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Contemplating The End

img  Tobias Fischer

Within the cracks of an increasingly fast-moving and short-lived mainstream culture, some artists are still prepared to go the distance.  In 2007, Maile Colbert hinted that she had started writing an opera, collaborating with classically-trained singers and creating a world at the cusp of the traditional concert hall and the domain of pure sound. She will hardly have expected to spend the next seven years abandoning and re-embracing the project, finishing, discarding and re-writing it and diving deeper and deeper into its millennium-angst-fueled concept. Especially since, throughout these years, her regular work simply continued, seeing her participate in an installation at the 2009 UN Climate Conference, contribute to an exhibit as part of Portugal's European Capital of Culture celebrations, release an album of new pieces and promote media art through her involvement in the Binaural Nodar organisation. With so much effort invested into it, there was every danger of the opera turning into an incoherent mindconstruct. And yet, now finally released on Will Thomas Long's Two Acorn imprint, Come Kingdom, Come fully delivers on its initial promise, presenting a breathtakingly personal compositional approach amidst a beguilingly apocalyptic scenario. And yet, for Colbert finishing the project is in no way an ending, but rather a beginning. Or, as she puts it in this interview, "sound will never stop fascinating me, and there is always so much to learn … and so many more projects to be done."

How do you keep focused?
I only keep myself as focused as I need to get things done. In the sense that it’s very important for my work to be influenced by many things, just as much outside the art world as in, and certainly outside the experimental music genre. But, I also get inspired by much work being done inside the genre as well, I do want to make that clear. The genre has open up and exploded, so there is more to shift through to find what interests you … but I find there is more in that category as well. I go through periods of not listening much to music and sound work, which I found a lot of sound artists do … and I think it’s specifically to get inspired by things outside that world and … well, in the world.


I was instantly intrigued when I heard that you were writing an opera. Were there any defining experiences with regards to format or to classical music in general for you personally that may have led you to take on this challenge?
There is a personal and historical side to this answer. My father and I were close when I was growing up. When I became a teenage girl … well, I became problematic. One way I felt we would bond was listening to opera; I have very distinct memories and associations with us driving in rural Maine (U.S.) listening to and discussing the static-filled opera on the radio. As you can hear, even that specific a soundscape fills the work. My mother and one of my brothers is a writer, and for my entire family books and movies were constantly shared. Narrative, even when and often abstract and experimented with, is a very important stimulus to my work. As it is for opera, and that is also one of the elements that set it apart from other music forms. I also just love powerful voice … sublime voice that sends shivers up your spine. I love when this is mixed with other music forms. I grew up with and love Queen and Klaus Nomi, Meredith Monk and Kate Bush. I find them all operatic - of course some more obvious then others.


Come Kingdom Come presents a comparison of this turn of the Millennium with the previous one. How and where did you spend your turn of the Millennium and how do you remember the time leading up to it?
I was living in Boston at the time, finishing my first year of undergrad. I went up to Maine, where my parents were still living at the time, because I wanted to spend the millennium passing with a bit of peace and family, and also wanted to record off the TV anything that might happen on the news. I wasn’t yet thinking about this project specifically, that came about six years later. But I was talking about and discussing already the historical comparisons with my writing partner on the project, my brother Ian Colbert, whom I often work with. I hate to say it, but I was much less scared of the world ending then of people who thought the world was going to end. Rural Maine seemed like a good choice!


Interestingly, I know quite a few people who are intrigued by apocalyptic thought and theory, if only on a superficial level. When did you first start to become interested in them?
Strangely a comment in a yoga class I was in, where I overheard a woman say that if she didn’t have yoga and Buddhism she would have killed herself. I don’t want to sound judgmental here, it’s important we do what we can to survive and live well, and that means many things for many people. But I was thinking about that comment, and conversations I had been having with a very close friend who is Indian, about appropriation of culture and religion. Again, please readers don’t get me wrong here, or I’ll not only sound like an asshole but my point won’t be made. I have many good friend who are Buddhists, or practice … truly practice, religions that stemmed from a cultural background different from their own. I admire this, and I also recognize the need. Thinking about this need had me thinking about the different ways we are handling increasingly apocalyptic times. Religion and spirituality, politics and charity, avoidance and exclusivity. Some people fear, and some people pray for end times to come. At the time I was camping with my dog in the desert a lot, and realized my own need for that landscape was apocalyptic in itself. In Joshua Tree State Park, in the Mohave desert, there is an old failed ruin of leftovers from attempts to raise cattle. There is an old dam there, Barker Dam … it’s now dried up. Nearby you can hike to a cave where there are petroglyphs. You have this sense of this “harsh” landscape, hiding and subtle with its actually quite vibrant life. You have to be still and look and listen to be surrounded by it. I was doing this at the dam, as there were these endangered Grebes that I loved to listen to. Their strange honking call would bounce all over the rocks and mix in the with tourists’ calls. I had this spot that was sort of hidden. It was close to sunset and people were leaving … their calls dying out, and the Grebes calls taking over. I was thinking about how personal end times are … who and what has already had them, and how much of that is due to choices and actions our species has made. The last song of the album formed here, and launched the rest of the project.


The opera has been seven years in the making – astoundingly, as I just checked, you had just started to work on it when we first mailed! Why did it take so long?
That’s true, wow! Oh yes, this was for sure an on and off labor of love. Initially it was to be a live performance, and I was working on those aspects with a Los Angeles based artist named Carmen Zella, along with my brother Ian Colbert, and the opera singer Gabriela Crowe, whom I met through Carmen. At this point I had an idea of the project and music, some graphical scores, and Ian had written the lyrics. Carmen and I were working on the plan for the live performance. We did a recording of the voice with the scores and Ian’s lyrics. Things went on hold … a lot was happening in everyone’s life. I had made one preliminary track that was up on Myspace (yes, Myspace … that will date the project beginning!), but was working on composing for a film that became the album you first contacted me about (the album actually had two early versions of tracks from Come Kingdom Come). So this is about two years later, and a French sound artist, Tellemake, contacted me wanting to collaborate, and was particularly interested in the early track. I told him the project idea and sent a preliminary sketch and a sound library, and we went back and forth working like that on some of the songs, the outcome of which I really love. I had around this time decided that some day I would love this to be performed, but for now the intimacy of an album attracted me … something you could be alone with. Apocalyptic issues can be so personal. Some other projects came up, and I moved to Portugal … things got put on hold again (of course this is the simple version!). But they were close, so close. In fact I’m looking now on the earliest version of the “finished” album, and it dates 2007… so technically before I moved. I worked a lot on it my first years in Portugal, while trying to learn the language here and get my roots planted, which can be a very lonely business. The final song, “Song for the End of Time”, done with my partner Rui Costa and the amazing Jessica Constable, was completed in 2009. It took some time to find the right home, though Will from Two Acorns expressed immediate interest, but much was going on in his life as well and the label was brand new, so it wasn’t a sure thing yet. I’m so happy that ended up working out … very few labels would take on such a project and also do it right. It was the perfect fit and well worth the wait. And meanwhile the project was performed live in San Francisco at the Activating the Medium Festival (http://www.thelab.org/schedule/events/591-activatingthemedium.html) and here in Portugal at the Sintoma Festival (http://www.i2ads.org/sintoma/?page_id=509).  Actually, there is a video here: (http://vimeo.com/45571435)


As part of the process, you were working with classically trained singers. What was the interaction like?
Working with Gabriela was an excellent and fun challenge. She hadn’t collaborated on anything experimental, but was completely open. She was somewhat familiar with graphical scores, but we found it easier if I conducted her in real-time. So I did a lot of silent dancing around the studio and gesturing during the recording! Even when processed, she’s so there. She is so expressive and powerful, and it was important to me to be very careful, emphasizing and doing only what the song was calling for. Sometimes sound was separated from lyric, or breath from voice isolated, then woven back in again. But working on this for so long … I feel like I can say, for me, there is nothing there that is unnecessary.


Although there are no visual cues in the opera, I'd be curious, with your background in multimedia, whether certain images or visual ideas may have inspired the way you structured the work. I certainly find that it has a strong spatial feel and a sense of sonified painting at times. How do you see the relationship between the different senses in shaping a work of art?
Working for me is always a synesthetic event, even if I’m not working on both audio and visual at the same time. There is so much constant crossover with the senses, I would have to separate with purpose if I wanted to. And this project did start with visual elements, which changed but stayed in mind throughout. For the live event there is a triptych of video screens, and one of the main sources are a series of photographs using a special technique from artist Olivia Block. When I first saw these, there was an instant connection to my project for me. Even the special drying process she used made sense somehow for me conceptually. Rather than provoking a new idea, it felt like a recognition … I recognized these would be animated within the video element. Thank goodness she said yes!!


To me, some of the most important aspects of the apocalypse are what constitutes permanence when everything is eventually ephemeral, for example, or what it means to be human when we are faced with the end of humanity – did you manage to find answers to these and similar questions?
I relate to what you say here. Especially as the project moved on and I incorporated more of an ecological perspective, with recordings of endangered species and seismic activity. This happened when thinking about how we are one species of many, our specific perspective of what is The End. Life would continue, of course … meanwhile we are taking so much, too much with us. I think the project is more a contemplation than a question looking for an answer. Regardless of the opera being somewhat initially inspired by The Book of Revelations (amongst many other religious “endings” as well as scientific), I myself cannot claim a specific religion. But something I do like about many old religions is the embracing of mystery. You don’t pose a specific question, you don’t expect a clear answer… you contemplate.


One of the things that, to me, qualifies the album an opera, is how it seems to offer an an alternative reality, almost as tangible as the one that surrounds us. At the same time, from everything I see on your facebook account, you appear to love the simple life, the pleasures of just walking around in nature or spending time with friends. What's your take on escapism and the importance of illusions?
This is an interesting question…yes, I grew up with hikes and camping and being outdoors as much as possible. One brother is an ecologist in the Rocky Mountains, one is a forest conservationist, chef, and poet (the one I collaborate with often) currently in the Arctic. My father is in life sciences, my mother’s novels and stories are always filled with human interaction with the world outside humans. Walking around in nature is a reset and refueling for me. I have a great love and concern for humanity, and fiercely adore my friends. But like my family, I have more of a need to be in a quiet and experiential time and place often. I get most of my ideas and thinking done in momentum … walking, swimming. So for me this is completely integrated in my life and as much a part of the process of the work as anything. Since a child I’ve always had a wild imagination, and this comes into my perception of what is around me in real time. I was always creating little alternate narrative and worlds within mine, and in a different but similar way still do. So perhaps rather then an alternate reality, this is just one of my perceptions fleshed out.


You're a writer, curator, composer and multimedia artist and music seems to accompany every step of your way. When you're immersed in sound all day the way you are, does it become less fascinating – because you understand the way certain things work – or even more mysterious? What are some of the things you learn about sound if you're constantly surrounded by it?
Sound and our perception of it is so much deeper and more mysterious than we tend to think about. We keep breaking through and learning new things that lead to more questions. It’s everywhere and a constant; it penetrates and moves us. It’s ceaselessly fascinating and studying and working with it shows us so much about the world and ourselves, in so many different ways. I can safely say it will never stop fascinating me, and there is always so much to learn … and so many more projects to be done.

Maile Colbert interview by Tobias Fischer
Maile Colbert Image #1 by 23five
Maile Colbert Images #2, 3 & #4 by Rui Costa

Homepage: Maile Colbert
Homepage: Two Acorns Records
Homepage: Come Kingdom Come on Discogs