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

Molly Sheridan: Let’s talk a little bit about how a marble and a Pyrex mixing bowl became a piece of music.

Sxip Shirey: Somehow, I got a hold of a marble and a mixing bowl and did this [demonstrates rolling the marble in the bowl]. And then, different bowls have different tonalities [demonstrates]. I can send them through the pitch shifters, or I don’t. I’m getting someone to build me a chromatic set of ceramic ones. For me, it’s a cross between a Tibetan bowl and an alarm clock. I’ll set up 15 of them on the ground and you can really trance out to them, but it’s alarming, too.

The ceramic ones are actually louder, but glass ones on stage look better because you can see what’s going on. I’ve really gotten into it. I’ve gotten into task-oriented composition right now, so I could say to you, Molly, here’s 15 bowls. Play. The goal is you have to roll the marbles in the bowls. I could say I want you to play them in this sequence, or I just want you to play them, or I want you to play this group of them and then, when you’re ready, play this group of them. Basically doing compositions that anyone could do, but that are compelling.

I did another task-oriented piece where I internally mic my mouth or another person’s mouth, and I simply have them breathe in and out of another person, so you hear the intimate sound of their breath going back and forth into each other’s lungs and that’s amplified through the room. Another thing that you can do then is have one person sing a tone, the other person sing a tone. You pull them slightly off of each other and you get a wah-wah-wah-wah-wah, you get the beat frequency from it. So again, that’s a task-oriented composition you can do. You can do it with anybody, but they’re compelling situations to put people in.

MS: So Cage meets public access TV?

SS: Yeah, Cage meets public access TV meets performance art.

There’s this amazing video with him on I’ve Got a Secret. Cage had a stage full of things. He had a bathtub. He had a coffee pot. He had a potted plant. He had a piano. He had a tape machine. He had all these kitchen and household items. And he had four radios, which, in John Cage-style, he was supposed turn on and off according to a stopwatch. Except I think the stagehands’ union and the electricians’ union got into an argument, and they couldn’t plug in the radios so instead, when he was supposed to turn on the radio, he hit the radio, and when he was supposed to turn it off, he’d push it off the table. So here’s John Cage with a stopwatch making all these sounds, doing all these different things for about ten minutes, and the audience is laughing. They’re laughing the whole time. They’re enjoying it. He gave them access points.

I’ll write a real dense harmony, but I’ll give a real direct rhythmic statement or direct live statement, so the listeners, even if they’re unfamiliar with dissonant sounds, have an easy way to go through it.

MS: Do you notate any of your compositions?

SS: I notate the stuff for the band sometimes. Not this stuff with the objects. I notate only when I’m doing theater, and I need to remember what object to pick up. I draw little pictograms, essentially, little squiggles for me to remember the general shape. And then if I have chordal harmony, I notate that.

MS: If you had a few extra days in the week, is this something you’d like to have? Would you ever want anyone else to play any of this music?

SS: Well, the original title of [the bowl piece] was “A Sxip Composition You Can Do Yourself,” because I have all these 16-year old fans now, which is insane.

MS: MySpace?

SS: Yeah, they find me on MySpace. How is it that a 40-year-old man who does this stuff all of a sudden has 16-year-old fans? But then I think, well, yeah, when I was young, my brain was being opened to Kraftwerk and Laurie Anderson, but I couldn’t e-mail her. That’s the big difference. People were bugging me for more music, and so I thought maybe I’ll make a composition and tell them how to play it. Then I did get an e-mail from some kid: “It didn’t work as well, but we went out and got bowls, and we did it.” And that’s great. There’s some kid in some ratty bar in some Podunk town. They went out and got mixing bowls and marbles, and I think it’s great. I would love it if someone else did this stuff. But I’m a very physical composer, so I just never think of it that way.

MS: Your performances are so much about connecting with people who are really there in the room, but a fan can get your new CD off CD Baby, people can experience your music via YouTube: Is that weird to you?

SS: I’m getting over it. I think when I listen back to it, I hear it how it actually sounds and I want to get it there and control it, which I can’t. Which is ridiculous because if you see my shows, stuff is falling off the tables, usually things are broken, I’m laughing with the audience. But it’s so much about the live performance for me, I haven’t been able to make it translate to CDs.

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