Lori Goldston

You're originally from New York, but you've been based in the Northwest for many years now. What drew you there initially and what keeps you based in Seattle? The music scene there and in Portland has much evolved since the heyday of 90s grunge. Can you share what the energy is like these days?

I came to Seattle impulsively without expecting to stay. But things always fell into place for me. When I arrived it was inexpensive and a fun place to be—a lot was happening, very literate, cosmopolitan for the size of the city. It’s a port town, so people and ideas have flowed in and out of here for forever. Now it’s a famous and influential city, but at the time I loved that it was a bit rough around the edges and remote. iÍ’ve come to believe that the really lovely native Salish culture has had a big influence on the larger culture here, although that’s almost never discussed or acknowledged.

Music culture has been good in Seattle for a long time and there were all kinds of well established scenes when I arrived. The lines are often blurry between scenes and genres, and there’s a long-standing tradition of curiosity and collaboration. Like in so many cities, the real estate pressure has gotten really awful. But I’ve been surprised and happy to see more and more excellent musicians moving here. There’re plenty of house shows and good venues opening, so the culture is still vibrant and growing. Love of loud, heavy rock continues as always, and various combinations of punk, pop, surf, hip hop, electronic, minimalist, folk, etc. There’s an excellent improvised and experimental music community that overlaps extensively with all these scenes. The classical and composed music worlds tend to be more distant from the other music scenes and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how to bridge that divide more.

You obviously received extensive classical training, but describe yourself as being rigorously “de-trained.” This really struck me. For you, what does “de-training” consist of? Does it mean deconstructing a system or an aesthetic? Is it an active process with its own set of rules or patterns?

As profoundly grateful as I am for my classical training, I found it in some ways weirdly constraining. Prior to studying cello, which I took up in public school, I’d been playing guitar, mostly jazz and folk. Through high school I was equally devoted to both instruments. For the most part I wasn’t exposed to much music when I was very young, so I was kind of a blank slate aesthetically. From the ages of around 8-11 I listened to a lot of Top 40 radio, which was pretty amazing at the time in New York. After that I became more and more curious to hear and learn about new kinds of music. I love classical music, but have never been a faithful devotee.

As a teenager I fell in love with Jimi Hendrix playing and I sometimes wonder whether it was coincidental that I settled in his hometown. There’s something in the culture here that breeds unusual, organic blurry lines between genres: In Hendrix’s case it was a rock that was very deeply informed by blues and jazz. With grunge it was the punks who liked metal and pop—I could go on and on with examples. Bruce Lee, who was also from here, did it with martial arts.

I enjoyed each of the styles of training I received on guitar and cello, and was always baffled by the distance between them. I found it easy to improvise and play by ear on guitar, but with cello those skills took time and effort. It’s common for classically trained musicians to feel like it’s impossible improvise, play by ear or follow chord changes, and I know lots of incredible guitarists, drummers, etc. who don’t read music. In a sense I’ve spent much of my life trying to reconcile those differences. Most of my life in music is a struggle to move beyond the limits of my imagination and technique.

For me the “de-training” happened and continues to happen in several ways in addition to breaking the dependence on written music, and a focus not so much on mastery as exploration and expansion. I’ve played music in as many situations and genres as possible and done my best to understand what I can about different ways of approaching music and sound. I’ve played music from many parts of the world and eras, each requiring some degree of learning and unlearning with regard to pitch, time, timbre, the relationships between my hands and the instrument, ideas about playing in an ensemble, and so on. And then there’s amplification, which is a whole world unto itself. So a big part of the process has to do with being open and responsive to ideas and circumstances, and to the demands and constraints of my body and imagination, to adventurousness and the risk of failure.

Definitely, I like that you acknowledge the roles both the unknown and inherent constraints play in experimentation. You are forever-ingrained in the minds of many for your contribution to the Nirvana unplugged shows. Have genres like rock and grunge always had a significance for you? And did your relationship to music change after this experience?

Unlike Seattle, which has a long tradition of all ages rock venues, there weren’t venues for rock bands where I grew up in Long Island. I took advantage of every opportunity I could to play music in school, community orchestras, etc. In my teens I listened to rock but wasn’t a participant until years later when I lived in Seattle. Using cello in a rock band was a pretty radical idea when I was hired by Nirvana, not unheard of but very unusual for sure. I’m happy to say that it’s much more common now.

Touring with Nirvana radically transformed my approach to and understanding of music. By then I’d already played with rock bands, and with very good rock musicians around Seattle, but I’d never really been immersed. The opening bands were incredible, and I listened and watched very carefully every night from the side of the stage, really studying. I got to see so many great bands every night for 1-3 weeks in a row: Mudhoney, the Melvins, the Breeders, the Boredoms, the Meat Puppets, on and on. It was an incredible education, so much information that I’m probably still absorbing it. Now I feel very comfortable with amplification and that tour has a lot do with it.

I toured the US with Nirvana prior to filming Unplugged; up to that point I’d only played much smaller venues. The band and crew were nice to work with, patient and supportive as I figured out how to work in such a radically different environment. I met a lot of great people on that tour who are still friends, acquaintances and collaborators.

On the subject of collaborators, you have worked with many reputable musicians like Cat Power, Kimya Dawson and Lonnie Holley, to name but a few. Collaboration is fulfilling but also a delicate balance. How do you create collaboratively while also maintaining your sense of artistic autonomy and style?

I’ve been incredibly lucky and have worked with a lot of amazing people. When I’m hired to realize someone else’s vision I’m happy to put all my energy into amplifying their ideas and sound. My tendency is always toward improvisation and experimentation insofar as it’s appropriate to the circumstance. I work well under pressure and I love having to figure out how to adapt. My playing and approach are pretty quirky, so I try to put myself into situations where folks know what they’re getting into and are not expecting someone with a more predictable, low key approach.

I was intrigued to learn you’ve composed extensively for silent films. Can you describe how you came into doing this?

Collaboration with filmmakers and dancers is satisfying in a very specific way. There’s something in my wiring that translates visual/physical motion into sound pretty effortlessly, and I spent several years accompanying dance classes on cello in college and later in Seattle. I fell in love with old films as a teenager, and started playing live scores to silent films in the early ‘90s when friends invited my band at the time, the Black Cat Orchestra, to score a film for their series. My preference leans more toward immersive than presentational performance. There’s something transcendently immersive that can happen with the pairing of live music and visual motion, either live or recorded. Ideally, the accompanist is lost in the film along with the audience, so it can be a very beautiful kind of performance.

As a former ballet dancer, I can definitely understand that draw pairing motion and sound. I was wondering if when you were accompanying the Études presentation, you were influenced by the presence and movement of the models. Obviously accompanying a fashion show is a departure from your normal practice and performances. How did you decide to approach it?

I approached the Études show very much the same as I would a dance performance or film score, and in some ways it felt comfortable and familiar. Both the collection and show had clear and compelling narrative ideas that I did my best to amplify.

I’m curious what non-musical influences, visual and otherwise, play a role in your creative practice?

Film, books, plants, animals, weather, food, paintings, books, photography, maps and poetry.

Have you ever tried your hand at some of those influences—photography, or writing? Does or would it interest you?

I had a brief, intense period of doing photography as a teenager. I do a bit of writing here and there and have done some dancing. In general I am more and more in love with music, and most other pursuits feel like a distraction. It’s not a terribly well balanced way to live, but for sure there are many, many worse obsessions.

Are you working on any solo projects on the moment?

I’ve had a very productive couple of years and am editing a pile of recordings. Soon Substrata, a label from Mexico, will put out a duo recording I made with my dear friend Jessika Kenney, a really top notch singer. I’ve got several more collaborative recordings in various states of completion with Jessika, Laura Cannell, Stefan Christoff, Dylan Carlson, Stuart Dempster, Eyvind Kang, Andrea Belfi, Aidan Baker and other wonderful collaborator friends. I’m trying to slow myself down long enough to sort through everything and get it out the door.

Conversation with Lori Goldston, NYC, September 2017. Interview by Sabrina Tamar. Images from a video by Ethan Assouline.