An Interview with Suzanne Thorpe


    Over the past few weeks I had the pleasure of corresponding with musician and artist Suzanne Thorpe. We discussed her varied musical past, ranging from co-founding the indie rock band Mercury Rev to working with the late Pauline Oliveros, her recent sound installation work that incorporates Max, and the arts education program for young female-identified women, TECHNE, which she co-founded with Bonnie Jones. Suzanne is also currently a PhD candidate in Music/Integrative Studies at UC San Diego. Read on to learn more about the myriad of projects that she’s involved in!
    What were some of your early musical influences? Like most of us, my early music experience was produced by my parent’s soundtrack. I still retain a fondness for ‘50s American pop, with songs like Buddy Holly’s Everyday (could there be sweeter ballad?) and Ray Charles’ It’s All Right (favorite backup vocals, ever) high up on my playlist. Once I began to display some independence Donna Summer and Blondie were exciting discoveries, with Blondie leading me to a long and deep relationship with American and British punk. Can you recall your first experience listening to electronic music? Or the first time that made a lasting impact on you? I’m pretty sure my first experience with Electronic Music, as we’re categorizing it, was Switched on Bach, and I was more curious about it than excited. My next encounter was an album called New Sounds in Early Electronic Music, which had pieces by Steve Reich, Richard Maxfield and Pauline Oliveros. This time I was excited by what I heard, because I could relate the techniques used by these composers to the sounds I was making as an electroacoustic flute player.
    This was in the early days of Mercury Rev, the band I co-founded, and we would play this record over and over and over … And I love it that if you follow my thru-line, you get to a point later in my career where I perform the only live version of PO’s I of IV, the song on this record, along with Alex Chechile, for Pauline’s 80 birthday in New York, at Issue Project Room. Some sort of strange determinism going on there …

    Pauline Oliveros - I of IV (1/2)

    I love Pauline Oliveros' I of IV. That's probably my favorite piece of hers. What was it like to perform that live? Performing I of IV was a real treat. Preparing for it was an experiential way to learn more about Pauline’s methodology, and gain deeper insight into how her process incorporated somatic exchanges between her body and the “instruments” she was working with. I use quotes around the word instruments to signal that many of the machines she was working with weren’t considered instruments at all. Her distinct process, though, illuminated the musical possibilities inherent in, say, a signal generator, a piece of technology, that, at the time, was used primarily for testing in radio or for circuitry. The entire set up for I of IV is very sensitive, as small turns of the dial of a set of heterodyning oscillators would/could dramatically change the frequency output.
    Furthermore, the consequences of every move would stay with you for a while, as it was fed through a tape looped feedback system. So as a performer you were dealing with past gestures simultaneous to present choices. When I figured that out about the system, and commented on it to her, I remember her having a good laugh at that observation, as if to say, well, that’s life, right? ... she had a wicked sense of humor, and enjoyed a little performance of existential reality.
    The oscillators used for Suzanne and Alex’s performance of "I of IV"
    I imagine it's difficult to precisely reproduce I of IV since it's based on a complex delay and feedback system. Did you use the same gear that she originally used, or did you adapt it to current technology?
    Right. The original piece used 12 signal generators, two reel-to-reel tape machines, a passive patchbay, two line amplifiers and an organ keyboard that functioned as a trigger. We (Alex Chechile and I) researched a few methods of performing this, as it had never been reproduced before, and we didn’t have much to go on beyond liner notes and a drawing in Software for People. We discussed the tech, and technique, with Pauline, and she shared with us what the original components were, some of which were very difficult to obtain, so we experimented with alternative methods. We settled on using 12 analog signal generators, a mixer and the two tape machines. In our process we learned about distinctions that I think we would change if we did it again. In fact, we have as recently as a year ago learned of a few details that would most probably produce a better rendition. Overall, though, I look at the production process of this piece to have been incredible productive in understanding Pauline’s process, and a way to expand my own.
    What was it like to work with Pauline Oliveros and to have her as a mentor?
    My early incorporation of Pauline’s Deep Listening method proved to be revolutionary for my own practice, teaching me to build reference points between myself and my environment that inform my musicking, and much more. She was also incredibly available and supportive. She built a large community, and worked with many, many students, and her capacity to be present when I was discussing an idea, performing or just riffing with her was remarkably palpable. Most of all, though, I appreciated her ability to reflect absolute confidence in me, and my work, a rare quality that lent me a courage to persevere that I still carry with me.
    Jumping back a bit, how did you first get involved with making electronic music?
    My turn to electroacoustic flute was inspired by a combination of necessity and curiosity. When I joined what would later become Mercury Rev, a very loud alt-rock-ish band, I needed to amplify, or die, so to speak. After I figured out I could be as loud as the guitars around me, I became pedal-curious, and started borrowing the effect pedals of my bandmates (I still have some of that stolen trove). Once I got a taste, I was off to the races, experimenting with any method that would allow me amplitude and singularity. We used samplers a lot in Mercury Rev, though I didn’t branch out with creating my own sounds and effects in software until after I left the band.

    MERCURY REV - Chasing a bee

    Mercury Rev’s first video, Chasing a bee How were you introduced to Max? And what did you initially use the software for? As you became more fluent with the software, did your approach to using it change? Or did you end up using it for different types of projects? I discovered Max when I was hanging out with a bunch of artists in Troy, NY who were attending RPI’s Interactive Electronic Arts program and using it (h/t Stephan Moore, Seth Cluett, Jesse Stiles). I was undergoing a big transition at that time, having left Mercury Rev (though I was still playing with J Mascis, the Wounded Knees and others), and was looking for ways to change my practice. I saw what others were doing with Max … I think my first introduction involved a few folks trying to drive a car with it on the Salt Flats in Utah … and decided I wanted to try it too. I initially used the software to replicate analog effects I had been using with my flute, but quickly moved on to other techniques. As I became more fluent, I began to use its sound generation and diffusion capabilities to create pieces that had me focusing on the software as the main instrument, as opposed to an extension of an already existing instrument. These days I still have my beat up analog effects for my improvised flute performances, and use Max primarily for sound installations.
    Max is great for my sound installation projects because it allows me to incorporate real-time data into the pieces. This feature is important as my pieces are site-situated, and attempt to be in dialog with ecologies of the environment they are set within. As most of us know, ecologies are dynamic, not static, so I feel compelled to make compositions that are elastic as well, to adjust to the variants of the environment. Max makes it possible to create generative musicking systems to embed with other systems, or ecologies.
    I understand that you're currently a PhD candidate in Music/Integrative Studies at University of California San Diego. What is your specific area of research?
    I research what role sound plays in generating relationships between humans and their environments. How can sound create a greater awareness for humans of the nonhuman entities in our environment? And how can it expose nonhuman agency, and ensuing interconnectedness and co-fabrication? In short, what role can sound play in dispelling anthropocentrism, and is there a possibility that sound contributes to material relationships and generation? This research intersects with feminist theory, new materialism, systems theory, and environmental ethics. My sound art work, these days, are environmentally immersive and generative works that serve as research sites to query these ideas. And because Max allows me to make generative works, it’s a great tool for me.
    Can you describe one of your recent sound installations and what role Max plays in it? As I mentioned earlier, one of my favorite characteristics about Max is that it enables me to incorporate real-time “listening” into my sound art installations , ie. sensors that either literally listen to the environment that an installation is embedded in, such as microphones, or other types of sensors that can detect environmental behavior, such as an anemometer (wind speed sensor). An example of this is a piece called Listening is as Listening Does, which was commissioned for the exhibit In the Garden of Sonic Delights presented at Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah, NY. I was inspired by the bats that lived in a large Spanish-style Courtyard of the main house at Caramoor, and decided to apply their process of echolocation as a guiding principle in a piece composed for the courtyard.
    With Max, I was able to combine generative and fixed sounds, and real-time compositional choices that were determined as the system heard frequencies echoed off of the courtyard’s walls. In this way, the musicking system was listening and responding to characteristics and behaviors that the overall ecosystem produced, though in this case the listening was very focused and finite. But with Max one could expand that process of real-time exchange in any number of ways, and because of that I think we’ll have a long future together.
    Suzanne with her piece, Listening is as Listening Does
    Do you have any other creative projects that you're currently working on? I have projects in my head that are too big to put into words because then they will become real, and I’m not ready for that just yet. I’m in the last year of my Ph.D. work, so that’s where the majority of my output lies at the moment. But stay tuned!
    Can you talk a bit about TECHNE? What motivated you to start this program?
    TECHNE is an arts education program that I founded with electronic musician Bonnie Jones. When we started the organization in 2010 we were focused on closing the gender gap in technology endeavors, because of the lack of gender diversity in our own practice and technology driven careers in general. But really we want to create agency for anyone who wants to participate in technology driven fields, and discover how sound can be part of that process. It’s our belief that in order to do that we need to create structures that embody the changes we want to see, so we embed basic technology skills and theories in female-led electronic instrument building workshops that also include musical improvisation, deep listening and social justice education. This combination of activities has the effect of generating spaces of creativity, contemplation and collaboration, which we feel contextualizes technology in such a way as to make it relatable and achievable to otherwise alienated students. On another note, it’s also interesting to imagine how sound and musicking acts as a bonding agent between the students and the technologies/materials they are working with … so you can see that my Ph.D. research has a lot of crossover with my work with TECHNE.
    Where do the TECHNE workshops occur and how can people sign up?
    A factor we discovered early on in TECHNE is that girls, or anyone who has felt alienated from working with technology, don’t easily intuit that our workshops are something that they will enjoy, so it is difficult to have an open sign-up class, as it were. Instead we try to collaborate with existing organizations that have already gathered participants. To date our most successful collaborators are Girls Rock Camps. They are an international alliance of summer camps for girls that engage music, art and creative expression as tools for building self-confidence and collaborative skills among female-identified peoples. They also incorporate a strong social justice curriculum that we have found is an integral part of our combination of activities. So that is to say, we move around, and if you are among the lucky 200 or so campers at one of these camps this summer, then we look forward to seeing you.
    This summer we visit camps in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Chicago and Detroit. In the meantime, we are working on ways to expand our team to make our workshops more available, and are starting to imagine a brick & mortar establishment. If folks are interested in learning more, or supporting us, visit us at www.technesound.org, or at https://www.facebook.com/technerevolution/. We’d love to hear from you!
    What's on the horizon for you?
    Establishing a sonic consciousness … ha! That’s funny. But my mentor, Pauline Oliveros, was living on that plane (and she may still be there), so I’m pretty sure it’s a thing. We know that it’s there, the search is ongoing.
    To learn more about Suzanne and her work, check out her website, Mercury Rev, and TECHNE. If you’re interested in supporting TECHNE, they are currently having a fundraiser, which you can donate to here.