Lea Bertucci and Leila Bordreuil are recently-emerged mainstays of the contemporary New York improvisation scene. Over two years ago, they initiated a duo collaboration that was subsequently documented during a 2013 session in a desanctified church in Hudson, New York. Those sessions are finally seeing release as L’Onde Souterraine, now available for pre-order on Telegraph Harp. We reached out to Lea and Leila via email to quiz them about the ever-changing New York scene, improvisation as an approach, and the developing position of female musicians—their artistic practice and their media depiction. Lea Bertucci performs Tuesday, October 20 at Issue Project Room with Bradley Eros and Anthony Saunders as part of her 2015 residency.
AdHoc: Lea, you spoke about moving more towards composition with your 2013 residency at Roulette. I understand this record is a document of improvisations, however were there any composed or planned elements?
Bertucci: I’d say this record is a mix of both purely spontaneous improvisational moments and planned structure. Some tracks have edits but others are full improvisations. In general, both composition and improvisation are part of the same musical process for me. Sometimes a piece demands more specificity with pitch and musical gestures, but other times I incorporate guided improvisation or site-specificity. I recently did a piece called “Double Bass Cross Fade” where I had two double bassists positioned on opposite corners of a 50,000 square foot room. They moved toward each other over the course of 40 minutes, their sounds wirelessly amplified through a 10-channel sound system. For this, I specified a set of techniques, general structure and musical ethos to the players, but not specific pitches. I like the idea of an expanded approach to composition, where certain unconventional sets of rules are put into motion.
AdHoc: You have worked with Silent Barn, Roulette and now Issue Project Room. In your time in New York as a musician, visual artist and occasional booker/curator/promoter how has the scene changed from your personal perspective? Are things better or worse now than they were, say, five years ago for experimental musicians in New York City?
Bertucci: I could, of course, wax nostalgic about the noise warehouses in the days of old…. but I see so much life in New York. It’s true that many people have left for more accommodating climates, but the NY avant-garde is still strong. I have seen so many amazing performances in the last few years that just do not happen in other cities. Often, people come to NYC with an attitude of “what can I get out of this place,” and I think that it’s important that the people who come to live here have a different sort of perspective, like “what can I bring to this place.” It’s really important to have people who are willing to throw shows in their basement or put out a zine, and I’m always amazed by the resourcefulness of New York artists in this respect.
AdHoc: This album was recorded in Hudson, NY. Are the spaces outside of New York City rapidly changing and getting more expensive just like New York itself in your experience?
Bertucci: It seems that as the New York art scene generally decentralizes from North Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan, the outward expansion of “creatives” has certainly altered real estate value of historically underserved communities, such as the Hudson Valley, where I grew up.
AdHoc: Leila, what has been your experience of New York and its community of experimental musicians? What drew you to the city and do you feel any sense that, if you want to be successful (in relative terms) as a serious musician you “must” live in New York?
Bordreuil: I moved to New York a couple years ago after building some musical relationships with New York-based artists. The experimental music scene is small but very strong here, with a lot of performance opportunities and most importantly a very supportive community. I really don’t think you have to live in New York to be successful. In fact, if I lived somewhere cheaper I would probably spend more time making music. But it is important (although not necessary) for an emerging artist to spend some time in a large city in order to get more exposure.
AdHoc: You were very candid in your feature in the New York magazine piece on female noise musicians about the issues surrounding women’s participation in the noise scene, and I appreciated your perspective. I thought the piece as a whole, although it delivered some much-deserved attention to many musicians whose work I enjoy, was still a symptom of the “Oh look! Women make noisy music too! Here are some pictures of them!” attitude. Can you talk a bit about your inclusion in the piece and how you felt it presented female noise musicians, for better or worse?
Bordreuil: I was delighted that a publication like New York magazine wanted to do an article about women in noise music, and flattered to be a part of it. But I was disappointed when I learned it was to be featured in the women’s section between a slideshow of this season’s must-have sandals and Miley Cyrus’s best hairdos. It completely defeats the purpose of the article! These women are talented and creative, and they deserve to be featured in the music section! In fact, this article—which claims to be about noise musicians—is flawed in that it is actually about experimental musicians. The position of women varies from one scene to another, so from that perspective, I believe I was misquoted. Yes, the proper noise music scene is very much male dominated, but the sound art or improvised music scene less so.
AdHoc: If you could decide how to classify or describe the music on the record, L’Onde Souterraine—what words or genres would you use? Do you feel limited by descriptors like “electro-acoustic improvisation” or “noise”? It sometimes feels that these terms can be loaded, and listeners bring expectations to the table, but they’re still sometimes the best that I can come up with.
Bertucci/Bordreuil: We would indeed describe the record as experimental and improvised music with noise and ambient influences. For us, improvisation is less of a genre and more of an approach, and "noise" can simply designate a focus on texture and non-pitched sound. Although of course some people might connote "noise" with a certain style of synthesized electronic music, we feel that our music is radical enough to be partly considered as such. It's true that these descriptors can be loaded terms, but they also tend to be pretty vague, they are not necessarily a huge limitation.
AdHoc: Musicians now have the ability to upload, share or sell a virtually unlimited amount of recorded music. Given these conditions, how did you come to pick these four pieces for inclusion and release on this particular record? Was there extensive editing and what was the process for sequencing the record?
Bertucci/Bordreuil: We are living in a funny time for recorded music as a medium (and its commercialization). At no time did we ever consider how well our music would sell, our creative choices were made solely in service of the music. We recorded roughly four hours of improvisations from which we excerpted enough for a record. The first track was a little more structured, and I think we sort of considered it the first one when we played it. We were lucky to record this album in an acoustically perfect desanctified church hall with rare microphones on a 2-inch tape machine, so the quality of the audio is actually a cut above most other experimental records. This is why vinyl was a good choice as a medium for release.
AdHoc: Can you discuss how the song titles came about? They are quite strong and evocative, particularly the final track “Stag with Lightning in its Glare."
Bertucci/Bordreuil: The title is from a sculpture by Joseph Beuys in which a giant bronze "lightning bolt" form hangs from an I-beam in a ceiling. That work describes a moment of mystical primordial force, which was a guiding idea behind many of our improvisations on this record.
AdHoc: This material was recorded two years ago now. Is there a frustration in the scheduling, promotion, and release of music in a traditional sense? Would you rather put something out right away?
Bertucci/Bordreuil: It was very important to us that this record was released in its ideal format. We had other sorts of offers, but Robbie and Elisha at Telegraph Harp really championed the release of this record. The material has aged well to our ears. Obviously it would be ideal to put out material right away, as our musical relationship has evolved over these past two years. It’s a funny time to release records, especially if it is challenging, avant-garde music. It’s a time of innovation in formats and modes of distribution, which is exciting. How the music industry functions has been tossed on its head. We do welcome a more expanded and possibly less money driven form of music production and distribution in the digital age.
AdHoc: Can you discuss the inception of your musical relationship as a duo?
Bertucci/Bordreuil: We started playing music together in summer 2013. We appreciated each other’s sounds, and found we had similar aesthetic ideologies, so it seemed natural to collaborate. We discovered that the bass clarinet and the cello have extraordinary sonic capabilities when combined, and from there decided to work on this duo in a serious way.