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Interview with Brenda Hutchinson

Tennessee Waltz; Eee-yi! Yi! Yi!

Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #289/290, 2 and 9 December 2000. Kalvos & Damian on the road in Hanover NH at the Bregman Studio, Dartmouth College. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast: Audio Part 1 [0:20:01–1:16:30] / Audio Part 2 [0:30:20–1:33:55].

Brenda Hutchinson is a composer and sound artist who has created a body of work she calls “collaborating with strangers.” Some of these collaborations are large-scale experiments in socially-based improvisations and interventions with sound, stories and performance. Others are more private, intimate encounters. She often bases her electroacoustic compositions on recordings of these individual collaborative experiences, creating “sonic portraits” of people and situations. In addition to her ethnographic pieces, Hutchinson has invented instruments (Giant Music Box, Long Tube, and gestural interface for the Long Tube), and is active as a performer/improviser. Brenda has produced work for National Public Radio's Soundprint and is the recipient of: Gracie Allen Award from American Women in Radio and Television, Ucross Residency Award, Montalvo Artist Residency and several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Recordings of her work are available through TELLUS, Deep Listening, O.O. DISCS, Frog Peak Music and Leonardo Music Magazine. /

Part 1

Audio Part 1 [0:20:01–1:16:30]

[Kalvos] We are here, on the road again.

[Damian] On the road, and it’s particularly exciting that we’re on the road, because in radio time, in just under two hours, we will hear a program of road music, all roads, I believe.

[D] And All Roads, and All Roads lead to Carnegie Hall.

[K] That’s correct. That’s what the name of it is!

[D] Which we’ll discuss soon with our…

[K] With our guest!

[D] Brenda Hutchinson!

[K] Hi, welcome!

[D] Thanks for being here!

[Brenda Hutchinson] Oh, thank you for being here.

[D] Oh, thank you for thanking us for being here.

[K] [Laughter] Let’s hear a little of your history. We were off-mic and we heard some interesting stories. The compact version, because we heard a touch of an accent and Damian immediately traced it back to the sort of [muffled] Southern New Jersey.

[BH] Yes, people ask me where I’m from all the time, and everybody in Trenton talks like this.

[D] Trenton.

[BH] Tranhn. Not Trenton.

[D] Trenton… Trenton…

[K] Trenton… You know, it is impossible for a foreigner to say this word, because it is a quasi-two-syllable word. Tranhn.

[BH] That’s right. I had friends from England who came to visit, and it was the first time I’d ever heard anyone pronounce it, “Tren-ton.” It sounded so nice, but it wasn’t the same place.

[K] So, how did you get sprung?

[BH] I went to collegex. Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburg.

[K] Well, not too far west, but…

[BH] You know, it was as far as I was even allowed to go. I wanted to go to Hawaii.

[D] What did you study?

[BH] Music, music composition.

[D] Had you been doing music in Trenton?

[BH] Yeah, I did. I started out, I got a pink-and-white plastic Sony tape recorder for Christmas when I was really young and I used to lock myself in the bathroom and record things.

[D] Oh, I’m glad you said, “record things” because we’ve heard people do other things with Sony pink tape recorders.

[K] That’s right. So, what kind of music did you study?

[BH] Regular… You know, musicianship, ear-training, the real conservative, straight-ahead musical education.

[K] And then you just kept going west.

[BH] Yeah, right away. I launched myself out west, and then I went to UC San Diego for private school.

[D] There is quite an amazing UC San Diego connection we’ve run into with composers that we’ve interviewed over the years.

[BH] Huh. Yeah, like?

[D] Yeah, we do like. We like them.

[BH] Well, I roomed with Paul Drescher, Richard Zvonar [see interview in this issue of eContact!] and Bun-Chin Lam, in one of Pauline Oliveros’s [see interview in this issue of eContact!] old houses.

[K] Richard Zvonar? Amazing. We will follow this connection later on. The Richard Zvonar connection has never been talked about on Kalvos & Damian, but it will be at some point. So, you went west, you studied there, and then you started doing stuff.

[BH] Oh yeah, I’ve been doing stuff anyway, but yeah, my thesis when I was at UCSD was on my grandmother, both the recordings and the written part.

[D] And when did you record her? Do you think that would be a good piece to begin listening to, or an introduction to our audience?

[BH] I guess, but I don’t think you have her speaking, I mean, I recorded her, you have me talking about her… that’s like a 20-year project.

[D] The “VOYS.”

[BH] Yeah. I recorded her in ’79, she was 77, because at that time — maybe I say in the notes — she was starting to get senile. She was the storyteller in the family, and she was starting to tell them differently than I remembered them. So I wanted to record her before they were completely gone, and that’s how I got started doing those kinds of things, those sort of documents, stories. That’s what I did for my thesis. I edited that, and it was an hour and a half piece, and then I wrote about language in music, inflection, this and that. I had to justify that by doing a first part of the thesis that was about musical characterization, and I had to analyze Harold in Italy, and Erwartungen. I talked about how much I hated that sort of thing, because I think I prefer people to be able to speak for themselves and not be abstract, sort of make-believe.

[D] Which is quite evident on all of the recordings that you have, many of which we will listen to.

[K] Yeah, let’s listen to one now. What’s a good one to start with? Then we’ll get back, because we have so many questions.

[D] Some are true or false, but some are essays, so…

[BH] Well, I don’t know, I mean, if you start with me talking about my grandmother, it sounds pretty much like I’m talking right now, so maybe you’d want to do some of that, Story Time.

We listen to an excerpt of Story Time, by Brenda Hutchinson, from VOYS [0:25:05–0:28:30].

[K] Let’s go as far away from the word thing, to the long tubes. Talk about long tubes. The technique, first of all, because we’re going to hear this, and it would help if the listeners have a little clue ahead of time of what they’re listening to.

[BH] Okay, you know I have the tube here, I can sort of show how it works. When I worked at The Exploratorium in San Francisco, they had guests there from Bell Labs, and the guys came and they talked about how they were putting these electronic tones into really long tubes, and how certain sounds, certain frequencies, that they put in would disappear and you wouldn’t be able to hear them. I thought, “Well, that’s very interesting,” so I worked in the machine shop, and I went. We had a metal rack there, with lots of tubes, and I sang into lots of different tubes and found one that had a lot them, so I couldn’t sing into it, so I pulled it out and it was a nine-foot tube. So, the tube I use is a nine-and-a-half-foot tube, so it’s just a little bit lower, and so it matches sort of the comfortable singing range of my voice — between the third and tenth harmonic — so the fundamental of this tube would be A-flat down to the bottom of the piano. So, what happens in the case of a voice when you sing into the tube, the notes that can’t be heard, what it’s trying to do is, some of the waves… You want me to explain a little bit of the physics?

[K] Little bit of the physics, sure.

[BH] One of the things is there’s a mismatch in impedance between the amount of air in the tube, which is not very much when you compare it to the amount of air in the room, so some of the waves go down and they bounce back and come back up the tube. The ones that come back up 180° out of phase try to cancel out the closing of the tube, which are my vocal cords. You can feel is, you can do this. You could try this when I bring the tube in. It’s like someone’s touching your vocal cords, and you try to sing certain notes, and you just can’t. And if you really try, you can get lots of distortion, and that’s what I like, and I find that interesting. So I’ve been practicing for, what, ten years, where you can’t sing, and trying different techniques. So it’s really kind of unpredictable, and I like it for improvising for that reason, because you just don’t know, really, what’s going to happen.

We listen to an excerpt of Long Tube Trio by Brenda Hutchinson [0:31:50–0:36:03].

Demonstration of Brenda Hutchinson’s Tube Instrument

[D] I can’t believe this got through the metal detector.

Brenda Hutchinson performing on the Long Tube instrument
Brenda Hutchinson performing Star Strangled Banner on the Long Tube instrument at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Photo © Bill Buchen ca. 2003.

[K] Did you fly with this tube?

[BH] Yes, I sat with it.

[K] [Laughter] You’d say this is about… six feet. Oh, is it in sections?

[BH] There’s another part. Yeah, this is the traveling version. It’s an aluminum tube, it’s lightweight, an inch and a half diameter, and it’s actually 9 feet, 6 and 7/8 inches long.

[D] It’s lovely little electrical tape. Oh, to seal it, I see.

[BH] I had set screws in there, but they’re stripped, so I just use electrical tape. Okay, I’ll give you a demonstration. I’ll sing a glissando, like “whooooooooooooop,” okay? [Sings slow glissando — only stable harmonic pitches are preserved]

And now I’ll do it fast, like, “whoooop!” [Sings fast glissando with similar effect]

So you can hear where it pops, so I’ll sing you one that’s like… [Sings wavering pitches, producing slow fluttering modulations]

So you hear that fluttering? But that’s kind of a nice note. It I do like, “eeeeih,” like that. [Produces elephant-like screech]

[K] And the point is, you’re not making the unusual sound yourself, it is the interaction of the tube length with the frequency you’re singing.

[BH] Yeah, so that “eeeih,” there’s a lot of odd harmonics, so it goes there for all those harmonics. Yeah.

[D] Do you play sessions with this? Do you sit in with bands, or do you have other people?

[BH] I have a group that I play with, we improvise. I was in northern Minnesota for two months, and I played the Tennessee Waltz a lot.

[K] Can you do that now?

[BH] That’s it. You want to hear it now?

[K] Oh sure.

[D] Please.

[BH] [Starts to sing into tube] Okay, I’ve got to get the right key.

We listen to a live demonstration of an arrangement of Tennessee Waltz by Brenda Hutchinson [0:38:57–0:40:51], followed by more of Long Tube Trio by Brenda Hutchinson [0:41:20–0:42:28].

[D] You did slip in the fact that you worked in The Exploratorium, which is a keen interactive science museum on the water in San Francisco. How did you get there?

[BH] I had just finished a piece, it was called Apple Etudes, from when I had first moved to New York, and I spent a lot of time recording homeless people in the street, and I did this really long piece. Twelve studies, each one a portrait of a different person. I had applied to do this piece at New Music America, but it was way too long. One of the people doing New Music America — which was in San Francisco at the time — also ran the Speaking of Music program at The Exploratorium, so she invited me to do it. I went there, and that was the first performance, in April 1982. When I saw The Exploratorium, I thought, “Oh God, this is an amazing place.” Frank Oppenheimer was still alive; he died in 1985. I went back a few months later, and went into the electronics section, because the guy in electronics was my sound person, and I said, “I want to work here, what can I do?” He said they needed to wire the theatre, and I knew how to solder, so I wired the theatre. I finished that, went back said, “Now what?” and little by little I learned how to use machine tools, and all kinds of things. But they didn’t really pay me very much, and I only did work that nobody else wanted to do, so eventually I would have to go back to New York to earn enough money to live, so I would go back there.

[K] What did you do in New York?

[BH] Eventually I got a job as an audio engineer at Harvestworks. Because I lived there.

[D] But now you are full-time at The Exploratorium?

[BH] Oh no, I haven’t worked there in seven years. But I still get my mail there, I have my email there and I am like an honourary lifetime member. I worked there for about ten years, off and on.

[D] So, do you have a home base now?

[BH] San Francisco.

[D] Okay, but you work in New York?

[BH] Yeah. But mostly I’m in San Francisco now, I just do projects in New York.

[K] So what’s your day job then? We love to ask that question, there’s some bizarre day jobs out there.

[BH] Well, I’ve been away from home for eight months this year… For the spring semester I taught at Oberlin, and in the summer, I was in New York. I curate the Homemade Instrument Day there every other year in August. I had a McKnight Visiting Composer Fellowship, so I was in some really remote wilderness area of northern Minnesota for two months working on a project. And then I just came here, so, I just kind of move from thing to thing: I teach, I’ve done multimedia jobs, and you know, then I live off my credit card…

[K] [Laughter]

[D] Very well done.

In Chicago
In Chicago during the All Roads: How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? tour across the USA in the summer of 1996. Composer Brenda Hutchinson sits on the floor of the U-Haul while Erin Wilson plays the piano. Photo © Pei Yu 1996.

[K] Well, speaking of moving from place to place, let’s talk about All Roads. We’re going to hear a live performance of that tonight, and we’ve also got a recorded performance here. Let’s ask you, first of all, if you know some of the other people who travel with their pianos on the backs of their vehicles?

[BH] Yes!

[K] Do you know Batya Weinbaum, by any chance? She’s one of the composers who lived for a number of years in Vermont (still lives here), who travelled with a truck and piano, and she and whoever would be there would improvise on the back of the truck.

[BH] Wow.

[K] But she didn’t ask for stories.

[BH] You know, when I first moved to San Francisco, there were a lot of street performers, and there was one guy who had a white truck and a white upright piano, and he wore white tails and a hat, and he had a white rose in the vase. And he used to drive around in play the piano in the back of the truck. I found that as long as you don’t put the truck on the ground, you don’t need a permit. I remembered that, and when someone asked me to write a piano piece, knowing kind of what I do, I was more interested in the relationship that people have with the piano than actually sitting down and writing notes. So, I thought, “Well, I could rent a piano,” and I had a truck, and I’d just go around for the weekend and record people. But, that grant got rejected, and I applied again, and you know, years go by before these things happen. I thought, my piano’s in New York and it’s been in my friend’s apartment for four years. I’ll get my piano from New York and I’ll drive across the whole country, I’ll ask lots of people! Then I had to call and try to find someone to give me a truck, because it was a much more expensive proposition. And U-haul was the only one that called me back. I called all of them. I thought Ryder would be good, because… after the Oklahoma bombing, you’d think, “Oh, this would be a good thing,” but they didn’t call me back. [General laughter] U-haul gave me a truck and insurance.

[K] And you stuffed your piano in it.

[BH] Yeah, I jammed it, I had it tied to the wheel well. They asked me what kind of truck I want, and I said I wanted the smallest truck because it would be easier to handle, and some of the roads you can’t go on with bigger trucks. But then, when I got the truck, the piano wouldn’t fit on the floor, so I put it on the wheel well, tied it to the side, and then people would sit on a cushion on the bench, so they would be high enough, and that’s it. It had a definite lift to the left.

[K] Oh, I bet.

[D] And it sounded — at least on the recording — as if you didn’t keep it in apple pie tuning all the time.

[BH] No, I tuned it at the beginning, and then the last day I drove it up to The Exploratorium, so I had a piano tuner come that morning, and not a lot of people played there. And that was it, and it’d been out of tune all the way across. Detroit was the hardest on the piano. After I went there, some guy said, “Man this is weird out of the tune, the bass is way out,” and it was because of the potholes. I hit Detroit at rush hour, so I couldn’t slow down, just “bam, bam, bam!” hitting it, and I threw the whole bottom end of the piano out.

[D] Did you hit all parts of the country?

[BH] I started in New York City at a community garden, and I went through Yonkers and Kingston, and then I went to Boston. Then I went along the Great Lakes, through Wisconsin and Minnesota and then to North Dakota. When I got to North Dakota I just went straight down the middle. North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, you know, Kansas, Oklahoma, and ended off of Texas, and then across the southwest. So, I couldn’t go everywhere, but that was pretty good.

[D] Did you cross the Dewey Bridge, south of Moab in Utah?

[BH] I didn’t go to Utah.

[K] Let’s listen to the introduction, the “talking to folks” part of this, and then we’ll get back to Brenda Hutchinson.

We listen to All Roads: How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? — Introduction by Brenda Hutchinson [0:49:35–0:54:40].

[K] What were your expectations when you started out, and how were they met, or not?

[BH] Well, I had thought most people, at least, had touched a piano. And I thought a lot more people had experience with the piano than it turned out did. So, that was a surprise for me, because I’d say half the people I recorded had never played the piano before, and most of the people that I asked to play said no. At first I would ask people, “Would you like to play my piano?” and they said, “Yeah.” So then I changed the question, I just would ask people if they would play it, and more people said, “Okay,” so that’s kind of interesting. People don’t want you to do them a favour, but they’ll do you one, so that was interesting. Then finally I just started asking people, “Have you ever played a piano?”

Interruption in playback [0:55:50–0:56:20].

[K] In listening, it seems like the traumatic state was present for a lot of people.

[BH] A lot of people. People’s hands would shake, and I felt bad on the one hand to have created the situation where people… but then they were the brave ones that got into the truck.

[D] Can you imagine how many people you’ve sent to therapy since? [K laughter]

[BH] I’ve known people who have started taking their piano lessons again, as adults.

[K] Did you keep in touch?

[BH] Yeah, well, some people I knew. And I had everyone sign a book with their name and address, and gave them buttons. I had these little buttons made that said, “How to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!”

[D] What kind of recording equipment did you use?

[BH] I had a Panasonic DAT machine and an Audio-Technica 825 stereo microphone. [The piano] was an upright, but I opened up the lid a little bit and I wedged in a piece of wood, and then I just jammed the microphone in the middle. And I used that to record the piano, and when I wanted people’s stories, I would just reach over before they could really think about it, and I would switch one leg of the tape recorder to a lavalier, so I’d have one side be active over there so I’d get the ambiance, and then I’d record their talking.

[K] Very cool. So, expectations of fulfillment, how did that work out?

[BH] Well, that was the one [thing], that I hadn’t realized there would be so many people that did not play the piano. And other than that, I didn’t really have any expectations. I thought more people would be willing to do it.

[K] Did you think it would be, like, “more fun”?

[BH] Oh, shit, I definitely thought it would be a lot more fun.

[K] Okay, because I was struck by a certain overarching sense of discomfiture, and sometimes terror. [Laughter]

[BH] Yeah, I thought it would be a lot more fun, for me. But mostly, you know, I’d say one in ten people, said “yes,” so it was mostly an exercise in rejection. It was awful, I’d just stand out there like a carney barker, asking people to come. They could see the piano, and I’d stop and I’d blow balloons, I had a little banner made, and I’d pull up the back of the truck and I was just asking people to come, begging people to come into the truck. I didn’t really had expectations in terms of content, or anything. And I didn’t know what I would do with it all when I got it, because I had to make a piano piece out of it.

[K] We’ll take another listen, and we’ll be back from All Roads: How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? by Brenda Hutchinson, and friends and acquaintances, and people who just dropped by.

We listen to All Roads: How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? — Part 1, by Brenda Hutchinson [0:58:54–1:06:00].

[D] Speaking of on the road, one of your CDs was rather intriguing to me, the Violet Flame, where you went to visit, I believe, your sister, who was at the Church Universal and Triumphant. Please tell us about that.

[BH] Well, they’re in immigrant Montana, which is near the north gate of Yellowstone Park, about Wyoming, Montana, about 30 miles north of there. My sister had been in this church when she was a teenager. After she went through a lot of drugs and then she was a Jesus freak, she got into this church. She got out of it for a while, while she was married, and when her husband died she was just 28 years old. She had gone to Montana for her honeymoon, and she loved it there, so she moved back there and the headquarters of the church had also moved there (they had been in Los Angeles). They had what’s called Camelot when they were in Los Angeles, and they sold their parcel of land and then Los Angeles then bought it. They bought 77,000 acres in Montana, they bought Malcolm Forbes’ ranch, and that’s where the headquarters are.

Brenda Hutchinson at a stop in Texas
Brenda Hutchinson at a stop in Texas in September 2006 during a cross-country tour of The Bell Project, which involved driving a 250 lb. cast iron bell 8150 miles across the US. Photo © Liz Keim 2006.

So, when she started to have children, I got kind of worried because I figured, well now she’s going to be there, and I wanted to see for myself what it was like. I’d heard about, you know, it’s a cult, and they do brainwashing, and all this. So, I went there. And I was nervous, I was afraid. And then I realized, “Well, if you can be brainwashed, you can be un-brainwashed,” because I was sort of guarded, a little bit (you’d think it would be the other way around). Then I just asked people, “Why are you here, and how is your life different now than it was before?” I always try to find some key questions to get people to just talk about anything, and those were the questions, and people would just talk.

But they did this chanting, the violet flame, and that’s what the piece is. They chant for all colours: blue is, I don’t know, protection, and the violet flame is the one that is for burning up Karma. Their one overarching thing in their religion is that they don’t want to be reborn. At the end of this life, they want to become ascended masters, and the only way you can do that is if you burn up all your Karma. So, they have a special visitation from Saint Germain who tells them they don’t have to burn all their Karma, just 51%.

[K] [Laughter] 51%, they talk like this in the ceremony, yes.

[BH] Yes, oddly, they’re quotes. In the chants for the violet flame, each repetition counts as… something. So, they do it really fast, so that you can get through a lot of them, and the more you do, the more Karma you burn.

We listen to an excerpt of Violet Flame (1993), by Brenda Hutchinson [1:09:27–1:16:30], before moving onto the second part of the interview.

Part 2

Audio Part 2 [0:30:20–1:33:55]

We listen to another excerpt of Violet Flame, by Brenda Hutchinson [0:30:20–0:33:40].

[K] For a lot of your work, even from the beginning, what you first started talking about was the voice. What’s your fascination with that?

[BH] There’s a number of things. I’ve never been particularly interested in pitch as a composer, in the sense of scales and stuff like that. I like the inflection and rhythm and the finer gradations in speech as a purely abstract thing, and when you listen to someone speaking another language, you can really hear that much better. On the other hand, I like stories. So, I’m not interested in breaking up speech and drawing attention to the different phonemes and different things about speech so much as I am in their complete context.

[K] So you’re not a de-contextualizer at all.

[BH] Not at all. And I think the voice, especially when it’s talking about something that is meaningful to whoever is speaking, there’s a lot of truth there. It’s unfortunate that words kind of occupy the first part of your perception, because it kind of obscures that, but I’m still interested in that, and that’s what I like, why I do it, and what I sort of try to pull out when I do these things.

[K] One reaction that I had when listening to this was — and this was a reaction I also had in listening to Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, and the reaction to Richard Avedon’s photos from across America — is the voyeuristic aspect of it. Do you have any reactions to that as you’re doing it; do you feel like you’re a voyeur, and when you’re editing it, do you pull back from that, or do you feel that you have somehow helped the expression?

[BH] I don’t feel like a voyeur, because for the most part I spend long periods of time with the people I record. For Voices of Reason, I was there for two years, two days a week. And people always know that they’re being recorded, and they’re willing participants, and I feel like they want to do it, and that they’re getting something out of it. The editing part is very strange. I noticed this first with my grandmother, because I spent so much time listening to her on tape, and when I talked to her on the phone, she was saying the same things she would say on tape, and it made her not real, in a funny way. The other thing is, sometimes years will go by that I’ll work on something or I’ll continue to perform it, and it’s very much like a photograph in that those people are frozen in time. And when I’m no longer there, our relationship has departed from that point, but I’m still intimately involved in something that isn’t even real anymore. And that’s really strange.

[D] You mentioned Voices of Reason, and I think we should have a listen to that. That was recorded, as I understand, in a New York state psychiatric hospital. Bronx State. And what was your capacity there, you were certainly no candy-striper.

[BH] Oh no, I did it with full permission of everyone there. I spent a year getting access to a locked ward at Bronx State, working in outpatient clinics and things like that. I finally ran into someone who was an administrator. I’ll say all this, it was an administrator at Bronx State, and she had just come back to her office. This was 1982–1984 when I did this recording, and every year they would need to be certified by the state, and at that time they would rent plants and paintings, and they would bring people up from the administrative offices and put them on the wards so they would have more staff up there. And the inspectors would come, they would pass the inspection, and then they would send the people back down to their offices.

[K] [Laughter] Just like every institution.

[BH] And send the plants back, and the paintings back, and it was after one of these inspections that I got permission to go up there. And I went up two days a week, on Tuesday and Wednesday in the morning. I had one of those little organs that have the black and white pushbuttons on the end and two octaves…

[K] The mini-organs.

[BH] Yeah, and I’d sit there with it on my lap, and we’d do old Protestant hymns, Christmas carols, and show-tunes.

[K] And you’d do Christmas carols all year round.

[BH] Silent Night, in particular, that was the main one. And then in the afternoon, I would come back up with my recorder, I had a TC-D5 cassette machine, and a little mic. I would record people, and they would listen back, and we’d spend the afternoon that way. We did that for two years, and then I finally stopped.

[D] Do you know if they were getting any therapy from what you were doing?

[BH] Well, they got cigarettes.

[D] Oh, that was good.

[BH] I’d say they’d get cigarettes, they could buy cigarettes for a nickel. You know, they liked to do it, they hung out. When I was there, people came and hung out. When I left — and this is like is something you’d think of in a musical — I told people I was leaving and I wasn’t going to be back, it was my last week, people lined up. Usually, when I’d record somebody, when I was done I’d give them the headphones, and they could listen, talk and listen at the same time. But this time, they didn’t even want to listen, it was like the next person just wanted to stand there, not even sit down, just stand in front of me, and I remember this woman would just stand there and she said her own thing and when she was done it was “next,” just like that. I used to get out of there and I’d get on the number six train and fall asleep right away, it was really intense.

[K] Exhausting.

[BH] Then I’d wake up at the other end and it was like [shaking herself awake], I just, I couldn’t start talking.

[K] Well, let’s listen to some of it because there’s a lot of talk in there. This is excerpts from Voices of Reason by Brenda Hutchinson, our guest on Kalvos & Damian.

We listen to excerpts of Voices of Reason, by Brenda Hutchinson [0:40:12–0:45:53].

[K] Let’s go back to All Roads again. How much of what we’re going to hear tonight is written down, and how?

[BH] I guess I’ll explain how the score works. From all the recorded material, I decided that I wanted everyone to be in the piece, that I recorded. All the stories, all the performances, in some way or another. So, I created a set of seven CDs that go with the score, and there’s five sections to the piece, and they’re divided among stories and performances. Every track of the CD has a page of the score associated with it, and it tells you what’s on that track on one half, and the other half are suggestions for how to play along. When to play, when to listen. But also the style of playing. So, it’s only based on the performer’s memory, preference and experience. You don’t even have to know how to play the piano, because there’s a lot of CD tracks with people playing that don’t know how to play, so there’s something there for every performer. What finally emerged from that is that it’s a portrait of the performer — at that time — because they choose all the ones they like. The sad thing for me is when it’s one performer, you only hear five things, or six things, and you have no idea of the scope of the piece. But for the performance tonight there are five performers, so you get to hear a little more. But they have a very definite kind of classic bent, so every performance is really different and it very much reflects who the performers are. There are no written… there’s a suggestion of one note, an E, and it’s in Für Elise, and it’s the note that they’re all struggling to find, you know? And I just put it in for fun.

[K] So, when this is performed, we hear people playing, do we hear people speaking as well?

[BH] Yeah, I organized the CDs… the first one you’ll hear is mostly one-liners that people said about the piano, and I have a lot of people in there.

[K] So these are they original people speaking, there’s nobody reading text [live]; the performers tonight are only the people playing at the piano.

[BH] Yes, but they have the option in part four to tell their own story, because some people do. And if you don’t want to tell your story, you can select other people’s, I put longer stories in there. Part two [has] mostly thematic things like childhood memories, bad teachers, things like that, so they choose from that. Part three I call “swap.” When I was in college I went to hear Edgar Winter play, and there was a part where they were swapping — him and the guitar player — and it was astounding. I like this model. So, in this you can choose from lots of styles, but basically you kind of swap [with] the people that performed in the truck — or you can play along with them. Then the last section of the piece, there were three favourite things that people played. You want to guess what they are?

[D] Well, if they’re on the recording, I think I know so…

[K] Well, um, I heard the recording too, but I wasn’t trying to pick ‘em out. I mean, certainly Für Elise appeared right in the beginning, everybody learns to play that right away.

[BH] That’s right, that’s one, okay. Für Elise was…

[K] Oh, gosh… probably a lot of versions of Chopsticks.

[BH] Chopsticks, and there’s one more. This is the all-time favourite.

[K] The “all-time favourite”… Uh, oh yeah, I know the [singing melody] Heart and Soul!

[D] Yes, that’s right.

[BH] Yeah, that’s it. And I taught a lot of people how to play it, too, because they would know a part of it. So I played that a lot. The last part of the piece, performers can choose from among those and play along.

We listen to excerpts from All Roads: How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?, by Brenda Hutchinson [0:50:45–1:17:10].

[K] That wasn’t actually All Roads. All Roads is a radio version, we were just told. This is just simply called How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?. All Roads is the radio version because…?

[BH] Well, How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? was done, I finished that in 1998, performed it live. But I wanted to make a piece that would kind of be a documentary of just the people that I met on the road, on this journey. So I gave it a different name so it wouldn’t be confused, it’s just a 30-minute, finite, always-the-same-sort-of-piece-every-time.

[D] Uh, what do you do with your performance? What does your performance life consist of?

[BH] Oh, well, I didn’t start performing until 1989, because I was terrified of performing, and the first piece I ever performed was EEEYAH!

[K] Oh, yes, that’s a great piece. Let’s wrap the show up with that!

[D] And where were you when you started your performance career?

[BH] New York.

[D] Oh, okay, you were out of Trenton, of course?

[BH] I was out of Trenton. Yeah, so that’s the first piece I performed, and at the time I decided to perform I realized that I didn’t really do anything. I mean, I could do a lot of things, but nothing very well. When you’re in New York, there’s a very high standard to compare yourself with. So, I had friends that had gone to Thailand and had recorded lots of things, and one of the things they recorded was this Thai woman calling her pig, and it was such an amazing sound, when they brought it back, I learned how to do it. In the course of learning how to do it (I had just quit smoking) I would cough and cough and cough, my nose would run and my eyes would tear, and it just made me think of sad things. I mean, the association was all those sort of fluids coming out of my face, and I had a lot of people that were dying then. My grandmother had died not too long before that, and it turned into just a lament, and a thing about witnessing and testifying. You know, the lives and deaths of people. So that was my first performance. So after that, my presence usually has been pretty… I mean here I’m acting something where I’m screaming at the top of my lungs, but ordinarily I’m more, um…

[D] Sedate?

[BH] Just kind of witnessing, I’m just kind of accompanying, keeping company with the people who I recorded. I played a giant music box that I made, and put it together and take it apart, played, I mean it’s pretty intricate. The piece that I did with my mother, I do the music box, but I also do the part where I confess her largest sins in public, and it’s very humiliating for me to do, and I feel like if she were still alive and heard it, it would be terrible, so I feel really guilty. I was raised catholic, so it comes natural. So I figured somehow I needed to balance the gravity of that act of the public confession of someone else’s sins, so I sing. I sing an aria from Madame Butterfly — which I do very badly — and I do it in public, so it’s sort of an act of public humiliation. So that’s kind of a different, more “out there”… well, I don’t like to perform. And then I play the tube.

[D] Could you give us one “EEEYAH” ululation?

[BH] Oh, gee, I guess. Well, I’m not sure of the pitch. “whooooo…” okay. “EEEEEEEEEEEEEYAAAHHHHHHHHH!” I could do it again, as a matter of fact.

[K] No, that’s fine. We wouldn’t mind having it again, but that’ll just do it for today. You’re so much fun, how come your music is so serious?

[BH] Well, I don’t know. The Carnegie Hall pieces weren’t serious. And the piece I just did in Minnesota wasn’t serious. It was like, “Let’s put on a show!” you know? I got cowboys and farmers to come and do poetry, and it was very fun.

[D] What’s next?

[BH] I’m gonna go home. [Pained]

[K] And where is that? Oh wait, we were just saying you were always on the road. [Laughter]

[BH] San Francisco, I go home tomorrow, and then I’ll be home for the holidays. In this last project where I was in northern Minnesota I recorded lots of people there also, so I’ll probably do something with that.

[K] Brenda Hutchinson, thanks so much. This has been a treat.

[BH] Thank you, thanks for coming all this way.

[D] Now, again the name of the piece we’re going to go out with is?


We listen to EEEYAH, by Brenda Hutchinson [1:22:11–1:33:55].

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