My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
The artist and composer stages her latest entanglement of bodies, spaces, and sounds at the Biennale de Montréal this October.
When I think about Marina Rosenfeld, I recall a refrain from a Pablo Neruda poem I read as a teenager: “everything, so quick, so lively, / immobile, though, like the pulley, wild inside itself.” The dynamism and mutability he invokes are, to my mind, also present in her work, which resists assuming static form. It appears, rather, as glittering constellations of sounding objects, flickering images, choirs, and orchestras that foreground the social and performative entanglements of bodies, especially bodies making music. Marina often performs as a turntablist, but her practice is hardly limited to the musical and technical vocabulary of DJ culture—sampling, scratching, and so on. In fact, now-familiar phenomenological approaches to sound and its materiality are woefully inadequate to talk about what her work actually does, which is address both the moment of sound’s sensory—or, really, sensual—apprehension, and the state of music after decades of modernist innovation and technological change. Whether she is working with collections of records or the temporary musical collectives she creates, it’s not the enshrinement of these elements you’re hearing, but their circulation, dispersal, and return. For the Biennale de Montréal this October, Rosenfeld is adapting her composition Free Exercise for a mixed ensemble of local military and civilian musicians who will engage in a series of sonic “exercises” mapped across two key sites in the city’s diverse musical scene, the museum of contemporary art and a nearby regimental drill hall.
Tristan Shepherd The different ways that I’ve been lucky enough to hear and experience your work—in vast, resonant sites like the Park Avenue Armory bisected by tranced-out teenagers wearing earphones, or pumped through networks of ancient loudspeakers, or in more intimate settings, where I’ve seen you perform as a turntablist with your singular palette of delicately destroyed sound materials just this side of noise—makes me want to ask how you so easily traverse disciplinary boundaries and maintain such a specific sensibility? I’m reminded of your earlier works, too, like your all-female guitar orchestras or experiments with constellations of 7-inch LPs and lenticular photography. What interests you in playing the role of a composer at one moment and the more general role of an artist in another? How does your recorded and improvised music intersect with your performance and installation work?
Marina Rosenfeld Ha! You make me laugh describing the role of the artist as “general”! It reminds me of the first time I was ever quoted in a newspaper. I was asked by a journalist for the New York Times: “What is this? Is this music or art?” I answered—a little bit to my chagrin when I read it later in print—something like, “Let’s go with art, since it doesn’t mean anything!” It was at the first New York iteration of my all-girl electric-guitar orchestra at Greene Naftali Gallery in 1997. The ground floor was a raw concrete garage space, and we had set up all these amps against a very precarious temporary wall. Choosing to call it art rather than music was probably me not wanting to accept any term specific enough to cramp my style. I was already interested in establishing and defending the space around my work, and I didn’t want to name or categorize its intent. I laugh about it now because it came out kind of punk. But it was somehow also prescient about the tensions that continue to mark my work.
TS How would you describe these tensions? Do you have different goals approaching the visual and sonic aspects of a situation? Do you even make this distinction?
MR I’ve always thought about music as a kind of living practice, but also as an archaic one. Its mathematics and ritual objects migrate from context to context—and have always done so—and it’s always in danger of being instrumentalized for various ends—commercial, disciplinary, what have you. Whenever I’m conceiving a new work, or simply approaching the stage, I do it with an absolute freedom that musicians know all too well. I’m interested in beginning from the moment right before instrumentalization, the moment when the musical situation itself is revealed as having a politics and a contour of exclusion, but also a sense of possibility—of aspiration, grounds for dissent, new configurations of bodies, or the reification of existing ones. I see my practice in broad terms as investigating this moment: Okay, music is going to be made here. How are we going to do it? We are enacting the idea of music before we ever make any. It seems fair to ask, Whose pleasure is at stake at that moment? Who is it for? Is anyone listening? Even in recording, there is the problem—one that I like—of how to connect this strange object—let’s call it a “sample”—to its use value as a tool and a material. How do I make it an instrument of memory and mediation? The dub plates that I’ve used all these years, for instance, operate for me as a kind of model of this problem. I appreciate how dumb they are and their failure to preserve what is inscribed upon them. I see this as a kind of resistance.
TS What are dub plates, for people who have never heard of them?
MR Dub plates, or acetates, look like vinyl records, but are basically an intermediary object in the vinyl pressing process. They’re one-offs—unique objects—that are cut on a lathe from a digital recording to test it out. If the sound levels and mix are good, the dub plate will be used to stamp a metal negative, which will then be used to make the vinyl LPs. I got involved in this process in the late ’90s in Los Angeles after my years at CalArts. I found my way to a lab run by the recording engineer Richard Simpson in a back room off Santa Monica Boulevard in a dingy part of Hollywood. I don’t think I ever met a woman in all the years I went there. It was used mainly by DJs and producers making beats and electronic dance music for clubs, which are primarily where dub plates have an aesthetic life outside of the pressing plant. I got excited by the possibility of using these to hybridize my process—both to compose sounds in the studio and enact something live that was manual, tactile, and responsive. You could DJ them, manipulate them with the hand. For someone with a background as a pianist, this was good. I had been making compositions until then with thrift store records, things like Rod Stewart albums or every copy I could find of Nena’s “99 Luftballons”—it was the ’90s!—so I was already interested in the way that thrifting and recuperating people’s discarded music opened up, compositionally speaking, a more discursive or ecological space.
TS I’ve been rereading a transcript of the modern composer Luciano Berio’s Norton Lectures, particularly “O Alter Duft.” The lecture, which gets its title from Arnold Schoenberg’s melodrama Pierrot Lunaire, is an optimistic post-mortem of a moment in the ’60s and ’70s avant-garde when Berio and others around him were focused on producing open, unfinished works. Reflecting on this period in 1993, he suggests that he was more focused on hearing or experiencing openness than composing it. He even suggests that closed works could be opened through new forms of interpretation: “A musical work’s so-called openness can be found, located, or developed in different places: in the conception of the work, in the performance and the listening to the work, or, and this is the most likely case, in all three places at once.” Berio’s notion of how a work might circulate in the world seems to vibrate sympathetically with the way an idea might move in your compositional world: it’s free to drift between the creation of the work, its performance, and its audition by an audience. What do the notions of “open” and “unfinished” mean to you?
MR That’s an interesting reference. I was fascinated the first time I saw the singers performing the roles for “amplified voices” in Berio’s Sinfonia. It was back in the ’80s, and they had giant microphones and big suits and ball gowns, and they were standing in front of a classical orchestra. It was such a clash of signifiers. Of course, I’m very sympathetic to the idea that openness can take many forms. It can be “composed,” or it can emerge as a result of its reception, that is, out of one’s transactions with a work. At an abstract or syntactic level—yes, that’s true. But my relation to Berio is complicated. I was exposed to his particular iteration of avant-garde music early on, and, in turning away from it, I kind of threw away the baby with the bathwater, if you know what I mean. That was necessary for me to find a language for myself. I find the line from Cathy Berberian to the Swingle Singers a perplexing continuity—and not in a good way! I mean, so few of the pieties of classical performance—the formalisms and prohibitions—are challenged or dislodged by most of Berio’s pieces. I think I’ve chosen a very different relationship to histories of practice, the problem of style, what the role of the voice is, and so on.
TS You’ve previously described your music as moving neither forward nor backward, but sideways. The description is very apt. The stylus on a record also moves only horizontally.
MR Well, the other interesting thing about dub plates is that they are cut into acetate, which is a softer material than vinyl and can only be played a couple times before the fidelity starts to deteriorate. The so-called signal-to-noise ratio starts to shift as soon as the plates enter into use. The sound of the substrate—the medium—starts to compete with the signal. To me, this decay models my experience as a listener. I find listening in general to be unstable. Things fall apart, things morph into something else. I like the idea of locating myself in that instability both as a listener and as a maker. In some ways, music made from samples or other recordings has some of the features of a still-life painting, a certain objecthood and mortality. We talk about the “decay” of sounds.
TS So making and listening are two sides of the same problem for you?
MR Structuring music on an oblique path over objects or surfaces was maybe a way to begin to isolate the problem of listening as I was experiencing it. Given the continuousness and unboundedness of my aural experience, at least the object itself could be discrete, could be visualized. The early pieces with lenticular landscape photographs and little constellations of records were part of this research in a way. As I went on, I started to think more about how my sounds would act upon listeners other than myself. I developed an audience that would sit down to contemplate these strange sound-fields—so I wanted to offer something a little bit dazzling.
TS Was it important to find an audience?
MR Yes, it was. I was dissatisfied early on with the idea that a concert on a stage was necessarily the best way to make music public. I was also totally bored with the all-male so-called experimental music scene that was pretty much the rule and wondered how I could find a place for myself in that world. Even when I started to get festival invitations, I still often felt excluded, both for the audacity I apparently had in showing up over and over as a female in those defended, mostly male spaces, and then, in a deeper way, for what I wanted to make and what interested me. My background was in classical music—and I use the word with no malice, since I grew up within that regime—so I was aware of all its rituals and wanted to redo them. I was very concerned with drawing a line between my perception of music as essentially experiential and whatever form the music would adopt in order to become a work. I felt there was a kind of toggle between what I’d been taught to think of as musical—the formal cognition of a work’s intended properties, I guess—and its penetration into and by everything that we are taught to consider as “extra-musical”—language and visual signifiers, history, identity, and so on. It’s now common to call the materiality of all that other stuff that circulates around music “sound,” but, for me, the term “sound” is somehow a bit inaccurate.
TS What do you mean? Are you referring to the emergence of “sound art,” or to the Cagean appeal to “all sound”? A normative reading of that idea might be that Cage opened up the experience of music to the entire gamut of sound in the world.
MR I guess I have mixed feelings about Cage’s “all sound.” I think the generation after Cage often characterized his ideas as having given them “permission” to expand the field of music into noise, silence, field recording, and so on. I respect that, but I also don’t like the idea of getting permission from anybody. I think I’ve managed to be my own permission-giver, and my practice has turned on the research I’ve conducted using tools derived from a wide gamut of experiences. I can’t think about producing “sound” in isolation from nonsound. That’s already too artificial for me, too disciplinary. Maybe there’s an irony there. The sort of rescue of sound from music that is so pervasive right now, the klangkunst model of sound research almost hygienically protected from the musicological, or from music as a kind of contaminant, is too pure for me. Is it accidental that we articulate this notion best in German?
TS If klangkunst is too German, what would you propose?
MR In all seriousness, what’s more interesting to me is to locate my work in the world along a kind of spectrum of distraction. The unreliable maker communicating with the unreliable listener is such a good thought. I like thinking about a listener whose experience is as complex and fraught as mine, whose attention and tastes drift—and maybe we drift together at some point? I think of someone like the French electronic music composer Eliane Radigue producing a situation in which you can literally direct your ear’s focus in and out of the many simultaneous strata in her music. Your attention becomes something you can play with. It’s so different than the current online model where we basically have an attention economy: our tastes and the amount of time we spend indulging them are actually commodities in a market. It’s no secret that all the “free” streaming services are profiting by selling data about our listening habits. It’s interesting to think about the production styles that have emerged out of these market pressures and advances in technology, things like digital compression, which is really a technique for maximizing and monetizing every last “inch” of digital space. It’s a real-estate model.
TS In this context, then, the dub plates and their unstable materials make so much sense. How many dub plates have you made? Do you still have the first one you made?
MR I’m not sure if I have the first one—for some reason I don’t think so! I guess I’ve made about sixty or maybe more, over the course of maybe fifteen or sixteen years. Many of them are really degraded now. The wear and tear, the gradations of disappeared signal and blur—these are integral to how I listen to them. Maybe I got early moral support in this tendency from collaborating on performances with Christian Marclay and DJ Olive and Toshio Kajiwara. There was an amazing scene in the late ’90s and early 2000s centered around a club called Tonic. Toshio and DJ Olive had a weekly party we all went to called PhOnOmena (I think it was also called Radical Anxiety Termination, at one point) where I basically learned how to use the turntable as an instrument.
TS Do you have records you like more than others? Or that mean more—or have more use—to you than others?
MR I’m most enamored of the really destroyed ones. They get the most play. Maybe because they’re familiar to me and, probably, to my audiences as well. They’ve become both a kind of signature vocabulary—why not have a kind of temporal signature?—and also a kind of sounding tool, a way to interject or disperse my palette into buildings and architecture in an almost forensic way. They allow me to hear what comes back from the surroundings they’re in. The transactional nature of this exchange and the strange things that happen within it are as important as the fidelity or clarity of sound. Someone should write about how all this relates to the circulation of digital images.
TS Does your interest in circulation or dispersal enter into the works you’re writing for live musicians today?
MR Yes. Right now, I’m adapting Free Exercise, a work I first mounted in Norway at the Bergen Kunsthall in 2014. I’m making a new version for the Biennale de Montréal in October using live musicians and real players instead of records. My interest in orchestras goes all the way back to the electric-guitar performances, like Sheer Frost Orchestra, that I was doing at the end of grad school at CalArts, which kind of took off in the years following. Those early pieces were structured like feminist manifestos. Each element contributed to an argument against training, against virtuosity, against the supposed neutrality of notation, of the stage, and so on.
TS What did the nail polish bottles signify in Sheer Frost Orchestra?
MR They were just another element in the argument against the body and against the way the instrument was supposed to be held. My technique was that we never actually touched the guitar at all, except through the mediation of this glass object. Everything was just laid out on the floor, à la Minimalist sculpture. Plus the bottle was an emblematic, funny, inexpensive feminine object in a constellation of oppressive or ridiculous signifiers like big amps and electric guitars. I used to buy all the nail polish and borrow all the gear, which happened to also make for interesting sound-making tools. We would use them on guitars to make a very wide array of sounds. Anyway, not until a few years ago did I have to think through working with “real” orchestras—that is, the very trained musicians that this earlier body of work parodied in a way.
TS Was it complicated to make that transition? Doesn’t a real orchestra embody all of these values that the earlier works critique?
MR Yes and no. The Sheer Frost Orchestra project had a lot to do with casting. Finding and inviting the participants was half the battle, and it was a social process. I used to go around and invite interesting women I met to join performances. After the all-female ensembles, I worked for several years on pieces for teenagers, like Teenage Lontano and roygbiv&b, which were amazing. Having to explain what I was after and what I was thinking about to a group of fifteen-year-olds was very clarifying! The original commission for Free Exercise from the 2014 Borealis Festival gave me access to a military band in Norway, the SMFK, or orchestra of the Royal Norwegian Navy, which felt like an interesting continuity in terms of nonstandard ensembles and casting. They are trained musicians, but they’re enlisted in the military. They undergo basic training and have to perform in uniform. So this was an amazing situation to work with. I ended up distributing the musicians across the four linked galleries of the Bergen Kunsthall so that the audience in the first gallery was mostly not in a position to see them, but would constantly be interrupted by dissonant sounds wafting in from the next three rooms. There’s nothing metaphorical about that situation!
TS Doesn’t this sort of echo the work you did when you produced P.A. at the Park Avenue Armory? The distribution of sounds in that work happened more through a mechanical dispersal—by means of loudspeakers—than through choreographed bodies. But there was a gorgeous way that voices and textures seemed to emerge out of the corners of the architecture, and it was startling when I realized what the sources of these sounds were—art fairs and military drills that you had succeeded in recording.
MR Yeah, I don’t know how one could miss the interpenetration of art sites, commerce, and the support structures of our quasi-police state, especially since 9/11. In 2002, I did a work for the reopening of the Winter Garden, which had been demolished when the towers came down. There have been so many moments when I’ve realized the politics of the sites I’ve been invited to occupy are right there, unmistakable. The Park Avenue Armory, which has been an incredible supporter of my work, actually has a rule where, in the event of a state of emergency, the government can immediately commandeer it and use it for what it actually is: a drill hall, a staging site for police, soldiers, the national guard, or whomever. It’s also probably the most extraordinary acoustic space in New York.
TS Do you have a similar room or cluster of rooms to work with in Montreal for Free Exercise?
MR No. As a result, I’m rethinking the whole spatialization of the work. Hopefully, we’re going to have access to a large drill hall without barriers or walls, an open space in one of Montreal’s armories. I’m going to map that performance site back over the museum of contemporary art so we can also do a series of smaller performances there over the duration of the exhibition. I’m really excited about this new iteration. We’ve secured the participation of the Fusiliers de Mont-Royal, a large Canadian military band, which I’m incredibly excited about, as well as an almost equal number of civilian musicians—it’s funny to say that, but it’s true—who are improvisers and contemporary musicians from Montreal’s music scene. So we’ll rehearse combining and superimposing all of the different parts. It’s basically a series of really tight unisons and then really fucked up dis-unisons, and it will probably sound like big waves of noise once it’s all combined.
Tristan Shepherd is a composer, improviser, and turntablist. He curated Incidental Music, an exhibition of site-specific installations and performances at Fragmental Museum’s project space. He has performed at MoMA PS1, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and elsewhere.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.