Smashing The Philip Glass Ceiling: Verity Susman Interviewed

Electrelane's Verity Susman is currently voyaging through a sonic world where human meets machine: organ drones, sung vocals and queer fantasies in computerised spoken word. She speaks with Bryony Beynon about audio collage and the disconnect between people and their computers

When I was eleven years old, my oldest sister lost all movement and sensation in one side of her body. After family panic and a protracted hospital stay, the feeling slowly returned, eventually leaving only her right thumb and index finger permanently frozen. She was midway through her A-Levels and it was 1997, so a mound of new technology was provided by The State to help. As well as the first laptop I had ever seen in the flesh and lots of moulded plastic objects, there was a big white box containing a headset and some very early voice-to-text recognition software called Dragon: Naturally Speaking. Again, what with it being 1997, this software was both very new and close to completely useless. She quickly realised she could modify her typing style to account for her new disability much faster than this programme would ever compute how a Welsh teen obsessed with Australian soaps and Mancunian boy bands would handle her vowels.

Commandeering the headset, I soon found a more exciting use for this discarded toy, hoodwinking the conspiratorial female voice inside it to translate my increasingly deviant type into a lusty, fractured spoken word, peppered with appealingly otherwor(l)dly inflection. I told her everything; she told it back with a weird emotion. No accent. That summer we would get a stable dial-up connection and the headset went in the bin. I forgot all about my secret crush on the Dragon Lady until my conversation with Verity Susman, who makes use of the same technology to equally seductive ends.

After ten years in the still-active Electrelane (often instrumental, always transcending the usual ‘indie rock’ boundaries) Verity then spent time working under the name Vera November. Now she’s created an intriguing new sonic world, one where interactions between human and machine are upturned for inspection, inviting the viewer/listener (best if you’re both) to writhe around in whatever results. Jack Barraclough’s visuals provide a backdrop that’s at once coolly hypnotic and playfully literal, a place where cut-and-paste pastiches of jizzing saxophones can merge perfectly with queer fantasy aboard the USS Voyager. Organs drone and collide with electronics as Verity’s voice itself becomes a texture, swinging from melodious heights down to layered Gregorian chant-like bassiness.

Verity Susman Live Recordings With Visuals from Verity Susman on Vimeo.

On ‘To Make You Afraid’, her first official release, that vocal range takes centre stage, at first full of space and tension, then refusing to give way to the synthesised pushes that follow; the melody still dominating, whirring the song up to speed with a propulsive pop joyfulness that’s maintained throughout.

Sixteen years after my nice time with the Dragon lady, it all seems quaintly naïve: hardly sexting with Siri. Indeed, there was a cold irony seeing Apple’s universal life concierge and servant be born, marketed and consumed as a ‘smart, sassy’ female, yet always at your beck and call, duty bound and programmed to answer. The way she (resolutely she) has been characterised as a ‘dumb bitch’ with worrying frequency stands in stark contrast to everything Haraway said hopefully about gender and machine, suggesting the obvious; nothing more than a slightly uncanny reflection of the shitsystem as it stands. Yet still users are fascinated by Siri’s supposed ‘foibles’, as though they relate to her as a real, living person whose responses come from a tiny heart, bleeping deep inside your telephone.

Perhaps these fantasies of autonomy and desire in bots and borgs will remain potent for as long as we employ them to do our cold, calculated bidding in other ways. Verity’s work resonates for the same reasons; it’s the magic and fascination of rough seams, glitches and logic holes. Of what can happen when we leave behind algorithms, squint our eyes to blur out the signs of human hand and surrender, just momentarily, to the possibilities of a world beyond flesh.

Hi Verity. How did you find the experience of creating the live soundtrack to Salome at The London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival? How did you prepare for it, and are there other visual works you’d love to soundtrack?

Verity Susman: I really enjoyed doing a live soundtrack. I’m talking to the Filmhouse Cinema in Edinburgh about doing another one to Häxan later in the year, the 1922 silent ‘documentary’ about witchcraft and witch-hunts. I prepared for Salome by making a basic plan for what I thought could work musically with it, and then improvising around that whilst watching the film. At the moment I’m also making some music for a new feature film, but that’s for the original soundtrack rather than a live thing, though.

In Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1991) she says "the cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence." You work made me revisit this essay. What do you make of the idea of cyborg as a strategy or ‘way out’ of the gender binary?

VS: Her work is really interesting, but I think I was drawn to machine-human concepts more because of thoughts I was having about robotic expressions of emotion, the way it can be difficult to align feelings with interactions, and when I heard this text-to-voice software my friend has which speaks texts seemingly with emotion, but with it often all in the wrong places, I was instantly drawn to it: the disjunction or alienation that is going on, the gaps between words, speech and feelings.

Is the title of your track ‘The Philip Glass Ceiling’ a reference to patriarchy in the avant-garde, or is it just (‘just’) a really delightful pun?

VS: Ha! It’s both, I hope! It’s going to be part of a trilogy – the other songs are ‘John’s Cage’ and ‘The Third Steve Reich’… I like ‘Dad jokes’.

You make use of that amazing piece of Janeway/Seven of Nine Star Trek fan fiction, which on the spectrum of queer borg subjectivities is a pretty dreamy pairing. How did you come across this initially, and have you ever dabbled in writing any?

VS: It is amazing isn’t it?! An ex showed it to me. It’s funny and so heartfelt, and just repeatedly weird but not in an ironic way. It seems to be a perfect mix of serious and humorous. I’ve never written any, it never occurred to me to try.

Any ideal participants?

VS: Well, I like the older-younger woman thing in Sustenance, that power dynamic is really seductive, so maybe Patty Hewes and Ellen Parsons from Damages?

Am I right in thinking you’re teaching yourself Max/MSP? The need for continual ‘up-skilling’ with technology seems necessary for musicians making use of those kinds of tools in ways it isn’t for folk using only traditional instruments (although the laptop has probably crossed into that realm now.) How do you find audio collage in terms of where it sits for craft vs. art vs. process?

VS: Not teaching myself, I could never manage that! I’m taking a course as part of a Masters Degree in Studio Composition that I’m doing at Goldsmiths. I’m finding Max/MSP really hard at the moment, but I’m going to try to persevere. I did the course to learn new things and to try to challenge myself to work in different ways, and it’s definitely opened my ears a lot. Audio collage is a really broad term, it could cover so many things, and I think it fits into all your categories – craft, art, process, and I feel like those things are often tied up together anyway.

You were part of the Quietus Drill:London event at Café Oto recently, so I’m duty bound to ask your thoughts on Wire – are they a band whose output you enjoy and/or feel affinity with?

VS: Yes, I love Wire and have done for a long time. So it was great to play at that night, and a real pleasure to be asked.

Electrelane played Glastonbury in 2004, and I saw you were long-listed to potentially play this year – nine years later! If that happened, how do you think your performance would translate to the festival setting?

VS: Wow, time flies, it’s hard to believe that was 9 years ago. I know I definitely won’t be playing this year, but I would love to play there another time. I don’t know how this performance would translate – I’ll have to try it out. Maybe Electrelane will play there again one day, I’d love that. I have a lot of good memories of our last time there.

Have you seen this text on ‘affective keys’? It struck me, thinking about non-verbal expression and your ideas about instrument/human cyborgs, that this could be one mode of expression for it, if taken as a (non-metaphorical) version of ‘harmonious/dissonant’ social interaction.

VS: That’s a weird coincidence because I was looking at this same text the other week, for different reasons. But are these descriptions are context-specific in terms of the understanding of affect being tied to 19th century Western sensibilities, or that they resonate in this way for all (human) times/places? I wonder what kind of relationship a cyborg would have to tonality/atonality and their various affective dimensions, given the subsequent shift in Western classical music towards atonality.

To see more of Verity’s work and latest projects, click here to visit her website.

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