„Often, when I purchase records for performances my rule is that I’m not allowed to hear them prior to the performance. That way we are all on the same page.”
Interviewing Maria Chavez // Im Interview mit der Soundkünstlerin Maria Chavez
Maria Chavez is a sound artist and abstract turntablist since 2002. She wrote the book “Of Techniques: Chance Procedures On Turntable”, which is guidance book and art object at once. It covers techniques with the turntable she adopted over the years. Maria Chavez was born in Lima, Peru and lives in Brooklyn, New York City. She regularly DJs for museums such as MoMA in NYC, for different arts organizations, various fashion houses, radio and clubs. Also, she is curator for art shows. Currently she is staying in Krems, Austria as artist in residence for Kunstmeile Krems.
Maria, first of all thank you for your time. My first question addresses your relationship with art. Could you dwell on how it all started with you as an abstract turntablist and what influenced you?
Sure, I have been an abstract turntablist since 2002. This all happened by chance. I was a DJ since I was 16 and became very bored with the scene because of how sexist and two-dimensional it was. Then I started getting interested in free jazz and improvised music. Mainly because I didn’t understand improvisation or free jazz and it frustrated me. So I was determined to understand what it was.
I was in Houston at the time.
I think my last DJ gig I performed in Houston was a set where I mixed the ends of records and called it ‚techno‘. I was kicked out of the club and the DJ’s yelled at me and told me that I would never DJ in Houston again. And they were right.
So I was really trying to reach out and challenge myself. The DJ world couldn’t give me the next phase I needed because I was searching for something more. I was lucky enough to meet and work with David Dove, an abstract trombonist who also worked with Pauline Oliveros who is from Houston and I had the privilege to be mentored and guided by her and Dave.
I studied improvisation with them and had a lot of support. Dave was the one that told me to bring a turntable to improvise with. I told him I wasn’t a musician, I’m a DJ and he said, “just bring one turntable and let’s see what happens.”
And that changed my whole life.
Did you have musical lessons as child or do you have a classical musical background?
Not really…I learned to play the piano when I was nine. But I only wanted to learn the piano so I could learn how to play one song “Für Elise” by Beethoven. Once I learned that song I quit piano because I just wanted to see that I could play it. I didn’t care about learning music notation so I quickly forgot it.
Then I tried to play guitar as a teenager because I wanted to be a famous rock star after learning about Patti Smith when I was 13. But then I went to a rave at 16, saw a DJ and decided that I wanted to be that instead and became a professional DJ at 17.
Mainly because my mother was working out of the country and I had a nanny that was watching after me. She let me do whatever I wanted so I was able to go out late and DJ these clubs and places. At such a young age. I’m very grateful for that freedom and somewhat shocked that I didn’t die, because it was a really dangerous time for me with drugs, etc… But I grew up fast and learned about music business, booking etc. at 17, so it was very valuable for me.
You started in 2002 with experimental and abstract turntablism using stones, broken vinyl, broken and functioning needles and other materials for your performances. How many turntables did you perish until now?
I’ve gone through…I want to say…8 turntables? I only perform with 1. And now I don’t tour with turntables, people provide me the turntables so they last a bit longer now.
You wrote a book about the techniques you developed in the last years. It’s called “Of Techniques: Chance Procedures On Turntable”. Can you tell us what happens in your abstract turntablism performances?
The turntable creates opportunities for chance to intervene because it’s an unstable machine. So I incorporate this instability in my work. It’s not beat driven, like hip hop turntablism. It’s almost like abstract sampling, improvised music concrete. But with music concrete there is still composition, so I’m not sure how good that term is in my case.
I’m an improviser so I approach any material with a „what falls is what happens“ attitude. Many of my techniques in my book were derived from accidents, from moments in performance where the technique revealed itself to me. This work technically isn’t mine. It came from something else. I just took notice and now know how to work with it to make improvised sound pieces.
I like your definition/description of the word “accident” as „moments in performance where the technique reveals itself to you“.
That’s the truth! I think chance and accidents are the sound artists best artist periods. I think human intention is boring in art, in sound. Let the moment make it instead.
I thought about the terms “accident” and “choice” before the interview and how you are going to define it or what it means for you…
It’s reality to me. It’s life. It’s hard to live that way sometimes though. Sometimes I have to eat my own words…Humans need control in life situations and then I have to remember what I teach chance, accepting accidents, allowing change to be the leader of your work. But then, you also want to know what’s going to happen next…So I hate that I teach it sometimes, because I also want to control things, to know how things work when and why. But I’m human.
Often it’s vice versa… People are saying: I wanna let loose, how can I do this? With you, it’s the other way around. I think for a lot of people perceiving your work that might be like a relief.
That’s interesting. Never thought about it that way.
In some videos I see you working with crushed stones you are putting as a layer on top of the vinyl and something that looks like you’re scattering salt over the vinyls on the turntable. You also use broken and complete vinyls as second or third layer. What is the idea behind using different material? How did you come up with this idea?
Well, if you think about the platter of a turntable, when the needle is on the plate but the motor isn’t activated, the surface really just becomes a large contact mic. I call it the „macrophone“. It’s a sensitive electro acoustic surface which I think is beautiful.
I’m not just improvising with the recorded sounds IN vinyl, I’m also working with the electro acoustic properties of materials. Outside materials that tend to have percussive elements, but I also have a thing for rocks. They fall where they want. I just let them fall.
This provides a plethora of sound vocabulary. So I can just improvise with one turntable, because there is already so much to focus on. Also, the tools that are on the turntable are brilliant for abstract turntablism. The anti-skating dial, the lever to lift the arm of the turntable, even the sides of the turntable plate are all important properties for a variety of sound choices. So it’s not just working with broken needles or the vinyl, there is actually so much more with the turntable as help to give you a variety of sounds to create a cohesive sound piece.
I’ve never seen a turntable that way! I’m impressed and I think I’m going to build up a new relationship with my turntable! In your book you are writing about the „language of chance“. What is this language made of?
That is sort of a joke. Chance as a language. Language as chance is for me a language of acceptance, of allowing failure, to dictate the next step. Once you see failures occurring over and over, you know how to approach them with other failures. My techniques in my book would be considered failures in the DJ point of view but the sounds that are being created are actually the sound of malfunction. We are taught as a society to reject these sounds as WRONG sounds but I heard these sounds and felt they were interesting. So I created a language out of it, which all happened by chance – the language of chance. I’m still trying to understand what I really mean by that term myself. But I do feel there is some kind of rhythm and energy in chance. We live everyday affected by chance in one way or another and because we are humans and have instincts. We react to these moments, according to what we have learned from the past. That is a language to me.
This approach is interesting, it reflects control mechanism in society, especially the force that works in and on every individual. How much control is present in the accidents you are effecting?
The control that exists in my work comes from creating the STRUCTURE for accidents to happen. I know that when I place this broken needle on this record it will glide around and fall into places I didn’t know were there. I know that if I place a needle on the turntable plate, turn off the motor, then allow a pile of rocks to be dropped on it, that the rocks with fall where they will. I also don’t listen to my records all the way through before I perform them. Often, when I purchase records for performances my rule is that I’m not allowed to hear them prior to the performance. That way we are all on the same page.
There are some records I have been using for years. I know certain sections of sound exist, but I don’t really know exactly where those sounds are down to the actual groove of the recording. Those records are normally traveling with me without their sleeve, so they are constantly being rubbed, scratched, ruined by time and chance. When I perform certain section, have then some new ‚flaw‘, it tends to intervene with the area of sounds I know on that record. So while there is some control according to choices I make, the result is never exactly what I envision.
You also perform with other artists. Let’s talk about the piece “Llafeci”, a piece I really like! You perform it together with the cello player Audrey Chen. Seeing the video of the performance on the internet, I thought: wow, this is so self-evident and at the same time not: using a place with a natural room-hall as a listeners room. Using stones, glass and metal as instruments to produce percussion-like, industrial-like sounds instead of imitating these sounds digitally. My perception of this piece is that it’s a unique listening experience you can’t reproduce digitally. Could you talk about the idea behind the performance, how you developed it and what the word “Llafeci” means?
“Llafeci” is an ongoing series of performance installations I call „Sonic Scores“. This is a form of composing I use when working with other musicians. For “Llafeci” I created a two minute turntable improvisation and let Audrey Chen (the cello player) listen to it prior to the performance. I asked her to listen to the ’sonic score‘ and then recreate those sounds from memory. “Llafeci” is the title of the ’sonic score‘ I had her listen to. It was a turntable improvisation of a Nobukazu Takemura track called: “Icefall”.
I performed it backwards and slowed it down then had her listen to what I created from this performance piece. I asked her to recreate what she heard and remember it. I decided to use sight specific elements from this space. The poles and rocks were all found there in the building. I incorporated those elements into the improvisation.
I just completed a new performance here in Krems, Austria at the Minoriten Church called: “Minoriten Kirche mit Stein”. I collected rocks from the Donau river here and had my residency mates participate by helping me throwing rocks on the ground of the church over and over again, making a natural techno. A church, to me, is the first speaker, it’s architecture that enhances sound. I don’t really understand why people put speakers IN a church, because it IS A SPEAKER! I’m an atheist, so I don’t really see any spiritual qualities of a place like a church, but I do see the sight specific sound qualities of the church. Afterwards, another artist in residence here told me the dark history of Krems during the Nazi times. There is a prison in Stein. It was used as a prison for anti-Nazi protestors. The head general here had orders to kill the protestors. He didn’t want to and let them free and they lived here in Krems and Stein, which is a part of Krems, lying outside. Once the head Nazi generals found out that the prisoners were freed he sent his army there and ambushed this whole area, killing everyone on sight. My friend thought, I was making some sort of homage to Stein. With the stones about the prisoners, but I had NO IDEA about this story and the relationship to Jewish culture and placing stones on the graves. Like I said, I’m an atheist, so this kind of history isn’t something I think about when making sound work, but it brought me CHILLS! I simply saw the relationship to Stein, the stones, the church…but the piece can be interpreted in even more political ways. I’m still trying to make sense of it. I will create another piece with stones in NYC in May for the Ende of Tymes festival.
How do you think about your work after the historical background has been revealed to you? Did it change the way you reflect your art?
I don’t think I want to exploit the history of it with the piece but the coincidence of it all is very chilling. Now I’m trying to see how to incorporate this in a respectful way. I don’t find identity, religion, politics, sex interesting when it comes to my work. But I do appreciate coincidence and chance, and finding about this story was by chance, WAS a coincidence. So it’s important to recognize it in some manner…I just don’t know how yet. But now, everywhere I walk and knowing that these people were massacred on the very streets I’m on now. And having just created this work… It’s very haunting…unintentionally haunting, but it exists. I mean, I have to deal with identity everyday, being a woman, brown, etc. So, I think incorporating identity in my work is a sell out. It’s too easy..but this…oooof…was deep.
My last question is an open question about the field of contemporary art. You work in this field. What are the advantages of contemporary art for you and where do you see limits of contemporary art?
I think contemporary art, as a genre of art, is advantageous. It allowed chance, accidents, light, ephemeral qualities in life to become part of the art world discourse. Unfortunately, though, the contemporary art market is where the limits come into play. The limits of market in relationship to contemporary art by using ephemeral aspects. I feel that it keeps the work from being presented properly in institutions. Sound art is an excellent example of this: Sound art has been part of the art world discourse for generations. But because the installations and objects make sound, it took years for it to be considered „real marketable art“. In New York the MoMA show happened, legitimizing sound art in the contemporary art world – which is a bunch of crap. Not the show itself but the way the art world finally opened up to the scene. Now that it was at the MoMA, it ‘matters’. It was such a huge deal in NYC. They were scouting sound artists two years before the show happened. It really hurt our community in a lot of ways. Sound art before the show was presented in theater spaces, put on stages, looked at as music only. Then this show comes along and NOW sound art can have it’s own gallery space? It’s own exhibitions? Why not before?
I love the story of the opening. I didn’t go because I was on tour in Europe and didn’t want to go, to be honest, because I was so turned off by the whole thing. But the joke was that the opening was so well attended that no one could hear the works! A sound art show! What you could hear were the speakers made by Jim Toth, who is this brilliant audio engineer that works at MoMA doing all the sound for their events. He created these magnificent speakers that he used for the opening, but no one paid attention to the speakers because it’s not ’sound art‘, so it wasn’t part of the show. Even though it technically was. And those speakers were all you could hear! But he is just the ‘audio guy’ and the speakers are ‚only speakers’ so who cares, right? No one cared, no one noticed, except for me because I think he’s a genius.
NTCR Magazine! thanks Maria Chavez for the interview!
Das Interview führte C.B.Jones vom Blog NTCR Magazine! // Februar 2015.
Highly recommended: On 26th of February Audrey Chen and Maria Chavez are performing at Schauspiel Leipzig. Doors: 8 pm. With workshop before!
TIPP: Am 26.02.2015 spielen Audrey Chen und Maria Chavez im Schauspiel Leipzig. Audrey Chen+ Maria Chavez. Workshop + Performance. Schauspiel Leipzig. 20 Uhr. Mit Einführungsworkshop!
Maria Chavez is currently artist in residence for Kunstmeile Krems and later this year artist in residence in Stockholm for the EMS studios. She will have an exhibition of her work in London in April. Also: meet the art of Maria Chavez in New York City, where she regularly performs, DJs and curates exhibitions.
Online articles/interviews about and with Maria Chavez
Video’s capturing performances of Maria Chavez
Ende Of Tymes – Festival For Noise And Abstract Liberation
Support Ende of Tymes Fundraiser here