I started playing viola in the Pittsburgh Public Schools in the third grade, which is when the school string program starts. I remember being quietly awed by the notion of becoming a musician and consequently, I weirdly relished the solitary time of practicing and the intensity of private lessons. But as early as junior high, I began a to get a sense for the extent to which music making can also act as a medium for social connection, fluidity and flexibility, which strongly motivated my later turn toward improvisation.
Well, when I was a conservatory student, I really irritated my private teachers by refusing to play anything that wasn’t written in the 20th century. What this somewhat absurd position exposed me to, however, was a really wide range of extended techniques, timbres and textures as well as strategies for employing them as expressive and virtuosic tools. The network of composers in play here includes Penderecki, Kurtag, James Dillon, Sofia Gubaidulina and just about every student composer whose music I could get my hands on. At the same time, I was deeply committed to punk music and also free jazz, and I wanted to bring their (different) modes of spontaneity and intensity into dialogue with this “New Music” sound world. Improvisation became the best way to explore these relationships and, along the way, trading the bodily discipline associated with traditional string technique for a more personal and idiosyncratic way of embodying the instrument became really exciting. My first improvised experiments unfolded with TCO bassoonist (and composer) Katherine Young, who shared many of these concerns, and we’ve woven those experiments into the long-standing duo, Architeuthis Walks on Land.
What composers/musicians most influence your work?
Over the years, the pantheon of influences has become quite large and pretty heterogenous. Albert Ayler’s playing has always been an inspiration with respect to his capacity to maximize the expressive capacities of tone and timbre. Cellist Tom Cora’s work with The Ex really exemplifies a blend of virtuosity and noise that I strive for in my playing, as does cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm’s improvisational style. Meeting Jessica Pavone in 2004 at a Chicago bar – a woman improviser and composer with monster chops on the viola and a unique way of processing its sound – was a really special moment, and I’ve done a bunch of interesting projects with Pavone over the years. John Cale also was a major inspiration because of his ability to move between so many different kinds of playing and genres of musical production. Beyond solo instrumentalists, Prince, Arthur Russell, Leonard Cohen, Riot Grrl, The Velvet Underground, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Iggy Pop are all in the mix in different ways as far as influences go.
What current projects/ensembles are you involved in?
My musical life right now is happily split between scholarship (I am a historical musicologist) and performing, and my performance projects have been particularly vibrant this summer. My psychadelic prog quintet (which includes fellow TCO member Sam Kulik) released our second record in June, and we’re gearing up for a U.S. tour with Guardian Alien in August. Architeuthis Walks on Land, with Katherine Young continues to be one of the most transformative and inspiring musical forces in my life, especially now as we work toward recording our third album in the next few months. And finally, my chamber ensemble, Till by Turning, a collaborative effort of myself, Katie and TCO concertmaster Erica Dicker, as well as the amazing pianist Emily Manzo, is up to some pretty exciting stuff this summer!
What recent releases or upcoming events do you have on the horizon?
So, Till by Turning has this amazing opportunity to record our second album at an incredible studio in Sheer, Germany called Klangbad. We leave next week – on Monday, actually. We’ll be recording Katherine Young’s multi-movement work Four-Chambered Heart which is in many ways her musical reflection on Olivier Messiaen’s titanic Quartet for the End of Time as well as a ferociously collaborative engagement with all of our unique playing styles and idioms. In short, it’s an amazing and super unique piece. The folks at Klangbad, lead by Joachim Irmler (formerly of Faust), are going to put out our record in Spring 2013, which we are really excited about.
We’ve been running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to cover some lingering travel and recording costs and the campaign ends on Friday (July 28)! There’s a lot of information about the project on our Kickstarter site (check out the video, but remember…we’re musicians, not filmmakers…!) and folks can also make a contribution to our project there, should they feel so moved.
What are you currently listening to?
Well, last weekend, I went to Berlin for an exhibition of Maryanne Amacher’s work at the DAAD Galerie. Some of her work is available on commercial recordings (on two Tzadik releases, one from 1999 and the other from 2008), but there is so much that has yet to be unearthed transferred from her personal collection and archive. I spending hours trying to imprint the sonic material that’s part of exhibition into my ears, mind and body because I don’t know when it will be accessible again. Some of the most inspiring material I heard there were Amacher’s recordings of the Boston Harbor, which she had transmitted to her home studio via Bell telephone lines, and lived with for two and a half years in the late 1960s. Thinking through how her coexistence with the sonic life of the Harbor must have transformed her relationship to sound, music and listening is a really rich and compelling project.
Otherwise, I am a pretty voracious listener, and lately I’ve been enjoying some of MC Lyte’s early records, and I can’t wait to hear what the brilliant women of Talk Normal have been up to on their forthcoming record on the Joyful Noise imprint. I anticipate Neneh Cherry’s new record with Mats Gustaffson entering into heavy rotation pretty soon, and Santigold’s first two records have been summertime staples.
How has working with Anthony Braxton shaped your musical experience?
Well, I had admired Anthony’s work for a long time before joining the TCO and through working with him in this context, I’ve been consistently inspired by his relentlessly future-oriented trajectory. To the orchestra, he always seems to be saying: “do more, commit to your next project, move your music forward, imagine what this organization can do.” He envisions the TCO’s musical, social and creative capacities in big, broad strokes, with an uncompromising positivity and sense of purpose. I am also really inspired by Anthony’s unique knack for creating work that embraces both humor and whimsy as well as deep seriousness and commitment. This interplay is really powerfully, I think, in the operas we’ve worked on over the last few years. I really try to engage this balance not only in performance but also in scholarship and teaching as a way to join precision with joy in musical and intellectual practice.
What impact has the Tri-Centric Orchestra had on your concept of the orchestra as an entity?
I cannot imagine a group made up of more unique, singular players that cooperate as seamlessly as the Tri-Centric Orchestra. Anthony creates these really interesting scenarios in which someone’s personal idiom (say, bluegrass-style solo, or a jagged, angular horn outburst) can puncture or soar over the orchestral texture and then – in the next moment – everyone in the section plays in total unison, as a unified and coherent entity. The Tri-Centric Orchestra really illustrates the extent to which the relationships between hierarchy, cooperation and individuality can become very fluid and flexible in a large-scale ensemble context.
What’s your favorite food?
I recently had a wedge salad with grilled fruit on it, which tasted amazing. The watermelon had grill marks on it and tasted like a sweet steak! Other favorites…well…Nerds, Sour Skittles, Italian ice…sugary junk food at its best…
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