BLABBING WITH SAPPHO'S FIST (Fall, 1996)
Many moons ago, I received a tape from Amy Kirk (AK) and Frank Smith (FS) entitled THE SCHOOL OF VELOCITY; said tape was an intriguing stack of layered vocals and soundscapes, bearing similarities to Nurse With Wound (only not so ear- damaging), Hafler Trio, and other like-minded cutup soundscape artistes, yet retaining a unique feel all its own. Shortly after the duo rechristened themselves as the drolly-titled Sappho's Fist and have since continued to spew forth unnerving slabs of manipulated text and sound, particularly on the new DISTURBANCE PULSE. For more, our Headless-Cam goes live to separate feeds in Phoenix and San Francisco for a li'l taste o' the Fist....
DEAD ANGEL VISITS THE SCHOOL OF DISTURBANCE WITH SAPPHO'S FIST:
DA: For the raw and the cooked and the unbelievers, a wee history o' the Fist, pleez.... (ie., how did the two of you come together in the first place?)
FS: Originally (early 1995), I was interested in writing "contemporary classical style" music for theater, so I was looking for playwrights to collaborate with. I got the name of a playwrights' group meeting in Boston, and I called them and asked them to read my name and number and interests at their next meeting; Amy is the only playwright who responded.
We clicked pretty instantly; at our first meeting at a cafe she handed me some of her best stuff right off the bat (one-page plays and assorted poetry), and I gave her a tape of some of my stuff...at the time, in addition to the classical-type things, I was doing 4AD-ish moody trancey guitar stuff. We also talked a lot, about our philosophies of art, mutual interests in things like dreams and the universal scariness of little men as symbols of evil across cultures. Our first collaboration took place just a few days later, a piece called "Invalid Request" which is basically Amy reading a short poem over my electric bass accompaniment. After that, we just started doing pieces together, and sending tapes out...we produced a ton of stuff in just a few months, and only then (about five months into our collaboration) came up with the name "Sappho's Fist." We actually only lived in the same city for about two of those initial months; all our collaborations since have been long-distance, with actual recording taking place when Amy visits me.
AK: I was in a playwright's group in Boston called Playwright's Platform, a forum for new plays... one night there was an announcement at the beginning of one meeting that went something like "musician seeking collaboration with theater artist" and I jotted down Frank's number... called him a month or so later and we had similar ideas, I remember him saying he liked repetition, and we talked about Robert Wilson and John Cage briefly. We met at a cafe and exchanged work... I gave him some short plays and a few poems, he handed me a cassette. We talked briefly about our own work, then moved on to symbols, books, and the paintings hanging on the wall in the cafe. We hit it off immediately, one of those instant-familiarity artsy fartsy talks, perfect.... Anyway, I went home and listened to his music, and, me, being very fickle about music and having no real honest to goodness interest in it, to be perfectly honest... I really enjoyed his sound, and it made sense to me. I guess it was just understandable to me.
DA: The two of you work separately then put it all together for the SF pieces, correct? Fill me in on how that works....
AK: Well, sort of. We really inspire each other and push in a direction together. Sometimes one of us has the initial clue, and we continue on from there...like with "School of Velocity." I found Czerny's piece, "School of Velocity" at a thrift store in Cambridge, MA. I didn't know who he was, but I loved the title and the look of the music on the page... very repetitious... exercise-type pieces, very fast and played over and over. And it made me think of so many things at once. I had read Amelia Earhart's biography and had carried the image of her flying low to the ground... I liked that, as a metaphor for ambition (lack of?), and all that bullshit about "soaring high"... well, she liked to see people's faces and wave to them, people were waiting for her to pass by all over the world, and she sometimes flew low enough that they could see her and she would wave. Or sometimes she just liked being able to see the caps on the waves, for example.... Anyway I wrote this piece about all that, and I won't go into any more detail, but basically we went from these initial ideas. Women and technology, ambition, the "school of velocity" that we are all trained in....
FS: Usually, we'll discuss concept first... one or the other of us will suggest some issue or theme we want to do a piece (or pieces) on, and more often than not the other of us will have already been thinking about the very same theme, or a similar one! We definitely have some sort of psychic connection. Then, in an amazingly short period of time (maybe 15 minutes of in-person conversation, or one or two e-mails), we'll brainstorm and fill in the blanks in the concept, and come up with a fairly concrete idea for a piece. Then, I'll get to work finding, generating and arranging sounds, and Amy will write something. Then, during one of our rare physical meetings, I'll record her text, and then later manipulate, disassemble and alter it for integration with the sound collage I've created. Usually, I'll suggest revisions of the text before it's recorded, and then Amy will suggest altering or adding something to the sound collage. But we're usually so in sync on what we want to accomplish before we even speak a word or show any work to each other, that only minimal changes are suggested by each other. Once in awhile, Amy will come up with a text first of all, independent of a conceptual brainstorming session, then show it to me to see if there's something I can do with it, if it sparks something in me. Or I'll create a sound collage and send a tape of it to her and see if it inspires her to write anything. As time goes on, though, it seems it's more and more important for the conceptual thing to be discussed first.
DA: Who does what, exactly (or is there even a formal "division of duties")?
FS: Well, other than the mutual input/criticism I just outlined, I'm in charge of the soundscapes (including utilizing Amy's recorded voice as pure sound, as opposed to words), and Amy's in charge of the spoken words, although we've both "switched duties" several times in the past.
AK: At first I was trying to write words for Frank's music and found it impossible! Because you can't write lyrics to that, and I've never written lyrics anyway... I just wasn't getting it. I'd listen as closely and seriously as I could, and then I'd just start to daydream, and I'd jot down some phrases, poetry, that vaguely had to do with his sounds... then I'd read them to him, and he'd practically wince. And I'd laugh and say, let me try again...and I would. And he'd like one or two lines. And I hated most of what I was writing, it was just words, and it wasn't coming from anything. So finally one night we're sitting there and I decide to read him some stuff written in my journal, just to give him a better sense of what I really would like to work on... and this one piece, that became "Fall of Rome," was this poem I'd written to my ex-boyfriend. It was very angry and biting and I had been writing flowery stuff for his "ambient" music, because I thought it might fit... stuff about swings and spoons and... well, girly stuff. So then I just started pulling out all this more raw stuff and it really got us going in the right direction. Frank recorded me reading some pieces and I experimented a little with my voice then, but mostly left it to him to alter it... What's interesting is that now I can write things for frank's music. I can listen to it now and better conceptualize, and better understand how my words are just another texture. It takes the pressure off of trying to make it fit perfectly. I just can match my ideas up better with his sounds now. It's fun; the last pieces he sent me got me going on this whole alien landing theme, and I just went with it. And in turn, he went with it. So it's really back and forth like that.
DA: How do you approach building up these soundscapes? Is there a "plan" or is it more like piling on the goodies until it works?
FS: Usually I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do... not that I could necessarily put it into words, even to myself. Then it's just a question of letting myself go, searching for sounds and looping and altering and piecing them together, until it sounds right to me. There's definitely a certain amount of craft to it all, but so much of it really is letting go, and just letting that illusive artistic energy that's out there-- call it the muse, the force, whatever-- flow through me. I rarely end up doing more than one "take" of anything... the soundscape almost always sounds right the first time. Sometimes, I will have a central starting point in terms of a sound source... like with "The School of Velocity," which dealt with the paradox of technology as help/hindrance to the human spirit, ambition vs. obsession and Amelia Earhart, I started with loops of piano exercises by Carl Czerny, then added various industrial machine sounds, birds, airplanes, and female voices using certain relevant texts... this was all before I added Amy's spoken text, which usually gets added last. In "Terrorised by Beez," which is an autobiographical sound potrait of the first ten years of my life, I used as my source sounds almost solely pop culture sounds from that era: the music of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and 101 Strings, excerpts from science fiction movies, etc.
AK: I'll just say that he includes tv, radio, and other music, besides my voice and words. It's a layering effect, in a way, usually starting with his music. Then he adds other things, and I'm the final addition...
DA: What inspires you in creating these pieces, anyway?
AK: I'm inspired by conversations, alot of times. I work with the public, and I am involved in theater and activist work, too, and I just talk alot, basically, to alot of people. I also read alot of poetry, and images from that get me going. Conversations with my parents are a big one, too. I'm close to them and talk with them often. Being with my girlfriend has really freed up my mind in many ways, too.
FS: It can be literally anything, just like the sounds can come from anywhere... recordings of household objects, nature, machines, movies, TV, other people's music. There are recurring themes we deal with, though: memory, sex and gender, feminist issues, and our respective biographies. But the inspiration can literally come from anywhere. In the case of "The Waves," for instance, I heard an old educational record from the 1960s talking about the nature of sound; I immediately got this idea (which Amy had already been thinking about, natch) of sound as a metaphor for memory, and the role of sound in triggering memories... so we structured the piece around the narration on the educational record, adding all sorts or jarring machine-generated sounds, as well as historical radio clips meant to represent the idea of radio transmissions lost in the outer atmosphere for decades and then somehow recaptured, scratchy and decaying yet clearly evoking another era... that's a fantasy I had as an adolescent. And of course Amy's text tying the "scientific" description of sound to human memory, and to some of her personal experiences.
DA: What musical school of thought are you coming from?
FS: Hmmm... the school of hard knocks, I guess, or rather the school of self-schooling, or no school at all. I've always (well, after a teenaged period of wanting to produce rock music just like Alice Cooper, T-Rex and Pink Floyd) wanted to avoid simply recreating other people's music, so I've always avoided learning "standards" or even standard ways of playing (or writing for) instruments. Ha! Now I rarely even use musical instruments! But since I was 12 or so and first picked up a guitar, I've gone through "phases" of intently listening to and absorbing elements of rock, bluegrass, country, jazz, modern (techno and house) dance music and 20th century "classical" music,... including studying the craft of writing for and orchestrating instruments usually associated with classical music. The only styles of music I have any formal training in are bluegrass banjo and jazz guitar/jazz arranging.
My current "school of thought" is, I guess, musique concrete and sound collage, with an abiding love of trance and repetition.
AK: As I may have mentioned, Scarce! I really listen to lyrics, and for that I love Bob Dylan and Patti Smith... for emotional release, comfort and general enjoyment, I love Velvet Underground, Nick Cave, The Smiths, R.E.M. and Suzanne Vega. I listen to folk music, old 80's stuff, and things like bulgarian or russian or korean music... like I said, i'm fickle. if Bob isn't working, I put on Gregorian Chants, and the next hour I'm listening to Depeche Mode. Who knows. I'm more apt to read a book, anyway. But I do like to go dancing.
DA: Satan possesses to me to now ask you for your impressions of fave tracks by the likes of Coil, the Velvet Underground, and Stockhausen....
AK: I listened to VU a lot in high school and college. I think my ex- boyfriend has most of those tapes still in his car, and I've never bothered to replace them. I'm sure Frank has put on Coil or Stockhausen for me before, and many many other bands, and I've listened, then put on FABLES OF THE RECONSTRUCTION when he left. (That's a true story).
FS: I love Coil, for a variety of reasons: firstly, their sheer sound and versatility, though I'm partial to their more experimental, ambient and industrial soundscapes (such as the UNNATURAL HISTORY releases) as opposed to the folky or art-rocky stuff (a lot of LOVE'S SECRETY DOMAIN). Secondly, I love their creative spirit and approach to art. Thirdly, I love the fact that they're openly gay, something you don't see much in the industrial music realm. And finally, cause they make such great dance music when they want to... THE SNOW EP is awesome trancey house, and a great record to fuck to as well! Stockhausen: yeah, very important; I love the juxtaposition of traditional classical instruments and electronics... he and Varese are gods for doing that, and in terms of producing engaging listening, they're both better at it than Cage, who's great in concept but sometimes tough to take in execution. Velvet Underground: More influential than we'll ever fully realize... without them, we never would have had Alice Cooper, without whom we never would have had the Pixies or Sonic Youth or Hole... we also never would have had David Bowie, without whom we never would have had goth, new-wave, brit-pop... and then of course, there are the scores of cookie-cutter "alternative" bands today that very obviously owe their sound and attitude directly to the ole VU... take the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and Kraftwerk out of musical history and it would be a very different pop music world today indeed. DA: How do you view the progression from what you were doing on THE SCHOOL OF VELOCITY to the newer release, DISTURBANCE PULSE?
FS: Well, "The School of Velocity" as a major undertaking, a huge piece o' work for us... three parts, 47 minutes... I don't think we'll do those too often. It's also, to me, very seamless and elegant in terms of all the different themes and the way we express them sonically and textually... but it's probably also hard for anyone to sit through from start to finish very often! On "Disturbance Pulse," the pieces still average probably 15 minutes each or so, but they're all complete units in and of themselves. So I guess we're doing shorter, tighter, less rambling pieces now? Not that one format's bad and the other's good. Less "long performance piece" (in a classical sense?) oriented and more "song" oriented, though I think you'll agree that most of our creations are quite far from being "songs."
On our next album, many of the pieces will be shorter still, and they'll be a lot more stylistic variety... there'll be lots of little fragments that float in and out, though with a unified theme (the nature of memory) tying them all together.
AK: SCHOOL OF VELOCITY has several intellectual themes going on there, whereas DISTURBANCE PULSE is a bit more visceral.
DA: You performed live recently, right?
FS: Yes, in Phoenix, at a great zinestore/tapestore/performance space run by Peter Ragan, the percussionist from Life Garden, called Metropophobobia. A remarkable oasis of experimental art in a vast cultural wasteland of strip malls, big-hair rock and LA Barbie Doll and Ken wannabes.
DA: How did that go?
FS: Well, the audience liked it, but (as usual), Amy and I were disappointed. As in our recorded work, we both always go into a performance having a specific idea of what we want to accomplish... again, not something we could put into words, but WE know it when we fall short, even if nobody listening can tell. It's an ongoing struggle to translate what's usually done in my living room in a leisurely fashion with a tape recorder and sound editing software to a dynamic, interesting-to-watch, live performance situation... we're still working on that one.
AK: The recent performance was a good experiment. That's all I can say. I didn't have the words down as I usually do, I didn't do as much with movement and props, I relied too much on Frank's cues and it was just not as smooth as our other two performances. All of our shows involve improvisations, it's just that the technical aspects and rehearsal time were too little this time. I really liked the pieces, though. Several of them were humorous this time around, which is new. People laughed, and they enjoyed listening. I think people really like to watch it being created up there, from me scraping a bowl with wire into a mike to Frank drumming....
DA: Are there further plans afoot to record and do performances?
FS: Yeah, the new MEMORY album, our third, is currently in the conceptual planning stages, soon to move into preliminary soundscape creation and text writing. I think this one's going to take a while, though, especially given financial constraints and lack of all the desired equipment.... maybe it'll be done by next summer? Ditto with performance... if I had the money, I'd be on a plane to San Francisco every two months or so to perform with Amy there, where there are quite a view suitable venues. But that is probably the next place we'll perform... when, I don't know.
AK: We hope to have a CD out in the next year, and will probably perform here in SF next spring.
DA: So tell me about the things you do separately (Vox Barbara, etc.)...
FS: vox barbara is also sound collage, but I like to think of it as more "organic" than Sappho's Fist. In the Fist, any sound source is fair game for a collage; with v.b., I stick to first-generation object and machine sounds, meaning I produce almost all of them myself (as opposed to grabbing stuff from TV, etc.). vox barbara is also much more consistently rythmic than Sappho's Fist..rythmic and trance-inducing. I performed as vox barbara at our recent Phoenix Fist show, and I'll hopefully do so again later this fall, with a local musician I met helping out on percussion.
AK: I write plays and freelance stage manage. I'm also a board member for the Alliance for Cultural Democracy, a national network of arts activists begun in 1976. We just had our 20th anniversary gathering here in SF, which I coordinated with another board member out here. For money, I work with the Friends of the SF Public Library.
DA: Left-field question: Should Kerri Strug have jumped or not?
AK: Well, Kerri looked like a dyke to me and all dykes want to be heroes or martyrs, or both. And they (we) are naturally masochistic (look at the bad haircuts most dykes have). I think she had no choice, just like Joan of Arc.
FS: Well, the perennial anti-jock in me wants to say "No! Don't kill your body for that shit!" But then I think about how I'm going to have to gulp a handful of Advil tonight so the shin splints from three solid hours of dancing afterhours don't render me unable to walk tomorrow, so who am I to talk? We all do what we need to channel that force...
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