by Eli Namay
REFLECTING on the Genetti/Fleisenberg/Strong show from last Sunday at Elastic Arts, it is striking to me how much they share a fascination with their own embodiment, as well as with various external physical forces. They each, however, enunciate these fascinations artistically in drastically different manners, ranging from Carol’s use and love of analog synthesis, to Jim’s instrument building, to Flandrew’s large gestured articulation of the natural properties of space.
Carol Genetti is a vocalist, composer and installation artist based in Chicago. I was particularly interested in attending this show because Carol was to do a solo set in which she would utilize no input mixing. Carol doesn’t always play with these kinds of electronics, so it was a special treat. During our conversation after the show, I asked Carol about her background and influence. She talked about improvising with her sister when she was a kid and studying sound synthesis, both of which pushed her to explore the full range of her vocal palate.
“I grew up improvising vocally with my sister. We didn’t know what it was we were doing, we just needed some form of release really. We would sing two notes right next to each other, facing each other so we could feel the beats from the dissonant sound waves. We would randomly make up songs with surreal lyrics, etc. So I kind of grew up with an interest in bizarre musical experimentations.”
“I come from a working class family where there wasn’t a lot of knowledge about or exposure to the arts in general, except for whatever I could glean on my own from FM radio stations and museums… I would often go to record stores and try to locate experimental vocalists’ recordings… I had a list of vocalists I would look for like Shelley Hirsch whom I came upon by accident through a friend’s neighbor who just happened upon a used album. For a number of years I was on the lookout for strange and unusual vocals and slowly became aware of these like-minded vocalists which I found both inspirational and encouraging… it was both through my own experimentation with my voice and listening to others who also vocally experimented that brought me to this place. Sometimes I would listen to someone like Sainkho Namtchylak and try to emulate those sounds, albeit unsuccessfully but still interestingly coming up with my own personal version that my voice could manage.”
“…Another area of influence for me was from taking sound classes and being exposed to sound synthesis (using the emu synthesizer). It made me aware of the range of sounds you could create, so I thought ‘why not do this with voice?’ … the vocal chords are basically a fleshy oscillator of sorts… thinking about the voice like that interests me. I like being able to NOT sound like a vocalist.”
No input mixing is a technique where you can create feedback loops in a mixer to by sending an output channel to an input channel, which causes sound to be generated. Due to the re-purposed nature of this technique control is not always achievable, but it’s not always desirable. Carol describes having a breakthrough with this when she decided to start viewing the mixer as another improviser that she was playing with.
“I like that I am not completely sure exactly what the no-input will do … there are so many variables that can effect what it does that it is almost like improvising with another musician rather than just myself. At first I was trying really hard to make it do ‘exactly’ what it had done before, but I was way better off allowing it to do what it wanted to do. Thinking about it like this, I am able to use it as a springboard.”
I have been thinking a lot about what Carol does recently primarily because I have been mixing a recording that we did back in August 2015 with Zinc (Carol, Zach Good, Nick Meryhew, and me [you can find a preview here]). I think what she does is very important in a broad sense. For me it represents an exploding of the conservative expectations of what the female voice ‘should be,’ into a visceral practice of the broad possibilities of what the female voice can be. After the show, Carol told me a few of her thoughts about the symbolic baggage that the human voice has.
“…the fact that it is human tissue making the sound, and the fact that it’s connected to the body and nervous system makes it distinct. It is a delicate thing putting the voice into these improvised sound situations; when a percussionist creates a scratchy sound with their drum head we perceive it differently than a vocalist making the same scratchy sound which could, for example, evoke the sound of someone being choked. So even though one is trying to blend sonically, it can come off as an attack. I often struggle with this as when I am improvising I am just thinking about the pure sound making, but I also realize how intense it sounds when these types of sounds are being created by vocal chords attached to a body.”
Jim Strong and Flandrew Fleisenberg
Jim Strong and Flandrew Fleisenberg are both improvisers based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Although the two have a history together, their new album, Belly Mechanique, and current tour marked the first handful of times they have played as a duo. Citing his use of instruments that he builds specifically for play and Flandrew’s re-purposing of objects to as percussion instruments, Jim described the duo reaching an aesthetic common ground that is approached from opposite vectors. I talked with Flandrew and Jim separately about their processes. I spoke with Flandrew about the instruments that he’s chosen to use, why he uses them, and how he uses the natural properties of space to play them. One of the things that was very striking to me initially about Flandrew’s playing was his use of physical space and his use of sound to articulate physical phenomena. We started off talking about the venue:
Eli Namay: How did you like the space at Elastic arts?
Flandrew Fleisenberg: I found the space to be quite complimentary to my acoustic sounds, I thought that the floor was able to maintain really good vibrations so my various objects spinning on the floor actually resonated quite well… the floor really carried the sound.
EN: Talk about your use of gravity in your work.
FF: I’m impressed by physical phenomena. There’s all these physical processes that we kind of play in that we live in on a day to day basis… I’ve come to appreciate them as a form of beauty… listening to the gravity has become an area of distinct interest for me. What that means is I think that it’s beautiful, and as a player I can kind of highlight that. I can spin a disc… my action is to initiate that, and once it’s initiated it takes on a life of its own. I can spin a cymbal really hard and get it going really fast, but as soon as I let go it transfers that energy and it just goes through a process of just kind of coming down to the same speed it does every time, because the pull of gravity is fairly consistent. They all get going at the same tempo, and they all get sucked down to the earth. As a player I can take advantage of that. I can get it going in motion… ‘Here comes gravity here it is’ and I can point at it and say that’s it… and then I can also engage with it. I’ll often spin multiple discs at a time and try to get them syncopated. I can stop them in mid motion. Using space and movement and acoustics to kind of highlight or demonstrate those phenomena has become a really central part to my practice. I still have my hands all over my practice… but I’m kind of removing some of the fingers from my hand and sometimes I’m really just pointing at that thing and saying here it is. I’ll of course get more involved and get more interactive, but I think the physical phenomena is pretty startling on its own.
EN: Talk about your use of space more generally
FF: I need to move through space in order to percuss, and by the act of moving through space I percuss. This is a really basic relationship that I’ve come to terms with. My actions in space in order to percuss are just as valuable to me or just as important to me in performance. So over the years I’ve really tried to come to terms with ‘I have a body and I am moving and I am moving in space in order to take action,’ and just really trying to deal with that. It’s been a long process… over the last several years I’ve really tried to hone that and make it part of the process.
EN: Do you feel that your work serves to challenge dominant value systems/power structures?
FF: I don’t seek to imbue politics as an expression in my work, and that’s a broad definition of politics… That’s not where my desire to make art comes from. There is a certain politic in it and I’m not going to deny that, but that’s not my intention… I do feel that it’s a responsibility of art to continue to thrive and develop and I think that that’s a consistent mode of art. And I think that my work fits in that. In the same way that traditional or folk forms broke the molds as they were being developed I think that the work that I’m making is following that. Obviously the form of expression is different, but it’s challenging what’s there, and also continuing to devolve and evolve. I think that that’s a natural process.
EN: Can you talk about the materials that you use?
FF: I’m able to repurpose or take advantage of their post functional capabilities and that’s not a politic it’s just taking advantage of things that are in the world. I have an appreciation for the objects aesthetically and structurally. They are beautiful objects in their own right. However, it’s really essential for them to be strong with sonic capabilities. It’s not every pan lid, or it’s not because it’s a cool looking pan lid. But, it’s because it has these sonic capabilities that achieve something, or provide something that… a unique sonic palate that I can then take advantage of in a performance. Over the years I kind of developed an aversion to store bought percussion. Even though I get my pan lids at the store, it’s not a traditional music emporium, so to speak.
I’ve always been on a path of trying to find unique sounds. One of the things that drives me as an artist is to… I want to have a unique signature so to speak. I think that some of these objects sound a lot like somebody else playing that same mass produced object. Nothing against that; I do like music that’s produced with those objects. But, my personal aesthetic has really driven me to work with sounds that are a bit unique, and maybe you would call them bizarre, but in context one pan lid to the next it really does make a magical kind of music. That’s something that dries me as oppose to a store bought bell that sounds like the other 50,000 that were produced and are being played everywhere. I enjoy those; I’ll hear them and still appreciate their sonic quality, but repurposing, or using these sounds post-function really connect with my personal politic and my interest in exploring sound. Plus some of those store bought instruments don’t have the range or the expansive capabilities that some of these non-traditional instruments do. Perhaps that’s somewhat a result of my pursuit of trying to find these new sounds within them. I feel kind of limited in the store bought sense when I have these objects that are post-function that I’m repurposing I really do feel that there is an unlimited potential associated with them.
Jim Strong is an experimental instrument builder and visual artist. We discussed his instrument building as well as his relationship to Butoh dance, crabs, and automaton.
Eli Namay: Can you talk about the instrument you were playing last night?
Jim Strong: I build Instruments Intuitively. Adhering to my Grandfathers workshop motto “Measure twice, still cut wrong”. Slowly a new instrument will become a series of possible choices interfacing logic with material. The Instrument’s amplified surface captures both bodily response and the animus of imagination. Instruments can sometimes be inspired by stories. One instrument was built to recall the gears of Jaquet-Droz’s 18th century automaton which was engineered to replicate human hand writing. Another Instrument was inspired by the Merostomata, the class of Arthropods to which the Horseshoe Crab belongs (Meros meaning Thigh and Stoma meaning mouth, Centered Amidst their Rows of legs). With playing this mimicry often splinters into an incongruous series of jokes and tangents far more intricate than my meager luthiery can suffice.
At times floors, walls and the bodies of my collaborators have all been traced by the amplified surface of my instrument, but for this tour with this very new instrument I’m using which contains the most musical possibilities of any Instrument I’ve built yet, it has really challenged me to go inward towards purely what the instrument can do and toward further reliance upon my own listening and even waiting. Still within this I feel that my practice remains interegally connected with movement and with the space.
EN: Can you talk about your relationship to the audience?
JS: Throughout this tour, Flandrew and I have consistently inspired bursts of laughter during our sets and while playing you can feel that there is a sense of fun and good natured confusion that is allowing the audience to enter in, finding new threads to pull where perhaps at other experimental concerts the demanded austerity may have a counter effect of widdling the audiences relationship to what is happening in front of them.
EN: What are your thoughts on your and your practice’s relationship to prevailing socioeconomic structures/ Phenomena (i.e. Capitalism, massed produced music, race, binary notions of gender, etc…)
JS: In the past I’ve ascribed to the adage of the installation artist Thomas Hirschorn “to make art politically rather than political art.” For me, this has meant to use art as an affirmation of humanism and invention which are poles apart, living in the cracks that permeate the mechanisms of state violence and bigotry. At home this has meant localization, trying to strengthen relationships and collaborations across various modes of art making and looking for any opportunity to get new people involved both as audience and as players. Flandrew and I, along with a cast of Philadelphia Curators and Improvisers have begun a group called the Impermanent Society of Philadelphia which was initiated under this platform, and to that end has developed educational opportunities for students and adults, regular shows and, a yearly festival highlighting local and international Improvisation in music and dance.
EN: What is your relationship to Butoh?
JS: Flandrew and I both have a deep investment in working with Dancers as well, having an embodied practice as Improvisers. I have a special love for Butoh which can break dance down to the smallest and slowest properties. It can focus on only the tongue, or the eye or tension of tendon and muscle. It can be imperceptibly slow or a completely private event. Just before the tour I injured my left hand, so I could barely move my fingers. I view the limitation of an injury or an illness to be a form of composition. I believe the practice of Butoh speaks to the emancipatory art that can be found in mining your illness/ pain/ limitations. In General, Butoh has deeply informed my practice especially the brilliantly poetic choreographic notation of Tatsumi Hijikata’s Costume En Face. A wonderful essay that is very close to my heart that highlights the relationships between Butoh, Surrealism, and Improvisation is Butoh – Revolt of the Flesh in Japan and a Surrealist Way to Move by Improviser/ Instrument builder, Johannes Bergmark.