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

Victoria Shen’s needle nails technique, which was appropriated earlier this summer in a Beyoncé video, is just one of many new approaches to making sounds that Shen (who performs under the moniker Evicshen) uses in her provocative performances and installations.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

 

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

Victoria Shen's needle nails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • Read the Full Transcript
    Victoria Shen on a rooftop with buildings in the town she is in visible in the background.

    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)

    Victoria Shen in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
    Via Zoom on Tuesday, July 19, 2022 at 4:45 p.m.
    Transcribed by Julia Lu and Frank J. Oteri.
    Introductions by Bridget Pierce. Audio production by Anthony Nieves.

    Frank J. Oteri: Thanks so much for taking time out from your residency to talk with me. Tell me a little about what this residency is and, and what you’re doing here.

    Victoria Shen: Wave Farm does residencies and fellowships that supports work that is based around radio. There’s the main house with three studios and a broadcasting radio station. On the land around here, there’s a live hydrophone coming from a pond on the property. There’s this big satellite in the exo-atmosphere getting the feed from outer space. Sonifying the data stream that’s coming from outer space actually is what interested me. And then there’s some other broad transmitting devices. So it’s really all things radio. And I think it’s also including anything on the electro-magnetic spectrum. So light also counts, too. This particular residency I’m doing is in collaboration with Aaron Dilloway because the theme this year was for duos. So Aaron Dilloway commissioned me to build a Mellotron pretty much by hacking an old eight track system. Essentially what I needed was all the tape heads and also spacing the bracketing to make sure that the tape head hits exactly where it needs to be on the tape head. Unlike a Mellotron, it’s going to be all tape loops. I can change the motor speed and direction which is always nice. Put it in a new enclosure. We’ve just been recording tape loops using different radio sources on the property. For the source material as well as our own instruments. And we’ve been jamming on that. I think the aim is to do a release based around our time at this residency. Like a cassette release or maybe even a record. I think it’s sounding really good. We’re also going to be playing a show at the Avalon. And we’re also doing a presentation at the Upstate New York Art Fair.

    FJO: I definitely want to hear this. So if there’s a recording, please let me know. That’s very different than the works I’ve been immersing myself in of yours over these past couple of weeks. I have to tell you, I was inspired to do a talk with you because my New Music USA colleague Ami Dang is a huge fan of yours.

    VS: Oh, no way.

    FJO: She was raving about you, then just in passing mentioned to me this fingernail scratching technique that you do and the whole brouhaha with the Beyoncé uncredited video. It’s great that it got you some mainstream press. I wanted to hear what that sounds like. I immediately went home and checked it out. I’ve got to confess as somebody with a giant record collection, it sort of terrifies me; I imagine that it can’t be a very good thing to do to records.

    VS: Well, it depends. You could play with the records very gently, and use the same kind of touch, and feel, and sensitivity to vinyl as you would with a normal turntable. If you have your weight set wrong, you could still gouge into the vinyl too. But here’s the other thing. I’ve been making my own vinyl records anyway by using a resin cast. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. So that’s one way to get around this whole preciousness of vinyl worry. And I gotta say, I had been only using vinyl that I found in the trash or on street corners–you can find It all over San Francisco, where I’m from–and cutting those up to do these record mosaics or actually just playing them straight. But that’s what I’m using for vinyl cast.

    I did get an Alice Coltrane El Daoud record, and I couldn’t bring myself to break it. I really couldn’t. I mean, it costs something like 40 euro to bring over anyway. I do visual arts as well. This was for an installation that’s up in L.A. right now at Canary Gallery. But I couldn’t bring myself to break it. So the way I got around that is I cast a small fragment of it, a slice at a time. I could attempt to get slices of the same part over and over again; my aim initially was to approximate footwork with records. I was trying to do back of the envelope math, the BPM of footwork stuff, length of the sample, like how much space does that take up on the record. And slice up a record that way. It sounds pretty crazy. I think I have to dial it in with the sample. Just have a sample I’m using as well as the kind of the amount of space. I was trying it in thirds and sixths. That’s what I what approximated it to be. Like the sample rate, or the sample length of each footwork sample. That’s my hat. But I’ve been playing around so much, it’s very liberating to be able to use records as its own kind of index to create new sounds, like chimeras. I could go on and on about that.

    FJO: I was watching the concert that you did, as part of the Option Series. And you were talking there about how one of the records that you made, a hunk of it was in 33 rpm, another hunk was in 78 rpm, and another hunk was in 45, and I thought to myself: That’s interesting because when you’re actually playing it, how are you dealing with those speeds? The machine can only move at one speed at a time, and then what you’re doing to it, is its own rhythmic thing. So what difference do those speeds make?

    VS: it has to do with the pitch mainly. And so for me, it’s a way of getting diversity in pitch with the same speed. The problem is when you have control over too many variables, it can be hard to keep trackable, to be intentional about stuff.  I do make my own turntables that have adjustable speed and direction, but whatever the speed is, it’s going to be constant across the grooves of my three-speed record. And so it’s always going to have this equidistance in pitch between the three tiers. That’s what I like. I just like being able to put in different sounds together at the same time. So Chinese opera, ltalian opera, swing music.

    My recent three-speed record is actually a 33, a 78, and a 128. That came out from the ‘70s. They had these toys called Bag of Laughs. They’re actually almost impossible to find now. I can’t believe it. Supposedly everybody had them in the ‘70s, but what they had was a tiny little record. It’s probably only two inches across. It had a little turntable under it. And when you hit this button, it would spin the needle around the stationary little record. And it was just this really low huh-huh-huh laugh. It has really gigantic grooves, and so it’s super loud compared to more standard records. It’s really funny dealing with this cross section of records through history, because you really can tell the loudness wars, when the volume starts to get jacked up. You know, like in the ‘70s, and ‘80s, and stuff. The presence of bass, the changes in production, and the way it looks in the records. But anyway, so that’s my most recent one. And the outer circle, the lowest tier, is a hi-fi stereo test record. I wanted to be able to use just the sine sweeps and sine tones, so then I would use the speed of the turntable more as an adjusting factor and just where I am on the record. And then the middle one is this weird band called Foreskin 500, which was released on my friend’s record label, Insignificant Records. And he’s not able to sell these 45s, actually it’s a 45, it’s not a 78, excuse me.

    FJO: A single!

    VS: Yeah, exactly! It’s this kind of fractured fairytale telling. I also am attracted to the vocals in the records. Ordinarily before I got into records, I never used any samples, any spoken word or anything like that. Something I’ve had to contend with since dealing with records and sampling is intentionality. And curation in sound sampling. But anyway, and then the laughing record. Those are the three things. And being able to very quickly grab from those sources is real nice.

    Victoria Shen scratching a record with her needle nails on a handmade turntable.

    A closer look at one of Evicshen’s Needle Nails performances. (Photo by Kemi Adejumo, courtesy Victoria Shen.)

    FJO: I want to go back to what you were saying about sampling pre-existing music, but before we go there, I’m just trying to wrap my brain around this record that’s multiple speeds. If you have a turntable that’s multiple speeds, you can obviously change the speed and change the pitch that way. Then if you have the grooves that are multiple speeds, and you’re playing it, it’s not going to change the speed. I’m trying to conceptualize: if you have the record that has three different speeds on it, and you put it on a player that’s, say, set at 45, the 33 part’s going to be too fast and the 78 part is going to be too low. So is that what you’re going for with that?

    VS: Am I going for mismatch? No, I’m just going for diversity in sound. That’s all. It’s just what’s available per the sound palette. Maybe I am actually going for some kind of uncanniness. So I do want to be like: oh, why is this like chipmunk voice? Why is it chopped and screwed? You know, going for that effect, but not intentionally, and it’s not like: oh, I’m messing with the math. That’s not the important part for me. It’s an intuitive thing. I’m a very technical person, but everything I do is by feel and not by the interest in pure math or manipulation in numbers or anything like that.

    FJO: Now, one of the things that you said in a talk somewhere, is you made a comment about how you liked working in sound because sound is less culturally fixed in a way. That it’s not something that has as much baggage.

    VS: Yes.

    FJO: And I thought to myself, that’s interesting. Then I watched the video of this performance in Chicago and you’re using this old Chinese recording. And I immediately thought of the whole history of recording in China–the earliest recordings of Beijing Opera, and then the pops stars in Shanghai in the ‘30s that were then outlawed during the Cultural Revolution and then the propaganda records that were made of the model plays. And I thought, there’s a lot of cultural baggage there.

    VS: Oh, yeah. For sure. This is the thing. I like to think of my work from two different perspectives, like the Modernist perspective which is all about abstraction and eluding baggage that way. And this a lot more closely resonates with my older work, which was all synthesizer and electronics and electro-acoustic things. But then, I butt up against the other aspect of my work, which is the performance part. My identity is something that is completely inescapable. I do like the Modernist kind of mission, but I know that it ultimately fails because all value divides contextually, arbitrarily. It could go in one eye and go out another, or it could be worth something based on some arbitrary factor which is like some institution assigns value to it. Or some kind of cultural capital gets ascribed to it. That’s bullshit. And we all know that, 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. What is aesthetically pleasing, how we position ourselves in the face of just stimulus or in a moment. And I think in my live performance, my plight ultimately is to bring someone to the present and experience things either just completely pre-linguistically or just be so overwhelmed with meanings that they short circuit. This is the goal, I guess.

    FJO:  Yeah. Just to unpack this a little bit more, sound is something you can’t see and we seem to process everything with our eyes, except for sound. We could talk about perfumes, and tastes too, which we might go to eventually in this conversation. They’re these amorphous, ephemeral things. Sound is the one that we were able to figure out somehow to capture, through recordings, so you can box it. But until then, you could capture images, but you couldn’t capture anything from any other senses. And I think people relate to music, most people anyway, based on: oh, I heard this before. Therefore, it’s pleasing to me. Oh, this is slightly different from this thing I heard before, but enough like it that I can associate. The fact that we can have a conversation now is we’re speaking these words that we’ve heard before. And we’re putting them together in new ways, but we’re finding meaning. Even music is that. You can’t escape it. And when you do, then you’re creating noise, because it’s incomprehensible sound.

    VS: Right. I think of Susan Sontag [Regarding] the Pain of Others, when she was talking about modern art, how initially it was very painful and uneasy for people to consume because it was in-placeable. There was no visual trope. I understand this immediately. That feeling of discomfort is very important, I think. Critical for people to like lean into. Oh God, this is gonna get really heady! It makes me think of Baudrillard’s idea of simulacrum. One instance is the existence of Disneyland. Disneyland is a simulacrum because it’s convincing you that in Disneyland, this is the fantasy world. Right? And then outside of Disneyland is the reality world, when in actuality, it’s all fantasy world. Like the rules of reality are also arbitrary. The rules of music are also arbitrary. So anything that exists outside of these rules is considered experimental or noise. But that’s the freeing thing; there are no rules here. Just going in between in and out of these spaces, in the rules, out of the rules, allows you to free your mind and realize that ultimately there are really no rules.

    Victoria Shen in mid performance is crawling on a table filled with various electronic music producing gear.

    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evichen) during a live performance. (Photo courtesy Victoria Shen)

    FJO: And, of course, those rules are different in every culture. So one culture’s music is another culture’s noise. And vice versa. I think there was an experiment years ago where they played young Indonesian children–this was before the world got more and more homogenized–Mozart. And it made no sense to them. In the same way that hearing gamelan would not have made sense to people before, say, the 1960s when recordings of gamelan suddenly were everywhere.

    VS: So fascinating. I definitely think that has a place in linguistics, too, with Sapier Whorf Theory. How the grammar of a language will shape your consciousness on your understanding of the world. It’s totally the same with music.

    FJO: I don’t know if you know this wonderful science fiction novel by Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17. It was a thing in the ‘60s. Basically they can’t figure out the language that these aliens speak. And because they can’t figure out the language, they can’t figure out how they built their spaceship, because language is what informs how people do things. And without the context for the language, you can’t comprehend what a culture is. To bring it back to your music, the music that you were doing before you were doing things based on samples or pre-existing things, I would contend, is a lot more abstract, a lot harder for someone outside of it to understand without hearing you explain it beforehand, to just go cold into it.

    VS: True. Definitely. It requires this kind of accumulation of acculturation: I’ve listened to experimental electronic music before. I know what a synthesizer is, before they can even get their foot in the door of enjoying whatever I produce. I agree with that.

    FJO: So I guess to show my own bias, and where my head is at, the thing that of yours that I was so intrigued by, perhaps more intrigued by than anything else I experienced so far, is Zero Player Piano because I have a context. I have a piano here: I play it; I write music for it. So I know what a piano sounds like, but you’ve totally exploded that idea. And you’ve turned it into this magical thing where notes exist on staircases. It’s so damn cool.

    VS: Thank you.

    FJO: Thank you. I only got to experience a little of it online. I want to be immersed in this thing. I want the full experience of it. But that’s because I have a context for that sound, the immediacy of it. This was a thing that I had a context for that you did something else with. And it was magical.

    VS: Oh, I appreciate that. It’s not something that I’ve been exploring too much lately. That’s kind of an old piece. It’s like four years old at this point. But at that time, I was more interested in algorithmic composition. And so I wrote a very basic algorithm to produce a non-repeating composition. Right? Uh, and so it’s also a play on words between Conway’s Game of Life, which is this cellular automaton game, and Conlon Nancarrow, who is one of the first composers for player piano. That was the gateway into more physical, electro-acoustic things I’m interested in now. I would take pieces from that installation and play it live.

    I was playing a lot with feedback at the time, too. I suspended a big bass drum with a contact mic on it with one of these piano hammers mounted on it and was using that as a motif, too. So I’m sorry that I haven’t really gotten deeper into this Zero Player Piano thing. But to me, it was definitely a Modernist strategy, to produce a work that has to do with that. 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?

    FJO: I saw the clip online, and it blew my mind. So in real life, when this happened, was the audience at the bottom of the stairs looking up, or did they get to walk through it? How did that whole thing work?

    VS: Oh, they’re walking around it. It was put up for a big concert, but the installation was there for a couple weeks surrounding the concert. And so people were able to walk it around it, put their ears to the banister. It was all steel, and so there’s no electro-amplications, totally acoustic. This stairwell resonated with the mahogany; the hardwood really helps express the sound. And it was really loud and where you were in the space totally changed the experience. It also seemed kind of dangerous if you walked too close. The piano hammer would actually whack you. And it actually hurts a lot.  So that was the event. But I’ve been able to re-install it in different places and different contexts, like a gallery setting. I had it installed at Theater in Gray Area. That was a flavor piece. When people walk through the entrance way, it was playing. And then they would go into this giant 360-degree diffuse sound theater. So it was installed in that context as well. But I haven’t done anything like that in a long time. I guess this Mellotron thing, which by the way is called the Inhaled Yowls Machines, it’s an anagram of Dilloway and Shen. That’s kind of close, like exploding a tape machine, or exploding some kind of sampler into something physical.

    FJO: I hope you do that piece again, because I want to be immersed in that piece one day.

    VS: I did a thing for Issue Project Room a few days ago, and they said that they would be open for future projects, installation stuff. That could be a venue maybe.

    FJO: Oh bring that there! You said you worked algorithmically with that, but it’s a thing that people walk through, so it’s not really based on this notion of a beginning or an end, so you don’t think of it as a duration-based piece.

    VS: No, absolutely not. Yeah. It can go on forever. Like Conway’s Game of Life.

    FJO: So getting back to that talk you did. You’re obviously a multi-disciplinary artist. You work in so many different media, that I think you said something to the effect that you didn’t want to limit yourself by giving yourself a name of a specific artform to say who you are and what your work is. So, loaded question: what do you think of the word composer to describe your work?

    VS: I think it applies to a small subset of my work. In anything that I’ve released on vinyl, on tape, on Bandcamp, digital, I think I’m playing the role of composer with those pieces. But otherwise, I’m not a composer, I think mainly due to the fact that I don’t work with other people. I think composers really shine when they’re able to provide a set of instructions for other people to execute their work. Maybe this is a problem. I was just actually having this conversation with Aaron Dilloway about the ravages of DIY mindsets and how it can be limiting. You can only imagine doing what you yourself could execute just by yourself.

    I might want to lean in further into the composer role, and do things where I work with other people, where I have my vision, or my set of instructions, realized by another body, or another interpretation, I think would be really nice to play with. But for now, it’s only a small part of my practice. 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. Anywhere in the world, you go to McDonald’s, you want to get the same hash brown, or the same–what’s a McDonald’s hamburger?

    FJO: Big Mac.

    VS: So yeah. A Big Mac. Exactly the same Big Mac everywhere you go in the world.

    FJO: Or a Chicken McNugget.

    VS: Yeah, McNuggets are totally homogenous anywhere you go.

    FJO: The same way Beethoven’s Fifth is like the McSymphony wherever you hear it.

    VS: The McSymphony. That’s right. It’s expressed exactly the same. You know what to expect. So that’s why I haven’t had the most glowing opinion of–or impression of–what composition is. But that’s not the case at all, especially in contemporary music. Composition is a lot more open. Dilloway and I was talking about George Lewis. In his compositions, it’s totally wide open for interpretation by the performer. I’m a lot more fond of that mode of composition. And Raven Chacon. I just was at the Whitney Biennial seeing his scores. He is a composer, and he is an incredible artist and so that has warmed me to the idea of possibilities in composition.

    FJO: Raven’s actually the previous talk we did on this podcast series; he’s amazing. But it’s interesting, I think people have these hobgoblins about the word composer, ‘cause it simply means to put things together. That’s all it means. I threatened that we’d talk about perfume. And here we go. We will. Somebody who makes a scent, a perfumer, in that industry is called a composer.

    VS: Oh, interesting.

    FJO: Because they’re putting together compounds to produce a scent.

    VS: Um hm.

    FJO: The word composer, big-C composer has got so much baggage. It shouldn’t have that baggage. It doesn’t even mean you need to do something original. All it means is that you’re putting things together.

    VS: Right.

    FJO: But we’ve given it all these other associations, which I think is interesting. And you know, when you talk about acculturation, when you’re putting notes together and you’re writing, say, a piano piece, you’re creating on an instrument that someone else built. You’re playing notes that other people have used. So you are putting things together. You know, there are limits to what originality can be. Obviously, it’s much different if somebody like you, building all your own instruments, you’re creating your own sound worlds. In a way you’re a more original composer than the so-called composers that you don’t consider yourself to be a member of because what you’re doing is a totally original thing from the ground up.

    VS: That’s a super flattering way to put it. Thanks for that. I guess I’m composing things. Composing instruments. Sculptures, performances. So I guess a live performance, with your definition, is just a composition, a one-off composition or something like that. I guess from that framework, I totally agree with you. Yes, I am a composer. I’m a composer of things and moments, and I guess that makes sense. But I think my live performances, or least the reason why I wouldn’t have typically ascribed that term to myself is because of my own intuitive of the moment-ness, the element of chance and the surrender of control in a lot of ways, elements that have been traditionally ascribed to what composers are: something incredibly controlled, intentional.

    FJO: I know you studied visual art. How did you get into this whole thing?

    VS: At art school, this woman Jessica Rylan, who is an instrument builder, artist, musician herself had a workshop in which we were building these audio filters which she designed. So she gave us PCBs and these components, and we soldered everything together and tested them. And she noticed that my solder joints were really smooth and they looked really great and so she hired me at that workshop. I ended up working with her from the ages of 19 to 22. I was working for her for quite a while at Flower Electronics. Her office is based at MIT. We were building what were noise synths essentially; these are all synthesizers that are stand-alone modulators that are based on chaotic formulas. She’s very fascinated by chaotic equations. Her instruments were characterized by chaotic sound, like high sensitivity to initial parameters. You can have the patch and your knobs in the exact same position, but the resulting sounds would be different. You wouldn’t be able to exactly zone into the exact same pattern; it was highly complex, aperiodic. It was mostly used by experimental and noise musicians, these synthesizers, and so that was kind of my gateway drug into sound.

    I always loved experimental music. I was listening to a lot of noise rock and IDM and even psych-folk stuff in high school. But harsh noise was something that was cracked open for me by Jessica Rylan. I am going to my first noise show with her and playing my first noise shows because of her. These instruments themselves are kind of a gateway fundamentally; they are chaotic and noise instruments. So I think that’s how I’ve become fond or keen on chaotic modes of sound making. Like from the instrument itself and from my exposure to Jessica Rylan’s world.

    Victoria Shen surrounded by synthesizers at the WORM Studio in Rotterdam.

    Victoria Shen surrounded by synthesizers at the WORM Studio in Rotterdam.

    FJO: So there’s no secret story of like violin lessons [laugh] or flute lessons when you were young and rebelling against them.

    VS: I really loved Jimi Hendrix a lot in middle and high school. And so I wanted to learn how to play guitar. I wanted to play drums, but living in San Francisco, there’s no real space for you to play drums in like a tiny tiny basement apartment. So I had to settle for guitar. But my fantasy is to some day learn how to play drums and do percussion stuff. Maybe I could do go in between and build my own drum machine and mess with things that way. But actually with a record with needle nails you can get some percussive things in modes of playing. But that’s the story. Learned guitar by tabs, Jimi Hendrix stuff, blues scales I could play all day, and then Jessica Rylan was the gateway into electronics. Then I will say that after Jessica, I had all these instruments that I built. I wasn’t really performing with them, but then I took this class called “How To Make Almost Anything” at MIT, which is a digital fabrication class, like TNC milling, like Adreno programming, like how to make your own Adreno AVR micro-controllers, laser cutting, 3D printing, this type of thing. And so that opened the world even further for me in terms of producing anything I wanted to make. Almost. Almost anything.

    FJO: When you mentioned percussion I immediately thought of Oscilloscope. It’s definitely a percussion piece in a way. I mean you can listen to it that way. Or at least I did. And they’re fascinating sounds. So it would be very interesting to hear you do a deeper dive into that.

    VS:  Are you talking about the video I have up on Vimeo?

    FJO: Yeah.

    VS: So if you put an oscilloscope on XY mode, you’re able to kind of map the voltage points from two different parts of a synthesizer versus time. Usually time is linear and so you’ll see this kind of side scroller of sound or point pixel tracking, but if you put it in XY mode you get spheres. So if you play a sine wave, and different parts of the sine wave, you’ll just get a pure circle on the oscilloscope. But XY mode is very useful for observing chaotic behavior. One of the classic things that you look for is this pattern which I guess I would describe as a fupa. Actually, even grosser, it looks kinda like the Air BNB logo. The other one is like kind of this butterfly, bifurcated pattern that you’ll see on the oscilloscope. Some people think that’s why chaos theory is also known as the Butterfly Effect, beyond the whole: oh if a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil would it cause a tsunami in Japan, this type of thing, kinda like rippling effects like multiplicative sort of effects. The oscilloscope is very handy for observing that, because if you see a line that has a kind of non-regular pattern, like there are some blurs and it diverges, then that’s how you know it’s chaotic. And the very critical thing is that it doesn’t diverge completely. It doesn’t just go off into infinity. It has to come back into some bounded state. And so it’s a pretty poetic visualization of what’s happening electronically. Percussively I think it that was just a coincidence. There are chaotic things that are not so percussive, too.

    FJO: I’d be remiss to have a conversation with you about your work and not talk about you as a performer–as a very very visceral performer. It’s interesting hearing you reference Hendrix, because I’m watching these things and seeing you manipulate these various devices and it seems like something out of punk rock or out of oi, music in the mosh pit. And it’s not the kind of thing one normally associates with electronic music. A year ago I had a conversation with Pamela Z–who is another San Francisco person, I’m sure your paths have crossed. Electronic music has this whole history of being really boring to watch, from these concerts of fixed media pieces to dudes in front of their laptops and who knows if they’re checking email rather than making music. Whereas what she does is so compelling to watch.

    VS: Right.

    FJO: But the same is true for you. It’s really compelling as performance in real time. So how did that evolve and how important is that to the work for you and how it’s perceived?

    VS: I think it’s so important and, honestly I think it evolved completely intuitively naturally. It actually took a second for me to come out of my shell. But it was a natural response to the music that I was playing. I like to dance a lot. I don’t necessarily consider what I do in my performances as dance, but it could be considered movement. There’s this paranoid schizophrenic aspect to everything that I do. Like there’s no clear delineation, compartmentalization in my work. It all kind of bleeds together. I think it’s the same with the sound that’s being produced with the movements that I’m making. There’s some diegetic link there. Very recently at the Issue Project Room show I played, I had this new piece that’s a collar with a guitar pick-up on it and bass strings. And I played it by changing the tension of one end of the string, the distance between the other end of the string to my neck, the collar, and so I become this kind of string instrument in which my body is the actual body of it. Though it doesn’t really affect the resonance so much. But the tension changes the pitch, like the way I move changes the kind of slide sound, like slough.

    For me there has to be some kind of grounded-ness, some kind of gold standard. And the gold standard I think for us is always going to be the human body. Again coming from the angle of meaning that comes from the body, the identity, the site. Things that affect your aesthetic understanding of the moment aren’t just: Who’s the performer? What is the source of the sound? But also: What is the site that we’re in and who else is here? So all those things play into it. And I like to interact with those things. I will interact with the site. Like with this collar thing, if I’m playing at a bar, I’ll put it the other end into the bar hooks where you hang your coat underneath the bar. And then I’ll change the tension that way, put us in hyper specificity. This is a very specific special moment that will never occur again. So this is why it’s good that you’re present, right? Also things like the element of danger, like either it’s climbing on things, pushing the envelop, how far I can get away with something without breaking it, is very important to me for that exact same reason of making you present and make sure that you know where we are at the moment.

    So I guess that’s my rationalization for the physicality in my set. But yes, it’s just more compelling for me. It makes me feel like I’m in the moment. And I think it’s probably compelling for the people in the audience. This is why I think improvisation is so good. It’s because you’re risking it all. With composition you can feel really safe because you have an expectation and that expectation is met. If it’s not met, if it’s underwhelming, then oh well who cares, right? But risk and the position of possible failure I think is very important. It is something that I think I don’t talk about enough, but failure happens all the time! I’m like, oh I have an idea, it’s spur of the moment improvisation. Let me try this out. Uh, will it fail? Sometimes. Is it embarrassing? Maybe. Move on. You know, but I think that is a point that is compelling for people, because they’re like: it could fail. she could fall. I think it’s why people enjoy my performances, because of that element of failure and risk.

    Victoria Shen creating sounds from pulling a long wire that stretches across a crowded room.

    A particularly risky moment during a recent Evicshen performance in Omaha. (Photo by Angelo G. Rossi, courtesy Victoria Shen.)

    FJO: Something that couldn’t happen in real life is your video of “Fever Pitch” which is really abstract. It’s clearly you performing, but it’s got filters on it and that’s really interesting too, but in a very different way.

    VS: Thanks, that’s predator vision in that. I used IR camera that tracks temperature. And it ascribes different colors to different temperatures. So it was like a different way to perceive the world, through temperatures instead of just light.

    FJO:  You put out a record since the pandemic. Putting out a record during the pandemic is a very brave act. But for you it’s interesting because you’ve taken this object that is one of the things you do to make music and now it’s become the receptacle for the dissemination of your music. I sort of found a kind of really sweet irony in that. I suppose you could take your record and then manipulate it and it could become this very meta thing.

    VS: I probably should, but it seems a little too masturbatory to do honestly. But I will say that I did not grow up with records. My earliest memory is listening to Peking Opera on a cassette tape with my mom and we were splitting the ear buds. I wasn’t around records. I had some records, but never really messed with them. But that record release, by American Dreams Records, was the first time I actually had a record and had to contend with it as a musical object or a document. This is the thing for me again on the modernist take, it’s all about medium specificity. So the medium of a record, like what is this? Like what is a record jacket? I don’t know if you know this, but a hundred of those, the first run of those records, I did this special edition where I rendered the album art in a copper coil. And so that turned the record jacket into a speaker through which you could listen to the record. I was really obsessed with making my own speakers and then it occurred to me, oh if I change the width, if I modulate the width of the spiral, then you can render an image. Why wouldn’t you just do that with record art?

    Anyway, I put that out and that was my entry way into the medium of the record itself. Then I started the needle nails. Actually before the needle nails idea I made a glove with tape heads on it, so 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. And then I started doing the record moulding and casting. Then it all sort of got converged together when I put a speaker coil inside of a record, so the record could play itself. Again all these concepts have to bleed together; they can’t just stay separate. So the record came first and then the record exploration came after I guess.

    FJO: That is so cool. So I guess I can’t any longer get a copy of the original first hundred. Those are all gone.

    VS: I’m never gonna do that again. It was so much work.

    FJO: Crazy record collector that I am, you definitely pressed my buttons with that. I’ll go search for that original pressing. Maybe there’s one of them that’ll turn up somewhere that’ll probably wind up costing me much more than that Alice Coltrane record cost you.

    VS: Who knows? I mean the original, the record with the speaker cover, was a hundred dollars, I think.

    FJO: That’s not bad, for what it is. That’s a deal!

    VS: Considering the labor that went into it, yeah.

    FJO: Totally. I don’t know if you want to share any thoughts about Beyoncé.

    VS: I think it’s hilarious. At the moment honestly I never felt that anxious in my life, because ohmigod is this really happening? This is what it’s like to feel scooped. And then since I’ve talked to other people who have been scooped before. I mean the fact that British Vogue changed their post. I know it’s as easy as hitting edit and then changing some tags. But the very fact that they did that, that the creative director actually responded and apologized and the PR person apologized I’m not gonna say it’s gracious but it’s unexpected and it’s some kind of consolation. And 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. That things you do have a very real widespread ripple effect on the world is kind of cool. It’s actually a smaller world than you might think.

    FJO: Well, I’m thinking that maybe it will lead to an eventual collaboration with Beyoncé; that’s kind of how my brain works.

    VS: 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.

    FJO: Well, we can keep dreaming. It would be nice to have you on her next album, the one after this new one.

    VS: 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 manipulating a record on a turntable.

    Evicshen as DJ at FCCO. (Photo by Max Hendrickson, courtesy Victoria Shen.)