Mem1 is Laura Cetilia (cello, electronics) and Mark Celilia (analogue synthesizer, electronics). The duo’s music combines the natural timbre of the cello with custom-built instruments (both hardware and software) to create a sound that is at times gently haunting and ethereal, and at times harsh, earthy, and dark. They just released Tetra, their fourth album on their new experimental music imprint, Estuary, Ltd and have another record, a collaboration with sound artist, Stephen Vitiello, due in the spring of 2011 on Dragon’s Eye Recordings. The duo will perform on Rare Frequency on January 13, 2011 and very generously answered a few questions via email beforehand.
What are your backgrounds and how did you both became interested in making music? More specifically, how did you become interested in using electronics?
Laura: As a child I was greatly interested in working with sound before I started any instruments. My favorite Christmas present was a tape recorder that my brother and I would use to create audio stories complete with various lo-tech sound effects (crumpling paper and running water, for instance). When I was about ten I was forced to learn piano (which I am grateful for) and then picked the cello in my school orchestra program.
As a teenager I was fortunate enough to go to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts where I had the luxury to be myself and not ashamed of loving classical and other non-pop music. I was introduced to the Kronos Quartet at this time and went to every concert they did in Los Angeles. I also had the opportunity to see the incredible cellist Francis-Marie Uitti play at Monday Evening Concerts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Little did I know I’d be working for Monday Evening Concerts and programing Francis on my own experimental music series about a decade later.
I was very much drawn to “new music” but in order to progress on the cello I had to learn more traditional repertoire for auditions and such. Eventually, I was accepted to and later graduated from the School of Music at Indiana University. It was there that I was introduced to the highest standards of musicianship and technical skill that at first deeply intimidated me, but I soon embraced by spending countless hours practicing, going to master classes, and listening to recordings. Upon graduation from IU, I immediately went to grad school at Wichita State University where I received my master’s degree in cello performance as member of a professional orchestra, the Wichita Symphony, and the Graduate String Quartet, with whom I designed and performed numerous outreach concerts for children. I still of course enjoyed learning about, listening, and sometimes playing music by the “modern masters” such as Cage, Crumb, and such, but I sort of had to set aside my passion for the more experimental side of things in order to really become skilled at my instrument.
In 2000, I moved back to Los Angeles, patching together a career working for a music publishing company, teaching cello, and gigging with regional orchestras and DIY chamber groups. Feeling a little disillusioned and a bit empty inside, I began to search for the niche that I ached for. In 2002 I landed the job with Monday Evening Concerts (L.A.’s oldest new music series, then under the direction of composer Dorrance Stalvey) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Constantly being around the radical and cutting-edge (classical) music presented at MEC eventually made me feel more at home in my native city and I gained the courage to explore the local experimental electronic music scene. My first experience of an “underground” experimental music concert was in 2002. I saw Steve Roden play and was instantly absorbed in his way of music-making, which was my first introduction to “lower-case music”. Through this show I met violinist, Julie Fowells and her husband, Bernard Elsmere, who were in a group together called f100. She had a looping pedal and he manipulated her sound with some custom designed software. They invited me to play with them, so I quickly bought a pick-up and looping/delay pedal, surprising both myself and them at how naturally I became a member of the group. We played a lot and hung out in their cottage in Echo Park, but only did one show together at the Line/Space/Line series formally run by one of my now good friends, Jeremy Drake. I tried to go as many experimental music concerts I could and in 2003 I met Mark at a show where Steve Roden was playing once again. I was instantly impressed with Mark’s vast knowledge and collection of obscure music and his work in electronic music using Max/MSP. Within days of meeting each other we quickly began playing together and formed our group, Mem1.
Mark: Though my formal training was in the visual arts, I took piano lessons from the age of 5 through 18, began experimenting with tape music in high school, and worked with sound in experimental theatrical productions, sculptural installations and “intermedia” performances throughout my undergraduate studies. Upon graduating with a degree in studio art in 1997, I packed up my bags, and moved to San Francisco, where I put aside the tape and began working with vinyl, and code. Having arrived during the dot com boom, it seemed only natural to pursue a career in graphic design and multimedia development during the day and DJ at Drum & Bass clubs at night. I started working with modular synthesis, hardware samplers and timeline-based audio editing software, and began making my own music again, but DJing had given me an appreciation for the challenge and exhilaration of playing in front of an audience, and I found studio-based production infinitely frustrating.
In 1999, I took on some freelance design work for Polyrhythmic, a record label in Los Angeles focused on experimental electronic music, and I began trading files with them through the internet and postal mail. The artists I was collaborating with performed live, and I decided to move to L.A. to find out how they were doing it. The answer was synchronizing lots of hardware synthesizers, samplers and drum machines. I wanted to streamline this process somehow, and eventually pieced together a portable system consisting of a sequencer, sampler and a control surface. Unfortunately, this “portable” system still weighed about a hundred pounds and required two people to carry it.
In 2000, I saw a performance in downtown Los Angeles by Shawn Hatfield (aka Twerk)—ironically, a San Francisco-based electronic musician—and he was only using a laptop and fader box. He was also using software he had created in the Max/MSP authoring environment. I decided to put aside the hardware and set about learning this strange beast of a program. I began by building a system of synchronized loopers, which allowed me to drop in recordings I had made previously and play them back with various alterations (pitch, length, filtering, etc.).
After spending some time with my new system, I began to feel frustrated by the limitations of pre-recorded material in performances. I decided to add a live sampling component and a number of auxiliary sends to my system, which allowed me to create feedback loops that slowly destroyed the source material. In 2003, I met Laura and we started playing together, but instead of manipulating loops I had recorded previously, we decided that I should use her live sound as the sole source material which I would manipulate in real time, and we started performing together under the name Mem1. Since then, Mem1 has played a major role in my creative practice and my system has continued to evolve according to my needs as a performer and sound artist.
When did you start making music together as Mem1?
Days after we met, in 2003.
What is the significance of the name?
Sorry, trade secret…
I know that you use cello, synthesizer, and electronics in your work, but could describe in a bit more detail, the kinds of tools and instruments that you use? Am I right in thinking that most of these are custom instruments?
From 2003 up through 2008, all of our sounds were derived from the cello, in conjunction with manipulation by Laura using a single delay pedal and Mark using custom software developed in Max/MSP. In 2008-2009, we were accepted to artist residencies in the Netherlands (at STEIM in Amsterdam and Kunstenaarslogies in Amersfoort) and Norway (at USF Verftet in Bergen). We spent this time reworking our performance systems from the ground up. We devised a system for Laura comprised of foot controllers and custom software built in Max that allows her to control STEIM’s LiSa software without interfering with her cello performance or adding unnecessary “maintenance” gestures.
During this time, Mark also took the occasion to upgrade his system, rewriting everything for Max 5, streamlining the user interface and adding a number of new features, as well as developing a custom controller built specifically to his specifications. Due to the advances made in Laura’s performance system during this time (which allowed her to manipulate the sound of her own instrument), Mark also began to incorporate modular synthesis into Mem1 performances (thus allowing him to manipulate sounds of his own device, as well as those generated or manipulated by Laura).
Could you talk a bit about the making of Tetra? In what was the recording/composition process different from your previous albums?
Our performance practice has evolved over the years. When we first began working together (2003- 2004), our work revolved around extended improvisational recording sessions. Our first album was created from edits of these sessions, which resulted in more concise versions of such improvisations. During this time, we were exploring our instruments and the possibilities afforded by combining our skill bases as individuals with no preconceived musical direction. The resulting recordings were thus experimental in the original sense of the word, not simply in terms of where to shelve them in a store.
From 2005-2008, our practice was was focused on structural improvisation. Rehearsals would begin with open-ended improvisations, and through discussions following listening back to recordings, we would tighten the focus to a handful of possibilities and devise a timeline with logical transitions between them. Alexipharmaca was a result of this process, as was +1, to a large extent, though each collaboration on +1 was handled differently, based on the working methods and what seemed the most natural means of collaboration.
As mentioned previously, we spent 2008-2009 developing new systems, and premiered them in performances at the Landmark Kunsthall (as part of BIT Teatergarasjen’s PrøveRommet series) and Logen Hall (as part of the 2009 Borealis Festival) in Bergen, Norway. These performances maintained our focus on structured improvisation but with a greatly extended sound palette.
Upon returning to the states in Spring 2009, we departed on an East Coast tour with Providence-based guitarist Area C (featured on +1), and agreed that for the duration of the tour, our performances would consist of entirely improvised material with no preconceived structures. This helped us gain a high level of familiarity with our new systems, and led to the development of looser, more fluid feeling improvisations.
Arriving back in Los Angeles, we had the occasion to revisit ideas stemming from our time in Norway. Our studio in Bergen looked out over the fjords, and though the scene out of our window remained basically stationary the entire three months we were there, there were subtle differences in the color of the sky and its reflection in the water, changes in precipitation, whether rain or snow, the position of the sun or moon and clouds passing by. Coming to terms with this led us to the next natural evolution of our practice—limiting ourselves to a thorough exploration of a single idea over long periods of time—and resulted in our album Tetra.
What is the status of CTL + ALT + REPEAT? Is the series still active even thought you are both on the east coast? If so, what do you have planned?
We are in something of a transitional period right now. Ctrl+Alt+Repeat was a series we started in Los Angeles, and it seems intrinsically tied to that part of our history (even though we presented two Ctrl+Alt+Repeats in Providence, in 2007 and 2008). We enjoy presenting concerts of this type, and will continue to do so while on the east coast, whether under the name Ctrl+Alt+Repeat or something new that is more specific to our local environment.
Mark, what are you studying at the MEME program at Brown? Is there overlap between your wok at Mem1 and your work at MEME?
I’m currently developing a hybrid analogue/digital performance system comprised of analogue synthesizer modules that I am building from the component level, in conjunction with a new control surface and custom software for sound manipulation and control voltage processing. This new system is to become my primary instrument, and will thus be incorporated into not only any solo performances and recordings, but into my collaborative practice with Mem1 and other ensembles as well. I am also focusing on incorporating large-scale video projection into both performance-based work and audio-visual installations. This will naturally find its way into Mem1 performances, following in the footsteps of collaborative work we have done with San Francisco based video artist Kadet Kuhne, Tel-Aviv based media artist Liora Belford, and Mem1 performances for which I have created live video, such as our piece Hræsvelgr, which we performed at the Steve Allen Theater in Los Angeles, the Torrance Art Museum, and this past fall at the Pixilerations festival in Providence.
Laura, what other projects do you have in the works now that you’ve returned to Providence?
In February/March I will be taking part in an artist residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts with composer David Behrman. I’m looking forward to gaining new insights on electroacoustic music composition/performance from others in the field, which will not only effect on my work with Mem1, but also independently. Also, despite the distance, I plan to continue my work with Vancouver-based violist Robin Streb. We have a duo, Suna No Onna, that focuses on new and experimental music. We’ve been invited to perform at Klang Im Turm in Munich and Kunstraum in Dusselforf this summer, so a possible European tour is in the works. I also play traditional cello and am a member of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, so I’ve been performing with them on a regular basis since last November. And, I of course teach. I have a handful of private cello students and am also an Associate Resident Musician and Media Lab Teaching Artist at Community MusicWorks here in Providence. I was a fellow at Community MusicWorks when we were in Providence before (2006-2008) and it’s great to be involved in such a forward-looking organization again.
What joint projects, releases, or live shows do you currently have in the works for 2011? Also, what is in store for Estuary?
We have a new album with sound artist Stephen Vitiello coming out on Dragon’s Eye Recordings in May of this year. Our label, Estuary Ltd. will be releasing recordings by the media art collective Redux and Vancouver-based composer André Cormier’s work. Mem1 will be performing in Olneyville as part of a series of concerts featuring video and experimental music presented by RK Projects at the end of this month. We are also putting together a joint record release party in February with Providence-based guitarist Area C; Los Angeles-based sound artist Joe Cantrell (aka RS-232) will also be performing his piece Shift Register for brain wave analysis, computer, and hyperdirectional sound. Later on in the year, we will be preparing for a site-specific installation that we have been invited to create for Soundfjord in London in January 2012. Further information about these events will be made available at http://www.mem1.com or http://www.estuary-ltd.com.
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