Halfway through Orlando Weekly's recent conversation with New York experimental composer Annie Gosfield, talk turns, as these things often do, to the musical possibilities of the household vacuum cleaner, which Gosfield explored to stunning effect in her ensemble piece Electronic Sweepers and Vacuum Creepers.
"I got commissioned a few years ago by the Hoover vacuum company to create a piece of music that used vacuum sounds. ... They had done all of these recordings of historical vacuums and newer vacuums," she says with a laugh. "But the great irony is that the one sound that really scared me as a child was the sound of a vacuum. If my siblings wanted to get on my case, they'd chase me with a vacuum!"
A gifted musician and boundary-demolishing composer, famously referred to by the BBC as a "one-woman Hadron collider," Gosfield has for many years now been exploring the musical possibilities of non-musical objects and sound sources – radio signals and lost transmissions, the aforementioned vacuum, and warped vinyl albums – and combining them with her own ferocious compositional chops and boundless capacity for musical curiosity and discovery. So the end result is less like, say, the nihilistic rage of an Einstürzende Neubauten (also fans of a good industrial cleaner or static burst or two), and more like uncovering new realms of hidden harmony and meaning.
Gosfield, fresh from a stint instructing during the spring semester at Columbia University, is in town for the next couple of weeks at the invitation of the Atlantic Center for the Arts in nearby New Smyrna to be a part of their storied Master Artist residency program. Gosfield will be teaching and mentoring five students, and she has a lifetime of creative practice to impart.
"I like to emphasize what the commonalities are as far as the impulses for creating art," she says of her plans for the program. "And dealing not just with the over-arching issues of being an artist and creating art, but also with the nuts-and-bolts technical issues that we all have in common. I feel like we have such a nice relaxed stretch of time that we can discuss things that otherwise we wouldn't. ... That's when you can really learn from each other."
Aside from that lucky handful of associates, adventurous music fans in Orlando will also benefit from Gosfield's presence at the ACA, as she'll play a free one-off show at the Timucua White House as part of the outreach component of her residency. Gosfield hints that on the night she'll be playing pieces that center around jammed radio signals, a familiar element in many of her works with longtime creative partner and guitarist Roger Kleier. "I've always been fascinated by the sounds of a radio tuned between stations and radio noise," she says. "It never struck me as being nonmusical. So all these sounds are fair game to be a part of my musical practice." Transmissions from Sputnik, German radio communications from World War II and the Cold War, and Hurricane Sandy have all made their ghostly way into Gosfield's performances and recordings over the years.
Perhaps Gosfield's most audacious use of weaving broadcasts into live performance was as part of her ambitious, operatic reimagining of The War of the Worlds radio-play in 2017 in Los Angeles. An immersive opera that took place simultaneously in L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall and three outside parking lots, and enlisted fearsome talent like the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Sigourney Weaver playing the broadcaster, this was a very new spin on the classic, panic-inducing radio broadcast masterminded by Orson Welles in 1938.
"It's originally a radio broadcast that was supposed to be taking place during a program of big band music, and reporters kept cutting in," she explains. "So as Martians are being spotted attacking Los Angeles, we have reports coming in from our on-the-street sites. They were radioed back into the concert hall. The Los Angeles Philharmonic was playing along with, for example, Mrs. Martinez, a restaurant owner, being interviewed by the meteorologist from the local radio station."
Unique and challenging collaborations are the name of the game for Gosfield. She's called New York home for several decades, and fully availed herself of the collaborative chance encounters that are more the norm than the exception there. From Laurie Anderson to John Zorn to (ahem) Christopher Walken, Gosfield has aided and abetted them all. "Sometimes people are difficult and sometimes people are demanding," she reflects, "but if you really believe in your collaborator's art, it's still worth pursing."
Get a crash course in the engaging and challenging compositions of Annie Gosfield this Friday night; from punk bands to immersive operas, it's been one hell of a journey. "I came up playing live and I come from a family of musicians. So the physical experience of playing music is very important to me," she says. "I wouldn't be who I am as a composer if I hadn't started as a performer."