Gabrielle Herbst’s GABI project may only be putting out its first full album, but Herbst herself already has the kind of musical resume that seems like several lives put together at once.
The press release for Sympathy, out now on Daniel Lopatin’s Software Recording Co. label, mentions her young interest in Balinese dance, training at Bard College, premiering and performing in operas, and — for all I know — I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s since gone full Buckaroo Banzai and does brain surgery when not testing out oscillation overthrusters.
Sympathy itself is the kind of album that fits in a general intersection between her formal training — credits include a trombonist and two string players among others, all regular collaborators of hers — and a technology-tinged moodiness that Lopatin’s own work as Oneohtrix Point Never has long favored. But GABI is very much its own beast — compared to the sometimes daunting flood of attractive but dull synth-soundtrack acts out there in the world, Herbst’s creations here emphasize space, focused performances constructing larger wholes, a real sense of voice-as-instrument, in layers and compositional elements, much different from simply murmuring behind reverb. It’s an auteur performance with participation by others but ultimately driven someone in full control of the process and results and it shows, skillfully.
An initial brief interview on the phone delved a bit into her background and that of the album, except that, of course, the recording only captured my side of the questions. (Technology, never not always working just so.) Happily she was available for a longer follow-up a couple of days later, so much thanks to her. Taking the chance to go further than I’d had initial time to do, and to avoid simply going over what we’d already talked about earlier, I asked her to discuss some of the elements in her own background and that of the album’s in greater detail.
Herbst’s young interest in Balinese dance and gamelan came about due to her family and the ongoing work and researches of her musicologist father, Edward. It wasn’t simply the music that caught her imagination: “The costumes of the Balinese dancers are some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen! I was definitely struck by those as a child and I definitely thought they were the epitome of beauty. Those images stayed with me up until now, that I think about often and I find really transcendent. I work from a really visual place, so when I’m composing I often see the colors that I’m writing or see the spaces I’m creating with the music, in a visual way.”
“I was struck that I could have created something that stepped beyond myself and took on this life of its own.”
When it came to early musical heroes while still young, she mentioned one that stood out for her early on. “He’s a virtuoso player named Ivo Papazov, an incredible Bulgarian clarinet player. The sound of the music was very improvisatory and complex. As a child, for some reason, it stuck with me as something that I wanted to do. Honestly at the time, I really didn’t know much about Bulgarian music. But strangely, that was the turning point for me. I thought I was going to follow up on that and study with a Bulgarian teacher, but I didn’t end up doing that and instead studied classical clarinet, so I could play in orchestras, ensembles and chamber music. I also adore Bulgarian singing and women’s choirs, some of the most gorgeous colors and harmonies and styles of singing. It’s really striking to me and raw, and has definitely influenced me. But with Papazov, it was this one moment in time, where this particular musician grabbed me.”
Herbst’s decision to pursue music as a primary endeavour didn’t occur until her time at Bard, identifying one particular transformative moment: “I was taking a very small composition class with [award winning composer] Joan Tower, who was my big mentor at Bard. I wrote a piece for solo cello, my first ever notated composition. It was an exciting process writing it, but I didn’t really know what it was going to be like when it was actually played. I just couldn’t really imagine. It was picked to be performed by one of the Da Capo Players, the cellist. He performed this piece with so much passion, he really brought it to life in this beautiful way. I was struck that I could have created something that stepped beyond myself and took on this life of its own.”
While Sympathy is her first album as GABI, another personal first occurred last year with the full premiere of her debut opera, Bodiless. “I was initially commissioned by Experiments in Opera, which is this great Brooklyn company, then later by Roulette to expand it. I didn’t actually decide to write an opera out of my own free will — I was asked to write one. It was interesting to me because I’ve done tons of vocal writing, compositionally, and songs, but I had never really tried to write an opera, and the idea of that was quite daunting, but really exciting. I wanted to sculpt my own concept of opera, and not really get bogged down by certain traditional elements that I wasn’t as interested in.
“I’m a big fan of Robert Ashley, and I love his operas, how created his own theatrical pieces with singing, called them operas, and it was completely accepted as such. So I was thinking about the limits and how far you could go in certain directions in composing opera. I decided to take the elements of opera that I was really interested in, these grandiose concepts, a transcendent element to watching, playing with different kinds of archetypes. I wanted to make it non-narrative, abstract, that didn’t follow in the traditional nature of things.”
Unlike Bodiless, which was done in collaboration with a librettist, Canadian poet Angela Rawlings, Sympathy is all Herbst’s own lyrical work, though some connections exist. “Bodiless was very dislocated text. For the GABI project, I would say there are no clear narratives throughout the album, or even within songs. The lyrics sometimes come from a very personal place, honest and true. Other times, it’s more from the imagination. Often it’s very intuitive — I choose words both for their meaning and for their sound with how I’m vocalizing. I think of my lyrics as a kind of sound poetry.”
A key element through Sympathy is a sense of space both within the recordings and in the feel of sounding like it’s performed in a much larger setting than simply a studio. Herbst describes this as reflecting a theme of architecture, derived from another performance situation: “The architecture concept began when I was at Robert Wilson’s art estate, the Watermill Center, for a residency. I brought a couple of musicians there with me, and that’s where a couple of the songs on the album were first written. I had some material that I had already arranged and composed for the project — not knowing it was for that — and I had composed that in my teeny shoebox bedroom.
“I wanted to sculpt my own concept of opera.”
“Composing in such a small space is cool because you can use your imagination, but at the same time there something confining to that space. So this residency was really exciting, to be in a large gallery space with booming walls and lots of beautiful art surrounding me. Wilson is pretty obsessed with the architecture of the Watermill Center, it’s very calculated — it’s supposed to be the ideal for the artistic creation lab. It really was a strange place to be! Everything was arranged, in this ‘just so’ particular way, and it felt very different from my everyday life. It made me scrap what I had composed, and I decided needed to have a lot more multi-levelled approach to composing my music.”
Finally, I asked both what was next following touring for Sympathy, as well as what her dream project would be. “I’m writing a short piece, a nightmare, for a friend who’s an opera singer, Ariadne Greif, who performed in my opera with me. She’s commissioning composers to write small nightmares for her to perform. I’m also collaborating with Sugar Vendil — she runs the Nouveau Classical Project, a great new music group; this will be for a multimedia piece with movement and dance, and probably video. That’ll be interesting!
“For my dream project? Gosh. I love creating large scale work, that’s part of the reason why I’m so drawn to opera. I’d love to make another opera, write for orchestra and many singers, sing in it myself, work with designers, costume makers to create unique visuals for the piece. And I love site-specific work, so I’d find a remote location to do it at.”