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Interview with sylvi macCormac

Yo! Able Dis!

Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #522, 4 June 2005. Interview recorded in two separate studios. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:11:17–1:55:36].

sylvi macCormac received an honourable mention at the International Musique Electroacoustique Bourges, France (1999) and produced Uts’am / Witness CD (2004) including Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bruce Cockburn, Barry Truax and Squamish Sp’ak’wus Slúlum / Eagle Song Dancers. A multi-talented performer/composer of modern music, and the creator of WHEELS: Soundscapes with the voices of people with dis abilities, sylvi macCormac has extensive performance credits since the 1980s, including the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, New Music West, and Seattle’s RockrGrl Music Conference in 2000. Electroacoustics, including Soundscape Composition, stretches the boundaries of music by collaging sound, story and song, transforming sound sources with signal processing and combining them in creative ways. Diffusion extends familiar structures, by placing the listener inside the Soundscape while inviting us on imaginary journeys.

[Kalvos] It’s Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar in a special in-studio, temporal delay, geographical delay, on the road! We have a guest clear across the North American continent, and here she is:

[sylvi macCormac] I’m sylvi macCormac.

sylvi and I met online in what in those days was called <cecdiscuss>, the Canadian Electroacoustic Community discussion group (it’s now called cec-conference, due to, sort of spam concerns). sylvi always had a kind of a multi-lingual, quasi-disjointed, lowercase/uppercase, virgule-induced way of writing that always intrigued me. She also had things to say that no one else ever did. They were always sort of sideways from the expected response. So I said, “Well, I want to hear who this person is.”

So we started getting little electronic bits and pieces of sylvi’s work included in other collections, and eventually invited her five years ago onto Kalvos & Damian, and finally, through the magic of transcontinental audio delay, Purolator, DHL, and the Internet, we have her here, so welcome, and sylvi, tell us something about yourself.

I live on the west coast of Canada, in Squamish territory, Vancouver, British Columbia. My mother and father came from Ireland to Canada in 1956. I was born on the west coast and completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Simon Fraser University, studying electroacoustic and soundscape composition with Barry Truax, Martin Gotfrit, Arne Eigenfeldt and Janet Danielson. I also finished an extended minor in English Literature, completing a CD-ROM called th Rose & th Railway, about WB Yeats, Maude Gonne, Japanese Noh Theatre & Being in Relation to Language.

Knowing you first as an electroacoustic composer, and then getting from you some CDs of you playing traditional acoustic instruments, I started wondering how exactly did you get into music?

I’d been writing poetry, playing guitar and singing since I was quite young. As a mask maker and clown in my 20s, I worked family theatre and music ensembles. In my 30s, I performed folk rock with guitar and voice, and then left performing to focus on music education, and discovered electroacoustic and soundscape music.

So, do we have some early work we can hear?

For some of my early work, we could listen to a song from 1992 called Coastal Chants.

It’s actually appeared in none of your regular collections, and so we’ll just drag it out of the Kalvos & Damian special unreleased closet.

We listen to Coastal Chants by sylvi macCormac [0:14:32–0:22:50].

So, why electroacoustic music? What attracted you to it? We find this sort of panoply of people, some very academic, but you and a few other folks on the <cecdiscuss> list, are certainly not from this ethereal, academic perspective. So why electroacoustic, why EA, what attracted you to it?

The electroacoustic genre contains some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard, and multichannel surround sound is a composer’s dream. I find the palette to be rich and textured, and the possibilities infinite. The sonic studio is a quiet and thoughtful place, that can have rivers and trains rushing through, with birds and voices changing shape and direction, and musical instruments calling in the distance and nearer still.

How do you make your music? It seems to consist of so many bits and pieces of material that are pulled and expanded, and turn into these incredible soundscapes, some of which are well over an hour long. How do you make it?

I usually go from idea to sketch to completion. Sketches are done on paper or computer, either working with texts, or by sketching in Peak or ProTools. I use a Sony TCD8 with a stereo mic in the field, and Tascam 16-track digital mixer, with Alesis speakers in the studio. I also like to work with analog tape, and use a variety of digital processing, completing octophonic works at SFU with the AudioBox.

Let’s hear another one of your pieces first before we go on with more questions. This is Aural Shadows, another piece that just came to us, and is not released anywhere else.

We listen to Aural Shadows by sylvi macCormac [0:24:48–0:31:02].

You know, when I talk on Kalvos & Damian about electroacoustic music, my comments almost always turn to some reference to Canada, or the Canadian Electroacoustic Community discussion list. Why is it that Canada is so involved in the EA scene? And, you can hear a train coming right into Kalvos & Damian there, for a second. [Train whistle, laughter]

Historically, Canada has been blessed with Hugh Le Caine’s pioneering computer work, and Glenn Gould’s Solitude Trilogy with CBC Radio. R. Murray Schafer invented the word “soundscape,” and started the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser. Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp, with others, continued to teach, compose, and develop computer technology, bringing about a balance of music, technology, communication and academic excellence. The Canadian Electroacoustic Community has been active composing, organizing, archiving and teaching, and maintains an international web conference, which includes artists and academics who are generous with their knowledge and doses of humour. Or, maybe it’s just the water, air and wilderness influences.

There’s another aspect of your work, and actually we’re not going to hear that today, maybe some other time, but what is it about folk and pop, you’re also involved in that. Something about your heritage and your background? Tell us about that interest in folk and pop.

Folk music was my first love, and soundscape is my second. Soundscape is the folk music of electroacoustic, being grounded in the acoustic community. Soundscape and folk music are dirty words and messy activities, just as stochastic was to the serialists. Recently, I’ve been combining folk and soundscape by composing for the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. In the past, I’ve performed original music and continued to produce independent albums, and albums that benefit community groups. “Siwash Rock” and “Soundscape Composition” are terms I’ve applied to my work because they combine images of rock with water, and story with soundscape. Siwash Rock is a large rock on the west coast, whose Squamish legend tells of a young brave who swims far distances for the wellbeing of his family and community. I hope that I can swim as far and be that brave.

Well, since we’re talking about the Squamish legends and large rocks, and the natural landscape, let’s hear one of your pieces that suggests something like that. Doesn’t picture paint, per se, but this is Carving Canoes.

We listen to Carving Canoes by sylvi macCormac [0:34:18–0:38:20].

When I hear the variety of what you do, I wonder what influenced you. Who are your influences, your teachers, your mentors, your icons of electroacoustic music and acoustic music?

I was initially inspired by Glenn Gould’s Solitude Trilogy, and Peggy Seeger’s and Ewan MacColl’s Radio Ballads at the BBC. Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bruce Cockburn, U2, REM, Melissa Etheridge, Boards of Canada, First Nations traditional and contemporary, Debussy, Cage, Ruth Crawford Seeger, [Barry] Truax, [Hildegard] Westerkamp, Trevor Wishart, the world of music and dance, the gamelan, Africa and jazz, Motown and Nashville, hip-hop and soundscape, and the beat box goes on.

You mentioned people like Ruth Crawford Seeger and Hildegard Westerkamp, Trevor Wishart, all these people in the same breath as Melissa Etheridge and Buffy Sainte-Marie, and U2, for that matter. It’s really quite an amazing collection. I suppose that you are cursed with the kind of diversity that makes it difficult for the pigeonholers of the world. And speaking about pigeonholing, this is another aspect of your existence that somehow makes its way into your work, but also into a certain way in which you disdain the comments of some other people, in a funny way, but you’re disabled. In what way?

I was a very bad Irish comedian, disabled in vaudeville, and forced to spin my wheels all day in a little blue electronic hovercraft, practicing action comedy with John Travolta and Grover et al, out back of Kanuka ranch. I get thrown in the outdoor pool a lot. Other than that, life is not too bad. No, but seriously, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 22. It’s kind of helped with the pratfalls, but it makes it difficult to stand up with a straight face and play guitar.

Let’s hear from a much longer work, a piece of some hour’s length called Does This SOUND Like Me.

We listen to an excerpt of Does This SOUND Like Me by sylvi macCormac [0:40:45–0:46:30].

Well there you have it, one of the excerpts from Does This SOUND Like Me, which addresses some of these disability issues that bubble up through your music. How does your disability affect what you create?

MS forced me to consider other options and led me to electroacoustics and soundscape. I’ve been really blessed to have discovered this field which is really fulfilling, and might not have discovered unless the MS had opened the sonic door. Bottom line, disability is a pain in the butt, but I count my blessing and create my music to the best of my ability. Computers allow me untold possibilities for composition, and of going where no one has gone before.

Well, does your disability affect your reception by others?

Sometimes it is people’s perception that is the disability, and sometimes it is mine.

And you certainly have a kind of particular politics associated with your disability. Tell us more about that.

I separate the word “dis-“ from “ability.” Humans are more or less disabled. I believe on focusing more on ability than the “dis-.” I began the WHEELs project working with the voices of people with disabilities to create soundscapes. It is a fulfilling project, which is now leading to a North America endeavour. Am I disabled by MS, or am I one of the luckiest folks on earth? If Grover were to find himself disabled, do you think he would stop telling funny jokes, or would his pratfalls just have a little more drama, and his stories and songs take a little more imagination to get them off the ground?

Well, Kalvos & Damian love the pratfalls, no matter what.

We listen to Spirit Wheels by sylvi macCormac [0:48:30–0:51:40].

When I hear your writings, and actually until this interview today, I’ve never actually heard your voice, other than in the way it’s placed in some of your music. This is your first sort of speaking voice I’ve heard. And you’re always split between very serious and very funny, what is that about?

Oh, you can either look up or down. I’m a bit of an academic and a bit of a jester, which are not exclusive. We must be caretakers of each other and our world, and we also remember what it is like to enjoy this beautiful earth. Love and laughter are healing.

And so, what’s up with the wordplay?

I’m a composer in good standing, sort of, and a very bad poet, but I try. I have always loved language and literature, and the play of sound upon the senses and the soul.

There are lots of pieces in which words make their way into your music, and I’m going to ask you about that after we hear Echoes o’ Home. This is a longer piece by sylvi macCormac, including voices of lots of people, and we’ll go through a little bit of that when we ask the question. Echoes o’ Home, electroacoustic music, almost biographical, by sylvi macCormac.

We listen to Echoes o’ Home by sylvi macCormac [0:53:08–1:06:51]

In that and other pieces I hear this use of words — not just words, not sung words necessarily — but you have a real interest in text. How important are words, how important is text to your music?

Music and words are equally important, from concept through to development. I think in sound and words, often combining them to compose. I love sound, and the grains of DNA conveyed through our voice matter in the most essential ways. Words, like sounds, are signifiers, and are part of that vast palette that is music.

Does text underlie all your work in some way, even sort of unspoken?

I’m working on a piece called Digital Silence, that is 33 seconds. What more can I say?

[Laughter] Oh, fine. Alright, at least it isn’t 4 minutes and 33 seconds of digital… alright. Let’s listen to something else of yours. This is quite a marvelous piece, this I believe a prizewinning piece, in the Canadian Music Centre competition.

We listen to Waves of Kokoro by sylvi macCormac [1:08:18–1:19:01].

Now, unlike that piece, I often sense a kind of a deep anger and frustration, about both life and music. Am I right in that perception? What is that about?

We could get into politics and religion, but we would need at least another hour or two. I’m not frustrated by music, but by an industry that can be a pathetic place, with cokeheads cooking books and more interested in status and money, than the love of humanity and music. On the other hand, great artists and musicians and people abound in the mainstream and non-pop world, and use their knowledge and celebrity to do humane work, like Live 8 and World Forum for Acoustic Ecology. It’s corruption in any form that bothers me, whether it is the neighbourhood bullies, or politicians with war, and domination and genocide on their minds. I don’t like having to wear brightly coloured flap jackets in the studio. I’d like to come out and record the roses without worrying that enemy rappers might hurt, ruin, and do me in.

Let’s take a long reference, in a way, to that. This is a piece of yours, a very intense piece, and I guess I should remind our listeners that they are listening to Kalvos & Damian, which is not your afternoon opera entertainment. We’ve got some intense work coming up, this is called De Constructing Abuse. This is an involved and long piece by our guest today on Kalvos & Damian, sylvi macCormac.

We listen to De Constructing Abuse by sylvi macCormac [1:20:45–1:33:12].

sylvi, what drives your music?

Music drives me. I’m just a conductor and musician, who follows the path or railway tracks with GPS, the computer, and the ineffable spirit to guide me. Joy of creativity and the love of community give me the impetus to continue. When the audio box whispers, I listen.

What are the best pieces that reveal that interior drive? I’m sure we’ve heard some of them already.

Perhaps it is the work which involves community, like the compilation UTS’AM / WITNESS CD, with the piece Witness: Round Journey. Perhaps it’s Does This SOUND Like Me, with the voices of 21 artists with disabilities. Perhaps it’s Echoes o’ Home all the way from Ireland, which is a portrait of my family, though it could be any family. Perhaps it’s De Constructing Abuse, which I hopes helps people who suffer and educates folks about abuse. I won honourable mention at Synthèse ’99 for Waves of Kokoro, and the Canadian Music Centre chose penny: a process for their album Electricities/Électricités. Perhaps these and all of my pieces convey the passion I feel. If my work soothes the soul and bring children and academics and jazz aficionados to spiral dance, then my driving and composing mustn’t be that bad.

We listen to Witness: Round Journey by sylvi macCormac [1:35:10–1:42:25].

sylvi, what are you working on now?

I’m working on being an upright citizen. Seriously, I am producing the WHEELs CD, which will be a compilation album of musicians and composers with disabilities from across North America. As part of this project with the Disability Foundation and the Vancouver Adapted Music Society, a website will include musicians and composers, and adapted music technologies. I’ll be moderating the web conference, so I hope you will join in and tell a few really dab, disabled jokes, or give some electroacoustic insights. We’re competitive in a healthy-type way. I am personally working on trying out for the Para-Olympic bikini team, but would settle for the downhill wheelchair race, as long as I can play really bad harmonica when the room is silent and no one is listening.

Let’s listen to a piece that’s appeared in a couple of different places.

We listen to penny: a process by sylvi macCormac [1:43:33–1:46:44].

What are your next steps?

Steps are a funny concept. Stairs are passé. I will continue to compose and produce solo and compilation albums, independently and with community groups. I’ve several projects in the works, and as soon as Grover and his buddies finish with the computer, I’ll be able to — notice the word “able” — get back to writing really bad comedy and poetry, and composing soundscapes and electroacoustic music.

sylvi macCormac, our guest today on Kalvos & Damian. sylvi, thanks so much for joining us in this time-space discontinuous geographical event we’ve had today on the show.

Thank you for inviting me to be a guest on the New Music Bazaar, it’s a great honour. Congratulations for your many years on-air and online. Best of luck in your future endeavours, and may music and electroacoustics always be with you. Slainte, cheers.

We listen to Railway Lines: Trains of Thought by sylvi macCormac [1:48:54–1:55:36].

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