The word “grinding” means different things to different people. For video-game enthusiasts, it represents the expository dead stretches where no action is happening. In drug-dealing culture, it signifies a never-ending hustle. In youth club culture, it’s the dance style formerly known as “freaking.” For skaters, grinding involves sliding the base of a skateboard over an obstacle while remaining upright. And grinding is—very literally, in the traditional sense of the word—what New York musician Kyle Kessler does best; she twists fluorescent bulbs and adjusts dials on soundboards connected to speakers and unleashes clashing, granite waves of noise. In her hands, tones turn centrifugal, collide, rattle and clank. Rollercoaster cars click forebodingly along corroded tracks. Yellowjacket-piqued and buzzing, this is rough, industrial-strength stuff: deeply impressionistic bleatings electronically filleted and flagellated miles beyond the bounds of decipherability, until there’s nothing left but franticly rhythmic fodder; depleted-battery smoke-detector psychosis; poks and pops uncannily similar to the sound of woodpeckers attacking trees; heaving, distended beats and tea-kettle screech frequency-scrambling capable of driving even the most indoctrinated of Lasse Marhaug disciples to smash their speakers if caught in the wrong mood. Kessler does unforgiving metal-tooth comb drill-nausea; she can bring emergency Broadcast System null-drone like nobody’s business.
Yet as 2009’s pulsating Beyond the Meniscus (Trepanner) demonstrates, she’s also capable of utilizing noise, feedback, and oscillation as framing devices for Omni chord-borne introspection and languor, bending and twisting and hammering keys until iridescent rainbow fusillades spiral free in loops. Sound of the City emailed with Kessler—formerly known as Kyle Clyde and Olympia Zadora, now performing as Penny Royale—about pop music, the media course she’s teaching this winter, and how she wound up making noise.
How did you start out making music?
I started experimenting with found sound and poetics in college. These were “just for fun” experiments, and I never had any intention of performing any of it live, although I did end up producing one guitar/radio noise sculpture which was “played” for a live audience on two occasions.
Once I graduated, I found myself in a situation many visual artists find themselves in: I had no studio, no supplies, and no audience. So I started talking my way onto different indie bills, playing as Olympia Zadora. At that time, I still referred to myself as a spoken-word or performance artist. I didn’t start calling what I did “music” until 2008.
In 2008, my work became less visual and more sound-heavy. Plus, I had performed in a couple of awkward performance art festivals and had become disillusioned with the medium. Overall, performance art has become less and less about improv action and studio experimentation: the things which drew me to the ephemeral art form in the first place. The underground music scene still has some of that spirit, so I am here making music.
Would you say, then, that the performance art medium has become predictable or rote?
I wouldn’t say that the ideas driving New Performance Art are always predictable, but there is definitely a trend towards high concept, heavily-rehearsed work–probably the trickle down influence of artists like Vanessa Beecroft or Matthew Barney. Live performance poses a greater social risk than, say, a performative video. Producing experimental performance takes a certain type of curator and institution who must be willing to take risks and put their faith in the hands of the artist. Supporters of this type of work exist, but they are rare gems so chance-driven live work often stays within the realm of DIY subculture.
Where did you go to college, and what were you concentrating on, academically?
The Cooper Union. I took a lot of video and “special projects” courses–there were no sound art, performance, or new media art classes offered at that time. Most of what I know about experimental music, outsider film, and improv performance was self-taught.
Are you originally from New York?
When you started making music, what kind of equipment were you working with? Has that changed significantly over time?
I have always been drawn to found-sound and primitive electronics; I do not foresee that changing any time soon. The particular electronics I use evolve with time and circumstance. My mind and body are the only consistent equipment I work with, but even they are constantly changing.
When I started out, I sang a lot. I had a pretty wide vocal range. Now that I am incorporating vocals into my sets again, I am realizing that my voice is much huskier than it used to be. The vintage electronics change too. My mixer sounds differently than it did a year ago, as well as my mic and cables—I simply can’t play some of my old sets anymore.
I noticed that, in the Ende Tymes set; you intercut the electronics with vocals from time to time, but not so much that they dominated what was happening. Kind of a demonic punk thing, to these ears. Has the transition into vocals—away from the more tactile aspects of A/V performance—felt strange, or pretty natural? When you pick up the microphone, is what comes out of you improvised?
I write things ahead of time and then pick different phrasings depending on the moment. The vocals grew out of my use of tape as source material. I just cut out the middleman.
It’s interesting to me that you perceive that the electronics did not dictate what was happening at Ende, because it was quite the opposite. I was at the mercy of the trickster gods that night. My vocals were the only thing I could hear so I just turned them all the way up instead of trying to fight it. That’s pretty typical of my approach to improvisation—if something is going wrong turn it up. Once an aggressive man barged into a club where I was playing and started yelling in my face over a pretty noisy set of mine so I just stopped playing and let him yell at me over the silence. He was the darkest thing in the room at that time and no amount of harsh noise could compete with that.
I am definitely into “demonic punk.” There are very real connections between the physical manifestations of demons and tricksters in esoteric magic or voodoo rituals and the behavior of punk performers on stage and in the pit.
Have you ever been visited by a spirit while performing?
Yes. To me, spirits are the mythological embodiment of psychological truths. So spirits visit me all the time. Some spirits who have visited me while performing are Metis, Sophrosyne, Erzulie Freda, and the Devil.
I notice that in some of your 2009 and 2010 performances, the ones up on YouTube, you did a lot with the manipulation of halogen bulbs onstage while simultaneously twisting noise into different vectors and shapes. Were the two processes interconnected in the sense that the shifting of lights affected the sounds, or was that a sort of audio complementing visuals, or vice versa? If the latter, that’s fitting: the flickering on and off of illumination mirroring in a way the concurrent sonic contortions.
There was a direct causal connection between light and sound with those works. However, my process of producing sound with light is much more primitive than what people are used to seeing at rock shows. I have not looked into the science of it too much, but from what I understand a certain amount of a fluorescent light’s electrically charged gas escapes from the tubing every time that light is turned on. Every piece of electronics generates an electromagnetic field that can be made audible through some kind of magnetic pickup. (A speaker works.) You could also pick these sounds up with the right radio. Fluorescents are especially good source material. I had certain favorite speakers and cables that I used to generate audio signals when turned the lights were turned on and off. So what you are hearing is the sound of fluorescent light hum being remixed by me live. There are some great hums in the subway worth comparing to.
The first music of yours I encountered were the live tracks you performed on WFMU back in February; then I checked out some online live videos that were in a similar, experimental noise vein. In comparison, Beyond the Meniscus comes across as a lot more pre-mediated, with all that fuzz and feedback couching and stuttering these gothically sinister keyboard/synth melodies. How was the album written and recorded? Did you have a pretty definite idea of how it was going to sound when you entered the studio?
That was another on-the-fly improvisational recording session. The Omnichord I play on that track belonged to my friend Haoyan of America, and he recorded me in one take. You can hear Tom Carter talking in the background towards the end. I love those imperfections. They make the recordings diaristic, more human.
There’s definitely a blurred warmth to the album. Is that important to you, that diaristic or journalistic aspect?
Yes. The diaristic aspect is very appealing to me. Every recording is a record of a past event. It depicts the death of a moment. Memories deteriorate over time. They come in and out of out of focus. In that sense, a blurred, deteriorating recording could be a more “accurate” representation than a high-definition one. I do not play repeatable songs; it is important that I represent that flux as well as the music itself.
“Industrial Park” and “AMBC” represent, to my ears, a raucous sort of electronic throb, this hard-knock, buckling flail and skeletal, metallic percolation that sinks its teeth in and won’t let up. The My Castle of Quiet shows have a way of bringing out the best in guests, and this was no different; can you tell me a bit about the experience of playing there, provide a sense of the studio and surroundings? Were these improvisations? What was the vibe like when you were recording there?
These were improvisations, although I do come into every set with a basic skeletal frame in mind. Playing at WFMU felt very natural. I had already been there once when my partner Isa Christ played there. DJ Wm. Berger is great. My friend Bob Bellerue ran sound, so no worries there. They are used to programming noise, which always makes my job easier. The WFMU studio is set up like the jam room at your friend’s house, so I would say it was a lot like jamming at someone’s house, except it just happened to be on a live radio show which was archived forever.
You’ve performed under several aliases: Kyle Clyde, Penny Royale, Olympia Zadora. Are there lines of separation, in your mind, between these guises or identities?
They have a lot to do with my own personal development as an artist and an individual. They reflect certain sides of my inner self and my public face. For the most part, Penny Royale employs femininity with evil intent. Kyle Clyde is a mystery.
In your mind, are there lines of sonic demarcation between the personas?
Not really; I would say it’s more of a mental attitude. Although, I do sometimes use certain a high-pitched baby vocal for Penny Royale.
What are some of your favorite popular songs? In a live setting, do you ever imagine that on some level you’re covering one or more of them?
I mostly listen to popular music for nostalgia’s sake. I find myself listening to a lot of southern rap and country music, but sometimes I wonder if I am doing that just to hear the southern accents. (I grew up pretty close to rappers Lil’ Wayne and Gucci Mane.) I kind of like that Madonna song produced by Pharrell.
The choruses of new pop music can get a little too repetitive for me, though. Plus, I can’t help but think that all new pop music is part of some complex interactive marketing conspiracy to sell energy drinks and cell phones. If I am covering anything pop, it is the experience of listening to five different pop songs at once blaring out of headphones on the bus.
You mentioned that in January and February, you’d be teaching in Ohio. Is education your vocation? What’s included on the syllabus for the course you’re presenting?
I would say Artist is my vocation. I am teaching Intro to Media Studies. I will most likely be distributing Society of the Spectacle, Marshall MacLuhan’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Nayland Blake, Martha Rosler, something from Mythologies, and something from NetWorks.
You have a cassette, This Town, coming out this month. What’s up next for you after that, musically speaking?
A cassette on Obsolete Units; a DVD release of short films; more cassettes; lathe-cut originals; crystal radios; and surprises.
Do you have anything special in store for the Columbia radio show on Sunday?
I will be introducing incantations, Holotropic Breathwork, prettiness, and control.
Kyle Kessler will perform on “Live Construction,” which airs on WKCR (89.9FM), on Sunday at 10 p.m.