Jooj: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Expressionistic Minimalism, an intimate drama
File next to: Xiu Xiu, Laurie Anderson, Suicide, Hedwig (performing as Marlene Dietrich)
Playing: WL 627, Saturday November 8th at Geary Lane (360 Geary Ave.)

Sook-Yin Lee is a filmmaker, musician, actor, artist, choreographer, and broadcaster. Adam Litovitz is a writer and professor of Film Studies and English. They’ve made music together in various capacities, the latest of which is the stripped-down torch song duo Jooj. Joe Strutt chatted with them online about dancing, dream-choices and constructing public artifacts from private languages. Their debut album will be released on Last Gang Records in 2015.

Jooj is listed as a sister band to LLVK. Did one project emerge from the other or was it a case of parallel evolution?

Sook-Yin: Jooj had its origin in my video and photography exhibition We Are Light Rays. Along with photographs, I created a musical score that was much like a movie score. The work was influenced by filmmaking. This music formed the basis of songs that Adam and I are making with Jooj. So there is a progression over time that evolves music through various incarnations. LLVK is an improvisational band made up of Adam and I, dancer Benjamin Kamino, and musician Brandon Valdivia. It predates Jooj. I worked with Ben on the experimental dance narrative How Can I Forget? and I collaborated with Brandon in various music situations. LLVK is rooted in spontaneous improv influenced by tasks or simple directions. At a time when it was difficult to coordinate all of our schedules for LLVK, Adam and I began to record songs with Jooj. We also began to play live.

Musically, it’s definitely a case of different approaches, of composed songs versus improvisatory explorations. Do these arise from different impulses? Do they inform each other?

Sook-Yin: Yes, one influences the other. A seed of a song can emerge in one context, find its way to another, then develop in an entirely different direction. Jooj began as a studio-based project and LLVK is performative. Jooj is guided by minimalism, composition to a thematic focus, and draws from a specific sonic palette. Jooj songs are interior, while LLVK is like wildfire that spreads between players in the moment with an audience. Both are raw and expressionistic. LLVK seeks form in chaos, while Jooj is contained with built-in opportunities for improvisation.

Besides your ongoing work with Ben Kamino, you’ve had some other recent dance collaborations. How does this inspire you/push you to new places?

Sook-Yin: Dancers possess a balance of poetry and science, soul and structure. I like these elements coming together. A dancer has a keen emotional, mind-body connection and understanding of physical and biological matters. At their best, dancers illuminate specific truth, feeling, expression, that is hard to define and difficult to capture in other mediums, save for poetry. The dancer’s approach influences my music.

Toronto Dance Theatre’s On Display (EXCERPT): “Untitled” solo by Sook-Yin Lee for Syreeta Hector (7 mins) from Sook-Yin Lee on Vimeo.

Perhaps the opposite of having light shows or dancers performing with you, Jooj puts you up front and in the spotlight. On top of that, there’s an implicit intimacy of the lyrical form you’re using — does it all make you feel a little more vulnerable or exposed on stage?

Sook-Yin: Onstage I feel exposed and vulnerable, but I can also feel in control and in command. When these forces come together, music has the ability to tap into my core. I’m grateful for singing because it helps connect to an essential part of me.

Adam, what sort of musical choices are you making to support the stripped-down aesthetic of the Jooj songs?

Adam Litovitz: The choices I make are determined on a song-by-song basis and by what we agree upon. Sometimes, they don’t feel much like choices, but more like instinctive stabs, or something that makes me feel “whoo-ha!” in a gentle way, something that lets us continue our shared dream without overpowering it. It’s probably a bit like the choices we make when dreaming. What are those called? I’m sure it’s a great word, or word waiting to be invented, the word for dream-choice. There’s probably a great German word for it. I just looked up “dream-choice” on Google and wound up with a Bangladeshi electronics retailer that’s not quite comprehensible to me, but check it out.

It’s the online shop to fulfill your dreams!

Allowing neat bits to just pop off and settle into the fold is another connection between Jooj’s method and LLVK’s improvisation — though Jooj musics usually start with replicable patterns instead of impossible-to-reproduce scattershot sounds. Often choice number one is something I start playing over and over again, a choice partially based on physical possibility, comfort, and stimulation. I’m not trying to break my fingers or make a mind pretzel, which is a big choice I hadn’t realized I was making until you asked this question.

I like tearing it up and playing the nearly-impossible, too, but that only occasionally fits into Joojland. Sook-Yin and I often direct each other, or suggest that the other person try something. It feels good when it connects, like anything, giving that miniature thrill that says “continue.” There’s loads of short-hand between us, little long-hand: “This sounds kind of like _____, so try ______ .” Or, “Remember what we did that time? Maybe we can try something similar, but _______.” We might use short-hand that the other is unfamiliar with, but it still works: “this is just like that bit where Lotte Lenye, that part where Robert Wyatt…” We’ll just take in whatever we get out of it and keep going. Our directives to each other can be specific, but also vague: “hit it harder,” “no! softer,” “hold it down longer,” “shorter,” “play fewer notes (take out that one there).” And some of it probably only makes sense to us, like the word “Jooj,” a kind of lived-in nonsense, or casual telepathy.

Unsurprisingly, we can finish each other’s sentences and do all those other couples-magic things. Sook-Yin’ll say “I can’t believe that” out of the blue and I’ll know what “that” is without a moment’s pause. It’s only a surprising phenomenon to hardline magic-deniers. Our choices aren’t particularly systematic, but we keep working on something that we like until we think it’s totally Joojed-out. A choice might also be: “Well, that other song we already did has that sort of sound, so what about this other thing?” We’re not very tech-y, and we haven’t whittled down our drum sounds from every possibility lurking in the history of electronics. We just try things. I can tend towards maximalism, so Sook-Yin’ll do some wise pruning. This response to your question probably evinces my maximalist tendency. But why not? This answer isn’t exactly the music itself, it’s activating a different part of my mind that says “keep going with the words, they’re getting you there.” And I feel like I’m getting there, so thank you.

We make music in a small space — eleven-feet squared in a place called “the cave” in our home, where we also watch movies on a pile of couch cushions set in a particular way like puzzle pieces on our floor. I’ll plunk myself down, and listen to what we’ve got, if there’s already a part recorded, and I’ll grab one of the instruments that’s kicking around and see if something sounds right. We’ll chat about it. There’s no formal method or theory to it. I just play what comes out and we either decide to do something with it or to scrap it. Instinct and conversation are the governing principles, I suppose. Accidents and experimentation are key, too, and some processes and choices are refined, others are blunt. I probably have internalized what sorts of melodic bits will work with Sook-Yin’s voice and sensibility, none of which I really know about. I’m not sure we know much about each other’s sensibilities in a rational sense.

I was talking earlier today with Jenn Goodwin, a dancer we’re working with, about how it’s hard to use language to adequately describe the differences between dancers. Great challenge though, unlike all that easy language out there. Easy language is great, too, and has its own place, but I’m getting into the choices that come out of choicelessness, which is what music-making in our cave can be like, truly making it a cave. Okay, those were choices, too, those original cave choices. Sook-Yin and I spend a lot of time together and we make music in our home, so I’m sure there are hidden knowledges propelling our choices or non-choices. That time Sook-Yin ate her Mesa Sunrise cereal that way, that’s why I’m playing that E-Major. We feel each other’s presences and let them present themselves, or something like that. Instead of becoming more specific to me, this seems a more obscure process as I think about it. It gets pleasurably confusing as I think about it, so thanks for giving me nice thoughts!

That’s probably about as precise as I can get about our choices. Can’t say much about it, but I’m enjoying the feeling of the presence of this question in my body. We really enjoy playing around and we’re in awe of beautiful things that mysteriously emerge. I’m sure Sook-Yin has other ideas about my choices, and there are lots of choices to make about choices. It’s not always mysterious. One of us’ll just say: “that’s some nice piano.”

Sook-Yin: Ha! Ads is hilarious. He’s a wise guy, the oracle. I just read what he wrote and it made me smile.

Sook-Yin, although your day job is a bit more high-profile, like a lot of folks working in creative/experimental music you’re doing “something else” in addition to your art. Would it be better for artists (and for society!) if there were less worries about paying bills/day job stuff? Obviously it can grind people down and squelch creative impulses, but do you think over a creative lifetime that there’s something valuable about artists being connected to that wider world?

Sook-Yin: What I do in one discipline invariably informs another. For instance, the act of writing a set list shares a lot in common with coming up with a story arc and movie editing. Much of my recent music, visual, and performance work leans on my skills as a broadcaster and interviewer. DNTO, the radio show I host and co-produce on CBC Radio 1, is a personal storytelling show. Each episode examines an idea from multiple perspectives. It is a kind of cultural exegesis where I’m pushed to consider, delve, ask questions, and gain insight from others. Working on DNTO hones my storytelling chops within a non-fiction/documentary setting. It’s the job I make a living from, but it is also a big part of my art practice. In How Can I Forget? there was an entire passage called, “The Interview” where Ben and I interview one another. I also pose questions to Syreeta Hector during her dance solo and her answers influence the choreography. Now I’m working with Adam on a new dance narrative for Jenn Goodwin and others that incorporates all my interests. It’s exciting. Everything’s connected.

I want to push a little further into the power of interviewing people. I’ve found that it seems to work really well almost despite what I bring to it as an interviewer — that you just give people a chance to talk and they’re liable to unfurl an incredible, complex web of thoughts, like Adam just did… as if they’re toting around a whole bunch of stories that have just been waiting for a chance to escape to the outer world. Is it just a case of giving people that exact same thing you were talking about above, a chance to be exposed and vulnerable but also in control and in command? Do we, as a society, have enough structured outlets to do this?

Sook-Yin: There is a great gesture in actively listening; it creates space, an opening. We need more of this. Listening is what a good interviewer, actor, director, and music improviser does. Heck, a good friend does that too! People’s lives are rich. In listening, responding, asking, and sharing, there is reciprocity, an exchange in communication that can create a connection. That is what propels much of my desire to express.

Thanks for your time! Looking forward to the show.

Don’t miss Jooj this Saturday (Nov. 8) as part of Wavelength #627, our first-ever show at the new Geary Lane art space.

– Interview by Joe Strutt