I have been following violinist/singer/composer Carla Kihlstedt since I first heard Sleepytime Gorilla Museum in 2004. Since then, I have been continually impressed with her creative vision and breadth as an artist. From the delightfully quirky acoustic chamber music group Tin Hat, to the intense and experimental Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, to session work with Tom Waits, Mr. Bungle, Fred Frith, and Tracy Chapman (and a huge list of others), Carla’s work embodies the artistic spirit of progressive music- she works without confines.
Carla’s latest project is called Black Inscription, which is, from the Kickstarter, “a multimedia song cycle that follows a deep sea diver on her Odyssean journey. Written with guidance from experts at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and brought to life by a seven-piece band fronted by three singers, the immersive world premiere is a symbolic, scientific, and emotional plunge into the ocean where wonder, discovery, and reckoning entwine.” Carla’s brilliant new project will debut at the Prototype Festival in January 2018, and is being funded through Kickstarter. Carla graciously agreed to take some time out to talk with us about her latest project, and share some of her brilliance and wisdom with us.
What fascinates you about the oceans?
At this point, there’s nothing that doesn’t fascinate me about the ocean. No matter what lens you look through… geology, water circulation, tides, evolutionary history, symbiotic relationships, movement, bioluminescence… the complex systems of the ocean are mind-bendingly astounding. And then there’s just the sheer fucking beauty. Even the simplest ocean-dwellers are bafflingly gorgeous.
Tell us about Natalia Molchanova, and how she ties into the narrative. How did you discover her?
When we first began to think about writing about the ocean, I found that I couldn’t write a word until I had a point of view… a perspective from which to write. It’s a laughably large topic… like writing a book about all the words in the world. So I spent several long months reading, watching, researching everything and anything. I think it was actually my mother who sent me an article about Natalia Molchanova and her tragic disappearance.
At first, I put it up on the shelf, along with all of my other research. But it kept on beckoning to me. I’d glance over at it, but it wasn’t until I went beyond all of the articles about her diving prowess and the obituaries, and found her own website, that her story really captivated me. On her website is a page of poems she wrote about free diving. Her thoughtful, philosophical… almost spiritual approach to diving really drew me in. It was as if, when she dove, she found and lost herself all at once. She became her truest self, unfettered by vanity, ego or ambition, which is a bit of wonderful cognitive dissonance, given that she broke every record there was to break in the free diving world. Regardless of how arguably unnatural to the parameters of the human body free diving is, she felt connected to the natural world in a deeper way when she dove. It was almost disappointing to have to turn around to come back to the surface.
For Black Inscription, we imagine that she was able to simply keep swimming. The first two songs – “The Blue Abyss” and “Nanomia Cara” are based around her poems about diving. Her actual words begin our journey and bring us into the midnight zone and beyond. From there, each song takes a look at a different aspect of our ocean, some of it wonderful and awe-inspiring, and some of it truly disturbing. Over the course of the piece, her physical point of view loosens, and her voice and perspective expand until she essentially becomes a part of the ocean. By the end, we are singing as the ocean herself.
The discovery of Hannah Silva’s piece about Natalia Molchanova was a revelation. At the same time that we were working on Black Inscription, she was creating a piece called Jump Blue for BBC Radio. In it, she imagines Molchanova’s final dive, from her perspective. Fiona Shaw is the voice of the diver. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing. It brought me to tears the first few times I listened to it. And it literally ends just where our piece begins.
We weren’t sure yet how we were going to introduce Molchanova to our audience in the live show, and here it was… our introduction. I waited until I was feeling brave enough to accept rejection, and then I reached out to Silva, asking if she’d be interested in connecting Jump Blue to Black Inscription in some way. The result couldn’t have been more perfect. She has since rewritten her original text to be a kind of prologue to Black Inscription and has also written a new epilogue for us.
Tell us about the musicians that you have enlisted to play on Black Inscription.
Well… the three composers are the backbone of the band: me, Matthias Bossi and Jeremy Flower. Matthias and I have been in many creative endeavors together. We were both in Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, in Fred Frith’s Cosa Brava, in Causing a Tiger, The Book of Knots, and of course, we started Rabbit Rabbit Radio together. We’ve even made a couple of people together.
Jeremy is Matthias’ oldest friend, and longest-standing musical compatriot. They went to college together and have played in bands and made musical mayhem together for many years. Since our move to the East Coast, the three of us just try to hire each other in as many different contexts as we can. Most recently, Jeremy wrote a wonderful song cycle called The Real Me, which we both play on, and I sing. Jeremy has also been joining us for our Rabbit Rabbit Radio shows (As I write this, I’m sitting across from them both on a train headed from Warsaw to Dresden on a RRR European tour.)
George Ban-Weiss is our live bass player. This whole thing was actually his idea. He’s an environmental engineer teaching at USC as well as a wonderful bass player. We often enlist him to join us when we play in LA. One day he called suggesting that we create something for a USC humanities grant for performances of various sorts. Knowing we lived in Woods Hole, a town overrun with ocean scientists and oceanographic institutions, the obvious overlap between our worlds was the ocean.
Jon Evans is the bass player on the Black Inscription album, and on every other RRR album. He is our studio guru and mix engineer. Jon and Matthias write music for video games and radio under the name Ridiculon. The three of us create rather innocuous yet thoughtful music for various radio podcasts, (This American Life, among them) under the name Stellwagen Symphonette.
I’m not sure what we would do without Jon, honestly. He and his studio are like our portal to the world beyond Cape Cod. Having him in our creative family is the difference between feeling terrifically isolated and terrifically productive.
Mike Abraham is a preternaturally calm musician. His guitar chops are mighty, yet his playing seems utterly effortless. When we invited Michael to join the project, his first test was a mighty one: Take the rough recordings of the songs, many of which had no less than 8 guitar tracks all with different tunings, and distill them down to one part that he could play with merely 10 fingers. He won, o every song, over and over again.
Ever since we played together in Art Bears Songbook, I’ve been magnetically pulled to Kristin Slipp’s voice. It is precise, and clear, but also so expansive and expressive. There is so much energy behind the control she has of her voice. Even when she sings a simple melody, you hear a story underneath it. Her other projects are really worth a listen: http://kristinslipp.com/projects/
Ariel Parkington is in one of my favorite vocal bands of all time, Parkington Sisters. They really are sisters. And they sing together like only sisters can. Matthias plays with them often. And they were kind enough to grace our Rabbit Rabbit Radio song, “After the Storm” a few years back. Ariel is also a wonderful violist. I’ve thrown a lot of viola/voice coordination challenges her way for this piece, and she’s embraced them all! The two of us are just enough to imply a whole string ensemble in the live versions of the Black Inscription songs.
Were you the primary driver? How much of this piece was/is collaborative?
Lots of collaboration herein!
We held true to our tradition of creating a song each month, and we took turns throwing down the basic scaffolding of each song. We wrote each one in a month-long musical relay race. With a couple of exceptions, my leg of the race generally came after the basic structure was in place. I was the content-creator, the wordsmith, and the melody-maker. Matthias and Jeremy created most of the structures and sound worlds. We wrote these songs not on paper, but in the ether of our home studios, usually bringing it to our other constant collaborator, Jon Evans at his studio down the road a piece from Matthias and me, to record drums and bass, and some of the vocals. (Jon is also our mix engineer.)
From what I’ve read in the lyrics, there are a lot of dense themes going on, ranging from ecology to life and death. What is your hope with this piece?
It seems to me that ecology is inherently linked to life and death, no? That’s the thing that I have been most effected by in the writing of this piece… that in the context of water, it is impossible to ignore the great cyclical connections between everything and… everything else. They way sound travels, 4 times faster and farther than in the air! The tangibility of water as an environment… the way that water weaves around our earth, doing much the same thing for the earth as our blood does for our bodies… cleaning, oxygenating, cooling! The billions of creatures, large and small, that make their own light, and put it to all kinds of ingenious communicative uses. My fascination has only grown, and will continue to grow.
The ocean is constantly reclaiming stone, shell and all organic material, and breaking it down to its basic elements – calcium, sulfide, carbon – to be used again and again. This is the story of all ecology on land and in the ocean. We are all a part of it. We only think about our productive lives as being the chapter of our existence as embodied individuals with ideas, instincts and agency. But we too, will have many other chapters of productivity as pure matter. I know that sounds dark, but I find it terrifically comforting.
Every issue we touch on feels like the tip of its own iceberg, but they all also feel very connected. The gorgeous mathematical structures of coral (see Margaret Wertheim’s wonderful TED talk from which we borrowed the name of our song, “The Beautiful Math of Coral”), the huge issue of sound pollution which has created a whole unseen refugee crisis under the surface of the sea, the sensuality of the shore where water licks the land… I feel like this song cycle could never run out of material to pull from. What we’ve done seems like the barest constellation of ideas and issues pulled from the sea. We could have written dozens of more songs, though we’d come up against our own limitations of focus and stamina!
If I could engineer the feeling I want people to leave the theater with, it would be this: the feeling that they themselves are deeply connected to water, and have the responsibility of learning from it, tending to it, respecting its power and acknowledging the unending list of things it does for us. I want them to leave with a new curiosity about the ocean, both on a micro and a macro level. When they go home that night to brush their teeth, I want them to see the water that comes out of their faucets differently than they did that same morning.
Of course, that’s ambitious. if some people simply enjoy the music without quite knowing way, that will be lovely too.
What was it like working with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution? How did they inform the piece?
My relationship with W.H.O.I. was actually very informal. There were two research scientists – Tim Shank and Taylor Heyl – who were very generous with their resources and time. I went to their lab several times just to look around and get a sense of what they’re working on and thinking about in their work. There are a few specific songs that bear their mark in more direct ways: “Whale Fall,” for example, which is a song about the second life of the body of a whale. When it finally sinks to the bottom of the ocean floor, a teeming garden of life springs from it, which can last between 75-100 years. Tim has spent a long time studying whale falls, and talked with me in great detail about the process of decay and the life that a whale carcass supports, including tiny pink worms that are only found on whale falls sunken wood and hydrothermal vents, called Osedax worms. (Yes, I managed to include the word Osedax in the song!)
Taylor Heyl was helpful on many fronts as well. She would often share her research with me, including a study she did after a research cruise that investigated the canyons off of the coast of Massachusetts. She analyzed all of the still photos from the unmanned submersible, cataloging of all of the anthropogenic debris. She sent me the list, which was the impetus for the song “The Ghost King,” in which our diver’s watery reverie is interrupted by the sight of all-too-familiar terrestrial objects, reminding her of her life on land. I did some research for this one about the giant trash islands that collect wherever the currents create gyres that coalesce all of our bottle caps, cups, fishing line, gloves, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc…
The Kickstarter says that this will be an audio/visual experience. Tell us about the visual aspect. What can we expect?
We’ve put together a really wonderful team of designers who are transforming the theater into a watery world with light, projections, and sound design (in between the songs). Mark deChiazza is my co-director, and video artist. Quentin Chiappetta is our sound designer, Mary Ellen Stebbins in our lighting designer, and Sylvianne Sherman is our costume designer.
We’ll be using some archival deep sea footage sourced from various places as well as some new footage of our own, to create a multi-screen installation. Two days after we return home from this tour, we have an underwater video shoot scheduled in a gear test tank at W.H.O.I. The point of the video, lighting and sound design is to create an environment for the songs to live in that feels like it is truly in another realm. I would like to craft a feeling both for us and for the audience, that the gravity in the room is altered… that we are underwater, where things move with a whole other dimensionality and grace.
We’re not at all going for anything documentary-style or realistic, but more a impressionistic distillation of water, movement and light. Nothing about this piece is linear, realistic, or documentary in its intensions. Though I can talk a blue streak about the story, the images, the character, the plot, and the aspects of the ocean that anchor each song, its strength is in its poetry and impressionism. Even with all of the design elements, it is, at its heart, a band performing songs inspired by the sea.
Contributors to the Kickstarter will be given prints by the artist Lisa Carroll. How did you get to know Lisa Carroll?
Lisa is a very old friend of mine. When Matthias first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2004 to join Sleepytime Gorilla Museum (I’d like to take this opportunity to gently remind your readers that it is SGM and not STGM), he did some construction work with his older brother’s former building partner. One of his first jobs was working on Lisa’s house. We’ve all been friends ever since. I thought about Lisa for Black Inscription for a couple of reasons: She has a very strong relationship to the natural world, both in her work and in her life, which was critical for this project. (Lisa joined me years ago when I curated the Music Unlimited Festival in Wels, Austria, as the resident artist. She filled the ceilings of the rooms with handmade paper-clay lichen… it was subtle and gorgeous!)
She also approaches the creative process of distilling ideas into line and pattern in much the same way that I approach distilling ideas into words and melody. The connections are clear, but not literal. I just had a feeling that she was going to be able to translate these songs into her visual realm beautifully. I had really high expectation, and still, she has knocked my socks off with each new drawing she does. I can hardly conceive of the songs without the drawings at this point!
I am really excited about the envelope of prints (with CD and DL code of course) as our primary way to release the album. I can’t wait to see the images screen printed! (We’re also printing triple gate fold 180 gram LPs… with a 20-page booklet. We’re pulling out all the stops for this one!
Do you have any reservations about crowdfunding as a model?
No. And Yes.
No, because the sheer energy of a generous crowd of supportive well-wishers is a really powerful thing! I’m as thankful for the $20 contributions as I am for the $1200 contributions. There is a Spanish tradition called Castell in which a team of people all climb on each other’s shoulders to create a giant human tower, sometimes 10 rows tall. The people on the bottom are as engaged and excited as the people on the top. That is crowd-funding. Everyone does what they can and helps spread the word, putting wind in the sails of the project. It’s invigorating and inspiring, and it gets people engaged with it on the ground level, which helps down the road as well!
Yes, because, to do it well, it is a god damned boatload of work. I have three friends helping me strategize and manage the campaign, and still, I have spent uncountable hours on it, from creating the campaign itself, to communicating with the donors, and keeping the momentum going throughout the month. I am creating content for social media posts that introduce people to different elements of the piece, so that they have a chance to see what we’re doing and get excited about it… the images, the songs, the creative team members. It’s a full time job that I’m tucking into the corners of my European tour! (I’m writing this part now after midnight in a hotel room in Dresden, after our gig.)
The good news is that doing all of that work has made me much more articulate about the piece, and it’s made me realize how much there is to share about it.
You’ve done so many awesome things. Do you have any bucket list things that you’d love to do, if money wasn’t an option?
Oh, there are so many! As you might imagine, I could fill volumes with ideas. Ideas are an inexhaustible resource. What you have to look for is a perfect braid of creative vision, time, place, energy and resources. I will always follow my nose to the projects where those things have all aligned.
So if I don’t get to any of these, I will not be disappointed, because I’m sure other equally engaging projects will find their way to me.
Most recently I’m drawn to things that have an ecological throughline, or are in some way an investigation of the natural world. I feel like to ignore our relationship to the natural world is a luxury we can no longer afford as communicators and artists.
Here’s a short list of thing I’d like to do… off the top of my noggin:
Create a performance where people have the option of donning V.R. goggles, or not… or going between the two… where the actual and the fantastical can coexist, sewn together by music.
Make an album in Amsterdam with the incredible musical instrument collection of my friend Søren Venema of Palm Guitars.
Create a piece with many brass instruments, all on different boats!
Live in Iceland and make music there for a few months.
Make an outdoor vocal piece for a forest of people, where the audience walks through them and hears their own version of the piece. (I’m actually doing this one in 2019 at Dartmouth College!)
Is this an extension of Rabbit Rabbit Radio? Is that project on hold?
This is indeed an extension of Rabbit Rabbit Radio… an RRR production, if you will. We will start again with our song-a-month promise to our Bandcamp subscribers as soon as we’re through the January shows. But for the moment, Black Inscription is our current life-devouring project.
Have you varied the writing and composition process from project to project? What wisdom can you share about the composition process?
Ha! Yes… every project I do seems to have a different process. Some inextricably collaborative, some are deeply internal and solo missions. The way we wrote these Black Inscription songs was very different from the way I wrote Herring Run, for the San Francisco Girls Chorus, for example.
I seem to have to forget my process every time I write, in order to do something new again. There’s a piece of me that burns the blueprints after every piece I write so that I never quite believe I’ll be able to pull it off again. It seems like an impish thing to do, but I think she does it because somehow I need to feel like I’m reinventing the wheel every time.
As far as wisdom goes? Well… here are some things I try to remind myself of:
Be flexible. Be stubborn. Be generous. Be a jerk.
Don’t really be a jerk, because that never gets you anywhere, but hold on tightly to what you hear. And then, of course, let it go lightly if things are going a different direction!
Go on lots of walks. Without your phone.
Manifest things that make you happy… harmonies, rhythms, repetition, total lack of repetition, colors, textures. Don’t worry about your identity.. about sounding like you. You will always sound like you.
Pay attention to the way time exists and unfolds in your music. And in everything you listen to!
Don’t forget that your primary canvas is the mind of the listener.
Pay attention to when you are truly moved by something. Ask yourself why. And ask yourself why not, when you are not truly moved. In other words, pay attention to who you are as a listener. Feed it right back into the machinery of who you are as a creator!
Never forget about silence. And breath.