Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist, composer, and producer Roarke Menzies knows about collaboration. For the past ten years, Menzies has been working with dancers, storytellers, choreographers, visual artists, and film directors, creating soundscapes and scores primarily using electronics, vocals, and his body. He’s been involved in projects at the Kitchen, the New Museum, Jacob’s Pillow, Abrons Arts Center, the Bushwick Starr, and the Vancouver Biennale in addition to composing music for a VICE web pilot and an award-winning educational app for children. But now Menzies, a self-described “sonic explorer,” is entering new territory, putting himself front and center with the release of his debut album, Shapes (October 13, Coup de Glotte). The record features six soundscapes, running in length from 2:11 (“Man in the Myler”) to 13:58 (“Music for Spatial Shift”), that take listeners on an ethereal journey through space and time, from the gentle, lilting “Those Pretty Lights” to the echoing, wind-strewn “Pulse Inflections.” Earlier this year, we did a twi-ny talk with Menzies and Rome about their show Philadelphia and Other Stories. Now we go it alone with Menzies, as he discusses sonic phenomena and the material world, his rather heady reading list, Aboriginal artist Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, and more.
twi-ny: We first met five years ago, when artist Nuala Clarke invited us, along with several others, to perform at her art opening, “You Delight Me,” on Shelter Island. How’s life been treating you since then?
Roarke Menzies: Yeah, that was a lovely event. Nuala contacted me out of the blue. We’d never met before. I was working on some music with my brother in LA and got an email from her asking me to participate. I think she’d found something of mine online.
I’ve been so lucky, in a lot of ways. I get approached to work on a lot of compelling projects, and between that and my other jobs [in performing arts management] I’m able to earn enough to support myself and pursue creative endeavors.
twi-ny: I’m really enjoying your debut album, Shapes, which takes listeners on a fascinating sonic journey. You wrote and play all the music as well as handle the production, recording, and mixing. How long did it take you to put it all together?
RM: That’s awesome. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. These are works that have developed slowly over the past several years. The earliest recorded material on there is from late 2009 and has been revisited and reworked a number of times. I’ve put a lot of thought and care into these tracks. It’s a lot of work, but it’s definitely a labor of love.
twi-ny: You describe Shapes as both creating space and filling it up. Can you expand on that a little?
RM: I’m actually referring not just to the sounds on Shapes but to sound in general, and how we interpret sound phenomena in relation to our sense of space.
If you’re on an underground subway platform, every sound you hear reverberates in ways that inform your sense of that space. Even without visual cues, your mind can put together the cavernous space you’re in. That same effect can be simulated artificially using reverb. Sound designers and engineers make practical use of it all the time, in film or radio, for instance, creating the sense of size or the characteristics of the space you’re “in” using only sound. But that space doesn’t actually exist, at least not in the way “existence” is generally understood. It’s a fiction fabricated using particular signs and signals that your mind interprets as a space.
In other instances, the sheer “density,” “mass” or “volume” of a sound can create this feeling that it’s there in front of you — “a sound filled the room” — like you could just reach out and touch it in the same way you can touch a glass of whiskey or a person on the cheek. But sound doesn’t really behave that way either.
One of the curious aspects in working with sound as a material is that it’s not, in fact, material. And yet it seems to have this power to at times convince us of its materiality, even if just temporarily, and to completely change our sense of the material world around us. I’m interested in how those processes play out.
twi-ny: Where do you get your sonic inspirations? I have a feeling that when you traverse the city, you listen to all the cacophony and noise in a different way than the rest of us, gathering ideas for your work.
RM: I’m definitely a sound-obsessed person, and I’m often mesmerized and perplexed by the city’s sound culture. I do a lot of listening and a lot of reading. I find reading fuels my creative life like nothing else, whether articles, essays, books, blog posts, Wikipedia entries. Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 is a recent favorite, and I have a long reading list that I’m slowly working through of texts related to performance, sound and technocultural studies. I think the next will be Brandon LaBelle’s Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary.
twi-ny: That’s some heavy stuff. Shapes includes a tribute to the great La Monte Young. Who are some of your other musical influences?
RM: I feel like my influences are all over the place — Arvo Pärt, Portishead, Fluxus, Sam Cooke’s gospel recordings with the Soul Stirrers, Deerhunter’s Cryptograms, Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s soundtrack for Akira, Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, the choral works of Morten Lauridsen, the rugged lands of early RZA, the pop masterpieces of Max Martin, the subterranean cityscapes of Burial, the codeine-soaked tapescapes of DJ Screw, the Courvoisier-soaked jiggyscapes of early 2000s Neptunes, etc. I’m a huge music appreciator.
twi-ny: Who do you listen to on your iPod?
RM: All that being said, there’s really not a lot of it on my iPhone. Other than work-related stuff and that U2 album we were all force-fed (I never bothered to listen to or erase it), all I’ve got on there at the moment is Cocteau Twins, Arthur Russell, Nico Muhly, Tim Hecker, Oneohtrix Point Never, James Blake, a vintage Soweto compilation, and a few mixes from the UK music publication The Wire.
twi-ny: What about seeing live music?
RM: Recent highlights that come to mind include Tyondai Braxton’s new Hive project at the Kitchen, FKA Twigs’ Congregata for Red Bull Music Academy, a riveting set from Pharmakon at St. Vitus, the experimental synth duo Long Distance Poison at Pioneer Works, and an improvised set from saxophonist Colin Stetson, bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Greg Fox (of Zs) at Outpost.
twi-ny: You also compose scores and soundscapes for Paul Rome’s story presentations, Jack Ferver’s multidisciplinary performances, and such choreographers as Adam Barruch and Meredith Glisson. How does your creative process differ for such diverse projects, or do you approach them all the same?
RM: My approach can be radically different, depending on the project and the working styles of the people involved. I try to learn the vocabulary and codes — “When they say this, they mean this” — then develop an understanding for what will best support the work.
twi-ny: You’ll be celebrating the release of your debut album, Shapes, with a party on October 10 at Bunna Cafe in Brooklyn, and you’ll be joined by Rome, Katie Mullins, and David Kammerer. What do you have planned for the event?
RM: I’m planning a very warm, intimate event. Bunna’s a great Ethiopian restaurant with a small stage. It’s a favorite spot of mine. We’ll likely open the evening with an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Then Paul will read a new story he’s been working on, David and Katie will each play a few new songs of theirs, and I’ll perform a short solo set. The performances will be relatively brief since the focus is really to celebrate with friends.
I actually have a really exciting last-minute addition to the night’s festivities. The Ghanaian xylophone virtuoso SK Kakraba is going to come to Bunna after his show at Bossa Nova Civic Club for an informal late night solo set. I have to thank my good friend Mike Visser (of Imaginary Tricks) for arranging that one. It's going to be a really special night.
twi-ny: What do you do when you take a break from music, if you ever take breaks from music?
RM: I definitely take lots of breaks. When I’m not at work or focusing on a specific project, I don’t like to be holed up in my studio for no reason. I like to get out and see things, or spend time with friends and loved ones.
I recently saw an incredible painting show at Salon 94 on the Bowery. It’s the first solo show in the US by an Australian Aboriginal artist named Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, who along with his family was living nomadically until they were “discovered” in the ’80s. [Ed. note: The show, “Maparntjarra,” continues at Salon 94 through October 24.] Apparently this guy is revered as an important leader and healer among Australian tribes and is also considered one of the most important innovators in contemporary indigenous art from Australia. All I can say is it was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had at a painting show, incredibly inspiring.