Tom Krumpak (part 2)

This is part two of a conversation that took place in Tom’s faculty office in the Fine Arts 4 building (FA4) at CSULB on September 2, 2015. Read part one here.

Tom Krumpak has exhibited internationally since 1976. He earned a Master of Fine Arts Degree from California State University Long Beach and a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from the San Francisco Art institute. He has been a professor of drawing and painting at California State University, Long Beach since 1983.

All images courtesy Tom Krumpak and Jan Simonovic.

Glenn Bach: Going back to San Francisco…I’m sure we’ve talked about this before, that you have very strong ties to Mar Vista, and a house with your mom, and that neighborhood…if the position here at Cal State Long Beach did not happen, might you have settled in San Francisco rather than in Los Angeles?

Tom Krumpak: I don’t think so, no. Because I didn’t come here for this job. I left San Francisco because of a love affair gone bad, you know, a long-time love affair. So, the city is a weird place. It’s changed now, but it’s not a big place, physically, right? And, people have their ruts that they’ve grooved through the city, if you’re a lawyer or a doctor or an artist. So, the city wasn’t big enough for the two of us. Basically, that’s why I left.

Literally, every day that you get on a bus or public transportation, you see, within the mass of the public, similar faces over and over and over again. I just knew that city, which I loved deeply at that time…I loved the cracks on the sidewalks, I loved this house on this corner…as we talked about, you know, my place for coffee, my place for drinking at night. I loved the music in the jukebox at this place, you know, only opera on this jukebox in this bar on a particular night. I loved living in the Italian neighborhood. I loved living in the Haight, in the post Haight-Ashbury time, by the park. I loved that city. For me, that city was another body. I really loved it.

I was educated there at the Art Institute, too. I matured…I guess you would say ‘mature.’ I lived in a commune. In our Victorian flat, there were nine people paying rent, and at least another nine or ten people who were hanging on. There were terrible moments and great moments, but, man, it was in the moment. Some of us were musicians, and we played in one part of the flat, even with all those people in it, and we painted in another room in the flat, and we lived in between them. We threw wild parties, and it was all good. I really loved that place.

But, when my personal life fell apart, it was time to leave. I don’t think I would have stayed in San Francisco. Matter of fact, I did try to go back after living in L.A. for a while, and tried to think about doing it again, and I stayed two days, and that was it. I knew I had been changed. My life had been altered. I was living in L.A. now.

The other place would have been New York, of course. It would have been New York. I think I could stop mourning for San Francisco, and all the intimate things that I loved there, the places and the stuff, when I went to New York. I saw that New York magnified San Francisco at that time, maybe six or seven times, and I felt like there was a big world of other stuff. I love sitting there. I could live there. So, I contemplated that for a while, which led to going there a couple times a year for the last thirty years.

Coming to L.A. was kind of the default. I could come here, and I could scrounge off my family and my friends until I got my act together. And then, down the line, I came to Cal State Long Beach, because John de Heras saw a show of mine in Hollywood, and he came to where I was working, my day job, and said, “You should be teaching at Cal State Long Beach.” I didn’t have my MFA degree, and he said, “Well, I’ll just be the chair of your committee; you should come here.” And I did. Then, after that, I started getting teaching positions, and here I am. Academia…I was thrown out of high school. Academia was not, for political reasons, in my purview. I was as surprised as anybody.

Bach: We live the life that we end up living, right? You can have these relationships with these cities, these deep, connected relationships with these places, but you don’t have to actually live there. San Francisco is part of who you are. You will always have this passion for the city, but you don’t have to actually live there. Go visit a couple times of year.

Krumpak: Have good friends there.

Bach: Good friends there, and you get your fill, and you see all the things that you want to do, and visit your people, and go to the places and drink the coffee, you know. Then you leave and you come back, and then it’s like, “OK, now I need to get my New York fix, so, I’m going to plan a trip and plan a week or week-and-a-half there,” and, then, down the road, “I think it’s time to get overseas again,” or whatever.

Krumpak: Sure, back to London.

Bach: Back to Italy or back to London. You accumulate these place relationships over the years that shift in importance in your life, or sometimes you have a falling-out with a place, like when I moved to New York, I thought New York was it. I’d experienced major cities…Rome was my first major city. New York was its own thing. At that time, I didn’t think very highly of San Francisco. I mean, I enjoyed San Francisco, but I thought, “Why would you want to spend time in San Francisco when you could be in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and there’s so much there?” It wasn’t until much later—actually, with Sharon, when I spent more time going up there—that it kind of shifted. I don’t think less of New York now, but San Francisco became something different for me, and I soon had different ways of accessing the city. Headquarters, I called them, the Tenderloin, that became these centers of intimacy and good memories for me. For you, there’s a wide variety of these places that function as extensions of who you are.

Krumpak: Right. I think that the idea of teaching and exhibiting in different places is really important, because it means that you’re doing something real there, not just ‘tourist-ing’ it or even sensitively walking around, which is fine too. But, you’re actually doing a job with other people who are doing a job. I think that’s really important.

And the people…if you’re lucky enough to meet some really great people in all these places…I’ve always valued the people in these different places. Maintaining those relationships, going back to ‘water’ them, you know, and to find out what’s happening with their lives, and to just slip into their lives a little bit for dinner or an evening of chatting and drinking or whatever. Or, seeing their show, flying back for an opening in New York for Josh [Dorman]’s show, or whatever. That’s really, super important. I really count on those people. Psychically, they’re in my head. They’re in the locations, and that charges all that stuff you’re talking about.

When I need to know something and I don’t know it, I call them, and I say, “Hey, I need to understand the pricing of my artwork, and I’ve been in this business for a long time. I don’t get it. Give me your advice. Just give it to me straight. Tell it to me the way you want. I’m listening.”

I just called Chris [Cook] in England, and I said, “I haven’t seen you in a long time. I need your poetry.” So, I just got a new book hot off the press. I wish I could see them in body more often, but at least we are still creatively and psychically in touch with each other. So, yeah. It’s like those places and their population of friends and creative people are super, super important. They humanize the whole thing.

Bach: Yes. So, Mar Vista.

Krumpak: [laughs] OK. The little burg.

Bach: You’ve been in that house…

Krumpak: Yep, over thirty years.

Bach: Your studio has been associated with that house for just…

Krumpak: Fifteen years.

The house in Mar Vista, California

Bach: That has an effect on, obviously, who you are and where you live. Having your studio in the place where you live, ten steps away, or twenty steps away. And, having your practice on the West Side, in Los Angeles…it’s a construct, right? Los Angeles is a construct. You’re part of this Southern California thing, but you’re also part of a neighborhood. There’s Los Angeles as a whole, then there’s the West Side as a smaller subset, and within that there’s Culver City, Marina del Rey, and within that there are these smaller neighborhoods like Mar Vista and Del Rey and Palms. There’s this sort of neighborhood reality that is different than in other neighborhoods. Maybe you could talk about what it is about Mar Vista that keeps you going and that keeps you frustrated and inspired and…

Krumpak: I grew up there. I came here from Ohio when I was ten, and we lived near the Santa Monica airport with my grandmother for a little while. My parents bought a house. I grew up from the age of 10 through 19, or whatever, in Mar Vista. That house, where my mother still lives, is five minutes away from where I live right now. She’s 90 years old. It’s a very unassuming neighborhood. It was a working-class neighborhood. Now, it’s an increasingly wealthy neighborhood up on the hill. It was always very regular. By that, I mean that people kept to themselves, and it was clean, and it worked.

My father built a business three minutes away from where he lived, and he would walk to work. He built his hardware store from scratch. He had somebody build the building for him, then he opened the business. He had been in business in a hardware store in Ohio before that, for many years, partnering with my mother’s sister’s husband.

We were really close and tight. The property that I live on now was the eccentric uncle’s house, who worked for the film studios. When he passed away, the sisters inherited it. It was rented for three years by a man who was a curator for The Getty, and then we purchased it. 1950s modernist house, slab-on-grade, glass at the back, kind of Japonisme on modern, which is a current interest in my work. So, you can see, there’s a lot of crossover going on here.

The original house (right) and the newer house (left) designed by Jan Simonovic, circa 2015.

We raised both of our boys in the house with practically no heat, because we couldn’t afford it. We had one wall furnace that barely worked. When it rained, water came down the walls on the inside and we mopped it up. It became a clubhouse, because their friends, as they got a little bit older, grade school or whatever…all the stuff they couldn’t do at their house, they could do at our house, because it was completely indestructible, because it was all messed up. They could ride their bike in the front door and go straight through the living room and right out the back door, and nobody cared.

Bach: [laughs] Right.

Krumpak: They could run laps through the house and through the back yard and around the yard. It housed a lot of great memories. My wife Jan’s family also lived five minutes away, so, our children never had babysitters. They had the care of their grandparents. In that way, Mar Vista takes on a very personal geographic importance. It’s more than the place. It’s this proximity of family that is very important. When I left to move to San Francisco, I never thought in a million years I’d ever come back to L.A. Literally, never come back. I was as surprised by circumstances as anybody, especially that I’m this close.

Jan grew up five minutes away from where we live now. She never thought she’d live in L.A., either, let alone five minutes away from where she grew up. She was born in Long Beach, at the hospital there, and then moved to Venice, where she was brought up in what was a very working-class, post-war, small-house neighborhood that was very integrated. There were people…it was an international enclave. Up on the hill, where my parents were, is mostly white.

Where we live now, we live four blocks from a housing project. The street adjacent to us has become restaurant row for the new hipster overflow from Venice. We have literally four new bakeries. We have ten new restaurants within a five-minute walk. We have a place to have a beer, and everything else you can imagine. It doesn’t mean that my particular neighborhood up close is gorgeous, but it’s certainly not awful. Actually, it’s becoming very, very desirable for young people in the tech field now, because Playa Vista is, again, five minutes away. It brings thousands of techie people, for the good or the bad, to our neighborhood.

About ten years ago, L.A. did a survey of arts concentrations to figure out what kinds of arts resources should be allocated for the future needs of different neighborhoods. Ten years ago, Mar Vista had the densest concentration of artists of any place in the city. Who knows now. Because it doesn’t look like that, like Venice used to…which is, you know, way gone now. But, there are screenwriters and composers and musicians, like professional touring musicians…the guy who plays with the Kinks lives at the edge of my street. And painters, and people who go to work in all the movie studios in Culver City, and a lot of them are ten minutes away. So, it looks like Iowa, in a sense, but, in fact, is just chock full of intellectual, visual types, and musical types. It’s a camouflaged zone, in a sense.

The new studio in progress, circa 2015

Krumpak: It’s changed. It’s taken twenty years—more than twenty—for it to kind of wake up. When I moved in, there were people across the driveway selling drugs on their back patio every night. There was a pool hall down at the corner that was another dealing spot, every day and every night.

That’s all gone now. When I moved in, we were the youngest people in the neighborhood. Youngest white people in the neighborhood; it was very Hispanic at that time. It still is, largely, but it has a whole other element now as well. Good or bad. Now, it’s flooded with young people jogging, walking their dogs, hanging out in the cafes. It has definitely flipped over from one way to the other.

It isn’t so much that I have an allegiance to the geographic place, although I have to say, being ten minutes’ bike ride from the beach—we ride bikes a lot—is really important to me. I could never live any farther. Not ever. I would never want to live any farther than ten minutes’ bike ride away from the beach. I grew up on Santa Monica Beach, Venice Beach, my teenage years were there. I have fond memories of it. Both my boys are surfers and musicians; you know them. They grew up on that beach, so that’s another generational thing passed on, the beach that Jan was born next to. We have lots of memory banks of that particular geographic location that go back through both of our families, and through the lives of our children. They continue to use that history. As I said, they just…both of them could not live far from the beach. They just need it. It’s in their DNA. If they’re not in the water, both of them, they’re unbearable [laughs].

I have my studio there [in the original house], which we are redoing now, and we have the band’s rehearsal space that adjoins my studio, so we have young musicians flowing in and out all the time. They’ve become part of our extended family. They sit around our kitchen table drinking a glass of wine, having a beer, talking. I hear about their escapades. One of them works and travels around the world with Dave Foster, setting the stage for Stevie Wonder, and things like that.

I get to hear all about that stuff. I hear music from them practicing while I’m painting in the studio. I listen to their CDs or their working tapes from recording sessions…that, plus other music. They’re always bringing music to me, loading my iPod. You know, my youngest son, Miles, is a completely esoteric jazzophile, besides being a rock drummer, so, he’s actually playing in that studio six hours a day. On those set of drums, playing.

That house was owned by my eclectic uncle. The house we live in now was designed by Jan. And the new building that we’re building was designed by her as well. How many people, working-class people, can say that they live in a house? That they live in a neighborhood that has personal history, in a building that one of them designed? Next to a room where your son’s band practices?

Bach: It’s pretty remarkable.

The studio, designed by Jan Simonovic, 2018.

Krumpak: Our immediate place is very, very, very important to us. It props up that whole idea of an integrated approach to art-making and teaching. The relationship of being the artist to the making of the product is all propped up by that.

Bach: Sometimes quite literally. I remember…I’m not sure about the paintings that you’re doing now, but there was a series a while back where you were asking architects and painters and creative people, “Let me have access to your studio, let me have the scraps, let me have the little castoffs, the objects that are in your studio. If you’ve done some construction, I want the spare wood.” Those ephemera became the literal shapes that you would put down and trace around, and they became these reoccurring motifs. So you were bringing your connection with…I can’t remember his name, the architect.

Krumpak: Michael Folonis.

Bach: Folonis. Bringing stuff from his studio into the painting.

Krumpak: Yep, his blueprints. Everything.


Bach: Your relationship to not only your immediate place, but your connections to your friends and their places, becomes a direct connection in the work and how you make the work itself.

Krumpak: Absolutely direct. Totally direct. Phil [Mantione] and Alysse [Stepanian], who we both know, composers, videographers…the plans for their house in New York, in upstate Delaware actually, I guess it was. Their whole plot plan, and those all became actual shapes and forms within a work. For a while, you’re right, I would be working with architects who were doing projects, and I would be using the verbatim plans, overlapping them to create geometric forms or compositions based on real architecture. That was really important, that it be a real place and real architecture. Nothing in the show that I have up now, for instance, no matter how many patterns are in them or pieces of geometric juxtaposition of forms, there’s not one single thing in any of the work that is made up. Even in the large painting, little floating teeny inch-high silhouettes are tracings out of a catalog my father used to order hardware for his store. The color, sometimes, is an indigenous palette to a particular place. Sometimes, the color runs free, and is just an expressive choice. But, the actual composition within the work is never made up. I like that concreteness of attachment that you’re talking about.

tom krumpak-1
STUDIO/HOUSE, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 36×36 inches
Composition created from plans for studio, overlaid by tracings of covers of DWELL magazine and torn and traced selected pages grouped together from each issue, overlaid by geometric outlines of previously highlighted passages from Hemingway’s Movable Feast

Bach: For the casual viewer, he or she might see something recognizable, like a familiar shape or interesting juxtapositions of triangles and rectangles in an interesting way, and maybe there’s an architectonic feel to it. But, for the people who know you, and specifically the people whose material you’re drawing upon, it’s like, “Ah. That was interesting how you transformed that…”

Krumpak: Yeah, they have an inside track to it. I ask people who look at the work, “How much do you want to know about the work? Because I can tell you a little, I can tell you medium, or I can tell you a lot. How much time do you have?”

Bach: “And, do you want that kind of relationship to the work, or do you just want to have your own…”

Krumpak: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I don’t impress that or don’t load it on it. Almost always, when they say they do want to understand something beyond the visuality of it, they say, “Ah, that’s great!” Not that I’ve chosen something great or that I’m great, but that it’s so much more fun for them to actually look at the work now that they understand all the different sort of things that have been ciphered down to create that particular work of art. That it’s reaching from all these different places, or a single site. That information really does seem to bump up their enjoyment of looking at the work. I love that.

Bach: There’s a simultaneity and a complexity going on in the work, because there’s this relationship of the shapes having this very real connection and purpose. There’s this connection to your relationship with the people and the place, but at the same time, it’s a painting. The painting takes a long time to make, sometimes a year, maybe longer. There’s the act of labor in the studio, night after night, weekend after weekend, this slow progress, seeing the painting slowly take shape over the course of a long time. A painting is a painting. But, it’s also this relationship to your friends and to these places, and it’s also this conversation that you’re having with the process of painting. So there’s this complexity and simultaneity going on, that you as a painter are making a physical painting. It’s ‘abstract painting,’ but it’s not abstract. It’s this, and it’s also this.

Krumpak: Yes, yes. That’s exactly right.

Bach: And, it’s also the music that’s playing. It’s also the wine that you’ve had that night. It’s all of it.

Krumpak: Yes, right. Thanks for saying that. That’s the idea. The process of making these paintings for the last eight years, these very slow, ‘they take as long as they take’ kind of paintings, is to allow…well, you know this. When you have a real span of time, say a year, a lot of life happens in that year. It invites that intervention in there, right? The process, by its nature, painting slowly and meticulously with very teeny brushes on big, sometimes very big canvases, allows there to be a lot of conditions that can subtly alter the result of the work. Who knows what makes you choose this color or that color. I know that there’s a level of finish that I’m looking for that is needed to house and compress that stuff you were talking about into a viable thing called a painting. Then, there’s the stuff that happens in life, moment to moment, day to day. Circumstances that help you make subconscious choices. Things like the color, or the amount of layers of paint that should be on this part of the painting, or on all of the painting. That’s the decision. You have an aesthetic goal for the quality level in terms of visuality, the way the edges meet, how consistent the surfaces should be so that there’s a democracy across the surface. That speaks to the connectedness of all aspects, because they’re all painted with exactly the same amount of paint. The edges are all the same. Sort of a Cézannesque way of thinking about the democracy of a surface. That applies then, philosophically, to the democracy of the information that goes into making the painting. That’s something I’m very interested in.

tom krumpack-4
“Shakkei” 2017, acrylic on paper, 30×22 inches
Composition created from photos of Lil’ Tokyo storefronts, in downtown Los Angeles before WWII , elements from Japanese woodcuts , tracings of torn paper; also calligraphic shapes traced, rearranged from sumi ink and acrylic paint gestural drawings done in the studio

But, I had to slow down. A lot of the earlier work was about setting up intentional conflict to increase drama within the work. Whether it was color conflict or source information conflict, geometry versus gestural mark-making, it was all to set up a change of pace, quickened moments and quiet moments. It was an antagonistic situation, a yin and a yang, that I was interested in housing in a work to make a certain kind of ‘rocking’ quality. When I started this work, about seven, eight years ago, I asked, “Can a painting be successful without internal conflict? Can it ride on a multi-layered, complex discourse, a median conversational level, and be successful? Or, does it need those things which are easier to rely on?” Black against white, red against green. Sharp against diffuse. Those are ways that people have always created dynamics. But, what if you let that go? Will it become boring, or will it become more subtle, and perhaps have the ability to house more?

That’s what I’ve been trying to do. That was a big shift in my work. The work is about a connection between Japanese domestic architecture, where intimate things happen, and mid-century modernist architecture, which was post-World War II. I was born in 1949, so, that’s me, and that’s the kind of house I was living in, that I am working in now, soon to be changed.

Again, there’s the multi-level connection that I’m drawn to. How can I take those two aesthetic positions in architecture…what do those pieces of architecture mean? When they’re fused together…because they look ‘Pacific Rim,’ and they’ve somehow influenced each other. You start pushing those philosophies of real architecture and space that is lived in. That’s important to me. It’s not commercial space; it’s lived-in space. When you join those forces together and let them…what does that do? It’s about cadence and rhythm, and about a poetic locking and unlocking, hopefully. It’s about setting up a kinetic thing, which is not about loudness. It’s much more about…there’s this thing in Japanese garden landscape, right, which is to allow things to be what they are, but use them.

That’s what the work has come out of. How do I take these things that come from these components, and then lace in literature and poetry and song lyrics and things like that that are also close to me? How can I make them come together within the work to make distinct, different paintings, so that they don’t all look alike, and let them be what they are but hang out together? That’s what’s run this work. That was a big shift for me.

Bach: And, I think it’s probably connected to the work that you’ve done on the house over the years, and living in a place that’s had disruptions. Right? You haven’t had a domestic situation where everything stayed the same, everything was already set. You were always tinkering with the structure, and building the new house, and then changing the new house, and trying to get the city to sign off on the studio and the wall and the…all that stuff has been, for better or for worse, in flux.

Krumpak: Yeah, it has. It has. For a long time.

Bach: The boys, growing up, graduating, moving on.

Krumpak: Coming back.

Bach: Coming back. All that, I think…whether that informed the shift in your work or it coincided with the shift in your work…

Krumpak: Interesting.

Bach: Or the shift in your work influenced the…

Krumpak: It’s in relation to that shifting chaos, or whatever you want to call it. Yeah, that might be. Who knows? That is an interesting notion, too, in another way. I think when I left San Francisco…that whole thing changed when I came to L.A. I never got back to being…in San Francisco, it’s a city of domesticity. It’s an interior city, gets cold a lot, it’s foggy, it’s atmospheric. You sit in places. You read books. Ferlinghetti’s bookstore, City Lights, all that stuff. When I came to L.A., I don’t think my life ever went back to domesticity. We do very domestic things. We raise children, and eat dinner together…but, I never believed in it anymore. I never believed in it anymore. I never desired…I desire some sense of order. I enjoy things being in their place. It just doesn’t happen very often. But, I don’t believe that everything in its place means I’m OK, or it’s a signal that I have…

Bach: Matured.

Krumpak: I’ve matured, or that I understand I’m an intellectual, or that we are a good family. Those things never came back together. I had my dose in San Francisco, and that was over. I think L.A. is like that. It’s shifting, and it’s wide open. Sure, there are a lot of things that are happening that make it about apartheid, economic apartheid, and we all know that. But it’s a horizontal place. Things slide all over the place. San Francisco has a vertical pecking order. You understand your place and you hone it, buddy.

New York is a city of learning rules, right? You learn how to sit on a subway car, how not to look at other people’s faces. You learn how much personal space to take, or not. You learn what pace to walk on the street. You have to learn a lot of rules to just wake up and go to sleep in New York City. And then, you pride yourself in doing them well. That’s what a New Yorker is.

But in L.A., for me, it’s a horizontal, non-domestic situation. I never tried to internalize that in my close-in space. But I do bring that kind of working…I like your analogy. It’s like a ‘working man’ kind of process to making paintings. You go in the studio, and you work. You work for as long as you can, and then you shut off the lights, and you shut off the music, and you leave. The next day, you come back and turn it all on, start the music, drink that coffee, and start again. I think it can feel very genuine and very comforting. At the same time, it feels like a racket and discipline, and it feels like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m going to sit in there and work, stand up for six more hours with a teeny brush in my hand.” But, there’s a love for that, too. You start the painting, you ‘middle’ the painting, and you complete the painting. Go to work. I’ve never shied away from work. Neither did my father or my mother or my wife. We are a working family.


Bach: Right. And now, you have two sculptures in the show. You may have done sculpture before, but I’ve never seen any sculpture from you. The two pieces, in the time that I’ve been able to spend with them at the opening, are very intimate. Very personal and playful and rich and complex, but not fussy. It’s just this celebration of interesting, cool, meaningful stuff. “Here it is, I’ve put it together in this sort of compartment that you have to…”

Krumpak: It’s a place.

Bach: Yeah. It’s like a closet of curiosities that you’re seeing some of it, but there’s other stuff that you can’t see. That has come…

Krumpak: Relatively new. Yeah. When I was in San Francisco—and I was very, very, very young—I made sculpture like what we now call ‘pathetic.’ Provisional. It was very not sculpture. I made it out of birds’ feathers from my own bird, you know, and bead work that an Indian woman showed me how to do, and I would collect. I made sculptures and three-dimensional objects out of rhinestones, and by buying glittery fabric and sewing it and stuffing it like a pillow and putting rhinestones on it and mounting it on the wall by pins. Very not traditional…they were like objects of oddity and seduction, you know, because I didn’t know how to do sculpture. So these are, in a way, related to that. They’re not obvious, traditional sculptures.

Bach: And I don’t think of them as sculptures. I think of them, in a way, as three-dimensional paintings without a whole lot of paint in them.

Krumpak: Right. That’s right.

Bach: It’s the stuff that normally would be traced and made into a painting, but, now, it’s just the object, and it’s just a different arrangement of it.

tom krumpak-18
“3516 Centinela,” 2016, mixed media

Krumpak: Right, yeah. I think that’s right, and I like that, actually. Thank you for saying that. The idea of tracing is that, as you just said, you take the object and you stick it down and you draw around it and then you paint it in. I don’t paint it illusionistically, I leave it flat, with the trace.

Bach: Yeah, the shape.

Krumpak: Yeah. Now, the idea is to just move the object out, take it out of the closet, and just let it be what it is. That gets back to that Japanese landscape idea. Let it be what it is, but, put it in a context that makes it more than what it is, or at least contextualizes it and opens up new possibilities for what it is. Keep moving it around, just like you would with anything, painting or your music or whatever, until it doesn’t want to go anywhere else. Then, that becomes its position in the piece. The damnedest thing in making those sculptures is, when you start making that kind of sculpture, with found objects and handmade things that you make, and you ‘collaborate’ them together…as soon as I start making these three-dimensional things, everything

Bach: [laughs] Yeah.

Krumpak: …in the world, every single thing that I walked past, I was thinking, “Well, gee, I could use that. I could put that in there.” And, I was doing that in the studio. I put podiums in the studio, and I’d just start throwing stuff on them, pulling stuff off, and screwing things together, and then taking them apart and attaching something else. And I realized, wow, man, anything…you can just do anything.

Bach: I just thought of the way you would make the still lives in the drawing classes and painting classes. You’re describing exactly what you would do when you would build a still life for the first time. You would put stuff on there, and take stuff off, and put it there, and let it sit for a while, and choose something else. It’s that same spirit.

Krumpak: Exactly. It’s training for it. I thought of that when I was making them. I thought, “I don’t know anything about making sculpture.” I honestly had no criteria. “Don’t fake it; I don’t have any.” But, then I thought, “I’ve made still lives for years, and this is like making a still life,” so, I totally agree with you on that. Once I got that, that this is a place, it’s a location, it’s a still life that I’m making, and I’m making it out of stuff that I’ve been saving for God knows why…so, I’m going to put it together.

Bach: And who cares?

Krumpak: And who cares? I’m going to put it on a pedestal, and then people can come and see it, and…great. I don’t have any defense about it. I’m not protecting it at all. I don’t think it about that way. It animates the exhibition it’s in, and it offers another opportunity for a dialogue between the paintings and the three-dimensional objects. The flatness of the painting and the dimensionality of the objects, and that is just a nice conversation to have happening in the room.

I think another thing that, when I was making them, I was thinking about Matisse, and I was thinking about Matisse’s hotel rooms that he would decorate, and the way that he would hang patterned fabric, and have the odalisque sprawl out in front of it or sit in a chair in front of the window, and have pattern on pattern. Just the joy of the Persian harem tent in a hotel room that was cheap, and what a wonderful fakery that was. So I thought, “This is like that. I should just enjoy decorating and that logic.” And, when he says that “decoration is expression,” I thought, “Yes, I am expressing myself creatively here.”

tom krumpak-8
“Dim Dim,” 2016, mixed media

A wonderful assemblage sculptor I know, who’s also a friend through jazz, we’re both jazz fiends. He’s a sculptor, makes wonderful assemblage and one-of-a-kind standalone sculptures, and is a painter. We’d see each other at jazz things, and I’d say, “Oh, God, I don’t know what’s going on! I have no idea what I’m doing!” And he would say, “Tom, yes you do. Just calm down. Just think, ‘I am creative, and whatever I make, therefore, will be OK.'” You know, that’s easier said than done. But, he was really wonderful. He just was so sweet, that it made me think, “OK, I’ll just do this thing.” And, I had a deadline for the first sculpture, so I had to hit that deadline.

Bach: To get it photographed?

Krumpak: No, to go on exhibition in downtown L.A. It toured for a year of locations in downtown L.A., the one with all the stuff and junk on it. Then the other one, my deadline was for this exhibition. I knew there was a finish line, and I knew I had to get them done, and I knew I could mess around for only so long and live in indecision, and then I had to start making some decisions: “OK, this form is basically OK, and I can change these things,” or, “This is staying, and so I’ve got to find something that’s more compatible than what I have.”

Bach: Right. And, you know, the work is never completely ever finished, right? We’ve talked about this in painting classes. It’s like, a painting or drawing or a piece achieves an equilibrium. It achieves a sort of plateau that, OK, I guess if you stop now, you could call it done. If you add something else, then it upsets that equilibrium, and you then have to go in and go further. So, you came to this point where you had to let it rest in equilibrium. It may not be done the way you thought it was going to be when you started it, but who cares? It is what it is, and…

Krumpak: Yeah, and let it be. Let it be. Make sure, like you would with any kind of musical composition that you’re writing…I mean, you have a criteria level that you’re looking for to feel justifiable for somebody to witness it, right? Somebody other than you. So, you have to bring it to that level, where you feel this experience would be at least worth it for somebody to encounter this thing. Then, once you feel that’s OK, you can just let it be.

And, you know how it is. Well, it’s different in music, certainly, than in visual object-making, but things exist in their time. As soon as you finish them, they start disintegrating. They just do. Paintings gets old, the paint gets crusty. Rust stains appear on the back of the canvas. What I liked about these assemblage sculptures is that I had to assemble parts of them on location. Some parts are welded together. But, then I had to open the drawers and stuff the drawers with things, and take stuff out of the drawers if I had to move it to another location, or put it in storage, or whatever. In the meantime, life can happen, and you say, “Oh man, this would be great in the drawer instead of that.”

So, every time this sculpture would travel from one location to another over the year, downtown, and before it went here, I switched things up. It didn’t have any static state, just the basic format stayed the same. Or, I had the box sculpture, and I had to take the drawers out from the utility boxes, put them on the base that I made. Then, I had to open the other boxes. “How much should I open the door? This way or this way?” There’s no right way. Each time I can modify it, or take the scroll out of it and put another one in there. I’m not going to let anybody see them anyhow, so they’ll never know, but I will. That’s part of dealing with the inevitability of…things do reach a peak, and then they start falling apart. But, you can have fun playing with that reality.

Bach: There’s a freedom, and a sort of lightness. Not that I’m saying your paintings are heavy, but that there’s a lightness to that process in the sculptures, whereas in the paintings, you put a shape down, and you paint it, and you put the next shape down. You’re putting these shapes down in these relationships, and once the painting gets to where it’s done, you’re not about to go in and sand all the stuff off and put another…it becomes done and you move on, right? There’s a limited amount of adjustability and flexibility in how the painting can function, right? But with these sculptures, these assemblages, whatever they are, there’s a playfulness to them that could be a whole new…

Krumpak: Yeah. It leaves the circuit open. After Fran [Siegel] went to see the show, she sent me an email, and she said, “Oh, the show looked great, but the sculpture,” she said, “those are the closest thing to your interest in jazz of anything you’ve ever done. Because they are so jazz-like, because there’s a sense of playfulness and immediacy to them, yet there’s structure behind it, and there’s also this thing of creating a kind of poetic juxtaposition of things.”

Bach: That’s different every time.

Krumpak: And it can be different every time, but it’s the same core or spine.

Bach: Which is jazz. Taking a standard or whatever, and the improvisation that happens upon that structure. Any performance is going to be slightly…

Krumpak: Yeah, exactly. I thought that was really interesting. She’s very smart, so for me that was very insightful, like, “OK, I don’t play in a rock and roll group anymore, but I’m still making music” [laughs]. So, maybe this is a way of doing that.


Steve Barsotti

Steve Barsotti is a sound artist and educator based in Seattle, Washington. This conversation took place over Skype on 10 September 2013. Originally imagined as the groundwork for a potential collaboration under the Atlas Sets project, the interview fits well under the Imprintable umbrella. Note: the term ‘phonography’ refers to the act of recording, collecting, and performing sounds by a diverse community of sound artists, composers, acoustic ecologists, and other audio-centric practitioners.

Glenn Bach
: So, what’s going on right now? The [Seattle] Phonographers Union have a new disc coming out?

Steve Barsotti: We have an LP coming out [the LP is available on Bandcamp–GB].

Designed by Tiffany Lin, photo by Steve Barsotti

We performed in this aircraft hangar in a park in Seattle called Magnuson Park, which used to be a Navy base way back, so there are a lot of hangars on this site that are being redeveloped for commercial interests. The building that we were in, Building 23, is now an indoor sports arena, so there’s a lot of that kind of stuff happening. We went in with a sound system, and we played in this huge, huge cavernous space. We took our typical setup, which Chris DeLaurenti dubbed the Politburo…

Bach: [laughs]

SPU at Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center, Wallingford on July 23, 2009. Left to right: Toby Paddock, Chris DeLaurenti, Steve Barsotti, Pete Comely, Dale Lloyd, Jonathan Way, Doug Haire. Photo by Daniel Sheehan Photography.

Barsotti: Yeah, eight of us on a platform with laptops and lights on our faces, overseeing the audience. We adapted that form in this incredible space. We performed there two times over the span of three or four years. I recorded both of them, in surround sound and in stereo, but the second one had a more consistent feel. Chris and I took that section and mastered it, and it ended up being our first CD, along with a collection of excerpts from five or six different shows.

We got a residency through this organization called Environmental Aesthetics, and they had access to this nuclear silo down in Elma, Washington. It was to be the largest nuclear plant in the country [Satsop], but it went grossly over-budget in the mid-seventies. They finally shut down the project, but they had already built the two huge cooling towers. No nuclear material was ever installed, and now it’s an industrial park, with different types of businesses. These towers have amazingly unique acoustic signatures. A variety of people have gone in there to do different things.

We went down there with a sound setup, and four of us as the Phonographers Union did a two- to three-hour set inside this tower. So, Side 1 of the LP is going to be eighteen minutes from Sand Point, and Side 2 will be eighteen minutes from Satsop. I selected the excerpts, mixed them, and mastered them. I took them to an old-school mastering engineer in town named Ross Nyberg. I met him through the Art Institute [Steve was the Academic Director of Audio Design Technology at the Art Institute of Seattle–GB]. One of the cool things about that gig is that I’ve met some cool professionals.

Bach: Definitely.

Barsotti: So, Ross mastered the LP, and this guy knows what he’s doing. He has an amazing setup. I went out to his studio in Issaquah, and, he just went through and helped me pull out nuances that sound great. It should be out in November. I put the last final touches on the artwork and text yesterday, as a matter of fact, so I’m looking forward to it.

Bach: What label?

Barsotti: Prefecture, from Paul Kikuchi. It’s an independent label, primarily his own stuff, but expanding into some other things. For me, what he’s doing is like the newer school of labels. There is the typical label, which we all know—and love, depending on whether they release you or not. And then there is the individual who calls himself a label in order to get stuff out.

Bach: Right, right.

Barsotti: More and more, there are these hybrid collectives of people, where artists are getting together to release stuff. They really do look, smell, and taste like labels, but they don’t necessarily use the same business model or structure. Paul started Prefecture in order to release his own stuff, but he now has other artists. The SPU is footing the bill for some of the pressing; it’s a shared responsibility on a lower scale. If we’re talking about community, the smaller labels are doing this stuff, where there is a shared responsibility among the people involved.

Bach: So, what’s the run on the LP?

Barsotti: 250? We also just released a cassette through Banned Production. Anthony King. He’s down your way, actually, in Los Angeles. He just released a 50-run cassette with ten minutes per side.

Seattle Phonographers Union, SPU. Banned Production (bp218), cassette, 2013. Designed by Banned Production, images by Steve Barsotti

We did a couple of sets on KUOW, the local public radio station, in the midst of these hour-long discussions about phonography as part of the Sounds of Winter, Sounds of Summer series.

Bach: I remember those.

Barsotti: We did quick five-minute sets. I put two of them on Side 1. On the second side is an eleven-minute excerpt from our very first performance in 2003 at the Indy Media Gallery, the first time we ever got together and did this as a group. It sounds great. The work is good. I’m still looking for the power cord for my cassette deck.

Bach: [laughs]. Yeah. So, the phonography thing has gone through some iterations over the years, hasn’t it? I remember when I first heard the term, in the context of, the website and the listserv, which is still going.

Barsotti: With these things, there’s a small group who starts them, with conversations that are pertinent to that group. Then other people join, and, to be fair, it evolves over time, maybe not to the agreement of the people who started it, but that’s what you get for letting more people in. That’s what happens.

Bach: Yeah, it’s not like a secret cult or anything. It’s not like we have the corner on the market of recording sounds from the real world. People have been doing that for a long time. It’s not a closed system where only we have permission or the authority to go out and do that. It parallels the idea of the bedroom laptop producer; if everyone has access to cheap software, is everyone a producer? If anyone can go out and record sounds, are all of them phonographers? It really gets down to your state of mind or your intentions.

Barsotti: This isn’t necessarily a push for agreeing with this, but any art movement where you create a beginning, an end, a set of parameters, conditions, or descriptions…there is a difference between the Impressionists and the Surrealists because of their different approaches. I’m not suggesting we’re in the middle of a Phonographerists period. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing. The list started out as an idea of sharing a similar way of thinking about that subject, then you start bringing in all these other people…and, like you said, just because someone goes out and records does that make that person a phonographer? Well, what is the definition of a phonographer? Do we want to commit to one?

When I first moved to Seattle, there was a collective called The SoniCabal. This was in 1999, 2000, 2001. It was a group of sound artists and experimental musicians and people doing all kinds of crazy things with music and sound. Some of them a little more conventional or traditional. Others a lot less so. They had already released one compilation, and I was part of the second compilation. We did it collectively. We divided the CD into 74 minute increments, and you paid per minute.

Bach: Okay. Interesting.

Barsotti: If I had five minutes of material, I paid for five minutes of time. It worked. And I also got that percentage of CDs. There was also an e-mail list, and a weekly or monthly meeting where we had the opportunity to talk about what we were doing, listen to others who had something to say, and listen to work. It was engaging. And over the course of five or six years, the group shifted. There was an element that started coming to the meetings and participating in the conversations that ended up basically taking over. And they happened to be a little more…are you familiar with the Decibel Festival here in Seattle?

Bach: Yes.

Barsotti: Some of the early crowd from that group started taking over the SoniCabal, and defining themselves as the SoniCabal. And, I don’t think I really cared, since I had stopped participating…but there were definitely those who were resentful of this newer crowd taking over this collective and redefining it. Based on what they had written about it, the SoniCabal was specifically meant to be open and defined by the people participating in it. And the people participating at that time happened to be more beat-oriented, more involved in electronic music, and less into concrete music. Phonography was still being figured out as a term at that point.

I think a similar thing happened with the list, and it happens often: you have an idea or concept, and you create a structure around it, and you want it to be democratic and open, because we’re liberal and that’s what we think is right…

Bach: Yeah.

Barsotti: And then it changes.

Bach: Right, because that’s what happens when you open it up. When you don’t enforce membership. If, like SoniCabal, the membership is what the members say it is, then the current membership has a say in what it is. And if you suddenly find yourself in the minority, you have to be okay with the floor shifting beneath you.

Barsotti: It’s like the Surrealists, and the Dadaists. And Fluxus especially; they were weird, because they had this dichotomy of breaking open this notion of the art event and the art object on the one hand, and on the other hand, a very strict sense of rules. I took a Fluxus class when I was in school, and we re-realized some of the Fluxus performances. We had to pick from the book of existing works. I suggested that we create new performances in the spirit of Fluxus, but that wasn’t allowed.

Bach: [laughs] Yeah.

Barsotti: These organizations, the people in charge of Fluxus and the Surrealists, said, “if you’re not these things, you’re not in this group, man. You can’t be a Surrealist unless you have weird dreams and paint them,” or whatever the case may be. It’s an interesting notion. And, like I said, I don’t think I am interested in creating a definitive notion of what phonography means, and ensuring that people stick to that. People are writing about it a lot more often now. People are writing about phonography and acoustic ecology and sound, and they want to come up with a theoretical diatribe that becomes the definition of something, because then it gets lodged in the history books. And some people are doing it, some of whom we know, and we see them on Facebook. They’re articulate and academic and they’re writing these things. It’s fun, but, to me, it’s just weird.

Bach: How much of what you do would you consider phonography-related? I would never call myself a phonographer because that’s such a small part of what I do, and even when I practice phonography, I’m not a purist.

Barsotti: Right.

Bach: I don’t use high-end gear to record pristine recordings, and I don’t know if that’s punk rock of me, or DIY, or just lazy. Field recording is simply part of this larger, integrated thing that I do. Can we even talk about these isolated communities anymore? “I am a phonographer.” “I am a poet.” “I’m a this, or a that.” The boundaries between these groups seem so porous now that I’m not sure I can claim membership in such a narrowly defined group.

Barsotti: Well, I have an easy out. I’m in the band, man.

Bach: [laughs] Right, right.

Barsotti: So, I started this term at Cornish [College of the Arts], and, as we all do on the first day of class, I introduced myself, and I found myself marveling at the list of descriptors that I sometimes come up with: improviser, phonographer, composer, sound artist, educator, whatever. It’s in my bio. Sometimes I use those terms to give context. Do I consider myself a phonographer? I’m not entirely clear what a phonographer actually is.

Bach: Right.

Barsotti: As part of the Seattle Phonographers Union, it’s easier for me to use that term because of the idea of the Phonographers Union. We’re not the genesis of this concept, by any means. We’re a realization of an aspect of that concept. We’re a possibility of what that concept can mean. What’s interesting is that each of the members of this group, over the years, has come at it from very different places. Perri [Howard, nee Lynch] is a sculptor; she has public works all over the city. So, there are a lot of different perspectives, which is one of the most fascinating things about this group. We’ve been together since 2003…ten years, our tenth anniversary.

Bach: That’s crazy.

Barsotti: It is crazy. So, hopefully this album will be the grand ten-year…

Bach: That’s fantastic. Perfect timing.

Barsotti. We’ve [SPU] never had a discussion about what phonography is. We’ve never had a discussion about what the rules actually are. We’ve hid behind the general statement, “We improvise, in real time, with unprocessed field recordings.” That’s all we’ve ever said. There seems to be a general acknowledgment, because we’ve said it out loud, that contact microphones, magnetic coil microphones, hydrophones and things like that are allowed, but we’ve never sat down and said, “What is phonography?” Because I think we’d break up if we did [laughs].

Bach: Right.

Barsotti: Because we’d never agree on anything.

Bach: Exactly. And what fun would that be?

Barsotti: Yeah, I know.

Bach: Trying to control that.

Barsotti: We’ll all get rip-roaring drunk and have a conversation about what phonography is and never speak to each other again.

Bach: It’s funny, because I used SPU as inspiration when I was in Wisconsin to start Milwaukee Phonography. It didn’t last long, since I was only there for two years. And, then with the Southern California Soundscape Ensemble, participation and membership waxes and wanes with the collective energy level, but it’s still on the books. The same concept underpinning both of those projects is exactly what you just said: we perform live with mostly unprocessed field recordings. And I use the term “unprocessed” loosely.

Aaron Ximm joined us in Milwaukee, and he used loops. Is looping forbidden? Some people are working with cassettes, Dictaphone tapes, and maybe the pitch is a little different; is that okay? I’m not about to tell people, “No, you can’t do this.” With the exception of obvious processing, like effects or reverb, I think the aim is mostly unaltered recordings. It’s great, because that construct isn’t a limitation at all. It’s actually an open and freeing concept.

Barsotti: It’s funny, because I’ve run into people who initially say, “I don’t understand…you can’t use any processing? Doesn’t that limit you?” Well, no, quite frankly it frees me because I no longer have to be concerned about what processing I’m going to use, or how much flange, or how long the reverb tail should be, or any of that. And I also counter with “it’s not that I don’t enjoy the sound of a good LFO, it’s that I also enjoy the sound of a cricket.”

Bach: By itself.

Barsotti: Yes. I have this electronic music class I’m teaching, and this week is musique concrète. And we listened to a couple of pieces by Pierre Schaeffer, of course, and they’re interesting and difficult for the students because they are immediately dated by the sonic quality. But then there is Luc Ferrari‘s work. Music Promenade, for example, is a gorgeous musique concrète album. And then there is all of Dale Lloyd‘s and/OAR catalog: field recordings, some of it processed, some of it not. There’s so much there. It’s so rich and so wonderful and so beautiful to listen to. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like that other stuff. I just don’t feel the need to do that all the time.

SPU via and/OAR. Left to right: Doug Haire, Steve Peters, Dale Lloyd, Steve Barsotti, Chris DeLaurenti, Perri Howard.

Bach: There’s a time and place for that other stuff. And this [SPU] is the time and place for sounds from the real world. Just let them be what they are. They are musical enough, you put them in different contexts and your collaborators will bring in sounds that you would have never expected, and that’s a remarkable aspect of group improvisation. One of the most exciting things I’ve done in a long time is working with the Soundscape Ensemble because it’s unpredictable, fresh, fun. It tends to not be overpowering in density.

Barsotti: It’s an amazing exercise in restraint to perform in that environment.

Bach: With SCSE, we have two “rules”: unprocessed field recordings, and each person has to have his or her own individual amplification. Since we spread out throughout the space, the audience hears sounds being broadcast from all directions. That’s our mission, and, like you said, it’s this perfect recipe for restraint, because each performer has to listen and pay attention out of necessity, and it does wonders for the group. We can have six or eight people and it sounds balanced. It’s my favorite group improv project.

Barsotti: How many times have you been to a performance where you never really know how it came off, because you were not in the audience? You’re so in the midst of doing your stuff, you get a very different perspective. So, our sets…of course, they vary, thirty minutes, an hour…the stuff we did at Sand Point was four or five hours, over the long haul. But even with the shorter sets, there have been multiple shows where I can say I performed for ten minutes. It is the only performance where I can come back later and say, “I heard the whole damn thing.”

Bach: Exactly.

Barsotti: It’s about trust and restraint. This gets into the improvisational aspect of this. Improvisation, for me, is about listening. And, I think about the concept of improvisation as a metaphor for how one ought to interact with the larger world, not just musically, but socially, culturally.

Bach: Yes.

Barsotti. When Dan Godston started the World Listening Project, and he came up with concepts of what it meant and what it meant for us, I wanted to push the notion of listening as a political act. Where, instead of imposing your beliefs or ideas on other people, you listen to who they are. Take in information in order to learn and grow. Improvisation, musically, for me, has always been about that. It becomes a metaphor. It’s not been perfect for me. I’ve had shows where I’ve performed for five or ten minutes, and others where I performed the entire time, and I look back and think, “Wow, I bogarted that one, didn’t I?”

Bach: Right.

Barsotti: I’m trying to take that into account with my improvisation. In fact, I just read a quote recently from some stupid internet meme: “Listen with the intent of learning rather than the intent of saying something,” or something along those lines. So, for me the Phonographers Union has always been a wonderful opportunity to do that very thing, and it’s a wonderful experience to listen and to really find out if you really should be contributing, or that what you have to contribute really works.

Bach: Yes. To avoid selfish playing.

Barsotti: Self-aggrandizing.

Bach: Simply wanting attention. And I think that’s a perfect way of saying it. “Is the sound I’m about to play a positive addition to what’s already happening? If what we’re hearing is already perfect, then let it be perfect and just sit there and enjoy it.” So, with SCSE, there is an opportunity to be simultaneously performer and audience.

Barsotti: Indeed.

Bach: A lot of times in other improv settings, you’re so focused on what you’re doing that you lose touch with that. With the phonography setting, there are moments when I played only one file during the entire performance; I would bring it up at times, then bring it back out, and there were moments when there was open space, and I chose not to bring it back in, because it wouldn’t have added anything to the perfection and the beauty and delicacy of that moment.

And this is what I’m talking about when I talk about community, when we can find people who are open to that as well, and can appreciate that openness without being forced. That’s a blessing, right? To perform with people who are already there. You don’t have to twist their arms and say, “Let’s be quiet.” It’s such a rare thing.

I had a performance a while back that was the complete opposite of that. And it left such a bad taste in my mouth because it was so dense and so impenetrable that it was really painful. That type of gig is something I said I’d never do again. I’d given that up years ago. I thought it was going to be different, but it wasn’t. When that happens it’s really disappointing, because there’s really no need. It’s walking the talk. When you say you’re going to listen and be open, then do it. Really do it. Shut up for a while and listen and don’t play anything. By not playing anything, you’re still contributing. You’re contributing in silent participation by simply observing and backing out and allowing an absence that can speak just as powerfully as a presence.

I’m really interested in how that comes together naturally, and I don’t know if it’s because of the people I’ve chosen to associate with, or there really is something in the air that we’re all part of? Serendipity? Probably a combination of all of that.

Barsotti: Yes. I think there is definitely something about like-mindedness in terms of the concept of listening. I know that the original impetus for this group was a fellow named Isaac Sterling. Way back in the early days of, 1999, 2000, right after I moved here, the list got established, people were contributing, conversing on there. And then Isaac realized there were a lot of list members here in Seattle: Alex Keller, John Tulchin, Doug Haire, Mark Griswold, Steve Barsotti, Chris DeLaurenti, Toby Paddock, Dale Lloyd. There was a bunch of us who were interested.

So, he called this meeting. It was Isaac who recognized this particular quality in each of us. He had work from all of us, and he noticed that we were all part of this list and said, “Let’s come together and talk about this concept of phonography and play some work.” And, so, the first set we did was more of an academic presentation of individual work. There were seven or eight of us at the table, round robin, where we each got seven minutes and thirty-seven seconds, if I remember correctly, and we just played. Some of us played individual recordings, and others performed a mix. That was the first set. For the second set we just jammed. It was due to the collective interest we all had in the concept of listening, and Isaac recognized that in the field recordings he heard from us in the first place.

I think in order to work with field recordings, you have to be interested in the concept of listening. You go out in the world and listen to stuff, and there is something about that process that engages you so much that you want to grab it, abstract it, bring it home and listen to it in a very different, strange way. That process right there is fundamental to my interest in this. When I collect a recording, I tend to avoid headphones; I check the levels to see I’m not distorting, but when I bring it back into my studio to see what I have, it’s like the old days of film photography when you’d shoot, shoot, shoot, and then only later look at your negatives.

So, all of these Seattle people had these great field recordings and were obviously interested in this concept of listening. And, they also had these other endeavors. Most of the people in our group have been involved in some level of improvisation. Some, like Mark Griswold, had done work with NPR…he was the sound guy; when the story opened up you’d hear car doors and footsteps on gravel. Toby and Doug and Alex and Chris and myself, we had all improvised and been involved in other music creation. But I recognized that these guys loved to listen. So Isaac brings us together and we do this thing and it worked. I wasn’t surprised, but it was still fabulous to go through that.

SPU at Arts and Nature Festival (from left to right: Steve Peters, Jonathan Way, Chris DeLaurenti, Steve Barsotti, Perri Howard. Photo by Dale Lloyd

Bach: It’s amazing that there was this concentration of all those people in that area. That’s pretty remarkable. That doesn’t always happen. Maybe it was just a convergence, where everyone happened to be there at the same time, and you were hungry for it. You have to wonder, would SPU have come about now? If it didn’t previously exist, would your group come together today and have the same longevity and camaraderie and humbleness and confidence? Could that have happened now, as opposed to ten years ago?

Barsotti: Right. Interesting question. It’s hard to answer that definitively. I look at the nature of our group now and it’s never been appropriate to call us a band.

Bach: No.

Barsotti: For the first three, four, five years there was more of a feeling of a band, more interaction between us, events happened more often. These days there is not as much communication. We still have events, but they’re usually a lot smaller. In our heyday we had twelve people perform at the Decibel Festival in 2007.

These days it’s smaller, different types of gigs. We did a thing for KUOW, and there were one or two members who popped up out of nowhere, “Yeah, I’ll do the radio gig with you guys.” So there’s a little bit of that. As far as your question, I don’t know how to answer that. Isaac passed away a couple of years ago. It was a different time, different collection of people, but the concept has evolved over the years. Back to what you were saying about the setup for your ensemble, the Phonographers Union historically has had the Politburo, but of late there has been more interest in attempts to do what you guys are doing in terms of setting up small locales.

Bach. Yes.

Barsotti: We’ve had some opportunities to perform in some interesting spaces. In Seattle there is a space called The Chapel. In the middle of Wallingford, one of our neighborhoods, there is the Good Shepherd Center, with a preschool and community organizations and things like that, and on the fourth floor there is an actual chapel. It’s a gorgeous space, with huge vaulted ceilings and big stained glass windows. Steve Peters from Nonsequitur set up shop there many years ago when he moved back to Seattle and established the Wayward Music Series. I’d say that 75% of the adventurous music that happens in this town happens in that space.

We performed there a couple of times with local setups, but, more interestingly, we got a gig at the Seattle Art Museum. They do these things called SAM Remix, and, on opening night there are a variety of activities, with a more typical musical setup on the main stage. We got invited to perform for the Aboriginal show. The museum has a small Aboriginal collection in two small rooms, fortunately located way in the back away from the main stage where all the loud stuff happens. Three of us set up in there with individualized sound systems. It was cool because of the way we set up, but it was also cool because it was one of the first times we responded directly to a theme. We as a group asked, “What do we do with an Aboriginal show? What are these paintings about?” They are maps, spirit guides.

Bach: Exactly.

Barsotti: There are these notions of guiding us through something. So we said, “There’s your inspiration, go with that.” We each brought in recordings we felt addressed that concept of what these paintings may be about. That was interesting, but, more to the point, we had been adopting these setups with individualized, small locales, individual p.a. systems, a couple of small speakers, or something like that. And people experience it in a different way. You meander, just like your [SCSE] performances. It’s such a great way to experience that type of thing.

Bach: For me, it was revelatory, because it deconstructed, changed, remixed my whole concept of the group improv. For the longest time a group improv meant going through the same p.a. You had four, six, eight sound artists, using electronics, and unless you’re really careful, you’re likely to get a wall of dense, undifferentiated sound.

So, by parsing this out, it solved all kinds of problems. It solved the soundscape issue, monitoring issues, improvisation issues, and having to lug a p.a. around, right? That inspired me to consider sound in space in a new way. Teaching the audio classes, and researching what I was sharing with students, I was able to wrap my head about the idea of reverb, with the direct sound and the series of copies, and what is called the critical distance, the point at which the direct sound is at the same volume as its reflections. At what point do the reflections take over? What about the natural ambience of the space? The normal sound of whatever space we’re in, along with the sounds we are adding to this preexisting soundscape…at what level do these introduced sounds that are contributing to this hybrid soundscape take over and become louder than the original sounds? It got me thinking about my solo work and about threshold, critical distance, and what happens when sounds are blended together at very low volumes, in a space, through speakers that aren’t necessarily massive p.a. monsters.

Barsotti: Right.

Bach: And, so, it was a transformative experience for me, and it changed everything I do as a performer. I’m really thankful that it happened.

Barsotti: It’s interesting. I really like the idea. I think your method of setting these smaller locale systems allows for a lot more interaction with the ambient space because you’re individualized, you’re localized, and, by default, you have less power.

Bach: Exactly.

Barsotti: And you’re less likely to overpower the situation. That’s fascinating. We’ve always been interested in how our sounds combine with what is already happening. I have no end of examples of shows that have ended with an external sound to the space that becomes our punchline, which is really kind of nice. But, to your point about the p.a. system, the history of our performances have been one massive p.a., and our original concern was the wall of mud, with all this stuff coming through. And that’s what really honed our skills as listeners as far as restraint, even more so as we realize we’re all coming out of the same set of speakers.

Bach: It forces you to be mindful of everyone else.

Barsotti: It was a challenge, but I think that on this album in particular, which is a sort of ‘best of’ collection, we made it work. It’s been a really good run for us as far as making that format really successful. The LP that’s coming out, the Sand Point gig and the Satsop, the hangar and the nuclear silo…now, there’s a whole other concept of space involved in those two pieces, but we’re still coming out of a single p.a. system.

SPU at Sand Point (image from SPU MySpace). Left to right: Perri Howard, Steve Barsotti, Jonathan Way, Steve Peters, Dale Lloyd.

Bach: Yeah. You know, it’s part of what makes it experimental music. My friend Alan [Nakagawa] and I had a conversation about experimental music and what that term means, the idea of the experiment. You establish a hypothesis, you think this is going to happen, set up the parameters, run the experiment, test the results to determine if it was a success or not. So the experimental part of experimental music could be what you’re doing with the single p.a., with six, eight members, and the goal is to figure out how to make this improvised, unpredictable collection of sounds work as a unified piece. As a unit, as a band, as a collective composition. The experiment is how to make that work. For us, it’s what happens when we break it off into smaller units. For me that is really exciting. Not knowing all the answers.

Barsotti: Yes.

Bach: I still think that’s a valid thing going forward. What will the next iteration of that be like?

Barsotti: Good question.

Bach: Am I going to insist that SCSE, from this point on, only be involved with field recordings? Do we start to bring in other types of instrumentation? Once we do that, though, then it becomes something else. So, perhaps SCSE could collaborate with different ensembles in order to maintain their own identities.

And this is what I wanted to talk to you about—what happens when those two worlds start to meet again? Before, it was, “Let’s parse out field recording from the rest of electroacoustic composition and improvisation, experimental music, and let’s just give field recordings their own platform and see what happens.” What happens, then, if we allow regular musicians or sound artists to bring in LFOs or composed work or whatever? The stuff that you’re doing with your handmade instruments—what kind of cross-pollination can occur?

I haven’t taken that step yet, because again, I’m so leery of the wall of sound. I’m still not done exploring the delicacy of the SCSE aesthetic. I don’t know how you feel about that…

Barsotti: A few things come to mind. As a group, we talked about this…there are a handful of ways you can approach this. On the one hand it goes back to something we talked about earlier in terms of defining a set of parameters, and then creating a project based on those concepts.

SoniCabal and evolved and changed because of the people who were a part of it. With the Phonographers Union, we haven’t written in stone a manifesto of how we’re supposed to do this, although Chris DeLaurenti has probably been the most consistent in terms of setting constraints. And he’s brought those around the country.

Bach: He did that when he was in Milwaukee. We sat down beforehand and he went over the rules of the game. It was really interesting.

Barsotti: It’s met with different levels of appreciation or skepticism, depending on where they’re coming from. So, for example, we’ve gotten offers from people to show film work during our performances, and we’ve turned them down every time. We have no interest in having visuals during our shows, because what’s the point?

Bach: There’s no need. It’s so visual to begin with.

Barsotti: Right. It’s about the act of listening. It’s not meant to be in support of some other idea. So, there’s that. The same thing with dancers. People have contacted us about having Butoh, or other dance ideas, and we’ve refused all of that as well. Internally, as a group, it’s pretty clear: unprocessed field recordings. The idea of what we’re doing is interesting and unique; there are laptops galore, electronic music galore, and processed field recordings galore. And a lot of this is really good. Again, I go to Dale Lloyd’s and/Oar label. A lot of great stuff. Or Wind Measure, the label out of New York. Those two in particular, the ones I’m most familiar with. Gorgeous stuff. I love everything on Dale’s label, without exaggeration. I really do. But, by sticking to this concept, I think there’s a unique quality to what we’re doing with the Phonographers Union.

You mentioned earlier that there is still a lot to explore there…the idea is still valid. However, what I do think is potentially interesting, and we’re starting to discuss this as a group, although we haven’t really followed through, is what if the Seattle Phonographers Union collaborated with another entity, with these two groups working together, so the SPU could still claim that we work solely with unprocessed field recordings. “The Seattle Phonographers Union performs with Jarrad Powell.” Or “performs with fill-in-the-blank.” So, there’s a very clear designation between these two ideas. We had Bernhard Gal in Seattle some years ago, and we did a performance with him, and it was the same sort of thing. We billed it as the Seattle Phonographers Union with Bernhard Gal. Before his solo set, he did a set with us, and he bent the rules slightly, but it was fun. The idea is that we perform with someone else so that we go from a group of seven to a single entity, the SPU, performing with whatever that other side may be. And see how those two concepts interact with each other.

Bach: It’s like a duet.

Barsotti: Exactly. I think that allows the concept of the Phonographers Union to remain intact. It’s not that I want to maintain some kind of fascist control over what the Phonographers Union should be. But as a concept, I think it’s relevant and important to establish a concept and stick to it.

Going back to the earlier parts of our conversation, it’s as if the Surrealists and the Dadaists decided to collaborate, and these two well-defined ideas did something together to form a third thing. I think that this concept of unprocessed field recordings from this band with a series of reed players, for instance, becomes this duet. That’s a great way to put it. I think there’s validity and interest in that idea.

[Update from Steve: “Since our conversation, several members of the SPU have performed a couple of sets with improvising musicians. The events were billed as ‘Tom Varner with….’ events, so, not SPU gigs. But, we were asked to participate to lend field recordings to these sets. The first one had 7 or 8 musicians, mostly horns of various kinds. The last one was Tom on French Horn, James Falzone on clarinet and other small reed instruments, Heather Bently on viola, and Paul Kikuchi on perscussion. Doug Haire, Steve Peters, and I also participated. It was an incredibly beautiful evening (alas, no recording). As mentioned, not an SPU gig, but it was an interesting attempt to combine what we have been doing with this other idea.”]

Bach: How do you see it in your own work? You practice phonography with the Phonographers Union, and you are an electroacoustic composer, generally speaking, with handmade instruments that you take into these spaces to record. How do you see those demarcations in your own work as a solo artist, and are those demarcations even important?

photo: Steve Ringman. Hear an audio slide show via Seattle Times. Also, read Richard Seven’s article in the Seattle Times, “Aural Auteurs: The sonic artists of the Seattle Phonographers Union.”

Barsotti: As far as the last part of that question, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about those distinctions, so, no, maybe the differences are not all that important. I do think there is a commonality in my instrument building, my electroacoustic compositions, and my field recording. The electroacoustic compositions become the gathering point for all these different ideas.

Bach: Sure.

Barsotti: So, the two albums I have, Along These Lines, and Say “tin-tah-pee-mick”, are really a combination of all the things I’m engaged in.

There are field recordings, which involve going out to some place and capturing what’s happening. There are the recordings of objects that I deliberately interfere with to produce sounds that I wouldn’t put in the category of built instruments. For instance, I’ll record the sound of a can opener because I like the sound of a can opener. Then, there are my instruments. Finally, there is the instrument of the mixing console, having things spread out, and improvising. Earlier I made the remark that that’s how I got started.

Bach: Because you were a recording engineer, right?

Barsotti: Actually, I came from photography. I studied photography at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and then at the School of the Art Institute, way back in the late eighties. And when I got to the School of the Art Institute, I signed up for a video class, because that seemed like a logical progression in my narrative development. With that, I knew that there was a technology hurdle, in both video and audio, so I took a sound class. Well, the video class ended up not running, but the sound class did.

Bach: Serendipity.

Barsotti: It blew my fucking mind. The idea of thinking about sound in a way that I’ve never thought about before. My earliest pieces…we had four reel-to-reel four-track machines in the studio, a mixing console, and a very small collection of gear, like the SPX90, and the MidiVerb, and some processors and things like that, and a DAT machine, a cassette deck. The first thing I did was bring in my CD collection; the SPX90 had a looper, the sample and hold thing.

So, I started sampling little excerpts out of my CDs, finding things that would loop and feel a bit more continuous, as opposed to having a more repetitive nature. I’d load up sixteen tracks of this information, four on each of these four reel-to-reels. In groups of four they were synched, but the individual decks were not, so there would be variance from machine to machine in terms of timing. Then I’d run them to the console, and I’d set up some kind of effects chain, figuring out how to route to the MidiVerb and to the SPX90, and things like that. Came up with a mix to cassette, and then I’d crack my knuckles, hit play on all four machines, and go to town. They were all one-offs.

Bach: Exactly. They were performances.

Barsotti: They were. That’s where I came from. The recording engineer aspect came later after I got an internship at Experimental Sound Studio and learned way more about the ways of studios and working…and also I started teaching.

Bach: We were talking about the mixing desk as another instrument in your repertoire…

Barsotti: The electroacoustic compositions become this focal point where I can take field recordings, object recordings, instrument recordings, along with technology like mixing boards and tape machines and processing devices, which becomes a fourth sonic element. But the commonality between all of this, which is part of my lineage as a photographer…I didn’t know what it was until much later in my life…is this concept of reduced listening.

Bach: Schaefer.

Barsotti: Pierre Schaefer, musique concrète. What I found myself interested in was the quality of sound, period. The source was not relevant to me. I spent a lot of time thinking about whether I’ve been able to actually achieve reduced listening, and I don’t think I have completely. My interest in instrument building started after I’d find an object and say, “That makes a cool sound. So does this. I need to put them in one place so I can have access to them, interact with them.” I was interested in the quality of sounds they produced. And then the field recordings became the same thing. I started recording things because I liked the sound of this. What it was a sound of didn’t matter. I liked listening to it. And the same thing with the objects, and the process of taking sound and running it through an effect of some kind, coming up with some kind of processing chain; it was very aesthetic: “I enjoy this process, I enjoy listening to this.” The act of listening is the common thread, of being very interested in the quality of the sound regardless of whether it’s from a field recording or a processor.

Bach: That brings us to the idea of collaboration. One of the things we talked about in San Francisco was the idea of a summit. A Phonographers Union summit. Let’s get everyone together. Marcos [Fernandes] with the Tokyo Phonographers Union, Chicago Phonography, the New England group, SoCal, Seattle, and have a huge party. That’s an amazing idea, and I’d love to see that happen someday. That got me thinking about what kinds of activities could happen remotely; you’re in Seattle, I’m in L.A. Common ground could be San Francisco, maybe, but what kind of structure…because in the old days, someone would record something on a cassette tape, drop it in the mail, the second person would listen to it, and add to it. That’s still a valid approach.

Barsotti: There’s Dropbox.

Bach: Dropbox. What types of cool things could we do that would be fun and could incorporate the things you’re interested in, that I’m interested in.

Barsotti: We’d probably need to put more thought into it, but one thing that just occurred to me is that we can talk more about this idea of space. You alluded to the process of how your ensemble works in the space, and I really like your ideas about reverb and ambient space, and how your sounds blends with that and how those two things interact. The work that SPU has done in the hangar and the silo are all about that. An interesting thing happened in the hangar when we performed there. We had this huge debate about our monitoring setup. They wanted monitors in front of us so that we could hear ourselves. I said, “If you do that, you will fuck this project up. We will hear everything crystal clear, respond based off of that, and the audience will hear mud.”

Bach: Yeah.

Barsotti: I finally convinced them to set up our monitors 150 yards away. And we did a great job because we had to interact with the space. Every decision we made was dependent on what the space did to our sounds. When we started doing these small, local setups like you guys have been doing, it makes the sound work in the space in a very different way. I think there is something interesting in the concept of space, and one thing that occurs to me is this notion of re-amping.

Bach: Okay.

Barsotti: Taking sounds, maybe from each other, and bringing them into spaces and broadcasting them and recording them in different, interesting ways. The idea of getting sounds that I may not be familiar with or comfortable with and taking them down to Carkeek Park and figuring out a way to broadcast them in the marsh and then record them. Or take them to the studios at the Art Institute.

Chris [DeLaurenti] is coming into town again in November, and we’re going up to the Cistern in Port Townsend in Seattle [this session was subsequently canceled–GB]. It’s this big underground concrete bunker with an amazing sonic quality that has attracted all kinds of musicians. One of the ideas I’m working on now is re-amping through substance, like sheet metal [moves laptop’s camera to show instrument].

photo by Steve Barsotti

Bach: Wow, look at that.

Barsotti: I have two speakers connected to that. The speakers vibrate the metal, sending vibrations through the metal in different ways, and then microphones are placed in different locations to capture the vibrations. Ideally I’m looking towards a performance with this where I have four or five microphones tied to four or five speakers in surround, so as sound goes through the plate, different nodal points of vibration will give off different qualities, different timbres, and that will surround you…so re-amping through materials like that. I also have these tin cookie bins, and I’ve attached speakers to the backs of them, and I laced the inside with springs, and the speaker excites the springs, which yield more reverb and more space because of the tins, and I stick a mic on the other side, or a contact mic inside the tin, or something like that.

So that type of sound is fascinating to me. To be fair, the sound artist Toshiya Tsunoda …I have three or four of his albums, like Pieces of Air, and The Air Vibrations inside a Hollow. He went around and stuck microphones in crevices like a Coke bottle on the side of the road. “How does the world sound from the inside of a Coke bottle?” So, there’s a direct connection there.

[Update from Steve: “I did realize the performance with the sheet metal. As described, I set it up with the speaker drivers connected to it. I then placed four pencil condensers very close to the plate (5mm or so), in specific locations. Ran tones through the plate creating different vibrational patterns. As the patterns shifted, the sound shifted on the plate. The mics were run to four speakers surrounding the room. The sound shifted through the space as the tones shifted across the plate. Recorded the performance as a direct mix since recording the surround did not make sense.”]

Bach: Sure. We don’t have to solve it now. I see this project as an open-ended series of conversations. I’m thinking of this as simply the beginning of our talk. We’ll sit with it, ponder it, do our own thing, read the transcript later. Maybe establish another conversation after that, talk about stuff we didn’t get to. Send a couple of files back and forth and see what develops. Look at it as an experiment: “How did that work? I sent you three sounds, and you went into the woods and re-amped them; how did that work?” Let it evolve. That’s the organic process I envisioned for this project, and so far it’s how it’s been working out. We don’t have to solve anything right now.

Barsotti: I think that’s fine. Frankly, I’m quite content to let you guide how this proceeds. Whether it takes a long time or a short time. I think that’s a fine, organic way to think about this.

Alan Nakagawa

Alan in the zone, Mi Ranchito, Mar Vista, CA (photo: Glenn Bach)

Alan Nakagawa is a force of creative nature. This conversation took place on July 1, 2012 at the now defunct Mi Ranchito restaurant on Washington Blvd (just off Grand View) in Mar Vista, California. Originally part of my earlier Atlas Sets project, the conversation feels right at home under the umbrella of Imprintable…stay tuned for a follow-up discussion to see what Alan has been up to in the five years since.

Glenn Bach: You were talking about your proposal for Soundwalk [2012]. What was that about again?

Alan Nakagawa: It’s due today [laughs].

Bach: I may just propose to do the docent thing that I did two years ago. I didn’t submit anything that year, but then they asked me if I wanted to lead a tour of Soundwalk. It wasn’t my own work. It was a performance of the process of walking around Soundwalk and leading a tour. So, I may do that again. I don’t want to do the soundscape ensemble again. I’m not in that mode right now.

Nakagawa: I think it’s great.

Bach: So, your proposal.

Nakagawa: It’s called First in Space: The Ride. Joseph [Tepperman] and I have this love for the space program, and specifically their use of animals. It’s a multi-tiered fascination. One is the horror [laughs] of sending these animals up there.

Bach: To certain death.

Nakagawa: I haven’t actually done the research, or as much research as I should, but I have this fantasy that there are these capsules up there with all these dead monkeys and dogs and cats and turtles. Which probably isn’t true; they’ve probably all come down by now.

Bach: Yeah, re-entry.

Nakagawa: Anyway. The whole beginning of the space program is so fascinating, the relationship with the Nazis, all that sort of thing. The use of the animals is great. Joseph and I are animal lovers, so there is this pro-animal thing going on. Not quite PETA, but rather a fun, kitsch type of thing. It’s also nostalgic in terms of this alleged ‘better times’ in America. So, there’s that. First, we created a storybook. There are traditions in all sorts of cultures that use the storybook format as early theater, specifically for kids. There’s a tradition in Japanese culture as well. So that was our first project. We created this TV set box thing. And we made all these illustrations of animals and these fictitious stories about the animals that had been shot into space. And then it was the story, which was very short, and then Joseph and I would improvise a piece of music in memorial to that.

Bach: Nice.

Nakagawa: We performed that for Eternal Telethon. We did it on Ear Meal, of course. We started doing more research, and we realized the actual stories of these animals are far more interesting than our made-up stories. We decided to spend a year researching the program, so between us we’ve read most of the books that are primarily focused on Laika but go above and beyond that.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: There are quite a few books. There’s even a comic book, which is great. Joseph’s fiancé works at the Museum of Jurassic Technology; they have paintings of all the original dogs.

Bach: That’s cool.

Nakagawa: There’s a whole room dedicated to those dogs. And they’re big paintings, three feet by four feet, two by three. Beautifully framed. And so Joseph and I thought we should have something where people experience the voyage. Over the course of several months we developed this very simple idea; no crazy technology or anything.

Bach: It’s just your truck [used for Sound Bed] [laughs].

Nakagawa. We’re just taking baby steps toward what we hope will be a bigger installation. For Soundwalk it’s First in Space: The Ride. That’s what the series is called, First in Space, for obvious reasons. The installation will be a modified tent, a dome tent, in the vernacular of a spaceship, the capsule. So, you walk into the capsule, you sit in a cockpit kind of thing, and then watch these images projected on the side of the tent. You put your helmet on, which has a microphone. The whole thing is an animation that moves forward by voice-recognition software. We are working on this footage that we created: a fictitious reenactment of what we think it might have been like to be one of these dogs. Your experience, through voice recognition, will be as if you are traveling through this space launch.

Bach: Right.

First in Space: The Ride (photo: FLOOD)

Nakagawa: But in the process of doing this for three minutes, you are, in a sense, creating a sound piece that’s visually activated through your voice, and you’re actually commanding the course of the piece.

Bach: So, you actually have to talk.

Nakagawa. You have to talk. And say it correctly, too. If you don’t, it tells you, “Say it again.”

Bach: “There is an error. You must…”

Nakagawa. So, you’re kind of like that dog. The dogs had to do some very simple things. So that’s what it is. It’s very simple. It’s very cute. Yesterday I spent six hours sewing a space suit for a little dog [laughs], which I’m very happy with. I’ll show you a picture.

Bach: That’s great.

from left to right: Giuseppe, Joseph Tepperman, Alan Nakagawa (photo: Elon Schoenholtz)

Nakagawa: [shows photograph on iPhone] I found this silver material in the Garment District. The top piece is the little hat. This thing is the vest. The feet go in there. We’re using Joseph and Ariana’s dog, Giuseppe. So, he’s small. I think those dogs were small. They didn’t shoot any St. Bernards up there. So, that’s the piece. Hopefully they’ll accept it.

Bach: Oh, I’m sure they will.

Nakagawa: They’ve accepted everything we’ve sent so far. Hopefully they’ll continue that tradition.

Bach: Well, I’ll definitely include your piece in the tour, if I end up doing the docent thing.

Nakagawa. Cool. I’m considering buying a telescope. It would be great to have a telescope next to the modified tent/capsule thing. See if they could spot any of these mausoleums floating in space [laughs].

Bach: That’s great.

Nakagawa: But I’ve always wanted a telescope for a long time. You’ve been to my house, it’s a two-story thing with a large attic, so it’s really three stories. I was thinking if you put a telescope on that roof, you’d probably be able to see quite a few things. Because it’s already on a hill.

Bach: Yeah, if you get above everything.

Nakagawa: Do you have a telescope?

Bach: No.

Nakagawa. There is such a huge selection.

Bach: Yeah, where do you start? Okay, you go down that rabbit hole. How many telescope buying guides are there?

Nakagawa. The wife of a friend of mine at work is an astronomer. She’s a telescope specialist at Cal Tech.

Bach: Good person to ask.

Nakagawa: I was going to ask her, but when you ask someone like that, they don’t really know the consumer stuff [laughs]. For twenty thousand dollars…[laughs].

Bach: Yeah [laughs].

Nakagawa: If you have half-a-million, you can get this. They’re on a family trip to England right now, so as soon as they get back I’m going to bend her ear on that.

Bach: So, do you consider the work that you’re doing, like this project, as part of a continuum, or are they individual projects that don’t have a lot to do with each other? Or are they all coming out of the same…

Nakagawa: The thing with Joseph?

Bach: All of it. The thing you’re doing for Soundwalk, the Sound Bed, the IsoCube, the thing you did at the Inglewood Library. Is this your collected body of work, or are they individual projects?

Nakagawa: I see it all as coming out of the same kitchen. Definitely. I think my work changed immensely when I started working…you know I’ve worked with Collage Ensemble [Inc.] for a long time. We were always interested in getting artists together and trying to create something. Sometimes that was successful, sometimes it wasn’t. Some of us remain friends, and some of us don’t. But, we weren’t afraid to walk into this safe zone and have at it, speak your mind.

So, that’s what that was about. It’s not so clear-cut in terms of chronology, but, while that was tapering off the last four years, I started working with Kio Griffith, just the two of us. Ironically, Kio and I started Collage Ensemble Inc. back in 1984 with Luchy Garcia. But I hadn’t seen him in fifteen years. We kind of bumped into each other in front of Giant Robot on Sawtelle. We started talking. Then we started working together, and we called it Otonomiyaki.

And so this ability to create an ongoing vocabulary of work with just one person was good for me, as opposed to Collage Ensemble, where we seemed to change with every project. There were some people who were consistent. Depending on the project, we had to get new, ‘specialty’ people.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: As the only person who stuck with it from beginning to end, I got to benefit from that. Or not [laughs], depending on how you look at it. Working with Kio one-on-one, for two-and-a-half years, was really good for me. It made me focus on the work, and the relationship was okay, as opposed to Collage Ensemble, where, as the lead artist you’re also working on the relationships, and you’re wearing two hats all the time.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: You know what that’s like. I’m not interested in doing that anymore [laughs]. And that’s why Collage Ensemble ended. One of the reasons. And then Joseph and I met. So, we’ve been working together for about two-and-a-half years on this one project. I also like that. I think that’s what you’re getting at, rather than with Collage Ensemble and working from one project to the next, totally changing genres and focus and members, and everything. I like this, working with Joseph for a couple of years.

We have this idea that eventually we’ll create this huge thing, but we’re going to take baby steps, project to project. We also get along really well; our temperaments are really good. He certainly has his solo work, and he also does this duet with Ariana, his fiancé, so it’s not like this is his only thing. So, that’s good. The next phase of First in Space is going to take advantage of his day job, where he is a voice-recognition software person for Rosetta Stone.

Bach: Wow.

Nakagawa: [laughs] He’s really good at it. So, he’s tackling this animation program that could be used with the voice recognition, and that’s what’s going to be projected. I think it’s a great marriage for this project. So I’m really enjoying it. I’m excited for the future of this relationship, because we both know that with this piece, if we get to do it for Soundwalk, that’s fine, but we’re going to keep working on it anyway, and eventually, a year or two down the road, we’ll do a bigger installation.

Bach: Yeah. Write a grant proposal, have it done somewhere like the Hammer

Nakagawa: Something like that would be awesome. But, going back to your original question. One of the things you asked in your question: does this all relate to each other? Definitely. Definitely. With Collage Ensemble there was also this sociopolitical thing happening. Intentionally, or unintentionally, getting people from different generations together, various disciplines. Even non-artists, sometimes. Certainly different ethnicities. Putting all that together was the exciting first step of any Collage Ensemble project.

Collage Ensemble Inc. circa 2000: (left to right) Alan Nakagawa, Brandy Maya Healy, Enrique Gonzalez, Chris Albisurez, Roxana Albisurez, William Archila, and Allan deSouza (photo:

Bach: Putting all the elements together to see how…

Nakagawa: Yeah, there was always this bigger social context to the work, and I think, today, I’m not so interested in the inter-ethnicity experience, because, for one, we did it for so long…

Bach: Right.

Brandy Healy and Alan Nakagawa (photo:

Nakagawa: [laughs] We drove that nail down as far as it’s going to go. So, my work is more about getting people acclimated to the theoretical mindset where experimental musicians and artists live. Because, I seriously think that if I figure that out, if we could figure that out, that that could be a model for better communication. For instance, my webcast, Ear Meal…the reason I’m personally doing that is for the greater good, to document the L.A. experimental sound and music scene. I would like to eventually donate it to an archive, and I feel that could potentially serve a purpose beyond the one-night performance in my garage.

So, for me personally it’s serving as two things. One, it’s teaching me. I’m getting educated with every show. It’s like a PhD or Masters program. I’m getting a survey of what’s going on out there, ideas and sounds and approaches. So, that’s good. The other thing, and this especially works with the oral history portion of Ear Meal…where are these folks coming from? What is their upbringing? As you know, when we did the interview, we hardly ever talked about the music. It’s mostly about your personal voyage of how you got to my garage [laughs].

Alan’s garage in Koreatown (photo: Glenn Bach)

Bach: Which is the basis of my project. My reflection on turning fifty, and where I’ve come from to get to that place. It’s sort of an autobiographical auto-history manifested through collaborations with friends and collaborators. So, the conversation we are having today informs and leads into the collaboration that you and I will do based on our conversations about our interests and the things that overlap. In a way, it’s similar in some way to what you’re doing with Ear Meal, but maybe for a more narrow…not narrow but…

Nakagawa: Specific?

Bach: Specific purpose. To generate the infrastructure of a collaboration, the themes, the motives, the format, the form of what you and I are going to do, to record it for the catalogue.

Nakagawa: It’s a wonderful approach.

Bach: So, I didn’t mean to interrupt you on the…

Nakagawa: No, not at all. It gave me an opportunity to eat some lunch [laughs]. There is a subtext challenge to this interview: the food’s getting cold [laughs].

Bach: I’ll talk, you eat. So, you asked if I’ve been working on anything. The idea of an artist working in a genre, or category, a body of work that has to be one thing or another. And at this point in my life I’m not really interested in those categories anymore. Am I a visual artist? Am I a poet? Am I a sound artist? Am I a musician? Whatever. I’m just going to do what I do. And the transcript of the conversation, for me, is just as important and just as valid a manifestation of my artistic practice as anything else. The process of having a meal, engaging in a conversation, recording it, and, over the next two or three weeks [laughs] transcribing it, and having that record, that’s just what I do.

So, the project, Atlas Sets, was, at first, an attempt to articulate what I do, where I’ve been, and why I’ve been drawn to the people I work with. A means to an end, but also a process in and of itself that is just as interesting. I wasn’t really expecting that. As the project developed, and I figured out how I was going to proceed, the conversations have become as important as the eventual collaborations that we’ll do, along with the recording and documentation, and performances. But I hadn’t thought of it in terms of oral history until you mentioned it, and now it makes perfect sense. It’s not just a discussion of what we’re going to do and why, but it’s also a conversation about…it’s like a snapshot of where we are, July 1, 2012, in L.A., right now.

Nakagawa: You mentioned that in one of your classes you were dissecting film, using it is a case study, if you will, for various things like teaching about story. One of the things I’m interested in, and you probably know this better than I would, has anyone done any research on the phenomena of director’s notes, interviews, things like that on DVDs?

Bach. Hmm.

Nakagawa: Because, and I don’t know how much truth there is to this, but in America we’re constantly told that our level of education is declining, thereby, in a sense, saying that Americans today are stupid, are dumber than they were in the past.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: And yet, more people have more access to information than ever. What used to be just entertainment is also education. For instance, I recently bought Blade Runner on DVD, the anniversary edition, and there are all these interviews, the making of, and all that, and I’m thinking, for the folks who used to make movies back in the forties and fifties, this must be really weird to them. Right, because it’s about illusion. Why would you want to see the Wizard, the man behind the curtain?

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa. But, I think people are generally interested in that, the ability to be engaged in the work. What’s that saying again, ‘the suspension of disbelief?’ To be able to gear in and out of the suspension of disbelief; that’s a mechanism that has to be new.

Bach: There’s an article in my textbook that talks about this.

Nakagawa: Can I get a copy of that?

Bach: Yeah. One author takes the position that American culture has been dumbed down, with reality TV and the devolving of culture from a hierarchical high art/low art division, and that the level of discourse in our society has become degraded. The other author argues that, on the contrary, the American public, the media consumer, has gotten more sophisticated over the years because the things we are watching have become more complex. Video games, going back and forth between the suspension of disbelief and willfully immersing yourself in the world of the filmmaker, but at the same time being able to flip back and be reflective about it, looking at the behind-the-scenes and seeing the green screen and how they did this particular effect, but when you watch the movie again you can set that knowledge aside. So the idea that the consumer can exist in those modes, if not simultaneously, reflects a more sophisticated understanding of media.

Nakagawa. Right.

Bach: So, we’re not getting dumber, we’re getting smarter. We’re getting more complex and nuanced in our viewing habits. Just looking at the content of the shows. They compared Dallas, the old soap opera, with some of the shows on now, like Game of Thrones, or The Wire, or Lost, and the multiple narratives and character arcs that are going on in these contemporary dramas have become very sophisticated and convoluted, and viewers are demanding and expecting these complex narratives. Whereas, if you watch some of these shows from the 1970s and 80s, they’re extremely simple. Talking about genre in the class, and how genre is this interface that allows the viewer to quickly grasp the scope of the narrative.

Okay, you go see a western. So, you have this expectation of a singular hero with a dark past, in the wide open spaces of the American west during a certain time period. So, there are all these conventions and tropes the viewer already expects. And the classical Hollywood narrative of the studio system of the thirties and forties counted on those very predictable genres, knowing the shorthand, the easily replicable skeleton on which they could slot in varying details, so that they could crank out hundreds of these films, just by changing a character name or detail. But now, maybe because of postmodernism, because of Tarantino, the idea of genre is…we still appreciate those categories, those easily recognizable motifs, but we’re also hungry for cross-pollination, and we have the ability to go deeper, to understand more complex narratives.

Nakagawa: Maybe in the future we will watch a show, and there will be a sidebar of the psychology of the character and also the actress.

Bach: Yeah, it will get to the point where we can simultaneously…instead of going back and forth, watching the film and being entirely in it, and when it’s done watching the behind-the-scenes featurette to get a different experience, why not combine the two to begin with, watch the film in a suspension of disbelief, but at the same time also be aware of the structure, aware of the green screen, the multiple takes that they used, the actors improvising their lines. So, the idea of a succinct, intact product from beginning to end is no longer rigid. How many versions of Blade Runner are there?

Nakagawa: On my DVD there are four [laughs].

Bach: Yeah, so, for example, the three new Stars Wars prequels, and how much grief they got because they weren’t very good, to be able to go in and restructure the narrative to fit your own…to go in and completely re-dub all of Jar Jar Binks dialogue, different voice, different accent. Or re-cut the scenes altogether in this different mix of the film for your own idiosyncratic purposes. Does it then become a performance? I don’t know.

Nakagawa: I like the audience participatory aspect of it.

Bach: It’s not quite ‘Choose Your Own Adventure,’ but I think the influence of video games and the non-linear, non-fixed narrative is something that has yet to be explored on the blockbuster level. What if James Cameron had dedicated his resources and his money to that, instead of the spectacle of a story [Avatar] that was actually very ordinary and pedestrian?

Nakagawa: Yeah. I think walking towards that arena of focus is something that…I think I’m walking towards that. I’m not sure it’s empowering people; I think it’s offering the audience tools that are beyond just the work. That’s why I’m interested in what people have to say, director’s notes, things like that, in making work. For instance, the piece that we [Otonomiyaki] did, Ginger and Mary Ann, the two bicycles that are fuzzied up to be portraits of those characters from Gilligan’s Island, and they have fishing poles with plastic water bottles on the end, and there are lots of valves and things that jingle, so as you ride them through the streets there’s a clanging and ringing that you can control. It’s a two-bike performance; anybody can get on the bikes.

There are a couple of things going on. There is the actual aspect of making sound, the entertainment-interactive thing that happens, the recognition of bike culture in L.A. and the arts, there’s the nostalgia of Gilligan’s Island, there’s the sexual fantasy of Ginger and Mary Ann. The year when we did it, the gay marriage initiative got canned in California, so in our own heterosexual way we were saying something about that. But, above and beyond all that, it was humor. It was a funny piece. People, whenever they saw it, especially when they were riding it, were laughing.

Bach: Right. I remember that.

Nakagawa: I think laughter is really important because it’s the natural alcohol. It opens your palate, lets your guard down a little bit, opens you up. You become a better listener, or you can. Becoming a better listener is key to why I am drawn to the kind of work that I’m making right now. I don’t know a lot about world politics, but what little I’m hearing seems to be challenged by listening.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: The ability to really listen. Now, maybe a lot of people are consciously not listening, because they have their own agenda, and they want to push that agenda. Traditional political practice is that you just keep pushing your agenda and push to the point where you win. And so, all of these genres, these professions that hold up the political fabric, are also geared toward this, commerce, trade, law, attorneys.

I was listening to something recently about relationships, and this one example of a husband and wife getting a divorce. They were on good terms, they understood where they were, and they said, “This is how we will do it.” She made more money than he did. So she said, “I’m going to give you enough money so that you can have an apartment near where I live so that we can be both close to the kids.” They didn’t know how to get a divorce, so they asked a lawyer. And the lawyer said, “No way are you giving him money for an apartment,” and so it grew into this bitter fight, and it even went so far as to pin the kids against each other. Clearly, had the attorney asked, “What do you guys want? Okay, this is how you can do it,” as opposed to, “She’s my client, so I’m going to do this.” To me that was an example of not listening and this whole idea of how all of these professions are geared toward…

Bach: Implementing.

Nakagawa: Implementing. Not listening. And I see that in the bigger picture of the political spectrum. The worldwide political spectrum is ill because of this virus that has been growing for centuries. So, in my own little way, I was thinking that if I could take this genre that I love, that I’m so passionate about…because, even to this day, I’m not exactly sure I can fully articulate to a novice why I love experimental music so much. So I thought if I could listen to all these people who I respect talk about why they do it, that that would help me to figure out the words I need to use to explain why I love this music so much.

Bach: To a layperson or someone who’s unfamiliar with experimental music.

Nakagawa: Right. What I hear most, if not all, of the artists talk about…because one of the questions that I ask near the end of the oral history…I’m eventually going to donate this to an archive. My dream is that somebody, years from now, uses it as something to learn about the music. Whether it’s a research student or somebody who heard something on NPR, and they don’t know anything about that music, and they stumble on the Ear Meal archive…so, the question is, “What would you say to that person?” When they [Ear Meal artists] talk about their history, there is usually a point where they discover this music. “If you could go back and speak to yourself when you were twelve and you heard that Cage piece for the first time, and it blew you away, is there anything you would say to yourself?”

And it’s interesting to hear what they say. In my own little non-academic way, I’m trying to come to grips with how I can use my art to help people communicate better. How can I make the world better? Unfortunately, I’m very ‘John Lennon’: humanity I want to save; it’s the people I can’t stand [laughs]. I’m aware that I have that problem, so I’m always working on that as well. I think that’s why I work in public art. I’ve been at Metro for twenty years. I think that’s my specialty, to go into a situation and help bridge the gaps.

Alan at Metro (Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He is now retired from Metro.

Bach: Right, because you’re fluent in both cultures. You’re fluent in the corporate, government sphere, and you’re fluent as an artist, and you can be the facilitator.

Nakagawa: And why is that? Because, I think, more than most of my colleagues, I’m a better listener. I let people talk. I don’t stop them in mid-sentence so I can interject my thoughts. I think that’s very important. I see it done all the time. It drives me nuts. But, I know where it comes from. They’re impatient, or they know what they want already so they just want to get to it, and they really don’t care [laughs] about what you want.

Bach: Or, it’s their inability to keep a thought fully formed for any length of time. They’re afraid that if they don’t get it out, go on the record, that they will flub it somehow. So it’s really important to them that the other person hears what they are saying, but they don’t realize that a conversation is an organic thing and it’s okay if a thought disappears or gets mutated and you aren’t able to articulate it exactly the way you thought you wanted to.

Nakagawa: You know the device to make that happen and not demean the path that you’re on…now, of course, as we’re talking about this, we could easily substitute jamming together…

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: I feel like there’s something in the construct of our work that is going to be helpful to a larger body of people, and in simple terms it’s about listening, or the mechanics of listening, the social politics, for a win-win situation. Everyone always talks about a win-win situation, but we hardly ever see one [laughs]. Because of this illness that I mentioned earlier.

Bach: People think that the stakes are one way, but really the stakes aren’t as dire as they think they are. “Why is it so important to interject or implement your vision at this point in time? What do you think you’re getting out of it? Don’t you think it’s okay to let the conversation go where it goes?” I think people misjudge the stakes. It’s a process, because listening is a skill that you have to practice. And I’m guilty, like everyone else, of slipping out of the moment, daydreaming, imagining how I’m going to respond, and I lose the connection, and I find myself snapping back.

Nakagawa: Right.

Bach: And I feel a little guilt…

Nakagawa: But being able to snap back is good.

Bach: Yeah. But it’s something you have to be aware of. It’s a mindful practice of non-judgment.

Nakagawa. It’s so hard not to judge.

Bach: Being mindful, being present, you slip out of it, you daydream, and monkey mind takes over. But then you snap back and remind yourself that it’s not a judgment, you shouldn’t feel guilty, you’re not a bad person, and you simply return to the present. It’s just a thought. For me, that’s a model for music makers and improvisation and the collaboration that happens when two or more people come together to make a musical statement.

One of the most profound discoveries that I’ve had recently is what we’ve done with SCSE, with each person having his or her own amp, setting up in different places. We disrupt the traditional hierarchical relationship between audience and performer, where the performer is here up on stage, and the audience is here watching, and it’s this linear thing. We first solved the problem of the mix by taking everyone out of the same P.A, the same stereo mix, so we solved that.

Nakagawa: That’s great. I love that.

Bach: And then we solve the top-down aspect of us presenting this music to the audience by spreading out around the space. And, by doing that, it necessitates each one of us in the ensemble to listen more carefully, because we have to listen to our own sound coming out of our own amp and what other people are doing in the space…

Nakagawa: Especially if they’re clear across the room.

Bach: Yeah, it’s a remarkable transformation of the mix, and the mix is something that I’ve been interested in recently. When you talk about helping people communicate and how you do that…I think one of the things I’m trying to do, similar to that, is bring an awareness, even if it’s just for myself—but I’m hopeful that other people are getting it—of drawing attention to the relationship of the sound source and the listener. It’s a communication through a channel where the sound originates at the source and propagates through the medium and interacts with the space, and by the time it gets to your ears it’s been entirely transformed by the space.

To me that’s a magical thing. It’s beautiful. These sound waves go out, they bounce, and they mix with other sounds. It’s the mix. It’s the natural mix of the soundscape. The soundscape happens 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, everywhere. As musicians we set up and alter it by adding additional, purposed sounds to the existing ambience of the space. So, where does our performative soundscape reach the level of the natural soundscape, where they meet and mingle, where our sounds inform and alter the natural soundscape, which, in turn, informs our performance? And are they are even separate?

So, I want to bring to the audience an awareness of that interrelationship, without lecturing on acoustics, psychoacoustics, or reverberation. I think that just by the way we spread out around the space automatically gets them into a different frame of mind. They have to do a little bit of detective work. Or they give in and close their eyes, and let the performance wash over them. Whether SCSE is active or on the back burner, that revelation alone has been so important for me in what I do and what I’m about. And that becomes my work. That becomes what my work is about. The subject matter of my work and why I do it.

So, it’s self-reflective, but not necessarily formalist, or modernist. How do all of those things come together with what we do? Because you were talking about this joy, this humanistic effort through your art to bring people together, or bring them into a space where they are more open, understanding where people are coming from, or appreciate an experimental music situation, creating the setting.

Nakagawa: A piece I did last year, for one of the CicLAvias, the piece was called Sound Forest. You had to apply and propose a project, so they accepted my proposal. They gave me this little island in the Garment District on 9th and some other street. It wasn’t big, maybe 8 feet by 8 feet. A triangle with a big sign on it. I installed twelve cymbal stands with either a found object or percussion instrument on each stand, with a mallet or drumstick on a fairly long cable.

The city workers put safety barriers, the folding kind without the light, around the area so that cyclists wouldn’t…maybe they thought people would run into this island, I doubt if they would…so I made signs on the barriers that said “Come Play,” both directions, east and west. I set up right across the street at this pizza place for the next six hours, and people would come up to me and talk, which was great, but I was digging watching people on their bikes go up to the island and negotiate their relationship to what the island was.

Some people got it [snaps fingers] and instantly picked up on the thing and started banging on it, and others just looked around and were like, “Are we allowed to…is this okay?” More often than most, someone was already playing, so that was an invitation, “Oh, this person is playing…”

Bach: It gave them permission.

Sound Forest by Nakagawa at Ciclavia 2011 from Alan Nakagawa on Vimeo.

Nakagawa: This whole thing of getting permission. That’s a very important word. Permission. Because in art, the permission norm is so drenched in museum visiting. The kind of work that I do, I want to melt that away a bit. I go to museums a lot, as do most of us. I had an experience at LACMA once [laughs]. There was this flat-file drawer, I think it was next to the Schwitters, so I knew there were more collages in that drawer, or posters. So I went up to it and start pulling them, and the guard comes and he yells at me, “You can’t touch that.” And I said, “What do you mean, it’s a flat file with artwork in it. Aren’t we supposed to see the artwork?” And he said, “You’re not supposed to touch the artwork.” Okay [laughs], and I walk away. And that experience was so important to me because the first thing I think of is “I’m the one with the MFA, the artist. Don’t tell me I can’t touch this flat file.” But, I’m also a citizen.

So here’s the hierarchy, the authority telling me I can’t touch it. And, of course, they are the authority; they could arrest me if they wanted to. And so, I’m not going to jail just for a Schwitters piece, so I walk away. The second thing I was thinking was, “Wow, how many people has that guy told not to touch that flat file. Not even can you not touch the painting, which, of course, I totally agree you shouldn’t touch the painting, but you can’t touch the thing you’re supposed to touch. How many first-time museum-goers have been turned off by that guy’s ignorance. And it might not be ignorance; it might be his supervisor who told him.

So, I don’t want to be part of that art mechanism. I don’t like that at all. I think that’s why I like my job, which is public art. Mind you, it’s become very conservative in the past couple of years. But in the past we wanted people to touch the work. We wanted people to engage in the work. We don’t quite have that in the past couple of years because of a conservative maintenance fear that we have as an agency and as a field.

Bach: And liability, I’m sure that plays a part.

Nakagawa. Yeah. I’m not interested in that. I want people to sit in things, touch things, lick things. I really want them to think it’s okay. I want them to have fun, and while we’re having fun I could tell you something you didn’t know. Or you could tell me something I didn’t know, and wouldn’t it be great if we could have a conversation. Like with Suzanne Lacy’s work; that’s powerful stuff. It’s very committed and it’s very empowering to the participants. And I love those elements of that work. And I want to build work like that. That’s why I gravitate to composing things like Sound Forest, and Ginger and Mary Ann

Bach: The Sound Bed.

Nakagawa: Sound Bed, you know, that was a multi-tiered thing. I fell in love with Integratron that year. I had never been before and I had three visits that year. I just couldn’t believe it. That somebody, a non-musician, had created a piece that is exactly what I want my music to do. I just couldn’t believe it. So, I just kept going. It was like an opium den for acousticians, or something.

Bach: Yeah.

SOUND BED by Nakagawa at Soundwalk 2010 from Alan Nakagawa on Vimeo.

Nakagawa: So, I wanted to build an homage to that. That’s what Sound Bed was. I also used the bed that my ex-wife and I conceived our two kids on, and all that. We trashed the bed after that night. I told everybody who helped me: this was the last piece of furniture from our marriage. I wanted to use it for Sound Bed, and now we’re going to throw it away.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: It was explained to me that Integratron in its physical construct is a battery. I’m not exactly sure how batteries work, but it has to do, first of all, with the perfect wood dome, the sphere. The cavity under the dome, which was originally supposed to have those metal rods that house the electricity from the self-generating mechanism outside, which he never finished. And then it’s on a part of the Big Rock.

Bach: Yeah, and the ley lines.

Nakagawa. So, it’s actually on the rock, and under the rock there are three rivers. So there are three currents going on, and in that totality as a drawing is exactly how a battery is made. Your alkaline battery, or whatever. So, I love that. Now, could he [George Van Tassel] have really known that the three rivers were under there? Or that the rock was…I don’t think so.

Bach: Yeah, he was tapping into some kind of…

Nakagawa: He was tapping into something. Maybe he did, I don’t know. He was an engineer, so it’s not far-fetched. I would love to romantically think that there were aliens involved [laughs].

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa. We love that story, and we’re sticking to it. Because it’s funny, and it’s exciting.

RED FLAT at the Integratron from Alan Nakagawa on Vimeo.

Bach: It’s got personality, it’s charming and quirky, and it generates a lot of interesting narrative. We went there for the first time…

Nakagawa. Oh! When?

Bach: On this camping trip, a couple months ago.

Nakagawa: In Joshua Tree.

Bach: Yeah, in Joshua Tree. On the last day we went to Integratron and did the Sound Bath.

Nakagawa: Nice. How did you like it?

Bach: You know, Sharon had a pretty intense experience. Our friend Megan did as well. I couldn’t get out of my musician mode, because the docent who was playing the bowls for the Sound Bath…his performance to me felt a little overdone, because he was activating the bowls…and if you manipulate them too much you build up these standing waves and the beats, the wah wah wah wah…for me, those are the types of things I try to avoid in a mix, because that’s just feedback that isn’t necessarily communicating timbre or sonic information that I’m interested in sharing. It’s just a byproduct of the electronic phenomena of using loudspeakers.

So, for me, I wanted to get up, walk over to the guy, elbow him aside and say “Let me get on the bowls and activate a much more subtle performance.” And that was just me trying to control the musical aspect of the Sound Bath.

Nakagawa: Wow! That’s a really powerful experience, too.

Bach: Yeah, it was. And it seemed a little long. So, I had that kind of experience. I’m glad we did it. I think that’s great, that each person will have an individual experience being bathed in oscillating sound. And just the permission to set aside forty minutes of your life, to lie down and be silent and open yourself to a new experience. That, in itself is pretty cool.

Nakagawa: Did you fall asleep?

Bach: No.

Nakagawa: You didn’t? I always fall asleep towards the end. Which I think is interesting. These frequencies are going through my body, I’m asleep, but I don’t think I hit REM. I don’t remember having any dreams. But, that’s also important to me. So, I was trying to take whatever my experience was and translate it to the mobile thing [Sound Bed].

So, the movement of the truck was taking the place of the three rivers and the wood plank was the dome. The frequencies aren’t reverberating, but they’re vibrating. But it’s like the beds in those old motels where you put the coins in. It’s the time element…I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. I didn’t test it out. We finished it a week before Soundwalk. And we never drove more than half-a-block. Lying there at night, looking up, and going around the block really slowly, generally four or five minutes going around, seemed to transform just about everybody who did it.

Now, did it transform them as much as Integratron would have? I don’t know. But I know that it did change them. They did have an experience, whatever that experience was, and I’d like to think that the vibrations had something to do with it, because I specifically used certain tones and pulses. Because when it’s about vibrating wood, it’s no longer about melody [laughs] or anything like that.

Bach: No, no. It’s about sensation.

Nakagawa: It’s about frequencies and pulses. Like Lazy Boy music. So, there’s that. So, the next body of work that I’m working on, and this is completely solo, is based on Royal Rife’s frequencies. My friend, who is a chiropractor, has this exercise program in his office, with all of these machines and steppers, and he has this really great trainer, this big Greek guy [laughs], and I only lasted in that thing for a month. I couldn’t take it. It’s just the wrong atmosphere, but I learned a lot. This trainer found out that I was into sound and music, and I told him what kind of music, and he said, “Oh, do you know the work of Royal Rife?”

Now, he himself is a musician, he plays Greek music, bouzouki, so he understands where I’m coming from, although I don’t think he understands experimental music. And when I explained to him a little about experimental music, he asked if I knew Royal Rife. And I wrote down the name to Google later. He said, “You should research Royal Rife.” And that changed my life. Just that one sentence. “You should research Royal Rife.”

I’ve been working on Rife’s frequencies for about two years now, and I’ve been putting them in paintings and installations, and currently creating a body of sound work based on the frequencies of Royal Rife. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but it’s something that has completely immersed my work. This guy was a scientist and allegedly found the frequencies that kill pathogens; he figured out the frequencies that the pathogens were working on, so he just used the anti-frequency.

Bach: To cancel out the waveforms.

Nakagawa: His research was primarily about that. So he created these x-ray type of machines, but they weren’t x-rays but soundwaves, so they could pinpoint into a microorganism, a very precise area. He also innovated the microscope industry; the perfect guy to figure this out.

The big news, and this was in the thirties, he had one hundred patients who were dying of cancer, and he cured eighty of them, and the other twenty, he changed their frequency and cured them within a given amount of time through very close observation. So, the story is his lab mysteriously burned down, and he was sued by the American Medical Association and basically died penniless. No one really heard about his work until the early nineties when a writer at the New York Times discovered the work and did a short little thing about it. And it just sort of exploded, in terms of the research of Royal Rife’s work, the selling of alleged Rife equipment [laughs], which is probably bogus.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: Now there’s a Royal Rife website where a lot of this stuff is, it’s like a library filled with stuff, so I’m just going through it as much as I can. A lot of the terminology I don’t understand. And the stuff from the twenties, the use of English was so different so it’s hard to understand exactly what they mean. There’s a lot of handwritten stuff, which is hard to read. So, it’s all there, and I’m slowly using it in my visual work and in my sound work. So, of course I’m not really interested in using the frequencies to cure cancer.

Bach: Yeah, yeah.

Nakagawa: I’m not a scientist.

Bach: It’s a translation.

Nakagawa: It’s a translation. A point of inspiration. But I do like the added bonus of using a reference that also points to the political construct of the medical industry, the medical genre in the U.S. This whole healthcare thing; it’s just nasty stuff. There’s the mafia, you know. And I wonder, how many cures for AIDS there are, but they’re not out.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: I always wonder. I have a cat allergy. I walked through your house and I was fine. It’s when the cat shows up, and it’s their saliva, I get itchy, and my kids have this too. And I like cats. I wish I could pick them up, but I can’t. How come there’s not a pill for that? It seems like such an easy thing. Claritin works sometimes, but I don’t want to take too much Claritin. There has to be something. Maybe most of the scientists are dog lovers [laughs].

Bach: [laughs] Right!

Nakagawa: What could be the reason why there’s no cat pill out there?

Bach: And it’s almost not important that it’s [Rife’s frequencies] factual…

Nakagawa: No. Because I have no idea if it is.

Bach: It’s more important that it’s inspiring, and it’s an interesting idea. And that it generates artistic activity on your part. It’s like this mode, or node of energy.

Nakagawa: He’s perfect for me, because he has the frequencies, which is sound, and the sociopolitical thing, which is the medical thing. And then I also enjoy the fact that there’s this Tesla thing going on. I like that stuff. I don’t know anything about it, but I just love it. It’s what drives me to sci-fi. Like, one of my favorite movies is Buckaroo Banzai.

Bach: Oh, jeez.

Nakagawa: Yeah. That’s such a goofy movie, but it’s so fun. I’m drawn to sci-fi comedy. I really like that genre of film. I don’t pretend to be a specialist or anything.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: I just like that. The gizmo and then the laughter, all in one.

Bach: The mad scientist…

Nakagawa: It’s like rocky road ice cream.

Bach: Weird Science, Real Genius. And I haven’t seen any of these in ages, but Back to the Future. You have this sort of weird, quirky genius; is he crazy, is he on to something? But it doesn’t really matter…

Nakagawa: Because he has the DeLorean and it works [laughs].

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: Well, Christopher Lloyd is in Buckaroo Banzai. So is John Lithgow, who then does Third Rock From The Sun. So, there’s this funny comedy sci-fi thing.

Bach: So how is the Royal Rife stuff manifesting? Are there certain frequencies, like, 80 Hz, or 120?

Nakagawa: 10,000 is very popular.

Bach: Interesting.

Nakagawa: So, I’m drawn to what I know so far. There’s more to be studied, you know. I plan on sticking to it for the next four years. Delving into it, seeing where it takes my work. It’s drawn me to oscillators. I’m very interested in getting a signal processor at some point. I have no idea how to work one, but I thought maybe somebody could teach me.

Bach: Or you just sit with it long enough and figure it out. Now, with the IsoCube, what’s the sound source?

Alan and his IsoCube (photo: Sesshu Foster)

Nakagawa: [laughs] It’s interesting.

Bach: I know there’s a story behind it.

Nakagawa: I put a bunch of stuff in there. There’s one microphone.

Bach: One microphone. So, you’re manipulating objects and the signals captured by the mic and then run through pedals…

Nakagawa: That rig I use mostly with Ear Diorama Ear, with Kaoru [Mansour]. The IsoCube is hooked up to these pedals, and I have another set of pedals that are hooked up to a circuit-bent keyboard, a Skychord, the Utopia pedal. I also have the Glamour Box. I sent it back to him, he said he’d fix it, and that was two months ago.

I don’t know, so I hope he’s okay. I have no other contact info other than the e-mail and the phone number I have for him. I had a friend e-mail him too, without referencing me, and he hasn’t heard back either. I hate to lose my GlamourBox, but I hope this guy’s okay. I’m pretty sure he’s a one-man operation.

Bach: I bet.

Nakagawa: These companies like SkyChord are fantastic for people like us. I just bought the Utopia from a musician in the Universal Studios area, and I asked him, “Are you done with this?” And he said, “Yeah, I got a bunch of synthesizers that pretty much do the same thing. So, there’s no need for it. I bought it for this one project.” So, I took it that maybe he’s a composer who does soundtracks. And I thought, “Yeah, a synthesizer would do this, but it’s not the same” [laughs].

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: Anyway, so I started playing with that. This one has two oscillators on it. The Glamour Box has two oscillators and two modulators. That’s all they are. You don’t know what the hell you’re doing, because there are just dials and switches. No screen or nothing. So you’re shooting in the dark.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: I like that aspect of it. It’s fun. It has a built-in chance operation. You know the genre of what it will do, but you don’t know exactly what it will do. I like that. And the isoCube was a way for me…because I started as a drummer, and that was the drummer in me wanting to be a guitar player…

Bach: Interesting.

Nakagawa: Because the guitar player gets to play with the pedals. So, [the IsoCube] is a box, you put your hands in there. Lately I’ve been using one hand, and there’s something in there that you play. And it’s usually something that I think would be really difficult to mic with an open mic.

Bach: Yeah.

Alan and the IsoCube (photo: Alan Nakagawa via

Nakagawa: You get feedback, and all of this residual sound, this atmospheric sound through the pedal, which I can’t say never happens with the IsoCube, it does, but less so, and you have more control with the feedback thing. The first IsoCube was a black box, and nobody could see what I was playing. The new box has a window in the front. Double-plated plexi, pretty thick. The intent is for it to be semi-soundproof. It’s not perfectly soundproof because you can put your hands through. I think it’s pretty good. So far it’s worked out really well because the sound that comes out of it is pretty damn pure. It’s pretty close to what’s in there.

Bach: And it comes out of a 1/4 inch jack?

Nakagawa: Yeah. So that’s been my mode of music-making. It’s taken me a long time, as opposed to many of the people who have been on Ear Meal, to relinquish the drumset. To relinquish the instrument you started with. I’m even thinking of selling the drumsets I have. Maybe keep one. I think I’ve finally kicked it out of my system. It’s taken a long time. I love drumming. I love playing drums. Sometimes when I’m in the midst of playing, I’m thinking to myself, “Why are you still playing drums?”


Bach: What is this doing for you?

Nakagawa: What is this doing for me? Keeping my chops up? What for? So, the IsoCube helps me phase into a place I think I should have been much earlier [laughs] in my career. It helps me, because it’s like being a percussionist, but you’re using percussion for sound source.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa. Not a maraca.

Bach: It divorces the drum kit from rhythm. From providing…

Nakagawa: Right.

Bach: It’s a musical instrument, but one of its most powerful uses is to provide pulse, rhythm, and, a lot of avant garde percussionists do that…

Nakagawa: Yeah, who are wonderful. But I don’t want to play like that. I’m not interested. I recently had Ted [Byrnes]…he was recently on two shows this season. He’s awesome. Tatsuya Nakatani is phenomenal. Joe Berardi, these are amazing players, but I have no interest in playing the drums like that. There are some great folks out there lately, turning the drumset upside down. There’s always going to be rock in me.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: I was always a rock player, and I still love singing songs once in a while. That’s always going to be in my blood. I’m never going to be John Cage.

Bach: We do what we do, and we have fun, and we explore the interface we have with music, which is what experimental music is. An exploration. One of the terms I’ve seen used in place of experimental music is exploratory music.

Nakagawa: Okay.

Bach: Getting out of the scientific aspect of it, or the trappings of that term. Because how many people think of it in terms of a hypothesis, conducting an experiment, and analyzing the results? Exploratory ties into the idea of looking for meaning, for discovery, for something new, not necessarily new in terms of ‘no one has ever done this before,’ but new to you in terms of “What is this? What is this sound that I’m hearing? What’s happening with this combination of sounds? Did I generate that? If I did, now what do I do with it? The structure of sounds sequentially broadcast, what does that mean? What kind of musical narrative does that generate?”

So, having fun with it. Having a community of artists who feel the same way, or who are at least open to it. That’s why I’ve been so blessed with all the people I’ve worked with over the years, having this shared…aesthetic? Not aesthetic…a shared…

Nakagawa: Approach? Vision?

Bach: Culture. A shared culture of openness and a willingness to treat improvisation in similar ways, with a similar respect. Instead of going into an improv situation and, like you said, imposing. Implementing. “I’m going to do this [mimics wall of sound].” Rather than “I’m going to listen. I’ll see what happens, and I’ll respond, or not, to what everyone else is making, to see if we can have a conversation in the musical moment.” And, as you know, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Nakagawa: But you’re open to that.

Bach: You’re open to that. And the people we work with share that. And if they don’t share it, we soon realize that we probably won’t work with them very often. Because there’s not a lot of communication. I don’t do a lot of large group improvisations anymore because I don’t like being in situations where I’m struggling to hear what I’m playing. We’re all going through the same P.A., and we’re all competing to be heard, and the stuff that I’m doing tends to be quiet anyway, because I’m interested in threshold, in tones intermingling and having this awareness of where the sound comes in and how it changes as it gets slightly louder. And for that kind of careful listening, it doesn’t really happen much in…

Nakagawa: Right. I read the interview [Atlas Sets] with Jeff and Steve [Roden], and they talked a little bit about that.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: I think that’s really important. I don’t know if it has to do with our age, or our experience, but I really feel I’m at a point where I’m saying no a lot. The past twelve months I’ve said no to a lot of opportunities. Where, before I would say, “Yeah! I’ll do that! Absolutely!” Lately I’ve been saying, “No, I’m working on this right now, I really need to focus on this.” That’s not the same Alan Nakagawa from ten years ago, twenty years ago.

Bach: There’s a maturity, a relief, a recognition of quality of life issues. I can accept all of these opportunities, do all these things, and, not only that, but seek them out, and I know I’m going to have certain results from those. Do them enough and you see the cause-and-effect [laughs], the type of result that comes from those types of things. It doesn’t interest me…

Nakagawa: Yeah.

Bach: To know that I’ll be put in those situations and struggle to have a musical experience that makes sense for me.

Nakagawa: Right.

Bach: If it doesn’t make sense from the beginning, I’m probably not going to be able to transform it enough…

Nakagawa: Ah. That’s not good. Why are you there?

Bach: Trying to force it to transform. Rather than working with something that is integrally open and possible to begin with. Work from there, from a good foundation, and nine times out of ten you can get decent results. But if the starting point is already stacked against you, trying to go in and force it to a place it’s not meant to be…I’m not interested.

Nakagawa. Life’s too short. In Ear Diorama Ear, Kaoru is…you know, she’s a fairly established vocalist in this genre, and she’s been doing this for a while. Allegedly she’s older than I am, but I’ve never had the guts to ask her [laughs] how old she is. But, I can’t imagine that she’s that much older than me, but she keeps saying, “You are so young.”

Bach: Ah [laughs].

Ear Diorama Ear: Kaoru Mansour and Alan Nakagawa (photo:

Nakagawa: When we first started really working together, there was this point where we became committed: Ear Diorama Ear is going to last a long time. She said, “I don’t want to be a jam band. I’ve been in too many jam bands, and I already know what’s going to happen, and I’m really not interested in that. I need a structure for each song.” So, she comes in with the structure, the piece. And I bring in things that are almost trying to destroy that structure.

And that’s how Ear Diorama Ear operates. We call them songs. They’re songs because she’s singing, and they’re primarily improv, but there’s a structure. So when I was reading Steve and Jeff and you talk, I said “Yeah, exactly. That’s where we are.” But we weren’t there twenty years ago. Back then it was like, “Okay, everyone, bring your gear and then go,” and someone starts. And when I read that I was like, “Wow, you guys are there too.” We can’t do that anymore. It seems like a waste of time. Really. It just seems like a waste of time.

And Kaoru introduced that to me. I think I’ve always had a structure, because, as someone who was trained in the visual arts, I completely gravitated to non-traditional notation, you know?

Bach: Yeah. Right.

Nakagawa: You don’t need the five staffs. So I am completely not a musician based on that. I’m interested in diagramming in my mind the textures, sub textures, and form of the music. I always think of maps. You look at a map, you know where you’re going to go, but you don’t have to take…there are hundreds of paths to that spot. That is what my music is about. Picking what I think is the right path…keeping myself open to what the right path is to that spot. That’s what my notations are.

Bach: It’s an entryway.

Nakagawa: It’s an entryway. It’s a promise to yourself, “This is where we’re going. We’re not going over there.” But, it’s up to me to completely use the tools that I have, which also includes my openness to accept the mistakes and the new things. I think Steve [Roden] calls them ‘wonderful mistakes.’

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: I’m open to that. I think that comes out of being trained in jazz. Being open to…there are always those empty staffs on the notation where you’re supposed to jam [laughs], or take a solo. I love that. So my music is completely about that part of the music. It’s still there; we know where we are, but that’s my job, to fill in that improv area of that specific song. I still approach it that way. And, on top of it I want to make this into a painting, or whatever…so, I’m very interested in that.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa. Next week [on Ear Meal] we have [The] Royal Us. Which is Max and Heather.

Bach: Heather Lockie?

Nakagawa: Heather Lockie and Max Kutner. Then, after that, the following week will be the last show of the third season, where I will play my latest formation of the Rife stuff. Then I’ll take a seven-week break.

Bach: Because you were at one time thinking that it [Ear Meal] was going to be over, that it was also on its last legs.

Nakagawa: It was. I thought I was going to end it. And then I had a conversation with a friend who works at Smithsonian Folkways. I asked her about donating it [the archive of interviews]. And she said, “A hundred is a good number, but that would never be a big enough number for us.” And I said, “How many would I need?” And she said, “I don’t know, but I don’t think a hundred is substantial enough.”

Bach: Hmm.

Ear Meal intro (photo: YouTube screenshot)

Nakagawa: So, I thought about it for a week, and I said, “You know what sounds substantial to me? Three hundred.” Three hundred shows, three hundred oral histories, three hundred files of photos. That sounds substantial for the L.A. scene right now. So, I said to Mark, “Are you willing to do four more seasons?” And he said, “I’m up for it.” All right, let’s go for it [laughs]. We’ll shoot for three hundred.

Bach: Wow. So now you need to find two hundred more…

Nakagawa: Two hundred more artists.

Bach: Because you’re at a hundred now?

Nakagawa: We’re over a hundred. The first two shows of the next season, season four, will be curated by Craig Cree Stone.

Bach: Okay.

Nakagawa: So he’s going to arrange one show to talk about Southern California Native American sound. And then another one about Urban Indian Southern California sound. Two shows, back-to-back.

Bach: Nice.

Ear Meal HQ (photo: Glenn Bach)

Nakagawa: So, that’s how we’re going to start. So, I guess we’re up for it. Eight seasons [laughs]. I love it.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa. It’s a commitment. You know, when we have these little two-month breaks, you feel it. My body reacts. “It’s so cool not to have to do anything this Wednesday” [laughs].

Bach: Because it’s every Wednesday.

Nakagawa: Every Wednesday. Yeah. As you know, it’s getting things ready…

Bach: It’s a lot of work.

Nakagawa: Coordinating with the artists.

Bach: And then the interview. Which takes, you know…

Nakagawa: It takes a lot. But, yeah [laughs]. I try not to think about it too much, because it gets a little overwhelming.

Bach: But, you know what? It’s…

Nakagawa: It’s great.

Bach: Yeah, it’s great, not only because of the project itself and what it represents to you, and why you’re doing it, but also the fact that you now know a lot of people in the L.A. scene. There are very few people you don’t know. Now you’re asking everyone, “Hey I’m open to suggestions.” Find the three hundred; you just need to find them.

Nakagawa: Yeah.

Bach: Because there are so many little micro-scenes…

Nakagawa: Exactly.

Bach: These kids who are doing their DIY things.

Nakagawa: They’re out there. I think it’s an ego boost, when I walk into a room and I’m introduced as the Ear Meal guy, and people say, “Oh, yeah that’s you? I watch that all the time, or I’ve seen a couple of the shows, it’s great, thank you for doing that.” That’s an ego boost. But then I hear the second thing most everyone says, “Yeah, I wonder why no one has done that before. I’m so glad you’re doing that because it’s important for us to be documented.”

I was recently introduced to Lauren Pratt from Cal Arts, who was married to James Tenney. I met her at The Wulf, and she already knew about it [Ear Meal]. And for someone like her to already know about the show…it’s fantastic, and she was so supportive. She said, “Keep going, this is going to be a lot more important than you think it is. We’re all watching.”

Bach: That’s great.

Nakagawa: She said, “There are a lot more people who know about this than you think.” So, I’m hoping at the end of the road, when we officially say, “Who wants this?” That there will be…

Bach: Some actual interest…

Nakagawa: Some major players at the table. There are some obvious places we could put it, but I really want someone major to take this. Because it deserves that.

Bach: Yeah. For sure.

Nakagawa: I’ve seen it done with things like the L.A. hip hop movement, L.A. spray can art, L.A. surf culture, L.A. skateboard culture, L.A. lowrider culture. Now, of course, those have a lot more pop culture significance, media play, or what have you. So, do I think we’re all going to become rock stars? No, but at the very least, at the academic level, it sure would be nice to be credited for what we are, and not overlooked or overshadowed by other communities.

Bach: And it’s a way to frame the discussion on our own terms.

Nakagawa. Yeah, yeah.

Bach: Because it’s in our own words, and a big part of it is your vision, because you’re the one who’s sort of the gatekeeper, the curator, but ultimately you’re transcribing this oral history. It’s going right to the source. You don’t have a journalist coming in after the fact and trying to pick up the threads after they’ve already gone cold. Like, “Who was active in the scene, and what were the relationships between these people and those people?” It’s all there.

Nakagawa: Right. It’s all there.

Bach: Yeah. It’s cool, man.

Nakagawa: I’m still swimming in the ocean. I haven’t seen land yet.

Bach: It’s this phase in the project. It’s still in the making of it. It’s not yet an archive.

Nakagawa: Not yet.

Bach: It’s still a living thing.

Nakagawa: It’s growing.

Bach: It’s transforming. It’s still active.

Nakagawa: We’re not even halfway through.

Bach: What are you, a hundred and ten?

Nakagawa: A hundred and twenty-three. Not even halfway through.

Bach: It will go by.

Nakagawa. It has. So far, it’s gone really fast.

Bach: You sent out that call, and I’ve been thinking about it, trying to think about who hasn’t been on the show. I may have some ideas, people to send your way.

Nakagawa: Yes, please. I really would appreciate that.



I am pleased to announce Imprintable, a new project of interviews and discussions with artists, poets, composers, educators, and other creative citizens about the work we do, where we do it, and how it shapes our symbiotic relationship to the landscape. Imprintable absorbs existing interviews from the Atlas Place and Atlas Sets projects in an effort to consolidate my interests in the art of creative conversation.

I had been wondering how to reconcile the differing missions of these previous projects, particularly after the original impetus for Atlas Sets, a celebration of my 50th birthday in 2015, became overshadowed by circumstance and a doctoral program. In 2014, I articulated my uncertainty over the future of the collaborations in the Atlas Sets series:

I see now that the real heart of Atlas Sets has never really been the recordings, the catalog, or even the impending mid-century celebration, but rather the conversations themselves, both in the moment and later in the office, transcribing the recordings into a coherent and faithful documentation of our exchange of ideas. By focusing on the conversation, I have been able to identify, articulate, and reflect on the questions important to me as a composer. What does it mean to organize sounds into structured compositions? What is my own relationship to improvisation and recording? Who, what, and where is my community?

My reconsideration of both interview projects gained new relevance when I heard of the recent passing of poet and editor Halvard Johnson, a supporter of my own work. Here is what I wrote in early 2014 when I launched Atlas Place:

Halvard Johnson invited me to guest edit one of his poetry blogs, Truck, during the month of May, 2014. After announcing a Call for Works, I received a note from Canadian artist Marlene Creates, with links to her recent work involving in situ poetry readings in the boreal forest where she lives in Newfoundland. We agreed to conduct a brief interview for Truck to introduce Marlene’s work, and the resulting exchange blossomed into a lengthy discussion about place, environmental stewardship, documentary practice, and artistic mapping. Realizing that I had tapped into a much richer vein than anticipated, I created Atlas Place as a means of honoring the open-ended nature of my conversation with Marlene, knowing that I could extend this format to any number of artists, poets, composers, educators, and other creative thinkers.

So, here is the start of a map, a collection of conversations and investigations into the vagaries of place and what it means to those of us who have dedicated our lives to better understanding why we live and work where we do, what impact these places have on our work, and what marks we, in turn, leave on the places we inhabit.

Imprintable will hopefully prove a more pliant infrastructure for documenting my conversations with artists and educators about their work, how their practice is rooted in a place, and how the landscape is shaped in turn by their presence.

Glenn Bach, 10 October 2017
Monrovia, California

McLean Fahnestock

McLean Fahnestock is a media artist and explorer whose work reveals discoveries and re-discoveries. She lives and works outside of Nashville, Tennessee. This conversation took place over email between July 2014 and July 2016, and captures an evolution in McLean’s professional status.

All images courtesy of McLean Fahnestock.

Austin Peay State University; Clarksville, Tennessee

Glenn Bach: Let’s talk first about your new position at Austin Peay State University. What will be the scope of your responsibilities?

McLean Fahnestock: I will be the Visiting Assistant Professor of New Media. It is a one-year appointment with the possibility of a tenure-track position opening up. I will be teaching Electronic Imaging, which is their Digital Foundation course, and Video. Because I am a Visiting Professor, I do not need to do the regular committee service that is required of full-time faculty.

Bach: It sounds like a great fit for you; congratulations! I’m sure you’ll be getting a wealth of advice from others on how to best navigate the academic landscape, particularly moving from mostly administrative and managerial positions (correct me if I’m wrong) to full-time teaching, but I want to focus on the physical landscape. Having lived in Long Beach for ten years, several of those in the close-knit community of the MFA program at CSULB [California State University Long Beach], how do see this move to Tennessee? You’ll be joining what appears to be a progressive digital media program in a suburb of a major city (your profile is already posted on the faculty page!), but the cultural divide between the South and the West Coast seems like a significant change in both place and process.

Fahnestock: The academic landscape is certainly one thing. The years following grad school have been spent in administrative jobs within creative environments. Most recently I have been working in admin and adjuncting at CSULB, which has given me a bit of perspective into the workings of academia, but this is going to be an adventure. An immersion.

I am excited about the school. They are very enthusiastic, and have similar interests as I do. It is a smaller department than CSULB, and the shift in not only class size but faculty community is appealing. The fact that they have already put me up on their website is really making me feel welcome and valued.

Leaving Long Beach after so many years is bittersweet. This is the longest I have lived anywhere. Ever. And I have a long list of former addresses: Maryland, Virginia, Florida, New Jersey, Missouri, and Tennessee. Some states more than once. I have contemplated leaving Long Beach many times, but it has never been right, or circumstance stepped in to keep me here. It has certainly shaped my work. I do consider living by the Pacific Ocean a catalyst for my recent projects. I am curious how my practice will shift without that close physical contact. Perhaps it is best that I am distancing from the ocean. It will become an exotic locale. Something that will soften in my memory much like it may have for my grandfather.

The culture shock will, for me and my husband both, not be that much of a shock. More like slipping in to an unheated backyard pool. I went to high school south of Nashville, and, although I took some time and traveled for several years before I was done, I got my BFA from Middle Tennessee State University a bit further south of Nashville still. My parents left the area only about a year ago, trading the cold winters and tornado warnings for the palmetto bugs and hurricane warnings of the Florida Gulf Coast. I made my trip back to visit them every year in January, and watched as Nashville developed from a music town with very conservative views on the visual arts (and life) to a growing city concerned with the arts in many forms and fostering diversity in a slow yet steady way.

high fall, Clarksville

It is, however, a very different place than So Cal. The pace is different and the bubble around the academic community is a bit thicker. It will be a very small art world compared to the Art World (with capitals) that we have in Los Angeles. I am considering that a good thing. I have spent a good amount of my time in Los Angeles circling the museums and galleries trying to find the secret entrance. Maybe too much. Maybe it hurt my work. Expending all that energy trying to break in to what I thought was success as an artist. I am looking forward to the change in venue as a chapter marker for my approach to my own practice.

Bach: I understand what you’re saying about the art world, as I have had to come to terms with nurturing an artistic career outside of the commercial mainstream. We’ll explore this further, but, for now, let’s return to your comment about distancing yourself from the Pacific Ocean. Living in Long Beach and working in your studio in Angels Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro, you saw the decade-long transformation of your work take place against the backdrop of this section of Southern California. As your physical connection to this region fades and “softens,” how do you think this distancing will affect how you approach future iterations of Fahnestock Expedition?

Fahnestock: In Los Angeles, I started with my studio at Angels Gate. It was before I was really ready to work on the Fahnestock project. Before it had gelled in my mind. It wasn’t until I moved my studio down to Long Beach that I started on the expedition. Truly though, I think that time soaking in the ocean was priming me for this work.

Over the past two weeks I have been adjusting to my new surroundings. The rental house is in a rural area. Cornfields across the street and a 10-minute drive to the edge of town. It is loud for being so quiet. Bugs chirp all hours of the day and night. Big-wheeled pickups eat up the two-lane road.

Old Hickory Village

It is hard not to be influenced or inspired by a change of venue as dramatic as this, so I have been thinking about this as a port of call. An island. Approaching it as a foreign land, the isle of Sango – the name of the small unincorporated area we have landed in just coincidentally sounds like a Pacific island. I am adding it in to my expedition as a stop. A fantastic nation where I have harbored. This fits in to my wish to rearrange and introduce fiction into the Fahnestock Expedition narrative, and allows me freedom to explore this stop before sailing on.

At 7 PM it is still humid, and enormous bugs are crawling slowly across the porch while some mosquitoes make dinner of my legs. Sounds like the tropics to me!

Bach: I love the island metaphor! It ties in to how place is a process of becoming or adaptation, and I like how you’re weaving this process into the work itself–you’ve established a base camp and now you’re exploring the flora and fauna. I imagine that your field notes will become raw material or even part of the project itself. How is your relationship to the landscape, and the work you make about it, changing as you gain your bearings and establish a more intimate and local relationship with Sango as a place?

Fahnestock: Thanks. It is perhaps a coping mechanism as well. This approach has most certainly helped me to accept this change of venue as a positive for my practice.

What has struck me the most is that this landscape is in a constant state of flux. The reintroduction to the seasons in their full expression has been profound. After honing my awareness of them in Southern California in order to catch the subtle changes and ground myself in the yearly cycle, returning to them is akin to the difference between hearing a symphony through headphones and from orchestra seats at Disney Hall. Everything has changed in the few weeks I have been here, and it will just keep changing. Bugs die. New bugs emerge. The corn fields have turned brown and will be harvested soon.

snow, Sango

My work is starting to reflect this more. That capturing place is also capturing time. I have become more aware of duration and the performance of that duration within videos, sound, and sculptural works. I am working on some dances and sculptural components for them. It is now clear that it should be a series that is seasonally arranged as the sounds shift across weeks and months.

Bach: In light of the changing seasons and the anticipation of the harvest, the term college town takes on an entirely different meaning. Do you feel a different kind of connection between your college and the local community than you did in So Cal?

Fahnestock: Ah, yes. Fall brings football and marching bands. It is very different here. Austin Peay is not a big name football school, but you can still buy school hats and shirts at the Walmart, and the stadium is packed on Saturday. Everything for blocks around the University is red and white. The community rallies around the school. Many of them went to APSU, work at APSU, or both. CSULB has spirit and presence in the community, but not like a school in a small town. And it doesn’t have football.

Hats and Boots, Lower Broadway, Nashville

College football is a religion around here. Rivalries divide families. And that is not hyperbole. I heard a story about it today. Two brothers, one an Alabama fan and one an Auburn fan stopped speaking for two years after a close game (neither actually went to college). Although I don’t think anyone is losing siblings over the APSU Governors’ games.

Bach: What about the art scene? Is there a similar connection between APSU and the Nashville galleries and artist groups? I see you posted an article about a recent panel discussion about the Nashville scene…what do you think?

Fahnestock: Do you mean a connection like Long Beach to Los Angeles in terms of art scene? In that respect, yes. Nashville’s art scene has grown a lot since I left – new commercial spaces, maker spaces, and artist-run projects. I am just getting to know what is in Clarksville, but I can say that it is very small. They seem to have a similar relationship, in that if you are in Clarksville, you show and go to shows in Nashville.

Stratagem 4, 2016, High Definition video

The Nashville art scene is limited, however, and the panel discussion touched on a few reasons why. The biggest is the lack of an MFA program. Without the energy, growth, and constant renewal that MFA programs bring to a city, Nashville has had to work hard to attract galleries and artists who want to start their own spaces and bring a critical discourse to the area.

Bach: That’s a stark contrast to So Cal with the dozens of MFA programs, along with GLAMFA and the diverse constellation of galleries and spaces. You mentioned earlier about trying to find the secret entrance into the Art World, and now that you’ve been at APSU a few months now, how do you feel about your relationship to the art world, either all caps or lowercase? Perhaps the secret entrance is really a series of footpaths?

Fahnestock: The secret entrance is still a secret. One that hides in plain sight, perhaps. I am thinking of it now more as a formula. A recipe: network + knowledge + craft + time. I am an impatient person, so that last one is hard for me. Giving myself and my work the time to develop is difficult. Patience has never been among my virtues. This leads me to push hard, but does not necessarily allow me to simmer in the studio, and that is what I am trying to be more aware of.

Being outside of the Art World for a few months now has been both a relief and a source of concern. I am enjoying developing a network here and participating in the monthly festivities that surround the openings and art crawls. That new energy has been invigorating. The concern comes from a fear of being left behind by the rolling stone that is the Los Angeles art scene. I am keeping up on things. Reading blogs and reviews. Showing in Los Angeles this Fall. Planning a trip as I type.

Really, my drive comes from this dream to someday simply be an artist. No day job. Just art. I know that this is a bit of a pipe dream, but I hold on to it. Clutching it. Driving it into my palm with my fingernails. Continuing my connection with Los Angeles and the Art World along with the other art worlds that I may intersect with is something that I see as imperative to my success.

Bach: We’ll get back to day job in a bit. When I was in Milwaukee, I experienced a similar struggle between enchantment with my new environment and a deep loss of connection to Southern California, which I reconciled by opening up my ensemble to allow for a networked collaboration among geographically dispersed participants. It kept me going, and proved immensely fruitful in my development as an artist. Have you considered a collaboration with partners in Southern California as a way to be simultaneously active in both places? Is there an aspect of your current work that could allow for this?

Fahnestock: So far, I have not entered in to any collaborations in Los Angeles, but I have been doing some exhibitions. It is something to consider. I am actually doing the opposite. I have entered into a collaboration here, and joined up with an artist collective. Building new connections here that may lead to opportunities to do exchanges with collectives in Los Angeles.

A few weeks ago I flew back for a quick visit. 3 days. Install, a closing reception, and opening reception. It was nice to be back, if just for a minute, and it made me feel like I am still a part of the conversation.

Uncharted (gold glow), 2016, archival inkjet print on metallic paper

Social media and the interconnectedness that we now have has made it a bit easier to be in all places at once. But it is a hologram.  Just a shiny shell that looks like me and presents information again and again to those who happen to be listening. A weak replacement, but one that can be utilized smartly as long as it is treated as the tool that it is. Hammers make lousy screwdrivers.

Bach: I agree with you about social media. While it’s made it easier to publicize and distribute work, the feedback mechanism leaves a lot to be desired. As far as the day job, do you have any examples of artists you respect who have built a sustainable practice?

Fahnestock: A sustainable practice…. there are a few who I look up to as examples. I meet more artists all the time who are carving their own way and making it work, even if for a short time. Kiel Johnson and Sandow Birk were two of the first artists I met who were making things work and talking about how they were doing it. Through grants, residencies, the odd gig, and cheap rent, they built their practices. Alexis Gregg and Tanner Coleman were working on site specific public works and that sustained them for several years. Alexis now has a teaching job too. Recently I met a few artists, Jonathan Brilliant and Laura Splan for example, who put together income from lectures, exhibitions, honorariums, and visiting artist gigs at universities to sustain their artistic practice.

I am trying an all-out frontal assault at this point. Teaching a summer arts academy, socking away money from an artist-in-residence gig I have this semester, applying for fellowships, university artist-in-residence programs, whatever I can find. Because of the Tennessee state initiative to provide two free years of community college that begins in the Fall, the state universities are in a bit of a panic. They are not going to offer contracts to adjuncts or Visiting Professors like me until August.

So, while the benefit of a lower cost of living is still a huge one, the job certainty around here is pretty low. Tennessee is the pilot for a program such as this…one that the President has taken on as something that should be implemented countrywide. I think it is amazing for students. Something that we should most certainly invest in. It will mean at least 2 years of shifting around for adjuncts, and hopefully will lead to more and more steady contracts and funding for faculty wages.

All the more reason to try striking out now!

Bach: So, Tennessee has taken on some additional layers in the seven or eight months since you relocated. In addition to discovering new places and reclaiming familiar territory, you’re forging new paths in the context of a broader national conversation about the sustainability of art as a career. Outside of the art world ‘centers,’ do you think your practice has grown more complex as a result? Has your understanding of your work deepened?

Fahnestock: It has been a while since this question was posed. In the elapsed time, we have decided to settle here. I went through a year of adjuncting at 4 schools around town (APSU, Watkins, TSU, and Vanderbilt), caught an illusive tenure-track position which I start in a month, and spent a month in Australia as an artist-in-residence.

The short answers are yes and yes. And I think that it is all balled up together now.

Part of it is being away from my artist cohort and curators who have visited with me and watched my work develop. Nearly every studio visit I have had in the past year was a first visit. Imagine that no one knows your artwork or practice. There is no picking up with Volume 2. I am making new work and moving forward along my trajectory, and also having to converse about my past quite often. Lectures, studio visits, and academic interviews have punctuated my year. It stirs up the silt and brings an awareness of my own work and process that only comes to me when I have speak it out loud.

This will change. As I become more established in the South, I will have less frequent first conversations. I will keep growing my network, though. And being outside has truly allowed me to reap the benefits of an open network. My art work travels more. I travel more. It is out of necessity in many ways. There are only so many opportunities locally. Nashville has made me reach farther outside of not just geography but my own notions of audience and where my work might fit in this new landscape. This is where complexity comes in.

Complexity is a side-effect of the expanded understanding of my own artistic practice and the role that geography plays in its expression.

The Reclamation of Unknown Vessel 1, 2015, archival inkjet print

As we’ve talked about before, white cubes are fewer and farther between here. Alternative spaces and artist-run galleries have become more vital in the art world generally, but even more so where museums and commercial spaces do not reside. I have begun to consider my audience and my venue in a new way. I am making media work that is meant for a single person to experience at a time. Conversely, I have projected onto a cornfield. Instead of putting on my blinders, putting my head down, and plowing forward in the studio as I was prone to do in Los Angeles, I am more likely to stop and look up. To look behind me. To look at those who are looking at art around me. This then gets woven into the practice. The work grows layers that it would not have before.

Not that it is all pastoral and genteel. Juleps on the front porch. Kudzu grows over everything that does not move here. That also goes for artists.

dog and coffee on porch

Tom Krumpak (part 1)

Tom Krumpak has exhibited internationally since 1976. He earned a Master of Fine Arts Degree from California State University Long Beach and a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from the San Francisco Art institute. He has been a professor of drawing and painting at California State University, Long Beach since 1983.

This conversation took place in Tom’s faculty office in the Fine Arts 4 building (FA4) at CSULB on September 2, 2015. (Part 2 can be found here.)

Tom’s office in FA4, CSULB

Glenn Bach: I was going to start with the studio in Mar Vista, but since we’re here in your office at Cal State, let’s start here. Let’s talk about the office, the second floor of the FA4 building. How long have you been here? How has being here affected your work as an educator and a painter in Los Angeles?

Tom Krumpak: Well, I’ve been at Cal State Long Beach for thirty-one years, and, in terms of credited time, probably longer than that, because I was here first as an MFA student. I got my MFA degree, and then I left and taught, as you know, at a bunch of different places. UC Santa Barbara, Art Center College of Design, in England at Plymouth College of Art and Design. I taught at Skidmore in New York, where we taught together that summer as part of the Summer Six program. And I’ve lectured at many, many other universities. But, I have tenure here, and this is my thirty-first year. So, that’s a lot of time to cover.

Bach: And you’ve been in this office for…

Krumpak: Actually, I was in an office around the corner and down the hall for a while when I first got here, and then I moved into this office with John de Heras, who was my officemate and absolutely one of my very best friends, and a special person on the planet. And who I’m still very good friends with. I just saw him yesterday, as a matter of fact. And, so, I’ve been in this office for probably fifteen years. I’m sitting in his old chair right now [laughs].

Bach: [laughs]. Because when he retired, you took over the combination of the two offices, because you were in the front…

Krumpak: I was in the front and he was in the back with the window. He was the window guy. One of the great things about being here with John was that when we had to go to faculty meetings or a variety of meetings across the campus—and they were completely absurd— we’d come back to the office with a double cappuccino and a pastry and slam the door and go, “Oh, my god!” [laughs]

Bach: [laughs] “Can you believe that?”

Krumpak: We’d laugh and see the absurdity of much of it. So, I would say that in my time with him, over many years, I don’t think we ever had one serious disagreement. And it’s not because we always saw things the same, but because he was just a fantastic person to be around. Creative, smart, compassionate to his students. He is just a great guy. So, this office has good memories in that way, for sure.

As you can see sitting here, we’re surrounded by almost every imaginable art-related thing on the planet. There are stacks of books, of course, which are laying in the wrong direction, but I know where everything is, sort of. There are paintings from past and present, and the beginning stretcher bars for future. Tons of equipment, rolling carts with sound systems on them, which I roll into my classes. I never do a class without music.

Tom’s office in FA4, CSULB

There are carts with slide projectors, which is very analog [laughs]. And there’s a laptop that I use, badly, to do PowerPoint lectures. There’s music, albums, tons of CDs. Every drawer you pull out has hundreds of CDs. Drawers of student work from the past or exhibitions that I’ve mounted for students. There are paintings, drawings, framed drawings of Chinatown. Which, by the way, I’ll be taking students out to photograph this Saturday in downtown again.

Bach: Oh, great. Nice.

Student drawing, Chinatown project

Krumpak: So that tradition continues, and from those photographs, you know, they make these drawings or paintings or whatever. There are bags at our feet that look like they are not sorted out, but in fact they are. They are all different lectures, not for classes here, but lectures that I present at other universities. Sometimes on my work, but mostly on the work of contemporary artists I’m interested in. And, those are often made into PowerPoint talks with soundtracks, the whole kit and kaboodle.

Bach: That whole process has changed, right, because in the past when you were building a lecture on artists, you would collect slides.

Krumpak. Right. Totally.

Bach: And you would have these carousels, and you would go through and shuffle the order, and these stacks of carousels would be your lecture. It was this physical, hands-on, curated selection of images, but now artists don’t really send you slides anymore. They send you a jpeg or a link to a series of images.

Krumpak: Right.


Bach: So, it’s probably changed the mechanics of how you put a lecture together, but not really the spirit?

Krumpak: Well, no, I think it makes it all very different. I do still have stacks of lectures in carousels, but they aren’t static, they still keep changing, because we do still have hard-copy slides here [at CSULB]. But I don’t get slides from other artists anymore. Those are lectures that I’ve changed depending on what I’m trying to get to, within the greater idea of what’s in that carousel, but it is different. It’s different in a lot of ways. I like the manual quality of the slide projector. That’s why I still use them a lot, and it calls attention to the work…if the quality of the image is okay. The students are so wigged out by seeing a slide projector that it makes them wake up a little bit.

Bach: Yeah.

Krumpak: But, it does change it in the sense that I always felt I could arrive with a backup projector anywhere and I could make a presentation happen. But now, with the laptop, because I’m not that electronically savvy or motivated, and with the equipment that’s on location, with the projector, the sound system…no matter how tricked out or complex they are, they often seem to fail. So, you have to be prepared to do a lecture without any visuals. Which I have done. That’s something interesting to work towards: how to do a visual art lecture with no visuals and for people who don’t know the material. You really have to be the song and dance man, on stage, when you do that. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not

Bach: [laughs]

Krumpak: …depending on the audience. So, that does change it, because the certainty of being able to really just hit it. I like the set up. I just like the mechanics of it.

Bach: And the planning process itself, of talking to artists, doing studio visits. “Hey, send me a half dozen images, I’m putting a lecture together and I’d love to take you to coffee and see your studio…”

Krumpak: Yeah.

Bach: That process was a way for you to really, first of all, meet a bunch of great people and great artists, but also to explore these cities in different ways.

Krumpak: Sure.

Bach: Because you’re not just setting out and wandering the streets and going to a museum or whatever. You’re making these concerted stops in Long Island City or wherever. Because of that you make these plans. “If I’m going to Long Island City, I’m going to stop in this cafe before and grab a cappuccino…”

Krumpak: Right.

Bach: So, it becomes a different way of mapping…

Krumpak: Totally. I often think about the process of forecasting, especially with images, and what that does to the final experience the person has of the artwork. For instance, everyone wants me to send out electronic images, which is easy and fast, and I can do that, but then they see the image and then the question is, “Is there a need to see the painting?” People are so geared towards receiving an image now, and when it sits in their house electronically, on their computer, they feel that they own it. And, in fact, they do own the image. They can then disperse it to others. I’ve sent images confidentially, and all of a sudden they’re on Facebook and a million people are looking at them. When I send images for exhibitions, often the exhibition space will put those images online for an upcoming show. So that the people who go to that website, yes, they get to see your work, and I guess that’s a good thing, but then they come to the show, and the opening, in a way, is a kind of strangely deflated or morphed creature, because they go, “Oh, yeah, that looks just like the image that I saw online. That’s really a great painting,” instead of just, “That’s really a great painting.”

Bach: Right.

Krumpak: When you’re talking to students, too, because they’re so full of images now from Instagram or whatever, they’re not impressed by images. So, even if it’s not the real thing, when you show them an electronic image in a lecture, it’s like, “Oh, it’s another electronic image.” It could be a picture of somebody skateboarding that they took yesterday, and they’re just as interested in that painting image or that skateboard image, or if they’re just shooting randomly. In other words, it has deflated or stolen the ability to decipher and appreciate images because they’re so readily available. That makes teaching really, really hard, because the students’ attention spans are a lot shorter, and the way they approach knowledge in image form has changed a lot, too. So, instead of feeling that you’re giving them something unique or special in a classroom lecture, you’re just giving them some other image.

Bach: Yeah.

Krumpak: You really have to deal with it. It’s a funny thing. It’s affected the art world. It’s affected the way people see your hard copy, real paintings, that you spent a year painting. It’s affected the way you teach, because there is just a stream of stuff now, and people are just sampling it. So, you’re just a fish going upstream. Just like everybody else.

Bach: How do you, as an educator, as an artist talking to other artists, and to young artists, how do you get them excited about the primacy of the image? Whether it’s a painting or an installation or a sculpture, the real thing, how do you get them talking about that?

Krumpak: I think you have to be peripheral. Right? Because, if you go right down the middle, they don’t pay attention to it. When I’m doing a lecture, or I’m in the studio class where it’s a hands-on “doing” class, I show them something that I think houses the ideas or the theories that I want them to learn. I’m trying to use the image, then, as a kind of prop that we can work through. It’s not about the image any more, as much as working through it, a vehicle for me to explain the ideas that I want them to learn and incorporate in their artwork. You have to constantly bolster young art students with the idea that their own individualism is the ultimate goal, but that they also need an array of tools in their tool belt to be able to express their individuation. I really don’t think that many people even talk to them about that. Not many broach that notion, but I do. It’s constantly a kind of ping pong about this image or that artist’s work that houses these ideas. This is part of the process that they use to mature and to create their image. We’re using the image as a mirror and going behind it, and then pouring that knowledge back into the individual student and trying to bump up their integrity and their feelings about expressing themselves. That’s really tough for some students. It’s a confrontation, because they’re coming out of all sorts of past history of education where they’re told exactly what to do. Told how to be a good person, and how to succeed in this particular class under these circumstances. And I’m telling them that I have no interest in dominating them in the classroom whatsoever. But, I am interested in having them access quality material, and that they’re probably a lot more capable of housing that and understanding that than they probably think they are. I try to create, with the music, as you know, and visuals or monitors with films playing in the classroom, a contextualized portable environment of sight and sound that allows them to let down their defenses a little bit. I’ll even talk about the difficulty of using certain art materials for a particular project, and that I understand how difficult it is. The risk and value of trying something new in public, of sitting in a classroom with other people, and screwing up. I have to tell them that 90% of this learning mode is about screwing up, and it’s the only way toward unique results. But, for them, the idea of unique, or innovative, or singular voice, or a kind of compassionate curiosity with what they’re doing, is, for whatever reason—no guilt assigned to any particular sector here—it’s just not a discussion they’re having with themselves or with other people in quite that way. I grew up in a time when there were defined heroes you could find in the world of art. Maybe you’ve seen their work at the Whitney or any other great museum, and you said, “That’s what I want to be.” And the baggage with wanting to be an artist was to learn the lifestyle that went along with that, and in turn, the making of the work meant that you were sincere and genuine. Time in. But, I don’t see that people are interested in that model now. They may be interested in celebrity, or they may be interested in one artist over another artist because of personal bias or interest or style or whatever, but I don’t see them wanting to understand where that person came from or what the role of an artist is and how one should proceed to build the “Frankenstein” of themselves.

Bach: Right.

Krumpak: They don’t want to stitch together parts and assume anything, so I think it’s just a generational shift.

Bach: They’re not really thinking about their practice in the context of lifestyle, or in the context of where they are.

Krumpak: Right.

Bach: The activity of making art as an intellectual, creative practice grounded in communication with other communities, other traditions, other places. We were free to create our own tradition through our community, through our peers, through our mentors. I think part of it is a natural aspect of going to classes together, going to openings and that whole thing, but who knows, I’m not that age anymore, so I don’t know what they think of community and what it means to embody the lifestyle of the artist or creative person.

Krumpak: I think the environment has flat-lined. Nothing pops up as more desirable than anything else. They know what hurts, and what causes pain for them, and they avoid it. Beyond that, I think that everything has an equality to it. When I was younger and playing rock and roll, before I was a full-time painter and educator…you were in a band, and you were loyal to that band, and that band either made it, or you went down the tubes. So, you would quit and start a new band with other people, or with some members from the old band, and then you were loyal to that band. I’m not talking about rich and famous. I’m talking about real musicians playing rock and roll. Playing club dates, bar dates, going into the studio to record, and that’s not happening either. There’s no loyalty, people are in for four or five dates, or the band can go a month without a practice, and then they start practicing two weeks before their next gig, and everyone is okay with that. We would have never housed ourselves in more than one band at a time. That would have been so bad. And if you weren’t practicing at least three or four nights a week with your band, you weren’t a real musician. So it’s that kind of thing in a weird way that I’m talking about. There just isn’t that hands-on attachment to the role. Furthermore, students don’t really know whether their education is pointing them towards a career as a visual artist or becoming any kind of expressive, creative person. They think it does, and they can’t think of anything else that would replace it. They’re going through it with best intentions. But they’re not really going to drink the Kool-Aid and believe that it’s going to aim them toward real success. It might, and they’re young, and what else are they going to do? I think it’s smarter and it’s better that they do it, but I was just dumb enough in my youth to think that my education was preparing me for a successful, creative life, you know? And I think that it did. But now I don’t really know whether it does, and whether or not there is any direct connection. It may just be a kind of simultaneous…two things that are in same ballpark that may contribute or may not. And I think they understand that. It changes the dynamic.

Bach: But, as an educator you still have to keep plugging away and try to get them to…for instance, the Chinatown project. As an educator, you have these assignments, or these approaches, these tools to get students to think about making work by translating their experience into practice. And sometimes, it’s a new idea you have, and other times it’s a very ritualized thing. And the Chinatown project was one of things that you had been doing for a while. I remember doing it, and remember seeing the postcards you would make with a group of students ten years after I’d graduated. There’s this beauty to this sort of project where you turning again and again to this rich source in Chinatown, a very rich source of visual and sensory data. It’s a perfect assignment, because it gets them to spend time in a place that they may not have been to before, or may not have spent time critically in that space, and you get them to slow down and spend some time in this place, and then come back to the studio with the raw material that they’ve collected and make something from that. It gets them to make those connections about their art’s relation to that place.

Olvera Street, downtown Los Angeles (image by Bri Joy)

Krumpak: That’s absolutely true. I think it’s a good example of how…people are amazingly parochial. They may come here to Los Angeles from everywhere on the planet, but they’re amazingly parochial once they get here. They really don’t have the knowledge, the hands-on knowledge, of a place that’s ten miles away. They literally don’t. They live within five miles of the school, perhaps, but they don’t have experiential knowledge, and there’s nobody telling them that they should. Or, there’s nobody telling them, “Look, I’m going to take your hand and make sure that you can experience this thing without a lot of trauma. But we are definitely going to put our feet on the ground. We’re going to smell the air. We’re going to touch the walls. We’re going to go in the shops. We’re going to listen to the language. We’re going to try to understand the cadence and look at the condition of light, realize that there are certain colors occurring in one part of town versus another part of town. What is the indigenous palette of a place? How do we become aware of different things that are already obvious to the person who is really looking or hearing? And the things that are un-obvious, to come up and meet it with our sense of self awareness so that we can use it as an artist.” Whether it’s Chinatown or Grand Central Market in downtown L.A., or whether it’s the new, very hip Spring Street scene that is happening, or whether it’s MOCA‘s stamp on J-Town, or myriads of other kinds of places, churches, meditation spaces, all that kind of stuff we find in downtown L.A. The idea is to get young artists on the ground, to the firsthand experience. Then, to find a way to document that experience through photographs, or by walking around with tape recorders and creating soundtracks, or through discussions and dialogues at particular lively corners and locations so that the peripheral noise invades it. We’ve done all sorts of things to capture the sensory apparatus. All of it is designed to get them to realize that there is more information, more ideas, and more everything that you can possibly, possibly, possibly need or use to make their artwork, or to make their life exciting, and therefore, become better contributors to the world around them, not in the Catholic sense, but in terms of aliveness.

Student drawing, Chinatown project

That’s another part of this that you brought up before…in the teaching of art-related stuff now, I never try to achieve one thing in an assignment. It’s always a bundled experience. A guided, bundled experience with room for a singular voice, because I think everything has to be wraparound now. The idea of being didactic and singular in a learning experience is over. You have to cause the mash-up to happen, in various ways and not in the same way. So, whether it’s taking them to a location or bombarding them with sight and sound in the classroom, or meeting people who have been your past students, for instance, for a beer and having a discussion about their career, and about your career, their youth and your age. And we can laugh about it, but sincerely enjoying spending time together is part of the ongoing education. Jan and I have been very lucky in that we have so many past students that are very good friends.

Bach: Yeah.

Krumpak: I see students all the time, for coffee, for beer. I get a call or an email, “I’d like to see you; I’ve been thinking about you or something you said.” The painting show I have up now in Santa Monica [Built & Placed] was curated by a former student of mine [Jesse Benson], right? I think twelve years ago, and now he’s a curator, an incredible painter and teacher. And it came out of the blue. “I’ve been thinking about your work for a long time now, I have a spot, and I want to show your work.” The generational turnover and the transition between them being young and your student, and then being older and being your student and then not being your student anymore, then realizing that you’re both students for each other? That’s what it’s really about. Then eventually working together. So, that is great. That’s a great thing.

Bach: This is something that I’ve always known to be true about you—and it may not be true for other people—is that there is really no demarcation between who you are as a painter, as a person, as an educator, as a husband, as a father, as a friend, as a cafe goer…

Krumpak: [laughs]

Bach: …as a traveler…it’s all a mix that you’re constantly adjusting and mixing and tweaking. It’s like you have a big mixing board and you’re making these adjustments and you’re like, “I’m going turn it up here on the educator part and I’m really going to get my students to talk and then I’ll dial it back down, I’ll go home and just chill out and watch a film and drink some brandy, and then the next day, I’m really going to spend some time in the studio. But, there isn’t a hard demarcation where this begins and this ends. To me, that was something I picked up on very early when I first started here. My first class with you was Intermediate Drawing, because I transferred [from Ventura College], so I already had all of the foundation classes…

Krumpak: Yes, [ART] 381.

Bach: With the big charcoal drawings where you subtract charcoal with an eraser.

Krumpak: I remember your drawing.

Bach: Because of the environment that you created in your classroom and the discussions we had, I knew right away that you were someone who was going to play an important role in my life and in my career as an artist. For me, the thing that has always stuck with me, and that I can point in all of my work, was your way of connecting artistic practice and expression to the place that you’re in, specifically something as simple as taking a shape from the environment and using that as a starting point in the work. So, you go and you find a circle or a quatrefoil in the landscape and you trace it, and you take that tracing and you transfer it to the drawing and that becomes an initial shape that you work with. That simple idea, where you find something in the place that you’re investigating, and that becomes a direct link to the work…

Krumpak: Yeah.

Bach: …is a touchstone for me when I look back at my development as an artist, as a poet, as a sound artist. That is the thing that I’ll always remember. That simple, elegant practice.

Krumpak: That’s good, that’s good. I think that’s true. I agree with everything you said. I’ve always thought that good, quality information, research, other works of art, whether it’s music or literature, dance, theater, film, architecture, design, all that…if the source of inspiration is rich and right, the best thing is to go directly to it. Use it, bring it into your wheelhouse, as you’re saying, and let it inform the decisions that you’re making in the rest of the actual art piece, or the trajectory, or the area of investigation, whether that’s a person, a place, or thing, a temporary event, seeking the new thing that is happening, or whatever. I guess I’ve always believed that good information, especially art in one form or another, transforms the witness. I mean, psychically and physically transforms you, the maker. The closer you can get to that quality, the better off you are. I never feared that I would be overwhelmed by it. I never feared that it was appropriation or belonged to somebody else. I never really made that much of a distinction between low life and high art at all. I could recognize the differences in them. I could admire the aspiration and the hard work needed for Nureyev to leap up and lift off the stage, and how it felt like he was suspended in the air for what seemed like hours. And the magic of how that changed time and space in my head…I know what kind of discipline must go into that. I don’t know, but I think I know. I always tried to go to the source, as you said, and just get rid of the bullshit and get rid of my prejudice about the source, and just eat it up. Right? I guess that informs the way I teach, too. It does. I try to get young people to the source, the highest quality source that I can get them to. And I try to speak about it in a way that is humble, so that they understand that they can aspire to that same level of greatness of artists like Nureyev, for lack of a better word. If they believe it has the possibility of transformation for them, they probably will be transformed by their journey. And if they don’t, then, that’s their life and their choices and I can’t cram it down their throats. So, I agree with that.

Chinatown, downtown Los Angeles (image by Bri Joy)

Bach: Have you always approached it that way? Did you come to it through trial and error, or was it an epiphany?

Krumpak: Good question. We don’t want to go all the way back to when I was a child…

Bach: Yeah.

Krumpak: You do? [laughs]

Bach: No, no [laughs]. I was just thinking that, for me, the way I made work before I came here was very different than after I came here and worked with you, and worked with Beverly [Naidus].

Krumpak: Yeah.

Bach: I had some very strong epiphanies that were very illuminating.

Krumpak: We could go back to childhood just for fun…I never thought I was an artist when I was a kid. I remember drawing, but it was not on my radar at all, and I think I gravitated to making art as a teenager, and maybe you and I have even discussed this early on, because the people who were making it, the students when I was young, seemed to be the best people to hang around with.

Bach: Ahhh [laughs].

Krumpak: [laughs] They seemed to be the smartest, and they seemed to be the most interesting. They were non-violent. They seemed to have an edge on life. They had a sense of style, and I was just comfortable there. Where I was not comfortable in other arenas. I think I just took a look at that, psychologically and internally, and it just said, “Go over there.” In that environment, I realized the membership card… was that you had to make art. [laughs]

Bach: Yeah.

Krumpak: And, so I started to make it. But not with any aspiration of being a great artist. I started playing in bands when I was in junior high school, and I loved music, all kinds of music. The card to being a rock and roll guy was playing the drums. So I taught myself how to play the drums, you know. And then the same people who were interested in music were the same people who were in my art classes.

Bach: Interesting.

Krumpak: I loved the life of being a musician. I loved hanging out in bars, even when I wasn’t old enough to be in them yet. I liked the nightlife. I liked the seedy side of town. We certainly saw a lot of it. Through all of that time I was making paintings and drawings, but then again not seriously thinking of myself as an artist, but just as, well, a creative person does this. That’s what one does. You don’t do that. You’re not playing football. You’re playing drums and making paintings. That’s what you do. I think it is the milieu that I identified with. I had an uncle who was in the film industry. He was a screenwriter, but more than that, he was a researcher and a historian for film. He ran the libraries for MGM and Twentieth-Century Fox. He was definitely an outside-of-the-norm person, he was almost a Zen Buddhist, who drank lots of vodka and read volumes when he wasn’t doing film research. He was mixing up words and pictures all the time, and he had this erratic, loner lifestyle. And he really liked me and I really liked him, so he was an example of esoteric in motion. Also, I had some really great painting teachers early on, from New York, who were very different in the way they handled themselves. They were definitely bohemians. I could watch that, and I felt comfortable, not posing, but I felt comfortable around them because they offered alternative views of the world and ways to move through it. I think that those environments became closer and closer. I went to San Francisco to go to school at State [San Francisco State University], but it was closed because of the anti-Vietnam demonstrations. You couldn’t go to class. So, I ended up applying to the San Francisco Art Institute, which was the best thing that ever happened to me. And then I was around really odd young artists and very eclectic teachers who were very political. Certainly their lifestyle came first, and art-making was part of the lifestyle, and not the other way around. So, I learned how to be San Franciscan, I learned how to be excessive and have a lot of attitude.

Bach: [laughs]

Krumpak: I learned to know what I liked, know what I didn’t like, which barstool to sit on, which one not to sit on. Where to have your cappuccino in the morning, where not to have your cappuccino in the morning. How to read the paper. How to sit at a table. How to be addicted to a latte at Caffe Trieste. All those flavor mixes, I think, helped the thing you’re talking about…mesh the idea of what an artist is with how one conducts oneself. And what artwork one makes, and what you have to do to be ethical and hold your position within that community. How sincere you have to try to be. How you have to realize…and this is getting a little personal, but that’s okay…how to realize just how fucked up you are, as a person. Meaning, how imperfect. Because, I could see all these great imperfections and imbalance with people who I liked to be around in the art scene. And I realized that it was okay. I could be dis-balanced, and not a well-put together and holistic being.

Bach: Aren’t we all.

Krumpak. That’s right. Those of us who make art [laughs].

Tom Krumpak and his friend Tiki (image by Judi Russell)

Jeffrey Roden

Jeffrey Roden is a composer who lives with his wife, Shelley, and their dog, Hazel, in a remarkably serene neighborhood in Glendale, California. This conversation took place over email, July 2014 to June 2015.

Jeffrey Roden (image by Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times)

Bach: Your mailing address places you technically in Glendale, but your house is situated near the intersection of Glendale, Pasadena, and La Canada Flintridge in the Verdugo mountains. The Los Angeles Times calls the region The Verdugos. How would you describe the neighborhood where you live?

Roden: Small rant to start with . . . growing up in Los Angeles, there were almost no names for little areas like Picfair [Village], Beverly Crest, Koreatown, etc. Thinking about it, the only two I can remember were Little Tokyo and the Borscht Belt, which was the area around Fairfax and Beverly Boulevard. The idea of trying to create some neighborhood identity out of a place where everyone is barely conscious of anything besides their own off-ramp by giving it a fabricated name seems so disingenuous. You cannot make a neighborhood by naming it. Rant completed.

That being said, our little slice of Glendale, with the exception of the Art Center Student and Faculty Speed Racing Association, is, in fact, quite a beautiful, unknown little neighborhood. One of our neighbors had a wonderful 4th of July party, and the newbie neighbors were so surprised that a lot of people know each other on a first-name basis. We walk the dogs twice daily, and most of our neighbors actually wave as they drive by or we walk past. Shelley and I retrieved another neighbor’s expensive bike from his garage when we discovered he had left the garage door open to the street. I called our Neighborhood Watch person, who notified him we had his bike safe. He was completely nonplussed that anyone would look out for him. Sadly, I suppose this is the way many people face their day.

Among the many wonders of living here is the abundant wildlife, which seems almost ridiculous considering we are about a 5-minute drive from a gigantic freeway interchange. Deer, skunks, mountain lion, coyotes, eagles, hawks, and our own bear. Shelley actually just missed seeing the bear on our front steps one night when she worked late.

The quiet and the trees have a very significant impact on my work. We have a gigantic liquid amber tree in the front yard, and I often wonder if I will ever make anything as marvelous as the sound its leaves makes in a good stout wind, especially if our giant Soleri bell gongs at the same time. Trees give me a sense of order and rightness, and with the exception of loggers and logging, trees maintain a kind of detachment and impunity to the vibrations and irrelevance of our activities. There are wonderful trees of every kind all over this little area, and no day passes without my being attracted to one or another of them.

Lastly, diversity is almost an obscene piece of language, however it is quite a treat to live with so many different kinds of people, even the newly migrating hipsters priced out of Silverlake. At the 4th of July party, I had a long chat with a new neighbor about [Morton] Feldman…actually we had a Feldman love fest, if that is possible.

It feels like home, and that is, I suppose, the best thing that could be said.

Bach: “Feels like home” is indeed a wonderful thing, and it goes beyond the words we have for it. When you say that the trees give you a sense of order and rightness, is this the impact on your work that you’re talking about?

Roden: Actually, I have loved trees all my life, which is ironic considering I have spent most of my life in a large urban area.

Anything that could be said about trees descends rather rapidly into vapidness and cliché. It is, however, their stoic, immutable nature that has always made me feel happy and safe, and somehow I feel that, regardless of what happens, there is always change, and that even ennui has a beauty. Just standing still is sometimes the most perfect thing that can be done. I hate climbing in them, lights on them, anything which attempts to rope them into our short-lived and anxious world. They are beyond anxiety, and I imagine trees, with whatever consciousness they possess, take death very wonderfully without the least drama. Tolkien’s ents are a perfect literary picture of this. Do not get me started on Peter Jackson………………ergggg.

I have no idea how they impact my work, other than I hope that my work has the patience and confidence of trees, and that other things will come to live in my work and take up residence, embellish a bit, maybe the creation of bird songs, as birds would be next on my favorites list.

The irrelevance of our activities is that, for the most part, we only exist or matter to a few people if we are lucky, and perhaps mostly for ourselves. The work we make, certainly we hope, has life everlasting, but that is beyond our knowing.

That is the tree mind.

It does not matter if we do not know what will happen, and we should not.

So that we can make work for the present and for its own sake.

This is why it is perhaps fortunate to not have a giant career which dictates and demands, and is why I quit playing for a living.

I make work, and that is mostly an adequate reward for the million hours it takes.

Jeffrey Roden at Quiet, 2003 (photo by Glenn Bach)

Bach: So, your work naturally took an inward turn as you gave up gigging, and this meant more time in your studio. Did your studio setup change a lot when you moved to Glendale?

Roden: Saying studio is so generous, as I am the least technically competent person in America. My studio is a Zoom recorder I never use and my scoring software Sibelius. Sibelius is a wonder and has allowed me to easily morph to composer. I do know how to copy music longhand, but to be able to hear and make changes in the score even with cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeesy samples is a great help. Once, I had a massive synth setup and all kinds of stuff which I made my earlier CDs with, but I think I knew that I would wind up here no matter how hard I struggled not to. That being said, if you can find your copy of Mary Ann’s Dream, listen carefully to track 5, “a kind word.” I just put this on over the weekend and loved it.

Bach: I think it’s interesting how your work in Sibelius is affected in some way by hearing an approximation, as cheesy as it may be, of the notes you are transcribing, a temporary stand-in that eventually disappears as the piece comes to fruition. As low-tech as it is, your setup is still a very hands-on process. And I want to get back to your point about eventually ending up where you are now, but I want to dig deeper into the idea of studio. I’m wondering what it is specifically about your music room in the Glendale house that fosters or nurtures your practice. How did you envision this space, and how different is it from the room where you made music in the Culver City house? Is this current room close to an ideal space for you? This is what I meant by studio in my previous question…not necessarily a recording studio, but a place where you can reflect and read and make music or listen to music or simply sit and think. A smaller home within the larger home.

photo by Lawrence Dolkart

Roden: I always seem to make a place for myself where the outside is framed so that it is the inside. I love trees and sky and clouds and that rare rain. It would be my prayer to live in the forest someday, or some other deeply silent place where I can dream and look out the window. This is the essence of my work now. Once, it was a chase for virtuosity; now it is an effort to make music which is more a reflection of my inside self. This current room, especially after changing the windows to bring the outside in more clearly, is a room I will be sad to leave. I think clearly my best composing work has been done here. As my life is really just music, this room serves as a place where I spend most of my time. Even while doing non-music work, I can listen to music here or go to the piano and find notes or just imagine what is to come next.  I like that the dogs and Shelley also camp out here, as it keeps me from getting too precious and lofty. It is easy to feel distracted by noise, and it is a great discipline to work around and through it. Now, almost nothing is annoying and I like to feel those I love close by and it the same feeling with me. Hazel sleeps with her head on the piano, and I suppose she could, and should, get some co-composer credit.

My dream space would be a place so quiet, I could open the doors completely to the outside and work in the sun, even, and feel the presence of everything. I know that the listener hears and knows everything, even if they, or you the composer/performer, are unaware of what that knowledge is. I knew this quite unconsciously when I quit playing for a living. Now I know it as a certainty, and work with some diligence to bring only my intention to life rather than other aspects of myself or my knowledge. The professional life is a daunting way to keep yourself in a state without compromise.

What Sibelius has done is allow me to skip an important step in my music education, and compose on a big scale without the hands-on practice I would have gotten had I gone to college. Fortunately, I have a very instinctive grasp of how the orchestration should go, and my teachers have stepped in and provided the technical details. After hearing my first performance, I think I am definitely going in the right direction and have a lot of confidence that I know what I need to know. Feldman has a section in a book about how orchestration is not a skill but a talent like composing, and further goes on to say without an original orchestration sense it would be impossible for a composer to be original (that was the world’s worst paraphrase in history). I think, like choosing the notes, you have to just know who will play what. Sibelius has been helpful at guiding me to that, even though frequently you really need a very vivid imagination…

Bach: Is it safe to say that the New Albion concert at Bard College was a turning point for you? Or, at least a signpost? Do you still think about what it would be like to live there in upstate New York?

Roden: The New Albion festival performance was a turning point only in hindsight. I did another record for solo bass, bridge to the other place, which I did not release beyond a few copies. What I realized in hindsight is that, in the New Albion concert performance, I had accomplished on the bass what I had searched for all of my life, and was able to put together a performance worthy of that search. In a room filled with composers and musicians, the music and I survived and prospered under the harshest scrutiny. I would say perhaps almost disdain by some of the people there. I think there is a homely quality to the work which grates and wears on the educated and the modern-minded. This is the beauty of truly being on the fringe, as these contrary feelings are not a distraction, a motivation, or really anything other than a feeling of separation from a collective mindset that I am uninterested in. I spent my professional music life under the obligation to interest the listener and evoke some response depending on the situation. No one had the slightest interest in my intention or the philosophical basis for what I was doing. I have retained that sense, even now as my work has turned toward a different purpose. So, that is a long way of saying that the New Albion festival was perhaps the beginning of my transition from the primary focus of my life being the bass and becoming a full time composer. It is a choice which I still have conflicted feelings about, as it has always been my fear that this is what would happen. Until I find some new direction to take the bass, I will compose and wait for the new way to use the bass. I have tried in my writing for chamber ensembles to give the double bass interesting and challenging parts to play. For the moment, it is as much as I can manage.

We never stop thinking about living somewhere else that would give us the quiet and beauty of upstate New York. Shelley’s work, however, will keep us rooted in some city, and we are so fortunate that where we live now is as quiet and beautiful as one could imagine in Los Angeles. I mean, we have a bear after all…

George Hart

George Hart is a Professor in the Department of English at California State University, Long Beach. We sat on George’s deck with drinks and a Zoom H2 digital recorder, but I made the rookie mistake that I lecture my students not to make: I armed the recorder but did not activate the record button a second time to begin recording. I didn’t notice my mistake until about eight minutes into our talk. (Recorded July 19, 2014, backyard deck, Fucking Spaulding House, Cambodia Town, Long Beach, California)

places lived…

[recording starts]

Hart: I lived in Reno for two years, and Susan lived there for seven years. The University of Nevada, Reno…they had the Literature and the Environment Ph.D there, it was one of the first programs to do ecocriticism. It was that place where you thought, “This is the perfect place for it.” It’s in a city, but Reno is nothing like Vegas. It’s smaller, it’s quainter, it’s like the old Nevada. You think, “This is a great town, I could stay here forever.” It’s forty minutes from Tahoe. Forty minutes from the Sierra. You can get to the desert, you can get to the mountains. It’s a great location for people who love the outdoors: skiing, hiking, all that stuff. So, moving to California, I thought, “Wow…” [laughs]

Bach: Yeah, I can imagine.

Hart: But, I love it. And moving to a densely populated urban area is a good thing for an ecocritic. Because it reorients you from that wilderness aesthetic, which was so dominant in early ecocriticism. It was very dominant in the program at Reno for a long time. It was all about wilderness, and preserving wilderness, and that we have this ideal form of nature that we love and protect, and then everything else is secondary, or lesser. Here, it’s getting a sense of an urban nature and an urban place, and Long Beach is a great place for that. It changes you, and you reorient from that wilderness aesthetic so strongly, and you realize urban nature exists and that nature is available to a diverse group of people in terms of ethnicity and age and interest. The restoration work that goes on here, the L.A. River being restored, the Colorado Lagoon being restored, the Los Cerritos Wetlands, there is so much environmental stuff going on here that I think would be ruled out if we were just talking about wilderness. For me, that was the biggest shift after moving to Southern California. You realize that you can still be about nature, about place, about environment, but you’re dealing with this totally different type of environment.

Bach: It gets away from the binary opposition that nature is where you go to, or go out in, and urban development is over here, or that nature is something that requires a certain socioeconomic standing and the resources and the time to get to it and enjoy it. It gets away from that false division, because nature is everything. Just because you’ve put down concrete over a site doesn’t mean that it’s not in nature. The Southern California landscape has been shaped over the years by developers and city planners, and then City Beautiful in the thirties before the Olympics with this massive effort to plant all of these shade trees and ornamental trees, introducing these non-native species, but for our generation these trees have been here for fifty, sixty, eighty years…

Hart: They’re part of the place.

Bach: They’re part of the landscape now. So, it’s a false dichotomy to separate the two. We know that, and growing up in Southern California, I know that. But I can imagine that in the scholarship and the field of ecocriticism, or even in broader literature, with this favoritism of pastoral writing or writing about the landscape, that if it’s someone writing about urban stuff it’s Frank O’Hara, he’s an urban poet, whereas Gary Snyder is a wilderness poet. The division seems artificial.

Hart: It is, and you’re exactly right. It forces you to get rid of that dichotomy. The nature/culture dichotomy when you live in Southern California, or in an urban place, has to go away. You have to realize that nature and culture are completely interconnected. I do believe that wilderness lets you think that there is this essential nature that is out there that, like you were saying, you have to get out of the city to get to. And it’s the pure nature, it’s the real nature, it’s the actual, authentic nature, and that’s bullshit. This is widespread now, ever since William Cronon, a historian from Wisconsin, wrote an article that became a book, The Trouble with Wilderness, and his theory that the trouble with wilderness is that wilderness advocates get invested in this sense that here is this pure, perfect nature that’s always been this way and we need to preserve it. No, we created that.

Bach: It was shaped.

Hart: It’s a National Park, and there used to be people living in it. There used to be people moving plants and animals around in it. We displaced them and pushed them out, and then said, “Now it’s pure.” And when you’re in an urban environment, that is gone. There are native species and exotic species, but you begin to realize all this stuff is moving around and we’ve been part of it the whole time.

Bach: Human agency has been shaping the landscape since we’ve been a part of it.

Hart: I don’t know how you can separate it.

Bach: Whose definition of “purity” are we talking about?

Hart: Yeah. And that’s what I like about being in Southern California, because you get rid of those ideas of purity and essentialism and those things associated with wilderness, but it doesn’t devalue that. I still love to go backpacking and get out where you can feel that nobody is around, where you’re all on your own and the landscape is like it’s been for thousands and thousands of years, and that’s great, but the nature that I’ve become more invested in and concerned with is all this stuff that has concrete in it, and cars and people, and everything else that’s part of the community.

Bach: The two environments that you mentioned, the lagoon and the wetlands, are still vital ecosystems that have been threatened over the years and are slowly coming back from the brink of being wiped out. I know the Colorado Lagoon is in much better shape than it was five years ago.

Hart: It gets ‘A’ ratings now. And you would never have gone in that water. It had eleven storm drains going into it. As you were saying, back in the thirties, it was the diving area for the Olympics, so it was already this area that was culturally constructed out of the wetlands. All of that part of Long Beach was wetlands, and the lagoon was created for the Olympics, and they put in night lighting for the events there. They have a great display of that in the educational shack at the lagoon. And you realize it’s not a ‘natural’ place in that way, but it’s a place where people come to get the experience of a beach, where kids can swim with no surf, but then you had the logic of, “Oh, we have this place where we can put all of the storm drains, and the runoff will end up there, and it will go out to the ocean and everything will be fine.”

Bach: Right.

Hart: And then they cut off the tidal flow to the ocean. And what happened? It became a sewer. But, now it’s been restored. Taylor Parker and Eric Zahn, some friends of mine who managed the restoration [as Tidal Influence], have done amazing work. They removed I don’t know how many tons of toxic sludge from the bottom of the lagoon. And now there are no storm drains going in there directly; runoff now goes through filters and catches to capture all of the debris, and now they get ‘A’ ratings from Heal the Bay.

Bach: Wow. That is an amazing accomplishment.

Hart: Astounding. They used to get Fs and Ds all the time. Kids from North Long Beach will go there to swim. They live four or five miles from the ocean, and maybe have never seen the ocean, and they can go down to this neighborhood [Alamitos Heights], which is all rich white people, and encounter native species and this body of water that they can swim in, play in, have fun in. They learn about the fish and about the stuff that’s there. To me, that’s the important environmental work that’s being done.

Bach: Right.

Hart: Rather than saying we’re preserving this one little area for just the exclusive groups that can get out there and who are able-bodied and have the free time and the money to do it.

Bach: Whose experience of the natural landscape is more authentic or more worthy? Going out to 10,000 feet on a ridge somewhere where you haven’t seen anyone all day, that’s a great experience.

Hart: That’s real.

Bach: Or, these kids who are growing up in these urban neighborhoods, who don’t have easy access to the ocean, they come to this beautiful place and have this outdoor experience which is just as worthy, and inspiring, because hopefully it will spark in them the sense that they are connected to the earth, that there is this larger world…

Hart: That there is nature in their neighborhoods, their world. I think it’s common that for a lot of people, like my friends from Reno, or a lot of the hardcore wilderness advocates, they get older and get jobs in places like this, they start having kids, and start reorienting themselves. A guy I know, a good ecocritic and environmental activist, Corey Lewis, he was in the same program as Susan at Reno, got his Ph.D., got a job at Humboldt [State University]. He was all about wilderness and Gary Snyder when he was at Reno. When I saw him at a conference, he had been living in Humboldt, has a couple of kids, and he says, “Now I’m all about community and restoration and healthy food for people in urban areas.” He totally reoriented and realized that there is so much more to be done when you have this different sense of nature. It’s something I think even Snyder went through himself. When I read the poems and the essays and see him saying, “Back in the day when I was a trail crew worker, when I was a fire lookout, nature to me was wilderness. And that was it.” That’s a Eurocentric, masculinist, privileged view of what nature is. As he got more involved in community and had kids, he realized that nature is everywhere. He has a great poem, “Night Song of the L.A. Basin,” part of Mountains and Rivers Without End, where he reads the highway system and the river as ecosystems, and he has this integrated view of the city, cars, freeways, and nature and all the stuff that’s there underneath the concrete that’s still identifiable.

Bach: It’s the watershed aesthetics that he talks about. Buildings and concrete and buildings are still in the watershed that drains water through the floodplain. It’s part of that environment, regardless of whether it’s been developed or not. I think that’s an interesting correlation between the freeways and the river, because they’re both tributaries, a way of flow and energy and activity. For a lot of people, the freeways are the means by which you get to and get through these places. If you start in Southern California to go hike, you go to the San Gabriel Mountains, or the Angeles National Forest or the Santa Monica Mountains…

Hart: You’re going to be on the freeway.

Bach: Going through these corridors to get to this other space. While you’re traveling through those spaces you’re traversing the watershed.

Hart: The 710 follows the L.A. River. The 605 follows the San Gabriel River. Our paths are still following the same paths, in certain ways, that animals would follow, the first people who were here would follow. And then we made the path into a road. And then a freeway. But we’re still following those watershed lines. And that’s the thing about Long Beach. Our beach sucks. The breakwater makes our beach suck. Our beach used to be called the Waikiki of California, right?

Bach: Yes.

Hart: And with that breakwater, it sucks, because the L.A. River goes there. The San Gabriel River goes there. All of it stops. When it rains, all of the crap stays there. So, hopefully they’ll take down the breakwater.

Bach: So, if the Lagoon is getting ‘A’ ratings, what is the beach getting?

Hart: That’s a good question. I haven’t looked, but I think they’ve improved somewhat. Part of that is the drought.

Bach: Right.

Hart: There’s not as much shit washing down. When it rains, the ratings plummet, but when it’s dry, things improve.

Bach: I know there have been efforts to improve catch basins and storm drain management. I don’t know how much money has been devoted to that in Long Beach, but the Friends of the L.A. River have been doing some amazing things getting the political power and the funding mechanisms to convince the Army Corps of Engineers to restore sections of the river to their original condition.

Hart: Yeah.

Bach: To get out of the mindset of the fear of undoing the flood control efforts over the years to prevent these massive floods. A wild river plain…

Hart: That meanders.

Bach: Yes, at one time the three rivers were all connected. So, to understand that if you have a wide enough plain and it’s managed properly, you can open up the river and remove the concrete and still accommodate the overflow.

Hart: It doesn’t have to be a channelized, concrete river. That was just the most expedient way of dealing with it at the time.

Bach: Right.

Hart: Think about it. You want the river to be free, you want the river to be able to do what it does. But only if we’re nomadic.

Bach: [laughs] Right.

Hart: Only if we’re picking up our houses every once in a while and moving them around. So there has to be a middle ground. Moving to Southern California and Long Beach, you get older and you’re not as hardcore, and compromise becomes part of it. “The river can do what the river wants.” I wish it could. But we would have to live in a different way, because people’s lives would be disrupted. Our friend ShaunAnne was just visiting from North Dakota. She’s from California, so she loves to come back every summer to hang out on the beach. But their house is right on the river in Minot, and it flooded a couple of years ago, and their house was destroyed. They lived in a FEMA trailer for a year while they were rebuilding.

Bach: Wow.

Hart: Every once in a while the rain pattern comes around where the river is going to flood. There are levees, and it’s very similar to New Orleans, but on a smaller scale with not as many people. The river is going to flood and there is nothing we can do about it. But at the same time she loves that place, she loves her house, loves living by the river. They went through hell for those two years to get back into their house, to get it restored and in place. Right before the flood people were telling them, “It’s only going to get this high. You’re going to be okay there.” You just never know.

Bach: I don’t know if it’s human society as a whole that has this short memory, but Southern California was established in a period of relative water abundance, this rare slice of time when they happened to come across the basin, and it was like, “This is paradise.” Without realizing that it was a blip in the normal patterns of long periods of drought.

Hart: Wet years and dry years.

Bach: Right. If it had been different, if de Portolà and his conquistadors had come when the river was dry…

Hart: “Let’s get out of here. This sucks!”

Bach: Who knows what would have happened.

Hart: In one of the essays in A Sand County Almanac, [Aldo] Leopold says, “The floodplain is the river’s.” He said the rivers are going to do what the rivers are going to do. And we can have these levees, but at a certain point the floodplain is the river’s. And I want to respect that. We have this technology, but when it happens, the river is going to flood, and we need to deal with that. Hopefully we can help people humanely and in good ways. I think New Orleans is still completely screwed. ShaunAnne and her folks up in Minot, where there are smaller communities…it was easier in general to get people back and safe in their homes, whereas in New Orleans, with the combination of poverty, race, place…it’s too unsettled, it’s too tricky from a sociological or cultural point of view to manage, and then when Nature comes in and says, “Hey, it’s time for a flood,” what are you going to do?

Bach: It’s not helped by the levee system and the way they’ve interfered with the natural way the Mississippi River drains into the Gulf and deposits silts and builds up sandbars and barrier islands…

Hart: And it has consequences. I think the lesson learned is that we can try to make stuff the way we want it, which is great, but you have to accept that there will be consequences on a higher order at some point. There are forces that are greater than us.

Bach: We come in and try to impose a humanistic, rational, linear system of order on a non-linear, non-rational, chaotic system of nature that doesn’t…

Hart: Doesn’t respect those boundaries. At all.

Bach: Going back to the lagoon. I want to talk about its relation to your work as a critic and as an educator, with your interest in service learning, so that it’s not just about these issues of environment and its appearance in the work of poets and writers, or analyzing literature from an ecocritical perspective, but also embracing an experiential, hands-on learning style to embody some of these values, and to get students to think about these connections and get them out into the world.

Hart: I didn’t know much about service learning when I moved to Long Beach, but there was already a Service Learning Center at CSULB. Pat Rozee, a professor in the Psychology department, established it about ten years before I got here. She’s been working on it for a long time. At a new faculty orientation, they came in and gave a presentation, and said “If you want to do service learning, we can help you set it up.” So, I designed this class, “Literature and Environment,” a General Education Capstone. I think there has to be an activist component to ecocriticism, a pragmatic component. We are reading literature, talking about theory, doing all these things within the walls of the ivory tower, but there are ramifications outside. And ecocriticism has always been premised on that. All the early theorists and critics who practiced it, Cheryll Glotfelty, Lawrence Buell, Scott Slovic, all those folks…you are a committed environmentalist if you are doing this kind of criticism. And I think that’s great. Where the rubber meets the road, if you want to use a cliché, is service learning or experiential learning. Pedagogy is where that stuff really interfaces and comes together. There are the ideas we’re dealing with, like wilderness or environmental justice, and we need to talk about that, and then you need to get students connecting that to where they live or what they care about. The service learning component for that was great. Again, Taylor and Eric at Tidal Influence, they’re the ones who are out there and they get it: “You don’t need to be a Biology major, you don’t need to be an Environmental Studies major; you can be an English major, a Religious Studies major, a History major. Come and do some work for us and learn something about what your discipline can contribute to understanding this. And then you can take that back as a student to the classroom or as a potential teacher down the line. Here’s how the ideas we’re talking about in class connect to what’s going on out in the environment.” Time and time again, every time I teach the service learning class, students say, “I grew up in Southern California, I grew up in Long Beach, I grew up in Orange County, I didn’t know the wetlands were there. I didn’t know that the lagoon was there.” They’re just blown away that not even two miles from campus, just down the street, there is this place that has all this significance, all this history, all this ecological importance. There used to be wetlands all up and down the coast of California. Now there are less than 5% of viable wetlands remaining. Here are people like Taylor and Eric saying, “We can make this better, improve it, give people access to it, restore it, and it’s going to do what wetlands are supposed to do: purify the water, provide habitat for species, and provide a place for people to go and connect to those things.” There’s nothing better than that. It happens in the classroom when you’re talking about it, and then it happens when students get out and start working with those community partners. To me, I’m totally convinced…the real contribution that ecocriticism can make to environmental causes is through that pedagogy. That’s the connection. Ecocriticism can do great things in terms of theory, and it’s getting even more sophisticated in terms of theory these days. People can really read things this way, but until you can get students to think, “Oh, yeah, I can go out and help somebody clear out a bunch of ice plant, and put in a bunch of native species, which is better for the birds that live there, and the insects that live there, and the fish that live there.” That’s what makes the connection. That is where ecocriticism does the good work that it can do.

Bach: It raises awareness, and they look up and see a bird, and they wonder, “Is that a migratory bird, and is it headed toward the lagoon?”

Hart: “Is it going to find what it needs there, will it find its food source there?” There are some species, like the Belding’s Savannah Sparrow, that are completely indigenous and special to these environments, that if these environments go, those species go. If we can get this one little area fixed, we can help this butterfly thrive, we can help this type of bird thrive, and we can help this type of fish thrive. And students didn’t think they would ever care about that [laughs].

Bach: Right.

Hart: They’re good Southern Californians. What they know is the 405, and the 605, and the 101, and the 110.

Bach: And which beach to go to with the best parking.

Hart: They have amazing environmental awareness, but it’s all based in their cars, and where they need to go and what they want to do for fun and recreation. So, really, they’re actually good environmental thinkers, it’s just tuning them into to thinking that when you get there, they should realize that there is this salt grass that can only grow there, and birds and animals that only hang out there, and they get it. They’ve been doing it all these years, it’s been right there in front of them, in their backyards, and they just didn’t know.

Cambodia Town (11th and Junipero)

Bach: So, back to Cambodia Town. We were talking about your floor plan and lot size, which is not very big when you think about Southern California residential development, and single-family homes in suburban sprawl. I definitely wouldn’t call this place suburban, since it’s a very urban residential development. But still, small lots in a dense urban neighborhood, and that seems to be typical of this part of Long Beach. Even in our neighborhood there are these bungalows that can get fairly large, but the lots are still pretty small. So, I can imagine that coming from some of these other places, Reno, Palo Alto, even Ohio, it took some getting used to.

Hart: I never lived in a place like this. Like Cambodia Town. In Palo Alto, I was a graduate student, I was poor, and I lived in a shack in the backyard of a 1.4 million dollar home. Even there, it was very suburban; I lived in the back house on someone’s property. Cambodia Town, and the 4th District that it’s in, are the most densely populated neighborhoods in Long Beach.

Bach: Wow. Okay.

Hart: Yeah. We’re in this weird dogleg of the 4th District, which is mostly Los Altos and the Traffic Circle. The Press Telegram did a series on the demographics of Long Beach last year, and we followed it as they went district by district. The 4th District is the most densely populated in Long Beach.

Bach: And probably the most diverse.

Hart: Yes, and the most diverse. Moving here into this neighborhood…we were talking earlier before we turned the recorder on…

Bach: [laughs].

Hart: When I lived on Mira Mar in Belmont Heights, renting that apartment, and then when Susan and I were ready to get married and wanted to buy our own place, it was the height of the bubble. The only house we could afford in Long Beach was the Fucking Spaulding House, the FSH. That was it, the only freestanding house we looked at that we could afford. We looked at condos, but we’re not condo people, so we didn’t want to live there. So, we bought the FSH. Living in this neighborhood has completely changed the way I understand what it means to live in a community, to be a neighbor, to have a sense of place. As I understand it, these little houses we live in are kit houses, with the 616 square foot floor plan. They were basically sold out of the Sears catalog.

Bach: Out of the catalog. Right.

Hart: You would order your house with whatever configuration of walls you’d want, and then they would lay down the floors. The hardwood floors in our house, which are nice and wonderful and I love them…they would just lay the floor down like a platform and drop the house on top of it. The boards run underneath the walls. And so it’s just this platform of hardwood, and the house on top of it. They were the cheap beach houses for people who lived up in Pasadena or Glendale…

Bach: Right.

Hart: And it gets freaking hot up there in the summer, before air conditioning. So you could afford to buy a cheap house, from a kit, in Long Beach, a mile from the beach and get some cool air for the summer. That’s how I think these lots in this area were developed, and most of the houses on this block were built from this same plan. Some of the corner houses were dropped in later, or were older and more established stucco houses. But for the most part, it’s this clapboard house built from a kit. Living in this kind of proximity, to this kind of diversity, to this density of population, has changed the way I think about what the good life is…

Bach: Yeah [laughs].

Hart: What having acceptable personal space is. What it means to have neighbors, and to have a community. To me, the most interesting thing about being here is not just the ethnic diversity, which is crazy, out of the box. In Cambodia Town, there are more Cambodians living here within this two-mile radius than anywhere else outside of Cambodia or Phnom Penh. There is a huge, longstanding Latino population, lots of South Americans, Mexicans, Central Americans. There is a fairly strong European, Caucasian working class population that’s always been here. There are some African Americans, but not as many as in North Long Beach. Cherry Avenue is where the 6th District starts, which is heavily African American, so we’re just one block from that. So, not just the amazing diversity, but the economic diversity. I’m a university professor…

Bach: [laughs]

Hart: There are not a lot of other people in this neighborhood with college degrees or even high school degrees. But, there is also this sense that everyone is in the same situation because we’re in Southern California. So, even as a university professor, I’m not this elite person who can live…on my salary we could not afford a house in Belmont Heights. When we were looking, we could not afford it. Susan was changing careers the whole time we lived here, so she didn’t have a huge income. We knew we had to live on my income, and this is where we could do it. And I love it. Because we’ve met people who are so far out of the realm of the university faculty enclave where everyone is the same. Here, everybody in this neighborhood is so different. We cannot speak Khmer, so we can’t talk to our Cambodian neighbors. I have no Spanish, Susan has a little. For all the varieties of languages spoken here, we still get along with our neighbors. And, your tolerance for…and I think about this all the time, and I think of you, Glenn Bach, sound artist…this sense of the sound in the environment here, I want to think of it as really rich, not noisy. We live in a noisy neighborhood, but it’s rich. There’s interesting stuff. You hear people cranking radios, you hear people starting up their cars, you hear people fighting and arguing, but it becomes part of the environment.

Bach: It’s a tapestry.

Hart: Normally, a white middle-class person growing up in fairly quiet suburbs, an academic who likes silence…my tolerance for ambient noise has increased, and I take that as one of the benefits rather than one of the drawbacks. It’s great.

Bach: Yes.

Hart: The ice cream trucks alone are amazing in terms of the sound they produce.

Bach: The tamale carts.

Hart: There are people going past with bullhorns: “Tamales! Empanadas!” Every night. You can get dinner if you want.

Bach: I’m sure it’s changed your ideas about labor and making a living, and just your daily routine. You sold your car. You had The Mammal Patriot for many years.

The Mammal Patriot in situ.

Hart: Yep.

Bach: And you finally…you donated it to the radio station?

Hart: KCRW. Yes.

Bach: So now you bike to work every day.

Hart: Yes.

Bach: And that’s a different experience, because it’s not like you’re biking through the leafy suburbs of Palo Alto to get to campus. You’re riding through some pretty intense urban neighborhoods to get to campus, which is situated in a much more residential, much less dense parcel of land. So that has to be an adjustment, to be a commuter in a different way.

Hart: When we were looking and this was the only house we could afford, we knew we could live here because I could bike to work. At the time Susan was going to school, so she had to commute to Culver City, but now she has her acupuncture clinic in the East Village Arts District, so she can bike to work. We picked a great location. We’re equidistant…she can ride to work and be there in twenty minutes, and I can get on my bike and ride to campus and be at my work in twenty minutes. We chose right, because ultimately our goal is to not be so car-dependent.

Bach: Right.

Hart: She had her old Ford Mustang when we moved here, and I had the Mammal Patriot. She donated her car at some point, then we were down to the Mammal Patriot, then we had to switch it out for the Honda Fit. We’re a one-car family in Southern California. That’s pretty unusual. People say, “How can you live like that in Southern California?” We’re not on the freeway. Even today, we were taking our friend ShaunAnne down to the place in Newport where her family is going to stay for a week. She said, “This traffic is hell.” We only have to deal with it when we’re doing something special. We don’t have to deal with it on a daily basis, and that makes all the difference. I’m always fascinated by my ride, because I go from one of the most densely populated, diverse neighborhoods in Long Beach, through more or less the northern end of Belmont Heights, nice middle class neighborhoods and families, then I ride through Park Estates, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Long Beach.

Bach: Where the President of the University lives in a multi-million dollar house.

Hart: I ride through that, then I cut through the V.A. [Veterans Administration] and then I get to campus. So I’m seeing this amazing cross-section of Long Beach every day on my twenty-minute bike ride to school. And, I take pride in this: once I cross Redondo and start coming back into our neighborhood, I feel, “Yeah, this is my place.”

Bach: Yeah.

Hart: Right, because when I ride through Park Estates, there’s nobody there. In the morning, in the evening, I ride at noon, I’ll ride home sometimes between 5 and 6, and other times at 10 at night, and those neighborhoods are dead. There’s no one in them. Giant lots, with pools in the back. Giant houses and there’s nothing there. I see no one. I ride in this neighborhood, people are out, people are in Orizaba Park, they’re out on their porches, they’re walking on the street. I come into my neighborhood at 10 o’clock at night and it’s still alive, and there’s still stuff going on. A normal middle class white person would be like, “This is noisy. What are all these people doing?”

Bach: [laughs]

Hart: [laughing] They’re living in an apartment with ten other people, so they’re going to hang out until they have to go to bed. They’re living in apartments with no air conditioning and it sucks, so they’re going to go to the park and hang out. There’s much more sense of this public, communal space, and, to me, it’s reassuring. There’s life here, there’s people here, my neighbors are around, I know who they are, I see them out all the time, they see me. They don’t know my name, I don’t know theirs, but they think, “Oh, there’s that crazy white guy who’s always riding his bike.” You just get this sense that people are using the place where they live, whereas in Park Estates people are paying for the privilege of having this quarter acre of land and this giant house to…

Bach: To shield themselves…

Hart: “I don’t have to deal with anything.” I feel privileged to have this experience. I’m seeing how my neighbors live. I’m seeing how all these different people from all these different places in the world live. We can all pretty much get along. We’re doing okay.

Bach: As a scholar of ecocriticsm and environmental literature and 20th Century American Literature, it’s almost the perfect place for you. It’s where you should be.

Hart: That’s what I feel.

Bach: If we’re talking about service learning and community, you’re walking the talk.

Hart: That’s the way I feel. It wasn’t anything I did intentionally. This was just where we could afford to live. That’s why we call it the Fucking Spaulding House; every time we came back looking for a place to live, “There’s that fucking Spaulding house.” It was a wreck when we saw it; it was just trashed. But, here we are. That’s why we stenciled the phrase from the Ray Davies, Kinks song, “This is where I belong.” We realized that, no matter what, we ended up where we belong. From that I’ve learned so much about culture and about living in Southern California and what that means.

Backyard deck, Fucking Spaulding House

Bach: There’s humility in accepting the path that’s been laid out for you. There are multiple pathways, and you can make a decision and decide to do one thing, but there’s a satisfaction that happens when you have an array of options in front of you, and you open up yourself up to the possibility of letting the meaningful direction be highlighted or…

Hart: It’s revealed to you.

Bach: Yes, it’s uncovered.

Hart: If you let go of some of those prejudices or attitudes or expectations, everything is okay. This is how the majority of people live. The majority of people don’t live in Park Estates. The majority of people aren’t even living in Cambodia Town. You have it pretty good in Cambodia Town. So, if you let those things happen, I’ve always felt that my appreciation and gratitude for living in Cambodia Town has been how much I’ve learned about tolerance, about how you just don’t sweat that stuff. These middle class attitudes. I see people throw garbage in the street all the time in this neighborhood. My initial environmental reaction is, “That’s wrong to do, don’t do that, stop that, blah blah blah.” And then you realize, this is just the culture of this place, and you can do some small things here and there, but you just have to accept it.

Bach: We were talking about the watering. Your first reaction when you first moved here was, “We’re in a drought. You can only water on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays before 9 AM and after 7,” but…

Hart: “Okay, but my driveway is dirty and I’m going to hose it down.”

Bach: “There’s no drought. I have water coming through the pipes. There’s plenty of water.” It’s not your job to sit down with them and give them the long explanation of…

Hart: Or try to convert them, “You’ve got to be an environmentalist, you got to understand this.” My thing is, when I became an environmentalist and discovered ecocriticism, it’s all about this personal morality, this personal responsibility, and you’re a bad person if you do these things or waste these things. The moralistic element of environmentalism. But, you get a little bit older and you see more of the world, you realize that only goes so far. And it makes no sense to try to convince someone who came up from Mexico, or somebody who’s grown up in this neighborhood where this is the way it’s always been. It’s really about a systematic decision about how we can get people to understand the value of water. The way we deal with water here is insane. You shouldn’t be able to open up your hose and do whatever you want with it. We should value every gallon of water as much as every gallon of gas or every gallon of milk. And everybody in this neighborhood knows exactly what the cost of a gallon of gas is, knows what a gallon of milk is, because they live hand-to-mouth and they know. But the water, they can turn it on, and nothing is going to happen if they hose down their whole driveway every day. And that’s not their fault.

Bach: Right.

Hart: It’s not their fault. There needs to be a bigger culture of saying “You need to monitor every gallon of water just as if it was gas, just as if it was milk.” I think there’s a way of doing it that’s more humane and let’s figure this out.

Bach: And it’s not your job alone to…

Hart: I was the Water Nazi and I tried it, and it was a failure and I gave up, I was like, “The hell with it. I’m just not going to be the Water Nazi.”

Bach: That’s just one aspect of being an environmentalist. There’s also this personal ethics of living in balance with your environment and with your life and having a small footprint, that’s still something that we all try to do, and continue to do. But we also have to understand that we exist in this community of other people, and we need to have this cultural and social intelligence on how to interact with the world at large, our neighbors, the person at the grocery store, our students. All of that is a negotiation where you have to position yourself at different stations on this continuum of ethics. So, I’m wondering, being in Southern California for a decade and a half, as an educator, that has to have made an impact…it’s a feedback loop, the stuff you’re doing in your research, wrapping up your [Robinson] Jeffers era, and now being free to focus on [Larry] Eigner, and other stuff, which feeds back into your teaching, and your teaching feeds back into your research, and that’s all informed by where you are and where you live and how you get to work. Otherwise, it wouldn’t matter where you lived. “I’m going to teach electrical engineering, it’s the same lecture I’ve been doing for twenty years, and I never have to change my PowerPoint, and I give the same test every time…”

Hart: If you don’t accommodate that change or make yourself integrate into that change, then you just become more and more irrelevant at a certain point. Students get it. When you are living in the same place they are and you see who they are and where they’re coming from, and you meet them part way. They get it. For me, ending up at Long Beach State has been fantastic, the students here are great, because they have this vast diversity of experience. Most of them come from here. Most of our students are from Long Beach, Orange County, southern L.A. County. Most of our students are locals. And that’s an advantage, I think. We’re a commuter school, which makes things a little more diffuse, a little more spread out, but I think the students are so interesting, because they’re from all walks of life, and all different backgrounds. And some of them are ready for college and some aren’t ready for college at all. Once you get that and start adjusting your approach. I can hit them with Snyder all the time and keep hitting them with this wilderness stuff, but after a while they’ll say “This is irrelevant to my life.” “I’ll give you a little bit of that, you’ll get a taste of that and maybe that will turn some of you on, otherwise we’re going to look for another way to engage with this and find a novel or a story that’s closer to your experience, and closer to the way you see the world,” to see if it clicks with them…and that’s a good challenge for you as an educator, you’re learning and keeping up with them in a certain way, and you’re giving them the challenge and the raising the bar, “Shoot for this. Think about it this way.” And it makes it more collaborative, that there’s more of a communal back and forth going on. I don’t know if I would have that in other places. I’ve taught in small private liberal arts colleges, and those populations of students, at least the ones I’ve taught, they just become so homogenous. Even the students who’ve come in from diversity, they’re still coming from wealthy families or from more established families or families with college education in their background. A lot of our students are first-time college students. A lot of our students are the first in their family to go to college. How do I connect with that student who has no sense of “Oh, you’re a professor, you’re going to show me these great things”? They don’t really know what they’re supposed to be doing in college. You can begin to guide them and take them through it. It’s a great thing.

Bach: You’re still getting a slightly different student population because you’re mostly teaching English majors, so you’re not necessarily like the composition instructors who are teaching all majors from every corner of the campus. You’re teaching those students who’ve elected to pursue English literature, but even with that I can imagine that it’s a pretty diverse group. English literature as a passion, and if not their passion then maybe some of them are thinking, “Let me try it, I’ve always liked reading novels, and maybe this is something I want to do.” So I’m sure you have a lot of students who are on the fence about it, and some students who know that’s who they are, they’ve always been interested in literature and poems and they can only imagine doing this as a career to teach or research or whatever. So the pool of possible students has been narrowed down, it’s a smaller subset.

Hart: Right. That’s why I would never complain about my job, right? [laughs] Because I can primarily teach a lot of upper-division or just English major classes, so, yeah, it’s a pre-selected group. But even within that, it’s an astoundingly diverse group. It’s because we’re in Southern California. There’s no way around it. They’re going to be a diverse group of students whether they’re English majors or not. The Literature and Environment class…when I discovered service learning, I wanted to make it a G.E. class.

Bach: A G.E. class open to everyone.

Hart: I don’t want English majors in there.

Bach: They have plenty of opportunities…

Hart: I still get English majors, but I want it to be for Marketing majors, Art majors, Environmental Science and Policy majors, Nursing majors, whoever has to take this G.E. category. I want those students, because I want them to see that literature can somehow connect to what they are interested in or do something you would never expect literature to do. The times I’ve taught it when it’s been great…there have been a handful of English majors, so I can rely on them to trot out the English major stuff when I need it. “I can analyze that metaphor.” A business major who can look at the way we use money or the way the economy works, or an art major who says, “Oh, I can see this being a different thing if I look at it in terms of photography or painting or weaving,” and that, to me, is the power of environmental literature and ecocriticism. You don’t have to be an English major, you don’t just have to be someone who wants to read books and novels to get something out of this and make a contribution to a social issue. That’s the blend that I want.

Bach: I think that goes back to Leopold and [Wendell] Berry. They weren’t trying to carve out this niche…it was about citizens, human citizens in the world of beings.

Hart: Everyone needs to understand this.

Marlene Creates

Marlene Creates is an environmental artist and poet who lives and works in Portugal Cove, Newfoundland, Canada. This conversation took place via e-mail, May 2014.

Bach: You moved to Newfoundland in 1985, but the first installment in your current body of work began in 2002. What prompted the shift from the memory maps and public signs of your previous work to the intimate exploration of the forest surrounding your home? Was it the result of an epiphany or simply the next iteration along the continuum of your work?

Creates: For many years, I traveled to find my subject matter, and then there was more traveling involved to exhibit it. I had misgivings for quite some time about the jet-setting and sustainability of my carbon footprint as an artist. Largely for that reason, in 2002 I dramatically changed my practice when I moved from a townhouse in downtown St. John’s to a six-acre patch of boreal forest on the outskirts of Portugal Cove, a fairly rural coastal community in Newfoundland.

Since then, my work has been based on a ‘slow’ engagement with this one particular place, focusing on the sensorial aspects of the environment. I’m doing this precisely because so much of our information and experience is mediated through a preponderance of technology.

This specific site underpins my whole practice now, and my work has become more and more dematerialized. Most of it takes the form of video-poems, a locative internet project, and in situ public walks with readings of site-specific poems. I don’t feel I need to travel any further afield for subject matter. I’m always an artist-in-residence now –– in my own place. Besides, I’ll never live long enough to take in everything that’s here.

Bach: The idea of a perpetual artist-in-residence is fascinating, and it makes a lot of sense when imagining the impossible task of grasping the entirety of a place. The approach, then, would be to slow down and fine-tune the parameters. In the statement for Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand, Blast Hole Pond Road, for instance, you write: “I’m slowly tuning my body and my reflexes to its [the six acres of boreal forest that I inhabit] details. I’m coming to know this habitat by engaging with it in various ways: corporally, emotionally, intellectually, instinctively, linguistically, and in astonishment.” Is this what you mean by your use of the term ‘relational aesthetics’?

Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand, Blast Hole Pond Road

Creates: Yes, that’s certainly an important part of it. In working with this patch of boreal forest, I’m not only a spectator, but also an active, subjective participant. My work is where the inside (my mind) and the outside (the environment) meet. I see my work as a co-production with the environment, but I’m definitely the lesser agent (or catalyst) in the production. I think of it as ‘tuning’ as well as ‘being tuned by’ this patch of boreal forest.

As I understand it, the term ‘relational aesthetics’ was originally used [by Nicholas Bourriaud] to describe an art practice that includes social relations where the artist is the catalyst. In that light, the in situ public poetry walks are probably even more ‘relational’. These events are based on walking, observing, listening, talking, and exchanging knowledge. They have included collaborations with nature poets, natural historians (a boreal ecologist, a geologist, and a wildlife bird biologist), acoustic sound artists, and contemporary dancers –– all serving as portals to connect people to the boreal forest ecosystem and to each other through aesthetics.

I also see serving on the Advisory Committee on the Environment for the local town council as part of my creative practice. I believe the arts can take a leading role in social and cultural change, which is exactly what the environment needs.

Sometimes I work totally privately, taking a photograph of my hand on one of the trees I’ve differentiated in the forest (Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand); sometimes I write a poem; sometimes I take videos of the little waterfall in the Blast Hole Pond River day after day, recording the changes through the winter from the same fixed point; sometimes I haul blowdowns and deadfalls from the paths (and cut them up for firewood to heat the house); and sometimes I take a group of people on a walk along these paths and simply use my voice to vocalize site-specific poems, in the belief that there’s a power in people being together, body and soul, in the natural environment. And sometimes I lay a small bonfire for guests to gather around after a poetry walk in The Boreal Poetry Garden.

Bach: So, by tuning this place, you are acting as an agent in helping shape the visitor’s perception of the forest both aesthetically and culturally, and you are, in turn, tuned by the forest as a natural outcome of your collaboration. Sounds like a fair exchange, and not that far from the leave no trace approach to wilderness stewardship. What role, then, does conservation play in this work, perhaps with the town council? The reason I ask is that if we were discussing such a plot of land in Southern California, there would most certainly be a long-running, often acrimonious, battle between developers and local land advocates.

Creates: When referring to tuning the site, I’m also thinking about the physical work I do every year to remove deadfalls and blowdowns from the paths, though I know that hard-line ecologists wouldn’t touch or remove anything. I do leave the standing dead or dying trees (‘snags’) because the cavity-nesting birds such as chickadees need them, as well as birds like woodpeckers need them for insects. But once they fall over, then I remove them. My gardening principles in The Boreal Poetry Garden are: plant nothing; ‘weed’ nothing; no digging; no fertilizing; no watering; harvest only blowdowns (for firewood); walk; sit; skinny-dip in the river; watch; listen; smell; feel; wait. My art is a way to respond to the world’s beauty and worth as it comes to my attention, or –– I should say –– my attention comes to it.

There is no question of a developer affecting this particular patch of boreal forest because I am the legal landowner. But ‘owning’ thousands of native trees, wildflowers, shrubs, mosses, lichens, a rock formation of hardened lava from volcanoes that erupted under an ocean about 700 million years ago, in addition to a stretch of the Blast Hole Pond River that’s constantly flowing through the site, is an absurd notion. I don’t see the site and all its beings as ‘belonging’ to me; rather, I see myself as the caretaker or steward of it for a period of time. This is why I try to avoid referring to the site as a ‘property.’ . . .

This patch of boreal forest is adjacent to a large wilderness area that, until very recently, had no protection. Over the twelve years that I’ve lived here, I’ve written letters to the various town councils advocating a change in the zoning of the area from rural (which would allow development) to protected watershed. I’m happy to report that, with the election of a new, more environmentally-concerned town council last fall, there is a Stewardship Agreement close to being signed that will protect the whole watershed area. I cannot take full credit for this, but I think someone finally did listen.

However, in other parts of our township, whole hillsides of boreal forest have been clear-cut and all the vegetation removed, right down to the bedrock, for suburban-style development. Even a significant hill near me –– which had a name, The Pinch, and was solid rock –– was blasted and removed to put in a few houses. We’re getting monster houses on small, bare lots at a time when the enlightened way of building (and, indeed, the traditional way in this community) would be just the opposite –– small houses surrounded by native vegetation on large lots.

Bach: Native vegetation on large lots makes sense for many reasons, and one, I assume, is to allow for the meandering of the Blast Hole Pond River. Suburban style development seems an ill fit for a wild watershed, unless plans have been made to mitigate the threat of seasonal flooding. Here in Southern California, the Los Angeles River was transformed by the Army Corps of Engineers into a concrete flood control channel, but through sustained effort by the Friends of the LA River, some progress has been made in restoring sections of the river to its original riparian ecosystem. You mentioned earlier that you see your political work as part of your creative practice; how does this environmental advocacy fit into your oeuvre (and vice versa)?

Creates: Quite apart from the aesthetics of it, an impermeable concrete flood control channel seems precisely like the opposite solution for runoff management, so I’m glad to hear some vegetation is being replaced along the Los Angeles River.

Now back to aesthetics because I believe there are political and social dimensions to all aesthetics, as well as to the environment. It’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that hospitality, aesthetics, and culture are interconnected forces that can be brought to bear on our experience of and appreciation for the environment. That’s exactly the sub-text of the in situ poetry walks. These walks fit my vision that the wilderness can be a place where art, the environment, and social interaction can intersect.

I spend a lot of time grappling with questions about identity, community outreach and contemporary art practice in a rural context. Perhaps the most difficult part of my endeavour is finding creative, community-based solutions for watershed protection and other local environmental issues. As you’re interested in walking, you may like to know that we also have a new Pedestrian Safety Group in our town, in which I’m participating too. An alarming fact we just learned from the police is that, compared to four years ago, there are now 37 thousand more cars on the road in our region of Newfoundland (the Northeast Avalon Peninsula).

The event I host in The Boreal Poetry Garden that has the most overt advocacy dimension is an ‘open mic’ held in conjunction with 100 Thousand Poets and Musicians for Change. This is an annual event that takes place on the same day all over the world –– in 2014 it will be on Saturday, September 27th. You may know about it because it was founded in the San Francisco Bay area in 2011. It’s based on the belief that the arts can bring about change. Each local event is inclusive and organized around the themes of peace and sustainability. At my ‘open mic’, we walk together as a group and gather at certain spots in the forest where we watch and listen to each other perform poetry, music, song, improvised dance, and story-telling on the theme of the environment. I also pass the hat as a fundraiser for the Brother Brennan Environmental Education Centre and last year it raised over $500, which allowed two underprivileged children to attend a program at the centre.

Bach: With the in situ aspect of your poetry walks, and your artistic and political commitment to the local region, could you talk about your incorporation of local vernacular? I imagine that part of your attraction to words such as brishney, mawzy, or tuckamore is that they simply sound wonderful rolling off the tongue!

Creates: Did you find brishney, mawzy, and tuckamore on my website? I can’t remember where I used these particular terms, though there are some local terms in some of my video-poems in A Virtual Walk of The Boreal Poetry Garden, and several terms for ice and snow on this page of my website. Or did your extensive and careful research include looking online at the Dictionary of Newfoundland English?!

[Bach: I found the list of terms here.]

The Newfoundland dialect is an abiding inspiration for me, partly because of my interest in the relationship between language and the land, and partly because some of these words would have been in the mouths of my Newfoundland ancestors. And, exactly as you imagined, I love the sound and feel of them. These local terms are precise, practical, evocative, sonic, and lyrical, and knowing them helps one actually see the phenomena.

I think you’ll appreciate this aspect too: Some recent studies in linguistics have found correlations between geographic factors and the shape of sound patterns in human language. I’ve had an inkling that there was something like this going on, but never had it confirmed until recently.

I’d like to underline that Newfoundland vernacular is not slang; it’s a dialect of English in its own right, and it’s a fragile intangible cultural artifact. Many Old English words from 17th century Wessex survived in Newfoundland after disappearing in England. Some of the other linguistic groups that settled Newfoundland include Scots and Irish Gaelic, Welsh, Norman and Breton French, Portuguese, Basque, and Spanish. Of course, previous to European settlement, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador was inhabited for over 8 thousand years by a succession of people, known as the Maritime Archaic Indians, the Thule, the Groswater and Dorset Eskimos, the Beothuk, the Mikmaq, the Innu, and the Inuit. So there are words from many linguistic groups in the local vocabulary. And many new words arose because of the particular circumstances the settlers found here –– like ice and snow!

Bach: What a rich and nuanced history…one that you’ve mapped throughout your work. Going from the mostly urban/suburban St. John’s to the mostly rural Portugal Cove, do you think your relationship to the mapping aspect of your work shifted? I’m thinking of your bodies of work photographing found signs — informational messages designed to guide people to a specific location or to be aware of a specific, local hazard, landmark, or prohibition.

Creates: From the hundreds of public signs I photographed during a decade, there’s one I’d like to mention. It’s probably my all-time favourite sign, and it happens to be about walking too. It’s one of the photographs from Around the Water’s Edge, St. John’s Harbour, Newfoundland 1995.

This is the text in the sign:


There were several of these signs at crosswalks in downtown St. John’s when I moved there in 1985. When I first saw it, I thought, “I love this place –– a place where there is such a courteous relationship between drivers and pedestrians.” But it turned out to be even better than what the sign suggests. I found that if a person even stands at the edge of the street just looking like they might want to cross, cars will stop.

Unfortunately, there are no more of these signs –– I think this is a photograph of the last one. They’ve been replaced by the generic walking person with an extended arm, without the instructions. But I’m happy to report that some drivers will still stop for pedestrians trying to cross the street, arm extended or not.

Bach: How is this relationship between driver and pedestrian different in Portugal Cove?

Creates: I live at the end of a quiet, secondary road at the point where the pavement stops and it turns into a dirt track leading into the wilderness. There’s no mail delivery to the houses on our road, hence almost every day I walk to the post office, which is about 1 km away. In light of your question, I’ve been thinking about that walk, which is only on two roads, but they’re very different –– there’s the one I live on and then, at the bottom of it, I turn onto the main road, where the post office is located. When I’m on my road, most drivers of any on-coming traffic –– like neighbours or drivers of delivery trucks, whether I know them or not –– usually nod or wave; and many drivers that overtake me from behind beep to say hello. But as soon as I get to the corner and turn onto the main road, none of that happens. I’m sure both the interaction on my road and the lack of it on the main road are due to the speed at which people are driving. On neither road does crossing it entail any driver stopping for me, as it does in downtown St. John’s. Different contexts entail different virtues.

Bach: This walk could be categorized as ‘walk-as-errand’, but I imagine that this particular function may be less noteworthy to you than the walk-as-ritual, a repeated coverage of the route between your home and the post office. How better to know a place than to walk it, repeatedly, through different seasons and conditions, in differing states of mind and spirit? What differentiates this walk from a specific ‘artistic’ walk like those associated with The Boreal Poetry Garden? What happens in your creative process whereby the walk inspires you to make art about it? This is an issue I’ve been investigating in my own work for many years: at what point does everyday experience, prosaic or extraordinary, get transformed by the impulse to transform it into art? When is a walk ‘just’ a walk?

Creates: The alternative to walking to the post office would be driving (or riding a bicycle, but the road is very steep). So when I started walking there, I did it for environmental reasons. But you know, when something is good, it’s usually good in more than one way and I eventually came up with 10 good reasons for walking there instead of driving. Among them is observing the seasonal changes, as you suggest. And, in addition to getting to know the place, I’ve gotten to know many of the people living between my house and the post office, including the children. I’m sure I wouldn’t meet any of them if I didn’t walk. And it’s reciprocal –– I meet them when they’re outside their houses, not when they’re inside or in their cars. Even if they don’t know my name, they know me as the woman who walks to the post office.

And here’s good reason #11: Last week, one of the children who knows me stopped me on my way to the post office and asked me if I would help her and her two friends pick up garbage along the road. So she went into her house and came out with a bunch of garbage bags. My little ‘walk-as-errand’ became a digression with 3 young girls as we filled six large bags with garbage and recyclables. And we all had a great time together. Now there’s an example of aesthetics, social interaction, and the environment intersecting at their best!

Your questions about the difference between the walk to the post office and a walk around The Boreal Poetry Garden are thought-provoking. I think my state of mind and the kind of attention I pay are different in each place. When I’m walking through the boreal forest around my house, there’s a question in the back of my mind when I’m paying the deepest attention: “This? . . . . This? . . . . This?” The longer version of it would be, “Can I transform this into a poem, or a photograph, or a video, or some other kind of project?” Something extraordinary, like the aftermath of a hurricane (of which there have been two since I moved here), certainly provokes that question. But, with the right attention, all it might take is something prosaic, like a root or a rock.

Coming up with an artistic response to Hurricane Igor in 2010 was an antidote to the loss of many trees. I collaborated with an ecologist and scientist, Dr. Andrew Trant, on that project. He was able to date the age of the felled trees by using a very high-power microscope on cross-sections of them. He determined that the oldest trees were over 125 years old. But, interestingly, the diameters of the trees did not relate directly to their age: the largest ones were not the oldest, and the smallest ones were not the youngest. Instead, the diameters related to the features of the location in which the trees were growing: the amount of exposure, the depth of the soil, etc. It was fascinating to find out how old the trees are around me. All of the ones that were felled by the hurricane were older than I was, and had been standing through my lifetime, hence the title: Our Lives Concurrent for 58 Years Until the Hurricane.

Bach: This collaboration with Dr. Trant makes perfect sense in the context of the hurricane, but with your in situ poetry walks in The Boreal Poetry Garden, how do you choose your collaborators? What connections are there between this performative work and other more active participatory works in your oeuvre (The Distance Between Two Points is Measured in Memories)? Or works by other artists that may have inspired these cross-disciplinary collaborations?

Creates: I choose my collaborators from either knowing them personally, knowing their expertise (or both), or thinking of something that I myself would like to hear or see happen in The Boreal Poetry Garden or learn about its ecosystem. Then I look for someone who can fulfill that wish. My collaborators have ranged from experts in the sciences (boreal ecology, local geology and wildlife) to other art forms (literature, music, dance).

I’d like to mention that starting the in situ poetry walks was a practical solution to a simple problem, and they have become a major artistic, collaborative, environmental, and social endeavour. This is how it happened: I had been composing short, haiku-like poems, handwriting them on small cards, installing them in the spot that the words refer to, and then photographing them.  But a problem arose when some of my poems became too lengthy to write on small cards. So it occurred to me that the solution was to read the poems out loud to people in situ. In 2005 I started inviting people to the site to go on a poetry walk, and I’ve held several of these events every summer since.  I believe there’s an aesthetic dimension to simple, practical solutions, and over the years I’ve found this to be very helpful, more economical and, increasingly, ecological.

I’ve never really thought about any connection between the current collaborators in The Boreal Poetry Garden and the people who drew the memory maps for me in the late 1980s. Thank you for asking about that, because it gives me the chance to see how both undertakings embrace and delight in what other people know, say, and do. In all cases, the collaborations are based on the fact that I don’t work from my imagination. That’s because what other people contribute is better than anything I could make up. The branch of philosophy with which I identify is Phenomenology, and I try to operate within that mode when approaching both the external world and other people.

Regarding work by other artists, until recently I’ve felt quite on my own. But thanks to the very digital communication systems that have made our experiences of the world so mediated, there are several online networks that I participate in, such as the Walking Artists Network, the Women Environmental Artists Directory (WEAD), the Ecoart Network, the Performance and Ecology listserv, the Place Location Context and Environment (PLaCE) Research Centre, and the Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada (ALECC) that are a source of inspiration, critical exchange, and confirmation, as well as hope. I’m starting to feel that there is a very active critical mass of people out there with whom I am in accord, and that certainly includes you, Glenn Bach.

Bach: Describe your collaboration with Elizabeth Zetlin and Jedediah Baker on A Virtual Walk of the Boreal Poetry Garden. The site is technically sophisticated, and a video-poem like River of Rain is substantially more nuanced with its layers of texts, images, and sounds than any separate treatment could have been. I imagine that this outcome was shaped by the specific perspectives that your collaborators brought to the project.

Creates: Elizabeth Zetlin (Ontario) is the artist and poet who introduced me to video-poetry; Jedediah Baker (St. John’s) had done a locative internet project linking short videos of personal stories –– his own, as well as other people’s –– about New York City to a Google map. (I wanted to use an aerial photograph, not a map, and I was able to get a very high resolution one from the provincial Department of Environment & Conservation.) I conceived of the virtual walk from what I had learned from both of them, and then they helped me achieve it.

River of Rain is the most complex video-poem I’ve done and I’m pleased you noticed it. By using a combination of images, my voice, and text, I tried to convey the ability of human consciousness to be in two places at once: both perceiving the exterior world that’s right in front of us and generating a medley of interior thoughts (which are represented by text over stills, and include my memories of things other people had said). The concluding montage gestures towards the relationship between language and landscape. The human voice –– starting with meaning and ending with murmur –– replaces the sound of the river.

Bach: Earlier you state that one of the reasons for honing in on a slow engagement with one particular place is because of the preponderance of technology as mediator, yet A Virtual Walk of The Boreal Poetry Garden is one such interface. Could you talk about the contrast between the immediate, haptic, and intimately personal experience of walking the boreal forest and the virtual interface of its documentation? Perhaps this is an issue with the work of all land artists: what is the work, the original experience or the presentation of it (Richard Long’s walk scores, or Andy Goldsworthy’s, and your own, photographs of transitory interventions in the landscape)?

Creates: The proliferation of digital geographical technologies –– including Google Earth, tracking devices, and satellite navigation systems (such as GPS) –– have revolutionised our geo-spatial positioning in both our everyday places and remote spaces. Several years ago I even considered creating GPS-triggered smartphone recordings of my site-specific poems. I also toyed with the idea of installing weatherproof solar-powered audio players in the forest that would play recordings of my poems for visitors. As my goals have become clearer, these ideas now seem very counter-productive. But at the time I felt it was the kind of whizbang thing that could help me receive the support of an arts grant. I still think it would be a lot easier to spark interest for a grant by proposing a project using new technology than saying that what I’m going to do is simply stand at certain spots in the forest and read my poems out loud to people. It’s hard to get across the multi-sensorial dimensions of these poetry walks, and the ripple effects from the social interactions that occur.

It turns out that people love going on a walk through the forest and having someone read poems to them. The events in The Boreal Poetry Garden are completely booked up every summer, and some people come back year after year.

You’ve put your finger on the paradox of A Virtual Walk of The Boreal Poetry Garden. I made it because the number of people who can actually come to the site in Newfoundland is fairly limited. Also because I love video-poetry (it’s a perfect genre for someone like me –– a visual artist who loves language). Unfortunately, the Virtual Walk does lack the kinaesthetic, sensorial aspects of a real walk, as well as the power of people being together. And, by the way, I did receive a grant to produce it.