The Finest Work Songs: Alan Lau and Susie Kozawa

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I always feel the focus should be on the subject and not simply about yourself. If you respect your subject then the rest will follow — Alan Lau

When I thought about inaugural subjects for this series on artistic collaboration, Alan Lau and Susie Kozawa’s upcoming event, “In the American Grain” at Prographica, came almost immediately to mind. The two are longtime collaborators and Seattle-based working artists. Lau’s a visual artist and poet, while Kozawa’s a composer and sound artist. The two met in the early 1990s, when Lau was asked to interview Kozawa for The North American Post. They first collaborated in 1994 at the Henry Art Gallery when Lau’s book of illustrated poetry was published, Blues and Greens: A Produce Worker’s Journal. The two have collaborated on performances for years since then. I’ve known Alan for years as my arts editor at the International Examiner, while meeting Susie Kozawa was a welcome introduction to a sound artist who often uses homemade instruments.

On October 18th, the two will be revisiting a piece that they originally presented at the Seattle Art Museum in 1996. Lau’s part–initially a response to the Seattle Art Museum’s touring exhibit “In The American Grain” by Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Marden Hartley, and Arthur Dove–will provide a reading poetry as well as words from four modernist American artists, while Kozawa will respond to Lau’s poetry as well as the space itself.

Kozawa says that she asked Lau why he chose “In the American Grain” for the Photographica Gallery performance, since the poems were based on specific paintings in the 1996 SAM exhibit. “Upon revisiting his work I realized that his intent was in trying to capture the diverse personalities of the featured artists (Marin, Hartley, Stieglitz, O’Keeffe and Dove), and how they encompassed different aspects of the American spirit in their work,” she says. “In this body of work Alan includes writings by or about each artist. For these reasons Alan’s “In the American Grain” stands on its own without the visual cues.”

Over e-mail, I asked the two to talk about their experiences with artistic collaboration, their experience with this piece, and with each other. I’ve summarized below where their responses overlapped but allowed space for each artist to give their own take on the questions. (The two refer to each other on a first-name basis; to keep the tone consistent within the interview, I did the same.)

As artists, why collaborate?

For Alan and Susie, part of the benefit is that collaborations encourage you to grow artistically, to experiment in ways that are less visible than if you are working alone.

Susie Kozawa (SK): I love working with artists in different media because we see different facets of the same subject in ways I would not have dreamed of just by myself.

Alan Lau (AL): I also have to admit that it is fun to share with others when performing. If it’s no fun to do, why do it? Doing things solo all the time can get lonely.

What has collaboration meant for you in your work?

AL: The act of working on something with another person means sharing, listening and working together towards a common goal. I love the challenge because it takes you somewhere you might not go otherwise if you were on your own. Collaborating means you have to listen to what others are doing and try to add to the mix to achieve a successful blend of ideas.

I have worked with dancers and musicians and no two are alike. you have to be flexible and listen to what each individual brings to the mix and see what you can add on to that. I like working with musicians who are comfortable in their own skin and confident enough to go where they have to go to take the piece to a necessary direction.

SK: I believe all true collaboration has to be based on respect and communication. Much of my work is in collaboration. I love working with artists in different media because we see different facets of the same subject in ways I would not have dreamed of just by myself.

What does collaboration look like in this piece, a revisit of “In the American Grain”?

AL: I first did this collaboration with Susie, In the American Grain, when I was asked by Seattle Art Museum to do a piece on a touring show featuring the work of early American modernist artist/colleagues Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Marden Hartley and Arthur Dove. So I tried to respond on multiple levels both as a practicing artist and poet. Of course I tried to interact with the art in the show and wrote poems in response to certain works of art. But I wanted to get to know each artist as individual people and not simply American art icons. So I read up on whatever I could find at the time on each artist and included quotes from the artists as well.

SK: As in all the times I’ve worked with Alan, I listen to him read through the text beforehand. At this time I make sketches on my copy of the text to create the sound score. (I also record him for us to get an idea of the time length.) I need to hear his words out loud to get the meaning and movement of the words in my mind’s ear how it dances and how I can dance with them. (I do this with every reading because the location is different, the text may be altered, but mostly because I need to hear the dance again.)

In The American Grain poems were written about specific paintings in the exhibition. After the SAM performance I went to the exhibit with Alan’s poems and my sound notes and was able to pick out some of the specific paintings they were written about.

What have been the necessary ingredients for successful collaborations?

In their collaboration, trust and respect makes artistic growth possible. Both artists spoke about the willingness (and need) to “catch each other.” It’s a testament to both artists that they both used that phrase, as well as the word “fall”–something like the team-building and trust exercises that people use in rope climbing or simply falling backwards into your partner’s arms.

SK: Alan’s words and delivery has always given me a joyful playground to romp around in. There’s a lot of trust that comes from many years of playing together. We can each free fall and the other will be there to catch him/her.

AL: Working with Susie Kozawa over a number of years makes it easy in that we have developed a rapport and a willingness to venture out into new territory with no map or safety net knowing that we can catch each other as we fall. Trust is very important when you are collaborating.

What I like about what Susie does is that she takes a different approach every time and goes where she has to go to meet the specifics of each particular project. She has what jazz musicians call “big ears” in that she listens acutely to what is going on around her and responds intuitively without hesitation. As a sound artist she is keenly aware of the soul, dynamics and voice of every space she inhabits and she tries to bring out that voice in every piece we collaborate on.

During the process, what kinds of collaborative pitfalls have you had to avoid or work through?

SK: I try to familiarize myself with the performance/ reading location beforehand whenever possible. I listen to the space and note peccadilloes and differences of the sonic personality of that area to possibly include in the soundscape design.

The content and meaning of the words are important in Alan’s work. Therefore I feel that the sounds should act as support to those words. (Other poets I’ve worked with may have words that are more sound driven. These are treated as on an equal par between words and sound.)

Of course there are the technical considerations: Space size/shape? Can I roam and where? Do Alan and/or I need microphones? Tables, podiums, music stands…

AL: If individuals do not respect each other as artists and respect what each person can contribute and don’t listen then there can be problems. So it’s important to choose carefully who you work with and at least have a working knowledge of what they do before collaborating. What I like about Susie is that we can discuss the material but not overwork or over-rehearse the material so much that it all becomes predictable. We both like being in the moment and the sound of surprise and discovery when things happen naturally on their own.

When you collaborate you must be aware that it will be an entirely different process than working solo because you are only part of an effort to contribute to an organic whole.

Many thanks to Alan and Susie for their generous and thoughtful responses. I’m learning a great deal already.

Do you know of an artistic collaboration you’d like to see highlighted? Please send me a message with details.