Q&A: Maria Chavez On Creating Without Electricity And The Nature Of Sonic Truth


Modern life as we know it is nearly impossible to picture without electricity and the things it powers. What if the plug was suddenly and irrevocably yanked? What manner of sonic amuse bouches might stand-in for sweaty basement power-electronic sets and hermetic minimalist noise listening sessions? A three-week series at End of Century entitled “What if we threw some dirt on the ground?” hopes to pose answers to these questions with performances that eschew electricity. The second night of the series, set for Sunday, will feature turntablist Tristan Shepard and multi-disciplinary artist Abraham Gomez-Delgado. SOTC emailed with NYC-based abstract turntablist and “What if” curator Maria Chavez about the origin of the series and her first vinyl release.

What was the impetus for the “What if we threw some dirt on the ground?” series?

The series was inspired by my own interest in creating sound pieces that can survive the test of time. In order for something to survive over a long time period, a few elements must fall into place—one of them being that the piece cannot be dependent on any energy sources that may be obsolete.

When End of Century asked me to curate a summer sound series, I immediately thought of approaching artists that either are electronics-based artists, or artists that are asking themselves the question: What would you create if there was no electricity?

Essentially, the title of the series is my answer to what I would want to create.

A few people had some issues with this question. Others circumvented the rule of no electricity in very creative ways.

I invited five artists to participate. There weren’t any video submissions; just written proposals of what they would like to create for the series.

Sunday night was the first evening of the series. How did that go?

This past Sunday was a great way to start everything off. Ben Vida performed an acoustic duo guitar piece with Tim Garrigan where they just strummed one chord simultaneously for eight minutes. It was technically very difficult, I would assume, having to keep the same pace with each other.

Melissa Clarke created a sound piece using a glass sculpture she made. She “performed” on the glass shards using pebbles, guitar strings, which she rubbed on the glass sculpture and other glass shards.

This coming Sunday, Abraham Gomez-Delgado will show a mobile percussion sculpture that he created and will “perform.” And Tristan hasn’t told me what he will create, so I’m curious to see that.

The final show in the series, on Sunday, June 10th, will be a solo work from Shimpei Takeda, a photographer and filmmaker. He circumvented the “no electricity” rule by saying that the audience needs to bring the electricity. I am very curious to see how that will turn out.

Overall, everyone’s approach to the series has been very open and creative. It’s inspiring, to say the least.

What was the audience turnout like?

The audience for last Sunday was an interesting mix of people from the sound art, art, fashion and other worlds. We made vodka lemonades!

This concept reminds me a bit of some early Nautical Almanac records—noise pieces created sans electricity. Have you personally been able to generate similar work?

Recently, I have been writing a book about my turntable practice. I feel like I need to write it all out before I can move to this next phase of making timeless work. I remember the Nautical Almanac records and thought they were so brilliant. I think the difference is that these non-electrical works can only be heard live, hence the series.

There seem to be two schools of thought concerning improvised live performance: one where these performances happen and are recorded and disseminated, and another where the performances happen and are enshrined in memory. What are your thoughts on that? Do you feel that one approach is preferable to the other?

The performances that happen and are enshrined in memory, as you say, are those rare moments when a performer embodies the moment. These kinds of moments can happen at any time with anybody but it’s the moments that are shared as a group that make improvisation an important artistic experience. To me, that is sonic truth.

I understand the value of recording. I own recorded performances of others that I listen to over and over again. These recordings definitely serve an important purpose for the next generation of people to learn from, whether as a musician or as a patron of the work.

For my work, I have an issue with sound being forced to follow a certain commerce system that was developed by out-of-date business moguls, which is why I chose to not participate in it after my first album was released in 2004. I felt as if I was being hunted for that perfect moment, and while the recording did capture some interesting ideas, I realized that this system was not meant for my work.

Just because I am working with sound doesn’t make it music; therefore, I shouldn’t be forced to follow a music-business model. Releasing sound objects of performances that others weren’t a part of feels exploitative of the moment, which is something I try to respect in my practice, so for me it is a conflict of interest.

I don’t feel that this is an absolute rule for everyone, and I fully respect people that disagree and follow the system. Documentation is important, moments do get captured, and people want to own things. It’s a major part of our society and I understand that.

Can you tell me a little more about your turntable book, and what led you to write it? When did you begin using turntables as a means of experimental sound creation?

I have been working as an abstract turntablist since 2002. My practice was developed by chance procedures during live performances only. Lately, my work has been making a shift away from extended performance practice, and I feel like I can’t abandon my turntable work without documenting everything.

The book is entitled Of Technique: Chance Procedures on Turntable, and it will consist of about 40 essays that I am writing on my specific turntable methods along with instructional illustrations of these techniques. The reader will be encouraged to rip out and arrange these illustrations in order to create their own turntable compositions. As my first gesture into soundless objects, this book has the ability to transform from a book with essays and illustrations to a book of essays which I find extremely important during this time period.

Also, I am about to release three individually cut vinyl records that contain one six-minute sound piece that will be available for purchase on my website. This will serve as my first vinyl release.

These vinyl pieces are meant to serve as sound sculptures. The sound piece is dark, so it is meant to be heard with a lot of dense noise. That dense noise can be created from playing the vinyl record over and over again since it is not a consumer-grade vinyl and will deteriorate with time. The more electroacoustic density that is built up on top of the recording, the better.

Tristan Shepard and Abraham Gomez-Delgado will perform as part of the “What if we threw some dirt on the ground?” series at End of Century on Sunday.