Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art: Avishag Cohen Rodrigues '21

Audrey Deng
May 22, 2020

Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art is a bi-weekly series and a play on Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. We interview artists about their art and 'getting art'.

Avishag Cohen Rodrigues '21 is a first-year sound art student. As a well-established musician—Rodrigues plays the guitar and sings, and has performed in multiple venues in NY, including the Music Hall of Williamsburg—she is asking herself what it means to study sound art under the guidance of a university-structured program. When we spoke earlier this year, Rodrigues was working on a series of egg-shaped sculptures with holes; the plan was to put speakers in these fixtures, which would augment the experience of listening to music both visually and auditorily. Though Rodrigues comes from a highly musical-performance background, she is not interested in the ways formal music is different from sound art; she seems to be interested, rather, in the ways all music is part of sound art, and expanding the types of works which can be classified as sound art.

In this conversation, we talk about her music (available here, and on Spotify), the thrill of live performance, and how sound can exist in a visual format.

How’s your first year been so far?

Avishag Cohen Rodrigues:
 It’s been good so far, I’m starting to understand where I am. It took me a while to understand what to do—like, what is sound art? Do you know what sound art is?

I don’t! I am hoping you could tell me more about it. How do you like the program?

It’s good, it’s nice, the people are really cool, and I’m free to explore many different mediums, so...yeah. I’m learning a lot.

Can you tell me a bit more about this freedom to explore, to change?

I guess I’m more open to not just making music, because before I was just a musician, and when I came here I thought the program was going to be more about sound and synthesizers, and apparently there’s a strong visual arts element that I always liked. I’ve always liked to paint, but now I find that I have a little bit more freedom and space to do it, and to try different materials and mediums I’d never had the opportunity to work with.

Amplified Body, net wire, string, spring, Piezo mics 2020

So perhaps you were more of a musician prior to this program. What instruments do you play?

I play guitar, that’s my main instrument, and basically after high school—I didn’t finish, actually—I started to play with bands and do shows and tours and record. It was my life. And then I moved here in 2017, three years ago. I spent the past seven years joining bands, touring. It’s very different, the music scene from the art world. I never thought I would be interested in presenting in a gallery space. A show can be scary when you go on and play, but it’s my field, it’s my zone, you know? And coming here, in the beginning, I was a bit surprised that the aim was to present your work in a gallery. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. But it opens my world, kind of. I’m just trying, playing stuff.

Coming from a world of touring and performing, group dynamics, to this rather more individualized world of visual art—how has that been?

I still try to keep my life as a musician active. I don’t want to stop.

What kind of music do you play?

Usually I have a lot of pedals, like effect pedals for the guitar so I can manipulate the sound. And it kind of changes between the bands. I’m not so good with genres and stuff. I’m doing my solo project now, and I’m playing shows by myself, but I might get more people involved with that.

I didn’t sing until maybe two years ago, because I was too shy, but now I can do it. I get to know myself better over the years, have less doubts. I’m trying to do things I’m afraid of doing, but the fear is because I want to do it, or is coming from a place of excitement. The feeling that you are afraid not because it’s scary, like jumping from a high place, but scary because you really want to do it and you’ve never done it. It’s a real fear-excitement thing. I’m trying to do more and more things like that. Coming here was very scary for me, I had anxiety because English is not my first language, and the last time I’d studied was in high school. They don’t require you to have a BA in this program, but I think it’s encouraged. So this was also scary. The solo project is something that I’m trying to overcome my fears with, because it’s all metrics you know? You just need to put it there.

Avishag Cohen Rodrigues Live at Istanbul Pub 4/29/2019

I think I saw a video of you singing on YouTube.

It was probably bad.

No, it was really good! Was there a synthesizer or a keyboard?

 A sampler, which you can use to make the music, and put the drums onto this machine, and you can play it, I had a keyboard, too probably and probably a guitar. The show on YouTube is really bad.

Where was the show?

 Tel Aviv. That’s where I’m from, where I grew up.

What was the music scene like there?

It was nice, it’s on the beach, and it’s kind of small so you can ride your bicycle over, and it takes fifteen minutes to get anywhere, unlike here. It takes me an hour to get from the house to campus. You get to know everyone pretty quickly, if you’re in the music scene in Tel Aviv. Everyone knows each other, it’s very small. You have three venues, and the same five people are playing for the same five people. And it’s good, they’re very creative people.

I see. So you live in Brooklyn now?

 I used to live in Brooklyn, but now I live on Avenue C. But I might move back to Brooklyn, to be closer to my other life.

What do you feel is this other life?

The music venues. It’s funny, when I came here I didn’t play music for half a year. It was the longest time—I mean I did shows but I wasn’t creating music. It was kind of a shock for me. But now I get to balance more.

What were you doing when you weren’t creating music?

 I was trying to understand what I’m doing here and what’s going on here… I guess more painting, ceramics, etching.

Who are some musical artists you admire, or used to admire? Over time?

 There is this Israeli artist, her name is Inbal Perlmuter, she led a band called the Witches in the 90s. That’s a main influence of mine. And then you know, the usual: David Bowie, Iggy Pop, PJ Harvey, Beach House. I only discovered them three years ago! That’s late, isn’t it? There’s so much good music.

How many guitars do you have?

 Here I just have two, back home I have five more. This one is Italian, probably from the 60s or 70s, and it’s red. It’s called a hollow guitar, mine is half-acoustic so it’s very light.

Can you play something short?

I don’t know. I haven’t touched this guitar in a long while. [Plays BEAUTIFUL MUSIC]

Also with music, I really like to improvise, and that’s something that comes out a lot in music and art. Sometimes I feel like these works are very ugly.

How long have you been playing the guitar? Are you taking any music classes this year?

Maybe ten, eleven years. It’s starting to get old. [Laughs]. I know a bit of theory, but I didn’t do a degree in it. I’m not a composer, but I think I will next take a class year, just don’t have a lot of time. What I really like here [at Columbia] is that it doesn’t really matter if you’re working in sculpture or photography or what practice you came in under—everyone can do a bit of everything. It’s very nonrestrictive. I was maybe a bit surprised in the beginning by how much freedom I had. I was like, “Ok, tell me what to do, I’m in school,” and they were like, “Do something!” So I’m trying to understand the expectations of the program. I can’t wait to have a studio with a window.

Sculpting with Sound, ink, plastic, sound. 2019

What classes are you taking right now?

 I’m taking sculpture with Jon Kessler, and an animation course, taught by Ben Hagari. He’s Israeli, actually, which is nice.

Where do you play? And how do you prepare for each performance?

 When I play by myself my memory doesn’t work, so I don’t write chords, it’s hard for me to remember—but that’s the way I work. I play in Music Hall of Williamsburg, elsewhere, some smaller venues in Bushwick, there are so many places here, which is great.

What does your ideal venue look like?

Good music, dim lights, and if you can smoke and drink at the same time that would be nice.

What are you working on right now?

 Over the summer, I had the chance to record an album with a friend, so I’m looking for a label here, if you know anyone. I need to mix, I have some work, but usually the actual work on an album is six days, but the mental work, really, can take months. I recorded this song [plays song] last month. I hope it will be done soon. This will be my first solo album. This song is kind of poppy, which is strange, because usually I am not so mainstream, but I wanted to be not so abstract, but perhaps I went too far in the opposite direction. Every album will be something else.

Consistency is the enemy.

 If you are consistent about waking up and doing something you love, that’s good.

And you have the first-year show coming up right?

 I’m trying to finish these eggs. I have a month, two months, to finish these eggs. I’m going to place speakers in them. 

Current student Avishag Cohen Rodrigues