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by Samuel Weinberg This weekend, we at Search and Restore are beyond thrilled to present three nights of the experimental vocalist, composer, improviser and multi-instrumentalist, Jen Shyu at ShapeShifter Lab. Shyu has curated a solo performance by an emerging artist for each night, followed by a different performance of her immersive work, which will be supported by a cast of incredible musicians, namely Tyshawn Sorey, Randy Peterson, Michael Formanek, Val-Inc, and a nightly appearance by guitarist Ben Monder. We caught up with Shyu for a lengthy interview conducted via email, in which she speaks at great length about the origins of her projects”Solo Rites: Seven Breaths” and her ensemble “Jade Tongue”, and all of the research that went into executing both of those projects. ShapeShifter Lab is 18 Whitwell Pl, Brooklyn, NY 11215Search and Restore Presents Three Nights of Jen Shyu November 14th, 15th, 16th —————- Maubisse There is an opening of land off the Flecha roadWhere the earth spreads wide its grassy skinsTil it breaks and reveals red clayFlesh where the wild horses grazeJust beyondFrom afar their exhales flutteringSighs in the expanseI knew not where I was, whom I strove to beIt was coldMother, I give you the signI grabbed the first warm handI rush home, and I seeI was home all the time - Jen Shyu, from Solo Rites: Seven Breaths Excerpt published in Arcana VI: Musicians on Music edited by John Zorn ———————- Why did you decide to begin every evening with a solo performance by an emerging artist? What is the significance of that for you? Well, this is the first chance I’ve had a residency where I’ve gotten to curate myself, and I have to say it is really exciting to present these artists and post their work on Facebook, etc. It’s funny because I feel like I’m also still very much emerging, but I recently got to hear Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (Urban Bush Women) speak at our Doris Duke Impact Award orientation. As she talked about her audience development project, which involved interviewing female artists around the country, one of the grantees commented on the fact that her project was very much about empowering other people more than simply developing her own audience. Jawole immediately answered, “Oh, that’s a value set. I learned it from Dianne McIntyre [very important modern dancer], and that’s what I try to pass down too.” Her words have greatly impacted me, just the way she called it a “value set,” and the impact it can have on others. I’ve been given so many opportunities by other artists, that I know how important it is to have the belief of someone when you’re in a very fragile state of trying to do something new, or feeling unknown, or just having moved to New York, or any aspect causing fragility. I remember Miya Masaoka’s asking me if I wanted to do a set at the Stone years ago, when she was curating that month, and I had just formed Jade Tongue. It was my first time performing at the Stone, and it really, really meant a lot to me to be playing there and being part of that community. Can you talk about the specific performers who will open every evening of this residency at 7? What drew you to their work? I very much believe in these three artists, Rema Hasumi, Anjna Swaminathan, and Jordan Morton. They’re all younger than me, and I just want to give them an outlet to show their work and try something new. I told them that they could do anything they want as long as it was solo. Rema is a great pianist with a really unique sound and vibe and has been singing more, so I wanted her to build more material for this gig. She had invited me to share a double bill with her at iBeam this past summer, and I liked her work a lot. We have many of the same interests–ritual, language, tradition–and from our conversations, I knew she would bring something really beautiful and mysterious to the residency. Anjna is a stunning violinist, trained in both South Indian Carnatic classical and Western classical violin, whom I met at Banff when I was on faculty there this past summer, and her voice is also beautiful – and she shared with me all these ideas she had from her experience with theater, and I said that she needs to make a solo work as soon as possible and bring these ideas to life. So I thought this was a great chance for her to workshop something and get it documented for the future. Oftentimes, it’s just beginning that is the hardest part – then once you’ve started, things start to roll and develop very quickly – it’s an exponential process. Jordan is an exceptional bassist and vocalist, whom I also met at Banff, and who just released a solo project on Bandcamp. When I heard this, I immediately emailed her about doing an opening set – so I’m really looking forward to people hearing all three of them at this residency. I will always champion other female artists as it’s still challenging for us in creative music and the music business in general – we’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go, in my opinion. That’s a much longer discussion, “beyond the scope of this interview,” as they say… but I have a lot to say on this topic. Can you speak of the origins of the “Solo Rites: Seven Breaths” project? Well, the origins came from many places and many different “aha” moments. This Roulette TV special video explains a lot of its recent origins, better than I can say: But to get into the origins a little further back, it really started in 2001, when I was living in San Francisco right after graduating from Stanford, where I was interested in NONE of what I am into now, but instead, getting this great foundation in opera singing from Jennifer Lane, a teacher to whom I owe a lot in terms of vocal control and vocal health too as I maneuver through different vocal techniques, some which require purposeful wear and tear on the vocal cords. Anyway, I lived on Fillmore Street between Haight and Page, and I used to go running in the parks around there and then eventually would always end up at Amoeba Music. It was like a magnet. I would hang out there wandering around and buying loads of used CDs – I remember I got my first Henry Threadgill and Cassandra Wilson albums there… One day, I randomly found a CD with a French title, Chants des Aborigenes de Taiwan, put out by Playa Sound, back in ‘97 or ’98. I had no idea what to expect, but when I played it back at home, I was dumbfounded. Some of the singing sounded so close to melodies that I was listening to at the time, in Lucumí songs from Santería ceremonies from Cuba. I heard a connection and was seeking to understand more. I had begun studying at first from recordings, then later from Regino Jiménez who was in the Bay Area for a short time, but there was nothing more profound than hearing this music in person in Matanzas. That’s why it’s so important to go to the place, to the source. So my first trip abroad in search of this music was to Havana in 2001, and it led to what has been 13 years so far of intuitively following my attraction to musics from different cultures in Brazil, Cuba, and Vietnam, as well as those connected to my own ancestry, namely Taiwan, China, East Timor, Indonesia. After that trip to Cuba, I then went to Taiwan just around the time I met Steve Coleman, who, along with Francis Wong and Jon Jang, urged me to follow my instincts to go there. That first trip to Taiwan was in 2003, on my own dime. In recent years, my visits have become more intense on the research and immersion side, where I basically spend all of my time immersing into a new tradition, like sindhenan, the improvisational singing of Javanese gamelan music. So my first three week trip in Cuba in 2001 then progressed into a two year stay in Indonesia between the years 2011 and 2014, with six months in Korea near the end of that time span, to study Pansori and Gayageum Byeongchang (singing while playing gayageum) intensively for those six months. So starting from those trips to Cuba and Taiwan, it has been an evolving search for my ancestors, their migration, the sounds they made, what my connection was to those sounds, and what I was going to give back, having learned from these elders, and what I wanted so much to convey to people who had no idea how beautiful these sounds from these “cornerest of corners” were. There were many stereotypes I wanted to break, like many assuming that all Chinese music was the same, or that Taiwanese music was the same as Chinese music, that Chinese music was just pentatonic… so many assumptions I wanted to destroy. I found myself looking primarily for vocal music that I had never heard before in these regions, especially “sung” storytelling from women. Over the years, I continued on to China, then to East Timor, then to Indonesia, (Java, Bali, Kalimantan primarily), and South Korea, each trip getting longer, more intense, more focused, and my rate of learning the languages also picking up, and my involvement with the community as well, and collaborations with the local artists there. Solo Rites: Seven Breaths also came from meeting Garin Nugroho, the director of the piece –his film Opera Jawa really turned me out, and I watched it just before going to Indonesia; I urge everyone to just buy or download it from Amazon Prime – a must see for sure. His aesthetic and interest in tradition and experimentalism was so aligned with mine that I was determined to meet him. It turns out he is a huge star in Indonesia, but amazingly I was able to meet him after two months in Yogyakarta, thanks to the wonderful Solonese dancer, Eko Supriyanto, with whom I also got to collaborate while I was there. After our first meeting and after giving Garin my albums and links to my previous work, I boldly asked him if he’d be interested in directing a new solo work that I was scheming but was still unformed. He said “yes” and then invited me to his house in Yogyakarta, where he was hosting dinner for a film festival that he ran, and dozens of participants–actors, directors, producers–were camping out on his floor in his gallery. It was like a big slumber party. Garin’s openness and enthusiasm really surprised me and was so exciting. Over the next two years I was in Indonesia, we made small collaborations and met often and discussed and critiqued each other’s work and different things that we saw, all during my studies of Javanese music and dance. Wherever we travelled, we would keep in touch via email. Then in 2013, Jim Staley offered me this residency at Roulette for 2014, and I jumped on the chance to bring Garin to New York and really create this piece. Jim had asked me in 2012 actually, but I just wasn’t ready to leave Java yet, still wanted to learn more. Because Garin and I had two years of building upon each other’s ideas, making the piece was so organic. I dumped all my favorite fieldwork footage over the past 10 years onto his plate, and he magically assessed all of it and came back to me with a general structure of seven sections starting in East Timor, and returning to East Timor, but ending finally in an anonymous place, a no-man’s land. I then named these sections “breaths” and that became the title, Seven Breaths. Everything flowed from there, as I fit in all the material that I had been learning as well as creating into his structure, and the narrative naturally came out of it. We rehearsed in between his insane schedule of being a celebrity filmmaker, usually rehearsing in his home, with traditional Javanese architecture, with a “joglo” terrace, a traditional Javanese structure, which is supported by posts and has no walls. So we were always rehearsing with traffic, birds, curious neighbors, and mosquitoes…. Those were the origins. The piece is like a ritual, very much a ritual, and I try to keep it that way, rather than a “performance,” which is set in stone. Now as I perform the piece in different venues, I throw in and take things away as things change, or as I learn new things, or get tired of other things. I perform a lot of traditional music in this piece, which is in itself a practice. For instance, it was just last year that I started to learn Pansori and these musics from Korea like Binari; so for me, it is important to perform them as I learned them, and refine that, and share that with people, before it becomes something else naturally after I have lived with it for some time. In contrast, I’ve been playing Taiwanese folks songs on the moon lute since 2007, so I’ve lived with them longer, and spent a year perhaps just singing and playing those songs on the lute before I started writing my own songs on the instrument and changing the tunings. When I started using different fingerings and tunings, I played them for my elder teachers, to their resistence at first, but then they accepted it, because I had spent so much time with the original way they had taught me. Interesting - this negotiation between seeking approval, confirmation, but then breaking away and doing your own thing. I think whatever you do, if it’s with sincerity and a pure heart, everything will be ok. (photo by Steven Schreiber) There are a good deal of extra-musical things to be expected throughout these 8PM sets. Can you express any of what the audience might expect with these performances? Well, my first answer was far too long, so I will try to answer these next questions as simply as possible. I have always loved dance and theater, and over the years have witnessed so much ceremony, and non-ceremony, just every day life in different countries, different cultures - and then observing New York City in a new light, relating to my parents in a different way — for example, I remember that after my long spell in Taiwan and China from 2003 - 2009 really, my Mandarin had gotten a lot better. And I’d be hanging out with my parents and suddenly realizing that I understood almost every word they said. Before, I just knew intuitively, or caught words here and there. But now I really knew, vocabulary-wise, and all. That was a revelation and brought us much closer. So there is all this potential in us. As we expand our search, and learn more and more, things never stay the same. How can one be bored? Anyway, I went to my first metal show with Craig [Taborn], and standing in the balcony, watching people on the ground floor throw themselves around, and banging into each other, and just receiving vibrations - that made an imprint as well - so many things - theater and drama come in many forms. People in ecstasy and other realms come in other forms too. I guess the audience can expect to be surprised by what we do and what we don’t do in the space. I am, at the moment, very influenced by the Javanese dance I was learning day in and day out - the pace of that dance, and the subtlety. I often got sleepy watching it, and even doing it sometimes. I didn’t sleep much in general out there in Indonesia— I stayed out late every night, like at a wayang kulit performance (shadow puppet performance), which would go from 8pm until 4 or 5am, and people just slept there on the bamboo mats, dreaming, waking, watching, eating a snack, and sleeping again. I loved this. I saw the same thing in the 24-hour and 3-day shaman rituals in South Korea. Everyone just sleeping while the singer and drummer kept singing and drumming. I was always wide awake, recording, and stressing about how my batteries and memory packs were getting full, and remembering what I had to remember for the next day…recharging, etc….but every tiny moment, every gesture, every concept, every happenstance was an inspiration, ignited an idea, or just moved me… so I guess in performance, it’s about being aware of this impact that we can have as musicians, as artists, as people making the ceremony, and how we can relate to the audience - to involve them in something rather than merely “showing” them something or demonstrating how “good” we are…what more do we have in us that we can give? Giving ability is not enough. So this “beyond” is what I’m interested in. I like foreign languages because it takes us out of the comfort zone - now you’re forced to observe other things and find meaning in other things. I like how each syllable I create actually does have meaning in some languages somewhere – if I say “san,” this can mean “mountain” in Korean, or “three” in mandarin, or it could be “son” in English with a really open vowel. And these are just languages I know, so it must have thousands of other meanings in langauges I don’t know. This is always a powerful idea to me. And that if I do choose to stay in a certain language for a while, there is always someone in the audience that might know that language, and it will have meaning for that person. How did the new ensemble “Jade Tongue” come about? What’s your concept with it? Well, I was in a collective called Red Jade back in San Francisco led by a Filipino American percussionist Jimmy Biala and Chinese American dancer Lenora Lee. This group had a great influence on me, and I had met all of them at the first salon that Francis had invited me to. I’ll never forget it. It was at Kallan Nishimito’s loft, and I remember it was a diverse group of artists and people in there, in that great room - everyone brought food, and Kallan was going around with a piece of paper, writing down who wanted to perform that night. It was a warm and exciting vibe, and I found myself on the stage with Jimmy and John-Carlos Perea, a great bassist and vocalist, and we did a version of Summertime that I had never done before - it was liberating, and I could sense that I was going into a new space, beyond category of “jazz” or whatever, but essentially trying to find my own voice. Anyway, our work together, which also involved Japanese American percussionist and dancer Melody Takata, was beautiful and empowering - this was also the first time I danced and sang at the same time, in a non-musical theater way. Lenora encouraged me to explore my voice while moving, and I was also trying to get out of my ingrained ballet movements…we did a lot of exercises and processes using text, movement, music, and all the senses, and this integration is a core of what I do today. So I chose Jade Tongue for my band name, inspired by Red Jade, but wanted to explore more with language and non-language, especially as I was singing so much non-language with Steve’s band. I am happy that at this point, when I’m improvising this non-language, people really believe it is a language – it’s a work in progress, but this is a start. Can you speak a bit about all of the first-rate musicians that you’ve enlisted for this band? the one constant, aside from you, is the guitarist Ben Monder, so perhaps you can talk about him in specific. I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Ben just twice – once duo, and then once quartet with Mat Maneri on viola and Satoshi Haga dancing. Both times were an epiphany – our duo improvisation, which was just after my three-month trip to East Timor, generated improvised lyrics which later became the closing monologue of Seven Breaths. Playing with him is a journey and very mystical one – I don’t have to say anything about his technique and vision – everyone knows how remarkable he is. But I can say that improvising with him is a transformative experience, hearing everything and much more than you imagined was possible, and taking you there to those realms. I really can’t wait to play three nights in a row with him. Each night will be a different group, with Ben as the constant… the first night will be an exploration of an incredible ancient Timorese story from the Wehali Kingdom…I’ll explain more before the gig, as it’s too much to get into now. John Hébert will be on bass – we’ve worked together a lot on his music and my music, and we haven’t played since I left for Indonesia, so I’m really looking forward. He’s a first call bassist, and he can do anything. Val-Inc is a phenomenal sound artist from Haiti, and one of my models for non-comprimising work and a power, which I still fear and love. Val always opens the floor for questions after her sets, and I remember once after a solo show she did in Harlem, someone asked Val if she ever did music for fashion shows and if she would be interested– and Val said right away something, in a really sincere and generous manner, like, “Oh, no, sorry, what I do is spiritual, coming from a spiritual place, so, no, I don’t do fasion shows. Next question?” I don’t think she is discounting fashion from being spiritual, but we could all tell that the woman asking was not talking about “spiritual fashion.” I always admire Val for her honesty and straightforward way, and for her fierce artistry. Then Satoshi Haga, one of my favorite dancers ever, will be my partner in crime in expressing this complex story, which involves cock-fighting, territory, a woman disguising herself in order to save her brothers who have gambled themselves into slavery–you’ll have to come see what we do. We have worked on many projects together, a lot improvising, and then our first staged collaboration, Cry of the Nomad in 2008 at the old Roulette and Raging Waters, Red Sands at the old Jazz Gallery in 2009. Both were Jerome Foundation commissions (thank you, Jerome!) The second night features Michael Formanek on bass and Randy Peterson on drums. Michael records on ECM, which can already tell you a lot, and he is a great, great composer and veteran bassist. He and Randy are like teachers in my eyes, so I feel like I am just lucky to get a schooling from them and all the people who are joining me in this residency. Craig was the first to tell me about Randy, and he said I should get together with him. I had heard Randy with Mat Maneri, and I was totally overwhelmed and was quite intimidated, actually, as what Randy was doing sounded like cycles upon cycles upon polyrhythms and so much complexity to me. When we did get together, he directed me to my intuition, which I feel I am still just learning about. He is totally in there, with all this knowledge within. Tyshawn Sorey will join Ben and me on the 3rd night – anything can happen with Tyshawn. He’s one of the most talented people I know, and we go way back when he was with Steve’s band for a couple years and we toured a lot together. I always feel like I can go into unknown realms with Tyshawn and he pushes me to go there. I am also very honored to have two Indonesian musicians join us on this 3rd night. Peni Candra Rini is a Javanese pesindhen and composer with an out-of-this-world voice and spirit. It’s always goose bumps for all when she sings. She’s like a sister, and we created a two-woman show in Yogyakarta during my last stay in Indonesia. She will give an opening prayer on this night, in honor of a dear friend whom we lost, a most talented puppeteer of wayang kulit, Sri Joko Raharjo “Cilik.” He died in a car accident tragically, with his wife and their 11-month old baby boy. Djaduk Ferianto is from Yogyakarta, a bandleader, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, producer – a celebrity also in Indonesia. He will also be helping us honor two other artists who passed this year whom we knew very well, Slamet Gundono, another visionary and puppeteer, and Dedy Luthan, a choreographer who took me to Kalimantan. We will also perform a poem written by Edward Cheng, a physicist and poet who is in the hospital right now. I cannot say enough about these artists and human beings. They are represented in the title of “Winged Rain in Diamond Light.” I hope that this night can be a ceremony for everyone meditating on their loved ones, who are still here, or who have transitioned to the next realm. What is some recorded music you’ve been listening to lately? Oh, so much…was listening to Tyshawn Sorey’s new album, Miya Masaoka’s choral work, Henry Threadgill’s new Zooid albums, East Coast Shaman music from South Korea, from the master drummer and singer Kim Jung-hee, whom I got to know when I was out there, and who is very humorously active on facebook like many modern day shamans; Muhal Richard Abrams’ solo recording Vision Towards Essence, and revisiting my fieldwork from East Timor, from Atauro district in preparation for the Wehali piece I’m doing on November 14th. What are some things that you’re looking forward to this late-fall/winter? I’m trying to get my new album mastered while juggling everything else. I think it will be called Sounds & Cries of the World. Some of my favorite musicians, Ambrose Akinmusire, Mat Maneri, Thomas Morgan, Danny Weiss, and I recorded the music this past August, when it was warm. I’d like to get it mastered before the first snow falls, let’s see if I can. A bunch of us will record Danny’s newest record in December, which I’m shedding for. I’m booking things for January on the west coast, and will perform Solo Rites: Seven Breaths at Center for New Music in San Francisco on January 23, but I’m reeeaaaally looking forward to my residency at Montalvo Arts Center which will be for about a month…I desperately need time away from the computer and email and booking and Facebook and blah blah, and just need to have the space to sit still and imagine, and write some more music. I have tended to make my best work away from home, and especially before a big trip, because I don’t have to worry about booking things in the immediate future. I have some travel ahead, another research trip planned, but I am waiting to hear back from this foundation, so I will not say anything yet at this point. If I don’t get it, I definitely want to go back to East Timor for a time and Indonesia as well…but to be continued… What is your ideal sandwich? I like a healthy sandwich, one that has gluten-free bread, laden with greens, avocado, other healthies, but with wholesome bacon in there somewhere. I just tried BareBurger near NYU for the first time, which my sister Samita Sinha took me too – my kind of place. They also offer peanut butter and chocolate milkshake, which I look forward to having again. The simple things in life… Copyright Chiuyen Music, by Jen Shyu November 12, 2014...read more
by Samuel Weinberg On the heels of his massively impressive opus—the 4 CD box, Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012)—trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith has just released another suite, The Great Lakes Suites (TUM). Although The Great Lakes Suites is not as large in scope (it spans 6 movements, over 2 CDs) it is, in many respects, no less impressive. Joined by long standing collaborators, saxophonist & flutist Henry Threadgill , drummer Jack DeJohnette (drums), and bassist John Lindberg, Smith was able to capture his far-reaching, and widely researched thoughts on The Great Lakes. This is a striking document in a number of respects, not the least of which is that many of these movements seem—as a friend of mine remarked when I played him the record—like “classics”; like pieces that everyone should know, or somehow already have. Smith remarks upon this phenomenon in our interview below, saying “[this organic work] is older than it looks and younger than it could possibly be!” It was a true delight to speak with Smith, who was generous with his time and responses. I began wondering something while reading the liner notes for this record: it talked about how you were on a plane from Austria, having just performed with Muhal Richard Abrams. You then began to think about The Great Lakes. Did this fascination with The Great Lakes have any deeper roots before that, maybe even from childhood, if that’s applicable? Well, from childhood, everyone has to know the names of The Great Lakes in school and things like that. But my fascination came when I was living in Chicago, beginning in 1967 through 1970—Lake Michigan was right there and we would engage in walking by the side of it. Sometimes, my friends of greater economic wealth would take me out on a boat, to go check out the space outside of the city. So that was the beginning of my love affair with these lakes. But I grew up in Mississippi, and I lived 28 miles from the Mississippi River growing up. So the whole thing with water in the Delta is that there aren’t a lot of rivers, but there are a lot of lakes, and so my notion of water has those sorts of definitions to it. So when did you realize that you wanted to translate these thoughts you were having about water into music, and into this suite? Well, on that airplane that you mentioned, I began to work. Once I get an idea, I like to begin to work on it immediately. And so on this plane, I took out some plain white paper and began jotting down some musical notes. I had just played with Henry Threadgill in Muhal’s orchestra and we had always been fascinated with one another, in terms of being musical partners. So I started with that piece “Lake Michigan” and “Lake Michigan” contains all of the compositional ideas, and the philosophical and psychological notions about The Great Lakes and this suite: it’s the longest piece, it’s got far more dynamical configurations than the others, and the structure of it is absolutely supreme . And I say that because when I listen to it, I’m fascinated by the amount of nuance of structure that emerges. But meanwhile, I’m on this plane, and I’m thinking about all of these things, and I begin to write my configurations without pitches, and not even trying to think about pitches at all. That flight from Austria to California is 13 hours, so I had about four or 5 hours where I just sank into myself and was able to feel the rapture of what these Great Lakes represent and the more I laid out a few figures, the more it occurred to me that these lakes could be the bread basket of the world. If you look, starting with Lake St. Clair, going all the way across, there are a lot of major lakes going through that zone between the Northern part of the US and Canada. There is no other place on the globe like it! If you spread the globe out, as they have done on these maps, and you take a look at it, one has to be completely fascinated and astonished by how many fresh water zones are in that area. And then when you look at the supreme lake, Lake Superior, if it flooded, it would cover North, Central, and South America in about 12 or 13 inches of water. How fascinating is that? So when you put that in your vision, and you realize that if you step out on the top of Canada and look at this water spread for two continents, you realize how amazing it is. So those kind of reflections went into making this a piece. Like I said, “Lake Michigan” was the first one that I began making notes on, and then I switched to “Lake Superior” and starting writing stuff…so whenever I’m going along, and whenever inspiration would bust upon me, I would move to the next piece and put notes down. So eventually, I’ve got these notes accumulating, and then I decided one day, that I would start with the first one and then go down through the rest and work. Working on them was a beautiful dream, because I did my research, and the iPad makes that so easy because you can type in any sort of field of research you want to, and find multiple pieces of information: scientific, biological, ecological, the whole gamut. Usually, when I wasn’t out traveling, at the end of my day, I would sit on the side of the bed, with my iPad, and spend an hour or an hour and a half just flipping through information about The Great Lakes. I don’t feel as though I can musically betray what I want to without doing the proper research. By that, I mean : I don’t see the Lakes suites as being programatic music, because it isn’t. What I see it being is psychological music, that I intended, and that through my emotional experience with that intent, I think conveyed. I feel as those, through music, I can psychologically touch at those pure forces and meanings behind these bodies of water. For example, the notion of flatness, the notion of eruption, etc. I actually saw a documentary about Lake Michigan, which is one of the reasons why I decided to begin with it. In this documentary, they show these huge stones can erupt in a second. Huge ships would sink as a consequence, because they used to have a lot of commercial traffic coming out of those lakes, coming out of Chicago and these others. A big storm would wipe out these huge ships—it’s a graveyard for large ships! And this a lake I’m talking about, not an ocean! From time to time, I still research Lake Michigan because I can’t get enough of it, it’s just so fascinating! Can we talk a bit about flatness? I believe at one point in the essay you wrote to accompany the record, that you described the lakes and the pieces as “restrained yet explosive”. You can feel that in pretty much all of the pieces, in the contrasts between the textural improvisations and the really explosive, visceral melodies, particularly on “Lake Huron”. Well, think about it like this: there are around 19 pages in the score, and about 25 pages in my notes. There is a lot of music there. So when you think about how you’re going to make this psychological move, which would pervade all the pieces, that was the way that I thought I would represent how I was feeling. Each work would be a suite and a suite gives you the opportunity of transferring information, but also the possibility of expressing something different about the same idea, or point of view. So you can look at this idea of flatness symbolically, as the score is kind of flat; you could look at it as the flatness of a lake, because if it doesn’t have any interruptions, the top of these lakes look very calm, but depending on the marine life and other things going on below, it’s a different story! I wanted to simultaneously capture the idea of flatness and explosiveness. To do that, one would have to think both about the flatness but also take into consideration everything that goes on beneath that flatness. When the storm comes up, that’s a whole different kind of reality, because this energy completely destroys that flatness! And when it’s all over, it comes back down just like nothing happened. It’s amazing, because nature can reveal things to us in such a flash, then in the next moment, it’s over! That notion is pervasive throughout all of the pieces, even though you have different ways of expressing it? Yes, because if you lay something down on the ground, and you get down and you have a nice look at it, you’ll see a whole other way of looking, especially if it’s grass where you see a whole bunch of different contours and textures that you hadn’t before. You also have an image of the whole from your different perspectives. Music is the same way: if you allow this reflection to become organic—that is, if a person can connect with the music, and the music has the quality to connect with them—then they can explore various angels from them. Also programming-wise, one can begin to program things in a different way: “Lake Superior” coming up, and maybe “Lake Eerie” coming up in a different context. And as time goes on, you’re allowed to have a different understanding of your work, and the sequencing and the patterns of it. Right, and you had written some of the music from Ten Freedom Summers 30 years before it was released! Yup, 30 years! And some of those pieces I had written without instrumentation, which added a whole different quality to it. Some of those pieces were re-conditioned in terms of orchestrations and things like that, but once the whole thing was put together, and the context of 38 years top to bottom of completeness, you end up with an organic work, which is older than it looks and younger than it could possibly be! It only becomes alive when it’s played. Well let’s talk about the band on The Great Lakes. When talking about Threadgill, maybe you can speak a bit about some early days of the AACM, when you were first getting to know him. Jack DeJohnette was in Chicago, too? Jack was in Chicago, but when I met him, he had already moved away and was already playing with Miles Davis, so I didn’t experience his presence until Miles Davis was playing in Chicago, and Jack came over and started hanging with Muhal. Muhal had called me earlier that morning and asked if I wanted to come over because Jack was going to come over and maybe we would play a little bit. And of course I was already in the car on the way! So Jack comes over, and there’s nobody else there besides Muhal, me and Jack and so we talked a bit and then we started playing. I believe that Jack taped it, because at that time people were using tapes. It was a really fantastic session, because it wasn’t that any of us played a theme or anything like that, we just played and it was fantastic. I discovered then, and for the first time in my life, that this guy was the kind of drummer that I wanted to play with. I could play naturally, intuitively, and it would mesh with anything. It was just perfect. And that trio of Muhal, Jack, and I is something that has never been explored, would’ve and could’ve been a fantastic idea, anytime, any place, in any century. I would love to do it in this century. Threadgill, when I first met him, I thought was a very shy man. He wore a scarf wrapped around his head, so I wasn’t sure whether he was into some special stuff or not [laughs]. He struck me as an extraordinary personality, but when he turned around smiled, it was like light busting out of a sun, which I thought was pretty cool. I introduced myself to him, and we talked, but later on in that time, we decided to put a group together—it was a very different group, which never recorded and which involved many different aspects of theater and dance within the context of the performance. So it wasn’t just a concert/performance band. We went to Europe together at one point, and this was in the early 1970s. He, Leonard Jones and I shared a place and we kind of worked sporadically from there. Musically speaking, we had done a recording session with Muhal before we went to Europe, where Threadgill and I were the lead horns. I had a good experience of his musicality and also his personality. He was one of the few guys in Chicago where we would go and hang out, have a cognac or something, during my days of decadence. Those days are gone so long that I don’t even know what these things smell like! I met John Lindberg when he was 18 or 19, something like that. He was astonishing then as a young player, and also someone who struck me as being very serious. We’ve grown to be close friends from that moment on! We started playing duets after that, in all sorts of situations, we started communicating with one another. He’s one of the greatest bass players that I’ve ever come across. Once Malachi died, there was no question in my mind of who was to become the next bass player of the Golden Quartet. The best description of any of these artists that I work with come in the form of these poems that I wrote for everybody to accompany the record. I tried to capture all of these people exactly, and what it is that they project when they make their music. I struggled for a long time to find the best way to describe Threadgill’s playing. He’s non-prose in his playing—he’s very poetic—so I came up with this term “saxophone sonata”, because that’s the pureness of how I hear, see, feel him when I’m making music with him. Right, you also described him as using “sonic crystals”. What I find so amazing about his playing, and yours too, is that both of you can say so much in just 2 bars. He has an incredible sense of space and improvisational patience. With his own bands he creates these universes, and he doesn’t have to play at all for you to feel him there. Yeah, that’s right, he doesn’t play much in his own bands. It’s amazing! And it’s the same as you described DeJohnette as producing, “majestic rhythmic fields”. So I was wondering how you were thinking about space, when writing these suites, and with these musicians in mind. Well I didn’t have to consider any of that, and the reason for that was because I wrote the music specifically for these players, and I had them and their sounds in mind. So I told you there were 19 pages of music right? John, Henry and I rehearsed for an hour and a half only and all we did was check out if the notes were correct on the instruments, and that we could comprehend the forms. Jack didn’t rehearse. An hour and a half! From there, we went out, had some food and talked a long time. In the studio we looked at that music, tried to figure out if there were going to be any complications on cues or anything like that, and then we decided to just do a take. All that music was made in one take, and only “Lake St. Clair” was done with two takes and there was some technical reason for that. When I say one-take, I mean that I have a high-productivity, low-risk method of recording. And I get the maximum amount from the artists because of this. I record section-by-section. And then, in that same section, the engineer puts them together so that we can listen to them. We spent four and a half hours making 90 minutes of music—had lunch and a photo session, all in that four hours! People don’t believe me when I tell them that, but it’s true! With Ten Freedom Summers, Golden Quartet recorded 13 pieces, between 9 o’clock in the morning to 1 at night. And the last piece that was recorded was “Rosa Parks” and that piece is a gem! I don’t understand how they did it. How did they manage to get such a magnificent performance after working so many hours straight?...read more
(Tim Berne, Protestant minister; photo Ben Gerstein) by Samuel Weinberg Since this blog’s inception, I have made no secret about my adoration for the music of Tim Berne. In the past year, I have interviewed Berne twice (first & second), and have written about a number of his gigs, and those of his close collaborators. It should then come as no surprise that I’m beyond excited to speak a bit about his forthcoming week at The Stone, which runs from October 7th through the 12th, and is ostensibly a celebration of his 60th birthday. Throughout this week, Berne will present his working band, Snakeoil (pianist Matt Mitchell, clarinetist Oscar Noriega, drummer Ches Smith with the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira) for three nights—6 sets, between the 7th and the 9th—as well as some burgeoning projects: both sets on Friday will showcase Ice Station Zebra (with Matt Mitchell, David Torn, Tyshawn Sorey and Ches Smith), and on Saturday & Sunday, Berne will play the first sets with Decay (Ryan Ferreira, Michael Formanek, Ches Smith) & the second with Cornered (Snakeoil plus Ryan Ferreira and Michael Formanek). When the idea about writing this piece first came to me, I thought that I would enumerate some reasons why one should attend Berne’s week at The Stone, and those reasons are many and varied. But given my lack of adequate journalese, or linguistic facility, I began to think that it’s perhaps more proper to state simply that Tim Berne’s music has truly and deeply changed me and that spending as much time with his music as I have, has really challenged my thoughts about the nature of both composition and improvisation. While there’s a pervasive sentiment from journalists and others I’ve spoken with that Berne’s music is “complex” —spoken of either pejoratively or glowingly— this should not give one reason to either be averse to his music, nor to blindly praise it. All I can say to the reader is this: spend some time with his records and inhabit the universe that his wholly unique compositions create. And do yourself the favor of making it out to at least one set this week to experience this music yourself if you haven’t already. I will leave a few representative samples of these groups below: (particularly the vamp in the last 2 minutes of this one!)...read more