Tag: improvisation

dublab – Jeremiah Chiu & Marta Sofia Honer: a live performance at dublab

Jeremiah Chiu and Marta Sofia Honer

This live performance by Jeremiah Chiu and Marta Sofia Honer took place at the dublab studios featuring some of the music they composed together as part of their recent album, Recordings from the Åland Islands, out now on International Anthem.

Jeremiah Chiu is Los Angeles-based artist, musician, educator, and community organizer. Chiu’s hybrid practice often operates under his studio moniker, Some All None, where projects lie at the intersection of art, music, technology, and publishing. Chiu is Full-Time Faculty in the Graphic Design Department at Otis College of Art & Design, a recording artist on International Anthem, and a resident DJ at dublab.

Marta Sofia Honer is a viola and violin performer, session player, and educator in Los Angeles. Working in both classical and contemporary fields, Honer’s versatility in different musical settings has garnered her credits alongside Beyoncé, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Chloe x Halle, Angel Olsen, Fleet Foxes, including four Grammy nominations. She regularly records for film and television and is a recording artist on International Anthem.

Video by Eli Welbourne
Edited by Maddi Baird

Multiple Voices: Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³)

The twelve participating musicians in the M3 initiative during a Zoom meeting.

[Updated December 14, 2020] On December 6 and 12, two concerts from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem presented over Zoom, both at 7:00 EST, offered listeners their first opportunity to hear six world premieres that are the result of a new initiative called Mutual Mentorship for Musicians, M³ for short. The two concerts were hosted by M³ “Editor in Chief” Jordannah Elizabeth, who also guided post premiere Q&As with the audience. M³ is a revolutionary new model for mentorship which was created by co-founders Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa in March and launched in June 2020 at the height of the pandemic. The founders describe M³ as “a think tank for new ways to connect, collaborate, support, create, and empower womxn musicians worldwide including BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S+, and musicians of all abilities across generations.” To celebrate these first two concerts of this new initiative, we asked the twelve initial participating musicians about why they decided to participate in this opportunity and how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. New Music USA is funding the next round of M³ collaborations. – FJO

The twelve initial participants in M³ are:
Romarna Campbell
Caroline Davis
Eden Girma
Val Jeanty
Maya Keren
Erica Lindsay
Lesley Mok
Tomeka Reid
Sara Serpa
Jen Shyu
Anjna Swaminathan
Sumi Tonooka

Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³) World Premieres: Duo Concerts & Conversations Pt.1

Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³) World Premieres: Duo Concerts & Conversations Pt.2

Romarna Campbell playing a drum set

Romarna Campbell (photo by Peter R. Fischer)

Romarna Campbell

On New Year’s Eve 2019, I remember being excited for 2020 and making all the 2020 puns I could; it was the year of 20/20 vision. In my opinion 2019 had been a pretty rough year and I was excited to start afresh, so to speak. By mid-March of this year all the optimism had completely dissipated. From the moment I landed back in the UK to quarantine, it just seemed to go from bad to worse. And in the middle of this, I was being forced to learn some hard truths myself, personally and artistically. How do I interact with my friends and peers? How can I offer support when I felt like this is a time that I’ve probably needed the most support? How do I create without being surrounded by immensely creative beings? How do I collaborate? Is music even important anymore?

It was in the midst of this doubt and fear that Jen contacted me about M³ and it felt like this little beam of excitement and happiness. Yet, I could never have envisioned what M³ would really do for me. I remember tentatively turning up for the first meeting via Zoom and instantly I experienced complete warmth and honesty from everybody and felt inspired. I wanted to play again. I wanted to write again. Music became important again. Although we have had to conduct the whole process via Zoom, with a 5-hour time difference and the lag or cameras not working properly and being entirely at the mercy of technology, music and this community that has been created prevailed over all of these obstacles.

Caroline Davis standing in front of shrubbery

Caroline Davis (photo by Alex Free)

Caroline Davis

Some are born into tribes, but the creative process of re-defining ourselves places us in new ones. This year has presented some pretty severe obstacles—the pandemic, the persisting face of race, gender, and class biases, the political climate, the encroaching climate crisis. All seem to divide us into factions while at the same time allowing us to connect with individuals who are ready and willing to fight for the cause.

The initiative dreamed up by Jen and Sara has gifted me safe spaces with which to unpack all of these obstacles and more. The group space gives perspective, while the smaller meetings have opened intimate ways of interpreting and designing poetry, melody, and video production, through sending messages, phone calls, and meetings on Zoom. With each passing meeting, my mind sees how each of us would handle situations differently, leaving me confident to approach my creative and professional endeavors with more vigor. The creations haven’t felt prescribed or scheduled in any sense; rather, they are journeys that we are all on in this tribe, which, in the end will emerge most naturally.

Eden Girma standing outside

Eden Girma (photo by Maeve Moayedi)

Eden Girma

Why say yes to M³? There is the easy answer of how could I possibly refuse any opportunity to work with the brilliant Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa? But also, I think I responded instinctively from a yearning for a holistic musical community, one that certainly predated the pandemic, and was only intensified through it.

Particularly, there seem to be so few models for intergenerational artistic communion; I’ve spoken with many friends who are also aspiring artists, and who have shared such deep desires for something akin to mentorship or apprenticeship. There is so much about the artistic landscape and industry that is utterly nebulous, especially for those (like myself) who do not come from artistic families or see themselves, their background, represented meaningfully. In the midst of cacophony and silencing discrimination, how does one find their voice? How does one survive, when attempting to employ their voice for artistic meaning and financial security? How, through our artistic practice, might we carry forward the legacy of those who fought, died, for a more just and equitable world? There is no handbook, no well-worn path, only the stories and experiences of those before us to gather any idea. So, this was one way in which M³ really struck me: as an avenue for such needed dialogue between youth and elders. To be honored with the presence and insights of such powerful and resilient women—and to also have my own perspectives celebrated and valued as something of worth—is indescribably enriching.

How is this program affecting my practice? I think, if anything, to have this vibrant community in my life right now has invigorated so much of my spirit. Given the bleakness of this time, frankly it has felt life-saving. I can perceive the growth, shifts of relationships with others and also with myself, due to the space we are creating now. What is evolving due to this program is a collective awareness and compassion and confidence that invariably influences my work by way of influencing my deeper self. And I believe that the interpersonal and internal changes occurring now will affect my practice for years to follow.

Val Jeanty holding drumsticks and sitting on a wooden floor near a window surrounded by large drums

Val Jeanty (photo by Richard Louissant)

Val Jeanty

As a collaborator/artist, working with “Women” has always been a major goal of mine.
This creative collaboration/ mentorship has been such a blessing during these intense and uncertain times. It’s a great source of inspiration and support, and it connects me to women that I’ve always wanted to collaborate with.

Maya Keren outside among greenery near a large yellow flower.

Maya Keren (photo by Lilly Dupuis)

Maya Keren

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how deep, structural change actually comes about. In moments like this one it’s easy to see change as something that is sparked spontaneously from the heat of a charged moment. But looking further, we find that social change comes about from a lineage of resistance—from decades of folks fighting not just for survival but for the right to live beautiful lives.

I’ve been reflecting on several linked movements—the fight against white supremacy, especially by radical Black feminists, the queer liberation movement, the development of creative improvised music—and how these movements all required groups of people who trusted each other to come together and create their own momentum outside of the systems that oppressed them. For me, Mutual Mentorship for Musicians feels like a continuation of this tradition. We are this little underground intergenerational family giving each other love and support to bolster ourselves against a society that leaves very little space for the voices of non-cis-male, queer and BIPOC artists. Our group completely reconstructs the foundations of our musical ecosystem; it imagines a community free from patriarchal, capitalistic, and white supremacist ideals and presents one based upon vulnerability, communal support, and compassion. And M3 does this while also meeting the current moment; over Zoom we have tuned in from Portugal, the UK, and all over the US.

The current limitations have challenged us to create new forms of community-building and art-making that take advantage of the digital format, from using the Zoom chat function to hype each other up to combining exquisite-corpse style audio recording with film editing for our joint projects. I’m so excited to continue this model of artistic collaboration and mentorship and I truly believe structures like these will create profound systemic change in our musical community and beyond.

Erica Lindsay sitting in front of a piano

Erica Lindsay (photo by Paul Tsang)

Erica Lindsay

The aspect of this initiative that I was not expecting, but feel so grateful for, is the intergenerational energy generated from our talks and sharing of perspectives. It is fertile ground for synergist transformations. It also has been a great experience to have the opportunity to collaborate with other artists that one might not have had the chance to do so otherwise, and to become more familiar with a whole new generation of amazing musicians and composers who have a strong and unique voice to contribute to the music.

Thank you Jen and Sara for spearheading the development of this creative community. I envision it expanding and growing stronger through the years. We need new spaces, new visions, new methods to communicate with and to support each other. If there was ever a time for transformation of the arts, the business, the culture, it is now. The breaking down of the normal, that this pandemic has created, let it become a crack that a new reality can be born through.

Lesley Mok against a white background

Lesley Mok (photo by Luke Marantz)

Lesley Mok

Black American Music, and the creative music it has informed, is inherently political. In a time where white supremacy, corporatization, and militant fascism seem to undermine the core values of our existence, it’s crucial we ask ourselves: how can the music, the process of collaboration, and the spaces we work within, actually reflect the times we’re living in?

History has shown us the capacity for change when we create spaces that reflect the diversity of our creative ecosystem. Groups like the AACM, the Black Artists’ Group, and the Pan-African Peoples Arkestra have focused on building community and social consciousness, and have done so outside of existing corporate structures. To me, M3 is an extension of this work, bringing together BIPOC womxn to foster support, love, and growth through adventurous music-making.

M3 has allowed me the space to be truthful and vulnerable in an otherwise white, male-dominated, cis-heteronormative space. I’m grateful to Jen and Sara and all my fellow M3-ers for nurturing this space, and for allowing the fullest expression of ourselves.

I’m reminded of this quote by Joshua Briond: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but rather individuals and classes repeat history.” Mary Lou Williams, Abbey Lincoln, Nicole Mitchell, Susie Ibarra, Amina Claudine Myers, Terri Lyne Carrington, Fay Victor, Matana Roberts… and all those who’ve illuminated the way, thank you…The fight for liberation continues!

Tomeka Reid playing the cello

Tomeka Reid (photo by Joel Wanek)

Tomeka Reid

When I was asked to be a part of this group, I was initially on the fence. While I was concerned about my gigs disappearing for what I realized at that point would be the rest of the year and into 2021, I also felt that there was a kind of pressure to still do, to be active…so many wonderful organizations were shifting quickly to create much needed lifelines for the artist community but honestly all I wanted to do was just be and process all that was and had been happening so quickly!

Over the years, I think I have felt a kind of exhaustion of always having to adapt to some new (mostly digital) change or update and I felt like, while the moment was indeed financially challenging, this might be the moment and rare opportunity that forces all of us to just slow down, reflect, reevaluate. To just simply stop. Is it okay to just not do for a while? Thus, I was weary to commit to something, especially something that I knew would be conducted expressly online and that would require an online performance as well. I was still very much resisting that reality, lol!

But Jen and Sara curated a wonderful cast of intergenerational womxn artists and I have really enjoyed sharing and getting to know them all, some of whom I have met prior to COVID life and others whom it will be exciting to meet in person someday! It’s been a great space to hear how others are managing in this current climate. Everyone is extremely supportive of where everyone is at this current moment. It’s been a welcome positive space to be a part of in this moment that has felt so fragile, confusing and disillusioning. I am grateful that this space has been created for us to just be.

Sara Serpa sitting with her left hand on the side of her face.

Sara Serpa (photo by Heather Sten)

Sara Serpa

It has always interested me how we, as artists, can create alternative structures that connect us as opposed to alienate/divide us, where the artist is free and does not have to conform or compete in order to be successful. This mutual and intergenerational mentorship initiative proposes the idea that we all learn from each other, instead of the original top-down mentorship structure. The absence of the traditional hierarchical system is liberating, and has allowed me for a personal transformation that initially was subtle. Now, as time goes by, this seed is growing and expanding to all relationships I nurture. The meetings have opened my mind to different ways of interacting with my peers: supportive instead of competitive, honest instead of performative, transforming instead of conforming.

I didn’t have this kind of support when I was growing and studying to be a musician, and just the fact that is right happening now, when we are all forced out of work and the world seems to be falling apart, has helped me going through the uncertainty of the moment. Zoom has limitations. Nothing can replace the act of being/ playing/ listening together in a room. However, each meeting is invigorating and inspiring and shows me that we are all more connected than I initially thought.

I feel incredibly fortunate for being able to communicate and interact with this group of womxn on a regular basis. I don’t want it to end in December! Each time we meet is different – the honesty, creativity and vulnerability each one of us brings into our projects or meetings stays with me during the periods we don’t meet, inspiring me to use different approaches to challenges that seem to always exist no matter the generation we belong to. The fact that each artist has such a unique and original way of expression makes me dream about the possibilities of expanding these kinds of dialogues to as many artists as possible. I am beyond grateful for this work and to be doing it with Jen—a work in progress of imagining, restructuring, discussing and hopefully transforming our artistic landscape, in which kindness, generosity and respect prevail.

Jen Shyu with her hair in front of part of her face and a guzheng (classical Chinese zitrher) leaning against her right shoulder.

Jen Shyu (photo by Daniel Reichert)

Jen Shyu

The night after our eighth M³ meeting, I dreamt that one of my students taught me a very specific way to move my hands and legs that would enable me to fly up the stairs without ever having to step down. The infinitely linked staircases in the dream hung in the air like in an M.C. Escher drawing. The room was hardly a room, but rather a greenhouse full of sunlight with no walls. Perhaps it was so big that I didn’t feel the walls around me.

I woke up. The dream still fresh in my half-sleeping body, I tried out the hand and leg movements in my kitchen, which will surely become new movements in a new dance. This process is a metaphor for what these M³ meetings have meant to me, whether in our full cohort of 12 or in our smaller groupings. We’ve been exercising our vision-building and integrating that envisioning into our everyday lives. Personally, I’ve infused those dream states into my reality not only as an artist, but as a human being and a citizen of the world. I’ve learned from each cohort member how I can better do this, from how each artist speaks, lives their art, articulates their ideas so clearly, and creates such profound work. The issues and situations that we have talked about, all happening in real time, have continually moved me and shaped my psyche. These are issues I rarely discussed openly on such a deep level with other womxn artists when I was in my 20s or 30s. Those conversations usually happened one-on-one and rather secretly, in the context of male leadership or in relationship to men, as I usually found myself as the only woman or one of two women in any given musical setting.

My concept of “mentor” has also changed. I have many mentors, most who influenced me in life-changing ways, but also some who placed their limitations on me, telling me I couldn’t be a “jack-of-all-trades,” for example. Obviously, I rebelled. Another interaction which challenged my idea of “mentor” was just after a breakfast with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell at the Ojai Festival in 2017, where I had performed solo the day before. Little did I know it would be the last time I would see Muhal before his passing four months later. As we were walking to the elevator, I told Muhal, “I just want to thank you for being such a generous mentor to all of us all these years.” He stopped me and said, “Now wait. I don’t like this word ‘mentor.’ Because it implies someone is higher than the other, like there’s a hierarchy. I prefer the word ‘exchange.’ Like I want to know about those Taiwanese folk songs you’re into.” I was stunned and humbled. This short conversation initiated the idea of “mutual mentorship” in my head, and when Sara and I began developing the manifestation of this idea, it was one of the concepts that inspired M³, which has been absolutely shaped by our inaugural cohort members every step of the way.

We always try to take a screenshot at the end of our meetings, capturing our time together which began on the Summer Solstice of this tumultuous year of 2020. These are magical snapshots of our lives colliding at different points in our careers, painting a picture of the work that needs to be done and how we’ll continue to grow this energy exponentially outward for the rest of our lives.

Anjna Swaminathan sitting on a rock at a beach by the water.

Anjna Swaminathan (photo by Molly Gazay of Diabla Productions)

Anjna Swaminathan

Truthfully, I was initially reluctant to join M3. This of course has nothing to do with the brilliance and camaraderie that Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa offer or the beauty of the kind of mentorship they sought to cultivate. However, in the early stages of the pandemic, I was trying to feel secure in my ongoing projects and commissions and felt “too busy” for this. The feeling of community and catharsis that this group would offer was terrifying to me because it would push me to confront the fragility of our existing musical ecosystem.

As my colleagues lost gig after gig, I clenched harder to my lingering commitments, trying to convince myself that the pandemic couldn’t destabilize me. It was likely a triggered response. In March 2019 almost exactly a year before we became aware of the virus’s toll on New York City, I started experiencing severe chronic pain symptoms, which forced me to part with my instrument (the violin). I went through many of the same motions that our entire community of artists is going through now. I stopped performing. I stopped improvising with my community. I stopped traveling due to the toll it took on my back and the radiating neurological pain I was experiencing. And to make everything worse, I had also developed a psychosomatic response in my immune system that manifested as frequent respiratory illnesses, that kept me constantly washing my hands and fearful of touching my face. Fortunately, I found home in composing and felt safe to heal while still creating music.

I suppose, when the pandemic started, I wanted to be privileged enough to stay grounded. I got attached to not experiencing an existential crisis — even going so far as to create an alliance for patrons to connect to starving composers and performers from my oh-so-charitable high horse. I needed to hold on to this, and when I saw Jen’s email, my internal response was, “I’m totally fine! This should go to someone who actually needs community.” Of course, though fearful, I said yes to Jen, because I knew that every encounter I’ve had with Jen has taught me to confront my fears. I heard her voice saying something like, “go towards the things that frighten you and figure out why.”

Since we began our meetings, I’ve been so deeply grateful. For one, in these meetings, we speak at length about how these illusions of security were wound up in capitalistic, white supremacist, and heteropatriarchal structures. Many of us spoke of scarcity in our initial meetings. Feeling that there weren’t enough spaces where we could truly be ourselves, artistically, politically, and spiritually. We spoke about tactics to navigate existing power structures and to find our voices within them. And as these conversations have progressed, I’ve witnessed and experienced cosmic intergenerational healing. There are days when mentors in their 60s nurture and comfort mentors in their 20s. On other days younger mentors radicalize their experienced mentors. And on most days it is like a wild game of volleyball, each of us bouncing this radical and dynamic energy off of one another, working together to elevate in abundance rather than falling into scarcity. In the course of the past few months, the security of commissions and projects has dwindled. Yet, I feel renewed with a different kind of security. I feel connected to this ageless, timeless creative energy within me. With the love and encouragement of this community, I am exploring the widest and wildest extremes of artistic play. This group, in replacing power and hierarchy with love and radical vulnerability, has kindled a security in me that feels everlasting. I think back to this feeling of fragility in our musical ecosystem. Of course, it is fragile. It wasn’t working for musicians. This group is planting seeds of abundance, of communication, and of vulnerability that I know will transform music-making and fortify intergenerational mentorship for years to come.

Sumi Tonooka holding her left hand above her left eye in a salute or viewing pose and holding her right hand in front of her chin.

Sumi Tonooka (photo by Karen Sterling)

Sumi Tonooka

I know it’s cliché to reference the Lotus Blossom that grows out of the mud. But that is precisely what M3 is, something beautiful, and exquisite that has arisen out of these chaotic, dark and troubled times…2020, whew, and it’s not over yet!

Saying yes to Jen and Sara who had the initial vision for M3 was easy, especially considering the dynamic group of invited persons to take part. I loved their idea and vision to collaborate, with a choice group of artists that represent the broadest spectrum of sexual identity, genre, and generations among women, to produce new music together as composers and players. We meet bi-monthly via Zoom, to support each other with our diverse creative processes. The duos and quartets were formed randomly and provide an even more intimate window to share and build. M3 has provided a means of support, caring and creativity that I am so grateful to be a part of, especially now! There is a way in which we have bonded and we are learning so much from each other. There is chemistry and momentum moving forward with love and mutual respect at its core. We are doing all this through the rather limited technology on Zoom of all things and this has surprised me!

I’m a child of the 60’s and 70’s. I was raised by radical left wing bi-racial parents during a very tumultuous time in this country. My parents lived through World War II, the Great Depression, the McCarthy era. My mother, who was Japanese American was imprisoned in Internment camps during World War II because of her race. My father who was African American, was a union man, a Marxist, a factory worker. My parents’ philosophies were woven into the fabric of their children’s lives. I cooked breakfast for the Black Panther breakfast program in Mantua Philadelphia when I was 12 years old! My family marched against the Vietnam War, when the country was unified, sick, and tired, but not too tired to protest.

The current struggles of our times is something not new to many of us, it’s an old fight. I am disheartened, angry and depressed at the level of anti-blackness in our culture, the systemic racism in our institutions and prison system and the fact that Black mothers, still fear for their son’s lives, but I am relieved to see the current revolution for racial injustice and people of all races engaged so actively across the globe uniting in solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement, the Me Too movement, the Climate crisis, and more.

Nina Simone, whom I greatly admire, said that artists must address their times. We can look to artists like her to learn exemplary ways in which artists can respond to injustice. Nina was black, beautiful and bold and knew it. Her musical expression contained her fury, love, and soulfulness, fighting for freedom and equality. We can look to artists like John Coltrane whose humanity and protean musical expression and legacy is a constant reminder of what it means to be free as an artist and a great human being.

The fight goes on, as it must until we reach a level of humanity, understanding, and acceptance, a more spiritual ground of love for one another. It might be that we have to keep going round and round until we get it right. The human realm is complex and flawed and ugly and beautiful.

The concert poster for the two upcoming performances featuring photos of the twelve participating musicians and the host.

Dec 6 @ 7pm EST, National Jazz Museum in Harlem event link HERE
Dec. 12 @ 7pm EST, National Jazz Museum in Harlem event link HERE
M3 Eventbrite links (linked from the above links):
Facebook link HERE

My Journey With Bird Songs

A car approaching a wooden cabin

For the past 11 years, I have been working on incorporating bird songs into my music. When I say “my music”, I am talking about my improvisations, because all of the music I compose starts with improvisation, which I then sculpt into compositions. To me, this is a more “natural“ way to go, but then again, that’s been my approach my entire life. When the composition is set, I leave space for improvisations based on the bird songs, as well as motifs created from the surrounding soundscape. Six of my bird song compositions that are currently in my repertoire were originally created back in 2008 during a 5-week residency at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

I was completely seduced by the bird songs around my studio and decided to play around with them for just one afternoon.

The proposal I submitted for that residency had been to create a series of compositions for an improvisational duo with bassist Mark Dresser, for a recording session scheduled for late July. I also planned to work on a side project, which was a large work for my big band based on Pythagoras’s and Johannes Kepler’s “Music of the Spheres” concept. I brought two suitcases full of books for research to the colony. But when I opened one of my suitcases, a book I had recently bought, David Rothenberg’s Why Birds Sing, fell out of the suitcase. I didn’t remember packing that book! I also brought a book of Amy Beach’s piano music. That I did remember packing because she was an integral part of the success of the MacDowell Colony. I also had a small manuscript book in that suitcase, and for another unknown reason, out fell the letter I had received 11 years earlier, from Adrienne Fried Block, who at that time was writing Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer, 1867-1944. You would think I would have paid attention to all of these signs from the universe, but no, I initially decided to stay the course with the Spheres side project. That only lasted a day. I was completely seduced by the bird songs around my studio and decided to play around with them for just one afternoon, then get back to work. One afternoon turned into the entire residency; I just had to play with those birds! When would I ever get another chance like this, to have a piano in the middle of the woods, and to play freely? Instead of reading about Kepler, I read David Rothenberg’s book every day, and went to the local bookstore to find Donald Kroodsma’s book with recorded bird songs, The Backyard Birdsong Guide and an illustrated copy of The Music of Wild Birds adapted from The Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music by F. Schuyler Matthews, who wrote that book in 1904, in Campton, New Hampshire, less than 2 hours from the MacDowell Colony.

My designated studio was Delta Omicron, and inside was a beautiful Mason and Hamlin grand piano. I had a digital recorder and was able to put the microphone in a small window, covering it with a curtain to have a little separation from the piano, which enabled me to hear the birds clearly through my headphones. In this way I was able to adjust the volume I played on the piano so that the birds and I were balanced. I never saw them, so I was never sure who was singing what.

I improvised with songbirds … My goal was to become a member of their band, so to speak.

Every day for five weeks, I improvised with songbirds and any other creatures that made their voices heard, and recorded each session. My goal was to become a member of their band, so to speak. I listened deeply to their singing, and carefully infiltrated their ensemble. They, in turn, sang to me and with me and seemed to be okay that I was not only privy to their conversations, but would take part in them as well. We had a standing jam session time at around 10 a.m. each morning until lunch. Then they would retreat, and I would do some reading and listen to our recordings. They would come back out to sing with me around 4 p.m. until I left them for a swim in the local pond. There was also the after-dinner bird ensemble, and we would make music together, but not for long, as they had other business to attend to. In the evenings, I would listen to our recordings of the day, and make notes on the improvisations that would become compositions that I could play again and also perform with other musicians. 
As I listened, I made marks in the editing track and would decide on what to keep, sometimes switching sections around, but for the most part only editing what I considered “meandering” type improvisations as opposed to fully formed compositions through improvisation.

The view of the trees and foliage from the window of the cabin at The MacDowell Colony

The view from the window.

The first bird I began improvising with was the American Robin. In fact, the most well known song, Cheerily, Cheerily, seemed to creep into all of my improvisations. I slowed down the song just a bit, and lengthened the motif, and played around with it in garage band.

A page from an old book featuring music notation for a song based on the tune that the American Robin sings. The following text appears at the top of the page: Taking the Robin according to his average conduct, he is a noisy fellow! But there is a host of good cheer in his music which the discriminating writer in A Masque of Poets early discovered: In the sunshine and the rain I hear the robin in the lane Singing Cheerily, Cheer up, cheer up; Cheerily, cheerily, cheer up! These words fit the following music pretty well.

A page from The Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music by F. Schuyler Mathews featuring Mathews transcription of the robin’s song set to music.

Over time, my improvisations on this theme became a singular line composition, much like the style of early Ornette Coleman, that I freely improvised. I gave it the title “If You Call Me, Then I’ll Call You” and dedicated it to Mark Dresser. The title rhythmically matches the first two measures, and it also represents what the robins use their songs for, calling each other, and what Mark and I have been doing for over forty years, calling each other.

Mark Dresser playing double bass and Diane Moser playing piano

Mark Dresser (bass) and Diane Moser (piano) at Klavierhaus (Photo by Dennis Connors).

Just before sunrise, the first bird I heard singing was the Hermit Thrush. The landscapers at MacDowell referred to the hermit thrush as a deep woods singer, and told me it was the first one singing at the break of day, and first one back into the woods just before sunset. Commonly known as the Nightingale of the Americas, this bird has an amazing set of songs and calls. It’s no wonder that Amy Beach composed two piano pieces based on these songs, one for the morning and one for the evening. She also had perfect pitch and could sit in the woods for hours transcribing bird songs. I have been playing her composition A Hermit Thrush at Eve for years, adding improvisation over her harmonic progression and using hermit thrush songs as a point of departure for improvisation. I have added my version below. Before you listen to the recording, check out the songs of the hermit thrush, and you’ll understand the brilliance of Amy Beach.

After hearing the hermit thrush and the american robin, the next two birds I would hear in the morning were the Black-Capped Chickadee, and the Chipping Sparrow. The Black-Capped Chickadee has a two note song and several calls, but it was the two note song that I was responding to, and the bird responded back with the same two notes. The chipping sparrow has two songs and several calls. The songs are long dry trills, one being faster than the other. I was hearing the faster one and he alternated his song with the black-capped chickadee. I began imitating both of them, improvising in between their songs and my imitations.

Here’s a recording of one of our sessions, right at the very beginning.

As I continued improvising, I integrated both of their songs into a bass line, and then began developing a melody with the two note song from the black-capped chickadee.

All of these improvisations went on for many hours, and other birds would join us for a moment or two.

Originally I had titled the improvisations “Me and the Chickadees”, but I changed it to “Hello” after reading about how bird songs have been set to mnemonics, using a syllabic rhythmic phrase. I decided that the two note song of the black-capped chickadee, a bird song I heard every morning, should quite obviously be called “Hello”.

The bird I had the most fun with was the chipping sparrow.

The bird I had the most fun with was the chipping sparrow. His dry trill and constant singing at regular intervals of time provided tempo and an ostinato for my improvisations. I used the age old technique of a repetitive note as an imitation of the chipping sparrows dry trill, and that became a “thread” for the composition, tying it together. Everything else evolved through improvisation. Think Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, or any number of compositions. “One Note Samba” by Antonio Carlos Jobim is another good example. As you listen to the recording below, you’ll hear the chipping sparrow, and a dark-eyed junco in the background who wanted to join in with us.

After editing the recordings, I began the tedious process of transcribing. For some pieces I transcribed note for note exactly what I had played. For others, I kept melodies, harmonies, bass lines, and motifs, using them as a jumping-off point for improvisation. I was able to transcribe two of my bird song compositions “Hello” and “If You’ll Call Me, Then I’ll Call You” before I left the MacDowell Colony. We recorded them on my return to New Jersey,  during that aforementioned recording session with bassist Mark Dresser and a few days later we performed them live in New York City at The Stone. (Our recording, Duetto, was released in 2012.)

I was staying true to what the birds and I had created.

One of the benefits of being a performer-composer are the ensembles that I lead, and other people’s ensembles that I perform with, where I can arrange the music I compose for any combination of instruments. Throughout these performances, I constantly referred back to my original recordings, making sure I was staying true to what the birds and I had created, and especially to the surrounding soundscape which was the palette for the compositions. I also created more space in the notated score for improvisation, but with the caveat that the improvisations needed to reflect the bird songs and the motifs. Thankfully, the musicians I performed with had a wide range of musical experiences and could untether themselves from the standard go-to licks, as we say in the jazz world.

I took a different approach for my next bird song composition, Birdsongs for Eric, a 20-minute suite for septet, based on the flute improvisations of the iconic jazz musician and composer, Eric Dolphy, commissioned for the “Eric Dolphy: Freedom of Sound Celebration Series”.

I discovered that in virtually every solo Dolphy took there were bird songs.

In 1962, Eric Dolphy told Downbeat magazine interviewer Don DeMichael, “At home [in California] I used to play, and the birds always used to whistle with me. I would stop what I was working on and play with the birds.” I can totally relate to that quote! Happens to me all of the time. 
The quote and Dolphy’s music inspired me to try a different type of process. With the help of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird site and their online Macaulay Library, I was able to study the birds in the area of Los Angeles where Dolphy grew up. I compared those bird songs with as many recordings of Dolphy that I could find and discovered that in virtually every solo he took, not to mention melodies he wrote, there were bird songs or motifs that clearly represented bird songs. I improvised with those bird songs for a bit, then chose the songs I wanted to incorporate into the composition and gave instructions to the musicians to base their improvisations on those motifs.

After all of this experimenting, I formed what I now call the Birdsong Trio, piano, bass and flute. We worked on the music for several years, performing here and there, and in 2016 I decided it was time to do a recording. I commissioned a graduate student that I was mentoring at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Kyle Pederson, a very talented composer, to compose a piece for this new recording. Kyle, who is from Minnesota, chose the song and calls of his state bird, the common loon, and titled his piece “The (Un)Common Loon”.

The recording session for the Diane Moser Birdsong Trio (Anton Denner, Ken Filiano, and Diane Moser) at Union Congregational Church in Montclair, New Jersey (Photo by Dennis Connors)

The recording session for the Diane Moser Birdsong Trio (Anton Denner, Ken Filiano, and Diane Moser) at Union Congregational Church in Montclair, New Jersey (Photo by Dennis Connors)

The result of these efforts was the release of Diane Moser: Birdsongs (Planet Arts Records), and little did I know the resounding effect this would have on critics, music fans, and students. We have had truly wonderful reviews from jazz, contemporary fusion, classical and rock music publications, and even a heavy metal blog! Evidence of the universality of not only music, but of bird song.

At the end of our concerts audience members tell me about their bird hikes, show me photos…

What has intrigued me about the reviews, is that not only are the reviewers understanding the music, but they are also talking about their own memories of listening to birds, the joyfulness of the music, and how it makes them feel relaxed. When we play our concerts, I begin with a short Deep Listening session with the audience, settling in, closing their eyes, thinking about their favorite birds, thinking about their favorite bird songs, and then I invite them to vocalize their favorite bird songs. I also tell them that they can continue the vocalization for as long as they want. As the audience is vocalizing, our trio improvises with them, and at some point we segue into Birdsongs for Eric.  At the end of our concerts audience members have told me they felt transformed, that they were listening differently, that they heard the music in a way they never heard before, and that they felt completely at peace. They often tell me about their bird hikes, show me photos, discuss articles they have recently read and so forth.
 To this day, I receive emails, postcards, photos, text messages, Facebook posts, and messages from my audience base about their experiences with birds and walking in the woods.

A landscape view of Cape May Point State Park showing a placard with a description of the area, an open field, and the sky.

Cape May Point State Park in Cape May,NJ

Recently I received a Faculty Research Grant from The New School for my new project called “Waterbirds: Environmental Dialogues Through Music”, which will include the creation of a 50-minute music composition for my Birdsong Trio, incorporating field recordings that focus on coastal and wetlands birds and their disappearing habitats in and around New Jersey and New York. This is a different approach for me towards creating music, but I am thoroughly enjoying it! Thus far, this project has me traveling the coast of New Jersey, making field recordings and going on bird hikes with the Bergen County Audubon Society, the Cape May Bird Observatory, and New Jersey Audubon. I was granted a research permit from the United States Department of the Interior to work with the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area in Highlands, N.J., where I spend lots of time. I’m amazed by the work that the Audubon groups, NPS, and US Fish and Wildlife Service are achieving on environmental clean-up, bird and bat habitats, education, land management, and so much more. I love the field-recording process and have already worked on one soundscape composition with my Birdsong Trio, which also includes a film. In part two of this series, I’ll share the film and other journeys I have made with bird songs.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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Myra Melford: Freedom and Form

A woman in front of a dark mural

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.”

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.”

Frank. J. Oteri in conversation with Myra Melford
September 13, 2019—1:00 p.m. at New Music USA
Video recording by Molly Sheridan
Video presentation by Alexandra Gardner

The Autobiographical Impulse in Composition

As a banjo player and percussionist, I’ve long tried to combine the worlds of the contemporary music that I love with my background in bluegrass and Appalachian music. The fact is, I didn’t need to try so hard. No matter what an artist does, the choices are often subconscious, based on personal experience and background. This background dictates where we take our music.

Early on, I planned to be a composer and not a performer; stage fright was my primary affliction. But I realized that many professional composers were also good performers, at least at some point in their careers. So, I decided that, if I was to be any good as a composer, I should strive to be a good performer. I began to practice with intensity on the banjo and, since I truly love the classical canon, orchestral percussion. It became my mission to play in order to feed my composition.

One thing I work to teach student composers is that musicality is learned directly from performing, listening, and immersion in the literature. I’ve learned to work with others to craft a collective sound, to blend with them, and to listen. A performing composer learns how hard it is to perform, and a composer who performs will think of the musicians while composing.

In the act of creation, a personal story will assert itself, often in spite of ourselves. But we can feed that story through the people we meet, the concerts we organize, and the musicians we work with.

While I developed bluegrass chops on the banjo, I was also exploring the experimental aspects of playing the instrument. A banjo can be plucked, bowed, struck, rubbed, scraped, and prepared. I’ve worked in contexts of free improvisation, contemporary ensembles, and electronic music. I once improvised on a belay line on the side of a cliff in Tennessee and, as a student, played under John Cage. Style means very little when it comes to expression on an instrument. I found that the energy of performing bluegrass in a bar in Asheville, North Carolina, carried over to the next morning’s work at the drafting table, even if that work had nothing to do with the music I was playing the night before.

Yet, those Appalachian and folk tunes began to creep into my music. One example of this is a composition of mine titled Stanley Kubrick’s Mountain Home, for soprano, chamber ensemble, and bluegrass band. While writing this piece, I became acquainted with the legendary bluegrass banjo player/fiddler/composer John Hartford, who I’d seen numerous times at festivals and whose recordings influence me as a performer to this day. I asked him to record several Appalachian fiddle tunes that I then transcribed and worked into the composition.

An important evening in my life came in 1978 when I saw New Directions with trumpeter Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, drummer/pianist Jack DeJohnette, bassist Eddie Gomez, and guitarist John Abercrombie. The ensemble interacted freely around structured tunes. I walked out of that concert wanting to do something like that with a bluegrass band and said so to my brother, who observed: “Well, it wouldn’t be bluegrass then, would it?” No, I guess not.

This concert coincided with improvisation sessions that my composition teacher at Wichita State University organized. Arthur S. Wolff placed a number of musicians in resonant spaces such as stairwells, tunnels, and atriums and recorded everything, often late at night. Many of us who were involved then still cite him as an early influence in our music. I brought this discipline to an experimental bluegrass band that I played with in the 1980s called the Sons of Rayon, and once I was accused of being self-indulgent for doing this on stage. In the ‘90s, I played a number of events with cellist Hank Roberts, known then for his work with the Bill Frisell Quartet. Our performances were structured around tunes that he composed with large sections of improvisation. I believe that I developed interactive skills and musicality through these numerous improv sessions and performances.

In a strange circling around of fate, in May of 2011 I met percussionist Famoudou Don Moye of the Art Ensemble of Chicago in France. I quickly mobilized funds, musicians, and a recording studio and composed a number of tunes. The next month we recorded Nice Folks with some excellent French musicians who rendered lovely improvisations in and between my tunes.

In 2012, I performed on banjo with composer Christian Wolff in Marseille. Wolff has long been a presence in contemporary music. When he was 17, he gave John Cage a book explaining the I-Ching, which became the basis for many of Cage’s chance pieces. He was one of the four New York School composers in the 1950s and 1960s with Cage, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown, and he was often a lecturer at Darmstadt, which is where I first encountered him. The night I performed with him, I asked Christian to compose a solo banjo piece. The result is Banjo Player. It’s a hard piece and often non-idiomatic for the instrument. Wolff asks the performer to leap from the first to the 13th fret between quickly moving 16th notes; interesting counterpoint is written in widely separated registers, and a scordatura tuning is called for (which caused me to transcribe the entire composition into tablature). The difficulty of this piece may rest in the fact that Christian has composed for many virtuosic performers such as pianist David Tudor. He stretches the instrument without resorting to much in the way of extended techniques, though the piece extended and challenged my technique. There is a section that is very easy and folk-like. This ties in with study he made of early American hymnody at one time, which lead to some interesting monophonic compositions in the 1990s. He seems to have been constructing his music then from simple materials that, perhaps, a number of amateur musicians could play and which reflect his socialist politics.

A work of art is autobiographical. Compositions can and, for me, should evolve directly out of performing experiences, which in turn may relate to travels and happenstance encounters. Our music reflects the artists we meet, the teachers we’ve had, the books we’ve read, the art we’ve looked at, and the music we’ve listened to. I look for compositional structure in abstract art, in a variety of novels and poems, in the music of other cultures, and in film. (Stanley Kubrick’s Mountain Home was initially based on the structure of 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

The music of Claude Vivier expresses his life as an adopted child, studies with Stockhausen, his development in spectral music, his travels in Asia, and his own fascination with sound. A Cage composition is a reflection of the influence of artist Marcel Duchamp, Arnold Schoenberg’s structures, the Zen teachings of Daisetsu Suzuki, and the poverty that he experienced in the 1930s. The sound world of his percussion pieces grew out of not having the funds to buy a lot of equipment, therefore Cage and Lou Harrison raided junk yards for sounds. The driving rhythms, colors, and themes of composer Gabriela Ortiz’s work express her Mexican heritage and her study of contemporary music and electronics. In Caroline Shaw’s compositions I hear wonderful vocal and string experimentation echoing the North Carolina folk music and Shape Note choirs she must have heard growing up.

When I was 19, someone told me that rich experiences won’t come find us, but that we must make them happen. I took this to heart. We are born into situations that both feed and limit individual abilities and it is those limitations based on our past that determine our artistic output. In the act of creation, a personal story will assert itself, often in spite of ourselves. But we can feed that story through the people we meet, the concerts we organize, and the musicians we work with at home or abroad. And we can work very hard to become the artists that we wish to become based on the experiences we’ve been placed within and the situations—the stories—we’ve engineered.

Polyphony and Storytelling: A Conversation with Nate Wooley on Solo Improvisation

As a listener, I’ve long found myself seeking musical experiences that generate a kind of sustained ecstatic energy from a foundation of rigorous thought and technique. Gaining access to that plane as a solo improviser is a particularly challenging task. It takes a special type of artist who engages deeply with the details of sound, upending instrumental conventions while setting boundaries and reference points (as if to say, “Here is a trumpet, unadorned—let’s see what I can do with it.”) and who is able to transfer an emotional experience through the instrument to the listener. Part of what makes trumpeter/composer/writer Nate Wooley such an extraordinary musician is his ability to achieve all of those things in performance. He is a true sonic explorer who has redefined the capabilities of his instrument while making profound spiritual connections with his listeners.

Nate Wooley’s music and relationship to his instrument has been a huge inspiration to me as a violinist.

Nate’s music and relationship to his instrument has been a huge inspiration to me as a violinist. Nate wrote an eloquent introduction to the liner notes of my debut solo violin album, Engage (New Focus Recordings – August 3, 2018), and graciously agreed to have a conversation with me about solo improvisation for NewMusicBox. I’m very grateful to Nate for taking the time to offer his take on some thoughts I’ve had since recording the solo improvised material on Engage, and to share a veritable masterclass on improvisation as part of my series of posts.

Nate Wooley playing a trumpet (photo by Ziga Koritnik)

Nate Wooley (photo by Ziga Koritnik)

Josh Modney: Polyphony is something I think about a lot in solo playing. The violin is not really built to realize densely polyphonic textures, so there’s a natural curiosity to want to do more with it. I’ve also in a very broad sense always been more interested in harmony than melody. So those are two factors pulling me away from the traditional role of violin as a singing, melodic instrument. The traditional role of trumpet is quite similar, so I’m wondering if you could share some thoughts about your relationship to polyphony in your solo work.

Nate Wooley: That’s consistently been an area of my playing that has provided the particular kind of frustration that can generate new directions—kind of a positive within a negative. I have also always loved harmony, but my sense of how (and when) dissonance should resolve has never fallen within a certain tradition of counterpoint or polyphony. Even when I was concentrating on the linear playing that is expected of a jazz player, I liked to stretch the tension as far as I could, or find a place to resolve that was awkward or uncomfortable. That always felt so much more human to me than pounding a chord tone on the strong beats; nothing in life is that foursquare, so why would music—which is inherently supposed to be an expression of life—be so rigid in the way it ebbed and flowed?

“Nothing in life is that foursquare, so why would music be so rigid…”

When I started playing solo, of course, the whole conception of harmony and polyphony had to change, as I didn’t have a rhythm section or other line to play against. It took me a long time to come to grips with that. It takes an incredible mind to captivate an audience with the brilliance of their harmonic mind through monophonic playing…and my mind ain’t one of those. I grappled with it in a lot of different ways: through electronics/feedback, extreme extended technique, use of the voice or other parts of my body. But, a certain breakthrough came during a tour with percussionist Paul Lytton. Someone told me after the show that they appreciated the way I could unfold a single sound and present the micro-events within that single note. I hadn’t thought about the way a note on the trumpet wavers in its timbral quality or overtone production, but after that comment (and certainly playing music by Eliane Radigue and Annea Lockwood in recent years) I started paying attention to a certain harmonic motion contained in those micro-movements. The motion, density, and velocity of those small details produce their own tension and release, and that became the center of how I think—not only in solo playing, but in every situation. Of course, the playing becomes broader than just that, and solo playing encompasses all the techniques I listed above (feedback, et al.) but everything now is really filtered through an attempt to give the inner workings of every sound, no matter how short or long it may be, the attention it deserves.

Nate Wooley solo at Something Else! Festival of Creative Music 2017

JM: The idea of harmonic motion contained in micro-movements totally resonates with me, and I love the way that you work with those kinds of textures. I remember in particular being inspired by the way you are able to make an extraordinarily long and continuous drone by circular breathing and using a harmon mute with a metal plate. The sound is modified unpredictably by the circular breathing while you make specific modifications with the metal plate. It sets up a feedback loop between things that you are controlling and things that can’t be controlled, generating a wealth of musical possibilities.

Hearing you do that was one of the musical experiences that sent me down a path looking for ways to translate or “map” brass and wind sounds onto the violin. The violin is such an old and thoroughly researched instrument, it can be a challenge to find means of expression that aren’t tied to the lineage of Western classical music from Bach to Lachenmann and beyond. That lineage is really important to me and forms the backbone of my practice, but I also want to fold in new possibilities for musical expression. By mapping things like the micro-variation of a trumpeter’s circular breathing and the intensity of a saxophonist’s multiphonics onto the violin, what started as an attempt to make a copy of something develops into something different and, hopefully, fresh on the instrument.

The violin is such an old and thoroughly researched instrument.

I keep on coming back to this thought about the ways that attempts at polyphony dating back to Bach may have informed my own improvisation practice, like a “spiral” of influences being mapped onto one another. This idea was spurred by a conversation with an improviser from a jazz background who told me that Bach’s solo cello suites were his inspiration for cultivating the technique to make chorale textures on the saxophone using multiphonics. Bach’s solo string music is itself a mapping of contrapuntal keyboard textures onto violin and cello. The evolution of polyphonic writing for the violin can be traced directly through the lineage of classical repertoire from Bach through Paganini, Bartók, etc. But as an improviser on the violin, I find it interesting to look at this alternate trajectory or “spiral”—Bach maps keyboard polyphony onto strings, which is in turn mapped onto winds by adventurous players, and finally mapped back onto violin after many layers of translation.

I’m not sure if there is an analog to this “spiral” idea in your experience as a trumpeter, but would love to hear your thoughts. I’m also curious to what extent, if at all, you might consider the genesis of your own highly detailed sounds to represent a “mapping” of polyphony onto your monophonic instrument?

“My grandmother could make me feel more loved by tunelessly humming just under her breath than when she would use the words ‘I love you.’”

NW: Part of that answer probably lies in my above comments about the polyphony inherent in micro-events but, in my history, there has been a different approach to mapping. I had a period when I worked at mapping piano (which I played for years before playing trumpet) or other polyphonic instruments onto the trumpet, but the real moments of change happened for me when I stopped trying to think of music at all and, instead, started mapping the soundworld that had the most physical impact on me onto the horn instead. It’s very rare for me to be moved by musical means alone. I have a deeper relationship to the sound of the human voice. And, by that, I mean the complete human voice inclusive of all that is not the stylized singing voice within any genre (as beautiful as that can be). I am most touched by the way people express ideas through speech, and the ideas they express through vocal sounds when the words escape them, and the sounds they make when they are experiencing those magnificent emotions that humans can only articulate through their individual taxonomy of hums, screams, small sighs, snorts, clicks, pops…anything like that. It has amazed me since I was small, that my grandmother could make me feel more loved by tunelessly humming just under her breath than when she would use the words “I love you.” It’s that phenomenon that I’m interested in mapping onto the instrument. I want to make it express in that way.

So, in a way, there is a “spiraling” in the way you describe it above, but it takes place a little differently in the way I articulate it to myself. In a very bastardized version of a Marcuse idea, I try to look outside the dialectic to see what may be of interest. I try to look at the process from outside and see if there’s a way to sidestep the whole cycle. And, in hindsight, that’s what I did with taking the vocal sounds as a model as opposed to the tradition of music on the trumpet. Granted, it just sets up its own dialectic, but I work within that until I become bored and then—hopefully I’ll get there before I die—I start to look outside of that cycle or “spiral.”

Josh Modney: Range (excerpt), from Engage (New Focus)

JM: The way you describe using vocal sounds as a model is beautiful. It makes total sense knowing your music, but I hadn’t thought of it in that way. I’d like to ask you a bit more about elements of trumpet tradition, since you hail primarily from a jazz background. For example, some traditions and practices on the violin related to classical lineage include straight-ahead “romantic” playing, noise-based music, post-Lachenmann timbral studies, and Just Intonation/drone music. What are the elements of creative improvisation that are within a shared space, regardless of background and training?

“The real moments of change happened for me when I stopped trying to think of music at all.”

NW: I have a lot of the same influences you do, I guess. I got as much from listening to Lachenmann or Bernhard Lang as I did from Clifford Brown or Booker Little. It’s just where that information presents itself that may be different from you to me. The jazz stuff is way deeper in my psyche at this point and has a lot of relationships to nostalgia and family, which means it has a different context for me and is generative in a base way, which I may manipulate or filter through more recent interests like hard noise, contemporary classical, David Tudor, or Ba-Benzele pygmy recordings. It’s like a rough artistic version of base and superstructure. I will always have a desire to build phrases and performances from the eighth-note grid of swing music, but everything I have in my mind that comes from outside that (the superstructure) distorts that base information in a way that makes me an individual. Just like what makes you Josh Modney (musically) is the base of the classical training and the superstructure of noise, Just Intonation, and timbral study.

JM: I’m curious about the ways that you engage with material in your solo playing, or the ways that you think about/categorize the material that forms, as you put it, the superstructure of your musical aesthetic. Do you see the various techniques that you employ coming from families of sound, or different reservoirs of musical practice?

NW: I did think that way for a certain time, but then I started feeling like I was trapped inside the technique. One of my greatest fears about the way I play is that it will be perceived as a set of parlor tricks. I always cringe when someone tells me they were impressed by all the “crazy sounds” after a solo show. To me, that means I did a poor job of putting the technique in the service of some sort of human expression. At a certain point, I felt like my approach to solo playing was too rooted in the architecture of the sound at the risk of losing the human component, so I abandoned that kind of taxonomic approach.

“One of my greatest fears about the way I play is that it will be perceived as a set of parlor tricks.”

Now, I think of each solo concert as storytelling. I come from a place where people still hold forth over beers and tell long and, mostly false, stories of their past or the history of where they are from. It’s a grand tradition that takes many forms and is something I have always loved. My process of solo playing, at its best, takes its cue from that tradition, from sitting in the chair and wanting to have the audience close, to the recent use of the singing and speaking voice unfiltered by the trumpet, to flat out telling a story as I change to the amplifier. Every choice I make now has to do with a kind of storytelling now that’s not strictly narrative or meant to paint a picture, but tries to get at the core of what a great storyteller does, which is slowly pry open their chest and show you everything that’s inside them, if only for a brief second. The hope being that, at the end, I’ve given a small, actually living, piece of myself and the audience feels like they know me a little better. I can’t do that if I think of any taxonomy or groups of sounds, if that makes sense. And, I don’t mean this as a diatribe for what solo playing should be. It’s just what communicates for me.

JM: Love the storytelling analogy! And I totally agree that the perception of “crazy sounds” is sometimes counterproductive to musical ideals. Could you talk a bit about your expressive goals in your solo music? Are there particular elements of your music that you feel act as a gateway to personal expression?

NW: It’s perhaps a little contemporary and I don’t intend to deal in politics (for my own reasons) but this has been on my mind lately and this seems like an apt place to put it in print. I think that we are in a moment of immense, prolonged trauma. There was a time when I believe people could feel intertwined with their fellow human beings in a way that—not discounting humanity’s ability to treat others with coldness and extreme evil—felt safe. That has been chipped away, and I see people everywhere I go that are just trying to figure out how to handle it—some in better and healthier ways than others. My way is to attempt to live. That sounds stupid, but how many people are trying to do that in any conscious way. Not survive, but LIVE. Breathe air, notice the world, bathe in a piece of music, freak out on an amazing turn of phrase in a piece of literature, recognize beauty, recognize ugliness, be glad that they’re both there. Say hello to people, appreciate when they say hello back, be empathetic when they tell you to fuck off. Just sit in your family, your culture, your world, and be a part of it. To that end, when I play solo, I want to be a part of an experience with the people in the room. They actually made an attempt to come out and do something, so I want to live in that room with them for 30 minutes or an hour or whatever. I want us all to feel like something happened, so that we have a renewed faith in the ability to intertwine on any level with our humanity again and fight the trauma. It’s small and, I admit, it’s not a grand political gesture, but I’m not a grandly political person. I just want to give that one period of time to the people in the room as a moment when someone shows themselves and is, maybe uncomfortably, human.

JM: Yeah, I feel from both sides of the stage, as performer and audience member, that the most affecting and memorable experiences are when people are close, usually in a small room, and you can feel the energy of everybody together. Those have always been my favorite musical experiences, but I share your sense that it all has more urgency and immediacy now.

What you describe is also a beautifully non-hierarchical way of thinking about what makes a successful musical performance, which brings me to my final question. I’ve been noticing that, at least within the relatively small community of new music in NYC, we’re moving toward a hybridized scene that operates on a continuum between composition, improvisation, and interpretation. I’m not sure if this represents an overall shift in American contemporary music culture, but there does seem to be good momentum in this direction. I can at least say that the work that comes out of this hybridized model is the music that I’m most interested in listening to and making! I’d love to hear your perspective on this. Do you think we’re experiencing a significant shift away from the “top down” hierarchy of musicmaking from the last century?

“We’re seeing a shift toward the holistic mixture of composition, improvisation, collaboration, and interpretation.”

NW: On the street level, definitely! I am not sure it’s leaked to the organizational or funding branches necessary for our world yet, but that’s completely understandable given their inherently decisive task. And, even within those institutional bodies, I think we’re seeing a shift toward the holistic mixture of composition, improvisation, collaboration, and interpretation. I’m a bit of a cynic, so I hope that it isn’t just the pendulum’s apex before it swings back but, as you say, there’s so much in that way of making music that one can invest themselves in, that I do have a little hope that it’s just the beginning of a new model of how to make music.

A Lot of Energy—Remembering Cecil Taylor (1929-2018)

I met Cecil Taylor in 1958 through Ted Curson, the trumpet player from Philadelphia. It was at a rehearsal in Brooklyn that I was doing with another pianist, one of my colleagues from high school, Leslie Brathwaite. Ted and a saxophone player named Harold Owsley were walking by this place where I was rehearsing and they heard me and Lesley, so they came in to see what was going on. They stayed for a while and after we finished up, Ted said to me that he was going to go to Manhattan for a rehearsal with this pianist named Cecil Taylor. “You’ve never heard anyone play piano like him,” he told me. “So if you want to come, I’ll introduce you.”

So I went with him to the Hartnett School of Music, and he introduced me to Cecil. After the rehearsal Ted had to leave, but before that he asked Cecil if I could play with him and Cecil said, “Yeah, sure.” After Ted left, Cecil and I stayed there together. But then the school closed, so I told Cecil that there was a place up in Harlem called Place Pigalle where I’d go sometimes to do jam sessions. There was a piano there and I knew the bartender, so I thought we could go up there and continue playing. So we took the subway and went uptown to Amsterdam Avenue and 152 Street, and I asked the bartender if we could play and he said okay. So we sat down and started playing again. But I didn’t start playing with Cecil on a professional level until 1965 and, by that time, I had a full palette of music I had been playing with other people.

That happened again at the Hartnett School of Music. I was there studying harmony and theory, and I was also playing in the big band there. One day, while I was playing with the big band, Cecil was rehearsing in another room. At one point, he came over to me and asked me to come to his rehearsal room after I finished with the band.  Sonny Murray was supposed to be at that rehearsal because they had a job at Brandeis University, but Sonny didn’t show up. So Cecil asked me if I would want to take the job and I said sure. Jimmy Lyons was in the room and so was Albert Ayler, but Albert didn’t make that job. There was a bass player who went with us whose name I can’t remember right now. But that’s how I started playing with Cecil. From that first job at Brandeis until 1976, I played every single job with him for 11 years straight except for one in the earlier years that Milford Graves did with him in Pittsburgh.

Throughout the years we were together, Cecil never told me what to play.

We would rehearse for hours and then Jimmy and I would pack up, Cecil would still be there at the piano practicing. Sometimes I’d think, “Gee, this guy’s really got a lot of energy.” That was very impressive to me. He was very dedicated. But throughout the years we were together, Cecil never told me what to play. He never said, “Do this. Do that. Don’t do this. Don’t do that.” Both of us came out of the tradition. I never met Charlie Parker, but I met Max Roach when I was 11 years old. I started in the drum and bugle corps in Brooklyn, and people like Willie Jones and Lennie McBrowne would come down and help the kids and would say there are other ways of playing drums other than playing marches. So I started playing the trap set and as a result, in high school, I wanted to get into playing jazz.  That’s where I met Eric Gale, the guitar player, and Leslie Brathwaite and we started playing as a trio. You have to begin somewhere, so we learned Cole Porter tunes and Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie tunes.

Cecil didn’t always play the way he did. He was doing stuff with Bill Barron and Ted Curson and Dennis Charles. Cecil loved Duke Ellington. Sometimes, if you listen to the stuff that Cecil played later on, you can hear some Duke Ellington in it. He also liked the drummer Sonny Greer, who worked with Ellington. Eventually Cecil decided that he wanted to do the kinds of things you hear on Unit Structures, which he had already started doing before that when he played with Sonny Murray at Café Montmartre in Denmark.  But our direction always came from what had preceded us, because if what preceded us was not what it was, we would not have had those shoulders to stand on. So when we got together to play and he was playing how he played, I had to decide how to play in relation to what he was doing. I could have thought about playing metrical time, but it didn’t work for what he was doing so I had to decide to do something else.

Music has so many different components to it—you bring all that to the table and then you think about what the concept is and you have to deliver it with an emotional connection so that most human beings relate to it with some kind of emotion. It could be, “This stuff is great; I love it!” or “I can’t stand it.” But it gets to people for that reason. I don’t think anybody sits there and tries to analyze what they’re hearing on a scientific level. They like it, or they don’t like it.

Cecil Taylor at the piano during Open Plan: Cecil Taylor on April 14 2016 at The Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph © Paula Court. courtesy The Whitney Museum

Cecil Taylor at the piano during Open Plan: Cecil Taylor on April 14 2016 at The Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph © Paula Court. courtesy Whitney Museum.

After we played at Brandeis and Bennington College, Blue Note wanted Cecil to record for them, although I don’t think he ever said, “Let’s rehearse because I’ve got a Blue Note date.”  For Unit Structures, he assembled some more musicians to add other voices, like Eddie Gale Stevens Jr. and Ken McIntyre, and we had two bass players—Henry Grimes and Alan Silva.  Cecil’s expectation was that the musicians would play the music the way he gave out notes. Most jazz has a prescription. Somebody writes a composition and they would like the people who they hire to bring their signatures to the composition. With the prescription of the composition, improvisation takes place and how the musicians improvise on what is given denotes their signatures. It’s really a two process thing: people write the compositions and then they get the musicians to interpret it. There’s another way that compositions are made, sometimes it’s just with free improvisation, so then the composition comes after the fact.  We rehearsed a lot for Unit Structures, but if I had to write out all those rhythms that I played, I don’t think I could do that.  It’s just a feeling.

Blue Note wanted Cecil to record for them, although I don’t think he ever said, “Let’s rehearse because I’ve got a Blue Note date.”

When people listen to recordings, I don’t know how they react because I’m not there. So many writers wrote about it and what some of the writers wrote about it was good and it wound up in the Smithsonian Collection, so it had to have impressed some people! After that, when we recorded Conquistador, also for Blue Note, Bill Dixon played with us. But a lot of people didn’t particular care for the music that we were making. That’s the way it always goes. Not everybody is going to love everything you do and you can’t expect that. A lot of times in the earlier years, Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, and I—and maybe one or two other people on occasion, like Alan Silva—would make maybe only three jobs a year, so it was not really that heavy in terms of quantity of work. More often than not, when a record comes out, it takes a while to circulate and perhaps as it circulates around the world, people begin to be impressed by it, so then we began to get calls. Eventually, as time went on, we began to work more.

The first time I ever went to Europe was with Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, and Alan Silva. It was right after those Blue Note dates. I think it was Alan Silva’s first time in Europe also, but not Cecil’s. It was a lot of fun. The first job we had was in Germany. We did a concert in Stuttgart, which was recorded back stage. And we did an interview for a magazine called Jazz Podium. I remember the woman who was the editor, Gudrun Endress, chaperoned us for a couple of days and then we went to Paris. We were invited over there by a group of young French aficionados; none of them were musicians, but they really appreciated what we were doing so they wanted us to come over to Paris and play the music.

A few years later, we were in St. Paul de Vence at the Maeght Foundation, which has a lot of paintings by Miró and Bacon and sculptures by Calder and Modigliani. It was Sam Rivers, Jimmy Lyons, myself, and Cecil. Alan had left the group some time before that. I don’t recall us doing very much more after that with a bass player. Obviously he felt that he didn’t need one. We played a great concert there, and we all got lithographs from Miró—who lived on the grounds there—because he was so impressed with what we did.  After the rehearsals for that, we’d go into Nice and go to the discotheques and have a party and dance to whatever was popular, like James Brown. Cecil loved to dance.

Toward the end of the time I played with him, we went to Japan. It was just Jimmy, Cecil, and myself. We played what we played. We played duets. We played trios. This is my own feeling, but you can make music with anybody. You don’t have to have a set formula like trumpet, saxophone, bass, piano. That’s okay, but you don’t have to have that. As you play, the music becomes so substantial that you don’t even miss the other voice until it gets there and then it adds to the mix. Music comes from the inside out, not from the outside in.

Later that year we played at Town Hall, and Sirone played bass at that concert with us. After that, we kind of separated. Jimmy stayed, but I started to do other stuff. Maybe if I would have stayed, Cecil would have preferred that. I don’t know. I just felt that it was time for me to do something else. But I still played with him a couple of times afterwards. It wasn’t like after that there was nothing else. I played with him at a place called Fat Tuesday’s in Manhattan, and we did something again up at Symphony Space a couple of years after that. The last thing that I did with him was a concert in Berlin. It was after the wall came down. I played timpani some on that and Cecil was also playing timpani. I remember as I was playing drums, he just got up and started playing timpani. Cecil was different.

Having worked with Cecil, I felt like I could make music with anybody on the planet and I do.

Having worked with Cecil, I felt like I could make music with anybody on the planet and I do.  I’ve gone to Japan and played with Japanese musicians, I’ve gone to Africa and played with Africans, and I’ve gone to Israel and played with Israelis…Italy, Russia. But I had a lot of opportunities I never would have had if I wasn’t with Cecil.

Andrew Cyrille with his hands on his cheeks in front of a drum set at his solo performance during Open Plan: Cecil Taylor, April 16 2016 at The Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph © Paula Court, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Andrew Cyrille at his solo performance during Open Plan: Cecil Taylor on April 16 2016 at The Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph © Paula Court, courtesy Whitney Museum.

As time went on and Cecil had gotten older, he had severe arthritis so it was difficult for him to walk. But on occasion, as he was getting older, he would come and listen to the groups I had been working in with Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman, and Geri Allen.

A couple of years ago, they did a big thing for him at the Whitney Museum of Art. They had a whole floor that was dedicated to him. I didn’t even know about the comprehensiveness of the things he had done and the people he had been involved with. But during that week, they asked me to play a solo, so I played a solo and he came. He was right in the front row, and he enjoyed it. And then I did a trio with Enrico Rava and William Parker, and he stayed for that. That’s the last time I saw him dressed and socializing in public.

When I next saw him, he was at a rehabilitation center on York Avenue around 76th Street. We had a good time just reminiscing about the past and what was going on now. He was still Cecil, even though from time to time, he wouldn’t remember things. Then he had to go back to the hospital; he was in a lot of pain. But when I saw him in the funeral parlor, he was laid out like a prince.

Exclusive Trailer: Milford Graves Documentary “Full Mantis”

If you read our February 2018 interview with Milford Graves, you may recognize Jake Meginsky’s name. He’s the filmmaker who captured some of the inspired concert footage showing Graves in action, which he generously allowed us to include in our presentation.

Now Meginsky’s Full Mantis, the first-ever feature film about Graves, is set to open nationally on July 13 at Metrograph in New York City, and to celebrate he has shared this exclusive new trailer for the film with us.

Milford Graves and Jake Meginsky will attend the Metrograph screening on the opening night of this theatrical release for a Q and A. The film will then open in Los Angeles on July 27 at Laemmle Royal Beverly Hills. It has screened at the Big Ears Festival, SXSW Film Festival, IFFR Rotterdam, Sheffield Doc Fest, The BFI Southbank, and Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real. It won the Independent Visions prize at the Sarasota Film Festival and the Best Documentary Award at the Oak Cliff Film Festival in Dallas. More planned engagements can be found here.

And if you missed it, be sure and check out Aakash Mittal’s excellent conversation with Graves from earlier this year—Milford Graves: Sounding the Universe.

Milford Graves: Sounding the Universe

It is difficult to place Milford Graves into a category. He is lauded as a master drummer of the 1960s avant-garde jazz scene, credited with inventing the martial arts form yara, and is established as both an herbalist and acupuncturist in New York City. Additionally, Graves is a passionate researcher of human biology and brings that knowledge to all of his work.

Milford Graves’s music career began with improvisation. As a young kid, he taught himself to play by experimenting with the sounds he could make on a drum set in the foyer of his home in Jamaica, Queens. His professional career began around 1961 with the McKinley-Graves Band, a funky Latin jazz ensemble he co-led in the neighborhood.  The following year, he led the Milford Graves Latino Quintet with pianist Chick Corea, bassist Lyle Atkinson, conga artist Bill Fitch, and saxophonist Pete Yellen. His career accelerated to place him in the New York Art Quartet, which led him to create two independently released records with pianist Don Pullen. By his mid-twenties, Graves was recognized by artists such as Philly Jo Jones, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach as a drummer with an innovative approach to the instrument, as well as a unique voice in the music scene. His residency at Slugs in 1967 with Albert Ayler is still discussed among musicians today, as is his performance with Ayler at John Coltrane’s funeral.  Graves went on to teach at Bennington College for 39 years and is recognized as professor emeritus by the institution.

Yet, to understand his music one must also inquire into the full scope of his creative pursuits.  Within athletic communities he is known for bringing his ambidextrous drumming into the martial arts through the creation of yara, an improvised martial art that focuses on flexibility and dexterity.  Graves taught yara at his studio in Queens from 1971 to 2000. Similarly, numerous people have visited Graves over the years for his acupuncture practice and to study herbalism. During my first lesson with Graves, he used software that he engineered to record my heartbeat and play back a melody that was derived from my EKG.

When I was first introduced to Milford Graves’s work, I defaulted to the mode of thinking I was accustomed to—that of genre. Even as I was searching for a concept of universal music, I couldn’t help but perceive Graves’s polymathic interests within the stilted categories of martial arts, herbalism, and avant-garde jazz. As I spent more and more time with the artist, I became increasingly unsatisfied with my understanding of his work. Graves employs the scientific method and a vast understanding of biology within his music. He draws connections between analog and digital motions—continuous motions vs. striking different points—in both the martial arts and drumming. He publishes essays, creates works of sculpture, and has recently played drums in a live experiment for non-embryonic stem cells. Yet, this is merely a list of actions taken, and I have long felt that each one is an expression of something much more profound. As I prepared for my recent conversation with Graves, I identified three fundamentals that permeate his work: energy, freedom, and healing.

Miford Graves and Aakash Mittal

Miford Graves and Aakash Mittal


At its core, Milford Graves’s work sculpts energy. This became evident to me during a previous visit to his house when he was doing some healing work on one of his martial arts students. Graves had recorded the electrical signal from an injured muscle and was feeding the signal back to the damaged tissue with the aid of an acupuncture needle and some wire. The goal was to aid the healing process by using electrical stimulation and specific harmonic frequencies to regenerate the damaged tissue. While this was taking place, we were simultaneously listening to a sonificiation of the damaged tissue’s signal using software Graves had coded. He explained to me that the sound of the speaker, the image of the waveform, and the electricity in the needle were all different expressions of the same signal. This was a revelatory moment for me with regard to understanding Graves’s work. Each of the disciplines he utilizes functions as an expression of energy. That energy can manifest kinetically through the martial arts or sonically on the drum set. The kinetic motion of yara can be applied with sticks in hand to a cymbal, creating a sonification of the martial arts form itself. Similarly the vibration of the drums can be translated into soundless motion. Graves utilizes this approach among his various interests. In his essay “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions,” which was published in John Zorn’s anthology Arcana V, Graves concludes with a statement about the importance of consuming watercress and parsley in order to “transmit high quality solar energy into the biological system.” In his work, Graves applies the relationship of eating food to creating electricity within the body, a process that also pumps the heart and sounds the drum. Whether he is tending his garden, practicing acupuncture, or playing improvised music, Milford Graves approaches each activity as a harmonic of the same fundamental.


Milford Graves’s drumming is often associated with the “free-jazz” movement of the 1960s. On the surface, this is often described as a freedom from the previous era’s harmonic structure and traditional forms. When I further explored that musical community, it became evident that the word freedom was used in a much larger context. Among the freedoms that emerge are freedom of thought, freedom of the spirit, and freedom of sound. Albums such as John Coltrane’s Intersteller Space and Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity traversed the boundaries of music and entered the realm of trance experience and conceptual journey. Within this context, Milford Graves offered a unique perspective on freedom. Through his understanding of the fundamentals of energy, Graves’s music incorporates a freedom of motion that stretches beyond traditional audience/performer dynamics. In the New York jazz scene today, a story circulates about the time Milford Graves picked up John Zorn mid-solo and carried him around the stage while Zorn continued improvising. Through the improvised use of his voice and storytelling, Graves’s performances come across as a joyous ritual that loosens up the listener and offers the first step down the path of freedom. The experience of Graves’s multidisciplinary work suggests a freedom from the limiting nature of our mind, which is compelled to categorize and shape the world around us. As Graves re-harmonizes those shapes and brings us back to the fundamental, I believe we are given a glimpse of what true freedom means.


Artists frequently talk about the healing power of music, but it rarely goes beyond simple conversation. Milford Graves has taken it upon himself to do the research behind it. As I learn more about Graves’s work, I find that his use of energy and freedom is often purposed for healing. His understanding of a listener’s automatic sub-vocalization and the effect the vibrating tympanic membrane (part of the ear drum) can have on other organs informs his improvisations. This results in musical performances that could be perceived as a sonic massage as well as a concert. In this way, Graves is successfully bridging scientific, artistic, and spiritual methodologies in order to free people from societal constraints and remind them of the energy that already exists within. This leads us to what I find to be one of the most challenging aspects of understanding his work. Rather than contributing a body of compositions to an archive or entertaining audiences with his virtuosity, Graves is primarily interested in collaborating with biology itself. This results in a music that mutates, adapts, and transforms in the same manner that our heartbeat fluctuates in reaction to our bloodstream or our various organs create a polyrhythm of life processes.  Janina Wellmann writes in her book The Form of Becoming that “[t]he tension of organic life finds temporary resolutions in rhythm, but always, in its onward aspiration, points forward into the future.” Graves’s work draws from the rhythms of movement, energy, and sound to support transformation and propel the journey forward.

The pathway outside Milford Graves's home.

Creative Spaces

I walk up toward Milford Graves’s house on a chilly and grey day in January. Among a row of ordinary houses and barren twisted trees sits a single house decorated with a mosaic of colored stones and glass that ascends the walls and accentuates the windows. In a recent public interview with Graves, the writer John Corbett referred to this house as a secular “temple.” The house is a work of art in and of itself. From a distance the designs appear to be geometric, but on a closer inspection each mosaic is filled with frenetic momentum and the unique shape of each piece hints of arrhythmia. The golden ratio—expressed as a nautilus shell—is painted next to the front door. It is a meeting place for creative people from various disciplines and walks of life brought together by Milford Graves. I know from my previous visits that I need to approach our conversation as an improviser rather than as an interviewer. Before entering the house, I meditate on the one question I want to approach within our talk: how does Milford Graves utilize music, the martial arts, and biology to sculpt energy, gain freedom, and create healing in the world? Then I open the door and walk inside.

January 11, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Milford Graves in conversation with Aakash Mittal
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
With performance footage courtesy Jake Meginsky and Neil Young
Transcription by Julia Lu

Aakash Mittal:  I was watching a trailer for the new documentary about your work, I believe it’s called Milford Graves Full Mantis, and there are some clips in there of you doing yara. I think one might even have been in the yard over here.

Milford Graves:  Yeah, one was in the yard, and the other one was in the back before it was changed.

AM:  You had this motion going on.  I can’t even describe it.  It was fluid, but in your control.

MG:  Oh, no.  That was in Japan when some Japanese musicians were doing a form of martial arts they call shintaido.  They wanted to see what yara was, so we went out in this little area there. I said, “This would be a great area, with the bamboo background.” And I did my motion, because it was on a little slope there. That’s when I went down and disappeared.  The ground wasn’t even, so your balance had to be right because it was uneven.

AM:  That’s really cool.  What it reminded me of was the last time we talked, you were talking about the yawning reflex and the relaxed state, and creating from a place you call the parasympathetic nervous system—how you have to have that relaxed yawn feeling and the sound that comes with it, and you’re thinking about that in your sound. When I saw that video clip, it felt like you were moving in that same way.

MG:  Well, it had something to do with the physiological process. However, that was 1977 and I was just happy to be in Japan and to be around the element I was around—and the people. It was such a great feeling when people from the Far East would come and then martial artists—Chinese, Japanese, and Korean martial artists. Here I am in the Far East putting on a little demonstration.  I have to be very relaxed. People had a much more linear and stiff style of motion.  Shintaido was much more relaxed, but people were doing aikido, so I said, “You gotta be relaxed.”  I just didn’t have the stress factor.  I felt like being in New York.  You look at other martial artists watching you, and you see their facial expressions: “What is that stuff? That’s not tradition.”  I looked out there, and I saw some serious-looking people watching me and some smiles, and that was it.  That was my physiological system: just to relax.

AM:  So were they into it?  What was their reaction?  You said that they were smiling?  Did you get any feedback?

MG:  Well, I was invited as a special guest for them, to demonstrate improvisation and to play with Japanese musicians.  So students were watching the kind of movement I was doing because of the rhythm.  They had to connect that with the music, because of the way I would play. So I think their interest was: “If he’s not playing his drums, what kind of motion will he be doing in martial arts?”  And they were able to ride with it.  They took the ride with me.  And I think that’s why they were smiling.  It was like, this is how you do it—not so much martial arts but ARTS.  There was an art to it.  You take the military aspect out, the fighting aspect out, and just see an artist doing it without trying to be correct from an intellectual or science perspective.

AM:  You’re able to distill out just the creative art form: the movement.

MG:  Right.  The fundamental.  If you want to deal with the harmonics on the fundamental, then you can take that and become a ballroom dancer, a concert stage dancer, or you can become someone who wants to deal with the fighting aspect of it.  But that’s just the harmonics.  I was dealing with the fundamental.  Now how do you want to shape the fundamental or the harmonics you were dealing with from the fundamental?  The fundamental is to get your body just to relax so you can focus.  Then I said okay, I can take from this fundamental, I can use it in really different ways.

AM:  So the harmonics are the form that the fundamental shapes itself into.

MG:  Right.

AM:  That seems like another connection between the way you’re thinking about martial arts in a universal manner, as well as music and all the other activities that you’re a part of.

MG:  Yes.

AM:  You’re not even thinking about them idiomatically.  You’re dealing with it in terms of what is the fundamental, what are the harmonic shapes, whatever the practice is.

MG:  Right.  That’s it.  You have a harmonic, but you may not be able to do all the other shapes, because you don’t understand the fundamental.

AM:  Sorry, that’s just mind blowing already.  How do you understand what the fundamental is of what you were doing physically there?  Maybe it’s not even about the physical; maybe it’s about something else.

“Resistance is the thing that makes you feel like you’re struggling to do what you do.”

MG:  First of all, you’re not feeling any resistance.  Resistance is the thing that makes you feel like you’re struggling to do what you do.  That’s the most basic thing.  It’s like at the point when you’re tired.  You’re just real tired, and you’re in a standing position. We’ve all experienced this.  You may sit down in a chair and say, “Ahh.”  But then you move—“ahh, eeh, ahh”—and say, “You know what, I have to get into bed.”  And when you get into that bed, “AAH.”  This is it.  Just before the point where you’re asleep, if something falls off the table, or somebody knocks on your door hard, or you hear somebody screaming outside, you can jump up real fast and be alert.  But if you were sound asleep, someone would say to you, “Didn’t you hear that person outside? They were in danger.  They were screaming.”  You don’t want to get to that point in your relaxation.  So when I’ve got that feeling I’m in my bed but I can still respond, that’s when I know it’s happening.  I get to that point where I’m standing up like that, I’m in a vertical position, and I want to get to almost horizontal. I almost get there, but I’m just dangling.  I feel so good.  But raargh!—[I can] just shoot on out, right from there.

AM:  And do you get into that same relaxed state when you’re playing drums?

MG:  Yes.  That’s when you can achieve the full energy that I deal with.

AM:  You were saying that when you were in Japan doing that particular demonstration, they were wanting to see how an artist would translate it. They knew you as a musician, and they wanted to see how it translated into what you did physically in martial arts.

MG:  Yeah, because they knew I did that.

AM:  So how has the martial arts practice influenced your drum playing?

MG:  A few years ago I had a very abstract answer.  I said, “Well just do it, and you will find out.”  It was very abstract.  You know, that’s the way you clean up when you can’t really precisely say.  Well, the kind of martial arts that I wanted to develop was based on my experience as a teenager and in my early stages of growing up in the area here, South Jamaica, and then moving into the housing projects when I was eight or nine-years old.  Before I did that, we had little kid wrestling, because I grew up around a family that was called a very tough family—large people, close to 20 people in the family.  And they had a military life. At least one was a sergeant in the Army, so he came home and the house was like a military barracks, so it was rough and tough.  Then when I got to the housing project, we had these body punching arts. We played basketball, but then when the basketball game was over, everybody said, “Sham battle!”  Everybody started getting up there punching each other in the arms and chest. The face was off limits, but when somebody was getting frustrated because they couldn’t punch you in the chest, they would sneak and punch you right in the jaw and almost a real fight would take place.  But you participated in these things because if you didn’t, you should have stayed off the playground. Maybe four guys would grab you and stretch you out and punch you all in the arms and muscles and stuff like that.  So basketball was tough and rough.  It wasn’t like the rules you played by when you played in high school or college ball when you’ve got a referee.  You know, you got hacked.  If you drove through, if you did a drive to the basket, all this fancy stuff, all these turns and angle movements they’d be doing, it was rough to do that because they’d knock you down and really try to hurt you.  And they’d say, “Don’t come here driving like that again. We’re not going to let you look good.”

I remember a whole lot of experiences.  One of the things that I got out of that was I’m not afraid to get up there and sham battle.  There were guys around us who physically were intimidating.  They had the muscles and always kept certain kinds of facial expressions.  And they had that kind of voice, like the bully guys.  When you’re sitting in the basketball court at the housing project, you may have 15 or 20 guys out there.  And they would come over and say, “Come on, let’s sham box.”  And you were hesitant, but then you say to yourself, “Well, it’s not a real fight.  So this guy’s not going to hurt me.”  And I found that some guys that I thought were real tough guys, they weren’t tough guys.  They just psychologically gave you that impression. So it gave me confidence.  When you don’t participate and you just look at images, it could be intimidating.  You have to participate in the event to see what it’s about.

So when I did the martial arts, I said, “This is going to be just beyond a fighting situation.  I’m going to set this up. I want to set up a system where people truly become their so-called warrior within.”  You get to the point where you really intimidate people. I used to get people to come in and some of my students said they trusted me.  They said, “I don’t think you would hurt me.”  And even with that said, I would scare people.  I would take them down. I’d do a takedown, a wrestling technique: I’d get on top of them and put my chest across their face.  They said, “Professor, I can’t breathe; you’re smothering me.” But they were more intimidated by the fact of the potential than that they thought they wouldn’t be able to breathe.

I watched the mixed martial arts UFC.  I just like to see how people react to any kind of danger.  And you see these tough guys come up, and they get in bad positions sometimes.  They get in these chokehold positions, and somebody said, “Wow, they tapped out real fast because they potentially panicked.”

This is beyond fighting, in a sense. How do you react when that crisis comes?  How do you react when pain comes to your body from an illness?  Do you run out to the doctor right away?  Or do you go internally and try to control that pain?  I see people go out to meditate. They think if you do these chants, you can meditate the pain away.  Yeah, that’s easily said, but put a person in a pain position, and then tell them to try to chant and meditate, and see if it works.  So, it’s non-functional.  I try to make it more functional.  Put a person in that position, and I can tell by the pressure, they can breathe.  But they’re seeing potentially, “Wow, I may not be able to breathe.”  Then I’ll let them relax a little and then I’ll let them come back.  The second time they’re not so quick to say that; they try to see how to get out of this.

So I’ve used that as a situation, for you to be attacked by a foreign agent in a sense.  And a foreign agent could be from pathology.  It could be bacteria.  It could be a virus.  So when you get this thing, you don’t panic.  You say, “Okay, well, I think I can handle this.  I can deal with this.”  Then you can release what you have inside.

But to do these different kind of so-called art forms, to be able to increase your thought process or neuroplasticity, you have to put yourself in the position whereas you’re not intellectualizing on it.  So that’s what I did with the arts—martial arts.  It wasn’t just to go out there to say, “Well, I can fight.  I can hurt somebody.  I can protect myself.”  It was beyond that.  I wanted you to have a confrontation with something that was real.  Instead of you being a one-cell organism or a piece of DNA—we’re talking bacteria, funguses, viruses—think of yourself as a multi-cellular piece of bacteria or virus. When you see that person in front of you, or that competition you’re going to have in a sparring session, you have to look at each other.  If you touch the body, it’s like therapeutic massage or active massage.  So when you get on the floor, you don’t say, “Oh, that’s my enemy.”

“I wanted you to have a confrontation with something that was real.”

When you see somebody, sometimes it’s somebody you may know, sometimes, somebody you may not know.  A lot of times you say, “Are you feeling okay?”  And the person says, “Well, I’m not feeling too good today.”  I say, “Yes, I noticed that.  You just don’t look like you.  Is there something bothering you?  Are you sick?  Are you going through any emotional stress?”  What do you do when somebody’s like that?  You give them some advice.  Maybe you need a great medicinal soup.  Take some herbs, you know. Or you need some rest. Or if they’re stressed out from some kind of other factors, [you tell them] don’t let that bug you.  That happened to me before.  This is how I mostly calm myself down.  So the martial arts come, and we’re supposed to look at each other and we’re supposed to say, “You know what, I think you need a massage treatment.”  When we test the body, or we grab the body, and hit certain points and grab certain points, you’re not doing a destructive touch.  I’m trying to massage them back in again. And when it’s over, both people will look at each other and say, “Thank God. I feel great. I feel good.”

If you’re out there in the street, you don’t have to destroy anybody.  You’re a healing martial artist, a constructive martial artist, not a destructive martial artist.  The softer forms like tai chi, some people don’t think it’s a fighting form. By the way, you just don’t do tai chi.  You may put some aikido in there.  You have to mix it, the different martial arts styles. You can’t get just locked into one style, because all of them have some value.  If in a confrontation, if somebody is in the street and grabs you, the philosophy I have is that I may stop that person, grab him up, touch certain points and then melt him right down, sedate him.  If you use acupuncture when you’re doing acupuncture massage for a tonification or sedation, you’ve got to know when to tonify somebody, you’ve got to know when to sedate somebody.  In this case, it’s not so much tonifying somebody, because if somebody’s aggressive, they don’t need to be tonified.  They need to be sedated.  So there are ways just to sedate, but if you don’t understand the healing aspect or the constructive aspect, then you’re not going to know how to sedate somebody in a real confrontation.  You just don’t want to be somebody who learns a martial art to go out and be a bully and hurt somebody.  I think that’s wrong.

Various bottles herbs in tinctures that Milford Graves keeps in his home.

AM:  You’ve talked about before how with music, it’s just changing the pressure in the air, and that affects the tympanic membrane.  I’m curious if the way you’re thinking about massaging physically also happens sonically, or if you’re thinking about that at all in terms of the way the sound might massage either the mind or, through the energy, maybe even the body.

GM:  Okay, we need to backtrack to answer that question with the martial arts and the playing. Two things were said to me by the Japanese.  One was a photographer.  He was a great photographer, I thought; everybody thought he was great.  He used to follow me around Japan.  This was about 1981, but he [first] saw me four years earlier in ’77.  I came back to do this solo and he came over to me and said, “Wow. Before you were very good, but now, you’re much better.”  I said, “I would hope so.  I hope I’m developing after four years.”  And then he made this statement, “You’re so fluid—relaxed and so fluid.”

The second guy who said it to me was one of the [most] respected Japanese internal martial artists who was an official representative for internal martial arts, Chinese martial arts.  He came to the performance, that same one in 1981.  He came back stage, and he said, “You do every punch there is to do in Chinese martial arts.”  He looked at my flow and he thought it was from martial arts.  And I said, “Okay, so what I used to do was instead of doing—again—a nonfunctional tai chi, just getting up in the air and doing certain kinds of movements, I would get down to my drum set and I’d go—ting-raww—frapt!—I would keep that whole flow and go around.  If I was doing a sword technique, I would practice my sword stuff and with the strokes like—thwap!—like this here.  There I would exchange a stick, so if I’m hitting down here—pop!—and hitting the cymbal—shhhap!—the strokes like this here.  I was directing the energy in a very precise, meaningful way, so they helped each other out.  I would hit the sound and just get it, make it go like—rat-a-tat-a-rot-a-toko!

So that’s how I was interchanging them.  I was using the form, because with both things, I’m using body motion.  The photographer enjoyed me from imagining just the flow, and said, “Oh wow, the way he’s flowing.”  [The other guy] saw that and he thought of martial arts.  One of the guys I met from the aikido family over there wanted me to play talking drum and do some drumming stuff for his aikido class.  They wanted to be able to do the movements of the drummers.  They realized it was a rhythm thing that was missing, you know.  I was doing it in a very empty way; that was just timing.  It was putting me on a timer, so that’s how I locked all that in.

One of Milford Graves's drums on a shelf in a bookcase underneath two rows of books which is next to a Japanese scroll.

AM:  Ah, so he saw the martial arts in your drumming. When you’re playing drums, do you think of it as the word I learned when I was doing karate—the kata, which is like the pre-composed form that you have to work through? You’re improvising, so maybe you don’t think about it that way.

GM:  Well, you don’t fight with kata, you don’t use a kata.  That’s not a fighting form.  As an artist, a performing artist, a stage artist, some people think the performance starts when you come out on stage.  So if you’re a dancer, it’s the first steps you do.  If you’re an instrumentalist, it’s the first sound that comes out of your instrument.  But the performance starts, it could be a day before, two days before, three days before.  When you come on that stage, it starts before you even make one motion.  When you’re coming out there, you have to be generating as soon as you walk out on that stage.  The worst thing I see is people come out and start distributing their music charts to people on stage.  The audience is watching that!  Even if you fix your horn, if you’re touching your horn, you have to do it in a way that has theater and drama to it.

The way I interpret kata is I would go from a so-called hard style to a soft style.  I would come and I would do hard karate.  I’d come out—Eeuuooahh!—to show I had that look.  And I see people like, “Whoah!”  They flinch out, because it looks like I’m going to rip you out; I’m going to go through you.  I say [sings phrase].  Bah.  And so kata is like an eagle posture.  A kata is to get your attention.  It’s not fighting or a block.  You’re only doing that to set somebody up.  They see that door or they see this fist; that’s what kata is.  Look at me! It’s almost like hypnotizing them.  And you do just the opposite.  It’s not hard or hard, it’s hard-soft, soft-hard.  You may look just like you’re very soft then—bam!—you come out like this here.  You see?  So tai chi you may be like this here, but inside you’re ready to explode.  If you see a nuclear bomb or you stand next to a nuclear bomb, it looks like it can’t do anything.  But if you set the trigger mechanism off, my gracious, look at the damage.  I say, do you know internally what’s in that nuclear bomb and the damage you can do?  That’s tai chi.  The real internal arts.  You’re ready to explode.  And sometimes you look like you’re going to explode. That’s the whole process that goes on inside.  Everything is moving very quick.

AM:  So the performance begins with the energy inside of you.

GM:  Right.

AM:  Days before the performance.

GM:  Right.  Right.  Get ready.

Various computer monitors in Milford Graves's studio.

AM:  How do you cultivate that energy?  I know that’s something you think about, because you’ve written about it in an essay in terms of food. What you’re consuming matters. You’re also talking about a lot of heavier stuff there, in terms of energy and relationships.

GM: I find myself talking to more people about this now.  I tell people, “Why are you doing what you do?” when people come and they want to do this.  They want to elevate to this level, that level, and then all they have to do is say one thing to me, “I’ve got to see how I can make some money off of this.”  Then I say, “You’re not going to do it then. You don’t really have a divine, deep commitment.”

“People are trusting musicians to do the same thing the cook’s doing.”

Some things you do may not make a lot of money because you’ve got to be dedicated towards doing it.  You’ve got to know why you’re doing it.  You’ve got to know the importance of what you’re doing.  As far as music and being a musician, I tell people, “Why do you play music?  What’s your purpose?  If you’re going to play music and just use it as a mechanism to be able to pay your rent and all of that, I have no problem with that.  Only time I have a problem is when you tell me you want to reach this so-called cosmic or celestial higher level.  You know what I mean?  You want to get people to be able to visualize and transform in this kind of state and that kind of state?”  I say, “You’re not going to do it like that, because you’re going to fail to realize your importance.”

You go to a restaurant. I don’t think people realize when they walk through that door in a restaurant: you’re not cooking your own food.  Someone else is cooking that food. You’re trusting that person in that kitchen to be correct. You don’t know exactly what they’re doing.  If you’re a chef, cook, whatever, you’ve got to say, “Wait a minute, these people are coming here and I’m making food for them to be able to put inside of their bodies to allow them to maintain their life processes that require certain nutrients.  I’ve got to be responsible here.  These people are trusting me.”

As a musician, what do you think you’re doing? Are you trying to win a critics’ poll or get a Grammy? I think people are trusting us, trusting the musicians to do the same thing the cook’s doing.  They want their vibratory system to be fed.  They’re coming in there, you know what I mean?  You got your food, that’s why you see the combinations of restaurants having a band in there sometimes.  And it’s got to be a band that doesn’t cause you to regurgitate your food, or get a spasm in your esophagus because it’s too crazy.  So they want more soft, cooled-out music.  They have nice relaxing music with people eating.  That combination’s always been there—that mouth and that ear have always worked as a combinational thing there.  So you’ve got to get that ear vibrating. We’re vibrators.  You know?  You’re not a saxophone player; you’re not a drummer.  We are there to make that ear drum vibrate, to convert [the sound] into electrical energy.  The brain gets it. Ah, okay, now we’re cool.  We can do our job, man.  And we can energize the whole body.

Once you realize that, then you’re going to say, “I have an obligation.  I have a responsibility.  People are trusting me.”  You do a concert, you see people coming into the hall sitting around, they’re coming in to say, “Turn me on.  Feed me.  I’m here.”  If you come over there to trip on yourself, you’re this person without knowing that you have a responsibility to keep the folks vibrating.  If they vibrate, then maybe the whole planet will all vibrate.  Any culture that wipes out the arts is in trouble, and I think we’re seeing that right here with young kids in school and how they’re taking the arts out.  We’re wiping the whole vibratory system out.

In one area in Graves's studio there is a diagram of hands, a photo of fingers, and an anatomical model of a human body.

AM:  I appreciate how you talk about arts education in medical terms, how it is essential. One of the problems in our culture is we are taught to view the arts as a form of entertainment. Some people are taught to appreciate it on a deeper level, but you’re talking about it not just as spiritual, but as a physical and medical need.

MG:  Well, what we were talking about is the entertainment part.  We’re working on the superficial part of the body.  We’re basically working on a lot of the motor system.  So we get all the motor and muscles and everything moving, but we forget about the cellular level.  The cellular level also has to be fed, but then you’re taking away from the entertainment aspect.  We just do one side; we don’t do the full situation.  If you’re talking about so-called creative arts, abstract arts, you’re not talking on a cellular level.  You know, it’s not going to be as defined; whereas, you see, in the entertainment perspective, if you try to take the art and put it on graphs, and try to put mathematics to it, you’re not going to get the true benefit. I’ve been dealing with people, how do you put numbers to it?

“We are there to make that ear drum vibrate.”

You’ve got to the get to the point where you trust each other.  As a musician, you’ve got to trust each other to get on the stage and get this tremendous feeling happening.  When it’s over, someone will say, “Well, what note did you play?”  I don’t know what note I played.  I just play and don’t worry about it.

Some people just don’t trust that they can do it.  It’s extremely difficult to improvise, to be spontaneous and improvise, make changes in a very small amount of time and space and then come back and make another change in a small space of time and don’t repeat what you do.  After 15 or 20 minutes, you have made it through all of these different changes and so on, but what’s amazing is how when you walk out your door in the morning, you may spend an hour or two traveling.  Think about this.  You’re going to make all kinds of adjustments.  You’re capable of doing it.  But you’re told you can’t do it.  It’s like a little child. The parent takes care of the child.  You don’t know how to cross the street yet.  Then after a certain time, you’re supposed to mature in a way that you’re able to see if you’re walking 20 blocks, that you’re ready to make any changes that can take place.  But when it comes to certain things, like something specific in music, you’re taught that you have study this and you have to study that; you can’t do this.

I remember up in Bennington, when I talked to some of the classical musicians who were teachers there, they would say, “I wish I could improvise.”  And I’m saying, “Wow, they can’t improvise?”  I’m trying to figure this out.  It really hit me.  It made me realize: they’ve been taught piano lessons or violin lessons since they were like three, four, five-years old and they were always taught that you have to follow these kind of rules.  You have to do it this way and that way.  That’s horrible.

AM:  To back up a little bit, it sounds like one of the things you said earlier—that part of your music is about resonating on the cellular level. It sounds like your entire vision and goal of what you’re creating artistically through music and through martial arts isn’t even necessarily in the same category or place as goals that musicians typically have.  Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I was just curious about what you’re saying in terms of your goal of vibrating people on the cellular level, or on a level even more microscopic.

MG:  Well, I’ll tell you what.  When I was coming down the stairs, I was thinking about the two of you down here, and I said, “Something’s happening right now.”  People have been contacting me now, and all of a sudden, it’s like an onslaught.  One promoter told me I’m going to do this festival. We got into a conversation and I said, “It was nice of you to think about me. People had almost erased me out of history. They’re making these historical statements and I’m not even mentioned.” So the person said, “Well, people are ready for you now.”

I was told back in the last century, in the late ‘60s, that my concept of music was in the next century.  And of course, I didn’t want to hear that.  And then 2000 came, and I was trying to find that person to say I think you were right!  Things are starting to develop.  Sometimes it’s not for you to say what you want to do or who you are.  Maybe we all have instructions.  Some higher power that we may not realize. I just feel like I’m carrying out orders from another kind of power. No one ever told me to do this or do that.  It just felt that what I’m doing now is developing it to another level, and the reason I’m developing it to another level is because of people.  I’m not sitting outside wanting to be an oddball.  People talk to me about coming in. They say I want to study with you because of this or because of that.  I’m just naturally doing this.  I want to work on it now because I know I can do that.  People think you’re doing something great, but the feedback is not great.  I was looking at it passing the wrong way.  I can’t fault the people.  I guess they’re just not ready for it yet.  That’s what people were telling me.  They’re not ready.  So I said, “Have some patience.” All you have to do is talk to people my age that I grew up with and they’ll always say, “Milford was always eccentric. This guy was always unorthodox.”  I never thought about it.  I guess I was.  I would always challenge the situation.  If something came up, I said, “Let’s think of another way to do this here.”  So I think I found my mission.  What some people have told me, either directly or indirectly, is they may not understand what I’m doing, but they say, “I respect you because you didn’t deviate.  You’re still doing what you do.  Other people just went for the money.”

“I’m not sitting outside wanting to be an oddball. People talk to me about coming in.”

A long time ago I used to listen to some of the older musicians saying, “Wow, I wish I would have not been playing commercial.  I wish I would have done this, and I wish would have done that.”  In the late ‘60s, Papa Jo Jones told me something, and it really hit me hard. First of all, we were at this political meeting and I didn’t expect to see Papa Jo Jones there.  Then he started talking to me. He said, “We want to do some of that avant-garde playing, too.”  Gee whiz, Papa Jo Jones knows me!  I didn’t think Papa Jo knew me. Then he started talking about Count Basie and all of these things and he said, “They want to make money.”  Then I said, “Okay, Papa, I’ve got to leave.” And Papa just said, “Where are you going?”  I said, “I’m going over here to Seventh Avenue.  I got to get the train to Brooklyn.”  And he said, “I’m going that way, young man.”

And I went that way. He wouldn’t even allow me to buy a token.  He bought a token. I’m impressed with this.  He’s Papa Jo the legend and he’s treating me like royalty.  When those old bebop guys were talking about the so-called free jazz players, they didn’t really dislike us.  They were just saying, “Wow, that’s what we wanted to do. But these young guys coming up now can do it and get away with it.  We couldn’t back in the ‘40s.”  I always wonder what these guys would sound like if they would have kept developing their skill level.  You never know what that person could have been.

So I said to myself, “I’m going to keep developing myself because I want to see what I would develop into.”  Right now there are certain things I can do on the instrument that I couldn’t do then.  I used to think about it.  “Wow, that’d be great if you could play with this hand doing this and this doing that and all this here stuff.”  Now it’s coming so easy, because I stayed with it.  My conviction was: what would the arts be like if artists were allowed to develop ourselves? What would the planet be like now?  How would the people be vibrating?  The educational system in this country is the worst.   We don’t have the innovation.  Creativity’s needed again.  We’ve got to rise to another occasion.  When you wipe out the arts, which is stimulating the vibratory system, it’s going to cause a real slowdown.  That’s what I see now, the feedback I’m getting, like when people come over to me and say certain things when I do performances.  I stayed in there to try to see them the way a human would vibrate inside.  It’s not just Milford Graves—that brings in the ego thing.  Other people say, “Well, that’s his thing.  That’s not my thing.”  I always say, “This is our thing!”  I’m trying to bypass it and I’m trying to follow certain rules, and that’s when the physiological process comes in.  There’s a publication now, I won’t knock the publication, but it’s The Jazz of Physics.  For me, it should be jazz, but if you want to use any kind of science name, it should be physiology not the jazz of physics—that’s a machine, that’s outside of the body.  You know what I mean?  You don’t reduce the human body to a mechanical device.

AM:  At the last interview we did, we talked somewhat more idiomatically about all the different things that you are interested in and how they connect.  And I’ve been thinking about it ever since then.  What struck me was that the one thread through all of your interests is energy—and not just managing energy, but sculpting energy or creating with energy.  I was wondering if you’d speak about that a little bit because it seems like when you’re dealing with acupuncture, you talk about energy.  When you’re dealing with martial arts, you talk about kinetic energy.  When you’re talking about music, you’re talking about sonic, vibratory energy.  Maybe these are also, like you called it, harmonics of another fundamental that’s even lower than all of those disciplines.

MG:  Well, if you’re just going to translate energy to “the ability to do work,” that’s one thing. Like on a construction site, you have workers there and you’re telling the workers, “Come on, you’ve got to get this pipe lined up.”  “But I feel out of it.  I just don’t have energy. I cannot pick up this other section of this pipe to connect it.”  I always say that whenever you see humans doing something on the outside, it’s probably just a reflection of what’s going on inside.  So how do you connect these different pathways in the body with a certain kind of energy?  Now certain pathways call for a major work ethic.  It has to be a work ethic. To be able to create that ability to deal with energy, there’s got to be a whole lot of different mechanisms involved in there.  So you’ve got to have a lot of vibratory things going on.  Vibratory motion.  You’ve got to activate the inactive areas, different parts of the body.

“You don’t even know what light is, if you can’t see.”

I just had a conversation about body healing and morphologic fields.  It may be impossible to deal with the so-called morphologic fields, in a sense that you can create a new liver or can create a new heart.  Some people say, “That’s impossible.”  I don’t think it’s impossible. Instead you should just say, “Well, I don’t know how to do it,” because you don’t know how to do it.  Why would you say it’s impossible to do if you can create this energy? I mean, they demonstrated it in the physical world. Einstein had something going on!  But you have to interpret. The energy is one thing, but how are you going to interpret the mass?  How you are going to interpret what light is?  You don’t even know what light is, if you can’t see.  So it’s a visionary thing.  Right?  As soon as you turn off these lights, it’s dark.  You may know from being in that environment where everything is.  You can walk around and grab a seat here, but if that’s your first time, when those lights go out, you don’t know where the heck anything is.  So light really is about your ability to visualize.  So you have to turn the whole mechanism that’s dealing with light; you have to look inside.

The whole morphological aspect of what’s going on is so you get a way of seeing nature’s design, the patterns that nature has.  What you’ve got to say is there’s a possibility that we can connect this with this and connect that with that.  This is something I’ve been talking about for the longest time.  It’s very interesting that a person can have a certain kind of mythology. A female is capable of nurturing a baby, once that sperm and that egg come together; it’s amazing.  People just take stuff for granted.  That little small ovum can mix with a waggling little tadpole-looking type of thing and make a human being.  Unbelievable.  But it’s coming from inside of us.  Everybody thinks it’s the reproductive organs, but there are other factors in the brain that are controlling that.  You’ve got the pituitary gland and all these other organisms that are connected.  They still don’t know a lot about the brain, the whole circuitry.  On a global perspective, if you can stop killing each other, fighting each other and can come together and work together as human folks and work on the planet, then the planet will help out the whole solar system, help out all other galaxies, all the universes. Once you all know how to do that, the ruler will give you the key to how to deal with morphogenic fields and how to reproduce another kidney.  You don’t need a kidney transplant or a liver transplant.  We will be able to reproduce another one, but it takes a tremendous amount of work to energize that person. It’s almost like a person that’s just worn out and has nothing they can lift.  All of a sudden—Boom!—they’ve become really alert again.  There are many ways to do it, when you’re going to stimulate.  You can use acupuncture. You can use plant foods. You can use visual things.  But the key is you get the body active and moving.  It has to be a holistic, total involvement of the body.  You’re not going to have one little thing working and not the other thing working; it’s a collaborative aspect that has to take place in the body.  Everybody has got to be working towards this.  What I mean by energy is to get all of these different areas of the body activated.  And then once the complementary thing’s going on, that’s the only way a morphogenic field can happen. Your heart, when it acts from a pumping perspective, to pump blood out, is sending nutrients throughout the whole body.  So everything’s got to be coordinated for your body to work as a whole.  One little organ can be disrupted, and then you have a problem.

A globe of the earth as well as globes of other planets and satellites in our solar system sits in front of a shelf filled with cassettes of Milford Graves's performances.

AM:  Another thing I wanted to ask you about is that I’ve never heard you identify as a composer specifically. But from my perspective, I feel you could be equally thought of as a composer, but you’re using biological processes as your form.  And not even as a form where you take the superficial sound and notate it, but you’re actually trying to compose biologically. You’re composing with energy. You’ve created so much that involves improvisation, structure, form, and things that evolve along continuums. To my mind you combine the martial arts, acupuncture, herbology, and sound into—I don’t know what you would call it—a composition of the universe itself.

MG:  Well, if we’re talking about the paper composer, I think that’s a class structure.  Sometimes you do things and then people can be enlightened about what you’re doing, or it can hurt. Sometimes you’ve got to say, “What is it really about that I’m doing?”

I remember an experience I had with Jimmy Giuffre around 1965.  There was a book out called Where’s the Time? by a journalist, Martin Williams; he may be still around. He wrote this book about the different rehearsal bands that Jimmy Giuffre put together.  Joe Chambers was doing some of the rehearsals, and I did about three rehearsals with him. I wanted to take the challenge, because Jimmy Giuffre had this reputation.  So I went up to his house, and he had these charts. I knew he was doing some Ornette Coleman stuff, but when I looked at the chart, I said, “Jimmy, this is a little different.”  He was trying to write the melody down for the drums.  This was not a standard way you would notate for the drummer—try and hit the side of the shell, the edge of the rim.  He was trying to get all these different pitches out.  And just for the basic melody of the head, we followed the instructions.  But I told Jimmy, “Look, I will play the rhythm.  I’ll do my best with the sounds.”  I should have been able to read that the way I wanted to, because I’m the new kid on the block and I’m going to be controversial.  After that, he’d probably go around and say Milford Graves doesn’t know how to read music and want to fire me. That wouldn’t have bothered me.  But then I thought I did bad.  So I took the chart home. I told my wife, “I’m going to my room and look at this guy’s music.”  I spent less than a half an hour [there].   I remember leaving the room.  My wife says, “You’re finished?”  “I’m finished.  I see where he’s coming from now.”  I sketched out what he wanted, so when I came back the next day I played it. Don Friedman was on piano and Barre Phillips was on bass. It was a quartet.  After it was over, Don Friedman said, “Wow, how’d you get that so fast?”  I thought I was doing bad.  He said it took us a little while to get all this stuff together.  And I felt real good after that. It wasn’t so bad after all.  But then what happened was, they had an improvisational section. Jimmy Giuffre walked in. I wanted to go up there and see the challenge, man.  When he came to improvising those sections, I improvised off of the head.  So Jimmy said, “Wow.”  He listened to the recording we did there and he said, “Could you rewrite the head for me, rewrite the drum parts?  Because the way you improvise, that’s how I want the drums to be played.” So he didn’t want to write it like that, but he didn’t want no regular dang-dang-ga-dang.  So when I was playing, I heard something and I said, “This is what I would be hearing.”  But then after that there, I saw him at a concert and he said, “So when are you coming back?”  I said, “You know, I don’t know.”  He said, “Well, I want to see if you can read my charts now.  I got some other stuff.”  It was like a competitive thing.  So I just said that’s it.  No more gigs.  I don’t need to go there no more.  But I was listening to what he wanted to hear from the drum perspective.  All the tonal changes, I can do that with all that stuff.  You don’t have to be hitting it all over.  You can stay on the membrane and play the melody out like I do now.  You can play that stuff right from there.

So that was just one experience I had. I had a few more of the same. “Wow, that’s a composer? So what are these guys about?”  It’s almost like an ego trip.  I know some composer may say, “What is this Graves talking about? This guy don’t know what the heck he’s talking about.  Who does he think he is?” I would say just think about what you’re doing.  You sit down, you may spend days or months, and you are telling your story, and then you finish your story, in a musical way, and then you want to give me a piece of your music that’s talking about what you feel, what you want to express, and you’re saying, play me.  I’m bothered with that, like what [someone else] feels doesn’t [matter]. Or when somebody gives you a composition, you add something in. I had that experience, too.  They say, “Well, that’s not written.  That shouldn’t be in there.” What do you mean?  Your music caused me to feel that, and I thought it was cool to put that in.  So if we’re driving in an automobile, and we have to get some place in an emergency—let’s suppose we’re transporting somebody to the hospital or something—and you make a left turn.  I say, “No, to get to the hospital, you have to make a right turn.”  “Well no, that’s the way we do it.  It’s a left turn.  You’re not listening to me.”  That’s the same thing as music composition. You may do something and I don’t think that’s the way.  You’re not even screwing up, man.  If you do it this way, that adds onto it.

“A composer to me—that’s a responsible situation.  A composer to me is just like a teacher.”

I’ve [also] had that experience with a conductor.  They said that I made the track on this particular recording.  They said the way you was playing, that made the thing.  If I would have done it the other way, it was too dry.  But that person wanted to act like they have control.  They wrote all the music and they conducted. So I said, “You’re not giving me respect.”  When I hire a band, I respect you.  A composer to me—that’s a responsible situation.  A composer to me is just like a teacher.  If you’re in a classroom with students, they’re expecting you to teach them.  And if you’re teaching a subject, and they can’t understand that subject, you don’t go and say, “Oh, you’re stupid.  I’m going to fail you.”  You’re supposed to talk to that person and say, “What kind of difficulties are you having?”  And if they say, “I don’t like history.” Well, say, “Let’s talk about history.  Could you tell me something that happened five years ago?  Is there anything you remember five years ago that you don’t like?”  “Oh, I remember something five years ago. I will never forget that.”  “But that’s history.  It’s important that you don’t forget that.  So you don’t repeat that mistake you made.”

Books, tools, and musical diagrams share space in Milford Graves's studio

Or if it’s a math problem—I’m going to tell you something real fast. In the 1970s, I went up to IS 201.  A friend of mine was an assistant principal at that time.  He wanted me to do three workshops in the summer for these kids up in Harlem.  So I went up, and I had a pocket full of change.  I took the hand drums, congas, and all of that.  I’m going to teach these kids these rhythms, but I don’t know if these kids know about eighth notes, quarter notes, and all that technical talk.  So I said, “We’re going to play a rhythm, but we’re going to pulse beats first.  I’m going to hit the drum four times.  One-two-three-four.  Every time you hit the drum, think of a quarter, a quarter, a quarter, and a quarter.”  I had four quarters out.  Then I said, “How many quarters make a dollar?”  They knew that.  They may be failing in school, but they know how to count that money.  “Oh, that’s one dollar.”  So I had a one dollar bill.  I said, “So that’s a one dollar bill. What’s a one dollar bill, compared to counting four twenty-five cent coins?”  I just boom and don’t hit the drum no more times.  But I quietly say, “Count four.  ONE-two-three-four.  That’s a dollar.  So how do you write a dollar?”  They write what they call a whole note in music.  “That’s all, you got a dollar.  You got a little circle like this here.”

Then I took the quarters and said, “Now, we’re going to play each pulse beat twice as fast.  We’re going to count eight.  We got that whole dollar, now we’ve got to make sure that we’re going to divide this one dollar bill eight times.” I had some dimes and some pennies.  So I took out the dimes and said, “How many dimes and pennies makes twenty-five cents?”  Take out a dime.  Take out the five pennies.  “Alright?”  Anyway, I lined them all up and I took two of the students and said, “Look, we’re going to share this twenty-five cents.  You get a dime and you get a dime, but how are we going to share these five pennies between the two of you?  If I give you two pennies, I give you three pennies.  You may get upset, because he got one more penny than you.”  And they’re looking and I said, “I tell you what, anybody got any scissors here?  Let’s cut this other penny in half.”  And they laughed because they know no scissors can cut that penny.  But if I do that, you’re going to get half of a penny.  So you’ve got a dime, then another penny is eleven, another’s twelve; you got twelve and a half.  And we added all that up and in an hour’s time, guess what, I had those kids doing fractions.  It blew them away.  It blew the parents away. I said. “Yeah, you all can do fractions, but you can’t do non-functional fractions.  Don’t mean nothing if you just write numbers!”

That’s a teacher.  That’s a conductor.  If you come to me as a musician, then I may say, “Here, you play.”  You’ve got more? I say, “I think we’ve got something.”  Then I’ll get down and participate with you.  Then I’ll say, “We’re going to try this; we’re going to try that.”  I’ll lay out something to see how you’re going to respond to it.  You didn’t respond.  I left something open for you.  There was no conversation taking place.  It could be for many reasons.  But I’m going to try to get inside you and inspire you to want to play and make stuff come out of you that you really didn’t have.  That’s the conductor, or composer. And if you don’t need help, I don’t have to tell you what to do.  But if you need some help, maybe I’ll give you some suggestions.  But to out and out come out and not think about what someone can do because you wrote all this music? Then you hear this person in another kind of setting and say, “Wow. I didn’t know you could play like that.”  Yeah, you didn’t allow me to play like that, because you already dictated what you wanted.

That’s why I’m devoted to improvisational, spontaneous music.  And I think that’s what we need on the planet right now.  I think people have to get deeper inside themselves. We all have the potential to be smart and intelligent, and we’ve got to bring it out of people. To resolve some of these major problems we have on the planet, we have to have more people working.

“When it really comes time for a major crisis, everybody has to participate.”

I was just telling somebody yesterday that when there’s peace, then they tell people,  “Oh, we don’t need you.  We have all these regulations; we don’t need your help.”  But when 9/11 came, and what did they do?  They asked for the public’s help because the military, the police, and everybody realized that they couldn’t watch everything.  If anything looks suspicious, just call this number and let us know.  So you’re really saying that when it really comes time for a major crisis, everybody has to participate.  If you want to find out the cures for cancer and all this stuff here, you have to start from an early stage in elementary school exposing these kids to oncology, neurology, all these things, in the classroom.  Make little toys, little games, so everybody can participate. You talk about trial and error. Somebody out of that is going to come up, it could be a five-year old kid, and say, “Well, what if you did this and did that?”  Somebody will say, “Wow, we never thought of that.”  That’s why I’m saying: we have to bring out the innovative and creative potential of what we as humans have, and you’re not going to do it by constantly putting a harness on somebody and saying you’re not allowed to express yourself or do what you do.

The elaborately ornamented exterior of Milford Graves's home.

From the Machine: Conversations with Dan Tepfer, Kenneth Kirschner, Florent Ghys, and Jeff Snyder

Over the last three weeks, we’ve looked at various techniques for composing and performing acoustic music using computer algorithms, including realtime networked notation and algorithmic approaches to harmony and orchestration.

Their methods differ substantially, from the pre-compositional use of algorithms, to the realtime generation of graphic or traditionally notated scores, to the use of digitally controlled acoustic instruments and musical data visualizations.

This week, I’d like to open up the conversation to include four composer/performers who are also investigating the use of computers to generate, manipulate, process, and display musical data for acoustic ensembles. While all four share a similar enthusiasm for the compositional and performance possibilities offered by algorithms, their methods differ substantially, from the pre-compositional use of algorithms, to the realtime generation of graphic or traditionally notated scores, to the use of digitally controlled acoustic instruments and musical data visualizations.

Pianist/composer Dan Tepfer, known both for his expressive jazz playing and his interpretations of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, has recently unveiled his Acoustic Informatics project for solo piano. In it, Tepfer uses realtime algorithms to analyze and respond to note data played on his Yahama Disklavier piano, providing him with an interactive framework for improvisation. Through the use of musical delays, transpositions, inversions, and textural elaborations of his input material, he is able to achieve composite pianistic textures that would be impossible to realize with human performer or computer alone.

Composer Kenneth Kirschner has been using computers to compose electronic music since the 1990s, manipulating harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic data algorithmically to create long-form works from minimal musical source material. Several of his electronic works have recently been adapted to the acoustic domain, raising questions of musical notation for pieces composed without reference to fixed rhythmic or pitch grids.

Florent Ghys is a bassist and composer who works in both traditional and computer-mediated compositional contexts. His current research is focused on algorithmic composition and the use of realtime notation to create interactive works for acoustic ensembles.

Jeff Snyder is a composer, improviser, and instrument designer who creates algorithmic works that combine animated graphic notation and pre-written materials for mixed ensembles. He is also the director of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk), providing him with a wealth of experience in computer networking for live performance.


JOSEPH BRANCIFORTE: How would you describe the role that computer algorithms play in your compositional process?

KENNETH KIRSCHNER: I come at this as someone who was originally an electronics guy, with everything done on synthesizers and realized electronically. So this computer-driven approach is just the way I work, the way I think compositionally. I’ve never written things with pencil and paper. I work in a very non-linear way, where I’m taking patterns from the computer and juxtaposing them with other patterns—stretching them, twisting them, transposing them.

I have to have that feedback loop where I can try it, see what happens, then try it again and see what happens.

A lot of my obsession over the last few years has been working with very reduced scales, often four adjacent semitones, and building patterns from that very restricted space. I find that as you transpose those and layer them over one another, you get a lot of very interesting emergent patterns. In principle, you could write that all out linearly, but I can’t imagine how I would do it, because so much of my process is experimentation and chance and randomness: you take a bunch of these patterns, slow this one down, transpose this one, layer this over that. It’s very fluid, very quick to do electronically—but hopelessly tedious to do if you’re composing in a linear, notated way. My whole development as a composer presupposes that realtime responsiveness. I have to have that feedback loop where I can try it, see what happens, then try it again and see what happens.

FLORENT GHYS: That’s very interesting, because we don’t come from the same background, but we ended up with algorithmic music for the same reasons. I come from a background of traditional acoustic music composition: writing down parts and scores for musicians. But I realized that the processes I was using as I was composing—canons, isorhythms, transpositions, stretching out durations—were very easy to reproduce in Max/MSP. I began by working with virtual instruments on the computer, fake sounds that gave me an idea of what it might sound like with a real ensemble. It was fascinating to listen to the results of an algorithmic process in real time—changing parameters such as density of rhythm, rhythmic subdivision, transposition, canonic relationships—and being able to hear the results on the spot. Even something as simple as isorhythm—a cell of pitches and a cell of rhythms that don’t overlap—writing something like that down takes some time. With an algorithmic process, I can go much faster and generate tons of material in a few minutes, rather than spending hours in Sibelius just to try out an idea.

DAN TEPFER: I’ve used algorithms in a number of ways. I’ve done stuff where I’ve generated data algorithmically that then gets turned into a relatively traditional composition, with notes on a page that people play. I’ve also experimented with live notation, which is more improvisationally based, but with some algorithmic processing in there too. And then there’s the stuff I’ve been doing recently with the Disklavier, where the algorithms react to what I’m improvising on the piano in real time.

With the live notation stuff, I’ve done it with string quartet, or wind quartet, and me on piano. I did one show where it was both of them together, and I could switch back and forth or have them both playing. I have a controller keyboard on top of the piano, and I can play stuff that gets immediately sent out as staff notation. There’s some processing where it’ll adapt what I’m playing to the ranges of each instrument, doubling notes or widening the register. Then there are musical controls where I can save a chord and transform it in certain ways just by pushing a button. At the rhythmic level, there’s usually a beat happening and this stuff is floating above it, a bit of an improvisational element where the musicians can sink into the groove.

JEFF SNYDER: I’ve got two main pieces that I would say fall into this category of realtime notation. The first is called Ice Blocks, which combines graphic notation with standard notation for open instrumentation. And then another one called Opposite Earth, which uses planets’ orbits as a graphic notation device. There are ten concentric circles, each one assigned to a performer. Each musician is a particular planet on an orbit around the sun. As the conductor, I can introduce vertical or horizontal lines from the center. The idea is that when your planet crosses one of those lines, you play a note. I have control over how fast each planet’s orbit is, as well as the color of the lines, which refer to pitch materials. There are five different colors that end up being five different chords. So it sets up a giant polyrhythm based on the different orbits and speeds.

Each planet can also rotate within itself, with additional notches functioning the same way as the lines do, although using unpitched sounds. That basically gives me another rhythmic divider to play with. I can remove or add orbits to thin out the texture or add density. It’s interesting because the piece allows me to do really complicated polyrhythms that couldn’t be executed as accurately with traditional notation. You might be playing sixteen against another person’s fifteen, creating this really complicated rhythmic relationship that will suddenly line up again. This makes it really easy: all you’re doing is watching a line, and each time you cross, you make a sound. You can do it even if the players aren’t particularly skilled.


JB: I’m really interested in this question of performer “user experience” when working with realtime notational formats. What were the performers’ responses to dealing with your dynamic graphic notation, Jeff?

JS: The piece was played by PLOrk, which is a mix of composition grad students, who are up for anything, and then undergrads who are a mix of engineers and other majors. They get excited about the fact that it’s something different. But I’ve worked with more conservative ensembles and had performers say, “I’ve worked for so many years at my instrument, and you’re wasting my skills.” So people can have that response as well when you move away from standard notation.

With PLOrk, I was able to workshop the piece over a few months and we would discover together: “Is this going to be possible? Is this going to be too difficult? Is this going to be way too easy?” I could experiment with adding staff notation or using different colors to represent musical information. For me, it was super valuable because I wasn’t always able to gauge how effective certain things would be in advance. None of this stuff has a history, so it’s hard to know whether people can do certain things in a performance situation. Can people pay attention to different gradations of blue on a ring while they’re also trying to perform rhythms? I just have to test it, and then they’ll tell me whether it works.

JB: There’s always that initial hurdle to overcome with new notational formats. I’ve been using traditional notation in my recent work, albeit a scrolling version where performers can only see two measures at a time, but I remember a similar adjustment period during the first rehearsal with a string quartet. We set everyone up, got the Ethernet connections between laptops working, tested the latencies—everything looked good. But for the first fifteen minutes of rehearsal, the performers were all complaining that the software wasn’t working properly. “It just feels like it’s off. Maybe it’s not synced or something?” So I did another latency check, and everything was fine, under two milliseconds of latency.

DT: So the humans weren’t synced!

It’s just a new skill. Once performers get used to it, then they don’t want it to change.

JB: I reassured them that everything was working properly, and we kept rehearsing. After about 30 minutes, they started getting the hang of the scrolling notation—things were beginning to sound much more comfortable. So after rehearsal, as everyone was packing up, I said, “Is there anything you’d like me to change in the software, anything that would make the notation easier to deal with?” And they all said, “No! Don’t change a thing. It’s perfect!” And then I realized: it’s just a new skill. Once performers get used to it, then they don’t want it to change. They just need to know that it works and that they can rely on it.

But beyond the mechanics of using the software, I sometimes wonder whether it’s harder for a performer to commit to material that they haven’t seen or rehearsed in advance. They have no idea what’s coming next and it’s difficult to gain any sense of the piece as a whole.

FG: I think you’re touching on something related to musicianship. In classical music, the more you play a piece, the better you’re going to understand the music, the more you’re going to be able to make it speak and refine the dynamics. And within the context of the ensemble, you’ll understand the connections and coordination between all the musicians. So the realtime notation is going to be a new skill for musicians to learn—to be able to adapt to material that’s changing. It’s also the job of the composer to create a range of possibilities that musicians can understand. For instance, the piece uses certain types of rhythms or scales or motives; a performer might not know exactly what it’s going to be, but they understand the range of things that can happen.

KK: They need to be able to commit to the concept of the piece, rather than any of the specific details of the narrative.

DT: I think a key word here is culture. You’re seeing a microcosm of that when, in the time span of a rehearsal, you see a culture develop. At the beginning of the rehearsal, musicians are like, “It’s not working,” and then after a certain time they’re like, “Oh, it is working.” Culture is about expectations about what is possible. And if you develop something in the context of a group, where it is understood to be fully possible, then people will figure out ways to do it. It might start with a smaller community of musicians who can do it at first. But I think we’re probably not far from the time when realtime sight-reading will just be a basic skill. That’s going to be a real paradigm shift.

I think we’re probably not far from the time when realtime sight-reading will just be a basic skill. That’s going to be a real paradigm shift.

JB: How do you deal with the question of notational pre-display in your live notation work, Dan?

DT: It happens pretty much in real time.

JB: So you play a chord on your MIDI keyboard and it gets sent out to the musicians one measure at a time?

DT: They’re just seeing one note. There’s no rhythmic information. The real difficulty is that I have to send the material out about a second early in order to have any chance of maintaining consistency in the harmonic rhythm. It takes some getting used to, but it’s surprisingly intuitive after a while.

JS: That’s something I wasn’t able to address in the planets piece by the time of the performance: there was no note preparation for them, so lines just show up. I told the performers, “Don’t worry if a line appears right before your planet is about to cross it. Just wait until the next time it comes around again.” But it still stressed them out. As performers, they’re worried about “missing a note,” especially because the audience could see the notation too. So perhaps in the next version I could do something where the lines slowly fade in to avoid that issue.

JB: I have to sometimes remind myself that the performers are part of the algorithm, too. As much as we want the expanded compositional possibilities that come from working with computers, I think all of us value the process of working with real musicians.

KK: With these recent acoustic adaptations of my pieces, it was a whole different experience hearing it played with an actual pianist and cellists. It was a different piece. And I thought, “There is something in here that I want to pursue further.” There’s just a level of nuance you’re getting, a level of pure interpretation that’s not going to come through in my electronic work. But the hope is that by composing within the electronic domain, I’m stumbling upon compositional approaches that one may not find writing linearly.


JB: I want to discuss the use of the computer as a “compositional surrogate.” The premise is that instead of working out all of the details of a piece in advance, we allow the computer to make decisions on our behalf during performance, based on pre-defined rules or preferences. There’s an argument that outsourcing these decisions to the computer is an abdication of the fundamental responsibility of being a composer, the subjective process of selection. But I’ve begun to see algorithm design as a meta-compositional process: uncovering the principles that underlie my subjective preferences and then embedding them into the algorithmic architecture itself.

KK: Right. There’s a sense that when something works musically, there’s a reason for it. And what we’re trying to do is uncover those reasons; the hope is that some of those rules that are affecting our aesthetic judgment are able to be discovered. Once you begin to codify some of that, you can offload it and shift some of the compositional responsibility to the computer. The idea is to build indeterminate pieces that have a degree of intelligence and adaptation to them. But that requires us to understand what some of those underlying mechanisms are that make us say “this is good” or “this is bad.”

For me, something might sound good one day, and another day I might hate it. I don’t know if you’re ever going to find a “rule” that can explain that.

FG: I don’t know. I’m a little skeptical. For me, something might sound good one day, and another day I might hate it. I don’t know if you’re ever going to find a “rule” that can explain that; there are so many factors that go into musical perception.

JB: A dose of skepticism is probably warranted if we’re talking about machines being able to intervene in questions of aesthetics. But to me, the beauty of designing a composer-centric framework is that it allows you to change your preferences from day to day. You can re-bias a piece to conform to whatever sounds good to you in the moment: a different tempo, more density, a slightly different orchestration. I’m not sure that we even need to understand the nature of our preferences, or be able to formalize them into rules, in order to have the computer act as an effective surrogate. Economists have a concept called “revealed preference,” where instead of looking at what consumers say they want, you look at their purchasing habits. That kind of thing could be applied to algorithm design, where the algorithm learns what you like simply by keeping track of your responses to different material.

KK: I’ve had a similar thought when working on some of my indeterminate pieces—that you want a button for “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” If you could record the aggregate of all those decisions, you could begin to map them to a parameter space that has a greater chance of giving you good outcomes. You could also have different profiles for a piece. For example, I could do my “composer’s version” that contains my preferences and builds the piece in a certain direction; then I could hand it off to you, hit reset, and have you create your own version of the piece.

FG: In a lot of the algorithms I’ve been designing lately, I have a “determinacy-to-randomness” parameter where I can morph from something I’ve pre-written, like a melody or a series of pitches, to a probabilistic set of pitches, to a completely random set of pitches. With the probabilities, I allow the computer to choose whatever it wants, but I tell it, “I’d like to have more Gs and G#s, but not too many Cs.” So, weighted probabilities. We know that the random number generator in Max/MSP, without any scaling or probabilities, sounds like crap.

KK: It needs constraints.

JB: Finding ways to constrain randomness—where it’s musically controlled, but you’re getting new results with every performance—that’s become a major compositional concern for me. As an algorithm grows from initial idea to a performance-ready patch, the parameters become more abstract and begin to more closely model how I hear music as a listener. At the deepest level of aesthetic perception, you have things like balance, long-range form, tension/resolution, and expectation. I think probabilistic controls are very good at dealing with balance, and maybe not as good with the others.

FG: Yeah, when you deal with algorithms you go to a higher level of thinking. I’ve done things where I have a pattern that I like, and I want the computer to generate something else like it. And then eventually I know I want it to transform into another pattern or texture. But the tiny details of how it gets from A to B don’t really matter that much. It’s more about thinking of the piece as a whole.


JB: Jeff, I wanted to ask you about something a little more technical: when dealing with live notation in PLOrk, are you using wired or wireless connections to the performers’ devices?

JS: I’ve done live notation with both wireless and wired connections. In any kind of networking situation, we look at that question on a case-by-case basis. If we’re going to do wired, it simplifies things because we can rely on reasonable timing. If we’re going to do wireless, we usually have issues of sync that we have to deal with. For a long time, our solution has been LANdini, which was developed by Jascha Narveson. Recently, Ableton Link came out and that simplifies things. So if you don’t need certain features that LANdini offers—if you just need click synchronization—then Link is the simpler solution. We’ve been doing that for anything in which we just need to pulse things and make sure that the pulses show up at the same time, like metronomes.

JB: In my notation system, there’s a cursor that steps through the score, acting as a visual metronome to keep the musicians in sync. So transfer speed is absolutely critical there to make sure there’s as little latency as possible between devices. I’ve been using wired Ethernet connections, which ensures good speed and reliability, but it quickly becomes a real mess on stage with all the cables. Not to mention the hundreds I’ve spent on Ethernet adapters! Perhaps the way to do it is to have Ableton Link handle the metronome and then use wireless TCP/IP to handle the notation messages.

JS: That’s what I was just about to suggest. With Link, you can actually get information about which beat number you’re on, it’s not just a raw pulse.

JB: Does it work well with changing time signatures?

JS: That’s a good question, I haven’t tested that. I have discovered that any tempo changes make it go nuts. It takes several seconds to get back on track when you do a tempo change. So it’s limited in that way. But there are other possibilities that open up when you get into wireless notation. Something I’ve really wanted to do is use wireless notation for spatialization and group dynamics. So say you had a really large ensemble and everybody is looking at their own iPhone display, which is giving them graphic information about their dynamics envelopes. You could make a sound move through an acoustic ensemble, the same way electronic composers do with multi-speaker arrays, but with a level of precision that couldn’t be achieved with hand gestures as a conductor. It’d be easily automated and would allow complex spatial patterns to be manipulated, activating different areas of the ensemble with different gestures. That’s definitely doable, technically speaking, but I haven’t really seen it done.


Do you think that having the composer on stage as a privileged type of performer is potentially in conflict with the performers’ ownership of the piece?

JB: With this emerging ability for the composer to manipulate a score in realtime, I wonder what the effects will be on performance culture. Do you think that having the composer on stage as a privileged type of performer is potentially in conflict with the performers’ ownership of the piece?

FG: Bringing the composer on stage changes the whole dynamic. Usually instrumentalists rule the stage; they have their own culture. Now you’re up there with them, and it totally changes the balance. “Whoa, he’s here, he’s doing stuff. Why is he changing my part?”

JB: Right, exactly. In one of my early realtime pieces, I mapped the faders of a MIDI controller to the individual dynamic markings of each member of the ensemble. This quickly got awkward in rehearsal when one of the violinists said half-jokingly, “It seems like I’m playing too loudly because my dynamic markings keep getting lower and lower.”

DT: It’s like Ligeti-style: you go down to twelve ps! [laughs]

JB: From that point, I became very self-conscious about changing anything. I suddenly became aware of this strange dynamic, where I’m in sole control of the direction of the piece but also sitting on stage alongside the musicians.

DT: You know, it’s interesting—come to think of it, in everything I’ve done with live notation, I’m performing as well. I think that makes a huge difference, because I can lead by example.

KK: And you’re also on stage and you’re invested as a performer. Whereas Joe is putting himself in this separate category—the puppet master!

FG: I wonder if it’s not also the perception of the instrumentalists in what they understand about what you’re doing. In Dan’s case, they totally get what he’s doing: he’s playing a chord, it’s getting distributed, they have their note. It’s pretty simple. With more complex algorithmic stuff, they might not get exactly what you’re doing. But then they see an obvious gesture like lowering a fader, and they think, “Oh, he’s doing that!”

DT: Something nice and simple to complain about!

FG: Otherwise, you’re doing this mysterious thing that they have no idea about, and then they just have to play the result.

KK: This is why I think it’s really important to start working with a consistent group of musicians, because we’ll get past this initial level and start to see how they feel about it in the longer term as they get used to it. And that might be the same response, or it might be a very different response.

DT: Has anyone taken that step of developing this kind of work over a couple of years with the same group of people? I think then you’ll see performers finding more and more ways of embracing the constraints and making it their own. That’s where it gets exciting.

Well, that about does it for our four-part series. I hope that these articles have initiated conversation with respect to the many possible uses of computer algorithms in acoustic music, and perhaps provided inspiration for future work. I truly believe that the coupling of computation and compositional imagination offers one of the most promising vistas for musical discovery in the coming years. I look forward to the music we will collectively create with it.

Comments and questions about the series are very much welcome, either via the comments section below or any of the following channels:

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