Lisa Conway-Bühler is a Swiss-Canadian composer, sound artist, songwriter, producer, and mix engineer who performs as L CON. Her latest record, The Isolator, is out now.
(Photo Credit: Alix Forgeot)
Alanna Stuart is a music artist, researcher, curator, and documentarian based in Toronto, Canada and Kingston, Jamaica who performs as PYNE; Lisa Conway-Bühler, aka L CON, is a Swiss-Canadian composer, producer, and performer whose record, The Isolator, was released earlier this year. Both started PhD studies this fall, so the two artists met up to chat about how academia has been shaping their performance practices, and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Alanna Stuart: I’m curious about what you want to learn. Because I think of you as someone who’s so well-rounded with respect to the technical aspect of making music, and the compositional aspect. You just seem like you had such a holistic education, and now you’re in school. It’s like, what do you want to learn? It doesn’t have to be, “Why are you in school?” But what’s something you’re curious about learning about? Do you want to learn how to jump rope? Do you want to learn how to swim?
Lisa Conway: Um, I do want to learn how to swim, but I don’t think academia will provide that training to me. [Laughs.] I think I’m interested in just making myself stretch a little bit as a person and as an artist, and I think maybe school is a good container for stretching. It’s been really nice reading a lot — I’m reading way more than I would outside of school, things that resonate with me and things that don’t resonate with me. But I think I’m seeking a focused container for exploration that feels… Not that I feel scared to experiment outside of the academic bubble, but it feels like it’s part of my research to make strange things as part of the exploration.
Lisa: I don’t know exactly what is drawing me to learning.
Alanna: Or learning in this specific way, like institutionalized or guided in this specific way. It’s kind of like a soft lasso for what could be a boundless curiosity or imagination.
Lisa: Yeah, I guess it feels guided. In the individualized program, it feels both guided and very unguided too. So there’s a lot that I can kind of self-direct, which is exciting. Right now I’m making pieces for four speakers. I was reading a lot about Éliane Radigue’s work — she makes these really beautiful durational pieces and does things like point speakers at walls. She’s very cool.
Alanna: When you say four speakers, what do you mean? Like in four corners, or frequency ranges?
Lisa: They could be in four corners. I guess that’s what I’m exploring. Like, four channels. Right now I’m trying to create sound spaces through dispersing and filtering spectral information into different speakers to see what emerges from that. But I think it’s also about finding language for sound space aesthetics or something. What are you interested in about school? I also think of you as someone that has “arrived” in some way. You seem so confident in your practice. Every time I see you perform, you seem to know exactly what you want to be doing.
Alanna: I don’t consciously know. In my brain, you wouldn’t hear a monologue that says, “And now step two, turn to the left. Look the audience in the eye. Let your lips curve up and smile.” Like, I don’t know in a sense, but I think my body knows. And in performance lately, at this stage of my solo practice where it’s just my body and my laptop and music that I produced myself and my voice, the knowing is embodied. And so for me, that means that my hand might gesture in a particular way in response to the music, that I didn’t know I had the mechanical ability or the muscle memory or the emotional depth to be able to gesture with until I’m in front of an audience. And that comes from a lot of the learning that I’ve been doing and the rehearsing that I’ve been doing.
I started working with my body a lot, being part of this experimental theater. Technically, it’s a dance show — we premiered it at a dance festival — but if you saw it, I don’t know that you’d be able to categorize the art form. One of the instructions was for me to be a snaggle rock dog, where I would play [around with] an MC-505, but I wouldn’t play it with my hands, but with a part of the body you wouldn’t usually play it with. What image does that conjure up in your mind? So it really challenged me to really think conceptually or to feel different differently conceptually with my body in the presence of other people. And that stretched my imagination, stretched me as a person, and then it introduced me to new performance tools, be it new warmups or thinking about having a script or choreographing my body. I’ve never been that kind of performer, you know? I grew up singing in the church, so a lot of what would happen in the moment, I would discover in the moment, but it wouldn’t necessarily be informed by training necessarily, it’d be informed by god or the spirit. So having that kind of improvisational way of performing coupled with this new training while I’m finishing this solo record, these recent performances have been an integration of that learning.
Lisa: I saw you play at POP Montreal and I thought it was really incredible.
Alanna: Thank you.
Lisa: It felt very intentional, but it still felt very natural and unscripted. But did you have a score?
Alanna: I had a loose score, but it might look like a set list, you know? Like, I’m going to perform this song, and then for “Prince Johnny,” I’m going to be on the ground and then I’m going to get comfortable. So I might take off a shoe, but maybe I forgot to take off one shoe and I took off an earring instead. You know what I mean? There are these markers, and then the moment might dictate how that’s expressed.
And then with respect to academic learning, what that’s done more recently is thinking again about the body is — I don’t want to say the politics of the body, because there’s something kind of dehumanizing about conceiving of myself that way. But why should anybody else care that I’m a Black woman making dancehall inspired music in Canada? What does that mean to Jamaica, the country of my father’s origin and the source of my sonic origin? But then what does that mean in Canada? What happens to a space when my Black body walks into it? What happens to my Black body when I walk into certain spaces? What happens to my shoulders? Do they roll back and my body becomes erect with confidence? Or does it roll forward? And why is that? And that’s what I love about school, is because my mind is naturally kind of obsessed with the details and wants to know the underlying meaning of things and its impact on the broader world. I really like digging, and that container is made to hold that kind of curious curiosity and interrogation, but without it going too unwieldy. And it’s hard, but it’s fulfilling.
We were talking earlier about one of the benefits [of school] — because I have so many friends who I’m just like, “You do all that reading and that learning on your own? Nobody’s making you, you don’t get graded for it?” I need to be guided. But the main benefit is the discourse, the conversation. When I was doing my master’s, I might be reading about the body politics of the carceral system, but I’m engaging in this reading with one man who is addressing alt right racism in white men through their love of ethnic food, and how food can be an introduction into a way of countering racism. And then on the other end is a woman who’s looking at the connection between traditional Chinese medicine and vibration along the meridians of the body and the hum of bees. Another person is looking at the queer aesthetics of Chinese fan fiction. Another guy is looking at the colonial history of FIFA and wants to create a decolonial soccer school or football school. And then I’m looking at Femmehall and we’re all reading the same reading, but from these very distinct perspectives. What would their minds draw out that my mind could not imagine? And how does that change how I view myself, or this subject, or how does it impact how they view me? All in the same room, and it’s our job? Are you fucking kidding me? Yes, please. I want to do that every day.
Lisa: [Laughs.] Yeah, I mean it is amazing to be surrounded by a lot of different researchers and thinkers, for lack of a better word. I am curious in terms of body awareness — I feel like a person that is not as consciously paying attention to my body in space in a performance context. I haven’t stretched that muscle that much. And I think I’m naturally doing things — I know when I’m singing, I do a lot of shoulder… I don’t even know how you would describe what I’m mirroring right now. I go inward with my body, I’ve noticed, which is kind of constricting. Physically, it’s not helpful in terms of a singing practice to pull in that way, but it’s something that I’m just unconsciously doing. Was it like something that you had to build? Paying attention…
Alanna: My body? Yeah, I think so. But I think we’re doing the same thing — it sounds like you’re protecting yourself. You’re keeping yourself safe so that you can sing. And for me, because of my training, I might have the same fear, but it presents as confident because my reflex is to go deeper, closer to the audience, and to be bigger. And sometimes the moment doesn’t call for that. I think whether your shoulders are curved inwards and your chest is a bit more concave, the way you would go to hug someone or protect someone, or whether my chest is out and in the appearance of confidence, what’s happening in the mind is similar, but how that fear and that self-consciousness is expressed is different and in a performance-based mind is recognized as more certain. I have a similar response. I think the training, though, and the bodywork has been to bring me into my body and be more mindful so that I can be with the music, so that I’m responding to the music rather than someone’s eye roll. Maybe they just got a text because their partner said like, “Oh shit, I forgot to pick up the milk like you told me to,” and I’m like, They rolled their eyes. Did I say the wrong thing? I don’t know what they’re doing, but if I can be present with them doing my job, it doesn’t matter whether my shoulders are back or forward.
I think that that’s what the training has done. It’s helped ground me and bring me into the present moment. And I got that from theater training, which I consciously sought out, because my initial training was in the church — I started out singing in youth gospel competitions, so it was very like, “This is how you walk on the stage, this is how you clasp your hands, this is how you look someone in the eye. This is how you introduce yourself.” And that was on top of, “This is how you sing the song. Do this riff 50 times, do it at a different tempo so you get all the notes.” So that in the moment it didn’t matter how nervous I was, my autopilot was trained. But I was still on autopilot. My recent training now is, again, to catch that reflex of, at what point do I become disengaged? At what point do I become disembodied and bring myself back to the present moment? Mindfulness, you know? But in performance.
Lisa: It’s interesting, because I think a lot of musical training too, at least around performance, is to try and get to the disembodied place.
Lisa: I think so. I mean, maybe I’m taking a weird turn here. But there’s a pressure to continue the performance no matter what, even if you’re not in it, even if you’re not feeling grounded. And the way that you cope and do that is through sometimes disengaging and going into the automatic response. So you’re almost disrupting those trainings. Or I don’t know what trainings you experienced outside of the church, in the music world. But I feel like in classical violin lessons, when I was doing violin lessons, it was just like, “Get through the material. It doesn’t matter if you feel it or not.” I mean, it’s better if you do, but don’t fall apart. The show must go on.
Alanna: You have to contain and maintain.
Lisa: I was also thinking about when you were talking about having a kind of a score for your performance — I’ve kind of thought of scores loosely with performing electronic sets, like just having my list in my head of, And now I press this on the controller, and then I do this, and this is where I move the fader like this, or this is where I interact with this piece of equipment in this way, or cue up this thing, and it’s kind of like choreography. Or, I’m starting to think of it as my choreography in order to make sure everything happens within the set. We’re talking before we’re going to a DJ workshop — I feel like I will approach interacting with the CDJ with kind of that idea of a score.
Alanna: I think that’s great. I mean, that to me is embodied, because it still takes your human consciousness and emotional sensibility to know, at what rate do you open the oscillator? Or at what point do you turn the knob, and is this actually the moment to turn the knob? There’s still a responsive element to it, and I think that requires feeling. I actually really want to trade with you on the technical side of that, because I found that when I was doing things like live finger drumming in preparation for the tour, that I was so in my own world. It was like my mouth just dropped open and my eyes were laser focused on the instrument, and it’s just like no part of me moved. I was so in it that I don’t know if I was actually allowing myself to feel, but if I blinked, then it would just completely fuck up my timing because I was concentrating so hard. And so to establish a more natural relationship with the technology so that I can turn the knob up and play the part with my right hand, and it could be as emotive as me whining down to the ground. Can I learn with you?
Lisa: [Laughs.] Sure! I mean, finger drumming in particular, it’s probably just a way of making the physical action be automatic so that you can return to the body and not think about the thing. Or do you feel like the barrier is the piece of equipment?
Alanna: I think that’s it. I want to learn how to establish a relationship with the technology, the way that I do with the music or my body. I’m not afraid of it, but I think I get comfortable and that’s where my learning can sometimes stunt itself Like, “Oh, I gotta adapt the studio session to this technology and then the learning curve of that, and then during the live set, what if this thing doesn’t turn on? But I know that I want to do it because with this music, I want to be able to — it’s not like I want to be able to perform anywhere, everywhere, “nothing can stop me!” [Laughs.] But I think I just want to have different formats for this show and different experiences for myself with the music, and to be able to go to something like World Creation Studio and do a demonstration that isn’t just me singing to people, but is a live demo kind of thing. And I don’t know where to start.
Lisa: Yeah. I mean, I feel like live performance is so different than the music production part. I think of them as very different practices, so I kind of have to let go of them being the same. And even if I am using some of the same tools — the Ableton session that I use for a live thing is different than the one for writing, and sometimes even has different instruments or different parts to supplement elements that don’t translate in the way that I want them to live. I kind of have to unmarry them a bit while still respecting the song. I’ve found that exciting, or I try to approach it with excitement instead of feeling—
Lisa: Yeah, not fear, but feeling like if I can’t do things exactly the way that the studio recording is, that I’m failing at honoring the song. It’s like a different version of a song to me, and it can have different things. And that’s what makes recording exciting, because on the recording you’re creating a sound world that doesn’t exist and can’t exist live. So I’m just trying to lean into that as being different from live.
In terms of feeling comfortable with gear, I think I’ve been involved in so many recordings and with so much technology that hasn’t worked on stage that I kind of just – I want to almost write a little zine or something on philosophies of troubleshooting. Because it’s really a lot about mindfulness and breathwork and just not panicking, I guess. And also just not taking it personally — I think there can be a cycle with technology where if things aren’t working, you blame yourself and you feel like, Oh, if I knew more, if I was more prepared, then this wouldn’t happen to me. But it happens to everybody., I’ve seen workshops by people that are extremely intelligent and studied at very prestigious places where things don’t work. So that’s been a big part of my journey, just trying to not beat myself up about things not working and maybe assuming that things won’t work.
Alanna: Yeah. I think what you’re highlighting with respect to the learning process is something that I don’t get to share, but I think people are sharing more and more of, with the personal work involved in the working on the self and how that comes into play to creative practice as well. Learning things like qigong and mindfulness and going to therapy, all of that is part of the learning, all of that is part of the artistry. [I don’t] separate my morning run from this mixing workshop, it’s kind of on a continuum. And what you just expressed about being in the moment [and] how do you respond to the technology when it doesn’t follow your commands — I feel like all of that has to do with our relationship with our self and how we engage with other beings, living and non-living. I think it’s a really important consideration. Something as simple as “don’t beat yourself up” probably won’t work. So how do you turn that into a creative experience? And I think that’s the beauty of practice. You just get to make more mistakes. It’s not about, like, becoming perfect. It’s like, how do you make enough mistakes [so] that you have more ways of troubleshooting?
Lisa: Yeah, and you learn more ways of troubleshooting the more that you do it. But I think it’s also important to remember that, at least in music tech spaces, you are in a body that isn’t as reflected as other bodies. Like, it’s still such a male-dominated space. So I think there’s extra labor that has to be done in terms of the self-soothing when things don’t work, because at least for me, there’s an extra pressure that I put on myself that if things aren’t working, I’m proving that I don’t belong in this space. And even though intellectually I know that that’s not true, I have to still do that extra self-soothing step.
Alanna: How do you self-soothe in those moments? If it’s not too personal to ask.
Lisa: I don’t know. I think maybe at a live performance, there’s such an adrenaline that there isn’t even time to process what’s happening if things aren’t working. It kind of feels like a panic.
Lisa: And then after, there’s a lot of rumination about what I could have done differently. [Laughs.]
Alanna: [Laughs.] “If I did this, then this…” Even though you can’t actually know what would happen because it didn’t happen.
Lisa: Yeah. So I don’t know if there’s self-soothing in the moment. I think it’s more just about trying to take a breath.
I don’t know, turning things on and off again is my first go to choreography. And then after that, I’m not sure what happens.
Lisa: Crying, yeah.
Alanna: Something somebody told me that I try to hold on to is, “failure is not a failure if you learn something from it.” We’re just experimenting. When we’re learning, we’re theorizing new ways of doing things in performance. I mean, in the moment it doesn’t feel like that — in the moment you’re sweating balls and you’re just like, Oh, my god, it’s not turning on. There’s no sound. It’s a music show and there’s no sound.
Lisa: [Laughs.] I think we maybe have to leave soon.
Alanna: Yeah, what time is it?
Lisa: Like, 10 to.
Alanna: Yeah, let’s go.
(Photo Credit: left, Joshua Rille)