Palmistry on how his father’s death inspired ‘Afterlife’ and working with SOPHIE on Rihanna material
Meredith Monk is a New York based composer, performance artist and film maker. She’s best known for her exploration of the possibilities and boundaries of the human voice as instrument in groundbreaking works like ‘Dolmen Music’ and ‘Panda Chant II’ (1984). Communication unbound by language and the convergence of ancient and futuristic worlds are recurrent themes throughout her work – and ones that also heavily resonate with the music of Blondes. The Brooklyn duo of Zach Steinman and Sam Haar released their looping, hypnotic debut EP ‘Touched’ on Merok last summer. While it’s a phenomenal record, like the compositions of Meredith Monk, its true power lies in live performance: in the experience, in the real-time happening, in the transformative moment.
This year Blondes will release a three-part 12” series with RVNG Intl, the first of which -‘Lover/Hater’ – samples the rousing, stirring chants of Meredith’s 1977 release ‘Rally’. A chance conversation about that sampling when the duo played in London last summer has brought me the steps of a West Broadway building on a crisp, blue-skied October afternoon in New York. I’m digesting the mother of all tuna mayo sandwiches and waiting for Blondes to arrive so they can talk to Meredith about her practices, philosophy and music and its influence on their own productions. Last night they played with Gatekeeper in the dark underground cavern that is Monster Island Basement. With what felt like half of Williamsburg in attendance, it was an intensely hot and sweaty gig that went on to the early hours but it’s not the reason they’re running late. The L train is down. Photographer Erica and I head up to Meredith’s apartment, where she’s lived since the 60s, to wait. A small, smiley-eyed woman with hair plaited in two neat braids opens the door and introduces us to her tortoise. Zach and Sam arrive a couple of minutes later and we’re taken through to a large open practice space that houses both Meredith’s bed and a piano. Taking up seats by the window, we settle down and they begin. Read the interview in full or listen to it in three parts using the Soundcloud clips below.
Zach: We kind of just wanted to talk about casual things, not like…
Meredith: Not shop talk [laughs]
Sam: Not so much shop talk…
Z: More like, y’know like, your house, or I dunno…
M: Just shoot, what would you like to know? What are you curious about?
S: So you’ve had a turtle for 30 years…?
M: 32 years. But this particular kind of tortoise can live to about 150 I hear.
M: I don’t know how old she was when I got her because my ex-husband gave her to me and in the pet store her name was Rosie but I always wanted to have a tortoise named Neutron so…
S: Why did you choose Neutron?
M: I don’t know…we always used to be laughing ‘wouldn’t it be great to have a turtle called Neutron’. We’d just laugh and laugh and so finally it was like, ‘let’s call her Neutron’. Although Rosie would be a pretty good name for her after all.
Z: Rosie’s a great name for a tortoise but Neutron is too…
M: It’s a little esoteric, right?
Z: Yeah but it’s a kind of futuristic sounding, so…
M: You wanna a really funny story? I got her in the late 70s and then in the early 80s I was making a piece called ‘Turtle Dreams’ and I wanted to shoot a film….I wanted a tortoise to be walking through a miniature city so it looked like Godzilla.
M: My friend Bob Withers was shooting it and he tried Neutron but she was too photogenic so he got another tortoise, a male tortoise and his name was Proton. By chance! [Laughs]
Z: [Laughs] Wow, that’s amazing! ….We have a friend that used to work for you.
M: Who’s that?
Z: Jeff Christiani
M: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. He went to Oberlin.
S: Yeah, we went to Oberlin too.
M: He was doing some notation for me. Nice guy. What is he doing now?
Z: He works on an HBO television show.
M: Oh nice.
Z: He’s the assistant to the director. It’s a new comedy.
M: You Oberlin-ites.
M: There was a certain point in my ensemble that I think three quarters of the people came from Oberlin. The other ones were what I called the Minneapolis geniuses. But it was like the Minneapolis geniuses and the Oberlin geniuses all in one group. It’s such a great school.
Z: We saw you when you came.
M: I remember that concert. That was so cool. It was nice to be back there.
Z: You did this other thing for our professor, Roger Copeland.
M: Was it a lecture?
Z: It was a lecture but you also did a performance too, I think.
M: What was that? I can’t really remember that.
S: Were you in that class then?
Z: Yeah, I was in a non-literary theatre class and I think you….
M: Oh yeeeeeah. He’s a great theatre writer and theatre theorotician, huh? Were you in the Conservatory or the College?
S: I was…sort of, I was in both.
M: I was laughing because at that time I was working on…I had done the string quartet for Kronos and I was trying to rewrite a little bit but I had to slug it out to get a practice room. But you’d walk into the Conservatory and it’s like the pressure goes EEEEEE…9000 degrees up when you walked in the door of the Conservatory.
S: The architecture there is so intense – the doors are small and you’re surrounded by people who are banking thier whole lives on playing the right note at the right time. [Laughs]
M: I know! I know it.
S: And when you’re walking around the practice rooms too and people are playing all around you and it’s just a cacophony.
M: I had a really beautiful email that I got from a young guy who was in his last year as a cellist. He was saying that somehow the teachers there made him feel really bad about his playing and he loved my concert and that the music and the person was one…and he wanted to create and everything. I wrote him back, because he only had a few months left, and I said, ‘listen, first of all a creative life is a very lonely life, number 1, so you should know that. But while you’re there, be like a sponge – take everything they have to give you – but just don’t let them make you feel bad about your playing. If you take everything they have there then you can throw it away but if you never know what you want to throw away, then you don’t really have anything. So in a way I was trying to encourage him to not quit school four months before his graduation! But it was very sweet and then I realised that Conservatory is quite difficult and it’s a very different way of thinking about things. Just what you said, you’re gambling that you’re going to get that high C, right?
Z: Didn’t you say Randy Coleman said the Conservatory was…
S: Passing the trash
Z: Passing the trash!
Z: From generation to generation.
S: Do you know Randy Coleman at all? He’s a composition professor there. He does much more experimental works.
M: Were you a composition student there?
S: No, I was in electronic composition…
M: Oh nice! I was working with a very nice engineer who also went to Oberlin in the 80s and I guess he was doing engineering and music technology…
S: It’s actually a little more focused on electro-acoustic compositions and stuff…
M: He was maybe doing more sound technology…
S: It’s really one and the same…
M: And then he realised he was going to have to be there two more years so he went over to the Conservatory and took that course so then he could graduate. He’s really good. I mean it’s a very good school. How long have you been out now?
Z: Three years.
S: Three years?
M: And came right to New York?
Z: I did. He…
S: I moved round. I lived in California for a while, in Oakland.
M: That’s a neat area. I wonder if you know my niece. She has a store down in the mission called Five & Diamonds on Valencia Street and she also does Yard Dogs Road Show. A lot of people in the Bay Area, young people, are doing vaudeville, burlesque stuff.
M: They were one of the first to do it.
S: Yeah that’s big. It’s big in Brooklyn too.
Z: There was an Oberlin circus that travelled around the country.
M: And now you’re the Blondes.
M: It’s good. And it’s just the two of you?
S: Yeah, it’s just the two of us. We do live, semi-improvisational electronic music. It’s different every time.
Z: We have one song that samples Rally from ‘Quarry’.
M: Right on…HUP, HUP, HUP, HEY-O. Cool, really cool. Are you into the club scene at all in New York? Do you know bhangra – have you heard Basement Bhangra by DJ Rekha? Oh she’s so good. You have to check her out. She does it once a month. You know, Punjabi music. She’s the best. That’s great music. I just love it. It’s great to dance to.
Z: Yeah, totally.
S: It’s really energetic.
M: Really energetic but it’s also get that soft thing going on…it’s got that double – it’s got the beat but then it has that Indian thing so it’s fun to dance to. It’s not like you have nothing but the beat. You have that sort of overlay, that sensuous kind of quality so it’s really fun to dance to.
Z: Cool. We’ll have to check that out.
S: Do you ever listen to much dance music, like rave music from the early 90s or stuff?
M: I remember when we were in…I’m not going to say part of what was happening that night because I don’t want to be arrested…
M: But it was after one of our shows and we went to this place and we were in Denmark, in Copenhagen, and it was a techno night. It wasn’t exactly a rave but it was this huge space. But after a while it got so boring, the techno thing. There was no melody or anything so after a while we just left.
S: That’s the really minimal stuff. A lot of the more minimal stuff has been around for maybe the last 10 years? But before that it used to be a lot more ecstatic.
M: This was around 1996 in Copenhagen.
S: Oh right.
Dummy: Just thinking about…what’s happening now is that there are a few people making electronic music now that is a lot more ecstatic, a lot more melodic and, um, trance…shamanistic feeling.
M: I would love to hear that.
Dummy: It’s the kind of stuff that these guys are making…
M: That’s so nice.
Dummy: That’s kind of why…when Blondes said they’d been influenced by your work and the effect of listening to some of your compositions – getting to that…music that’s being made collectively to create a very personal experience, even though you’re in a collective group. [To Blondes] That’s what I got when I came to see you guys – I wasn’t drunk, I wasn’t anything – but I got this really overwhelming feeling…
Dummy: Yes…and just reading up on non-verbal communication – feeling something other than just…
M: That kind of transcendent, transformation idea of art – I think that’s the only reason to do it, in a way. And art can do that and not too much else can.
S: It’s like a pure emotional language.
M: Yeah, pure emotional language. I don’t think that there are too many experiences in the world that we live in that give you that – or give you the memory that we all have that capacity or something like that. You know what I mean?
M: I mean, the computer is not that.
M: That’s a different thing.
S: That’s actually what we…I mean, I used to make a lot more electronic music on my computer but with this it was totally…
M: Tactile…touch is what we’re…
S: We don’t use computers at all; we just use boxes and pedals.
M: Touch is what we’re in danger of losing…and the computer is more of a distraction or diversion or something like that – there’s a sleepiness to it. But to me art is more about waking up. Out of the dream of reality into reality reality. So. And…and…and the thing about getting in touch with the body again, that it’s integrated. That sounds like what you’re working on.
S: Yeah – we definitely shoot for body music. I don’t know, it’s interesting because when we play it’s really…you just sort of shut off your mind and try to just feel…
M: Exactly, you’re present…
Z: You’re not thinking about anything…
M: Right, exactly. You can’t! Because if you think about something you’re not in the moment. That’s what I always say about performing – the vulnerability of it. Like, as soon as your mind’s judging or anything, that moment’s gone….
M: …so you have to kind of catch up. The thing about performing that’s so beautiful…it is that thing that you’re committing 100% to the moment and you have like two things going on at the same time. One is that you’re pin-point focused and the other is that you’re totally open and loose for what’s coming in. It’s that combination of rigour and freedom in one moment. And also the live performance thing is the vulnerability of it. That you can fall down or not get that note, you’re on the tightrope a lot of the time and the audience is with you on that tightrope and it’s really beautiful.
S: It’s one of the reasons why I actually like sometimes messing up [laughs].
M: [Laughs] Yeah! You know Thelonious Monk used to say ‘if you make a mistake, repeat it’? I’ve used that many times. My ensemble knows that. We do it five times if we mess up [laughs]
S: [laughs] Sometimes it sounds absolutely intentional.
S: I think…the stuff we’re doing is not so much about hitting notes but growing momentum and trying to keep riding that and pushing that. So every now and then when we drop something or mess up, the momentum’s sort of killed.
M: Do you have…how much structure do you have when you start? Do you have a composition or are you…do you have overall structures?
S: We have a lot of sounds and sequences prepared…
Z: A lot of parts.
S: Like the elements…
M: The elements are all there and you can put them together in different ways.
S: We put them together and then we shape them all, they get shaped.
M: In the moment.
M: So if you hear the same ‘piece’ – in quotation marks – from one night to the next it would be slightly different but maybe with the same elements?
S: Yeah, with the same elements.
M: I love it. Wonderful.
Z: We actually played last night and a friend was like, ‘that was a new set’…
S: Yeah…’that new song’! We were like, ‘we’ve been playing that song for a year’.
M: I love that. That’s so beautiful, really beautiful. That’s…alive.
S: Yeah, especially when you mess up with that stuff too – it shows that something is happening in the moment too.
M: Yeah and also, I think for me anyway, I can sing a song that I sang in 1969 and I’m still singing that song, Porch, at the beginning of almost every concert. I think of it as an evocation or an invocation at the beginning of the concert to kind of get myself stabilised, deal with my nerves and everything else.
S: Like a warm up.
M: But I sing it so differently now. And I say to myself, I’m still singing that same song – is it really boring? But it never is! Because every single time there’s a moment of discovery, you’re literally finding new things every time, within the forms. I love that!
S: And if you take a slightly different path, right? All of a sudden you’re…
M: You’re listening so it’s a feedback loop. I always say that my structure is pretty much the same but it’s like a tree with branches so if that particular night where there’s this one place I’ve found something then I can go on that branch. And then I go back to the trunk and continue. So it has those moments where you hang out in a place where you’ve discovered something. Right?
S: I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’ve had a very similar experience.
M: Yeah. It never gets boring. It doesn’t.
Z: What are you working on now?
M: Well, I’m just going for a mix of an album for ECM called ‘Songs of Ascension’ that we did at BAM last year. It’s my ensemble…five singers, string quartet and John Hollenbeck playing percussion and Bohdan Hilash playing all sorts of reeds, like clarinet, bass clarinet and the kaehn gao…
S: Is that like…brrr ba ba ba baaa
M: It’s a cluster kind of instrument…
S: Cluster reeds?
M: Yeah, you get these little cluster chords. It’s really tall; it looks like it has a big nose.
S: I used to have one of those.
M: It’s a really beautiful instrument but you’ve got to have a lot of air to get anything out if it. You got to be a really good reed player.
S: I had a really cheap bamboo one.
M: So we recorded about a year ago and we’re going to mix down on Monday.
Ellen: Okay, Meredith…[Meredith’s agent Ellen walks over with Neutron who’s finally come out of her shell]
M: What a patient woman! Slowly…
Z: Imagine having a pet for 30 years. Oh, hello!
M: [To Neutron] It’s alright, sweetie, there you are.
S: She’s older than us.
M: She’s going back in a little bit now…let me see if I can…[Neutron emerges again]
Dummy: Does she travel with you?
Ellen: She doesn’t like to go through the machinery.
S: They can live to 150?
Z: That’s crazy.
M: Okay, go back to your friend [Ellen takes Neutron back]. So anyway, we recorded…it was kind of a difficult recording because it was in a old hall and it has beautiful acoustics but it was like doing live recording. It was hard, intonation-wise.
S: Because of the hall, the acoustics?
M: Yeah, it was hard to hear. And it’s got that live thing where it’s not by any means perfect. AT ALL…like ‘arghhhh my god!’ [laughs]. But so I’m going in on Monday to mix it. We just performed it at Edinburgh Festival, which was really great – a beautiful place and we enjoyed it so much. I just felt the audience really got the piece, which was good. And then at the end of this month we’re doing a quartet concert for Lincoln Centre, they have a new festival that’s called White Light, and it’s kind of music and spirituality – about how they influence each other. It’s a free concert and it’s really fun to do. And then we’re doing a tour in November that this guy in Belgium has been wanting me to do for years, which is teaching my music to a kids chorus. So this is a Belgium chorus of 10 to 15 year olds. We’re teaching them a bunch of stuff including the Panda Chant, which will be neat.
M: And then Katie, Allison and I will perform some of them with the kids, which will be interesting.
S: Are those pieces notated out?
M: Some aren’t, so we’re just going to teach them. Some of them are notated enough at least for them to learn the basic form before we get there. They have the score for Panda Chant because Boosey and Hawkes published it. But the Panda Chant is more of a modular score so that you can see the structure and then we can work on it with them. The scoring thing is a whole other ballgame and ahhhh, I’ve found it really difficult. It’s like having two full time jobs, trying to make music and doing scores.
S: But is it necessary if you want to communicate to other players? Or could you just teach it to them?
M: Well, I’m used to it with my ensemble. I just come to them with material, vocally, and then I can just either sing it to them or play it to them. So I’m used to that more hands-on way of working.
S: Or you could just never do scores…all dance companies communicate verbally.
M: I could say no to making scores at all but I guess I feel that in some ways it’s just nice to pass some of them on to other human beings. And the choral pieces are a little easier to pass on. I would never do a score of one of my solo pieces for example, there’s just no way. I don’t even know if I could teach it to anyone else. But it’s more that the choral pieces are possible. Maybe. So the way I’m doing it is piece by piece, figuring out if it’s possible or not. We tried the Panda Chant and that took two years for a minute and a half piece! Did you ever see that?
S: I remember Jeff was…
M: He was working on Dolmen Music but he didn’t finish it.
S: That’s right, he said it was really hard.
M: It’s really hard, so there are some things that I’ve just let be because you can’t really express them on the page, y’know. Something like Astronaut Anthem, that’s pretty direct. There’s this glissando thing that I realised I should have made more like fff [triple forte] so they could understand the relationship. That’s the thing I hate because you put it on paper and then you might even forgot this one little thing and then it doesn’t sound the way it should. That’s the thing I find really hard about it. And also how to explain it! How do you explain it? We’re working on finishing an old score now for a couple of years. It’s called Three Heavens and Hells. A children’s chorus in New York – the Young People’s Chorus of New York with Francesco Nunez (they’re wonderful singers) perform it. It will be included in an edition they’re putting out of scores by composers they have commissioned. But in Three Heavens and Hells there are some of these sounds that you just can’t express on the page. Because if you show a little glissando…ooOOOOO, you can try to do a graphic thing but then you don’t get the notes. But if you do the notes, you get aaaaAAAAA. You get this kind of chromatic thing and that’s not what it is exactly! [Sigh]
S: Can you just give people recordings?
M: Yes, we try to make it that if you perform my scores, you have to listen to a recording.
Dummy: I guess it’s a little bit because of what you were saying earlier – that it’s an alive thing that you’re creating, trying to make a fixed…
Dummy: …yes, form of it, it’s incredibly difficult.
M: It’s really difficult. Sometimes I just think that maybe this isn’t for me and I shouldn’t really try. But my feeling is that it’s more in a spirit of generosity somehow at this point.
S: How do you feel about opening it up and just letting people interpret it?
M: Sometimes it’s just been so painful, it’s unbelievable. It’s been…again, the way I’ve been dealing with it is case by case.
S: With the experimental scores, maybe it’s just directions. In the true sense of experimental music in that you don’t know how it will turn out.
M: Exactly. That’s another way of thinking about it I guess.
S: There’s a benefit at Roulette that’s been going on for the last couple of days.
M: You mean at their new space?
S: They haven’t moved yet. They’re still in Location One.
Z: It’s a benefit for that, for the new space.
S: They commissioned a bunch of people to make these really simple scores. And they have three nights.
M: Who’s playing it?
S: They have a different ensemble playing it every night.
S: It was really fun, it was really flattering to be asked because they have Robert Ashley and Pauline Oliveros also doing it.
M: So what did you do?
S: It was interesting for us because we make performances…it’s how we think about ourselves a lot. Very much us in the moment, making the music. It’s a little less compositional. We do compose for ourselves but…but then working with a chamber orchestra….
M: So how did you approach it then?
Z: We ended up doing an experimental score of directions.
M: So you conceived in your mind what you kind of thought it would be like or…how did you get to it?
Z: We gave an outline of our process is basically what we did.
M: Uh-huh… neat.
Z: We play modally so…
S: Play these notes…
M: Oh, you gave them notes?
S: We gave them a note set. And it was very loose: make a pattern, choose it, repeat it, alter it, this way, that way.
S: So it will be really interesting to see what happens. It could be great, it could be terrible. [Laughter]
M: Are they playing tonight?
S: Yes, it’s tonight.
M: [laughs] That’s great. That sounds wonderful. What are the instruments in the ensemble?
S: I don’t know, it’s a big one. There’s a cellist, a percussionist, there’s going to be someone on electronics.
S: There’s about 10, 12 people.
Z: Should be interesting.
M: I really like it.
Z: It’s also all to this one Sophie B Hawkins video, just in the background. That’s what keeps the time.
M: Oh that’s nice. That’s the duration.
Z: Yeah. It’s a really emotive video.
S: It’s kind of an arbitrary juxtaposition.
Z: It’s going to be interesting [laughs].
M: I really want to hear what you think when you hear it tonight.
Z: We’ll have to report…
M: Yes, report back.
S: I guess there’s one thing I wanted to ask you ,what it was like…because we’re also operating in this community of people here in New York, making music and doing new things…
M: You do have a community? Oh that’s great.
S: I guess I wanted to ask how that was for you? The downtown scene back then…?
M: When I moved to New York there was a great downtown scene.
S: When did you first come here?
M: I came in the mid-60s so, y’know, there had been this big impulse downtown of visual artists doing dance pieces and dance artists doing plays and poets writing music. There was this whole impulse of people trying to get past the limitations of their forms and they all had the same belief – push through the boundaries – and it was in some ways really supportive. I went to Sarah Lawrence, and when I was in school I was in the music department, the voice department and the dance department and I was also doing some theatre, performing. So I was getting some glimpses of how I could put these things together – my love of singing, movement, objects. I would do these crazy pieces there. So when I came to New York it was like this great affirmation of what I had glimpsed – that there were a lot of people thinking in the same way. The musicians that I was really close to were people from the Fluxus group – Phil Corner, James Tenney, Malcolm Goldstein – they were very iconoclastic. There was a spirit of anything’s possible, which I’ve tried to maintain in my life. I would say I’ve really tried to keep that spirit going. I’m really grateful for that. There was a community. It shifted a little bit in the 80s, it became a lot more commercial. Regan came in and it was like ‘okay, I’ve got my business manager but I’ve never made one piece yet’.
M: People who were starting out then had the whole business thing lined up but they hadn’t done anything yet.
Z: That was the 80s? Wow.
M: Yeah, that was the 80s. Very ambitious in a business way. And money was coming in at that time, which we had never thought was going to happen on any level. When I came to New York I had a loft on Great Jones Street for $75 a month.
M: I was modelling for visual artists and teaching music lessons to kids and I could get by pretty well. Really poor but I could get by. So that was a shift and then it seemed like because of that…more…really competitive spirit, it kind of fragmented out. And so then I like to hear that you’re saying that you have a community because that’s what I feel has been missing. There’s been a lot of…because of the computer and the new technology and so much information coming in, it seems very confusing. I think that we also knew – because there were less people – we knew what had come before us so we didn’t have to repeat things. We actually tried to push on and use that as a dialectic.
M: So now when I talk to high school kids and they go: ‘World War II, when did that happen? 1805?’
M: No, no! I talked to someone upstate in the doctor’s office – I was writing a check out, she was the receptionist. I was like ‘oh it’s August 6th, Hiroshima Day’. She said ‘what’s that?’ ‘What’s that? That’s the day the atom bomb was dropped.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘That was World War II.’ ‘What’s that?’ I was like…WHOA. Oh my god! What can it be like if you don’t have any idea of history and what came before you, and I was wondering if that was the way the musicians felt or not? But you’re saying that you’re working in a community? That’s great.
S: There are lots of different communities…it’s New York so there are lots of different people doing different things.
M: What’s your community?
Z: Well, I think there’s more a dialectic of appropriation more than a dialectic of pushing the boundaries…
Z: Still working within that, of pushing boundaries…
M: Tell me what you mean by appropriation.
Z: Knowing what you’re referencing at all times.
M: I see.
S: Because I think for you guys back then it was all about pushing everything open; everyone was experimenting and pushed the envelope right to the edge of music. It’s like, what do you do? You can’t push any more. There’s no more pushing.
M: That’s really interesting, you’re not the first person who’s said that.
S: I think that’s absolutely the experience of our generation. You make the craziest, noisiest, experimental music and it’s not going to be anything different.
M: What about the quietest, simplest, stupidest? [Laughs] You can go either way.
S: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s like what’s acceptable as music, as forms, has been so blown open. I feel like it’s finding within that now.
M: This might sound like an odd question, but don’t you believe though that there’s no one else in the universe like each of you that’s ever existed before or after you? So isn’t part of the exploration finding what you and only you have to say? Or is that an old-fashioned idea?
S: No, that’s still valid. What I meant I guess was more formally, like, pushing and experimenting and doing new things – because I think new things now are within that spectrum that’s already been pushed open.
M: Mmm-hm. One of the things that happened in those days was that people sort of pushed the envelope in terms of what are the limitations of each form – what’s the limitation of music, of theatre, of whatever. But then most people went back to their original discipline – the painters went back to painting but they’d done live theatre pieces and I’m sure that influenced the way that they were painting afterwards. But the thing I feel with my work is that I try to do something new for myself every time. I try to go to zero every time, which is really hard. But I don’t think I’ve ever believed that there’s anything really new in the universe so sometimes I feel like I’m uncovering very ancient things that have always existed.
M: So there’s this combination of trying to stay fresh with yourself – and my belief with the voice is that it’s got endless possibilities – but I think that a lot of it is also about uncovering something that’s always existed. So it’s got a double thing. It’s not new just for the sake of being new, it’s just being fresh and asking questions all the time.
Z: I think that’s a good way of thinking.
M: I think when you find the question of the piece then you’ve got the piece. What’s the question you’re asking in the piece? Then you have to work very hard. I hope that until the day I die I will always have my curiosity; that I’ll always be asking questions. That’s a way of staying very fresh. But I think that, it’s more…do you believe – what I said before, y’know, in the world that you’ve grown up in which has everything, where you can hear everything on an iPod, you can hear everything that’s ever been done – do you still feel that your struggle is finding your own voice? Because that was my struggle. When I was in my 20s it was life or death to find my own artistic identity – that was the be-all and end-all of existence for me. So do you still feel that’s part of the sensibility or do you think it’s just more how you’re going to combine things?
Z: No, it is that. It’s just a different way of getting there.
S: Combining things is maybe more of the tool, as opposed to pushing things. But it’s still very much, what am I going to do?
M: What is your way of speaking, right?
Z: What’s exciting is finding something new by using all these things that already exist. That’s how it’s kind of working on a continuum, is how I see it.
M: Have you ever read any [Claude] Lévi-Strauss? You know, the anthropologist? He called one of his theories “bricolage” where some primal peoples take common objects and put them into a new context. For example, somebody from the West would bring a pipe and they’d show it to somebody in a tribe. Then the tribe would figure out a way to make the pipe into a hat. You take what exists already and make a new magic world out of it. That sort of sounds like what you’re doing.
Z: [quietly] That’s true, that’s kind of what we’re doing.
M: So in a way it’s very ecological what you’re working on, isn’t it?
Z: That’s true.
M: Because you’re not making more garbage, you’re taking what’s already there and reusing it, recycling it.
Dummy: I definitely get the ancient thing as well, in what both of you have done, because – just that sense of remembering what we used to use or explore music for, in the way we used it to connect together and to celebrate or commemorate moments or to say this moment is happening. I think that’s what I’ve felt with listening to both of you. Rather than it being a commodity or an object, it’s communication, which is just thrilling…
M: It’s thrilling.
Dummy: The way the arts as a whole are seen, the way we’ve created society around us, it’s just a section to the side. Business is seen as more important…it’s strange that some people push the arts to one side, it’s really crazy….
M: Yeah, my inspiration is even knowing that there are these cultures where art is number one, spiritual practice, and secondly, it’s believed to have the possibility of transforming nature or…it’s such a part and parcel of life.
S: I was just thinking of songs in Aboriginal tradition.
M: Yeah, yeah. It’s really important and that’s what gives me the courage to try and go on a little bit. That it isn’t just an object or commodity or entertainment, but it really is as important as eating or sleeping. It’s like breathing; music to me is as natural as breathing. And as essential as breathing. I feel that we as artists have a responsibility to…
S: Highlight that?
M: Yeah, to let people remember that again! You know. because in the culture that we have, people don’t even know! What they don’t know, they don’t know, right?!
S: But I definitely feel that it’s there – although it’s a commodity, an object, a file you put on your iPod – but still everyone listens to music. There’s only a few people I know who don’t listen to music ever.
M: But do they listen to it as, um, with the sense of the power of…how do I say….with an understanding of how essential it is?
S: I don’t think they’re always that open but subconsciously on some level. When someone really loves a song, they have an emotional attachment to it. There’s some kind of…
M: Life changing kind of…
S: Yes, some kind of subconscious connection to that, to the way it makes them feel. It’s really interesting. I guess we try to make it more of an experience.
M: Totally. I do too. Experiential. That’s something we need to bring back!
Z: Yes, for us it’s very much about an alive experience.
M: Mmm-hmm. How did you start working together and how did you get to your ideas?
S: We’ve been friends for a long while and had been playing music together for about 7 years? This project is two years old. We just played a lot.
S: We had this tradition of playing music all the time, all of our friends. We’d get together a couple of times a week and just improvise. That was what we did for fun.
Z: Yeah, that was just college. There was nothing else to do.
M: [Laughs] In the middle of Ohio!
S: I guess that’s how we arrived at it, I don’t really know [laughs].
Z: The instruments that we used changed a lot over time. We moved towards dance music and electronic instruments over time but first of all we played guitars.
M: So you got to where you are now in quite an intuitive way?
Z: Yes, pretty much.
S: It just kind of happened. Definitely a lot of what we do is defined by the instruments that we’re playing.
M: What instruments are you playing?
S: All electronic.
Z: Synths, samplers, drum machines. Yeah. But we’re about to change up our set up.
M: Oh you are? Have you ever had a performance when the machines completely fell apart and you were left in the lurch?
Z: Yep! Soundsystems have cut out and we’ve had bad cords.
S: I had one where everything that I was using to play the dynamics of all these different sounds just broke, it was dead. So everything was just coming in really loud. That was a rough show. The show must go on, I guess.
M: [Laughs] Yeah, the show must go on. I can’t wait to hear your music.
Z: We’ll send you the one where we sample Rally too.
M: Cool, I can’t wait. So, we had some good philosophical points in there…
Z: And a lot of good stuff about contemporary culture….
M: I really do feel that your generation and my generation have a lot in common. That it’s come back around again in a new way and I’m so happy that some of the values are sort of the same. It’s so exciting.
S: Maybe it’s because we were raised by your generation?
M: It could be. My audiences have a lot of people your age – all different ages. It’s really great.
Z: I feel that everyone is really supportive right now…non-competitive.
M: Yeah, it’s a very supportive atmosphere. I think it has to do with the fact that our culture is very hard on us right now, it’s hard. So what are you going to do? Not stick together? No, we have to survive together and that’s good.
S: Not let it pit you against each other…
M: …other practitioners, because we’re all practitioners actually, of music and art.
S: It’s very much a practice, very much your own journey, to work in your medium…
M: And then how to find in this world a place…it’s really going against the dominant culture. It’s like, are we going to be satisfied with American Idol as our idea of music? I don’t think so. I mean, nothing against it, it’s okay. But the way I feel about it is, it’s some kind of idea of standardisation, that anyone who has something unique is out. So that’s what I really don’t like about it. Just to make something else is sort of a political action is the way I see it.
M: And stand firm. We are offering alternatives, let’s put it that way. It’s important.
S: Alternative ways of being.