The multi-faceted creative partnership behind a fledgling Madison house venue.
Photo: Liz Sexe and Tim Russell stage an interdisciplinary performance at their house venue, Common Sage, in its performance space. A sage-colored wall surrounds them as Sexe, crouching on the left, and Russell, kneeling over an assortment of percussive instruments several feet behind Sexe, away to the left, slide bowls at each other across a wood floor. All Photographs by Steven Spoerl.
Visit Liz Sexe and Tim Russell one evening, and you might see them sitting on their living-room floor in front of a small modular synthesizer rack, making calm, inquisitive adjustments while navigating its dozens of knobs and patch cables. Sexe, a dancer and choreographer, and Russell, a musician and composer, jokingly refer to this as their version of family game night.
“Our game is, we each do a patch,” Sexe says. “You get one knob turn and one patch. And then the next person goes.”
“So we just take turns building something,” Russell says.
“And usually it sounds, you know, crazy.”
“Super weird and random. Yeah. It’s like, it doesn’t really have a vision, but it kind of goes into the game theory of it. It’s like, ‘Oh, cool. So you patched that Maths [synth module], you know, into the VCA. Okay, cool. I’m gonna patch Stages [another module] into Maths then and mess up your little move you thought was slick.’ So it’s kind of like playing checkers or something.”
“More like chess,” Sexe says. The two keep going back and forth about different synth components and the dizzying variety of ways to play them off of each other. They also bring up their plans to eventually run the whole setup through a quadraphonic sound system for a performance in their home in the Greenbush neighborhood, which, before the pandemic, was just getting off the ground as a charming house venue under the name Common Sage. The ideas bounce back and forth with a conversational ease; there’s not much of an air of competition or one-upmanship between the two. Between Russell and Sexe is a large vocabulary, much of it shared and much of it not, spanning modern dance, ballet, percussion, hardware and software electronics, guitar, clarinet, and a hands-on approach to sound design.
The two met in 2011 when they were both working with the Madison-based Li Chiao-Ping Dance company. Sexe, along with fellow dancers Rachel Krinsky and Nicole Roerick, was dancing in a piece called “Shifting Ground,” and Russell was creating the music. The piece drew on the catastrophic 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in central California, which the dancers interpret with a fine balance of tumult and grace. Russell, just visible in the lower right-hand corner of the video below, pounds rhythmically on a piece of sheet metal. (At another point in the piece, Russell also plays ukulele.) Daniel Feiler created graphics projected onto the dancers themselves and a screen behind them; the visuals incorporate Richter scale readings that look a whole lot like volatile sound waves, which seems fortuitous given where Sexe and Russell’s creative relationship would go.
In the course of getting together to rehearse for the piece, Russell and Sexe discovered a shared love of improvisation and interdisciplinary work. Both earned graduate degrees from Mills College in Oakland, though years apart, and soaked up that institution’s renowned commitment to experimental music and wide-ranging collaboration.
“The thing that I love about dance is the fact that it’s so broad in terms of what it means that it really kind of suits my ADD tendencies to do absolutely whatever and everything,” Russell says. “So it’s like, oh, cool. This piece needs this? Great. This piece needs this? Awesome. You know, am I going to play drums? Maybe. Am I going to do electronics? Sounds good. Okay, cool. Prepared guitar or whatever. I don’t know. So it’s just kind of like this really big open field in terms of what you can possibly do. “
Though Sexe is just as versatile, she plays the type-A role in these wide-ranging collaborations, bringing some focus to the vast possibilities. She calls Russell “the idea fairy,” with a gentle laugh. “All these ideas, always, and I love all the ideas,” Sexe says. “And then it’s just like, ‘Okay, let’s pick one or two, maybe three.'”
Their solo and collaborative works blend together frequently, to the point that you really can’t draw neat lines between them. Or between just hanging out at home and the start of a new project, for that matter. “Remember that night, I just had a [synth] patch going on?” Russell says to Sexe at one point during a recent interview. “And you’re just kind of messing around? And I was like, ‘Oh, no, cool. Now we’re doing something.’ At any point in time, when we’re messing around, it just gets to be able to turn into an artistic moment of working on stuff.”
A long feedback loop
Both Russell and Sexe are faculty lecturers in the UW-Madison Dance Department. For a recent series of faculty concerts, they created a piece where student dancers, under Sexe’s instruction, performed with feedback generated through a configuration Russell came up with using a microphone, loop pedal, a PA speaker, and a subwoofer. The resulting sounds and movements were different at each performance. “When you can add so many other textures to a movement, performance experience, it just enhances the whole thing,” Sexe says.
The “title” of the piece is a graphic that appears to show two triangle waves:
It suggests that it all comes down to putting the raw material of sound into the hands of the performing dancers—Jessica Billings, Olivia Bruhn, Chloe Druckrey, Jessica Landers, Clara McKinney, Sydney Stark, Lucie Sullivan, Grace Wickstrom, and Rakhi Winston—to shape with their movements. “There’s this beautiful gesture with one of the dancers who holds the mic, and then like, puts it to her ear, and then holds it, and then I let her drop the mic,” Sexe says. “So I destroyed Tim’s mic. I owe him one because I destroyed it…. For me it was an opportunity to share some of that experimental [approach], just go there, let’s try something different.”
In turn, the dancers’ movements challenged Russell to frequently re-think the underlying music theory of his contributions to the piece. “The partnership that we had with it enabled us to have a certain amount of flexibility in terms of how the music goes because we were able to look at the movement they were generating, and said, ‘Oh, actually, this one part is kind of in 9/4,'” Russell says. “And it wasn’t generated because we found a piece of music that was in 9/4 or I wrote something that was in 9/4, it was like no, that’s what the movement is kind of speaking as. Or the other part that had the thing that was weird, like, ‘Oh, is this in 7/4? What is this?’ It’s not like trying to do numbers so we can have a prog dance opera or some shit. It was more just like, ‘Oh, what is it? What does it naturally look like it’s doing, and then can we make music that fits what it needs to do?'”
While balancing a range of other projects, Sexe is interested in expanding [insert triangle-wave-y graphic here] into a longer piece. “That’s kind of my process,” she says. “I like to start with a little piece. And then it might turn into a full evening event or a full immersive experience. Or it might just go back to being like a little screen dance that’s only three minutes long. I just like to take something and kind of shape it a little bit.”
Sexe is currently working remotely with a trio of dancers in New York on a piece called “-ment,” titled, she explains, “for what you would put at the end of a verb to make it a noun.” (Russell also composed the music for this piece.) Sexe has been working on the piece since 2014, and embraces the way it has gradually changed through a process of remote Zoom rehearsals and shifting contexts. “That’s been a weird [game of] telephone,” Sexe says. “Not only telephone in that moment, but over time, because the piece was a duet, then it was a trio, then it was a quintet. And now it’s back to a trio again. That’s been kind of a fun trip.”
Both artists frequently find themselves not just re-arranging the components of a piece of music or choreography, but really re-configuring their whole approach—whether that means changing the number of dancers, changing around time signatures, or hacking together a new configuration of audio gear.
“I think that’s the gift and curse of just not wanting to do the same thing twice or whatever” Russell says. “Just going ‘How does this world work? What makes up this world? What are you know, like, what, exactly what you’re saying, what are the rules of this world?'”
Russell has been making more of a conscious effort in 2022 to release solo-electronic music under the name Avoidance Policy, but even this is deeply intertwined with all the time he’s spent composing and performing music for dance. His latest release, Window, offers a more self-contained universe of austere, brooding ambient music. Selected Works For Movement v.1, released in January, grew from a collaboration with Normal, Illinois-based dancer and critic Lauren Warnecke, an old high-school friend of Russell’s. Warnecke teaches at Illinois Wesleyan University and Loyola University Chicago and essentially commissioned Russell to come up with music for her classes.
“We got together and just kind of talked about what we’re, what are some things that aren’t readily available, you know, in terms of musical form, or rhythmic structures,” Russell says. Across this album’s 11 tracks, you get a sense of the wide variety of approaches Russell explores when it comes to the intersection of music and dance, from the gentle lope of “Terra” to the overlapping tempos on “And Then I Checked My Watch” to the atmospheric, though still structured, bookends “It Makes Space” and “Hue Cycle.”
Even the name for the solo project, Russell explains, “came out of a joke and play on words of ‘avoidance,’ ‘avoidance,’ ‘avoid dance,’ of how I just can’t ever get away from making music for dance.” For a long time he also resisted the idea of putting out recorded music, because he’s so used to playing live with dancers during rehearsals and shows, reading the room like any improviser or DJ would and adjusting tempo and feel accordingly. Putting out a Bandcamp release or a CD invites others to use the music in another dance context, but also invites people to listen to it outside of that context entirely. The whole conversation prompts Sexe to playfully riff on the semantics of “releasing” music: “Where was it before it was released? Sounds like you’re getting put in the zoo.”
“It was in the idea farm,” Russell answers. “It’s like a fish hatchery. It’s like a big tanker truck, just release it into the ocean.”
Intimacy and exchange
The two find further opportunities to rattle the context around their work through Common Sage, a planned house-concert series. They pulled off one in-person event, a concert from the somber duo Bell Monks, also featuring drone duo Woodman/Earhart and a music-movement collaboration from Russell and Sexe, in January 2020. They were getting ready to do more before the pandemic derailed things.
They’d like to start hosting shows at Common Sage again later this spring or summer, while also balancing their teaching work and a range of other collaborations. Sexe is working on preparing a performance of her piece “-ment,” with the dancers in New York, and collaborating with UW-Madison dance professor Marlene Skög to stage a performance of Skög’s dance/spoken-word concert work Consider It Not So Deeply in Guadalajara, Mexico later this spring. Russell is collaborating with Bay Area dancer and choreographer Gerald Casel to create sound design for “Not About Race Dance“—which Casel’s website describes as a “collaborative, choreographic response to the unacknowledged racial politics in U.S. postmodern dance”—and will travel to South Korea this fall to perform with Casel and dancers Peling Kao and Na-Ye Kim at the Seoul & Jeju International Improvisation Dance Festival. On March 25 and 26, Russell will provide live sound design and music for Li Chiao Ping Dance’s Here Lies The Truth, at the Overture Center Playhouse. He’s also been putting together a new trio here in Madison, with pianist Luke Leavitt and multi-instrumentalist Ari Smith.
Amid this head-spinning array of activity, Sexe and Russell’s home feels like both a creative nerve center and a space of retreat. Common Sage (whether you think of it as a venue or a broad concept) invites people to share in that. Common Sage took some inspiration from Shockrasonica, an East Side apartment that from 2011 to 2014 similarly combined the disarming qualities of house concerts with an emphasis on experimental music.
“I’ve toured, [Tim has] toured, and it’s so nice to have a space like for me, at least for me as an artist, where you don’t feel like it’s an act, you feel like it’s a community,” Sexe says.
That first Common Sage show, just over two years ago now, filled up Sexe and Russell’s living room and kitchen with a small but varied audience and a potluck-style spread of food. Local musicians and fans who ordinarily wouldn’t think of themselves as part of the audience for, say, a dance production at the Overture Center, or wouldn’t normally have much interaction with the on-campus academic circles of art and music, got some exposure to dance along with the music. And, Sexe says, “It’s vice-versa to bring my dance friends [into the space], and the work that I do with many other choreographers in the area is not–uh, it’s not that. So they get to experience something different and so yeah, it’s like an equal exchange.”
“I think I just love house shows, and I love the little intimate settings,” Russell adds. “And the potluck vibe, and that whole thing, that’s how I like to share art… with the lens of it being that playful, interdisciplinary, thoughtful, kind of space.”
They’ve held a couple of streaming events under the Common Sage banner. “Peek Quarantine,” in November 2020, and “Or…. (night),” in December 2020. Each brought together multiple artists in an immersive combination of music, movement, and video. In other words, the kind of COVID-era streaming events that felt like much more than just a pale attempt to make up for a lack of live concerts.
The playful and interdisciplinary parts both came through vividly in “Peek Quarantine.” San Francisco musician Matt Robidoux contributed a segment called “Switched On Irish Trad,” which combined Robidoux’s electronic interpretations of Irish music with a surreal onslaught of goofy dance moves and chintzy video effects. At one point in Robidoux’s piece, a browser window showing Amazon search results for “Irish hat” pops up in the middle of the screen. Sexe and Russell contributed a segment called “Bioaural,” which shows Sexe using a microphone and speaker to pick up the ambient sounds of the Common Sage house, creating feedback and texture through her slow and deliberate movements. A houseplant features prominently in this performance and seems to have been a very good sport about the whole thing.
“Or…. (night)” premiered on the 2020 winter solstice and served as a tribute to minimalist musician Harold Budd, who had died of complications from COVID-19 just 13 days earlier. The title came from avant-garde composer James Tenney’s 1971 piece “For Percussion Perhaps, Or (night),” which Tenney had originally dedicated to Budd. This stream was a more meditative and somber affair than the first, of course. Milwaukee bassist Barry Paul Clark (aka adoptahighway), closed it out with a piece called “No Light Without Darkness.” Russell and Sexe, who are both avid outdoorsy types, are thinking about expanding this into an overnight camping event for the 2022 winter solstice. “Almost like a drone night of everybody just doing drone sets for the longest night,” Russell says. “So it’s just completely overnight from sundown to sunrise of music.”
For two people who spend a lot of time in academic spaces and try to cross-pollinate with off-campus artists, being cooped up for the past two years has been strangely liberating. The mentality, Sexe says, is, “I’m just gonna make art. And if we do a live stream of it, that’s great. [But] it doesn’t have to always be witnessed in a certain way for it to be a valid expression of the artistic spirit of it.”