Severe Harmony


We sing today our praises for the extraordinary work of Karinne Keithley Syers, an artist-philosopher in the very best of senses; one who uses all her senses.

While doing a bit of ruminative slogging through the dense sediments of the web several years ago, during a time when we thought creative brain activity on planet earth had ceased, we chanced upon Keithley Syer’s Basement Tapes of the Mole Cabal, and they cheered us up considerably and left us wanting: more.

Perhaps a wired bird reached her ear with our request, for it seems Ms. Keithley Syers has recently renewed her basement excavations, available for a very modest fee:


The announcement of a resurfacing of the Mole Cabal prompted us to ask all those questions we had wanted to ask upon first hearing the gentle excavations of this delightfully curious creature:

DP     First, can you venture a brief description of the basement tapes, in terms of the different categories of material, and the process you follow for assembling such hauntingly beautiful bits of thinking/singing/tunneling?

KKS     I think of them as ten minutes of audio floating, like being let into a walled landscape for a balloon tour. There is always a kind of ground made of a combination of sampled sound and sampled instrumentation (I play instruments but then plunder the recordings and manipulate the sound), and then some ghost voices captured from public archives. You will always move into and then pass out of the vicinity of a song. So the process begins with collecting, and then sifting and separating, and then turning that into a drone that can either be manipulated into a skeletal bass line through simple pitch shifting, or just looping, at which point I catch the nearest word or image I can find, and start improvising a song. I usually build a line, and then build its harmony, before making the next line. When the thing is around ten minutes, I end it.


I should say too that the way the sound functions as a landscape is directly in relation to my own work as a choreographer making my own sound, and as a sound designer for other choreographers. Sometimes I plunder my own dance scores and reassemble them into basement tapes, other times I plunder my basement tapes and reassemble them into dance scores. If I was to choose any model to point to, it would be Bill Holt’s Dreamies, which I stumbled across during a period of my life when I went to Other Music regularly just hoping to find some music to make dances to. The guy making work on his four track in his garage is definitely a hero of the mole cabal.

DP     So, Hamlet hears the ghost, and says. “Well said, old mole! canst work i’ the earth so fast? / A worthy pioneer!”  The basement tapes have a sense of speedy digging, yet also deep digging. Can you describe your first thoughts for the series; what led you into this particular ghosted basement?

KKS     Most of the tapes were made over the course of one or two evenings, as this week’s episode (not that they ever came out weekly, but they always had a sense of being an installment). So it’s slow because it becomes a practice; the appetites for combination evolve slowly. I think the first thing I wanted to do was just find a venue for making things that wasn’t burdened by the problems of live performance — I was going through a period of disappointment with the professional performance life and looking for ways to keep shuffling along in the space of my own home (also the materialization of the mole totem, this private shuffling and digging).

The subscriber serial (I know it’s called podcasting but… ) has a weird kind of tenderness. You make it on headphones, you imagine it being listened to on headphones; it’s very intimate. Yet at the same time it’s a message in a bottle and you can expect that message both to travel and to survive in a way that live performance can’t. Emotionally I wanted a place to keep working, and at that time it had to be underground. My first episode was called “Music you can dance to,” which one of my first subscribers thought was a joke. It wasn’t actually; it was taken from the music I had made for the end of my show ASTRS (about a rabbit revolution in eternal return), built by plundering a Faust track.

Around the same time, for the work on another dance score, David Neumann gave me a copy of a cd of short wave radio calls, which show up in many of the episodes. I’d say the first ten tapes are pretty accidental, and then the form began to emerge. By this time I’d discovered the Library of Congress American Memory collections, where I found a lot of my early sources. More recent tapes have had specific events that I’ve trawled – the Columbia explosion, the Iran hostage crisis.

The tapes then went through a shift in a second period of digging, after a personal crisis. This was the point at which all the things I already knew about creative practice as a form of life and health was really disentangled from creative practice as a profession, because at that time I took a kind of sabbatical from my professional performance life, even as I started making more and more things at home – the tapes, my stop motions, and cutup series like the Ghost Host Pigeon Post. The tapes and the paper cutups became both a means of digging into the sound of other catastrophes, and a way of setting those sounds into little lotus ponds, even as they remained a kind of cryptic messaging system, at first to the agent of that crisis, and then I guess to anyone.


Years later I am working on this corner of my dissertation on the riddle of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s concept of impersonality, which has to do with this same knot where private digging is the scene of an experience of drastic commonality. This scene is both relieving and obliterating. There is something about the way that singing grows a health out of a crisis, that I think cuts across everything I do. Emerson calls it the severe harmony.

DP     Going back to the “worthy pioneer”, which Hegel later takes up as spirit and Marx puts back on terra firma with revolution: the first pioneers were foot soldier meant to clear the way for the main army. Among their activities – mining. Yet one of the many layers of poetic reflection in the basement tapes conducts something of a mine sweeping. You have  a rare gift for defusing certain histories by bringing them into your soundscape, though not erasing them. Remembering and recuperating certain “loaded” spaces in a way that also drains their corrosive power, a quality that caught my ear from the very first episode. 

KKS     I think that has to do with the grain of the voice as it survives recording, compression, preservation, and historical distance. When I hear political speech in the present, I can’t separate out its entanglement with forces that I am somehow agitated by, whether for or against. But somehow the phenomenon of the person returns with the distance, and I think that I cannot not empathize with any person. I felt heartbroken at the Nixon Library, for example. And then pairing those returned persons with music takes a kind of atomic mass measurement of their failures.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should drop all of our skepticism about political violence, or that we should forget the way that historical violence structures present violence, but there is something to just measuring the atmospheric pressure in the lungs of our own or anyone else’s failure, that I think if we can’t hear it and ingest it and to at least some extent take it personally (I mean incorporate it, not take it as an offense), then we’re just reenacting a lazy form of venomous blame. Wallace Stevens has this line, “man’s intelligence is his soil.” I seem to be making a rationale for an alternative form of history based on eating our own soil. We get, at least, the song as a reward for our humility.

DP     Then there is the aspect of the “cabal”; your “mystical interpretation” has such poetic lucidity, even when the lights are dim. At times, you seem to be meditating on the rhythms of thought and feelings themselves, and we are permitted to hear your self thinking/sparking the mine. This sense is then underscored by the presence of the songs and by your own voice, which has a special quality all its own. Is there some metaphysical map for all these “mines” or are you moving through the murk by dead reckoning? 

KKS     One way I have described my creative work is as philosophy in various media. I’m particularly drawn to what falls under the rubric of process philosophy (versus philosophy as a set of definitions or proofs). I try to stay as dumb as possible when I’m making things, by which I mean I try to quiet all the forms of projection and the counsel of expertise. I have a cellular level of patience as I wait for things to emerge and take pleasure in their recession — this is grown in a person by among other things the very gentle and exploratory work done on the fringes of dance. So there is no map, but I recognize the emergence of paths and patterns as they’re happening, and that gives me a lot of happiness.

I make almost everything I do improvisationally; it’s the only way I could make as much stuff as I do. But that also has to do with a belief that things belong to their season of making. (The worst thing about writing a dissertation is that it’s not too amenable to improvisation. So I’m cultivating these forms of slow, recursive improvisation to get through it.)

DP     Cabal suggests collaboration or co-conspiracy, though in your case, the collaboration is more across your different materials and using all your varied talents and voices in a way that has the energy of an ensemble yet the delicacy of a private journey. This quality is something I have noted throughout  your work. How do the basement tapes resonate, for example, with your literary and theater poetics?

KKS     Originally the mole cabal was supposed to be a group of people working on performance projects, but schedule is a beast. I suppose I liked the fiction of being part of a posse of moles, so I never dropped the cabal. And I’m suspicious of the proprietary or expressive frame around creative work. In my mind, the mole cabal is not the proletariat or anything, but does expand beyond just me, connecting I’m sure to other cabals. We’re not plotting, just trying to survive (like the Wombles of Wimbledon). Or maybe plotting in the older sense of plot, as a garden plot, a patch of worked earth.

I was trained as a choreographer and I still think of myself as a choreographer, but one working in other media. (If the brain exists so we can move, as Andy Clark says, then this is an unproblematic restatement of the assertion that I’m a philosopher working in other media.) Sound was the first region I strayed into — I could never find the right music, so I had to start making my own. Then text, then images, then video, now forms of installation.

I love to be a beginner and to go through a learning curve, and I also like to trust my instincts and appetites for combination that grew up in dancing, as I take them into other media. It keeps me free of the new rules while still having a kind of structural intuition.  What I mean to say is that I’ve been able to tap into a vein of true amateurism by staying on the move, and so it has a choral effect. In any project, whether I’m writing or making sound or making theater, I do the same thing: start somewhere and then putter along until it feels like it’s singing. In fact the one medium it’s really hard for me to work in is dance, because my training still circumscribes my sense of freedom. My most recent project is to return to dancing and do battle with that restricting mind.

DP     In the meantime, we are delighted that the mole cabal of KKS will be digging and dancing and singing through the soul-soil, and may you be buried in fresh subscriptions!


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