Amy X Neuburg (2009)
By Beppe Colli
A few months ago - five years having already
passed since the release of her previous solo album, Residue - a decidedly
unique-sounding, original work called The Secret Language Of Subways gave
me the chance to write about the one-of-a-kind USA artist Amy X Neuburg.
Since her new album sounded culturally
quite "mysterious" to me, I immediately thought about doing an
interview, via e-mail. Fortunately, she kindly agreed. Since, as it's widely
known, "busy" is Amy X Neuburg's middle name, this took a little
time, but I believe readers will agree it was worth the wait.
But, as readers will notice, more surprises
lay in store for me.
was my intention to start our conversation discussing your most recent
CD, The Secret Language Of Subways, which was released just a few months
ago. You can imagine my surprise when I had a look at your website and
I read of this Premiere (it's a Premiere, right?) of a new work of yours
I knew nothing about. So I guess it's better we start discussing Fill
As Desired instead. Could you tell me something about it, about its theme/topic,
and the music?
as Desired is a cycle of 10 songs for eight female voices and live looping
electronics. It is based on recipes that were documented by women of the
Terezin concentration camp during World War ll and combined with my own
texts on fantasy as a means of survival. The music is influenced by eastern
European folk, German Lieder, cabaret and the avant-garde, and sung in
multi-layered English, German and Czech. The live looping turns the small
chorus into a big one, weaving together rhythms, harmonies and languages.
work was originally commissioned in 2006 for the Jewish Music Festival,
under the name Beliebig Füllen. I composed it for a wonderful vocal ensemble
called Solstice. We only performed it once, and since then I had been wanting
to add more songs, resurrect the work and bring it to other venues. So
in October 2009 we presented a new expanded version, and we have more shows
in this piece I achieved an interesting balance of poignancy and humor,
personal and historical. Food is by nature amusing, but the underlying
subject matter is horrific, and my quirky, autobiographical lyrics are
a bit of both. So the juxtapositions present much "food for thought." We've
had great response to this work, and I am very excited about it.
read that when performing the new work live you also act as a looping
electronic performer, layering the voices of the Solstice ensemble, which
of course doesn't really surprise me, given your previous efforts. Could
you talk about the technical side of this? It must be quite difficult
to pull it off live...
one of my easier setups of late, as there are no electronic sounds other
than the live looping and a little reverb, so I only use an abbreviated
version of my normal rig. I composed the piece so that the routing to the
looper is fairly simple: the chorus loops as a whole, or I loop as soloist,
or we all loop together. The biggest challenge is in balancing these combinations
to achieve a good input level to the looper, as the dynamic range varies
to The Secret Language Of Subways. I'd really like to know if you are
happy with the way it turned out. Also, if you are happy with the way
it was received by the press, and also with audience reaction - meaning:
sales - up to now.
CD sales have never been my gage of audience reaction. I rarely sell CDs
except at shows (where we sell reasonably well), but response to the performances
has been tremendous. We've had packed audiences and numerous standing ovations,
and some great performance opportunities at major venues. John Adams invited
us to perform in Los Angeles at a festival he curated; the San Francisco
Symphony invited us to play at their After-Hours concert. We've had very
positive press reviews as well. The work was three years in the making,
and the response to it has been one of the most affirming experiences of
the CD was challenging because I worked with a producer for the first time,
and the process of both of us editing and tweaking was inefficient and
expensive. But Bruce [Kaphan] was great with the strings, which I could
not have recorded by myself, and he really understood my music and helped
give me perspective. Also it's such a joy to have someone else at the controls
during recording, so I can just be a musician. I might have done a few
things differently if I had mixed the CD in my own studio, but I really
learned a lot from working with a producer.
really curious about the process that led you to choose three cellos
as your main instrumental vehicle for The Secret Language Of Subways.
always recalled a wonderful set of songs by William Sydeman for voice and
cello that I performed way back in college, and after years composing mainly
for electronics, I rediscovered the beautiful expressive qualities, wide
pitch range and voice-like tone of the cello in 2003 while staying at an
arts residency, where a variety of musicians were brought together to collaborate.
Soon after that I started my rather discombobulating bi-coastal experience
living in both New York and California, and one day on the subway a song
came to me (Closing Doors). I heard it in my head as a train-like rhythm
played by three cellos. It seemed to me that the combination of voice,
three cellos and electronics would be sonically and visually dramatic,
in keeping with my performance philosophy. That was the start of the song
cycle, and after that I spent many a subway ride composing in my head.
our previous interview we discussed the way you used your drum pads,
effects, and pedals, at the time. Since I see that the performance of
The Secret Language Of Subways features live sampling and electronic
processing, I'd really like if you could talk about this side of the
my early solo performance works I used live looping mainly on my voice
to record and build up a lush arrangement of rhythms, harmonies and melodies
without any pre-recorded tracks. I then began receiving commissions for
chamber ensembles, and of course had to try looping everybody in sight.
This was really interesting -- turning a small ensemble into a sort of
with an ensemble this effect should be used judiciously and for good purpose,
as the instrumental combination already covers the musical spectrum. And
a composition for ensemble opens up the possibility of through-composed
music that does not rely on patterns and repetition. So I try to balance
the electronics with the instruments, making sure the unique qualities
of the instruments are not overshadowed, and allowing for compositional
freedom. In The Secret Language of Subways I loop the cellos only in certain
sections where I want a dramatic buildup of sound. In several songs the
cellists accompany my electronic rhythms, and in others they provide the
full musical spectrum themselves.
into some new technology for the performance of Subways, using Mobius software
instead of my hardware Echoplex so that I could create multiple crossfading
loops with a stereo spread. The tech is a bit of a nightmare, involving
a digital mixer, two synths, two laptops, two routing interfaces, three
cello pickups, and my DrumKat. As in my solo show, I use the DrumKat as
my control surface for everything – sending commands to the looper
and the mixer, playing drums, bass or other synth sounds.
you please talk about the various musical styles you referred to in The
Secret Language Of Subways? I mean, you've always used a multi-stylistic
approach in your work, but this time it seems to me you worked with a
somewhat wider/partially different palette.
to be venturing more into traditional composition – music that is
notated and played by classically trained musicians. So this work has a
definite chamber feel to it, while maintaining all of the influences that
make my music mine: the cabaret, the techno-rock, the experimental aspects,
the wide range of singing styles from operatic to belting to close-miked
possible that my music is also getting a little more profound and serious,
as I experience more of life and develop more contemplative observations.
Recently I have been fascinated by the challenge of achieving beauty and
pure emotion, and NOT relying on irony or cleverness to communicate my
ideas. It's surprisingly difficult!
it's really difficult for me to catch the cultural traits/objects/items
you use as reference points in your work. I think I got your previous
album, Residue, a bit better than The Secret Language Of Subways. Tracks
like Be Careful, Body Parts, and Dada Exhibit are definitely inscrutable
to me (also the title of the album, quite mysterious...), with reality
planes that appear to be switching in the course of the narration. (I'm
not asking for a literal interpretation, of course, just for... a point
I can imagine it would be hard for a non-American to grasp what is going
on here – my music is VERY American in so many ways, from the cultural
references to the way I make fun of my own language to the way I use American
musical idioms. But this work in particular is more multi-layered than
most. I set out purposefully to juxtapose world events with personal events
in nearly every song, weaving together images into something provocative
but not entirely clear. (Of course, to me the songs make absolute, perfect
fact that is one of the many meanings of the title: the Secret Language
is the poetic language I use to express myself suggestively rather than
blatantly. It is also about the secrets themselves, the keeping and the
leaking of them. The songs mostly came to me while riding on the subway,
and the subway seems to have its own mysterious language: the mystery of
people's expressionless exteriors, the way it all works mechanically, the
underground sign system of symbols and bright colors, the criss-crossing
tunnels and seemingly meaningless insanity as people rush about... Ride
the New York subway some time and you will see exactly what I mean! To
all this I have added images of war (which weighs heavily on so many Americans),
9/11, natural disaster, and city life in general
– all metaphorical parallels to my personal experiences.
talk about money, will you? I saw that on your website there's a Donation
scheme you used to finance the premiere performance and the recording
of The Secret Language Of Subways. Could you please talk about this?
How does it work?
In this country most high-level creative work is funded by donations. Pretty
much my entire income comes from donations of one sort or another, whether
I apply for a grant myself or the presenting organization raises the money.
Ticket sales do not cover the costs of production, and CD sales (in the
small world of new music) often do not cover the cost of recording. Look
at the program of any large-scale new dance, theater, or music work and
you'll see a list of funders, from corporations to individual donors. It's
very common for artists to ask for donations – everyone understands
this is sometimes the only way we can afford to make our work, especially
in the current economic climate in which government and foundation support
has shrunk significantly.
compared to the era of the big record companies, nowadays it's definitely
easier for artists to finance, record, and release their works. And we
obviously have to consider the Net, too. But while it's easier for artists
to be "independent and free", the sheer volume of what is released
makes it almost impossible for one's existence to be noticed, and getting
reliable mass attention remains as expensive as ever. Is there any way
out of this?
not only the issue of getting noticed, but the issue of the sort of
"numbing" that results from such overwhelm, which I think is making
true quality less apparent; the Web may be "the great equalizer" but
do we really want all our music to be equal?
seems to me that no matter what the medium, what gets noticed is still
a combination of marketing and the unpredictable whims of the people. For
instance we now have the phenomenon of Web-based music and videos that
for one reason or another go viral. Now that anyone can record music, there
really ARE some gems out there that might never have been brought to fruition
in earlier days. So I have very mixed feelings.
my case, I have never been good at trying to get noticed, so I don't have
any helpful answers to this question. I simply continue to make music and
am encouraged by the small enthusiastic following that seems to appreciate
me solely for my artistry. I also do not rely on recorded music as the
main vehicle for getting myself out there. I love sculpting sound in the
studio, but most of my work is designed for live performance (and that
is what I am best known for), which by nature limits the audience but which
is so immediate and exciting because of the risk and physical demands involved,
and which brings people together to share an experience. In performance
the artist clearly either has talent or does not, connects emotionally
or does not. I like to think that the great performers will always shine
through the riff-raff.
you listened to any artists/works, recently, that you think possess special,
uncommon qualities that make them different?
saw the Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq. She absolutely blew my mind.
there any recent/future projects of yours you'd like to discuss, besides
Fill As Desired (which will come out as a CD, right?)?
several commissions coming up for 2010, including a violin and electronics
piece, a live performance score to a silent film, and some new works with
the cellists. And yes, I hope to record Fill as Desired soon.
then there are my fantasies: I want to take some time off from my crazy
schedule to revisit my roots as a sound artist and create pure audio experiences
NOT designed for live performance. I also want to try the experiment of
making a CD in a very short time, as a response to the laborious process
I usually go through.
I've gotten re-interested in analog gadgets and alternative controllers
-- I have a new toy called a Blippoo Box, created by my friend Rob Hordijk,
with a fun, user-friendly knob interface and a Theremin-like antenna, and
I'd like to explore other instruments that respond to gestures. I also
have some ideas for a piece of wearable art that is an interactive instrument
playable by others.
in opposition, I am particularly interested in composing works that explore
the power of large ensembles, especially choruses. In one direction I would
like to work with masses of people and outgrow the need for electronic
enhancement, and in the other direction I'd like to more intensely delve
into the unique sonic world that is only possible with electronics.
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