Natilee Harren on Maria Chávez

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Maria Chávez performing at Marfa Myths, La Mansana de Chinati/The Block, Judd Foundation, Marfa, Texas, March 2016. Photo: Alex Marks.

IN LIVE PERFORMANCE, Maria Chávez is a bricoleur of intricate, cerebral, capricious sonic landscapes constructed through improvised sampling. The Peruvian-born, New York–based sound artist uses one or more turntables (her typical setup these days includes four) and an evolving collection of scratched and broken records over which her needles glide, skitter, and pounce. Mesmerizing loops extracted from test tones, sound effects, spoken-word albums, and myriad other sources never build into hooks; rather, they stutter or disappear into worlds of static, a celebration of the aesthetics of chance and, sometimes, of failure.

After a 2004 solo album, Chávez avoided recording her work until 2019, when a spate of new releases began to appear, offering multiple access points to the artist’s practice, which encompasses an immense range of electroacoustic extended techniques. The first, Maria Chávez PLAYS (Stefan Goldmann’s Ghost Hemiola) (Macro, 2019), is an hour-long stretch of digital taffy pulled from Goldmann’s titular record, which contains no recorded sound, only a series of sonically empty locked grooves. Chávez’s transformation of Ghost Hemiola is like John Cage’s 4′ 33″ by way of DJ Screw, the late Houston turntablist who invented the “chopped and screwed” technique. Chávez moved to Texas as a child and continues to draw from the state’s innovative music scenes—lately, for instance, she has incorporated the RAKE double-headed needle, invented by Dallas-based DJ Randal Sanden Jr. for the scratch hip-hop community. By now, she has staked out a unique position amid DJ culture, avant-garde music, and visual art, which requires the ongoing reeducation of her audiences. In interviews, she often stresses that Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizzard Theodore are just as much a part of the modern history of experimental sampling as Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète—a fact that bears repeating in the still overwhelmingly white world of sound art.

Late 2020 brought the cassette Live at Jewel’s Catch One (Ratskin Records, 2020), which captures a raw 2018 duet of Chávez collaging her vinyl fragments alongside DJ and lap guitarist Lucas Gorham. Simultaneously, she self-released a series of introspective solo sessions that offer an extensive introduction to her mature sonic palette, which is increasingly focused on the building up of allusive narrative worlds. Her most recent release, The Kitchen Sessions 1-5: 2020 (Takuroku, 2021), a collaboration with Jordi Wheeler, may be her most musical offering yet. Wheeler works the prepared piano, bass guitar, and electronics alongside remarkably spare, elegant, and atmospheric samples from Chávez. Forthcoming releases include a duo with experimental guitarist Sandy Ewen and a flexi disc developed with Devin Kenny.

In all of her projects, Chávez pursues connections among tactility, perception, and ideation.

Chávez’s return to recording was prompted by a brush with severe illness. In February 2019, she underwent a risky surgery meant to cure a rare brain disorder that had been causing debilitating headaches and hemifacial spasms. By the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, she was only halfway through a two-year medical sabbatical. Chávez warily declared herself cured this spring and plans to resume touring at the end of next year. Yet her recent recordings take their place as only one component of a conceptually oriented practice that has grown to encompass video, sound installation, artist’s books, immense watercolor abstractions of the canyonlike topography of a record’s grooves, and sound sculptures activated by the indexical touch of the wind (the sculptures were the first works to be displayed in the courtyard of Donald Judd’s home in Marfa after it was opened to the public as a museum). In all of her projects, Chávez pursues the connections among tactility, perception, and ideation, extrapolating from the material phenomenon of the stylus or “sonic pencil”—tracing a groove, drawing sound through touch, making matter vibrate, and thereby opening up new channels in the mind.

Chávez is also a generous pedagogue who works through and demystifies her practice in public. She has held workshops and published a how-to manual (Of Technique: Chance Procedures on Turntable, 2012), and she invites audience members to participate in her sets. She seeks neither the avant-garde virtuosity of fellow turntable improvisers such as Otomo Yoshihide and Marina Rosenfeld nor the visual theater of Christian Marclay and Laurie Anderson. Her work can be more aptly compared to the empathic sonic meditations of Pauline Oliveros, a mentor whom Chávez first came to know through the organization Nameless Sound (formerly the Pauline Oliveros Foundation) and its director, David Dove, another model improviser. Oliveros once said, “The ear does not listen—the brain listens.” Considering her medical sabbatical and its impact on her practice, Chávez has said that artists are “the exercisers of the neuroplasticity of society,” recalling Marshall McLuhan’s view that art possesses a unique capacity to prime our psyches for future technological and social revolutions. Toward that end, Chávez invites us to listen not to but with her as we rebuild connections in the aftermath of the past year’s traumas and anticipate resonant worlds to come.

Natilee Harren is an art historian and critic and the author of Fluxus Forms: Scores, Multiples, and The Eternal Network (University of Chicago Press, 2020). She teaches at the University of Houston School of Art.

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