The music of Valerie Kuenhe, with her band Dream Zoo, struck me as something pretty radical – music you wouldn’t throw on before a party or a football game. It is music that’s seemingly sporadic and wild and comical, walking a strange line of free jazz and classical. Dream Zoo is not your typical punk rock, Brooklyn four piece. So I decided to meet up with her, naturally, to test the waters; to find the wheres and whys and whats of her music. With callous fingers and a spunky character, Kuenhe described her rich passion for her music to the Knocks squad over coffee.
Knocks: Tell me about your operation here at Café Orwell.
Valerie Kuehne: Let me preface this by talking about how the operation started and has grown in the past year and a half. I was working behind the counter, brewing coffee, and asked the owner about hosting a weekly music series. For the first year, I was only doing shows on Friday night. I called it the Friday Night Super Coda. It was an experiment: an expression of my attraction to music that is not genre-affiliated whatsoever. I'm interested in the ways people present themselves as performers and the communication that transpires between musicians on stage. To me, neither performance nor musicianship can really be attributed to any genre. So I would bring these acts together on a given Friday night and I'd examine how far I could push the audience's attention span by presenting radically different breeds of music. I'd bill a free jazz ensemble with a singer-songwriter; I would have a surf rock band and a sound sculptor. The idea was to bring them all together and surprise people into realizing: "Wow, I would never go out to hear this type of music, but this is a good performance."
So I did this for about a year and it was generally successful. I mean there were a few nights which were not, but this happens when you experiment. Then in January, the Cafe got their liquor license, so I started curating events more frequently. At this point, the original experiment has evolved. I'm no longer seeking a 'welcome chaos' so much as I am an environment that reacts against the all-powerful NYC 'scene.' It's amazing how intimately connected so much of the music to come out of this city is. Yet musicians never hear each other due to strange circumstances and insular social circles. I’m trying to bring people together that aren’t necessarily in the same scene but whose music I think is really intimately connected. The shows are connected on less abstract levels than my first experimental operation.
K: Are the bands mostly like your band, Dream Zoo? I would call it Free Jazz but I’m not very educated...
VK: I book free jazz occasionally, but I'm more interested in improvisation. You might say that most modern improvised music extends back to jazz idioms or even free jazz idioms. But at this point a lot of improvisation isn’t jazz at all. Dream Zoo, for example, is more closely affiliated with classical music. But I suppose eventually it's just chords or lack thereof and response or lack thereof....
K: That’s a good segue into your music. I’m more of a punk rock kind of guy. Your music is very… experimental, very sporadic, maybe even with some humor in there. But you say you’re classically trained. I’m interested because I have no experience in this, but your four piece band, Dream Zoo, do you guys get together and just kind of jam or is there a pre-written thing you follow?
VK: With this particular project [Dream Zoo] it’s a spoof on classical lieder from the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s a dream narrative. Literally, I had a dream and woke up the next morning and wrote it out. From there, I broke it down to specific songs and changed around a few elements in silly ways. So, yes, I actually write songs. I would say I have skeletons of songs. I would have chords written for the cello, and then lyrics and a melody to go along with it.
I had the song cycle pulled together a bit over a year ago. Since then, I’ve gone through a lot of different incarnations of players. I worked with a violinist, Storm Garner. For a spell it was just her and I. Then I decided I wanted the music to be more fully orchestrated. I started bringing in more musicians. Currently, Dream Zoo is myself on cello and vocals, Lucio Menegon on guitar, Jeff Young on violin, and Sean Ali on bass.
I don’t notate anything, but if I want a line to be specific for another musician, I’ll play them out on my cello or sing them. Sometimes the musicians will work out the parts themselves. But a big part of the project are these gaping sections of conceptualized improvisation. For example, there's a point at which the violin is screeching away as a result of me telling Jeff to act like a chicken. There are several passages like this, I'll say, "In this section you are on a plane and it is crashing." The overarching spirit of the project is quite thematic.
K: So when you play that live, what do you tell the audience, or do you just go right into it?
VK: I’m very silent in this project. I want it to be this incongruous thing that’s simply there. That, and I’m terrible with banter. So when I first started presenting it, I would try and talk but it just wasn’t… I feel like it works better if I just kind of get up on stage and we have this procession that we do- the music starts, it ends, and I stay silent the whole time… unless I’m actually singing. The songs can't handle interjection from some remote creator. They stand alone and should be experienced in a very personal way. If someone wants an explanation they can approach me after hearing the Zoo start to finish.
K: When I first heard your music, I found it, not necessarily shocking, but interesting. It’s not something I listen to everyday. Go into this whole personifying/chicken acting/thematic thing a little bit more.
VK: It's essential that these sections happen for the sake of the narrative. The conceptualized parts are also the more extended sections of improvisation. The audience gets to go for a trip. In my mind they offer the greatest beauty and comedy to be found in the song cycle, providing impetus for the rest of the narrative to unfold. I directed the band to improvise off of these dream sequences emotionally, but also quite literally. The guitarist actually simulates a plane kind of landing and falling. It’s really accurate. It sounds like a plane.
K: When you guys play, are there any points where the audience might not be understanding the music?
VK: I feel like when we first started performing, there was a little bit of a gap between my intentions and what I was actually presenting. I wasn't quite aware of how theatrical the song cycle actually was. But the more I played – and especially now that I’m working with such a receptive and understanding group of musicians – I feel like the last four or five shows people have really laughed and really gotten into it. I mean this is not the kind of music you hear in a bar, but still.
K: So, what is the motivation behind your music?
VK: I’m the kind of person that’s just really engaged with process over product almost all of the time. I play music because I would go absolutely insane and probably kill myself if there wasn’t music in my life. It’s kind of a necessity for me, to continue creating and experiencing that mode of communication.
The inspiration for this project was kind of two-fold. I have all these memories of going to the Kennedy Center with my parents when I was little and being really struck with the lack of humor. The orchestra would do something really funny and I would find myself laughing out loud while everybody turns and shushes me [points a bold finger, contextualizing]. Which is really stunning and telling of the state of concert hall music in this country right now. That’s obviously NOT what the composer meant. The composer clearly meant this to be funny and have people actually respond to it.
So there was that, and also the fact that I had this dream. They always say that it’s impossible to communicate dreams and have the person you're communicating it to actually enjoy hearing about it. I’m definitely in love with my dreams. So I thought about a way to put them in a context that would interest people.
K: What are your thoughts on improvisition? You’ve mentioned it before, and I’ve spoken with a lot of other bands about this idea that sometimes you can improv too much. Sometimes you go over the edge into pleasing yourself more than the audience.
VK: It’s interesting that you mention that. One of the aspects that inspired me to kind of follow through with this project was having all these experiences improvising with different people. Listening to a lot of free improvisation and experimental music, I would have exactly that reaction where I was like – we call it masturbating over chord changes - “This is going on forever.” The improvised moment is so interesting to me. I thought, “Well, how can I take that and put it into some sort of structured context so that it actually signifies something and means something opposed to being just this long winded thing.” The improvised sections in my music are very controlled. That way it comes out as something that makes sense during this crazy moment.
K: What is the recording process like?
VK: It was all recorded live. We wouldn't be able to document it otherwise. There are too many vocal cues coupled with very specific instrumental responses. It would have been incredibly confusing to track everything separately. Also, there's such a dynamic communication between the four of us: it had to be live. And frankly, apart from some electronic music, all music should be recorded live. At least more often than not.
K: Back to what you are doing here at Cafe Orwell: do you bring in bands in that are similar to your style – the free jazz and classical types?
VK: I wouldn't say exclusively. I've had a lot of groups in here that are extremely performance based and unclassifiable in many a sense. The unclassifiable sense is more and more the ideal I seek. I want magic. I want to be flummoxed. And I want to enjoy. I believe this desire is universal. But yes, some of these musicians would also fit well into a classical context. I've had a wonderful group of new music composers and performers, The Red Light New Music Collective, on stage several times. And I curated a show for the Del Sol String Quartet, probably the most important group of chamber musicians actively performing right now. Their humanity and musical intelligence is stunning. They are from the Bay Area but everyone should check them out. And like I said, jazz has grown to include so much more than the sum of it's parts. It's outgrown itself in a marvelous way.
K: I imagine it’s mostly low-key shows?
VK: For the most part. I want to keep my events intimate and welcoming. I'll charge a cover on occasion, but I'm more interested in having people walk in off the street, stopped by a surprising series of events. We are a cafe, so I want the people working over coffee to be able to stay and not feel uninvited. I pass around a hat under the auspices of a five dollar suggested donation. Pay what it's worth to you. And it's worth it to those who come out and stay.
Café Orwell averages about four shows a week, always on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Next Wednesday is a special show with Montreal improvisor Solomiya Moroz and Dominic Lash, a British bassist. Also on the bill is Brian Questa, who does a classically rooted solo bass improvisation set, and Carlo Costa, Joachim Badenhorst, Pascal Niggenkemper, a great trio that plays some composed, some improvised music. Valerie Kuhne will be involved in the show as well.
Check out more of the music and list of shows at Cafe Orwell below:
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