Cinematic Scores to the Marfa Landscape: An Interview with TJ Tambellini

by Sarah M. Vasquez June 13, 2023
an image of a map on a phone

A website showing a map of the eight listening stations scattered among Maintenant’s property. Each dot has a music player for each sound design piece.

Los Angeles-based musician and photographer TJ Tambellini made his first visit to Marfa last year through a label residency with his friends at Volutus Records. For a week, the musicians set up in the barn at Maintenant, an exhibition and performance space in the outskirts of Marfa, and recorded. They invited the public to listen to some of the work they produced at an open studio on their last day.

During that week of creativity, Tambellini found himself inspired by the West Texas landscape, and would wake up before the rest to work on his own music. Some of that music, as well as photos he took during his stay, are featured in his solo show SIGHT Specific, which debuted at Maintenant on May 28.

The show, which is inside the barn, features photos from the past five years of ​​mostly desert communities that he’s fallen in love with, such as Joshua Tree, Eastern Sierra, and of course, Far West Texas. Dispersed among the 25-acre property at Maintenant are eight listening stations where people can listen to sound design pieces Tambellini, composed specifically for each view.

A photo of a flyer with a QR Code

A QR code directs visitors to the website for the sound installation.

To access these pieces, people use their phones to scan a card with a QR code. A website pops up with a map that shows eight dots representing the listening stations. Each dot pulls up a music player that people can listen to for a passive or active headphone experience. Maintenant owners Jeff Matheis and Sabrina Lejeanvre have headphones on site for those who need them.

There’s a special soundtrack inside the barn, which is based on the music at the eight stations and features projections that are shown inside and outside after the sun goes down. The photography will be on display in the barn throughout the summer, but the sound installation is permanent and can be enjoyed any time of year.

I spoke with Tambellini on the evening of his opening about the mixed-media sound and visual installations in his show.

Sarah Vasquez (SV): Did the Volutus residency play a role with the inspiration of this show?

TJ Tambellini (TT): Well number one, I got to spend time on the land here and fall in love with it. The other half of my time, when I’m not in LA, I’m actually in this area called Pipes Canyon, which is near Joshua Tree. So I spent a lot of time in the high desert, and I have a deep love for the high desert and its harsh climates and nice climates.

There’s a lot of overlap between my space in LA and what Matheis and Lejeanvre are doing here in Marfa. So there was definitely a factor of being with the Volutus crew right here in Marfa, but really falling in love with the land. And then some solo project ideas started to pop out from there.

Two people sitting in chairs in the desert

Visitors help each other access the sound installation at one of the listening stations.

SV: What is it about the land that draws you to it?

TT: I mean, this is a cliché, but the big skies away from civilization, and communal space with friends to enjoy too. I’m also aware that people think the desert is hot. It’s not. It snows here, and then there are those big windy days where you can’t be outside. It’s so windy. So, it’s also the variance of the desert. People think it’s such a static place, but it’s not. It’s always moving, always different.

SV: During your residency, there were thunderstorms.

TT: It was incredible. On the last day of the residency, it was like weather and the land were part of the show. And even when we were setting up, we had a huge thunderstorm. There was torrential rain and we were setting up, the music was playing. I was like, again, weather is part of the show, and the land is part of the show. I love it.

SV: What came out of your time here?

TT: So back to the origin story to Jeff and Sabrina. I’ve been playing music for over 25 years, and was doing photography before then. Photography for the last 10-15 years has really been a side thing to the music that I’ve always done.

And so Jeff and Sabrina asked me “Do you want to hang some photos in the garage here?” I was like “I’d love to, but how can I make it really complicated?” So that’s what this is. It’s a very complicated response to “Can I put some photos in your garage here?”

Visitors in the gallery space

TJ Tambellini’s photography, featuring various desert landscapes, hangs inside the barn at Maintenant.

SV: It’s more than just images, you have music as well.

TT: Yeah, so the main part of the show. I’ve always struggled with finding a way to blend my visual work with my music. It’s always felt forced. A lot of my music has always been inspired by the desert. When I was in Chicago for years, I was in a band called Verma. Half the guys in Volutus were actually part of that band, and we would romanticize the desert because we lived in the barren wasteland of Chicago, where there was winter for nine months a year. So the cliche of the desert, the hot and the dry, was like part of the music that we made, in the storytelling that we did through that music.

There’s been soundscapes, sound design, cinematic work. Textured sound has always been part of half of my work, and then this photo work has always been the other half. So this is a way that I’m blending the two somehow. This work, most of this stuff probably dates back five years, and some of it is from when we were here last year.

Photo of an installation in a barn in the desert

The barn at Maintenant features photography by TJ Tambellini with a special soundtrack inside.

SV: What inspires the music? Is it what you’ve recorded here?

TT: I’ve done my solo music project for a good ten years now and that is under the moniker Topian Xome. It started as a fake name to score a fake science fiction film. I was creating a fake soundtrack, and I wanted a name that sounded very sci-fi, and now I think I’m just stuck with it.

I keep releasing these records, and it’s personal work to me. A lot of it is very sound design, it’s very cinematic, music for movies that don’t exist, and all released through Volutus. So instead of releasing a record this time and having a certain number of people listen to it online, I was like, “how about I don’t release this next record online?” The only way you can listen to my new record is through this installation that is intentionally made for Maintenant.

Headphones on a table

Headphones are required to listen to the sound installation, and Maintenant has a few for those that need them.

So all of the music that you hear as we go around the property was either written when I was here last year, or came directly after, intentionally inspired by the property at Maintenant. I’m also an early morning guy, so much was written before all the other Volutus guys showed up, and I was here recording by myself. So this is technically like a new record for me, but I’ve made it really complicated. You can’t hear it online, I don’t have a record, I don’t have a tape this time.

The only way you can listen to the new record is through this sound installation. In the garage, there is a QR code that takes you to a website with eight pinpointed locations around the property. Either you have your own headphones, or we have some here in the garage, and you walk to a pinpoint. You click on a pinpoint, and you have an experience with the song that’s made specifically for each point on the property. I use the word ‘song’ lightly too, because it’s more textured. It’s sound design. It’s like a score for the land.

Visitors in the desert

The sound pieces were made specifically for the views at each listening station.

SV: When you wrote these pieces, did you write them with these spaces in mind, these pinpoints?

TT: Absolutely. I had a very special experience when I was here last time. I was super inspired and knew that I wanted to make something. Even through the Volutus residency, a lot of the ideas that we were coming up with were like, “How can we create things here that are also meant for here?” 

So this is just an extension of that, and I think even with Volutus and the other guys, that’s not done. There’s more of this. Now that we have this relationship with Maintenant, Jeff, and Sabrina, I think this is going to be a place of inspiration and a home for a lot of work for years to come just because it is so special.

Visitors in the desert wearing headphones

Visitors take in the sound installation at Maintenant.

SV: Yeah, because it’s away from town. You have a 360-degree sky view that you don’t get in town in Marfa.

TT: Absolutely. In the barn, there’s a special soundtrack which is based on those eight pinpoints. There’s a couple of little ‘Easter eggs’ in there, but the music will always be playing in the barn during the day. Again, I added some enhancements to not just the land but to the space itself, to help present the work a little bit.

So it’s playing during the day, and then at night, lights will come off, and there are projections inside, and there’s a couple videos that we’ve made that are projected both inside and outside of the barn. 

Visitors in an installation in a barn

Visitors watch projections of the land inside the barn.

SV: Who do you mean when you say “we”?

TT: Sabrina from Maintenant had a huge part in one of the videos. The plan was for me to come a couple of days before and film at these eight places, capture videos, and create a video piece based on them. This is not a solo show by any means. Jeff and Sabrina have a major piece of this, and the Volutus guys have a major piece in this.

So over the last three or four months, Sabrina — throughout the day, sometimes sunsets, sometimes 12 o’clock midday — has been filming these beautiful vignettes of the land, and through some back and forth, we ended up with these 15 to 16 beautiful videos of the land. Again, land love, this is what it’s all about.

I’ve stitched them together, and created a short piece about the land that will be projected inside of Maintenant as well as outside. At night, especially if you can’t make it out before the sun goes down, people can experience the sound design through the videos of the property. It’s like an abbreviated, manufactured version of the same thing, or something that is almost nostalgic for what it was like earlier.

Installation view of video projections outside of a barn

After the sun goes down, projections of the land are projected inside and outside the barn.



TJ Tambellini: SIGHT Specific is currently on view at Maintenant (1900 Rabbits Rd) in Marfa. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

0 comment

You may also like

Leave a Comment

Funding generously provided by: