Questions for Artists

John Koch-Northrup posted a series of questions on Ello, and I so enjoyed the questions and the process of considering responses that I thought I’d share the results.

What or who inspired you initially?

A few different things here. I was quite literally born singing, according to my mother, expressing my wordless dislike for the bright lights of the hospital room by cocking one eye at it and hollering at the top of my lungs. So, hospital lights.

Then, when I was five, I had a terrible nightmare and as my mother tried to wake me from it, apparently I was yelling “I wish I had a little mouth! I wish I had a little mouth!” — because everyone was always telling me to “shut my big mouth”. My mother, smart creature that she is, recognized the damage that had been done and sat me down in front of a tape recorder the next morning and made me sing back the tunes from the little concert we had done at my school a week or so before. She tells me I lit up when she played it back, saying “I have a pretty voice!” So, mom.

As a teenager, listening to some of the GREAT women of rock in that era (Pat Benatar, Annie Lennox, Joan Jett, etc.), I wanted to be the next Pat Benatar. Learning that she had studied opera before going into rock, I decided I needed to follow in her footsteps, so I started taking voice lessons. My instructor gave me “Un bel di vedremo” from Madama Butterfly to study, and my little melodramatic heart ATE that shit up! I stayed with opera. So, Puccini. And Pat Benatar. And my first voice instructor.

I went to university to study music/voice, and I had several professors who really taught me how to think and reason, not just coast along on native smarts. So, Tim Blickhan, Myron Myers, Stephen Squires, Rich Holly and a few others.

While I was at university, I was very fortunate to be accepted as part of the student staff of the campus NPR-affiliate radio station (classical, jazz and news). That led to full time radio posts after I graduated, and I got to interview people like Robert Moog and John Cage. Moog was fascinating, and we discussed how we thought Mozart would dig modern electronics. John Cage, though, really was the one who helped me understand the true nature of music and sound.Everything was music, as far as he was concerned, and he held his phone out the window of his NYC apartment (it was a phone interview), and made me listen to the sounds of the city: taxi horns, people’s footsteps and voices at various levels of intensity, machinery, building power plants… it was all there. I was only 23 at the time, and it took a couple more decades for me to really understand what he meant, but after I lived in NYC myself for a time, I got it. It was amazing. So, John Cage. And NYC.

What gets you up in the morning? 

Um. Generally that “oh, shit, I have to do … x” feeling. Then, vast quantities of coffee. 🙂

How many projects do you work on at once?

As a StillStream admin, many. As an artist, generally one or two (sometimes more). I retired from the opera stage a few years ago, so my attention is more focused now on helping build the station library and building my mobile studio.

I do have a handful of new projects in the works now–projects that are waiting for my voice, and projects I’m curating for the label–and I have been so busy that I’ve had to put a few of them on hold for a time.

What comes first – the title or the art?

Totally depends on the project. Sometimes the title, sometimes the art, sometimes they spontaneously combust.

Describe the magic moment, the zone, the transcendent period of time where all is right in the world and the muses sing and everything snaps into place like it was meant to, where you were one with the universe. What happened? How’d you get there? How often does it happen? 

Yours truly with tenor Luis Cabrera in La TraviataWhen I was performing professionally, it happened very seldom, but it was addictive and is what I worked/hoped for every time. There were a few transcendent moments on stage where the music, the conductor, the ensemble, the stars, everything aligned and we made magic together. Once when that happened, the director came up to us at intermission with tears in her eyes, saying she had never even hoped that this particular company could make such music. I credit the amazing conductor (Richard Duncan) for that one; he came in at the 11th hour (literally!), and unlike the previous (fired) conductor, he trusted the orchestra and they trusted him, and there was a moment of such miraculous art at the end of the second act that it brought the audience roaring to their feet.

There was one very interesting audition, even! Generally opera auditions are of the “park and bark” variety: go in, quickly introduce yourself, sing something and get the hell out. But in Sacramento (I remember this like it was yesterday), the audition pianist and I had such magic that we made real music. He knew it, I knew it, the director knew it.

In another instance, I was in studio in NYC recording vocal tracks for a film project. The director had hired me because he wanted a blend of sounds–he had already recorded a tabla drone and wanted me to sing over it, improvising on the scale I had been given, and using my operatic training. It took two takes. The first one, I had the scale wrong and they corrected me. On the second take, I closed my eyes and went with it, and was somehow transported to another dimension. There is no describing this. It was only two minutes long, but it felt as though I had been singing for HOURS when I was done, and I mean that in the best possible sense. In that two minutes, entire universes unfolded behind my eyes. It was a truly transcendent experience, one that can never be recaptured but which I strive for in any musical situation.

There are others as well: performing the premiere of a song cycle for which I had written the poetry; performing a live, LONG, ambient version of that same poetry on StillStream with Joe McMahon; sitting in the audience of the Seattle Symphony in its first season at Benaroya Hall and being moved to tears; singing at Benaroya with Orchestra Seattle (thank you, George, wherever you are–I am forever grateful); …

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