Words After Music: Stories from the Archive
On May 19, 2015, NewMusicBox hosted its first live event which featured performances and stories as told by three incredibly compelling and diverse music makers: Gabriel Kahane, Matana Roberts, and Joan Tower. The evening was filled with laughter and poignant reflections, and throughout the month of August we will be posting each of the 20-minutes sets for you to enjoy.
In addition, we took the opportunity to dig through the NewMusicBox archives and reflect a bit on the phenomenal stories composers and performers have told us over the years. Since May 1999 when the site first launched, we have profiled hundreds of artists, presenting in-depth conversations with them through text and video and showcasing their music. In the early years, fans used to frequently ask if we hoped one day to be successful enough to have a print version, but this never made much sense to us. It is a magazine about music, after all. That readers are able to hear the work we cover for themselves is one of its greatest features, not a flaw.
And so for sixteen years we’ve carted our recording equipment all around the country and—even though we joke about how these interviews always seem to take place on the hottest or coldest day of the year, in a 6th floor walk up, or on the exact day the next-door neighbor decides to start a complete apartment renovation with a jackhammer—the fact is that the invitation we have been given to step into artists’ homes, their lives and their work, can’t be beat.
Since the beginning, it’s been very important to us that NewMusicBox let’s music makers speak for themselves, and they have told us some unforgettable anecdotes. We’ve loved being able to share those experiences with you online. Here are a few highlights.
Data-Driven DJ Brian Foo: Statistics That Sing
For his initial outing, Foo used census data to chart the rise and fall of median income levels along a subway line in New York City. He also selected samples from the work of resident musicians. He then wrote a computer program that combined those two elements to produce his final (after many iterations—more on that in a bit) sonic representation of the information. It sounds like this:
“You’re never really told how to feel when you look at a chart, even though it may have to do with something that is very human like income inequality or climate change,” Foo explains. “It ends up being just information that you don’t really internalize or contemplate. So I wanted to figure out how to take something like a chart but curate an experience in which you’d feel a certain way while listening to the song.”
He also wants to take advantage of another aspect of music: its ability to grab your ears and not let go. “You don’t really think about a chart all day after you see it, but with music, it kind of repeats. So if I could embed information into the music, then those topics and issues would circulate in somebody’s head.”
So far he has applied his data-driven approach to music making to an engagingly diverse selection of topics: seizures, smog, romantic attraction. For one track, he developed a complex methodology to analyze the relationship between painters Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock through samples of their work. The next month, he was tracing the movement of refugees over the course of four decades. Despite his desire to curate an experience for his listeners, his subject matter has also forced him to confront some interesting questions about the relationships between sound and emotional manipulation: Should the music sound “better” when passing through rich neighborhoods in his presentation of income? Should the sounds be uncomfortable during the active period of seizure? Where is the line between representation and judgment?
Foo says he’s had the most aesthetic luck with data that follows a curve, thereby supporting a climax and resolution within the track. His process also involves a certain element of ongoing surprise as he combines sounds and iterates the track over and over (and over) again until its parameters have been tweaked to the point that it meets his sonic desires. But he won’t artificially manipulate the results to improve only a certain section, requiring instead that the full track must remain true to the data from start to finish. Yet tweaking at the level of the algorithm changes the entire song, so it can be a frustrating process of trial and error to land on the final result. “I’m like a mad scientist just trying to mix different things together until something happens,” Foo admits. “So it’s almost a brute force process where I just iterate hundreds, if not thousands of times, until it sounds good.”
If you’re curious at this point precisely how these data sets end up being represented by sound, well, the details are only a click away. Core to Foo’s project is complete transparency when it comes to process. His tools and methods are meticulously logged on the project website for each individual piece, and if visitors find a way to expand, modify, or improve on his process he hopes to hear from them. This fits comfortably with Foo’s larger philosophical tenets concerning making art more accessible and inter-personal. He even offers fans the option to pre-order the eventual album by trading sounds with him or promoting the project in lieu of cash payment.
Foo suspects that he invests one to four hours every day into making each month’s track, and, contrary to expectation, his working process is actually lengthening—likely attributable to the increasing complexity of each sonic experiment as he acquires new skills and experience.
And that is his preferred way of learning, he concedes. “I try to not learn correctly. I basically try to avoid learning the right way for the longest period of time as I can because I think there’s this unique point in time when you’re learning that you don’t really know what the limitations are. When you don’t know the right way of doing things yet, you don’t really know where the ceiling is, and I wanted to see how far I could get just with the things that I already knew.”
Charlie Morrow: Wearing Different Hats
April 17, 2015—1:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography (unless otherwise stated)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
The variety of activities that Charlie Morrow has been involved in for more than half a century is staggering even by today’s standards, when the wearing of numerous hats is almost a pre-requisite for being successful as a composer. The almost always Bowler hat-clad Morrow was writing conceptual pieces that predicted Fluxus as a high school student in the 1950s, twelve-tone scores under the tutelage of Stefan Wolpe at Mannes in the 1960s. He went on to develop alternative performance spaces, environmental music (including a widely publicized concert involving performances with fish), and music for multiples of the same instrument in the 1970s. While immersing himself in all those activities, he built one of the first private electronic music studios and wrote hit arrangements for Simon and Garfunkel, as well as The Rascals and Vanilla Fudge. He also penned some of the most earworm-inducing commercial jingles which promoted everything from Diet Coke and Hefty garbage bags to special express subway service to JFK airport.
Although I had never had a lengthy conversation with Morrow until we met up with him for this NewMusicBox presentation, he was a major role model for the choices I have made in my own life: he was a Columbia grad who, during his time there, immersed himself in world music; a musical creator who was never beholden to any particular musical genre or the limitations that adherence to any genre demands; for many years he was also the publisher of EAR Magazine, a seminal publication for new music which was one of the main inspirations for NewMusicBox. So I had tons of questions I wanted to ask him. Some of his answers led in directions I didn’t anticipate. For example, when I asked him about his earliest musical experiences, he actually spoke about events from the first year of his life and even shared a memory he had of being born.
“I always wanted to remember my birth,” Morrow explained. “I spent a number of years working back towards it. Using milestones of memory, you can find your way back to things that are lost in your memory by locating things; you can be very certain. … I remember that the physician who delivered me stank; at least he smelled bad to me as a living creature who had never smelled anything outside of amniotic fluid before. Then I remembered feeling crushed and totally thrashed in the birthing process. Then I remembered floating and hearing voices outside of my mother and having the sense of the world beyond the place where I was as my consciousness evolved.”
When we talked about his 1967 Marilyn Monroe Collage, which he created at the invitation of Andy Warhol to accompany an exhibition of Warhol’s legendary iterative Monroe silkscreens, I thought it would lead to a discussion of his gorgeous Wave Music pieces, which are scored for multiples of the same instrument—a process that seems aurally analogous to filling up a wall with iterations of the same visual image. Instead, he said, his impetus came from attempting to perform concerts with toadfish!
“I had decoded the language of toadfish and did a fish concert,” said Morrow. “In the course of doing that, I would get my audiences to make the sounds and then I decided that I would do a herd of the same instruments. It all grew from having heard the fish … as groups of individuals all signaling and communicating with each other. … Every living creature has evolved being able to receive vibrations from all of their vibratory receptors in a certain bandwidth and a certain sensitivity level and then a certain selectivity level. … We’re in two different parallel universes with different band widths, different perception and reception. But if you do get a message back—it seemed that we were able to understand in both field frogs and toadfish a kind of communication.”
As luck would have it, the fish concert took place right after Richard Nixon resigned from the United States presidency, and it became an international news story since it was a quirky distraction from current events.
“It was a total accident,” Morrow acknowledged. “He resigned the night before. He didn’t send anyone an invitation about his resignation. I mean, it wasn’t like ‘a month from now, would you all like to watch me resign?’ You know what I mean? What had happened was at that time, as part of my jingle business, I discovered PR. There was a guy named Morty Wax, who was my press agent at that time and who was very clever. … Since he was a respected press agent, everybody knew that it was going to happen. And on that morning, it became a world press event because everybody needed some distraction from the horrors of politics. … I heard reports of it from all over the world: Nixon resigned last night and this morning a group of artists in New York gave a concert for fish. It was that kind of ironic spin.”
Although Charlie Morrow is the quintessential DIY composer, he often thinks big—extremely big. Over the past decade, he has developed a revolutionary three-dimensional soundscape design, and his recent projects have included everything from a 72-speaker immersive environment as part of Nokia World in Barcelona to a permanent sound installation at the new display of the Magna Carta at Lincoln Castle in England. For next year’s summer solstice, June 21, 2016, he is mounting an unprecedented 24-hour concert that will take place in 24 different time zones.
“A mass performance should be either a totally composed piece like the Monkey Chant or Berlioz’s Requiem or something that’s created by the people who are doing it,” Morrow opined. “I’m sort of in the middle, but I think the pieces themselves have to achieve an audience. … My job has been to keep people surprised and interested as a sound maker. Whatever I turn my attention to, the idea is to bring something to it that makes it worthy of attention and, at the same time, to find some balance where it doesn’t burn itself out from multiple hearings.”
Charlie Morrow: Well, I’ve always been interested in the music of the world because I’ve been interested in radio. I’m a radio amateur. I started out by being a short wave buff; I would listen on many frequencies to sounds from all over the world. I came quickly to understand that there was a wide variety of music that was—I would say—misunderstood, or marginalized, or made other than mainstream by— at the time—the prejudices that divide anthropology from sociology. It was almost as if there was a racist component to it. If you weren’t white and from Western Europe, or amongst the elite of Asia, that what you did was somehow on a second category.
This impulse has been running through all of my work. A large part of it is because some of the more excellent things that music’s about are actually part of world music and older cultures, and it has been lost by the commodification, commercialization, and conversion to listener-directed product making. I come out of signaling—bugling, music for the time of day and for the location that you’re in, the idea of it being involved in some social structure like the Boy Scouts, the military, or the church calendar. I come from a multi-cultural city, Passaic, New Jersey. We had representatives of practically every religion and many, many countries there. So there was a sense, just walking through Passaic, of a wide variety of people. There were many small communities—Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, many flavors of Judaism, small synagogues the size of this room. But the one thing that characterized most of these groups, I found later on, was the incredible insularity of “we’re right and everybody else is wrong,” which is what I think created an atmosphere, when there finally was a kind of elite majority that controlled the pantheon of Western arts, that they said, “Well, this is ours.” And there were basically too few of everybody else holding onto their own traditions.
That’s a long introduction to the fact that I studied principally with Willard Rhodes at Columbia, because he was my ethnomusicology teacher, and then I met Colin Turnbull informally through the Museum of Natural History. I met him and I would go through the storeroom. Our discussions were based on the functionality of music. Functionality is a huge issue with me. Not just signaling, but ceremonial aspects and particularly the power of materials. A lot of my early writings concerned how, for example, something living has to die in order to become a musical instrument.
It’s a big theme that runs through my work. The relationship of death and life in Western music and, in particular, instruments—that’s what was so fantastic. You know, people play elephant tusk horns, Tibetan thigh horns, and I’m a horn-trumpet-wind person. The idea of blowing the breath of a living person through part of something dead was a connection to a larger world, rather than something morbid for me. I think this is what brought Colin Turnbull and I to our relationship because he felt very much the same. He saw magic everywhere. And he also saw clearly the way people treated each other. I think that he, in his own life—particularly in choosing a male pygmy as his husband—was putting himself on the line. He was a high-risk guy.
FJO: It’s fascinating to hear you say that as a teenager you already had the idea of infusing the past into the present and that it’s been a running theme in all of your creative and theoretical work ever since then.
CM: Yeah, actually it was earlier. I think it came from one particular question which I had had until I answered it, which was that I always wanted to remember my birth, and remember before I was born. I spent a number of years working back towards it. Using milestones of memory, you can find your way back to things that are lost in your memory by locating things; you can be very certain. And I finally went back and was able to remember my own birth. I remember that the physician who delivered me stank; at least he smelled bad to me as a living creature who had never smelled anything outside of amniotic fluid before. Then I remembered feeling crushed and totally thrashed in the birthing process. Then I remembered floating and hearing voices outside of my mother and having the sense of the world beyond the place where I was as my consciousness evolved, so going backwards into that process led inextricably to an explanation of why I thought this way.
FJO: This is amazing! Usually we begin these discussions at the beginning, but we’ve never talked to anyone about the very beginning.
CM: My beginning, anyway.
FJO: So, alright, since you went all the way back there, I’m going to try to go back there with you. Do you remember the first time you heard something that was described as music?
CM: Yes, I do. I remember that my parents had a record. I must have been about three-years old, and they said, in playing the record, that this was music. I remember hearing a recording of Stravinsky, a narrated record about music, and then they said there’s some new and wild things like Stravinsky. And it went on from there. I had limited experience of music making outside of our house. But actually, my first real experience of the power of music was much, much earlier when I was about a year old. I was born in ’42, and my father and mother both were psychiatrists. My dad wanted to practice psychiatry in the military. He had volunteered for the Navy, but he was too short by some tiny amount. So he wound up in the Army. They put him into an army psychiatric hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. And my mom and I took a long train trip down to visit. It must have been the summer after I was born. There was a military parade for the officers. I remember how I could not keep the sound of the drums outside of me. It seemed to penetrate my body. I had never experienced anything that loud or that close. That became the earliest experience for me of music, just that very, very intense military drumming.
FJO: What’s so interesting about that is that one of the instruments you would have heard in that military parade—trumpet—became your first instrument, and also that you wound up doing so many outdoor, environmental pieces. So the seeds of those later developments go all the way back to this initial musical encounter.
CM: I think you’re right. It also came from the intense liberation that I felt as a bugler in the Boy Scouts. The experience of blowing “Reveille” or “Taps” from a hanging metal cone megaphone, and blowing it in three different directions—I think that that completely convinced me of where I was going. It sounded so different in each direction. Having three shots at playing it, having learned and heard the first and then the second, and the third, was an iterative experience that made me well aware of what environments are about.
FJO: That also ties into your whole development of the 3D sound cube and directionality much later on.
CM: You’re absolutely right, because what I wanted to achieve with the 3D sound cube was a natural feeling that you could locate where sound came from. Because it makes you nervous if you can’t, because your life is threatened on a very primordial level if you don’t know where sound is and what’s making it. It could get you, or you might not get it if you needed to eat it or any number of things that are defined by instantly resolving where something is, and instantly making a judgment about what it’s about. You know, is it threatening? Is it appetizing? Is it intriguing?
FJO: In that sense, sound is very different from visual information because we’re trained to sense perspective, which enables us to know how far away something is just by seeing where it is. Sound, on the other hand, we perceive as a non-corporeal, disembodied thing. But of course it is physical, too, but it’s not something we can necessarily see.
CM: Also our eyes are frontal, but our ears—divided left and right—resolve sound in a full spherical environment. Your eye is not trying to invent anything for the portion that it doesn’t see, unless you stick it in an oculus or another kind of enhanced, immersive experience. But your ear does that all the time; your ear is resolving x, y, z, w, and t at least—w is where the observer is, t is over time.
FJO: Before we get too theoretical, I want to head back to Columbia. There’s another person whom you studied with there at that time who is one of my heroes because of his incredible open-mindedness—Otto Luening. So I’m curious to learn more about your relationship with him and what his influence was on you.
CM: Well, I had a class in music history with him, which was quite nice because he was able to speak very personally about the materials in music. I think that his most fascinating teaching was the multi-level interpretation of everything. You don’t just hear the music or see it in one way; he always explained what it was for, who did it, and what the environment was at the time. He was also interested in the gestural aspect of the music. And he had a great sense of humor. I remember once he was talking about one of the Scarlattis, about the tight little playing of very delicate and carefully honed keyboard music. And he said, “They did that ‘cause in those days you couldn’t go like this: bang-bang-bang-bang.” He always had little side trips like that. He was constantly riffing on what he taught, which created open doors because he took everything he said with a big grain of salt.
FJO: Did you have any involvement with the electronic music studio that he was developing?
CM: I didn’t work in it, but I became very familiar with it. Being a techie, I was fascinated and I met a number of the people who worked there. I knew Bülent Arel and some of the South American guys who were working there, and I continued to have a connection to the studio. I maintained a steady relationship with Charles Dodge. I stayed connected because they were proactive in creating a world of their own. Early sound studios were very particularly made to the interest of their creators. I had one of the first privately-owned sound studios in New York. When I moved to 365 West End Avenue, we built a studio there and I had a team of people working with me. Our studio was totally different from what Columbia was about; it was concerned with programmability, repeatability, and the accuracy of a lot of the work. All of those issues distinguish what I’ve eventually done with 3D immersive sound from what the entire industry is doing with it.
In a way, Columbia’s studio set me off on a path of being a staunch independent, doing more gesturally-based things, working with cheaper equipment, working with approaches that were more connected to the natural world. I always wanted to get closer to electrons as part of nature; my field at Columbia was chemistry. Chemistry’s an extraordinary embodiment of metaphysics.
FJO: So you weren’t a music major?
CM: No, I was a pre-med student.
FJO: So you were trying to follow in the footsteps of your parents?
FJO: Interesting. I didn’t realize that. So you studied music history with Luening, not composition?
CM: Yes, but I had studied composition. My first composition teacher was a guy named Carlo Lombardi, when I was in Newark Academy. Carlo was a student of Dallapiccola, so I got a really interesting education right away—a really Italian take on Viennese 12-note music. Carlo was also a very good keyboard player; he could play anything I could write, so I suddenly started to have good performances of what I was doing. And he encouraged me to go to Interlochen where I was in high school composition and orchestration classes. I worked with a number of teachers there and things got played. What really took my career along was the idea of having the work played, because I’d written for years before that but I didn’t have anybody to play it, except if I wrote it for trumpet, which was my instrument.
FJO: But what interests me is that already, before you went to college, as a high school student, you were writing conceptually based pieces. And this was music that was 180 degrees away from 12-tone music. You were writing downtown music in high school back before the words uptown and downtown took on polemic meanings.
CM: Yes, I was. I did a slow Gabrieli piece.
FJO: That piece [Very Slow Gabrieli] actually reminds me of the music of a younger composer, Jacob Cooper, who—nearly 60 years after you wrote that piece—has created a whole body of fascinating repertoire based on slowing down older music.
CM: Interesting. It’s nice to know that the door, once it was opened, is happening. But my favorite [among my early pieces] is the surprise music where at a pre-arranged time, when an orchestra’s playing, everyone stops and squirms and belches and makes funny little noises, unknown to the conductor. It’s a guerilla event in the middle of an orchestra performance and it really worked out well.
FJO: That’s a very Fluxus idea, but this is pre-Fluxus.
CM: It is. We’re talking the 1950s.
FJO: But it makes me wonder. I went to Columbia in the ‘80s, which was at the tail end of what some people perceived as the period of 12-tone hegemony in many academic institutions. It was a time when many folks still didn’t really look too kindly on alternative compositional approaches. So I could only imagine what the reaction was there to the wilder side of your music at that earlier time.
CM: Well, basically I divorced myself from the non-ethnomusicological part of Columbia. I played with Philip Corner, James Tenney, and Malcolm Goldstein and was part of the Tone Roads concert series. I guess we had our own world. I met Cage through them, and it was like finding my people.
FJO: Yet in the middle of all that, you wound up going to Mannes and studying with Stefan Wolpe, a fascinating composer who was at the other end of the aesthetic spectrum.
CM: I was bouncing back and forth. I have works in different styles from that time. I guess what I was discovering was that I could work in a number of styles. It’s how I wound up in the jingle and film scoring business. I could work authentically and non-imitatively in other styles, and that became interesting for me. Having done that for a while as the business became more codified and referential, that stopped being fun. It was fun as long as the door was open. When I first went into that world, I went into it as a combination composer and sound designer, because those were two separate things: two people that got a job. I could get a job, and they could pay me once, instead of paying two people. But once the ’80s came, I began to look for something else to do with myself because it had become pretty much like Columbia and 12-note music. The commercial music scene had become formulaic.
FJO: But we’re jumping ahead here. You weren’t doing commercial jingles when you were studying with Wolpe at Mannes.
CM: No, that hadn’t happened yet. That happened after I did a piece for tenor and orchestra that won a prize and brought me out to San Francisco. When I came back to New York, I had imagined that since I’d met Leonard Bernstein and had suddenly been introduced to the mainstream world that I’d get phone calls and letters and requests for commissions. It was a wild fantasy. It never happened. I think at that point, I wrote an essay called “View from the Bottom of the Heap” which was published in 1966 in the American Music Center’s newsletter. John Duffy encouraged me to put my ideas out there about being an independent composer and earning a living from it. So it was at that time that I began to part company with the concert hall. I did a protest concert called “For the Two Charlies,” with Ives’s music and my own, and that was the end of my life in the concert hall. I just devoted myself to music outside the concert hall.
FJO: At the time you complained about the constricting of sound in the concert hall, that it’s a very artificial idea to create a blank slate for music to fill up, since in every other environment outside of a concert hall music co-exists with many other sounds. So the concert hall environment artificializes the listening experience.
CM: It’s true. Later on, as an outdoor event-maker turned soundscaper, I began to realize the concert hall was just one of many possible environments. When I started to build things in 3D, the idea was that you make a location and then you populate it with sounds and sound scenery. But first you make an environment. Every place is an environment. I think it was a conceit on my part to see the concert hall as being too quiet for what I had in mind.
FJO: So how did you make the transition from writing for tenor and orchestra to creating music for experiences that were outside the concert hall? Building your own studio and production company takes money and time. And to be successful at it also requires connections. I know one of your classmates at Columbia was Art Garfunkel.
CM: Right. I also met people who had studios. I learned how the studio world worked. At the same time, I had a bit of interesting input from my mother who was a psychiatrist and introduced me to a fellow named Andy Mashberg, whom she’d met at a medical convention. After I came back to New York and actually saw Leonard Bernstein sitting at the Bavarian Inn at the next table from me, I met Andy Mashberg whom my mother had talked to. Andy had said to my mother, “I know how he can survive without teaching.” He met me and he said, “You can be a writer of jingles and corporate music and film scores. This is what you have to do.” And he talked me through it. He gave me a list of people. He told me how to make a demo reel. So I was basically walked right to the door of work. And fortunately, within a half a year, I started to have some good opportunities. I did a kind of humorous Cinzano radio commercial. “Please, don’t pinch Cinzano ashtrays. Try Cinzano vermouth instead. Cinzano vermouth is better than ashtrays. Get it into your American head.” These were the lyrics of a mad man named David Altschuler. We became lifelong friends. And fortunately he had work for me. My career has been meeting people who thought that what I did could be useful for what they did. So in terms of being a producer, I quickly learned to do what was needed by people who liked me and thought I could do it.
FJO: So you were already doing commercial work when you started doing production on pop records in the late ‘60s?
CM: No, the other way around. What happened was my then-wife didn’t like me up all night and away, you know, because in the daytime I was also trying to find work and it was stretching our relationship. So what I’d learned from the pop music world was that I wanted to work in the daytime if I was going to keep a home together. So that’s what happened. I more or less started out by getting into the commercial studios through the pop music connection, but then making connections into the advertising world. I already knew good performers from all the worlds that I was in. And that was from a long history of being a producer as well. I had helped Charlotte Moorman produce an avant-garde festival and I had worked in Norman Seaman’s office, who was a promoter—all of this with my mother behind the scenes trying to figure out how I might survive doing what I wanted to do. She was a great admirer of [Sol] Hurok, and she said, “Look at that guy. He finds the talent, he finds the venue, he finds a sponsor, he spends other people’s money, and he makes money for himself.” She was constantly encouraging me to figure out what was on the table and how to move it around.
FJO: So she never tried to get you to go back to med school?
CM: No. My father did, but not my mother. When I was 38, my father, having seen a concert of mine at MoMA, said, “Haven’t you had enough fun now?” I was trying to figure out what he meant. At the time, I was making a very good living, so it couldn’t have been about money. I think he was embarrassed by my eccentricity.
FJO: So getting into the pop world was through Garfunkel?
CM: Yeah, it happened through Garfunkel. And then I had a business partner named Barry Minsky and through him I wound up doing an orchestra piece for The Young Rascals. Then I met other people. Through Atlantic Records, I wound up working for Vanilla Fudge. Then it went kind of back and forth. Studios would put together teams, and so I wound up doing arrangements on various records; the Record Plant studio became a kind of home for me. It evolved from A & R studios where Simon and Garfunkel had recorded originally. I think it was a Columbia studio on lease, or they bought time at A & R. But from A & R, it led to the Record Plant. And everybody hung out there. It was kind of the club house for all different kinds of music production for the pop scene.
FJO: In terms of its production, Simon and Garfunkel’s record Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme was radical at that time; it was the first eight-track record. Considering your ideas about the directionality of sound, which an eight-track recording would have emulated much better than any previous technology, did you have something to do with that?
CM: I created hit charts for them. I talked to Paul Simon about the sounds, using a Renaissance keyboard instrument. None of them read music; it was all about sharing ideas. So I had something to do with it, yes. But I didn’t write a note.
FJO: But did you have anything to do with the multi-tracking? It was a vital step toward the way most pop music recordings were subsequently made. Nowadays, with digital studios, you can theoretically record an infinite number of different tracks and then mix them together however you want to during post-production. But before that album, most recordings were one-track or two-tracks as stereo came in. Then George Martin made the first four-track recordings of The Beatles in 1963. But Simon and Garfunkel beat even The Beatles to eight-track, and from thereon in there was no turning back.
CM: Well, I think it came from the engineering side; that wasn’t my idea. I was just a hired hand. I would come in and do the sessions, or talk on the phone before. For the real artisanal work that was done in the studio, there was as engineer involved. I think his name was Stan Tonkel. He was extremely far thinking. Of course, Columbia Records themselves bought a lot of multi-track machines. They had the money. Commercials lent themselves to multi-track machines also because you wanted to be covered for different versions and be able to do very polished work based on a lot of fragments. Directionality was not such an issue. It was more about layers. Layering is still very important in the work that I do, as you’ll see in the software that I’ll show you later. We layer in 3D. We can create as many layers as we like in order to be able to create a world of sound, and that is similar to what an eight-track machine has to offer.
FJO: One of the reasons I thought there might have been a connection here was that you used multi-tracking in the multi-layered Marilyn Monroe piece you did around that time [Marilyn Monroe Collage].
CM: Well, actually, I had to do that piece as a series. I remember, I had a classmate, Mike Shapiro from Columbia, and Shapiro had gone to work for a sound library. They had an excellent mono studio. I think we did the Marilyn Monroe piece by creating all of the elements and rolling them in on two-track machines, doing them as very careful sound on sound. So that was because I had a guy who was really good at being my hands and he engineered the whole thing for me. It was such a juggle.
FJO: It certainly doesn’t sound like it’s just two tracks.
CM: No, it doesn’t. But I think that might have been just prior to eight-track recording. I knew about four-track recording.
FJO: That piece opens up doors to all kinds of things, like taking found sounds and using them as sonic objects for your own ends, which is a very post-modern idea and something you’re still doing now with your recent re-compositions. It’s an idea that has a lot of currency right now—sampling something and turning it into a new creation by remixing it and making it your own. Everything in your Marilyn Monroe piece came from something she actually said that was recorded, but you turned it into something that she never said.
CM: That’s right.
FJO: Also since she was so iconic, and was someone that everyone could immediately identify, there was something very populist about your piece, even though it was experimental conceptual music.
CM: It’s true. It had grown out of an invitation by Andy Warhol to create a piece for his Marilyn Monroe show at a gallery on 57th Street. My motivation for it was actually seeing everything and, in terms of ceremony, thinking of the artist as a sacrificial lamb. And I thought, coming back always with this death image, that I was taking Marilyn Monroe and reviving her for my own benefits. She was a beautiful vehicle for the thoughts I had about her, which concerned, in my way, the exploitation that show business does.
FJO: Another interesting aspect about what you did with Marilyn Monroe, which makes more sense now that you’ve referenced an exhibition of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe silkscreens, is that you’ve taken something very popular and turned it into something much more rarified and abstract, just as Warhol did by silkscreening those images of her. Her image became just a form in which to explore a process, just as he had done earlier by painting sequences of Campbell’s soup cans or Brillo boxes. Which connects to another thing you have done as a composer—all the stuff you’ve composed for multiples of the same instrument. Having 30 harps or 40 cellos, all the same sonority, is the sonic equivalent of a whole room filled with the same visual image.
CM: That’s a very interesting reading. I was on a panel about animal communication. I had decoded the language of toadfish and did a fish concert and had before that done a lot of field work with peepers where I could get into dialogue with them. In the course of doing that, I would get my audiences to make the sounds and then I decided that I would do a herd of the same instruments. It all grew from having heard the fish and the peepers as groups of individuals all signaling and communicating with each other.
But then you remind me that when I first went to Mannes School of Music, I met a guy from the neighborhood whose mother had an empty flat. He said, “You’ve got to come over here. My mom let this crazy art director from advertising do a show in one of her empty flats. It’s a block away. Come with me, Charlie.” I walked in and there was Andy Warhol, and it was his first show. And the walls were exactly as you say. And I remember thinking about the simultaneity of duplicates at the time. But until our conversation it had not surfaced that this is a piece of that, because I’d always seen it through the herds and other multiple images from nature, rather than from the manipulation of the artist.
FJO: That fish concert happened during the period between Richard Nixon’s resignation and Gerald Ford being sworn in as president. Was that some sort of an artistic statement?
CM: It was a total accident. He resigned the night before. He didn’t send anyone an invitation about his resignation. I mean, it wasn’t like “a month from now, would you all like to watch me resign?” You know what I mean? What had happened was at that time, as part of my jingle business, I discovered PR. There was a guy named Morty Wax, who was my press agent at that time and who was very clever. Morty himself was the one who said, “You’re working with all these sounds. Why don’t you do a concert for fish?” And I said, “What a great idea, Morty. We’ll do it.” At the time, I had been working for large industrial, multi-media projects with a guy named John Doswell. Doswell just died a month ago, but he’s been significant in my life because he was very active in the harbor life here. And he arranged tugboat races and so forth later, but Doswell said, “Come on out. Let’s do it from my boat.” So I suddenly had a boat, and I knew the technology, and so Morty Wax’s suggestion turned into reality. And since he was a respected press agent, everybody knew that it was going to happen. And on that morning, it became a world press event because everybody needed some distraction from the horrors of politics.
FJO: Although I would imagine in terms of it being a world press event, it was overshadowed by Nixon’s resignation.
CM: Of course.
FJO: So that’s the bad part of it happening the same day.
CM: But it was mentioned worldwide. I heard reports of it from all over the world: Nixon resigned last night and this morning a group of artists in New York gave a concert for fish. It was that kind of ironic spin.
FJO: At that point, you had already done stuff with birds, the Central Park pieces.
CM: Well, I had done the solstice events. Let’s see; let me put it together: ’74 was when Nixon resigned and we did the fish concert. I had already started The New Wilderness Foundation and the New Wilderness Band. We had already been doing solstice events, and we were communicating with birds in those events.
FJO: So in terms of how that works, you say communicating with birds or with fish. I’d like to unpack this a bit.
FJO: We’re hearing their sounds, but do you have any sense of what they’re hearing from us? Is there really a two-way aspect to this or is it all just our interpretation of what this is?
CM: Well, I would say that it’s both. First of all, I believe in the bandwidth of perception. Every essay in the book I’m working on has to do with the fact that every creature hears and sees vibrations on different wavelengths. Every living creature has evolved being able to receive vibrations from all of their vibratory receptors in a certain bandwidth and a certain sensitivity level and then a certain selectivity level. It’s absolutely true, for example, that a horse and a human might be riding and spending days together, but they’re not getting the same world because their ears are in different positions and the evolution of our sensory systems are different. So going then beyond a fellow warm blooded animal to reptiles, talking to each other through a black hole, so to speak, we’re in two different parallel universes with different band widths, different perception and reception. But if you do get a message back—it seemed that we were able to understand in both field frogs and toadfish a kind of communication. They basically both have a simple language and it was the complexity of such a simple language that turned my interest.
Toadfish make a sound [demonstrates] and they tend to have a lead toadfish that’s making a sound and the others want to reply. So groups follow the leader. And then that toadfish, once he’s got a group, starts to increase the tempo, jumping the beat, and the group follows until another starts over here at a much slower tempo. This goes on every day. That’s an auditory transactional state that those folks are in, or those critters. So if you make those sounds, and they answer you, they play; if you can play in that band, you’re there, at least for the part that you hear and the part that they hear.
CM: My job has been to keep people surprised and interested as a sound maker. Whatever I turn my attention to, the idea is to bring something to it that makes it worthy of attention and, at the same time, to find some balance where it doesn’t burn itself out from multiple hearings. Soundscapes are like that. We build soundscapes that people will hear for a permanent installation. There is this balance that has to be achieved between every element in relation to the other elements.
That’s something you learn from orchestration. This is just a contemporary equivalent of orchestration. Whether it’s a trumpet orchestra in West Africa, or a Western orchestra, or an opera. It functions transactionally. Everybody’s got to have a role in it and have a good time somehow. Like in a good gamelan piece, the social fabric is illuminated when all the pieces come together and the music ticks. A trick with being in the jingle world was always to find that balance. However, I don’t think it’s possible in the same way now. I have a job right now, which shall go nameless. The environmental pieces of it were created and were fine with the client. But all the tiny sound effects that were in it they wanted copied exactly from today’s latest high-tech, game-oriented feature films.
I had an argument with people who were half my age—actually in this room—in which I said to them, “I think that you’re making a terrible mistake. I think that just simply copying that without a reason other than that you think people will identify with that is basically to burn them out faster. What you’re doing will be trivialized faster in my experience.” At which point, I put somebody else from our team on the job. And a note came back. “It’s a problem working with Charlie; we have to listen to philosophy.” From my point of view, I’d given them sound economic advice, and from their point of view, I was wasting their time because they were in a hurry to do something they thought was right. It kind of epitomized what has happened at all stages of my career.
At one point I was asked by an agency guy to write a Pan Am commercial. He said, “Would you make me a commercial? I want you to do this with an original flair. It shouldn’t sound like anything that anyone’s heard before.” I said, “Do you really mean that? He said, “I do.” I said, “Well, it’s opportunities like this that I live for.” And so I wrote two pieces, for the same ensemble. We read through the first one, and the guy came out screaming. He said, “What is this shit? I’ve never heard anything like it in my life.” I said, “Well, did you hear what you just said? Wasn’t that my assignment?” He said, “Don’t fuck with my head.” I said, “Well, I’m just teasing.” We played the other one. He said, “Don’t ever do that again.”
FJO: Do you have a recording of those? I’d love to hear them.
CM: I actually do. I have to dig them out.
FJO: The jingles you created for Hefty and WINS radio were both used for years. Those were really successful.
CM: They still are.
FJO: And they’re both instantly identifiable. So there were—and clearly still are—folks that were accepting of these more unusual kinds of sounds. People obviously liked them, because they’re still popular.
CM: There are tastemakers who do it right. There’s also such a thing as good luck. But my style has always been to create something that’s a little bit on the edge. Generally that seems to work to keep it fresh for as long as it lives. I mean, that’s in my mind and what I’ve learned from composers of the past. The good stuff still sounds fresh and sounds right. So I try to impart that, whether it’s a three-second logo or a ten-day event.
FJO: At that same time, you also wrote a tune that could very well have been a Billboard hit single, if it wasn’t written for a commercial—your “Take the Train to the Plane” jingle for the New York City subway system. It’s actually almost a pop song.
CM: It really is. Well, that was a remarkable situation where I wrote for two very bright marketing guys who were great fans of things that were just like that. They wanted me to write something that’s memorable, that people would sing, and that would possibly have a life outside of the use by the MTA.
FJO: And did it?
CM: Yeah, there were a number of releases of it. It’s been licensed for a number of feature films. It hasn’t been what you call an avalanche of coverage, but it has lived.
CM: Well, it’s just like my mother or Morty Wax suggesting something. I’m not so much an inventor of things, but a selector of good ideas that float past my nose. First of all, Beth Anderson and a guy named Charles Shere from San Francisco developed a community mimeo publication called EAR. And Beth came and lived in this house. R.I.P. Hayman has had many people come and share his roof with him. He’s a very generous guy. And Beth and he put out EAR together, and then Beth wanted to get out. Magazine fever is something people usually have for short periods of time—I mean, a certain number of years. But Rip wanted to keep it going. So Rip asked me, since we were already working together on so many things, whether New Wilderness could be its fiscal agent, its bank account, and its tax status. And I said of course. Then I wound up working with EAR a lot. I took an interest in EAR because I believe in thematic publication. So under my tenure with EAR, we had issues on music of healing, poetry, politics; the EARs were basically anthologies.
I also have to say that I’ve been very much inspired by my long-term relationship with the poet Jerome Rothenberg, who was a master anthologist. Poetry appears in the first person. You print the poem and there it is before you. The idea of EAR was that we’d have essays and actual compositions, a direct communication from the creator to the reader, which is quite different from the way music is generally handled. Music is generally written about—it’s critiqued, it’s promoted, but the actual primary content is very rarely presented other than in books of scores. So I would say that in that way we fell together as people who were interested in what the other was doing and then seeking a community through publication.
FJO: Well, as I’ve told you before, EAR was one of the main inspirations for the creation of NewMusicBox—people who create this work talking and writing about it themselves, rather than there being filters. Initially, for the first few years that NewMusicBox was online, each month was a thematic issue. Ultimately, though, we realized having a monthly thematic format wasn’t the perfect fit for the instantaneous 24/7/365 communication mechanism that the internet was evolving into, so now we post stuff almost every weekday and the pieces don’t all connect to each other in the same way. But I’m curious; you talk about EAR on an aesthetic level. I always thought of it as a socio-political act. We have this world outside of what we do that doesn’t necessarily understand what we do. So the media often gets it wrong in terms of how they describe it. Sometimes they’re dismissive and at times they’re downright hostile toward it. But we can create our own publication. We can create our own world. Let people know about what we do by telling them ourselves. Rather than relying on tastemakers to do it for us, we can be our own tastemakers.
CM: I agree, and program makers, too. Our solstice broadcasts were lengthy compilations of material done in celebration of a holiday, and promoted to the world through broadcast and getting people to physically show up. So I agree with you. The idea of artists curating artists, and artists writing in the first person was definitely in the air and I felt very strongly about it. After all, my whole career has been stepping out, making my own studio, making my own way as a producer, and I thought that in this sense a community is built by people who are able to do that and then sharing the skill sets. Bringing that together, how wonderful EAR became under different editorial leadership and different art direction!
It was quite unusual for a publication within music to take on such great graphic interest. This is where R.I.P. Hayman’s particular inspiration—and all of us, in that way—all feeds back to Philip Corner. Rip and I met through Philip Corner’s sound out of silence spaces. Philip had learned calligraphy in Korea and made calligraphic music; his calligraphic scores had opened the door between graphics and communicating and music and sound. So we were looking to get the word out. At that time, I became the music critic for the Soho News, and I wrote essays about Jackson Mac Low, Alison Knowles, and a number of other people who were important in their thinking to me, because no one knew who they were. They weren’t mainstream artists. They were just doing their work and I think that publishing the work and also writing about it within a framework of the art community is very positive.
FJO: The other thing that I found so inspirational about EAR was its definition of what new music was. It was really open-ended. I first became aware of the rock band Sonic Youth through EAR magazine. EAR was a portal into a broad range of genres, not a place that passed judgment on what was “uptown” or “downtown” or what had pedigree or lacked it. It presented everything on an equal footing, which was incredibly mind opening and made for a more inclusive new music community.
CM: I think you’re right, and in that respect, EAR also demonstrated that a community could be supportive of each other. While there had been this weird uptown-downtown split, it was really a tiny fissure in a community of people who otherwise were quite frankly really hungry to be more connected to other people and to know about things. I mean, your own experience shows what we found with EAR, because the readership went up. People were hungry to learn, and it was easier to understand it if you could see the real work, and understand that it had been either an impulse or been thoughtfully put together. It was transparently primary materials. What made it exciting for all of us was that we were constantly amazed by the breadth of the community and the diversity of what was called new music. It didn’t have to be pigeon-holed. Every time anyone would describe it, it would become something else.
FJO: But EAR eventually went away. We were talking before we began recording about finding ways to digitize the EAR archive to make those incredible issues available again, but it’s weird. All of this existed before the internet. It almost predicted the internet in terms of its interactivity and its attempt to join communities. At one point, I know there had even been an EAR Music East, and an EAR Music West on the West Coast. All these things are so much easier to do now that there’s an internet, yet by the time the web became used by the general public, EAR no longer existed, which is a tragic irony.
CM: It was unfortunate. You know, EAR kept evolving, and at a certain point EAR wanted to separate itself from New Wilderness Foundation and I think it was a time of a changing world. In my own case, I became a father in 1989 and producing the big solstice project that year for June 21, I barely was able to attend my daughter’s birth and be there for when she came home. I suddenly had a whole other world. After that, it kind of came to an end. EAR got a board together and then it went bankrupt. One of the differences throughout the whole project was that Rip and I, when there was no money, would put money in. That’s a necessary and magical ingredient; no matter what happened, we would keep it floating. The new board for EAR had a situation. The printer had gone out of business for some reason and EAR was impounded by a creditor. But EAR had already sold substantial advertising like in tens of thousands of dollars. In order to collect it, EAR had to appear. Generally speaking, EAR paid for its printing after it got its advertising money. So, this chicken-egg effect worked out that then the board, who were a lot of nice people, a lot of them with money, when it came time to put their hands in their pockets, they put their hands in the air. And something very wonderful came to an end. I think no project like this can exist unless there’s somebody who’s a tireless fool who will pay the bills.
FJO: The other amazing thing about it is that magazine was created in this space, the Ear Inn—a building that’s been here since the second decade of the 19th century. In a way, it’s a remarkable parallel that connects back to what you were saying earlier about creating new work through a relationship with old things. We’re in this really old place, certainly by New York City standards, that became one of the meccas for really new music. It seems wonderfully contradictory and yet it makes total sense.
CM: True. It’s a nice thought. I think that very much has to do with R.I.P. Hayman and his great generosity, imagination, and tenacity with keeping a space like this from being totally wiped off the face of the earth, which it’s been threatened with so many times. It makes this a very vital location for doing things.
FJO: I know your feelings about the concert hall and what it represents. So you created a musical existence beyond it and I think, to some extent, that idea translated into your idea about recordings as well because for a very long time your music was never available on recordings. Once again, just like a concert hall captures sound and puts it in this one place, a recording does that even more so because it captures time. John Philip Sousa rallied against canned music a century ago, but unfortunately in our world, unless you can your music and commodify it that way, people aren’t aware that it exists. A few years ago, after all these incredible things you did across many decades, XI finally put out a three-CD retrospective so people who weren’t around to hear these things when they happened could actually hear them.
CM: I think that I’m not so good at making records. My whole career has been in making soundtracks, making events, and broadcasts. For all of these things I’m an expert, but I was never a good producer for my own work. They say that a lawyer who represents himself in court has a fool for a client. I think there are people who are excellent record producers for themselves, but it just was a skill that I lacked. There was no other reason for there not being recordings of my work. There were small editions of my work along the way, as part of anthologies or some collection or another, but my work was primarily in broadcast and in media and in public spaces, because that’s what I knew how to do. It is a picture of my limitations, about presenting what I do to a wider audience in that medium.
Now I have marvelous spatial systems. I’m quite capable of presenting large spatial events. I do them once, and I have not attempted to publish them and make them repeatable. It’s just simply a limitation that I’ve got. I think that if I had somebody helping me over those years, that side would have been much better handled. Without Phill Niblock saying that he would like to do a triple CD of my work, I would simply have not done it because it’s just a little bit off of what I do well. So I worked on it with a group of people and they helped select things that would be good on CD. I think what makes me a terrible record person is that I’m a terrible A & R guy. I can’t figure out what belongs on a disc, what’s a reasonably good experience and so forth.
FJO: Well there are certainly some pieces on there that work wonderfully as stand-alone sonic experiences, particularly that gorgeous multiple harp piece [Wave Music VII]. But of course it makes me eager to hear more. I read that there are three string quartets that you wrote early on. Are there recordings of those? Might those be released on another recording one day?
CM: Well I’ve assembled an archive now. I’ve started to put together collections on SoundCloud that are private. Jerome Rothenberg and I have done a lot of collaborations, so I’ve put all the Rothenberg ones together. A friend of mine has an online radio station, so we did a Rothenberg celebration for a bunch of months. But radio is a funny medium because people aren’t necessarily going to listen to long works on radio. But everything’s available in the archive. So we have a number of solutions. David Rothenberg thought there should be a retrospective museum. Owen Bush has suggested since I’m working in virtual reality that we create in virtual reality our own virtual museum, and put all the work in there, since it is site specific. It could then be performed in a more or less site-specific way. And we’re building that virtual reality museum right now with the help of the Unity Studio in Denmark. I think that will come along, but if any of the pieces are interesting to you, and you had some idea how they might be best presented to others, I’m totally into it. I just haven’t taken that step.
On the other hand, we’re remastering all the audiographics cassettes. We had 42 of them. It’s probably the seminal series of sound art and anthropological music: Philip Corner’s first recordings, Dick Higgins’s stuff, Alison Knowles’s stuff. I’m going to make all that available, because there’s a French label that’s interested in doing a sampler and then helping to collect orders for it. I have such big chunks of things that making them meaningful and making them available in a way that’s sensible is just slowly coming to me.
FJO: Since you mentioned Denmark and a French label, there’s one last thing I want to ask you about. You’ve spent a considerable amount of time doing projects in Europe. For some of the larger-scale activities that you’ve done there—like that piece of yours that involves 2,000 people—we certainly have the people and the enthusiasm to make it happen here, and yet these kinds of things seem to happen more in Europe these days.
CM: I think as always, it has to do with who the organizers are. I’ve been recently talking to Aaron Friedman, who was my successor to Summer Solstice celebrations as large scale music events. But I discovered that one of the biggest differences between the stuff that I did and the stuff that he does is that we paid people. He doesn’t pay anybody anything. So therefore the group that’s going to organize itself as 15 percussionists are going to play their own works because they’re there for free and they’re going to want to organize what they’re doing. So it’s a pinch point in doing a curated performance. We were able to do what we wanted because we paid for it—we went to the music performance trust fund and got half the money from the musicians’ union, and they matched the funds. Nobody got a lot of money, but it made it easier to rehearse, say, with cellists or more or less mainstream performers whose time is very precious and now even more so as it is even harder to live in New York.
But I don’t think it’s any easier to organize these large-scale things in Europe any more. First of all, anything like that tends to bear the aegis that they’re retro, ‘60s events; they’re post-hippie stuff. I mean, there’s a variety of ways in which mass performances are described. And in a way, a mass performance should in fact be either a totally composed piece like the [Balinese Ramayana] Monkey Chant or Berlioz’s Requiem or something that’s created by the people who are doing it. I’m sort of in the middle, but I think the pieces themselves have to achieve an audience. The fact that you and I are sitting here talking about it hopefully will lead people to go to the website. Because now on my website, I have a sample of all of the major works. You can see the piece—not on video, but there are photos—and you can hear a good sample of what they’re like. At this point there’s now a lot of material, so hopefully people will find it useful and want to bring it to life.
Hafez Modirzadeh: Crossing The Bridge
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Of course, jazz soloists have played pitches outside of conventional 12-tone equal temperament from the very beginning. And later on, many of the non-keyboard playing advocates of free jazz purposefully eschewed the piano—Coleman in particular—not only to avoid being influenced by possible chordal underpinnings but also to avoid a fixed tuning. By the 1960s, some iconoclastic musicians—such as Don Ellis, Emil Richards, and Joe Maneri—began taking a more systemic approach to improvising microtonally. In the early 1990s, even one of the most prominent free jazz pianists, Marilyn Crispell, found a way around her instrument’s de facto pitch limitations, recording a series of sprawling duets on retuned pianos with Georg Graewe. But whereas each of those instances was somewhat anomalous, a more inclusive attitude about pitch seems to be one of the defining qualities of a great deal of recent improvisationally oriented music, whether it’s the Middle Eastern-infused suites of Amir ElSaffar, the untempered multicultural tapestries of Bill Cole, the spectral octet of Steve Lehman, or the sonic explorations of Modirzadeh. Modirzadeh has even coined a harmolodic-sounding word for his approach, chromodal, though he is leery of terminology getting in the way of possibility.
“It’s better sometimes when there are no names because then you can’t own it,” he explained when we met with him at the aptly named Pioneer Works, a performance space in a converted warehouse near the Brooklyn waterfront. “When an idea becomes an ideology it gets dangerous. … You get in a position where you have to call it something; you put a flag in there because you’re doing something that sounds different nor unusual—that horrible word new. … But as Ornette said, ‘It’s just an invention; we’re a creation.’”
For Modirzadeh, who for a time was a key sideman in the revolutionary big band led by the late Fred Ho, being open to a wider range of pitches, and exploring them on his saxophone, is also an important political statement.
All the [saxophone’s] materials come up from the Congo, from the lifeblood of the African peoples. The zinc and copper that goes into the brass, the rubber, the cork, the reed—so much were taken from what they called the Belgian Congo. … Chromodality is a way of looking at the spectrum of relationships in the universe… It helps me understand where I’m going to place tones when I practice, not to counter things so much as to complement them. Working [with] these twelve—what they call—half-steps, or semitones, is very problematic because it dominates and in the rest of the world not everyone is working in this system. The particular system of chromaticism really took hold during the peak of the age of colonialism. That same mindset that calls something a semitone happened to also call someone a semi-human being. So when someone says to me, ‘Oh, you play quarter steps.’ If I try to explain it in quantitative terms, like three-quarter tones, I think. ‘We’re tones. Are you a three-quarter human being?’ We’re all different heights, but we’re all whole human.
But unlike most of the other improvisatory pitch pioneers, Modirzadeh does not avoid using a piano. Instead, he carries around a tuning wrench which he wields like a weapon in the quest to effect intervallic change.
“The piano is this sacred cow that has to be sacrificed,” he declares. “When the piano comes into it, everything gets quantified. In a way it’s beautiful geometry and infinite symmetry, but if you tweak a few tones, then you’ve punctured that circle. With every puncturing there’s some blood, but you’re into the human experience of being incomplete.”
As you might imagine, showing up at venues and sticking a wrench inside their pianos does not always ingratiate Modirzadeh with the management, but he is undeterred and has managed to convince many of today’s most forward-thinking musicians to accompany him on his quest. For his groundbreaking 2012 album Post-Chromodal Out!, he was joined by ElSaffar, bassist Ken Filiano, and percussionist royal hartigan, as well as Vijay Iyer on the retuned piano, which elicited from him some of his most inspired solos. On Modirzadeh’s latest release, In Convergence Liberation (2014), he worked with a group of traditional Iranian musicians as well as Argentine-Mexican vocalist Mili Bermejo and the string quartet ETHEL. Still, no matter how many high-profile collaborators Modirzadeh has been able to bring on board, he knows that what he is doing is far removed from the commercial mainstream and he has no problem with that.
“You can tell when it’s about the money and you can tell when it is the money,” he opined. “It helps when it’s not about the money; working with the sound itself and the friendships—that’s the money. The musicians that lend themselves to these ideas I’m trying to work out have ideas of their own, so it becomes like a collective. Ultimately I’m not comfortable with side men—side people—being part of projects; it’s a common mission. It’s not a question of ownership—that would be about the money; it’s about a larger picture. It’s joyful. It keeps you alive and connected. … For all of us who begin on this path, these things become a bridge to get somewhere. You don’t live on or under the bridge; you just cross it.”
Melinda Wagner: It’s Just Who I Am
March 10, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Although most of the music she composes is completely abstract, Melinda Wagner still crafts her music in such a way that it reflects her personality and she hopes that that comes across.
“I’m not trying to tell a story in terms of being programmatic,” she opined when we visited her at her home in northern New Jersey. “I really do try to tell a purely musical story. I like to think that I carry an idea throughout the course of the piece and that the idea is transformed and there’s some kind of life lived. … I rely on instinct because, for the most part, I just know what notes should come next, even though I often cannot explain exactly why I know. And the resulting music says a lot about who I am—it’s as much a part of me as my brown eyes, my dislike of liver and marzipan, my love of potato chips, etc. So I’d like to think that listeners get to know me through my music because many of the important decisions in my work … are made without relying consciously upon intellectual constructs of some kind, but as a result of going with my gut.”
Though her melodic and harmonic vocabulary is firmly and unmistakably rooted in the sound world of modern music, Wagner’s principal role models have been the iconic classical music composers of the past, particularly Johann Sebastian Bach—from whom her obsession with counterpoint originates—and Beethoven, whose drama and intensity still sounds new. But Wagner also pays a great deal of attention to the music of our own time, particularly the music of younger composers at the start of their careers. An early boost for her own compositional trajectory was receiving three ASCAP Foundation Young Composer Awards. She is now frequently called upon to adjudicate those ASCAP awards, as well as many other panels.
“Every year I listen to literally hundreds of brand new pieces by mainly young composers,” Wagner explained. “It’s actually been wonderful work to do, because I know what’s going on with emerging composers. … When I’m listening, I want to yearn for the future of the music. I want to build up my own expectations of what might happen. I’m happy when those expectations are foiled, if they’re done sensitively or cleverly, and when the expectations are met that’s even better. But in any case, I want to yearn for that future, rather than simply luxuriating in the present of the piece. And I think a lot of listeners simply are happy to luxuriate in the present of the piece. For me, that’s a mistake. If I can’t go beyond that, then the piece probably won’t be a part of my life in the future because it’s not engaging those different ways of thinking. It’s not engaging memory, which informs my expectations of what will happen. … My favorite music, by other composers, is that which carries me away and touches my heart.”
Most fans of contemporary music first became aware of Melinda Wagner when she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1999 for her Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion.
“I was really unknown beforehand,” Wagner remembered, although she had already received a Guggenheim Fellowship (in 1988) and the young composer awards. Although Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Shulamit Ran both preceded Wagner in winning the Pulitzer, at the time it was still quite unusual for a female composer to receive the award. (While gender parity has admittedly still not occurred with these awards, the balance has improved tremendously in the 21st century; only 15 years in, the number of women who have won the award already matches those from the entire 20th century!) The world has also changed in many other ways since Wagner received that accolade. Nowadays complete recordings of award-winning works often appear online only minutes after the awards are announced. Wagner’s Flute Concerto was thankfully recorded and commercially released by Bridge Records not too long after its win and now, as a result of recent developments in secure online publishing, it was possible for Melinda Wagner’s publisher, the Theodore Presser Company, to make the score available to post to social media networks and embed on other websites. Still most of her success, according to her, has been through building personal relationships with individual musicians who then have spread the word about her music:
I have found—Facebook, social media notwithstanding—that what still works is word of mouth. I got a performance of [my Sextet] back in the day when we were using cassette tapes. I think somebody from that group happened to mention to a person in another group, “We just played this piece that I liked. It’s a new piece. You might like it. Here, try it. Contact Melinda Wagner.” And it’s still true. At least my commissions have come about that way. For instance, years and years ago, American Composers Orchestra played an early orchestra piece of mine called Falling Angels. My friend Kathy Rife happened to be playing viola in the orchestra and she went home and told her husband Joe Alessi, “There’s this piece that I liked a lot. So you might think about commissioning her.” This was many years ago when Kurt Masur was still conducting the orchestra. So it took a while. It has to go through a lot of channels. It actually took years. But finally the commission for the Trombone Concerto did come through. Your professional life is to make human contacts. I, for one, don’t place a lot of value on websites.
Admittedly, Wagner’s rigorous and deeply considered scores are not readily adaptable to the kind of instantaneous consumption that usually makes the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. But they offer significant auditory rewards to attentive listeners.
“I think it’s just who I am,” said Wagner. “My responsibility towards a listener is to be as clear and articulate as possible given my language and my vocabulary.”
Frank J. Oteri: There’s a wonderful quote of yours on the website of your publisher, Theodore Presser: “Ultimately I want listeners to know me. I want them to hear that while I enjoy the cerebral exercise, I am led principally by my ear and my heart.” I’d like to get a sense from you what that means since, after all, we are here to get to know you.
Melinda Wagner: Well, I’m going to give you a lot of very vexing answers because they’re not going to really answer your questions. But I will try to clarify a little bit. When I write music, I always try to take risks. I always go to a place that’s scary for me. It’s almost like making a confession. I’m really pouring my soul out onto the page. It’s wonderful if someone listening to my music could really hear that somehow my music sounds like my personality. On the other hand, it’s so hard to compose music that I don’t do anything a whole lot more than just struggle to get the notes on the page.
When I was a little kid, we did a lot of camping. On long summer car trips with my family, my mother entertained us by playing a musical game. There was no “I Spy” or “20 Questions” for us! She’d sing the first few notes of a made-up tune, and my brother and I would either complete it with our own tunes or continue by adding another antecedent phrase. The trick was to make it go as long as possible, creating a kind of musical exquisite corpse. Although I no longer have my mother to pitch me tunes, I continue to work this way—certainly a big reason why I always start with melody. I continue to make things up as I go along, which is fun and scary.
When my composing is going well, I find myself swept up by the music, outside of real time—I hum and buzz along on a level that can only be described as emotional. The music is leading me by the nose rather than the other way around. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this optimal experience “flow.” I think he was on to something. While this is my favorite way to work—the resulting music feels like me—it is also when I am at my most vulnerable. I am not relying principally upon craft, but upon some other, indescribable prime mover, and there is a certain amount of risk-taking involved.
I can only hope that listeners will be similarly swept up, that they will experience my music—its narrative, me!—on some kind of emotional level, if only momentarily. My favorite music, by other composers, is that which carries me away and touches my heart.
FJO: But how can a listener infer what your narrative is? Music is abstract. It’s not verbal, so it doesn’t have specific meanings. It can only have associative meanings through acculturation. If the desire is to get people to know who you are, how do you do that through instrumental, wordless music?
MW: Recently, I mentored a group of young composers at a week-long festival of concerts, readings, and seminar discussions. While presenting my own work, I described myself as an “intuitive” composer who devotes very little time to pre-composition. Later in the week, one of the young composers commented that using the word “intuitive” when describing one’s process is, in her assessment, lazy and sloppy! I must admit to being amused by this—I sincerely do not know a better way to describe my work.
Here’s the thing: I use my knowledge of craft, and I use reasoning—an intellectual way of manipulating my materials—when I’m having a hard time with the piece, when I’m stuck. When my work is humming along, however, I operate on a purely gut level; important decisions are made instinctively—indeed, sometimes I consciously override the more “reasonable” path in favor of my “gut” choices. And sometimes that doesn’t work out, alas.
So, what does “instinct” mean anyway? It refers to an innate pattern of behavior or decision-making that does not rely upon reasoning. For me, as a composer, I rely on instinct because, for the most part, I just know what notes should come next, even though I often cannot explain exactly why I know. And the resulting music says a lot about who I am—it’s as much a part of me as my brown eyes, my dislike of liver and marzipan, my love of potato chips, etc. So I’d like to think that listeners get to know me through my music because many of the important decisions in my work, while certainly informed by what I’ve learned, are nonetheless made without relying consciously upon intellectual constructs of some kind, but as a result of going with my gut.
I spend a lot of time and care working on the shape of a piece, in particular the building of the climax. In many pieces I try very hard to have restraint and patience, and I care about building the pacing correctly—not having things happen too soon or too late. I think that does say something about me; I’m patient and I care about the timing of things. Also I can be very raucous in my music. There’s a lot of it that’s very noisy. I think that says something about me and my life here across the street from a hospital with sirens going all the time. Plus I’m married to a drummer, my son is also a drummer, and it’s an old rickety house so it’s always quite noisy. I think that does come out in music, and that says something about my life.
I like very much that the repose in my music is hard won and also intense because of the music beforehand that’s been so noisy and dense and full of action. It has a lot of peaks and valleys. I like a really dramatic narrative; I’m really a drama queen. I’m a very sensitive person and I react very intensely to everything.
FJO: I love how the pitches of the wind chimes outside your house found their way into your piece Wick, which Harold Meltzer wrote about in his booklet notes for your Bridge CD.
MW: It did and I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. But once I realized that that’s what was playing on my subconscious, I really listened more carefully and tried to notate some of what was happening. That’s very unusual for me, though, to do something that connected to the real world. I don’t usually try to do that. All of my talk about sirens and so on, I’m not really aware of it. I don’t hear them anymore. It’s only when I go back and hear a recording of a piece that I might say, “My gosh, there’s a lot of stuff going on in there.” Maybe that’s because I have to try so hard to drown it out when I’m upstairs working.
FJO: I’m reminded of that famous anecdote about Verdi writing the comic opera Un Giorno di Regno at the same time his wife and their two children died. It’s impossible to hear what he was going through in that music. Music is weird that way. But if your music is telling your story, then it theoretically might be possible for listeners to get some sense of what you were doing the year you wrote the Trombone Concerto, or at least how you were feeling, by hearing the piece.
MW: No, they wouldn’t. I realize I’m contradicting myself. You know, I have this noisy life, so my music tends to be a little bit noisy. On the other hand, I don’t think someone could know what I’m experiencing at the time. I think they might know more about just my general personality, but not something I’m going through. I’ve composed during very bad times and powered through it and the music doesn’t sound dreadful and dark necessarily. I mean there’s Beethoven and there’s Beethoven’s Eighth; his later symphonies are often very ebullient, but I don’t think he was a happy man at that time. So you can hear what my life is like, but no, you can’t really.
I told you it was vexing. A mentor of mine paid me what I consider to be the highest compliment—he said, look, Mindy, we composers, we’re all sort of crazy. You’re crazy and your music is crazy. It sounds like you. I know that doesn’t sound particularly like a positive comment. But I really took that as a high compliment, because whatever weird quirky stuff is going on with me somehow comes out in the music. I hope. I wouldn’t want my music to sound generic and just skillfully wrought; I like it to be painterly. I want to hear the brush strokes.
FJO: That’s a very nice analogy, and it makes me curious to learn more about your process of working on a piece. Despite being intuitive, there isn’t this mad flurry of working on a piece and then, suddenly, there it is. I get the sense that it’s a much longer and more meticulous process.
FJO: So, what is the working process, the gestation of a piece and how it comes together?
MW: Well, first of all, my process has changed a lot, and I think that’s true for everyone who’s going about it honestly. Your process evolves as your life changes. But generally I will spend a few weeks just listening to a lot of music—of all kinds. I’m not predisposed to any type. I’m just warming my ears up, and also getting ideas. We don’t work in a vacuum. Then I always approach a piece through melody. That’s my gateway. Whether I use it or not, a melody will suggest different paths and ways to go. I might shelve it later, but it gives me a springboard. So my second step is to write some melodies and fool with them, write some counterpoint to sort of get the juices going.
The first few weeks I find to be most tortuous. I just don’t know what it is yet. That’s a very scary place to be. It’s a little bit like being blindfolded and feeling your way in the dark. Then hopefully somewhere around maybe a third of the way through the piece, it starts to suggest to me what it might do in its future. That’s always a great moment for me because I make a list of things that are going to happen. Whether I actually get to those things or not is immaterial. But I do have the carrot then at the end of the stick, something to go towards, which I don’t have in the beginning necessarily. When I tell people that I’m an intuitive composer, that’s what that means. I don’t have any kind of form in mind at first, but it comes to me kind of gradually over time.
FJO: So your composition studio is upstairs. The piano is down here. Do you walk back and forth or do you avoid the piano entirely?
MW: Well, I have an electronic piano upstairs with headphones so I don’t bother anybody. But it depends on the type of music I’m writing. If I’m writing for a small group, I use the piano more. But when I’m writing for an orchestra, where I really need to think about big gestures, I have to go in the other room so I’m not even looking at it, because the visual aspect of that keyboard I find very distracting. I’m a pianist, so if I start to get too involved in details in an orchestra piece by sitting at the keyboard, then I won’t see the forest for the trees. So I go into the other room, and I conduct through the piece. I have the pages tacked onto my wall and out on the floor, so I can walk through the piece. I do that for all my music, but mainly for orchestra music. I try to stay away from the keyboard until a later time, to check pitches and so on.
FJO: When you say you have it all out and then you check pitches, is it all hand written?
MW: All pencil and paper.
FJO: None of that notation software?
MW: I have the software. I have Sibelius. I have notated various things on it. But I don’t like playback. I don’t like the sound of it. And I don’t like the way it crowds me in, so I just don’t prefer to work that way. So yeah, pencil and paper, lots of erasing, very old fashioned, antediluvian.
FJO: No quills though?
MW: No. No ink.
FJO: So, to get back to what you said about listening to lots of music before you begin working on a piece, when you started the Flute Concerto, did you listen to a bunch of other flute concertos or is your listening not ultimately related to what the piece is?
MW: No, I didn’t listen to a lot of flute concertos, mainly because of the instrumentation I had chosen. It’s a smaller orchestra: no winds or brass. It’s the sound that Paul Dunkel wanted. The closest thing I could find was Bernstein’s Serenade, which I did listen to. I listened to Bartók and music that had a little more intimate quality to it. I don’t particularly like the sound of that pairing, flute and big orchestra. And I’m not sure it’s been handled well. It’s a strange kind of pairing, don’t you think? The flute is not a heroic sounding instrument, whereas violin or piano are out there beating the odds.
FJO: That’s probably why there are a lot more piano concertos and violin concertos. In terms of what’s found its way into the repertoire, you can count the flute concertos on the fingers of one hand. Of course, there have been lots of them, but they just haven’t had that longer life. But to get back to your process of listening, do you save lists of things you’ve listened to before you work on a piece? And might knowing what you had listened to be helpful to a listener of the piece you eventually write afterwards?
MW: I don’t think so, because what I’m trying to do is to get the sound of the ensemble, not the sound of their notes, not their melodies, not their harmonies. When I wrote the new Brandenburg piece for Orpheus, of course I went back and listened to Brandenburg Four, because that was the one that had been assigned to me. But also I wanted the sound of that group in my head. I’m trying to get used to the sound so that I feel comfortable in it when I start. It’s not really a style that I’m after. I could go listen to Beethoven or Mozart. It wouldn’t matter. I’m just trying to get warmed up to a particular ensemble.
FJO: So it’s for the same reason that you avoid the piano, so that the piano—even looking at it—doesn’t influence where you go. You want the instrumentation to dominate where your mind goes.
FJO: That makes sense. So then what is ideal for a listener to have going in, in terms of preparation? What do you want the listener to get out of the experience? If you want to express your emotion, who you are and your personality, what can the listener do to work toward getting that from you?
MW: Well, I’m not sure they can prepare themselves and work at it before they come to hear my music. I would say I think my strong suit is narrative. But I’m not trying to tell a story in terms of being programmatic. I really do try to tell a purely musical story. I like to think that I carry an idea throughout the course of the piece and that the idea is transformed and there’s some kind of life lived. As you listen to the piece, you hear a transformation of some kind. I would be happy if a listener can follow the idea through, through its life and through its various dramas and travails, and somehow be excited or saddened, whatever, by the various things that happen to the idea. If that is something that a listener can get, by listening to my music, I will be very, very happy, whether they like it or not. They might not like the piece, but if they were able to stay with it, what I’m aiming for is that narrative.
FJO: Now in terms of the big narrative arc, you have written several major works for soloist and orchestra—concertos. That’s a form that’s gone back hundreds of years at this point, and there have been all these sociological theories about what concertos mean, like the individual versus the society. So does that come into play in terms of the narrative you’re trying to tell?
MW: No, I didn’t think about that at all. I think one thing that makes my concertos a little different is that they really are orchestra pieces. The orchestra is very, very involved; they’re not there to just float the soloist. And likewise, the soloist sometimes is an ensemble player in those pieces, playing along with the orchestra. That was something I had a lot of fun with; it’s not really concerto-like at least in the traditional sense of the word.
This is getting into another topic, but with my trombone piece, I was backstage a lot and the brass guys have their room back there. Brass people are very serious. They all are like that. And they have their refrigerator with their comforts and they hang out there. So I thought it would be really great to have them poke fun at [the trombone soloist] Joe [Alessi], and have a lot of interplay between Joe and his section. That was something I thought about a lot, not so much with the other pieces, but I really wanted them to actually laugh at him musically. So there are some spots where he is echoed a lot. I did think about that kind of human interplay in that piece.
FJO: One thing I realized in recently revisiting all three big concertos of yours—the piano concerto Extremity of Sky, the Flute Concerto, and the Trombone Concerto—is that all of them begin with the soloist playing alone, which is atypical. It’s not unprecedented, but it’s not the way concertos were done back in the day.
MW: Right. Earlier I was saying I start a piece with melody, so some of that just has to do with my process in general. I start with a melody. With the Flute Concerto though, I was really stuck for a while on how to start. I started over and over again with some kind of orchestral introduction, and I just couldn’t get started. Then I was walking down the street from the grocery store and I thought, I will start with a fanfare, a flute fanfare all by itself. I knew that was how I was going to start the piece. It just came to me. It was such a relief. I knew it was an unusual thing for a concerto to start that way, but it gave me my gateway. You don’t think of a flutist playing a fanfare.
FJO: It’s also a way to combat this idea that the flute is overpowered by the orchestra.
FJO: Now the other part of this narrative thing in terms of telling a story is that you can perhaps direct a listener to think a certain way about a piece of music through a title, but a lot of your pieces don’t have titles that necessarily offer that window in. Extremity of Sky is a beautiful name and it’s very evocative. I’m not going to comment on the beauty or lack of beauty of the name Trombone Concerto.
MW: I know; it’s pretty generic.
FJO: So what leads to a piece getting a beautiful title versus a title that just tells you musically what it is?
MW: I get asked this a lot, actually. I think all composers get asked about their titles. I don’t come up with the title first. Doesn’t David Lang famously come up with his title first? And they’re very, very clever titles. I don’t come up with titles until the very end. And sometimes it’s like, “Oh shoot, I have to come up with a title.” It’s not something that has led me by the nose.
But somewhere in the middle of composing that piano concerto, 9/11 happened. Joel Connaroe, who at the time was the head of the Guggenheim Foundation, wrote all of the fellows this absolutely beautiful letter and he referred to a line from the third act of King Lear about the extremity of the skies. I had to use that. I remember going into the city two months after 9/11. New Yorkers are famously blasé about skyscrapers; it’s only the tourists who look up at the big buildings. But I found that New Yorkers were looking up constantly; every time a plane went by it was just terrifying. And I thought that this is an extremity of the sky for New Yorkers, the sky has taken on this new meaning. So when I read that phrase, I started getting gooseflesh. This is not to say that it actually describes anything in the piece. But it was just what was happening to all of us at that time. A lot of artists had to deal with it in their creative work at that time, how to digest something so horrible. That’s what I was experiencing at that time.
FJO: But it’s interesting that it doesn’t refer to anything specific.
MW: No. It doesn’t, and I didn’t want to try. I didn’t even want to go there, to try to portray some horrible thing. There is a little spot in it where there is some sort of little girl music. That was more about my daughter. I was thinking of her friend who lost her dad that day. We lost a lot of people here in this area. So that was the only spot where I sort of indulged a little bit. I don’t think I would have been capable of doing anything else.
FJO: So deciding whether or not something has a title, if it’s time and there’s no other title, then it’s Trombone Concerto.
MW: I can’t remember so much deciding about Trombone Concerto, but I did spend a lot of time thinking about the names of the movements. Those are very descriptive of the resulting music. But why “Trombone Concerto”? It’s probably not a very meaningful discussion because I frankly don’t remember why I didn’t choose something more interesting.
FJO: Well, I don’t mean to imply that it’s not interesting because the title does something else. And here’s where I want to go with this. When you’re writing for orchestra, it’s very different than writing for a chamber ensemble. You tend to be writing for people who are mostly doing standard repertoire. That’s pretty much the majority of what they do, unless it’s BMOP or the ACO. So you’re writing music that has to cohabitate with much older music. When you call something a concerto, you’re automatically giving the audience an association. You’re saying what kind of a piece it is and, most likely, where it goes on the program—after the first piece, before intermission. There are all these conventions, like if you call a piece a symphony, that’s the second half, although contemporary composers rarely get to be on the second half of the program.
MW: Well, you don’t want people to leave at intermission!
FJO: But that’s the thing. You’re setting up an association for listeners, letting them know that it is part of this tradition. I do think that a lot of people who attend a concert need that frame. They’ll hear, say, a Rossini overture and in the second half maybe Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. And then there’s this new piece that sounds nothing like either of them. But the new piece still has to cohabitate with these older works. What do we do to make it sound like it isn’t the odd thing out? Or maybe we want it to sound like the odd thing out. I don’t know.
MW: I think saying it’s a concerto is helpful, because it’s kind of an aid in a way for the composer. What you’re doing is you’re setting up a bunch of expectations which can either be met or not, and when they’re not, that makes the piece interesting and it’s intriguing to the listeners. So yes, I would in a roundabout way say sure, I think concerto is a useful title the way that a symphony is not these days. I mean, a symphony for some reason is much more general in terms of what to expect when you hear a piece. When you see that it’s called symphony, you don’t know exactly what to expect. You just know you’re going to hear a big piece.
FJO: On the second half of the program.
MW: I don’t think I would ever call any of my music a symphony, but concerto is fine.
FJO: But the other kicker with calling something a symphony is that it’s not only a symphony, it’s like Symphony No. 6. It comes with this number, so it’s not only calling to mind all that music of the past that had that title, it’s also calling to mind your own past, what you’ve done before it. It’s somehow a cumulative group of works. Every time I come across a composer I haven’t heard before and I hear, say, his or her Symphony No. 3, I always think, “Where are the others? I’ve got to hear one and two first.” This gets to a larger question, how people hear this music and finding the right access points for it. With an orchestra, it’s trickier than just about everything else, because new orchestra pieces don’t get redone a lot of the time. They’ll be a commission. If you get lucky, it’s a consortium commission and a group of orchestras do it. But they’re in different cities, so it’s different audiences. So the opportunity for the same audience to hear that piece again, if it’s not recorded, is really hard.
MW: I know. And I’m an idealist. I have to keep hoping that things will change. I sort of miss the old days—the old days I never lived—when people would buy four-hand piano music and learn the symphonies that way, like Haydn and Mozart symphonies. Then they might be lucky enough to actually hear it live. That’s the way I learned Haydn Symphonies. I played four-hand piano music with my mom. That was great fun, but also incredible, because you were actually learning all the inner voices and really getting the piece in your veins. Recording, fortunately and unfortunately, is really the way to go. And it’s been that way for such a long time. But as we all know, recording is frozen. You can still hear the multiple layers of a piece if it’s a really wonderful multi-layered piece. You’ll hear things the second time around that you didn’t hear the first time around and the third time around and so on. But the actual interpretation is frozen. It’s set, and that’s unfortunate. I think it would be great if we could hear many live performances. Because the beauty of writing music is that your piece is completed by the players. It’s not completed when you write your double bar. It’s completed by the players who hopefully rehearse it and they own it, and it’s different every time it’s played. Sometimes when there’s a low pressure system, the tempos will be a little bit slower. If you have a very nervous conductor whose metabolism is very high, it might be a faster tempo. Everything affects the way a performance happens. And I think that’s a very beautiful thing. So it’s really unfortunate that we have to rely on these frozen artifacts. But I’m very happy we have them. And YouTube has been great even though the sound quality is terrible. It’s a great way to get those live performances that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to see.
FJO: Now, the other part to this is that the more times people hear a piece of yours the more they will get from it.
MW: Well, I hope so. It’s been very difficult for me because my music is of a style that is not readily accessible to a great mass of people. So, it doesn’t travel easily; it travels, but it travels sort of in a nice loping pace. We’re not going to hear hundreds of performances of any one of my pieces. Not that I know of, anyway. But, as I said, I’m an idealist, and I keep hoping for what is the perfect world. That’s all I can do because otherwise, what’s the alternative? I am who I am. And I have to write what I write. Otherwise, what’s the point?
FJO: It’s very frustrating, though, because there haven’t been many recordings of your music that are commercially available, and there are so many pieces of yours I’ve never heard that I’d love to hear, like the piece you wrote for Skitch Henderson and The New York Pops.
MW: If you email my publisher Theodore Presser, they always send out recordings if you request one.
FJO: But could any ordinary person hear it? I know about perusal materials for someone who expresses an interest in performing a piece or in writing about it, but what about some random person who is just a fan. How do we reach those people?
MW: It’s regrettable that those pieces haven’t been commercially reproduced.
FJO: Of course now, we’re in this weird zone where recordings are still being commercially produced, but they’re not really thought of the same way that they once were even though they are still happening all the time. I think the people who are the prognosticators of doom about this must not get the mail we get every day. There are piles of recordings still coming out. That said, it’s much harder for recordings of new orchestra pieces since they are so expensive to produce.
MW: Oh my goodness, yes. It’s very thorny and, with all due respect, the local unions are decades behind the technology. Whether you can actually get a recording, even an archival recording from orchestras, is in question all the time. Those of us who write orchestral music have all had that experience of being sent home without any recording, or being sent home with a recording that has white noise in it every ten seconds, which is insulting and also makes it unusable even for private use. The composer falls through a crack there.
FJO: Yet what’s weird is that although they’re not willing to give composers a recording, there’s now this whole phenomenon where someone in the general public who has no connection to a performance or a recording will simply grab something and post it to YouTube without clearing the rights for it. And there it is. Once again, the composer who asks for a recording from the orchestra didn’t get it, but the composer was not asked to give his or her consent to a performance that’s on YouTube that may or may not be an accurate rendering of his or her piece.
MW: That’s right. I had that very thing happen to me. I was traveling and I said to some musicians, “I’d like you to hear this piece.” And they said, “We already have; we’ve heard the whole piece.” This was before I even had an edited recording. Someone in the audience had [recorded it with] their cell phone. That’s very common. It happened to have gone all over the internet amongst this one community of players. Yet if I had posted the music, I could have really gotten in trouble. But I see the players’ point of view. Here are all of these free recordings being shared all over the place and they’re not getting compensation either. So I do see that side of it. It’s a very slippery slope.
FJO: It’s weird because on the one hand, we want everybody to be remunerated, but in terms of getting people aware of the new piece, we want to get the sound of this stuff in people’s ears so that it isn’t something shocking that doesn’t fit with the rest of the program. I think it’s more an issue for orchestra music than for chamber ensembles or all these groups that do a lot of new music all the time. Those groups have audiences that know that that’s what it is when they go to hear those pieces. There’s a whole audience for that in a way that there isn’t for new orchestra music.
MW: Orchestra is really tough. And many of them are having hard times now staying afloat and they need the fannies in the seats. They need to sell the tickets. There are all kinds of considerations outside of music that are coming into play, and that makes it even tougher. So yes, orchestra music is tough. Yet ideally you should have pieces that really make the circuit and have it be a part of a repertoire. That’s the other problem of second performances with any group. Ideally an orchestra would commission a new piece, premiere it, and then take it on tour and play it many times again. You would hope that that would happen. Orpheus is one orchestra that’s been extremely supportive of their new pieces. They do everything possible to perform that piece on tour and there were several performances in Carnegie Hall. They really want to get to know the piece and that’s really the way it should happen.
FJO: But of course their structure is completely different. They are a chamber orchestra, so they’re smaller, plus there’s no conductor and their administration is all players. It’s artist-led as opposed to the top-down structure that is the typical orchestra administration paradigm.
MW: And they have a lot of financial support. They have a good endowment and a good board. Orpheus is a great role model, even for larger orchestras.
FJO: Despite all these challenges of writing for orchestra that we’ve been talking about, it’s clearly something you not only excel at but actually want to do.
MW: I love writing for orchestra. The most rewarding kind of project for me is an orchestral project. It’s also the hardest and it takes the longest. It requires a lot of practical work after the piece is done, with preparing the score and the parts and all of that. It’s enormously expensive. It’s funny. When I was a kid, I swam competitively. Anyone in their right mind would choose freestyle as their prime stroke, but I chose butterfly, which I couldn’t even really do at the time. It is the most strenuous stroke and the most difficult to conquer. I’ve always been that way. I choose the hardest sport. I really do prefer writing for orchestra, and I realize it’s the hardest thing for all kinds of reasons. It is what it is. What can I tell you?
FJO: But in terms of recognition, you received a Pulitzer Prize for an orchestra piece.
MW: And the piece has gotten around a bit, which is very nice.
FJO: Do you think that winning that prize opened doors that otherwise would not have been opened?
MW: For chamber pieces, I received some commissions that maybe wouldn’t have come about had it not been for that. But the next large, substantial works that I wrote—my Piano Concerto and then later my Trombone Concerto—were both in the works before the Pulitzer happened.
FJO: In an ideal world, you should have been commissioned by orchestras all over the country to write concertos after winning that.
MW: Again, we’re back to idealism. Yes, I think that should happen to anybody who gets any kind of recognition like that. People should really shore up the composer and ask for new works. Does it happen with the other winners? I don’t know. I think the problem for me was that I was really unknown beforehand. The fact that all of a sudden here’s this name that no one had ever heard of was perhaps a scary thing for some possible commissioners. I really don’t know the answer to the question, although I do agree it would have been nice if a lot of commissions had come in, but it’s not necessarily something I want everybody to be dwelling on. There were some things, a couple of which I had to turn down.
FJO: The Pulitzer, of course, is a special case because, since it is primarily an award for newspaper journalism, every newspaper cares about it and so any composer who wins gets his or her name splattered in every newspaper in the country. And that means there’s this automatic publicity that travels far beyond our own community. Getting recognition through all these other panel-adjudicated awards is often how composers wind up on the radar of folks who make the decisions about who to program and who to commission in the first place—going all the way back to the BMI Student Composer Awards and the ASCAP Young Composer Awards (now called the Morton Gould Awards). The ASCAP Young Composer Award was one of your earliest accolades and you now frequently adjudicate those awards. So I thought your perspective on all of this was particularly relevant.
MW: I do a lot of panel work. So every year I listen to literally hundreds of brand new pieces by mainly young composers. It’s actually been wonderful work to do, because I know what’s going on with emerging composers. It’ a gift to be able to do it.
FJO: And in terms of doors opening, it was not too long after you received an ASCAP Young Composer Award that the Society for New Music performed your Sextet, which is the oldest piece of yours I know. That was really the very beginning of significant recognition for your music. The Society for New Music has been one of the great champions. But how does any composer get a track record where an organization that has a lot of respect has given its seal of approval? How do you reach that point where you go from emerging to “O.K., we know this person. We’re going to commission this person to do something.”
MW: I have found—Facebook, social media notwithstanding—that what still works is word of mouth. You bring up this Sextet. I got a performance of that back in the day when we were using cassette tapes. I think somebody from that group happened to mention to a person in another group, “We just played this piece that I liked. It’s a new piece. You might like it. Here, try it. Contact Melinda Wagner.” And it’s still true. At least my commissions have come about that way, through word of mouth. For instance, years and years ago, American Composers Orchestra played an early orchestra piece of mine called Falling Angels. My friend Kathy Rife happened to be playing viola in the orchestra and she went home and told her husband Joe Alessi, “There’s this piece that I liked a lot. So you might think about commissioning her.” This was many years ago when Kurt Masur was still conducting the orchestra. So it took a while. It has to go through a lot of channels. It actually took years. But finally the commission for the Trombone Concerto did come through. And it was purely through word of mouth. I’ve found that most of those commissions have come to me that way. Your professional life is to make human contacts. I, for one, don’t place a lot of value on websites.
FJO: I didn’t know that story about the Trombone Concerto. Of course, my first assumption had been that it had come about because of the Pulitzer. I remember thinking at the time, “That’s great, but they should have played the piece that won the Pulitzer as well.” But after you said it was already in the works, my second guess was that since it’s a trombone concerto, somebody there obviously heard your amazing brass quintet—which is one of my favorite pieces of yours—and thought, “She really knows how to write for those brass instruments. Let’s commission her to write a concerto for a brass instrument.” But that’s not how it happened, either.
MW: That would have been a more expected route you’d think.
FJO: But the fact that it’s ultimately about people, I think, is key. And it harkens back to something you said earlier, which I think is very poignant, about music being completed by the players who bring it to life in performance. We can record one performance and listen to it again and again, but it’s not the same as having tons of performances by different people who each bring something different to it; even the same people performing a piece many times bring something slightly different to it each time. And this is why writing chamber music is so important, I think, because there are so many more opportunities for that to actually happen. Sure, you don’t get as wide a range of colors that you’d get with an orchestra, but I think you get a deeper level of something that is ideally what we all want with all of our pieces.
MW: It’s much more feasible with chamber groups. That’s for sure. Earlier you mentioned Wick, which is certainly in the repertoire of the New York New Music Ensemble who commissioned it. They performed it many times and recorded it. So that’s their piece, they have made it theirs, and they definitely own it when they play it. That’s the ideal.
FJO: Writing a solo piece might be the best opportunity to create something that can really have a life, because it’s just one person and if that person puts it in his or her repertoire and really works it, then that’s the sweet spot. I bring this up because I was really smitten with your solo piano piece Noggin after I heard Marc Peloquin perform it at Tenri earlier this season. In fact, it’s what convinced me that it was finally time for us to have this long overdue conversation.
MW: Thank you. That’s a much easier piece to peddle around. There are a lot of pianists who are very good out there. The piece has already taken on a life, and it’s not a very old piece—I think it’s two years old and it’s already gotten quite a few performances —so that’s been a very nice thing. I’m very happy about that. But it’s an easier situation.
FJO: Getting back to what you were saying about the piano earlier—you’re a pianist, and this is a solo piano piece. So did you work on it at the piano?
MW: I did. I can actually play it, very slowly. But I did play. I worked right at the piano when I was doing that, which is a little dangerous actually, because I’m not a professional pianist. I would not be able to go out on stage and play the piece, and one doesn’t want to compose just for one’s own abilities since there are better musicians out there.
FJO: You’ve also written a very nice solo guitar piece. I see a ukulele on one of your shelves, but I don’t think that you play the guitar.
MW: Not at all. But I did work with a guitar in my lap, because I wanted to make sure that some of the chords I was after were actually reachable. So it was very helpful to have the instrument with me. I don’t play the guitar and that was a little scary at first, but I would do it again because I ended up really enjoying it.
FJO: So does that piece have an ongoing performance life?
MW: Yes, it has, although that’s a little more difficult. The guitar is such a subtle instrument. You usually don’t see a solo guitar piece on a program. I don’t anyway. And it’s only three and half minutes long, which makes it kind of a special case. But I have had some lovely performances. One of them, which I like very much, is on YouTube.
FJO: That is a very nice performance. We haven’t yet talked about vocal music, which is interesting given all of our conversation about narrative and meaning. Music with sung words is the one realm in music where you can actually tell a story that people are going to instantly get, because we’re verbal creatures. I know you’ve set some really wonderful poetry—Emily Dickinson, Denise Levertov, and Robert Desnos—in your song cycle Four Settings. But I found it very strange that you gave the piece such an abstract title. Normally a vocal piece will have a very evocative title that comes from a title or maybe a line in one of the poems. It’s almost as if, since you were setting a variety of texts, you didn’t want to give one text weight over the others.
MW: Right. I suppose I could have come up with a more descriptive title, but I think you’re right—I really wanted to give the highlight to the individual poems. I don’t remember thinking about it too long. It would have been really hard to come up with a title for that because the reason I chose that collection of poetry had to do with light and darkness, shade and sunlight, those contrasts which are somewhat poetic sounding, I suppose, but I’m not a poet. So I didn’t think I was up to the task of coming up with a poetic, more personal sounding title. Four Settings is descriptive; it tells the listener what they’re going to hear. I wanted to set these poems. That’s what I did and I just sort of left it at that.
FJO: The other thing it implies, I think, is that they are settings, your own interpretations, not the only possible interpretation.
MW: That’s right. It’s certainly not, especially with regard to Emily Dickinson. Composers love to set Emily Dickinson. There are other approaches. So I think that was behind my choosing a title like that.
FJO: So, other kinds of projects involving a narrative—Four Settings is the only vocal piece of yours that I know, although you have also written several pieces for chorus. Would you want to write an opera?
MW: I don’t think so.
FJO: Why not?
MW: I’m comfortable writing for voice and choral groups, but I’m just not—I don’t think I have a very good answer for that. It’s just not been at the forefront of my mind to write an opera. Look, it’s so hard to get orchestra music played. I think an opera is yet another difficult path.
FJO: Even worse because the big opera houses are set up pretty much to do only older repertoire not just in terms of their overall design but also in the whole way they market what they do to audiences. Sometimes we’re lucky and they deign to do a new piece, maybe one a year, or one every five years—look at the Met’s track record which is absolutely horrendous. So if you’ve written an opera, even if you’re lucky enough to get a production of it somewhere, what do you do after that? And it takes years to write an opera, so it’s a huge investment for a composer to make given the likely potential returns.
MW: That’s it. So opera has not been something I’ve lusted after.
FJO: Of course, now we’ve entered what many folks believe is a golden age for smaller-scale operas, black box opera. There are a lot of adventurous people out there who are finding ways to make this work. So I think it’s an exciting time.
MW: I think that’s very exciting, too. And I love heavily-produced chamber pieces where there’s a visual element, or costumes, or some of it is scripted and staged. And there are all these young ensembles out there that are willing to do it. That I’m very intrigued by. I would go there in some future project.
FJO: We’ve talked about all these different idioms—orchestra music, chamber music, vocal, choral, opera. And every piece of yours I know—whether it’s something large like the Trombone Concerto or a smaller-scale piece like the Brass Quintet or Noggin—has been tailor made for its forces. And it’s clear from how you’ve described your creative process that you really make sure that it is. But, at the same time, it’s also really important to you that the music reflects who you are, which can be a difficult balancing act.
MW: Here’s the thing. My music is really difficult. While I think it is idiomatic, it is difficult to put together. There are lots of tempo and meter changes. It’s not music that plays itself or can be easily put together with one and a half rehearsals. But Beethoven is difficult. Brahms is difficult. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to put together [their music] when those pieces were new. I’m sure they had more than one and a half rehearsals in those days. I know that sounds kind of hard-assed or something, but that’s what I hear, and I don’t think that’s indulgent. I think it’s just who I am. Does one consciously go into a new project with the aim of writing easy music? Yes, we’re all asked to do that, for instance when we write for an amateur orchestra, which is fine. It serves no one to be willfully obscure. But to change a style solely for the sake of getting more performances—talk about slippery slopes! You’re really selling your soul to the devil if you start doing that.
FJO: And if you want people to understand who you are from your music, you can’t write anything but who you are.
MW: Exactly. They wouldn’t be hearing who I am and what I’ve worked on all these years. I think my responsibility towards a listener is to be as clear and articulate as possible given my language and my vocabulary. I don’t like it when my point of view is considered self-indulgent, because we all are after voice. When you find a voice, or continue looking for it, it is what it is.
FJO: So to turn this around, I’m curious about the things you admire in other people’s music, both of our time and from the past. But first, the composers from the past. I poked around the house while we were setting up the recording equipment, and I saw all these standard repertoire scores on the piano.
MW: I’m very respectful of where I came from, and that is definitely from having been brought up with the standard repertoire—Bach and Mozart and Beethoven. That’s how I came to the piano and so it’s really where I started. Take Bach for instance. I have his 48 preludes and fugues on the piano here. Do you remember several years ago when there was that silly contest of who was the best composer on earth?
FJO: Of course the winner of these contests is never anybody alive, never a woman, and never an American. It makes my blood boil.
MW: I know; it was very silly, but sort of entertaining to see it as it unfolded. Bach ended up being the winner. It’s not like I was rooting for him, because I thought the contest was kind of silly, but Bach for me is someone I return to because all of the drama and beauty and excitement and angst in that music is built into the notes. You don’t have to have dynamics. You don’t have to add some kind of contrived interpretation. I think the best performers of Bach are the ones who stay out of the way and are technically accurate and yes, musical, but I think Bach performances where players are adding another element of drama are not the best performances. So I return to Bach because the peaks and valleys and the shape are the bricks and mortar of the music. I’m always going back to Bach to figure out how he does that. It’s fascinating to me. My work is very informed by Bach and Beethoven, too, whose music is so narrative. He uses anticipation and expectation and surprise so much and he’s obviously pushed the envelope formally; I go back to Beethoven all the time.
FJO: I definitely have always heard the Beethoven influence in your music, the shifts, etc., but I remember when your Orpheus commission was first announced. At first I thought it was a very unusual choice, because I didn’t immediately associate your music with Bach and Baroque sensibilities. Your music is very much about color and contrast, which is almost the exact opposite of steady state. However, after I started looking at your scores more in-depth I realized that all of your music is ultimately about counterpoint. But you’ve taken it to very different ends which goes back to the very beginning of our conversation where you said you don’t listen to music for the style but for something else, to get those timbres in your head so that they become second nature. And so I guess it’s the same thing with Bach. You’re getting maybe the—I don’t want to say technique—but maybe the tools.
MW: The tools. Yes. Well, all my music is contrapuntal. That’s the way I work. So it was sort of a no brainer for me to approach the piece that way. That is a major tool in my work.
FJO: I wanted to take this into a discussion about mentoring other composers. Obviously Bach and Beethoven is the music that has mentored you. You had mentioned earlier that you look at tons of pieces by young composers. I’m wondering when you go through all this music, what are you listening for—well, actually, what you’re looking for since you’re looking at scores? What are you aiming to find in someone’s compositional voice? This sort of ties into what you want listeners to hear in your music—what do you want to hear and experience in someone else’s music?
MW: Let’s talk about the bigger issue here and that would be what brings me back to a piece of music, let’s say, a second time, a third time, [across a] lifetime? We all know that music is unique in that it is both temporal and completely abstract. I find that fascinating, the fact that music is sounded, it’s evanescent. It completely disappears after it’s sounded. It’s like a puff of smoke; it’s in the air. And yet, it’s really so very, very powerful. I’ve thought a lot about that. I think that when we really listen carefully to music, what’s happening is that we’re bringing into the present of every piece of music both our recollection of the past of that piece as well as our expectation of what’s happening, of what might happen in the future of that piece. So we’re really listening in three tenses at once, if we’re listening carefully.
I know that’s a huge intangible. It really is. But that’s really my criterion for listening to music. So I like music that takes risks. I like to hear hearts on sleeves. The music I don’t like to listen to is music that has relentless ugliness. I’ve used scratch tones in my music, but to hear it unendingly—almost abusive of the instrument, which I know is de rigueur these days—I don’t care for personally. This is a personal taste. I don’t care to hear that for many moments on end. When it comes to contests, that’s difficult, particularly with the ASCAP contest, because there are so many applicants—800, 900 people apply to that, so you have to have two levels of judging. First just to winnow out those great numbers of pieces that aren’t really eligible. And you don’t get very much time with a piece at all.
I’ve had this discussion with young composers all the time. Teachers used to say in the old days, “Write a piece that has great cymbal crashes and lots of drama and excitement in the beginning.” That’s a big danger because, first of all, how do you make a piece work with that? You can, but to follow up and actually make a whole piece with that kind of opening is really challenging, especially if you’re a little bit inexperienced. There was a while there where we would hear or look at a lot of these pieces that opened with great bravado and you know, drama, and then boom, the bottom would fall out. So that would be something we’d look for, if the bottom didn’t fall out. We’re talking about minutes of sifting through a score so you can see what’s happening. You can see if the composer’s going to back it up. The piece that did back up that big opening would be a piece that would rise to the top.
I think it’s important to grab the judge—or any listener—in some way. I don’t think it’s necessarily with a brake drum or a cymbal crash or a great flourish of sound, but sure, you have to grab the listener in some way. There’s nothing that smacks of pandering in that at all. I mean, what’s the point if you’re not going to grab the listener in some way. I’m glad to say that the ways that composers can do that are very many and varied. It doesn’t have to sound like movie music. If there is a climax, then this is another thing. If we see a big moment in a piece, it’s very important to see that the composer has worked for it. I certainly have heard a lot of music where there are a lot of stops pulled out. But compositionally, I think that it needs to be tended to and earned.
FJO: That really is what distinguishes the first listen from the second listen or the third.
MW: You know, after a while, if you’re an experienced listener, you really do hear through that pretty quickly. The other thing is strings of pretty chords. I’ve heard so many pieces that are lush and beautiful, but they’re chords that have nothing really to do with one another even if they’re I-IV-V-I. There’s some missing element in a lot of that music. That’s very hard to describe, but when it’s done well, it’s absolutely delicious. But not everyone can do it well, to—again—make one yearn for the future of the piece, to yearn for the next chord rather than simply enjoying the one that you’re hearing at the moment.
FJO: You taught composition for a number of years, but you don’t have a regular teaching job anymore.
MW: No, but I do a lot of masterclasses, so I get students for a couple of days, which is lovely.
FJO: Does that work fuel your own creativity or is it just a way of giving back?
MW: I love working with young composers. I really adore it. I always benefit from hearing their ideas and their music. I really am so lucky to be able to do this once in a while. When you’re teaching, you have to know the subject matter so thoroughly, because you have to know it well enough to be able to explain it to someone in very clear, simple terms. That’s a discipline one has to learn when one is teaching—I know what I know or I know what I like, but describing it to someone else, or explaining how you feel, even about your own music, is something that you really have to think about. So I think working with young composers and talking about music, I really have to go inward and think very carefully about what I really mean. So it does cause me to reflect a lot. And hearing their ideas, as I said, is very beneficial to me; it keeps me on the ball.
Jen Shyu: No More Sequined Dresses
February 23, 2015—10:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography (unless otherwise noted) by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
“The voice has allowed me passage into meeting people from every part of the world,” beamed Jen Shyu when we visited her at her apartment in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx. And indeed, she has met people from all over the world—her peregrinations have taken her from Peoria, Illinois (where she was born) to extended stays in San Francisco, Cuba, Brazil, Taiwan, Indonesia, East Timor, China, South Korea—she returned there again for a six-month residency just a couple of days after our talk—and New York City, which has only been her home base since 2004.
Those worldwide travels have also broadened her aesthetic horizons far beyond anything she imagined growing up in the Midwest. It was there where she initially trained to be a concert pianist (she performed the third movement of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra at the age of 13) and then became obsessed with musical theater (where she developed her passion for singing). She even remembers composing what she described as “Rachmaninoff-ish songs.” But she did not really feel a sense of personal ownership over what she was doing musically until she started exploring jazz, which she still considers the core of what she does musically. As she explained:
Once I tasted that, improvising, it was really hard to go back. … I do feel tied to the continuum—or the tradition—of innovation, and I think jazz is very unique in that way. It’s such a large and dangerous word, but I still feel like what Randy Weston said is that he’s a fan of the music. I still feel like I’ll always be a fan of it—the study and the honoring of those giants, the deep looking inside of it and knowing these musicians, seeking out elders. I feel tied to jazz in that way, and that has inspired a lot of what I do and how I go about doing it.
Admittedly Jen Shyu’s definition of jazz is extremely broad at this point. She was deeply influenced to go in her current music direction through formidable interactions with multi-instrumentalist Francis Wong, a pioneer of the Asian-American jazz movement, and her many years of performing with the omnivorous Steve Coleman in his group Five Elements. It’s a direction that took her from performing standards “wearing very sequiny dresses” to writing her own material and becoming proficient on many traditional East Asian instruments and in many different traditional vocal techniques, including Indonesian sindhen and Korean p’ansori. In fact, her monodrama Solo Rites: Seven Breaths–which incorporates many of the techniques she acquired through her immersive Asian travels and synthesizes them into a fluid whole—is a far cry from what you might usually hear in most jazz venues. However, the mesmerizing performance I heard her give of it took place at The Jazz Gallery, a non-profit space that showcases experimental jazz. But is it still jazz?
That’s where I leave it to you. You tell me. … Then you have to define jazz. That’s such an impossible thing. That whole show, there’s a structure, but … there’s improvisation all the time. And I feel like I’m telling stories of struggle. … I see value in everything and in every musician, and I think that inevitably, if someone feels very strongly about something—maybe they think music should be a certain way or that jazz should be a certain way—I would say, “Yeah, well everyone’s entitled to believe what they believe.” I’m looking at what people’s contributions are: what are they giving musically and energetically to our music? That’s what I’m more concerned with. I try to stay away from things like ownership. I feel like I have very little time on this earth relative to the whole scope of things, so I want to figure out what I am going to contribute.
Shyu’s referencing of “stories of struggle” in her explanation of how even her most musically far-ranging work is still connected to jazz is very telling. Jazz has been the soundtrack of social struggle long before the legislative victories of the civil rights movement, and it is something that all three of the vocalists we spoke with addressed in describing their work.
We all have our way to do it that I think has to be—there’s an Indonesian word called sesuai, which means to match your character. I believe in subtlety. … I don’t use sequined dresses anymore. And I’m playing all these instruments, and singing and writing all the music. That in itself is already a statement.
Frank J. Oteri: You do tons of different things as a musician, but in the first sentence of your bio you describe yourself as an experimental jazz vocalist. So I wanted to ask what that means to you.
Jen Shyu: Experimental is the first thing, I think. I always will be trying to break down any preconceived notions of anything that I’m supposedly doing. The word jazz is in there because I do feel tied to the continuum—or the tradition—of innovation, and I think jazz is very unique in that way. It’s such a large and dangerous word, but I still feel like what Randy Weston said is that he’s a fan of the music. I still feel like I’ll always be a fan of it—the study and the honoring of those giants, the deep looking inside of it and knowing these musicians, seeking out elders. I feel tied to jazz in that way, and that has inspired a lot of what I do and how I go about doing it. And vocalist? Voice has become my main instrument, even though I think my first love was dance, and it still is a deep love of mine. But I find that the voice has allowed me passage into meeting people from every part of the world. Even if I don’t speak the language yet, if I explain I’m looking for these older songs, then if I sing a little from another culture, then they’ll understand what I’m looking for, just from hearing that. And then they’ll understand, oh, this isn’t just someone wanting something from our culture. There’s a relationship that’s immediately built. I feel like I’m very lucky to have such a tool that can make that connection with people so quickly.
FJO: So many of the things you just said, both about jazz and about being a vocalist, are about tradition: going and gathering stuff from another culture or dealing with elders. But then there’s that word “experimental,” which is the opposite. Those other words are about yesterday, but experimental is about tomorrow. So there’s a pull.
JS: Yes, very true. You would think that they’re diametrically opposed, but for me I feel like we can learn so much from looking at tradition. A lot of traditions are built on necessity and just looking at what’s the best way, what’s the most efficient way that we can do something, while honoring our ancestors. So it’s a beautiful marriage, being innovative but honoring those who came before us and showed us the way. I think they work together very well. For me, to gather the best of those worlds is how I would reach the full potential of who I am as an artist. Also, when I see those qualities in other people’s work, this kind of nod to the future but with deep rootedness in the past, I’m immediately attracted. Whenever I see that relationship in a deep way where it is something new that I haven’t seen before, then that’s my “ooh, I want to work with that artist.” To me it’s very clear when something is coming from a sincere place as opposed to coming from “we’re just trying to get over” place.
FJO: I think we’re now more in a state of détente than we’ve been in quite a while, but over the last 50 years there have often been great tensions between experimental jazz and more straight-ahead approaches, to the point that they’ve felt like warring camps.
JS: I try not to worry too much about that. I’ve met and had wonderful interactions with people from both camps, from different camps that maybe, if they themselves came together, might have these great tensions. I see value in everything and in every musician, and I think that inevitably, if someone feels very strongly about something—maybe they think music should be a certain way or that jazz should be a certain way—I would say, “Yeah, well everyone’s entitled to believe what they believe.” I’m looking at what people’s contributions are: what are they giving musically and energetically to our music? That’s what I’m more concerned with. I try to stay away from things like ownership. I feel like I have very little time on this earth relative to the whole scope of things, so I want to figure out what I am going to contribute. So I have to know where my parents are from. I was born in America, so what does that mean? I’ve been so lucky to have met people like Francis Wong, Jon Jang, Steve Coleman, and Von Freeman. Each of those meetings meant so much to me, to be able to interact—I feel like, wow, if I were able to have met John Coltrane or Charlie Parker, it’s the same weight of meeting someone with such creativity and vision. What if I could have met Bartók, who’s like this kind of shining idol to me? It’s been humbling along my own journey to intersect with these big geniuses in our time. I feel like I’m so lucky to be here.
I’m just focused on the path. Being able to travel and spend long periods of time in other countries exploring my own ancestry, but also going to Korea because I wanted to go. That’s a gift. So I think there’s a way to find peace in all of these supposedly opposing viewpoints. I think everyone ultimately is searching for their own voice and how they will contribute. Human nature is that way, especially when you have very opinionated people. They’re going to feel like things could be in this direction or could go in that direction. But I hope that as long as everyone’s beliefs and music can be allowed to happen and be heard, I think it’ll be okay.
FJO: To take this back to being a vocalist, specifically being a jazz vocalist, that phrase has a special meaning as opposed to another kind of vocalist. So I was wondering what for you distinguishes a jazz approach to singing versus other kinds of approaches to singing.
JS: The deepest study I did of the tradition of jazz improvisation was with Steve Coleman, just sitting at the piano and then listening on repeat to Art Tatum phrases and Charlie Parker phrases and then singing them and then learning them on the piano. Then looking at those small fractions of a second to look at why they did this. “What do you think, Jen? How are you going to build that in there?” And for a long period of time—years—going that deep with other musicians, making music and performing, being tested on the bandstand and being just terrified. In the first year I was just terrified, but knowing, “Well, I’m a performer, so be cool on stage.” Then after a gig, “I didn’t get this, and I didn’t understand this.” Going back and asking Steve, “What was this one? How did this happen?” That constant dialogue of seeking and growing and messing up all the time, but then getting back up—having come from a classical background, making mistakes and errors was such an issue. It was a very different approach to the right and wrong of things. It wasn’t about right and wrong anymore. It was about, “How are you going to improvise out of this and make the best out of whatever just happened?” It was a complete shift for me. Then with the voice, what was interesting was that Steve really didn’t want me to approach singing jazz or whatever, at least in his band, in a normal—I don’t want to say normal, but I guess in a traditional—way. He’s like, “Jen, we’re not going to be the band playing behind you. You’re going to be part of us. And you’re going to know as much information as we do, and you’re going to be free to do whatever you want and not just be out in front.”
FJO: That’s very interesting because you can instantly recognize the voice of the most iconic jazz singers—people like Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald—and their voice is primarily what people are listening to. But the whole tradition of jazz singing was largely about being the front person, but at the same time usually having less control either of the actual material they sang (in terms of authorship) or how it was arranged. There are gender issues wrapped up with that—the female singer, the male band leader, etc. Somebody who really broke that mold was Abbey Lincoln.
JS: I love Abbey. Again I thank Steve so much for introducing me to Abbey and I’ll never ever forget being at her house. It was me and Steve and then a poet who’s his wife, Patricia. It was just the four of us talking with each other and she was so strong. When we first met, she kissed us all on the lips. She just held me and then kissed me on the lips. I was kind of terrified. But then Steve was like, “Jen, call her. Now you’ve seen her, call her. Just talk to her. It’s not a big deal. Who knows how long she’ll—” and of course, just a few years later, she passed. But I did call her and started to ask her about growing up, what was her time like in Chicago? I’ll never forget—this is a funny anecdote—Steve, when we were at her house, told me to give her my CD. I think I gave her a demo or something of For Now maybe. It was so many years ago. I felt weird about it, but he’s like, “No Jen, give her your CD.” And then Abbey, she’s like, “Oh yeah, I’ll listen to it.” I called her when I was in Chicago, just called her up and we were talking and then I said, “I don’t know if you got to hear my CD or not.” And she’s like, “I’m not listening to your CD. If I were listening to music, I’d be listening to my own music, or just listening to the silence.” I learned a lot from that. The obvious things, you know: here’s a master, don’t be laying your stuff. Of course Steve kind of pushed me, but just to hear her say that was a great lesson for me.
FJO: I think with Abbey, the other layer there is that, whereas I think it would have been really cool to get her reaction to Jade Tongue, the album you gave her is predominantly standards. This is stuff that I think she did incredibly well back when she recorded that stuff in the ‘50s with Max Roach and Julian Priester and those incredible groups. But it’s what she rebelled against. She rejected that material for herself, so why would she listen to you sing it.
JS: Yeah, completely. I got to hear her sing all of her songs at Aaron Davis Hall. I even got to sing one of her songs in an early production of Sekou Sundiata’s 51st Dream State. He wanted me to sing one of her songs. I sang it half in Chinese and half in English. He had me translate it into Mandarin. So she is such a model to me, her phrasing and her technical things also. Steve—because Steve played with her, he was one of her sidemen—was always pointing those out to me. Actually one of the ballads on Jade Tongue, “The Human Color of our Veins,” was totally inspired by Abbey. I was completely channeling her in a way for that song.
FJO: There’s a seismic shift between your first album, For Now, and Jade Tongue. Already on For Now, even though you’re doing standards, the arrangements are fascinating and often pretty weird. I was particularly intrigued by what you did with “Lover Man.” It sounds like no other version of that song, but it’s still not your song. And so you went from doing that to doing all your own music. I’m wondering how that transition happened and how gradual it was.
JS: Well, it began before I left for Taiwan and then went to New York. Francis and Steve both really encouraged me to go to Taiwan. I had this instinct that somehow I had to go there, because I was dealing with these folk songs that my dad had given me from my fourth grand auntie. I was already treating them in the Bay Area. I was using sheet music and then just kind of doing arrangements of them, but I knew it wasn’t deep. My own approach to it was just musical; it wasn’t grounded on experience. So Francis was very encouraging when I told him that I needed to go to Taiwan. He’s like, “Yeah, that would be good. I think you should just hang out.” That’s exactly the words he used. Then when I met Steve, he had this project he was doing—the album Lucidarium where he was using a lot of voices. That’s kind of how we met. He was looking for vocalists at the time. I studied at his house for like eight days. Right after that I went to his house in Allentown and starting studying Art Tatum and Charlie Parker. Then he asked me, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to go to Taiwan, but I didn’t get this grant.” It was a grant I’d written, but I didn’t get it, and so I was kind of figuring out what I wanted to do. He said, “Jen, you should just go. Borrow money from your parents and just go. You know, you might get hit by a bus tomorrow. Save up money from whatever jobs you had in San Francisco and just go and you’ll figure it out. If you don’t go, you may as well move to New York, because you’re kind of spinning your wheels here.” He just knew I was. I was kind of still in the jazz singer role. I was wearing the dresses. I had a gig in a restaurant where I was wearing very sequiny dresses. Then Steve told me this story of Abbey Lincoln. She used to wear those dresses, too. She said Max had told her to throw away that dress. So it was like, whoa, that’s so strange that that would parallel what happened.
So I went to Taiwan for two months. I didn’t have keys. I was not homeless, but I didn’t have a place. I had all my stuff. I moved from San Francisco. I dropped everything and went to Taiwan. Then I came back. I did a recording with Steve briefly, and then I went to Cuba, because I was interested in the Chinese diaspora there. Again it was Steve saying, “Yeah, why not. Go to Cuba. Do it.” So I went there, and that is what inspired the piece that ended up on Jade Tongue, the whole suite. I just had a sense that these are stories that needed to be heard. And I wanted to tell them musically and originally.
But the shift was from working with Steve, starting in 2003. It was like an apprenticeship. It really turned my world upside down, just the work I had to do to sing his music. It changed everything. You can hear a lot of his influence I think in Jade Tongue, in terms of composition. That was 2009, so it was a long period of gestation, taking extra musical things and translating them to music and then using traditional texts. It was all coming together. I think Jade Tongue was this kind of “well, this is all the work I’ve done, let me just put it on a record.” I had started my own band and it was really exciting for me; it felt like a true transformation.
FJO: Now you talk about having the whole world turned upside down, but it was the second time that had happened to you musically, because before you got involved with singing jazz you actually had a classical music background. So you went from performing other people’s music and doing your best never to make a mistake, trying to be totally in control, to doing music where your individual interpretation became the focal point even if it was someone else’s music to, finally, doing your own music.
JS: Oh, and it’s still going Frank. It’s very true. But I’m always thankful for the classical training, starting from ballet, piano, violin—the rigor of practicing four or six hours a day and competing, doing piano competitions and violin competitions. In the classical realm, I think my piano performance excelled the most, so I started to focus on the piano. But at the same, right when I started doing that, I was beginning musical theater. So I was doing shows like A Chorus Line; I was Diana Morales in A Chorus Line.
Right at the time when I was most seriously doing piano, like from eighth grade through junior year of high school, I was with an amazing teacher who was a student of Soulima Stravinsky. My teacher was Roger Shields, this brilliant piano teacher. I was memorizing all the repertoire for the competitions—a Bach toccata and fugue, Chopin barcarolles, Stravinsky etudes. Somehow a year after I started with him, I was playing the third movement of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. I think I was 13. I don’t know how I did it, but I was up there playing. So that kind of focus and training has prepared me for a lot that I don’t even realize because I was young.
But I didn’t improvise at all when I was that age. My only improvising came from singing. When I began musical theater and getting obsessed with musicals, I would sing in the garage. When no one was home, I would sing Natalie Cole, that famous arrangement with her father, “Unforgettable.” I would just imitate it and try to get that voice. I felt there was something magical and fun here that was so different from the rigor of piano and all of that. Being on the stage doing shows was like the liberation for me, so different from performing and competing in this context of I had to get this right. So it was all this stuff happening. Then when I went to college, I started focusing on opera. On opera! So it was like taking the voice and becoming like, let’s train it in the Western classical way, which was what I’d done with ballet and piano and violin. I was just following that track. I trained with Jennifer Lane, an amazing voice teacher at Stanford who was molding me into an opera singer—the breathing and the control, the technique, we really got into the nitty-gritty of that.
But voice was the fun thing. So entering into jazz via the voice was kind of a natural thing. That’s what got me out of the classical realm. Once I tasted that, improvising, it was really hard to go back.
FJO: So all the time you were doing classical music, no one ever suggested or it never occurred to you that you could write your own music?
JS: No one pushed me. My parents weren’t artists. My dad was an engineer. My mom was a librarian. And they loved classical music. That’s kind of all that they knew about. My teacher at the time, and we’ve talked a lot since then, what he feels as a piano teacher is that when he’s training these young artists to do competitions, the pressure is so high on him from the parents. You know, my child has to achieve this and this. So there’s no room or time for pedagogy to develop with improvisation and composition. There’s just no time, if he’s on that pressure to schedule—O.K., now she has to memorize the complete Bach preludes and fugues.
But I did start writing, I think at the end of high school, these romantic, Rachmaninoff-ish songs, art songs in English, but very little. I can really think of only a few pieces. Then I started writing a little more at Stanford when I was in composition class. But I felt like it wasn’t a natural thing for me. I felt like a performer. I was a technician. My training was so much of that, execution and delivering of the song or the material. I kind of regret that I didn’t take a second to really write my own things, but I guess I’m making up for it now.
FJO: You’ve definitely more than made up for it. But the other part of the whole equation for you is that while you said your parents loved classical music even though they didn’t have a musical background, the music you’re talking about is Western classical music.
FJO: But such a fundamental part of your mature musical identity has involved incorporating elements of traditional Asian music. Not just music from your own particular background—Taiwanese and Timorese music—but also material from mainland China, Korea, all of this. Did you grow up hearing any Chinese music?
JS: No, very little, and what I heard of it was very commercialized, what you’d hear in, you know, ding ding ding-ding-ding. It was kind of comical what we heard. We’d hear it at gatherings of the few Asian families that were in Peoria. We would gather for Chinese New Year and have dinner, and then they’d play this stuff on the speakers. I couldn’t stand it, and at that age I had no interest. To me it was all about the great Western composers. My interest in that stuff began in the Bay Area with Francis and Jon and all the amazing artists that I met there. They were nudging me to check out some of this music. Then I heard things on recordings that I’d never heard before. I was at Amoeba Records in San Francisco and I found this French label had released this Aboriginal Taiwanese music, the indigenous music from Taiwan. I’d never heard it. And I listened to it and it was like, “Oh my God, it sounds like African music. This sounds like these chants that I had begun to learn of the Santeria. Santeria, which is in the Lucumi language, sounded so much closer to that than any of this “Chinese music” that I’d heard.
So I wanted to understand where that came from. I was determined from that point on. There’s a lot I don’t know about music in Asia. And I naturally was drawn to this stuff that I’d never heard before and that is not played in the States. People don’t know about it, so I’ve been on a mission to not just learn the music on a surface level, but to understand where it came from. What does Taiwanese indigenous music have to do with the Ainu people in Japan? What about Malaysia or the Philippines, or the Austronesian migration? It gets much more difficult to trace. It’s impossible to say Chinese music. You’ve got thousands of different ethnic tribes and you’ve got all these different dialects. And then, okay, let’s go to Indonesia. Oh my God, there are hundreds of different kinds of music in this archipelago. It’s so much bigger and I feel like a mission for me, or it’s my duty having been born here and having that advantage of English as my native tongue. I feel like I have to be that bridge. There are a lot of things that I’ve dealt with, like racism as a child, that I just knew this is because people don’t have exposure to these other people, and I have to break all of that. Every stereotype. I just feel like it’s my job to do that.
FJO: In terms of how this mission connects to jazz, jazz has always been this music that combats social injustice, even before the civil rights movement, Ellington, and even Louis Armstrong—Benny Goodman playing with an integrated band, Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” which is about a lynching. And then in the 1960s things like Max Roach’s We Insist, Freedom Now Suite, which Abbey Lincoln was such an important part of. This is extremely visceral music that serves as a powerful reminder of the injustices that were wrought upon the African-American community in the USA. But other groups have stories to tell through this music as well. There have now been two generations of Asian-American jazz musicians—Francis Wong, whom you worked with, and the late Fred Ho, who was based here in New York for many years—making very charged political music that speaks to these issues. How central is the politics to your music?
JS: It’s a question that’s always in the forefront of my mind. I myself am kind of turned off when someone’s yelling at me to do this or think that way. I think there are ways to address these issues in a way that is not—oh, how do I say this? I think even doing what I’m doing oftentimes is already a political statement. But I feel like the power of just doing and being oftentimes does more, and it affects people more and they want to listen. So, for instance, a song that I have recently been writing and performing, part of it is I’m interpreting a traditional song from East Timor, at the beginning and at the end, so they’re kind of the bookends of the piece. Then inside are my own lyrics. It was inspired a little by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and I guess it is kind of a protest song.
I wanted a beautiful melody, then inside is a text that’s quite violent. At the end are actual testimonies of women who were raped by the Indonesian military. These women were reporting back as part of this commission report that was made. But I think it’s beautiful. And so I believe people will want to hear it. It’s a statement. I’m not telling people what to do; it’s more like it’s just their testimony.
Everything that we do should have meaning. Fred had told me, “Jen, your music should be revolutionary.” Fred told me a lot of things and I didn’t agree with everything. I miss him because he was so strong about what he stood for and I loved that. We had a meeting once where it was just like “I’m going to tell you about the music in the street,” things that I’d never talked so openly about before. So I appreciate that. Let me tell you, I’m constantly grappling. I still get mistaken for being some of my Asian colleagues, like Linda Oh. Someone had said, “Oh, your bass playing is so wonderful.” I’m like, “Oh, I’m not Linda Oh.” He’s like, “You’re not?” and just ran away. I get it all the time, I mean all the time, and from people who really should know. Again, I’m not accusing anyone, but it’s just very clear we have a lot more work to do. As a female artist and an Asian artist, it all means something. I don’t talk about it a lot, but it’s in all my work.
We all have our way to do it that I think has to be—there’s an Indonesian word called sesuai, which means to match your character. I believe in subtlety. I think that song is pretty strong and graphic, but I still think it’s beautiful and that it will be something people will want to hear. That’s why I love Joni Mitchell. I think there’s the balance there that is necessary. I mean for me, it’s there. But I also think that just the way I perform or now, you know, I don’t use sequined dresses anymore. And I’m playing all these instruments, and singing and writing all the music. That in itself is already a statement.
FJO: There are a couple of other pieces that I heard of yours that went toward that direction like Inner Chapters, but your solo piece in which you play all these instruments—Solo Rites: Seven Breaths—is the furthest away from jazz of anything you’ve done. It’s the furthest away from wearing that sequined dress and singing “Lover Boy” that I can imagine. So is it still jazz?
JS: Well, that’s where I leave it to you. You tell me. Someone asked me, “Are you trying to redefine?” I believe that I’m always trying to redefine anything I do, but it’s not for the sake of just doing it. It’s more like I’m trying to find the fullest expression of me. There are so many stories. It was almost three years that I was out in Indonesia and there’s so much transformation that occurred. Then you have to define jazz. That’s such an impossible thing. I mean you have to start telling the whole story. But I feel like if you’re looking at improvisation, that whole show, I mean there’s a structure, but every moment I’m dealing with the lighting. I’m dealing with the sound. I’m dealing with what I hear from the audience. So there’s improvisation all the time. And I feel like I’m telling stories of struggle. I’m channeling these different characters.
Whatever you want to call it, I think the essence of it is not just jazz at all. There are traditions that I’m quoting directly from sometimes. But also in my own compositions, just embedded inside the music and my arrangements, are qualities from these other traditions that I’ve been inside of. So, again, because I wrote Seven Breaths over such a long period of time, when I worked with the director Garin Nugroho to put it all together it was more like a summation. Let’s find an order. He found order very intuitively by looking at all my field work, and that’s where the structure came from.
He’s a wonderful director. He’s a filmmaker primarily. I told you about finding people’s work that magically and beautifully melded the modern and the traditional. When I saw his film Opera Jawa, that’s exactly what I felt. I was like, “I have to find him.” So I asked him to direct this piece and it was the first time he directed a solo show, one performer. When we were sitting there, he said, “Okay, Jen, this is the first structure.” I came up with the breaths part, but he came up with seven.
Starting in East Timor, then Java, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and then Korea, back to Indonesia, but [this time] Kalimanthan, which is where I did some fieldwork. Then East Timor again. Returning home, then kind of having a nowhere world, a nowhere zone. We were trying to lose all culture. Each world had a message: East Timor was departing home. In Java, I was really interested in the oppression of women that I experienced when I was there. Not me, but seeing all my friends who were Javanese women. Overall I felt that a woman is behind the husband; she gives up everything, even if she was a great artist she gives up everything to support the husband. It’s very normal there. But some women were not happy with that arrangement, so I was addressing that.
FJO: In terms of definitions, I didn’t know until this morning that you had studied opera. It’s interesting that you also call the work an opera because that’s another loaded word, maybe even more so than jazz, or—even more complicated—jazz opera. What does that mean?
JS: I know. Well opera, I’m still grappling with this word. Now that I’m starting to tour it, and people are like, “Well, what is it?” Most recently, I called it a solo music drama. But I like opera because the focus is the voice. The voice is what ties everything together. So, that was in my mind. That’s how I think of opera—the voice is the main message giver. But just in this sense. I’m not singing like a Western classical opera singer, which I was trained in, but then you go to Java and it’s their version of classical singing, which is different though in some ways, there’s some overlap. Then in Korea, pansori, you know, actually that’s more folk music to them. But it’s an opera in that it’s dramatic, playing all these roles. In Korea they have fully staged versions of pansori which I’ve seen. Instead of having just one character, they have a whole cast playing all the characters. But again, I’m not so interested in the hard and fast definitions. If I’m concerned with making something new, then that’s fine. Those things will have to somehow be lost anyway. But jazz opera—maybe you can come up with a better word. I just make this stuff, so I’m still experimenting with this label.
FJO: There’s one other thing that I would hate not to talk about because it’s just such a great album, your duo Synastry with Mark Dresser. What’s so wonderful about it is that it’s just the two of you and it’s really exposed. That’s another thing that’s been an undercurrent tradition in terms of jazz vocal albums where somebody works with one musician. You know, Ella Fitzgerald with Joe Pass, Tony Bennett with Bill Evans, but perhaps more to the point, in terms of its relationship to this record, are all the voice and bass duets that Sheila Jordan has done. Was her work in any way an inspiration for what you and Mark did?
JS: Not directly with this album, but I love Sheila and the fact that I can email her and we have contact is amazing. It’s a blessing to me. But this project was more an idea that Mark and I just came up with. We were at the International Society of Improvised Music, ISIM, in 2008 when I was singing with Steve Coleman. We met, and then we thought let’s just have a session. Let’s improvise together, and we did. I think we rehearsed at Cornelia Street [Café] for the first time, and then we just kept meeting up. If he was in New York, or if I was in San Diego or L.A., we would do a gig. And we both realized that it was very full, even though it was just two of us. You know, I was always doing movement, and his sound is already a whole world. That was very easy for me to step into. And we had this material that was all our own compositions.
FJO: And I do think you’re again engaging with redefining things. Most people, when they hear a singer and an instrumentalist, will probably hear the singer above whomever the singer’s singing with. You were talking before about Javanese classical singing which is unusual in that singers are often in the background and are just one of many layers; their voices are not supposed to be foregrounded. But in pretty much any other musical tradition I can think of, if there’s a singer, the singer’s out front. So you think, “O.K. Jen Shyu with Mark Dresser.” But it wasn’t singer and accompanist. It really was a duo in the full sense of the word. You were equal partners and that’s what makes it so musically compelling.
JS: Well, he’s a melodicist. I mean, big time. He’s just lower. And then he’s got those harmonics that he uses, so it was this world that I was just dancing around. In terms of melody, I never felt like he was just supporting me. I felt like we were completely just having this conversation and always discovering.
FJO: In terms of your output thus far, it’s sort of a left turn. You had this progression from singing standards to being a sideperson for Steve Coleman to creating music for your own group to doing an immersive solo performance piece that explores other cultures. That path seemed like a linear developmental trajectory, but this duo was something else entirely, at least to my ears. So are there going to be other turns in the road? Two years from now, might you be singing standards again somewhere, or doing another duo with somebody. Are all of these still options on the table or do you have a clear direction of where you want to go and so you’ll just follow that?
JS: Well, it’s funny you say that. There is probably a record coming out that I’m a sidewoman on and there are some standards on it. I feel like it’s all related. The thing with Mark really came out of my relationship with Mark as an artist. I feel it is part of the path. As humans, we have so many different aspects.
My newest album is Sounds and Cries of the World. Right now that’s the title. I think that’s going to end up being the title. It really was a culmination. A lot of material is from Solo Rites, but with the band. It was a whole other thing, and for me such a great joy. Wow, I don’t even know how to define it; it’s just getting into this other realm of sound that I believe exists. A lot of those songs came out of dreams that I had when I was in East Timor, very strange, oftentimes scary dreams. They’re laden with everything I absorbed from my travels, especially the last three years.
I do a lot of things. There’s a duo with Ben Monder as well. We haven’t recorded anything, but we will, I think. It’s about these radiant people that I’m able to share these moments with. I love Mat Maneri, too, so he’s been in a lot of my recent projects. I’m drawn toward certain artists. I’m just following the music and the imagined music—I’m following that as well.
Sheila Jordan: Music Saved My Life
Fay Victor: Opening Other Doors
Fay Victor: Opening Other Doors
March 31, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
The word jazz has been used to describe music that has now been made for more than a century. (The origins of the word have been heavily debated, but its use to describe a musical genre can be traced back to almost exactly 100 years ago.) Given such a long period of time, an extremely wide range of music has existed under that moniker, to the point that defining what jazz is can be extremely difficult to do. Of course, defining anything limits it, and since one of the core qualities of jazz is that it has always been about personal expression, trying to limit it is antithetical to what it is. Still, some musical creators find the word itself to be limiting, like Fay Victor, an extraordinary vocalist, composer, lyricist, and bandleader who began her career as a straight-ahead jazz singer but who now makes extremely difficult to define music that embraces blues, psychedelic rock, Caribbean popular forms, experimentalism, even elements of classical music, and—well—jazz.
Victor’s catholic approach to music-making came from growing up in New York City, as well as spending a lot of time in Trinidad during her childhood.
“My earliest memories of music are probably hearing calypso and reggae and also Indian music,” she explained when we spoke to her at her apartment in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. “That was a big part, and also African-American music, urban contemporary music, especially of that period—people coming out of the Motown era and the Philly sound and also Aretha Franklin. And also around my house we listened to a bit of classical music, mainly Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky I didn’t really get into, but Beethoven I kind of dug. My mother listened to that a bit. And my mother also liked groups like the Commodores and I was a big fan of Earth, Wind, and Fire. Then I got into things like funk. So that was what I was growing up listening to. As it turned out, one of my closest friends as a child, her father was a serious jazz fan. He listened to a very famous radio station in the city at that time. I’d go over to their house, and I’d kind of hear sounds that I liked and that were appealing. But I didn’t know what I was really listening to. When I thought I was listening to jazz, it was things like Bob James or Earl Klugh. That’s what I thought was jazz, usually things I never admit.”
But once she became serious about music, Victor got very serious about jazz, deeply immersing herself in the music of Miles Davis and Betty Carter (who was her primary role model), and one of her formative experiences was performing with pianist Bertha Hope, widow of the legendary Elmo Hope.
“It was amazing being with her because she’s jazz history,” Victor remembered. “I learned a lot about the whole continuum of the music.”
But then Victor moved to the Netherlands and soon became involved in a much broader range of musical activities which included stints with blues bands and collaborations with members of the ICP and other pioneers of the Dutch free improv scene. Although she still acknowledges a relatively straight-ahead 1998 jazz vocal recording she made after arriving there (the deeply personal In My Own Room), the defining turning point for her was the 2004 album Lazy Old Sun on which she performs both standards and jazz instrumentals to which she added her own lyrics, plus songs by The Doors and The Kinks as well as originals she created with her husband, bassist Jochem van Dijk.
She opined, “I think by the time I got to Lazy Old Sun, I wasn’t really considering myself a jazz musician anymore, or a jazz singer; let me say that.”
Since moving back to New York City, her omnivorous musical tastes have led her to a fluid synthesis of a broad range of musical traditions in the open form music creates for her own Fay Victor Ensemble. She has also continued to turn angular jazz instrumentals into totally convincing songs, most notably Herbie Nichols SUNG, her concert presentation of material by the iconic, idiosyncratic, post-hard bop pianist which she has just returned from performing in various European cities. She also sang in Anthony Braxton’s opera Trillium E and will be featured in a new Darius Jones piece next February. Victor’s extreme broadmindedness extends into her teaching of other vocalists, a process in which she says that she uses jazz as a portal, not as an end game:
I think the whole process of trying to be a creative person is just an unpeeling of layers. You do it throughout a lifetime and I think if you’re honest, you’re trying to get deeper and get a deeper understanding of what you’re trying to say. … If I want to now, I’d do a primal scream in a performance, I feel comfortable enough to do that. Five years ago, that probably would have scared me. Even if I really wanted to, I might have held back. Now I don’t hold back.
Frank J. Oteri: I’ve been following you musically probably now for about a decade or so and have heard you perform in a very wide range of styles. But it’s always important to acknowledge how people identify themselves and why they identify themselves the way they do. On your website, you describe yourself as a “Brooklyn-based vocalist, composer, and educator.” Even though the word jazz is everywhere throughout your website and in your bio, it’s not in that little phrase.
Fay Victor: I stopped identifying myself as a jazz vocalist quite some time ago. When I started out, I was a purist. I really wanted to be specifically a jazz vocalist. I wanted to follow in the sort of continuum of the great jazz vocalists. And I felt that I might be able to do so with enough work and time put in. Then, at a certain point for me, things started to change and open up. I started to experience other musics that I found really compelling, so I wanted to investigate those musics. I also began to improvise as a vocalist. Around the same time I started to reconnect with music from my youth, which was not jazz. I came to jazz very, very late. So I started to realize that perhaps jazz might be a limiting phrase for what I was doing and beginning to do. Certainly with the original music that I write with my husband, I think jazz is just one component of that. It’s interesting that you say around my website the word jazz is everywhere. As much as I feel like I do a lot of different things, I do feel out of the tradition of jazz, but yet not a jazz vocalist. How confusing is that for an answer?
FJO: I’m going to make it even more confusing. Why is the word jazz limiting? What does the word jazz mean to you? What are your associations?
FV: My association is sort of a swing feel and improvisation within accepted structural boundaries, and the idea of personal expression which is what attracted me to jazz in the first place. It was a place to figure out your own voice. That was the point of becoming a jazz musician, so you could do that. Even though the materials all have a similar structure, the idea was you would sound like yourself. And people should be able to recognize you after hearing you for 30 seconds or something. That was something I found really desirable, as something to work towards and attain.
FJO: To further pick apart that phrase “vocalist, composer, and educator,” you put vocalist first. I imagine before you even thought about creating your own material, you were singing.
FV: Well, yes and no actually, because as I child I wrote a lot. I wrote much more than I sang. I sang more for fun and was sort of separated from it. When I sang what I wrote, it was more because it was kind of necessary to explain it to other people and to share it with other people. So in a way as a child, I saw myself as a songwriter first. But later on when I came back to music in my early adulthood, I saw myself as a singer first. But it took a couple years to actually call myself that.
FJO: So was there a time when you were creating music that you weren’t singing? Were you playing an instrument other than your own voice?
FV: No, but when I was writing as a kid, I was writing a little bit with guitar and also from my ear. I put together for fun a little band to kind of develop some ideas with. I’m talking about like pre-teen years, and then I kind of gave it up and actually went into dance for a while. And also I was athletic. So I ran track and played basketball and did a lot of other different things. Then, later on, I came back to music.
FJO: And you said growing up that jazz wasn’t really what you were listening to.
FJO: So what were you exposed to? What was the first music you were excited by and why?
FV: Well, my people are from the Caribbean, from Trinidad and Tobago, and I guess my earliest memories of music are probably hearing calypso and reggae and also Indian music, because there’s a pretty sizeable Indian population in Trinidad. I wasn’t born in Trinidad, but I spent a lot of time there as a child. So that was a big part, and also African-American music, urban contemporary music, especially of that period—people coming out of the Motown era and the Philly sound and also Aretha Franklin. And also around my house we listened to a bit of classical music, mainly Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky I didn’t really get into, but Beethoven I kind of dug. My mother listened to that a bit. And my mother also liked groups like the Commodores and I was a big fan of Earth, Wind, and Fire. Then I got into things like funk. So that was what I was growing up listening to. As it turned out, one of my closest friends as a child, her father was a serious jazz fan. He listened to a very famous radio station in the city at that time. I’d go over to their house, and I’d kind of hear sounds that I liked and that were appealing. But I didn’t know what I was really listening to. When I thought I was listening to jazz, it was things like Bob James or Earl Klugh. That’s what I thought was jazz, usually things I never admit.
FJO: You just did.
FV: I know. It’s documented for posterity.
FJO: Well, in one of the interviews I read with you, you talked about hearing Miles Davis for the first time, but it was his ‘80s stuff, not his ‘50s stuff with Coltrane or Bill Evans.
FJO: But on the earliest album of yours that I know, you do a vocal version of one of the pieces from Kind of Blue.
FV: Right. Yes.
FJO: So Miles Davis was a formative influence on you.
FV: He was, and in that period when I was sort of really a jazz singer and going after it in that way, Miles Davis became really important as a way to phrase because, again, the way I understood the tradition was I had to find my own voice. I had to honor the masters and honor the leaders of this music, but at a certain point, I had to figure out what I wanted to say. There are all these people to listen to, but Miles gave me an opening on what could be vocally done in an interesting way with standards at that point. So he was a pretty strong influence at that point.
FJO: What I find so interesting is that in hearing jazz for the first time, there seems to be this dichotomy. There are people who lead groups, whatever instrument they’re playing, and they do covers of standards and do their own material, and they’re the leaders. Then you’ll have singers who work with a group, but they’re rarely given that same level of leadership. There’s usually some arranger, and they’re doing other people’s material. They almost never do their own material. Somebody like Abbey Lincoln was such a force because at some point, she turned around and said, “I’m not doing these misogynistic songbook songs anymore. I’m going to create my own material. I’m a composer. I’m the leader of this group.”
FJO: As a singer, as a female singer, that was a really big statement to make.
FV: Absolutely. That’s so true about Abbey Lincoln. I’m a huge fan and she’s an influence from a band-leading standpoint. But actually for me, the person who’s really an influence is Betty Carter, because for as much as I love Abbey’s singing, it’s a much more subtle improvising with the form—more with the words and her story telling is just magnificent. But Betty was trying to be a musician and to improvise like a horn player would. So that was actually more compelling and more interesting. I also began to hear from other people that perhaps I had the dexterity to go that way. Also, the way she led her band. I saw Betty live a few times. The way she handled her band, to make them create in the moment what she wanted to do deeply influenced me. So when I got to have a band, I really made it a point that it wouldn’t be just the way singers have groups: the so-and-so trio, the so-and-so quartet. If you hear a lot of records, across the parameters, they are pretty much the same. The roles of the musicians are the same, regardless of arrangement. I wanted to develop a band in the sense of Betty Carter where I wanted it to have its own sonic universe, whatever that would become. So that became something interesting to work towards.
FJO: Did you get to meet Betty Carter and interact with her?
FV: No, I was too afraid, and at that moment I didn’t think I was strong enough vocally. I didn’t really think I was. I was not denigrating myself; I was just being real. Today, or even five years ago, I would have felt much more comfortable to approach her. At that time, I was actually petrified to approach her. But I got so much from seeing her [perform] that that’s okay. I got to see in real time how she handled things and that really informed a lot of what I do now. So I don’t regret trying. And when she died, I wasn’t even living here anymore.
FJO: That was during the years you were in Amsterdam.
FJO: Another singer from that era who really seems like the last survivor from that time of legendary jazz icons is Sheila Jordan.
FJO: Is she somebody who had an impact on you?
FV: Absolutely. And it’s great with Sheila. She’s still strong, and she’s still out there. And she has a great following of people that really make sure she’s okay, and that she’s looked after. I mean, there’s nothing wrong. I don’t want to give that impression, but you know, she is 85.
FJO: 86 actually!
FV: See, you know better than I do. But it’s great that she’s still vibrant and vital.
FJO: One thing that made me think of Sheila Jordan is that on that first album of yours, your rendition of “All of You” is just you and the bass. She pioneered doing voice and double bass duets; it’s a very wonderful sound.
FV: Oh, it’s a glorious thing; I love it. Once she heard me do a duet with another bassist. We were improvising. It was a bassist from the U.K. And afterwards she kind of mentioned that she was one of the pioneers, in a very sweet way. She was just really happy to see over the years how different people have taken the idea and run with it. And then she went on to tell us that we gave her a musical orgasm. I had forgotten she said that, and then I had a concert with that bassist about a year or two later, and we were hanging out for dinner beforehand and he goes, “Do you remember what she said to us?” I said, “I’m not exactly sure anymore.” And then he repeated what she said. I said, “Oh yeah, I remember now.”
FJO: To go back to that first album from 1998, it’s pretty much all standards. There are a few outliers like that Miles Davis composition. It had words, but most people know it as an instrumental. Overall it’s pretty much a straight ahead jazz record. And yet even within that framework, you achieved a great variety. I mentioned “All of You” just featuring bass, but throughout the album you were experimenting with different combinations of instruments. Everything wasn’t the same. You were saying before that most of the time singers have a group and it’s this formula. But even back then, even that early on, you were fractalizing the group to get different sounds out of different instruments and different places. In some places, the drums are way more prominent.
FV: Thank you for pointing that out, because at that point that’s all I knew how to do, move that around and experiment with that. They are all pretty much conscious decisions, so thank you for noticing that. And I like that record because I had made a record before, but it wasn’t really my record. I made a record in Austria that I don’t really talk about it. Somebody offered it to me. I picked the repertoire, but it was a band that was put together. What I love about In My Own Room is that I feel like I really produced this in my own way, with whatever limited knowledge I feel I had or not at that time. So it was really my own project in that way.
FJO: But now you’re going to have me looking around for that Austrian record.
FJO: In terms of stuff I wish I had, are there any secret, stashed away recordings of when you were doing duos with Bertha Hope?
FV: No, I wish. We played in Japan together. We had so much fun. I was just starting out. It was my first sort of real gig as a vocalist. It was actually the gig I decided to become a singer. I said, “Okay, I know I want to do this now.” It was amazing being with her, because she’s jazz history, and we really got along. She saw that I had a talent and had something to say even then. I learned a lot about the whole continuum of the music. I was beginning to get into Monk a lot, knowing how close her husband was to Monk not just as musicians, but also as friends. Then, the strange paradox of Thelonious Monk, Jr., recommending that I take Bertha out with me! I wish I had some sort of documentation of that. I have some old cassettes from that time; if I ever find something, I will let you know.
FJO: Not just me. I think there’d be a million jazz fans out there who would want a recording of that.
FV: Really?! Okay.
FJO: In terms of recordings that are out in the world, I’d like to talk with you about Lazy Old Sun. There’s definitely a sonic shift between In My Own Room and Lazy Old Sun, but Lazy Old Sun is still a jazz vocal album, even though you’ve really expanded the notion of what material you could do. There’s a Doors song on there and melodies by Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean that you put words to. And the title track is a Kinks song. I really love what you did with that—just you and the electric guitar. Once again, it’s really spare, and it also challenges the notion of what the songbook is. So I thought it would be interesting to talk about what the songbook means to you. What draws you to certain material? What works and what doesn’t? Can anything be done by a jazz vocalist? Since you now shy away from the term “jazz,” at what point does it cease to be jazz?
FV: I think by the time I got to Lazy Old Sun, I wasn’t really considering myself a jazz musician anymore, or a jazz singer; let me say that. While I was living in the Netherlands I started working with some blues bands, which was an amazing experience. I realized how ignorant I actually was. I also I realized in going even further how ignorant a lot of jazz musicians are about the blues. I don’t have to tell you, it’s an incredible art form. But for a lot of jazz musicians, blues is just a blues scale and what you can do with that. You have blues in the repertoire and you know what the tune’s based on, but not everyone delves deep. So I had this situation where I was asked to be a blues singer in groups. It wasn’t racial; let’s be up front about that. I don’t think it had anything to do with that. It was more that somebody saw some talent and I tried it and I really liked it, but I realized that with blues the expression has to be real. The more complex the music is, the more one can hide behind the complexity of the music.
Blues forced me to really get serious. So I started listening a lot and that started opening up a lot of other doors. My husband is Dutch and when we got together, we started exchanging a lot of music. I started lending him all this stuff that I liked and so he let me hear stuff, and we’d have these intense listening sessions. Out of those sessions, I learned about people like Robert Johnson because I didn’t know who that was. I’m a jazz musician and I don’t know who Robert Johnson is! You know what I mean? This was not good. So I really took some time and just listened and delved in. One of the nice things about the Netherlands is they have really good libraries where you could rent a lot of CDs. You can just spend a euro and take them out. So if you can’t afford to buy a bunch of CDs, just go to the library and you’re allowed to take out ten at a time of all sorts of recordings. So that’s what I would do, from classical music all to way to blues, whatever we didn’t have, and just immerse myself and try to really understand it. That really opened me up. I also started to realize that a lot of music I grew up listening to was based on this music, or coming out of this sort of space.
And at that very same time, I started to listen to much more improvised music—I mean the Dutch musical scene, people like Misha Mengelberg and the ICP and the Willem Breuker Kollektief. I was there, so I started hanging with some of the musicians I was beginning to work with, like Walter Wierbos on Lazy Old Sun, who has been in ICP for going on 30 years. It was all happening at the same time. So I kind of felt like why should I limit myself to the American songbook; a lot of those songs don’t really make sense to me. More importantly, I started to want to write again. I wanted to sing my own words and tell my own stories and that became a really interesting thing to dig into. But there’s a record before that, Darker than Blood; I don’t know if you know about that record.
FJO: I don’t. More stuff for me to track down.
FV: It’s out of print, but I will get a copy to you. Darker than Blue is actually the very first record that my husband and I have originals on. We have three originals on that one, and we have Herbie Nichols’s “House Party Starting.”
FJO: So the Herbie Nichols fascination began all the way back then.
FV: Yeah. It’s a looong time with Herbie. But I started to want to write and then really put a band together à la Betty Carter—find musicians, rehearse on a regular basis, develop material. Then I used my brain a little bit. Because I was in the Netherlands where it’s a subsidized music scene, I figured out that if I could get myself into the scenes and get that kind of work, I could hire really good musicians. And also that would give them an impetus to stay with me. Those are very hard gigs to get as a singer. But if you get them as a singer, what I discovered is that audiences really like that, so audiences will come out. So that gave me some leverage, and so I started to use that and I started to get a lot more gigs in the subsidized scene. That’s how I was able to keep everything going for a few years until I moved back here.
FJO: Now finding those psychedelic rock songs, the Doors and the Kinks. How did that stuff wind up in your songbook?
FV: Well, in that period of listening to blues, I listened to a lot of the Doors. I’ve been a fan of the Doors actually since I was kid—“Break on Through.” But then I got much deeper into the Doors. I remember we were listening one night, I forget the album that it’s on now, but I heard “People Are Strange” and I didn’t like the song as a song, because it was kind of Vaudevillian, you know. But the lyrics, I was like, “That’s it. It’s true; it’s no bullshit.” So I came up with doing a bit of a bolero idea under it, just so the words can kind of be more stretched out to make them a little more aggressive.
FJO: It’s interesting that you say that you don’t think of Lazy Old Sun as a jazz record, because that Doors song in particular you really turned into jazz for me.
FV: Oh, okay.
FJO: That’s what it sounds like. It’s very different than how the Doors performed it on Strange Day; you turned it into a jazz standard. Whereas, oddly enough, your version of a song that actually is a bona fide jazz standard, David Raksin’s “Laura,” sounds less standard to me.
FV: Oh, that’s very cool! I see what you mean. I still do “People Are Strange,” but now it’s more deconstructed sometimes. I mean, every now and again, I’ll do it with that sort of feel, but now it’s a lot more open, just an open form where the words are more improvised than anything else. The words are what really got me and I love Jim Morrison. I just think it was a great band—the music, the instrumentation, the sound. I love talking to people about the Doors because there are some people that really hate them. And then I’ve always liked the Kinks as well. I’ve always been into great songwriters, and to me Ray Davies is a genius songwriter. There are a lot of songs of his I could have done, but the reason I like “Lazy Old Sun” is because of those arpeggios and how it modulates. And he’s from that similar part of the world. It seemed to be the perfect representative of that space. That’s also why we did it that way, trying to be plaintive.
FJO: In terms of creating your own material, you’ve done a lot stuff where you’ve put words to other instrumental stuff, not just the Herbie Nichols material, but also Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean. Those are things you made your own by putting your own words to it. But you also create a lot of completely original material with your husband. When the two of you work on something, do you do the words and he does the music, or do you both do both? I’m curious about that process.
FV: When we first started writing together, I did the words and he did the music. Over years, it’s merged. It’s really changed. So now, depending on the piece we want to write, we have a process that we generally write from the words anyway—the actual music. What we decide we’re going to write and how it’s going unfold will determine who will do the actual musical composition—sometimes it’s him, sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s a combination. Usually he puts it into Finale, but the actual working out of that is really open. I love that about the way we write because it really comes down to what we’re trying to say. I really like that way of thinking about things, because I think it communicates our intention much better in the end.
FJO: But, to get back to your online moniker, you describe yourself as a composer but not as a lyricist, even though words are clearly so important to you.
FV: They really are. And sometimes I say lyricist, but then I think, God, that sounds so pretentious to say vocalist, composer, lyricist. I do feel like I’m a composer, but at the same time I think that when people see that on a page, they pay more attention to that than perhaps if they saw lyricist. Maybe that’s sort of the subliminal or subconscious reason.
FJO: Well, perhaps the other thing is that a lot of people have erected an artificial dichotomy between composers and songwriters. Song folks who are songwriters are intimidated by the word composer, which I find ironic given the fact that if they have written both the words and music to a song they are more than just the composer. They are two things—they are the lyricist and the composer.
FV: I think you’re the first person to ever put it that way. The word composer seems to have this sort of exaltation to it. It has a lot of value. There aren’t a lot of good lyricists. It’s hard to write lyrics that people get. And I think that it’s not respected enough, to be honest. I think people feel it’s easy. Like people think being a poet is easy. You’re just writing some words on a paper, and it doesn’t mean anything. It’s much more difficult to actually sit down and write music. I’ll be honest, I have sat down and written lyrics in ten minutes. But I’ve also had lyrics which have taken almost a year to really get right.
I was in the Washington Women’s Jazz Festival earlier this month, and they asked me to submit a piece for the performance. We were all performing original music, and I decided I’d love to do that. I was literally walking from the supermarket and it wasn’t a whole piece, but the heart of the piece just came to me walking home. So I just came home and wrote out the outline of it. The other stuff I wrote afterwards, after the fact, took a lot longer. I do think there is this idea that maybe I bought into by saying composer rather than lyricist. And that is unfortunate.
FJO: Or songwriter.
FV: Or songwriter.
FJO: Although, a songwriter writes in one form, song, but a song is just one of many different things a composer might write. And when people hear the word composer, I think they associate it more with the creation of larger form works, things with some kind of through-line. Perhaps my favorite of all of your projects thus far is The FreeSong Suite, which I really hear as a large scale work. It is comprised of individual songs but they’re all connected and, when put together, form a larger cohesive whole.
FV: Wow, thank you.
FJO: And interestingly, that seems to be true of everything you’ve done since then, both recordings and live concerts—everything sounds connected and part of one, larger whole.
FV: Yeah. That group, the Fay Victor Ensemble, is actually ten years old this year. The whole idea of the free songs started with Misha Mengelberg and Walter Wierbos, our bassist in the Netherlands, doing this open-ended project where they’re coming in and out of forms. You’re still dealing with form, but just making it much more liquid. It was so freeing, but it’s tricky because everybody has to have a sense harmonically of what works well after the other and no one knows where things are beginning and ending. It’s like a film where you have these moments where things are kind of random and then there’s this moment of clarity and then things go back. For that record, we really recorded in real time. There are only very tiny edits, but everything [we recorded] is [a suite of] four songs. It was really scary to record that way because if there was one major mistake, we had to do a whole sequence all over again.
FJO: You described in your notes for it that the group is fighting with each other, which I thought was an interesting way of putting it. In jazz and other kinds of improvisatory music, when a group of musicians create music together, it isn’t about following a score on a page and playing it exactly as written. It’s about making it your own. It’s about the group dynamic, where one person is bouncing ideas off of another. But even though your husband is the record producer and so he’s in the studio, he’s actually not on stage with you guys. He’s not playing the music. So in terms of the auteurship of that in the jazz sense of it, he has to let it go. But you’re in the middle of it, so you’re fighting with these players that you bring on, so it’s yours, but it’s also theirs.
FV: Yeah. Absolutely.
FJO: So I’m interested about that dynamic. How much happens spontaneously in the moment, whether it’s in a recording studio, live on a stage, in a gig, how much you can plan for, and how much you really want it to be a spontaneous, in-the-moment thing?
FV: Well, like I mentioned, every piece is declared by what we want to say. So I’m going to pick a piece, I guess “Bob and Weave.” It’s a really clear structure. A lot of times within the structure, we have these points of departure where the form opens up. Let’s say somebody gets a solo, though I’ve moved away from that. Every now and again one musician will, but it’s more of an ensemble improvisation. We know we’re moving towards somewhere else. And in the case of “Bob and Weave” it’s going into “Night Ties.” Ken Filiano picks it up, so we set some cuing, just so we’re clear what’s going to happen. But when that actually happens can be varied. In other words, if we come to the end of “Bob and Weave,” Ken is supposed to pick up the bass line. But that ending can be whenever Ken feels it, and then we move on. I’m not going to look at him and say, “Okay, now you’ve got to.” We try to be as organic as possible, but everybody knows where we’re going. We have this destination.
On Absinthe and Vermouth, we have this piece “Paper Cup.” I’m on a mission going to “Paper Cup.” The idea was to play with having something really sort of punky and a little snotty and then have it lead to a very quiet open space, but have a big improvisation in between. So the fun of that was trying to have an improvisation that felt real coming out of the first piece, but also that felt real going into the second, wherever we ended up. That’s the idea.
FJO: Well it’s interesting to hear you use the word punky. One of the things that I’m hearing on your more recent projects, like Absinthe and Vermouth, but also already on Cartwheels Through The Cosmos, is a clear rock element that’s sort of psychedelic, and even like progressive rock, almost akin to Captain Beefheart.
FV: He’s a big influence.
FJO: I can totally hear that. But still, at least to my ears, you’re somehow honing it through a jazz sensibility. In fact, the way you just described Ken Filiano waiting to feel something totally sounds like what a jazz group would do, which is quite different from what a rock group would usually do.
FV: That’s true. I guess at the end of the day, I wouldn’t call Anders a jazz musician, but certainly Ken is. Ken is coming out of that space, and I am, too. So that will always pretty much inform everything. But if mainstream jazz players were to hear Absinthe and Vermouth, I cannot imagine they would think that that was a jazz record. I think they would think it was a combination, like they would think avant-garde—I don’t think it’s that avant-garde, but that’s the thing. Or maybe if they listen to “The Sign at the Door,” they would think it’s even coming out of new music, but not jazz.
That’s why it gets complicated. So I just don’t really label myself. It’s a multi-genre approach which is totally what I have on my bio just so it’s open. Sometimes I wonder if that’s smart, but it is really the way I feel. Actually I have in the back of my mind that I want to develop a Caribbean project. It’s part of me. So if I want to delve into that zone, why not. I think a lot of times we feel we’re just strictly in this thing: okay, I’m a jazz musician, or I’m an opera singer, or I don’t know, I’m a Haitian whatever. I don’t know if it’s good to limit yourself that way.
If your perception changes, or if you open up, I think you should go with that. I really feel that the music guiding me is a lot more important than me guiding the music. If I feel compelled to dig into something, then that’s where I need to go and not worry about if it falls into certain boundaries that are comfortable for other people.
FJO: Well one thing I found interesting is that even though you’re mostly self-taught, at some point you sought out coaching from an opera singer, which is really bizarre because you weren’t doing opera at that point and you’ve never really done opera, as far as I know.
FV: I have done one opera actually; I’ve done an Anthony Braxton opera.
FJO: But that’s a very different kind of opera.
FJO: That wasn’t bel canto or verismo. But you sought out that training just to expand your horizons musically. It wasn’t necessarily to sing that music, but to open your ears to another way of thinking about sound, which I thought was really exciting.
FV: It was also technical. I was starting to run into problems trying to execute some improvisational ideas I was having. I was really developing my ear. I was working on theory. I was studying piano. I was trying to sing certain things that I was beginning to hear, but I couldn’t sing them well—strange intervals. I couldn’t sing them, or it was very uncomfortable. So I said, “There has to be a better way.” And I found this opera teacher, Onno van Dijk. Because of that, I feel my instrument is a lot more open, plus the experience of listening. He was a very interesting teacher. We listened a bit to opera, but he was also into yoga poses. He would also go to witness throat operations. He was really deep. He really wanted to understand things from the inside out, and that was really his emphasis. Now that I teach, a lot of the way I teach is from him, because he was really about everybody figuring out their own sound and what’s the best and healthiest way to do that. Since I didn’t want to become an opera singer, he helped me to figure out my own sound without using a big wide sound but a more focused sound, because I’m singing with a mic and I want to be able to use much more nuance. Around this same time, I started listening to lots of people like Cathy Berberian, whom I’m a huge fan of. To me she is a very organic-sounding classical vocalist. She’s incredible. She makes everything sound rooted.
FJO: In that one opera you were a part of, Anthony Braxton’s Trillium E, I instantly recognized your voice when you come in. You cannot miss it. You were so you.
FV: Wow. Well, I think that’s what Anthony wanted, and I love him for that. I think it’s changed now. I wasn’t here when it went on last year, but what I have heard—and I know a bit from the vocalists—is that now it’s much more classical, really much more opera singers. But with Trillium E, he made the choice then to let people have different sounds. And I thought that really worked. I thought that was a very interesting approach, and pretty gutsy. His lines are much more rhythmic. I don’t know if someone with a lot of vibrato would really execute the words and rhythmic forms and shapes that he was doing. He really writes for much more straighter sounding tones.
FJO: Participating in that project with him was something of a detour for you, since you pretty much do only your own stuff at this point.
FJO: You’re not someone else’s side person, you don’t do other people’s material at this point. I wonder what would make you decide to lend your voice to someone else’s projects.
FV: Well, I did a record that just came out. It’s with a Dutch musician by the name of Ab Baars. He’s an incredible musician, and he has a trio that was together for 20 years. In celebration, he put a tour together, and he invited me and a French horn player Vincent Chancey. This was in 2011; it was a 15-concert tour and we made a record at the end. He wrote vocal compositions for the first time, and it was a great experience to play those pieces. I really enjoyed that project, because he’s an improviser as well. He’s also a member of ICP, so I know exactly the musical place he’s coming from. So I would be open to that. If it’s something that I really think I can be me with, then I’m very open to that. For example, I don’t know the details, but I’m going to be featured in a big piece by Darius Jones next February. He has a residency at The Stone. I know Darius’s work and we also happen to be good friends. I really admire him and where he’s going, and I know he’s going to allow me to be me. I hope that doesn’t sound too egotistical.
FJO: No, I completely get what you’re saying. It’s actually makes a perfect segue to talking about Herbie Nichols SUNG and how you found your own voice within Herbie Nichols’s music. Herbie Nichols was forgotten for many years but he’s been rediscovered. He’s a parallel figure in some ways to Thelonious Monk and to Elmo Hope, who has yet to be fully rediscovered. These three guys were doing things that were pre-free jazz post-bop already in the bop era. Herbie Nichols never got to record with a quintet, which was his dream. He only got to record with a trio. The Jazz Composers Collective did this whole Herbie Nichols Project and made some of his music really come to life. Nichols also never recorded with a singer, but I know that Sheila Jordan sang with him at one point even though none of what they did was ever recorded. So your singing music by Herbie Nichols is really kind of the first time for that music to sing.
FV: Yeah. Sheila told me, believe it or not, that she was pretty impressed that I was singing that. He was her rehearsal pianist. She said she was scared of those tunes. I can imagine if I were around at that time, I would have been scared, too. I was scared of those tunes, but since then, there have been all these people that have created [their own paths] this music. And I had Mischa Mengelberg to talk to about it. I don’t know if I could have just done it if I had nothing. What happened with Herbie was a really organic experience. Again, my husband and I were together maybe just a couple of years, and he had some CDs. I was looking through them one day and I found this compilation. I pulled it out and I saw the name and saw the face and said I don’t know this person, so I just put it on. A lot of it sounded very strange, even though I was a fan of Monk at the time, but the one song that just hit me in the face was “House Party Starting.” It just blew my mind. I listened and listened and listened and I decided I’m going to be able to sing this one day. I knew that I couldn’t sing it. I couldn’t. There was no way. But I knew I would. I felt that I’m going to work on that. For Darker Than Blue, which came after In My Own Room, I was literally sitting down figuring out what songs I wanted to do on a Saturday afternoon, and I just wrote down all the lyrics. It just came, all the lyrics to “House Party Starting.” And it so happened that the guitarist in my band, we had never talked about it before, I kind of mentioned that I was thinking of doing that and he said, “That’s my favorite song; I know it by heart.” So that’s why I did it with guitar; I don’t do it with piano. We do it in a very kind of aggressive way, but that started the journey with Herbie. And I started listening to more and started hanging out with Misha a little more because when I finally tracked him down to find out what he thought of the project, his words were, “It reminded me of nothing” which, coming from him, is a very nice compliment.
I knew I wanted to do a Monk project. And someone suggested I do it with Misha and I was petrified. I’m like “What?” But I went to Misha and I had a meeting, and he said he would absolutely. He had the confidence that something could be interesting with that. So then we started working a little bit over the years. I have recordings with him from the Bimhuis, but we never actually got to make a proper recording, even though I’ve toured with ICP. And now he’s not in the best shape.
FJO: Talk about somebody who connects the dots between both sides of the Atlantic. He’s the pianist on Eric Dolphy’s Last Date. The first time I ever heard Misha Mengelberg was on that record.
FV: Oh man. Oh my.
FJO: And now you’re returning to Europe; you’re going to be there for a month. It’s something of a homecoming. And you’re doing Herbie Nichols stuff.
FV: Yeah, I’m doing four concerts of Herbie Nichols SUNG. One in Amsterdam, two in Germany—in Cologne and Berlin—and one in a really nice venue called De Singer, outside of Antwerp in Belgium. I have a great German pianist by the name of Achim Kaufmann who’s been a Nichols specialist for the last 20, 25 years and Tobias Delius who’s also in the ICP. They both live in Berlin. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
FJO: In terms of making this material your own, it’s certainly very contemporary. He wrote all this stuff in the 1950s, but one of your lyrics is about Dick Cheney.
FV: Yes! Ode to Dick Cheney—“Sunday Stroll.” I have to say Herbie helps a lot. Whenever I write lyrics to somebody else’s material, I try to listen because it’s just so interpretive. There’s something very haughty about the melody of “Sunday Stroll” to me. It’s like a pace a pompous person might carry. So Cheney came to mind. But it’s difficult to write lyrics, because the melodies are so convoluted and inverted and angular. They might be A-A-B-A forms, but depending on the song, an A can be 15 bars and the B 10. My favorite song of his is “Spinning Song.” That was complicated to write for, but I figured out something.
FJO: You mentioned teaching in passing, but I wanted to get back to that especially since teacher is the third noun you use to describe yourself. You described a little bit what you impart coming from this opera singer, but I’m curious about the process of what you do with students.
FV: I believe now I’m a very good teacher for someone who is interested in figuring out their own voice. I’ve run a few workshops in the city, two on a weekly basis, and I do workshops out on the road. I really always try to create a space where people feel comfortable to create—not comfortable in terms of it being easy, but comfortable in that it’s open, that if something comes out the space will accommodate it and not lash out at them. Sometimes you’re going to sing or do something that sounds horrible, but just be more accepting of it instead of beating yourself up. It’s actually mostly adults. We can really lash out at ourselves when we make an obvious mistake in front of other people.
I try to also use jazz as a portal, not as an end game. So if somebody wants to bring in different material that really feels representative of themselves, I encourage that. If it’s a private student, then we’re working on very specific things for their instrument. I’m also really good at helping classical vocalists sing jazz, talking about the placement change and all of that so that the phrasing and articulation is more what we would associate with jazz or non-classical musical expression.
I really love teaching. I get a lot of energy out of it and I get a lot of energy back from my students when I see how they become more themselves and become more comfortable in their own expression. It makes me happy that that they come to that for themselves. What they don’t like so much about me is I don’t sing a lot for them. Like when I’m teaching rubato, I sing very little. I don’t want that to be an influence. Maybe I’ll sing at the very end. I just find it great that I help people figure out what they want to say in a way that doesn’t scare them and that they can go into deeper places for themselves and not be afraid of what might come out.
FJO: How do you feel what you’ve done with them has turned back into your own creative work?
FV: It makes me less afraid, too. I think the whole process of trying to be a creative person is just an unpeeling of layers. You do it throughout a lifetime and I think if you’re honest, you’re trying to get deeper and get a deeper understanding of what you’re trying to say. At least I am. I’m trying to understand more and more of what I really want to say. It’s a continual process. And if I see my students also going through the same thing, at their own pace, it also makes me feel like I have to do it more and it makes me feel at ease to dig even deeper, to express things that maybe five years ago I would have felt, “No way. I can’t do that.” You know, if I want to now, I’d do a primal scream in a performance, I feel comfortable enough to do that. Five years ago, that probably would have scared me. Even if I really wanted to, I might have held back. Now I don’t hold back.
Sheila Jordan: Music Saved My Life
April 6, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Seventy years ago, Sheila Jordan was in high school in Detroit and heard Charlie Parker’s recording of “Now’s The Time” for the very first time. It’s a moment she still remembers vividly. She instantly decided that she wanted to devote her life to jazz and that’s exactly what she did. Obsessed with bebop, she moved to its epicenter in New York City, tracked down Parker, and ultimately married his pianist, Duke Jordan.
Although she remained steadfast in her devotion to this music, the path from falling in love with it to establishing a career in it—and to ultimately being named an NEA Jazz Master—was circuitous. Only a few years after she moved to New York, Parker died at the age of 34, a casualty of heroin addiction. Her husband, also addicted, left her soon after the birth of their daughter Tracey. Sheila, a single mother, worked a full-time job as a typist (a job she kept until her late 50s) and—when able to find a babysitter—sang at a Greenwich Village club called the Page Three where she was accompanied by various pianists including Herbie Nichols and Cecil Taylor.
But the first jazz icon to utilize her unique vocal gifts and to attempt to bring the world’s attention to them was George Russell, who made her voice the centerpiece of the intense rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” which appeared on his seminal 1962 LP, The Outer View. Russell also arranged for Jordan to record an entire album which was released later that same year on Blue Note; Portrait of Sheila is one of the only vocal LPs in the discography of that legendary jazz record label. Despite that album’s now iconic status, Jordan remained in virtual obscurity for the rest of the 1960s—making only a brief cameo appearance in Carla Bley’s jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill. In fact, Jordan did not make a follow-up recording until 1975’s Confirmation, which was released by the Japanese label East Wind and was not available internationally until its CD re-release thirty years later.
That album nevertheless proved to be the turning point in Jordan’s career. Two years later, she made her first recording as part of a voice and bass duet—a combination she pioneered—with Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen. By decade’s end, she co-led a quartet with pianist Steve Kuhn, an ensemble in which her voice was totally integrated with the ensemble rather than the typical singer and back-up group configuration. In the 1980s, the voice and bass duet format really took off, first with Harvie S, and has continued since the ’90s with Cameron Brown. She also began composing her own material, although whatever she has sung she has made completely her own to the point that the line between composition and interpretation is extremely blurry.
Now in her late 80s, Jordan continues to perform both here in the United States and abroad. A few days before we spoke with her for NewMusicBox, she had a one-week engagement at the Times Square-area jazz mecca Birdland (a club named for her idol Charlie Parker), and a few days after that she headed to Austria and Germany for a series of concerts and masterclasses. She’s booked for the rest of the year with upcoming appearances in Massachusetts, Italy, and even Japan. It’s a far cry from her days performing at the Page Three where her $4 payment only covered the cost of a babysitter and her cab ride home.
“It’s a little bit better than that,” Jordan exclaimed with a laugh. “But, sometimes I don’t even know what I’m going to make. … I get all these gigs through musicians, most of them. I love to work with young musicians. They go out there and they set up a tour. They ask me if I will do a tour with them and I say yes. You have to be able to read music and you have to be able to swing. That’s all I ask. If you have those things covered, we have no problem. I love to sing with them.”
Sheila Jordan’s passion for music is stronger than ever. It’s contagious!
Sheila Jordan: I know it’s music that saved my life. I mean, I never thought about it too much, except that as a little kid growing up, it wasn’t a happy childhood. The only way I made myself happy as a kid was to sing, and I would just make up songs. I would do, like, improvising on the hits of the day or whatever, and at that time the hits of the day were by the great composers, so there were great tunes. If my grandfather paid the light bill, we’d have lights and electricity, and I would be able to hear the Hit Parade. I had to learn that stuff really quickly.
So I really tuned my ears up at a very young age to listen and keep it in my head. I was only going to hear this maybe once or twice. Then you’d get the sheet music. Well, not the sheet the music, but you’d get a book that had all the lyrics of the songs. My friend would get it, and she’d loan it to me. So that’s how it started, but I know music saved my life. I never realized how much until I went through different times in my life—I didn’t feel like killing myself, but I felt so hopeless. You know, it’s like, whoa. But I would go and find a place to sing and do some music, and I’d feel better. I’d say, “Why was I feeling so bad when I have this?” Plus, of course, I had my daughter, too, but there were rough times even after my daughter was grown.
It’s always been my goal in life to keep jazz alive. I never expected to come as far as I did in this music. Never. I really didn’t. All I’ve ever wanted to do is let people know that this is a wonderful music. I call it the stepchild of American music because it’s not accepted the way it should be. And in actuality, it’s the only music that we can really say came from America. Jazz. You know?
FJO: Well, another music that came from here is Native American music, the music of the people who were here originally. And that goes back to your ancestry.
FJO: I’m curious about when you became aware of that ancestry and when it became part of your musical vocabulary.
SJ: I knew it was there. I know it’s on my father’s side, though I never really knew my father that well. You know, he married my mother to give me a name when I was born and that was about it. Then he disappeared, basically. On my mother’s side, I knew we had it. I knew as a kid because we were the poorest family. The two poorest in Pennsylvania at the time—we were one of them. And sometimes, we were referred to as half breeds. I remember as a little kid hearing that expression. I also remember hearing the expression, “Don’t give those half breeds firewater.” My family was into alcohol. My grandfather had the cunning, baffling, powerful disease of alcoholism. Alcoholism was very prominent in my background, but I really never knew too much about the Native Americans. It came up—I knew it of course—but I’m more into it now. I remember thinking when I was a little older had I not gotten into music, one of the things I really would have gotten into would have been the culture and the whole thing about Native Americans. I would have gotten into the whole Native American background thing and I would have worked for that cause.
FJO: In almost all of your performances for decades now, there’s always some element of Native American chanting.
SJ: Yeah, that’s always been there. But I just never thought about it one way or the other.
FJO: So you wouldn’t have heard that music growing up necessarily.
SJ: No, I did not hear it. It’s just in me, as they say, born right in. It’s nothing that I was taught or heard or anything. It’s just there.
FJO: You were saying the other night during your gig at Birdland that you found out that you had a grandmother or a great grandmother who was a Seneca queen.
SJ: Her name was Queen Aliquippa. She was the queen of the Seneca nation, and she would be my three-generations grandmother. I think three generations. So, my feeling was, “Oh my God. She was royalty. So that makes me royalty had Columbus not discovered America. If he hadn’t discovered America, and we were still within the native nations, I mean, I would be royalty, wouldn’t I?”
FJO: Well, one good thing about Columbus discovering America is that all these people came here and jazz happened.
SJ: Well, that’s true. The amazing thing about Native Americans is there are a lot of Afro-Americans who also have a Native American background [like] Don Cherry—he and I were very close—and Jon Hendricks. Jon is always on me about “you have some land coming to you or some money coming to you from the government.” I never get into it. Yeah, right, how much? Two dollars!
Anyway, I was so involved with the music that I never thought one way or another about Native Americans. But I did think, when I got older, about the Afro-Americans and their suffering and my suffering in order to stay with the people that I wanted to be with. Most people would have just given up. They would have just said this is not worth it. It’s not worth it to constantly go to the police station as a young woman in Detroit because I was hanging out with friends who happened to be Afro-American. But the music was very important to me. So it was the music that kept me going. They would knock me down and I would pick myself up and go right back out and find out where this music was going on and learn as much as I could. It was hard learning, but it was worth it.
FJO: Now the incredible thing about jazz is it’s the byproduct of this coming together. It is the music of integration.
SJ: It is.
FJO: It’s the melding of European harmonic sensibilities and African rhythmic sensibilities and creating new music from pre-existing music—from popular songs of the day—or taking a 12-bar blues and making it your own, turning it into something completely different. You said that when you were a little girl, you were making up songs.
SJ: Oh, yeah.
FJO: So you were composing.
SJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
FJO: So at what point did you become aware that you were creating something, making someone else’s creation actually into your own creation.
SJ: I don’t think I’ve ever been conscious of it. The thing is I don’t deliberately think about it. I never did, and I don’t think that I ever will. It’s what happens. When I hear a song, the thing that captures me first, more than anything, is the melody, which is the total opposite of singers usually. They hear the lyrics. I hear the melody first, and I would suppose that’s what an instrumentalist does. But I’m so influenced by instrumentalists, mainly Charlie Parker. The minute I hear a song that has a beautiful melody, “Huh, I love that.” Then I’ll say, “Gee, I wonder what the words are like.” Usually they’re okay, but if they’re not, I’ll just change ‘em. I’ll make them okay for who I am and what I feel.
The one thing I do though—which I feel is very important and also respects the composers—is I learn the melody exactly as it’s written. I learned that quite a long time ago. I basically think I learned from Charlie Parker that learning the melody of the tune is so important. Even now, teaching singers, I tell them learning melody notes are the stepping stones to improvisation. You can’t go anywhere safely in the music if you don’t know what was there originally because you could go out somewhere and get lost. It could be a disaster. But no matter where the spirit of the music takes you—it might take you all the way out on the other side of nowhere, and you’re there in the reverie of the feeling of the music itself, you almost leave your body, seriously, then all of sudden you get that jolt, “wait a minute, oh my God, where am I?”—if you have the original melody in your head, you come back.
FJO: What’s so interesting about that though is every time you sing a song, it’s completely different.
SJ: Is it?
FJO: To my ears, each time you sing a melody it has a slightly different shape. It’s clear that you love the melody, but the melody that winds up happening is often a new melody, your melody.
SJ: Yeah, but at some point in the tune I usually state the original melody. But I’m not thinking about it. When I sing a song, after I’ve learned the tune the way it’s written, and then after I learn the chord changes, and hear the music, and get the depth of what the song is about, I don’t think about it when I sing it. I just sing it. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t even plan it. What I plan is how to get into the tune, and how to get out of it. The rest is just conversation.
FJO: In terms of knowing the melody as it’s written on the page, you’re talking about reading music notation.
FJO: So at some point early on, you learned to read music. When did that happen?
SJ: I had a great aunt who was a piano teacher. But she was tough, and I have little hands. When I was a little kid, I couldn’t reach the keys the way I was supposed to, but she used to beat my hands with a ruler if I placed them on the wrong keys. I knew what I was supposed to reach, but my hands were too small. She’d smack my hands with that ruler, and I’ll never forget—my hands were black and blue. My grandmother said, “What’s wrong with your hands?” I said, “Well, Aunt Alma hit me because I didn’t put them on the piano right.” So she said, “That’s it.” I couldn’t go for piano anymore. We couldn’t really afford piano anyway. She gave me the lessons free, but the torture of having my hands beat all the time was not worth it.
So I’m not great at reading, I will be very honest about that. But in today’s world, and that’s what I tell the students that I teach, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t take advantage; it’s all there now. It’s free, man. You could go and learn all this stuff for nothing, you know? I’ve said to myself, “When I have some time, I’m going to go back to school and I’m going to really learn how to play the piano the right way.” I don’t have any time now. But I can pick out the tune well enough to learn it, so I can read enough. I’m not a great sight reader, that’s for sure. I hear quicker than I read.
FJO: But in terms of hearing vs. reading, in the interview with you that’s in the book Jazzwomen, you stressed not learning from recordings. Particularly, I think, because if you focus only on a specific recording, that particular interpretation will influence you too much.
SJ: It will not be yours. And it will not be what’s there originally. You want to sound like them? Come on. Do you honestly think that you hear Billie Holliday sing a song, and you’re going to sing that song exactly the way you heard her sing it? Are you out of your mind? Billie Holiday? The amazing thing about Billie Holiday is I always thought that [she was singing] the original melody of the song, because she was so precise and it was so smooth that you never in a million years thought that she was altering notes. But she was. That’s another beauty of learning the music the way it was originally written. I’d like hearing a song, and then I’d play the notes and say, “Wait a minute!” Sometimes I’d like her melody better. You know, that’s okay. But in the meantime, I’m not going to try to sing like Billie Holiday. Who could?
FJO: You mention Billie Holiday and the other night you sang about Ella Fitzgerald. They are both heroes of yours. Yet the people who really were your mentors weren’t singers. They were instrumentalists. Charlie Parker…
SJ: That’s right. He was it.
FJO: Lennie Tristano.
SJ: Charlie Parker was my main influence. I mean, I would do anything in the world to hear Charlie Parker. Anything. I would pay anything. I would go anywhere I could possibly go to hear Bird, and he became a very dear friend of mine. And he turned me on to so many things. After I moved from Detroit to New York, I had a wonderful loft where I used to have wonderful sessions. I was studying with Lennie Tristano at the time, but I had known Bird before that and he started coming up to my loft a lot. A couple of times he had an LP under his arm and he said, “I want you to hear something.” He put it on and it had nothing to do with jazz. He turned me on to Hindemith. He turned me on to Béla Bartók. He turned me on to Stravinsky. Bird that did. He was very much into that music, and he felt that I should hear it because he always told me I had million dollar ears. I used to say, “Bird, I tried to play these tunes, but I hear it quicker than I can play it.” He said, “Well, you got million dollar ears, so use your ears.”
FJO: It’s so interesting that the advanced harmonic vocabulary of composers like Bartók, Hindemith, and Stravinsky had such an impact on jazz during the transition from swing to bebop. You mentioned Hindemith. There was this fabulous pianist, Mel Powell, who played with Benny Goodman and recorded with his own trio. But then he decided he was going to go study composition with Hindemith at Yale, and he wound up going away from jazz completely and was an early pioneer of electronic music.
SJ: Oh yeah, that’s right.
FJO: In those days, you had to be either this or that. I think we’re living in a time now where you don’t have to make those kinds of choices as much; you can do both.
FJO: You can write “classical” music and still do jazz. You have always clearly identified with the word jazz, so I wonder what the word means for you.
SJ: Well, first of all, I never felt that I had to go in any direction. My heart and soul were totally into this music from the first moment I heard four notes of Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time.” That’s the first tune I ever heard. That was in high school. Before that I was always a singer. I sang on radio programs, amateur hours, and whatever. I was always singing as a kid. But I never knew what I wanted to sing until I heard “Now’s The Time” by Charlie Parker and his Reboppers. They weren’t even called Beboppers yet. That to me was the beginning. And I knew from that moment, I said, “Oh my God, this is the music I’ll dedicate my life to. This is it.” I was a kid, but it was almost like I was a grown-up person all of a sudden.
I never thought about any other music. Did I like other music? Oh yes. But did I go and hear other music? No. First of all, I couldn’t afford it. If I could afford to buy any music at all, it was always Charlie Parker, or bebop. To answer your question, I would say jazz is the name, but it’s beyond a name. It’s a feeling that when you get it, you don’t think about doing anything else. I never thought about any other music. It was the music that I said I’ll do. And I worked hard and long to do it. But did I give up? No, because it was embedded in me. It was like food. It was like sleep. It was like everything I have to do every day. It’s become part of who I am and what I am.
FJO: So what was it about “Now’s The Time” that was different than anything else you had heard?
SJ: Just hearing Charlie Parker play. It wasn’t even the tune. It was Bird, man. My skin was crawling it had moved me so much. I can still see myself at that jukebox with that nickel saying, “Oh, ‘Now’s The Time,’ that sounds interesting” and putting that nickel in and then hitting that number. Was it G6? Something like that. I hit that number, and all of a sudden [starts singing the melody of “Now’s The Time”]. I get chills just remembering it now. And I never forgot that. I found the music that I want to dedicate my life to, regardless of how I do it—whether I talk about, whether I teach it, whether I sing it, whatever.
About two years ago, I was doing a concert in Connecticut with a poet, Billy Collins. Cameron [Brown] and I were doing a bass and voice concert. This friend of mine, Peter Ash, who’s a lovely artist and a drummer came to see us. He’s always on the scene when he can be, if I’m up that way. And he said, “I’ve got a present for you.” I said, “Oh really. What is it?” He said, “Open it up.” It was in a box, and I said, “Well, can I open it up after the concert?” He said, “No, no. Open it up now.” So I opened the box, and here there was this beautiful thing all framed up; I could see it was a frame. I took the tissue paper off—Charlie Parker and his Reboppers’ ‘Now’s The Time,’ framed. I was so emotional that I said to Cameron, “I don’t know if I can sing, man. This is heavy for me.” And he said, “Yeah, you can sing. Just go out there and do it.”
It took me all the way back, and it reminded me of the struggle of trying to keep “Now’s The Time” alive. I went all the way back, and I said well, well, well. Now look where I am today. How blessed I am to be able to go out there today and do this music! And it was all because of Charlie Parker and “Now’s The Time.”
SJ: It was the heart and soul. It was the feeling. It was—whew—it was just this sound, this feeling. You knew that it was true. It was honest. It was just something I’d never heard before. I never heard anybody play music that deeply. It was so deep. It’s beyond words what I felt. Jazz is beyond words for me.
FJO: Yet you’re a jazz singer, and it’s about music and words.
SJ: Yeah. But to express verbally what it is is impossible. I can’t find the words to express that feeling. I wish I could. Lord knows I’ve tried. I’ve thought about it, but there’s never a word that’s true enough, or big enough, or strong enough. That’s how big this whole music thing is to me.
FJO: So you knew you wanted to devote yourself to the music after that. Then you found a way to hear Charlie Parker live for the first time, which is something you sing about in your song “Sheila’s Blues.”
SJ: I had already moved from Pennsylvania to Detroit—I went to high school in Detroit—and Bird was playing at the Club El Sino. It was an interracial club. Of course, the police didn’t like it. It was run by a white couple from Canada; Canadians were much cooler about race than Detroiters were. We had all the race riots and the whole trip, it was horrible. Anyway, one time Bird came to Detroit, which was not that often, and he was playing at the Club El Sino, and you had to be 21-years old to get in there. And I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve got to go see Bird. I’ll dye my hair blond. I’ll put on a lot of makeup, smoke cigarettes, and wear high heels.” I found my mother’s hat and I got myself all decked out. I forged my mother’s birth certificate. I knew I was going to get in. But I’ve never looked my age. Look at me today. I’m 86 years old, and I don’t look 86; I’ve been told that. Well, you can imagine, I was about 15, something like that. I looked 12, dressed, you know, like kids dressing up in their mother’s clothes.
I got to the door. I’ll never forget. “I’m gonna light a cigarette because he’ll see me smoking my cigarette and he’ll know that I’m 21.” And he just looked and said, “Kid, first of all, you shouldn’t be smoking.”—I don’t sing this in the song—“Second, you’re too young. Go home and do your homework. I can’t let you in here. You wanna have me arrested?” Because it was a black club. I was so upset. “Please, please, I’m 21.” “No you’re not. Don’t give me any trouble. Go home and do your homework.”
So I left, and I was heartbroken. But I noticed that there was an alleyway where I could get close to the window, or maybe the door, and if it opened a little bit, I could hear the music. I tried the door, and it did open a little bit. I didn’t want to open it too much. Obviously when all this went down at the front door, Charlie Parker was standing nearby and heard all this. For some reason, he must have realized that I was going to the alley. My feet were killing me, because I never wore high-heeled shoes at that age. So I sat on the garbage can, so my feet wouldn’t hurt. I moved it up closer to the door, and Bird started playing. He must have walked off the stage, because he came and sort of lightly kicked the door open, and he stood in the doorway, and he played for me. I’ll never forget that. I can see it now.
FJO: It’s an amazing story.
SJ: That’s how Bird was. Giving, kind—I mean, we loved him as a kid. Well, we love him as an old person. Barry Harris doesn’t talk about anybody else except Charlie Parker and Bud Powell when he teaches. Those are his idols, too.
FJO: How soon after that did you form the vocal trio?
SJ: I think we might have had the vocal trio then, too. But why those guys weren’t with me [that night], I don’t remember. All I remember is for some reason I had to be alone. I guess they realized they couldn’t get in, because they were all too young also. But I was determined. I really thought I was going to get in. I didn’t, but hey, that was much greater than getting in the club. I got to hear a whole tune of Charlie Parker, solos and the whole thing. It was wonderful.
FJO: The vocal trio never went into a recording studio.
SJ: No, we only did it for the love of the music. I never thought that I’d get this far with this music. It was never a big thing of mine to become a jazz singer per se. I just wanted to keep the music alive. And when we had the trio, we just did it for the love of singing, singing Charlie Parker hits. And they were great those two, Skeeter [Spight] and Mitch [Leroi Mitchell]. Skeeter is the greatest scat singer that I ever heard. I’ve never heard anyone scat like him. I had a cassette tape of him scatting. At one point, I went to Detroit. I was doing a bass and voice [concert] with Harvie S. And Skeeter and Mitch came to the concert, and I got them up to sing with me. And there was a cassette tape made. When my house burned down, that tape burned down with it. I lost everything when my house upstate burned down, but of all the things that I lost, the one thing that I really regret was that tape. The other thing was a napkin with Bill Evans’s chord changes on “If You Could See Me Now.”
When George Russell got me the recording date with Blue Note, I said I wanted to do “If You Could See Me Now,” but I wanted to do Bill Evans’s chord changes, because I had heard Bill’s record, and I said, “Oh my God, I love that.” So I met Bill. We went to—I forget, it might have been the Embers or one of those clubs. I remember the stage was on top of the bar. They had to walk up to the stage from the bar, and that’s where they played.
After the intermission, Bill came down and George, who was very friendly with him because he actually brought him from Chicago, said, “Sheila wants your chord changes to ‘If You Could See Me Now.’ She wants to record it. How do you feel about it?” He said, “Fine, but what do I write them on?” And I said, “Can you do it on this paper napkin?” And that’s why I had the paper napkin. I gave it to Barry Galbraith, who transcribed them and put them down on paper, but I kept that napkin, and that burned in the fire, that and that tape of the trio singing after so many years. But that trio was great. I learned a lot singing with that trio, because they were very dedicated, those two, Skeeter and Mitch. Every time somebody’d come to town, all the local musicians would say, “Get them up to sing.” It was unusual at the time. We didn’t realize that Lambert, Hendricks & Ross were coming up.
FJO: But as wonderful as it was to sing in the trio, you opted to leave Detroit.
SJ: Well, I left Detroit because I couldn’t take the racial prejudice anymore. I was going with Frank Foster at the time. When I finally did leave, he was going into the Army, and I had no reason to stick around in Detroit. It was painful enough. As I said, most people would have just given up and said, you know, this is too much. I’m going to go live in the white neighborhood. But I never felt white-white anyway, because I’m not white-white. And I wanted to come to New York anyway, because I wanted to hear Charlie Parker. I wanted to be closer to that music. And he remembered me. He always remembered me as that little kid sitting on a garbage can. He remembered that. And he said, “You’re the kid with the million dollar ears” because every time he came to town, if it was a club where you didn’t have to be 21-years old to get in, me and Skeeter and Mitch would go and hear Bird. He knew we sang, and he’d get us up to sing with him, “Confirmation” or whatever.
FJO: If only there was a recording of that.
SJ: I know! They didn’t record in those days. Listen, if only I had a camera at that time, when Bird was coming up to my loft after I moved to New York.
FJO: Nobody realized, and he died so young.
SJ: He was 34. It was shocking. One thing I’m grateful for is that he was not at my loft when he died, because he was at my loft a lot. I had a special bed for Bird. He had his own little couch. He’d come up and take a rest. But he was hanging out at the Baroness’ [Pannonica de Koenigswarter].
FJO: It’s fascinating that your other important mentor at that time was Lennie Tristano, whose approach to music was very different.
SJ: I found Lennie Tristano through Max Roach and Charlie Mingus. I was looking for a teacher. I wanted to be more knowledgeable technically about the music, and they gave me Lennie. Strangely enough, at my first lesson with Lenny he said, “Okay, this is your lesson.” And he put on, guess what, Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time.”
SJ: I said, “Oh, I know it.” He said, “Oh really? Sing it.” So I sang it. And he said, “Wow, you do know it!” So then he said, “Okay, how about Lester Young? Pres.” I said, “Oh no, I don’t know Pres.” He said, “Okay, that’s your lesson.” But what I learned from Lenny was not so much technical stuff as it was really believing in myself, and just going out there and doing it, and not to be afraid because I was a young woman that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. He gave me encouragement more than anything else in the world, which was priceless, because you don’t get that from a lot of teachers. I learned a lot about teaching from Lenny. He never broke your spirit. He never came on like a big shot. He never yelled. He never screamed. He was very understanding. He gave me a lot of encouragement.
FJO: Some time after those studies, but before that Blue Note recording we started talking about, you were singing at a club and Herbie Nichols was your accompanist.
SJ: That’s right.
FJO: I wish somebody had made a recording of that underneath the table the way someone did with Monk and Coltrane.
SJ: Herbie was a sweetheart. He didn’t talk very much. That was at the Page Three. And this again goes back to the dedication to the music, needing to keep the music alive within me and just in general within my soul and outside of my soul. I worked in an office for years as a typist to support my daughter and to support myself. I wasn’t out there looking for jobs singing. The kinds of jobs for singing were like bar mitzvahs and weddings and ceremonies. I don’t do the Top 40. I’m not putting that down. It’s just that I don’t do them. My music is jazz, and that’s what I want to do. But there were no jobs out there for full-time jazz unless you were a big star. And I wasn’t a big star, and I didn’t care to be a big star. I found a place to sing, though, a place in the Village called the Page Three. I got paid four dollars a night. I was still having my office job, but two nights a week I would go to the Page Three. It started off being five nights a week, but I couldn’t do it. It was too much. And they were cool. They gave me two nights a week. So, Monday night was jazz session night. We’d have a whole trio. But usually during the week, they just had piano and drums. Sometimes bass players would come and sit in.
Anyway, on Monday nights there was a regular piano player, John Knapp usually, and the trio. But on Tuesday and Wednesday nights it would be Herbie Nichols, or somebody of that caliber, so I worked with Herbie for a long time. But the point is, singing with Herbie Nichols, I never realized how important and how incredible he was. I just enjoyed singing with him. I was doing “When the World was Young” and I went on a trip with him that, when I came back, it was like, “Wow, where were we man?” It was incredible. I totally left my body. I’ve had out of body experiences singing—not a lot, because if you have too many, then it doesn’t mean anything. But when you have an out of body experience doing something that you love and you truly believe in, you totally leave your body. It’s like you’re floating over and I remember having maybe one or two of those. I know definitely one. It could have been two with Herbie Nichols. He took me on a musical trip that—whew—one time I was doing “Love for Sale” and he did that. Oh my God, I forgot where I was. I was just floating around.
FJO: Did you ever sing any of Herbie Nichols’s own material?
SJ: No, I did not. But I have his tunes. In fact, I have a whole book on his music. But two songs that I did with Herbie were with his chord changes.
FJO: Now when you say he took you totally somewhere else with “Love for Sale,” it makes me think about one of the early recordings of Cecil Taylor. He recorded “Love for Sale.” Cecil Taylor was another one of the accompanists that worked with you there.
SJ: Yeah, he was at the Page Three. The amazing thing with the Page Three was that they had all of these entertainers that came in from all over the world, but I was the only jazz singer there. And they called me a new note in jazz. But there were people that would come out and do blues. We’d have a stripper. The first time I ever heard Tiny Tim, he came into the Page Three. I’d been there quite a few years, and he came in with his ukulele and played [singing] “Tip toe, through the tulips.” We were hysterical. Whoever thought! And he had long hair at the time which was very unusual. Men did not wear their hair like that then. I used to say, “Tiny, do me a favor, when you go home”—because he’d take the subway home—“put your hair underneath your cap. Because you don’t want to get beat up.” He loved to play the ukulele, and he’d give you little presents. He’d wrap all the presents up in little packages, with a fancy bow, and you’d open it up, and it would be throat lozenges. Oh my God, those days at the Page Three were incredible. And the people that came in there, it was not to be believed.
FJO: But you and the people who accompanied you were the only jazz musicians.
FJO: I didn’t realize that. We talked about jazz being the music of integration, and jazz was certainly a force during the civil rights movement, a force for social change, reform, and tolerance. This was right before the era when many groups began to demand to be treated fairly and with respect. Page Three was a gay bar.
SJ: It was a gay bar. Absolutely.
FJO: This was pre-Stonewall.
SJ: That’s right. Not acceptable, man. But you’d be surprised, the big shots that came in there. I will not mention names. I remember somebody said to me, “Well, you’re not gay, why do you work in a gay bar.” I said, “I don’t care who people go with; what do I care? I don’t care about color. I don’t care about sexual preference. I don’t care about any of that. The only thing I care about is being around people who understand what I am trying to do musically.” The Page Three hired me. They gave me four dollars a night. I paid the babysitter three, and took a taxi home, because it was four o’clock in the morning. And at that time, a dollar for a taxi was a lot. After I paid the sitter, I had nothing left. I didn’t do it for the money. I did it because I needed a place to express the music. I needed to sing. But I had my day job.
FJO: All of this happened after Duke [Jordan] left.
SJ: Yes. Duke left right after Tracey was born.
FJO: And you never worked musically with him.
SJ: No. A lot of times when he was playing with Bird, Bird would ask me to sit in. And I would do that. I sat in with Bird a lot. I didn’t get paid. It wasn’t a job, you know, a gig. Bird would just say, “Come on, sing a couple of tunes. Sheila and Duke play.” That was the only time.
FJO: So the connection to him wasn’t really musical.
SJ: No, not at all.
FJO: It’s a pity. I have a trio record of his that’s quite good.
SJ: Oh yeah, he was a very underrated piano player. Nobody ever talks about him, or the incredible songs that he wrote and his incredible solos. His intros for Charlie Parker’s tunes are masterpieces as far I’m concerned. Oh my God, his introductions are so beautiful. But, you know, I’m grateful to him for two things. He gave me a beautiful daughter, and I love my last name. So, after I got divorced, I kept my married name, Jordan, because I like it. I’m going to keep the Jordan name alive, but you know, he had a cunning, baffling, powerful disease like Bird. I never took him to jail, or to court, or anything. It’s just not in my nature to do that. It’s too bad, because Tracey called him and she finally got in touch with him just before he died, and they sort of had like a little relationship going. But yeah, it was sad that he didn’t get to know Tracey, because I think he would have been very proud of her.
FJO: I’m curious about how you went from performing at the Page Three while working as a typist and raising your daughter to your recording “You Are My Sunshine” with George Russell. I have to tell you that I still remember the first time I heard it, which was more than 30 years ago, and it was something that changed my life.
FJO: Hearing the vulnerability of your voice, when it comes in completely unaccompanied after this chaotic polytonal George Russell arrangement, and then hearing both elements come together is one of the most remarkable things I’ve heard in my life to this day.
SJ: I’m so glad to hear that, because a lot of people are not aware of “Sunshine.” I think some musicians a long time ago with Horace Silver’s trio, not Horace though, were in London somewhere—I forget—and they were on a radio show and they played “Sunshine.” And you know what the guy said? “Man, that was a hell of a long introduction.” They didn’t get it. He was a genius, George Russell, another underrated, incredible, extraordinary musician. The whole tune was primarily about the struggle of the coal miners being out of work, the union taking over, all the deaths and the tragedies that happened in the mines. It was horrible. You know, I saw that as a kid; I saw mine explosions. That’s why George wrote that because he wanted to know where I came from to sing the way I did. He came into the Page Three to hear one of his students, Jack Reilley, who was playing piano after Herbie Nichols. And he said, “Where do you come from to sing like that?” I said, “I come from hell, man,” just sort of joking around but serious, too. He said, “Well, can I visit hell with you sometime?” And I said, “Yeah, you can, if you want.”
So he drove me back to Pennsylvania. My grandmother was still alive. And she said, “Come on; let’s go up to the Bundt.” That was a club where all the miners hung out in Summerhill, which in South Fork was the mining area and was about a mile and a half away from where we lived. So we went up to the beer garden, as they called them, and there was only one miner in the place. He was sitting at the bar and my grandmother introduced us and started carrying on about us being famous and I said, “Please, I’m not famous. George is famous.”
But that sole coal miner looked up at me and said, “Well, do you still sing ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ Jeannie?” Jeannie was my nickname. Sheila Jeanette is my name, but I went by Jeannie as a kid. I hated Sheila, because they made fun of it; it was a very unusual name back there. And I said, “No. I don’t sing that anymore.” And he said, “Why not?” And then George Russell said, “Why not?” There was an old out-of-tune upright piano in a corner, so George went over and started playing it. And I started singing it with him. My grandmother was a little looped, and she literally pushed him off the bench. She said, “That’s not the way it goes.” And she sat down, and she played it, and I sang it with her for the coal miner. Later George said to me, “Man, she sounded like Thelonious Monk.”
George lived down on Bank Street and not too long after he said, “Sheila, why don’t you come down if you have a minute. I have something I want to play for you.” I said, “Yeah, okay.” So I made arrangements and I went down to his apartment, and he started playing this [singing] and I said, “Oh my God, that’s so nice.” Then he stopped and he said, “Sing.” I said, “Sing what?” And he said, “Sing ‘You Are My Sunshine.’” I said, “What?” “Sing ‘You My Sunshine.’” I said, “Well, are you going to play it for me?” “No, no, no. Just sing it.” I said, “Oh, I can’t sing it alone.” He said, “Yeah you can. You did it when you were a kid. So sing that now.” That’s how it started. Originally we wanted to call it a drinking song, because the miners drank a lot. On the weekends they’d go to this club in particular, and they would drink for the weekend, and then they’d go back to work into the mines again. So we wanted to call it a drinking song. It was actually a musical documentary on the coal miners of South Fork, Pennsylvania. It was very unusual. I guess I didn’t think that at the time, but it was.
FJO: It’s extraordinary. And another thing that’s so interesting about it is that it’s the only vocal track on any of those George Russell sextet recordings for Riverside.
SJ: Yes, he never recorded singers.
FJO: And there were amazing sidemen in that group. Don Ellis is playing trumpet on there.
SJ: Yes. He was incredible.
FJO: And Steve Swallow. On some of the other sextet records Eric Dolphy was part of the group. He wasn’t part of “You Are My Sunshine,” unfortunately. I wish he would have been. It would have been even more mind blowing.
SJ: Oh my. Whoa!
FJO: But anyway, as soon as I heard it, I wanted to hear more, but it was the only recording you were on that I could find. Then I learned about the Blue Note record, which was out of print at the time. It took me years to track it down, but it was another life changer!
SJ: That happened not too long after. That was George Russell’s doing. He heard me at the Page Three and thought enough of what I did that I could be part of something which turned out to be “Sunshine.” But then he paid for a tape of me and took it around to record companies. Blue Note picked it up right away, and they had never recorded a singer before. I think once they did a recording of a blues singer, but aside from that they never recorded singers—it was always instrumentalists—but they recorded me. The other person that George took it to was Quincy Jones, who was the A&R man for Mercury at the time. And he wanted to record me, but I had already signed with Blue Note.
FJO: You couldn’t do two records?
SJ: No, I couldn’t.
FJO: You signed an exclusive contract?
SJ: Yes, exactly. It was too bad. But anyway, Quincy wrote me a beautiful letter, and he said, “I’m so sorry that you can’t do the recording; maybe another time.” But I wasn’t the kind of person that would have got in touch with him and said, “Okay, how about now?” I just never pushed myself. Otherwise, I’m sure I could have done a record with him. I just never tried. I had a lot going on. I was working a day job, singing at the Page Three, taking care of my daughter, and it just didn’t cross my mind.
FJO: That Blue Note record, Portrait of Sheila, is unlike anything else recorded back then.
SJ: Everybody loves it. I can’t hear it. I can’t hear any of my stuff. I felt when I did it that it was very important to me. But I never listen back. I’m too critical.
FJO: But it amazes me that people didn’t follow up with you considering how unique that record was, how spare, no piano—
SJ: That was George’s idea. And Steve Swallow was on acoustic bass because he worked at the Page Three on Monday nights. But it was George’s idea for guitar. I said, “Why can’t we use piano?” And he said, “No, we’re using guitar; this is the way it’s going down.” It was Barry Galbraith, who was very sweet and a wonderful player, another underrated musician. George has done so many things for people. Did you have ever hear his New York, N.Y. ? That’s the first rap, with Jon Hendricks. Genius! The first rap record I ever heard. You talk about rap, these guys rapping today? Jon Hendricks did that. What he did for New York, N.Y., that was rapping.
FJO: Getting back to your own recordings, Portrait of Sheila is now an iconic record. But 13 years went by before you recorded your second album, Confirmation. That’s a very long time.
SJ: It was a long time. I have to be pushed. I don’t like to record. I don’t think about it. I just go out and sing the music. I should record again now, but I don’t.
FJO: I was hoping that one of your nights at Birdland last week got recorded, because I heard some amazing stuff from you on Thursday night.
SJ: Really? Oohhh, well. I don’t know.
FJO: One thing that you did in between those years that I find so interesting is that you participated in Escalator Over the Hill.
SJ: With Carla Bley.
FJO: That’s really wacky stuff. How did that come about?
SJ: I don’t remember actually. I guess Carla knew about me and she wanted me to be a part of it, me and Jeanne Lee.
FJO: And Linda Ronstadt, too!
SJ: Was Linda Ronstadt on it?
SJ: I don’t even remember. I don’t remember that record.
FJO: Even Carla’s daughter Karen Mantler, who was only a few years old at the time, was on it. You can hear her crying. It’s incredible.
SJ: Yeah, well Carla’s very creative. She’s something else. I was very happy to be part of that. But then I see the word “fuck” in the music. And I said, “Wait a minute. We’ll get arrested for this.” And she just laughed. I had to sing that on the record. It might have been the very first time it was ever recorded, that word. I believe so.
FJO: I think there were a couple of rock records in the late ‘60s that had “fuck” on them, but it was still pretty early.
SJ: Yeah, but it was pretty early. Yeah, that’s what I thought.
FJO: And you were the one assigned to sing it.
SJ: Well yeah, but I said to her at the time, “Are you sure?” And she said, “Yes.” So I said, “Okay. I’ll do it.”
FJO: What’s wonderful is that, after that came out, starting in the 1970s, even though you didn’t push yourself and you didn’t like to record, you did start to appear on recordings more and more. Your second record, Confirmation, is full of treasures starting with the title track, which is a Charlie Parker tune.
SJ: Those are the lyrics of those two guys from Detroit [Skeeter and Mitch].
FJO: There are other tracks on that album that were very unusual repertoire choices, I think. I’m particularly thrilled that you did the Dr. Seuss-Frederick Hollander song “Just Because We’re Kids” from the movie The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. I’ve never heard anyone else do that.
SJ: I don’t know if anybody else has done it.
FJO: But it made me wonder, what makes you choose repertoire? What makes you decide this is something you’re going to sing?
SJ: Well, first of all, I do a whole little children’s thing, sometimes with bass and voice. “Because We’re Kids” was just part of a whole children’s thing, like “Dat Dere.” I also do a beautiful ballad by Oscar Brown, Jr. called “Brother Where Are You?” It’s an incredible tune. But I don’t remember why I started doing the children’s thing, to tell you the truth. I think I did it in the Page Three years ago. And I think I did it because the audience sometimes can be kind of rude, you know. So I think it was sort of a take-off on, you know, if they listened.
FJO: It’s a shame that Confirmation was originally released only in Japan, but thankfully it has been re-issued and is available everywhere now. And, even more importantly, after you made that record, things gradually started to really take off. You then recorded your very first voice and bass duo album with Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen.
SJ: That’s right.
FJO: When I visited Oslo a few years back, I picked up Arild Andersen’s earliest recordings and I was amazed to discover that before he ever recorded that album with you, he recorded a track whose name is your address.
SJ: Yeah, he wrote that tune because they stayed here. I would let them stay here when they came, so they wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel. They wanted to come and check out New York City. I used to do that with a lot of the Europeans, and my daughter would say, “Mom, you’re taking in all these Europeans. You don’t know if they’re cool. What makes you think they’re better than Americans?” And I said, “Tracey, I know they’re okay. I wouldn’t take ‘em in if they weren’t.” Arild she knew real well, so that was different. But sometimes, I’d let people stay here for a week or so whom she didn’t know that well, or who didn’t know me very well at all. Then I sort of stopped, I guess. But ones like Jan Gabarek stayed here. Jan, Arild, Bobo Stenson—I used to take them all in, because they were beautiful players and they needed to check out New York. So Arild wrote that song at my address. He was grateful.
FJO: So in a way this apartment became a continuation of the jazz loft you had when you first moved to New York City.
SJ: Yes, it did. Yeah, except that I didn’t play music as much as I did then because of the surroundings. But I miss that. I would love to have a loft again where I could just have sessions and people would come by and play music and try out different ideas musically. It would be great.
FJO: We should talk a bit about the group you co-led with Steve Kuhn in the late ‘70s. You’re still performing with him; he was with you at Birdland last week. So that’s a relationship that goes back almost half a century.
SJ: That’s right.
FJO: What I find so interesting about that group you led together is that the voice functions as a member of the quartet rather than being a singer and a back-up group. It’s an integrated union.
SJ: That’s what we decided. Kuhn said, “I don’t want it to be a singer with a trio. I want it to be all of us together. You as part of it. I filled in. It was originally a saxophone player, Steve Slagle, but after Steve couldn’t do it I guess the guy that was booking Kuhn at the time said, “I think you should get a singer.” And Steve said, “The singer that I’d want would be Sheila Jordan.”
So we talked about it. He said, “I don’t want this to be you leading with the trio.” That’s how that started. And that’s why, even today, I never have them play a tune [in the beginning] and then come [in singing]. You know what I mean? A lot of times, they play a beautiful tune in the front and then the singer comes out. I didn’t want it to be like that. I want the audience’s full attention. If I go up there first, they’ll have full attention. It’s not just background music until the singer comes on. Boom. This is it. But then I feature them in the middle, and then you’ve got the audience. Then the audience will listen to the trio. That’s the reason I do that.
FJO: I’d like to talk with you a bit more about the whole voice and bass idea. It sounds totally natural, yet it was completely revolutionary at the time and some people didn’t accept it initially.
SJ: If you get them through the first tune, they’re hooked, the first two tunes. I remember I was up in Ottawa doing a festival with Harvie S at the time when he was still doing the bass part. The place was packed. And a guy came in the door and said, “Where’s the piano? Where’s the drums?” He was screaming after the tune was over; the whole audience heard him. So all of a sudden I said, “In my head, man.” The rhythm section is in my head—the piano and the drums. But he was like “What!?” and then he walked out.
FJO: His loss.
SJ: Yeah, well, it’s getting more popular. I just finished a tour with Cameron Brown. We were in Portland, Vancouver, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Arcata, California, and it was very, very successful. I’ve worked out, like, stories in the bass and voice. These are little things with little stories like a dance medley of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. There are a whole bunch of different things. And I keep working on it.
FJO: One reason I think that having just a bass accompany the voice is so effective is the voice can sing any note and a fretless bass can play any note. It’s not a like a piano which is locked into 12-tone equal temperament. Both the bass and the voice can slide and can get all these microtonal gradations, so they’re ideal partners.
SJ: I heard it for years. The first time I ever sang in public with [just] the bass was with Charles Mingus in Toledo, Ohio. I went there to visit family and I asked a family member if they wanted to go and hear some jazz, because I found out Charlie Mingus was playing at this jazz club. And she said yes. So we went. I’d known Mingus from when he took me to Lennie’s and we did a couple of gigs later. But anyway, he saw me come in and he said, “Come on up and sing something with me.” I said, “What? You’re not a piano or guitar.” He said, “That doesn’t bother you when you’re at Lennie’s.” Because I would try out bass and voice things at Lennie’s. That’s what was so great about Lennie’s. And I said, “No, I can’t.” He said, “Yeah, you can. Come on.” So he played “Yesterdays” and I sang it. And it felt good. Mingus played beautifully, of course. And so I knew eventually I would try to get this off the ground, which I did. I’ve been working on the bass and voice for years.
FJO: Another thing you’ve worked on for many years is teaching other singers. You’ve been a pioneer in the teaching of jazz singing and you’ve been a mentor to generations of musicians.
SJ: Well, I try to just carry the message and give it back. You know, in order to keep it, you have to give it away. That’s what they say, and it’s true.
FJO: One of the really extraordinary vocalists you’ve mentored is Theo Bleckmann, and there’s a wonderful album of the two of you singing together.
SJ: Oh, Jazz Child. I brought him over here years ago. I met him in Graz. He used to sing like me for a while. He wrote me a thing one time, or he called me, saying, “Well, I’m not singing like you anymore.” I said, “Oh, that’s good. But I’m glad you were, I’m honored that you even dug what I did.” He’s a very beautiful, talented young man. I’m very close with him. He’s like a son.
FJO: I’d like to know more about your own original material.
SJ: Well, I don’t write that much, though, Frank.
FJO: Your song “The Crossing” is extremely moving.
SJ: Oh, thank you. I didn’t do “The Crossing” at Birdland, except on one night. I sang it a capella. This woman wanted to hear it. It was on the opening night. And I said, “I don’t have it in the set.” I felt that maybe musically it wasn’t challenging enough for the rhythm or for Steve to play. I don’t know; that was my own feeling. But I usually close a concert with it. I’ve never sung it in a club too much. Anyway, I did sing it without accompaniment. But I never think too much about it. That was for my recovery. I wrote “The Crossing” for my recovery. A guy that I used to go with gave me a sculpture of his one time, and he called it “The Crossing.” It was made out of wine corks from all the bottles of wine that I had drunk in a certain period of time when I was still drinking. And there was a break in it. There were all these corks, and then there’s a break, and then there’s a little small cork. That encouraged me. I was inspired by that to write “The Crossing,” that and the fact that I was in recovery. I won’t go into detail about what the name of the group is, but I am a loyal member of this organization and it is incredible. There’s no reason that anybody has to be out there and suffer with alcohol or drug addiction. You don’t have to. There is help for you if you want it. You just have to know where to go.
FJO: You have a few other originals, too, like the song in which you tell the story of hearing Charlie Parker from outside the club.
SJ: Oh, “Sheila’s Blues.”
FJO: I love how you’ve turned your life into this song. There’s now a wonderful biography of you, but in a way I already knew a lot of that story from hearing you sing “Sheila’s Blues.”
SJ: Right. I just wrote another tune a few years ago called “Workshop Blues.” That’s for the singers that I teach. It’s a minor blues. I like to write. I think I could write a lot of things. I found some lyrics that I wrote. Obviously, they were just to somebody [else]’s tune, but I don’t remember whose tunes because at that time I was drinking. But I happened to find these and I said, “What the heck is this?” I’m reading this and it’s heavy. Then vaguely in the back of my mind, I remembered it being something to do with somebody who gave me music and wanted me to write lyrics to their music. I think if I had more time, I’d really put more thought into it. I don’t know if you ever heard the words I wrote to Don Cherry’s “Art Deco.” Have you ever heard the words I wrote to “Remembrance,” which is about Native Americans? That’s quite nice.
FJO: Tell me more about the “Workshop Blues.” I’m curious about how you feel hearing other singers sing your tune.
SJ: I’ve never heard anybody sing anything that I wrote. I hear them sing the “Workshop Blues” because in a workshop situation they’re singing it, but to go out to a club and hear a singer sing—I’ve never heard anybody sing my blues or any of my tunes.
FJO: What would that feel like, do you think?
SJ: I think I’d be very honored. I’m sure I would feel wonderful. But I don’t know, because it hasn’t happened yet.
FJO: Now you’re about to go to Europe.
SJ: I’m going to Germany next Monday.
FJO: Is this also with Steve Kuhn?
SJ: No, I’m there with Jochen Pfister; it’s a trio I’ve worked with before. These guys are wonderful. They get me tours. That’s how I work. I’ll be with him and then from there, I got to Graz for the 50th anniversary of their university. I started a workshop over there in the ‘80s, and they want me to come and be a part of it. And I’ll do also some touring and some teaching while I’m there. So I’ll be gone for about a month. Then I’ll come back home. Then I have a little time off. But then I’m going to Italy. Then I’ll be going to Jazz in July, that I started at Amherst, Mass, thanks to Billy Taylor and Max Roach and Dr. [Frederick] Tillis. They brought me up there. I’ll do that for two weeks. That’s a two-week workshop. I love teaching. Then I’ll come back. I’m just booked up.
FJO: You don’t need a babysitter anymore, but I hope it doesn’t just cover babysitter and cab fare.
SJ: No! It’s a little bit better than that. But, you know, they’ll always say, “What’s your budget?” I never charge too much. I say, “What’s your budget?” And they tell me and I say, “Okay, so what can you afford to pay me?” Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m going to make. I don’t know what I’m making in Germany. I haven’t asked. I do know what I’m making in Graz because I’m doing a big thing there. So they’re going to send the money to the bank. I’ll go to Japan again in December. I get all these gigs through musicians, most of them. I love to work with young musicians. They go out there and they set up a tour. They ask me if I will do a tour with them and I say yes. You have to be able to read music and you have to be able to swing. That’s all I ask. If you have those things covered, we have no problem. I love to sing with them.
FJO: It’s ironic. You initially avoided success, but you’ve become an incredible success. And your success still continues to grow.
SJ: It’s amazing what happened to me. All these awards! I was like, “Are you sure?” Especially when I got the [NEA] Jazz Masters Award—that threw me for a loop.
FJO: Why were you shocked? Maybe because you don’t listen back, so you don’t know how amazing your recordings are!
SJ: No, no, no. I don’t really feel they’re amazing. I always feel like I could do so much better. And there are all these great people out there! You’ve got Steve Swallow, who’s never gotten it. Carla Bley’s finally getting it this year. So I said, “Are you sure it’s me? Are you sure they want me to get this award?” And the guy said, “Yes, of course. That’s why I’m calling you.” So I said, “Oh, okay. Thank you.” But I was in shock—same thing with the Mary Lou Williams Award. They gave me that. But there’s also a little voice within me that says, “Well, come on, don’t you know that you were out there supporting this music for so long? Just enjoy it.” Then I tell it to shut up. I don’t want to hear it.
FJO: I’m staring at the copies of your biography on your side table. Your life is now a book. How does that feel?
SJ: Ellen Johnson did a wonderful job. She worked hard and long on writing this. And I’m very grateful to her. I never thought I’d have a book written about me, and she encouraged me. If it gives hope to people, especially those out there struggling with addiction or with music, a lot of it is in there. I’m living proof that if you stick to something that you believe in, no matter how difficult it can become, no matter how many times you get knocked down, just get up. And don’t give up. Get up and don’t give up. Keep doing it. It’ll come around. I want the book to be a book of hope. It hasn’t always been easy, but it can be wonderful. And it’s wonderful today for me. It’s wonderful. I cannot believe what’s happened to me.
Fay Victor: Opening Other Doors
More details about our focus on three generations of jazz vocalists this month can be found here.
Erik Friedlander: Stories Without Words
“It’s not your skill level, it’s how much you communicate,” cellist Erik Friedlander advises early in our conversation. “It’s how much you express that the audience really wants to hear. They come to hear you be real.”
Friedlander, however, is clearly not a musician lacking for chops. The years of training and gigging he did to establish himself in New York City’s music scene—largely on the downtown/avant-garde jazz side, though his active performance career has taken him all over the genre map—left him with a reputation as a go-to freelancer. And while he’s since honed his focus down more tightly to his own composer/performer work, it’s this underlying sonic curiosity and his ability to aurally convey deep emotional experience that colors the ongoing evolution of his work, both in solo and group contexts.
This week, Friedlander released a recording of Illuminations, his ten-part suite for solo cello, originally a commission by the Jewish Museum in New York City tied to an exhibit of ancient books they were hosting. Friedlander notes the echo of Bach in the piece’s construction and the obvious impact of the historic texts that inspired him. Yet while the filter of that history overlays its message, its musical language is modern.
Friedlander explains that he took away a particular image from this display of illuminated manuscripts which inspired his later thinking. “You just felt like you were in the presence of some incredible work, some incredible time being spent to carefully detail every letter,” he recalls. “I was interested in the content, but I was more interested in the labor—the exquisite time and effort that was taken into creating these beautiful books. I just imagined the life that was given to doing this job.”
His working process varies from project to project, though inspiration for much of his recent catalog can be tied to such personal life experiences or visual elements. A prime example, perhaps, is his album Block Ice & Propane (2007), which he performs live as “Taking Trips To America” with the accompaniment of projected images taken by his parents (his father is the admired American photographer Lee Friedlander) during their annual summer camping trips.
But his experiences in New York’s downtown music community helped him build a platform for the experimental ways of working he was seeking. “I finally fell into a scene where a string player could be doing world music, could be doing rock-inspired music, any kind of music, and this is what I was searching for. I was a cello player who was not entirely happy just playing the music that was given to me in orchestra or chamber groups. I mean, I liked all that stuff, but I had something different about me that needed to be explored, and this was the scene for that perfectly.”
It was a necessary addition to his more traditional training. “When you learn classically, you learn to develop a very strong inner censor who’s constantly berating you for what you’re doing wrong. I think all players, classical or otherwise, need to get a good gag on that person,” Friedlander recommends. “You’ve got to shoot higher than that; you have to shoot for expression rather than technical perfection.”