Opening Endless Portals With Ka Baird

Photo by Alex Phillipe Cohen

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Every time Ka Baird puts new music into the world, I know I’ll be surprised. She is unmoved by boundaries and unconcerned by expectations, singularly following a path of her own. I first heard her as part of the inimitable Spires That in the Sunset Rise, but her solo practice has become a magnetic force. In 2021, RVNG Intl. released a collaboration she recorded with the late Pekka Airaksinen that added another layer to her exceptional body of work.

Baird is a multi-instrumentalist that won’t shy away from any sonic medium that can help express her ideas, but it’s her voice and the countless ways she impossibly twists and morphs sound with it that is at the front of my mind. The physicality of her music is infectious and never fails to make me want to move.

This interview was done in late December and early January. Her work can be found on her Bandcamp page.

First things first, how have things been for you the last couple of years? How have you been handling things and how has it impacted or changed your creative practice?

Any artist who relies on live performance as a vital part of their practice not only as a means of financial support but also as a way to grow, explore, experiment, and just be in the world, the pandemic has been a block and a monster. It has been an introspective time and a splintering of community. It has definitely called out certain aspects of the music industry, namely music distribution, sales, and streaming, and how much it disfavors the musician when income from live shows stopped. It has been interesting to see during this time certain technologies and strategies emerging and how these might help artists, namely musicians, get more properly paid for their online or streaming content. We shall see… 

It has also been an ongoing existential crisis being labeled as “nonessential” over and over again, especially so if your economic impact is small, which most experimental music is. That being said, it was a time to more fully understand and acknowledge, for myself at least, my own personal need for live performance, to redefine my approach and reasons for doing it. It also gave me more time to explore different tools, practice my instruments more, create more options. In the last couple of years, I have amassed so many different ideas- I am currently in the process of weeding through many sessions and experiments.  

From a creative standpoint, I think some of my online performance videos (through The Kitchen and Experimental Sound Studio) made me more self-aware of my practice since I was in charge of every aspect of the framing. I grew more interested in exploring humor and absurdity, at first a response to the heaviness we were all feeling in early 2020. Later, it was more of a response to the too often serious tone of experimental music. I wanted to shift that, carefully, so it could slip into a place where you could get caught off guard laughing, and then just as easily go back into something more ritualistic and heady. (One of my all-time favorite performances prepandemic was at Sarah Squirm’s Helltrap Nightmare in Chicago at The Hideout several years ago. It was a live showcase series that paired standup comedy with live experimental, mostly noise music. I played right in between two standup routines, and to blend in I intuitively started my set out with some exaggerated gestures of breath and flute and weird facial expressions. The audience guffawed as I broke them in, and by the end, they were silent and entranced. When my set ended the audience responded with more enthusiasm than almost any live show I have ever played. The seed was planted. And then during the pandemic, it became more intentional.) During the pandemic my approach started to verge more into performance art just as much as experimental sound. 

Beyond that, during this last year, I have still been fortunate enough to play some live shows, as well as do two residencies in Porto, Portugal and Malmo, Sweden. I worked with harpist Angelica Salvi in Porto and in Malmo hunkered down on my own. I got out there and played 4 shows on the west coast and 7 shows in a row in mid-November this year in Scandanavia and Belgium- although I got covid. This is the risk we take these days.

Let’s go back a lot further now… growing up, what were some of your earliest and most memorable experiences with music and sound? When did you realize you wanted to create your own works?

I joke about this a lot but I grew up on musicals, The Muppets, and misophonia. J Not very cool. My parents were scientists and exposed me to very little “weird” music growing up. I spent hours performing in front of the mirror after a bath, doing various characters and faces. My parents had all these musicals on LP. As soon as I started taking piano lessons I started writing my own stuff. I had three best friends growing up and we had a club called “The Sparkling Spring Greens” and we wrote and performed several plays for our parents and friends. I was involved in several community theatre groups. I was also obsessed with The Muppets, namely Kermit, Gonzo, and Animal.

Meanwhile, I was ravaged by misophonia, deeply aggravated and obsessed with small sounds: a clock ticking, a crinkly bag, my dad breathing too loud, my mom tapping her thumbs on the steering wheel weird. Was this a sort of precursor to my obsession with experimental music and noise? J Hard to say… but needless to say, I was kind of a difficult child, very moody, and threw lots of temper tantrums. 

I was also very athletic as a kid – into basketball, baseball, tennis, and later long distance running. I would spend hours imagining I was some kind of pro athlete, mimicking athletes’ mannerisms and sounds, etc. On the other hand, I was obsessed with oration and ritual. When I was very little, I wanted to be a minister at a pulpit giving inspired sermons, not so much coming from any kind of devotion to God but because of the delivery, the performance, and the pageantry around it. 

Later in high school, my brother and longtime friend Taralie (we later started Spires) got me more into alternative music like The Throwing Muses, The Raincoats, Bikini Kill, The Slits, The Breeders, The Cure, Velvet Underground, PJ Harvey, etc. –about as “experimental” as we could get growing up in a small town in central Illinois with an inclination towards female artists and bands. Taralie subscribed to Sassy magazine at the time and got further exposure through the mixtapes they sent in the mail. In high school, my friends and I started a band called Polmolive (named after the Raincoats drummer) and later in college a band called Vicky’s Box (named after a track on the first self-titled Throwing Muses record.) I think we played like two shows in Champaign, IL one of which Taralie could not even hold her guitar up because she was tripping on mushrooms so hard. We later got into way more out there music in college- noise, no wave, postpunk, free jazz, etc.  

My influences were/are vast, and I am self-taught beyond high school band and a few years of piano lessons. I have never followed any specific trajectory or lineage within music and have stubbornly done it my own way the whole way. I have always hated rules, perhaps to my own detriment. But I have always been open to exposure. 

I like to think where I have finally landed as an artist/performer I am incorporating all of the things I loved as a kid- sports, ritual, music, dance, theater, and even my misophonia. 

All things considered, from a release perspective, you put out a bunch of fantastic releases in 2021. Starting with the Vivification Exercises release, I was so struck by the physicality of the performance on that album especially and how everything is moving so fast that it’s almost entrancing. Can you talk a little about what your mindset and approach are like when you’re performing these pieces? And since it’s called Vivification Exercises I, might we see new volumes in the future?

This album was the studio version of a 4-channel piece I performed at Roulette Intermedium in May 2018. The Steinway there was moved onto the floor smack dab in the middle of four speakers. It was a minimal piece, very repetitive with subtle sine waves weaving throughout. I wanted to write a piece that featured the piano as a percussive instrument. I also wanted to explore the Steinway’s many resonant frequencies in tandem with the accompanying sine waves. I wanted to see how I could lift that beast of an instrument up somehow through a very physical approach. They are very technically challenging pieces for me to play because they are so aggressively repetitive.

I definitely see this as a series of pieces that revolve around the piano and its possibilities/limitations. 

As an instrument, your voice is so singular and recognizable and your work has been very much on my mind as I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship and connection between our bodies and our creative/artistic expressions, especially in music. (Laura Cocks talked much more elegantly about this in a recent interview I did with them!). How has your awareness and relationship with your physical self changed and grown as you’ve further developed your creative practice around your vocal work?

I think a great deal about this and have come a long way since I started playing music. From 2000 to about 2017 I performed almost exclusively in a chair (which is hard for some people to believe who have seen my live set in the last few years). For a long time, I was completely overwhelmed by the amount of space I would have to reckon with if I dared to stand up. I was always very physical and intense when performing but could not handle the freedom of unrestrained movement. So the chair was sort of an imposed limitation, a crutch. A friend, MV Carbon, said to me after a set in 2016, “You should perform standing up, get off the chair!” and that lingered in my head. Finally, in late 2017 I tried it and never sat in a chair again (unless I am doing a piano set J).

Since then, my work has become more engaged, more physical, more intense. Some sets feel like a sport or some kind of physical endurance test, some more like a kind of possession or ritualistic experience. Either way, I want the audience to see and feel a human body moving, sweating, breathing, toning, trying, failing, overcoming, etc. I want to convey viscerally a human in action, the whole messy, unglamorous ordeal. I started to create sounds that were made by how I moved my body, like two hard-panned microphones that I would swing fast in front of my mouth (clobbering myself more than once) for a whipping, rhythmic effect. I started rubbing and hitting microphones all over my body and spreading out all over the stage in what sometimes felt like a frenzy of some kind. I have always had a hard time containing myself when I perform. When I was a kid I used to make my friends crack up by doing what we called “going crazy.” I had this whole routine of faces, high energy, and just flat-out goofiness. It is deeply ingrained in here to be a spaz. 

And I don’t want to just boil it down to only vocals because something that always stands out to me is how you are able to intertwine these with other elements – whether it’s synths and electronics or, and maybe especially, flute. How do you see these instruments and technological tools as an extension (or maybe complement) of your voice and how do they relate to the physical nature of your work?

Yes I am absolutely a multi-instrumentalist, or someone who has enough spirit, will, curiosity or naïve gumption to try them all. And my instruments will shift periodically. But the flute has been a solid player for a while! I love it. The flute is as close to breath as you can get. It is a channel-er of spirit. It is a filter for my breath and voice. It is an extension of my voice. 

With modular synthesis, when I run an oscillator through various envelopes and filters it, in turn, inspires so many new ideas and approaches to manipulating the sound of my own voice. I explore the placement of my tongue, the shape of my mouth, the force of air, etc. And just as the synthesizer informs my acoustic practice, my acoustic practice informs the way I work with these electronic sounds. How can I make the synth sound like a voice, how can I make my voice sound like a machine? 

When did you start playing flute and what was it about flute that interests you? I’m curious because flute has been an instrument I’ve always loved and thought had such a distinct sound (and I’m going to finally learn how to play starting next year!).

Well, truth be told, it was sort of a fluke that I started playing the flute. I wanted to play the saxophone or the drums in grade school. Sadly, I was discouraged to do so by a classmate who told me they were “boys’ instruments.” It was the 80s, a different time, and I was a repressed queer growing up in small-town America. There were no words for what I felt to be. So in order to fit in, I picked up the flute instead. It is undeniably screwed up how everything gets gendered, even instruments. I think the entire flute section in my grade school and high school was entirely girls. So now sometimes I joke and say, “Fuck you! I am going to play the most hardcore flute music that exists!” as retaliation as some type. But of course that is just playing into the stereotype.  

But seriously, over the years my love of the flute has grown exponentially. I love its breathy quality, its timbre, its just intonation. It can be punchy, funky, ugly, and totally beautiful. In early 2021 I did a Lost Radio two-hour episode called “Microcosmic Flutes” guiding listeners through a history of the flute. It included such tracks as early bone flute of the Huat Oyapok, early flute music of the Cameroun and New Guinea, and expanding to Shakuhachi grooves, baroque polyphonics, Othar Turner, Roland Kirk, Bobbi Humphrey, and Kraftwerk. And I have only recently become familiar with Laura Cocks, she kicks ass!

Speaking of collaborations, you’ve closed out 2021 with the release of your fantastic album with the late, great Pekka Airaksinen. I was so excited when I heard this was coming out as Airaksinen is a longtime favorite of mine and someone whose work has, of course, been an influence, but whose work I think is sometimes misunderstood or maybe just not appreciated like I think it should be. I think I mentioned this in my review of the album, but I love the ways that you all complement each other on Hungry Shells. It’s fantastic how you can hear both your creative voices, but also a new, combined voice at times too. Anyway, what was the experience of working with him and writing/recording Hungry Shells, and what was the process like working together? Did you all have certain ideas or sounds you wanted to convey or was it something more organic that just unfolded naturally? And is there any particular story behind the album title?

When Matt Werth of RVNG suggested this pairing to me, I only knew of Pekka through a review Boomkat wrote about my Drag City release “Sapropelic Pycnic” where they described the record as “sweeping from alien/avian electronics to Sun Ra-meets-Pekka Airaksinen electro-jazz freenuss…” Before that, I had never heard of him. So of course I researched Pekka and discovered his early work with the experimental performance group The Sperm, his 1984 release Buddhas of Golden Light, as well as countless other more releases he put out himself. His output was vast and wildly experimental. He was hard to pin down. 

We met 10 days before the Le Guess Who Festival in November of 2018 to work on recording FRKWYS 17 and to prepare a live set for the festival. We had barely communicated beforehand because he rarely checked his email and would disappear into month-long retreats at his meditation centers in the Finnish countryside. So we pretty much started from scratch. Our studio time consisted mostly of free improvisations. As we got closer to the performance, we locked in a few ideas. At the hotel we were staying at he shared the book he was writing called ODO, a collection of short zen-like passages he had written inspired from his meditations. “Hungry Shells” was the name of one of these passages. He had translated a few of these texts for me into English and we ended up using some of them in the performance and in the final recording. Pekka was very sensitive and frail during the sessions, and would often want to return to his “bubble” (i.e. the hotel room) after a few hours in the studio. We had a great Le Guess Who performance, supercharged and wild, and we left Utrecht excited to see each other again. Pekka died a few months later. The process of editing and mixing this record fell on me. I was up for the challenge. I did not take the job lightly. I am proud of how the record came out. 

I can’t go through an interview like this and not ask what’s happening next with Spires, especially since I think we first ‘met’ back in the day because I wrote something about y’all!

Aw, thank you for that! I think a lot of folks in NYC are unfamiliar with that early phase of my musical history so I love keeping my band from Chicago “Spires That In The Sunset Rise” in the conversation. At one point it was the four of us- myself, Taralie, her sister Tracy, and our friend Georgia. We had a blast. Taralie is still a best friend of mine, and we compare notes all the time. We have grown together so much musically, from teenagers when we were really into early Throwing Muses to later when we got more into postpunk, later into psychedelic folk (like Comus, C.O.B.), to no wave (Pussy Galore, Lydia Lunch), to free jazz (Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane), to noise outfits (Keijo Haino, Fushitsusha), to the minimalist giants (Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, Terry Riley). It is funny though how Taralie and I have splintered in the last couple of years aesthetically~ I have gone MORE noise, experimental and she has gone pop. Ha! But I know at some point there will be another Spires record. We always have joked that we will be playing music together as old ladies; we are committed in that way. 

We put a record out in 2020 called “Psychic Oscillations” through Chicago label FPE Records and since then have been pretty inactive, perhaps in part due to the pandemic. I am proud of that band and think it holds a special place in the early aughts psychedelic freak folk history. We were completely original and on our own trip. For anyone unfamiliar with STITSR I suggest the album Curse The Traced Bird as an entry point and then go back. 

And what’s coming up for your own solo and collaborative works in the next little while?

Right now I am working on a special commission piece for Lampo in Chicago, multiple performances for small audiences in mid-February. I also have a special commission I will debut in Malmo in April and have collaborative records in the works with Max Eilbacher, Shelley Hirsch, and Angelica Salvi. I am working on a site-specific audio-visual installation with my partner, Camilla Padgitt-Coles, as well as starting to work on my next solo RVNG release due out in 2023, hoping to get some studio time and bring in some additional musicians for this one. 

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