Pop, Opera, and “Finding Sonic Transcendence”: An Interview With GABI


GABI, the group led by composer Gabrielle Herbst, fits neatly into the increasingly blurred space between the rock club and the new music venue. GABI’s debut Sympathy (due out on April 7th on Software) is an unpredictable album, at times disconcerting in its rearrangement of familiar elements, at times washing over the listener in a more melodic fashion. It hits on both a cerebral and a visceral level, and I spoke with Herbst about balancing her pop and compositional impulses, the work that she does outside of GABI, and more.

You’ve written for different ensembles as a composer. Where did the decision come from to do this particular group of compositions under this particular name?

I’ve always had different sides of my compositional life. For a long time, I’ve been writing more shortform songs alongside more large-scale instrumental pieces. This particular project really started at this residency I had at Robert Wilson’s The Watermill Center. I brought a cople of musicians with me: Rick Quantz, who’s a violist; Josh Henderson, a violinist; and Matthew O’Koren, who’s a percussionist. We spent a very intense time there together creating music. It was from that residency that this band project really started. When we came back to Brooklyn, I asked them, “Can we continue this? Can we perform?” They were really excited about it. That was the birth of this particular project.

Is it still with the same musicians, or has that evolved?

It’s still the same players, and my drummer and I have worked together for seven years now. We went to Bard together. There’s this great guitarist [Aaron Roche] who also plays trombone, and he also plays on the record, and has since joined the band. I’m also working with someone named Jacob Becker, who does electronics for the live set. The band has grown and changed, but it still has this rooted core of people who I’ve worked with for many years now. It’s been really exciting to see the transition of the band and our experience together.

When you start work on something for the band, do you generally know from the outset?

It’s very different. For instance, I just wrote Bodiless, an opera, and it’s hundreds of pages of a score. It’s extremely involved; the notation is really specific, and everything’s meant to just be on the paper so that the ensemble can learn it quickly and perform it quickly. I love doing that, but this project is also a real pleasure because I can work with my small group of musicians as people, and really think of them as people when I’m writing to them and take it off the page. I can play around with it at rehearsal and be more intuitive and open-ended and unstructured. It’s very fun, and it’s very fun to see what kind of results come out of workshopping music in that way. I think the results are very different, and in an interesting way. I love doing both, and they bring out different sides of my process and my vision, I think.

Is this the first time you’ve played in a band?

I was in different kinds of bands in college, but not seriously, really. I started writing shortform songs in college, and kind of acquired a small band there. But I was still kind of working through those ideas. This project has been floating in my head forever, in a certain way, and it’s finally taking shape now, I would say. This is definitely my first project like this.

When you were recording the album, how much of that represented the songs as they existed in your head and how much of that was working with the other musicians and the producer?

It was a real combination. It was exciting, because it was my first real studio experience, and we had an intense two weeks in the Mexican Summer studio. We rehearsed really intensely before the studio time. We got the songs really tight and really together. Once we got into the studio, things definitely changed. We tried out a lot of new things. I worked really closely with Paul Corley and Dan Lopatin, and they were really wonderful influences with production. We tried out a lot of different things in the studio, especially with vocals. I went really crazy and made up lots of vocals on the spot. There was improvisation involved, and different kinds of vocal layering in the studio that was spontaneous.

After the fact, I worked with Paul and Dan on post-production. Things really started changing then. It was interesting to hear recordings from the outside, and to tell them what I was looking for. I felt like I was sculpting my own voice more than I ever had before, because I had the luxury of going back and changing things after the fact.

The piece that closes the album is titled “Hymn.” Is that a nod to the influence of sacred music on your work?

I am really inspired by certain composers that do write mystical music. Messiaen is a really great example; Quartet for the End of Time is one of my favorite pieces. Arvo Pärt is a very mystical fellow; and Hildegard von Bingen, I love her a lot. I was definitely inspired by those influences. In general, I wouldn’t call my music sacred music by any means. I am interested in the idea of transcendence. I think about that a lot when creating a piece, how to take a listener on a journey with me, and how to lead to a heightened state of awareness. That’s what I was thinking about when I was creating “Hymn,” finding sonic transcendence with the listener, and exploring that idea of a hymn in my own way.

In terms of the music that you listen to on a daily basis, is it more compositional? Is it more pop?

I listen to everything, to be honest. It really depends on my mood. I often play music throughout the day alongside pretty much anything I’m doing. I listen to a lot of pop and classical music. I love the music from a tiny Pacific island that will be covered by water soon. They have this incredible music, which I enjoy listening to. So I’d say that I listen to pretty much everything, and it all inspired my work in different ways.

When did you first start listening to music that was outside of what most of your peers were listening to?

My dad’s an ethnomusicologist, so I was given a lot of different kinds of music as a child to listen to. That made me really curious, and the more I listened, the more curious I got. I listened to music from around the world as a child, as well as American music. My dad could play the guitar and sing, and I was always surrounded by that. I loved Bulgarian clarinet music as a child. I played the clarinet for ten years, and that’s what inspired me to do that. And then I went to Bali with my dad and listened to a lot of gamelan. I went to concerts with them every night. I was so young–I was five–and so I would fall asleep instantly, and would sleep through this loud gamelan music. My parents always joke that it must have affected me in some way, listening to so much music like that when I was sleeping. I was definitely opened up to a lot of different influences.

When did you realize that composing music was what you wanted to be doing?

It became really clear in college. I was composing in different ways in high school a little bit, and writing some songs. I’ve always sung throughout my life, and also studied piano classically. But wasn’t until college at Bard when I took this composition workshop with Joan Tower. There was a very tiny group of us in this class, and it was very personal. I wrote a solo cello piece; I heard it performed for the first time, and I got so excited. It became very clear to me after that that I wanted to do this. I focused everything onto singing and composing. It became an unquestionable thing that I knew that I wanted to move forward with it.

How does hearing a piece you’ve written performed compare with the experience of performing the pieces from Sympathy?

It’s super-different. Sitting on the outside of a piece and listening to your own piece, you can blend into the background and experience it as a listener, which is scary but very exciting. It’s cool to see that perspective, and have the luxury of sitting back and listening to it and thinking critically about it as well: “What could I have done here?” “Is this what I wanted it to sound like?”

When I’m performing in a piece, it’s a very different experience. I’m so in the performance, I’m bringing it to life and I get lost in it. I love performing in my own pieces, and I do it almost all the time. I was in my own opera. I just choose to use myself as a kind of vehicle for my own pieces. It seems to make sense. It is challenging. I like to record everything that I do so that I can listen afterwards. I can’t be as critical about my own music when I’m in it.

Have any of your other compositions been recorded?

Not professionally, no. I would love to get my opera recorded in a studio, but that hasn’t happened yet. The opera was last April. This album is my first studio experience with my own music.

Do you have other work that’ll be performed in the coming months, outside of GABI?

I have some projects in the works. I’m writing a short operatic piece for my friend Ariadne Greif, who’s a really amazing soprano. She’s doing this project called Dreams & Nightmares, where she’s commissioning composers to write short pieces for her to perform. So I’m currently working on a nightmare. That’s going to be in May. Then I have a few other pieces in the works, but they’re not going to be performed until next year. I’m writing a piece for piano, violin, clarinet, and electronics, for Sugar Vendil and the Nouveau Classical Project, which I’m really excited about. It’s in the early stages, and that’ll be next year. And I’m writing a solo violin piece for a close friend of mine, Emily Smith, for her debut album. She’s really incredible. So I have some things to work on in the next couple of months.

Since the songs that are on this album, have you been writing any more for GABI?

I write little tidbits of songs all the time, so I have lots of ideas. I’m already thinking a lot about my next album. I’m really excited about it. I’m thinking about how I want to further develop the project, and where I want to take it. I’m definitely starting to write more songs, and I’m interested in trying them out in live shows with the other songs on the record.


GABI will be playing a number of dates at SXSW, along with a show at Rough Trade on April 6, and Le Poisson Rouge on April 22nd. All tour dates can be found here.

Photo: Tim Saccenti

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