[This piece appeared in issue #221 of the PPNL in a much edited down version. We thought you’d like a chance to read the whole thing.]
10 Questions for Bruce Andrews & Sally Silvers
by erica kaufman
01: When did you first begin collaborating? How did that come about? What was your first collaboration?
Sally Silvers: It depends on what you mean by collaboration. For instance, in 1982 at Danspace, in a piece called “Lack of Entrepreneurial Thrift,” which was my first piece where I used other dancers and worked with live music, Bruce was one of the five dancers and I don’t think he would call that a collaboration exactly, but he followed the movement instructions that I gave him.
Then in October of 1982 we started doing BARKING, which was our performance project, and that was a direct collaboration be- cause we put together different scenarios per written section, and the titles were things like “Voodoo for Anti-Communist Tourists,” “Sharp Executive Retard,” “Make Your Customers Wear Uniforms,” and “While the People Slept.” They were thematic written texts (three to five minutes) that we combined with music, dance, and events. For example, in one I had an elastic around my neck and I stuffed glossy advertisement pages, as many as I could get around my neck, and that took up one text. Bruce moved, Tom Cora (who was an improvising cellist) moved and read text, and I did too and I played the blender, as well as spun the dial on a little old radio. So, I would say that was our first collaboration. But then, gradually more texts began coming into my own dance performances.
Bruce Andrews: Well, here’s some chronology. We met at the very end of 1978 and became a couple, that was the end of the first year that Charles and I did L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. Sally did her first concert, her first choreography as a soloist, two years later, the very end of 1980. I took the money at the door, and that was the extent of my collaboration for that first piece. So, during those first two years, we were both devotees of things going on in the experimental music scene, experimental film scene, experimental theater scene, and whatever there was around in dance that was interesting. I think our wanting to collaborate had to do with our involvement in these other scenes and avid spectatorship in those other scenes. When Sally started making work she was the first person to use the free- improvisation musicians that we were starting to hang out with (Eugene Chadbourne, John Zorn, Polly Bradfield and other people). We became very close with Tom Cora, who was very involved in that scene; he played cello and was a good friend of some painter friends of ours from Virginia. Sally was writing at this point, so she used text in her pieces years before I did any text work for her, she was reading poems of hers or texts of hers before the concerts as part of the piece, but I don’t know that she integrated it into the pieces. She used these improvising musicians as part of her first concert, first group concert and I danced with her in that; we did a couple of duets where I was dancing that she choreographed that had texts of mine. So in the early eighties: Sally started using musicians, maybe she was using text in her work, I was dancing. Then I started making music, somewhere in 1982–83, I started making tape collages, so I could perform in these ensembles that Sally was putting together because I just wanted to be more involved in the middle of her work.
In the same period we started BARKING, this theater project which started as a trio, with the two of us, and Tom Cora. Tom did the music and I did the texts, Sally choreographed all of us, Tom and I both danced along with Sally, and we had props, sort of theater events with props and gestural stuff that Sally pretty much choreographed. The thing that was the basis in the beginning of our collaboration was me doing the music, so I gradually went from performing n these ensembles to making up scores for the improvisers, which were mostly based on timing, organizing a two-minute duet here, two-minute trio trades here, one-minute solo here—I would have a stopwatch and I would be with these great musicians doing live tape mixing of these tape collages that I started to make. That music also went into BARKING, and then BARKING started to do big projects. We did one large thing in San Francisco where Henry Kaiser did the music, and then we did these two giant theater projects at P.S. 122 in 1985 and 1987 with fifty or sixty people onstage. I organized the band and did the score for the music and the text. I think I directed the actors mostly.
SS: I put some sections from some of my dance pieces in and had improvising choreographers.
BA: We had people doing live instruction on- stage, people doing all sorts of things, it was sort of like a three-ring circus.
SS: We had a woman demonstrating how to do Kabuki makeup.
BA: We had someone doing 19th century ballroom dancing, we had people sketching, we had people filming, we had people painting during the projects, and we had people drawing on the sides.
SS: It was like a happening but maybe with a little more structure.
BA: Those were probably the most intense collaborative things we did—those BARKING projects. The first big event that we did was about gender damage; we did a version of a Kabuki piece (that was in ’85) and then the second one about American imperialism in Central America and that was based on the story of William Walker, the soldier of for- tune who took over Nicaragua in 1855, and we had him as a megalomaniac narcissist deciding to be the star of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, so he invited down the first all-black minstrel troop in the United States (which was formed in 1855) to bring them down to Nicaragua so they could star in his production. So we staged all that with about sixty people, in ’87. This was a few years before the movie about William Walker came out.
That was right around the time (about twenty years ago now) that I think I officially became her music director. So from that point on I would be centrally involved in picking the performers that would be in the band, coming up with a score, going through the rehearsal tapes and talking with Sally about the structure of the pieces to figure out what kinds of sections the music would have and what kinds of sound we wanted, but not too much text. The only time we were using text was when we were doing BARKING.
SS: But that has changed now. Probably in the past five–ten years. I’d say that the text integration into my own dance performance works has only been in the last five years.
BA: We slowly began to integrate text, but before then it was pretty much me doing the music and Sally choreographing. By that point I’d had a couple of residencies where I got access to engineers who worked with me doing electronic processing of texts which I didn’t have the skills to do myself. That material I integrated into the music I was making—the music was a collage of me improvising on various instruments and editing them and playing the tapes live; I never played any instruments live, but I would basically do tapes that were collages of my own playing on thirty different instruments. So I started to integrate some of that text material that was processed into the sound scores at that point also. Another thing that happened during this time (once we stopped doing BARKING) was that Sally, in addition to her main concerts, would also do a lot of improvising situations, so she would improvise in performance and shorter pieces, and I started at some point (I guess it was 15–20 years ago) doing something comparable to Sally’s live choreography. I started doing live editing on stage. I would basically take the editing process that I normally work with at home, taking cards, small pieces of paper, a couple words or phrases on them, and collaging them and making texts out of them. I started doing that live in the same room in the same moment as Sally was improvising her movement and also with musicians, so I did some things with musicians along, where I was doing this live editing and then I did some things with Sally where I was doing this live editing. That was another place where texts came into our collaborations. But that was apart from her big choreographing concerts.
02: What do you mean by electronically processing texts?
BA: Digitizing them and then running them through harmonizers, processors, sound effects, various programs which I am just starting to learn a bit about now so I am able to do them myself. But this was working with electronic composers and studio engineers. In a way, to transform the material similarly to the way I had written it—change the speed, change the texture, chop it up, various spatial and temporal delays and looping and jumps and cuts and textural transforms.
03: Can you talk a bit about your individual processes and how they change when you collaborate, if they change?
SS: Well my process changes from piece to piece. Primarily how I start is myself improvising in front of a video camera, looking back through those tapes, choosing movements, and then writing those movements (as Bruce does) on separate pieces of paper and then organizing them either into different pieces or different sections of one piece. When dancers come to rehearsal, they learn those movements from video. That is sort of a basic thing I’ve been doing since I got a video camera. When I didn’t have a video camera, I would improvise and write things down on a piece of paper and try to describe what it was that I had done. I work similarly, in the sense that I choose from small units of information to make larger phrases. It is different if I am doing partnering work with dancers (which I do a lot of)—then I find I have to make up the material directly on the dancers when they are here and I often have to say I am you now and do something be- fore I know what it is that I want. And then lately I have been also trying to open that up a little more by coming up with ideas that I can allow the dancers to translate into what’s going to be performed. Sometimes that gets more set and sometimes I leave it open so there is more improvisation in the performances.
I just started putting that in. That might be partially to do with my own body aging—I can’t do all the movements I want anymore, I can’t give them all to everybody, I need to figure out other ways of generating movement in order to continue to be a choreographer. So, I am starting to open up my process to those kinds of ideas and I am sure other things will happen too, but at least that is a starting point for me, getting older. And it also varies whether I am doing a more thematically based piece, or something based on a film; or this last piece from Spring ’09, Yessified!, was based on race and whiteness, but a lot of my pieces are not theme centered, so it really varies depending on the kind of information I am trying to present.
BA: The theme-specific pieces that Sally did in the very beginning were BARKING pieces; that really was a political project, whereas her straight dance projects tended to be less thematically organized or more abstract maybe . . . And that changed when we stopped doing BARKING, some of that desire to do something that had a thematic focus which might affect the music, might affect the sound, affect whether she wanted text with it…[the desire] got channeled into her regular dance projects.
SS: I think the politics in my dance projects at the beginning was more about trying to call attention to the body as a social presence and that was really my project for the first 10–15 years of making work. I really wanted to get away from standardized dance vocabularies and try to pull into place an image of a person moving with movement that you wouldn’t see every day, but something that would point to the fact that the person was a social body doing it.
I was really interested in taking a stance on movement vocabularies and that occupied me for quite a long time and that settled and I came to just realize that it was the basis of everything that I did and I didn’t have to focus on it. I could take it and utilize it in other ways while still maintaining it so it became more interesting to me to take on themes.
BA: And that affected the music too, the soundscapes that she wanted for all of the early concerts (leaving the BARKING aside) were free improvisers without any relation- ship to theme or any kind of obvious vernacular style of music—it was beyond genre in that sense.
SS: When I started becoming more interested in theme-centered pieces I wanted the music organized.
BA: She also wanted other types of sounds, so that in the beginning I was part of these ensembles contributing extended technique—weird noise-based free improvisation sounds, which was one of our favorite types of music at the time. Then I started to use what we called “cultural material,” either processing it, collaging it, layering it, editing it, modular bits of things that I hadn’t created—things from an obsessively large re- cord collection came into play at that point in stead of just me banging around the kitchen and recording myself or borrowing instruments from school and trying to learn how to play the trombone so I could get eight minutes of trombone edits.
For me, when it comes to individual processes, the thing that made it possible for me to make this music for Sally was that I already had a way of working with language that I could in a sense just transfer as an aesthetic or a methodology into sound. So I was al- ready working with these small modular bits . . . So, that was how I started working in music and then that changed once Sally wanted different kinds of focus. She did a piece on the twenties and I had period music for that. We did a piece on dreams and I had things related to that. When I started using text in the pieces, that was pretty much done the way I also write. When I did this live editing, that was just taking my living room sofa onstage in a sense and spreading out fifty cards and being able to make phrases and putting things in the middle of phrases, and come up with what is there.
SS: How do you generate your writing, for instance?
BA: The raw materials? I am jotting things down, I am walking around…I write in a movie, I write at a lecture, I write in the street, I write on the subway, I write when I am reading, I am just generating raw material so I don’t do any of that onstage, I do editing, so that is what I think of as writing. If I am doing that onstage, live. I guess I really haven’t had to change that methodology for Sally when she wanted text. I would select things sometimes based on themes, and certainly that was true of BARKING; we did a piece on consumerism, we did a piece on various kinds of oppression and injustice—I would basically pick out material that resonated with that and organize it in the way that I normally would.
04: So, on the cards, is it words, phrases, or does it vary?
BA: Usually two to four words, sometimes single words, very rarely anything longer than a sentence or a phrase.
05: Which comes first—the words or the movement?
BA: The movement always comes first, but I am just thinking of my role as music director. Sally always composes in silence or with something else on the record player. I would get rehearsal tapes that I would meticulously time and figure out sequencing. I would have an idea of what I think the piece would look like. And I would assemble raw materials, and I always do some live mixing—I never made fixed music for Sally that would just be able to be played. I would always have to be there with three or four tape players and a mixing board, doing a live mix to get the timing right and the layering right, but I would always do that afterwards. So, in other words, I am not a composer, I am a sort of a sound designer and also live performer, so I would never compose a piece of music and have Sally perform to it. And, I don’t know that we have ever done that with text either. To have a piece of text and you choreograph to a text?
SS: We often do that with improvising. The text is of course there first. We’ve done a
piece called “Snow Pony” at The Poetry Project’s New Year’s, and in that case I helped edit the material. I chose from writing already done. I also did that with Yessified!
BA: The performance of some of the texts that had been previously written that she was going to improvise with, Sally would intervene and have a lot to say about how it was presented.
SS: We did Yessified! with your “White Dialect” piece. Often Bruce’s poetry functions for me as a mover as sound, but often I can use snippets of imagery that I get from it be- sides the rhythm and the sound of it I can gesturalize from the meaning there—it is a constant back and forth of listening, interpreting, and decision making.
BA: Well Yessified!, not the dialect piece, but the rest of the text, had an interesting history because that came from a text that I generated live in concert with a racial tone to it because we did it at the Visions Festival, which is basically devoted to the radical heritages of the Black Arts Movement and black culture. So we did a couple nights of that where I am editing live composing material with the legendary bassist Henry Grimes and Julie Patton doing vocals and a little bit of text and a little bit of movement. What I like about these live editing situations is that I end up with a text, which I then type up. So then I have some product, something that is done that I can make use of. We did seven nights of that and I generated a fair amount of text that had an A, B, C structure, like a lot of my work has thematically as an organizing hook—so I took those texts, I think it was mostly the B and C material that Sally selected from when she did this solo “Yellin’ Gravy” at La Mama and Joyce Soho.
SS: I was starting to work on a piece about race and the format that it took was a solo for myself and I used the text from Bruce’s improvisation at the Visions Festival and edited it down to about a fourth of its size and then…
BA: …proposed some cuts to me and then we worked it out so it was about the right length and in the right sections and I presented that live to accompany her solo, with music that Sally had selected. So the back- drop, the music for that, which was Booker T. & the MG’s, and a few other cult classics of black music that we love, was on in the background mixed in with me doing the text live.
SS: It was on a minute basis. I have com- posed in minutes for a while. So there’s a minute where there’s text and a minute where there’s not text and something else is going on. And so I chose within a ten-minute solo where the text was going to be and what the nature of the text was, and chose the music for the other sections and I performed that in Yessified! in two sections.
BA: We took that and broke it into two parts and that was part of the big Yessified! piece. So that was an example of where Sally’s editing me. I never get to do the other.
SS: He’ll look at something and say “I don’t like that movement.” And sometimes I listen…
BA: I think it was because it was thematic, so she got more involved in thinking about the text. Normally it would be a bit more abstract in relationship to the movements, and I would just take charge of it because it would be based on my sense of what works as writing.
06: Is there ever a time when you are both doing live improvisation, or are there al- ways some elements of the collaboration that are at least planned ahead of time?
BA: Well, when Sally’s improvising and I’m doing live editing of text. Have you improvised with someone else while I am doing live editing?
BA: Musicians, I think maybe not other dancers. We’ve done this thing at the Visions Festival a couple of times where we had a few musicians and me just doing text, not doing music at all; I guess I’ve largely stopped doing live mixing of sound with other free improvising musicians. I don’t really perform as a musician anymore like I used to. In the eighties and into the nineties I was a little more directly in the free-improv scene—I would get asked to play gigs by some of my heroes, you know, just as a musician, so that was pretty cool.
07: I was lucky enough to see Yessified!, a truly fantastic performance. Can you each speak a bit to the process behind that show? How did the choreography evolve? The music? How much of any given performance or collaboration is improvised?
SS: We talked about my solo part in there already. My process for that was reading like crazy about how different bodies were de- scribed in different literatures and when African Americans talk about dance and how they fit into modern dance, what languages do they use, how do they describe it, and then trying…—it is very hard to bring out a sense of whiteness because it is like asking someone to describe patriarchy—it is the whole system that you are talking about and the only way to really talk about it is to talk about what is not in it. So it was trying to create some sort of hybrid, to call attention to race but to try to include some aspect of what whiteness could mean physically. It was really hard and hard not to do it in a way that creates further stereotyping, or negativities, so I tried to come down more on the positive side of hybridization and say that you don’t draw lines; we are made up of each other in very basic senses, in the way we move, the influence is there, the way we speak, the way we describe ourselves and the reasons for moving. So it was a tricky balance to maintain and I had to come up with metaphors for things. Like in one section that was more improvisatory, I had two people try to move without either of them leading or following, so how do you take initiative together. Another description was someone gets to a spot first and the other two dancers have to fight over that spot, so there were metaphors about needing mutual support, who is giving sup- port, who is taking it, who is losing it. I had a whole outline of ideas like that and then the rehearsal comes and you start to set things and try to stay with the idea of all of that. It was really stringing together a whole lot of metaphors for interdependency.
BA: So for that piece, for Yessified!, I had three chunks of text, two of which were mixed with the music that Sally had picked out earlier for “Yellin’ Gravy” (the solo version), which were racially resonant material that we had from these live editing and improvisations that we did as part of the Visions Festival, so that was more or less taking something we had already done and putting it in the middle of a group piece of hers, and we opened the evening with a chunk from this white-dialect poetry project of mine, the title of which is “Success without Goals,” and that was just a kind of bravura live-sound poetry performance piece of mine in a sense that I’d ended many poetry readings with parts of (little five to seven minute parts). I started that project out with rustic
Midwestern dialect material and had just got- ten to this Appalachian part of that project so I used just about four minutes of that, which was done live in concert and a lot of people didn’t even realize that because I am up in the dark in the back, so that was the text for that.
SS: And that was personal for me because I am from that region, Appalachia, so I preferred that to the Midwestern piece. Some- how it had more significance for me moving to it. That was the moment in the piece when I was completely improvising. Trying to channel the sound of the dialect that was personal for me in the sense that it had personal resonance because of my background and trying to translate that background into something that possibly I am still made up of without knowing it.
BA: Both the improvised text material and that project in a sense came out of a couple-year research project, reading project on race, which had a musical component based on an obsession I developed with the Harlem Renaissance in the twenties and then with sixties soul music centered around Memphis where we took a trip the previous year. So the music for that I knew was going to involve this twenties Harlem Renaissance material as well as this soul-music material, none of which was of course mine, so I am just collaging and editing that and trying to fit it into the rehearsal tapes that I am looking at.
The music was the most elaborate collaboration I’ve ever done with Michael Schumacher, the composer who I am very good friends with now, and have worked with . . . . For the music for that, I was playing very short excerpts of sixties soul music mixed in with material that I had had processed collaboratively with Michael of my text material, some of which I had used in some previous concerts of Sally, and some material from this really odd project where Michael gave me six or seven hundred short sound files of him recording various things, people singing, people playing instruments, people making sounds, and then I imitated all six or seven hundred sounds vocally and gave him those recordings and then he made this elaborate sixteen-speaker collage of that, so I had some of that material that I mixed in. Then I gave Michael this whole bank of several hundred of my favorite five-, 10-, 20-second snippets of material from the twenties (blues, gospel, jazz) and he did just some unbelievable electronic processing of that material . . . I think that was the most complicated musical endeavor I’ve had with Sally.
SS: I remember that it was one of the hardest pieces I have ever tried to put together. I had all these sections and then I had all these different people and then trying to get the transitions to happen and trying to figure out the order so that just the right amount of that person came in at just the right amount of time and place and creating some sort of symmetry between part A and part B and figuring out how to make it move through what it was supposed to do. I struggled and struggled with the order and keeping up with all the sections and figuring out where the thing could go both logistically and for significant reasons. It was really tough.
08: So how do you decide when you want to do something like that; or does it all depend on the larger choreographic scope of the piece?
BA: Yeah, in this case it had to do with some sort of resonance on the topic.
SS: Yeah, it had to do with some sort of atmosphere that was created that wasn’t music.
09: Is there a modern dance equivalent to Language Poetry? Is there a Language Poetry dance?
SS: What we’ve been talking about, coming out of the Judson Church theater experimentations, that I think I do come out of, that legacy of experimentation; and I think what I am trying to maybe add to it is some sort of sense of the social body more. They were very interested in that with pedestrian movement and collaging and bringing things in from source materials. Being interested in the movement itself—maybe not at its most pedestrian—is somewhat equivalent to Language Poetry as well as the social modernist aspect of it.
BA: I remember when Sally started choreographing, she didn’t like the word “dance.” She wanted to think of herself as a movement choreographer. It is the same sort of sense that dance was a genre, and that the material you were working with was movement, and that was similar to the kind of music we were interested in, whether it was coming out of Cage and using noise without having it be musical, harmonized sound; or whether it was the free-improvisation scene, which was not jazz, not classical, post-genre, nonvernacular, in that way; so when the so- called Language writers started in the seven- ties, some of us didn’t think of what we were doing as poetry. We thought of it as maybe a new genre. Some way of dealing with language in the same way that Sally was dealing with movement and people that we knew were dealing with sound . . . . Leaving some- one like Stein aside—who never was considered a poet by the establishment—pretty much all the radical literary writing we were most compelled by was all called poetry in the same way that Sally was compellingly interested by things in the dance heritage; and finding that, however radical her movement explorations were as a choreographer, there was no place for it other than the dance floor; so she ended up as a prominent experimental dance choreographer in the same way that the Language writers ended up being prominent experimental poets, which wasn’t what either one of us necessarily wanted.
But the Language writers had a group and there was a group of us here in N.Y. and a group in S.F. and scattered, a few others… but Sally didn’t have that so she was operating really even more on the fringe when she started in the eighties of the dance world than we were in the poetry world, because at least we had a group, we had a community, we had some other people to talk to; she was out on a limb—the people that would have really hooked up with what she was doing were the legatees of Judson, and a lot of that had been domesticated or disappeared and many people had stopped working or were doing much more conservative work . . . The other thing that she was saying about the social body interest, the sociopolitical commitment, I think that was, coming to New York, and starting to write in the late sixties, early seventies; there was this tremendous heritage of experimental writing…a lot of it coming out of Cage, of people like Jackson Mac Low, a lot of it coming out of concrete poetry, sound poetry, a lot of it coming out of the European Dada heritage and that was a huge influence on my early work and the early work of my peers in the early to mid- seventies, and that started to change when I got to New York (’75), and heightened being with Sally in the eighties…so we moved away from this seemingly more abstract material of a Mac Low or a Clark Coolidge in the sixties and towards material that had more of this social charge to it; this became more phrase-based, it had a little more relationship to speech, it had a little more relationship to a non-literary vocabulary that had some political implications, and that was really a shift across the board in the so-called Language- writing community in the late seventies.
A lot of people’s work changed in that way, on both coasts. Like if you look at say, Silliman’s work, from the early influences of Grenier from these microscopic bits of language, Grenier and Eigner, then shifting into the New Sentence. I think the interest out West in sentences and that kind of phrase structure had something to do with that. A lot of it had to do with giving poetry readings, which I had never done before coming to New York, being in an urban environment was related to it…When you are in the urban environment, then you start thinking with more socially charged phrase based material. There was just something familiar about that, so we did move away from the some- what more abstract, non-personal material of the sixties predecessors.
10: What’s next? What are you each working on?
BA: I am continuing work on this white- dialect poetry project and I’ve gotten again obsessively involved with developing an aesthetic theory that can be applied to the judgments that the public makes about national security based on Kant’s third critique, the Critique of Judgment. I am using my outline for this major essay project, as a grid for organizing a giant box of cards from a couple of years ago to make a giant poem that is thematically organized around this aesthetic judgment project.
The big change for Sally is working with Yvonne Rainer. That’s the first time she’s danced for anyone else since she first started doing her own work in 1980. But Yvonne was always a hero of hers so she couldn’t turn it down when Yvonne wanted to put a group together. For her to go back to choreographing (which Yvonne mentions in her memoir) is partly based on Sally’s intervention in the early nineties, wanting to learn a piece of Yvonne’s just from the text that was in her Nova Scotia book.
SS: We’re going to be performing in November here. One of the things that Yvonne’s
work has really opened up in me is a sort of acting. Because she doesn’t make movement anymore so we really learn off of either videos of other people doing things—the last piece, I had to learn the antics of Robin Williams, trying to duplicate those comic moments of his, and in the new piece, “Steve Martin and Sarah Bernhardt”—and soccer, we have to imitate soccer moves when you don’t have the ball, what you do when you don’t have the ball, and pictures from magazines. So there is a certain element of acting that I never did in my own work, taking on somebody else, gesture by gesture, that is very difficult and very fascinating to do. So I am putting a little bit more of that in my work now too I think.
BA: That is something that Sally didn’t used to do, which would now be considered a kind of appropriation. All of the choreography that she used to do was based on video, viewing herself dancing solo or with some- one else in her studio. It usually started out on her body, or modified from other sources. And that is true of me—a lot of work of mine that might sound like I am walking down the street copying things down that I hear is really just me thinking something else, related to something that I hear or see. So it is not really the mechanical kind of appropriation that has gotten so popular now as a way of othering.
erica kaufman is the author of censory impulse.
Bruce Andrews is a poet, essayist, and political science professor, and longtime collaborator with Sally Silvers.
Sally Silvers has been choreographing and performing since 1980 and also currently dances in the work of Yvonne Rainer.