Vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, composer and performance artist Stephanie Pan described herself as a lover of chaos, mess and human imperfection. Both her list of loved entities and her skills are mirrored in “Have Robot Dog, Will Travel” (recently released by Arteksounds), described as “a song cycle for the technological age and an ode to abstraction, to ambiguity, to words unsaid.” We focused on it with Stephanie. Check out her words below (as well as her sounds)!
Chain DLK: Hi, Stephanie! How are you?
Stephanie Pan: Hello! I’m very well, thanks, currently traveling around the world after a very cool collaborative project in Brisbane, Australia!
Chain DLK: Before focusing on your interesting debut album, can you tell us something about your first steps on the path that brought to your current art?
Stephanie Pan: Formally, I grew up in classical music (piano, violin and choirs), and began to get serious about singing when I started studying at UC Berkeley, where I received a BA in Applied Mathematics and Music. I moved to The Hague, the Netherlands in 2001 to study Baroque singing and later bel canto at The Royal Conservatory in The Hague, but ultimately focused on contemporary classical music. By the time I finished the Conservatory in The Hague, my specialties were live improvisation and extended vocal techniques. Furthermore, I really grew up as a performer, in more recent years having worked a lot in physical and political theater and performance art. In my personal life, I really came of age listening to electronic music (particularly new wave, dancehall, drum n bass, and tekno) and alternative music. So I guess I’ve always had a pretty broad spectrum of influences. I’ve spent quite some time negotiating this pretty fractured identity, first and foremost for myself.
Chain DLK: The oldest entry on your path in your website is the nicely titled Our Lady of Late, a solo for voice and wineglass, inspired by the same-named piece by Meredith Monk… I knew the remake of the same release by Nick Hallett, a vocal performer you maybe know… Do you remember how you ideally related to Monk’s album for that project?
Stephanie Pan: Yes, absolutely. This piece has been really important to me and has been with me for more than a decade! Meredith Monk has certainly been a huge influence, and this project began before I started writing my own music. As a singer, I wanted to learn Monk’s Our Lady of Late. I couldn’t find a published score for it and started transcribing the pieces for myself, developing my own notation for what she was doing and how I understood each of the pieces, so the very first iterations of this were my interpretations of Meredith Monk’s piece. Over time, as I revisited the work and opened up my understanding of how I interpreted it, I started to replace her movements with my own improvisations or songs and slowly, over time, it became my own version of pieces for voice and wineglass.
Chain DLK:Wineglasses are also part of Implied Manifesto, together with other tools that maybe you keep on using… Someone could ask the reason for such an almost constant presence!
Stephanie Pan: Yes, it’s true, sometimes I have to laugh at myself for being the wineglass lady! I just love the way the female voice and wineglass interact; it’s such a delicate but rich environment for making sound. I also love the absurdity of a highly cultivated sound with crappy toy synths, and cheap keyboards and effects, which are definitely also recurring in my work. In a way, I don’t find it at all odd. If you think about bands with their fixed instrumentation, or electronic musicians with computers, my setup just happens to contain a rather odd (and growing) collection of toys and instruments which I continue to work with and develop ideas with.
Chain DLK: How did you work on your voice and its performative possibilities over the years? Did such work imply a technical effort only, or is it somehow related to spirituality?
Stephanie Pan: I would definitely qualify my vocal work as a search for communication, from a very primal perspective. My work in theatre and performance art has certainly also influenced the way I think about the voice as an instrument/device and how I approach creating work. I did have to work very hard to develop my technique as a singer, as I was not naturally a good technical singer, but I definitely always had something to say. My work as a vocalist in this respect has really been about refining my technique in order to be able to express or share my thoughts or ideas more effectively. Whether or not I would call that spiritual, I don’t know; it’s such a loaded word. I definitely have a need in any case to connect with my public, to share a kind of universal loneliness and need for each other.
Chain DLK: One of the initiatives you organized with was Modern Body Festival…can you tell us something about that? I read on your websites of two editions. No other editions after those, or is it an ongoing project?
Stephanie Pan: Oh, no! Then my website is out of date! There have been 3 biennial editions, in 2014, 2016 and 2018. Modern Body Festival is an initiative I founded with my partner, Stelios Manousakis, in 2014. We call it an ‘intermedia’ festival and platform which operates in the nebulous zone between disciplines/genres/media, and consider it an extension of our own practice. It really started with one of our projects, Center no Distractor, a duo for taiko and live electronics (in a way our take on hardcore tekno), when we had the opportunity to organize a performance for the project. To us, the duo is equal parts music, dance and performance, and we were fantasizing about other artists/projects we thought would help create the right context for the project. 3 hours later, we had an entire festival program on our hands and we thought, oh my god, we have to do this!
The festival always has a particular theme around the notion of the ‘modern’ body, and we re-imagine the format every edition. As it’s an extension of our own practices, it’s never made sense to find some formula and stick to it; it’s a fun (but definitely stressful) challenge to keep reinventing the platform. At the moment, we’re planning to continue the laboratory series we started in 2017 under the same Modern Body moniker and further concentrate on the idea that as a foundation, we’re becoming our own production house. That means moving away from the biennial format for the time being, but definitely continuing to grow and develop, and continuing to balance our own creative work and our work as producers/curators/facilitators/initiators.
Chain DLK: Let’s try to extensively talk about your impressive debut album… There are many true facts related to the stage of civilization (to call it so) living (and maybe dead also) human beings experience through the lyrics… How do you feel about this?
Stephanie Pan: I feel the core of the human condition is eternal and our fear of loneliness, isolation, loss of love are omnipresent, ultimately connecting us all. At the heart of my work is a kind of nagging loneliness which is something I feel we all deeply understand and can therefore be moved by, and which I feel we need to embrace and accept instead of running away from it. It’s the thing that makes us cling to things for safety. Something I’m really interested in is the ambiguity of life, of how much in between there is if you try to embrace this loneliness. What I’m really interested in talking about in my songs is a kind of amorphous zone, this kind of grey area of nothingness. The big emotions – rapture, desperation, misery, euphoria – are less interesting to me to talk about; they don’t have enough space in a way, as they’re so full of themselves. In those moments, I don’t make good work. These weird, ambiguous and everyday moments that take up a huge part of our lives are so revealing and rich. To me, they’re full of a certain melancholy, freedom, space, self-reflection, longing, etc., all of these sensations that are somehow so in balance with each other they sort of cancel each other out and we’re left with a kind of nothing, and this fullness and simultaneous emptiness is really at the heart of this album.
I’m really proud of how the album developed and became what it is now. It is my ode to ambiguity. I wanted to balance all these many influences in my work, to create something that is enjoyable and approachable but keeps you off balance; something appealingly ambiguous. I’m really thankful to the producer, Henry Vega, for inviting me to make an album for ARTEkSounds, and how he really encouraged me to reset my mindset and allow the album to become a work of its own (being a performer at heart, I had always conceived of work with the ‘live’ perspective in mind). He really helped me pick it apart and fill in the gaps while giving me the space I needed to develop each piece.
Chain DLK: Some moments made me think of writings by Philip K. Dick… Are some lyrics inspired by sci-fi or other branches of literature?
Stephanie Pan: I’m definitely interested in an abstract language and searching for a way to talk about things without being too concrete but not becoming so obtuse that it’s all meaningless. And I suppose talking about intimate thoughts from a sort of philosophical approach lends itself to a kind of detachment in the language. The lyrics for ‘Beast’ are definitely a kind of contemporary sci-fi, as they were made, together with artist Tivon Rice, with a Machine-Learning (aka Artificial Intelligence) software trained on the complete writings of Italo Calvino. All the texts were generated by the software which Tivon trained; the software produced ‘hallucinations’ based on images I had chosen which were meant to ‘represent’ each of the texts from all the other songs on the album. We ran a couple of versions for each song, and finally I cherry-picked the phrases or sections which I felt captured some sense of the other works on the album, and edited them together to create a kind of whole. I think of it as an epic meta-meta interpretation about nothingness…!
Chain DLK:Why did you put a pretty “difficult” track like “On Handstands” as a preface/beginning (supposing the one I have is the definitive track list)?
Stephanie Pan: In my understanding of true communication, it is an exchange, one that requires input from both sides. As a performer, I have always felt this as an essential element of my work. I am not interested in ‘entertaining’ people; I’m definitely searching for accessibility on my own terms. I will work very hard for you, and I will give you everything I have to give, but I think it requires investment from the audience or the listener. In this respect, I suppose I see it as a challenge – are you coming with me? Because frankly, if ‘On Handstands’ is too ‘difficult’ for someone, I don’t suppose they will enjoy the rest of the album much more.
Chain DLK: I maybe recognized the stroking of a wineglass’s borders on the beginning of Song For Being Alone #1… Is my ear working well? Jokes aside, that’s a lovely song. Do you remember the moment when you wrote it?
Stephanie Pan: Actually, this time it is not! It’s a Tibetan singing bowl, which can make a crunchier set of sounds next to its beautiful penetrating drone. It’s present more or less the entire piece, a relentless, slightly de-tuned underbelly of sound that refuses to let the song totally relax into itself. I believe I was on my way to Spain to perform under the moniker Pills to Purge Melancholy, in one of those ambiguous melancholy moods and mucking about with my Omnichord (which is the arpeggiating instrument in the song, another of my recurring instruments). At that point, I’d had in my head for some time to write an entire series of songs for being alone, and I guess this was the first one. It’s had in any case multiple versions with various instruments, some more lonely than others. There’s a beautiful version on YouTube with Rosa Ensemble, a group I’ve worked with for many years, with trombone, double bass, percussion, a Moog synth and my toys. It’s been my anthem in a way, the one song that really shares melancholy in a really open and emotional way.
Chain DLK: Another great piece of vocal art is the following Songs For Word Unsaid… Any word missing in the wise babbling you performed on it? Why did you insert that hypnotic music box as a background for this song?
Stephanie Pan: Ha! The music box is…Wait for it… My wineglass bells! After years of collecting wineglasses in an array of pitches, one day I finally brought them all together, and using some piano hammers Stelios had brought to me from a dissected piano, made a kind of hammered wineglass instrument. Song for Words Unsaid is about those wonderfully ambiguous relationships with certain people where there’s an unspoken understanding of space left unexplored. It’s delicate and fragile; it never wants to be named but is always present, always swirling and circling, just like the background sound.
Chain DLK: After I listened to its entrancing lyrics (I admit I said wow on some of your piercing high tones) and sound set, I wondered what the source for inspiration of Beast could be…
Stephanie Pan: Ah, so I’ve talked about this above already, definitely steals a page (actually, technically speaking, all the pages!) from Italo Calvino, one of my favorite writers. The musical structure sort of shadows one of his short stories, Implosion, with one of his favorite characters qwfwq, but uses a text ‘hallucinated’ by a computer software in the ghost voice of Calvino. As input for the hallucinations, I provided images that in my eye vaguely represented the thoughts or themes of each of the other songs on my own album, a kind of meta-compilation medley. What I really enjoyed about this piece was creating a kind of epic, explosive journey, where you feel like you’ve traveled through something enormous but, looking back, it remains just out of reach, filled in by our own imagination. I really like these kinds of juxtapositions, of feeling off balance.
Chain DLK:Any words about the title track?
Stephanie Pan: I’ve come to think of it as my version of the beginning of the universe. It’s like standing on a knife edge of a mountaintop surrounded by chaos, waiting to fall down one side or the other.
Actually, the title has very little to do with the content on this one, unlike the rest of the album. This song has gone through a couple different manifestations, and the framework for it was created during the first phase of a performance I was developing, which literally involves 20 little radio receiving toy robot dogs. The vocal line was more an improvisation with a crappy radio transmitter, receiver and feedback back then, and worked as it was in certain contexts. I decided to revisit the work for the album and really wanted to develop the vocal part in a more concrete way. This knife-edge mountaintop of feelings was something I felt worked really well with the sort of wall-of-sound foundation of this track.
Chain DLK: Your voice even orbits around almost (deceitfully?) seducing tones on Bitter Dust… What do you say about this song?
Stephanie Pan: Actually, both the title track and Bitter Dust are about an internal battle between extremes; about something that draws you in completely but simultaneously totally repulses you, about a glassy veneer that encases an explosion of anger. I suppose in Bitter Dust, on the surface, it’s this very controlled little song with a kind of heaviness and power in the bass which presents the outside perspective, the glassy veneer with its underbelly of lava.
Chain DLK: Those regular signs on the skin of your face look like pillow creases…as if to say you woke up in a world whose scary order can change your skin?
Stephanie Pan: In fact, they are imprints of a 3D wire-frame of my head! I really love the cover art of the album, which was an idea from artist Chaja Hertog, who created the images. Using sections of a 3D wire-frame bust that Tivon had created of me, Chaja laser-cut rubber sheets that we used to press into my skin to create out-prints on my skin. Shooting the cover was loads of fun. Together with Chaja and her duo partner Nir Nadler, we had to press each rubber cutout as hard as possible against my skin. I’d be sitting on the ground with my head on a chair, pressing the cutout to my face with one of them sitting on my head to add pressure. Or lying on my back with one of them laying on my chest. We’d do that for as long as I could stand, and then we’d remove the cutout, and they had about 2 minutes to fix the light, adjust the camera and shoot the image before the out-print would fade. Then we’d try it again somewhere else on my body. We’re very close friends, so we had a good laugh! So it was very physical and real, this changing of my skin.
This process really echoes my sound in a way, which I often refer to as analog digital; it’s about a certain mirroring of digital aesthetics and integrating them in an organic environment. I love the wonkiness of relentless drones or loops that aren’t quite perfect, that evolve unpredictably, that move out of sync with each other, as if each layer is a little animal going along its own separate path. It is fascinating to me how much our aesthetics have changed with the digital age, and how it liberated the way I compose music. I think the cover art is a really beautiful visual manifestation of these ideas.
Chain DLK:Any work in progress following or related to Have Robot Dog, Will Travel?
Stephanie Pan: I hope so! I would love to get around to finally making the performance of the same title with my little toy dogs, but at the moment, from a more purely musical perspective I’m currently fascinated with the idea of epic storytelling in a contemporary context. I’m in the last leg of an amazing round-the-world trip, and visiting museums and seeing and learning about the folk traditions of different cultures all around the world is both alienating and inspiring. There is so much context needed around any such tradition, and the notion of storytelling as an essential function in art is something that I’d like to attempt to rediscover for myself in our contemporary technological age.
Visit Stephanie Pan’s website on www.stephaniepan.com