Breathing Ghosts and Dancing with the Devil: Sxip Shirey’s Fractured Sonic Fairy Tales

Molly Sheridan: Was it hard, then, crashing into New York City? You’d been working in folk, interested in all those rural expressions, and then you came here…

Sxip Shirey: Not really, because I’d lived all over the country. I just avoided New York for years. Maybe, arguably, I should have come here 15 years earlier when New York, and the U.S., had a more vibrant arts scene because there was still arts funding in this country. But at the same time, yeah, it was hard. I never used to live in the cities. I lived in Austin, Texas. Beautiful, wonderful place. I had a lot of support, but I was one of five experimental musicians there. Some people wouldn’t even consider me experimental here, you know. So there you go.

MS: In all those musical meetings, were there some watershed moments over the years where you were like, “Wow, that turned me around, opened a door”?

SS: The weird thing is the watershed moments have always been when I’ve been living in some shitty place and no one’s been around. I don’t compose that well in the city. I really have to force myself. I get inspired, but I really compose best in isolated places. And I don’t necessarily have to be in a good mood to do it.

MS: Do you get to escape off to artist colonies and get grants to do the kind of music you’re doing?

SS: If I was smart, I probably would. I think in many ways I haven’t chosen a wise career path because I’ve always done what I’ve wanted. So I get about one or two really good composing gigs a year. I was composer for the Minneapolis Children’s Theater last year, then nothing. I’m doing a lovely thing at the Museum of the Moving Image. They’re showing A Trip to the Moon, that film from 1903, and I’m scoring it now. So I get these gigs and then I have this Gypsy-Klezmer-Punk band where I play rhythm guitar and we tour and then I do the circus music stuff, and I do the solo stuff.

MS: You’re not just a performer, but also an almost old-world impresario in many of these situations. How does being a composer fit in with that? Are they separate or do the roles compliment one another?

SS: They are and they aren’t. It’s really hard for me to do the solo music. Sometimes I’ll get one of the human beat boxers to do it with, because with the beat boxers it changes the context of the music—it’s just fun and snappy and it’s all about the surprising quality of sound. But the solo music, if I’m really into it, it digs from such a deep place. It’s hard to switch into that thing. But I did have an epiphany in Boston at the American Repertory Theater Company the other day: I finally realized, like an idiot, not to think of them as separate things. Think of the entire show as the composition and then the climax for me emotionally is when I do my solo piece.

The problem is I have a real split focus. So when I first came to New York, I was composing and then the band took over. When I first started the band, everyone was like “Oh, this is Sxip’s band, the guy who does all the crazy shit.” Now it’s reversed. “Sxip, I didn’t know he did all this other stuff.” I needed to get away from the solo music for a while and rediscover why I did it, because when I was in my early 20s, there were a million reasons I needed to get on the stage and go [demonstrates]. And now I don’t need to do that, so I had to refigure out why the hell I want to get on stage by myself and do something. It’s much more fun when someone else is there, but obviously it’s not about fun. You know, I think of each of those solo pieces I do as a prayer to something. And so in the way that you pray, you just really have to take that full self, that full breath—all your internal organs pumping at slightly different rhythms and doing this expression from a really pure place.

MS: And so much of your work is literally about breath. You take it really far.

SS: Yeah, what an easy way to communicate with people. It kind of evolved out of two things. When I was coming of age as an artist, you had Diamanda Galás—everyone looked up to her—and everyone looked up to Annie Sprinkle. Annie Sprinkle was this post-porn modernist who would do these Tantric breathing workshops where she would basically give your brain an orgasm. And my girlfriend at the time was into Annie Sprinkle and she went to it and it worked for her. It never quite worked for me but we’d do these breathing things together and circulate the air, the breathing energy and all that stuff. Then Diamanda Galás just showed me how far you could go with conviction in sound. Just over the fucking top, you know. So yeah, I just really ended up tuning into breath and using that as an expression.

If my music is about something, it’s about how everybody’s intimate experience is epic to them. We all live epic lives. To us, you know, it’s not a series of small events; it’s a series of major events every day. Life is a gripping experience and so I think my music, my composition, my performance is about that. I try to create an opportunity so that I and the audience can be present for our own living—just to really put people in their bodies and into the realization that they’re alive at that moment.

MS: How do you make that happen, or project that during a show though, in a room full of people who are gathered to hear you play?

SS: You’re very generous, and you’re very kind, and you’re very direct with them. And then, you take a deep breath and you play as honestly as you can. And that can be folk music, and that can be classical music, and that can be experimental novelty music. It doesn’t matter what it is. You can still use a persona and you can use the bigness of your character. But the idea is to just be kind; just be really super kind. If you’re a kind person, you can communicate so much with people. And people really respond to it, too.

When I first came to New York, I went to this experimental music night. And this guy came up to me and afterwards he says, “Oh my goodness you’re great. You know, when you walked in here with that flute, we were all like, ‘Who’s this guy?’, you know, but wow, you’re great.” Blabbity-blah. And I thought, fuck you. I don’t need this shit. I really think a lot of the art world is created by people who weren’t popular in school, like myself, and then they create a social caste system where they’re at the top. There’s a smugness to it. And that’s not interesting to me. I have geeky intellectual music, but basically I want music for me to do the same things it does for the good 99 percent of everybody else on the planet, which is to convey spiritual, emotional, and, most important, sub-lingual information. Things that if you define it, you don’t get.

MS: How do you hope your audiences react to your music specifically?

SS: For me, the best response to art is more art. I’m a huge fan of other artists, to a fault at times because I’ll put aside my own stuff to get into it, but what I’m talking about is just generosity. I don’t care if it’s art that I don’t like, at least people are doing something. It’s just weird for me here, but not so much in Europe, funnily enough, because there’s a certain intellectual discourse here. We’re kind of stuck in this post-modern—they’re probably calling it post-post-modernism now—but we’re stuck in that discourse. This is why I got into circus: I can play some big modernistic chord clusters for a bunch of people standing like this [stares deadpan into the camera], or I can play some modernistic chord clusters while someone puts a sword this long down their throat. Or hangs from a rope. And if I do it in conjunction with this stuff, you have an audience full of people really appreciating it on this real level. And it’s so exciting. If you have someone hanging from the air, the message is simple: If they fall, they die.

One option with experimentalism that is very hard for me is that you listen to a piece of music and you think about the entire history of music and what form this is and why this person is doing this and blabbity-blah, blah, blah. If you take a child from the city and show it a horse, that’s an experimental moment, but the child doesn’t go, “Hmm, 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.

MS: What makes your audiences feel safe enough to do get close to something so intimidating, do you think? What makes that possible?

SS: You’ve got to know who your audience is. If you want your audience to be other experimental musicians and the only other people who can understand it are the other people who have done this course of study, then you know your audience. And then they’ll clap and that’s the dialogue, that’s great. But I don’t want to play for other experimental musicians, mainly. That’s not exciting to me. I’m interested in having a dialogue with different kinds of people. In New York City we’re all choosing our communities. I want to live in a very visceral, loving community of people doing really interesting things, and I definitely have found that here.

When I’m performing, I consider the audience part of the performance. I consider the audience part of the composition. I consider the building part of the composition. I consider what I ate that day part of the composition. And when I’m really on, I always have this realization that everything I’ve been doing has been a work up for this moment, which could be true with every moment in life. But I become really aware of it at that moment, and it’s like, oh, everything’s fine. Then I just really focus and do the performance.

The reason I got into gypsy and Balkan stuff, I was tired of going to rock shows and watching people treat it like it was a classical concert. So I was like, I’m going to put on a show where white people dance. White people will dance if there’s the mask of ethnicity on it. I put on these parties and we dance, we have a good time. People want to have a good time. I tend to be friends with puppeteers because they’re people who come, like me, from different studies and they do this form of theater that doesn’t have this huge range of critique around it and communicates very directly. Puppeteering, good puppet theater for adults, is like music: Effective—you’ll respond to it before you think about it. One puppet will kiss another and everyone will go, “Awww.” But if one human actor kisses another people go, “Whatever.” They’re going to try and figure out what it’s about.

MS: What attracts you to the lack of critique around puppeteering?

SS: Not many people who are professional puppeteers went and studied that. And so they come from different disciplines, and they tactilely figure out what they need to do and how they’re going to make their statement. I was at a dinner after one of our performances at some college on the East Coast and one of the people asked, “Why did you guys get into puppetry?” And each person had this eloquent explanation. And I realized, we never talk about it. Puppeteers don’t sit and pontificate with each other. They don’t BS about their work. They get in there, and they do it. There may be part of the puppet community that can talk about critique and put out a lot of words about it, but in general, that’s not how puppetry’s done in my experience. It’s not part of the construct of seeing the work. Whereas, with new music and the visual arts and modern dance, the critique and the history are so much a part of it—it’s a lens that you put on your face or your ears to even begin to understand the work. I’ve never been that interested in that.

Like I said, I really want to play for plumbers much more than I want to play for a bunch of experimental musicians. I’m not even sure why that is. Of course I love musicians being in the audience and getting into good conversations and being reinforced by my peers. But I’ve always found it much more exciting if I can do this stuff at a party. I want to have such focused intent with this crazy stuff that I can say: I’m going to take this marble right here and I’m going to put it in this bowl, and you’re going to listen and be fascinated with it. That’s an interesting relationship to me. I do feel like performance for me is part of the composition. Like in jazz, you know the composition’s happening as you’re standing there. I feel that relationship with the audience and the space. When it’s really good, you’re working with each other; it’s all part of the same thing.

But anyway, back to puppetry. Yeah. I relate to puppeteers because I do music the same way. I put so much thought and energy into it, and it is very object-oriented to me in a lot of ways. But I’m not so interested in talking about it a lot while I’m doing it. I don’t need to have a verbal conversation, or even a slightly sub-verbal conversation about the history of what I’m doing to do it.

MS: So you prepare for your audience very, very carefully. What are you hoping that they carry away with them?

SS: This sounds so silly but it’s true: I want them to be excited about art again—really excited about art, like a child is excited about art. The best response I get is from people who say, I went home and I did this. I composed this. I did this painting. That’s so awesome. I mean, that’s what happens to me when I get excited about something.

I realized I had to come up with a way of explaining why I do what I do artistically in New York really quickly. And I came up with this: Art is a tool for living. I need to put a painting on the wall, I get a hammer. It’s a tool. I have a nail. Wham, wham, wham. Put the painting on the wall. I’m sitting. I look at it. I have a painting of the city of New Orleans—an old print made years ago showing the city. Every day I eat breakfast, I look at that painting, and I think about New Orleans. And I think about the places I’ve lived. It’s a good tool, you know. So, with my art—for whatever you get out of it—I want to create a good tool for myself and for the audience. Just like Diamanda Galás and Roger Miller and John Fahey and the Beatles and John Cage have all given me good tools. I can use it to create music, and thus it helps me get through life.

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