The cycle of programs that flutist Claire Chase has presented in recent seasons under the banner Density 2036 has never lacked in variety or innovation, but the fourth installment, which Chase presented at the Kitchen in December 2016, featured one piece venturesome even by her own extraordinary standard. GAMA XV, a duo composed by and performed with the multidisciplinary artist Pauchi Sasaki, largely dispensed with Chase’s flute. Instead, both performers were adorned in interactive electronic garb designed and created by Sasaki.
Clad in Sasaki’s “speaker dresses”—a literal description, in the case of her own first-generation outfit—the pair engaged in a breathy pas de deux at once intensely alien and transcendently human in its intimacy and vulnerability. Chase’s flute and Sasaki’s violin, introduced near the work’s end, seemed to stabilize, amplify, and harmonize sounds that each performer had made more tentatively beforehand.
That the success of GAMA XV had to do with more than novelty and proximity became clear the following June, when Sasaki and Chase adapted it for a daytime performance on an amphitheater stage at the Ojai Music Festival in California. Even removed from its bespoke environment, the piece still beguiled with its litany of whispers, chirps, and sighs.
If GAMA XV was a watershed work in Sasaki’s ongoing quest to enact a new kind of relationship between artist and technology, then her performance with the American Composers Orchestra on Friday, Dec. 8, proposes a logical next step. GAMA XVI, to be heard in its world premiere, integrates Sasaki’s personal practice into the fabric of a society of musicians. The concert also celebrates Sasaki’s bond with fellow composer and performer Philip Glass, presently holder of the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chairat Carnegie Hall, and Sasaki’s mentor under the auspices of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.
Ahead of her ACO performance – and well in advance of her performance with Chase during National Sawdust’s Spring Revolution festival in March 2018 –Sasaki spoke with National Sawdust Log about her artistic practice, her evolutionary view of technology, and trying to keep pace with Glass’s abundant activity.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: How did you come to conceive of a wearable technology you could use to make music?
PAUCHI SASAKI: I started to play music at an early age: at two, flute, and then four, piano, but then I changed to violin at age five. I studied classical violin until 14, 15. And since a early age I was very physical in the way of performance – as well as Claire… Claire is super-physical. In my 20s, I got very interested in electronic music. I studied journalism first in Lima, but then I decided to do my master’s in electronic music at Mills College.
Were you born in Peru?
I was born and raised in Peru. My mother was born and raised in Japan, and she moved to Peru when she was 19. My father was born and raised in Peru, but his parents came with the first immigrations in the early 20th century.
You view yourself as native Peruvian, then.
Culturally, yes. Of course, in terms of tradition, I’m like a mix – I feel also very familiar with Japanese culture since a very early age. The thing is, when I started to do electronic music at Mills… well, I did it before, but when I started to develop my own set-up, I had a very big problem. And that happened more clearly when I went to perform at the Tokyo Experimental Festival back in 2013. I wanted to perform with the violin, and, you know, when a performer plays, you enter into another place of your brain. It was very difficult to then turn to the computer and check the Max patch, and I felt like, oh, no, this is not working. I suffered a lot, [laughs] because I didn’t know which path in my brain to choose. I wanted to get into the mood, but then I had to do this [mimics typing computer commands].
I started to look for ways to keep the performative quality with electronic performance, so I started to design my own instruments. I have, for example, an electronic violin to which I attached a board with many sensors, so instead of playing and doing this [gestures to computer], I preprogram so that the sensors, based on my movement, will change the process. I have another instrument that is dialed into magnetic fields that works with a webcam; I divide a partition x-y, and I set different areas – so if I move here [gestures in midair] I will trigger one sound; if I move here [gestures elsewhere], I will trigger other sounds.
That sounds almost like how a theremin operates.
Yes, but digital. The thing with this instrument is that you can assign any sound, so the sound I chose to assign is the zampoña, the pan flute, so really it sounds like wind. So I had other instruments, and then came the dress. The idea for the dress came in a site-specific performance. Sometimes I perform for videographers, so we go to places that they like, we talk about it, and we improvise, because I’m also very much into improvisation. One day this French videographer – his name is Vincent Moon, he did La Blogotheque, he’s a very good videographer, and he flies all around the world recording musicians – we went to an old temple from Lima, which is called Pachacamac. I’d already got very used to the processed sound of the violin, and then I went there with all my gear… but of course, it’s like going to the pyramids of Egypt…
No place to plug in.
No plug. Silly, no? So I had to do it just raw.
Then I was like, I need to find a way to really express what I want to do, not depending on anything – to be self-contained, to be independent. That’s how I came up with the idea of the speaker dress. At the time, I was in my last year at Mills, and for the electronics class, the circuit-bending class, I did this dress as a final project. It took a while to find the correct measurements, because something very tricky about wearables and electricity: it’s easy to get damaged.
Perspiration must be an issue.
It was a process of three to six months to really figure out the correct impedance, because in the first performance, I burned my hair.
Yes. It was very strong. I did some research, and finally I was able to do a safe version, and then a second one, which was the one that Claire used in Density. And now I’m on a project to build a third one.
I read somewhere that you aspire eventually to clothe a small group of people in something approaching a kind of opera.
Yes… like a performance. Opera is a very tricky word. Philip, in his time, also had problems about whether Einstein on the Beach was an opera or not. One day I was talking with Claire before the premiere at the Kitchen, and she told me, “Don’t worry about that word, because what it really means is work.”
That’s literally true. The term has all kinds of baggage and associations, but the word opera literally just means work.
Also, my idea about calling it an opera–I don’t do it publicly–is because I’m trying to make a different use of the voice. Opera traditionally has a very different aesthetic, but my way to use the voice is acknowledge that every single performer and every single person has his own pre-logos language. What we do is sounds, gibberish… I’m very interested in the pre-logos use of language.
Something also very important about the dress is that it has a little bit of a political connotation. I am not an activist, I am not a political artist, but in a sense I feel this project is empowering, because first, I’m self-contained. I don’t depend on anything. I can have control over all of this. And the other part is that it’s a body that screams. It responds to a dream I’ve had since I am a child: that I want to become sound. It’s a dream for every single performer, I think, just to meld with the sound and expand with it. So for many reasons, I think of [the speaker dress] as an iconic symbol, a symbol of independence.
Since you opted deliberately for the form of a dress and not some gender-neutral kind of bodysuit, I wondered whether it’s also meant as an expression or extension of gender?
In a way, unconsciously it was like that.
I made the dress in 2014, and this year, I saw that somebody is also doing clothes with speakers, three years later, and they presented it in Paris Fashion Week. But they don’t call it a dress, because dress is female. So maybe it is important for me. And also, it responds – unconsciously, too – to the reality that there are not many women electronic musicians. We are a lot, but not as much as males. And technology still, even now, with all of these start-up companies, the gap is very different, the percentage is very different.
Yes. It is still an industry and a craft male-dominated. So I stick with that name because of that. I am happy that I built it myself. I soldered every single cable. I designed it all. For me, that’s very important. Many friends asked me, oh, do you want help? And I’m like, no, thank you very much.
Right. Like: “Did you put the idea on paper and then give it to some guy to assemble?”
Right. I knew it was going to be painful – which it was! – but I really wanted to go through the process myself, because that’s part of the energy of the project.
I don’t want to ask you to give away all of your trade secrets, but when you physically put on the dress, is it interacting with a Max MSP patch elsewhere?
The second generation, yes. And now I’m using my dress like that, too. But for the first two years, I used it all self-contained. I had a processor in my hand, and I had two kinds of microphones in my other hand: a lavalier for the voice and a contact mike so that I could make sounds with a surface.
Hair and skin and such?
Yes, because also important for me was the concept that the dress was a kind of a skin, a membrane that connects your internal world with the external world. The microphones would go to the processor, then I do the processing with a pad, and the signal goes directly [to the speakers]. So, no wireless in the first generation. In the second generation it was a very, very difficult decision, because to make it wireless meant that it wasn’t totally self-contained. But I said, well, if you do all of the programming of the presets and the patch and all of that, it will keep your gesture. So I was like, O.K., let’s go for it, but it was a process to accept that.
In GAMA XV, even if perhaps it was totally improvised, there seemed to be a deliberate choreography about what you were doing onstage. Beyond your exploration of classical and traditional musical idioms, have you also delved into theatrical and dance traditions? The thing that came to my mind most readily while watching was butoh. Is the choreography formal, or intuitive?
When people start to make machines, you can see in the architecture the motivation of the person who is designing. Sometimes what I feel is that people, when they start to develop machines, make toys, or make things that are based too much on presets, so there is not much freedom. The iPhone – everything is based on presets. To find your own path is kind of difficult. So for me, it was very important that the performance have a very gestural element, and very personal, because that will bring another energy to the dress. The dress is very easy to became like a toy… like, “Ah, that’s so cool.”
Well, it is cool.
But I wanted something deep, so that I could feel in 10 years… because technology goes so fast; it’s like, “ah, that’s so old” – I didn’t want that. So the way to make it last through time was the way you perform, and the ceremony that you build around the object. So there is a whole dynamic. It is improvised, but the process with Claire, for example, is that first of all it is important that the performers find their own pre-logos language. They find their own sounds. And then I say, O.K., this kind of sound that you are doing, [gestures to points in space] let’s put it here, let’s put it here, here, here, here. So there is kind of a structure, and also that makes the process more organic.
The way you’re describing it sounds less like choreography and more like storyboarding. I know you’ve been very active in scoring films…
Yes. I actually compose with boxes, with images. And also, during my time as a journalism student, I specialized in photography. I love iconic images. I say to Claire, let’s stop here, because I want people to remember this moment, so there are moments where [imitates camera shutter].
Retroactively I can see it as a series of friezes and tableaus.
Also, I do have a lot of background—not as a director—with film, theater, and dance, because of my work with many companies. And I took workshops in butoh – I have many good friends in Tokyo, and I collaborate a lot with them, so you are right when you said butoh. Something that I love about that technique is that it asks a lot from the performer, to enter to a subconscious place. So it’s not like, I want to do this: [gesticulating] da-da-da-da-da, dum, dum. There is not will. It’s more like something is moving you, so you have to let things go through and just try to find the right state so you can enter into this character. I love this antithesis, that even if the dresses look like armor, very strong, the performance, the characters, we are very vulnerable.
That was part of what I found so moving about GAMA XV, the intimacy of the interaction between you and Claire.
It is very important to achieve that temperament, because this project is also about questioning our relationship with technology. Most of the time we feel so empowered with technology: “I can do it! I can do whatever I want.”
I can use the phone in my pocket to turn off the lights in my home, miles away.
Yeah, it’s like, “Ahhh, I’m so powerful.” But my relationship with technology is through vulnerability, because if I don’t find that kind of relationship, I won’t be able to make art. If I come from with an attitude of power, it won’t show my fragility. When I see work with technology, when I see vulnerability and fragility then I see there is a delivering of human emotion. The spectrum of our expressivity is not just “I want to do this.” It’s also what you don’t want to say, your fragile moments, your sadness, your joy. Our approach to technology needs to be very flexible and leave these spaces for error, so we can relate more deeply. So it questions our relationship with technology, and also the evolution of that relationship – what is going to happen in the future? Sometimes I have a technical question, and I see a tutorial on YouTube by a six-year-old kid. How is it going to work, the poetics, in this case? How are they going to relate with art, with deep expression, with deep emotions? They really have another wiring. So it is important, I think, for the people of my generation, the artists, to really start talking about that, because then it won’t be like a criticism of this phenomenon.
All of this intimacy and vulnerability and interpersonal relations – how do you broaden that conception to accommodate working with a larger ensemble like the American Composers Orchestra?
Always, for these kinds of performative compositions, I compose for the space. You saw the piece GAMA XV at the Kitchen, and it was better there because it was composed for there. It wasn’t composed for Ojai, and you really missed a lot of the atmosphere and the lighting. So last year, I went to Zankel Hall with my sister [Nomi Sasaki], who does the video work. We were analyzing the space: where could I come from, the trajectory, how is the mood in that space, the energy, the kind of lighting they have, the kind of speaker set-up they have. I analyze all of that, and then I come up with a technical and musical design.
They asked me to be the soloist with electronics, so I felt like the string part has its moment, but the speaker dress also needed to have its own moment. So for the first movement the orchestra is more like an atmosphere, like a space that is breathing, morphing, changing, and the electronics are the main voice. The second movement is like a transition, and then at the end it’s just the orchestra, which is very difficult in terms of sonority because electronic sound can be too strong. To go then just to the orchestra, the energy could come down. There are these kinds of factors that I have to think about so that the energy does not come down, and at the end Tim Fain will be the soloist in the third section. It’s very energetic, and it’s kind of my tribute to Philip.
That’s a perfect segue for us to talk about your relationship with Philip Glass. In addition to being an ACO performance, this concert also is part of Philip’s series as composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall this season. You’ve been working with Philip as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Is that ongoing?
Officially we ended in July. But we will keep working next year, and our closing ceremony will be in February in Berlin at the Rolex Arts Weekend.
How did the two of you work together under the mentorship program, and what would you say you got from Philip in the process?
Ah, many things. He has been very generous. For six months I followed him on all his tours… most of his tours. He travels a lot.
Keeping up with Philip is no small thing. He’s busier than any two or more of us.
[Laughs] It’s impressive. And also, the capacity he has to change his mindset so naturally, because in one week he can be performing in three different shows with different artists – with Patti Smith, then with Laurie Anderson, then Kronos Quartet, and then with his ensemble. That really demands a lot of skills, personal skills, and also a lot of concentration. And besides that, he just doesn’t stop writing, and he’s also in the studio making music for films. It has been very inspiring to see his level of concentration and how he manages to deal with all these activities.
In December  I went to many sessions for post-production on the documentary Jane by National Geographic that just premiered this year. That was super-interesting for me, of course, because I love film scoring. He gave me very pragmatic tips, and we would talk about approaches for different scripts. Sometimes he writes before they shoot the movie, like in Kundun with Martin Scorsese, and sometimes it’s after the movie, like in The Hours. We talked about how he feels about that difference in process. You should play with the process, he told me, so you’ll know how it feels and you’ll learn different skills. And then in March I went with him to many countries: Japan, Romania, France…
What a fantastic opportunity.
And then I just performed in his festival in October, the Days and Nights Festival, and it was very nice.
What did you do there?
I did a small version of GAMA, the whole project, so Jennifer Curtis did a solo that I wrote for her, and I did the duo with Claire. I also presented a very hardcore electronic piece. But also, he is guiding me on how to organize my practice. That’s something that he really wants to share. He told me to open a publishing company – he told me it was very important to learn that part of the artistic activity. For most musicians, it’s difficult to put time aside to learn about rights and all of that, contracts, royalties. That’s why I’m coming next year, so he can teach me all that part.
Both you and Philip, in pursuing what ostensibly is still an extension of a venerable European aesthetic, the Western classical tradition, have opened that tradition up to non-Western ideas and to sounds from other cultures: in your case, Peru, and in Philip’s case, the epiphany of discovering and internalizing Indian classical music. What role does that pursuit have in the scope of your art? Was that something you discussed with Philip?
For me it’s super-important. Since I was 17, I’ve taken classes and done research in different styles of violin. The violin is a very strange instrument that was taken as a child from all over the world, and I think it’s because of its amazing emotional range. It can be so sweet and also so scary, and the pitch range is like a voice. Every single culture took it and put their own language into it. In Peru we have so many styles of violin, and also in India there are so many styles of violin. I studied with Ali Akbar Khan for years in California, and then here for two years I studied with Alicia Svigals from the Klezmatics – one day I was in Peru and heard her playing, and I was like, “Oh my god, it’s like she’s singing.” It was like a voice – you could feel a person dancing or crying. So I took classes with her. Traditional music is really important, because it really opens up that emotional spectrum: the different temperaments, the idiosyncrasies. That’s also something that interested me because I love film scores; I really need a wide spectrum to express all the scripts.
Something that I love about traditional music is the ceremonial aspect; always there is a ceremony related to the music, a specific belief, a faith behind it, a whole conception of the world. So just by learning one piece, you can really have—a little bit, not totally—a sneak peak of what that culture is. And Philip has that hunger also, to relate and to communicate with people. For instance, last week he was with Mexican musicians from the mountains for a concert, who don’t even speak Spanish. He just wants to connect. And I feel like I am the same way. There are amazing composers who just develop their own aesthetic and go deeper, deeper, deeper—and of course, Philip did that. You can hear just one measure and you know it is Philip. But Philip is really hungry to connect with people, traveling and meeting with musicians and playing and recording. I really admire that, because that’s also my personality. So in that way, I felt that it was a really nice coincidence that we got together through the Rolex mentorship.
As an artist trained in classical music, is there also a political statement embedded in your interacting with traditional Peruvian culture?
Well, for me it wasn’t a choice; it’s more like the environment was natural, and for me it’s not natural to be in a room alone with my pen. Years ago, when I was thinking, “What do I do when I finish at Mills?” I climbed a mountain with my sister to a very amazing spiritual festivity in the Andes, which is called Qoyllur Rit’i. It is 5,000 kilometers up, and it’s thousands and thousands of people walking toward this huge mountain to pray. In Andean tradition the mountains are the spirits. You go to give offerings.
For me, it was always so important to go to these types of festivities, because I can see how people really use music with faith. I am not religious, I believe in good energy, but I can tell when something is made with faith—the impact that it has is different. It was important for me to go to such festivities throughout my life in Peru, but this one was special, because it was four days with non-stop music, 24 hours. My tent was like ice, but it’s just faith that keeps you going. I love that energy in music—not all the time, but I love to get inspired by that.
So the impact of traditional music and dance in my work is that you need to be in a state. You need to change your energy. A lot of the work is to get into that energy, like actors. It’s something you induce in yourself in order to create this mood and atmosphere. That’s part of the composition.
Pauchi Sasaki performs GAMA XVI with the American Composers Orchestra at Zankel Hall on Dec. 8 at 7:30pm; americancomposers.org
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