copyright 2003, Vice Cooler
Interview by Dina Hornreich
I first became acquainted with Sharon Cheslow in 1999. I was doing some research on “women in punk: past, present, and future” for my college radio show. Googling around, using variations, those three main search terms led me to her website (www.sharoncheslow.com) where she chronicles a most exhaustive list of women in punk circa 1975-1980. It was the proverbial jackpot resource for me!
A few months later, I took her idea to another level. I started a listserv dedicated to these pre-riot grrrl punk innovators called Typical Girls. This name is a direct reference to the Slits – who have a song of he same name and who were among one of the most influential bands of that era. It also was a little tongue-in-cheek humor since these women are anything but typical! Sharon is a regular contributor to this forum.
Being so excited to have found Sharon, a kindred spirit in cyberspace, I scoured her site to learn more about who she was and is. In Sharon, I found more than just a diligent, like-minded feminist scholar. I found a musician, a photographer, a writer, a philosopher, a documenter, a muckraker, and an all around pioneer on so many levels. Sharon has worked with many talented people over the years. She made history in the first all-female DC punk band, Chalk Circle, and for confronting Maximum Rock ’n Roll Magazine for its sexist ways. Since 1989, she has been publishing her zine, Interrobang?! She also co-published the seminal punk book, Banned in DC. Since that time, she has continued to impress us with her unique artistic projects and collaborations (from Suture with Kathleen Hanna to the Sonic Triptych series of sound installations). The list of her accomplishments is numerous and impressive. Today, she continues to be ahead of her time.
PSF: Your career as a musician began in the punk/DIY scene in DC around 1979-1980.
Actually I come from a musical family. Starting in elementary school, my father taught me to use his reel-to-reel tape recorder and listen to his Dylan, Bartok and jazz records. I got my first guitar when I was 10 and performed solo in the 5th grade. Both my parents love music and my younger brother Alan studied composition. I got involved in the DC punk scene in '79, volunteering for Limp Records and working at Yesterday & Today record store, but I didn't perform with Chalk Circle until 1981, opening for Velvet Monkeys. I bought my first electric guitar at 13 but couldn't get a band together until punk came along.
Before I got into punk, I had some guitar lessons but was mostly self-taught. I read about music in the library or in my father's audio journals or in rock magazines, such as Creem, and starting buying records and seeing concerts like The Who, Blue Oyster Cult and Led Zeppelin. I was known in junior high as the girl who knew more about music than anyone else. (laughs) But I don't think that was really true. I probably just talked about it all the time. (laughs)
PSF: What brought you to study music in a more formal, academic way?
It was a zig-zag path. I took a music class in junior high, but all I can remember is learning how to play the autoharp and seeing a film on synthesizers. (laughs) When I hit high school, I wanted to study art instead of music. I took some photography classes and won some awards. But my father wanted me to follow in his footsteps to become a scientist or engineer, so he suggested I go to Berklee School of Music to become an audio engineer. But I'd had no formal training in music, so I don't think I ever applied.
I started at University of Maryland around the same time I got involved in DC punk. Ironically, I contracted meningitis in 1980, went into a coma and ended up having learning difficulties. It's ironic because my initial major was psychology (which I did) in order to become a neuropsychologist. I've since recovered by overcompensating in other areas. Anyway, I took a year off in 1981-82, and that's when I focused my creativity by writing fanzines, taking photos, and forming Chalk Circle with Anne Bonafede. She and I had been playing music together since 1980.
When I returned to school, I switched to studying art history, film, literature and philosophy. I thought I might want to become a cinematographer or film director. But I took a Super 8mm class and my male professor took me aside at the end of the semester and basically told me that although I was talented, I'd never make it since I was a woman and shouldn't bother continuing with the 16mm class. I was also having severe family problems. The combination of all these experiences led to my leaving school. I felt I could get more accomplished within the DC punk community. That was my school! Seeing the Bad Brains and Minor Threat showed me passion, ideas and creativity were just as, or more, important than technical virtuosity. I learned I could figure things out on my own. I learned how to be in a band and release recordings. But it became a personal goal of mine to finish my degree.
My brother was the one who initially encouraged me to study at Mills, since I was living in San Francisco at that point. He'd graduated from Oberlin's TIMARA program, which is technology in music and related arts. (Percussionist) William Winant also encouraged me to apply. I knew Willie through the SF music scene and he taught at Mills. Willie knew that I'd been in Suture with Kathleen Hanna and thought I'd benefit from studying with Pauline Oliveros. So in the late '90s I applied to Mills College's music department. I ended up creating my intermedia arts degree at the same time they were developing a program with that focus.
PSF: How has the study of music/sound changed your philosophy of and/or approach to music?
Well for one thing, my approach has gotten more radical and wider encompassing. (laughs) The more I know about music and about the physical properties of sound, the more I'm interested in the creative aspects of music making that cross boundaries.
Since graduating from Mills, I've taken graduate music/sound classes at CalArts and it's clear to me that there still is a strong division between music or sound art that comes from the classical music tradition and everything else. And CalArts doesn't even come close to the conservatism of most music departments. The Western classical music tradition is based upon reading and writing standard notation. It doesn't take into account that many forms of music are based on an oral tradition or on other types of notation. For example, when I first started playing guitar, I learned notes and chords by studying tablature or by listening to my records and figuring things out by ear. When I was Bat Mitzvahed, I learned to sing Hebrew using tropes, which are the cantillation marks. The tropes indicate musical phrases for the chanting and not specific pitches. And when I was 14, I saw Ravi Shankar open for George Harrison and that exposed me to ragas.
PSF: How have you evolved from the punk aesthetic that you came from?
One of the things that attracted me to punk was that it wasn't about virtuosity based on a Western definition of technical skill. It was about being creative and expressing oneself. It doesn't mean that technical skill isn't important. It's just that it's important to notice who is creating the standards of skills and to what culture or group of people they're relevant.
So my technical skills are probably better than they've ever been, but I don't care as much whether I fit into any pre-conceived notion about what I should sound like. When you listen to some of my recent recordings, like those I did with Weasel Walter and Liz Allbee, you can hear our backgrounds in there but I can't classify what we do into any one specific genre. Same with the Trebville Exchange recordings I did with Bromp Treb, who's Neil from Fat Worm of Error. I also really enjoyed collaborating with Elisa from Magik Markers.
I still try to have an intimate experience in performance. Even when I performed at Lincoln Center, this was true. I wore electronics with sensors so that the audience could interact with me and use my body as an instrument.
PSF: How has your musical consciousness been shaped as a political (i.e. feminist) outlet of self-expression?
I think it's the other way around. My political consciousness has been shaped as a musical form of expression. I was raised to think music had the power to change peoples' social and political consciousness. I saw the connection between my parents' interest in folk music and their political beliefs. They taught me at a young age, in the '60's, about civil disobedience. They supported the civil rights movement and women's movement and were against the Vietnam War. They weren't hippies – they were too old for that. They were progressives, I guess you could say. I still believe music can be a form of civil disobedience. It doesn't have to be, though. It can simply be entertainment or it can focus more on aesthetics.
PSF: What thinkers (political, philosophical… whatever) have helped to shape your perspective?
Even though a lot of my work isn't overtly political, it comes from a desire to unite the heart and head. At University of Maryland, I took a semester course on Plato's Republic and another semester on the philosophy of art, where I read Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. It was basically the white, male canon that was taught at that time. Thinking about the question “what is art?” made me also think about the question “what is music?” I had a film studies professor, Robert Kolker, who was very inspiring. He taught feminist and political theory in explaining films, using ideas from Laura Mulvey and Bertolt Brecht. I named Chalk Circle after Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle. And I still think about those ideas to this day, such as the role of the performer in the public gaze, what we think while we're experiencing music, how we communicate our reality, how we experience ourselves in relation to others, hierarchies between performer and audience, subjective power. I especially started to think about music from a different perspective once I started reading French feminist philosophers on my own, such as Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, or American writers such as Angela Davis and bell hooks.
I've been influenced by writings about consciousness, probably because of my near-death experience – too many to list – and some books by Abraham Maslow, Carl Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz. The writings of the Lettrists and Situationists also have had a big impact. I bought Ken Knabb's Situationist International Anthology when it was first published in 1981.
I'm very interested in subject/object relationships and how that plays itself out in music. You can probably see this most in the performance of the Duct Tape Piece II collaboration with Alyssa Lee. Chicks on Speed used the video of it for a couple of their European Girl Monster installations. In it, I duct taped my electric guitar to Alyssa's body and then positioned her body with my amp to generate feedback.
PSF: What (Who?) has been the biggest influence throughout your career?
I'm influenced by people who've achieved success on their own terms, despite adversity or seemingly insurmountable odds, while keeping their dignity and integrity intact and doing as little harm to others as possible.
PSF: Tell me about your current issue of Interrobang!? How did you come up with the idea for the theme of music and family?
The idea for the Interrobang?! Anthology on Music and Family came about after seeing I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' biopic on Bob Dylan. The film made me recall how my parents' musical interests had an effect on me. I decided to interview my mother on her experiences in L.A. as a folkie, and I invited people to submit writings or interviews on the theme of music and family. Some of the contributors, such as Cynthia Connolly, Kevin Mattson and Ian MacKaye, (who) I've been friends with for over 25 years.
PSF: What did this project involve?
It turns out Cynthia's mother was into jazz in L.A. around the same time my mother was going to folk concerts. So Cynthia interviewed her mother and it's great to compare our mothers' answers, especially because they graduated from UCLA a year apart yet didn't know each other. It's really cool because Cynthia and I didn't meet until after our families moved to DC, even though we were both born in LA. Even though I helped Cynthia with Banned in DC, we didn't find out about our mothers' backgrounds until talking about the music and family anthology!
I asked Ian to submit something and he suggested we transcribe a discussion between us about his family. He comes from a family of writers so we talked about that. I invited Bill Berkson to contribute a piece because I know that music has been important to him. He's a writer and poet, who's the husband of my ex-fiancé's mother. Bill published a great poetry small press in the '70's titled Big Sky and was part of a community of writers I admire including Joanne Kyger, Allen Ginsberg, Alice Notley and Ted Berrigan.
The other contributors are musician friends I've met over the years who also write, such as Alan Licht, Matthew Wascovich, Erika Anderson of Gowns, and Jean Smith of Mecca Normal, or writers whose work examines music such as Janet Sarbanes and Sara Wintz. Pauline Oliveros contributed an article about her relationship with her mother, written by Shaila Dewan. I'm publishing this anthology as a book through Decomposition.
PSF: Your works seem to have become more esoteric over time. Do you like the more sonically ambiguous (i.e. more open to interpretation) format?
I guess I've always thought that if I can change my consciousness to embrace things that may seem difficult, perhaps I can have a positive effect somehow, either on a level where the personal is the political or in a more direct manner. So that's why I work with both the abstract and the more straightforward. I don't see a duality in these two.
I'm very interested in knowledge – how it is acquired and by whom, how it is passed on to a culture, and how it is passed down through history. When I think of esoterica, I think of hidden or obscure knowledge that might be hard to find. If “esoteric” means something that is difficult to understand or perceive, then I guess I'm guilty of gravitating toward esotericism. Partly it's because I love to learn. Partly it's because women are often dissuaded from this sort of knowledge. And that just makes me want to understand it more!
PSF: Can you enlighten me on the process through which you have evolved sonically?
Everything I've done has come about through exploring and listening. The same year I performed for the 5th grade, doing Beatles songs based on listening to their records, I did sound effects for a radio play project, which involved researching sounds in the library. I also recorded skits and songs onto my dad's reel-to-reel deck. I got my first portable radio at that time and used to scour the airwaves late at night to find rock and roll songs on stations as faraway as New York. So I think my process is pretty organic, based on some sort of natural instinct to locate new sounds and to hear new music.
As a teenage girl in the '70's, I looked to the revered rock male guitarists and tried to emulate their styles, but it felt as if I was speaking a language that wasn't fully mine. When I heard Yoko Ono with Plastic Ono Band, it was like a bomb went off in my brain. I wanted to be in a band like that. And then once I heard punk, especially the music created by women, I felt I could express myself more freely.
Chalk Circle and Bloody Mannequin Orchestra were very much products of the early '80s. BMO is where I first attempted to improvise with other musicians and enter into more abstract noise or free jazz territory. Instead of writing lyrics ahead of time and putting music to the words or vice versa, we would show up at practice and improvise and then write songs based on the fragments we liked. We branched out from the traditional rock format. We had a jazz-trained sax player, we made tape loops and samples, and we had a Casio.
Since then my process has gotten more intuitive. It used to be that I'd practice all the time in order to be tight. Now I try to rely on the moment in which I'm playing to give me inspiration. I may have an idea first or a sense of the instrumentation I want to use or a fragment of melody and lyrics and then work from that. Sonically, I've evolved by incorporating elements of collage using found sounds and objects, computer generated sounds and custom-built electronics. I've expanded my interests in arranging and producing and utilizing space.
PSF: Some of your more recent sound pieces (e.g. Sonic Triptych) seem as if they'd make more sense if they were experienced live rather than on recorded medium. How does your audience respond to this quality?
I've been very happy with the audience responses to the Coterie Exchange performances and sound events. They've been overwhelmingly positive, even when I have people coming up to me afterwards to say things like “I've never heard anything like that before!” or “I didn't know this could be considered music.” (laughs)
The idea of Coterie Exchange is a play on the term “coterie” which often has a negative connotation. A coterie can be a clique or a closed group of people who have power over access to knowledge. For example, at the time I came up with the phrase in 2002, I was thinking about how Bush and his advisors were a coterie. Instead of something closed, I wanted to create something open to participation, similar to participatory democracy. It's about the free exchange of ideas. Later I discovered that “coterie exchange” was a term used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance to refer to the collaborative writing of texts. It seemed perfect to what I was trying to do.
Sonic Triptych came out of this approach. The idea was to create a participatory, collaborative ensemble. When I was asked to do something for Ladyfest Bay Area in 2002, I created Sonic Triptych as a sound event for nine women with a text score of instructions. Participants were guided to represent themselves through sound-producing actions of their choice. I've done several different versions of it since, for multiple, random sets of three performers. Sometimes the performances are humorous and it's great to hear the audience laugh. Other times, they're more serious. I did two versions last year, one in L.A. and another in NY with visuals by Matterlink, which is filmmaker James Schneider's video art moniker. I think people like experiencing an event that is ephemeral and that engages them on a visual and sonic level. It's a different experience than listening to a recording. I guess it's similar to the difference between live theater and a movie recorded on film or video. They're just different mediums.
Some people have hated Duct Tape Piece because they don't understand it, but most get it and enjoy it. I love the reactions, positive or negative, because at least people are engaged.
PSF: It is important to pay homage to those who inspire us to do what we do. What (or who) inspired you to document all women musicians in punk from 1975-1980?
The main inspiration was Lenny Kaye's compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 documenting 1960's punk. It came out in 1972, and I bought it when it was reissued in 1976 because I liked his guitar playing with Patti Smith and read his writing in Rock Scene. Other influences were Judy Chicago's art installation The Dinner Table, which documents female achievements and women left out of history, and Lucy Lippard's book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972.
PSF: What is unique about the women of that particular era? Why are they particularly inspiring to so many of us?
They rock! Seriously, they were the first women to break through the male dominated force field in rock and roll that said women could only sing or play acoustic guitar or piano. There were very, very few women musicians in rock bands up until that time and even fewer all-female bands. Those women taught themselves how to play electric instruments and drums, they wrote and recorded their own songs, and they went on tour.
Not only all that, but many wrote insightful lyrics about society or their roles as women while experimenting with music aesthetics. The musicians who grew out of punk into no wave, hardcore and post-punk are particularly inspiring to me. The Slits, Raincoats, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Bush Tetras, Y Pants, Bags and Kleenex/Liliput were brilliant. They paved the way for so much that has come since. Sure, you had women in the '60's like Janis Joplin, Nico or Grace Slick, but they were singers. Mo Tucker, drummer for the Velvet Underground, was an anomaly.
PSF: What advice do you have for young girl rockers just getting started?
The same advice holds true for young girls as well as young boys. Be true to yourself. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something if it's something you really want to do. Listen to your gut instincts and follow your intuition while using your head to think things through. Don't be afraid of mistakes. Sometimes the best work comes out of those mistakes.