Gratitude for Empty Space: An Interview With Catherine Sikora

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There’s this magical moment on Catherine Sikora’s newest album, corners, specifically on the piece “Sometimes, Acceptance is Better Than Love,” where she stops playing for a brief moment and the sound of her saxophone hangs there, resonating in warmth while decaying into nothingness. Those spaces are a trademark of her work and something that keeps drawing me back to her work. It’s in those moments where her ideas quietly explode and become infectious; the space to process and take in her expression becomes a thread that brings the artist and listener into the same zone.

Sikora’s string of solo albums in recent years are all fantastic and the newest offering – the aforementioned corners – is the most visceral and engaging one yet. I listen to a lot of fantastic saxophone players, but I can always recognize her tone and style immediately so whenever I hear it come through the speakers, I have a hard time doing anything else but letting her music wash over me.

This interview was conducted toward the end of 2021. corners is out now via her Bandcamp.

To start, what are some of your earliest memories of music and sound? Are there any moments that stand out to you from your childhood that made you realize, for you, music was something that affected you in some deeper way?

I was always drawn to music, because of the power it has to create other worlds in the mind. The moment from childhood that stands out in my mind as definitive is one day I was walking (in the countryside in southwest Ireland, where I grew up); I passed one of those farm gates, the tubular metal ones, and the wind was playing tones in the gate. I was transfixed, and remember standing there just listening to those sounds that are so ethereal, and that can never quite be grabbed hold of—they appear and then are gone before they can be processed fully. The older I get, the more important that experience becomes in my mind. 

At what point did you decide you wanted to learn to play and create your own music? What was the impetus?

I decided at about age 12 that I really wanted to play the saxophone, and I have no clue why that happened. I had never even been in the same room as a saxophone at that point! Something must have triggered it, but I will never know what that was. 

Are you self-taught or were you taking lessons early on? I ask because when I listen to your work, I find your tone and style so distinct and sort of unlike anyone else.

I am self-taught. I had flute lessons very early on, from age 7, but that education was pretty minimal. My older sister and I shared a half-hour lesson per week, and shared a very substandard old hand-me-down flute—only much later did I understand just how detrimental a bad instrument is to one’s best efforts to practice and improve. I quit flute lessons at age 12, as a protest because I got interested in the saxophone and had no love for the flute. When I was 16 and still wanted to play, my parents finally broke down and got me a saxophone, and by necessity, I taught myself. Those flute lessons were helpful because I knew the fingerings and how to blow a wind instrument, but aside from that, I was on my own. I was raised in an ultra-conservative, rural, hardcore Roman Catholic place, there was no music in any stage of my schooling, and nobody thought I should or could play saxophone. It was very actively discouraged by everybody who was in my life at that time. I think I was in my mid-twenties before anyone said a kind word to me about my playing. 

Along those lines, too, another thing I am so drawn to in your playing is how there’s this use of – I don’t know if ‘space’ is the right word, but there’s this element of letting notes linger a little bit longer in the air than I’d expect that adds this closeness and intimacy to a lot of your work. I think this especially comes through on the new album, corners. Anyway, how do you think about the empty spaces in the pieces you are writing or when you’re improvising and how silence heightens the sounds?

Those spaces are essential for me—they are breathing space, not just for actual physical breath but also for the mind, and the ears. I have an enormous personal need for space, and for me as a listener, space feels like an essential part of the communication in music, because it brings the audience into the piece. It’s also just very simply how my brain works—when I speak I am prone to long pauses, so I guess I am not wired to make continuous sound without pausing to listen or think. I love to play with musicians who are comfortable with space, as well, it allows for more possibilities.

When you’re improvising, what inspires you most in the moment?

Oh, that is difficult to answer! It depends on so many different factors, like who I am playing with or for, the space I am in, whether I am working with predetermined or entirely improvised music…the only constant is that I really try to clear my mind and focus on sound, only. When that works, and I can feel like I am just a sound receiver and emitter, and everything else falls away, that is what feels best to me. Then, the music feels like it is there already—it feels very ancient, like I am uncovering something that has existed long before me, something unavoidable that has nothing to do with me or my personality or any attempts at cleverness.

You’ve got a new release that’s just come out – the aforementioned corners. I’ve read the description about where these recordings are from, which is incredibly fascinating to me. But can you tell me what the experience was like playing these pieces for audiences of one and what that felt like? It seems so intense and intimidating to me! 

It was precisely that—very intense, and very intimidating! It was also very beautiful; the event was organized by Silkroad and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and there were many musicians in different buildings throughout the Brooklyn Navy Yard, all playing mini concerts for one audience member at a time. In my head, knowing that many other solo performances were happening at the same time all over that huge campus was one of the most special things about it. The rules were very specific, and no speaking was permitted, so that made it feel very formal, which was pretty unusual for me. It was last May, so the testing requirements and safety guidelines were rigorous, and I had to wear a woodwind mask while playing, which added another layer of strangeness to it all; the mask was very large and when I played it got pushed up over my eyes, so I was weirdly blinkered during the performances. I would look at the listener when they entered, we nodded to each other in greeting, and then once I started playing I couldn’t see them again until I stopped. It must have looked really odd! Afterward, I wrote the name of the piece and a thank you on a postcard that I gave them.

It was a six-hour session for me, and it had been so long since I had performed live that I was concerned about everything—stamina, ideas, nerves—and I think the structure that was provided was very helpful to me. At that time I had just returned to the US from Europe, and the travel had been a nightmare; my husband and our hound and I were pulled off the plane just before takeoff (the airline messed up the hound’s reservation), and we were held in an airport hotel under lockdown conditions for 5 days, not knowing when we would be permitted to fly out. Obviously, that experience provided less than optimal conditions for preparing for a lengthy performance the following week, but thankfully I got through it, and I think my relief that I made it to the gig is also evident in the music.

The pieces are beautiful, though. The reverb of that space that comes through on the recordings is so amazing, though. How did the space itself – and that wonderful reverb – impact what you played or how you played it?

Thank you! I am so glad you think so. The reverb in the space was amazing, and I played with that and really had fun. It definitely impacted what I played, hugely, and also allowed me to take breaks and allow the sound to ring while my chops had micro rests in between. One of the greatest musical experiences I have had was not, in fact, a deliberate performance of any kind (sort of like the wind in the gate, I suppose)—I happened to step into the Cathedral of St. John The Divine one day as I had some time to kill in the area. The organ was being tuned, and the interaction of the shifting microtones in that enormous space was insanely gorgeous. That memory informs my sonic thought anytime I get to play in a very reverberant space. 

Shifting gears a little bit, I love the duo record you did with Brian Chase and think the way he plays and the way you play really lend themselves to each other. How do you know Brian and how did that album come about?

Brian is an incredible musician, with such a deeply personal sound, and I feel so lucky to get to work with him. One day I was stuck in traffic on the FDR Drive, and was listening to WKCR. The show was an interview with Brian, he was discussing his Drums and Drones project and playing some of the pieces. It was so fascinating that afterwards I was compelled to send him an email saying how very much I had enjoyed it. He wrote back and suggested that we play a session, so that is how our collaboration started. We played some shows and sessions together, and then started work on some specific responses to text excerpts that I took from the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf—that is what became our duo recording, which Brian released on his label, Chaikin Records. 

From Rhizome presents: A Chaikin Records Showcase, March 14th, 2021

How is your mindset or approach different when you’re doing solo recordings and performances compared to if you’re doing a duo – like with Brian Chase or the fantastic record with Christopher Culpo – or even an ensemble?

When I am working with another musician, I try to be open and listening and to respond honestly in the moment to what I hear. I love it when I play with someone who, by their inventiveness and creativity, makes me play something that surprises me. I learn the most when I am playing with other musicians, and I am endlessly thankful for the wonderful musicians I get to—or got to—work with. Like so many people, I have lost several beloved collaborators in the last couple years, and I don’t think I have fully processed that fact yet. 

Working in even larger groups is a real challenge for me, but one that I welcome. I have played a lot with Karl Berger’s large ensemble, and also with Burnt Sugar for a while, and that put me in a whole other space, working to fulfill the conductor’s vision, so I did not get to make the decision about when not to play, and silences were in short supply. I loved playing with both of those groups, and I miss it—it’s been on my mind a lot recently, especially since the tragic loss of Greg Tate.

I have one other group piece I want to ask about and it’s fairly old, but you played on Ross Hammond’s Humanity Suite and one of the people you played with is Vinny Golia and I freaking love Vinny Golia. What was it like getting to play with him?

It was great, Vinny is amazing! That project was so much fun. Ross wrote really strong themes, the whole band was fabulous, and playing with Vinny was wonderful and illuminating. He is a completely fearless musician. I bombarded him with lots of questions and he was very generous with his answers. His expertise and artistry with the entire family of woodwind instruments is unparalleled; it fascinates me because I struggle to divide myself between 2 saxophones that are close in register and both in the same key (anyone who knows me will tell you that I am constantly threatening to drop one of them so I can try to get good on the other). Vinny can seemingly pick up any member of the woodwind family, even the extremely high and low horns, and play beautiful music on it. It boggles my mind how he does that, and it was a total honor to play with him. 

What surprised you most in 2021?

In the past year or so I have been writing occasional blog posts, mainly about practice, and the encouragement I have gotten from musicians who I respect deeply has been very surprising to me. I started writing as a way to remind myself of how I should be working, and I thought that maybe some student musicians might find it helpful, but the response has been much more than I had hoped for. 

What’s next for you and what are you hopeful for in 2022?

More than anything, I hope the global vaccine inequality can be fixed; the fact that so many people in developing countries do not have access to enough vaccines right now is evil and deliberately stupid.

 For me personally, I hope to find a better way to sustain myself this year. I’ve always worked in fairly crappy jobs, often in terrible working conditions, and it would be huge for me to change this and improve my quality of life and (hopefully) my self-esteem. I think this would have the biggest impact on my ability to improve as a musician and to make better work. 

Speaking purely in terms of music work, I would love to record with a quartet this year—I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time now, and am trying to make it happen. There are plans in the works for a trio record as well, which would be very nice. As always, I want to keep trying my best to get better and stronger on my instruments.

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