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Interview with Amy X Neuburg & Cory Smythe

December 7, 2011

On December 13th, beloved Bay Area techno-songstress Amy X Neuburg returns to Roulette, this time in collaboration with NYC pianist/improviser Cory Smythe (of ICE), The evening will consist of new compositions for voice, piano and live electronics, improvisational duets, and solos from Amy and Cory — including Amy’s spirited ‘avant-cabaret’ songs for voice and drum-controlled looping, and works from Cory’s recent release “Pluripotent” for piano with live processing.

ROULETTE: Tell us as about the work you’ll be doing at Roulette.
Cory and I met in Milwaukee earlier this year, where he played my compositions as part of a concert with Present Music Ensemble, and I so enjoyed working with him that I invited him to join me at this Roulette gig. We’ll be performing composed and semi-improvised voice/piano/electronics songs, including the pieces we did in Milwaukee plus some brand-spanking-fresh new ones, as well as solo works.

To me this collaboration with Cory represents some new directions in which I find myself heading, not with any great plan or intention but just because it feels natural. For one, I am becoming more fascinated by the improvisational process. Composing and recording, once you get past the idea phase into the construction phase, are so overwhelmingly oriented towards precision, second-guessing, editing, re-editing, way-zoomed-in meticulousness and often loss of the big picture. Improvising, in contrast, is immediate, cannot be edited, and keeps you in a constant state of on-your-toes creativity. Its riskiness is invigorating. Improvising with an inspiring musician such as Cory opens up whole new worlds of musical possibilities for me. Not to mention this is a way of exploring music that I have not performed a million times for the same audience; I always like to do something new when I come to New York, and as most of my composing recently has been for ensembles (thus not much in the way of solo work), this was one way of addressing that issue.

In addition, I am recently finding myself drawn to the talents of many younger musicians who are getting into experimental and classical crossover music. In this time of everyone freaking out about jobs and the economy, it’s gratifying to see a whole new influx of folks making cutting edge art just because it is important to them, and embracing the attitude of exploration that I grew up with. That gives me hope for the cultural evolution of this country, and I find it personally energizing as well.

CORY SMYTHE: Amy X Neuburg was kind enough to invite me to share the evening with her, and I’m sort of doing my best to be a considerate guest. While we’ll each be doing some solo performances, I’m trying to curate/create music for the evening that responds in some way to her work. At the most basic level, this means I’ll be doing some things with electronics — live processing and live looping.   We’re also collaborating with and writing for one another, a process I’ve found totally fascinating. She’s such a unique, multifaceted musician; working with her is like working with a large ensemble.

R: Are there working artists today with whose work you identify, or rather, who do you consider to be your peers?
CS: I wonder if there will come a time when the idea of listing other artists as my peers won’t seem to me like an insult to those other artists… Meanwhile, I’ve had the privilege of working a little, recently, with Steve Lehman and Peter Evans, and they both come to mind immediately as artists with whose work I identify — and who would be justifiably mortified to find themselves counted among my peers.

R: What are some defining characteristics of the musical scene you
would fit yourself into? What elements of your scene differentiate it 
from what has come before, or what is happening now?

AXN: I call what I do “avant-cabaret.” Though I fit more into the new music spectrum than any other genre (thanks to the open-ended definition of “new music”), you might just as well put me in the modern vaudeville, singer/songwriter, spoken word, classical or art-rock scenes. It’s the use of electronics and my post-modern disregard for genre, plus much vocal exploration, that make me avant-garde. And I feel I am most successful in a sort of cabaret setting, in which I have permission to use humor, banter with the audience and achieve a bit of intimacy, keep things on the informal side, and create a sort of variety-show atmosphere. I think of the Weimar cabaret as a place where folks came to escape the horrors of their circumstances, and I can relate to that bittersweet mix of tragedy and comedy.
In a way I feel more akin to what is happening now than I did, say, 10-15 years ago, when the music biz was more stymied by anything original. I feel blessed at this point to have been noted FOR having a very individual style. Also there are now many more musicians experimenting with voice or chamber instruments plus electronics (technological developments have made this much easier), and the new way that media is distributed has created a more anything-goes attitude where genre is not as important.

CS: I play a lot as a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, which is a big enough collection of players that maybe it constitutes a ‘scene’ in and of itself? If you’re curious about the hyperactive assortment of projects they’re undertaking, check out

R: What was the last music you listened to?

AXN: “The Crunge” by Led Zeppelin.

CS: I was out of town and in a rental car this last week and couldn’t figure out how to hook it up to my ipod.  I found a Four Tops best-of bargain CD and the new Kate Bush at the closest big box (no record stores left where I was…) and really enjoyed both! Prior to that, I’d been listening jealously to Kris Davis’s “Aeriol Piano” and excitedly studying up on Amy X’s “The Secret Language of Subways” in advance of our work together.  (And right this minute — a fascinating chorus and ensemble piece called “Inondation” by a young composer named Marielle Groven.)

R: What is music?

AXN: Music is sound that is organized (or at least “framed”) for the purpose of sharing with others or oneself, though if something disorganized or unintentional makes its way into that, it can become part of the music if it is perceived as such.

CS: Just the other day someone told me that if you hold an orange in front of a zen master and ask her “what is this?”, she will reply by simply eating the orange. I’m about the furthest thing from a zen master, but I thought I’d give it a try: and so I’ve responded to this question by eating the complete Beethoven string quartets.

R: Do you consider yourself more a composer or a performer?

AXN: No.
But you know what? Performing feels totally natural to me. Composing feels like pulling teeth. So though I spend far more time and probably get more recognition as a composer, I suppose deep down it all springs from my desire to just sing you a strange little song.

CS: Depends on which I’m doing at the time. If it’s composing, I consider myself more a performer… and vice versa.

R: Is there an event or experience that led you to start in experimental media?

AXN: No single event, no. The way I approach music feels like an organic evolution of all the styles I have worked in over the years coming together, blended with my interest in language (one of my undergrad degrees is in Linguistics), plus I have an unusually wide vocal range and it seems a waste not to use all of it. So vocal exploration came naturally to me, and a fascination with sound, innovation and working with my hands led to voice/electronics exploration. Certainly I’m also influenced by years of modern dance in my youth and a progressive hippie-dippie education. I think my experimentalism began solidifying at Oberlin where the other voice students were obsessed with opera and I was far more interested in what the composition students were doing, becoming their sort of “house” vocalist. It seemed more vital to bring new music into the world than to recreate old music, and I loved being able to bring my own sound to a brand new project without expectations of what I was “supposed” to sound like; eventually this led to me creating music specifically for my own voice. I also loved my classical training, though, and still draw heavily from classical technique and structure.

R: Who do you see as instrumental in your development as an artist?

AXN: Oh gosh… so many people, from my wonderfully supportive parents to encouraging teachers. I give a lot of credit to my voice teacher at Oberlin — Daune Mahy — who did not dissuade me from singing all the weird stuff (while the other voice faculty would have found this horrifying). And earlier, my fabulous modern dance teacher Arlene Horowitz established in me the idea of combining rigorous technique with wild creativity. Singing in Robert Ashley’s operas while still quite young had a profound effect, as did working with so many collaborators over the years — especially Herb Heinz with whom I spent over 20 years making music and developing technology. In the ‘80s I was obsessed with XTC, who combined a great, gutsy sound with really playful use of language. But I always feel uncomfortable narrowing it down because things keep changing; I learn something from every single piece of music, dance, theater, art, book, conversation and real-life event that I experience. Much of what I do simply comes from listening to the patterns of language.

R: What is interesting to you about your own work?

AXN: Because I have not pigeonholed my genre, and I am not hung up about everything I do having to be lucrative, I have the creative freedom to make any sort of music I feel like making.

Whenever I am offered an interesting opportunity to do something new, I’ll generally go for it. This make me feel like I’m perpetually in school — developing new skills, learning from all manner of collaborators, traveling to new places…. Just last year I wrote my first string quartet and my first large-scale chorus piece. This year I got to play in Poland, and now I get to improvise with Cory Smythe.

I enjoy the sense that I am using all parts of my brain in the work I do, from the imagination part (conceiving ideas, composing, exploring words and sounds and metaphors) to the exacting part (scoring, programming technology, putting together a show, and solving the puzzle of fitting the perfect word into the structure of a song).

I dig the physicality of my work — one of the things that attracted me to electronics in the first place. I like hitting things, plugging things into things, and schlepping stuff around.

I am still, after all these years, amazed by the creative process — the way an idea eventually becomes a work of art, spontaneously or laboriously, intentionally or accidentally, sometimes with a clear meaning and sometimes with a meaning that only shows itself years later. This is just so… I don’t know… neat.

R: Do you do other things aside from music?
There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of time for much else. And sadly, far more of my time is spent doing music-related administrative things than actually creating or performing. My modest goal in life is to change that.
But I make time to exercise every single day, especially urban walking, which helps ideas flow. And I love to cook, eat, be a foodie, and throw fabulous parties. I’ve begun an “Avant-Cake” house concert series. Right now I’m studying Italian. I like to talk/read/think about brains and bodies and medicine and language and animals and politics. I have a funky old house in Oakland that I am forever fixing up.

CS: Yes — mostly, in fact.

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