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

Sxip Shirey: I can show you now what happens once I have an understanding of how things work. This piece is called Pandora. It is for seven canister music boxes that I found in Grand Central Station, bells, train whistle, and sometimes something else. Another problem with my pieces is that I can’t always do them again because since I use toys and things that aren’t musical instruments, they break. And even the musical instruments break and then you can’t get them anywhere.

Okay, when I lived in Austin, Texas, there was this park of these little Winnebagos from the 1950s, and these fairy goth girls lived there. This was before this stuff totally infiltrated mall culture. I think a lot of them had really hard lives, and they were creating a community for themselves. They’d take little dolls and make amazing dresses for them and all this stuff. There was one woman by the name of Pandora, and she ended up dying. It may have been a suicide, or it may have been an overdose. I’m not sure what the details were, but she was really well-loved by a lot of people and I was thinking about her a lot. So this is a send off for Pandora.

When I was in my 20s, I was living in Montana for a while. There was this hotel, and the proprietor obviously populated it with people he liked, which was old gamblers and young hippie girls. I was neither, but I had a girlfriend and got in, in a strange way. One night, I woke up and I heard this incredibly, incredibly beautiful sound, and I realized that trains were making the sound somehow but I wasn’t sure how. Later when I was living in Austin, Texas, I saw a train and the wheels made a high-pitched tone as it was moving around the bend. And what I realized was happening in Montana is that you have these really long trains and they slowly go around these bends. The wheels were making different tones, and the train was harmonizing with itself and that was echoing off the mountains and it made this incredible sound. So I had moved to Austin, Texas, with the woman that I had lived with in Montana and she left me and went back to Montana. And I had this image of pressing my head to the tracks and hearing her train go farther and farther away.

What I’m using here is paperclips and gated reverb. Normal reverb elongates the sound, and it has a tail. A gate cuts off the tail, so instead of brrrzt, you get brzt. All those really bad snare drum sounds that you heard in the ’80s, it was because of gated reverb. And now I’m gladly bringing it back.

This is called Trains. I’m just going to do a little bit of it.

This is one of the earlier things I was doing. I was composing for modern dance, and I got interested in how the keys sounded on the flute. And so I wrote a piece, tapping the keys and breathing into it. It’s a very mellow piece. I did it totally acoustically in the room and then I recorded it with a $35 Radio Shack lapel mic in a cork—a trick my friend David Weber, a sound engineer, showed me.

Then I was living in Denver, Colorado, and there was this place called Cricket on the Hill that had an open stage. All the punk rockers, and stoners, and coke heads, and drag queens would all go to this bar, and I thought, I’ll play the flute tonight. The thing is, I had never really played it through a PA system. And the way the room was set up, the mics were picking up my foot stomping, so it was this big, pounding, foot stomping thing. So, that’s how I started playing with breath and flute. I find using breathing as a kind of elemental unit of composition is super effective because we’re all familiar with that rhythm, we’re familiar with that sound, it’s so deep inside us. This tune is called La Sirena de la Luna.

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  1. Pingback: Our man, Sxip!

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