Jan 19

Voice and Community in Tacony, with Michael Kiley

by: Laura Kochman

Our hub space in Tacony continues to evolve, as the LAB Community Arts Center has remained committed to expanding its program of free, arts-focused classes and events now that the Free Library’s renovations are complete. Michael Kiley was the fourth artist-in-residence to develop a project within the Tacony community, exploring themes of neighborhood change, borders, home, vocal representation, and memory in the fall of 2017. His soundwalk project, Grindstone Devotional, launches on February 10 (also the opening of Legendary Tacony, an exhibition by co-resident Rebekah Flake), we asked him a few questions.

Can you describe your artistic practice? 

I consider myself a sound designer and a composer, a performer, and an educator. I tend to work in three fields: theater, dance, and public installation. Basically, I’m just interested in all things that have to do with sound. That involves recording, archives, making things that I think sound interesting, and then I’m also interested in anything that involves the human voice. So I teach voice, and I have my own voice practice that I call Personal Resonance, that, in short, approaches the act of singing and vocalization through focusing on the sensation of it in your body rather than a preconceived idea of what you should and shouldn’t sound like.

The most recent piece that I premiered was called Close Music for Bodies. It presented voice in an acoustic, immersive environment. So there were no microphones, which is pretty unusual for a vocal performance these days, and the audience inhabited the space with us. That piece was a cross-section of performance and my vocal practice, in that the piece taught the audience how to resonate. The end result was a group act of resonance, where the audience participated in the immersive environment.

I’m very interested in how our voices either accurately or inaccurately represent who we are and how we’re feeling, trying to get at what mental impulses drive certain vocal impulses, and the conversation that our mind and body can have around the act of using our voice. Even when I’m dealing in work that doesn’t explicitly have to do with voice, that’s how I’m thinking about it—in terms of physical, acoustical, and emotional resonance.

It sounds like you think a lot about the way that sound brings people together—has community always been part of your work? 

It’s what I’m always striving for. In theater, it’s pretty difficult. I feel that voice is one of the most underutilized forms in theater. It’s so important, and it’s the thing that comes first, but it seems like design and spectacle, and sound design in particular, have taken the place of actual vocal technique. So every time we hear a voice, it’s filtered through technology. And I love that stuff as an engineer—I’m very interested in technology—but I’m also quite positive that nothing will replace the connection that happens with acoustic voices in the same space.

With Close Music for Bodies, we created this group story that we all sang in the first person, and I’m very interested in that idea of putting other people’s stories into other people’s bodies, and mixing that all up as a way to make community. It can be tricky, especially as a lead artist, when I’m constantly curating and filtering. So I feel like I’m very green in that aspect of my process, and it’s something that I’m interested in learning more about, because I’m always working as I’m doing. I’m trying to be really sensitive to that, how I represent other people’s words and other people’s stories.

That was where my thinking about Tacony started, because I had just finished Close Music for Bodies. I led some Personal Resonance workshops, both as a way to meet people and as a way to teach my practice, and I started interviewing people to learn about the neighborhood and the people that lived there. [The project manager] Maria and I decided that we would create another soundwalk—a real-world, real-time experience for people that isn’t in a theater, that doesn’t have all aspects controlled. I really love the way that sound can be layered on top of anything, because it’s not a visual form. It doesn’t give you the visual content, but it does paint a picture of a mood and an experience. This is the first soundwalk I’ve made that is a community-driven project. The other two were just me interpreting a landscape and creating something that I thought was sonically and lyrically interesting. This project is me taking the community work and moving it into this form that I’ve worked in just a couple of times before.

You said that you live in South Philly. How do you feel coming in as someone who’s not from the Lower Northeast? 

As an outsider picked to create a work of art that’s going to represent this community, it’s tricky. It’s why I didn’t want any of the words or the sounds to be mine—I curated it, however. The end result is this combination of field recordings of the neighborhood, sections of interviews, and melodies and music that I created from the lyrical content that I took from the interviews—and then having people from the community perform it. So I sing on it once or twice, but it’s mostly the voices of the people that live there.

Detail from Grindstone Devotional, a soundwalk app by Michael Kiley, created for his residency at Tacony LAB.

What gets you excited about Tacony? 

Tacony is really a remarkable neighborhood, which I started to understand when this gentleman that lives there explained to me that Northeast Philadelphia, if it was removed from Philadelphia, would still be the second-largest city in Pennsylvania. It’s larger than Pittsburgh. So there is a culture up there that is similar to the rest of Philadelphia, but it does have its own flavor. A lot of it can be traced back to Henry Disston, this entrepreneur who started a sawmill in that neighborhood, with this dream of creating a factory in the waterfront area, separated by a large swath of green space from a large neighborhood behind that. He provided a wide variety of housing, and it was all very interspersed. On any one block in Tacony, you can have one of these large Victorian twins, and next to it will be a much smaller house on a much smaller plot. As a result, the neighborhood was always very integrated in terms of economic status—obviously people have more privilege than others, that comes with economic means, but it’s very small and interwoven. People tend to really care about each other. There is a strong sense of community that still exists to this day, which most people attribute to Henry Disston’s original vision for the neighborhood. I really didn’t know about any of this stuff before.

Racially, it’s pretty interesting. The first people that I met through this project were mostly white. And they were all talking about how racial strife is present, and has been present, but isn’t really a defining factor of the neighborhood. And then I started talking to people that weren’t white, and the story changed. The first time there was a heavy African American community presence was during World War I, when there was a labor shortage in the North. Disston heard about a large population of workers in Virginia that wanted to escape Jim Crow laws, and he helped them settle in Tacony. The African American community has been present ever since, but Keystone Street is one of the streets they live on, and one other—so they were there, but it is very separate.

How does the LAB fit into Tacony, and into Philadelphia as a whole? 

As far as I know, the LAB and the Library are the only two spaces in the neighborhood where people gather in a non-sacred environment. Especially for kids, there is the school, there is the Library, and there is the LAB. They want it—they want to meet each other. As technology is more persistent, our walls are up, we’re in our phones or on our computers, and we’re interacting with each other online, but it’s harder to interface with individuals. Social anxiety around that is increasing, especially if there’s no space where people can gather.

There is a strong sense of religion in Tacony, and there are a lot of different sects of Christianity. Even though there is a real, honest, caring sense of community across racial and economic lines, it is still very segmented. When the churches were originally founded, there was the Italian church and the Irish church and the German church, and they did not associate with each other. Back then, the masses were offered in those languages, which was part of keeping people going to one church so that it could thrive. Now the churches have less money and smaller congregations, so they’re being forced to merge and share space.

It is this strange thing that I think is a truly Philadelphian story, and a truly American story: we want this idyllic idea of community, but the only way to keep that aloft is to keep things separate. I clearly don’t know enough about it to make a definite statement, but overall I believe that people up there really care about each other and want things to get better. There is a cautious energy around the neighborhood changing, which it has done and will continue to do. It’s coming up, as they say. People are a little worried—does that mean gentrification? And what’s the alternative, for things to improve? No one can really name what that is, the industry or the leadership that would revitalize Tacony in a way that wouldn’t gentrify it. That’s what the whole city is grappling with.

Can you give us a little preview of your soundwalk project? 

I think that walking through a neighborhood is always the best way to experience it. It forces you to slow down, to see it in a different light. I’ve walked around Tacony many times now, and I always see something new. There are some really important landmarks that you’ll pass on the route from the app: the music hall, the Grindstone Church (nicknamed after grindstones from the factory that have been upcycled all over the place), the original post office. Tacony is on the National Register of Historic Places, which is saying something. It’s hard to do. I really love it up there. It’s very beautiful, businesses are starting to thrive, and it’s an interesting cross-section of our city. I had no idea what I was getting into with this residency, but it’s been really rich. There’s a lot of history that’s important to greater Philadelphia, and if people care about this city at all, they should care about that neighborhood and its future.


The Tacony LAB Community Arts Center is a partnership between the Office of Councilman Bobby Henon and Mural Arts Philadelphia, with additional support from the Tacony CDC.

Last updated: Jan 21, 2018

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