Stella Emmett – Admirer

cover Stella Emmett - AdmirerWhat is “Ikeacore”? No one really knows for sure. Just ask Twitter. According to Stella Kortchmar who spent the last two years working on the songs that now comprise Stella Emmett’s Admirer, it is “a sort of sound palette people could put on at parties, or listen to on a train, . . . or while shopping at IKEA”. Now, maybe I am overstepping my bounds, but I am going to contradict Kortchmar here, not because I think it isn’t any of those things, but because I think she’s selling herself short.

It is easy to read Kortchmar’s description of Admirer as “glorified background music”, but it is so much more than that. Rather than settling for the innate passivity that is the hallmark of background music, Admirer is a record that rewards deeper listening. To run with the IKEA metaphor a moment longer: far from the megalithic florescent vastness of your standard IKEA, Admirer is a more softly lit, intimate affair. For me, it is a record dripping with nostalgia.

Throughout Admirer, I, at least, get little glimpses of the past. Take the chorus effects employed on songs like “Done W U”. That’s vintage Speak For Yourself era Imogen Heap. The melodic contours of “Daydream” (video below), particularly the way the vocals leap into the suspension on the phrase “Oh God” (with no crescendo – that’s key) is reminiscent of those beautiful ballads on the first Venus Hum record. Personally, I am especially fond of the album opener “Out Of Town”. The vocal rhythms are so regular, like the swinging of a pendulum, that they are almost hypnotic. And yet, as the song continues to build, there is plenty of syncopation and rhythmic dissonance buried beneath the surface to keep the hypnotic melody from ever growing monotonous.

As human beings, we all find ourselves in the grip of nostalgia from time to time. Personally, I’ve been especially prone to it the last few years. When I listen to the wistful, almost whimsical sounds that comprise the accompaniment to “Done W U”, I can’t help but think of my old friends Swimming In Speakers. Was that the intent? Not likely, but I do think it may be the point.

Nostalgia is a powerful force. While we are often conditioned to shun nostalgia as some sort of inferior emotion, it lingers in all of us waiting to be released. Admirer is the kind of album that can unlock that door. To put it in strictly musical terms, to me, it sounds like the best bits of mid-aughts Imogen Heap combined with Gran Turismo era Cardigans and a voice reminiscent of Tracyanne Campbell (Camera Obscura). More personally, Admirer sounds like old friends and a world that still made some sense.

Stella Emmett’s Admirer is available on CD, cassette, and download beginning August 23.

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Loops and Variations

lesley_flanigan_white2bFinally. I’m finally going to see Lesley Flanigan perform. I’m headed to Chicago next week to see her perform as part of the Loops and Variations series at Millennium Park on a bill that also includes champions of modern music eighth blackbird (did I ever tell you about the time I saw them play Philip Glass with Philip Glass?) and Wilco drummer (and Delta faucet virtuoso) Glenn Kotche.

It’s not really clear what the program will consist of, but I have to assume, where there’s eighth blackbird, there’s a world premiere. And that’s great. But for me, the real excitement lies in finally seeing Lesley Flanigan perform her feedback compositions live. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while: not a life long dream by any stretch, but certainly something I’ve been trying to arrange ever since I interviewed her a couple of years ago.

In case you weren’t with us then, here’s a link to the article and the interview. It’s still one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had with a musician. And, in case you need a refresher, here’s a video of a performance of my favorite track from her album Amplifications. Of course, if you’re in Chicago on the 28th, you should definitely come down Millennium Park at 6:30 and catch the FREE show. But Columbus folks will also have a chance to see Lesley in person come March 2014.

Lesley Flanigan – The amplification of amplification

Friday night, July 8, at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn, the Dither electric guitar quartet will present the Invisible Dog Extravaganza! In addition to Dither playing works by Phill Niblock and Corey Dargel, the show will also feature several other acts, including guitarist Marc Ribot, So Percussion, and sound sculptor Lesley Flanigan (full list here). Last week, I caught up with Lesley to talk about electronic music, intuition, and what, exactly, a sound sculptor does. You can read the full transcript here.

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

Lesley Flanigan is the first to admit that the idea of using feedback in an intentional manner to create music is nothing new. But still there is something to be said for arriving at such a technique on one’s own, absent any outside influence – and a degree of poetry in taking what audio engineers and technicians have gone to great lengths to eliminate and twisting it into something intuitive and beautiful.

When I ask Lesley about the role intuition plays in her music, there is a slight, nearly imperceptible, hesitation. It’s understandable. This is, after all, something of a loaded question – not in the sense that I am trying to trip her up (I’m not that kind of journalist) – but even though we both know that intuition is a factor, it is also, almost by definition, notoriously difficult to define.

“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.”

It’s an idea I am intimately familiar with. And like me, Lesley is a singer who came to music through voice. It’s the most intuitive instrument we have at our disposal, and for most of us, it’s the first instrument we learn, taking our cues from the world around us. She adds: “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 also aim to create a very raw and intuitive environment in my performances. While it can be nerve-wracking to not have complete control of the outcome, if done successfully, my best performances are very intuitive.”

Those performances are what first brought her work to my attention – one woman on stage, surrounded by a handful of handmade wooden speaker boxes and a microphone. She walks, with deliberate pace, from one side of the stage to sweep the microphone past another speaker a few yards away, stopping, on occasion, to sing a few syllables of her own. It all appears to be highly choreographed, but it is far from theatrical. This is what it looks like when a feedback soloist plies her trade – it’s intricate, it’s physical. It’s sculptural.

For Flanigan, her role as a sound sculptor – a label used primarily for the sake of argument – was a natural extension of her experience as a musician and education in fine arts. Initially resistant to the idea of marrying sculpture and music, she built her first hardware electronics as a grad student at NYU, experimenting with sound circuits. It was while testing some amplifiers she had built, when the piezo (a contact mic) and speaker she was using came a little too close together. She recalls:

“[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 the raw electronic sound that, as a musician, I had been looking for in keyboards and computers and stuff like that and failed miserably….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.”

Taking those noises, so often our cast offs, as her starting point, the progression was natural. “[Maybe] you call something noisy because you don’t exactly know what it is and it’s kind of uncomfortable,” she says. “But if you sit with that same noise for a while, you can…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.”

Those noises become voices, characteristic and unique to their respective amplifiers. And like a choir director, Flanigan arranges and rearranges them, guided by the way they play off of and against one another, playing on the idea of amplification within amplification. The sound of her homemade speakers projected through PA speakers into a performance hall designed to be an architectural amplifier in its own right combine in what she refers to as a “Russian nesting doll effect – a speaker within a speaker within a speaker. It is naturally spatial work.”

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

And the effect is demonstrated beautifully in tracks like “Thinking Real Hard” from her album Amplifications. Out of three minutes of looped feedback and harmonized “oos” and “ahs” emerges a single voice: My head is small / but it hurts like hell / been thinking real hard / been thinking hard all night. It is simple and unadorned, and as she sings: Stay with me a while, the listener is enveloped in a flood of warmth and clarity. But, just as you feel you could reach out and touch the sound around you, the voice fades once again into the noise from which it emerged.

“I’ve ended many performances with that piece,” she says of “Thinking Real Hard”. “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.”