An interview with
Amy X Neuburg (2009)

By Beppe Colli
Dec. 21, 2009

A few months ago - five years having already passed since the release of her previous solo album, Residue - a decidedly unique-sounding, original work called The Secret Language Of Subways gave me the chance to write about the one-of-a-kind USA artist Amy X Neuburg.

Since her new album sounded culturally quite "mysterious" to me, I immediately thought about doing an interview, via e-mail. Fortunately, she kindly agreed. Since, as it's widely known, "busy" is Amy X Neuburg's middle name, this took a little time, but I believe readers will agree it was worth the wait.

But, as readers will notice, more surprises lay in store for me.

It was my intention to start our conversation discussing your most recent CD, The Secret Language Of Subways, which was released just a few months ago. You can imagine my surprise when I had a look at your website and I read of this Premiere (it's a Premiere, right?) of a new work of yours I knew nothing about. So I guess it's better we start discussing Fill As Desired instead. Could you tell me something about it, about its theme/topic, and the music?

Fill as Desired is a cycle of 10 songs for eight female voices and live looping electronics. It is based on recipes that were documented by women of the Terezin concentration camp during World War ll and combined with my own texts on fantasy as a means of survival. The music is influenced by eastern European folk, German Lieder, cabaret and the avant-garde, and sung in multi-layered English, German and Czech. The live looping turns the small chorus into a big one, weaving together rhythms, harmonies and languages.

The work was originally commissioned in 2006 for the Jewish Music Festival, under the name Beliebig Füllen. I composed it for a wonderful vocal ensemble called Solstice. We only performed it once, and since then I had been wanting to add more songs, resurrect the work and bring it to other venues. So in October 2009 we presented a new expanded version, and we have more shows coming up.

I think in this piece I achieved an interesting balance of poignancy and humor, personal and historical. Food is by nature amusing, but the underlying subject matter is horrific, and my quirky, autobiographical lyrics are a bit of both. So the juxtapositions present much "food for thought." We've had great response to this work, and I am very excited about it.

I've read that when performing the new work live you also act as a looping electronic performer, layering the voices of the Solstice ensemble, which of course doesn't really surprise me, given your previous efforts. Could you talk about the technical side of this? It must be quite difficult to pull it off live...

It's one of my easier setups of late, as there are no electronic sounds other than the live looping and a little reverb, so I only use an abbreviated version of my normal rig. I composed the piece so that the routing to the looper is fairly simple: the chorus loops as a whole, or I loop as soloist, or we all loop together. The biggest challenge is in balancing these combinations to achieve a good input level to the looper, as the dynamic range varies widely.

Back to The Secret Language Of Subways. I'd really like to know if you are happy with the way it turned out. Also, if you are happy with the way it was received by the press, and also with audience reaction - meaning: sales - up to now.

Well, CD sales have never been my gage of audience reaction. I rarely sell CDs except at shows (where we sell reasonably well), but response to the performances has been tremendous. We've had packed audiences and numerous standing ovations, and some great performance opportunities at major venues. John Adams invited us to perform in Los Angeles at a festival he curated; the San Francisco Symphony invited us to play at their After-Hours concert. We've had very positive press reviews as well. The work was three years in the making, and the response to it has been one of the most affirming experiences of my life.

Making the CD was challenging because I worked with a producer for the first time, and the process of both of us editing and tweaking was inefficient and expensive. But Bruce [Kaphan] was great with the strings, which I could not have recorded by myself, and he really understood my music and helped give me perspective. Also it's such a joy to have someone else at the controls during recording, so I can just be a musician. I might have done a few things differently if I had mixed the CD in my own studio, but I really learned a lot from working with a producer.

I'm really curious about the process that led you to choose three cellos as your main instrumental vehicle for The Secret Language Of Subways.

I had always recalled a wonderful set of songs by William Sydeman for voice and cello that I performed way back in college, and after years composing mainly for electronics, I rediscovered the beautiful expressive qualities, wide pitch range and voice-like tone of the cello in 2003 while staying at an arts residency, where a variety of musicians were brought together to collaborate. Soon after that I started my rather discombobulating bi-coastal experience living in both New York and California, and one day on the subway a song came to me (Closing Doors). I heard it in my head as a train-like rhythm played by three cellos. It seemed to me that the combination of voice, three cellos and electronics would be sonically and visually dramatic, in keeping with my performance philosophy. That was the start of the song cycle, and after that I spent many a subway ride composing in my head.

In our previous interview we discussed the way you used your drum pads, effects, and pedals, at the time. Since I see that the performance of The Secret Language Of Subways features live sampling and electronic processing, I'd really like if you could talk about this side of the work.

In my early solo performance works I used live looping mainly on my voice to record and build up a lush arrangement of rhythms, harmonies and melodies without any pre-recorded tracks. I then began receiving commissions for chamber ensembles, and of course had to try looping everybody in sight. This was really interesting -- turning a small ensemble into a sort of multi-layered orchestra.

But with an ensemble this effect should be used judiciously and for good purpose, as the instrumental combination already covers the musical spectrum. And a composition for ensemble opens up the possibility of through-composed music that does not rely on patterns and repetition. So I try to balance the electronics with the instruments, making sure the unique qualities of the instruments are not overshadowed, and allowing for compositional freedom. In The Secret Language of Subways I loop the cellos only in certain sections where I want a dramatic buildup of sound. In several songs the cellists accompany my electronic rhythms, and in others they provide the full musical spectrum themselves.

I ventured into some new technology for the performance of Subways, using Mobius software instead of my hardware Echoplex so that I could create multiple crossfading loops with a stereo spread. The tech is a bit of a nightmare, involving a digital mixer, two synths, two laptops, two routing interfaces, three cello pickups, and my DrumKat. As in my solo show, I use the DrumKat as my control surface for everything – sending commands to the looper and the mixer, playing drums, bass or other synth sounds.

Could you please talk about the various musical styles you referred to in The Secret Language Of Subways? I mean, you've always used a multi-stylistic approach in your work, but this time it seems to me you worked with a somewhat wider/partially different palette.

I seem to be venturing more into traditional composition – music that is notated and played by classically trained musicians. So this work has a definite chamber feel to it, while maintaining all of the influences that make my music mine: the cabaret, the techno-rock, the experimental aspects, the wide range of singing styles from operatic to belting to close-miked ballad.

It's possible that my music is also getting a little more profound and serious, as I experience more of life and develop more contemplative observations. Recently I have been fascinated by the challenge of achieving beauty and pure emotion, and NOT relying on irony or cleverness to communicate my ideas. It's surprisingly difficult!

Sometimes it's really difficult for me to catch the cultural traits/objects/items you use as reference points in your work. I think I got your previous album, Residue, a bit better than The Secret Language Of Subways. Tracks like Be Careful, Body Parts, and Dada Exhibit are definitely inscrutable to me (also the title of the album, quite mysterious...), with reality planes that appear to be switching in the course of the narration. (I'm not asking for a literal interpretation, of course, just for... a point of entry.)

Indeed, I can imagine it would be hard for a non-American to grasp what is going on here – my music is VERY American in so many ways, from the cultural references to the way I make fun of my own language to the way I use American musical idioms. But this work in particular is more multi-layered than most. I set out purposefully to juxtapose world events with personal events in nearly every song, weaving together images into something provocative but not entirely clear. (Of course, to me the songs make absolute, perfect sense!)

In fact that is one of the many meanings of the title: the Secret Language is the poetic language I use to express myself suggestively rather than blatantly. It is also about the secrets themselves, the keeping and the leaking of them. The songs mostly came to me while riding on the subway, and the subway seems to have its own mysterious language: the mystery of people's expressionless exteriors, the way it all works mechanically, the underground sign system of symbols and bright colors, the criss-crossing tunnels and seemingly meaningless insanity as people rush about... Ride the New York subway some time and you will see exactly what I mean! To all this I have added images of war (which weighs heavily on so many Americans), 9/11, natural disaster, and city life in general – all metaphorical parallels to my personal experiences.

Let's talk about money, will you? I saw that on your website there's a Donation scheme you used to finance the premiere performance and the recording of The Secret Language Of Subways. Could you please talk about this? How does it work?

In this country most high-level creative work is funded by donations. Pretty much my entire income comes from donations of one sort or another, whether I apply for a grant myself or the presenting organization raises the money. Ticket sales do not cover the costs of production, and CD sales (in the small world of new music) often do not cover the cost of recording. Look at the program of any large-scale new dance, theater, or music work and you'll see a list of funders, from corporations to individual donors. It's very common for artists to ask for donations – everyone understands this is sometimes the only way we can afford to make our work, especially in the current economic climate in which government and foundation support has shrunk significantly.

When compared to the era of the big record companies, nowadays it's definitely easier for artists to finance, record, and release their works. And we obviously have to consider the Net, too. But while it's easier for artists to be "independent and free", the sheer volume of what is released makes it almost impossible for one's existence to be noticed, and getting reliable mass attention remains as expensive as ever. Is there any way out of this?

It's not only the issue of getting noticed, but the issue of the sort of "numbing" that results from such overwhelm, which I think is making true quality less apparent; the Web may be "the great equalizer" but do we really want all our music to be equal?

It seems to me that no matter what the medium, what gets noticed is still a combination of marketing and the unpredictable whims of the people. For instance we now have the phenomenon of Web-based music and videos that for one reason or another go viral. Now that anyone can record music, there really ARE some gems out there that might never have been brought to fruition in earlier days. So I have very mixed feelings.

In my case, I have never been good at trying to get noticed, so I don't have any helpful answers to this question. I simply continue to make music and am encouraged by the small enthusiastic following that seems to appreciate me solely for my artistry. I also do not rely on recorded music as the main vehicle for getting myself out there. I love sculpting sound in the studio, but most of my work is designed for live performance (and that is what I am best known for), which by nature limits the audience but which is so immediate and exciting because of the risk and physical demands involved, and which brings people together to share an experience. In performance the artist clearly either has talent or does not, connects emotionally or does not. I like to think that the great performers will always shine through the riff-raff.

Have you listened to any artists/works, recently, that you think possess special, uncommon qualities that make them different?

I recently saw the Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq. She absolutely blew my mind.

Are there any recent/future projects of yours you'd like to discuss, besides Fill As Desired (which will come out as a CD, right?)?

I have several commissions coming up for 2010, including a violin and electronics piece, a live performance score to a silent film, and some new works with the cellists. And yes, I hope to record Fill as Desired soon.

And then there are my fantasies: I want to take some time off from my crazy schedule to revisit my roots as a sound artist and create pure audio experiences NOT designed for live performance. I also want to try the experiment of making a CD in a very short time, as a response to the laborious process I usually go through.

Also I've gotten re-interested in analog gadgets and alternative controllers -- I have a new toy called a Blippoo Box, created by my friend Rob Hordijk, with a fun, user-friendly knob interface and a Theremin-like antenna, and I'd like to explore other instruments that respond to gestures. I also have some ideas for a piece of wearable art that is an interactive instrument playable by others.

Almost in opposition, I am particularly interested in composing works that explore the power of large ensembles, especially choruses. In one direction I would like to work with masses of people and outgrow the need for electronic enhancement, and in the other direction I'd like to more intensely delve into the unique sonic world that is only possible with electronics.

© Beppe Colli 2009 | Dec. 21, 2009