“There is a certain form of curiosity and openness to what can be art, music and dance. All of these lines being a little more blurred brings people a little closer to the experimental world.
These are the words of Lia Kohl, the cellist, composer and improviser who has worked in various experimental performance contexts since arriving in Chicago several years ago and who has just released her first solo album, Too small to be a plain.
Although this is his first commercial feature film, Kohl has worked extensively in the Chicago area and traveled the world with multiple collaborators, incorporating sound, video, movement, theater and sculptural objects. . Too small to be a plain focuses primarily on his cello performances, his love of field recordings and a healthy obsession with the finicky nature of old radios.
Born in New York, Kohl moved to San Francisco with her mother at the age of seven and developed an early interest in music: her mother is a singer and pianist, and her father is a bassist. “Music has been in my life since the womb, honestly,” she confesses.
Kohl started playing the cello at the age of eight and eventually earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in cello performance. Unlike most American kids, she gravitated towards classical music, describing herself as “kind of a nerd when she was a kid. I listened to a lot of classical music and I also really liked bluegrass, but classical was my true love. She adds: “I have a lot of respect for the tradition of classical music, the discipline and the athleticism that comes with it.
It wasn’t until she moved to Chicago about eight years ago that Kohl began breaking away from traditional classical music and embracing improvisational and experimental music. Although she refers to contemporary classical music, which she studied in graduate school, as “a gateway drug to improvisation.”
In Chicago, she met a group of people interested in living composers who wrote scores and used classical instruments, and embraced performance art and theater. “It was really exciting for all of us to suddenly use our instruments, but also to feel like we were humans with bodies that could make music in different ways,” she said.
Kohl’s journey through the world of improvisational music began working with dancers. She started appearing at Constellation, an experimental music venue in Chicago, and soon visited Links Hall, a dance space there. Feeling a strong sense of community and openness to new ideas in Chicago, she began attending dance rehearsals and playing improvised cello while they danced.
Over the years Kohl has remained extremely busy and productive in the Chicago area as she has presented work and performed at the Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Walker Art Center, Chicago Symphony Center and at the Eckhart Park swimming pool. and has held residencies at Mana Contemporary Chicago, High Concept Labs, and dfbrl8r Performance Art Gallery. Additionally, she has participated in cultural exchanges outside of the Chicago area, including to Mexico, France, Germany, Denmark, China, and the United Kingdom.
Kohl’s list of collaborators is long as she has performed and recorded as part of the experimental trio ZRL (with Zachary Good and Ryan Packard) and the quintet Honestly Same, which will be released in 2022. Adult Audio is a cheeky titular reference to Sonic Youth. She also contributed cello on Claire Rousay’s acclaimed 2021 album A softer focus. She has worked extensively with multi-instrumentalist Macie Stewart, releasing two duet albums with her: pocket full of bees (2019) and Recipe for a boiled egg (2020), both on the Astral Spirits label.
Her work with Stewart also brought her slightly into the mainstream, as they both contributed to Chicago-area indie rock bands—a move that may surprise anyone familiar with Kohl’s experimental work—or Stewart. But that doesn’t bother her. “With experimental music, there’s definitely a crossover with the indie rock scene,” she explained. “If you’re interested in a lot of things, it’s not considered weird. Eclecticism is encouraged.
Kohl’s deep appreciation for collaborative projects seems to run counter to the notion of a solo album. But it was a challenge she really wanted to take on. “It was interesting to see who I am with nothing to answer for but myself,” she said of directing Too small to be a plain. “Knowing that I am such a reactive person, I had in mind to see what I could do on my own. I already felt like I wanted to do this, but the pandemic made it kind of a necessity.
Using synthesizers, cello, field recordings and radio transmissions, Kohl created Too small to be a plain at home in 2020 and 2021, pushing the boundaries of these components. The cello can be used to create a drone or can be plucked melodically as the radio’s erratic static erupts haphazardly. Kohl’s love of field recordings adds even more texture. “I’ve been doing field recordings for a long time,” she says. “Using them is creating a space outside of where I physically am. I’m the kind of person who can’t pay attention to someone talking because there’s something else interesting going on. That’s where the love of field recording comes from.
Asked about a possible theme that brings the album together, Kohl is hesitant to assign anything specific. “It’s very intuitive music; it is difficult to define a specific theme,” she said. “For me, it’s very visual and textural music. There’s also an element of ‘this is the first thing I do solo’, so my approach was ‘how much of myself can I make that I play as a whole of myself?’
“I’ve tried playing solo cello shows before,” she added, “and some people can do it really well, but it seems terrifying to me. I’m interested in more sound than that. More layers.
Although Kohl greatly appreciates the Chicago music scene, she is very happy with the way Too small to be a plain is out and hope to release more solo recordings. “People are very open and ready to listen to each other; if you want to be part of it, you can. It feels good to get this out,” she said. “I didn’t know if that would be true. It feels good to share music that belongs only to me.