Tag: Mia Wendel-DiLallo

An Interview With Susie Ibarra

By Mia Wendel-DiLallo

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Percussionist Susie Ibarra is a cartographer of sound. Her work in installation, performance, composition, curation, and research connects indigenous practices with a modern voice, creating an auditory space where improbable unions are realized. Her projects have spanned from Kalinga Music of the North Cordilleras to the Aeta music from Zambales; from choirs of Visayas to circadian rhythm practices of the Cayuga Nations; and to many other regions and cultures across the globe. Ibarra’s pieces are often polyrhythmic, with a primordial pulse one imagines drawing from ancient wisdom. She brings humanity, nature, and collective consciousness into an environment to be performed and experienced. On February 8, 2017, Ibarra and her new collective, Dreamtime Ensemble, demo music from their forthcoming album, Perception, in a premiere event at Roulette. The performance features Claudia Acuna on vocals, Jennifer Choi on violin, Yves Dharamraj on cello, Jake Landau on guitar, piano, and keyboards, Jean-Luc Sinclair working the electronics, and Susie Ibarra’s masterful percussion — moving fluidly from solos to trios to quartets. The ensemble’s title comes from the practice of Philippine T’boli Dreamweavers and Australian Aboriginals whose dream worlds mirror their waking lives. It is an allusion to “time outside of time,” as Ibarra puts it, and how our perceptions change accordingly. With Perception on the horizon, Mia Wendel-DiLallo interviewed Ibarra on her central role both as a percussionist and organizer:

Mia Wendel-DiLallo: How did you begin playing music?

Susie Ibarra: I started studying music at the age of 3. I studied and played classical piano and sang in choir throughout my grade school and in high school. My uncle and aunt had a kulintang set in their house (Philippine bowed  gongs). Mostly it was Philippine choruses that would visit our homes during the winter holidays. Not until I moved to New York City did I start to play regularly in Philippine kulintang, and Javanese and Balinese gamelan groups. I also played piano and organ in church. In high school I was invited to play in a punk band 10 days after I got a drum set, when I was 16 years old. My parents allowed me to play performances on the weekends in Houston, Texas. I first heard a recording while in high school of Thelonious Monk’s Dream on a college radio in Houston and a recording of Sun Ra’s Arkestra playing “Pink Elephants.” It influenced my interest for playing and listening to jazz.

I came to New York City to study visual arts and languages in college and I brought my drums. Shortly after I began taking lessons on  drum set in New York and Teaneck, New Jersey with Sun Ra’s drummer, the late Earl Buster Smith.  I started playing jazz and I also used to play solos down by the Hudson River in the West Village. Many of my first performances for events, weddings, etc… were supported by some of the Lesbian community in New York, and also I played small shows, cabarets and in the downtown experimental and jazz scene. These were some of my first experiences studying and working in music.

MWD: What does percussion do that isn’t achieved by other types of instrumentation?

SI: Percussion can provide those magical rhythms that sync and support other instruments playing in the ensemble. It has the capacity to create drama with one huge range of dynamics, colors, and textures.

MWD: How do your humanitarian interests manifest themselves in your work with music, both in performance and installation?

SI: Perhaps our humanitarian interests are always there whether subtle or direct. The longer I continue my music practice, like a tree, it has its branches that grow and connect, sometimes break and, if we’re lucky, regenerate. A desire to help others especially if there is a crisis or a definite need is something inherent in so many people.  My work archiving and filming Indigenous music in the Philippines over a period of 12 years brought this out. There are so many struggles with the lack of environmental and cultural preservation, issues with climate change, social, and economic inequity, that how could I not become involved in unpacking and addressing the issues?

Recently, I started to collaborate on social projects in Brazil with Chef David Hertz, around gastronomy and music for the underprivileged communities. I am about to begin two climate change projects, one scoring a film by Sean Devlin about the story of the Visayas and the displacement and loss after devastating storms. Another is a collaboration with glaciologist Michelle Koppes, which we will begin developing in 2017, where I will be recording glaciers and music communities along the Himalayas, and composing a sonic map for this story of the Himalayas—its glaciers and its communities, particularly along Tibet and India.

MWD: What are your thoughts on gender politics as a percussionist?

SI: It depends if I am thinking about it as an American or a Filipina, but usually I am trying to listen and think about it from both perspectives to see how one view can live with the other. America is a patriarchal society, while the Philippines is very much a matriarchal society. Percussion music has historically been passed down for the majority by men. In the Philippines, the percussion, particularly gong music, has been passed down through the women, and the string music is traditionally passed down by men, especially in the south, Mindanao. Just as historically many of the great composers in the Philippines have been from the north Luzon and so many of the great singers are from the Visayas in the middle.

Our great iconic composer/improviser, humanitarian, and dear friend, whom we just sadly lost, Pauline Oliveros, once told me that when she was a little girl she was asked to go pick an instrument to play in class. She went to pick up the drums and the teacher handed her a flute. Isn’t it strange that we can also place a gender on instruments, inanimate objects? I have been feeling compelled to write something about this more in depth, it is a strange phenomenon that became normalized. It was not an easy time for me growing up. I was definitely a minority as a female percussionist. Also as I taught workshops across the US, I would hear a recurring story of young women saying “ I wanted to play drums but…” and then their story. I think again it is very strange to place a gender on instruments. I am hopeful though that there are more women artists who are playing percussion and drum-set today and support this, of course. I think it is wonderful how people like Mindy Abovitz of TomTom Magazine have been able to feature so many women drummers and percussionists.

MWD: Could you describe your approach to sound installation?

SI: I am very much interested in both live and immersive music and sometimes connecting them both together in one time-sensitive piece. Sound installation for me is very much a site-specific experience. I am thinking about creating a work that collaborates with what is asked of for the environment, the space, and the community.  I am thinking about the people that will visit, walk, and listen and watch the work and focusing on creating music or sound pieces that either fit, or engage in the most optimum way.

I recently scored a piece for a speaker installation in Jackson, Wyoming at the National Wildlife Museum 2015 outdoor exhibition of Ai WeiWei’s Circle of Animals Zodiac Heads. Upon discussing with the museum’s curator, it was apparent that although it was a touring exhibit, they wanted a work that was grounded along the sculpture trail. We chose speakers to install along the pathway of the exhibit and I invited sound engineer/designer Wayne Horwitz of the Exploratorium in San Francisco to install the work with me.

I also have been exploring possible collaborations and storytelling with modular music app walks in cities. There is one, Digital Sanctuaries, New York City, which engages with twelve historic sites in Lower Manhattan commissioned by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and New Music USA, one which engages with poets’ work and a historic walk in North Pittsburgh through the City of Asylum.

Publishing in 2017 for iPad and iPhone will be a modular app for architecture and music with Moroccan architect Aziza Chaouni, titled Musical Water Routes of Fez, in the old city, the Medina of Fez, Morocco. This modular app walk connects people to historic sites along historic river routes and fountains in the old city. Fez used to be called the city of 1,000 rivers and many of the rivers were cemented up and became polluted.

Surround sound has been an intriguing way to move sound and create another layered environment amidst live performance. One piece, titled Hidden Truths: Prayer for a Forgotten World, which I created during a residency with Harvestworks, incorporates field recordings of seven indigenous Philippine music groups that I have worked with and archived, while live performance, by Electric Kulintang, was in the center of the circle.

I also created a surround sound piece at EMPAC in Troy while conducting 80 live percussionists, titled Circadian Rhythms, which incorporated 8.1 surround sound of field recordings from the Macaulay Library of Bird and Animal sounds at Cornell.

At the moment I am thinking of scaling a polyrhythm game as a city installation for people to play on. I am very much interested in looking at cities as a creative palette and find them to be a great place for interdisciplinary collaboration, intervention, and creative research. I am also fascinated with the creative practice of mapping in many forms.

MWD: How do you see perception embodied in your composition for Dreamtime Ensemble?

SI: Perception is the title of my forthcoming album on Decibel Collective performed and recorded by the Dreamtime Ensemble. Perception allows the ability to take in sensory information, make it into something meaningful and to interact with our environment. It is through all of our senses that we can experience the world. There also isn’t a fixed meaning to anything. The meaning of something can change depending on how a person senses sees, hears, smells, or tastes. And yet, we depend on perception for living and surviving with each interpretation and interaction. Perception is different from reality and it becomes one’s reality. I like very much the quote by Albert Einstein: “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

The pieces for this album were inspired by the idea of perception and sensory experiences. In dealing with the process of grieving and loss in my life I found that it is a time when my senses have been very vivid. I found that in my perceptions I didn’t believe in fairness or justice as much as I believed in goodness and kindness. Some of these compositions are inspired and composed around these ideas which I also found are beautiful spoken about by Lao Tse in the Tao Te Ching. They are titled Goodness, Alegria, Memory Game, The Uncertainty Principle, among other pieces. I composed these pieces from experiences of sensing these emotions, thoughts, actions, or ideas. I also like very much the idea that the perception of each of the pieces can change depending on its interpretation of being played and which musician(s) it will focus on.

Susie Ibarra’s Dreamtime Ensemble performs at Roulette on Wednesday, February 8, 2017.

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By Mia Wendel-DiLallo

Archivist of the unexpected; Documentarian of energy; Emissary of the omniscient; Steward of experimenters. — It is hard to imagine that these divergent and elusive nomenclatures could describe a single person. Yet Victoria Keddie encapsulates these (and many more) titles, and assumes each with the precision of a scientist, the imagination of an artist, and the curiosity of an explorer.

For fall 2016, Victoria has been invited by Roulette director Jim Staley to organize a video-based festival that approaches the medium in a new way, excavating what is going on in experimental video right now. The festival is multi-day, running from November 2 – 4, and will return in the fall of 2017 to explore timely topics in video composition. For the November 2016 iteration, Victoria has divided the festival into three days, under the titles: Parallax View; TV EYE; and Encoder/Decoder.

In Parallax View, Victoria presents artists who use synthetic space and fantastical architectural environments, and who engage in building and creating elaborate worlds. It features Jeremy Couillard, who premiers his virtual reality game which begins at the last ten minutes of your life, and includes audience engagement in this sinister activity. Victoria brings Canadian artist Sabrina Ratté to New York, for a live video performance of her architectural mapping projections which depict an entirely imagined universe. TV EYE features artists using different signatures of televisual practice, including explorations of their involvement with a live audience, camera play, seriality, and timing. The evening includes a screening component as well as live performance. Encoder/Decoder, presents artists whose process takes precedence over the product, in a night of live performances delving into signal-based works for sound as well as video. These artists work with restrictive systems using algorithms or a series of rules and constraints to produce the piece.

This project is a culmination of Victoria’s unique audio visual explorations. Sound is at the start of her creative process, and it is through sound that her projects in video, choreography, and curation are realized and become compositions unto themselves. Creating and stressing these points of contact, or “dialogue” as Victoria puts it, between sound and other art forms is an essential part of her work. While sound is a foundational constant to her practice, she puts the stability of it to the test again and again, probing the outer limits of its ability, the depth of its uncertainty and, as a self proclaimed mediator, strives not only to forge but to reveal the breaking point of the bonds. In Victoria’s Aelita (2014) a single channel video piece dedicated to the Queen of Mars, she seeks the fallibility of repetition in a live session recording of balanced sound and video waves. Exploring the point just before the signal collapses, she works to “show and expose, these moments right before something gets pulled away.” It is these moments of collapse she finds the most beautiful and in “trying to pick up on signals and interference, unknown interference, discontinuities of sound…That’s where the mystery of it is.”

Victoria began her trajectory studying the preservation and archiving of the moving image, but turned instead to the collection and documentation of sound artifacts. From there, her work branched off into an inquiry of the term “media” — how to collect and record radio, sound experiments, and video work. From an archivist standpoint, Victoria sees analog machinery as key in the presentation of sound and video because of its relationship to electromagnetic signal. Analog works by “pushing and pulling at the signal in a kind of language structure” through which Victoria can develop her own language. She finds this language of the electromagnetic compelling because “we exist in a magnetic field, we ourselves have that energy, we are conduits….It is directly linked to how we exist and what we exist in.” And, she says, it is paramount to “work with machinery that is geared to vocalizing that or visualizing that, or trying to communicate it.” This is what she calls a “close language” that is laid open in her work, either for interpretation or obfuscation. That dialogue takes into consideration “how the room I am in also participates in this, as well as what my body is doing and how much the choreography of my body is interacting with the machines I use.”

Further explorations of the human relationship to machines can be seen in her performance piece Headbanger (2015), which explores complex questions such as: What are the primordial rhythms we find even in states of complete repose? What are the breaking points of these states? What is the machine that documents us? Who mothers us through all of this? Headbanger involved a visual score, a visualized sound recording, a fabricated stainless steel sculpture, and a live performance. The performance was focused around a sleep related rhythmic movement disorder, referred to as “headbanging,” in which the patient repeatedly and forcibly bangs or slams their head while sleeping. There is a “violent percussion,” as Victoria calls it, in this repetitive motion, documented by a polygraph unit, and translated by observers of the machine’s results. Victoria became transfixed with the “strange artifact and presence of the machine,” which in another sense is the “translation of the unconscious state.” In the same way that we wonder why we remember certain dreams, Victoria wanted to expose the complexities of why we retain a quasi-rhythmic structure while in sleep and what it means for the conscious, waking world.

“The machine” figures strongly in her projects as the conveyor of the “omnipresent authorship” of a controlled situation. Her works in surveillance, in particular, touch on the unseen narrative. In Victoria’s Cannibal Méchanique installation she coordinated machine play, live sound, and larger-scale choreography to determine how we can communicate and understand movement. Historically, the viewer watches these actions through a single lens, stationed solidly at one angle of the room, which loses the experience of the dancers, the energy of the performance, and the shape of the space. Following the typical example of museum surveillance, Victoria multiplied the cameras in the room so that “you were seeing what was perhaps, invisible” and were, furthermore, able to witness a once invisible presence watching and recording. It is easy to conclude that these themes of surveillance are allusions to the government, to being constantly watched without our knowledge and without our permission. Surveillance, with Victoria, resists these tropes, setting aside the “big-brother” presence, and focusing on the all-seeing, omnipresent author. Her focus is to highlight “something already present that I’m tapping into.” The concealed hand has been made obvious, although not entirely explained.

Ominous, sinister, expansive, and strange, you move through Victoria’s work, whether it be a dance performance, video festival, or a visualized soundscape, with the sense of Another. Moving her hands like a puppeteer, she refers to the great “author,” whom one can imagine shifting time and space without the weight of moral obligations. Although she insists that she is not personally this omnipotent presence, you cannot help but see a majestic reflexivity in Victoria Keddie’s orchestrations of sound, video, and performance.

Dame Electric: Dorit Chrysler

By Mia Wendel-DiLallo

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Organizer of the September 14, 2016 Dame Electric festival, Dorit Chrysler is perhaps best known as a virtuoso theremin player (or “theremin goddess,” if you will.) She has placed a spotlight on the often-sidelined instrument in her own mesmerizing performances, and through the projects she helms such as the New York Theremin Society and KidCoolThereminSchool. In honor of her one-day festival, Roulette had the pleasure of asking Dorit about her history in the musical world, how she happened upon the forlorn theremin, and what led her to the empowering line-up of Dame Electric.

MWD: What is the motivation behind the Dame Electric festival?

DC: I wanted to see strong, hands-on females operating analog synthesizer machines and producing their own original sounds on stage. Not surprisingly, there are many women represented in the field of analog synthesis, but they are not featured and celebrated often enough. Headliner and pioneer legend Suzanne Ciani’s story is a good example of her struggle in a male dominated field, and to this day not enough women are building their own hardware such as Antenes.

I saw Suzanne Ciani perform at Namm Fair two years ago. The day featured a list of several performers, but Suzanne stood out like a gleaming light, connecting with the Diodes in such a personal, unassuming, professional, and extraordinary musical way. Her performance and craft inspired the idea for “Dame Electric” and we are so thrilled to bring her to New York and to have her headline the festival at Roulette. It turns out, she has not performed a solo concert on her Buchla here since 1975! Congruently, Suzanne has a documentary coming out about her life — a fascinating story about what it is like to be a woman in this new field of a male-dominated analog and synth world. As part of the Dame Electric festival, there will also be a short preview of the upcoming film, to be screened at the Austrian Cultural Forum on Tuesday, September 13th.

Antenes and Electric Indigo will collaborate for the first time together, opening for Suzanne Ciani at Dame Electric. Antenes (Lori Napoleon), builds her own synthesizers inspired by outmoded technologies, including using old patch telephones in her work. Electric indigo is an Austrian performer working with granular synthesis. She has founded an internationally growing network called female:pressure, that collects statistics of representation of woman in electronic music. They will also hold workshops on synth building and granular synthesis at Pioneer Works on September 17th.

While thinking about the festival, I kept in mind the idea of nurturing the community. So, I paired Austrian artists, that are flown in for the festival, with local artists. Each will collaborate with a chosen partner, featuring premieres of new works that leave comfort zones and push boundaries.

MWD: Can you talk about performing at a young age and how you got started?

DC: I was a child performer. I have been on the stage since the age of seven at the local opera house in my Austrian hometown. The colorful world of props and drama, orchestra and ballet, and paper-maché and stucco, was all so exciting and inspiring to me. At the age of ten I sang twelve tone music by Alban Berg with a fake hunchback on by back in Woyzeek — who would not want to be a musician/performer after that?

MWD: How did you discover the theremin?

DC: I was in New York playing guitar and singing in a band called Halcion. A friend of mine, Lary 7, has a wild collection of assorted analog instruments at his house, and he took me to a corner where a theremin stood, that he was repairing and he demonstrated it to me. It was a life-changing experience and I can’t thank him enough for introducing me to this instrument. I felt the theremin deserved much more attention than it had previously gotten. I had studied musicology and was intrigued by its odd history and status in the pantheon of musical instruments. It was a challenge to explore the theremin and to see what it was capable of.

MWD: What is the “odd history” of the theremin?

DC: Léon Theremin invented the TermenVox in 1919. It was the first electric music instrument  featuring a unique new interface that allowed it to be played without touching anything — waving hands in electromagnetic fields based on the heterodyne system. Theremin was a prodigy of Lenin, and the termenvox fit perfectly into the Russian Revolution, and was even featured in several soundtracks for promotional movies. Theremin was sent on tour to represent Russian technical accomplishments across the globe.

After touring in Europe, he settled in New York. His theremin patent was produced by RCA, and the instruments were promoted as easy to play at home —which was of course proved wrong. Production had also gone quickly into debt after the market crashed. Theremin himself married Lavinia Williams, one of the members of the first African-American ballet troupe in New York. Then, all of a sudden, he disappeared one day. Maybe he was kidnapped by the KGB, or maybe he returned to Russia voluntarily. He ended up working in a secret science prison camp where he developed the brand new technology of listening devices, the BUG, to be installed in a seal that hung behind the desk of the American ambassador in Moscow. This allowed the Russians to listen in to conversations until the British discovered a signal — this very seal was held up at a meeting at the UN when the Cold War was declared.

Theremin’s absence in the U.S. stopped the growing popularity of the instruments and efforts of contemporary composers writing for it. Some popularity occurred in the 1950s, when Hollywood used its signature sounds for horror and suspense themes such as The Day the Earth Stood Still or Hitchcock’s Spellbound. To this day the theremin is still gravely underestimated as a musical instrument and has not been able to establish itself in either popular or classical music. Due to its unusual interface, that differs gravely with traditional sound production, a theremin is not easy to play, and whoever has witnessed a theremin producing noise might think that this is all it can do. Platforms such as the NY Theremin Society and KidCoolThereminSchool (which I founded) help the instrument find greater popularity.

MWD: What do you love most about working with the theremin?

DC: What keeps me engaged with this unique device is its extraordinary dynamic capacity — unparalleled by any other music instrument. You enter micro-space and learn more about your own body, just by playing. It’s physicality is revealed through the slightest movement of your hand. You can literally sculpt the notes with your own hands, shaping sound this way. I love this primal directness of motion and sound, its drama and the ultimate challenge of attempting to control it — that impossibility appeals to me! It’s like fighting windmills…