Houston Music

Exploring Field Recordings From the Bottom of the Ocean

Maybe Alfie was only too quick to call it when he said, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each, I do not think that they will sing to me” in T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I don’t always make enough time for world music, but these new recordings from the Challenger Deep site, at the bottom of the Mariana trench, are dumbfounding.

The technology invested in making a microphone able to withstand the corrosive insinuations and crushing pressures of deep water and then conveying it to and from the bottom of the ocean is incredible enough. When you realize that such a device, sunk to the greatest ocean depth, was picking up everything from earthquakes to whale calls to the surface noise created by the rudders of ships passing seven miles overhead, you might never speak again above a whisper. Is this a pure pleasure operation in science, or are we spying on the clams now? Either way, I find myself listening to the baleen whale calls over and over, half expecting an 808 kick.

It’s not just whale tapes and undersea vérité that chart in my world. I’m a casual fan of deep-space recordings and transmissions, as well as elephant painters, horse mathematicians, chimpanzee painters, and prodigies drafted from various early stages in human larval development. For one, abstraction doesn’t need defense from me or anyone else; it’s part of the workings of the part of the mind given to pattern recognition, predictive capabilities and various other intellectual strategies that remain vastly unmapped. Chance is just a word, beautiful in its simplicity, that will undoubtedly be ruined by inept phraseology once science catches up with the arts in this field of cognition.  

Scooping up the world by your elbows can be clumsy work. One’s elbows aren’t chopsticks, after all. In the interests of precision, I put some questions directly to Maria Chavez and Joshua Cordova, each of whom has a free and easy approach to the DJ booth, to art-in-music, to intuition, to improvisation and to keeping one's senses sharp.  In the hands of the dull and uninspired, the resurgence in vinyl production is just more gross, unadjusted volume in the Pacific trash spiral. But in the modern world, most of the same rules apply to playing records as to playing a drum or a guitar; some are meant for kicking, some are meant for burning, some you’ve just got to leave at home. The bigger trick is working out the amplification, and deciding where to eat after the engagement. Maria Chavez returns for a quick month of Texas. Joshua Cordova is throwing a party with NTH on his way out of town.

CAMH, March 17
Maria Chavez left Houston for Brooklyn many years ago, and she’ll be here March 17 to deliver a lecture and performance at the Contemporary Arts Museum, as part of its 20HZ series of lectures and performances to do with music. Ms. Chavez came to chance operations in sound and ear-hand-brain work after an early tenure as a house DJ. She’s been at the sound work for a long time, and her practice has kept her in a constant orbit between the satellites that beam art to music and music back to earth. Dumbed-down for brevity, her approach, dubbed abstract turntablism, involves dragging a needle over the shards of broken records; what happens aloud proceeds from the condition of the needle, her array of manual techniques and artistic intention (tempered alike in clubs, studios, books and galleries) deciding what stays and what goes, as well as, lastly perhaps, the nature of the source recordings themselves. She’s a summoner.

Her lecture, REVISITING THOSE WORDS: Failed Attempt as Material, promises to get into the highs and lows of her time at deck, probably including what it means to be a risk-taker, an innovator, an artist and a woman in the world, taking into account the realities of academicism, brutism, the limitations of different audiences, as well as sexism and racism. In advance of that, I asked her a few preliminary questions about the way she works and the way that she got to working that way.


Houston Press: First, the story goes, you were a house DJ way back and got into free sound and electro-acoustic improv and new techniques thereafter.  Could you briefly summarize your jump-off?

Maria Chavez: As a creative person, I feel that one is constantly confronting a wall when the pursuit they are interested in no longer inspires them. I love house, techno [and] a majority of electronic music, but at the time I felt that people weren't giving me the chance to stretch my interests or just wouldn't give me a chance, period. I'm really grateful that they didn't because that forced me to search elsewhere for inspiration. In this case, it was diving into the deep waters of the avant garde. I always say that the world of sound art/improvisation/free jazz/ experimental/noise et al. is a rabbit hole and you may never come back. Or maybe you will, but you won't be the same. Nothing will sound the same, and that can be scary!

It was for me. I didn't get the academia of it all, I didn't understand the purpose for John Cage's "4:33", I wasn't ready to experience Joe McPhee improvise on his saxophone with some of the best improvisers of the world, but I still pushed myself to try. And I'm so grateful that I did because it has completely transformed the direction of my life as an artist. The avant garde forced me to ask why. The dance world didn't want me to question anything. So here we are.

Maria Chavez at Vinal Edge Records, Houston, 25-Jul-2013 (pt1) from Phil Aphonic on Vimeo.

Which techniques are you currently working with?

OMG. I was gifted a double-headed needle from King Britt. He said that everyone in the DJ industry was given these needles in 2001 but he never knew what to do with it. Then he was cleaning out his closet and found the tin that the needle came in and immediately thought of me. I'm honored. It's a beast, this needle, and I will perform with it at the CAMH. Apparently there's only 250 in existence and I have number 50. DJ Jazzy Jeff has one too. Never thought I'd ever have anything in common with Jazzy Jeff!  I write love haikus for it now:

Oh hydra-needle

Odd placements on turntables

I break tenderly

About the broken records, how do you select the records for breakage and scratchage?

The records decide how they want to break; I can't decide that for them. I just decide when, which is hard to describe when that happens. Sometimes the records sneak up on me when I'm deep in a performance and I end up breaking the "wrong" one. They can be sneaky! Scratchage (totally using that word from now on!) is also based on time. Vinyl physically records time on its surface, so some records I have from years ago have a lovely "surface noise history," as I call it in my workshops. They tell a cryptic story of all the places they have been with me. Another language I am learning to translate…

Where do you personally source your practice? In sound? In art history? In music history?

A lot of inspiration comes from artists that deal with phenomenology. Robert Irwin is one of my biggest heroes. He has an acute way of understanding the position of the globe to the sun and how it emotionally relates to society. An admirable quality. Land artists, too — Robert Smithson (I have a technique named after him!!), Donald Judd, all of them. And of course, 'cause I'm a Houston girl at heart I love the painterly improvised language of Cy Twombly.

As for women (I know, I know), Queen Agnes Martin and her incredible focus, my friend Hannah Bertram, who creates large tapestry works made from only dust or pinholes, her work drives me wild. Mary Mattingly and her vessels that deal with how society will adapt to our dying world. Past, present, future, everything inspires me. I don't take their work and adapt it to my own practice, though. What I do take is their silent messages. That's the result I want my work to have when people experience it. To pass on a subtle, silent message that one has to translate for themselves.

Likewise, does reading or literature play any part in your sound practice?

I'm starting an audio engineering book club later this spring with a few organizations to force me to read more sound-related books. I was reading The Royal Commentaries of the Incas by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega because my mother and I walked the Inca trail last summer with my big brother. We climbed up a mountain and touched a glacier. Was insane. Then Mommy and I ran around Macchu Picchu like crazy Inca kids and played make-believe. That was the first time I played make-believe with my mom. Was special.

Is there any intentional violence in your thought when you're bringing a needle against/across a groove? I'm trying to be boorish, for real.

Ha! I love how boorish men can be about this subject. I can be violent when performing a "Dragging Dagger" technique, sure. It's one of the first techniques I teach in my workshops. But bringing a needle against the groove of a record can also be super-elegant. It's all about pressure, speed, rotation direction and timing. It's more than just pushing a needle back and forth. Once you get the hang of the technique, then it slowly becomes something more than just a destructive mode. To some it can become a dance, to others a noise-y action. It's up to each person to decide how they want to approach going against the grain.

I had to play a show in Belgium and everyone was TRASHED by the time my performance slot came on. People were harassing me as I was setting up, teasing me with questions of how good of a hip-hop DJ I was going to be with just one turntable: "How are you going to play that?" "You can't do that!" (I hear that all the time. It was Ceeplus in Houston that told me I couldn't perform this way when I first started. THANK YOU, CEEPLUS!!) So, as you can guess, I was pissed. It's hard enough being a girl on one turntable in huge festival venues. It's even harder to be brown. So I'm used to it. But this particular day, I was pissed; the drunk boys pushed me over the edge. So I gave them what they deserved, a loud, harsh, violent, crazy sampled yet overly simple set that only brutish boys would understand. They went crazy. In a good way. So when it's the right time to be violent, I am.

How important is an audience to you? Do you favor one kind of audience over another?

I accept whoever is there. Even if they are drunk and belligerent. Whenever people get in touch to apologize for missing a show, I always respond the same way: "The people that were there were meant to be there. When your time comes, then you will be there. The time may never come. Either way, it will always be okay."

Back to the present, I know you've been jet-setting quite a bit the past few years. What projects are you working on presently?

I'll be presenting a sculpture sound installation for the JUDD Foundation in Marfa this month, have an exhibition at the Cervantes Institute in NYC in April, will be composer in residence for the Civitella Ranieri castle in Umbria, Italy, in May, will be the CEC Artist in Residence in St. Petersburg, Russia, in July. Loads of touring, writing a new book, making more sound installations and finishing my first album in a decade. You know, same old same old.

What have you wrapped up most recently?

I'll look at this question in a different way: I've wrapped up a certain fear I have about my old DJ career. I was always sheepish about it after my work changed to what it is now and only DJ'd art openings. But now I'm booking larger DJ gigs and festivals. I was afraid it would take away from my work as an artist, but I just need to accept house music back into my heart. I love DJing. I'm good at it. So I'm trying to accept that it's okay to push it full-force along with my work as a sound artist.

Do you wake up thinking sound? Do you go to bed thinking sound? Is your meal-taking tainted by sound. Or does it come and go, your practice, your listening habit? Or better yet, does it come when it is summoned?

I prefer to let the sound surround me wherever I go. I love the random placement of sounds in urban environments. There are moments when it sounds so composed. Even though it's just a random placement of different situations within a location. That's beautiful to me. Even now. I'm in Houston at my mommy's place, and I always notice a low hum every morning around 7-8. It's the sound of the packed highway from afar. Everyone going to their other lives. The sound of this society I come from. I wonder if that's why the wall/drone noise guys sound so good here. It's like why techno became so important to Detroit. They heard all the percussive sounds of machines from the car plants and translated it into techno. What a beautiful idea.

SoundBleed @ The Kitchen, 2015 by Maria Chavez for the Kitchen, NYC from mariach on Vimeo.

How important is a physical space to you?

Depending on the piece I'm creating, it can be very important or COMPLETELY important. My multi-channel sound installation at the Kitchen last year, Sound Bleed @ the Kitchen, is a good example of that. I went into the second-floor gallery wanting to create a different piece, but when I heard the sound-bleed issue the gallery has because the theater is directly below, I realized that the room was speaking to me. So I recorded the sound bleed, which the curators there normally consider a nuisance, and created a large-scale sound installation with white scrim and light. It turned into a super-romantic piece. Matthew Lyons, my curator for the exhibition, told me it was like trying to hear two lovers whisper to each other through the walls. A totally unintentional result. There is a great book about physical space in relationship to sound art practice called Spaces Speak. I highly recommend it to those that are interested in expanding their knowledge about that subject.

On appearing on the cover of the revised textbook on the history of electronic and experimental music.

I just got the book the other day and still can't wrap my head around it. Totally blown away and honored. As my friend said, "You're officially part of music history!" Stunning. Not sure if you want to include that, but it's a really great, comprehensive guide.

Finally, where does it start? Where does it stop?

It starts when life feels stuck. Feeling stuck is important. Accepting being stuck can be dangerous, depending on how involved you want to be with evolving. Some people have no interest in evolving, and that's okay too. But pushing yourself for answers opens up new days.

A few of my sheroes/heroes are in their eighties and touring more than any of us younger artists in the scene. And their work just gets better and better, which is crazy, because when you look back on their life of work, it's all amazing. So it stops when my heart stops.

March 18, NTH presents Marion Guillet (Vie Garantie, Paris), Trini Fairlee (Time Life Meth Rave, Austin, Splendid Emblem, John Calero, and Joshua Cordova, at Jet Lounge.

Let's start at the end: In a very short time, Joshua Cordova has quietly slipped to the front of the line of essential-to-know music honchos. He's a part of a crew of forward-thinking DJs including John Calero and Miguel Flaco, as likely to play Graham Lambkin as Arthur Russell, Mr Fingers or Juan Atkins. Obviously, they add some class to the joint, doing their part in the great work of fanning the swamp gas out of the recesses of the Houston mass mind. These same DJs put on the NTH party series (as in, "it's definition: an unspecified instance in a series" per Cordova, and yes, I asked, because when I see what looks to be an acronym in all caps, I've been conditioned to think of different cabals on the tax rolls, and seldom of conditional math ciphers and placeholders.) Headfeeders, not room-readers.

Cordova is also a member of improv ensemble Maramuresh, who've been operating on the margins of the rock scene for a little more than a year now. Soon after this party at Jet Lounge, he hies for the musky bustle of Montreal. I put a few hurried questions to him in the way of salt on his tail before he slips the nest.

Houston Press: Why is this the last NTH at Jet? Is it simply the last at that venue, or the last event you're doing in town?  Are you leaving town?

Joshua Cordova: Jet is being forced to relocate — when and where, we don't know, but March is the last month to party at the current location. I'm leaving town, but the party ain't — Mauricio Menijivar & Michael Murland (Miguel Flaco) will continue throwing parties in town while I expand NTH into a booking agency, currently representing Bill Converse and building.

You've been playing some improv sets as Maramuresh in the past years; how did you see that group functioning?

Maramuresh started with Hank Doyle and Collin Hedrick (Splendid Emblem) deconstructing academia, institutions and free improvisation over beers. The conversation continued in rock clubs with instruments… and beers. Now Collin and I invite musicians and non-musicians, usually day of show, into the group.

Back to the beginning, when did you start behaving like a DJ in the public?

My public debut was coincidentally at the first party we threw, August '13, at The Doctors Office, which was our most financially successful, sweat-drenched party to date.

Tell us about Marion Guillet; how did you come to know her, what brings her to Houston? Will she be performing "live" music or principally spinning records?

Sam de la Rosa is the connection. She's a visual artist and musician from Paris. Hosts an online radio show, Vie Garantie on Le Mellotron. She was setting up a tour, looking to fill some dates. I knew of her show beforehand so we snagged the opportunity to host! She'll be playing records.

Do you see a difference between being a DJ and playing 'live' music?

Not much, actually. It's all just improvised, music — playing at people.

Note the preposition in that last clause. 

"We have lingered in the chambers of the sea...Till human voices wake us, and we drown."
— T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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Tex Kerschen is a Houston based gadabout, dilettante, estimate reviser and the Houston Press music listings editor.
Contact: Tex Kerschen