Todd McComb interviews Sandy Ewen

Todd McComb: Sandy, thanks for doing the interview with me. I'm looking forward to learning more about your work and how you approach it.

Sandy Ewen: OK here goes.

TM: The natural place to starts seems to be the trio album you recorded with Weasel Walter and Damon Smith in November 2011, since that was my first (and most significant) exposure to your music. It's a very substantial album. As I wrote elsewhere, I found it kind of exhausting the first couple of times, between the length and the attention to detail. How much time did you spend recording it?

SE: We recorded it at WKCR. It took maybe 3 hours? I agree that it's long, I'm usually more comfortable with short albums but we felt confident with all of the material.

TM: I know that Damon & Weasel played together a lot when they lived in Oakland, and that you & Damon both live in Houston now. I guess you get a chance to play together?

SE: All the time. Duos and larger groups.

TM: How much had you played together as a trio before making the album?

SE: That recording session is the only time our trio has ever played together. I met Weasel for the first time when he came to Texas in August of 2011. There were 3 gigs for Weasel's Texas trip — two different large ensembles (one in Austin & one in Houston) and a quartet in Houston with Smith/Weasel/Ewen & David Dove. A few months later Damon and I traveled to New York to play a quartet with Weasel & Jim Sauter of Borbetomagus. That was a fun gig, we were the soundtrack to some brutal performance art. The trio recording session was the following afternoon. The three of us haven't all played together since, although we'd like to. I played in a group with Weasel last time I was in NYC, but Damon stayed in Houston.

TM: Besides the level of detail and interesting approach to ensemble that the three of you have, what impresses me about the album is the distinctiveness of the individual tracks, and the way they seem articulated (albeit usually very "busy") so that nothing seems superfluous. To take a writing analogy, the latter is something I associate with editing. How much planning went into the album? How much of what you played in the sessions ended up on the album?

SE: I think we cut out about 10 minutes of material. The session went very smoothly. I was running late that day — I was woken up by an incoming text message from Damon saying he and Weasel were on their way to the studio. When I arrived Damon had some fantastic duck salami he had gotten at a farmers market outside. We ate that and drank some coffee and got down to music. It was casual but super focused. We didn't articulate any goals or strategies. There was little editing and no planning, just really solid improvisation. We weren't familiar with the trio specifically, but we shared a vision of what it could be. I didn't have my usual amplifiers and I had to use a distortion/boost pedal to get the volume I needed. Exploring that setup was exciting & surprising — there are a lot of sounds on that album that I've never made before or since.

TM: I'm a sonic- or musically-oriented person, so I'm often focused on the music, which holds up by itself quite well, but many (most? all?) of your projects include more than music. The album includes several photos of your visual art works, for instance. In the past, people might have used the term "multimedia," although recently, language I see is oriented more around sensory modalities (and perhaps synesthesia) than media. What are your thoughts on these terms?

SE: I think that historically, everything was multimedia. It's the artifact of the artwork, (the recording, the painting, the snapshot) that strip away the other dimensions of the artwork. Human experience is light and sound through time. Only recently have we been able to isolate just one sense (through audio recording or photography for example). Sounds had a home, they had physical architecture and ambiance. Technologies seem to be improving and allowing us to integrate our isolated medias, but I think we're improving the artifact and not the natural aesthetic experience of humanity. I think the trend towards multi-media art experiences is a good one, but sometimes simple things like having an appropriate listening environment for a record or architectural space for an artwork or musical performance can accomplish a similar objective.

TM: Are the tracks on the album associated with particular visual images, or is it a more general association? Is it typical for you to get an idea invoking one sense modality, and then expand to others? Does one tend to dominate? Ideas come together across modalities?

SE: My visual art and music are both governed by the same aesthetic sensibility. Composition, texture, control vs. chance, color vs. restraint. All of my projects live together, but there are no specific links between visual & audio works. I typically do not create one medium in relation to the other unless I'm confronted with my other mediums during my process. I have a project with a film maker and a belly dancer where I play guitar and we construct multi-layered slide projection / fabric installations. There are a lot of considerations for this project — everything overlaps. Video of previous performances is overlaid on slide projections and fabrics of varying translucency with live sound, prerecorded sound, live projections & video feedback. It's a mesh of improvisation and careful staging. It's my favorite thing to work on. (Here are links to some videos we made recently: "PaperTrace" "Light Bouquet" "HandMetal")
(TM: Future readers might not be able to access these links, but they're here now!)
I don't see a need to stop at the edge of one medium. I quit my job last week so I'm hoping to have some free time to learn video editing and computer audio. I want to create a live performance that is a guided meditation with video projections and a mix of live & prerecorded sound with processed vocals. I am working on a science fiction narrative that this and many other projects will tie into.

TM: You've probably heard the term ocularcentrism, suggesting that our culture (or biology? or...?) gives privilege to vision. Is it cultural? What are the stakes for cross-modal art? Does a "politics of frequency" make sense?

SE: People are easily distracted. If you present work to all the senses at once, it's harder for peoples' minds to wander. In my experience, people have a much better time listening to experimental music if there is a visual element of some sort or other. Cross-modal art is a good way to reach people who don't know they like experimental music yet. "Politics of frequency" seems to imply that performers are entitled to an audience, I think that is a bad attitude to have.

TM: Your music seems so focused to me. How long have you known that this is what you wanted to be doing? As a child?

SE: I've never had a master plan. I work on things project by project. I say "yes" to a lot of opportunities.

TM: Was there music (or art) that particularly inspired you to get involved? Any major influences to name? What brought you to Texas?

SE: I've always been drawn to the fringes of art and music. My family moved to Houston when I was in high school and I found the experimental music community quickly. Coming up through the scene here I had the opportunity to do workshops and sometimes performances with some of the best improvisers in the world thanks to Dave Dove and his organization, Nameless Sound. There are a lot of low-stakes gigs to play & experiment with new ideas, and it's easy to set up. Dancers, performance artists, film makers, visual artist are all enthusiastic collaborators.

SE: Let me know if you have any follow up questions.

TM: Thanks for the comments. I'm amazed how quickly the album came together. I would have guessed it was recorded over a few days.

TM: My concrete question is about Houston: Is there something/someone you'd recommend that I hear? I'm unlikely to be in Houston any time soon, so that would probably require a recording that's available. There are a lot of recordings available out of New York, Chicago, etc....

SE: The improv community here is just starting to get around to releasing some music. Dave Dove has started El Cangrejito — They are releasing a free-jazz quartet w/ Dave Dove, Damon Smith, Jason Jackson & Alvin Fielder. I am self-releasing a solo album later this year, and I did a co-release w/ Tom Carter's label of my & Tom's duo album. We're going to do another release this year. (Our duo is called "Spiderwebs.") Damon is going to be releasing a lot of older recordings and I think our duo album on his label Balance Point Acoustics — The noise scene here releases a lot (Richard Ramirez is the central figure) and of course we've got Jandek and DJ Screw.

TM: I also had a few thoughts, which aren't exactly questions, but maybe you'll have some followup thoughts in turn.

TM: It's interesting how human sensual experience, which as you say, involves all the senses, is often traditionally reduced in art to working with a specific modality. This goes back to cave paintings and probably beyond, of course, and that in turn points to the technological limitations that you mentioned. Cave painters had some pretty serious technical limitations, or at least we might say that now. I wonder if they thought about it that way.

SE: I think you might be missing what it would have been like to experience cave paintings back in the day. I bet they were part of stories that were told by torchlight. There might have been costumes, singing, incense, all sorts of things.

[ TM: You're right, I wasn't thinking about the scene. (I've had the chance to tour these caves in Europe, but I don't remember what they told us about this, if anything.) Thanks for pointing it out.

TM: Another thought is the scene might well have been around creating the image, not viewing it after the fact. Or maybe that was a relatively unimportant part of the scene, but it's what we can experience now. ]

[ [ SE: I think the only thing we can know is that the cave paintings weren't meant to be photographs in textbooks — which is how most people experience them now. (I've never been to see them — I saw that Herzog film Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D, but even that isn't the actual experience of the artists who made those.) ] ]

SE: I think a lot of early music was like this, and certainly cathedrals integrate music, art, architecture, storytelling, rituals. Music has always had a home — in a church, around a campfire, in a rainforest, over vast areas of terrain. Recordings pull these musics away from their homes and bring them into our homes where we cannot see the connection to place.

[ TM: Recordings definitely change things, although we've had some decades to create new cultures around them. As far as early music, there's a basic issue with recreation, assuming one wants to do a recreation, that it's not really possible to put it into its original context. You can kind of simulate that context, maybe.

TM: So what's the home of music today? Or not to put it in the singular, what are the homes of music today? Is there a particular place you think of your music as "being"? ]

[ [ SE: <- this is interesting & relevant.
David Byrne kinda nails it, music today lives in headphones. Not so much that way for me personally, but for the public at large. I am very much interested in video these days, and that lives within the experience of Youtube & Vimeo. My collaborators and I do our best to bring the video out of the internet, to put it in context with other artwork & installation. My friend Jonathan Jindra made a bunch of films in the artist warehouse where he lives, and put TVs around the place and screened the videos in the rooms where they were shot ( <- this is two of them, from the two bathrooms). The first one is newer and wasn't screened at the show, but the second one was on a loop on a little CRT TV in the bathroom stall. I think we're all a little bit troubled by the lack of context provided by the internet links. I love hanging out and queuing up videos with friends, but it's strangely devoid of context. Right now I'm creating a science-fictional biotech company as a backstory for the art that we are creating. I'm going to incorporate it and have an IPO where we'll screen films and try to get investors. There's a cult-like quality to the company, and we're going to have our performance artist friends dressed up very professionally handing out promotional materials. The idea is that all of our art comes from a cyber-dimension that the company created, that our physical bodies are destroyed by being uploaded to the cyber-dimension, and we are holograms trying to get other people to join us in the new realm. The art we make is a demonstration of the wonders of the new realm. We're going to have a lot of internet presence, and try to blur the line between where art & reality intersect. We're giving the internet art a new home. I'm really excited about it. ] ]

[ [ [ TM: I guess I try to "guard" my personal experience to some degree. I don't use headphones, and I continue to have some kind of strange aversion to seeking out media links on the Internet. I almost never do it, although I can't say this is for any coherent reason... it's fear, I suppose, which is particularly silly considering I've been using email & such pretty much daily for 30 years now. Print is different, though, at least to me.

TM: If you and your colleagues can create some exciting contexts for some of this internet activity, I like the idea. I really wonder what will happen, even with the current generation of young children immersed in this world. ] ] ]

[ [ [ [ SE: I don't think concerns about the effects of technology on the next generation is particular to this new generation or to this new technology. Not to suggest that it isn't a concern! ] ] ] ]

TM: With such a long history in art, I think we also have to wonder how orienting things around the specifically visual or specifically auditory (or...) has affected how people perceive. Little children are usually expected to identify particular senses, for instance, and that has to condition their minds (our minds). With technology, maybe we're not so far from fully immersive virtual art?

SE: I'm waiting for them to plug our brains directly into the art. People forget that we're at the beginning of technology, not the end.

TM: I wonder what the consequences are if the experience of art isn't qualitatively different from the experience of "reality."

SE: I wonder if the more multi-media the art becomes (3D video or what-have-you) the more divorced from reality it becomes, because the art guides your attention & focus and takes away your liberty & agency as an individual human observer.

[ TM: I feel like with any new technology — or any new space of interaction, however we want to describe that — there is kind of a "race" for how it is going to be used. One simple binary question around this might be: How can a new technology be used to make people think, versus make them not think? ]

[ [ SE: I'm really happy to be living right now, we've got a lot of great tools and we're just starting to figure out what can be done. I like to think of "right now" as being a moment in the distant past — people will look back and our tools will be primitive and quaint. I'm wondering if human consciousness is evolving along with the technology. Maybe evolution is the wrong term, because it's probably not happening on a genetic level, it's just we're programming our brains to respond to video images and technology, it's a fundamental shift to how we perceive the world akin to a second wave literacy. ] ]

TM: Regarding the "politics of frequency," I'm not sure that I resonate with it any more than you do, but I wanted to elaborate. For one, it kind of brings to mind the image of a guy driving around with the bass blasting in his car, and that isn't something I've enjoyed personally. That might reflect your comment on someone feeling they deserve an audience, but I also think there are other angles to this. We're all an audience, for all sorts of sensual stimuli produced by humans (and non-humans), whether consciously as art, consciously not as art, unconsciously, etc. We're immersed in all sorts of stimuli, some of it designed to manipulate (whether commercially, or for some other reason), and there's a sense I think where an unwilling audience member has to (or wants to) protect themselves, and that's political. The trickiest part, maybe, is that we can't really subtract from this mass of stimuli, at least without the legal system behind us; we can only add to it. But I think there are all kinds of ways of being an audience, and in turn of being a musician, or at least of consciously producing sound. A lot of these sounds happen in public spaces (and the difference between public and private spaces is increasingly blurry), which suggests a politics.

SE: I don't have strong feelings about that. I like what you say about only can add, not subtract. Like improvising with bad listeners!

[ TM: Ha, yes, I think we are probably all bad listeners sometimes! ]

SE: Interesting conversation!

[ TM: I've enjoyed it too. Thanks. ]

[ [ SE: Sorry for taking a bit of time with this, I have been busy! Trying to book a European tour in the fall among many other things! ] ]

[ [ [ TM: The European tour sounds exciting. Good luck with that!
Any last thoughts? ] ] ]

[ [ [ [ SE: Thanks. I am headed to NYC next month. Lots going on! ] ] ] ]

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Todd M. McComb
30 April 2013