Kate Rissiek has been performing noise under the name Rusalka since 2007, but had been a presence in the Pacific Northwest noise scene before that. In the intermediary thirteen years between then and now, she’s released twenty or so sonic artifacts under the Rusalka alias, honed an incredible visual art practice, played internationally, and worked alongside noise mainstays like The Rita and MK9.
In December 2019, she put out Base Waters, a collection of two side-long, meditative noise burners crafted with her Moog Theremin. Base Waters is impressive for a few reasons. Number one, Rissiek manages to create something both harsh and trance-inducing, which – to my ears – is the sweet spot. Number two, she manages to keep, even demand, your attention on both sides of the record. Number three, the intention in the work is palpable. To me, noise only works not only when there’s a hand thoughtfully guiding the chaos of a random signal, but when it’s apparent that a hand is doing so. Base Waters does a very, very good job of this, and I think it works well as a teaching guide in addition to as a piece of art.
Rissiek let me ask her some questions about her practice. Tune in below the jump.
Jordan Reyes: How did you become interested in noise and underground culture? What about it drew you in
Kate Rissiek: When I was a teenager I would go to any shows I could in my town or in the city. Punk, metal shows and raves. I became more inclined towards electronic and industrial music. I saw shows in Vancouver like Autechre, Einstürzende Neubauten and Wolf Eyes. Those shows were amazing but they were large concerts and I was always looking for something more intimate and challenging. Seeing acts play like Sistrenatus, Flatgrey, Taskmaster, The Rita, Griefer, Coastal, etc. guided me to the kind of shows I wanted to be a part of. Vancouver had Fake Jazz Wednesdays (a weekly experimental night) and a lot of interesting things going on – a lot of people doing their own thing. I had explored electronic sound in private and played around for fun with friends. Once I was exposed to more underground noise shows I was sucked in. Traditional music imposes structures and templates, which wasn’t appealing to me. Consumerism, branding, marketing, ego and pretentiousness constitute a lot of the music industry. I wasn’t interested in being sold a product or becoming a product. I needed something that was the opposite of all that, a free arena to personally explore sound. You don’t need expensive gear to play a noise show, you can dive in with minimal equipment and play solo or collaborate with others. It doesn’t matter what you look like and you don’t have to sell yourself. Noise is cleansing, it washes everything away. There was very often no stage during performances I went to and no separation from the audience, everyone was on an equal level. That’s very appealing to me, a stripping of the ego, an antithesis to rock/pop music, a brutal equalizer. Raw obsession pulled me in. The nakedness, ferocity, honesty and unglamorous nature of noise was something I could resonate with. Ultimately though it’s up to you to get what you want out of it, as with most things.
JR: What was your introduction to the theremin? What made it ideal as an instrument for your music?
KR: I became aware of the theremin from movie soundtracks like old horror and science fiction. I’m a big sci-fi fan. I loved the sound of it and wanted to try it out so I bought a mini theremin online. This was fairly early on, I had been performing and recording with various sources/instruments previous to that. It took time to play around with different combinations of gear to find what worked well. I used two mini theremins at times. They were inexpensive and small which made them easy to transport. I still have a couple of those mini theremins. I graduated to a Moog theremin much later. The intuitive nature of the instrument made it approachable and the physical/non physical interaction. The theremin also demands precision and control. At least, the way I like to play it demands that. It’s complex and simple at the same time. I think initially I was more attracted to the eerie feeling conjured by it but now I find it expresses so much more than that. My relationship with the theremin has grown and evolved significantly over the years. I have a great respect for its complicated beauty and sound.
JR: What other kinds of electronic instruments do you use?
KR: I used to use the theremin in combination with various gear such as synths, tape loops and samplers. I now use the theremin as my main sound source processed through effects pedals. I like to use a minimal amount of gear. I want a lot out of a little. Again intuitive gear is important. I’m also more into doing field recordings and working with samples these days. I have enough toys to keep me busy.
JR: Does water carry an especially significant meaning to you and your work? What about water entices you or inspires you?
KR: The flow of water embodies many things. Currents of water flow like streams of electricity – it represents life on this planet, our bodies are made of mostly water, yet we can drown very easily. Life is given and taken by that powerful force. Endless flow is a theme that repeats for me. I grew up swimming, hiking through mountains to swim in rivers or lakes and swimming in the ocean. It’s no wonder I chose the name Rusalka for my project as it’s a mythological water spirit. The vast expanse of oceans puts into perspective how small the individual is, yet everything is linked and we are a part of that immensity. Aside from the conceptual inspiration I really enjoy the sound of water. It can sound violent as well as soothing and calming. In recent years I have been working more with recording water sounds. Flowing water looks very beautiful also. The continuous undulations and random patterns can’t be artificially reproduced to the same level of beauty. Water is also usually ignored until there is an absence of it or its force is exerted and people die. The weight of it on our lives should be understood and respected. The flow of water very much correlates to the sound I’m producing. I want to dive into the deep end and follow the currents. Oscillations, frequencies, circuits, radio waves, sound waves…they are all endlessly flowing waves.
JR: Taylor from Absurd Exposition talks about something lurking beneath the waves in the album description. Does fear or – at the risk of sounding too Lovecraftian – fear of the unknown have any carryover into your work?
KR: An embrace of the unknown plays an important role in my work. The unknown is exciting as it opens up possibilities. Fear comes from misunderstanding. Of course there can be malicious hidden forces as well. Negative things will always be encountered during exploration. The reference to something lurking beneath waves for me would be more about subliminal forces, things not perceived until conjured. Perception is something I try to experiment with. So many things are imperceptible until forced into view. Even a small glimpse into something outside ourselves is lucky. Imagination lies in the unknown. Stimulating that brings about interesting paths.
KR: One of my favorite sci-fi books is Blindsight by Peter Watts. A major theme of the book is consciousness and the title alone expresses limitations. I feel a lot of people are blind-sighted and simply run on auto-pilot never making an attempt to deviate. I worry about that in myself and I have tried for a long time to rewire myself. Although I agree with some pessimistic sentiments expressed in Blindsight about consciousness. Here is a quote from the book along those lines:
“Evolution has no foresight. Complex machinery develops its own agendas. Brains — cheat. Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music. The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art. Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection. Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism. It begins to model the very process of modeling. It consumes evermore computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I.”
KR: The unknown is intertwined with consciousness but I believe reality is much more terrifying than monsters from our imagination.
JR: What about the natural world at large? Does it have a place in your practice?
KR: I have a great respect for the natural world. I grew up on a farm surrounded by nature. Deer, coyotes, owls and all kinds of wild animals lived in the area, even an albino crow. Humanity has really messed up the natural world. It’s surprising we have lasted this long. I definitely work through a lot of the pain that is in the struggle with the artificial world. Society is an oppressive and destructive beast. I like to visualize space outside of this rock we’re imprisoned on and how it’s indifferent to us, an immense expanse devoid of us. The one place that isn’t hostile to our habitation we treat like a garbage dump. Luckily the human race is a small blip on an ancient timeline. Noise is very much the sound of life – it’s messy, loud, abrasive, chaotic and intense. While noise can also be about something outside of that, something floating in the void . Noise can be whatever you want it to be. There are calm patterns and rhythms from nature that influence my work. Mostly in my practice I search for a balance between the natural and artificial world. In my visuals nature is largely featured. Imagery of the ocean and forests are favored subject matter. The cosmos, the environment and landscapes have influenced my work from the very beginning, whether conscious or not. This is expressed in many aspects.
JR: How did you compose and record the pieces for Base Waters? How long was the process and what did it look like?
KR: I took the sound that I was working on with my live performances and expanded on that for Base Waters. I recorded samples of ocean water and waves to use. Then I recorded quite a bit of material. There were some initial attempts that were scrapped. Once I had a good structure for the record I worked on editing little parts here and there. I’m fairly minimal with my multi tracking and editing. I don’t remember how long it took me but I know that I took my time with it. Also there was a problem with the first pressing plant the record was sent to and it had to be sent to another so there was months of delay. Due to set backs, it’s difficult to remember exact times. When an album feels complete I send the material on its way. I don’t like to overwork things so that’s a sensitive time. You can get bogged down with perfectionism. Nothing is perfect, it’s simply the best you can do at the time. I was pretty depressed when I recorded Base Waters. For me this is usually not a good time to be creative or productive. Somehow I managed to work through difficulties, which relates to your next question.
JR: Your bio on your site talks about the struggle between filth and transcendence. To me, Base Waters seems more emblematic of transcendence, but I’m predisposed to considering sublimity, or narratives of erosion of self/losing yourself to sound haha. Do you think that Base Waters is wrestling with filth and transcendence? Where do you think it ends up?
KR: I should update that bio as it’s old but the struggle for transcendence is definitely still there within Base Waters. That battle is constant in my work. Losing yourself to sound is certainly a goal. You must completely surrender yourself to get anywhere. I think Base Waters floats in a realm of indifferent or not completely defined space. It’s an attempt at finding some peace in the face of violence. It’s also a detachment from everything. It’s a journey through many things. Hopefully that complexity is communicated on some level. There are big emotions and then also cold unfeeling moments. I hope there is at least a brief moment where you can forget yourself. Sound is very meditative for me, even if it’s abrasive. I want to be sucked in and consumed. At the end of everything you get spit out but that’s just the cycle of things. The come down is always rough. I think the end of Base Waters feels a bit like being alone in a raft drifting out into the open ocean, or it has a feeling of burning down past attachments and something new washing over. Hopefully the latter.
JR: What aspects of sound and visual art do you find yourself most interested in these days?
KR: Good question. I’m most interested in meditative aspects and the potential of art to change perception. Also, the exploration of uncomfortable and dark subject matter. There always needs to be a place for that. If we lived in some kind of fantasy utopia maybe it wouldn’t be necessary but we’re sinking further and further into a dystopia. I’ve always needed something to help me deal with things. When I started working on art as a teenager I never thought about the end result as being ultimately important. I gave a lot of pieces away to people. It was very much about being caught up in the obsession and act of creating. Finding that passion is very important. It allows you to focus and shut everything else out. Even though I’m mostly a pessimistic person (I would argue a realistic person) I still have some optimistic ideas about art. It can elevate us above our worst selves and it can connect us. Most of the time art is a masochistic endeavor – it’s a lot of work with relatively little or no pay off. You may ask yourself why you even do it anymore. Partially it’s because you have to. You can strip naked and give everything of yourself just to be disregarded and demeaned. You can work years on something that gets torn down in a second. It’s up to you to keep going and to find value. Worthwhile moments will be revealed.
JR: What all is in the future for Rusalka and Kate Rissiek?
KR: I hope to keep pushing myself. I’m working on recording with new equipment and trying new things out. In the fall of this year I hope to tour in Europe and visit my relatives in Germany. I will be performing in Vancouver and Victoria BC as well as planning other out of town shows. I have some ideas for releases to work on. These will take the time needed, sometimes albums can be completed fast and sometimes they take many months to finish. I seem to take more time these days. I will try to make more time to work on visual art. I’ve been getting more into photography and video. Lastly I’ll keep doing collage work, my long time love.
JR: Anything else you’d like to say?
KR: I would like to thank all the dedicated and hardworking people in the noise scene. It takes a lot to keep things going.
KR: Thanks for the interview.