Susie Ibarra: Approaching Wholeness

The drummer, composer, and sound artist’s new album is a world of timbre, tone, and time. But it’s a world within a world, representing only one of her forays into understanding, illuminating, and ultimately healing our endangered planet.

It’s been a tough couple weeks for drummers, with the passing of the iconic jazz and fusion keyboardist Chick Corea on the 9th, and three days later the death of avant-garde rhythmatist and thinker Milford Graves. Corea, a drummer of certain skills himself, had created opportunities for performative profundity by the likes of Lenny White, Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl, Jeff Ballard, Vinnie Colaiuta, Marcus Gilmore, Roy Haynes, Jack DeJohnette — giants all. Kit players the world over seemed to inherently understand the heaviness of the loss. Graves was something else entirely— different from Corea, different from pretty much everyone. Though not without enviable recording and live credits, Milford was just as revered for his broad intellectual interests, his fearless individualism, and the rare and completely natural way he brought mind, body, and spirit together in his music. As drummer/inventor Guy Licata told On the Drums…, “He was just this singular alien being, with no real contemporaries. And he gave zero f**ks.”

While it’s hard to imagine the sunny and sophisticated Ibarra, a protégé of Graves, choosing quite the same shade of vernacular as Licata, she would no doubt agree with his assessment. Like Graves, Ibarra’s worldview is so wide and deep, and her conversations about the intersections of myriad artistic, societal, and scientific disciplines so engrossing, it’s easy to forget what a dang monster she is at the drums.

Susie’s latest album, Talking Gong, is an ideal example of her musical gifts — her compositional boldness, her staggering extended drum techniques, and her ability to ease indigenous tones and rhythms into modern music so frictionlessly that it seems less a feature of her music than a part of its DNA. The way Ibarra orchestrates and frees the piano/flutes/percussion lineup on Talking Gong goes even further toward making it such a satisfying sound. Often the lines separating her drumset, gongs, and percussion from Claire Chase’s flute playing or Alex Peh’s keyboard work are nearly inaudible. Each player squeezes, wrings, and coaxes so much tone and temperament from their axe, without the benefit of visual aides it’s impossible — and due to Ibarra’s hypnotic writing, somehow undesirable — to ID any particular source at any particular time. This is complete music. Milford would no doubt rejoice.

On the Drums… spoke to Ibarra from her home in New York’s Hudson Valley.

OTD: How have you been faring in the age of COVID?

Susie: I think I’m lucky. We need creative spaces — part of the whole organic community is that we need to be in different spaces where creativity feeds, regardless of what stage you’re in as an artist. I can work, but what about artists just starting out? We need those beautiful things that I feel are essential for our lives, creative spaces where things happen. How do we find those spaces?

OTD: Some music translates better to virtual concerts online. A raging rock show — something’s lost when you’re watching from your laptop.

Susie: Oh, yeah. To have a video concert, it has to be about different things. I work with a variety of videographers and film makers. And before COVID I was slated to do all these albums. Though then it actually grew, with these collaborative releases. That’s always fun.

OTD: Have you done recordings where you had to be in a room with other musicians and test yourselves for the virus beforehand?

Susie: For the Talking Gong release we decided we were going to do a video release instead of a live stream. We weren’t going to deal. Also, I have two bands, a trio and a sextet, and because of the pandemic, everybody’s not in the same place. It used to be everybody was in the New York City area and I was the one who lived upstate. But because of COVID, one player is in California, another is in Florida, the electronic musician is way upstate, I’m in New Paltz, the vocalist is in Brooklyn…. That album is coming out in April, and it’s spirituals that I wrote for Makoto Fujimora’s paintings. They’re called Walking in Water. He uses this traditional Japanese Nihonga technique. It’s so beautiful. So these are kind of responses to each other, my painting and his music. But that was tough, that one.

With the trio, we were able to record in a five-hundred-seat hall. But we musicians tested, and the tech people, recorders, and video people tested. Because that is a small ensemble, we were able to spread out. For the premiere of the work [in 2018], luckily I had a video beautifully shot. For the solo pieces, that was one thing, but we had a couple trio pieces that we video-recorded just a few weeks ago in January, before the release. The pianist and I were masked and the flutist obviously was not. The first time you have to do these things it feels weird, but this is a situation where we’ll look back and say, it was just a period and we were a part of it. And of course we want to keep creating and moving forward, and we want everybody safe.

OTD: You’ve done a series of sound libraries for Splice.

Susie: I have a new one coming out in March on water rhythms. For the recording I also play Sunhouse’s Sensory Percussion system. They sent me this gear and I was like, I don’t know what this learning curve is going to be, but I got it done! [laughs] I was on deadline to deliver 236 sounds and loops and one-shots and soundscapes and effects.

It’s fun. What I like about Sensory Percussion is that every time I’ve heard people use it, they all sound different. And I thought, that’s a brilliant piece of gear. It makes them sound like themselves. And it enhances their ideas and what they want to do on the kit.

I thought it was going to be about one thing, and then it turned out to be another thing. I was making certain beats and loops, though I still ended up editing them. But you can do all sorts of things with it. You can trigger on all different parts of the skin and the rims and the shells and assign all these different sounds. I played some with mesh heads and then some with my acoustic kit. So that’s also different, when you mix your acoustic sounds with your programmed sounds, or if you’re playing completely with programmed sounds. I like both. Certain quick-cut beat stuff that I would play for these packs, it actually was not from Sensory Percussion, it was from how I would normally think about playing. But it’s really a beautiful piece of equipment. I remember when the drummer who first introduced me to it, Greg Fox, said to me, “I feel like it’s the invention of the amp for drummers.”

OTD: Given that you can trigger different sounds from different parts of the drum, how did that relate to your natural way of playing?

Susie: It made me play differently. Even on the bass drum I can have different sounds depending on the dynamics, [whether the hit was] muted or open. Sometimes there would be a glitch and I’d be like, I was trying to trigger this, but I got this other sound. [laughs] Maybe it was because I ended up assigning a lot of sounds. I basically assigned the whole kit. You don’t assign cymbals. But yeah, it changed my playing in so many ways. Oh, I have a new instrument here, so I have to play differently. I have to make sure I get that rimshot on this part of the stick instead of this part. So there was some awkwardness with that. I had to rearrange some sounds, or take away some sounds because it was too busy. But it feels really natural as drummers to have the ability to trigger soundscapes on our instrument.

OTD: How did you come to work with Splice?

Susie: I was introduced to Splice by people who had a lot of extended technique. I love textures and I love sounds, always playing extensions off of certain rhythms but painting them with different sounds. When I was in a residency at Pioneer Works, researching rhythms and polyrhythms, I had access to their wonderful studio. And while I was there I was introduced to a producer at Splice, Josh Robertson, and I started working with them. I first released two Soundpacks on their Splice Originals series. I went into the studio and played a lot of my extended sounds. So composers and producers, creators, and anybody can play my drum and percussion sounds. For the second one of experimental percussion we made templates. There are electronic instruments, a lot of instruments made in Ableton, so you can play my sounds but built-in instruments as well.

Then I did a Soundpack in the Himalayas, and it had a lot of water sounds. I didn’t alter too much on that one because it’s kind of extraordinary how much water can sound like electronic music. You might think, Is that effected? But no, I just edited that natural sound.

And then I just did one that was off of the project Listening to Climate Change. It’s based off of five water towers we’d been recording in the Indian Himalayas. I recorded at the source of the Ganges, where they still have a lot of river culture. They really live their lives along the river. And we recorded in Sikkim, which is just north of India. You fly into Delhi, go through Darjeeling, and head up the mountains into Sikkim. It’s gorgeous there. They’re near the glaciers, but I never knew how much bamboo there was. You’re thinking ice and snow, but it’s also really lush before you get to the inhabited areas. So I didn’t think there would be bamboo sounds there. Tons of bamboo. That’s the home of the rare red panda. But these glacier areas in Sikkim provide fresh water. Something like two percent of the earth’s water is fresh water, and 99 percent of that comes from glaciers.

[Glaciologist and climate scientist] Michele Koppes and I have been recording and mapping this at Easton Glacier in Washington state and the Blackcomb glacier outside of Vancouver. And then Michele was at the Greenland ice sheets. She got some fantastic sounds from there. And then I recorded these two sets of archives in India and Sikkim. We’re slated to go back to India, but recently there was an avalanche at the top of the Ganges, so we’re on pause. Michele is dealing with an international hazard expert team to help figure out why this was caused — was this a landslide, was this a lake burst? — so that they can predict if there are other events that are going to happen. National Geographic Storytellers is supporting that field research, their sound and science team.

The Himalayas is a spectacular place. It’s just so beautiful, and the people are really gentle in the mountains.

OTD: My wife and I traveled to Bhutan many years ago, and everything was as you describe.

Susie: Oh, how wonderful! Yes, right next to Sikkim. I could see the Tiger’s Nest [sacred Buddhist site] from there. I actually have an album coming out with a Bhutanese guitarist, Tashi Dorji. He was in Asheville, but now he’s in the mountains outside of Asheville. I was like, “Tashi, you have to find the mountains!” [laughs] It’s from a live show, and it’s coming out on Astral Spirits. But I really want to go to Bhutan, it seems incredible. Just being outside in nature all day, recording sounds, feels so meditational. Literally listening to water all day and recording it, and that’s all I’m focused on, with the hydrophones [underwater mics], I feel clean afterwards.

Right now I’m studying rhythm and birds. And I’m convinced that they’re some of the first drummers. There’s also obviously a lot of pitch and melody and how they double all that stuff in octaves. But they can make very rhythmic sounds, it’s like rudiments. I think, where were those people when they were writing those drum rudiments? It must have been around a little bird. [laughs]

OTD: Besides your climate recordings being an intellectual interest of yours, do you hope to achieve anything specific with your music by making the connections to nature?

Susie: I didn’t originally have that intention. I think it started with conversations. I have a lot of scientist friends, and I tend to gravitate towards that. I feel like the science and art practices have a lot of parallels. Scientists are always interested in how it moves through music, at least the scientists that I’ve met. And I’m always interested in these conversations, so it just kept playing out in a lot of my creative work.

Part of the practice of creating this work is understanding whether this is something I’m going to play, or is it something I’m going to compose, or am I going to create in a multi-disciplinary environment…? It’s part of the research and creative process, and then it just came upon me that it needs to all be put together! [laughs] Oh, there’s a place for it to live. It’s exciting and does resonate with a lot of people, and it both connects and continues a dialog that other artists and scientists have made. But I’m not interested in it being an academic work that is only for certain people. I really want it to be a larger conversation that’s inclusive. Like, who is music for? We’re playing music and we can give inspiration to anybody.

OTD: There certainly seems to be an imperative for all of us to listen to the planet at this point.

Susie: It really is more pressing than ever that we do talk about our environment and the planet. For that to go over our heads, I can’t consciously do that. Especially when you see it affecting people who live in certain areas. But it’s also affecting all of us.

OTD: The title of your new album is Talking Gong, which had me wondering whether you think about percussion differently from how you might consider other instruments in terms of their communicative powers. But one of the wonderful things about the record is how Claire Chase’s flutes are sometimes extremely percussive, and how Alex Peh approaches the piano so physically. Particularly on the title track, it seems like all the instruments have much more in common than they have differences. Is that a conscious decision on your part, is it something you discuss with the other players…?

Susie: I think choosing who you’re going to write and perform with is just as important as creating a new work. That was really telling with this one. This album kind of effortlessly rolled out. There was a commission on the title track, chosen for this trio, where I would write the work for them and we would premiere it, but then it just grew and grew, really a testament to who you choose. Alex was also playing some of my solo works, and then I wrote a solo piece for Claire. And we had other trio pieces that we were playing. I also added a drum solo piece. And then we had an album. And then we realized, we have a band! [laughs]

OTD: I love that you use the word “band.” It’s not something you always think about in new music.

Susie: Yeah! And they became really good friends. So that was just one of those magical things.

OTD: So it sounds like a lot of explicit conversation was not necessary.

Susie: It was very organic, and I completely trusted their sense of musicality and ability to get inside a piece and make it their own, and have it communicate collectively.

OTD: The title track is in many ways the centerpiece. It’s nearly seventeen minutes long, and it contains compositional and improvisational passages. Are you concerned whether a listener knows when either is happening?

Susie: I’m not concerned whether people know a section is through composed or improvised. People can take it in however their experience is. But for the record, “Talking Gong” is composed and then we have moments that are cadenzas and improvisations that might be for solos, or for piano and flute, or I might create a passage that can open up. Because we might hit this area where the rhythm grooves really well — “Oh, let’s open up that part.” When we play more concerts together I think the organic nature of it will grow. Because I often write pieces that have these sections that can move. It doesn’t always have to go in that linear manner, you can tell the story in different places.

For the beginning and ending of the piece I do have number notation. Philippine gong music is written with number notation. It’s eight gongs, and certain sections are playing off of its phrasing. But I asked the other two players to choose their scales, so we’re all playing different scales but we’re playing off the structure of those number sequences. And it works really well. There are atonal moments, but you can hear that we’re all playing these intervals, these kinds of phrases.

OTD: What was your instrumental setup?

Susie: Oh my, for that particular piece I was like, “Who wrote this piece?” [laughs] The setup was so big! It was like a little drum hut. I was playing my four-piece set and cymbals and small percussion, and then I had a whole kulintang ensemble that normally five people would play. It was fun — another contraption, right? Once it’s set up it’s really fun to play. They have to fit exactly so I can hit my kit a certain way and still be able to see the band.

OTD: Where was the album recorded?

Susie: Up at SUNY New Paltz, at the Studley Theater. It has a really nice Steinway piano, so Alex could play on that. And then I brought in Eli Crews. He built Figure 8 studios in Brooklyn, and he has his studio Spillway Sounds in the Catskills. He’s recorded a bunch of my stuff, he’s really fantastic. The “Talking Drum” premiere piece we recorded at Dreamland in Woodstock, and we took it in sections. But the rest was recorded at Studley Theater. Eli mixed it, and then Ryan Streber from Oktaven Audio in Mount Vernon, New York, mastered. So I had a stellar audio team. They’re both excellent engineers. Eli was saying that his rule of thumb is that he doesn’t master anything he records, so that you can have two sets of ears on it.

OTD: How did you go about miking such a large setup?

Susie: The eight-row gongs were in stereo. And Eli has a binaural mic, which has this head that picks up this kind of spacial sound, and he put it right in front of my drumset. He called it Gustav — good stuff. [laughs] And then I also have the stereo mics on top of the binaural mic. Then mics on my snare and toms and kick, and then overheads for the cymbals. We had a mic that was picking up the bass gongs, and they’re hanging. Then my kulintang is stereo miked.

OTD: Were there any overdubs on the recording?

Susie: On the solo flute piece “Sunbird,” Claire did about six tracks playing different lines on different flutes. So that one had overdubs. Everything else, no. “Talking Gong,” since it’s such an intricate piece, we took in sections. It’s wonderful to play it straight through in concert, but on album it’s great to take it in cells, because it’s a lot of sections. But there was no overdubbing, we recorded together.

OTD: How much rehearsal were you able to do ahead of time?

Susie: Well, for the premiere of that work in 2018, we rehearsed a couple of times. We had a premiere up here and a premiere in New York City. [For the album] I went over the score with them before we did rehearsal. Alex took a lot of notes, and I think I did a rehearsal with him before that. But they came in ready to play. Talking again about composition versus improvisation, Alex understood me: “Oh wow, Susie, your parts are scored, but you don’t write them down. But you’re always playing the same part.” And I said yeah, that’s part of the language of drum music, and percussion music. It’s coming out of a lot of oral traditions. There are things that make up that drum composition, it’s just articulated differently. He was like, “Are you improvising this, or are you playing the same part?” And I said, “This part I’m hitting with you,” but I also know when to open it up. I did score it afterwards, for an ensemble or another drummer who wants to play it. But since I’m playing it, I come through an oral tradition.

OTD: The balance and the interaction of the instruments, it gave me the impression that there’s not necessarily a lead instrument.

Susie: Cool, I really appreciate that. That’s a deep observation and goes back to your question about communication. It’s really easy for us to communicate together, this band. That’s why I was like, we’re a band. We can work toward more excellence and great music, but it’s really a gift that we communicate very well together. I think that comes out, and there’s a joy in it.

OTD: My experience has been that the music is better when you really like the people you’re playing with, although we don’t always have that luxury.

Susie: Right. Well, listen, I played in all sorts of situations. I also respect — though I don’t always understand — that tension also creates great art, and I’ve been in ensembles where that’s the case. And then also sometimes in the studio you think, this take felt great, and this one was awkward, but you listen back and go, no, it’s the other way around. And that’s the mystery of tension creating great music and great art. But in the long term, being able to create a body of work, how it develops and grows, yeah, to be with people who you know really want to play music with you, where there’s a really good rapport, is important.

OTD: You’ve taught privately and at the college level for years.

Susie: When the pandemic hit in New York, I left my full-time teaching job, by choice. I have a good relationship with the people at Bennington College and still feel like I’m part of the community. In fact, I’m going to play there in the spring. But I have two jobs, being a professional artist and musician and being a professor, plus I’m a parent, and you can’t be three places at once. The pandemic hit, and my son is a teenager and I didn’t want to get that wrong. I was already feeling a tug, that I was growing into a transition, but the pandemic really helped me make these life decisions.

There was also the tug between me and what the college was growing into. I’m pretty progressive. Musically I was brought in for that. But I think there are struggles that Bennington and other colleges have in terms of competing with conservatories.

I also had a lot of music growing that was pushing against my schedule, as well as my field recording stuff, my climate work…. So I made that decision at the end of last March, and it was right on.

I think my academic work right now has shifted more into research and writing, and I think it’s important I get into this before I go back into teaching. It would have to be the right situation, and a different model, because I need to step out a lot — commissions or playing concerts or going out in the field. Bennington was gracious to me. It is hard on colleges, because [a schedule like mine] can put pressures and workload on other professors and on consistency for the students.

OTD: How did you stumble upon the concept of your apps, of finding places to meditate in the real world?

Susie: I’m sensitive to sound and music in space — how we are when we enter a space and our sensitivity to how that affects us. And not just in nature, but in the built environment. Once I was playing at the Detroit Institute of the arts, in the room where they have the Diego Rivera murals covering the walls. When we entered the space with my then quartet I was like, I have to take this all in before I make a note of sound. I didn’t think I could just come in and do my regular, Okay, let’s soundcheck, let’s play our program…. I talked to the band, like, Let’s ease into this space.

But I was first introduced to do these apps by Andrew Horwitz, who used to be the artistic director at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. He asked me if I was interested in creating a work for the community that was about art and technology. I decided to use the cell phone because I liked how inclusive it was. And I wouldn’t have to install speakers — though I love installation stuff — but it’s portable, you can walk around. So it became about creating a sound walk and digital sanctuaries in New York City around historical sites. Then I did one in Pittsburgh in collaboration with the City of Asylum non-profit organization. They give voice to a lot of poets and writers who are exiled, and so we had these famous poets reciting at several of the sites in north Pittsburgh.

And with Aziza Chaouni I did an app for the music and water routes of Fez [Morocco]. Aziza is an amazing architect, and that’s her home town. Fez used to be known as The City of a Thousand Rivers, and they had sealed up all the water routes. You see the tradition in the old mosaic tiles where people can wash their hands, and the fountains, and it’s really magical.

And recently we started an app with Claire Chase and her freshman class at Harvard. That was fantastic. They were really talented. Some of them are not music majors and some are not developed musicians — it was the whole array. Claire walked them through practical toolkits, different ways of making music. My app with them was to actually create this body of work, which is cool because now it’s public art.

My app designer is in India and the people who built it out are in Manila. They did a great job. And Claire did a great job of helping navigate this through her class and to get them on a timeline of deliverables. The class ended earlier because of COVID. I had to push the team, because normally the time for testing is longer. And students have to understand that a hard deadline is a hard deadline. [laughs] We then have to send it to Apple and they review it and then publish it.

OTD: These projects you work on are much more complex than booking studio time for a recording, for instance. They require travel and working with new people and new kinds of technology…. From a financial standpoint, how do you approach the planning?

Susie: Take Listening to Climate Change, for example. We’re in our sixth year of the project. We were commissioned by TED Countdown and Fine Acts Foundation. It was a double installation, during COVID, last fall. That was intense because I could not be at one of the installations, the Vancouver one, but I had to oversee it. Because although Michele is a highly capable person, she’s a scientist, and this was an art install. So I got her a team out there. To get the permits so that they could be on the site was a little tricky. It was hard not being there, but they did great.

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had strategic mentors who have taught me — and continue to, because it’s a growing thing. Some of the demands, my brain just didn’t work that way, but it was comforting to know that they are learned skills.

But I remember when Michele and I were having that talk, like, “Twelve hundred miles down the Ganges — who’s going to raft that?” Oh, I’m going to raft that. [laughs] I was like, am I going to commit to this? I had to think about it for a second. And then I just did it. Because I really wanted to learn from this, and I really feel invested in what it represents. It’s such a gift.

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