The grande dame of New York’s avant garde has met her match composing for Kronos Quartet, but she has many strings to her bow.
It seems surprising that you’re coming to Perth and Adelaide Festivals with your first ever collaboration with Kronos; you’re all New Yorkers with a long history of musical adventurousness. How would you describe the project?
I’m still working on it; it’ll be a shock to me as well as to everyone else! It’s been amazing to work with the Kronos Quartet because they have such exquisite chops. As a string player I’ll hang back and try not to play too much because I love watching them. But playing with them is a dream come true.
What was the initial idea behind it?
It started out because the Kronos Quartet wanted to tell stories. I said, “I’ll invent something so that you can tell stories with your instrument.” Then I realised – whoops! – I don’t have any idea how to do that. So we worked with people to develop some software that allows them to play musical phrases that generate text phrases. It’s really exciting to me because it’s a new way for words and music to work together. I love making things that just didn’t exist. You can play really, really fast, and that triggers text that’s incredibly fast. Then I started substituting alphabets and making up my own words, and realised that we are meaning machines who are constantly scanning the world for some meaning.
What are the Kronos like to rehearse with and bounce ideas off?
They have a really good sense of humour so we laugh a lot, but through many decades of playing together they’re super hard workers, and they do not get distracted. They’re also colossal improvisers. If I say, “Play on this F for a while,” they come up with the most amazing things.
You’re also playing one of your 1970s solo violin works, Duets On Ice. Where did the idea of wearing skates and standing in a block of ice come from; why restrict your movement until the ice melts?
It was a way to structure it. It came out of the world of minimalism and loops and works that didn’t have typical beginning-middle-end narratives. It just starts, builds itself up and stops; it comes from a more meditative world – the world of mantras more than typical storytelling structures. But I didn’t want to just play forever. This was based on some loop cassettes that were inside the violin just looping away and I play duets with them live. So I thought, “Okay, when is it over?” And when the ice melts, it’s over. It has an organic life. I also liked the idea of playing until you lose your balance, because so much of violin is about balancing.
A lot of artists, as they get older, distance themselves from their earlier work. When you perform Duets On Ice do you recognise your younger enfant terrible?
The ’70s were a mess; they were dark and dirty and kind of improvised and dangerous and crazy. I like to think that I’ve changed phenomenally but when I look back at my early work it’s very familiar [laughs]! I even hear little melodies that are the same or fragments of ideas that are the same.
As the Adelaide Festival retrospective of your work will show, you create using many different artforms, including film, poetry, painting and music… Often in combination. Is it hard to balance all those things?
In Dirtday!, one of the solo pieces I’m going to do, it started out with music being the whole thing, then it gradually morphed into words leading the way. Halfway through, there was a fight between them and I thought, “Why isn’t this working?” I realised that the music needed to be more supportive, simpler, it needs to create a pulse and a kind of counterpoint with the words. We can follow a lot of things simultaneously so I try to use that, but sometimes it can be like someone who’s wearing 17 interesting things and you don’t know where to look – “Nice hat! Weird shoes…” Woah… It’s just too much, and it’s not turning into something.
You’ve gone from experimental artist to 1980s pop star and back; why do you think your career never focused in one direction? For some that would mean “jack of all trades, master of none”.
Nobody ever asked me what I wanted to do. I started playing the violin when I was five; I did a lot of paintings when I was a kid. Eventually I called myself a multi-media artist, which solved it in a way. But there really is a kind of weird “art police force” telling people to get back in their category. Why? “You’re a painter so stop making those movies” – as if being an artist isn’t the most free thing you could do. It’s actually not; when I did a painting show last year I ran into that kind of resistance.
You seem to have two major themes in your work: very personal, dreamlike, autobiographical memories, and then acerbic political commentary. How do they relate?
I think a lot of my songs have been literally dreams. Typically I veer towards political things when the conservatives are in power and when the liberals are in power I go back to being a dreamer.
A lot of your work has an androgynous quality. Coming up in the avant-garde milieu of Andy Warhol, Philip Glass etc in downtown New York during 1970s, was it difficult to assert yourself in this field as a woman?
I never even thought about that. It was so egalitarian. We all wore work boots; we all had pick-up trucks; we all had hard-hats. It was very comradely. It wasn’t like we were sexless – there was a lot of sex going on; everybody was sleeping with everybody. I think it was more equal back then, partly it was because there were no economic stakes. We never thought for one second we would make a living doing this.
Do you ever find yourself playing classical music, in the traditional sense of the word?
I love Bach. I love all music except one kind, which is Broadway musicals. Oh my god, they make me crazy. When people start belting out songs like that I feel like I’m going to have a mental breakdown.