Maggi Payne is a composer, video artist, and interdisciplinary artist who is Co-Director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College. Her recordings are available on Starkland, Lovely Music, Innova, Music and Arts, Centaur, MMC, CRI, and other labels, and her works have been performed throughout the Americas, Europe, Japan, and Australasia. She has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Western States Regional Media Arts Fellowships Program, and the Mellon Foundation. Recently I spoke with Maggi about her artistic influences, her interdisciplinary projects, connections between teaching and making art, and her ongoing projects.
Dan: How did you first get interested in the arts?
Maggi: I think we’re simply born being interested in the arts. We’re creators from birth, creating our own sounds, words, songs, drawings, and paintings. I just never grew out of that mode of being.
Dan: Did you get interested in music at an early age?
Maggi: Yes, I remember playing everything I could get my hands on (old pots and pans as starters while still a baby), loving to draw and paint (though not particularly well), then later trying to make my own flute and stringed instruments. I took piano lessons when I must have been around five, but it didn’t really take.
Dan: How did you first get interested in the flute?
Maggi: When I was nine I heard a flute somewhere, but I don’t know where, and desperately wanted to play that instrument, which my parents very happily and supportively allowed me to do.
Dan: Who are some of your influences, in terms of music?
Maggi: Sound is my primary influence—the complexity of the aural landscape that we all inhabit, and those special places high in the mountains or in the vast expanses of the desert where each almost imperceptible sound is precious and so meaningful against the underlying quietude.
Dan: What is an early memory you have of doing something in the arts?
Maggi: I remember playing in All City Orchestra when I was around 10, and my wonderful flute teacher then, Harold Gilbert, who seemed not to mind my making strange noises (whistle tones, air sounds, multiphonics, etc.) and actually encouraged them as long as I learned the standard repertoire as well.
Dan: What are some memories you have of growing up in Texas?
Maggi: So many memories: the vast beauty of the desert, the intense thunder, lightning, and hail storms, the constant threat of tornados (truly exciting for a kid), summers swimming underwater at least eight hours a day, my older brother’s ham radio set, Jacob’s ladder, and an innovative rocket that he designed and built when he was a teenager.
Dan: Who are some composers who have influenced you?
Maggi: It’s challenging to list only a few of the composers who’ve influenced my work since there have been many influences, some whom I’m probably unaware of, but I would mention: Bach (an incredible mind), Robert Ashley (our worlds intersect in that they’re both abstract and he always takes me on a journey to an imagined “other” world), David Behrman (made early computers so musical and interactive systems so wonderful to interact with as a performer), Bill Brooks (wrote such an extraordinary piece for flute, POEMPIECE 1: whitegold blue, which allows the performer to select which modules she/he wishes to play although there are specific rules, with text fragments that spark improvisations between scored modules), Ligeti (his micropolyphony, although I didn’t come to know his work until I was well along), Varèse (his powerful Density 21.5 for solo flute, organized sound, trajectories, spatialization, and use of motifs), Gordon Mumma (his wonderful electronics, especially in Hornpipe, and his emphasis on spatialization, which is so important in my own work), Eliane Radigue (her intricately detailed unfolding of sound worlds over time), Alvin Lucier (his fascination with acoustics and processes), Annea Lockwood and David Dunn (their love of nature and their making a difference in this world), Paul DeMarinis (his brilliant mind, extraordinary installations, and fascination with 19th century science), and Laetitia Sonami (for her beautifully magical works and performances.
Dan: What is an early memory you have of composing music?
Maggi: I wrote something for three trumpets and some things for harp when I was a teenager, but I don’t remember how old I was (perhaps 12 or 13). I became very serious about composing in my senior year of college, when I composed Inflections, for solo flute. This work included many of the extended techniques I had developed while improvising.
Dan: I think I remember hearing Pauline Oliveros saying that when she was growing up in Houston, she would listen to the sounds of the insects outside. Would you say that the wide open expanse of Texas, as well as growing up in the small town of Amarillo, has affected your sense of space in your music? For instance, several titles are evocative of landscapes / geographical locations, such as “Lunar Dusk” and “Resonant Places.”
Maggi: Growing up on the high plains of Texas had an influence on at least three aspects of my work. The first is a sense of space—a vastness, being able to see such great distances. I often go to the desert to recharge, to reset, to remind myself of my own insignificance in time and space. One is so remarkably alone there. Away from human’s city lights, the night’s darkness is unbelievable. It feels as if one can reach up and touch the stars in the black velvet night’s sky. The silence can be equally unbelievable. Every miniscule sound is precious and potent—all of one’s senses are heightened, appreciating the details yet alert to possible danger.
So I’ve already mentioned the second influence, which is the necessity of appreciating intricate details. I find cracks in the earth, gullies, minute sounds etc. enormously fascinating. I think one almost must do so in this rarefied place, so removed from “civilization” and its many distractions.
The third is the inescapable power of nature. The lightning and thunderstorms are so intense and powerful. I love music and am deeply moved by it, but I’ve never heard any quite that powerful, beautiful, and dangerous all at once—an immersive environment like no other. The blizzards, with the snow gliding back and forth in beautiful patterns low across the black asphalt road, the hail and rain, the dust storms that turn the sky red, the unbearable heat, and the wind so strong that walking against it is nearly impossible as it takes both one’s breath and body away—these are all vivid memories of growing up in the panhandle of Texas. My work is spatial, it imparts a sense of vastness on a large scale, but is delicate and finely textured on the small scale, it is immersive and hopefully powerful, but in no way is it a match for a desert storm.
Airwaves (realities) and Apparent Horizon are two video works that are about the desert, with the underlying theme that the desert is beautiful, precious, and in need of protection. Desertscapes details four of my favorite desert locations, and Distant Thunder evokes childhood memories of sitting on the back porch during an approaching thunderstorm and trying to guess which, if any, funnels might actually make it to the ground. Fortunately none did.
Dan: “Desertscapes” is a beautiful composition. How did you come up with the idea to compose for two choirs?
Spatialization is an important concept in my electronically generated, acoustic based electroacoustic, and purely acoustic works. In my electronically generated and acoustic works the spatialization is the result of the way I originally performed it, so that if I want a sound to travel across two speakers in the front, the sound decays in the left speaker as the same sound or a permutation fades in on the right. These “crossfades” are built into the original tracks. There is rarely any active panning of a single source in my works. In my electroacoustic work it usually is the result of careful stereo microphone placement when I record sound sources. Occasionally I will convolve a moving stereo source against a source that doesn’t move as fluidly in order to impart a natural pan. It seemed a natural extension of my practice to include spatialization in Desertscapes. I implemented this concept by having voice groups decrescendo in one choir while they crescendo in the second choir and by splitting lines and words between the two spatially separated choirs. The sound, in effect, travels back and forth across the space.
Dan: Would you say you have different composition processes, depending on what your end goal is? For instance, some people always compose on the piano or some other instrument, but I’m wondering since you play flute and do electronic music, do you sometimes compose on different instruments?
Maggi: Only when I’m composing a work for that instrument.
Dan: How would you describe how your approach for writing for flute differs from how you compose an electroacoustic work?
Maggi: Those approaches differ in many respects. With the flute everything is more immediate since I can just pick it up and play it pretty much at any time, over and over, which enables me to develop ideas more quickly. I work and rework the material for months before committing to a fully notated score using notation software. That’s the most difficult part, often requiring special graphics and detailed instructions, and indicating accurate timing information.
My electroacoustic works are typically longer, and the search for sound sources is pretty open-ended and quite extensive. I go to great lengths to record a great many sounds, and each sound in diverse ways.
Dan: How would you describe your process, in terms of selecting and processing sounds, as you compose electroacoustic works?
Maggi: I select the sounds that have the most potential, I process them in several different ways, then I select the most interesting to me: those sounds which overlay well and work well within the structure that evolves. Often what appears to be a single sound is actually a composite of many layers of selected spectral regions taken from different sources, which are then combined. By doing this, the composite sound is always varying subtly at different rates and in different ways in various areas of its spectrum. I work spatially, architecting and sculpting the acoustic space, stretching the shape(s) elastically, at times overlapping more than one space, at times collapsing the space(s) to a single point.
Dan: Do you sometimes end up with recorded sounds that don’t get used?
Maggi: Yes, in electroacoustic works there always seems to be much more sound that, in the end, is not used. I can easily end up with 6-7 gigabytes of materials that don’t become part of the piece. This obviously isn’t the most efficient way to work, but it’s critical to the way I work.
Dan: Did you start composing and doing video work at the same time, or did one medium precede the other, in terms of your work?
Maggi: I did some photography as a child and was fascinated by it, but I was too busy with music to have time to pursue it. I finally got a chance to do so when I went to graduate school at Mills College, where interdisciplinary work was encouraged. I tend to think of electroacoustic music visually with regard to structure, but also with regard to abstract imagery that fills my mind’s eye when I make or hear certain sounds.
I started in 16 mm film, first using a Moog 3P modular synthesizer to generate complex oscilloscope patterns on a dual trace Tektronix 502A oscilloscope (with the removable graticule replaced by differently colored gels). The sound was composed separately and electroprinted on the film. I also shot oscilloscope, abstract, and nature transparencies (slides) that I displayed with my music.
I made a 16mm dance film using choreographer/dancer Carla Blank Reed and myself that started as rather abstract video of the two of us dancing that I colorized and processed, then transferred to film and bi-packed (optically printed) several times over. This film was part of a larger work titled Allusions. In performance this work started with me dancing with many colored lights placed at the foot of the stage’s front edge and focused up onto a huge screen at the back of the stage, resulting in multiple colored overlapping shadows as I danced. This live section crossfaded to the film. I then turned to video, photomicrography, and videomicrography (Crystal, Io) using my father’s medical microscope, then to nature and the natural world (Airwaves (realities), Liquid Metal, Apparent Horizon, Liquid Amber, Cloud Fields, and Effervescence).
Dan: Who are some of your influences in terms of video work and other kinds of visual art?
Maggi: Jordan Belson, John Whitney, Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight, and Ed Tannenbaum. When I went to Northwestern University near Chicago, I took a fascinating and stimulating course in contemporary art from Jack Burnham and became infatuated with works by Brancusi, Miro, Tanguy, Dali, Calder, Pollock, Donald Judd, and later Jay DeFeo, Georgia O’Kieffe, Richard Serra, Jim Campbell, Chris Jordan, Arthur Ganson, Anna Valentina Murch, and nature. The works of these artists are not direct influences on techniques or approaches to sound and visuals, but rather are art that I deeply appreciate and that are highly stimulating, sparking ideas, only tangentially, about sound and visuals.
Dan: What’s an early interdisciplinary project you did?
Maggi: One of the earliest interdisciplinary projects I did was the work I mentioned earlier, Allusions, in which I videotaped Carla Blank Reed and myself, then colorized the video, then transferred the video to film for further manipulation. We had a wonderful working relationship, as she so willingly participated in my works and I in hers for many years.
Dan: How long have you and Ed Tannenbaum been working together?
Maggi: Ed and I have worked together for many years, starting in the mid-80s. He’s an exceptional artist and brilliant electronics designer and he has an absolutely wonderful sense of humor. It was a joy to work with him.
Dan: What are some works that you and he have done together?
Maggi: Works for which I did the music include Queue the Lizards (music titled Ahh-Ahh (ver 2.1)), Heavy Water, Shut Up and Dance, Back to Forth, Shimmer, Viscous Meanderings (music titled Flights of Fancy), FX, Flexible Face, Maytricks, Gamelan, Contest, Dance, Hikari, and Three Movements with Two Movements.
Dan: How would you describe how you and he work together?
Maggi: Most often Eddie would come up with a visual idea and describe it or show it to me and I would create the music. I remember that for Queue the Lizards (Ahh-Ahh (ver 2.1)), when describing the motion he was thinking about, Eddie mentioned water, snakes, and whips, which I kept in mind while composing the work. He was also very clear in his description for Viscous Meanderings. He has an excellent ear for music, cueing video changes precisely timed to the beat or phrase. In live performance Eddie had the live dancer(s) off to the side of the stage with us onstage but even farther off to the side of the stage. He set up the cameras that fed his video processors (several which he designed and built) and lights, and processed the dancer(s) live while projecting the resulting images on a very large screen and to video monitors for the performers so that they could see the results and better interact with the system. I played live over the pre-recorded music since there was no way for me to generate it all live. Since I was working four jobs during many of the most active years, I wasn’t able to make all of the performances, so pre-recorded sound was used for some performances. Eddie uses the inclusive term Technological Feets for these performances and the system.
Dan: “HERE WAIT” is a really interesting video. How did that project come together?
Maggi: HERE WAIT was a fairly loose collaboration on my part. Choreographer/dancer Alyssa Lee, whom I’ve known and whose work I’ve admired since I first saw it a few years ago, emailed to ask if she could use some of my music for a piece she was working on that would also include video by collaborator Nora Raggio. Alyssa described the images that she envisioned, including the WAIT HERE sign on pavement that reads from the top down as HERE WAIT, and the conceptual framework for the piece. Since the timeline was too short for me to compose a new work, I sent her a CD of seven works that I thought might fit the imagery she described, saying that she could use an excerpt if the piece was not meant to be as long as the works I sent her. She selected Fluid Dynamics and used it in its entirety. She’s a trained musician as well as a choreographer and dancer, and is very connected to “sound” in her work. The video turned out beautifully, with a wonderful marriage of movement, image, and sound.
Dan: You have done a lot of teaching over the years. What would you say are some connections between the work you’ve done as an artist and what you have done as an educator?
Maggi: Teaching and my work are intertwined. I teach recording engineering, analog synthesis, and composition. In the analog synthesis class the emphasis is on composition and the same is true in the recording engineering classes when students are composers or have an ear for sound design.
Dan: Do you present your artistic work in your recording engineering classes?
Maggi: Not typically, but I’m sure my approach to sound and putting sounds together probably comes through a bit (although I keep very open-minded about what the creative content is, just putting technical requirements in place for each project). The students are wonderful, and come from many fields, not just music, so it’s a very stimulating environment. They inspire me and give me so much hope for the future. I hope I give them sustenance along the way.
Dan: What did you do on World Listening Day?
Maggi: My partner, Brian Reinbolt, and I went on one of our favorite walks just past Tilden Park (a wild area of 2,079 acres in the Berkeley, CA hills). It was beautiful to hear the horses neighing, the insects drifting in and out, birds, and the wind rustling through the trees. Occasionally the sound of motorcycles from the road that brought us close to that location would join in.
Dan: What’s a new composition that you’ve been working on?
Maggi: I recently finished a new piece, Surface Tension. Some of the sounds included underwater sounds from Tomales Bay which I captured with a pair of hydrophones lashed to a long bamboo pole.
Dan: What are some sounds you captured with the hydrophones?
Maggi: Sea creatures, ripples, bubbles, and sand, shells, and pebbles carried by wave motion as well as other sounds of unknown origins.
Dan: Did you use other sounds for “Surface Tension”?
Maggi: Yes – the other primary, and very different sound source, is a whirling Euler’s Disk, which has held my fascination for a year or so. When recording that sound source in my studio I set up microphones on either side of the spinning disc as close to the spinning disc as I could without risking hitting the microphones. I did several takes, then progressively moved the microphones farther and farther away to take advantage of the live acoustics of the space.
Dan: Are you working on any new video works?
Maggi: Yes, although it is far from completion. In this work I’m interested in the liminal—the amorphous, the transitory, the non-tactile. I’ve captured many images of reflections, shadows, fog, rain on glass, etc. I will need some serious time to complete this work and to put sound to images. The concept is in contrast to my last video work, Liquid Amber, which is about textures: images that compel me to want to reach out and touch them. The sounds are physical, tactile, visceral, made by my touching various objects (skin, fabric, wood, metal, water, etc).
Dan: What other ongoing projects have you been working on?
Maggi: I have a long list of pieces that I would like to work on, but they’re on hold for now—there’s just not a long enough stretch of time available during the school year to work on pieces, so everything gets suspended until summer, when I can get more than a few hours of focused time in a row.
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