The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
The work of artist Simone Forti has an innate, resilient open-endedness that imbues it with unique power and reach. Although her contributions to modern dance and interdisciplinary art didn’t initially receive the same critical attention as that of her contemporaries, now, as she approaches her mid-eighties, it feels as if the world is finally catching up with her. Simone’s diverse body of work—ranging from dance to sculpture to writing—and the elemental (perhaps even primordial) basis of her practice elude easy classification. She is often reluctant to ascribe specific understandings or meanings to her pieces—and rightfully so, since what one says about this work rarely feels like the entire truth.
As a child growing up in Soho, Simone was my next-door neighbor. In the mid-’70s, she and my father, composer Yoshi Wada, had gone in together on an entire floor of one of the co-op buildings George Maciunas organized. They divided the space in half: Simone took the Broadway side, and my dad Mercer Street. Sometime in the mid-’80s, before I can really remember, Simone relocated to Mad Brook Farm, an arts community in Vermont, and then to Los Angeles. We only reconnected twenty or so years later, following my move to the West Coast to attend CalArts—where Simone had spent time some thirty-five years earlier, when the school first opened. We immediately formed a deep, family-like friendship.
Music and sound are perhaps the least explored threads of Simone’s work. She’s known primarily in the music world by association with composers of her generation, so it’s my great pleasure to release Al Di Là (Saltern, 2018), the first full-length collection of her recorded works. In this conversation, Simone and I discuss how her forays into sound are woven into her life and work, as we trace some of the patterns of her movement.
Tashi Wada Let’s build on the liner notes you wrote for Al Di Là and dig deeper into how these sound pieces relate to your work overall. As they span several decades, what’s your sense of hearing them all together now? For me, it’s very intimate, with your voice weaving through various parts of your life. It’s raw and has a diaristic quality.
Simone Forti Yes, it’s like picking up a writer’s diary— some of the pieces are somber, others joyful or playful, like with the full-out singing against a racket of nails banging around in a pan in Censor (1961). I like that the album, as an experience of sound, takes the listener through different environments and attitudes, from abstract vocalizing to the sound of a vacuum cleaner or an urban street, and how the cuts play off each other too. Maybe this whole set is like a landscape with different parts. I’ve never made a style of music that I then made more of, so these are all different ideas that came up with gaps of time between them.
TW So sound wasn’t something you consciously focused on?
SF Well, these were mostly incidents of making or recording sound particular to the situation. I remember recording along a brook, holding the microphone near to the water at various locations. The high and low pitches, their rhythms, were so complex—much more than what I could hear from several feet away. So I went through a period of making recordings to use in my dance performances. For example, I recorded a lot of bird sounds while in an Australian rainforest. I would get movement ideas or physical impulses from being outdoors in the environment.
TW So perhaps your sound work isn’t necessarily separate from other parts of your practice? It’s tied in like a thread in a bolt of fabric.
SF Each piece was an individual idea, and I didn’t really think of myself as making sound work. With movement, I made one piece after another and considered myself a dancer. I don’t consider myself a musician or sculptor—though I made a sculpture because I got an idea and eventually had the chance to make it. But then I wouldn’t think to make another.
TW But through working over the years you’ve accumulated a certain amount of recorded material. What’s it like to dig back into these things?
SF I’ve been doing a lot of that with photographs, videos, and notebooks too. It’s nice as an older person to claim your younger self. To some extent everyone does that, but because I’m retracing this history through images and sounds, maybe it’s more so. My image of myself is somehow affected by it. I’m glad to have the chance to rehabilitate some of the old work in relation to works of other periods, to make something new from all that. It lends a certain openness.
I have old recordings of phone calls with friends, though I can’t recall if I got their permission or even told them I was doing so! (laughter) They were like little interviews, as if I was making a radio talk show. Maybe I was also planning to dance to them. Movement feels very familiar to me, and I often think in its terms. Sound is more of a surprise, since I’m perhaps less aware of it generally—but then, when I am listening, it’s such a fresh surprise. Like this morning, hearing the rain outside and enjoying it. I also love the sound of water going down the sink.
TW The way we receive and respond to sound has always felt very primal to me. It quite literally moves our bodies before we process it. You seem to have this elemental response to things, which prompts improvisation, movement, play, and—
SF —manipulating stuff, like wet newspapers on a beach. I love to pull things, but I especially like to push things. I love to take a piece of cloth and pull it in one direction, then pull in the other direction at the same time, really tugging hard.
TW It’s all very tactile and specific—wet newspapers, the sound of water going down a drain.
SF Water going down a drain will somehow make words come up for me, words with the same intonation. A whole phrase, often a nonsensical one, will come into my mind from the tone, rhythm, and pitches.
TW Let’s back up a little. I’m curious about your childhood in Italy. Is that where you learned the folk songs you sing?
SF Yes. When I was twelve, after World War II, we returned to Italy, where I spent a lot of time with my cousins. One of their evening entertainments was singing folk songs. There wasn’t much music in our house otherwise, but I also picked up some from the woman my mother sent us to on Saturdays to learn French. Later, in high school here in Los Angeles, I started going to what were called hootenannies, where I learned more. And I accumulated a whole slew of old English folk songs somehow.
I remember wanting to join the orchestra, but the only instrument available was trombone. I was very happy about that, but my parents didn’t like the idea. They said it would make my neck thick! (laughter)
TW Were there any musicians or artists in your family?
SF My uncle, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, was a composer. He composed for Andrés Segovia, the classical guitarist. He lived in Los Angeles and also made music for Hollywood. Another uncle, Giorgio Castelfranco, was an art historian. The house I grew up in was full of art books, mainly Renaissance and Impressionism.
But, really, I haven’t heard much music over the course of my life. I often don’t even prefer music in the home. I don’t like how it fills the space. It almost makes me nervous.
TW What about the composers invited by the choreographer Anna Halprin to collaborate with the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop, which you were part of? I have the impression that musicians were more integrated into this group than might have been common during the mid-to-late ’50s. Was that the case?
SF La Monte Young and Terry Riley worked with us one summer, but there were actually only a few musicians who came to Anna’s classes. The work focused on kinesthetic awareness, working with elements of weight, momentum, tension, and relaxation as we observed these qualities in our environment and within our bodies. Her studio was a deck out in the woods. So we were looking at trees, clouds, ants, and rocks, identifying their qualities or movement patterns, then trying them out in our bodies. We always improvised from specific points of departure. It was joyful there. I like to think of something I call the dance state. It’s when you’re really in your movement and it’s flowing. You’re responding to what’s evolving in your movement or between yourself and others you’re working with.
TW Beautiful. Were you a part of La Monte’s circle, making music with them?
SF We were friends, but I didn’t make music with him until later. In the late 1960s, when Fabio Sargentini of the L’Attico Gallery did his dance and music festivals in Rome, I held a tone as part of a chord with La Monte and Marian Zazeela. We all got very stoned, and I just took off singing. I remember thinking we were cave people and that the dot of light on the sound equipment was the opening of the cave.
TW You also recorded La Monte, Marian, and yourself for your piece Bottom (1968).
SFBottom had four projected slides, each of a postcard of a national park landscape, and each coordinating with a five-minute block of sound. One of these is, again, three voices singing a chord, so they were happy to help me out. I remember that work was made during a difficult period, because I’d just gone through a breakup and was feeling I’d hit bottom. So I figured, Okay, I’ll walk on that bottom.
TW The works you’re probably most well-known for are from your early ’60s series, Dance Constructions. One of these pieces, Accompaniment for La Monte’s “2 sounds” and La Monte’s “2 sounds” (1961), features a performer standing in a loop of rope suspended from the ceiling, then being wound up and released, all while a tape piece by La Monte is playing. How did this come about?
SF Well, I never wanted musical accompaniment for my dancing, but I got a kick out of doing an accompaniment for music. It made sense for Dance Constructions to have a physical apparatus to engage with and to be rather pedestrian in that engagement and with the music generally. La Monte’s “2 sounds” is like a cliff, or the wall of a mountain, so I liked standing with it.
TW You’ve said you see yourself as an intermediary between the audience and that piece.
SF I feel that I facilitated hearing it by being visibly present listening to it.
TW Your piece Censor is also from around this time and feels related.
SF You’re right—singing with the very loud sound of the subway train, which inspired Censor, was satisfying in a similar way. The train’s screeching and his piece are similar, even in their rubbing of iron on iron. La Monte has said he was interested in friction sounds, which could also come from a violin, of course.
I saw a show a couple of years ago by the French artist Pierre Huyghe and felt related to it—in that he just makes things, each quite different, without seeming to push a distinct message or close in on a single approach. I look back over my own years and feel they’re similar; one can gather up the pieces, put them in relation to one another, and something kind of spacious happens.
TW What you’re describing speaks to my understanding of the album title Al Di Là, which translates to beyond. How is this phrase typically used in Italian?
SF Al di là del monte. Al di là del mare. Like the other side of the mountain or sea, though you wouldn’t say, Al di là of a chair. (laughter) It’s spatial but also figurative. These pieces are pretty much outliers; they don’t belong anywhere.
TW Do you feel that way about any of your other work?
SF Not really. For instance, the series of performances I did with Peter Van Riper were coherent from one instance to the next. We must have done a few dozen at various venues, each of us developing our own material. I was working from observations of animal movement, so everywhere we went, be it London or Basel, we’d visit the zoo. I would observe physical body structures different than mine and take on some of the movement I was seeing, building a vocabulary out of that. Peter was mainly playing saxophone, developing combinations of melodies. We explored how different portions of our vocabularies fit together. With one of his sections, I might do Shouting at The Wolf, which is a kind of movement, a phrase, as if striking at something and running backward to drop into a pose of Taweret—an Egyptian hippopotamus goddess of fertility. We would decide on which sections we felt like trying out and put them together for that night’s performance.
TW Let’s return to what you were saying about artworks that don’t push a message. When you’re working on something, there’s no immediate message?
SF Well, I’ve done many works as part of News Animations, which, I suppose, are about the relationship between thinking and language as considered through movement and speech. With these improvisations, I’ll often have what I call an arbitrary object. It could be a washtub or clothing rack. I’ve used wooden boards. I won’t work directly with this object. It’s more like: “I need something. Oh, I’ll use that.” This arbitrary object adds a feeling of coming from left field.
TW My sense is that your movement and speaking keep each other afloat. They’re in dialogue, and these arbitrary objects act as obstructions or catapults.
SF Yes, and they trip me up. Suddenly my hand is on some object, and something else comes up.
TW I’ve heard you describe particular News Animations as having “took off” or “not left the ground.” And they do almost seem like acts of levitation. If they work, they carry themselves, and you’re not doing as much in a strange way.
SF Yeah, these interesting associations or dissociations happen. It’s like the dance state I was talking about before. It has to do with mindfulness—specifically, kinesthetic awareness. There’s a recognition of how things feel in the body, something I think is very close to preverbal mental models of tension and direction of focus. It’s about recognizing an energized association, rather than trying to come up with one.
TW Were the “thunder makers,” your instruments made of sheet metal, arbitrary objects?
SF No, they were instruments made for a performance, Thunder Makers (1969), which itself came from a dream. The signs that used to hang outside of downtown storefronts, those swinging pieces of metal, might have been the inspiration. They would all clang in the winter wind.
TW Right, like in your photo series Night Walk, also the title of one of your recordings. What was the dream exactly?
SF In the dream, I’m hopping on one foot and yelling, “Course! Course!” There’s a bas-relief of people around a dinner table, but it’s from medieval times, like a wooden plank jutting out of the wall. There’s also a cook in white clothing and a chef’s hat. They’re all quite still, caught in a moment. Somehow this led to me to going around the loft three times, along its walls, clanging these thunder makers. Go figure.
TW Was surrealism ever important to you, given what seems to be an artistic interest in dreams?
SF Yes. When I was in high school, I would go to this place on Beverly Boulevard with my friend Marylou; it was like a storefront, not really a movie theater, and they showed Un Chien Andalou, Georges Méliès, and other art movies. Later, in her living room, Marylou would recite poetry and I would dance to it. I remember even before then, during grade school, dancing to Danse Macabre, the piece by Saint-Saëns, and jumping all over the couches. Still earlier (though not surreal) I remember being brought to see the Bolshoi Ballet doing folk dances, and my legs were kicking out all on their own as I sat on the edge of my chair.
TW What’s the story of you studying with Pandit Pran Nath? How did that come about?
SF When I came back from Woodstock after a year, I was at loose ends. This must have been around 1970, and La Monte and Marian had given me the key to their loft, saying if I ever needed a place to go I could come to them. We were trying to figure out what to do with me because I had just spent a whole year smoking dope, dropping acid, and running around naked in the woods.
TW Was this following the Woodstock of ’69?
SF Yes, I’d gone with Angus MacLise and his family, and pretty much immediately someone handed me some Kool-Aid. I had no idea. That was my first experience with acid. I didn’t worry about how I was going to get home. There were thousands of people, and I lost track of Angus right from the start, then just floated along for a year. But I held onto that key, and when I finally returned, Pran Nath was living there at the loft, giving La Monte and Marian lessons. He gave me some too and said I had “pitch like a pin.” At some point he tried to arrange for me to go to India, but I decided it wasn’t for me.
TW So you sang a bit of raga?
SF Yes. He said raga would be a sword in my hand and that it would pull my life together.
TW What did you do instead?
SF I went to Los Angeles, ending up with friends at CalArts and studying Tai Chi very seriously.
TW Is that where you met Charlemagne Palestine?
SF Yeah, I met Charlemagne because La Monte contacted us both asking to get a concert together for Pran Nath. Charlemagne and I collaborated and it really worked. I felt what he was doing with sound waves and what I was doing with momentum and trajectory were similar. We were both working with natural phenomena.
TW Regarding that idea of momentum and trajectory, it feels to me that your sound works are directed but not really composed. Something gets it going and drives it on, but the materials are left to be themselves. This might relate to the Dance Constructions. You set up circumstances, but within them it’s open-ended.SF I’m not directing dancers to make this or that movement. Instead I’m keeping them from falling into zombie mode and keeping things from getting too interesting. I make it clear what kind of presence I’m looking for—and one clue for them is being aware of interesting compositional things happening without trying to make those interesting compositional things happen.
It now occurs to me that sound may be another arbitrary object, an element I’ve brought in or that has just happened. So there hasn’t been a series of a certain kind of exploration of sound, but rather almost arbitrary ideas that came up, like Face Tunes (1967).
TW In comparison to the rest of the pieces on Al Di Là, Face Tunes, in which you transcribe outlines of facial profiles into melodies, is interesting because it almost exists in a more conceptual space, as far as the sound goes and what the audience is hearing or experiencing.
SF I had traced a series of faces in profile onto a scroll, which rolled by as I followed the lines with a stylus attached to a slide whistle. Originally the audience didn’t even know these were tracings of faces. They were repetitive units that were similar but different.
TW Some of these early pieces appear in your Handbook in Motion: An Account of an Ongoing Personal Discourse and Its Manifestation in Dance (1974). Sometimes they’re scores, other times they’re accounts of past performances, and occasionally they’re very specific about the performers. What are your thoughts on notation in this respect?
SF I wasn’t concerned with it until I was invited to do that book, and then what I did was describe the pieces after the fact. I don’t tend to choreograph but rather develop movement vocabularies, movement concerns, with which I improvise. And I have managed to teach these pieces to others, which takes the place of notation.
TW Let’s return to CalArts. How long did you stay in Los Angeles?
SF Two years. It was before the school moved up to Valencia, while it was in Burbank at a beautiful campus of Spanish-style courtyards with rose bushes. I lived nearby with Alison Knowles, Peter Van Riper, Nam June Paik, and Shuya Abe, who was Nam June’s engineer colleague. The composer Serge Tcherepnin lived in that building too. It was a big house in the hills.
I had returned to LA because I found that a lot of my New York friends were there. I went to CalArts but was never a student or instructor. Allan Kaprow asked me to substitute for him while he was away on tour. So I did a little of that, used their studios, and ended up running a jam session. They let me run workshops to try stuff out, and students kept attending. I never got paid or charged for anything. I was a CalArts groupie, and it was a good time. It got me back into being a Western, California artist, rather than leaping naked through the woods in the Catskills. It also gave me a chance to visit my parents.
TW Were your parents concerned about your extended stay in Woodstock?
SF They had no idea. I would call and say, “Everything’s great. The woods are beautiful. I’m in the countryside.”
TW When does the molimo horn come into this?
SF I had it while at Calarts—someone just handed me a piece of flexible tubing. I had been reading Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People, about the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Forest, and I named my hornpipe after an instrument of theirs, the molimo. They had switched from making the instruments themselves, using ants to hollow out the wood, to buying drain pipes at the hardware store because it sounded fine and, after all, the molimo was the sound, not the object.
TW When did you get together with artist and musician Peter Van Riper?
SF Alison had brought him to CalArts to help her establish their graphics department. He was like a big brother, though I’m seven years older. He helped me with whatever I needed. Eventually we were married. Getting a loft in Soho was his idea. He’d been doing renovations for George Maciunas, who was finding buildings and getting artists into them. It wasn’t a matter of buying anything, except shares, which weren’t that much.
TW What year was this?
SF 1974. I was teaching movement workshops in that loft, which allowed me to make a large group piece, Planet (1976). It included a section with some fifteen performers traveling in a circular path, transitioning between crawling flat to the ground like a reptile to sprinting, with all stages in between. And five of us, whom I thought of as the nucleus, spent a lot of time observing animal behavior. Two of us were fascinated with how crocodiles climb over each other to get to a better sunny spot. And Peter did the music.
TW You’ve often said you don’t identify with the term choreographer. So how do you describe yourself and what you do?
SF I consider myself an artist that makes work with movement. When people hear the term choreographer, they think about making a series of moves that go from one to the next. I don’t do that. I’m an improviser, though not everything I’ve made works that way. I developed a vocabulary, but how I access it is improvised to a great extent. What I do is not at all in any vein of jazz, though I think jazz musicians have realms they explore, certain tonalities they might have decided ahead of time, which they then work with.
TW How would you characterize your approach to incorporating music and sound into your work, maybe in comparison to other dancers or choreographers?
SF Well, I rarely work with recorded music; I prefer live—like with Charlemagne Palestine, Malcolm Goldstein, and Jon Gibson. You and I have worked some together, of course.
TW And also Z’EV, who recently passed away, right?
SF Yes, I was very sorry to hear that. The dancer Susan Rethorst and I did a beautiful performance, Spring (1983), with Z’EV at St. Mark’s Church. He had all these metal tubes and sheets he threw into the air, and they would bounce while we were skirting around them. All three of us were quite skilled at having this metal flying through the air and being perfectly safe. I think of us that evening as angels in Vulcan’s workshop.
TW The first time I heard your singing voice was in Open Score, the 1966 film of Robert Rauschenberg’s 9 Evenings: Theater & Engineering performances. There’s this moment toward the end where you’re being carried around wrapped in a blanket while singing an Italian folk song. I found that very striking. Somehow your singing made the whole thing for me. Do you have any recollections of that particular performance?
SF What I remember more is soldering wires and interviewing everyone, because I wrote an article about 9 Evenings for Artforum. There was another piece by Rauschenberg that I was part of, Linoleum (1966). I sat in a chair with spaghetti in my lap and might have sung a song then too.
TW Was that more impromptu?
SF Oh no, in Rauschenberg’s pieces things were probably all planned out, though I do that—break out into song—and it’s charming and it fits. It becomes an element in the improvisation.
TW What was happening in your life around the time you made the recording Night Walk (1984), the last piece on Al Di Là? It’s a field recording, one of the more mysterious pieces on the album.
SF If I couldn’t sleep at night, I might walk down to Dave’s Corner, an all-night diner on Broadway and Canal, for a cup of coffee. I liked the night sounds.
At about this same time I started visiting my friends at a Vermont community, Mad Brook Farm. Steve Paxton and Deborah Hay, dancers and artists I’d known since the ’60s, were there, and I eventually lived there myself for ten years. I continued traveling to teach workshops and perform.
TW Sometime later you ended up moving back to Los Angeles, where you currently live. It seems we all have these particular patterns of movement to our lives, and somehow yours feel circular, or rotational, perhaps like one of your Illuminations drawings (1971–ongoing).
SF When my mom turned ninety, I came back to LA to give her a hand. She was six months short of a hundred when she passed away. By then I had set roots here. LA has been good to me.
Tashi Wada is a Los Angeles–based composer and performer whose works explore harmonic overtones, resonance, and dissonance through precise tuning and gradual change in pitch. Working in relation to American experimental music, microtonal music, and so-called drone music, Wada’s practice is also informed by interdisciplinary performance and Fluxus. He studied composition at CalArts with James Tenney and has performed extensively with his father, composer Yoshi Wada.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.