For her Roulette commission, interdisciplinary artist, composer, and pianist Mary Prescott presents Songs Between Life and Death—a performative song cycle integrating music, word, movement, physical theater, and installation—on Tuesday, April 30th.
Tell us about yourself and what you do.
I’m a Thai-American interdisciplinary artist, composer, and pianist from Minneapolis. I trained exclusively as a classical pianist for most of my life, but “converted” to experimental generative work within the past couple of years for the same reason my sister converted to Catholicism in her early 20s. (Who converts to Catholicism??) She said she had been searching for something for a long time, and then when she encountered Catholicism, she felt fulfilled. Well, that’s exactly how I feel about my practice, and even though technically art is not a religion, maybe IT IS. It’s the place where I get closest to understanding myself and the world, and the place where I feel like I can begin to untangle some of life’s bigger questions.
My experiments started with piano music, probably because I felt “safe” with a medium that was already attached to my identity. But now I allow myself to create with whatever seems best, whether I know that medium well or not—although just about everything is performance-based. So I might project a film I made, or do a choreographed movement, or install a set piece that bears some significance to the rest of the work. And those things will interact within a performance and play off each other to more deeply express an overarching concept. One of the big hangups of classical training is that everything is expected to be perfectly executed according to a holy manuscript, and there’s a lot of prior experience and skill that one must develop to attempt it. But I think that’s a very limiting way to approach art-making, and actually, pretty exclusive, too. As hard as it was at first (and still is), I’ve tried to let go of that mindset, and I feel like it’s allowed my practice to grow in ways I never could have anticipated.
Describe the project you are developing for Roulette.
I’m creating a performative song-cycle called Songs Between Life and Death for chamber ensemble. It’s about the conscious spiritual experience unattached from the physical body. Although I don’t intend for it to be morbid at all, I do acknowledge that it could go there for some people. For me, it’s more objective, maybe. About the first-person experience of what happens emotionally and psychologically when our spirit has disconnected from the physical world as we know it, but can look back in on it. I think the fear of this unknown has had a pretty heavy impact on cultural and social development, and I’m really interested to examine that dynamic a little more closely. And it’s also something I just want to spend more time with in focused contemplation…hash it out for myself, so to speak.
What is influencing your work right now?
So, this may seem sort of silly, but I recently moved into a place that overlooks the construction site of a new residential development, and watching these huge glass buildings go up gradually but actually really quickly has been kind of amazing. I’m seeing the foundational pieces go into the ground itself: enormous cranes hoisting gigantic slabs of material, locked into the sides of the building for support, the gnarly innards of the floors and walls, and then all the fine details of the interiors. The scale of each of those things is so extreme, the power and intricacies of movement. It’s mundane, but fascinating to watch workers systematically bust up the entire block of sidewalk with heavy machinery one day; and the next day, they are very carefully painting the corner edge of a living room or squeegeeing the fingerprints off the floor-to-ceiling windows with perfection and care. Seeing a project like that in all it’s enormity and detail, with all the steps it takes on so many planes, and with such a spectacular result…a year ago that was just an overgrown vacant lot. It is strangely really inspiring in a very beautiful, dirty, dusty way.
How did your interest in your work begin?
As I mentioned before, I was trained as a classical pianist for most of my life, and even though I always had an interest in improvising, it seemed elusive for me to take on. Or maybe because I didn’t have training in it, I felt like I couldn’t or shouldn’t do it. It occured to me that I was only going to be able to improvise if I just did it. That seems really obvious, but I think it’s actually one of the more difficult concepts to wrap one’s head around.
Anyway, a handful of years ago, my friend Jesse Stacken, a really great fellow Minnesotan pianist and one with a mainly jazz background, had just finished up a project where he recorded an improvisation every day for a year and put the results online. I thought, “that seems like a good way to hold myself accountable.” So without a moment to think twice about what I was getting into, I started Where We Go When, which became my daily blog to do the same thing as Jesse, but from the keyboard of a non-improviser. Without getting into too many details, I’ll just say, that project was hands down one of the most important learning experiences of my life. It’s still up on my website, and I still think about it and mull over some of the same questions I had when I was in the thick of it.
Where We Go When was really the very beginning of my generative work. Even though my practice has expanded a lot since then, it gave me a bit of courage and a really solid foundation for experimentation and trust for the process.
What artists are you interested in right now?
I am really into Pina Bausch right now. I saw her work for the first time at BAM just a year and a half ago, and it changed my life. This was right on the cusp of when I started interdisciplinary work, and is probably one of the main reasons I went in that direction at all. Her work really cut to my heart, and gave me that rapturous sense of cathartic understanding that I am always searching for. I really love the way she pulled seemingly ordinary and unrelated concepts and gestures together to express something so vulnerable and raw. And she could address really difficult social disparities head on without drama or propaganda. She just put the work out there. She wasn’t telling you how to feel or react. Through an utterly marvelous and totally genius set of physical expressions, she made available some truth of humanity. All the good and bad and ugly and beautiful. All the unfairness and injustice, longing and loneliness. You feel it all at once with her. Really powerful, potent stuff.
Mary Prescott: Songs Between Life and Death takes place on Tuesday, April 30th 2019 at 8pm with performers: pianist Mary Prescott, violinist Ilmar Gavilán, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist Nick Dunston, and vocalists: Nina Dante, Ariadne Greif, and Sara Serpa.