Interview with Oa's Hugh Behm-Steinberg and Matt Davignon

SOUND:POETREE:: First, a big thanks to Oa’s Hugh Behm-Steinberg and Matt Davignon for submitting their work to WE ARE WAITING // YOU ARE PART OF THIS WAITING, the summer issue of SOUND:POETREE::. And, thanks for agreeing to an interview! To get things started, I’d like to ask about the name, Oa. What does it mean to you, and where does it come from? When I did a quick Google search for Oa, I found a children’s reading site about the sound “oa,” like in the word “boat.” Does it have something to do with that?

Hugh: Matt and I came up with the name Oa because we wanted to name our project after something very basic. We decided on phonemes, and we liked Oa the best, initially because it could sound so many different ways and mean so many different things. Oa could be Overeaters Anonymous, Osteoarthritis, the home planet of the Green Lanterns, the Order of the Arrow, etc. We pronounce Oa Oh-ah. Next time we’re going to pick a band name that isn’t impossible to google.

Matt: One of the appeals for me is that “oa” is a fragment of many words in the English language. The two word fragment names I liked best were “oa” and “io”, but I didn’t push for “io” because I didn’t want people to think we were named after the moon of Jupiter or the figure in Greek mythology. So it’s ironic that “oa” wound up being so many different things. 
SOUND:POETREE:: Also, can you talk a little bit about how you two met and decided to work together? 

Matt: We met as members of Larnie Fox’s Crank Ensemble, a group that plays unique handmade crank instruments. Hugh, his wife Mary and I took to each other and were friends for several years before deciding to work together musically. I knew him primarily as a writer, so the initial concept of the band revolved around working with the recordings of Hugh reading poetry. (Neither of us wanted the band to be one person speaking and one person making all the music.) After our first few shows, we decided that to bring in the sounds of other speakers, and other uses of speech such as storytelling, discussion, singing, and list reading.

Hugh: Actually, we kinda sorta met before then, at various noise shows in the bay area. Matt ran an email list I subscribed to. Matt also ran a board game group (most of the other participants were also experimental musicians) and Mary and I became regulars. 

SOUND:POETREE:: And, have there been challenges working across genres and mediums that you’ve had to overcome? 

Matt: I like exploring thresholds, which comes up a lot in this project. When do you stop perceiving what you’re hearing as (A) and start hearing as (B)? After a year or so of working with Oa, I noticed that are thresholds of expected meaning when voice is used in music. For example, if you have an instrumental piece, people hear it as one thing. If you start to add a singer, who’s just going “aaah”, there’s a certain point where people start seeing the singer as the “main” instrument. If the singer starts changing vowels and consonants in her voice, there’s a point where your brain wants to hear that as language. And then once there’s a few recognizable words I think the brain tries to make meaningful connections between those words. I’m often trying to find ways to cross over those points without the brain perceiving it as the next thing. 

Hugh: For me it’s about overcoming my own limitations as a musician. At first I didn’t really know what I could do with my gear, how to get the sounds I wanted, make something start or stop, and how to coordinate what I was doing with what Matt was doing. I got better at manipulating semantic work on the CD player, and gradually learned to move away from words and create textures, to listen to what Matt was doing and make space.

But one of the virtues of experimental work is that you get to experiment, make stuff up, figure things out, and be ok if something splats out instead of going the way you want it to go. I feel more comfortable now making music with Matt, and not just acting as the “lead vocalist.”

SOUND:POETREE:: How do you resolve disagreements if/when they arise?

Matt: We don’t disagree on much. When we do, we trust the other’s experience in their background. I’ve been immersed in experimental music for a while, so I try to steer us away from things that would be overly typical in that world. Likewise Hugh has stopped me from submitting text ideas that I didn’t know were already overdone in the poetry world.

Hugh: We’ve both had a lot of experience in working with programming (Matt co-curates a series at Luggage Store, I’ve been editing Eleven Eleven for the past ten years) and so have a good sense of how to work well with others and communicate in a creative context, as well as avoid certain bad behaviors.
SOUND:POETREE:: Oh, that’s neat that Matt co-curates the series at the Luggage Store gallery. That’s a great series. My friend Erik Schoster (He Can Jog) has performed there. Do you happen to know him, Matt? 

Matt: Yep, I know him and I’m a fan of his work. I also played solo at his series in Milwaukee. 

SOUND:POETREE:: Wow, what a small world! Yeah, Erik and I go way back. We met in undergrad in Wisconsin. I love his work too. 

Let’s talk a little about the tracks included in SOUND:POETREE::. I’d love to hear a little more about Reed Rush. For those of you who don’t know, the name of the summer issue of SOUND:POETREE:: was borrowed from this track. I really love the idea of making a community a part of “this waiting,” but can you talk more specifically about what this means to you? For example, at one point one of the voices declares “we are Venetian gods/we are waiting/you are part of this waiting.” What is the significance of the Venetian gods here? What does that have to do with “this waiting”?

Hugh: It’s from a bird poem of mine, “Dark Eyed Juncos.” It’s actually “Phoenician gods”; a bit of reference to Robert Kroetsch’s book “The Sad Phoenicians.” The Phoenicians were traders, they invented the alphabet, their Gods were all about exchange, but part of every exchange (or trade, or sacrifice) is the waiting between offering and reception. Language and music are part of this cycle.

SOUND:POETREE:: Oh, wow. I never would have guessed that was a poem about birds. It’s so creepy! Haha. And, oops! I guess I misheard the name, but “Venetian” and “Phoenician” sound so similar when they’re spoken. I guess that must be a challenge in making this kind of work; your audience can’t see the text, so there can be misunderstandings. I can see that as a rich place for play, though, too.  

Hugh: Absolutely. What I like about Oa is that it presents an opportunity to smear language, to make poesis in a way that’s particular and separate from how page-based writing works.

SOUND:POETREE:: I was really struck by the voices you used in both Reed Rush and c-c-c-City. Do you manipulate your own voices? Or do you use samples? Or some combination of both? And, how do you decide the text/words you will use? I imagine that it isn’t neatly divided (Hugh on words; Matt on sound), but how do you make decisions like that?

Hugh: We have over 200 recordings to draw from when we perform; our voices, plus our friends. They’re telling stories, singing, reading aloud. Some samples are altered beforehand into drones or timestretches. We pick and choose what samples to use by intuition, as we’re performing. Our music is improvised: no two performances are alike. 

SOUND:POETREE:: What kinds of tools do you use to make these tracks? How do they work? And, when you perform live, does that change your set up?

Matt: We started with cassette decks and regular old CD players. Currently we both use CD turntables as the primary instrument, with the recorded voices as the media. These let us speed up and slow down the sound, as well as create loops at any time. Each of us has a separate set of FX pedals that we use afterwards. I also have a keyboard sampler.

The setups we have specialize in live shows. In fact, the two tracks we discussed were from live shows. We don’t replay any specific songs at our concerts, but you might hear some of the voice samples being used in different ways. 

Hugh: Our sets typically last 30-45 minutes, and then we edit the recordings to shorten them. One of the things we’ve been working on recently is playing shorter pieces, six-seven minutes long. That’s been forcing us into different structures, getting in and out of space in a more concise way.
SOUND:POETREE:: Finally, can you talk a little about what it’s like to be an artist in the Bay Area? When I lived out there, I found that it was nearly impossible to live as an artist; the rents are just too damn high! Your track c-c-c-City touches on some of the problems out there, but can you talk a little more about how gentrification has affected the arts scene the Bay Area and how it influences your work? 

Matt: I think the Bay Area is a great place to work on this kind of music. Between Mills College and the different venues and artists that live here, it’s become a destination for folks who want to make weird art. I love having a deep community who can hear stuff like this without asking why we didn’t put funky beat under it. It also requires us to keep our standards up to know we’re not the only people in town making strange sounds.

But gentrification has definitely lowered the standard of living for many artists and other lower income people. I have gainful day employment - otherwise I wouldn’t be able to stay here. In few years, that probably won’t be enough either. I run a music series in San Francisco, and have definitely noticed a drop in the audience attendance in the last year or so. For the past 10 years, the “scene” was more centered in the East Bay, but people are getting displaced from there too. 

But also in the last 10-15 years, the idea that experimental art can only thrive in San Francisco or NYC has been going away. We’ve seen communities thriving in places like Albany NY, Erie PA, Silver Spring MD and others. 

Hugh: Gentrification also favors older people over younger people: folks who already have a foothold, own their own places, aren’t buried in student loan debt, etc. You have colleges pulling in young people, but it’s hard for them to stay, so you have scenes split between young people in their 20’s and older people in their 40’s-60’s, and a shrinking middle. It reflects larger issues of how wealth is concentrated in a few hands, and how it impacts our culture.

SOUND:POETREE:: Yes, that makes a lot of sense to me, especially about the age brackets, which is something I hadn’t thought of. It seems like a lot of people who can afford to stay in the area either have a.) bought their place, as Hugh said, or b.) have a pretty sweet rent control situation. In my situation, I had a day job when I was out there, but I had to work so many hours to survive that I didn’t have time to be a poet! And, yes, it does seem like a lot of artists are flocking to cheaper cities now. I have heard that there’s a lot of great stuff happening in Detroit, too. 

Matt: Regarding the age split, I don’t want to suggest that the community isn’t age-diverse. It’s not rare to see a 25 year old sharing the stage with a 65 year old. It might be more accurate to say that the colleges have their own mini music scenes of students and recent former students. Then a certain percentage of the students decide to come to community shows and join the scene at large. (Or like Hugh says, others move back home, or on to their next city.) 

I have a non-music-related day job too. There’s a certain feeling of a competition between salary and the cost of living here. 

SOUND:POETREE:: I hear ya there. Well, thanks again to both of you for answering my questions, and for sharing your work with us! It's been a pleasure. For those of you who haven't had the chance, please check them out in the summer issue of SOUND:POETREE::