Where are you both in the development of your commissions?
About seven or eight years ago, I started my practice of composing pieces out of material that I gather from listening to the spaces where the piece is going to be presented. I walk around with a set of antennas or different devices that register the electromagnetic activity of the space. I started doing this at the Knockdown Center, which is a huge performance space in an old factory. Like The Shed, the whole building is made out of metal, so it acts as a big antenna for the radio stations around it.
Though I’ve been working at The Shed with the same type of antennas that I always use, I’ve suddenly started gathering a lot of radio-wave activity, especially in The McCourt. I’ve been learning where the different nodes of the radio stations land in the space. I’ve also been observing which parts of the building are more reactive to the antennas the closer that I get to them, for example, metallic parts of the walls or the mechanical elements that move the doors and other parts of the building. They all contain electronics, and there’s a very rich acoustic material that comes from the radio stations, those devices, and the electromagnetic energy.
It’s really a process of learning the specific voice of the building. Because I’ve been able to visit at different times, I’ve heard the effect different states have on that voice, whether the space is being tested for a concert or being cleaned. I had a strange moment the other day while I was in The McCourt. Two people were cleaning the other side of the performance space, far enough away that I couldn’t hear them. But then when I placed one of my antennas next to the ticket scanners, I could suddenly hear them. The microphone I was using isn’t designed to pick up voices in that way, it’s designed to amplify other parts of the spectrum, so I can’t explain how that happened. It was like a ghosting of their voices into the equipment that I was using.
This mix of sound and architecture in your work reminds of work by the artist Janet Cardiff, who creates audio walks by recording binaural audio—which is audio that gives the effect of 3-D stereo sound for the listener—while moving through a space. She then interlaces that recording with a stream-of-consciousness monologue in post-production. This process creates a ghostly effect in her work. Your description of hearing voices that aren’t physically present to you in that moment seems like a similar phenomenon.
I’m flattered, I love her work and this feeling of a ghostly presence that you described—of not knowing what is real. As I was recording, it felt like that. I was hearing voices and I didn’t know where they were coming from. There’s always a ghostlike presence I feel in discovering sounds I can’t hear with my own senses. My scientific mind always tries to understand what’s going on, and I still don’t know how it happened at The Shed.
As I’ve been working over the past couple years, my piece has had to change a lot. I originally designed this performance for a different space in the building. It’s only been in the past six months after the postponement due to the pandemic that I’ve been able to get a sense of what’s possible with the space. I’ve had to learn patience and flexibility in my process for this commission.
My original plan was to expand how I use screens, not for a projection presented as an art object in front of an audience but as an immersive experience with screens dispersed throughout the space. Logistical issues with airflow and hanging things in The McCourt made that an impossibility. So, I’ve redirected my thinking to focus more on using light and fog in the space, with a lighting set up that I have and also what The Shed has in its back line.
I’ll be performing songs I’ve written over the past four years, beginning at the end of 2016. I finished them at the end of 2019, but I’ve only just released this album a few months ago. This piece for Open Call is a culmination of the ways that I’ve been performing them over the past several years. And I will have projections, including found videos and some that are personal. Everything from iPhone videos taken around the city to VHS videos from family trips to India when I was little. They create an abstract visual poetry for the music.
How much of your process is dependent on rehearsing in the space?
In my case, because there are so many site-specific elements, we really can’t rehearse certain parts until we arrive. There’s only so much that I can prepare ahead of time. So much is built on listening and reacting during the performance, and having a good technical team who can help bring it all together. I’m crossing all my fingers.
It’s the same for me, too. My music isn’t site-specific in the way yours is obviously very intentionally so, but I won’t know how I’m going to configure the projections or the lighting until I can test them out. There’s a lot that’s left to the moment once I arrive. It’s a matter of arriving and experimenting a little bit.
You both investigate notions of a continuum or multiplicities of experience in your performances. What roles does the relationship between a performance’s staging and an audience play in your decisions?
It’s never quite so cerebral of an experience for me when I’m writing my music. Writing is much more visceral and affective. I almost get lost in a trancelike state, writing for a few hours at a time every day. Once I get to the stage where I’m thinking about how to translate that writing into a performance environment, then the work begins to feel cerebral, as I’m asking myself how I render the songs in a way that achieves the goals I’m aiming for.
In creating a performance, I’m trying to create some kind of rupture or to cultivate an intense and surreal environment for the audience that builds an otherworldly space, elevating the primacy of sound. I want to reveal some kind of immanence through the experience—to reveal all the histories behind what our lives consist of but that are covered over in day-to-day reality. And I use light in tandem with sound to cultivate that kind of intense environment.
I think the idea of revealing this kind of immanence of experience is an important connection between our work, Rachika. By listening to the radio waves I find in the building, I’m led to the human body. My piece tries to reveal all the connections that we don’t perceive through different manipulations or transformations of vibrations. Everything vibrates at the level of an atom, and every action has its consequences beyond what we perceive. I want to pay attention to the importance of listening to everything we do, all our actions, because they have consequences for people beyond ourselves. How can we think about that attention in a responsible way, to keep in mind that we need to listen to each other, listen to matter, to the water. As performers in Vibrant Strata, my collaborators and I will be listening to the audience because they contribute to that activity, especially in the first part of the performance. I’ve encountered different responses from the audience, some people even having claustrophobic feelings because they suddenly realize that these presences are constantly there. Hopefully the experience awakens the responsibility that each of us has, an awareness of how we contribute to all this.
Merche, this makes me think of how I don’t always identify with the label of ambient music. It’s not that I disidentify with the genre itself, but I find people sometimes expect the music to be soothing or comforting in a particular way. A big part of my music is pushing people out of their comfort zone to find a new awareness, pushing them into an expansive place where they can confront parts of themselves to find a transformative moment. The way that I use light and sound in a performance environment is related to this goal.
Does New York City play a specific role in how you make work?
New York City is not a place I purport to claim, as a transplant and gentrifier. I have a complicated relationship to the space that I’m taking up by living here. I’m always wary of and how I have that conversation.
I feel the same way. It’s a complicated space as an immigrant, too, as someone who doesn’t belong here. In terms of the work that I do, I find the opposite though: I feel like I belong here more than where I come from because of the community that I’ve found here. A lot of venues have welcomed what I do and have been open to my proposals. I didn’t feel that support before coming here.
I also have a deep-seated sense of community and family here with the people that I share my life with in all kinds of different ways. That informs my music on the most fundamental level. It’s important having a lot of people in my life who are trans and queer people of color. We’ve been each other’s support system over the past couple years; we’ve been each other’s family. There are intense bonds that come out of that kind of reliance and care and dependence and love.
In a sense, New York City feels especially present as a place because of the way it deprives people of material support. You’re always in some kind of policed environment out there. I’m not talking about myself in terms of a victimhood framework, but rather I mean this communally and collectively. That sense of togetherness and the complexities that come with it are foundational for my music.
My performance community, or the community where I develop this work, has been extremely affected by the pandemic. Having spaces where we gather gives a different meaning to the city. Without that possibility, we’re left with all of the hardships and nothing to balance them or offer support. The last year highlighted the importance of that community to my creative process, and to any process in my life.