Julia Kent Uses Her Cello to Mediate Between Worlds

A conversation with the Canadian-born, New York City-based artist merging post-classical and electronic music.
June 27, 2016, 4:00pm
Photo by Cindy Lopez

Amongst the techno, drone, and footwork acts dominating this year's MUTEK festival in Montreal, Julia Kent was somewhat of an outlier performer with her straddling of acoustic and electronic music. The Vancouver-born cellist's compositions take live looping of her instrument, combined with subtle use of field samples, to create a personal and evocative sonic tapestry.

Now based in New York City, she's become known both for her solo work and her improvisation in various bands. As well as playing cello with Anthony & The Johnsons, Kent has a slew of performance-based and film soundtrack work under her belt, including the 2011 film This Must Be The Place and work with the Mannheim National Ballet. No stranger to the festival circuit, having played Barcelona's Primavera Sound, New York's Unsound, and others, we caught up with the artist before she made her MUTEK debut.

THUMP: I was happy to see you on the MUTEK lineup this year, but in a way you're an unusual choice. How do you feel you fit into the electronic scene?

Julia Kent: I'm not sure that I totally fit in sonically except that it's instrumental music. I never know how to describe my music so I end up describing it as instrumental music. It's the most accurate way of describing it for me. I certainly feel like I have a lot in common in terms of process with electronic music and it's the music that I listen to the most right now.

What electronic records have you been excited by recently?
I love the new Andy Stott, I love the new Shit Robot, Love Streams by Tim Hecker is amazing. Oneohtrix Point Never's Garden of Delete, which is not so new, is also awesome.

Your last album [2015's Asperities] was produced with Rafael Anton Irisarri, who with his peers on Ghostly International, have built a reputation for being at the nexus between classical music and genres like ambient and drone. Do you think artists in that zone are modern classical borrowing from electronic or vice-versa?
Just speaking for myself, I would say that I'm really influenced by the electronic music that I listen to. So I'm not necessarily borrowing but I'm definitely influenced by it sonically. In terms of classical music, I don't know that I really fit into the sort of post-classical or neo-classical scene, as to me it's a more academic genre. I think it implies being trained as a composer, which I'm not. I studied classically but for performance not for composition. Then I really took a turn—I moved to New York and started playing improvised music with bands. I've spent a lot of years doing that. Drone I think is definitely something distinct.

Would you ever collaborate with electronic artists? I feel like your of playing would fit really well with somebody like [Mexican musician and producer] Murcof.
I think that's a really beautiful idea. I'm a huge fan of his music and I think he's still on the label that I'm on, Leaf, so that would be amazing. I end up collaborating a lot with pianists, but I would love to collaborate more with electronic people because I think that would be super interesting for me. I hope the day will come!

Around the time Asperities was released, you said that it felt like a particularly dark time in the world. Do you still feel that way?
Absolutely. I feel like it's a terrible time in the world. In terms of unkindness to one another, I feel as though we've lost our sense of helping one another as a society, as a human race and I find that really disturbing.

Is this something you're noticing anecdotally on a personal level, or politically on a more global level?
I think I'm seeing it politically. In Europe there's a certain movement to the right which is kind of scary. I don't want to get too political because I feel like other people are saying the same thing, but in a more coherent way. I feel like there's a sense of darkness and pressure and friction and conflict that we're all feeling. The refugee crisis is the first thing that comes to mind—people are risking their lives and not always being very well-received.

What does politics even mean? Politics change—it goes this way and then that way, the pendulum swings you know. I feel that it's more that we need to relate to one another as human beings and if we can relate to one another on that micro level. It's sounds so New Age-y and ridiculous. If you try to be kind and open to people, and you get that in return, then that's the best you can do. To try to not do more harm to other people and the planet than we've already done.

Being a little darker, is the material from this album cathartic to play live or is it painful in any way?
I feel as though all the music I make comes from a very emotional place for me, and when I play I'm just trying to communicate that. I wouldn't say that it's cathartic, but I'm very lucky to have the chance to be able to try to communicate emotion to people who are listening. The beauty of instrumental music is that the instrument is mediating between you and the world. So in a way, the cello is my voice, it's my expression, but it's also my shield.

More info on Julia Kent's upcoming show dates, including two performances of Dominique Dumais's "Naked" at Kevin O'Day Ballett Nationaltheater Mannheim in Mannheim, Germany, can be found here.

Vincent Pollard is on Twitter.