Sonic Realism / Wave #3 PLANETARY CONVERSATION December 2020

Rivers, Pines

Laura Ortman & Rachael Rakes

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Dust Dives Alive, 2020

Laura Ortman’s sounds occupy a singular presence in avant-garde music and sonic art, with sensory soundscapes, performances, and collaborations that echo the interdependencies of people and materials. Her tracks are layered and experiential, lending themselves openly to collaborative possibility. Ortman’s work is anchored by her violin playing—acoustic or amplified violin as well as an Apache fiddle—along with electric guitar, Helpinstill piano, Casio keyboards, and vernacular instruments from pine branches to wind chimes. Ortman mixes these live sounds with samples and recordings to create collaged place-based atmospheric artworks. Born on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona, Ortman grew up in St. Louis along the Mississippi River and has been living in Brooklyn for over two decades. Her multi-faceted projects mix those senses of place with a devotion to artistic collective process. The track, “Dust Dives Alive,” was commissioned by Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, NY as part of their Isolated Field Recording Series in July 2020.

Rachael Rakes

Let’s start with “Dust Dives Alive,” since it provides the accompanying soundtrack to our conversation. Thinking about this work in the dual contexts of quarantine and field recording, I had the sense that the field in question is your apartment or other closer environs. But the sounds that feel immediate mingle with those that resemble samples or snippets from the past like a cross between a field recording and a time capsule.

Laura Ortman

I have a huge bank of different recordings I've made through the years on my phone and my 4-track, just random little capturings. I just hear something that sounds so cool, like someone putting up a flyer with duct tape, and that sound takes me somewhere. I took what I had saved over the past year or two and listened to what spoke to me. I began composing music simply from those raw recorded places, because I wasn’t leaving the house then, and I was missing them. I knew it was my only outlet because I hadn't played violin for at least three months at that point. With quarantine, I had kind of thrown my hands down and was just… in other capacities.

On the night I submitted the track I stayed up very late and captured a rainstorm, and that's how I opened the piece.

RR

So you are a constant field recorder, as a kind of ongoing daily habit.

LO

Yeah, absolutely. In all my albums there are aspects of field recording. I do a lot with the New York City subway, which we’re living directly above. It started by accident. Before I had my own practice space, I would record at home and all the incidental bleed would just come in and I'd be like, “errrgh… you!” But then it became “us” and I began enjoying the waves and sounds of energy that bled into the recordings. They became a muse of mine—or a fascination.

RR

Then your violin playing kind-of glues these recorded sounds together.

LO

Yeah, it comes together as some kind of overlapping and overlayering, using my musical tendencies for everything ranging from the high-pitched tones to rumbly ones. It’s a good editing factor for me. Being a violinist, I’ve had constant high-pitched strings in my ear for 40 years, which can put waves and wrinkles in your brain, and make your ear stronger for those tones. Now I have a huge tendency towards those piercing sounds.

RR

Along with those strong tones, there’s so much tactility in your compositions, and I’ve seen that you describe your music and sounds in terms of objects or matter such as dust, smoke, or stickiness.

LO

The violin is probably one of the stickiest instruments in the world. Or at least mine is. I love to over-rosin [1]—just for that grit, and because it’s so close to your ear where it is translated into sound and texture. I've been holding the violin in that spot for 40 of my 47 years, and it's just like a part of me. It's like scratching your head; you know exactly what that sounds like. Or the blink of an eye. These functions are so much about how well I know my body. I try and keep in tune with these things—like a scrape of your thumbnail on your crusty rosined violin body that can translate into a sound that starts a song—these become a form of natural editing of the beginnings or the ends of ideas.

That also reminds me of being out West. You know, there's just forests and forests of pine trees. Especially around where I'm from in Arizona and you see that pine sap glistening in the light, and when it rains, it gets oily. When it’s hot, it melts. The pine trees melt with all the sap left on them. And that's beyond sticky. It's like blood, you know. And when you get all crusted up in your own removed kind of sense of tree and place it translates into something natural, which is a lot about the kind of music that I make. So it's like I'm a carrier within my own sense of touch.

RR

The way you describe the pine is so tangible and visual.

LO

It’s also the moving image of the twirl of the rosin as it dances around, which becomes the music, and it becomes visual and kind of intertwines together. I've never known music as well as I have with these visual aspects.

RR

I was listening yesterday to a couple of new tracks you very recently posted. They are these spare and beautiful compositions you made for the Sttlmnt project, this ongoing collaboration and gathering of Indigenous artists, which as I understand it, was meant as a performance-occupation of Plymouth, UK starting this past summer (2020).

LO

It is an occupation. We were supposed to gather for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage. I was set to do a series of performances while we were all occupying this gigantic mansion. But after everything was canceled, they asked us to think how we could transfer this massive endeavor online and still have it mean something. Trying to redirect it felt like such a challenge after years in the making, so I just took the tippy top of what I'm comfortable with and what I knew I could do and decided to make an album, to start with. I began very simply by working on my own tracks and realized I needed to make something extremely positive. I was thinking, “I've got to find energy and think about this mission and story of indigenous people all over the world making something together.” The first song is called Rivers Piercing Twirl. I had also just come home from a hard trip to see family in Arizona, and I was wondering what it would look and sound like if someone pierced a hole in the bottom of the ocean between here and there, and I could go through all these different aspects in this imaginary scenario.

After I thought, “Whoa wait, the ocean is way too big. It is more than I can fathom.” So I went back to the river. My river, and something at the bottom of it that causes energy or a twirl, all the creatures and nature and the stories and the blood and oil and everything that’s above and below the surfaces, and that kind of let me think, despite all of these present distractions, that I could just do something positive, multilayered, rhythmic, and obscure, because I couldn't really think about anything I'd rather do. I wanted to do something that touches all of us. Capturing light and sound and, of course, water.

RR

It's a process of gathering your inner forces to make something positive despite the difficulty of this moment.

LO

Yeah, and it’s been enough to start with. I’ve been going back to my studio now for a few months to work on new compositions, and I'm now going to ask different artists in the Sttlmnt occupation to collaborate with me, like one on one, with other musicians, and with movement and sound, or maybe also poetry or radio. This is gonna go on for a year or two so there’s a lot more we can do, and new artists will be added along the way.

RR

Collaboration can really help to restore energy.

LO

Absolutely. I had been collaborating with all these filmmakers making soundtracks and It's been really great but I was still making the music on my own and still working with the film, which is a separate project. But I want to break out of the film soundtrack world for a little bit and collaborate on the music itself, do it in reverse, you know.

RR

Like instead of making sound to the image, making image to the sound?

LO

Something like that, I think, and collaborating on sounds too. And there’s time, so like the next track will come in maybe February, and the full album, also with some of these collaborations, will come out in about a year and a half. I also did a different kind of collaboration with Jeffrey Gibson this summer at Socrates Sculpture Park. He made this series of large structures referencing North American Indigenous architectural ingenuity and aesthetics called Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House, and invited fellow Indigenous artists to activate it in different ways. So I did a live-streamed performance on top of this big sculpture, and the video for that is going to be released in February. It was my first performance after lockdown.

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[1] Rosin, which derives from pine sap, is the substance added to bow hair to create friction between the hair and strings.

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