Counterstream Radio is your online home for exploring the music of America’s composers. Drawing upon New Music USA’s substantial library of recordings, our programming is remarkable for its depth and eclecticism. The station streams influential music of many pedigrees 24 hours a day. Keep listening and discover the sound of music without limits. Click here to open Counterstream Radio.
NEA Jazz master and three-time Grammy Award-winner Terri Lyne Carrington was practically born into music. Her father was a saxophonist and her mother played piano. Plus her grandfather, who died before she born, was a drummer who played with Fats Waller and Chu Berry among others. In fact, his drum set was the first set Terri Lyne played on at age 7. Being raised in such an environment gave her access to just about everyone in the scene and at the age of 10 she was already performing on stage with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, in the process become the youngest person ever to be issued a union card in Boston!
But that doesn’t mean that Terri Lyne Carrington is a hardcore jazz traditionalist. Growing up, she listened to everything from Earth, Wind & Fire to Michael Jackson, and that music ultimately also seeped into her own vocabulary.
“People can’t just tell you to choose,” Terri Lyne says during our conversation over Zoom on a Sunday afternoon in later October. “It’s all part of my experience.”
Not choosing, or rather choosing everything, makes Terri Lyne’s own musical language extremely expansive. By embracing elements from rock, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop into her own compositions (as well as occasionally interpreting more recent popular songs with the same level of creativity that characterizes the most exciting jazz renditions of classic standards), she is making music that is very much about the present moment and it is extremely vital. However, at its core, she still thinks of her music as an extension of musical practices that go back many generations.
“There’s a historical and cultural context that the music was born from, and that has to be acknowledged as well,” she explains.
Also, either through including singers and lyrics or pre-recorded samples of spoken texts, her music frequently contains pointed social messages. Some of the songs on Waiting Game, the most recent album she recorded with her band Social Science, such as “Trapped in the American Dream,” “Pray The Gay Away,” or “No Justice (for Political Prisoners)” are a powerful soundtrack to our extremely complex and fractured zeitgeist. But none of them offer simple solutions.
“People are going to come to any of these issues differently,” she realizes. “They’re going to come in there wherever they are at the time, and so it leaves a bit more of an open door, an open palette for people to discover maybe what they need at the moment. I don’t know if it’s about changing minds, because most people that are hateful may be a little difficult to change. If you’re just ignorant, then it might be easier to educate, with satire and the hook.”
One of the things that Terri Lyne hopes to change is the gender imbalance among jazz instrumentalists, why is why she founded the Berklee Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice and has now partnered with New Music USA to create the Next Jazz Legacy program.
“There’s always been a bit of a nurturing environment for men to be creative, and women just never had that same support,” she says. “Young women and, of course, also the transgender and non-binary community, people on the margins of what’s been normal in jazz, don’t have as many opportunities; that’s just the way it is. … There’s a world of sound waiting for us that hasn’t necessarily fully been developed, fully tapped into within this genre; it’s coming.”
I believe in themes, but I also believe that the themes don’t have to be narrow.
Terri Lyne Carrington
If it's constructed well, you are able to hear different things every time you listen.
Terri Lyne Carrington
I'm not sure I would call it jazz if I can't hear any history or lineage in what they're doing.
Terri Lyne Carrington
Once labels got out of the way, and people were able to be independent and produce and release the music that they really wanted to, what was really in their hearts, I feel like it opened things up, and it's such a creative and fertile time for jazz.
Terri Lyne Carrington
I'm totally into how the industry has shifted ... It's a new frontier. ... There'll always be the haves and have-nots, and the people more privileged than others, but there's also an opportunity there.
Terri Lyne Carrington
I've done a lot of free things. It's all just putting me in a place that more people can experience, and it all works together in the end.
Terri Lyne Carrington
Most musicians are hearing their own symphonies, but everybody has the barrier between what they're hearing in their head and what they're able to actually produce.
Terri Lyne Carrington
There's always been a bit of a nurturing environment for men to be creative, and women just never had that same support.
Terri Lyne Carrington
If I turn on the radio, If I look at advertisements or flip through music magazines, I don’t see myself represented. If I thought I needed that support, then yes, it's going to make me shy away from wanting to pursue this.
Terri Lyne Carrington
I didn’t need to see myself represented because I had no identity when I started. Like I didn’t think, "Oh, I’m a woman playing drums." I was a kid. So I had no gender identity, basically. When people told me, "You're good for a girl," they made that association, but I didn't because I didn't feel like a real girl. I didn't feel like a little boy, I just didn’t know, you know. I was just playing. And I gravitated to tomboyish things. So I had no problem inserting myself with boys.
Terri Lyne Carrington
There’s a lot of masculinity that's made the sound of the music making music what it is. And I love it. I love what it is. I also possess some of that, though. I have to if I'm going to go out on stage.
The mentors need to be men, only because men need to participate in solving some of these issues. If women just mentor women, we're still siloed and siphoned into a bucket of women jazz musicians.
Terri Lyne Carrington
There's a world of sound waiting for us that hasn't necessarily fully been developed, fully tapped into within this genre; it’s coming.
When I first arrived at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier for a campus visit, I was just in time for the electronic music showcase. I’d had a long flight and a drive through unfamiliar country. I was a little weary, and a little wary. I’d been to a lot of electronic showcases and fixed-media installations over the course of looking for a grad school. They’d started bleeding into each other. And none of them made me feel like my voice had any place in the programs I was visiting.
The works didn’t feel like student works. They were furious searches for answers to burning questions.
VCFA’s was something special, though. The works didn’t feel like student works. They were furious searches for answers to burning questions. In that sense then, they were student works – in the sincerest form of the word. I heard delicate soundscapes, interwoven with rotating samples of the composer’s family. I heard brutalist musique concrète. The whole thing closed with a meditative improvisation among some of the faculty. Jazz pianist Diane Moser performed in an emotional feedback loop as her sound was manipulated by Mike Early and John Mallia. It was unlike anything I’d heard before. And woven throughout this exploration of electronic art music was something else—there were snippets of video game music. There were synthesizer pieces from the ‘70s that students had pulled out of mothballs and retooled. There were straight-up techno dance pieces. And in the context of that breadth, a realization emerged – every single piece I heard that night was exactly what the composer wanted it to be. Nobody was following the dictate of an overbearing tutor or trying to impress a department head. They were following their muse, guided by folks who were equipping them to do it better every time. And the program was richer for it, in breadth and in depth. At a school that had room for me, even the musical styles that felt like a barrier to me were beautiful, because the only people composing in that space were the ones who were truly called into it.
VCFA operates in week-long residencies, followed by six months of one-on-one mentoring with a faculty member. Because there’s so little time spent together, they go out of their way to make the most of it. Every minute is accounted for, between the lectures, workshops, showcases, and concerts. My visit was only for a couple of nights, but it felt like I was there for at least two weeks. The breadth of the lectures bore out the promise of the electronics showcase. I caught the film music showcase and an ensemble concert. After that concert, I stayed up talking with one of the student composers I’d met. As we talked and I packed, I realized we’d carried our conversation on until 5 in the morning, and it was time for my cab to take me to the airport. I flew home, with something like two dozen new Facebook friends in tow.
These are some of those friends…
Those Facebook friends turned out to mean a great deal in the coming months. Even though I was on the fence about attending, I was welcomed into the community and talking to students daily. When the time came to make an admission decision, I had two offers on the table. The assistant program director called me – not to sell me on it, but to talk through my creative and financial anxieties.
She, in turn, put me in touch with the faculty chair at the time, Rick Baitz. Rick talked to me for over an hour while he was stuck in New York traffic and I was stuck in Austin traffic. His advice was enthusiastic, if cryptically Zen. “Well, I think you should come. Unless you don’t want to come. But then you probably shouldn’t be listening to me. Listen to yourself.”
In the end, I wound up listening to him. It was one of the most positive life changes I’ve ever made. Frankly, it still is. My time at VCFA is very much a going concern and a part of my daily life. I still collaborate with my VCFA fellows. I still work with them, and occasionally work for them. And two years after graduating, I still fly to Vermont every six months and take a long drive to be part of every residency.
Vermont College of Fine Arts plays up the “low residency” aspect of the program. You study remotely with a grad advisor for six months, and then you reconvene on campus for a week-long combination of a conference and a festival. But the real value of the school isn’t in the semester format. It’s in the magic that happens in that one week.
Because there’s so little time spent together, they go out of their way to make the most of it.
The residencies start to bleed together in my mind. They’re separated by time, and yet they’re timeless, and oddly recursive. As I walk through this week, most of the examples I think of are from the most recent residency, August 2018. It is the freshest one in my mind. But as I reach through my memories to think of all the things that the program can be—and has been, for me—I have reached for a few memories from earlier residencies stood out for me. The guest presenters and visiting performers change from residency to residency, and at least one priceless, life-changing memory seems to emerge from each one.
That first evening I experienced there may have been the best introduction to the program I could have hoped for. I quickly found that the genre-agnostic approach I encountered was de rigueur for the program at large. It bore out in the lectures, as well. Andy Jaffe is the man who wrote the book on jazz harmony—quite literally. His pet topic is recontextualization through reharmonization. He’s the kind of speaker who, even if you can barely keep up with him, will leave you with a tiny piece of insight that you can apply anywhere. In a flash, he will immediately deepen your understanding and broaden your view. Andy insists repeatedly that there’s nothing mystical about jazz harmony. One of his core assertions is incredibly simple—the more tones you have in your chord, the more common tones you have to propel you wherever you want to go. If you’re a newcomer to the world of jazz—or even unengaged completely—that’s a tiny, but powerful idea. You can hang onto it, take it home, and mull it over as you work on your own music for six months. And Andy’s approach to harmony starts quietly bleeding into student work as they progress through the program.
An impromptu jam session involving VCFA students and faculty (including Andy Jaffe at the piano) as well as visiting musicians (including violinist Fung Chern Hwei)
John Fitz Rogers speaks adeptly about principles of orchestration. This semester, his lecture is about controlling dynamic intensity artfully, by baking it into the structure of the piece itself rather than giving each part a dynamic marking. As he sifts through 300 years’ worth of examples, he casually opens windows of insight into a bottomless wealth of expertise. Even his basic thesis is one that is simultaneously core to orchestration and yet wildly underappreciated.
A trio of working media composers offer practical advice that is rooted in their years of first-hand experience.
A trio of working media composers hold court to a steadily growing cadre of starry-eyed film-scoring hopefuls. Their advice is practical, rooted in their years of first-hand experience. Rick Baitz gives a survey course in conveying story information musically. He uses Little Miss Sunshine as an example of how you can lead a viewer to intuit things about your characters without needing to make them speak. In other years he’s shown a tense, ambiguous scene from a horror movie. A character is in a stranger’s home, looking for information on a serial killer. He’s either in grave danger, or he’s become hilariously paranoid. Rick shows us the original, and then uses several rescored versions to illustrate how much weight a good score can pull in setting the emotional tone of a scene. Horror is rich with emotional potential, and thrives on the discomfort of ambiguity. An expert composer can tip the scale on way or another to tip off a canny viewer, or to misdirect and surprise at a crucial moment.
Ravi Krishnaswami gives canny lectures in music business and deciphering client needs. He also holds a workshop each semester during which students are asked to score an ad, integrating sound design into the music itself. Sometimes he deliberately gives the assignment out last-minute, for the sake of verisimilitude. This semester, Don DiNicola talked about the importance of collaboration in an age that increasingly demands musicians do everything themselves. People came away deeply moved, almost exuberant. DiNicola himself has been a music supervisor for television studios for years. His insight into navigating through various stakeholders and getting paid is almost as incisive as his musical instincts.
The VCFA community listens to a talk by the members of the Sirius Quartet at VCFA’s Alumni Hall during the summer 2018 residency (Photo by Jay Ericson, courtesy VCFA)
Professors sit in on each other’s lectures as well, despite their time being at a premium. The collegial atmosphere is shaped profoundly by their curiosity and camaraderie, and by the cross-pollination of ideas. You’ll see the classically oriented professors sitting in on a lecture about the Futurists, given by a singer-songwriter with a wild new music streak. You’ll see the jazz cats turn up at the film scoring lectures with fresh insights about the way harmonic motion is driving a scene. That boundless insistence on the permeable nature of what we do is at the heart of the program.
Some of my classmates were fresh out of college. Some had recently retired.
Similar convergences occur among the students. Some of my classmates were fresh out of college. Some had recently retired. One is a heart surgeon who had trimmed his hours to focus more on his lifelong music obsession. An avant-garde jazz composer from Chicago takes an evening away from lectures to listen to a discussion about her work on Swedish Public Radio. One of my childhood heroes in television scoring is here, trying to rediscover his own voice after years of being asked by studios to sound like other composers. And all of these people are thrown together. They encourage each other through difficult masterclass sessions. They learn each other’s songs for the weekend showcase. They gossip about John Zorn and recommend TV shows to each other at lunch.
I join another VCFA alum Margie Halloran for one of her songs along with Torrey Richards on guitar during the Singer-Songwriter Showcase
Evenings are for showcases and concerts of student work. In addition to the electronic showcase, there are nights for film music and songwriting. All of those styles bleed into the ensemble concerts—ostensibly the meat of the residency experience. Groups like Talujon, Sirius Quartet, and loadbang offer feedback and insight for several days before delivering their performances. They impart idiosyncratic notation tricks for their instruments. They give practical career advice. A common theme in their feedback is that it’s a performer’s market when it comes to new pieces. The performers here are all strong enough that they can play anything you throw at them. But they’re also honest enough to say, “If you want someone to actually play this thing beyond these walls, you need to tweak this, this, and this to make it manageable.”
Sometimes ensembles take student work with them. My own percussion quartet was programmed by Michael Lipsey for his percussion students at Queens College. And even if the music doesn’t travel, the relationships do. Students from Florida couch-surf with students from California. Session musicians from New York make time to grab drinks when students from Texas come to visit.
David Cossin make some edits on his part as Michael Lipsey looks on at a rehearsal of Talujon during VCFA’s summer 2018 music composition residency (Photo by Jay Ericson, courtesy VCFA)
Those relationships are fostered by the evenings after the concert. The on-campus café supplies enough wine to get the conversation going, and before too long everyone wanders down the hill from the campus to the bars downtown. It’s in one of those bars that I won a minute of recording time from a Julliard instructor in a bet. Here I get lightly berated by a conservatory head for not being familiar enough with Biggie. Here a visiting music journalist breathlessly enthuses about a ‘50s pop singer from Hong Kong that I need to hear.
The professor renowned for orchestration can go on a tangent about Led Zeppelin.
Beyond encouraging breadth within the program, VCFA encourages people to explore their own full richness. The professor renowned for orchestration can go on a tangent about Led Zeppelin. A songwriting student can do a multi-movement piece for brass quintet. And the people on the periphery of each of these moments get to experience people who are living in holistic fulfillment of their best artistic selves.
VCFA is a swirling vortex of bizarre, beautiful convergences, built on the idea that it’s all music. Maybe, in the end, everything is.
At the end of every residency there is a graduation ceremony for the people who have attended five residencies and have completed all of their work toward the degree. During the ceremony. For each of the graduates, one of the faculty members offers a personal statement and ceremony attendees also get to listen to recorded excerpts of each of the graduate’s musical compositions.
Nowadays American musical creators can aesthetically do pretty much anything they want to do, but there have been few musicians who have embraced as wide a range of musical idioms as Béla Fleck. While he first made a name for himself as a teenager playing newgrass (a harmonically and rhythmically progressive off-shoot from bluegrass), he quickly began exploring jazz and soon reached a huge audience with his band The Flecktones, which merged jazz, bluegrass, funk, and lots of other musical ingredients into something that no one could quite define. In the past 20 years, he has collaborated with traditional musicians from India and China, as well as multiple nations in Africa. He has also begun composing works to perform with classical chamber music ensembles and symphony orchestras. In March, Rounder Records released a recording of his second banjo concerto, Juno Concerto.
“I’ve realized that I only make my life poorer by deciding there’s something I’m not interested in,” Fleck opined when we met up with him in between another interview and a soundcheck for a concert in New Jersey later that evening. “Your life gets richer the more things you decide you like.”
Yet despite the extraordinary variety of the musical projects he has been participating in since the late 1970s, everything he’s done revolves around the banjo, an instrument he has been obsessed with since he heard it on TV while watching The Beverly Hillbillies as a young boy growing up in New York City. His grandfather bought him a banjo right before he entered 10th grade at the High School of Music and Art, but there were few opportunities for him to explore playing the banjo there. He recalled getting nowhere with the French horn before they decided to put him in the chorus where he “screeched.” Nevertheless, he “became a non-stop, type-A, freakazoid, play-all-the-time, addicted dude,” took private lessons with “monster genius” Tony Trischka, and within just three years he “could play exactly like him.” In his senior year he navigated his way through the tricky banjo part in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at a school concert. But he didn’t apply to any colleges and as soon as he graduated from high school, he embarked on a professional music career.
“I wanted to go play the banjo, not go to college where nobody could teach me about the banjo,” he remembered. On Trischka’s recommendation, he was hired by the Boston-based band Tasty Licks and recorded his first album with them while still a teenager. But he quickly realized that he needed to do more than imitate his teacher.
“That wasn’t going to get me anywhere,” he realized. “So I started having to dice out these parts of myself that I loved so much and that I learned from [Trischka].” At this point he also started to compose his own music. That first album he appeared on, Tasty Licks eponymous 1978 LP, features Fleck’s first recorded original composition “Reading in the Dark.”
“At the time, I was trying to write things that were complex and hard intentionally,” he admitted. “I haven’t heard that in a long time, and I’m a little scared of what it would sound like if I listened to it now. If you listen to some of Tony’s music from that time, you would hear where maybe I was just cracking out from what he did a little bit, but it could have been something he did, too. But I was starting to use some of my new techniques, a few licks that were idiomatic to me.”
Wanting to get closer to the roots of bluegrass music led Fleck to move down South—first to Lexington, Kentucky, and then to Nashville, where he still makes his home. Yet ironically, instead of playing with more traditionally oriented musicians, he went from performing with the progressive Spectrum to the even more radical New Grass Revival to his own uncategorizable Flecktones. Yet despite all the innovations, he has always been extremely mindful of his antecedents.
“Time makes something traditional,” Fleck said. “I’m trying to come up with something that has some reason to exist, not just do new stuff to do new stuff. … I feel good that the things that I’ve contributed feel, to me at least, like they’re supposed to be that way. They’re not just, ‘How hard can I play? How difficult can I make things?’ but there’s some integrity to why I wanted to do them and why they’re on the banjo rather than some other instrument.”
Béla Fleck has found ways to make his instrument “sound right” whether he’s improvising duets with jazz great Chick Corea, fusing Indian, Chinese, and Appalachian idioms with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Jie-Bing Chen, accompanying the legendary Malian singer Oumou Sangare, or playing with a symphony orchestra. According to him, “If the banjo was going to have any place in this world, there needed to be a banjo concerto.”
But nowadays he spends most of his time making music with his wife, Abigail Washburn, an innovative singer-songwriter who, of course, is also a banjo virtuoso.
“She plays in a different style from me, what we call clawhammer; I play three-finger,” Fleck explained. “They’ve almost never historically played together. So what we’ve got within our household is an opportunity to create something that’s never been before.”
Béla Fleck in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded at the offices of Razor & Tie, NYC
April 7, 2017—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: You were named Béla Anton Leoš Fleck, after Bartók, Webern, and Janáček—three very important 20th-century composers. That’s a lot of weight.
Béla Fleck: It is. It gets even more complicated since, soon after I got that name, my mother and my father split up. I never saw him again until my 40s, when I went and searched him out. So it was complex. In fact, I wasn’t even interested in that music for a while because of that. It took me a while to go back and start to listen to Bartók with more of an open ear. I finally did that when I was starting to write my first banjo concerto. So I got all these names, but no influence. Nobody was showing me why I was named those things. Ironically, my mother remarried a cellist. Those weren’t necessarily his guys, but there was some classical music in my world at that point because he liked to play string quartets and quintets, and go and play with orchestras and stuff like that. So I would hear him do that. But I didn’t really think it had a lot to do with me and my musical identity because I had secretly fallen in love with the banjo. I’d learned some guitar and I was playing some folk songs, Beatles songs, Simon & Garfunkel songs, and a few blues scales. I actually loved the banjo, but I hadn’t told anybody because it wasn’t a very popular thing. But the banjo sounded so amazing and fast and complex. I didn’t imagine that I could ever play it. It was just a secret love.
FJO: It’s funny to hear you say that you only came to Bartók recently, since I think of Bartók as someone who took folk music traditions and completely transformed them in a way that’s not completely unlike what you have done. And also, his music was chock-full of unusual scales and odd meters, which are also things I hear in your music going all the way back to your earliest recordings.
BF: People have said that to me, “You and Bartók have so much in common; it’s cool that your name is Béla.” And I’d be like, “Cool.” I only heard little bits of it. It’s an acquired taste, like coffee. The first time you drink it, it’s like, “I don’t know why anybody likes this.” A little later you’re like, “It’s pretty good.” Then pretty soon it’s like, “I gotta have it; it’s so good.” Bartók for me was kind of like that. When I finally got into it, the harshness [I heard] at first stopped being harsh completely and it became so badass and cool, so interesting and deep and rich. So I’m a big fan of him all the way around, and I’m proud to be named after him.
FJO: How about Janáček and Webern?
BF: I don’t know much about their music. I’ve listened to a little bit of it. It didn’t hit me. I need to give it more time. I haven’t put in the time. I’ve had a lot of other things that really did hit me squarely in the chest and changed me so that I couldn’t not do that. I was just so in love with the sound of the banjo and bluegrass, and then I was in love with certain jazz and certain classical music that hit me that way. Others didn’t. But eventually time rolls on and you’re ready for some things that you weren’t ready for at another point in your life. That’s how it was for me with Bartók.
FJO: Now in terms of the banjo hitting you, you grew up in New York City. That’s not an instrument you would have found here very much, at least not then.
BF: Well, there was the folk boom—or the folk scare, as some people like to call it—which was happening, so it wasn’t totally alien. There were actually a lot of New Yorkers playing the banjo. But in my world, where I was going to school and just among normal kids, nobody was into that kind of music. I had just happened to hear it on a television show; The Beverly Hillbillies came on and it was Earl Scruggs.
Scruggs had taken a technique that was starting to become used in his region and exploded it into this comprehensive way of playing the banjo that changed the history of the instrument and brought a lot of people to that instrument. It was kind of dying out. The banjo has a long history, coming from Africa with the slaves originally and working its way into becoming the instrument of America in the late 1800s, the instrument everybody had around. People were playing classical music on it. There were banjo orchestras. It was in the early days of jazz. It was in Louis Armstrong’s early groups and Jelly Roll Morton’s, before the guitar took over. It was also this Appalachian instrument in old time music. Then it morphed into this bluegrass music offshoot, which was kind of a performance art. It wasn’t really a folk music; it was music that was designed to be played on microphones in front of people, but built out of folk music.
“I just became a non-stop, type-A, freakazoid, play-all-the-time, addicted dude.”
But I had nothing to do with any of that until I was 15. I think because he knew I’d been playing guitar and because “Dueling Banjos” became so huge because of that movie Deliverance, my grandfather, who lived in Peekskill, got me a banjo. It was just a garage sale banjo, a cheap little nothing, but when I went up to visit him, which was the day before I started high school at Music and Art up on 135th Street, I was so shocked and amazed and excited to see this instrument in front of me that I never would have had the nerve to go get. So the fuse was lit. Someone showed me how to tune it on the train on the way home and I just became a non-stop, type-A, freakazoid, play-all-the-time, addicted dude. Before that, when I played guitar, it wasn’t like that for me. I was a kid who was interested in something, but I wasn’t on fire. The banjo was different. When I finally got the banjo, everything else went away.
FJO: You went to the High School of Music and Art. I went there, too, so I know that there are no banjo classes there.
BF: Right. Yeah. But ironically, Eric Weissberg, the guy who played “Dueling Banjos,” went to Music and Art as well.
FJO: I didn’t know that. Wow.
BF: Yeah, he was there quite a while before I was there.
FJO: I came in as a pianist-composer, so they threw me in the vocal department because they didn’t know what else to do with me. They could always use more voices in the chorus.
BF: That’s what they did with me. I got in on guitar, playing “Here Comes the Sun”—I had a nice fingerpicking version. And they said, “Okay, you have some musical aptitude.” I remember there was a rating system of one to four, and I think I was a two. I was definitely not in the ones, but I could tap back when they would give me rhythms. Then, I think I had to sing back some pitches. I could do all of that pretty well. So they said, “Okay, we’ll teach you to be a musician.” They gave me a French horn and a mouthpiece and said, “Go in that room and come out when you can play an F.” I just sat in the room and I never could get anything out of the instrument. Finally they said, “There really aren’t enough boys in the choir. Maybe we can put you in the choir.” I was disappointed, but I went and I sang. I screeched all the way through high school. I think I would have been a baritone. I was not a tenor. I couldn’t hit the pitches, and I didn’t know how to sing. I didn’t know how to read, but I could sort of sing along with the guy next to me and watch. I knew if it was higher I had to go up, but I didn’t know what a fourth was or a third or how to do it. So I was around classical music, even though I wasn’t playing it on my banjo. And then I took banjo lessons.
“I screeched all the way through high school.”
One cool thing that happened was that partway through senior year, they said, “Béla, come see the conductor.” He said, “You can get out of chorus if you want, if you will play in Rhapsody in Blue in the semi-annual recital. We found a banjo part. If you want to play this banjo part, you can get out of chorus for the rest of senior year.” I didn’t really want to get out of chorus with all my friends, learning this German music and this French music. I was social and it was music. So I said, “I’ll do both.” So I did. The part was somewhere in the middle of the piece. There were a couple of things I never could figure out, but I got to sit next to a girl I had a crush on who played the oboe. And that was good enough for me.
FJO: But instead of going off to conservatory after you graduated from Music and Art, you wandered off to Boston and started playing in professional bands. You were already recording with them as a teenager.
BF: Yeah, I came right out of high school into professional life. I guess to toot my own horn, I started playing the day before high school and three years later, I came out and I was on a pretty high level. My third banjo teacher was Tony Trischka. Tony is one of the monster geniuses of the banjo of this century. I would argue he’s changed banjo technique and ideas as much as Earl Scruggs did. He was the guy of that time, and I had had a few lessons with him. But by the end of high school, we’d be at a party and jam together, and someone would say, “If I close my eyes, I can’t tell which one is which.” And it was true. I was imitating him so well, I could play exactly like him by the time I was out of high school after playing for three years. So I was moving fast. I was also working on my own ideas and trying to think of what I could do that he hadn’t done. I realized there already was a Tony Trischka. The guy who said, “I can’t tell which one is which”—maybe that’s not so good. For a long time, that was my goal, to be playing just like him, but that wasn’t going to get me anywhere. So I started having to dice out these parts of myself that I loved so much and that I learned from him. He goes by feel. He finds these incredible, complex ideas, but it’s not like he’s going to sit around and play all the modes and scales up and down the banjo and do this sort of scholarly thing. So I thought, “Well, there’s something.” I started working on these ways of playing the scales methodically that gave me a bunch of tools that Tony didn’t have—and really nobody had at that point. It gave me the ability to play virtually anything because I wasn’t stuck in these keys with certain centers that were rich and had a lot of things I could do but that had holes in the middle. I was basically filling in all the holes that people weren’t using on the banjo and just making it more of a workable instrument that could fit into different kinds of music. That became my thing that I could do.
FJO: Because of the way the banjo is played and the way it’s tuned, it’s optimized for playing diatonic music in common time. But what you’ve done is created super chromatic music for it with loads of complex meters. You’ve done all these counter-intuitive things, yet they sound completely idiomatic.
BF: Actually that’s the part I’m most proud of. You’ve just hit the things that I’m trying to do—things that sound right. I’m trying to come up with something that has some reason to exist, not just do new stuff to do new stuff. Again, if I was going to toot my own horn, I would say I feel good that the things that I’ve contributed feel, to me at least, like they’re supposed to be that way. They’re not just, “How hard can I play? How difficult can I make things?” but there’s some integrity to why I wanted to do them and why they’re on the banjo rather than some other instrument. It’s something that the banjo told me to do, that was obvious and that should be that way.
“I’m trying to come up with something that has some reason to exist, not just do new stuff to do new stuff.”
FJO: You’ve really been describing all of this stuff from a performer’s point of view, being a player on an instrument. But when you say that it was important to you to do more than imitate someone else’s sound and do your own thing, that’s starting to sound like a composer.
FJO: It’s interesting that for the very first professional group you were with, Tasty Licks, on the first album you recorded together, there’s an original composition of yours called “Reading in the Dark.” I can already hear your compositional voice in that—the constantly shifting keys, the metrical complexity. It feels like it’s about to crash, but it always holds together somehow. You already had had those ideas.
BF: At the time, I was trying to write things that were complex and hard intentionally. I haven’t heard that in a long time, and I’m a little scared of what it would sound like if I listened to it now. [Since then] I have learned a lot about playing the banjo with a good tone and with good timing; having a tight rhythmic focus hadn’t become my focus yet, but the creativity was there. I was also very Tony influenced. If you listen to some of Tony’s music from that time, you would hear where maybe I was just cracking out from what he did a little bit, but it could have been something he did, too. But I was starting to use some of my new techniques, a few licks that were idiomatic to me.
In addition to being the first recording featuring Béla Fleck, the eponymous debut album of Tasty Licks also features the earliest Fleck composition on record.
FJO: One thing I’m curious about in all of this is that what got you interested in the music in the very beginning was hearing Earl Scruggs, who was the embodiment of traditional bluegrass. It’s funny to call it traditional because, in a way, how Scruggs helped develop bluegrass out of Old Time music parallels how Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie developed bebop from swing. It was a similar seismic moment where it was somehow avant-garde and traditional at the same time. By the time you came on the scene, it was definitely traditional. But even though it was what you first heard, and what got you hooked, you gravitated toward the more avant-garde end of the spectrum—the progressive bluegrass scene in Boston instead of going to Kentucky or Tennessee or somewhere deep in Appalachia.
BF: Right. Well, I want to address one thing which is that Earl Scruggs was radical. There’d never been anything like what he did before. We call it traditional now because it was so right that it became imprinted on everybody. Nobody had a problem with it. Nobody was saying, like they have with Tony or even with me a little bit, but Tony a lot more, “That’s not how it’s supposed to go; that ain’t traditional.” Nobody said that when Earl Scruggs came around. They went, “Holy crap. What just happened?” It changed everybody’s perception about what a banjo was; it was incredible. The thing about him is he’s so rooted in tradition. Even a lot of the songs he worked on were from before he came along, although he added a lot of new stuff to the repertoire. Time makes something traditional. Now he’s traditional, but usually traditions are more than a hundred years old. We’re not even close to a hundred years from when he got well known in the ‘40s. That’ll be in another 30 years.
“Time makes something traditional.”
FJO: O.K. This begs the question even more, considering how deeply you revere Scruggs. If he was your hero, why didn’t you go to where he was instead of going to Boston?
BF: Well, Earl was really not around very much. He wasn’t out and seeable for a lot of the years when I was coming up. He was out with his sons, but I wasn’t as interested in that music. And I had become a Tony Trischka freak and a modern banjo freak, so I was interested in the people who had taken it to the next step. I wasn’t that interested in Earl after the initial thing. I got all into this new information that guys like Tony, Bill Keith, Bobby Thompson, and so many other wonderful banjo players brought new to the game—Eddie Adcock, Allen Munde, Ben Eldridge, so many people. It was such a rich field, full of people who, when you heard them start to play, you knew it was them. J.D. Crowe. Sonny Osborne. It goes on and on. At any rate, at this point, I was into modern. I wanted to do new things. I discovered in high school that if I played a Led Zeppelin song, people would go, “Yeah!” But if I played bluegrass, they’d start flapping their arms. And I didn’t like that. So I already had realized that there was something to this “new thing on the banjo” idea.
Anyway, Tony got an offer to join a band in Boston right after I got out of high school, and he couldn’t do it because he had roots in New York and wanted to stay. But he said, “I’ve got this student that’s really hot; you should hire him.” I had graduated in the spring and this was in December. What happened to me was actually so fortunate. My mother and my step-father had a child kind of unexpectedly as I became a senior in high school. The world had changed so suddenly and now this was their new focus and nobody paid any attention to me. So I didn’t apply to any colleges and nobody noticed. Now, if you can understand that my mother was a school teacher and my father was the chairman of guidance counselors of the Brooklyn school system, and then imagine that their son never applied to colleges, you see how bizarre this is. But I snuck under the wire and got to the end of school and then I was a free agent, which is exactly what I wanted to be. I wanted to go play the banjo, not go to college where nobody could teach me about the banjo. I didn’t want to go study theory. I wanted to play the banjo.
“I wanted to go play the banjo, not go to college where nobody could teach me about the banjo.”
When they realized I hadn’t applied to schools, they were kind of dismayed and we found out that you could take courses at Juilliard if you just paid for them. It’s called the Juilliard Extension School. So they put me in a class that I went to starting in the fall, while I played little gigs around the city and tried to figure out how I was going to do this thing. That’s when the call came to go to Boston and join a band up there. There was a professional band that went around New England, and one of the guys in the band was a guy named Stacy Phillips who used to play with Tony Trischka in a band called Breakfast Special. They were my heroes. So I was going to get to play with one of my favorite musicians if I moved to Boston and joined this band. Also, Berklee was up there. There was a huge jazz scene up there. I was excited about being part of that. It was a great college town. There was a music store called the Music Emporium. There were jam sessions. There were people playing traditional music of various kinds. There was square dance music up there. That scene was fun. So anyway, I moved to Boston, and I was there for three years or so. That was my first touring experience in a band that occasionally made it down south. I did a lot of New England touring, and I worked on my banjo playing in that band.
FJO: And you had already gotten the attention of Rounder Records, which was founded maybe just only a few years before that. And they put out a solo record of you already. That was crazy.
BF: Right, so that was part of the whole thing because the leader of the band was a guy named Jack Tottle. His girlfriend, Marian Leighton, was one of the three Rounder people. I ended up living right across the hall from Marian and Jack and being part of that Rounder scene. They were waiting for me to ripen. They wanted to do a record with me when I was ready. I think that was wise on their part, but I wasn’t smart enough to understand that. It was rankling that they hadn’t asked me. At a certain point, I went and made a demo and let them know I was going to be presenting it to all the labels. Then they immediately signed me before I could get away. I think it was a much better record than it would have been if I had done it right out of high school when I moved out there.
In 1979, a year after his recording debut with the Tasty Licks, Rounder released Béla Fleck’s first solo album, Crossing The Tracks, which 38 years later still sounds fresh.
FJO: Talk about having a long history, and we have a long way to go before we talk about the new recording of your second banjo concerto with the Colorado Symphony, but that album is also on Rounder.
BF: I went back to them in the last decade. I’ve been through all the majors. I was on Capitol with New Grass Revival, and I wanted to get away from Rounder when I started the Flecktones. I had made eight solo records on Rounder. Some of them did well and some of them didn’t, but I wanted to be on a jazz label. With the Flecktones, I didn’t want it to be a Rounder Record. I needed to break from that scene. So I went out. We had Flecktones records on Warner Brothers, and then we went to Sony. Then I was on MCA with Strength in Numbers. I started to have all those experiences. And then the music industry changed a lot.
Basically what would happen is I would get signed and then I’d have these advocates, and we would have a great year or two. Then they would be fired, or things would change, and I’d be stuck with several more albums that I owed and nobody at the label that gave a crap about what I did. That happened over and over again. Then, I was getting ready to do an album—I can’t remember which one it was, it might have been the Christmas record with the Flecktones—and I wanted to take a meeting with Rounder because I had seen something they had done well. I took a meeting and everybody was still there that had been there when I’d left twenty years ago. That struck me. And they were eager to have me back. They’d been proud of everything I’d been doing and they started doing stuff with me. They had much better results with some of those projects than I was having with the majors, so I’ve kept doing things with them. I do a record at a time. The first concerto record I did with Deutsche Grammophon—foolishly—because I wanted to get the banjo onto the major classical label of the world. But they didn’t do a good job. They didn’t do anything. So when I got the chance to make the second banjo concerto and I wanted to record it, I asked Rounder if they would do it, and they said they would. They’ve already done way better than Deutsche Grammophon did because they know how to reach my audience. There is no classical audience. Nobody’s buying classical records. This needs to be marketed to people that like my music and want to hear what I am doing with an orchestra. We’re not going to sell a lot to folks who are hardcore classical listeners. I wish we could, but I don’t know that that’s being realistic.
The first recording devoted exclusively to “classical” compositions by Béla Fleck was the 2012 Deutsche Grammophon release The Imposter, which features his first banjo concerto performed with the Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrerro as well as Night Flight Over Water, a quintet for banjo and string quartet performed with Brooklyn Rider.
FJO: A discussion of how music is marketed could eat up the rest of the day, but it actually makes me curious about how marketing and musical genre—which I believe is largely related to marketing—played out in another early band you were part of called Spectrum, whose records I’ve had for many years and still treasure.
BF: You’re kidding.
FJO: Especially Live in Japan. I love your performance of “Driving Nails in My Coffin.”
BF: That’s cool to hear. I never hear anybody talking about Spectrum. It’s kind of the forgotten band.
FJO: Which is a shame because those records are great. But what’s particularly fascinating is that while on the one hand it sounds very much like traditional bluegrass, a lot of the material wasn’t. You performed songs by Paul Simon and Paul Anka, as well as stuff by Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, so it was really open-ended.
The cover of Spectrum’s final album, Live in Japan, released in 1983, but unfortunately currently out of print.
BF: Yeah, it was freedom in the cage. The cage had gotten bigger and we were filling a hole in the bluegrass festival scene. That was the only place we could work. We didn’t seem to be druggy. We were clean cut, nice gentlemen, but we played progressive—considered progressive—music. We weren’t far out like New Grass Revival. Glenn Lawson and Jimmy Gaudreau had been playing in J.D. Crowe’s band, after his great band—The New South—with Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, and Jerry Douglas, that was so popular. Wisely, J.D. didn’t try to follow that incredible band. I’d say it’s on a level of Flatt and Scruggs in impact, but he didn’t try to copy it and do that band again. He got a whole different sound. And he got these guys and they went in a whole different direction. Anyway, I moved to Kentucky, because I had the opportunity to work with some guys that worked with J.D., and I really wanted to get some of that true bluegrass feel. Ironically, what I was trying to get from moving to Lexington was not what these guys wanted to do, but I still was going to get it.
“I knew I was a Yankee banjo player.”
What I moved to Kentucky for was to get around and to be part of the real traditional stuff. I knew I was a Yankee banjo player. I knew there was a stigma to that, and that there are some areas that Yankee banjo players don’t tend to be respected for the way the southern banjo players are. What we’re usually talking about here is tone, time, and taste. The three Ts. It all comes from J.D. Crowe, but originally from Earl Scruggs—certain periods where his right hand and his tone were just so glorious, creamy, and solid, metronomic but with soul, and everybody was aspiring to play like that. The northern players tended to have a lot of imagination. A lot of great innovations were coming from there, but not only from there—Bobby Thompson wasn’t from there. There were some great people like Bill Keith and Tony, but Tony was widely frowned upon by the bluegrass community as a whole. And I was very aware of that. I said, I don’t want to be like that. I want to be able to do everything. J.D. Crowe had these great bands in which the people were playing pretty progressive music, but he was playing just like Earl. Or in J.D. Crowe language, he was playing very traditional, and I thought there ought to be somebody who can play with those guys. I think there’s a hole in that scene for a banjo player who does a little bit more, but I wanted to be able to do it with the authority that J.D. did it with.
So after those three years with Tasty Licks, we broke up and I played on the street for a summer, in Harvard Square, which was a lot of fun. Then I got this chance to go to Kentucky. So I moved down there and just spent all my time watching J.D. Crowe when I wasn’t on tour. There was this Holiday Inn—Holiday Inn North it was called—on Newtown Pike, and they would put on a bluegrass band for three weeks, then they’d bring in another one from a different part of the country. The top people would come in and play this place. When they didn’t have Ralph Stanley or the Country Gentlemen or whoever, they would have J.D. Crowe because he was their in-town guy. So when I was there, anytime I wasn’t out of town playing, I was at the Holiday Inn sitting, listening, and watching him, trying to understand how he got that sound and how he had that feel which I did not have. I couldn’t do what he did, and he was a god to me. I never got to sit with him and he never explained it to me, but I was very focused on him.
At that time, I also made a lot of friends in the bluegrass community who talked to me about banjo set up, about how to get a great sound out of a banjo. There was a guy named Steve Cooley who was a great young banjo player and who, like me, was a big fan of Crowe. Then I started studying all these old Flatt and Scruggs live shows, which is the next inner circle. You get past the recordings everyone knows about and you start to get into these broadcasts and you get to hear how much greater he was than on the recordings. It’s so badass. All of a sudden that became really important to me, being able to play the banjo in a strong, traditional, powerful way, which I would say is a lot of southern influence. The things that are great about southern banjo playing sort of crept into my style at that point. And that’s the point when I got a call from Sam Bush and New Grass Revival to move to Nashville. Well, the band was originally in Kentucky, but we ended up moving to Nashville, and that was the next big change in my life after that.
FJO: So although you wanted to get immersed in the tradition, you wound up playing in super progressive groups. That first record you made with New Grass Revival, On the Boulevard, is full of chromatic stuff, and there’s even a Bob Marley tune on it. I’m not sure a bluegrass purist would even acknowledge this as bluegrass.
BF: No. They called it newgrass, and lot of bluegrass purists didn’t think newgrass was bluegrass. But the thing about New Grass Revival is that they were at a whole other level. They had been a fixture and a prime mover in the modernization of bluegrass. Sam Bush was beloved by everyone across the board, whether you liked traditional or modern. He was often called to play on traditional records, because he was simply the best mandolin player on the scene, especially in the south. A lot of people also loved David Grisman, but he was in California and he was doing his own music. But Sam—as a mandolin player and a fiddle player and a force—was one of the greats of the generation.
It was even clear to Bill Monroe, who showed his regard for Sam by treating him with incredible disrespect. He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t think Sam was a force to be reckoned with. He did the same thing to Earl Scruggs. You know what I’m saying? So Sam was the anointed one.
If Bill Monroe or Doc Watson wanted me to play with them, I wanted to make sure that I could play and they’d go, “Hey, he’s good at this stuff” and not judge me for being a modernist. I wanted to have that, but you can’t change your spots. I was gonna be a modernist and a guy from New York City, even if I tried to get rid of my accent around these guys and tried to get an old banjo. I think they respected me for trying, though, and for valuing what they did.
“I wanted to make sure that I could play and they’d go, ‘Hey, he’s good at this stuff’ and not judge me for being a modernist.”
Playing with Sam, I knew, was going to mean playing with one of the best musicians I had ever played with. Also, by joining that band and moving to Nashville, I would get to know a whole world of people I was really interested in—like Norman Blake and John Hartford, whom I was a huge fan of, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and all the people who were doing that. I would learn a lot about music that I didn’t know about yet. Things I hadn’t valued yet. Like blues and rock and gospel, things that those guys were really into—the Allman Brothers, all these things that I was not paying attention to because I was a New York jazzer at heart who loved bluegrass. That was also when I found the local great jazz guitar player, and I took lessons from him. I went to play casual gigs, trying to learn jazz. I was in the closet trying to continue my work on my scales at the same time. I was a busy little boy.
Béla Fleck’s 1984 LP Deviation, in which he is joined by the members of New Grass Revival, is miles away from newgrass but according to Fleck still isn’t quite jazz.
FJO: All these different kinds of music came together for you in a solo record you did with the other members of New Grass Revival as sidemen called Deviation. I think it’s a very apt title because it doesn’t sound like any of the other music you had recorded up to that point. Now things have gotten so blurry, to some extent as a result of what you and many of the musicians you’ve worked with were doing then. But at that time, the barriers between different musical genres were a lot less penetrable. You mentioned that Sam Bush could travel back and forth between bluegrass and newgrass, but what was the difference? What couldn’t you do in bluegrass, and what can’t you do in newgrass? When does newgrass stop being newgrass? I think most fans of newgrass would have thought that Deviation wasn’t newgrass. I’m inclined to call it a jazz record, but I’m sure there would have been jazz purists at the time who would have said it isn’t jazz either. Purism versus non-purism was a big issue back then, no matter what the genre was.
BF: Yeah, it was. I love Flatt and Scruggs. I love early bluegrass. Most of the modernists do. That music really reflects a time and a place and, now, a kind of looking backward. But at the time, it was still reflective of some people’s actual lives. They were singing about their lives, so it wasn’t some history thing. So if somebody loves hearing that kind of music—which I love as well—and that’s what they want to hear, I don’t fault them for it. It’s like somebody saying, “I want to listen to Louis Armstrong. ” Well, I like Louis Armstrong and I really like Charlie Parker. I don’t fault anybody for liking what they like, but your life gets richer the more things you decide you like. I’ve realized this because I’ve also been an elitist. I don’t listen to that, or I don’t listen to this, or whatever. That’s not good. I’ve realized that I only make my life poorer by deciding there’s something I’m not interested in, that I’m above this. But people do that. We all do that. The truth is you have the right to make those choices. You don’t have to listen to everything just because someone tells you to. This isn’t school. This is your life. You should listen to music that turns you on and makes you feel something and makes your life more complete.
“I don’t fault anybody for liking what they like, but your life gets richer the more things you decide you like.”
So, back to your actual question, I think newgrass expressed the truth for the people of that period. And newgrass is a dated thing, too. Newgrass is actually the music that was done after Flatt and Scruggs, not the music New Grass Revival did. Sam Bush was going to bring back some of the music that the people that followed the originals did, go back to the sound that Jim and Jessie and the Osborne Brothers and the Country Gentlemen had, and work from there. That’s why they called it New Grass Revival, which is interesting. A lot of people say, “Oh, that’s newgrass.” New Grass Revival is newgrass, but it became newgrass in people’s minds after a while because the name of the band was New Grass Revival.
FJO: Looking back at that time now, there definitely was stuff that was even more progressive than newgrass, like perhaps what the Dillards were doing or Frank Wakefield or, as you already mentioned earlier, Tony Trischka.
BF: Right. For a while, you wouldn’t really call what Tony did newgrass, but by current standards, we can go back and go, “All that stuff kind of fits neatly into this box.” That’s where people are stretching: dawg music—the stuff David Grisman was doing; what the Dillards were doing with drums; Herb Pederson; what New Grass Revival was doing; what Bill Keith was doing with Jim Rooney. Call it what you want. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. You either like it or you don’t.
FJO: Now in terms of calling something jazz, did you find acceptance from the jazz community when you began heading in that direction?
BF: Back then I was clawing my way in. I wanted to be in, and I wasn’t really up to the task yet. I tried to put together some groups to try to do that. I don’t think you could really call Deviation a jazz record. I guess you could probably call it a pop instrumental record with jazzy overtones, but pop with bluegrass instruments. I don’t know what to call it, but there’s not a lot of improvising, just a little bit. Everybody had little solos, but it wasn’t open. When I think about jazz, I tend to think that improvisation is the core—conversation from every angle: the bass player talking to the horn player, the drummer playing to the saxophone player. There’s a discussion going on and people are making decisions on the fly. To me, that’s a lot of what makes it jazz. But a lot of music is like that, not just jazz.
FJO: Bluegrass is like that sometimes, especially when groups play instrumental breakdowns.
BF: It can be, but there are more immovable things in bluegrass. The mandolin is generally going to play the offbeat and play certain chord shapes generally. They’re not going to play that different just because of what the banjo player does. The bass player’s not going to walk. He’s not going to have a lot of freedoms. He’s going to play within a certain set role. It’s not like he’s spontaneously deciding what the harmony’s going to be for the soloist from the bass. That’s not going to be going on in bluegrass. At least not so far. It tends to be that when people expand bluegrass, with the exception of dawg music, it’s pretty scripted. There’s a lot of planning. With Strength in Numbers or the Punch Brothers, it’s very scripted. In a way, it’s more like classical composition, mixing with pop and bluegrass. So it’s not often as free as it might feel like it is.
FJO: But with the Flecktones, you did introduce all those elements.
Béla Fleck (center) in performance with the Flecktones: Victor Wooten (far left, playing electric bass guitar), his Roy Wooten a.k.a. Future Man (far right, playing the Drumitar)
BF: Yeah, I think you could call Flecktones a jazz group, if you were willing to call all the different kinds of music throughout from Louis Armstrong up all jazz. Duke Ellington’s jazz. Charlie Parker’s jazz. Those are very different. Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew is jazz. Return to Forever is jazz. Mahavishnu is jazz. Is Shakti jazz? I don’t know. Maybe not. I don’t know. It’s very highly improvised, but is it jazz? It’s probably more like Indian music. We could be as different from jazz as Shakti was from jazz. But that’s the world we were trying to claw our way into. And we didn’t have such an easy time, especially at first, because it didn’t sound like it was necessarily jazz—a banjo player with a guy playing a drum machine guitar, a guy with a harmonica, and a funky bass player. It was very confusing to people exactly what we were. So for as much as we wanted to be embraced by the jazz world, it was very slow going. The jazz guys would go, “Oh, okay.” They weren’t going to fall all over themselves, but they didn’t hate us at all. The musicians all seemed to like us and think it was pretty cool. But luckily, regular people liked us. And we would get on TV, and a bunch of people would go, “Wow. That’s hip, whatever that is.” We managed to get quite an audience pretty quick—against all odds, honestly. So when people would say, “Béla sold out now.” I’d feel like, “I sold out?” You could not plan the Flecktones, and you could certainly not plan for them to be successful. There was one time people said, “They added vocals. Dave Matthews is on the record just to sell records.” If you heard the track, it’s in 17/8. And it didn’t sell any more than any other Flecktones records. It would have been nice if it did, but it didn’t work out that way.
“We would get on TV, and a bunch of people would go, ‘Wow. That’s hip, whatever that is.'”
FJO: One of the greatest things in the world would be to get people on the street humming in 17/8.
BF: That’s what’s always been exciting to the Flecktones—can we get people feeling an odd meter as if it’s not odd at all? Dave Brubeck did it wonderfully on “Take Five.” There’s a pop sensibility, too. We’re all kind of creatures of the pop world. The guys were into James Brown, and I was into the Beatles. Howard was into Bulgarian music. It was a lot of different things coming together in that band.
FJO: Now in terms of making contributions to different musical traditions, you mentioned Shakti, which was really about John McLaughlin immersing himself completely into classical Indian music and performing with some of the greatest Indian musicians, like L. Shankar and Zakir Hussain. So I have to bring up your own Tabula Rasa, which is probably one of my all-time favorite recordings of yours.
BF: Thank you. That’s another hidden one not too many people know about.
FJO: It’s such a fluid synthesis, not just between Indian music and bluegrass, as per the dedication on the album to Ravi Shankar and Earl Scruggs; traditional Chinese music is also at the core of this music. It really is a fluid trio between you, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Jie-Bing Chen.
BF: I didn’t do the dedication; that was from the record company guy named Kavi [Kavichandran] Alexander. He’s a cool guy and he has this wonderful recording technique. He records stereo in a beautiful church in Santa Barbara. He arranges the musicians in front of the mic until it’s in balance. He’s got a good ear for that, so maybe the mridangam player is back here and you’re over here because you’re louder, that whole weird thing that you have to do to record on one mic. But then the room fills up with sound and it all comes into that microphone and he records it to tape, and it sounds awesome. Part of the cement and connectivity has to do with that great recording approach and also the fact that you’ve got to sit there and play the music right in each other’s faces and really listen to each other since you’re super close to each other.
On Tabula Rasa, Béla Fleck, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Jie-Bing Chen seamless weave Appalachian, Karnatic and classical Chinese traditional music.
FJO: What’s so wonderful to me about that record is how it references three seemingly very different musical traditions in a way that’s faithful to all of them, yet it’s completely fluid. A word that we haven’t yet used in our conversation with each other today is fusion. In terms of what the word actually means, I think it’s very positive, but critics coined this term and many have used the term quite disparagingly.
BF: Because they got tired of rock drums with jazz and the way that the jazz players couldn’t have a conversation with the drummer. It just became very bombastic. They called it fusion, and they got tired of it. I understand why it happened. The original fusioneers’ music was actually very interactive and responsive and very jazzy. There’s a lot of great music that came out of that. Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever were really special for that time and they hold up really well, as well as a lot of eras of jazz held up. But what came after, when people started to imitate them—it just became a sea of sameness and less freedom and interactivity in the conversations that were happening in the music. And I think that to the people that love jazz, fusion became a bad word because they weren’t seeing the things that they loved in the music anymore.
FJO: Someone who was a key creative force in that music—in fact he was the founder of Return to Forever—is Chick Corea, but he’s also done tons of straight-ahead jazz and was also part of a free improvisational quartet with Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul. He’s even performed standard repertoire classical compositions and also composed his own works for chamber ensembles and orchestras. You’ve played some extraordinary duets with him in recent years, but you’ve been into his music for a very long time. You played his composition “Spain” on your very first solo album back in 1979, and it later became part of the repertoire of the Flecktones. So he seems to have been an important musical hero to you from the beginning.
BF: Oh my God, he still is. He’s a great example of somebody who not only is super talented, but is super good at being himself. He has the strength to be himself over and over again, whether it’s popular or not, because what he does is very wide-ranging and a lot of things he loves to do are not for everybody. When he likes to play his crazy atonal stuff, he can do it like nobody in the world. That’s not the easiest stuff to sell. But he also has put a high premium on communication. He’s learned that—and he knew this all along—there’s nothing wrong with playing beautiful music that people like, like the music he did with Gary Burton, or different periods in his life when he’s tried to do music that’s more consonant. He doesn’t see it as one being better or worse than the other. They are just a lot of different expressions for different times and different feelings. And he’s gone after a lot of different things. So I’ve always listened to everything he does. I’m always curious and I also find it very inspiring because of his tight rhythmic command of the piano. You could either accuse it of being too perfect or too rhythmically tight, or you could say, “Holy cow, nobody in the world plays like that!” You know it’s him from the first second, and it gets you if you’re a rhythmic-based person. It gets you in a way no other piano player can get you. He has always gotten me that way. So the banjo being a sharp-attack instrument, like his acoustic piano or his Fender Rhodes, I thought that’s more of a template for how I’d like to play the banjo. Not that I ever could or ever will. He also does a lot of short, stabby things that don’t use the whole piano. A lot of piano players have a hard time using just part of the piano; they’ve got to the use the whole thing. But you don’t have to use everything. You don’t have to use the whole orchestra. You can use just a violin for a while. Because of the limitations of the tuning, I couldn’t get the banjo to do a lot of the things the piano could do or a lot of instruments can do. He showed me that I didn’t have to do that; a lot of that came from listening to him.
“I was a stalker. I would go to his shows and go to sound check and try to sneak in or try to meet him after the show.”
When we finally met, that was incredible. I was a stalker. I would go to his shows and go to sound check and try to sneak in or try to meet him after the show. I gave him some bluegrass records I made. Then I ran into him at the Grammys and introduced myself again, and he had seen the “Sinister Minister” video when the Flecktones finally came up out of the ground. Anyway, one day I was playing at the Newport Jazz Festival and his agent came up to me and said, “Next year, Chick is thinking about doing these duets with three different people and he was wondering if you might consider. You’re on his list of possibilities.” And I said, “Count me in.” I just dropped everything, and we went and made this record and started touring together as a duo. This was a dream come true.
We’ve done a lot. He seemed to like me, and he’s given me a lot of rope to learn how to do the things that I’m not as good at. We do a lot of the same repertoire, so I’ve been able to get better at it, and I’m throwing new things at him now that he’s interested in. On the last tour, I taught him a really cool Bill Monroe tune, and he was really all over that. It’s turned into a really great relationship. We’ve been playing for seven or eight years now. Almost every year we get together and do a month or a couple of weeks. This year it’ll be the same. We’ll be going to Europe as a duo in July, and then in August, we’re going to put the Flecktones and his electric band together and do a couple of weeks of summer touring. So that’ll be a lot of fun.
FJO: It’s surprising how well the piano and banjo blend with each other. They don’t seem like instruments that would complement each other. The same is true for your collaborations with all these extraordinary musicians from Africa, like Oumou Sangare, although—as you pointed out earlier in our conversation—the banjo’s origins are in Africa. But to take it back there and actually work with musicians there is yet another re-contextualization. What is this music? Is it world music? Is it traditional music? To my ears, it sounds like something else entirely.
BF: Well, it’s more of a mash up than I usually like because I didn’t have the opportunity to work with them so that they would change as I was changing. It’s more of me trying to morph into their world. It’s like them doing their thing and then, oh, look there’s Elmo in the middle. I was trying my best to try to do that thing we talked about, where you try to make it feel like it’s supposed to be there, not like a mash up on the Grammys where B.B. King is playing with Metallica and they just do their thing at the same time.
For me, a great collaboration is when both parties are changed by the collaboration and they don’t just do their thing. They actually have to adjust to each other. But because of the speed of that project, where I was in four countries over the course of essentially four weeks and playing with different people every day, there wasn’t time for that breaking in thing. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened with some of those people if I could have played with them for two weeks before we recorded. I was trying to do so much. At a certain point, I realized I didn’t have enough time to learn each musical situation as much as I wanted to, so I could really fit in. Eventually I just had to be myself in the situation—me with my positive and negative attributes in the middle of their music, doing my best. In some cases, I could really study something and really actually learn some deep things about their music and be able to play that on the banjo. In other cases, I would play like a jazz musician and just play what came to me.
“A great collaboration is when both parties are changed by the collaboration and they don’t just do their thing.”
FJO: So-called classical music—the Western classical variety at least—is different from all the other kinds of music we’ve been talking about today. In all of these other traditions, whether it’s bluegrass, jazz, karnatic ragas, or the praise songs of Malian djeli, individual musicians come together and find their own musical voices as they navigate various pre-established practices. But with classical music, the blueprint for the actual music already exists in an idealized form on paper and it is then brought to life when musicians play it. In a piece of music for a classical chamber music ensemble or an orchestra, each musician is given a specific written part. These musicians are trained to be the best they can possibly be at interpreting what somebody else has already written and then making all those parts fit together. That’s very different from you coming and playing with them, and then you all grow and do other things in response to each other. That’s not what classical music is about.
BF: The way a classical musician can improvise is with feel and tempo. They can stretch things. They can take things at totally different tempos. They can play with the tone and with the intensity. They can play with dynamics. The dynamics don’t have to be written in stone. In fact, in a lot of Bach’s music, he doesn’t write any dynamics at all, which gives the musician a chance to play with it. But no, I get your point. I’m just being difficult.
FJO: We talked earlier about traditions and how they evolved in bluegrass and in jazz; traditions evolved in classical music, too. Bach’s scores have very minimal dynamic indication and there are no metronomic indications at all because the metronome hadn’t been invented yet. So there are these amorphous tempo indications that musicologists now fight over. What does andante mean? How fast or slow should it be? But once you get to Beethoven, you get the metronome. Then throughout the 19th century, the details grow more and more specific.
BF: Imagine how frustrated these guys were with hearing their music played poorly. Why don’t they know to play this section stronger? It’s obvious, but it’s not obvious. They can’t tell, so I’ve got to write in these marks, just trying desperately to have some control over the situation. A lot of times, the premieres were disasters and got reviewed as such. Then you find out some years later that this is one of the greatest musical pieces ever created. Nobody ever heard what the composer had in mind till a long time later. Yeah, it’s got to have been very hard on those guys.
FJO: Your first foray into classical music, Perpetual Motion, was as an interpreter, performing transcriptions of classical pieces. But before that you did Uncommon Ritual with Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall which, once again, is something else entirely yet it connects to classical music because it was embraced by classical music listeners even though it was an album of original compositions for instruments that aren’t necessarily part of the sound world of classical music. Perpetual Motion, however, consists of your own interpretations of classical music repertoire. But that’s different than writing classical music compositions that other musicians are playing, which is what you’ve been doing for the past five years.
BF: Right. So Edgar Meyer is my entrée into that world. I met Edgar when we were both very young, and he was in Aspen going to school there in the summers, in the string school that’s there. I was playing with New Grass Revival in one of my first years in that band. I heard there was this great bass player who played on the street, and I was like, “Oh, that’s cool. I used to play on the street in Boston.” So I went to see him that night and ended up getting out my banjo. We ended up having this jam and then going to someone’s house and playing late into the night. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Here’s a guy who’s a little younger than me who’s probably the greatest classical bass player who ever lived, but a lot more than that. He also has a great love and ability outside of that world, but has a lot of training as a classical player and is also a composer, although he’s insisted he was never actually trained as a composer. He just started writing. He’s been doing it the way he wants to, and he’s a genius composer.
So now I had a friend. When I got into bluegrass and first started listening to Flatt and Scruggs, it was a long time before I had a friend who was great at traditional music. It was a guy named Pat Enright, who joined Tasty Licks near the end. That’s when I really started being interested in traditional music again, when I heard somebody doing it great right next to me. Part of why I wanted to move down south and really understand that music was because of this Pat Enright character, who was such a great traditional singer that he gave me respect for the idiom. My stepfather is a wonderful guy and a good musician, but he’s not a charismatic young figure on the cello. He just loves to play classical music as a part of his life. But now with Edgar I had a young guy who’s my age, who’s dashing and exciting, and he plays the bass like no one’s ever played it before. And we’re peers, so I am not looking up at him like if he’d been Jascha Heifetz; he’s my pal. So that opened the door. “Hey, you want to learn some Bach?” I was like, “Okay!” And he would sit there and teach it to me one note at a time until I could play it. He had the patience to guide me through it. I would go see him do a recital with the piano and do some Scriabin and some Bach, and I would think, “Four hundred people sitting here listening to somebody play really beautiful, quiet music. I never get to do anything like that. For me to go play a recital with a piano player and learn some pieces like these, that would be neat.”
Then I watched him do his first orchestra piece, and it was brilliant. Then my other friend Mark O’Connor did one and I thought, “People like me are doing things like this. I should be thinking about doing this someday!” Though it wasn’t something I was excited to hurry into because I just didn’t feel very qualified. The door opened because there I was, in that orbit of Edgar. At a certain point we wrote a piece for banjo and string quartet that was commissioned by someone in the Nashville Arts Commission for the Blair String Quartet. That was the first writing I had done like that, and I saw how he did it. I saw how he thought and how he built. I provided ideas and melodies, and he would say, “That’s good; let’s work with that one. I can do a lot with that.” And he would just start doing stuff; he was the mastermind. Most people that are great classical composers are not good collaborators at composing. Edgar’s actually very good at trying to find a way to take a lot from the other person while still having the control of making it the kind of piece it should be to stand up in that world.
FJO: One of the most amazing things you composed together with Edgar and also with Zakir Hussain is a triple concerto that the three of you recorded with the Detroit Symphony. I’m curious to know how the three of you worked together on that.
BF: Edgar was open at the right times and he was closed at the right times. He took control when it was necessary. He let us contribute, but he knew the backbone of the piece needed to come from someone with an overview. So he was looking for the through story. Zakir was like, “I’ve got all these tablas. I can have different ones for different movements or different sections.” And Edgar said, “What if you have just one tabla in B and in the first movement we’ll play in F, and it will be the tritone, then we’ll move. The next one’ll be in A, and the B will be the second or the ninth, and then, when we’ve finally reached the third movement, we’re in B.” I don’t think that’s exactly the piece, but you get the idea. The creative tension and the resolution would be when we got to the last movement and we were really actually in B. That tone would be going through the whole piece. That was a good idea; it gave the piece a storyline. Anyway, first Edgar and I did a double concerto for the Nashville Symphony. Then they asked us to do a triple concerto when they built the new hall, because they wanted a piece to commemorate the opening.
“If the banjo was going to have any place in this world, there needed to be a banjo concerto.”
Then it was time for me to finally do my own. I had done a string quartet with Edgar. I had done a double concerto and done the triple, but there was still no banjo concerto. In a weird way, I thought the banjo concerto was the biggest missing piece in the repertoire. If the banjo was going to have any place in this world, there needed to be a banjo concerto. Until I started doing it, it didn’t seem like a hard thing to do because it’s so different from the orchestra. There are so many things you can show off that haven’t been heard in that context. But the trick is: Where’s the backbone? Where’s that brilliant Edgar mind to figure out how the whole thing’s going to go? That was where I struggled: not in coming up with ideas, but coming up with a big picture.
FJO: You wrote very extensive notes for the DG recording of your first banjo concerto, and in them you mentioned that you never felt particularly comfortable reading staff notation. You were really good at reading tablature, and so instead you composed with a banjo in hand then jotted down stuff in tablature. Thankfully, you could enter tablature into Sibelius, and it would convert it into notation.
BF: Sibelius changed my life. When I did Perpetual Motion, it was a much harder time to do a project like that. There were these transcriptions, and I had to get all the notes right. Somebody can play them all into MIDI, and you can have all the pitches and you can manipulate them if you want. Finale was the only program that was working at that time, and they had this goofy little tablature thing that didn’t take itself very seriously. The closest thing I could find was a four-string banjo tablature. I would copy all the notes and paste them onto that. There was no fifth string [in the tablature], so it would just put the notes anywhere on the neck it wanted to. They were the right notes, but I couldn’t manipulate them. Once they were on, they were on; I couldn’t change them. So I would print that out and then add an extra line and start whiting out them and moving them to the right string, to create fingerings that were possible. Before I learned each piece, I would go through this extensive process of getting the notes right and getting the fingerings right, because you don’t want to learn them before the fingerings are right. Banjo playing is all about playing things in the right place, because there are a lot of places to play the same thing. But if you play them in a wrong place, it’s not going to lead to the next phrase and you’re stuck. You can’t get to there from here. Everything has to lead properly, so it was a hell of a project. But then Sibelius came out and their tablature program was so great. If an E was a two on the second string, but I needed it to be at the 14th fret of the fourth string instead of down there, because the next note was going to be way up here, I could just pull it and the number would change, and it would go to the right number all of a sudden. It was a very effective tablature program, and it would have made Perpetual Motion so much easier to do and so much more fun. Now I have a way that I can really manipulate the tablature. If I write something complex, I can take that tablature and paste it onto a music staff and Howard Levy or Chick Corea can read it. I have a way to communicate with those guys, even though I can’t read their notation.
FJO: So when you were working out individual parts in the concerto like, say, a part for clarinet, did you originally write it out in banjo tab and then convert it back using Sibelius?
“Sibelius changed my life.”
BF: Not exactly. Writing the banjo concerto, with orchestra staves which have all the instruments, I had a variety of things I could do. One is just throw notes on there and move them around until I heard the pitch I wanted, and then change the value until I got the value I wanted, and then add the next note—do it one at a time like that. Or I could come up with a banjo idea, put it into tablature, and then orchestrate it slowly with that same procedure. Or I could get an idea in my head and try to put it in one note at a time on the clarinet—sing along, like I would if I was producing a record and someone came in to do a clarinet part, and we’re trying to come up with the part. I would just start singing until I found something that was missing from the music. They’d learn it and then they would embroider it. I could do that by myself. I could build the bass part, build the melody, then look for inner voices that were missing and sing them, then try to find them and put them in one note at a time. I did the orchestral writing more that way. Because if you put a note on a staff and pop it up until you find the note you want, it’s kind of like writing in the dark, writing by ear rather than by writing by knowledge. So that’s how both of those concertos were written.
FJO: What’s interesting though is they’re written and they’re fixed on the page. It’s not the same as humming a clarinet part to a studio musician who could learn it that way and then, as you say, embroider it. In classical music, the musicians expect to have the music that you want already worked out—down to tempo markings, dynamics, and articulations—so they can do right by you.
BF: Yeah, you’ve got to give them everything. But you don’t start out with that. You start out with: where’s the heart of this thing? Where’s the beat coming from? Then gradually, as you get closer to the end point when you have to deliver it, you start to fill in all the dynamics. Now you know what they all are because you realize as you’re going along that you actually know everything you want. But you don’t know that when you’re first writing. I do it as a constantly evolving process. I keep on adding to it.
FJO: So how flexible are you then with it?
BF: You mean once I get to the orchestra?
FJO: Since you come to other music with an improvising player’s sensibility, I wonder how open you are to musicians reshaping your original intentions.
BF: When I work with Brooklyn Rider, who are also on the new Juno record, it’s so much more of a flexible situation where we could talk about every measure. Everybody’s going to have an opinion about every single phrase, about how they should bow it, about whether we should pull it back rhythmically. You can’t have that dialogue with 90 people on an orchestra stage. But you have the illusion of that kind of dialogue with the conductor where he says, “Maestro, it’s your music. Just tell me what you want.” And I go, “No, you’re the conductor. If you have a strong feeling, please let me know.” But in the end, it’s really going to come down to us doing it as close to what I envisioned as possible, and he’s going to be a sweetheart about it, and he’s going to try to get it there. I’m going to be flexible if it’s tough and there are things that we can’t quite get. I’m going to be cautious and not overstep my bounds as a visiting artist with the symphony. It’s this dance. It all has to happen very fast. You get one rehearsal and then a dress rehearsal the next day. It’s hard music. So there has to be a structure and free will is not really an option. Sadly.
I’m going to be flexible if it’s tough and there are things that we can’t quite get.
FJO: You wished you had more time to work with the musicians when you were travelling around Africa, rather than only a week, but with an orchestra you’ve got just two hours.
BF: Right. That’s why everything has to be set. It really is two hours. We’ve got a two-and-half-hour rehearsal. You only get the first hour because they have to practice the Copland for the second. And the next morning, we get to do a run through, a dress rehearsal. We play it down and we fix a few things, and then that’s it. Luckily I’ve got my part down. I know how valuable that rehearsal time is and when I show up in front of an orchestra, I need to convince them this is worth them caring about somehow. So I play every rehearsal as if it’s the final performance. I try to play my parts as convincingly as I do at the concert because I want them to go, “Oh, this is actually pretty good. I’d better sound as good as the soloist.” I want the band to sound as good as the soloist. A lot of times they’ve got 150 services that year. They’ve got to have a reason to care about each one. Everyone wants to do a good job, but it’s just coming at them day after day after day. You’re going to be gone in two days. It’s just like being a session player. You want the session player to care about your song. You want passion.
FJO: You called your first concerto TheImposter, which can mean many different things depending on how you interpret it. It could be about feeling like you’re somehow not a “real” composer because you’d never written such a thing before.
FJO: But now you’ve written two of these things, so you’re definitely not inexperienced at this anymore. The second one had to have been easier to write than the first one.
BF: I wasn’t as frightened while I was writing it.
FJO: And in your description about this second concerto, you described how writing music has become an activity that you can do at all hours, really late at night or early in the morning when your wife and three-year-old son are both asleep. You treasure having this alone time to write this music, but this is completely different than how you’ve been creating music your whole life—making music with other people and getting ideas from being in that zone.
BF: It’s really different. I’ve also had to learn that if you’ve only got a half an hour, or 45 minutes, you can’t go, “Well, that’s not enough time to get something done.” It’s kind of like being healthy. I need to learn these things, too. I’ve only got 15 minutes; that’s not enough time to work out. Well, it is. You can go do some pushups. You can go walk around the block. So I say, “Okay, I’ve got 15 minutes, maybe I can just work on that counterpoint in movement three.” I can work on that because I know I haven’t got that piccolo thing working right with the bassoon, or whatever thing that I’m working on. I’ve learned that you can accomplish a lot of little things. You should never look at a small amount of time as a reason not to work. Just put on the headphones. Go listen and do some work on something you’re not satisfied with. At some point, you’ll have to put in enough work to have something worth working on. Tweaking is just a piece of it. You have to have inspiration. You have to have melodies you love enough and materials that you think are meaningful enough to develop.
“You should never look at a small amount of time as a reason not to work.”
The great thing has been that I don’t have to travel away from my family very much. If I go do actual performances, it’s going to be three or four days. It’s not like I’m joining a band and going around the world to promote a new record. Orchestra dates are not constant. They’re occasional, and the writing is a way for me to continue to explore and be the kind of musician that I want to be in the context of this new life where my wife and I are playing a more folk-based kind of music as the center of what I’m doing with my life, so that in this period where my son is young, we can all be together. We travel together as a family. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still need to do complicated music.
FJO: So now that you realize you don’t have to tour around the world and that you can write music from your home, the next step is for you write pieces that you’re not playing in.
BF: I haven’t gotten to that point yet. I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t quite crossed over to that. Edgar finally did his first one, just a few weeks ago. He wrote a piece for the Nashville Symphony, his first symphony, and he’s not playing on it. I have to talk to him about how that felt. I’m not sure that anyone would be that interested in it if I wasn’t playing, but we’ll see what happens. Maybe someone will ask me to do something like that one day.
FJO: I’m totally interested. I want to hear a wind quintet by you, especially after hearing about your attempts with a French horn in high school. You could get some other French horn player to finally play that F!
BF: Yes. You get the F, man. I’m not getting the F. I’ll get the G. The banjo’s tuned to G. But it’s exciting to put the banjo in front of an orchestra. It’s a classy situation. It presents the banjo in a way that has been very rare, and I’ve been able to do it a lot now. And it broadens the reach. My audience, a lot of them might not go to a classical show; some of them would, but a lot of them might not. But because they like what I do, they will come and see an orchestra and have this different experience. They want to see what that’s like. Then there’s the audience that only goes to classical shows, which is a lot of people in our country. They bought the series tickets in this town or that town, and they come to all the shows, ten shows a year, whatever, and that’s their musical life. Now here I am stuck in the middle of that, and then they see that. Between those two audiences, it’s usually a pretty good audience. A lot of times the orchestras tell me that it was a really solid turnout for what they do, or better than normal. So it makes me feel good.
FJO: How would you feel about another banjo player playing one of your concertos and you sitting in the audience?
BF: That’s fine. I’m hopeful that that will happen one day. There are certainly four or five now that could do them probably better than me in terms of ability—like Noam Pikelny or Ryan Cavanaugh. They wouldn’t conceptualize things or write things the way I can, but they can play the things and they have their own music that they’re obviously great at. There was a long time when I was the only person who could play this stuff, but I think that’s changed and I’m excited for that. And that’s part of why I want to create a lot of repertoire for the banjo in the classical world, so that banjo players have something they can do. There was no repertoire. Playing transcriptions is really a losing game because a piece that’s written for the piano, by the time you reduce it to fit on the banjo, it’s just not what it was made for. But if you can write some new music that is made for what the banjo does well, then it can win. It’s not trying to be a violin. You can learn a lot from learning music for other instruments, but in the end you’ve got to be yourself. Classical music for the banjo should be written around what the banjo does great, just like Chopin is written around what the piano does great.
“Classical music for the banjo should be written around what the banjo does great.”
FJO: The banjo has been so central to your life that you’ve even married another banjo player, Abigail Washburn, who is also an extraordinary musician and now—which you’ve already mentioned—you play music together. I’m curious if living with someone else who is also a formidable force on the instrument has changed your musical aesthetics in any way and vice versa. Are you influenced by what she’s done? And she by you? How has that played out?
BF: I think we both helped each other be better musicians, and she’s certainly helped me to be a better person. And the process of having a child has taught me a lot about putting things into perspective. What’s important is not always the same at every given moment. Music doesn’t always win. But sometimes it makes you a better person to realize that, and then it makes you a better musician—the things that you care about writing and the way you approach it. And she’s taught me. She plays in a different style from me, what we call clawhammer; I play three-finger. They’ve almost never historically played together. So what we’ve got within our household is an opportunity to create something that’s never been before, which is a musical form based around these two banjo styles interacting. And luckily she’s a fabulous singer and a very good songwriter. What she does great is she creates bedrock parts to build the songs around, which means I can be free-wheeling on top, being a soloist, or I can be the bass player. Or she can be the bass player and I can do the other parts. There are a lot of different ways to arrange those two banjos. She also gives me a chance to play some beautiful music in a different style than I’ve gotten to do in a long time and to work with a vocalist, which I haven’t gotten to do really since New Grass Revival days in a regular way.
“I think that instrumental music is great for the brain, but it doesn’t mean I don’t love great vocals.”
I love working with vocalists. It’s not that I’m anti-vocal. I love the banjo being the center, too, and not having to have a vocal for the music to be complete. I think that instrumental music is great for the brain, but it doesn’t mean I don’t love great vocals. She has a purity and a warmth and a truth-ness to her singing that moves me, and I get excited about working with it and creating musical structures around it and improvising around it, too. So that’s really good. And I teach her, because her style and the way she’s learned it, she was never ambitious to become a hotshot banjo player. In that world of banjo, that’s not really what it’s about anyway. Old time playing is more about groove and rhythm. But I’ve helped her to add things to her toolkit to make the songs better and voicelead a little bit when we’re creating a song. I’ll say, “Well, that part’s great. Just add this note. That’s going to give you the flat sixth, and it’ll be really cool as a passing chord on the way to this.” Then suddenly we have a voiceleading in her part that gives me the opportunity to do something else on top. You know, those kinds of things. But I try to point her towards things that are super natural—not supernatural—for her style. And she seems to enjoy just getting pushed out of a corner. She’s used to doing this. What if you have to restart after five notes? It’s the same pattern you always do, but you’ve got to restart it. That suddenly gives us a new kind of groove to play with. I throw ideas at her, and she throws ideas at me.
FJO: You named your son Juno, but as far as I know there are no significant 20th-century composers named Juno.
BF: Right. Some writers.
FJO: So is Juno going to be playing the banjo?
BF: He plays a little ukulele banjo now, strumming. And he loves to buck dance. He sees momma dance on stage with me and so he copies that. It’s really fun to watch him do that. He loves to play golf. That seems to be his biggest passion so far. Neither of us are golfers. It’s just one of those fluky things. He saw it on TV when he was with his grandfather, because we don’t watch TV with him right now very much at all. We don’t want to get that going. But once he saw that, all of a sudden, he wanted to golf, and so he’s been pretty serious about that for the last couple of years.
FJO: Beware of watching TV because watching the Beverly Hillbillies on TV is what set you on your way.
BF: That’s right. It was a very special thing that they let us watch TV for that hour in my grandparents’ bedroom when I was four or five. It was an unusual thing. We weren’t afraid of TV back then. This would have been like ’62 or ’63. Now we know we should be afraid of it.
Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn’s son Juno graces the cover of Fleck’s latest recording Juno Concerto, released by Rounder Records on March 3, 2017, which features his second banjo concerto performed with the Colorado Symphony conducted by Jose Luis Gomez as well as quintets for banjo and string quartet performed with Brooklyn Rider.
Putting together a career as a working musician has never been easy, but one of the mantras for making it possible in the 21st century is: you must multitask. Most musicians multitask out of necessity, but for others it’s actually the source of their inspiration. And then there’s someone like Martha Mooke, who is engaged in so many different types of musical activities on a regular basis that it’s difficult for anyone else to keep track of them all. In any given week, she could be performing a solo concert on her electric five-string viola, playing in the viola section of a symphony orchestra or a Broadway pit orchestra, touring with a famous rock musician or with one of her own improvisational groups, and/or giving educational clinics to young string players on how to find their musical voice.
“I’ve had to come to terms with my different personalities,” Mooke acknowledges when we caught up with her in between gigs at the New York offices of ASCAP. ASCAP was actually a fitting place for us to talk, since it was through her ASCAP-produced Thru The Walls, a series of concerts that focused on composer-performers who worked in a variety of musical genres, that she first met David Bowie which ultimately led to her performing and recording with him and then a whole host of other luminaries.
“I wanted to have that juxtaposition of music worlds … all types of influences: jazz, electronics, rock, all kinds of things,” Mooke remembers. “I spoke with Tony [Visconti], who had a very broad background and broad interests. What could be better than having a renowned, legendary rock and roll producer introducing a new music concert? … Tony was living up in Rockland County at that time. I’d gone over to Tony’s house … and as I was leaving, he said, ‘By the way, I mentioned to my friend David this event tonight, and he said, he might come.’ And I’m like, ‘Right; sure.’ But sure enough, two minutes before the lights go down, in walks David Bowie.”
Within a year, the string quartet she put together to perform with Bowie appeared with him on the stage of Carnegie Hall for the annual Tibet House benefit and also in the recording studio for his 2002 album Heathen. She described similar chains of circumstances that led to her appearing on tour around the United States and Europe with Barbra Streisand in 2006 and 2007, her extensive educational work under the auspices of Yamaha (which is still ongoing), and one of her more recent obsessions—writing for symphonic wind band.
“I think it began almost as a joke, in a way,” she recalls. “I had never thought about writing for concert band. I had really, at that point, never written for an ensemble larger than a string quartet or a chamber ensemble. Then finally we said, ‘Let’s just do it.’ So I came up with the concept of X-ING … It’s the crossing of the worlds between electric viola and concert band. What happens when you cross those worlds? One of the things that happens is you don’t have to tell the band to play quieter because a string instrument is soloing. I just crank my volume; I go to 11.”
But no matter what musical activity she is involved in, she always views it as an opportunity not just to break through walls, but to open doors or to look out through a window in a new way. It’s a crucial life lesson that she taught herself very early on and one that she hopes to impart to others.
“I never accepted limitations and boundaries no matter what I was doing, whether it was because I was female or because whatever. If I liked doing something and had an interest in it, I just did it. I found opportunities. If the opportunities don’t exist, I make them. … I’m about overcoming those barriers and breaking through that inhibition factor, which seems to get more built into students as they go through school. … Unlimited possibilities. I would say you never know what you’ve been missing until you know what you’ve been missing.”
Martha Mooke in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the NYC offices of ASCAP
February 14, 2017—1:00 p.m.
Video presentations by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: I’m going to begin in a very unlikely place; I’m going to compare you to Gunther Schuller.
Martha Mooke: Wow. I’m actually honored.
FJO: Well, one of the pieces of trivia regarding Gunther Schuller is that he was the only person who performed with both Toscanini and Miles Davis. Plus the instrument he played was the French horn, which is not an instrument that you normally think of as being able to genre hop. That’s also true for your instrument, the viola. And yet, you’ve performed with David Bowie. You’ve worked with Osvaldo Golijov, Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, Alvin Singleton, and Barbra Streisand—so many people most people would never think of in the same sentence.
MM: Right. Actually it’s interesting that you mention Gunther Schuller because I’ve been doing a lot of research for this new piece that I’m writing for Symphony Space called Beats per Revolution. It’s for electric viola, beat boxer, and chamber ensemble. All the musicians in the ensemble will be improvising, so one of the people I’ve been studying is Charles Mingus. I actually purchased his score of Epitaph, which is a two-and-a-half-hour monster piece. Gunther Schuller helped to finish that and he conducted it, so it’s kind of cool that you started out with that. I’ve been immersed in Mingus and Gunther Schuller for the last few weeks.
FJO: The other thing about Schuller is that in the ‘50s he codified this notion of there being a Third Stream—there was classical music, there was jazz, and then there was this third thing that emerged from connecting the other two. But for you, it’s not three; it’s not even four or five. You’ve gone beyond streams; you’re in an ocean of music!
MM: I’m calling one of the segments of Beats per Revolution “Third Stream of Consciousness,” and that will be a little homage to that genre. But I love instruments that you don’t think of as being in the forefront, improvising or playing in non-traditional ways, like a bassoon playing jazz. Or a French horn. It’s a wonderful opportunity to open things up from the inside.
FJO: Interesting that you say open things up from the inside, because the horn and the viola are both essentially mid-range instruments. We won’t get into viola jokes.
MM: We can laugh at them; we’ve overcome that.
FJO: But the thing about the viola is that most people don’t know what it is. If they see it, they’ll probably think that it’s a violin that’s a little too big. Most people would probably just say it’s a violin, if they know the word violin. On top of that, the viola is the only instrument that plays music written in this oddball clef that no one else can read.
MM: It’s the only clef that really makes sense because middle C is actually on the middle line in alto clef.
FJO: It really is in the middle, yet it’s a total outsider in a way.
“I love instruments that you don’t think of as being in the forefront, improvising or playing in non-traditional ways.”
MM: Right. I think whatever instrument you’re playing needs to resonate with your soul. I started on the viola because in my public school class, when I was in fifth grade, the music teacher came in and said, “We have violins, violas, cellos, and basses; who wants to play violin?” And pretty much everybody raised their hand. Nobody knew what a viola was. A few people knew what a cello was. I always go the route of most resistance, so I picked the viola. I worked with it and it resonated with me to the point where the music teacher wanted me to switch to violin because I was actually progressing a little more rapidly than the violin players were. So I took one home one weekend, but I brought it back because it didn’t resonate under my ear; it didn’t do anything to my soul. I’ve overcome that now, by adding the fifth string, but that’s how I began as a violist.
FJO: I’m sure the reason why most students gravitate to the violin is that they are hoping to become soloists. A viola soloist is rare, but at that point you were just playing viola in your school’s string orchestra.
MM: Yes. The middle school teacher came to the elementary school and started the program to feed us into the middle school. Then that fed into the high school. They were all public New York City schools.
FJO: Wow, you’re a poster child for public school education and for music education programs in the school system.
FJO: This is something that we don’t quite have to the same extent anymore.
MM: There are a few programs still around, but it’s definitely not on the same level as it was in those days.
FJO: It’s fascinating to me that playing the viola resonated with you so much that when the teacher asked you to switch to the violin, you tried the instrument and it didn’t speak to you. At what point did you think to yourself that playing this instrument was what you want to do for the rest of your life?
MM: I just kept doing it. I was studying other things in school, but there was just something about music and playing the viola at Tottenville High School in Staten Island. I was a member of the string quartet and in the orchestra I got to play Bach’s Sixth Brandenburg with my sister, who at that time also played viola with the orchestra. They also had music theory in this high school, so I just kept going because I was proficient and I loved it. So I was exploring and I was learning, taking private lessons and playing with community orchestras.
FJO: The Sixth Brandenburg has no violins and so the violas are really carrying the melodies, which is pretty rare in the repertoire.
From very early in Martha Mooke’s career.
FJO: The interesting thing about identifying with the viola and it being your instrument is that it really didn’t function so much as a foreground instrument until the mid-20th century. I doubt that either the school or the community orchestra you were involved with was performing the Bartók Viola Concerto.
MM: No. But I never accepted limitations and boundaries no matter what I was doing, whether it was because I was female or because whatever. If I liked doing something and had an interest in it, I just did it. I found opportunities. If the opportunities don’t exist, I make them. It never occurred to me that viola could not be a solo instrument. Then somebody gave me an album of Jean-Luc Ponty in my last year of high school, I think. That opened up all kinds of new worlds for me, and I started delving into non-traditional string playing.
FJO: Had you written any of your own music by that point? Had you improvised? Or were you just playing other people’s music?
“If the opportunities don’t exist, I make them.”
MM: I used to write songs with a guitar. I wrote a lot of singer-songwriter songs, and then I stopped because I felt like I got a little bit stuck. I loved to sing. My sister and I would sing together, but I didn’t see that that was going to be my career path. I wanted to do something a little more than write songs. After listening and exploring the world of Jean-Luc Ponty, I went and explored any jazz violinist I could find because I don’t think there were that many jazz or electric violists at that time. I hadn’t yet encountered The Velvet Underground with John Cale, but Turtle Island String Quartet was also popular back in those early days. So I went out and bought all the albums that I could, closed the shades and closed the doors, put on music and just started playing with it, improvising to it. When I went away to college, I did that as well.
FJO: Cale’s stint in The Velvet Underground pre-dates the Turtle Island String Quartet, but that probably wouldn’t have been something anyone would have exposed you to by the time you were in high school.
MM: No, not at that point. In fact, I didn’t discover them until the day I got a call to go on tour with John Cale.
MM: Then a whole other world opened up. I ended up recording and doing a bunch of tours with John Cale and the Soldier String Quartet.
FJO: Without having heard The Velvet Underground?
MM: Yeah, I didn’t really know about that world.
FJO: Even though you grew up in New York City, your family probably didn’t listen to that music. Were they interested in classical music? What did your family listen to?
MM: Neither of my parents were into music. My father loved Gilbert and Sullivan, so we listened a lot to The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance. And we watched the Boston Pops. That was my classical music. That’s how I got to love Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring and started tuning into that world. But I just gravitated towards music and my parents always supported me in that and paid for lessons.
FJO: So there was no rock and roll in the household?
MM: Not really. There was more traditional stuff like Peter, Paul and Mary.
FJO: And I suppose even for people who were fans of harder rock, The Velvet Underground wouldn’t have been the mainstream.
MM: Well, don’t forget, I also grew up in Staten Island. At that point, to get to the city you almost needed a passport! And when you’re not driving, it’s that much harder. It takes two hours to get to the city from Staten Island, so there’s a big a culture gap in many ways.
FJO: But hearing Jean-Luc Ponty opened your world up. Not just to improvisation but also to amplification and electronics.
MM: The album that changed my world was called A Taste for Passion. On the cover, Jean-Luc Ponty is cradling a beautiful blue five-string Barcus-Berry violin. Within a year or so I convinced my parents to take me to Manny’s on 48th Street, and I went in and I bought a Barcus-Berry, the same color five-string. It was my first electric instrument. I still have it in my instrument closet.
FJO: So what’s the difference between a five-string violin and a five-string viola?
MM: The range is the same, but on the viola you’ll have a longer fingerboard, which is pretty much the difference. You don’t need to have a bigger body because you’re amplifying it, although the size of the body and the material of the body of an electric instrument does impact the sound. But that instrument was an electric violin. I couldn’t find any violas. But it was five-string, which meant I could have the range of the violin and viola. So I started exploring. I bought an old delay [unit] called an Effectron. It was digital and analog. You had to push the buttons and you could only do one effect at a time. But I made my very first demo tape with that. I didn’t have a recording studio or anything, and I wanted to apply for a residency at Harvestworks. So I took headphones, plugged them into the headphone jack, put them on the floor, put the microphone to my tape recorder, put towels on the bottom and on the top, and that’s how I made my demo record. They accepted it, and I got the residency. And because of that, I started recording my very first CD, Enharmonic Vision.
Marftha Mooke in performance on an electric five-string viola.
FJO: Now before we make that jump, we’ve already made another jump, because at this point you’re creating your own music. You went from playing viola in orchestras and performing classical music with lots of other people, to hearing Jean-Luc Ponty and wanting to improvise on an electric five-string. You’d written songs on a guitar and you sang, but when did you get the idea that you could make your own music for this instrument, and when did you decide to create music specifically for you to perform by yourself?
MM: I just started to explore the world of improvisation in combination with the electronics. I never studied formally. I didn’t study jazz. I didn’t study composition. I was self-schooled in a way. I discovered it on my own, so there was no wrong way. I asked a lot of people what amplifier and what effects to get, but every person I asked had something totally different to say. So I ended up doing just lots of trial and error, experimentation with sounds. I discovered digital delay and that became a looping device; it was like an infinite echo. They couldn’t start and stop at any time, just four seconds or eight seconds. But that’s where I started exploring. Then I went to my first AES convention—Audio Engineering Society. I walked in and there was a guitar player there with this looping device called the JamMan made by Lexicon. I stood in front of this guy, and it was this big thing—eight seconds of delay that you could start and stop and so have control over. So as soon as it became available on the market, I bought it and started working with it. I was able to expand that to 32 seconds and, adding more electronics and just experimenting and building sounds, I started—through improvisation—creating works.
FJO: There had been many people messing with delay units independently of one another by that time; it’s been part of the zeitgeist since the late ‘60s when Terry Riley experimented with his time lag accumulator and when Robert Fripp and Brian Eno had done concerts together in the early ‘70s. In fact, this was well after Fripp had started doing his solo Frippertronics, which was also a way of being an orchestra of one by controlling various effects units. You hadn’t heard any of that stuff yet?
FJO: Well, all of that was improvisation-based music. No one was “writing” music involving delay units, at least not that anyone was aware of at the time.
MM: There was no repertoire, so again, just out of necessity, I started creating repertoire. Then, having a lot of composer friends, I started asking composers to write for me.
FJO: The initial impulse came more from wanting to perform than out of wanting to compose?
I wasn’t calling myself a composer. I wasn’t calling myself anything. I was a player. I was a violist.
MM: I wasn’t calling myself a composer. I wasn’t calling myself anything. I was a player. I was a violist. Looking back on it now, I think I was just tapping into a way of expressing myself that I didn’t know I was able to do. I was finding this voice within me. The electric viola’s unlimited possibilities, the colors and the textures, were allowing me to really explore different worlds. What was interesting was whenever I would find a new piece of equipment, I would always find the limitations of it right away. So I would have to overcome that somehow.
FJO: Like being restricted to looping either a four- or eight-second phrase.
MM: Exactly. I just developed ways of working around it. Creating just kept going in that direction, because I had accessed something that I needed to get out—my inner voice.
FJO: And instead of avoiding the limitations of what you could do alone with this equipment by creating music to play with other people, you found workarounds so you could still do it yourself.
MM: I think that was part of the exploration of my voice as a creative entity. I was just exploring by trial and error, listening to Jean-Luc Ponty, discovering Laurie Anderson, then Kronos Quartet big time, and following the Turtle Island String Quartet.
FJO: Your first record came out in 1998. I remember the first time I heard you perform. It was a year later at the Henry Street Settlement. You were doing Vertical Corridors, which is still active in your repertoire and which you’ve since expanded and done other things with. I was so intrigued by what I heard you do that I immediately bought your CD there from someone who was selling stuff at a table.
MM: Oh cool.
FJO: But I was so bummed because the piece that I heard wasn’t on the CD.
MM: Right. It’s just come out this past year. It’s on No Ordinary Window.
FJO: But it’s a different version than what I heard.
MM: Well, every time I play it, it’s different.
FJO: Anyway, the thing that struck me about that performance, even though you started creating so that you’d have music to play on your instrument, was that it made me forget the instrument. You were making music in real time, but because there were all these other effects, it didn’t sound like one person playing a viola. Instead it was an immersive and all-encompassing sound world that sounded like a large group of people. It could probably have been triggered from any instrument, so in a way it didn’t matter what the instrument was. I felt the same way when I heard the pieces on that CD. The music was so harmonically—as well as contrapuntally—rich.
Martha Mooke’s debut CD Enharmonic Vision
MM: When I’m writing for myself, it really starts out as a lot of experimentation, looking for different sounds and finding a recipe for a combination of sounds. When you’re working with different electronic devices, you pluck one note and it could trigger a whole episode of beautiful harmonies or delays or a really interesting rhythm. So when I find something and get that “Aha!” moment, then I start exploring that. A lot of my music I’ll notate after the fact, and I have to go in and figure out what it was that I did. Sometimes it’s complicated to notate because, if it’s based on some harmonization or multi-effects processor, there are a lot of elements involved. With No Ordinary Window, I created a score and I did snapshots of the parameters that I use as far as reverb and delay and things like that. So if somebody wants to perform the work other than me, they can do that with any other piece of equipment.
MM: Yeah, but there’s a certain sound when I play—everything is my instrument. It’s all an extension of me as a player—the instrument going into the electronics and into the speakers or whatever system it is. It’s all me as an instrument.
FJO: But at the point when you were creating the pieces that are included on Enharmonic Vision, they weren’t all necessarily written down. I imagine that they were all amalgams of pre-conceived ideas, improvisation, and studio experimentation. You probably weren’t thinking of other people playing them.
MM: Not at that point. It was just something I was compelled to do. Again because there weren’t that many people doing it at that time. Then it was at around that time that I installed a pickup on my acoustic viola that I play in orchestras. I would show up to an orchestra rehearsal and people would look at the pickup on my bridge and think right away that I play jazz. That wasn’t part of the mainstream, so it sort of perked a little bit of interest at that time.
FJO: A lot of violin and viola repair people are horrified by the notion of putting a pickup on a classical music instrument, that doing so is somehow tainting it.
MM: I found very friendly luthiers that welcomed that, actually. They loved the fact that I had a pickup on my bridge, and they could fix it if it needed to be fixed. There’s one actually around the corner from here, Mathias Lehner. I bring my acoustic viola to him, and I bring my electric. If something happens to one of my Yamahas, I bring it to him and he can put the tailpiece on, which is all connected to the electronics. It’s a whole other world for them, and the ones that welcome that have that much more business, I guess!
FJO: Before we leave Enharmonic Vision, the CD booklet has all these wonderful quotes from other people, but it doesn’t have quotes from you. So I want to ask you about certain aspects of those pieces. There are so many different kinds of music on there. Raindance sort of sounds like bluegrass to me, a little bit. It comes out of that whole double-stop fiddling sound world. Winds of Arden sounds like ambient soundscape-y kind of stuff. And then Bones is filled with all these pizzicatos and extended techniques; it’s pretty avant-garde sounding. They’re all different, but you don’t seem to think of them that way, and it’s all a seamless and cohesive whole.
MM: Because it’s me. I guess this is both a plus and the bane of my existence. When I released Enharmonic Vision, I did so as a solo entity. I was the artist, the composer, the publisher, the record label. Very naïve. I took a few copies with me down to Tower Records in the Village. I went up to the classical section, because that’s where the Kronos Quartet and Philip Glass were. I met the manager and I said, “I have this CD. Would you listen to it? Could you sell it here?” He listened to it and he said, “Okay, I’ll take five copies on consignment.” So I signed five copies over to him. He called me within the week and said, “We sold out; bring five more.” He had liked it so much that he put it in the listening station between Kronos and Philip Glass, so people who would not have known to look under the filing of Martha Mooke saw me there. They listened to it, and they bought it. It was kind of neat. I still have a few copies with the Tower Records price tag.
FJO: But it’s interesting that you took your CD to the classical section. Listening to that album and even looking at the cover, I wouldn’t necessarily think it was something for the classical section.
MM: Yeah. I guess that as a violist, I came out of the classical world. That was the thing with Tower; you had to fit into one of those slots. Somewhere I guess it would have been great to be in different rooms, different slots, but that’s how it worked out. So that’s where I first started selling my CDs. And then they hooked me up with their distributor, Bayside, and that connected me with a distribution company.
FJO: This was before you connected to anybody in the pop world.
FJO: Even though the album looks more like an alternative rock album than a classical record.
MM: Well, I guess unintentionally. It turned out the way that I dreamed of it.
FJO: I noticed that Bill Duckworth and Nora Farrell were connected to that first album. Bill Duckworth was such an extraordinary person. He came out of classical music, but he was open to so many other things and he really opened the door for people creating music who weren’t necessarily writing it down for other people to play. And he, together with Nora Farrell, conceived and built one of the earliest musical performance interfaces on the internet. That was around that same time.
MM: I became friends with them through the new music world. And I really struck up a friendship with Nora who, I guess through conversations, joined on as the producer of Enharmonic Vision. She actually designed the cover, too. I had this really cool picture that had been taken at the World Trade Center during an orchid show. I think I was lying on the floor. Anyway, she came up with this cool idea and created the cover art as well. And produced the recording.
FJO: That makes sense, because one of her mantras was that classical music had to stop looking like classical music.
MM: Yeah, she had a big influence. And Bill, too. They were great friends.
FJO: Still, at that point, you’re not thinking of yourself as a composer per se. You’re a performer who is creating pieces for yourself, and you’re occasionally asking other people to write pieces for you. So at what point did you start identifying yourself as a composer?
MM: I guess it was around the time I became a member of ASCAP, which is where we happen to be sitting. I became a member of ASCAP so I became a composer. But I didn’t quite fit in with the classical concert world as a composer. I wasn’t writing orchestral pieces or string quartets at that time, so that wasn’t really a place for me. Shortly thereafter, I happened to be at a big membership meeting of ASCAP and listening to something that just made me say, “Wait a minute, I have to figure out where my voice is in this organization and in this music world.” I remember Marilyn Bergman was the president. She was walking up the aisle and—there’s where you need your 20-seconds elevator pitch—I just sort of stepped in front of her and said, “I’m an ASCAP classical composer, but I’m doing things that are beyond classical and I have this idea of doing something.” And she’s like, “Okay, talk to John LoFrumento.” So I went over and talked to John. He’s like, “Okay, that sounds good. Talk to—” and it went down the pike. That’s how [my club concert series] Thru the Walls was conceived. Out of necessity, because I needed a place where I could have my voice heard that was accepted and was legitimized in a way.
FJO: I didn’t realize that Thru the Walls came about so soon after you joined ASCAP.
MM: Within a few years, I guess. It was at a membership meeting. There were lot of people in the room, and they didn’t discuss concert music at all. And I think I got upset, because I thought, “I’m part of this terrific pro-composer, pro-writer organization, but I don’t know where my voice is in it.” It was just kind of spontaneous. I’m usually pretty shy. But there was something that really pushed me. I had that moment with Marilyn to block her path and somehow explain with enough clarity that I was then able to make appointments with Lauren [Iossa] and with Fran [Richard] and Cia [Toscanini] where we sat down and came up with this idea. I came up with the name: Thru the Walls—listening to something through the walls, not being able to easily identify what it is. It was based on ASCAP composers who were also performers. This is not a new concept—the composer as performer, or the performer as composer—but the idea was to take it into another context in the contemporary scene, bringing it down to The Cutting Room, which was a venue that was more likely to produce jazz and rock concerts. You wouldn’t think of going to that venue to hear a classical music concert.
Tony Visconti and Martha Mooke
FJO: Nowadays everybody’s playing in clubs. But at the time Thru the Walls came into being, it wasn’t as typical. The other thing that made this series unusual, I think, is that it was officially embraced and directly supported by ASCAP, so it had this official imprimatur; others who were playing classical concerts in clubs didn’t have that kind of endorsement. It also attracted a very diverse audience, which included people like David Bowie.
MM: Right. Well, I understand a lot of things now about what I was doing that I really didn’t understand then. It’s all about reframing the situation. Again, as far I’m concerned, as a musician I can be playing Beethoven one day, rock and roll the next day, and my own music the following day or something else. So I don’t have these [walls] and I didn’t at that time, either—and this was pre-2000. I had been doing sessions with Tony Visconti. I had met him backstage at some concert that I played with the lead singer of the Zombies. I had been asked to play in the string quartet. He got interested when I said I also play electric viola, so I started doing string sessions for Tony. When Thru the Walls started developing, I wanted to have that juxtaposition of music worlds, composers who weren’t just doing classical. It was all types of influences: jazz, electronics, rock, all kinds of things. I spoke with Tony who had a very broad background and broad interests. What could be better than having a renowned, legendary rock and roll producer introducing a new music concert? That sparked a lot of interest in both worlds. People who knew Tony were like, “Why is he doing this?” And people from the classical world thought, “Why is this happening at The Cutting Room?” Kudos to [The Cutting Room’s owner] Steve Walter who embraced us; that’s how it began.
FJO: I imagine that Bowie showed up because Tony produced some of Bowie’s records.
MM: Right. Tony was living up in Rockland County at that time. I had actually gone over to Tony’s house. Tony also did Alexander Technique, and I was a little nervous, and he was sort of calming me down a bit. As I was leaving, he said, “By the way, I mentioned to my friend David this event tonight, and he said, he might come.” And I’m like, “Right; sure.” But sure enough, two minutes before the lights go down, in walks David Bowie. He sits down at my table, and the rest is history.
FJO: Well, not completely. We’re going to make it history now. How did it go from him being there to you performing and recording with him?
MM: I guess you’d call it fate. You’d call it circumstance. January 2001 was the first Thru the Walls, and shortly after that I got a call from Tony that David was slated to play the Tibet House benefit concert that Philip Glass produces at Carnegie Hall. That was going to be at the end of February. He wanted to know if I could put a string quartet together to play with David. So I said, “Yeah, I could do that.” I did and it was amazing. We rehearsed at Philip’s studio a few days beforehand. We played “Heroes”—string quartet and Tony played stand-up bass. Can you imagine playing “Heroes” with David Bowie? Moby was also on that concert. Moby played guitar. And we played another song, “Silly Boy Blue,” with David. It was absolutely magical.
Martha Mooke and David Bowie backstage at Carnegie Hall.
FJO: So that’s what opened the doors to your being a go-to side person for all these pop stars?
MM: Yeah, that was a big door opener. Then there was another Thru the Walls, which happened right after that. And that led to a bunch of other opportunities. A little documentary was done for DCTV, downtown television. At that point I was recording Osvaldo Golijov’s Rocketekya, so they came up and they filmed the recording session with Alicia Svigals, David Krakauer, and Pablo Aslan. It was cool because the beginning of the tape is Rocketekya. It’s a rocket ship taking off, so we don’t count in. We count down—five, four, three, two, one. Then it takes off. Then we got a call from David to play with him at Tibet House again and, in the middle of that, he asked us to record with him on Heathen, which happened the weekend after 9/11. It was very emotional in a lot of ways. Then we just kept being asked back. We became David Bowie’s quartet; then we became the quartet of Tibet House. People were asking, “Can we borrow the quartet to play?” Even after David didn’t do the benefit, which he did three years in a row, we kept coming back. Philip kept calling us to come back; this is going to be our 17th year.
FJO: Wow. And the Streisand connection. Did that happen through Marilyn Bergman?
MM: No, but I did end up on tour with Marilyn. It came about through my work as a Broadway player. When Barbra was putting a U.S. tour together for 2006 and then the 2007 European tour, she hadn’t toured that much and she wanted to have a Broadway orchestra. They used a rhythm section from L.A., and they culled from the different pit orchestras on Broadway. I feel like I hit the lotto on that one. It was just such an amazing experience.
Tony Bennett with Martha Mooke
FJO: Well, talk about putting together a career doing music. One day you could be on stage with the Westchester Philharmonic or the American Composers Orchestra, with whom I’ve seen you play. Then in the pit with a Broadway orchestra another day. Or backing up a rock band. Or part of a jazz group. Or playing your own music by yourself. Or writing music for other ensembles. But it seems that carrying out a specific role in each of these musical projects would require different approaches to where you personally fit in. Do you feel you need to be in different mental spaces for each of these activities or is it all part of a continuum?
“I’ve had to come to terms with my different personalities.”
MM: I’ve had to come to terms with my different personalities. As a player, I have to approach it from a different point of view. If I haven’t created it, there’s an obligation to be true to the printed notes as long as they’re all printed out. So I have to do my due diligence—woodshed and practice and, if it’s with an ensemble, rehearse. But if it’s a piece that I’ve composed and I’m playing either with my quartet Scorchio or my piece e-chi—which is with a percussion ensemble—or something with a combination of notation and improvisation, that gets a little tricky for me. Because I’m coming at it as the composer, I have to work twice as hard to realize I can also take some license with what I play. But realizing that I have written parts for the other players, I need to make sure that we’re literally on the same page. With Bowing, the duo with Randy Hudson, we started just as improvisers and built the pieces which became part of the Café Mars record. Then I retro-notated Quantum, which is on that duo CD, for string quartet and then for string quintet, when we add a bass player. Time in a Black Hole, which is with bass and percussion, is all just improvisation. We don’t have a plan. We just get together; we meet, hit, and leave.
One of Martha Mooke’s long standing groups is her duo Bowing with electric guitarist Randy Hudson
FJO: I love this term retro-notated. How much of this music is retro-notated? Can all of these pieces be retro-notated?
“Ultimately I retro-notated it, so it exists in a notated version.”
MM: Sure. Sometimes there’ll be a bare bones notation, like in jazz you have a chart. That’s how No Ordinary Window began, or Virtual Corridors. For many years, when I played Virtual Corridors, it existed just as words on a page with maybe a couple of lines that I sketched out. It was really more a description of what I’m doing. Ultimately I retro-notated Virtual Corridors, so it exists in a notated version. No Ordinary Window existed just basically as a solo line. Then I needed to figure out how to notate the electronics that I used—this amazing pedal by Eventide called the H9 that opened up a whole other world of sound. I figured out a way of bringing that into the score by describing what kind of effect I’m using and then actually taking screen shots of my iPad, which has the exact parameters of reverb and what kind of effect or filter I’m using.
FJO: But considering all the improvisational passages you include in your own music, as well as all the educational workshops you do about improvisation, you’re somebody who wants to engender improvisation in other people. When you retro-notate something and fix it on the page, aren’t you losing something in terms of what an interpreter is bringing to it?
MM: Well, the beauty of live performance, especially when you’re an improviser, is the energy of that and the communication with the audience. I think sometimes that gets lost in more traditional concert settings where the audience comes in and they know they’re going to hear a Mozart symphony. Sometimes the tempi are different from what they remember, but they don’t realize there is communication going on between the performers and the audience.
When I’m performing solo, I make sure the audience is aware that they’re actually part of the performance. I’m informed by them sitting out there. I get feedback. You can call it biofeedback or whatever. For the audience, it becomes more of an experience than just being played at or played to. You can’t notate that and that’s okay. Likewise, a recording is just a moment in time. But that’s okay, too, because hopefully people will have heard the music live and they’ll take that as a memory. At some point the album will exist when I no longer exist. Hopefully there’ll be enough material out there, whether it’s videos on YouTube or other iterations of performing the same piece, and they’ll draw their own conclusions. People think that everybody’s hearing the same piece when it is the same notes being played, but everybody hears differently. We all have our filters and our own way of processing—if you wake up in a bad mood, if you have a headache, if the temperature’s too hot in the room, or the person sitting next to you is a little odorous. It’s never going to be the same. You’ll never process that experience the same way. That’s something that, more and more, I’m putting an emphasis on, because it’s so easy just to stay home and watch on your screen, but you don’t get that same experience as being in the room when it’s happening. So as long as I’m alive, I’m going to keep that happening.
FJO: I’m curious about the pieces that have been written for you by other composers. How much does somebody who wants to write a piece for you have to know about all of the electronics you use when you perform? Or are these elements that you then add on as an interpreter, post-composition, in a sense becoming a sort of a co-composer?
MM: I did two full concerts of works that I commissioned, all from friends and acquaintances of mine. Most of them didn’t know anything about writing for electric viola, let alone the electronics like foot pedals. So most of them came to my studio once or twice, sitting on the floor. Victoria Bond, Alvin Singleton, Tania Léon, and even Leroy Jenkins were asking me questions. “Can you do this? What happens if you do this?” So there was a lot of collaboration in the pieces.
FJO: And are those pieces fully notated, or were they retro-notated?
MM: Some of them have improvisation in them, like Alvin’s piece, which I’ve recorded. Leroy’s piece was not notated with notes. It was more a back and forth between the two of us, a conversation between a grandfather and a granddaughter. But most of them were fully notated. There was one piece I remember, almost every note had a different effect. I had to enlarge the score and color code everything. It doesn’t get performed as much these days. But getting such a variety of pieces from the different composers was an incredible experience.
FJO: Now in terms of your writing music for others, an area you’ve been working in quite a bit—which is somewhat surprising since there are no strings—is wind band music.
MM: I think it began almost as a joke, in a way. In one of the orchestras I play with, there was a French horn player who is the music director of the Ridgewood Concert Band—Chris Wilhjelm. We started talking, and he was intrigued by what I was doing as an electric violist. He thought it would be cool if we did something together at some point. I had never thought about writing for concert band. I had really, at that point, never written for an ensemble larger than a string quartet or a chamber ensemble. Then finally we said, “Let’s just do it.” So I came up with the concept of X-ING—as in pedestrian crossing or deer crossing. It’s the crossing of the worlds between electric viola and concert band. What happens when you cross those worlds? One of the things that happens is you don’t have to tell the band to play quieter because a string instrument is soloing. I just crank my volume; I go to 11. The first movement is “Pegasus X-ING”—the winged horse. I use electronics and, in the notated score, I had to notate so the conductor is actually seeing what he’s hearing. There’s an effect where I play one note and a series of rhythms happens. I play dah, but what you hear is da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da. In the ending, I use a combination of loops and different effects to get the winged horse taking flight. I keep the loop going while I switch instruments. I switch to an instrument that’s actually re-tuned to E-flat and B-flat, so that I can play open strings and harmonics in the middle movement with the band that tunes to B-flat. When I was writing the middle movement, I was at the MacDowell Colony; it was at the time when my uncle, whom I was very close to, was taken very ill in Miami, and he was actually at the point of crossing over. That became that second movement, “X-ING Over”; that’s a tribute to him. The last movement, “Double X-ING,” is rock and roll. It starts with a crazy cadenza with overdrive and all kinds of improv and loops and things going on. And then we’re off, trap set and all.
FJO: Then you wrote another band piece, which you’re not playing in at all.
MM: That was one of the hardest moments I’ve had, understanding that I wasn’t going to be playing. I spent a lot of time working on that. I had to come to terms with how I would approach writing it. With X-ING, I actually was playing and composing at the same time, but Skandhas, which is the name of the piece, came out of a different world. I was composing more at the computer, using Sibelius. It does have elements of improvisation in it as well, but I had to remove myself and that was very challenging. There’s some really cool things that I like about it, but after the premiere, I ended up doing some revisions and, who knows, I may still revise it more at some point.
FJO: But you liked the experience enough and felt confident enough to go on to write yet another one.
MM: I just finished my third piece, but I got a little sneaky with it. It’s going to exist as two entities. It will exist as an ensemble piece, but then there’ll be another version with electric viola obbligato improvisation. It’s not quite an alternate version, because the plan is for them to be performed on the same concert.
FJO: So for the new piece, did you return to composing with your viola in one hand like you had done with X-ING?
“When you cross electric viola and concert band you don’t have to tell the band to play quieter because a string instrument is soloing. I just crank my volume; I go to 11.”
MM: I think I wrote less with the viola in hand. I had a keyboard and a computer. I also had to not make it too complicated, in terms of notation, since it’s not for a professional ensemble— although it could be played by professionals—and also had to bear in mind that it may be written for an ensemble that doesn’t have that much experience improvising. In many school bands and orchestras, there’s not an opportunity for members of the ensemble to improvise, whether it’s the full ensemble improvising or members as soloists.
FJO: You’re also now performing X-ING with an orchestra. So you’ve taken the band score and turned it into an orchestra score. Many people have written orchestra pieces and then have made band versions of them. But this went the other way around.
MM: I’m retro-orchestrating! I’m not a purist in anything that I do, so I don’t have a problem. It’s another opportunity. That’s another thing with the band world—they love playing new music and they love living composers. They love supporting living composers, and they rehearse a lot. Certainly there are orchestras that play new music and commission new works, but it’s a little bit different in the orchestra world. So I love that the orchestra world is interested in performing it. The challenge was how to re-write the piece. It wasn’t just substituting violins for flutes and things like that. I had to rework some of the innards. I revised the middle movement a little bit, tightened it up in ways. I’m looking forward to the first time performing it.
FJO: It’s funny that you wrote for band before you wrote for orchestra and that your first orchestra piece turned out to be a revision of a band piece. You’ve played in so many orchestras and so you really have an insider’s knowledge of the orchestra. That’s not something you had with band. In fact, many composers who’ve written for orchestra, even ones who are master orchestrators, are reluctant to write for band since it’s just not something in their background.
MM: Yeah, it’s a big learning curve, learning the ranges of the different instruments and the transpositions, learning that you can’t just write a slide anywhere you want to for trombone because it may not happen, it may be over the break. It’s not just write the notes into Sibelius and this is how it’s going to sound and if it’s red you can’t write it. It doesn’t work that way. There’s also a harp in the band version. I had to learn the intricacies of the harp. I was actually writing that part when I was on the Streisand tour, so I had access to the harpist Laura Sherman; she would look at it and give me some hints.
FJO: I thought that the band stuff grew out of all the education work you do, but it didn’t. Still, I’m curious about that part of your life. You’ve done so many education seminars, teaching string players how to improvise and use electronics.
“I’m about overcoming barriers and breaking through that inhibition factor which seems to get more built into students as they go through school.”
MM: A lot of that is due to my involvement with Yamaha. We came together when they were just designing their electric string line. At that point, they were calling it Silent Violin, because the whole point was that you could plug your headphones into this instrument and nobody else would have to listen to you practice. I happened to meet one of their team and they liked what I was doing, so they sent me a prototype of it and I said, “I love it with the headphones, but I want to play it loud. Can you do this?” That began our collaboration. They’ve even invited me to go to their headquarters in Hamamatsu, Japan, to work with a design team. I’ve been with them for a long time, and I have many generations of their instruments. They’ve also been extremely supportive in the educational realm when there are opportunities to go to schools and to conferences to demonstrate and present workshops, working with students and also working with the teachers. A lot of times, the teachers don’t know how to work with electric string instruments, if they have them in their schools, or with improvisation and having it be an opportunity for the students to create and find their voices. Sometimes they may not be as proficient as they’d like in order to be able to express themselves. I’ve discovered ways to help them overcome that, whether it’s by banging on a table, strumming the inside of the piano, or just playing some other sounds just to help them find their creative voice. It’s all about discovering that voice inside that a lot of times kids are afraid of accessing.
Martha Mooke demonstrating string techniques for students at a clinic.
One of my most popular workshops is called “Am I Allowed to Do That?” That literally came out of a workshop in a school. I sometimes start out with my acoustic viola, walking around the room, playing really crazy stuff just to get the students to respond without thinking, because that accesses something that they don’t know how to do usually. They’re not supposed to do that. They’re supposed to put that part away. What happened is I went over to this violinist and started playing and said, “Answer me. Don’t think. Just answer me.” And he looks around to see if his teacher’s looking and says, “Am I allowed to do that?” Yes, in this timeframe, you’re allowed to do that. And you’re allowed to explore it after school, or at home. In the school, in this class, you need to conform and do what you need to do, but I’m about overcoming those barriers and breaking through that inhibition factor which seems to get more built into students as they go through school.
FJO: We began this conversation talking about how you started making solo music with an electric viola and various electronic effects units, which enabled you to create an almost orchestral-sounding sonic landscape all alone. It’s something you still continue to do, even though now you also do all these other projects. The pieces on your new CD No Ordinary Window are fuller sounding than any of your solo work I had previously heard. And one of the pieces on it you perform live with video; it’s an immersive sight and sound experience that you’re triggering all by yourself which adds yet another layer.
MM: These are actually two projects. No Ordinary Window is its own performance experience that doesn’t usually involve video. The whole concept is finding these amazing spaces with a window, starting the concert before dark, and having the sunset be part of the lighting show. It’s a window looking out, a window to the soul, and a window of opportunity. I first envisioned No Ordinary Window in Sedona up in the Red Rocks. There’s a chapel there and my dream was to play in that chapel as the sun was setting and having that be a natural lighting effect with the music. As the concert starts, the audience sees the beautiful rocks outside as the sun is setting. Then it gets dark outside and the windows become mirrors. The audience sees themselves. I was able to do that concert, though not in that chapel. I happened to be talking to the president of Eventide saying this is my dream concert. He knew somebody that had a house on the next block and made that happen. It happened to be the person that created Eventide. Again, it’s all these coincidences. But that’s the No Ordinary Window experience.
A Dream in Sound is on the recording of No Ordinary Window. Then I did a version of it for that became Dreams in Sound, which was essentially the same music, but it took on a whole different form with a string quartet where everybody was using effects. I took that a step further when I got a commission from this improvisation festival in Prague and a foundation that discovered me through an event I produced a couple of years ago with Women In Music. It was another one of those Thru the Walls moments. I was commissioned to write a piece for this festival, so I took the dream experience to the next level. I created a 50-minute piece called Dreaming in Sound. I had another residency at Harvestworks that was supported by that foundation, and I was able to work with one of their engineers there and designed multi-dimensional effects and looping, not just for the solo viola, but also for four channel audio that I also controlled with a foot pedal. I was able to launch sounds into four isolated speakers. I had control over the speakers, rotating this way and that way; this was done through Max/MSP on computer. I knew that I had to also have a video element—that was part of the proposal—but I wasn’t quite finding the right way to go about it.
A couple of years ago through these monthly salons called LISA—Leaders in Software and Art—I met the woman that runs them, Isabel Draves, and we became friends. Her husband is this amazing software artist, Scott Draves. I was asking Isabel if she could recommend any video people. And she said, “Scott has this new program and he loves your music, and he’d love to work with you.” That’s how that whole collaboration came about. The program—which he calls Dots—is “listening” to all of the music that I’m creating on the spot, and it’s responding to it. There’s a big score, but there’s also lots of improvisation, and the video is responding to me. And then I’m watching the video and responding to the video, which takes it to another place within the improvisation. So, again, every time I do it, it’s different. I premiered it in Prague during this festival. Then I was able to do it the following week at National Sawdust because there was this big Creative Tech Week going on. It’s a big ensemble piece, but I’m the only live player in the room.
Martha Mooke’s latest CD, No Ordinary Window.
FJO: Too bad that that wasn’t released on a DVD. Maybe it will be at some point?
MM: I need to do it.
FJO: Might there ever be a time when you incorporate immersive video with a larger ensemble? It would be amazing to do that kind of thing with a wind band!
“You never know what you’ve been missing until you know what you’ve been missing.”
MM: Unlimited possibilities. I would say you never know what you’ve been missing until you know what you’ve been missing. A lot of what I do is exploration, trial and error experimentation. Sometimes the best thing is if I’m improvising or I’m playing something, and something goes wrong with a foot pedal. I misfire or I play something I didn’t mean to. I take that as an opportunity to explore the space that I might not have explored before. I didn’t really mean to do that, but it happened for a reason. So I’m going to go in that direction.
FJO: It’s really an extension of your workshop where you give students permission to do anything.
MM: I was taught a long time ago, even as a classical player, if you make a mistake don’t let on, don’t make a face. Either make the same mistake again if it comes back or just keep going. Most of the time, people won’t ever know if I intended to do it or not. Hopefully they don’t. Hopefully it just becomes part of that moment and that experience.
Conversations about diversity are happening everywhere these days. The changing face of America is increasingly bringing what used to be a dodged or back-burnered dialogue to the forefront of the national debate. The visibility of this issue has grown in recent years due to highly publicized police incidents, national grass-roots protest and advocacy movements, and the resignation of university presidents. Talking about diversity can be difficult and potentially fear provoking, and can often leave people feeling defensive, shamed, or angry. But the discussion is happening. In a recent @musochat Twitter conversation, Gahlord Dewald led a fearless and poignant exchange about diversity in new music. Without presuming to have any answers, I want to expand the dialogue and rearticulate the pressing need for us to cultivate an atmosphere of active diversity in our music and projects. Not just because we should but also because the studies are clear: people thrive when surrounded by others who are different.
Diversity Is Good
As discussed in two recent articles—”Diversity Makes You Brighter” in The New York Times and “How Diversity Makes us Smarter” in Scientific American—studies routinely prove that groups that are infused with a diversity of cultures, thoughts, and disciplinary backgrounds outperform homogenous groups every time. The conclusions overwhelmingly suggest that surrounding ourselves with a diversity of people will help to make us smarter and more creative. I believe this paradigm transfers beautifully to music making and always has.
Race, Gender, and More
When we hear the word “diversity” most of us jump immediately to race. No doubt, supporting racial diversity is a serious and important issue—and many would place it at the top of the list. However, I just spent three years chairing a committee at my university to create a new cultural engagement curriculum to address historic patterns of inequity even more broadly and to help develop skills for living and growing in an increasingly more diverse world.
This goes beyond the color of our skin. We have massive work to do in areas concerning gender, sexual identity, and more. I think this is a brilliant opportunity for us all to grow. When it comes to music, we can continue to work to address these systemic issues in genuine and thoughtful ways and we will have better art for it.
But in our discipline, we can find the beauty of diversity in many other places, too.
Culture is distinct from race. Scandinavians raised in Nebraska see the world differently than those who grew up in Oslo. Asians from Idaho (me) are very different than those from China. In America, we often have cultural traditions rooting us elsewhere, and while those are often diluted over time due to assimilation over generations, these are important distinctions that I think should be highlighted, no matter how small.
Musically, this increasing interactivity means we have the whole of the world at our artistic disposal. An obvious music example from history is the effect Javanese Gamelan had on Parisian composers at the World’s Fair of 1889. Western European Art music instantly evolved upon encountering this ensemble.
The standard assembly of Western orchestral (or jazz/rock, for that matter) instruments is actually quite limited. If we open up our timbral palette to include the whole of the folk music tools and traditions of the world, think of the possibilities. I wonder what would happen if it became standard for guitarists to study the oud and violinists learned the huqin. Part of the study of these instruments would also involve understanding the intricacies of instrumental or vocal techniques, traditional melodies, and the delicate nuances of phrasing and style. But admittedly this is hard. For example, our challenge might involve finding a competent kora player and taking the time and energy to educate ourselves in writing for this instrument.
The diversity of styles and traditions across the world’s music offers rich possibilities. Tremendous precedent can be found all over music history. Think of what classical Indian music did for minimalism (not to mention the Beatles), or what Dizzy Gillespie’s interest in Cuban music did for early bebop and Latin jazz, Hungarian folk song for Bartók, Turkish music for Beethoven, and mariachi for Johnny Cash.
We can all think of a huge body of work that fits neatly in the genre boxes and helps to define a style, aesthetic, or a cultural population. Yet bending genre lines and borrowing from other styles has resulted in some of history’s most innovative work and most of my favorite music of today.
George Gershwin famously crossed from Tin Pan Alley and the “secular” popular song world to the “sacred” concert hall stage without losing his identifiably unique voice. His concert works are genre bending and I would argue that his opera Porgy and Bess is a seminal work of the 20th century and was created as a direct result of embracing diverse source materials—African American spirituals, popular swing, and European opera.
Miles Davis made a career of genre mixing by constantly searching for and borrowing ideas from those around him. In just a few examples, Kind of Blue (1959) uses a modal language that reminds us of Debussy, Sketches of Spain (1960) merges flamenco and jazz, and his groundbreaking work Bitches Brew (1970) explored the intersections between jazz, rock, and funk.
Examples of genre blurring and bending are everywhere, and while certainly not always successful, they are often key to musical innovation and creative momentum. Blues and boogie-woogie combined with country and gospel to create early rock and roll. Nirvana and Pearl Jam grew the 1990s grunge style by combining elements of punk, hard rock, and pop. Duke Ellington used his jazz vocabulary with Western European form in his elaborate suites and sacred concerts. The potential here is outstanding as we even have rock operas and such artists as Béla Fleck merging bluegrass with jazz, classical, and other world music.
Some of my favorite musicians working today are poised between genres or have created their own. One of my favorite composers, John Hollenbeck, writes for large jazz-based ensemble, the string quartet Brooklyn Rider commissions music from diverse composers from outside the classical academy (including Vijay Iyer and Ethan Iverson), and the vocal group Roomful of Teeth utilizes a wide range of vocal traditions and styles from all over the world to find a wonderful and unique sounds.
We musicians and composers can deliberately pursue a diversity of genre, sound, and thought. As an example from my own work, this past season the Universal Language Project commissioned Brazilian jazz musician Jovino Santos Neto to write a piece that merges his Latin jazz language with Brazilian folk music and the style and instrumentation of Stravinsky’s L’Historie du soldat.
In this way, we can create something new that is simultaneously intentional and unexpected.
Music and dance have been intimately tied from the beginning. Oddly, most musicians go through years of conservatory and academic training without any deliberate dance collaboration. Our Western European art music tradition is rooted in the baroque dance suite, and it would be inaccurate to tell the story of the evolution of jazz without talking about the music’s role in social dance.
One of the most obvious examples of collaboration is the amazing work of Stravinsky and Nijinsky. We simply would not have Le Sacre du printemps without this partnership and the confluence of these diverse artistic backgrounds.
Of course, the collaboration between music and other art forms music goes beyond dance. Think of the great partnerships involving lyricists and musicians—George and Ira, Rodgers and Hammerstein. And, while not directly collaborating, the mixing of words and music gave us Wilde and Strauss, and Shakespeare with everybody. A great diversity of multidisciplinary collaboration is possible between music and the other arts including film, theater, spoken word, dance, painting, and sculpture. We can go beyond the arts, too. John Luther Adams collaborated with science and the Earth itself for his instillation The Place Where You Go Listen, which makes audible real-time data from our planet and its weather patterns.
I wonder where else we could go.
Audience and Venue
Our medium is one of performance, and it is intimately and symbiotically dependent on our audiences. Throughout history, music has always been shaped by the intended audience—Haydn had Esterházy, Mozart had Emperor Joseph, Ellington had the Cotton Club, and Dylan had the Monterey Jazz Festival. Our music will sound different if it is intended for academia or a bar stage—and this is a good thing. Different audiences encourage us to create different music. We can learn and grow, and we are stronger for it.
It is, however, going to be up to us to figure out how to create access for all. It is a good thing to be actively courting a different and more diverse audience and to find a way to help bring them along in the artistic process. I get great encouragement from non-traditional audiences and feel that this is one of the key components of what music will be in the 21st century. The problem for us to solve is that it can be very hard to meet our expenses when we try and work outside established norms.
Finally, space matters. The choice of concert location and venue is paramount to encouraging a different interaction with audience. Experiencing a string quartet’s performance in my living room is vastly different than a jazz club, or a church, or in Carnegie Hall. We clearly understand this, as efforts to bring music to “where the people are” are well underway, but we can find ways to improve the experience for all involved and make it more sustainable while observing the utmost respect for the music.
Pursuing diversity in music is a winning proposition. All of the factors I mentioned above (and there are undoubtedly more) are important in growing new and good music. I am certain that actively, overtly, and happily building diversity into our projects will continue to result in innovative works and better music.
I do realize the built-in inherited privileges and acknowledge the obstacles in our path. I see that our fear of the unknown and the pragmatic difficulty of pulling new ideas together can often cause us to take the easy road. Ultimately, however, we should explore without fear and remember, as Alban Berg quipped to George Gershwin, “Music is music.”
A conversation at her home in Brooklyn, New York
February 17, 2016—2:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Missy Mazzoli first appeared in NewMusicBox ten years ago when she kept a daily blog for us about her experiences as a participant in the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. That week-long orchestra boot camp offers emerging composers intensive workshops with musicians and a performance of their music on a subscription series concert entitled Future Classics which is also broadcast live. The piece of Mazzoli’s that was featured was These Worlds In Us, which was also her very first piece for orchestra. In the opening salvo for that NewMusicBox blog series, she expressed concern about how her music, which is “based in communication, intimacy, and a touch of vulnerability,” would “translate to an orchestra.”
As it turned out, These Worlds In Us was a huge success and has continued to be performed by orchestras across the United States as well as in Europe. (It will be performed this month in Akron, Ohio.) And, over the past decade, she has also written additional orchestra pieces that have been performed by the Detroit Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Albany Symphony. When we spoke with her in her Greenpoint apartment, she had just returned from a Music Alive: New Partnerships residency with the Boulder Philharmonic which culminated in a performance of her Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres).
“I still feel like I’m asking the same questions,” she said, “and, with each piece, finding different answers to the question of how to bring an intimate, vulnerable, human experience to a situation like working with an orchestra, which is a little bit disconcerting and I feel kind of disconnected as a composer for a couple different reasons.”
But writing for orchestra forms only a small part of her compositional output. There’s a brand new solo piano piece of hers on Michael Mizrahi’s forthcoming CD (which will be released on March 26) and an older solo piano piece on Lisa Moore’s new disc. A few weeks before heading to Colorado, she was in Brazil for a whole concert devoted to her chamber music. She fronts Victoire, something of a cross between an indie rock band and a chamber ensemble, which is about to record its sophomore album. Plus her latest opera, Breaking the Waves, based on the Lars von Trier film, will be staged by Opera Philadelphia next season.
“I’m still in the beginning phases of my career where I am taking commissions and jumping at opportunities to work with whomever,” Mazzoli acknowledged during our talk. “So it’s really about taking whatever is brought to me and making it something that I’m excited about.” And though she is clearly excited about a very wide range of musical activities, they share a common core. “The thing that I can say consistently inspires me is human beings. It’s not nature as much as it is just me being inspired by human beings trying to live their lives. And, in the case of my operas, human beings trying to live their lives under insane, impossible circumstances.”
The thing that we have been most excited about, however, is that a piece of her choral music, Vesper Sparrow has been chosen to be performed during the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea. Mazzoli’s piece will be presented alongside works by composers from Australia, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom, on a March 28 program featuring the Ansan City Choir conducted Shin-Hwa Park. Vesper Sparrow originally appeared on Roomful of Teeth’s 2015 disc Render, a recording that received a New Music USA project grant, which led to the composition’s submission in the ISCM’s call for scores for the 2016 WMD.
“When I wrote it I never imagined anyone else singing it, because it had to be written so quickly and it was so particular for this group,” Mazzoli claimed. “But I’m open to different interpretations. I like the Sardinian aspect of it and I like that there’s a recording that these singers will hopefully listen to, even just to get an idea of what the piece is about and the character. But do they need to have that precise sort of like nasally intonation that the Sardinian music has? Not necessarily. I think that the piece is the notes and the rhythms and the texts. And all that translates on the page.”
Frank J. Oteri: The main impetus for our talk right now is that your choral piece Vesper Sparrow will be performed during the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea, at the end of March. But you have a lot of other stuff going on as well. You just came back from a weeklong Music Alive: New Partnerships residency with the Boulder Philharmonic, which culminated in a performance of your Sinfonia, and only a few weeks before that you were in Brazil performing a concert of your chamber music. I read in The New York Times this week that Opera Philadelphia will be staging your new opera Breaking the Waves next season, and Michael Mizrahi’s latest solo piano CD, which is being released in a couple of weeks, includes a piece of yours.
Missy Mazzoli: Lisa Moore also has a piece of my mine on her new album.
FJO: Really? Another piano piece?
FJO: Wow, so there’s some considerable activity with your solo piano music as well as your choral music, your chamber music, your orchestral music, plus opera. You’re writing many kinds of things and you’re getting pulled in many different directions. Is there any kind of music you would not want to write?
MM: I really can’t think of it. But, you know, so many of my opportunities are not necessarily my choice. I’m still in the beginning phases of my career where I am taking commissions and jumping at opportunities to work with whomever, so it’s really about taking whatever is brought to me and making it something that I’m excited about. But it’s hard to imagine something that would come my way that I wouldn’t be excited about.
FJO: You haven’t written a band piece yet, as far as I know.
MM: No. And I’m not terribly excited about it, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t do it. I think, under the right circumstances, it could be really fun.
FJO: Or a solo organ piece?
MM: Again, you kind of need someone; it’s hard to just write a solo organ piece and just throw it out into the universe. I really would want someone to come to me and say, “I’m going to perform this 20 times, and I’m really excited.” So we’ll see.
FJO: Or a sound installation?
MM: I would love to do a sound installation. I could do one in my living room; it would be awesome, but it would be only for me. So I’m definitely open to that, too. It’s hard, though, writing all these operas lately. I’m working on one for Opera Philadelphia; it’s co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Beth Morrison Projects. And I’m working on another one that will be announced really soon. I’m also dealing with performances of my first opera, Song from the Uproar. Opera can take over your life. So I feel like while all this other stuff is happening, really when I sit down to write, the operas are my focus. That’s been an interesting shift. Usually I’m working on ten different things at the same time, but for the last couple of years, it’s been like this one massive piece.
FJO: The first piece of yours I ever heard was an orchestra piece, These Worlds In Us, soon after we first met, which was ten years ago. Then the piece was chosen for the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, which is a really extraordinary program. You wrote a series of blog posts for NewMusicBox about your experiences at the Institute that year. I decided to reread them all last week, and I came across a fascinating couple of sentences from your very first post.
MM: I’m afraid.
FJO: You shouldn’t be; they’re great. They were about your concerns about the experience right before the Institute got under way, and they are extremely heartfelt. The sentences are: “My music is based in communication, intimacy, and a touch of vulnerability. How does this translate to an orchestra?” Now, ten years later, your music has been performed by lots of orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony and, most recently, in Boulder. So I wonder what you think about those sentences. Vulnerability is discouraged because of how the rehearsal process works. And, at this point, how do you deal with an orchestra’s inherent lack of intimacy?
MM: Well, I still feel like I’m asking the same questions and, with each piece, finding different answers to the question of how to bring an intimate, vulnerable, human experience to a situation like working with an orchestra, which is a little bit disconcerting. I feel kind of disconnected as a composer for a couple different reasons. You’re dealing with this mass of people—you very rarely get to have individual interactions with the players. You’re flown somewhere and you have two or three rehearsals and then it’s the performances. It’s not set up to have one-on-one pow-wows with your performers, which is what I’m used to.
So this experience I just had last weekend in Boulder was really interesting. They premiered the new version of this piece that I originally wrote for the LA Philharmonic called Sinfonia for Orbiting Spheres. I put harmonicas in the orchestra and also melodicas, the piano that you blow into—I have some around here—and there’s a lot of strange percussion. I really wanted it to feel like this intimate, enveloping experience. The harmonica sounds so vulnerable and so human because these players are not professional harmonica players. They’re professional horn players and clarinetists and they’re just using the length of their breath to play these really simple, almost toy-like instruments. It was so great, but it was a risk for me. I didn’t know how that was going to work in an orchestral context. And I was so happy because I think that it made the experience more intimate for everybody.
FJO: Fascinating. Some orchestras might not be willing to do it. Some players feel very firmly that they should only be required to play the instrument that they’ve spent their lives studying and perfecting making the best possible sound with.
MM: Right, and I respect that. That’s valid. My goal is not to make people look bad. I was really grateful that the Boulder Phil musicians were open to the idea. They might not have liked it—I’m not sure—but they were really great and they wanted to make the piece work. So much thought went into me even writing for harmonica in an orchestra setting. It was not just a whim; it was very considered. There’s this very serious emotional intent that I have. So my strategy with working with the orchestra was to try to get them to understand what I was going for. It’s sort of a music of the spheres feeling, and it was this idea of enveloping the audience in this ether, while all these loops of little melodic fragments were swirling around them. Harmonicas are really like the ether in which everything exists. So once they understood that, I think that they were at least willing to give it a shot.
FJO: An important component of the performance in Boulder was that you were in residence there for a week, so instead of just showing up for a couple of rehearsals and the concert, you had a greater opportunity to connect with the players, so that must have helped that process. I was curious how that experience was different from other experiences you’ve had with orchestras over the years.
MM: In Boulder I did a lot to connect to the audience, but unfortunately I didn’t have so much time to connect with the players, even in a residency situation. I think it’s hard to create that time and space, but I think it’s something worth working towards for all orchestras—to try to create a deeper connection between the composers and the performers. I’ve talked to a lot of my composer friends about this very thing. But it did make a big difference for me, just being in Boulder for a week. I taught for a day at Colorado University. And I performed a concert of my own works at this art space called The Dairy in downtown Boulder. I met with their board. I went to luncheons. I did a stargazing hike where they played my music as people were looking at the stars, because the piece is about the planets in orbit. That was amazing, and it allowed me to have conversations with people about a bunch of different things, and allowed them to have a bunch of different ways to access my music and the work.
FJO: To talk a little bit more about your first orchestra piece, These Worlds In Us, one of the things that struck me about it at the time and every time I’ve listened to it or have thought about it since then, is how ravishingly beautiful it is. Certainly not everything you’ve written is so decidedly and so intentionally pretty, but beauty has definitely been part of your compositional arsenal. It seems to be a conscious aesthetic decision for you, so I thought it would be interesting to talk about that as well as what your view of beauty is.
MM: What does it mean to be beautiful? How much time do we have? I think that what you’re saying is that there’s a lyricism, or that there are elements of that piece and pieces that I’ve written in the last ten years that are sort of conventionally beautiful in a way that most people would say, “Oh, that’s pretty” or “That’s a melody I can hum.” I think that a lot of noise music is beautiful and that it’s pleasing, but I know what you’re saying. There’s a lyricism, and there are these melodies that float around the listener in a way that I think could be described as beautiful. That’s something that has been a part of my language from the very beginning. My goal is to try to draw the listener in with something that is familiar, even just a tiny bit, whether it’s a little repeated melodic fragment or the sound of the harmonica, which is a sound that everybody knows. Most people have picked up a harmonica and have blown into it. We know that sound. So I try to draw people in with something that they can latch onto, but then twist it and present it in a different way, present the melody with a strange chord underneath. Or have the harmonicas be this insistent repeating drone that becomes unsettling. The piece I just wrote for the Boulder Phil becomes very dark at the end. All of a sudden, the harmonica feels like this lone person lost in space instead of this warm familiar sound. So I don’t know. These Worlds In Us was the first orchestra piece that I’d ever written, and it was really daunting. I remember really losing my mind trying to write that piece. And I remember having this thought: I can write a melody. When all else fails, I know I can do that. So I’m just going to do that and not worry about what comes next. And that’s where the theme for the piece came from.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that you want to give the audience something to latch onto, because another constant through line in your music is that there’s always a narrative arc behind it, whether it’s inspired by literature or by personal experience. In the case of These Worlds In Us, it was both: a wonderful poem, which is where the title came from, but also you thinking about your father and his experience being a Vietnam War vet. But these kinds of backstories are hard to decipher in a piece of abstract instrumental music with no vocal line; they hinge on people reading the program notes. How important is it for you that people know those stories?
MM: Sometimes it’s important that they know, sometimes it’s not. Certainly it is with the dramatic work that I’m doing, even in an abstract opera like Song from the Uproar, which does not have a conventional narrative. It’s more like a fever dream. But it’s important to me that people generally understand what’s going on, even in the simplest terms. Other times those stories are just for me. That’s just the way that I conceive of music. I conceive it as a human struggle. I conceive these melodies and rhythms as being characters that are sometimes working together and sometimes in opposition to each other.
In my piece for eighth blackbird [Still Life with Avalanche], the percussionist devours all the other instruments and absorbs all the material. It’s a weird, abstract play that’s being enacted by these performers. Whether or not you know that that’s what I was thinking of in that particular piece doesn’t matter because it just leads to a musical result. The same thing is true with These Worlds In Us and Tooth and Nail¸ the piece that I wrote for violist Nadia Sirota, which is about jaw harp music in Uzbekistan. I don’t really care if people understand all the things going on in this piece because, at the end, it’s just leading me to create a musical structure.
My two composer obsessions this month are Anna Thorvaldsdottir and John Luther Adams. They’re both really inspired by nature. A couple of months ago, I was driving around Death Valley thinking: I wonder if there’s something in there for me. I should get inspired by nature. But the thing that I can say consistently inspires me is human beings. It’s not nature as much as it is just me being inspired by human beings trying to live their lives. And, in the case of my operas, human beings trying to live their lives under insane, impossible circumstances. What do they do? How do they get out of it? How do they relate to each other? That stuff to me is so fascinating and juicy, even as a way to think of non-narrative instrumental music.
FJO: One of my favorite pieces of yours is Magic With Everyday Objects, which you describe in your program notes for it as music having a nervous breakdown. But part of the reason I love it so much is I don’t think you even need that program note. That message gets immediately across in the music. Obviously some narratives are harder to convey than others, some details are just too subtle. I wouldn’t have known the backstory of These Worlds In Us just from hearing the music.
MM: But that doesn’t matter to me.
FJO: There’s another backstory with These Worlds In Us which is a purely musical one. You used the same melodic material in another piece of yours, a piece you wrote for Newspeak called In Spite of All This. And yet, though this material sounds so pretty in These Worlds In Us, it’s decidedly not pretty anymore in the other piece. It’s something else entirely.
MM: I think that’s totally a function of the orchestration. I actually wrote the piece for Newspeak first and then orchestrated it out and changed it to fit into an orchestral context. I think when you move into an orchestral context, I don’t want to say it’s inevitably prettier because a lot of composers don’t think that way, but there’s a certain lushness and a lyricism that happens when you have a full string section, versus just a solo violin. So I think maybe that’s what you’re experiencing. And also, because I had more instruments in the orchestra, I was able to flesh out a lot of the harmonies, and so I think it comes across as this richer, more immersive experience.
FJO: Even though they share the same material, that material is presented so differently to the point that I don’t think they’re the same piece at all. They’re very different pieces.
MM: They share a theme and a structure, but that’s about it. I do this all the time. I steal from myself all the time. I think a lot of composers do, and I think it’s a fallacy that we’re supposed to reinvent ourselves completely with every piece. My boyfriend is a painter and he’s been working on the same series of work for the last year and a half; it’s so fascinating and satisfying to watch that happen. I think of music in the same way. I’ll often use the same material to generate a few different works before it’s completely out of my system.
FJO: You wrote the Newspeak piece back in 2005; I don’t know anything you wrote before that.
MM: Before 2005, when I was 24! Well, it’s funny. The piece that Lisa Moore recorded for an album that just came out two days ago is the earliest piece of mine that is published and available for people. It’s a piece for piano and electronics called Orizzonte. I wrote it when I was 24 for a band that I was in when I lived in Amsterdam; eleven years later, it’s finally been recorded by someone else.
FJO: I have a demo recording of you playing it that you gave me the first time we had lunch together ten years ago.
MM: Oh really? Oh my God… Wow. Well, it went through a bunch of different versions. It started off as an improv experiment and then solidified into something I could play on a concert program.
FJO: I didn’t realize back then that you had been in a band in Amsterdam. So even that early on, you were involved in several different approaches to making music. People still package things into “classical music” or “indie rock,” and you’ve certainly done work that could fit in either category, and many things that have aspects of both over the past ten years, but it seems like you’ve been doing that from what you consider the very beginning of your musical output.
MM: I don’t think about it that way at all. This band in Amsterdam was a great example. Was that a band or was it an ensemble? I don’t know. I got a residency in a squat, and was like: Let’s start a band; we’ll work all week in this squat and then we’ll give a concert at the end. Great. So it’s just people together making music. It was a welcome change for me from just working alone in my room and then delivering pieces to people. So it just sounded like fun. That’s where that came from.
FJO: In some ways Victoire is a band, but it’s also an ensemble. It’s a little bit of both.
MM: I don’t lean towards one or the other. My goal in creating the ensemble was to take the best of what was going on with bands. I wanted to make records. I wanted to tour. I wanted to create a show that was a consistent instrumentation for which I was creating new music, because people were asking me to put on concerts. Our first show was at The Stone, John Zorn’s venue on the Lower East Side. I didn’t want to just bring in a string quartet and then a solo clarinet; it just didn’t make sense programmatically. I wanted to have a consistent ensemble and I wanted to tour the world. I wanted to perform all over the place. That was from the indie rock world. But then I wanted a really virtuosic level of performer. I needed people who were classically trained. I wanted us to be performing music that was written down and that I wrote. So that was coming from the ensemble side of things. So it’s equal parts both.
FJO: Of course there were several models from the previous generation of composers forming their own groups to exclusively perform their own music, like The Philip Glass Ensemble or Steve Reich and Musicians. But you didn’t call it The Missy Mazzoli Ensemble.
MM: Because that seemed pretentious at the time. I don’t think it was pretentious of Philip Glass or Steve Reich, but I think that in the current climate, it just felt wrong. I don’t know. We were taking so much from the band world that I wanted to give it a name that wasn’t my own name.
FJO: But do you think of that music differently than you think of the other music you write?
MM: No, I don’t. Often a piece will start as a commission for someone else, and then I will arrange it to be performed by my ensemble. I took Magic With Everyday Objects, which I originally wrote for NOW Ensemble, and arranged that for Victoire. Then I re-arranged it and it became The Door into the Dark, which was the opening track on our first album. I did that with bits of my opera, Song from the Uproar, too. The opera ends with an ecstatic coda, and I really wanted to play that myself. So I arranged it for Victoire. The music is exactly the same. But even if it’s not the exact same notes, it’s the same level of complexity as all my other music. The biggest difference is really just in the way that it’s rehearsed, because I can try things out with the group, experiment with different synthesizer timbres. I’m obviously not really able to do that when writing for someone else.
FJO: Curiously, the biggest project that has involved Victoire is Vespers for a New Dark Age. The first Victoire album, Cathedral City, was credited to Victoire. Only someone reading the fine print could see that all the compositions were by Missy Mazzoli. But Vespers was clearly identified as a Missy Mazzoli album. So even if you don’t think of there being distinctions, distinctions are being drawn somehow.
MM: Sure. Inevitably. But the Vespers album also included three tracks that are electronic pieces I created myself, with the help of the producer Lorna Dune; it didn’t involve the band. And then there were all these other people involved, like the percussionist Glenn Kotche. Lorna also created a remix of this other piece, A Thousand Tongues. Jody Redhage performed the original version of A Thousand Tongues, and we sampled her voice. So there were a lot of people involved. For me, a Victoire album is the five of us getting in a room and making music together. This felt like so much more, and the unifying thread was me as a composer. So I think it felt right to release that album under my name. It felt more in the lineage of Song from the Uproar, which is the album of my opera that was released two years before.
FJO: It was fascinating to hear you say that there was music you wrote for someone else that you wanted to perform yourself, and so you reworked it and made it into something else. This ties back to an earlier thread in this discussion about communication being the core of your music. Certainly performing is a form of communicating, so being directly involved in a performance is an important way to engage with an audience.
MM: Well, yeah. I love to perform. I was a performer before I was a composer. It’s part of my musical DNA. Initially I was just performing to scratch that itch, just to be able to be in front of people because it’s fun and exhilarating and nerve-wracking in all these great ways. And when I’ve performed, I realized that my connection to the audience was much deeper as a composer when I was in front of them as a performer. You tell people you’re a composer and they have no idea what you’re talking about; they don’t have a sense of what you do every day or what your place is in the world. I found that people were a lot more open and understanding when I was up there as a performer saying, “I wrote this, I’m going to play it for you.”
FJO: So you were a performer before you were a composer?
MM: Well, it all happened when I was super young. I started taking piano lessons when I was seven, so in that sense, I was a performer before I was a composer. I was a kid. But really quickly I started writing music and realized that this is what I need to be doing with my life. I started writing when I was about ten, and there was no question that I was going to go to school for composition. This was going to be my life.
FJO: So you definitely came out of a lineage of classical music.
MM: Oh, yeah.
FJO: So the whole indie rock thing came later. How did that come into your life?
MM: Well, it came into my life from being a kid in a small town in Pennsylvania, which means that I spent a lot of time driving around listening to the radio because there was nothing else to do and music was just a big part of my life. My parents are not musical, but I was moved by all kinds of music in a way that I wasn’t moved by anything else. And classical music in particular—because I was able to play it myself and have that connection—had a huge impact on the way that I process the data of the world. It gave me an identity and it gave me a focus as a kid. So I think I just obsessively latched onto it in this really extreme way.
FJO: I couldn’t help snooping around the apartment when we were setting up, and I noticed that you have a bust of Beethoven on a bureau as well as another Beethoven portrait hanging on the wall. I was a little surprised by that.
MM: Really? He’s the best. I fell in love with Beethoven as a kid. You know, you’re not really exposed to John Luther Adams or Philip Glass when you’re seven and taking piano lessons. I loved playing Beethoven, and I loved learning about his life and realizing that he struggled, that he was constantly trying new things and then discarding things. When I was in school in Boston, I would go to the Harvard rare manuscript library and just dig through Beethoven sketches, most of which have these big Xs on them. It was always very reassuring to see that he was not always happy with what he wrote the first time around.
FJO: Unfortunately nowadays so many composers do everything on computers, so no one can see sketches with Xs on them.
MM: Well, I have a lot actually. I still work a lot by hand and there’s definitely some obsessive scribbling there.
FJO: So, are you going to save those things for posterity, or are you going to be like Brahms and destroy all your sketches?
MM: I save them, but I wouldn’t say I’m saving them for posterity. Who knows? That’s for future generations to decide if I’m still interesting. But I do save them for myself.
FJO: Do you ever find yourself going back to those things that you crossed out and using them?
MM: Not really using them as much as just taking stock of the passage of time. I have filing cabinets full of old manuscripts and notebooks and journals. I like to look back and see like, oh, that’s where I got the idea to start Victoire, to start this ensemble. Or my initial notes for creating Song from the Uproar or Breaking the Waves, which is a project that’s taken over my life. It’s fun to go back and just see the initial brainstorms for those projects.
FJO: So what was the initial brainstorm for Vespers?
MM: I wanted to create my own version of a Vespers prayer service. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to do that without being heavy handed and religious, because I’m not a religious person. But I love the musical form of that prayer service, the idea that it’s a series of invocations broken up by singing. The tradition varies depending on what precise religion you belong to, but it seemed like this great, flexible, inherently musical form. So, the invocation in Vespers is not “Help me, oh Lord”; it’s “Come on all you ghosts.” The lyrics were written by the poet Matthew Zapruder, so it’s all by replacing the sacred text with secular poetry; I was able to hint at the themes of the prayer service without being overtly religious.
FJO: But by subtitling it “for a New Dark Age” it has a kind of ominous undercurrent to it. “Dark Age” is a negative term, even though some wonderful things happened during the original so-called Dark Ages, the Medieval period.
MM: Were there? Was there anything good?
FJO: There was some great music.
MM: Okay. If you’re in the top one percent. Well, that line “New Dark Age” comes from a line in one of Matthew’s poems called “Korea,” where he says, “I know I belong in this new Dark Age.” So, that is a little more uplifting than the phrase “new dark age” alone and that summed up my feelings about being alive. I know that we are kind of in a dark age to some extent. Things are messed up. But I also know that I belong here. You know, this is my time, and I embrace that. So when I read that line, I was like: this really resonates with me. That was the impetus to use his poetry for the entire piece.
FJO: So this poetry existed before you set it.
MM: Yes. And Matthew Zapruder was amazing. He’s also a musician, so I think he understood that I wanted to be really free with which texts I used. He let me draw fragments of texts from a bunch of different books and remix them into lyrics that made sense for the project, each individual set of lyrics. Sometimes they come from a couple of different poems, or a couple different books. But all of it existed before, except I got him to write one new piece; the second track, “Hello Lord,” was a new poem written just for the project.
FJO: That’s interesting. You just described it as the second track rather than the second movement.
MM: Well, I get confused myself with that because this piece is a little complicated. There are five acoustic movements, but then there are these three electronic remixes stuck in there. It’s confusing.
FJO: But the reason I brought it up is I wonder if you think of the recording rather than a live performance of it to be the definitive way to experience the piece. It was initially written for live performance.
MM: It was, but it was also written for recording. I knew I wanted to make this into an album even before I started writing. You spend so much time with an album when you’re editing it and referring to everything as a track. I think that was emblazoned in my memory.
FJO: And clearly, in our time, many more people will have heard the recording than would have been at the original live performance at Zankel Hall.
FJO: But what’s strange about that—maybe this is part of us being in a new dark age—is that even though music gets primarily transmitted through recordings, recordings are no longer a viable economic stream for most people now that so many people are just listening to music online. This hasn’t really sorted itself out, but you clearly still make albums. In fact, one of the reasons you said that you formed Victoire was that you wanted to make albums. So making albums is still important to you.
MM: Sure, it’s important to me. I also like the idea of releasing singles on the internet. Or creating music that’s just for video and releasing that on YouTube. I’m not really precious about the album. I do think though that—as a composer and as someone who grew up listening to records—the natural length of a CD is really satisfying to me. I like the idea of making grand statements, coming out with 40 to 60 minutes of music and saying, “This is my latest statement,” rather than saying, “This is something I made this morning, and here’s three minutes of it.” So I think that there is value and weight to this idea of the album and that that length still has significance. My friend Judd Greenstein, who runs New Amsterdam Records, used to say when he was starting the record label that albums are the new symphonies. And that really made sense to me. There are pieces that can be accepted as a whole or can be broken up into movements, and there’s still a logic to that. So that’s how I think of it now.
The video by Mark DeChiazza of “Wayward Free Radical Dreams” from Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for a New Dark Age is making its debut on NewMusicBox
FJO: Now, what’s interesting is that in your discography to date, you have pieces on different people’s albums, but the albums that are your albums—the Victoire album, Uproar, and Vespers—are all unified as albums. They’re not like most single composer new music recordings which are usually just a collection of pieces for various ensembles. I guess that’s coming from the same impetus as wanting to form an ensemble with consistent instrument to perform concerts of your music. You didn’t want to have all these scene changes on stage that are really awkward. Of course, in an album those kind of scene changes aren’t awkward, because it’s pre-recorded. But it can still be an awkward listening experience.
MM: Yeah. I don’t know. It just seems a little bit awkward. I’m not against the idea of composers releasing these sort of compilation albums of their pieces, but it just has a different feeling from someone like Philip Glass releasing Glassworks with the Glass Ensemble or Meredith Monk and her Vocal Ensemble releasing something like Dolmen Music, which has a bunch of different pieces on it, but it still makes sense because it’s a consistent instrumentation. That to me felt smoother, so it was what I wanted to do.
FJO: Since we’re talking about making grand statements, this seems like a good place to talk a bit about your operas. Once again, these pieces come out of your love of literature and, in the case of the most recent one which we’ll get to a little later, film. I tried tracking down an opera you did based on a story by Boccaccio, but I wasn’t able to find very much information about it.
MM: I knew you were going to say that! It was sort of an exercise, a workshop kind of thing I did in my first year as composer-in-residence with Opera Philadelphia. It was a collaboration with Mark Campbell, who’s a great librettist. He’s very collaborative and I really loved working with him, but we had some trouble coming up with an idea that worked for both of us. He had come to me with one story, and I sort of tentatively said yes, but I think he could tell that I wasn’t that excited. So then he came back to me and was like, “I think that with you we just need to go dark,” I took it as a major compliment. I was like, “Yes. Do you have any stories about sex or death?” Because I feel like all my interesting work is about sex and death. And he said he always wanted to do something with Boccaccio’s Decameron, to take one of those little stories and work with it. And I ate it up. It’s this story about this woman whose lover is murdered by her brother. She plants his head in a pot and then this basil plant grows up and she sings to it. It’s called the flowering basil. It’s hilarious and dark. There’s love and death and sex and intrigue, all in this little seven-minute mini-opera. I think it is being done in Cincinnati somewhere; I’ll get that recorded and let you know.
FJO: Boccaccio, though maybe not as widely read as he used to be, is part of the literary canon. On the other hand, Isabelle Eberhardt is not somebody everybody knows about—yet. But she’s a really fascinating figure, such an amazingly headstrong, independently minded person, a real role model from an era where women weren’t, by and large, allowed to be what she was. At the same time, she’s a really tragic figure; she died at the age of 27. How did you come to know about her, and what made you decide to make an opera about her?
MM: I was 23 when I picked up a copy of her journals in a bookstore in Boston, really just completely at random. A new edition had just been published in English, and I was immediately struck by what I read when I opened it up. It just has this tone and this openness that is really strange for travel diaries of that era. You read Pierre Loti or André Gide and they’re writing about going into the desert with 45 servants and having high tea; she had nothing. She was very poor and extremely adventurous and brave, and had these really raw experiences, sometimes amazing experiences. She was one of the first women to witness this particular religious ceremony that happens in the desert where people shoot guns into the sand in this very colorful ceremony. She also experienced extreme poverty and extreme loss. She seemed to live this very extreme life. I was really struck by how she wrote about her sadness in particular. She had 25 different words for being sad.
I knew immediately that I wanted to do something with her life, that there was something in there that was resonating with me. I started actually by just writing songs about her. I would take fragments of her journal and create texts based on the fragments and just write songs. Then it became apparent that it needed to be an evening-length theatrical work. At that point, I brought on the librettist Royce Vavrek to sort of craft the true libretto. But it’s called Song from the Uproar, because it’s her song; this song emerging from the chaos of her life, that’s the song coming out of the uproar.
FJO: There are some interesting parallels between Isabelle Eberhardt and Stephen Crane, whose poem you set in your short piece for Jody Redhage, A Thousand Tongues, which you mentioned earlier. They probably never met each other, since they were based in different parts of the world, but both were tireless adventurers who scoffed at conventions and both died before they were 30, around the turn of the 20th century. It was a very different world than the world we live in now in many ways. Yet in both cases, the music you chose to convey their words is a very contemporary sound world. You didn’t feel the pull to go back into their sound world.
MM: No, because what’s interesting to me was what was going on in their minds, which I think is something that transcends time and place. So I was interested in the things, about Isabelle’s story in particular, that made her story universal, the things that I identified with as a woman living in the 21st century. There’s this constant loneliness, this feeling of being very much in love with her husband but really wanting this independent life. And there’s a conflict between Eastern culture and Western culture, in her own mind; this stuff was really juicy and interesting and is not just about her being in Algeria in 1904. So I wanted a piece that was unmoored from time and place. That’s why I felt free to use electric guitar, electronics, and samples, and that’s why for the production that we did, initially at The Kitchen and later at LA Opera, there’s film with images of things that happened long after her death—people answering telephones and riding in cars. But I think it all makes sense because the story is about this fever dream of a life that she had.
FJO: And in the case of the Stephen Crane?
MM: Well, that was a much shorter text, but I also tried to get at the universal qualities of that poem. He says, “I have a thousand tongues, and nine and ninety-nine lie, though I try to use the one, it will make no melody at my will. It is dead in my mouth.” Who hasn’t felt like that sometimes? It’s this idea that you have these many faces, but which one is your true face and what is the truth? So it seemed to tap into something more universal.
FJO: Compared with these other pieces, Breaking the Waves is much more contemporary. It’s based on a Lars von Trier film that’s set in the 1970s. But you initially didn’t want to do this.
MM: Right. So my librettist, who’s also one of my best friends, Royce Vavrek, came to me and said we should make this into an opera: Breaking the Waves, Lars von Trier’s seminal 1996 film. And I was like, “That’s a great film. It’s already this complete object; why would we mess with it?” Also, at the time, there were a lot of operatic adaptations of films being made, and I just felt like I wanted to try something different. So he left me alone and let me think about it. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I watched the film again and I was like, “Wow, I can hear music for these people. But it’s not going to be what people expect; it’s going to be very, very different from the film. I really feel like I can make my own piece based on this incredible story.” Once I felt the freedom to separate myself from the film, that’s when the project became real and became very exciting to me.
FJO: Of course, that’s an even bigger challenge. When you’re reading a story or a poem, even if it’s from another era, it’s still a disembodied text that allows you to hear it in your own mind rather than a specific way. But if you’re basing something on a film, that film already comes with its own sound world: the sounds of the actors’ voices as well as the music of the soundtrack in the film. There are all these things already there that you have to strip away in order for it to become your own thing.
MM: It’s true, but less so in Breaking the Waves, since there’s no composed soundtrack for it. There is music in the film—some ‘70s rock tunes by Elton John, David Bowie, and Deep Purple—but there isn’t a score that’s telling you how to feel. I think that that left space for me to create my own music for it. That’s really significant. But still, you’re right, especially with Lars von Trier, you have all these amazing hand held shots, and these close-ups of people’s faces. That is such a part of our experience of that story, just being in the room with these people, in their face, as Emily Watson is crumbling, or in her wedding dress waiting for her fiancé to come on a helicopter. It’s really emotional. How do I keep that in the opera, when it’s a singer who’s a hundred feet away from you in a theater where your eyes can look anywhere? You don’t have to look at her face. And there’s no way that I can make you look at her face, except to have her sing something really awesome. So it’s an interesting challenge that I solved in a couple different ways throughout the opera, since that intimacy is something I wanted to maintain from the film.
FJO: There’s that word “intimacy” again, going back to that comment you made on the blog ten years ago.
MM: Right. I haven’t really changed much. I’m still trying to do the same things all the time.
FJO: Now the initial impetus for this conversation was Vesper Sparrow, the piece being done in Korea. Once again the source of it is literary inspiration, although this time from somebody who’s an exact contemporary of yours.
MM: Well, the thing to know about working with the group Roomful of Teeth, who commissioned and premiered it, is that they have this residency every year at MASS MoCA, the museum in Massachusetts, and they invite composers to come stay with them for two weeks to learn about the group and to learn whatever vocal techniques they’re learning. At the time, they were learning Tuvan throat singing and Sardinian su cantu a tenòre singing. So I would try to learn it with them or try to sing along with them, and I just hung out with them for two weeks. During those two weeks, you’re supposed to write a piece or two for them, and then they perform it at the end. It’s like Project Runway without the snarky competition, where you have to create something very fast and then present it. So I did that and the week before I was going to go, I was thinking, “Wait a second, are they going to sing words? If they’re going to sing words, what are they going to sing?” Thankfully my best friend is a poet, Farnoosh Fathi, so I called her and I said, “Send me the manuscript to your book,” which was coming out that fall—it’s called Great Guns—and she did. I just printed it out and on the train ride up there, I sat and read through all these poems. She was also very open to me taking bits of poems, and cutting out what didn’t necessarily work for voices or was too long. She has this great poem that at the time was called “Vesper Sparrow,” which was later changed to “Home State,” and that’s where the text comes from that happens like three-quarters of the way through the piece.
FJO: But there are also all these other syllables that are not really comprehensible as language. That’s not part of her poem? She didn’t write those syllables?
FJO: Now I’m totally confused.
MM: Yeah, rightfully so. So, in one of the versions of the poem, again I don’t know because she was writing while I was writing the piece and a lot of it changed for the final book, but one of her poems began with the call of the vesper sparrow, which translates something like “hey, hey, now, now, all together down the hill,” or something. We put words to it to remember the call. And so the Roomful of Teeth piece is sort of an explosion of that. It’s like these bird songs initially. And then, halfway though, they just start singing words that come out of nowhere. So it’s this mish mash. Farnoush’s poetry is very lyrical and is free association. There are all these beautiful images that you don’t expect that come in out of nowhere. And that’s what inspired the piece. This text comes in out of nowhere. You don’t expect it. And the connections between the phrases are tenuous, and you’re supposed to come up with that in your own mind.
FJO: Before you told me this story, I had no idea that this came about because Roomful of Teeth was learning traditional Sardinian singing techniques. Yet still, when I first heard it, I immediately associated it with Sardinian traditional music because I have field recordings from Sardinia, and what you wrote sounds remarkably authentic at times. And so when I was trying to figure out the connections I thought, well I know that you come from an Italian background, but you were using a poem by a woman with an Iranian background. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together in my head.
MM: Well, now you know the story, which is that I had to come up with something very quickly and called in favors from friends. But I think the result is something that does capture the spirit of not only the Sardinian singing, but also of Roomful of Teeth itself. It’s like this joyful coming together of people from all these different places, of these very particular voices, and somehow the combination of all of them makes total sense. And this combination of bird song and a strange abstract poem by this Iranian-American poet somehow all comes together and makes sense in this little five-minute piece.
FJO: It was written for Roomful of Teeth, and they made a fabulous recording of it, too. But it’s printed in score and so it’s available for other groups to perform. So it can have a life beyond Roomful of Teeth. And now it’s going to be done in South Korea as part of the 2016 ISCM World Music Days. The singers who are performing it there might not necessarily have the same background as Roomful of Teeth. They might not have had the workshop in Sardinian folk music that Roomful of Teeth had that week. How can they do an idiomatic performance without all of that? How necessary are those elements in order for the piece to work?
MM: When I wrote it I never imagined anyone else singing it, because it had to be written so quickly and it was so particular for this group. But I’m open to different interpretations. I like the Sardinian aspect of it and I like that there’s a recording that these singers will hopefully listen to, even just to get an idea of what the piece is about and the character. But do they need to have that precise sort of like nasally intonation that the Sardinian music has? Not necessarily. I think that the piece is the notes and the rhythms and the texts. And all that translates on the page.
FJO: So to come full circle, we talked about you playing your music yourself with your own group, as well as writing for orchestras where you have very little face time with the musicians. Now here we have an example of a piece that’s out in the world and you may have no face time at all with the musicians. That’s actually a very typical situation with composers whose music is published and gets widely performed. At a certain point, you can’t be everywhere. Your identity has to be conveyed exclusively through those marks on a printed page; that’s how it ultimately lives if it is to become repertoire.
FJO: That’s the opposite of intimacy, but I guess it’s vulnerable, isn’t it?
MM: It is. And if my only outlet was to make these marks on a page and then deliver it to people who I would never meet, I would be really depressed. I created this band, and I perform, and I write for my friends, and I try to be intimately involved with people who are in the process of performing my music to counteract that, to maintain some sense of control and involvement on every level. In a good way, not in a control freak kind of way, but just to be involved in all aspects of the music making. It’s a little bit scary to send this piece off and have people I don’t know yet perform it. But that’s also really exciting, and I will know them in a few weeks!
William Thomas McKinley in 1988. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy Elliott Miles McKinley.
It’s hard to believe Tom is gone. He was such a force in my life, and in the lives of so many others. To me, Tom is what a life in music is all about—a love of the medium, passionate drive, and the relentless pursuit of creative excellence. He set a standard to which I continually aspire.
Tom was born in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, on December 9, 1938. He took an interest in music at a very young age and began playing piano at six. By eleven he became a member of the musician’s union and was already playing jazz in nightclubs around Pittsburgh. After high school, he enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University (then Carnegie Tech) to study classical piano performance. However, during his audition, he stunned the piano faculty with his ability to improvise in almost any style and drew the attention of composer Nikolai Lopatnikoff. It was Lopatnikoff who persuaded Tom to switch from piano performance to composition.
In 1963, while a Tanglewood fellow, Tom met Gunther Schuller. Gunther would become an important mentor, friend, and advocate, and steer Tom to pursue graduate study in composition at Yale where he would meet another important mentor, Mel Powell. After graduating Yale with two master’s degrees he accepted a teaching position in composition at the University of Chicago. In 1973, Gunther would again prove influential in Tom’s early career by extending an invitation to teach composition and jazz piano at the New England Conservatory of Music. Gunther would later say of Tom’s music that he had “more original ideas on one page than most composers do in a lifetime.”
When I first began studying with Tom in 1975, I was blown away by his playing. Then I heard performances of his chamber pieces, and was further impressed with the richness of his music. When I showed Tom my compositions he helped me see the depth of my own potential, to value my own ideas, and to ignite them. Being a composer and jazz pianist, Tom was a role model for my own work. He was a composition teacher and a mentor to me, much the way Mel Powell was for him. Up to that point I was frustrated, feeling that being a serious composer would mean giving up all the love I had for jazz and spontaneous improvisation. Tom helped to confirm what I sensed—I could do both, abolish this duality, and see creative music from a perspective of higher unity. He demonstrated how, musically and spiritually, one could embrace both—through notes, gestures, and at every imaginable level.
In that sense, he was a true American original and, to my knowledge, the first American classical composer who was also a major post-bop jazz pianist. Tom played and recorded actively with jazz greats such as Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, Roy Haynes, Miroslav Vitous, Billy Hart, Gary Peacock, and Eddie Gomez, to name a few. Put together with his enormous output of chamber music and orchestral compositions (more than 400 works by the time he passed away), he occupies a unique place in music history.
William Thomas McKinley at the piano in his office at New England Conservatory circa 1990. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy Elliott Miles McKinley.
As lifelong friend and Pittsburgh-area composer David Stock said, “Very few composers have been so completely versed in jazz and concert music.”
Tom once remarked, “None of my best students sound like me.” I think that is a testament to their talent, and to his teaching abilities. His gifts were so huge; he didn’t need to create musical or ideological clones. Intensely prolific, he wanted his students to truly become themselves. Everyone who studied with him had his/her life transformed. This is evidenced well by the outpouring from former students on the news of Tom’s death, all speaking of his impact on their lives.
Some of my happiest moments with Tom were when I had the chance to make music with him as a fellow composer during recording sessions or as a colleague on a jazz concert. In 1992, Tom started a recording company (known then as MMC) to help American composers get orchestral music recorded. In the recording booth, Tom offered tremendous insight to all the composers during the recording process. His ears were lightning fast, and he knew just what to suggest and how to do it tactfully so as not to step on the conductor’s toes. He understood the orchestra as few do, and anyone who studied with him knows what a great orchestration teacher he was. I am honored that some of my own orchestral music appears alongside Tom’s on several releases from that time. I also had the privilege to play jazz alongside him on some recent concerts, which gave me a rush like I had back in 1975 when I first met him.
Tom once said, when asked if he ever took a vacation, “Holidays? My life is a holiday! Composing is being alive.” I will dearly miss Tom. I will miss his quick wit and humor, his kindness and generosity, and his love of life, coffee, and his deep uncompromising passion for music. His death should inspire us all to work harder, find the very best within ourselves, and honor his legacy.
William Thomas McKinley with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman in 1985 Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy Elliott Miles McKinley.
[Note from the composer’s son Elliott Miles McKinley: William Thomas McKinley passed away very early in the morning on Tuesday, February 3, 2015. It was in his sleep and unexpected. (He was not suffering from any long-term illness that we knew of at the time.) We are not sure of the cause.]
William Thomas McKinley’s desk on the day of his death, February 3, 2015. Among the materials there are a new composition for the SOLI Chamber Ensemble plus various articles and drafts for books he was working on. Photo by Elliott Miles McKinley.
Marc Rossi is a composer, jazz pianist, and Professor at The Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Conducted at the artist’s home in New York City
January 4, 2013—2 p.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Molly Sheridan
Poster image by B. Abrams
Transcribed by Julia Lu
If there is any way to distill the wide-ranging artistry of Matana Roberts, it might be to focus on the ways in which she eludes definitions. Where the weight of other people’s expectations—of her instrument, her genre, even her race and her gender—might have fenced her in, she has instead pushed off these bounding walls into new areas of exploration, both sonic and narrative. The Chicago-raised composer, improviser, and alto saxophonist offers a friendly yet confidant smile as she explains, “Basically, I don’t like being told what to do, or who I am, or what I am by other people. I prefer to make those statements myself.”
For Roberts, that kind of self-definition seems to flow hand-in-hand with a certain creative restlessness. While the influence of jazz in her music is apparent, she has expanded her creative palette to encompass a broader world of improvisation, experimentalism, and theatrical storytelling. This drive is perhaps most clearly showcased under the heading of her work Coin Coin, which she began developing in 2006. Divided into 12 “chapters,” the project includes multiple ensemble configurations, graphic notation, and explorations both compositional and historical. It is a work that is intensely personal and yet strikingly universal, incorporating her general interests in ritual, spirits, and genealogy alongside a more exacting trace of her own bloodlines and the stories of her ancestors. Like much family history, the path is circuitous and the narrative open to interpretation. Whether she and her flexible band are whispering intimate secrets into the ears in the audience, cajoling them into joining in, or screaming at their side, however, the result is a piece of transfixing emotional power.
In her artist statement, Roberts includes a line which has inspired the title of this profile, “Through my life’s work, I stand creatively in defiance.” In the course of our talk, she celebrated what sets her apart and the vital role art can play when taken outside of its usual hallways. And while certainly there are outside forces that can try to hamper her artistry, she has also come to realize that sometimes the most forbidding barriers are the ones that can build up inside. “I have all these things that I want to try creatively,” she acknowledged, “and for a long time, I didn’t understand that there was nothing standing in my way.”
Molly Sheridan: It’s maybe too easy to label a saxophonist a jazz artist even if the genre relationship is not particularly strong. I know you often find yourself pushed in this direction, but is that where you feel most rooted or where you have been placed by others? Matana Roberts: I try to push myself away from that word, though I will always have a love for that music and for a lot of those people. But for what I’m trying to do, I find it really confining on so many different levels—not just musical, but also in terms of the culture and certain types of generalizations that come with that word that I don’t like. I was a clarinet player first, playing classical music, but in terms of really dealing with the saxophone, it came from dealing with jazz music. There is an influence of jazz in my music, and there’s always going to be, but I feel like I’m more of a hybrid. Real jazz musicians to me are people who are deeply dealing with the traditional aspects of that music. I’m considering those aspects, but I’m not dealing with them in the way that they are. It partly has a little bit to do with gender, a little bit to do with race, and just at my core there’s a certain sense of punk aesthetic that I will always ascribe to. Basically, I don’t like being told what to do, or who I am, or what I am by other people. I prefer to make those statements myself. MS: So there’s both a social and an aesthetic tension there? MR: Yeah. African American jazz musicians have to deal with certain sorts of generalizations that I find really uncomfortable, and I get to feel a little bit of that when I travel, especially outside of the United States. I’ve learned a lot about how global my bloodline really is, and I want to live in a way where I’m not ignoring all those different segments. Then, I try to not really jump in on the gender thing, but I’m tired of having my work and my music or any sort of artistic output judged by men. The jazz world is still is a very male world. In order to be a part of that world—when I was really thickly a part of that world—I had to ignore certain aspects of my gender that made me, in the end, really uncomfortable. So I’m trying to chart something that takes in my love of old American traditions—not just jazz, but jazz is one of them. MS: You made a move from Chicago to New York in 2002, and the way I’ve heard you speak about The Chicago Project, the album you released in 2008, and the artists you worked with while making that recording, it sounds like it represented a kind of graduation in a sense. Is that an accurate impression? MR: When I was asked by Barry Adamson to make a record where I could pay the musicians well and bring on a producer that I trusted, I just felt that I needed to use that first recording as a way to honor the people who had really helped me. I was already living in New York at that time, and I could have used that opportunity to solidify one of my New York bands, but all those guys on that record—especially Josh Abrams, Jeff Parker, and Fred Anderson—they brothered and uncled and fathered me through this music when I first starting playing in Chicago. So I don’t know if it was a graduation, but that record is a document of things. I don’t think I’ve ever told them that, but I hope they understand. That record and the music on that record is my thank you to them. MS: We’ve spoken some about what you do take from jazz, but even in an “end of genre” age, you have integrated various streams of influence in a particularly rich and personal way—and not just multigenre but multidisciplinary. What experiences or instincts pushed that side of your work? Who was influential to you in that regard? MR: I’m highly influenced by visual art, more than sound. I’m influenced by those people and traditions that are not considered high art, that wouldn’t be let into some places because they come from more of an emotional place rather than an intellectual place. They come from more of a folk place, more a place of the heart, than some other traditions. I’m attracted to ghosts and spirits and spooks and these things. The graphic notation comes from my love of visual art. But also I have a learning disorder and the way I understand music or just understand logic is sometimes a lot different than other people. It took me a long time to understand that I wasn’t stupid, that it’s a different kind of intelligence that I have. I still don’t understand how it’s worked out the way that it has, but luckily, I’ve been able to use a lot of those things in the way that I deal with music.
I’ve always been interested in theater. When I was kid, I wanted to be a playwright, and I grew up going to the opera. We were one of the few black families with season tickets. My grandmother would save up for that and drag us. I hated it at the time, and now I feel really privileged that I got to experience that. Growing up in a classic Chicago African-American neighborhood, where you are constantly exposed to ideas of signification, to ideas of ritual—even going to black churches and seeing how black American people deal with that—used to really rub my punk side the wrong way. But now I’m able to look back at that and see how culture deals with the idea of spectacle. I really want to use my work as a way to explore those different themes that are not necessarily just related to the African American experience, but related to just the experience of peoples. There are common themes that run through all cultures in terms of ritual and presentation—ideas of pain, joy, sadness, gladness, and these traditions that get passed down, that don’t necessarily get documented, or commercialized, or valued. I’m interested in placing my own value on those things. MS: Your piece Coin Coin, which is kind of a poster child for this type of exploration and multidisciplinary artistic integration, is obviously a huge project, so there’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start by speaking just about some of the big concepts and the structure of the work, and then we’ll dig into the details. MR:Coin Coin is my interest in history and folklore. Some parts of it have to do with research that I’ve been doing on my own ancestry, and I use some of that information to dig deeper into ideas of narrative. Right now, Coin Coin is very much about the African American experience in America in some ways, but the whole overarching thing is about just exploring these human universals. My mother used to call it the musical monument to the human experience, and that’s how I pretty much like to explain it. It’s a multimedia sound project about my love of history. There was never enough time in the day to be a hobbyist in that and also deal with the music. When I realized I could put them together, that’s kind of the whole overarching theme.
I wanted to create a project that would allow me to challenge myself as a composer in terms of dealing with different ensemble configurations. I had so much narrative that I could break down into so many segments that I realized I could also apply that to different ensemble configurations. Each segment deals with the same kind of graphic framework and some similar ideas so that when I’m finally done with it, perhaps I can link them all together.
There are ten ensemble chapters and two solo chapters that bookend the project in my head. It’s all formulated, but the solo chapters are still under development. I just came off tour working on those. Five of the ensemble segments have been performed, and now what I’ve been doing is having these Coin Coin experiments where they’re not full chapters, but they’re ideas that I’m trying to consider in the work. I don’t have the kind of money where I can just have a lab ensemble. I have to plug them into a performance to fund them. But each chapter is structured and written out and there’s a narrative for each one. I just have to get to them.
MS: Considering the financial challenges that might hamper work of this scope, can you tell me more about how the development and composition process for these pieces has worked? MR: Before I started the project, it was very rare that I could sit down and write a song. The one thing that I’ve always loved about jazz is melody and that will always be a hallmark of all of my work. But I also grew up during some of the best eras of hip hop and also was really heavily influenced by riot grrrl and punk, and so I would try and write and I could never finish a song. Every now and then a song would come out from beginning to end, but usually they would come in snippets, and I’d have just these pieces. For a while I felt like a real failure. Then I started weaving the snippets together and understanding that maybe they are all part of the same thing or, if they aren’t, I can make them part of the same thing. I also became more and more interested in graphic notation and the ways in which musicians see sound.
So I just started weaving things together in that way. I remember the first score I put together. I thought I was going to get laughed out of New York City. But we did it and it was like magic. I was like, wow, this kind of composition is possible if you make sure you do it from your heart. Every piece of graphic notation that you have on a piece of paper, you should be able to really break down and really minutely explain, so that it’s honest. When I went in that direction, it all started to make sense. MS: What made you question that initially? You mentioned that you thought you were going to be laughed out of New York City. MR: I went to jazz schools and had some really negative experiences. Those places sometimes will make you feel like anything that you have to offer is not good enough—not just jazz schools, any institution can do that to you. So I really let that undermine me. I had a professor in college that told me the only way that I was ever going to get a gig was to marry a musician. And at the time, I believed him because he was the professional and I was the student. So, I still had all these little scars from that. It almost seemed too playful and too imaginary for anyone else to understand. I found out later that that was not true, but I needed to go through that process. MS: Can you describe the graphic score/notation system that you are using in the work? MR: To be honest with you, I’m not sure I can really break it down because it’s work that I’m still trying to develop. Things have changed. That has been the interesting thing about it, and what has slowed it down somewhat, too. I thought I would be done with all 12 chapters by 2011. Ha! No.
To start, I had a really deep interest in sacred geometry and symbolism. I was using some Native American and African symbolism. Then, looking at these different locales that I’m dealing with—Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi by way of Africa, Ireland, England, France, Scotland—and looking at how these different places throughout their history have dealt with symbolism, and what symbols have remained. Oftentimes, I would pull symbols from that, that I could draw. I think partly this is also because I wish I could draw. So I would look at a shape or scribble and imagine how I could interpret that in sound: what someone could ask of me in terms of how to interpret that and, most importantly, how I could use it to not really create melody but how it could create texture. So that is the direction that I’ve always taken the graphic scoring. Also, people always accuse me of having a really personal sound, or a really personal approach, which is a nice accusation, but I also wanted to figure out a way that I could create but still have the performers’ own personalities come through. The first chapter of Coin Coin I actually put together partly because I wanted to play music with my friends who couldn’t read music—a lot of Canadian folk that I really loved who are amazing improvisers, but weren’t readers. Then sometimes I would do some of this work with people who were amazing readers, but not good improvisers, and there’s a definite difference in that. So, I just wanted to figure out a way to create the scores where I could find these little textures that I was interested in. Now, even with re-renderings of chapters that have already been recorded or that I’m still performing, there are still new textures that I’m looking for that I haven’t heard yet. So I’m trying to push that into the next segment of scores.
Courtesy Constellation Records
MS: It seems like you would need to be both particular about who you involved in performing the project, and then also decide how much control you wanted to have over the sounds they eventually produce. How have you picked those people, and then how much do you try to control them? MR: Well, one day I sat down and made a list of all the musicians I knew in New York by instrument—so overwhelming!—and all the musicians that I really like to play with that I just could never pull into my regular quartet or trio. It was a way that I could experiment with the graphic notation that I still needed to formulate and understand, but could do it repeated times with different groups of people. That’s one of the reasons I’ve taken the score to different cities—to play with different musicians in different places. Now there are some core people that I always call on any chance that I get. One of them I would say is the drummer Tomas Fujiwara, who has played on pretty much every incarnation of the project since I started it. But I look for a certain kind of person. Their heart matters to me more than some sort of technical execution. I’ve not always been successful in that—sometimes you just don’t know what you’re about to step into and some musicians are just not comfortable in the directives.
There is an incredible amount of control that goes on though, still, because I do utilize different systems of conduction and conducting improvisers. It’s something that I learned from watching Butch Morris and from the days that I used to be in this band called Burnt Sugar that also uses Butch’s conduction system. Then, going back and hearing old Sun Ra recordings—Sun Ra also used conduction. So even in recorded material that people hear, I’m trying to sculpt the sound within the framework of the score. There is some open improvisation in there, but I never liked open improvisation for the sake of open improvisation. It’s always bothered me. So within the Coin Coin scores, I try to dissect things and put them back together and cut them down and push them back up. Just trying all sorts of things. MS: I love how the first chapter you recorded, Gens de Couler Libres, is such a completely enveloping piece and I was interested to read how many other commenters felt motivated to point out that your work here was “not alienating.” And yet you’re not afraid to seriously scream in the course of things. In a sense, it feels like you’re both embracing and emotionally punching the listener within the same work. It’s just a pretty aggressive thing. So I’m curious about your decision to do that. Did you hesitate at all? How has this felt to you in performance? MR: First off, I highly recommend it! It’s incredibly therapeutic, though it’s not something I can really do on the regular and I don’t—that chapter does not get regular performances for that reason. It really wears the body down. When I first started doing that chapter in New York, after it was over, I felt like I needed to be carried off on a stretcher.
My whole thing about dealing with this history and dealing with these ideas and themes is I want some sort of experiential feeling of it. I wanted to know what it felt like to do that. Most of the things that I’m into are things that are experiential in nature. I want to know what pain feels like, I want to know what the depths of misery feel like, and that’s a hard way to live. But within those scream-sings, there’s a lot of joy there, too. There’s a level of life and living and experience. Those screams on that record were incredibly difficult for me because my mother had just passed away maybe ten days before that was recorded, so those screams were therapeutic in a different kind of way. But there’s a welcoming to them, too: We’re here. I’m alive. Let’s celebrate what we do have.
The other thing about the Coin Coin work is there are things that the work has told me I had to do that I did not want to do. That has been the speaking. That has been the singing. That has been the screaming. Those are the things that when I was putting that first chapter together, it was like, “Ahhh, I don’t really want to deal with that! Why do I have to do that? Why can’t I put an ensemble together and make them do that?” But I felt that I needed to have an understanding and experience of those ideas. MS: Screaming in pieces usually only elicits a kind of nails on chalkboard reaction in me, but I didn’t get that sense from this piece so it intrigued me. There’s an intimacy to it. MR: There’s an intimacy, but that’s the other thing where gender jumps in. As an African American female performer, there’s a certain sort of fetishization that goes on that has been around since the beginning. I’ve had to deal with that a little bit in ways that have been surprising to me. Sometimes people will still take it to a base level—oh, she’s just trying to get attention by putting that in there. Or they’ll define what that scream is. They’ll listen to the narrative and assume exactly what it is that’s being screamed about. There’s a power to those scream-sings. That’s why I think more people should do it. MS: Do they mistakenly ascribe it to a certain “character” or something in the narrative? MR: They ascribe it to a character. They ascribe it to violence. It’s automatically ascribed to a certain kind of violence. And yes, there was a certain amount of violence in slave history, but there’s also so much more than that. Why can’t those screams be screams of joy and perseverance? Why do the screams have to be whittled down? This one person I was dealing with last year was whittling it down to sexual violence. And okay, well sure. But have you been listening? It’s something that I just have to remember that I can’t care about. You do it. You put it out there. Whatever people want to do with it, they do with it. You move on to the next thing that you’re doing. MS: As a woman journalist who often finds herself interviewing other women in a field that still has serious parity issues, I feel a constant tension as to whether or not to include the subject in interviews. But here it seems particularly relevant, considering the context of Coin Coin and the experience of hearing women’s voices and stories, to make sure that’s fostered and presented. MR: I used to avoid these questions. There was a time when I used to try to talk about them, and then, maybe about ten years ago, I just stopped because I felt like it was pulling me down instead of pushing me up. As a black musician, I’m already focusing on a certain kind of difference. My parents were black radicals. So, growing up in this environment, it was constantly pounded into you: difference and what you have to do because of this difference. Then having to deal with the gender things was a whole other deal. Now, I feel a bit more open to talking about it because even though I try not to get on the soap box, I think it’s important to just talk about the importance of women’s voices. That’s one of the reasons, when putting that first chapter of Coin Coin together, that speaking was demanded, that singing and that screaming was demanded—it was a certain kind of statement of womanhood, too.
I’m at a point now ten years later or so where I’m a bit troubled by the way in which women musicians and women composers still are not heard of or still not supported. I’m tired of having to deal with “business and industry issues” that are highly male. I’ve loosened up a little bit, but on my website, there are no pictures of myself. That is purposeful, that was a feminist statement to me to say, you know, my body is not for sale. My person is not for sale. The sound is what I deal with. Now, I’m about to change it a little bit because I feel more comfortable in the statement of who I am, and I think it’s obvious. But there was a period there where I just felt like I was really being boxed around by men. I’ve made some changes also in the past couple of years to ground myself a little bit more in the difference that I have and that I represent, but not allowed it to close me off or create new ideas of hatred of men, who I love. I’ve gotten a lot of support from a lot of really wonderful men.
The question of women in this music has a lot also to do with just the question of women in society and what is expected of us and what is not expected of us. A lot of the male composers and male musicians I know who are working, and working steadily, are oftentimes able to do that because they have a wife or a girlfriend who is a breadwinner. They’re able to have families and to do these things because they have a partner who’s willing to take on those things. Most female musicians and composers that I know don’t have that. It doesn’t really happen in quite the same way, though I’m not convinced that it has to be that way. The issues that exist within this music have a lot to do, as always, with the issues that still exist in our society, which is highly patriarchal no matter how many different ways we want to slice it. I’ve talked to women musicians from other generations, and what has been crazy to me is the repeated stories. We can sit there and just compare stories by theme and just be like, “What? I thought the man of this generation was more enlightened than the man of that generation.” No. It’s just like this commonality, which can kind of bring you down. At the same time, my difference has also helped me, I think, and I feel a lot of gratitude for that—that I stand out in a sea of men. One of the reasons I moved to New York was because there were so many women saxophonists here who were amazing musicians and had very specific goals for themselves. I wanted to be in a city where that was going on. Now I’m not really as attracted to that as I used to be, but that was one of the impetuses for coming here rather than going back to Chicago or going somewhere else. MS: I was going to say, how do you keep yourself motivated to fight that tide? It sounds like you came to New York for that kind of community, but now? MR: I feel strong enough because I’ve also realized how multi-rich my own creative path is, and how it’s not just portioned off to music. I’ve been able to bring in all these other things that inspire me. My community is a community of not just musicians, but of artists of all kinds. I also really see my work as a form of community work. There’s a social conscience to the work that I’m trying to do, but in terms of the contribution that I really want to make on a social level, it’s not quite there yet. MS: In what ways? Can you talk a little more about that? MR: I just feel this music has allowed me to have a bit of a platform that I can use for positive influence and positive things for other people. If you’re being given a lot—I’m paraphrasing—it means that you need to give even more. Living this life, there have been some real difficulties, but I’ve been fairly lucky. My most satisfying work of service has been working with people for whom the arts can act as a kind of refuge and form of personal expression to deal with pain and societal pressures. Having more of an activism strain moving through my work is what I hope to do. I’m the product of a public school education. All that free arts stuff that I got—if that wasn’t there, there’s no way I’d be sitting here right now. I grew up in neighborhoods where I got to see what happened to people who didn’t have access to those things. So I hope to use the work more as a platform for bringing focus back to some of those ideas. But I still haven’t touched it quite yet. MS: You were also up in Montreal doing a project with kids. MR: Yeah. It was with at-risk native Canadian youth. I helped set up a music program at a drop-in center there. I did a few zine workshops with them. I’ve done a lot of community outreach over the years. I am not the type of person that could ever be a traditional educator or someone that people see every day, but I like infusing myself into these environments. I’ve done work at homeless shelters, and it’s the people that are really going through things, those are the people who can really be helped by art, more so than anybody that’s walking into MoMA or the Whitney. It’s those Chicago neighborhoods where there’s not quite that sense of hope, those are the places that really need art. I think about that a lot. But I come from a family of people who did a lot of community service, so I think that’s what that’s about as well. I feel I have to step up and be a part of that. Because what I’m doing being an artist, or being a musician, that is not a high enough vibration for my family line. There’s more I’m supposed to do. MS: Do you feel like you take that onstage with you, too—that desire for connection and active community support and development? MR: Yeah, that’s an aspect of my personality that has always kind of disturbed me a little bit. I have this intense desire to connect. Always. And oftentimes, the only way that I know how to do that is to come from a really personal place in terms of how I put the music together. I want my musical output to be an experience for all involved, not just the musicians but for everyone. I want us to be able to create sort of a womb together of possibility, which doesn’t necessarily transfer to always being positive. I don’t mind it if people come and don’t like it; that’s cool, too. It’s just creating kind of this moving organism together. This spontaneous way of connecting to strangers who are not really strangers because we’re really all in this together. That has always been really important to me, and it’s sometimes made me think I’m in the wrong profession. I need to go do something else where that is more immediate. But somehow, so far, I’ve been able to feel that a little bit in performance and the feedback that I get from people. I get really detailed feedback from people, and that used to scare me a little bit, too. [laughs] I’m okay with that now, because that is at the level that I want people to really engage. MS: That makes me think specifically about some of the reactions to the first chapter of Coin Coin, because for everything that piece covers, it very clearly and very powerfully digs into racial issues and the history of slavery. How has working on and performing the piece impacted your own thinking when it comes to the issues you’re addressing in the work? MR: It’s jumped through many different forms and there are many different ways in which it’s come back to me. On this last solo tour that I did, at every show I made each crowd sing with me the slave auction from the first chapter, and I forget how intense that is for some people. Mid-verse, I always have to stop and say, “Listen. This is a happy song. And I want you to understand that without the bidding of these people, I wouldn’t be here right now enjoying my life.” So that’s how I like to look at those things. I know from what I’ve experienced so far with the work that for reasons I don’t completely understand—but it makes me incredibly happy—that people are able to go into a deeper part of themselves and connect the story I’m telling to some story of their own. Oftentimes after shows, people will come up and share the most harrowing stories with me to let me know that they were able to connect even though the history is different for them. But I will say, the first time I started doing that sing-along with people, especially because there are rarely people of color in the audience, it took a moment. I’m like, “All right, I just sang a slave auction with a group of white people. I hope they understand.” Am I damning these people? No, I’m not damning anyone. But I want to share this. I think it’s really important to pay attention to history because it is constantly repeating itself. And there are so many beautiful stories within it that can teach us so much, so I will just continue to go in that direction. MS: Not that we don’t all have our dark histories, but does audience reaction differ between Europe and America? MR: The European audiences I’d say are a bit more political than the American audiences in some respects. I mean, singing this with a crowd of French, it’s interesting the spirit that comes through. The French were just on fire, because they have a particular understanding of the pain of that history because of the African influence in their own country. Singing this with a crowd of anarchists in Leipzig? Awesome. It’s about a spirit of survival more than it’s about race, class, or gender. Traveling through Germany recently and going through cities that were completely destroyed during the war and talking to people, hearing them recount stories in a way that they could attach to my own. I was in Poland telling some of these ancestral stories and feeling the pain in the room of people who couldn’t go back before 1945 because there was nothing left. There’s no record—there’s no anything!—just these stories. It just brings it full circle for me about the importance of sharing history and, most importantly, sharing the most painful parts, because that’s what people can plug into. Then, it allows you to deal with more avant-garde sounds that they might not be able to plug into otherwise. That’s another reason why there is narrative in the work. MS: We actually have been very philosophical in our discussion about this piece, but we haven’t gotten into very much detail when it comes to its musical underpinnings. So let’s take a focused look at that. MR: I’m heavily influenced by a lot of musicians that have come out of Chicago. Not just the avant people, but the more traditional people, too, because there’s a common theme running through that city—I don’t understand why it happened there—where it was always about original sound, and original voice, and original approach. That combined with the certain brand of black radicalism that I grew up in there. It was expected that you understood that you could do anything you wanted to do, and that you should always hold in suspicion anybody that tells you that you can’t. You should always hold in suspicion anyone that claims that your idea is not valid, no matter what color they are or what their gender is. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians is an important organization in fostering that for a lot of people—myself and for other young musicians. So by the time I got here, I just always felt that my possibilities in terms of dealing with sound were pretty endless. Sometimes that’s actually really overwhelming, but that’s fine. MS: I’ve heard you equate your composition process with quilting. MR: When I started saying that, the feminist in me was like, “Why are you talking about quilting?” I don’t quilt, but that’s a tradition that is on my Mississippi side, and my grandmother, her mother, and her father, they used to quilt together. It was like a family thing, and it made me realize that the way that I was putting the scores together, with these segments intertwined with graphic notation, was a form of quilting. I think I actually wanted to create music in a way that my family might understand as well. I grew up around a lot of avant-garde music. My dad was a vinyl collector and into Sun Ra and Art Ensemble and Albert Ayler and all these people, and there’d be music on all the time. I remember having a really hard time trying to understand that music. The only way that I know how to understand these things is by dealing with narrative and story and how I can hoist my imagination onto the sound. So oftentimes I’m looking for sounds that evoke certain kinds of emotion. That’s really kind of the underpinning of a lot of the graphic notation, and this approach to texture. MS: I think you can hear that as a listener, but it’s a very non-linear experience. More like a fever dream—you’re one place and then something else starts creeping out and all of a sudden you’re turned towards a whole new area. MR: That’s so wonderful. I like that idea of the fever dream. MS: What’s your relationship to the saxophone at this point in your career, then, now that you’re doing more composition? MR: The saxophone is always going to be at the core of everything that I do because the saxophone taught me a lot about feeling and emotion and connection. The saxophone, the alto in particular, connects to people in a way that the other saxophones don’t sometimes. I remember Henry Threadgill talking about how he switched from tenor to alto. He was playing in church revivals and realized that the alto brought the Holy Ghost to people. I need the saxophone as an anchor. When I’ve tried to unanchor it, my life has gone insane. It is my tool to work through things, and when things get too overwhelming, I’m also able to shave down, and go right back to the alto, and it’s like, okay, this is the heart of everything. It’s the heart of everything that I do. MS: Do you think there’s a point that will come when you’ll say Coin Coin is finished, or is it one of those works that will always be part of your life, that will go on, growing and changing, like a living thing? MR: You know, originally there was a start, and there was an end. I had it broken down by years, by months. But then I would get through one segment of it and be like, okay, that was interesting, but what is it like if I do it like this? Or I could do it like that. And so now, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a living thing. And I will complete the chapters, but the idea—the work as a construct—will continue even beyond that. It feels like legacy work. I had no plans for that when I started, but that’s what it feels like now.
MS: Is there room left in your head for anything else? MR: It’s difficult, but I refuse to just focus on Coin Coin. The history that I am dealing with is so heavy sometimes that I actually feel drowned by it. It’s important for me to have some other ways of opening. I have a new New York quartet, and my focus with them is to keep all the graphic notation out of that and just to deal with my love of themes and songs. And I still explore solo saxophone work that is just in the tradition of solo saxophone. No extra anything. I have all these things that I want to try creatively, and for a long time, I didn’t understand that there was nothing standing in my way. You can do anything you want to do.
While it’s difficult to deny that the instant gratification of being able to listen to something as soon as you learn about it can be very satisfying, it also comes with a downside. It’s a little bit too easy, somehow, and therefore feels inconsequential, threatening to make the music seem more disposable, at least to me. That’s one of the main reasons why I still prefer to listen to music on physical recordings, although I’m probably in the minority about this issue among people who spend a great deal of time online—hence most of the folks reading this. That said, every now and again something that I’ve only been able to sonically experience via digital dissemination captures my full attention. Such is the case with Numbers and Shapes, the 14-track debut album from Rebecca Brandt, a Brooklyn-based composer who is classically trained as a pianist and has also done scores for film and TV.
Though the album also exists as a limited-edition CD, it is primarily available via download and can also be streamed in its entirety on Bandcamp. Bandcamp is not a site I’ve spent much time surfing around as of yet, though that may change after listening through every track on Brandt’s Bandcamp page. It initially came to my attention via an email in which she described each of the tracks as being in “its own little world.” Her name was unfamiliar to me so I felt intrigued enough to visit her website whose navigation has a clever Java script that plays a different chord for every area. So I decided to check out her recording via the email’s Bandcamp link. I know that going through the mishigas of surfing around instead of just following that Bandcamp link in the first place might sound like a counterintuitive approach, but remember I’m the guy who worries about music retrieved too easily being disposable. So I tried to recreate some of the chase and eventual reward I’ve always associated with discovering interesting music.
And the reward is still the music. The opening track on the album, “Staying Silent,” begins in a seemingly New Age vein: soothing piano, wordless vocals. I started to have my doubts. Despite my aim to love all music and fight against personal bias, I still have something of a block when it comes to things like New Age music and smooth jazz. (You can never completely escape the aesthetic prisons that mold you in your formative years.) Thankfully, to sate my aesthetic shortcomings at least, Brandt’s music quickly moves past the New Age sound world as she piles on more and more layers of counterpoint, creating music that instead winds up sounding more akin to one of Phil Spector’s self-described “little symphonies for the kiddies,” albeit without the saccharine lyrics.
“Run” similarly begins in a deceptively simple way, at the onset sounding reminiscent of music that is clearly commercial in its design—literally, it sounds like music that you hear used in commercials (and a realm in which Ms. Brandt has worked). But soon the numerous layers of orchestration gain the upper hand as Glass-ian descending scales propel the music to a place where you are forced to pay attention to it and only it.
But the real surprise comes with the third track, “The Clock Breaks at Three.” Here, the multiple instrumental layers are peeled away and all that is left is piano and percussion. But the fascinating dysfunctional tonality of the piano’s harmonies dispel the need for other timbres. In fact, so disconcerting is the initial juxtaposition of an unrelated harmony in the final two beats of each measure’s six beat rhythmic cycle, I kept thinking the music was in five or seven until I started tapping along with it.
Brandt’s layering returns, however, in “Other Places” which at times calls to mind passages from Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians albeit with a cello riff that is very reminiscent of the ostinato for the opening “Knee Play” of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, somehow reconciling two large-scale monuments of 1970s minimalism in only three minutes. “Blackbox,” similarly filled out with multiple orchestration layers as per the earlier tracks on the album, also includes some almost Richard Wright-like synth action of circa 1975 Pink Floyd.
“Jivko” opens with a very recorder-like flute solo, performed by Ashley Bozian-Murtha, hovering over a series of punctuated string trio chords reminiscent of the Beatles’ use of a string quartet in “Eleanor Rigby.” Soon, however, the flute is buried in layers of counterpoint with oboe, English horn, and soprano saxophone, but before it develops further it suddenly ends at barely two minutes in. I could have listened for at least another 20 minutes. The next track, “54,” actually is in quintuple time. It would not be out of place on one of Brian Eno’s ambient recordings, but don’t assume that means that it is consists exclusively of quietly flowing music; some pretty heavy percussive thwacks plus some bass guitar riffs assertively rendered by Benjamin Jacobs intrude on music that starts out deceptively serene.
On the other hand, “Aline’s Song,” in which Brandt’s piano is accompanied only by double bass and Marc Plotkin multitracked on several guitars (acoustic, electric, and bass), might perhaps be too serene for my own aforementioned aesthetic proclivities. Therefore it was my hope that the next track, with its intriguing title “The Twelve Tones,” would take me into somewhat gnarlier terrain. Not quite. The predominantly diatonic and harmonic language herein hardly references the total chromatic, at least to my ears, though in a brief email Q&A exchange with the composer during preparation for writing about her music she actually said it was her “take on the twelve-tone technique created by Arnold Schoenberg, and was written using a twelve tone matrix.” Of course, as composers from Rautavaara to Mikel Rouse have shown, twelve-tone rows can be pretty malleable and so I’m eager to see the matrix she used to generate this piece one day! But whether it’s tonal or dodecaphonic, I thought that the careful layering of the somewhat unusual combination of harp, flute, bassoon, string trio, and double bass was very exhilarating. Notably, this is the first time where there is no keyboard; the composer does not play on this track at all. She returns, however, on “Jewelry Box,” only here she exclusively plays celesta and glockenspiel. I’m a total sucker for both of these instruments, and they work nicely here in an ensemble of string quintet and winds, particularly when the strings are playing pizzicato. At about two minutes in, electric bass and drums enter, morphing the whole compositional edifice she has created into something more overtly pop-oriented. But these concessions to pop music sensibilities are completely eroded in “Phylum” which is scored exclusively for string quartet.
On “Rouge,” Brandt throws a sitar into the mix, performed by the NYC-based Hindustani classical sitarist Indro Roy-Chowdhury, but don’t assume that means that this is an example of Indofusion à la Shakti or George Harrison raga rock. Rather the sitar is just another timbral color for Brandt’s palette of sonorities. In fact, for me the highlight of the track is when everything—guitars and drums, as well as the sitar—drops out and all that remains are Brandt’s sustained Fender Rhodes chords. The most unadorned track in the entire collection, however, is “Kill The Messenger” which is an unaccompanied piano solo performed by Brandt. While the short composition (approximately two minutes) has a Glassworks-era Michael Riesman feel to it, it is somehow less tonally stable. The concluding track, “The Moment” begins as a solo piano waltz with unassuming um-pah-pahs which gradually builds to the largest ensemble assembled for the entire album—the blurb on the Bandcamp page describes it as a 32-piece orchestra but only 15 musicians were listed. It’s still an impressive-enough large ensemble which, through multi-tracking, sounds extremely full. Still, the overall effect sounds more prog-rock than symphonic. It’s mostly an acoustic ensemble, but once you throw in an electric guitar with feedback, that’s the sound that dominates. It also has the last word.
All in all, Numbers & Shapes offers an interesting range of sonic vignettes which navigate between quite a few genres. But the fact that none of these tracks seem beholden to any genre makes them ultimately a new music listening experience, one that I will hopefully encounter again as I wander the web. However, I still hope I can track down one of the copies of the limited-edition CD.
Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.
Jun 5, 2012
Subscribe to our newsletter and never miss a beat!