Despite having numerous albums available through one of my favorite labels (this being Pax Recordings) I only recently became aware of Sabrina Siegel’s work; through her latest Pax release, “Grace/Precarious,”which features solo explorations for cello, electric guitar, and voice. This is an album that truly earns the description “visceral,” for it is not only Siegel’s heart that is engaged in the creative process, but her body– with each track reflecting a different sort of physical struggle to balance creation against failure. It’s a remarkable album, which has quickly moved onto my short list of all-time favorites.
Being the sort of person that I am, there was no way I could hear “Grace/Precarious” and not come up with at least a few questions for Sabrina Siegel. Once you’ve heard it, you’ll understand why.
STARTLING MONIKER: I am really enjoying the “Grace/Precarious” album, and my first thought is about how this concept occurred to you. What’s the back story?
SABRINA SIEGEL: I’m so glad you are enjoying…… Well, the concept is really just a way to think about or name the relationship of the forces at play when i play instruments in general. And i can say the way i perceive the way i live and practice visual art as well…. perhaps it is the way everything goes in life. It is the way i play, always in improvisation and experimenting with difficult to controllable extended modes of playing(such as playing electric guitar with a pile of rocks, some of them very large). It is all very spontaneous, raw, natural, moment by moment, sound by sound and finding/creating mastery or balance or grace or flow in the precarious sound-creating situation at hand. One could liken this way perhaps to Jackson Pollock’s action painting, where an unconventional beauty and visual compositional balance was achieved through a grosser and seemingly less controllable mode of applying paint to canvas.
SM: As a liner note enthusiast, I’m sort of let down about not knowing the “setup” for more of the tracks. “Drop Bow Down Cello” seems pretty straightforward, but most of the others are far more difficult to figure out. In fact, without the press sheet, I don’t think I would have put it together with the title. With such an interesting process, why hide it?
SS: Well, i didn’t mean to hide anything. i did try too point to it with the little poetic writing that i did include. Maybe this leaves more space for the listener to imagine the situation and sounds as well?
I could tell you the “setups” if you like. (DaveX sez: SPOILER ALERT!) They all take place in my home, which is an old quaker meeting house made of cinderblocks with a polished concrete floor, which creates a very live sonic space. most of them are first time”experiments” that i’ve never tried before. “Yom Kippur” (i have sent an image from this one) is playing the electric guitar with rocks balancing on the strings and in hands, with the guitar balanced on a wooden chair which is then pushed and pulled around the room, involving the space, the dimensions of the room, relying on my physical strength, grace of movement, feelings, and ear, to express “musically” through this situation/medium (which evoked the vision and depth of feeling, in the performer, of the experience of Yom Kippur in it’s spiritual weight and it’s ceremonial blowing of the shofar.)
“Fire” is singing as if flame, with the fire that is alive in the fireplace right there. “I am the bow” is playing the cello with the hairs of the bow (pulled off my ruined bow) between my hands. “Big electric rose” is playing the electric guitar with rocks with an external pickup clipped on, as i had lent my cord to my neighbor and so could not utilize it’s built-in pickups (actually only one of them works, and i like the sound quality it gives this way), the recording device itself was also in a precarious situation as it was cutting out or something, creating several unusual slight rests and a few other interesting and mysterious artifacts in the recording. “After your voice” is simply an emotional or visceral response to the interruption (or one could even think of it as the punctuation) of my recording session by a friend’s voice on the answering machine. …………to identify a few for you.
SM: I find that I can think of “Grace/Precarious” in at least two manners– as a musician struggling to achieve a sound and failing in many interesting ways; or as an example of a musician using an interesting process to ‘call out’ these interesting “failures”. In the first manner, the album is full of ‘mistakes,’ but obviously not in the other manner. Do you find either of these viewpoints more relevant than the other?SS: I think that both of these ways relate to the process… perhaps the second one more so. you could think of those sounds as mistakes or just the next sounds in the work. (Perhaps this is a more valueless process or the values or way of “judging” is different, more open and active……….. to embrace all sound, all expression as what is, as what has come forth for some reason and so is of value and is something to work off of and enjoy. One could take this way and apply it to one’s whole life…….. accept what comes and work with it.) I could tell you that because i am not in complete control of what i am doing i use my body, ear, hand to come close to what i imagine would be the next sound that i would “want”.
I respond to each sound as well or as true as i can as they come. So it is almost the constant unknown, and constant intense listening and bodily feeling (you know in the handling of the rocks, with all their crags, different weights, sizes, sonic qualities, balance….etc.) to be able to make a “coherent” piece. (It’s like eating the mushroom in Alice in Wonderland….. you never know what you are going to get exactly) And the rest of it is also how i am feeling at the moment- emotional content and some thoughts too. Sometimes it is more about the energy and feeling/movement of the body, as in “The body moving” than finding a specific sound or note and is more like Dance. So every sound counts and is true to the process and ultimately there are no mistakes. But perhaps, in my experience playing this way, i could say that some works have more ” coherency” than others, or make more”musical” “sense” than others and this is where the
grace/Grace comes in……………
SM: Did any harm come to your instruments? I am particularly worried about the cello.
SS: Yes…..it is a bit unavoidable. But i am as careful as i can be. I love my guitar but it is full of scratches and dents and the strings, which i haven’t changed in two years (part of this “work with what is” way…… also it means that the guitar is always changing,) are all worn down ( i think it’s time for new strings!) and one is now missing. With the cello i am a bit more careful. There was a time though that i was in the studio with Onomatopoeia and we were recording what became the “Walking On Water” album, (which was such a great and intense experience for me) and i was playing a ceramic flute at one point and we were playing an intense piece that seemed a voodoon ritual and so i ended up banging it on a bottle over and over and there were pieces of it and glass all over……..)
SM: An argument could be made that, like a recording using extended techniques, this album uses ‘extended situation’ or ‘extended setting’. While field recordings certainly offer setting as a point of importance, “Grace/Precarious” may be the first to use setting in this way. What are your feelings on this?
SS: Wow………..I think it is great that you ask this question! I have thought of and written of “situationist” playing, where the situation is a very personal experience, with all the contents of and encounters of a singular being/beings, the individual musician/musicians with what ever is happening and related to the sound…… strengths, weakness, personality, mind, body, thoughts, the space that one is in; the “musical situation,” all of what is there in this singular moment. I think this opens “music” up, sound/noise wise, time wise, content wise, and creates a more dimensional and intimate musical experience for both musician and listener.
SM: Have there been any live performances of the album?
SS: Well it’s all just improvisation and so there really couldn’t be another performance of the album (aside from when it was recorded…but i was alone…..some of it on video) or any of my albums…..it wouldn’t be the same thing. i could repeat similar set ups for playing though…. but i’m not into repeating.
SM: The word “grace” has many meanings– the quality of elegance, a favor bestowed, or even a religious concept of a god’s strengthening influence. What is your reading of this word, and how does that relate to the recording?
SS: I guess for me it is both one’s personal physical grace (“elegance”) of movement, which involves strength, and bodily awareness etc. and Grace, G-d’s or the Tao’s “strengthening”, sustaining, flowing, buoyant “perfection”, and the relationship of the two in the experience of the musician and through it’s precipitate (the phenomenon of the outcome, the music.)
SM: This is the first album of yours to find me, and possibly my listeners as well. What have we missed, and where could we find it?
SS: There are fifteen or so albums that i (and Pax Recordings) have put all on cdbaby online, and so they are available as well on itunes and other digital distribution sites. There are three other solo albums of electric guitar played with rocks and one album of a work that i made from a recording in rural upstate New York that i think is very special in it’s meditative quality(intense one though) and experience of the perfect sonic compositional nature of Nature (the world and the way things go/flow) called “G-d’s Music (fill in your name)”. There are four albums with my duo with Charles Coxon (SIECOX), and the rest are with “experimental” ensemble Onomatopoeia, which utilize pseudo pop elements, giving a very pop first hit, but are very “situational”, all improvised, interesting, and intimate in that i sing as well – the latest one is called “The Quality Of Flowers”.
SM: Any projects/albums/performances on the horizon?
SS: I have several projects on the horizon. One most important one is raising my new beautiful son Isidore, now six weeks old. there is another SIECOX album, and a Sabrina Siegel and Onomatopoeia album to come. There is a work made from a recording of a six mile bike ride with an autistic girl that i have worked with that i think will be called “Biking and Swinging with Sara” (exploring the musicality of moving through space and time this way, with the wind, repetitive bike sounds, repetitive conversation, etc.) There is also the project of finding gallery representation for a new photographic project that i am calling “Natures Recompositions”, which are large prints made from high resolution scans of photographic slides that i left out to Nature for four years……. they are a visual illustration of grace/precarious! They (a gift of Grace) show how perfect nature is in it’s compositional beauty, as microscopic plant, crystal, and insect life moved in on the gelatin emulsion and lived a “landscape”, as opposed to a photographic eye’s framing a landscape. They look, on first view, like abstract expressionist works. I have also been working on a film about Friedrich Nietzsche for a while that i hope to finish before too long. As for performing, Onomatopoeia and i will be performing in Portland, Oregon in December in the Lunar Music series………… For now.
SM: What albums or artists are you excited about right now?
SS: Right now i’m excited to hear a new release of Erik Satie’s music that i heard about, with his more avant-garde works on it. I’m excited listening to my tape of Victor Jara again, that has been lost for a few years. He is so tremendously beautiful and dimensional in his voice, and words and what he stood for. i am also excited for Charles Coxon to release his “Crab to Sun” album soon, with it’s very special poignancy.