Inside and Within: An Interview With Gabie Strong

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Gabie Strong says a lot without words through her work and her practice. Since her work is typically built around live performance, she had to shift her approach and find new ways to channel her expressions. Her latest album, Wilding Sun, is firmly situated within outdoor spaces even while she extracts certain inner vulnerabilities that ground the work and make it sing. Whether it’s in music, art, running the crystalline morphologies label/program, teaching, or whatever other avenues Strong utilizes, her work is singular and important. 

This interview was conducted in November. Wilding Sun is out now on Dragon’s Eye Recordings.

So first, how have things been for you the past 18 months? How has your work and your practice changed in this time?

My work is performance-based. It’s meant to be experienced live. Prior to the pandemic, I would typically set a performance date, play the show, record that improvisation, listen to it, see if it needed a bit of editing (cutting out bits that were boring or didn’t support my ideas), then eq and master. Most of my recordings are intentionally lo-fi, sometimes in mono, taken off of a smartphone or video camera. Spectress was the only one recorded professionally (by Jorge Martin), but it was still all live improvisation.  

My sets are embodied responses to the audience and their attitude, what mood I’m in, and art ideas. I also think about colors when I’m playing, like “this audience feels blue,” or “they are too beige, they really need some hot pink.” I studied art, and so I apply art processes to sound in that I’m moving all these components around, trying to make a complete “picture” or piece; except it’s sound and me in the space creating that sound. Failure is always part of it, too. I like to set everything up, summon the chaos, and listen; then make changes. My painter friends always comment on this process and how much it’s like painting.

So with lockdown, I put my process on hold to try to think through what to do next. I wasn’t interested in jumping back into bedroom recording like in high school. I was fortunate that I could continue to teach radio broadcasting and art with my college students over zoom. Over time I felt the loss of community engagement, really felt the harsh isolation of lockdown, and ate my way through it. Sadly 2021 took a downward turn and I lost my father to pulmonary disease in January, and have since become estranged from my mother because she has dementia.  

In late 2020 my friend the artist Sameer Farooq asked me to create a site-specific score for his exhibition “A Random Heap of Sweepings,” at the Koffler Centre of the Arts, Toronto. Sameer’s exhibition is about the ghosts of cultural objects stolen and collected through violent colonial spoils and displayed in anthropological and encyclopedic museums. His work embodies what remains after provenance and repatriation, like empty vitrines and pedestals, and photographs of missing objects in archives. The work is made of materials like paper, clay, concrete, and glass, and placed on movable dollies so that they can be rearranged to create different relational contexts of disappearance. 

Sameer asked that I create a recording for the installation that would function like a guided meditation. He asked that my sound compel the viewer to sit in a moment of contemplation and reflection. Working like a traditional composer was a big challenge for me. I am so used to showing up and plugging in, that to sit with pictures of his work and meditate on them shockingly tested my creative patience! I had to reflect on my creative process as well as his work, in order to get into the headspace needed for the project. I couldn’t quite get the feeling of the exhibition, especially since I wasn’t in Toronto and couldn’t travel there to see the work. So Sameer sent me a PowerPoint with rotating slides of varying colors, and images of the work so I could sit and feel the space. I couldn’t help but leak some personal grief into my playing, which seemed to fit with the thematic loss of culture and restitution embedded in his work. 

The final score consists of four, six-minute sections, each marked by a bell. So it functions like a meditation and a sonic environment that grounds the exhibition.   

Sound is incredibly subjective based on culture, context, and the body.

Okay, going back even further – when did you first get interested in music and sound and, especially, your own creations? 

I’ve been making art since I was a kid. I studied art at UCLA, and I have an MFA in Art from UC Irvine. I don’t really think of my work as music, since I’m an artist. I come from a relational approach to making work, where context is everything. 

I grew up in the South Bay in the mid to late 80s. Things were a lot different then. Art and music were not commercial or cool for that matter, so there was a whole subculture devoted to experimental art and music. I have been very fortunate to see a lot of wild underground music and performance art since I was sixteen. 

Are there any specific memories or sounds that really made you feel something that surprised you and started pushing you into these realms you’re now exploring?

I think when I was a kid, listening to the car radio on grocery trips and camping vacations with my parents made me feel like I was connected to everything and everyone. I love the dissonance of terrestrial broadcasting over an analog radio.

I am also hard-of-hearing and wear a hearing aid. My hearing loss is not from playing music. My left auditory nerve is damaged from multiple exostoses in my inner auditory canal, so sometimes what I hear is sound that has been misread or mistranslated. This situation drives all of my listening.

Sound is incredibly subjective based on culture, context, and the body. 

On this new album, your pieces have a dichotomy to them that’s expressed in the album description and song titles. I like the metaphor of a garden and the idea of the plants in the song titles being ‘hearty but delicate.’ I hear those expressions in these pieces, but am wondering what your mindset and approach were when composing and playing these pieces? 

Recording and arranging can be so linear. I don’t really think or work that way since I’m still coming at it from an art headspace. To make the album, I approached it like I was making a sculpture, an assemblage of sounds. I collected some home recordings of guitar feedback and drones I had made in 2021 and collaged them with recordings of my cats, the feral parrots of Pasadena, and street sounds of random folks walking around talking on their phones during lockdown. I also traveled to Anderson Art Ranch in Snowmass, Colorado, for a printmaking workshop, and made several field recordings at campsites along the way. I was born in Denver and grew up in Boulder until my family moved here in 1985, and with my dad’s recent death, I was thinking about the “old world” of Colorado in the 70s on my trip. I added texture to the tracks with layered recordings of cicadas and frogs from my camp at the Colorado River, noises from driving in my car, and other random bits of sounds I collected along the way. 

There is a lot of contemplation about death in this work. I was thinking about loss and it being the end of summer. I was also smelling and touching all the flowers in neighbors’ gardens on my walks. My dad gardened in his retirement, and every time I would come across lavender and other plants he enjoyed growing, I would think of him. So the album concept came to me as a way to express this multilayered assemblage of grief. That is why Mugwort, the live track from Hell in a Handbag, is the last track. It has the strongest transmutable energy.

Pamela Jorden’s work is a prominent feature of Wilding Sun from the beautiful cover to the connection to the first track, “Lavender.” How did you get to know her and her work?

Pam is a great friend and artist. We have wanted to collaborate for a while, and so she invited me to perform in her opening reception for her recent exhibition “Forest” at Romer Young Gallery, San Francisco. 

Pam has responded so positively to my performances. She commented once after a show that she read my performances as a kind of synesthetic variation on the process of painting. We both share similar movements when creating work like crouching, kneeling, lifting and reaching, pushing paint, or sound around in ways where we each are not quite sure what will happen until it happens.   

For Pam’s opening, I wanted to operationally respond to the work, to summon that spiritual energy I was feeling when I thought about the paintings and the materials in them. Her opening reception was my first solo performance since lockdown, and I kept thinking about how to bring the sound to the paintings, like an offering or gift. We recorded the set and that became the title track for the album. Pam uses a lovely lavender pigment in Dusk (the painting featured in the album art), and I thought I would play off the color, the pigment, and the plant as a kind of way to reflect on the embodiment of space.

What is it about Jorden’s work that you identified with in a way that pushed you to create this work that’s connected to her paintings?

Oh, I think it’s getting into the details of the work, looking at the way she’s manipulated the materials of pigment and paint, on the canvas. The circular shapes, too, speak so much to me and how I think about my work. I really try to get out of time or like to get into a different time zone when I play. Songs and song structures frustrate me, I find playing songs to be boring; memorizing music is like drawing the same picture repeatedly. There is no joy in that for me. Improvising and collaborating with other players is incredibly joyful, and I see that kind of play in Pam’s paintings. They are also very lustrous and chemical, which I find to be really thrilling!

I’m floored by the huge range of guitar tones and sounds on Wilding Sun. What’s your approach to playing and composing for guitar like? Do you have specific ideas or imagery in mind or is it more about using a particular setup and seeing what sounds can be pulled from that? 

I treat the guitar as a thing that creates harmonic tones and drones and feedback. I use open tunings, and sometimes standards, but I love shaping sound by pulling out the harmonic drones that can be created only from driving a tube amp really hard. Maybe it’s because of my hearing sensitivities, but I just love bathing in the feedback wash of varied harmonic frequencies of over, under, and microtones. Part of what is so important with playing live is that I can be in a space like a rock club that allows for high volume, so I can push the amp and lock in that spectrum to further shape the space. Amplified string instruments do this easily, so using the guitar is like a ready-made way to explore this space. I love playing with Pauline Lay because she can really hone in on this kind of playing.

The video for “Lavender” is incredible. So you used 2,600 photographs to put it together – how many did you start with? How did you decide which photos and what sequence to put them in? It seems like such a daunting project, and the result is so fluid and fits the feeling of the piece so well.

I made this album as an assemblage, as if it was a physical object. For the video, I wanted to reflect on the underlying concept of transmutation and death, through visual imagery that would show concepts of memory and time in a subdued way. I also work in photography, photo collage, and printmaking, so again non-narrative and non-linear modes of representation as with my sound work.

While in San Francisco for Pam’s opening, we went to see the Joan Mitchell survey show at SFMoMA. I had a provisional understanding of Mitchell’s work as being one of the few women who were part of American Abstract Expressionism, but never dove deeply into her work until the exhibition. I soon learned from the survey exhibition that she was actually making very abstract paintings about gardens and landscapes, which was so uncool for the time! While she was making references to Monet, she was also making paintings about paint. Much of her work was a critical response to the art world while also being a kind of autobiography.

One of Mitchell’s Untitled paintings from 1961 has these gorgeous purples and mauves in it with contrasting yellows and ochres, densely sketched out against the open space of the canvas. It may be a painting of a tree, or an idea about a tree, an aggressive emotional gesture, or just a painting about paint. It made me think about how painting and improvisation are connected; how they can be aesthetic, critical, and political all at once. 

I wanted to create a video that referenced Mitchell and Jorden’s work, but also that was connected to my father, and carried my grief. October is both the end of summer and autumn here in Los Angeles when many flowers are peaking in bloom while leaves are turning on trees; it folds into autumn slowly and deliberately here over the course of the month. Autumn is when the landscape is very brown, dried, and seemingly dead; but roses are in full bloom. I wanted to visually capture that odd conjunction of flowers in autumn, and place it up against the noise and feedback of Lavender.

I experimented with these ideas and so set my camera on a very fast shutter speed so that I could continuously shoot while moving the camera in and out of focus on various flowers, mostly roses. I did this very quickly, lightly monitoring the shots as I worked to make sure they were coming out the way I wanted. I was intentionally treating the camera like my guitar, improvising with available light and source material, and kind of hoping for the best. Improvising is very much about having faith in material applications, and not being afraid of the unknown.

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

I’m most excited to release work by local artists on Crystalline Morphologies in 2022. We have lots of sparkly excellence in development at the moment.

I have also been assisting with coordinating the Touch.40 anniversary festival, which takes place in March at 2220 Arts+Archive. It’s going to be super! 

It will be great to get back on campus to teach radio courses and community arts at Otis College and to join the winter residency at Sierra Nevada University MFA/IA. I’ve been teaching over zoom for two years and really miss engaging with students in person. I also started printmaking again, and am stoked about making more monotypes and intaglios, collages, and other works on paper.

I have a couple of new sound projects in development that should be coming out sometime in 2022. I just started working with Pauline Lay and Caspar Sonnet, and we have a “bananas” style that I am super into. Christopher Reid Martin (Rotary ECT, Shelter Death) and I have a project (CGRSM) and will be playing live before the year is out.

I’m looking forward to life becoming more stable, with vaccines and masks making life a lot safer, and seeing old friends again! 

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