Creating this album was a heavy task.
Since 2010, I had been recording my grandmother’s voice: on the phone with her, in her house while she was on the phone with someone, stories, jokes, anecdotes, attitude, observations…
I hold on to things. Occasionally I come across recordings in my library on shuffle that my friends had made ten or fifteen years ago. I consider myself a digital archivist.
I submitted Grunt, my last album, for mastering on March 7th, 2018. My grandmother passed away two days later. I knew immediately that my next endeavor would be a threnody, and I began working on the record straightaway – at the epicenter of her decline and departure.
My grandmother was 91 when I began recording her. She lived alone in her home until the last 5 months of her life, where she was moved to assisted living. She declined rapidly at 99; until that point she had lived independently and vibrantly. Despite this vibrancy, I had a sense of urgency to record her. My clandestine practice was a desire and a way to hold on to more of her than I felt I inevitably would.
Avia: Latin for ‘grandmother’, Galician for ‘he had’.
When she passed away, I very quickly composed a piece for violin, Five Voicemails From My Grandmother, placing five of the many voicemails she had left me within the piece. This was the beginning of trying to make sense of the hours of audio I had collected. “Three Voicemails,” a heavily overhauled version of this piece, appears on this album. Inspired by Salvador Dalí’s The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, I sought to create a ghost, a skeleton of the original.
The album rapidly began to take shape in December of 2018. I recorded violin and organ at St. Peter’s Church at this time, and they are the two most prominent instruments here. I wrote a recurring theme that appears across the record, with saxophone and ondes Martenot complementing the organ and violin.
This theme is a kind of leitmotif, similar to the cuckoo element of Morton Feldman’s Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety. These delicate, ceremonial instrumentations texture and colour each of the pieces, and it was important to me that the album contained no beats, only a few sub bass moments. There is a gentle stillness, a passivity, to the record, with my grandmother’s voice given space to breathe alongside the violins and organs, to tell her own uninterrupted stories.
For the first time in my recording practice, my voice is not the central element of these pieces. I wanted to preserve my grandmother’s stories. I wanted to celebrate her, as other artists had paid tribute to their grandmothers before me: I thought of works like The Fiery Furnaces’ Rehearsing My Choir, Banana Yoshimoto’s novel Kitchen… One of my favorite books as a young person was Sun and Spoon by Kevin Henkes. It deals explicitly with the aftermath of losing one’s grandmother and trying to make sense of the emotions it produces, and is divided into four sections: “The Search”’, “The Sun”, “The Storm” and “The Sign.” The book still holds a deep affective power over me today. I pay homage to this fabulous book here, by titling four of the pieces on my album after each of these segments.
I was mute during many of the recordings taken of my grandmother. Many of them are auditory observations of her: during a phone call or conversation with someone else, or else in monologue, orating a lengthy tale. Otherwise, when chronicling our conversations, I was careful not to dominate the dialogic experience; as such my verbal offerings here scarcely amount to more than “mhm”.
“Roadwork” and “The Bird Room” include a keyboard voice I designed myself from sine tones tuned micro-tonally, but my own voice is largely absent, operating mostly as a textural drone on such pieces as “Temple of the Fortress of Light” and “Three Voicemails.”
Listening to the voice recordings was daunting: not only did they bring raw memories to the surface, but they also reminded me that I wanted to take extreme care not to turn my grandmother’s words into the equivalent of a “Track 3”. I did not want to lose the freshness of these moments, or to extinguish the person behind the voice. To try to bypass that trap, while still being able to hear them repeatedly, many of the recordings have been edited, EQ’d or reverbed significantly. This, for me at least, removes their energy from the original experience. Again – ghosts, skeletons of the originals.
I would describe “The Sign” as evoking Steve Reich-meets-Don’t DJ; it is the most rhythmic piece here despite the absence of beats. “Girlhood,” an improvised jam in Ableton 10’s Wavetable, represents the first time I’ve used this synth due to my usual preference for sampled materials; recordings of Dorothy, saxophone and glass marimba were interspersed later. Ed Williams is featured on “A Glimmer in an Otherwise Dark Field.” I met Williams in 2018 performing alongside him, and after the performance he telepathically invited me to record an interview with him on loss, having recently lost his father. The bond we formed over our losses is poignant.
When I listen to this album and go back over these stories, I notice my grandmother’s vocal quirks, such as her use of the word ‘thing’ as a substitute for whatever noun she didn’t readily have to-hand. It is this individuality of her memory, her voice, that is at the centre of this work.
-Derek Piotr (assisted by Dr. Michael Waugh)
this project partially funded by: