AMN Interviews: Loren Connors and Suzanne Langille

The following conversation with Loren Mazzacane Connors and Suzanne Langille is more of a memory map of the ear than an orthodox interview. It is part of a series of essays and interviews by writer Stephanie Berzon— a bipartite study to archive the sounds of shifting landscapes through the ears of sound artists and to learn through their deep listening practices.

It comes with little surprise that I first discovered the sound work of Loren Connors and Suzanne Langille during my first year in New York City. As artistic life partners and East Coast legends, they have carved an environment for their calming improvisations and twisted blues abstractions. Connors sits in a fractal atmosphere of his own signature— whorled in plucks and manic strums, minimalism, and the emergence of traditional Irish song and Delta blues— and the siren of Langille’s voice guides the conscious listener to an empty house, a nonphysical place, or an interior architecture, with a freedom to get lost in it.

I can’t recall much of how I first arrived to this empty house—who handed me the record, what neighborhood I was in or what immediately proceeded thereafter; however, there was a grounding lesson in there for me in how to psychologically bulldoze a city. Whether you need the escape from a stifling urban noise circuit, or feel swept up by a madness, put on “Let the Darkness Fall” and notice that in between each guitar chord there exists a long stretch of an echo, and embedded in this stretch exists a small world that is yours. Once you get it, the lesson will never separate from you.

Stephanie Berzon
Where are we now?

Loren Connors
Orange Street in New Haven. It was lined with maples.

Suzanne Langille
Down by the railroad tracks at the edge of town, where I grew up in Western Washington. There was a little cattail marsh.

SB
What do you hear?

LC
Maple trees have their own little sound when they’re hit by the wind. They swish.

SL
Locusts with black butterfly wings. Honey bees, bumble bees. Crickets and katydids. Big black flies.

SB
What are you doing here?

LC
Walking with my kid. He’s three or four years old. I’m holding his hand.

SL
I’m with my sisters. We’re going to visit the big, brown-eyed cow in the field next to the marsh.

SB
What else is happening acoustically on a New Haven street and Washington state wetland?

LC
It’s not like New York City. You hear a car only every once in a while, and before you know it, it’s gone. But I catch the distinct smell of ozone, worse than in New York City.

SL
I hear a small plane overhead. It leaves a thin white trail of fumes in its wake, that spreads out like a narrow fan. Something about that distant sound makes me feel very alone.

SB
Are you following the footsteps of those before you?

LC
No. My kid is singing, and he’s skipping, and he’s yanking my arm off. So maybe yes, I’m following in his footsteps.

SL
Jeanne and Denise, my adventurous older sisters, lead the way. I am young but I have no fear when I’m with them. They know everything, and they teach me.

SB
How about the footsteps of your ancestors?

LC
No. I’ve kind of charted my own path.

SL
No, but something from them flows through me.

SB
Where did you depart from family tradition?

LC
I didn’t so much depart from family tradition as extract certain essences from beneath the surface, and illuminate them in a completely different way. I started doing that in my late teens and early 20s.

SL
My family included a lot of adventurers, risk-takers. And there was music and poetry in my family. I was different because I was an adventurer and risk-taker in my music and poetry. It started in my early teens.

SB
What did it sound like?

SL
It sounded like a lone voice in the middle of the night, echoing against a cloudless night sky.

SB
I am curious how the lone voice seeks new harmony after a freedom, and if it does so instinctually. Can you somehow explain to me what happened socially between a moment in awareness of your own life poetry and finding an avant garde music community in New York City?

LC
I had a ham-fisted technique and no ability for mainstream guitar-playing. It forced me to find my own way. I didn’t really find the alternative music community. They found me, some 15 years later. It surprised me when Jeff Fuccillo, who had a magazine called Woolybugger, wrote that people were talking about me and arguing about who found my music first. Before I knew it, I found myself in a circle of musicians who understood improvisation and were willing to break rules, and for the first time in my life, I belonged in a scene.

SL
Music evolves in movements, depending on what the world needs. What we need now is a deeper level of freedom and connection. Today’s unbridled musicians are responding to that need because they feel it at the soul level. What I found with Loren, I found in different ways with San Agustin (David Daniell, Andrew Burnes, and Bryan Fielden), and with Neel Murgai. Then again in the Haunted House band. And I hear it in others – Jim O’Rourke, Samara Lubelski, Alan Licht, William Hooker, Daniel Carter, Laura Ortman, Adam Casey, and so many others. Trust and synergy resonate with a commonality of spirit into sound.

SB
Here you are, located by and connecting to a larger experimental music community– was there a sense of relief in it?

LC
Definitely yes. People to connect with, people to inspire and challenge me.

SL
It’s so important to work with people who help you become more free, rather than people who constrict you with limited notions of what music should be.

SB
People to challenge you. What were the more important lessons or formative moments for you in there?

LC
I was an old guy before I even got down here. I was 40 years old. When I lived in New Haven, there wasn’t really any place for me. I knew all the crazy people in town. I was getting a little crazy myself. In New York, I found the Cooler. I met everyone in town at the Cooler. And a record store called the Downtown Music Gallery. Then later, Tonic. The first time I played with Alan Licht was at the Downtown Music Gallery. He was able to go anywhere. I didn’t have to feel like I was playing in a box. I could do the kinds of things I did when I played solo. That’s freedom. And you met people just walking around. That’s how I met Thurston Moore, walking around at night. He talked to me about Hell’s Kitchen Park. I was kind of dumb then. I didn’t know much about the independent music scene. But he knew everything that was going on. And he knew everybody, including me. I don’t like the way everyone buries their noses in their phones now. People don’t talk to each other anymore, or even look at each other. The first time I played with Keiji Haino was at the Downtown Music Gallery. It was amazing to me that two people could come from such different experiences but develop synergistic aesthetics. He tossed in Japanese traditional aesthetics and I tossed in Irish improvisations and everything was abstracted, but it all worked. There was a lot of noise outside in the street, but in the store it was all silence except for the music.

SL
I remember a time at La Mama Galleria where I performed vocals with Loren that were more poetry than standard format. A drunken street guy came in from the cold, sat down and listened. Then in the middle of a song, he let out a big belch. He got embarrassed and left, but no one blinked. At the end of our performance, Alan Licht just asked us to do the song again.

SB
Do you notice a relationship between street ambience and cell phone addiction in New York City?

LC
Yes. Seems like everyone is walking around in their own prison.They don’t hear each other’s footsteps.

SL
I can feel everyone’s anxiety. Cell phone walkers barely look at the lights or traffic, so you know they’re not looking at the clouds. They don’t hear the wind or even the rain. Just some abstracted conversation. And from what I can tell, usually not a pleasant one. The good thing is, I can get away with singing while I walk, which is what I have done all my life at the risk of passers-by thinking I’m talking to myself. Now people don’t think I’m demented when they see my mouth moving. It’s normal to have a conversation with no one there.

SB
What is the first sound you can remember?

LC
My mother singing, upstairs, in the music room.

SL
The sound of one katydid, mixed in with the sound of the crickets.

SB
Where may this tonality appear in your practice or oeuvre?

LC
In the vibrato of my guitar strings, and in the blues element.

SL
You won’t hear it, but you can sense it.

SB
Are there other important biological vibrations that can be gleaned from particular works of yours?

LC
The “Her Death” piece from Juliet has a sadness way down deep in it, very subdued. It’s nothing but a vibration, like a light wind.

SL
The wind among the reeds in the cattail swamp. You can hear it in my vocal on Moonyean No. 9.

SB
Are there particular works that you can hear New York City in?

LC
Probably the most in 9th Avenue. That’s all about the feel of the area, the history of the people who lived there, the loneliness of a room above the street.

SL
Not for me, except in the “Child” song on Hell’s Kitchen Park, a mother’s love for her child who is suddenly killed by the dangerous freight train that ran through the neighborhood around the turn of the century. Eleventh Avenue was called “Death Avenue” because hundreds of people were killed by that train.

SB
What does New York City sound like in quarantine?

LC
I like what Suzanne says about this.

SL
During the serious lockdown, it was so, so much quieter. The birds seemed louder and more plentiful. The trees were brighter, the flowers more vivid. You could hear the rustle from the breeze. Kids find things to do. One day two little girls were giggling, blowing soap bubbles out a window. They called to me, “Happy Bubbles Day!” There’s more activity now, but the city is still softer than before. People’s voices are muffled under their masks.