I first came across Lesley Flanigan’s work when someone sent me a video of her 2012 performance at UT Austin. Sitting on the floor she takes a microphone, sings a note into it, then slowly swings the microphone towards one of the speakers laid around her, sending a low, throbbing feedback through the system. The microphone slowly returns to her mouth, where she sings a little higher, then down again to the speaker, thickening the sounds. I watched the entire performance, having falling into an alert, steady rhythm of breathing, then proceeded to listen to nothing but Amplifications (2009) and Glaciers (2014) for three weeks straight. Her sonic loops gives you a sense of a constant return against an incessant progression; you’re suspended between long clear ringing and crackling dissonance, until her voice appears from somewhere murky in the middle. So many layers appear and mutate, so why does it feel so pure, to the point of moving me to tears? I had so many questions for her, and I’m fortunate to say she kindly gave us answers as honest and arresting as her art.
So to kick things off what have you been up to recently? How has 2015 been for you so far?
This past spring I went on tour in Europe with Tristan Perich and Stephane Garin + Celine Flamen of Ensemble 0. Tristan and I brought our then 10-month-old with us, our first tour with our new family member. In June, I finished an artist residency at Roulette in Brooklyn, where I worked on a new project of mine called “Voices”, for 4 vocalists and 4 loop pedals. It was an entirely new working process for me, and I’m really happy with how the first performance turned out. Now I just need to sit with it a bit, and figure our how to develop it further.
Much of your work is created with a circuit of amplifiers and speakers. It’s a cohesive system, something like a closed circuit. Do you consider this an introspective approach to your sound?
I’ve always been rather introspective in my approach to making sound and music. On a conceptual level, I really love using feedback as a sound source. There are many layers of ideas I find intriguing: the fact that feedback is inherently a closed and intimate system, that the relationship between speakers and microphones is fundamental to all electronic sound, that speakers are microphones and visa versa, and that feedback is an electronic sound that you can physically produce. In a sense, feedback is a very real reminder that at the core of all electronic sound is a physical process.
But what ultimately drove me to work with feedback is simply that I loved the sounds I was making with my feedback instruments. Their tones are incredibly rich, complex, imperfect, tangible and real. They are pure, unfiltered sound material. When I hear these sounds, I am overwhelming inspired to dive in and manipulate them. For me, it is a special process to collect their raw sounds with a microphone, and amplify them on a large scale. I love the moment when what was once a crusty little noise becomes a booming, warm bass swell of dense tonality. The sound itself never changed, but when amplified, its barely audible details are magnified, so we have the opportunity to hear it differently. By amplifying feedback tones, I’m trying to dig deeper and more introspectively into their sound. It is a very intimate experience.
I feel as though your sound-layers within this little environment bring out the transparency in your creative process — the audience can hold onto the gradual condensation of sounds. Is this intentional?
Transparency is built into my process by default. Working with feedback, what you see and hear is exactly what you get. I have limited control over the sound of my instruments, which means I have to embrace an amount of uncertainty in all my performances. My job is to figure out how work with the sounds that are happening in the moment. If I pre-sampled sounds, and played back music I previously perfected, I’d have a greater amount of control, but the effect of the performance would be different. Given the material I’m working with, I think it’s meaningful to share the building process with my audience, for them to see the motions and materials behind my shaping noise into sound, and sound into music.
It took a while before I was comfortable with this approach. In a few of my earliest performances with feedback, I used a laptop to sample sounds, and I’d add filters and effects to “perfect” the sounds. I also used pre-sampled material in order to perform prewritten songs. It’s not that this was necessarily bad, but I came to realize that all the effects I added were actually flattening the complexity of sound that originally inspired me. I was burying both the experience and the ideas behind my sound by processing it all through a computer. When I decided to remove the laptop from my performances, it became much more interesting for me to really learn how to play my feedback instrument using my hands and a microphone.
In the past, you’ve worked with Luke DuBois, Maria Chavez, Mv Carbon and more. However, I sense an intimate and personal approach to your sound. How does collaboration work for you generally? Do you have a system for working with others?
I don’t really have a system of collaboration, because I typically don’t like to collaborate. A collaboration for me really needs to somehow exist on an unspoken level. It starts with being inspired by the sounds another person creates, and finding that there is room for those sounds to be heard both with and without me.
Luke and I started performing together because we are great friends. In some ways I see our work less as an artistic collaboration and more as two friends having conversation… that happens to be made of sound, light, and music. It’s entirely intuitive. There is serendipity to my work with Maria and Carbon. We have never rehearsed. We show up at a show, set up all our equipment on a table, then sit down and begin. Somehow this works for us. Carbon is fearless. Her instrumentation is completely original and organic, always with a raw edge. Maria is diligent, thoughtful and decisive. She has the confidence to sit in silence rather than perform a sound that isn’t right. I feel that my way of working exists between the two, so it’s been natural and inspiring to perform with them.
I’ve read that you feel inspired by the physicality of sounds — is this part of the reason why you have not released records as frequently as you have toured? Do you feel like there is something ‘missed’ in the physical aspect of your work on a recording? Can this only be captured in the experience of an actual live performance?
Yes, I feel that a big part of what makes my music work is being present in the moment of its creation within a particular space with a particular audience. For example, it can take ten minutes or more to build up the sounds that make an incredible musical moment, and while this works live, it doesn’t always translate well into a recording. It is just not the same thing. I haven’t been very interested in releasing my live performances. I have some recordings where I am performing alone with my headphones on, but they are different… the context really changes the music.
My sound and music has developed a lot since my album Amplifications was released. I do think I should have more recordings out to accurately tell the story of my work, but it’s hard to get excited about releasing CDs, records, or digital recordings. There is a disconnection between the music I love to make and the methods by which we consume recordings. I have some ideas for how to bridge the divide, but most of my focus has been in developing performance. That focus is beginning to shift…
In regards to this ‘physicality’ element, I’m particularly fascinated by your linkage to sculpture and how it relates to sound. How has sculpture and music fused throughout your career? Do you feel as though there are different creative freedoms that can be afforded by each medium, or are they fundamentally aiming at the same target?
For me, the creative process for making music and sculpture are the same. The way I approach working with sound, wood, even the way I write text is all very similar. Since a sculptural process implies a hands-on shaping of material, I usually find that is the best way for me to describe my process. I work sculpturally with sound.
Traditional sculpture is a part of my artistic career. I majored in sculpture in school, and have always been drawn to working with my hands. I felt for a long time that my visual art and my music were separate creative paths. Some people suggested I combine the two, but it never felt right. I didn’t see a connection and I wasn’t going to force one. But when I started playing with circuit building, I was instantly fascinated with the physical manipulation of electricity, and in particular with the electronics of sound. Exploring the feedback circuits, then building them into wooden instruments, and performing these instruments with voice, and making music with all the sounds….this was a progression that felt very natural and connected to me. In my work right now, there is really no separation between music and sculpture.
I’m interested in your history with building instruments and machines. Can you tell us a little bit about what exactly you’re doing when you make something? What’s your goal? Where do budding musical engineers start?
I’m definitely not an engineer! But if you are interested in playing with sound circuits, I think a nice place to start is Nic Collins’ book: Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking. As for my history, I have always been attracted to found objects, tinkering, and the art of taking things apart and putting them back together. I love making my instruments because I love working with the found speaker as an object. There is something inherently inspiring to me to have old speakers with a personal history of their own… they come as individuals with imperfections, and real character that can not be reproduced. This is particularly interesting to me as an analogy for human voice.
I’m the type of person who gets inspired by materials and spaces that already exist. I think of noise as an invisible material that can be shaped into sound. The noise of feedback has been a particularly rich material for me to work with. And so much of what makes a sound exciting is the space in which it is produced. I find I’m most creative when I am building sound in beautiful, resonant spaces.
On your website, you say you work with “found” speakers; where/how do you find these speakers, what do you do to them?
Speakers are everywhere! People sometimes give me speakers. But the best is taking them out of the equipment they were built into. It’s a great feeling to take a speaker out of an old plastic casing and embed it into wood that I cut specifically to fit it. It’s like giving it a new and beautiful home.
I get the impression that you are more active in the ‘art-world’ than that of music. Is that correct? What keeps you inspired musically if so? What are you listening to these days?
I feel balanced between the two worlds. Whether my work is received more as art or more as music is mostly a matter of context. What people find interesting is often whatever is different from normal. So typically, presenting my work in a music venue tends to highlight the “art” side of my work, whereas presenting my work in an art venue tends to highlight the music side.
My inspirations for music are also contextual. Sometimes I find inspiration in music with overwhelming, pulsing bass, and other times, it’s the considered silence between sounds. Sometimes just thinking about the compositional choices an artist makes in their music is most inspiring. For example, the decision that a moment in music should be only 30 seconds long, or should last a full hour - that kind of attentiveness is fascinating.
While I was working on “Voices”, I couldn’t listen much to anything for months. I was so engaged with figuring our my sound, that I didn’t want to be led off course, distracted in any way. However, there were a few times that I really needed to listen to music, in order to clear my head and address some of the compositional problems I was having from a new perspective. I listened to music that expressed simplicity and unabashed beauty, including Arvo Pärt, Satie (Gymnopedies), David Lang (Child), and Nyoka Musango (performed by Lora Chiorah-Dye and Sukutai). This was the kind of music I needed to help open my ears while I was working on this particular piece. I also listened to frogs… I don’t know what kind of frogs are in the New York countryside, but they are amazing in the spring time as they sing huge, loud choruses of repetitive harmony and dissonance. Incredible sounds.
In a recent interview, you talk about voice being the only pure analog instrument. Can you expand a little on what you meant by this? Are there artists or pieces that particularly inspires you to work in the medium of voice?
I don’t have a particular inspiration for working with voice. For as long as I can remember, I have loved voice and have loved singing with my voice. I’ve never thought about it, I just do it. The immediacy and intuitiveness of singing makes it a very natural, creative tool for me. Voice is the freedom I have to walk into a space with no equipment at all and simply make sound, make music, and have it work and be inspiring. I don’t have to troubleshoot my singing. I don’t have to carry any equipment, or unravel any cables, find clean power, set up electronics, etc. For me, voice is an amazing, powerful tool I can enjoy creating with anywhere, anytime.