Katz Mulk Q&A
Katz Mulk is a performance collective featuring Andrea Kearney, Ben Knight, Ben Morris, and Siân Williams. Their work pulls together crude electronics, field recordings, narrative fragments, dance, and sculptural interventions to create a sticky radiophonic syrup. Katz Mulk’s seek to inhabit the marginal spaces in-between structure and improvisation; producing scores in which movement, sounds and voices mingle and cohere into an awkward present.
They present a new commissioned performance at Counterflows Festival on the 5th of April at the stunning Anderston & Kelvingrove Community Church. They will also play Chapter in Wales on the 3rd of April and Cafe OTOs’ Project Space on the 10th of April.
How did Katz Mulk start?
BM: Ben and I have known each other since 2005 and have traded music, jammed, recorded, toured Europe together and supported each others music a lot over the years. KM originally started as a duo music outfit and we were both interested in pushing the format of what we had done up to that point, it made sense to collaborate with more people. Sian and I had started working together before then, collaborating on an exhibition and sound performances together. Andrea brought the movement expertise first, then Sian the sculptural interventions, it all came together
AK: At Counterflows 2016 Ben K told me that he had a music project with Ben M and that they were thinking of adding a dance element to it. I mentioned that I was interested in dance/movement, especially in an art context – and about 2 months later I found myself performing as part of Katz Mulk at Cafe Oto – my first ever performance of this kind (not the sequinned leotards and jazz hands of my childhood). Over the last few years that we have been performing together – this dance element has grown – from very simple everyday gestures to scored choreography for multiple participants.
SW: I’ve known Ben M for ages, since about 2007 I think. We’d previously collaborated on an exhibition and performance and he’d also produced the sound for a film I made on my MA. In 2017 he asked if I wanted to perform a piece of work I’d made called A Mine That Will Never Be Mine (aka the balloon) at a Katz Mulk gig. I think after that we started talking about the possibilities of introducing sculptural elements to the performances in a wider sense and it went from there.
Sculpture and dance are integral parts of Katz Mulk. What originally drew you to embracing those elements? And how do you see them now as part of your performances?
Like Ben M. says above, when KM was a duo, it out of wanting to do something out of our comfort zone and it’s gathered pace over the last few years. I think the performative side was always there in what I’ve done, but it didn’t really think about wanting to work with movement and dance until I discovered people like Yvonne Rainer; I find performances like ‘Continuous Project Altered Daily’ (1969-70?) really inspiring for the way that it incorporates everyday props with movement. I don’t think this has a direct influence on what KM do, but reading about work like that and seeing other dances that gave me a push in that direction.
AK: Formative performances consisted of quite isolated components – after my first ever performance I was asked why I was mute – as though my movement didn’t have a voice.
BK: I agree with Andrea, it did feel like the different parts were fairly isolated at first, and it took awhile for us to get to grips with how the different elements all inter-relate.
AK: Over time we have coalesced – overlapping roles and interacting more closely.
BK: Now I think that there is much more interplay between the different elements we use…like with the movement, I’m part of some of the movement, and Andrea has used her voice on some of our past performances. Also, Sian makes interventions with materials and Ben M. uses portable amps to distribute sounds around the performance space. I think the setting of the stage with the different materials is really important for this as it helps create a shared audience/performance space.
AK: Our residency at Chapter, leading up to counterflows, serves to solidify these efforts – dance and sculptural interruption merging closer together and growing the movement element to include extra performers.
Ben K references Ursula Le Guin’s Carrier Bag of Fiction theory in his work – you could say KM are gathering up practices/methodologies into a big tin foil parcel or paper balloon and seeing how it comes together.
SW: I think for me it stems from always wanting to expand the performance space, so it’s less of a ‘them and us’ situation with the audience. Working with sculpture and dance forces us to think about space (and our positioning in it) in a much different way than if we were just using sound for example. I’ve always been interested in how we become aware of ourselves in a space and the relationship (or dialogue) that exists between an object and the person looking at it. Phyllida Barlow describes sculpture as a language; ‘a restless medium including smells and sounds. A sentient medium engaging with a sentient human being’.
To me, Katz Mulk’s performances really expand on that idea because they incorporate so many different elements and they’re always shifting and changing. There is also always the acknowledgment, as Ben K said, that the audience shares this space, and shares this experience. Thinking about materials and objects in terms of performance is really exciting because it’s so different to thinking about them in a static sense. Sculpture and dance can interrupt space in quite tangible ways whilst music and sound does it in a different way. We’re beginning to understand much better how these elements work with each other but there’s still a tension and that’s what keeps it exciting.
Your performances remind me a bit of fairground in some ways; a kind of maximalist but totally joyous take on the possibilities of art/music. Do you feel you are reaching for something like this in your performances? Is there any kind of place or space you are looking to “get to” in Katz Mulk performances?
SW: I’ve never really thought of it in this way but I suppose there is an element of carnival in what we do, and the feeling that anything might happen, which could be seen as quite utopian. There is a structure but inside of that all sorts of things might occur. In all my work, both inside and outside of Katz Mulk, I think it’s important to keep a sense of the absurd and to acknowledge that what you’re doing might be completely ridiculous, but that the ridiculousness in itself is really valuable. I don’t know if that’s a place I’m looking to get to but it’s something I think about.
BK: I like the fairground image…I think KM performances are a maximalist event with minimalist micro-events happening within. It’s not exactly a Brueghel painting (there’s not nearly enough drunkeness in KM performances), but the different languages swell and subside throughout a KM performance; so you might get some very still and quiet moments of intimate gesture and then something more full scale and lively with singing; dancing; song and people interacting with the sculptures. Also, the joyous feeling is definitely a big part of what we do, and I hope is contagious with the audience. For me, this comes through the mix of different approaches, for example; with the dance, Andrea has danced for a long time and is really skilled with what she can do, but we’re interested in mixing roles, and we’ll both dance at times. I find something quite joyous in the openness and precarity of those moments. And as for getting some place; I don’t think there’s a particular place I want to drag everyone, but I do want to create a situation where everyone is attentive to how the present unfolds…
BM: We had a an amazing shared experience at the Trajal Harrell ‘Hoochie Koochie’ exhibition in London back in 2017. I think that was when we first formed as a 4 piece. I remember that really blowing my mind with its use of dance, performance, props and music; the way the space was divided with interlinking but independent performances happening simultaneously. It was confrontational, absurd, and joyous. It was definitely a maximalist event that stayed with me as a viewer. Attempting to get to that kind of space was on my mind when we started collaborating as a 4 piece. Most of you come from a background of improvisation and (generally speaking) "weird" music. What attracted you to pop and dance music forms?
Most of you come from a background of improvisation and (generally speaking) “weird” music. What attracted you to pop and dance music forms?
BK: As Ben M. said, we’ve been playing in “weird” musical combos since 2006-07, and I met Andrea through playing and going to gigs in London. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve always been into pop music, but it’s always been a listening habit rather than a musical pursuit. I think when I was a bit younger, I was in the habit of compartmentalising what I did, so the music that I made might have been influenced by sound poetry; freer punk forms or improvisation. I started experimenting with pop forms in Human Heads (the group I do with my partner, Hannah Ellul) and since then, I’ve been more interested in narrative and song (in a loose sense!). Also, pop forms are so fluid; open to fractious sounds, voice manipulation and movement…it’s exciting…
SW: I don’t really feel this is my question, and I don’t come from that background, but I think lots of pop music is really weird! Look at Britney Spear’s Toxic, with it’s weird breaks and strings, it’s completely bonkers. I was listening to some Roy Orbison the other day and thinking about how weird his voice is – sometimes it’s really smooth and at others it sounds really strained and uncomfortable. Pop music borrows from a huge range of genres because ‘pop’ itself isn’t fixed, it’s got the freedom to jump around to wherever it likes and that makes it a brilliantly expansive thing to reference.
BM:’Husks’ (our album on Singing Knives) started as pop music refracted through the architecture of south Manchester. Me and Ben cycled around Manchester Cricket Ground poaching binaural recordings of a Beyonce gig spilling out and bouncing around underpassess and council buildings. That felt like a eureka moment in many ways for me. After years of improvising, it now feels more experimental to attempt to play a pop song in our skewed fashion. It will always fall short, but that’s where it gets interesting. The songs are normally born out of improvisation and there’s still a looseness to each live performance. I like the distance between us and the pop sounds we fixate on, whether its a club night recorded on a phone in a toilet, or our hamfisted attempt at song, there’s always a filter acting on the sound.
Sound poetry/concrete poetry are an influence on Katz Mulk. How did this manifest itself in your music?
BK: Sound poetry has a big influence on the way that I ‘sing’, but I think the biggest influence for my approach to KM is when my love of sound poetry started mingling with, again, voice manipulation sounds that you more readily associate with ‘pop’. From Bob Cobbing to Laurie Anderson/Robert Ashley to Frank Ocean (ha!) For example: I use a vocoder, and some autotune FX on my voice, and I’m interested in playing with the dynamics between sound and sense with how I approach the words. BM We both (the Bens) have a connection to Chocolate Monk, having released albums on the label in the past, and both performing /collaborating with Dylan Nyoukis in different contexts. I’d say our shared musical language is definitely linked by that connection also, and it would have been an early touchstone for us meeting and developing as sound makers, mates, and touring together. So I think there’s a thread of this kind of Monk abstraction somewhere in the DNA of Katz mulk, even if its wrestling with words through a vocoder or within a deconstructed beyonce sample.
AK: My background is in graphic design and I found it useful to translate the movement that I choreographed into graphic interpretations. These scores take some visual reference from concrete poets like Henri Chopin – But rather than dissecting written language – I’m mixing fragments of text from Ben K’s songs with my own vocabulary of movements. The dance itself relies on exhaustive repetition and accumulation of gestures – which you could say are common motifs found in sound poetry.
What can we expect from each of the performances at Counterflows, Chapter and Cafe OTO?
BK: We’ve invited 3 different performers for each show, mainly to dance, so the scores that Andrea has been working will be interpreted differently each time. For Counterflows we’ll be performing with Letitia Pleiades – who’s in some excellent Glasgow based bands and is part of Glasgow Open Dance School (aka GODS), and at Chapter we’ll be performing with the amazing Anushiye Yarnell. I’m not sure who’ll join us at OTO, but there will be special guests! As for the music and the performance as a whole, it’s all modular; we have different bits; songs; gestures that we’ll piece together for each performance.