Colin Self is a mutable creature. Born and raised in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, with the disarmingly friendly name of Aloha, Self came of age in the Pacific Northwest’s underground scene, which nurtured in them both a fearless, DIY approach and a deep trust for collaborative forms of making. Following years in Brooklyn composing and releasing music, as well as performing within and hosting now-legendary nightlife circles, Self relocated to Berlin, where they encountered rich histories of music, theater, and performance. We met in their shared Neukölln studio, on the southeastern edge of the city, where they are deep in the throes of a new project called Tip the Ivy, which marks the start of their next major cycle of work, “Shadow.” Their previous one, “Elation,” stretched over eight years and included performances, social sculpture, and an album. Tip the Ivy is a theatrical piece, a semi-staged opera, based on a new manuscript, written and developed in collaboration with Geo Wyeth, Bully Fae Collins, Dia Dear, and Mica Sigourney; other friends — including Cosima Gadient and Christa Bösch from Ottolinger and Calla Henkel and Max Pitego — are respectively supporting with costumes and advising on script. Colin and I started talking about the present, which led us to ideas of opacity and collective effort, as well as the expansive assortment of forms and formats they rely on (or don’t) in order to express ideas.
Isabel Parkes: Let’s start with your current project, Tip the Ivy. What marked your entry into it?
Colin Self: My entry point for the project was Polari, a code language primarily used in the UK and born out of a time when homosexuality was punishable by law. Tip the Ivy also stems from a long-term interest of mine for things that exist in the shadows or relate to shadow worlds. One of these is Quoivoi, fictionalized versions of an existing phenomenon known as Grabovoi codes, which are these numerical sequences read aloud in order to manifest desires. Grabovoi or “cheat” codes are popular on YouTube and TikTok, where users will recite sequences that they believe, for example, can help them maintain good health or bring them money. I’m also curious about the shadow world of post-truth as it infiltrates our experiences today: the ways that the internet presents paralogical forms of problem solving in a time of systemic collapse. The imaginary, the mystical, and the real flatten in a world of systemic inequity, failing healthcare, and partisan lawmaking. Polari and Quoivoi are radically different but can both be loosely understood as languages used by people who rely on codes or encryption to temporarily survive inside of systems that have failed them.
IP: I’m struck by how fluidly you draw on both mainstreams and peripheries.
CS: I think my heart connection to a concept like shadow worlds derives from time spent in underground and nighttime spaces, where things that would happen and people who occupied spaces were illegible to the greater world. It wasn’t something I was super conscious of at the time, but the more I’ve understood my own relationship to shadow worlds, the more I’ve come to understand that almost everyone, from every walk of life, has something like them: we all possess interior worlds that don’t have names, aren’t meant to be mined, or are simply not seen by the worlds we otherwise inhabit. These are often the things that offer us meaningful experiences.
IP: In certain ways, shadow worlds create a contrast to your work with performance, which is often driven by spectacle. How do you approach wanting a live show to maintain aspects that are hidden and others that are very much visible?
CS: I don’t know exactly, but I think it has to do with my origins in a DIY underground scene in the Pacific Northwest. I grew up in contexts in which the ruling logic was that if you didn’t know how to do something, you made it up as you went along — and that might be a collective process. Not always following a preordained procedure, not knowing, enables me to stay open to process, to surprise myself and others.
IP: Can you give an example?
CS: The first time I worked with a full orchestra, I became aware of how little I actually knew about their rules. I remember how, through doing and making, I learned as much about how they operate as I did about how they might be transformed. I saw that this gap might offer an audience something generous, something that could not be contained or categorized, but rather represent a shift in framework. I hope that people experience that shift in my live performances. I feel a continuation of what artists like Meredith Monk and Robert Ashley initiated by changing operatic and theatrical stage productions, or how people like Jack Smith, Charles Ludlam, and Reza Abdoh took it upon themselves to say, “We have this form, and we have to change it.” Often, it feels as if I am an errand boy for the spirit world, helping to continue these transformations.
IP: Shifting frameworks sounds good. Can you talk about the journey to get there – perhaps also some of the resistance you encounter?
CS: I was recently invited to make orchestral compositions in response to Beethoven’s canonical Missa Solemnis, which were to be performed by a professional, classical German choir founded in the 1920s. Missa Solemnis draws heavily on Catholic language, and that this all took place during the pandemic made it even harder to connect to its conservative content. Coincidentally, it was around this time that I was thinking more about Polari, having returned to it thanks to my friend Matt Wolf, who was organizing an online Polari affinity group. Polari and the Missa Solemnis thus happened in a kind of harmony, although the language Polari is practically antithetical to the language of Catholicism; on top of that, working within an orchestra presented me with new kinds of rigidity.
IP: In what way?
CS: When someone in the orchestra found out that the translations of my text were overtly sexual, he said he wouldn’t play the work, despite the fact that the choir members didn’t know what they were saying and didn’t ask. This made me reflect on the more common version of this situation, when mass is sung in Latin, and few people actually know what they are singing, and even fewer seem to care. So once this knowledge was out — or at least to this individual — it became a problem. I think that there’s an important relationship between hidden and seen aspects to music that is necessary in order to create a composition. I was working on this with my arranger, Justin Wong, who’s also queer, and there were various instances in which our work would be passed into the apparatus of the orchestra, and certain things would disappear or be amended. What became clear to me and Justin, as well as friends involved in the show like Jam aka Planningtorock, was that there exist classically trained composers who know how to use this apparatus, and there also exist strangers, let’s call them queer agents, who are not always given the same apparatus. Not to say that it wasn’t a phenomenal experience overall, but I certainly became aware of a number of the limitations within which people like me live.
IP: What attracts you to these opportunities?
CS: Working with orchestras and symphonies does something to collectivity and scale. So much of the joy has to do with being in a room with ninety instrumentalists, engaging with their ideas, and inviting them to embark on something that they would not ordinarily do. It’s also an extremely emotional experience to hear my music performed by an ensemble that big! Working to imagine space and scale really opens one up. When I teach, I sometimes ask my students to make a proposal for a large-scale performance with like a $500,000 budget. I ask them to think about what it would look and sound like, and then we together consider what this does to the mind. I still think about how I essentially wept when I received my first commission to make a piece in Europe.
IP: When and who was that?
CS: Thomas Edlinger, a curator who invited me to present the first iteration of Siblings at Donaufestival in 2016. Even what I’ve just mentioned — these experiences of certain limitations — are part of an immense privilege as an artist. The resources of these governments and institutions in Europe are something that I want to expand and bring outside worlds into. Coming from America, where such budgets are largely given to you only if you’re on Broadway, I’ve felt firsthand how supportive the system here can be, and it makes me reflect on my role as someone who hopefully bridges worlds and transforms the rigidity of something like an orchestra or an opera house. There is a wonderful thing that transpires when one gives or receives the chance to occupy a world that they otherwise would not be welcomed into.
IP: The group singing practice XOIR is a good example of that opening up of formats, and it also seems to be having an interesting evolution. Can you tell us more about it?
CS: XOIR started in 2013 when Raúl [de Nieves] and I were doing a residency. I had never led a choir before, but I had sung in choirs when I was younger. The two of us were interested in creating an opportunity to practice group singing with something other than notated music and that could be open to all kinds of voices. As time went by, XOIR kept happening out of what felt like necessity, out of the need to be with people and collectively engage with voice. Sometimes that has meant that we would practice chants, that we would then use to protest somewhere together; sometimes that has meant we complete breathing exercises and meditations to connect to voice; other times it has meant creating a platform for composition and improvisation in order to bridge different styles of vocal practice. Speaking in terms of evolution, XOIR is an example of something I didn’t intend to be such a strong thread in my artist’s life, but I have faced constant requests from people all over the world to realize it. Inevitably, my experiences of XOIR make their way into my process of making ensemble performances. In terms of coauthoring material or creating improvisational grounds for untrained singers across different vocal experiences, it’s helped me understand what it looks like to give space to curiosity with a group.
IP: I’ve heard your work parsed in terms of queerness or of queering a medium, but listening now, I’m not hearing those expressions.
CS: I don’t know about the word “queer” as an indicator of anything anymore. I think of something my friend Every Ocean Hughes said about naming something, then naming it again.1 There exists a vibrant conversation about the commodification of the word queer that I feel part of, which acknowledges that queer no longer means what it used to mean. In that sense, the adjectives or the verbs associated with that word also no longer resemble what it once meant. XOIR is what it is. It exists beyond the confines of a traditional group singing practice. But I don’t — to call it queer at this point feels like it does not adequately name the transformative and transcendent properties that I personally relate to.
IP: Does the commodification of queerness relate to shadow worlds you’ve mentioned?
CS: Absolutely. And yet, at the same time, I’m at a point in my life in which I’m having a reckoning with the idea that everything will eventually exist in light and will be named. And there is grief associated with that, with the fact that a lot of special things that were once queer to me and others underground are surfacing. It’s an inevitable part of the natural world, but it makes being present to these stories of encryption and opacity really something to cherish. I think in many ways, Tip the Ivy is dedicated to the deceased queer criminals that perhaps knew Polari. I think that when these orchestras or these XOIR groups sing in Polari, that hopefully some queer ghost somewhere, who knows those words, is laughing, is receiving a bit of joy. I think to speak out from the world of the living is a great gift.
IP: Do you think there’s also a part of your last two years that have focused on grief and death in relation to the world we’re now experiencing?
CS: Without a doubt. It would be negligent to ignore that we’re in a grief spiral amidst an accumulation of loss. While we may be conscious of the fact that it will carry on regardless of how many years the pandemic continues, there is much more that exists in sadness. This is part of why I believe in the need to interface with spirit worlds. The actual loss of human life is one thing, but it is compounded by the foreclosure of futures and of imaginations. Think about it in terms of systemic violence, or the extensions of carceral systems. The ability to imagine a future is being challenged in a new way. I believe in art that is in service of trying to hold onto a thread that brings people to another place, that temporarily offers relief without disavowing the presence of darkness. Within dark times we have to sit within darkness, to act and live, work and play in uncertainty. I believe these are conditions of our era — as much, of course, as joy.