June 22, 2023
Permanent Rotation is a series in which producers, DJs, and musicians go deep on the albums that have inspired them.
Maria Chávez started DJing in clubs as a teenager, and in the decades since, her practice has expanded in form and sophistication. These days she’s also an improviser, curator and sound artist whose work spans live experimental turntablism, visual art and sound installations and has appeared in museums such as Dia Beacon and the Whitney.
She has worked with legendary composer Pauline Oliveros and was mentored by Oliveros’ protégé David Dove, but what she brings to the table is something entirely unique—a generous, empathetic creative approach that is often site-specific and concerned with hypermemory as she layers recordings live to create moments that are new and ephemeral.
In 2017, Maria Chávez was diagnosed with hemifacial spasms, a rare nervous system disorder that caused the muscles on one side of her face to twitch involuntarily. In Chávez’s case, the twitching was also painful and uncomfortable, often waking her up at night, and the spasms were threatening to deform her face permanently. “It was really like living in a cage,” she says. “I was like, this isn’t me, I can’t control this, and I had to perform in front of thousands of people and be on TV and try to be an artist while this thing was happening.”
Read more: Eris Drew on Information Society
Two years later, she found a neurosurgeon in Japan who successfully performed a risky and experimental surgery, but the downtime was extensive. It was a two-year wait before she could be declared cured of the disorder, a time in which she was often in severe pain, heavily medicated and recuperating at home. Exposure to loud noise was also off-limits—particularly depressing for a lover of live music and clubs.
Essentially being disabled for a few years gave Chávez a deepened appreciation for her chosen album, Rock Bottom by Robert Wyatt. Prior to recording Rock Bottom, Wyatt (who was a vocalist and drummer for influential prog-rockers Soft Machine before going solo), drunkenly fell from a fourth-floor window at a party and broke his spine, rendering him a paraplegic. “In a way, it seems like there’s a weird camaraderie, like even though he had this life-changing thing happen to him, he still made this masterpiece, and it’s like, I can too,” Chávez says. “I can still do it. I can still make the work.”
Chávez has been “obsessed” with Rock Bottom since she was around 26 or 27 and had just moved from Houston to New York. “An old friend of mine showed it to me and I was just like, holy shit, this is so avant-garde but so current,” says Chávez, who was particularly taken with the engineering on the record, which was released in 1974. “It’s all reel-to-reel tape and editing and it sounds like they’re doing all these effects, but it sounds flawless,” she says. “It was much harder to do that in 1974 than it is today.”
“It’s a masterpiece on so many different levels, like technically, orchestration-wise…. he really created a gorgeous piece and it’s only half an hour long, so you want more. You have it on a loop all the time but you never get tired of it.”
As Chávez got deeper into the New York music community, she realised the record was a favourite among the “white boy rock/punk scene” too. “Everybody knew about it, and everybody was talking about how amazing it was,” she says. “We would have sit-downs where we would just listen to the songs and point things out to each other.”
Wyatt’s free and experimental approach on Rock Bottom expanded Chávez’s thinking about what her practice could be, she says. Chávez began DJing in clubs as a 17-year-old but says that as she became more known as an artist, it became harder for her to get DJ bookings. She presented the largest art installation of her career recently in Houston, an “absorption sculpture” of donated fabric displayed across a huge loading dock.
Her opening night party kicked off with a 2.5-hour performance on four turntables and eight needles, featuring her mentor, improvisational trombonist David Dove, before she played a b2b DJ set with Austin musician p1nkstar. It was a reminder that she’s happiest and most fulfilled when she has various means of expressing herself. “I do lots of different things, and that to me is exciting, and if you just give me the space to present my ideas together, it’ll be good!” she says. “This album [Rock Bottom] made me realise I can do everything.”
Chávez’s brain surgery and subsequent hiatus caused her to reflect on why she was drawn to music in the first place. She remembers attending her first rave when she was 16 years old and “sitting on the subwoofers all night, enthralled.” At the time, it felt like DJing was her calling, but now she wonders if it was the response to the DJ that appealed to her.
“What I was actually seeing was someone being heard, and someone who was safe,” she says. “Had I had that ability to understand that I think I would have become something else, I don’t think I would have become an artist,” she says. “I think that’s why a lot of people want to be involved in it [electronic music], because it provides such a safe space for so many people.” If others in the scene recognised that it was this facet they were drawn to—being seen and heard—Chávez wonders if they might “evolve out of making sense of that and become something even greater.”
Chávez is currently drawn towards writing for TV, something she’s wanted to do since she was a teenager, but she remains extremely proud of all the work she’s done to date and grateful for the opportunities she’s been given. “What a gift, what a blessing,” she says. “Thank you art for giving me the structure that other people couldn’t provide for me that allowed me to get where I am today.”
Words by Annabel Ross
Maria Chavez’s marble macro sculpture of a vinyl record fragment and accompanying sound installation featuring multi-instrumentalist Jordi Wheeler is at the Uptown Triennial at NYC’s Wallach Art Gallery from June 22 – Sept 19.