Burn (Out) Resistant: Interview with Katheryn Petersen
Barbara Adler speaks with the Accordion Noir Festival’s general manager and co-artistic director
Words by Barbara Adler
All images courtesy the artists
Katheryn Petersen, known to many as accordion performer Salmon Avalanche, is also Accordion Noir Festival’s general manager and co-artistic director. On any given day leading up to this year’s festival, her duties include (but are not limited to): finagling show line ups, wrangling liquor licenses, sweet talking sponsors, juggling airport pickups with equipment drop-offs, balancing hopeful ticket sales against hard costs, and most importantly, motivating, reassuring and coalescing our small team of accordion-loving organizers and eccentrics.
She is unfailingly considerate to the people she works with, but has a layer of tight, wound-up intensity that can approach the tremor level of a low-grade earthquake. It’s possible that she actually does vibrate a little bit when she talks; but like a small earthquake, I’m always sure I’ve imagined it. Talking to her wakes me up. With no basis for comparison, I don’t know if this high-wire intensity is part of her daily life as a yoga teacher and professional accordionist. I’d like to think that when she’s not leading the charge on the Accordion Noir Festival, Katheryn spends her time lounging on a private island, drinking cocktails brought to her by gentle forest creatures. Unfortunately, I think she celebrates most of her time off from the festival by writing grants for it.
As a member of the Accordion Noir Festival team, I’ve had firsthand experience of Katheryn’s ability to ignite a person’s latent or slumbering work ethic. This effect might boil down to the fact that her personal workload makes me feel guilty. Or, it might simply be that every effort I put in for the festival earns me emails exploding with thank you’s and exclamation points. Whatever her secret, I’ve noticed that working with Katheryn often inspires doe-eyed and idealistic rants at my boyfriend:
“Katheryn is so cool.”
“Yes, she is very cool.”
“No. Seriously. She makes me want to be better.”
“You don’t get it… Like, I can’t believe how hard she works. Wow. Do you think I could pull off tattoos like that?”
I’d like to propose that this isn’t as crush-y and weird as it sounds. I think it’s actually about the assurance of recognizing parts of yourself in a more developed, trial-tested model. Katheryn has a CV stuffed with arts and event administration, media management, continuing education and artistic creation that stretches back to the 1980s. I’m inspired by the endurance of her curiosity and work-lust. I aspire to her level of burn-out resistance, musicianship and fishnet stocking-strutting confidence.
Katheryn’s far-ranging list of duties will likely be familiar to anyone who has ever run an indie art project. Whether you’re managing a band, starting a performance series, or just trying to grow a community, an omnivorous attitude toward work is almost mandatory. This year, the Accordion Noir Festival is facing a transitional period that has lent an extra level of urgency to the task at hand. What Rowan Lipkovitz and Bruce Triggs started as a gorgeously idiosyncratic and informal showcase of local and nearby accordion talent is transforming into a different creature. New energy and new funding are growing the 6th Annual Accordion Noir Festival into an internationally known hub for contemporary, experimental and ‘outlier’ accordion culture, presenting a rich mix of touring acts and local favourites.
I asked Katheryn about the challenges of shepherding an artistic project through this transitional period, and got her thoughts on the pros and cons of small projects, the need for growth, and the surprising rewards that come when you create movement in your community.
KP: Of course. Well, I think any really good artistic process has to have a director, and a good director is somebody who trusts the people around them that are in charge of key things. So, it’s like a family. Either it’s really dysfunctional and it doesn’t work very well; or, it’s a really juicy thing that produces amazing results. I would miss it if we went down the dysfunctional path. If things got tight and controlled, and it lost its connection to its roots…
BA: Its roots are, to me, a bunch of really idiosyncratic individuals putting on events that they love. This year, it’s getting a little bit more cohesive, but from the beginning, it seems like it’s been really about the individuals behind the events.
KP: Yeah, it’s a total celebration of individuality and eccentricity. Just like the accordion. You know, it’s a perfect mirror for what our community is, and it’s a very wide-ranging collection of people.
BA: It feels to me that we’re kind of in a stage of “festival puberty”. Do you think that a festival can stay in that stage for a long time? Or does it inevitably have to get bigger, so that it doesn’t disappear?
KP: Well, my role, my position–I don’t know anybody else who would do this.
BA: (laughs) Yeah, that’s true.
KP: Because I’ve put in so much – so much – time over the last two and a half years, free. And it’s been intense work. It’s been a lot of work. It means that after I finish paying my bills, I do this work. I don’t get any pay. It would be too much for me to keep up. I have a hope that there’s going to be a bit of relief, that there’s a little bit of income, a little bit of pay from this year’s festival, so we can take a step forward a little bit more officially.
BA: It sounds like you’re saying that it needs to get bigger for it to be sustainable for you as an organizer.
KP: Sustainability for any key position. Because we need sustainability for a few key positions that could use a bit of pay.
I think though, that there is a point where things get wrecked. I think that small things tend to have more integrity. They tend to be happening because people are in a creative bud. But when things get bigger and money gets involved, it often does sour. I think it’s really often impossible to keep it from going that way (laughs). So why am I doing all of this? I don’t know (laughs).
BA: Well, that was one of my questions…
KP: Yeah…You know what this has done for me? I came out of VCC where I trained on the accordion. I was distanced from this community, because I’d been gone. I’d had my head in the sand for about four years, doing that. So I wanted to reconnect. And I thought, you know what — you can’t just expect people to start going, “Great, you’re back. Awesome!” No, I just had to get in and get my hands dirty and be involved. To make something happen that’s possibly valuable. And now I’ve met so many people. I’ve had a lot of really good things happen from doing this work. It’s generated a lot of work for me, and people have passed a lot of things my way.
BA: That’s great –
KP: Yeah, it is. I can talk myself in and out of this at various times of the day (laughs).
BA: Well, I think that’s real. I don’t think I’d ever want to write about organizing as a really fluffy, constantly positive thing, because I don’t think anyone who had ever organized something would believe it. You seem to be avoiding burnout pretty well, though. How do you do that? Do you have any advice for others? Because it does seem that when you see people in scenes, they have a tremendous amount of energy at one point and then, sometimes, they just disappear. You haven’t done that yet, and I hope you don’t…
KP: Well, this year’s had more people support, but it might not be enough. What it will be, Barbara, is that I will continue to put in as much energy as I can, and keep myself afloat, until the day that I get offered a big job that takes me away. I just believe that you have to keep the energy moving. It doesn’t matter if you’re being paid, or not, because the good job will come. And it might be kind of seemingly random, or a little bit surreal in terms of not being exactly the thing you were chasing, but it’s all part of the same big ball of wax, in my opinion.
BA: Any advice for others?
KP: I think everybody should be kicking it as hard as they can to just make good stuff happen. It’s the fear part that says there’s not enough. There’s not enough of me. It’s not enough. It’s not giving me enough back. And it’s the happier part of me that goes, Wow, this is great. This is a great chance. This is a great opportunity. It’s like this amazing Play-doh, and it’s just sitting there, waiting to be made into a little dog (laughs) with a different coloured tail…
BA: That’s a way better answer than I was expecting –
BA: I thought you’d say something like “yoga” or “juicing” –
KP: (laughs) Yeah! Yoga!
BA: In a small group of organizers, there can sometimes be this feeling of: if I don’t do this myself, no one is going to do it –
KP: — oh yeah –
BA: — which can be a very tricky thing, because sometimes, you don’t ask anyone to do it. So, it doesn’t get done by anyone else, and that kind of fulfils the prophecy: no one can possibly do this except for me. But of course, sometimes it’s also true that if you don’t do it yourself, it’s not going to get done. And it’s just a fact, like you were saying, that so many of these small things are run on a handful of people making sacrifices, or just being really stubborn about getting it done —
KP: (laughs) – yeah, it’s true—
BA: — but, when you’re making your ‘to-do’ list, how do you decide: What’s something that I have to do, and what’s something that I can ask others to do? And how do you police yourself, when your to-do list becomes too much?
KP: Right… I guess that does take some trusting other people…
BA: (laughs) You sound so worried –
KP: — yeah… Well, that might just be my own personal issue of learning to trust people, so it’s probably good karma for me to work off, or dharma, or whatever. I have to find people and allow them to do it differently. But there are really amazing people that are helping and doing stuff, and it’s actually really fun to see them do it a little bit differently.
But I want to answer your other question, about the to-do list, and how I police myself on that… I don’t know… I don’t know if I can even say that I do… I don’t have enough people yet coming for jobs. I’m looking for people to help with jobs. But for now, there’s just a certain amount of stuff that has to happen, and there’s a certain amount of stuff that’s extra.
BA: Why do you think it’s so hard to attract help?
KP: Because I think people want it to be already happening before they join in.
BA: So, does that mean that you anticipate it getting easier?
KP: Yeah. It is. It’s easier than last year. Last year, hardly anyone was around helping, but then they kind of saw that something cool happened, and they also felt a little bit guilty because they didn’t help very much (laughs), and then this year they’re helping more.
BA: I actually think that’s true, and that’s very hopeful in a way. That if you can get it to a certain level, it starts to have its own energy.
KP: That’s exactly it.
As part of its expanding outreach, the 2013 Accordion Noir Festival showcases the largest-ever contingent of national and international accordion performers to appear at the festival. Highlights include award-winning Francophone accordion legend, Steven Normandin (Quebec), and San Francisco’s “Squeezebox Goddess” Reneé de la Prade. In addition to presenting notable touring acts, the festival highlights the growing vitality of Vancouver’s accordion community with new projects by Vancouver’s favourite squeezebox heroes, including a musical ‘choose your own adventure’ by festival co-founder Rowan Lipkovitz and The Creaking Planks. For full schedule and line up details, please visit: accordionnoirfest.com. To volunteer, call 604.319.4021
Catch Katheryn Petersen and Barbara Adler in performance at The Accordion Dance Party (Fri Sept 13), with their projects Vaudeville Vagabonds and FANG.
For more information:
Accordion Noir Festival accordionnoirfest.com
Katheryn Petersen katherynpetersen.com
Barbara Adler badler.ca
Barbara Adler doesn't faze easily. In over a decade of touring, she has told stories, performed poetry, and played her accordion all over North America and Europe.