Amy X Neuburg interview
1. Could you please tell us a brief history of your musical journey (the beginning, influences, experiences, records...)?
It’s hard to make it brief, but I will try. I grew up listening to all sorts of music: classical, pop, soul, musical theater, experimental music, and world folk. I began piano at an early age and studied for about seven years until I realized I wanted to concentrate on my voice, so began classical voice lessons at age 13. Meanwhile I sang pop songs with my older brother, performed in musical theater, was interested in extended vocal technique through my experiences with modern dance, and was exposed to world music (especially Eastern European folk) through folk dancing and foreign language study.
In college I received degrees in both linguistics and vocal performance. My specialty as a vocalist was contemporary music and premiering new works by student composers. It was through this that I became interested in the sounds of electronics and began taking classes in electronic music, which at that time was about tape splicing, modular synthesis, 8-channel multi-tracking, and early computer music programming in BASIC.
I then went on to the graduate program in electronic music at Mills College, where I continued to explore the combination of voice and electronics, and this is what I have been doing ever since. I have always had a fondness for the hands-on, tactile immediacy of the old days of working with electronic instruments, and I still very much enjoy live manipulation of technology and hardware using my hands.
I discovered drumming as an electronic trigger during graduate school. I found hitting things to be a very satisfying and dramatic performance controller and played electronic drums in several experimental rock bands, while also experimenting with solo work triggering vocal samples. When live looping technology came on the market I began using the drums to trigger looping commands to build up layers of my voice. I created very intricate compositions using this looping technique, and this is pretty much what launched my career. Since then I have expanded my live looping to include other performers, such as vocal ensembles and acoustic chamber ensembles.
In addition to singing many styles on the recordings of many fellow musicians, I have released five CDs of my music on independent labels. The first, “Songs 91 to 85,” was a collection of low-tech pop songs created mostly during college and graduate school while I was learning how to use analog multi-track recorders and early digital synthesizers and drum machines. The next two, “UTECHMA” and “Sports! Chips! Booty!” were with my band Amy X Neuburg & Men, which was together for about 10 years. We performed a sort of musical theater art-rock using unusual electronic instruments. My 2004 CD “Residue” helped establish my career as a solo performer – it was the first CD of my performance pieces for voice and looping electronics.
2. Could you please describe your last record "The Secret Language of Subways"?
This is a cycle of songs for voice, three cellos, live looping electronics, electronic percussion and processing. The cello parts are traditionally composed and notated, and in live performance I use live looping to build up layers of cellos in certain sections where I want a sort of string orchestra sound. I also process the cellos with effects. The CD is a studio version of the live performance piece, which premiered in 2006.
The songs are inspired by my experiences living bi-coastally in both New York and Oakland, California, soon after 9/11. The lyrics refer to interpersonal relationships, the excitement and overwhelm of urban life, and the current world events of the time, all woven together with metaphorical language.
As with most of my music, the CD blends a variety of styles, from classical to cabaret to experimental to rock.
3. Which are the main differences between TSLOS and your previous works?
One difference is that although the songs of TSLOS are short song-length works, I think of the piece as a song cycle, with the songs meant to be performed together as one piece. Though fairly abstract, the songs in the order presented tell a story and take you on a little journey. This is my first work of this kind; most of my works in the past have been short stand-alone pieces.
As a cycle, this is also my first long work involving chamber instruments and scored notation. Most of my work until TSLOS consisted of voice with electronics, electronic scores for dance and other media, collaborative arrangements with the band, or short chamber works.
I think with this work I am also developing a more mature sense of form, harmonic structure and compositional sophistication, and delving into more serious subjects.
4. How can you conciliate the different styles that are parts of your music (classic music, rock, avant garde, chamber...)?
I think of these styles as a limitless palette of possibilities for expressing a song. As I compose I rarely think about what “style” I am using – I simply try to express the music I hear in my head, without limitations of genre. This gives me a great deal of freedom, as I am not breaking any rules of genre; there is no particular genre that binds or guides me, so I can do whatever I want. I think this comes primarily from my very wide vocal range; I enjoy singing all sorts of music and am fascinated by the limitless possible combinations of words, melody, vocal style, rhythm, harmony and arrangement in most effectively expressing what I want to say.
5. Which process do you use to compose your music?
Most of the time a song begins with a word-and-melody fragment that enters my head suddenly, often while doing something else (like walking, listening to the news, chatting with a friend, or taking a bath). I then become obsessed with this fragment and begin to expand on it (in my head) both musically and thematically. Often I don’t know what the song will be about until I run wild with whatever ideas it evokes and see where that leads me. I am usually working on many songs at once in this way, often over a period of years. As I flesh out the songs I begin to imagine instrumentation, chord progressions, what technology will be involved and how it will be performed live.
Finally, after a good long gestation period I will sit down at my computer or my live performance rig and begin constructing the song, filling in notes and lyrics, creating sounds, programming my drum triggers, and, if it is to be played by others, notating the instrument parts. During this process I often run up against limitations or happy accidents that lead the music towards something I had not imagined. The piece that I end up with is NEVER exactly the same as what I was hearing in my head.
The inspirations come mostly from daily life, but sometimes I sit down to explore the sounds of my technology, and this develops into a song. Sometimes I am experimenting with my looping rig and vocalizing on nonsense syllables, and the syllables remind me of real language, so I work with that language to develop the song. Sometimes I am at a concert observing an interesting instrumental technique (I have been paying particular attention to string techniques these days), and one interesting sound, such as the noisy scratching of a bow against the strings, can inspire a whole song.
6. What do you think about improvisation?
I love improvisation. It’s a wonderful exercise in instant creativity without time to edit or change your mind. It requires extreme focus, intense listening and great confidence. I especially enjoy the musical bonding that occurs when improvising with other musicians; in good improvisation we are all in a similar mental space, inspiring each other and musically agreeing with each other.
I’m part of a community of improvisers in Oakland, consisting of many disciplines including music, dance, theater and video, and I often perform in a monthly series in which people who have never worked together are paired up or arranged in small ensembles. It has been a fascinating creative and community-building experience for me.
In my songs and composed works I employ very little improvisation – almost everything is very tightly planned and structured, though I do like to give the players an opportunity to let loose once in a while with solos or even whole songs that are structured improvisations. In TSLOS the song “Tongues” is a structured improvisation, and there are solos in “Hey.” Everything else is planned and notated.
I recently had the opportunity to improvise with the Del Sol String Quartet, and they were so wonderful that in an upcoming commission for them I plan to compose a work that is equal parts scored and improvised. Knowing when to improvise and when not to has much to do with trust and experience.
7. Agartha is a web site devoted to progressive with a particular attention to Rock in opposition. In USA, during the '80, there was a very active (post) R.I.O. music scene: 5uu's, Thinking plague, Motor totemist guild, U-totem, Cartoon, Pocket orchestra,... do you know these bands? What do you think about them? Do you think is there still a possibility to do "music in opposition" today? Do you think that your music could be in some way considered "in opposition"? in which sense?
I am familiar with 5uu’s and Thinking Plague and enjoy their music very much. My understanding of Rock in Opposition is that it encompasses many of the bands that were (and still are) creating sophisticated music that clearly involves all the musical accomplishment and inventiveness of contemporary classical or avant-jazz, but which falls more closely into the category of “rock” due to instrumentation and structure (drums, guitar, song form, rock chord progressions, etc.). The “opposition” is a sort of statement against the mainstream rock industry which is very closed-mined about what sort of music it supports.
In this sense, especially my past music falls squarely into this category of “Rock in Opposition,” and these days my music could be considered in opposition to just about everything, as it does not fall into ANY definable genre: it is not rock, it is not classical, it is not jazz, and it is not even “new music” because there is so much accessible, rhythm/melody-based material.
From a business standpoint, this “opposition” quality of my music has made it very difficult for the industry to know what to do with me. No one can figure out what genre I am, or where to put me in the record store or how to label my itunes songs. I suppose there is a small part of me that is intentional about this. My music makes a sort of oppositional statement to the idea of genre in general. But, my real purpose in creating uncategorizable music is that it pleases and interests me to encompass and re-interpret all genres. I like to think that any statement I make about genre is more about inclusiveness than about opposition – for instance to show new-music listeners that experimentation and sophistication can also be melodic and entertaining, and to show rock listeners that within traditional song form one can be extremely creative, and to explore the many colors of traditional classical instruments and present them in new ways. As I compose, I am CONSCIOUS of the effect this genre-blending might have on listeners, but my main motivation is in creating something new that interests me and that I enjoy performing.
Part of my “opposition” is simply that I am adverse to cliché -- this is in all things: in music and art, in the way I speak, in the way I live my life -- and so I try to either avoid cliché OR bring attention to it through exaggeration. One example of this was my band Amy X Neuburg & Men, in which I dressed quite feminine and the men wore suspenders or tuxedos, and we made fun of traditional male/female roles while I played drums and electronics -- instruments more often associated with men. (In fact because of working with electronics I very often find myself in festivals where most of the participants are men, so in this way my whole career is sort of in opposition). This occasional exaggeration, in addition to some funny lyrics, is what adds much of the humor to my music – another quality that sets me apart.
But in a sense, any time you steer clear of cliché you are being “original,” and so being original or innovative is by its very nature in opposition. To be creative is to be in opposition to what is expected. Even the very odd life of an artist is in opposition to what society expects, at least in the United States. We are on the fringes and often do not fit into traditional family structure, employment structure, lifestyle structure, etc. We live Life in Opposition!
8. Will you tour in Europe?
I have played a number of times in Europe (mostly in festivals) but have never done an extended tour. I’d love to do this but have no management or booking agent, and it is very difficult to find time to set up gigs while I am so busy just trying to create music. If anyone reading this would like to help me out with suggestions, venues and contacts, I would very much appreciate it!
9. Which kind of music are you listening to now?
I listen to very little recorded music. These days I am most interested in attending live performances, mostly of contemporary chamber music and electronic music, as well as experimental dance and theater, and the occasional symphony. When I listen to music at home for enjoyment, it is very often crossover folk music from Northern or Eastern Europe (Hedningarna from Sweden and Zvuki Mu from Russia are some favorites), Middle Eastern dance music, or my favorite new wave and art-rock from the ’80s and early ‘90s.
10. What about your future activities?
This year I have a number of commissions: a piece for multi-tracked violin, a string quartet, and a piece for chorus, among others, and I’d also like to record my recent song cycle for eight female voices with live looping, based on recipes collected at the Teriesenstadt concentration camp. I am also in the planning stages of a collaboration with composer Paul Dresher in which I sing with his ensemble, and I am slowly working on a song cycle inspired by my travels abroad, to be performed by a vocal ensemble with chamber instruments and electronics..
In addition to these compositional endeavors, I’d like to spend some time in my studio working with electronic sounds and perhaps creating a solo record meant only as an audio experience. Also I would like to continue exploring alternative electronic controllers and learn more about designing and creating new instruments for live performance.
11. Do you want to add something?
Thank you for your interest in my music!