Uncovering the Heritage Silhouette: Lee Gilboa '19
BY Brittany Nguyen, February 11, 2021
Uncovering the Heritage Silhouette is a bi-weekly series diving into how tradition influences the creation of art. We interview artists heavily influenced by their heritage.
Lee Gilboa ’19 is an Israeli composer, researcher and audio engineer. In her work Lee uses speech, audio spatialization and vocal processing, and engages with different themes around the sonic identity such as naming, formation, representation, and self-expression. While at Berklee College of Music, where she was mentored by Neil Leonard, Gilboa performed with a wide variety of artists such as Robert Rich, Amnon Wolman and Terence Blanchard. Between 2017-19 Gilboa attended Columbia University's MFA Sound Art program where she worked closely with professors Seth Cluett and Nikolas Kakkoufa. During this time she began her work as a curator at Daniel Neumann’s CT::SWaM, and developed her debut album The Possibility of Sonic Portraiture, which was released by Contour Editions.
Her works have been presented in venues such as Roulette Intermedium, The Immersion Room in NYU, The Cube at Virginia Tech, and Spectrum’s multi-channel festival, among others, and in conferences such as The Audio Testimonies Symposium, Residual Noise, and the Harvard Graduate Music Forum. She participated in several master classes and artist residencies internationally, including The Atlantic Center for the Arts and IRCAM Manifeste Academy. Currently, Gilboa is a PhD student in Brown University’s Music and Multimedia Composition program. Her recent commissions include a 30-channel fixed-media composition for The Honk-Tweet, and a collection of works titled The Other’s Conception, which will be released by the Surface World in early 2021.
Sound can be an immensely crucial aspect of any exhibition. It’s a very particular craft that many outside of the sound art program may not know much about, including myself. What is sound art to you?
Lee Gilboa: My take on art with sound, or any form of sonic practice, is that at its core it interacts with sound as its medium of engagement. For me, a good sound art piece is one that takes over the space and gets the listener completely immersed in it. They enter an experience. Like one of my favorites, Daniel Neumann’s CHANNELS, which was on a couple years back. To me, this is what I want sound art to be. Sound art in a gallery calls for pieces that do not have a clear beginning and end. I don’t think of my work as ‘sound art’ and I don’t think it fits all gallery spaces because it has a form and does come to an end.
How did you find yourself in the sound art program at Columbia?
LG: I’m born and raised in Israel. I left after high school and went to Berklee College of Music. There I started as a saxophonist and clarinetist. I was a big jazz head. Soon after I began my studies there I discovered electronic music. I fell in love with the idea of being able to make sound out of nowhere. I followed that joy and applied for The Electronic Production and Design major. The program was focused towards EDM and I quickly discovered that I am not that type of artist. But thankfully, I found myself under the guidance of Professor Neil Leonard, who is just a wonderful person and runs the Berklee Interdisciplinary Arts Institute, which allowed me to discover experimental electronic music.
Your thesis project for Columbia University was performed all in Hebrew. What was the project and the message behind not translating for the American audience?
LG: It was called Peter Pan. I interviewed four women to talk about a specific universal figure in their lives. One of the women mentioned Peter Pan in her interview, hence the title. The piece was trying to examine if it is possible to talk about a person without revealing their names or any visual signifiers, but only focusing on their characteristics and their relationship to you, and out of that create a global sense of familiarity with that person.
Hebrew-speaking audiences automatically picked up on who the figure was, all the women in the piece were all talking about their own private “Peter Pan” There was clearly a language barrier when I presented the piece at the Lenfest center. Of course, I got comments such as “Why would you put a piece up in Hebrew? No one will understand it.” That itself was such a frustrating comment but I felt it was necessary for the piece itself. I needed the piece to be in Hebrew because that is the language I use to talk to, and describe, my own “Peter Pan.” In a sense, I brought a part of Israel to this piece in a very aware and deliberate way.
The piece itself was presented as 16 speakers on a wall, all facing the listener. Every group of four speakers carried the voice of one of the women. I worked with both micro and macro levels of audio spatialization, so all the movements of each woman were happening within her cluster of four speakers, but when they had ideas that were either completely contradicting each other or in agreement, this made their voices travel through the whole construction. I tried to paint the semantics with their voices and I explored a lot of ideas through the use of audio spatialization and vocal processing.
My insistence to work with voices, without video or bodies, but just speakers, is based on a belief that if you listen to a voice, you can understand what it says. Even if you don’t speak the language, you can understand what a voice says in other ways, perhaps not the semantics but the sentiment or state of mind behind the words.
Your project In[n/ H]er Head uses dialogue and recitation to explore self-perception and definition. The project was inspired by C.P Cavafy’s poem “Walls.” What are the goals of this piece?
LG: I made this piece while at Columbia. I took a variety of classes outside of my concentration, including one in classics where I was introduced to this poem. I had such great conversations with Professor Nikolas P. Kakkoufa and those inspired this work. I couldn’t stop thinking about what we could do with these walls in the context of knowing Cavafy’s history a little bit. I needed a medium for all these concepts that we cannot say, the walls we construct for ourselves unknowingly.
I felt the only way I could do this in an honest way was to trade the roles and allow another to interview me. This was an hour and a half interview where my friend could freely ask me any question relating to the idea of walls. I only provided her with the poem before the interview. It was fun and scary simultaneously, just to be on the other side, making myself the material of the work.
Was Jazz incorporated?
LG: It is always there. It’s such a large part of my musical education and life. I don’t play anymore, but I still attend concerts and listen to Jazz. I spent a lot of time deeply studying the composition and culture of Jazz music. I think it attacks me while I work on my newer, speech based works. Growing up too I was that kid who knew a variety of Disney movie songs by heart. I started playing music very young. It took me a while to find the right instrument and the woodwinds were a right fit for me. I have a very sincere love for music and that is what brought me back to it after finishing my degree at Columbia.
Do you think it’s important to see the person within the work?
LG: That’s a good question. For me, I think it is important to see the person’s integrity and intention behind the work. When I make my work I ask myself from the perspective of a listener: Why do I need to see or hear this work? Why is it my voice that is being interrogated? My work is always concentrated around identity. Considering that, I believe that if I am to develop thought on it and critique identity, my own identity has to be subjected to this interrogation process as well.
Between the second you open your mouth to speak and until the voice becomes words, there is a moment where the voice voices your identity. I think one’s language or their use of language is intertwined with one's voice. The way I speak, pause, laugh in-between words, and more all construct my voice, and are my identity. It’s about the sonic aspects of speech that take place alongside language.
Your project What’s a Difference? is a collage of identities created from voices. You collected people from different ethnicities, professions, ages and genders. What was the intended “end” or outcome that you hoped this project could be?
LG: I didn’t really have an end goal in mind, but I knew I wanted everyone I interviewed to define “difference.” I had a very small skeleton for the interview consisting of around five questions that I asked all of them, but then as the individual conversations were going, I diverged from my questions and let the interviews take different directions based on their answers.
I wanted to create a picture that is created out of collective and global experiences we go through individually. For me this was a way to see those fragmented personal narratives inside the bigger story. So I had the piece presented with 4 pairs of headphones, each carrying different parts of the piece. For reception, it is very different per listener. I once had someone comment that everyone sounded Israeli, which wasn’t the case.
With each voice, I begin to create a person in my head. It’s astonishing to recognize that I am creating an identity of someone without even visually seeing them. Many of your works focus around creating portraits. Does this operate as a self-exploration and discovery also?
LG: I am always in these pieces. Whether it's direct or not, even just the virtue of being able to spend time with all these people through the ability to repeatedly listen to their words, I think there is no way I can be outside of it. At the end, the voices are always transformed by the way I process them and how I put them together through time, so I have control. But what I love about this practice of interviewing and getting the materials from that is that it doesn’t matter where I think the piece is going to go at the beginning of the process. The materials always shape the work too.
What can we look forward to now?
LG: Before coming to Berlin, I was working on a concert series in New York at the Fridman Gallery. It was called CT::SWaM ExChange, co-curated with Daniel Neumann. It halted at the beginning of the pandemic and after a few months we started finding ways to revive it. We started an online radio podcast interview series with the artists that we featured, titled CT::SWaM Broadband Echos.
This really opened the door of revisiting as a form of making work for me. I revisited all of the performances by each artist. Then an opportunity came to release an EP of my own work and I decided to look through all of my unreleased works to see what time and a new perspective could offer them. The collection of revisited works is going to be released soon, it’s called The Other’s Conception.
Lastly I am currently working on a brand new piece, Halves of the Story. I’m collaborating with a rapper for this project. Verse will be incorporated! It is a big piece on what is a voice, and it engages both with singular and collective voice. The collective voice I am thinking about in this piece is the voice of the protest. Certain people talked about particular protests such as BLM, protests in Iran, Chile, Brazil, and more. One Israeli guy spoke about a big social justice fight that happened in 2011. These are very loaded terms and topics; I presented this to everyone being interviewed with the utmost sensitivity and let them know this is an open conversation.