Replete with understated, ambient instrumentals and some fairly astonishing vocal melodies, Brooklyn solo artist GABI's debut LP, Sympathy, is one of those rare albums that manages to be both melancholy and exuberant without missing a beat. At points it's quiet and contemplative to an extreme, but that only serves to emphasize the moments when it breaks out of its shell with unabashed experimentation.
We recently got the chance to sit down with GABI (aka Gabrielle Herbst) and talk about her background in classical composition, the raw veracity of the human voice as an instrument, and balancing rent payments with artistic pursuits.
ThrdCoast: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get into music?
Gabrielle Herbst: I grew up in the Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts in a very small, rural town. My parents are both working artists and they allowed my brother and me a lot of freedom. My father, a musician and ethnomusicologist, exposed me to lots of experimental classical music and world music. I grew up studying clarinet and piano, and later at Bard College finally ended up finding voice and composition. The rest is history really! I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life.
TC: How does the music you're writing now differ from what you were working on at Bard? And what was the transitional process like?
GH: I was exploring many different kinds of music at Bard. I was studying classical composition and score writing with my mentor Joan Tower, history of experimental music and turntableism with Marina Rosenfeld, and opera with Ilka LoMonaco. I integrated all of those experiences into my own sound pallet, and from that I created the sounds that became GABI.
TC: Do you think your classical training had a lot of influence on the art you're making now?
GH: Definitely. I feel like my memory bank and unconscious self is filled with musical works I’ve performed: Berlioz, Brahms, Schubert, Messiaen, Bach, Mozart… The musical logic of those artists definitely seep into what I create and influence me greatly, even if it’s in a subconscious way.
TC: Where do you see the future of classical music going?
GH: Upwards! I think there is so much more to explore, more to create and so much more to discover in what’s being created right now. It’s a ripe and vibrant time for classical music.
TC: Would you say your early training in gamelan affects your musical choices today?
GH: I'm really drawn to melodic percussive sounds. I’m also quite interested in creating overlapping patterns and beats with my voice. Yes, I think that gamelan music has influenced how I feel rhythm and deeply inspired some of the vibraphone writing on Sympathy.
TC: As a fellow composer, I know choice of instrumentation is usually very intentional. What made you want to focus on a vocal-centric project?
GH: I’m endlessly fascinated with the human voice. It’s the closest instrument I could find to some kind of raw truth I was looking for. There are no barriers, there is no hiding. You are completely exposed. The voice as one with the body, breath, heartbeats, skull, and brain balancing in just the right way to create a particular vibration and sound baffles me. I think there's a lot of untrod territory with the voice, many stories that are untold, and a lot to experiment with.
TC: When writing Sympathy, how much freedom did your collaborators have? Were they given fixed scores, or more flexible guidelines?
GH: It really depends on the piece. Some of the songs had parts that were fully notated, while others were more flexible and I directed my musicians off the page through non-traditional prompts. I always have a clear vision of what I want, but how I get there varies.
TC: Would you change anything about the amount of freedom you give them on future projects?
GH: It’s an interesting balance, working with collaborators. Every player brings his or her own special sound, their own grasp of their instrument. I find that it's most beneficial to embrace my players as people and musicians, and work with what they are best at and the unique sounds they can give. I have the overall vision for the songs and know the sound I'm looking for. I direct my band until we reach that point, while also allowing the freedom of experimentation in the moment. This allows healthy spontaneity and freedom within a focused vision.
TC: How did you get together with Software Recording Company?
GH: Daniel Lopatin heard my demos and wrote me a beautiful letter about how he perceived my sounds. I loved his thoughts and interpretation and we met up soon after. He signed me to Software pretty immediately.
TC: Have you found working with them valuable? Do they push you in a positive direction? Do they allow you to work with little input? How's the relationship?
GH: Wonderful! I love Software. They've been nothing but supportive in this relationship. They help me grow and leave the space completely open for me to develop my vision. I couldn’t ask for a better label-family.
TC: What are your plans for the future of GABI?
GH: My plans keep evolving and changing, though I do know I want to develop, share and perform this music as much as possible. I’m devoted to it, and know I'll probably be exploring this project for the rest of my life.
TC: What's your life like outside of GABI? Not much? No, just kidding. Kind of.
GH: I’m still working different jobs, attempting to pay my expensive Brooklyn rent, and studying opera and art songs. I’m also working on other collaborations and commissions, writing lots of new music.
TC: Any projects you want to tell us about?
GH: I’m writing a “nightmare” piece for my opera singer friend Ariadne Greif for her project Dreams and Nightmares. I’m also writing a piece for chamber ensemble and electronics for Sugar Vendil and the Nouveau Classical Project. I’m hoping to further develop and perform my opera Bodiless again in the near future.