Lesley Flanigan was born and raised in Florida. “I did not grow up in a family of artists. My mother was somewhat whimsical person and she loved books… she very much encouraged my imagination and creativity, such as building these elaborate structures out of wooden blocks (would sometimes take days!), but my leaning towards music and visual art, that was something I kind of pioneered on my own.” Pioneer is a good word for her, as Ms. Flanigan has forged her own way in the experimental electronic music scene in her practice of ‘sound sculpting’.
During early adulthood she trained as a soprano singer. “When it came to vocal training, the physical gymnastics of it is all very interesting to me — learning the skill of singing high, projecting and really opening up the voice. But when it came to actually using my voice to sing the music that I wanted, I had different ideas. I was in a rock band, I loved ‘Cocteau Twins’, and I enjoyed playing with lots and lots of effects on my voice. I’m sure much of this was just being my age at the time, but it was also a response to the expressiveness I wanted to experience with my voice, which was not something I found with classical training. However, I definitely experienced an expressive ‘classical’ voice in me when I sang in church. Much of that was because of the acoustics, and that I was often given the liberty as a cantor, to sing as I felt. I don’t mean feeling in a religious sense, I mean feeling the sound of my voice in the reverberant space of a classic, stone church. The acoustics of a space matter so much … after all, the use of effects like reverb and delay, which I loved to pile up on my voice back then, are all about creating a sense of space for sound.”
In Ms. Flanigan’s undergraduate work she chose visual art school rather than pursuing study in voice and music. “My relationship to my voice was so personal, I just couldn’t imagine spending four years in school being taught how I should sing. It just felt wrong. But I was drawn to the conceptual ideas behind visual art, and working with my hands…I wanted to learn more about visual art, so art school made a lot of sense to me.” Trained as a sculptor, she favored wood as a medium.
After obtaining her degree she joined the many other art school graduates who would begin looking for gainful employment. This, for a time, required her to put aside her creative pursuits. After a few years of working as a video editor, she took stock and noticed that she had no artwork of her own to show for her time. It was then that she decided it was time to go back to school and look for another path. Although she was still interested in making art, she now wanted to come at it from a new angle.
She found the ITP program at NYU, which sounded like a good “figure yourself out” program, emphasizing creative experimentation with new technologies. “I went in with zero expectations. Other than that there had to be something out there that I didn’t know about yet that would be interesting to me.” It was in this program that she started working with electronic circuitry and she built her first amplifier.
She describes testing the audio amplifier circuit on her desk, “I plugged a piezo microphone into the input, the speaker into the output. I was tapping on the piezo, and trying to hear that tapping sound come out of the speaker – and the [pizeo microphone and speaker] got too close together, making this squealing, rich, dirty sound of feedback.” “For me it was like love at first sound.”
“Live sound – live, acoustic sound is an experience that for a such long time, well, I’m not sure it clicked… what it meant to me, that is. But then at a piano concert in Berlin in 2007, I was suddenly just overwhelmed by actually listening to the object of the piano being played. I heard wood, and the resonance of that wood in a room being played by hand. It was profoundly physical and it blew my mind. I was just like ‘God, this sounds so incredible!’ It’s funny, because this happened only a few months before the experience I was about to have with my little handmade amplifier, and my reaction was very much the same. The feedback loop I triggered was an electric sound being made acoustically before me, by the pure physics of resonance emanating between a connected microphone and speaker. The cause was so simple, direct and physical, and the effect was a wonderfully complex and expressive sound.”
“Within a week I built an instrument called Speaker Synth, with five speakers in a single array, that I could play sort of like a keyboard.” “I could fine-tune the feedback tones of each speaker with my hands by moving the piezo, turning them on and off, and adjusting their gain. I could perform organized sounds of feedback, from low to high pitches… ” “…They were like voices.” Each speaker had a “personalized characters of sound.” From there she began to control the sound further by separating the speakers into their own housing, so they could be heard as individuals.
In building and playing her “speaker feedback instruments” she started shaping a kind of sculpture of music, but not in what you might call ‘additive’ processes. As she learned the art of playing her new instruments, her performances became more stripped down. She eliminated the use of effects and laptop software, as she grew more attentive to revealing the direct, physical experience of her electronic sound. With the tools of voice, speakers, microphones, amplifiers and acoustic space, she began to dig into her new practice as a sculptor, vocalist, composer, performer, or sound artist… all categories she has been labeled with, all of which fit.
The electronic environment in music and technology has commonly maintained a strong boys-club vibe that (fortunately) did not come between Lesley and her experimentation. When asked about any challenges she may have face in her practice as a woman she responded rather positively, “I hover in the middle ground between art and music, so I think that music events like to have me as the art girl and then art events like to have me as the music girl. It gives me room to experiment on both sides. I think being a woman and working with my own technology (instruments, etc.) that I build myself – I can stand out in that way. I’ve never felt like there was barrier, if anything, being undefined has given me my own space to really figure out who I am and not concern myself with who I ought to be like.”
“I am not sure I would have had the confidence, honestly, to have done what I am doing
if I was one of many, because then I would be comparing myself.”
“I think a big part of knowing what I know [about music and electronics] was from just hanging out with guys. I was exposed to so much though my male friends.” As a result, she had an initial distaste for any female-only technology-related pedagogy, but warmed to a friend’s program, Ms. Baltazar’s Laboratory. (Lesley will join Stefanie Wuschitz in March for a residency in Copenhagen doing workshops in this vein.) She explains, “I was skeptical of Stefanie’s dedication to teaching all women workshops, but I am friends with Stefanie and I love teaching, so when she asked me to do a workshop with her a few years ago, I did it. I found something really nice and special working with just women. I don’t want to say that there is anything super special, about it or that it is any way saying ‘boys stay out’!, but there is no denying that it is a unique learning environment for women to work together with creative technology, that in any other circumstance could be, quite frankly, intimidating for them. (I think of it like cooking in your kitchen verses someone else’s kitchen. Same food being made, but it’s going to be easier to get around in your own kitchen.) It’s more about encouraging women to enter into the dialogue, and helping them figure out a language that empowers them to participate without feeling embarrassed, rather than monopolizing another ‘gendered’ space. But that is by no means to say women need extra help!”
For women that may be interested in venturing into the technology realm, Lesley had this to say, “One thing I started doing for myself is prefacing my questions with ‘this is probably a stupid question, but…’ that was my way of acknowledging that I know I don’t know, but I want to know. The fact is, some questions just have to be asked if you are going to learn!” Getting over the hurdle of tech-speak may be harder for some women, but it “also may be a maturity thing” that will come with time, Flanigan noted. She admitted, “I think I always had a bit of a tomboy streak, too.” Hesitating, she sticks to the term. She has two sisters, but often played the role of son to her father, “I did the man-things that he wanted to do, and I loved being in that role in my family.”
Her earliest memory of interfacing with artwork dated back to third or fourth grade. “There was some program that my school had started where these women would come in and talk about art. And of course the art that they would talk about was all famous works of art. [i.e.] Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’, (and actually Van Gogh in general because there was also the self-portrait with his ear missing, and the one with the chair in the room). [The guest teacher] was talking about all the symbolism and how to understand the artist through the painting. Like, ‘What does it mean that the chair looks crooked?’ Or ‘What does his expression look like?’ Or ‘Why does ‘Starry Night’ look the way it does?’ …analyzing the paintings. I had never experienced, (or understood,) the activity of just looking at a work of art, contemplating why it exists. I remember being drawn to the ideas behind what I saw.”
“Anyone who knows me knows that I like to think way too much about things – to a fault,
and I was thinking pretty hard about Van Gogh, about why he made those crazy paintings at that time.”
Though Lesley didn’t have a dream venue in mind, off the cuff, she explained that she loved performing a recent show in Texas. The things that made the experience so great were the gallery’s vaulted ceilings, that presented great sound capabilities, also the shape and concrete materials that made up the space. She also loves performing on classic, old wooden stages, for their resonance. “When you get just the right lighting, like a dark space with a single spot,” or flooding the whole back wall of the stage with live video feed of what is going on up close with her instruments, “it can look really beautiful.” She likes to keep the visuals minimal in order to let the audio fill the space. “Whatever I can do to create an experience for the audience that feels very comfortable and intimate, I think intimacy is so important, even if you are in a big space you want the audience to feel the music very close.”
On future projects she would like to pursue, “working with singers. I’d love to really take some time to develop a performance that gets to the heart of what it means for me to work with voice. I always talk about my speaker feedback instruments as being like an ensemble of voices – each speaker has its own voice heard in the sounds of feedback. And like a choral conductor, I have a certain levels of control over them: I can turn them on, I can turn them off, I can tune them. When I work with singers, and I do very much the same thing. I can tell them to sing (motions with her hands,) I can tell them to stop! (She motions again.) I can make them loud, I can make them soft, and I can tune them by having them sing the same pitches that I’m playing or singing.”
“In my ‘Amplifications’ performance, I sing alone with my speaker feedback instruments. And the process is like building a sculpture – shaping the sounds of my voice and my speakers. The ideas I’m working with are the physicality of sound…making music by means of sculptural practice. Working with other singers in the mix expands upon that idea – their voices give me more sound material to build with. They also give me an opportunity tie together more closely, the relationship between voices and speakers, one I find to be very poetic. I would really love to push that idea further, perhaps working with a select group of singers whom I can really develop a rapport with, much like I’ve developed with my instruments.”
“Honestly, I really think there is nothing more beautiful than voices, just voices, and I know I work with speaker feedback, and I love my speaker feedback, but I was drawn to them through the ideas of voice and sound. Yeah, voice is the best instrument. I would argue that in a heartbeat.”
Lesley performs THIS FRIDAY @ The Outpost
February 22, 2013 at 8:00 PM
The Outpost, 1665 Norman St, Ridgewood, NY
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