Fillip — Online

Sound, Silence, and Process
Guillermo Galindo and Raven Chacon

The following is a transcript of a conversation between Guillermo Galindo and Raven Chacon held on June 25, 2020, as a part of Fillip’s Means of Production workshop series.

Kate Woolf – Hi, everyone. My name is Kate Woolf, and I’m Fillip’s Editorial Supervisor. Fillip is primarily a publishing organisation that seeks to provide platforms for examining the relationships in art and society. We’re based in Vancouver, Canada on the unceded territory of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Nations. I’m really delighted to be here in this virtual space with Guillermo Galindo and Raven Chacon, who will be introducing each other a little bit later. But, by way of introduction for this event, Means of Production: Sound, Silence, and Process: reflecting on the current socio-political moment from California and New Mexico respectively, Guillermo Galindo and Raven Chacon will discuss sound and silence as a means and method for engaged artistic production. Recent projects by both artists – Chacon’s Manifest Destiny opera titled Sweet Land and Galindo’s monumental Border Cantos project produced in collaboration with photographer Richard Misrach, and the Echo Exodus project for documenta 14 – reveal ways in which sound can be used to explore memory and lived experience. In this conversation, Galindo and Chacon will unpack the concept of a score and performance, discussing ways sound can function as a weapon, instruments can become totemic sculptures, and silence offers a tool for (non)violent engagement. We’re presenting this discussion in conjunction with a live performance by Galindo, co-organized with Western Front, Vancouver, and originally scheduled for this June. Although this performance has been postponed due to COVID-19, we’re really looking forward to having that presentation for a Vancouver audience as soon as we can. With that, I will hand off to Guillermo and Raven for their introductions. Hello, and thank you both for joining us.

Raven Chacon – Thank you Kate, and Fillip, for hosting us. As you were saying, it was planned that Guillermo and I would meet up this summer and try to perform in Vancouver together. It’s something that he and I, as friends, have never actually done, but have wanted to do for a long time. And, sure enough, COVID put an end to that one. Guillermo and I both agree, we don’t really like streamed performances – they’re kind of awkward and they don’t sound good. They definitely don’t sound like being in the room with the sounds as they’re being made. So, the next best thing was just a chat; just a discussion. He and I, over the years, have found a lot of similarities in the way we think about music, and in our backgrounds, in coming to where we’ve ended up in this art-and-music world. So, we decided to begin by introducing each other – not reading bios or whatever we usually send people, but just what we know of each other’s work. I guess I’ll start. I learned about Guillermo’s work, maybe about five or six years ago, just reading different articles. The collective that I was part of, Postcommodity, was researching other sound artists in the Southwest, Latin America – all over the Americas. A lot of us were trying to figure out who was doing things that were also composition and installation. Also, my wife, Candice Hopkins, was doing the same research. One day [it] just lined up and we’re like, “Yeah, this guy is fantastic. We gotta meet this guy.” And, eventually, we were able to meet, years later, and Guillermo and Postcommodity were both invited to documenta 14. I think it was there that I finally got to see one of his performances, and definitely got to see his installations in the flesh. Like I was saying, his work spans performance, spans writing notes on paper – composition – spans improvisation and recording, and also the shared work that we do: making sound installations, where sound and music might still be the primary focus.

Guillermo Galindo – Well, thank you, Raven. I don’t know if I can be as eloquent as you are. I am going to try to introduce you. I have had a lot of admiration for Raven for a long time. As he mentioned, I was invited to documenta, and that’s when we really got to know each other’s work: his work with Postcommodity and his work as a composer. I recently heard his amazing opera at The Sutro Baths here in the Bay Area. I was very excited and very amazed by his work and how challenging it is. I got to know his score for Kronos Quartet – an amazing score, and very challenging, bringing new things into the composition realm. And we, little by little, have come to know each other and see that we have a lot in common, as Raven said. Raven studied composition with James Tenney, who is one of my favourite American composers, and I really think Raven is taking James Tenney’s ideas farther, or in another direction. It’s a very interesting mix of a lot of cultural things, and gives the composition methods of James Tenney a different meaning. I appreciate that a lot, as well as his solo performances. We’re really looking forward to performing together. We hung out a lot at documenta, we got to talk a lot. We went in a train from Kassel to Berlin and we were drinking beer and talking about ideas and about art, visual art, about composition, and it was very exciting. Every time we got together and talked, it got more and more exciting. We’re totally looking forward to performing in Vancouver – I mean, COVID completely got rid of our performance, we really wanted to do it, but what can I say? Raven – I love his ideas, his scores, the graphic application to music that I’m exploring as well. We feed from each other. I saw the video of Kronos rehearsing his piece – it was amazing. The techniques that he’s using are very unique. I don’t want to go too technical because Raven is kind of my buddy and technical stuff takes away a lot from our human-ness, our relationship as brothers.

Raven – Thank you, Guillermo. The way we designed this evening was to come up with some questions for each other that the other could answer, or pass on back to the person who’s asking it. I thought we were maybe trying to make some kind of music inside of these questions.

The first question that I wrote for Guillermo – they’re kind of chronological, and this is a question that I came up with because I [might] have the same background as Guillermo in this respect – I wanted him to describe his classical music education: what was encouraged, what was discouraged, what instruments were you learning or interested in learning, and was that helpful, or maybe not helpful, for what you do today?

Guillermo – Well, I must admit that classical and academic education does provide the composer with very useful tools to elaborate music instrumentation, but there are European/Western traditions which are a very strong tradition in music, too: over six to eight hundred years, and probably coming from the Greeks. I don’t know if you agree with this, but things like counterpoint, harmony, form, and orchestration are very useful tools. As well as other music concepts and traditions from the rest of the world. The problem is the concepts and traditions from the rest of the world are in the ethnic studies department, or ethnic music department, instead of being in the music department. I don’t know why there is that separation – music is music and the history of music should be a universal history of music. These are the discrepancies that I found in my education. But I found that late-twentieth-century music experimentation and improvisation was very useful, because many composers took a look outside of the European tradition to other traditions all over the world, and also to improvisation and experimentation with new timbres, with new instruments and techniques. I found my motivation to mix the Western techniques with other cultures’ techniques and see what I could get with my own nationality – my Mexican nationality – and what I learned of the Mexican tradition of music since, probably, three thousand years before Christ.

Raven – There were some Mexican composers who were working already with Indigenous influences, like Carlos Chávez, right?

Guillermo – Exactly. Silvestre Revueltas. And, of course, Julián Carrilo, who was one of the first microtonal composers, not only in Mexico, but in the world. He was before Harry Partch. And he imagined what the pre-Columbian cultures would sound like, because, as you know, nobody got to listen to the Indigenous music of Mexico, because the Europeans annihilated it completely. So, he thought of this idea of imagining how it would sound with microtonalism. Do you want to go to the next question?

Raven – Yeah, we could bounce to the next question.

Guillermo – That’s your question, too, that you did for me. You were asking me if there was a difference or an overlap in my chamber works, solo performances, and my installations.

Raven – Oh yeah, do you want me to ask you another question or do you want to ask me a question?

Guillermo – I like this one. It is interesting because early on I saw my solo performances and written music – my chamber music – and installation as independent from each other. I didn’t see them as connected, but actually, now I’ve done a lot of these, I find them to be the same thing. Now I see them as feeding each other. My chamber works now include controlled improvisation. My solo works are more notated than ever before. My installations and Cyber-Totemic sonic devices give me a lot of information about timbre and how to use traditional instruments in non-traditional ways. What about you? What do you think?

Raven – Well, I keep them all very separate, between writing chamber works, making performances, noise performances, the installations, and then recording projects – for some reason, they’re all very different. The chamber works are one thing and, more so these days, they end up becoming visual projects also. So you might make a score of these things. It’s funny, it’s just the way it happens, but really the intention was to have a document describing or relaying instructions for how to make music. That music, for me, tends to be very quiet; it tends to be very collaborative, in the sense that attention is paid to who is performing, or the dynamic interactions of the musicians of the ensemble. Whereas, solo performances, or even the collaborative performances that I might do – those always seem to be much more noisy. They’re always improvisations. The installations I was making 20 years ago, I didn’t really know how to present those. I was still learning how those kinds of art presentations might work for sound. It wasn’t until I started working with Postcommodity that I gained a lot more experience, while contributing to those works that that collective was making. But again, it was still very collaborative, much like how the chamber works might end up being collaborative between the musicians and myself. I’m not just writing a piece of music and putting it out there and saying, “Here, play this.” I like to work with the musicians, as I know you do, too. We learn a lot from rehearsing and trying different things out with classical musicians. And then, the recordings – recordings sometimes are artefacts of the live performance, and other times they’re just something on their own, completely independent. They don’t need to be explained like an artwork or even a chamber work might. They just exist, and they’re put out in the world.

Guillermo – Yeah, you’re right. I feel the gap between the music installation and the chamber works is a really enormous gap. It’s a completely different thing. The entity that exists by itself, or the music that is volatile that you play in a concert. You spend six months writing it, there’s, like, an hour-long concert, and it disappears. It’s not there until you play it again, or maybe you will never play it again; it just disappears.

Raven – Yeah, that’s something I always appreciated about working with music and composing music. I think, also – because I find myself in the art world like yourself – I’m starting to document these chamber works more and see if there might be a video project, perhaps, of documentation, or a video work that can be produced as an artefact of the performance that happened. The project that you referenced earlier that I did at Sutro Baths involved a lot more than just making music. It was a site-specific work. There was theatre, costuming, performance of oratory, and all of this was shot on video from different angles. So, as you say, if you weren’t there, you missed it. My hope is that there’s always an opportunity to let the work have a different life beyond the initial performance.

Guillermo – I’m remembering that I read that, in the Middle Ages, the scores were made as an artefact for the royalty to keep the music, because the music would go away. The score was not for the musicians to read, but it was a present from the musicians to the royalty to keep the music. So, you realize [in] that why music becomes visual art, or how a composition can become visual art, and be sold as visual art.

Raven – I like that. It’s a memory for the musicians who played.

Guillermo – And it’s a physical, permanent thing.

Raven – For this section I have another question. And it is: what are you still learning? Or, what are the next experiments that you’re working with?

Guillermo – I’m learning a lot about music and meaning. That’s my main thing right now. And also how to simplify, and to make the most from a single concept without going adrift; grabbing one concept and using it as much as possible to elaborate a composition from a single concept, instead of going adrift to other directions. It’s kind of a Zen Buddhist discipline of concentration. Also, I feel like navigating towards music that is both accessible and complex, because I see that academic music composers tend to over-intellectualize theory. It seems like the music is just made for their academic peers, and it just exists there. So, music: I see it as an instrument of communication, and it’s impossible to over-intellectualize it. That doesn’t happen with the visual arts, which is very interesting to me. There are more people that can understand Jackson Pollock than people that can understand Elliott Carter. Also, I started to see music as an array of transforming vibrations and resonances to the body and the soul and the heart; and the understanding of music through vibrations on the body, which is old knowledge both in Western and non-Western traditions.

Raven – I think I share that same interest right now, in ways to share meaning inside of the music. One of the things I like about your work Border Cantos was having these objects that were found on the US-Mexico border, and then bringing those to attention, or displaying them as surviving objects of the person who traversed the border. One might even be able to hear the dryness or the brittleness of that harsh environment, perhaps hearing the same thing that the person who used those objects would be hearing. So, without having any kind of linear narrative – which, of course, music is very linear – it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. One could still gather the story in different time, out of time. And it could repeat itself. This could be a journey that happened every week, to different people. Having this idea of shared experience – of multiple people having this experience – and trying to allow the listener to have a glimpse at what that is, was, for me, a really powerful way to put narrative into music.

I think the only other experiment for myself, the thing that I’m always learning, is orchestration and technique for instruments that I’m working with. You know, when you go study music in the university or college, you take years of orchestration – and even trying to play these instruments – even though we’re talking about Western tradition, European tradition, what I still respect out of that tradition is the instruments themselves. I don’t think a bass clarinet can get any better than how it already exists. And so, [I’m] just learning as much as I can about the infinite instruments that are out there in the world. I haven’t exhausted my interest in the European classical instruments, but surely there are instruments from all over the world that, if I can get access to them, I try to learn as much about them as possible, and, even better, hear a master of that instrument play, and learn from them what can be done. Part of that step is to say, “How do you notate this? How do you transcribe what this sound is? Or do I make up a new notation so that I can relay this information on to a performer?”

Guillermo – Yes, I agree with you. The perfection of the build of European instruments is just unique. They’re like the perfection of sound, the way that they are engineered: a bassoon, a piano, a flute, a harp – the chromatic harp – it’s a masterpiece of engineering and precision. And [there’s] the quest of how to make it more precise or more imprecise, how to fool with the minute details of the instrument, how to go in between the perfection of the instrument and the imperfection of the instrument to produce a very pure sound. As opposed to, when I do my Cyber-Totemic objects, like what I did with documenta – actually the material and the sound of the material demands to be treated in a certain way to produce sounds, otherwise it doesn’t want to produce sound. If you grab a can or a bottle, it’s going to do whatever the bottle wants to do; it’s not perfected to make pure sounds, which is the other exploration. They’re the two sides of exploration: to explore objects with the sounds they make, or to explore sound, or continuous waves, that are produced by pianos, by harps, by bassoons, by cellos that are made of the finest woods, the most precise strings; you do a really little variable with your finger and it changes a lot.

Okay, this is a question for you. When sound is produced, a musical instrument, or any other sonic device, becomes a bridge between the activator and the listener. What is your relationship with your sonic devices as you activate them?

Raven – If we’re talking about the sonic devices, the physical devices, the instruments: I think that the performances I do are always cumulative. In fact, I will maybe not rehearse so much the first time I use an instrument. I mean, I think I know what I’m doing, but I go up there and it’s going to be such an unwieldy device or instrument that sometimes I don’t know what’s going to happen. It used to be that the goal or the process would be that I would go on tour and go play this instrument forty times over two months. And by that time, I had a very close relationship to the instrument.

One example is this: I used to travel for a long time with a sheet of glass and a deer antler, and scraped the antler onto the glass. And, of course, there are pitches, because there are three prongs. I might even be able to make a triad out of that scrape. But, depending how it was amplified, the pressure applied to it – I didn’t know what it’s going to sound like all the time. Sometimes, if it’s not rosined enough, I don’t even get a tone out of it. I prefer these unwieldy instruments, and when I get tired of them, or maybe even if I can’t master them, then I move on to another one. It becomes a way to improvise with myself. The instruments are so unwieldy that I share in the spontaneity of the music with the audience or the listener. I don’t know if it’s a bridge, it’s almost like just another thing in the room, another kind of – I don’t want to say another person, but another kind of puzzle in the room that has to be dealt with, or has to be figured out. Sometimes the audience is watching me figure this thing out in real time. So, that’s a way for me to do the same performance, but it evolves. By the end of the fortieth performance, perhaps the audience is seeing my relationship with this unwieldy instrument and, over the years, there are different layers of them. There are five of these unwieldy instruments on the table, and I’m performing them all, and there are sequences of performing these things that I like, and then that becomes the composition, I guess; still improvisational every time, but a form starts to emerge out of out of doing that so many times.

Guillermo – How do you compare that to, for example, when you were with people like Kronos? These guys are masters in their instruments. Say you and I play our instruments for ten performances, twenty performances, thirty, fifty performances – but these guys are working in one instrument for years and years and years and perfecting every single gesture.

Raven – I’m not the type of composer that tries to stump a performer or musician, that tries to make it impossible to play. That’s not my goal with any of this. I know some composers try that. For me, a lot of times it is to achieve a sound that I just have not heard before. More so these days, it’s something more conceptual about the way the sound is made. So, it is really interesting to see masters like Kronos Quartet have their take on what these extended techniques are. No matter how detailed the extended technique is, every musician is going to play it much differently. For me, that’s exciting. For me, that’s being able to listen to all the nuances of the different performances of the score. My motivation is to always find new sounds, and, hopefully, the technique is not so strict that it can always be different and always be new to me.

Guillermo – Wonderful. How do you use time as an instrument to transmit meaning?

Raven – Hmm. We had these questions already earlier in the week – I’ve been thinking about this one all week, and I don’t know how to answer it. Time, I think, is something that’s going to, hopefully, be the most fluid part of the music to me. It’s the most variable. My hope is that if I do an improvisation, I don’t know exactly how long it’s going to be. For the past ten years, I’ve been writing that into my chamber works, because my hope is that – for instance, the Kronos piece – it could last anywhere from six minutes to eleven minutes, because there’s a series of repeats. The Quartet is intended to get lost inside of this composition. I like to keep time as that fluid parameter. However, there are other ways I like to transmit meaning, and that’s through the instruments themselves, especially percussion. I mean, anything can be percussion. Then it starts becoming theatre: to have a chopping of wood, for instance, which happens in one of my scores; or dog whistles; using that as the actual conveyor of concept and meaning. Also, the notation itself carries a lot of meaning in a lot of my scores, and that is only intended for the performers themselves, to be in on that narrative or that meaning. The audience isn’t going to know what’s on the sheet, or apply the symbol on the sheet to any kind of meaning. They’re going to hear only the artefacts of what the performers are doing and experiencing.

Guillermo – I’m curious, in the Kronos piece, how you designed time in order to be lost. I like the concept of being lost in a piece, and so lost, or so found, that you end up doing it thirty minutes, fifty minutes, sixty minutes, and getting lost in time. I like it as a non-linear concept of time; that you freeze time, in a way. Or, like a labyrinth in which, when you’re ready to get out of it, you’re just out of it. When you figure it out, you’re out of it. Or a journey to a place with a lot of obstacles to go through.

Raven – Yeah. So, for the audience: Guillermo and I both wrote pieces for the Kronos Quartet, and these scores are available online as open source materials for study and performance. Anybody can pull up these scores on the Kronos Quartet’s 50 For The Future project website.

(Raven Chacon, The Journey of the Horizontal People, 2016)

(Guillermo Galindo, Remote Control, 2016)

Raven – There are recordings and videos. To describe that piece real quick: what happens is that the Quartet gets to, let’s say, measure 43 – I don’t remember the exact measure number, but let’s say 43 – and that measure is different lengths for different performers. For Violin 1, it’s very short; the Violin 2, it’s longer; the Viola is even longer; and the Cello is even longer. And, on top of that, the Violin 1 might, say, repeat this measure two to seven times, and the Violin 2 can repeat those five to eleven times, and so forth. So, of course, they’re going to get lost; they’re going to shift out of time from each other. The instruction is that there must be a woman in the Quartet to realign them back on to measure 44. And [then] everybody continues as normal throughout this journey, as it’s titled. So, that’s how time can fluctuate, that’s how the musicians can get lost, that’s how it can sound new every time you hear this piece. There’s also a synching-up [again], which I think is important. I think that realignment is something that, sonically, of course, is going to be noticeable to the audience; is going to mark shifts, is going to mark chapters, if you will, within this piece. Also, I think, after that first disruption, it has you lock in to what you’re hearing in a different way. You’re going to come upon these misalignments as, perhaps, agency – or perhaps, individuality – of the performers, and see that branch apart, and go in its own direction, and then realign.

Guillermo – That’s wonderful. I love the concept, like a whirlpool, and everybody gets rescued out of the whirlpool one by one and finally everybody’s together and they’re ready to go somewhere else.
It feels like a metaphor. I’m seeing it now.

Raven – So that brings us to my question on this section: is narrative considered when composing? Not necessarily that you’re telling a story with a piece of music, but, might there be a narrative – information embedded – that is heard, or even not heard? I think I touched upon this earlier with the Border Cantos. You know, the work you did for documenta, the installations, your recent piece for Kronos Quartet, any of the stuff that you’ve done?

Guillermo – I think a lot of perception of time and relativity of time. It’s good that you mentioned this section of your [piece for Kronos] Quartet – as you see in many of the minimalist works, there’s this feeling of suspension of time by repetition that is very present in prayers all over the world. When you use a drone in North Indian music, it’s a sensitivity to time that is not linear. It seems like time gets suspended. I’m not talking about time that goes from one place to another; how long it takes for you to go from one place to another. I’m talking more about the perception of time in a way that it seems like you have frozen time because of repetition. I like the idea of, if you if you say one thing, and then you say another thing, and then you say the same thing again, you say, “Okay, I went from here to here, from here to here.” When you repeat something over and over and over, there’s going to be a time when you say, “When does this start and where is it going?” That perception of frozen time: I contrast it a lot with sequential thought, moments that completely change from one moment to the other. Or moments that repeat, and that you can identify. Or, is this moment coming again? Or moments that transform into something else gradually.

Raven – That’s interesting. I remember that you and I were having a discussion about the differences between our music. You were pointing out that there are times when my music is very vertical: it might just shift completely into something else; whereas yours has different cyclical layers happening over time. I thought that was a really beautiful way to look at this: the verticality – the events that happen at the same time – as a device. But, also when using these cycles and trying to look at a larger form, as you described the back and forth – over time you’ll start seeing that as a larger form.

Guillermo – Exactly.

Raven – Whether it gets altered by volume or timbre or spatialization.

Guillermo – Yes, I took as a reference for that – you know the gamelan works in [that move through] larger and [then] smaller and smaller and smaller cycles? I took that in the reference of the Aztec and Mayan calendars that I use a lot in my installation for Border Cantos, Sonic Borders: I use the cycles of Venus, that is 13 against 20, which when you multiply it is 260. But, if you do it in a very long time – I turn it into minutes, so it’s 260 minutes – when you start thinking about those kinds of proportions in time, your memory starts drifting around because you don’t remember what happened before. You know that there are cycles happening, but the cycles are so long that when you arrive to the next cycle you barely remember. My music, lately – and for a long time – has been related to that kind of perception of time: things moving in very long cycles. And not only moving, but transforming the parameters of volume through 13-20 cycles; the parameter of pitch, the parameter of density; getting less dense or more dense as it gets close to the end. I believe that it is a kind of meditative thing, as opposed to a narrative. I love narrative for if you’re writing a song – it’s great to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s what you get from the early Western cultural forms – like the sonata form, A-B-A or whatever – that you return to the beginning. That’s why I asked you, and I liked your concept. I am still thinking about your concept of the Kronos piece. I love that thing of getting lost in different tempos, accelerating or decelerating in different ways.

Raven – Oh, yeah. You brought up counterpoint earlier – we’re steering off the questions now, but I’m really interested in what you’re most talking about, here. One of the things we learn when we study Western music theory is counterpoint. That’s the study of one pitch in relation to another, to harmonize, and where it’s going to go next, and you have sometimes a contrary motion: one melody going up while another one goes down, and so forth. I think what I’ve been interested in is counterpoint in the other parameters: so accelerating or decelerating, the pitch going up into inaudible ranges while it also goes down into the stomach shaking tones, things like that. And also how the dynamics of the audience can be a counterpoint, how the people involved can be a counterpoint; even the class and racial makeup of the performers themselves is going to create some kind of friction or something to be counter-resisted, or compose some kind of counterpoint against that situation that you’ve been put into – having to present at a music academy [where] you don’t see other people like you in the audience – that can become a counterpoint. And just the fact of Guillermo and I being invited to documenta might be a counterpoint: we were treated very well there, but there are definitely different contexts – the more I’ve been working in the art world versus the music world, [I’ve been] seeing a way to position music inside of these situations.

Guillermo – Yes, I agree. I like that you’re seeing the meta-picture of things, the reactions of the audience as counterpoints. When you start going away from the concert hall, when you start going away from the music itself and start seeing everything as part of a holistic – an entire creature – when you start zooming out and finding all of these elements that could be agreeing or disagreeing, sometimes everything agrees and sometimes everything disagrees. And sometimes some things agree, and some things disagree. Or sometimes some things don’t know if they agree or disagree; they are in the middle, about to agree or about to disagree. And I take that as political and metaphorical thinking and social thinking. That’s when things start moving, I think, in composition: when you start taking these metaphors into meaning. What do you think?

Raven – Is that the next question, kind of?


Guillermo – I was thinking, also, about time. I don’t know if you’ve read Alejo Carpentier?

Raven – No.

Guillermo – He has entire books of 200 to 300 pages [in which] he’s describing a moment. So, you can describe a moment in one sentence or you can describe a moment in 2,000 pages.

Raven – Well, it’s kind of like you’re saying [about] the zooming out: to do that sonically or compositionally, using the same material perhaps, or, maybe in my case, it might be amplifying every time until a point where it can no longer be amplified. The zooming is really interesting. It gets us out of thinking linearly. It gets us thinking outside of time; that a composition can last in an instant or it can last forever, which, of course, was something that was considered a lot in the 20th century [in] having a piece like John Cage’s [last] as long as possible, or whatever.

Guillermo – To last a hundred years?

Raven – Yeah.

Guillermo – I have the last question for you. We’re living in unique times, as you know. And we all know music and sonic environments have the power to take your mind into past experiences, distant memories; music can also take you to spiritual and imaginary spaces. Do you think that music also has the power to anticipate the future? Or is music more of a mirror of the time we’re living?

Raven – I always try to remember that music can tell the story of contemporary culture. In that way it can tell us about our own attention spans. You learn a lot about the attention span of an era by listening to a composer from that era. You learn a lot about world view from a composer’s music. The more that we make these things socially collaborative and improvisational, and even try to even include non-musicians, I think that can be that mirror that you’re talking about, to describe where we are and what these relationships and dynamics are. But as far as telling the future, I think we can imagine new places. I don’t know how good it’s going to be at predicting this, but it can expand these worlds and think of all the potentials of where these things can go. For us, it’s bending the ears first. But then, perhaps there are other things that the music can do – or the performance of the music, even the theatre of the music, can conjure all of these things. I think surely bending the ears of the entire world is something that’s very political and can be quite revolutionary as you get people not listening to the same thing. I think also the distribution of music that we’ve seen in the past 20 years, and it becoming more accessible to anybody in the world, so long as they have an internet connection – I think that’s very powerful. It brings us back to our initial reason for getting together to talk in the first place. It was to talk about tools, and I don’t know how much we’d discussed that, but I think we’re seeing composers be able to exploit and take advantage of this kind of spread of the music, and this accessibility there is to at least being able to listen to it. Whether people decide to listen to it repeatedly is a whole other question. But there’s an ability to digest it. There’s rarely a barrier for that. To see it live, that’s another problem, but potentially one can listen to any music being made today.

Guillermo – I wanted to finish with this very last thing. You recently had this experience – I turned on my Instagram and you were filming these protests in New Mexico, where your friend was shot, because they were taking out of one of the Conquistador statues. It was very interesting to see. I was seeing you live, and you were getting all of this feed – “Hey Raven, be careful!” and you could see your phone shaking, and the shots, and the people falling, and everything. I don’t know if you heard of [Iannis] Xenakis’s piece Pithoprakta; he made it out of the shots that he heard when the Nazis invaded the main plaza of Athens. No?

Raven – Mm mm.

Guillermo – So, he had this memory of sounds of shooting, and just chaotic things. You were part of the Standing Rock protest and the sonic weapons used by the military. So how does that influence your music? Or does it have an impact in your music?

Raven – It does. A lot of times, what I try to do is carry a recording device with me in these situations, so when I went to Standing Rock, I had a small recording device in my pocket. I wasn’t sticking it in anybody’s face. I am not a documentary filmmaker or a journalist. There was plenty of that encroaching: capturing of songs and sound and imagery. I wasn’t doing that. I simply had a recording device in my pocket in case I was to capture something. And [it was] the same case last week, where I was wanting to capture this moment of the Conquistador statue falling. I didn’t know I was going to capture the shooting of my friend. I’m just trying to have a document of a time and see what kinds of things can then be magnified – looked at with a magnifying glass, amplified, examined, analyzed – and sometimes fidelity isn’t always going to be possible. I do what I can. In the case of Standing Rock, I was also there, not only to support the water protectors, but I was doing research for the Postcommodity piece we were doing for documenta. That was a piece that used LRADs, which are long range acoustic devices – sonic weapons – to beam music and sound into Aristotle’s Lyceum. I was figuring if we were going to be using this as an instrument in our installation, I should go and get one turned on me. I should experience what it’s like to have one beamed at me. I guess, fortunately, that didn’t ever happen while I was up there. It did happen after I left the water protector camp. And eventually Postcommodity acquired the two that we used in the installation, but I felt it was an obligation for me to at least be on the receiving end of that – of that terror. So, of course, an instrument like that was used as part of the concept; a metaphor of this militarization that’s happening in many countries, toward refugee and migrant communities. Its ambiguous usage is also that they can broadcast to ships and boats as a warning device, but also, of course, inflicting pain. I don’t know if I’m answering your question. I think it was just my relationship to these events or these weapons or weaponry. I’ve also used guns as instruments in an early piece called Report, where I notated notes for firearms to shoot the rhythms of the piece. As somebody who uses noise a lot, I find ways to work some of these things that are not necessarily thought of as instruments into making music.

Guillermo – That’s really good. I think we’re open for questions from the audience. Thank you very much. I love talking to you.

Raven – All the time. And I hope we can play soon.

Guillermo – We will. We will.

Kate – Thank you very much, both of you for that wonderful conversation. I do have a couple of audience questions for both of you. You both spoke at the beginning about your relationships with objects as instruments. How do you both engage with the voice as an instrument?

Guillermo – Do you want to answer that?

Raven – I can do that. [My] early works were using the voice as extended technique. I wrote a piece twenty years ago now for crying: transcribing crying and having another soprano or mezzo soprano read the notated crying back, or sing the notated crying back – so using crying as a filter to create more music. More recently, I’ve been writing more narrative kinds of chamber works, and those ended up as being oratory in the case of Tremble Staves, which was the piece I did at Sutro Baths. Most recently, [I wrote] an entire opera with composer Du Yun, working with two parallel librettos. Writing for actual words in the English language – it was quite a different task than I’m used to, especially in that style. I’ve written songs before; I’ve written lyrical music, but this was quite a different task, to write for opera singers in that tradition.

Guillermo – My relationship with voice is – I didn’t think I could sing, so for a long time I wrote operas and I wrote for singers. I wrote an opera with Anne Carson’s texts. I am good at writing songs, I always wrote songs. I wrote this piece for the Paul Dresher Ensemble with mezzo-soprano Amy X Neuburg that is a love song for underserved and disadvantaged people from the inner-city neighbourhoods of Mexico City. It’s based on photographs. After that, I said, “Why not?” I started exploring my voice. I do these things where I speak in tongues. I do these litanies spoken in tongues, and I like a lot of phonetics. I like to use phonetics and rhythms with my voice. And I discovered that actual music is very related to what you can do with your voice. Literally, when you’re writing music, you’re singing inside of yourself. I’ve been exploring that a lot myself and I’ve been trying to get less shy, so I’ve been using my voice a lot more. And, little by little, I’ve been incorporating it and I’ve been discovering new things about my own voice. But I’m still working on it. I like prayers. I like phonetics.

Kate (reading a question from the audience) – “A lot has been said about the silence of the pandemic. People say things like, ‘You can finally hear the birds singing.’ What are your thoughts about that? It seems that the current social rebellion is a poignant break to the silence.”

Guillermo – I think that silence is a heaven-made thing. It’s a pause, it’s a place to think, it’s a place to breathe. It’s a place that opens questions. It’s a place that doesn’t demand, that just lets things be, like a tabula rasa where anything can exist. Silence can be an opportunity to think. Silence can be an opportunity to talk and silence can be a question also, a universal question. I think that silence speaks very loudly sometimes. And this time, with the pandemic, silence is spoken really loudly.

Raven – I agree with Guillermo. We think of silence as an opportunity for pause, an opportunity to let things reveal themselves that were previously buried in amongst noise. I started thinking, especially around the time of this Standing Rock gathering, about all the usages of silence. Instead of sticking a microphone in people’s faces, I found myself choosing to just capture the moments of silence, whether that was moments of rest, moments where people were in contemplation, or even prayer; just acknowledging it – acknowledging that silence was being used to have that pause. And then I captured instances of silence as protest itself. It got me thinking also about this privilege of silence: how one person might have an opportunity to take that pause, whereas another is screaming at the top of their lungs trying to be heard, and yet that’s still unheard sometimes. And I don’t know what it is. I hate to bring up John Cage so much, that’s something I try not to do – but there is a very contradictory thing happening there, where he is saying that there’s actually no silence, you’re always going to hear something, even your own heartbeat. I think something that’s interesting is to think of these voids where things just do not exist. Perhaps somebody who never even gets to compose music is already creating silence. So for us to come up through a music school and be able to do this – maybe we can never be silent, Guillermo and I.

Kate (reading a question from the audience) – “Guillermo, do you hear your voice as different instruments inside your head when you’re writing your music? And if so, which ones?”

Guillermo – I never thought that I was using my voice when I was writing music. Through my process of composition, at the beginning I just based myself in harmonies or processes or timing. But lately, I see my voice as a very versatile instrument. What you can do with your voice – you can picture something in your mind and you guide your vocal cords and your mouth as a filter, as a synthesizer filter; you can produce sound and, also, if you hear voices – literally hear voices in your head – you can turn them into instruments. I’ve been thinking a lot about writing music, just recording my voice to see what I want to get, how close it is to what I have in my mind, and then transcribing it. I think it’s one of the most useful thoughts that I have had in my many years of composition: just to sing and record myself, or to record my ideas singing. I find it fabulous. It’s the instrument that we’re born with. We don’t have to make it. We already have a voice and we can create with it. It’s what we express our thoughts every day with. It’s not what we say, but how we say it. You can say one word in so many different ways that it can have a thousand million meanings. That’s what I like about the use of voice.

Kate – On the topic of the voice, another comment from the audience is that there’s only one word in Farsi for sound and voice: صدا (seda). “It doesn’t matter if the sound is coming from a person or an object. This seems relative to the previous question around the voice as instrument.”

Guillermo – Oh, wow. What is the deal with that? That’s Border Cantos for sure. I see the objects that belong to people as having the power of the people. When I make them into instruments, they sing. They sing back to you about their condition within the ecosystem or world of that particular person: the bottle that you drink water with, your shoes, your eyeglasses. You tell me, Raven, you go ahead. You know about that.

Raven – With that piece, and then in a philosophy that Guillermo and I both share – what’s really evident in the Border Cantos piece – those are man-made objects that are being the same kind of mediator between the land and humans. The humans were using them. But for some reason, a plastic water bottle or a shoe contains this power, and ends up speaking for both the land and the people at the same time. I think there are some threads there that Guillermo and I are both working with. I definitely noticed in the solo performances, and maybe some of the installations, that this kind of combination of objects – which have already led absurd lives – the boat that crashed, shipwrecked off the coast of Lesbos that Guillermo worked with; the LRADs, in our case; the antler against glass – two things that might never meet, or when they do, they shatter. [We] have these things speak on behalf of living things and the land where you might find them, or where they come from.

Kate (reading a question from the audience) – “Are there any popular instruments that either of you would rather not use in your music?”

Raven – I don’t use a piano at all. I try not to. Maybe if I was writing a song, I might put a piano in the recording or something. That was my first instrument, piano, and Guillermo, too.

Guillermo – Yeah, it was.

Raven – But I just don’t like the piano, it’s too rigid. Surely you can detune it, and make some other tunings out of it, but it’s just a bunch of buttons to me. I love electronic instruments also, but I don’t see a need to rent a giant piano and have it on stage and have a bunch of buttons be pushed. I don’t like the sound of it. Harpsichord’s okay. Organ is great. But the piano itself? I don’t know. The piano was made as a solution to try to replace the orchestra, or be a substitute for the orchestra. I just can’t wrap my head around why to use it, or how to use it.

Guillermo – You go into the ecosystem of instruments where the piano was billed as a major achievement of the industrial era. It’s very interesting. It’s an engineering achievement of the industrial era. It represents something big and monstrous. It’s an interesting way to see instruments and their origins, and what materials exist around where instruments are invented, and how they evolve, and what meaning they get over time. That’s another take on instruments.

Raven – I suppose I’m also sceptical, or I want to be careful about instruments that come from another culture. I’ve seen so many people just go and use – let’s even say appropriate – Asian instruments, African instruments, that I feel like I need to research those more before I use them. That’s why I don’t mind using the Western European classical instruments, because I don’t feel like I can appropriate those. But I, myself, would be very careful using other instruments from around the world.

Kate – Another question about instruments: “Can you both talk about your works with the drum, both as an object and an instrument? Raven, I’m thinking about your Still Life No. 4 and Guillermo, your Fluchtzieleuropahavarieschallkörper.”

Raven – The drum appears in a lot of my works. It’s definitely a timekeeper. I think I always use it to reference time; the accelerating of time. It’s always something that’s very fluid, also – if it moves, in the case of Still Life No. 1, if the listening station or the drum itself is positioned in a different place, it’s going to be producing a different speed of pulse. There’s also an early Postcommodity work, My Blood Is In The Water, where we have a deer dripping blood onto the head of a drum. As the days went on, the drum beat slowed down. But, for myself, it’s always used as a marker of time. And then again, one can’t help but to make an association between where that drum is from, or where it is, and the land that is situated in that spot. Every time I every time I use it, it is a reference to a place.

Guillermo – [Regarding] my piece [Fluchtzieleuropahavarieschallkörper], I was at documenta, and I hadn’t finished my work yet when I was in Greece. So, I asked documenta if I could go to Lesbos, to the place where immigrants arrived from Africa. I went in a Jeep by myself. I went through a lot of towns where they didn’t speak any English. I went with a map. I lost my track with a GPS, so I followed it up with a map, and I was with a lot of bottles of water. And I arrived to this place [at] the time when the European Union decided not to allow any more immigrants. So I arrived to this desolate place where there were supposed to be immigrants arriving, but all I saw was their belongings. It was silent and I could feel my breath. And there, from the top of the cliff, I saw the wreckage of two boats of immigrants. I thought to myself of Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog. Then I said, “I want to bring these boats all the way from Greece to Germany.” They look really small, but when we actually dealt with them, they were gigantic. I turned them into instruments. One of them I turned into a percussive instrument, which has the lifesaver in the top that I turned into a drum. Actually, I used the Lakota technique to tie the drum, but instead of elk skin, I used goat – that is what Africans use. You see the top of the drum, and it’s playable. But it was like the symbol, like the eye. I compare that with what Raven was saying: the eye of the boat is where the boat sees everything. And for the other boat, I put piano strings. They were also percussive like a drum – you could play over the strings – but they were such long strings in the other side of the boat. They were look like the part of the boat that looks like your ribs. The tension of the of the strings was so high that the thing was cracking. We had to reinforce it with iron in the back. But definitely, that the feeling of deep internal rhythm – I was very affected when I went to a sweat lodge that my friend Amber took me to, and when I heard the Native American hand drum. I could almost feel the earth speaking to me, and it was very touching. It was something that I’ve felt since I was a child: the way that low frequencies speak to you as rhythm. That is the language of the earthquakes, that is the language of the deep earth. It is something that is very unique. In my pieces, low frequencies have taken a very important role. I don’t talk exactly about drums, but low frequencies.

Raven – I agree. In my work, especially the live work, it’s the same thing – low frequencies that are a drone or a drum become the same exact sound and object. If applying, let’s say, a noise gate onto a low frequency drone, it is going to produce that same effect for me, or at least replicate it in a way that is going to maybe even have meaning: the drone can go on forever, but the drum has just an instant. Finding that space in between those two sounds is something I’m interested in right now.

Kate – I have two more questions. First, “are there any books or authors that inspire your storytelling and sounds?”

Raven – I’ve done a few works recently around the Navajo creation story. There are different translations of that story. And there’s also, of course, an oral tradition of that story that I’ve been working with. As far as content, that has made its way into some works. I’ve been obsessed with a book by Richard Rath that many people are familiar with, How Early America Sounded, which describes a lost sonic landscape – we’re talking about this silence before industrialization, and the worldview around that silence, and the sounds that existed in the early days of the country and even, of course, before contact times. Sounds that have a meaning today, but had a completely different meaning back then: things like church bells, thunder and lightning. This is something I think every sound artist or person interested in sound art should be reading.

Guillermo – Yes, I’m working now with Cristóbal Martínez, who is also a friend of Raven’s – both were [part of] Postcommodity – and we’re reading The Sixth Extinction. We’ve been very inspired by the world of the animals that are in extinction. The story of these animals: frogs that have been here for millions of years, and they’re just disappearing. What would the frogs say? How can we talk to the frogs? How do you apologize? How do you go back to the frogs and say, “Hey, we’re sorry. What are you feeling?” Putting yourself in that language, the language of the frogs, of the plants, of the animals that are disappearing – how do we do that with sound? How do we encounter that? That’s very inspiring for me at this moment.

Kate – This is perhaps related to what you were just talking about. The last question for tonight is, “Can you talk a bit more about the power of sound to capture historical events? And how does that compare to photo or video documentation?”

Raven – I’ll try to answer that one. There are a lot of different approaches to that, I think. In Sweetland – this being an opera about the history of the country and the Manifest Destiny encroaching that happened in the United States and all over the Americas – there, of course, is an opportunity to have something like the harpsichord or the piano (which I don’t want to use) represent people or Western civilization. In that particular project, and I suppose in a few other projects, I definitely use [instruments] as characters. I use the instruments to describe the people who brought them. There have been other times where field recordings attempt to tell the story – to tell the narrative – to give information about, again, a place or a time or the people who were involved in an event. I think I also am interested, these days, not in sound at all. I’m interested in music, I’m interested in making scores and I’m interested in new instruments, but I’m not particularly interested in how those sound. I’m more interested in the theatre of what happens when they’re performed. For instance – I think I referenced this earlier – a piece that uses chopping wood as an instrument. It doesn’t necessarily sound good. It’s not something I’d want to listen to all day. But it contains a lot of information in its sound. And also the act, the visual act of chopping a log or a piece of wood, has another layer of information inside of it. So, I’m interested in instruments, but not always the sound.

Guillermo – Myself, I’m obsessed with sound and meaning. And the object that produces the sound and the meaning of the sound, or the universe of meanings. Every meaning has a universal meaning connected to it. For example, you say “Christmas” and it’s a lot of things, including the Christmas tree presents. All of that – it is the universe of those meanings. If you choose a bottle of water, it could mean life or death for a person that is crossing the border. Or, it could be you’re just having a refreshment after a hot day, or it could relate to the water that is taken out of the aquifers by Nestlé. It could be the industrialization of water; the appropriation by corporations of our natural resources that should be available to all of us for free. It could be many things. So the sound that the bottle of water produces can be very abstract, or it could be very meaningful. If you record the sound of you cracking the bottle of water, maybe nobody’s going to know that it’s a bottle of water – the same as if you record the sound of the piano. If you show it to someone who lives in the middle of the Amazon, they don’t know that it’s a piano, because they’ve never heard a piano and they’ve never seen a piano. The meaning in sound is very volatile. It’s not concise. When you show somebody a photograph of a table, they know what a table looks like. But if you make the sound of a table to try to reproduce a table, you will never see a table.

Kate – Perhaps on that note, we can leave it there. Thank you so much.

Raven – Thank you.

Guillermo – Thank you. And thank you, Kate and Jeff for taking so much time to put this together, and Raven, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Raven – Yeah, I will see you soon hopefully.

Guillermo – Yeah, come over. We’re here. We’re not going anywhere.


Transcription: Robert Dayton

About the Authors

Guillermo Galindo is a Post-Mexican composer and artist currently based in San Francisco. Galindo’s artistic practice emerges at the crossroads of instrumental composition, live improvisation, and ritual, redefining the conventional limits between between art, politics, spirituality, and social awareness. His work has been shown at documenta 14, the CTM Festival (Berlin), and the High Line (NY, forthcoming) and has been featured on BBC Outlook, NHK World, Radio Télévision Suisse, NPR, and CBC, and in Art in America and the New York Times.

Raven Chacon is a composer, performer and installation artist currently based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Chacon’s work as solo, or as a member of Postcommodity, has been shown at the Kennedy Center, Whitney Biennial, and documenta 14, among many others. Chacon has taught hundreds of students to write string quartets as part of the Native American Composer Apprenticeship Project and is the recipient of the American Academy’s Berlin Prize for Music Composition.

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