Tag: sound installations

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

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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.)

Michael J. Schumacher: Composing is Listening

Michael J. Schumacher’s 2002 artist statement on the website of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts is a very succinct summary of his aesthetics:

I am interested in context, in defining boundaries and not crossing them. A piano piece is one thing, a sound installation another. The forms are different, the audience is different. The time, the place, it all has to be taken into account. Ultimately, we’re all collaborating with whomever’s participating.

Nevertheless, Schumacher engages in an extremely wide range of music-making—from immersive Room Pieces and other sound installations to collaborations with choreographer Liz Gerring to composing and performing all the “songs” for his indie “dance pop” (for lack of a better term) band diNMachine. In Schumacher’s home in Sunset Park, where we visited him to have an extensive conversation about his musical activities, there are tons of speakers everywhere and a great collection of vintage synthesizers, but also a grand piano in the middle of his living room as well as a small bust of the composer Franz Schubert that’s just hanging out near a window in his dining room.

“I love lots of kinds of music; I’m just aware of the differences,” Schumacher explained when I asked him about the wide variety of his musical endeavors. “I don’t think that leads to only liking one particular kind of approach.  I happen to have really fallen in love with computer algorithms.  I have to say that.  It opened up a way of listening for me that was really fantastic, and it stays fantastic now.  But I was in rock bands as a kid.  I played in some bands up until I was in my 30s. And I improvised a lot. I like having that outlet for that part of my musical being.”

Although Schumacher is deeply interested and involved with a wide range of musical styles, he firmly believes that certain kinds of music-making work better in certain kinds of spaces and that doing the wrong music in the wrong space is unfair to audiences and musicians alike, since it sets up unfulfillable expectations.

“A concert hall is a place for storytelling, but it’s a place where you know the story,” he asserted.  “You know it’s going to be an arc form.  You know there’s going to be a climax and a resolution.  And you’re enjoying that in a place of comfort, in a place of audition, a place watching a storyteller—whether it’s a conductor or an actual person telling the story—and this unfolds in a very predictable way.  Your body’s relationship to that is key: being in a seat and looking forward orients you towards a certain way of perceiving time.”

Schumacher’s deep concern for how sound installations and other primarily electronic music creations—both his own and those created by others—were perceived led him to establish several performance spaces designed specifically for such work, most notably Diapason in New York City.

“The first one was Studio 5 Beekman,” Schumacher remembered. “It was a little office space.  You entered, and there was a small foyer.  This kind of gave you a little bit of a buffer between the world and then the gallery, which was behind a door, beyond the foyer.  That little buffer was very nice, because it let people kind of take a breath.  For me it was also for limiting vision.  Turn the lights down.  It doesn’t have to be dark, but just make the visual less explicit.  I used to use a red light bulb, which got misinterpreted as a kind of gesture of some sort, but I just felt it was a dark color that allowed you to see without making the visual too much of a thing.  I think personally in those situations, it’s not good to have a lot of sound coming from outside.  If people want that, I suppose you can have a space like that, but for the most part I feel people want to be able to control the environment and not have to deal with sirens and things like that.”

Unfortunately after more than a decade, Diapason proved unsustainable and now Schumacher is contemplating hosting sound installations for a small invited audience in his own home. It’s a far more intimate environment than the theaters which present the Liz Gerring dances he scores or the clubs where his band diNMachine might typically perform. And he is well aware that those spaces result in different ways of perceiving which are best served by different approaches to making music. But, he’s also aware that not everyone listens to music the same way, regardless of the space, and is eager to create things that have an impact for anyone who hears them.

“If we’re talking about the ideal listener-viewer, I think that’s one thing.  If we’re talking about a typical audience, that’s another. Both are obviously important.”

December 6, 2017 at 2:00 p.m.
Michael J. Schumacher in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: The homepage of your website has a sequence of photos of all these objects: a teapot with an audio speaker in it; two circuit boards interconnected; and, perhaps the most striking one, a Philadelphia Cream Cheese container. It’s tantalizing, but none of those things have audio links on them, so I suppose that’s just to whet people’s appetites.

Michael J. Schumacher:  I think at some point I did have audio where each object would be a separate channel, and as you clicked on more [of them], you’d get more of the piece.  I don’t know what happened to that.  I don’t really manage my own website; I don’t know how.  My girlfriend does that.  Sometimes things get disconnected or something changes, and it takes us a while to figure out that it happened and to fix it.

FJO:  Wow, that’s a pity.  I would have loved to have clicked on all of those images to hear all those sounds together. So they’re all one piece?

MJS:  Well, the way I work in general is I’m basically writing one piece all the time.  I’m just adding things to it, and then whenever I present it, it’s a part of that piece.  That’s how I look at that realm of the multi-channel stuff; [those sounds] would have been a particular group of things that would belong to this larger concept.

“The way I work in general is I’m basically writing one piece all the time.”

FJO:  So all those things make different sounds, but what were those sounds?

MJS:  Well, they’re all just speakers; they’re not instruments.  I use these objects—the cream cheese container or the teapot—to create a resonant body. I travel with these little drivers and can improvise a resonator on the spot.  I can go to Lisbon and put the speakers in beer glasses or garbage cans or things like that.  But I sometimes get attached to certain resonators, like the Philadelphia Cream Cheese container.

FJO:  I can imagine that a teapot could have some effective acoustic properties based on its shape, but what’s so special about a Philadelphia Cream Cheese container?

MJS:  Well, I think when they designed the container, they were clearly thinking acoustically: something works.  It came from Costco.

Schumacher's Philadelphia Cream Cheese speaker

FJO:  Even though the audio links on those images are currently not working, you’ve made so much of your music available through your amazingly generous and seemingly limitless SoundCloud page. However, about a week ago I started embarking on a plan to listen to every one of the files you uploaded to that page in order—I failed because there’s so much material there. But I also failed because as I was scrolling through the files, I came across one called Middl which had a waveform that immediately made me want to hear it. Most waveforms are somewhat random looking and nondescript, at least to me, but this one had a striking regularity to it. It was unlike any kind of SoundCloud waveform I’d ever seen.  So I jumped ahead.  I cheated on my own listening plan, because I had to hear what that thing sounded like.  And it was a really transformative hour of my life.  It sounds to me like it starts with a telephone dial tone.  Is that what it is?

MJS:  No.

FJO:  What is it?

MJS:  It’s a synthesizer oscillator, and it’s being played by a computer.  The oscillator is a kind of additive synthesizer with eight partials, and these partials are being manipulated by the computer.  So it’s pretty simple.

FJO:  It sounded so much like a telephone dial tone to me—so much so that since hearing it, I can’t interface with an actual telephone in the same way.  I’m now giving it all these musical associations.

MJS:  That’s really good.  I’ve actually tapped into something.

FJO: But apparently not intentionally.

MJS:  No.  Or maybe it was.  Maybe that was my La Monte Young moment of listening to the wires and having it inspire me.

Some of the hardware Schumacher uses to create his music.

FJO:  Another sound file I listened to had a similar effect on me. It was a sound file for the Riga 2014 Room Piece, which also lasted a bit more than an hour. After the file ended, I took off my headphones and walked down the hall.  I was washing my hands in the bathroom sink, and when I turned off the water I was suddenly transfixed by another sound I couldn’t immediately place. The room was completely empty, but there was this steady sound. Maybe it was a heat pipe. But it didn’t matter. I just wanted to listen to it, and it was because I had just listened to your Room Piece. Of course, there’s a whole history of pieces that make us more attuned to the sounds around us that most of us take for granted, starting with John Cage’s 4’33”. All of Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening projects were also part of this tradition. But whereas Cage and Oliveros’s reasons for pursuing a more expansive way to listen seem almost political and even spiritual, the relationship to the larger sonic environment that your music opened me up to has been purely aesthetic; it just made me focus on some interesting sounds.

MJS:  I think a lot about listening; for me, composing is listening and so it’s how you listen and how you respond to the potential meaning in a sound.  I think that what’s become really interesting since Cage is how much you can do in that regard: how and where you can find meaning; how you can juxtapose meanings; how you can suggest resonances beyond sonic resonances to real life associations. This explosion of meaning also includes pre-Cage sound—the relationship between a D and an A, or a D and B-flat. That also has meaning. What’s so exciting about making music now is you’re really—I don’t want to say manipulating, because I don’t try to manipulate meaning. I try to suggest ways that listeners can explore meaning.

“For me, composing is listening.”

FJO:  When you talk about certain sounds being pre-Cage, people listening to that D and that A in the era before Cage and Oliveros were generally listening unquestioningly to a disembodied, abstract, and perhaps idealized relationship between certain sounds typically through the filter of somebody playing an instrument or somebody singing, either themselves or someone else in their home or in a concert hall. But obviously when any musician makes these intentional sounds there’s all this other sound that’s happening, too, much of which is unintentional but just as present.  And I guess in the world we live in now, what we could call the post-deep listening moment, we are at least aware that every sound that’s around us is something that obviously we can hear, even if we’re not consciously listening to it. So how does that change the relationship of what a composer does—for you?

MJS:  These sounds that are outside the specific performance that are accompanying it in some way can be invited in or in some way interact with the performance.  I think it can work both ways.  You can be in a situation and somebody making a sound or some sound coming from the environment can affect your reception of the “musical” sounds.  Let’s just call them musical sounds.  On the other hand, the musical sounds can affect your reception of these other sounds.  So what I like to work with are short, suggestive sounds that can expose meanings in sounds outside the performance. A simple example would be if I play a short note on the piano and by coincidence—and it’s amazing how often this happens—you might hear a car horn in the distance, and that car horn might be the same pitch.  And so the mind relates the two.  In an abstract way, not in a way that it’s saying that’s a car horn, but in a way that it’s saying that’s a B.  That’s the same pitch.  That’s a musical thing, an abstract or musical way of perceiving that car horn.  I really like that, and so I like to put out there enough information that the whole sonic environment can participate in that reception of sound.  Not just a level of concrete associations, but also in these abstract associations like rhythm and pitch.  The other reason to have short events is because they articulate a time-space kind of situation, as do most of the sounds we hear in the environment.  Very few sounds in the environment are steady and non-stop.  If they are, after a while we tend to ignore them.  Most of the sounds we perceive are perceived momentarily, and we’re jumping from one to another.

FJO:  That’s sort of the opposite of the drone aesthetic.

MJS:  Not really, because drones—like La Monte Young’s drones—are incredibly active.  When you’re listening deeply to them, you’re listening to lots of things inside the drone.  For me, a drone is actually exactly that.  It’s just maybe a different way of approaching it.  I think, in both cases, we’re talking about really heightening the moment and trying for a kind of perceptual present.

FJO:  I grew up in New York City amidst 24/7 loud Midtown Manhattan traffic; I had to train myself to be able to fall asleep with the noises of sirens and everything else.  I remember the first time I ever took a trip to the countryside and there were crickets.  I could not fall asleep because it was a constant sound, and it was too close to a musical experience for me.  But of course, a musical experience could also be a completely random assortment of sounds, but I was able to disassociate that. I guess that speaks to what you were saying about how, if you’re not really paying attention, a drone might seem like this constant thing, but there’s lots of other stuff in it.

MJS:  I think that at the beginning, the point of the drone is that superficially it seems like nothing is going on.  But what it’s doing is it’s giving you this time dimension of really saying, “Okay, now I’ve been listening to this for five minutes, and suddenly I’m hearing things that I didn’t hear before.  And then the more I do that, the more I hear in this apparently monolithic sound.”  There are all these details that can only be only accessed through it—first of all—being so-called unchanging, but also giving the listener the time to contemplate.

FJO:  There’s a piece of yours that sort of does that in a weird way.  But maybe, once again, what I thought I was hearing is not quite what you were doing, like how Middl isn’t a dial tone. The piece is called Chiu.

MJS:  That’s a piece Tom Chiu and I performed together.

FJO:  Aha!  Okay.  That’s why it’s called that.  And I hear his violin, but what it sounds like you’ve done to it is created some kind of artificial simulacrum of a Doppler effect.  At least that’s what it sounded like to me.

MJS:  Well, that was a jam. I played my synthesizer.  It’s the same synthesizer that I use in Middl.  It’s made by Mark Verbos, who used to be here in Brooklyn and now has moved to Berlin.  It’s a fantastic Buchla-inspired approach to synthesizer making.  It was an improv, but we rehearsed a bit.  It was really kind of Tom’s composition.  And he has this way of playing—I guess that’s what you hear as the Doppler, this kind of slow pitch bend, kind of this constant, constantly shifting, almost glissing pitch world.

One of Schumacher's synthesizers connected to a speaker made from a Bush Beans can.

FJO: So that was all him and was just a product of the improvisation?

MJS:  Yeah.

FJO:  So once again, I made all these incorrect inferences about what I was hearing.  This is the weird thing about disembodied sound, whether you’re hearing something on a recording and there aren’t a lot of program notes for it or you’re listening on your headphones on a website with no additional information. These experiences are very different from being in a space and watching a performance or a sound installation and seeing how it works as you’re listening to it.  There’s only so much your ears can tell you about what’s going on; the eyes give away the secrets.

MJS:  They can, but sometimes with synthesizers you don’t; sometimes the player doesn’t know what’s going on.  At least I don’t. I mean, I have no idea.

FJO:  In the very beginning of our talk you were saying the images on the homepage of your website originally linked to sound files, and someone presumably could turn one of them on, but when you turned a second one on, the first one would still be on and then you’d have this cumulative effect of all that sound.  In essence, the Room Pieces also work this way because you have these different sonic modules that all exist separately but the piece is about the cumulative effect of hearing them all spatially in a particular space.  It isn’t necessarily duration-based, which makes it something you wouldn’t listen to for causality in the same way as other musical compositions.

MJS:  What do you mean by “in the same way”?

FJO:  Well, like the D and the A you mentioned before. Let’s say there’s a car that’s suddenly on B-flat, and that’s totally random, but you might—because of how your mind perceives time-based musical relationships—think you’re hearing a flat six if you hear it after the D and the A.  There’s a perception of a developmental relationship, a relationship between the third sound and those other two sounds because of the order they are in.

“I didn’t want a sense of utter randomness…  That’s where I really don’t agree with Cage.”

MJS:  That is what I’ve been trying to do with the Room Pieces.  These are algorithmic, generative compositions, and they’re modular.  But the approach was to create coincidental occurrences of that sort.  The range of sounds and the exploration of pitch and rhythm was intended to raise the question: are these intentional events?  Was this composed?  I didn’t want a sense of utter randomness, just the sense that none of it has any relationship.  That’s where I really don’t agree with Cage; I guess you could say it in that way. I think he was pretty adamant about wanting to completely cancel out this idea of relationships between sounds.  What it’s all about for me is creating these relationships, but it’s not about necessarily creating a progression or any structure that is really only interpretable in one way.  It’s really about creating the possibilities for these relationships, like a kind of drawing where you connect the dots—each listener would come up with his or her own drawing.

Schumacher's laptop displaying a software program that works out his algorithms.

FJO:  So you want those relationships to be there, but you don’t necessarily want to determine what they are.  It’s for the listener to determine.

MJS:  Right.

FJO:  There’s a wonderful comment that Julian Cawley made in one of the program essays published in the CD booklet for the XI collection of the Room Pieces: “His music changes, but it doesn’t progress.”  Is that a fair assessment of all the work that you’re doing?

MJS:  Well, definitely the Room Pieces, but lately I’ve been getting away from that approach. For 20 years I was just determined never to edit what happened, just to let it happen and not to get involved in that post-production level of saying, “Okay, I like this, but it’s not really working here, so I’m going to change it up and I’m going to add this.”  I really tried to keep it very strictly algorithmic and generative.  But lately, in the last I would say ten years, I’ve been interested in getting into the details, especially spatialization and really exploring outside of that algorithmic process how I can really look at those details of how the sounds exist in space and how they relate to each other, moving on to more deterministic pieces.

FJO:  So would it be toward things that have literally more of a beginning, middle, and end, that actually develop, that actually have a start point and end point?

MJS:  Yeah.  I think some of the new pieces on Contour Editions are definitely that way.

FJO:  Disagree with me if you think I’m off the mark on this, but it seems there’s a distinction that’s key to all of this: the difference between musical composition or musical performance on the one hand and sound installation, sound art, or even instrument design on the other.  A performance or a composition is fixed in its duration.  The order of the sounds that an audience hears and how long they are listening to these sounds is determined for them.  There’s a clear beginning, middle, and end. Whereas with a sound installation, people can theoretically walk into it whenever they want and can stay however long they want.  So the message it’s trying to convey has to be different than a progression of events over time.

MJS:  Right.  It’s a big issue in terms of making sure that listeners perceive what you think they should be perceiving, and in the right timeframe.  So 30 minutes, 45 minutes, or 5 minutes, what’s a minimum amount of time to be able to understand the piece? Is it a problem then if you leave out things? Is it really necessary for the person to wait ten minutes for something important to happen?  Is that something you want to avoid?  Those are obviously key questions.  I was lucky to have my own space, but if you’re presenting these works in museums or other settings where people are constantly moving through, and they’re really encouraged to move through and not to sit down necessarily for an hour—although obviously with video art people do that—that’s an added layer of things you need to account for.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you’re concerned about whether people will get it if they’re only there for five or ten minutes. Of course you can never assume someone is going to get your piece, even if it’s in a concert hall, on a program, and it’s a functionally tonal string quartet.  You can’t really control how people perceive anything.

“Schoenberg and his 12-tone technique is the beginning of process composition.”

MJS:  My feeling is that this whole trend toward sound art and sound installation is coming out of the concert hall’s dominance as a listening space. For me, it starts with Schoenberg.  Schoenberg and his 12-tone technique is the beginning of process composition.  Even in his case, it’s taking the ego out of the process in a sense, obviously.

FJO:  Wow.

MJS:  It’s a stretch with Schoenberg, but there’s still that hint of: “Okay, here’s this process, 12 notes.  I’ve used 11, doesn’t matter.  I have to use the twelfth.  It doesn’t matter what I think.  I’ve decided that the twelfth note is going to be one I didn’t use.” So that’s process that overcomes his taste—in a sense—and his ego.  For me, it starts there. And Cage is essentially the same thing.  It’s chance, but this was proven in the ‘50s, basically you get the same thing.  It’s a process and the result is going to be a surprise, both to the composer and, in a sense, to the audience.  Unlike classical composition where as soon as you hear a bar or two of Mozart, your brain knows what the next six bars are going to be in a sense.  That’s the beauty; that’s why it’s so relaxing to listen to because you sit there and you hear eight bars in advance. It’s kind of like knowing the future.  You’ve been given a little bit of a peek into the future and that relaxes you.  That makes you feel kind of secure.

This idea of every next step being a little bit of a mystery is a fundamentally different way of perceiving the world and perceiving music, and I think it’s completely wrong to do that in a concert hall.  And I think that people sense this.  A concert hall is a place for storytelling, but it’s a place where you know the story.  You know it’s going to be an arc form.  You know there’s going to be a climax and a resolution.  And you’re enjoying that in a place of comfort, in a place of audition, a place watching a storyteller—whether it’s a conductor or an actual person telling the story—and this unfolds in a very predictable way.  Your body’s relationship to that is key: being in a seat and looking forward orients you towards a certain way of perceiving time.

So my feeling is that composers started to sense this disconnect between where they were required to show their work and the kind of work they were interested in making, which was based on these processes that everybody was inventing from about 1945 on.  Basically the job of every composer was to invent the process, invent their own methodology, so I feel like the intuitive response to that was to invent new spaces. Part of that is radio space. In Germany and [other parts of] Europe, you get more of the experimentation in radio-based listening spaces, either the radio itself or maybe these sort of black box spaces that they would perform in.  In more extreme cases, like Stockhausen, he would go into caves and what not.  They were searching for these places where the space placed the body in an orientation towards the sound that allowed it to really be perceived in a way that connected to the process of composing it. My focus has been to try to understand the very many ways of listening, of apprehending sound, and how they relate to architecture and to the body and to try to create situations where we can help listeners understand what it is that they’re perceiving.

FJO:  I was thinking along similar lines over the weekend.  I went to the sound installation exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan in Columbus Circle.

MJS:  Did Charlie Morrow have something to do with it?

FJO:  Not as far as I know. I didn’t know most of the people who were involved with this except for Benton Bainbridge, but there was some very interesting work there. What I found even more interesting than the work, however, were how many people there were interacting with what were, in several cases, some really whacked out sounds, perhaps sounds that they might not have heard before or might not have had a context for.  And they were really enjoying it.  People of all ages—young children, teenagers, even some elderly people. There was an interactive piece called Polyphonic Playground that was created by the London-based collective Studio PSK where people made sounds by climbing bars or sitting on swings.  That was cool.  There was also this incredible contraption on a wall with all these disembodied guitar strings attached to pickups.  It was done by an Israeli-born artist who now lives here named Naama Tsabar; she used to play in punk bands but now more of her work is installation-based.

Anyway, some of these guitar strings were tuned to really resonant low tones, but you hear them all together from various people plucking them all at once and it creates some incredibly dissonant chords.  Yet everybody was enjoying it.  If people were to hear the same thing in a concert hall, would they appreciate it as much?  If it was a New York Philharmonic subscription series concert, there probably would have been loads of people walking out.

MJS:  Exactly.

FJO:  Why is that?

MJS:  I think these are really very old habits—and not in a bad way, just human habits. I once made a list of listening paradigms.  I’m not a scientist; I’m not a researcher in this way.  This is just kind of stuff that comes off the top of my head.  So I’m not claiming this to be true or anything.  I’m just thinking about it. Think of sitting by the camp fire and listening to somebody telling a story—somebody with a gift for telling a story, but understanding that that camp fire offers both security but also danger because just beyond the darkness there could be anything, an animal or a gangster, something.  So there is that sense of “What’s behind me?  What could potentially encroach on our sense of comfort?”  A storyteller is going to take advantage of that, a person who’s got a sensitivity to that is going to maybe then tell a scary story or something, that will bring in the darkness, bring in the rear, so to speak.  You oppose that with the concert hall where that does not exist.  In the concert hall we’re enclosed.  We’re completely safe.  We are perhaps a little bit impinged on by our neighbors, so that we feel a little bit self-conscious.  So that’s something.  All of these things contribute. Think of a political meeting in a town square where there’s a speaker, but there’s also a lot of participation from the audience.  People acknowledge their neighbors and encourage each other to talk back to the speaker, so it becomes a back and forth kind of thing.  Or a rock concert—that’s a different kind of thing.  All of these are paradigms, and they become models for listening that you can carry over into other situations.  You can listen to your stereo, but you can pretend it’s the concert hall.  Do you remember the way people used to listen to records? They would bring the record home, put it on, and sit in a comfortable chair with their speakers there, as if they were in the concert hall—my dad used to do that—and they would listen to the whole record.  It was 20 minutes of sitting there listening.  They wouldn’t put it on and go do the dishes like people do now because they know they can just keep playing the stack of CDs that is never ending, or the MP3s or whatever.

“In the concert hall we’re enclosed.  We’re completely safe.”

Another aspect of this is musical structure.  Take a look at Philip Glass’s music.  At the beginning, he was very much in the art world.  He was doing a lot of his performances in art galleries.  The take away form of one of the early pieces, if you put it in a sound editor or something, is like a bar.  It’s a flat sound.  As soon as he got commissioned to do the Violin Concerto—and that’s in a concert hall—then suddenly you’ve got that arc form.  Suddenly, it’s a standard concerto. It’s in his language, but you’ve got that climax. He was clearly intuitively responding, “Okay, now I’m in a concert hall.  I can’t do this thing that I do in the gallery where people are walking around.”  Physically, they were in a completely different orientation; they didn’t feel hemmed in like at a concert hall. So they didn’t have those same expectations of structure.  But as soon as he was doing the concert hall piece, then it was like, “Now I have to rethink this.”

FJO:  In terms of your own background and how you got into all of this stuff—you studied the piano growing up. Later you went the typical composer-training route.  You went to Indiana University, then on to Juilliard to study with Vincent Persichetti, one of the great—albeit largely unsung—masters of the sonata form: 12 great piano sonatas, 9 symphonies; it’s all very much about the concert hall.

MJS:  Yeah.

FJO:  You even wrote a symphony and a string quartet.  I was desperately trying to find places I could hear them.

MJS:  You won’t. They were student pieces.

FJO:  At what point did you have this aha moment of wanting to do something else?

MJS:  At Indiana, they had a great studio.  I was always into electronic music.  I even had synthesizers when I was in high school.  I would go to sleep with my headphones playing drones essentially. I had no idea of any of that, but that’s just what came out of the synthesizer.  I just turned it on and held a note down, then played with the filters and the LFOs and stuff.  So I was always into that. Then at IU, Xenakis had left the year before I got there, but I think he might have developed the studio a little bit and so I was working and I made a piece called Nature and Static.  This was a piece that had two parts.  One was what I called “Nature,” which had basically five or seven parts that were just playing the same minimal melody, but with different timbres.  And they just kind of intersected in a very minimal way, not unlike that Middl piece you know, but the idea was completely intuitive.  It was that you’d listen into it and you would hear this multiplicity of sounds in this very simple texture—and that I associated with nature, because nature to me was simple, but complex.  Then the other half was “Static,” which was a loop—much more of an electronic music or man-made kind of a loop.  And I processed it, so it got kind of big and loud.  For my recital, I performed a piano piece with string quartet, and this piece Nature and Static, and I turned the lights off for the electronic piece.

At that point, it occurred to me that I had to do something because it isn’t right to have people sitting in these chairs listening to this.  They should be closing their eyes and listening as if immersed in the sound.  It felt wrong to be doing it in the concert hall, but you know, you do what you can.  You turn the lights off, or whatever.  Then at Juilliard, I organized some electronic concerts at Paul Hall. But when I set the speakers up, I was also struck by the inappropriateness of that space for what we were doing.  It was just people looking around. My teacher Bernard Heiden said, “The thing I like about electronic music is when something goes wrong.”  He liked when the tape recorder broke, something dramatic.  I think it struck everybody; it’s nice good music and whatever, but regardless, it just doesn’t work in this space.

FJO:  So even as a student you were envisioning a venue like Diapason.

MJS:  Yeah. Obviously the Dream House was a big inspiration and to see that people were already doing this to a large extent. Still, New York didn’t have a dedicated sound space.  Even though Paula Cooper and other places would occasionally do sound works, we didn’t have a dedicated gallery or space for experimenting with sound.

FJO:  So ideally what was in your mind, in terms of how you put this thing together? What were the attributes that made that a more ideal space for hearing this kind of music?

MJS:  Well, the first one was Studio 5 Beekman.  That was down near City Hall.  It was a little office space.  You entered, and there was a small foyer.  This kind of gave you a little bit of a buffer between the world and then the gallery, which was behind a door, beyond the foyer.  That little buffer was very nice, because it let people kind of take a breath.  For me it was also for limiting vision.  Turn the lights down.  It doesn’t have to be dark, but just make the visual less explicit.  I used to use a red light bulb, which got misinterpreted as a kind of gesture of some sort, but I just felt it was a dark color that allowed you to see without making the visual too much of a thing.  I think personally in those situations, it’s not good to have a lot of sound coming from outside.  If people want that, I suppose you can have a space like that, but for the most part I feel people want to be able to control the environment and not have to deal with sirens and things like that.

FJO:  So Diapason eventually became a really significant venue for this stuff, but it is no more.

MJS:  Well, it was supported by my friends Kirk and Liz [Gerring] Radke.  Liz is a choreographer who I’ve been working with since the ‘80s and her husband Kirk is a really generous supporter of the arts and funded this space. We continued in that way and were also getting funding from New York State and from the city and from private foundations.  This went on for about 15 years.  But at some point, Kirk pulled out.  So I lost that funding, and that really was paying the rent; everything else was paying the artists.  So that really hurt, and for a while I tried to continue with my own money, but I couldn’t sustain it.

What I had tried to do, in the years when it was clear that Kirk was going to pull out, was I wanted to get somebody to be a real business director, a kind of executive director who would fundraise and get that part of it together because I wasn’t really good at it.  I felt if I could find that person, then they could really get the whole thing on its feet financially, be able to pay themselves a salary, be able to pay the artists, and keep the rent paid.  We were over at Industry City the last few years.  We were before our time there because people had a really hard time coming out there.  The subway was not cooperating.  People would complain—especially coming from North Brooklyn: Williamsburg and Greenpoint—that it would take them two hours to get there.  So the audience went way down.  So that was bad, too.  Now it’s a bustling place where people come on the weekends.  If we were there now, we would actually get a walk-in audience.  It would have been fantastic.  But we were basically five years too early for that.

FJO:  There really is still no place that is quite like the space that you had for this kind of work. So do you envision it ever reopening or doing something else like it?

MJS:  The last two or three incarnations were really quite great spaces. We had the two listening rooms and pretty good sound isolation.  I had a really great group of people helping me, like Daniel Neumann and Wolfgang Gil.  But I don’t know.  I could see doing it again.  I’m very interested in this question of bringing sound environments or installations into people’s homes, and that’s kind of the way I would try to do it if I did it again.  I was thinking even of having events here [in my home]—inviting an artist to give a presentation here, with a house multi-channel system, and then inviting a small audience and basically trying to use that to help that artist get the work out, to present the work to people who might help in then getting it out to a bigger audience.

Schumacher's very attentive dog near one of his electric keyboards.

FJO:  Given that that’s been such a focus of your work—the directionality of sounds and such a sensitivity to how and where sounds are experienced—it’s fascinating to me that you also perform in and create all the music for what, for better or worse, I’ll call a rock band.  It’s a somewhat inaccurate shorthand for what diNMachine is, but in terms of its performance situation, it operates like a rock band.  There is a group of musicians performing in real time and there’s an audience.  Or there’s a recording. In all cases, it’s a group doing somewhat fixed things that have a beginning, middle, and end.  The band doesn’t perform in concert spaces like the comfort zones we were talking about earlier; they’re performing in louder, club-type environments in which there’s often no sound insolation either from the world outside or from the audience members themselves, which raises all sorts of other listening issues.

“I love lots of kinds of music. I’m just aware of the differences.”

MJS:  Well, I love pop music.  And I love classical music and going to concerts. I love lots of kinds of music. I’m just aware of the differences.  I don’t think that leads to only liking one particular kind of approach.  I happen to have really fallen in love with computer algorithms.  I have to say that.  It opened up a way of listening for me that was really fantastic, and it stays fantastic now.  But I was in rock bands as a kid.  I played in some bands up until I was in my 30s. And I improvised a lot. I like having that outlet for that part of my musical being.

FJO:  The title for last year’s diNMachine album, The Opposites of Unity, is a very apt one given your openness to all these different styles and listening paradigms.  It isn’t necessarily about just one thing.

MJS:  Right.

FJO:  But there’s one track, “Jabbr Wawky,” that’s basically hip hop and another one, “Brisé,” which could well have been one of your Room Pieces to some extent.

MJS:  Yeah, it probably was derived from one. But even in “Jabbr Wawky,” there are a lot of environmental sounds.

FJO:  So the lines do get blurry even in the context of what you’re doing within the framework of the band.  I noticed that diNMachine has a new album coming out in early 2018. Will it be following a similar path?

MJS:  Well, the band has been reduced.  It’s now a duo, which makes it a lot easier.  It was kind of expensive. I try to pay people if they’re going to play my music for me.  So now, as a duo, I feel like this can go on and I don’t have to stress about it.  We can play when we get gigs.  We can rehearse pretty easily.  We live pretty close to each other and so I’m a weekend rock musician rather than trying to do this professionally.  Although, of course, I’m trying to do this professionally, but it just makes it more manageable.  Anyway, the music took a little bit of a turn towards what I’m calling synth and drums—not bass and drums, or drum and bass.  Drums and synth.  Those are really the two featured things—a lot of these songs are analog synthesizers and drums.  They don’t have guitar or saxophone; the first record had lots of various instrumentation.

FJO:  You say they’re songs, but there are still no vocals.

MJS:  It’s mostly instrumental.

FJO:  Do you perceive of this as dance music to some extent?

MJS:  I think you can dance to it for sure, definitely.  It’s got a very strong beat. You can also listen to it. That’s another interesting issue, because dance music shouldn’t be too complicated.  When the head gets too involved, the hips have a problem.

FJO:  The material for diNMachine consists of concrete pieces, even though elements of your other work come in.  Obviously when someone’s listening in a club, they’re not listening in the same way as they would in a concert hall, but listeners would still assume more causality than they would in, say, a sound installation, because of its mode of presentation.

MJS:  Well, the way that I write them usually is I improvise on my synthesizer and I just keep the tape running, so to speak, and then I’ll find some riff that I like or some section or some sound, and that will become the basis of one of these songs.  Generally, I’ll figure out the tempo and add a drum track, and then I’ll write a bass line.  Sometimes I’ll throw that synthesizer sound into Melodyne, which is a pitch-detection software used mostly to correct singers or instruments that are out of tune.  It’s not monophonic; it can read multiple notes at once.  When it first came out, the way they advertised it was they’d have a guitar, and they’d show how the Melodyne could see each note in the guitar chord and correct individually.  It was a breakthrough software when it came out.  Now, other software does that.

FJO:  It’s like a fancier Autotune, basically.

MJS:  Exactly.  But what I’ll do is I’ll throw the synthesizer in Melodyne, and it will score it.  It’ll figure out what the pitches are, but it will be wrong most of the time because the synthesizer’s very complex. Even if you’re doing a bass line, the overtone structure is very complicated and Melodyne has a lot of trouble with that.  So I’ll take that score that Melodyne has derived from the synthesizer, then I’ll throw it into a string pad, or something like that, or a piano.  And it will come out with this piano version of what the synthesizer did, which can be really cool because it kind of comments on what the synthesizer did and doesn’t quite get it right, but you can tell that it’s trying to get it right.  Then sometimes I’ll play that live.  What I really like to do is have my basis of the song and then I’ll just kind of blindfold it: drag sounds into the session and just see what happens—see what gets layered on top of it and come up with sometimes very bizarre, unpredictable things.  I won’t keep it if it’s too strange, but it’s incredible how many times something will just work in that situation.

FJO:  So in a way, it is designed so that people listen in to it rather than simply listen to it, as you were describing earlier.

MJS:  Yeah, and I’m very interested in structure. I call it free composition rather than free improvisation.  It’s like the idea of transition.  Wagner said that composition is the art of transition, and I take that really seriously.  La Monte Young said transition is for bad composers.  I’m siding with Wagner there.  I think transitions are what it’s all about.  And especially in these diNMachine songs, I’m really interested in—well, I’ve got this section of the song, what’s this next section going to be?  How different can I make it from the first section?  But where it still makes sense.

A Moog oscillator

FJO:  There’s a statement that you have on your website that’s almost like your compositional manifesto, I think.  You aim to draw the listener’s attention to sounds that you’ve created by presenting it “at the rate of every half second or less, which is the same tempo as a typical melody line.”  I thought that was interesting because the way most of us hear a melody is one dimensional; it’s a single line that’s moving over time. But your idea of manipulating sonic elements, which could be a two-dimensional plane or more likely, given your interest in directionality, a three-dimensional field, is basically to grab listeners in the same way that they’d be grabbed by a melody by controlling the durations of the various components they are hearing over that time.

MJS:  Right.  Exactly.

FJO:  And the way you do that is by the speed of change of the sound.

MJS:  Right.

FJO:  Your most recent recording, Variations, which came out on Contour Editions earlier this year, definitely sounds much more developmentally oriented to me, so maybe that gets to what you were saying earlier about getting away from a strictly algorithmic approach.

MJS: I’ve definitely been moving on. I still use it in the process, but it’s a step in the process more and more, rather than the end.  I’ve learned a lot from the diNMachine thing in terms of working with sound because in a sense, with multi-speakers, you’re never really mixing like you do in stereo.  It’s actually a lot easier to just throw sounds around and you don’t have to worry about their balance in the stereo field.  Working exclusively in stereo for a number of years now has taught me enormous amounts about this, and I’ve been trying to apply it to the multi-channel stuff.  It’s really opened my ears, too, and opened up a lot of new possibilities.

FJO:  You talked about creating home environments. This is very different from recordings people listen to in their homes, including all of yours, which are mixed down to stereo. I would think that really misses the spatialization which is a key element in so much of your work. Maybe your recordings should ideally be issued in 5.1 surround sound.

“I’m not such a fan of 5.1.”

MJS:  That’s why Richard [Garet] released the tracks in an 8-channel version.  It’s not surround.  I opted not to do that because I’m not such a fan of 5.1. And I don’t really believe that people are setting it up correctly.  It’s just like stereo, only not as developed in a way.

FJO:  Interesting.  So, it’s okay to listen to something you’ve created to be experienced spatially on a computer with headphones?

MJS:  Not so much. I put a lot of time into the stereo version.

FJO:  So listening to these tracks on a computer is sort of like looking at photographs of paintings.

MJS:  Yeah, like a reference or something.  I had the eight tracks, and I created eight spaces in the stereo field with different characteristics. Then I put the tracks into those eight spaces.  So it’s not just panning them around; it’s really trying to get depth and a sense that there are these eight separate spaces in it.  That’s another thing I really would like to continue working with.  And actually working with people who understand it a lot more than I do and who have software chops and can maybe design specific things that I can use.

FJO:  Getting back to dance music, albeit of a very different sort, for years you’ve collaborated with the choreographer Liz Gerring. You had mentioned needing to keep things simpler if it’s being danced to, in a pop/club context. Clearly in these pieces, they’re all professional dancers and there’s a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk that happens between the choreography and music. However, once again, this is something that exists in time and in a space where people are sitting in seats observing the work.  Ideally they’re listening to the music and it is a key element, but a dance audience is primarily there to see the dance and so the music has a somewhat subordinate role to it. I imagine that some of these considerations might make you create sound in a different way.

MJS:  I have to say Liz is amazing to work with.  She’s an amazing collaborator.  She regards the music as absolutely equal to the dance. Maybe not absolutely equal, but there’s no point in debating whether it’s 60/ 40 or whatever; they’re the two elements that are paramount in the work. So the music is an important element, and it’s what we’ve been grappling with all these years in this relationship.

We started from the Cage-Cunningham aesthetic of doing dance installations, where Liz would dance for three to four hours and I would improvise on my laptop at the same time, but not necessarily in any way interacting with what she was doing.  But over the years we’ve talked a lot about what we want to do.  How do we want to work on this relationship?  Do we want the music to reflect what’s going on in the dance?  To what extent?  In what ways?  We’re lucky that we’re very much on the same page aesthetically. We have a similar kind of feeling about art and work, and at this point each piece is approached in a determined way to do it better than we did the last time—to be more collaborative, to think more about that relationship and to do something innovative or interesting in that relationship.  Sometimes there are constraints based on the practicality of doing a theater piece, but it’s a completely different way of working. It’s not a defined or set way of working; it’s changing all the time.  There are elements both of what I do in the band as well as the installation approach.  You can’t really pin it down.  We’re always exploring, so it’s always different but it’s got elements of other things that I do as well.

FJO:  We talked about the concert hall and Schoenberg and Cage and all that stuff, and it sort of being anathema to an audience that is used to hearing pieces by Mozart for which they can reasonably predict what the next eight measures are going to be. Yet, if you’re in a space for a dance performance, I think as a composer writing for dance you can get away with doing a lot more. Audiences for dance performance will listen to a Cage score; Cunningham had huge audiences. Is it the visual element?  Does being able to look at something besides the musicians playing their instruments—or, in the case of more experimental electronic music, twisting knobs or sitting in front of a laptop—help bring audiences into those sounds more?  I don’t know.

MJS:  I don’t know.  If we’re talking about the ideal listener-viewer, I think that’s one thing.  If we’re talking about a typical audience, that’s another. Both are obviously important.  Not everybody can be an ideal, educated listener-viewer, but I think that regardless of what the audience is going to think or perceive, it’s really up to us to be very sensitive to the relationship of the sound and the dance.  And not to use the distraction—so to speak—of the dance, or of the visuals as a way to get away with things that don’t really work with the dance.

If we’re going to be really sensitive to what’s going on, one thing is surround sound.  I like to use surround.  But it’s problematic because the viewers are looking at a stage most of the time and to start throwing things in the back is going to compete with that.  Not that that’s a bad thing, but you have to be careful and you have to acknowledge that that creates a dissonance with the typical attitude of the viewer.  That’s why in movies they’re very careful about how they use surround sound.  It’s actually mandated in the spec for a surround sound that only effects like bombs exploding and things like that are going to be used on the rear channel.  Everything else is in the front: dialogue, music, diegetic sound—what’s called Foley.

FJO:  I guess the way around that would be to have a dance performance that is not on a proscenium stage where you have people moving all around in a space.

MJS:  Exactly. We’re actually actively looking to do that.  It’s hard to play with a proscenium stage.  That’s the thing.  That’s what Liz really grapples with because she’s not particularly a theater person that wants that perspective on the movement. She wants to go beyond what is typical in the theater. I haven’t thought about it that much, but I would imagine that it parallels the development of music where you had ballet in the theater and that established a certain way of presenting movement and the relationship with the dancers and what not.

FJO:  Once again with classical ballet, viewers probably would know what the next eight moves are going to be.  This brings us full circle.

MJS:  Yeah.

A bookcase in Schumacher's hallway that is filled with speakers and a hat on top of one of them.

Kristin Norderval: Permanent and Impermanent Sonic Moments

There is a long tradition of artists creating socially conscious work. Some would say it should be an obligation, especially now in these uncertain and divisive times. But addressing societal wrongs is perhaps the one common focus that unites decades of work created by composer/vocalist Kristen Norderval.

Norderval’s output has been extraordinarily diverse. Her activities include improvisations singing and transforming sounds on her laptop alongside other musicians, a song cycle featuring her own voice accompanied by the viol consort Parthenia, electronic scores for dance, sound installations involving upturned pianos or repurposed trash, and an evening-length opera, The Trials of Patricia Isasa, which premiered last year during the 2016 OPERA America conference in Montreal.

When we met with her across the street from her northern Manhattan apartment surrounded by nature in Inwood Hill Park (which she described as her back yard), she credited the central role that various progressive causes have played in inspiring her music: “As the eldest child of two political scientists, I have always been interested in politics and events in the world. Politics was in our house all the time. So I’ve always been aware and my music has been very centered in wherever we are as a society.”

One of her earliest realizations, soon after she began writing songs, inspired by Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joan Baez, Odetta, and Yoko Ono, was the lack of visible female role models for women who were interested in composing large-scale works. “I could see myself as a singer-songwriter,” she remembered. “I can see there’s an identity. Whereas a composer seemed like what you do if you write for orchestra or at least for string quartet, or these other things that I didn’t know. I didn’t know other female composers growing up, so it was hard to think I could be that.”

But she persevered, studying both composition and voice in Seattle at the Cornish School and the University of Washington, despite one of her teachers claiming there were no historically significant female composers: “I just knew that was wrong. … It can’t start with me; I’m not that brilliant. So I went looking as an undergraduate. When I did my recitals for voice, I always included female composers, like Hildegard, Strozzi, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, up through the contemporary composers that I was discovering.”

One of contemporary composers she discovered was Pauline Oliveros who, during a campus talk for teachers, got the participants to perform one of her deep listening text scores. Norderval was astounded. Shortly afterwards in the school library, she read Oliveros’s introduction to her Sonic Meditations in which she outed herself. “’I am a human being, a lesbian, a two-legged person, living with cats.’ All these different categories. It really blew my mind because this was the ‘70s. I was out, but it was a very different time.” She went on to apprentice with Oliveros and worked with her for many years, ultimately organizing the last deep listening retreat that Oliveros was part of, in 2015, just a year before her death. Norderval’s immersion into Oliveros’s music and philosophy gave her an aesthetic framework that allowed her to embrace all sound, as well as to pay equal attention to sonic events that are permanent and impermanent.

“If I’m doing an improvisation, and it’s just for here and now, that’s my chosen impermanence,” Norderval explained. “Or if I write a score that has instructions and motives, so it can be done in different ways, the one version is impermanent, but the next version is just as valid. … The voice is always flexible, but … once you’ve got a sound file that’s a fixed sound file, it’s totally inflexible. It’s interesting to me to make a permeation, but also, when I’m working with pre-recorded sound files, I’m processing in the moment, often with several files, and choosing in that moment: Okay, I’m only going to use this little tiny bit of this file. Now I’m going to expand it to the whole thing. Now I’m going to pitch shift. Now I’m going to delay feedback—pretty basic processing tools, but everything is in the moment, so it’s like drawing from a palette that I know. I know the sound files, and I’ll do it in a different mix the next time. It’s like cooking up a different stew.”

Another inspiration for Norderval’s approach, especially for her fascinating installations—many of which she has created in collaboration with her partner, choreographer Jill Sigman—was working in Norway with a Sami sculptor named Iver Jåks who assembled Arctic stones, wood, reindeer horns, and leather and give curators free reign in putting them together. “I thought that was so wonderful,” Norderval recalled. “I remember a phone conversation we had—I ended up recording part of it and using it in a piece that I made about him—where he says, ‘I’m not going last forever; why should my artwork last forever?’”

But nowadays, she acknowledged, she has “come to a combination of notated and improvised.” One of the most precisely notated of her works is the opera The Trials of Patricia Isasa, which is based on the real-life story of a woman who was abducted during the Dirty Wars of the Argentinian dictatorship and who finally brought her torturers to justice 33 years later. It is a poignant and deeply moving work that, while being very much an important story for our own time, has deep resonances that will hopefully earn it a permanent place in the operatic repertoire.

“I think it’s very much our story because the U.S. was behind the whole Operation Condor that supported all those dictatorships,” she explained. “The Ford factory was encouraging the military dictatorship to impose certain economic policies, and they used the Ford factory as a place for torture. My feeling and [librettist] Naomi Wallace’s feeling was that when we look back at a story about this historical period—and it’s not that far back because 2009, when she got a conviction, is very close—it’s a way of saying this is what happened there and this is what could happen here. For me, the important part was the accountability part, because my concern for us as a nation is that we have had no accountability for an invasion of another country that was based on lies and no accountability for torture. The torture and war programs that are committed in all of our names are also related to our prison industrial complex, our mass incarceration, the fact that it’s only been 50 years since we dismantled the legal apartheid system of Jim Crow in this country. I was ten-years old when interracial marriage was finally legal. That’s crazy. People have been working to try to dismantle that ever since, and that’s the period we’re in now. We’re in the backlash period. We have to look with a big historical overview to see how to deal with those effects and issues with some kind of accountability. That, for me, was the story. And that is our story. That, plus Patricia was involved in the whole thing. So it’s our collective story.”

Kristin Norderval in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Inwood Hill Park, New York, NY
June 8, 2017—10:30 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  Here we are in the middle of all this nature, yet we’re still in New York City, a non-stop, high-tech, 21st-century urban metropolis. It seems like an apt place to talk with you about your music, since your music seems to have two different things going on within it which often seem to be in contradiction.  One is that it’s all about sheer physicality—mostly the sound of your voice, but it’s not just the sound of your voice. There’s this wonderful passage in your score for a dance piece called Rupture where a dancer is walking, literally, on eggshells.  And it creates a remarkable sound. I probably wouldn’t have realized how that sound was produced if I hadn’t seen it in an online video, but I think it’s an excellent example of paying a great deal of attention to the properties of sound created corporeally. However, you also employ a great deal of electronic manipulation of sound as well as electronically generated sounds in your work.  Those two things seem like opposites to me, but maybe they’re not for you.

Kristin Norderval: To me they don’t feel like opposites.  The technology of electronic sound recording allows us to bring all of nature’s sounds into our art music.  Also, working out that interest in physicality is one of the reasons that I worked for Jill Sigman, my partner, on Rupture.  Those sounds of the eggshells—that was her exploration of that.  So that becomes a sonic element, but it’s starting from her choreography.  That wasn’t in my score, actually; that was her physical exploration in the piece. But there’s a place where we overlap. Both of us are very interested in exploring physical presence: the quality of sound and how you do it, or the quality of movement and how you do it.

FJO:  Of course, in terms of being focused on physicality, your instrument is you, since you’re a singer.

KN:  That’s right.

FJO:  You also still actively sing other people’s music in addition to your own, so you really have a double life as a singer and as a composer. What came first, and how did you realize you had this instrument within you that was capable of such a wide range of sound?

KN:  That’s a big question.  The first memories that I have as a young, young kid—before I was two—are sounds.  And I was singing, people tell me, around two or maybe before.  So I was always singing. I started writing songs when I got my first guitar.  I used my babysitting money and bought a guitar at age ten and started writing songs.  So they’ve always been intertwined, but it’s gone through big changes in focus at different times in my life.  When I was writing songs for guitar and voice, or piano and voice, I was performing in coffee houses, doing that whole kind of thing.  I remember as a teenager saying, “I know how to write chord symbols and write out the words of my songs, but how do you actually write music?”  I could read music, because I’d been taking piano lessons, but I didn’t have the concept of how to actually notate music.  So my goal as a teenager was to try to figure out where I could go to learn to write down what I heard in my head and to be able to hear in my head what I saw on the page.  That was my goal when I went to the University of Washington.

FJO:  I don’t know your earliest music, but on your website you list a solo piano piece from 1980 with a very intriguing title—Aggressions. I’d love to hear that one day.

KN:  I’d have to dig that out of my archives. It’s a hand-written manuscript.

FJO:  Clearly you did figure out how to write down music that was in your head then, or at least some of it. But a great deal of the music that you do nowadays, which uses extended vocal techniques and electronic manipulations, is much more elusive in terms of music notation since a lot of it defies what that notation was developed to notate. When did those kinds of sounds come into your head?

KN:  As a kid, I loved the sound of my dad’s diesel car. I could tell the difference between motors and I loved being on a bus or in any kind of car when the windshield wipers were out of synch; it was fascinating to me.  All kinds of mechanical sounds were very interesting to me, which is another way that I think about electronics. If you go back to steam motors, maybe that’s not electricity, but for all those mechanical sounds, we need power to make them sound and so that’s always been a fascination of mine.  But how do you notate that?  It’s a good question.  It’s still a question to me.  I have things where there are instructions or, if it’s working with a sound itself, then the sound file is the thing.  How do you notate within a metrical or semi-metrical language something that has to be flexible enough to listen to the variances that happen in the sound, like the airplanes going over us?

FJO:  Right.  And obviously, notation’s the enemy of improvisation to some extent since musicians who are trained to be really good at seeing what’s on a page and replicating it precisely—which, mind you, is a really incredible skill to have—often find it somehow counterintuitive to be told they should come up with something on their own. It requires a different headspace.

KN:  I really like both.  There are places in my scores where it’s very specific, and it has to be metric and precise.  And there are other places where one thing is precise and another thing can be fluid over it and change with elbow room or breathing room or room for a different gesture.  Then there are some text scores. I was just working with a group of five actors in Oslo on a theater piece, and I worked with them on deep listening exercises.  My wonderful mentor Pauline Oliveros was a big influence on me.  That kind of listening work and work with improvisation is really central to getting people to the skill sets that they need to interpret a text instruction.  What are the tools you have to interpret that text instruction?  You can interpret it simply or you can interpret it in a more complex way.  That’s where training in improvisation or in listening to sound in a different way comes in.

FJO:  So to get back to high school.  You were a singer-songwriter, playing guitar, taking piano lessons, so obviously understanding how to read music, but not quite understanding how to make that work for your own work.  But you were also intrigued by windshield wiper sounds.  At that point, were you aware of people like Pauline Oliveros, Meredith Monk, or Joan La Barbara?

KN:  I was not.  But I was aware of Yoko Ono.  She was inspiring.  Of course the Beatles were also inspiring, but Yoko Ono was really inspiring!  I had her book Grapefruit in high school.  We were living at that time in Canada in a steel town—Hamilton, Ontario.  I worked with a Grotowski-based theater group for a summer and then continued with them past that.  That exploration of physical theater was really interesting.  But I was also interested in musicology.  I was interested in singing.  I was interested in ethnomusicology and composition. But I didn’t really know any professional musicians until I had checked around the States looking at music schools to try to figure out where I would go.  I ended up going to the University of Washington. They had a program where you could enter as a general music major and then decide over the course of your studies what you were going to major in.  I ended up auditioning for voice, piano, and composition, and I ended up getting a double degree in voice and in composition at the end of that.

That was the start of my opening up to singers like Jan DeGaetani and Leontyne Price.  I had a workshop with Kenneth Gaburo at Cornish which was just like opening the whole world.  I was in the improv group with Stuart Dempster at the University of Washington; he and William O. Smith, Bill Smith, were running that.  Bill Smith was my composition teacher, one of my important composition teachers, along with Diane Thome, who is a wonderful composer for instruments and electronics.  That was also where I was introduced to Pauline Oliveros.  She was giving a talk for teachers. I was there, I guess, on the recommendation of Stuart Dempster.

Pauline gave the audience the score of either the Tuning Meditation or one of the simpler deep listening text scores.  And I was astounded.  I thought, “They’re not going to do this!”  But they did.  She was so trusting in that it was going to be cool.  And it was.  It turned out really cool.  I remember going into the library at the University of Washington and finding a very early edition of her Sonic Meditations with her handwriting in that early score and a picture of her and her introduction where she outed herself: “I am a human being, a lesbian, a two-legged person, living with cats.” All these different categories. It really blew my mind because this was the ‘70s. I was out, but it was a very different time.  Then I had the pleasure of hearing her in San Francisco in concert. When I moved here to New York, I actually was able to work with her and do the whole deep listening apprentice work.  I ended up organizing the last deep listening retreat that she, Ione, and Heloise did together in the Arctic—in Norway in 2015.

FJO:  It’s hard to believe she’s gone.

KN:  Yeah.  Working with her changed the way I make music and the way I listen, the way I relate to all these sounds around us all the time.  She’s amazing.  And she’s still listening, as they say, and so are we.

FJO:  Even though you didn’t know any musicians growing up, your parents seemed to have been supportive of your going in this direction.

KN:  My mother was a very good amateur pianist.  I think as a young person she might have had dreams to follow music, but it wasn’t at all in the cards.  She’s Norwegian and she grew up in Nazi-occupied Norway during the Second World War, so there really wasn’t much opportunity for professional artists.  She went into political science and journalism. My dad was also a political scientist.  He was American.  He was also an amateur violinist, so I knew music.

FJO:  And he was also an instrument collector. You showed me some of his instruments in your apartment.

KN:  That’s right. There were instruments from Southeast Asia in my childhood home, plus recordings from Indonesia from various villages he’d gone to visit.  And home movies.  We lived in Malaysia for a while, and we were in Norway many summers and then lived there for a while when I was a teenager.  Then we lived in Canada and various places in the States.  So I had all kinds of musical influences.

A shelf in Norderval's apartment containing various art objects and musical instruments.

A shelf in Norderval’s apartment containing various art objects and musical instruments.

FJO:  We talk to a lot of composers about their role models. You mentioned Yoko Ono and Pauline Oliveros.

KN:  And Joni Mitchell.

FJO:  What’s interesting in terms of your role models is that all of the people you mentioned are women. We’ve talked to a lot of composers over the years and especially those from earlier generations, like Pauline, talked about the difficulty in finding female role models. It’s not like there weren’t role models.  There have been all of these significant female composers throughout history, but they’ve been relegated to footnotes.  I don’t need to tell you this; you’ve edited a collection of Clara Schumann’s songs. So I know that you’re aware of this history and there’s a certain empowerment through knowing that history, I would think.

KN:  Yes, there is.  I have to say, when I was writing songs for voice and piano and for voice and guitar, I had inspiration from Odetta, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, as well as Bob Dylan, the old blues singers, and Pete Seeger.  I was very influenced by all of that.  So I could see myself as a singer-songwriter.  I can see there’s an identity.  Whereas a composer seemed like what you do if you write for orchestra or at least for string quartet, or these other things that I didn’t know. I didn’t know other female composers growing up, so it was hard to think I could be that.  But it wasn’t so hard to think I can learn how to notate so that I can put what I have in my head onto paper.  It wasn’t a definition that way.  When I was preparing to try to get into the University of Washington, I took composition study at Cornish.  And I remember, I was asking this of my first composition teacher—I was notating some simple things, for solo piano and maybe something for a small instrumental trio combination—and I asked, “Who are the other women composers?”  And it was like, “There aren’t any of importance.”  I just knew that was wrong.  I totally knew that was wrong.  It can’t start with me; I’m not that brilliant.  So I went looking as an undergraduate.  When I did my recitals for voice, I always included female composers, like Hildegard, Strozzi, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, up through the contemporary composers that I was discovering.

FJO:  No doubt the person who said this to you was a male composition teacher.

KN:  It was a male composition teacher.

A room with shelves of books, a chair, and in the middle, an upright piano with a triangular painting on top of it.

A piano is still the centerpiece of the living room in Norderval’s apartment.

FJO: Now was this around the time you composed a choral piece based on poetry by Emily Dickinson called Passenger of Infinity?

KN:  That piece actually came after I was finished with my undergraduate degree and I’d moved to San Francisco to do a master’s. Actually, I just worked first, then I got into the conservatory and did a master’s in voice. That was during the AIDS crisis. The San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Chorus was doing some commemoration concerts and fundraising concerts and dealing with the deaths of a lot of colleagues and friends and singing in a lot of funerals.  So they commissioned a work. That was written for them.  I recently just redid the last movement of that piece for a cappella [chorus]. The original version was SATB with piano accompaniment, but the last movement had a pretty simple piano accompaniment so I figured it could work as an a cappella piece.  A little chorus in Montreal, the chorus that sang in my opera in Montreal, just did that on a concert in December, the new a cappella version.

FJO:  Oooh, I want to hear that.  So you still keep that piece in circulation?

KN:  Well, I have the score, but it hasn’t been performed in the version that I did for San Francisco since the original performances.  I’m not the greatest about trying to promote and get re-performances or get my scores out there for multiple things.  I tend to write for specific occasions and specific ensembles or soloists, people that ask me for music. It’s a weakness of mine in terms of promotion, I guess.  But on the other hand, it’s a very personal thing.  The music becomes very much a part of that performer or that ensemble’s identity and experience.

Kristin Norderval standing beside a prehistoric glacial drill hole in Inwood Hill Park

Kristin Norderval standing beside a prehistoric glacial drill hole in Inwood Hill Park.

FJO:  That, of course, is the other contradiction in the world of notated music.  You create a lot of work that is intended to exist in the moment, but once you write something down, you fix it for all eternity theoretically. Suddenly there is the possibility for a piece to have an afterlife after the initial performance. It’s interesting that you don’t really think about that.

KN:  Maybe that’s because there’s that inherent contradiction.  I worked with a sculptor in Norway who is a Sami sculptor, he’s not alive anymore—Iver Jåks.  He would work with Arctic stones, wood, reindeer horn, leather woven in a traditional Sami way, and various other things.  He’d assemble these pieces and then say to a curator, “Okay, you put it together.  Here’s the sculpture.”  And I thought that was so wonderful.  We did a whole school tour with an ensemble up in the Arctic, taking his pieces and getting school children to act as curators and put together his sculptures.

Then I did the same with sound. I said, “Okay, let’s go record some sounds.  Now you put the sounds together.”  And it would be different for each group.  That was very liberating. I remember a phone conversation we had—I ended up recording part of it and using it in a piece that I made about him—where he says, “I’m not going last forever; why should my artwork last forever?”

FJO:  A lot of your work is impermanent. I’m thinking, in particular, of all of your sound installations, many of which defy replicability. You even have one you did outdoors using objects that had been thrown away that you called Our Lady of Detritus.

KN:  That was a collaboration with Jill.  We both wanted to work with this theme of repurposing and recycling and looking at waste and the issues of waste.  I had been working with hemispherical speakers and a small digital amp. I knew Holland Hopson had designed hemis for the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, so I used the recipe for the Princeton Laptop Orchestra’s small hemis that have digital amps built into them.  I wanted to see if it would be possible to run that on solar power.  So we contacted an engineer and figured out how many panels we needed and how many hours of daylight to charge up a big battery and how long we could perform on that battery.  It was a really interesting project to do.

FJO:  But a really hard piece to document.

KN: Yes, it was.

FJO:  I was particularly intrigued by piano, piano, pianissimo… because you’re not only changing people’s perceptions of what a piano sounds like, but also changing how we respond to them as visual objects by mounting all these broken pianos at different angles.

KN:  That piece came about as a study piece for my opera. I was already involved in the libretto development. I’d been to Buenos Aires, and I’d made a lot of interviews with Patricia Isasa and other survivors [of Argentina’s military dictatorship]—children of the disappeared, and the surviving mothers and grandmothers.  I wanted to do a study piece to start working with the sounds.  My very first image from my impulse to work with Patricia Isasa’s story was of a piece that would be for voice and a kind of trashed piano where the piano would have sounds created out of things that were to done to it coming through its own body.  I used the sound installation as a study for those piano sounds, then channeled those sounds through each of the pianos.  It’s an eight-channel installation and each piano has a transducer affixed to the soundboard, so the piano itself was the loudspeaker.  The sounds that were coming through the pianos were sounds that I had recorded of me doing things to the pianos.  Either scraping on the strings, detuning, hitting strings with metal objects, clipping strings, knocking on the boards.  Some of them are very intense physical sounds.  The idea was that the piano as a body was recounting its own sonic history.  It’s a very bourgeois instrument.  It’s an instrument that’s associated with a certain level of stability in society.  When things up-end that stability, it has a hard time existing in the same way.

FJO:  So the upturned pianos are a metaphor—

KN: —for all the upturned political upheaval.  There was also a sculpture in Buenos Aires where there are two units that are strangely balanced on each other, a sort of box/house unit.  That gave me an idea for these balancing things.  Then I asked Jill to come in and work with me.  So she helped in making the final configuration of the pianos in the space.  Then we had her painting, inscribing the names of the victims of the disappearances on the wall, over the whole week that we were there in the gallery.  She was painting every day that the installation was up and in the course of a week she only got through about 1,600 names.  If it takes a week to just write 1,600 names on a wall, it gives you more of a sense of the vastness of 30,000 people being disappeared.

FJO:  I’m very eager to talk with you about the opera in greater detail, but before we get there I find it fascinating that prior to you ever having had a work done on the stage of an opera house, you created an installation for the lobby of the Oslo Opera. Were there other performances going on in the house when that was done?

KN:  Yes.  Again, that was also very much Jill’s project. She was the main instigator in that particular project, Hut No. 6, as part of the CODA Dance Festival.  They had dance performances on the main stage, on the small stage, and all around the city.  Our piece was a performance installation in the lobby of the opera house that went on for over a week. We were there every day for five to six hours, interacting with everybody who came through the lobby.  My part was the sound installation that used a hand-powered generator—I used an old bicycle wheel to help people generate their own power.  And an installation inside of Jill’s hut that was ongoing that had interviews with people about how they felt about home in Oslo.  Then I was singing in the performances every day.

FJO:  What unites all of these projects, I think, is that they all go against the whole hagiography of the canon and this idea that the goal of making art is to create timeless masterpieces. These are very much things that were created for a specific time and place that are not necessarily capable of ever being done again, which is very different from pieces you’ve done which have notated scores.

KN:  Music actually functions on a lot of different levels for different pieces.  I want some of my pieces to exist past me.  So I would like to have a score that can be done by other people.  Other pieces are done specifically for a particular theater piece or a particular dance; it’s not going to be a repertory piece.  Other things are done as an improvisation in the moment.  They can exist as a recording and have a life on a CD, but they’ll never exist in real time again because that was that moment and it’s not re-creatable. 

One thing I want to comment on here brings us back to talking about role models and female composers.  I’ve told this story, so some people who know me will probably recognize it.  When I was doing my doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music, I was also working at the Library for the Performing Arts. My boss knew I was interested in women composers and how women composers have been represented in the music industry.  So she asked me to make an exhibition, in one of their big cases at the library, about women and recorded sound.  It was a real learning experience for me, because what I was seeing, when I’d go back and do the research, was that every single stage of recorded sound had female composers from that era, but when the technology changed, those female composers didn’t get re-recorded on the new technology.  We had a big push of recordings on LPs in the ‘80s and the ‘90s; women musicologists were bringing up historic scores and more female composers were getting trained and became able to record their own contemporary works.  But lots of stuff on LPs never made it to CD.  And a lot of stuff on CDs now hasn’t gone over to streaming, either it doesn’t go over or it doesn’t get credited.  Streaming information is not good.  You could have a collection of pieces on an album, and maybe you just have last names.  How do you find out who’s who?  I have recordings with Monique Buzzarté in our ensemble ZANANA, but you can’t search for Norderval on Spotify or other streaming searches.  It has to be only ZANANA.  Then maybe they credit me as a performer in the duo.  So there are a lot of problems with actually knowing what existed at various times and making it over to the next stage.  Who decides what is worth keeping and archiving?

FJO:  I’m going to tell you something that’s probably going to make you very mad; it made me very mad.  Just about a week ago, I chanced upon a blog post which was a few years old, but it was linked from a much more recent post, which is how I found it.  It was posted by a woman in England who is a musicologist, but she was just starting out when she wrote it.  It was a 2014 post.  Anyway, the post described how when she was in a library looking at older editions of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, she saw that each of the earlier editions had a number of female composers in them, but then when you went to the next edition—

KN:  —they disappeared. Same thing.  Exactly.  Yeah.

FJO:  So I found her email and wrote to her.  I wanted her to know that when I was asked to update the articles about chamber music and orchestra music for the new edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music, I also added in female composers who were not mentioned in earlier editions.  I also asked her for a list of the female composers whose biographies had appeared in one of the editions of Grove but were omitted in later editions but sadly she didn’t keep a list since she wrote that post before she embraced the musicological discipline of strict note taking. At some point, we’re going to have to have a group of researchers reconstruct this list to find out who all these composers are. But it does tie into this notion of impermanence that we were talking about earlier.

KN:  But there’s a difference. There are different kinds of impermanence.  If I say I’m doing an improvisation, and it’s just for here and now, that’s my chosen impermanence.  Or if I write a score that has instructions and motives, so it can be done in different ways, the one version is impermanent, but the next version is just as valid.  But the impermanence of just being not taken care of is a different thing.  I think of composers like Eleanor Hovda.  What an amazing composer!  Her work hasn’t been highlighted and preserved in the way that it should be for that amazing level of work.  She’s just one person right off the top of my head.

A shelf of scores in Kristin Norderval's living room.

A shelf of scores in Kristin Norderval’s living room.

FJO:  There are tons of stories like that. So what can be done to safeguard your work so that it isn’t lost?  Is that an issue for you?

KN:  Maybe it’s not an issue about my work, but it’s an issue of education in general for composers, especially for female composers, for composers of color, and for composers who are working in non-mainstream ways.  I think we have a crisis of education right now at all kinds of levels.  When I was growing up and moving around, at every single school I went to in all these different towns that we lived in, I would choose a new instrument in the school band.  So I learned a lot, not very well, but enough.  But there are no school bands anymore.  That’s not a part of public education.

FJO:  Well, there actually are still quite a few really amazing school bands.

KN:  Yeah, but it’s not automatic.  It’s not seen as part of what we really need to be full human beings.

FJO:  That’s definitely true, and it is unfortunate.  But for the past two years I’ve attended the Midwest Clinic, which is a major event for wind bands and other community, school, and military ensembles.  There were some amazing groups from high schools.  Last year there was a string orchestra from a high school in Nevada that played Penderecki’s Threnody and it was incredible. But, sure, this isn’t happening everywhere.  Music isn’t valued as much as it ought to be, and I think it’s a larger societal problem because one of the things that music teaches you is the lesson of listening, to get outside yourself and to actually pay attention to someone else’s thoughts.  If you can’t get outside yourself, you’re just in an echo chamber, which is the zeitgeist now in part because we don’t learn how to listen to music in the same way.

KN:  Or even doing it and making it together.

FJO:  There’s a special kind of listening I think that comes when you’re making music with somebody else.  You have to listen, especially in an improvisatory context.  I want to talk about that in terms of the improvisatory projects you’ve done—both the duo with Monique Buzzarté and the more recent trio recording that came out last year with two musicians I hadn’t heard before.  With projects like that, I imagine there’s a whole lot of listening to each other that has to go on in the moment.  But before you go into the studio to create work like that, how much pre-planning is there?  How much rehearsal?

KN:  For the recording Parrhésie with flutist Ida Heidel and pianist Nusch Werchowska, we spent time listening together outside the recording studio and doing slow walks, opening up our ears to the environment and to each other.  Then there were certain texts that we might say are an inspiration.  Let’s use this for how we focus in, even if the improvisation didn’t contain a specific text. There were some where I’m singing text, but there are some where we had just taken a line and, okay, that’s what we’re going to all focus on.  We’d spend a moment, and then we’d go.  The pre-planning is different in different situations.  With Monique and my work, some of the pieces were completely free in the moment and others had a structure that we had worked out, that had some things fixed in terms of motives or direction or that kind of thing.

FJO:  So if you’re doing a tour to promote these albums, what do you do when people ask you to play what’s on the album? You can’t.

KN:  Right, not really.  But both on my solo album and on the ZANANA album, there are some pieces that we could do.  It would be a little different, but they have a structure that is repeatable and you would recognize it as the same piece.  But others were just created then and there.

FJO:  Now what I found so interesting about the solo album is that in your program notes you described some tracks as being pre-existing electronic pieces that you just sang over when you mixed them in the studio. So they became something else in the moment.  It’s a way of taking something that was fixed and permanent and making it more organic and alive.

KN:  That’s interesting.  I wasn’t thinking about it specifically like that.  The voice is always flexible, but the tape—once you’ve got a sound file that’s a fixed sound file—it’s totally inflexible. It’s interesting to me to make a permeation, but also, when I’m working with pre-recorded sound files, I’m processing in the moment often with several files and choosing in that moment: Okay, I’m only going to use this little tiny bit of this file.  Now I’m going to expand it to the whole thing.  Now I’m going to pitch shift.  Now I’m going to delay feedback—pretty basic processing tools, but everything is in the moment so it’s like drawing from a palette that I know.   I know the sound files, and I’ll do it in a different mix the next time.  It’s like cooking up a different stew.

FJO:  At the heart of it all is a spirit of collaboration—even those solo pieces.  What I found so interesting about the solo pieces is that you’re collaborating with yourself.

KN:  Yeah, on the computer which sometimes gives me things that I’m surprised by, then I get to respond to what it’s given me.

FJO:  This is me then; this is me now.  You’re in a dialogue with yourself.

KN:  Right.

FJO:  But it also erases this idea: Oh, I’m a composer and I create these masterpieces in my room; I’m not influenced by anybody, and these pieces are completely mine and now you must do what I wrote, for all eternity.

KN:  But I have come to a combination of notated and improvised, and I’ve realized I actually have some specific ideas about the improvisation.  So in the process of working with another performer, I either give instructions verbally, or I think now I need to add that to my instructions on the score because you’re improvising, but I didn’t really mean that.

FJO:  So it’s possible that people can perform things wrong or incorrectly?

KN:  It’s possible that they would perform things that aren’t in the range that I would prefer, and then I have to figure out how to re-articulate my preferences.

FJO:  Now, to get back to this idea of collaboration.  A lot of works—even many of your solo pieces—grew out of works that were collaborative to some extent, since they were created to be presented with film and dance.

KN:  And theater.

A laptop and overgrown plants on a desk.

A laptop and plants peacefully coexist on Norderval’s work desk.

FJO:  You’ve done tons of work with Jill Sigman, who is somebody with a very similar aesthetic to yours. Her choreography really comes out of this idea of a raw physicality that is also somehow being altered.  I’m thinking of Papoose, which I find wonderful and disturbing at the same time, because it’s doing things with a body that are obviously natural but also somewhat unexpected. It’s almost like what you do when you take your voice and then manipulate it electronically. It’s taking it to another space.

KN:  Yeah.  Totally.  I learn from those collaborations a lot.  It opens up ways of thinking about development and processing and contrasts.

FJO:  A lot of your pieces don’t involve text, but when you do have a text, you’re also collaborating with the text.

KN:  Right.

FJO:  Going all the way back to that early Emily Dickinson piece of yours again—those words already existed. But you’re adding something to them which theoretically brings certain things out and it also becomes something else in the process.  It’s sort of an involuntary collaboration, since she’s not around to collaborate with.  Similarly in Nothing Proved, the piece you wrote for Parthenia that you’re in the studio recording this week, you worked with texts by Elizabeth I before she was a queen. Once again, she had no say in the music you composed, since she’s been dead for hundreds of years.  But because she wrote that text, it ties your hands in terms of what you can do.

KN:  Yes, it does, certainly rhythmically. Well, you could consciously go against the rhythm of speech in terms of accents on syllables, but then it’s going to have a particular effect that you’re ac-cen-ting other sy-lla-bles. I like to keep the intelligibility of the text.  Usually there’s something in a particular text that I choose that is already giving me melodic content.  I’m hearing some beginning of a motive right away.  I have no idea where it comes from. My piece Elegy: for Gaza is from a poem by Timothy O’Donnell; I read that poem in The Nation on the 1 train and it was already singing to me.  So I had to do this.  I had to find out who this guy is, write to him, and get his permission.  There are pieces like that that just jump out.  Then, there are other times, like in the opera, where there are certain places I had that relationship but there are also other places where I had to find ways to include a text because it’s important to further the story, or it’s part of the relationship of the characters, and so I had to find a way to deal with a lot more text than I’m usually dealing with in a song cycle or a single work with text.

The score for Norderval's composition Nothing Proved

An excerpt from the score for Norderval’s song cycle Nothing Proved which she performed with the viol consort Parthenia.

FJO:  With your opera The Trials of Patricia Isasa, you’re dealing with something else as well.

KN:  A living person.

FJO:  And a true story.

KN:  Yes.

FJO:  A really horrible story that has, I don’t know if I’d call it a happy ending, but at least some resolution.

KN:  A victorious ending.

FJO:  You said earlier that at first you conceived of a piece for voice and a trashed piano and then it evolved into an opera. I’m curious about that transformation, but also how you first became acquainted with Patricia Isasa’s story and what made you want to create music inspired by it.

KN:  I’m going to tell you the long story.

FJO: I love long stories.

KN:  As the eldest child of two political scientists, I have always been interested in politics and events in the world. Politics was in our house all the time.  So I’ve always been aware and my music has been very centered in wherever we are as a society.  But after 9/11 it became even more so.  I did a lot of pieces where I felt like I had to give expression to where we are going and why we invaded a country based on lies, why this stuff is happening and there’s no accountability.  One of my big pieces that I did in Oslo was a multimedia piece that came out of my disgust over Abu Ghraib and the whole situation with renditions, the kidnapping of people from all kinds of places and sending them off to black sites.  And my question was: How is it that Western Europe and North America and all these other nations are going along with this? How does it happen that populations are sucked into agreeing to these policies that are obviously abhorrent and against international law?  I researched the torture memos.  I started looking at all of the work that the Center for Constitutional Rights was doing.  I got a lot of information about what was going on.  That piece was a collaboration with Jill, another dancer in Norway, actors, a sculptor, and some other musicians in Europe. At the end of that piece, I felt I knew a lot about torture and wasn’t done with it.  It wasn’t enough to explore what it is about us that makes us drawn into groupthink.  Was there somewhere I could explore how we see accountability?  I was keeping my eyes and ears open for a potential subject.

At some point, I was thinking I wanted to do a piece on Chelsea Manning, but it was before the trial, so it wasn’t a finished story.  It was in process.  Then in 2010, I heard an interview with Patricia Isasa on Democracy Now where she was recounting her recent victory, in December 2009—successfully prosecuting and convicting six powerful people in Argentina who had been part of renditions, torture, and murder during the Dirty Wars of the military dictatorship.  Her case had come 33 years after her abduction.  I thought, “Wow, that’s amazing!”  Her spirit, her strength of character—she had so much energy, so much conviction, and she got a conviction!  So I was inspired by that.  I found her website and I wrote to her.  And I got a response.  The next thing we were writing back and forth. At that point, I didn’t know it was going to be an opera, but I knew I wanted to work with her story somehow.  She was coming to New York, and I said, “Come and let’s talk.”  And she ended up staying with me.  For several days, we just talked and talked and I recorded interviews.  Then I started trying to work with those interviews.

At a certain point, I realized that this really is such a big story and such a difficult topic, so it really needs an excellent writer to put this together.  So then I was going through who I knew—what plays do I know?  I liked the work of Naomi Wallace very much, but I’d never met her.  But again, I took cold contact with her through her publisher.  She ended up agreeing to a workshop period that I was able to organize in Oslo with a retired dramaturg from the Norwegian [National] Opera.  No strings attached.  I said, “We’ll work for a week; if we can get something together and we hit it off, we’ll take it further.  If we don’t, we all go off and do our own thing.” And she was very generous.  It was an amazing process.  We came away from the first week with a rough idea of the course that we wanted to look at.  We fleshed out what we wanted to center on in the storytelling.  I came away with several aria-type texts, and I wrote three character studies.  Those three character studies were done by Ensemble Pi; they ended up in the opera pretty much as is.  Then the process of working with Naomi over the next year on the full text was great, and it went from there.

FJO:  It was very fortuitous that it was staged in Montreal last year during OPERA America’s annual conference, which will hopefully lead to more productions of it in the future. I wish I could have been there for that, but luckily the company put a video recording of the whole thing online which also hopefully will get more people excited about it.

KN:  Thank you.

FJO:  One of the things I find so fascinating about the opera, and I say this in a positive way, is that in some ways it’s your most conventional piece.

KN:  Yes, it is.

FJO:  But there’s also something that’s very unconventional about it—the main character is actually three different roles. There are three Patricias.  There’s Patricia, the 16-year old who’s abducted.  There’s the Patricia of the near present, who manages to get a conviction of these people.  And those are two different singing roles on stage, and they even sing duets with each other.

KN:  The inner self that is propelling you forward to do something.  When Naomi had the first draft of the libretto finished, I went to Argentina and read it through for Patricia. We sat on a roof in Buenos Aires. Where I had little bits of motives, I sang; otherwise, I just read. That was really, really interesting.  There were some things that she made comments about, but she could totally relate to this thing of having the two characters.  That was good to have her blessing.  She had come to one workshop in Oslo, too, before that first draft was finished.

FJO: And then there’s a third Patricia. She’s in the opera as herself as well. In addition to the two singers on stage, documentary footage of the real Patricia’s image and voice is projected to the audience. That definitely makes the story seem more real and more impactful.  But there’s also the impact of the actual music, which sounds very different from a lot of your music.  There are Argentinian elements in it—tango-ish sounds at times, a bandoneón.

KN:  That was partly in response to the text and the subject and partly that I knew I wanted to work with these instruments that would locate it geographically and timewise. I felt like I needed to use the instruments, but I needed to meet them on my own terms.  I didn’t want to imitate tangos, but I do have a tango-inspired section in the courtroom because it felt like a dance.  It’s a court theater.  I listened to a lot of tango and a lot of nuevo tango.  I also listened to a lot of other Argentine composers, especially composers that were working with the sounds of Buenos Aires.

FJO:  There’s a big debate these days in the visual art community about who has the right to tell someone else’s story. There’s been a huge brouhaha over this abstract painting by Dana Schutz inspired by the famous photo of Emmett Till’s open coffin that’s in the Whitney Biennial.  Then there was an installation sculpture that recreated a scaffold that was the site of a massacre of Native Americans that was being set up at the Walker in Minneapolis but was later removed and destroyed with the consent of the artist after protests from members of the Dakota tribe. In our current climate, it’s possible that someone might question a North American’s desire to create a work based on this Latin American story.

KN:  I think it’s very much our story because the U.S. was behind the whole Operation Condor that supported all those dictatorships.  That comes out in certain places in the opera.  The Ford factory was encouraging the military dictatorship to impose certain economic policies, and they used the Ford factory as a place for torture.  So it’s very much an American story.  My feeling and Naomi Wallace’s feeling was that when we look back at a story about this historical period—and it’s not that far back because 2009, when she got a conviction, is very close—it’s a way of saying this is what happened there and this is what could happen here.

For me, the important part was the accountability part because my concern for us as a nation is that we have had no accountability for an invasion of another country that was based on lies and no accountability for torture.  The torture and war programs that are committed in all of our names are also related to our prison industrial complex, our mass incarceration, the fact that it’s only been 50 years since we dismantled the legal apartheid system of Jim Crow in this country.  I was ten-years old when interracial marriage was finally legal.  That’s crazy.  People have been working to try to dismantle that ever since, and that’s the period we’re in now.  We’re in the backlash period.  We have to look with a big historical overview to see how to deal with those effects and issues with some kind of accountability.  That, for me, was the story.  And that is our story.  That, plus Patricia was involved in the whole thing.  So it’s our collective story.

Kristin Norderval standing by a broken light post in Inwood Hill park

Kristin Norderval in Inwood Hill park