Lia Kohl
Photo: Katherine Squier / Courtesy of American Dreams

Chicago Artist Lia Kohl and the Art of Experimentation

Experimentalist Lia Kohl thrives on the spirit of collaboration, but her striking new album shows a propensity for creating compelling art in a solo environment.

Too Small to be a Plain
Lia Kohl
4 March 2022

“There’s a certain kind of curiosity and openness to what can be art, what can be music, and what can be dance. All these lines being a little bit blurrier brings people in the experimental world a bit closer together.”

Those are the words of Lia Kohl, the cellist, composer, and improviser who has worked in various experimental performance settings since moving to Chicago several years ago and who just released her first solo album, Too Small to Be a Plain.

Despite this being her first commercial full-length, Kohl has worked extensively in the Chicago area, as well as touring the world with multiple collaborators, incorporating sound, video, movement, theater, and sculptural objects. Too Small to Be a Plain focuses mainly on her cello performances, her love of field recordings, and a healthy obsession with the finicky nature of old radios.

Born in New York, Kohl moved to San Francisco with her mother at the age of seven and developed an interest in music early on: her mother is a singer and pianist, and her father is a bass player. “Music has been in my life since the womb, honestly,” she confesses.

Kohl began playing cello at age eight and eventually earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Cello Performance. Unlike most American children, she gravitated to classical music, describing herself as “kind of a nerd as a kid. I listened to a lot of classical music and also got really into fiddling bluegrass, but classical was my actual love.” She adds that “I have a lot of respect for the tradition of classical music, the discipline and athleticism that comes with it.”

It wasn’t until she moved to Chicago about eight years ago that Kohl began breaking away from traditional classical music and embraced improvisational and experimental music. Although she refers to contemporary classical music, which she studied in graduate school, as “a gateway drug to improvisation”.

In Chicago, she clicked with a group of people interested in living composers who were writing scores and using classical instruments, and embracing performance art and theater. “It was really exciting to all of us to suddenly be using our instruments but also feel like we’re humans with bodies who can make music in a lot of different ways,” she said.

Kohl’s journey through the world of improvisational music began by working with dancers. She started showing up at Constellation, an experimental music venue in Chicago, and soon checked out Links Hall, a dance space there. Feeling a strong sense of community and an openness to new ideas in Chicago, she began attending dance rehearsals and playing improvised cello while they danced.

Over the years, Kohl has stayed extremely busy and productive in the Chicago area, as she’s presented work and performed at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Walker Art Center, Chicago Symphony Center, and Eckhart Park Pool, and has held residencies at Mana Contemporary Chicago, High Concept Labs, and dfbrl8r Performance Art Gallery. Additionally, she has participated in cultural exchanges out of the Chicago area, including Mexico, France, Germany, Denmark, China, and the UK.

Kohl’s list of collaborators stretches far and wide, as she has performed and recorded as part of the experimental trio ZRL (with Zachary Good and Ryan Packard) and the quintet Honestly Same, whose 2022 release Audio Adults is a cheeky titular reference to Sonic Youth. She also contributed cello to Claire Rousay’s acclaimed 2021 album A Softer Focus. She worked extensively with multi-instrumentalist Macie Stewart, releasing two duo albums with her: Pocket Full of Bees (2019) and Recipe for a Boiled Egg (2020), both on the Astral Spirits label.

Her work with Stewart has also brought her slightly into the mainstream, as they have both contributed strings to Chicago-area indie rock bands – a move that may surprise anyone familiar with Kohl’s – or Stewart’s – experimental work. But it doesn’t faze her. “With experimental music, there’s definitely crossover into the indie rock scene,” she explained. “If you’re interested in a lot of things, that’s not considered weird. Being eclectic is encouraged.”

Kohl’s deep appreciation for collaborative projects seems to fly in the face of the notion of a solo album. But it was a challenge she very much wanted to take. “It’s been interesting to see who I am without anything to respond to but myself,” she said, regarding the making of Too Small to Be a Plain. “Knowing that I’m such a responsive person, I had it in mind to see what I could make alone. I already felt like I wanted to do this, but the pandemic made it sort of a necessity.”

Using synthesizers, cello, field recordings, and radio transmissions, Kohl created Too Small to Be a Plain at home in 2020 and 2021, stretching the limits of these components. The cello can be used to create a drone or can be plucked melodically while the erratic static of the radio bursts out randomly. Kohl’s love of field recordings adds even more texture. “I’ve been taking field recordings for a long time,” she said. “Using them is about making a space outside of where I am physically. I’m the kind of person who can’t pay attention to someone talking because something else interesting is happening over there. That’s where the field recording love comes from.”

When asked about a possible theme that brings the album together, Kohl is hesitant to assign anything specific. “It’s very intuitive music; it’s hard to define a specific theme,” she said. “For me it’s very visual and textural music. There’s also an element of ‘this is the first thing that I’m making solo,’ so my approach was ‘how many of myself can I make so that I’m playing as an ensemble of myself?'”

“I’ve tried to play shows with solo cello before,” she added, “and some people can do that very well, but that feels terrifying to me. I’m interested in more sound than that. More layers.”

While Kohl is extremely appreciative of the Chicago music scene, she’s very happy with how Too Small to Be a Plain came out and hopes to release more solo recordings. “People are very open and willing to listen to each other; if you want to be a part of it, you can. It feels good to put this out,” she said. “I didn’t know if that would be true. It feels good to share music that’s just mine.”