Tag: performance art

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.)

Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations

The only thing that is almost as exciting as watching and listening to a multimedia performance by Pamela Z is to hear her talk about it, which she does for almost an hour in a fascinating conversation that spans a wide range of topics including: creating and performing during the pandemic; her artistic beginnings as a singer-songwriter and how she transitioned into an experimental composer; a difficult encounter with TSA agents; dealing with constant changes in technology; and her obsession with old telephones.

Although Pamela is a composer who is mostly focused on creating new sounds by new means, it was extremely interesting to hear her describe her occasional frustration with the ephemerality of so many of the devices on which we all have become so dependent.

At one point she exclaims, “There are a lot of people in the world who all they care about is changing things. They don’t get attached to something. They really think everything is oh so yesterday, so six months ago. That is not compatible in a way with becoming virtuosic on anything. Building an instrument that you can become virtuosic on without having to pause every few minutes to update it and then change all of the things that no longer work with the update and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I always jokingly say: ‘Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a violinist or a cellist or something and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one. And by the way, we’ve made the fretboard a little narrower because you don’t need all that extra space?’”

And yet, those technological changes and sometimes the strange glitches and disconnects that result from them have informed so much of this San Francisco Bay Area-based maverick’s creative work. Attention, a work she created for the Del Sol String Quartet, will forever change your perception of telephones ringing. Baggage Allowance will make you rethink your next airplane trip when it is safe to take one again. She hopes Times3, her sonic installation created for the 2021 Prototype Festival to accompany a walk around Times Square that has now been extended through April 30, 2021, “cues people into the thought of expanding their imagination to past, present, and future of whatever place they’re in.”

Pamela Z’s quest for new solutions which create problems that are also an integral part of the resultant work also informs her brand new Ink, a work which includes some surreal reflections on how musicians interact with notated scores which will be premiered by the San Francisco-based chorus Volti in an online performance on April 24.

Aside from learning more about all of these one-of-a-kind compositions, it’s a delight to hear all of her stories since, as anyone who has experienced her work already knows, she is an extremely engaging storyteller. Our time together over Zoom was a non-stop adventure except for, perhaps appropriately, the occasional internet connection hiccup which we mostly were able to fix in post-production editing.

New Music USA · SoundLives — Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Pamela Z
March 16, 2021—4:00pm EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between San Francisco CA and New York NY
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce and Jonathan Stone; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

On Performing Fluxus in 2020

Karl Ronneburg's performance of Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano"

In the bright and halcyon days of early 2020, my team at Fifth Wall Performing Arts planned something we thought would be fun: a spring concert of Fluxus-inspired works performed simultaneously by our friends in New York City and Ann Arbor. Each location would be livestreamed to the other, where we’d hoped the broadcasts would create a new sense of what Fluxus artist Dick Higgins called an “intermedia” space. These, of course, were the days before Zoom became a household name, before livestreamed concerts became the unfortunate norm. We’d had the venues booked, the artists lined up, and even an endorsement from Meredith Monk—but it was not to be. Like every concert in the spring, summer, and beyond, our Fluxus Fest was cancelled.

So, I took the opportunity to learn more. Though I first became seriously interested in Fluxus back in 2016 through the wild and wonderful world that is Dick Higgins’s “Danger Music” series, the COVID-19 pandemic forced upon me the time and space to begin correspondence with the LA Phil’s 2018/19 Fluxus Festival Curator, Christopher Rountree, as well as Fluxus scholar Natilee Harren. Their feedback, in addition to my own research, led to the remounting of our Fluxus Fest 2020 as a five-week virtual festival—one which finds Fluxus surprisingly suited to confronting the challenges of our time.

So, some questions: What is Fluxus? And, why Fluxus? Why now?

Fluxus was an art collective and movement in the ’60s and ’70s whose artists took up the direct legacy of John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and the Dadaists. In fact, some of the origins of Fluxus can be directly traced to John Cage’s 1958 Composition class at the New School in New York City—on the first day, Cage defined music simply as “events in sound-space”. Among the students in the classroom that day were Dick Higgins, Jackson Mac Low, George Brecht, Larry Poons, Allan Kaprow, and Al Hansen. Soon thereafter, Brecht began making what he called “Event Scores”, which, instead of musical notes, simply contained a list of printed instructions to realize a piece.

By 1962, the students from Cage’s class were joined by George Maciunas (a Lithuanian-American who coined the term “Fluxus”), and variously included Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono, Wolf Vostell, Emmett Williams, Ben Patterson, Takako Saito, Henry Flynt, La Monte Young, Meiko Shiomi, and more—though “membership” in Fluxus was often contentious. Some claimed that Maciunas at one time or another kicked out all but two or three of them, while others say that he had no right to kick out anyone and never did.

The group was active in the USA, as well as Germany, Denmark, France, and Japan, and were an incredibly diverse collective for the time: Dr. Natilee Harren writes that “Participants included artists who were women, who were queer, who were African American, who were from East Asia, and yet these identities were treated with an uncommon fluidity and criticality for the time. An a-national, polyglot community, Fluxus artists were citizens of the world; they traversed a self-defined international network, and the spirit of generosity and exchange in their work countered Cold War paranoia and the retrenchment of national boundaries.”

Simultaneously irreverent and spiritual, Fluxus artists pushed the boundary of what art could be and who it was for. The format of the Event Score in particular is interesting because of the way it delegates collective authorship to the performers of a work—a concept familiar to classical musicians, but one uncommon in the visual or written art world, where most Fluxus artists originated. By using text instructions, however, Fluxus artists broadened the scope of the score beyond music to include actions, concrete or abstract, that could be performed in contexts far beyond the concert hall. Though some view Fluxus as an Anti-Art movement (and it certainly contained Anti-Art elements), for the most part Fluxus was about decentralizing and revolutionizing the way we think about art. Again, Natilee Harren: “Fluxus artists looked for value in the commonplace, believing that art can be anywhere and belong to anyone. Rather than eliminating art, they sought to dissolve its boundaries in order to infuse everyday life with heightened aesthetic awareness and appreciation.”

PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART. Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON-ART REALITY to be fully (the word fully is crossed out) grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes, and professionals.

From George Maciunas’ Fluxus Manifesto


This brings us back to 2020. Spring rolls around, the world shelters-in-place, and life as we know it is over. How can Fluxus address this?

Fluxus as Practice

One of the most famous Fluxus pieces is Alison Knowles’ 1962 Proposition #2: “Make a Salad”. And that’s all there is to it. You just make a salad. I live in a 2-bedroom apartment with my brother, and though we don’t like much of the same foods, we both love salad. I spent a lot of time with him these last 7 months during the pandemic, and salad-making has become kind of a ritual that we perform several times per week. Proposition #2 begs the question: once you know that it exists, are you performing it every single time you make a salad? Thanks to Alison Knowles, I noticed this ritual with my brother, was able to pinpoint it as such, and now my salad-making has a certain kind of mindfulness that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Furthermore, to survive in the Time of Corona, many of us adopted new rituals and had to follow new instructions. Ben Patterson’s 1964 Instruction #2 reads: “Please Wash Your Face”. Fluxus asks, how different are these instructions from signs in public places asking you to “Wash Your Hands”, or to “Please Wear a Mask”? Are hand-washing diagrams not a kind of choreography, not a kind of graphic score? Fluxus reminds us that the daily events we do without thinking are performances, that any time we follow instructions, we are performing a score. Or, as said by Alison Knowles in a 2012 panel discussion: “My belief is that every person who gets up and goes into their day and does their work is coming from some unrecognized belief system that maybe they’ve picked up as a five-year-old, or they don’t look at it anymore. But to address that and work with it is powerful.”

Fluxus as Protest

In many ways, Fluxus is protest music, where the dissonance is always cognitive. Ben Vautier, for example, is known for his artistic practice of signing anything he could get his hands on, a statement on the hegemony of authorship in art not dissimilar to the practice of tagging by graffiti artists. Fluxus works have additionally retained their power today as political statements: for example, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, a group of 10 women performed a variation of Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piecein pantsuits in Madison Square Park while the Electoral College cast their votes. Natilee Harren writes: “Indeed, the best Fluxus and Fluxus-related work exposes how our lives are scored, orchestrated, or performatively designed for better or for worse, in both utopian and dystopian fashions.”

Fluxus pieces can also be powerful statements of identity. For example, in the first performance of my Fluxus festival, a trans woman friend of mine performed Yoko Ono’s Laundry Piece, going through her laundry basket to tell us about the clothes inside. A more guttural statement of identity might be Dick Higgins’s Danger Music #17 (to be performed on October 17), which reads: “Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!!”.

Fluxus as Community:

Finally, Fluxus’ power is in its ability to build community. The barrier to entry to perform a Fluxus piece is low (and the streaming technology widespread enough) that my team could reach out to my friends and colleagues across the country to perform Fluxus and Fluxus-inspired pieces from home, embracing the locations we are all in. We put together a five-weekend series, featuring over 30 artists from around the country, and I can’t be more thankful. I wrote my own Fluxus piece, Phone Call#2: “Catch up with a friend”, that I performed on October 10th as a statement of the power of this community and the power of Fluxus to create simultaneous mindfulness and disruption. In fact, Fluxus was an inspiration for the core mission of our company, Fifth Wall Performing Arts: to not just break the “fourth wall” by acknowledging the audience or the stage, but to break a newly-made-up “fifth wall” as well: acknowledging the artists themselves as human beings and not just characters or performers. When we perform Fluxus, we are performing as ourselves, bringing attention to our actions and their consequences. This opens up the traditional boundaries of performance as an artistic ritual, linking audiences with artists as people, vulnerable and in need of connection as we all are.

The week 4 video featured here begins with a clip from Hannah McLaughlin and Raquel Klein’s performance of Gift of Tongues by Emmett Williams (1962): “Sing meaningfully in a language made up on the spot”, performed simultaneously with Danielle Mumpower’s interpretation of Disappearing Music for Face by Mieko Shiomi (1966): “Change gradually from a smile to no-smile.” The clip then cuts to a portion of James Vitz-Wong’s original “I swear this is research” Piece: “Perform a recital while in virtual reality.” This was presented alongside Carlos Durán, Karl Ronneburg, and Grey Grant’s performance of Orchestra by Ken Friedman (1967): “Everyone plays different recordings of a well-known classical masterpiece. [We chose Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.] Each member of the orchestra starts and stops playing different sections of the recording at will.”–performed simultaneously with one repetition of Corey Smith’s performance of Bean Snow by Anne Tardos (1994): “Read the text slowly and deliberately, using a normal tone of voice. Bean snow. Bean snow beans. Bean snow beans about themselves. Bean snow themselves. Bean snow beans about themselves. Bean snow.”

I’ll leave you with a 1960’s vision of community and social distancing: Dick Higgins’s Danger Music Number Three: “Divide a large pack of incense among those present in a moderately large room. Ask each person to burn his or her [or their] incense, without flame, all together. Darkness throughout.”

The logo for Follow Fluxus is a series of boxes which each have printed on them one letter: "F," "o," "l," "l," "o," "w," "F," "l," "u," "x," "u." and "s."

Bora Yoon: The Weight of Magic

Although composers are always constructing new sonic worlds, Bora Yoon is super-charging that idea through her multimedia and site-specific works. She performs using her voice, her violin, an array of sound-making objects of assorted shapes and sizes, and live electronics, as well as with video projections to create immersive environments that, as she puts it, “transport people somewhere, and return them, hopefully changed from the experience.”

Her latest project, Sunken Cathedral, is not site-specific in the traditional sense, but rather involves the creation of a multi-dimensional artistic structure in a four-part, year-long rollout process from blueprint (audio CD) to finished structure in the form of a fully staged multimedia production that will premiere in January 2015 at the Prototype Festival. In between those two bookends are planned releases of a vinyl double album on the Innova label, created as a limited edition fine art piece, and a trilogy of interactive music videos designed for the iPad in collaboration with the Gralbum Collective. The idea is that each form of media will build upon the previous one, adding additional sensory input and engaging listeners and audience members in a different context, providing specific views of the project that can be experienced individually, or as a whole, in the same way that one might stroll around a space to take in different aspects of a performance. Sonically, Sunken Cathedral references a vast range of musical styles, from early music to industrial electronic to music concrète, speaking both to Yoon’s diverse musical identity and to the quickly shifting time we live in.

Yoon wanted to use the title Sunken Cathedral—already famously employed by Debussy, as well as by graphic artist M. C. Escher—because, like those other works, she says, “It offers the language to speak about the invisible—the architectural context, the idea of reflections in a binary world. That there are the actual things of reality, and there are the things that lie beneath the surface…and the idea of how we separate our worlds in that way, whether it’s day and night, or conscious and subconscious, or the physical world and the metaphysical world…and what happens when you explore the full circle of that.”

Yoon comes by her fascination with architectural sonic experience and cathedrals through direct personal exposure; since 2007 she has been a member of the choir at The Church of Ascension in New York City, and she cites her time spent singing in that space as a primary force of inspiration. “The more I sang at Ascension,” she explains, “the more I started to look up, and to realize that the church really is a metaphor for the body. That the arches are the rib cage, and the swells of the organ are lungs, and the idea that the invisible that we don’t see in the church, the Holy Spirit, is the idea of breath that’s inside us.” The sense of transport created with the combined horizontal and vertical nature of choral music, and the sense of ritual imbued in music intended for particular purposes and/or times of day and night, are concepts that have deeply affected her creative process.

The interdependence of conscious and subconscious is always on Yoon’s mind as she creates her musical worlds. She is entranced by sonic associations and triggers, often questioning why exactly a sound is interesting to her, what associations it might evoke, both for herself and for others, and the effects of layering sonic material from disparate contexts and of varying tempos. Her performances employ a large array of sound-making objects—in addition to violin and keyboard—such as bowls and assorted kitchen utensils, pieces of glass, small drums, glockenspiel, and cell phones. She feels strongly that as part of the performance experience the audience should be able to see where exactly the sound they are hearing is coming from and how it is being made, in order to take in the full sensory impression of the moment at hand. During performances, Yoon moves around the space, triggering sounds that are then sustained by looping electronics; starting a record player, kneeling to strike a metal bowl, reaching for an old flip phone that she amplifies through her vocal mic, all while singing melodies that build upon one another into a layered chorus atop cyclical musical twinkles, scratches, and violin tones.

“It does mean that I carry around the kitchen sink,” she admits, laughing at the image. “But I do feel that for as much as that is a huge pain in the ass, that’s also the same measure of how it will be magical, and why it will be otherworldly, and something people will remember. So I always tell myself when I am dragging around 400 pounds of gear, ‘This is the weight of magic!'”
Indeed, through her insightful working process and captivating performances, Bora Yoon is building a world of her own, one that speaks clearly to her identity, but that also invites others in to discover what they will. She creates an overarching sense of both the personal and the universal through the transformation of a space, and through the sensation of time spent within it.

Miya Masaoka: Social and Sonic Relationships

At the composer’s New York City apartment
May 13, 2014—11 a.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video recorded by Molly Sheridan
Video presentation by Alexandra Gardner

Nine summers ago, there were tons of sound-producing gizmos on display during the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival’s “Homemade Instrument Day.” It was a fabulous way to introduce some really avant-garde music to a very broad audience. Perhaps the most mind-blowing thing people encountered that day was an installation by Miya Masaoka in which sound was somehow emanating from house plants. It was like some weird kind of Island of Dr. Moreau phenomenon. Yet it was also somehow both instantly engaging and musically fascinating as it unfolded over time. It involved a lot of brainy science—electroencephalography, data analysis, and computers—yet it was also extremely down to earth.
While it could have degenerated into a clever gimmick, it was much more than that because Masaoka manipulated the data from the plants to construct a very interesting sonic environment. But because it was all happening in real time, with a group of pots containing seemingly innocuous plant life, it became something much more than just a musical experience—it made the audience think about plants, and life in general, in a totally different way.

Masaoka has been making us look and listen to the world around us in totally new ways for decades. There has been a clear socio-political component to virtually everything she has done, but at the core level her work is ultimately always about finding new sounds. She first came to prominence in the Bay Area for her experiments with the koto, a multi-stringed zither which has played a prominent role in the court music of Japan for centuries. Though she was born and grew up in the United States, her Japanese family included traditionally trained musicians who were her earliest teachers on the instrument. While she initially immersed herself into gagaku and other classical Japanese repertoire, she soon found a way to make the koto a vehicle for a broad range of contemporary American music-making—bowing it, electrifying it, playing it in experimental improvisation combos, performing Thelonious Monk compositions and other jazz standards on it, etc. In so doing, she has made the instrument completely her own.
She has also done a great deal of sonic work involving the human body. She has created musical compositions using the brainwaves of audience members as well as data retrieved from participants via electrocardiograms. Her most provocative work has been a series of performance pieces involving groups of insects (bees, cockroaches) crawling over her own naked body; their motion triggering sensors attached to her which amplify the actual sounds the insects are making. Again, what could come across as gimmickry is viscerally powerful visual and sonic engagement, though admittedly probably not for the overly squeamish. (Although it isn’t to her in the slightest.) As she describes it, it is simultaneously politically charged and sound obsessed:

It’s the most amazing electronic kind of sound and it’s actually coming from a bug. Bees also have a very electronic sound component. But they were chosen not only for their sound abilities, [they were also chosen for] the idea of them maybe being individuals, maybe a colony. … I really wanted to understand and study their social relationships to each other. I’m not allergic to bees, so it’s okay. It was the idea of what the individual is, what our bodies are, and what the relationship is of our bodies to nature. It was searching for some kinds of clues to get closer to that. … Collaboration—whether it’s with insects or plants or people or musicians or the earth’s environmental sounds—is thinking about a sound world and how to enter somewhat of a psychological and sonic space.

In the last decade, Masaoka has concentrated somewhat less on performing and more on creating extended musical compositions for others to perform. She acknowledged when we spoke to her last month that her seeming shift in focus was partially a function of relocating to New York City and having a young daughter, but it’s also a way to channel her experiences and creative energy into larger scale projects that she would not have been able to perform on her own. And the results have been equally stimulating: For Birds, Planes and Cello, an all-encompassing sound-scape in which cellist Joan Jeanrenaud competes against a barrage of bird calls and airplane engines; and While I was walking I heard a sound…, an extraordinary choral piece involving three choirs and nine soloists spatialized in balconies which was premiered in San Francisco by Volti, the San Francisco Choral Society, and the Ensemble of the Piedmont Choirs. Last year, inspired by kayaking on a lake near the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, she completed her first orchestral piece, Other Mountain, which was performed by the La Jolla Symphony as part of the EarShot Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings. But she’s still committed to performing. Earlier this season, she performed at Roulette in Triangle of Resistance, a new interdisciplinary work she co-created with filmmaker/videographer Michelle Handelman featuring a score she composed for koto, string quartet, percussion, and electronics, and in a couple of months she’ll be returning to the studio to record a new album of improvisations with Pauline Oliveros, who has been a long-time collaborator and mentor.
After spending a morning talking with her about her music and why she’s made the choices she’s made, I’m even more convinced that whatever she does will continue to push the envelope in ways that are both intellectually challenging and sonically captivating.


Frank J. Oteri: You’ve done so many different kinds of things musically, but people always want to have a tag line, a one sentence sound bite. “Oh, Miya Masaoka, she’s the person who experiments with the koto.” Or “Miya Masaoka, she’s the person who does the music with plants.” Or, “the stuff with bugs.” These projects are all so different from each other and don’t even encompass everything you’ve done. So I’m wondering in your mind if there’s any through line that connects all of these things, something that informs the choices you make and shapes your identity as a musical creator.
Miya Masaoka: Identity is kind of interesting—the relationship between the individual and whatever social context is happening, whatever interaction with the outside world. So it’s really this interior versus exterior relationship, which is something we don’t necessarily have control over. I remember when there were only a few of us calling ourselves composer-performers; it was actually before you could get degrees in such a thing. These terms are really fluid, in a sense, like gender or ethnicity. They’re really social constructs. For example, when I think about what it means to be Japanese or Japanese-American—before my relatives were sent to the Japanese American concentration camps, it was decreed that you had to have 1/16 Japanese blood. This was a definition for if you were Japanese or not, to go to the camps. And so this is what my parents had to contend with. I certainly don’t have to contend with these kinds of blood percentages to define identities, but certainly the idea of aspects of sound, and relationship to architecture, and how pieces are exhibited, or whether there are instruments involved and what the relationship is to performing on that instrument or whether you create music for other instruments—those things are also really fluid and they change from piece to piece. So for me, whatever is fascinating for me and what I am obsessed with at the moment, drives me to create the next piece. I don’t consciously shape an identity. That’s not been so conscious. I wish, in a sense, that things were more narrowed down and could be in a sound bite, because then it would be much easier to do everything in a world that’s sound-bite driven. But I can’t stop myself.
FJO: Sound bites are sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they help explain work to people in a fast, straight-forward way, which can be very useful, especially when there is so much noise out there. But in terms of wanting to create the next piece, or actually wanting to create any new work, it creates limitations if it doesn’t conform to the sound bite—you know, that doesn’t sound like what that sound bite tells me it’s supposed to sound like! So it’s a constant battle between how you establish something so people have some kind of grounding in what you’re doing and how you can grow from there.
MM: That’s true. I also like it if I can find a sound bite. That’s how we organize our minds and organize the vast amount of data that we have for so many artists out there. The next piece I’m doing is using three dimensional objects, sculptural objects, as scores. In some ways, it’s a departure from some things I’ve done, but in other ways, it’s not at all. Then I’m coming off of writing for full symphony. It’s completely different to go in towards making these objects as scores, or scores as objects.
A common thread is this idea of a sound and how to think about sound—whether it’s using forces of musicians or whether it’s thinking of sounds in more of a visual sense, whether the pieces are using kinetic motion or a physicality. Are these waves that interact with air to create a certain kineticsm that we experience as sound? How does it deflect off whichever reflective surfaces are there in terms of the architecture? That’s true whether it’s a concert hall, or whether it’s in a gallery space, or an open air situation. So I think this element of experiencing sound is probably the common thread, and how that can be conceived and perceived and achieved in different angles in different ways.
FJO: Now one of the things that’s been a very long-standing interest of yours going back to the beginnings when you first became active in the Bay Area new music scene has been working with the koto. I’m curious about how you first got involved with the koto and what attracted you to it. Obviously you come from a Japanese background, but you grew up in the United States, you were born in D.C., you spent many years in the Bay Area. There aren’t a lot of kotoists here.

Laser Koto

Miya Masaoka performing on the Laser Koto. (Photo by Lori Eanes.)

MM: Well, my cousin and my aunt played koto, and one of them studied in Japan. I grew up playing piano. It was definitely coming from the Japanese American history of trying to be as American as possible because of the camps and the whole wartime experience. At the time in the Bay Area, there were different Asian American musicians like Jon Jang, Mark Izu, and Francis Wong who were keen about Asian American music and embracing these traditional instruments. So going back to these instruments was something that was a part of what was happening. I became a part of that, as well as having it in my family.
I studied traditional koto, and I also started the Gagaku Society. Gagaku is imperial court music. I did that for seven years in the Bay Area. Our master was from Japan and he was working at UCLA. So we flew him up once a month to work with us. And those concepts of structure, and how sound occurs over time, and how it unfolds and kind of builds up a propulsion and momentum were some of the most fascinating kinds of principles that I still live by.
But a turning point for me was when I was invited to play with Pharaoh Sanders for a few concerts at Yoshi’s. From playing with him and improvising with him, I also got introduced to other improvisers in the Bay area, like Larry Ochs and Henry Kaiser. So then I began collaborating with them, and that opened up this whole other door to what they would call non-idiomatic improvisation, free improvisation and that kind of thing.
FJO: There’s an interesting essay you’ve posted to your website that you wrote back in 1997 in response to Royal Hartigan’s issues about taking a traditional instrument that’s in a certain context and recontextualizing it to make it your own. There has been a lot of debate about this phenomenon. These are cultural artifacts of a specific culture which perceives of them in certain ways. So some would argue that to use them in ways that are outside of that culture are somehow disrespectful to that culture. But I find it interesting that the people who make those kinds of arguments about traditional Asian instruments, and also traditional African instruments, don’t make them for European instruments. It’s assumed that western instruments are somehow universal, that those instruments belong to everybody. You can do anything you want, say, with a piano or violin, but you can’t necessarily do anything you want with a koto, or an mbira or a ney. To exempt the West from cultural specificity seems like cultural imperialism and is really disconnected from 21st-century American cultural experience.
MM: I think some of those arguments that took place in the ‘70s and ‘80s have been really superseded by the internet—concepts of appropriation and taking these cultures from developing countries or from non-western countries and that it is somehow disrespectful or impure. Plunderphonics has come and gone, and there’s access to so many different rare cultures that it’s become a moot point to a certain extent. But I think whatever you do as an artist, whatever choices you make, there’ll always be people who will have issues with things. Especially if you’re doing something new and something slightly different, you’re going to have people who aren’t going along with it. So, that’s fine.
FJO: In the age of the internet, it does seem like everything from everywhere in every time is fair game. At this point to say that you’re continuing a tradition, it begs the question, what tradition? We have access to all the traditions, and we’re not necessarily continuing any of them, and not necessarily continuing “Western classical music.” The term seems meaningless to so much of the stuff that we’re all doing at this point.
MM: Tradition is something that people can personally embrace, whether it’s a tradition of American experimentalism, or a certain kind of tradition of minimalism, or certain kinds of traditions of time-based work, or some kind of performance, or generative electronics—modular synthesis has its own tradition. So there’re all these traditions that exist that are very historical and very meaningful, and we can embrace them in various ways, as individuals, to make them meaningful for us.
FJO: You mentioned playing with Pharoah Sanders. One thing that has certainly been a very important tradition in the trajectory of American music is the music that people call jazz. It’s a loaded word in some circles, but it is a tradition and it’s a tradition that you’ve interacted with in some of your work, though not all of your work. I love the trio recording you did with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille where you’re taking music by Thelonious Monk and completely reinventing it in a way that echoes traditional Japanese music, but that also really is jazz. It really does swing. It feels like Monk to me. So I wonder how you see your own music within the context of jazz traditions.
MM: Well, I grew up playing and listening to all different kinds of music and, of course, studying classical music, teaching myself folk music on the guitar, and studying flamenco music with a gypsy who lived in the town. Listening to rock and roll, listening to jazz—it’s really hard to escape that if you grow up in America. Jazz has this incredibly rich history of ways of being in music and ways of creating music. And I feel very lucky to have worked with some amazing jazz artists. And I continue to work with them.
I think at different times, there’s been a certain fragmentation and diffusion and at the same time a real boxing in of what jazz is into a kind of very boring and negative modality, which it certainly is not. I mean, the history is so expressive. It’s been so influential to so many parts of American culture. It’s had a rough patch, I think, and people like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor have kind of gone through and made it to the other end of that, the narrow definition of what would be swing or how to define jazz. I’m hoping that that’s going to open up again.
FJO: So taking on Monk. Monk’s compositions are iconic jazz repertoire even though he was an iconoclast. He was never conventional in what he did with rhythm. What he did with harmony was also completely unique. You hear a Monk chord, and you know instantly that it’s his. Yet those pieces have become canonic of a certain era in jazz. So to take that on and to do your own thing with it is very brave in a way because people have certain expectations about what that is.

CD cover for Monk's Japanese Folk Song

The CD cover for Monk’s Japanese Folk Song featuring Miya Masaoka with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille.

MM: Well, Monk did an album of Japanese folk songs, so I kind of did a version of him doing a version of Japanese folk songs. And then, like you mentioned, the rhythms are asymmetrical; they’re very spiky and they’re very interesting. It’s definitely very interesting repertoire to dig into. So I thought it was challenging and would be a fun project to do. It’s funny, when I go to Japan, sometimes I still hear it in some of the jazz clubs. They play that record; it’s wormed its way in.
FJO: You did another project that is probably even more clearly jazz sounding—What is the Difference Between Stripping and Playing the Violin?—which for me is definitely coming out of big band music, but it’s also referencing a lot of other things, too.
MM: That was a long time ago. But there was some jazz in there definitely, quotations from Duke Ellington and things like that. I had a big orchestra and I was doing actually something I made up that I called tai chi conducting where I would try to get the energy from the musicians. I used some of the Butch Morris sign language. I also invented some of my own at the time. There were people in that group like Vijay Iyer and Carla Kihlstedt, tons of incredible artists who were living in the Bay Area at the time.
FJO: The more non-jazz improvisatory stuff that you’ve done also in some way connects to jazz’s greater contribution to American culture—this notion of work that’s collaborative in some way, the idea that a group of people can participate in the making of something in real time by responding to one another. It’s not just one person’s vision—I did this piece and now you peons, here are the precise rules you need to follow. Rather you have a group of people who are listening to each other, and they’re responding to each other, and the work becomes what it is because of those interactions. No one necessarily knows what’s going to happen at the end. Something can become completely different from what you had initially envisioned it being.
MM: That’s true. I mean, you know, I’d definitely been open to what kinds of things could change and how that could be meaningful. I did this piece with Joan Jeanrenaud—For Birds, Planes and Cello. Joan was playing the cello and also listening and also looking at some graphic ideas of what to play while she was listening. This was a piece with basically an uncut film recording of the planes at the San Diego airport starting out at six in the morning, and slowly there would be more and more of them. And the birds were in these natural canyons so they were in this enormous kind of sound amplifier; the birds were so loud they sounded like they were being amplified artificially. Whenever a plane went by, they would start screeching with the plane, and then as time went on, there was just more and more sound and it built up to a structural climax with the schedule of the planes kind of dictating that. So in a sense, it’s a kind of a collaboration with the earth, the birds, and the scheduling and creating and taking these kinds of environments and finding some kind of coherence and structure and meaning from them.
FJO: What I find so interesting in terms of the whole sound bite phenomenon is that collaboration has been a hallmark of your work through the last several decades, but the people you collaborate with have been extremely different from each other. So, because of that, the music that results from those collaborations is always very different. I’m thinking of the trios that you were a part of with Gino Robair which can be very frenetic versus, say, your work with Pauline Oliveros, which is often much sparer and much more introspective. I’m curious about what makes you choose a collaborator to work with because obviously those different identities are both you since you’ve done both of those things. They’re both extraordinary, but they’re very different from each other.
MM: Collaboration—whether it’s with insects or plants or people or musicians or the earth’s environmental sounds—is thinking about a sound world and how to enter somewhat of a psychological and sonic space. And a spiritual place you could even say, like with Pauline Oliveros. We’re going to be going into the studio again in a couple of months, actually. She’s an icon, and I’ve been so honored to be able to have worked with her and to work with her in the future. To answer your question about sparseness or density, those kinds of things can be preconceived or not preconceived. Things with Pauline can be sparse or not sparse, or this or not that; it’s working towards a larger whole to a certain extent. There are so many parameters that are a part of getting there.
FJO: So in terms of choosing these collaborators, how do these relationships happen? Who initiates them?
MM: It changes, and it varies. This time this one with Pauline was initiated by Issui Minegishi, a player of the traditional one-stringed koto called ichigenkin. With Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille, there was someone from Germany who said, “Who do you want to work with?” I just named these two names and he got them. It really varies. I often do a lot of just working by myself.
FJO: There is that fabulous album you did of composition and improvisation which is almost completely solo except for the last track that has flute. Once again, from track to track, the music is extremely different. One solo project of yours, although perhaps you might not think of it as solo, is the work you’ve done with bees and Madagascan cockroaches. I find it remarkable, but I have to confess that I also find it unbelievably disturbing, and I think that that disturbance might be an element of why you did it. I’ve never experienced these performances live. I’m not sure I could. I’ve watched the videos online, and I had to stop the recordings repeatedly. It got through my skin, as it were. I felt like these insects were crawling on me.
MM: Well, that piece was about the Japanese American experience. Around that time, they had just come out with some new studies of DNA and the differences with gender and race; people were something like actually 99 percent the same. And it’s really this small miniscule amount that we thought we were different. So I was going back to the 1/16th Japanese that you had to be to go to the Japanese camps. So the idea of the naked human body, as it is, without these ideas being fostered onto it… These large bugs crawling on it, kind of just discovering the terrain, as if it’s for the first time, and seeing this as a blank slate. Now we can buy that or not, you know, in terms of blank slates, but the idea was just having a very kind of cold viewpoint of the human body as the canvas—that was the idea. And then taking the sounds of the bugs, and amplifying them, and making samples of them, and having them create the structure of the piece. So I would be sending an array of lasers over my body, and they would break the beams, and that would trigger the sounds of the piece. The sound worlds are based on their movements.
FJO: So how were you able to do this?
MM: I went to this amphibian store. At the time they were legal to buy and I bought 12 of them. Later somebody took care of them for me and would send them through FedEx to the different places that I would play in Europe.
FJO: But how were you able to have bugs crawl all over you? How did it feel? You don’t move at all during the piece; how were you able to get yourself into that zone?
MM: It’s the idea of the body being this passive canvas that society pushes things upon. And you know, you just do it. I mean, it’s discipline. It’s like anything else. It’s, you know, you just do it.
FJO: What were audience reactions like to that in different venues around the world?
MM: Well, that piece became very popular. It also got picked up by some kind of syndicate in Canada and played a few times. And these Madagascar cockroaches later became much more popular in lots of popular culture. This was before that happened. But, how things get received? I don’t know. I should probably pay more attention to that. I think at the time, people weren’t used to seeing anything like that. Some people thought it was interesting, and some people thought it wasn’t, I’m sure. I can’t have my ear too much to the ground as to how things get received or not received, because it can just get me in the wrong frame of mind.
FJO: I have to confess, before I experienced it, I thought the idea was sort of gimmicky, but then after looking and listening to it, though at times I found it really disturbing, it was also viscerally powerful. But I’m curious about what it means to you as music, because a lot of it is a visual experience, including what you were saying about the body being a blank slate. But it was conceived of as a piece of music, right?
MM: Yes, as a performative semi-installation with music, because that’s my background. I did these collaborations with cockroaches, but their sound sounds like white noise. It’s the most amazing electronic kind of sound and it’s actually coming from a bug. Bees also have a very electronic sound component. But they were chosen not only for their sound abilities, [they were also chosen for] the idea of them maybe being individuals, maybe a colony. I think it’s very fascinating to have a blur of something that’s a whole. Ants are that way, too, but ants don’t have the same kind of obvious sound possibilities as these other ones. I really wanted to understand and study their social relationships to each other. So a lot of pieces from that period have to do with inquiries into the nature of society and culture and politics and sound.

FJO: Now with the bees, there’s the added layer of danger. Cockroaches tend to make people flinch, but with bees you can actually get stung and be physically injured. Is putting yourself in harm’s way part of the aesthetic here?
MM: No, not at all. And I’m not allergic to bees, so it’s okay. It was the idea of what the individual is, what our bodies are, and what the relationship is of our bodies to nature. It was searching for some kinds of clues to get closer to that.
FJO: I found it very interesting when we were talking earlier on about collaborations that you included the insects along with your collaborations with some of the most iconic human musicians. But insects, unlike people, don’t necessarily create a work of art of their own volition, so it’s a different kind of collaboration.
MM: Well, from my point of view, I really try to give the cockroaches agency by having them crawl and their movements create the sound structure for the piece. So I really try to imbue a certain agency for them.
FJO: But they’re not necessarily cognizant of their agency. Or are they?
MM: I have no idea.
FJO: But unlike collaborations with other people which are the creative work of the entire group collectively, certainly work for which you’d all share royalties, you don’t have to share your royalties with these bugs! Ultimately, it’s exclusively your work as a creator.
MM: Correct. But let me tell you about these cockroaches. I would be in the hotel room with these cockroaches night after night, travelling with them, and they were in a shoebox. I stopped taking both males and females, because the males would just attack too much, constantly going after each other and fighting each other. So I ended up with just one male cockroach, and the rest females. But I would just watch the way they interacted with each other for hours and hours in the hotel room, you know, after the performance. They did amazing things—very, very tender things with their antennas to each other, really very dramatic, very erotic things. When they would have sex, the things they would do with their antennas were fascinating. And how they would manipulate each other for food, and keep food from certain other ones. The whole thing was just fascinating. And for me, it was also part of the piece in a certain sense.
FJO: Now, to take it to plants. One could argue that even if insects may not be engaging in the same aesthetic processes that you are in the pieces that you involved them in, they certainly have will. Most people don’t think of plants as having will. I think that what you’ve done with plants is particularly fascinating, because it’s trying to address the living qualities of these life forms that we take for granted.
MM: I don’t think of plants as having will, but I will say some plants are very different from each other, even in one species. Some will be very responsive and some won’t be. I use EEG sensors on leaves, so I can monitor activity, and some plants are really responsive. You can get good readings on the sensors from the ones that are semi-tropical with very sebaceous leaves. If they’re in the jungle, they have to think which branch am I going to have to wrap myself around. Aristotle said the difference between humans and plants is plants can’t move, and human beings can. But actually these plants in the rain forest can actually go several miles by living on the treetops, and then shooting roots down. When they want to go somewhere else, they kill the nutrients off and then they move and get new roots in another location. But there are these plants, of course, like a lettuce, that just open and close; they are kind of like a toggle switch. Other plants grow quickly, and their vines shoot in directions where it’s most beneficial for them. So there’s definitely a lot of going there. These root systems can be considered somewhat like a neuron center of some sort.
FJO: So how does this all translate into music?
MM: Well, they give off mini-volts, which is one millionth of a volt. They recently discovered that plants have ultraviolet sensitivity, which is something human beings aren’t even able to discern. There’s a lot going on there. But it’s like any kind of data piece, whether you’re taking the information from earthquake activity, or wind activity. But my plant pieces were in real time. Often data pieces are not. They’re just taking a splice of something that happened and then interpreting that data. It started from my taking data from people’s brains in concerts, going from brain-activated pieces to using plants’ data. For some reason, those pieces got farther along for me than the brain pieces.

Masaoka performing with plants

One of Miya Masaoka’s performances with plants. (Photo by Donald Swearington.)

FJO: But it’s another one of these things where, if one were to hear it without knowing how those sounds came about, what would be the difference in the experience? And this begs the question of where does the music lie in this for you in all of these pieces—the plant pieces, the insect pieces. What is the musical issue that’s coming out of it for you that led you to create in this way?
MM: Well, they’re very different in a certain sense because the ones with insects are taking the actual sounds of the insects, but the ones with plants are taking their relationship to voltage output. A lot of it is negotiating what’s going to happen, whether it’s an installation, or whether it’s something that’s an eight-minute piece that goes from beginning to end. That’s a challenge for those kinds of pieces, to take the data and to make it interesting. I guess there are different ways of thinking about data, how pure this relationship is to the scientific frequencies coming out or whether that can be interpreted or manipulated for compositional purposes. I always err on the side of artistic license to really take the data and then apply it so that there is some sonic interest and development and satisfaction.
FJO: So how do you know when these pieces end? What is an ending?
MM: For long durational pieces, I think there’s the question of my own attention span and the attention span of the audience, the perceiver, the listener. I’ve been to India many times and have experienced seven-hour concerts, as well as [extended] durational concerts by different composers, like La Monte Young. There’s something very beautiful about this kind of eternity and things going on and on, but I also like something that you can kind of experience and then you have to go back to the memory. Once the piece starts, you start listening to it and then you go back to the memory of what you listened to. It’s like reflecting upon whatever just happened in a time-based way. The last event that happened that was meaningful, maybe you return to that. And then there’s a new meaningful event. And then you return to that along the timeline. And it kind of goes like that. And after a span of time happens, you reflect on the whole experience, and find what was meaningful or satisfying, or maybe what was not. For me, there’s kind of a ratio of attention span plus time plus satisfaction equals end. I just made that up right now. [laughing]
FJO: That’s good! You were talking about using raw data versus manipulating it for aesthetic ends. Even though we’re now in the 21st century, we’re still playing all these games with binaries. It’s either this or that. Either it’s about structure or it’s intuitive. One of the things I was trying to think through for what could be the sound bite to describe your music is its corporeality. At the onset of our talk you described your interest in physical moving sound. There’s a physicalness to most of your music, much more so—at least it seems—than the working out of a rigid process. You do all these experiments, but they’re really about how sound exists in the world more than how it exists in your brain. Is that fair?
MM: Anything’s fair. I think that’s an interesting way of thinking, and that sounds like an approach.
FJO: Here’s where it becomes a loaded gun thing—a lot of recent debates about aesthetics contextualize creative choices in terms of gender. The argument goes that men like to create all these rules which result in highly structured pieces, whereas women are more intuitive and they respond to things. Reality is a lot more complex than that, but this binary is something used to explain, say, why there are no 90-minute symphonies by women composers.
MM: Even 40-minute symphonies, why aren’t there those? They don’t have to be 90 minutes.
FJO: Well, I can think of at least ten 40-minute symphonies by women, but I can’t think of any 90-minutes ones. But is this related to gender and is this kind of thinking an issue for you in your own music making? When we talked about identity before, we didn’t talk so much about gender. How important are those questions for you?
MM: Those questions are very important because they have to do with how we function in our social context. So that’s very important. Some things are just done out of necessity. I would often do lots of solo things, especially in the earlier days, because I didn’t have the funding and the resources to hire people. Then whenever I did get funding, the first thing I would do was create more structured pieces to include more people and hire them. That’s always been something that I’ve done consistently. And there’ve been scores and rules for all of my pieces that have to do with larger groups because it’s too unwieldy otherwise. I think that serialism was kind of an extreme, and certainly it broke down, not just for women, but for men as well, but still there are certain things that are very interesting about serialism. For me, it’s more a question of access, being able to have musicians and being able to get your work performed. These kinds of things are more important to me than thinking that this is generalized for this gender or for that gender, which really is not very helpful for anybody.
FJO: But one thing that certainly is helpful to someone who is creative, especially during one’s formative years, is being able to have role models. While there have always been women composers, they did not really have much of an impact on the greater trajectory of music history until composers of Pauline Oliveros and Yoko Ono’s generation. Before their time, the role models were pretty much all men. I know that Pauline Oliveros is somebody who has been very important to you as a mentor. And on your website you include a fascinating talk you did with Yoko Ono, who also created work that blurs the line between sound and vision and performance.
MM: I don’t consider her a role model per se, but she’s definitely been an iconic artist.
FJO: So who are your role models?
MM: Well, Pauline Oliveros, Kaija Saariaho, Olga Neuwirth… I get very inspired by visual artists as well, like Kara Walker, and writers.
FJO: Everyone you mentioned is a woman.
MM: Well, there are men, too, but they get mentioned a lot. I like to mention people who aren’t mentioned as much.
FJO: The person you chose as your life partner, George Lewis, is also an iconic composer and musical thinker. I’m curious about how having the central person in your life also be a creator has impacted your own work. I know that the two of you have collaborated in the past.
MM: Not for a long time. We have a really separate artistic life, I’d say. We buy different pieces of equipment, even if it’s the same a lot of times, because it just makes it easier. You have your equipment, and no one’s going to mess with it. And then when you need it, it’s going to be in the exact same state in which you left it. Those kinds of things are important. And we have different places where we work. But it’s so enriching, because when we do get a chance to sit down and talk about different things, there’s always something interesting to say. So, I really appreciate that part of it.
FJO: It’s interesting. You were such an important fixture in the Bay Area new music scene, and now you’ve been in New York City for over a decade. Since so much of your music is about the physical world around you, I’m curious about how being in a different place has affected the work you’ve done since you’ve been here.
MM: The work I’ve done here in New York is focused more on composition. I just finished this string quartet. But in some ways, it all somewhat follows a life trajectory to a certain extent, since I’m not in my 20s and 30s anymore. I’ve got a small child. There are these kinds of interruptions of life to a certain extent that affect things. The Bay Area was, too, but New York is such a stimulating place to be, so I love being here every minute.

Score excerpt from "Survival"

An excerpt from the score of “Survival”, part 3 of Triangle of Resistance. Copyright © 2013 by Miya Masaoka. Reproduced with the permission of the composer.

Triangle of Resistance

From the world premiere performance of Miya Masaoka’s score for Triangle of Resistance at Roulette on November 17, 2013: Jennifer Choi and Esther Noh, violins; Ljova, viola; Alex Waterman, cello; plus Satoshi Takeishi, percussion; Miya Masaoka, koto; and Ben Vida, analog modular synthesizer. Conducted by Richard Carrick. Video projections by Michelle Handelman. Direction by Brooke O’Harra.

FJO: You also recently wrote your first orchestra piece.
MM: It was a piece called Other Mountain that was performed by the La Jolla Symphony last year.
FJO: Is that something you’re interested in exploring more now?
MM: Well, the large forces of a symphony are a learning experience, and it’s also a very intriguing way of thinking, how the sounds from each individual instrument work together. It’s something new for me, and it’s been endlessly fascinating. I don’t know really where the future goes with that, but it’s really an incredible thing to be able to have done.

Other Mountain orchestral score excerpt

From the orchestral score for Other Mountain Copyright © 2013 by Miya Masaoka. Reproduced with the permission of the composer.

#Yeezus: Lessons in Contemporary Performance from the Stadium Set

Late one recent mid-October evening, Kanye West walked out on stage in Seattle to kick off his Yeezus tour in a jewel-encrusted Maison Martin Margiela mask reminiscent of artist Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skulls. Death-obsessed Hirst says he created those glittery skulls because he was making art from what was around him, and perhaps one could be pushed towards similar conclusions here: that money is Kanye’s medium. However, the nearly three-hour-long show was not a referendum on narcissistic bedazzled-navel navel-gazing. Instead it was a massive interdisciplinary art, music, and sound event produced on a scale large enough to successfully fill an arena.

Kanye’s elusive and shadowy creative agency DONDA designed the elaborate set—a 50-foot, multi-tiered mountain with an even bigger rotating projection screen behind it, a runway with extensive futuristic laser possibilities, and a moving triangular mountain-extension stage in the middle of the arena. If you look through the hashtag #yeezus or #yeezustour right now on Instagram, you might think to yourself, “Dude, this is hella Wagner,” and you’d be right—the main set designer for Kanye’s tours and concerts is Es Devlin, who has designed sets for dozens of operas, mainly in Europe, including a production of Wagner’s Parsifal. At the time of this writing, I have been unable to confirm that Ms. Devlin worked with DONDA on the Yeezus tour, but her influence and direction is surely present given her extensive history with Kanye in the past. Beyond the physical set itself, the massive projection screen was its own lively being. At times it became the moving and occasionally apocalyptic sky behind the mountain, at other times there was live video processing going on that was projected onto the screen—two different videographers capturing Kanye’s face enshrouded in another of the jeweled masks, then someone manipulating the image and projecting it onto the screen above. And still other times there were video works pointing to themes of racism, institutionalized violence, and the oppression of minorities via imagery such as the human back in a vulnerable position or vicious barking dogs. And, often enough these images and events were peppered with feedback-inflected, noisy drones, recordings of “Indian pow-wows” from old films re-appropriated to make a beat-driven commentary on racism, spoken word interludes over resounding choruses, or sounds of electronically manipulated orchestral instruments that bring to mind Olivia Block’s latest project. Signature Kanye West beats seamlessly strung it all together.

Most reviews of this opening Yeezus show in Seattle, like this one in Rolling Stone, note the cadre of women wearing bodysuits and imply that this is surely an example of just how narcissistic this rich black rapper is. In fact, the body suits seemed not to be designed with hyper-sexuality in mind, but highlighted the human figure, often in zombie-like gray tones. West has collaborated with performance artist Vanessa Beecroft a number of times over the last few years—at listening parties in L.A. and also for his epic 35-minute video for Runaway. And, indeed, Beecroft was not only the choreographer, but also the artistic director for the show. Throughout the performance, the dancers interacted with both the mountain and Kanye, created a series of shifting shapes and textures, and at one point mimed a Catholic-inspired priestly procession. They also appeared to act out other scenes seemingly drawn from the history of performance art such as Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy.

As the show progressed, Kanye moved through a series of other masks and a number of costume changes, and a slightly abstract storyline slowly unfolded. Kanye as a black Jesus (a.k.a. Yeezus), the rise and fall and struggle of this character as he moves through a shamanistic vision-quest and eventually, in a bizarre and hilarious Christian passion play-like event, confronts Jesus, who emerges from the giant mountain in a stream of light and smoke. While there had been costume changes leading up to this moment, the intentionality seemed to shift at this point. There was a huge robe and white face mask that made Kanye appear alternately like a scarecrow and like a depiction of a dying Jesus or disciple in a Raphael painting. When meeting “White Jesus,” Yeezus wore an elaborate, Arab-inspired blue tunic echoing the Nation of Islam’s Tribe of Shabazz and Black Power—a leader with a new vision splitting with the past and pointing to a new way forward.

All in all, this was a massive undertaking, and to imagine the manpower and money that will be required in order for Kanye and DONDA to take this show on tour is mind-boggling. So it would be easy to write this off as being something unattainable for anyone outside of pop royalty. Yet, this is clearly an excellent example of what is possible when it comes to art and the general public. There I was in an arena filled with 15,000 people—people on their feet in awe of experimental performance art, music and highly sophisticated video pieces.

The internet has produced a seemingly endless supply of blog posts heralding the “death” of classical music, while others have suggested that shoveling heaps of violinists into bars to perform might redeem a too-formal concert music in the eyes of the public. There have even been curiously racist musings suggesting that the color of one’s skin dictates how we perceive time, and that this could be the key to getting Mozart and communities of color together in the same room. However, this post is not meant to suggest a new way forward with the same old ideas, but to suggest that the way forward is a full-on bear hug with interesting and challenging new ideas, and that people of all races and ages yearn for this, whether or not they say it in the same way we do.
Perhaps we just need to admit to ourselves that people like to be challenged, that people want to dive into wild and contemporary imagery and messages, but that our success in that mission may not come from our own backyard. I was fortunate enough to experience something intense, interesting, challenging, interdisciplinary, and yet totally accessible. Part of what is so striking about the Yeezus tour is that this is supposedly low art, but it’s woven seamlessly into so-called high art on a massive scale, and it’s actually really difficult to tease apart where one discipline ends and another begins. Things are getting messy, and that’s ok! All different aspects the show are free of their respective dogmas through new combinations with different disciplines and a well-balanced group of collaborators. And, all these collaborations are celebrated and are made interactive because, as Laurie Anderson notes and the 300,000-strong #yeezus hashtag demonstrates, we are the media now, and so even the audience is incorporated into the performance as an analytical and reflective machine—the performance continuing on as people see it from different angles and perspectives in videos and photographs and sharing of content. Success like this is possible for new music, too, but doing that may have to start with us putting down our instruments and seeing what’s happening in the rest of the world.

Brenda Hutchinson: Expanding the Ordinary Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AG: Ha! And it’s still going, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

AG: It’s a very visceral experience.

BH: It’s totally visceral.

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

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

AG: Sure. You can pick one.

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

AG: I like this one.

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

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

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

AG: Yeah, it’s nice.

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

AG: You should hang onto this one.

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

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

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

AG: So what now?

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

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

Test of Time

Paradoxically, the less free time I’ve had in recent years, the more fascinated I have become with works of art that require an extraordinary time commitment in order to be appreciated. I’m hopelessly attracted to musical compositions involving durational extremities (like La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano), time-based art installations (like the work of Marina Abramović), and extremely long novels (like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Mathias Énard’s Zone, even though I still need to figure out a way to actually finish reading the latter). Even further afield from temporal practicality, I’m completely enamored with the idea of works that last 24 hours, because the concept of filling an entire day with a work of art seems like a magical and extremely beautiful proposition. Eventually I would love to create something this long myself, something that would be constructed to parallel the details of a specific day—sunrise, sunset, rush hour, sleep, etc. That said, I have yet to experience any 24-hour piece and I am not completely sure how I would do so. Time constraints aside, there are some other basic issues that would require planning and navigating around, not the least of which are such mundane matters as physical stamina, dealing with hunger, and other bodily functions.


Anticipating noon was one of the highlights of my own experience of The Clock. Christian Marclay, Installation view of The Clock, 2010; Single-channel video with sound; 24 hours; White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, October 15-November 13, 2010. Photo Todd-White Photography © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and White Cube, London.

Therefore I was extremely excited by the prospect of finally experiencing Christian Marclay’s The Clock last week, although to describe it as a 24-hour work of art—as publications including The New York Times and The Guardian have done—is a bit of a misnomer. Although the work consists of a total of exactly 24 hours of unique content, a mash-up plundered from literally thousands of film and television segments in which the exact time of the day is depicted (either visually—e.g. an image of an actual clock—or in spoken dialog), it is a seamless loop that hypothetically could repeat in perpetuity. (A crew is required to ensure that the video is always completely in sync with the exact time in whatever location The Clock is presented in.) “There is no beginning and no end,” according to Marclay, who addressed a press conference in New York City on July 12 prior to the private press viewing of The Clock at NYC’s David Rubinstein Atrium. As part of the 2012 Lincoln Center Festival, The Clock opened to the general public on Friday, July 13 and it will remain open and free through August 1. Although closed on Mondays and only open from 8:00am to 10:00pm from Tuesdays through Thursdays, it will run continuously from 8:00am on Friday morning to 10:00pm Sunday night which offers folks the possibility of experiencing at least two complete cycles of it uninterrupted.

However, Marclay does not expect anyone to sit through The Clock for a full 24 hours; he admitted that he himself has never done so when I asked him if he had. (I had to ask.) “It is not an endurance test,” he explained. Rather, unlike cinema, which he adamantly proclaimed The Clock is not, it is designed for people to come and go as they desire. The audience members themselves determine how much of it they want to experience, and any chosen time frame is theoretically an equally valid experience of the piece. But as an audience member, I find being given that much liberty somewhat unsettling. If somebody has created something and I decide to experience it, I feel I have an obligation to endure all of it; to me it is part of the social contract of being an audience member. I never walk out during a concert, I always try to see every work that is part of an exhibition, and I invariably finish books once I start reading them, even books which are ultimately not fulfilling—often I will appreciate a book only once I’ve completed reading it. Admittedly, sometimes experiencing an entire work is not feasible or even possible. I was a bystander to Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present (a performance art installation in which individual audience members sit across a table from a silent Abramović for an indeterminate amount of time). I was afraid to actually sit across from her, worried that I might never be able to stand up again. Similarly I have yet to travel to Alaska to experience John Luther Adams’s The Place Where You Go To Listen. This is another work with no beginning and no end, its electronically generated sonic content—determined by weather patterns—set up to last ad infinitum. There are very few things that I’m more interested in hearing, but how would I ever be able to tear myself away once I got there?

Thankfully if one were to attempt to experience all of The Clock, it would offer less of a challenge. After 24 hours, it becomes less like The Place Where You Go To Listen and more like Groundhog Day. And even if, like Phil Connors (the character played by Bill Murray in the film), your experience of going through the cycle over and over again eventually leads to a major mental breakthrough, the guards will kick you out after a maximum stay of 62 hours (the weekend hours at the David Rubinstein Atrium).


Between noon and 12:30pm, this particular clock made several appearances in The Clock. Christian Marclay. Detail of The Clock, 2010. Single-channel video with sound; 24 hours. Photo: Todd-White Photography © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and White Cube, London.

Last Thursday, I stayed for only approximately three hours (from roughly 10:45am to 1:45pm, which is a mere 1/8th of the work). I wanted to stay longer, but I knew that I’d only be allowed to remain for only about an additional hour before the screening room needed to be cleaned in preparation for the next set of advance opening guests. As the time wore on, I decided I didn’t want the jolt of being told to leave, especially after hearing Marclay’s remarks about wanting the audience to decide when to come and go, meaning that the only way to be true to his intentions is to leave on your own accord. But it was really difficult to do so.

Yet on another level it was extremely easy to leave since there were no cliffhangers whose resolution I knew I would be missing when I did. I knew exactly what would happen next: time would continue its unstoppable progression. While thousands upon thousands of narratives are woven through The Clock, contained within its constituent snippets from pre-existing films which are just long enough to actually get you interested in the characters, the individual story lines never resolve; rather they get lost and replaced with others as time marches forward. And in the three-hours of the work I sat through, interspersed between classic and more recent Hollywood fare, there were excerpts from French, German, Chinese, and Japanese films as well. None of the segments in foreign languages included subtitles, since what the people were saying didn’t matter. Yet that is not to say that The Clock has no plot. I witnessed the birth of a bunch of babies as well as a few murders, a suicide, and a couple of executions, but the details of every one of these were never revealed; their sole purpose was merely to show the passing of time, which is the ultimate plot line. When I left at 1:45, my biggest disappointment was not finding out what was going to happen to anyone I had been watching for the last three hours, but rather in missing his portrayal of 2:00pm—this was something I did not need to stay there to know he would do.

Of course, I experienced 2:00pm on Thursday after noon even though by that point I was no longer inside Marclay’s construct, or was I? After walking out of the space, I found myself walking south on Broadway to get to a subway train to return to my office—actually I needed to take two trains to get where I needed to be. Bizarrely, it felt as if I had never left. At the 59th street station, a digital display announced that the local train would be arriving in 0 minutes and, suddenly, there it was. Changing for the express at Times Square was as effortless: a similar sign displayed 0 as the train I needed to get on pulled into the station. I got off at Fulton Street and walked up onto the sidewalk. I decided to take some food back to my desk since it was already later than when I usually have lunch, and yet again, no wait. No one was in line ahead of me. It was jump cut after jump cut, just like The Clock, until I got to my desk, ate my lunch, turned on my computer, and attempted to begin to write down my thoughts about what I had just experienced which finally eroded my constant awareness of time over days and has morphed into what you are now reading.


2:00pm according to The Clock; something I didn’t stay to see. Christian Marclay. Detail of The Clock, 2010. Single-channel video with sound; 24 hours. © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery.

If art is a mirror of life, and the most effective works of art change your experience of life, then The Clock totally worked for me. Back in February, when The Clock was being presented at the Paula Cooper Gallery, Will Brand expressed disappointment that Marclay broke his own rules and included many clips which did not seem to directly reference a specific time of day. But that didn’t bother me at all. We don’t always look at clocks in our day-to-day existence. So a relentless barrage of clock images and verbal time references without anything else would actually be less sincere. And in order for The Clock to be believable, the editing together of all of these audio and video fragments had to appear seamless and I thought that it did. If in order for his stitches to be perfect, he required footage to cut away to from time to time, as far as I’m concerned it’s as valid an artistic license as slightly flattening pure perfect fifths in order to work within a completely circular modulation chain. But I nevertheless had my own pet peeves. While it was nice to see noon on clocks all over the world, it is temporally impossible. When Big Ben chimes noon in London it’s already eight hours later in Tokyo and only 7:00am in New York City. But I travel too much, I suppose. Ultimately art is not life, art is art.

Part of why The Clock is so effective is it creates its own paradigms. That it does so by exclusively mining pre-existing work adds to its allure because it takes things that are familiar and makes them completely unfamiliar. And the fact that it eschews narrative plot lines through the use of content that constantly reinforces a collection of tried-and-true same story formulas, commercial motion pictures, makes it completely subversive. What is perhaps its most revolutionary aspect, however, is how it deals with time, which after all is the only thing it is about. Daniel Zalewski, in an extensive exegesis about The Clock’s genesis which appeared in The New Yorker, describes the essential challenge that The Clock poses to audiences of the cinema and/or television:

“People went to the movies to lose track of time; this video would pound viewers with an awareness of how long they’d been languishing in the dark. It would evoke the laziest of modern pleasures—channel surfing—except that the time wasted would be painfully underlined.”

But Zalewski’s assessment of Marclay’s challenge for film and TV audiences holds equally true for audiences for any kind of artistic product, especially music. Although music exists in time, it is most effective when you lose your sense of time within it somehow. Isn’t it only the 10 minute pieces you don’t like that feel like they’ve gone on for half an hour, while a 25-minute piece that you’re in love with seems to race by? The Clock, on the other hand, doesn’t ever move too fast or too slow. Yet, according to Marclay, who in addition to his recent forays in video art remains active as a composer and a DJ, even though “you’re constantly being told the time, you still can get lost in it.” I know that I did and still am.

In that sense, The Clock, shares a kinship with the “The Entertainment,” the mysterious final creation of avant-garde filmmaker James Orin Incandenza in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. “The Entertainment” was purported to have been so dangerous that anyone exposed to it would become incapable of doing anything other than viewing it. (Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but during the portion of The Clock I saw, one of the only clips that did not reference a specific time was the famous “Alas Poor Yorick” scene from the Laurence Olivier film of Shakespeare’s Hamlet which includes the words “infinite jest”.) Marclay might be concerned about our sanity when he suggests that we should not feel compelled to sit through all of The Clock. But even when we are not viewing it, we are, since its plotline, the passage of time, is something from which we can never escape.