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Interview: Laura Ortman's masterful journey through violin artistry

Laura Ortman’s virtuosic mastery of the violin blends lyrical intimacy with layered improvisation. Since the tender age of seven, she has wielded her instrument with a prowess that is both inspiring and profound. Drawing into her Apache heritage, she acknowledges the resilience of her ancestors and the importance of storytelling through music—a language that transcends words and speaks directly to the soul. Ortman's compositions, improvisations, and songs resonate with intelligence, yearning, and a raw emotional depth, all enveloped in a captivating haze of distorted reverb. Her work extends beyond the realm of music, embracing multimedia artistry and a strong connection to visual expression. She defines her approach to music-making as akin to ‘sculpting sound’, where each composition becomes a tangible manifestation of her innermost emotions.

An adept and virtuosic playing of the violin forms the foundation of your music. Can you speak to some of your earliest memories with the violin and explain how your relationship with the instrument has developed into what it is today?

I've been playing since I was seven years old. One of my grandmas was an amazing violinist and played in the symphony. She always had a smile on her face and played with such warmth and compassion; I wanted to be just like her. I had a really great teacher from fifth grade until high school graduation and he was funny and smart and always told me to take care of myself when playing: that if anything hurt or felt off, to just put it down and walk away. I've always remembered that because I knew back then I was a lifer with these super kickass pieces of wood and hair and rosin! Little did I know I'd be making a career of it. I was supposed to be a world-famous visual artist. But then I started making sounds for my installation and performance works by playing live or recording on 4-track cassette tapes. That’s when I dropped everything and picked up the violin as a sculptor of sound and atmospheres. It's carried me through really dramatic and heartbreaking times – all the way to bliss and serenity, sparkly tears of joy. 

Although your music glistens with a technological glint through its post-processing and effects, there is a very human and physical warmth that filters through in the way you play and sing. You have spoken about the importance of Native traditions to you as a person – how being an Indigenous soul allows you to express yourself without self-inflicted misunderstandings. How do these traditions find their way into your music – sonically, thematically, or in terms of your approach?

There are constant reminders in music and art that align life's walk and lineages with where we are from. More than anything I give thanks and respect to my Apache family and friends, knowing we've been through so many hardships and that survival is not taken for granted. I play for us, so our stories continue to communicate with the world's grounds we traverse. Like how a dance or a plume of smoke is ethereal and real at the same time, that's how I love to communicate, where there are no words. I collaborate so much with other Indigenous artists and musicians. We often can see eye to eye without hesitation. It feels like an awesome sort of lively earthy recognition of where we come from and we are ever-seeking new ways to play well together – creating direct passages that determine where the sounds settle, even if in an infinite universe.


What is it like to move between gallery contexts and more traditional music contexts with your performances? In what ways could they learn from one another?

I try to take great care and cover all the bases when playing in a gallery. To set up the sound system to be as suitable as can be, like in a proper music club. There are always moments of caution, thinking I could make it better, but that's where the crossover – from being my own manager to performer – kicks in and you eventually just have to trust you did the best you could and roll with it. It's kind of a fascinating challenge. I've had some extraordinary experiences with sounds in non-music spaces. Two summers ago I played in a giant triangle-shaped gallery at SITE Santa Fe in New Mexico amongst these inspiring, incredible paintings of artist and dear friend Nani Chacon. I played in the sharpest part of the triangle so the sound flowed outwards and upwards, so we had great monitors throughout the gallery space so it's like the sound came from all directions. It worked really well, with tons of planning it out with the crew. It was recorded so I'm working on getting that mastered and will release it on my Bandcamp sometime soon!

Your performances and your recordings share a vivid sense of emotionality, urgency, and presence. What role does improvisation play when you are performing live? And how do you capture this essence so strongly in what’s recorded in the studio?

Oh thank you. I record so many of my rehearsals in my Brooklyn studio and listen back and pin out the passages that I think work well, no matter how challenging it could be to reproduce them . . .I practice these passages until I know them like the back of my hand. So when I improvise I definitely seek energy from these resourceful practice sessions and bring them to the front. I mostly can't see when I play so I am learning in the moment and about what is at stake. If I feel wild, there's nothing like tearing up the violin itself to make it bleed sonically. Extra rosin creates a lot of grit and emotion that I love to express. I work out my studio recordings with the same vitality. I learn the pieces so perfectly and then I know the true meaning of these songs only when recording them in the deep caves of Martin Bisi's recording studio in Brooklyn. He's engineered four solo albums of mine and I know that the work that goes into making those caves vibrate is so they can make true, lively music. It's a really special, emotional atmosphere.

Last year’s Smoke Rings Shimmers Endless Blur (2023) is a beautiful, heart-wrenching album. What’s on the horizon for Laura Ortman in 2024 in terms of sonic pathways, recording, and performing?

I'm so glad you like it. It means so much to me to hear this! I'm currently making a written composition for an orchestra. Writing for other musicians is out-of-this-world bonkers to me. I'm digging deep so that I don't lose any of the adventure in the sounds I want to translate. It's pretty exciting. I sometimes miss playing in orchestras; I love that synchronicity of everyone. That being said, I've been slowly but surely accruing an all-Native NYC women's ensemble to make a cool band. We just loosely get together these days to jam, it's for fun. But little do they know I'm dead serious. Ha! That's a dreamy goal of mine this year. We all play really well together. 

A big highlight this spring is to play at the Venice Biennale. Incredible artist Jeffrey Gibson is the first Indigenous artist to represent the United States at the Biennale and has invited me to do a couple of special performances for the vernissage. I'm completely honoured and I think it will make it a great experience for us all – something to remember forever, I hope, with lots of love. 

Laura Ortman performs at Rewire 2024 on Sunday 7 April