Myra Melford: Freedom and Form
Myra Melford is equally comfortable performing a blues tune, jamming in a completely free-improvisatory setting with other musicians, or exploring more predetermined structures in the compositions she writes for her own ensembles. “I understand that a lot of what I do works in the jazz context … Jazz is an inclusive music.”
Like so many of today’s most exciting music creators, Myra Melford is not easy to categorize, although she is “happy” being described as a jazz musician, and that is how most of her music has been characterized and marketed for decades.
“Jazz is an inclusive music,” she exclaimed when she visited us at the New Music USA office in September. In recent years, however, she has also been creating compositions for so-called contemporary classical ensembles such as the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players.
“I understand that a lot of what I do works in the jazz context,” Melford elaborated. “Not all of it, but I identify as a composer-performer-improviser, which includes jazz, but isn’t limited to jazz in terms of improvisational music. And the longer I’ve been teaching in the composition program at the University of California at Berkeley, the more I feel comfortable in the new music community.”
She is less comfortable when she is labeled “avant-garde,” despite the cutting edge nature of so much of her work since the term has become saddled with tons of preconceptions that limit the music. As she explained, “When I get together with my students early on in the semester, it’s interesting to me that they conflate free jazz and avant-garde and that playing free jazz today will sound like it did 50 or 60 years ago. That’s what I think the problem is. Avant-garde to me has always meant someone in the advance of where the music is going, so it seems to me that there’s a problem if we don’t agree on what the term means.”
Jazz is an inclusive music.
The people who play my music would get bored playing the same way all the time.
I’m not a process-oriented composer. I don’t have a formal idea about what’s going to happen in any given order.
Joseph and Leroy were certainly my mentors. And it was a huge thrill when I finally got to share the bandstand with them.
It just wasn’t compelling enough to continue with classical piano music.
I’d like to learn how to be bread, so I’m going to name my band that.
More and more composers are getting together with particular players and developing sounds and techniques and writing for those players.
I need to be part of the performance of my own music.
I really am a collaborative person, and I need something to dialogue with or respond to.
I hope that the music is inspiring. I hope it’s uplifting, or healing, or comforting or motivating.
Melford is equally comfortable performing an Otis Spann blues tune with Marty Ehrlich, jamming in a completely free-improvisatory trio with Zeena Parkins and Miya Masaoka, or exploring more predetermined structures in the compositions she creates for her own ensembles, though most of the time these are also left somewhat open for there to be room for improvisation and individual interpretation.
“I don’t have a formal idea about what’s going to happen in any given order,” she admits. “It’s more like: I like this bit of material and that bit of material and that bit of material; let’s see, do they naturally flow together if I switch them around? Then usually I’ll have a pretty worked out draft of that material to take to a rehearsal and then I may make changes after the rehearsal. … If I have a very strong idea of what I want, then of course, I’ll put that forward, but if I’m still questioning how to do this or what would be an interesting way to approach this, I love getting input from the people I’m working with … I think what really makes it work is that the vocabularies of the people who play my music are so vast and can reference so many different things and are the kind of people who are adventurous and would get bored playing the same way all the time.”
Call it an “organic approach to composition,” which is how her one-time teacher Henry Threadgill described his process during their studies. Melford’s approach curiously also comes, albeit somewhat intuitively, from growing up in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
“I had been studying the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright since I was a high school student,” she remembered. “He had also referred to his own process of developing a building or an architectural project as organic, wanting the building to look as if it had grown out of the environment, blurring the distinctions between what was outside the building and what was inside the building. For instance, having paving stones inside the building that extended outside the building. Or the way he used windows and an open floor plan where one room flows into the next. These kinds of things really dovetailed with what Henry was talking about. You start with a cell and you create these permutations. Instead of forcing a form on it, or predetermining the form, you let the form grow naturally out of how the musical materials expand. So, for sure, that also contributed to this aesthetic that I was going to blur the boundaries between what was improvised and what was composed and would be looking for ways of creating form that allowed for a lot of freedom.”
Read the Full Transcript
Photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: I’ve been a huge fan of your music for over 20 years, but I still haven’t heard everything you’ve done since there’s a lot. But I want to hear everything, because everything I’ve heard has been so different from everything else and the variety is astounding. You seem comfortable in so many different styles, so many different idioms, and not just on piano, but also on harmonium. How did you get exposed to all this music? I know you studied with somebody who was into boogie-woogie as well as Bartók…
Myra Melford: My first piano teacher, Erwin Helfer, is a great blues and boogie-woogie player in Chicago still, but was teaching me classical music at the time. I think he’s a great example of someone who really knew Baroque music and really knew and liked 20th century classical music, and was also studying the music of the New Orleans artists and the boogie-woogie pianists in Chicago. So even though I didn’t think about that consciously, it probably did have a certain effect on me. Yes, you don’t have to limit yourself to one thing. I got into jazz in college, but before that I listened to lots of folk music and R & B and rock music that my older siblings were listening to when I was growing up. And I loved to play by ear. That was really the main way that I enjoyed learning music.
When I finally met a bunch of my mentors—mostly members of the AACM, people like Leroy Jenkins, and Henry Threadgill, Joseph Jarman, Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis, and on and on—I realized I didn’t have to choose a particular music. I felt like my project with all of this was to figure out how to synthesize these things into something that was my own voice. I didn’t have to compartmentalize them, and—after a while—didn’t have to apologize for the fact that you can’t expect the next record to sound like the last one. Or the next concert to sound like the last one. Which was kind of a concern early on from people who wanted me to have a successful music career. How will people know how to market you? I was pretty stubborn about sticking to this thing of doing everything I liked and finding a way to make it my own, and so that’s the concise story.
FJO: Of course, the marketers always want to have a simple answer. But even though you’re doing so many different kinds of things sonically, for better or worse it does get lumped into this rubric called—some people hate the word, some people love the word—Jazz. So what does that mean for you?“Jazz is an inclusive music.”
MM: Exactly. But it’s funny, because I was anticipating you were going to say “avant-garde,” which is another label that, for better or worse, I’ve been stuck with. For me, jazz is an inclusive music. There are so many hybrid forms of it. It’s been adapted by cultures all over the world. It’s expansive, it’s been changing. Obviously, without saying it, I’m referring to this notion that jazz is this one thing, which was a big topic in New York when I lived here in the ‘90s, and to a certain extent hasn’t gone away 100%. But I think it’s less of a difficult issue. So I’m happy if someone labels me as a jazz artist. That works for me as long as they can see the big picture of what I do. I understand that a lot of what I do works in the jazz context. Not all of it, but I identify as a composer-performer-improviser, which includes jazz, but isn’t limited to jazz in terms of improvisational music. And the longer I’ve been teaching in the composition program at the University of California at Berkeley, the more I feel comfortable in the new music community. There was always a certain amount of that when I was here in New York. Composers’ forums embraced composer-performer-improvisers from both sides—or both parts—of town, so it’s always made sense to my immediate community. But I’m even more comfortable in the new music community and I’m finding more and more a kind of a blurring of the boundary between contemporary composers, performers, and improvisers. Whether that’s jazz or not, I don’t know. I don’t particularly think of it as jazz. I think of jazz as one stream of what I do.
FJO: I want to try to unpack some of these differences a little later. But first I want to riff on something else you said, thinking that I was going to use the term avant-garde, because in terms of the ingredients that go into forming your music, that’s definitely an ingredient, but it’s certainly not the only one. When I hear something like you and Marty Ehrlich playing an Otis Spann tune and doing it so idiomatically, that’s not avant-garde, but not everything has to be avant-garde.
FJO: We’re now toward the end of the second decade of the 21st century—I can hear James Tenney yelling at me from beyond the grave because when I said this to him, he got so mad—but we’ve done all these different things, so once everything has been done, what’s avant-garde anymore? Can that term still mean anything? There are people doing stuff that sounds like music from Darmstadt in the ‘50s and ‘60s who think they’re avant-garde, but that sound world is now 60-years-old, so it’s certainly not new.
MM: Well, it seems to me that we have to make a distinction between the adjective “avant-garde” and the noun “Avant-Garde”; the adjective avant-garde with small, lower case letters, and a kind of genre of music which maybe should be capitalized, “Avant-Garde.” And then it’s different in the improvised music community and the jazz community and in the experimental new music community. They all had their avant-gardes. It was generally around the same time—‘50s, ’60s, ‘70s. In jazz, it’s almost become a kind of genre. When I talk about avant-garde music, or when I get together with my students early on in the semester, it’s interesting to me that they conflate free jazz and avant-garde and that playing free jazz today will sound like it did 50 or 60 years ago. That’s what I think the problem is. Avant-garde to me has always meant someone in the advance of where the music is going, so it seems to me that there’s a problem if we don’t agree on what the term means.
FJO: Well I think the problem is once you say Avant-Garde is a genre, then it isn’t avant-garde anymore.
MM: Exactly. That was the point I was getting to.
FJO: You brought up this comment about playing free jazz today. What I find in your music that’s so fascinating is the tension between free improvisation and pre-composition. I think in the best music that navigates this, yours included, there’s really this kind of seamless blurring of the two to the point that as a listener, since I’ve never been privy to sitting in on your rehearsals or the process, I don’t know where one ends and the other beings. Which to me is a good thing, but of course, I still want to know. So I’m hoping you’ll tell us.
MM: It varies a lot from piece to piece. But certainly that notion of blurring the boundaries became an aesthetic choice and goal for me very early on. Since the ‘90s, as soon as I was making the transition between my first trio with Lindsey Horner and Reggie Nicholson to The Same River, Twice and was starting to think about it more in terms of contemporary chamber music and the kinds of material I wanted to use as the pre-composed material.“The people who play my music would get bored playing the same way all the time.”
There are several ingredients. There are the performers. I really write for particular people. Or I might write a particular kind of music and then say, “Who do I think would really bring something to this that would be themselves, but would also honor what I’m trying to say here?” Then to write music that allows for a lot of different approaches to improvising. I can use jazz conventions like playing over chord changes, or a specific kind of rhythmic feel, or that kind of thing. A set form. And then having open spaces where that might be directed or might be left up to the performer—how to make a bridge from this material to that material using melodic or motivic cells. I think what really makes it work is that the vocabularies of the people who play my music are so vast and can reference so many different things and are the kind of people who are adventurous and would get bored playing the same way all the time. So I think all of these things contribute to making music that can be different every time and use pre-composed material, but really blur those boundaries.
FJO: So in terms of what that pre-composed material is, the conceptualization process, you come up with an idea for a composition. How does that happen? Does it happen at the piano? Does it happen in your head? And then when you come up with it, what form does it take before you share it with other people that you’re making music with?
MM: I think that also can happen in several ways. Sometimes I’ll come up with an idea playing the piano, just improvising or practicing. And I’ll think okay, this is something I’d like to develop. Or it can happen walking down the street and hearing something in my head, whether that’s a melody or a texture or sometimes I’ll sort of hear a formal process, like a shape for a whole piece and then I think about what the components of that are, and then, what do I need to write to either elicit that through improvisation or actually compose out that idea.“I’m not a process-oriented composer. I don’t have a formal idea about what’s going to happen in any given order.”
I studied with Henry Threadgill and a lot of the ideas that I got from him are still part of my working method. So I’ll take—whether it’s a texture, or rhythm, a melody, a motif, or sort of a formal idea—and I’ll use that as a cell and come up with all the various variations and permutations I can. And then sift through those. I’m not a process-oriented composer. I don’t have a formal idea about what’s going to happen in any given order. It’s more like: I like this bit of material and that bit of material and that bit of material; let’s see, do they naturally flow together if I switch them around? Then usually I’ll have a pretty worked out draft of that material to take to a rehearsal and then I may make changes after the rehearsal. I really enjoy getting suggestions and ideas from the people who are playing my music. I’m very open to that. If I have a very strong idea of what I want, then of course, I’ll put that forward, but if I’m still questioning how to do this or what would be an interesting way to approach this, I love getting input from the people I’m working with. And then I’ll go back and make another version of it to bring to the ensemble. That’s sort of the short version of how it happens.
FJO: So for the music you composed for your group The Same River, Twice, how worked out are the charts? Are there full scores?
MM: Yes, there are scores. With that band, I really thought for the most part I had a clear idea of how I wanted the improvisation to happen, and that was actually written into the score. Other times, with some of the music for Be Bread which happened later, I’ll say improvisation of indeterminate length. I might work it out more through verbal discussion about what could happen. But for Same River in particular, those guys also came up with some wonderful suggestions about how to do things.
FJO: Although I would imagine, those kinds of suggestions are very different from the collaborative creations you’ve done in other groups like the trio you’re part of this month with Zeena Parkins and Miya Masaoka. I imagine that’s all in the moment.
MM: Yes. Exactly. We tend to talk a little bit about focuses for each piece, the kinds of spaces we like to explore together, just to all be on the same page. But beyond that, what everybody plays is completely in the moment, or of the moment.
FJO: So there are no scores and you can’t necessarily recreate any of the things later on.
MM: Right. We might say something as simple as the point of departure for this piece is going to be strong rhythmic hits with a lot of space around them. Maybe that’s the composition then. Then where that goes and how it’s developed or what it actually sounds like texturally and so on, who knows? But that might be a composition or a score for that band.
FJO: So would you or could you ever play something that’s the same piece again with one of those groups?
MM: I don’t know. I think we might, but I don’t think a listener would recognize it as being the same piece.
FJO: That fascinates me because it goes back to your beginnings when you were performing with two towering improvisational masters, Joseph Jarman and Leroy Jenkins. I imagine you met them through your studies with Henry Threadgill. How did you connect to them?
MM: Well actually, I met Leroy first of all those people when I was a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. I had a job at a local restaurant and venue called the Gnu Deli. It was spelled G-N-U, and they had music programming. The programmer at the time was a friend of mine and he really turned me onto all kinds of music. He would find artists who were touring the northwest and maybe they had a gig in Seattle and one in Portland, and he’d see if they had a day or two off to come to Olympia. Leroy had a trio with Amina Claudine Myers and Pheeroan akLaff who played at this venue. I can’t remember the exact year, but it was the year that I switched from focusing on environmental science to music. So I had just made this change. I had just started taking jazz piano lessons and was studying bebop and the more conventional approach. Then I went to hear this concert of Leroy and Amina and Pheeroan, and I really didn’t understand the music at all. I had no idea what they were doing, how they were communicating with each other, or what the score might have looked like. But this light bulb lit up over my head, and I was like: That’s what I want to do with my life. I want to figure out what my music is. I want to play the piano and write for people like that.
It was kind of a strange thing, because I had never encountered that music at all. But there was something very familiar about it. I remember talking to Leroy. He came back through town maybe once or twice more when I was a student. And he gave me his phone number and said, “When you come to New York, you can call me up.” And I did. I think I also met Braxton similarly at another time when he was there. Then I went to hear the Art Ensemble play in Seattle, but I never met any of those guys until I got out to New York. Douglas Ewart also came through with Inventions. And Marty Ehrlich came through with John Lindberg. So I met all these people as a student.“Joseph and Leroy were certainly my mentors. And it was a huge thrill when I finally got to share the bandstand with them.”
Then I eventually did find my way to New York and looked them all up. Douglas was the one who introduced me to Henry. Leroy was doing a workshop. I met [flutist] Marion Brandis—she was named Brandis at the time when I first moved here. And that’s how I met Brandon Ross and Terry Jenoure, and some other people. So Marion and I put a duo together. She had a friend who had been studying with Braxton. In one of our rehearsals, she said “Okay, we’re each gonna create a lexicon on our instruments.” So she and I both decided to study with Henry at the same time. I’m digressing a bit because the point is I was making this network and community here. Then I met Joseph through the Musicians of Brooklyn initiative. One of the very first concerts that they put on had a piece of mine and a piece of Joseph’s and we played on each other’s pieces. And I started studying aikido with Joseph. I guess my point is I was developing these personal and creative relationships with all of these people. Joseph and Leroy were certainly my mentors. And it was a huge thrill when I finally got to share the bandstand with them. I think that came about because both Joseph and Leroy had written pieces for the S.E.M. Ensemble with Petr Kotik conducting. They were for chamber musicians and guest improvisers. And I was an invited improviser on that concert. This was probably something that Muhal put together for the AACM series, and for the opening set Joseph and Leroy, and then the three improvisers—who were Jeffrey Schanzer on guitar, Lindsey Horner on bass, and myself—did an improvised set. After that, Joseph and Leroy and I started talking about putting a trio together. I remember mentioning it to Muhal. All of us were talking with Muhal about it, and he said, “Well, what’s this going to be about?” And Leroy said something like, “There’s gonna be an equal interest. We’re going to play everybody’s music and everybody will compose for it, and so it’ll be a kind of a collective.” And Muhal said, “Well, there’s your title. That’s the name of the band: Equal Interest.”
FJO: I had no idea before our talk that there was a period in your life when you were pursuing something else besides music. So I’d like to hear a little about that and how you went down that path. And I know that this is probably a stretch, but I wonder if your interest in simultaneous freedom and form comes at all from growing up in a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Sometimes extra-musical stuff leads to key musical epiphanies.
MM: Now that you mention that, growing up in a Frank Lloyd Wright house is another one of these things like Erwin Helfer where I didn’t really realize it, but was sort of subconsciously absorbing some aesthetics and ideas from mid-20th century modernism. I found a real connection when I started studying with Henry Threadgill. At the time, Henry was talking about a kind of organic approach to composition. I had been studying the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright since I was a high school student. And I was aware of the fact that he had also referred to his own process of developing a building or an architectural project as organic, wanting the building to look as if it had grown out of the environment, blurring the distinctions between what was outside the building and what was inside the building. For instance, having paving stones inside the building that extended outside the building. Or the way he used windows and an open floor plan where one room flows into the next. These kinds of things really dovetailed with what Henry was talking about. You start with a cell and you create these permutations. Instead of forcing a form on it, or predetermining the form, you let the form grow naturally out of how the musical materials expand. So, for sure, that also contributed to this aesthetic that I was going to blur the boundaries between what was improvised and what was composed and would be looking for ways of creating form that allowed for a lot of freedom as you say.
FJO: So the environmental studies—might that have had an impact on your music once you got back to doing music?
MM: I’m not so sure about that. I was interested in lots of arts. I danced in high school. And I got into photography and ceramics, and always loved studying visual art and art history. But I also grew up loving to spend time in nature, and camping, and spending a lot of time outdoors. In high school, I didn’t see any other path forward in music other than becoming a classical pianist. And it became clear to me that it just wasn’t compelling enough to continue with classical piano music. So I explored all these other interests, got interested in the environment, and kind of left music. I continued to play for fun, but I wasn’t practicing or studying.“It just wasn’t compelling enough to continue with classical piano music.”
I had a vague idea in the back of my mind that once I moved out of the house where I grew up and went to college and was out on my own I’d get back to playing the piano. But I didn’t know how or what that would look like. In the meantime, I was thinking I would really like to do something with the environment and Evergreen State College seemed like a great program for that. So that was how I got into it. But I don’t see a direct connection. I have a lot of colleagues who I admire very much who are really activists and are making very clear connections between their music and their art and political concerns of the day. But the spiritual path has been a big part of my life and being in nature and getting to go to some of the sacred sites of the Huichol Indians in Mexico has really had an impact on my work now.
FJO: Even if your music isn’t overtly political or overtly environmental, I might be clutching at straws here and answering a question I wanted to ask you about, how you name the various groups you have, all of those names are actually things that refer back to nature.
MM: Wow, I never thought about that. Well there you go. See, I guess it is important to me. But it’s certainly not conscious.
FJO: I mean The Same River, Twice, what does that even mean?
MM: Well, that comes right from Heraclitus, the aphorism that you can’t step into the same river twice for all the waters are ever flowing onto you. For me, that came at the same time as another philosophical idea of Heraclitus, that a hidden harmony was better than an obvious one. This idea, the same river twice, was really an aspiration of mine as a composer-improviser. How do I create these forms that allow for a different rendition every time and still are somehow the same river? I remember I was in D.C. at a concert of Ornette Coleman; it might have been Prime Time. I had been writing the music for The Same River, Twice, and I knew who the players were going to be, but I hadn’t named the band yet. And suddenly, I thought, “Same River Twice would be a great name for a band.” Shortly after that I realized that Alice Walker had just published a book by the name The Same River Twice. And I thought, “Wow, that’s really an example of this zeitgeist.” An idea is in the air and somehow it popped into my mind at that time. So it wasn’t that I was looking for some sort of natural reference, it was really that it came from Heraclitus.
FJO: What about Snowy Egret?
MM: That came from a dream. I had put that band together, and again had the music written, but didn’t have a title, and our first gig was at The Jazz Gallery. So I’m going to premiere this new music with this new band. I was actually in New York rehearsing a version of one of Leroy Jenkins’s operas, posthumously, with Mary Griffin, and was completely absorbed in that. And I get a phone call early one morning from The Jazz Gallery asking me what the title of this project is and how should they promote it. And I said: “Well, the night before, I had had a dream that I was looking up at an egret who was poised on a telephone or electrical wire.” I could tell that the egret was in the yoga pose tadasana, which is a very centered and balanced state. And I watched it come down, swoop down, and there was a pool of water at my feet, and I thought it was just going to land and that the water would be shallow and it would be wading around. But instead it went way into the water and I thought, “I don’t think egrets swim. So maybe I better dive in and see if I can help it.” And then I realized that was futile. But maybe it would hit the bottom, bounce off and come back out. And as soon as I had that thought, it came swirling out of the water and turned into kind of an angel or a bird woman with wings. And it went flying off into the stratosphere. It filled me with such a sense of ecstasy and elation, I thought if I named my band after this experience, I’ll be able to remember it. So I told her the band would be called Snowy Egret.
FJO: Where does the snowy come from?
MM: Well, I decided that that was more poetic than great white egret, or white egret, so having been somewhat familiar with egrets, I was like: I think we’ll call this one a snowy egret.
FJO: As long as we’re talking about names of bands, the other one with a really curious name I think is Be Bread.
MM: Yeah. That came from a poem by Rumi called “The Image of Your Body.” For my whole first record with Be Bread, each of the song titles and the title of the record, The Image of Your Body, came from this one poem. The very last line is: “If you’ve not been fed, be bread.” This was a spiritual aspiration of mine. Rumi is so beautifully able to describe the process of a seeker who is looking to understand either their true nature or their connection to the divine. But I’m not a particularly religious person.
FJO: Even though you lived in an ashram for a while.“I’d like to learn how to be bread, so I’m going to name my band that.”
MM: Well, I do practice meditation and yoga, and also study the philosophy. But anyway, this Rumi poem, I thought: that’s a really great thing; I’d like to learn how to be bread, so I’m going to name my band that.
FJO: It’s interesting that you refer to the compositions on there as song titles because, as far I know, you’ve never worked with a singer. Is that true?
MM: Well, for the most part that’s true. I’ve worked with singers in other people’s projects, and I just started working with Fay Victor.
FJO: You know, we did one of these NewMusicBox Cover talks with Fay. Tell me more about this.
MM: We’re doing some duo concerts this fall, and well as a couple trio concerts with Lisa Mezzacappa who’s based in the Bay area.
FJO: Nothing in New York?
MM: No, we did at show at Greenwich House for the Sound It Out! series a year ago. That was our first gig together. It was Fay and I, and Marika Hughes on cello. And then Fay and I decided we wanted to keep it going. Maybe we would mostly be a duo and occasionally invite in a third person to play with us. Fay right now is doing a residency at the Headlands in Marin County in California, so she said, “I’ll be out there. Let’s put together some stuff.” But this is really my first real intimate collaboration with a vocalist and not just being a side person or something like that.
FJO: This gets to the heart of something we touched on at the onset of this conversation that I really wanted to get into deeper. You were studying piano, and you had this path of being a classical pianist, but you thought that was a dead end and ultimately didn’t want to do that. Then your sense of being a composer and a creator came out once you were exposed to this other kinds of music making, even though you studied classical piano with somebody who was a boogie-woogie and blues immersed musician in addition to his loving Bach and Bartók and all that. And yet back then you didn’t think, “I’m a composer.”
FJO: Perhaps classical training discourages creative impulses.
MM: Yeah, maybe so. In retrospect, I think that it’s a kind of snobbery, almost, that I didn’t take the idea of becoming a blues or boogie-woogie pianist as a serious musical pursuit. I think it was partly hearing a lot of classical music being played in our house on recordings. But it was interesting because my earliest musical experiences were as an improviser, climbing up to the piano when I was—I can remember it at three, but it might have started earlier than that. And just making up songs. Making up pieces, whatever. There weren’t any lyrics, it’s true. But really improvising and enjoying that so much. And I remember I loved working with Erwin because I could still connect to that joy of improvising when he would play the blues for me and let me sit at the top and imitate him.
But slowly, over years of going down that classical music path, I disconnected with that, even though I always learned stuff by ear and played at parties with and for my friends. That was not serious. If I was going to be a serious musician, I was going to be a classical pianist. I started taking lessons in kindergarten and got pretty into it by first grade. At that point I was reading biographies of all the composers. But for some reason, when the first grade teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up, I said I wanted to be a conductor. Again, I don’t know where that came from. I knew there was a place for me in this musical world, but I didn’t know what it was.
FJO: Conductor. Not composer?
MM: Yes, even though I’m fascinated by Bach and Mozart and Haydn, and their stories and everything. I don’t know. But when I got through jazz, I got back to this very open-ended improvisation that I did as a kid. And that really clicked, the joy of creating music spontaneously. I somehow had come full circle. It was really through my first jazz piano teacher in Olympia that I started composing, because that’s just what you did. As far as he was concerned, that was part of learning to be a jazz pianist. He started assigning me to create pieces. And then I started putting bands together and getting people to play my music and stuff.
FJO: This is what we’re constantly trying to figure out in this new music world that embraces both improvisatory traditions and the music that came out of Western classical, notated, score-based music—contemporary classical music. What a hobgoblin of a word. It’s as bad as jazz; it’s actually a worse term! We’re all in this together, as you said, and you feel this relationship with new music. And yet these are two very different streams in a way.
MM: Um hm.
FJO: The Western classical music stream is all about creating music for an abstract concept of a group of instruments: string quartet, brass quintet, orchestra, chorus, whatever it may be. If you get a commission, you’re writing it for a specific group, but you’re hoping that this is something that other groups will do, so it’s not really specific to them. It’s specific to those instruments, those sounds. Or you get commissioned by a group and that group might not know you, but they know your music and they want you to do something for their group. But it’s this disconnect, and you’re not really working with that group as a player. Whereas, in the jazz world, you’re creating music for and with other people as opposed to the instruments they’re playing. Pieces can live again like “Yet Can Spring,” which originally existed as a quintet but it also exists as marvelous duo with Marty Ehrlich, which is very different because it’s about the people who are making it in the moment.
MM: Right. But what I’m seeing in the new music world now are more and more composers who are really getting together with particular players and developing sounds and techniques and writing for those players. I think that’s always happened to a certain extent, and so I think that’s one way that people in that community are addressing this disconnect that you’re talking about. Then we have people like Tyshawn Sorey who is an improviser and a composer, and moves fluidly between those worlds, and works with ICE, for instance. That’s a great example of a young ensemble of new music players who embrace improvisation and are comfortable moving back and forth between those two worlds.“More and more composers are getting together with particular players and developing sounds and techniques and writing for those players.”
I just wrote a piece and premiered it with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. It was an interesting commission. It came from Steve Schick when he was still the director; now Eric Dudley is the director. He said, “I want you to get everybody in the ensemble improvising.” That was a daunting task. I really took it on seriously and did the best that I could, and still tried to make a piece of music that I would be happy with that wasn’t a pedagogical piece. Obviously, I don’t need to teach people how to improvise. I try to come up with prompts that they would be able to embrace fairly quickly and do something with. Some of it worked better than others. I met with each of them. I got a sense of their vocabulary on their instruments. I brought in recordings that I had made of sounds that I make on the inside of the piano and asked them to imitate those sounds on their instruments. And then add something to those sounds, some kind of resonance. Or I asked them to use it as a background to improvise, so I started to get an idea of their sound, their techniques, and how comfortable they were with improvisation and how much freedom I could give them and how prescribed I had to be.
I transcribed the way they imitated these things, and that became the basis for this piece, the material that I built this piece on, and gave them. I had one of my graduate students show me how to notate these new music techniques and give those back to them in their scores. So that was a very person-specific kind of writing that I was doing. I also played with the ensemble, which was great. I was the featured improvising soloist. But now I’m revising that piece for the new music ensemble at UC, Berkeley, and really having to make some decisions about instruments and people, like who is this for, and is this a piece that I could then travel with and ask other new music ensembles to play. I’m kind of figuring that out now.
FJO: Interesting. I’ve been thinking about how to explain these different approaches to writing for other people to somebody who’s not involved in music at all. It’s almost like the difference between, say, a mom and pop company where people do things that they’re good at, and they have very specific roles but they’re not necessarily specific job titles, and a corporate structure where you have specific jobs and you hire people. You conceive of those jobs in the abstract, and you hire people to do just those specific jobs.
FJO: Sometimes it’s very difficult to adapt a piece written for a specific group of people to another ensemble. In terms of your own groups, I know you’ve worked with a lot of multi-instrumentalists, and you take advantage of that. One of the things that I love about Be Bread is hearing Brendan Ross playing a soprano guitar which sounds somewhat like a mandolin to me, but not completely. Who else plays that instrument?
MM: He also plays banjo on that record.
FJO: Right. You also have someone playing you contra alto clarinet.
MM: Ben Goldberg.
FJO: I don’t even know what that is.
MM: It’s the lowest e-flat clarinet.
FJO: So it’s like a bass clarinet up a fourth.
MM: I guess so. I’d have to ask. I thought Ben told me that it’s voiced a fifth below the bass clarinet, but they call it contra alto because it’s e-flat I think.
FJO: That’s so weird. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that all this music was conceived for these specific people, and when you were working with the San Francisco Contemporary Chamber Music Players, you were also creating this for specific people. So when you do it with another ensemble, you basically have to re-write the piece. You have to create, and maybe it’s another version of the same piece, but it’s another version.
MM: It’s another version, but I’m not going to meet with each of them individually now. I have the material. Now it’s more a repertoire kind of approach where they’ll have to learn the parts. But I’m going to have to figure out how they improvise. These guys are so good at reading and playing anything. I have no doubt they’ll play the written music great. So it’s really how I then work with their strengths as improvisers or their level of experience and comfort with it.
FJO: So are you going to be playing it with them also?
FJO: Has there ever been a context in which you’ve written music where you’re not playing?“I need to be part of the performance of my own music.”
MM: Very little. I wrote a piece for a band that Michelle Kinney had many years ago. It ended up becoming a piece that I then performed with The Same River, Twice. I really have decided that it’s okay that I need to be part of the performance of my own music. I really do. I bring something to it that I can’t notate and that I can’t describe or evoke from other people. It goes against this notion that we should be able to write for other people and not play it that I somehow rightly or wrongly took on when I lived here in New York. But I’ve decided that it’s okay; that’s not my thing.
FJO: But, through working with other people, you get all these other different, wonderful timbres. Of course, you play both piano and harmonium, which inhabit two very different sound worlds, but you don’t play the contra alto clarinet or the banjo. However, you can find people who do. But they’re always relatively small groups, five to six people is the largest. So I wonder if you would ever be interested in working with an even larger group, a big band or, the antithesis of a mom and pop shop, a symphony orchestra.
MM: Yeah, well let’s separate those two examples of large ensembles for a moment. The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players was an 11-piece ensemble with fixed media. That was the other new thing I tried in that piece that I haven’t done much with. That was fun. I’d like to do more large ensemble music and I have two opportunities coming up. I’m arranging a piece I wrote for Muhal Richard Abrams for the Chicago Jazz Festival last year in 2018 that I performed with a sextet of AACM musicians there. I’m arranging that for the University of Michigan Creative Arts Ensemble, which I think has about 20 players. Unfortunately, it’s at the beginning of the term, and they’re not exactly sure what the instrumentation is, but it is definitely not a big band. It’s got strings, electronics, and horns, so it’s a little bit along the model of something like the experimental band of the AACM or the creative arts orchestras that various AACM artists have had. One of the things I worked on over the summer was a big band version of it. I’m going to do it with Taylor Ho Bynum. He’s teaching the big band at Dartmouth and he’s bringing them out to UC, Berkeley in the spring. So I’m doing a big band version of that piece for his group to play and then this more creative, large, chamber orchestra version for University of Michigan. I like the idea of developing a body of work for large ensemble where the instrumentation is flexible, so that I can do it with various ensembles around the world. But whether I’ll write a whole book of music, we’ll see. That’s in the back of my mind as a big project I’d like to do sometime. As for symphony orchestra, let me just work with the new music players first.
FJO: The other extreme to that of working with loads of people is working alone. One of my all-time favorite albums of yours is the solo piano album Light Carries Me This Way. Since your music is so collaborative, that probably explains why it took so long for you to make a solo album. But then it dawned on me—it’s actually not a solo album. It’s a collaboration with a visual artist who was a dear family friend.
FJO: I’d love to talk to you about how it came about because I think that music is extraordinary.
MM: Oh, thank you so much. The first point I’d like to make is that I really am a collaborative person, and I need something to dialogue with or respond to. If it’s not another musician, or a dancer, or someone doing live video or something, then it’s usually visual art or architecture, or something where I’m responding. I’m developing musical material or literature, so this was very collaborative in that sense. I had certain goals about this, but I think the first thing I’ll say is that I had just moved out to California to start teaching at UC, Berkeley, and Don Reich, who is an old family friend, lives in Sacramento. And I actually visited him on the drive. I hadn’t even arrived in Berkeley yet.
I stopped at his home and studio in Sacramento. I loved his work, always have, and I don’t know how it happened. I don’t remember now if he said something or I said something, but we definitely had a certain kind of affinity aesthetically as well as being friends. I said, “Let’s do something,” and he said, “Okay, I’ll send you some drawings and you can decide what you want to do with them.” So that was how it started. He sent me about 16 photographs of recent work. I had them printed in large format and put them up in my studio at home, and lived with them for two or three years before I started to hear the music and conceptualize also what I wanted to do for a solo piano record, which as you mention, I had put off for a long time.“I really am a collaborative person, and I need something to dialogue with or respond to.”
And so I thought about two things. How do I like to play the piano? And how can I feature those approaches on this record? It naturally made sense that looking at Don’s work, I could hear these different approaches. So it seemed like a great concept for the record. But it took me a long time. I spent time sometimes improvising looking at them. I wrote text about what I was seeing and feeling. Adjectives, sometimes more than that. Some of them seemed to evoke very specific kinds of rhythms. They’re very, very personal. I wouldn’t expect anyone else to necessarily imagine that that music came from that drawing. I don’t know how well they work in that way, but it was never important to me.
FJO: Are the titles of the pieces the same as the titles of the artworks?
FJO: That’s what I figured. Because there’s a piece called “Japanese Music” which doesn’t sound anything like Japanese music.
FJO: There’s also a piece called “Piano Music.” When I first saw that I thought Myra Melford would never title a piece “Piano Music.”
MM: Right, those were his. He’s got another one which is called “Alluvial Music,” which I’ve never written anything for. Referencing music was part of his practice, so I found that fun and inspiring. But I didn’t feel like I had to try to write something that sounded Japanese.
FJO: I imagine you’ve played this music live.
FJO: So do you project the artwork?
MM: I’ve been back and forth about that. I decided that imposing the artwork on people’s listening experience was not a good idea. I want people to be able to have their own relationship with the music without trying to make sense out of this other thing or feeling like they had to put the two together. So usually, I’ve done a few things. I got to do an early version, shortly after the record came out. I did a concert at the Crocker Museum in Sacramento where Don had had his work exhibited. There was a big crowd of Don Reich fans in the audience. What we decided to do for that was to have his drawings and my scores displayed in the lobby. As many of the original works as possible. We also had a video screen that showed the same thing. In the concert, they showed the drawing and then took it off. Sort of along with hearing the title of the piece. That seemed to work pretty well. When I’m out on the road traveling, usually what I’ll do is if it’s a small intimate kind of setting, I’ll show the drawings, and then invite people to come up and look at them afterwards or something like that.
FJO: So in a way, to kind of bring this all full circle, the collaborative process that gets your inspiration going or the components that are compositional versus the components that are improvised are not necessarily something the listener needs to be aware of. But it’s what gets you going.
FJO: So I guess my last question is: what do you want a listener to be aware of? What do you want a listener to bring to this?“I hope that the music is inspiring. I hope it’s uplifting, or healing, or comforting or motivating.”
MM: My greatest aspiration as an artist is to create a sonic, energetic kind of space where people can have a meaningful experience. I hope that the music is inspiring. I hope it’s uplifting, or healing, or comforting or motivating. I want it to be what people need or want or are looking for in their lives. It’s not programmatic. I don’t need for people to feel anything or think anything in particular. There’s a little story to go with that. I was fortunate enough to be a fellow at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Umbria this past summer. And as my presentation, I did a solo piano concert. I played a piece called “Red Beach” that was really inspired by the fact that along with my study of the Huichol culture, I got to make a pilgrimage trek to the ocean with the Huichols. It was very much evocative of that experience. We would go down to the beach at sunset and make these offerings and it was very moving. And that was what was inspiring that piece. It came from a kind of inner stillness and gratitude and all that kind of thing. And I played it, and one of the people in the audience said to me, “That was one of the saddest pieces of music I’ve ever heard.” And I thought, “Well, that’s interesting, because I wasn’t feeling sad when I wrote it. And I’m not feeling sad now.” So I like the idea that it’s a space where people can have this experience and if people are interested in learning more about how it’s constructed, in my process of putting it together and what materials and ideas and so on, I’m happy to share that. And that probably does enrich the experience for some people to know those things. But I think at the basic level, I would hope that wouldn’t even be important.