Laura Ortman’s transition from a focus on visual and performance art to music and sound art generally happened when she acquired a 4-track recorder. Not only could she record her own compositions but she could capture sounds and use those recordings to transcend the limitations and immediate contexts of either. It perhaps provided a way to use her skills and conceptualizing tools as a visual artist in a different context and to transcend the limitations of a more classical mode of creating music.
An accomplished, New York City-based artist Ortman grew up in St. Louis where he adopted grandmother inspired her to learn violin. She went on to play in the St. Louis Youth Symphony and earned a BFA from University of Kansas which lead to living in NYC where became an installation and performance artist. Since taking up music, Ortman has become a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who also employs unconventional instruments like an Apache violin and an amplified piano to create sound environments that are as much music as an emotional experience translated in a form that can be shared without the boundaries of spoken language. Ortman plays tonight at Titwrench Fest #9 at the Mercury Café at 10:30 p.m.. We had a chance to interview Ortman via email about some of her recent projects and bringing together various modes of creation and cultural traditions in making her deeply evocative soundscapes.
Tom Murphy: You recently did a tribute concert to the late Bruce Langhorne roughly two months before he passed, assuming it’s the same folk musician who worked with Bob Dylan and much more. What inspired doing that tribute concert and why do you think that sort of tribute was fitting for him?
Laura Ortman: Yes it’s the same Langhorne. He was incredible, though I didn’t know that much about him until Scissortail Records in Oklahoma rallied all these musicians for this extensive compilation tribute album and it was guitarist Loren Connors in New York who recommended for me to participate. It was a huge honor to try to cover one of Langhorne’s pieces, especially as a violinist. It was the right pairing and now it has given me a great sense of the man. Playing the tribute concert was taking all these understandings of Langhorne knowing he was in solace but his legacy is very inspiring to me especially for the kind of music he wrote and recorded.
Your music and art incorporates multiple styles, traditions, cultures and aesthetics. Do you feel that anything in particular set you on a path to doing what you do know from having played in classical situations like the St. Louis Youth Symphony and later on doing truly unique experiments with amplified strings (pianos, various violins etc.)?
Yes. I grew up playing and listening to ’80’s radio in Alton, Illinois and at the same time was learning from a great violin teacher from 5th grade to high school the craziness of the concentration it takes to even slightly attempt to play difficult classical repertoire. And then when moving to New York City that became my new school of influences due to so many of my friends who were going to many live shows, seeing great art exhibits and having wild parties. It became a huge passion and that happened along the same time I was doing improv violin live for modern dancers. It was inspiring to keeping me in the moment. I eventually played in large, crazy bands, especially Stars Like Fleas. Then doing my own home recordings and soundtracks for films really helped me sort out tons of what I liked and wanted to part with too.
You’ve experimented with 4-track recorders for some time. When did you first start using them and what do you think makes it a creatively inspirational bit of technology to use in making music? Or, perhaps, rather, why do you think simulating isolated, ambient sounds from the environment around you at the time is so evocative in composing an experience (certainly I don’t think your compositions are limited simply to the framework of a traditional song most people are used to thinking about when using that word “song”)?
I live on one of the loudest streets in Brooklyn called Flatbush Avenue. My apartment is old and on the 2nd floor right above the avenue (I also call Flatbush my river.) That’s where I learned how to 4-track and it was nearly impossible to play this incredibly ambient, atmospheric, simple sound recordings without a garbage truck, ambulance siren or subway train rumble inside of it. I always listened back through all these recordings and noticed how much I really think it was my partner in one lone quiet violin song, or a space between a chord on my amplified piano. I embraced it fully and leave the technology of recording to that mostly because it’s all I’ve ever known.
You’ve worked (or are still working on) on soundtracks of cities like New York and Santa Fe. What does coming up with these soundtracks look/sound like for you in terms of what you collect and edit/collage together. What would you say are the salient qualities of New York that make it interesting for you to write a soundtrack for? Santa Fe?
It’s about bringing my friends and community together and hearing pieces of their experiences in the audio way so as to catch a window into their worlds. There’s a lot of ideas I have about working on these soundtracks about being a resident and visitor in a place I will never fully know. So I take a lot out of what it means to hang with the locals. I want to know this world where I live and work. My community (music world, Native world, friends, and beyond) carries me through this experience. Plus—the strangers! The strangers!
Where do you think Western European, First Nations, ambient and avant-garde music intersect and blend well in your own music-making and imagination? As in where do you find them blending well with the other or informing the other, enhancing the music. I realize that it may not be as separated out as that or as self-conscious. But as someone who educates people about these sorts of things, I was wondering how you may talk about how these various ways of thinking of art and music intersect and work together if indeed they do.
From my own experience, I began as a visual artist making drawings and sculptures, then shifted to installation work and performance work and then gained a huge interest in making my own self-recordings for my installation/performance work. And then just probably through the massive, worldly New York City music world and the huge influence it’s had on me, working with just music made so much sense to me because it simplified all these ideas about how to express my ideas about where I’ve been, where I’m going and what’s to come. Coming from many different worlds (Arizona, Illinois, Michigan, Kansas, New York City) through many different mediums has been a thrill. And I just can’t stop wanting to be part of the vibrant music/arts scene my friends, heroes, homes, communities and family has brought me to since I was very, very young.
Your music suggests mood and setting and a story even if it’s non-verbal. Do you feel storytelling is a component of your music and how do you feel you incorporate that thinking in music that has no lyrics or words?
More than anything I’d say my music is about atmospheres of places I have dreamt up. They tell stories perhaps about staying in one place with one emotion and one vista. It takes me years to figure out what some of my pieces are about, but I always mainly leave them up to the listeners observations without any yes-es or nos. It’s open.
My Soul Remainer (2017) reminds me a tiny bit in places of the more pastoral work of Daniel Lanois yet it was recorded in Brooklyn with Martin Bisi who is of course known for all those great post-punk and avant-garde and whatnot recordings. How did you come to work with Martin and why do you think he was the right choice for the kind of album you had written?
This is my third solo album recorded by the great Martin Bisi of Gowanus, Brooklyn. I came to know him through his discography but then also many of my good friends 20 years go when I first moved to New York were recording with him. I loved the idea of the small violin in his gigantic cavernous studio to record my 1st solo album. I emailed him and told him about my work. He said yes! And it’s been an incredibly vibrant and productive relationship ever since. I even haul my ginormously heavy piano there to record it. I needed the space, the caverns, the crud and the one-on-one fast paced relationship with someone like him who can read my mind sometimes.