It’s All Between Their Ears
- Olivia Laing’s writing explores the aspects of life that are most difficult to put into words.
- Bill Fontana finds musical potential in everything.
- Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs has managed to quiet the destructive voices in her head.
Bill Fontana is a pioneering composer whose signature sound sculptures incorporate ambient and often-ignored everyday sounds into aural landscapes.
Born in 1947 in Cleveland, OH, Fontana studied music at the New School with influential composer John Cage. In the 1970s, he was hired by the Australian Broadcasting Company. He used the company’s professional audio equipment to record urban and natural sounds, building a sound installation that was exhibited by the National Gallery of Victoria. His work has since been presented at numerous museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum in New York, Reina Sofia in Madrid, and the Tate Modern in London.
Fontana’s site-specific projects often include recordings made at bridges and buildings with historic significance, including San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Arc de Triomphe, Trafalgar Square, and the Ponte 25 de Abril in Lisbon, Portugal. In the 1980s, his four-minute environmental soundscapes were broadcast daily on NPR stations around the United States.
Merrill Garbus is a singer and songwriter known for her musical project Tune-Yards (styled tUnE-yArDs), which incorporates a range of musical influences in a low-fi indie pop style.
Born in 1979, Garbus was raised in New York and New Canaan, CT, in a family of folk musicians. She attended Smith College and worked as a puppeteer in Vermont before founding Tune-Yards in 2006.
Garbus’s music draws from folk, African rhythms, and hip hop, among other influences, and utilizes tape loops, ukulele, and various effects pedals. Her debut album, BiRd-BrAiNs, was recorded on recycled cassette tapes using only a handheld voice recorder. Tune-Yards’ acclaimed second album, Whokill (2011), was named on annual best-of lists by Rolling Stone, New York Times, Pitchfork, and other publications. The single “Gangsta,” co-written with her bassist and husband Nate Brenner, featured in several hit TV shows. Nikki Nack (2014) reached number 27 in the Billboard album charts. A single, “Water Fountain” was featured in a commercial for Google Pixel.
Olivia Laing is an award-winning nonfiction writer and novelist. She is best known for her 2016 book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, which blends personal memoir into essays on how loneliness affects artistic work.
Laing grew up in southern England and studied English at Sussex University. She practiced for several years as a medical herbalist before becoming a journalist, serving as Deputy Books Editor at the Observer from 2004 to 2007. Laing’s work combines biographical research and personal reflection. Her first book, To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface (2011) reflects on Virginia Woolf’s life and work on a walk along the river where Woolf killed herself. Her second book, The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking (2013) was a book of the year in numerous publications. Her acclaimed work The Lonely City considers urban loneliness through chapters on artists from different fields.
Laing’s first novel, Crudo (2018), won a James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2019. She was awarded a Windham-Campbell Prize for nonfiction in 2018.
- Art & Design
Welcome to Articulate, where some of the world’s greatest creative minds help us explore the human condition.
Tori Marchiony reports on how Olivia Laing’s writing explores the aspects of life that are often the most difficult to put into words.
Olivia Laing: So much of our bodily life goes on in secrecy. We’re sort of obsessed with the exterior of our bodies. The actual experience of living inside a body is somehow resisted to being talked about.
Bill Fontana finds musical potential in everything.
Bill Fontana: The idea of just hearing the sounds you live with on an everyday basis is foreign to a lot of people.
And, great anguish can fuel great creativity but Merrill Garbus of the indie pop project tUnE-yArDs vowed to stop punishing herself.
Merrill Garbus: I actually had to set a rule for myself mentally that, “Merrill, you’re not allowed to talk to yourself that way anymore.”
That’s all coming up on Articulate.
Tori Marchiony spends time with Olivia Laing and discovers that her writing explores the aspects of life that are most difficult to put into words.
Writer Olivia Laing is a Brit who’s spent nearly five years walking the streets of Manhattan. She’s been an activist, an artist’s model, and an herbalist. In her non-fiction books she’s explored the lives of drinking writers and lonesome artists with the subjectivity often reserved for memoir. Laing’s work on loneliness has become a touchstone for countless others who find themselves in her personal reflections.
(excerpt from “The Lonely City,” 2016)
The bluest period I ever spent was in Manhattan’s East Village not so long back. I lived on East Second Street in an unreconstructed tenement building and each morning I walked across Tompkins Square Park to get my coffee. When I arrived the trees were bare and I dedicated those walks to checking the progress of the blossoms. There are many community gardens in that part of town and so I could examine irises and tulips, forsythia, cherry trees, and a great weeping willow that seemed to drop its streamers overnight like a ship about to lift anchor and sail away.
AJC: So as the loneliness expert first of all, what a title! Do you feel like that kind of gives you permission to enjoy yourself?
Olivia Laing: So much so. I think I can see when I do readings and there are lots and lots of young people that it gives people permission to think, “Oh it’s okay to be lonely.” And also, you’re not going to be a complete downer or you might be a fun person as well. I think that’s nice for people to realize.
AJC: Have you gotten better at shaking off loneliness?
Laing: I mean my life has changed absolutely. I don’t live the same life anymore. I mean, I was, really looking back, incredibly destabilized. I was moving a lot. I was in a different country. I had new friendships here but they weren’t as very deeply rooted as they are now, so it was really a moment in my life. And I think that’s the thing that loneliness is a moment in people’s lives. That people move somewhere, a relationship ends, somebody dies and you go through these experiences of profound loneliness that oftentimes you then come back out of. And it was important for me so to say that loneliness isn’t something that you need to be terrified of. It’s this native human experience.
AJC: And it’s awful and you’ll survive.
These days Laing is far from the loneliness that fueled that book. In 2017 she married the British poet, Ian Patterson with whom she enjoys a fairly quiet stable existence. 2018 brought Laing’s first foray into fiction. The book was written over the course of seven weeks in the summer of 2017 during which Laing had been reading a biography of the experimental novelist Kathy Acker who made a career appropriating the works of others. Before long their stories began to meld.
Laing: She writes about intimacy, she writes about war, she writes about violence, and she writes all the time about what is to be an artist. So we sort of fused, the characters fused, sometimes it’s my biography sometimes it’s very much hers. It’s this sort of fictional construct that shares elements of both of us.
Laing’s gift for transcribing the nearly unsayable stories of our lives is on rich display in all her work. Her new project, a book called Every Body, due out in 2020, is all about our physical selves. It explores Laing’s decidedly unromantic view of the human form exemplified by Stanley Spencer’s intensely realistic portraits and rooted in her own days as an herbalist.
ACJ: So why is celebrating our ordinary icky form a radical thing to do?
Laing: I think there are so many forces in our world that are against the body in various ways. Against specific people’s bodies, kinds of bodies, against women’s bodies, against bodies of color, against trans bodies. It feels to me just the experience of embodiment for a huge amount of people is a radical act because the body is legislated against, is subject to harassment. But even beyond that whereas we’re embodied and yet we have so much shame around our body. So much of our bodily life goes on in secrecy. We’re sort of obsessed with the exterior of our bodies. The actual experience of living inside a body is very somehow resistant to being talked about and these are the subjects I’m always drawn to the things that have a kind of speechlessness around them.
Olivia Laing has a knack for puncturing the silence around subjects that might be easier to hide from or ignore. The body, she insists, is just a bag of skin, and gender a state of mind.
Laing: I think having the poles of femininity and masculinity and being allowed to move freely between them or situate yourself wherever you’re comfortable is totally fine by me. That seems to be much more of a true understanding of what gender is like, that there are people who occupy one position very solidly and there are people who move very fluidly. You know my gender has always felt very fluid to me. It felt like that as a child and it feels like that now.
AJC: And you’re not, at this point, going as “they.”
Laing: No, no.
AJC: You’re still using female pronouns.
Laing: I’m still using her. But I noticed, actually, I keep being tagged in women’s writing and increasingly I’m like, “I’m trans. “Could you stop tagging me as women’s writing?” But I’m not going to tell people for doing that because I think there’s a bit too much telling off at the moment. I think a lightness around ‘genderness,’ the freedom of movement around gender is much more exciting to me than the idea that people are policing everybody’s mistake around it as well. That feels to me like it creates… it doesn’t have the vibe that I like. It doesn’t have the free vibe that I like. I want things to be more free, not less free.
There is no easiness in the work Laing does. No simple topic. She wants to understand those aspects of humanity that are perhaps the hardest to understand. Joy comes in the breakthrough moments. In finding an answer after all.
The sounds that we take for granted are exactly the ones that Bill Fontana wants us to hear, and to hear as music. It’s never hidden, never far away waiting only for somebody like him to turn up the volume and change the way you perceive your environment, maybe forever. But the job of this manipulator of sounds is difficult to define.
AJC: Are you a sculptor or a composer?
Bill Fontana: A little of both because I regard sound as a physical material.
AJC: Received wisdom would be that there’s a hierarchy of how we regard, I’ll call it oral information. Up here is composed, harmonic, melodic, traditional music. Below that is all kinds of other music. And below that is sound, in other words what my voice is making right now. And below that is?
AJC: What is general regarded as the pollutant of the world, noise. That hierarchy doesn’t really exist for you, correct?
Fontana: No, well actually, I think I’ve sort of turned that hierarchy upside down because when I started out as a composition student in the Cleveland Institute of Music and I started paying attention to just the ambient sounds in the space I was in. And what I discovered about myself is that if I really focused intently on the ambient sounds it was a way of making music. It was a way of finding patterns and relationships in sound. And I increasingly became really fascinated by this. Putting noise at the bottom of that, to me, is the opposite of how I think about it. I’d kind of put it on the top rather than the bottom because to me music is a state of mind. It’s way of perceiving the world. And I’ve spent 50 years exploring what that means.
Fontana’s Landscape Sculpture With Fog Horns redefines the everyday sounds around San Francisco Bay. Using microphones in eight positions, fog horns on the Golden Gate Bridge are heard from various acoustical vantage points at the same time.
Fontana: People really learn not to hear those sounds, or to pay attention to them. And if you look at young people walking around with headphones on just listening to the musical bubble as they walk down the street. The idea of just hearing the sounds you live with on an every day basis is foreign to a lot of people.
AJC: It’s very interesting. As we’ve sat here I’ve become more and more aware of the ambient sounds, and I’m sure you probably live your life through this. Can you hear everything that’s going on around us now because it’s quite remarkable the variety of sounds that are occurring.
Fontana: It’s a question of choice. I feel like I’ve developed the ability to find something interesting with almost any sound I’m exposed to. But I would also use a tool that structural engineers use called an accelerometer. It’s a vibration sensor. Those sensors to me are like space ships. They take me into another dimension of reality and how vibration inhabits the material world that I see. I’m really interested in that. And I’ve done all these experiments with how certain apparently animate objects can react to sound.
Many of Fontana’s pieces involve bridges with iconic or historic significance. Whether people are on them are under them, bridges are funnels and crossroads for passing humanity and the sound that they make. One of his big successes was sound from the iconic 25th of April Bridge in Lisbon Portugal.
Fontana: I did this exhibition where I installed a live array of microphones and sound sensors on this bridge and transmitted it into this immense space in this museum. I was able to create a sound installation with 32 loud speakers and I took the live audio from the bridge and created this immersive swirling sound piece that had created a kind of musical universe out of sounds from that bridge that people had learned not to hear.
Every so often though the public reacts badly. If you don’t like visual art you can turn away but there’s something about a public sound insulation that’s less avoidable. The public reaction to Fontana’s work can also be ecstatic.
Fontana: I saw this in Lisbon where people who would come and spend a long period of time there laying on these cushions gazing up at these images but surrounded by these sounds. It really kind of made them happy because that bridge is a very symbolic bridge. It’s a symbol of their revolution. The bridge used to be called the Salazar Bridge and was renamed the 25th of April Bridge which was the date of when they overthrew a dictator.
Many ideas by the 71 year-old Fontana can be traced directly to John Cage’s 1952 piece 4’33” four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. If maximum sound can be music so too can maximum silence or whatever sounds happen to be in the air. With such an open-ended approach Fontana’s pieces have an it is what it is quality. When he was asked to create a piece on the parish church of St. Kolumba destroyed in Cologne during World War II he found pigeons and he didn’t chase them away. Now the church’s ruins are enclosed in a newly built museum but on the loud speakers thanks to Fontana the long-time resident pigeons are still there. Music is supposedly a universal language but Bill Fontana’s brand of song is so open ended that it’s more like a mirror for those who experience it.
AJC: What happens when you hear a Beethoven symphony or a Bob Dylan song?
Fontana: I think the Bob Dylan song, the Beethoven symphony, all those things are really, really spectacular examples of music. And I don’t wish to exclude those but I don’t want to use those as a criterion for excluding other sounds.
There was once a 22 year-old struggling puppeteer named Merrill Garbus who was certain about her future.
Merrill Garbus: Growing up with two parents as musicians I thought, “Well I know what I’m not going to do. “I’m not going to be a musician.”
What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a gangsta
But she was wrong.
Anger in his heart, but he’ll never be a gangsta
If you move into his neighborhood
he’ll never make a sound
In 2006 she started Tune-Yards, the indie pop project that would gain a cult following for its eclectic blend of sonic elements.
What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a rasta
Garbus spent time in Kenya absorbing Congolese pop music and in Haiti studying percussion, influences that can be clearly heard in her songs but so too can the sounds of her childhood.
Garbus: You know my parents met playing folk music, American folk music, so there is not just the music itself, you know, I learned old-timey fiddle and grew up in music parties that my parents had with their friends but also just that sense of music. That in order to be a musician you didn’t have to do what I’m doing now. Everybody was playing music and that was a communal activity and I think that has really informed my sense of what being a musician is. So there’s a lot of Tune-Yards that comes from that folk sensibility. And then on the other hand I was growing up near New York City in the eighties and there was like this radical hip hop and hip hop influenced music coming out of New York at that time. And that’s stuff that, you know, the drum machines and the synthesizers are not necessarily where my parents come from.
AJC: You can really hear that in your music.
Despite that great adage that there’s nothing new on Earth, in recent years there’s been much debate about who can rightly claim certain ideas and traditions. And with this growing mainstream sensitivity to cultural appropriation, Tune-Yards songs started to land differently. Suddenly the influences Garbus had been celebrated for began to mark her out as an artistic thief. But she never shied away from the accusations.
Garbus: I don’t like the word accuse around cultural appropriation because cultural appropriation is happening. It just is. When someone’s accusing me of something it’s as if I’m supposed to be defensive about it. And as a person who sees her privilege I would rather be in the position of embracing this conversation of cultural appropriation and being bold in naming what I’m appropriating and then inviting other musicians to do the same and hopefully so that we can get somewhere. So that we can get to a place of okay well then, what’s owed? And that’s my question: What is owed? Is there money owed? Is there credit owed? Where do we go?
Garbus went within and began the long process of examining her own unconscious prejudices. Her 2018 album, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, was the result of grappling with some deeply uncomfortable truths.
Garbus: Internalized racism is part of my, my very private life, when I really get honest with myself. And that’s, again, some of this really deep painful truth that feels like it could be a way forward when it’s worked through and moved through instead of shutting down with guilt.
I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men
I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men
I comb my white woman’s hair with a comb made especially, generally for me
I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories
Merrill Garbus has always put what’s on her mind into her music and for many years what was on her mind most of the time was everything she hated about her own physical appearance.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall
Can you see my face at all
AJC: Give me some advice on reconciling the body you were given versus the one you thought you were supposed to have.
Garbus: I mean, man, I’m working through it every day. I actually have had to set a rule for myself mentally that, “Merrill, you’re not allowed to talk to yourself “that way anymore.” If I’m constantly in, “I’m not good enough, I’m not thin enough, “I’m not small enough” I don’t ever— I’m just here. I go through my day in shame. And self-hatred. If my imagination— if I allow myself, if I just cut that voice off, and I’m just like, “No, that’s actually a fiction, “that’s a not true thing”, and if I don’t buy into it a lot of time is freed up. Just mental energy, you know? Now I think there’s— this is like a life’s work for me.
AJC: Do you have an appreciation for the now?
AJC: Because, I mean, this is true in almost every aspect of your life, one’s life. These are the good old days.
Garbus: Mm hmm, you’re so right. Which is another, that’s the other— the body image thing is like, “Get over it, it’s not getting better” Like this is good, this is strong, this is good. I’m healthy, you know, I’m alive. What more do I want?
It rocks me like a lullaby
In my mine
It gives me thrills I can’t describe
Your face in mine
Oh baby, I just don’t know why
AJC: How helpful is it, or does it matter at all, that you get to stand on the stage for an hour and a half or two hours every night in a room where people really, really love you?
Garbus: Hmm, I mean it’s not always pleasurable to serve up all these observation and personal critique and disgust. It can be a real mental roller coaster ride. But I’d say that what’s really working for me lately is being able to appreciate my body, my voice, just to kind of have the sensory pleasure of performing music. And the sensory pleasure of singing, of breathing so much on stage. These two guys that I get to play with, Nate Brenner, my husband and collaborator. Hamir Atwal is playing drums with us and we have this real trio a real deep, deep musical trio. We’re listening to each other really deeply and it’s a very pleasurable joyful experience most nights. So that in and of itself is very therapeutic I’m sure.