Interview with Sarah Belle Reid
Discussing New Album Underneath and Sonder
Sarah Belle Reid is an uncommon sort of musician—a composer, performer, and instrument designer whose work embraces technology with a strong focus on intuition, uncertainty, and the embodied relationship between performer and instrument. Her music has been described as sounding like everything from interstellar travel and pits of centipedes to falling silk...and given the sonic breadth of her debut album Underneath and Sonder, none of these descriptors feel unwarranted. She performs with a balance of meditated severity and curiosity that keeps listeners on the edge of their seats—and this intensity and depth remains evident in the context of her recordings.
Reid is perhaps best-known for her work combining trumpet and electronics, including use of an electronically augmented trumpet called MIGSI, which she uses to control everything from laptop and modular synthesizers to the activation of light bulbs. But beyond this, she also creates graphic scores, music for chamber ensemble, and much more. In light of the recent release of her new album, we decided to ask Sarah about her ideas and workflow—learning a lot about graphic notation, instrument design, and improvisation along the way.
Background: Performing with Electronics
Perfect Circuit: It's rare that we talk with musicians who are so deeply involved in performing with both acoustic and electronic instruments—in fact, people often tell us that working with electronics was their "way out" of performing with acoustic instruments! Which came first for you? How long have you been working with each?
Sarah Belle Reid: For me, acoustic instruments definitely came first. I started playing the piano when I was about 4 years old, and a few years after that—I think I was about 6 or 7—I picked up with trumpet. I played in school bands and orchestras, sang in choirs, and had a very classically-focused musical education as a young person. It wasn't until much later on when I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in music, that I started to be introduced to electronic music and music technology. It wasn't until a couple years after that, even, that I actually had my first experience working hands-on with electronics. At that point I was living out in California, in the first year of my graduate studies at CalArts.
I remember that first hands-on experience very clearly, because it was unlike anything I had ever done before in music. I was hearing and creating so many new sounds for the first time, and my mind was reeling at the possibilities within this incredible new sound world I had just discovered. I wouldn't say, however, that electronic music was my "way out" of performing with acoustic instruments... for me, I think it actually strengthened my relationship and practice with the trumpet. It opened up a new vocabulary for me on the horn, pushed me to develop new facility and technique, and really inspired me to re-evaluate my relationship with the instrument and its potential for sound-making.
PC: My understanding is that you had a fairly classically-oriented training—but these days, it seems like you're mostly doing work in between free improvisation, noise, and computer music. Do you feel like there was a specific point at which your music started to change directions?
SBR: It's tricky to pinpoint a specific moment that my music started to change direction. When I think back on it, it feels more like a string of dozens and dozens of interactions and collaborations with different people and musicians that really shaped the direction that I have gone and who I am today. Toward the end of my undergraduate studies in Montreal, all I was interested in doing was collaborating with composers who were either outside of my program at school or were working and living in the city. I was craving new perspectives, I guess. I'm not totally sure what sparked that motivation, but I quickly realized how fruitful these collaborations could be. It was about more than creating a new piece of music—It was about being pushed waaay beyond my comfort zone, and the growth that comes with that.
PC: What inspired you to start working with electronics in your music? Was there any particular music you were listening to or any particular ideas you were exploring that started to lean you that direction?
SBR: Those collaborations eventually led me to meet and work with two very important people in my life. The first is a composer and performer named Justin Scheid, who I met on my very first day of studies at CalArts. Justin wrote me a piece called Vertical for trumpet and interactive electronics that was programmed in Max/MSP. That was not only my first experience ever performing live with electronics, but it was also my first exposure to Max. Shortly after that I formed a trumpet and modular synth duo with Ryan Gaston, called Burnt Dot. I had never seen or played a modular synth before, so that was pretty incredible for me.
I discovered that I really liked working with physical hardware, and started playing around with sensors and basic breadboard circuits to make LEDs blink and control goofy synthesis patches with light sensitive resistors, and so on. Then I had the idea to try and create some kind of electronically augmented trumpet, to add the hardware and sensors onto my horn so I could interact with them while playing. That was the beginning of what would turn into MIGSI.
PC: And I guess one of the big questions to address regarding your solo music...what is MIGSI?
SBR: MIGSI is a device that I co-developed with Ryan Gaston—MIGSI stands for the Minimally Invasive Gesture Sensing Interface for trumpet. It is a sensor-based interface that attaches onto my trumpet and, using a series of different types of sensors, extracts gestural information from me and the horn as I'm playing it. So for example, MIGSI can sense the tilt of my instrument as I'm playing or the movement of my valves as I press them up and down, or the tension of my left hand that is wrapping around the horn as I'm holding it. Ryan and I refer to MIGSI as an augmented trumpet, and we were really interested in building this horn as a way of bridging these two worlds that we were both so fascinated with, the electronic music world and the acoustic trumpet world.
Having spent so much of my life developing a practice with the acoustic trumpet, it was really important to me to be able to maintain that part of things, while simultaneously expanding the capabilities of the instrument into new territory. So the original design goal behind MIGSI was to build something minimal that could be used to extract useful data without getting in the way of the playability of the trumpet.
The hardware component of MIGSI that attaches onto my trumpet doesn't actually create any sound itself. Instead, the data from the sensors is collected in real time (by an Arduino) and sent over to a computer that is most typically running MaxMSP. At that point the data is scaled, parsed and mapped to create sound, or to generate MIDI or OSC data. It can also be converted into control voltage to modulate a patch on an analog synthesizer. Ryan and I have developed a multi-purpose program we call the MIGSI application (built in MaxMSP) that allows us to do a lot of sound processing and synthesis.
Order and Chaos in Underneath and Sonder
PC: Your debut solo album Underneath & Sonder was recently released on pfMENTUM Records. For lack of better words...it's insane. Everything from sparse scuttling sounds to showers of noise and huge drones—what are we hearing on Underneath & Sonder? What kind of setup did you use to make it?
SBR: Thank you! Underneath and Sonder is recorded using MIGSI, so everything that you're hearing on that record is trumpet and electronics. In addition to playing trumpet the "normal" way, I really love exploring all of the sound worlds you can achieve by putting a microphone inside the trumpet and using your breath, voice, lips, and tongue to create all kinds of swooshes, clicks and pops. Actually, a lot of those sounds can be really similar to electronic spits and gurgles, which is why I think I'm so drawn to them.
PC: What was the process of recording this album like? Was it purely improvised, or planned ahead of time? Or was it assembled mostly in the studio?
SBR: I recorded the entire album live in one take, as though it were a performance. We multi-tracked everything and then spent a generous amount of time in the studio balancing various voices, fine tuning the spatialization of sounds, and so on, but the performance of the piece was kept as a true representation of what happened in the moment. The music was somewhere right in between being deeply composed and fully improvised... because MIGSI is simultaneously an acoustic and an electronic instrument, I think it inspires some pretty unique approaches to composing. There was a lot of time spent up front working on the electronics side of things: how the sensors should be mapped, to what degree of control, and also what the synthesized sound world would be like. From there I spent a lot of time just improvising within that setup, exploring the interactions and finding compelling ways to navigate around different states. When I got into the studio, however, I kind of just forgot about all the pre-planning and let my ears guide me. Some of the nicest moments in the album were actually the result of completely unexpected tangents and little musical leaps of faith.
PC: Some parts of the album have a really striking sense of balance between order and chaos. It makes us wonder about just how much of the music is directly intentional, and how much of it is about chance and reaction. Can you talk about the balance between control and randomness in this album?
SBR: Yes! I actually feel like that teetering balance between order and chaos is one of the underpinning ideas of this record. There's something that I find really fascinating about bringing yourself musically to a point where things feel uncomfortable the wheels are just about to fall off, where you're not entirely sure how you're going to keep going. It might sound strange, that is the place that I try to get to every time I pick up my instrument. In the moment it feels crazy, but you go for it anyways and linger there for just a little longer than feels comfortable, to see what kind of things emerge.
MIGSI is also designed to operate on this line between control and unpredictability. On the one hand, we wanted the instrument to be playable and repeatable, while on the other hand, we wanted it to surprise us and occasionally even "talk back." One of the things that we discovered early on working with MIGSI was that direct one-to-one mappings of data weren't very interesting. For example, if every time I lift my trumpet up or press down a valve the exact same thing happens at precisely the same time, things get pretty predictable quickly. So we started to nudge things around a bit to create more interesting interactions, by delaying information, creating nonlinear feedback loops, and generally just adding in a bit more chaos. At this point, I feel like MIGSI has a really nice balance between these things, allowing me to perform with intention and execute specific things when needed, while always keeping me on my toes.
PC: The video for "Sonder III" is outrageous. It's like equal parts Tony Martin oil projection, radio static, and the ending sequences from 2001...what's the story with that video?
SBR: The video was created by the wonderful filmmaker Vicente Manzano. When he first heard my music I think he said something to me like, "that was the weirdest, trippiest thing I have ever heard, but it brought so many images to my mind." When I had the idea of creating a video for this track, I instantly thought about Vicente—I was so curious to know what kind of images would appear once he listened to it, so I gave him full creative freedom to do whatever he wanted. I'm so happy I did, because the result is just out of this world.
PC: In your own words, what is Underneath & Sonder about? It feels to me like an extended sonic journey. Where can listeners expect to go, and how best can they prepare for travel?
SBR: It also feels like a journey to me, but I'm not sure it's one with a definable narrative or path. I think it's different for each person. For me personally it has a lot to do with vulnerability, and how visceral and powerful it can be. For others, I've been told, it's a depiction of intergalactic battles. As with anything, I think it's best to approach it with open ears and an open mind. And maybe a lava lamp.
Instrument Design, Notation, and Beyond
PC: I think it's safe to call MIGSI its own instrument—one that you've been playing for a while now, and have clearly developed facility playing. Can share any insights about what it's like to work so much with a new instrument of your own design? How did making music with MIGSI change from the time you built it to the time you recorded this album?
SBR: That's a really great question. I think it's important because a lot of the time when people see an instrument like MIGSI they're only seeing the most recent, polished version. It can be hard to imagine how to get all the way to that end goal when the individual steps aren't visible, but it's important to remember that every project has to begin somewhere. The development of MIGSI, for example, has been ongoing for the last 5 years, and will likely continue to be ongoing for many more years to come (if I'm lucky!). It started as a funny sketch, some foam board, and a few sensors stuck onto a breadboard, and gradually—very gradually—grew into the instrument it is now. And even now, it has a long way to go. Also, even though I designed the instrument, I still needed to learn how to play it! That has been a big part of this journey for me. I wish I could say that you get some kind of psychic "instant virtuoso" power when you play an instrument of your own design, but that isn't the case. I would say that it was only in the last couple of years that MIGSI really started to feel like an instrument that I could express myself on. It takes time, but it's so worth it.
Early pieces for MIGSI were focused around interfacing the trumpet with a laptop running Max/MSP, but recently this setup has been explored and expanded a bit. In one of these experiments we converted the sensor data from MIGSI into control voltage and used it to influence a highly chaotic patch on an old paper face Serge modular synthesizer. Left to its own devices, the synth was super noisy and intense, but when data from the trumpet was introduced, things would start to settle and find pitch centers. This might sound a little backwards from a typical application of external control, but I found it to be extremely satisfying to perform with—instead of using the modulation sources to increase activity and inject variation into an otherwise fairly static patch, it felt more like I was having to wrangle and coax this wild instrument into cooperation. It pushed me into a heightened state of focus and listening.
Another fun experiment was composing a piece in which MIGSI controls a room full of mechatronic percussion instruments at CalArts. The instruments were all MIDI and OSC addressable, so routed the incoming sensor data through Max/MSP and converted it all into OSC messages to control what was essentially an orchestra’s worth of robot drums. We put envelope followers on the sensor data to detect not only their current values but also an average level of activity over a certain period of time—this allowed us to get a crude measurement of the relative persistence of different musical gestures, which we then mapped to different drums around the room.
I wish I could bring all of these instruments with me to every show I play, but sadly, I’ve had to come up with some more portable setups for whenever I’m playing solo shows on the road. These days, my typical setup includes some combination of MIGSI, my laptop computer (running a multi-purpose modular program built in Max/MSP that we have dubbed “The MIGSI Application”), the Sensel Morph MIDI controller with the Buchla Thunder Overlay, and a very small modular synthesizer setup (such as a Hordijk Benjolin, a filter, and/or a Buchla 258, and an Expert Sleepers ES-8 to get signals from my computer in and out of the synth).
PC: We also have to take note of your unique form of musical notation. We've seen on your website and other sources these beautiful constellations of colors and geometric structures—what led you to turn toward using this type of notation? Was your album created using a score like this?
SBR: I feel like I have always been preoccupied with aspects of music and sound that aren't easily communicated through traditional musical notation—things like the density of a sound, or how its spectral profile changes over time. I'm also really interested in how musical notation can direct performers to reflect inward, and how it can create multiway influence not only between individual performers and their instruments, but among performers in an ensemble, and potentially even listeners. I have been developing my own notational language over the last five years of so that focuses on ideas like memory, temporal perspective, performative intention, and presence. I'm also really inspired by the idea of composing for any and all instruments, regardless of whether they're acoustic, electronic, pitch-based, noise-based, commercially made, or fabricated from found objects and crazy glue. I find that working with more pictographic notation like this helps to bridge those worlds and find a common ground.
I created one of these scores to accompany my album (it is included inside the sleeve of the CD), with the hope that others would be inspired to try exploring it in their own way. There are no instructions included, and that's because for this piece there are no wrong answers. It's really about exploration and sincerity.
PC: Many of the people orbiting in the electronic music sphere have gotten used to acting solely as performer-composers. Working with electronics makes it possible for a single musician to pull off truly remarkable feats—to the point where many electronic musicians operate outside the realm of collaboration. It seems like you have yourself positioned between both of those worlds...so what is it like to on one hand operate as a performer-composer, and on the other to act as a composer whose work is performed by others?
SBR: For me, this whole journey started with collaboration, and I think it will always be such an important part of my process. I will say, it still blows my mind to hear a piece I composed brought to life by another performer or ensemble—seeing and hearing it from their perspective, shaped by their experiences and lives—is so inspiring. I'm so grateful to be able to compose for others as well as perform my own music. They both fuel me in different ways.
PC: One of the coolest things you do has to be your involvement in the community of your fans. You have a really spectacular way of engaging with your audience even outside of performances—from tutorial videos and open discussions about technique to much more involved interactive projects. And despite the somewhat "outsider" nature of your music, people seem consistently excited and engaged. Are people hungry for weirdness? What are some of the coolest ways people have been engaging with your music?
SBR: Yes! I think people are hungry... for weirdness, maybe, but also for new ideas, new information, and inspiration. I love that I can share a totally weird video about no-input mixing techniques and then have great in-depth conversations with people who have gone and tried it out for themselves and are bursting with excitement about it! That is just so cool. In general, this community has always been so open-minded and excited, and I feel so lucky to be a part of it.
I think one of the most exciting ways that people are engaging with my music currently is through the Postcard Project, a collaboration I run through my Patreon page. I create handmade graphic scores on the backs of postcards and send one out to each participant. They get to interpret and perform the piece on any instrument, in any way they want, and then can send me back a postcard score of their own making. Since each score is made specifically for each participant, these postcard exchanges become something like a sonic conversation, often spanning many months and many countries.
I also very recently started a private Discord server for my Patron community, with a special channel called the "Zone of Exploration." It's a place for folks to share things they're creating that they want feedback on, or to find/share inspiration on different projects with everyone. I'm involved in it, of course, but the really beautiful thing is that there are also so many other unique perspectives in the group and it's really becoming about the hive mind/community. I'm really excited to continue growing these two projects in the future.
Oh, and by the way! If anyone reading this is interested in joining either of these projects, I definitely invite you to check it out.
PC: And some questions we can't help but ask—where are you looking for inspiration these days? Any artists you're listening to? Books you're reading? Places you're remembering?
SBR: These days I am deeply engrossed in the subject of temporal perception, time travel, and black holes. I recommend The Order of Time (Carlo Rovelli) and The Little Book of Black Holes (Steven S. Gubser & Frans Pretorius) as two entertaining and inspiring places to start.
PC: What can we expect next? Any other forthcoming shows, recordings, installations, new instruments, etc?
SBR: Actually, speaking of time travel, I am currently working on an electroacoustic "opera" that centers upon three characters who are navigating their way through a series of tangled timelines, parallel universes, and cracks in the fabric of time. It features an ensemble of incredible musicians playing an assortment of acoustic instruments, analog electronics, and a slew of noise-makers and homemade instruments (including myself on trumpet and electronics). The piece premieres on March 25, 2020 at CalArts, so mark your calendars!
Main image photo credit: ThrasherPhoto