Name: Catherine Sikora
Occupation: Saxophonist, Improviser
Recommendations: A New Path To The Waterfall by Raymond Carver.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Catherine Sikora, check out her website for more information and music.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions or influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I first got a saxophone when I was sixteen years old. My early influences on the instrument were Gene Ammons and the saxophonists in the Duke Ellington band. I can’t say exactly why I was drawn to music, just that it spoke to me in a way that nothing else did, offering a means of expression that can be transcendental.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Being an instrumentalist, one must first acquire a certain degree of technical proficiency before anything—original or otherwise—can happen. As I was self taught at the beginning, the only way for me to learn was by listening and playing along with records, which I did extensively, but I never set out to sound like anybody else. I always had a deep interest in tone and the use of air, which informed a lot of my investigations into the instrument, and guided my listening. I take inspiration from all kinds of sources, musical and otherwise, and all of these inform my creativity.
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
The instrument is a constant challenge for me; technical proficiency is a skill that took me a long time and lots of focus to acquire, and it is a perishable skill, requiring constant maintenance. As my instrumental skill increases, my practice regimen and approach must also evolve, to maintain and also keep on expanding my technical facility. This requires rigor and focus, to avoid getting into a rut and to keep on moving ahead and refining everything. Now, I am focusing more on composition, and balancing my time between maintaining a certain level on all of my instruments and also writing requires a lot of work for me. I am someone who can easily dive into one thing for hours, so I have to set up systems to organize my time.
Tell me about your instrument, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results – and possibly even your own performance?
I love my instrument madly. I worked very hard to get it, and then it took a long time to develop the relationship with it, which is of course also constantly evolving and deepening. My horn is very responsive, with beautiful smooth and light action, and it makes it easy for me to get my thoughts out of my head and into sound form. Compared to the horn I played before this one, it has elevated my performances enormously.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
Melody, pure and simple, is my greatest source of inspiration. I am fascinated by the greatest melodies, ones that are apparently simple but so perfect and satisfying that one can’t imagine that they ever didn’t exist.
How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Performance, whether live or in the studio, is a place of supreme focus, where everything else but the sound disappears. The energy of a live audience is an amazing thing, but for me both scenarios share elements of ritual that elevate the consciousness. In this place of sacred focus, improvisation and composition are still distinct from one another, but the lines between them become very blurred.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My schedule is fluid, to a certain extent, with two distinct ways it can go depending on whether I am at home or on tour. At home, my days start with coffee and then a long walk with the dog (we have a large hound). From there, I do my basic calisthenic practice on all my horns, using a timer to make sure that I get through at least a certain amount of work on each one. Once that is done, I then will settle in with one horn and work through some compositions. I write something every day, and revisit things I have written previously, to develop the ideas. In between this is a fair amount of time spent online, in correspondence and also teaching. Outside of this, I work out most days, and I make the bulk of my clothing myself, so sewing is a part of many of my days. Music and my creative practice is integrated into everything I do, because I believe that how you do anything is how you do everything. This means that I attempt to approach everything I do with focus and intention, to train my brain to be fully involved in whatever it is doing at the time, and to strive for excellence as much as possible.
Could you take me through the process of improvisation on the basis of one of your performances that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
A recent performance comes to mind immediately; it was a first meeting with the other musicians, and I was not familiar with their work. The day was for many reasons a particularly intense one, emotionally speaking, and my mental state felt highly charged. I felt quite raw and very open to the sound, and it felt like the channels between the sound and my mind were wide open. I came into the situation fully prepared on my instruments but with no preconceptions, and the communication between me and the vocalist was incredibly pure. The ideas just seemed to be there, to arrive in my mind’s ear fully formed, and easily expressed through my instrument.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
This is such a complicated subject, and so difficult to pin down. There are certainly strategies to make it easier to get into a state of creative flow, and I know I need to make sure to take good care of myself physically, getting enough sleep, exercising, eating well and the like. Distractions are a part of life and can come from anywhere, but the main thing is to show up every day and put in the work; keep the creative work in the front of the mind. Aside from this, I find that the company I keep has a big effect on me, and can be either very helpful or very harmful.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Aside from the rather old technology of my instruments, I really only use a simple recording setup and DAW. Humans are endlessly inventive, imaginative, constantly changing, and machines are generally more consistent in producing the same result every time, in response to a certain set of commands. The combination of human plus machine is where so much magic happens, when the human expresses its own originality through a machine.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I can’t draw a line between my instrument and my self; in my work such a line does not exist, because my instrument is my voice. It’s an odd thing, and I sometimes wonder what I would have done had this instrument not been invented, which is totally unimaginable to me.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
The shape and quality of a space is a major component of a horn player’s performance. The space dictates a lot of how the horn sounds, and even changes the overtones and splits that happen. I try if possible to familiarize myself with a space and how it interacts with my saxophone in advance of a performance, and I work with that.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I find sound endlessly intriguing, especially in how much it can tell us about a space and the materials around us. For me, sound is a tool to inform me about my surroundings in a way that can even surpass vision at times. Sound used in tandem with other art forms, such as visual, can be absolutely transformative, serving to heighten the emotional impact of a work. I am interested in differences of perception between people, in how we all pick up on different elements with our senses, according to our natural instincts and our training. At the outermost borders, sound may not be audible but still has effects … I was thrilled and fascinated to learn that the black hole in the Perseus cluster emits a drone that is apparently a Bb 57 octaves below middle C, and that through its effect on temperature, this sound wave actually influences the formation of new stars.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
My feeling is that art cannot be separated from everyday life. It is a supremely healthy way to process one’s feelings, to deal with and express difficult emotions in a way that enriches humanity, and to communicate with our fellow beings. It gives us permission to play, a safe space for experimentation and expression, and at its very best I believe that it makes us the best version of ourselves that we can be.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
Music is inseparable from the human experience, it is maybe the most visceral of all the arts in terms of how we understand it; for me it feels like the most primal of activities. It would make me very happy if audiences in general could become more interested in hearing something fresh, rather than expecting to hear something they already know at a concert.