While known by a larger audience as “Antony And The Johnsons‘s cellist”, from over a decade Julia Kent keeps experimenting around the expressive potentialities of her instrument. In five solo records and many collaborations, she reached a challenging self-sufficiency made of loops and iterations of notes, often associated with images and dance performances.
What’s been your musical education? When have you got your first approach with cello?
I started playing cello when I was around six years old, and had a very conventional classical education. I am so grateful to have had that background. I feel as though it’s important to have that perspective on making music–but it took me a long time to find my own path out of the classical world.
Is there any artist you consider important in your musical formation or at least someone you feel close to your way of making music?
Arthur Russell is always a touchstone for me in terms of someone who created their own intimate and idiosyncratic sound world with the cello. He is so inspiring in the way he made music that seems like an effortless expression of a personal emotional universe, one that was inflected both by the avant-garde and pop worlds. He was utterly fearless in the way he expressed himself. I saw him play a concert in an amazing space under the Brooklyn Bridge many years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. He’s really an icon for me. Also Charlotte Moorman–such a fierce and fascinating artist–and Tom Cora, who also took the cello in such interesting and expressive directions. Of course there are so many incredible artists who inspire! Not even necessarily in the world of music.
Which is your ideal condition for creating music? Where does your inspiration usually came from (both technically and emotionally)?
I really love creating music in the intimate environment of my own studio. I like having that freedom and that autonomy. I think it’s the best way I can feel free to experiment and take chances and create something true. Often I’m inspired just by the process. And I feel as though it’s constant learning: whether about technology or technique or expression.
How would you describe the meaning and the goal – both personal and artistic – of your music? Is there any kind of message you mean to share with your wordless music?
I feel as though making music is really about trying to communicate emotion. Making music without words takes a lot of trust in the listener, I think. Words can mediate; they provide a scaffolding and also an armor, because they need to be analyzed and interpreted. For me, making music without words is a very direct interaction. I always just am trying to reach people, without words, without explanation, without mediation. And when things connect, it’s so beautiful. It’s such a cliché that music is a universal language, but it’s really true. It’s something we all share. I love the fact that I can travel anywhere and be able to communicate without language. Especially now, when there seem to be so many barriers to finding our commonality as humans who are all living on the same earth.
Do you think there can be any difference, for artist that make experimental music using somehow “classical” instruments, having an “academic” background or focusing only on an instinctive approach?
I think definitely using a classical instrument creates an expectation. Coming from the classical world, at least as a student, it took me a very long time to feel secure enough to create my own music. I just never thought that it was worthy. And I still don’t, I suppose! But it’s the way I express myself and I hope that it somehow can resonate with the people who choose to listen to it. I’m grateful to have that opportunity.
For what definitions may mean… do you think that the one of “modern classical” could be appropriate for nowadays minimal approach to piano mixed with electronic music?
I am a little confused at this point by what “modern classical” means. It’s become a fairly all-encompassing genre. I guess inclusivity is good? When a genre gets that big it sort of dissolves the idea of genre, which seems, ultimately, like a good thing. There are all these microgenres that pop up, probably more for marketing than anything else. If you look at the history of classical music, up to a point, styles were only defined after there was a certain historical perspective. But now it’s impossible for music to exist without being pinned down immediately.
As a non-musician, I figure cello a quite challenging instrument to go “solo”: how did you find in it a balance between minimalism and the variety of sounds you get from it through effects and pedals?
The cello is such a great instrument to play, because people relate to it in a really beautiful and immediate way. It has the range of a human voice and for me, it is my voice. And it fits into so many musical contexts. In my music, I can start with cello and add layers of electronic sound, or vice versa. The interesting thing for me is always to blur the boundaries between organic and electronic.
Do you feel any relation between your music and places or images? Ever fancy writing a soundtrack?
I have done a few soundtracks and I really love doing them. It’s such a different process to make music that’s inspired by images and by the emotional world of a film. The music really needs to exist in a completely different way.
You’ve been involved in many different collaborations over the years: is there any difference in working on your own and with other artists? Do you feel that these collaborations have made your way of making music somehow more complete?
I absolutely have learned so much from working with the amazing artists I’ve been lucky enough to work with: it’s been an incredible education, and definitely has influenced the way I make music. To enter someone’s musical world is always a privilege.
Apart those you’ve already worked with, is there any other artist you’d fancy playing or creating something not only music related?
Oh, I have a huge wish-list of artists that I’d be thrilled to collaborate with! I’m sending out clairvoyant signals to them all right now!
Looping and repetitions of notes are somehow related to the concept of ”hauntology”. Is this something you feel close to your idea of music? Generally speaking, how much important is conceptualism in music, and especially in experimental music?
This is so interesting! I never thought about that, but of course it does seem related, especially insofar as, with looping, there’s always the possibility of a phantom being created by the repetition: an artefact that “haunts” and then becomes a new entity. So the past enters the present. And, of course, looping compresses time by superimposing layers. With this new record I was thinking a lot about time, but in a more circumscribed way: about the ephemerality of time-based art forms. At least for me, conceptualism is so important, not necessarily for making music, but certainly for assembling an album.
You recently came back with a solo album, “Temporal”, four years after “Asperities”. While the previous one was more focused on dissonance, “Temporal” sounds more organic and melodic. What has changed in your creative focus between the two albums?
“Temporal” was created from music made for dance and for theatre. I think it might sound more organic and melodic because it was created in reaction to the desperate fragility of bodies moving in space, rather than the idea of conflict, tectonic and personal, that influenced Asperities. In the course of making the album it became a meditation on time, which seems like a concept allied to harmony, as they are both. in a way, an attempt by human beings to impose order on the natural world.
I saw you play live solo in Rome, about ten years ago, and I still remember it was a quite entrancing experience, with you filling the space and the stage alone with cello and effects. Generally speaking, how do you feel playing your own music live on stage? And how important are for you the places where you can play live?
Oh, had no idea you saw me in Rome! It’s so amazing to play there, always. The environment where I play is so important to me, and I feel lucky that in Italy I have had the chance to play in so many beautiful places. There is something about interacting with a place that imposes its own atmosphere and history that can be really inspiring.
What else can we expect from you in the near future, and what do you expect from music?
I am doing some shows to support this new record and have a few film and dance projects going on. I am so grateful to have the chance to make music and, I hope, connect with people.
(full English version of the interview published on Rockerilla magazine Issue no. 463, March 2019)