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Amy X Neuburg seriously rocks


Amy X Neuburg - LIZ PAYNE
  • Liz Payne
  • Amy X Neuburg

Avant-garde singer and composer, Amy X Neuburg has spent the better part of three decades blazing her own trail in the music industry. Neuburg is known for her innovative use of live looping, her wide vocal range, and incorporation of electronic instruments. On March 10, she will visit Indianapolis as part of a concert series at The Basile Opera Center through IUPUI’s Music and Arts Technology department. The performance is free and available to the public, along with a lecture and discussion on March 9 in conjunction with Girls Rock! Indianapolis. In anticipation of her visit, we spoke with Neuburg about her life as an experimental musician, her inspiration, and advice for younger artists looking to walk a similar path.

NUVO: You attended Oberlin College & Conservatory in the 1980s. Was there much of an appetite for experimental, or avant-garde music at that time?

Neuburg: There was. There was a lot. For a voice major, it was actually quite unusual to be involved in contemporary music. We all had to learn it as part of the canon, because you’re expected to be able to deliver music in a number of different styles and one of the styles is the more modern style. I just really ate it up, and that became my focus. There were very few of us who focused on new music as singers. Most of the people just went the straight operatic route. So, I became known as the crazy singer, and composers would seek me out to premiere their stuff. I was adventurous. If they wanted me to incorporate theatrics, I’d be like, ‘Sure. Yeah. Let’s crack an egg on stage.’ The whole performance art aspect really appealed to me and the craziness.

NUVO: Did you begin to experiment with electronics at Oberlin?

Neuburg: I started studying electronic music right at the beginning of the program. Most colleges didn’t have such a thing. Only a few big universities could afford to have those giant synthesizers. Oberlin had a couple of those giant synthesizers. As digital synthesis came along, they could afford to have more stuff. So, they had a pretty rudimentary studio, but they had a little bit of everything. They had some analog, and some digital, and a tape deck.

NUVO: Was a career as an independent musician a realistic end-game when you were starting out?

Neuburg: If you went to the conservatory, for the most part, you sat in your practice room for eight hours a day assuming you would get a symphony job. People did back then, because there were symphonies. There weren’t any courses. How do you put on a show? How do apply for a grant. How do you produce a concert? I think a lot of that has changed. I see kids coming out of the San Francisco conservatory with a lot of ingenuity about starting their own festivals, putting together their own ensembles, writing grants, and finding really interesting ways to take their playing into clubs. [They’re] mixing genres, and doing surprising things in unexpected venues. They’re much more creative and much more prepared to do their own thing.

NUVO: How often are you pulled into the world of academia?

Neuburg: A couple of times a year, some years more than others. There was more of it back when the economy was a little bit better. I’ve done a number of residencies at universities, staying for a couple of days, giving a concert, and doing workshops and lectures. I find it really wonderful, because working with young people really gives me hope. [laughs] They’re always so earnestly interested in what’s going on. They’re not jaded yet, so they’re really earnestly interested in this stuff. They’re trying to form their own ideas about what they want to do. They’ll come up to me and tell me I’ve inspired them. What better thing can you do with your life than inspire a young person? It’s gratifying in a whole different way than standing up in front of the audience and being clapped at.

NUVO: What kind of advice would you offer to an aspiring avant-garde musician? Are there more opportunities these days?

Neuburg: The advice I always give to students is to collaborate as much as possible, because you learn the most by working with other people. You pool resources, and you make connections. I have connections in Europe, because I collaborated with those folks. Now, we all respect each other. When they need a place to stay, I put them up. When I need a place to stay, they put me up. You help each other out. That’s one really nice thing about this avant-garde music world. Everybody gets it. We’re all in it together. There’s not a lot of competition. We all just want the scene to thrive, so we help each other out.

I tell them to say yes to things. That’s how I’ve kept my life so interesting. People offer me things, and I just say, “Oh, that sounds interesting. Let’s do that. Sure.” I guess that started back in the days when the composition students were inviting me to be the singer and asked if I would crack an egg on stage. You learn something new. You try something new. You stretch your boundaries. I would never have thought of that myself, but somebody asked me to crack an egg and I learned how to crack an egg with one hand. So, just say yes to everything, even if it doesn’t pay very much. You stretch yourself. You make those connections. You have adventures. Part of what I love about this life is that it’s just full of adventure and full of learning.

NUVO: You make it sound so simple, Amy.

Neuburg: Oh, God. No, it’s not. At the same time, you have to learn how to be your own everything. I guess that’s another part of it. I’m not good at all those things. I’ve sort of been forced to be good enough at many of them over the years. You have to learn how to be your own publicist. You have to learn how to write copy for a press release. You have to learn how to keep a database. You have to learn how to be a bookkeeper. If you’re working with technology, you have to learn how to be your own programmer. You have to learn the ins-and-outs of what it is you’re working with. You have to find ways to keep yourself afloat. You have to develop so many skills to do it yourself. It’s very time consuming to do all that stuff – keeping up your web page. The amount of time I spend actually composing is very small compared to all that other stuff – maintaining a life and maintaining the preparations for the next gig.  


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