Travelin’ Light feature for Point of Departure

December 1998 interview for a Jazziz feature by Harvey Pekar

October 2001 interview with Ludwig van Trikt for the September 2002 issue of Cadence magazine


Your playing seems to avoid the usual modernistic guitar sound points (i.e. influences) that have characterized jazz guitar playing for the last 20 years. Please comment?

That’s probably because I don’t really come out of the jazz tradition. I started as a rock and blues player and as such the people I listened to most were B.B. King (I wore out at least one copy of “Live at the Regal”), Albert King, and Jimi Hendrix. My formal study, however, is primarily as a classical guitarist and my favorite player, and so chief influence, was Julian Bream. I have listened to jazz guitarists too, but I don’t think that they deeply affected my approach as much as rock and classical guitarists and jazz musicians who played other instruments. I paid much more attention to Miles Davis, and Coltrane, and Eric Dolphy, and people from the AACM movement in Chicago — Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, and Henry Threadgil especially — than to any jazz guitarists.

Do you then consider yourself a “jazz musician” or a “new music” artist?

Either, I suppose. If I had to decide, I would go with “new music” just because there is a lot less baggage associated with that term. I like the fact that the term new music is so poorly defined. When the term jazz is applied to a person they can be confronted with all sorts of infantile qualifiers, such as “can he blow over changes” or “does he know all the standards in all keys” or “does he swing.” Of course any good musician can learn to do any of these things — and I have actually played straight-ahead gigs playing standards, running changes, and swinging, although that’s not where I’ve invested the bulk of my creative energy so frankly that sort of playing is a chore for me and I don't do it any more — but it’s dopey to attempt to create a sort of Wyntonesque musical gauntlet that people have to endure to be allowed entry into the exclusive club called jazz. Anyway, when people ask me what you’ve just asked I typically say “my recordings usually end up in the avant-jazz or new music bins.” Based on what you’ve heard, what bin would you put me in?

I consider your music to combine so many elements; but primarily I view you as a jazz avant gardist.

That’s the usual classification and I have no objection to as an abstract concept. That is, the idea of exploring new ideas that usually include improvisation and that show some jazz influence. Conversely, the term “jazz avant-garde” has come to represent a particular post-bop style (think Albert Ayler, late Coltrane, and currently David S. Ware) that isn’t one of my strongest sources, although I do like that sort of thing well enough.

You mention in your website that some musicians have attempted to teach you in vain? Please give examples and explain. By the way never in my experiences with artist have I seen a musician view his work with such naked candor.

Partially the line you refer to is my attempt to make it appear as though I’ve actually studied music without either bragging on the people I’ve studied with or trying to make it appear as though I’m completely well rounded. Either way, I can be a difficult student, since I question everything. But really, that line is just a lame attempt to deflate my musical credentials rather than anything to be thought about too deeply. I learned a lot from those people who spent their time teaching me. Their efforts weren't wasted entirely.

Why and when did you pick up the guitar?

Because I wanted to be a Beatle, specifically John Lennon. For at least a year I made do with a broom, which I strummed and sang along to the rustling sound it made. But broom wasn’t versatile enough for me. So either I saved up 50 bucks or my mother gave it to me, I can’t remember, and when I was 12 I got a cheap guitar and I immediately wrote a song called “Why” (it went something like “Why why why why why why why why”) that used the first three chords I learned.

What particulars of the A.A.C.M. came to influence your own approach to music?

To start with, the idea of spontaneous composition. When I was 19 I formed a very loud free jazz trio called “Life Rhythms” with a drummer named Richard Vertel and an organist named Stan White. We didn’t use any predetermined compositions or structures at all. The music had pulse but no time and sensed tonal focal points but no conventional pitch organization. Instead the emphasis was on form, texture, energy, and color. For me at least, that idea came out of the AACM concerts I attended. We also eventually started to compose music within similar principles, as AACM musicians did, although it turned out that our ideas were so different that the group disbanded, or at least that contributed to the split.

Another influence was the idea of being a multi-instrumentalist. I remember attending Art Ensemble gigs and, in particular, an AACM big band concert at the Arie Crown Theater, in which the stage was smothered with instruments that almost everyone seemed to switch among freely. So I started playing things other than just guitar. By the time Life Rhythms dissolved I was hauling all sorts of stuff onto stage. I was playing tenor and soprano saxophone, flute, clarinet, alto clarinet, sitar, mandolin, timpani (the drummer and I bought a pair of used Ludwig kettle drums), and all other sorts of percussion. Over the next few years I gave up everything except guitar, however.

The way that hearing all of those early AACM gigs most affected me, however, was just in planting the idea of creating new work rather than repeating what had already been done. Not that I wasn’t already thinking that way, since I was a compulsively creative kid if not especially gifted. But the rock groups I knew wrote their own material and the AACM people with almost no exceptions all of the AACM people were writing material and consciously exploring new ideas. (The only exception I can think of is the first time I saw the Henry Threadgil Trio, later to become “Air,” they were playing Scott Joplin tunes.) Because I was more driven to make things than in specifically being a musician, I found this focus very attractive. As a result I have never played in a cover band and jazz groups I have led have rarely played covers. For awhile one of my groups played one Monk tune, and I’ve recorded one Joseph Jarman piece, out of affection for him as much as for any other reason, but other than that I’ve always focused on creating new music rather than reworking existing compositions.

Besides the A.A.C.M -most of your other influences seem to be in the “new music” realm. You describe Negel Tufnel as the greatest influence on your work. Why so?

Nigel Tufnel is the character played by Christopher Guest in the mock-rock band “Spinal Tap.” In other words he is not a real person. I liked the movie.

In looking at your concert schedule- it appears that you are doing the same type of guerilla performances that Ken Vandermark has taken on? You even have shows scheduled for Nashville,Tenn. and Saint Petersburg, Florida?

Yes that’s right assuming that by “guerilla” you — and I guess Ken, although I haven’t personally heard him use the term — mean that some of the presenting organizations are small and underfunded and some of the venues aren’t fancy theaters. New music, even when performed by very well-known personalities, and I’m not one, survives because of a network of ad hoc presenters who most often are volunteers who work for no other reason than the love of this sort of music. But that doesn’t really have anything to do with the size of the community. Some of the gigs in Chicago, for example, have much more of a grass-roots feel about them than say the gigs in Chapel Hill, North Carolina or Athens, Georgia. The people in Nashville who will be presenting the trio tour you’re referring to — with Vinny Golia and Toshi Makihara — have presented me before. Their venue is a nice art gallery called Ruby Green.

Actually, just about my favorite places to play are galleries, assuming that they have enough chairs for the audience and can hold a reasonably sized audience. I usually like the acoustics, and I like to see the art. I appreciate also that the situation feels less formal that a theater, in that the audience is more approachable and the lighting is less severe. For me the feel is also much better than a bar, which by far is my least favorite setting, what with the drunks and noise and smoke and all. On this tour I think we’re not playing any bars, at least I hope not. In Madison I have a relationship with a small gallery — the Wendy Cooper Gallery — in which last year and into this year I presented a series of duets with myself and people from other countries and in which I occasionally present people passing through on tour as a favor. There’s no funding, but there is a small volunteer group involved. So I guess I work both ends of the “guerilla” movement. And again, that’s not uncommon. Many working musicians I know also casually present to help out other musicians.

What is the bottom line on running your own label- Geode. In dollar and cents figures what kind of money are you making or lossing on being a largely self produced /self managed (are you?) artist?

Of my last 10 CDs as a leader, only one is on Geode. That is dénouement. A deal I thought I had with a different label to release dénouement fell through and out of consideration to the other musicians who had invested their time in the project, I decided to put it out on Geode rather than restart the negotiation process with another label. But Geode is largely dormant. It’s a label I’ll use if I have a project that I love but other good labels don’t. If a friend were in a similar situation, I suppose I would release their project on Geode as well. But I sure wouldn’t encourage that. Some years ago I was fired up about having my own active label. I was shocked to find that real time and energy was required to make the thing work. That’s time I’d rather spend composing and practicing.

I still then would like to know your perception of the money that a artist like yourself makes on an average recording in dollar and cents terms?

As with most creative artists, for me each deal is different. Sometimes the label arranges in advance to foot the costs and fees associated with a recording. Sometimes a recording is supported by some sort of public or private funding agency. And infrequently I’ll record on spec without any other support and then come to an agreement with a label after the project is finished. In all cases, I’ve never been a position where the label attempted to influence the music at all (well, actually in one case I wanted to have a hidden track of Marilyn Crispell singing a jazz standard and the label said “no hidden tracks”) and I’ve also always been able to in some way influence the other aspects of the packaging and notes and so on. And all of the labels I’ve recorded for have kept their word on agreements we’ve had, which is nothing to sneeze at.

How did you learn to craft your large ensemble work. Are you thus far satisfied with what you have documented?

You mean the two modular compositions, 48 Motives and 96 Gestures, I assume. First of all, writing for the individual instruments in the modular pieces is no different than writing for them in smaller ensembles. That’s because the modular pieces are orchestrated spontaneously. Maybe I should explain what these modular pieces are so that might make a little sense. The essence of the method is that the composition is constructed of a set of modules whose interrelationships vary predictably from very strong to weak. In performance (including recorded performance) an improvising conductor working in the moment selects and layers modules in any order. The conductor uses the American Manual Alphabet, which is a set of hand positions, as well as traditional conducting gestures to select modules, instrumentation, dynamics, tempi, and other musical attributes. The conductor also can direct the instrumentalists to improvise on the modules’ themes, pitch material, and rhythmic structures. The result is a composition that in performance is always radically different and yet is always the same.

The first of these modular pieces — 48 Motives — is the most simple in structure. The composition, which is for at least eight instrumentalists and an improvising conductor, consists of 96 modules that are all the same number of beats and all in 4/4. The interrelationships in the second modular piece — 96 Gestures — are considerably richer. It’s for at least 12 instrumentalists and conductor. Unlike Motives, 96 Gestures (which is built of 144 modules) allows for formal counterpoint, contrasts in time signatures, and variations in the number of beats, which lets the conductor to create the sorts of phase relationships found in music by Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and other minimalists. I’m also working on a third, larger modular piece that will include all of the richness of 96 Gestures and will add additional orchestration possibilities. The performances on both projects were extraordinary and I was of course pleased by that. There’s really nothing like having fine musicians take your music to heart and make something of it. I was a bit disappointed in the release of 48 Motives in one respect. It was released as a single CD. To fully appreciate these modular pieces it’s necessary to hear several versions. We recorded three versions of between an hour and 70 minutes. But when I looked for a label to release the project found several that would release a single take but none that would release all three or even two as a single set. I had hoped to release the other takes eventually, but the master tapes suffered damage in a flood and I’m not sure if they can be repaired. Perhaps.

96 Gestures, on the other hand, was released as a triple-CD set. It came out just a month or two ago and I couldn’t be happier about the way it turned out. Well, except for the packaging. I lost that fight. But I very much like the recordings. Ideally many versions of the pieces, with many different musicians and many different conductors, would be performed and recorded. That’s another thing I’m working on.

Some of the Cadence recordings have a flat sound but 48 Motives especially captured the ensembles richness.

You wouldn’t expect the Cadence releases to have any sort of consistent sound since, as far as I know, they all come in over the transom. I mean they’re all produced by the leaders or someone they find to produce in a wide variety of studios and then submitted to Cadence for release. Could it be Cadence’s other series, the C.I.M.P. CDs, that you’re thinking about? Those almost all use the same technique: DAT, two mics, start playing. I admire their goal, which as I understand it is to duplicate the live listening experience, but the outcome sometimes mystifies me. If two microphones equaled two ears and not using reverberation and not riding levels equaled how a brain processes information, maybe I’d be convinced. But I don’t think that is how electro-acoustics works.

Anyway, I’m glad you like the way 48 Motives sounds. Like most of my projects, it was recorded at Smart Studios in Madison. Smart is owned by two of the members of the pop band Garbage. It has great facilities and they give artsy-fartsies like me a great break. The head engineer there, Mark Haines, has been especially helpful. The only drawback there is that the room itself is too small for anything larger than a quintet. Motives was an octet and as a result the mix was a bit of a nightmare. It was also recorded analog, multi-track to two-inch tape. That’s how I prefer to record, since the sound is so much warmer than digital formats. For example, Hornets Collage was recorded there to two-inch and then the tape hiss was removed electronically in mastering. Fugu, Disaster at Sea, and the improvised tracks on Sonotropism were all two-inch at Smart. So was dénouement, which was recorded at Airwave in Chicago and mixed at Smart. I wish I could always record analog, but the tape is so expensive. Recently I had six reels of tape, like $1200 worth, fail and the company that made it — Quantegy — wouldn’t even respond to a letter, let alone make good. So I’m recording to various digital formats nowadays. But I’m not happy about it. If you compare the long cut on Sonotropism, which was recorded live in concert to A-DAT, to the three improvised pieces, which are on two-inch in the studio, you can hear how much more real the analog sounds.

Matt Turner really holds things together melodically on 48 Motives. Please comment?

Matt was great on 48 Motives. He was great on Sonotropism, Fugu, 96 Gestures, and Disaster at Sea too. In fact, I can’t remember any time that he has been less than fantastic, although to the casual listener maybe sometimes it’s hard to tell. He never uses any sorts of showy tricks and typically he’ll completely subjugate his own personal goals to that of the project. Clearly he’s one of my favorites, not just on my stuff but on his solo projects as well. I’ve always loved playing with him because he just makes everything better than it would have been had I been left to my own devices. He also humors me on my ideas and frequently fixes errors I’ve made without every mentioning it. But you asked about Motives. That piece, like most of my compositions, was written to take advantage of certain players. Matt, and Marilyn Crispell, and Hans Sturm, in particular, are virtuosi, and I wrote parts that really pushed them. They made the most of it.

How does Dembski’s tonal system approach differ from Cecil Taylor’s and Butch Morris?

You need to understand is that Steve Dembski’s system is much more intricate when he uses it in his own classical music than on my pieces. I’ve simplified it considerably for improvisation. But it appears to some extent on all of my CDs. You can really hear it on Fugu, 48 Motives, and 96 Gestures. On the others it is less apparent. It would be a bit much to explain it all here, but I’ll give you a rough idea. Assume that traditional Western tonal systems are based on the interaction of the circle of fifths and the chromatic circle. Dembski’s pseudo-tonal system treats one 12-pitch tone row as though it’s the circle of fifths and one as though it’s the chromatic circle. The result is that the tonal and harmonic foundation of the music has a cohesiveness, but it isn’t traditionally tonal. But all that said, I work with just the crudest version of this system. Just enough to get improvisers started, when I can talk them into it. That’s not always easy. There is a growing resistance to using any notated music and instead just playing completely free. I got that out of my system 30 years ago, and although I do occasionally play completely free, I’m becoming increasing resistant to those sort of gigs. Some aspect of composition is necessary for me to find any satisfaction in this stuff. So I guess I’m part of the growing backlash against completely free improvisation.

As to how Steve’s system compares to those of Taylor and Morris, to be frank I didn’t know that either of those men, neither of whom I’ve even met, used any particular tonal system. Interestingly, Steve when he was an undergraduate at Antioch College played in a student big band that Cecil Taylor led. Steve says that Taylor used to write out pitch sets for the group to follow. But I don’t know if a system was involved. Perhaps you’re thinking of some similarity in the methods of conducting spontaneously for these three. I think Taylor has one, although again I don’t know the details. But Morris’s “conduction” method is well known and some of his techniques have carried over into the method that I developed, which Steve uses when he conducts my large-ensemble pieces. But for my pieces, the primary focus is using the American Manual Alphabet to cue and combine modules. During the performance some parts of Morris’s system do creep in, however, such as who to listen to and how the improvisations can develop and so on. And of course, since my pieces use Steve’s tonal system, he really understands how to manipulate the tonal relationships in the modules.


by recording
by publication
by author
by concert