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From Planet Z to Mills College

Mills College Weekly

Annie Gosfield is the Darius Milhaud Composer-in-Residence for
Fall 2003. Based out of New York City, she has two solo releases:
“Flying Sparks and Heavy Machinery” and “Burnt Ivory and Loose
Wires,” both on the Tzadik label. “EWA7,” a piece on “Flying Sparks
and Heavy Machinery,” integrates the sounds of machinery and found
metal percussion from factories with written rhythms that reference
the sounds of factories.

The composition is the direct result of the composer’s six-week
residency in a factory in Nuremberg, Germany, called EWA7. The
project culminated in a site-specific performance at EWA7 in
Nuremberg. Since then, EWA7 has been performed under the Brooklyn
Bridge and at a decrepit factory in Warsaw, Poland (as well as
formal clubs and theatres).

“The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory” is a piece inspired by the
sounds Gosfield imagines her grandmother, an immigrant first
arriving in New York City, to have heard when she first came to
work in sweatshops during the Industrial Revolution. The piece has
been performed by Annie Gosfield as well as by the Bang on a Can
All Stars. It was recognized in the 1997 Prix Ars Electronica.

Not restricted to the sounds of industrial environments, Annie
Gosfield has produced numerous classical compositions as well as
music used by modern dance companies around the world. She has also
been featured as a performer, on sampler and keyboards, and on
albums such as “Cobra” in which she played with the likes of
musicians John Zorn, Cyro Baptista, Erik Friedlander, and Trevor
Dunn, among others. On Nov. 22, she will be performing her
compositions in the Concert Hall, alongside cellist Jean
Jeanrenaud, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, and long-time partner and
collaborator Roger Kleier, who is also a Composer-in-Residence this
semester at Mills. What sort of artist lurks behind the drone of
found industrial percussion and creative classical compositions…
and how did she get here from Planet Z?

Q: How did you begin to play music?

A: My first instrument was the baritone ukele. It was what
Martin Mull called the “folk scare” of the 1960s. But then I
changed to piano.

Q: Let’s talk about your musical training.

A: I took private lessons when I was little. I remember I
decided I wanted to play piano because I would sit down (before I
took lessons, so I was probably six) and I would play piano and
imagine movies in my head and accompany the imaginary movies. Child
improviser! And then I asked my parents to have piano lessons. The
most important music teacher to me was someone that I started
studying with when I was 12, and he was a French pianist. He came
from a classical background and also played jazz so he was really
perfect for me because I was interested in doing both. And
unfortunately he died when I was 15 so I graduated a year early
from high school and went to college because I wanted to study
music seriously but he wasn’t there. I had all my credits I needed
to graduate so I left a year early to study at North Texas

Q: What made you decide to go into music?

A: My oldest brother was a musician, so it didn’t seem like such
a stretch of the imagination to be a musician…because there would
always be musicians around. I always wanted to play, so I can’t
really think of a time when I didn’t want to be a musician. I did
want to be an electric harmonica when I was very little. I didn’t
quite understand the difference between objects and

Q: If you hadn’t gone into music is there anything else you
could see yourself doing?

A: Well, no. [Pauses.] At one point, in order to support myself,
I made hats. I was a milliner.

Q: When was that?

A: It was in the early nineties and it was very seasonal work.
Very high end ladies’ hats and I could manage to spend a month or
two doing that and then I could go back to music, and it always
seemed to coincide with down times with music. I think some of the
skills I developed (you know, it’s very painstaking work, the kind
of hats I was making) I applied to preparing scores. So now, I
spend a long time writing a piece of music and then I have this
period where I have to get it as close to perfect visually, and
integrate all these elements and it actually kind of reminds me of
making hats.

Q: What was the most interesting gig you played? Once you
started playing?

A: Well, when I was going to college, Roger and I had a band and
we would play in the punk clubs of Los Angeles.

Q: What was the name?

A: Planet Z. And we also had a group that was free
improvisation, and that was called The Apes of God. And we used to
play in a health food restaurant called “The Natural Fudge Company”
and the guy who announced the bands was a born again Christian who
would not say the name The Apes of God.

Q: So what did he say?

A: “And now! The band is coming on!” But probably the most
interesting then was…playing all kinds of music in these punk
clubs and it was a very exciting time because it wasn’t just punk.
Some people would do free improv and homemade instruments and
people were interested in many different kinds of music and were
experimenting a lot but sometimes if you got a gig at the wrong
place and started playing free improv people might start throwing
things at you. I think it helped me develop a thick skin for more
acceptable forms of rejection later in life.

Q: How did you start to use machinery in your

A: I was always fascinated by the sounds and even when I was a
kid I would listen to machines and things that weren’t normally
considered musical. Like the radio when there were two stations
that weren’t really tuned in, and the sounds machines and
technology produce. But I wrote a piece that was quite important to
me called, “The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory,” that was inspired by
what I imagined my grandmother to have heard when she first came to
America in the early part of the 20th century and worked in
sweatshops in New York. And I wrote the piece shortly after I moved
to New York because I was thinking, “here I am.” And my grandmother
moved there 80 years before me and it was an incredibly different
experience for her, being this young immigrant girl and the type of
work she had to do and what her life must have been like back then
during the Industrial Revolution.

Q: Can you describe the piece?

A: The piece actually uses a lot of prepared piano sounds. It
had a lot of metal percussion and factory inspired rhythms. We will
be performing it on Nov. 22. And then in 1999, I had a residency in
the factories of Nuremberg, Germany and I got to actually listen to
many different factories and factory environments and record them
and it was fascinating to be able to experience all these different
sounds and sound environments instead of just imagining them.

Q: What goes into every composition you write? Is there a

A: I usually start out immersing myself in the sound of the
instrument. So I’ll try to find a variety of music, for cello, for
instance, and I’ll meet with the musician who I am writing for and
sometimes record them to really focus on their individual skills
and odd and unusual techniques they may have developed and get a
sense of what they’re most comfortable playing and what they excel

Q: And then you go from there…?

A: It takes me a long time to get a piece started. I usually
wind up writing a lot of things that I discard. It’s almost like
warming up. So sometimes the critical part of the process is a work
that I throw away…I discard it in the actual piece. I mean, I’ll
reconsider it, I don’t just automatically throw it away. I’ll edit
and I’ll go through it. But often what I start out with is inferior
to what I end up with. But it’s always an awkward period when I
first start a piece because it takes me a while just to settle in.
I pace around a lot. I always assumed it was because each piece has
a different instrumentation but I think it has more to do with just
coming up with a new piece and just getting it started.

Q: What have your experiences been like while teaching at

A: It’s been fun because the students are of incredibly varied
backgrounds and the work they have been making has been incredibly
varied. People already seem to have very individual voices. It’s
also been really nice for me to…encourage people to find their
own voice rather than following a more conventional academic
path…it’s more similar to my own experiences and it’s been nice
to pass that on.