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Celia Hollander (Interview)
Today we’re listening to Celia Hollander, an American pianist and composer based in Los Angeles. Hollander’s music is in a league of its own. She composes “ambient-adjacent audio liquidity” as Ableton’s blog put it; she “works with an assemblage of field recordings to intuitively form temporal experiences,” according to Objects and Sounds. We’re playing 2nd Draft, her latest album, which is a series of piano improvisations that were later “emulsified” in software, as she told us. We’re also playing her 2021 record, Timekeeper, an electronic record that evinces her talent for space construction. She also has an amazing piece out on Longform Editions that we included in our Flow State Today playlist. Our interview with Hollander follows the streaming links.
Your new record stems from recordings from your hour-long piano improvisation sessions at Nebraska's Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. What did you feel during those daily sessions?
During my time at KHN, I was mostly working on a piece of music that was completely digital, so playing a physical, tangible instrument was a satisfying counterpart to working on the computer. I wasn’t intending to make a “piano album” but decided to record myself improvising everyday, as if I was a writer embarking on a daily “free-writing” exercise. These hours were a reflection of how I was feeling each day; on good days, the hour would soar by, the music would feel revelatory; on other days it felt like an incredibly tedious way to spend time, just going through motions. I usually played at the end of the day around sunset and found that even if my day on the computer felt unproductive up to that point, just playing piano ended the day on a resonant note and brought a sense of closure. I find it can be challenging to improvise live for an audience but love to improvise alone or in a more intimate setting. I ultimately believe that improvising is a type of channeling, grounding, or releasing of a current.
How did you manipulate these recordings when you returned to your studio?
I spent a lot of time listening back, trying to isolate moments or sections that I enjoyed. Choosing those excerpts took much longer than processing them. Each track was treated differently, but in general, processings included speeding up, slowing down, reversing, pitch-shifting, a lot of layering, panning, and modulated delay. I wanted to accentuate the “flow” or momentum of the improvisations, the movement of the music itself, over the idea of clarifying individual notes or phrases. It was a process of selecting moments, framing them, and making sure they had a perceivable beginning and ending, and then emulsifying the audio into something that could make you blur your ears and hear the song as a continuous entity.
Where was your favorite place to hang out in Nebraska City?
I mostly liked my music studio and being anywhere with the other artists in residence at the KHN. Otherwise, I went on a lot of circuitous walks and runs in the area. I liked the river, the tree farm (although the actual center was closed), and all of the thrift stores downtown. It was a very windy March while I was there, and I have a few memories of starting a run with the wind on my back, so I ended up going very far very quickly, only to turn around and have to trudge against the wind to get back.
You've previously written about time and music, the unique effects of BPM manipulation, and the relativity of temporal perception. How did – or didn't – those ideas play into this record?
I consider making music, in this case as an improviser and producer, as a type of temporal/sonic alchemy. The improvising happens in real time, existing like an ephemeral vapor, the recordings are fixed, like frozen ice, and then dropping those recordings into Ableton dethaws and liquifies them, like water.
Each of these forms has a different relationship with time. Improvising happens within the present moment, experiencing real time. How you feel or what you think affects how or what you play, and what you play gets absorbed back into you as you listen, which then affects how you feel and what you think all over again! A musical instrument is a tool to manipulate your sense of present, flowing time in this feedback loop. The recording is fixed, capturing a time from the past, and then processing it in Ableton opens up a multitude of possibilities, into the future.
Taking over 20 hours of audio and reducing it to under 1 hour is a type of temporal distillation, like making an essential oil from a plant.
What was the first weird music you liked?
In 6th grade I saw a documentary about the Theremin at school! It sparked an obsession with the theremin and all music and sound design that employed it. It was probably then that marked the change from listening to music in a broad way to getting into the details and pursuing sounds and artists that interested me. In middle school and high school, music was essentially a form of mental travel, and during those years I craved the most out there, radical musical adventures.
What's your go-to music to work to – like if you're answering emails, etc.?
I don’t really have a go-to, but I frequent Mille Plateaux’s Clicks + Cuts compilations for different types of work related tasks. I find the analog clicks and pops calming but also stimulating, and the variety of artists is great. I’m listening to “Tibet” by Mark Isham while I write this right now and I’m really enjoying it – maybe it will become a go-to?
Name an underrated artist from the past 50 years.
Probably all of the artists making incredible work that don’t care to share it, for whatever reasons, so it mostly goes unheard. “Rating” artists only includes artists who offer themselves up to be rated, and the quality or vibrancy of an artist’s work has little to do with how many people actually hear it (sometimes tragically!).
What non-musical artist(s) inspire you these days?
Too many to name, but on the airy themes of 2nd Draft:
Bertjan Pot’s kites, John Gerrard flags made of smoke and vapor, the installation “Blue Sail” by Hans Haacke, Andy Warhol’s “Silver Clouds,” the drawings for Yves Klein’s “Air Architecture” and the Sea Organ in Zadar, Croatia by Nikola Bašić.
What are you working on next?
I have ideas for about 5 future albums! I work slowly but hopefully I’ll get to all of them in some reasonable time. I’m also hoping to work on paintings and drawings again this winter.