Ka Baird – Separation, Initiation, and Return

Ka Baird interview
Photo: Samantha Riott

Ka Baird, are known for their extraordinary live performances, are performers, sound artists and composers from New York. Their work is a fascinating blend of extended vocal techniques, electronics and psychoacoustic playing on flutes and other wind instruments. Baird create sounds in the present tense with dynamic, ritualistic expression, aiming for extreme release through physical exertion and mental expansion of the senses. Ka have collaborated with a range of musicians, artists, filmmakers and choreographers, both in composed works and in their own practice of improvisation and interdisciplinary work.

In the following conversation, Ka Baird talk about their personal journey that led to the Bearings album. They invited a total of 12 musicians to join the project, including those playing string instruments, double bass, trumpet and others. These musical contributions enriched the sonic theme of the album, which they had already experimented with.

I hope this interview with Ka Baird provides a deeper look into a creative process that is both personal and universal, exploring themes of transience, uncertainty and ultimate release. Through their sound, Ka Baird offer listeners an extraordinary experience that reflects their own journey through hardship and transformation. I make no secret of the fact that Bearings is one of my favourite and intriguing albums released in 2024, and it is with all the more delight that I invite you to join the conversation below.

Artur Mieczkowski

Artur Mieczkowski: Hi Ka, I’m really pleased we can talk about this on Anxious. What was your first experience with music? When did you first start getting interested in making music? What were your first musical influences and what bands or artists impressed you at the beginning of your musical journey?

Ka Baird: Likely one of my first experiences with music, especially in regards to how music has the power to color or enhance one’s reality, was through the guise of Kermit The Frog singing “The Rainbow Connection” on “The Muppet Movie (1979)” soundtrack or Lily Tomlin’s ahead-of-its-time record “Free To Be You And Me (1972).” As a child, I took piano lessons and quite early on had urges to expound upon already composed pieces by adding lyrics or subverting the melody, eventually going rogue and composing my own songs on the piano. My first strong creative pulls as a child were more towards theater and performance. I was involved in several community theatre plays in grade school. Also at that time my three best friends and I had a club called “The Sparkling Spring Greens” and together we would stage plays in my parents’ basement, choreograph dance routines, and create numerous imaginative role playing games, the most infamous and intricate being “The Cannibal Game” where we pretended we were siblings whose plane had crashed in the middle of the Amazon and we had to survive the jungle amongst wild animals and cannibals. Another game we played was “Make Me Laugh” and whenever we hit a lull my friends would force me to “go crazy” which entailed me entering the room in a sort of hysteric state speaking in tongues and doing something silly or absurd like balancing a tea cup on my head at the same time.

Growing up in central Illinois pre-internet, I was limited to what I was exposed to musically.  I heard what the college radio played, what friends and family and the local record store recommended, and to mainstream vehicles like MTV and such magazines as Sassy and Rolling Stone. Through these outlets, I gravitated towards the indie, alternative music of the day- The Breeders, Throwing Muses, The Cure, Sonic Youth along with 60s/70s music of The Velvet Underground, The Slits, The Raincoats,  Pink Floyd, etc. My brother and I had dubbed many episodes of MTV’s 120 Minutes (television program dedicated to the alternative music genre from 1986 to 2000) onto VHS tape during my teen years. I was obsessed with Kristen Hirsch, Kim Deal, PJ Harvey, Ari Up, Kim Gordon, etc. Inspired by the Throwing Muses’ self-titled debut album along with The Breeder’s “Safari,” Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat,” P.J. Harvey’s “Rid Of Me,” and Pink Floyd’s “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” my friends and I started a band in Decatur, Illinois over the summer of 1992 called “Vicky’s Box,” named after a track off the self-titled Throwing Muses record. It wasn’t until I left home for college that I was exposed to the outer worlds of free jazz, noise, psychedelic rock, no wave, electronic music, etc.

Years later, around age 23, I ended up in New Orleans, LA for a few months. I was writing songs on acoustic guitar at the time, recording them into a handheld tape recorder. After a long walk through the Bywater and French Quarter neighborhoods one morning, I remember quite distinctly making the realization at the local Tower Records that nothing made me feel more connected and alive than creating things, and music hit me as the most direct, powerful form of expression.

A.M.: Ka, you are known for your unusual live performances that combine vocal techniques with electronics. Where do you get your inspiration to create such unique sounds?

K.B.: At this point in my practice, I am more drawn towards performative, embodied methods of presenting sound and sound design. Much like Artuad writes, I am attempting to create a “metaphysics of speech, gesture and expression” that goes beyond language and more toward utterance, possession. Over the years, I have created an extended vocal language of sorts through my explorations of my voice, throat, and mouth in tandem with the support and enhancement of amplification and electronic filters/effects. My work increasingly explores microphones not just as a means of amplifying, mutating and contorting sound, but as a sound making tool itself—microphone as percussion instrument, microphone as feedback creator, microphone as texture/movement amplifier, microphone as performance object.

Ka Baird Anxious magazine
Photo: Claudia Höhne

A.M.: Your latest album “Bearings: Soundtracks for the Bardos” was released in 2024. What did you want to convey to listeners through this album?

K.B.: In early 2022 my mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness and my brother and I were her main caretakers until her death in the autumn. Through witnessing the ultimate impermanence of her death and the dying process, the direction became clear how I wanted to shape this record.

“Bearings” is divided into eleven gates, bardos, or “in-betweens,” each of which sonically represent states of suspension or experiential gaps. This idea of the bardo as an “in-between” state was a central pivot point in the shaping of this record. Through these movements or Gates, as I call them, I wanted to create a collection of sonic experiences that captured the precarity, displacement, challenge, and ultimate release of understanding that nothing lasts and everything shifts, moves, mutates. The record is full of abrupt stops and starts, textured and punctuated flute and vocal passages, sculpted static walls, thumping rhythms, and instrumental arrangements with certain repeated motifs throughout. There is a sonic tension to the record that is constantly trying to find its foothold, its bearings. As Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa writes, “The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.”

Ka Baird Anxious Magazine interview
Photo: Remi Goulet

A.M.: You invited a number of excellent musicians to collaborate on the album. How did this collaboration work and how were the individual musical parts transformed into hermetic sound treatments that create the cyclical and unique atmosphere of ‘Bearings: Soundtracks for the Bardos’?

K.B.: After two years of relative isolation due to the pandemic and then a year away from NYC taking care of my mom, when I re-entered NYC in January of 2023 it was very important for me to add a layer of “otherness” outside of myself. Most of the tracks were pretty much complete when adding the other instrumentation, although a few contributions were so powerful that they shifted the composition somewhat. This included a total of 12 other musicians, including strings, upright bass, trumpet, and more. These contributions enhanced the sonic motif idea that I was already playing with for the record. For instance, the trumpet blast represented a birth or death, the string motif a distant memory, the granular vocals disembodied spirits, etc.

A.M.: “We are always in a bardo because impermanence never takes a break.” – can you elaborate on this thought?

K.B.: This is further conveying the Budddhist principle of impermanence, the notion that nothing lasts, that everything is always in an “in-between” state, or bardo. Most often thought of as the period between death and rebirth in Tibetan Buddhist cosmology, the word “bardo” translates as any “gap” or “in-between” situation, any experience of uncertainty in everyday life. It is not only the interval of suspension after we die but also the suspension in the living situation. As Chogham Trungpa Rinpoche says in his commentary for the Tibetan text “The Great Liberation Through Hearing In The Bardo” (or more commonly known as “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”), “The bardo experience is part of our basic psychological make-up. There are all kinds of bardo experiences happening to us all the time, experiences of paranoia and uncertainty in everyday life; it is like not being sure of our ground, not knowing quite what we have asked for or what we are getting into.”

A.M.: What is your approach to combining traditional instruments with modern technology in your music? Do you have your favorite instruments that you experiment with?

K.B.: I love combining raw signals, be it acoustic instruments or voice, with amplification and processing techniques. During a performance I try to expose the raw signal when possible by moving the microphone away from the source to expose that rawness and then alternating that with carefully crafted, heavy processing. I actually feel extremely opinionated about various effects and filters as I feel like it is often not used very imaginatively, maybe even overtly hiding a lack of vision or skill. But the thing is I am even LESS interested in virtuosity, or so called “mastering” an instrument. I can absolutely appreciate it when I witness that sort of virtuosity or mastery, but I personally am not interested in it as an end in itself.

I also love juxtaposing traditional instruments, again this rawness, with electronics, modular synthesis, synthesizers. I am interested in those in all those in-between places, all those gray areas between noise and free improv, electronics and new music, ambient and folk, etc.

Ka baird Anxious magazine
Photo: Matt Mehlan

A.M.: Can you talk about the vocal techniques you use in your music? How did you develop these skills?

K.B.: When talking about my vocal approaches, it is necessary to talk about both vocal timbral techniques using the anatomical sources of the epiglottis, throat, tongue, lips and cheeks as well as the world of vocal processing. During a residency at Inkonst in Malmo, Sweden I realized how modular synthesis informed my vocal techniques and my vocal techniques informed how I used modular synthesis. Through filters, noises, double and treble production, air streams, multiphonics, water effects, inhaled sounds, pulses, etc, I constantly am exploring the “voice as instrument,” in search of the ultimate utterance. I then enhance that approach with amplification and electronic processing, allowing me to make small sounds big as well as enhancing the possibilities of what a microphone can do.

Breath specifically has been a vocal effect or sound I play with a lot in my work. The word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus meaning “breath” so I always see breath and spirit as being very connected. Breath is the closest physical manifestation to spirit in the physical plane. The element of air, moving through us, regulating us, has been a huge part of my practice. The breath is a special phenomenon where the body and mind meet. Therefore, consciously focusing on the breath is dedicating the conscious mind to feeling. It is also one of the most fundamental rhythms in the body and I believe is a bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind.

A.M.: How important is physicality and movement to you when performing live?

K.B.: Very. Extremely. Mandatory. This is the challenge of performing in venues that primarily present sound. Space is ALWAYS an issue. Physicality and embodiment have become so intricately linked to my soundmaking that I can barely separate them at this point. I call it “body music.”

A.M.: What importance do you attach to the spiritual and emotional element in your music?

K.B.: A lot. As far as I am concerned, I am here to explore and present a performance based around sound, yes, but one that explores what it feels like to be a human, or probably more accurately, what it feels like to be me, which it turns out maybe people can relate to. This becomes a sort of journey I share with the audience, and together we engage in a variation of the hero’s journey, which includes Separation, Initiation, and Return. The performance is a conflict, a game, a battle, a ritual that I am 100% committed to. Through this vulnerability and courage, it creates a release, a portal, for myself and also the audience. My performance balances lots of different elements both light and dark and all the areas in-between, which bring out the demons, the clowns, but also some deep open heart territory.

A.M.: What are your plans for the future? Are you working on any new musical projects?

K.B.: I am resting after just completing a run of 30 shows. I have several ideas/projects for the future but all are in such an infant stage that is challenging at this point to discuss. Let’s just say that one idea I am interested in is working with more micro movements and sounds, subtle energies, still embodied, but slowed down immensely.

Ka Baird at Unsound Festival 2019, Krakow, photo: Helena Majewska

A.M.: Thank you very much for the interview. I wish you the best of luck with your plans.

K.B.: Thank you so much.

Interview supplement:

My experience at Unsound 2019 (Krakow, Poland) was incredible. It is my favorite festival. The curation of experimental, ambient, and electronica/techno/house music in addition to the artist talks, panels, demonstrations and lectures makes this festival so stimulating. I still save this little post it note someone wrote me after my show there in my wallet. 

Ka Baird will perform at this year’s Unsound festival.

Translation: Przemek Król