News from the Oort Cloud: An Interview with Musician Andrew Livingston by Victoria Michelotti

Curator Caroline Spang sat down with musician Andrew Livingston to discuss his new album, News from the Oort Cloud, released at Brooklyn’s C’mon Everybody in December 2018.

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“I hope this record will be about whatever people want or interpret or need it to be about. For me these are songs about isolation, solitude, loss, impermanence, love and the beauty in all of that.”

The album title refers to the theoretical cloud of debris surrounding the solar system, how does the reference to space reflect your own curiosity about science and the universe?

I am endlessly fascinated by all branches of science but especially astrophysics and astronomy. I am amazed that we as a race can even begin to question where we fit in the context of the cosmos. I love wrestling with the infinite or the seemingly infinite. Astronomy lays the big philosophical questions at our doorstep and I just love it.

The Oort Cloud is a rather ambiguous concept as it is outside the current possible human reach.  Likewise, your work as a musician lingers outside the familiarity of genres…it escapes definition.  How does this parallel theme recur in your life and work as an artist?

I am so fascinated with the Oort Cloud. It’s at once both dense (with space debris) and extremely cold, isolated and desolate. It is an immense frozen rotating desert wasteland of incomprehensible size. In this record I use it as a metaphor for isolation. At times isolation is precious solitude and other times it is solitary confinement. I guess it is a matter of trying to find an elusive and changing balance. It occurs to me that I can’t really adequately and fully define life or death. Wrestling with this and my own isolation is a lot of what this music is about.

News from the Oort Cloud not only incorporates classical, electronic, and folk sounds but it also explores themes of the unknown within space and within human nature. During the composition of this album, was it at times difficult to comprehend the project?

The creation of this music was definitely a very contemplative process. It took a little while for me to really find the language of the album and to give myself permission to indulge in it. It was a longer process for me than I anticipated. There was an amount of music I made for this record that just didn’t make the cut. I think of it as one piece in which the songs are really just chapters. Some of the songs I had to cut just didn’t fit with the narrative of the project. That said, what the album has become really is what I wanted and meant to express.

The titles within the album have underlying contexts. For example, Psalm 103 has biblical origins. What is the significance behind this title and what philosophies are important to the composition of this album?

Impermanence and mortality are also concepts that pull at my heartstrings. I am not a particularly religious guy but I feel like Psalm 103 in the bible is a meditation on the impermanence of mankind. The sanctity of life, the question of what life and death actually is, what life really means, and why and if it has value are things I wrestle with in life and on this record.  I hope this record will be about whatever people want or interpret or need it to be about. For me these are songs about isolation, solitude, loss, impermanence, love and the beauty in all of that. I guess I keep the metaphors a little vague and try not to over explain what is going on for me in each song. I try to use as few lyrics as possible to convey what I need to. The songs with words are all lyrically very spare. The Psalm is a poem that really jives with my aesthetic so I was glad to include it. The bible is a joy to read if done without an agenda.

Lastly, what is your composing process? What sort of environment is most conducive to your creativity?  Is creating music reciprocal to ideological contemplation within your work?

I have a few different composing processes. Sometimes it just feels like writing down or recording a thing that’s just kind of “there” and I’m not sure where that comes from. At those times I feel like I am just a secretary getting down a memo from somewhere else. Other times it is a very meticulous process of whittling out things that aren’t supposed to be there. Process of elimination.

I try not to be too precise about where and when and how to work. I form superstitions very easily so I try to avoid them. Maybe that’s mild OCD tendencies. I can get very particular about all kinds of crazy things I need to create. I have in the past. Not as much now. My main needs are that I definitely need privacy and I prefer to not have time constraints. I find time flows differently when I’m making things so I want to have space to allow for that. I may need 2 hours or 15 minutes or all night or week. I need to be alone in order to not judge myself. If others are within earshot I imagine how they are judging what I’m doing which is really me judging myself.

I do think creating music is reciprocal to ideological contemplation within my work sometimes. Other times it's really just “this sounds cool.”  When I was in graduate school I tried to get more clinical about music in a way but at the end of the day I think I’m just a hopeless romantic and not really an academic. It is emotional. I don’t really know what any of it means.

Preview of Taverna Rebetika: A Conversation with Anita Rogers by Victoria Michelotti

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Curator Caroline Spang sat down with Gallery Owner and Director, Anita Rogers, ahead of Taverna Rebetika, an annual celebration of Greek culture taking place Dec 1 at the Anita Rogers Gallery.

How does your background and experience living in Greece influence the artists and work featured in the Anita Rogers Gallery? 

My parents held 1960s values. They were free spirits, educated and open humanitarians who valued folk culture. My father moved to Greece in 1962. The mentality and culture in 1980s Greece reflected 1960s Western Europe: unspoiled and carefree. This was a time when the art world had more universal meaning and depth - before the mass market idea had really taken over. My values are rooted in this time and these memories.

I approach the gallery from an artist’s point of view as I was raised by an artist who understood art as something that was in search of truth, searching to understand what it means to be human, exploring that which connects us deeply as humans, almost approaching the metaphysical but while staying rooted in the human experience and truth. This shaped my values and approach to running a gallery in NYC. I choose artists whose visual abilities are exceptional and whose aesthetic approach and philosophical ideas are in line with the beliefs I described and in line with the values that were held, as I remember them, pre-mass media and before the contemporary art scene became more of a mockery and the overblown financial marketplace that it is now.

What is your process of selecting artists to work with? 

I can tell very quickly when I look at the work in person. I judge by looking at the work and engaging with it. The work will speak for itself. Finding artists good enough is the most challenging part of running the gallery. There has been a culture of “anything can be art” for some time. This lack of discernment results in having to wade through so much work to even start to find potential fits for us. We are only interested in art we feel has the right essence—that which will withstand the test of time. We call ourselves “incubators.” 

What is your favorite memory of growing up in Greece?

My father playing the bouzouki one afternoon with a Greek priest and six fishermen. We (my Mum, Dad and me) were in the village of an island called Tzia (Kea), which was quite sleepy as it was a hot afternoon during siesta time. Little by little, the locals came out of their homes and joined in. They opened up the local taverna and as it filled up, the locals brought their own chairs, tables and food to the square where we were playing. By evening the entire square was filled with people, both locals and tourists, drinking, eating and dancing. Other musicians joined in and I did all the singing. Hundreds of locals and tourists joined the party by late evening. The music continued through the night. At 5am we went to the island mayor’s house to play and I sang outside his window to wake him up! We then moved to the island doctor’s house and carried on playing all day. No sleep—just 30 plus hours of music. It was amazing. 

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How did you begin making music? How would you describe the role of music in Greek culture?

I began singing in nightclubs in Turkey from the age of nine. My father was a lutenist, bouzouki player and guitarist so I began singing with him from a very young age. Music is a way of living in the moment; this is especially true of Greek music. Music reflects the culture of the country it is from. Greeks have a great ability to let go and accept. Subsequently the freedom one can experience living in the joy of “now” is experienced with Greek music. Tomorrow and yesterday don’t matter for a while! My mother upholds these values and to this day lives happily in acceptance most of the time. She makes the most of every moment. Her father was a successful businessman, her grandfather was an art dealer and her grandmother was an opera singer. I am lucky to have become a mixture of all three.

I later was classically trained and had a career in opera in Italy and the UK, and I also play the classical and Celtic harp. Music and art shape my life and are at the root of all my values. I feel very lucky to have this level of depth and substance in my life. It helps the stress of running businesses dissipate, as I know nothing can take music and art away from me. I’ll always be able to play and sing and appreciate and understand the visual world.  

What are your go-to Greek restaurants in NYC?

I eat at Kiki’s on the Lower East Side. Everything on their menu is amazing. Pylos is also great. Tyrokafteri (spicy feta cheese dip) is a favorite. Kyklades in Astoria is also fantastic, even though it isn’t run by Greeks.

Upcoming at Anita Rogers Gallery: Taverna Rebetika