Object Collection is as much concerned with narrative as it is with creating chaos. “The text that’s important gets across… but sometimes the sonic texture goes in and out,” writer/director Kara Feely explains. “In our everyday lives, there’s such a barrage of information coming at us all the time.” While the group is on one hand an opera company, on the other, its theatrical presentations are something else entirely. I personally discovered Object Collection not through new-music circles, but through punk-rock news sites, which reported on the 2016 opera It’s All True, which used as its basis the in-between songs and banter from the mammoth Fugazi live archive.
You Are Under Our Space Control is the group’s latest work, and although it feels cohesive, Feely and composer Travis Just described to me how the piece came together through bits and pieces. While Just was experimenting with drum machines and completing a transcription of John Cage’s Music of Changes, Feely was writing short text scores and poems based on various science-fiction novels and the work of Sun Ra. When everything came together, they had what later would be described as a “utopian space opera.” Every sound comes from Just’s Cage transcription, but features both through-composed material and improvised movements.
Object Collection will premiere the staged version of You Are Under Our Space Control on Thursday, January 23, at La Mama E.T.C. in the East Village, following concert presentations held in New York and London last fall. When we spoke by phone last week. I was in a Starbucks parking lot in New Hampshire, while Just and Feely were getting ready to move props and equipment to La Mama for the beginning of rehearsals. Just mentioned on multiple occasions throughout the interview that for a long time, his primary interest as a listener was in live concerts.
“It was always about doing it live,” Just says. “It was the live show.” To be sure, Object Collections records are great, but the passion and energy that Just and Feely exude when they talk about their performances convinces me that any live Object Collection event is not to be missed. We started by talking about Fugazi and bringing the spirit of punk rock to new music and theater, then quickly moved to Space Control and a more in-depth look at the presentation of text, music, and narrative.
You Are Under Our Space Control by Object Collection
GREG NAHABEDIAN: My first question is probably not going to be in the interview but I just have to get it out: What’s the best Fugazi record?
TRAVIS JUST: [Laughs] I don’t know. You know it’s weird, I never listened to the albums, so even before we did that piece I kind of listened to bootlegs, even before the live series. So I don’t even really know which song is on which album.
NAHABEDIAN: Oh, this is actually really interesting. I come to new music from being in punk bands, and when I discovered new music, I was like, “Oh, this feels like being in Fugazi to me.” So when I first heard of you, I was like, “These people must have done the same thing.” Can we actually start by talking about that?
JUST: Sure. I mean, I had the records. I had tapes. But then the internet happened, and all of a sudden all this music was out there. So probably starting around 2000, I just went insane downloading stuff, and for probably like 15 years I only listened to live concerts of even most… I mostly listen to rock music, full disclosure, and jazz, and free jazz, and stuff like that is mostly what I personally listen to. But I was always listening to concerts. Like, I love the Clash, so I would have these 100 Clash concerts and just listen to that. I don’t even listen to Sandinista!
JUST: This is totally parenthetical, but when streaming happened, I didn’t like it, because it sounded like crap. But then the quality got better, and now it’s CD quality or better, so now I actually listen to albums. I never listened to albums because when I was a teenager I had my tapes, but most of it was copied from friends. And I had a bunch of CDs, but for 20 years I didn’t listen to any of that stuff. Only now, in my 40s, am I listening to albums as albums. It’s very strange for me.
You know, performances are different. But for Fugazi… I wouldn’t choose. I couldn’t choose. I don’t know if you listen to live shows, but in ’95 they did three shows at Irving Plaza in New York.
NAHABEDIAN: The famous show where they got offered the multi-million-dollar Atlantic contract?
JUST: Is that when that was? I thought that was ’93, but maybe I’m wrong.
NAHABEDIAN: It could’ve been. I believe that they were New York shows when it happened.
JUST: Yeah, ’cause Ahmet Ertegun came and did that—which I always think is so funny, because John Coltrane was on that label, and [Ertegun] was friends with Charles Mingus, and he’s sitting there talking to Guy Picciotto. Ahmet Ertegun—I don’t know if anyone’s written a biography, but that dude is interesting. How does that happen? Him and his brother were Turkish immigrants. They seem very interesting. But the ’95 shows are very good, and they’re really with it with the audience. So I guess I like those.
NAHABEDIAN: Kara, do you have a similar relationship with Fugazi?
KARA FEELY: Well, you know, Travis is the composer/musician; I’m not as much of a fan of all the music. I had all those records and stuff, and I loved listening to them, but he’s the music junkie in this relationship. I think when it came about, we were chatting with a friend when all the live series recordings came out, and the set designer that we were working with, who is also a big Fugazi fan, said, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to make a piece based on these things?” So we started listening to them.
I’m the writer/director part of the duo, and I think what was so interesting is all of the material that was surrounding the shows, and the way that they talk to the audience, and all the things that were happening. So many of the concerts were benefits or rallies or different things. It was a lot of interesting theater around them, and that’s how we sort of got the idea to make this piece.
Daniel Allen Nelson in ‘You Are Under Our Space Control’ at Café Oto, London
Photograph: Tom Rose
NAHABEDIAN: How much do you think punk music or the DIY ethic has been a part of Object Collection?
FEELY: I would say definitely the DIY part of it. I think that’s one of the reasons we were so attracted to that project in particular, the Fugazi one. So much of the way that they work made sense to us. Our whole company and our working method has come out of this downtown theater scene and that community. It’s a small community, and we’re used to working with the same people for many years and sort of putting things together with gaffer tape and glue and cardboard.
There’s a long history of that, I think, in New York. We work with an older generation of artists who work that way, and take a chance at that tradition a lot. It makes a lot of sense to us. You’re catching us right in the middle of trying to schedule a van drop off and how we’re going to cart all my stuff downtown next week. We’re thinking to ourselves, “Why am I doing this?” It’s a lot of work. But there’s benefits to that kind of situation, as well. It’s a real family of artists that we’ve sort of tried to gather around us.
NAHABEDIAN: There’s something sometimes more gratifying about doing something where you’re like, “I’ve had a hand in every aspect of this from the beginning,” as opposed to “I’m a hired gun” or whatever.
FEELY: Yeah, I mean, this project that we have coming up, in particular, is really the sort of visual aspect that is this piece, the design, and all the props are really an important part of the action. I’ve been spending a lot of time, and Travis has been spending a lot of time just making stuff that we have to use in rehearsal. Very hands-on all around. We’ve been collecting a lot of things.
NAHABEDIAN: In writing Space Control, I’m curious about how hands-on you were in each other’s processes. Is it that Kara has written a full libretto, and then you’re going to set it, or…? Can you talk a little about that?
FEELY: Yeah. This process in particular was sort of a long, meandering one. Before we start doing any actual writing, we have the idea of the piece that we want to do, and we sort of identify some of the sources and the idea that we’re going for. Typically we sort of work separately. Sometimes Travis writes the music first. I then write the libretto. One of the first things that I wrote for this piece—they look like scores or small little action pieces. They’re all based on Sun Ra’s science fiction poems. I wrote a whole bunch of those, with the idea that they could be performed on their own. They were flexible material. Travis wrote the music then, I think.
JUST: I can’t remember. I believe the text came first. I still don’t know why, but I wanted to work with drum machines and synths this time, and MIDI and stuff. I had never done that, even as a teenager. I always kind of liked that music. I never really worked with it. So I was working with that, and the idea of transcribing the John Cage Music of Changes for drum machine. I did a few phrases of it, and it seemed pretty cool, so I figured I’d do the entire piece.
And then I had all this material… I don’t even know if I knew that it was going to be for Space Control at that point. I would come up with these percussion parts or noisy electronic parts. And then I was able to develop synth and trebley and bass synth parts and it was all… every note of the music in this piece is from the Music of Changes transcription that I did. I think at some point I realized that there was a wealth of material that could fit somehow with these text scores, and it started to snowball at that point.
FEELY: We have a tendency to stay out of each other’s hair when the writing starts, and then it’s, “Okay, this is my stuff,” and we put it together.
JUST: And then it’s a negotiation about how this stuff fits together and the order of things. I also wrote some event scores. I have a history of action-based composing, too. I have a few things in there that sort of get smeared around. It’s hard to know sometimes what’s from who, but that’s a good thing I think.
NAHABEDIAN: It’s interesting what you’re describing, because the work as a whole to me feels so cohesive. So this was another thing where my assumption was that there must have been so much pre-planning and forethought before beginning. But it’s interesting to hear you describe how these things fell together almost by happenstance.
JUST: I think happenstance is a really important part of what we do. There’s a certain amount of chaos that is essential. Sometimes if it’s not there and the piece is too solidly put together, we have to create the chaos somehow. But a great deal of the cohesiveness is thanks to the performers, who take this admittedly sometimes pretty stupid material, whether musically or texturally… I mean, some of the music I give them is pretty ludicrous, but they play it with great authority. They do these preposterous scenarios, but the way they pull them off really ties it together. It’s not us just generating this bulletproof text, whether it’s the musical text or theatrical text, and it has to be realized line for line. Everyone shows up with this material, and the humans that have to enact it are equally essential.
FEELY: There’s an aesthetic that’s been growing, that we’ve been working with, and we’re fortunate that the performers have keyed into it and helped develop it. It’s a nice situation I feel like that we’re in. We’re riding the train of it, and it’s developing.
NAHABEDIAN: There are parts where the voices use is almost onomatopoeic, in a way, where you describe, “Get close to the microphone and make this distorted noise.” In the recording there are moments where the text is very clear, and there are moments where it’s hard to make out the text. I’m curious if that signifies anything to you, or if it’s an aesthetic decision.
FEELY: Yeah, this is a thing that really hangs up a lot of theater audience members, because the text is obscured. People are saying, “I can’t understand the words!” But to draw in your question about the punk rock, maybe that’s the influence itself. I think the text that’s important gets across, but sometimes the text and the sort of voices or the sonic texture that goes in and out. In our everyday lives, there’s such a barrage of information coming at us all the time. I try to think of that. Just as an audience member, I’m much more sort of a visual listener. Text sort of washes over me, and I often don’t take it all in.
JUST: Some of the filter stuff, that’s a recording thing. It’s hard, because I didn’t make a record until I was in my late 30s. I made CDrs a long time ago, but it was always just about doing it live. It was the live show. That was the only thing I had access to, and the only thing I was interested in. So making the records has been interesting but it’s the difference between a record and a live event. On a record it might be a thing that happens in that one phrase. Sometimes I try not to overthink it. Maybe it just has to be a little smudged here to kind of propel it. Sometimes it is in the score. I’m not trying to obscure the text, but text is one element of the equation. You have the text, and then you have the speaking of the text. They’re two different things.
FEELY: Plus everything else that’s happening.
Workshop performance of ‘You Are Under Our Space Control’
Photograph: Britt Berke
NAHABEDIAN: Right. This all makes sense to me. One last question about the score. When you’re giving text directions in your scores, how much do you think about that? I’m thinking about this moment in the 2nd movement where above one of the harmonies you write, “make cool.”
JUST: [Laughs] That was the laziest thing to write! I’m not proud of that.
NAHABEDIAN: I think it’s great. It’s the kind of thing that all my professors in grad school would have yelled at me for, but I know exactly what you mean when you write that.
JUST: You know what I mean? I went in there and was like, “Look this is like the first Forest album.” And the guitarist Ava was like, “Yeah I love that. I’ll fucking do that.” Nothing else needs to be said. When I studied, I went to Cal Arts, which is allegedly a pretty free-thinking school. I got busted for saying, “play near the bridge,” but they were saying, “Write sul pont!” and I said, “I’m not fucking Italian!”
Again, I know the players—and if I don’t know them intimately, I know the kind of person they’re going to be. Sometimes it’s a note for them, and sometimes it’s a little joke, and sometimes it’s a reminder for me for when I’m in rehearsal of, like, “Oh, okay, right: I remember what I wanted.” I think that “make cool” line was kind of a signifier for me. Otherwise it’s just a tied whole note, and what are you supposed to do with that? I could go in there and write in all these filters and this and that and swell a little bit here and give it a little gap. But a good player can just do it, and it’s a different thing. So that one was just so I could remember what to say to them.
NAHABEDIAN: Right. And I think that’s something that comes from having something of a rock background. Usually when it’s just four friends trying to figure out how to play in a band, you say, “I don’t know! Just do it.”
JUST: And so much of it is just about creating the right vibe and energy. Even with the Fugazi piece and this one are a lot of dots and lines… I’m not really a dots and lines kind of composer. Stuff five years ago, there was no standard notation. There’s a type of score where – we were talking about it earlier with text, and I think it’s the same thing – the score is treated like this text that’s meant to be executed faithfully. It must also then contain all the information and be incredibly complex. I’m not interested in that at all. For me the score is just a lever to generate action and activity. That activity is the performance. The score is just a means to an end, it’s not an end in itself. I’m not interested in it as an end to itself.
I feel like I can go to certain new music concerts, even if we’re talking about classic “new music” new music – capital N, capital M – sometimes you hear it and think, “Yeah, this person really cared about their score.” That really comes across. Sometimes that can be cool, but even with really classical classical worlds, sometimes you can hear it where this thing really came to life in a different way, and the score was just a way to do that. For me that’s the essential thing. If you don’t have that, you don’t have any lift. Aesthetically speaking, you can trace that back to Cage and Sun Ra and improvised music, where the performance is the thing as opposed to the text is the holy object.
NAHABEDIAN: Earlier you mentioned Mingus… that’s who I was thinking about when you were just explaining that. Even when he writes for orchestra, there’s so much freedom for the players.
JUST: Well, he would sing his parts to people, and it wouldn’t be written down. Everyone could read, but he said, “No, you’re going to learn this part. We’re going to learn this part aurally.” Which I keep wanting to try to do, but it’s hard to get the amount of time with people. But what a great example. And nobody touches on Mingus these days. It’s weird: Mingus was so important, and I never really hear about him. It’s weird that nobody talks about Mingus. It’s interesting that you mention him.
NAHABEDIAN: He was such an innovator in such an interesting way. Even just as somebody in a recording studio, coming up with new recording techniques.
JUST: Oh, I don’t know much about that. Have you read Sue Mingus’s biography?
NAHABEDIAN: No, actually I haven’t.
JUST: You should. I kind of wish she wrote more about herself, frankly. But it’s super fascinating, and it’s a really interesting portrait. I really recommend it.
Object Collection presents You Are Under Our Space Control at La MaMa E.T.C. on Jan. 23-26 and Jan. 30-Feb. 2; lamama.org
Greg Nahabedian is a genderfluid composer and performer living in New Hampshire. Greg plays in the band Cheap City and runs Boston New Music Calendar. gregnahabedian.net
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.