The Tangled Webs of Cecilia Lopez

Few recordings have left a bigger impression this year than Cecilia Lopez’s incredible RED(DB). This adaptation of her piece, Red, for drums and bass is monumental in more ways than one. Beyond its physical size and scope, the performance itself is something from another world. Lopez’s ability to bring a seemingly endless number of disparate threads together cohesively and engagingly is impressive. 

Further, she’s worked with a host of other excellent artists. A new duo album with Joe Moffett is coming this week via Tripticks Tapes. Recent live collaborations with the likes of gabby fluke-mogul and Ingrid Laubrock, among others, show that her practice and approach have considerable range. Lopez has already done so much yet it still feels as though she’s just scratching the surface of what is possible.

This interview was done throughout September and October. Cecilia Lopez can be reached through her website.

First off, how did you cope with the last 18 months and what’s it been like to finally start playing some shows and getting back to it again?

I did not miss schlepping through that time, I can tell you that. 

The pandemic was hard. A lot of my work is very material based and I was living in a studio apartment so I consciously tried to avoid turning it into a spaceship of clutter for my own sanity. I don’t know if that helped or made things worse but what it surely did is shift my practice a little bit towards music/improvisation. I found that albums were one of the best formats to keep producing work, so I tried to focus on that. I did some recordings in small formations, a duo with Brandon Lopez, a duo with Joe Moffett, a recording with Forbes Graham, etc. Small was doable. I then spent a lot of time mixing those into records and also mixing old live recordings. Nothing very original, I feel like a lot of people did that. Now that gigs are back (although it’s still pretty weird) I found myself observing my own change towards them. What makes sense to do or not, with whom, how often, why, are questions that were there before but I am definitely giving them more room. It feels very good to be back in the playground though.

Okay, let’s go back to your early experiences and memories with music and sound… What are some of your first memories of hearing music? Or are there certain environmental sounds that have always been memorable and important to you?

I had a swing and a radio when I was a kid. One of my favorite things to do was to listen to the radio and swing in my house’s attic. I guess that if you look at RED, my preferences haven’t changed that much. 

And when did you first start playing yourself and what pushed you into doing it? What is it about sound that pushed your creative practice toward that compared to other creative mediums?

Sound was always very present for me. I remember singing since I have a memory, probably so much that my parents took me to an early music education workshop when I was three years old or so. I was playing bongos and singing folk Argentinean tunes. After that, it took a while until I got to have formal piano lessons. My first teacher kicked me out because I misbehaved. I think I was bored. Eventually, I learned a hard tune by ear that my sister played on the piano with two hands and they got me another teacher. That time it worked and lasted for around 8 years.

I have a physical condition that I associate with the fact that sound was always very present for me and it’s the fact that I am so shortsighted that I am nearly blind without glasses. In a way, sound is a much better medium than sight for me and I am sure that early on that had an impact on the way I developed my senses.

Video by Kevin Reilly

Eventually, you started working more with sound installation and more conceptual pieces. What were some things that pushed your interests and your practice in that direction?

Let’s see… sound installation is still sound in space and in the best-case scenario it’s also music. And music is also sound in space. That distinction for me tends to be arbitrary. Maybe I don’t understand it and that is one of the reasons I do what I do in terms of pushing those disciplinary boundaries. Listening to sound in space has a lot to do with locating oneself in space through sound, so it makes sense when I think about it in retrospect with the things I am mentioning. I find pleasure in experiencing sound as a physical presence. 

The conceptual aspect, I don’t know. Thought can be fun, or a drag, or both. I am definitely an over-thinker so I have to put that mental energy somewhere.

I really admire the way you process and filter sounds through different objects and systems. What is it that interests you so much about this approach?

Thank you! I think that our auditory system is a filter so starting with that, is just layer upon layer of filtering (our ears, our body, the room, etc). Our ears filter sound, produce sound, and shape the way we listen. I work a lot with feedback and, conceptually, listening-and-playing is the first loop that happens when we produce music. Listen-play is a circular motion that is almost always happening and it is colored by our own bodies and auditory systems.

Then, there is also filtering through objects. I don’t know exactly what it is that I find so appealing about running sound through material stuff but for me, again, it’s really a pleasurable practice. You get to hear the resonance of objects, their mass, and their material. It’s like another manifestation of matter. You can do an X-ray or you can listen to matter through sound. That’s what ultrasound is after all right?

RED at University of Florida Galleries, Florida, USA. July 2020

When did the idea for RED first come to you? What was it that sparked the concept?

I started working on RED around 2014. I had been working with amplified sheet metal for many years already and I had the idea of weaving speaker-wire with speakers so that the sound would come from multiple sources in a surface, like a sounding fabric. The idea of listening in unconventional ways is always appealing to me. So I think that the transition was: resonant surface to multiple-source surface. Honestly, it took me a while to understand how to make sense of what I was doing and how the instrument wanted to be treated. I was almost going to drop the project because of how un-functional it was until I realized that its distinctiveness was tied to its organic quality, and organic things are not always functional or controllable. So, if you make electronics work with an indomitable logic you get into a little bit of a mess. Always for the better of course. There is no circuit in RED, what you see is what makes sounds. It’s actually a very simple principle taken to rhizomatic dimensions, but it’s still very simple.

What were some of the biggest challenges you had to tackle to make RED become a reality?

Biggest challenges? I remember driving a rented U-Haul under the rain with an expired international driver’s license through Chinatown going to pick up 3 rented double basses to hang them (safely, of course!) from the ceiling of Roulette and thinking “What on earth am I doing?” When you have wild ideas the biggest challenge is to trust them so that they can come to life. The process is usually insane but worth it. I have to repeat that to myself many times every time that I’m doing a project like this. We installed that piece in 6 hours and I didn’t think that it would actually happen but it did. 

You’ve done many performances of RED through the years, but the RED(DB) performance from 2019 really stands out to me. Can you tell me a little about how the piece evolved into this iteration of it, for electronics, double bass, and drums?

The iteration of RED from 2019 has a distinctive name RED (DB), which stands for drums and bass, because it’s a piece, meaning a composition. As I mentioned, I worked with weaved speaker-wire as a material for a long time. I was mostly doing (and I still do) solo-improvised performances until 2018 when I did the first installation version of the piece with the double basses inside. It’s funny because that idea actually came to me as an image when I was starting to work with the wires around 2015. I think that at that time I didn’t know what to make of it, but I have a slow way of working, so it’s not surprising that I let the idea mature for a long time. In 2018 I had a chance to present that piece as an installation at the XIV Cuenca Biennial in Ecuador. The piece was up for three months in a crypt with buried nuns in a convent in the city of Cuenca. It was pretty intense but it worked beautifully. When I was invited to produce a new piece for the last show of my Roulette residency I decided I wanted to do that in NY. Roulette has one of the best tech teams that I have seen and they are game for any crazy ideas that you bring so it seemed like a good opportunity to push that piece further. I knew I would have the double basses and I wanted to work with drums as well because of their resonance so I decided to write a piece for the same instruments that are inside the net because of their sounds but also to complicate the piece conceptually. 

When you wrote it, was it with Brandon Lopez and Gerald Cleaver in mind? Someone told me recently that anytime you see that Gerald Cleaver plays on something, it’s automatically worth hearing. All the performances from that night are fantastic and it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Brandon or Gerald playing those parts.

Yes, the piece was written specifically with them in mind and also with their input in the writing process. That said, it could be performed by other people. It would be completely different but it would also be different if we were to play it again. 

I like to collaborate with the musicians that I work with and I was stoked to work with Gerald and Brandon. I needed people that are good at following directions but also they will be ready to make their own decisions. I composed the piece but since my scores have a lot of improvised material I feel like there is room for the musicians to bring their own personalities to the music. For RED (DB), since it was impossible to rehearse that setup, I got together separately with Gerald and Brandon and we worked on the material. I remember I put some wires and piezos on the floor, feeding back with a small amp, and I was like, “That’s what it does, it’s pretty stupid”. I wrote the piece with the materials from those rehearsals in mind, kind of articulating them in time and through the setup. I like that the piece is sound art meets free jazz in a way. I feel like traditions have to be betrayed, mixed.

You’ve done further collaborations with Brandon since that performance. What is it about him as a performer and composer that makes him such a good collaborator?

Well… besides the fact that he is an outstanding musician and composer we share a lot of ideas about music and the politics of music. Playing with the other Lopez in the NYC experimental scene is its own joke but it ended up working pretty well.

I think that one of the most valuable things about our collaborative process is that because we come from different musical backgrounds we complement well but also we keep pushing each other in directions that are sometimes unexpected. We have played in each other’s projects a bunch but we’ll also have the first physical release of our duo LopezLopez coming out sometime in 2022 so look out for that.

Can you talk a little about how important collaboration is for your practice and just what your favorite aspects about collaborating, especially in a live and improvised setting, are?

Collaboration is really important for me, not only for particular pieces but just to keep the creative forces moving. Particularly in improvisation, I feel that what I do benefits enormously from being in conversation with other voices. Do we really need another solo synth improv performance out there? I am not sure and that’s why it hasn’t happened. I am particularly interested in the boundaries of musical electronic behavior like when the machines malfunction or are pushed to act on their own somehow. I find that this is good material for a dialogue with the acoustic. I also have been doing a lot of filtering or intervening other players’ sounds in the past years. In that case, it’s like there is a third element: not me, not the other person, but a sound space in between that we can both shape. 

What’s coming next for you and your projects?

Coming up I have a duo record with Joe Moffett that will be out in mid-November plus several online presentations of that material; one as part of Option Series ESS Chicago and another one as part of the Chilean Acéfalo Festival. A record by LopezLopez (with Brandon Lopez) should be seeing the light sometime next year. I am also working in collaboration with John Driscoll on a big installation involving rotating speakers that should be happening next year as well. Many things are in the making, but I’m trying not to rush in the process.

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