5 Questions to Wendy Eisenberg (improviser, composer, songwriter)

Wendy Eisenberg is a composer, performer, and guitarist whose music lives in the gray area between free jazz, contemporary classical, and punk music. Since finishing a Master’s degree at New England Conservatory, Wendy has developed a working relationship with John Zorn, releasing music on his Tzadik label, performing in his ensemble, and writing for his Arcana book series. Their most recent solo album, Auto, has been lauded in Pitchfork and The Washington Post. Wendy also performs with the rhythmically complex punk band Editrix, whose newest collection of recordings, Tell Me I’m Bad, will be released on Exploding In Sound on February 5, 2021.

You’ve been able to create a cohesive collection of work, and the unifying thread seems to be a particularly jagged and off kilter rhythmic sensibility. How is your approach to rhythm unified across genres?

Thank you! I wish I could say that I had in some way determined a particular rhythmic aesthetic or ethic prior to any of my compositions, but my general rule in all things has been to play whatever rhythm feels the best to me and then push it one step towards what feels unknown, or unexpected. This does not mean that I consider myself some great rhythmic innovator, but that I’m using the distance between what I know and how I want to feel when I hear something to determine my musical choices.

In my songs that I write by myself, I am more concerned with scansion and being conversational or intimate (not just in lyric, but in tone) than employing any rhythmic device or other self-conscious technique. Whatever rhythmic complexities or idiosyncrasies emerge are entirely a result of the strange differences between the kind of guitar or banjo playing I read as personal and the subtler, natural intimacies of spoken or sung English.

When I write with Editrix, I want to feel the grain and fissures between my rhythmic tendencies and the particular quirks I hear Steve Cameron (bass) or Josh Daniel (drums) playing, letting things rub uncomfortably against each other, but without overdetermining that discomfort. I like to use the writing we do together to explore some overlooked possibilities of the kind of “folk” counterpoint I hear in rock music, but mostly I just want it to rock.

Your music walks a fine line between new music, free jazz, and punk rock. Across your various projects, how much deference do you pay to stylistic conventions?

The way I write for or contribute to each of the projects I work with has more to do with the moment of composition than any explicit desire or avoidance of stylistic/genre concerns. I mean that when I write a solo song, I am a particular flavor of alone that lends itself well to verbal and formal reflection. I can cosplay Hugo Wolf and Joao Gilberto, but ultimately what comes out is a direct reflection of the raw feeling my guitar/banjo and I happen to feel like that day. When I write in Editrix, it is communal and requires instantaneous (though editable) decision-making–often times rock forms present themselves to us, but we tend to make fun of them or ignore them in favor of what other possibilities most delight us. When I write a text-score, I am a very different flavor of alone that yields a very different point of view, slightly more self-important, but still that same emphasis on the everyday and personal as my song music, if with a different countenance.

Finally, when I perform somebody else’s music or write a guitar part in somebody else’s band, I am relying on my perception of both their aesthetic and why they might have chosen me (of all people!) to play with them. These different compositional circumstances have everything to do with whether I recapitulate or mark something that already exists (someone else’s work, or a familiar genre) or when I feel like I can try my hand at innovation, or at least honest expression.

Wendy Eisenberg--Photo by Earnest Berenger

Wendy Eisenberg–Photo by Earnest Berenger

When you start a new composition, at what point does it become a piece for you to play as a solo artist versus something for Editrix or something else entirely?

I rarely write pieces for Editrix ahead of our rehearsals. I have a small store of riffs I like that I’ve discovered and might someday want to share with them, but I really find it difficult to write for a band without actually hanging with my bandmates and seeing what comes out of that. I recognize that this is a little hypocritical, because many times what we write comes from some amazing riff Steve brings in, and that Josh and I try very hard to ruin. However, even though those riffs might be written in advance, a riff alone is very rarely a song (though, of course and paradoxically, a song can be comprised of a single riff). I think of songs more holistically, as a more communal form.

That communal thing contains in it the same impulse I feel when I am alone and writing solo music. I basically never write a whole song away from the instrument, though I might have a fragment of melody come to me as I walk or drive, because my songs are collaboratively written between me and the instrument I am writing on. That might sound a little mystical, but it has proven true since I was 12 or so and wrote my first song. I do believe in the powers of objects to communicate. It is so important to consider what things (and people) we consider to be or treat as objects, and to hear what they are saying to you.

Once I realized that what a composer does with an instrument is tell them to speak in their language, for an audience that materially resembles them, that play between subject and objecthood became a compositional focus for me as much as the site of critical thinking about ownership and coercion. (What would a guitar play for an audience of other fretted string instruments?) So far, the only way I have come up with to transcend that “domination” theory of musical performance is to situate my writing and composition in the present, not just to improvise and make “real-time composition”–which too has complicated implications about just what time we consider to be “real”–but to write for each project alongside real people, real objects/conduits/divining rods, and let the collaboration unfold in that strange, hesitant, unbelievable and only moment.

Wendy Eisenberg--Photo by Russell Fine

Wendy Eisenberg–Photo by Russell Fine

Tell Me I’m Bad is your third album in about a year. How are you focusing on making music during a pandemic, and is quarantining accelerating your productivity?

I have released more music during this pandemic than in any year of my career thus far. This speaks to the luck I made for myself by consistently touring from around 2015 forward, but also to the government’s grievous mishandling of this crisis that allowed the pandemic to last this long. Tell Me I’m Bad was recorded in July 2019, so the songs have existed since before COVID-19 was even a glint in the public eye. Similarly, Auto was a set of songs I had written between 2017-2019, and production on that ended in early 2020. The only thing I released during the pandemic that had songs written during the pandemic on it was Dehiscence (2020), and that is mostly because I was writing those songs to save my life and rebuild my heart after a tough breakup, and I wanted the future me who heard these songs to know that my healing from that particular breakup was not just a result of time passing but the weird, jobless, introspective stasis of my life in the early days of the virus. (The record was never intended for long-term public release, and I am still baffled/humbled that so many people have taken to it.)

As for making music during this pandemic, I have been lucky to be a part of a new pod-band with some friends in New York that practices a few times a week, jazz/noise adjacent sounds. Editrix wrote and recorded a second LP that I am immensely proud of. I have a whole bunch of instrumental solo releases and a banjo songs record coming out this year, so I’ve been working on finalizing/recording/occasionally writing more for those. The guitar songs I have been writing have, curiously, been all about my relationships with other people, my (mis)perceptions of them and memories of them. This has been unique to pandemic writing, as far as I can tell–I am so far away from most other people and their particular neuroses and narratives that I have more time to reflect on certain interpersonal, non-romantic communication breakdowns from my past and why I feel they still matter. Oddly, the guitar music underlying this music about the failures of platonic communication is, harmonically, very Romantic.

I am not sure whether quarantining is accelerating my productivity so much as causing me to think differently about how I communicate with and remember the people in my life. Usually, if I am touring a lot and working a lot, I meet an incredible amount of people, maybe too many. All of them affect me, but I rarely have the time I do now to process how they change me. When I let the memory of that lifestyle inspire me, I am more “productive,” which I guess means I write through my recollections in a musical form, though I like to think more that I am being creative than generating musical “product.”

Are there any other upcoming projects that you’d like to plug?

I kind of feel like I did that in the last question! The mostly official list, though, is:

  • Editrix – Tell Me I’m Bad (Feb 5), Exploding in Sound
  • Wendy Eisenberg – Cellini’s Halo (March 19) Garden Portal
  • Wendy Eisenberg – Bloodletting (Text Scores for Guitar and Banjo), sometime in May, Out of Your Head
  • Wendy Eisenberg – Without Guitar* (October 1) (not the final title!)


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