“An Amalgamation of Sounds Mixed with Personal Fantasy:” An Interview with Gabrielle Herbst

David Johnston

2012-13 Composer-in-Residence Gabrielle Herbst


2012-13 Composer-in-Residence Gabielle Herbst talks about her musical upbringing (including falling asleep to live gamelan orchestras in Bali as a child), compositional philosophy and inspirations, the use of her voice, robotics and technology, upcoming projects, and how NYC is her great benefactor.


When did you first begin composing?

As a child I was constantly singing, playing instruments and composing songs on the guitar, but it wasn’t until college that I really began to compose by the standard definition. I took a very intimate composition class with Joan Tower and wrote a piece for solo cello that was performed by Da Capo Chamber Players’ cellist at the time. He performed the piece with such passion and integrity and afterward expressed how much he enjoyed it. It was at that moment I felt like a new side of myself had been exposed and I really fell in love with the collaborative process.

You mention that you find inspiration from the musical masters of old, as well as contemporary culture and issues. How do you coalesce these elements into your works?

Because I studied classical music (piano and clarinet) from an early age it’s impossible for me to shed my childhood impressions of Brahms, Wagner, Schubert and many other Romantic composers. I also grew up falling asleep to live gamelan orchestras in Bali with my ethnomusicologist father. These memories housed themselves in my subconscious as an archive that I return to often while creating my own music. Later on in my process I became very impacted by Olivier Messiaen, Hector Berlioz, Erik Satie, Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, Zeena Parkins, Ikue Mori and Bjork.  At the same time I’ve always been someone who loves listening to loud, simple, unabashed, healing pop music. I’m interested in writing music that is understood by my friends and generation—not just within a specialized musical niche. I express the way I perceive the world with hope that others can relate. Ultimately it becomes a mix of many influences—the sounds I hear on the subway, outside my window, in bars and concert halls. These snippets from passing life arrange themselves in my head to make an amalgamation of sounds mixed with personal fantasy.

As a vocalist, you often incorporate voice into your compositions. What is role of the voice in your works?

I think that there is an immense amount of untouched territory regarding the voice in new music. When writing for voice you are ultimately referencing an era or category through expressive and stylistic choices. I think there is more work to be done in portraying the singing voice in our socio-technological society. We live in a time of extreme overstimulation and attention spans last only seconds. I believe that singing has a soothing, alleviating quality that can bring listeners back into their bodies.

When you listen to the human voice you can sometimes actually feel the same vibrations in your own chest and vocal chords as the singer is feeling, and scientific discoveries of mirror neurons take this to the next level. This kind of communal empathy is interesting to me.

An integral part of your work is collaboration with artists of different disciplines, from installation artists to designers and choreographers. You most recently worked with director/designed Allie Avital Tsypin as part of your residency at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center. Could you describe your work with Ms. Tsypin?

I often feel as though an element of other media such as visual art, dance, video or installation is crucial to my overall vision for a sound piece. Allie Avital Tsypin has been my visual collaborator for the past few years.

Allie may be the person who has come closest to the inside of my work and process. I think it has been a great benefit working with her because she pushed me to make decisions I would never have made otherwise. We have many disagreements and aesthetic differences but that imbalance is what makes us interesting to each other. We push each other in opposite directions and have to figure out a give-and-take where both of our needs are met in each discipline. She never wants to direct a performance to my music or create visual art to my music, and I have no interest in writing music to her preexisting piece. Instead we work together to create a language simultaneously, allowing ourselves to spontaneously create and inspire each other. This is an extremely fragile process and can prove very difficult, however I think the rewards resulting from that struggle for true collaboration is always worth it.

You recently formed a new group. Could you tell us about your new ensemble?

This particular project was born at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center. The music I created there was very much influenced by my surroundings—living in a giant, living museum. My keyboard was right beside Marlene Dietrich’s shoe and I often worked on Donald Judd’s handmade desk.  My “studio space”—one floor of the gallery—was a wide-open space with enormous windows and echoing walls. The music I made became epic and special with a religious dedication to artistic vigor and experimentation. I threw all preexisting material out the window and evolved new structures and forms for the sound I was creating. Some things worked in this space and some did not. I didn’t know the reasons for this but that itself was very clear to me. Since my return to reality (it all really felt like a strange childhood dream), I have been striving to hold on to that different sense of form and structure in my compositional process. I realized how important the space you create in is to the creation, and I became more aware of the boxes that I unknowingly attempted to fit into before this experience. I try to use structure in my work as transient and malleable.

I’m extremely excited about the birth of my new ensemble and the direction it’s headed. It is the first band I’ve had that performs in concert halls as well as bars/clubs/living rooms. It’s a space to experiment with poppy melodies and symphonic realizations. The group is made up of my incredible players and collaborators Matthew O’Koren on percussion, Rick Quantz on viola and Josh Henderson on violin. I compose, sing, play electronics and an occasional harp or percussion instrument.

Your music seems to challenge and stretch the aural boundaries of whatever you’re composing for, whether it be an instrument, voice or use of technology. What is your approach or philosophy to creating a new piece? How would you describe your music?

My work is inspired by the human body, architectural spaces, the culture of desire and synesthetic perceptions. I myself often work compositionally from images in my head that I seek to materialize through sound. Chords are blue, green, purple, yellow, etc. and sound textures all come from reimagining environmental spaces. I have recently been trying to build rhythms by imitating the way that light reflects on walls or leaves reflect on the ground, constant fluctuation, random but with a sense of purpose and believability. I seek to make organic rhythms with an internal logic even if that logic is not obvious or straightforward. I work from an extremely intuitive place. I see intuition and mystery in my process as crucial. Recently I’ve been writing an opera for an upcoming festival, and it has been deeply inspired by the subconscious dream world and void of the ego in a loss of self-consciousness. I think my work is extremely feminine and shamelessly emotive at times. I’m interested in exploring the roles and stereotypes of the female composer in my work. I’m interested in the capabilities of music to transcend semantic logic. The voice provides especially interesting material to break down meaning and significance in seeking to build unfamiliar languages.

I seek to have my music create a space for the listener to inhabit. Music has become a necessity for so many people’s lives –accompanying every mundane day-to-day activity. It doesn’t really get more relevant than that. It’s a powerful character and can shape space in interesting ways. These are the things I’m thinking about, mostly when creating a new piece – that and always seeking to move people in one way or another.

You also intertwine some more unconventional instruments into your works, such as the use of live amplified heartbeat. How did you become involved with using these live elements and technology?

As a dancer, the human body is a huge inspiration for my work. Originally I wanted to come as close as possible to hearing what goes on inside the performers’ bodies as they are playing their instruments, singing or listening. That was the original reason for me to develop this Max MSP patch to retrieve heartbeat signals, working with Bob Bielecki at Bard College and resulting in a piece for amplified heart-beats and chamber orchestra. The patch triggers the singers’ heartbeats as they are singing, noticing the changes in breath, pulse and body-rhythm in performance. I plan to further this type of investigation with new media. Robotics and advanced technology is greatly affecting the development of culture and social relations and I see this as a real inspiration in expressing our time.

You’re a member of the fantastic new music ensemble Contemporaneous. How did you become involved with Contemporaneous? For your Residency at Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy, you’ll be working on a commission by Contemporaneous – an electro-acoustic opera that will also incorporate many live elements. Could you describe the project?

I met David Bloom and Contemporaneous at Bard College where we all went to school. I can’t emphasize how important they have been for my process and how truly honored I feel to be a part of such a passionate and versatile group. I work with them as a singer (I’m performing in the premiere of a work by composer Conor Brown in November) and they have performed my music with me on multiple occasions—twice at Roulette and at The Stone among other venues. I’m currently embarking on a large-scale commission from Contemporaneous involving an electro-acoustic opera/sinfonietta for four voices, double string quartet, electric guitar and live electronics. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy has been an amazing and supportive space for me to begin materializing these concepts.

What are some other upcoming projects for you?

I just finished a commission for a ten-minute opera for Experiments in Opera that will premiere on Feb. 9th at Issue Project Room. It will be performed by the ensemble Hotel Elefant. I will be singing, joined by two other singers. The instrumentation is for voices, piano, clarinet, alto-flute, electric guitar, upright bass, harp and percussion – a really interesting mix of instruments. I deconstructed text by French-Algerian writer Helene Cixious’ “Dream I Tell Tou.” I’m very excited to hear this piece materialize. I’m also performing with my band On Oct. 30th at Zebulon with more shows to come.

What do you love about NYC as a musician? What are the challenges?

Living in the city as an artist is at once extremely exhilarating and immensely difficult. Having to juggle day jobs and returning from work exhausted to embark on one’s “real work” allows nothing but for one to feel the need to rise to the status of being superhuman. Having that element of grit and struggle has ultimately been helpful for my work in the sense of increased strength and durability, but this doesn’t cover up my strong objection to the general lack of funding for artists. The residencies that I have had at The Watermill Center, NY Theater Workshop and Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy have been incredibly helpful and rewarding for my work – giving me space to breath and the respect of being acknowledged as an artist. New York is a rambunctious playpen for musicians, a really exciting place to meet like-minded people and spend all your money on shows!  I find the overstimulating array of everyday sounds and cacophonous voices helpful in developing my inner silence and sense of self. For me this city has been a great benefactor.



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