Mark Trecka Traces Difficult Connections

Photo by Eva Deitch

When Mark Trecka’s piano spreads its wings, magic happens. On his thoughtful new album, Acknowledgment, Trecka uses only piano, voice, and handmade cassette loops to craft an emotionally rich sound world. Acknowledgment is a record that takes multiple listens to fully absorb, and even then the deep undercurrents resonate in an almost ephemeral way. It’s music that becomes a piece of you as soon as it clicks. Trecka explores ideas around the interconnected nature of ourselves as individuals and communities of the houseless, stateless, and incarcerated. This visceral work confronts these dichotomous realities, but never shies away from the hard questions we must ask. 

Mark and I chatted through email in early May about the stories and motivations behind the album, his process, and more. Acknowledgment is out now on Whited Sepulchre.

How’s the last year been for you?

It’s been an extraordinary year, an often very scary one. I’ve been lucky to have been able to spend a lot of time outside, even through the most intense periods of this last year, because of where I am geographically and given my relative freedoms. So I’ve certainly had an easier year than many people whose immediate communities were ravaged or are being ravaged by COVID and compared to friends of mine in cities where they were required to lockdown in their apartments 23 hours a day. But you know, even having said that, it’s been a very lonely year on a sort of bigger scale, and a very troubling year. We’re all so profoundly interdependent. 

Your new record, Acknowledgment, is described as ” an intertextual document reflecting on 15 years of dialogue between the personal and political.” It’s a powerful record with this almost understated heaviness. What was your process for conceptualizing, writing and recording the album? How long did you work on it?

I started thinking about this particular record I think in spring 2019, writing and reworking older pieces. I recorded it all in two days in September 2019. In the intervening months, I wrote and reflected on what I was writing and how it related to things that inspired me, texts and people. And I really laid into those relationships. That intertextual aspect is very direct in this case, very direct and very much central to the project. I mean, I often had a book on the piano while I was working, but what’s more, I thought a lot about ways, maybe new ways, to establish or trigger or highlight relationships between music and ideas. We often say, “Oh, this song is about this” or “What is this song about?” and, you know, that’s not a straightforward relationship. With this record, I thought a lot about how a song can be about something, or interrelated with a text or an idea.

Do you ever think about your albums, or even specific pieces, as their own worlds in a way? What I mean is, for example, “Wave Games” musically and lyrically feels like this very specific, self-contained moment – almost like a chapter in a larger book – that is still very much of the overriding narrative. So I wonder if, in your process, there’s any thought on creating these sonic worlds where listeners can have certain experiences or moments of reflection?

That resonates with me. I mean, it’s not necessarily the case that I think in those terms while I’m writing, but in making art, I do think there is something vital about understanding later how the work sort of functions, and the idea that the songs on this record function as “scenes” has a particular resonance. For a while I was practicing writing songs in such a way that each song referred to only one single image. Although I didn’t intentionally follow such a practice with Acknowledgment, “Wave Games” in particular might have been effected by that year or so of writing in that way. For example, I would take a memory image that has been following me, a particularly memorable moment with a strong image, and I would write a song about just that scene. I have a whole record of these interior image songs, each with an attendant text and some with actual photos or visual images of some kind. 

I’m very convinced of the idea that simple, direct action is the move.

The album exemplifies an idea I’ve thought about a lot lately and the idea of sound can be affecting like no other medium. How it can move people not just emotionally, but physically – it can bring people together or scatter them apart. Acknowledgment has such a strong emotional thread through it while it explores ideas of how people are connected. In a year where there’s been more isolation and physical separation, how are you thinking about the ideas of shared experience in sound and music and its importance? Has that thinking shifted at all in the past year?

Yeah good question. I definitely believe in the radical power of music right now as much as I ever have. I mean, I don’t go around saying it all the time and I don’t think about this really at all while I’m working myself, but I believe music has the power to spark or assist real joy, real joy, to carry us over even just for a moment. It’s all the more incredible that this can be true in a situation where people are gathered together or in a situation where someone is sitting at home alone and driving alone or whatever. In one particularly bleak moment during this past year, early on when restrictions were just emerging and we were starting to understand how bad the situation was, we had a storm here and lost power. So in the midst of this sort of terrifying new idea of the world, I found myself cooking mac and cheese for my kid on a charcoal grill, tucked under the eaves while the rain poured down. But I got one of my battery operated tape players and I sort of chanced upon on old tape of a longtime favorite record and the entire scene turned on its head. But I mean, it really did. And the real trip is that while it felt like the actual end of the world as we know it before I put the tape on, it really still did after I put the tape on. I just found the joy at the center. I immediately felt that the scenario that I was in was about something different. Or rather, I felt that it was about something. 

There’s also talk in the album description about ‘compassion’ and how, through compassion, we find connection, how we can share in the pain and joy in each other’s experiences, specifically acknowledging invisible communities like incarcerated, stateless, and houseless persons. That resonates with me quite a bit as something I try to practice in my own life and in my own work. In what ways do you think art can convey compassion that other avenues perhaps cannot?

Right, well, I’m not sure that it can, necessarily. But I guess jumping off from the last bit, I do think music has the potential to hit on otherwise sort of inexpressible things. And when I say I think this, I guess what I really mean to say is that I feel it. In other words, I don’t care if it’s true or not. I’m not trying to theorize the emotional import of music. But music does convince me of this potential. At the same time, as for the record itself, for example, and the way it might engage with experiences of compassion and interconnectedness, it’s just a record. I want to say that again: it’s just a record. People will take it and listen to it, hopefully, and will think and feel whatever they think and feel while it’s playing. It’s just a record and I’m grateful for the opportunity and the circumstances that led to its creation and I hope that someone can find it to be of use in some way.  

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by it all, when so much of the world seems to be trying to keep people from embracing our shared humanity?

More or less constantly, yes. But I’m very convinced of the idea that simple, direct action is the move. At least for me, that’s my lane. I was at a meeting once, about organizing around immigrants’ rights, and the rabbi who introduced the evening said something that has really stuck with me. Basically he said that when we talk about the Civil Rights Movement, we talk about it as though it were one, monolithic movement, a unified thing. But in reality, of course, it was a lot of particular instances of people in their cities and towns, taking action. And don’t get me wrong, of course there was organizing, of course there were brilliant people making connections and educating and inspiring people all across the country. These particular local instances were not entirely spontaneous. But they were direct. They were local. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by a sort of amorphous disaster, by that disaster of denial of interdependence that you’re talking about. But working against it by acting in accordance with that interdependence is … well, for me anyway, it’s the only way to feel any agency in the face of that otherwise overwhelming sense of disaster. 

You also included an essay piece with the album. Why did you feel it was important to include?

It isn’t as though I feel that the record couldn’t exist without textual support or something. But on the other hand, while I was working on the essay –– which, not unlike the record, includes elements that I wrote a long time ago, maybe 10 years ago –– I was more excited about sharing it with people than I was excited about sharing the record. In any case, I’m simply interested in setting up or triggering interactions and correspondences between sound and text or between multiple texts. Much of what I’ve done lately has both elements. I recently did this sound and text performance on the great Radio alHara out of Palestine. I recorded a new piece of music and I broadcast it, along with the song “Acknowledgment,” and while the music was playing I used Radio alHara’s chat to relay messages and poems from folks who are incarcerated near where I live in New York. These people, about a dozen or so, had submitted the writing to me specifically with the project in mind. I selected and arranged those texts to synchronize with the music and I essentially copied and pasted text into the chat, in time with the music. The text and the music leaned on each other, and all this brilliant and incisive and beautiful writing by these folks was relayed to a global audience. 

How did you end up working with Whited Sepulchre on the record?

We were connected through Madeline Johnston / Midwife. And I’m grateful for the connection, as it’s an enterprise with a heart of gold.

Moving away from the new record for a minute, I wanted to ask about the collaboration you released last year with Susan Alcorn. How did that come about? It’s a collaboration I wouldn’t have thought of, but as soon as I heard it, it made so much sense. 

Susan and I met when we shared a bill a few years ago, actually at the very space where I later recorded Acknowledgment. We have many friends in common but hadn’t crossed paths until then. I’m of course completely blown away by having had the opportunity to work with Susan, as I believe she’s one of the most imaginative and incredible musicians alive. That said, I had originally wanted to ask her just to record herself speaking, and to create a piece that sort of seesawed between my sounds and Susan’s storytelling. She tells these languid and fascinating stories between songs when she performs solo. So, in any case, that’s not the way it went; we simply traded sounds, along with a protracted conversation about some heavy topics. I’m very happy with the result and the piece has gotten a very positive response.

What are you looking forward to most in the next year?

I’m looking forward to the ongoing growth of the prison books project that I co-founded in 2019. We’re engaging more people and more facilities all the time, and connecting with and brainstorming with people on the inside. It takes a lot of time and a lot of patience to build relationships with people who are incarcerated. And of course that isn’t an accident. But we’re making connections all the time. We’re have conversations. My friend Cook and I have started talking about dreams –– literal dreams –– and I’m looking forward to the implications of that conversation. Brainstorming and collaborating with him, and a few other folks, continues to reinforce interconnectedness. Our conversations make prison walls and monitored, privatized communications systems all seem so flimsy.

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