Interview: Lesley Flanigan

Download: Lesley Flanigan – “Thinking Real Hard” – mp3

The Indie Handbook: So you mentioned that you’ll be leaving New York for a bit to spend some time in Berlin soon.

Lesley Flanigan: I love it [in NYC] but it’s important to get out of any environment every now and then.

TIH: Well, yeah, and it’s a good place to be for the sorts of things you’re doing.

LF: Oh, I know. I don’t think I could be anywhere else, at least in this country. I’m planning to be in Berlin in the fall.

TIH: And how long are you going to be there?

LF: A little over two months. September-October…we’re calling it a DIY residency.

TIH: That’s cool.

LF: We’ll just go and work on things. I get a lot of inspiration from being in a new place. So I’m excited to break my head open a bit and maybe work on a new album and to just see a lot of stuff and meet new people. That energy’s just always really good. I mean, I love New York…love New York; I love my friends here, love the support and the community, but yeah, like anything, it’s good to kind of break out of your comfort zone a little.

TIH: Right. And it’s interesting that you’re talking about Berlin, because I was just reading about how Berlin, basically through accidents of history, managed to become the a place where all sorts of new and unusual music developed.

LF: Yeah, it totally makes sense. It’s one of those chemistry things. The culture there, all the troubles that city has had left it open to be reborn and artists are usually at the front wave of those changes. So yeah, in a way, it’s kind of cliché for us to head over to Berlin now. I think probably its peak of artistic renaissance was a good eight or ten years ago. But it’s still cheaper than New York and still exciting and a good central part of Europe.

TIH: So, speaking of Europe, how was Denmark?

LF: Oh, it was great! I love Denmark. I’ve been there a few times and the show that I did was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Roskilde, which was a really pretty place to perform. They presented a performing arts festival there called ACTS and which included both art and sound performances. I was particularly intrigued by a Norweign performer, Tori Wrånes. She had this incredible voice and she did this performance where she had an accordion and then she had another woman on her back. And she was covered in clothing, like a bag lady. She looked like this monstrous bag lady. Somehow she was swaying back and forth with this huge weight on her back while singing this beautiful, almost folk song lullaby with these really powerful vocal skills and then playing this organ. It was incredibly theatrical but it was so spot on. It was one of the most compelling performances I’ve seen in a long time. I wish I could think of her name right now, but I’ll have to look her up.

TIH: That’s really cool. So where do you think your music fits in with that particular scene that you were in in Denmark?

LF: Well, I usually think that maybe in an art world context – in galleries and museums – when I perform in those types of environments, I think I’m seen more as a composer or singer. But then, when I perform in the context of a music festival, then I’m more like the art end of things. I have the more experimental edge, obviously, in that I’m building my own instruments. So I’m described as a sculptor first, and then as a musician. Whereas, on the art end, I’m described more as a musician then sculptor.. Somewhere in the middle is me and my work. I stay away from categorizing myself, because it becomes very stifling for me. I start to worry, do I sound good enough for this or good enough for that, instead of just going into my own world and being Lesley.

TIH: Right. I think that’s probably the way it ought to be, isn’t it?

LF: Yeah, I think that’s probably how it usually is, but it’s still tough to come up with an answer for who and what you are when someone asks you that.

TIH: From what I’m reading people keep labeling you – I guess “labeling” is the right word – a sound sculptor. That’s the term I think I’ve seen the most.

LF: Yeah. I think saying “sound sculptor” makes a lot of sense, and certainly, when I describe my performances, I always describe them as being very sculptural. There’s a lot of building and improvisation in my performances when I perform, I really do feel like a sculptor on stage. I surround myself with my materials – my instruments, speakers, other musicians, and microphones, and then start creating and building sounds within these frameworks. I often have an idea of the path I want the sounds to take and I may include a few more tightly composed song-like pieces, but really my performances are more about finding sounds as they’re naturally occurring onstage and then piecing them together build a musical atmosphere.

TIH: Yeah. Well, when I listen to your recordings, or at least the ones on your website, I really do feel like there is a sort of three dimensional or spatial quality to it. I don’t know if that makes any sense…

LF: It makes total sense, and that’s definitely a big part of my work. Especially with Amplifications because the ideas and sounds I was working with are embedded in the process of amplification – a process that is utilizes size and space. The only instruments I used were my handmade speaker feedback instruments, my own voice, and a few microphones. I paid a lot of attention to how all the sounds I made existed together in space, and how my microphones captured those sounds depending on their physical distances and motion in space. The compositions were more like choreography. I also thought a lot about amplification within amplification. There are my handmade speakers as instruments, then I sample them and project their recorded sound out through stereo PA speakers, and this duet all happens within a space that acts as one giant speaker – so then there’s me moving around in the space to push and pull all the sounds that exist as a result of this Russian nesting doll effect – a speaker within a speaker within a speaker. It is naturally spatial work.

TIH: So, you would say that intuition plays a big role in your composing, in your writing?

LF: I think all artists and musicians essentially start in a place of intuition, playing around with ideas and feelings – sensing what’s right. Once you’ve thrown something out there, then you step back and realize what it was you were doing and can focus it a little bit better. I’m maybe more on the intuition side of creative process in the sense that it can take me months to get to a point where I feel I can talk about something that I was doing. Ideally, that’s the case. If I can talk out a concept too well, I’m probably not feeling it as much as should..

TIH: Sort of like, if you realize you’re thinking about it, you’re probably thinking about it too much – or maybe I should say, if it’s systematized, you’re putting too much though into it.

LF: Yeah, exactly. It becomes that stifling thing again. Like I was saying about labeling: if I spend too much time thinking about who I am and where I fit and what I do, then I’m not really doing.

TIH: Right.

LF: I also aim to create a very raw and intuitive environment in my performances. While it can be nerve-racking to not have complete control of the outcome, if done successfully, my best performances are very intuitive.

TIH: Do you think that stems from your history as a soprano – as a vocalist – because I know that when you first start formal study and you start giving names to things, you start to overthink. But the voice in particular is such a highly intuitive instrument, probably more than anything else. It’s the most natural instrument there is.

LF: Yeah. I arrived at music through voice, and as a singer you’re listening to what’s around you and taking those sounds and letting your body piece together how to make the same sound. Playing an instrument, you learn a certain physical relationship with an instrument – like a way for your hands to touch an instrument to make particular sounds. But with voice, it’s all happening internally. It’s not anything your hands can do. You know, a lot of times, when I took voice lessons, I remember part of those lessons was learning to visualize the note you wanted to sing, especially when training to sing higher, and if you could visualize that note – like really visualize it – then you could reach it. I always thought that was so interesting. It’s such a mental process.

TIH: Yeah, it is. When I was in college and doing my voice lessons for my degree – or, I should say, when I was doing performances – it was a really intuitive process. You would have to adjust your voice to the space you were singing in: you would have to play your instrument differently if you were in a church verses a dead auditorium.

LF: Yeah. But with that said, there are instrumentalists who know their physical instrument so well that it’s second nature, it’s part of their body as well. So, you can get to that point, but I do think, as an instrument, we all have voice. Every single person has voice. Even if one doesn’t use their voice as a singer or in any particularly trained way, we all can shout, we all can cry, we all know how to use our voice to express emotion. I’ve worked with singers before, and when I do work with trained singers –I often tell them to sing with that natural voice that got them singing in the first place. I also am very open to working with people who are not trained singers. I love all the variations and character in voice. I think that my approach is very much dictated by my voice being the first creative art that I ever really worked with, you know? I’ve no idea how old I was when I started singing, because, as far as I know, I’ve been singing forever.

TIH: Oh, yeah, I know. So, you started off in voice, but then you decided not to pursue it.

LF: Yeah, well. There are a lot of reasons for that. On one hand, I think, in a way, since voice always came so naturally to me – I mean, there are times when I really hate my voice, it won’t do what I want it to do or I can’t stand to listen to it – I don’t mean that I’m always happy with it, but I’ve always felt a certain amount of confidence with my voice, so I’m maybe a little bit stubborn in regards to having lessons or training. It’s just not as interesting to me – interesting to me as a technique, oh this is cool, I can do this – but not on an emotional level, it wasn’t very satisfying. So there’s that, just always wanting to do it my own way. But then it was also just very practical. You know, I come from a very practical family that does not exactly understand what I do though they are a very supportive, but it’s not like I grew up surrounded by artists and musicians or anything like that. I grew up in an environment where going to college was going to college to get a job.

TIH: Right.

LF: Now, when I went to college, I ended up going to an art school, but I remember justifying that by saying, well, you know, look around; everything’s so visual, there must be jobs I can get like graphic design or something like that. This is a creative field I know I can get a job in. And I love art, and I’m good at art. Of course, even in art school, I thought I was going to do something more like graphic design or something more commercially sound, but of course I ended up in fine arts, in sculpture because, when left to my own devices, I can’t help but build things. I just couldn’t stay away from the wood shop. But, you know, I was fine with that. I had a lot of support from teachers when I was in school who really just gave me confidence in knowing that, if I wanted to do something, I could do it. So, my point being, I didn’t like the idea of going to school for voice because A) I didn’t want my voice to turn into anything other than my voice; and B) I definitely didn’t want to turn my love of voice into a commercial thing: I didn’t want to feel like I had to get a job singing, that would really kill my love of it. So, I’ve been kind of protective of that side of my life – wanting to sing a lot, but wanting to sing when I wanted to sing.

TIH: So you find it almost freeing to sort of leave the practical side behind…

LF: Yeah, in a way. And I think it also – to bring it back to the whole labeling thing – as soon as you feel like there is a certain way you’re supposed to do things, even if it’s not true, it’s very easy to mentally box yourself into it. At times, I think I have a certain amount of insecurity about it, that I’m not trained enough or I should have studied more voice or things like that, but, all in all, I’m proud of the fact that I think my voice is very individual. It’s very much mine. And a lot of that has come from kind of ducking the more professional paths of being a singer, maybe. But I don’t know. I go back and forth on it. I was actually talking to a friend of mine recently, saying that I wanted to get voice lessons again and then this other friend of mine said “no, don’t do it”, but I thought I really want to take voice lessons again.

TIH: I can completely identify with that. I was thrilled to get away from my lessons when I graduated. I took the absolute minimum, and now I’m thinking I really want to get back into it.

LF: I think it’s one of those “grass is always greener” things.

TIH: I’m sure that enters into it. So how did you get from art and sculpture back into music?

LF: Oh yeah. Well, you know, I always did music. It’s not like I stopped music because I went to art school.

TIH: Oh, sure.

LF: I was still doing music, but I kept them separate. I even remember once having a critique in art school, a long time ago now, but one of my teachers asked “do you know the work of Laurie Anderson? She’s a sculptor and she’s a singer, why don’t you combine these two worlds?” and I was just so adamantly against it, for myself at the time. You know, just because I’m a singer and I do sculpture, doesn’t mean that the two should go together. It didn’t really mean anything to me to do combine the two. I was totally happy to keep them as two separate outlets for my creativity. But I went to grad school a few years ago at NYU where it naturally came together – I’m trying to think how to give the short story version of this, there’s a whole long story, – but essentially, in this program, I started working with building my own hardware electronics and the way I learned was to work with sound circuits because I could actually hear what happened when I put components like capacitors and resistors into a circuit and could hear what those things would do to the sound. it was very natural for me to learn. Very hands-on. So I built these little amplifiers anyone who actually works with electronics knows they’re incredibly simple little things – but when I was testing these amplifiers, I had a piezo and I had a speaker – a piezo is a contact mic and I plugged them into the inputs and outputs of my circuit just to make sure that I was getting sound and as the two got a little too close together and some feedback happened, but it was more than just sound. It was really energetic, a physical kind of reaction that was happening, because the piezo was bouncing on top of the speaker and making all this sound. And was like raw electronic sound that, as a musician, I had been looking for in keyboards and computers and stuff like that and failed miserably.

TIH: Really?

LF: Oh, yeah! I was always trying to find the perfect kind of dirty electronic sound, and here these speakers were doing it, but it was coming from a very physical place. And working with electronics, hands-on electronics – this is not software, this is hardware – was a very sculptural approach. So, suddenly, the two worlds were coming together in a very intuitive way – a way I had not planned – where I was using my hands and making electronic sound. I instantly wanted to structure the sounds that I was getting out of these speakers. And I started to see that different speakers that I plugged into the same circuit would have different reactions, different sounds from the piezos and that naturally led to me thinking of these speakers as being like these voices. No two speakers were alike and their variations came from their size and how worn they were or how new, and their history. I felt a very personal attachment to them – to the found speakers and the hands-on, raw electronics and the very natural sounds that were coming out of all of it. And so, suddenly, it was like everything – the music, the sculpture, the voice – all just began to come together, but it wasn’t like anything planned. I certainly wasn’t thinking I’ll go to grad school to become a feedback sound artist and musician. I went because I wanted to pluck myself out of the world that I had been in, I just needed to see things differently and I absolutely did. And I feel really lucky. Maybe it’s something that was bound to happen, if you work long enough in things that you’re interested in, you kind of develop who you are. It makes perfect sense that I’m doing what I’m doing today – total sense.

TIH: I think it’s really interesting that, in making your music, you’ve taken things that we would, generally speaking, try to eliminate or at least minimize, and put them all on top of each other to make something completely intentional.

LF: I love that part of it. It’s very real to me, very honest. It’s very immediate, too. I talk a lot about noise as being this material, that you call something noisy because you don’t exactly know what it is, and it’s kind of uncomfortable. But if you sit with that same noise for a while, you can maybe distinguish what it is, or at least get used to it and then it becomes something you would call a sound. And then, when you take those sounds and you start to put them in patterns, arrange them in compositions, they become understood as something you would call music. But they’re all the same thing, right? It’s all noise. It’s just how you’re hearing them and how you’re putting them together.

TIH: Yeah, it reminds me of something a professor of mine did in college. He walked into class and just said, “what is music?”. And you’d get these people trying to define it. But his point was, when you come down to it, music is just human organized sound.

LF: Yeah, I would agree with that statement. That’s such a tough question to ask someone on the first day of school.

TIH: You put that question to a room full of music majors, and it’s just like saying to them, “justify your existence”.

LF: I’m happily at a place now, where with questions like that, I don’t have any problem with saying that I don’t know. I think there was a time when I felt that I needed to have answers for things and now I just say I don’t know.

TIH: In a way, it almost hearkens back to John Cage and 4’33” or even further back to people feeling the rhythms of trains or any number of other things. It’s almost like there’s no waste.

LF: Yeah. But I think what’s really exciting is when you come to that definition on your own. Does that make sense? When I started playing with those speakers – when I came up with my own idea of noise to sound to music, that meant so much to me. And it’s not that it was anything new – it certainly isn’t anything new using feedback as a sound source for music, just like it’s nothing new to use voice – but when I found my own relationship to all of those things, and I’m still discovering my relationship to those things, that’s the important process. And I think that’s where intuition comes in, too. My work is very personal to me and I don’t always like what I do or what other people hear – but it’s my own relationship to the work that I’m negotiating constantly.

TIH: Well, it’s what any good artist has to do, finding your voice, finding your relationship to your medium.

LF: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been amazing. A lot of the opportunities I’ve had or the experiences that I’ve had as a result of doing this work, I think that’s been so encouraging. There’s just such a great community of people here in New York – people doing different things with sound, we all have different approaches, but I don’t know if I could do what I’m doing anywhere else. so the fact that I can have a show in New York and try out new ideas is so important. You need to perform in order to know what works and doesn’t work. That’s one of the really tough things about being a performer. If you’re really going to push some boundaries and try new things, you’ve got to take risks and it’s tough to be a performer and get up on stage and feel like….oops. But it changes. It constantly changes.

TIH: Well, I suppose if you want to try new things, the first thing you have to do is try new things. You’ll never get anywhere otherwise. But I think it seems to paying off for you. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard and I’d love to see you actually perform it some time.

LF: Well, you might see me sooner than you think. I was supposed to play a show in Oberlin back at the end of April/beginning of May, but unfortunately I had to cancel that show. But we’re going to try to rebook it at some point, maybe later in the fall, when I get back from Berlin. That would bring me back out to Ohio.

TIH: You should look into the Wexner Center here in Columbus. That’s a pretty significant contemporary art and music venue here in town.

LF: I’m curious, is there anything in particular that you’ve heard of mine that you were more drawn to?

TIH: I think the one that struck me most was “Thinking Real Hard”. I mean, I’m still drawn to things with words because that’s just the way I am.

LF: Oh, that’s fine. I am too. And that piece was specifically my hybridizing my interests in song and speaker feedback in a very direct way. The way I had kind of seen the path of that album – that album is really about showing the relationship between these speakers and my voice and trying to introduce to people why I would be interested in all of those sounds.

TIH: I was going to say, when I listen to it, it sounds like the whole album sort of builds to that song in a sort of this is what we’ve been working toward kind of way – almost like a centerpiece.

LF: Well, yeah. That’s the moment where as a listener you realize that all the sounds you thought were “wrong” are actually quite familiar. I’ve ended many performances with that piece. Because in my mind, it locks in the idea of noise to sound to music, it’s like, now that we’ve just gone through this wash of voice sounds and speaker sounds, it’s all ultimately music in the end, that it’s actually not that far off from what you’re used to. And I love that switch that can happen, where suddenly you realize, wait a second, I’m listening to a song.

TIH: The interesting thing is that, for me at least, that’s the one that has the most tactile, three-dimensional quality to it, almost like it actually occupies space.

LF: That’s interesting.

TIH: I think it has a lot to do with when you do those microphone sweeps while you’re singing. I think that has a lot to do with it, it feels like it’s the most – well, not the most sculptural, exactly and I don’t want to say calculated either, but….

LF: Yeah, I know what you mean. It was very deliberate.

TIH: Deliberate! That’s the word I want.

LF: But again, rolling off that intuition thing, I think it’s more in hindsight that it was deliberate, than necessarily that I was really aware of it quite as much. But I know the thought had gone through my head for that piece, the thought was very clear that I wanted to start with speaker and end with speaker but in the middle somehow transition into something very palatable, because it was like bridging these two sides of myself, too. I mean, obviously, I love things that are experimental and experimenting with sounds and stuff like that but I also really love – pop music! You know, things that I can just listen to over and over and over again. And I love melody, I love lyrics, I love song. And I guess I just wasn’t quite ready to go all experimental. There again, that’s very me. If I had thought too much about what genre I was going to be a part of, or how I was going to be labeled, I would have probably talked myself out of that piece.

TIH: I’m also curious about how you set about writing. Obviously, there’s an improvisational element there, but when you go into your studio or wherever it is that you do it, what does it look like?

LF: Well, I think about what I want to play with. So I’ll think about what speakers I want or how I want to set up different microphones. I like to just have stuff everywhere. I don’t want to have to think about it. I want blocks of sound. I have this one loop pedal that I always work with. Actually, it’s been on my mind to get some other loop pedals because I’m pretty sure that makes a big difference. How the output of my sound is and the timing of my pieces has emerged has a lot to do with the tools I’m using. Surprise! Of course, of course it does. Yeah, my ideal kind of sound set up is late at night, so it’s kinda dark and I have total silence and I’m all alone. I’ve got some microphones, I might sometimes put on headphones, I might not. I’ve got speakers set up and I get a kind of perfect sound environment to play around and then ideas just emerge out of that. I try – like with “Thinking Real Hard” – let’s try one speaker that I’ll play then turn into a song and go back to one speaker. Or a lot of things I might improvise something and then, when I listen back to it over and over and over again, I’ll start to hear a system in that, and so I start to think of ways how I can recreate that. And the sounds won’t be exactly the same, but at least to get the same feeling or the same kind of idea, like this is noisy, this is soft, this is four speakers, this is one speaker, things like that. But, as far as writing, I don’t really write down my music.

TIH: I wondered about that.

LF: The most I’ve done to write anything down is if I’m working with other people. Usually, my process for working with other people is I kind of play around. I’ll sit and think – for a long time – and write. I’ve got a big, big sketchbook and I kind draw out ideas. Sometimes, they’re little diagrams, sometimes it’s just lots of notes about the type of sound I want or the type of arc that I want. And then the people that I plan to work with, I’ll have rehearsal times with them – workshop times where we’ll go through these ideas that I have. And I always record everything. And so, I can listen back to a recording and kind of piece that together, things that I like. And we just kind of keep going back and forth like that. I sometimes send whoever I’m working with, basically, a long list of instructions of how I imagine something being staged and what will happen. And sometimes, obviously for a piece that has a very secure melody, I don’t score it – I never feel like I need to score it so much, because they’re usually very simple melodies, especially for voice. Although, that’s not true, I did do a piece recently that is scored for voice and I have worked on it with singers, and have actually handed them a score, but then I always take the score away from them, because ultimately I want them to be able to sing the piece by listening to each other and know their cues just by listening to each other and kind of get into a groove that way. But it helps to be able to show them generally how things line up in notes. I don’t know, I’m kind of rambling now, but I guess, in general, I think everything that I do has a very natural process to it. I’m not really throwing any surprises into the mix, so it makes sense to just sit down and talk through a set of instructions for how something will happen than it does to have to score it. I don’t know. Now that I’m thinking about this again, I did a piece with guitar and I had very specific notes for that at the end. I guess it’s a combination.

TIH: Well, I just wondered what it is that you did, if it was the sort of Scelsi approach of improvising and recording it or what.

LF: Yeah, it’s a mix. I think of it a lot as building blocks, if I figure out what the blocks are, what’s going to be there, then I usually come up with some fairly…I like a certain amount of structure – I don’t want to say control freak – but I know what I want to hear, and it’s up to me to figure out the best ways to allow for that natural energy of spontaneity and intuition while still making sure that what I want to come across is coming across. So, I just have to play that balance.

TIH: I totally get that. Well, we’ve been going for a really long time and I’m about to run out of battery on my recorder here, so tell me a little bit about what people can expect from this Invisible Dog show. Or, where can they see you next? That’s a better question.

LF: Well, actually, they would see me next on July 3. I’m performing downtown at St. Paul’s – a really beautiful, historical place. And I’m performing a piece with the ensemble Transit that is for speaker feedback instruments, cello, violin, bass clarinet, piano, vibraphone and voice. I perform with the ensemble – it’s called Expand/Release – it’s a real collaborative process between me and the ensemble to intersect these feedback tones with their instruments and kind of create this noise palette that slowly evolves into something very pretty and soft music. I’m looking very forward to that show. And then, right after that, is July 8 at Invisible Dog, which, there’s a whole lineup of power houses for that show, so that’s going to be great and I go on later that evening. And I haven’t yet decided what I’m going to do for it, but it’s going to be with a lot of voice. It’s going to be a very voice-heavy performance, so I might have some vocalists joining me.

TIH: That sounds great. I wish I could be there.

Download: Lesley Flanigan – “Thinking Real Hard” – mp3


3 thoughts on “Interview: Lesley Flanigan

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