Noah Ross: I was rereading Transverse again last night and was floored with the music of the work, as well as your work with music.
I want to start by asking you about Steve Reich, thinking about music as well as language as a gradual process: process music and process language. And I want to bring in this quote you use in Transverse, “Composing process music is not a matter of revealing the process of composing, but a matter of composing a process.”
In thinking through composing a process, how do you take a music process, or a gradual process, and create a book from it? Or create language through it? What is the relationship of language to music and process?
Lindsay Choi: Yeah, I love that quote – it’s from Steve Reich’s essay, “Music as a Gradual Process,” in which he wrote about what the point of process music is, right after he had started doing his phasing pieces.
I think that “Cartesian Products” is actually much closer to Reich’s description of process music than any other part of the book. There, the formal constraints around composition were the most deterministic, I guess. A Cartesian product, in mathematics, is the product of two sets; with each poem in the series, I began with something like “R(X, Y),” in which “R” is notation for an unknown relation that produces the text that follows. In “Cartesian Products,” I was looking into false friends between Korean and English–those are the two words that are in the introductory parenthesis. For example, there’s a pair–“감,” “gam”–where “감” means “persimmon” in Korean, and “gam” can mean a leg, or a school of dolphins or whales. After coming up with a set of coordinates like that, a pair of false friends, I made spreadsheets for each pair, just going through all of the similar words sonically within both languages. So from “감” there’s “김,” seaweed–I went on and on just swapping out vowels, and you can do a similar thing with “gam”–“gem.” So after generating a word bank based on mostly sonic relatives, at first, and then synonyms, I would try to thread between these words that were part of the initial process of generation. And that’s where most of the poems come from.
With “PH(R)ASE” the process of writing the piece was a lot more improvisatory. It really did begin as a critical analysis of Steve Reich’s aesthetics, or his poetics. It was trying to do so in a way that was also ekphrastic, in a way that aspired towards a kind of immanent critique.
NR: Following up on that, I want to ask about the relationship between discord and desynchronization, and wonder if you could tell me a bit about how you were using discord and desynchronization throughout a process, but also throughout a critique?
LC: It describes what it’s like to listen to “Piano Phase”–the desynchronization is exactly what produces sour harmonies.
NR: I love your phrase “sour harmonies” – are false friends also sour harmonies?
LC: I think they can be, definitely. When I say sour harmonies I am mostly thinking through the terminology of music that I grew up with. But I think that that might be going on in the lyric coordinates.
NR: That makes me think about a visual mapping that you do with your lyric coordinates, harmonies, or the visualization of a kind of music.
LC: I think that’s what I was struggling with while I was thinking through the question of false friends. In that a harmony is necessarily synchronous. You can’t have a harmony that happens at separate moments of time, really, and an attempt to spatialize this instantaneity, to allegorize this instantaneity as a set of coordinates, it isn’t quite the same thing as a sour harmony because you still get a point in space. It’s not quite discordant, or I wouldn’t think to call it that–maybe it is discordant. I feel like the real issue here is just that the metaphor, the analogy, is so imperfect as to produce a lot of space between the types of things that are being analogized. With the example of sour harmonies in sound and in space, this book is mostly thinking through these kinds of in commensurabilities–that certain analogies just don’t work when you try to move across mediums.
I mention in a note to DoubleChange, in the volume of Nioques that they edited, that I was trying to ask a question of the relationship between the logical rigidity and elegance of mathematics and mathematical form—its apparatus for modeling the world—and that of language. The guiding inquiry of my work at this time had to do with what processes of knowledge and interpretation emerge depending on how one orders the world, and what possibilities open in those moments in which the nullification of experiential possibility coincides with its fruition—it’s a question of the nature of our encounter with and recognition of the world, which, as the title of the book Transverse suggests, often veered in my writing towards a question of orientation in relation to something other. This is a reason why I was drawn to the format of the brackets and parentheses in “Cartesian Products”—the coordinates can’t be mapped despite the formal instruction to map them with a coordinate grid—this helped me to feel that the text was “open” to me even after writing it, because the fundamental question of the disjuncts between the form, the language of mathematics that it comes from, and what the form contains, cannot be resolved. A guiding principle for the brackets remained an intuitive sense of which phrases should be held in this fruitful non-relation; another guiding principle was the knowledge that I would want to perform these poems in a way that approached song, and so the punctuation marks often denote a place I would want, rhythmically, to have a breath.
Looking at the context of this passage, “with the aestheticization of growing discord/desynchronization…Lacan’s ‘I,’ Milton’s Satan and Eve, Hegel’s dialectic” – when I was working through “PH(R)ASE,” the introduction of the bottom text was the moment where I thought that I had come across a formal parallel between the two pianists of “Piano Phase,” and then I quickly had to let go of that conceit because it just wasn’t working. But it was a way of splitting and desynchronizing the seeming simultaneity and presence of a lyric speaker, of a speaker in a poem, in a way that I think was trying to get at with this particular definition and contextualization of discord and desynchronization. I think that Brandon (Shimoda) really got it right in the blurb, when he says, “accomplice to our selves.”
NR: “People, I mean: desynchronized, therefore multiplied, homographic and conversant, and finally accomplice to our selves.” (Brandon Shimoda)
LC: With “PH(R)ASE” especially, the piece is really invested in the experience of non-identity and the recognition and misrecognition that goes into being a person. That one is never identical with themselves, right? “PH(R)ASE” tries to formalize these antagonisms. Both “Plait” and “PH(R)ASE” attempt to think through what it means to have a continuity of experience even after the sense of juncture–they’re poems invested in the different orders of connection that can be drawn upon to preserve a sense of continuity in both experience and the experiencing self. I was thinking of Kierkegaard, and especially his concepts of “repetition forward,” and irony as a trope that creates a sense of temporality. And that’s part of the reason that “Piano Phase” seemed to be a great example.
There’s a record of one performer successfully doing “Piano Phase” by himself, which is an incredible feat of virtuosity–can you imagine trying to do this?
NR: That just makes me think about your performances that you’ve been doing, showing this work as a sound representation, or multiplying the work of language into sound. How do you feel this relationship between your text work and the sound performances you’ve been doing is working?
LC: I had never thought of the relationship between the sound performance and the book in that particular way–as corresponding to this catchphrase, “accomplice to our selves,” as well as my own self-professed insistence on a person’s non-identity with oneself. There were a lot of different pragmatic and emergent attractions to creating these sound performances. One of them was just that, as you can see in “PH(R)ASE,” this book was written in the spring of 2016 and I had been reading from it over and over. I think that as time went by, I was finding that it was harder to inhabit the performance persona that I needed in order for the work to come out and express itself the way that I wanted it to.
NR: Mhm, absolutely.
LC: There was something hermetic, almost, about my earlier works. So as somebody with a fairly quiet and breathy voice, what I would try to do was get really close to the mic and pitch my voice quietly, so it was somewhere between a whisper and a murmur, and that’s mostly so that when the mic and the amplifier mediate the sound, the acoustics are such that you would have to be very, very close, like almost inside of my mouth, to get that quality of tone. I didn’t really feel like I could do that anymore with this piece – it wasn’t intuitive to me, it felt contrived in a way that I hadn’t experienced before, just to further expand upon how it was just getting hard to inhabit that performance persona. I think that I could go back to it now, after taking time away from it. But there was a moment also when the book was going to be published, and I realized I would have to start giving readings from Transverse–it launched this incredible anxiety around having to perform the book as if it were new, which it is to some people but not to me.
I think that around that time I decided to pick up an interest I’d had since I’d started writing the book. Transverse was written with the ambition of being malleable across mediums, or as expansive as possible in terms of aesthetic medium. So in the book itself, there’s a real investment in white space and the volume of the page, in the book object as a visual and textural medium in and of itself. There was a moment also where I was working with string and just creating these string sculptures on flag spreads. “PH(R)ASE” in particular was meant to have an audio component from the beginning, but I didn’t really have the resources, or the ideas, or a sense yet of what this endeavor might be like. And then once I got started, I realized – this was like right after I started HRT, I think – I realized that I’ve become really invested in continuing the audio project, because as I’ve been moving on from “PH(R)ASE” – in “PH(R)ASE” the samples of my voice that aren’t heavily processed are from the voice that I had before it started to drop, from the testosterone – and now, in the more recent audio works, as I’ve been working through the whole book, the natural tone of my voice is really different. So you can hear this moment of gradual desynchronization from a previous physical manifestation of myself.
Going back to what I said about how there’s emergent properties that became really attractive to me about the audio project as a companion to the book itself–part of it is that, really, the audio project has been capturing a moment of my transition and that it simply took that much time – like six years – for me to really understand what I wanted from the sound of the book even though it was an ambition I had from the beginning.
NR: You mentioned wanting to be as expansive as possible in terms of aesthetic medium. I was reminded of these lines from the first page of “PH(R)ASE”: “To see the process itself as generative: to release the aesthetic object from the role of presenting an aesthetic final product” – and I wanted to think through this generative process as a kind of release, a generative shedding of limits, of restrictions, of constraints in a work that itself is predicated on many constraints. But ultimately to also think about the generative process of releasing oneself from a final identity product? And I was reminded of this, and wanted to see if you had any thoughts on that, or if that was working into an expansive approach to media and the work?
LC: Yes, an expansive approach to medium – that’s what really drew me to poetry. I think we’ve talked about this before. You start with material as inexpensive and as limited as language, but it’s so malleable as to allow one to expand into a bunch of other mediums within the same conceptual and aesthetic drive. That’s probably different with film or something.
One of the early influences that drew me to poetry is Lyn Hejinian’s essay “The Rejection of Closure.” Claire Marie Stancek introduced me to it when I was a freshman in college and I’ve been obsessed ever since. There’s this line towards the end of it that suggests that the ambition of open form is to put into motion a mind that thinks–“For the moment, for the writer, the poem is a mind.” I took this ambition to suggest also that the mind might be such that it can continue to do the thinking of the poem when the poem is “over” – and this really appealed to me as somebody who used to be a really indecisive person [laughing]. This notion of generativity as it’s engaged by Lyn in that essay is helpful insofar as it allows me to think of the work of writing a poem–as opposed to my day job, writing arguments–as a way of pitching forward a field which generates a question before you can articulate what the question is, that can ideally keep proliferating questions. It’s a fantasy of unending but discrete, parametered generativity, which I think that Reich has too in his process music, except that I guess necessarily, when it comes to process music and the composing of a process, you end up with something more like an algorithm, like a particular set of instructions that could continue to infinity, if you wanted it to. “Piano Phase” never technically has to end – you know what I mean? – but that doesn’t mean that there’s an unlimited set of possibilities for “Piano Phase” as a piece of art under that title, I guess. Right?
NR: Right! Let’s talk a bit more about your sound work–I mean, I’ve seen your Ableton projects that you’ve performed from and I want to hear about your process, how you use a mixture of voice and instrument–voice as instrument–and disperse voice across a larger sound project.
LC: Where to start…the voice as instrument. I don’t think of myself as a very vain person and there aren’t a lot of qualities of mine I’m particularly attached to, but my voice is always something that I’ve liked. Like, I used to really like giving readings because it was a moment to exercise my command over it. I’m just musing right now.
NR: No, you’re doing great.
LC: And I think when I was starting to construct the Transverse audio project, the first obvious thing that had to go into the Ableton mix was “Piano Phase.” There had to be “Piano Phase.” And then I started to record myself reading Transverse. I always record on Audacity and then mix and add effects on Ableton, and create the arrangement. I think that I wanted to start with the bare template of what I could do with my voice itself. And I found that it was working for the longer prose blocks that are on top of the sections that are separated by a line. And I liked the exercise of trying to keep my voice as neutral as possible doing it–the kind of spookiness of trying to get your voice to sound like an electronic voice, like a screen reader, or an audiobook that’s constructed through an electronic voice. And I wanted to do that to some extent with Transverse, because there’s a similar approach to artifice in the text–the speaker is constructed so as to seem possibly inconsistent, or multiple, even as there’s an investment in a kind of subjective interiority. So the building blocks mostly started from a series of recordings which I made, block by block, on Audacity, and as I was constructing the mix, the main problem was trying to figure out what to do with the bottom text. Because there’s a lot of things that the lower text is supposed to do for me. In a way, it looks like footnotes, it looks like subtitles, and it also looks like that brainteaser that’s like
(mind over matter), which I enjoyed as a kind of visual pun. And as I was writing the piece itself, it was a place to put the bits of language that were mostly intuition. Like intrusive thoughts–those moments of perversity where you’re in a china shop and you just want to knock things over. This little voice in your head is like, “hit it.” I tried to keep myself really aware of those thoughts that would just barely rise to the surface–emotional responses, intuitive connections, automatic responses–so in a way it avails itself for a kind of bastardized psychoanalytic interpretation, the relationship between the top and bottom text. And this yielded a lot of problems for how the bottom text was to be represented in the audio project, and I played around with making the top and bottom texts simultaneous. And I realized I didn’t like that–not just for the purposes of legibility, which I don’t really care that much about–but because there had to be some kind of a lag. And once I realized that I was invested in lags, moments of suspension–not necessarily suspense, but a moment that feels like it’s been going on for slightly too long, where it becomes unclear whether something is a forethought or afterthought or it’s own thing, I started to play around with slowing down and speeding up the audio samples for the bottom text, which naturally led to working with the pitch of the samples too.
With the bottom text, there’s a couple of overlaying effects. With the bottom texts, I went through each of the samples and applied an Audacity effect–the sliding time scale/pitch shift–and played around with the intervals. And that did the exact thing I said I was interested in–it created a kind of unpredictability in the pace at which the language is delivered, and also it made me realize that I wanted the bottom text to more directly address the polyvocality of the book itself. And so there’s a lot of fiddling around with pitch.
I was really invested in the conundrum–this thing people have been trying to do–to create an AI with a perfectly “androgynous” voice. [Laughs]. And I think I didn’t want to do that in “PH(R)ASE,” but rather to have a voice that’s obviously continuous but also does the thing that PC Music was unfairly maligned for in its early days–like when Grimes said it was fucked up of SOPHIE to “pretend to be a woman.” And that moment in the 2010s I guess of seeing really clearly, based on this backlash, an attachment to the association between pitch and gender even when the voice itself is clearly synthetic. So that’s what started to happen with the bottom text in the audio project–a phasing in and out of higher and lower pitches within the same phrase, within a continuous “voice.” And then there’s also a frequency modulator, I think, that I layered onto the bottom text portions, on Ableton, and an effect called Frozen Petals, that simply adds more echo and space and makes the voice even tinnier. I wanted it to sound very artificial.
With those blocks in place, the piece itself was almost done, and it just needed to… I mean, what I really enjoyed about performing the piece was being in a room with people and clearly struggling to breathe–which is how I would perform the piece–produces its own affective intensity. I needed to find a way to get an emotional momentum going within the audio project. So I started to layer in additional sources of interference. So you get the breath tracks–where I went for a run and was breathing really loudly and raggedly into the microphone, and did it again after I had just woken up, and there’s a sample from when I was asleep. And I spliced those up until it was such that when you hear it–when you hear someone else breathe you want to sync up to it, right? Like when you’re lying in bed with someone and they breathe a lot faster than you, you want to match them, otherwise it’s kind of awkward. One wants to breathe with someone you’re in close proximity to, and the effect comes through even when the other’s body isn’t present, and it’s just the sound of someone breathing in your ear. Anyway, I spliced up the breathing samples I’d taken until it became really physically strenuous and anxiety inducing to try to breathe like that. And the final layer in the mix, I think, is a sample from a mix my friend Eliot D’Silva made for me, for an earlier version of trying to work with sound. That was for my leprosy project, the new manuscript I’m working on.
So that’s all the pragmatics of how the piece came together. I think it’s in its final form–I wouldn’t change anything and I probably couldn’t now, because I’m so invested in the audio samples having my voice right before it started to deepen. But I can’t help but think of it as a draft. [Noah laughing]. Have you listened to Visible Cloaks? Yeah, one wants to be able to reach that level of technical mastery. But I haven’t had the time to try, and I fear that even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to get there. [Laughing]
NR: It’s perpetually in progress!
LC: Yeah, exactly
NR: And it’s representative of a number of different times–layers of times–that are together perpetually in progress.
LC: Yeah. It’s a fossilization of a lot of different bits of time, which I enjoy, upon thinking about it as a companion to the book.
NR: And I enjoy too, that if we’re thinking about desynchronization, thinking of it as a collection of fossils that in their placement are desynchronized remnants of previous, present, and future times.
LC: Yeah. R.I.P. SOPHIE.
Noah: R.I.P. SOPHIE.