During my PhD project, I’ve maintained a daily studio practice, comprising experiments in improvisation, composition, drawing, and recording: emphasizing process within a multivalent practice, through which I’m looking at my embodied correspondence with my sonic materials and situation.
Of particular note in this context is my work with "goldberg," the custom software sound-processing instrument that I have been working with and adapting over many years. The instrument continues to function as an improvisational partner that facilitates the deliberate slippage of my intended musical gesture into sonic realization that by design is not entirely controllable. All of the works that I’ve made during my fellowship have engaged with this instrument in some way.
I have made things during this time: sound and video recordings, drawings, and writings. Much of this work has been documentation of research, though there have also been publicly-presented works, including fixed-media compositions and performances whose realization are contingent on their site and situation; a series of electroacoustic performances; and the release of two CDs, one of which, Two Rooms from the Memory Palace/The Third Room—a stereo fold-down recording of a spatial audio work that is accompanied by a webpage—is presented and discussed in this exposition. (Another CD, Elective Affinities, my collaborative project with electronic musician Matthew Ostrowski, was released in 2019.) Additionally, I have created a body of performance videos and amplified drawings that I see both as research and completed art works.
As an aspect of my research, I sought to closely re-examine the materials I’ve been working with for many years: my electronically-processed accordion, a set of objects that I’ve collected, which I amplify and live process, as well as my samples and fragmented field recordings, which I process in real time. Additionally, I have moved more fully into an amplified drawing practice. This activity explores the tension and the space between gesture and sound with the mark as a trace of that experience, and has resulted in a series of drawings and video documentation of the practice.
Nonetheless, and as for many others, the coronavirus-related lockdown of 2020-2021 presented a challenge in my research: how could I create the projects I wanted to make, which hinge upon sonic reception and presence as embodied experience, not only for me, but also listeners?
With that in mind, I chose to use this time as an opportunity to dig into research on my experience of embodiment in relation to my materials, sound, space, and above all situation: working at home, and documenting what I did. And the work did move forward, although in ways that I could not anticipate.
Even as I remained situated in the very room in which I now write, with its bad acoustics, spending my time devising forms of research that could inform the works I hoped to create "after the pandemic," I gradually came to recognize that these "forms of research" were and are in fact the works themselves.
During my fellowship, I began incorporating Authentic Movement as an element of my research. Authentic Movement is a practice that helps to develop sensory awareness and proprioception—important for me to address in my understanding of (my) body in space within performance, and in fixed-media works in which my body isn’t present, but which might hold the implication that some other body is present as an instigator of sound. The structure for the practice offers timed sessions in which one person moves with their eyes shut, while witnessed by another, who later reports back on what they observed in the movement. Initially, I met several times in Berlin for sessions with choreographer Jennifer Lacey, and then later in Oslo with dance artists Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad. Then, from late 2019 until Spring 2021, I began meeting with Olive Bieringa on Zoom for Authentic Movement sessions. For a period of months, we met at least twice per week. Admittedly, the practice still seemed new to me and I felt a bit self-conscious, so Olive worked with me more as a guide rather than a reciprocal partner in the practice. She viewed my timed sessions, and I reported back to her what I experienced and she told me what she observed. We recorded all of our sessions on video.
For some time, I moved only in an empty room. Later, I began moving with the addition of big sheets of heavy paper and large swathes of fabric, adding processing from my software instrument, which amplified and processed the sound of my body's movements. Working with the paper and fabric allowed me to introduce more physical challenge—as I strive to do—and also provided a means for extending my body into and through the space, in order to locate (and perhaps even echolocate), or at least sense, where the edges of the room might be.This process and affect may be observed in my performance film room divining, which is viewable on this page.
More recently, I extended the process by bringing into the sessions some everyday household objects: for example, a folding wooden rack for drying clothes, some plastic dropcloths, and broken parts of a badly made metal clothes rack. These objects were selected with the intention that I would find them awkward or difficult to maneuver as I moved with them. During these sessions, sound continued to play an important role, not only because my body’s sound and interaction with the objects was amplified with microphones and processed with my software instrument, but also because I needed to address the difficult acoustics in my home studio, which feature a rather unpleasant mid to high frequency slapback. With this came my awareness that my software instrument had the potential to sonically explode at exactly the right moment—that is, when I least expected it. As mentioned elsewhere in this exposition, this characteristic of the instrument is an intentional aspect of its design. I found myself riding an edge: a tension between what seemed to be the need for careful constraint in my movement, lest the sound become “too much," and my strong wish to activate the objects into sounding their presence as forcefully as possible.
Different from my interaction with the large pieces of paper and lengths of fabric, as seen in room divining, which focuses more directly with space, I note that when working with the household objects, I approached them as instruments. I focused less on my body’s interaction with the space in which I moved, and more on my physical correspondence with the objects and their animacy; their potential to take flight into sound, when I intentionally manipulated them. The objects became instruments that I directly addressed with my hands, feet, and body weight as a means of creating sound.
When viewing the video "Objects-as-Instruments" (which can be found on this page), I note and recall how acutely I listened for the next sound, and was poised to react for the moment that it would erupt, considering what I would do if it did, depending on its volume, frequency and density. And if no sound came, then I had to make a decision about whether to wait or listen for it until it did, or to intervene in the silence by “instrumentalizing” my materials in order to get an audible result: to “play them." Often, when I did the latter, and managed to elicit a sound with my instrument (as in the case of the wooden clothes dryer, which somehow morphed into a crude and creaky vertically-aligned accordion, greater than my body length), it was hard for me not to judge the sound in “musical" terms. I did not think about that when I worked with the paper and fabric. In that case, I was engaged in an exploration of space that absorbed me completely, and which, in those moments, seemed to erase my subjectivity. In no way did I feel that I was creating a performance, even though Olive was there (on Zoom) as my witness. I only listened and sensed, as I swept the space with the paper, divining the room.
As I moved with the household objects-as-instruments, I did have a sense of the session as a performance. I recall the moments when I made sounds that I enjoyed and hoped that Olive did too. (For example, the quiet swooshing of the plastic dropcloths near the beginning of the video, and later in the piece when I folded my body over the wooden “accordion” as it too folded down, some multi-pitched feedback emerged that had a texture and sense of stasis that I found beautiful, and which reminded me of the sounds I intentionally create with my electronically- processed accordion). I’m also able to see in the video and remember moments during this session when I felt embarrassed by the sounds and movements that I made, similar to how I felt when I began learning to improvise as a musician.
Through this process I developed a deeper understanding about my physical interaction with objects, how I work with physical and acoustic space, and the role that listening has in this practice. This is research that has been moving toward a form of performance that is situated in intimacy, perhaps, as was suggested to me by my external supervisor Trond Lossius, just for an audience of one or two persons, whom I could invite to my home to witness what I am doing. Such a performance could point to further possibilities for dissemination of artistic research: honoring process-oriented work, deep engagement with materials, and the relationship between I and the Other.
This research was rough and noisy, and it was created in isolation. And yet for me, it resulted in works from which I learned that I was engaged in an embodied practice that was equally composed of sounding and listening. I wondered if and how I might share this work with other artistic researchers—in terms of process, materials, and also affective qualities and poetics. Among the latter are what I perceived as these works’ abject aspects, which attract me: the fact that they are not about making beautiful music, but rather home in on interruptions of sonic flow, with awkward eruptions of feedback, unintended silences, or just plain ugly sound. These were the moments when I could locate resonance and reflections—not from an "other," but only and simply from the walls and surfaces of the room in which I lived.
Lockdown did ease this past summer, and I was able to invite another person as a collaborator: in this case, I asked pianist Magda Mayas to engage in three days of artistic research with me in a large studio in Berlin. During those days, we shared and exchanged our sonic materials, and explored ways in which we could extend our musical and performative gestures across and with each other in acoustic and physical space, documenting this research with sound and video recordings. As an outcome, we recorded a set of improvisations for two pianos, objects, electronics, my accordion, and Magda’s Clavinet.
We also made a longer form piece, which was recorded on video. In this collaboration, we really do share our materials and processes. Magda is an improviser who normally plays inside the grand piano, working with a set of preparations that she has developed over the years, which provides a huge range of timbral possibilities. In this instance, she worked for the first time with objects outside of the piano, some of which she brought with her to the session, and some, which belong to me, are an autoethnographic reflection of my sonic identity as a performer. For this session, I eschewed working with the instruments with which I have the greatest fluency: accordion, interactive electronics, and acoustic and electronic keyboards. Instead, I exposed my engagement with the more intractable materials that I had been exploring during the lockdown —large rolls of paper and amplified drawing tools, along with my software instrument-—moving close to the floor, though occasionally jumping up and grabbing other materials from another part of the room. Magda and I recorded a discussion of our process afterward, both admitting that we felt vulnerable as we explored this form of research, but also intrigued by the way it asked us to work differently with our respective materials, rethinking our sonic interaction, and notions of fluency or virtuosity.
As I had instigated this research, Magda gave me permission to edit the video as I wished, and I see it as both a document of our research and also as a work in itself. In this piece, she appears at times as a not-quite materialized “other.” This points to my own subjectivity—with the other as an implicit presence, who comes into focus and being through visceral engagement with (our shared) materials/materiality. My materials were, at last, in someone else’s hands.