interview with Jessie Marino, PART II – June 14, 2016

PART II – June 14, 2016

Jessie Marino: sup?

Travis Just: nuthin

JM: you got some fresh jams out today! [Object Collection audio/video release Problem Radical(s)]

TJ: (dancing bhangra emoji) but it is hard to care much about recordings…for me anyway. thoughts?

JM: ya - its kind of a drag I get sick of listening to the stuff. and I don't know anything about post production so usually its just sitting next to someone and going -- yeah I guess thats cool

TJ: i don’t know anything about it either, but i can make it sound funky and thick. i’m not terribly interested in studio knowledge anyhow.

JM: why'd you do the audio only?

TJ: audio only because that’s how people listen to things. i’ve been asked about it a little recently and finally thought why the fuck not just release it. i have these performances just sitting on my hard drive.

JM: sure, get it out there

TJ: we have videos for everything, but who is going to watch a video release of an opera?

JM: (me). and probably Paula [Matthusen]

TJ: i only care about the live shit.

JM: we're trying a video thing for the new pamplemousse album - making some super whacked out music videos old vh1 style…oh you're gone

TJ: am i back?

JM: you're back

TJ: but am i really? yeah….product. it’s a question right?

JM: YOU'RE BACK BABY! well I'm with you too - I"m mostly concerned with the live shit. its what I really get excited about

TJ: dealing with an artifact (even if a digital one, which has the identical issues) means dealing even more with non-artistic concerns than we normally have to. packaging, distribution, promotion of a dead thing (a recorded artifact). these things turn me OFF.

JM: for sure - and then you have this baggage - trash - even in digital format - it takes space -- performance can evaporate so you have to get into it RIGHT THEN -- the artifact lets you procrastinate -- and possibly never really pay attention

you can think about a performance later and remember something completely different too -- something that may not have happened at all -- so there is a developing fiction -

and a reveal of what is important to you as a witness at the time

TJ: i see them as substitutes for the actual aesthetic experience, which is being in the room with the thing.

but yes, locating where this aesthetic moment actually occurs is complex.

JM: they are mostly business cards

TJ: or an option for someone who isn’t going to be able to view it live in NYC. (or in my case, live in NYC 7 years ago).

JM: ya. well I think i'm turning around on it now. the recordings do help to broaden out interested folks who may not have the opportunity to be there

TJ: do you have a different approach to making a video for distribution as opposed to a video for live performance? do you consider the viewer/listener’s perceiving-situation?

JM: ya for sure. but the opportunity doesn't always come. If its going to be distributed I think it MUST be different than just a documentation of a live performance

TJ: opportunity for…?

JM: the opportunity to make a version for distribution. I think you have to alter it to function within the medium

TJ: it is interesting, i think of my thing as a snapshot of a live event, so it is necessarily a live documentation. maybe i just don’t trust myself in a purely video medium.

JM: well i don't know if you necessarily have to trust yourself - I think you just gotta commit to the idea when you see and then fucking put it out there!

I do also like those kinds of blair witchy POV shots of live shows - I guess I'm mostly talking about record label type distribution. its getting complicated now with things made for Youtube vs Vimeo vs DVD etc

TJ: or easier…? the ‘making any money’ aspect is certainly dead, unless one is making something more…consumable. which neither you nor i do (happily)

JM: ha - making money

TJ: i guess one thing that i think about is how important the listening/viewing environment is to receiving the work well. with Kara and my work, you really need to, like, have Avi or whoever standing right in front of you and sweating, glowering, staring you in the fucking eye. otherwise it is, quite literally, two-dimensional

…but enough about my hang-ups…i want to talk about the piece of yours from the Roulette concert last month

JM: sure -

TJ: it seemed to me to have a different angle (at least from some of your other recent work). the performative elements…well all the elements actually, whether performative or sonic…seemed to me to be sort of ‘squared-off’, very distinct components sort of hanging in time/space. as opposed to something more like a musical gesture (with the micro aspects of, say drawing a bow across a string or moving an arm). does this make any sense?

JM: yes - well its a piece about the digital. and as opposed to the former automatons who were interested in trying to find or develop or invent a kind of "personality" these characters are only able to function in an on/off, 0 or 1 kind of reality. so they do what they are assigned to do. they read down the list of stereotypes and execute

TJ: i thought there was a quality of larger-scale building blocks. and it progressed formally like: BLOCK, BLOCK, BLOCK, BLOCK. there was a brutalist aspect to it that i found unique and compelling.

JM: ya for sure - this idea goes through the entire piece - with even the weird band in the back quickly shifting between "styles" of music -- always punctuated by sharp hits in the drums -- and the blocks don't have much relation or development at all

TJ: right, exactly! not elegant at all. i liked that.

JM: no very un elegant

TJ: i mean, you say digital, meaning like an old binary conception? because it isn’t, you know, swooshy and pretty, like synthesis or something

JM: yes i mean the very basics of what makes digital digital - theres only two states. and they are very very literal

TJ: literal in what sense? oh, the ON/OFF quality..right

JM: yeah, and that there is nearly no nuance. or secret meaning. i think i was trying to deal with the experience of living in silicon valley for so long

TJ: also it was striking that there was no concern with the small-bore execution of the activities (sound producing or otherwise). the movements etc. necessary to execute a BLOCK were irrelevant. whereas most musicians/composers/whatever are EXCLUSIVELY interested in these small-bore movements/gestures/activities.

Silicon Valley….speak on that

JM: I think the people there are quite demented. its a culture of complete self obsession - zero creative thinking - and no concept of self doubt

frankly its terrifying. completely self righteous. When I would tell someone I was a composer - they would ask what kind of apps did I compose for

TJ: capitalism heaven

JM: no fucking kidding

it was really horrible to see that happen to humans. but thats the way it seems to be going

they all think that they are changing the world - but really they are just hyper producing absolute shit which people somehow buy and in return a small few get to have the feeling of owning the world -- which then lets them disseminate this idea to their workers that they too are changing/owning the world

or probably it will get to a tipping point and there will be a great chasm

TJ: in other words, a difficult place to make art? sounds like Hollywood

well that’s an aspect of the internet (or: The Internet)….remember way back when it was supposed to level the playing field for distribution of music/video/art/ideas/etc? major media companies were going to be wiped out and replaced by…what, the early 21st century great unwashed? what a dodge that turned out to be

as a wise man once said:

JM: well of course - those fuckers are not dumb - they saw how it was changing and could seriously be used as a force for revolution and they hunkered down and capitalized -

TJ: i suppose the alternate view is that you and I have a romantic notion of an individual artist working on a unique output.

JM: i guess that is rather romantic. but i'm into it

TJ: is it an old-fashioned attitude to rail against these mega-structures? or should we all just buy in like Jeff Koons and Matthew Barney?

JM: if we are then there is only Jeff and Matt. kinda boring don't you think. and I like to get angry sometimes

TJ: well it begs the question of just what are we trying to do anyway? which windmills are we tilting against?

JM: well maybe thats where I get off the boat. i want to be a fickle hater. having it always be against one type of idea/ ideal is maybe too romantic or old school for me. i like flip flopping

TJ: obviously we’re not trying to make ‘em dance, nor are we trying to send the audience into reveries about athletic musician-fireworks or beautiful soothing sonic soundscape-baths. and, fortunately, we aren’t trying to move “Composition” forward to the next brilliant stage of progression.

JM: no no - but I think you truly end conversation if you have too strong of stakes in your own opinion - like that stupid fucking story about Feldman disowning Philip Guston for painting people again. thats garbage

TJ: right, but with Feldman I always assume there is some Proustian salon bullshit behind the scenes. he’s mad about something someone told him someone else said at a party sometime.

JM: or he's invested too much importance in the absoluteness of his aesthetic that he can't even be a good friend. whatever - that guy was bad news

just do what you need to get out at that moment. if we aren't reacting to the things that are happening now we just live as ghosts. angry ghosts

TJ: i’ve thought for a while that one of the big problems I have with most composers is that they care too much about their sounds (and that the sounds are very much ‘their sounds’). which was what I found so refreshing about your piece at Roulette (and your stuff in general).

JM: sound can be a precious thing yes. its never been like that for me - although I guess more recently I have been leaning more towards very nostalgic sounds -

TJ: oh really? in what sense? for new work?

JM: well its mostly due to the technology i'm using. old casios and shoe box cassette players. but they are used more as time traveling devices than they are about honing and crafting a particular sound

TJ: and where is the nostalgia generating from, from a sense of boomboxes in backyards in the 80s? (i dont mean that in a sarcastic way!!)

JM: no thats exactly right. the keyboards and drum machines that we would pick up at garage sales as kids

TJ: were those objects and devices your initial entry into making music?

JM: of course! -- and honestly they are still the reason why I make music --- I always start a new piece by going to the thrift store and seeing whats been left behind!

what is it about the finicky sound world building that you don't like?

TJ: oh i like it fine! none of my opinions are steadfast!

JM: ha! thats what I love about you!

TJ: finicky sound building meaning what exactly….building up layers of material? circuit bending?

JM: no no i mean what you were referring to earlier when you said there was a problem with composers caring too much about the sound

TJ: oh. i dunno. i haven’t thought about it more that formulating that phrase…i like the laziness of this kind of sloganeering!

Nostalgia though can be a fascinating element. i dont work with it myself, but there are fabulous people i know who engage with it directly: Brian Harnetty, Devin Maxwell has some pieces, Paula Matthusen has a few. i love this work.

JM: i think its really interesting to try to find a way to communicate and ignite others nostalgia -- and sometimes tricky not to just communicate your own version of nostalgia oh man I saw this piece of Paula's recently that was actually difficult to watch as a result of its nostalgia. it was fascinating!

TJ: in what sense difficult?

JM: it was a piece that was quite literally wailing. for bassoon and electronics. and the bassoon player is mostly utilizing just the mouth piece. the bassoon player Dana Jessen, who is amazing, was also indulgently expressive in her playing of this tiny object

it at once felt completely over done and wrought with an unshakeable feeling of pain and release

TJ: and you found it difficult because of the intensity of emotion? or was it otherwise problematic?

JM: i think if you underplayed it and did not outwardly express it would have felt very callous. it was that there was a genuine feeling of grief that was being somehow exploited. and maybe it was a problem with the performance aspect - but the music itself I think would have communicated the same thing. it somehow felt manipulative

like if you weren't also accessing a moment of grief in your own emotional history then you weren't able to sympathize. but you really really want to be able to sympathize. i know that seems like a negative comment - but I actually was totally transfixed by the pieces ability to do that to me

TJ: i’ve always preferred artwork to be something separate from daily life…including grief and tragedy (which is certainly on our minds this week after Orlando).

but also political concerns (like what Kara and I engage with)…that there is no misunderstanding of our work as actual political rhetoric or action.

JM: right of course. but that is a social call not a personal one. its different if it feels self indulgent

TJ: you mean distinguishing between the approaches? i guess some people (both artists+practitioners as well as audience) can come to art as a sort of therapy. i’ve never had that attitude. but whatever helps in moments of need i suppose..

JM: do you think you make different work when you are in a "good" place vs. a "bad" one?

TJ: if i am in a truly bad place i dont think i would be making work at all.

JM: you do the shut down?

TJ: though i have committed my life to it and think about little else, i guess i see art ultimately as a luxury. if i were actually suffering, the last thing i would want to do is compose something for violin.

JM: absolutely

TJ: there is a quote/criticism and I cant remember exactly where it is…maybe from George Lewis’ AACM book (or from him himself). it is directed to an attitude about artmaking very much in general, but i think it uses James Tenney as a specific example

JM: (oh my gawd Trav, I am also reaching for the quote book right now!!…from Judith Halberstam)

TJ: it says something like ‘the attitude of experimental composers that their work aesthetically “prepares the way” for political change is a mistake’ (or something) strongly worded actually. saying that an ambivalent attitude towards what the artwork is saying, what it is doing, is a massive problem.

and i have found myself permanently coming down on either and neither side of this, and remaining ambivalent about the entire issue while simultaneously always thinking about it.

JM: I think my deep cynicism prevents politics from coming into my art - I don't fully understand or see possibilities for the kinds of changes which are desperately needed -- maybe its my naiveté and we are getting close - but I can't perceive that now... so I choose to make art much more about frivolous fictions

TJ: understandable. i guess in a sense i can’t see anything as outside of politics anymore (for a long time now). frivolous fictions just as much as Judith Halberstam quotes. [which i dont mean as a criticism!]

JM: Maybe the composers George is referring too are also concerned with making work that is "serious" (thats where the Halberstam quote comes in )

TJ: i think he (and i really dont remember if it is indeed George or not) is saying that this sort of ‘friendly liberal’ attitude of engagement without specificity or engagement without action is detrimental. or something like that. What is the Halberstam quote?

JM: “Being taken seriously means missing out on the chance to be frivolous, promiscuous, and irrelevant.” In other words, that one’s concern for a kind of correctness (be it political or otherwise) in art can stunt the opportunity of discovery

TJ: i guess i see social+political engagement as a matter of course in work, an inevitability. much the same way that theatricality and performative context is an inevitability around the work. i just can’t separate them out and create borders between the world and the work (or between action and sound)

and that George Lewis (or whoever!) idea problematizes it for me somehow, i can’t escape the problematized situation. which maybe isn’t bad.

JM: but then it stops for you when it comes to a personal/emotional realm?

TJ: honestly i cant conceive of a barrier between my personal/emotional realm and an aesthetic/social/political one. which doesnt mean that i’m like Mr. Politically Engaged Dude or anything.

maybe i just dont have enough of a sense of identity. or, honestly, an interest in it. i would be a shitty Freudian subject

JM: hahah!

i see - meaning that we make political decisions regardless of our intent to make a political decision

TJ: exactly. and not like some cheap Twitter burn about Trump or something, a greater political identity.

JM: oh man i had a crazy dream last night

TJ: do tell!

JM: i was in a house with my band mate Andrew - and we heard this insane noise outside - there were skylights in the house and so we could see from inside, that there was like a 1940's war-type aircraft bobbing just above the roof of the house -- but it was turning on its nose like a drill press so it was bobbing and the propeller blades were just barely missing the house - and then it dove into the pool and sunk out of view

TJ: jesus.

JM: and when I woke up there were parrots outside the window talking to one another

TJ: i rarely remember my dreams.

Kara and I were watching a Prince concert video last night - Lovesexy tour, 1988 in Dortmund - and she dreamt that Prince was running all around in ridiculous outfits all night.

JM: thats a great dream to have! dreaming can be quite productive Trav - you can hang out with all sorts of people

TJ: when I was composing the Fugazi opera and was in the depths of working through their archives all day every day i was having dreams that I was like, in the band. part of their conversations.

and then I met Guy Picciotto at a party just last weekend and actually told him this. man did he think I was a lunatic.

JM: really? - that seems like a very plausible dream situation.

TJ: dreams…i dont really know how to generate them. i think it may have more with translating non-linguistic impulses into linguistic images upon awaking. that threshold…nothing crosses it for me. which is fine.

JM: wait - you met Guy recently? what kind of fancy parties are you going to now Travis!!

TJ: oh god no. no fancy parties. never have never will. it was Dan Joseph’s birthday. Dan and Guy are from DC, were friends in their teens.

JM: aww !

TJ: it was through Dan that I contacted Fugazi in the first place. and it was his reassuring them that Kara and I were for real that they agreed to allow us to make the opera.

JM: very very cool

TJ: they think that we are insane. in a good way i guess.

JM: thats high praise I'd say!

TJ: so what are you working on these days? anything besides moving your ass to the midwest?

JM: ugggghhhh. while most of the days are about apartment hunting I am supposed to be writing a short opera but luckily I found some extremely stealable material recently! have you heard the music of Judee Sill?

TJ: nope!

JM: its fantastic! - she was this kind of mythical american woman. she was a prostitute and a smack addict and robbed banks and then got clean and learned how to play gospel piano

TJ: and you are making a piece based on her?

JM: she wrote some songs for the turtles and was an early find of David Geffen and the whole Asylum records thing. well I'm gonna use 3 songs from her album Heartfood as the kind of musical fodder

TJ: whoa like the Topanga Canyon sound and stuff? Neil Young and Joni Mitchell?

JM: exactly. she was very much into the occult - so i'm trying to think of ways of making a ghost opera

TJ: ghost in what sense?

JM: been reading a bunch of Madame Blavatsky and Crowley. I want visually to turn the singers into ghosts and try to employ some of those good old thee-ater tricks like peppers ghost

TJ: well, via Crowley you get to Jimmy Page

JM: oh yeah whats his deal?

TJ: what’s Jimmy Page’s deal? mostly rockin’ out. stuff like that.

JM: oh oh oh that Jimmy Page!!! ha! - I thought he was some sort of theosophical dude

TJ: and via Blavatsky you get to Abner Doubleday and the invention of baseball (he was a big Blavatsky guy…involved in that whole SoCal spiritualist commune)

JM: Abner Doubleday is really one of the great names that ever was

TJ: kara used a bunch of text from the interview that Burroughs did with Jimmy Page for a one-off performance of ours. at the end of the day, that might be the main reason i love working in the theater. if it were all just violin sounds and shit we wouldnt be able to talk about Madame Blavatsky and Jimmy Page.

JM: oh my god so true!

SoCal Spiritualism is for real - the sun makes people do and think some seriously other things! the Unarians - have you heard about these guys?

TJ: i havent’… i hate to say this but i’ve got to run

JM: ok!!

TJ: hey, this was great. thanks a million!!

JM: indeed - anytime!

TJ: miss you and hope you have a good move! (not going to Germany this summer, right?)

JM: perfecto! -- thanks! - please come visit once I"m settled - we'll do a show! no Deutschland :(

TJ: eh, they dont know what they’re missing! luv u. stay frosty!!

JM: june gloom in SD baby!! -- till soon!


conducted over internet chat June 14, 2016

interview with Jessie Marino, PART I - April 22, 2016

PART I - April 22, 2016

Travis Just: hi!

Jessie Marino: like this?

TJ: yeah! so.......Prince.

JM: I KNOW. Man.

TJ: hard to think about anything else today.

JM: Its been populating the feeds

TJ: yeah.

JM: but its also kind of interesting because his work has been so carefully protected on the internet, so there is only a handful of videos that people can post. and its like the muppets

TJ: i love that aspect.

JM: me too

TJ: i think there is something important in it. an understanding of what a musical (or performative) experience should be. and that it is least-well served by a video snippet on a social media feed.

JM: yes- but - there is also this preservation of mystique, the identity is so so so carefully constructed, that even with the muppets he's Princing all over the place - talking about starfish and coffee

TJ: i don’t see it as controlling or calculating though, almost the opposite.

JM: how so?

TJ: there is something freeing about there being an absence of social media (and the like) content. and since he was constantly shifting and contradicting his musical output (or his image, sexuality, etc) i see it as a chaotic and rich multiplicity rather than a sculpted Product. like, wouldn’t you want to goof around with muppets? i think that’s cooler than a twitter beef with some other pop star.

JM: oh absolutely - that shit is dreadful. and I am very jealous of Prince's ability to have a complete lack of mediated presence (besides the one that the artist puts forward). but that is not an option for most anymore - you have to be a Prince or a McCartney or a LeBron to get away with that. its not really even an option for second tier famous people

TJ: yes. like those articles that talk about Adele or Taylor Swift not having their music on Spotify or Radiohead releasing their music for free. the New Musical Economy! of course those people are insanely rich and famous enough so that it is irrelevant for the rest of us.

JM: but we love a good story about celebrity

TJ: i remember at music school everyone would talk about this aesthetic thing or the other, have this stance or another and on and on. but the one time tempers REALLY flared was when a professor brought up the Beach Boys in class. people took sides with knives out. popular culture is powerful

JM: what were the sides?

TJ: pro and con. i think i was con at the time but i’m more of a qualified pro now.

JM: ha! have to say thought that I really can't stand a lot of the academic shit that gets pasted onto the top of popular culture phenomena. just more old white guys who think they know more about Beyoncé than she does. its very tiresome

TJ: yeah, or they know more than some kid banging it out of her car speakers does. i would rather hear a teenager talk about the music than some writer for the New Yorker.

i find it difficult to separate the money and reach of popular music+culture from the actual artwork at the end of the day. particularly as we have engaged with it now and then on the fringes of our own practice

JM: hmm - I think I have less of a problem with that because it is so ubiquitous within popular music - its just a different system entirely - also the art world - we are not playing in the same game, not even in the same fucking park -- I guess it is harder to know when someone is taking a risk though

TJ: that is a good parallel, with the art world. both have the potential for actual money and fame. there are those composers etc who then actually cross over into that world, redefine themselves as presenting in museums and galleries or on a much much broader distribution level. do you think that is a conscious line to cross or to identify?

JM: I suppose it depends on the person. I think Nam Jun Paik and Philip Glass probably had different motivations. Paik going back to a visual arts upbringing and Glass just trying to find ways to stay relevant without having to change

TJ: yeah and it is pretty subjective on a basic level. i suppose we shouldn’t begrudge people their successes.

JM: no way - I'd love to be fuckin famous!!!

TJ: ha, at what cost?

JM: talk about freedom fantasies. I know as soon as you start thinking about the realities of it - there is actually very little freedom

TJ: we did this panel in Norway and this one curator dude was all “you could not do such things at a real opera house” to Kara and me. and i’m sitting there thinking, give us the fucking chance!

JM: I wonder why institutions like that are still afraid of waking up?

TJ: i don’t think they are as a rule. there are interesting institutions and boring ones, just like composers and artists. there is no systemic reason why institutions couldn’t support radical work. and sometimes, of course, they do.

JM: would you want to do something at a "real opera house"

TJ: sure why not?

JM: hmmm

TJ: they would have to want to do what we do, which is doubtful. i’m not going to suddenly write a different kind of music.

JM: there is some tie in here with the lack of Prince on Social media - I"m just not finding the right words for it

TJ: but why not? Cecil Taylor is at the Whitney. he washed dishes in the mid-60s.

JM: yes but a piano is not a concert hall. and pianos have been going into galleries for decades

TJ: true. i mean (not to talk about school), but it isn’t so long ago that it would be inconceivable for you to make the kind of work you do at Stanford.

JM: for sure - its still weird

TJ: though i imagine you were very much the outlier.

JM: they think they are embracing the "outsider" and that seems very cool and fashionable and open minded to them. but they have absolutely no way to talk to me about my work. they try to talk about it in these terms that have zero application. and a number of my colleagues here are being seen in a similar light. but this is mostly a direct mechanism of transitioning out of being a school devoted to New Complexity

TJ: where have you found the most success (meaning personal artistic measure) presenting your work?

JM: the festivals. that is just such a dream for me

TJ: there are some composers doing this kind of performativity thing that absolutely need to do it for a die-hard music audience. but your work (while it can work there) seems more open to the world vis a vis audience.

JM: yeah, its been interesting to see how the recent work has been having this undertone of pushing agains the academic musical institution - I had proper training as a performer aka cellist which I fought against for a while by doing all of the body movement object dance stuff with Natacha – and since coming into contact with "Academia" I think I've been kind of in a teenager-ish sort of way try to yell at that institution through making these bonkers pieces. but I'm trying to calm down about all of that (or maybe I just don't care as much about shoving it in their faces because I'm moving away from it). the last piece I made was all about Beethoven and in a very loving way

TJ: i don’t want to be too obvious here, but i’m interested in your composer Origin Story. where/when/how does the studying cello fit in with the table-top wigs+objects performances? is there a lineage from one to the other? a break?

JM: Berlin! I went there right after school and basically sat in an apartment getting stoned and eating hallumi sandwiches for two years. it was great. and whenever I had creative impulses it was never to go and play the cello. I got to know Carolyn Chen's music. and the Pamplemousser's always were encouraging everyone in the group to write

TJ: but did you go from Xenakis to Bruce Nauman as the flip of a switch? that other stuff must have been percolating somehow, somewhere. [xenakis as a stand in for…you know…that sort of thing…]

JM: sure! I think it was more of a result of being near the HAU and the UDK which at the time was quite focused on this thing that they are calling "Experimental Music Theater" -- I saw some productions first by Aperghis, then Goebbels, and then was on a bus being driven around to different stops off of the Autobahn where there were dudes in turtle costumes giving out apples and making you walk along stretches of highway. the fact that those things could be music was really exciting -- and I didn't really care if it was speaking to a music audience or a theater audience or a performance art audience. it was there for people to experience and talk about. but this was also Berlin - not New York - and Berlin in the early 2000’s

TJ: while i was embedded (and am still) in the gaff-tape and dodgy-electricity underground theater world here in nyc

JM: right

TJ: what is your relationship now to your cello playing and those ways of making work? certainly you are a fabulous cellist, something not to be taken lightly!

JM: the classic line now is "I have a cello". I really don't play except in Pamplemousse and in the context of that group the rest of the guys are writing music they know that I can do

TJ: but it is difficult to maintain a high level of instrumental performance with the composing process, i find at least. (“i have saxophones and clarinets”.)

JM: absolutely. its just not the primary thing anymore

TJ: you know, this is something that i have been thinking about a lot. particularly now in relation to Prince. the idea of music production as a life activity, not a project-based one. in his case, he just made music all the time…all these fully-realized things in the studio, stuff put out in ersatz fashion here and there. not just: here is an album, here is the tour, here is the video.

in relation to our systems of making work, i am pretty bored with the project-based thing. i miss rehearsal, i miss performing all the time.

JM: fuck yes me too. Pamplemousse is all spread out around the country now with some of us west coast and some of us east coast - they way we've been dealing with it is by having these rehearsal retreats where we all pile into Natacha and Bryan's house and we practice/rehearse/build/change shit all day for like 5 or 6 days - it is immensely satisfying - by the end we are playing our asses off and we have the opportunity to bring sketches of pieces or just ideas or fully formed things that can then get fucked around with. thats really the only reason why I want to be fucking famous -- if I could have that be my life, I would be ecstatic

TJ: schedules get difficult. kids, jobs and so forth. and then of course you want to give people money for their time.

JM: I've also been thinking a lot about doing way more workshop performances -- things are always polished but I want to start performing things that are in the middle of development

TJ: you guys as an ensemble, a sort of collective, can ease that a bit. you have a posse, a gang, which is good. as a solo composer or someone looking for performers, the situation gets more challenging

JM: I think its necessary if you want to be able to experiment. to have your peeps

TJ: also, it is easy to take that for granted.

JM: well group dynamics are always a challenge!

TJ: like in sports, a successful team that makes it to the NBA Finals but doesn’t win…they always think, well, we’ll be back next year and be competitive for the next 5 years. but circumstances are hard to re-create. if you have a productive group of collaborators, that is precious

JM: right - which is why I think its import to have the people there - the situation will always be changing -- and people do too -- but I would much rather write music for Dave Broome, than for Piano

TJ: even more so for your work which calls upon much more than just piano technique. you need that weirdo there who will do all the other stuff, and bring the presence you are counting upon.

JM: yes -- I mean, the person has to be important. I’ve lost interest in the virtuoso

TJ: i think about the Robert Ashley operas and the ensemble. they are very much tied up in the personality, and even the individual sound of those four vocalists. transplanting them is difficult. but of course then those dudes in Varispeed went and did it and that worked well too. but they did a pretty audacious re-imagining.

how much do you think about other performers doing your work beyond yourself and Pamplemousse? do you build that into the scores or your expectations?

JM: well the person is a very big thread is a lot of the American Experimental music thought - I mean the performance practice that Cage and Alvin and all those guys developed was based on them also performing it

TJ: I’ve always found it surprising the deference people show to the personalities of the composers. 4’33 says in the score that it can actually be ANY duration, though I’ve never seen a performance that wasn’t 4 minutes and 33 seconds. and “I am sitting in a room” can actually be ANY text according to the score, but i’ve never heard anyone say anything but Alvin’s text from the recording.

JM: its true that 4'33 can be any duration - but by the same token Cage was terribly picky about the kinds of sounds that could be in something like Atlas Eclipticalis. I have been working with other people now, its kind of a recent development and I don't think I've found the right way of doing it -- when I can't be there and someone is interpreting the score I usually have them send me a video and we have a kind of "coaching" together (but I find this to be a very traditional method which gets the composer-performer relationship into old and trodden territory) -- I'm trying to figure out ways of building in enough room for the human to be present - but I'm also picky about the stereotypes

TJ: stereotypes in what sense? as a directorial meaning?

JM: i mean in the types of characters that get let into the piece -- sorry this was kind of a jump -- Mostly I mean that I picky about the material that goes in-- and when musical performers are asked to do things outside of instrumental playing there can be a slippery slope of bad shit that gets let in because people suddenly think that everything can be let in


conducted over internet chat - April 22, 2016


interview with David Helbich, April 12, 2016

Travis Just: hi! 

David Helbich: hi! my messages take 2 minutes to go through, I think. Hmmmmm. maybe I have to change rooms. 

TJ: no, i’m just still waking up, moving slowly.

DH: it's 10 at your place?

TJ: it is. i am in a cafe. it is raining, i have had a little too much coffee.

DH: and I can talk like wikipedia

TJ: we could just copy and paste wikipedia articles at one another for an hour.

DH: i didnt have enough coffee. just had a pea-soup in this Moroccan place next door, where I only now started going again. and they have amazing coffee, but I had no time. after this chat, i go back. the attacks made me head to the left from my door instead to the right, searching for coffee and food.

TJ: permanently or just for a brief time? (of course, one should always head left...)

DH: it's quite a change, but at one point I might get bored by the purely masculine energy. and the food is not so organic, you know...

TJ: and what lies to the right?

DH: hip restos, gay coffee shops, my hairdresser, manneken pis,...and old style belgian beer bars. like, also brussels

TJ: it all sounds like brussels.

DH: to open up this brussels image of images in images: my street has two names: Avenue de Stalingrad and in the middle, the footpath is called Rosa Luxemburg Path

TJ: that is practically Berlin

DH: they would not have a stalingradlaan

TJ: there are those buildings along Karl-Marx Allee, the Soviet Soldiers’ Memorial, etc. but no, not the name “Stalingrad”.

DH: yes, exactly. it changed the war, it was the start of germany’s losing

TJ: have you read Boris Groys talking about Stalin?

DH: no. but since 100.000 germans ate themselves in this place, it might be weird to celebrate it. i guess, that's why france and belgium have av. de stalingrad, but not germany

TJ: certainly. Groys is rather cheaply provocative in his writing about Stalin, but it has interesting points. he ties it to “totalitarianism” in reference to art (which is even more cheaply provocative, if interesting). meaning (I paraphrase heavily) an artwork that concerns itself with what it is doing while simultaneously with the language used to describe it and the environment in which it is received. and it’s criticism. at least, that’s how i read it. this seems relevant to your work. [check out that fuckin segue]

DH: like: we want everything from concrete experience to meta-leveled observation, that's why the works are total?

TJ: he doesn’t apply it to specific works (and only tangentially to art). i don’t mean to get bogged down on Groys-analysis. but in reference to your work, it seems that the focus is not just on the auditory event of, say, a soundwalk. but also on the physical and experiential fact of taking part in a soundwalk. the idea of the activity is as much a part of the piece as the resultant sounds.

DH: ha, the transition of this chat. well done!

TJ: and this is highlighted in how the work is presented. foregrounded in what you actually have people doing, how they do things, etc.

DH: yes, indeed. I think calling something a soundwalk is nothing more than a title strategy, but of course not the reality.

TJ: i find this approach to be unique amongst people i know who do soundwalks.

DH: it offers a focus but it also makes one blind. which can be ok: to concentrate. but that's where it gets too esoteric for me.

TJ: i find it interesting the stance and application: the sounds are not important, the idea is important. but then on the flipside the sounds are obviously important. it is both strategies bound up together, without taking a stance either way. i see this in several other pieces as well: audience intervention works, “Keine-Musik”, etc

DH: yes, I think this is the difference between conceptual art and art as practice: the first treats phenomena as examples for an idea, the second uses ideas as possibilities to experience phenomena. Or for sharing a practice.

I mean, the concept of a work could be one way (method) to get close to something, namely via the restrictions set by the concept. The aim of the concept is to leave the methods behind. It's merely an idea to trigger ideas.

TJ: this is where i think i often see a weakness in work that purports to engage ideas of conceptualism. work that explicitly self-identifies as overtly conceptual often deals with quite bland and simplistic ideas and concepts in order to smooth their reception. while work that tilts too far towards practice often has a fuzzy and poorly defined relationship to ideas outside of its own execution.

DH: hm, maybe. I think the problem with both lies mainly in their relationship with the public, the audience

TJ: what both tactics miss is that the bundling of concept and practice is unavoidable and doesn’t need to be either forced or ignored. which, yes exactly!, ties into the audience and how they receive work.

DH: The problem is always the self-referentiality: when a conceptual work celebrates its own originality more than the usage of the concept by the audience. or, when an improvisational showing doesn't realize that watching someone having an experience is not necessarily communicating "experience"

TJ: right. i think artists often tragically underestimate their audience’s capacity to read and process work. i am struck by your pieces that directly engage the audience. almost as a role of guide, advocate, and professional representative of this rather ridiculous collection of practices that comprise experimental music and performance. a quality of outreach, almost of audience therapy. but without compromising the practice with kitsch or simplification. and at times openly funny. immer gutmütig.

DH: gutmütig: sure, we are all in this shit together! :)

TJ: it helps that you are charming and funny.

DH: thanks. I think, what gutmütig could mean is what I think my self as self-performativity. like, trying to create an atmosphere where whatever happens, it is not for the artist’s sake, no one has to simply help me to get through my show, but you might get curious to discover things for yourself

in some days or weeks the audience might have forgotten about me and the show, but the concept will come back up now and then, when thinking about hearing for example, or about group situations or ...

TJ: do you have to perform yourself in these situations? is it theatre (beyond the obvious theatricality of it)? “is it fiction?” is perhaps a better way of putting it.

DH: yes. of course, it's anyway not possible to not perform, so it is better to understand this and try to control it, more or less. even though I am a quite chaotic performer, which can sometimes be charming, and I have to carefully surf this thin line between charmingly chaotic and apparently unprepared… if it works, it can be a nice surprise. if it doesn't, it's a hard fall….

TJ: without wanting to wallow in failure, can you describe one of these failed performances? it is interesting to discuss the practicalities of how this sort of work can fail. i mean, you can’t miss notes or have the violinist get lost or the actor forget her lines. but of course it CAN fail.

DH: indeed. one way would be if I dont manage to convince people that they do this for themselves, even though they follow my instruction. That is, if I dont reach the field between entertainment and exercise, where the fun part is clearly just to make it enjoyable, but the stuff is actually serious and deep. This needs trust and a vulnerable performer who is still sure about what should more or less happen. which leads to the second possible failure: if the concrete material, which might only be there to show something general, if this material sucks, doesnt work or is uncontrolled, then you lose the openness of an audience to follow your thought for this bit of time you have. does this makes sense? Like, if you say: listen, and there is really nothing to listen at, then I appear pretty pretentious

TJ: yes certainly. the audience is a sort of instrument in the piece, as well as a performer themselves.

DH: yes. nice.

TJ: is it fair to say that your work (some of it anyway) is not necessarily aimed at a contemporary music or performance audience (though they are obviously welcome), or even a modern performance audience. the work seems to even try to peel away these self-identifiers that a viewer/listener may bring to an event - the goal being an audience of people, full-stop.

DH: yes and no: no, because I like to perform for audiences in specific contexts and then try to use this as a departure. Like, lets say: people expect another sound piece and you arrive via sound at a time experience and then body and then movement. I love for example to do stuff (perform, teach, workshop...) for dancers about sound and for composers/musicians about dance/performance. but indeed: the main goal is the understanding of: we are all in this together. (now it rains here too)

TJ: ah, maybe i just see the final result because i have mostly encountered your work via documentation, not at the festival/concert/gallery/theatre itself. so I am not involved in the setup of expectations.

DH: I mean, the event at UnionDocs was great, because the audience was of course mixed, but also experienced in a very specific subject: namely documentation in the broader sense. and suddenly the earpieces became about documenting the acoustic space and how it is connected to your individual and collective experience. or maybe it was more in general about how we are connected to space. Architectural, social or whatever space. still, it was somehow a concert without music. so speaking about musical experiences, but then about other stuff as well.

In 2015 David stayed in NYC for a 4 month residency at Residency Unlimited. In this period he also performed No Music - earpieces - a performative rehearsal at UnionDocs.

TJ: then the question is how to build these expectations into the performance itself: when is it necessary to define yourself as a composer, when to define yourself otherwise.

DH: yes, this is a social game. some scenes (music…) need more 'credibility' than others. Which is historically determined. But people are so open to play around with categories. As long as they see where it starts (the game).

TJ: people ARE open to play around with categories, but artists themselves often get so hung up on these categories which then precludes playing around with them. the side-stepping you do with this is one of the things i find refreshing about your work.

DH: yes, the trick is: you start suggesting a category and then changing it, meanwhile. Also, dont play the expert-card. Like: this needs this or that pre-knowledge. I am totally convinced that one can continue the big progressive discourse and at the same time start all over again. kind of.

let me say a word about my performance next week, ok? by working on 'Seven Scores' for the Oude Kerk ("Seven Scores for the Church, the Building, the Body and the Audience", 16th of April 2016 in the Old Church in Amsterdam) I run into two major questions or contradictions, one about the situation of production (which is part of the deal) and one content wise.

[the event in Amsterdam was a 1,5 hours performance where ca. 100 people got a score for seven self-performative pieces, all tasks for physical interactions with the huge hall of the church (touching, watching, shouting, leaing,…), then were led in different choreographies through the space, while 11 helpers slammed doors, progressively getting more and more (6 seconds reverb; amazing sounds!). In the end, I asked the audience to stand with me in a huge circle all around the church, sending a vocal actions around in circles. It went incredibly well, considering that singing is the biggest of all threats of participation for most people.]

TJ: so next week then…(i say in my late-night interviewer voice)

DH: smooth! So:

TJ: i need a tv show

DH: let me be your make up artist

TJ: yeah! So:

DH: production: I am trying once more to make a kind of work in the environment of a different kind of genre: this time a total performance event within the production circumstances (curator, communication, budget, space availability,…) of visual art. the danger is: to not rehearse a theatrical or musical situation but to still want the result to be as good as these situations. diving into more forms of expressions necessarily also means adapting more forms of production. it's what jenny walshe always says: if you want a boxing scene in your piece: go and train the shit out of it in a boxing studio for 3 month.

TJ: just to clarify, is the ‘not rehearsing’ because of the involvement of the audience as participant?

DH: no, the involvement is the solution. not rehearsing is simply the reality of the place: there is neither time, budget nor people (I need people helping me with some parts). they give me time to build up (like in a gallery) and then the audience comes in. still, they want a site-specific performance.

it's a difficult contradiction, because you have to teach these super willing and open curators what genre switching means in reality (man, I was involved in this mega-huge weekend in Palais de Tokyo, where they showed tons of performance art works, really diving into this genre as if it was just made to be exposed. and then it was a total mess for performers and audience because the conditions are not the same and they absolutely underestimated this).

But let me get to the content part. my solution for wanting to make a piece with different audiences, like having people relating differently to their own role as ‘audience’ throughout the evening, but not being able to work in the space for 3 weeks with co-performers and makers (like you would do in dance or theater). the solution is to ask a lot from the audience ...

i present, but at one point i ask. after I first 'present' the space for some pieces of self-performativity ("you perform for yourself, so no judgments…the artists don’t even know what you are doing) and even elements of entertainment (a sound piece where we slam the church doors for 20 minutes; an incredibly fascinating and very metaphorical sound event) I will ask them to help me get an experiment done.

I will put the entire audience, all one hundred people, in a huge circle around the church and then send sounds (voice mainly) clockwise through the church (amazing sounding church, Sweelinck played the organ there in 1580 or something). the most simple concept, but with a very complex outcome, socially and acoustically.

singing is hard though, because lots of people have traumas in regards to their experience with singing. pitches are evil and stuff like that. so I have to find a way to create an atmosphere where it all doesn't matter. where we just produce sound. because it sounds great for the other people, the ones on the other side of the circle (whom we cannot see). I hope that I can prove that this is still "intro-active" instead of interactive. only this time not "intro-" yourselves, but "intro-" the group

TJ: what sounds will you have them produce? yells, sustained syllables, words?

DH: yes, all of these three sounds. humming, singing, random pitches…

TJ: and how is it delivered, via paper that they hold or visual cues from a director?those variables are immense in determining how the entire situation is framed of course.

DH: no paper scores. there is not a single person that we can all see at the same time. I will tell them before that we will send sounds around and that this is an experiment. this happens after I did a very open "do what you want" piece and a very strict walking piece with them.

TJ: and what is the attitude of the person communicating these things: funny and disarming or sombre and serious

DH: exactly, that is the question.

TJ: at what point do you decide?

DH: My rehearsal is actually about my style of presentation, not the sounds. I had a small rehearsal this sunday. the choir of the church helps out with 10 people and gave me 20 minutes after the service to explain them the project. (20 minutes…).

I want to be ready for, and open to, the possibility that the people wont exactly repeat what they hear or, that they will not follow at all. It's Amsterdam after all. People will want to fuck up the situation. I at least expect this and want to make this valuable for the evening. no, for the others. in the end, I imagine this entire performance as one open rehearsal. or something like this.

TJ: right, that is a challenge: what to do about audience (or spectators) who want to sabotage a public performance.

DH: yes, in 2004 i had this sabotage thing in amsterdam. traumatic, because sabotage means dominance.

TJ: i mean, I understand that impulse to sabotage. I can still empathize with the dumb teenager attitude of sabotaging something. it could also mean vandalism though.

DH: you would be a saboteur, I know, but you would make it clever. so I have to make these clever people want to show me a better idea, instead of just fucking up my idea without a counter-proposition.

TJ: vandalism certainly can have the effect of dominance but can also be a form of unconscious resistance, or just bad behavior. which can be interesting or fun at times. it is a risk you expose yourself to more than the person presenting a controlled theatrical performance in a black box with lights and microphones. (like me).

DH: and: my advantage is the phenomena. I mean, that connects with what we said before:

TJ: phenomena in what sense?

DH: like with the ear-pieces “No Music”: every one laughs, because it is somehow funnily weird how we all do this weird stuff. and suddenly it sounds great. if I can suprise the audience with my pre-knowledge that whatever we do it will sound fucking amazing and that this space is a blast, then the social situation suddenly is not there only for itself.

TJ: right, and having a disarming personality be the one communicating the piece and activity also mitigates the situation.

DH: and then it is like: oh, this was actually serious. So, humor with an interest.

TJ: these pieces are so tied to where/when/with whom they are presented, does it make them impossible to repeat? or to imagine someone besides yourself presenting?

DH: i have had others present them. i loved it.

TJ: is this line of questions completely irrelevant? i can see how it would be.

DH: its a very good question. and we had to solve it very concretely by rewriting the gestures and even the order of things for one show. my style allows a certain order, a dancer, who did my ear-pieces had to do something completely different with it. Which proves: it is not only about ears, but also about a performance. or about performativity. or about bodies

TJ: at what point in your practice did you become aware of this? many composers and musicians who are involved in performative work seem to not be aware of their physical performative presence. that it, too, is the content of the work. i know my earlier pieces and performances with gestures etc. weren’t necessarily very well engaged with these ideas. i had to learn how do it, like i learned to play saxophone as a child.

DH: yes. I mean, I starred at my daddy conducting all my childhood. and this is highly performative.

TJ: oh, you had a shortcut! bastard!

DH: :) … and then I fell in love with a dancer. next shortcut. and i could never help myself but seeing the performativity of the audience, the social games in concert halls and how different(-ly more sexy) these were in, for example, theater or dance shows, art shows.

I wrote 5 guitar pieces and the last one was for air guitar. and i thought, i could simply give people the score. I performed the pieces and also this last piece myself. the differences in the versions were amazing. i mean the differences between me doing them and the someone else doing them. so, even though i thought about a hand movement, it was apparently all about the feet and the clothes etc… as well

TJ: when i asked earlier about the irrelevance of this line of questioning, it was because one might as well ask Bach the same about violinists playing the second Partita or Beckett about actors doing Krapp. it will, necessarily, be different.

DH: yes, but it is a difference if the consideration of a context only means the singer needs a dress that is not too revealing, but still sexy enough for lincoln center, or if the piece invites the entire environment into the perception/experience/reading.

I remember that choirs in the 70s tried to implement the habit to sing in their street clothes, but then (in the 80s) it was once again felt to be distracting from the musical event because the audience could not concentrate on the absolute representation of the scores. So: back to uniforms.

TJ: yeah, and that’s the thing about this general sudden interest in performance and theatre in music: it has been there all along.

DH: yes, we always had bodies. and it is nice that someone finally sees it, as it was nice to totally forget about it for a while.

TJ: my old pal Doug Barrett has a book coming out in the Autumn that deals with the interest in ‘non-cochlear’ and ‘sound art’ and so forth. i might have his ideas wrong, but i think his attitude is that the term ‘music’ is broad enough to include these ideas. and has been doing so.

DH: yes: thats my field of work somehow: instead of saying: fuck music, it is all so conditional (me with 25), I like to love it! I like to take it as an advantage: there is something there to work with. It is all possible from this point forwards. I think visual art has a much bigger problem with its total openess and is also therefore much more sensitive to the market etc

TJ: the thing is not to discount or obliterate recent modulations and developments. but simultaneously not to treat them as fashions or obvious movements.

DH: i mean, my answer to the question of conceptual music is: music is conceptual. music is a concept already.

TJ: that is what i’ve been trying to articulate, yes.

DH: yeah!

TJ: we need to avoid, as Rosalind Krauss said, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and other Modernist Myths”. (as I hijack her book title for my own purposes)

Conducted over internet chat between Brooklyn and Brussels on April 12, 2016.


David Helbich; Berlin 1973; artist; studied composition and philosophy in Amsterdam and in Freiburg; lives and works since 2002 in Brussels.

He created various experimental works on stage, on page, online and in public space.

A recurrent interest is the understanding of an audience as active individuals and the search for an opening up of experiences in an artistically restricted space.

His trajectory moves between representative and interactive works, pieces and interventions, between conceptual work and actions.