Tag: sound 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.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonnie Jones: The Sounds of Not Belonging

Bonnie Jones

If you are attending an event in Baltimore that includes improvised electronic music, experimental theater, or multimedia installation, the chances are good that you will cross paths with sound artist and poet Bonnie Jones. She is arguably one of the most active and engaged members of the Baltimore art community, and rightly so—she gets things done, and has been doing just that for the past 20 years. Whether she is curating shows at The Red Room, helping organize the annual High Zero Festival, performing a set of her own improvised, noise-based music at the H&H Building, or teaching young girls to build contact mics from scratch through her organization Techne, she is actively bringing art to life, and at the same time feeding her own creative practice. Jones considers creation, performance, curation, and community service all as crucial facets of her artistic persona.

Jones’s music, which fuses electronic noise and text, emerges in large part from the sounds of her childhood, growing up on a dairy farm in New Jersey. She explains, “I grew up in a rural, very quiet, sound space that was punctuated by atypical sounds, which is to say machinery. Like a lot of machinery. The sounds that I remember as a kid were the buzzing of the low flying crop-dusting helicopters that came through. Airplanes overhead. Lawnmowers—big ones, not suburban ones, but huge tractor-like mowers. All kinds of other mechanical sorts of sounds…and the sounds of animals mixed with that.”

Those sounds made an impression, but Jones’s first artistic interest was in creative writing. She studied English Literature and poetry in college, and upon moving to Baltimore after graduation, she became immersed in Baltimore’s experimental poetry community. Her interest in the performance aspect of poetry led naturally to improvised music-making, and soon she was experimenting with combinations of language and sound in live performance contexts.

“When you are writing, or when you have a piece of text, you can talk about the past. And you can take a person to the past in language. It’s not quite as easy to do that musically. It’s hard to use sound to move people through time. Even though it’s a time-based medium, you can move people through the present time, but it’s not the same as moving a person through historical or subjective time.”

“It’s hard to use sound to move people through time. Even though it’s a time-based medium, you can move people through the present time, but it’s not the same as moving a person through historical or subjective time.”

It was while she was living and studying in South Korea on a Fulbright grant that Jones discovered the sonic materials that fit her artistic voice; electronic music pedals that could bend and twist sounds into nearly any form possible. She says, “When I went to Korea, and I was first introduced to these electronic music pedals, the moment that the sound came out of those, I was immediately like: This is the sound. These are the instruments. This is the sound space that I’ve been interested in intuitively but hadn’t really found the instrument for… These are the sounds that nobody wants.”

As it turns out, the sounds are indeed wanted, as she has increasingly been receiving grants and commissions to create new work. Her recent installation, 1,500 Red-Crowned Cranes, funded in part by a Rubys Artist Project Grant from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, incorporates text, sound, and objects to create, “a layered, intricate, installation work about bodies in migration, the consequences of borders and boundaries, and the imaginative potential of in-between spaces.” This work marks the beginning of an artistic shift for Jones, from improvised performance to the more fixed, less ephemeral experiences that installation work can provide. She says that her focus will still be on sound but will emphasize different ways to experience the work in real-time, such as moving sound through space, or the effect that objects have on the transmission of sound.

While Jones’ work takes many forms, the thread through it all hinges on creating visceral experiences that can lead to an increased understanding of the materials and subjects at hand. In this interview, she discusses the benefits and challenges of combining sound and text in improvisatory settings, her personal development as an artist, and about elevating the art scene in one’s community through participation and service.

  • I spent a lot of time sleeping in a camper, falling asleep to old-time or Appalachian music.

    Bonnie Jones
    Bonnie Jones
  • It’s hard to use sound to move people through time. Even though it’s a time-based medium, you can move people through the present time, but it’s not the same as moving a person through historical or subjective time.

    Bonnie Jones
    Bonnie Jones
  • I’m gonna work with the sounds that nobody wants

    Bonnie Jones
    Bonnie Jones
  • I have like completely combined my organizing, curatorial, and community service aspects of my practice into one thing. I don’t make any divisions anymore—all the parts are my practice.

    Bonnie Jones
    Bonnie Jones
  • Sound vibrates in every material; it’s an impenetrable phenomenon.

    Bonnie Jones
    Bonnie Jones
  • Not having any money doesn’t mean your parents pay for some things, or your partner pays for some things—in those cases you don’t have a lot of money, but you have a lot of safety net. Not having any money means you just don’t have any money. What you make is what you have to work with.

    Bonnie Jones
    Bonnie Jones
  • I don’t think I’m going to refashion myself as a visual artist at this point. It’s just not something that I can do. I’m a musician for sure.

    Bonnie Jones
    Bonnie Jones
  • Certain individuals and their personal subjective realities haven’t actually been seen in art, or in art history.

    Bonnie Jones
    Bonnie Jones

Ellen Reid: More Than Sound

A woman sitting on a blue couch

“Would you ever say any concert is just about the sound?” Ellen Reid asked me when I met with her in Brooklyn a few days after the final PROTOTYPE performance of her opera p r i s m.

That question might initially seem odd coming from someone who defines herself as both a composer and a sound artist—someone who pays close attention to sound, whether it’s the careful spatial positioning of objects in an installation or slightly changing the instrumental forces accompanying voices to make listeners think they’re hearing different music. Yet that question made total sense to me after attending two live performances of her music the previous week—the aforementioned emotionally traumatic yet life-affirming p r i s m and the powerful, politically charged choral work dreams of the new world.

Although the music was extremely compelling in both works, it was clearly conceived to be just one of many elements that went into these multisensory experiences. In the realm of contemporary opera, audiences are now accustomed to watching a theatrical experience unfold that is every bit as significant as the pitches in the arias that are being sung, so in that sense p r i s m is not unique. (It is unique rather for the way that the story does not unfold in linear time, and how the music helps to skew the storyline’s altered chronology.) Concert presentations of choral pieces, on the other hand, are usually always focused exclusively on the composer despite the pedigree of the text being set. Yet Reid made it clear in her comments before the performance of dreams of the new world, as well as in our conversation, that her music was just one of the elements that went into creating this piece. For those pre-performance comments, as well as during the bow she took at the end of it, Reid was joined by both her librettist Sarah LaBrie and Sayd Randle, who served as the work’s lead researcher and dramaturg.

“We came up with the concept together,” Reid explained. “We were all involved in each other’s work, and I think that that’s a really honest thing that happens in the craft of making music. I guess in all performative mediums, but especially in more theatrical mediums with a story.”

Reid’s collaborative generosity is extremely refreshing and comes from an extensive background in composing for film soundtracks and incidental music for theater, as well as living for two and a half years in Thailand where she immersed herself in traditional musical practices.

“The amount of people that it takes to make a work of art is enormous,” Reid elaborated. “We have put a certain amount of weight on different parts of those things to make some of them seem more important, but they couldn’t happen without the other ones. … I think one reason that I’m really set on featuring my collaborators is that I’ve done a lot of work in other mediums where composers are not the first artist. … [To me,] it feels more like a constellation.”

  • The amount of people that it takes to make a work of art is enormous, but it’s usually credited to one person.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • Would you ever say any concert is just about the sound?

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • You can’t ever watch anything for the first or second time if you’ve made it.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • I think it’s not that rare, especially for women, to start writing a little later.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • I grew up going to see different art things, but one thing that I didn’t see often was concert music.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • One of my entry points into opera was when I was living in Thailand working with Thai classical opera.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • I was obsessed with figuring out how I could make a song that sounded sad to every person in the world.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • Composition has to do with notes. And sound art has to do with how you hear.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • Everything’s in response to everything else.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • People who want to be playwrights want to be in the driver’s seat. And in opera, you’re not.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist

Reid’s instinctive team spirit, as well as her awareness that sound always exists alongside other sensory stimuli, even informs music she creates that would otherwise be perceived as purely “instrumental” or “abstract,” words put in scare quotes here because they’re not particularly adequate descriptors for Reid’s output. For example, even when writing a piece for orchestra, Reid will write tempos a certain way based on her mindfulness of what the conductor will look like during its realization.

“I think there’s an element of choreography and theater in how everything is interpreted as a viewer,” she explained.

Reid seemed to imply that she would be composing for orchestra again in the near future, but since it had yet to be officially announced, she would not offer us any further details about the project other than to acknowledge that whatever she writes will inevitably be informed by the visual realities that occur during the process of a large group of people making music as a result of someone’s baton movements and/or hand gestures.

“It has to be. They’re front and center: a dancer conductor.”


Ellen Reid in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the home of Sarah Baird Knight in Brooklyn, NY
January 14, 2019—1:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Chicago: Hiking the Song Path, hearing music everywhere

These golden weeks of early fall are the perfect time for Chicagoans to get outside and engage our senses. Perhaps, with the help of composer and sound artist Ryan Ingebritsen, we might engage our sense of listening in particular.
When I heard about Ingebritsen’s Song Path project — a venture that began in 2010 as a series of “sonic guided tours” of Minnesota State Parks — I jumped at the chance to speak with him about it. The Song Path idea intrigues multiple layers of my existence as a musician, lover of nature, and meditator. For Ingebritsen, Song Path is a practice that explores guided meditation and hiking as a compositional form.

song_path_walkway

Ingebritsen recently designed a Song Path hike at the North Park Village Nature Center on the outskirts of Chicago. I caught up with him to chat about what it means for a primarily electronic artist to lead troupes of people through the woods.

Ellen McSweeney: You work a lot with electronic media, from the Millennium Park sound system to electrified sewing machines. But when you described the Chicago Song Path event, you emphasized the lack of microphones and electronic equipment. Is it refreshing for you, to just work with nature and the human ear?

Ryan Ingebritsen: When I first started working with electronics, it was actually quite a leap for me. Up to that point, I had viewed myself as an acoustic composer who would not get involved in electronics or amplification. In those days there was much more of an aesthetic separation between the two trajectories, at least at music conservatories. But I found that I was always wanting to orchestrate in a way where one sound kind of emerged out of another, and wanted to literally have one sound “become” another and embody something of the other sound. That is when I started working with electronics and amplification more seriously. That led to a career-long obsession with interaction and the interactive process, which in turn led to my obsession with interdependent performance practice between artists of different media or disciplines.

I’d spend hours in the studio with sound, listening to the subtle details that made up those sounds. And in performance, I often play the role of sound environment manipulator, focusing on the specific sound environment in which the performer and audience live. So in a sense, what I do with Song Path is not much different from my live performance practice. I’m just moving an audience through an existing space to create a composition, rather than manipulating a sound environment while they sit in one place.
song_path_listening

EM: How did you first come upon the idea of Song Path, and how has the practice evolved for you in recent years?

RI: I first started to consider the idea of Song Path while just hiking through the woods with my wife Shannon on camping trips. I would find myself in a place with interesting sounds, like a swamp with lots of frogs or field of crickets, and would notice how sometimes these sounds seemed to appear almost out of nowhere and at other times increased gradually in a very dramatic way.
I think one such specific hike at Starved Rock State Park really got me interested in the idea of doing it as a musical event. The various cavernous spaces that had been carved by water over millions of years seemed to imply different “rooms” for which short pieces could be composed. An audience could hike from location to location and hear a multi-movement work.

I got my first opportunity to really develop the Song Path in 2010 through the support of a McKnight Foundation Visiting Composer Fellowship to Minnesota. In certain spaces, such as Whitewater and Banning State Parks in Minnesota, I found that placing musicians around the park to make noises in very specific locations allowed various sonic elements to be revealed. But my intention with putting them there was only to instigate something that was already present in the space. For example, some natural reverberations exist in a valley when one yells in a specific acoustic node. Put a drum in that node, and a spectacular sound is revealed.

song_path_goldenstream
EM: Are walks like these a way to rebalance and refocus your attention, in a world where 24/7 headphones and sonic overload are everywhere?

RI: I think that it is an opportunity to teach the audience to experience their environment in a different way. The head of interpretive programs at Whitewater State Park once told me that after engaging in a purely sonic meditation with his eyes closed, he felt that all of his senses were heightened. I have noticed this myself. Colors seem a bit more vivid and smells a bit more strong. Maybe there’s even a little bit of euphoria.

I will say that a heightened awareness of one’s environment can also be quite a shock to the system, as evidenced by a quick trip I took to Chicago in the middle of the first set of hikes I did. Just getting out of my car onto Western Avenue nearly knocked me over.

EM: Have you ever charted an urban Song Path? What are some of the sonic spots in Chicago that you might put on such a walk?

RI: I have done this for myself a few times, though never with an official audience. One such hike was in Millennium Park. You start it in Lurie Garden, a place that exists because of a man-made structure atop a parking garage that was dug out of a landfill built over 100 years ago that used to be part of Lake Michigan. Then, a garden was planted that reflects the natural landscape that would have existed at that time where a bustling city now stands. We often talk about the intrusion of mankind on nature. This feels more like the intrusion of nature on a man-made environment. It gives you a very small taste of what the place may have sounded like years in the past. But the garden itself also provides a sonic shield from the surrounding city.

I tend to gravitate towards locations where the natural sound environment and man-made sound environment intersect in some specific way. That’s not hard to get, since a sonic landscape untouched by man-made sound almost does not exist on the planet anymore. My friends Eric Leonardson and Dan Godston, associated with the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology, have also done hikes in urban spaces, though perhaps with a slightly different aesthetic focus.

EM: What kinds of folks turn out for the walks, and what sorts of reactions and experiences do you witness while leading the walks?
RI: My first round consisted mainly of people who were camping in the Minnesota parks. I literally went tent to tent and talked to people, as did the park rangers. So I had quite a mix of people: from members of the arts scene in Minneapolis to people who were not aware that classical music was something that people still did. Some people said they could not think of what they were experiencing as “music,” but found it a profound experience. I am interested in what that experience is much more than I am interested in what it is called.

Many of my family hikes were attended by parents who were hunters. They said that what I had been doing in the woods — listening deeply and trying not to disturb the natural surroundings so I could hear everything — was very similar to the practice of hunting, or at least what some of them referred to as “real hunting” where it’s just you and the animals: no traps or other tricks. Animals are so sensitive to what they hear that any small movement or noise you make will disturb them and give them some sense of danger. This kind of hunting is a practice of listening more than anything else, and they spend hour upon hour, day after day doing it each season.

I had a hike where a group of atheist hippies from Minneapolis walked alongside a couple that was taking a road trip across the USA visiting different mega-churches. It is rare that a musical experience can engender such commonality among different groups. Musical communication often relies so much on idiom, which in itself often has social or perhaps even political implication. I’ve seen people almost get into physical fights over musical taste, in arguments far more heated than any political debate I have ever seen. But the experience of the hike seems to help tap into something a bit more universal.
Ryan Ingebritsen is the composer of 3 Singers, an innovative opera/sound installation created in collaboration with director and choreographer Erica Mott. The piece will have its Chicago premiere in January.

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.

Paula Matthusen: Attention to Light


The work of composer Paula Matthusen draws attention to the way sound and space interact with one another. Her use of light within performance settings plays an important role in focusing the audience’s listening experience, and in creating a sense of space. Whether a composition is realized as an electronic installation or written out in a score for performance by other musicians, the physicality of whatever sounds may be involved—and specifically how they behave within a given context—are always important considerations.

Matthusen’s installation works often involve hand-built electronics in addition to extensive computer programming; she says that she enjoys the sort of “inefficiency” and “Pandora’s box” nature of the results. She likens soldering to knitting, explaining, “I like the repetition of it. I like the heat. I like the smell. It’s fun to see something physical come to life like that.” Her instrumental works, which are specially tailored to the personalities and abilities of the performers for whom they are written, also have a handmade aspect to them.

For portable, eight performers walk around a darkened space wielding flashlights as well as vintage suitcases fitted with radio receivers and transmitters that produce sound based on the location of the performers relative to one another. In nacht nacht nacht nacht nacht nacht nacht, three performers crank away at music boxes while four others strike matches, offering glimpses of the unfurling paper rolls and providing counterpoint to the fragile music box tones.

Given Matthusen’s aesthetic inclinations, she’s the ideal person to teach composition through an experiential approach involving listening, creation, and performance. The Experimental Music class at Wesleyan University (where she is an assistant professor of music) is the very same course that Alvin Lucier taught for over 40 years. (No pressure!) Matthusen actually considers Lucier to be one of her musical heroes. Her 2012 composition for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the ontology of an echo, features field recordings from inside the Old Croton Aqueduct that were created by re-capturing recordings of the performers in a manner consistent with Lucier’s I am sitting in a room.

Flying in the face of what she calls the “cultural fantasy” of synchronization, the sense of pulse in Matthusen’s music is often irregular and broken. Events line up (or don’t) based on organic structures that are set rolling and allowed to run their course. By stepping aside and allowing the music to unfold naturally, she finds satisfaction in the resulting creative discoveries. “It’s a matter of being open to something that is completely surprising,” she explains, “but then also being aware enough to be able to appreciate when it actually happens.” By reveling in the small details and rough edges of her musical landscapes, she creates musical environments that heighten perceptions of the ephemeral nature of sound, and ensures that surprises can be found at practically every turn.

Matthew Burtner: Engaging the Natural World


The music of composer Matthew Burtner is in large part inspired by his childhood experiences of the Alaskan landscape where he grew up. That influence applies not only to the content of the music, but to the way it is created. At times during his childhood, his family lived in extremely remote locations in the North and managed without electricity or running water. “So now, I really love to be surrounded by electric things!” he admits, laughing. Burtner can be found knee-deep in cables, computers, and electronic gear pretty much wherever he is—whether directing the Interactive Media Research Group at the University of Virginia where he serves as associate professor of composition and computer technologies, working with his organization EcoSono, which seeks to foster connections between the arts, technology, and environmentalism, or presenting solo performances on the metasaxophone, a computer-enhanced saxophone of his own creation.

Much of his compositional work over the past 15 years has focused on a triptych of multimedia operas, each based on one of the three different geographical regions of Alaska where he lived as a child. The third and most ambitious opera is Auksalaq, co-created with media artist Scott Deal, which employs an interdisciplinary team of scientists, media technologists, artists, and musicians to form an interactive, multimedia commentary on the environmental changes taking place in the far north of Alaska, and the long-term, worldwide effect of those shifts. Described as a “telematic opera,” the performance, which involves a combination of instrumental music, computer sound, spoken and sung texts, and extensive video footage of scientific data and dramatic arctic landscapes, takes place in several locations which are connected via the internet. The audience in each venue experiences part of the performance in person, as well as performances from other regions which are projected onto video screens. There is even an app (prompting audience members at a recent Washington, D.C., performance to coin the term “appera”) which allows people at all of the locations to share their reactions to the drama via texts that are rendered into a constantly moving thought cloud on a screen for all to see, and from which the main character, sung by soprano Lisa Edwards-Burrs, chooses words with which to construct her final aria. Everything about Auksalaq is intended to highlight the concepts of remoteness and interconnectivity, which by the end of the work do not seem to conflict in any way.

Working with and—literally—through the environment is an integral part of Burtner’s musical aesthetic, which he calls ecoacoustics. His interest in the perception of sound traveling through natural materials—such as snow, wind, and sand—has resulted in a number of compositions that make the natural world part of the musical ensemble. For example, Syntax of Snow, created for glockenspiels and fresh snow, is ideally performed outside, as is the work Sandprints, for human-computer ensemble, whistling, and sand. It requires microphones to be buried under the sand to amplify the movements of people manipulating the sand above ground, which are in turn manipulated by a series of computational processes to form the musical material. He has created a large umbrella for this methodology by turning ecoacoustics into an entire course of study, part of which is a performing ensemble called MICE (Musical Interactive Computer Ensemble) which has performed Sandprints in the Namibian desert, as well as created and performed numerous other works. He has also founded a non-profit organization called EcoSono with the mission of spreading the integration of experimental sound art with environmentalism through education, engagement, and artistic production.
When questioned about how he reconciles the potential conflict between his passion for technology and for the environment, he is quick to point out that humans have always needed technology to survive in the world; we need clothing to protect us from the elements, we require boats to move across water, snowshoes to travel over arctic terrain. He sees the potential of technology to assist in bringing people closer to nature, rather than separating them from it, and is intent upon exploding those early childhood experiences listening to the sounds of nature into a shared universal perspective. “I see the issue of climate change as the defining issue of the 21st century. As an artist I think the best thing I can do is to try to engage with the public about the issue, and try to activate more and more voices talking and thinking about it.”