interview with Maggi Payne

Maggi Payne is a composer and artist currently based in California. She was the co-director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College for 26 years, and has created a number of audio, video, and installation works throughout her decades-long career. Recently, Aguirre Records reissued two of her albums, Ahh-Ahh and Arctic Winds. Joshua Minsoo Kim and Payne talked on the phone on April 30th, discussing her childhood, flutes, the “potential” found in the sounds of nature, and more.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello, this is Joshua!

Maggi Payne: How are you doing?

I’m good, how are you?

I’m fine, sounds like you’ve been really, really busy.

I guess I have. I try to keep myself busy, that’s sort of how I—

Deal with things. (laughter).

If I’m not doing something I feel like something’s off.

Yeah, exactly. (laughs).

Are you like that too?

Yeah. It’s a good strategy, I think.

I wanted to ask you about your childhood. What’s the earliest memory you have that’s related to sound or music?

Oh, that’s really interesting. I was just looking up some stuff in this old baby book that my mother maintained for a while. One of her entries says that I really did not like loud sounds (laughter). However, those were the days when you didn’t have a whole lot of toys, so she used to throw a bunch of pots and pans in my playpen and she said that I stayed in there for hours and hours without needing attention (laughter), just playing with everything. So that’s pretty early, but later on, my mom had me take piano lessons. I never really connected with that instrument very well and when I was nine years old I heard flute somewhere and I knew that was for me, so I got right on it.

It was amazing because I had this wonderful teacher named Harold Gilbert. The flute’s a very hard instrument to play—I mean they all are, but to even get a sound out of it, you know? I just fell in love with the air going through the flute (makes the sound of air going through a flute) and moving the keys so the air changed pitch, and all the whistle tones and clicking the keys… I confessed that to him and—to his credit—he said, “That’s right, but in the meantime learn some Handel sonatas.” (laughter).

I didn’t really need his permission; I just thought it was really cool that liking those sounds was all okay. I was raised in a spot in Amarillo, Texas where farmland changed to desert. We were sort of on the desert side of town where we could see out into it forever; there’s nothing behind us at all except cow pastures. I learned to love things that were abstract because of that—you know, the beauty of nature, every little crack in the earth. It’s interesting because there weren’t plants, no trees (laughter). Something just drove my passion towards experimental music right from the get-go.

It’s super interesting that you mention you were drawn to the flute and the various sounds it made, as well as the physical act of playing it. It’s funny it was all even there even then given your works, like with The Extended Flute. When did you start experimenting with extended techniques on the flute?

Age nine (laughter). Seriously! It was always a part of my practice. Most people warm up playing long tones, but I warmed up playing whistle tones, and then moved on to long tones. Yeah, I think it was just there from the start.