Odeya Nini Banner Image

Composition in Real Time: An Interview

By Laura Brown, Selby Nimrod, Thomas Patier

Dec 14, 2017

In a one-night performance at The Kitchen, Volumes for Sound: Voice, experimental vocalists and performers Tatyana Tenenbaum and Odeya Nini will collaborate in improvisational interaction with Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson’s acoustic sculptures Volumes for Sound. We speak with the artists ahead of the performance about these collaborations, taking the opportunity to “work in parallel” as a means of “collective knowledge building.”

Volumes for Sound: Voice will take place on Saturday December 16, from 7pm and is organized by second-year graduate students at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College.

Tatyana Tenenbaum & Odeya Nini

How did you come to movement and voice as your primary media?

Tatyana Tenenbaum [TT]: I entered my awareness as a dancer while studying music. As the only woman in my freshman class of composition students, my body was well accustomed to being silenced. My mind, however, was unhinging like a detached jaw. Under the spell of 20th-century experimentalism, tones and textures now took root in flesh, and dissonances crashed to ignite bone marrow. I began to explore these new textures, intuitively and somewhat clumsily, through movement. Though it is no stranger to me now—that cognition and sensation are made of the same flesh––it was liberation to me then. I have spent the years since trying to reconcile my musical-linguistic mind with the depth and mystery of an ever-present, sensing, feeling body.

Given my desire to simultaneously explore music, language, and my body, “the voice” naturally emerged as my most dynamic tool. Since 2008 I have been attempting to map my body’s anatomy and subsequent power through the force and resonance of my own vocal production. Through layered research, I have begun to build my own approach to the singing-dancing body. This research has also been influenced and supported by other things: touch, weight and tone investigations garnered through years dancing with the Contact Improvisation community; energetic principles absorbed through choreographer Daria Fain’s work, and more recent engagement with the Feldenkrais method and the writing of Emilie Conrad and Continuum Practice.

Odeya Nini [ON]: It began with a love for song, the ability to pick up a guitar and sing over 3 simple chords, the desire to control an instrument of pure expression, the pleasure of moving my body and releasing sounds I didn't even know existed, a passion for multidimensional communication. Honestly, I wanted to be self-sufficient with my art, not needing anything or anyone else to make it happen other than everything my body and mind already had. We all have a voice and body, and I love the feeling of working with all human substance to both craft my instrument and inspire this potential in others.

Could you speak to the various ways that the phenomenological nature of sound or voice plays out in your practice? How do you envision this collaborative, improvisational use of the sound structures? Have you collaborated before?

TT: Odeya was a collaborator/performer in my 2013 work Private Country for The Chocolate Factory Theater. At the time, I was at the very beginning of my research into vocal resonance. Much of that process revolved around intonation patterns and the continuum between spoken and sung text. We have been close friends, following one another’s work from a distance ever since. We have developed strangely parallel practices, both of us diving deeper into our own physicality in relationship to vocal production. It manifests uniquely in each of us, but I think we both “see” and understand one another’s practice on a visceral level. 

Tatyana Tenenbaum Singing With Mic 

Tatyana Tenenbaum, Snug Harbor Cultural Arts Center. Courtesy of the Artist.

It seems your practice, and this particular collaboration, involves a tension between improvisation or provisionality, and a structural framework in which events unfold. Could you speak to this, with regards to your individual practice, and to your thinking about this event, Volumes for Sound: Voice?

TT: When I was still under the strong influence of Academia, I was highly concerned with the line between “improvisation” and “notation,” or “improvisation” and “set choreography.” The further I entrench myself into my deep practice, or the further the practice entrenches itself in me, the more disinterested I become in such distinctions. An obsession with structure and notation has been, historically, a way to separate and subjugate practices whose power lives in the emotional and visceral elements of expression. In my experience, this creates a division that often reflects gender and racial differences, with historically white male expression floating to the top and aligning itself with structuralism. This is dangerous and oppressive. It is part of the reason I started making my work in the dance world, because choreographers understand the impossible task of quantifying what they do. Better to focus my efforts in the doing, than in the notating. The refusal of truly embodied labor to be quantified is its subversive power.

To bring this back to my personal practice––I would say that the ineffable is ultimately bound up in the breath: the impossibility of quantifying the impact of a single breath is somehow central to this conversation for me. If each breath is by nature a regulated improvisation, then there is no way to fix ourselves in this universe. Breath also tangibly holds our cultural histories because we inherit breathing patterns from mother to child. These patterns have been shaped by centuries of experience, including pain, pleasure, fear, and ease. In this way our breath facilitates a continual negotiation with this past. As I invest in the ineffable possibilities of breath-centered work, I have begun to see this practice not only as restorative, but in constant dialogue with past, present and future.

ON: Coming together in this particular iteration, not having worked with the sculptures before, will be a trust of listening and musicianship. Improvisation is composition in real time, which is all about deep listening and sensitive relationship. In my practice as a solo vocalist I like to work with the unknown and dive into a physical space with its unique unfamiliar resonance, or a mental space that arises unexpectedly, and respond energetically and aurally. Knowing Tatyana, I can collaborate with her from a place of confidence and let the resulting layers and indeterminacies be left to welcome surprise.

Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson

The Volumes for Sound have been presented in various configurations and settings throughout the past few years. Could you tell us more about how you originally conceived of the Volumes?

Volumes for Sound combines immaterial, ephemeral and physical elements: sound, performance, sculpture and photography. These nested forms descend from familiar objects which are manufactured independently and then drawn together as a result of relationships in domestic and architectural situations - such as the triangulation that occurs when a listener sits in a chair in front of a pair of stereo speakers. We have collapsed this triangulation into objects with various affordances. They can be encountered in spaces as forms that silently evoke the potential for sound to be played and reconfigured by performers using them for sound amplification. The works also appear in photographs of their various configurations, providing a record of these instances.

We made the first Volumes for Sound in 2010. We had been looking at the designs of loudspeaker interiors, thinking about time-alignment in speaker building, and about sound and silence in relation to the construction of space (archaeoacoustics). There were also material concerns: how could we use as much of a material as possible by creating nested forms that produce little waste?

The basic shapes realized in these forms simultaneously attempt to access the staggered geometries of time-alignment within loudspeakers and the pre-electrical harnessing of sound within architecture. While electric guitar amplifiers and cabinets exploit the slurred voicings of phase cancellation and non-linear behaviors, time-alignment staggers the position of the individual loudspeakers to create a temporally coherent sound-field, reducing the slurring of sound.

Black and white film renders an optical compression and distortion of tones akin to a guitar amplifiers desirable distortions in the audible realm. Optical compression in the processing of sound has historical roots in musical production, defining a relationship between sound and photography. We document the new configuration of the Volumes after each performance, producing a series of black and white photographs. The photographs are then displayed in the exhibition, functioning as a score, a record and also producing a taxonomy of forms.

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Melissa Dubbin & Aaron S. Davidson, Volumes for Sound (and Smoke), 2010. Courtesy of the artists.

Has your thinking changed over time, with each showing/performance?

Co-creation, collaborative exchanges and collective knowledge building have always been a part of our process, and while the Volumes stemmed out of this mindset, they were not initially thought of as a platform for collaboration. It wasn’t until after we made the first objects and began to experiment with them and talk with other artists, that an opportunity arose which allowed us to expand the limits we had initially defined. The testing of these limits was not always without issue: the objects are idiosyncratic and not engineered to reproduce sounds ‘faithfully.’ The flow of acoustic energy in proper loudspeakers aims to manage a complex set of physics to avoid distortion, whereas Volumes for Sound create distortion and resonance.

With each iteration of the project, in Reykjavik, Oslo, Beirut, and New York, we made adjustments to the parameters of our initial protocol. The invitation was for performers to use the Volumes, reconfiguring them as they wished. This configuration may next remain silent in an exhibition, until the next performance took place and changed the state of the exhibition. The Volumes are objects with a shifting status. Their multiple potentialities and functions––which are based on the differing ways in which they can be utilized, or not utilized––disrupt a stable ontological status.

How do you understand improvisation or provisionality with these works?

Each appearance of the Volumes requires a new negotiation and improvisation, which is by necessity a part of the process. Through our collaborations with other artists, we have created the conditions for possible forms to emerge. It is through this dialogue between the artists, the space, the audience, and the friction produced by this encounter that we come to understand more about them.

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