“Certainly color carried me away. I sacrificed form to it almost unconsciously.”
- Pierre Bonnard
“Did you ever get into the art scene and buy anything?”
- One young man to another in Soho
Around Spring of 2017 I attended a concert in Greenpoint in a loft called Pineapple Reality. It was the home of artist/composer/musician Ka Baird and her partner, multimedia artist Camilla Padgitt-Coles. I was fascinated by Ka and her music/soundscapes/concepts. I began to attend her gigs, and then after we were introduced by a mutual friend, poet Cat Tyc, I got to gig there myself the following year. After experiencing an extraordinary concert by Ka at the Fridman Gallery’s new location on the Bowery, I asked her if she would be willing to do an interview. Here are the results.
Steve Dalachinsky (Rail): When did you arrive in New York and what were some of the beginnings of your musical ideas?
Ka Baird: I officially relocated from Madison, Wisconsin in November 2014. Before Madison I spent many years in Chicago where my long running project, Spires That In The Sunset Rise, formed in 2001.
For 15 years that was my main priority. It was once a four piece ensemble and continues in a current collaboration with Taralie Peterson. Described by the late guitar god Jack Rose as a “female Sun City Girls,” Spires started out as a wild take on the new folk movement of the aughts that incorporated more experimental influences and unorthodox approaches, resulting in some kind of Raincoats meets Comus meets Captain Beefheart meets Harry Partch kind of sound. The band experimented with a battalion of instruments—voice, guitar, banjo, zither, mbira, spike fiddle, cello, harmonium, flute, saxophone, drums, etc—most of which we all taught ourselves to play, figuring out our own approaches—I’ve had training on piano and flute and Taralie on cello and saxophone—including alternate tunings, odd restringings, banging on instruments’ bodies, and putting contact mics in strange places and running them through various effects pedals. We routinely traded instruments and constantly shifted roles. What resulted was an extremely raw sound that created a very devoted following as well as a boatload of mainstream haters. Perhaps aptly, we were often described as “witches” by the press in our earlier days because of our wild vocals and obtuse, esoteric approach to songwriting.
Rail: Give the readers some insight into your musical background/training. Do you consider yourself a composer, performer, musician, in any particular order?
Baird: When I was a kid I took piano lessons and played flute in the school band but was a royal terror in terms of rules and practicing. I was incredibly impatient with my parents and hated being told what to do. I was one of those kids who was an angel at school and in other public places but was a complete monster at home.
If I felt my instincts pulling me toward the piano I would do my lesson, and in addition write and sing lyrics to Mozart and then go off and improvise or write my own songs. I loved instruments from an early age, they were like candy to me. I wanted to play them all.
My resistance to structure or any particular tradition kept me away from formal musical training post-high school. I went to art school instead. Even there I felt like I malfunctioned. At the time I needed space and massive amounts of independence. Now I can see how deeply beneficial a community is but at the time I just needed to be a solitary weirdo and make lots of mistakes.
Over the past couple of years, I think it is fair to say that I identify most as a performer. It is there where the real exchange happens. The instruments are just tools for providing an experience. The experience feels like both a responsibility and a purge, and it is becoming more physical and embodied. Each set I play I yearn to create a deeper sound world that I can lose myself in, and this yearning has become my modus operandi—the catharsis of performance and the ability to create a sound in which I can do that.
I have mastered my tools over the past 20 years of playing and know exactly when I need to be in control and when I can completely let go. My previous years of identifying as a musician pay off in that respect.
Rail: What instruments or non-instruments do you prefer? What medium/language do you incorporate into your performances?
Baird: Again, the instruments are just tools I am not interested in any kind of tradition, style, virtuosity, mastery of any kind. Perhaps a performance might have elements of these (and I certainly have a base of musicianship) but it is never the point. I do not follow any kind of set of rules or non-rules of any school and am a disciple of no one.
My guidelines are always changing—that line I learned in high school of Emerson “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” rings in my brain. Right now, I am anti-melody, into the noise. The point is focus, heart, and intention.
Rail: You give so much of yourself and become so involved in your performances that at times you’ve hurt and challenged your body unintentionally. What is your purpose for this near hyper-energy, or is it just a natural part of what you do?
Baird: I am still learning my limits and how to access/find those sweet spots of mindless control. Plus I have developed this two-microphone technique that requires a lot of precision, and if I lose focus even for a moment or exert too much energy I will club myself in the mouth.
My performances are definitely materializing as this “hyper-energy” right now, a total maximalist approach. I can conjecture that my impetus is some kind of response to the macrocosm, a defiant feminism, an overcompensation of some kind, some personal definition of exorcism and thought clearing—something akin to ecstatic ritual/dance. Some might even call it possession. But whatever you want to call it, it’s just another tool in my attempts to be immediate and present in a live situation. Presence is everything to me. My performances could be interpreted as some kind of externalized reaction to so many passive situations in life, where we are half in, half out. I am a total control freak. I demand and desire all of my audience’s attention. I am not sure if that makes me an egoist or incredibly generous.
Rail: Who are some of your influences?
Baird: I have been inspired by so much over the years it is hard to contain. In terms of voice work, such titans as Yoko Ono, Diamanda Galas, Joan La Barbara, Catherine Ribeiro. In terms of performance, Nina Simone, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Don Cherry. In terms of focus, Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros, Maryanne Amacher. In terms of vision, Kraftwerk, Henry Flynt, The Slits, Tony Conrad, Sun Ra, Moondog. In terms of noise, Keiji Haino, the Boredoms, The Haters, plus music from elsewhere, like the flute music of New Guinea and the music/vocal stylings of the Burundi. We could go on...
Rail: Describe as best you can what it is you do and set out to accomplish.
Baird: Experimentation and failure are my biggest inspirations. Allowing myself to fail allows me to take risks that allow me to push boundaries or try things out that may or may not work. For my solo stuff I work hard in the practice space to create the containers in which I can perform in. With improvisation (by myself or with others) it is a basic trust that I or we can communicate something.My practice revolves around my obsession with this idea of balance between precision and unrestraint.
Rail: What is the objective of your series Pineapple Reality? It is certainly one of the most comfortable situations I have ever gigged in or listened to.
Baird: When I lived in Madison I was trying to set up a show for a friend and was struggling to find the right venue when it all of a sudden occurred to me, why the fuck did I not host this musician at my living space, then a house with a spacious common room. So I did and it ended up being such a positive experience.
After years of touring and playing shows, I know what a touring musician appreciates. And while of course formal venues have their place (stellar sound systems, broader draw, etc.) they also can be cold, bland, and sterile. So I was determined to create an antidote to that. I wanted to provide a warm, communal personal space that was not about meeting costs or paying employees but instead completely artist and community focused. It is a gift to my community. When I moved to NYC I was lucky enough to also move into a space with my girlfriend Camilla Padgitt-Coles where I could continue to do this. Our series happens four times a year, seasonally, and I curate it with an intergenerational emphasis.
Rail: What are your aesthetic goals and ideals?
Baird: My aesthetic goals are to remain true to myself yet constantly challenge. To interrogate systems and question authority, to spit out what I receive but also to transform what I gorge into something that helps not only myself but hopefully others to create new passageways of thinking, feeling, being.
Rail: What are your plans for future?
Baird: I will be releasing a record through the Brooklyn based label RVNG Intl this fall and will be touring extensively in the fall and early 2020 in support of it. Along with the voice and acoustic instruments, this record features more electronics than any record I have ever released. The album in many ways revolves around some expanded, very personal definition of “breathwork,” both real and simulated throughout the album. It is an aggressively physical album.
Outside of that, I am seeking further commissions for more extensive works and want to keep exploring improvisation further. I want to create sound installations and play within them.
Rail: Thanks Ka. So, folks keep those ears peeled. Don’t let the listening ever stop.