If, when faced with the name Knives of Spain, some listeners expect a dark and heavy band, that’s okay. If those unsuspecting listeners are then surprised when they see a woman playing the flute, that’s cool, too. Gwen Young doesn’t mind messing with expectations a little bit. Young is the Greensboro-based multi-instrumentalist, composer and singer who records and performs under the name Knives of Spain.
Young makes all the sounds herself, playing a slew of instruments — flute, hand drums, accordion, guitars, analog synthesizers, melodica, bells and more. She records and mixes it all on her laptop at home in her living room. The results are wide-ranging, with ominous thrumming and unsettled dissonances in some places, and lilting acoustic settings or hypnotic drones in others. Some songs have odd-time metrical structures, with five- or seven-beat patterns that gently frustrate the urge to find a familiar groove. Young, 42, has been performing under the Knives of Spain heading since 2010, and since that time she’s released two full-length albums and an EP.
Knives of Spain will perform at Monstercade in Winston-Salem on Dec. 2 and at On Pop of the World studios in Greensboro on Dec. 15. I met with Young last week to speak with her about her music.
“Knives of Spain is completely about what I can do as one person,” Young said. “I’m one performer and one musician. I do collaborate with other people — I love to collaborate — but this project I’ve dedicated to only what I can do. So I’ve set these parameters up for myself.”
She can do quite a lot. Young is a classically trained flute player. She attended the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem for a few years and stayed in town for a bit before relocating to Greensboro 10 years ago. During that time Young has also been studying North Indian classical music, taking up guitar, and playing flute within that tradition. She’s also played in a Middle Eastern ensemble with Oud and Dumbek, and in a cabaret group that performed Kurt Weill songs. These days, in addition to her Knives of Spain project, Young is also involved in an ensemble called Breath of the Ether, which performs chant-based music with a meditative yoga-backdrop slant. She also plays in an experimental improvisational duo call cen0te, with her partner Greg Hoffman.
One can hear many of those different threads in Knives of Spain. Non-western elements bounce
off of each other. On “Red Ribbon,” from 2012’s Opening Sequence, a slow samba bumps along with deep hand drums, multi-tracked flutes, acoustic guitar and steady time-keeping line tapped out on a triangle or similarly brittle-sounding piece of metal percussion over which Young sings. “The Quote,” from the same record, sounds a little like a woozy calypso-tango, with flute lines darting above the switching rhythms.
There’s a lot of atmosphere on Knives of Spain recordings. It’s humid, barometric. Foghorn sounds, deep-breathing accordion, insect hissing, music-box tinklings, and clouds of shivering synth oscillations all contribute to a vibe that can either lull or put you on edge.
Fans of music that braids aspects of folk and the psychedelic avant-garde, minimalism, electronic experimentation and sonic mood painting will find things to like in Knives of Spain. There are subtle connections to be made with artists like the Silver Apples, Linda Perhacs, Colleen, early Pink Floyd, Can, the Latin Playboys, Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson, Vashti Bunyan and Portishead.
Young sings with a quiet and subdued voice, but with expressive, bluesy swoops and slides. Breath and sigh, controlled exhalations, are part of her palette. Some might hear a connection to the flute in her singing.
“The flute is the closest instrument to the voice,” Young said. “The flute is basically an extension of the voice. That’s the way I’ve always felt about it. I definitely started playing the flute before I started singing, but when I started singing it felt natural to me because I’d been playing the flute for so long.”
Young’s music is often built up around rhythms and cyclical patterns, but unlike a lot of artists working in a related mode, she doesn’t generally use loops or samples, preferring instead to record the repetitions live.
“Everything is going to originate from an acoustic instrument that I’m playing,” she said.
“I like the variety that I get when I play a percussion track through the entirety of a piece. Loops contain that too much and they get too repetitive. I like the colors that you can get with different articulations. And I’m not a trained percussionist, so I feel like it’s nice to explore. That’s sort of what I do on all these things.”
Young is a big advocate of earnest effort, individual spirit, and inspired amateur energy as opposed to ultra-focused virtuosity. Her time studying classical flute soured her a little on the degree to which students in the Western conservatory tradition can be encouraged to cultivate a narrow form of technical instrumental excellence that doesn’t necessarily foster bold creativity. Young moved away from her classical studies toward a more wide-ranging embrace of exploratory music-making as a productive artistic mode. She views an instrument that she hasn’t mastered as a chance to tease out new colors and ideas that might nudge her music in other unexpected directions. Finding creative gratification in the process of making music is, for Young, more important than demonstrating any particular advanced skill set in the generation of the sound. Sometimes two notes are better than seven. Sometimes a steady drone is as compelling as a complicated set of chord changes.
“I’m just gonna make music for myself,” says Young “and not worry about everyone else.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Knives of Spain at Monstercade, 204 W. Acadia Ave., Winston-Salem, on Saturday, Dec. 2, and at On Pop of the World studios in Greensboro on Friday, Dec. 15.