Crystal Quartez Uses Everything From Roses to Movement Sensors to Make Music

“I always had the inclination to empower people to perform.”

Best New Bands 2021 Crystal Quartez (Wesley Lapointe) (Wesley Lapointe)

Recommended by: Gina Altamura, Holocene curator and Friends of Noise board chair

“Crystal Quartez is a very talented sound artist. I am always impressed with her sonic explorations and conceptual projects. Most recently, I really enjoyed her project Sonic Blooming, which was a self-guided soundwalk meditation through Portland’s International Rose Test Garden, and incorporated the use of a process called biodata sonification to express the electrical impulses of the roses themselves. It was such a gift, especially in early summer when live shows had not yet really returned, to have an immersive musical experience like that out in the world.”

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Rocks, flowers, fire, twater, the sounds of colliding objects—those are just a few sources of the sounds Crystal Cortez has used in her music as Crystal Quartez. By her own admission, Cortez’s ambient, meditative body of work comprises about “90% field recordings.”

“When I’m outside and I’m listening, I’m thinking about what a sound means to me and what emotion it elicits,” she says. “Asking myself questions like this, then literally transforming these sounds in the computer, helps me get a better understanding of the world that I exist in and how I want to change it.”

Cortez’s self-invented instruments are no less idiosyncratic: a headband that controls the music based on the user’s movements and an “elemental altar” played using fire and water. Her upcoming album Sonic Blooming, tentatively slated for an August release on local labels Form the Head and Beacon Sound, was created using a sensor that converts the electrical impulses of flowers to sound.

During a performance in 2019—one of her first as a solo artist-—Cortez invited members of the audience to hold mirrorlike sensors. Where they chose to move determined the outcome of the music, with a cascading chime effect growing louder the closer the participants stood to a central sensor.

More than just a means of making music, that kind of collaboration is a part of Cortez’s personal philosophy.

“I always had the inclination to empower people to perform,” she says.

The San Francisco-born, Minnesota-raised, Portland-based artist is a professor of creative coding at Portland Community College—a position she attained only a few years after attending a coding workshop organized by that very department. The workshop opened her mind to sonic possibilities far beyond the synths she was using at the time as one half of the avant-garde duo Sea Charms.

“I saw the wildest projects that were incorporating sound and visuals and lights,” she says. “They really seemed to accurately reflect the intentions of the person who made them in a way that I hadn’t seen before. I realized that coding allows you to really create systems that are modeled after the way your brain works.”

Cortez says she prefers to have “a degree of separation between like my normal self and my performance persona,” hence the bedazzled outfits and ritualistic stage setups that are hallmarks of her Quartez performances.

But even if she comes off as some sort of mysterious, ancient goddess onstage, her degree of separation from the audience is almost zero.

That’s as true of her shows as it is of the Adaptive Instruments project she co-founded last year, in which she and a group of engineers and artists collaborate on electronic instruments designed for people with intellectual disabilities.

Equity and accessibility are virtues Cortez holds dear, especially in the worlds of coding and experimental music, which Cortez has found hostile in the past. In coding classes, she was usually one of only a few students who weren’t men. As a member of Sea Charms, she was often explicitly told she was booked only to have a female act on the bill.

The existence of these barriers feels even more absurd once you’ve seen Cortez in action, joyfully melding her audience’s minds with her performances and installations. Her work is thrillingly unusual, and if it enables or inspires more aspiring musicians to realize their wildest ideas, she’s done her job.

“I’m just trying to show other people that [coding] isn’t a tool that’s just for white men,” she says. “I think that whenever we can share the tools for creation or for expression with people, we’ll actually get more answers.”

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