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Susie Ibarra: Sculptor of Sound, Water Magician

By Ken Micallef

In the 1990s, Susie Ibarra was a mainstay of the New York jazz scene, frequently collaborating with David S. Ware, William Parker, Dennis Charles and Assif Tsahar. Influenced by her Filipino heritage, Ibarra’s inventive drumming and percussion were at once elastic and supportive, seemingly drawing on unquantifiable atmospheres and inspirations typically outside the norm for such a celebrated jazz musician.

In 2008, she left the city to join the faculty at Connecticut’s Bennington College. But a comfortable academic existence eventually became a straightjacket for Ibarra, who now lives in upstate New York, where her projects, performances, composing and field research have flourished. Along the way, she became a 2020 National Geographic Explorer Storyteller, a 2019 Doris Duke United States Artist Fellow in Music, a Senior TED Fellow and a 2019 Asian Cultural Council Research Fellow.

Planned pre-pandemic, Ibarra’s projects have morphed to suit the new normal. Her latest work includes Talking Gong (New Focus Recordings), performed by her trio of pianist Alex Peh and flutist Claire Chase as part of her Davenport residency at State University of New York, New Paltz.

Talking Gong draws on hybrid influences, including Maguindanaon rhythm patterns for four hanging gandingan gongs that were originally used for speaking, just like talking drums,” Ibarra said. “I also used agong bass gongs and kulintang, a small row of eight gongs, in the piece. It relates to other gongs as well as compositional and improvisational aesthetics, jazz and new music. It happens very organically.” The trio performed Talking Gong at Roulette in Brooklyn on June 9. (The performance was also live-streamed.)

Another piece, “Water Rhythms: Listening To Climate Change,” is based on Ibarra’s work with climate scientist Dr. Michele Koppes at the University of British Columbia. The piece reveals the sounds of rocks rolling underwater, an ice cave and howling snow dogs.

“We’ve been mapping and telling stories through sound from five glaciers,” Ibarra noted. “It’s an extraordinary way to learn about the climate and about our connection to water.”

Using hydrophones, spatial mics and a field recorder, Ibarra traveled to five “water towers,” recording glacier melt and freshwater at the Easton Glacier in British Columbia, Canada; the Indian and Sikkim Himalayas; and the Greenland ice sheet. Excerpts of “Water Rhythms: Listening To Climate Change” can be heard online at, which is also home to her podcast discussing the project. Ibarra’s sound-pack of various water rhythms are available at Splice Sounds Library.

Her projects don’t end there. Ibarra’s DreamTime ensemble — with Yves Dharamraj, cello; Yuka Honda, electronics and synth; Jake Landau, piano and guitar; Jennifer Choi, violin; Claudia Acuña, vocals — released Walking On Water (Innova Records/Culture Care Creative) this April. Her current residency at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art included a June 17 performance of Fragility Etudes for New York’s Asia Society Triennial that was filmed for future release.

“It’s a multi-year commission with Asia Society based on research I’ve done with physicist Bernard Grossman,” Ibarra said. “It came from looking at glass physics and how things move from liquid to solid and the randomness and the polyrhythms inside that.”

In addition, a duo recording with experimental guitarist Tashi Dorji called Master Of Time (Astral Spirits) was taken from a live performance at Skidmore College’s Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum. Master Of Time refers to Padmasambhava, who was known as the master of time — present, past and future.

“I’m playing drum set, small percussion and an heirloom lent to me by Buddhist scholar Ben Bogan in the piece,” Ibarra said. “It’s a Damaru, Tibetan skull drum.”

A composer-in-residence at San Francisco Girls Chorus, Ibarra created “The Future–Is Bright: Girl Power Chant Or Sugar–And Spice?” which is a working title for a choral piece with lyrics by poet/lyricist Tracie Morris. It flips the nursery rhyme “What Are Little Boys Made Of” with a traditional lyric response, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” Accompanied by the 70-member-strong girls chorus on drums and percussion, the piece made a partial June premiere at a Bay Area drive-in theater, with a full premiere coming in next year.

Further Ibarra projects include an album with composer/bassist Richard Reed Perry from the rock band Arcade Fire. The pair “follow patterns of our breath and heartbeat using sensors combined with instrumental playing,” Ibarra said. Another album, Insectum, with pianist-guitarist Graham Reynolds and concert cellist Jeffrey Ziegler, creates music inspired by the world of insects.

“When I transcribe the recordings of water, it’s pretty amazing,” Ibarra explained, referring to her “Water Rhythms” piece. “It’s beats and rhythms and tempos. It’s all very exact. It’s not ambient sound. It’s critical. It’s cultural. We follow the glacier melt from source to sink, from the mountains to the rivers. We have recordings of ice caves in Greenland — they’re dripping and moving. It’s not at all static.”

And neither is Ibarra. DB

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