Sunday, April 28, 2013

Interview with Margaret Cox

Photo © R Magnelli, from Skull Valley

Margaret Cox conjures fascinating sounds from esoteric tools and refined methodologies. If you've caught any of her performances around Pittsburgh in the last 15+ years, then you know that her work is teeming with details that reward the careful listener. I'm extremely excited to have her be a part of Crucible Sound #1 on May 9th at Modernformations.

The devices you use are a bit unusual for an improviser: your cards and tapes obviously contain pre-recorded sounds. How do you go about choosing and preparing sounds for use in an improvisational context? 

Well, I improvise with a few things. Sometimes accordion, guitar or amplified objects that all have a lot of flexibility. I also sometimes play with tape players or an Audiotronics Tutorette which is a card reader originally used for teaching languages or speech therapy. The great thing about the card reader is that with manipulation of the cards, changing speed or switching the tracks, I can make something that’s pre-recorded become non-linear. So instead of only being able to play something from start to finish, I can react quickly to other sounds or people. There’s also a lot of time put into field recordings and layering sounds on the cards or tapes. I can get really obsessed with certain types of sounds, maybe a creaky door, or fingers over a plastic comb, a contact mic’ed telephone pole or a talking cat. Those are the recordings, but when I play I listen to find the other sounds that make up those sounds.

Can you give me an example of "the other sounds that make up those sounds?"

When I slow down, reverse, and tune-in to a small sections of recorded sound, you begin to hear the elements that make up that sound: little chirps, slurs and swishes of information found in the recording. It’s a bit like using a microscope or zooming into digital image to see the pixels. Some of it’s familiar but because I’m manipulating it and focusing in on certain sounds it can become unrecognizable. That’s the best part, there’s a sense of discovery and freedom in that space.  

I love that image of a microscope for sounds. So how do pacing and space play into your process of zooming in? Do you find that you can draw out richer details when time passes more slowly, or if there's more negative space around the sounds?

In many ways I'm a better listener than performer. But I do like to play with timing. In a performance, I try to show people what I'm doing. The card reader can be especially visual. Some people think I playing a typewriter! You can easily associate the motion of the cards or picking up a new card with what's being heard. In that way, I'm sharing the act of listening more than I'm performing in the standard sense. If interesting noises happen, I'll look around to see if someone's eyes widen. I love to interact with people. I might have tendencies toward certain sounds or timing, but I try to keep an attitude without expectations.

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