Gavilán Rayna Russom’s incredible new entry in the Longform Editions catalog, Trans Feminist Symphonic Music, makes a strong impression. Even amongst a catalog of memorable, important work, it stands out. When I first heard it, I was overwhelmed and frankly, floored. It’s massive (70+ minutes), but reading Russom’s notes on it made me want to find out more and learn how her experience has shaped her practice.
In this interview, Russom pushed me to think about listening and sound in new ways. Since finishing this a few weeks ago, I keep thinking about this quote:
Listening is composing with materials that are available within one’s environment. I don’t draw a line between composing and listening.
To start, I always like to ask about early memories of music and sound that made a lasting impression. What are some of your earliest memories, whether it’s environmental sounds or specific songs – anything, really – that caught your attention and really stood out?
One of my earliest memories is that I absolutely loved bagpipe music. I was kind of obsessed with Scotland in general as a very young child (3 or 4 years old). It’s funny to reflect on that, I think it was many things, including my ancestral memory, that drew me. But also I think it was the combination of learning about kilts and tripping out on the droning and repetitive drumming. I mean, a drone and a skirt, what more could I ask for!
Another formative thing was getting a portable cassette recorder around 6 or 7 years old and beginning to make recordings. That was really my first musical instrument in a way, my first composing instrument, learning what the sounds of spaces were as reflected on the tape, and learning about how recording makes the malleability of time explicit.
At what point did you start exploring your own creativity and making your own works? Was there a certain experience that really pushed you in that direction or was it something more gradual?
I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t do that. The cassette recorder experience was one important one. I also got a 110 camera as a gift around the same time and used them together; for example, making my own Star Wars “movies” by taking photos of action figures acting out scenes and then recording the dialogue and soundtrack on my cassette recorder. I also had a small plastic chord organ that I loved playing with. I very quickly discovered that I wasn’t much interested in playing songs. I preferred holding down a bunch of keys at once, especially in the chord section. This was something I found soothing and calming. I was an anxious and depressed kid. So from the beginning it was also about finding ways to heal myself through sound.
That really progressed organically into more organized composing and creating. My cousins lived close by and we would do all kinds of childhood creative stuff like puppet shows and plays. And then in my early teens, we all started to get into music and I was playing in punk bands and stuff, often using a drum machine because no one had a drum set, and also exploring electronic music in a friend’s basement who had a computer. So when I heard Acid House and Techno for the first time in the late ’80s when I was 13 or 14, it was a totally natural thing to hit up my cousin and say “let’s make something like this.” We did and had a little short-lived Acid House project called Acid Barons when we were early teens. Not long after I started DJ’ing, had turntables set up in the basement on the same table we used to do puppet shows on. The hardcore band I was in called Square One, which my cousin played bass in for a while practiced in that same basement… A year or two later I formed an improvisational psych/noise band called Soma that my cousin also played keyboards in. We also rehearsed in that basement. When Soma broke up I started making home drone, noise, and loop recordings as Child, which then morphed into Paper Eyes when I moved to New York…. So yeah gradual and organic in one way but with all of these experiences, too many to mention, that pushed me in dynamic ways through the different phases.
In the notes for your new piece on Longform Editions, “Trans Feminist Symphonic Music,” you mention how you make little distinction between listening to the world around you and listening to music. How does that end up influencing your creative practice and the music and art you make?
That’s something that was latent through those early childhood experiences I mentioned, but became very intentional as part of my thinking about decolonization around the time I was 19 or 20, so 1994/95. Shifting my psyche away from looking at some sounds as “valuable” because they were art objects and other sounds as “noise” was a political choice and one that took a great deal of inner work. It came out of understanding the way cultural materials are segregated in a Eurocentrist society and how that parallels other forms of segregation like racism. I became interested in working with creativity as a way to dismantle that. It’s a bit complex to explain the mechanics of how that actually works into the things I make but if you listen, look experience them with this in mind I think you can understand and benefit from it on a body level.
You also mention something that’s been on my mind a lot (and is something that came up in recent interviews with Laura Cocks and Ka Baird), but that’s the connection and extension of our bodies and sound. Can you talk a little bit about how sound and your own sonic expressions act as an extension of your physical body?
This goes back to that experience with the chord organ I think. For me, this is really about retrieving sense from the external world. A basic of my trans experience is that there are things that make a great deal of sense to me internally that do not (or did not) have reflections in the external world. In fact, there was a constant disconnect between things that made sense to me and external rubrics that insisted on forms of sense that negated my own embodied understanding of what made sense. In more explicit terms I was a tomboy. I was a little girl that liked things that were considered “boy stuff”. And that included my body in certain ways. That made sense to me. In the external world, I bumped into this thing that was like, you have this kind of body, you’re a boy so play with boys and do boy stuff and you better be a man about it. And like none of that shit made sense to me. It negated my inner sense. That created some brutalizing self-doubt. The chord organ with all the keys pushed down broadcasted harmonic structures, connected to my inner experience of who I was, out into the world where I, and later others, could hear them… experience them as reverberances in the world, not just these murky inner “knowings” that were difficult to trust, even at a fairly early age. I think this differs significantly from traditional cybernetics, which really talks about using technology to be more-than-human… this idea of “extending” is tethered to ideas about increasing abilities. For me, it is a kind of cybernetics, but it’s not really about championing technology like that. It’s more related to the dead and to the forces of nature… extending my own embodied sensations into the world, eliciting the extension of the dead, natural forces, and internalized experiences and memories from the world around me. Bridging those. Bringing them into conversation with each other. It’s witchcraft basically.
Thinking further about “Trans Feminist Symphonic Music,” you talk about “difference tones” and how these tones express the fluidity and complexity of gender expression “without the need to regiment it.” I found the whole description of the piece really moving, but that part of it resonated with me especially. Can you expand on how you made and felt this connection between difference tones and your experience and further, how that inspired this piece?
Sure. This has been with me for a long time and is a basic of how I think about sound. When one brings two tones together the sound waves literally bounce into each other and create additional harmonic information. One part of this harmonic information is the difference tone, a pitch not present in either of the two sources, only present as a result of them existing in the same space as each other. The ideas about tonality and harmony that became dominant in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries (contemporary with the witch trials, the enclosure acts, the establishment of nation states with fixed languages, and the colonization of Africa and the Americas) were geared towards the elimination of these difference tones, with sounds being segregated into those that were “consonant” aka in tune i.e. did not create difference tones and those that were “dissonant” aka out of tune i.e. did produce difference tones. Regimentation of gender identity is another part of this time in history and it is also reflected in the system of so-called Western Tonality. With colonization, these ideas about consonance and harmony (both harmony in the musical sense and harmony amongst people) were forced upon the world, literally ingrained in peoples’ consciousnesses through their ears, and very often also through physical violence. I was definitely raised within that context to believe certain things were “good sounds” and went together correctly and other things were “bad sounds” and couldn’t let’s say “get along” with each other. So modeling alternatives to that has been a big part of my life’s work. And finding ways to do that which are not easily relegated to genre categories in a way that nullifies their impact on the systems I challenge through my music. In terms of what happened here, the long-form structure created an opportunity to ride the edges of these dynamics in interesting ways, using repetition and extended tones to create space for sonic connections outside of and on the edge of these ingrained ideas about harmony.
You described focused listening as a healing practice for you and something you’ve returned to in rough times, but do you find composing to have a similar impact, or is it something different for you?
Yes, I mean they are the same thing for me. Listening is composing with materials that are available within one’s environment. I don’t draw a line between composing and listening.
Changing course a little, nearly two years ago you started Voluminous Arts, which you describe as a “creative support network disguised as a record label” (I love that description). What prompted you to start the project and what has been the biggest surprise with it so far?
I honestly saw a need in the scenes around me for alternatives to some of the things that are both seductive and problematic about music marketing and distribution. And I have been through so much with my own work not really finding the support it needed so I created the thing I felt was needed in hopes that other folks might have the thing I didn’t. It’s all been surprising really but I guess the biggest surprise is how fast it’s grown.
What’s been the biggest challenge with it?
Probably balancing the need to do things with care and intention with the need to show up for a lot of activity. I’ve been really busy the last couple of years since it launched which is a blessing, and it also can be challenging when momentum builds up or a deadline feels important to slow down and really check in with care; are people getting heard, are we still doing things in a way that’s consistent with our mission, are people getting overextended… and then adjust accordingly.
Can you tell me a little about what’s coming up next for your own works as well Voluminous Arts?
I just released BPM Trance on Voluminous Arts, which is the third volume of an archival series of my work from the late ’90s as Paper Eyes. It’s one I’m super proud of. It was just sitting there in a box on an unlabeled tape and at some point last year I was going through a bunch of those and was really struck by it. I’m happy to have finally shared it with the world. Voluminous Arts is also releasing a number of albums this year, just follow the Instagram, Bandcamp and subscribe to the newsletter for updates on those and the new apparel we’re launching this month. I have a 4 track album coming out on Voluminous Arts in early March that touches on a lot of the things we talked about in this interview in very explicit ways.
Voluminous Arts is also publishing transcriptions of the opening talks from last year’s Halloquium; a Trans and Queer-led conference on nightlife on our site; one talk per month for the first four months of the year. We just did Axmed Maxamed’s piece entitled Nightlife is not Inherently Liberatory which is wonderful and important. There will also very likely be some more Halloquium materials getting made public as we move towards 2022’s iteration of the conference. I’m starting to play live and DJ again after a long break imposed by both Covid and my own need to step back. Playing live and DJing are both things I’m excited to start doing again. I’m teaching classes on witchcraft and mediumship topics throughout most of the rest of the year via Catland Books’ online event series as well.