Before she became globally recognized as one of the sonic cornerstones of LCD Soundsystem, among the defining dance-rock bands of the 21st Century and New York’s hometown heroes, Gavin Rayna Russom had already earned a reputation as a synthesizer wizard and a musical visionary. During the 2018-19 season, she will also be one of National Sawdust’s artists-in-residence.
A child of Providence academics and the city’s hardcore scene, but also fascinated by beat-driven, noisy electronics – her cousins are the influential electronic musicians, Blevin Blectum and Kelley Polar – Gavin went on to study composition at Bard College with Benjamin Boretz, before tumbling head-first into the New York art and music worlds of the late ’90s. By the turn of the century, deep immersion in the city’s various outsider cultures – ballroom, punk noise, experimental art – found him interacting with producers James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy, whose DFA studio he was soon building instruments for; and whose DFA Records began releasing his recordings with partner Delia Gonzalez. (Delia & Gavin’s 2005 LP, The Days of Mars, is a deeply under-considered synth kosmiche masterpiece.)
A move to Berlin came and went, and meaningful forays into techno, performance disco, minimalist composition and multi-disciplinary art kept Gavin busy between LCD’s tours and un-retirements. All the while Gavin also found himself exploring lifelong questions of self-identity, before, last year, announcing she was gender transitioning to Rayna. In many ways, the engagement with National Sawdust, and its integrative values, is an obvious artistic next step, one that’s also a core kin to Rayna’s creative will.
“My work has gone through many different disciplines,” she told me when we met in Brooklyn last week. “Yet it has been since my very earliest work, in the late ’90s/early 2000s, that I could do a single [piece] incorporating the various different threads I’m interested in, and also sort of manifest the way I actually think about creativity.”
Our conversation touched upon a few of those manifestations, especially those pertaining her composing process, her views on the connections between musical forms and social models, and a preview of her upcoming live collaboration with Terry and Gyan Riley, which she described as “punk-rock-synthesis-meets-minimalism.” (The conversation has been edited for clarity.)
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: You’ve said that what you’ll be doing during the residency is working on a single piece. Can you expand on that a bit?
GAVIN RAYNA RUSSOM: What I proposed, and what National Sawdust was interested in working with, was a single piece called Physicality. The basic theme of it is the experience of knowing inside your own body. It’s certainly going to involve synthesis – long-form synthesizer music – and definitely film and video components as well; at least my presence, and maybe the presence of other performers, bringing in a dance element.
A dance element by choreographed dancers, or dancers who are audience-members, club-style?
An investigation of the territory between those things. I’m still debating with myself whether this will be something where I bring in others or just work with myself as a dancer. My experience with dance connects a lot of different threads: the experience of dancing in a club, the experience of taking dance class, the experience of being a fan of certain kinds of dance, especially the Judson Church world. What I’m really interested in is the experience of how dance connects you to an inner knowing, and how that inner knowing expresses itself through physical movement and form. What I’ll do at National Sawdust will be the architecture of this piece, so that it’s something I can imagine will extend beyond this space. It may grow from a thing where it’s a one-woman show in the beginning, to involve other people later, which is a wider vision of how I see it.
You’ve worked in many different situations—solo, duo, band. Are you approaching the woodshedding of Physicality as an opportunity to reinforce your own compositional qualities, or to try something new?
It’s an opportunity for me to look at what composition has meant to me, to unpack that and to also expand on it. For example, what would it mean for me to write for some other people?
Have you done that before?
Yes and no. I have some experience doing experimental scores and stuff like that, but I haven’t done it in a while. My compositional process is so out of the box, a mishmash of studying composition with a super out-there professor for a little while… self-taught… building my own instruments, doing tons of research. So when I think about, “Oh, what would it be like for me to write a piece for people to participate in?” it leads to all kinds of interesting questions. What would it mean for me to write a piece of music? For example, I don’t think I would be using musical notation. I like the idea that modular synthesis opens up this opportunity for physical movement to interact with sonic movement; so if I work with a group of dancers, they could be doing things which would be more conventionally interpreted as dance, but they could also be interacting with tools of synthesis in a physical way, which would produce sounds, so, in a sense, the score that I would be creating would be the patch on the synthesizer.
So you approach composition from a mishmash of non-traditional strategies. Have you ever contemplated a traditional approach as a test or an exercise?
I think it could open up different avenues of exploration. When I discovered improvising music – right around the time I was in my last year of high school – that experience was so compelling. The instrument as the score. But, also, this idea of physicality, of body-knowing, was also the score. In fact, what I started to uncover was a written internal text that I was translating through the improvisational process, into an externally-existing text. This experience and the results were so incredibly compelling to me, I really became fascinated with how to work with that information at-depth. Pretty soon after, I started to notice that if I just straight-up improvised, the results would essentially be almost the same every time. So it was the clash between those two things – compelling possibility and the sort of stalemate of pure improvisation – which led me to think, “How can I work with this? How can these be the materials of composition rather than conventional ideas of tonal interaction, harmony?” And counterpoint was a big thing in this: abstracting counterpoint and thinking of counterpoint in expansive ways, and ways that reflect social models.
My understanding of counterpoint is, basically, you have a musical text that gets rendered by the interaction of a multiplicity of voices. In traditional European classical music – a string quartet, for example – you have this musical phrase that gets spoken by a note, that gets played on the cello, and the phrase is picked up by the viola, and carried through the other instruments. You also have it in, for example, Lucumí drumming—it’s a very similar thing, where you have three drums that are producing two-plus tones each, and the speaking of those drums come through interactions across the tonal registers and the players. Of course, in European classical music, that’s heavily regimented, and it reflects a social model of heavy regimentation. Everybody stays in their place, and what we’re able to reflect and affirm is the the overarching power structure, by all staying in our place.
For me, that became really interesting, especially when digging into synthesis. I think the thing that synthesis is able to expand on in a [contrapuntal] relationship, is that you not only have the melodic, but you have the tonal in a really powerful way. So that, particularly because of the timbral interactions between synthesized notes, those notes harmonically affect each other in all these ways that you’re able to play with, and open up. In terms of a model of social interaction, it’s almost opposite [to traditional tonal relationships]: if you think of each voice in a counterpoint relationship as a participant in a social whole, you have models with these amazing fluidities and complex interactions that produce these fantastic fusions of harmony. Also interesting is the idea that music is able to predict and create social models, and help to imagine social models that exist in different ways than the ones that we live out in our day-to-day lives.
As you’re saying that, I’m thinking about how non-European tonalities appear very naturally in different kinds of synthetic music.
One of the things that I think you can see in the evolution of Western classical music is the drive to create what I think would be called, in the language of that tradition, pure tones—tones which mostly contain the fundamental sine wave, plus a few very related harmonics. Not a lot of what you would call distortion or noise—it’s really about eliminating noise from the thing.
Or eliminate the undefined sounds—
Eliminate resistance! [laughs]
Make music pure again! [laughs]
You can see how we got to Wagner. In a certain way, it’s all interesting to look at. But then, when you start to look at the power dynamics that become involved with it, and think, “What do I want to do?” When those thoughts were beginning to form in my consciousness, in my late teens and early twenties, I ended up at Bard College studying with Ben Boretz. I say “ended up” because it really was like that; I had no ambitions to study composition. I wanted to play with my parents’ reel-to-reel! Then I encountered Benjamin Boretz, who was on the other end of a life of applying himself, first to traditional composition, then to new music. He was Milton Babbitt’s student, practicing serialism in such an austere way, and, as a result had gone into freak-out mode, and was like, “Fuck all this stuff!” He not only conveyed [this] to me through his own experience, but also [by] introducing me to theorists like Susan McClary and Jacques Attali and René Girard, who were talking about the way music and culture interact with each other, and about the fascistic nature of traditional composition. That gave shape to what had sort of been an abstract idea [for me]. That’s the long story of why I’ve become interested in other ways to compose, and really put my intention towards the investigation of how to compose.
In light of that, something that has been one of my main areas of interest is how to develop an authentic creative language that speaks in a self-determined way rather than a way that affirms top-down models of value. I want to make something that speaks authentically about human experience, that doesn’t find its meaning in the shoring up of dehumanizing ideas about what life is like.
Before that though, there is the matter of a live collaboration with Terry Riley and Gyan Riley. How are you approaching this event?
In our conversations, Terry’s feeling was, like, “Let’s figure it out when we get there.” I’m an improviser and I come from improvising, but modular synthesis is a different thing. In a sense, there’s always a score because the score is the patch. If you just turn it on and don’t make a patch, then…it doesn’t make any sense! What’s been interesting for me is thinking about how I can create some patches that would facilitate the kind of open, spontaneous improvisation that Terry was feeling would be the best way to approach this.
Something about this idea of punk-rock-synthesis-meets-minimalism feels very real and close to my heart, and feels like what’s kind of important about this. I really like the idea of how my notion of minimalism meets theirs because I’m of another generation, and, for me, minimalist creativity – art, music, dance, across the board – was a really critical reference point. It was something that really shifted the way that I thought about creating and it was just straight-up inspiring, and then it became something else in my work. I think that’s the cool crossroads. How do those things interact?
There’s also something compelling to me about the conversation-in-music aspect of it. The putting forth of, “These are my musical concerns, this is what I am interested in,” sort of arriving at a point of understanding what the process is. Just as two people who speak different but related languages can kind of talk to each other, and sort of find points of connection. Misunderstand and understand each other in sort of poetic ways. That’s what I’m hoping for.
Gavin Rayna Russom performs with Terry Riley at National Sawdust on Sept. 15 at 10pm; nationalsawdust.org
Piotr Orlov works with music and its stories in many different capacities. Past credits include The New York Times, MTV, Red Bull Music Academy, Columbia House, and Treehouse. Current projects with NPR, Pitchfork, AFROPUNK and The Lot Radio. Follow him @RaspberryJones.