NY-based composer-performer Lesley Flanigan is quite a visionary lady. In a seemingly flat, digitized world, she has managed to create a style of brilliantly dark electronic sound by inventing a series of customized speaker synths and adding loops and vocalization.
Her CD Amplifications is a great audio collection of some of Lesley’s work, and you can find even more of her live performances on YouTube and Vimeo (Some of those are presented here as well), and she has more music on her website, but I strongly encourage you to see her in person.
Lesley had some time to talk to me via Skype.
CM: How did this all start out?
LF: I really started doing this music–It’s so perfect because it was one of the things I wasn’t trying to do, I just happened upon it. My background is in sculpture, so I was working a lot with primarily wood in school. I was also involved in music as a singer. I’ve been singing my whole life, so whether I was in rock bands or singing more classical-style music, my voice was always part of my personal life. In the late ’90′s, I fell in love with trip-hop and electronic music, and it was around that time that audio software became really quite available so I remember learning how to record myself, of course that led to a lot of loop-based music. [laughs]
Somewhere in all of that, I had these two different paths going, visual art and music. I started building my own electronics and suddenly, electronics were no longer just sitting inside my laptop in a kind of opaque process. Electronics became something I could touch, and that resonated with me as a sculptor. And then the sounds that I was making with those electronics resonated with me as a musician. All of the noises and sounds I made with my hands became something I could build with. The first speaker instrument that I built actually happened in a week. I was building an audio amplifier, and when I was testing the sound using a contact mike and a speaker, and the two came close together and created feedback. It was this really great, raw sound–It was so dirty, and this was a sound that I had been trying to get using synthesizers and samples on my computer before. It’s not like I’m the first person to play with feedback, but it was such a personal experience for me to discover the feedback sounds that I found. I started writing lists to describe the feedback sounds that different speakers had. Without thinking too much about it, I was like “Oh, if I put them in a piece of wood, I can actually play this like a musical instrument!”, and it kind of just went from there.
I feel so lucky that I happened upon this technique for myself, because it feels so me, and it’s something that really has pulled together my music and sculpture, and my own sensibility wanting to work physically with things. I’m very Lesley Flanigan with my instruments! [laughs]
CM: I loved listening to Glacier for like twenty minutes! That was superb!
LF: Thank you! You know, that video recording is actually me making that piece at the time. The music is from that video recording. It wasn’t prerecorded or anything. I was using the same live video processes that I use in my shows, recording an improvised piece. I really loved the music so I let it be.
CM: You work the vocalization in there as well in such a beautiful way, and it works even though it’s a different sound from the dark feedback. You sort of found a way to marry the two sounds together.
LF: That is very important to me, because my relationship to voice–I love my voice, but I also really hate my voice at the same time. Sometimes it doesn’t do what I want it to do, even when just having a conversation with someone. You can tell how someone feels based on their voice, and I can remember many difficult conversations with people in my life where my voice would crack way up in my throat, so tight. I hate how revealing that is. So, when I listen to the noise in my speakers or feedback, those sounds are like the textures, noise and harshness that I’ve experienced in my own voice. It’s really wonderful to give a performance with a perfect voice – when I’ve been singing a lot, and I can sing the highest notes that I want to sing with no problem whatsoever, or make these really low hums. It’s great to have control over everything. But then sometimes I don’t have that control, and I love being able to say to myself “it’s okay, that’s part of the mix”. It’s the same thing with the speakers, sometimes I get these really beautiful sounds out of them, just these perfect tones that I could never get anywhere else, and then other times I’m sitting there, and I’m trying–and they’re just screeching and squealing and it’s not quite what I want them to be! I don’t know, basically I see a lot of similarities in my relationship with my voice and my relationship with my speakers. It’s a lot of balancing of respect. When I work with other singers, I make a point of not necessarily working with trained singers, and part of that is wanting the purity of natural voice mixed with the purity of speaker feedback. Very real imperfections can be beautiful.
CM: How much of this music is improvised, and how much of it is prepared?
LF: It just depends. Obviously, the nature of the instruments that I’m working with and the feedback, I have to allow for an certain element of improvisation, it’s just going to be part of it. However, the frameworks within which that improvisation happens, have varying degrees of control. I can control things such as which speakers I am going to work with, based on knowing the range of sounds that come from each speaker. Some speakers I know exactly how to get the sounds out of them that I want, and some of them not so much. There’s that level of knowledge. Sometimes it’s just the knowledge of how much layering I’m going to do if I’m going to do any layering at all. And with the voice, some pieces are improvised and others, particularly the pieces with lyrical content, are not. Few things of mine are specifically composed, I’ll say that. There’s never any sheet music or anything like that.
CM: Has anybody approached you about maybe transcribing “Glacier” or something like that piece for orchestra?
LF: No. I have some thoughts, for a few pieces, but it’s not my focus. I have transcribed vocal works before, but only on a small scale.
CM: There’s people that really sing big, and there’s people that sing in a understated way, and it’s still very good for that kind of music. Lana Del Rey was just on SNL, and many people have made a big deal about that, many saying that she wasn’t very good. I watched the clip, and there really wasn’t anything wrong with what she did, she sounded fine. I like understated vocals on a lot of things because it’s just like with any instrument depending on what music it is, it doesn’t always have to be top range. It doesn’t always have to be sung in a certain way.
LF: I haven’t seen that clip. But I guess, to me, it’s a matter of what’s trying to be expressed in the music. If you’re trying to show a certain skill level–You can be a guitarist and just shred away and show just how fast you can play those notes, and as a singer, you can do a bunch of vocal gymnastics to show just how high you can go…
CM: Which is what you hear all the time now.
LF: There’s a spectacle in that, and that’s fine, maybe, but if you’re actually trying to communicate any feeling, or idea, or lyric, sometimes the most meaningful song is a song where the singer is actually cracking a bit because it’s so emotional to sing, or that they lose their voice, and in losing their voice, that kind of tells another story about the difficulty of projecting a feeling. Less is more in most cases. I think my personal favorite performances that I’ve ever given are the ones where I’m able to step back and just let things ride out a bit. The performances I’m less happy about are ones where for whatever reason I got insecure, or I was thinking too much, or I was just not really in the music and went too quickly. When I listen or look back to those moments, I can see I rushed things. I maybe went for a spectacle performance because I couldn’t find the feeling.
CM: So even guys like you go through this! [both laugh]
LF: I’m a human being.
CM: Do you consider what you’re doing experimental? Because for you it’s probably normal at this point, right?
LF: Well, yeah, but I can’t deny the fact that it’s not readily accessible. But I don’t think it’s that challenging to hear. I think it’s experimental in the sense that I’m making up my own rules for it. I don’t feel that I have a history upon which I’m supposed to follow certain rules of composition or performance or sound production. I really have kind of carved out this little space that I can decide what’s right and wrong for me, and no one can really argue with me on that. They may not like the results, but there’s no “She’s a terrible feedback instrumentalist!”. [both laugh] I don’t think anyone can say that because I’m the only one that has my instruments and the only one playing with them! I like the freedom that that gives me. I like that living in this hybrid world between music and sound art or visual art I can present my work in a museum or gallery, a music festival, a church, or in some hole-in-the-wall artist hacker space. It opens up different audiences and performing experiences. Different ideas. It is part of the freedom that comes with the nature of my work.
CM: Any premieres coming up?
LF: No premieres, exactly, but I’m doing the Communikey Festival in Boulder, CO. That’s in April. I plan to have part of my performance with a group of singers. It’s in conjunction with my being a visiting artist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I am also very happy to be part of the MATA Festival this year in New York.
First part of Lesley Flanigan and R. Luke DuBois’ performance at Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City. The two performers (one singing, one processing) create a dense pallet of sound, all derived entirely from the voice of the singer.
Lesley’s official website