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Madwomen From The Attic: Amber Asylum's Force and Gratz are more reminiscent of Bertha Mason than Sarah McLachlan.

Amber Asylum's Siren Strings

By Michelle Goldberg

Amber asylum makes sad and beautiful music. An ever-shifting collective with Kris Force and Jackie Gratz as its nucleus, the band combines classical string instruments and Force's rich, otherworldly vocals with a subtle but distinctly modern use of studio manipulations and sampling. It would be tempting to call Amber Asylum's music gothic, but that word conjures too many adolescent banalities. One could label it ambient, but that implies something anodyne and unobtrusive, and the songs on Songs of Sex and Death are passionate, melodramatic and immediate. Amber Asylum's sound is distinctly feminine, but it's more reminiscent of Jane Eyre (or Bertha Mason) than of Sarah McLachlan and her Lilith Fair. Songs of Sex and Death is an ambitious title, but given this intense, nakedly emotional, often ravishing album, it's not much of an overstatement.


Metropolitain: Tell me how Amber Asylum got started.

Kris Force: I started a project called Frozen in Amber that was all four-track recordings and cassette recordings. I did the tape trade thing in the late '80s. Then I was in a band for about two years, and there were virtues to that, in that you could go out and perform at any time, but the sound became monochromatic and fixed. So I worked alone for a while, and then I met Jackie. This is the arrangement I'm most happy with, where I have one really close collaborator and then we can invite other people as a collective. It's hard to achieve much by yourself, but the two of us can achieve a great deal.

Metropolitain: The structure reminds me of This Mortal Coil.

Jackie Gratz: Yeah, it's really amorphous. In that sense, it's like a classical ensemble, in that you're always working with different people, and it's going to be interpreted differently each time you perform it. It keeps it fresh. The same song that Chris has been playing for however many years sounds different every time we do it, just depending on what musicians we're working with and what instruments.

Force: We replace a lot of the sounds. What might have been a violin in one area, I'll replace with voice or guitar or even a keyboard part. It's a revitalized interpretation and it doesn't become boring.

Metropolitain: Were you classically trained before you decided to venture into pop music, or did it work the other way around?

Gratz: I'm pretty much entirely classically trained. Up to this point, I've only played with orchestras or chamber groups, so this is the first time I'm writing my own parts and improvising.

Force: I played violin as a child and then took private lessons as an adult. I studied music theory, and I had vocal training with an opera singer for the last four years.

Metropolitain: Do you sing opera? Are you planning on adding opera elements to Amber Asylum?

Force: I sing arias. Hopefully, we'll use some of them. I don't really like a lot of opera. I find the narratives embarrassing and overly dramatic. The classical music that I'm really most attracted to is early music, 15th- and 16th-century English madrigals, that kind of thing. I also like some things that came out of the Romantic era and that went on into the 20th century before things got really alienating and estranged.

Metropolitain: Do you feel kinship to modern classical groups like Kronos Quartet?

Force: I really try to keep my ear to the ground, and there's a lot of fresh music coming out from some of these alternative labels. Thrill Jockey has a sublabel called Quarterstick, and they release the Rachels, which is a string ensemble with piano and drums--they do devotional songs or songs narrating the life of Egon Schiele, things like that. It's beautiful music. I'm so excited to hear strings in the context of alternative rock.

Metropolitain: That's why I was so excited when I first heard you. I'm always so hungry for truly, unabashedly beautiful music.

Gratz: One of our biggest goals is to play beautiful music. You know, after rehearsal being able to say, "Thanks, Kris, we made really beautiful music tonight." It's something that's really important to both of us.

Force: It's really profound when you can share that with somebody.

Metropolitain: Is part of your reason for playing pop music, for lack of a better term, instead of traditional classical music so that you can reach your peers, people who wouldn't go to a chamber recital?

Force: Well, I have some classical background, but I also have a very rich and intensive background in electronic engineering and sound engineering, so there's an element there that's very contemporary. I like to perform music that occurs naturally, and this is just what comes out. Also, I'm not good enough for the classical job market. Period. Two percent of the people who try will actually get a seat in an orchestra. Also, those professional performers don't compose works--Kronos Quartet doesn't compose works. I'm driven to create works, and that's what comes out. I happen to just love strings--I find them to be a wonderful vehicle of expression.

Metropolitain: Do you consider your music an outgrowth of classical music, a kind of contemporary classical music?

Force: We're using some of the same tools, but we've added some contemporary tools. I'd say it's influenced by the art song most definitely. In some of the earlier stuff I did as Frozen in Amber, I actually followed sonata forms and wrote sonatas with piano, three movements and an alternative movement. They were totally standard; it was an intellectual challenge. But I needed more than an intellectual challenge, and with Amber Asylum I really try to create this flow experience that's so stimulating and expressive.

Metropolitain: There's an obvious gothic element in your music. How much of that is inherent in the use of strings, and how much is intentional?

Gratz: This is the Amber Asylum issue right now. We don't really fall into any particular category.

Force: We've performed in goth environments and have had positive experiences, and we're well received, but we are a little different. I can't say that I'm entirely gothic. I think that some of the themes I approach ...

Metropolitain: Well, you can't get more gothic than the title Songs of Sex and Death.

Force: Can't we? Or can't we be more Hollywood? Those are two huge motivational forces. If you go see a movie, it's always either going to be about sex or violence.

Metropolitain: A lot of your music reminds me of suicidal female poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

Force: I'm glad that you made that connection, because it's definitely real. We're definitely tapping into that femme thing. I made the decision recently to just play with women, because I feel like we're all underdogs, and if anyone's going to understand the message here, it's going to be other women.

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From the March 29, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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