Since the day that the term "alternative music" first took root in the public imagination, there has never been a definitive answer to the question of "alternative to what"? Was an ethic of musical "difference" being declared based on purely sonic and technical criteria, on personal politics and lifestyle affectations, or on a merger of these means of differentiation? Manifold examples now exist of every possible subset including one or more of those "differences," and the sheer number of possible combinations serves as a potent reminder that normalcy is the real exceptional state here, rather than the rule.
A truly unfortunate by-product of this culture, though, has been the dividing line drawn between creators who have full knowledge that they are doing something "different" and innovative, and those who innovate or deviate without any awareness that they're doing so (or, in fact, any stated desire to do so). The fact that the latter group is still collectively referred to as "outsider" artists should give you pause to think; to question why an alternative / independent creative culture based on dismantling the idea of normative culture would simply erect a new set of prerequisites for attaining either "insider" or "outsider" status. This is not to say that "outsider artists" are as roundly dismissed by their alt-cultural peers as they are by those segments of society who see any artistic endeavors as superfluous and counter-productive. However, they're still often treated with an unfortunate blend of condescension, pity, and misplaced wonderment for actions such as making strange music outside of an "accepted" geographical media hub, or for having mastered the techniques of the cultural avant-garde without ever having studied it in a formal institution or having made the proper interpersonal 'scene' connections. More troubling is the way in which this "outsider" universe is comprised of everything from individuals with clinical neurological disorders to individuals who simply fell flat on their face while trying to emulate the culture of cool, suggesting that the conditions of social awkwardness and of clinical illness are somehow equivalent states of being.
So, even in the wake of successive "d.i.y." revolutions of creative self-determination, it still takes endurance and bravery to re-establish the simple fact that cultural "insiders" and "outsiders" may actually share a common cause. Many still need a reminder that the personalized expression of fears and dreams isn't the exclusive domain of people who live in hip urban enclaves, or people who have officially conferred fine arts pedigrees, or even people who meet their societies’ often transient definitions of sanity. Alan Courtis (his first name alternately spelled Anla) is one sonic artist who has regularly provided that reminder, not so much with a combative attitude towards conventionality, but with a joyful indifference to it. Since his time as a founding member of the completely unclassifiable Argentinian trio Reynols, his continual ebb and flow between raucous humor and curious ambiguity has distinguished him within an international sound arts subculture that is itself wildly diverse.
Courtis doesn't claim a 'primary' musical instrument: his choice of expressive tools runs the gamut from guitar to electronics to field recordings, and often these specific sound sources go unmentioned in the credits of releases that he's involved with. Neither does he have a stylistic or conceptual template that is used consistently throughout his huge back catalog. Indeed, part of the joy of tracking Courtis' progress is that one never knows what is coming down the pipeline next: It could be a rollicking, dizzying blast of electric free improv, or an eerie ethereal invocation with unspecified electronic 'black boxes.' Then again, it could also be a symphony for chickens, a surprisingly engrossing release based on overlapping the surface noise of multiple blank cassettes, or high-concept releases and actions merely rumored to have happened: a CD with a functional wooden chair as part of its packaging, another recording which was purportedly "released" into an Argentinian river for anyone daring enough to go and find it, or performances activities such as playing the stones on Jorge Luis Borges' grave and using pumpkins as guitar "amplifiers".
This is already enough to make some record afficionadoes and journalists of the arts throw their hands up in exasperation; to dismiss Courtis and company as simply existing to have a laugh at their expense. Yet in the investigative milieu that Courtis and Reynols inhabit, this type of permanent mutability isn't at all unusual. Once you consider that the common factor of their art is the encouragement of a “let’s see what happens next” state of willful vulnerability to external change, the sheer differences in aesthetic content from one public presentation to the next do make more sense. What is unorthodox about Courtis is his acceptance of the aforementioned "outsiders" as his creative peers or equals, rather than as people who are in need of his technical and spiritual guidance. Since the formation of Reynols in 1993, Courtis has been actively involved with musicians that have had mental handicaps: that band's singular and shamanic drummer / singer Miguel Tomasin (who memorably introduced himself to the band as "the world's most famous drummer,") was diagnosed with Down's Syndrome. One of Tomasin's favorite phrases - "por que no," or "why not?" rapidly became a rallying cry for the band, igniting little fires of creative un-inhibition like those mentioned above. Within Reynols, Tomasin performed texts in a language completely of his own invention, and reportedly conjured up previously unconsidered creative ideas with a reliable immediacy that made his bandmates question whether "suffer from…" was really the right verb phrase to preface "…Down's Syndrome" with.
This initial meeting, and the many notable experiences that followed from it, led Courtis on a globe-spanning journey to find other musically-inclined individuals and groups with mental disabilities. In the music workshops and performances that ensued, he happily relegated the role of a string-pulling ensemble leader in order to become just another player within the ensemble. Courtis has regularly refused to put the roles of sociologist, ethnographer, etc. ahead of his role as an artistic collaborator, and has passed on the opportunity to make the unanticipated creative depth of the mentally handicapped meet a pre-determined agenda or prove an ideological point. In doing so, he’s provided a potent example of what can happen when those who don’t care about the "inside / outside" distinction join up with those who never knew it existed.
Below is a record of our conversation from the summer of 2015.
I was curious about some of the things you were touching on in a recent Wire article, and was just intrigued by your approach - mainly by the fact that so few 'experimental' / 'avant garde' musicians have ever considered working with people with learning disabilities.
Well, in a way that's true, and maybe because of that it is truly experimental.
I liked how you mentioned that these individuals you work with don't *know* that they are being "experimental," and so there is a much different attitude towards performing, or at the very least, there's more freedom from pre-conceived notions of what people expect from performers.
The point is, with them, you have to focus just on playing, and just on what's happening within that precise second. That requires all the attention you have, so there's not too much time or space for "blah blah blah". So then you have to be 100% 'present,' and you just never know what is about to happen next. So the situation itself is experimental - but at the same time, it is very enjoyable.
From what you're saying, I get the feeling that there is a different intention behind the music in these situations - namely that the intent is simply to make music, period. Which again we can contrast to people making music for acceptance by a social group or something like that.
Well, I'm not so sure it's completely different. In fact, I thought for some time that that [playing music for its own sake] was basically the only way to play music. With the "industry" and all that market thing you have a lot of distractions, but again, in my opinion, to play music with people with learning disabilities brings back some kind of attention that we all have but which gets lost somewhere along the way.
This is maybe a little bit off topic, but what you say reminds me of some encounters I had while working in Japan. People in the psychiatric profession there will recommend patients to take English lessons as a therapeutic hobby, so I remember having to work with some very emotionally damaged people at times.... mainly people who were recovering from suicide attempts and such. I felt out of my depth in the beginning, because I don't have much real training in that field, but in the end I looked forward to these situations and thought it was rewarding to give these people some feeling of accomplishment. You could immediately see what a relief it was for these people to just be able to play / experiment with new means of communication, without any fear of criticism or failure.
Yes, the fear of criticism, in a way is to fail the exam, to not be "normal" and be excluded. But when you work with these people you need to find another platform; I mean also to play with special people means you need to find a way outside those patterns, so that they realize that they should not feel any fear because there's nothing to "fail" at.
Again, this is something that is really lacking even in a lot of music that wishes to be adventurous....since success in society is so much defined by one's ability to pass various tests and trials, people treat music-making in this way too...instead of viewing it as a purposeless play.
Yes, some people are using their potential only to approve the "tests", as a means of getting or keeping some kind of a job, in fact it's a pity. So instead of getting in touch with, let's say, "music" on a real level, all of the available energy is just put into something superficial, which prevents you from going deeper.
Somewhat along these lines, a friend recently recommended me a book called Going Sane by Adam Phillips - in this book the author distinguishes between what he calls "superficial sanity" (simply doing what you think is necessary to conform) and "deep sanity". Basically, he describes people who are "deeply sane" as wanting some kind of approval and sense of belonging, but also as capable of understanding that there are other means of gratification beyond these things. Like the ability to just express yourself as clearly and uniquely as possible, whether or not that expression is approved or understood.
It's a pretty complex subject, but I think it has to do with being open and accepting certain social categories without also getting trapped in them, which is not easy...
Speaking of which, we talked a little before about the awkwardness of the term "outsider artist". Is there a similar concept in Argentina? Or does the idea of "outsider artist" differ somewhat from what we have in the U.S.?
It's a hard topic. I mean, words are not neutral, so the question is "outsider" in relation to what? At some historic point, that word might have been a little bit useful at least to point the existence of artists working for different parameters than let's say the "mainstream". But, after that, well…nowadays I'm not sure the term "outsider" is so useful, especially when you have galleries starting to make money off of it.
Well I think that's the point, the term can mean so much to so many, yet we are supposed to immediately understand whatever limited meaning it was within a given culture at a given time.
And again, it's being put forth as a "marketing label" rather than something with deeper meaning.
Even within the underground or alternative cultures (yet more malleable terms...), I am not sure there's ever been a real consensus about the term. Or about the approaches and attitudes that an "outsider" is likely to have. Just to pick two examples off the top of my head, there is a huge difference between some fairly benign 'man-child' personality like Daniel Johnston, and something like the confrontational approach of early SPK (who of course took their name from the 'socialist patients' collective' in Germany that wished to "turn mental illness into a weapon...")
Sure, it's the same thing within these cultures, too: the word might work for a while when it's new, but as far as it starts to be just a label for the market it begins to fail.
So did your interest in performing with mentally disabled (or 'differently abled') people come from work in another field? In other words, was music your first point of contact, or were you working with such people in some other capacity before you began collaborating musically?
Well I started just from music, and so far I think the best option - at least for me - is to keep the focus on music. I'm not really interested in guided 'music therapy,' I feel this kind of collaboration works better just with music alone.
Can you discuss that a little more? Was this something you were interested from the beginning of your musical journey, or did this come later?
Well it wasn't something I was involved in from the outset, it started with my introduction to Miguel [Tomasin] and then I realized how interesting it was.
For readers who maybe aren't familiar with the background of Reynols- how did you and Miguel first meet?
He came to the music academy and we started playing together - it was very simple.
Do you have any moments from your collaboration with him that 'stand out' as particularly meaningful?
Probably the whole process. Just to realize how free he was with music was something meaningful, and made me realize there was a big field to explore.
You know, the sense of 'continual process' is something that I really find valuable about improvisational music or the activities that get saddled with the 'noise' moniker - I have always liked how new releases / albums, or new combinations of players, are not presented as major climactic events, but just as snapshots of this unfolding process.
It's definitely some kind of process, if you see the sheer number of releases I've been doing, there's quite a lot of that. Of course I could be more rational and only release a recording every once in a while, but then it will lack this passion about checking things out, being involved in that unfolding process which I don't really control that much. I just focus on the passion or at least some kind of deep curiosity, and just go from there.
At any rate, I feel like that approach is again very different from, well, the approach taken by people who would actually want to be called "normal." People with very stratified thinking seem to be more interested in major events rather than in the overall 'flow' of things. Or, put another way, things have to fit into some kind of historical context to really be meaningful...
Well with all the music production nowadays, it seems a bit ridiculous to think in terms of "major events". Almost everything is pretty small scale! And everybody is complaining about getting less and less of an audience, which in a way I don't think is that bad. I mean, if the only way to be successful is to be massive, that would be terrible. I think we have to find a point where we can focus on what we really like and flow with that, of course you need a minimum of logistics to keep things going but, it's a small price you have to pay to keep the main thing going.
I'm especially curious if, in your country, you have seen a shift in perception of mental 'disability.' I can remember, in my lifetime, the societal change from calling people "retarded" to "disabled" and finally "special." So, over a 20-year span, the public focus has gradually shifted away from what these individuals *can't* do, towards what they *can.* Of course, people who merely want to be cruel will do so anyway, and loads of people simply use the word "special" in a mocking and sarcastic way....anyway, I am curious if the progression in Argentina (and elsewhere) is the same, or different...
Well of course it has been changing a bit during the last 20 years as you mention, not only in the use of the terms, but also in the sense of social visibility. In Argentina, you can notice this change as everywhere else, however sometimes this change can be only a superficial attitude, so I do think there's still a lot more to do in this field.
By superficial, do you mean that perhaps people are simply "changing" opinions because it feels like what everybody else is doing, or like the mainstream is beginning to think like this, and they don't wish to be left behind?
I think in a way it is a positive thing that people are now more aware about what words to use in this field. But that's not enough, what I find "superficial" is only the changing of the terminology - that's only a starting point. Being only "politically correct", but not going any further than that, will not make a big difference for these people, and won't represent a wholesale change in attitude.
So I should probably ask (at long last) about the actual sounds that you produce during improvisational sessions with these differently abled individuals. I think the stereotype is that the music created in such sessions will be always very "free form" or closer to pure abstraction, but is it really? Have you ever worked from a score, for example, or played pieces that followed more conventional song forms?
Well, yes, we have worked with some kind of "songs". Mostly with collective writing for the lyrics and then coming up some ideas for instrumentation or rhythm, but obviously in each version it might change, so there's also some improvisational component as well. For instance with Les Harrys, the group of the Hopital de jour d'Antony in Paris, we worked with some of these "songs" and played them live, and it worked pretty well. It's pretty different when you work with lyrics but I think it's also interesting from the creative aspect since they are finding their own expression. With the group DNA AND? from Oslo, one of the girls when trying electronics came up with a story interacting with the sounds, so that was also very interesting. We also proposed for her to do a version of that at a concert later, which worked out well.
The term "story" is interesting here, since I was curious whether or not these sessions had a feeling of narrative progression to them, and it seems like they often do, according to what you said. I always find the story-telling ability of mentally 'abnormal' individuals to be very strong - do you think this is because they value 'imagined' worlds the same as they do reality?
Well the story of the girl from DNA AND? was in Norwegian, but from what they told me it was basically narrative, and the funny thing is she was also changing a bit the story every time. But definitely they have good abilities for story telling and to bring some of that to the music is also nice. But it depends quite a lot of the person, some of them they just invent stories on the microphone and sing along with them, others need more help like something written beforehand so they have something to start with. Ultimately, in my opinion, the best thing is to give them all the freedom to use much or as little text as they feel is necessary for a given performance.
What about the ability to repeat some of the works that you play - is this ever an option, or are most of these performances you mention ephemeral things that are impossible to duplicate again?
It depends on each person, but some of them can repeat songs without any problem. We even played some "classic" songs, for instance a Norwegian kid with Down's Syndrome told me that he wanted to play drums and sing Neil Youg's "Heart of Gold" and we did it onstage. So it's possible, the challenge is to find a good balance between "written" and "improvised" with each group.
When I first began to lose interest in 'pop' music as a kid, it was because I came to dislike the fake 'ideal' or 'perfected' personalities that I saw everywhere in music videos. Yet I wonder if there's also a danger that people with mental disabilities are 'idealized' in a way that doesn't really represent them. You know, there is this image of the 'holy innocent' who does not know how to do anything wrong, and who is pure creativity 100% of the time. I feel that's generally counter-productive.
Of course, to "idealize" is not a good choice. I mean, obviously there are also problems with these individuals as there are with any other person, and that is in a way fair. To accept the problems and work with them is part of the whole process.
I think this kind of work (or play) does require an acceptance of unpredictability, and I'm sure there are moments where things unfolded in a way you didn't expect. What about experiences that completely altered the way you perceive life? Have you had any experiences during these collaborations where you could say your entire perspective on existence was changed?
To accept unpredictability is always necessary, but not only in the work with people with so-called "disabilities": I'd say it is something related to life in general. As to specific experiences…well, everything in this field has been affecting me and inspiring me, all the time it makes me more aware of my own limitations and how to keep on going in spite of them. There's the creative/artistic side but also there's the human side, it's all very intense and that's why I still enjoy working with them so much.
Do you notice any pattern in the way that your creative work is received / understood (or misunderstood) by critics and audiences? In particular, do you find that people in general interpret your solo works as having some different meaning or intention than your work with people with mental handicaps?
Firstly, I don't think there's only one "correct" way to listen to or receive music, and that's valid for any music or art. So, basically, I'm not interested in telling people what to do with the music…what to feel or think is up to them. I prefer to keep it open. And normally the best things happen when audience can provide their own input to the process. But going back to your question, since there's nothing strictly "correct" or "incorrect," I find it pretty difficult to talk in terms of misconceptions. However beyond that, of course there are moments when your work is received in a more interesting or less interesting way, and that depends on the context and also on many other factors. I'd say some people really don't know all my work - and maybe it would be a nightmare to know it all - so for them it would be difficult to get the whole picture. But, also, lot of people don't know what to do with music or art produced by people with a "mental handicap". Honestly I don't see a big difference between playing with "professional musicians" or the "handicapped", for me to work with both is part of the same whole process, but I guess for some people to feel it that way can be actually a challenge.