In 2010, along with Nisa Karnsomport and Mark Walsh, Alan Nakagawa created Ear Meal, perhaps the most extensive archive of Los Angeles’ experimental music so far. For seven seasons, the webcast aired weekly with 30-minute performances by musicians of all stripes, amassing a total of almost 300 episodes. In this interview with Soap Ear editor Lyle Daniel, Nakagawa discusses the project’s genesis, some of the better stories from the show, and the history of sonic arts in Los Angeles.
Nakagawa’s path as a sound artist has been at least as diverse as his archival practices. This July he will present his own piece about Hiroshima (his family’s point of origin), entitled Peace Resonance; Hiroshima/Wendover, at the Hirshhorn Museum as part of the SoundScene Festival. Nakagawa currently also runs VISITINGS Radio Show, a Dublab show about emerging artists who make art outside of the confines of the museum/gallery space. Documenting others’ artistic practice has become intertwined with his own art. Or this, at least, is one of the ideas that comes out in this afternoon conversation that took place in Nakagawa’s living-room studio.
Lyle Daniel: To start, I was interested: what is your favorite Ear Meal webcast, or performance?
Alan Nakagawa: Aaah! Dude, don’t do that to me. Okay my favorite, the one I always feel like, “God, it’s the fish that got away, but we did do it.” Okay it’s a very complicated — so it was the show that we interviewed Morton Subotnick.
LD: Oh yeah!
AN: And it was early on so we didn’t really understand how to record something on FaceTime. I’m pretty sure what Mark did was he just recorded off the screen and used the microphone in the camera. And so what happened was it was completely distorted. It was nowhere near the fidelity that we were actually hearing in the room and of course that was the only audio that was recorded. And to this day it’s not online because Mark hates that. You know, technically speaking it’s inferior to all the other shows. But I have a recording of it and you know if you can take the distortion you can understand what he was saying. I thought it was kind of funny because here was the grandfather of synthesized tape music and his interview is completely like altered sound. He is or was married to Joan La Barbara, who’s a pioneer in extended vocal technique, so I thought, It’s kind of appropriate that it’s distorted. But Mark — being the technical, detail-oriented person he was — was like, “It’s shit, Alan. Let’s call him and interview him again.” And I was like, “No, I love that its distorted,” and so that’s why I think it’s not online.
LD: Maybe you could ask Morton Subotnick if he would accept it being put online?
AN: Hahaha, I don’t want to do it. If Mark feels strongly about it, he can do it on his own, but for me I think it’s just a wonderful portrait of not just Morton Subotnick but also of Ear Meal and how it was a learning process for us. I don’t know. I don’t know. I like it. It’s a great distortion too. Yeah, it’s really cool. It kind of reminds me of Glenn Branca, who passed away recently…
AN: Did you hear he died?
LD: Yeah two days ago.
AN: That’s terrible. He was not old. How old was he? I don’t think he was that old. But anyway. It’s not my favorite but it’s — you know it actually might be my favorite because it’s the one when someone asks me, “What’s Ear Meal?” and I tell them the spiel and I go, “For instance, we got to interview Morton Subotnick.”
My favorite story about Morton Subotnick is — because I’m such a fan. I’m a fan of Silver Apples and that whole Buchla thing, and how he established the San Francisco Tape Music Center [at Mills College]. Then he got the gig at CalArts so that’s why he asked Pauline Oliveiros to take it over, but initially it’s designed in a sense by Morton Subotnick, the Mills College thing. Anyway, I don’t know if I mentioned this before but I tried my best, because again we didn’t pay anyone to be on Ear Meal. I wish we had a budget but we didn’t have a budget. I always asked the artist, “What’s your favorite beverage?” And I tried my best for each show to always have that beverage ready for them when they walked in. And I think for the most part we were successful in doing that, but for Morton, since he was in New York, I asked him — I said “I do this thing. So what’s your favorite beverage?” And he says, “Oh my favorite beverage is the tap water, New York tap water. It’s the best tap water in the world,” you know. I was like, “Okay, dude.” He was pretty excited about it. “Okay, well, I can’t bring you New York tap water because you’ve already got it.” He says, “Don’t worry about it!” so that was the end of that conversation and the next time I talked to him it would be the interview. So I was thinking, I was like, Shit, I need to do something. This is fucking Morton Subotnick and I need to get him his favorite beverage.
So I went online and — do you know the company Sig? I think its Swedish, but they make the aluminum bottles for water. So I ordered him what I thought was the ugliest Sig that they had online and I had it delivered to his house. So half way through — and I think it’s in the recording — I said, ”Hey Morton, I don’t know if it came but you told me that New York tap water was your favorite so I got this really ugly bottle and I sent it to you. Did you get it?” And he goes, ”Yeah I got it right here,” and he pops it right into the screen. So he uses this really ugly thing, and when I say ugly I think it was these really 70s-looking colors. There might even have been some cheetah pattern in there. But it was loud and kind of dated-looking, and it was on sale I believe, probably because no one wanted to buy that one. So that’s my Morton Subotnick story.
AN: Yeah, he’s such a nice — he’s a really nice guy. I mean, we could have gone for hours, he had so many stories.
LD: I read somewhere that you grew up in Los Angeles, and so I was interested in hearing you talk a little bit about when and where you first discovered experimental music or sound art, and how you got into that world?
AN: Wow — the story I often tell is that my family was in the food industry. My mom and dad had a restaurant, and I worked at that restaurant as a kid, and my aunt had had a friend whose husband was Horace Tapscott. Horace Tapscott is kind of a local legend jazz pianist. Do you know him?
LD: Yeah, he sounds familiar.
AN: So I was actually studying jazz drumming at the time. I think I was 12 or 13. I was a young kid, bussing tables, washing dishes and peeling shrimp. I guess Horace had heard that I was into jazz which I’m sure he found amusing. This would be in the late 70s and for this little Japanese kid to be into jazz must have been humorous to him. And I say that because at the time, people my age were more into the local punk scene and eventually new wave and that sort of thing. So consequently when Cecilia and Horace would come to eat at the restaurant my parents would let me sit with them and I don’t know if this was prearranged for me—it’s not like I sat with any customers when they were there — but when Horace and Cecilia came, I sat with them. And then Horace would just ask questions and talk to me and he would do all the talking and I sort of gained this other kind of jazz knowledge that I wasn’t getting through my drum teacher. And there’s a race divide there and sort of an aesthetic divide and so it was great education. It was part of my jazz education to have this local legend while he was eating his dinner talk to me.
Then a few years later, he called my aunt and he said, “Hey, do you think Alan would want to come to a recording session?” and my aunt was like, “Oh, hey, Horace is asking if you want to come to a recording session.” And, honestly, I had no idea what a recording session was, but, because Horace was asking — and maybe I thought I knew what a recording session was but I didn’t — my aunt drove me to the famous Sunset Gower Studios on Sunset Blvd. and dropped me off. So I walked in and I was in the sound booth of this ginormous Hollywood recording studio with Horace and his engineer and producer. The sheet music was laid out on the mixer and then of course a ginormous double-paned glass window and then on the other side were easily 15-20 musicians just sitting at their instruments waiting. I was there for an hour maybe, and not saying a word; nobody talked to me. I’m basically a little kid in a very big leather swivel chair sitting next to these three people and they’re just discussing measure by measure what they want the sound to be. So it was a sound engineering moment. They may have tested the sound asking the musician to play something, but within that hour there was really no music being played and I just sat there. I was in awe and scared you know and towards the end of that hour it started to dawn on me, “Oh this is how they record music.”
Yeah, I mean I had this little Panasonic AM radio that I would carry around wherever I went. I went to bed with that radio, but it never dawned on me what I was listening to and how it was created…
I went to high school after that, and then I went to Otis. And when I went to Otis, I must have been like 17 years old, and back then we didn’t have the Internet. We didn’t have Craigslist. What we had was this newspaper called The Recycler and The Recycler was exactly what Craigslist is but it was a printed version of that and I think it was like a quarter or something like that.
LD: Was it L.A.-specific?
AN: Yes, L.A.-specific although I’m sure there were versions for Orange County and San Diego and the other surrounding counties. In The Recycler, I found a TEAC 3340S being sold, which is a 4-track reel-to-reel recorder. I think at that point I was already working at a music store so I kind of knew what that was and I was looking for it specifically because in my first year at Otis one of our assignments was to design an album cover; a very typical art project, but when the teachers assigned that to us, in my mind I was saying, “Not only am I going to design the album cover, I’m going to record an album,” because I think we had a month to do it. And I did, but I needed a machine and that’s why I bought this machine for this project, having never multi-track recorded in my life.
So that project was not only the beginning of my love for recording but of my understanding of the art of recording. It wasn’t just something you did — “I’m a musician and just, oh, record it” — no. Recording is its own separate art, and that was instilled in me by Horace’s opportunity, and so I have always treated the art of recording not as a supportive tool, an act of music, but rather as a separate art form and actually closer to painting than playing music. Of course, I’m differentiating knowing that they’re almost completely synonymous to each other: that there are so many connections in terms of practice, and education, and becoming learned, and practice of course, and performing, or presenting and communicating. That project was the beginning of what was to become the arts collective that was my vehicle for artistic expression for the next 25 years and eventually became a 501(c)3. We dissolved it in 2011, so pretty recently. That was Collage Ensemble Incorporated.
So I would say the moment Horace let me sit in that big leather chair at Sunset Gower Studios, that was the beginning of my sound experiment. Because I was trained as a drummer, but clearly I wasn’t satisfied with just being a drummer, even though there’s tremendous merit in focusing on just being a drummer; however, I am not anywhere near what my teacher was hoping for me to be as a drummer. I went this other direction, so by the time I’m at Otis — and this was the first year. That first year was pivotal for me. They showed us this film, and to this day I’ve never actually looked at the film again, but I reference it quite a bit. What was it called? I think it was called 14 American (Artists). It’s a documentary. Do you know this one?
LD: No, but it sounds familiar.
AN: It’s mostly New York artists. Laurie Anderson is it. And they’re like little short vignettes of them, like five-minute things. I had never seen any of these artists. So I think on that day, I went to the library at Otis and I asked the librarian, “Hey, I just saw these artists, do you have any music by them because I would love to hear more of that?” I’m not sure if I’m recalling this correctly but the librarian at the time, his name was Brian Maines. He’s a painter, still painting. He said later to me (because I think we kind of became friends), “Oh you know the funny thing was when you came in and asked for that, I had been creating audio cassette recordings of avant-garde music and you were one of the first people to come into the library and ask for that.” So on just that one check out, I discovered the music of Kagel and Stockhausen and Xenakis, Lou Harrison, Partch — of course Cage was in there — Tudor, all of the name brands of avant-garde, at least from the American standpoint. It was great, and I listened to these things, and it just opened up my mind at that time.
Before that, I was thinking that experimental music was Yellow Magic Orchestra, Weather Report, or Return to Forever. I thought that was experimental music, and so these things that other composers created –– ironically a lot of it was created before any of these other jazz fusion groups that I just mentioned and Kraftwerk-inspired groups. Man, it just blew my mind because it was aesthetically and conceptually closer to the art that we were studying at Otis. Duchamp was God, and so everything from there was what we were told was the trophy –– “This is the blue chip.” So, that’s a long answer to your question.
LD: No, it’s great! I’m interested that you found this interrelation between experimental music and visual arts as a unifying and inspiring concept. It seems like you were set on finding lineages for your own thinking, when a lot of times experimental music is trying to be a kind of rupture of lineages? Do you follow my drift?
AN: I do, and of course I’ve experienced that philosophy, especially through Ear Meal, but I don’t come from that. I mean, I’m totally interested and inspired by it, but I didn’t have the experience of having James Tenney as a professor. I would have loved to have [had] that experience, but I didn’t. My teachers were Mike Kelley and Lita Albuquerque and Judy Baca — visual artists — so I was always this oddball in school, right? Like there’s not a sound or music program at Otis, but I was doing sound and performance. Then, when I went to UC Irvine for my masters, I was in the Visual Arts department. I mean [the] professors were Craig Kauffman and Peter Frank and Jean Paul Jones, the sculptor — artists who were doing visual arts in the 70s, who kind of made their claim to fame in the 70s and 80s. And then I came in and was primarily doing sound. Other than my drum training, I’ve never [had] traditional music training, I’m always self-conscious about that, because when I talk to people I always feel like I’m coming to the table without the academic muscle that a lot of people have. Lately I’ve been working with AJ Kluth. He was part of the Thelonious Monk Academy and he’s getting his PhD through UCLA right now on ethnomusicology and he wrote this paper on [my piece] Peace Resonance recently. You know, he is clearly trained.
I can’t read music. There was a moment I could read music when I was younger but I don’t use that structure for my sound. If anything, I feel that I’m closer to a non-traditional notation. But I don’t know how to read a Partch score or a Cage piece. I’ve never–– have you?
LD: No, I’m with you there.
AN: But I’m surrounded by people who do that. Like I mentioned Alex Wand recently. Alex is primarily a guitarist but he’s a microtonal guitar player. He performs with the Partch Ensemble, so he can read the Harry Partch music, sheet music, I don’t know if they even call –– do they call it sheet music? So, I’m not an outsider. I’m definitely privileged because I’ve gone through academia, but my practice, it feels like an outsider.
LD: So, in a way you’re drawing these connections.
AN: I’m connecting dots, without really being able to read the dots.
AN: I think that’s fairly accurate. For what it’s worth.
LD: I like that. So you mentioned Ear Meal. I was wondering if you’d want to move on into talking about Ear Meal, its motivations, and the process of actually making it happen?
AN: It’s fairly linear, or there’s a linear succession of events that happened there. So one I had, I and the group — but really it was my decision to end Collage Ensemble. I was kind of in that mindset, and LACMA — who had interviewed me a year or two before about sound art in general — came to me and said, you know, “We’re going to open up this new museum at LACMA. We’re in charge of this three-day public event to celebrate the new museum, which is The Broad, The Broad Contemporary Art Museum. Would you be interested in programming experimental music? You know, kind of being the guest artist for the three days.” And I don’t know exactly what they had envisioned for me to do. I suspect they wanted me to do some sort of sound piece that probably worked throughout the three days.
LD: Okay yeah, yeah.
AN: But I was thinking that a dream would be to do a marathon jam session with all of my favorite experimental people, which is what I did. So it was the same roster of people for three days. I made everybody come back for three days in a row and we jammed. So I jammed with each person for an hour and collectively it was like six or seven hours straight, for me personally, of work — of either new pieces or pieces we had performed collectively together. And it was called Found Sound, that was the name of the project and they gave me this ginormous tent with seating and a stage and a sound system and it was really really great. And during that time — because even though I knew all of these artists, I knew them because they were friends, I had never actually worked with most of them. What was introduced to me was this idea that, “Oh, Alan, everyone knows your name but they don’t know you.” And, “It’s so great that you’re doing this, all these audiences are gonna come and they’re gonna see you and get to meet you and stuff.” And I thought, “Oh but I ‘ve been working with Collage Ensemble for a long time, you know, so why is that?” — Anyway, so what I figured out through these wonderful conversations was that at least the experimental music scene in L.A. is in circles throughout the entire city or county, right?
AN: And these circles are rarely ever meet each other, you know?
AN: So if you’re in one circle and there’s another five, eight other circles out there, it’s very likely that they may hear of you eventually, but there’s no place to meet or congregate, to share. There’s nothing, not even online is there something. And so that was the impetus for Ear Meal because not too much after that, Mark Walsh — who I went to Otis with — had created this network of artist-run webcasts and he asked me, “Alan, would you like to produce a show?” And, not really understanding what he was asking me, I said, “Yeah, yeah sure Mark.” And, “Whenever you want me to do it.” I thought he wanted me to do a show, I didn’t realize he wanted me to do, you know, like a series of shows. So I took what I learned from that LACMA project and I thought, “Wow wouldn’t it be cool to create something online where I could invite all the people from all these different circles in L.A. to virtually meet each other?” And that’s what happened.
So, the first 20 or so shows are all my friends, and after that what I do is I go back to those 20 people and some other people and I ask them, “who else do you think should be on this show?” And that’s how it was sort of generated for the six years that it existed. I was always like, “Okay I need to fill the next month and a half or two months, so I’ll select some folks who had already been on the show and sort of ask them ‘can you give me like five names or contacts of people?’” It was always booked. We never had any problems with booking. And in terms of an artist canceling, within a six-year time period, I think that only happened like, five times, which is pretty good I think.
For the most part — and this was, this is kind of the nature of the community — everyone’s dedicated. People rarely get paid, so there’s a level of commitment that is self-driven, right? There’s no contracts, there’s no mechanisms for people to make money off this, or a living I would say. They can make money by selling CDs and things like that. They’re doing it for the purity of the artwork, if you will. It sure would be nice if that changed at some point. I think a lot of these folks, if not all of them, deserve to make a living off what they create, but today that’s not the case. It has never been the case.
What we were able to do was document what I like to call five generations of experimental music and sound arts in Los Angeles. That’s how I always — that’s my spiel. I always say that. That’s what we did. Is that what we were trying to do from the beginning? I don’t know. I think it matured within six years. But looking back on it, that seems to be what that is. You know, it documents a certain period of time. I go to shows today and I have never heard of these folks. I didn’t know them back in the six years of doing Ear Meal, meaning that there are more circles out there, there are more new groups moving to Los Angeles or being created in Los Angeles. And then, paralleling that is the reality of the touring of experimental music and avant-garde music.
LD: L.A.’s a hub.
AN: Well, see, when we started it wasn’t a hub. In fact, people were telling me, “Yeah, I’m here doing a show, but, you know most people, they don’t put L.A. on their tour. They bypass it. They either go to the Bay Area or Portland, but they never pick L.A. because the impression is there is no audience in L.A.” But within the six years we did Ear Meal — I think we were at the right place at the right time — that changed. By the time we ended, there were more people touring, including L.A. on their tour lists because there were more places to play. Towards the end of our stint, right around the corner from my house was MATA Noise, which was around for two or three years I think.
LD: I just met Pat [Murch] the other day.
AN: Oh yeah! He’s a sweetheart. Aw, such a nice guy. And now there’s like — Highland Park must have, I don’t know, five, six places.
LD: Including one that’s a lighting store.
AN: Yeah! None of that existed in 2010, so it has changed. Even in downtown L.A. there’s like museums now. Back in the day it was just MOCA, right? MOCA was it, there was no Hauser & Wirth or Main Museum, nothing like that. There’s the ICA now on 7th St… It’s fantastic. So, we’re excited about that.
Another thing that I think, well, I definitely enjoyed was when artists would come back to us and say, “Oh we toured Europe and it’s — there were a number of people who came to our show because they found out we were playing in our country or our city because they first saw us on Ear Meal.” So, that’s cool, you know.
And the other thing that I know less about, and Mark Walsh would be a better person to ask, was the technology. When we first started, Mark would have to bring two or three suitcases worth of equipment every Wednesday and spend about an hour and a half setting up and testing. And a gatekeeper, if you will, of our stream — the streaming engine was in Seattle so we would have to go on the phone. His name’s Joseph Stack. So Mark would [be] like, “Okay we’re ready Joseph” because you know back then you paid for a certain amount of time and we didn’t have any budget, so we were very strict that it was a half-hour show. So we would [say] “okay, Joseph, we’re ready. From 9:30 to 10 we’re ready,” and he was like, “Okay.”
That’s how it went for two years and then little by little Mark would bring just one suitcase, or also a backpack. Then it became just the backpack. And then personally, because Collage Ensemble had ended, I became a solo artist, quote unquote. For some reason I started getting grants and awards, so I would use some of that money and start buying equipment so at some point Mark could just show up with a laptop and he was good, towards the end.
LD: Before that he was renting equipment?
AN: Oh, he had the equipment in his studio, because again he had a whole series of —
LD: Of shows.
AN: He had a camera shoot studio in his place. Sorry about the dog [barking]. That’s Chaska. She gets very excited. Is that going to be a problem for you?
LD: It’s not a problem, I like dogs.
AN: So Mark, you know, from day one Mark was always like, “Life would be a lot easier if you would just do the show in my studio,” but I was adamant that I loved the humor of being live from K-town. You know I just thought that was funny, and that it was coming out of my garage. I was partially inspired by the SNL thing–– What was the thing? Wayne’s World. Do you remember Wayne’s World?
AN: So I was thinking my show was going to be Wayne’s World for experimental music, not heavy metal but experimental music. It wasn’t a basement, it was a garage. That was my kind of humor.
LD: It’s like the West Coast version of a basement, or the L.A. version.
AN: Yeah, yeah the garage, the car, you know? The car is king. Hopefully that’s changing, but anyway. We’ll see. That’s a very long convoluted answer to your question.
LD: And then you did about 260 performances I think.
AN: Something like that.
LD: I think I tried to count them all.
AN: Yeah, we always tell people that there’s 300 but I don’t think there’s actually 300.
LD: I wanted to say I think it’s interesting that I didn’t know what Ear Meal was at the time but I nonetheless set out to start a project that was about sound art and experimental music, which almost perfectly aligned with the scope of Ear Meal. In L.A., no less.
AN: Mhm, that’s good. Because also Coaxial in many ways is a continuation of what we were trying to do. When Eva [Aguila] was starting that, she actually wanted me to be on her board and stuff like that, but by then I was burned out and I just really wanted to focus on my solo career. But I do go there periodically, and I do think they are doing amazing work. I mean, they have so far surpassed anything we did because they have a gallery space and it’s become a place to go. You know — and can I say for the record — Mark had always wanted us to graduate to that level. I can’t tell you how many times he would bring it up, but he was like, “Alan, just once can’t we do an event and invite people?” and I was like, “No! I want to do it from my garage, from K-town.” I was really stubborn about it, you know?
LD: Well, I mean, I see you guys making an archive, right?
AN: Right, right.
LD: It had a purpose, and I was reading on your website that you would do photo documentation and oral histories as well.
AN: And oral histories, right. Which to this day no one has heard, right? I’m hoping — Unfortunately, I’ve become very busy, and I have had no time to focus on it and starting VISITINGS Radio Show has really completely — but at some point we need to all sit down and collect the archive and then give it to some place. I don’t care — I mean I do care who gets it, but I’m really open to who gets it, you know? Is it the Getty? Is it Los Angeles Contemporary Archive? Is it something back East? I don’t know. But clearly we’re sitting on something that should be given to an institution that knows what to do with it.
LD: Well, it’s valuable.
AN: But we’ve been very lax, I’ve been very lax about completing that task. Oh boy, I should really commit to doing that, maybe next year or something like that. Yeah. When you went to it, how did you know there was an oral history?
LD: It says it in the little paragraph above, or like right below the title.
AN: Oh it does! Oh, well that’s good. I haven’t read that in a while.
LD: I guess all of this conversation kind of inspires me to ask you: was there anything in particular that you were reading or seeing at the time you thought of Ear Meal that was an archive, or writings about an archive, that kind of inspired you to do all of that stuff?
AN: Hmm, that’s a good question. I think what happened was, as I mentioned, I was working at Metro at the time and, within the first month, everyone on staff knew I was working on that and one of our staff people was — and she’s actually back there working at Metro Art — Zipporah Lax Yamamoto. And Zipporah was, at the time, getting her PhD through a UCLA program, so she was really into archiving and academics and stuff, and she said, “Are you interviewing these artists?” and I said, “No.” She says, “Oh my god that is a lost opportunity, you’re creating this collection and you really should interview these people.” And I was like, “Okay.” She goes, “You should do oral histories,” and I was like, “What’s that?” Well, okay, so she gave me this email and said, “Contact this person and she’ll educate you about oral histories. They have workshops, so go to them. They’re free.”
That turned out to be Teresa Barnett at the UCLA Center for Oral History Research. It’s the UCLA oral history archive, which is one of the largest oral history archives in the world and Teresa Barnett is the director and — as kind of an expansion outside of the program — she opens up these workshops to anybody. You don’t have to be enrolled at UCLA, but you go in and for like, half a day you get an orientation on oral histories. Then the idea is you go in and you start building whatever your project is. Then for the second class, you can come any time and do part two; you play a 12-minute example of your oral history project and the class and her give you pointers on what you did well, what worked, what maybe next time you could try, all these sorts of things. Everything from technical recording tips to people relations and how to get stories out.
When you’re doing oral histories, it’s really about talking less, navigating less, and letting the person you’re interviewing kind of pave this uncharted territory into their memory, right? I learned that through Teresa, and I went back many times for the second class, because I kept getting more and more. And through the years she’s been one of my most supportive people, you know, because I’ve gone on to use oral history in artist residencies that I’ve been given. So when I was the artist-in-residence at the Getty Villa, phase one was to do oral histories of staff, and from there we created a podcast series, and from there I created participatory sculptures that were influenced by things that were said in those interviews. Then most recently, in my residency with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, I incorporated oral history technique there. And I will say because of Ear Meal and maybe the first year of doing those oral histories then, Zipporah, who was at Metro, said, “Hey would you want to do oral histories of the artists that we hire?” Of course I said yes, and then that turned into the big project where I got to do oral histories of all the artists that they had hired since 1988. And again, that took many years to complete but it was amazing. So, to date I’ve probably, I’ve done 600 to 700 oral histories right? Is that right? That’s probably about right. Yeah. Am I an expert? No. I’m not an expert, but I totally understand the value of that process, which is different from an interview, as you know.
LD: I guess to end the interview I wanted to ask you if you have any takeaways or advice from the Ear Meal experience. Soap Ear is in a sense an archive but we’re also a more — I don’t know how to talk about it — but a more discursive entity. I mean, we’re a journal so we’re writing. We’re creating an architecture of thought on top of the music that we’re writing about. So I don’t know if you had anything that you learned or that you would impart to us.
AN: Well, one of the things that I try to do as the curator, if you will, is, and I’m sure that you experience this too, in many settings for avant-garde and experimental music, the audience seems to be primarily guys and white, right? And that is slowly changing, like I think it’s often like that at Coaxial, but sometimes it’s not, which is amazing. And why is that? What does that signify? What is that a symbol or a byproduct of? As a curator I was always interested in a diverse voice, because essentially it’s a portrait of Los Angeles, and this is my hometown and L.A. is not monochromatic. It’s one of the most diverse, multiethnic cities. If all of our artists were white and male — which would be easy to do for an avant-garde and experimental music webcast — what would that say, you know? And I tend to notice, and especially now that it has diversified — like we mentioned, Coaxial. So when I go to something at Coaxial, it is very, you know — there’s men and women, it is very diverse, certainly more diverse than it was. Not to call the wulf out, because I love the wulf. I was a regular customer of the wulf. But certainly early on, it was primarily white guys. Very CalArts-oriented. I’m not sure if that’s indicative of the CalArts department for experimental music and sound art, but that’s what I would notice every time I would go to the wulf. I mean, it was pretty apparent. But now that the wulf is doing things at Coaxial and Coaxial has a base audience, I’m thinking that’s such a healthy thing, you know?
If you go online and you see shows, you know there are women out there doing experimental music. You know there are women of color doing experimental music. Why has that person [rarely] been asked to perform for the wulf, or SASSAS, or soundSpark —all of these programs. It’s part of the bigger question, right? It’s like, why are most university professors white? And so I think statistically, when we look at that, it’s a system that’s inherently designed to promote itself. Diversification becomes something you have to do because it’s politically correct, but really what I think the studies are showing is that I think — okay, that’s part of it — the other side of that coin is that the system itself promotes the non-diversification of the faculty, right? And it goes beyond xenophobia, it’s just something inherent in most systems.
That’s one of the great things and one of the bad things about Los Angeles, is that we have all of these immigrants from all over the world and they seem to congregate within themselves. We go and visit them; we eat at their restaurants. But above and beyond that, how are we learning from their culture? How are we creating a vocabulary to understand that culture so that we have a broader understanding of humanity, you know? Is code switching part of that? I’m starting to hear people say code-switching is not good whereas five years ago, it sounded like code-switching was good.
It’s always a changing, a morphing thing. L.A. and California have always been touted as the lab for the rest of the country. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s certainly what you hear a lot. And I think as curators, you and I have this responsibility to go above and beyond promoting what we personally think is genre-indicative, right? We have a broader responsibility — or at least I thought I had a broader responsibility— to compose a letter to the rest of the world of what I thought this landscape was. Otherwise we’re continuing the limitations of that prerequisite — a big example would be the academia. But also we’re saying that our genre is that limited, right? And I don’t think any of us want it to be limited. We say we’re trying to push the medium, be innovative, but that also has to be part of the marketing mechanism and the approach to audience.
I’m not saying that you have to change your artistic practice, but the mouthpiece; the advertising, the descriptive and the critical dialogue has to change because the arts in the United States, as I don’t have to tell you, but in terms of this document — we’re hurting. It just feels like more and more we’re less a part of the mainstream. And where I see the arts being most successful is where the integrity of the art is intact, but the powers that be or the person steering the ship has the wherewithal to understand how to navigate this painting so that more people can feel welcome to it. And that’s very difficult because they don’t teach that in school and it’s not part of the art itself. It’s people like you and me, we have to invent that mechanism. And of course having the Internet and all that, we have no excuse now. We have the tools. We can do it in my living room. There’s no excuse. To change the framework of the art.