Simone Forti, 2012. “Someone must have handed me a piece of flexible tubing from the hardware store and shown me that I could play it, the pitch rising and falling according to how hard I’d blow through it. It was around 1970. I tied a red kerchief to this horn and called it my molimo, after the instrument the Mbuti Pygmies play to wake up their mother, the forest … They claim that the molimo is the sound, not the object.” (From the notes in Al Di Là.) Photo: Jason Underhill
Simone Forti is primarily known as a central figure in American postmodern dance, but her work in movement has always been interdisciplinary. The foundational pieces she called Dance Constructions, for instance (first performed at the Reuben Gallery in 1960, and, the following year, in Yoko Ono’s loft), were, as the name implies, sculptural as well as choreographic.Lesser known are the soundscapes she’s created, both alone and with others, throughout her career. The first time her sonic experiments received serious attention was in a 2012 gallery show, “Sounding,” at the Box Gallery in Los Angeles. The exhibition featured recordings of her soundscapes alongside projections and images of original performances; the gallery included areas with benches, carpeting, and earphones where visitors could, presumably, close their eyes and pay focused attention to those sounds. A piece titled “Bottom” (1968) is composed of four five-minute “blocks” of sound: monotonous drumming, three voices holding a chord, a vacuum cleaner, and Forti whistling. Another, “Censor” (1961), involves loud singing accompanied by the noisy shaking of a pan full of nails.
Today, Forti is releasing Al Di Là, her first full-length collection of recordings: nine tracks, compiled with the assistance of the composer Tashi Wada. The Italian title of the album is a slight alteration of the title of one of the tracks, “Dal Di Là” (1972). The former might be translated as “toward the beyond,” the latter “from the beyond.” Forti’s own translation of the song’s lyrics, which she sings in a haunting a cappella, is “I’m awaiting a song from afar, from afar, a song of goodbye from afar. For now I’ve seen the game I was playing, slowly leaving the earth and drifting far among the stars.”
Forti was born in Florence, Italy, in 1935, three years before the institution of the Fascist leggi razziali, which stripped Jews, like her parents, of both personal assets and civil rights. The family went into exile, eventually settling in Los Angeles. Subsequent years took Forti to Reed College in Oregon, back to California (where she studied with Anna Halprin), and then to New York (where she met other experimental dance, visual, and sound artists). In 1969, she published Handbook in Motion, an account partly of her experiences at Woodstock the year before.
I was recently passing through Los Angeles, where Forti now lives, and she graciously received me at her home. Wada joined us for our conversation and noted with pleasure that a gold helium balloon still hovered over Forti’s cozy living room, a remnant of a recent birthday celebration. The balloon was in the shape of an infinity sign—“not to be confused,” Forti said, “with the number eight.”
In “Sounding,” gallery visitors had access to visual images of the original performances. Under what circumstances would you like for people to hear these pieces now that they’re being released purely as sound?
I think it would be different in different situations and would depend on what people are most interested in. For instance, “Bottom” had four projections and a sound that went with each one. I didn’t start by thinking about the sound, it just was there. It’s almost like a theater piece.
So, if someone were to listen to it as I did, independent of the imagery…?
That’s interesting, too.
“Bottom” is the one I listened to most, on repeat. The movement within that piece—if that’s terminology you would use—is the vacuum cleaner. In the notes for the album, you say, “Although the intention was that these four blocks of sound should each be devoid of variation, the human element brought quite a bit of variation, even in the vacuum cleaner sound.” What you’re referring to as the human element—would you call that musicianship?
I’ve never thought of it that way. Certainly I was aware that that human element was appearing. And I let it happen, in a very pedestrian way. And I think that took some musicianship.
To let go of the control over the sound?
That I wasn’t trying to make it be interesting. I was recognizing that it was interesting.
Simone Forti, Score for Face Tunes, 1967.
How have your collaborations with other musicians and composers inflected your own experience making sound art?
I’ve worked with Charlemagne Palestine, I’ve worked with Peter Van Riper, I’ve worked with Jon Gibson, I’ve worked with Malcolm Goldstein, I’ve worked with Tashi, and in a collaboration, both artists always bring what they’re working on, and we see how it works together. Then, over time, we start to be influenced by what the other one is doing or see what aspect of our work seems to function best with an aspect of the other person’s work. So we both bring something to the situation, and that’s how you know if it’s a collaboration that’s going to be successful—if what each one is working on is well suited to the other.
In an interview with Claudia La Rocco in 2010, you say, of Accompaniment for La Monte’s “2 sounds” and La Monte’s “2 sounds” (1961), “Then I’m standing there for the duration of the music, which goes on for I think about thirteen minutes and I’m listening to it and the audience is listening to the music, and I have some idea that I help them listen.” I found that very beautiful—the notion of a dance of stillness that in itself allows for the audience to hear something in the sound they might not otherwise hear. Is your attunement as a listener or as a dancer? Or is it as a co-musician, insofar as listening is part of the making of the music?
When I dance, I know that it’s partly a good visual experience for an audience member. But more than that, I feel that an audience member can identify with me, and can experience my movement, and what I’m experiencing. I’m hoping that through my behavior as I perform, I’m opening that channel so that someone watching can experience it with me.
I’m intrigued by the notion of listening—not just dancing, but also the act of listening, being part of the music-making.
Yes, especially in improvisation, which is all I know. Probably also in scored music, but in improvisation, certainly, you take in the situation, you respond to it, therefore you change it, and take it in again in the following instant. And you respond to it. And, of course, you make decisions as you go along, you have many impulses in relation to what you’re taking in, and you make choices about which impulses to act on.
Roland Barthes wrote about what he calls the grain of the voice, which is not really about its granularity in the sense of hoarseness or roughness. It’s something about the voice that gives a sense of the physicality of it as it’s rubbing up against language. Many of the singers I love the most are those where you really get a sense of that—João Gilberto, for instance, the great Brazilian singer, who would sing very close to a very sensitive mic, and you could hear the spit on his lips and the hair in his nose as he would breathe. In the a cappella tunes on this album I get this same sense—a rasp in the voice, for instance. You’ve said previously that thought comes not only by way of language but also from what the body knows. What is the relationship between language and physicality in your own vocal performance on the album?
The vocalizations on the track “Largo Argentina” (ca. 1968) were recorded when I was in my thirties, whereas “Censor” was recorded last year. “Dal Di Là” was also recorded just a couple of years ago. That makes a big difference, because the physicality of a thirty-year-old woman’s voice and an eighty-year-old woman’s voice is very different. In “Censor,” I’m singing as loud as I can, which goes back to my childhood. We went back to Italy the year I turned thirteen, and that’s when I learned a lot of Italian folk songs, from my cousins. And some of the folk songs are just sung out very loud—you just push them out. It has something to do with being in the mountains and pushing these songs out as strongly as you can. “Dal Di Là” is a smaller song. I knew a lot of folk songs in English—American and English folk songs—and I liked to sing them as simply as possible. And I think that’s what we’re getting in “Dal Di Là.”
In the notes, you also say something about being on a train and trying to compete with the sound of—
The sound of the subway! The subway turning a corner and the screeching! And it could be competing, or it could be the freedom of being hidden by the screech, such that I could sing out in the train, and that was okay, socially. No one heard me anyway!
Because of the title, I thought at first there was something darker, something you might configure as opposing forces.
Oh, because the title’s “Censor.” I guess I do think the singing is censoring the screeching of the train, too. So, in fact, it is a kind of competition.
Simone Forti performing Crescent Roll in 1979. Photo: Nathaniel Tileston
I just read Handbook in Motion for the first time recently. We’re celebrating May ’68, and soon it will be the anniversary of Woodstock. I’m encouraged by how many people are trying to figure out how the late sixties relates to the current political moment. Is that something that you find yourself reflecting on?
Not really, and I’m kind of embarrassed at how unaware I was back then of the political moment. For instance, I was aware of the Vietnam War, but not very. I didn’t join the marches. I was a young woman, I was at first doing kind of minimalist work, and then doing the Happenings, and then someone said, We’re going to Woodstock, do you want to come with us? The next thing you know someone handed me some Kool-Aid. And it took me a year to come back. At the Woodstock festival, I didn’t stay near the stage to hear the main singers. I hadn’t even especially been following the singers that were the stars. I mean, I knew their names, I’d kind of heard their songs, I’d danced to their songs. But I was more at the periphery where people had made bonfires and made drumming circles.
In Handbook in Motion you describe stepping over the bodies of the people at Woodstock, being able to very gently navigate this sea of limbs, even when you’re tripping. It reminded me of a passage in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, in which he describes walking at night in the forest among the indigenous people who live there. He hears some people in the dark, making love in a very unselfconscious way, and everybody in this community somehow manages to respect one another’s privacy, even though it’s an inherently open environment. He uses a very similar, evocative language to describe that openness and intimacy.
Yes. Especially calling for respect. Respecting privacy where the privacy exists only through the respect of it. There’s an English folk song, I don’t know from what period, but it’s an old folk song that goes, “What care I for house and home, sheets turned back so neatly, oh? Let me sleep in the wide open field the long with my raggle taggle gypsy, oh!” I think that that moment for me expressed that freedom.
Why didn’t you stay in that communal living situation?
This period at Woodstock was something I believed in. Each of us offered others what we had to give. I remember we used to hang up our clothes on the clothesline to dry, and then someone else would see that they were dry, and they would take what they needed, and leave something else. We felt that we were showing the way life should be. But I knew that my folks were sending me a check every month. That check in those circumstances was enough to float a whole situation where people could come and have a bowl of rice and beans for free. But it was part of that whole industrial complex – we weren’t really these free spirits. And I don’t know why, but suddenly, it dawned on me, This is fun, but it’s not my life. There’s so little time and so much to do.
Barbara Browning’s most recent novel is The Gift (or, Techniques of the Body).
Al Di Là is available from Saltern, through Forced Exposure.
All Images courtesy of Simone Forti and the Box LA Gallery, unless otherwise noted.
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