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Escape Velocity

Escape From Reality: Ashley Paul Interviewed By Holly Herndon
The Quietus , April 12th, 2013 06:47

Brooklyn-based composer/performer Ashley Paul's work ranges from texturally exploratory songwriting to jarring improvisation. Fellow US musician Holly Herndon speaks with Paul about musical dualities and the coexistence of different approaches

There's a very intuitive feel to Ashley Paul's music: her solo material is centred around song forms, but it possesses a distinct openness to textural and harmonic exploration, acquired through years of musical training and improvisation. On the Brooklyn-based musician's latest full-length, Line The Clouds, released at the end of last month, her voice and lyrics operate as only one part of a greater whole - they serve to add extra layers of texture and imagery to ceaselessly shifting backdrops of saxophone and clarinet, guitar and skittish, agitated percussion. Plucked strings and the insect whine of Paul's saxophone are played off against metallic background noise; on 'Black & Blue' her instruments weave around one another, drawing together into unstable harmonies for a second or two at a time, before slight bends in pitch change the music's mood entirely.

The effect can be raw and disorienting, burrowing itself deep into your inner ear and causing its apparatus to vibrate in sympathy. (I'm reminded slightly of Ben Vida's esstends-esstends-esstends album, released last year through PAN, an equally psychologically intense, involving listen.) But it's intimate and distinctly human, rather than being alienating or disturbing - the music box melodies and sing-song vocals of album opener 'Soak The Ocean' are disarmingly sweet, even as the song's backdrop resonates with shrieking, scraped strings and metallic clatter.

Paul has a wide-ranging discography, both solo and in collaboration with other artists. Having studied music at New England Conservatory, she has since been involved extensively with improvised performance, playing with multi-instrumentalist Anthony Coleman in duo and as a member of his Damaged Quartet, and working with, among others, Phill Niblock, Loren Connors, C Spencer Yeh and Bill Nace.

She also plays music regularly with her husband, percussionist Eli Keszler: she was a contributing player on 'Cold Pin', taken from Keszler's excellent Catching Net 2CD, which was released last year on PAN. The pair also perform together as a duo, Aster, which finds them constructing harsh landscapes of high-pitched tones, wrenched from Paul's saxophone or clarinet, and bowed on cymbals or crotales by Keszler. (In a recent piece on Dummy, US noise artist and former Yellow Swan Pete Swanson described an Aster concert thus: "Ashley played a clarinet and focused on emitting long high-pitched tones that seemed to make the most hardened noise guys' hair stand up on the back of their necks, over Eli's baffling and muscular percussion racket.")

'Soak The Ocean', taken from the Line The Clouds LP

With the release of Line The Clouds, we asked Holly Herndon - a friend of Paul's and fellow textural explorer - to interview Paul, to gain some insight into her working process and musical history. Herndon's excellent Movement album from late last year, crafted using voice, laptop and digital processing, might on the surface of things differ drastically from Paul's own music. But both are concerned with exploring the full capacity of their chosen instruments, writing pieces that dissolve the borders between the voice and its backdrop, and creating music that's immersive, jarring and in states of continual motion.

Holly Herndon: You seem to have created your own sonic world, including palette, tempo, technique & tonality, from which you rarely deviate on this record. Was this an intentional decision on your part, or is this a by product of the instruments that you play and the styles that you are drawn to?

Ashley Paul: The question of whether things are intentional or not is a difficult one for me to answer. The way I try and approach music is pretty far removed from conscious decision making, tapping into a place where instincts are my guide. The results are informed by the instruments, my education and my influences, for sure, but not dictating the outcome. I think I have settled into something that is my own world, and I just try to allow things to happen in it.

HH: Clearly you are a multi-instrumentalist. Your approach to playing is very playful and experimental- what sort of pedagogical background do you have in music/performance?

AP: I have been surrounded by music my entire life. I began piano around age three, sang in chorus starting at five and saxophone at ten. I went on to get a BM and MM from New England Conservatory. It wasn't until I was nearly done with my masters degree that I began working with guitar, percussion, and the green box. This was beginning to happen, but I was liberated, in a way, [by] working on and performing Mauricio Kagel's Der Schall at Merkin Hall in New York. It's a crazy piece in which I played everything from bass balalaika to organ pipes, by blowing across them, hah! It was written for five musicians and something like fifty instruments (Greg Kelley, Joe Morris, Tom Plesk, Eli Keszler and myself were conducted by Anthony Coleman). I began to discover a lot of freedom and humor in trying to play things that were out of my comfort zone. This had a tremendous impact on everything I did after... I needed to let go of the control, and this helped to do it, while at the same time helping to broaden the palette of materials I was working with. By letting go I found a playfulness that hardly existed when I took myself too seriously, you know?

Leave Mine from Ashley Paul on Vimeo.

HH: There is an oscillation between improvisation and song structure, with some jazz and folk motifs. How did the song writing develop? Did they emerge from improvisations? When you perform the album live, how closely to do stick to the recorded structures and how much do you improvise?

AP: I didn't start writing music until I was 20. I have issues with rules, and was so afraid of breaking them I never started. I really found a way of working when I began recording. This changed everything. Mainly, the ability to capture a moment. I always felt like something got lost in translation between my head and the paper. It felt too controlled. I am interested in capturing a rawness of instincts. I was never able to do this with a pen and paper.

Improvisation is a tool I use to write. It gives me the ability to directly translate impulses to sounds. I don't think of my pieces as being improvised, but I couldn't achieve what I do as fluidly without that background. I have always loved melody. I veered away from it for a while, becoming increasingly interested in noise, sound art and contemporary music, but it is so much a part of me it forced its way back in, and I'm really glad it has. I find it so exciting how all of these elements can coexist.

As far as performing live, there are definitely logistical issues I'm still working out. I can't achieve all the sounds at once on my own, thats the biggest difference. Right now my set-up is guitar (usually prepared), percussion, saxophone, voice, bells and tape recorder. The tape recorder is new. I have resisted using anything other than traditional instruments, but I wanted more depth to the sound. I do stick to many of the song forms in performance; playing guitar and singing, but I also play more saxophone, adding in instrumental pieces.

HH: The album seems to contrast sweet and sour, consonant and dissonant, fragile and strong. Are these dualities that you are exploring?

AP: I wouldn't say they are dualities that I am consciously exploring, but they are very much a part of me and the way I hear music. I am just trying to tap into a place that is honest for me. All of these contrasting elements are a part of what I hear, a part of my vocabulary, and at some point they all come out. I think of it as more an issue of balancing these things out, rather than as opposing concepts.

HH: Your treatment of harmony is minimal, sticking tightly to melody; the harmonies barely overlapping and almost passing each other by in 'Wrap Me Up' and then coming to the forefront in track like 'You're A Feeling'. The effect of this for me highlighted the passing of time and fleeting sound. What is your approach to melody/harmony?

AP: I still come at music as a reed player, having only the ability to play single note lines. I think of each instrument as having its own melody. The harmonies are simply a by-product of the melodies overlapping... or maybe a single melody with multiple voices.

HH: The recording sounds very personal, intimate and close. What was your recording process and it's intention?

AP: I set everything up; put all my instruments together, have them out and ready, get all the mics and recording equipment totally ready and shut the door. I often have a sound, melody or a story in my head but want the moment to dictate where things go. I have to be in very particular state of mind to record. It is somewhat precious, often fleeting and I am very protective of this creative space. I close myself in a room and work, and work until the recording is done. I record everything fairly fast, but then take my time making sure each sound has its place in the recording, later spending countless hours making sure each little moment is balanced just right.

HH: How do you feel like this record relates to the loud and busy surroundings of your daily life in Brooklyn? In contrast, it appears very tender and concentrated.

AP: Music is my escape from reality. It is the opposite of daily life, which I find overwhelming and stressful. It is the only place that's truly mine and I guard it fiercely.