mira martin-gray, pan y rosas interview!

When did you first start playing music and what instrument did you play?

I was definitely enamored with musical toys as a kid, which led to drum lessons when I was about 10 years old.

What did you enjoy about playing the drums?

Of course I liked hitting things. The tactile aspect. I still need music to be tactile and textural. And I liked that you could play along with any song without really knowing how it goes, which notes necessarily go where. This feeling of being at once outside the music, separate from the other instruments, while at the same time really inside it, enmeshed and inseparable. I loved the drums and I still slap my knees and percussively fidget to no end.

Do you remember what brought you to playing music in the first place?

I’m not totally sure. Neither of my parents are musicians, though they were both big fans of pop and rock, they had big record collections. It’s just what I became interested in and what I was good at. It felt natural. I was never classically trained or anything, though I learned some jazz and marching band and showtunes in high school.

Do you remember what kinds of music and sounds were influential on you when you were young?

Pop and rock music. First stuff my parents liked–classic rock, new wave. Of course I would sing to myself and make up little songs. Then pop punk reigned for a few years until I started to get into independent music and jazz around high school. In terms of “non-musical” sounds, I have deep memories of nature sounds like the buzz of cicadas, the crunch of dry leaves and snow underfoot, and I loved the mechanical and digital sounds of computers: the click of the mouse, clack of the keyboard, and of course the gorgeous screech of the modem.

I don’t think I’ve heard an actual dial-up modem in like 15 years, but I can still imagine how it sounded perfectly. It was super musical. Do you feel like the sounds of cicadas, dry leaves, snow, computer sounds, have worked their way into the music you make now?

Computer sounds are definitely present, despite the fact that I don’t typically use a computer except for recording and all that. Someone also compared my work with mixer feedback to a fax machine. I love that these outmoded communication technologies still ring in our memories and are still communicating to us. Cicadas also have a very electronic sound, don’t they? Electrical but organic and supple. Which could describe the sounds I try to create. I hunt for those crispy textural sounds too, for sure. I did write a piece about identical snowflakes.

I think cicadas and crickets are probably my favorite bugs. I mean, I love all bugs, but those droney and chirpy bugs really speak to me. 

How would you describe your relationship with no-input mixer? And how does that relationship compare to the relationship you had to drums?

Nothing compares to the first instrument you learn, but for a long time I was more of a guitar and bass player than a drummer, and the mixer has done a good job of supplanting those instruments in my heart and my hands. For me the mixer maintains a very hands-on feel, which I need, but also offers the opportunity to extricate my body from the sound production, to draw back and just listen and let things happen without interfering too much. It can feel like an extension of myself at the same time as this infinite well I’m just dipping into. The frequency range and tonal and rhythmic possibilities seem endless. Plus I’m drawn to the idea of repurposing this machine for the opposite of what it’s designed for, there’s a very queer aspect to that.

How did you learn about and then get into playing improvised, noisier, and “experimental” music?

My friend and I had a gig at this venue called the Tranzac. It’s really the best music venue in town: PWYC (pay what you can), wheelchair accessible, one of the rooms is free to book. Little did I know at the time that it’s one of the main experimental music hubs in the city. But there’s also jazz, folk, and everything else. We were sort of a noise pop duo, kind of experimental as far as rock bands go–we had a looping pedal and I was doing vocals, drums and guitar at once, which seems quite exhausting looking back on it. This was maybe ten years ago. Before our show, Allison Cameron and Germaine Liu were playing a set. I had never heard anything like it. The things Germaine was doing with just a snare drum! They’re both leading lights of the local improv scene, and incredible composers as well.

It wasn’t until more recently that I got involved in that scene myself. After quitting my job as a cook due to total exhaustion and injury, and getting diagnosed with a chronic illness, I needed to find a way to keep making music without hurting myself. For a while I tried to keep at it and started a queer punk band, but couldn’t sustain it, blew out my voice and fucked up my joints some more. Traditional instruments were off the table, singing was off the table, and although I got pretty good with ableton, keyboards and mice are not designed with comfort in mind, even with wrist braces. So I started playing around with feeding back my cheapo behringer mixing board, at the suggestion of my partner who is a much bigger music nerd than I. She had a mixer too, we connected them and got these incredible sounds! So I became passionately obsessed with developing this technique. I was getting sober at this time, and I think this musical experimentation was a way of dealing with that, rather than getting high all the time. This is all just a few years ago.

Then one day we were at a show our friend was putting on and I got to talking with this guy Joe Strutt, who runs a blog called Mechanical Forest Sound featuring listings and recordings of local shows. He is one of those bighearted people that scenes depend on, he does more than his share of making it a better place. I had seen him around over the years but we never met before. He offered me a slot at his monthly series to try out some of this stuff I had been working on, and after that I just kept meeting people and playing with them and learning from them.

Do you remember what the process of learning and experimenting in front of people in a live situation was like?

It never ends! I hope not anyway. It’s thrilling. At the beginning it was a bit nerve-racking, but never as much as the nerves that went along with having to remember how the song goes, what are the words and chord changes and little finicky bits, or having to precisely replicate what’s written on a chart. 

What is it that you enjoy about improvising? What do you get out of it?

Like I say, you don’t have to remember any songs! It’s maybe not quite true that there are “no wrong notes,” but I love that unintended gestures can have unintended results that lead to beautiful moments. It’s the beauty of the moment that I can’t get enough of. When you arrive in these moments, you kind of attain the unattainable. It’s bliss.

Do you have a preference for improvising solo or with others? What do you find challenging and rewarding about each one?

I think I greatly prefer to improvise collaboratively because I’m less likely to fall into familiar patterns, more likely to discover the unexpected. I enjoy the push and pull between anticipating others and surprising/being surprised by them. There’s an almost erotic element to that kind of collaboration. That said, I do also enjoy the amount of control over the shape of the improvisation that you can get with solo performance.

What music were you listening to when you were learning about improv, experimental, etc? Were there any artists who particularly resonated with you?

A reference in a review of either The Books or Matmos is where I first heard the term “electroacoustic.” I love both, they blend experimental approaches with pop better than anyone. So they were a gateway into “experimental.” Pauline Oliveros’ electronic works are a big influence. They’re huge and loud and disorienting but very human and playful. And of course Toshimaru Nakamura looms large as the person who developed the no-input mixer as an instrument in its own right. I love that whole onkyo scene. But also just hearing people in the local scene was super important.

Pauline Oliveros is a favorite of mine as well! And now I am going to have to investigate and learn about onkyo and Toshimaru Nakamura. Both are new to me. Do you remember how you learned about that scene and Nakamura? Also, aside from choice of instrument, what is it about his music that you enjoy? 

I learned about them through my partner. I enjoy the sense of patience and restraint. He and others in that scene often use very high frequencies at the limits of audibility. They’re very strangely compelling, sort of transcendently pretty. But he also does less austere, ambient stuff, and he’s a fantastic group improviser, especially when playing with acoustic instruments.

Did you grow up in Toronto, is that where you are from? Has Toronto informed, shaped, or influenced your music at all? Like Toronto as place, as a community.

Yes. One thing I like about this city is it doesn’t see itself as cool, which I definitely relate to! Toronto has a huge inferiority complex for whatever reason, despite being the biggest city in the country. It is big enough that it can be very alienating unless you find a community. I was never a punk or a raver or what have you, and I didn’t go to music school and make those connections. But I’ve been lucky enough to find the improv/experimental community here as an adult, which is close-knit but incredibly welcoming to newcomers. The scene isn’t dominated by established figures, even though people like John Oswald are around. Having the opportunity to play live in supportive, open-minded environments has been really important. There’s another series called Audiopollination which is self-curated, you just sign up to improvise with folks. So it doesn’t have to be a clique-y thing. Just exchanging sounds, feelings and ideas in the moment and in person, negotiating and collaborating and making community. It’s not about making money or making a name for yourself, like in some other arts and cultural scenes. It’s such a different feeling than trying to hustle for retweets or whatever online. People make an effort to flatten whatever hierarchy might crop up, although there are of course concert hall type institutions in experimental music too. That’s not to say everything’s rosy here in the wider music scene. A lot of venues have closed, especially DIY spaces. There are a lot of problems with mainstream venues.

That sounds kind of similar to Chicago in some ways, at least my experience of it. And it sounds pretty awesome. I love the idea of an self-curated sign up improv situation. 


What do hope to accomplish with your art? Is there an underlying philosophy/ethos to it? Maybe like, if there was a mission statement of why you do what you do, what might that be?

Most of all I want to help make space in this scene for people who haven’t necessarily been welcomed or encouraged. Gender diverse, racially diverse, disabled people. Which is not to say that I wasn’t welcomed and encouraged when I showed up. But for music that claims to be radical, we still need to do better. Equity can’t begin and end with gender parity.
But to give you an artist statement type spiel: I view my work with feedback through a lens of desirability. In a typical musical performance, feedback is an undesirable side effect of amplification. And some voices are amplified in society, while others are kept quiet. So I use feedback not just because it’s an accessible way for me to express myself, but also because it’s a really good metaphor to use as someone who is considered undesirable, as a trans person and disabled person. I want to reveal the beauty in what is normatively undesirable, to counter the dominant forces in society that try to tell us who and what is desirable.

Experimental and “radical” music as a scene is probably just as conservative and gatekeeping as any music or cultural scene. I don’t really have a question about that. Just that comment at this point, really.

Exactly! It’s true. We need to do better. Punk scenes, jazz scenes, classical scenes all have their own forms of gatekeeping. That conservative element, the resistance to change, to opening things up. It’s especially present in more establishment circles, but it happens in every scene. But any scene is made up of people, and you hope that individuals can have conversations and things can change on the basis of that dialog. There are so many things we could be doing, that some people are doing. PWYC is just a start. Bring food to shows, offer people transit fare if you can. You don’t have to be a political activist to make changes in the communities you’re a part of.

I like these ideas of seemingly small things that can have a larger impact if you are intentional about it. Even just thinking about what time a show starts or where to host it.  

You’ve mentioned cultures of undesirability elsewhere – can you describe what that is? 

It’s a concept I learned about from a friend’s academic work. I’m not an academic, but the way I understand it, marginalized and oppressed people–disabled people, racialized and sexual and religious “minorities,” sex workers, poor people, people experiencing homelessness–are construed as unwanted or even subhuman by the larger society. That’s why in my music I find it so powerful to use what is normally unwanted, feedback, for the purposes of expressing myself and representing my and others’ embodied experience as something worthwhile and beautiful, if challenging.

How have you experienced a culture of undesirability play out within music and sound? 

When it comes to the music scene, these cultures of undesirability manifest in so many ways. There are venues in this city that won’t host hip-hop concerts, because the racist owners see black audiences as a liability. Many venues are inaccessible to wheelchair users, not to mention ordinary bars and restaurants where music may be played. Shows often start late at night, when I for one am asleep! And going out is expensive. It’s $6.50 for a return transit fare, then say $10 at the door, plus whatever food or drinks you may need. Maybe another $10 to support the musicians by buying a CD. All told, it’s really hard for poor people to participate fully, either as audience or as performers. Gear is very expensive! I use the cheapest stuff I can find, and found items. 

Your new album, is titled, OUT OF BODY OUT OF WORK. What was the reason behind choosing that as a title? 

I wanted to play on and subvert the phrase “body of work.” While I did want this album to be a sort of definitive snapshot of my work as an artist and improviser at the moment, I also wanted to draw out the implications of bodies and work with the title. So obviously under capitalism we’re all made to sell our bodies, the work our bodies can do. When you’re out of work, unemployed or underemployed, this system wants to deprive your body of sustenance. Of course musicians and artists are workers as well, and it’s becoming increasingly impossible to earn fair pay for our work, as it is in most other jobs too. I was also thinking about how society labels some bodies, saying they “don’t work” like they’re “supposed to,” whether relating to unemployment and housing status, disability and illness, gender and sexuality, etc. But they do work, just maybe in different ways than they’re expected to. 

When we think about an out of body experience, that be can be ecstatic or it can be dysphoric and dissociative. When making music, I sometimes find myself losing track of my body in a wonderful way, in the way you might lose track of time in that so-called flow state. Most other times, I’m painfully conscious of it. “Out of” can also be read as “from,” as in this music comes from the body, it comes out of work, it’s a product of work. Just not the kind that is valuable to capitalism.

It’s super frustrating to try to create art of any kind within capitalist systems where there’s a constant message of what is this work worth? What is its inherent value? How can I sell this art and make it worth my time? If I’m not getting paid, then my art is a hobby. Etc. Not to mention how many people are discouraged from or are unable to create because of any number of economic constraints. With all that, can you imagine creating art outside of a capitalist system and what that might look like? 

Well even big-name experimental music labels are mostly small operations right? Even with Bandcamp, they don’t have shareholders. They may be a profit-driven company but they’re no spotify. I think a lot of us are already creating art outside the capitalist system, to a certain extent. We support each other, go to each other’s gigs, create these self-sustaining local or web-based communities in which no one is expecting to profit. I guess anyone getting grant money from the government or foundations is working within capitalism, but I think I can imagine a world where these systems have changed or broken down and people are still leading creative lives. There is enough used equipment and detritus on this planet to make art with for the foreseeable future. We shouldn’t wait to be pushed over the brink to stop buying new shit all the time.

Since we’re talking about capitalism. I frequently feel like there is no point to making art in the face of capitalism, environmental collapse, fascism, etc. Like it’s a trivial endeavor and that the valuable work is in direct action or something. What does it mean to make art in our world right now? Do you see value in creating art in the face of capitalism and environmental collapse, etc?

I don’t have a good answer to this, obviously. Who gives a shit about art when the world is ending? Well we’re not there quite yet. I think that building supportive communities is politically important and will be even more so in the future, and they can coalesce around art. Art can also be a survival mechanism, a reason to keep going in this world. Art doesn’t directly help fight fascists but maybe it can help those who they target make it through the day. Obviously in the face of climate change individuals can have very little impact, but as I say we can play on used equipment and divest ourselves from the consumerist mentality that poisons everything. But we should be under no illusion that art is going to make a large-scale difference.

You’ve stated elsewhere that “…We don’t have to be innovators to be experimenters; we can tinker. It’s not all about “exploring new ground” or other such colonial metaphors. There is no inherent value in novelty for its own sake.” This resonates with me a lot! When I am improvising I am prone to judging myself based on the criteria of newness and originality. Sometimes it’s framed in terms of finding my voice or something. This is a liberating thought then. That “discovering” new sounds is colonial thinking. And that it is okay to continue exploring your own voice through methods or outcomes that aren’t necessarily cutting edge. 

Yes! We should be skeptical of “cutting edge.” What is being sliced off? Like, people making music with drones and AI… why? Is it a critique to collaborate with Google or aerospace companies? New methods don’t necessarily deliver new or more interesting results, and they may even serve powerful interests. I can’t believe anyone needs shiny new expensive gear to truly express themselves.  An improviser using similar techniques to someone else can still sound unique, particularly if they have very different life experiences and touchstones. Plus it’s just exhausting to constantly worry “am I the first to do this?” Chances are you’re not the first, and anyway it’s not a competition, art isn’t sports. This kind of thinking is totally colonial, hierarchic and plays into consumerism. Methods for creative expression don’t become obsolete like iPhones.

 What is it that draws you to working with sound at this point in your life?

Light is overstimulating.

What, if anything, do you hope someone listening to your music gets out of listening to the music you make with no-input mixers? 

I want to make music that can span the range of human emotions, from joy to terror. A modest goal eh? But I do try to make fun music, not just deadly serious high art or whatever. So I guess I’d hope that listeners get either pleasure or some kind of catharsis. I’m not very interested in making music that’s upsetting, that’s very explicitly about despair or trauma, there’s enough of it. So it needs to be abstract enough that the listener can identify with it in their own way, even though the sounds are grounded in my intentions or emotions. I also don’t want to be limited to no-input mixer. I’ve been using field recordings and voice a bit as well, or “mouth sounds” at least.

Cool! Do you incorporate field recording and your voice to your live performances and/or improvisations? I’m curious how you go about incorporating fixed media into a live situation.

I’ve been trying it out a bit. I’ve been a bit hesitant on using my voice but I’m working on it. With recordings, they either function as a backing track situation that I improvise over, say if I want to present a particular composition at a concert that requires something I can’t replicate. Or I will connect a cassette or audio file to my board and manipulate it live through feedback. Distort it, emphasize certain frequency ranges, and use the mixer as I normally do, basically as an unconventional synthesizer.

Why did you choose to release your music on a netlabel?

Mostly because cutting down on unnecessary waste is important, if only symbolically. There’s enough plastic floating around. Physical releases don’t really make much sense anymore, except in very short runs as a thing to sell at shows. My most recent physical release was with the label dubbed tapes, which records over cheesy 80s cassettes no one wants anymore, basically diverting them from landfills. So that I can get behind. I’ll also be putting out a tape with a group soon which will be super limited and made with minimal recycled packaging, and my next solo thing is going to be on vinyl which is lathed to order. I really hate the idea of making hundreds of copies of a CD, and those days are pretty well over anyway.