Maria Chavez didn’t hear a noise until she was three years old. The New York–based artist was born in Lima, Peru, a month after her due date, with water in her ears. When she moved to Texas with her family, the doctors realized the problem and, suddenly, a universe of sound opened to her for the first time.
“I had already missed out on the first two, really important years of hearing for a child. The doctors were scared that I was going to be mentally disabled,” Chavez says over the phone. “My mom thinks it’s why I’m a sound artist now. She blames it on that.”
Since then, Chavez has been interested in sounds that most people don’t want to hear. The bulk of her work is DJ performance, but a rare installation is on display through May 8, at the inaugural CONTEXT Art Fair New York. It’s part of “Sound Positions,” a special section of the show featuring sound artists including Chavez, Holly Herndon, Olivia Block, and several others.
This is the second time Chavez has contributed to CONTEXT; the first was in Miami, after curator Christoph Cox approached her about participating. Chavez does not record her work, though, so she offered to create a sound-sculpture. The piece that resulted piles voices, all stuttering, “I just know it,” on top of one another. “The phrase strikes me as wonderfully enigmatic,” says Cox. “It’s a phrase that undermines itself, expressing a knowledge that isn’t knowledge.”
Undermining the familiar has been a theme throughout Chavez’s career. She started DJing in Houston as a teenager in the late Nineties, but from the beginning had little interest in tradition. She once played a techno set entirely composed of the very end of records; the club threw her out. “They told me ‘You’ll never DJ in Houston again,’ and they were right,” she says.
Around that time, Chavez was hosting a local radio show that aired the same day as a free-jazz program. She was immediately drawn to the loose, improvisational style and began going to experimental shows. At one show, she met David Dove, the director of the Pauline Oliveros foundation. Oliveros, a pioneer of modern experimental music, created the practice of Deep Listening, a mindfulness strategy that allows practitioners to create unexpected and innovative compositions by paying close attention to the sounds in their environments. Chavez applied for an internship at the foundation.
To do so, she was required to take an introductory improvisation class. When she told Dove she didn’t play an instrument, he told her to bring her turntable and see what happened. “I started doing all of these weird things with my turntable that I had never done before,” Chavez says. “It totally changed my life. I gave up everything else. I was like, ‘I’m not DJing anymore, I’m only going to focus on this now. This is it. This is what I’ve been looking for.’ ”
Since then, Chavez has built a career as an “abstract turntablist.” She layers broken and deteriorating records on top of one another on turntables, which are themselves in various states of disrepair, to create sound sculptures that morph over the course of her performances. Chavez’s machines pop, crackle, screech, and emit bursts of music and noise as they grapple with inputs they were not built to read. Chavez has hijacked a system meant to precisely replicate sounds and pushed it to the extremes of its function, discovering beautiful, chaotic aural landscapes in the process.
Her techniques have been controversial in the world of electronic music, she says. “In DJ culture, you’re not allowed to break things. You’re supposed to reject the sound of malfunction.” By embracing these “dysfunctional” sounds, Chavez rejects the commodification of electronic music. “The world of audio is about caring for machinery in order to create this illusion of value. The market is making you believe that it’s too precious to ruin,” she says. “You’re really just doing yourself a disservice, because if you don’t learn to work with deterioration, then you’re only learning one part of what a machine can do for you.”
Chavez also refuses to release recordings, and at one point, the pressure from agents and labels to release almost drove her to quit. But first, she decided to document her work in another format, a written manual laying out her process and techniques. The book, Of Technique: Chance Procedures on Turntable, was released in 2012. “I just thought it would be a really funny gesture and a fuck-you,” she says. “Have a merch table covered with artists’ records and CDs and then there’s my merch, and it’s a book.”
Instead of ending her career, the book relaunched it. “I know of people now who have started their own abstract turntablism careers because of my book,” she says, with a tinge of incredulity. Chavez now lectures and teaches workshops on sound art and abstract turntablism at universities around the world.
“[My workshops] really mess up a lot of audiophiles,” she says. “They have such a hard time breaking the record at first, but when they start to break it and they see all the new possibilities, it’s like therapy for them.”
Chavez’s growing reputation as an innovative artist eventually caught the attention of Cox, the curator, and he invited her last year to contribute to the Miami edition of CONTEXT. The piece on display this week has the same content as the Miami version, but instead of running on a pair of headphones, it’s a chattering conversation between two speakers. “I think this works even better than the headphone version,” says Cox. “To me, the piece harkens back to an important precursor of DJ culture and turntablism — William S. Burroughs’s audio cut-ups.”
Like Burroughs, Chavez thrives on both chance and intentional improvisation, a skill fostered through her work with Deep Listening. “That showed me how to just listen for a moment that you feel your placement belongs rather than just playing to be heard,” she says. “It’s really about developing a dialogue with your instincts.” But chance goes deeper than art for Chavez — it’s an ethos with which she tries to infuse her whole life. “Taking a random walk and seeing where the city takes you, or even just meeting new people is a really great form of improvisation. It’s a way of being focused on now and not thinking about the past or the future,” she says.
This, Chavez thinks, is where the magic of art comes from: an openness to everything, without judging the result as right or wrong. “It’s not about trying to make a sound that’s pleasurable,” she says. “It’s about questioning, why is it pleasurable? And why can’t this” — damage, difficulty — “be pleasurable too?”