radionotes podcast episodes

Graftician is the musical output of trained architect and orchestral contrabassist Roxanne Nesbitt, who this year released their latest music through an album called Mandarins. From Vancouver just prior to leaving to explore their next level of study abroad they spoke with radionotes about ceramics, sound and drive to produce their work.

Nesbitt is our feature guest this episode…

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(Transcript of Graftician chat below, check to delivery in audio)

IMAGE CREDIT: Alistair Henning

Chat was conducted over the line, while in the small hours of the morning in Australia (radionotes end).

SHOW NOTES: Graftician episode

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In The Box:

Feature Guest: Graftician

Chat with Artist Roxanne Nesbitt

Clio Em: LACE (New Release)

Next Episode: Peter Drew the Poster Boy

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More details on playpodcast here, thanks to Matt from them.

[Radio Production – notes: Graftician chat plus music takes the whole episode – music suggestion two cuts from them and one from Clio Em’s release]


Theme/Music: Martin Kennedy and All India Radio   

Web-design/tech: Steve Davis

Voice: Tammy Weller  

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For direct quotes check to audio, first version of transcript by Ashley D at REV

John Murch: Thanks very much for joining radionotes.

Roxanne Nesbitt: Yeah. Hi. Thanks for having me.

John Murch: What was the colonel, the seed, that got you interested in music?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I started music when I was 13 or 14. I started playing upright bass and before that I had sang in choir and kind of always enjoyed sound, but when I started bass I felt really hungry, I guess, for a musical knowledge and I had started to write songs as a preteen. And so that’s always been part of my kind of art practice. And then I guess I kind of diverged from that for many years and studied architecture, but I felt like I couldn’t let go of music. So I actually ended up focusing my architecture studies toward acoustics and instrument design.

John Murch: You basically used the study to come back to where the passion was?

Roxanne Nesbitt: Yeah.

John Murch: You used your study for the passion?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I design acoustic instruments now, as well. Studying design has really allowed me to be able to communicate through drawing and be able to make kind of sounding objects at a higher level, I think, than I would have been able to if I had only studied music.

John Murch: What kind of instruments are we talking about?

Roxanne Nesbitt: So, I design ceramic percussion instruments that are kind of bells and curved bars and different shapes that are also used for prepared piano. And I’ve designed some kind of tuned drumsticks and then some projects that I wouldn’t really call instruments, but they take a lot from instrument design. And then they ended up being sound installations or kind of like interactive art pieces.

John Murch: I guess from my point of view, there’s that link between architecture that you’re studying and trying to get it back to some sort of on the page. How do you get from A to B?

Roxanne Nesbitt: How do I get from being on the page to a built thing?

John Murch: Yeah.

Roxanne Nesbitt: That’s one of the reasons I was really drawn to clay because you can be so kind of quick and dirty with how you form something. It’s quite easy to go from a sketch to a built thing just forming with your hands. Whereas, if I was working with metal or stone or kind of a material that’s harder to manipulate, that it would take a lot more planning to just to test ideas.

John Murch: And when I’m talking about the landscape, I’m also thinking about the placement of those instruments as well, because there is that composition element of it. For those that haven’t seen it, how would you explain what you’ve called before, the parasitic light nature, of your instruments?

Roxanne Nesbitt: The ceramic instruments that I design are placed on the strings of a grand piano and then, they can be played as their own instruments from that position. But they also can be used to distort the sound of the piano by pushing or sliding onto the strings. And then there’s kind of a reaction with the nodes of the piano strings.

John Murch: Heading to the South of France soon and then, through to Berlin and various other European destinations.

Roxanne Nesbitt: I’m starting off by doing a ceramics class in Slip Castings with a woman named Sasha Wardell in the South of France. And so that’s just a study that I couldn’t find in Canada. I’d been looking for several years and kind of short of taking an MFA in ceramics, I couldn’t find a class. So I’m traveling for that class and then I’m going to be working out of a space called Bowshund in Berlin, which is opened to kind of experimentation inside the piano, which is also hard to find in different residency spaces. And then from there, I’ll be going to the ceramic work centre, [Ouisphic 00:04:09], in the Netherlands. I guess I’m kind of focusing on my ceramic instruments and composing this year.

John Murch: What was the first ceramic instrument you made?

Roxanne Nesbitt: It’s kind of an intensive class in Amsterdam in the December of 2016. I was going to be doing a residency in Berlin and I just kind of went a bit early and spent a month studying ceramics in Amsterdam. And what was the first instrument that I made? I probably made more than one thing in a day. It probably, I made some bowls and I made a few pieces on the wheel to start with.

John Murch: Where were you at the time when you threw your first slab of clay?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I was in the studio of Addie Bluman, which is in Amsterdam. I sent her an email showing some examples of other instruments that I had made and then, she she got quite excited about the project and she kind of took me around her collection of things that she had made. And was striking everything so that we could get a sense of the tone of different types of clay, and different types of building strategies.

John Murch: How would you describe the importance of movement within your pieces?

Roxanne Nesbitt: For the ceramic pieces, movement is very important. I try to design instruments that have some kind of motion on their own, so that once the hand leaves they still can move. They have an option to have some kind of periodic motion or they can be turned and flipped and used in a more static way.

John Murch: Could you talk us through Gossip Study?

Roxanne Nesbitt: That piece was, I guess I got a commission from violinist to make a piece for violin and electronics. And so I tried to make a ceramic speaker. So I had this kind of sculptural shape, like a porcelain bowl of some kind that designed to have space for a transducer and then to have different points where it would sit and rest but also, kind of be easily tipped.

Roxanne Nesbitt: So we just put a transducer on it and then I made a soundtrack and I was trying to make a speaker that a performer could interact with in a physical way because I feel often disappointed when I hear pieces with a kind of traditional instrument and electronics. The interaction between both worlds is limited and even if there is some kind of interaction where the computer music is reacting to what the player’s doing, it’s kind of over the heads of the audience. So I wanted to make something really tactile and something that could be seen by the audience and felt by the player.

John Murch: How do you approach getting that style of sound onto the page as a composer?

Roxanne Nesbitt: For that piece, I used a graphic score. I use a combination of kind of traditional notation and graphic scores. I find that you have to approach everything, every project, on a case by case basis that there are situations where a graphic score works great because you get to work directly with the players and they are good improvisers or you know their style and you trust them. And then there are situations where more notation is better because you can’t be there to workshop something one-on-one or the players have more of a classical training and aren’t as comfortable with the improv.

John Murch: As someone who works in the multi-disciplines of art, does that help or hinder you in your process of creative output?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I think it does both that every so often I have this feeling of like, “Oh what if I just focused on one thing and did a really good job of it? And what if I…” I can see the points of projects that aren’t getting enough care and even once a project is done, when something is developed enough to share, that’s kind of the beginning. And then, there’s so much other work, like booking shows, getting funding, booking tours. There’s a lot to for each project.

Roxanne Nesbitt: And so I wonder if the projects could be better served if I only kind of did them maybe one at a time or if I just did less. And often that’s a feeling that I have with Graftician, that it goes a bit uncared for because there are all these other exciting kind of instrument designed and collaborative projects going on.

John Murch: What was the start for Graftician?

Roxanne Nesbitt: So I wrote my first Graftician album that I did when I was still in architecture school.

John Murch: So this is the self titled in 2014?

Roxanne Nesbitt: Yeah, I just been working really hard at design and I had kind of had the idea in my mind that I had quit music. And then I was kind of done with it and that it had been a dead end in a way. And I felt… But I also just was craving songs. I would find myself writing songs with any kind of spare moment that I had. And then I, yeah, started to feel like I need to share this music maybe even if it doesn’t become something. So I just released a self-made, self produced album on Band Camp. And then it did kind of grow and I got more opportunities from that release, continued to make more.

John Murch: And Wonder Wave Thing came out in 2016. And now in 2019, Mandarins has now come out. What’s your overview of the thematics of Mandarins and where it sits in the repertoire of the three?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I think it’s the most mature writing. Lyrically, it’s definitely the strongest. And then, I’ve been saying that it’s about the ephemerality of love and self. So I guess, in a way, it’s about maturing and changing as a partner and as a person.

John Murch: It also refers to two hearts, which isn’t a Doctor Who reference. Do you believe that everyone does have two hearts?

Roxanne Nesbitt: No I don’t. But I believe that it’s possible to be kind of pulled in different directions and have youthful attractions and mutual kind of desires and to just want different things at the same time. But that’s also really common.

John Murch: Does performance help you express that?

Roxanne Nesbitt: Yeah, I guess so. I’m a very introverted person and a lot of the time I just want to go home and read my book. But performance is very… It’s performance. So that’s a point where I think I get to explore a different side of myself.

John Murch: What are you currently reading?

Roxanne Nesbitt: The Science of Percussion Instruments By Thomas Rossing. So in preparation for the residency that I’m doing at the Ceramic Work Center, I’m going to be focusing on designing bells and making scales through physical transformations, like shapes kind of unfolding. So I’m learning about the science of how bells work.

John Murch: That thread between “traditional” instruments and those that you’re making, how much does one reference the other or do you really want to have a blank canvas when you’re making those instruments?

Roxanne Nesbitt: It’s good to be aware of the history because it does help to inspire ideas and to understand how things work, but it’s also good to disregard them and to explore without them. I can still make a bell without understanding how a bell works, but I might make a better bell if I understand how it works. But I might make a better bell if I don’t understand how it works, but I’m just choosing to know as much as I can at this point. But I also made a lot of bells and bowls and tuned objects without really understanding how the nodes of a bell work.

John Murch: I noted that you did once make 146. Is it closer to 1000 now?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I haven’t been actively making ceramics because I’m getting ready to move and it is really easy to accumulate a lot of work. I’m kind of in a research stage, getting ready for the work that I’ll do at the Ceramic Work Center. I’m a very curious person, always kind of trying new things. It’s interesting. Because I’m moving, I’m getting rid of a lot of my stuff and I feel a little bit like I’ve kind of tried everything. I have some silk screening materials to get rid of and some paints and pastels and power tools and the sewing machine. And I kind of feel like I’ve tried everything but maybe it’s time to stop trying every art form and just focus in on a few things.

John Murch: Are you good at decluttering?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I’m not going to decluttering, but I’m really enjoying the process right now.

John Murch: What’s making that process easier?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I guess the threat of having to pay for storage in Vancouver is quite expensive. I’m having a hard time getting rid of things that I’ve made because I feel even my failed instruments and failed projects kind of represent an idea to me. And they sometimes remind me of something that I may have forgotten in drawing or not documented well enough. So I think that I’m going to end up getting rid of everything that is a product or a tool and then I’m going to just keep the things that I made.

John Murch: Are you much of a photographer because I can imagine photography might play a part in just having a visual capsule of what you’ve done.

Roxanne Nesbitt: I don’t really think of myself as being a photographer, but all artists are kind of expected to, now, to be documenting their process and sharing. In a way something Instagram is helpful because it presents kind of an chronological archive.

John Murch: But as an introvert, push you out of a comfort zone?

Roxanne Nesbitt: Yeah, definitely does. I find sharing difficult and I still do it because it gets me more opportunities to share and develop my work. I’ve just decided that it’s worth it but I am controlled about it. I will stop when I feel uncomfortable. I will take breaks from my phone and especially if I feel it’s affecting my mental health.

John Murch: Where’s the drive for you to go outside of that element of yourself?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I think it’s really important to have a practice of talking about your work and kind of sharing it in a couple quick sentences. So I think that sharing through social media has helped me to get better at even having a conversation with a stranger about what I do.

John Murch: Is there a drive to produce the output?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I guess every so often you have these moments where someone finds another artist who make ceramic instruments, for example, and links me up with them and these kind of connections that are made that are, I think, valuable and interesting beyond networking because ideas connect and you connect with other people who are interested in the similar ways of making and doing. And that that is worth kind of stepping out of your comfort zone for.

John Murch: When you’re making your ceramics, as a musician and composer, what are you listening to whilst making the ceramics?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I often don’t listen to music on headphones or in the studio. It depends very much on what kind of studio I’m working in. Sometimes I take ceramics classes at a community center, so that’s a situation where it’s not really appropriate to play a stereo and I wouldn’t put in headphones because I want to kind of be present to the other people making and the other kind of sounds in the space. I feel there was a time in my life where I really enjoyed listening to music while I was making other things and now, I’m in a time in my life where I really enjoy sitting down and listening to music on its own and then, not having it not be a background to another activity.

John Murch: How do you gather your oral experiences? Are you a bit of a walker for that connection of music?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I do really to walk and listen. I was a member of the Sound Walk Collective in Vancouver for a couple of years. I think really have time to be involved right now and I’m also leaving soon. But the Sound Walk Collective is a group of people in Vancouver who meet regularly and walk together and listen. And that practice came out of the study of acoustic ecology that was kind of developed in Vancouver. And I think that that work has been influential to my study of architecture and to the way that I listened to buildings when I move through them. And that’s also part of the reason that I don’t like to wear headphones when I’m working or when I’m walking around. I want to be open to those special moments where you step on a loose tile or drain lift or something or someone else does or just kind of special moments that are happening in the city that I think you miss having headphones on.

John Murch: What’s one of the most interesting sounds of a building that you’ve heard?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I guess I really like kind of tactile sounds, sounds that you encounter by… Like railings, but also whenever there’s a big shift from a narrow space to a very large reverberant space. The way the weight of the step changes as you move through a space like that, I think, is beautiful and has an effect of bringing you back to yourself.

John Murch: And through your study of architecture, how do you perceive that you could change that landscape?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I think I would like to, at some point, design some large scale sound installations that are architectural in their nature. I’ve done some smaller pieces with tuned concrete and stone tiles, but there were always temporary installations. I’d love to make something that’s permanent.

John Murch: That was tuned concrete?

Roxanne Nesbitt: Did a project in Berlin in 2017 where I tuned aerated concrete tiles by changing the lengths and I made an installation and hired a group of three dancers to perform. So that project came out of my architecture thesis, which is kind of about listening to the city and designing spaces that attract the attention of the listener, instead of something to ignore and trying to make spaces that help people to celebrate their own movements and to be present in whatever they’re doing.

Roxanne Nesbitt: And that was a project that stood out to me from my research as being the most feasible. So I got some funding to work on it. And then, I did another version last summer of marble and limestone tiles that are smaller and they rock. So they just kind of dropped back onto a hard surface when you step on them and resonate that way.

John Murch: If you were to build a city from scratch, what would you include in that landscape for its populace?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I don’t think I would build a city from scratch. I think that the city needs the development of communities and it needs all these different voices making it to make something that’s shared and that is organic. That when I come into spaces that have been mass designed by one firm or one designer, that they seem quite sterile. I might do a project in a city, but I don’t think I would want to design a whole city. Kind of an aside, I do love when cities don’t have cars in the center. That’s so amazing to just not be in traffic sounds.

John Murch: How you like to perform your music? And I guess I’m talking here about the visuals together with the live performance.

Roxanne Nesbitt: I typically perform with visuals synced to specific samples. So there’s some kind of video usually or lately there’ve been kind of a combination of moving video and stop motion that’s layered. They’re synced to a specific sample. I really like performing with other musicians. Mandarins features acoustic instrumental soloist on each song. I really like the energy kind of performer of a traditional instrument brings to electronic music.

John Murch: And you’ve been working with Juno, Award Winning Ben Brown of late as well.

Roxanne Nesbitt: Yeah, I’ve been working with Ben for many years. He’s not on Mandarins but he definitely helped.

John Murch: But you guys work on the Why Choir together?

Roxanne Nesbitt: Yeah. So Why Choir play shows now and then. And we just play improvised songs and often, I use Why Choir as kind of research for Graftician. I’ll bring kind of unfinished sketches of songs and test them with Why Choir. And then take things that I think are working and develop them into more thoroughly composed songs.

John Murch: Getting back to the latest record, Mandarins, you’ve worked with the Kim Mortal.

Roxanne Nesbitt: last summer I saw Kim perform at a festival in BC and I was really blown away. Really impressed by their energy and the way that they communicate and their songs. And so I just ask him if they wanted to be on a song and then, yeah, it’s that easy.

John Murch: Currently in conversation with Roxanne Nesbitt. We are talking about the new record With Them. What artists are currently inspiring you?

Roxanne Nesbitt: So I’ve been listening to Miriam, The Believer. I like the band out of Winnipeg called Sivy, which is bassoon and then amplified weaving loom and cello I think. And then I’m kind of getting more into classical music again. Listening to newer composers and I’m starting to be commissioned to write music more. And then spending time listening to the work of different ensembles and listening in a different way I guess.

Roxanne Nesbitt: So not listening to music that I want to kind of hear on repeat because of these kind of ear worms, they’re not really songs to get obsessed with. But just listening out of curiosity being like, “What are new composers doing? What are composers my age up to?”

John Murch: What did you get from your year in Banff?

Roxanne Nesbitt: Studied at the Banff Centre a couple times. I was there for three months in 2009, for a month in 2017 and then for another month just this past summer. So I’ve never actually spent a year there. It’s just been kind of shorter focus times of study. This past time I did a program called Ensemble Evolution that was hosted by the International Contemporary Ensemble out of New York and they brought in a lot of different composers and players and exciting instrumentalists.

Roxanne Nesbitt: So this time I felt like my scope of what new music is was really expanded just by meeting all these new people and feel like it kind of expanded my sound pallet and my world a little bit. And then, the time before, designing and composing for my symbiotic instruments project, but I was focusing not really on the ceramics, more on drums. So there’s kind of another version of the project where I’m designing bridges and systems of stretching strings over drums.

Roxanne Nesbitt: The Banff Centre let me use their sculpture workshop as well as having a music studio, so I would go cut something up on the bandsaw and then bring it back to my studio and test it out. And then maybe take it back and modify it. It was really exciting to have access to both types of spaces, which is something that’s a little bit hard to find unless you kind of have your own studio setup because generally, music spaces want to keep kind of the mess of building away from instruments. Who could blame them?

John Murch: Is the long goal to have an instrument that you’ve named?

Roxanne Nesbitt: The goal of instrument design for me is to develop a unique sound palette and so that’s kind of an evolving process.

John Murch: How do you see colors?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I really love color. I don’t have a synesthesia or I don’t have a way of… I don’t have an intuitive way of connecting color and sound. I use color in graphic scores but mostly to indicate contrast to say like, “This texture is different than this texture because we see a different color here.” But I don’t… I can’t say like, “Oh, D sharp is yellow.”

John Murch: Where are you most at peace?

Roxanne Nesbitt: In the research phase is most exciting for me. Reading, drawing, sketching, kind of developing ideas, but they do need to be, I think, realized. That part is a bit… It’s more stressful, more anxiety inducing, and more rewarding but more intense. When you’re still kind of drawing and planning, everything’s still possible and everything’s fair game and that’s kind of a safe space for me.

John Murch: What ways do you work through that anxiety to get the productivity that you’re looking for?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I guess I just try to get the project done. As I’ve kind of made more work in the last couple of years it’s been a lot easier because I know that there is a next project. There’s another version of the same project, so it doesn’t feel like this is the that one thing that I’m making has to be perfect. I can kind of see the process, even if a version of a project is being shown at a gallery or in a concert. I can kind of see a lot larger trajectory unfolding and so, I don’t have to put as much pressure on that one kind of engagement with the public. There’s an another version of the project coming that. Helps to reduce the pressure for being perfect or being finished.

John Murch: You mentioned that you currently got a few commissioned works in the works, contemporary classical kind. Can you give us a little behind the curtains look at where you’re at at the moment in these early stages of those works?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I have one project for a quartet that I feel like I can’t talk about because there’s no-

John Murch: Fair enough.

Roxanne Nesbitt: There’s not enough. There’s not enough confirmed details. And then I’m working on a piece for a group based out of Den Hague that will be premiered in the fall of 2020 in Vancouver. And it’s for Ensemble Modelo 62 and they are, I want to say, a nine person ensemble but it might be more like 11. So I’m just writing a bigger piece for more instruments than I’ve ever worked with before. I did it kind of test version of that piece at the Banff Centre in July.

John Murch: What is the timeline for you when it comes to composition? Do you give yourself a timeline? Is there a timeline?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I think it really depends on the project, scored the songs for Graftician, the Mandarins album or the album release. And those songs had been written without score. Then I had to kind of go back and listen to the recordings and be like, “Okay, what’s this?” They’re really like heavily made from samples and so I had to kind of figure out what the songs were made of. And how to divide some of those parts into other instruments. And then I had to do it quite quickly because there was a show booked and rehearsals booked.

Roxanne Nesbitt: Something like this project coming up for a larger chamber work. I’ve never done something like that before, so I’m not actually sure what the correct timeline is and how much time I should be giving to the scoring process. Scores can be very fast and quick and dirty, but traditional notation takes a lot longer and that’s still all kind of new to me. I guess the process of translating and graphics score, true traditional notation is new to me, so I don’t have any answers in terms of how long things should take.

John Murch: Before you leave us, I’ve been looking at a couple of pieces of art work as we’ve been conversing and I’m just wondering what the black and white one, it looks like an iceberg and whether or not there’s a story to it.

Roxanne Nesbitt: So this is a collage that was made by my friend Kayden. It’s a boxing match or something that he cut out the ring and put this mountain scape in. And I just thought it was kind of beautiful because it was this audience of people watching climate change happen or something. Watching a glacier melt or an iceberg sink or something, voyeuristic perspective on watching the world destroy itself.

Roxanne Nesbitt: He just had this show a couple of years ago at an art space and he was giving away the collages and I just thought it was kind of a provocative, interesting idea. So I grabbed one.

John Murch: Should art always be provocative?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I don’t think that art always needs to be provocative because I think that it also has a connection to the artist and that the process of making is really cathartic for a lot of artists and that has its own power. That feeling good because you made something, because you see the work of your hands, is also like political and powerful in its own way that you’re a producer, not a consumer in that role. I think that that’s also powerful. The work doesn’t have to be political because the actually of making is.

John Murch: And are there messages that your perceiving for the fourth album that you might like to communicate through that power that you have as an artist?

Roxanne Nesbitt: I don’t know if I can say anything about the fourth album yet. There’s not enough of it. I think I won’t engage in the recording process for awhile because I feel like I just finished Mandarins and I still have a big box of records to sell.

John Murch: Roxanne Nesbitt, thank you very much for your time.

Roxanne Nesbitt: Thank you for having me.