Colin Self and Ziemba Choose to Feel the Feelings

The friends and collaborators dive deep on the power of group singing.

René Kladzyk is an El Paso-based performance artist who performs as Ziemba; Colin Self is a composer, and a performance artist who was one-fifth of the drag collective Chez Deep. René and Colin previously collaborated in leading the experimental choir group XOIR. Now René has a new Ziemba record, Unsubtle Magic, coming out this Friday on Polygon Records, so to celebrate the two sat down to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music 

René Kladzyk: I think the last time that you and I saw each other in person was when we met up in the Bay Area to work on the XOIR charter. 

Colin Self: Yeah! Which never happened still!

René: It never did. 

Colin: But it’s also so fucked up — this was not long before the pandemic started. I was trying to remember what a different psychic place we were in together, thinking about the charter before the pandemic. And then I think during the pandemic, I was really like, XOIR’s done. I was like, We’ll never sing together ever again. Group singing all of a sudden became like a relic of a time.

René: Well, yeah — I mean, literally the practice of singing in close proximity with other people is just, like, spewing your body into the air. [Laughs.]

Colin: [Laughs.] So I did these two XOIR sessions today —

René: You should probably say what XOIR is, for the uninitiated.

Colin: OK, so XOIR is a group singing practice based in experimenting and exploring the voice. It’s authored and built by many, and facilitated by many, and is a kind of alternative group singing structure to the standard arrangements of soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and the quantification of good and bad voices. It’s a place for all voices.

René: Yeah, though you didn’t really mention that it’s your baby, which I think you should give yourself that credit. But something else that I really appreciate about XOIR is, even though sometimes it does involve performance, I don’t feel like the goal is about performance. It’s more about developing your relationship with your own singing voice and with others, and kind of a tuning yourself as a singing body, or tapping into kind of the energetic things that can happen when you sing with other people. It always felt very therapeutic to me, and that was a key component of it. Rather than being about a finished product or a performative experience where it’s for someone else, it feels like it’s very much for this ephemeral thing you can make with other people, and very specific to a moment in time.

Colin: Yeah, very much so. I did these two XOIR sessions today, and I keep kind of coming back to this Mark Fisher writing that’s all about, essentially, the importance of subcultures or music cultures that are not made for the public, or that are in some way opaque. And in this weird era of everything being online, and everything being accessible and available to everyone, there’s this argument for giving people the space to be creative together, to co-author and make sound in a way that the rest of the world will never hear or see. 

So it is both this weird caveat of XOIR— which, it’s been eight years, which is nuts — but the weird thing is that over, you know, I can’t count how many sessions, there’s such little recording, for the purpose of giving people the space to be unrecorded in a creative environment. And it is also from my own desire for that too, because it feels like everything I do is recorded or has to be for the world or something.

René: When I was thinking about what feels so magical about XOIR — and all choral experiences, because you and I both have been doing group singing our whole lives — is that I feel like it’s a type of experience where you and a group of people become an organism together, and it’s fundamentally selfless. Because it doesn’t work unless your primary activity is for the well-being of the group — you have to be listening and engaging for it to work.

Colin: That’s true.

René: So it’s very open-hearted in that way, because you’re required to be connected to others, which feels beautiful. I think that’s what feels so good about it, is that it’s never about you. It’s about all of us.

Colin: Yeah, someone said something today that stuck out to me — they were like, “Wow, it was so nice to not be myself for a minute.” I think in those group singing environments, you’re able to be kind of freed of your body, and the body can feel like such a cage for some people. 

We were doing this activity where everyone had their eyes closed, and we were kind of building a landscape with these repetitions, and I really do have these moments sometimes when I’m in that mode where I’m no longer in the room, and it’s like we are all collectively as voices on a different dimension, astral plane, whatever. It’s real! And when you’re there, it’s kind of like analog VR, where you’re basically just like, Wow, I’m really transported to another reality through sound. And also with an understanding that it is this temporary place to go.

René: Well, it’s funny, too, because you were talking about how [group singing] felt like such a foreign thing all of a sudden, because it’s, like, physically taboo — unlike you, I’m still kind of in that place. Not that things aren’t opening back up here, but since COVID, I have not experienced singing with other people at all. Like, not once. It’s definitely the longest I’ve ever gone in my life, and it’s so sad. [Laughs.]

I just made this album and I recorded it at my home by myself. There are other players on it, but it was all remote. I just long to sing with other people. It’s funny and interesting to think about how much in my life I’ve cultivated situations for group singing — I mean, I joined a choir right when I moved to New York. We sang at Lincoln Center and stuff, it was far out. We sang the opera choruses with all these Stars of the Met, and I remember this concert we did where I just had rolling chills for, like, two hours. I was so high from it. I mean, the reverberatory frequencies of being there, that close to the singers… 

Colin: It makes sense why all major religions have group singing. I was doing these XOIR sessions over Zoom during the pandemic, to sort of find a way to individually distribute somatic exercises that people could do on their own in their room. But the weird thing about this moment when so much of what is our world has already or is becoming digitized or existing in the digital realm — there is no proxy. There is nothing of an equivalent to group singing that can happen. I’ve seen and experienced a lot of them, and I think the closest thing would be a Janet Cardiff installation, with those speakers in a circle arranged with each voice. 

But there’s something about even just the pressure of human bodies in a room having that many people together singing, that you can’t fake it. It’s just, you get it or you don’t. I feel deprived of something when I’m not able to be with people that way.

René: It’s like a form of transcendence. Even if there’s not an object of devotion, I feel like it’s kind of a fundamentally devotional activity. It’s what makes us human.

Colin: Yeah. There’s all of the theories about how singing existed before there was language, which kind of makes sense. When you get into the somatic part of these things, of people who are like, “Oh, I’m able to alleviate stress, or interface with my central nervous system through singing,” I do get this really strong feeling of singing being something so ancient in the body that, regardless of what your experience of singing might be, when you’re put in a situation of being around voices, we automatically connect to something deep in our humanness, deep in ourselves. And that doesn’t go away — I’ve been doing XOIR for eight years, and I still get it when I’m in a room.

There was a moment when Alex [Drewchin of Eartheater, who Colin recently played with in Berlin] was singing a song at the end of one of her sets, and she was crying. There was this really sad story, and she was like, “I need you all to sing because I can’t, I’m crying.” And the audience singing — I just lost it. I wept. Being in a room of people who are singing on behalf of one person, nothing compares to it.

René: Even beyond group singing, just solo singing, I notice if I haven’t sang for a period of days — I won’t notice consciously, but I’ll start to feel that something’s not quite right. Like, if I haven’t sang and danced around my kitchen, I’m not OK. [Laughs.] 

Colin: [Laughs.] I am unwell. You will find me at my worst.

It’s real! I’m the exact same way. Catch me any hour of the day at home, making up a song or reciting songs. I’m so silly or dumb with some of my musical musings, where literally I’ll be like, [sings] “Oh, my socks are on the floor, I gotta pick them up some more.”

René: Oh, my god. Me having a dog is like, now I have the recipient of all my serenades. She just gets serenaded, like, ten times a day.

Colin: I know this to be true — I’m part time with this dog Jezebel, she’s an English bulldog. It’s like, what better audience than a little dog? And you can sing about the dog, you can tell them how much you love them. Sometimes they sing along.

René: Yeah, Penny howls. She’s a singer. She’s got some husky in her, so she likes to sing.

When we were talking about making the XOIR charter, it was kind of with the intent that it be this model that anyone could do anywhere. You were talking about putting all the different scores online — because I know that you’ve collected a lot of scores over the years that have been used in XOIR sessions. Did that ever happen, or do you feel like that’s on the horizon? 

Colin: It’s on the horizon. I’ve been meaning to do it. Something that’s kind of been challenging about it is, often what happens is I have a modality that I do, or a practice that we do in XOIR. And then as I continue to practice it, it changes. So then it becomes this thing where, if I was to write that down, I’d have to go back and say, like, “Oh, no, actually, the focus is this thing.”

René: And you don’t want it to feel too rigid, right? Iit should be that people can kind of make it their own.

Colin: Yeah. So I think what has to happen with a charter is, like, here are some parameters of how you can build an exercise, or give a couple of examples but also say, “I encourage all of you to make up your own thing.” Which fortunately people do, and people will send me videos of their XOIR sessions, and they totally make up their own weird thing. Or sometimes it does become this thing of returning more to traditional music through XOIR, but with this kind of leniency or scratchiness about what it is to be performing a traditional music around the world. 

I essentially made like a document, which is like what happens in the first 10 or 15 minutes of a XOIR session, as the kind of initiatory practices. But I need to mine my notebooks. 

There is this thing, too, about resisting professionalization, which has been real for me for a long time, of being like, how do we let this thing be open source and —

René: Keep the play in it? I feel like that’s very fundamental to the attitude for approaching XOIR in general  — not this attitude of getting things right, or of finite definitions of how any given activity, quote-unquote, “should be.”

Colin: I think it takes people a while to get there too. Often I think a XOIR session will start, and you can say that to people, like, “You don’t have to worry about sounding stupid, this is a place for all voices and all sounds, and everything is about aspiration and not goals,” and so on and so forth. And still, it takes people some time to get into the modality of the presence of safety cues, to feel safe enough to actually experiment and embark into the unknown with strangers.

The unspoken context of a XOIR attendee is also this thing of bravery and courage. One is to have the courage to say, “I’m going to go into a room of strangers.” And then two, “I’m going to express myself.”

René: It’s very vulnerable.

Colin: It’s really vulnerable. And I try to remind people at the end of a session, “Say thank you to yourself and to the others for holding the space for everyone to be brave and courageous and vulnerable together,” because it’s not actually an easy thing to do for most people.

Even people who are trained singers, I think, feel in the context of a workshop that something is at stake. But I’m also aware that I’ve been doing these sessions now for so long, that a part of this thing about creating the environment is so rudimentary or easy now. And that’s a hard thing to teach people. It’s like, how do you get someone to a place of being able to facilitate, with comfort and ease, the parameters of experimentation that includes failure and mistakes as vital to the doing? I’m realizing it’s not so easy.

René: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of cultural training to avoid potential failure at every turn. You have to be willing to fail, on some level, in order to kind of access this really open, vulnerable, playful state. You have to be willing to look dumb or to sound bad. And that’s kind of threatening to a sense of self, if you have a sense of yourself that can’t look bad in front of strangers. [Laughs.]

Colin: To be like, “I’m an artist and I’m a musician, and I have to only make good music and I have to only make good sounds!” Like, what if you made bad sounds? [Laughs.] Like, what’s there? What are we afraid of when it comes to creative mistakes? 

René: I think looking back on that period of time in New York, when I was first attending your XOIR sessions regularly, and then leading them after you left — that also was so creatively motivating for me, because it taught me to be really fearless and courageous in pursuing potential dead ends and bad ideas. But to not give a shit, to not take myself so seriously that I wouldn’t give myself permission to just try things out or to follow an idea, even if I didn’t know from the onset if it was going to work. 

That translated in so many different ways. I feel like there’s so many people who creatively are very stunted by wanting to plan and know how things are going to work from the onset, or wanting a thing or an idea to be good from the get go. That’s just the most stifling thing you can do, to me at least. If you begin to make something and you’re like, “Oh, it’s bad,” and you put all these judgments on it from the get go. It’s like, “Well, then you’re never going to make anything.”

Colin: That also reminds me of, something that happens way too often, and it really breaks my heart, is the amount of times that people come to a XOIR session. And they say, “You know, I used to sing when I was younger, and then I stopped because someone told me that I had a bad voice,” or, “My teacher told me that I’m not supposed to be a singer, I need to focus on dance because I’m not a good enough singer.” This kind of foreclosure of any creative practice, to say that you’re not good enough, or this thing isn’t going to make you money, this isn’t going to be your bread and butter, so you should stop wasting your time and be an adult and get serious — it really breaks my heart. 

The amount of people who come to the sessions who, it gets really emotional for them — it can be a really painful thing for people to return to singing when their departure was something like that. Then it becomes this thing, too, [where] it’s like, how do you safely guide people into that environment in a way that’s not going to feel like they’re retraumatizing themselves? 

I’m realizing at this point in my life, one of the most valuable things you can do to a person is tell them that you believe in them. I think about the amount of people who come into any creative practice having never had anyone in their life tell them that they believe in them, and how there’s a real great inequity in that, as far as who gets told that someone believes in them. So then with XOIR, it’s this thing of like, how do you create something as simple as group singing as a way to show people that you believe in them? And give them the tools of, “You can do this thing and it really didn’t take much, and look how cool that sounded!”

René: And the doing of the thing can be about joy. You shouldn’t only do things that you’re, quote-unquote, “good” at, or that you can make money off of. It’s just so toxic and limiting. That’s part of what feels very energizing and uplifting about XOIR, is that the value metric is more about how you feel and the state that it cultivates within you and others. And to me, that’s such a better value metric for how to live your life. It’s like, let’s measure success by how we feel and how we make other people feel and how much joy we’re cultivating on a regular basis. 

Colin: What a world we would live in… But the feeling world is is feared. Especially in Germany — I really ran into this when I was in grad school, when I was making emotional music. There’s this whole politic of like, “The world of feeling is manipulative and it’s fascist, you’re controlling people.” And so there really was this thing where I came to school, and I did this really simple choir performance, and it made some people cry — they thought it was beautiful, and they cried. And then immediately it struck up this conversation amongst faculty, it really divided the school of people who were like, “Well, you know, this is fascism. What you’re doing is making people feel feelings, which is what Wagner did with the Nazis.” They really, especially in Berlin — because emotions are these uncontrollable things — they fear being emotional. Something that I really struggle with in Germany is that there’s such an aversion, because of this fear of being manipulated, to emotions. 

How do you teach people that emotions are good? If you can regulate and create those emotions yourself, or in a group experience, then it doesn’t all have to be bad. Like, it’s not bad to be happy or angry or sad. And so many people are closed off to that, because emotional feelings are scary, and people don’t want to feel, they’d rather be numb.

René: So you know that my dad died a couple of years ago now, and the process of grieving a big loss — I think you have to choose whether to feel the feelings or not. There were times where I was very deliberately just trying to shut off my emotional self, because it felt easier and more practical to survive and exist in the world if I was just like, I’m just not going to think about that right now, I can’t think about it. I can’t handle dealing with it

Whether or not you try to be the dictator of your feelings, there’s there’s so much research on how they redirect themselves and manifest in other ways. Healthy pathways to release natural feelings that happen is part of being a human and existing in the world, and having connections to people that change through love bonds or whatever — if you have healthy methods for releasing them, that’s a better way to respond when crisis happens or conflict happens.

Colin: Otherwise it manifests in the body as illness. When you don’t do these things, that’s when people get sick. A part of the extreme present is this being confounded with grief all the time, for so many different things. And there really is that question of, how do we live with grief? How do we process grief in a way that doesn’t annihilate us? Like you said, a part of surviving grief is having to, at times, turn it off and be like, I can’t do that right now, I don’t have the energy, and giving yourself permission to do so.

I was talking to a friend whose parent passed away really recently, and even that hard thing of like, how do you talk to a friend who’s so stoic about it? I think you’re right, that you really choose. There is no one else that can choose to feel it. It happens when it happens.

René: Yeah. I think the thing, though, is that if you never let it happen, to be careful. [Laughs.]

Colin: Tread lightly! It will come out some way or another. Your eyes will start bleeding, your foot will fall off — you’ll accidentally hijack an airplane and fly it to Maui. You know, it’s like, all of a sudden, you’ll have driven across four state borders and you’ll wake up and be like, “Oh, my god, I stole a car.”

René: And what if you, just instead, tried singing on a regular basis?

Colin: [Laughs.] Problem solved! “Have you tried singing? Ever heard of it?” Imagine that crisis aversion being like, “Have you sung?”

René: We need have a part of the XOIR charter that’s for international diplomacy.

Colin: Yeah, we’re doing a XOIR session with the UN to help international bonds. 

(Photo Credit: left, Ian Torres; right, Johnathan Grassi)

René Kladzyk is the songwriter, producer, vocalist and pianist behind Ziemba. Her latest album Unsubtle Magic is out December 10, 2021 via Sister Polygon.

(Photo Credit: Ian Torres)