LUMMOX Journal Volume 5, No. 11 November 1999 İ
Kristi Martel interview by Raindog

RD: How did you get started?

KM: I was singing with my mom when I was two or three years old. Sheıd sew and Iıd draw all spread out on the floor while we listened and sang to things like The Beatles and Jesus Christ Superstar. I started making up harmonies to every melody I liked around then.

RD: Were you inspired or encouraged by any one person to pursue your music?

KM: My dad noticed my interest in music when he married my step-mom because I was always figuring stuff out by ear on her piano. Probably the thing that saved my life (no, really) was that he bought me a piano on my seventh birthday. So Iıve been studying music and playing piano for at least twenty years. Iıve been actively pursuing music all my life really.

RD: Was there a single point or event that inspired you to take up music, or was it a slow process of transition?

KM: My dad certainly encouraged me. My whole family saw my talent but my dad really thought I should go for it. Everyone else thought I should get a good trade in something more practical like carpentry or mathematics or teaching... I was really dissatisfied with music education in public schools, and I left early for college and got to work with excellent teachers at Bard College and later at Mills College. I donıt know that there was a single event that inspired me to do music. It feels like it was never a decision on my part. It was sort of a given to me from a very young age. It feels like it was a way for me to survive an abusive environment (private and public). It was something I was always passionate about and always working towards (still is).

RD: How did you arrive at the work you're doing now? Was it evolution, inspiration or just dumb luck?

KM: I often have more than one project going at once. Right now I am finally making a CD of my songs for piano and voice. Theyıre a lot more "pop" than my other work, and Iıve always wanted to be a superstar. Itıs hard to tell how long it will take for me to complete the CD because we could always do one more take or add one more track, and we have no real budget. But I hope it happens before the year 2000.

I just finished writing all the music for an hour-long dance piece choreographed and commissioned by Dawn Frank of Frank and Bryan Worldwide Movers. I wrote sound collage pieces and voice pieces. We premiered the show in NYC in July 1999. I was dancing and singing on a three-foot stool for that hour. I was also recently commissioned to write a piece for Trio Ariana (soprano, viola and piano).

But before all that I finished a three-year project of mine called Flood, a collection of stories about body image, body memory and family history told through spoken word, dance, taped sound collage (mostly interviews with family members) and extended and traditional vocal work for solo and five voices. (Editorıs note: I reveiwed some of these pieces in last monthıs Oct. LUMMOX‹when her CD comes out, I strongly recommend you purchase it.)

I performed it a bunch in the bay area and will pick it up again eventually to bring it farther from home. Itıs an intense 70-minute show. I wrote a book about the how and why I do what I do. It includes a script of Flood and the score of Floodıs five-voice piece, Bulimia. Publishing that as well as a book of my poetry is also in the works.

Flood is the fourth or fifth show Iıve created using those media. I tell hard stories because I want out of the oppression of our society and breaking silence in a moving and artistic way seems like as good a way as any. Maybe Iım part social worker, part artist or part healer and part storyteller. Creating Flood came out of personal experience: I ended up in the hospital with what no doctor could diagnose, something that seemed similar to toxic shock syndrome, but was probably really more about body memory and disordered eating. They thought I was going to die and one doctor sexually abused me, and I was enraged. I started writing a show that I intended to focus on women and medicine but underneath that particular trauma was a lot of other stories about my familyıs history of eating and body image disorders alongside the emotional incest I survived. I see these as symptoms of our societyıs misogyny as it manifests itself in my own family and of my familyıs working class history. And I tell these stories through performance because it ainıt getting any better just keeping quiet.

RD: With your personal history as a backdrop, can you tell me about your own creative process?

KM: I work really hard to lead my whole life toward my art. I am determined not to separate it from my income, from my livelihood, because I really do believe it is why I am alive. It is indeed hard hard work. Our society is particularly un-supportive of artists. But my entire income is from music. I teach children and some adults piano and voice lessons. They love me and I love them. I get commissioned to write music. More and more I get paid when I perform.

RD: Thatıs great. So, do you find that itıs easier or harder to "seize the moment" when creativity strikes?

KM: Seizing the moment is always difficult because as an artist every moment goes to one of the roles you play: business manager, teacher, artist, homemaker, agent, publicist, publisher, composer, writer, performer are just some of mine. I feel like I work at least three full-time jobs most of the time. And nothing gets done as well as Iıd like. Hopefully eventually funding happens more easily.

RD: So, how do you capture and retain these inspirations?

KM: To keep myself creating art, I write a lot. Everyday I write something. Sometimes itıs just a stream of consciousness about the day. Sometimes itıs a song. Sometimes itıs an idea for a performance piece. Often itıs not a finished piece. Often itıs a poem that I will later set as a piano and voice song. When Iım working on something like Flood Iım usually writing images toward the show or dance and text ideas. When commissioned to write something out of someone elseıs concept, I allot specific time to the work. In that time I compose on paper or at the computer in a more job-like way. But the work that is from my own conception is more woven into my daily life out of necessity.

RD: Do you think of yourself as a musician, as an artist, or what?

KM: I think of myself as a composer, performer, writer, dancer, artist, teacher, homemaker, martial artist...

RD: When did you begin to make this distinction?

KM: I have thought of myself as a musician for so long, but I do remember that halfway through college my identity shifted from "music student" to "musician." "Pianist" was an identity that I held strongly as a child, and then in my late teens I kind of flipped out on being classically trained and I didnıt perform for a few years because of it. I then studied composition and later regained my pianist identity as a dual identity with composer. "Writer" and "dancer" also waver. I donıt always feel trained enough to claim those titles, but I am given them again and again from all kinds of people as I do my work. And the work itself I am confident in and comfortable with; itıs some construction in my head about what those titles mean that I get caught up doubting me about. Labels are tricky and imprecise. So sometimes when asked I just say "musician" but the asker always wants me to qualify, so I say "pianist, vocalist and composer." And then there is everything else I do... Depending on the context Iıll say "performance artist." When asked my occupation I often say, "musician and teacher." And when talking about my life identity, I often say, "artist."

RD: Many, many hats... You obviously believe in what you are doing, otherwise you would have either chosen a more lucrative career or a more straight ahead format to gain some respect and admiration for your work. Is there camaraderie in your particular slice of the musical world that you can rely on for inspiration, or is it by necessity, a lonely path?

KM: Aiye. There is some camaraderie. Mostly it feels like a pretty lonely and difficult path. I have found I need to depend on myself and develop a kind of inner fulfillment and inspiration.

RD: How do you do that?

KM: Maybe I do that best with my circle of friends, a chosen family of sorts. They are not necessarily artists and musicians, but they are my main support.

RD: As a musician and artist, you probably have the opportunity to meet others in your chosen field; do you encourage each other, as well?

KM: I do meet people in my field and there is some support, but there is also a lot of fear in people. Support on a national level is so limited that individual relationships suffer. The slots at success are scarce enough for folks to be competitive and maybe selfish is the word Iım searching for. I try to avoid this and most of my work wouldnıt happen without the support (donations of time, skill and brainstorming) of talented artists in my community. I also feel like there is a difference between the West and East Coasts. Iım from the Northeast and found the community there to be more active and dedicated to their art and each otherıs art. I also found the audience to be more committed to seeing art... Things feel more scattered here.

RD: What advice can you give to other musicians/artists to help them improve their chances of survival in the "avant-garde music scene" in this global village we call our home?

KM: Have I really survived it yet? I think Iım constantly renewing my sense of survival in my "scene." Part of the renewal is that I am truly juggling more than one "scene."

Really hold sight of your visions. Play your music a lot. Any way you can for as many people as you can. Hear feedback and believe in only those criticisms that really connect with your vision. Ask for payment of some kind even when itıs next to nothing. Keep writing even when it feels like no one will listen. Enjoy your work.

RD: Aside from the commercial/label-sponsored artist, do you think that itıs possible to actually make a living as a musician within the avant-garde arena?

KM: I think itıs possible as long as youıre willing to be a grant-writer and teacher as well as an artist. But putting time into getting grants and commissions is really not that different from trying to get signed by a major label. I do both... And I do more and more stuff independently. My label/publishing name is Sealed Lip Music. I publish scores and books and produce my shows through SLM.

RD: Who do you draw inspiration from these days?

KM: Lately Iıve been listening to commercial radio. I didnıt do that for years. But recently I decided that thatıs really some of the music I like best (hip-hop, r&b, soul and alternative), so I decided it was time to flip stations. Iım very picky but I do find it inspiring.

RD: Got any new projects planned?

KM: My new projects are all overdue: the CD, the publication of my two books and writing more and more songs. I probably wonıt be writing another long show for a while because Iım focusing on my songs and I want to perform Flood more.

RD: How can the readers get on your mailing list?

KM: To be put on a snail mail or email list of upcoming performances, workshops, and releases or to get involved in Sealed Lip Musicıs progress via donations of time, money, space, or expertise, write Kristi at

(Editorıs note: I really wish there was a way for you to hear Kristiıs work. Youıll just have to settle for a page from the score of one of her pieces.)

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