Lea Bertucci is an New York based interdisciplinary artist who works across visual and sonic media. As an improviser who works primarily with electroacoustic bass clarinet and tape collage, her recent projects have focused on site specificity for recording and performance. In addition to being a visual artist who works with photography and video, she is also a curator of weirdo house shows and performances in out of the way resonant spaces. She is gearing up to premiere two new works as the culmination of a residency at Roulette in Brooklyn, where she will be performing on January 14th.
Tell me about your new project coming up at Roulette-
I’ve been doing a residency at Roulette this past fall, so I took that opportunity to do a project that was a little different for me, because I’m mostly a performer and improviser, so I thought that I should try to do something more compositionally oriented which manifested as a site-specific piece of music for Roulette’s concert hall. The tonality of the piece is based on the “room tone” of the space and features for six acoustic instruments and a 4 channel synthesizer. The instrumentalists are all going to be stationed in the balcony, which will give the piece a really nice spatialized effect. Its very much about how sound moves around a space, and the sometimes oblique relationship between the synthesized and acoustic sounds. I started writing the composition graphically, by plotting out where I wanted the instruments to be in the space and in what combinations they should sound. I then worked with the players individually, and ran through what they could do in terms of extended technique. I use extended techniques in my own work as an improviser, so if felt natural to make use of the timbral qualities of each instrument. So from there I wrote out graphically these sound shapes that I wanted. The content of the work is basically a meditation on the act of breathing – so the experience of taking a breath, holding it and releasing it and how that shape can alter the perceptual acoustics of a room.
Are there rhythmic elements to the piece?
I’d say that the rhythms in this music are very subtle and exist mostly in terms of microtonal beating between the synthesizer and the instruments. I very slowly detune the sine waves generated by the synth to go in and out of tune with specific pitches played by the instrumentalists, so a sort of microtonal harmony comes in and out. The conflation between electric and acoustic sound is one of the major imperatives of the piece actually.
What are the acoustic instruments being used?
A trumpet, bass, viola, bass clarinet, flute and euphonium. All the orchestral ‘misfits’. They’re so cute. I have some really wonderful players, Nate Wooley is playing trumpet who has an incredible arsenal of extended technique. The guy is totally amazing. There will actually be two sets, the first me on bass clarinet and Sandy Gordon on vibraphone, and we’re doing a live score to a film that I made over the summer….
Oh right, when you were out west.
Yes, I was taking a break from NYC for a moment and living in the mountains in Southern Utah, where I made a bunch of site-specific recordings, picked psychotropic mushrooms and shot the film.
You’re a trained musician, so you can write music and scores in a traditional way. Did you do that with this particular project? You said you were making shapes, so I was wondering if this was more of a Reichian, ‘graphing out’ – “let’s try this arc and see how it fills out the space”
It’s a combination. I have staff notation specifying certain pitches, there are melodic fragments that happen, but it’s on graph paper. The score is very visually oriented and is hand drawn. Each instrument is laid out, and there are shapes that I draw in a linear fashion, and above the shapes I put staff notation. So the shapes are where, in traditional music, the dynamics would go - underneath the staff.
So you’re kind of providing traditional notation with a more visceral visual for the performer to see more of how this is going to interact in space.
Yes, because I had really specific things that I wanted to be happening, like I wanted the trumpet and the viola to come in at exactly the same point, and I want the euphonium and the bass to go out at exactly the same point. So when you get your score, everybody sees everybody else’s part. The piece is very much about playing with each other, listening to the other player to know when to stop and start.
How did you come to experimental music? I know that’s a big question, but where did you begin with music and how did you end up doing the kinds of things you’re doing right now?
It’s funny, I was trained in jazz and classical music from the age of 9. I played alto sax from 9 to 20. I went to college, and I wasn’t a music major. I went for photography, (I’m also a visual artist so I was doing that for awhile). Basically I went to school [Bard], and I started learning about John Cage and Meredith Monk and that whole world of composers working with experimental sound. I was really into jazz and took jazz band and jazz harmony. But then I took an electroacoustic ensemble, which was actually led by David Behrman. So I kind of got exposed to the idea of graphic scores, and free improvisation. I had been improvising since I was 12 with jazz ensemble but always within the jazz vernacular – playing the changes and always within, you know, a very musical context. So the idea of playing free improvisation, truly free on a textural level - just playing sounds, was really interesting to me and something I’d always had an inclination towards…the world of sounds…the world of field recording, but I never knew that it was a ‘thing’ until –
So you kind of stumbled into aleatoric composition through that.
Yeah, totally. So you could say I came from a free jazz background. But I just saw noise as a natural extension of this impulse for freedom, a more visceral approach to it. That’s how I started. I switched to bass clarinet when I was 20 because I realized that I wanted a lower voice and also the bass clarinet has a really huge range, you can get really high and really low on the instrument and it’s a really beautiful voice. You can do a lot of extended technique and multiphonics. So I picked it up, but even though I was classically trained, I wanted to approach the instrument from a completely sonic perspective, like what sounds can I possibly make with this tool… of course, later I learned my scales and more technical stuff so it was a really wonderful way to relearn music because I wasn’t burdened by my training.
Right, so you can kind of reassess where you are as an artist in a way, by having all that under your belt, but being able to step away for awhile, then to a new instrument – you can think about it more in terms of the dynamics between you rather than just performing in the role you’re more comfortable in, as someone who’s traditionally studied music.
I think my training as a visual artist was actually good for my music because it forced me to think about and articulate aesthetics in a way that I don’t think when you study music really gets brought up. That was really helpful.
That thing that’s interesting to me about you is, besides being a performer and builder (the first time I talked to you about what you were doing was at Maker Faire, where you and Ed Bear were hacking into ipods to allow them to get FM signals and then manipulating them in performance). But besides performance, you seem to take on this role of organizer. You had the Dense Mesh series, and you’re involved with Silent Barn in its new form doing a lot of programming. So is that something that you always thought you wanted to do, or did you just fall into it naturally? What is it about you that seems good at making those things happen, and not just being a performer.
I’m an Aries! I guess – I just want to do it. I never wanted to be a booker or promoter. I still don’t really like being a promoter.
The whole idea of being a promoter is annoying, and we are dealing with that too, it has these connotations that are kind of sleazy, and people can look at you like you’re just a cog, just someone to help them do something. It’s kind of funny, because now everyone is a ‘curator’, but if your intention is to offer something special in programming rather than just making these huge events to get asses in seats, there’s a big difference. A huge audience isn’t really necessary.
No, it’s not. I don’t like to book shows that nobody comes to, of course. I started doing Dense Mesh because I loved seeing live music and am too lazy to leave my house.
It was cool! There was food, it was communal, small, with a really appreciative audience.
What prompted me to do it was that I knew all these different people within the experimental scene in New York who didn’t know each other and never played on each other’s shows, but were really at the core doing very similar things. But there are all of these microscenes that exist under this umbrella. And all that fragmentation really weakens a scene. We need to be communal, we need to know each other. That’s why I called it Dense Mesh, because we were meshing with each other densely in this little loft space. It was kind of an exercise in relational aesthetics, getting people into the same space at the same time. And seeing what happened. And there was a lot of cross pollination. So that’s how I got into it. And then I realized I was getting a lot of good feedback, “You got this show together and it was such a good show”, people really responded to it and were grateful for it. I realized that I was good at putting bills together. The Silent Barn wanted me to be involved. The people there – Lucas Crane is one of my best friends for years, him and Nat Roe and Joe (Ahearn), Kunal, I knew all those guys before. They originally wanted me to do Dense Mesh there but the model didn’t really work there. Dense Mesh was about it being a dinner party, and being free. It just didn’t work within the Silent Barn model. But I realized that I had the opportunity to put together good show, I had a space and a supportive community!
With that place’s history, and how it’s expanding, by definition it’s the intersection of a lot of microscenes, making a lot of people talk to each other.
Totally. That was the amazing thing about the Barn.
You mentioned that were a lot of women involved in the Roulette project.
Yeah, the collaboration that I have with Sandy is great – she’s actually a percussionist, and she hasn’t been playing vibraphone exclusively. She does a lot of cool stuff, she bows the vibes….
How does she do that?
She just uses a cello bow…
Oh, like you can bow cymbals! I thought the vibes would be too thick – that’s awesome!
Oh no, you just hold down the sustain pedal and they RING, it’s incredible, it’s a really amazing sound. In the ensemble piece, there are six players and three are women. Martha Cargo, Jessica Pavone and Aliza Simons. I just wanted to find people who were capable enough and versed enough in extended technique that they could play the piece but also were really easy to work with. I just wanted to have good people involved. I didn’t go out of my way to find female players, it just happened to be who they were.
Do you think that there are more female players now than there were five or ten years ago that you’re running across, because it seems that way to me but maybe I have a narrow lens amongst the people that I know.
There’s definitely more women involved in the noise scene than ever before, like in the last five years.
Because that was very much a ‘boy’s noise’ kind of thing for a long time.
Oh yeah, totally. It depends on the show. There’s definitely some shows that it’s really a dude’s scene, but there’s also so many more girls involved now. It’s also a New York thing. I had two friends coming from the Hague who came to a few noise shows, and they were blown away with how many girls there were.
How do you think that has changed things? Or has it?
Well, I’m afraid to generalize too much. I think that women generally can be a little bit more free in their aesthetics, and a little bit more omnivrous in their approach…I think that it makes for a more diverse palette of sounds that you’ll hear. I think that experimental music used to be a lot more narrow, and now it can mean so many things. Now it can mean synthesized drone, it can mean harsh electroacoustic stuff, it can mean dance-y kind of things. I think having women in that adds to that huge diversity.
Yeah, it’s great that the novelty seems to be wearing off a little, that more people are just listening rather than being so hung up on the visual aspect of who’s making the sounds. Whether they’re negatively biased, or positively fascinated – it’s nice that it’s less of a ‘thing’ than it used to be.
Yeah, I’m definitely not naïve about this, I know that there are some all female bands that get gigs because they’re cute because that is a fetish, that visual aspect. I think that it still exists, it’s a form of ghettoization, and I think it’s really really bad. I’m more interested in just focusing on people that are good AND are female. I do agree with you and I think that it’s less of thing, but it does still exist. Have you ever read Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto?
No, I haven’t.
It’s awesome, she talks about ‘NO to spectacle’ in art. I think that it’s a really interesting thing to think about in the context of this conversation. ‘No to trash aesthetics’.
No to gimmickry.
Or sonic gimmickry, you can expand it to any medium. I like the idea of just being real, being real and austere in what you’re trying to accomplish. I think the spectacle of being a female performer can get in the way of that. It’s super dangerous, you know? But some extent we have to relinquish control, we can’t control everyone’s experience.