Saturday, October 27, 2012


The performance on Thursday went reasonably well, I suppose. I played for about one hour, but I believe only three people actually heard any of it; most of the visitors were hanging out with the visual artists and didn't bother to venture down the hall to the dark, scary room emitting strange sounds from behind the closed door. That was actually fine, it made the jump back into live performance less nerve-wracking. I did feel somewhat nervous about it, which is not unusual for me. But I survived.

And listening back to the recording, the performance seems pretty decent. Not great, but not embarrassing either. I can't say that this definitively signals a return to live performance for me — it may or may not happen again — but it was an interesting experiment and I'm glad to have given it a try. I didn't think to take any photos, but you can listen to the entire performance (slightly edited).

I've enjoyed meeting the other artists here and having the time to explore without pressure. The SFAI staff have been great to work with. Now the studio is all cleaned up, the "instruments" thrown away or returned to where I found them, the installations taken down, and I am definitely ready to head home!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Blue Alchemy

Went to Española with my friend Mary Lance (one of the speaking voices in The Very Rich Hours), who was screening her new documentary, Blue Alchemy – Stories of Indigo. It's a wonderful film about a fascinating topic: the historical production of indigo dye around the world, and the current revival of it in certain places. I highly recommend it if you get a chance to see it (also available on DVD).

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Tonight is Open Studio night at SFAI. We are each supposed to give a five-minute presentation, followed by visitors coming to our studios to see what we are doing. This is more or less what I'll be saying during my five minute slot:

Since 1995 I’ve been making site-specific and place-oriented sound environments, such as The Very Rich Hours, which you can hear outside in the courtyard tonight, or the more abstract piece you can hear for a few more days over in the atrium inside the main entrance of Benildus Hall, on the campus of the university. I also make other things that are more like “music,” and for many years I performed live, improvising with various instruments and objects and electronics.

But by 2002 it felt like I’d hit a dead end and I quit performing. I was dissatisfied with it for all kinds of reasons: I had issues with the audience/performer dynamic; with what I found to be contradictions within so-called free improvisation as a practice; with the baggage associated with musical instruments, and the role of technology; with the basic logistics and economics of performing — to say nothing of my frustration with my own limitations as a musician and my profound ambivalence toward technique. I’d been trying to push the live work in some other direction that would be tolerable, but it just didn’t happen in a way that was satisfying.

So for all of these reasons and others that are too tedious to mention, I decided to give it up and devote myself to the studio work and composition. Making sound installations was much more gratifying artistically, and although they have their own challenges, this was a way to bypass all of those aspects of live performance that I found so problematic. And so I’ve been very happily pursuing this work, and still really enjoy doing it, and don’t expect to stop any time soon.

But recently I’ve been feeling like something is missing. I miss the tactile, sensory pleasure of making sound with something real in my hands, in real time, without looking at a computer screen. I miss the possibility of doing that with other people. And I still have a kind of reverence for the intimacy and potential magic of the unrepeatable moment shared with others, gathered together in a room to listen.

So for the past year or two I’ve been quietly chewing on this in the back of my mind. And recently I’ve begun to wonder if, instead of completely sidestepping all of those problems I have with performance — avoiding them by doing something else — it might be possible to instead actually confront them head on, and possibly resolve them. When I was invited to come to the Santa Fe Art Institute for a month it seemed like a good opportunity to explore that.

I set in place a few parameters for myself: there would be no set plans as to any particular finished project I would make while I am here; I wouldn't bring any instruments or equipment with which I am familiar, aside from a basic portable recorder to document whatever happens; I would not use anything that is intended to make music or sound, only humble, non-musical materials that I find on site; I would not use any amplification or electronic devices; and I would try to suspend judgement and remain open to whatever happens, without worrying too much about end results.

And so I’ve spent the past month literally playing with these odd things that I’ve found — mostly bits of detritus left behind in the studio by previous artists, plus a few other items I’ve come across in the building and the immediate vicinity. I’ve tried to set aside whatever I think I know about music and about improvisation and approach these random objects with openness and curiosity, in a spirit of discovery. My intention is not so much to “perform” or even make music, but to animate these things and allow them to sing their songs. I’m well aware that there are many precedents for this; I’m trying to find a way into it that feels authentic and is hopefully engaging to the ears of others.

So tonight, while you are visiting the various artists’ studios and chatting with them about their fine work, I’ll be doing my first solo performance in ten years in the studio behind the closed doors at the end of the hallway. I have no idea if it will be “good” or “interesting” or not, but I invite you to slip in and out quietly and listen for as long as you like.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Everything Sings

Today I found a copy of Everything Sings, poetic cartographer Denis Wood's lovely book of maps of odd things in his neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina. It resonates.

I say to you there is no real deal. There is only this starlight falling tonight on these asphalt streets still warm with the sun's heat, these slopes down which the streets slip, these mains beneath them with the runoff from this afternoon's rain, and — listen! — if you bend over the manhole cover, you can hear the sound of the rushing water. There are only these wires scarring this sky, these trees with their heavy shade, this streetlight casting those shadows of branch and leaf on the sidewalk, those passing cars and that sound of a wind chime. But...none of our maps pretends to catch more than a note or two of a world in which everything's singing.

A map of windchimes in Boylan Heights.

Monday, October 22, 2012


I've been thinking about Richard Tuttle's work for a while — in fact, ever since the group show I was in with him here at SFAI back in 2004. And I'm especially thinking about it now. I don't remember much about what I saw back then; I think there were some of the wire wall drawings, and a few other constructions on the wall and floor. What I remember is that they baffled me, in a good way. I had no idea what to make of them, and when that happens I try to pay attention.

The other day I tried to write about why Tuttle's work matters to me, but I couldn't articulate it well and gave up. Everything I thought to say seemed probably wrong and/or stupid, all cliché. Maybe I have nothing to say about it, or maybe there is simply nothing to be said. The work simply is, and I doubt that it cares what anyone thinks. I'm still not even sure how much of it I actually like, but I definitely admire it, and certain things really do appeal to me even if I still don't understand them. These two videos are a very small (and older) part of what he has done, but I feel quite close to them at the moment.

People might feel that it's frightening to be in the unknown...But the emptiness I've been talking about is actually a comfort. You are comfortable in the unknown. This is a theater that human beings can inhabit, a wonderful thing, because you're not victimized by your fears. You're free. The freedom comes from this emptiness and the vastness of the unknown, because the unknown is infinity. 

If I can free a humble material from itself, perhaps I can free myself from myself.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Findings #5

Fun with burnt out light bulbs. And the proverbial kitchen sink. OK, actually it's the studio sink. Two of them, in fact.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


This is excerpted from a very old argument (1975) between the late improvising guitarist Derek Bailey and composer/ex-improviser Gavin Bryars, printed in Bailey’s book, Improvisation: Its Nature & Practice in Music. Old, unresolved, yet still relevant to the present situation. In fact, I’ve always considered this to be the most interesting chapter in the whole book. What I find so interesting, and so frustrating, is how right they both are. This is essentially a conversation I’ve been having with myself for the past ten years. Unlike Bryars, I never completely abandoned improvisation, just doing it in live performances. (He later made a conditional return to it.) But I share much of his skepticism. And I also share Bailey’s belief that it is possible to transcend some of the issues that Bryars objects to. When I read this I find myself agreeing and arguing with them both equally. You'll find my own comments [in blue brackets].

Bryars: ...around 1967 and ’68 I was becoming more and more ideologically opposed to improvisation. I began to find improvisation a dead end... I found more and more that I got no more out of it than I brought to it. I was limited entirely by my own personality and by that of the people I played with... I found the situation usually produced less than the sum of its parts. It was not possible to transcend the situation I was playing in. [Yes.] Now on the other hand, I found that by composing I could... I couldn’t reach an equal conceptual excellence in improvising as in composing. The inadequacy may have been in myself, but, if so, I transferred it to improvising. [True.] In improvisation you could develop a whole armory of devices and things you could do and then do them. You might permutate the order but you were limited to those things you could do. [Guilty.] It could, if you worked very hard, be very sophisticated, but you were always going to finish up manipulating those things you had developed. The epitome of that is the skillful jazz player.

Bailey: That’s right. The whole point of a jazz player’s improvisation is that he works within a clearly accepted and circumscribed idiom. And he accepts these boundaries, in fact revels in them, because they define his music. Now I would have thought that one of the main things free improvisation provides is the opportunity to avoid just that situation.

Bryars: I had always thought that too... But later I met musicians who gave the lie to that. I knew they were practicing effects during the day and playing them in the “improvisation” at night. [Yep.] And the call and response type of playing adopted by so many musicians was unattractive to me. And pieces always started tentatively, something big in the middle, and then finished quietly. [Heard that piece a million times.] That sort of arc happened every time. If there are no more formal devices than that it’s pretty empty.

Bailey: ...I think there is a type of playing which it is appropriate to describe as free improvisation. But it does seem difficult, firstly to get hold of it, and secondly, to keep hold of it... Another aspect of the same problem is that the longer you play in the same situation or group – and this certainly [especially] applies to playing solo – the less appropriate it becomes to describe the music as “free” anything. [Oh so true.] It becomes, usually, very personalized, very closely identified with the player or group of players...

Bryars: One of the main reasons I am against improvisation now is that in any improvising position the person creating the music is identified with the music. The two things are seen to be synonymous. The creator is there making the music and is identified with the music and the music with the person. It’s like standing a painter next to his picture so that every time you see the painting you see the painter as well and you can’t see it without him. [This is largely why I prefer to make listening environments — so the work can be experienced without me (or anyone else) standing between it and the audience.] And because of that the music, in improvisation, doesn’t stand alone. It’s corporeal. My position, through the study of Zen and Cage, is to stand apart from one’s creation. Distancing yourself from what you are doing. [I'm not sure there is anything in Cage or Zen that is against corporeality, per se. If anything, there is a heightened attention to being present in the reality of the moment. He may be talking about not identifying too much with the work or clinging to it as an expression of self, but that seems like a slightly different thing.] Now that becomes impossible in improvisation. If I write a piece I don’t even have to be there when it is played. They are conceptions. I’m more interested in conception than reality. Because I can conceive of things that don’t have any tangible reality. But if I’m playing them, if I’m there at the same time, then that’s real. It’s not a conception. [But Gavin, as soon as someone else plays your conception, it becomes a tangible reality. You may not have to be present, but someone else does.]

Bailey: A lot of improvisers find improvising worthwhile, I think, because of the possibilities. Things that can happen but perhaps rarely do. One of those things is that you are “taken out of yourself”. Something happens which so disorients you that, for a time, which might only last a second or two, your reactions and responses are not what they normally would be. You can do something you didn’t realize you were capable of. Or you don’t appear to be fully responsible for what you are doing... Aren’t these things which it is impossible to identify with? Wouldn’t this be an example of improvisation producing something not totally determined by the players? [And isn't this what most good improvisers aspire to? To "disappear" and become a transparent conduit for the music?]

Bryars: But in the act of the music being made there is no discrimination between the music made and the people making it. The music doesn’t exist elsewhere as some general concept. [Exactly. But that is not necessarily a problem. In fact, that's about as "Zen" as it gets – no separation. Just ask Dogen what he thought about concepts.]

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


The wonderful David Toop writes (of an amplified harp concert in London by Rhodri Davies):

All musical instruments come with baggage. In fact they are baggage – objects of surrealist furniture that speak. Smash them, burn them, build them in funny shapes or digital simulacra and yet they grin back: “still here”... the instrument is the ventriloquist doll that has the last word. Whatever you do to me tonight, I am the harp of your childhood and all childhoods, it says. Now do your worst.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


September 5 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of the composer John Cage, and August 12 was the 20th anniversary of his death. So I, along with many others around the world who consider Cage a mentor, have naturally had him in mind quite a bit this year.

There have been many concerts and conferences celebrating his centenary, and it's been a great time to remember how important he was for so many of us. Along with revisiting his own music and writings, I’ve been reading a bunch of other recent Cage-related books: Kyle Gann’s No Such Thing as Silence, about Cage’s famous “silent” piece 4’33”; Kenneth Silverman’s massive (and slightly trashy) biography of Cage, Begin Again; Carolyn Brown’s Chance & Circumstance, a hefty memoir of her twenty years dancing with Merce Cunningham (Cage’s creative and life partner); and Kay Larson’s Where the Heart Beats, about Cage’s often misunderstood relationship to Zen Buddhism.

All of these had their revelations and shortcomings, but I keep coming back to this one quote from a 1968 interview with Cage by Richard Kostelanetz in The Theater of Mixed Means:

Why do you waste your time and mine by trying to get value judgments? Don’t you see that when you get a value judgment, that’s all you have? They are destructive to our proper business, which is curiosity and awareness… We waste time by focusing upon these questions of value and criticism and so forth and by making negative statements. We must exercise our time positively. When I make these criticisms of other people, I’m not doing my own work; also, the people and their work may be changing.

It has been pointed out to me how far short of this position Cage himself fell, that we all constantly make judgments and this is simply part of life, it’s what humans do. True enough, Cage was only human and contradiction is inevitable. Cage tried to minimize or sublimate his personal taste by using chance operations and indeterminacy, in order to achieve musical results that were (he hoped) independent of his own tastes, and to create conditions in which resulting sonic phenomena could emerge that would be unknown to him. Yes, his decision to do so was itself a choice and so an expression of his taste – a paradox. But I still find his intention and effort exemplary, and this statement is for me one of the most direct embodiments of the buddhist values he brought to his work. I also believe his effort in this regard is one of the most radical yet overlooked aspects of his work. There are few things most artists cling to more than their own taste and opinions, and to abandon that is about as iconoclastic as you can get. Off hand I can think of few (ie, zero) other artists who have held such renunciation at the center of their practice.

In the original context of the quote, Cage is scolding Kostelanetz for getting him to make critical comments about the work of other artists. And in light of the buddhist concept of “right speech” Cage is correct to resist; there is really nothing to be gained by trashing the efforts of others beyond shaming them as a way of shoring up our own ego in order to compensate for our own insecurities. Our liking or disliking anything does not change the thing itself, or account for the fact that others may respond to it quite differently. Things simply are whatever they are, and our response is a matter of personal choice, not fact. In this way our opinions are completely empty. But this constant judging becomes so tiresome, and ultimately perpetuates suffering for all concerned.

However, I believe Cage also attempted to apply this same principle to his own work, and that is what I find so inspiring and challenging. Minimizing value judgments about external things in daily life is hard enough, but it is especially difficult to achieve in one’s (my) own creative endeavors. We are so close to our own work, and have so much of our selves wrapped up in it. And even if we are immune to the opinions of others, we are constantly exerting our own opinions and judgments in the process of creation: “I don’t like how this is going. This is better.” To some extent this is a necessary form of self-discipline, holding ourselves to higher standards, not letting ourselves slide too easily. In a positive sense, this can be distinguished as discernment. But it can also become pathological and get in the way of allowing other things to develop that are new and perhaps unfamiliar. When our opinions of our own work are based too strongly on our established preferences, we can become stuck in old patterns and habits and close our minds to new possibilities that are unfamiliar. And how often are these opinions subtly colored by our past experience of what others have deemed acceptable, and so tied in with our own anxiety about praise and blame? The underlying foundation of all of this would seem to be fear.

So this is what I am confronting now, as I encounter these found objects and try to use them in ways that I find aesthetically satisfying. But “satisfying” based on what? I find that my own judgments about what is “good” or not are as much an obstruction as anything, and yet it is so hard to let go of them. I know what I don’t want to do, but I have little clarity as to what I want to actually accomplish. There is no clear goal in sight, and what little of it I can grasp offers no assurance at all. What becomes apparent is the need to suspend judgment and simply allow myself to engage with these materials in a free and spontaneous way, and see what happens.

One of the classic examples of Cage’s inability to get beyond his own opinions and prejudices was his rejection of improvisation. He felt that most improvisation was too much based on the player’s memories and habits, and too concerned with self-expression. While I am much more sympathetic to improvisation, I’m inclined to agree with him that this is frequently a shortcoming. But here’s another quote (from Conversing with Cage, edited by Kostelanetz) in which he suggests some possible ways around these problems:

What I would like to find is an improvisation that is not descriptive of the performer, but is descriptive of what happens, and which is characterized by an absence of intention. It is at the point of spontaneity that the performer is most apt to have recourse to his memory. He is not apt to make a discovery spontaneously. I want to find ways of discovering something you don’t know at the time that you improvise—that is to say, the same time you’re doing something that’s not written down, or decided upon ahead of time. The first way is to play an instrument over which you have no control, or less control than usual. The next way is to divide empty time into rooms, you could say. In those rooms try to make clear the fact those rooms are different by putting different sounds in each room.

His first solution is somewhat implicit in my present situation: I only have so much control over nails and staples and styrofoam plates. But Cage was always a strict formalist at heart, no matter how "random" some of his music sounds, and his second solution was structural. He elaborates further:

One of the ways I’ve found I call “structural improvisation.” Given a period of time, I will divide it. Say we have eight minutes. We’ll divide it into sections of either one, two, three, or four minutes long, or three parts—four minutes, three minutes, one minute, in any order—or whatever. Then, if I have ten sounds, I can find out through the use of chance operations which of those ten sounds go in the first section, which go in the second section, and which go in the third. Then I improvise using the number of sounds that have been determined for the first section, the number of sounds for the second and the number of sounds for the third, and I will have an improvisation which is characterized by a change of sound at those different times, no matter what I play.

This is essentially how he scored the later “number pieces” of his that I’ve seen, such as the percussion quartet Four4. Cage hardly invented structured improvisation. There are of course many ways this idea has been approached, and I’ve used some in the past myself. But so far I’m finding it hard to apply any kind of structural restrictions to what I’m doing here. It could be that it is still too early in the process. And there is still a part of me that wants to find a way of improvising without any formal guidelines that is not objectionable. Which brings us right back to judgment. Sigh...

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Today I gave a workshop for the Contemporary Music Program at the Santa Fe University of Art & Design (the SFAI is located on their campus, hence the reciprocal relationship). Only two students and one faculty showed up, so it was "intimate." But that was fine. After we introduced ourselves to each other, we had a brief discussion about Acoustic Ecology and then went on a silent listening walk around the campus. As it was a weekend there were very few people, and we were able to hear many subtle sounds that might otherwise have been less apparent: the gentle ping of a flag pole's rope in the wind, the exact moment when a fountain entered earshot, the skitter of dry leaves across pavement. We then each went off on our own to sit in one place and listen for 15 minutes, and to write down what was heard.

While the first half was about listening, the second half was about making sound. I asked them to each bring ten objects that make sound but are not intended to do so (no musical instruments, toys, etc.). We had a lovely orchestra of stuff, ranging from a pile of nails to a bucket to an umbrella to a box of pasta (I should have taken a photo). We did four improvisations: #1 was a free for all with the suggestion to play with no regard for what others were doing and with no intention of making "music"; #2 was with the suggestion to play less and listen to each other more; #3 was to go around in a circle and each play one sound at a time; #4 used a deck of cards to determine how many times a sound was repeated and how loudly to play. Here is #2.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


I've long admired Jeph Jerman's work, both solo and with Animist Orchestra. We once shared a concert in Seattle in 1999, and I was deeply impressed and thoroughly humbled. We've been friends ever since and manage to cross paths occasionally. He's been an inspiration to me over the years, and especially now. Feels like I'm trying to find my own way to a similar approach, though without Jeph's background as a percussionist and without privileging "natural" objects (though he also seems to do that less these days).

The idea called "music" is not separate from sound in general, yet we have made it so by devising rules by which music can be ascertained or known. Music is in the listening, and this is what I'm about. All sound is the same, namely a vibration, and our minds have separated one set of vibrations from the general overall vibration and labeled it. "Music" is therefore a judgement. How many times have I heard someone say, after an evening of playing together, "Everything sounds musical now"? This is the effect of listening without judgement. The ultimate outcome of listening without judgement is the realization that all things are one, that no thing is separate from any other, except by the machinations of our own minds.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


It was recently suggested by someone who doesn't know me very well that I should have more of an Eastern influence in my work, that it is perhaps overly European. I imagine this observation was based on the use of Latin in three of my recent pieces. Although I don't make a big deal out of it, the truth is that most of what I've done in the past thirteen years has been informed to some extent by buddhist practice. For example: this, this, this, this, this, this, and this. And I consider what I'm doing during this residency to be an especially tough koan — to suspend judgement, to approach each object in a state of open curiosity and not knowing, to look/listen beyond my own opinions or assumptions to its essential nature, to let go of what I think I know about music, my taste, and what I like to believe I'm "good at." Doesn't that sound fun?

Akio Suzuki plays rocks under a railroad bridge...

...and a whiskey bottle wrapped in a sock.

There's also this great, beautiful thing. (thanks to Lê Quan Ninh for finding it)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Findings #3

A 10' piece of rebar and steel conduit, and a cut piece of 8" PVC pipe.

The Very Rich Hours

The Very Rich Hours is now installed as a four-channel sound piece, outside in the inner courtyard at SFAI (with crunchy leaves). It's open to the public weekdays from 9 AM - 5 PM through October 26.

 Mary Lance, Rio Grande Bosque, Corrales, NM

I asked ten friends to visit a place in New Mexico with which they felt a deep personal connection, and to record their real time observations of those places. Their edited speaking voices are mixed with field recordings I made around New Mexico over the fifteen years that I lived here, and voices singing the Latin names of New Mexico's endangered species. You can listen to the whole piece here.

 Lisa Gill, Ojitos Wilderness, NM

The piece was originally made in 2009 as an eight-channel installation for the Old San Ysidro Church in Corrales, as part of a massive multi-venue project called Land/Art.

Installation in Old San Ysidro Church, Corrales, NM (2009)

Last night I gave a talk called Making a Place to Listen, a sort of overview of my sound installation work since the 1990s. It was loosely based on an essay that was published in the fourth volume of Arcana, John Zorn's series of anthologies of writings by musicians. You can download the original essay here.

You can also listen to a radio interview I did last week with my old friend Mary-Charlotte Domandi for KSFR's Santa Fe Radio Cafe that was broadcast yesterday.

It's interesting to be back in New Mexico, as it played such a major role in my development as an artist. When I moved to Santa Fe from NYC in 1988, it felt like all of the improvised music I had been playing for the past several years suddenly made no sense outside of the context of Downtown Manhattan. I really had to leave everything behind and start from scratch, which was exactly the right thing for me to do. The local musical traditions and the land itself had a huge influence on me, and I eventually began making work that was specifically focused on evoking or creating a sense of place. Now I'm back in Santa Fe starting from scratch again, finding new ways to engage with the sound of this place through improvising with objects I find here. Full circle.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Findings #2

Late-night epiphany: Some kind soul left a paper cup full of used staples in a cabinet of the studio. I let the staples slip through my fingers like water onto the concrete floor and listened. I could do this for a very long time. And in fact, I did. Some editing to remove unwanted noises and lots of EQ to minimize the heating system. This is how I imagine snow crystals might sound when they land.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Glass World

Annea Lockwood made this album in 1970, based on a series of concerts she'd done using only glass objects. It's been a major reference point for me for more years than I can remember. And I actually produced the first CD reissue of it. These days I'm thinking about it a lot – again. More samples here.

My intention was to present each sound as if it were a piece of music in itself. For me every sound has its own minute form – is composed of small flashing rhythms, shifting tones, has momentum, lives out its own structure, and since we are used to hearing sounds together, either juxtaposed, blended or compared, one sound alone seems simple – but so are the round scuffed stones lying about everywhere, until you crack one apart and all its intricate beauty takes you by surprise.

"With The Glass Concerts (1967-73), I began trying to eliminate what I feel are screens between the sound and the person receiving it, i.e. composition, by means of which sound is manipulated through a structure. The structure reflects the mind of the composer, inevitably, so that you receive the sound indirectly, channeled, super-structured. Sounds have their own innate and complex structures and energies. I don't see them as raw material.

...The focus of the work being on the spectral structure of each sound, only one sound source was heard at a time. For me this was a shift from creating scores to observing sounds closely, as if they were autonomous beings with their own life, their own behavior. True, I initiated the resonance in the glass by touching it, but what followed was often unpredictable. I would move the glass until it started to sound, not pre-determining which sounds to make but letting them happen, until I came to feel that the glass played me, rather than I it. The Glass Concerts were an intensive ear training course for me, an extended lesson taught me by sound itself, and they turned my music in a radically different direction, just as I'd intended."

Friday, October 5, 2012

Findings #1

While cleaning the studio the other day I came across various bits of detritus from previous tenants. These seemed like a good place to start today. All of these recordings were made spontaneously with as little thought as possible, no rehearsal. I dropped a nail on the floor, liked the sound, started recording. The reverb is natural, from the room itself. Some minor editing to remove slamming doors etc., otherwise heard as they happened: large nails; various nails + picture hangers; large & small nails; push pins on styrofoam plate; plate solo; 2 plastic caps + 2 push pins.

Music by Alison

Alison Knowles gives a street concert of various pieces of fabric blown in the wind as Ben Vautier brings in the audience, NYC ca. 1963 (?) See/hear also her Frijoles Canyon CD that I produced (1992).

Thursday, October 4, 2012


We all have issues. These are some of mine. Welcome to my world.

1. Improvisation
I long ago gave up on the conceit of totally “free" improvisation in my own work. It's so easy to fall into habits and a bag of tricks that are then recombined in each performance. This undercuts the professed goal of spontaneity and "freedom" from convention. There are few genuine surprises and little freedom, just new conventions that soon become as predictable as any others. Yet improvisation remains important to me. I still use it to generate recorded material that gets shaped into studio compositions, and I'm not about to abandon it in favor of thoroughly composed music. In the past I’ve made scores for others to play that were simple sets of guidelines for improvising within certain parameters. And that's basically how I work with people in the studio now, but more verbally. So it may be worthwhile to try a similar directed approach in terms of my own live playing; a minimal structure that makes a piece “a piece” and encourages focus and intention rather than random noodling, but open enough to allow for the unexpected to occur.

2. Instruments
While I respect virtuosity in others, I know that I'm just not wired for great instrumental technique. The paradox of familiarity with any instrument is that increasing competence leads to repetition and habit (see #1). For this reason I’m more inclined to avoid musical instruments in favor of random objects found in daily life. Not necessarily “natural” ones, but anything that makes a sound. The more banal and unlikely the object, the better. I’m aware this is nothing terribly new. Historical precedents abound. But I'm interested in the possibility of each performance being a first encounter, an exploration of the possibilities of new and unknown materials. And I realize that a certain amount of repetition may still occur and habits may form. But the thought of flinging myself into the void of unknowing is kind of thrilling. And completely terrifying. The opportunity for “failure” is huge. But what does it mean to fail in this context? What is there to lose, beyond the fear of failure?  

3. Mobility
Sound installations tend to be complicated. They often require multiple trips to scout out the space, much shipping of gear, and time (days) setting up, all of which makes them expensive and thus difficult to do elsewhere. And opportunities to do them where I live are limited. Part of my motivation for reconsidering live performance is the possibility of doing things out of town more often and more easily. (I dislike touring, but that's another story.) Being encumbered with a large array of gear would be at odds with that goal, and I have no desire to become a percussionist. I’ve considered the idea of a “travel kit” — a collection of small items that can be carried onto an airplane, perhaps fitting in a briefcase (thinking of Stuart Sherman or Jeph Jerman). For each new performance, something would be removed from the kit and something else added. (Keith Rowe does something like this with his gear.) There could even be different kits for different occasions. But in order to really undermine familiarity (see #2), why keep a kit or carry anything at all? Why not just find totally new things at the location of each performance and leave them there when I'm done? To become, as Robert Irwin calls himself, "an artist in response"? Scary!

4. Technology
Honestly, I’ve never been very interested in it. And the more ubiquitous it becomes, the less appealing it is to me. Yes, I use electronics for recording, editing, and mixing audio, and for communication. But I’d prefer to limit it to that. I have a theory that technology is charismatic; it has a habit of asserting its personality and taking over. Certain machines or programs do certain things, and it's hard to use them without it sounding like that particular thing. Looping devices are the most obvious case in point; it's nearly impossible to use them in ways that aren't generic, and it's so easy to let loops go on for too long. I'd rather intentionally build (irregular) repetition into the performance manually, rather than electronically. I also don’t want to be at the mercy of equipment failure, crappy sound systems, or the need for electricity to be able to do whatever it is I'm doing. So no loopers or laptops! I recently read a sobering article in the New York Times that says all of the data centers around the world — the “cloud” of servers where we stash all of our digital junk information — consume about the equivalent of the output of thirty nuclear power plants. Not to mention the toxic waste, exploitative labor practices, and general stress on the planet that are inseparable from the production of electronic gadgets. I know it sounds crazy, but I’d like to contribute as little to all of that as possible, no matter how insignificant my dent in it may be.

5. Performance
Some people thrive on the stage. I never have. It’s like this: I am performing. You are watching me. This makes me incredibly uncomfortable. I feel obliged to entertain you and tend to become self-conscious (and not in a good way), which may lead to awkward attempts at theatricality to compensate. The fact that you may have paid money and given up your time to watch me only complicates matters. It is nearly impossible for me to forget about you and lose myself in what I am doing. How does anyone tolerate this situation? And yet: here we are, living, breathing bodies together in one place, sharing this intimate experience, this moment that will never happen again, ripe with the possibility for connection. This is, in a way, sacred. How to create a situation that nurtures that? How to perform for you in a way that honors this relationship and is not hindered by the specter of judgement and failure? I’d like to find a way to simply be present in these moments, not indulging in phony performative theatrics but offering sounds in a very simple, matter of fact way that is engaging to you without whoring myself to gain your approval. And how will you approach this situation as a listener/observer?

To be continued, I'm sure...

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Void

I’ve been taking a break from creative work for the past five months. For a long time I'd been busy doing one project after another with no time between them to recharge or pursue new ideas. It felt like each new piece was related to something that had come before. Nothing wrong with developing a body of work over time, but I’m also wary of getting stuck with what is familiar and too easy, and would like to move into more unknown territory. So after organizing a huge performance of Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic in April, I decided to lay low until beginning this residency. I also resolved to bring with me as little equipment and as few preconceived plans as possible, forcing myself to respond only to whatever can be found here. Of course, a few ideas did emerge, the most persistent being a move toward some form of live performance. This is actually something I'd been discussing with my friend Steve Roden for quite a while, and our recent duo CD felt like a small step in that direction.

I have never enjoyed being on stage, and after many years of reluctantly performing I “retired” from it in 2002. At that point I was improvising with an array of small instruments (accordion, bamboo flutes, ocarina, harmonica, percussion), amplified and electronically processed natural/found objects, field recordings, and singing. This had developed from a rejection of the “real” instruments I played previously (guitar, violin, saxophone), which felt too loaded with historical baggage and expectations that I knew I’d never meet. But eventually this too became a dead end, as I grew bored with my own limitations as an improviser. So I turned my full attention to field recording and site-specific sound installations. This was much more satisfying for an introvert; I could spend all the time I needed perfecting a piece without being scrutinized by the audience or feeling obliged to entertain them, and they could experience it for as long as they liked, directly, without my awkward presence in the way.

But as hugely gratifying as that work is to me, there are a few elements missing that feel increasingly important: the tactile pleasure of making sound with an actual physical object in my hands; the intimate singularity of the live event, an unrepeatable shared moment; the pleasure of making music or sound together with others in real time. None of these are really a part of my studio practice, and I find myself thinking about them more and more. But if I'm going to move back in the direction of live performance, there are some problems I'll need to solve, and that is part of what I hope to explore during this residency. More on that later.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Studio

Mary and friends left this morning and it was time for me to get down to business. I have been given a very nice, spacious, light-filled studio to work in, for which I am grateful.

Most of the studios here are in a large shared space with room dividers, but this is a separate room with doors that I can close — which is probably as good for the other artists as it is for me, since I don't want to disturb them with my noise.

It also has very high ceilings and is extremely reverberant, as is this entire building. It's visually quite handsome, but apparently no thought whatsoever was given to the acoustics; no matter where you are, you can hear every sound echoing down the hallways.

So today was about getting to know my work space, where I expect I'll be spending a lot of time in the coming weeks. After sweeping the floor, I began with just listening to the room tone for about ten minutes; there's a loud, low hum from the HVAC system that is beautiful, but constant. Then I did some whistling and quiet vocalizing to get acquainted with the big reverb, and played around with some steel conduit and a 2x4 that were in the space.

None of this is especially interesting, just my little ritual of getting familiar with the room. I also found various bits of junk lying around when I was cleaning up, and intend to make use of them later.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Atrium Revisited

In 2005 I was invited by my friend Steven Miller at the College of Santa Fe to make something for the Atrium Sound Space in their brand new music building. It was the second in my series of "empty room" pieces, collectively called Chamber Music, and the first to actually be exhibited anywhere. The College of Santa Fe closed a few years later, and the campus is now the Santa Fe University of Art & Design. The Art Institute is located on the campus, although it is a totally separate entity. So when I found out I was coming here, it seemed like a good idea to revive this piece. I re-installed it today and it will run (very quietly) for the entire month that I am here. Click on the arrow to hear an excerpt:

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Background Noise

It always takes me a few nights to get used to sleeping in a new place. This means waking up in the middle of the night and maybe getting back to sleep...or not. If not, it means thinking about stuff I need to do, obsessing over my upcoming talk and workshop, pondering creative problems, or having horrible pop songs stuck in my head (thanks, Las Vegas airport). Or, it could mean listening intently to the drone of the HVAC fan on top of the building above my room, picking out all of the harmonics and listening for rhythmic variations. Considering that this thing is going to be my companion for the next month, I figured I may as well make friends with it now. Which of course means getting up at 4 AM to record it. This is what I hear every night as I drift off: in the bedroom, in the bathroom, and outside my window.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Settling In

There are still a bunch of artists here from the previous residency cycle. A few will be staying on but most leave on Monday, and then a new group will arrive. So for now I'm just hanging out and getting a feel for the place. Mary and a couple of friends are here visiting for a few days after their camping trip in Zion National Monument. It's fun to have them here and we are doing a lot of things Mary and I used to enjoy when we lived in New Mexico: celebrating our birthdays (two days apart) with soaking at Ten Thousand Waves and dinner at Mu Du Noodles; hiking in the Santa Fe National Forest (peak aspen color!), Tent Rocks, and Ghost Ranch; visiting my favorite gallery and the wonderful Allá Books; going to the Santuario de Chimayó (which has undergone some unfortunate "renovation"); and hearing my old friend and musical partner Nacha Mendez play around town. It's nice to have this time with Mary and to get reacquainted with the area, and I look forward to catching up with my many friends who still live here in the coming month.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


My first involvement with Santa Fe Art Institute was in July 2004. I had recently moved to Seattle after living in New Mexico for fifteen years, and was asked to participate in a group exhibition at SFAI called Transmit+Transform, for which I made two sound installations: Mountains Hidden in Mountains was presented inside the faux bell tower at the front of the building and Window Seat was located in a closet in the administrative offices that had a large window looking out on the main entrance to the building.

This year I was invited to return to SFAI as a Visiting Artist. Aside from being scheduled to give a talk and a weekend workshop, I have an entire month to focus on creative work with no other obligations — a profound luxury! In the hopes of moving my sound work in a new, as yet unknown direction, I have brought with me no instruments and no sound equipment, aside from some basic portable recording gear and a laptop. My intention is to use only materials and gear that I find here. Beyond that, I have no idea what will happen. So I guess we'll all find out together.