One of three winners of National Sawdust’s inaugural Hildegard Competition for emerging women and non-binary composers, Kayla Cashetta is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Inspired by acoustics, new technologies, and the human experience, she strives to explore the intricacies of inner life and interpret them through sound. Past and current projects include concert works, electronic music, and collaborations with dancers, filmmakers, and songwriters. Her music has been performed at soundSCAPE, the Fontainebleau Summer Sessions, the Loretto Project, the Atlantic Music Festival, and the Center for New Music. Cashetta has worked with ensembles and soloists such as the Eco Ensemble, Splinter Reeds, Soo Yeon Lyuh, Matt Ingalls, and Longleash. She is currently a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, where she is studying with Ken Ueno, Franck Bedrossian, Cindy Cox, Myra Melford, and Edmund Campion.
Invited to choose her own interviewer for this National Sawdust Log profile, Cashetta selected the distinguished composer, performer, and media artist Pamela Z, who works primarily with voice, live electronic processing, sampled sound, and video, and is a pioneer of live digital looping techniques. In a recent conversation, they discussed aspects of Cashetta’s composition practice, techniques, and goals.
PAMELA Z: I was reading through your materials and the information that you sent me, and one of the things that you mentioned is that you’ve been recently embracing technology in your new work. I was wondering if you could give me an overview of what kind of work you’ve been making up to this point, and what ways that work is changing?
KAYLA CASHETTA: I’ve always had my concert music that I had written for conventional instruments, and I’ve also had my music that I rarely share with anyone, that I do in my home studio for myself. They’ve both been existing separately ever since I’ve gotten into the music world. Recently I’ve been trying to combine them, and step back and view all of my projects as one body of work, so I can cross over and try to use my strengths in ways that I haven’t been able to tap into yet.
For example, last semester I wrote a piece for drum machine and electronics. After using it in the studio, I began to see the drum machine as an instrument like any other, with a unique set of sounds, possibilities, and limitations. I tried to lean into that and approach it in the same way that I do when I write my chamber music pieces. I also put it through Max/MSP to have this hardware/software relationship going on, and wanted to take that piece and perform it in a concert music space. I think my concert music informs my electronic music, as well. When I’m orchestrating electronic parts, there’s definitely a connection there. With this piece for National Sawdust, I was trying to move in the same direction as my drum machine piece, and explore other hardware in conversation with orchestral instruments.
You said that there was a difference between your studio work, your practice in your studio, and your performance work. What would you say is the main difference between those parts of your practice?
When I’m in my studio, the materials are right there; I can hear everything, and know exactly what I’m working with in real time. So I feel like that changes the way that I work. It’s mainly the way that I’m layering and putting things together, as opposed to the concert music, which exists only in my brain for months without hearing it until the end. I feel a shift in the way that I have to use my imagination, I guess. And it’s kind of refreshing to go back and forth sometimes, you know?
Yeah. It’s interesting because you said earlier that you are trying to find a way to knit all of these different parts of your practice together so that it’s a continuum and not separate things. And I could really relate to that, because I feel like I have multiple bodies of work, so to speak. But there’s a lot of fluidity between them and there’s no longer a really solid line dividing the way that I work in those different ways.
Yes, it’s sort of paradoxical in a way: I just made my whole speech about why I combined them, and then just separated them again. I agree about the fluidity.
You mentioned in your proposal that you have a tendency to separate your projects as academic music versus digital music. I was curious if you could elaborate on what you mean by academic music versus digital music, because to me it seems like those two terms apply to different categories that aren’t necessarily opposites in the way that, say, digital and analog are opposites, or electronic and acoustic. In other words, I think that there are academic works that involves digital technology and others that don’t, and that the same can be said for nonacademic works. So I’m interested to know how you’re defining those terms.
I think I could’ve used more accurate terms in that description, but what I was trying to explain is just the fact that I have music that basically only exists in that concert space, and then I have my body of work that I put together on my own in the studio. It’s the difference between being a composer and a producer, which sometimes overlap.
So what you meant by academic was concert work.
And mainly acoustic work? I’ve listened to some of your pieces, and you have this really broad spectrum of work, but there was a lot of work that I thought one might classify as academic, and some of those works were for acoustic instruments and sounded like they were conventionally notated music to be played by flutes and percussion instruments. And then I heard this other music, which I wasn’t clear about the source of the sound, but it also sounded very composed and also kind of abstract. But, if I understood it correctly, it sounded to me like the sounds were generated electronically – that it was electronic music. And then I heard this whole other section of your work from this EP that you recorded, that was in a much more kind of popular music idiom that also made use of your voice – I assume that was your voice?
No, actually, the recordings on that EP I did with my band, Meinu…
And somebody else was the singer?
Yeah. It’s a collaboration between myself and two other artists: Madelin, and Angelina Torreano of Citris. These are friends from college, and we wanted to make something that utilizes and brings together our artistic voices that inhabit different corners of the music world. We recorded that EP last summer and will probably put it out very soon, sometime this summer.
The way that I sort of took it in when I was listening to it is that there was a much greater distinction, stylistically anyway, between that music and the other works that you had created, some of which were electronic and some of which seemed like they were completely acoustic. But all of those other works felt to me like they were in one kind of aesthetic world, whereas this other music seemed to be in a different kind of sonic space, a different aesthetic space. And I felt like the distinction was more about stylistic difference than it was about which tools you were using.
That project is collaboration, so already with two other artists involved, my sound is definitely going to be transformed. And it’s true, aesthetically it falls more towards the pop side of the spectrum. But I feel like I draw from the concert music world in more subtle ways: for example, a certain type of rhythmic complexity.
I agree. I could definitely hear elements of the other kinds of sounds that you’ve gotten. And maybe the thing that really put it in a different world was your friend’s voice, because her vocal style is definitely in sort of a more pop music style. And so if you stripped away her tracks – not that you’d do that, but if you stripped away her tracks, or just focused on other elements in the tracks, I could hear that there was definitely some continuum between your different ways of working, which I think is really interesting.
I found your score for the drum machine to be really intriguing, and I like this idea that you had of separating the score into staves for triggering sequences and for playing notated rhythms precisely as written and so forth. I’m curious how you came up with that approach for that piece.
I was just experimenting out of necessity, because there’s no way that you can notate a machine like that strictly through conventional notation. So what I was trying to do was be as efficient and clear as possible and give the performer just enough information so that my ideas could clearly come across, and also not give too much information, so that there’s this saturation and it’s sort of counterproductive. I tried to use a combination of a bunch of different notational styles to make it as easy as possible for the performer to be able to interpret a piece for this very specific, very different type of instrument. I used text descriptions and traditional notation, and some graphic stuff, as well.
Well, it’s a really interesting area for me… we’re talking about making these boundaries between different parts of your work, and how you’re striving to connect them all, but then you find yourself once again separating them. And I have the same thing in my work, when I think about the difference between work that I compose for myself to perform as a solo artist versus music that I’ve written for an ensemble or for a soloist who isn’t me. And one of the big differences there is the notation, because once you’re writing for somebody else, then that makes the notation suddenly very necessary: you have to come up with some means of communicating to whoever the player is what it is that you want them to play. So I’m always looking for interesting ways to make things that don’t lend themselves to conventional notation – how do you incorporate those into the notation? I thought it was really interesting how you were doing it. I also really thought that the score was kind of beautiful to look at because of the elasticity between things that were a clear notation, and other things that you had to figure out to how to graphically represent some of these ideas.
I’m curious about your thoughts about working with voice. I did listen to a lot of what you sent to me, and the only thing that I heard that involved voice was the songs, the sort of more poppish songs with your band. And I’m curious if you’ve ever thought about working or have ever worked with voice in a different way than in that way.
Yeah, actually, my next big project. I’m planning on taking everything we’ve been talking about further and incorporating a singer. I’m going to write for mezzo soprano, violin, viola, cello – all amplified and live processed – electric guitar, acoustic-electric bass guitar, percussion, and what I’m calling an “analog orchestra.” So it’s basically all my musical “toys”: a sampler, drum machines, and synthesizers. It’s going to be a sort of melding of everything I’m interested in right now. I’m really excited to get started on that.
As a player yourself, are you mainly a person who plays the electronics, or do you play any of those acoustic instruments that are involved in what you’re composing?
I’m a percussionist; that’s my main instrument. I have a fascination with rhythm that comes out a lot more in my electronic music than it has in some of my other work. But I definitely am very sensitive to rhythm and am always paying attention to that first: rhythm and timbre.
I feel like that really comes through in your compositional process. One other thing that I’m interested in is your approach to various, for lack of a better term, extended techniques in the different instruments that you write for, because I notice that you’re making really interesting choices about the sound production from the different instruments. I think I heard a lot of use of the sound of the keys with the woodwind or reed instruments, and other things like that. And I’m curious… for example, you’re going to be using a mezzo soprano in this new piece, and I know that you’re not a singer yourself. I’m wondering if you’ve thought about the kind of techniques that you want that the singer to use, and if you’ve thought about how to communicate those in terms of the way you notate their part.
I think you’re actually a great person to talk to you about this. I saw a lot of your improvisation, and the way that you can sort of grab certain sounds vocally and loop them and delay them and do all of this really cool stuff to sort of push the boundaries of human limitations.
I think it’s really important to spend time with the instruments, and particularly a singer, because everyone’s voice is so different. The same as all of my technology that I’m working with, I’m trying to approach everything in terms of the sound itself, as opposed to just coming up with techniques.
So you’re thinking about textures and timbres that you want to hear combined in the work, and then you just have to come up with a way to get the musicians to produce those in the set of instruments that you’ve chosen.
Right. Exactly. That’s the fun of extended techniques, really. It’s easy to sort of abuse them, to get excited and use them too much. But I’ve been trying to really approach them thoughtfully and when necessary to achieve some specific sound that I’m looking for.
Do you ever do things like try to create the sounds yourself on whatever tools that you use and just put it together, like in a Pro Tools mock-up or something like that, and then extract things out like: “okay. I think this sound could be made by a string player.” Is that one of the ways that you work?
Totally. I’ve done things like that before. Modeling is really helpful. That’s one of the pros of working in a digital workspace: getting to hear the sound right away, and then being able to reproduce it later. I learned a lot from just experimenting in that way.
Well, I’m really excited to hear what you come up with.
Kayla Cashetta’s music will be featured in the Hildegard Competition Concert at National Sawdust on June 12 at 7pm; nationalsawdust.org