Melissa Grey | David Morneau | Robert Kirkbride | Interview | New EP, ‘Always Becoming’
‘Always Becoming’ weaves the colors of sunshine pop and dreampop with Robert Kirkbride’s harp-like guitars and Melissa Grey & David Morneau’s crystalline orchestration and signature seductive beats, wrapping the listener in a sonic tapestry of ever-shifting patterns, pulses, and hues.
Complementing the music are nine hand drawings and an essay on humanity’s tilted view of seasonal cycles by Kirkbride, whose work explores the interplay of memory, ornament, and placemaking. These four tracks—’Being,’ ‘Always,’ ‘Ever,’ ‘Becoming’—are designed to play in an endless loop.
“Searching for new ways to create”
Would you like to talk a bit about your background? What led you to creating music?
Melissa Grey: As a young child, around the age of four or five, I had pivotal experiences that pulled me into the world of sound. The first was walking through the sonically immersive science exhibition The Giant Heart, at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. It was loud and terrifying, but also intoxicating. I wanted to go through it again and again.
The second experience was when I had fallen asleep before a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra. I was awakened by the sounds of all the musicians tuning their instruments at once. It was alien and beguiling and unlike anything I had heard before: I thought a spaceship was landing.
These two sonic events introduced my young brain and body to sharawadgi (a sublime sonic experience), opening a giant window into the beautiful complexity of sound. The world never sounded the same after that. A few years later, I began to study music formally. I was drawn to the science and perception of sound, and the language of music, but also its relationship to space. I would practice the piano for hours, imagining myself in a room delineated by sound. It was a private palace of my own design.
David Morneau: I joined the school band in 4th grade. My entire class had gone to the school’s art studio to hear the band director, Scott Severance, introduce the instruments we could sign up to play. For his final demonstration, he explained that the trombone is a brass instrument like the trumpet. It has a slide instead of valves, so it can imitate an airplane taking off. He played a long glissando. I was sold.
For our spring concert, we played a blues song that Scott composed for us, which included a trombone solo that was all slow glissandi. I vividly remember playing these long, beautiful sliding sounds. This was a transformative moment and trombone has been part of my identity ever since.
In high school, the music appreciation teacher, Constance Zweifel, recruited a group of students to create original music to accompany that year’s drama club play. Another trombonist, Peter, and I co-wrote several of the songs. I had become a composer now too.
Robert Kirkbride: Music and architecture were formative disciplines that are integral to who I am and how I make sense of the world. At eight, I was trained as a vocalist and began performing and touring with the Philadelphia Boys Choir, an experience that informed my breathing, my ear and my memory. By age ten I’d performed worldwide, singing in Japanese, Thai, Belgian, Danish, German, French, Italian, Latin and Hebrew. Singing in other languages and staying with members of host choirs and their families immersed me in other ways of being. At twelve, I began working in architecture, designing and building several projects before I received my degree.
The physical and mental skills cultivated by singing translated into other activities. A sharp memory was especially critical since we rarely used sheet music in concert. Over the years, the substance of memory has become a central thread to my work. We often wore blindfolds during rehearsal to hear ourselves amid an organ of others. Most likely, the “close listening” of ear training implanted my passion for the “close reading” of texts and contexts in my research. More recently, close listening and close reading have converged through a series of collaborations with Melissa & David, titled ‘Bourdon,’ and overtone singing directed by Melissa, where I’ve used my voice to elicit resonant frequencies in architectural settings such as the crypt of Francesco Borromini’s San Carlino alla Quattro Fontane.
What are some projects or bands you worked on before joining forces?
Melissa Grey: Before I joined forces with David, my projects included concert works for acoustic instruments, electronic music, installations, and concert and event curation. Since 2009, I’ve taught Sound Studies at The New School, in New York City, where I work with students from across disciplines to introduce an awareness of the science, meaning, and perception of sound into their respective creative practices.
For a 2010 event that featured food, sound, and music, I composed ‘SPRAWL: colony,’ a live spatial performance and installation, to accompany the exhibition, ‘Watertables: Upstream’ + ‘Downstream,’ at Parsons School of Design. ‘SPRAWL: colony’ explored the acoustical perception and symbolic communication of the honeybee in the context of Colony Collapse Disorder. It was scored for horn, hand-crank sirens, cell phone chorus, sine waves, double bass and field recordings of healthy honeybees in Nova Scotia. I collaborated with design students to create the dinner menu, which highlighted the work of the honeybee, and directed the spatialized gallery performance. ‘Cape Breton Honeybee Field Recordings’ were also installed at the entrance to the exhibition.
In 2016, I was invited by Angela Grauerholz to compose a soundscape for an exhibition she curated and designed, Michèle Lemieux / The whole and its parts: From Drawings to Animated Films. Michèle Lemieux is the “only woman to have taken control of the last working pinscreen in the world.” I felt a strong connection to Michèle’s work, her relationship with her device, and her process, which entails long hours of patient skill, and a bit of a dance, to create images frame-by-frame. At that time, I was developing my relationship with Benjolin, a complex handmade synth that is chaotic and bent by design. I spent months just listening to this small machine, making infinitesimal adjustments and studying their effect. For the exhibition, Benjolin and I created a soundscape, ‘Environnement sonore,’ a pointillistic web of tiny bubbles of sound endlessly ascending and descending.
David Morneau: My music practice has always been exploratory, searching for new ways to create and collaborate. This is true of Melissa’s work as well, and defines how we compose and produce together. My previous projects included acoustic chamber music, collaborations with poets and choreographers, and a series of EDM releases on the underground net label Immigrant Breast Nest.
From July 2007 through June 2008, I composed and released a new one-minute composition online everyday in a project called 60×365. The daily deadline offered the opportunity to explore a wide range of sounds and forms, including plunderphonics, chiptune, and musique concrète. I recorded the sounds of the HVAC systems at The Ohio State University’s Library Book Depository (a building with precisely calibrated environmental systems for housing millions of rare books and documents). I repurposed cassette recordings of family gatherings that I made when I was 6. Every Friday, I collaborated with Boris Willis, whose Dance-A-Day project was recording and releasing a new dance video every day.
The last solo project I did before joining forces with Melissa was Not Less Than the Good, which was commissioned by New Thread Quartet and premiered at the opening of the Morgan Library & Museum’s exhibition This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal in New York City in 2017. The performance simulates a sunrise by combining the meditative playing of the saxophone quartet with ambient synthesizers and gentle beats. The music grows from a single quiet pitch, adding notes and timbres, growing in fullness and depth. Woven throughout are sounds recorded during the pre-dawn and early morning hours at Walden Pond: a chorus of insects, the lone song of dawn’s first bird which is joined by others in lively counterpoint, and the splashing of morning swimmers. The hour-long performance was punctuated by readings of excerpts from Walden performed by poet J. D. McClatchy.
Robert Kirkbride: I explore memory and placemaking through architecture, writing, music, and teaching. My architectural design and research practice, studio ‘patafisico, has reconsidered forms of knowledge and knowhow that are lost or overlooked through built projects such as Architectural Curiosities and the Morbid Anatomy Museum, and the multimedia online publications, Architecture and Memory, and The Reading Chamber. I’m also Professor of Architecture and Product Design at Parsons School of Design, where I served as dean of the School of Constructed Environments and produced several large-scale interdisciplinary exhibits and events on water and disaster preparedness. For the past eight years, I’ve been spokesperson and a founding trustee for Preservation Works, a non-profit organization advocating the preservation and adaptive reuse of 19th-century “Kirkbride Plan” psychiatric hospitals.
Confluences among design, drawing and music began years ago, while I was studying architecture. I’d return home on the last shuttle bus at 3 am after a long day at the studio, and I would spend a few hours with a 4-track TEAC/Tascam, ping-ponging multi-tracks with my Martin and Gibson and a pokey little Casio sampler. I’d also create sonic collages from pre-recorded music to include in studio presentations and installations. The seeds of those late-night wind-down sessions reawakened years later, in ‘Always Becoming’.
How did you originally meet and what led to the decision to make a project together?
Melissa Grey & David Morneau: We met in 2014 while curating and producing an electronic music series in New York City. We quickly formed a simpatico working relationship, which evolved into a shared creative practice exploring all things sound.
Melissa met Robert years ago when he curated, designed and built Architectural Curiosities at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, where she was Program Director. In late 2019, Robert joined us for ‘Bourdon,’ a sound meditation for sine waves, trombone, guitar, and live sound processing, tuned to the mains hum. This culminated in a livestream performance for Basilica Hudson’s 24-HOUR DRONE AT HOME in April 2020.
While the three of us were living together at Kelty—designed by architect William Lightfoot Price in 1899—Robert composed a series of songs for guitar. We would hear floating fragments of his captivating music drifting through the house and decided to embark on ‘Always Becoming’.
“Time, space, nature, language and dance are centrally important to our music”
There seems to be a strong concept behind your work. How important are themes of time, space, nature, language and dance when it comes to your music?
Melissa Grey & David Morneau: Time, space, nature, language and dance are centrally important to our music. We conceptualize these themes as modes of perception for sound and music rather than as narrative structures. For example, dance is an embodied response to music. We’re guided less by genre and more by perception. Certain projects will emphasize different themes.
Symbolic Gesture is a sonic response to False Heads, Masks, and Robots, an exhibition by Dan Rose, that layers recursive cycles of a foundational beat pattern (time).
Trappist-1, featuring clarinetist Thomas Piercy, alternates clouds of sound and still silences to focus the ear towards the architectural acoustics of the performance space.
The Empty S(h)elf, second iteration, a collaboration with artist/photographer and graphic designer Angela Grauerholz and graphic designer Réjean Myette, features field recordings of insect communication (nature).
I offer you plays with combinatorial language and Oulipian constraints alongside an animation by artist Nicole Antebi.
DR DIEGO is electronic dance music for bass clarinet, performed by Diego Vásquez.
Would you like to share some further words about recording ‘Always Becoming’?
Melissa Grey & David Morneau: Hearing Robert play his guitar throughout Kelty shaped our approach to recording his performances. Wanting to capture the unique acoustics of the house, we recorded in different rooms—including the barrel-vaulted ballroom that occupied the entire third floor—using a series of supercardioid and large-diaphragm condenser microphones placed at different distances to record Robert’s guitars, Melissa’s guitar feedback, and David’s trombone.
We recorded Melissa’s theremin in our studio as a series of spontaneous improvisations that converted her kinetic gestures into sonic momentum. We took a similar organic approach in creating a percussive sweep with our rescue Pomeranian, Foxmèr. Capturing the rhythm of his delicate footfall on the hollow wooden floors, we recorded a game of tag that he played with Melissa.
How did you approach music making? Do you have a certain way of composing?
Melissa Grey & David Morneau: In our practice we approach composition and production as a single brain. The process is completely non-linear; ideas and decisions arise organically. All roles and processes are shared.
Each project invites new collaborators, which inform our creative process. For ‘Always Becoming,’ Robert composed the guitar parts. Our focus was the recording, sound design, and orchestration of Robert’s compositions.
We design and build immersive worlds of sound—with spacious mixes, crystalline orchestrations, and couture sonic gestures—unique to each collaborator and project.
Robert Kirkbride: Each project generates a unique trajectory. ‘Always Becoming’ emerged as a triangular flow among music, drawing, and writing. Compositionally, they complement one another, but tangentially as semi-autonomous translations. Musically, ‘Always Becoming’ evolved from four shorter pieces I composed for solo classical guitar into a single, longer work with interweaving themes and textures, whose end is also its beginning. Melissa & David recorded me playing in different spaces, and with their orchestration and voicings they resurfaced the cycle of four shorter songs.
The interplay of sound and space inspired a series of drawings, as visual echoes of the unfolding iterations of the music. The essay about our tilted view of the universe emerged as a companion to the music and drawings but does not seek to explain them literally. It alludes to the interplay of the patterns of the stars and life on earth that hinges on the tilt of the Earth’s axis. This tilt is the source of the seasons and our notions of perpetual change and cyclical return.
Who else was part of the release?
Melissa Grey & David Morneau: We do every step of the production process ourselves: composition, recording, sound design, mixing, mastering. This allows us to make creative decisions that serve the music at every point. We’ve developed our skills to ensure that every nuance of the finished music is conceptually and sonically integrated with the whole.
Another branch of our practice is our label, Flower Cat. We manage the PR, publishing, distribution, graphic design; every part of that production process.
Depending on the collaborator and the situation, we open up parts of the process more. Robert was a composer for ‘Always Becoming’. When we produced ‘DR DIEGO,’ it was during the pandemic and going into a studio was more difficult; so, Diego Vásquez recorded the clarinet parts himself in his home.
What’s next for you? Are you working on something new?
Melissa Grey & David Morneau: We are preparing for the ‘Always Becoming’ music video shoot with Robert later this year. We are also developing an ambisonic recording project focused on architectural spaces with complex histories, designing a studio album of new compositions, and planning an audio book about sound studies and music.
Robert Kirkbride: A cluster of compositions emerged alongside ‘Always Becoming’ that await further transmutation. I’m also working on an essay for Places Journal that continues my explorations of memory, identity and placemaking by focusing on the complex histories and brightening futures of the 34 remaining Kirkbride Plan psychiatric hospitals.
Do you have any side-projects?
Melissa Grey & David Morneau: We used to perform as l’Artiste ordinaire, but otherwise no side-projects.
Thank you for taking your time. Last word is yours.
Thank you for listening.
Headline photo: Melissa Grey