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Ka Baird - Bearings: Soundtracks for the Bardos


Talking with the artist about their intense, deeply personal new record.

By John Chiaverina


The New York-based artist Ka Baird is known for an intense performance style, centered around movement and a microphone. During their set at the 2022 Underground Institute Festival in Berlin, Baird gesticulated theatrically while performing into a processed mic; the dissonance between those motions and the abstracted sound coming out of the system made it look like the artist was in the throws of some sort of otherworldly exorcism. 

Baird’s newest record, Bearings: Soundtracks for the Bardos, synthesizes the artist’s performative and compositional sides. It also functions as a deeply personal account of an intense period of time in their life. During Covid, Baird returned to their hometown of Decatur, Illinois to care for their mother, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The result is a record embedded with sustained tension and emotional release. It's at once meticulously conceptualized and full of abandon. We sent the artist some email questions, and here is what we got back. Bearings: Soundtracks for the Bardos is out now on RVNG Intl.

  • 1Gate I
  • 2Gate II
  • 3Gate III
  • 4Gate IV
  • 5Gate V
  • 6Gate VI
  • 7Gate VII
  • 8Gate VIII
  • 9Gate IX
  • 10Gate X
  • 11Gate XI

It’s been around five years since your last record. In the past, you have worked on quite a few collaborations, and there are a lot on the new record. What role does collaboration play in your larger practice? 

Ka Baird: Since living in NYC my compositional practice has been informed and shaped by various improvisational settings and relationships. Ever since I moved here in 2014 I have found it challenging and revelatory to put myself in collaborative improvisational contexts and to explore my sound-making tools and performative antics in a way that requires listening and being in the moment. These situations present opportunities that generate possibilities which will often lead to a musical idea that I end up refining and placing in a composition. My solo project has always tended to work with these very structured blocks of composition that have a good amount of improvisation embedded within it. I am constantly striving for this delicate balance between precision and abandon; I find them both equally appealing. 

My new record Bearings: Soundtracks for the Bardos was really birthed from the three years of relative isolation from my collaborators and greater music community due to covid and caretaking my mom. This was the driving force behind wanting to put so many musicians on the record when I returned to the city in early 2023. Since so much of the record was written in relative seclusion, it was important to add this final compositional layer which included contributions from over 12 musicians total.  

How do you see Bearings: Soundtracks For The Bardos fitting within your larger body of work?  

I think Bearings is a big jump forward in terms of structure, approach and concept. It is the first album that I have made that has a very discernible through-line from start to finish. The album begins with a low C sub drone and concludes on a Low D sub drone, with this idea that the record has elevated the listener one full pitch from the beginning to the end. In addition to a Bernard Herrmann-esque string theme, thematic trumpet blasts, operatic vocal whoops, and a vocal line “Here Disappear Poof!” repeated throughout the album, I managed to create a very personalized sense of a sonic lexicon. These repeated elements mean very specific things to me—a memory, a birth or death, magic, spirits, etc., though I would rather not be too explicit as I want the listener to take away from it what they will. 

In terms of compositional approach, my exploration with older and newer tools really coalesced with Bearings. My deepening relationship with microphones, electronics and live processing has allowed me to really expand my practice, both in the studio and in the live setting. And working with so many other musicians in the final stages of the compositional process was extremely exciting and motivating and I think a big step forward for me in terms of how to shape and frame a sonic idea.


The record touches on some really personal subjects. How do you balance that with larger conceptual and craft-based concerns? 

Although using a lot of source material I had compiled during the pandemic, this record began to come into focus in the summer of 2022. I was living in Decatur, Illinois taking care of my mom after she had received a terminal diagnosis in February of that year.  For the following six months,  I would work on assembling/arranging/creating these sounds in the quiet moments while she slept. The final narrative structure of the record became clear to me in the months directly following her death in September.

Many of the elements of this record contain sounds I created for a performance piece commissioned through Lampo Foundation of Chicago in the spring of 2022 also entitled Bearings. This was a special series that was curated in the organization’s office space in the Monadnock Building in downtown Chicago. I performed an early 22-minute version of Bearings a total of five times, two evenings in a row, to small audiences ranging from one to four people. The performance was an intimate experience that was physically intense but also quite playful. Elements of surprise, mystery, confusion and catharsis had me shifting roles throughout as magician, shaman, clown, athlete, and warrior as I struggled to get my bearings in a constantly shifting container.

This live performance, combined with the real life experience of caretaking my mom and witnessing her death, fomented this record. I then took the concept of “bearings” further, bringing in the word “bardo,” most often thought of as the period between death and rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism. The word bardo, however, can mean any “gap” or “in-between” experience, any experience of uncertainty in everyday life. It is not only the interval of suspension after we die but also the suspension in our present living situation. As Chogham Trungpa Rinpoche says in his commentary for the Tibetan text The Great Liberation Through Hearing In The Bardo (or more commonly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead), “The bardo experience is part of our basic psychological make-up. There are all kinds of bardo experiences happening to us all the time, experiences of paranoia and uncertainty in everyday life; it is like not being sure of our ground, not knowing quite what we have asked for or what we are getting into.”

While for the most part my sound making exploration is very experiential and in the moment, putting my very intuitive and physical approach into this very abstract and mysterious conceptual framework felt powerful to me.


How do you approach live performance? 

The difference between a recording and a live performance has become quite distinct for me, as opposed to say a recording strictly being a document of the live performance. In the last several years, my live performance has really become almost everything to me. It is such a direct and profound exchange in a world that is overly saturated. I have become strictly interested in presenting sound and sound design through an embodied, theatrical, ritualistic context. Using pre-recorded acousmatic samples on the loudspeakers and automated chains of effects on my microphones, the loudspeakers and microphones become like entities in and of themselves apart from me that I react to and am triggered by. 

In support of Bearings specifically, my live performance can be thought of as this search for a foothold in what seems a groundless environment. In other words, we are always in a bardo because impermanence never takes a break. It is a sonic exploration, both intense and playful, of the survival strategies we use in times of crisis, i.e. the sympathetic nervous system, the system that prepares the body for strenuous physical activity in times of danger. The piece then is juxtaposed with brief moments where it releases and surrenders, giving way to the parasympathetic nervous system, the system that supports rest and relaxation.

Who are some performers that influenced you early on? How about right now? 

My current nutshell list of sonic and performative influences now and then include:

-Pierre Schaeffer and his notions of musique concrete and later acousmatic music

-Minimalisms and microtones of Phill Niblock, Tony Conrad, Eliane Radigue

-Pauline Oliveros' devotion to deep listening

-Electronic music pioneers Iannis Xenakis & Karlheinz Stockhausen

-Ecstatic free jazz of Alice Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders

-Postpunk, noise, no wave and Krautrock bands such as Raincoats, Slits, DNA, CAN

-Vocal techniques of Joan La Barbara, Yoko Ono, Linda Sharrock

-Folkways/Ocora recordings of musics around the world especially Burundi and the Cameroon  

-Butoh & contemporary dance practices, beatboxing, martial arts, slapstick comedy and sports

Header photo by Samantha Riott. All other photos by Camilla Padgitt-Coles

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