Go Deeper

Voice + Body: Interview with Michael Kiley

Posted August 1st, 2017

Sound designer, composer, and performer Michael Kiley makes music that is enticing and beautiful in its complexity, called “dramatic and beguiling” by The New York Times., Kiley is no stranger to using technology to synthesize new sounds and rhythms—in Close Music for Bodies, however, he aims to do just the opposite. Instead, the show (coming to the 2017 Fringe Festival) eschews any technology, or even any instruments apart from the human voice. Also experienced in sound installation work, Kiley has designed an immersive experience of sound, but this time, the speakers are the performers, and the audience becomes part of that community of sound. Kiley is also a music educator; he teaches using his own practice, called “Personal Resonance.” His approach is woven into this new work, focused on the effects our bodies have on our voices, and the effects our voices have on other bodies as well as our own. We got the chance to have a conversation with Michael about how this new piece came to be, and what we may, or may not, be able to expect!

FringeArts: Do you remember how the title Close Music for Bodies came into being?

Michael Kiley: I was running. I wanted a title that represented what the piece is in a literal sense, yet also make people curious.

FringeArts: How would you categorize this performance?

Michael Kiley: I call it a voice piece. Sometimes I call it a voice piece with movement. It is immersive. It is educational. It is participatory (if you like). I always end up explaining the whole thing before people understand what I’m getting at. There is no real elevator pitch for it.

FringeArts: How do you talk to your collaborators about it?

Michael Kiley: I usually talk to my collaborators first about my voice practice, Personal Resonance. I explain that my primary goal with teaching is to have the student understand that the real beauty and benefit of voice has nothing to do with how you sound, and everything to do with how your voice can make you feel physically—and therefore mentally. Once someone understands how to control that physical sensation, their voice becomes as accessible as breathing. My goal with Close Music is the same. I hope to, through the mediums of performance and education, create a space where a community of performers and audience feel free to access their voices together, without judgment or fear, with the simple goal of doing something that feels good.

There is no real venue for secular, public acts of group voice in our culture. The corporatization of music, and the heavy influence of technology on singing performances has driven us to feel like our voice has to be perfect all of the time. The result is that most people don’t sing. And for those who do, it is usually during some kind elevated performance, where the goal is to be impressive.  I hope to dismantle that expectation in my own small way, and change people’s thinking into understanding that simply making sound is one of the healthiest things that we can do.

FringeArts: What inspired you, or prodded you, to make this all voice?

Michael Kiley: I’ve been working a lot with technology of late: sound reinforcement, coding, recording equipment, and techniques. I felt like I was starting to rely on technology to make interesting music. All the while I’ve been reinventing my teaching, working in group settings, creating a social atmosphere. It became clear that the next step in my own learning would be to create a piece for the acoustic human voice. I wanted to find a way to meld my teaching practice with my creative practice in hopes of unifying them. I’ve been pleased to find that working with the ensemble feels a lot like learning about a piece of tech, or picking up a new instrument.

FringeArts: What are the challenges you wanted to take on?

Michael Kiley: I’ve been thinking of the movement as sound design—like speaker placement, only my speakers happen to be performers. A lot of movement comes out of a geometric impulse related to what the group of voices is doing. I’m also very interested in how bodily position and physicality affects vocal production, which I want us as performers to embrace, rather than fight against. If you are tired, sound tired. If you are bent over, and blood is rushing to your head, let that affect how you sound. Don’t try to sound good or pretty. Sound like what you are doing. I’m also working with choreographer Faye Driscoll to help shape and develop the movement impulses. She’s amazing at honing in on what is essential about movement, which is important to me. I want the movement to be inseparable from the vocal impulses that we score out. I am also collaborating with director Becky Wright who is instrumental in drawing out movement and staging from the impulses that we generate. She is also one of the most compassionate community builders and organizers that I know. All of the performers have contributed text, melody, sound, and movement to the work.

FringeArts: What are some of the musical antecedents/influences you are drawing from? And how does this fit in—or not—with your own previous musical explorations?

Michael Kiley: My history with performing choral music is deeply tied to this work, compositionally and spiritually. Some of my most transcendent experiences occurred while playing a small part in a large group of voices. I also remain very influenced by Janet Cardiff, whose speaker installations I am copping, just flipping the stationary component to an audience member, and the moveable component to a live body sound source.

I seem to keep moving my work towards becoming a social practice. I’ve always wanted to create community through my work, I think all artists do, but I used to think of my work only as a way to communicate how I feel. Through teaching, I’ve learned that artistry can come from being a facilitator and educator. Writing music can be an incredibly lonely and isolating act, and I spend most of my days wanting to feel more connected to others. I enjoy helping people find sounds, words and movements that are unique to them much more than I do saying, “This is what you should do, this is how you should sound.” Making this work, and teaching my practice, have become the most meaningful ways that I have found to learn about and connect to people.

FringeArts: What is the role of the audience?

Michael Kiley: The role of the audience is a complex one. They are in the space with us the entire time, so there is no division between audience and performer. I am going to educate the audience about how to resonate. I am then going to suggest that the audience resonate, to create this public act of group voice I am dreaming of. So they need to follow the arc of observer to student to participant. I realize that this is not a piece for everyone. I hope that people trust that we will take care of them, and make them feel safe, even if that requires a little bit of work on their part.

FringeArts: By proximity and intent, on some level you seem to transfer the musicians’ experience to the audience experience, and in so doing create the “group voice.” What has led you as an artist to this kind of investigation?

Michael Kiley: I think the usual construct for performance is to attempt to generate empathy from the audience in some way, shape or form. I want to know what happens when that empathy becomes reciprocal, in ways deeper than laughter or applause. What happens when we all become implicit in the same circumstance? All of my work attempts to put the audience experience first, and give them control of their own experience. I’ve just usually relied on technology to allow for that control. With Close Music I want to create an organic human experience, even if that means people feel vulnerable.

I think all successful art makes the audience wish they could be a part of it somehow. What happens when you inform an audience about how they can enter a performance? I think most people think of singing as something you are either naturally good at or naturally bad at. But all of us need to learn how to sing. It just comes more naturally to some people. The reason we have a larynx is so that we don’t drown when we eat, not so that we can impress people by executing a piece of music. Our larynx evolved into the pitch generating element of an instrument when we started developing complex thoughts and emotions. This evolution took place because we need the physical act of resonance in order to process how we feel. I just want to help people feel that together.

Close Music for Bodies
Michael Kiley

Christ Church Neighborhood House
20 North American Street
Wheelchair accessible

Sept 20 + 21 at 7pm
Sept 22 at 6:30pm
Sept 23 at 6pm
Sept 24 at 4pm

$29 (general)
$20.30 (member)
$15 (student + 25-and-under)

Interview by Josh McIlvain. Additional writing by Isabella Siegel.
Image: Fumi Olatunji, with photographic content by Adachi Pimentel. Rehearsal photos by Adachi Pimentel.