Thursday, January 14, 2016

Interview with Kristin Norderval for Leonardo Music Journal #25, Politics of Sound Art

Photo of Kristin Norderval ©Kaia Means

In 1969 SOURCE: Music of the Avant Garde magazine asked twenty innovative composers the same single question: "Have you, or has anyone, ever used your music for social or political ends?"  
In 2015, for the Politics of Sound Art issue of Leonardo Music Journal, I asked  the same question of twenty composers working today.

I'll be featuring the responses of individual composers here on the blog until May 2016, when the entire series of interviews will be made freely available on the Politics of Sound Art page.

Today is Kristin Norderval's birthday, and last night at Roulette in Brooklyn I was moved by the concert reading of her new opera The Trials of Patricia Isassa based on the life of a woman who had been captured and tortured by the Argentine military junta at the age of 16. Thirty-three years later, Patricia Isassa brought her torturers to justice.


Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends? 

How do you define political and social? For me, any live performance is always necessarily a social event – when we sit and watch and listen together, just being together in a common space is already a social and political act. When we operate in isolation, just interacting with our digital devices, we can easily be divided and controlled. But to sit in the same room together – to dance, make sound, read poetry, sing, discuss, dream – these are the things that will be the seeds for change.

Part of what I have looked at as a musician are the places where we are doing music, and who feels comfortable coming into these places? As a singer, I work with words. So then the question becomes what words? Whose voices? What stories? All of that is political. Even if you say you are not responding politically, that too is a political stance. To not articulate something is also an articulation.

My very first professional commission was for a lesbian and gay chorus in San Francisco – three choral pieces with piano based on Emily Dickinson poems to commemorate all of the losses in the AIDS crisis. This past spring I was asked to write a new work for Joan La Barbara’s group Ne(x)tworks. That piece – Re-Play #4: Name Piece – is about drone attacks. There have been a number of US drone attacks on wedding parties. Can you imagine? I used the names of the 47 victims from a wedding party attacked in 2008 in Nangahar, Afghanistan. It was almost all woman and children, only 2 adult men. My most recent album Aural Histories is just voice and electronics – there are no words on it – but those pieces too have political context, the sounds have background stories that bring up things for people.

For me, the events of September 11, 2001 changed a lot of things because of how people started responding in fear. In the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq I was about to do a tour in Norway with a small chamber ensemble. The European media was picking up all the lies being broadcast in the US media about the imminent threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the false argument that there was a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda. I, as an American, had an opportunity to present a different picture. I asked my New York colleagues for materials, and performed works by these other composers and myself that were saying we don’t agree with the mainstream media. It was a really important tour for me. I got a lot of comments from people who were thankful to know there was some opposition.

After 9/11, I felt like I had to provide a counterweight to the mainstream propaganda, even though at times I wondered if there was much point in singing to people who might already agree with me…but to not do it felt like going along with things. As artists we have to project some image of what we wish for the world.