Breathing Ghosts and Dancing with the Devil: Sxip Shirey’s Fractured Sonic Fairy Tales
Brooklyn, New York
October 30 and November 27, 2007
Interviewed and edited by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation by Randy Nordschow
If your tastes run to serious music, Sxip Shirey might be easy to accidentally dismiss. With his wild curls, impresario suit jackets, and tables of stacked toys, you might assume his musical world is not for you. But then, if you’re lucky, you hear the faint tinkling of a bell, the soft whisper of a tune, and before you know it you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with 100 similarly entranced folks, and you are holding your breath because you don’t want to miss what Shirey is doing with his.
Or at least this is how it happened to me more than a decade ago, and in the intervening years, I’ve brought other friends to see Sxip in action. I’ve never been able to adequately explain his work in advance of these adventures—how a man with a few harmonicas in his pockets, some duct tape, a few delay pedals, and a flea market-worth of old toys could leave you feeling like you’d gotten a sugary buzz off some cotton candy—so Randy and I took a trip behind the looking glass to find out how it all works when the curtain is down and the house lights are up.
Sxip threw open the doors, opened all the closets, and invited us to stay—permanently, I think, if our schedules had been clear. Sadly, we could not run away with the circus (in his case, the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus) or his band of gypsies (the Luminescent Orchestrii). But we did get away with this pied piper’s secret.
“If you take a child from the city and show it a horse, that’s an experimental moment,” Shirey explained, “but the child doesn’t go, ‘Hmmmm, let me think about the entire history of evolution and how horses came to…’—No. What they do is say, ‘Oh my God, that’s so huge and frightening, and I want to get closer to it.’ So I want to create music and art that is totally huge and frightening, but also so delicious and wonderful that it makes you want to be part of it.”
Looking around the room at the open trunks spilling over with spoils of his world travels, it was clear he’d put some shoe leather and serious commitment into making sure his audiences experienced that enchantment. “I take my compositions entirely seriously, but I’m composing music with stuff like this,” he said, gesturing to the piles of second-hand instruments and novelty toys. “It’s absolutely funny, but it’s absolutely serious.” —MS