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  • Nathan Yoder

Artist Interview Series: Leslee Smucker

As show coverage drops off during this period of quarantine, the "features" space on this site will feature more and more artist interviews, with the intention of keeping musicians connected with fans, and vice versa. This installment spotlights Dr. Leslee Smucker, an inter-media artist who, on top of her academic research and teaching work, performs chamber music and experiments with sound collaging. Her projects, both solo and collaborative, often employ film, poetry, electronics, singing, and commissions.

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Dr. Leslee Smucker is an experienced artist and accomplished academic, having both performed and taught in a variety of contexts. Her experience in the arts, however, is rooted in her musical upbringing. She began playing violin at age seven, with instruction from her father, and remembers a home filled with music of all varieties. She recalls, "We had a lot of different CDs I could listen to, but two made a big impression on me when I was really young: Shostakovich's Symphony no. 5 and Yes’ Fragile. It was not until she pursued a Master's at the University of South Florida, however, that Smucker began to integrate her own vocals into performances. She explains that her "introduction to singing and playing violin at the same time came from Monica Germino (who) has commissioned many works for singing violinists." Smucker began with works made for other performers, but has since commissioned her own singing violin pieces.

By early 2019, Smucker had quite a bit of experience performing alongside electronic artists, and decided that one of her goals for that year was to be more self-sufficient and confident with technology, so she could play her own work without additional accompaniment. After agreeing to a collaboration with the Boulder, Colorado aerial dance troupe, Frequent Flyers, Smucker learned the ins and outs of Ableton Live, and has since added Max for Live to her repertoire, in order to create her own instrumentation. Though her musical path has been shaped my many outside influences, including mentors and collaborators, the nature of Dr. Smucker's sonic exploration seems to be driven mostly by her own independent experimentation and curiosity, as evidenced by her original works.

Smucker's performance-based project, Mixed Messages, combines her own creativity with audience input, making the shows incredibly dynamic. She writes, "I decided to use tape machines and loops for this project, partially for their ability to change over time. The unpredictability of tape loops’ wobbles and bends make everything more exciting and interesting." Pleased with the ultimate results of these collaborations, Smucker reflects that "the concert has a feeling of a house of mirrors, where (the audience) hears their voice changed and manipulated into something crazy. I had several people leave and comment 'that was fun!' which was a pleasant surprise."

On her most recent album, Deliquescent, which was only released this past winter, Smucker continues her experimental endeavors. On the album, she not only uses modular synth, but also incorporates "found" instrumentation - various types of paper, crystal glasses, chopsticks, and candy wrappers. She also utilizes tape loops, a psaltery, and she even disclosed that if you listen closely, you can hear her crunching a carrot for a few seconds on the track "Fricassee."

On the right: a few of Dr. Smucker's "tools of the trade"

Presently, Dr. Smucker is spending her quarantine days creating an album which will be played live at some point, whenever performances pick back up. She uses a paper mache instrument on the album, which is "hooked up to a contact mic and then...digitally processed along with violin and voice." She writes, "I really wanted to explore what Max for Live could do with the processing of pitches and effects live. I use a lot of the 'pitch hack' machine, and it takes my yelling and crinkling paper into some other world." Never one to sit back and relax, Smucker is kicking around the idea of beginning another album, concurrently, and is also working on a concert with works by Kaija Saariaho, Nina C. Young, a commission by Phil Taylor, and an original piece using the aforementioned paper instrument. She is also setting out to dive deeper into circuit bending (which would utilize her soldering skills) and is planning a collaboration with a photographer in the future, too.

For all of you Portlanders: Smucker was scheduled to perform up here in June, but it was recently (and understandably) cancelled. She hopes, however, to make it up later this summer or early next fall, so keep a lookout. In the meantime, you can check out her music on Spotify (Deliquescent is embedded above) and find a few copies of her album Hypnotic Trances can be found for purchase here. And an exclusive sneak peek for curious readers: unreleased tracks from her current project are embedded below via Bandcamp:

Finally, during these tough times, Smucker encourages consumers of art to not only show support through purchasing music, but also by signing up for newsletters, following social media accounts, and to share discoveries with friends. And when concerts do start up again, to make sure to show up. I am sure that she will draw a crowd in Portland when that day comes.


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