We caught up with Duluth composer/cellist/sound artist Kathy McTavish for a look at her unique path as an artist, activist, and environmentalist and to hear the back-story for her new work høle in the skY. Drawing on McTavish’s past work in ecosystem modeling, the work considers the delicacy of ecosystems, our human quest to recover those systems, and what it might mean to be the last of a species left alive. Zeitgeist will present the world premiere of høle in the skY this weekend, May 16-18 at Studio Z

You have a unique background in various fields that inform your work as an artist. What is your non-musical background like, and when did you start to blend that with your music? 

I've walked so many paths. I was queer / transgender my whole life. I dropped out of high school and had many different jobs. I immersed in a radical dyke community and among other things became a graffiti activist. I later worked at the University in Duluth as a sign language interpreter. While there I went back to school and studied mathematics. About 12 years ago I turned my focus back to cello / sound / new media. 

I have always loved patterns. Music theory / mathematical modeling / walking / cooking soup at Modern Times Cafe. I am interested in the ways we know things - the ways we tell stories. I like multithreaded dynamics / random juxtapositions. These all come to play in the cross media work I do today. 

høle in the skY is an artistic response to the ecological challenges we face as a society, in particular species extinction and climate change. How did your ecology background come into play during your work, and did you learn anything else about climate change or ecology during the artistic process?

I studied theoretical ecology / ecosystem modeling / visualization in grad school. One day as I was sketching through the latest model we were studying I realized that we kept witnessing the many ways towards extinction. It struck me in the center of my chest. 

In another seminar class we read aloud from a book called: "Species Diversity in Space and Time" by Michael L. Rosenzweig. We were taking turns reading accounts of the unbelievable numbers of passenger pigeons that blackened the skies in the nineteenth century... and then this... 

"The abundance of the passenger pigeon shows, in the words of Audubon (1843) 'the astonishing bounty of the great Author of Nature in providing for the wants of his creatures.' Can you believe that we could have the power to make such a species extinct?

Yet, in the year 1914, at 12:45 p.m. on 1 September at the Cincinnati Zoo, Martha, the last living passenger pigeon, fell from her perch and lay dead."

In this small classroom in the midst of mathematical equations we choked through those last words. Trembling before god seems entirely appropriate now... an endless stuttering in the face of our own very imminent extinction / a relentless resistance - an infinite howl.

In my book, night train / blue window, I revisited the story of Martha, the last passenger pigeon. I used this text as one of the ingredients for høle in the skY. The text for the piece is also drawn from scientific reports, news sources and from the poetry of Sheila Packa. Her words drawn from the book, "night train / red dust", provide an intimate voice - the voice of a girl coming of age on the Iron Range - of a history wrought by elemental forces - of a great hurtling of time.

As I gathered text for høle in the skY and my other work ørigin of birds, I was struck by the inaccessibility of scientific journals for everyday people. It is expensive to access articles in academic journals, and the language is often difficult to navigate. I am passionate about open science. Many of the articles I read have very dire conclusions. They predict / record / measure things that have imminent, very serious consequences for the planet. And yet the voice of these writers is bound by our culture's notion of "objectivity." These scientists are a key witness - but can they testify? 

I was drawn this past year by movements such as Idle No More - by round dances and treaties - by walking resistances. I thought about stories - the ways we tell stories, the conclusions we draw, the act of writing our own narratives - the possibility of redrawing our final chapter. I came back to graffiti : the act of writing across a wall : a trespass / a voice where it doesn't belong. I like the flood of text / image / sound that is possible with the open-source languages I am using. I was drawn to the endless torrent. I remembered Judy Grahn's poem, "A Woman is Talking to Death." What does such a woman sound like? Does she stutter? Does she bleed? Does she drool? Does she have citations? Does she have data and does that data spill through her open fingers / outstretched hands? Is it a river / a torrent?

When did you first start working on høle in the skY? Has the piece changed or grown since Zeitgeist's Composer Workshop in 2013? 

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Zeitgeist last summer. I am crazy about their sound. They allowed me to record sound samples to work on after I left. These sound samples were woven into countless sketches / explorations / installations / short films this past year. The bowed metal ghostly hymns, the box of hammered strings and the wild bird. Their sound and textures have haunted me for months now. Thanks to an American Composers Forum JFund commission, I had time to extend and evolve the work for these performances at Studio Z. I revisited text, honed the moving images and developed a code base to generate the mix of sound, text and image that encompasses the musicians.

What other projects are you working on right now?  

I have a collaborative project with a few other Duluth artists for Northern Spark called, "Sophronia Two." This work references a passage from "Invisible Cities" by Calvino. I am working with a cross-disciplinary group on a project called "Road to Williston" that will be at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo next January. The show in Fargo reflects artists' response to the oil boom in Williston North Dakota. I am collaborating with an organization called Mending the Sacred Hoop in Duluth that, in their words, "works from a social change perspective to end violence against Native women and children while restoring the safety, sovereignty, and sacredness of Native women in their tribal communities."  

I work everyday with my partner Sheila Packa. We are exploring the poetics of trans / media with a group of women artists / writers in Duluth. We call this project "The Blue Spiral Institute at the School of Impermanence." Another story there for another day... 

Zeitgeist: høle in the skY

May 16-17, 7:30 p.m.
May 18, 2 p.m.

Studio Z, 275 East Fourth Street, Suite 200
St. Paul

$10 Friday and Sunday
$20 Saturday double feature

Saturday’s performance includes a double feature with Kathy McTavish’s multi-media work “origin of birds” and a post-concert reception with Kathy McTavish.