Interview: Powerdove on improvisation, academia and more
Powerdove | collage by John Dieterich

Outside Nashville, the “song” – with its vaudevillian and Tin Pan Alley roots – has become an increasingly irrelevant form. The dominance of crowd-sourced festival culture has pushed popular artists to work less with the “song” as a vehicle for storytelling and more toward designing functional, ambient tracks for the polo grounds, the dancefloor, the gym, the office, the bar, or the bedroom. In many ways, mainstream music increasingly resembles what many of us define as “noise.”

On the surface, Ithaca-based pianist, improviser, and Cornell lecturer Annie Lewandowski’s explorations with Powerdove seem blissfully removed from any larger musical/cultural conversations. However, on closer inspection, Lewandowski’s skeletal vocals nestled amidst house-of-cards instrumental arrangements point to a future where improvisers might be able to bridge the gap between our present thirst for novel timbres and our past predilection for narrative-driven songs.

Powerdove began as a solo endeavor for Lewandowski, a classically-trained pianist from Northern Minnesota who’s collaborated with Evan Parker, Fred Frith, and Xiu Xiu. In 2013, Lewandowski expanded Powerdove to a working trio, joining up with two musicians who also straddle the worlds of free improvisation and art-damaged pop: Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich and French multi-faceted string phenom Thomas Bonvalet.

On 2013’s Do You Burn? (Murailles Music) and last year’s Arrest (Sickroom), the trio built illusory, often harsh sound worlds from handclaps, wheezing reeds, bowed strings, and broken metronomes—all in real time—to support Lewandowski’s deceptively sweet, plain-spoken songs.

In advance of a 2-week east coast tour, which includes a stop July 23rd at House Gallery 1816 with new recruits, LA drummer Corey Fogel (Julia Holter) and sometime-Philly bassist Devin Hoff (Cibo Matto, Nels Cline Singers), I spoke with Lewandowski about maintaining a healthy relationship with uncertainty.

TK: Based on the music you make as Powerdove, I imagine the memories you’re grappling with could either be pleasant or painful. Or maybe a mixture of the two.

AL: Yeah, I think so. One thing I really loved about creating that album with John and Thomas is my voice has this childlike simplicity to it. The melodies I write are simple, as well. I think they’re pretty heavily informed by my childhood. I grew up in a Lutheran Church; I sang a fair amount of hymns and I was very involved in church music until I left for college.

I enjoy the simplicity of hymns and singing, but [in my music] there’s always a lot more going on. I find that the tension between the instrumental parts John, Thomas, and I play created a pretty lush complexity that I felt got at something that I couldn’t get at otherwise when I was searching for some story to tell.

TK: Do you feel like more song-based music lacks that kind of presence or immediacy?

AL: I don’t know. I don’t listen to things that I don’t find interesting [laughs]. I listen mostly to improvised music at home. My husband’s a musicologist and he’s working on a book about Henry Cow. So, I’m listening to Magma and Faust and Henry Cow at home.

I just discovered this composer named Laurence Crane, an English composer, who works with this group in London called Apartment House. There’s something that resonated with me in his music with how I put melodies together. There are no melodies in his music but there’s this real feeling of space. There’s no extra fat on anything.

TK: Your music is quite economical, as well.

AL: For sure, especially in the voice. My whole process of composition, especially with the vocals, is about pairing things down to their essence and then just seeing what kind of skeleton is left. Then, that’s what I perform. I don’t want anything extra in the vocal parts. You don’t often find a chorus in my songs.

TK: It’s interesting to hear you compare your vocal approach to Laurence Crane. I assumed that it was connected somehow to the way you improvised on the piano, which employs a lot of extended techniques.

AL: I grew up in this small town in Northern Minnesota. We went to church on Sunday but it was also the social fabric of this community. So, my family sings a prayer before we eat dinner. Like, it’s this singing family—especially, my mom, who’s a church musician. My brother has this incredible voice and so does my sister. There’s no training involved in it.

I studied classical piano, then I went to graduate school at Mills College and worked with Fred Frith from Henry Cow. I took voice lessons for one semester at Mills so I could learn what I could be doing more economically. But it’s a deeper experience for me. I haven’t spent the time at school with it but it was a big part of my family life and my upbringing.

TK: What do you think your place amidst all these different experiences with music might be?

AL: Someone who saw me play in France 2 years ago with John Dieterich and Thomas Bonvalet described my vocals as “the lighthouse in the midst of this ocean storm.” I think that’s exactly how I feel when I’m playing in that group. I’m improvising more and playing the instrumental parts more in the concerts I’m doing with Corey [Fogel] and Devin [Hoff]. But I think that’s an apt description of how the vocals end up being situated.

Someone else said I had to be “rooted like a tree” in the midst of this chaos around me. I think that is a lot of how it feels to perform. I love that directness of the vocal parts. I don’t improvise anything in the vocals ever—not the melody, not the lyrics—but there’s this flexibility around it.

I think the instrumental parts do end up getting pretty fixed after a point but it does have a looseness to it where it could go in some different directions. Often the sense of time in the music has a lot of elasticity to it; I think that creates a feeling of unpredictability. We each write our own parts. We’ll give each other comments if we think something sounds like crap or something sounds really great. But there’s a really strong independence of voices. That part is really similar within improvisation. There isn’t really a hierarchy so much. I would like for the vocals to be heard because I take a lot of care with the lyrics. But there isn’t so much a feeling of “accompaniment.” I like that a lot.

When I play with Corey and Devin, there’s a lot of room for them to try many things out because they have such strong voices. It’s just more about the vibe.  If someone is a really good improviser and can listen well, these songs can happen with lots of different types of arrangements.

TK: If the arrangements are always in flux to a certain extent, how do you decide when a song is ready to record?

AL: I feel like those recordings are just moments in time. Like, that year I was playing that song this way. Just today, Corey and I were playing this song called “Resting Place,” which is from my very first record. I haven’t played it in years. There’s this one person we’re going to see in Tennessee I know likes that song. I thought, “Oh, we’ll dust this off.” It’s in the same key when we first recorded it but it sounds totally different now.

One thing I really like doing is revisiting songs. Songs I wrote 16 years ago I still play but with a completely different instrumental part. So, there’s this feeling of them being living things. Not so much the vocals, which stay the same. When a song really works for me, it will continue to work for years. I’m surprised I don’t get tired of them [laughs].

TK: How do you imagine you’re going to reimagine some of the songs on this tour?

AL: For this tour, I’m playing this modular synth that a friend of mine made—Taylan Cihan. He was in a group called CAGE [Cornell Avant-Garde Ensemble] that I’ve performed with. He passed away in October. He was this incredible electronic instrument builder but his instruments didn’t make it out of Ithaca too much.

I’m really excited to share this instrument with people on the tour. It’s a really volatile instrument. When I play the sampler, I know the sounds I’m going to get. His instrument, which is called Blister, has this really volatile, unpredictable element to it. So, when I’m improvising on the sampler, I’m more like an agent of change. When I’m improvising on Blister, I’m responding. It’s fun to have both parts of my brain activated at the same time. One that has a sense of agency and the other that’s sort of passive and reacting to things.

TK: That seems like an appropriate metaphor for Powerdove’s music.

AL: I think I’m definitely trying to combine my interests in improvisation and songwriting. There was a period of time where they felt mutually exclusive when I first started writing songs, which kind of irritated me. They feel more integrated than they ever felt before.

TK: You seem to easily navigate a lot of different musical forms and contexts—specifically, academia and DIY touring. Can you tell me a little about how Powerdove intersects with your work at Cornell?

AL: I’m a half-time lecturer at Cornell. Cornell’s extremely supportive of what I do—they’ve brought Powerdove there twice. I have really wonderful musical colleagues. I teach the improvisation ensemble. I think this semester we’re going to work on John Cage’s “Cartridge Music.” I also teach songwriting lessons and piano lessons. I teach some general courses to non-majors. Next spring, I’m teaching a songwriting class for the first time, which I’m really looking forward to. It’s going to be a workshop model where students have to be prolific. Every week they’ll share their own work. I have a lot of ideas about it.

TK: I love your songs that are built from this really organic sound world. Is there a reason you’re interested in working with acoustic instruments?

AL: I think that comes from choosing who I work with. Thomas has such a highly developed collection of instruments he works with. John’s guitar sound is incredible. Thomas has a lot that he does with feedback. I know there’s a lot of acoustic Dobros on the record, piano, and banjo, but I think that was a mere coincidence of what he took to play. One thing I really love exploring in my own piano playing and in the groups I play with is a range of timbres that are possible from one instrument. But [with Powerdove], it’s more about the people I’ve worked with rather than choosing specific instruments.

TK: Do you imagine Powerdove with a rotating cast of musicians?

AL: We’re talking about the next record with John, Thomas, and Chad Poppel, who’s an American musician who lives in Hamburg. He used to be in Gorge Trio with John. He plays vibraphone, tabla, and drum kit. The last tour I did with him was great. I think it’ll be that collection of instruments and I’ll probably play sampler. It’s a little bit in the future because it’s hard to get everybody together.

It’s a pretty flexible band, partly because I like playing with different people and the songs are always changing. But it’s also a practical matter—Thomas lives in Spain, John is extremely busy with Deerhoof and lives in Albuquerque, Chad lives in Hamburg, and I’m in Ithaca. I don’t want to not be playing music because I can’t get my band together. I saw Corey and Devin in LA in March and it seemed like it work for the three of us, time-wise and because I think they’re both great. There is some sort of fluidity to the band just to keep it going. These people that I play with are just so far afield. For whatever reason, I just haven’t found people who live closer to me to play with. It’s fun playing with so many different kinds of people, for sure.

TK: There’s a line in the last song on Arrest that seemed to summarize the mission of the project in many ways—“At times, I find the truth is ordinary.” Does the line have any particular resonance for you?

AL: I can’t say I always know what I’m writing about. I’ve recently begun exploring meditation and there are these sorts of mantras or truths that you think on; how your practice might affect the people around you and what your thoughts and intentions are toward others. There are these sorts of A.A., really clichéd, simple things are sometimes really hard to arrive at. But these things that you find that are sort of annoyingly or comfortingly universal. Maybe that song is just another way of exploring the ordinary need to get what’s inside out.

Information for Powerdove’s show at House Gallery 1816 on Thursday, July 23rd can be found here.

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