“To live poetry is better than to write it.” — BASHO

The Friction, the Mixing, the Weaving: An Interview with Collaborators Mendi + Keith Obadike

Laura Wetherington: Could you outline how “The Earth Will Hear (for Audre Lorde and Marlon Riggs)” was conceived, composed, and produced?

Mendi + Keith Obadike: We had been planning a series of praise songs for sometime, and these two artists were at the top of our list. We were approached by an arts organization in upstate New York named Denniston Hill (founded by writer Lawrence Chua, painter Julie Merehetu, video artist Paul Pfiefer and video artist Kara Lynch) about making a sound work for a summer benefit event. We decided to make two of our praise songs as a summer single dedicated to artists who demonstrated unique courage and different strategies of resistance. The A side, entitled “If the Heavens Don’t Hear,” would be a roller-skating jam for Marian Anderson (who chose to maintain many silences around discrimination and other painful events in her autobiography, in favor of writing about her craft and her family). The B side, entitled “The Earth Will Hear,” would be this ambient work for Audre Lorde and Marlon Riggs (whose strategies involved zeroing in on those painful events, parsing them, and making work about them). We value both strategies.

We started the process with some writing that Mendi had done about loss. We then added more text about Lorde and Riggs and also drew from quotes from them about the importance of revelation in their writing. We wanted to use these writings as a basis for improvisation. The process for creating the sounds for “The Earth Will Hear” started with a score derived from triad and diad letter groupings taken from the names of each artist as a dedication. We wrote the phrases, “FOR AUDRE” and “FOR MARLON.” We displaced the first letter of the phrase to the end, so that triad one would be the letters ORA, and the second UDR, and the last diad would be EF, and repeated the process, displacing the second letter in “FOR,” giving us RAU, and so on. We would take the letter O from ORA and give it a number based on its alphabetic position and convert that into a frequency that we could derive an audible pitch from. For example, the letter o would be 15th in the alphabet, so we add two zeros giving us 1500hz, a pitch in between a G and G-flat. So the phrase ORA contained 1500hz,1800hz, and 100hz. Each triad or diad was generated using sine tones in the studio. Working this way gave us many beautiful and surprising microtone combinations, or notes in between the white and black keys on a piano. Once we gathered all of our chords we recorded Mendi singing each sine tone, in effect doubling the chords. We made a custom piece of software that would slowly cycle through and playback each sine tone chord and each vocal harmony sample randomly, sometimes playing two or three harmonies against each other. We then improvised over this cycle, with Mendi on vocals pulling from her text, and Keith on guitar and bass.

LW: Can you describe “The Earth Will Hear (for Audre Lorde and Marlon Riggs)” in relation to the whole album/project: If the Heavens Don’t Hear, the Earth Will Hear?

M+K: The full title comes from an old Igbo proverb, “Si kele onye nti chiri; enu anughi, ala anu.” In English this translates to: “Salute the deaf; if the heavens don’t hear, the earth will hear.”

The proverb is an encouragement to always do the right thing, because it will matter to someone. Good deeds will always have a witness. We think these artists embodied that kind of integrity.

The “A side” of the project, “If the Heavens Don’t Hear,” is done in a kind of 80s R&B style. We used vintage 80s synthesizers in the process. As we made it we imagined people roller skating along with Marian Anderson. After we did our version, we asked our friend and New York indie-funk enfant terrible Gordon Voidwell, who is a master of this style, to remix our track. We think he did a fantastic job. Both versions are available for free download.

LW: Have you experienced something like writers’ block in your collaborations, and if so, what do you do to get out of it?

M+K: It may be that writer’s block is not real. There can be intense slow periods, but you really just have to get up and try to make something every day. Some days are of course going to be much, much better than others. External or even self-imposed deadlines help get the work done. It can be stressful, especially in a collaboration, trying to make the ideas flow at the same rate, on the same schedule.

LW: How do you know when a piece is finished?

M+K: It is hard to know. We sometimes work and revise until we have to let the project go. For recorded projects, it is easier to say that it must be done by a certain point, but the beauty and challenge of live or performance works is that they are always being revised.

LW: When you have played an instrument (or sung) in a group, do you feel you have experienced a kind of mind-coordination with your fellow musicians? If so, can you describe that experience? Do you also experience that sensation in other kinds of creative work that you make? If so, can you detail the moments when this occurs?

M+K: In our experience, when working with other musicians it’s important to listen deeply and to be a sensitive as possible, but to also be up to speed and sonically articulate enough to respond clearly and quickly to what you hear. It helps to have time to gel with a group of performers. I don’t know if I would call it mind-coordination. It is simply another form of nonverbal communication. The experience of having to simultaneously communicate with an audience makes the nature of the communication between performers very special. In this context, we are most aware that the attentiveness and generosity with which we approach one another affects how others hear us. It’s a lesson, really, for our lives beyond the music. We’ve been fortunate to work with some generous, highly skilled, and experienced musicians who have ways of communicating that have been developed from years of working in a jazz or improvised music contexts. We try to learn from these experienced players and bring our own process as a duo to the table.

LW: How much of yourself (or the other person) can you track in the final versions of your work? Are there moments or qualities or layers that feel essentially one or the other of you, or would you characterize the work as a kind of indivisible synthesis?

M+K: It varies with each project. I don’t think anyone else could easily track where one of us begins and the other ends in the work. Others, when looking at our work, have sometimes assumed that there is some clear and consistent disciplinary demarcation in our projects. Meaning that all of the writing is Mendi’s, and the music is Keith’s work. We certainly come from these practices as individuals, but the writing, music, and image-making is a messy and deeply collaborative process that is often difficult for anyone (including us) to tease out once the dish has been cooked.

LW: You grew up together and have been collaborating for a long time. Can you describe the differences in the process of collaborating with one another versus collaboration with people you’ve just met?

M+K: We have a lot of shorthand that we take for granted. When we start with a new team, we have to toss out a lot of our shorthand for the benefit of group communication.

LW: Many of your performance works begin with the two of you collaborating and expand to involve other artists and even the audience. (I’m thinking of the line of credits in the short clip of “Four Electric Ghosts” on YouTube, and how the audience was invited on stage toward the end. Also, I’m thinking of “Blackness for Sale” on eBay.) What connections are there between the structure of your performative work (beginning with your collaboration and spiraling out to include more and more people in the piece) and your values and beliefs? In what ways is collaboration a part of your ethics?

M+K: Well, first of all, the two of us collaborate because we value each other’s work, and we value being together. Our craft is a part of the life we make together, and our personal history is a part of the art we make. They ways and reasons why we collaborate with other people are different, of course, but somehow related. We work with people whose contributions we have encountered and admired, often from afar. We also have collaborators with whom we’ve worked (or with whom we hope to work) on a number of projects. If the process of working out a project together is good—and we have been very fortunate in this regard—the expected intelligence, forms of generosity, and unique friendships are part of the value we have for our collaborators, in addition to their creative abilities. We might say, though, that we collaborate when and because it makes the work better, more than out of an ethic of collaboration.

LW: The juxtaposition in your work—of various media, of content—produces exciting and surprising art forms that are intellectually stimulating and culturally relevant. In one interview, you spoke of having different working styles (Mendi beginning with writing ideas and Keith beginning with discussion of ideas). I wonder if there are aspects of your collaborative process—differences in your working styles—that you feel mirror the fusion of disparate elements in your work, like mixing My Life in the Bush of Ghosts with Pac-Man? How does the juxtaposition of your working styles help you inspire and surprise one another?

M+K: We see the juxtapositions in the projects as pretty different from the juxtapositions in our preferred working processes. The juxtaposition of ideas and forms in our projects—the friction, the mixing, the weaving of them—reflects the way that we both think. On the other hand, the fact that Mendi prefers to write before she talks about a project with people who aren’t collaborators and Keith prefers to talk about the projects to help develop them is something we negotiate, something we experience as a compromise. Mendi gets used to sharing earlier and Keith gets used to waiting a bit longer to share. It’s interesting, though, to think of the process as somehow mirroring the bringing together of ideas in the work.

LW: Do you have advice for young poets or writers who’ve never embarked on collaborations before?

M+K: Because we had spent so much time being together and knowing each other and even talking about working together before we ever really did it, we’re not sure how much our own process and experience would mirror anyone else’s. You can’t really say: Find your soulmate, gain familiarity and trust over a decade, and start working, though that has been our experience. We can say, though, that a collaborator should be confident in one’s own abilities, have opinions beyond one’s own field of expertise, be open to processes other than one’s own, and most importantly: work with generous people whose artistic sensibilities you trust. When we were starting work on Four Electric Ghosts, the artist / critic / renaissance man Greg Tate advised us to work with people we’d want to have dinner with beyond the context of the work at hand. Artmaking involves the making of culture in more than one way. In a collaboration, we make a culture in the process as well as with the public presentation. The culture of the collaborative process we make has always been important to us.

LW: What are you both working on now?

M+K:  We just completed two new sound installations: African Metropole: Sonic City Lagos,commissioned by Rhizome and Ramapo College’s Pascal Gallery, and a public sound installation, American Cypher: Stereo Helix for Sally Hemings, commissioned by Bucknell University’s Griot Institute and Samek Art Gallery. We have three books out this year. The first two—Big House / Disclosure and Four Electric Ghosts—are related to older projects. Both are on 1913 Press. We also have new book/CD entitled Phonotype, published in conjunction with the African Metropole exhibition. It’s a collection of our soundworks and writings on media art. Last but not least, we are working on our latest “opera-masquerade,” Reserve and Debut, which will open in New York next spring.

Mendi + Keith Obadike make music, art, and literature. Their works include The Sour Thunder, an Internet opera (Bridge Records); Crosstalk : American Speech Music (Bridge Records); a suite of new media artworks, Black.Net.Art Actions (published in re: skin on MIT Press); Big House / Disclosure, a 200-hour public sound installation (Northwestern University); and a poetry collection, Armor and Flesh (Lotus Press). Their honors include a Rockefeller New Media Arts Fellowship, Pick Laudati Award for Digital Art, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and a Vectors Fellowship from USC. Their intermedia work has been commissioned by The NY African Film Festival and Electronic Arts Intermix, The Yale Cabaret, Whitechapel Art Gallery (London), and The Whitney Museum of Art, among other institutions. Their music has been featured on New York and Chicago public radio, as well as on Juniradio (104.5) in Berlin. Keith received a BA in art from North Carolina Central University and an MFA in sound design from Yale University. He is a tenured assistant professor in the College of Arts and Communication at William Paterson University and serves as an art advisor for the Time Square Alliance. Mendi received a BA in English from Spelman College and a PhD in literature from Duke University. After working as a Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton University, she became a poetry editor at Fence Magazine and an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Media Studies at Pratt Institute. Mendi + Keith are currently developing a sound installation series, African Metropole / Sonic City; an intermedia suite entitled American Cypher; and a new series of performance works, including Four Electric Ghosts, an opera-masquerade (mmanwu), commissioned by the Kitchen (NYC); and TaRonda Who Wore White Gloves (agbogho mmwo), as artists-in-residence at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in 2010–11.

Laura Wetherington lived in Ann Arbor from 2005–2009. Her first book, A Map Predetermined and Chance (Fence, 2011), was chosen by C.S. Giscombe for the National Poetry Series. She co-edits textsound.org with Anna Vitale and teaches creative writing at Sierra Nevada College.