Breathing Signals:

An Interview with Coppice

Since beginning work together as Coppice in 2009, the Chicago-based duo Noé Cuéllar & Joseph Kramer have consistently produced some of the most interesting and engaging sounds to emerge from the swirling eddies of today’s experimental music currents. Building on the now-familiar strategy of combining acoustic instruments with modified analogue electronics, the body of work they have assembled nonetheless sounds like very little else, while at the same time remaining instantly recognisable as theirs. There is a weight and a heft to Coppice’s music that often seems to defy its own status as a supposedly time-based medium, becoming almost sculptural in its materiality and presence. However, while the project is clearly conceptually-driven and often gestures towards the aesthetics of contemporary visual art, the start and end point is always sonic.

“Sound is always central for us,” the pair insist when asked what influences their music. “Our interests are bellows and electronics, respectively, but also in relationship. Our backgrounds are rooted in sound and music but we have many other interests, which seep into Coppice slowly. From the start we’ve created new instruments and signal processing devices, designed objects and sculptures, and most recently created visuals for releases.”

Underpinning the sound of Coppice are Cuéllar’s bellows, a catch-all term for instruments powered by blasts of compressed air from a hand or foot pump, of which reed organs, pipe organs, accordions and melodeons are members. Their thick tones are often fed through layers of signal processing, splintering into shards of diverse shapes and sizes while retaining a strongly acoustic character. “My first self-taught instrument as a teenager was the accordion,” he explains, “and from there I developed a strong interest in bellowed/reed/wind instruments and pipe organs. I’m drawn to their wide sound range, their scattered lineage, their underuse. Air as noise and impulse. The musical value of dynamic air flow and articulation. The “pneumatic” presence in music.”

It is often this ‘pnuematic presence’ that has kept Coppice’s sculptural materialism moving, kept it from lapsing into stasis. Bellows instruments have a complex and fascinating history in which the public, the private, the religious and the colonial frequently intermingle, but Cuéllar approaches them in ways that emphasise the “characteristics of their sound and mechanics” in the moment of being played. These performance nuances also feed into Kramer’s use of analogue electronic devices, obsolete consumer cast-offs with their inner workings tweaked with more or less subtlety, and especially into his use of tape.

“The use of tape in Coppice is most strongly driven by two factors: the mechanical facts of the devices and design implementation variations between devices,” Kramer says. “The physical distance between things in the tape player, the size of controls, the materials of construction, and the speed of motors make up the primary elements of interest for me within the mechanical system. Speed and distance create the timing elements that cannot be altered without audible evidence. The distance between things also sets up prominent resonances in the audio feedback paths between the live microphones feeding the system and the amplified delayed playback. The construction materials often factor into the performance techniques as well. These physical facts have created the context for many compositional approaches that have been incorporated into different works.”

Kramer names Jason Zeh, Stephen Cornford and Guiseppe Ielasi as “terrific” artists also engaged with tape and tape machines, but the diversity of approaches and concerns only underscores the creative potential of the field. While Cornford’s music and installations put the tape machines front and centre, for example, Kramer primarily uses his modified devices as signal processors, manipulating and transforming sounds from other sources — particularly Cuéllar’s bellows. His grasp of the features and quirks of individual devices is nonetheless similarly nuanced. “I have exclusively used consumer devices such as cassette tapes and dual-cassette boom boxes for the tape processing in Coppice. These are devices that are designed with a specific intention, and much ingenuity has gone into making them work correctly. With a few minor adjustments, they can be instrumentalised. Then all of the tiny differences that arose between machines due to designer preferences and production budgets become major factors in individual behaviours. This is where the tape noise, EQ, volume control knob, transport peculiarities and overall electromagnetic signal interaction become material to compose and perform with.”

Unlike many a DIY musician using modified electronics and eclectic instruments to produce the same old beat-driven Western tonal music, the sounds of Coppice (and, in their own ways, the artists they cite above) often follow much less familiar paths, demanding forms of listening that differ substantially from the standard anticipation of climax and of easily intelligible representations of emotion. Such is the perceptual richness and intensity of their music, however, that the distancing and alienation often denoted by the term ‘difficult’ rarely arises: the confusion becomes entwined with fascination and enchantment, and frequently curiosity. “After we play live, we’re often approached by listeners who want to share with us their impressions — many respond with stirred imagination, paradoxical emotions, or disorientation, they want to know the origin of the sounds and have many questions,” the duo assert. “We aim to create opportunities for the audience to form a shared listening experience with us. We make music for the engaged listener.”

This invitation to dialogue is most clearly audible in their recent album release on Quakebasket Records, “Big Wad Excisions”. Here the physical and the otherworldly meet to seduce and beguile in equal measure, weighing in on both the mind and the senses. Openness to the unfamiliar yet insistently present sound is part of engaged listening, of being a little less contained within oneself and one’s worldview; the music of Coppice amply demonstrates the value of such engagement.

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