Recorded in Buffalo’s Silo City, the saxophonist’s latest record is an ode to vulnerability in the face of vastness
New York City based composer and sound designer Lea Bertucci is about to release her third album via US label NNA Tapes. Called Resonant Field, it comprises of several pieces Bertucci performed on saxophone in Silo City’s Marine A Grain Elevator, a vast and empty building with a 13 second natural decay. She answered some questions about the work over email.
Why and how did you choose this particular space to record in?
In 2017, I was awarded a month-long residency through a non-profit organisation in Buffalo called Squeaky Wheel, which had access to the site at Silo City. I had visited Silo City as I was passing though Buffalo on a tour earlier that year, so I was familiar with the site. I spent my time there writing a saxophone quartet designed for the space and in the process of creating that composition, I made many recordings of myself playing solo, more as research and development for the quartet.
What did you enjoy about concentrating on one interior for this project?
It’s always something of a luxury to have extended time in a space such as this. I was immediately struck by the uncanny feeling of the scale of my body inside of the vast interior of the building. It’s a bit of a post-industrial “Ozymandias” – the hulking concrete, the decay of decades passing. There was an inherent vulnerability of working in such a space, as I had not much of an idea of the structural integrity of the building. Feeling so small and soft within the context of metal and concrete. The sound of the space had incredible power. It was like walking into an altered state – a truly unique experience that was so disorienting I could only reconcile it with experiences I have had while taking psychedelics.
Is it important for your listeners to know about the location?
My hope is that the finished record can stand on its own musically to such an extent that it’s not necessary for the listener to know about the space. However I do think that understanding the context enriches the listening experience.
What do you hope is the effect of listening to these sounds outside of knowing about the concept behind it?
I made many hours of recordings while alone in this space. Listening back through this material, I found myself most attracted to moments in the recording that spoke to the vulnerability I felt in the space. So accidents, mistakes and surprises were where I felt the strongest material existed. In many ways, this record is about these feelings of solitude, decay, fragility and the very human process of embracing and exploring these feelings.
Are all the layers of sound from live playing and natural decay? What do you like about this effect?
Because the silos have approximately 13 seconds of decay, the life of the sound extends for a relatively long time after the moment of sounding. I like to think of this in the context of time travel. When I would play a long tone, I had 13 seconds to interact with it, so I found myself doing a lot of pitch bending. So when I would play a pitch, I would then ‘lip’ it slightly sharp or flat, and due to the long decay time, microtonal harmonies would arise in real time. As I took the recordings into the studio, I found that by overdubbing various takes, I could create a more dense microtonal polyphony.
Did the space alter your usual way of playing? How did you feel yourself responding?
The specific musical gestures on this record were directly influenced by the acoustic conditions of the silo. There were moments where I played more rhythmically, teasing effects out of the delay of the sound bouncing from one end of the silo to the other. I tried to find particular pitches that excited the space and rang out above others. One technique I developed, which I have applied to other site-responsive projects since that time, is something I call ‘decay swells’ where the player plays a single pitch as a crescendo with a hard cut at peak intensity. As the sound decays, the player is to begin again at a pianissimo volume that matches the level of the resonance in the space. This simple technique facilitates a direct interaction between the player and the acoustic conditions and I think allows the player to reconsider their relationship to their sonic environment.
I had an interesting experience on my first day of playing in the silos, and I think it really shaped the way I proceeded throughout my time there. It was mid-morning and I was just beginning to get a feel for what was happening sonically in the space, when all of a sudden some sediment fell down on me from above. I was of course immediately freaked out, not knowing how structurally sound these silos are, so I moved aside and then a little feathered creature comes tumbling down from above and falls to the floor. It stands up, looking quite disoriented, and I realise it is a little owl that had been roosting high in the silo. I had probably woken it up with my horrible skronking. So yes, this feeling of being small, soft and vulnerable within the context of a massive space stuck with me.