Henry Threadgill: No Compromise

Henry Threadgill: No Compromise

Surprise, but not compromise, is a fundamental component to Henry Threadgill’s aesthetic.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

A conversation with
Frank J. Oteri
at DeRobertis Caffe
August 26, 2010—1 p.m.

Transcribed by Julia Lu
Condensed and edited by
Frank J. Oteri and John Lydon
Audio/video presentation and photography by
Molly Sheridan and Alex Gardner

Henry Threadgill makes music because it is an extraordinarily powerful force. Although his music can often be extremely entertaining, he dislikes the word entertainment. Many of his musical compositions leave a lot of room for individual interpretation, in fact they demand it, but he categorically rejects compromise:

It’s an expression, and you really don’t want anything to get in the way of that. […] There can be no compromise. This is not business. This is not politics. Compromise is something that’s part of business transactions and political transactions. Not artistic transactions.

If you’re not paying careful enough attention, Henry Threadgill might seem like he’s full of contradictions. While he is an avatar of musical progress, he disdains a great deal of technology. He prefers LPs to CDs. And forget about mp3s; Threadgill proudly refuses to own a computer and to this day there’s no henrythreadgill.com. In fact, he’s most comfortable chatting while drinking a coffee at DiRobertis Caffe, an old Italian bakery and café that has been a fixture of his East Village neighborhood since 1904. So that’s where we spoke.

But don’t get the impression that Threadgill is a Luddite. He is someone who abhors any kind of bandwagonism whether galvanized to march forward or back. And for Threadgill there is no such thing as a linear progression along one trajectory. There are way too many strands. While he’s always seeking out a new sound, he’s also very consciously aware of the long tradition that has preceded him. While the 1970s group in which he first came to national prominence, Air, came out of the free jazz scene, an important part of their repertoire was the music of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton. Their piano-less trio performances of that piano-based repertoire was old and new at the same time.

Few composers in any genre have been as clear and articulate about precisely what they want, yet surprise is a fundamental component to Threadgill’s aesthetic and it impacts the musicians he works with as well as the audience. For nearly half a century, he has put together ensembles with some of the most unusual instrumental combinations out there—e.g. the core of his 1990s band Very Very Circus consisted of two tubas and two electric guitars and his seminal 1980s sextet (later called “sextett”) had seven members since he conceived the two percussionists as one part. (“It’s not about people; it’s about parts. There were two people playing the percussion part.”) And while he carefully notates his music, Threadgill has been known to shake things up by handing musicians new arrangements of his material at every performance:

It’s not just about composition. It’s about challenging the musicians. You’ve got to have people in a position where they don’t really know, where they’re a little bit off guard, a little bit off balance, and they can really be spontaneous and extemporaneous […] Familiarity makes you kind of absent from really understanding something. So you need musicians to be challenged. You don’t want them to come up and say, “Oh, I know what that is” every time. You’re not going to get anything. You’re not going to get anything fresh out of them. They need to be challenged every time they come up.

Our conversation at DiRobertis Caffe was full of surprises, too. In addition to discussing his own career in music and how it has connected to the larger arc of music history, over the course of an hour we spoke about everything from why so many people don’t vote in this country to the way Napoleon divided up his police force to maintain control of it. Henry Threadgill is a man of deep insights and convictions. And while he states that art should not compromise because it is not business or politics, his music offers a model that businessmen and politicians would do well to emulate, too.




DeRobertis Caffe (established 1904)

FRANK J. OTERI: Being in this old, historic place makes me want to talk to you about history more than anything else. I know you love this place and it’s a wonderful environment to talk about your music since it is music that is always very mindful of what has gone before but also finds ways of bringing that tradition into the present and making it new.

HENRY THREADGILL: You have to. I have and I think most artists have to look at the history of what they’re involved in, because a lot of times you can reassess history and take pointers from it. You can get salient points; you can learn salient ideas and points from it and restate things another way. When I first came to New York, I lived right around the corner from this place on Eleventh Street. This was the first place I used to come to. So my roots go back to that. And it wasn’t only that, this café is a place for artists that would come in here and write and think and read or sketch in here for hours. Nobody would bother them about getting another cup of tea or another cup of coffee. And it’s remained that way, so that’s why I come here so much. And this is a place where you can have a conversation.

FJO: So do you write music in here sometimes?

HT: I don’t generally write music outside. I generally write music in the house when I’m inside. I come out to think. I come in here and I think. Or I go to the park and think. This is just about the only place I can come to; I don’t know any other place I could come to sit down and think about something. Or the park. I use the park a lot because of the trees. Trees help me to think.

FJO: I’d like to talk to you about your own history before we tackle the larger arc of music history that informs your work. I know that as you were growing up you learned to play many different instruments. You taught yourself to play the piano before you were six years old.

HT: I was about four years old. Three or four, three to four when I taught myself to play the piano.

FJO: What drew you to music? How did you find that as an outlet?

HT: I wasn’t drawn to music at that time as a mature thinker. As a child, music just attracted me. I guess different things attract children: sports, movies. I grew up with radio. There was just so much on the radio. It wasn’t controlled the way it is now, the way television and radio are controlled. So it was radio and stage shows at the movie houses. My mother would take us to see stage shows. That was a thing. I think it was probably all around the country. You went to the big movie houses and you would see a film, and then there would be a stage show. Artists would come out to perform. I went to see so much music, live music that way, and then listened to it on the radio.

FJO: When did you decide that this was something you were good at and wanted to do for the rest of your life?

HT: When I got in high school. I guess when I was in the second year.

FJO: And from that how did you find the other members of what became the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians?

HT: We kind of met up when I got to junior college. A number of people were at Wilson College at that time: Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors, Charles Clark. And Muhal [Richard Abrams] came there. We had a music club, and we brought him there just to play. And he invited me down to his rehearsals; he had an experimental band. This was prior to the AACM. And I went to some of those rehearsals and took music down there and then the AACM got started. I left Chicago in about a little while after AACM got started. I went in the service. But when I came back, that’s when I was like fully integrated into the AACM.

FJO: Now what I find so interesting is growing up, you were involved with playing all different kinds of music. You talked about playing in polka and mariachi bands. Then when you were enlisted in Vietnam, you played in a rock band. And later you toured in a gospel group. The people in the AACM were involved with so many different kinds of music, but to most people on the outside, it gets put in the jazz box. So I thought it would be interesting to talk to you about what it means to play different genres and if these names that we put on music are all that relevant.

HT: Well you know, it’s nothing new what I did. You can find these experiences with a lot of different people that went before me. The interesting thing about the AACM people is that I think you had for the first time such a large amount of performing composers. I’m not just talking about people that write songs, and write little pieces every now and then. I’m talking about complete composers. This is the first appearance in my review of history of so many composer-performers out of one group. It’s a very challenging role when you undertake that. It takes years to get everything balanced. You spend a lot of time as a performer, so you play a lot of different music. I think that was one thing. I had to survive playing a lot of different music, because it just was taking so long to perfect what I was, what I was doing. And then we were all basically multi-instrumentalists too. That created another problem in terms of how long it takes to get things perfected.

FJO: What was so wonderful about the AACM was that everyone was involved in playing each other’s music. There was no leader who refused to be a sideman for someone else.

HT: We had to. That’s the way the AACM was set up. It was set up on a democratic basis. It was like you were agnostic, and that person is an atheist, and that person is a Buddhist, and that person is a Hindu, and that person is a Jew and this person is a Roman Catholic. And you gotta all agree to accept everybody’s position. That was very, very difficult. And those ranks shrunk. I remember when I came back and came in, there must have been about maybe 30-some musicians. But they couldn’t take it. They couldn’t do it. So the ranks got smaller, and smaller, and smaller, and smaller because people were intolerant. If I get up there and tell you how I want this music to go, I’m not interested in your opinion. It doesn’t matter how good or how bad my music is, whether it’s the work of a genius. You can have nothing to say about it. You’ve got to give me 150 percent. That was the problem. Because people had their likes and dislikes. And those people couldn’t stay. So it took a while, and the numbers just shrank. We were like 37, next thing you know we’re down to about 18, and it kept shrinking. Because of intolerance. Braxton would stand up and tell people I don’t want you play any feeling on this music. I want this music as cold as ice. Well that ran against the grain to a lot of people, so they said, I can’t do this. Well if you can’t do it, you can’t stay. Whatever somebody asked you to do, you had to do.

FJO: Wow. And that even involves polystylism to some extent. So if you had preconceptions, oh jazz is this pure thing and I’m being asked to play a rock beat… Or classical music is—

HT: —Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. So the numbers got smaller and smaller as a result of that, but you’ve got to understand, the only way as a composer you can work out what you’re doing is you’ve got to have complete cooperation and you’re not open. There can be no compromise. This is not business. This is not politics. Compromise is something that’s part of business transactions and political transactions. Not artistic transactions. Therefore the numbers had to be reduced to the people that really understood what things were about.

FJO: Now the whole multi-instrumental thing seems to be an extension of what Eric Dolphy did.

HT: But it goes way back. Look at King Oliver’s band. All those bands back then. Guys would sit up there and have a whole rack of instruments. Look at Sonny Greer up there behind Duke Ellington, it looked like a symphony orchestra. One man was back there with timpani and everything. You were talking about going back. This was typical of going back. You start seeing how musicians double on a lot of instruments. A guy would be sitting up there, he’d have banjo, and a violin, and a clarinet.

FJO: But I think Dolphy took it to another level by doing extensive solos, and this was right before the AACM got started. He was a thorough virtuoso on alto sax, bass clarinet, and flute.

HT: Oh yeah, yeah. Of course.

FJO: And while I was listening to the recording of Muhal’s Wise in Time the other day, I heard some echoes of Dolphy in your solo. Is that a fair assessment?

HT: I admire Eric Dolphy, but I’ve never really emulated any alto saxophone players. I’m originally a tenor saxophone player. And I was more influenced by tenor saxophone players for years, and they had a more direct impact on me than alto players. That was one of the reasons I switched to alto.

FJO: To get rid of that influence?

HT: Right.

FJO: Interesting, because back in the ’50s, that’s why everyone was playing tenor so they wouldn’t sound like Charlie Parker. So all of a sudden, you had all these tenor players emerge. But, like Dolphy, you also took up the flute. Of course there were others who did that too, like Yusef Lateef.

HT: Oh yeah, and Frank Wess, Sam Most.

FJO: And Buddy Collette.

HT: Buddy Collette. Exactly.

FJO: But I’m thinking Dolphy in terms of the whole virtuoso approach.

HT: In terms of that virtuosic approach to each instrument, this is something new. And it’s a result of the times. You’ve got to remember what they call modern jazz was the Bebop period. That was really the era of the virtuoso, because everything got small. You were completely exposed for a long period of time rather than in a large ensemble. Charlie Parker did stuff up there and just demonstrated virtuosity that was unparalleled. So the stage was set in terms of the virtuosity. By the time you get up to Eric and people like that, that idea’s already there. You don’t just pick up another instrument. You’ve got to really be planning it when you go from one instrument to the next.

A late 1970s promotional photo of Air, from left to right: Steve McCall, Fred Hopkins and Henry Threadgill. Photo by Bobby Kingsley

FJO: Now in terms of virtuosity and being totally exposed, I can think of few things that are as open and exposed as your trio Air. I’d love to talk about that a little bit with you because to my ears, it’s very different from the music you did subsequent to that. It’s much more cooperative, very open, and the whole idea of a trio of sax, bass and drums with no piano had very few precedents.

HT: Sonny Rollins had done that a little bit… And Sam Rivers.

FJO: Spiritual Unity by Albert Ayler is another classic example.

HT: Right.

FJO: You talked about being exposed in bebop, this takes it to an even further extreme. There’s absolutely nothing to support you. All three players are on their own. And it’s such a heavy dynamic listening to that music. You made that music 35 years ago and I think it’s still so fresh. But how did that group come together?

HT: Steve and I were AACM members. He had just come back from Europe, from Paris, from that whole period. Paris had come to an end. At the end of the 60s, the beginning of the 70s, the Paris thing was over. And that’s why you had all the people coming back you know—Dexter Gordon, Don Byas. The painters, the writers they were all coming back. And Steve came back to Chicago. Fred Hopkins lived next door to me. And so I got them together. I said would you want to do some playing with me? So we just started rehearsing. We had a place to rehearse. And we were just rehearsing and rehearsing. No place to play, and then I got a show with a theater company because I was doing work with dance companies and theater companies at the time. And the guy wanted me to write half of the music, and for the other half of the music, he wanted me to use Scott Joplin’s music. So I arranged Scott Joplin’s music and I wrote the rest of the music. From there we just kept rolling, getting other performances—clubs and concerts and stuff—going up to the point where critics were writing about us all over and we didn’t have a record out. Critics were clamoring to the record companies. They actually beat the drum for us to get our first recordings.

Air’s 1979 LP Air Lore, featuring Joplin and Morton compositions alongside Threadgill originals, made it into the list of 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die.

FJO: Wow. That’s a big difference from nowadays. The early records are on small labels, but then you were signed by a major, Arista. But getting back to Joplin, most people think of his music as piano music but there was no piano in Air. Later on you performed music by Jelly Roll Morton, another pianist, again with no piano. It’s really different hearing their music the way Air played it. You were able to take music that was more than half a century old at that point and make it sound completely new.

HT: I didn’t play that music the way it was being played on the recordings with these strict tempos. And we improvised on that music. There were no recordings of anybody that was improvising on that music or were doing fluctuations of tempos, you know. We opened that music up. That’s the difference in the way a lot of the guys in AACM think music. That is something that I can speak for all the AACM people. We don’t have an endgame. There is no final. It’s only next. There’s only the next thing to be discovered. And the next universe. That’s the criteria of this art form: It’s an expanding art form. It’s like the idea of an expanding universe you know. You know a little bit here. The more you know it expands. You don’t stay with anything you know. And people can have their own ways of approaching. If they want to be traditional and stay with something, that’s all fine. But this is not the way that we think about music or art. It’s an expanding thing. It keeps going.

FJO: So the implication of that for musical compositions is that they’re never 100 percent finished.

HT: Never. There is no ultimate form. The idea of form and how you write music is what’s been the problem with the conservative elements that want to hold onto tradition. You’ve got to remember, I don’t consider myself part of the classical tradition at all. But I’ve studied classical tradition, like I’ve studied other things. Debussy you probably would have to say is the father of modern music and the person that freed European music and freed Western music in terms of being able to just do what you wanted to do and forget about procedure. Forget about like processes and form; whatever your intuition tells you to do, that’s what you do. This is what Debussy did. For years Debussy was denied the seat at the conservatory as the head of the conservatory, because every year he failed to win the Rome Prize. He failed to win that prize because he wouldn’t write music the way they were writing music.

This is the same problem we have today: people saying that this classical music, this is jazz, and this is not. But we’ve become a multinational country. America keeps assuming one thing: that there’s only one thing going on. There’s a lot of things going on and things get morphed. We keep trying to say that there’s an orchestral tradition, or this kind of thing. And it’s not anymore. Yes that exists, but there’s other things that’s happening. We keep trying to force things under one banner. That’s that European thing: Keep it controlled. Things have changed. Go with the change. Art can’t be restrained that way in my opinion. Otherwise it becomes a relic and a museum piece. It just becomes stylized. And it’s really not a part of the American tradition.

I don’t know where this kind of thinking is coming from. I think the influence of the commercial industry has impacted art. The same way we see it every day in films; the same movies are just played over and over in different formats and different actors and different so-called plots. But it’s not a different plot. They see something that works, and they repeat the thing that works. The music world and the art world have all been victimized by this type of thing.

FJO: Now, I read somewhere that after your group plays a piece, you’ll hand everybody a fresh new arrangement. You’ll change the piece.

HT: The next week. If I can’t find another way to play it, I’m not going to play it.

FJO: That’s a very different approach to composition.

HT: It’s not just about composition. It’s about challenging the musicians. You’ve got to have people in a position where they don’t really know, where they’re a little bit off guard, a little bit off balance, and they can really be spontaneous and extemporaneous. Albee the playwright said the one thing about a really good actor is it gives the directors a chance to really mess something up. They know it so well, they really mess it up, because they know it so well. Did you ever see how there are familiar things that get trashed? They can really get trashed, you know. Familiarity makes you kind of absent from really understanding something. So you need musicians to be challenged. You don’t want them to come up and say, “Oh, I know what that is” every time. You’re not going to get anything fresh out of them. They need to be challenged every time they come up.

FJO: That’s the exact opposite of the approach of the symphony orchestra.

HT: I know.

FJO: But you’ve written for orchestra.

HT: Right. Right. But let me tell you: people say that they write orchestral music. I don’t write orchestral music. I write instrumental music. I write instrumental music for different types of instruments because I don’t want to claim to be a part of the European orchestral tradition. I’m not. I don’t have anything against it, but I’m not. My tradition is more African art evolved. That’s the tradition that I’m really concerned with. That type of creativity where there is no form, number one. Form is a result.

FJO: So in the paradigm in which you usually create music, when you are working with your own group and not working with a symphony orchestra, you hand people written music even though you’ll hand them newly written music for the same piece to keep things fresh. But I wonder where the room for individuality is for the people who play your music in terms of their own improvisations, their own interpretive style, etc.

HT: It depends on the composition. It all depends on the composition. For one thing, there will be order. There will be order because I don’t know of any other way to create art other than through order. So everybody has to observe some type of order. And depending on what we finally figure out the piece is going to sound like, that particular version of it, will determine how much a person will input into a piece. But when I bring in a piece of music, I don’t bring it in as a completed arrangement.

I can’t think of the German word for rehearsal, but what they mean is a place to start, whereas we have taken rehearsal to mean a place to learn and repeat. You come here and repeat and repeat. This has nothing to do with it. We constantly explore and start, and explore and start, and explore. That’s the German. I like the German word for rehearsal because if you bring some musicians in, once they learn the music, there’s no sense in keeping them any longer. No sense proving they can play what’s on paper so let them go. I don’t bring music in in that fashion just because you can read what’s on the paper, that’s not what it’s going to be in the first place. That’s just a place to start.

FJO: In terms of open form versus a more fixed form, it seems there’s a big difference.

HT: It’s not open form. It’s just a form yet to be determined.

The Henry Threadgill Sextet: Just The Fact and Pass The Bucket (1983)

FJO: But still it seems that there was a significant evolution in your thinking about music between the period when you were doing stuff with Air and then the sextet. The music for the sextet is much more fixed.

HT: Yeah. Hopefully a person has some kind of growth in their life, and some kind of development as an artist. You know, Blue periods and things like that. My compositional thinking at the time of Air was one thing. When I got to the sextet, it had advanced a little bit more in a different kind of way. And then it moved further with Very Very Circus and then with Make a Move was probably the very end of dealing in the whole world of the major-minor system. Major-minor thinking meaning chords and things like this. After that, I completely moved past all of that. I grew to another spot where I am now with Zooid. It has nothing to do with major-minor. This is a chromatic music that exists in some different terms and the tones and pictures behave in a different way.

FJO: Now before we get to the theory, I still want to get to the point of the personnel and the politics and how that works. I don’t want to gloss over the fact that there were seven people in that sextet, but you called it a sextet anyway.

The Henry Threadgill Sextett: You Know The Number (1986)

HT: Right. Because it’s not about people; it’s about parts. There were two people playing the percussion part. You could have a quartet and have 40 people. You could have 50 people and have a quintet. You could have 50 women singers, and they’re singing a quintet. That’s all it was.

FJO: But I guess you made it easier for people by putting that extra “T” in Sextett later on.

HT: I tried to.

FJO: Now with Very Very Circus, you started emphasizing electric sounds. At times, it almost sounds like progressive rock. It’s real abrasive and visceral. We were talking before about styles. There was a huge schism in the jazz community between acoustic music and electric music. If it was electric, it would be classified as fusion.

HT: I never pay any attention to what people say. It just doesn’t make any sense for me you know. I’ve been through enough things in life. Why should I pay any attention to anything?

FJO: So what made you bring in the electric guitars?

HT: Well because two acoustic guitars would have been very difficult at the time with two tubas. The basis of this group was two tubas and two guitars. That’s what everything was sitting on top of. So it was like these two lines running into these two tubas. Kind of like two tightwires. That’s how it worked. And then we danced around; me and the French horn player, we danced around on those wires.

FJO: That’s a crazy combination.

HT: Yeah.

FJO: Hence Very Very Circus.

HT: Right.

Everybodys Mouth’s a Book, an album by Henry Threadgill with his group Make a Move was released in 2001 simultaneously with the album Up Popped the Two Lips by Threadgill with his group Zooid

FJO: Now the last of your Very Very Circus recordings was called Make a Move. I assume that your subsequent group Making a Move came out of that.

HT: Right.

FJO: You’ve talked about balancing things. You’ve put together some of the weirdest combinations out there.

HT: Well, you know, I never thought about these ideas. I never accepted any of the ideas about jazz or orchestral music. These are limitations, like to describe a string quartet as two violins, viola and cello, or a trio as a piano, bass and drums. I never bothered with these things, you know. And the reason I didn’t is because after I heard so much great music played by orchestras and jazz groups and big bands, I said well there’s no sense in me even going over there in that format. I’ve heard that and people have already done it. It’s kind of like what Alfred Hitchcock said, why would I do a great classic? I could only fail. If it’s a great classic, it’s already great. Now how could I expect to do something greater than something that’s already great?

FJO: You even invented your own instruments.

HT: We invented a lot of instruments in Chicago.

FJO: What is the hubcaphone? I have some ideas after hearing recordings of it, but I’d love for you explain it.

HT: It’s a set of pitched and unpitched hubcaps. They’re eight hubcaps strung and hung and played in a percussion style. Almost like a large set of vibes or marimba. They lay flat, and they’re all classic hubcaps because that’s the only material that has any kind of a good quality sound. Because you know everything from the ’60s on is basically trash. In the ’60s they were still making things in America that were of quality, but by the end of the ’60s, America was on its way downhill in terms of making anything of quality. Radios. Hubcaps. I don’t care what it is.

FJO: Except for music.

HT: Yeah. True.

FJO: Now to get back to these crazy instrumentations. If you’re leading your own groups, there’s a limitation in that you’re a part of it. An instrument you play has to be a part of it. What I found interesting in Make a Move, another record of yours, is there are some compositions that you’re not playing on.

HT: Right.

FJO: That’s a very unusual thing in the so called jazz tradition.

Up Popped the Two Lips

HT: I know. Again, all this is rigid thinking. A lot of times when I’m setting up to play with Zooid, the guy puts the microphones up on the stage and then he turns my mic up louder than everybody else. I said, see, this is that type of thinking: that they’re supposed to be accompanying me or something. A lot of times, I don’t play on pieces. It’s not necessary. It’s boring in the first place. If we have four people that come to the table, and every time you’ve got to talk, what are they sitting there for? Every time, you know. Every other time, maybe number two will get a chance to say something. Three or four, you may never hear from them. So why are they there in the first place?

FJO: That gets to this whole classical music thing. You can write a piece of music, and you don’t even have to be there. You can be in another country or dead and they’re playing your music.

HT: Right.

FJO: So how do you feel about other groups playing your music when you’re not around?

HT: Oh, it’s fine.

FJO: But how much control do you give up?

HT: Well you give up all the control because somebody has to see it through their eyes and do what they can with it. That’s the way I like it. It’s like a piece of poetry, you read it and certain things come to you more than it does to someone else, but you and that other person can agree about what this piece is about, but yet still there’s like some big sub-topics and some things that really stick out in your mind as opposed to the other person’s mind. They might not even see these things the way you see them. They suggest other things. That’s my thinking with art. I like it that way. Because people should have a different experience, I don’t like the idea that everybody has to have the same experience. They can’t.

FJO: Is it possible then for a group of people to play your music and for you to think, “Gee they didn’t get this at all. That’s not my music.”

HT: Oh, I could say that. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That’s possible, too.

FJO: Has that ever happened?

HT: No. Fortunately I haven’t had that, but I’ve heard it happen to other people, unfortunately.

FJO: So then how much detail is in your scores. If somebody turned around and said: I want to play Henry Threadgill’s music. I don’t want to play with Henry Threadgill, but I want to play his music. And I’m in South Korea, let’s say, or Slovenia. How could they get your music? How does that work?

HT: Oh, it depends. They could transcribe it for one thing, if it’s a small group. If it’s something for a large instrumentation, they might have to write to me and ask for parts.

FJO: And you’ll send them scores?

HT: Sure. If they want to do it.

FJO: How much is worked out in those scores? How much detail?

HT: Oh, it’s all detail. When you use orchestral players, you have to do the details. That’s all they know. They’re not really good in filling in the blanks.

FJO: But you want to change it on them every week!

HT: Yeah. Well I stopped writing anything for the people in that world because they refused to change, and I have a piece I’m going to be doing next year with the American Composers Orchestra because they decided they were going to do things my way. Because I said, there’s no sense wasting time with these people any more because look, they’re making me try to do things their way, the European way or something. That makes no sense. That’s not me.

FJO: So are you going to hand them a different part at every rehearsal?

HT: No. But they’ve got to improvise for one thing. And there’s going to be conduction going on by the conductor.

FJO: Now in terms of improvisation, players can’t play whatever they want because you’ll limit things to certain pitches. It’s very controlled.

HT: Yeah.

FJO: How does that work?

HT: Well it depends. In Zooid there is no limit. They know everything that you can do and what you can’t do. And there’s no such thing as you can’t. You can do anything if you know what to do, what you’re not supposed to do. Everything that you’re not supposed to do, you can do if you know how to do it.

FJO: But you’re there with them. So that helps.

HT: Well, the whole idea is you have to understand that you have to be musical in the first place. A lot of classical players, because they don’t improvise, they’ve forgotten or they don’t really know what it means to be musical. If only they would go back and remember taking lessons, piano lessons or violin lessons, or whatever. First thing you’re going to do, first big thing that you’re going to get is an etude when you get to a certain stage of playing, whatever instrument you’re playing. I don’t care what it is. And the teacher will say wait, wait, wait. You’re playing all the right notes, now make music. Breathe. Play dynamics. Do something with the music. That’s not music. That’s not musical, you know. Be musical. So a lot of times, you might get in to a position where I have to put these people in a position to play, and then you’ve been in this one environment. Here’s an environment, this table is an environment. And all of a sudden, I tell them, let the person jump out doing some stuff like this. What are you doing? That’s got nothing to do with this. Stay in the environment and be musical. Extend the environment you know. Don’t jump out of the environment and start doing something, and whatever you do, be musical. They’ll just start sawing away or beating away and forget that you come out of some type of texture, some kind of background. There’s a back story to your musical life, you know.

Threadgill’s latest recording, with Zooid, this brings us to, volume II has just been released (October 2010)

FJO: I wanted to talk a bit with you about recordings. You’ve got an extensive discography and there’s a brand new recording coming out this fall. Over the years you’ve been with major labels as well as small labels. At some point, you had a three-record deal with Columbia Records which is mostly unheard of nowadays. But for the last decade you’ve recorded for Pi, an independent boutique label that’s willing to take risks that the majors would be afraid to take. I love that in 2005 you put out a recording that was only available on LP.

HT: Yeah, I love LPs. I love analog because digital is not true. It’s the truth, but it’s a bad truth. It’s not the real truth, but it is the truth. Because that is really not the way things sound. It’s just like when you’re sitting here with digital equipment, you can put everything in little neat compartments. You know, that’s not the way things are. When you sit in front of an orchestra, when you’re out in the street, you can hear some people right here, some people back there. You’re not supposed to hear everything. That’s why you go back and re-read poetry the second time. That’s why you go back to the museum to look at a piece of art, because you didn’t get it all the first time. So that you can revisit it and revisit it you know. This way of packaging and making it so crystal clear and all up in your face, you really don’t get it then. And actually, I think it makes people bored.

FJO: And now, even worse than digital, you’ve got people listening to mp3s with severely compressed sound.

HT: It’s a very different world now. It’s frightening what I’ve seen people do with technology. Earphones and things—it’s just frightening. We don’t store information in our minds anymore as a result of all of these iPads, iPhones, b-phones, c-phones, whatever. How many times do you stop by in front of your house and somebody’s standing in front of your house across the street, which house did you say is yours? I told you my number is 1-2-3. Oh yeah, you did say 1-2-3. Now what is that again? 1-2-3. I lost my cellphone. I can’t reach anybody anymore. You didn’t write it down on a matchbook? You don’t have an old telephone book? No. Everything was in my cellphone. My mother’s number. I can’t call my mother. I can’t call my sister. She’s on the death bed. You can’t remember your sister’s number? No, my sister’s number’s in there too. What about your father? Oh, he’s in a nursing home, and I don’t have that number. It’s in the cellphone, too.

Henry Threadgill and Frank J. Oteri in conversation

The computer is based partly on the human brain, but we can no longer use our brain to store. You have immediate storage, recess storage, and deep storage. Every time you ask someone for information, wait a minute. What year was your mother born? What year did you finish school? Your last address? What did you think about so and so? I knew this was coming with my oldest daughter was in grade school. She came home and brought me this thing that said I had to give her money to buy a little digital calculator. And I said what is it for? It was for math. I said, why do you need this for math? She was telling me they were trying to do some project, she couldn’t find her calculator, and she was doing multiplication. And I said: “What’s 12 times 12? What’s nine times eight? What’s seven times seven? You don’t know what seven times seven is? Well you’re gonna learn the way I learned, each one 20 times, starting with one.” How many times have you walked in the store and they say the power’s down; I can’t give you your bill ‘cause I can’t figure out the tax. You can’t figure out the tax on 99 cents? I have nothing against any technology. It’s just like somebody wants to criticize if I’m not going to vote. I have a right not to vote, just like I have a right to vote. I can abstain. The politicians do it every week in Congress. They do it in the United Nations. I abstain. I don’t have to use a computer. Don’t criticize me. I say, you can; I’m all for you having it. Don’t jump on me because I don’t want one.

What I’m talking about makes no sense for young people, because they’ve got no precedent. They don’t know what music sounds like in mono, analog, stereo and hi-fi. They don’t have any reference to that. It’s like hot dogs, hamburgers, caviar. They start with caviar. They don’t know anything about hot dogs or Philly steaks or anything else. That’s where we are, so what I’m talking about falls flat if you’re talking to young people. Because what are you talking about, all I know is, I grew up with this. I don’t have reference to any sound before this, which is really something, something new.

FJO: But this is the world you’re making music in now…

HT: I don’t worry about that stuff anymore. You know, because technology comes and goes, and I have my preference for the sound, but I’m not stuck there, because actually, the biggest thing for me is live performance anyway. It’s not recordings. It’s live performance. My whole life is about playing music in front of people to impact people with live music. Records don’t do that. My mission in life is to play in front of people and to have an impact on people’s lives. You can only do that in real time.

FJO: So legacy. Do you care if people are listening to your music a hundred years from now?

HT: I don’t really care. I can’t deal in that. I’m only concerned with how powerful an impact I can have at this moment. I want to be like 250 percent on, like I’m going to be dead tomorrow when I come on. That’s the only thing I can think about. That’s it. The artist is a difficult stance to take in life. But it’s my belief that art is the most powerful thing in the humanitarian aspect of civilization.

I know that if you take some kids that completely have nothing, and they could be acting up; if you could get them sensitive to art, they’d behave. Everybody changes. Art will change you. It makes you sensitive to human views and to the idea of being civil and human. So you don’t want it to be as powerful an element as possible. Because our statesmen and politicians, they really don’t understand this place. They always want to put caps on it and try to define it. And this is something you’re not supposed to try to define. It has a very subtle effect on humanity. All of us have gone and looked at a piece of artwork and all of us can come out impressed totally differently and moved in a different way. See, I’m also a believer in the fact that it doesn’t bother me when people come hear me and they walk out. They’ve been impacted too. Because you don’t like what I’m doing, it might make you think about something, too. I could have a reverse effect. Art can have a reverse effect. It could turn you off and it would still be affecting. It’s making you think about something or do something in a different way than you had been doing things. I move you away from what I’m doing, but I made you look at something else more seriously that you haven’t been paying enough attention to in the first place. People always think that because like art turns people away that that’s the end of it. No, that’s not the end of it.

I see art as a spiritual thing. That’s why I don’t like the word entertainment and these other terms. Art is spiritual. A person that does not care about the fact that you’re laying down on the ground hurt, art can change that person and make them care to call 911 or get down to try to give you a hand. Remember, in New York about a month or so ago, a guy was on the street in Queens or somewhere, and people walked by this man and he had been on the street shot or something. And some people stopped and took pictures with cell phones. This shows you how badly we need art. And art is literature and everything. You see, people don’t read. Kids don’t read, they sit up and play games. Humanity’s playing games and looking at little quick spots on television and things like that. Nobody’s sitting up in front of a painting these days. Art affects every part of you. It’s not an intellectual process. It’s a complete process. It activates your mind, your emotions, and your psyche.