Photo by Michael Zelner

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This week’s interview features SL Morse, a music project helmed by drummer/conceptual artist Sarah Lockhart.  She is joined by avante-garde vocalist Aurora Josephson and mallet percussionist Suki O’Kane.  The trio will perform “Excerpts From No Exit By Jean-Paul Sartre” at Amnesia on Tuesday, June 15th.

What is SL Morse about?

Sarah Lockhart: The SL Morse project is based on the idea of taking texts (mostly literary works) and translating them into music via Morse code. The appeal for me of working with existing texts is that they already have a structure. I like music with structure, I like to find and recognize patterns in music. Working with texts that are fairly familiar to an audience helps them connect with the work, have a point of entry/understanding.

As a drummer, a lot of music has fairly simplistic, repetitive drum parts–and while those are fun to play sometimes, it can get boring. I wanted to do something more complex, and one of the problems, as I see it, with people enjoying complex music, is that it’s harder to “get.”

So I feel like complex music needs structure, even if that structure is just an external narrative. I think most people need to understand what it is they are listening to and where it is going in order to appreciate the music, as opposed to just perceiving the stimulus in a random way, or as an adventure into the unknown, or something like that. Not that people don’t appreciate adventuresome music (well, some really don’t), but they want to have some sense of what they’re in for.

When I think of Morse code, I don’t think of music or literature. I think of wartime communications, obsolete languages and the stark telegram. Your thoughts?

Lockhart: It’s just a compositional technique to generate interesting rhythms. I don’t know how conceptually integral it is to the actual audience experience of the music. On the other hand, one could argue that traditional musical notation is becoming an obsolete language, now that it’s incredibly common for musicians to just sample pre-recorded material or use software with interfaces that operate based on the sound itself, rather than an abstract system that requires an additional layer of translation.

Aurora Josephson: My perception of Morse code during performance is that it becomes a percussive vehicle that a composer might have written on purpose, and I forget entirely that I’m accompanying “Morse code.”

What makes Morse code-generated rhythms fun to play?

Lockhart: There’s a lot of syncopation–at least in terms of the way I translate it into notation. For whatever reason, it lends itself to 5/8 or 7/8 or 5/4 time signatures, so it sounds a bit like “prog.” There are a few parts that Suki and I play in unison, and she attempted to put them in the traditional 4/4, and it seemed a bit awkward, but these parts just naturally seemed to fit into measures of 5/8.

Photo by Spencer Mack

How are you interpreting Sartre’s play “No Exit”? Will you be playing the three characters?

Lockhart: Personally, I’m playing all three characters at different points in the piece. I think when I initially conceived of doing “No Exit,” I thought that each musician would be a different character, but that wasn’t how it ended up. It ended up that, as a group, we play the play.

For the drum parts I assigned different parts of the kit to represent different characters (this seems totally nerdy, but whatever), so Garçin (the pacifist who agonizes over his ethicality) is represented by the toms, which have militaristic connotations, are lower in pitch and thud along. Estelle (the socialite that wants to be loved) is represented by the cymbals, which are higher in pitch and have pretty sparkling ringing sounds. And Inez (the vindictive, abrasive one) is represented by the snare and the hi-hat, which both resonate afterwards in a more abrasive way, like, I think of talking to someone at a party who is sarcastic or catty, and their remarks still sting after you have finished talking and have moved on. For the most part it’s fairly faithful: If I’m playing one of Inez’s lines, I’m playing the part on the instruments I assigned to that character.

Josephson: I am focusing on the part of Garçin. In preparing for this performance I went through the play focusing particularly on his role in relation to Inez and Estelle. And will explore certain key phrases I have chosen from his role in the play.

How are you collaborating?

Suki O’Kane: For me, SL Morse issues from the text, be it Dante’s “Inferno,” Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” Nigerian spam or Sol Lewitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art”, and it pursues musicality through a form of literary synesthesia. With that anchor, I’ve been able to work with Sarah and Aurora to explore systems of encoding meaning, from literal encoding of letters to dot-dash to eighth-note/quarter-note to denser, subjective translations of character and plot to chromatic percussion. This particular iteration of SL Morse with drums-mallets-voice has focused on creating moments both of stark unison and layered tone and timbre, formal agreements and chance, tight rehearsal and active listening.

Josephson: For my part, I am responsible for choosing and delivering text verbally/aurally. The three of us have met a number of times over the past couple of years to improvise a structure into reality. This juxtaposition of composition and improvisation is my favorite way to work in performing music, as I find the music-making remains exciting and engaging.

Lockhart: There is also a theatrical aspect to the piece. In the improv scene there’s an ongoing debate about theatricality and performativity. The three of us are obviously on the “in favor of” side of that–and that is something Aurora played a major role in developing.

“No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre” features Aurora Josephson on vocals. Photo by Myles Boisen

What attracts you to this play?

Josephson: The florid prose.

O’Kane: Initially a reading list did, as I imagine it did for many other students. Consuming the text by order sounds uninspired, but thankfully it stored itself into my metaphysiology until such time as it could be metabolized. I credit Sarah for digging it out and assigning it again.

Lockhart: It is a chamber drama; sets and props don’t play a major role, and there isn’t a huge cast of characters. The drama–the tension–is a result of the interaction of the characters, which basically defines good group improvisation as well, or even good music made by a group, in general. Before doing this piece, all the previous SL Morse performances had been duos–me and one other musician–and I thought that the next step would be to do a trio, and “No Exit” came to mind.

Another thing that drew me is the structure–the “not a bang but a whimper” ending. I liked the emotional structure of the play, as I could imagine it easily being translated into music: the initial polite tension, the rising bile, the cathartic, painful confrontations, explosions, and breakdowns, and then the final whimper. The “So this is it, then?” and the unvoiced “Ugh….” Because that felt more authentic to me–as more often, in life, traumatic experiences don’t just end with that bang, there is a long period of misery and bitterness, and THEN they end.

In exploring “No Exit” musically, are you looking the play differently?

Lockhart: Well, obviously I’m looking at how to musically convey the tension and ideas and characters of the play. So it’s kinda like the “Peter and the Wolf” concept–what sounds/instruments would this character be? If I were to abstract the dramatic arc of the play into a line or shape, what would it look like? How does the tone change? When I initially read “No Exit,” I was much more focused on the dialog, the language…. So I’m looking at the play more formally, structurally, abstractly–in terms of overall emotions and ideas.

O’Kane: Yes and no: I’m interested in its main theatrical trick of awakening both the characters and the audience to the reality of the play’s setting, and how that translates to SL Morse’s musical structures and vocabulary. Yet each time I read the play I admit I’m mining that same interest in awakening within the personal sphere. Since the tools are different, the work seems very different, but I bet it’s all the same.

Josephson: Yes, by attempting to convey a feeling or an essence of the character(s), by paring down and focusing on a few key phrases of the play. The challenge for me lies in the attempt to also make music, i.e. pay attention to melody and extended vocal techniques, and in the same moment attempt to perform both as a singer and an actor.

An example of Sartre’s text translated into percussion music part via morse code. (Click to expand)

With each rehearsal, do you become more fluent in Morse code?

Josephson: In choosing specific lines of the text, I try and keep the percussive aspect of the phrases in mind, and I find there can be interaction between the percussion (Morse code) and vocal parts…but I am not conscious of morse code while performing.

Can give us an example of a word or phrase that’s fun to play in Morse code?

Lockhart: “Dead! Dead! Dead! Knives, poison–useless.” This basically shows the process. At the top is the phrase written out as a rhythm, then on the staff paper is the notation/score.

Well, now I’m tempted to cram and read “No Exit” before your show. Yet I get the feeling that it may be even more satisfying to see your show first, and create my own story from the music before reading the play.

Josephson: I reread the play once before the first rehearsal for a specific performance, to try and figure out a fresh approach from a vocal perspective. I don’t feel it’s necessary for audience to come to the performance having read the play, but I do hope our performance will spark the curiosity of the audience enough that they might go out and (re)read the play.

“No Exit” is about the afterlife. What’s your idea of hell?

Josephson: Spending time in purgatory with someone who is suffering from dissociative amnesia.

O’Kane: I’m with Sartre: l’enfer, c’est les autres.

Lockhart: I would tell the story of my last birthday party and my ex-boyfriend, but this is public and I’m very non-anonymous here…. Ha.

Trio of Sarah Lockhart on drums, Suki O’Kane on xylophone and Aurora Josephson on vocals
Tuesday, June 15
10:45 p.m.
Amnesia, 853 Valencia St. (between 19th and 20th)
$7 cover

Also performances by
Das Trio von Vicky Grossi, Ava Mendoza und Moe! Staiano Kurione
Joe (Aerosol) Armin and Charlie Callahan’s guitar/drum improv duo
Hexx Zygomycota: Arachnid Arcades’ Charlotte AuRevoir and Big Nurse’s Rhea DeCaro
Holiday Heart: Duo of Alexandra Buschman and Ellery Royston
Click here for program schedule.

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