Artist David Leigh interviews Emerging Artist Commission reciepient Che Chen about his previous works, future projects and his upcoming premeire with Sherlock Terry. The collaborative work opens the fall season in our first concert at Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral, September 8, 2012.
I first met Che Chen ten years ago. Since then, our paths have crossed again and again, whether in visits he was making to New Mexico, or visits I was making back east. In 2010, while in New York, I was able to see him play his music for the first time. The dominant elements of that performance resurfaced during the preparation for this interview: the meditative quality, a sense of timelessness, the concentration. These, along with his ideas on collaboration—which I feel is a key component of his practice—were issues I wanted to talk to him about.
The following interview was captured on July 5, 2012 via google chat.
Che Chen: Hi, David.
David Leigh: Hi, Che. How are you?
CC: Good, thanks. Good morning.
DL: Yeah, good morning to you, too.
CC: Are you in Albuquerque?
DL: I am for a week. Then I'm off to California next week to relax before getting back here to complete some projects.
CC: Great, where in California are you going?
DL: We're going to San Diego. We go every year to clear our heads. You're in New York, right?
CC: Nice. I’m in Brooklyn, yes. Still dividing my week between Stonybrook, where I work, and Brooklyn.
DL: It's funny, that over the last week, I've been reading the publication “Attention Patterns” that you sent pretty closely and listening to your recordings, too, but the first question I'd like to ask is where did we meet? I think it was through Sherlock Terry here in Albuquerque. Do you remember?
CC: I believe it was Albuquerque, yes. Definitely through Sherlock. I think I'd come back to town after I'd left and he introduced us.
DL: That's right. I think you were first introduced to me as a visual artist. Have you always made music?
CC: I took a few piano lessons as a kid, but that didn't last long. I liked playing but didn't like what I was learning, so I stopped. I started playing bass in bands in high school and moved to other instruments from there. I didn't take lessons with anyone for another 20 years. I'm more or less a "feral" musician in that sense.
DL: Ha! But what's interesting to me—and this was going to be a later question—what's interesting is your relationships to a multitude of musicians and visual artists. You've collaborated with many of them on recordings, performances, publishing (through interviews, essays, etc.). Could you talk a little about how you approach collaboration and what role it has in your creative process?
CC: I suppose part of what drew me to this kind of music was a certain kind of openness, not just to sounds and ideas but also towards other people. The lines between who was a "musician" or a "non-musician", "composer" or "performer" seemed very porous and there seemed to be a spirit of collaboration that I found welcoming and generative. I was coming from more of a visual arts background which, especially in a place like New York, can be quite territorial and structured around individual "careers", so it was liberating in that sense.
Collaborations come about in all kinds of ways. As an improvising musician, I often find myself thrown together in front of an audience with someone that I've never played with before. The results can be fantastic and can grow into longer term collaborations, but it can also fail miserably. I did a tour like this recently in Japan and it was like going on 15 first dates in a row. I was lucky, most of them were great, but you know, you don't always fall in love...
I've also initiated collaborations by contacting people out of the blue, whose work I find compelling, or had collaborations grow out of friendships. Sometimes I just really like someone and want our lives to intersect in a more focused way for a while and a project is a good way to make that happen. I should also say that collaboration ties back to the idea of learning for me in a lot of ways. Those piano lessons I took as a kid sort of turned me off to learning music in the western pedagogical sense, but at the same time I felt a very strong affinity for music, so I just tried to find people that were doing things that interested me and tried to enter into a dialogue with them somehow. The people I've played with have always been my teachers, often inadvertently. Jorge Boehringer, who I met shortly after I got out of college, was really instrumental in this sense. I had gotten out of art school, where I had really been focused on being a painter, but was becoming a little disillusioned with that idea. He was going to Mills for composition when I met him and he really opened things up for me in terms of listening to and thinking about sound.
My work as a publisher/anthologist is really just an extension of this idea. The publications I've made have really been ways for me to have conversations with people whose work I want to think more deeply about and that is usually conversant with my own somehow. “Attention Patterns” is the most recent example of this, so it's self-serving in many ways!
DL: I also see the work you've done with “Attention Patterns”(1) and your two “O Sirhan, O Sirhan” publications as historical, a way to archive that dialogue.
So it's not entirely self-serving!
CC: To archive, yes, and also to place the conversation in public. With “Attention Patterns” for instance, I felt that there was a strong trend towards people making work around certain ideas, but there wasn't much articulation about what those ideas were. It's music, but the ideas are important too, these sounds don't exist in a vacuum, so I was interested in extending the conversation in that sense.
DL: Right, in those texts, the idea of concentration, for example, kept coming up. I found that to be the case when I listened to your recordings, too. There was a mental focus I developed the more I listened. I think I was a bit resistant to that meditative aspect in minute one of each track, but then I became fairly obsessed with it. Is that something you're concerned with when you develop your compositions?
CC: Yeah, that idea of focus—including the resistance to it—is really central. In many ways it's the material that I'm interested in working with, just as much as sound is. You brought up the idea of entering into a kind of meditative state and I don't think it's any surprise that most of the artists included in “Attention Patterns” (Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros, Greg Davis) are practitioners of one meditative school or another.
I structured that compilation around the idea of slowness. I'm interested in prolonged states of listening and what happens when you don't react so quickly to the thoughts and desires that begin to arise when you slow the mind and body down, so the affinities to eastern spiritual practices are very clear.
DL: What's crazy—and this might be anathema to anyone interested in the subtleties of sound—is I threw the recording you did with Chie Mukai (2) into my car's CD player when I was driving between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. There was a fascinating union between the open space of the New Mexico landscape and the open forms in the music. That's not the best context in which to listen to the recording, but I found that the space really changed the shape of the music.
CC: Ah, I remember making that drive. I think driving through that particular landscape is probably as good a place as any to listen that one. You'd probably have a rougher time driving through the city!
DL: Thinking about change, I'm curious about the difference in your original “Pulaski Wave” recording from 2010 (3) and the extended version on the “Futatsu No Nami” recording from 2011(4). Why was it important for you to make the second recording, which is almost 27 minutes longer?
CC: "Pulaski Wave" is a name I gave to a particular electronic set-up, with sine wave generators in a particular tuning. It's not a particularly sophisticated set-up, just two sine wave generators and a loop that's intermittently just on the edge of feedback. What it does is allow the violin to push the signal into feedback depending on what I'm playing and when. So, "Pulaski Wave" is just a name for this system, which I improvise with.
I like to think of pieces more as "situations" than "compositions"—systems that can be adapted to different spaces, or in this case recording formats. The shorter one was made for a 7" that Pilgrim Talk issued.
DL: That's interesting. So varying components—-an audience, the introduction of turntables with the locked grooves (5), and even performance itself—become ways for the situation to change and perhaps grow or shrink the system?
CC: Exactly. Adaptability is a good measure of success for me. The turntable piece that resulted from the 7"s was my way of trying to activate the process reproduction. Rather than the pressing of these 7"s just being a way of archiving and disseminating the work, I wanted to use it as a generative step, that could provide a new form from the same materials. I like this idea of feedback between the various processes of making a work.
DL: I like that the conclusion of a recording process becomes another step in the growth of those ideas.
CC: Yeah, rather than wiping your hands and going on to the next thing, I thought, "What can I do, now that I have 10 identical copies of this piece on record?"
DL: So, could you talk about your collaboration with Sherlock Terry? I know that the two of you have known one another for quite a long time, which I find unique. Often, it seems that collaborations are more abrupt; they're between people that either don't know one another or have a somewhat briefer relationship. It seems weird to relate it to what you said about your pressed records, but you already have the material of this relationship, so what can you do with that?
CC: Yes, that's one of the fun things about this project, is that we've known each other for so long and have a decade or so's worth of conversations to draw from. We met when we were both art students in Montreal. We were in a printmaking class together. We were both deadly serious about being painters at the time and I think we gravitated towards each other because of that. Music was always an important part of our conversations, though, and raiding the holdings of the music libraries at the various universities we attended together was a pretty obsessive sideline activity for us. We made a lot of sonic discoveries together and in a lot of ways, things that interested us in visual art—how "colors" interact and how perception changes over time—are things we found parallels for in the music we were getting into, and are still very much interests of ours now.
I think the seed for this project came from when you asked Sherlock to do something for Generator in ABQ (6), which got us talking. Eventually, I proposed it to ISSUE Project Room here in Brooklyn and they generously said, yes.
DL: Right. He told me that you both had created workspace that mimicked the Generator floor plan, which intrigued me.
CC: Right, we mocked up a space in his barn in Vermont that is the same dimensions as Generator. We're working on the piece now, so the process is still very open, but sonically, the impetus for the piece was the idea of "sympathetic" vibration. This is a phenomena that happens when the vibrations of one physical body—a string for example—set another body in motion because of a simple harmonic relationship between the too. We're building some simple instruments and making modifications to an autoharp and an old concert zither.
I've been really interested in the idea of "redundant" tunings, where many strings will be tuned to the same note. The zither we are using, for example, has 80 strings, which are all tuned to E and B, over four octaves. When strummed, despite it only being two notes, the results are incredibly complex, with all kinds of beating patterns and secondary effects unfolding over a very long period of decay.
This complexity is really the result of it being impossible to get all the strings perfectly in tune. So these minute variations in pitch create this complicated situation. Meanwhile, the strings are close enough in tune that they reinforce one another as well via sympathetic vibration, so they are reinforcing one another even as they decay, sort of prolonging one another's return to stillness.
DL: And you're hoping to perform that system at least twice, right? In Brooklyn this September and eventually in Vermont?
CC: Yeah, we're hoping it'll expand into other situations.
DL: I'm curious. Is that the reason for the discrete pieces in “T-H-R-S-H-L-D-S” (7) ? Was the length of each of those parts limited by the decay of the resonance? I'm only asking because I think you mentioned that “T-H-R-S-H-L-D-S” and the work you're doing with Sherlock are similar.
CC: Well, the first passage in 'T-H-R-S-H-L-D-S' is the aforementioned zither which is sort of the main "axe" in the piece Sherlock and I are doing together. The other parts of the piece are more closely related to the “Pulaski Wave” system. But yes, I was interested in listening to events one at a time, so sometimes allowing things to decay completely before introducing a new event was important. Also, the idea of "decay" is an interesting one because on the one hand there is the time it takes for something to become physically inaudible, but there is also the sense of things lasting as an after-image in the mind, which fades at its own, highly subjective rate. Again, it's that idea of how focus works through a piece. So much depends on where the listener is at and how they decide to interact with the structure.
DL: Well, I'm hoping to make it to the Vermont performance.
CC: Well, if not, hopefully we can still bring it to Generator.
DL: Generator's more an idea at this point, but that would be reason enough to make it real again.
CC: re: Generator—I hope so, we were really enjoying thinking about that space. It has some interesting qualities—no electricity, holes in the ceiling that project light onto the walls at different times of day, it’s situation in a commercial parking lot, etc. Light is another thing we've been talking a lot about.
DL: Yeah, it's good material to work with.
CC: Generator and Issue are really diametrically opposed as far as spaces go—ISSUE's this massive mausoleum-like 1920s stone building, vaulted ceiling, former Elk's lodge—so I like thinking about that difference.
DL: Ben Meisner (my collaborator at Generator) and I had an artist named Ann Gaziano do an installation in the space in 2010. She was enthralled by the fact that this small, concrete-block building, entirely off the grid, was built in the 1950s by John Gaw Meem, the father of Santa Fe's Pueblo Revival architecture. Strange.
CC: Yes, I remember the building. It's in the parking lot of Flying Star right? A funny building. Kind of an aberration, no electricity, like a hut in the middle of the city...
DL: Maybe we could end this interview with your telling me what plans you're making after your collaboration with Sherlock? What projects are developing?
CC: One project I've started work on is a follow-up to “Attention Patterns.” It'll be a similar format—a booklet with two cassette tapes/downloads—and will focus on younger artists who are working with similar ideas. Tashi Wada, Catherine Lamb and myself are on board so far. I included Sun Circle, who are younger guys, on the first compilation and I thought it was important to follow that thread and look further into the ways younger artists are extending the conversation and where they might be taking leave of their predecessors. It looks like Tashi, who is Yoshi Wada's son, will be working with Charles Curtis, who wrote a nice article about collaborating with Eliane Radigue in the first 'Attention Patterns', so, I like these kinds of continuities. I'm also working on a series of releases of recordings I made while traveling in Tunisia a few years ago.
DL: What drew you to Tunisia, and Japan, for that matter? I know you've been to Japan at least twice recently. Tunisia seems like a place that only exists in Beat poet history.
CC: Haha, I went to Tunisia mostly on a whim, I'd been in Sicily learning about beekeeping and it was ferry ride away, so it seemed ridiculous not to go. I had encountered music everywhere there, mostly by accident and happened to have a recorder handy for some of it. Those recordings will hopefully come out as series of 7"s on Felo De Se (8), which is a little label that’s starting up in the UK. They'll be sound recordings—some music, some of ambient sounds—with essays. Again, it's that thing where there is a lot of interest now in music from other parts of the world, which I think is a great thing, but there isn't much dialogue about the more complex aspects of it—context, globalization, appropriation, etc—it's complicated. So, I'm hoping the writing will be a good way for me to think about those things. But that's a whole other ball of yarn.
Japan interests me for a lot reasons, aside from the fact that there are a lot of interesting musicians there. My family is from Taiwan, so as a former Japanese colony, there's a lot of crossover culturally. Also, Taiwan has a really different relationship to Japan than say, China or Korea because of World War II. Japan and Taiwan both became essentially American satellites after the war, so they have this curious relationship as well.
Japan is also a society that's sort of past it's prime as an economic power, so with America being in the position it's in now—holding on for dear life—I was curious what a place that's already gone over that economic edge would be like to be an artist in.
Turns out it's a lot like the US, a lot of amazing artists with little or no economic support.
DL: Imagined or not, I was drawn to the possibility for social commentary in the recordings you sent me. I think that might owe to the minimal nature of what you sent—where the listener defines what is meditated on; it sort of turns the recordings into a pliable prism.
CC: Well, I don't think the works are directly political, but I think that perhaps the first thing that people need is space—an anarchic kind of space where they're free to imagine different kinds of relational structures. I think a lot of people that are working with the kinds of ideas presented in “Attention Patterns” are probably starting from this position. I don't think the work is political in the sense that protest songs are political, they're perhaps starting from a more fundamental standpoint which has to do with mindset and one's relationship to reality through perceptual processes.
To me it's a compelling space to work inside of but I think it's important to understand it as a space within a space, to put it in context of other things that are happening around it, otherwise it can just become another stretch of sand for burying your head in.
DL: Sure. I think you have to come to that space open to change, rather than intellectual escape.
CC: I think it's possible to make abstract art and still have a stake in the world but I think the structures you choose to function within are important—punk or DIY structures versus commercial art world structures, etc. These things matter and in a sense how you do things and how you operate is equally, if not more, important than what you are trying to say.
CC: It's pretty clear now that anything can be commodified so one must be weary...
DL: Ha. Weary.
CC: Yeah, perhaps we should end here?
DL: Thanks so much for having me be part of this interview. I really enjoyed it. I'll see you in Vermont!
CC: Thank you. I'm glad you were willing. We'll keep you posted on how things develop.
David Leigh is an artist living in Albuquerque, NM. Recently he has shown his work in Miami with Eileen Braziel, Richard Levy Gallery in Albuquerque, SITE Santa Fe and the DLI Museum and Durham Art Gallery in Durham, UK. He has an upcoming solo exhibition at the Paul Mesaros Gallery at West Virginia University. He currently teaches at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
1. Attention Patterns: Pauline Oliveros / Eliane Radigue / Yoshi Wada / Sun Circle. 2 LP and 48 page booklet. Compiled and edited by Che Chen and released in 2011 on his own Black Pollen Press. www.blackpollenpress.com
2. Chie Mukai / Che Chen: 2.23.11. digital download/CD-r, LP forthcoming on Black Pollen Press. Chen first collaborated with Japanese improviser, Chie Mukai, in the winter of 2011 and again in the winter of 2012. Mukai studied improvisation with Taj Mahal Traveler, Takehisa Kosugi, and has been a fixture in the Japanese free music scene for the last two decades.
3. Pulaski Wave (Violin Halo) / Newtown Creek Mirror Lag 7" record released on Pilgrim Talk (PT10).
4. Futatsu No Nami digital download/CD-r. Tour CD-r made for winter 2011 Japanese tour. Includes 33 minute version of 'Pulaski Wave (Violin Halo)'.
5. At the "record release" party for the Pulaski Wave (Violin Halo)/Newtown Creek Mirror Lag 7", Chen presented a "playback/performance" using three copies of the 7" and three turntables position around the audience. He used plastic discs of various sizes placed on top of the records to create crude locked grooves and altered the playing speeds of the records in real-time. The resulting piece, 'Black Mayonnaise', is in an extended, spacialized "remix" of the original material.
6. GENERATOR was a project space in Albuquerque, NM with a program that ran from 2010-2011. Founded by David Leigh and Ben Meisner, the space showcased site-specific installations and performances by local and national artists. The space still exists, with the potential to be used for specialized one-off projects or exhibitions.
7. Block Flute Signal #1 / T-H-R-S_H_L-D-S cassette tape, released in 2012 on Autumn Records.
8. Felo De Se is a UK label run by artist/musician, Brad Bailey