Maggi Payne

Interview 10/13/11 with Heather Dewey-Hagborg

Maggi Payne is a Composer, Recording Engineer, Flutist and Video Artist. She is Co-Director (since 1992) of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, Oakland, CA, where she teaches recording engineering, composition, and electronic music. She also freelances as a recording engineer and editor and a historical remastering engineer.

Her electroacoustic works often include visual elements which she creates, including video, dance, transparencies, and film. She enjoys collaborating with other artists and has worked with video artist Ed Tannenbaum for over twenty years. She is also a flutist, and has written several works for flute as well as other acoustic instruments.

Liquid Amber (2008).

Heather: Tell us about your background as an artist: where are you from, how did you begin making work, what kind of work did you begin making?
Maggi: I grew up outside of the city limits in Amarillo, which is in the Texas panhandle. I took piano lessons when I was quite young, but it wasn’t the right instrument for me at the time. When I was nine I heard a flute somewhere, although I don’t know where, and I was desperately drawn to that instrument. As a beginner I would make all of the typical odd noises—whistle tones, air sounds, clacking the keys—the things kids love to do. I never quite grew out of my love of unusual sounds. My dad, who had a fascination with technology, gave me a tape machine when I was about ten so that I could record myself and listen back critically, so I became intrigued by the possibilities that recording held very early on.

Music was very strong in the schools at the time. From age 9 on I played in orchestras and bands, city orchestras, state orchestras, tri-state orchestras, and numerous competitions. I played in the Amarillo Symphony, went to Interlochen National Music Camp and Aspen Music School. I learned harp in my early teens and loved all of the extraneous noises that it could make—dollar bills in the strings, rapid pedaling, fingernails zipping up and down the low wire-wound strings, etc. I was also playing all of the contemporary music that I could find at that time, Varèse’s Density 21.5 being my favorite. I went to Northwestern University and the world opened up to me: art, the Chicago Symphony (playing Le sacre du printemps under Stravinsky), an improvisation group that four of us created. I went to grad school first at Yale, then the University of Illinois at Urbana for a MMus, then Mills College for an MFA in electronic music and the recording media.

I composed some music when young, but improvisation led me to compose my first serious composition, Inflections, for solo flute in 1968. I composed a work for aeolian harp (tape) in the spring of 1969. At the University of Illinois I took a course in acoustics from James Beauchamp, who introduced me to the electronic music studio there. I had explored extended flute techniques about as far as I felt I could and I was relentlessly seeking to broaden my sound palette. The timbral possibilities of electronic music were irresistible, and remain so.

Heather: Who were your early mentors or inspirations?

Maggi: I had many early mentors: my orchestra conductors (primarily Bill Porter, Wayne Muller, A. Clyde Roller, and Ed London); flute teachers Harold Gilbert, Darlene Dugan, Albert Tipton, and Walfrid Kujala; and composers Alan Stout, Ted Ashford, Gordon Mumma, Salvatore Martirano, Ben Johnston, Robert Ashley, and David Behrman. Early inspirations included Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, and J.S. Bach; artists Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Salvador Dali, Georgia O’Keeffe; filmmakers Jordan Belson, John Whitney, Stan Brakhage’s Moth Light; and choreographers Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, and The Living Theater. So many others…

Heather: What interested you in sound and how does sound feature in your work?

Maggi: Growing up on the high plains of Texas, the most interesting sounds were the sonic booms, swimming underwater for hours on end in the summertime to escape the heat, tremendous thunderstorms, hail storms, blizzards, the intensely high winds (blowing and gusting so hard that they could almost topple me) and the amazing whistles and rattles they caused. I think those winds probably unknowingly influenced my choice of the flute as my instrument as a child.

For a sound to be of particular interest to me, I must be able to sense a potential within it that I feel I can later develop through various processes. If a sound is inherently abstract (unknowable) I’ll sometimes leave it as is, already a mystery. At other times I’ll process a sound beyond recognition, although I still feel a connection to its physicality and hope others listening will also feel a certain connection. Occasionally I’ll let the sound source clearly be known. My approach varies from piece to piece and within pieces. My works are absolutely sound driven, with each evolving, as if crystals growing in real time under a microscope.

Heather: How has your work evolved over time?

Maggi: In some ways my compositional focus has not changed. Since I was a child I’ve been attracted to unusual sounds, visuals, and events, and this passion is as strong as ever. The means I use have changed over time, although I still compose works using extended flute techniques from time to time. In college I worked on the Moog, Buchla, and Aries synthesizers and continued to do so until 1982, then moved on to recording acoustic sounds and manipulating and processing them via samplers. I then moved into the computer domain for greater flexibility and processing power. My early visuals were electronically generated and/or processed, crystals growing in real time under a microscope, nature and abstract imagery. I currently use nature shots and abstract views of the world, but I would love to do more videomicrography, given the equipment and time to pursue that love. 

Heather: What keeps you interested in sound?

Maggi: Sound itself, and silence. We live in such a rich sonic environment, and it keeps changing. I love miking sounds in unique ways so that the mikes become analogous to a stethoscope, revealing detail that is normally not audible—sounds such as fingers gently rubbing across one’s skin. Silence (or more realistically, relative silence) allows me to capture these very quiet sounds. I also use mikes as extensions of our ears, capturing sounds in ways that we could never hear them (underwater, very close to burning embers, stretched far apart so our ears feel as if they’re 100 feet apart rather than 6 or so inches apart, etc.). The relative silence of the desert, which I so love, recharges me and reminds me of how precious every miniscule sound can seem, magnified against the vast silence under the star studded black velvet sky.

Heather: You do a lot of work that combines video and sound. Can you talk about how your interests in sound and image inform each other?

Maggi: I find visuals, be they paintings, sculptures, dance, or other forms of art, as well as nature, to be very stimulating. Ideas about sound, architecting or sculpting space, movement of sound through space, and/or a sense of place often spring to my mind. When capturing images for my video works, I frequently auralize sounds or link sounds that I’ve already created with the images I’m capturing. There are times when I struggle to find the right sound for a given image, feeling that sound can carry too much extra-musical meaning and control the viewer’s associations too much, so I try to let the sound conjure a sense of “space” or “place” rather than orchestrating and filling out the aural space completely. In essence, my intent is to provide a unique, otherworldly atmosphere for the image. At other times, though, sound is paramount, driving my selection of visuals for their sense of space, their trajectories, their intrinsic motion or relative stasis.

Heather: Your bio and website specifically mention your freelance practice as a recording engineer - I am curious what engineering means to you, what it represents in contrast or perhaps complement to your artistic work?

Maggi: I love capturing sound, whether it be a Bach Brandenburg concerto, a freshly composed composition, nature, machinery, or unusual sounds.

To edit takes together to produce a continuous whole, or to build a piece, layer by layer, then mix it well is a meticulous process. As a historical remastering engineer, I love the challenge of bringing old recordings back to life in the best way that I can, removing noise and ticks, and equalizing the source to overcome the technical restrictions of the original recording medium. It’s all fascinating work, and I learn something from every project. Attentive listening and recording are simply deeply integrated into my life.

Heather: How do you see sound art operating within culture of where you operate - the music and art scene?

Maggi: I can’t really make a distinction, and feel as if I have feet in all of the above. The lines are, thankfully, wonderfully blurred.

Heather: What challenges have you faced in the field?

Maggi: I consider my naivety to be a blessing in that it never occurred to me that I couldn’t be a composer, a composer of electronic music, or a recording engineer. I just did what interested me without worrying about the consequences. It took me a while to notice that I was one of a very few recording engineers or composers who happened to be women when I first started. It was simply a natural progression for me.

The greatest challenges are those I make for myself: trying to making the best recording possible, struggling on a work to refine it and perfect it without taking the life out of it, etc.

Heather: What are you working on right now?

Maggi: I just completed a video work titled Quicksilver. I have been working on a piece about liminal images and sound for a couple of years, but when I started to put the piece together I realized that the images I had shot tended either towards nature or towards more abstract images. They didn’t gel. I decided to tackle the more abstract images first. The images are shot in darkness or near darkness so they’re very grainy, and include raindrops reflecting car lights on my car’s windshield very late at night, sunlight reflecting on a two-inch wide area of a bathtub draining, and smoke. The sound is quite gritty and grainy as well. Sources include fingers sweeping across an unattached drum head and across a closed cell foam backpacking insulating pad, a faucet trickling, ice melting in glasses, a floor furnace, whirling XLR cable and thin flexible tubes, a bathtub draining, matches being lit, and sonification of data from space. I hope to get to the less abstract footage next, but I’m feeling a strong pull to write another work for extended flute or flutes at the moment.

Heather: What words of advice would you give other aspiring women in sound?

Maggi: Stay true to your own voice and make a difference.

Helm copyright © Maggi Payne