• For The Record: Maria Chavez + the Sound of Malfunction

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    Maria Chavez has created an art career around the “sound of malfunctions.” 

    “I work with sounds that society tells us are wrong,” the New York-based artist says. “That we’re not supposed to make these sounds and that's what I am creating my sound sculptures with.”

    Her abstract turntablist performances involve the isolation of specific tones and snippets of songs; her turntables, vinyl and needles are the paint, brushes and canvas of her sonic creations. Designed to embrace the delicacy of deterioration, she uses needles and records of varying levels of decay. There is a uniqueness in each time the needle hits the record, a texture made more intricate with every crackle and pop. This assemblage of various musical materials is what makes Maria’s art just as much an exhibition of a collection as it is a display of talent.

    Born in Lima, Peru, Chavez was essentially deaf until she was 3 years old due to a buildup of water in her ears that went undetected by doctors. 

    “I was able to hear my first sound when I was 3,” she remembers, “and it’s actually my first memory.”

    Because of this, Chavez’s relationship with sound has always been personal. First becoming a DJ in her teens, Chavez fell into the improvisational music scene in Houston where she was in the process of obtaining an art history degree. Through mentorships, she developed her avant-garde, all-improv performance style. She’ll get on stage with a turntable and a bunch of records, spinning each vinyl with systematic precision while tinkering with knobs on the mixer. All the while, she’s amassed vinyl gifted from audiences, needles — both broken and intact — and a selection of turntables for both DJing and art. 

    Outside of live performance, Chavez has created work commissioned by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at the Brooklyn Museum; has recently been awarded fellowship with the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Umbria, Italy where she was composer in residence in May 2016; was awarded the Jerome Foundation’s Emerging Artist Grant by New York’s Roulette Intermedium in 2008; has performed at the Whitney Museum; and has composed sound installations for BRIC, Cary Hall at the DiMenna Center, Marfa Myths and more. 

    We caught up with Chavez at her practice space in Brooklyn to talk about her gear collection and her most prized sound item. 
    Photos by Julia Robbs

    When did your fascination with art begin?
    I became a DJ when I was 16. I was super young and just really interested in trying to become a bigger dance music DJ. I was playing a lot of house music at the time, mainly French disco house. By the time I was 20, I was pretty jaded because I had already been playing live for so many years and I was getting really frustrated because I just didn't feel like the DJ world was really giving me enough room to be creative. They just wanted things to sound a certain way, and you couldn't really experiment too much. I was very lucky to meet this abstract trombonist who’s also the director of the Pauline Oliveros Foundation. I brought a turntable into an improvisation class and it completely changed my life. Then I started to get more involved in making sound installations and working for organizations to curate sound art events, and now for the past four or five years I’ve restarted my DJ side of my work and that's been really fun.

    Do you find that there are similarities between your avant-garde sound art and DJing?
    Well, you definitely need to respect the audience and the public on both sides. In avant-garde, people think that there’s a lot more freedom — but as my largest sound installation works have started to show in major institutions, I've noticed that it’s a real challenge to try to make an avant-abstract sound installation work where the general public can come in and understand what’s happening. There’s a lot of work out there that is almost too abstract for someone who has no idea about sound. They come in and they immediately reject it because they don’t understand it. I think DJing is similar in that way; you can be conforming in one genre and people will love it, especially with electronic dance music. But if you want to try to be creative as a DJ and mix different genres together, you still have to take into consideration who’s listening to it. I think the difference is DJing can get really hype and a lot of fun when you have the right crowd that just lets you do anything. If you have a sound installation, that can happen too, but in a very different way. People that have never seen something like a solo turntable performance of mine, they come up to me afterward and they’re like, “What was that? I’ve never seen anything like that before, but I loved it!” That’s amazing that [a person can be] open to accepting it because the solo turntables can be really harsh sometimes because I work with the sound of malfunctions. You can either stick with your own thing and confuse a lot of people, or you can try to take it as a challenge and see how you can incorporate the public.

    Do you think your work is more dependent on the needle or the vinyl or the turntable — or a combination of all of them?
    It’s definitely a combination with my abstract turntablist performance work. I wrote an instructional book in 2012 about abstract turntablism that contained essays and illustrations of different techniques that I developed during a performance on one turntable with broken records and broken needles. It was really interesting to have to put it all on paper and figure out what is the most important component of the performance aspect of abstract turntablism. The most important component is chance. It's the openness to accidents and coincidence and ultimately just being accepting when things fall apart and go wrong. Not looking at it as wrong, but looking at the next step for your next choices for a particular piece that you're performing live. I’m here to create a moment with sonic tools that produce sonic results and you’re here with me and we’re doing it together. 

    Do you feel like you dissociate mentally from what you’re doing?
    Pretty much. When I improvised for the very first time, I think it was the most important moment of my career. Making this choice of not being a DJ anymore but being more of a turntablist performer. I had this out-of-body experience where I was just watching my hands do all these weird things that as a DJ you’re not allowed to do, you're not supposed to do, and I was taught not to do it, but here I was doing it: scraping the needle against the grooves and making all these popping noises that you’re not supposed to make because it’s going to ruin your needle, it’s going to ruin your record. I remember this experience of watching myself and being like, “This technically is wrong, but it feels so right!’”

    Do you ever encounter record purists who are upset at what you were doing?
    Oh my god, they get so angry! But I feel like it’s OK that they get angry. In a way they’re right, they don't want to see things getting abused because they live in a world where they believe a marketing company corporation is telling them that they can’t ruin things because this piece of equipment is important, more important than other pieces of equipment, so you have to keep it pristine. What I’m saying is, I want to see it deteriorate so that I can sweep through all of the ways that the machine can work. That’s actually a very new idea for a lot of people.


    Your work involves some gear. As time went on, how did your collection of gear build up? 
    Well, I’ve been breaking turntables for many years now, and this new group of turntables contains 2 Technic 1200s and 1 Numark TT-X turntable. The Numark is my performance turntable, but only here in New York. I don't tour with it. The Numark is a special turntable that goes backward, changes in various percentages of speed, not just 33 1/3 [rpm] and 45 but it also goes to 78 and it goes to 50% below 33 1/3, so having these different options really makes for a fun improvised performance. Then I DJ techno sets with my 1200s. I also have a R.A.K.E. Double headed needle prototype that was a gift from the producer King Britt — number 50 of 250 — and I use Ortofon Concorde DJ-S styli for my DJ sets and turntable performances. Right now my studio is cramped with these large anechoic foam wedges that I am in the process of making some sculptures with for an upcoming installation, along with a ton of vintage speakers that my boyfriend, Daniel Neumann, who is also a sound artist, collects for his own sound installation exhibitions. So the gear just keeps building up!

    Are there any prized items in your collection? 
    The double-headed needle from King Britt is my prized possession right now. King is an iconic electronic producer from Philly and has DJed for Digable Planets, opened for Sade in the ‘90s, total hero. Now he does more electronic music stuff. But apparently, in the early 2000s, he and a bunch of other hip-hop DJs were given this prototype double-headed needle. It’s two needles on one body, on one system. When you put it on a vinyl record, it reads two different parts of the record at the same time, so each needle has its own channel on the mixer. You can either isolate each needle or you can play them both at the same time. He gave that to me in January because he was like, “I never knew what to do with this, but I know you can probably do something with it.” And this really revolutionized my practice. Everyone is like, “What happens if it breaks?” and I'm like I don't know! I don't know if the stylus can be replaced or not, so that's the big question. They’re really strong, but once they break, then the next phase will happen — OK do they still make sound? If they don’t can we replace it? If they can't be replaced, how can we still use the system? But as of right now, it’s still in perfect condition even though I've abused it like crazy.

    Listen to Maria's mixes