Experimental Music in Salem: A Conversation with Andrea Pensado
by Andrea Pensado
Composer, performer, and educator Andrea Pensado welcomed Magdalena Abrego into her teaching studio for a discussion of experimental music’s past, present, and future.
“…I think it’s important to expose audiences to new music. They don’t have to like it, but they need to know that it exists. “
I/O: Tell me about your relationship to the music scene in Boston. When did you first get to Boston and how does the scene then compare to how it is now?
AP: That’s interesting…I arrived here in 2002. The scene then was sort of dominated by reductionists. You know that duo, Bhob Rainey and Greg Kelley? They were very active. The BSC, the Boston Sound Collective, was very active. Amazing musicians! The scene was really small. After going to four or five shows, I started to notice the same people were always in the audience. I remember thinking, “This is really small.” But, I was shy, and I remember that being difficult. It took awhile for me, because honestly, I waited for other people to say hi to me. *laughs* It was difficult. I didn’t know anybody and there was a language barrier. At first, Boston seemed very clique-ish. Or at least, as I saw it from my perspective, without knowing much. But then, something interesting happened. It was the very beginning of the White Haus. I don’t recall exactly the years, but probably 2005-6? There was an influx of younger people who were very open-minded and the boundaries between the scenes became more open.
I/O: Do you think it’s because artists had access to that new venue, the White Haus?
AP: No, I think it was because the way they booked was eclectic. They didn’t book people according to aesthetics. So that immediately made everybody more open. At least, this is the way I saw it. I think that is still how things are, in a way. Of course there are always aesthetic cliques, which is normal. There are people who prefer one style of music, people who prefer others, and everything has its place. But now I feel that it’s less –
AP: Exactly. And now, talking about this aloud, I feel that now everything in society is much more open. Look at everything that is happening with the #MeToo movement, for example. That same openness is reflected in our little music world.
I/O: In conversations about the music scene in Massachusetts, I feel like the importance of Boston is overemphasized, because there is so much going on in other places outside of the city. You’ve been in Salem now for a while, and you actually started a music series here: Sonorium. How did that get started?
AP: Well, it was a little bit out of selfishness. *laughs* I will never get bored of seeing live music, and not just experimental music- I love seeing musicians perform. I guess it also had to do with my teacher side, because I think it’s important to expose audiences to new music. They don’t have to like it, but they need to know that it exists. I play in many places, and creating this series was a way for me to give back to the community. The music that we do is so marginal and I think it’s so important to provide a space for it. I started it thinking, “Let’s see what happens!” And now, it’s been consistently four shows a year since 2011.
I/O: Nice! I saw that the most recent show was at Gallows Hill Theatre, which I thought was funny because it also hosts interactive witch trial shows.
AP: *laughs* Yeah, exactly.
I/O: It feels very Salem. *laughs*
AP: That was a coincidence actually. I was looking for places and it was not so expensive and the landlord and I get along, so it works well. I am grateful for all the people who invite me to play shows, having this series is the least I can do.
I/O: Let’s rewind a bit. So, you started with and still play piano, and then you went on to study composition and computer music. As that was all developing, when did you start to incorporate your voice into your performance practice? Were you always using your voice?
AP: No, not at all. I was very shy.
I/O: Oh, wow! No kidding.
AP: Yeah, I know. *laughs* My career has been such a journey. It’s still a surprise to me that I perform. I never expected that I was going to perform. That’s why I went into composing. Well, the very first thing I did was Music Education. I like teaching a lot, and I hope to never have to stop doing it. But when I went to Poland, I was writing a lot and doing choir conducting. There were some pieces that used voice, and I did write a bit of poetry, too. So I used the voice, but it was very processed. In my duo with Greg [Kowalski], I gradually stopped composing and we started inviting improvisers. Once, we had a performance with light sensors, and the performer had a wireless microphone, and as she moved through the zone with light sensors, her voice was processed. And she didn’t like it or she didn’t get it. She would never come to rehearsals, and she came from a different background and was not interested. For Greg and I, the show was very important, so I said, “I think I have to do it.” I performed the vocal part and I was so scared. From then on, little by little, I did it more.
I have changed a lot in my life, but super gradually. When I was mostly doing composing, I didn’t understand that because of emotional conditioning, I never saw myself as a performer. At this age in my life, I am fascinated with how conditioning influences what we do and who we think we are. So, now, it’s funny for me. Back then, I probably didn’t even see myself as shy. But, now looking back, it’s like, of course! That’s why I was composing and not performing. But, we grow and we change emotionally all the time, and I had to go through all the steps I went through. I wouldn’t be here doing the music I do if I hadn’t done composing and choir conducting. I am very grateful for all the people who showed up in my life. My composition professor, for example, was always very critical and anti-academia. Even though I eventually distanced myself from academic life, I feel incredibly lucky for going through that time.
I/O: Was distancing yourself from academia something that just kind of happened or was it more intentional than that?
AP: It was very gradual and very difficult, because it’s a different way of working. When I was composing, I would sit at my desk and write down what I was imagining. The work situation is silent, and you imagine sounds and try to put them down in notation. When I started using electronic sound, it was so different. You have sound throughout the compositional process.
I/O: Let’s talk about your process for a moment. How does improvisation function in your compositions? Are your solo sets completely improvised, or are you going into it with mostly precomposed material?
AP: I have a loose structure, but honestly it changes a lot. I usually respect the form at the beginning, but sometimes it goes somewhere else and I go with it. I really don’t care if I follow the structure, which is something I’m very grateful for. Even if I’m not happy with a set – which happens – I am always happy that I performed.
I/O: Do you find that the value is largely in performing for others or in learning from those mistakes?
AP: I think it’s…well, first, I think that my opinions of my performances are not important. Because there have been so many times when I had a set that I felt was okay, and it clearly wasn’t! *laughs* You know, you sense that and sometimes it’s the opposite.
I/O: You sense it from the vibe in the room?
AP: Yeah, sometimes I think it was so embarrassing that I want to hide in a hole afterward and turn off everything. My conclusion is that opinions are not important at all really. My own and everybody else’s. And it’s not that I don’t respect it, obviously. I’m not going to be a hypocrite, if somebody gives me warm feedback, of course I like it! Because it’s nourishing, it encourages me to continue, but it’s just an opinion. I think that honestly we don’t know what is right or wrong in this music. I think that the adjectives “right” and “wrong” are wrong. They don’t apply.
I/O: Right and wrong feels very arbitrary in this kind of musical situation.
AP: It’s totally arbitrary. And it’s influenced by personal taste, personal conditioning, personal history. I always use the same quote by DuChamp: “Taste is a habit.” So, I think that’s why I do Sonorium. I think the most important thing is for the music to happen. The act of performing has to happen. Then, whatever people say is whatever. It’s just part of the circus of life. I remember once in Sonorium there were 3-4 shows with very few people in the audience. I thought, “Should I continue or not?” I remember Angela Sawyer and Michael Rosenstein told me, “Andrea, continue.” It doesn’t matter if the audience is empty. It doesn’t matter at all. They were so right. The important thing is that the space is there. I’m happy I continued.
I/O: Speaking of your live performance, I’d like to talk about your use of the ventriloquist doll. Can you tell me more about how the concept of using a non-musical object made its way into your work?
AP: When I was a young girl in Argentina, there was a program on TV for kids called Chirolita. Everybody in Argentina knows, even now, who Chirolita is. It’s from the 70s. It fascinated me as a girl, like, total fascination. Anyway, I always had this idea: one day I’m going to do a set with a ventriloquist doll. And finally I did it! I bought the doll online and I did the set. You know how everybody here has seen those movies…Chucky? I had never even heard of those movies. People immediately get super scared when they see my doll and they think of those movies. And I didn’t even know of those movies! *laughs*
I/O: *laughs* Yeah, it’s definitely associated with horror.
AP: Exactly! And to this day, I cannot watch a horror movie. Even the cheesiest, worst horror movie. I cannot watch it, because I get scared to death. So there must be something with the doll, because it’s my big fear. I love doing it. It’s very funny for me when I perform with the doll. It goes to a weird place in my mind. Good, but difficult to explain. I think that the things we hide in our psyche are huge and we have no idea how to access that…let’s say the doll allowed me to touch those places. Like very, very deeply. It’s strange.
I/O: I love that you found a way to do that, but I especially love that it happened by accident…through a ventriloquist doll.
AP: Totally. Honestly, my whole life has been like this. That’s why I think it’s so important not to plan. I was incredibly lucky with [Boguslaw] Schaeffer, my composition teacher. Because it’s not a coincidence that I improvise, considering the way I learned to compose. I always composed with ink; there was no draft. It was like slow improvisation. It was not at all concerned with the concept of perfection. Schaeffer was like, “Andrea, you’re not happy with the piece? Make the next one.” I spent hours composing. It was crazy demanding.
I/O: And this is the same professor you were talking about earlier?
AP: Exactly. He said, “Andrea, no planning!” If you plan, well then, you’re not learning. Instead, you can more or less set up a situation that is going to open a terrain that was previously unknown to you. What happens with electronic music is basically the same. I think that historically speaking, we are in a period of learning, because imagine: we did acoustic music for millenia and now we have electronics. It’s like discovering a gold mine. Our work as musicians is to explore this new sonic material. I am more interested in discovering something that I didn’t know before than I am in achieving a certain result. Again, this is just personal taste; it’s whatever a person needs.
I/O: For me, as an improviser, I look for those same situations. It’s like looking for the state of not-knowing.
AP: Exactly, because if not, we just repeat clichés and tricks that we know how to do. The magic starts when we don’t know what is going to happen.
I/O: Yeah, exactly. So, another thing that I wanted to ask you about is your use of whispering. I feel like when you whisper, it naturally induces this heightened state of listening in the listener-
AP: To tell you the truth, I have no idea. Because, this is…for me…very strange.
I/O: Tell me about that.
AP: So, let’s say I am at home, practicing. What I try to develop is the electronics. The voice? Not at all. So I practice practice practice, then go to the show and clearly what makes an impact is not the electronics, but the voice. So, I say why do I practice?! *laughs* But, I think it’s the electronics that allow the things with the voice to happen. I couldn’t have one thing without the other.
I/O: Yeah, that makes sense. It feels like the electronics provide the context for the voice, so they have to exist in the same space.
AP: This reminds me, I went through a huge middle life crisis. Huge. And I started performing more and more and more. I remember I played a show where I was scared to death. I always play a short set, but this was like really short. And the whole time I was just yelling like crazy. And people loved it so much! I was like, “You’re nuts. This was just terrible.” *laughs* So, I just laughed, because…what did they like?! It was terrible from beginning to end. For a while after shows I did the typical thing, enumerating all the things that went wrong. But now, I decided not to say anything. Just, “Thank you so much.”
I/O: That’s so funny. And I think that goes back to your point about not really caring about opinions of the audience.
AP: Exactly. Playing for an audience’s acceptance is very strange. The best thing, I think, is to not think too much. Just to perform. This is a paradox. Because I am Andrea Pensado. “Pensado” means thought. But I don’t think, at all. I am very intuitive. First, I do. Then later, I reflect.
I/O: So you’re operating mostly from a point of trusting your instinct, and that’s how it’s been for you for a long time?
AP: All my life, and not only with music.
I/O: It’s interesting to hear that much of your process is intuition-based. For me, there are certain musical parameters that I find myself especially fascinated by. For instance, I’ll always find the functions of time and memory in music to be super interesting. I was wondering if there are musical parameters that you constantly find yourself going towards.
AP: Timbre. Always.
I/O: That makes complete sense considering your work, especially within the realm of electronic music where you have such control over timbre.
AP: I love history, because if you only think in terms of yourself, things are just too personal. So, I like the perspective of time. When you consider the music of the past, it’s not a coincidence that the main structural parameter is pitch. Of course, we always had timbre, but now, we have tools to really get into the spectrum of a sound. There are new performance parameters, so that’s why we have new instruments. And I think we are just at the beginning. That’s why it’s an amazing moment to make music, because there is so much work to be done! It’s really overwhelming.
I/O: I agree. I’ve encountered a lot people who complain about creating art in this time period, but I actually disagree. I think it’s a great time to be making music.
AP: I think it’s amazing. I am so lucky to have been born at this time in history. I think that the richness of all the music in the underground experimental scene is undeniable. And we all work together – it’s impossible for one person to explore everything. I call it the river of music. Each one of us gets to contribute a drop. It’s fascinating. How can you get bored?
Correction: This article originally included a misprint in a response from Andrea Pensado that stated that she sat at her piano while composing. We have corrected her answer to clarify that she sat at her desk, not at the piano, during her compositional process.