Photo by Peter Baker

Keeping Time with ‘Solidarity in Sound’

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Musician Emily Lacy embarked on a 90-day odyssey to hold meditative, improvisational space during uncertain and tumultuous times.

When stay-at-home orders were put in place back in March, a lot of things — flour, toilet paper and, um, jobs — were suddenly in short supply. But one resource became overly abundant: time. Angelenos were faced with an inexhaustible amount of time. No work, no play, no friends. Nothing but time, at home, alone. Time warped, got heavy, weird, uncomfortable and even confusing, with days smearing together like sauces on a plate into a sloppy mess.

“I needed a clock,” says musician and sound artist Emily Lacy. She doesn’t mean a new watch or a big ticking mechanism hung on the wall but rather an activity that could serve as an existential/spiritual timekeeper. Starting on March 18, she went on Instagram Live from 5-6 p.m. every day for a relaxed open rehearsal she dubbed “Solidarity in Sound.” Every single day for the last 90 days.

“Our whole way of life halted very rapidly and all the days began to blend together,” Lacy says. “For me, this ritual of playing every day at the same time and opening up space for people to join became a kind of meditation clock where if everything else was unknown at least that was a known.”

On a personal level, the project helped her cope with the intensity of isolation. “It was kind of a survival mechanism to get through this new world that we are now existing in,” Lacy says. “I’m at my best emotionally and physically when I am playing music for at least one hour a day.”

On an intellectual level, she engaged in a sort of investigation. “How can we hold space and acknowledge the challenge of the moment together?” she says. “How can music and singing release tension and energy in a way that is helpful for myself and for others? That’s really where it started.”

At first, she would rehearse and prepare songs to play during the session, but as days and weeks went on, the performative aspect became less crucial, and she would often fill the hour with wordless vocalization while improvising on different instruments. “I got more into the pure sound of stretching the voice,” she says.

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8 foot organ

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Realizing she was in it for the long haul, she began to explore time and performance as casual meditations. She could do a meandering 30-minute vocal warm-up or calmly flip through pages of a book looking for a tune while live, and she could be goofy about it. “Playing the piano with my knuckles or my breast or my elbows to reinterpret how we can view performance or the creation of a sound and turn it on its head a little bit,” she says. “That was pretty liberating to embrace the aesthetic of an artistic process.”

Artist Niki Ford tuned in to listen to Emily Lacy every day and would create artwork while listening along. Image courtesy of Niki Ford.

While the number of people who tuned in varied from day to day, there were a few constants. Her upstairs neighbor, Dominic Ciccodicola, popped over in person almost daily throughout the first month to sing along. Lacy occasionally invited different female musicians, such as Maya Bon, Dominique Matelson and Pehrspace’s Pauline Lay, to join in for a chat about their sound practices. Then there was Niki Ford, an artist she met at a residency last year, who attended every day online and created artwork while listening along. Ford’s presence gave her a feeling of being in it together. “It’s been so grounding and comforting and wonderful,” Lacy says. “I’m super grateful that Niki showed up.”

While she didn’t initiate the project with a particular timeline in mind, Lacy is no stranger to long-form performance art. She has engaged in a multitude of durational performances over the last decade — that is, a performance that occurs over many days and hours and cumulatively can be considered a single performance. The CalArts grad has performed at galleries and museums across the country — including the Hammer Museum, MoMA PS1, the Whitney Museum and the Walker Art Center, to name a few — where she essentially made (beautiful) noise for extended periods of time.

Starting in 2008, she held a three-week residency at the Echo Park gallery Machine Project, where she performed daily at the storefront window, improvising with delay and loop pedals to create her own little swirling ocean of chanted sounds. Ultimately, she distilled 45 hours of music into an album. She then held a similar residency at LACMA, performing four hours a day, Thursday to Sunday, in the Japanese Pavilion for two months, stacking up 128 hours of improvised music.

Beyond her interest in creating sound for sound’s sake, her dedication to loosey-goosey structure that isn’t slick, sexy or even a finished product has a deeper resonance and, in fact, may have a bit to do with dismantling the patriarchy.

“If you look at the history of music, and most fields of knowledge for that matter, involving technology or instruments, women were traditionally kept from developing skills in these areas, because these fields were considered privileged areas for men to explore and dominate,” Lacy says. “With music, when women were eventually ‘allowed’ to make more of it in formal settings, the female playing of music itself was hyper-sexualized and aestheticized for male pleasure.”

“So when I utilize the space of ‘performance’ and disrupt that expectation by allowing ‘practice’ to occur inside the frame, with flaws and imperfection, and embrace the aesthetic of a practice, and a woman practicing, I try to make a small comment on the history of women in music, and that we haven’t always had the space to develop, to make a sound, to be heard.”

Now she’s hit the 90-day mark and decided the project reached a natural conclusion. The pandemic lockdown is lifting and, more than that, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests over the last few weeks, the world has collectively joined in making a daily sound for justice, in effect answering the question she posed at the beginning: “How can we hold space and acknowledge the challenge of the moment together?”

“I can’t underscore enough how the culture in this country and around the world, moving to a daily practice of protesting, making sound and raising up our voices for justice, is phenomenal,” she says. “I’m very moved by its potential.”

For her final performance, Lacy donned a fancy dress and sang some of her favorite folk songs with her warm caroling voice. As a final gesture, she played the piano with her butt.

Los Angeleno