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Arts & Performance

Sound artist Laura Steenberge says her body knows when she’s on the right path

Laura Steenberge photo.png
Matt Peiken | BPR News
Laura Steenberge is surrounded in her home by a variety of instruments, among them a contrabass and, atop the piano, a pocket trumpet, herald trumpet, bugle, sarod and erhu, along with a 1954 A-to-Z volume of The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Laura Steenberge and a second performer are blowing through harmonicas, slowly striding across an outdoor stage while holding up poles with sheer flags.

The performance seems ritualistic, and Steenberge says that’s part of what she often tries imparting through her music. She’s composing it as she performs. For her, the two are inextricably entwined.

“Some people think about composing as constructing something. Or you can think about it as finding something, harnessing chaos, and I guess I’m more like the latter,” Steenberge said. “It feels more like trying to find a sound versus create it.”

Steenberge is performing Thursday night as part of a program at Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center.

Steenberge is an aural explorer with a PhD in music composition from Stanford. On her website, she describes herself as “an interdisciplinary composer and performer at the crossroads of music, language, gesture and mythology.” That’s a long way of saying she doesn’t fit into any easy category.

“It’s through image, sound, gesture, movement all put together, it does something to the brain, but this is what art and music is capable of doing. It’s a language beyond the spoken language,” she said. “When I was in my early twenties, I felt there’s something I need to express and I cannot figure out how to do it. I can look over the arc of the last 20 years and see now I have a sense of how to go about finding it.”

Steenberge remembers being drawn to the piano as a 4-year-old in Southern California, and she eventually found her way to the upright bass. She played in school bands and orchestras and later played in an indie rock band, but she said she was more interested in exploring the process of sound. In time, she saw it as part of her mission, to serve as a tour guide for audiences to how sounds are made.

“When I think about performing in front of an audience, I want them to see what I’m doing. So that’s why these physical motions in space and how they’re related to duration are important, because they can see I’m poking the hole, I’m moving the thing, this is the effect I’m having on sound,” she said. “I believe if I feel right in my body while I’m doing it, they’re going to feel right in their body too.”

While she’s adept at a number of instruments most people are familiar with, Steenberge can find a way to turn anything into a foundation for her sound.

One performance on video captures Steenberge singing against the slapping rhythm of her tossing a ball covered in wet red paint from one hand to the other. In another, she and a second performer twirl flexible tubes in circles to create a resonant, harmonic hum. In yet another performance, tuning rods of varied size are placed at intervals along a slack rope that people on each end begin to shake.

“When I first start trying out an idea, I’m getting all this feedback from my body that’s about what didn’t feel right. Like, ‘Oh, I transitioned too quickly or I took too much time with this or I need to wait longer before I introduce this other note,’” she said. “I guess I think about it like I think the piece is done when I stop feeling irritated.”

With a 4-month-old daughter at their West Asheville home, Steenberge is looking to scale back performing. Instead, she’s said she’s hoping for a teaching position at a university, whether her focus is analyzing Mozart and Haydn symphonies or continuing her current research into 1,000-year-old French chant.