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Wednesday Investigations [2.9]: Stella Silbert
"a feedback loop with a turntable in the middle of it"
In April of this year, I traveled out to Western MA to revisit some of my favorite establishments at that end of the state (the Bookmill; the People’s Pint). I ended the trip by watching three performances at Hampshire College: Stella Silbert performing a solo set, Nat Baldwin and Ryan Seward performing as a duo, and Tamarisk—Christina Carter, David Menestres, and Andrew Weathers, performing as a trio.
Some of these artists I’d followed for a long time—I first saw Christina Carter perform as part of Charalambides over two decades ago—but others were new to me. Investigating outward, as is my wont, led me to reach out to Stella Silbert for an interview. She was kind enough to accept.
In the conversation below, we discuss, among other things, the technique of the “no-input mixing board,” in which you connect the output of a mixer back to its input, creating a feedback loop. If you do this accidentally, it will create a baleful howl—it’s akin to the process where a microphone picks up its own amplified sound and begins to shriek—but if carefully modulated, that howl instead becomes a living, evolving ribbon of drone, a looping path through a garden of startling possibilities. A small set of improvisers (myself included) has been fruitfully exploring this garden for years now, beginning with Japanese musician Toshimaru Nakamura, who began working with the technique around the turn of the century and continues until this day. A guide to Nakamura’s work and a more extensive description of the process can be found here.
I interviewed Silbert on October 28.
JPB: So my first encounter with your music was at a show at Hampshire back in April. Everybody at that show was using interesting sound sources, including non-instrumental sources like stones, foil, and glass. Can you tell me about the sound sources you were using? I recall a turntable at the center of your set... was it turntable plus pedals, or something else?
ss: it was a turntable, and a no-input mixing board setup. so, one channel of the mixer is routed to the main output, and the turntable goes into another channel. there's an additional output that i use as the actual output to the speakers. so it's essentially a feedback loop but with the turntable in the middle of it—but since the feedback loop is only on one channel of the mixer, i can also just have that channel off and use the turntable on its own. i can't remember exactly what i did at that show, but i usually use records to some extent, but also amplify other objects on the platter of the turntable. the objects i always have with me and often use that way are a wire brush, a large heat sink (from a computer i guess? found in a library dumpster), and the jackets of the records.
Oh, interesting! I have a long interest in no-input mixing board practitioners; I came to them via Japanese improvisers like Toshimaru Nakamura, who I think pioneered the technique? What was your entry point to that practice?
ss: same, yeah. i found out about no-input through toshimaru nakamura. one of my close friends and collaborators at hampshire college, liam kramer-white, introduced me to nakamura's music and then started experimenting with no-input a little bit himself, a few years before i did, so i had seen how accessible it was to just try, and how many different sounds could come out of it. i think i started seriously getting into it on my own right after graduating from hampshire in 2019, around the same time i first started improvising with turntable, but at first i was doing those two things separately.
i've tried more recently to research the history of no-input mixing board as an instrument, but couldn't really find much online. i also don't know of that many other improvisers who use it as their primary instrument besides nakamura, so would love to find out about other practitioners you know about!
Sometimes I just get on Bandcamp and search around for folks; there are a few out there! [One artist with a release in my collection is Helena Ford, whose 26-minute Piece for Solo No-Input Mixing Board is dedicated to Nakamura.]
I've also been listening to your collaboration with Nat Baldwin, 01.30.22. The title suggests that this is like a document of a single long improvisatory session, is that right?
yeah everything on the tape was recorded that day. each track was a separate improvisation, but all done in the same recording session.
And it sounds like you're using turntable there as well: that analog crackle is a lovely presence. Are you using no-input in that session too?
yeah, it's the same setup. that's pretty much the setup i always use, although it's true i think the turntable is more prominent in those recordings than the no-input stuff.
What drew you to begin improvising on the turntable in the first place? Did you come to it through like improvisatory / experimental music channels or did you begin life as, like, a Public Enemy fan?
it was mostly through maria chavez. i learned about her during my first semester of college, and thought her work and her philosophy behind it were really interesting. and similar to no-input, abstract turntablism seemed like something i could try with materials i already had on hand and knew how to use (as opposed to like, a modular setup or something). i loved the idea of learning how to use those objects in a new way. prior to turntable and no-input, i had improvised on electric bass (my main instrument prior to college), and then had moved to mostly using an 80s casio synth by the end of college, but i had also gotten really into field recording and wanted to be able to improvise with recordings, and also wanted more indeterminacy and noisy timbres than the synth could offer.
so at some point, also around 2019 i think, i started using the turntable in a way that was very directly inspired by chavez's techniques. she was a dj originally and she speaks a lot about what she owes to hip-hop turntablists for being the first to manipulate records with their hands, and i think it's impossible to not be directly or indirectly influenced by that lineage.i was born in 1997, so the hip-hop that has seemed more relevant during my adolescence and adulthood hasn't really been that turntable-centric. videos i've seen of turntable competitions and stuff from the 90s are totally insane and virtuosic though; so incredible to watch. if hip-hop turntablism had still been as popular when i started using the turntable i probably would have been too intimidated to start, haha, because that takes some serious skills that i will never have and am not trying to acquire.
Do you have any "go to" records that you love to manipulate? "Don't leave home without it" records in your crate? Are you manipulating other experimental records or just marvelous thrift store finds?
there's a few that have become go-tos for specific sounds, or they do for a while and then i feel like i'm overusing them, or using them as a crutch because i know i like the sound instead of trying new things. it's a mix of random things people have given me, thrift store trash (sound effects, test tones, a grooveless record that is supposed to demonstrate an anti-skating needle, etc.) and a great pile of local weird 45s someone was giving away at 10 forward (a venue in greenfield) a few years ago.
it feels cool and special to use records that people i know made (like i have a split 45 that my friend neil cloaca young contributed to as his solo project, bromp treb, that i use a lot). but i don't really put that much thought into the curation of the records. sometimes i think it would be better if i did, or if i at least narrowed down my selection, but most of the time i am hoping to abstract them so much that it feels a little silly to like go out to record stores or thrift stores looking for particular things. most of the records i use, i've never listened to all the way through. i've just discovered things i like about them from improvising with them.
Allow me pivot here. I was hunting around on your website and I see that you also work as a chef-for-hire? My wife and I both like to cook, but I'm a kind of rote recipe-follower while she's a more improvisational cook, and we often talk about how cooking, for her, draws from that deep wellspring of improvisational creativity. Do you see a meaningful link between your musical improvisation and your approach to food? Or do you see those as completely distinct practices?
haha, i'm glad the website makes it look like i actually do that, because right now it's something i want people to hire me for but i haven't really done in a professional way that much yet. i've got my first few attempts at doing it in a more pro capacity coming up in the next few weeks actually (a soup delivery service i'm starting, and catering my friend's daughter's birthday party). but yeah, i totally relate to your wife's approach— and that's funny that you two differ in that way, because nat (baldwin, who is my boyfriend) is a really good cook but also a total recipe-follower, despite being an incredible improviser musically as well.
i am pretty improvisational with my cooking and it honestly does feel like kind of a similar process to improvising with sound, even though i don't often think to compare them. both feel like they required me to practice and develop some kind of vocabulary first through repeated experiments, and now having done that and continuing to do that, i feel like i can rely on my intuition more. with cooking though, i think my inspirations are more directly drawn from tradition, and knowing what flavors or elements usually go together, whereas with sound i feel more creative when i am not actively trying to emulate or reference traditions or artists i'm already familiar with.
one other connection is that i'm really inspired by the community around improvised music in western mass, and that has been influencing how i want to offer my food to people.
Yes, speaking of that community—I was also interested in these events that you've been hosting, where it looks like you bring an interesting mix of creative people together, to build a kind of temporary community around a meal and conversation, perhaps in the spirit of the historical "salon" (though I don't think you use that language). Can you say a few words about that project—how you got interested in doing that, or what you think makes for a good mix of people?
yeah! the series i did this summer was called audible bite, and the format was a monthly dinner, where i cooked the meal, and then there were two or three performances after, mostly sound/music but some poetry and dance people were involved too, in my backyard in millers falls.
i got interested in doing it because i wanted to try out cooking for a large group and sort of "introduce myself" as a cook to people that i mostly know in other ways, plus a chance to document my food, and since i'm very used to curating performances i figured that would be a natural thing to combine it with. it ended up being a huge highlight of the summer, and was so much more beautiful than i could have even hoped for, because having a two-hour dinner before the performances created conversations and new/deeper friendships between people who usually only talk for a few minutes between sets at shows, or who had never met each other because they knew me from totally different parts of my life but live just a few miles from each other. because it was a monthly thing too, some people were repeat attendees, and i got to know a few people really well who were only acquaintances before. i think the food and the setting attracted some people who would normally feel excluded from or intimidated by experimental music/art spaces.
i don't really know what makes for a good mix of people, and maybe i am spoiled by living in western mass, but i imagine every place has a wealth of interesting people who don't know each other but who have a shared point of reference (the place they live), and will quickly find things to connect over—or at least the interaction will enrich each other's lives in some way. i guess just any group of people who are open to talking to each other is a good mix of people in my book!
To wrap up, is there anything you’d like to recommend that people check out? Have you been reading anything interesting lately? Any recent albums that have been inspirational?
the answer to the previous question was very inspired by jenny odell’s book How to Do Nothing, which i am almost finished with and have been thinking about constantly. this fall i’ve been seeking out slowness and complexity which has me listening to a lot of Tongue Depressor and other projects by the members of that duo, zach rowden and henry birdsey (like henry’s band Old Saw and zach’s duo with joe moffet, Windscour). i also recently shared a bill with anne-f jacques and she gave us tons of tapes from her label, presses précaires, which i’ve been slowly working my way through, and which are all amazing—she mostly releases artists who are not from the u.s. or europe, and who haven’t done a lot of other releases. the releases are done in very small batches and she dubs all the tapes herself and does the artwork on each tape by hand. her catalog as a whole is super inspiring.
Thank you for your time!
of course! thank you so much for inviting me to do this.
Investigating outward from Silbert’s links over the last few days led me quickly to the terrific release Blame Tuning, a collaboration between Tongue Depressor and John McCowen. Editorial description: “Rooted in shared sonic language that references western swing, gothic americana, and the spectralist avant-garde, their work together embodies glacial sonic forms that are both monolithic on the exterior and microscopically shifting on the interior.” Terrific, sign me up. The instrumental palette on tap is steel guitar, contrabass clarinet, and double bass, but the overall sonic impression here is a singular one: pure totality, albeit of a squirming, unsteady variety. An easy inclusion on my “best of 2023” list, were I to write such a thing (I might).
I also worked backward into my own MP3 collection to dig out some old Toshimaru Nakamura releases. The two I have listened to the most often throughout the years are between, a 2006 collaboration between Nakamura and longtime improvisational titan Keith Rowe, and do, a 2001 collaboration between Nakamura and Sachiko M, who performs “empty sampler”—a sampler loaded only with factory-preset sine waves. Pure nothingness proves, here, to be surprisingly fertile ground.
Each of these was released on Erstwhile Records, a long-running label devoted to longform electroacoustic improvisation. Searching through my note index also reminded me of the existence of ERSTLIVE 5, released in 2005 as a 3-CD set, documenting a single performance by the quartet of Nakamura, Rowe, Sachiko M, and tireless musical polymath Otomo Yoshihide. I still haven’t heard this one, but my notes reveal that WIRE journalist Ed Pinsent described it as “about the most gorgeous music you could ever hope for.”
Thinking about Hampshire College reminded me that they decided, this year, to offer admission to all New College of Florida students in good standing, because of the State of Florida’s ongoing attempt to destroy the intellectual culture of the New College. If you want to burn with rage, read this NYT story about the politically motivated overhaul.
Hampshire College itself, not long ago at risk of closing, thankfully now appears to be thriving. Visitors to the area would also be advised to visit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, “devoted to collecting, preserving, and presenting picture books and picture-book illustrations.”
—JPB, writing from Dedham, MA, in the week ending Wednesday, November 1