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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

More About Songs of Death and Fumiko Nakajo

Jane Reichhold, whose book Breasts of Snow - Fumiko Nakajo: Her tanka and her life taught me everything I know about Nakajo and provided the poems that I set in my new mini-cycle Songs of Death, has very generously given me permission to use the transliteration that she and coauthor Hatsue Kawamura (who, alas, has been in a coma for seven years) produced for the book, and also to quote them here in their entireties.

And, in very good news for anyone interested in reading these soul-shaking poems, Ms. Reichhold confirms what I saw in a 2004 review I found online: the book can be bought from her directly. She can be emailed at jane(at)ahapoetry(dot)com.

Here are the poems I set to music for Songs of Death, along with their translations:

shi ni chikaki
ware ni fuhen no
ai chikau
chinkon ka wa
hayakumo hibikeri

close to death
for me an everlasting
vow of love
in a requiem song
has begun to ring

yo no kaze ni
magire kitarite
waga nodo wo
yakusu sono te ga
tareka wa shireri

lost under the cover
of the night wind
my throat
is grabbed by a hand
and I know whose it is

hi wo keshite
shinobiyakani tonari ni
kuro nomo wo
keraku no gotoku ni
ima wa narashitsu

with the light off
stealthily something
moves to me
I have tamed it now
as if it were a pleasure

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Obscure Composer, Part 2: Songs of Death

The music I'm about to write about is in the post below this one. Sorry it's kind of fuzzy.

A brief mention of Japanese poet Fumiko Nakajo (I wish I could remember where) and her tragic life story sent me to, where I found a copy of Breasts of Snow - Fumiko Nakajo: Her tanka and her life, by Hatsue Kawamura and Jane Reichhold (The Japan Times), which I highly recommend if you can track it down (there were two listed: one for $20, and one for $350; I of course bought the $20 one). Nakajo (1922-54) wrote about being divorced before that was common in Japan, and then, when she had breast cancer, wrote about that as well, all the way through two mastectomies and practically to the moment of her death. Her first collection of poetry was published days before she died.

Initially I had picked out 30 of her poems that I might want to set to music. Then I went through and made a different selection of 21 specifically having to do with her battle with breast cancer, later narrowed to 15 and then 7. The first three I set were specifically about facing death, and didn't reference breast cancer, and ultimately I decided that they were enough, partly because that focus is more universal, partly because more would be too much of such an intense subject, partly because I just spent the afternoon revising those three to what I think is their final form, and frankly it was so draining that it left me nearly paralyzed for over an hour and I don't want to do any more of that. Yes, these poems are that powerful.

My previous song cycle drawing on the work of female Japanese poets is in English (see The Obscure Composer, Part 1), but for this one I somehow felt like daring to set the original Japanese. I did that once before with a long poem by Hitomaro and it was very difficult, but because these are shorter and modern, it wasn't quite as challenging from the technical point of view, and of course my Japanese wife was very helpful. It's weird how transliterations of Japanese don't always reflect the actual pronunciation; occasionally some syllables get elided. For instance, what's written as "narashitsu" Chie pronounces as "narash'tsu."

Back on October 22 I had written a one-page solo piano piece that was inspired by my love for a piano work by a much more famous composer. I'd mostly written it just for the fun of doing so and had no plans to deliver it to the world. Ha! I should know myself better than that; having it there practically waiting to be cannibalized made it irresistible to me when, on November 6, I finally got to work on setting Nakajo's poems. The piano piece's mood fit the mood I wanted for setting these poems: bittersweet without being too bitter. I also thought that since the three poems were linked thematically, it would be appropriate to have them linked musically as well by putting them into this existing framework as a triptych.

As far as length alone the fit was practically perfect, and after a couple evenings of work, they fit together well enough in terms of words onto melodies (only a little rejiggering required). As a set, however, they didn't work like that. They were too homogenous, and the poem in the middle was sufficiently different in mood that I felt the music didn't work with those words. I tried speeding up that section, but harmonically and melodically the homogeneity remained troubling. After fiddling with the harmony for a while without success, I came up with a drastic solution: I ditched all the harmony in that section, replacing it with the repeating minor second you can see in Song #2 in the post under this one. That fit the mood much better, while the retention of the melody kept the connecting link to the other two songs.

Can anyone tell from what remains after all that revision just what the original musical inspiration was? In other words, what was the piece by another composer that inspired the original piano piece I wrote? A small piece of its melody remains, quite significantly albeit with altered rhythmic emphasis.

Songs of Death

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Hilary Hahn Interview 2001

Having just recently enjoyed violinist Hilary Hahn's concert at The Stone, and her CD of Charles Ives's four sonatas, I was reminded of this interview from almost exactly a decade ago.

Ran: 11/20/01 on
Head: The Provocative Pairings of Hilary Hahn

There have been such marketing abuses in recent years of the prodigy phenomenon that the prospect of hearing another young, female violinist might have connoisseurs blanching. Hilary Hahn, who released a CD of Bach at age 17, was the antidote to that. And it's not just that Sony hasn't plopped her into the ocean wearing a gauzy white shift for any album covers. Hahn is one of the finest violinists around, regardless of age; she's self-assured without the least hint of arrogance; she's constantly putting together intriguing discs pairing warhorses of the concerto repertoire with more modern works; and she's articulate and thoughtful.

The Baltimore native began playing violin at age three in the Suzuki program of the Peabody Conservatory, and from the age of five taught by Klara Berkovich. Upon entering the Curtis Institute, at age 10, Hahn was taken under the tutelage of the late Jascha Brodsky, an Ysaÿe pupil, and continued studying with him until his death; later teachers included Jamie Laredo and, for chamber music, the late Felix Galimir and Gary Graffman. Sony signed Hahn to an exclusive contract that has so far yielded four CDs: the aforementioned Bach disc; a pairing of the Beethoven Violin Concerto and Leonard Bernstein's Serenade; the Violin Concertos of Samuel Barber and -- commissioned for and premiered by Hahn -- Edgar Meyer; and now the Concertos of Brahms and Stravinsky. All have been not only much praised, but successful on the classical sales charts as well.

Now 21 years old, Hahn is perhaps past the prodigy stage, but her playing continues to thrill and please.

CDNOW: Once again, you've made a concerto disc with an unusual pairing. How do you decide what to record?

Hilary Hahn: Sometimes I propose an idea to Sony and sometimes they propose an idea to me, and we work out something that works for everyone. The Brahms/Stravinsky was actually my idea, because I've wanted to record [the] Brahms for a long time. It's such a great piece, and the chance to work closely on such a masterpiece like that in the recording experience is really something that brings the piece a lot closer to you and you clarify a lot of things about it in your mind, at least for me. So I wanted to record the Brahms, and I was trying to think what would go well with it. It's a little tricky with a piece like the Brahms, because it's such a full-scale work, it stands completely on its own. I was looking for something that could hold its own next to the Brahms but not take anything away from the Brahms, and vice versa. I wanted to have something in which both pieces would reflect the strengths of the other.

One thing I find that's fascinating about the Brahms and Stravinsky combination is, both composers worked very closely with violinists, Brahms with [Joseph] Joachim and Stravinsky with Samuel Dushkin, in the course of writing the pieces, and you can hear that the composers themselves were not violinists, because there are some ideas that seem to come from other instruments, or the familiarity with playing another instrument, certain sequences or patterns or whatever. But they still work for violin, because they worked with violinists on it and got the ideas to come across well for the players too.

So I liked that aspect of it. I love both pieces, and I had wanted to record the Stravinsky as well. I thought about putting them together and it seemed to work very well. The Brahms, as I said, is very full-scale. The Brahms has three substantial movements, plus the cadenza. The Stravinsky has four shorter movements that add together into a very memorable concerto, for me. I've never played any piece besides the Stravinsky that starts with the same chord in all movements and diverts from there into its own individual movement. So I thought the Stravinsky was a fascinating piece, and I like the unusual structure of it and the form. I had some ideas that I want to bring across in it, and same with the Brahms. I feel lucky we were able to work it out.

Was one of the ideas in the Stravinsky that it's very similar to chamber music?

That it is; it certainly is very much like chamber music. The Brahms in its own way is as well. Brahms wrote so much chamber music, I've played some of it. The Stravinsky has a lot of things going on at once and at different times. The Brahms is a more -- I don't want to say it's more unified, because the Stravinsky is unified too -- but the Brahms, it's more consistent throughout the piece. There's sort of a long line from the very first note to the end of the third movement, to the last chord in the whole concerto. Stravinsky is more segmented, yet when you put all the segments together, it makes for a very complete picture. So the pieces feel very different to me playing them. The Stravinsky is very much like chamber music in that there are a lot of instruments that have their own individual parts, and there are a lot of different things that happen. Stravinsky is a great orchestrator, and the Brahms is the Romantic masterwork.

I'm sure Stravinsky would play his own music very differently than I play it. But for me, I love the concerto 'cause it has so many different things within it. It has a huge range of emotion. There are parts that are very dry, parts that are very witty, other sections that are extremely lyrical, and some melismatic lines in the third movement especially, some things that are very driven rhythmically and others that are quite free. One thing I like about the Stravinsky is, I can hear where he bases certain sections on Bach. There's a part that reminds me of one of the Orchestral Suites, and then he used part of the Bach Double [Concerto] as inspiration for part of the fourth movement of the concerto, you can hear where that all comes into play. And Brahms, as well, admired Bach, so that's another connecting factor between the two.

Your Brahms is not slow, bucking the trend of the past couple of decades epitomized by Perlman and Mutter. To a degree, your recording recalls Heifetz and Milstein.

Those are the recordings I've heard the most, as well, and maybe just having that in my ear, and also, Jascha Brodsky, my teacher, was 83 and good friends with, or at least very well acquainted with, those musicians, so I feel a real connection to the past, and that's the group of players that I grew up on and grew up listening to and feeling a connection to through my teacher.

So you do listen to recordings of other players.

They're mostly dead, actually.

Do you take them into account when you're forming your interpretations?

I try not to copy anything, but often there's a lot to be learned from any recording, because the person who's recording it has played it a lot and is very familiar with the piece and has developed their own ideas over time. Everyone develops separate ideas. There are certain basic traditions in some pieces that some people follow, some people break. But in the end, everyone comes up with their own take on something. With something like the Brahms, there's so many recordings. I don't know what-all I've listened to; I've listened to a lot. But as far as using recordings, I tend to listen to a lot of recordings when I'm first learning a piece, to get the feel of the whole piece, hear how it all fits together and get different ideas of where to start from, and then once I've figured out what I want to do with it, I just go from there, and I don't tend to listen to tons of recordings after a certain point. And I always try to learn the orchestral part to every concerto that I play. I get the conductor's score and I get a recording that has a clear orchestra texture to it. So then I listen to the recording and play along with it, just playing the orchestral part, so I know what-all is going on.

Have you decided what you're going to record next?

I'm going to be recording Mendelssohn [E-minor Concerto] and Shostakovich 1 in Oslo with the Oslo Philharmonic and Marek Janowski. Another combination! We're going to be recording that this coming Spring and releasing it in the Fall.

How many concertos do you have in your repertoire at this point?

Forty-something, I think 42 or 43. I try to add on about three or four concerti every year, or two to four. It depends. This year it's four, some years it's two. I play Beethoven and Brahms every year, and try to cycle through the other stuff as much as possible.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Top 25 British Classic Rock Acts

The great Ian Alterman alerted me to this:
"The following is a list of the 25 Greatest British Artists, as voted by listeners of Classic Vinyl, one of the three Sirius/XM station that play classic rock."

25 - Peter Frampton
24 - Joe Cocker
23 - Bad Company
22 - Yes
21 - The Kinks
20 - George Harrison
19 - Rod Stewart
18 - Deep Purple
17 - Jethro Tull
16 - Traffic
15 - Moody Blues
14 - ELO
13 - Elton John
12 - David Bowie
11 - Queen
10 - Cream
9 - Fleetwood Mac
8 - John Lennon
7 - Pink Floyd
6 - Eric Clapton
5 - Paul McCartney
4 - Led Zeppelin
3 - The Who
2 - The Rolling Stones
1 - The Beatles

Since music didn't stop developing in 1980, I'm already annoyed by this list, though I suppose that "classic rock" listeners enjoy pretending to live in a world where punk never happened, much less post-punk and, aside from a couple members of Fleetwood Mac, no women are allowed.

Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, and George Harrison are on the list because of their famous bands, who are also on the list. As much as I like some McCartney/Wings albums, they aren't quite great. Clapton and Harrison don't even come close. If the Small Faces/Faces don't make the list, Rod sure doesn't on the strength of just one great LP.

So here's an attempt, off the top of my head, to construct a better list.
*Artists not on the Classic Vinyl list

honorable mention: The Hollies, Brian Eno

25 - Black Sabbath*
24 - Cream
23 - Fleetwood Mac
22 - Queen
21 - The Kinks
20 - The Who
19 - Elton John
18 - Nick Drake*
17 - Soft Machine*
16 - Traffic
15 - David Bowie
14 - ELO
13 - Kate Bush*
12 - The Zombies*
11 - Yardbirds*
10 - Richard Thompson*
9 - Procol Harum*
8 - John Lennon
7 - Yes
6 - King Crimson*
5 - Genesis*
4 - Led Zeppelin
3 - Pink Floyd
2 - The Rolling Stones
1 - The Beatles

If we continued this list into the present and expanded to 30, these guys would make the cut:

Peter Gabriel
Joy Division
Sex Pistols

For some reason, I can't comment on my own blog. Great. So here's my reply to Ian (whose band The Larch is pretty great).

John Lennon, unlike his bandmates, makes the cut because unlike them, his solo albums are so great that even if he'd never been a Beatle he'd make this list.

I tried to have it both ways with my little appendix of post-classic rock bands. Also, as my pal Chris Nickson pointed out on Facebook, I left out the Clash -- purely an oversight. I think I have to cut the Sex Pistols (who join the honorable mention list) to make room for them.
Were I to incorporate them into the list, it would go The Clash #7, Joy Division #9 (so, really, #10), Wire #11(13), Peter Gabriel #14(17), Buzzcocks #17(21).

Thursday, August 25, 2011

In Memory of Songwriters Nick Ashford and Jerry Leiber

I wrote a lengthy article on the Monday passing of Ashford and Leiber for I totally geek out on the hit chart data. Please read it here!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Firesign Theatre interview 1999

This isn't about music, but when I was at, I was editor of the Comedy/Spoken Word section and got to interview some pretty amazing people. George Carlin twice! I've already put both of those up here. Talking to two of the guys from Firesign Theatre (over the phone, in separate conversations) was on that same level. Here are the transcripts:

David Ossman

How did the group reunite?

We got back together for our 25th anniversary. A performance was booked for Seattle, so we put together a show for that. We hadn't worked together for quite a while, maybe as much as ten years. We did a big and very successful, a big sellout show at the Paramount in Seattle in '92, and then we went on the road that fall with that same show. It was a little bit rough. We were booked in halls that were too large for the crowds we could draw, and so forth. So we kinda did it, we felt, this is the Beach Boys on the road, and we did what we could do. But it was very difficult to let it go. We've been living with Firesign Theatre so long that it was very hard to abandon it once it was -- more than just revived, because we work very intensely together. So when the opportunity came to do a new album -- some time ago, we started two-and-a-half years ago on Immortality -- it was like, okay, we need to be able to do in a series of albums in the late '90s what we did in the late '60s and early '70s. The decision was to really not do anything that was like the past, or re-do stuff aside from a mention here and there, but to really do something that was new and contemporary, and I think we succeeded in doing that with Immortality, which kind of gave us a launch platform to go that next step.

I see these two albums as very much like Electrician, which was a very contemporary comedy album in its own way, and How Can You Be In Two Places at Once, which was really an album about radio. We re-examined our radio roots in Immortality and yet it was very contemporary -- it still is. But in approaching Boom Dot Bust, we wanted to do something much farther out there in terms of writing and a non-linear piece which is more like Dwarf. It took us a long time. We started in November of last year, then really started writing in January, but then we had to go on the road in April.

It's interesting to know how much time you put into these things. I had a friend who characterized Dwarf as "four guys getting high on acid and free-associating."

[Laughs] I don't think the four of us ever got high on acid, certainly not in the same room at the same time. Maybe everybody did individually, but we never did that, we've always been very meticulous writers and really have worked on our scripts, worked 'em out. What we've developed now is a sense of how we work, we're much wiser about how we work. We know we can go in the studio and move things around, that we don't have to have a completely perfect script, because what we do best together is sometimes first take, or within the first couple of takes of a scene, because we can bring improvisatory freshness to it that gives it that sound of four guys high on acid free-associating. There is that free-association, that improv, but it comes right in the studio when the mikes are on.

The question of, as you said, not wanting to do things that you've already done -- what is it like to concoct these incredibly complex scripts and then have to perform them over and over again live?

Well, we've done two major shows that involved our first five albums. We did Anytown USA in 1974 that sort of put Bozos and Dwarf together and elaborated on them, kind of extended the albums to the extent that you knew why Clem was returning to the Future Fair, what his motivation was for trying to get to Dr. Memory and turn the thing off. And then, in a much straighter fashion, on that 25th anniversary tour and still on the last time we were on the road, we were doing Nick Danger, but there's -- when you're on stage, and I know Austin's a vigorous spokesman for this -- the audience needs a certain touchstone, and if we just went out with nothing but completely unfamiliar material, it would be difficult for them. So we always try to have a grounding of things that is like those tunes everybody wants the Beach Boys to sing. We've decided really that Nick Danger, which for us is throw-away-the-script-and-have-fun-onstage, is the most satisfactory one for doing over and over. We can bring a certain amount of freshness to that. I think we could do Dwarf again. It's like a play, and we adapted it into a play form. When we went out and did the Immortality material, there was quite a long debate on how much of it we were going to do. We started out by doing much less than we finally did onstage. Some things were quite difficult. I know it was very difficult for me to do Danny live, and finally we just dropped Danny from the show. He was difficult for me to perform on the album. Very emotional, very unlike me -- really an acting job. In the new show, I mean as far as Boom Dot Bust goes, I'm kinda looking forward to putting this material up on its feet. It always gives us a chance to gloss over the writing one more time. We've always performed, so it's nothing new, we've been onstage together since 1968.

Do you ever test stuff in performance before you record it?

Not since the very beginning. I think the only show that we ever did onstage before we recorded it was How Can You Be. Nick Danger was originally written for a live performance, Giant Rat of Sumatra was much rewritten from things that we had done onstage. I think it would be very difficult, because really they are two very different things. In an album we care much less about a sequence of laughs, whereas onstage, well, you want to hear the audience laughing. So material is chosen or rearranged in such a way so that you keep the laughs coming. After all, that's what the audience is there to do. They're not there to see -- or they don't think they're coming to see -- a kind of modernist, surreal, experimental theater, which is kind of what I think we do when we're onstage. We certainly don't do stand-up comedy, and we never have done sketch humor. We've never done Saturday Night Live, we've never done any of those things people are used to seeing onstage or on television, that kind of format. It's always much, much more surreal or theatrical than it is sketchy or joke humor.

Which raises the issue of influences. Are there any in particular?

I guess everyone would confess various influences. For myself, I came to the Firesign out of a background of working in radio at the time. I had a very strong relationship with the golden-age-of-radio programs and with the kind of humor that one might have found in Jack Benny or Fibber McGee and Molly. I also came from a background as a poet, and I'd been in New York during the whole late Beat era and had been very much a part of that New York scene around '59, '60, '61. So I was very influenced by the contemporary American poetry scene. Peter too -- we met him after he had come from a literary colloquium in Berlin where he was working with Tom Stoppard. So we also have that European avant-garde, Waiting for Godot, Ionesco, in our immediate educational background. We were all college boys, so we come very influenced by that world. I translated a lot of Dada and Surrealist poetry, I translated French and Spanish poetry when I was in my twenties and thirties. So our influences were not ever a particular comic. I mean, I love Stan Freberg, and he certainly was influential on the medium. I listened to all those records of his, because they sort of freed up the medium, and that's one of the things I credit him for, bringing radio to records and really freeing up the medium for satire. But an influence, though? I'm not sure. I would say that mine come from the worlds of poetry, Surrealism, Dada, late 20th-century avant-garde literature. And finally, really, I think we've just evolved our own way of speaking. We are original. And it's the power of that originality that sold us all on the Firesign Theatre. We could all be wonderfully creative, but something would happen when the four of us were together -- are together -- that doesn't happen otherwise. That's really original.

Let's talk specifically about the new record.

One of the accomplishments, for me, of the new album is that we have at last learned really how to write for four people performing at once, which is quite difficult. "Two" scenes are kind of classic conversation, and "three" scenes are really comedy, ba-dum-bump. But it's difficult to write for four people working simultaneously. I think we've been very successful in the last two albums in putting us all onstage and giving us all an equal part. And also standing back and allowing the wonderful single pieces to work, like Ralph Spoilsport on the last album and Hal & Ray, which Proctor and I just fell in love with each other over. We could go on and do them forever. So you look for those kinds of relationships between us and among us that will spark these characters and bring them to life. B. Buck Bunnymumble, who does the money show, kind of a parody of one of those television shows, he just came together in that scene with Proctor out of the blue. I wanted to get it recorded, get it down, and my attitude was like that, you know? [forecfully emphasizing his words] So I just pushed him and pushed him and pushed him, and he had to respond to it, and it was great, because you come out of a take and everybody is saying it was fabulous because they'd never heard it before, so to give a really fresh performance to your pals, who are about as jaded in terms of our work as anyone, that's very exciting.

There's a lot of stuff that's not in print.

Almost everything, now.

Is there any plan to reissue that?

Columbia kind of folded up their tent, Sony, and has not allowed the license to be -- Mobile Fidelity licensed and put out the first five albums on CD in the late '80s and early '90s. Then the licenses were not extended, so everything is held in the Columbia vaults, and so far nobody's been able to shake any of it loose. We're hopeful that Rhino can acquire all of the early Columbia albums, but right now the only place you can hear the material on those early albums is through the live performances. This is a tragedy, of course, especially in the case of Dwarf and Bozos. They were in print for 30 years; for them to drop out of print is saddening. But I think they'll come back. I'm hopeful that Rhino can bring out a box set. I think they should all be out. It's not even a matter of money, I just think they should all be available.

You used to have a syndicated radio program. Are there any plans to do that again?

Yes, we've been talking quite seriously about going back on the radio. There are very likely plans to be afoot for something, maybe coming out of Los Angeles, maybe next year. I think it would really be great to go on the air. We're talking about a two-hour show in the Garrison Keillor fashion, it would have some variety aspects to it. We did a show up in San Francisco last year, and we had so much fun, as we always do when we're on the air. It's also very good for us to develop writing that way. You were talking about doing things onstage first -- on radio first is how you can really bring in individual material and hand it around or do it yourself, and that can be very effective in gathering early thoughts for the next album.

* * * * *

Peter Bergman

I hesitate to ask something so mundane, but what does it mean? What does Boom Dot Bust mean?

That's a very general question, but I suppose it's a snapshot of America as it heads into the next millennium. It officially takes place on the Fourth of July, or the Fourth of Julie, the year 2001, in the town of Billville, which is somewhere in Ohio, and it's a town that thinks big-big-big. It's got a corrupt administration run by the four lead characters of the story: Mayor P'nisnose, Doctor Infermo, Coach Swatt, and Bill Sprawl, and around them the world circulates. It's about the American bubble and the pricks who live inside it.

Of the four main characters, only the mayor gets developed much.

Yeah, the mayor is the lead character in this album. Firesign Theatre has a tendency to have a lead character in each of its stories, you know? Just as Bebop Loco was the lead character in Immortality. And usually in most of the classic stuff Firesign does, there's a George Tirebiter or Babe or Clem, some character who carries us through. Although the mayor's the most developed, there are other characters who move through the story. And unlike Immortality, which took place entirely on a radio station in the period of 24 hours, I don't know how long this this takes, it could be almost the same instant and before you know it, everything's happened.

The last track is particularly confusing. I guess it's one way to wrap it all up.

It's a fairy tale, or a fable. You have to go back and listen to it a couple times. There is no bona fide answer. I can't give you a Firesign-guaranteed with a stamp that this is the way you should interpret the overall album, everyone has their own way of coming out of it.

It's definitely apocalyptic, which carries on from the last album.

Yeah, it does have that sense. In a way, it's apocalyptic, but guess what, the apocalypse is over and here we are. [laughs] I guess it's the both of those, for sure.

I guess the most apocalyptic part is the Devilmaster section.

You know, I love the Devilmaster. As he says, "we're doomed." One of the things we say in Immortality when we say hello to the next millennium, "Hello to increased demonic activity." I suppose it carries that theme along.

There was a reference in the beginning to the doctor poisoning the town.

Poisoning the water. "Give me shiny shiny water." It looks good, i.e. we do anything in our society to make things look good regardless of the environmental impact. Shiny shiny shiny, big big big, win win win. The coach is putting hormones in, he's hormoning the high school football team so they can be big big big and win win win.

Sports has been one of the ongoing themes, sports and its competitiveness.

Yeah, I think that the influence has been Phil Austin and myself, we both follow sports to a certain degree. Phil is a swimmer, I'm a biker, and David Ossman and Proctor are very aware of the concept of mega-personalities and mega-stars. When we deal with sports, sports is very personal, you know. It is one of the few industries that's completely personal, probably more personal than motion pictures. Sports is a live spectacle, and we feel that's a great energy to latch onto as a means of riding through the culture.

There's also a lot of wordplay, of course, with the invention of new terms like "cheese stamp" and catch phrases like "lick my zipper."

One of the things Proctor loves to do is bring in books that describe regional languages. I think "lick my zipper" is full Firesign, but it's inspired by two or three other regional languages that we included in here. We published the full script, annotated, on maybe the DVA of Boom Dot Bust and certainly the DVD. Those have both been mixed into a DVD video with full animation, a desktop version of Boom Dot Bust. Boom Dot Bust is the first audio piece being produced and mixed in DVD 5.1 Surround. It's turned out to be the perfect medium for Firesign Theatre, we're really enthused with the mix. It will be released by Rhino in February.

One of the things Firesign does is take the icons and buzzwords of our culture and turn them upside down. And when they mix together, they make perfect nonsense. You understand things through their nonsensical value sometimes, because that's what's hidden in them psychologically when we're pounded by all this material. You may get a single icon, but behind it is all kinds of other material, and we mine it. It's really our job.

That sort of information overload approach is something you pioneered over 25 years ago.

That's right, we do overload you with information, so it sets off the circuits -- it doesn't short-circuit you completely, it re-circuits you.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

David Grubbs on Squirrel Bait: 10/29/08 Interview

Anthology Recordings was a pay download site last decade that had a wonderfully curated selection. And when Koen Holtkamp (co-leader of the uncategorizable and thoroughly excellent Mountains) worked there, he had me do some writing for the site. When he gave me this assignment, though, I developed a little mental block on it, partly because I was out of practice on interviews, partly because I felt too much self-applied pressure to prepare myself to talk to the great David Grubbs. Finally I emailed him the questions and he responded the same day. As usual, anxiety had made an innocuous situation seem more fraught than it was!

Anthology has been on hiatus for a while, and even before that had switched direction and ditched the editorial stuff, so I'm bringing this one back.

RAN: Anthology Recordings website, November 2008
TITLE: Squirrel Bait

The question of whether Louisville punk band Squirrel Bait was a little late on a trend or ahead of its time depends on what one focuses on while listening to them, but whichever side one comes down on, nobody can deny that they made great music that has stood the test of time, sounding great on vinyl, CD, and now online download.

Certainly when I bought their eponymous debut in 1985, it was because they were being compared to the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, big favorites of mine. They more than lived up to the hype on a disc full of propulsive, explosive songs, with singer Peter Searcy able to summon Paul Westerberg-ish tone at will but with something of Bob Mould’s phrasing and dark urgency. Guitarists David Grubbs and Brian McMahan whacked out chords that sounded like they might chew your leg off, sometimes expansive and fat enough to fill the room, sometimes bright and pointed enough to pierce walls.

Two years later they followed that up with Skag Heaven, which sounded even more dangerous. Drummer Ben Daughtrey’s rolled hardcore fills were tighter and more devastatingly deployed, but there was now more to this band than punk: there was often more metal in the guitars -- both the genre and the material’s timbre -- and the band more often sounded original enough to be hard to pigeonhole. Then a few years passed and it started to seem as if the band had been an influence on some of the less rote grunge bands

Band members went off to college, ending Squirrel Bait’s existence, and later went on to many other groups (Slint, Bastro, Gastr del Sol, Big Wheel, Lemonheads, Bitch Magnet, and more). David Grubbs recently had time to discuss the band.

The debut sounds like you’d been listening to what was happening in Minneapolis the previous few years, but there’s more to it than that, right?

The Replacements and Husker Du were major favorites, certainly. But also...let's see...the Meat Puppets, Big Black, Sun Ra, the Birthday Party, Leonard Cohen, Pere Ubu, Phil Ochs, Blowfly, the Red Krayola, the Babylon Dance Band, the Endtables, Malignant Growth, Maurice -- stuff like that.

$400 to record the debut, really? Where/how did you get the money?

Well, there were five of us. Waiting tables, cutting grass, playing shows. Then we got an advance from Homestead.

Based on the band picture on the debut, the Louisville punk scene didn’t enforce a very rigid dress code. What was it like being a punk in Louisville in 1984-5? What were your ages when that record came out?

Yes, the Louisville punk scene was pretty contrarian. I guess I'd say that I wasn't a punk but that I was in a punk band. You know? Punk rock was my life, more or less, but I don't think that I or most of my friends jibed with folks' ideas of who or what punks were supposed to be.

When the first album came out (fall 1985), we ranged from 16 (Brian McMahan) to 20 (Ben Daughtrey). I had just turned 18.

The first album and Skag Heaven could easily fit on one CD but were reissued separately. Do you feel strongly that they must remain separate entities? How had the band changed between the two albums?

Oh, I think that they're completely different. Very different sounding records. The first sounds like us blasting through our songs in Clark's parents' basement. The sound sounds like us trying to make something more like a coherent, conventional album. There's much that I like about the second one (particularly "Kid Dynamite" and "Tape from California"), but it's the first one that I love.

The intro to “Choose Your Poison” shows you trying out a style you’d make more use of in future bands. How did you come up with that at the time?

I think that that was our idea of free jazz. Ha!

Wikipedia’s Squirrel Bait entry says the band’s sound “clearly foreshadowed the grunge sound as well as math rock.”

Not so mathy, if you ask me. More like social studies rock. Or humanities rock.

That is where the published interview ended. I'd asked one more question, off topic:

A couple of Bastro reissues came out a few years ago for a week or two and were then recalled. (I work in a record store; I bought one each for myself and kept them after the recall -- I hope I'm not going to be arrested.) What happened there?

The Live 1991 CD wasn't recalled -- thankfully -- and it's still in print on Blue Chopsticks. The one that compiled the two studio albums was sadly recalled the week that it was released -- a dispute with the former owner of Homestead Records. Please don't get me started on it.

[When I was looking for a picture to use for this post, I found an excellent blog post on the band on the wonderfully named Lexicon Devil.]

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Asobi Seksu 2011 Interview in The Big Takeover

Print is not dead...yet.

This is from the current issue of The Big Takeover (#68). Subscribe here! Since the above isn't legible, I figured I'd put the text here. And then I figured I might as well put in the longer version I had to cut down to squeeze into the available space (the section of the magazine this interview ran in IS called Short Takes). So here's my first draft:

Asobi Seksu’s self-titled album was reissued by Friendly Fire in 2004, the year the record store I work at opened. One day I bought a used copy from a customer because I thought it might be interesting J-Pop. It wasn’t, but I liked it anyway. Two years later came Citrus, very different but immediately captivating and my favorite album of the decade. And I’ve had that “different but captivating” reaction with each of their albums, including the new Fluorescence. I welcomed the chance to talk with co-leaders Yuki Chikudate and James Hanna about their musical evolution.

Hanna and Chikudate both went to Manhattan School of Music, respectively studying classical guitar and piano. She remembers, “With this band was the first time I started singing. I’d never been without a piano, and I’d never used my physical body as an instrument before, so I was absolutely terrified. I was a bit shocked that I was pushed to be a singer, because I had no idea what I was doing.”

I mention that on the sole (and very rare) EP of their previous incarnation, Sport Fuck, James was the primary vocalist. “I know, I know,” he says. “I had no choice. Nobody else would sing. It was me or the drummer, and his voice was much worse than mine. The thing I wanna say about Sport Fuck is, I still think of that as another band. It’s just such a different time. ‘Umi de no Jisatsu’ was probably the first song that I consider like this band.” “We were moving in this direction,” Chikudate continues. “At that point, I wasn’t singing really, and ‘Umi de no Jisatsu’ was the last thing we wrote before we recorded that EP.” (Hanna also says, “I used to be ashamed that people would find out we used to be called Sport Fuck. Now it’s kind of funny.” Their current name is just a more polite translation of the old name.)

So the urge for change was already there in the beginning. “It makes me happy that we make different records every time,” says Hanna. “It’s never that intentional. From Citrus to Hush, we were touring those songs for three years and I definitely got to the point where I didn’t want to make guitar-based noise. Other than that, I think we’re just pretty restless.”

Of course, their breakthrough, the very guitar-heavy and shoegazy Citrus, led to inevitable comparisons to My Bloody Valentine. Did that influence the desire to change styles? “No, no, no,” they both exclaim. Chikudate explains, “We just try to make music that makes us happy, what makes us excited. I guess that’s probably why there have been some changes.” Hanna says, “I really need to be a fan first. A lot of this comes out while we’re listening to, like, stuff where Eno had his synths on everything and it came out kind of icy.”

While Fluorescence is more keyboard-oriented, they say the overall sound wasn’t exactly planned. They’d reunited with Citrus producer Chris Zane, and as Chikudate recalls, “Chris was into synths too, and so the three of us got really excited playing the really awesome synthesizers in his studio. The Emulator Two that Depeche Mode used, we did a lot of that on the album. He has a Juno, the Eno synth. I love that synth. I brought in a Farfisa, a Casio. He’s got a Moog. My Ovation we used a lot. Prior to going into the studio I was creating sounds for the record for a least a couple of months, really diving into it and showing that keyboard a bit of love instead of just using it like a pad. I started to really showcase it a bit more. There aren’t as many guitar tracks this time.”

“I didn’t go that crazy this time with pedals,” Hanna concurs. “Pretty minimal, just a Jazzmaster through a Marshall.”

That’s unlike the process through which Citrus was recorded, which Hanna describes as “Let’s get into a real studio for the first time and see what it sounds like when we fucking play on every possible thing that I’ve ever bought for each song. It sounds like mush.” “Pretty mush!” Chikudate insists. “When you combine those sounds, sometimes a lead melody pops out that nobody wrote, and you say, ‘where did that come from?’” “That’s a My Bloody Valentine trick,” Hanna adds. “It’s luck. Now I want to actually hear some of the stuff I record instead of just the overall effect. There’s still a little bit of that [mush], it’s an overall balance, how everything combines when you can’t tell what’s going on, and how they sound separately.”

While the sound has evolved, the results on Fluorescence still have an updated '80s vibe, the songs are still lushly beautiful, and Chikudate’s vocals still waft delicately above it all. A mood of ecstatic wistfulness still dominates, but in an increasingly individualistic style that no longer fits so easily into preset categories.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Yo-Yo Ma Interview 2000

Ran: 12/1/00 on
Head: Yo-Yo Ma Bridges Musical Worlds

Yo-Yo Ma is a supremely talented cellist who has achieved crossover popularity without compromising his music principles or even standards of good taste. Fluent in the warhorses of the standard repertoire (concertos, chamber music, and solo), contemporary composers both challenging and ingratiating, and Baroque music, he's even successfully tackled such far-flung genres as tango, bluegrass, and various Asian styles. Ma's discography is approaching 50 albums, and he's won 13 Grammy awards. His popularity is such that even in this current profit-driven corporate period, Sony allows him considerable leeway.

Ma's ability to bring great music to the masses is epitomized by his upcoming appearance on the December 13 episode of the TV series The West Wing -- more than a cameo, as he'll be in several scenes -- that will find him playing Bach's Suite in G major for solo cello to probably its largest single audience ever.

The friendly, thoughtful, soft-spoken Ma spoke with CDNOW as part of the promotional effort for the latest release to feature him, Tan Dun's soundtrack to the acclaimed Ang Lee film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, discussing not only recent projects but more philosophical issues.

CDNOW: You are involved in such a wide variety of music, yet you always seem comfortable in any context.

Yo-Yo Ma: For me, the genesis of any sort of organic artistic experience is, you have to start from the inside. It doesn't matter what part of the inside, but just from the inside, because only from there can you then grow organically and perceive something. And we all know people who are always looking at something from the outside, who can't get in there. You can surround the thing that you're looking at with so many things on the outside, you never find your way in -- it's always a foreign experience. The only way to make it part of you is to actually jump in.

How about music that's more abstract? Say, 12-tone music.

Twelve-tone music is a methodology that people compose in. In one of Schoenberg's piano concertos, it's a waltz, a 12-tone waltz, so he went into it in that way. I mean, there's always a way to do it. And you always know that there're things that you don't understand, but also know that as time marches on, there's the possibility that one day you might understand. And only when I start to understand can I actually advocate for something.

When I was 15 I had just given a recital, spent a year working on it, and just the next lesson Leonard Rose says, "Here's this late Beethoven sonata, and I'm not going to tell you anything about it. You just go and work on it and play it." So I did. I thought it was beautiful, but I couldn't find my way in. It wasn't until three or four years later in college that somehow I figured out one thing about that piece, which was that there was no sort of actual tonic cadence for the longest time. And just that one thing got me into sort of, this is, "Oh so that's what he's fooling around with, that's what he's dealing with." 'Cause it's sort of like swimming around tonic-dominant, but you don't know what to grab for. So that's an abstract concept, it's the denial of something.

You studied with Leonard Rose for quite a while, starting when you were around seven?

Age of nine.

Is there anything in particular, beyond just specific techniques of playing, that you took away from that experience?

Love and patience. He was a great cellist, of course, a master, a great musician, all of that. He was so kind, he was so gentle, he was so loving. And that's what stays with you. And specific things such as, after this recital, he would say -- and later on, when we did some mentor-and-protégé talks and stuff like that -- where he would articulate and say, one of the most important parts of being a teacher is to say to a student when you have to learn to teach yourself, you've got to fly on your own. And he stayed a friend and mentor all the rest of his life, for which I'm very grateful -- but I think [of] the patience and love, and saying, "I know you can do it." I tell you, that kind of positive --you know, with high standards -- nurturing was so important. Because if he had said to me, "I think you stink. You'll never make it," I know that it would be totally devastating to me, and I probably would not have had the courage to go do a lot of things that I went and did later on because I felt supported. Someone believed in me.

Emanuel Ax went to Columbia, you went to Harvard. Did the Ivy League connection have anything to do with you guys hooking up, or perhaps on a different level, the fact that you have relate so well?

That has something to do with it. I think there are a number of factors that made us friends and made us want to work together over such a long period of time. One of them is that we were born in another country other than the United States. He was born in Lwow, which was part of the Soviet Union, Poland, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire at various times, so he understands what it's like to be on the inside and on the outside of cultures. [He] then went to Winnipeg, then went to New York. I was born in Paris, my parents are Chinese, I lived in New York, now I live in Boston. So we have that kind of immigrant, newly arrived kind of background.

Manny's one of the most loyal people I've ever met, a loyal friend, and that's very important. And I think rather than the goal, the process is very important to us, how we get there is extremely important. And that probably is the most important thing to us. And the fact that we both have families, and that we've talked so much about the struggle of, you know, just touring while trying to keep some semblance of regular life, and what we do without children and all that, similar goals for family, emphasis on nurturing and education, but not kind of sitting down on our kids so much that it stifles their growth, but then a sense of humor. You know, all of those things I think help, and I think the schooling, yes. Manny actually writes very well. I don't, but I admire the fact that he was able to do that, study French at Columbia, and yeah, these things do keep us going strong.

Your involvement in the soundtrack for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon presumably came about through Tan Dun. Was there any different approach because it's a soundtrack?

Well, I love Tan Dun. I love what he does and have great sympathy for it, for his music. We had worked together once before on a piece called Symphony 1997 and recorded somewhat the same ways. This was done in the studio, cello/voice alone and then afterwards he went and put it all together. Because I have sympathy for his music -- I think this only could have worked under those circumstances, I knew he's a great melodist, he's a very evocative, a very theatrical composer, and I said, "Look, you've gotta tell me, even though it's not quite written yet, what you're thinking of so that at least I can go there with you in an imaginative way."

And Ang Lee was also there, and so he was able to give his input after years of shooting, sometimes under incredibly difficult circumstances. I hadn't seen the film, saw little snippets of it, but he could give a sense of what he needed. And so in that studio on that evening, we were able to put together, hopefully, what was a form of expression that matched with what I knew of Tan Dun's work and what he was still to imagine, what was gonna be done later on, with what Ang Lee and James Schamus had been thinking of for years and what that was gonna be like. It was actually a fascinating meeting. I treasure that moment, those late hours in the night [laughs] when we were recording. And of course when I saw the film, I saw what a magnificent job they did.

Are there any particular qualities in John Corigliano's music that prompted you to commission Phantasmagoria?

I've known John forever, and the pieces he's written -- his Symphony, Violin Concerto -- and this is before Red Violin -- and also of his Dad and, you know, the New York Philharmonic. All of that stuff was always percolating. I was thinking it would be really neat to get him to write a piece. And the occasion came when there was a new auditorium that was opening at the Freer-Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian. And somehow the person who dedicated the auditorium was very much involved in music and wanted to commission a piece, and that's how it came about. I was very happy that he took that music from his opera, The Ghosts of Versailles, and kind of made an instrumental short version of that piece.

Do you think that one of the reasons that it works is that the cello is so close to the human voice and it's operatic music?

That could be one reason, but I think John is so knowledgeable on all kinds of instrumentation that it's, that, you know, he could've made anything work. I of course would like to think that it's because of the cello that it works! [laughs]

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Obscure Composer, Part 1: Enigmatic Preludes and my settings of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach

Starting last year, I began spending more time at my piano. Often this meant playing Bach Inventions, Mendelssohn Songs Without Words, Debussy Preludes, and Mompou's Musica Callada. Sometimes it took the form of noodling, which occasionally turned into a composition. Under the spell of Mompou in particular, I began writing shorter and simpler music, entertaining myself rather than trying to be impressive to an imagined academic audience. Eventually I'd written eleven of these, which I dubbed Enigmatic Preludes and dedicated to a piano-loving (and playing) friend who was leaving NYC to teach down South.


Later in the year two friends, one half Japanese, got married and I picked a couple of translated tanka from The Tale of Genji and set them to music (voice and piano) as a small wedding gift. Most traditional Japanese poetry is very short; the tanka form consists of five lines. The emphasis, or goal, is to say something profound while using the simplest and most concise materials, and the stripped-down style I'd developed while imitating Mompou seemed a good fit.

I liked the result of my little wedding gift project so much that it inspired a lot more translated Japanese poem settings, but that's grist for another post, dedicated to that project. The reason I mention the Japanese settings is that the piano accompaniments I was writing were so simple that in many cases, though they were written for piano, they were monophonic - a single line of notes that could be played by almost any other instrument.

So when I started my next project (one night at the end of April when my wife's snoring was keeping me up), I decided to go all the way in this direction and write the accompaniment for cello instead of piano.

In the middle of last decade I'd helped a friend of a friend sort out her late father's apartment, in return for which I got to pick out many books and LPs for myself, one of which was the Faber and Faber edition of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach, a collection of 13 poems from 1904-24. I'd started setting the last and latest-written poem, "A Prayer," in my old knotty, dissonant, thick style, but abandoned it; while going through some papers recently I found it and pondered revising it, but just plain decided it wasn't worth the trouble.

So that night when I was hiding from the snores, I picked out three of the darkest, least sentimental poems - "Bahnhofstrasse," "Alone," and "Watching the Needleboats at Saba" - noodled on the piano (basically, found some nice chord progressions and arpeggiated them), and by the following morning I had three new songs.

Needle Boats

Yes, I'm so old-fashioned that I still use staff paper and ink!

A couple days later another one popped out: "She Weeps over Rahoon."


I thought those were all I'd set, but then one night in the middle of May I added the last and most difficult one, "Nightpiece." Getting the speech rhythms, structure, and flow right took a fair amount of revision; if you look at the sheet music you will see some evidence of meter changes, etc. because I made changes using white-out and haven't bothered making a clean copy. Hearing it in rehearsal provided important feedback for the revision.

Night Piece 1
Night Piece 2
Night Piece 3

The original idea was to have these sung by a male voice, partly because the author, Joyce, is male, partly because I thought I might give them a shot myself. But I'm very happy and fortunate to have a soprano friend, Kate Leahy (with whom I used to sing in the choir New Amsterdam Singers), who's willing to come out to Brooklyn and rehearse my songs. Earlier this year we had started out by learning my massive (and still uncompleted) cycle of Rilke's Orpheus Sonnets (in the original German), which I've been working on sporadically since 1984, but then I started revising a lot of them. So we switched over to these new pieces. They look simple, yes, but they're not easy to sing. I still like dissonance! We premiered all five Joyce songs at a party at my apartment a month ago (playing the cello part on piano). They went well, and now I'm going to record them, which I'll cover in my next post on this topic.

Philip Glass Interview 2002

Ran: 10/8/02 on
Head: Philip Glass Teams with Godfrey Reggio and Yo-Yo Ma for Naqoyqatsi

Philip Glass, the most famous Minimalist, has long excelled at scoring films, most memorably Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi. Now the series becomes a trilogy with Naqoyqatsi, featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Glass discusses the unusual path to the album's creation and how he's allowing more emotion into his music in recent years.

CDNOW: Has your method of collaborating with Godfrey Reggio changed over the course of the three Qatsi films?

Philip Glass: It's changed in that the films have changed somewhat. As they've become more technical, the process of making the film, of finalizing the images, has become more complicated. Even if we start working together, which is what we do, I start writing and he starts filming or making pictures, but I'm now working faster than him, so I'm working way ahead of the picture now. Originally it was shooting in 35 and editing the old way with strips of film on the walls, stuff like that. He made this movie on an AVIT. Eighty percent of it is computerized images. So while I was writing the music, I was rarely writing to finished film. That meant that the music began to take a forward position in the sense of determining how the outcome of the combination of image and music would be in the end. In the end, they were cutting pictures to music.

One of the hallmarks of these films is the rhythm, visual and musical. So now he's doing that to your music, rather than vice versa?

It's pretty much become that, though I still work with Godfrey in terms of the whole dramaturgical treatment we work on. Our studio is here, his studio was down on White Street and Broadway, eight blocks from here, so I was there numerous times in the course of a week watching the editor, John Kane, looking at what the pictures were. Let's say we had a scene, which we call "masked man" or something like that, and I would be looking at the images he was working with, so I knew what the pictures would be and I could get a certain sense of what the flow could be. But I actually didn't see a final version of it until a few days ago when I went to the opening in Telluride when I went to the film festival. That process is a very laborious one, of creating images that way.

How did Yo-Yo Ma come to be involved?

It was a surprise that came towards the end. Sony got interested in the soundtrack, and I was speaking with Peter Gelb, who's the head of Sony Classics. I worked with Sony Classics in the '80s, I had a contract with them for about 10 years. That was with CBS, and when it became Sony, then I went over to Nonesuch and spent 10 years with them. So I have already 11 or 12 CDs with [Sony]. Peter Gelb liked the idea of doing it and suggested it would be really wonderful if Yo-Yo could play on it, which I of course immediately agreed with, it would be wonderful. A few weeks later, Yo-Yo was in town and we met and I showed him the music and he was very interested. Oddly enough, I had written a lot of solo music already for the piece. That was one of the ideas of the piece, there's a whole section at the end. That whole solo cello piece at the end was written before I met him. After that, there were some uncompleted sections that were mostly transitions, and I decided to wrote solo pieces for Yo-Yo to tie the sections together. Then I went back, and Michael Reisman, who's the conductor, we went back to the score and identified places where the solo cello could take over certain sections, so it appears now as a piece that's kind of through-composed with the cello. In fact, it came rather late, and because of the direction the music had already taken, it was easy to make that happen. At this point, the cello seems almost like a subtext of the music, it seems like almost the voice of the music.

Voice is exactly the word, because he has such a vocal quality in his tone.

That's right. There's one section towards the end where there's a woman singing, and he plays along with her and it sounds like a man and a woman. You get that feeling especially when you hear him playing two octaves apart from the woman's voice. That was a very fortunate outcome of working with Sony, which we hadn't thought about. I knew he recorded with Sony, of course, but it never occurred to me that he would be interested. But this is a man who's interested in all kinds of things, he has his Silk Road projects. He's pretty much covered the concert literature, so he's very much moving into new things to do.

One of the interesting things about him playing this work it that it makes whatever emotions there are in the work much more overt than has been the case with your other Qatsi soundtracks.

All the movies have a certain look to them, and so the music is influenced by that. In a certain way, for me, there's a very traditional relationship of the instrument to melodic writing and rhythms in this piece more than in the other pieces. The film itself is very high-tech, and I felt that the music needed to supply a bridge, or kind of a door, for people to enter into it. I was afraid that the film could be seen as rather cold and distant, the way a fabricated image might be, so my desire was to balance what could have been the coolness of the image with a very warm sound, and it's for that reason I picked a large orchestra and, eventually, Yo-Yo. So in that sense it would remind us of more traditional kinds of writing than you would hear in Powaqqatsi or Koyaanisqatsi, and that was a strategy that had to do with film. Besides that, in recent years I have been allowing a very melodic dimension and emotional dimension, I've allowed that much more than in the early music.

It's very prominent in the Fifth Symphony.

Yes, that's true, it was, and that's a recent piece. This piece and the Fifth Symphony are only two or three years apart. I think partly it's just the way people develop. If a painter starts painting on one side of the room, he ends up painting on the other side of the room. I began [with] a very abstract music, the early reductive pieces, and I ended up doing very emotional music. If I'd done that the other way, I may have gone to the more abstract music. You have to go down the line one way or another; whether you move from left to right or right to left, it really doesn't matter very much, you're going to have to move somewhere. In my case, I had begun with a very abstract music; a lot of its emotional impact came from the dynamic of the music and the instrumentation and the rhythmic power of the music. Having done that, I found at a certain point I had to try new materials to kind of keep a musical vision that would remain fresh for me.

I play the early pieces quite a lot now; I'm playing a piano concert this weekend. I'm playing the pieces I wrote 20 years ago much better now than I played them then, because I really understand them now. I didn't understand them when I wrote them. I mean, there's a part of them I didn't get, and now 20 years later I can go back to pieces like the Metamorphoses and I play them very differently than when I wrote them. You can only really start addressing these kind of questions when there's a body of work that's substantial enough and that has come into the world over a length of time that's long enough so that you can actually become aware of your own process, which is also difficult to do. In my thirties and forties I had very little idea what I was doing, though in fact it included all the kind of writing that led to Satyagraha and Koyaanisqatsi. So when I say I didn't know what I was doing, what I meant to say is what the implications of the music might have been in terms of performance and in terms of audience and in terms of development. Like everybody else, usually I'm where I am, I'm not really able to envision things beyond that very much. Of course, the thing is, once you know where it's going, you tend to go there, and then you're in that moment, and that's how it works. It's very hard not to do that.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

William Parker interview 8/24/96

Instead of the final article, which if memory serves ran in The Wire, here's the transcription.

I interviewed William in the Knitting Factory basement prior to sound check for an Ivo Perlman/Parker duo performance.

SH: Even though I've seen you a million times and heard you on a million records, it seems like, I don't really know that much about you, so if I sound like I don't know much about you, it's because I don't know much about you.

WP: Okay.

Let's begin at the beginning. When did you start playing bass, and what made you pick the bass?

I began playing bass my latter years in high school. My last year in high school, actually. I was listening to a lot of music of John Coltrane at the time, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Duke Ellington, Modern Jazz Quartet, and for some reason once I was able to figure out why people were playing music in the first place, a real clear aesthetic which was that music was functional on a level of reaching human beings or the human soul in a way that was very positive and healing, then I thought that I could make my contribution, figured out what I could do as a human being was to play music, and I was attracted to the bass and I got one and began to play and study so I could join in this celebration of music that was going on.

But what was it specifically about the bass?

I just liked it. Part of it was I listened to Percy Heath with the MJQ, and John Lamb with Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Garrison with Coltrane, and I just was--I previously had played the cello in high school, I can say that. Maybe it was at that time that I had subconsciously thought of going to the bigger instrument. As I recall, I did like the bass in junior high school. It was just something about it, I don't know exactly was it was except that I liked it. I thought I could do it.

There's a pretty broad range of styles in the people you mentioned, so I guess you didn't start out playing just free jazz. You started out playing a lot of stuff?

Yeah. I mean, my first period of playing the bass, I played with Maxine Sullivan, I was in her band. She is a singer; she also plays pocket trumpet, which a lot of people don't know. We had a band with me, her, a piano player named Dil Jones from the United Kingdom--I'm not sure exactly which country he's from, I think he's Irish. But I played with Maxine Sullivan, I did a lot of work with comedians, with poets, with folk bands. I played with a Cuban folkloric band where I was the youngest member. Most of the people in the band were 60 and over. What I did when I was learning the bass, I just played. I played with anybody, anything I could play to learn how to play bass. I eventually narrowed it down, funneled down to really finding the music I wanted to play--which I knew I wanted to play, but in order to play it I had to have a foundation in some other things and that I had to be able to feel comfortable on my instrument. I did shows, I worked a lot with singers, and all sorts of situations until I started to get more selective because I began to really play with--during that time I was also playing jazz. I played a lot with Billy Higgins. He was one of the first musicians who I met. There was a place on 11th Street and Avenue C called the Firehouse and Andrew Hill would come by, and Billy Higgins, and Billy Higgins invited me to his house on St. Mark's Avenue in Brooklyn, he had a house out there. And I went out there and Wilbur Ware was staying there, and the piano player Chris Anderson was there, and Clifford Jordan would come by. So I went out there whenever I could, and we would just play.

And this was when?

This is the early '70s, this is like, around '71, '72, '73. So I played informally in that setting. Billy didn't just play the drums, he played the tablas, guitar, all his other instruments, and then he'd also play his trap drums, but he really did stuff. He had some bowed Arabic instruments he would play. Then from there you just branch out. I began playing at Studio RivBea, four or five nights, I was one of the house bass players at Studio RivBea, and also Studio We. Studio RivBea was on Bond Street, and Studio We was on Eldridge Street. People at Studio We, Karl Berger, Dave Burrell, Milford Graves, Noah Howard, Gunter Hampel, I met Diedre Johnson down there, who's now Diedre Murray. She was playing in Daniel Carter's first band. At Studio RivBea I played with Frank Lowe, Charles Brackeen, Charles Tyler, Sonny Murray, Ray Anderson, Keshevan Maslak--everyone that came through there, I played with. I basically had on-the-job training supplemented with lessons. I studied, actually had bass lessons, with Richard Davis and with Wilbur Ware, and I studied with Jimmy Garrison a bit, with Milt Hinton and Art Davis. So there was a lot happening at this time, it was 24 hours music during this period from about '71 up till about '75, when I met Don Cherry. And he invited me to play at the Five Spot with him in '75, and I played at the Five Spot for a week with him, and in that band we had Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Roger Blank on drums--and was there another drummer? Yeah, they alternated the drum chair, sometimes three of them would show up, sometimes two. They would play the whole week. Frank Lowe was the saxophonist; he had an oud player, Sandy Bull; Hakim Jami also played bass and euphonium. Selene Fung played an instrument called the qin. Then he had guests come in during the week. That was my first gig at a major jazz club.

How did you hook up with Cecil Taylor and join his group?

Well, at the Five Spot, Cecil was in the audience. But I had known Cecil in '73. I was playing with Jemeel Moondoc in a band called Muntu, and Arthur Williams, the trumpet player, invited me to come down to one of Cecil's big-band rehearsals on Chambers Street. So Arthur took me to Cecil's house and introduced me. Cecil didn't have any bass players at that time in the band, so Cecil said, "Just come down, and when I got there, a lot of the students who had come from Antioch were now in New York, and they were in the band. Raphe Malik was in the band, and David Ware, who wasn't a student but had just come down from Boston. Charles Tyler was in the band. I brought Luther Thomas and Joseph Bowie in the band, because they had just come from St. Louis and they had sat in with me in a band I had with Billy Bang and Daniel Carter and Dewey Johnson, the trumpet player, called the Music Ensemble. So they were ripe and ready to come and play and hit New York, so they eventually ended up in the band. We had three drummers: Sonny Murray, Andrew Cyrille, and Rashied Bakr and Marc Edwards--four drummers. We ended up with four bass players: Sirone, myself, Dave Saprawho played with David Ware in Apogee with Cooper Moore, then known as Gene Ashton, and Earl Henderson, who changed his name to Earl Hudson, who changed his name to Earl, who was on Albert Ayler's record Witches and Devils. So we had four bassists, four drummers, and we played opposite the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Carnegie Hall. Marvin Hannibal Peterson was in the band, and he was a soloist, and Sharon Freeman. It was quite a--that's when I actually first played with Cecil. Then later on I saw Cecil at the Five Spot and December 1980 I did my first gig with Cecil which was a quartet setting, with Jimmy Lyons and Rashied Bakr. That was at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. I basically played with Cecil from 1980 till about 1991, late '91 maybe.

What did you take out of that experience that helped you put your own large band and quartet together?

Different ways of how to put music together. This is something I've learned from everyone who I played with, is that everyone has a different system of putting their music together. Don Cherry never used written music, he'd always sing you the parts or just play 'em and you'd have to pick 'em up. Bill Dixon sometimes uses written music or uses written music for larger ensembles, but in the smaller groups we've had, quartets or quintets, there was no written music. He relied on our instincts as improvisers to come together and make music. Roscoe Mitchell has a different system of putting things together, Jemeel Moondoc had a way of putting things together, Roy Campbell. And with Cecil, he had his way of putting the music together, and it was not unlike Ellington or Monk. Most people, what they do is really just an extension of the tradition of how all the music was put together, from Louis Armstrong on up to Anthony Braxton or on back to Thelonious Monk. It's basically all put together the same way. Everyone has a system of improvisation, and they either do it by signs, symbols, verbally, or use intuition and trust the players to bring what they have to the music. That's really the connection to it. What makes the so-called avant-garde or New Thing, what they called it in the '60s, what was different about it was the rhythm. If you lock in a rhythm, if you have the drummer actually keeping time, it just changes the music, but when you give the bass/piano/drums freedom, it changes the music. The actual how you put it together is no different from any other music in the world. You have sound and everyone manipulates the sound in a certain way, and they interact. That was more a political thing, the putting music in categories to label it and sort of make it not accessible to people. It's all coming definitely out of a tradition, and when you see people putting it together you really see them--you actually see Ellington put things together, it was not unlike Cecil Taylor or Thelonious Monk, from what I hear.

Stafford James once told me that he sat in with Cecil and he couldn't read the charts, he couldn't understand the notation. What was different about it?

Cecil doesn't use notes and stems, he doesn't use a lollipop system, he just uses a different system where he writes the actual names of the notes down, and there aren't any particular rhythms written down, so it's very organic and natural, because it takes the counting aspect out of the music. That's the only difference. Once you get used to it and explain the system it's just like reading a play or reading poetry or reading in another language. It's just a different system, it's not any more difficult. You can learn it in no time. I think it's a simpler system than standard notation, really.

You've been working more as a leader in the last few years. Does that responsibility change your musical approach?

Well, as a player it doesn't, playing the bass, it doesn't. As an organizer of the sound or the music, it just allows me--I'm responsible for organizing the music, so I'm able to get more of a--as anyone when they do their own music, hopefully, my perspective--not my perspective, but my sense of organizing music to get a perspective that's, say, both bigger than me and bigger than the players who are actually playing the music, but it's sort of what I think my job is to organize it so the music itself is what I call creative music, which is any music that procreates itself when it's played, to create a music that's both bigger than the original scene and the player. So I have a concept, or I have a germ for a composition, and the idea is, when it's played it grows bigger than the germ and bigger than the player, so it brings out the best in the player, the best in itself, and it also becomes its own thing that has its own way of going and moving in a particular direction.

When you're in a longstanding group, such as David's, how does a switch in drummers affect you? Do you have to react differently to what Susie Ibarra does than to what Whit Dickey did?

Oh, of course. In one week I played with Rashied Ali, which was interesting--me, Charles Gayle, and Rashied Ali--and then Sonny Murray, and then later on in the week Milford Graves, three different drummers but the same horn and bass. And we played three different musics. You always react and play differently according to who you're playing with. Playing with Tony Oxley, that's one thing. When you're playing with Andrew Cyrille, I played with Beaver Harris, that was another kind of feeling. When you go to Europe and play with Han Bennink, that's another kind of thing. Or when I played with Blackwell. Every drummer has a different thing happening, same as any horn player or piano player, so you always are playing different. That's why your concept, you have your germ, you have your sound, you have your way of phrasing, the more vocabulary you have, that vocabulary is altered each time you play with someone, because they may bring out something or you interact in a certain way. And then certain people play the way one likes to play, meaning that, see, I like to be in a position where you can play anything you want in the music. When the music is really happening, and this happened with, oh, with Cecil, with all the bands that really work, is that you can play any rhythm, and I mean any rhythm, six, five, four, three, two, you can play Brazilian, African, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, folk, country, you can play blues, four-four, any rhythm, any melody, any sound, at any time, and it will work. This is what I really like about the so-called universal music or whatever you want to call creative music, is that in very few musics can you do that. I mean, if you're playing Javanese music or Indian music, you're really, you have to play, there's certain restrictions you have. If you're playing blues, playing pop, you can't play any melody, can't play any rhythm. Except all the deeper musics, whatever style they are, you should be able to play anything you want to play. When I played with those old Cuban guys--and Latin music is sometimes very strict, you know, you have to keep clave-ing to the beat--they say "play what you feel." And then I found out when I went to Brazil, I went to the mountains in Brazil to play with these guys, and they were different. They were different than the Brazilian music you hear here. It wasn't about being Brazilian music, it was about THE music. I think in each country, you can go to the mountains, the deeper guys, not the guys that come over to America, they're playing a music that's closer to what we're doing. It's music that's not restricted to like, Guinean music or Ethiopean music or Egyptian music. It's beyond Egyptian music, beyond category. It's just music. And what we hear, all these cultural musics, is we hear the music when it's very refined and defined as what it is, as samba or coming from Brazil or certain forms of court music or dance music or puppet music. And these musics have certain restrictions on them that make them court music or puppet music or dance music or wedding music, and if you add something else to it, same as bebop, if you extend it, you're not playing bebop, you're playing something else. Yes, we're playing something else that's not bebop, but for me that's the beauty, to be able to, when I put a group together, I'm not trying to play a single style, I'm just trying to play something that works. And I think it's wonderful to be able to play anything. Look at the concert last night with David. I could play anything. I could superimpose as many rhythms over his rhythm, and there were times when you had three different things going on, four different things going on. I could play with you, I could play against you, I could play with the piano player Matthew, I could play with Susie, I could play with David, I could just be independent for ten minutes and then go with it. So that's really the fun and joy. But the same feeling you do get music is so wonderful, if you just play 12-bar blues all night, you can get the same feeling. When it's really happening, you never really feel restricted in any music. If it's really happening and you really know how to do it, you don't feel that, you know, because at times you just wanna play blues in B-flat, you don't wanna go to another key, because it's working, it's got that groove and it's all you need. To do anything else would be wrong then. But to go anyplace else shouldn't necessarily be wrong, because it's not really about wrong or right, it's about doing what's necessary to make it happen. It's like, breaking rules and making new rules, you're not just doing it just to be doing it, you're doing it to make it work. This music is like doing brain surgery, it's just as important as that, but it's also about making things work, making new discoveries, putting anything together as long as it works. As a bassist, my job is, when the music is dying, I gotta pump it up, I gotta add something, I gotta hit hard, I gotta do a slap, I gotta do something to lift it up. It's like flying a plane, if it's gonna hit a mountain, you've to to lift it up over the mountain to get the next air pocket to keep it going. Maybe I didn't realize this but one of the nice things about playing music and playing the bass -- playing any instrument, I think all instruments are equal -- is that you can do these things, you can navigate.

I think all instruments being equal is what sets free jazz apart from all the other styles. Sort of the political aspect that scared people is that if all the instruments are equal, it's not the hierarchy that people are used to dealing with.

It's like, that's true, and a lot of it was economics, a lot of it was jealousy. Oftentimes, you'll see musicians who've worked very, very hard all their lives to play music, and then there's someone who just says, oh, I can play that, and they just pick up an instrument and they can play. It baffles people: "I spent all my life practicing" and people shouldn't be attached to what they've learned, because you have to spend your life practicing to perfect your music. Everyone's different.