Sandy Ewen is hardly your typical guitarist. Whereas many players focus on notes and melody, Ewen treats the instrument in a manner more akin to how a painter approaches colors and a canvas. She famously employs bows, chalk, screws, and all manner of implements to coax textural and abstract expressions of sound that are something unique to Ewen. Despite the serious manner in which this University of Texas Architecture gradate approaches her work, her manner is anything but dour or pretentious. Her love of Houston’s Experimental scene seems to gush out in waves of good cheer and admiration. One minute she is praising Lucas Gorham and his band Grandfather Child and the next she is praising Nameless Sound. It’s the voice of someone who is a part of something important and meaningful – something she came across simply by making a record purchase.
“I had this idea,” recalls Ewen, “that you should get a record player, Captain Beefheart, Sun-Ra, and The Minutemen – like that was something you were just supposed to do. So, when I moved to Texas as a junior in high school, I got my record player at Sound Exchange and I was buying Sun Ra and Captain Beefheart when Dave Dove (Nameless Sound) saw me there and he thought ‘Ah, here is someone who needs to be aware of what I am doing in this city.’” So, Ewen went to see The Sam Rivers Trio a few days later and hasn’t looked back since.
“Dave’s whole group is about finding young people and exposing them to free jazz and Experimental music,” she continues, “I didn’t know at the time what I was looking for but that was it. So, through Nameless Sound, I had this musical grounding and, when I moved to Austin, I started playing with Tom Carter (Charalambides). That very first day I moved to Austin, I unloaded all my stuff into my dorm room and then went off to play a gig with Maria Chavez and Holland Hopson. Tom Carter saw me there and we started playing weekly. We have tons of recordings and ended up with a release on Jyrk records and another on Music Fellowship. Tom had been talking to Aaron [Russell] from Weird Weeds about how he thought it was funny that here I was 18 and playing Experimental guitar and so Weird Weeds asked me to play with them and I ended up joining the band.”
“I consider myself an improviser,” she continues, “but everything I do in Weird Weeds is within a context that is really scripted and tight – everything is completely composed and where it is supposed to be. But whereas the rest of the band is precise to a note, I have some flexibility. I know our pieces, what implements I intend to use and how. My playing can be textural, melodic, and percussive but it is always rehearsed and specific.”
That purposeful playing is also apparent in her other endeavors such as her work with dancer YET Torres and the band unofficially called Girl Band. “My work with YET is collaborative. We have a lot of pieces we’ve written where we have a description of where the sound is supposed to go – these can be spatial ideas, specific sounds, or methods of interaction.”
“Last year at SXSW,” she laughs,”we learned that if you make harsh noise, you will get unplugged. We were playing at a hot dog stand (I don’t know what they were expecting) but I just jumped into this noisy loud crunchy sound and they just weren’t into it and we got unplugged immediately. I was kind of taken aback but YET was in good spirits so we went down to the next place and did something there and it was fun.”
Girl Band is a much looser collective of people but no less inspired. “The name of the band changes all the time and we have about 8 people right now; the exact roster is hard to pin down. We’ve been doing pieces that are more performance art and we think about how to perform these pieces in ways that are engaging and creative. So, for example, when we performed a graphic score made of shapes at the Salvage Vanguard Theatre in Austin, we were dispersed in the audience and the score was on the stage. The score was printed very large and we used flashlights and laser pointers to communicate to each other and the audience what part of the score we were interpreting – that was very effective.
“We’re doing this performance on Sunday April, 3 at the Menil [3PM sharp at the North entrance]. Damon Smith wrote us a piece that relates to Max Neuhaus’ sound installation at the Menil. I’ve adapted one of our previous pieces for Michael Heizer‘s earth sculptures where we lie on the grass face-down and are cued to sing by a bandmate who will roll us onto our back one by one. Then, we have another one for Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk.”
The enthusiasm you her in Ewen’s voice when she discusses her work in the Improv community (which Ewen explains is just one small part of Houston’s Experimental scene) is not shared by all. One objection you hear from detractors is the same one you hear when some people first experience Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings or Mark Rothko’s multiforms – the dreaded cry of “I could do that.” To those people, the whole exercise appears easy, undisciplined, and self-indulgent.
Ewen finds this critique uninformed, “I play and practice this music several times a week and so it’s really refined. I practice weekly with Damon Smith, YET Torres, and Under the Covers (which plays Jazz standards) and it’s there that I try new things. I know what the different screws sound like – I know the variation between a small and large toothed screw. I’ve played with steel wool, chalk, and pieces of metal and the nuances of these materials have become second nature. As much as some people might see it as unrefined, they actually couldn’t sit down and do what I do because I’m actually technically proficient at it. To hear the subtle tone qualities is something I’ve worked on and I know how to adjust what I’m doing in relation to my guitar pick-ups, tone controls, and all the other variations. It seems like it’s easy – and that’s good – but for someone to say that they can do what I do…you have to work on it to do what I do.”
Another objection made by some is that Improv and Experimental music is unimportant because sales and attendance are so miniscule especially in comparison to pop acts like Beyonce or Justin Beiber. Ewen sees that as a foolish way to gauge success, “In terms of numbers…I really don’t care to look at that. Experimental music has a transformative quality that has the power to change how you see things. Seeing a really good Experimental performance can really change your concept of how people can interact and what the reality is of the human experience. Pop music may be fun to dance to but it doesn’t change my worldview. It doesn’t challenge you in different ways and that challenge is important.
“It’s like any other style of music where the more you listen to it the more you can distinguish. There are lots of people who don’t like Gamelan because they’ve never heard it before and so it makes no sense to them. Some people think that way about Rap music too. There has always a barrier to entry [in music] and that barrier is simply taking part, listening, and figuring it out. If you put a lot into it, you can get a lot out of it and if people don’t want to put the time in, it will seem like a bunch of garbage but that’s their loss.
“The fact is the Experimental scene here is world class – there is an impressive pool of talent, a supportive audience, and receptive venues. There’s a lot of freedom and everyone can do what they want. In other cities, it can be hard to find gigs or you have some established people who hold the gates open or close them for whoever they want. Here, we have a lot of series that include whoever wants to play and that is really healthy. There are enough venues where people can set things up really easily and there are so many performers and players that anyone can do it and a lot of people do and a lot of people put in enough time and energy to make it good. I wouldn’t move to another city to pursue Experimental music.”