Spinning and Daydreaming: Kristin Oppenheim Interviewed by Vijay Masharani

On her newly released collection of circuitous sound works created in the early ’90s.

A close up, low-angle, black-and-white portrait of Kristin Oppenheim's face. She shields her eyes from the sun with her hand and looks to one side.

LP record cover for Kristen Oppenheim’s Night Run: Collected Sound Works 1992–1995, 2021. Portrait of Kristin Oppenheim, 1992. Photo by Niel Frankel. Courtesy of the artist; greengrassi, London; and 303 Gallery, New York.

Kristin Oppenheim’s sound works communicate a misty, timeless interiority. Her newly released Night Run: Collected Sound Works 1992–1995 compiles eight acapella tape recordings in which her emotive voice layers on top of itself and oscillates within the stereo field. Through the repetition of open-ended poetic lines, not specific to any person or place, she evokes a complex sensorial landscape textured with the sonic grain of the cassette player. Having first experimented with her distinctive recording method in college, Oppenheim has since presented some of the works on Night Run as sound installations. Now, for first time, they are being presented on vinyl.

Night Run was produced with the support of greengrassi, a gallery in London that has represented Oppenheim for decades. The album is the inaugural release of the Berlin-based record label INFO, founded by interdisciplinary artist Reece Cox. In mid-May, Oppenheim and I spent a sunny afternoon in Prospect Park in Brooklyn conversing about her recording process, how this project registers broader themes of her practice, and more.

—Vijay Masharani

Vijay Masharani The tracks on Night Run are similar in format: they’re all acapella, and the only instrument is your voice, which you layer and move back and forth throughout the stereo field. When and how did you make these works?

Kristin Oppenheim They were recorded in early 1992 up until the end of 1995. I would rehearse the vocals over and over, choose the best recordings, and then play the vocal lines on the keyboard like a piano. That’s how I came up with the multilayered arrangements. I also played a lot with volume, highs and lows. I suppose it’s how a musician might compose, but I don’t know, because I’m not a musician, really; I just kind of make it up as I go. “She Had a Heavy Day” is really multilayered. It has a lot of echo and acoustic texture. All the tracks are arranged differently. There are some simple arrangements, too, like “Shake Me,” which is just the two words repeated over and over. Reece and I picked sixteen pieces from the ’90s; this is just half. The other eight songs will be on our following record, Voices Fill My Head. I’m looking forward to that one coming out next year in 2022. It has some other tearjerkers.

VM Many of the songs have a somber or melancholic quality. A lot of them imply loss; you’re singing about someone who has left.

KO Yes, or it’s about searching. I like “Through an Open Window” for that reason. It’s about looking through a window, a metaphor for searching through your past. It could be a metaphor for a lot of things, but that one is nicely twisted and layered. This idea of loss began with me playing around with lyrics and metaphors that were focused on trauma. It also came from this idea of talking to myself, and listening to my own thoughts, moving through time like memories.

an empty white-walled gallery space with a rustic concrete floor featuring two small black speakers mounted on the wall.

Installation view of Kristin Oppenheim, Sail On Sailor, 1994, 303 Gallery, New York. Courtesy of the artist and 303 Gallery, New York.

VM Some of the songs pull lyrics from other artists, correct?

KO Some do and some don’t. “Cry Me a River” comes from the amazing Lesley Gore. And “Sail On Sailor” has a few lyrics pulled from the Brian Wilson song. It’s funny, though, because at the time I recorded that piece I didn’t realize this. It was just a tune I had running in my head; I had no idea!

VM The musical form of the round recurs in the album. A sense of hypnotic, circuitous motion in the audio processing is also reflected in lyrical themes, as in “Sally Go Round.” What drew you to the format of the round?

KO The sounds of words are interesting to me. The sound of the letter “s,” for example, I tend to use a lot. I’m also interested in working with patterns, how these sounds can be built or shaped into a pattern. In the case of “Sally Go Round,” this pattern is a continuous, never-ending circle. I’ve always been attracted to rhythm, like a tempo or a musical beat. In the case of a musical round, this beat over time will become more and more hypnotic. Like jumping rope. “Sally Go Round” is all about “spinning,” both in the physical sense and in the metaphorical sense—she is both spinning and daydreaming.

VM “The Spider & I” describes a landscape of feeling: “I would swim the coldest ocean / I would crawl across the desert / I would walk in burning sands / With my heart held in my hands.” It has a sense of hyperbolic exertion, and it feels almost like a myth or a fable. When listening on headphones this song was evocative because of the contrast between the close, whispered quality of the vocals and the expansive quality of the narratives.

KO A lot of my compositions are based on the idea of how memory moves in and out of time, so the narratives are inherently fragmented and emotionally charged. This is where the twisting and layering of the story begins to take shape, and where the work becomes more abstract and poetic as you listen. “The Spider & I” is a good example of one of these compositions. It totally mesmerizes me today; she’s searching her heart out, and with such passion! (laughter)

A black-and-white image take from above featuring a young woman with short curly hair standing in shallow water off a dock. She wears a dark colored tank top and pants rollup up to the knee. She is looking down at the water, and we see only the top of her head.

Portrait of Kristin Oppenheim in Brussels,1990. Courtesy of the artist; greengrassi, London; and 303 Gallery, New York

VM These tracks come in around the seven-minute mark, but I can imagine when they’re looping in a room they just feel—

KO Endless. As though they continue forever. I still work with this idea of timelessness. I just finished a soundtrack for my new film that will go on and on all day long.

VM Do you want to tell me about this new film?

KO It’s called Bang Bang, and it’s about hitting your head on the ground and seeing stars!

VM It sounds like a visceral, bodily image. It reminds me of a piece like “Shake Me” that also has these qualities.

KO Yes! I also did this piece some years ago called Act I “The Chase”; Act II The Wolf”; Act III The Liar”; Act IIII The Thief” (2006–7), where I was secretly recording the conversations I was having on the telephone with my sister, my aunt, and my brother. These conversations were combined with soundbites from the movie Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman running for his life, and audio from the movie Dead Zone. You hear footsteps running and dogs barking. It’s about being attacked. It’s mostly me laughing at my sister talking about our grandmother taking a stick from a tree and hitting her. (laughter) You can’t put this in your interview!

VM That’s intense.

KO It’s playful as well. It’s not just about trauma; it’s poetry.

VM I’m fascinated by how you’ve augmented your sound works visually, with light and video-installation elements. Particularly memorable is Black Sabbath, which was accompanied by these moving lights that looked choreographed as though they were dancers. What are you thinking about when translating a sound piece into a spatial context?

KO The Black Sabbath piece I recorded was so much fun to make. I pulled parts of the instrumental track from Ozzy Osbourne’s song and put my vocals on top. It was super cool and kind of sexy—I’m impressed I did that! (laughter) In the installation of Black Sabbath at 303 Gallery, the moving lights illustrate the story told in the sound piece, which takes place in some sort of dark forest caught up in a fantastic thunder and lightning storm. Super theatrical!

All my work is written for movement because the sound installations are designed for architectural spaces. For this reason, the compositions are written with choreography in mind: how the audience moves through the space, and how they spend time in the space. It’s the shaping of the narrative that interests me: how the narrative is layered and twisted into a pattern that repeats over and over. It’s an immersive experience for the audience, and over time, as you listen, the composition becomes more and more spatial.

A view from a dark room peering out onto a brutalist outdoor architectural space with small stones covering the walls.

Installation view of Kristin Oppenheim, She Was Long Gone, 1995, Villa Arson, Nice. Courtesy of the artist; greengrassi, London; and 303 Gallery, New York.

VM To conclude, I want to bring it back to Night Run. How does it feel to be releasing works from a few decades ago that have already been shown in galleries and museums? 

KO It’s surreal to be at my age and talking about this work. It’s like, “I can’t believe how much time has gone by.” It’s hard for me to listen to some of that early work because it’s so emotionally charged, like, “Whoa, what was I feeling?” (laughter)

I think the sound installations translate fantastically into records, and I’d love to make more. It’s really fun to work with Reece and to be a part of a record label. It’s also exciting to have a new audience!

Kristin Oppenheim’s Night Run: Collected Sound Works 1992–1995 is available for purchase on Bandcamp.

Vijay Masharani is an artist and writer living and working in Brooklyn, New York. He’s recently exhibited work at Helena Anrather (New York), Clima (Milan), Home-Sweet-Home (Bangalore), and Shoot the Lobster (Los Angeles). His writing has been published in X–TRA, Artforum, Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere.

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