A musical force is set to descend upon the Walker Art Center this Saturday, when Glasser, Noveller, and Victoire take the McGuire stage for a special performance co-presented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. All three bands (Glasser and Noveller are solo artists, and Victoire is a quintet led by composer Missy Mazzoli) manipulate musical structures, warping human and technology into stunning sonic shapes. I had the chance to talk with experimental guitarist/composer Noveller (a.k.a. Sarah Lipstate) about the evolution of her project and the process of building her entrancing soundscapes. Noveller pulls notes from their stuffy staff lines to evolve and meld together with today’s machines: pedals, feedback, guitar, and a bow. When I talked with Lipstate on Wednesday, she had just finished a set on Radiolab at WNYC the night before and was ready for the next performance at hand, saying: “tonight I have rehearsal for Victoire. Starting tomorrow, I have performances every night. So, you know it’s exciting, it’s the best I could imagine for myself as a musician, but I also have to keep my head together.”
Abbie Gobeli: How did Noveller begin?
Sarah Lipstate: Noveller began when I was living in Austin at the University of Texas. When I started playing guitar, it was very much a solitary activity. None of my friends I’ve grown up with were really interested in the type of music that I was interested in, so it was something I did for fun by myself. I had a feeling that when I moved to Austin, which to me at the time seemed like a big city, when I started college, I hoped I would meet other people I could play with and at the very least share the same musical taste as me. So that does happen, and I start playing with other people. I had a duo called One Umbrella. We would record improvised guitar and synth pieces and we self-released them. That was the first time I was able to connect with someone else, make a recording, and get music out there into the world.
I was contacted by these women in Oakland that were doing a compilation called, Women Take Back the Noise, and it was all women in the realm of experimental music. I really wanted to be a part of this, but my duo was me with a guy. They said, “This is only for women, so why don’t you send us something you create on your own?” That was how I started: I recorded a piece and submitted it to them and they said, “This is great, so what is your project called?” I came up with Noveller, and that’s what encouraged me to make music on my own. I realized I really like recording on my own. Performing came later.
Gobeli: I was listening to one of your early records, Red Rainbows, and found it was noisier than the more cinematic tracks on your latest release, Fantastic Planet. How has Noveller evolved over time?
Lipstate: In the first recording (“Signal”) from Women Take Back the Noise, guitar wasn’t used at all. I used a Theremin and manipulated feedback through guitar pedals I had at the time. The very beginning of Noveller was very noisy, and when I started performing live, I had to figure out what I wanted to do in a live setting. That’s when the guitar became the primary instrument, but at the time I was using this double-neck guitar: one neck had 12 strings; the other had 6 strings. Because it was very heavy, I didn’t wear it. I laid it flat on a keyboard stand because it was a different orientation. I didn’t really play it in a melodic sense, but to create sounds I could manipulate through the pedals.
The biggest evolution with Noveller is viewing the guitar as a sound source, and now in present day, viewing the guitar as an instrument that I can actually craft melodies with in a more nuanced way to create soundscapes. There’s an early piece called “St. Powers” where I was plucking the strings, and it was very melodic, very pretty. That helped shape my live performance; I would play that piece and two short noisier pieces. I remember playing this show at a place in Williamsburg, which actually became 285 Kent, which doesn’t even exist anymore. It was cold. I had to play with my leather jacket zipped up. After I played, [a guy who lived there] said, “Anyone can make noise. When you played that piece…that was very beautiful. That’s where you should focus your attention,” and that’s stuck with me. Things always feel organic with this project. I’m not a skilled guitarist in the traditional sense, but I want to figure out how I want to play it and give it its due.
Gobeli: How do you approach building one of your compositions?
Lipstate: I’ll start by playing the guitar completely unamplified; not plugged into anything. If I come up with several ideas, eventually I’ll set up everything: amp, pedals, everything and try to bring those ideas into the realm of effects, where things can really take shape. So, if I start that way, then I have some sort of foundation of melodies or structure that I like. Then, I can let effects take that to the next level. Recording a song, especially as a solo performer, I can record many different things I want, but translating it to a live setting takes some time to figure out. When I’m recording, I think I just can’t wait to play this live! It definitely takes some preparation to figure out when you have two hands and one instrument.
Gobeli: Do you craft each layer individually?
Lipstate: I have a cool looping pedal that has three different loopings available to me. I have three going live and I play on top of that. That’s how I’m able to create these compositions that don’t seem static. They evolve and build—that’s my goal. It’s taken a long time to assemble all these different pedals, but the set up I have now is great to create these compositions live. It can be a pain to have all these pedals as opposed to a laptop. But I think having the pedals gives the audience something to engage with to see what’s happening, to see who’s building these things. That’s really fun for me. I love when people come up after the show and ask about the pedals.
Gobeli: How many pedals do you have and do you have a favorite?
Lipstate: I have eight in my current set-up, but I’m constantly swapping things out. I try not to add any, because I’m trying to be as compact and efficient as possible. Recently, I got the Eventide H-9, and it’s a square, white pedal with an LED screen. It’s really awesome; it allows me to access any preset Eventide has ever created and it can do reverb, delay, pitch shifting, harmonizing, it can do all these crazy things. It’s a compositional tool in itself.
Gobeli: What’s the most challenging and what’s the most rewarding part of crafting your compositions?
Lipstate: Getting to compose and play music all day is rewarding. Even if I’m writing or composing something that won’t be recorded, it’s the most pure satisfaction; it’s my life.
Gobeli: What do you like about manipulating technology in music?
Lipstate: It broadens the possibilities. We’ve been playing the guitar so long, but we can make new sounds with it. For me, personally, the pedals give me more options to push boundaries.
Glasser, Victoire, and Noveller take the McGuire stage this Saturday, May 9th at 8pm.
In addition, there is a free Composer Conversation with Missy Mazzoli of Victoire on Friday, May 8th at 6pm at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul.