- Luke Awtry
- Lauren Costello
We all have certain expectations of how musical instruments should be played and, therefore, how they should sound. But when musicians approach their instruments abstractly, it can lead to sonic discoveries and compositional breakthroughs.
Burlington-based experimental musician Lauren Costello challenges any preconceived notions of her instrument, the cello, with unconventional techniques and performance tactics. She doesn't play the kind of velveteen arpeggios heard in, say, Bach's Cello Suite No. 1. Rather, the multi-instrumentalist creates sonic collages built largely on drone, loops and harmonic overtones — higher-pitched frequencies that result from lightly pressing the strings of her instrument as she bows.
In addition to cello, Costello incorporates guitar, heavily processed vocals, violin, spoken-word samples and field recordings into her sets. Performing under the moniker ouzkxqlzn — which is pronounced only by saying each individual letter — Costello has become a sought-after collaborator within the Queen City's experimental and improvisational music communities. She sits in with Kevin Bloom's army of chaos the Dead Shakers. She shreds with spontaneous-composition metal band Zentauri. And perhaps most relevant to Costello's artistic trajectory is her work with Wren Kitz — most notably on his 2017 album, Dancing on Soda Lake.
"I never thought I would be a cello player," Costello tells Seven Days. "Once I started playing with Wren, he really inspired me to take off into a very experimental zone."
Sitting in a corner booth at Burlington's Radio Bean, Costello, 35, is clad in a nearly monochromatic outfit of grays and blacks, right down to her signature fingerless gloves. Her hair, poking out from underneath a knit hat, is similarly salt-and-pepper.
The cellist grew up in Lansdale, Penn., a sprawling Philadelphia suburb. After years of playing piano and cello, she walked away from music in her teens.
"I got really turned off," Costello says of the competitiveness in her high school music program. "A lot of people were like, 'You're never gonna come back and play again.' I was like, 'I think I will. I just don't want to do it in this environment.'"
Her studies in a design-your-own-degree program at Boston University, which largely explored the social causes of creative movements, provided some frameworks that would later inform and emerge in Costello's art.
Without getting too mired in heady academia, she boils it down: "When there's a change in identity, it means there was a crisis in identity," says the artist. "So, no longer identifying with previous structures of creative outlet would be the catalyst for creating new structures.
"[But] it's more about exploring the questions," Costello continues. "That's [why] some of the performance pieces I do are more emotional explorations versus sociological."
Postcollege, Costello stuck around Boston for a few years. She returned to cello in an ambient ensemble called Shoala, the starting point of her burgeoning experimental technique. But, as many do in big cities, she eventually burned out. Her family had relocated to Vermont, so she headed north to regroup.
"I came to Burlington thinking I would just stay here for a little bit," Costello says. "But I really just fell in love with it. It's such a supportive creative scene."
Kitz was one of her first and most influential local collaborators.
"Meeting and playing with him opened me up to this whole world," she says.
"[Lauren] was the first person I played music with that really listened like no one else I played with before," Kitz tells Seven Days. "I'd kind of play a song, and she'd have her eyes closed and just listen."
"The sound he really liked sort of made me start thinking [about] spacier sounds and the more experimental side of [cello]," Costello explains.
Those intergalactic frequencies can be heard not only on Soda Lake but in the demos and live recordings that populate Costello's Bandcamp account.
She regards her late 2016 live piece "Third Party Politics, an Exploration Prior to the 2016 Presidential Election" as particularly important to the evolution of her sound and performance style. It was the first time she incorporated tape-loop samples into her act, an element she picked up from Kitz.
Back in late 2000, Costello turned 18 just in time to vote in the infamous presidential showdown between Al Gore and George W. Bush. She says that election felt eerily similar to 2016's.
"There was a big push for voting third-party," she recalls of both. "And there was a lot of backlash for people who maybe did. So I thought it would be interesting to do a set that explored [that]."
Atop her signature mix of looped, whirling soundscapes, she interjects a blitz of vocal samples, including from former presidential hopefuls Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, among others. Hardly a public service announcement, the piece is reflective, not dictatorial. It aggregates various points of view and sends them spiraling into a sonic abyss.
Some samples come through direct inputs. Others she amplifies by gently scanning a cassette player's output across her guitar's pickup.
"It adds an element of performance versus just hitting a button," says the cellist.
In hushed, enigmatic tones, Costello's own vocals interrupt the 23-minute "Third Party" performance.
"I never thought that I would ever sing," she says. "That's a new thing for me. I mask [myself] in loads of reverb, because I would not consider myself as having a strong singing voice."
Sometimes, Costello has others take on vocals. In an October 2017 performance, she paired with poet Shawn Corey, who, in an email to Seven Days, describes their partnership as a "chaotic swirl of spilling your heart out for everybody to see."
Recently, Costello dipped her toe into more conventionally song-based material. She recorded a collection of covers for the RPM Challenge — a feat of endurance that challenges an artist to record 10 songs or 35 minutes of material throughout the month of February. Costello reinvented a selection of local and regional artists' work to fit her amorphous style. Psych-pop band Bleach Day's "Sleeping Dogs" became a glistening shoegaze ballad, while slacker rockers Paper Castles' "Sad Song" morphed into a cavernous dirge.
But that's likely as close as Costello will come to the more traditional realm of music.
"Last year, someone asked me to play real cello, as we jokingly call it," she says. "It was so stressful and hard for me, because I had to learn parts and be precise with my notes. I don't really do that very well.
"But, in the experimental field, I've found a voice," Costello adds.
"The illusion is that the cello is supposed to be played in a certain way," says Kitz. "But I don't think that's true about any instrument."
Notes Costello: "I had someone say to me once, 'I never thought feedback could be beautiful.' I was like, 'Yes!'"