Medusa Mixes Myth and Reality with Allegory of the G/Rave

It all began with a post on Tumblr.

“Medusa was defending herself,” explains Medusa, a Buffalo-based trans-nonbinary, intersex music producer and visual artist and winner of the Audiofemme Agenda Grant, about how they got their name. “And then I read the things that people were saying in the notes about how Medusa was attacked by Poseidon and then demonized and turned into a monster and then banished from the place that she had called home for her entire life, and I was like, this is very familiar.”

Medusa came to the Greek myth by way of isolation. After being stalked on campus at their university, many of their friends felt they were making the whole thing up. They delved into the internet and started tinkering with Audacity, the early manifestations of their present musical practice. 

With their grant, Medusa is producing a short film to accompany an upcoming concept album entitled Allegory of the G/Rave, a queer retelling of the story of Medusa. They latch on to those themes of isolation and self-protection in terms of the queer experience – by chronicling Medusa’s life, transformation and persecution, Medusa intends to contribute to the emotional needs of of their young divergent audience, and to galvanize their self-worth, providing them with the representation necessary for self-actualization.

When they started playing music, they had never even been to a show. “I didn’t know what an XLR cable was,” they say. “I played with the EQ on my computer while my music played. And then sometimes I talked when I was brave enough to talk over the music, and then that was my first show, and then it just sort of snowballed, and it turned into this community, this melding of my own self-discovery and the connection with my community.”

Medusa’s birth as a musician came with their realizations that they were both queer and intersex, things they found out very publicly because they were making music about them. “That brought me more community than I ever lost in the first place. Which is and has been the biggest – I don’t know if I should say blessing, but I’ve been very lucky.”

That they hone in on this myth while adopting the moniker Medusa adds layers to the narrative, particularly given that their musical practice is driven so organically by emotion. “Auditorily it’s not quite what people call synaesthesia, but when a song is stuck in your head and affects your mood,” they explain. “That’s how it happens for me but backwards, writing. So when I’m having an emotion, I’ll hear music, not necessarily in a hallucinatory way, but the urge to translate that into actual tangible, audible sound.”

They call them “transmissions” – when they’re “having a feeling or realizing that in the background of my mind, there’s been a song playing the whole time that I have to then go check to see if it’s real, and it exists and it’s stuck in my head, or if I’m writing subconsciously because of the feeling that I’m having. And then I’ll run over to the computer and I’ll get it down…I’ll figure out oh, what song does my subconscious want that to go in?”

In that way, they update the myth for the community they have built online, imparting a certain wisdom that while being different may be off-putting to some, it’s actually a source of power, a means of self-protection if harnessed well. And because they learned it the hard way, Medusa seeks to pay it forward with this narrative film of the concept album, split into eight music videos that will run a total of thirty minutes.

“The story of Medusa being something that she didn’t ask to be transformed into, something that she didn’t want to be necessarily, and then turning into that was very relatable for me. Because after that point, you start to harness it. In an effort to protect yourself, you are different,” they say. “Do I have to be alone forever? What does the process of re-opening yourself up look like, and is it even possible? So this has been a big process of self-discovery, but translating that in a way that is useful to other queer people is not just comforting, but also inspiring.” 

Follow Medusa on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for ongoing updates.

Ikwe Forges Her Own Path to Healing with the MAKADEWIIYAASIKWE Project

“What does it mean to be a Black woman? What does it mean to be an indigenous woman? And what does it mean to be a Black and indigenous woman, like myself?” asks Kelsey Van Ert. She creates art under the moniker Ikwe, meaning “woman” in Ojibwe, the indigenous tribe rooted in her heritage, and these questions are central to her work as a storyteller, composer and performance artist.

A winner of the 2022-23 Agenda Artist Grant, Van Ert aims to complete a project she began in 2018 that ultimately got stalled by the pandemic. Entitled MAKADEWIIYAASIKWE (meaning “a Black woman, a woman of African descent,” in Ojibwe), the piece is a 90-minute sound poem backed by Ikwe’s original music. She began piecing it together at residencies at the Shed NY at Hudson Yards Open Call Artist in Residence Program and the Wyckoff House’s Protest Garden Residency, and hopes to finish mixing, mastering, releasing and celebrating the work with her Audiofemme grant. 

The piece is a vehicle through which she grapples with her identity as a mixed race white, Ojibwe, and Black woman from St. Paul, Minnesota. It connects the history and healing process of the Native American and African American people, while shedding light on the Euro-centricity of Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ five stages of grief – you know the ones: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – through the melding of Black music genres with Ojibwe hand drum music, personal narratives, the sharing of shrouded U.S. history, and film. 

Her mother is mixed white and Ojibwe and her father is Black, but she grew up mostly disconnected from her Black heritage in her father’s absence, though she notes her mother was sensitive about things like taking her to a proper Black hair salon. “I grew up reading a lot of Black literature and indigenous literature and seeing narratives about white and Black mixed people, or native and white mixed people, but not really seeing myself,” she explains. “Whenever I visited the rest of the reservation my family is affiliated with, there are mixed Black people, [but I wasn’t] really seeing us being represented.”

She finds herself at a particularly complicated intersection, given the historical prominence of social policing like the One Drop Rule and Blood Quantum measures. As you may or may not know, the One-Drop Rule emerged in the 20th century as a racial classification system, wherein if you had even “one drop” of Black blood, you were considered Black. As Van Ert puts it, “I don’t really say that I’m white, because that’s not how the world sees me… You can’t not be Black, and I think that defines a lot of how I relate to my culture, because I did not grow up with my father and his family.” It has colored a lot of her experience growing up in the Midwest, from her sometimes fraught relationship with her family’s reservation to a particularly egregious incident as a student at the University of Wisconsin, where someone called the police on her, even though she was walking around campus wearing a school sweatshirt.

While the One-Drop Rule was a means of control and classification, the Blood Quantum rule was developed as a tool for the erasure of indigenous communities. As she explains it, it’s “a measure of how much Native American blood that you have. And so it’s a measure of when you’re no longer Native American. And this idea has been adopted by most Native American tribes, and it’s a huge debate and a huge conversation right now, because blood quantum is doing exactly what it was built to do, which is to eliminate indigenous people.” It grows complicated in the sense that there are benefits on the line for indigenous people, like scholarship money, and as more and more people establish interracial families, these bloodlines grow more and more diluted.

“The thing that happens is because there’s a lot of mixing, so much time has passed, and the population that was 100% is now less than 1% of this country, you could be a quarter Native American, but you’re one eighth of this tribe and one eighth of another tribe, and then you can’t be part of any,” she explains. “Our blood quantum is actually off by a generation, because my great, great grandfather denounced his status as Native American to get a job at the post office.”

So when you embody multiple ethnicities, and are simultaneously labeled just one while actively erased from another, where does that leave you? For Ikwe, this is where the stages of grief come in, particularly as this commonly held system erases multi-cultural traditions of therapy and healing. Existing as a minority in a country as hostile to minorities as America is an actively traumatic process – people of color bear the weight of centuries of mistreatment and abuse, while also being constantly confronted with racially motivated violence and hatred on both the news and in their day-to-day lives.

“Right now, the main way to heal for everybody is this very Euro-centric way, through European-style therapy, knowledge, analysis, and cognitive behavioral therapy, that kind of stuff,” she says. “And then there [are] these stages that you go through. And then once you go through these stages, you will be alright. But what happens when you’re from a minority community that keeps having to restart the process over and over again, because you keep experiencing racism or trauma continuously? There isn’t, like, an indigenous map for dealing with grief.”

And so Ikwe has set out to map her own grief and healing through the MAKADEWIIYAASIKWE project, which she was inspired to begin, in part, by her great grandmother. “She was the last one to speak Ojibwe fluently, and when she had Alzheimer’s at the end of her life, she only spoke Ojibwe,” she explains. “But she didn’t teach my grandmother, or my mother, because she was afraid that they would, like, get taken and put into a boarding school. So my grandmother and my mother and I were doing a lot of learning. Part of my process was learning how to make hand drums, and learning songs. Healing songs, stories, every group is very different.”

But most importantly, she notes that when it comes to healing, “Everyone has a way.” And in an attempt to help others like her find their way, Ikwe is finding her own, too.

Follow Ikwe on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Mafer Bandola Paves the Way to the Party for “La Venezolanidad Immigrante”

“As Colombians have places to dance or play Cumbia or Merengue, or Cubans have places to dance Rumba, or let’s say the Brazilians have places to play Samba or Choro or Forro, there’s no place for Venezuelan musicians,” says María Fernanda González, known professionally as Mafer Bandola, of the contemporary dance scene for New York City’s various Latin American communities. “It was missing that.”

But she’s trying to change that. A winner of the Audiofemme 2022-23 Agenda Grant, Mafer Bandola is an instrumentalist, composer and pioneer within the Joropo Llanero genre, an Afro-Indigenous tradition from the High Plains of Venezuela. She’s already known as an innovator occupying a unique place in her field, having performed at institutions like MassMoca, WOMAD, Womex, TED, NPR TinyDesk and more. Born in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, she moved permanently to New York City this past year, where she began to teach dance workshops for her particular genre of music.

That she is able to teach the dance to fellow Venezualians in New York City is integral to her mission. As she explains, Joropo means “party,” but most importantly, “party doesn’t happen without the work of the community.” When she came to New York, she noticed that the people attending her performances were just “sitting to listen to the musicians playing and singing. And now I’m trying to organize this… This is music that you can dance to, but you have to learn how, so I started teaching.” While these workshops are open to anyone, she says she would “specifically like to connect with Venezuelans. I’ve been teaching Venezuelans who have been living here for the last 30 years, and they felt that they didn’t have this space even to learn, or even to meet and talk about what they are doing.” Furthermore, she places great emphasis on teaching the children of these immigrants, so that the tradition can be passed on.

Joropo is a mix of indigenous, African and Spanish traditions, one rooted in resistance. As she explains, “during colonialism in Venezuela, enslaved indigenous and African peoples saw their own Spanish enslavers dance waltzes inside their mansions. As a joke, they created their own dance, making fun of the waltz by exaggerating its movement. Thus, Joropo was born as a kind of resistance against the oppression of the enslavers.”

With her grant, she envisions a “portable community house” of music, song and dance, a multicultural meeting point of Venezualan immigrants, musicians and the general public in New York City, which has become an epicenter of the Venezualan diaspora. Because of the economic crisis in Venezuela, she notes that the recent exodus out of the country is the largest migration that has existed in the history of the Western hemisphere. She says that by the end of 2021, 7 million have emigrated, which is only slightly less than the population of New York City itself (8.4 million). She sees the creation of a flexible community “space” as being crucial to maintaining traditions of “La Venezolandidad Immigrante.” 

So too does she inhabit an interesting intersection in this space – in general, women do not play the bandola in Venezuela. She is one of the only female players of this instrument in the world, and as such, she works to actively promote the integration of women who perform professionally using traditional Venezuelan instruments. In addition to the big ways she does this – actively creating community and teaching this style of music and dance – she does it in small ways everyday as well, oftentimes babysitting the children of fellow female musicians so that they can rehearse and gig. Being a woman in a male-dominated role can be isolating in any regard, but especially when you are one of the first to do so.

“It’s been really challenging for me to actually create a path for oral tradition and professional musicians, because I didn’t have that role to follow in Venezuela,” she says. “There is no female adult playing this instrument professionally. So when I received this grant with this idea, that actually is helping me to be at peace with my traditions, because somehow, I don’t represent my traditions.” 

Her “portable community house” is already underway, in some respects – every fourth Sunday, Mafer Bandola hosts Pipiris Nights at Barbés in South Slope, both in-person and streaming online. Those who’d like to join the party – and support her mission – can catch her next Joropo event is this Sunday, May 22.

Follow Mafer Bandola on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Shara Lunon Finds her Voice Among the Noise with “Bitter Fruits”

“A lot of the goal with my art is to eradicate this idea of homogeneity, of Black people all experiencing and feeling the same thing,” says Shara Lunon, NYC-based multidisciplinary artist and one of the winners of the 2022-23 Audiofemme Agenda Grant. “I’m starting to think all the pieces really focus around the feelings that I felt in particular, and it’s not necessarily how all Black people felt, but just specifically how I felt in my environment.”

Lunon is a Black, Jewish and queer improviser, poet, vocalist and composer. She grew up splitting her time between Florida and New York, where she moved full time to pursue and complete a graduate degree in Performance and Composition at the New School this past year. In her artist statement, she refers to herself as “the product of a culture deferred – a simultaneous mixture of erasure and mutation,” her ethnic identity split between two historically oppressed communities, though as she clarified in an interview with me, “There are different cultural references that I have, but… it’s kind of the same in the sense that if you’re Black, you’re Black.”

She is hard at work on “Bitter Fruits,” a multiform song cycle created in response to what cultivated the “Freedom Summer” of 2020, and the triggering of intergenerational trauma that surfaces when viewing a lynching. She says it is the largest piece she has written to date, examining the idea of what Black people “are” or “should be,” something not only forced upon her but something she has strived to be as a multi-racial individual. She explains that “what ‘I should be’ and how I felt has always lived in conflict.”

The piece features a wig of ten-foot braids that encase wiring, programming of photocells that change sound patterns between pieces, and choreography. While hair is an integral and oftentimes emotionally fraught aspect of the Black female identity, she digs deeper here, explaining that hair – and braids in particular – “has been used as coded language, for maps for people to escape from slavery, or to hide food within it. So I feel like the braids became this secondary way of communicating, not just through my voice, not through the sounds that are coming out of it, but also a representation of Black culture and history, and to transmit other messages of solidarity and pride in my cultural history.”

In other words, it’s a vehicle in which to speak her truth without having to explicitly explain, an emotional labor the Black community has been tasked with since time immemorial but particularly in the racial reckoning that occurred in the wake of the George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery murders of 2020. For many white allies, particularly those too young to have lived through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, this was a moment of realization of the trauma people of color have lived with for generations, leading to a sudden burst of energy and activism that many BIPOC knew couldn’t be sustained. But while white allies could relax back into their identities once the burst of energy fizzled out, Black people remain Black, and must continue to deal with these multi-generational traumas and issues whether they want to or not. Watching white friends and colleagues wake up on Instagram or in the streets for a few months and then retreat back into the ordinary was an isolating experience.

Lunon explains that the piece has “less to do with the protests, and more to do with the feeling of understanding what an ally could actually mean and those feelings of isolation or sadness. They’re very deep and generational, and combined with this very ‘in the moment’ mission of the allies that for me was like, I will already see the end date before people want to realize.” She says the work is “very reactionary, in the moment and organic to the space that I’m infusing the technology outside of the machine itself. I’ve been building my own little tiny embroidered oscillators. I like the way it responds to motion.”

Photo Credit: Daniel Dorsa

Her practices “parallel my focus on the Black individual, as a way to negate the narrative of the homogeneity of my people – we are all having a human experience.” No one’s art should be limited in theme to their identity, and neither is Lunon’s. While we wait with anticipation for her to unveil her “Bitter Fruits,” she premieres “Sankofa” this weekend at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens’ Biophony, a walkabout listening experience conceived by the Grammy-nominated collective Metropolis Ensemble. This will feature more than twenty groupings of musicians stationed throughout the gardens to perform fifteen new works of music inspired by birds.

Shara Lunon contains multitudes, more than can ever be encompassed in identity descriptors like Black, Jewish or queer. Even when the work deals explicitly in these themes, the medium is always the message.

Follow Shara Lunon on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

W.S.A.B.I. Radicalizes the Natural World with Red Hook Farms Mixtape

When’s the last time you considered your relationship to the land you live on? For those of us living in cities, it can feel particularly challenging to cultivate a connection with the natural world, given that in our context it’s been largely paved over. But to Brookyn-based artist and musician Jennae Santos, who creates under the moniker W.S.A.B.I., our urban setting is all the more reason to consider this question.

To Santos, there’s something radical and subversive about communing with the natural world on a more intimate level. W.S.A.B.I. itself stands for Warped Sanggot And Boss Interior, which she describes more specifically in an artist statement: “The Sanggot is a Visayan Philippine hand sickle— a farming tool and martial arts weapon that guides W.S.A.B.I.’s artistic, political, and emotional practice in the harvest of love, community, and subsistence, and the fight for the oppressed body. Our blade is warped from the ongoing work at hand: decolonization, abolition, and warrior pedagogy, fight songs against white supremacist patriarchal capitalism, love songs stoked in multi-sensory radical commitment. Boss Interior means inner strength through the work, and acknowledgment of both the oppressor and the spirit of resistance within colonized identity.”

Santos’ musical style is highly technical and at times jarring, a genre she’s come to define as “art prog.” And by that, she means to synthesize the angular, sometimes unpredictable acuity of art rock with the ambitious composition and repetition of progressive rock. Her most recent release is the Three Houses (Live) EP. Attributed to the WSABI Duo of Love featuring Alex Goldberg, live from quarantine, the three songs were written and recorded over what she describes on her website as “transient overhauls” at three different houses over the course of the initial COVID lockdown. Minimal and lacking the jolting angularity of her work with a full band, they reflect her newfound experimentation with field recordings that led to the walking mixtape, though they do have their heavier moments.

Like many musicians, her practice became more of a solo endeavor when COVID separated her from her bandmates, and her creations became more experimental. A winner of Audiofemme‘s 2020 Agenda Artist Grant, she took the opportunity to expand her artistic acumen to something new and different: a “walking mixtape” exploring the concept of harvest, made in collaboration with Red Hook Farms, where she is a CSA member and volunteer. 

She took field recordings to include sounds from the farm, plant meditations and personal accounts from the youth farmers she supervises – many of whom are neighborhood teens with little existing connection to the natural world – and converted the sound samples into beats inspired by the energy of the farm, creating a site-specific musical walking tour that visitors could access by scanning a QR code at the Saturday farmer’s market. 

“I have like 200 recordings on my voice memos,” Santos shares when I ask how she takes these field recordings. They require nothing more than an iPhone, allowing Santos to record sounds whenever inspiration strikes: for example, for a recent commissioned piece on climate change, she went out to Far Rockaway and Dead Horse Bay to document the sound of tiny bits of glass washing in on the tide. 

Santos began volunteering on the farm as part of her CSA membership, the first time she had ever harvested her own food, and found the practice grounding. She took to studying the larger socio-economic issue of food insecurity over the pandemic and became all the more inspired.

“It’s such a global issue, food insecurity, and the rights of farmers, from migrant farmers to just people of color having food sovereignty and land sovereignty, so combining that with my artistic passions has been something I’ve been trying to work on for the past year,” she explains. “It’s coming from this wanting to see how we can inform each other, and land is such an experiential element that a lot of humans in cities seem to forget, especially if you’re not having to grow food for yourself.”

Issues of food insecurity and the inaccessibility of fresh produce to underprivileged neighborhoods have always plagued major cities, and New York City is no exception. Even when you have the privilege of affording fresh foods, the hustle of living and surviving in a major city can often leave you reaching for whatever foods are the fastest and most accessible, regardless of how unhealthy or processed they might be.

“I’m trying to bridge those practices of taking time to connect to food and to your health and well-being, through land, and I think that art is an access point for that, if not food itself,” she says. “What I was saying before in terms of land being very experiential, sound is also very experiential. Both of those elements really inform the human condition and remind us that we’re not just machines in an economy, we’re animals — we’re humans of the earth.”

As a self-described “decolonizing Filipinx,” Santos found great inspiration in the agricultural heritage of the Philippines, particularly a rice winnowing song recording from the Kalinga mountain province, and folk dancing based on different baranguays’ (the native Filipino word for village, or district) agricultural specialties and goods. She notes that there has always been a sacred relationship between art and nature in pre-colonial cultures, something she hopes to revive in her own contemporary community of Red Hook, Brooklyn. She conceptualized the project from her own moral exhaustion with the capitalist commodification of both the music and food industries, hoping that she might begin to heal both by synthesizing them with an immersive experience.

By thinking so critically about these issues, Santos has led others to reevaluate their relationship to the land they live on, namely the youth farmers she works with. She references Braiding Sweetgrass by scientist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer, how “finding your own indigeneity is about getting to know the land you inhabit.” Her exercises ask the youth farmers to consider their relationships to art and land, and encourage them to explore their ancestral agricultural heritage by asking elder family members about the family’s historical relationship with land. This aims to undo some of the damage wrought by capitalism and colonialism, particularly the way the latter can limit the depths of ancestral knowledge for people of color. Ultimately, though, it’s meant to unify, a reiteration of Santos’s earlier point, that “we are humans of the earth,” which she does in part by recording these exercises with the youth farmers and incorporating them into the mixtape.

“It’s supposed to evoke a sense of grounding and wonder, as it relates to land, especially in an urban environment, [where] we tend to lose that sense. We have to venture out to go hiking, out of the city, when it really is all around us, so it’s meant to be a reminder of the importance of city ecology also,” she explains, describing the interesting juxtaposition in her field recordings of construction sounds coming from the Amazon distribution warehouses across the street from the farm with its own lush, peaceful sounds. She takes this vast array of sounds and imports into her drum kit and uses them to create the beats that accompany the other sonic elements of the mixtape.

“There’s a pulse to the city, especially when there’s construction nearby. There’s a rhythm to the different seasons, and life cycles of plants,” she continues, explaining how this rhythm is aesthetically similar to the guitar loop-laden durational pieces she typically works on. The repetition in these pieces, she says, makes you “feel time differently.”  

“I think I’m trying to bring that type of patience, that kind of patience [that] also happens when you’re on the farm, just the way that people interact with each other and the space that’s there. It just feels like time, the New York hustle, slows down a bunch, and is more present with this newer rhythm, which is vastly different than just navigating the city.”

While the pandemic has forced all of us to slow down in one way or another, the mindfulness and intentionality Santos brings to her Red Hook Farms project is very welcome as society slowly circles back to whatever version of the status quo will remain in the wake of our present turmoil. Many of us don’t want to go back to the way things were before, rushing through our days as we juggled a seemingly endless cycle of jobs, tasks and errands. 

Santos does want to return to normal in the sense that she misses playing with other musicians. On October 28, she’ll participate in a performance dubbed “The Great Rat Summoning” at the Sultan Room, with EVOLFO, Castle Rat, Reverand Mother, and DJ Miss Hap Selam. She’s also heading into the studio with a full band to record the first full length record for the W.S.A.B.I. project, but her connection to the natural world remains; she participated in a harvest ritual at O+ Positive Festival in Kingston, NY earlier this month. I’d imagine that once you hear the rhythm of the natural world around you, it’s difficult to unhear it.

Follow W.S.A.B.I. on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Four/Four Presents Take Digital Music & Dance Collaborations to Open Air For In-Person Summer Series

Photo Credit: Mark Mann

The past year has added deeper dimension to that old adage about making lemonade. In other words, life has thrown a lot of lemons our way since last March, for better or for worse, and what to do with them is up to you. Such was the case with Rachael Pazdan and Loni Landon of Four/Four Presents, a new NYC-based curator platform that seeks to bridge the gap between the live music and high-art dance communities through linking independent musicians with seasoned dancers to create collaborative performances. What began as a live venture pre-pandemic quickly pivoted to accommodate our new style of living with recorded video performances, and is slowly transitioning to a live performance model that meshes with our new normal.

Their combined experience, long friendship, and well-earned clout in their respective industries intersected to make them the prime candidates to take on such a challenge – in general, live music and dance are both separate, niche communities. Pazdan danced growing up, and though she still considers it a passion, she is best known for her work in NYC’s live music scene. She’s worked as both an in-house talent buyer at venues like LPR and The Bell House and a freelance events presenter in her own right, producing The Hum, a concert series celebrating female and gender-nonconforming artists. Landon is a Juilliard-trained dancer and highly sought-out choreographer, having produced work for The Joyce Theater, the American Dance Institute, and more. Prior to collaborating with Pazdan on Four/Four, she co-founded The Playground, an initiative designed to give emerging choreographers the space to experiment while also allowing professional dancers to participate affordably. In other words, these are two women passionate about entrepreneurship in the arts and celebrating female and otherwise marginalized creators, themes central to Four/Four’s mission.

The name comes from the 4/4 time signature, something utilized by both musicians and dancers, to further emphasize the pair’s shared vision. “We wanted to create a space for dance and music to co-exist in a contemporary, cool way that’s not on like, a Proscenium stage, that’s not at Lincoln Center,” Pazdan explains, add that the end goal here is “making dance way less esoteric and super-accessible in the way music is really accessible. The thing I’ve said a few times is that we want people to watch dance the way they listen to a record.” And while they seek to make dance something less intimidating to outsiders, they also want to introduce dancers to new music, combining these separate audiences into one larger, more supportive arts community. “It’s connected us with so many artists. I’ve learned about so many new musicians and composers and people, and that’s what it is,” Landon adds. “We wanted to connect people and artists, even if it’s online. I think it’s important that we can create new connections and make new art.”

The concept came about nearly four years ago, when Pazdan and Landon collaborated on an LPR-presented performance by Landon’s company at Knockdown Center. They found a space and began plans for the first live Four/Four event in February 2020 – in the final weeks before our lives changed indelibly into what they are now. Once the lockdown hit they realized they needed to adapt in order to bring their vision to life, or to take these unprecedented lemons and make the lemonade, as it were. They ended up with Tethered, a video compilation of recorded dance performances set to curated music, which they presented projected on an outdoor screen at Public Records in Gowanus this summer. “It was kind of serendipitous because Public Records got in touch with Rachael, and they were moving all their content online,” Landon explains. “There were so many amazing artists just sitting around, out of work, including both Rachael and myself, and we were both like ‘Okay! Let’s just do this!’” 

As far as lemons go, the pandemic offered up one unexpected benefit in particular – dancers who would normally be unavailable due to busy touring schedules suddenly found themselves sitting at home, stationary. “So many artists that we were probably never going to be able to get to do stuff were just available, and at home, not doing anything,” Pazdan says. “So we were connecting with artists literally all over the world. We had dancers in Israel, and where else? Spain, Amsterdam, Norway… That was kind of the plus side to the pandemic, that we had access to artists we normally wouldn’t have access to.” And on top of that, they did not have to factor in the exorbitant cost of flying these performers into New York City, a constant albatross hanging around the necks of all independent events producers. 

In other words, their optimism in the face of an otherwise hopeless situation is what ultimately made their project a success. They could have sat watching the news in those first few dire weeks of the pandemic, so soon after they decided to move forward with the project at all, and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. But they chose to think on their feet, combining the best aspects of high art with a DIY ethos to produce something new and entirely unique. They worked together to assemble choreographers and contributing musicians, gathering the music first and sending it to the dancers with some instructions, then collected all the videos, which Pazdan learned to edit and patch together in light of budgetary limitations. “Being a freelancer I’ve learned how to create my own opportunities. You can’t wait for people,” Landon says. “If you want to create something you just have to do it… It’s not going to be perfect in the beginning but you learn by doing and just putting the energy in, you see that energy come out.”

As the weather warms and vaccination becomes available to all New Yorkers, Pazdan and Landon are already making moves for Four/Four’s sophomore summer. In collaboration with Audiofemme, they are producing a series of outdoor events called Open Air: four live, site-specific performances in New York City from June through September of this year. Utilizing spaces like Greenwood Cemetery and Brooklyn Bridge Park, among others, these events will bring to life – quite literally, as they are live events! – the original shared vision of Pazdan and Landon. They will be free to the public in line with Four/Four’s mission of creating accessible, equitable, and joyful events for everyone. Each performance will begin with a traditional music set, followed by a presentation from the choreographer and dancers, and conclude with the premiere of a new, original collaboration between both.

Ultimately, they want Four/Four to work with music and dance presenters alike, an unprecedented intersection of these communities. As we enter the New Normal of live performance, it would seem there’s no better time to challenge our perceptions of what live entertainment can be. 

Follow Four/Four Presents on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Em Boltz of Enchanted Forest Premieres Two New Tracks Composed on a Synth Built From Scratch

Photo Credit: Juliette Rando

Over the last year, many of us have picked up new hobbies to fill the endless expanse of time between the initial lockdown and the present, the uncertain future of when life will go back to “normal” and what that even means at this point. No longer do we measure time in minutes, days, or weeks, it would seem, but rather through loaves of sourdough bread and craft projects and how long it took your tomato plant to produce fruit last summer. Em Boltz, one half of Philly experimental electronic duo Enchanted Forest, is no different than the rest of us, except they spent their year delving deep into the world of modular synth construction.

A recipient of the Audiofemme Agenda Artist Grant, Boltz used the grant money towards the completion of an ambitious project – a recreation of the Buchla Music Easel (the iconic Additive Analogue Synthesizer spoken of in reverent tones since its incarnation in 1973) using Eurorack modules. If that sounds like a foreign language to you, that’s okay – it does to me too. The most important takeaway is that the true Buchla Music Easel will run you over $3,000, whereas you can get pretty close to creating your own for much less.

Essentially, Boltz has been scouring the internet for elements that help to imitate the Easel’s unique sonic possibilities, bits and pieces like oscillators, low pass gates, and spring reverbs, and patching them together to try and produce the organic, “magical acoustic space” that only the Buchla itself offers as a compact package. Using a Eurorack format as the base allows the user to customize their desired experience as it has no set signal flow, so that one can gain the most from whatever singular modular components they desire.

A sneak-peek at Em Boltz’s set up, courtesy of the artist.

Boltz’s interest in the Buchla was born of their love of psychedelic and krautrock music, as well as the compositions of artists like Suzanne Ciani and Terry Riley, both of whom included the Buchla in their musical repertoire. “This isn’t by any means a precise replica of the Buchla,” Boltz explains. “And I’m still very much learning how to navigate modular synths, but this is like my intro to it as well. I’ve just been slowly adding modules and integrating them into this Eurorack that I’m creating, which has been overwhelming definitely, but also super exciting… It’s been interesting, building a synth, because I feel like my approach to music is so intuitive, and I’ve been reading so much and trying to recreate this thing.” 

The challenge is further magnified by Boltz’s background in the humanities; as a poet and an English student at Kent State University, they had no formal background in such a technical practice. They’ve largely depended on YouTube and web forums to amass the necessary knowledge. “I feel like I learn something new every day,” they say. “I’m constantly trying to watch videos of other people talking about their set-ups… because essentially you’re recreating what someone [else] has created when you go buy a synthesizer, so there are all these different variations of what you could do… the possibilities are limitless.” The goal here is to recreate the uniquely organic sounds the Buchla is capable of – a “60s zingy vibe,” or an “acoustic funk,” for instance, according to one video I watched to try to get a handle on this. The Buchla, even as a replica, makes what Boltz says is “the trippiest stuff. It’s the simplest way you can put it.”

So far they’ve been successful, utilizing the makeshift Buchla to write and record the latest Enchanted Forest release, a visual album appropriately titled Research, out on Dear Life Records on June 18. The tracks, and their accompanying videos, focus on the intersection of the natural and digital worlds; “a lot play with nature because I just love nature, and I feel like that’s something I see through all the work I do, like poetry, music, writing,” Boltz says. “Making things that sound like they’re created in nature, which is what’s so cool about working with analog gear. It’s this really organic sound to it that really aids that.” 

Today, Boltz shares what they call “abstracted visuals” for two of the LP’s tracls – “The Tap” and “Open Window” – premiering exclusively on Audiofemme. On “Open Window” you can hear the sound of birds chirping layered under the synth effects. Though they are already using the synthesizer to produce music, it seems as though the project could carry as long as long as Boltz wants it to, acquiring new pieces of equipment and patching them into the existing set-up.

Enchanted Forest began as a Boltz’s solo endeavor, but it has recently expanded to include Noah Jacobson-Caroll, who Boltz met in 2017 when both played guitar in dark pop group Corey Flood. Research was written and recorded through email correspondence over the last year. “This band started in May 2020, so it’s only ever known COVID,” Boltz says. “The new album is all recorded through this karaoke machine, at least on my part. It’s all just us sending stuff back and forth.”

As far as what’s next, they say, “We’re already working on another album. We don’t stop.” Enchanted Forest intends to continue to collaborate remotely, because Boltz says they’ve “really come to enjoy creating this way.” And with seemingly endless possibilities, Research seems like an intriguing prologue to what Em Boltz and Enchanted Forest will create as time goes on. “Honestly it’s the best album I’ve ever made, which feels really good.”

Kinlaw Builds a Monument to Movement and Change with The Tipping Scale

Photo Credit: Cameron Tidball

I stumbled upon the expansive world of prolific multidisciplinary artist Kinlaw many years ago, when I promoted a show with her then-band SoftSpot at the now-shuttered Brooklyn DIY space Shea Stadium. This goes to show how deeply ingrained they have become in the NYC music and arts community; since then, the composer, choreographer, and artist (who uses both she and they pronouns) has made a name for herself with both solo performances and productions with as many as two hundred performers, gracing institutions like MoMA, Pioneer Works, National Sawdust, and more. Last Friday she released her first solo album via Bayonet Records, The Tipping Scale – a stunning, dynamic dark-pop album that nearly forces you to move despite the heavy themes it tackles.

As an artist whose primary medium is choreography, it comes as no surprise that Kinlaw’s process for writing this record was anything but orthodox, beginning with mere movement. “Years ago, working with a band, [songwriting] would start with someone having an idea and then suddenly there’d be a lot of sound, and quite a lot of noise, and then [we’d] kind of shape it down,” she explains. Their songwriting process as a solo artist happens nearly in reverse. “The entry point for a lot of these is really super quiet,” they explain. “I would start with a gesture, and let it build until a memory attached itself to it.” Different gestures intuit different sounds, associating smoother gestures with vowel sounds and those that were more “crinkled and quick” with consonants. “It’s all just a huge trip but it works for me,” she says. “It makes it so I don’t feel intimidated by the songwriting process. It makes it so that I feel like I’m making material that feels of the moment to me.”

The depth of The Tipping Scale is such that it’s difficult to articulate in words; Kinlaw refers to it as “an introspective and very strange dance party.” Wrapped in pop music that is both accessible but somehow wholly original, it combines lyrics deeply personal to Kinlaw with universal themes like loss, regret, identity, and more than anything else, change. The title itself is a metaphor for change, the idea of an ever-present slipping in and out of change, and the acceptance of it, what they describe as a constant “pull-tug” between past and present versions of ourselves. The songs are fluid, ripe with meaning never meant to sit stagnant, but rather to evolve with the listener and their environment.

For instance, Kinlaw says, “What I might have written ‘Blindspot’ about initially, is not always what it’s going to continue to be.” The video for this track was directed by her dear friend Kathleen Dycaico, who provided a mirror to reflect these ever-changing meanings. “I think working with Kathleen was a really really great thing for me, because I’m able to see that the relationships I have with other people so often parallel the ones I have with myself,” Kinlaw says. “And so even the difficulties or the grief, or the loss or the frustrations I have with things, relationships that have died, I can see them mirrored so clearly in so many things I experience on my own, with myself.”

Change is a strong theme on the album, but also configured heavily into how Kinlaw has released and promoted it; the events of the past year altered their intentions regarding The Tipping Scale. She began filming the visual component as an alternative to the live performance it was supposed to be, and the realization that a performance would not happen as soon as she had hoped. “People who were part of the developmental phases, I told them the album was a script. And that really for me, the reason I was doing it was so I could create a live show in accordance with the script,” she explains. “So for me to make a record was a really exciting thing because, like, how fabulous to have a new starting point to spend a lot of time and consideration on these songs and to allow them to have another phase, like when you do the performance.”

While I have no doubt that whatever live performance Kinlaw would have crafted (and will certainly craft, once we’re allowed live performance again) would have been powerful in its own right, I would argue that the transition to produced videos has opened up a previously unimaginable realm of possibilities for these songs. The medium provides her a vehicle to really delve into the meaning of change, the different characters she portrays and the different worlds she inhabits. Like Kinlaw says, “Music videos are great – you could do anything in three to four minutes. Whatever world you say, then that’s the way it’s gonna be.”

As a visual metaphor, hair factors strongly into these videos, changing from track to track and sometimes in the middle of the video. In “Permissions,” they crawl from a wrecked vehicle in a choppy red wig. In “Blindspot,” she and her childish counterpart begin with sleek ponytails before they take turns chopping at each other’s thick blonde braids, until Kinlaw emerges with her hair curled. In “Haircut,” her hair remains natural, but they articulate this sentiment in lyrics: “There’s a rule/That when you cut off your hair/You let the old things go.”

The strong imagery resonates with anyone who ever got a new haircut in the midst of a bad break-up, or hacked some ill-advised bangs with a pair of craft scissors on some uneventful childhood afternoon. “I think it brings to mind a lot of the symbolic ways that we try to cope as people, and it’s been interesting, since writing [‘Haircut’] and talking about it with some folks,” they say. “It’s been really interesting to see people be like, ‘Oh yeah, I totally get it,’ and they’ll tell me a story: ‘Oh I chopped off my hair that one time in like 2005, I was so upset’… I guess it’s just like identity, and an extension of, and memories. I’m also really quite stubborn with my hair, like I refuse to cut it for long stretches of time.” This last statement is thick with irony, given the artist’s dynamism and penchant for constant reinvention.  

Reinvention can surely be at least partially attributed to Kinlaw’s commitment to a rigid therapy practice. I felt it reductive to ask an artist of Kinlaw’s caliber who her sonic influences were in the creation of The Tipping Scale, and I told her so when I asked, to which they unsurprisingly responded, “I can honestly say I don’t [have any].” Rather, warning that what she would say might be construed as “cheeseball,” she listed therapy as their greatest influence in the writing of this album, particularly EMDR therapy, which utilizes binaural sounds to create a pattern of eye movements and from that, spawn memories. “That, to me, is what spawns storytelling,” they say, “understanding firsthand what the crazy connection is between a body and your thoughts, and sound, and how sound influences your body.”

Pop music can be its own kind of therapy, a means of transporting oneself across energy levels and moods, something anyone who has ever turned on Top 40 radio to dance away the blues knows well. Describing pop music as a “raft boat,” Kinlaw explains, “I purposefully chose pop music because I wanted to feel like I could move, dance, party forward into the next chapter of my life. The juxtaposition of having these confessional songs paired with pop sounds was a really strange space that I wanted to learn more about.” But did the process of setting traumatic memories to music designed to lift the mood provide therapeutic relief for the artist? “I don’t know, but it’s like I wanted to float these songs on the lens of pop because I hope it will make me feel better,” they say. “Talk to me in a year and I’ll tell you if this worked out for me or not.”

As far as what’s next for Kinlaw, more videos are on the horizon. For someone with such sweeping vision, the creative possibilities are endless and the only limitations are financial. A recipient of the Audiofemme Agenda Grant, Kinlaw put some of the money toward filming their videos – and in doing so, employed many struggling artists and musicians who are out of work due to the pandemic. “That’s what it’s been about for me since the beginning. My friends are the most talented people on Earth. They’re such mindful and smart artists, so it’s really easy for me to get a team together who I love,” Kinlaw says. “I’m hoping I can figure out how to finish the rest of this, because I do intend on having more videos.” Whatever worlds Kinlaw imagines for next, there’s certainly no doubting her determination; as she sings in “Blindspot,” “I get what I want/Cause I know that I deserve it.”

Follow Kinlaw on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.