Name: Lia Kohl
Occupations: Cellist, composer, multidisciplinary artist
Current release: Lia Kohl's Too Small to be a Plain is out via Artist Pool / Shinkoyo.
Recommendations: I just saw a show at the Art Institute of Ray Johnson’s mail art, which was so fun. He used to send collages to friends and strangers (seemingly thousands!), and the show was a collection of letters and postcards and objects that he sent to his friend and collaborator Bill Wilson over many years. There’s a wonderful ephemeral quality to his work that I love.
I just finished reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard. A wonderful document of human attention to nature and time passing.
If you enjoyed this interview with Lia Kohl and would like to know more about her work and music, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram.
Over the course of her career, Lia Kohl has collaborated with and contributed to the work of many different artists, including Whitney, Ohmme, Makaya McCraven, Macie Stewart, Victoria Bradford, Jessica Cornish, Katinka Kleijn, and Claire Rousay.
[Read our Claire Rousay interview]
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started making music as a young child – singing with my mom, banging on the piano. It started so early that it wasn’t ever a thing outside my experience that I could be drawn to; it was always present, like air.
That being said, I started improvising and making my own music about ten years ago, when I moved to Chicago, after years of being a classical musician. That experience felt akin to a return, returning to early and deep experiences with hearing and making music.
Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?
Most often I experience music as a space I am moving through, a kind of architecture. Just as good sculpture contains implied movement; the music I am most drawn to contains space, texture, even a kind of taste.
When improvising, I am often listening for what texture or flavour or movement is missing, and adding that – adjusting the seasoning, if you will. When I’m writing or creating an entire work, I’m thinking about making walls and hallways and trails and ceilings.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
I was trained as a classical musician, which is a very athletic and specific training, starting quite young. It took me a long time to think of myself as an artist or a maker myself.
It also took me some time to honour the fact that I think and make in a very intuitive way. There is a lot of pressure (both internally and externally) to be able to explain what you’re doing and why. That feels foreign to my experience; the meanings and explanations often come after something is “done”. And sometimes not at all, which is also ok.
Part of the point of making, for me, is to express things which I couldn't say otherwise.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
As a contemplative person, I am particularly drawn to spacious music. As an impatient person, I am drawn to rhythmic music. As a person inclined toward sock dancing on my slippery kitchen floor, I have a preference for j pop. As a Chicagoan, I pledge allegiance to this wonder of an album. As a gardener, I prefer birdsong.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
For me making music is a tool, it’s a way of communicating and creating a communal experience of time. It’s also a way of reaching toward things that can’t be reached or described or experienced otherwise. I mean that both in a spiritual sense and in the sense that sometimes music or art can make tunnels between things / emotions/memories that might be blocked by other more rational channels.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
Nothing is new. And also I’m making things that only I can make. As experimental musicians, I think our best option is to try and exist in the hollow of that paradox.
In general my practice is quite personal, which is not to say I am not responding to a tradition / many traditions / my training, but that I feel more drawn to make in response to my inner life, my mundane or joyful or painful experiences.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
I started playing the cello when I was eight, young enough for it to be deeply embedded in my early experience of being alive. The cello feels like an extension of my body. Working with that connection in a playful or even aggressive way has been really fruitful in the last few years.
For example, my friend and fellow cellist Katinka Kleijn and I made a piece where we found 30 junk cellos and threw them in a public pool. We were exploring that line between care and violence, using the cellos as proxies for our own bodies, which would only be possible with that kind of deep connection to the physical body of the instrument.
On a slightly smaller scale, teaching myself to sing and play cello at the same time has been a challenging brain-split – the part of my brain that sings is also the part that produces cello melodies, so doing both at the same time is a surprising and exciting challenge.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
For me every day is different, so it’s hard to give an general example. But right now I’m making a 24 hour performance piece, one of the rehearsal tactics for which is to document what we do every day, so I have a slightly better idea than usual.
If I’m at home, I wake up and make coffee, do some yoga and say my prayers. Then I make breakfast and wake up my partner. I love breakfast. We eat together and then they leave for work and I usually make a to-do list, do some emails or work on my computer, and then get to one or two projects or have a couple of rehearsals.
My work routine very much depends on what I’m doing at the time. Sometimes for weeks or months I’ll have a very disciplined solo practice, playing scales and recording improvisations at home. Sometimes I just take some field recordings if I’m out and about. Sometimes I’m not doing anything musical at all, but drawing or making video or movement work. I try to go for a walk or see a friend outside of rehearsal space. At night I go to a show or play a show or make dinner at home. I’m a very food oriented person.
If I’m on the road I have less control over the routine but I still try to walk at some point, to orient myself in physical and spiritual space. And spend some time alone if I can.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
I have really enjoyed making Too Small to Be a Plain into a live show. Making the album, I was working in response to recording as a format, making layers of sound asynchronously, playing multiple instruments, experimenting with transforming sounds electronically. So in making the music into something live, I had to find creative ways to manifest those layers.
I was also trying to find ways to insert improvisation while preserving the main structures of the pieces, since most of the album was originally improvised.
To make the live piece, I separated out all the elements of each track on the album, decided whether they needed to go into the live piece, and how they would best be performed live. For some elements that meant simply playing them (cello improvisations or certain synth lines, for example). For others, like certain processed sounds, I found ways of performing a similar sound on a different instrument – for example, a track with multi tracked vocals turned into me singing through a megaphone.
Sometimes I had to figure out how to make a lot of sounds at once, which turned into me doing weird things like playing a keyboard with my feet. It was a lot like choreographing a dance.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
I am mostly a collaborator. I love the space that can be made between people, that special synergy. Often amazing things emerge that can only exist synergistically. I’m usually making in response to, whether improvising in real time or making something over a long period.
In making by myself I have often found ways to collaborate with myself, to create an artificial orchestra of selves, past selves, future selves. Sometimes that means creating in response to something I recorded the previous day, sometimes that means using an instrument or parameter that creates an element of chance that I can respond to – the radio, for example.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
We certainly can’t save the world. I am sceptical of any attempt to justify artmaking as a monolithic force of healing, a political tool, or a spiritual practice, and yet I also think it’s all of those things.
I have a friend who is an ICU nurse, who also goes to multiple experimental music shows a week. Occasionally they will tell me that they had to deal with some really difficult thing at work – a patient dying, for example – and that hearing music is a way of processing and healing from that pain. That is true, and unequivocally a good thing.
So maybe I will say: I don’t like grand claims, but the role of music is to help people be present. And that experience, ideally, is one of healing, of joy, of rage. Whatever is really happening in a moment, music can place us there.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
Music is a way of being intentionally present, it helps us move through big and small events in our lives with attention.
For me, sometimes that means feeling or experiencing the present, obvious emotions of an event – an occasion of joy or grief. Singing for my grandpa near the end of his life.
Sometimes, more often, it brings up things I didn’t know were present. I’m often struck with ordinary, mind-boggling love for life, listening to Nina Simone in my kitchen.
There seems to be increasing interest in a functional, “rational” and scientific approach to music. How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
I wish I knew more scientists. If any scientists read this and want to be friends please email me.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
In my experience, the profound and ineffable parts of life often exist in the most mundane and pedestrian corners. Love is in the details, not a grand gesture but a daily practice.
Art is the same, we’re reaching for the ineffable, maybe, but we’re reaching with our actual hands, and looking with our actual eyes, and hearing with our actual ears. Which means that we get a lot of room noise, and we have to reach the ineffable through the very effable.
So I’m interested in using the room noise (literally and figuratively), and making the line between “music” and “coffee” a little blurry.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
That’s a mystery, and I think it will remain so.