“A Haunting Flow”: An Interview with Mark Trecka from Pillars and Tongues
(photo by Faustine Seilman)
Pillars and Tongues - "The Center of" (from Lay of Pilgrim Park)
The first time I heard the aching strings and seemingly unhinged percussion of Pillars and Tongues, something felt "uncannily familiar"—a term I'm stealing (or appropriating) from singer/composer/ poet/percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Mark Trecka. On first listen I made the impulsive mistake of drawing upon comfortable comparisons (an error I repeat in the interview below), and some of those touchstones retain some superficial value: there are affinities with Dirty Three, late Scott Walker, The Boxhead Ensemble, Town and Country, and others... But Pillars and Tongues stand and speak a new language—one with traceable roots, but one that sprouts and reaches toward new territories. The depth of Trecka's baritone mirrors the depth of the soundscapes and narratives unraveling from the interplay of the instruments and the "dream-pearls" (another phrase I'm borrowing from him) of memory and emotion. The vocal interplay between the trio (Trecka plus Elizabeth Remis on violin and Evan Hydzik on bass)—something like a cross between Tuvan throat singing and Dirty Projectors-esque harmonizing—mirrors the dialectics of improvisation, modality, and counterpoint.
Pillars and Tongues' latest collection of songs, The Lay of Pilgrim Park (out now from the fine folks at Empty Cellar), is bristling with depth and drama. The songs strike me at times as a sandy, stormy (and secular) companion to Ayler's "spiritual unity," with moments of mantra-like minimalism and repetition erupting into intense and teetering dynamics that pull you in before you ever drift away. At other moments, the trio comes off as a new generation's Bad Seeds.
I had the pleasure of talking to Trecka about a range of topics and the conversation brought a whole new depth to the music for me. It's sort of rare that I become a bigger fan of a band after hearing what they have to say about their work, but, as I think you'll see, Pillars and Tongues are up to something all their own, like shaping memory into new musical forms.
Yer Sweet Chimneys: First off, I'm generally averse to over-analyzing influences and shallow touch-points, but with your band I feel like it has to be one of the starting points. I mean, there are moments scattered on the album that recall Tuvan throat singing, elements of drone modulation that seem to touch on minimalism, mantra-like spiritual stuff... the list goes on. I guess my first question is whether you even find any value in discussing these threads and influences. And secondly, how conscious are you of incorporating these influences into your own compositions and sound?
Mark Trecka: I think I would answer that question differently, depending on what day you asked me, and I think we all would. Today I am inclined to say that I understand the desire to ask the question, and I see the perceived necessity for the question as indicative of our doing something unique. But I can't really offer a very direct answer beyond that. When we played with Chirgilchin a year-and-a-half ago, we were humbled to share a stage with them and were blown away by their performance; we were aware of who they were before we ended up on a bill with them; but I don't think any of us really listen to a lot of Tuvan music, nor do we really think of Tuvan throat-singing even when we are throat-singing. Influences are an abstract sort of thing for me, at least, most of the time. I think the majority of what influences me ends up amalgamated by the processes of living and thinking and dreaming. Most of the threads that seem "traceable" throughout our music will lead to something arbitrary, if traced.
YSC: Yeah, I like the idea that these influences aren't direct appropriations but rather abstract "amalgamations," because that seems like a very personal thing. I think part of what I was touching on in my question was the consciousness of influence/appropriation/inspiration, the level of motive in artistic choices, etc. I don't know why, but I'm somehow happier that it's more of an organic, natural thing for you guys—you've absorbed these various influences and developed your own methods, and all of that feeds this artistic vocabulary from which you pull. I think it's become a pet peeve of mine when artists just cherry pick from other genres and cultures. And yet, isn't that what our current globalized culture is all about: borrowing and sharing and sampling and remixing? I don't think I have a solid theory for why this sort of thing rubs me the wrong way when, say, some preppy indie band takes riffs straight from Malian or Soweto guitar music, and yet I appreciate it in hip-hop or when jazz players quote standards. But I think it has something to do with what you're describing—there is a pretty significant difference, I think, between absorption and appropriation. I like that your music triggers various connections, but there aren't these clean traces back to single sources. Do you feel like you've arrived at your own personal voice or sound or aesthetic as a writer and as a band?
MT: Well, I should be careful here and say that I'm not necessarily saying that the way we have done things is the superior way, even if that is what you are saying. I mean, I definitely understand what you mean about finding it hard to swallow when people lift riffs from the Touareg jams and the Highlife jams and all of that. But at the same time, I am a fan. If Pillars and Tongues had guitars . . . they would probably sound something like the guitars you're talking about. Anyway, I actually think that there is something pretty sincere and earnest in that style of appropriating influences. The annoying thing about "world music" is this sort of vibe of authority or ownership or, what's maybe worse, expertise, about certain cultures via musical styles. At least with that "preppy indie band" somebody just thought some jam was hot and thought, "I want to play guitar like that in my songs." I mean, we are so deep into cross-cultural appropriation that it's hard to even talk about it. Anyway, with all of that said, yes, I do feel like we have arrived or continue to arrive at a pretty unique sound . . . I like to think of it as a material, like a type of clay. It has attributes, a particular color and density, but is malleable, can take on different forms, can be shaped into figures of different styles, but still be recognizable and distinctly made of that material.
YSC: What's the history of the band? Where did the three of you meet?
MT: We have known each other for years, have been friends for over ten years and making music together in different forms for almost as long. Pillars and Tongues formed out of a need for consistency that arose from those different forms.
Pillars and Tongues - "Made Sheen" (from Lay of Pilgrim Park)
YSC: Chicago has such a rich and varied musical heritage, with so many tendrils (jazz, post-rock, experimental, shoe-gaze, etc.). Do you feel that your music has any ties to geography? Do you consider yourselves part of a scene?
MT: This is an interesting question, I think, because two years ago, I would have answered, "No" and "No" and today I answer "Kind of" and "Probably not" or something like that. “I think the majority of what influences me ends up amalgamated by the processes of living and thinking and dreaming.”The fact that those answer came to be so late in the game sort of negates any value in the shift at all, though. It's tricky. I never really listened to any of that Chicago stuff that I think you're referring to until quite a while after we became active in Chicago and began to become friends with some of those people, and some of those people began to tell us that they assumed we listened to things that we didn't listen to and so on. I guess that statement seems to want to answer the second question because that sounds like becoming part of a scene. But I really don't think we feel like we are part of a scene. I think that, maybe, we float between scenes. And I think that everybody feels that they float between scenes. And so there are no scenes, just people playing music. We are in and out of Chicago a lot these days, anyway.
YSC: I think I get what you're saying, and have had similar experiences with amorphous "non-scenes" here in New York, but there's something else I'm interested in here and it's underneath your "Kind Of"... It goes back to that absorption, however abstract and indirect it may be. Do you think there is anything "Midwestern" about your music? Do you think you'd sound different if you moved to California or to the east coast?
MT: It is pretty difficult for me to answer questions like this. I mean, of course the music we make would sound different if we moved to California, but that doesn't mean it would be more "California"—it's just that the particular and impossibly complex latticework of personal experience would be different. As for geography and music, I believe they have a very direct relationship, but not in such an incidental way as you might be implying. For example, I think that the desert landscapes of the American Southwest have been pretty influential for Pillars and Tongues, but we weren't all raised there, don't have residences there.
YSC: Two of the bands with whom you seem to share a serious affinity both also have roots in Chicago: The Boxhead Ensemble and Pinetop Seven, both of which also did cinematic work. Have you even done—or considered doing—any film scores?
MT: I'm not familiar with Pinetop Seven but we have a bunch of friends who played in Boxhead Ensemble at different times and I've heard a little bit of those recordings because a French friend of ours has played them for us. Do we sound like those bands? See, it continues to happen. I don't know, yeah, I think we would be interested in scoring films if anyone proposed anything to us, but we are not necessarily seeking it out. We scored a section of a film for a little festival last year. I think we would definitely be interested in doing more and in doing more collaborative work in that discipline, actually working with a filmmaker.
YSC: I think what you share with both the bands I mentioned is a sense of drama that lends itself well to cinema. Nick Cave springs to mind as well. I also noticed that you cite W.G. Sebald as an influence... He was so engaged with history and documentation, and used such stunning narrative and visual juxtapositions (like music and film?) to dig into and unravel the past. I'm interested in how you might elaborate on his influence.
MT: That one, I should clarify, is an entirely personal influence—I mean to say, I name Sebald as an influence on what I bring to the band, and on everything I create in my life. The way that he deals with history and documentation, sure, are fascinating to me, but entirely because, as I see it, he approaches these things as they come to be through memory. Memory is subjective and in a state of decay, like anything that we construct and protect. He strung thoughts together like dream-pearls; his writing exposed me to a haunting flow that I recognized as somehow uncannily familiar, from the first time I read him.
Pillars and Tongues - "Hall of Bliss" (from Protection)
YSC: Returning to those spiritual elements that I mentioned earlier... I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about those functions of music—the historical context of music as serving liturgical or trance-inducing purposes or as meditative catalyst. Where does your music fit into that lineage, if at all? Not to get too personal, but this has actually been one of the things I've been contemplating with your music. This is a lofty comparison (so don't blush) but there are moments that strike a similar chord as Arvo Pärt's music, which has this profound weight that seems at once intimately personal and somehow otherworldly. In his case, the music is consciously worshipful, and owes itself to faith of some kind. One of the things I'm especially interested in here is whether music like this—which sounds so intensely "spiritual" (for lack of a better word)—could be made by non-religious folks. This is one hell of a leading question, so please take it where you choose...
MT: I don't think it's a leading question . . . loaded, maybe. But well, before I answer any of the specific questions within the question, I want to respond to the sort of subtextual question here -- something that we touched on with the influences question: nothing that Pillars and Tongues does is fundamentally representative. For example, if I use a Tibetan singing bowl, it's not our intention to "carry you off to the Orient" or something ridiculous like that; the Indian shepherd bells I have are not supposed to be representative of Indian shepherds, and I'm not using them like an Indian shepherd would, I don't think. These are instruments and they create sounds and textures that we are interested in. “[I]f I use a Tibetan singing bowl, it's not our intention to ‘carry you off to the Orient’ or something ridiculous like that...”Some of those sounds and textures, in our hands, might move toward or away from something that finds affinity with other, traditional uses of those sounds and textures, but our work is primarily personal and we create secular music. Now of course I would never pretend like I don't understand why people raise this question—I mean, beyond even the style, a lot of the imagery comes from things that are definitely not secular. But it's not worship music. It is not meditation music. To be completely honest with you, I sort of hate it when people tell us, especially after performances, that our music "carried them away to another place" or that they "fell into deep meditation" or something. We're up there giving it our best shot, don't drift away. I mean, I'm not about to tell anyone how to enjoy the music, I don't care; but I do feel that way. And I just can't answer the question of whether or not it's "consciously worshipful" or owing to "faith of some kind". That points to a lot of other questions about what is worship, etc., etc. And yet another problem with discussing this is that I think about all kinds of things and Beth thinks about all kinds of things and Evan thinks about all kinds of things and then the things that we talk about together, they aren't these kinds of things—I mean, at least not in terms of the music. Ultimately, it would be best for me to answer this question with a big shrug—not because I feel flippant about it or because I don't think you were justified in asking it, but because it's sort of impossible to figure out what answer best serves the music, and what's more, what best serves the very powerful mythologies that are being flirted with by even engaging in the dialogue in the first place.
YSC: That's a great response to what definitely was a loaded question. What I find most interesting is the idea of non-representation or abstraction as applied to the secular use of religious tools and approaches. You also cite the phenomenal Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou as an influence, and although she devoted her life and music to worship, I can still listen to her work and appreciate it entirely on secular and humanistic terms. I can enjoy sacred harp or gospel music without subscribing to the original religious meanings and connotations. What I'm hearing from you, maybe, is that you aren't particularly concerned with traditions and how you fit into or reference them. I'm realizing that a lot of my questions have been about context, and that maybe I'm missing the point... And this is maybe veering toward a even bigger question: if the music isn't serving some ceremonial or meditative "purpose," how would you describe your impulse to make and share music, and what role would you ideally hope it serves? When you perform, are you primarily storytellers (Sebald) or conduits (Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou) to some secular consciousness-lifting? Or something else entirely?
MT: Again, I have to lean on the collective nature of our band to answer this question. I am sure that we each have personal ideas about what we are doing, why we are doing it, what role we hope our music serves. But collectively, at least we are trying to create something beautiful, but also something that accesses what is beyond "good"—maybe it has something to do with what some people have called "the sublime"—and yet, we are mostly just doing what we do, without thinking about it at all in terms like this, and working as hard as we can.
YSC: I'm also detecting approaches in your music that seem to straddle the line between what I'll oversimplify as spontaneous/visceral and composed/academic. Is this a dichotomy you are conscious of when composing and performing? What's the ratio of composition to improvisation in your music?
MT: The ratio shifts and I've also lost perspective on what the difference is. We definitely do not create "improvised music", categorically. “I think there is a lot more improvisation and spontaneity in music in general than is given due recognition.”We used to talk about "spontaneous composition" a lot because we felt like that was a lot more representative of what why were doing. I felt like that term needed to be used out of respect for a lot of our friends that make music that is categorized as "free improvisation" or "improvised music" or "creative improvisation", our approach being totally different, not rooted in jazz and so on. But at this point, I'm not so sure that spontaneous composition says a lot about what we do anymore. There is definitely improvisation and spontaneity in our music that is obviously not present in a lot of music, but I also think there is a lot more improvisation and spontaneity in music in general than is given due recognition.
YSC: What is the story behind the name?
MT: It's from a lyric that I wrote years ago; it preceded and prophesied the formation of the band.
YSC: What are some things you've been listening to/reading/watching lately?
MT: We have a lot of friends creating truly amazing music: the Cairo Gang, Elephant Micah, and Angel Olsen are all doing really incredible work right now, as are our French friends, My Name is Nobody. “Memory is subjective and in a state of decay, like anything that we construct and protect.”I'm excited to see what the Dirty Projectors do next. Outside of that, wide varieties of things: I've been listening to a lot of dub and Iraqi dance-pop and reggaeton. I'm back in Chicago for the month and the neighborhood where I stay is full of reggaeton blasting out of cars this time of year. Maybe you were more right on than I gave you credit for with your early question about Chicago having an influence on our music.
YSC: What are you working on now?
MT: We are in the studio basically full-time this month working on a new record. Otherwise, we are always touring, just back from tour, or preparing for tour, converging somewhere strange and beautiful or diverging in similar climes.