Monday, October 21, 2013

Artist Interview: M. Lamar / Queer New Music Series

M. Lamar / Surveillance: Punishment and the Black Psyche

Saturday, October 26 – 10:00pm / The Club at La MaMa

Queer New York International Arts Festival / New Music Series 2013

photo credit: Blioux 

Interviewer Katherine Cooper speaks with M. Lamar about racialized histories, the scream of the soprano and meeting one of his heroes on the street in New York. ALSO: PTSD, getting the hell out of the art world and Black Metal.
 _________________________________________________________________________________

Katherine Cooper: What does “queer” mean to you right now?

M LAMAR: Um well I mean to be quite candid queer doesn’t mean anything to me right now. What I’m doing is more focused on deep lamentation, and racialized histories. When I wake up and work on my work and when I’m engaging in dialogue I really don’t think about things like "queer" or "gender." I find myself frustrated with discourses that come out of those places. These discourses are really only about thirty to thirty five years old. I am interested in much older histories.

This show begins in a prison in 1947 with a black man. When I started conceiving of the show I wanted to focus on the new Jim Crow being the prison industrial complex. I’ve been wanting to combine Franz Fanon’s ideas of internalized racism with Foucault’s ideas of prisons for years now, but also use this contemporary moment of stop and frisk. Most black men that I know have been stopped and frisked as well as transgender women of color.

The work is deeply spiritual with a heavy interest in beauty. I am very interested in the “beautiful” and the “ugly.” Again the show begins in 1947. It’s loosely based in the story of Willie Francis in Martinville LA. And he was alleged to have killed this fifty three year old white guy with whom he was also having a sexual relationship. But the point is that 1947 in many ways for black folks could be 1847 as well as 1987 or 2013.

The show does this time traveling thing starting in 1947 and going back to 1847. It askswhat does interracial homosex look like on a plantation? So I guess I'm interested in homosexual interracial dynamics pre notions of a gay movement. With interracial heterosex we have evidence because we have the interracial babies. Usually we talk about the rape of black women on plantations, which was pervasive. But here I am interested in the rape of black men as well as the consensual interracial homosex happening on plantations.

And also PTSD. We inherit this. I talk to Jewish people about it and black people and having these things passed on to you from your parents. It seems that my works continues to come back to an inherited PTSD.


KC: Can you tell me a formative moment from childhood?

M LAMAR: Hmmm. There are so many. I think the first time I saw Jessye Norman—she's a female black opera singer--on television. On PBS. That would be formative in that there was something about the sound she was making. It was dark and bright at the same time. I encountered operatic singing before and I was fascinated with it but seeing Jessye was really it for me.

I thought it was incredibly beautiful. The first time I heard that sound it seemed to go into the interior space of the soul so directly. I likened it to screaming in a way--the need to scream. But it was so controlled and so refined.

I guess that was really appealing to me. If we’re talking about PTSD, one of the things I didn't understand fully then was my mother living with her father's sharecropping history and his fathers history of slavery. The trauma is being passed down. I didn’t understand it but I was living with it and seeing someone screaming with such control and beauty was very appealing.

But it was this dark warm bright powerful thing and it’s one of the reasons I sing now. That sound penetrates me. It’s been a fundamental part of how I preceded as an artist.


KC: Who are your artistic and musical heroes or antiheroes?

M LAMAR: Jessye Norman would obviously be one. Black sopranos in general. Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson who was not a soprano but so important to me. Those are three towering figures. And Diamanda Galas would be my forth soprano. I met her actually when I first moved here. On the street. I’d been here for a week and I had moved here to study with Ira Siff, my voice teacher. I was going to a voice lesson with him in the east village and I was warming up outside. Diamanda walks by and says “that’s a good sound” We ended up talking about thirteen minutes about singing. She was fascinated by the sound I was making. I was in the higher register hitting some very high notes and she was like, “your sound is very soprano not really a counter tenor sound.” Anyway it was one of the great joys of my life meeting one the greatest singers I have ever heard and having her hear something of value in my sound. I sent her my record and we had a back and forth. She’s been really lovely to me.

So yes. Diamanda Galas

Also. John Coltrane, Ornette Colem, Ian Curtis, Marilyn Manson--aesthetically, not so much musically. I've always been drawn to men in rock who wear a lot of makeup: Nicky Sixx, Robert Smith from The Cure, even if I am not so into their music. I’ve always sort of seen myself aesthetically as a rocker. That style just makes sense to me.

There’s also a lot of metal bands SUNN, Burzum— or Immortal. But Immortal more for the look.

Usually there’s an epic or catastrophic sensibility or both that draw me to music. That’s the music I want to make.


KC: When I listen to your work I find it very spacious. There is a lot of room for the experience of the listener.

M. LAMAR: There has to be room for people to enter into the work. A lot of it is about being contemplative. I want there to be space for you to reflect on it and yourself. The requiem I have been performing for the last year Speculum Orum. I see it as a meditation, a place to reflect on a very particular history. Whenever I do these pieces I always place myself in them as a first person narrative. I always assume the position of the person going through whatever is happening. Moving myself through this experience as well as whoever’s there to witness it. So we can undertake that journey together.

One of my favorite quotes in the world is from James Baldwin. And he says: "History is not something we read about in books, history isn’t even the past, It is the present"

Love James Baldwin.

When I was in college I was reading Cornel West and bell hooks, all this “Blackademia.” all this post colonial stuff and my take on all that is all over my work.


KC: You attended Yale to study sculpture but then dropped out to pursue music. What changed for you?

M LAMAR: The whole time I was in undergrad art school I was also involved in music. Music was always this thing I was doing on the side. I was always really good at art and I was rewarded for it so I was like, "I will just sing for myself." I kinda even thought that I would drop out of undergrad art school and start a band or something. I'm from Alabama and when I was growing up the goal was just to get out of Alabama by any means necessary. I got a scholarship to art school in San Francisco and I would win awards and things so I didn’t drop out then. But at the same time I was doing all these private music lessons. And then I ended up getting into Yale for grad school. And when you’re at Yale you’re really tied into the bourgeois New York Art world. And I wasn't really interested in that. I’m not interested in the bourgeois white art world. I need to exist in more punk rock circles.

At the same time I was incorporating more and more performance into the art I was making. I had all these friends who were more underground punk folks. Some of them were queer and some of there weren’t. The bands were always sort of dark and gothy or metal-y. It was more appealing to me to be making work in this context.

Yale was just full of rich bourgeois white people. It made more sense to drop and out and go to San Francisco and start working with people I love. They were my people. I wanted to be with my people making work and music was the work.

I didn’t want to be a queer negro Basquiat type fucking with the art world. My twin sister is a trans activist. She talks about mainstreaming trans issues and goes around to universities and things and I respect that. She talks about making a situation where the mainstream has a radical moment of seeing trans or queer identities as not marginal and such. I just don't care about the mainstream unless they want to overthrow the current system. I am more interested in people who share my values.


KC: In many ways, you have already done this but can please tell me the story of your voice?

M LAMAR: I started singing as a black soprano. Generally black sopranos have a different kind of sound, and you know, I'm black. When I started making sound as a kid I always naturally sang higher. It was always very easy for me. There’s a certain kind of hysteria or screaming that comes from a soprano voice.

When I was in San Francisco I saw lots and lots of voice teachers. I heard about my teacher in New York, Ira Siff, and I went out to New York to have a lesson and I recorded it. I went back to my teacher in San Francisco and he listened to it and he was like, "you should move to New York and work with this guy.” So I did.

I was interested in operatic repertoire--arias, Mozart etc. But ultimately I always knew I would be translating this vocal technique into my own music that I wrote myself. It's also the African American spiritual. I found that Jessye Norman had all these recordings of these songs--Deep River, Balm in Gilead. It's my people’s music. I can’t even explain my connection to the music. In many ways I’m trying to write spirituals that were never written--Swinging Low, The tree, They Hung Him, Trying TLeave My Body etc. And my particular interest is in these black operatic singer singing the Spiritual. The story of my voice is, in part, about the story of opera singers singing these songs.

When I did Speculum Orum at Cathedral of Saint John the Divine last year it seemed the perfect place for my spiritual journey to end up in terms of pure sound and of course La MaMa is perfect in theatrical terms. Have you been to the Cathedral?

KC: No. I haven't.

M LAMAR: Oh Go! You make a sound, just a little sound and you’ll hear how it vibrates. It was really lovely to perform there. The sound is just amazing. But I feel like I’m exactly where I should be. A lot of the European stuff I'm doing people seem to appreciate it. I don't think my work is high minded necessarily, but it’s certainly not pop music. It requires a little more of an attention span.



Trying To Leave My Body from M. Lamar on Vimeo.