Name: Lia Mice
Occupation: Composer, sound artist, performer
Current Release: Lia Mice's Sweat Like Caramel is out via Objects Limited.
If you enjoyed this interview with Lia Mice, visit her official website for more information. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
You may also enjoy our Smomid interview with a fellow instrument designer and -builder.
In terms of instrument design, tell me a bit about your inspirations, please. Are there instruments, composer or instrument builders who were an influence on you?
I’ve always been interested in seeing performers who have designed their own instruments.
The first band I ever saw live was Boredoms. They built an instrument called the Sevener which is made from the necks of 7 electric guitars. Some other favourite musicians who also design instruments include Kathy Hinde, Andy Cavatorta, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Maria Chavez, Miriam Bleau and Harry Partch.
[Read our Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe interview]
[Read our Maria Chavez interview]
Did you ever get to perform on Harry Partch's instruments or similar ones, like the Bertoia sculptures? What were your impressions, both in terms of what they were bringing to the table and what was missing?
I’ve never seen Harry Partch’s instruments or Harry Bertoia’s sculptures, but I have experienced several of Kathy Hinde’s instruments in galleries and at concerts.
Tipping Point was an incredible to experience. I just remember sitting in the dark, dwarfed by six of these huge test-tube instruments and being engulfed in an ever-shifting microtonal tone cloud. It was absolutely transcendental.
If you look at traditional instruments like the piano or violin, what's your take on them when it comes to their ability to realise your creative vision(s)?
I choose different instruments depending on the project. A few years ago I made a film score for a short horror film using only violin, viola and an 8-track tape machine. I think the scratchiness of the bow hairs made the music more scary.
Were you ever interested in, instead of creating new instruments, altering existing ones – such as the prepared piano?
Yes, I’ve hacked existing instruments and also objects.
A few years ago I made an instrument called the Double Headed Harp Guitar that is part of a series called Instrument Sematary in which I am bringing broken and disused acoustic instruments back to life with new freaky digital personalities.
What are the limits to building patches in Max or creating new digital instruments vs physical?
The most difficult limitations to overcome are time, budget and, for large instruments, space. Working within all other limitations like CPU or physics is where the exciting creative ideas are hiding.
Where do your ideas for instruments come from? Do you already have compositional ideas in mind when starting out? Is the instrument the beginning of a piece in a way?
I mostly get ideas from the materials that I want to construct the instrument from. But I also form ideas around inspiring art, architecture, fabrics, photographs and of course music.
There are games for generating ideas too but I generally use those when I’m working collaboratively.
If you take the joy and expressive potential of creating your own instruments versus composing music – how do these two compare?
It’s all art. Creating instruments and producing music are part of the same overarching art project, which is to make new music that hasn’t been made before.
After seeing videos of your live appearances I was under the strong impression that the live performance aspect is key to your music. When it comes to instrument design, what's the balance between looking for compositional tools and tools for making your gigs even more exciting?
At the moment I create instruments for live performance. If they end up on a recording that’s because I’ve recorded it while improvising with it. But the main goal for my instruments isn’t for them to be recorded, it’s for them to be performed live.
What was building your first instrument like?
My first instrument was a hacked chandelier. I call it the ChandeLIA.
I fixed the electronics and added a sonic element so that when the chandelier swings it emits a droning sound and the lights flash. It was really difficult because I was learning all the coding and electronics on the spot. But it was liberating to turn this complicated idea into a reality.
I wanted to get into the One Handed Violin for a moment. What I find fascinating about it is not just the support it gives to those who can't play a conventional violin. I would also assume that performers would actually create different music with it than if they were playing the violin traditionally … Can you talk a bit about the relationship between the tools of creation and the music we make?
I used to think of myself as a composer who would use an instrument as a tool to compose music with, and regardless of which instrument I composed with I thought that I had full agency over the composition, as if the instrument is just a vehicle for realising my composition.
But now that I build instruments I have come to realize that music making is an entangled interaction between a performer, an instrument, and the environment which includes socio-cultural contexts, and changing any element in the entanglement results in changing the music, as well as what kind of musician or composer I am. This is a school of thought known as entanglement theory.
And through this lens I’ve come to realise that an instrument isn’t actually an instrument unless it is being performed. And I’m not a musician at all until I’m performing. And when I perform, the musician I am is being created in the moment.
For someone like Harry Partch, the instruments created an entire world of expression. What is this like for you – in which way are these instruments an expression of your identity?
Well to expand on the entanglement theory of music performance, I’m also becoming the instrument designer in the process of instrument design. The creative choices I am making are because of not only what materials I’m working with but also other contexts such as my experiences and tastes.
From the experience of designing your own instruments, what are elements of good instrument design?
I think every musician would have a different answer for what makes a good instrument.
For me, I like instruments that I can improvise with. I like them to be difficult enough that I’m not always 100% in control of how they will sound, because I never practice any instrument enough.
How did all of these considerations factor both into your new album and your latest instrument, the Chaos Bells?
My new album, Sweat Like Caramel, was created out of short song ideas I created while experimenting with a 4-track tape machine. I was cutting up tape and sticking it back together as a way to create melodies I wouldn’t have otherwise come up with. So I suppose that’s an example of me wanting an instrument to contribute some unpredictability to my compositional methods.
Chaos Bells also has an element of unpredictability in that the angle of the tilt of the pendulums changes the timbre of the tone, and when tilted above a certain threshold the tone disintegrates into chaotic broadband noise. It’s difficult to know where the threshold is so sometimes the instrument gets extremely noisy without the performer intending it to.
Most new instruments quickly disappear from sight and sound again, even Partch's. Are you concerned about this? What do you think makes instruments relevant for longer periods of time?
Designing instruments that are relevant has never been my focus. I design these instruments for myself and anyone else who is curious.
I think of instrument design as an art form, and so just like how we can’t guess which artist will still be remembered in 100 years, there is also no formula to designing an instrument that people actually want to play. So rather than aiming for popularity I just follow my own curiosity and enjoy each project in the moment.
From talking to many electronic music producers and DJs, after so many decades of electronic music production, the interface is a sore point. Do you a envision more universal, somewhat smaller and easier to produce interfaces?
There is no such thing as a universal interface because humans are so diverse. We don’t all have the same physical dexterity. We need to embrace that not everyone wants to or can play the same interface or instrument.
And for me, I build large instruments. I certainly don’t want a smaller interface or instrument! I want really big ones and I enjoy building them myself. I don’t want to outsource these aspects of my art practice and I think many other people feel the same way.