issue 15 :: July 2008

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INTERVIEW: Michael Northam

Publishing his exquisite drones and enviromental-recordings under the name mnortham, Michael Northam has been releasing tapes and compact discs since 1990 or so, while restlessly moving through Austin, Portland, Seattle and throughout Europe and India. I first met him in 1996 at the N D office after he returned from an European sojourn and we became instant friends. We had much to discuss, and sadly too little time to work together save for a few projects. The following interview assumes you are familiar with Michael’s history as presented in the interview published in the French Revue et Corrigée magazine. We begin at Michael’s arrival in Berlin after a five-month adventure in India.

interview by Josh Ronsen

Austin 1997

Q: Alluding to your recent letter from Berlin, what sessions are you currently editing? Are these the flute and field recordings performances you mentioned?
Northam: The sessions I am working now are as usual spread across time and space, and not particularly of one instrument or another. Most notable is a work I started three years ago in Estonia/Finland called SUHINA, which is based on the “feeling” of hearing wind through the leaves of trees in the forest. I feel it is a departure from the strictly conceptual and moves into a more poetical approach. To work with the rasa of sound — the psychic-emotional statement that is so often obscured or strictly avoided with much “experimental music” — is something I want to reawaken in my work.
This work and many other seeds that are currently being mulled over for new projects are constructed in a similar way as much of my past work. Using field recordings and improvised sessions that are “composted” through a rather arduous technique of mixing and remixing. It is in some ways rewarding but in others more and more annoying because of the time spent behind computers. Thus I have sometimes questioned the whole creative process that is behind such “acousmatic work” and moved more and more towards improvised and acoustic research via shakuhatchi, singing and above all breath. But this is not yet incorporated into my acousmatic work but is more of a type of training of ear, breath and the whole interconnection of body and sound towards a new understanding of pacing and sonic morphology based on the most simple and evident means possible.
Q: How did you come to pick up the shakuhatchi?

instruments built by michael from bull kelp and pvc
Northam: The shakuhatchi has for me only come about because of its place as a marriage between sound and meditation. Being an instrument created by the Japanese Zen monks, it is designed in such a way that one must be quite conscious when playing it. And that the playing must be tied in to the control and observation of the breath. I started playing seriously after a long period of personal struggle where I very nearly stopped all artistic work with sound. I had been living in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in southern France, then a Vipassana center and finally and my ex-fiancée’s grandmother’s house in Burgundy, France. This period of five months brought me to a much slower pace of life than I have ever experienced. When I was in Burgundy I got the chance to look through many things I had in storage there from the previous Swiss experience [the Cloud Mirror organization]. One thing I found was a shakuhatchi that I bought when I had funds to gather some new instruments. I had never been able to play it much at all. At this time in this country house where I spent five weeks more or less alone, I began to play each day. I attribute a heightened level of concentration to the previous three and half months of experience in in the two different Buddhist centers. The combination opened up the instrument to me. It is a long journey but very rewarding. However I am not certain how I might use it in my own music.
Finally now recently moving to Berlin, I have begun a new series of sessions with people I have met here. New directions afoot. Much more raw and perhaps naked than ever before. It feels good, and reminds me of the “early days” a bit — so we will see...
Q: John [Grzinich] was here for a visit last year and showed a documentary about MoKS, the “artist-run international residency center and project space in southeast Estonia.” You were in the film, playing the shakuhatchi to small children. I assumed you had picked up the instrument to better connect with young listeners, or listeners not familiar with electro-acoustic/noise music. Do you see the instrument in this light of reaching the ears of "regular" people (as opposed to a specialized audience)?

Northam: I have never been interested in making music for a “specialized audience.” In fact, I would say that that is a topic that makes me question the validity of this form of “art music” in general, as it seems to sometimes be a “preaching to the converted” or sometimes a “boys-club” that seems to be in some sort of strange rut. From the beginning of making this sort of sound work, while involved with N D magazine and the folks around, it was directly an outcome of my interest in mail art, dada, underground art/music and above all an alternative to the disgusting self consuming rock and roll scene that I saw a lot in Austin, Texas. For a spell I felt that our idealism was valid and that the whole idea of making this music was for the joy of networking and meeting other folks that had shared interest as well as making perhaps a sort of metaphysical intervention into the “normal” activities of people and of ourselves — to perhaps elevate or infiltrate a dominate culture of commercialism and post capitalist malaise. Over the years and most notably when I moved to Seattle, I began to meet people of this new music that seemed to care less about networking than self promotion and “working hard” to somehow “make a name for themselves.” It is sufficient to say that I’ve always tried to stick to some ideals where I would rather remain open and honest to my actual emotional/psychic states than to pursue some limited conceptual directions or so-called “professional” duties...

So back to your question: I picked up the flute simply because I found one (in this case probably an Indonesian flute) and that prior to coming to Estonia I had begun some improvised work with Hitoshi Kojo — work that was based on simple means that could be easily taken with backpacks and brought to old broken houses, water cisterns and forests that Koz and I explored while we were in Epesses, Switzerland. That fateful summer in Eestland, I just brought things that I had been playing with recently, and the flute is one. At that time and still now, my primary use of flutes was to play it with overblowing the hole getting a wispy windy sort of sound that morphologically is very suitable to some of my field recordings (wind has been an important aspect of my sort of “alchemical” approach to making sound for years now). So the use of instruments, and the situation in that documentary was all sort of coincidental.

performing in erg, Austin 1996 [Bryan Green’s head in fishtank]
Regarding “reaching ears” or not “reaching ears” — my intention has always been quite subjective. Sometimes I make things that are difficult, and sometimes more tonal and even emotional. I don’t have a conceptual predetermined approach, but I do feel that more and more I want to make music that I would actually like to listen to myself. I feel that many of the recordings I have seen coming out in the last few years are made by artists wanting to have “another object” [“another object” was my first ever cassette release, and even at that time in 1990, I was feeling like most cassettes and recordings that people were trading were a little “n’importe quoi” — and so even my own work I felt was just “another object.”] with their name on it than actually producing some work that is evocative and capable of withstanding multiple listens. I would like to try to produce music that is like a very rich garden, that is perhaps useful in that it unfolds into a space differently after repeated listens — that the journey and fascination of listening remains up front — that perhaps it even has a catchy groove or mysterious melody interwoven that also makes a listener want to return to it again and again to taste that “rasa” [rasa- means flavor or taste and is a crucial element in the understanding of raga and much Indian music — it is in fact the mysterious cornerstone to understanding how sound/music contains (or not contains) an psychic/emotional contact point.]
Q: In wanting to "evoke a peculiar state of dissolution," through your sound works, are you trying to convey something, a feeling, an idea, through your sound works? What happens when someone gets something entirely different out of your work?
Northam: Since the beginning of my working with sound, I have explicitly desired NOT to express a personal feeling, idea or what have you, but to grow, or as I prefer, compost the sound elements through a process of fermentation until a certain character arises. This character is not predetermined, but grows out of the materials that I am working with. Via this process, I hope to attain or “find” a state in the process where the sound elements could be said to live on their own, beyond my implicitly limited intentions.

composting sound not composing sound?
As I don’t have any personal predetermined way that I want people to listen to my work, I have often been pleasantly surprised. The work becomes a sort of mirror to the personal state of the listener. As I don’t “want” a particular reading or another, it allows the listener to come forward and apply what ever logic, feeling, idea, or what have you to the sounds that they are experiencing. Often surprising things happen, visions, ideas. The best is when people tell me that they get through my music the inspiration to make their own music, art, writing. This is the best, because I do believe that art in its highest state is not an expression of a personality but something beyond that. When an artist arrives at touching that beyond, it immediately gets conveyed to those with similar goals, and we then share a profound crossing point. One can observe when artists are more preoccupied with their personality, or their particular will, the work becomes rather head based, limited in appreciation, and ultimately limited in listenability. It is obvious, or should be, that there are records that can be returned to time and time again with always something a bit new to be heard (or more precisely, felt), and there are other records that seem to get “used up” after a single listen. I don’t want to “figure out” this mystery, but over the years I began to get an intuitive understanding of that crucial difference in approach.
Finally, I would like to add that I am taking on a paradoxical approach recently in Berlin. I have been interested in very lowfi and rather more pop (or simply “musical”) oriented music for years (crossing categories from psychedelia, folk, no-wave, Indian, and the so called new weird now scene), and I am more and more interested to see what I can come up with spontaneously and without months or years of reworking on computer. It is incredibly difficult to blend my above stated way of working (with non-intentional “fermentation” process oriented composing) with a spontaneous and improvised music. I have never really liked to listen to records of pure electro-acoustic improvisation — I find it far too abstract and mental — but via meeting folks in Finland and corresponding with some folks in the United States and elsewhere — there is an exciting and very simple energy that is resurfacing. I think also that my recent study of dhrupad and the simple daily reality of living in India the last half year has also turned me on to this direction. Simply: one is a slave to a functioning computer until one develops the capacity to hear and acoustically derive sounds from the world that surrounds them. Of course it takes a new sort of training — and therefore there will unavoidably be a bit of a lapse in the perpetual linear “positivist” development — some times one must go backwards to go forward. Recently I am playing with wind instruments, voice, and lowfi electronics, and I am learning a lot by learning about how I worked 15 years ago when I also had nothing. (time of Esophagus [vocal-only ensemble] and my first recordings)...
Q: Your answers always seem to preface my next question. I was going to ask about the intersection of Buddhist thought — perhaps practice is a better word as Buddhism is supposed to move beyond thought — with electronic sound. Is there a way to reconcile electronics/computers with Buddhism? I ask this because I’ve watched you work in the studio (the Steam Room?) in Austin and your equipment back then allowed for a great control and precision manipulation of sound. To me this implies a functioning and meticulous ego in operation: getting a track to sound “just right” and so on. Obviously field recordings are one way to circumvent this, but there is so much for an ego to decide and fiddle with there. In my admittedly slight reading of Buddhism (the Zen variety of Hui-Neng and Huang Po), I could never reconcile Being with a musician’s Will-to-Action.
Northam: Practice in all senses is the right word. Buddhism is a “name” to one small aspect of this practice that is always in flux and evolution. My contact with Buddhism started in 1998 when I was in Nepal. It was the first time that one particular form of practice “touched” me. For me it was a method to pull up roots of monotheistic thought that I find more suffocating than liberating. And from that time I used some sort of “buddhistic” thought to give me a sense of basis while I have been moving around so much. In particular the active practice of Vipassana only began in 2003, which was the actual application of this theory into practice (before all talks about ego-less action were only thoughts but not experiential evidence). Vipassana (which in short is simply a practice that enables one to watch one’s sensations without getting involved in them) has helped me find some permanent place of stillness from which to operate. It is not Buddhism in any sense of belief system; it is merely that which was taught originally by this person that was called the Buddha as an exercise that anyone of any belief system can do.
Most recently I have taken this practice out of any sense of Buddhist belief and into perhaps simply an understanding of non-duality, which was first introduced to me via readings of Tibetan Buddhism but only really hit home with the actual meeting and communication with teachers of Advaita (which is a philosophical offspring of Vedantic studies in India). This was also the ancient source of what later was to become Buddhism.
Essentially — regarding artistic creation. I have had serious troubles with the applied practice of Buddhism because the logical extension of the practice leads one to a monastic life and away from any personal creative life. My encounter with Advaita in India has helped me to understand the strange paradoxical hybrid of action and non-action. I can roughly quote from one great inspiration to me, Lama Angarika Govinda, who had been and carried on being an artist even though he went through years of Buddhistic monasitic training. He says that as an artist one must enter fully in the the most profound subjective realities. Only when one reaches the most un-obscured realities of one’s self can one truly create something objective. Most artists rely on imitation or entering into a stream of some aesthetical river or communal support system, but those who reach the deepest inside can actually arrive at a production of work that is beyond themselves. This I find is the exact parallel to the teachings of Advaita that state that there is no duality: all that one does is only the interface between the unmanifested and manifested. If one can remove the concepts and arrive at essential action the process becomes evident.
How is this applied to computers, composition, improvisation, music? I think that someone involved with sound as art has a great opportunity to tune this interface between the unmanifested and manifest — we are sitting on the edge of a great river (to quote a Japanese friend of mine) — and we can only try to clear that space between ourselves and that river so that we do not mess up the transmission. How? Each of us has our own path and challenges. We do what we can to survive and if possible tap into something much larger than ourselves. I think that our body/minds are essentially egos — ego means a self-identified particle of the unmanifested. There is nothing we can do about that — there are egos and they act, but each is at the same time something beyond that manifestation. The analogy could be the projection of a film on a screen. We are that projection at the same time we are the light that projects. Instead of concentrating on the screen, shifting the focus on to the burning filament that produces light could be a great and very challenging shift of perspective on this process of creation.

photo by Monika Glahn
For years, the best time that I have when I am playing rocks, dry grasses and singing or playing shakuhatchi is when I am no longer thinking about what I am doing. But doing as if it was not I that was doing. This is not easy nor is it so simple. It is like balancing a slug on a razor blade.It doesn’t “work” in any mechanical way — and there is nothing to say objectively — as each person would have their own approach. But one approach I find is that when one makes a work or plays with the goal to not to impose ones personal desire — but to see what is simply there and let it manifest itself — one is on the way. Much of the “problem” is that people are fixated on wanting to do something good, do something that wins the grant, do something that is “new,” do something that is cool, do something that in general gains positive reputation and avoids negative reputation. This nearly always leads to disaster, depression, frustration etc. Slowly I begin to learn to let this go, and do what I can do around me and see what comes of it. It is indeed a paradox as the world (especially Western culture) does not care and it does not pay off to follow this path. But I get the feeling that if one follows this there is simply less illusions. But nonetheless it is tricky.
Q: I have to ask about your culinary adventures in India. I have been working through a few Indian cookbooks, trying to master the delicate blending of spices.
Northam: Biggest difference: South vs. North. More differences splinter after each state. The ones I visited: Maharashtra, Goa, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnatika, Madhya Pradesh, Utter Pradesh. Each state has their own thing — very notably, I learned that Maharashtra and also Gurjurati cuisine is particularly delightful with special grains and subtle combinations of texture and spice.
The cuisine known most commonly outside of India is Northern — and in particular Punjabi — that is the usual with breads like naan.
In the South — nearly no wheat, mostly rice flour and in particular a fermented rice flour — to make idly (yummy rice patties), dosa (huge crispy crepes, sometimes with other grains inside or coconut), uttapam (sort of rice pizza), and all of these come with sambar and coconut/cilantro chutney (a quick taste of this is simple: take coconut flesh [not sweetened!- ed.] and cilantro and blend together until you have a nice green paste — YUM!). If you find an Indian market, then get an idly mix (you steam them like poached eggs) and a sambar mix and make this chutney. Then you have a typical South Indian breakfast!
Hmm —makes me hungary thinking of this!
Another simple thing (more Maharastrian): take very fresh cabbage, cut in small slices, heat a pan, put some mustard seeds on the pan and roast until they start to pop or turn color — don’t burn! — and then put in some oil, cabbage and salt. Saute and keep stirring (maybe a drop of water for steaming) until the cabbage is tender. This is cheap villager food and healthy...
So many other dishes, but I mostly saw that people used always the same five/six pots of spice. They have a traditional container that has all the spices you need. From that you make many different combos.
Q: OK: enough about food! Music! Did you get a chance to perform your electro-acoustic/field recordings music there? Did your Dhrupad teacher(s) know about the musical activities we all know you for?
Northam: In 2006 I was invited to the KHOJ workshops in South Delhi. There I was a part of SONIC ARTS conference. This was my first reason to come to India. During this I made a private 8 channel listening booth and gave talks about the experiential nature of sound to a very receptive and exciting audience.
Then after leaving there was a lot of talk about getting me back to be a manager for the media department of the workshop but this never happened. However due to one CDr that I published during the residency of field recordings and collaboration with Jatin Vidyarthi (DJ Masta Justy), I was invited back to Bombay in 2007-08 to work with Shumona Goel. During this second trip I had a number of residencies (some brief some longer) at places such as the Kashi residency center in the backwaters of Kerala, Adishakti center in Tamil Nadu (near to Pondicherry), and a space south of Bombay, and not to forget an amazing 10 days at the GURUKUL center where I was taught by the Gundecha brothers about Dhrupad.
During these residencies I had some moments where I could present on a private scale some of my work. This was somewhat of a challenge due to various topics. Much had to do with technology. How does one present “electro-acoustic/field recordings music” when there is no electricity? How does one present this work when the already existing sonic space is so rich and complicated? How does one present this work to people who culturally are very good listeners, so much so that they can not hear the “meaning” in stuff that doesn’t have musical meaning. Many debates and very curious perspectives came up which still resonate with me here in Berlin, because I understood their points.
To elucidate this: for example in Kerala, the center was on a strip of land on an island 1km by 7km. On other islands there were temples and 24 hours a day there was temple music going on. Sonically the atmosphere was saturated with a deeply sentimental and mysterious intermixing of sounds. At night the frogs were so loud that it woke me up and I began recording in a zombie state wandering around the grounds of the space. There was absolutely nothing “I” could add to this sonically rich area, so we just talked about sound and listened. Also touching the plant material with contact microphones and having some of the local art students experience this micro sound, in the midst of the macro sound. That was sufficient. There was also no electricity for most the time we were visiting. Later, in Pondicherry, I was to present something, but not having my computer nor any decent speakers I decided to build something. I made a huge ball of leaves and sticks and carrying this on my back I played long extended notes from my shakuhatchi.
The idea came about because I would practice while wandering around a cashew tree orchard — these trees are so lovely — they have thick waxy leaves and the tops of the tress are like half spheres coming from the surface of the earth — they grow in a peculiar way so as to make nice shelters when it rains.
The performance I designed concerned the cashew trees and their leaves, but I also mixed in other plant materials: bamboo, banana, and other unknown plants. This ball then was used in the performance in different ways, on my back, then I played it with a wireless microphone, tapedecks and bells inside the leaves. The performance was in darkness and I just had a flashlight taped to my wrist. The piece was noisy and cathartic, but people seemed to enjoy it. I made a second performance (both evenings I played as a separate act with my friend B from In Gowan Ring who did his own songs as well) at one of the facilities of Auroville, Pitanga. There we did a show with a very attentive audience. I premiered “through” (part I of my new work SUHINA) and then made some improvisations with overblowing on my shakuhatchi. This was quite a nice response of the people, but then again it was primarily Western people there (as is the situation with Auroville). Finally there was not another chance to do a proper performance.
Regarding the contact with the Gundecha’s: Ramakant and I have spoken enough about what I do, and the specific contact with them is due to the interest in perception and sound. It is a unique situation as these brothers represent a younger generation of Dhrupad — they are already out of the normal family lineages (Dagar, Malik, etc) and they had worked in the Library of Bhopal. I remember discussing Andrei Tarkowski with Ramakant and he also showed me some special techniques about discerning notes from massed drones. This is an essential reason for why I want to try to find a way to spend more time with them. But currently I am rather discouraged because of an inability to find any sources of income in my current state. Discussions with the Gundecha’s are always a bit glancing. It has a lot to do with the student/teacher relationships in India; certain boundaries cannot get crossed so easily due to tradition. So I haven’t pushed the communication further. However their father Babaji is amazing. We talked for a long time about creation and being a creator, how the disappearance of one’s self in the process of creating is the understanding that we (human beings) are some sort of instrument that is being played, not necessarily by some sort of god, but by the broader term of the unmanifest. He really lit up when I told him one story about my work :COYOT: which he was listening to. Seth Nehil told me when he heard one near final mix that it sounded like I did nothing. Babaji’s eyes got watery and he kept telling me “that is it: we all must arrive at the state of understanding that we do nothing. Only at that point is there something important created.”
Q: It is a shame your action performances aren’t better documented. What is the spark that started you to do actions? I don’t know how much you use parts from one action in another, but I assume each action is unique to its location. Your performance at Movements Gallery in Austin (with the pile of chairs) was — is — one of the perfect things I have witnessed. Although I remember you shoving the chairs into the audience because some people were chatting loudly (and rudely). I’ve also read about a 13 hour action in Seattle: how did you remain focused for so long, assuming it was the kind of performance where you had to be focused?
Northam: NO shame — many things happen that are not documented — (fortunately) — MOST things happen that are not documented. The whole idea of documentation and building up some sort of archive of records is rather a bizarre and maybe even psychotic activity (perhaps too harsh a word) but there is something perverse about stock piling personal libraries of “records,” as if some day someone will discover them — or that the tracing of one’s activities will further establish some personal signficance that we all seem so desperately to seek (as artists). I state these things because they are somehow connected to the root level reason of doing physical actions. A physical action in the sense of what I have participated in was a confrontation with the absurd, with limitations of acceptable reality, with the unconscious. My inspiration comes from a book about magic and ritual that my mother bought me when I was a child. For some reason I had a small obsession with that book. I would draw pictures of ritual instruments, daydream about voodoo ceremonies. It was all rather obscurely woven under a midwestern junior high school kid — this began to mix with the typical fantasy subjects of the time period. I was fascinated by magic, not by some new age idea, nor by any gothic occult idea, but a sort of ordinary, daily magic found in the most normal of objects.
In high school I began to learn about Dada and the American Abstract Expressionists and I began instinctively to make process art works: rusting metal by pissing over the metal, hammering out geographic landscapes in road signs, layers of rotting materials in gesso, then collage, etc. and etc. During this time my girlfriend and a transvestite friend would film strange art events for video camera — secretly in the basement — either one person would get naked and get painted and then pulled around canvases (ala Yves Klien) — or Dougie (the transvestite friend) would get tied up by Amanda and I and suspended over a bowl with a melting cow heart. We really had no idea what we were doing. There was some vague knowledge of Throbbing Gristle’s COUM Transmissions (I had seen one picture once and I had happened to see a Psychic TV transmission video tape). It was more the rush of being scared of doing something absurd. Perhaps I am being too light. Maybe due to our Indiana surroundings, we were wanting to do something “evil” but were not interested in any of the typical perspectives of that. Perhaps I thought sometimes that if one could do something so authentically primordial that even the so called satanists or other weirdos would find disturbing... Finally what happened was that we were touching upon what the Viennese action artists where going for: authentic drama (if I remember right that was Hermann Nitsch’s approach). Well, we just toyed with it, but for being uneducated Indiana kids, it was rather curious.
Of course later, in Austin at Dan Plunkett’s house, I suddenly learned about Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Nitsch. I got the chance to meet Shaun Caton, Andre Stitt, and even Kurt Kren payed visits to Dan’s house. WIth the images, and the meetings, I naturally got more interested in the process of making action art, but at the same time it was clearly therapeutical and I knew that I would never become an “action artist” as it was simply too intense for me to keep up the process. However some nice events happened: Four of One, a four way collaboration with Kerthy Fix, David Avery, Carmen Resendez and myself; John Grzinich helped with sound. The situation was on a train yard not far from the Electric Lounge club in Austin. We had a very long electric line made and we began as the four elements in this empty train yard. It was a guerilla event, but we had invites printed. This work was four hours long and happened during the sun set. Was quite nice. Some visitors told me after that they thought for days about this strange event and that the images of the four of us covering our bodies in different ways with different materials was like a dream. Funnily enough I associate meeting Seth Nehil at this event, because as I was bundled in burlap, aluminum sheeting, my eyes obscured by milk and flour, I heard this outrageous banging on a light pole. I was totally taken out of the trance and thought who the fuck is that banging away, and why? It was Seth joining into the event the only way he could at the moment. This idea that we were bringing elements of dreams into “reality” — this was always the goal — to find a meeting place in the unconscious and the conscious.

Michael and Josh Ronsen, Austin 1997
Other events included the Still Born and Incandescent (the piece at Movements that you talked about with the chairs), and the 4:15am (or something like that) with Kerthy Fix. That was a strange one because it was a real enactment of being attracted to someone who does not offer back the same attraction — the fantasy and the reality — the situation was real — and we amplified the elements of the situation — unconsciously — she ended up encapsulating me in a huge fabric condom and throwing me out.
Action art was really the basis for sound art for me. There was from the beginning a raw and innocent exploration of real phenomena. There was not much concept to begin with, but one could read into the events many things. I never felt it was my job to consciously know what was there; that was the mystery. I remember an interview with Phauss (von Hausswolff, Pauser project in the‘90s) who was asked the meaning of their performance. They responded “If we knew the meaning, we wouldn’t be doing it.” I still think that the highest art for me is the one that is being channeled into reality in the moment, not what is conceptually ran over a 1000 times in someone’s mind, but the living and growing at that very moment. So from action work to sound I went, because it was less about therapy and more about altered-states of perception. Each person could enter in their own way into the sound, whereas the performance was about one person, and that was an obstacle for me, not to mention it was really difficult for me to keep up the process of being a conduit at that level that action performance required.
I stopped making these, I have never made them in Europe and finally while spending a weekend with some friends living on the Columbia Gorge, I decided I needed another psychic flushing. I decided to take some of my difficult emotional stories and put them out into a new action. I wanted to do it all night and I gave myself a small triangle to do it. I invited anyone to join me at anytime. This work was about misunderstood relationships with others — about stretching oneself to find meaning in contact with another, another of the opposite sex, but the meaning becoming misleading and taking one nowhere. There was a lot of this mental passive aggressive behavior I found in Portland, Oregon where I was living. I wanted to express some truth, albeit confused truth. There was simply too many mirages and inaccessible people there. How then to cut through to see clearly? I returned to action performance work to try to do that. I don’t think it really worked. First of all the only person that joined me was the woman that inspired the work itself, so suddenly I found myself going into trance, covered in colors and binding my feet, while constructing out of wood in my triangle space a “fragile structure of love.” And then a woman who I was very much attracted to, moved in and covered her face in color helping me to construct this fragile structure of love — hmm — well there was a situation forming that the performance was describing. It was rather intense, and when it became clear to me that like the duet with Kerthy; action performance is a lot about not being able to deeply share some very peculiar perceptions of reality with others and namely with others with who I am in a relationship or whom I am attracted to. At a certain point she left and I was alone for the darkest hours of the night. In the morning I was in a very heavy state of trance and action — nearly scaring myself — intuitively knowing that my mother was having shoulder replacement surgery, I attached a strange triangular drafting tool to my shoulder. I had a melon painted like an eye ball that I punched and broke open to feed on — and feed anyone willing to take it. At a certain point when all was said that could be said, I got up and made a bee line for the Columbia River, washed and came back. The whole group of people there looked at me as I was some sort of angle of death. That was the last action performance I have done.
On the other hand, I think some of my live sound works are the same thing, although instead of making a mess of myself, I am conducting sounds in the space. At the base, there is a similar attitude — to open up perhaps a sort of dream hole — to crack reality a bit — to open the space and allow something else to happen. This is of course one of the strongest points with my collaboration with Hitoshi Kojo (kodama), who shares much of the same perspectives about the power and source of action performance in relationship to sound works.
Q: One of the benefits of traveling is being exposed to artists you don’t hear about in the press, even the underground press. Who are some of the people you’ve met in your recent travels who are doing work of exceptional nature, which by your view, those whose work is “something beyond an expression of personality?”
Northam: This is a trick question because for me to say that anyone artist is working “beyond an expression of personality” is, in fact, an expression of my personality in judgment, so I would refuse to say who I might think might be doing that and rarely would I even analyze other people with this criteria. It is not me (or anyone else) to judge — it is a personal process that each one would be struggling with (or not) in their own way.
On the other hand, there are certainly folks I have been meeting that are “exceptional” in various ways. Limiting that observation to the realm of sound or improvisation there is a long list to make, perhaps, limited to the previous couple years I could name a few. Working in reverse — I have witnessed some works of Alessandro Bossetti that strikingly reminded me of (but not comparable to) the energy behind the works of Ghedelia Tazartes. He currently he lives in Baltimore, Maryland and I find this also curious because rarely do I meet Europeans that have chosen for one reason or another to live in the U.S. (especially not in an obvious city). In India I would have to throw in the extremely exceptional performances I saw at the Dhrupad Mela in Varanasi, in March this year. In particular the Rudraveena performance of Bahauddin Dagar. He started at 4:30am and the whole of the audience was profoundly present — I would say that such performance makes 90% of “experimental” music pale in comparison. Another artist I met, Inoue So, at the Gundecha Brothers school was trained in Japan to play flute for Shinto Temples and was studying Dhrupad to further his studies of the flute in the context of Indian musical systems. His playing was profoundly transpersonal. Of course to be able to watch the Gundecha Brothers in their home school was a rare and wonderful opportunity. Back to so-called “experimental music” — I recently saw a performance of Seijiro Murayama playing on just snare and cymbal. He created a wonderful suspended state that he evoked from nearly nothing (and no electronics!). In the last years traveling in Finland I had the opportunity to see the Phonal Records showcase in Tampere where I saw “exceptional” performances of Kemialliset Ystavat, Lau Nau, Islaja, ES. All of these people inspire me greatly. Of course I would mention that some of the folks I have been playing with in Berlin are exception in their own ways — and certainly worth mentioning. Jason Honea (The Knit Seperates, The Child Readers, The Shitty Listener), Melanie Velarde, Marcel Turkowsky (Snake Figures Arkestra, UUHUU, Cones, Datashock, Wooden Veil) and in Brussels Fred Marbaix, Sachiyo Honda, Sabri Meddeb — to name but a few…

June 2008 Shitty Listener session with (cw from lower left) Northam, Melanie Velarde,
Sabri Meddeb, Jason Honea, Mandjao Fati (photo by Anne-Françoise Quoitin)
To close this feature, we present a July 22nd 2008 recording of Michael and Melanie Velarde: 22.july 2008 — Melanie Velarde & Michael Northam have been preparing for their first duet performance. For this project a framework was made so that they could practice listening and responding to changing fields of sound. A selection of sound materials — rather static recordings from 40sec to 4+min of locations, patterns, textures — are played randomly onto a series of small speakers scattered around the floor. Melanie adds to this with two additional hand held cassette players as well as e-bow and zyther. Michael plays an old french suitcase, lids, bowls, wood and glass light fixture.
Much more information can be found on Michael’s new web page at
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