No Fire That Burns: An Interview With Chloe Alexandra Thompson

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Chloe Alexandra Thompson’s work is often immersive and tactile. The Cree, Canadian interdisciplinary artist uses sound as a medium for connection, often in site-specific installations and sculptures. Sonically, the music can be imposing and even intimidating, but her methods break down those barriers and allow the soundscapes to entangle us, pushing our thoughts and emotions into new directions and experiences. 

On her new album, They Can Never Burn the Stars, Thompson channeled this approach into an expansive piece at Pioneer Works in New York. Inspired by a story told by Sicaugu Oyate people to Thompson’s family, They Can Never Burn the Stars is almost supernatural in the way it transports listeners into a new place and mindset. Few artists in recent memory have created work that is so fantastically imposing in the way it pushes us to think about the experience of others and look for connections across barriers, real or imagined. 

Thompson can be reached via her website and The Can Never Burn the Stars is out now on SIGE Records.

I always like to go all the way back to the beginning to start interviews. With that, can you tell me about some of your earliest memories of music and sound? Are there any experiences or songs that were formative at a young age and have stuck with you?

Since I can remember I have been interested in the physicality of sound. I have told a story before about seeing speaker fabric move and hanging paper tents in front of the speakers to watch the paper move. I was (and am still) so fascinated with how sound could move things like the wind. 

My first show was D.O.A. at Seylynn Hall in North Vancouver when I was 12 and I became hooked on live shows. I left home at a young age and became pretty engrossed in the live music and art scenes of Vancouver in the early-mid 2000’s. I was interested in all forms of punk and the “weird punk” and fake/free jazz live performance scene in Vancouver which included Nü Sensae, Twin Crystals, TerrorBird, Sick Buildings, Channels 3×4, and Mutators (Lief Hall), as well as more dance focused nights and music.

Photo by Arjan Miranda

What was the impetus for you to start playing music and writing your own stuff? Did you always want to be a musician?

I have always been interested in music and sound in a way that I am unsure is entirely voluntary. I am the type of person who accidentally memorizes pitch and lyric information to horrible songs in the grocers… Growing up I played clarinet and sang in choirs… as a teenager writing for a local magazine about music and going to live shows in Vancouver I got to jam with people and experiment with DJing a bit. I suppose in a way I was always drawn to music like a moth to flame, but simultaneously thought it would never work out for me despite being a part of it.

There’s a line in your bio on your website that really resonates with me… “approaches sound as a mode of connection.” It strikes at the heart of a lot of ideas I’ve been thinking about lately, but I wonder if you can expand on that a little and talk about the relationship between sound and connection for you?

I don’t want to speak for other artists working with sound, so I will say that I think about it in a few ways, there are the ways people can connect through music together in spaces – be it an installation or performance, and ways in which artists and technicians can intentionally mediate these experiences we have between sounds, space and the technologies we use to produce these sounds.

There is a sort of reciprocal relationship to be had as a performer. I can tune into the audience and register what directions to take a performance, where to linger longer, and where to shift more quickly. 

There is also a reciprocal relationship to be had with the physical space or landscape that is being performed in, every material or space has a resonant frequency, and when that is hit the amplitude of a signal will double. For me tuning a work to a room means that I am working with that space and letting it lead where the work will go, letting it’s desires for soundings be heard and catered to. 

In this regard, and working with acoustics on a more technical level it feels important to acknowledge that there is a lot of wisdom on relationships that is wrapped into sound’s existence as a “host” of work, as well as the inherent relationships understood academically in making music (tuning systems, music theory, etc). 

If we consider that acoustics are affected by humidity / environment, the nature of the space (or lack of “space”) where the sound is heard, and acoustic qualities of speakers or the body of an instrument, the qualities of any recording devices that might be used. All of these variables we consider in listening are relational. As artists, medium is generally a considered choice and to me working with sound is working with more than strictly musical composition – all of its parts are entire.

In terms of working with sound my presentation choices, where I am presenting (and acoustic body), who that space is built for, who is in that space presently, what (speaker) bodies the sounds are coming from, the intonation, are all mediating and altering the connective tissue of the nature of what is being shared. Which is to say the medium itself is embedded and would not exist without many complex relationships, even in its lowest tech forms, sound cannot exist without our atmosphere, it is also “alive” and cannot exist in a vacuum.

You’ve got this new project out with SIGE now, They Can Never Burn the Stars. Like a lot of your work, this was a site-specific piece, right? How did the concept for this project begin? 

I was offered the Pioneer Works residency while I was still deciding if I should move to New York and prior to the pandemic having decided that I would make a work specifically to be recorded and released. I started working on a rough draft of the piece as an interactive online installation with my collaborator DB Amorin (visuals) called Haptic Paradigm. My practice has always been interested in connection – with touring performances moving online, I found it was strange and removed to do live streams; Haptic Paradigm was a platform I built with Johnny Ray Alt where people could view a stream on the page and interact with simple controls to influence parameters of the audio and visual aspects of the work which was streaming, in real time through a node app and Max. This simple gesture felt similar to how the audience may influence an installation work through sensors activated in the exhibition space.

Conceptually while working on this piece I was in conversation with DB Amorin who is a Pacific Islander artist, and we have for many years been discussing our work in relation to diasporic identity, referencing disintegration, glitch and error as modes of entry into these conversations artistically. Around the same time I was connecting with my paternal uncle Harlan Pruden, around his work and research methodologies with sexually transmitted and blood borne illness among Two-Spirit people. The conversations I was having artistically with DB as well as other collaborators on various projects such as Knowledge of Wounds and First Nations Performing Arts, were related to the work and Indigenous methodologies that Harlan was sharing with me in terms of his quantitative research. This all kept dove-tailing into survivance: how despite experiences of loss – of some languages and traditions, of ancestors, of future ancestors, of other-than-human kin (ecological destruction) – that there is more to the connections than these losses can take (while acknowledging the long term intergenerational effects of residential schools and other forms of forced assimilation / violence / genocide). There are forms of knowledge that cannot be taken away or destroyed as they cannot burn the stars – and that active presence of knowledge also lives within us if we can connect to it.

On a more practical note, I have to disclaimer that the work I make alone can’t possibly properly address everything I just listed. What I can say is that I hope that it can convey some of these complex feelings of hope, grief and presence more than what I can do alone through working with others and working with the space, wherever someone is. I was also really excited to hear the presence of people in the space in the binaural recordings. The footsteps and how their bodies were altering what the microphones were picking up.

Whenever I listen to the record, there’s this incredible thing that happens where I feel like I’m being transported somewhere – especially when I have the opportunity to listen to it at high volumes. It’s so immersive. It makes me think about the previous quote/question about sound and connection, and I imagine this piece as a sort of conduit for people listening to come together in this new world created through these sounds. I wonder, though, where your thoughts are these days when it comes to this transportive aspect of sound and how it, as a medium, can create spaces for shared experience?

Thank you! 

What is really beautiful to me is how sound – either through hearing or felt vibrations – is the first sense that we experience before birth. Inherently we have a lot of emotional connection tied up in sound, specific frequencies can alter our moods, invoke joy, horror, or even be used as sonic weapons. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that sound has also been used for shared experiences across cultures in ceremony since time immemorial, it’s a really ripe medium for communicating things which go beyond what words can describe (but even with that consider how tonality might change what is said). There is clearly potential for a site of transformation that can be had through experiencing sound, especially collectively, which I think of a lot in relation to ceremony, or the more sacred aspects of sounds. While not everyone might have the same experience of sound through hearing, it is incredible how sound has kinesthetic qualities that are also part of how we experience listening whether we are paying attention to that aspect or not. Every day I feel incredibly lucky to be able to work with this medium for all of it’s qualities.

In the liner notes, you included this great Reuben Quinn quote: “This resides as an irrevocable truth despite what other messages we might get along the way; Inside us there is love, we are loved, we are full of wonder.” I love that and think it connects to my feelings above and where this music leads me. What is the significance of that quote to you, though, generally and in relation to this work?

I mentioned earlier the relationship to survivance conceptually weaving into the work. Reuben Quinn works from the Nêhiyaw (Cree) star chart to teach the spirit markers of our language and the laws that the language’s structure represents. On a more personal note I grew up separated from most of my family since I was about 4 years old and have been able to gain relationships with my mother’s family, as well as my father’s family within the past decade. While in the process of working on this release, my father was murdered, but I had never been able to find him. 

Since the work was related to these familial relationships, their ruptures as well as new re-connections, I wanted to find a way to honor these complexities that pre-existed, and also were brought to a head by this event. I consulted with my cousin about what I was thinking of writing, as not to go within our traditions within the first year of his passing, and quoted this lesson from Reuben Quinn as a message to that. I chose to tie in the work of Emily Johnson / Catalyst, in saying how considering this truth, and our inherent value, we can reorient our spirits and blood memory toward this truth and subsequently justice.

Photo by Amelia Jackie

What were some of the most challenging aspects of this project? And what about it really surprised you?

I might have already addressed the more challenging aspects of this project and its timing. While rigorous and taking much time, it never felt truly challenging or frustrating in a way. The installation and recording aspects of the work were actually quite simple. Pioneer Works supported the work with space and engineering help, which helped expand it beyond what it might have been otherwise. Ben Greenberg did a fantastic job mixing it, which only took one day because it was a light touch. Josh Bonati’s lathe cuts and mastering were amazing as well. I really enjoyed working with a Max patch Tommy Martinez built on Nocturne Voice, which was the only track I used a Max patch I didn’t build on. 

How did you end up working with SIGE on the album?

Sige reached out to me around the Pioneer Works residency, it was an easy yes for me. I have really enjoyed working with Faith and Aaron throughout this process and felt I could trust them with this work given their connection to many people I have collaborated with, their consideration and care. In short they are both such badass artists, and I am very grateful for their intersection of skills that allowed this release to happen in the ways it needed to.

What else is upcoming for you over the next year?

So far this year I am releasing a VR project built for the Oculus Quest headset with my collaborator Matthew Edwards. We have been working on a build for this platform for nearly a year now, and I am so excited to share it as part of MUTEK Montréal’s inaugural Immersive Collection. The work will debut in the gallery at the festival and will be available through distribution soon. I am also performing a new work at the festival with Matthew Edwards on visuals.

In September I will be performing at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time Based Arts Festival with DB Amorin.

I will also be part of Emily Johnson’s new work Being Future Being, debuting in September at the Broad in California, then on to New York Live Arts in October. I built sensors for the dancers to interact with the incredible compositions made by Raven Chacon, as well as provided some sound design and video design.

In February 2023 I will be in Amsterdam and am hoping to confirm some more European dates soon.

A few other things I have worked on in regards to sound design or composition including film and TV will be released soon and I am excited to share more details about that when I am able to!

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