Kara-Lis Coverdale describes herself as “perfectionist to a fault,” which isn’t surprising if you’ve heard her music. The Montreal-based sound artist — a classically trained pianist from childhood — has a Masters in musicology and composition, and an ear for heady concepts distilled into accessible pieces.
Recently, she quit her job as a church organist for St. John Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Montreal, but she still plays the instrument in ‘holy’ places around the world. “There was an organ I used for Rewire Festival in Hague, and Mozart had played it,” she told me over the phone. “On the wooden bench there was this bum mark, like totally worn out from almost 300 years of people playing it. And I put my bum on it, and was like, Oh, me and Mozart's bums have touched now."
These moments of levity came up often during our conversation; a relief when speaking to someone with her credentials. She’s produced three well-received solo albums of experimental composition imbued with a reverence for sacred sounds, and worked on projects with Tim Hecker, LXV, and Lee Bannon. Last weekend she played Montreal's MUTEK, and she’ll debut an all-new set at Toronto’s Unsound Festival, presented by Luminato. “This is the first big show I’ve played there, as myself, grown up,” she says. “I’m super happy, just for that chance.”
You identify as secular, but you’ve worked for the church. Has religion found its way into your music at all?
KARA LIS-COVERDALE: Well, most of the churches I’ve worked in have been Estonian churches. And my Estonian is quite good, but I don’t understand what they’re talking about most of the time. I think this has been a large part of my ability to…
Yeah, I’ve always thought of my position as being purely musical. Even when I listen to a lot of vocal oriented music, I have no idea what they’re saying. I’m listening to the production; I’m listening to that flute line that’s dancing around above the minor third bass. If I am listening to the voice, I am listening to the timbre, the register, how it sits into the bass. I’m not really listening to extra-musical poetics. To me, the true sacred is the mathematics that is contained in music. But it’s nothing to do with, like, any existing religious doctrine that I work within or alongside or that someone might assume I’m part of.
Can you expand on the sacredness of the mathematics?
Often, a lot of mathematicians and scientists become religious people later in their lives because they see some higher order in the alignment and perfection of science and numbers. It’s kind of like a natural law, more or less. Organs kind of play into this, because when you’re playing with an organ, you’re looking at pipe-lengths. You’ll become obsessed with 16, eight, four, two, one, one and a quarter: all these lengths of pipe, and how you can layer the lengths and alter it by a quarter tone… It’s all numerical. When I feel the most, I don’t know, “at peace” with myself, it’s when I’m aware of how law is in place – numerical law. It sounds kind of corny, but it’s true.
People’s tastes are getting weirder, exponentially, at a speed that’s even beyond me.
Was there a key moment in your understanding of music?
I had this tape recorder that I got at The Sony Store. I think I was, like, 10, and I paid $400 for it, which was so much at the time. It had that “mega-bass” button, which is like basically a crude bass-booster. It had the double deck, it could record radio, it had the CD player at the top. I didn’t see it at the time, but this was my first foray into, like, ripping musics and dubbing tapes. But I had no one telling me this was an existing practice, or actual musical technique or behavior: I didn’t learn that until way later, in school, when I was like 18.
You’ve done a lot of formal music education; was there anything you learned off-the-beaten path?
When I was in university electroacoustics were, like, this marginalized music that was tucked away in the upper corridor of the music building. When I went up to see the class for the first time, I was just like, What the fuck? There was this whole other world that I’d never been exposed to. There were these small studios, where you could play with isolation chambers, or go in and sample stuff. I was working with a [Kurzweil K2500 sampler/synthesizer]. It was a very secret society, and it seemed like you could do anything; it was kind of rule-less.
With my classical courses, you'd go for your jury at the end of the year and have to play every note of that Haydn Sonata perfectly. It’s so historically weighted, whereas the electroacoustic world – and I also took a course in mixing and production, after the electroacoustic one – was just like: whatever, mess around in the studio, here’s a bunch of techniques, read this book, and make a sick piece. I think I find a bit of comfort in these musics in the margin because it’s void of any expectation.
Do you think it’s a trend that spaces are becoming more welcoming of new ideas?
For music that I’m doing on the level that I have been operating in the past year, I’m not sure if that would’ve been possible, like, five years ago. That’s purely because of the Internet: people’s tastes are getting weirder, exponentially, at a speed that’s even beyond me. I mean even my little cousins show me shit on their iPhones, and I’m just like, 'Dude! Anything normal, any sense of what’s common now will just bore you when you’re my age.’ I think you really have to pay attention to the youth, and what interests them.
I constantly have to destroy my mind [laughs]. This is like a constant part of my practice; as soon as you think something is true, you’re done. Constant reinvention is pretty necessary. I’m becoming more used to being comfortable being uncomfortable, and making other people uncomfortable. It’s interesting. It’s all an experiment.