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Entomological Surrealism [2014-01-13]

Katja Seltmann, better known by her alter-ego Irene Moon, has been an active figure in the experimental underground since the early 90's. An entomologist by trade, she’s known for melding her entomology lectures with performance art. Recently she is featured on a split album with Pod Blotz, as a member of the noisy, absurdist theatre group Auk Theatre. One of my favorite releases of 2013, their side of the split is a wild ride of spoken word, wind instruments, and electronics, that sounds noisy yet folksy at times. Ms. Moon kindly took time to answer some questions regarding her projects and the new(ish) split album.

m[m]:What was your introduction to experimental music? When did you start creating and performing your own music?
Irene Moon What I thought of, as experimental back when I was in grade school is not what I think of it now. Although, I still cant really say what it is. I always enjoyed loud and odd music, the culture around it, and sought it out. My original loves were 80s metal like the Scorpions, Def Leopard, and Ratt. I belonged to the Columbia House subscription tape club and would just look at the tape covers to see which might be the coolest to buy. Accidently picking up Sweet Leaf and Diamond Dogs basically changed my life and still remains pivotal inspirations. My father was a Professor of Botany at North Carolina State University, working with the United States Department of Agriculture, so we lived near the university. I saw Punks and Goths and was attracted to whatever zone they were in. Bob Dobbs was big back then. People would wheat paste and spray paint his likeness around town. I would ride around on my pink Schwinn one speed bicycle and see where the images would take me. They would lead me to a club called the Brewery, where I started going to see my first bands and to a record store, Schoolkids on Hillsborough Street, where I started buying more records and tapes. As a teen I would sneak out to Punk clubs and see Goth music, weirder the better. We don’t think of these as experimental now, and perhaps they are not, but at the time I got a taste for music discovery and popular vs. outsider phenomenon.

Irene Moon When I was about 19-20 (I am 41 now) I moved to Athens, Georgia. Not because of the great music scene. I had no idea it existed or that I would ever be part of it. I went there because it was the only school near to Raleigh that had a biological illustration program. I had been studying Zoology as an early undergraduate student and taking design classes at the same time. I believed in ideas behind the fundamental principles of the universal design could be explained through biology. This has nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with mathematics. Neither of my parents was religious. In fact they were expressed atheists living in the South, not a common occurrence for individuals of their generation.

Irene Moon Anyway, when I moved to Athens I found a number of people who were very supportive and encouraging of my nutty ideas. Some of these groups were: Melted Men, Medaglia d’Oro Orchestra, Elephant 6 Collective, The Noiselttes, Oracle Cafe and many, many others. They encouraged me to overcome my shyness and start lecturing about entomology in front of audiences. Around that same time I started producing recordings that were very well received on a few select radio stations. One in particular was WFMU. I was so dumbstruck that anyone would listen to what I recorded. It was not until I began to tour the Northeast and Europe did I start understanding more of what was out there and began to find experimental music as I think of it today. Field recordings, minimalism, art noise and mashups became a large part of my world of influence very quickly. Mail ordering from RRRecords, playing on WFMU, visiting Rough Trade, and performing at spaces like Fort Thunder were highlights. I am a bit nostalgic for those days in many ways. You really had to reach out by physically going somewhere, make an effort, meet people and talk for recommendations and inspiration, and it felt a bit like finding lost members of your own family.

 

m[m]:By profession you’re an Entomologist. What brought you into that profession? Do you see any connections between your professional career and the music you create?
Irene Moon Although I have never been fully successful at explaining it, I see no separation between my music and entomology. For me, it is all part of the same creative and inspirational process. I have always loved creatures; snakes, lizards, insects, fish, diversity, people, science, explanation and that yet to be explained. Same as music, scientific discovery is an inherently creative process, at least in the moments of inspiration. What you do, or how you execute it afterward, however, can be different. My music is pretty composed and restricted. I am not one really for “letting loose”. Even my "jams" are actually pretty controlled. Like the main character in the TV show Monk, I am more comfortable if all of my umbrellas are hung in the same direction.  Thus, the musical design and experimental design both have some (to a lot) of control, even though I often try to disguise it somehow. I also have this habit of switching to new things musically. I am a bit here and then over there. Almost as if when I am done with one musical experiment it is simply time to move on to another.


m[m]:One of your projects that I’ve been thoroughly enjoying is Auk Theatre. What was the genesis of this project and how has it developed over the years?
Irene Moon Thanks. Auk Theater is very dependant on the other group members. The attitude, style and humor of the other people are very important because they end up as actors, and I don't really like acting in the theater. People are to act like a refined version of who they are naturally, minimize movement, amplify expression...almost in an amplification of the personality that already exists. Many of the early Auks were humorous, because I created them with a naturally funny fellow, Jeremy Midkiff. Matthew Minter and I created some of the direst Auks. Sara O'Keefe inspired those that are epic and deeply psychological.

Irene Moon I think the original genesis goes back to performing in a DJ cabaret in Athens called “Very Nice” (here is a link to an old interview with us: here). We would spin a large number of records at one time while trying to reenact some story and manage to drink quite a bit all at the same time, live on stage. Not a whole lot of thought went into Very Nice performances, but some craftsmanship for cardboard cut outs of props and raw gusto did. I concluded from those that, if you make it crazy enough, and short enough, people will watch just about anything.  Auk Theatre came out of that attitude along with added craftsmanship and the desire to tell a story.  Visualization for music that was not film. Desire to create something pretty and entertaining at the same time.


 

m[m]:Given the theatrical nature of Auk Theatre, I get the impression that the project is really meant to be experienced live. Is it a completely different dynamic to produce an audio recording versus the live performance?
Irene Moon Yeah, it is simply better live. I think the music stands on its own particularly if it is listened to as a soundtrack, and there are some videos of shows out there that are nice to have. The energy created from live performance though cannot be replaced. Auk Theater was designed to be mobile, rock club to gallery, or roof top on tour. Often we would not know the situation we were getting into before we arrived. I love this lack of control of environment on that level. I can handle that, but only because we create scenes that fit into almost any space, thought ahead, brought backup projectors, and bring all of my own music gear. I still try to find simple solutions for bad sound that does not include carrying my own PA, but once I stop I always get the sound guy that falls asleep at the mixer.

 

m[m]:Do you have a background in drama?
Irene Moon No I don't. I performed the Velveteen Rabbit when I was a kid and forgot all my lines. Maybe that is why Auk Theater has so few spoken parts. I simply cannot remember them.

m[m]:How did the split with Pod Blotz come to fruition and what was the process like recording for it?
Irene Moon The split was a long time in production. Years even. Andy asked Suzy and I if we would be interested and we were very excited. We have a long history of appreciation of what each other does, so the idea of a split was very exciting. My side of the recording is the soundtrack from "Ten Phases of Fallen". The story is about a person’s journey through imagery people who have their genealogy back to medieval Europe might relate. The images are from the plague, wondering minstrels, alchemy, and mysterious stuff like that. The music is very loosely based on early medieval music, with some of the melodies taken from classical pieces. The Auk on the split is not longer in active production. It was one that I performed with Sara O'keefe back in Lexington. Lots of folks helped in the production, including Trevor Tremaine and many other folks. I recorded and edited all of the music in a couple of lovely houses in Lexington we lovingly called the Charles Mansion or Club Seal. Up to 9 people lived in the Charles Mansion at one time, which was also a great stockpile of awesome talent. I don't remember all the details but everyone helped at some level.

Irene Moon An iterative process edits Auk recordings, and the structure is created by a story, typically separated by acts. Generally the plot and mood would be sketched out first on paper and storyboarded. Then some magical dust of inspiration, often from the imagery itself would be added. As always there would be some tricks in the mix. One that comes to mind is adding vocals for transitions between scenes.


m[m]:What do you have coming up on the horizon?
Irene Moon I recently moved to Philadelphia and am presently working as an Entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I commute a lot. My research is based on insects that feed on plants and how we can evaluate information from natural history collection records. It is cool stuff (project webpage: tcn.amnh.org). The networks are inspiring to me, and I hope to reproduce them in an abstract theater. How? Heck, who knows? Auk Theater itself has morphed into a looser manifestation of the theater, with more improvised bits with live music. At the moment it has merged with another one of my projects, The Collection of the Late Howell Bend. So perhaps it will end up as an animation. I often still use rear-projection to create "other worlds" and characters. I have also returned to performing scientific slide show lectures. Prophesying about insects, biodiversity, and conservation on every level. All updates are on begoniasociety.org.

Thanks to Katja/Irene for her time & efforts with the interview. The projects facebook page can be found here

Hal Harmon
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