The first time I met Lesley Flanigan was at a concert afterparty. I had never heard any of her work, but was enthralled by the way she talked about it. A couple weeks later, she had a release show at National Sawdust for her album Hedera, so I went to go see her perform without any context of what her music sounded like, knowing only that I had great respect for the way her mind worked. Seeing her perform live, I was floored. Her music has greatly influenced me, and it’s music that I return to.
Flanigan often takes what one would think of as discarded sounds: feedback, or ringing of electronic equipment, and loops them with her own voice into long arcs. It requires an incredible amount of skill to be able to work with these delicate and unruly sounds. In our interview, Flanigan talked about how she practices with the equipment to learn these processes so that they become a part of her craft.
This month she will be presenting a new work for oscillators, subwoofers, and voice at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, as part of the Red Bull Music Festival New York. She graciously jumped on the phone for an interview a couple weeks ago; catching each other on a weekday morning at the end of a semester, of course we commiserated about balancing commitments:
LESLEY FLANIGAN: I feel like I’m two Lesleys: there’s everyday living life, taking care of family Lesley, and then there’s the Lesley who is completely absorbed in my work.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Is it easy for you to go back and forth between the two, or do you need time to get focused?
It’s like jumping into cold water: you just have to do it and suddenly your body warms up to it and you realize it’s all very intuitive and natural. But, I really need my own space to do that, I can’t be distracted by anything—off with the computers, off with the phone, I need to know my kids are being taken care of—but if I give myself the time and space, then I can pretty much jump right in and start improvising.
Do you always start with improvisation when you’re working on a new piece?
The first thing I do is make sure that my setup is completely functioning. If I know I need to start working on a new piece, I might spend the entire day before just setting up my workspace—that’s the best thing I can do. Then I know that the next day I can walk in and know everything is working and go right into the sound-making process. I can’t be spending time troubleshooting. So for example, with this new piece, I’m working with some new equipment that is not part of my intuitive sound-making process. These are new instruments, in a way, so I need to give myself time to play with them and get comfortable with the sounds. And that’s always a good process, too.
So then when I’m improvising, I record everything – from day one, when I’m just tinkering and figuring things out. I start recording because sometimes the best material will come out of the first interaction with the equipment—in this case, oscillators. Ultimately I’ll record lots and lots of material, and then I’ll spend days just laying around listening back and taking notes to see what works: what I’m interested in, what feels good, what doesn’t feel good. I internalize all of that, and then I go back and do more improvisation with that new knowledge. So it’s studying my own process and my own techniques for making the sounds. When I get into a mode where I’m going to score – or rather make part of a certain improvisation repeatable – then I’ll analyze what I did with the sound and the timing and repeat it over and over and over again until I master being able to recreate it.
That’s one of the things I love about your music: it’s so refined when you perform and the pacing is so beautiful, but there’s an element of discovering sound and listening to the room – that is very present and beautiful – that really comes through. So, I love hearing you say that discovering sound is a big part of your process.
Given the nature of the instruments that I work with – whether it’s feedback and voice, or other sound sculptures – my work is very process-based. In my performances, even if it’s something that I know so well, there will always be some element of improvisation because I’ll never be exactly sure what sound will come out. I have to master the process of working with the sound, and the decision making that happens in that moment. That’s why a lot of times I talk about “sculptural process.” In my performances there’s always a balance of not knowing quite what will happen next and steering it in the direction I want, and being able to respond if it steers me in a new direction. I hesitate to say that my performances are “improvisations”—I’m not sure that’s the right way of describing it.
It seems like it’s more about intuition. Sometimes people think that intuition is about random decisions that you make, whereas in refined performance, intuition includes every single thing you’ve studied, all the experience you have with sound, years of focused practice. In that way, it seems like intuition is very present when you’re performing: that you can hear something that is slightly different or about to change, and intuitively know through experience exactly how to react.
Intuition is about knowing the material through your body. There’s nothing random about it. It’s such a great feeling when you’re in that zone of true intuition, where your brain is communicating so quickly with your reflexes that it’s actually deeply in your body. Like when you drive a car and you know the directions so well that you don’t need to pay active attention to the road, even though you are actually paying a lot of attention. Or, we all know the experience of our body telling us we’re with the wrong person in a relationship, even though our brain or our heart might be trying to rationalize it and telling us, “No, don’t listen to that! Everything is perfect!” but our bodies know it’s not—because your body has these experiences.
For me, playing these instruments involves listening to the sound and the process. I think that’s why you can hear that when I perform: my entire body is in the performance. If I work with other people, the trick is getting them to feel and get into that zone with me, which is another level of intuitiveness. Intuitive means a lot to me, and if there’s a performance of mine that I feel isn’t working quite right, it’s usually because I’m being too self-aware and not thinking about the right things. Intuition is a big part of it all, and I think any great art and music comes from strong intuition, even if you’re not seeing the process of it being made.
Do you choose or create the instruments themselves based on what possibilities there will be for process-based sound creation?
The speaker-feedback instruments are more about being inspired by sound, and it becomes part of my ensemble. It’s like being inspired by a singer: “I love your voice, I really want to work with your voice.” So, that’s not creating specific speakers for different projects. At this point I have a variety of speakers I’ve made. I have certain speakers that I love and tend to want to use for performance. For this newer piece, I’m working with two oscillators so I can play very pure single tones, and two subwoofers.
Could you explain what oscillators and subwoofers are, for someone who doesn’t have experience working with synthesized sound or electronic instruments?
There is so much information about oscillators, and I am not an electrical engineer! But for my purposes, I am working with an audio oscillator, which is an instrument that generates one pure tone or frequency at a time. It’s not musical instrument, though it is the basic technology within a synthesizer, and therefore pretty much at the heart of all electronic music. I am generating sine waves with my oscillators. The sound is probably the cleanest, purest production of pitch, which is very different than my work with speaker feedback.
The frequencies I am most interested in using for this project are the lowest frequencies, bordering on inaudible. In order to hear these frequencies, I need to perform with subwoofers, which are loudspeakers capable of driving the lower frequencies. As I work, I typically like to walk around in different places listening to my recordings on headphones. In this case, I have only one set of headphones that I am able to listen to this project on, and even then the frequency response is so different than with the subwoofers I have my studio. It’s interesting… I am realizing that this is a performance that has no choice but to become site-specific, based on the subwoofer speakers I use and how the projected sound frequencies resonate in the physical, open space.
How did you choose this particular setup for the show at St. John the Divine?
This is actually the first time I’ve worked with synthesized sound. It’s been in the back of my mind that it was a piece I wanted to do, and I was waiting for the right situation. I truly believe that you can’t force something that’s not meant to be. I don’t shove performances into spaces where they don’t belong, or that won’t work with the entire experience of that show. So, it’s important for me to know the space and the context of a performance and then try things out in the space.
For this show coming up at St. John the Divine, I knew that Tristan [Perich]’s piece for 50 violins and 50 speakers – 100 voices – would be so much sound and complexity. I loved the idea of presenting something completely opposite of that: these really low wave pulsing frequencies with that singular soprano voice over the top, very meditative. So, I thought about what setup would be good for it and learned it, and have been working on it to see how it could work in the space. It’s not the timbral complexity of my usual work with speaker feedback instruments, instead it’s dissecting that entire process and looking at elements of tone or tonality. Singular pitches, singular tones.
So, the setup and instruments for this show came from a strong sound concept first.
Anything that I start like this, I always try to think about what the simplest way to present it so I don’t get caught up in the tech. So for this setup, I just have two sine wave generators: they just produce pure tone. The only way that I shape them other than changing the singular frequencies on this dial, is that I’m running them through an auto-panner, which means I shape how the frequencies are going back and forth between the speakers, which creates an interesting interference pattern. At times it creates a very subtle beat as the panning shapes these tones. It’s intense to listen to pitch that never changes shape, and this creates more of an organic experience. There’s so much to do with just that!
Similarly with voice, all I’m doing is adding a microphone and an amplifier—but that’s actually a huge change to a voice! There’s so much to play with, and so much to shape just having tools of amplification. I say that to emphasize that electronics are just a means to an end, they’re just tools. To me, it’s still always about the essence of the sound source, and then I use electronics – and in particular, the electronics of amplification – to shape that sound, like having a chisel or a hammer, but it happens to be a microphone that’s going into a speaker. There’s so much to do compositionally with just that, and I love that simplicity.
If you were to introduce someone to your music, which piece would you share with them and why?
When I give a talk, I usually start off with playing my music with no visuals or video, and then step back and show them how I got there. Recently, I’ve been using Glacier. Even though it’s an older work, the recording is a good representation of what I do with my performances. There’s something really nice about seeing a live performance and seeing where the sounds are coming from, how they’re being shaped, and the entire process of building it up from the moment a speaker gets turned on to seeing it all culminate in a musical moment. When you see the performance, it’s really part of the music, there’s nothing hidden. The transparency of how the sounds are being made are a big part of my music and its process—hearing the imperfections and how they get worked into the piece to create meaningful moments. One can hear all of that just listening to the recording, but seeing the performance is not just watching playback of sound, it’s watching sounds being made, which is equally meaningful.
People often ask me why I don’t have more recordings, but recording is a very different process for me; it’s not the same as performing. When I’m performing, that helps me zero in and focus – I have the energy of an audience and the space I’m in and there’s really dark lighting – there’s this collective consciousness that we’re all locked into. I have this window of time to make this happen, and everyone gets to see and experience that process in the moment. I rarely think that a live recording does justice to what was actually happening in the space. Whereas, the recordings I put out don’t have that performative element: I’m not playing for other people, I’m playing for myself, and usually for myself wearing headphones. That’s a very different space and a very different process. The recordings are naturally different, and I have to give myself that time and space to do that. I’m so engaged in performance process and being with an audience that it’s hard for me to change into the mode of recording.
What was your first experience with experimenting with sound?
Music has always been a huge part of my life, primarily because my voice has been my main instrument. I remember going into a hallway in my home right by the front door that for some reason – I guess because there was tile on the floor, and a fireplace next to it – this one hallway had this reverberance to it, and I would just go there and sing and sing and sing and sing. My favorite was when I was home by myself—I would immediately go to that hallway and sing! And then I sang in church. Singing was my favorite thing to do.
I also loved building and working with my hands. When I was a kid I would make these elaborate wooden-block structures that I would work on for weeks. Ultimately, I ended up going to art school to study sculpture. So it was two sides: I had my music side, and then I had my art side. The art side was more formally developed learning about concepts and techniques, talking about creative ideas and creative processes, making sense of intuition in the form of a sculpture. The music side was always a naturally expressive part of me, that I appreciated doing my own way.
Jump ahead: I got out of school and real life started, and I had to get a job. I had been working with computers a lot in my day job and thought I could find some more creative ways of working with technology, so eventually, I ended up going back to school at the ITP [Interactive Telecommunications Program] at NYU. There, I started working with physical computing and learned about building circuits. I built an audio amplifier and I tested it with a piezo mic and a speaker, and these amazing sounds of feedback came out of them and it just… you have to imagine, for five years I really had not made any music other than playing around on my laptop. I hadn’t sung, I certainly hadn’t performed, and it was a part of me that I had lost—as much as I loved creative process and being an artist, it was simply something I wasn’t doing. Most of my work with music at this time was alone playing with my computer and making electronic music, but the sounds, for me, were so dead inside, so flat and uninteresting despite all the effects and software I had to work with… And then here these little speaker sounds come out, and they’re awesome and incredibly inspiring in all their imperfections and their realness.
The speaker feedback sounds were everything that I hadn’t heard in a long time, which was real electronic sound: dirty, acoustic, loud, and sculptural, too! Suddenly my hands were involved in making the sound and shaping the sound. It was this incredible moment where everything I loved in my life – working with my hands, working with sound – came together. And then on top of all that, thinking of each of these little speakers as being these little voices, because they had their own sound, inspired me to sing with them. Really in a couple of weeks this whole body of work happened because the stars aligned and it all made sense. It was very intuitive. Everything became fun again. It was creativity that was deep within me, something that all of my life experiences resonated with, so it didn’t go away quickly, and I didn’t get bored of it at all. Instead with each show I did, each project I did, each recording I did, I was inspired more. It was me. Now, I can’t imagine my life without doing it—I’ve built a life and relationships around this practice.
What advice would you have for young composers and sound artists who are experimenting and may be afraid to put their work out there?
If I think about the advice I would give to myself at a younger age, the first thing I would say is trust the process. For example, I stepped away from sound for those five years. I thought I had lost my voice, but it was in me, I just needed to come at it from another angle. That means trusting the process and living your life. It doesn’t just go away; it can percolate and come back even stronger, whether it’s writing music or creating a project.
Sometimes you have to give yourself time to make music, but another big part of what you need to give yourself is the time to step away and then to come back at it with a different perspective. I’m a tortoise, not a hare. Part of giving yourself time may be changing directions. And I’m not the only one to have taken time off and come back stronger; I can think of many friends and artists who did the same for various reasons and are now making their best work beyond their forties.
You have to trust your process in different phases of your career. Maybe you have to have those crappy shows—earlier in my career I said yes to everything. Sometimes you have to get out there and make all the mistakes and learn what works and doesn’t work. It’s awesome to be totally crazy and get out there, but somewhere grounded deep within you to know that it’s alright to step back if you need to. You have to go through your own process.
Red Bull Music Festival New York presents Tristan Perich and Lesley Flanigan at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on May 9 at 7pm; nyc.redbullmusicfestival.com