Artists Birch Cooper and Brenna Murphy work collaboratively under the project name MSHR. Together they produce other-worldly interactive installations where embedded synthesizers blend into plexiglass and colorful luminescences to produce sculptural soundscapes. Using their installations as sets, they play with body interactions, lights, and sounds to create panoptic sensory experiences. Previously stationed in Portland, Brooklyn is lucky to have them. They recently relocated to reside with their friends at American Medium in Bed Stuy. They have a studio residency at Pioneer Works in Red Hook and will be working there until the end of December. We met up with them at Pioneer Works and learned more about their processes, how to build a synthesizer, and their interests in raga and computer generated music.
How long have you had your residency at Pioneer Works?
BC: About two months. Since mid June.
BM: We will be here until December.
What have you been working on during your residency?
BC: We have been working on a lot of performances. We are starting to look into new approaches. We have also been working on our digital work.
BM: Practicing a lot. We're also working on making a zine.
BC: We need merch for tour.
Where are you going on tour?
BM: We'll start out in Maine. Our friends have a festival there called Soma Daze. We'll stay there for a couple days, and then we'll play in Boston and in Providence. And then at Fields Fest.
How do your individual practices relate to MSHR?
BC: They're very closely related. Very intertwined.
BM: I feel like our personal practices feed our collaboration and vice versa.
How did you meet and start working together?
BM: We moved into a house together in 2007. And everyone in the house started an art collective for four years called the Oregon Painting Society. There were five of us, and then when that ended and we all moved out, we started to have the conversation about MSHR. We have been doing that for five years, so we have been collaborating for 9 years.
BC: Our approach to MSHR was really informed by our previous art collective.
What kind of work did Oregon Painting Society produce?
BM: We did a lot of interactive sound installations and sculpture that we had embedded with electronics.
BC: We did performances in which we would make the instruments for the performances. We would make costumes, make installations, videos...
BM: We would make up characters and narratives. It was a cohesive world, especially since we lived together and there were five of us. We got very group minded. There was a strong group aesthetic. So in MSHR we are trying to carry the spirit of a really cohesive aesthetic world where we make all the aesthetic forms necessary for that world.
So that was in Portland? I know you've been based in Oregon for a while but I hear you recently moved to NYC and are living at American Medium?
BM: Yeah, we are living above there.
Are you doing work with them now? Showing with them soon?
BM: Yeah, we are doing work with them now. We have been friends a long time. They had a space in Portland. We just always told them when the apartment above American Medium opens we would come live there for a while.
BC: Then we got this text really early in the morning that the room was going to be opening...
BM: And we were like, "Ah!"
BC: We were wiping sleep out of our eyes and were just like “I guess we have to move to New York now.”
Were you ready to make the move? What the art and music scene like in Portland right now?
BC: Yes and no. In some ways change was really necessary, but it was also painful.
BM: We had a really nice thing going on there. A nice house filled with friends, so it was sad to leave that, but you always have to move forward.
BM: It's really good. There are a lot of people doing experimental art and music. Improvised electronics. Synthesizer stuff.
BC: A lot of DIY art spaces have followed in the footsteps of Appendix (the gallery that Josh & Travis from AM ran with Zach Davis, Alex Dolan and others). I'm hesitant to say they were the first because I'm sure it's not true, but they stood out, and there was no one else really like that at the time, and now there is a lot of really great underground art and music institutions/ venues as well as some larger ones that have come up. It’s kind of blossoming. So there is some good in the change that is coming to Portland, which is the same story as every other city- rapid gentrification, rent increases. A lot of people moving there.
BM: A lot of people moving away because of rent prices.
What inspires the design of your work?
BC: One important aspect of the work is feedback. Feedback between each other and between ourselves and the programs that we use to design our images. And between the forms in our music and the forms in our visual art. Often our visual art is very inspired by generative music. Also, as much as we can, we try to study art from all cultures and time periods so we can form a conglomerate idea of human archetypes.
BM: We are intuitively trying to design our own archetypal motifs, which reflect all of humanity's archetypal motifs.
BC: Or reflect some sort of fundamental aspect of it.
BM: Fundamental shapes.
As far as your performances go, are they improvised or are the recited beforehand?
BC: It is impossible to replicate specific sounds, but you can replicate a system that will have certain types of interactions.
BM: We come up with this series of interfaces that organizes how the set will flow, and then within each interface we improvise with the system.
BC: Our approach to playing is based in free improv but also electronic music and cybernetics.
Are you guys inspired by any other particular artists in that genre?
BC: Definitely. All of them. A big touchstone of our work is David Tudor and a lot of our synthesizers are in that lineage. We look at that work and those who followed him as our linage as far as electronics go.
BM: He was John Cage's pianist and worked a lot of John Cage, so a lot of John Cage's work is inherent in what we do.
BC: We're interested in pretty much all music.
BM: We love the avant garde heads like La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Henry Flynt, Terry Riley...that whole New York school of raga influenced drone.
I love that stuff too. Have you been to Dream House? I was worried for a while they were going to close.
BC: Yes, it's still around! Marian Zazeela and LaMonte Young still perform yearly. They do a series of performances in the Dream House.
BM: I think they do it in the Spring and Fall.
BC: Their band, Just Alap Raga Ensemble, is amazing and insane. I'm really interested in computer music too- I'm absorbing a lot of it right now. And we're really inspired by our friends' work. Max Eilbacher comes to mind. We went on tour with him last fall.
Did the music come first or did the art come first or did it all come at the same time?
BM: It all came at the same time.
BC: We've been making music and art our whole lives, so there wasn't really a direct starting point.
BM: You could say it started in Oregon Painting Society, when we really started building the language around our synthesizers and performances.
And how has MSHR evolved overtime? What was your first show like?
BM: When we started we had this idea that we had to start from nothing and build from there. And it has worked that way. The first thing we did as group was go on a European tour because we were filling in for another band. So we had to completely come up with a set.
BC: The first thing we did was make two synthesizers and we just started improvising with them.
BM: We had no structure and we played with the same synths for the entire set, improvising with them for 20 minutes. So from that beginning to now, we have been able to refine and find different pathways. Organize the world a little bit.
BC: Now we use modular systems more and more complex interfaces.
BM: Doing installations. Doing performances. Both informed each other. We will come up with a new system for an installation and then we'll be like "Oh, we can change this about it and then use it in our performance".
BC: A big breakthrough for us was starting to use feedback between lights and sound. When we started doing that, it opened up a lot of worlds for us.
What is the tech behind that?
BC: All the synthesizer's parameters are controlled by light levels, so we use photoresistors to determine the value of each parameter.
BM: All the sensors that we are holding have photoresistors in them.
BC: The audio output of the system goes to the speakers, but it also goes to color organs. Based on the volume and frequencies of the sound, they turn on different groups of incandescent light bulbs. The filament of each bulb responds differently so you get this really organic almost liquid kind of sound out of instruments that would be very geometric sounding otherwise.
Do you guys teach classes on this?
BC: Yes. Actually we are teaching a six week class here at Pioneer Works starting September 19th.
To take the class, do you need any background in synths or soldering experience?
BC: We don't assume any previous knowledge. I've been doing some workshops recently and it's been really cool and challenging to get a whole group of people through a circuit. A lot of times the people in the group haven't ever soldered before, so it's always an adventure. It's really cool to see people start to understand how electricity flows through a circuit.
And I saw that you guys went to Croatia a while ago. What was the experience like?
BM:We have a friend who use lived in Portland named Dunja Jankovic. She's an amazing artist from Croatia. She moved back there and started doing a festival every summer called Skver. That time with the kids was another time in the winter. We were on tour in winter and Dunja organized a show for us at the Museum in Mali Losinj and a presentation for the school children.
BC: We did the Balkan circuit twice.
BM: When we came back the second time, that was when we installed Solar Helix, an electronic system where people play electronic music by touching each others bodies. It's like this music improvisation where the interface is someone else and yourself.
It looked like the kids were having a good time.
BC: It was funny. The kids were talking to their teacher in Croatian, and then the teacher was forcing them to recite the questions in English, so they could practice. And one of the kids was really embarrassed, but had this burning question, “Are you a couple?” We said, “Yes.” And then they all laughed and asked, “Did you kiss?”
Kissing is a funny point with that piece though. I tried a couple ways to power it. For a while, I was powering it with off the wall with kind of cruddy adapter, so when you did kiss it would taste like metal, like licking a nine volt battery. But now we've found a safer way to do it.
With the touch installation, do they often kiss? What kinds of reactions do you get out of people?
BC: There are different emergent dynamics. Patty cake is one. Young men sometimes will hit each other. We do not encourage that. Well, the last time we did this was the Second Sunday (at Pioneer Works). Tons of people were coming through. Some bros were punching each other and I jokingly imagined telling them “It works better if you hit each other really hard in the head.” Most people are happy and excited to explore the interface and explore how it works. I particularly like when kids do it because they are so good at learning interfaces.
Do you guys have any crazy tour stories or anything like that?
BC: All tour is insane. Your mind is clipped the whole time.
BM: It's hard to just pick one.
BC: Most of the crazy stuff is just sleep deprivation.
BM: The circumstances of travel.
BC: I feel like Serbia really stood out to us as a crazy zone. I don't know if there is a particular story with that though.
Do you travel with all of this gear?
BM: As much as we can fit in a backpacking backpack and a rolly suitcase. The backpack has the synths and everything we can't check because if they get broken we would be totally screwed. The rollies have the commercially available electronics like cables and mixers. Then we also have a big garbage bag of light bulbs that we bring in our backpack. You can't get incandescent bulbs in Europe. They phased them out, and LEDs don't work for what we are doing because they don't fade up and down so we found that out when we're doing an installation there, and we could only find LEDs.
What did you do?
BC: The institution that we we're working with was able to source the bulbs from some dead stock somewhere in the EU, but they couldn't find colored light bulbs for the installations, so we had to paint all the bulbs by hand, with this nail polish like substance. I think we might still have a few floating around.
BM: Tour is beautiful and crazy.