Interview

The Organ Inside: Kara-Lis Coverdale

Robyn Fadden - May 22, 2015
The Organ Inside: Kara-Lis Coverdale

Kara-Lis Coverdale builds ornately twisted pipe organs inside computers and gathers a choir of nameless voices to sing us into an uncharted future. The Montréal artist’s music rests partway in the door to the church or the symphony hall and partway in the embrace of the chaotic world outside those hallowed spaces, with all its social and cultural profanities, ceaselessly updated electronics and digital interfaces, promises of a new world built upon the barely cold bones of the old. This is her post sacred music: multi-layered, multi-timbral electronic compositions that stridently elide traditional divisions between acoustic and electronic, human and machine, beauty and brutality. 

With two solo albums in the past two years – cassette releases Aftertouches on Sacred Phrases and A 480 on Constellation Tatsu – as well as a three year collaboration with Tim Hecker on his album Virgins, Coverdale continues to defy perceptions of sacred and non sacred music in her latest work, including a creative professional partnership with LXV (musician David Sutton) on Sirens, a new album released by Umor Rex. 

In an interview with MUTEK, Coverdale acknowledges that she’s always had an interdisciplinary focus: “I think that’s where my heart is. I meld everything. Interesting things lie in new intersections of what previously wasn’t together.” 

While she’s a classically and academically trained musician with a Masters degree in musicology and composition, has played piano since childhood and has been a church organist for 15 years, Coverdale’s gateway into electronic music was sparked by rap, hip hop and a smattering of new age synth laden classical. “I was really interested in sampling, using interesting sounds and appropriation through quotation – I learned about that through hip hop way earlier than I did through studying music concrete and electroacoustic music,” she says. “And as a kid, I was obsessed with a few records that were kind of new age classical – I wasn’t trained to listen for electronics so I’d sit at the piano and try to mimic the Vivaldi part. Looking back on that music, I see it was really infused with electronics, which to classical purists would have been disgusting but it was addictive to me at the time.”

Moving from traditional instruments to the computer was a natural progression, both philosophically and out of necessity. “Piano wasn’t resonating with how I felt and didn’t reflect the environment I live in – I’m quite plugged in, I have wires all around me all the time. Music is supposed to show us where we’re going rather than looking back, at least that’s how I feel and what my intent is. It’s about trying to bridge this technological inheritance of our environment, seeing what’s happening with technological innovation rather than denying it.”

With the organ as her vehicle, her digitized tonalities and production interests tend to disrupt typically reserved harmonic systems and styles, but they still maintain an essential essence of the instrument. “I think of the organ as a 1.0 of what I’m doing electronically, because it kind of has this brain that allows you to change timbres and instrumentation in the same way you can with a computer,” she says. “And I’m thinking a lot about how parts and harmonies intertwine and about counterpoint, and I often delay resolution in the way that hymnal music does.”

Yet Coverdale’s music doesn’t summon memories of long services spent sitting silently on hard benches. Rather, it conjures a secular reverence for the mysterious and unknown. “I love sacred music though I’m not really a religious person,” she says. “The church has been known to be musically restrictive in some ways, so I’m toying with the idea of anything goes while trying to maintain that sense of reservation (that said, Aftertouches is quite maximalist in its indulgence). In a way I’m trying to deal with what that means personally; I think other people are dealing with that too.”

Coverdale’s recent collaboration work with Tim Hecker and LXV, two artists known for music that explodes the drone into noise driven melody, expanded her ability to craft her own sound worlds. “I was contributing to Tim’s established aesthetic and existing musical world and vision. It was extremely influential and invaluable to me yet at the same time I don’t think my music sounds like Tim’s – maybe he’s like a ghost somewhere in my music, just as maybe I’m a ghost in his.” 

Her work with LXV in the past year symbolizes a complete collaboration, however, in which she shared control of the sessions, project files and aesthetic vision of the music. “David and I are both very conceptual thinkers, so a lot of the work happened through discussion first,” she explains. “As far as process, he’d send me samples and I’d arrange and compose them, yet the record sounds so cohesive that maybe in 10 years we won’t remember who did what. I think that’s because we took a year to work and really settle in and curate what was going on.”

Conceptually, they were both interested in dissecting the role of violence in the digital age, from online media saturation to video games to being a woman in male dominated industries. “Initially, David had an idea that I could offer something soft since I was an organist and worked on sacred music, whereas I wanted to do more aggressive music, tap into his more sterile and abrasive audio work. It became this collision of soft clouds and stabbing percussion.” says Coverdale. “I think everyone is a violent person, it’s part of human nature. I’m an aggressive person, I go to the gym and use the punching bag first, but at the same time I’m nice, so why not embrace the violent side too – it’s not something we should sweep under the rug and go listen to happy music all the time.” 

In Coverdale’s sound world, in collaboration or alone in her home studio, such contemporary realities inevitably rear their heads:  a dataset of sampled human voices sing anew through her machines, an organ’s sustained notes soar to stuttering processed heights. “A lot of the sounds are redesigned, recreations of existing instruments and voices, so it’s kind of like a hologram of a real world that I’m trying to create, a removal from reality while still a reflection of what we live in and how we are,” she explains. “My music tries to articulate an environment, and whether there’s a story there or not I’m trying to get listeners into this sound world that is at times plastic, at times ethereal, maybe a little scary in its uncanniness sometimes, but ultimately optimistic.”

Kara-Lis Coverdale performs at PLAY 1 on Friday, May 29 at the MAC

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