and into what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

  • As composers, it’s very hard to say what you want to say with instrumental music. You can make the title say what you want to say. You can write program notes all day about it. But ultimately, what does the music have an opportunity to actually convey?

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • In all honesty, I kind of accidentally found myself in that art side of things. I’ve always considered myself a composer first. It’s just that I found opportunities and maybe different attention from that world. And it did come about by way of scores. Some of the graphic notation that I was working with were things that people wanted to exhibit. And I kept telling them it’s just the document to make the music happen.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • Every music you listen to, probably everything you’ve ever listened to, will end up in the music you make. ... If you live near a highway in a city, that might influence a kind of music to be made. If you live near a highway in a very rural place, that might end up as another kind of music. And so I think that second one is the kind of music that I end up making.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I often get asked okay, am I supposed to hear native music in here? You know, a particular tribe’s melodies or rhythms, and I say no. I don’t do that. I don’t have to do that actually, if that’s a connection that a listener makes because of all the tropes they’ve heard throughout popular culture, then that becomes their thing that I get to play with. But it’s not something I’m going to intentionally put into a music work.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • The interesting thing about ruins is unless you’re some kind of expert, an archeologist or something, you might not be able to tell how old the ruins are.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I’m not a person who tries to write difficult music to stump people. I’m not a new complexity type of person.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I think a lot about people who didn’t have the privilege to come up in an academic music setting or western music education. I think about the students I teach on the reservation and their lack of access to classical music, or western music education. Even having an instrument is a privilege for students out there. And so a lot works that I’ve made, especially these graphic scores, they’re done because they want to include more people. They aren’t these kind of esoteric languages that are hidden from everybody and they’re also not open interpretation kind of documents either. They have a language that is shared with people who want to contribute to their meaning, to add to the possibilities.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I can’t say that I particularly like the sound of the chopping of wood. I was thinking about this as an instrument and realizing I didn’t think it was a good way to make music. And I had to work with that. I had to think if I’m just making music that should be something that I like to listen to. And even if it’s a sound that nobody likes to hear, I wanted to weigh the meaning of what it could mean.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • If anything is possible, then I should write a piece of music that is going to have limitations on myself. No pitch. No timbral changes. No volume. I can’t control the volume. And maybe no tuning, no harmony. Nothing. No time. Of course, I found you can’t escape time. But everything else I felt I could. What kind of instrument can I find that could eliminate all of these possibilities and choices? And so I was thinking, okay a snare drum. But no, you could play a snare drum very quietly. There’s still a lot you can do with a snare drum. And so I thought, okay guns. You know, being in New Mexico, it’s something we would actually go do on the weekends: go practice shooting. And it’s ten minutes to drive out to the desert and nobody cares what you do. I have relatives who hunt. Friends who hunt. It’s a way of life in rural places.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • Sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon

Arto Lindsay: Space, Parades, and Confrontational Aesthetics

A conversation via Skype between Arto Lindsay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Sam Hillmer in New York, New York
April 15, 2015
Transcribed and edited by Sam Hillmer
Video presentation and photography
by Molly Sheridan

I first Met Arto Lindsay at a party I hosted at my house to preview a new set by my band Zs. Of course it was an honor and a privilege to have the man in my house—founding the band DNA alone makes him a legend!

Arto and I have a mutual friend, Arto’s manager Ryu Takahashi, and through him we had occasion to meet a number of times over the next couple of years. As I got to know Arto and his work better, I began to appreciate the breadth of his artistic vision. Not only had Arto founded arguably the most important band from New York’s early-’80s No Wave scene, he is a well-known figure in Brazilian pop, collaborator of Matthew Barney’s, leader of parades, and thrower of sounds in space.

Alexis de Tocqueville has said that Americans “cut through the form to the substance.” Punk, which is quintessentially American, does just that. Born of an urgency around reaching people through disruptive and confrontational aesthetics and social practice, punk is inherently populist at the level of essence. What interested me about getting to know Arto was that, as I learned about his work outside of the band DNA, I felt I was able to identify that spirit in his pop efforts, parades, and the sound design of his various performance works.

Curious to learn more, I invited Arto to have a lengthy chat with me some day. He graciously accepted the offer, which led to a marathon Skype call last spring. What I had thought was breadth of vision was just an opening to an artistic world of Arto’s own—bigger and broader then I had ever imagined. Big thanks to Arto for the time and for his life and work!

Sam Hillmer: Tell me about the use of space in your music.

Arto Lindsay: That is something I’ve been doing for years and years, and I’ve done it with the band, I’ve done it with myself. I came up with one piece a few years ago where I use floor monitors that cut right through the middle of the audience. I had my voice in quad around the audience, no guitar around the audience, and I release the guitar into the floor monitors so that sound races right past you if you are sitting in the audience, you know what I mean? You get it, right?

SH: Yes, totally.

AL: So I’ve worked with a few different guys on this, and we’ve gotten more and more sophisticated. Sometimes we’ll have a different event in each speaker, or have different lanes of delay, and it makes it possible to come up with these insane rhythms that I don’t know how I’d be able to come up with otherwise. By myself, anyway.

Arto Lindsay seated

SH: So what about the spatialization itself facilitates the generative rhythmic part of what you are talking about? You’re saying that this process makes it possible for you to come up with rhythms that you wouldn’t be able to come up with otherwise. How does that relate to the spatial aspect of what you are doing there?

AL: I think it’s because I am working with delays, and because of the way they’re set they are pretty unpredictable. I mean, I can layer a few delays on top of each other and make a different rhythm, you know? I’m trying to answer your question—it’s a good one—about how this process leads to complexity that a normal delay pedal wouldn’t. The other thing is that it is in motion. The distance aspect of it adds to the rhythmic possibilities somehow.

SH: To me it seems like it would introduce a degree of clarity that, if it was all just a composite coming out of one speaker—

AL: Absolutely, a degree of transparency, yes—

SH: Yeah, there is a lot of interest in work like that now, quadrophonic work and work for 16 speakers and whatnot, and I always wonder why that’s interesting to people. I’m interested in it, but there is something about that, surround sound and composing spatially, that people respond to.

AL: Also, it emphasizes some aspects of what’s already there when you are listening to music. Already, music itself, if it’s loud it seems close, if it’s quiet it seems far, and stereo has been there since people have been playing more than one instrument. And certainly the Western classical orchestra, the way it’s arrayed—

SH: Sure, there is a spatial dimension to it.

AL: It’s about stereophonic effects, and of course the big bands, they all took advantage of this. There’s the back and forth, the basic panning, the basic joy of stereo, you know—like the early Beatles records where the instruments are all separated. Spatialization, in a sense, doesn’t add anything because music is already waves moving through space. Actually what it does is it adds more points of departure, so to speak. Instead of the music starting from one point of origin, it starts from a whole bunch of different points of departure.

SH: Right, right. It interrupts the sense that the point of origin of the music is this person, and that what’s happening is this two-way feedback loop between the audience and the person on stage, and then it locates that point of origin, at least sonically, in a variety of places.

AL: Exactly. It makes the person on stage seem like they have more points of origin. It opens up the person on stage. It’s like your molecules are a little less settled or something. The illusion of something solid is less strong. It’s closer to the truth, physics wise.

So it doesn’t really change things so much between the performer and the audience as much as it does bring the truth about that situation out. When I do this with the band, I try to incorporate that spatial aspect as part of the musical phrases in what I’m doing.

SH: Okay, this leads into something else I wanted to ask you. Throughout your career you have had some kind of relationship with the art world, and the art world as a context can facilitate certain things more aptly than straight music settings. So, has your exposure to the art world facilitated things generatively for you as a musician that have affected what you’ve been able to do?

AL: Well, when I moved to New York I wasn’t sure if I was going to be a musician, an artist, a dancer, or what, you know? And I ended up becoming a musician, but I had ambitions as an artist as well, so I tried to make a band that could be understood as music, but that could also be understood as a piece of art. So I’ve always considered myself an artist as much as a musician, or along with being a musician, or whatever, but I’ve tried to make what I do come up to the standards of art as well as up to the standards of music.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of collaborating with artists because I like the way artists think, and I like the freedom they have to invent their own medium piece by piece, which is something we can’t do so easily in music. I also like the quality of discourse around art which is more serious, more philosophy-based, and the conversations are often much more interesting. This has changed in the last 10 or 15 years, but in the ’80s and in the early ’90s I really thought this was true. I just wasn’t into the critics and the way they thought about music. I didn’t think about music that way. I didn’t want to hear some evocative description of the American landscape as a way of explaining why Bob Dylan was great; I just wasn’t interested. You know, when they started to draw parallels to the Situationists and stuff, that was kind of the beginning of it getting interesting again.

SH: So, when you’re saying that’s all changed in the last 10 or 15 years, you’re saying the quality of music journalism has changed?

AL: Yeah, and I don’t want to call it journalism, I want to call it criticism, because I value this dialogue between the artist and the critics. I don’t buy this “the critic is a failed musician” and blah blah blah. I also see the value in academics. The idea that “you can’t make a living doing your art, you have to teach”—these are all kind of wrong ways of thinking about it. I think you have to kind of keep things flowing in these different areas.

SH: Right. I think in the best cases criticism or journalism becomes a form of generative cultural practice that functions as an extension of the work, kind of the same way a remix functions. You know, you don’t make a remix, but the remix is there because you made this thing (the original) and you formed a relationship with someone who made the remix. In the best case, an interview or a review or an article, it’s almost an extension of your work—it’s not about your work, it is part of the work, in a sense.

AL: I see what you’re saying. And there’s another aspect to that which is that, in different times and in different places, the criticism is more creative, or poetic, or whatever word you want to use—it’s better art than the art, at times. Especially the French critics in the ’60s, they blew everyone away to the point that everybody wanted to figure out what kind of sense they [themselves] made in that world view, that way of understanding things. And that was very interesting, too. The art was getting really conceptual, and then you had these great conceptualists who stretched philosophy to the point where it was pretty close to poetry at times. You know, things got confusing, and lots of people went down the wrong path. It was an excuse for a lot of badness, but at the same time it was a really important engine for stuff, you know what I mean?

SH: Certainly that work was very exciting, but I feel you about people going down the wrong path. [laughs]

AL: Right, people went down the wrong path, but certainly you can’t deny that it was super important work.

Arto Lindsay set-up

SH: Hell yeah, super important to me for sure! Before moving on past this art world bit, could you give an overview of your more art world-based projects?

AL: I’ve done these two kinds of things that are more strictly in the art world so far. I’m going to do more. One is, I’ve done a sound installation that is pretty narrative. It’s text, and either different people read it or I read it, and each piece of the text is in a different speaker. Speakers are spread out throughout the room and the text plays back in sequence. So I could write a story and the beginning would be in your kitchen, and then it would move to your living room, and it’d be out back, and it’d end up by your front door or whatever, and this would be a little story of some kind.

And then I’ve done these parades. The first parade I did in collaboration with Matthew Barney in Bahia, and it was on a really grand scale, in Carnivale there. They have this wild-ass, ever-changing, ever-mutating street Carnivale, where the ecstatic and the tragic bump up against each other all the time. You have this confrontation across this huge income gap, you have almost religious ecstasy, you have the cheapest pop music, you have absolute social separation and absolute social mixing— it’s just an incredible event. And so we were able to do this really crazy parade as part of that, and people were like, “Wow, that’s pretty crazy.” But it wasn’t like they weren’t used to seeing crazy stuff. I kind of put that backwards, but it’s like we were able to do such crazy stuff just because people see crazy stuff every year at Carnivale there.

SH: So describe what’s going on in your parade.

AL: In this parade here, Matthew bought this giant earthmoving vehicle—it looks like a tractor with these big claws on the front—and he found a tree that was condemned, bought that, and had that in the claws. This thing was rolling down the avenue holding a tree. And the tree was supposed to represent Julia Butterfly [Hill]. She was supposed to be in the parade, but she couldn’t at the last minute. She was a big ecological activist, really beautiful person, who lived in a redwood tree in California for a couple years. [The vehicle] was pulling a shipping container that was covered with dirt, so it looked like a big block of earth, but on top of that was my band, and I also had 30 Brazilian percussionists from two groups there.

I actually pulled off something technically that nobody has managed to do before or since, which was to have the people on the truck play with the people on the ground in sync. It’s very difficult, but we put a lot of time into this. We rehearsed with the leaders of the percussion groups, we found the tempos that were natural for them to play certain rhythms at—they were based on all kinds of things, tradition but also just the size of the drums, how long it takes for the beats to decay and what not. We just felt it out and found tempos that felt good for them and good for us. We blasted them with just a rhythm machine, almost like a click track, and my voice, because traditional percussion groups in Bahia don’t have harmony instruments, and they have conductors, but the real conductor is the singer who gives them the time, and that’s what keeps one of these big groups together.

So then I also designed a sound system for this, because usually these trucks that parade in Bahia are unbelievably loud—a huge sound system and a generator, and it just blasts out. So I tried to work it out so I could have four sound cars, two in the front and two in the back, connected to my band and my percussion by Wi-Fi. So we’d be driving down the street, but preceding the floats and the musicians, there’d be two sound cars, one on either side of the street, and there’d be two behind the whole parade. So the participants inside the parade could circulate inside there. But I couldn’t pull this off because the street was not wide enough. I ended up stringing the whole thing out. I had a sound car out in front, and I had some speakers on the band car, and I had a sound car in back. And I used a lot of up and down the line delay stuff, which I do a lot at these parades.

So, that was the first parade, and it included some pretty hairy imagery. I mean, Matthew had a guy under the truck who took about 30 Viagras and was trying to have sex with the truck while the thing was rolling down the avenue. And we took a lot of imagery from Candomblé [the traditional religion from the area]. Matthew used two of these deities—one was a forest and plant deity and one was a blacksmith deity.

Anyhow, that was that parade, and Matthew was able to invest a lot in that parade, and then make it all back by selling that main vehicle as a huge sculpture.

That is a very interesting beginning. So after that I’ve been getting asked to do parades on my own, and I’ve done them on different scales. Sometimes I work with local artists in a particular place. In each of these parades, they’re kind of based on Brazilian parades in the sense that they have a theme and it’s worked out in different ways by different people. I usually try to put a different sound system together for each one, and one thing I deal with a lot is triggering—just basic triggering. In the Berlin parade, I hired a gypsy band, and they were mic’d, but their mics were all triggered by a Brazilian percussionist. So if you were right next to them in the street you’d hear gypsy music, but if you were down the street you’d hear flashes of gypsy music in, you know, samba, or whatever.

I did one in 2009, and I wanted to work with noise. Super loud white noise, pink noise, brown noise, and I made a group of those, so that it sounded like an airplane idling, you know? And then I had a band, and when the band would play we would shut off the noise. I had two basic ways for it to work: one was, every time you hit a bass note you’d turn off the white noise for an instant, so you’d actually create silence for a second, which sounds pretty cool in description, but in real life just sounds like [imitates white noise in jagged rhythm]. And then sometimes you’d hear the notes in the band, so there was never a silence. White noise was blasting between every note. It was actually cool.

SH: A number of things strike me about what you’ve been describing. Firstly, a parade is a relatively ordinary thing to happen in one’s life. But a noise music, new music, outsider music practitioner applying their work to leading a parade is radically exceptional.

AL: I think a parade is an incredible form because you can have so many different narratives and so many levels of abstraction in there. One reason I was attracted to these is that I was really involved with the parades in Bahia for a long time, and I performed in them, which is kind of like confronting people with my music in the context of a parade. You know, like saying, “Hey, this is alternative hedonism. I’m not trying to inflict pain on you. This is another kind of pleasure.” I was involved there in Carnivale for years doing many kinds of things: delivering costumes, interviewing security companies, helping dream up themes for Carnivale groups, providing support and performing in different ways.

SH: So you’ve been involved in Carnivale just as a local Brazilian participant, not only as an outsider interloping artist.

AL: Yeah, more than just a voyeur, as someone who helped make the carnival. And I really admire these people that do this. In different states there are different ways this works. In Bahia, it’s normally one person or two or three people who decide on a theme, someone writes a song about that, and the costumes and the floats are an expression of that whole idea. And a lot of these groups are black consciousness groups, so a lot of themes are historical themes about something in Africa, or they might be honoring American Civil Rights activists, etc. In Rio, you have a guy or a woman who is hired to work out a whole theme, and then they go through the process of writing a song, but then that person is in charge of the design of all the costumes and the big floats. The people that do this, they’re kind of like opera directors; they’re artists. It’s really interesting, and I’ve been trying to encourage people to do a museum show on them for a long time. I’m still working on it. [laughs]

SH: There are two main takeaways that I have. One, getting back to this idea that a parade is a relatively ordinary occurrence. They happen all over the world at different times for different reasons, but at the same time it is aberrant for a practioner of official culture, outsider music, or what have you, to enact one.

AL: People know how to relate to a parade. It gives you a chance, because they’re expecting something crazy. They expect clowns, or cheerleaders, something out of the ordinary. Of course, they expect something ordinary out of the ordinary, but they give you a chance. And everyone knows how to take part in it. It’s not some kind of forced thing like, you know, “breaking down the fourth wall, you are part of the artwork about the social relation and not about the work on the wall,” and so on. I mean, here’s a chance to actually determine some of the social relations, or at least offer options as to social relations, and not just propose them as a category or as a way of behaving.

Arto Lindsay looking off

SH: That’s what I’m trying to find out about. Is the medium interesting to you because it’s this moment in the body of quotidian cultural life that is kind of ripe for the introduction of something surprising and fresh, but in a relatable way? And one that’s not, like what you were saying, this forced thing—like “my alienating theater piece is about breaking down the fourth wall and making everybody participate—but actually just organically is that way, and so it’s a meaningful medium for you because it allows you to connect aspects of your work to a broader audience.

AL: Not even a broader audience; just to connect to an audience in a different way. You know, some things that annoy me in a concert appeal to me in a parade. Like, the fact of exhaustion and repetition, you know, just as a listener, I can get bored if it’s kind of forced repetition. I mean, if it’s really fine grain repetition and I feel that within the repetition there’s all this variation and I can hear things in different ways, that’s one thing. But in general, I find it hard to reach that kind of altered consciousness thing in concert situations. I don’t know what it is. I’m just too far back from it. I’m just too close to the traditions of South and North America. I mean, I don’t want to come down on anyone in particular, but I can get somewhere in a Youssou N’Dour concert, but I can’t get into it in a concert of minimalist concert music. I just don’t feel that it’s elastic enough, that it’s reactive enough, because, you know, there is nothing in repetitive music that prevents you from responding to changes.

SH: I understand what you’re saying.

AL: Um, I’m not being too articulate here.

I’m interested in trance music and, since I heard it, I’m interested in Candomblé music because it’s very specific. As far back as DNA we were talking about this. Each deity has its own rhythm, and when you play that rhythm, the people who are consecrated to that deity get possessed. You play this rhythm and this deity comes down and inhabits these initiates, you know what I’m saying? But it’s specific! In Moroccan music you go to a house and you drive out the devils, but it’s specific; you can’t play just any music, you have to play the music that drives the devils out! A very practical one-on-one relationship between the music and the listener, which I find fascinating, like everybody else.

I don’t know how I slid into that.

SH: Well, we were talking about the parades, and we were talking about—

AL: Yeah, altered states of consciousness or something like that.

SH: Right.

AL: Yeah, I’ve been interested in that in other ways, so I went off on this tangent. But let’s forget about that!

When you’re in a parade, you just march and march and march and you inevitably feel quite a bit different when it’s over because you’ve kind of been to exhaustion and back a few times. And I love that about it. I love being able to go in and out of things, to alternate, including concentration, or a concentrated state. Like at a club, I don’t watch the entire concert. I get up and make snarky comments, and talk to my friends in the back, and then I’m interested again, you know. It’s a really rare show that commands my attention all the way through. At a sit-down concert of some kind or other, I start to daydream after a while, and then I come back. I mean, maybe it’s a failure on my part not to be able to follow, but I’m also bored, as I’m sure most people are, with the way that most music gets worked out. You know with the chords, the keys, the this, the that, you know what I mean? So much of it, structurally, is simply not interesting. Emotionally this music is supposed to knock you over, but if you’re not knocked over, it’s just kind of boring. Similarly, if you go to a disco, it’s just really loud, and for a little while, that’s enough. It’s just loud and it feels good. It’s like a shower of light; you’re soaking this up. It’s like a thousand cats are licking you, like a thousand slices from the razor blade. So for a little while you’re in ecstasy. It’s just loud, and then, after a while, you need more. And with the orchestra, it’s the same thing. You walk in and there’s just this sumptuousness. There’s this kind of implied perspective which is like—back to the spatial thing—a lot of the joy of the orchestra is that it’s as wide as the landscape. It just implies depth in so many ways—the depth outside, the depth inside, something about that is really selective. But it wears off, the first thrill wears off. I think that’s just part of it, and you need to be able to go in and out of things. The point being, it’s not about maintaining interest all the way through, because it’s impossible.

SH: And you’re saying the parade as a medium helps to facilitate that relationship?

AL: Absolutely.

Arto Lindsay standing

SH: You said something to me once about DNA, that the band was formed with the specific intention of doing this arcane difficult stuff, but being able to do it for a room of people, and win that room of people over, and that that room of people would be people who weren’t necessarily predisposed to like DNA.

AL: Well, when we started out, we had kind of lofty goals. Yeah, we wanted to provide really intense experiences, we wanted to satisfy ourselves, and we wanted to do something new—we had these radical aspirations. At the same time, we wanted that to work to thrill a room full of people. A rock audience, an audience that was there… You know, you don’t give them what they want, you give them what they need, or you give them something that they can’t deny, you know what I mean? What’s the point of just giving them what they want? And even my onstage behavior—I saw so many people pretending to be rock stars on the stage at CBGBs, and I just didn’t find that persuasive or charming at all. I wanted to be able to move in and out of this kind of stance and to be able to use the power of being on stage, but not to be stuck with that. I mean, Lydia Lunch was such a great performer. And she kind of stumbled on this, in that her own aggression and her own way of being turned into this style. I mean, we’re talking about confrontational aesthetics, and as far as confrontational aesthetics are concerned, there were three people that I drew from—Lydia, Vito Acconci, and Karen Finley. And I saw these incredibly confrontational performances, and they were just so perfect in terms of how long they lasted. I mean, I was at the Palladium, which was a night club, but it was full of all these cool art people, and Karen Finley took canned yams and shoved them up her own ass, and the feeling in that room was just unbelievable.

SH: That’s definitely taking it somewhere.

AL: It’s different then, like, hurting yourself, you know? It avoids a kind of romanticism that gets in the way, or a kind of late-Christian thing that gets in the way. I’m kind of rambling.

SH: Well, I want to get back to some things, but talk about that late-Christian thing for a second.

AL: Well, you know, hurting yourself as art. I can understand hurting yourself in some particular situation you might end up in, where that was the thing to do. But people who just routinely hurt themselves in front of an audience, and it just doesn’t go anywhere. It seems to be a reflection of spending your life staring at this naked bleeding guy. Like, the height of something. It’s like an erotic thing, but it’s different from your S&M roles. I don’t know; I’ve never been down this conversational path before. But control and submission, that seems to me to be a different mechanism than just hurting yourself, which is like a way to communicate the intensity of your desire to communicate. I’m also thinking about James Chance now, like, this little guy, pushing people around and stuff, but now I’m just talking about the whole context.

SH: Well, I wanted to cover this, and I am glad to hear you talk about this. There are a lot of threads forming here that I am going to tie back in. But, the thing you said to me about DNA, and the thing about the parades—in my mind, there is a degree of symmetry between the intention you described with DNA to do this kind of lofty arcane thing but in this kind of populist way. So there is a thread of populism between what you described to me about DNA and the parades.

AL: I agree.

SH: There is a thread of populism that makes sense out of the two projects as a progression. But I’m not saying that’s there. I’m asking you if you think that’s there.

AL: Well, the reason we did what we did the way we did in DNA is because we thought about how it worked in a room, not about how it worked in the music business. I didn’t try to make a pop song with some kind of subversive message or something, that just wasn’t my way of doing it. But there is definitely a populist thing. Also the way I write lyrics, I like lyrics to go down easy. It’s like conversational language most of the time, and then if you pay attention, things are a little murkier than they seemed at first. But I have kind of a bad reaction to pretentious-sounding lyrics. I don’t know if you read the Grammy speech that Bob Dylan did?

SH: Whoa! No, I didn’t.

AL: Well, I’ll try and run it down for you. Bob Dylan says, if I hadn’t heard Woody Guthrie, I couldn’t have written, so and so forth, and he just shows you how all of his lines are variations on folk and blues adapted to his situation. I really appreciate that kind of vernacular aspect of playing and lyric writing. But, on the other hand, certain pretensions in lyric writing drive me nuts.

SH: Right. Well, this aspect of vernacular that you bring up gets into another territory that I wanted to explore. I hear something in your recent solo work that I wanted to ask you about. A harsh, austere, at times severe noise vocabulary or wall of sound effect, and at the same time the rhythmic or lyrical vocabulary of honkytonk, rhythm and blues, or Brazilian musical forms, yet not in a way that I’d describe as pastiche. This is interesting to me because the few other attempts I’ve heard at integrating similar content (John Zorn’s Naked City most notably and most successfully) do come across as pastiche, or collage, and are often a bit contrived. Your work evokes these things without setting them against one another and achieves a greater organic quality in the doing, so I’d be interested in hearing whether this is something you’d given any thought.

Arto Lindsay with Zs

Lindsay preparing to record with Zs.

AL: I guess I’m more interested in the thread between these things, or how to get between these extremely different sounds if you want to look at it that way. One thing is to look at them as not being so different. Another one is to go between them, accepting that people hear them as very different, and get back and forth smoothly. And while I can’t speak for Zorn, I think what he is interested in is the shock of the jump from one to the other, whereas I am interested in the continuity between them. Maybe that’s an over simplification. But obviously I’m super aware that I’m using these two seeming opposites, and that I’m playing with them in differing proportions and going back and forth. But yeah, I only wish that the beautiful stuff could be more beautiful, and that the ugly stuff could be more ugly.

I think there is a passive aggression in the beautiful stuff anyway, and there is a kind of rhythmic aggression even in the ballad stuff. Obviously my model is a lot of the Brazilian stuff, but also someone like Miles Davis, who says white people have it all wrong when it comes to ballads—when you play it slow, you have to goose the tempo. To keep it awake when it’s slow, it has to feel like it doesn’t want to be slow. You have to feel some energy that’s like a caged energy or something. You guys [Zs] are prime examples of this. Within that wall of sound of undifferentiated clusters or whatever, there’s so much information; there’s tons of lyricism that you can hear in there, too, if you just don’t back away. If you just stay where you are, stand your ground, you can hear all kinds of beauty in that stuff. And I actually think this is something that we were aware of in DNA and talked about, but it’s become kind of common knowledge. If you think about how popular drone music is, how popular Keiji Haino is, Merzbow, that crew—and there are other crews that I am not aware of—but people use that. You hear all kinds of stuff in that noise. I wish I was a good enough musician to extract some of that stuff into the lyrical territory, make that stuff music. Let’s work on that!

SH: That would be a good project!

AL: It’s interesting to talk about these harmonic and rhythmic strategies in the context of DNA because so much of what passes for punk rock now I feel provides this kind of false or shallow catharsis for people. It doesn’t really make you think, and it doesn’t really pull you up close to that spot where pleasure and pain can be close to each other, and that’s sort of what these strategies are about. But you know, it’s not an intense experience now.

SH: Right, it’s like scratching an itch. There are these people who do this thing, which is supposed to be punk, and there are the people who want the thing, so the people who do the thing do it for the people who want it. It’s just consumption; there’s nothing challenging about it.

AL: Right.

SH: But back to this notion of juxtaposition, or establishing connections between disparate sounds, or what have you. Does this become a strategy in terms of the populist agenda we have been discussing? Here is what I mean by that. I always feel that with things that are represented as being polarized sonically, there is this kind of endowing a musical or sonic artifact with properties that ostensibly make them into polarities, but in fact that constitutes a kind of grafting of the social onto the sonic. So, actually, what is different there are the people who got to hear these sounds—at least more so than the sounds themselves are, inherently. Does that make sense?

AL: Sure. Right, there is that. But I think that there are more essential differences, just if you think about physics, music, sound, consonance, dissonance, clusters, structural properties! The way we hear music, a lot of it is that we recognize in music structures that are similar to our structures. We hear polyrhythm, and we think, “Hey, I’m a polyrhythmic being. I have a pulse here and a pulse here. I have a pulse in my crotch!” So yes, there is a social piece, but there is another component, and I don’t know if it determines the social thing or if it is concurrent with it, but I think the differences are real. And if they weren’t, there couldn’t be such a pleasure in going back and forth. Does that make sense?

SH: I know what you’re saying. I also think that the attitude of establishing continuity between supposedly disparate elements is involved with drawing a bigger circle around the whole thing and looking at the basic unit as something heterogeneous that contains all of these things, rather than looking at the basic units of the situation as these disparate nodes that you bang against one another.

AL: Sure. I definitely can go with that, and that doesn’t take away from the pleasure of the coexistence of the different elements inside of something larger. Coexistence is a difference thing, as well as just a similarity thing. I think that both are there.

SH: Definitely. Okay, last question: is the attitude of play something that you think about in your music?

AL: Absolutely! Like when I was talking before about not being stuck in one role. Definitely there is something to keeping it light, and being able to switch between lightness and something that’s dead serious, life and death, like pointing your finger at the void. “Over there is nothing, and you, my dear audience, you are prime examples of nothing! You may think you are having an opinion. No! I am! I’m inventing you and your opinion wholesale. Ahhhhh!” [growls]