The Art and Music of Caye Castagnetto: Interview

Multidisciplinary Art Through the Eyes of Castagnetto

Caye Castagnetto is a multidisciplinary artist and musician from Peru. They studied Cajón with Julio “Chocolate” Algendones and joined the theater group Yuyachkani, where they honed their skills in music and performance. At 17, Castagnetto moved to London, engaging with the experimental film and music scenes and contributing to Cinenova. Their time in the Mojave Desert led to a more solitary practice and the creation of their debut album, “Leap Second,” released by Castle Face Records in 2021. Known for their unique drumming style and integration of various artistic mediums, Castagnetto is working on a second album and a stage play, “Rhino or (RAT),” set to premiere at the New Theater Hollywood.

Can you share some insights into your early musical development in Peru and how it influenced your creative path?

I started playing Cajon with Julio “Chocolate” Algendones 1 at the Institute Maria Arguedas in Lima when I was a young teenager. He introduced me to festejo, other Afro-Peruvian rhythms, and the polyrhythms of the Santeria rituals of Haiti and Cuba. A little later on I joined the theater group “Yuyachkani”2 where my role as a musician took different characters as part of a theater ensemble, and within the staging of different plays. This experience gave me a fundamental understanding, not only on character development, but also the importance of the voice. These teachings have been fundamental in my work as a musician, performer and writer; learning to value the grain of the voice – the friction or point of contacts between music and other kinds of language. The expression not only of the message, but the message’s transport.

How did London’s experimental feminist film and music scenes shape your artistic vision?

In 1998 at 17 years old, and perhaps due to my flaming homosexuality in a country where you could only be openly queer after hours in a hidden back room of a hair salon; I left Peru for London. I was lucky too that I had a Spanish passport so I thought I could study for free in Europe. In reality, I didn’t meet the requirement of residence to have a “go-to-university-right”. I found myself instead working working working at restaurants, releasing birds at funerals, cycle-courier, ticketer at cinemas, just all kinds of odd jobs those first three years. I also saw Nina Simone play one of her last shows at Ronnie Scott. In retrospect, I am glad I didn’t go straight to doing a university program upon arrival. It takes time to know a city, to learn how to live, to figure out ways of making rent, to articulate what you want to do, to find your people, etc.

I ended up having the best education in the School Of Roots. I was to meet the four people who turned out to be fundamental in how I understand my life in relation to living and working: Marina Vishmidt3, Emma Hedditch4, Ego Ahaiwe5, and Ian White6. Their rigor in their thinking, their practice, their commitment; taught me invaluable lessons of how incredibly important it is to recognize the strategies of formation, the process in which experience and formal representation take place. These people; my friends and collaborators, were elemental in shaping my critical thinking. I became very involved in a scene of experimental; film, art, and cultural collectivity. Here I joined Cinenova7, a film and video distributor dedicated to preserving and distributing the work of women film-makers, artists, and activists. In the many screenings, and events we curated; it was central to articulate the politics of site and self through the dialogical potential of “cinema”. These reflections were crucial to the development of my own practice.

Caye Castagnetto
© Caye Castagnetto

You’ve spent significant time in the Mojave desert. How did this isolation impact your artistic practice?

I think these migrations, these geographical moves affect also the way in which I work. Coming from working in collective processes or ensembles in London or Lima, to a more isolated kind of living and working in the Mojave desert where I lived for seven years before moving to Los Angeles. This time in the desert landed me into more of a solo practice, of working in a way that its more solitary, perhaps this way of working can be best compared to the way a poet, or a painter works. Where it is you, and you alone the one who focuses on something, you are the one who finds the continuum of that something you are focusing on. During that time I worked on my first record, which took me almost ten years to finish.

Leap Second was released by Castleface Records in 2021. A Leap Second is the term referred to the one-second- adjustment to synchronized universal time with the idea of precise time- measured by atomic clocks to adjust the irregularities of “observed time“(the rotation of earth with the sun). In short; how they skip a second every few years to maintain “civic time”, or a 24-hour-day. It seemed to be an appropriate title for the album. Because in a way, the record was sculpted and arranged where each track was generated or propelled by different ideas, could have been a phrase, a word, a melodic or harmonic idea, or a sample from an old rehearsal. It was like sculpting chunks of different things, where the rhythmic part would always come after, at the end part of the process.

And so the Leap Second principle reminded me of how in different parts of Peru, the local orchestras would rehearse for a festivity; where the musicians would fill whole street blocks, or football fields with the horns taking the front, and the drummers would usually follow at the other end of the block or field. And so if you listen to these processions; the musicians would play the tunes and beats slightly out of time with each other, trying to accommodate or adjust their hearing and playing across spatial distances.

Caye Castangetto Leap Second
leap second , flip side of the album. Artwork by Anna Betbeze © Caye Castagnetto

What challenges did you face when first starting out in music?

Earlier on, the challenges of learning an instrument, to playing skin, how to listen, and to listen to yourself. How one develops your own beats and how you move and vibrate as a body. How it’s not only about how you sound on the outside, but also; How you sound on the inside.

My training in theater gave me a wider scope. Later on, being really annoying as a drummer when I joined bands; How I couldn’t just sit back taking these orders: Time-keep this, Time-keep that! My approach was always that there are many ways to understand your instrument. As a drummer I would always (and still do) look for different ways to make my instrument offer other opportunities other than a hit or a tap. I would be very annoying to the rest of the bandas I would try to go deep in the full potential of a drum vibration, playing a cross or slide technique, slowing things down, hearing melody in my approach to playing the drums.

I would say I became more of a tonal drummer, rather than a rudimentary drummer. When I get asked to play in groups , a lot of the times I feel that they are too tight, there’s no flex – things get too symmetrical you know? Because they don’t really bend, and as a drummer; they expect you to just “measurement this, measurement that”. I am a highly intuitive player. I have my own tonal expression, I feel I developed my own methods, my own movements, where I set up my own lines. In the bigger way of things, you can see how the country-society sets us up to repeat, not to create, and I guess we try to create, right?

All of which, at the end of the day, made me a more innovative drummer. The one thing that for years became almost a regret, was that I was meant to go to the Conservatory of music in Cuba after I finished secondary school in Lima. Instead I ended up in London, and never got a “formal” musical education. This surely made me an autodidact by ways of self-teaching, and also by reaching out to people I wanted to learn from like Michael Griener8 in Cologne, Germany. Or Miller Luwoye9 in London. But there were times where, especially the time I spent in Vienna, and the limitations I experienced working with other musicians who have had a more classical musical training. At times such as these, I would become very intimidated and insecure about my musical abilities.

Performance with MPA the Getty Museum Los Angeles © Caye Castagnetto
Performance with MPA the Getty Museum Los Angeles © Caye Castagnetto

As a multidisciplinary artist, how do you decide which medium or format best suits the ideas you wish to explore?

Although music has been my one continuum; the glue that ends up connecting things for me. I guess as an arrhythmic drummer; I am more inclined to feel, to listen, to talk to myself, to ask, to ask, to ask. And for that there’s no easy map to follow. The balance of how much you lean into the wind, and when you let the wind carry you. You end up collecting things; sometimes objects, sometimes collective compositions, notating parts: different expressions outside the soundwaves.

There are so many ways in which we manifest how we play with others, How we tune in, how we even feel about others in the room, how we can be connected. How do we respect each other as human beings. If we can do that; we can work something out. That’s no big science, It is as simple as in : When someone comes in the room, you feel it: if you go this way, I am going to go around it,- and that’s the play we got. How we learn to shift with each other. It is important, this: How we stay in tune to meet people, and work with people. Same with anything, the way your instrument might feedback, and how you respond to that. My practice is a dense and chaotic crawl through so many forms it can be difficult to ascertain what is actually at play. Ideas are accumulated over time, delayed by struggle, refusal and unknowing. A personal preference for insight, rather than for the instant recognition of forms.

Caye Castagnetto concert
Ciriza and Caye @ Zebulon , Los Ángeles

What are some of the most essential tools or instruments you prefer to use and why?

The collision of mediums in my practice (textual, visual and aural), has created a tension that points to pluralism. I seek to make work about the world as we live in it with an understanding of the history, or complex fabulations of this world. Now that I am older, it really comes down to four essential things: Being with, moving image, windows, and food. I think my work reflects movement in and out of many formats.

What was your conceptual starting point for “Leap Second”? How did your partnership with Castle Face Records come about?

The starting point to which ended up being my first album was pretty much trying to justify having so much studio space in my home of Twentynine Palms, for the first time in my life I had such a thing as “a studio space”. So I decided to give myself a project. And so I started shaping what was up until that point, a conglomeration of different and isolated conjurings and loose inspirations. I spent a lot of time listening back to recorded time and sessions in my HD archive. I started following through with different drafts, ideas, and incomplete compositions. It was also a good reason to invite musicians to come out and play with me in “my studio” in the desert. I would record a lot of parts of different instruments, and people who would come, and ended up staying for periods of time working out parts for these different tune-collages I had.

After many years of doing that, I ended up dragging so many bodies and people from different times of my life. And so I started following the map of going around, how I reflected, wanting to share something, anything! Something about my own experience with this, with my making through and with people, my own way of caring, my sense. This album ended up being very layered and textured. It is angled balladry and sea-sick pop. Each track contains rolls around a maelstrom of spite, humor, and animus covered with bad bad grace. I had been asked before about the main non-musical influences in Leap Second, to which I have replied: -The sadomasochistic robots of Cercai who speak a dialect close to English, and candid potatoes with an insatiable appetite for electro-domestics. To indirectly quote one of the things I always return to; the science fiction of Stanislav Lem.

I ended up working with Castleface via Bjorn Copeland from Black Dice. He was into it, and shared with John Dwyer a draft I had of some of the tracks, and John got in touch with me almost immediately after listening to it. And suggested releasing it on his label. He got excited about it, I guess he heard sprinklings of other music he liked like Catherine Ribeiro, Dr. John, Terje Rypdal, and Nico.

Caye Castagnetto live
Caye with Domoko and Ciriza, Skanu Metz Festival, Riga, Latvia © Caye Castagnetto

In past projects like “Camouflage” and “Assembly”, you’ve integrated deep personal and social themes. Can you describe the research or preparation process you undergo when tackling these complex topics into your art?

Camouflage and Assembly are very different beasts. In the former; a performative text that deals with early childhood experiences of sexuality and “queerness”. The idea for this was also my way of responding to the basis of the invitation which addressed experiences of borders, displacement, and immigration procedures as they manifest in the everyday lives of immigrants. I ended up drawing from the intimate realm of the autobiographical.

Camouflage ended up as a complicated critique of heterosexual pornography, taboo and feminist ideology which I composed using props, text, sound and as a solo performer. In Assembly I worked as a composer and sound designer as part of a bigger ensemble for the work of an artist called MPA. This performance took place in the theater space of the Whitney Museum in NYC, and it was part of her solo exhibition at the museum.

relax blue
Stage for Relax Blue performance, Art Center , Santa Ana, California © Caye Castagnetto

Could you discuss how sound contributed to the theme of pictorial and reality in your work “Relax Blue”?

Oh man! Relax Blue was such a soup. I was having such a hard time living in California, and I really squeezed this one out of my fat toe. I took its title from the photographic series by artist Jo Pryde. I tried to explore the psychological impact of a life living and its abstraction. I invited two performers (Alan Poma and David Cabazos) to work with me. Alan’s head would come out from a cut-out circle on the floor and would utter the sound of a slug. The slug lives buried on earth and has heart beat. The sound they make is the most amazing thing – its voice is thin metallic and wet. While David sat on a couch littering sentences about car impounds, and other on the spot observations. The collected materials were presented as insatiable informalities specific for and with a select subterfuge.

Can you share details about any upcoming projects or collaborations that are currently in the works?

I have two projects I have been cooking for some time which I am very excited about. A following record (my second), which am in the last stages of mixing. It is music I started writing during the pandemic, some of which I toured with the musicians James Caperton and Ciriza. This record weaves stories of diasporas, travel, and the depths of water. I have also been writing a stage play called “Rhino or (RAT)” which will be staged later this year at the New Theater Hollywood10. It draws from Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and Fassbinder’s short film for Germany in Autumn. A Play structured around a directed score and a triad of characters; Rainer, his partner and, unnamed mother. Whose relationships are haunted by Ionesco’s historical figure and the onward-trajectory of the monster’s contemporary tendencies.



Photos and images courtesy of Caye Castagnetto

Last Updated on June 27, 2024 by retrofuturista

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