Name: Geneva Skeen
Occupation: Composer, Sound artist
Current Release: A Parallel Array Of Horses on Room40
Musical Recommendations: Julie Tolentino’s “Honey.” Roarke Menzies’ “Corporeal.”
If you enjoyed this interview with Geneva Skeen, check out more of her music on her bandcamp page.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I could say that the first piece of music production I ever did was in sixth grade––I was obsessed with capturing that baby cooing sample in Aaliyah’s ‘Are You That Somebody?’ off the radio. I had a blank cassette in my boombox and would record and copy that particular sound every time I heard the song until eventually I had a whole cassette filled with just that sound. Looking back, that’s obsessive and maybe a little overly-detail oriented... But in general, I played music traditionally since childhood. I started on piano at 5, played various woodwinds through high school and college, and started voice training around 15––but I never wanted to play the way my teachers wanted me to and I hated music theory and technique. I loved leaving my foot on the sustain pedal and begged my voice instructor to teach me how to get my voice to sound rough. I found production in my early twenties as a way of actualizing the bigger-picture compositions for multiple voices that I’d started imagining but had trouble articulating to other individuals in an ensemble due to their abstract shapes. Sound has always been my expressive relational tool, one that both allows for and side-steps language, an ambivalence I embrace fully.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Learning is an action-oriented and kinesthetic activity for me, so most of my learning happens through doing. At the same time, I’ve got a pretty ravenous sense of curiosity. Thus, I’ve gone through a number of stages in finding my artistic voice. The most important turn was toward the studio and away from the performance ensemble. I realized at some point in the late ‘00s that the potency and tone of what I was trying to compose was getting lost in translation, so I figured I needed to spend some time experimenting with the kinds of sounds I wanted to build into my artistic vocabulary. The only way to do that was to spend time alone. Friends and mentors like Yann Novak and Robert Crouch gave me some used gear and a lot of playlists. In between playing around with software, loop and delay pedals, contact mics, and my own made-up extended vocal techniques I found the details I’d been missing, but also realized how much I relished working in the studio. It afforded me time to listen to myself, and to things I could learn from, replicate, permutate, etc.
What were your main compositional and production challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The big learning curve was switching from acoustic ensembles and instrumentation/voice into electronic- and computer-based production. I don’t consider myself exceptionally technical, though I adapt quickly. Still, I think about sound more abstractly, so my most frequent hang-up is getting caught in the world of ideas as opposed to trying out a system for sound-making that might express those ideas. Just getting the figurative paint on the canvas is sometimes the main challenge. Once I get going and start pushing and pulling materials around, things move pretty fast.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
Four out of my five “studios” have been spaces at home, and I’ve found this works best for me. My first studio was very much a corner of my bedroom, and most often it wasn’t even as organized as all that. Once I got my shit up off the floor and onto desks, it felt a little more “professional.” Even so, I like to drag things around, away from sitting in a chair at a desk, and onto the floor or pacing around the room. As I delved more into technology, I’ve bought software and hardware modular bits and pieces, but I’ll also admit that much of my studio is inherited or free. I’m cheap, but also kinda poor, but have managed to rephrase this into “my creative process is at its best when working with a limited palette.” Ableton and my Jez Riley French contact mic maintain their position as the top two most important pieces of gear I have. While I use my Sony PCM-D50 a lot, I use recordings from my iPhone just as often.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Technology helps keep my shit organized, which can get a little scattered depending on what size frame I’m looking through on a project. The micro level is always taken care of by my ear, and technology truly helps me fine-tune what I’m trying to get. But on the macro level, tech helps me move larger parts around, discover new electronic sounds, and test out the layers I would otherwise have to commit to with much greater effort were I working only in tape. Technology, in some ways, functions as the ensemble I’d always wanted––one in which the communication is tighter and more intuitive, and less personally exhausting. I’d love to work with a human ensemble again someday, and certainly have that as a near goal, but that experience will be buoyed by my technological toolset and vocabulary 100%.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
My voice and the recordings I make out in the world lend themselves well to granular synthesis, delay, and transposition. I am very excited about playing around with the new version of Max some more, as I’ve been trying to pull details from jitter patches of video snippets I take at field recording sites into the audio recordings to complicate the idea of a soundscape.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Sharing literature is often the way in which conversations get started in my world, though conversations about records and live performance also instigate intellectual exchange. I love living in a city with so many friends making work that, at the risk of sounding corny, truly inspires me. Every show I go to in Los Angeles leaves me with something to think about or an idea to try out in the studio.