An Interview with Lisa R. Coons

Text and Title Image · Date 08/04/2016

Lisa Renèe Coons is a composer, sound artist, and professor at Western Michigan University. Through the course of several emails exchanged in the last few weeks, just after her return from a residency at the MacDowell Colony, we discussed the difficulty of honoring one’s origins, music as a vehicle for dealing with the unspeakable, welding, and hog farming.

VAN: You have mentioned before that you are from a hog farm. Can you talk a bit about your background?

Lisa R. Coons: I do tend to mention the farm, perhaps too much, partly because I spent much of my early adulthood trying to hide my accent, my background, my “lack” of culture…It took time for me to honor my origins, but when I did, when I let it be a part of my work, I think the work improved. So now I proudly say I came from a small, family-run farm in the northern plains of Missouri. I grew up alongside my parents and sister, building fence and clearing brush, feeding and tending animals, mending equipment, and taking in harvests. But I was fortunate; although neither had been to college (they were married while both still teenagers), my parents prioritized schoolwork above all else—that wasn’t everyone’s experience. Because of that support and emphasis, both my sister and I attended college. I eventually finished a PhD program at an Ivy League university, and I continue to have opportunities I couldn’t have even imagined when I was growing up.

How did a hog farm resident end up with a “special affinity to noise composition”?

The farm offered a wealth of sound, such diversity of sound, and I think I learned to love it all. There were sounds of metal on metal in uneven rhythms as posts were driven, but this happened amid frog calls and insect songs. Repaired and failing farm machinery often made audible the strain of motors and the slipping of gears. And summer storms offered the best sounds from inside a barn: rain on a tin roof, doors against their hooks, and the creak of timbers as the building took each gust of wind. This was a world where timbre and irregular rhythms and the layers were foregrounded and discrete equal-temperament pitches and steady meter just weren’t present.

How old were you when you began creating music?

I started singing and writing songs when I was little, pretending to play at the piano even before starting lessons at age six. Most of my friends in high school were in my rock band—I wrote fairly unoriginal “original” songs and they patiently learned them for the three or four actual gigs we ever had that weren’t in my parents’ basement. But for the most part I didn’t start notating or working with Western classical practice until I was in college. I heard my first live orchestra, string quartet, and opera performances during my undergraduate studies.

You describe yourself as a composer and a sound artist. How do you personally differentiate between these two?

I think of composition as an act for a concert hall—writing music for a stage with a beginning, middle, and end. Sound art is more open, both in venue and structure—one can make an installation, incorporate the visual more completely, and there need not be that clear differentiation between the makers of sound and the audience. But they are not distinct; I consider music to be a subset of sound art, which encompasses so much more.

You are a welder. How have you incorporated that into your composing?

Now I’m mostly working in collaboration with my husband, Steven Pierce, on the welding projects. We make metal sounding sculptures, usually percussion instruments (although we did one harp-like installation) and often with amplification. There isn’t a performance practice for these (no standard of notation, no preferred tuning system), so each piece is an act of discovery. These objects provide a chance to play, to experiment, to think as much about the choreography as the resultant sound.

This modular sculpture was co-created with Steven Pierce. In the fall, the Coalescence Percussion Duo will be playing it at Art Prize in Grand Rapids, Michigan • Photo Steven Pierce
This modular sculpture was co-created with Steven Pierce. In the fall, the Coalescence Percussion Duo will be playing it at Art Prize in Grand Rapids, Michigan • Photo Steven Pierce

Did composing or welding come first?

Music came first—I think I learned a little tractor and farm repair from my dad and uncle early on, but I was always the musician. After being at Princeton for a couple of years and finding I still didn’t quite feel like I belonged, I went home and asked dad to teach me, to help me reconnect to making, to doing that physical work. And it took a goodly amount of failure before I made anything that anyone was willing to even try to play. But I love making, the tactile process, the building of something physical—it feels honest, it challenges me, it reminds me to take chances and play, and it is so incredibly satisfying to see tangible progress after a day of physical labor and sweat and welding burns.

You mention that you didn’t feel you belonged at Princeton—why was that?

I found Princeton to be a warm and nurturing environment. But I was aware that I didn’t belong for a variety of reasons. My colleagues had traveled, gone to impressive schools before this one, and they seemed reasonably comfortable eating in the dining hall, which was as elaborate and intimidating as any cathedral I had ever visited. If I said “git” when I meant “get,” people tended to miss the rest of my statement. If I dressed up to go out, another woman would kindly tell me she would take me shopping, teach me how to buy good shoes. If I tried familiar anecdotes over drinks, ones that worked well at home, they fell short or were met with confused tolerance. (One in particular—a true story about a local man who ended up with an owl attached to him, talons lodged in his head, because he too successfully imitated the creature’s prey—usually drew laughs and other outdoor anecdotes from friends back home…at Princeton, there were horrified stares, inquiries about the man’s well-being, and at least one person left to buy another round without saying anything.)

I loved being at Princeton. My fear was that they might realize I didn’t belong. So I tried to convince them, to convince myself, that I was smart enough, that I was cultured enough, that I was supposed to be there. My early music was complicated, built to impress, without much other substance (and the faculty, who were patient and honest, called me out on that). I hid my drawl, I changed my appearance; these superficial modifications were intended to make me feel a part of that place. And going home was often just as alienating, because I no longer belonged there either. I eventually decided I had to find a way to marry these disparate worlds, not hide them from one another. And I think I’m still trying to do just that.

Lisa R. Coons, “Music Painted from Memory”

You are part of a group called The Collected. Can you talk a bit about that?

The Collected is a group of composers with whom I share history, conceptual goals, and a lot of respect. We collaborate on group concerts with performing ensembles, which I think works well, since we have such different aesthetics. We help promote and champion one another’s music. And it helps that my colleagues in The Collected are talented, innovative people—Brent Miller and Adam Fong started this amazing space in San Francisco called the Center for New Music. Eric KM Clark is a fantastic performer and composer who co-founded the Southland Ensemble and was a member of the California E.A.R. Unit. These artists inspire me to push, to do better work—they are fantastic long-term collaborators and good friends.

Why was it important for you to form a collective with other composers?

Interpersonal connections are fundamental to sustainable arts careers. It does not need to be a collective or a formal group, but I believe that one needs collaborators and networks of artists who you want to support and who want to support you, mentors and mentees. These people don’t just help me get gigs, they give me feedback, honest feedback, which is rare and valuable. Hearing their work inspires me to build, push, explore. And when projects or grants or performances are either extremely challenging or wonderful, these people are my sounding boards—one of them is almost always there to listen, support, advise, or share a much-needed small batch bourbon.

How do you work with physical space in your compositions?

Space is incredibly important in my work. I’m drawn to the movement of the musicians—the physicality of performance. What I make is often as much about seeing their bodies’ gestures as it is about the resultant sound. But I’m also finding myself more and more uncomfortable with the paradigm of classical music performance—that distinction between performer and audience, everyone politely occupying their designated spaces. I’m starting to make work that combines installation and performance, trying to attain that intimacy I mentioned earlier through immersion in space, absorbing the listener into the piece, even touching them. I much prefer wild animal cries and whispered secrets to eloquent oration delivered from the stage.

You wrote in your blog about the difficulty of getting your audience to submit to the experience of submersion in sound. Why is this important?

This is a difficult question—the desire to create immersive work drives me, it pushes me to keep making. It is also the one goal that has most consistently eluded me in every work I have ever made.

The moments in which I feel alive, when I feel powerful and feral and grateful to be breathing, those involve all of my senses. They are moments when tactile and sonic environments consume me, blur the edges of where I meet the world; experiences in which I cannot help but be present. In the blog, I describe sitting alone in the early morning on a cold beach. The waves were violent, but their sound was muffled by dense fog—a fog that also invaded my mouth and coalesced in droplets on my skin, thick air that hung heavy on my body. To reduce something experienced to the single dimension of sound seems to me inauthentic, a reduction, rather than a translation. So I make work that includes these other dimensions: the tactile, the performing body moving in space, the construction of objects and installations to house experience, or I make spatial performances where sound presses in on the listener from all sides. It is never enough. But my most basic and unfulfilled desire is to submerge my audience in experience. I want to reconnect to the ephemeral, spending time in some moment impossible to hold and immediately fading. Perhaps I want to make it more real by trying to recreate it for someone, inviting them into something intimate—pretending momentarily that I’m not alone.

Photo Steven Pierce
Photo Steven Pierce

You’ve made work about some heavy subjects—dementia, isolation, trauma, and recently, voicelessness within a feminist context.

I don’t make art as an exercise. Work is intimate, personal—I don’t write until I feel I have something meaningful to say, something sincere. Music provides this abstract world in which I can confess, keen, and exorcise without inhibition; a place where I don’t feel the need to be polite or attend to etiquette. So I often deal with the unspeakable there, or those things which I cannot fix into place with words; it is not catharsis, but rather a chance to feel connected to the world by exposing some rawness at the center of myself. ¶