issue 11.1: July 2005

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INTERVIEW: Anthony Coleman 2004

This interview was conducted in Austin in September, 2004 during the Cinematexas Film Festival. Anthony Coleman was in town with percussionist Jim Pugliese and clarinetist Doug Wieselman to play live music to the 1932 Yasujiro Ozu movie “I Was Born, but...” You should probably be familiar with my previous interview with Anthony that was published in Monk Mink Pink Punk 4.

JR: I first talked to you ten years and three months ago. What have you been up to since then?
AC: That’s a good question.
JR: That’s my only question.
AC: Well, I succeeded, I failed, I succeeded again, I failed again. It’s been a lot of stuff, I don’t know where to begin. One of the main events has been the fall of the Knitting Factory and the rise of Tonic. Lots of records.
JR: When we talked you were going to do the first Sephardic Tinge record on Avant.
AC: It came out on Tzadik and there were two more, and two Selfhaters records, the record with me and Roy…
JR: Two more records.
AC: No, one more, one on Tzadik, two on Knitting Factory. And now… In the last four years incredible touring with Los Cubanos [Postizos] [The Prostetic/Fake Cubans, lead by Marc Ribot] and that ending, Sephardic Tinge ending, lots of touring with Sephardic Tinge, some touring with my trio since Sephardic Tinge.
JR: Now there is another Sephardic Tinge trio…
AC: The first one was with Joey Baron and Greg Cohen, but we never toured as such.
JR: You said you would never do it [without Baron and Cohen], but then…
AC: But then what happened was Tzadik organized a tour of Europe with David Krakauer and Klezmer Madness, Eyvind Kang and Dying Ground and Death Ambient with Ikue Mori and the Ruins and a film of Zorn’s piece Elegy, the music not live but a very pornographic film. We weren’t in that one. I was with Eyvind and Ikue. So then I had to put together a touring band for that because it was a great tour for three and a half weeks. I went on the road with Mike Sarin on drums and Tony Scherr on bass, but by the time I made the second record I moved to Ben Street on bass. Then we made the record together and did a bunch of touring, a lot of touring. And then I felt played out on the Sephardic Tinge concept. After that I was playing with Los Cubanos and I really enjoyed playing with [bassist] Brad Jones and [drummer] Roberto Rodriguez. As Los Cubanos started to come to the end, I wanted to do more playing with Brad and Roberto, because we had achieved some kind of actual, very particular hookup I didn’t want to lose that. So we started a trio called Professionales. We’ve done one tour of Europe, we haven’t made a record. Making records isn’t what it used to be.
JR: And this focuses more on the Latin [influences]…
AC: Well, that’s more in the name. The joke of the name is we became such a unit, so it was macho, because we were traveling together so much and we had that feeling. We were in all these different circumstances together, playing in different kinds of groups, playing with Marc [Ribot], playing with Sanda [Weigel], this Romanian singer—I produced her record for Knitting Factory—very different kinds of music. We were like a free lance rhythm section. So I thought it was a funny name. But it is not so much that it is Latin per se, more that all of these things are very intricately woven together and it is not particularly a Jewish project even though there are some Jewish elements in it. I think what happened to the whole Radical Jewish thing for me, because everyone’s experiences are different, but for me it was a missing color in my palette before, it was really great that Radical Jewish Culture came along to make us aware that it’s very strange to be these kinds of extremely eclectic musicians who are using all of these different elements, constructing things out of all these references and then Jewish music didn’t have any place in that. It seems very weird when so many of us were Jewish. But where I differ from some people is that now it is a color in my pallet and now it can never go away, but now it has found its proper place, which is to say no more or less important or maybe even a little less than mainstream jazz or whatever. And the Latin thing also, that came out of investigating Sephardic music partially, after I made the first record I was really a tourist and I started to tour with the band I wanted to take it more seriously so I started to look into Latin music more than I had done. I had mentioned in the liner notes to the first record that I grew up with this music around me without ever particularly studying it. And that probably would have stayed that way if I had never made more than the first record, but since I made two more records and did a bunch of touring, I felt I should find out a little more about what I am doing.
JR: Did you get a chance to play with any Latin musicians?
AC: Yeah, sure, Roberto is from Cuba, I played with Eddie Bobe, I played with, I wouldn’t say a lot of Latin musicians, we played with Chocolate who was the trumpet player in Arsenio Rodriguez’s band, who also played with Eddie Palmieri. And we also shared bills in Europe with… But what happened in my research I heard Arsenio Rodriguez and I really loved his playing and I also thought it reminded me a lot of Ribot. So I wanted to turn Ribot on to him, but I gave it to him I knew what was going to happen, I knew it was going to become an obsession with him and he was going to turn it into a band. Because that is how Marc is, whenever he gets something he really likes he gets very focused on it. He did it with Ayler, he did it with a few things, Ayler especially, Prime Time with Ornette, and once he heard Prime time he had to do a tour with Jamaaladeen [Tacuma, bass] and Calvin [Weston, drums]. That’s just how Marc is. So I knew that when he heard Arsenio if he liked it, it would become this whole thing. I didn’t know how far it would go, it went pretty far, even though we only made two records, we did an enormous amount of traveling. But Professionales was more an attempt to put everything in its right place, to make some sense out of all this, doing the Radical Jewish thing for ten years, doing this fake Latin and then doing all the other stuff I do… People who are not jazz musicians think about me as a jazz musician and people who are jazz musicians NEVER think about me as a jazz musician. And partially it is only this accident of playing this instrument [piano], as soon as I play electric organ or something like that it takes it out of [jazz]. And also playing with a rhythm section, acoustic rhythm section, bass and drums, if I played with electric bass and tabla or something then it wouldn’t be so obvious. It is an issue. Instrumentation tells you a lot. I always use the analogy of a string quartet. You can go against what a string quartet is, but you CAN’T. You think you can, but all string quartets have more in common with each other than with a lot of other things. A John Cage string quartet is not so radically removed from Haydn or Beethoven or Mozart. The same is true with a Morton Feldman string quartet, certainly true with Ligeti or Lutoslawski. Even Lachenmann as weird as he writes for the string quartet. There is a body of work. It is like in film theory. There are different ways of looking at film theory. People do auteur theory where they look more at the work of a director and how their work connects, and then there is genre theory which looks how westerns are connected. I prefer autre theory, definitely. I’m more interested in the individual creator. But that doesn’t say I totally discount the influence of genre. And in that sense when you get up there on the piano and acoustic bass and drum set and you want to say "we’re not playing jazz," well, you have some problems because, because, because. There is so much the instrumentation tells its own story. And if you want to go against that story, you have to ask yourself why you want to go against that story. Is there some real musical reason or is it you’re being considered a jazz musician or whatever. So all of these things come into play. It is a very interesting project and it has trouble to find its space because nowadays things coming from the downtown scene have a tendency to need to be very genre-fied in order to find anyone who wants to make records with them. What happened with the downtown scene is that, even though it is twenty-five years old, it never really found its place as a genre, the way you go into a record store and look in the Rock section or Classical section. This music is twenty-five years old, or it’s more than twenty-five years old, it’s twenty-five years in New York, it’s older than that in England or in Germany. Basically in New York it is twenty-five years old.
JR: But even on Tzadik you have "Radical Jewish Culture" and "Lunatic Fringe..."
AC: That’s exactly my problem with Tzadik at this point, I’m not going to hide the fact that I have problems with Tzadik and that’s my problem with it precisely. But that’s John. John is a genius of this kind of marketing and he really knows how to do it and this is what he has decided. I don’t criticize that per se, I think it is right, it’s keeping Tzadik alive, but I have to say there is an enormous problem now compared to several years ago where if you do a project that doesn’t fit into a category like this to find a place for it. It’s very hard. There’s no real label that’s devoted to that. With Professionales, if I really wanted to push the idea that in some way it was a Jewish project, I guess I could do it, but I wouldn’t do it because I took very seriously all the records I made under the Radical Jewish label. With Selfhaters I tried to take very seriously about what a Radical Jewish music would be, especially where I was coming from, raised very non-religiously, and raised much more like an American or a white person or a New Yorker or whatever and I was never raised as a Jew per se. So I got very disappointed and very annoyed with people who were creating an ethnic heritage for themselves that they didn’t actually live. So it became very important to me to use the one I actually had, and that’s what I tried to do with Selfhaters, I tried to use the materials of my own... existence. That’s what I think I succeeded. I really do feel with those two records I did what I wanted to do, but I would never make a record to make one on that label because I was so serious about these things. And there’s been no project that feels like it fits there for me. As a result, I haven’t made a record in three years, which is really annoying.
JR: When did "The Abysmal Richness..." come out?
AC: "The Abyssimal Richness..." came out, it was definitely more than three years ago.
JR: I just got it two months ago, so it seems new to me.
AC: It’s one of my favorite records of my own.
JR: It’s very beautiful, it doesn’t feel like "Jewish" music... [i.e. music trying to be Jewish.]
AC: Whatever Jewish music is. I can’t say it is Jewish music or it isn’t Jewish music. The whole question of what is Jewish music for me is not even an interesting question anymore. At the time that we were, when we made the film "Sabbath in Paradice" [1998, directed by Claudia Heuermann, -Ed.] it was an interesting question, people were really asking it. Lenny Bruce has that routine on Jewish and goyish where he talks about Count Basie being Jewish and Ray Charles being Jewish and a lot of Jewish comedians being goyish, and I think that is very important. And then if Schoenberg is not Jewish music or if Morton Feldman is not Jewish music, then... But then Henry Sapoznik and some of those klezmer Nazis they try to make this decision about it coming from very clear Eastern European or even Sephardic fokloric roots. But for me, it is impossible to imagine Schoenberg outside of the context of his Jewishness. It’s impossible for me to imagine Morton Feldman outside of the context of his Jewishness. Then it comes to say, where are those Jewish elements? And I know that I read that Ligeti and Mauricio Kagel participated in a colloquium about this, they both said they don’t feel that their music can be typified in any way as Jewish music, even though they are both Jewish composers. But I’ve never really looked at it from that point.
JR: In those interviews I transcribed and translated, Ligeti says he thinks of himself as Hungarian, not particularly Jewish.
AC: But part of Jewish culture is so much the assimilation of it. It’s so much of what it is. If you think of Jewish culture in America, it has so much to do with the people who built the Dream Factory [Hollywood’s "Golden Age" lasting from the 1920s to the 1940s -Ed.], and in the Dream Factory, Jews are never shown. Jews are NEVER shown. If you think about the early Hollywood movies, they created a whole image of America to itself, and it was Jews who created that, and it was also the operettas, Jews created the image of Austrianism that Austrians have. This is the character of Jewish culture that caused people like Liszt and Wagner to say that Jews are just parasites and that they don’t even have their own culture. But I think if we look at it, it becomes very interesting, how can it be that Jews came into so many cultures and gave the people of those cultures the image of the culture? When you think about what is Austrianism... OK, Johannes Strauss was not Jewish, but Robert Stoltz and a lot of other operatic composers who were Jewish. And when you think of the essential Viennese-ness, or the whole image in those 1930s American movies, is Jews who created that, a lot of times. And you can go the Liszt and Wagner route and say they were parasites, but it is much more interesting to think about the ethnic qualities of assimilation. What is specifically Jewish about that kind of assimilation? In Thomas Mann’s story "Tonio Kröger," one thing I loved in that story where he was small and dark and only the small and dark girl loved him, but he’s always loving the tall and blonde... first he falls in love with the tall, blonde boy Hans, and then he gets older and falls in love with the tall, blonde girl. And later he becomes a famous writer and at the end his girlfriend is accusing him of being a dilettante and he says "No, I create my work, for those people, and they find out who they are by reading my work." And it is really fucked up, but it is so true. It’s a real cultural tradition, and it’s very Jewish, if we can name it. And then there’s a book by Sander Gilman, "Jewish Self-Hatred," where he talks about these patterns and the whole idea that people used to say no matter what language a Jew speaks, they’re always speaking Jew underneath, they’re always speaking a hidden language. I was very marked by all of this because it all corresponded to my life, to my experience. THAT was my Jewish experience. I tried to put that into that record [remember, we are speaking of "The Abysmal Richness..." -Ed.] without consciously trying to make it Jewish. Although in the track "57 something," which is the third piece on the record, was about never knowing what year it is on the Jewish calendar, like you know it is 57, but 57 what? I’m not sitting there going it is 5763 or whatever. I should, I should do a lot of things. I should fast on Yom Kippur instead of sitting here in Austin eating Bar-B-Q. I should do a lot of things, but fuck it, this is who I am.
JR: For me, I didn’t grow up with [religious observance]...
AC: I didn’t grow up with it either.
JR: And now I know about it, if I do it, it’s weird.
AC: It’s only weird if you do it because you feel you should do it. It’s not weird if you come to it. Anything you come to that you choose, you say I want to live like that now, that’s fine. But a lot of people they feel now, they’re remaking their history to fit what some PC idea of what they think they should be, and I can’t stand that. It drives me crazy. I’d rather sit around and eat fucking pork in front of the mall. I always want to be the joker when I see people being all high and mighty about this stuff. But "57 Something..." Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to prove to you there are Jewish elements in this record, that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m saying I know what they were for me. And there was something Roy Nathanson would say to me all the time, in the Jazz Passengers he was very influenced by in the High Holy Days when people would read the text and people read the same text but separately, and there would always be this vague memory of people whose Hebrew was not that good or people who remembered certain things and tried to read them from memory, or whatever, there would be a mumbling that would accumulate into high points [where people would come together]. He was very influenced from the way texts were read in the High Holy Days, and it makes perfect sense to me, and I consciously tried to use that thematic in "57 Something." I wrote what I thought to be a cantorlitic, cantoratory melody, [hums], where the last note of a phrase would pivot you to the beginning of the next phrase, which I also find a lot in Stephan Wolpe, Wolpe does that all the time, [hums], to me that sounds a lot like Synagogue music, or some of the line between speech and singing you hear. I just went to Kol Nidre services before coming here.
JR: There’s a Feldman piece I like, "For Four Pianos," where he gives them the same notes with their own [self-determined] timings.
AC: Exactly. And it’s not unrelated. I wonder if he was thinking about the High Holy Days then, and whether he was or not, I don’t think it is not by chance that it is a Jewish-American composer who came up with that idea. I don’t want to make enormous claims that for the ethnicity of it, but I’m just saying it is a link that Roy made clear to me and was very important to me. So when I wrote that tune, I wrote it in such a way that it would have a such a large range that not all the instruments could hit all of the notes, but I gave them the phrase and said choose what you can play and what you can’t. It will be played as a line but heterophonic because not everybody will play everything. And when you hear it, it sounds a lot like that synagogue sound, especially where you have the baritone sax that tries to climb and has to drop, [hums]. And then in the second section there was that funny thing you [find] in Mahler, because Mahler is quintessentially Jewish in that same way, where most of the references in his music come from Christian music, but even so there is something essentially very Jewish, everyone knows this now, something skeptic and eternally wandering nature of Mahler. So I had two clarinets apart from each other in space, calling to each other over Alps or something. [hums] So it was almost an absurdist reduction of certain things that happen in Mahler symphonies. Again, it was very conscious, as in all the Selfhater material, looking at what could it be for me given how I live, which is almost in a fetishistic way, subjective and not connected to any organized anything. So for Henry Sapoznik there’s nothing Jewish about it. Fine. Whatever. It’s only when somebody asks me then I’m going [to talk about], if you don’t want to hear it, that’s cool. But for me I was in the middle of a group of people who were asking questions at that time, so I was thinking about it, and this is what I was thinking.
JR: It is a wonderful record. I just got the [third] Sephardic Tinge record as well and on the little cardboard bookend thing, it says, it is a PR thing, it describes you as "mad genius" and "the most twisted mind of the downtown scene."
AC: Yeah, I hate that.
JR: Are they talking about the same Anthony Coleman? [When I wrote this question, I thought it funny. When I asked it, I didn’t think it was funny. After the soundcheck, Anthony took us on a wild hunt for pencil erasers, the pink kind that fit on the back end of the pencil, and he wanted dozens of them, as if he was addicted to them. I was near horrified: why did he want so many pencil erasers? He IS a mad genius! Only after the interview and after that evening’s performance did I find out his need for them as preparations on the upright piano to produce a lovely muted percussion sound.]
AC: Well... look, what can I say? In the early days, I really felt that John constructed his obi-s with a lot of care. My favorite thing I ever read was in the first Selfhaters where he said "For anyone who has ever experienced alienation or rejection or wants to." And I thought that was incredibly funny. Excellent. I felt that it really said something about the music. For me, the thing about the twisted mind, I didn’t see myself in it, that is relatively unimportant, but I didn’t see this record in it. It oversold the record in a way; I don’t hear anything particularly twisted in that record.
JR: You don’t have a hip-hop guy on it...
AC: I don’t know if hip-hop would have made it more twisted.
JR: Or wicked guitar solos...
AC: Or whatever, I don’t know. I never understood why he wrote that. All my favorite obi-s are the ones from the early Tzadik records. I got a lot of comments about that. I wish I had the chance to edit that, because he said crazy like three times... I don’t really understand what it was about. To me, not relevant to the record.
JR: I was expecting a very different record.
AC: I can imagine. I would be interested to hear what a really twisted piano trio record would be.
JR: Your nervous breakdown record...
AC: Right. I would love to hear such a record. The thing is, the piano is such an impossible instrument to express a nervous breakdown to begin with. You can make a piano speak, already it’s a lot of work. Monk, of course, the master of that, always making the piano sound like him no matter what.
JR: Those Bud Powell records... Miles talks about how he changed...
AC: You can hear Bud Powell when he is all fucked up, but even Bud Powell when he is fucked up he sounds not great, but does he sound like... I would love to hear that record, the really twisted piano trio record. But I haven’t made it. I don’t know if I will. There are times when the grotesque is definitely in certain kinds of German Expressionism is what you’re going for, and I am really into it. Otto Dix, and George Grosz and people like that. I think it’s beautiful, I love the grotesque that comes out of the anomie of a particular moment in civilization when people are saying look at those people walking around like everything is fine and everything is total shit. And when that leads to grotesque representations that lead to the accusations by the Nazis of all this stuff being degenerate art. It was degenerate art in the sense that it was going against the status quo.
JR: But also the societies were degenerate...
AC: Totally, so in that sense I would have liked to have made a very twisted piano trio record. I don’t feel I made one though, and I don’t know why John said that.
JR: How do you work with John and Tzadik? Do you say "I’ve got this record..."
AC: That’s usually what happens. It’s gotten more difficult now that people have put out so many records on Tzadik. But I can always make one. I have the position where he has a lot of respect for what I do. I am working on a Composer Series.
JR: Chamber stuff?
AC: Yeah. The problem is, I definitely don’t want to make another Radical Jewish Culture record, and I feel I have done everything I have to say with that. I don’t know what else I could make. Only a Lunatic Fringe record, I suppose, if I could only make that lunatic piano trio. I don’t know what it would be, biting the strings? But that wouldn’t SOUND lunatic. It would look lunatic if you saw someone do it.
JR: A Lot of banging...
AC: A lot of banging, or maybe no banging, maybe it would be very obsessive playing of one note over and over, like Daniel Johnson [hums fractured melody]. Did you hear the Jon record on Tzadik? It’s pretty insane. It’s really worth listening to. It’s a Japanese woman ["a mysterious woman from Japan known simply as Jon" -Tzadik web page] who writes all these songs about her cat [dog -Ed.] and she sqawls, squeaks and plays a very minimal organ. It’s interesting. I like sick records, I like very minimally sick, fucked up, crazy records. The problem is if you’re not crazy and try to make a crazy record... Remember when Ribot heard Daniel Johnson for the first time and he really wanted to... Marc is very easily influenced by good things, and he wrote a song called "Pony" on the second Rootless Cosmopolitans record and he plays an atonal chord, klang klang klang over and over [sings in monotone] "I ride a white pony down to Culver city, in Culver City I ride a white PONY!" Pony is an interesting note change, it’s a very particular chord change, it’s too self conscious to be really fucked up. The whole thing about these fucked up..., they don’t know a lot of chords and within the limit of their musical vocabulary they channel some kind of madness. Daniel Johnson’s stuff half the time sounds like the Beach Boys, a much sicker version and much more minimal version.
JR: It’s interesting now that everybody knows who Daniel Johnson and Jandek in Houston are and they try to make stuff like that...
AC: Mark was doing this more than ten years ago. That record, "Requiem for What’s His Name," came out in 1992. [sings] "pony pony pony Culver Culver Culver... The Revered Farrakhan speaks tonight!" But it is so consciously trying to be fucked up.
JR: You hear some of these things and you wonder if they really are fucked up or they’re just trying to be fucked up.
AC: But you know. You KNOW. But what’s interesting is when people use the influence of primitive art in their work and they are able to do it in a good way, like Dubuffet. They make things and you KNOW it’s not primitive. It’s a person with a very self conscious, extremely educated art vocabulary who is channeling certain things from the primitive and that’s interesting because you recognize the two things, you recognize the desire, the wish to get to what is elemental, which again brings me to the piano trio record that I hope I will make, someday. That is what’s so wonderful about Monk’s technique. Particularly when you watch the movies and you see the way he touches the piano. It’s all connected to the way he handles moving and it’s not like the way these people who play Monk and try to update Monk in terms of yummier piano techniques. It’s a disaster, they miss the whole point. There’s nothing painterly about Monk in that sense.
JR: It’s very direct.
AC: And people try to incorporate it within a more yummy correct technique and I think it is disgusting, I hate it. I hate hearing it that way. And probably I do it in some way because I don’t... not that I think Monk is primitive in any way, but I was just trying to do different stuff. I wanted to have a range where everything was not totally justifiable in terms of my stuff. "That’s my music and it’s permanent and this is what it is." I always wanted to do many more things.
JR: One thing I like about what I’ve heard of your work on record is its simple, direct manner. It hits at the root of the matter. And it’s not...
AC: No, I’m not a virtuoso and I never tried to be a flashy pianist. Piano for me is more of a vehicle for what I’m trying to do.
JR: When you play, you only hit the important things.
AC: But that’s what Monk is, such an essential influence, Monk and Webern and Feldman, people who really don’t have a lot of velocity in their music. They’re not looking for velocity, but at the same time I was looking for more velocity. Like on the third Sephardic Tinge record, trying to find how much velocity my music can stand. And I’ve gone further than that, Professionales has gone further, but I hope I will be able to record it at some point. It’s frustrating. I tried to make a record on Hat Hut and it looked like it we were going to do it and it all fell apart. I haven’t made a record in three years. It’s driving me crazy.
JR: How did you come to produce the Pharaoh’s Daughter record, and when?
AC: When? I produced three records right around the same time all for Knitting Factory. One was the Sanda record called "Gypsy Killer," one was for the synagogue Bnai Jeshurun called "Within Every Breath," and one was Pharaoh’s Daughter. So five years ago [1999].
JR: Re-released on Tzadik just recently.
AC: Basya Schechter was playing in the group that played for the services at Bnai Jeshurun so she participated in that record. She was also playing with Sanda Weigel when I first started working with Sanda. Ultimately she didn’t participate in Sanda’s record but she was around a lot of things that I was doing at the time and she was trying to make this record and she had a freak out and she asked me-she had just watched me produce the Bnai Jeshurun record-if I would [produce her record]. And I came in there and tried to cut through what was going on and tried to make it happen. And brought in my usual team, Doug [Weiselman] and so on. [laughs]
JR: Was it different dealing with songs like that?
AC: If you hear the Bnai Jeshurun you will see the link. The link is pretty clear. I was really enjoying the whole notion of being a producer at that point, and a producer being more trying to bring out the best from the artist rather than trying to have your vision be the central one. But if I was going to be a producer, I wanted to be a creative producer. I just didn’t want to sit there and order coffee. I defiantly wanted to do some arranging and certainly at some point you have to know when to give it up. You have to know when the artist says "that’s too tricky for me," you have to pull back. There are some tracks there I am very proud of, like "Taitsch" [hums] and the layering of all these voices. I had a lot more understanding with experience of how you would do a piece like that. So I took it further than maybe Basya would have gone on her own, but to bring out what she was hearing. She was talking about the children, that was all her idea, but the way it was layered was very much me. To have the contrast between very orchestrated things and much less orchestrated things, trying not to make too much of a fetish out of a certain kind of "everybody changes together." There is a tendency in her songs where things change pretty regularly, like in eight or sixteen bar units, orchestration changes like boom. I tried to be more subliminal... that was more my influence.
JR: Another record you’re on is the Dave Douglas "Sanctuary" record. That’s a crazy record.
AC: Yeah! A crazy record, I barely remember it.
JR: He seemed to have a particular thing about the two trios [trumpet, sampler, bass in each channel].
AC: Me and Yuka Honda. We did a little tour of Europe. It was a lot of fun playing with Dave. Dave is a professional, a great musician.
JR: Did he want particular samples?
AC: He never really said that, but I think he didn’t understand the sampler in terms of... I mean this isn’t Dave’s problem in particular, it’s just in general. It’s more like "sonic wash" than it is improvising. And it’s a little frustrating, it’s one of reasons I’ve played sampler less and less. It’s hard to find people who want you to participate as a sampler player as an improviser, in terms of what the real requirements of a sampler are. Either you want to load up a bunch of samples and have them come in a particular place or you just want to have a bunch of samples that tend to be a sonic wash, like improv groups who use a DJ or whatever as some kind of texture. Or you can have it where it where it participates as a real improvising partner, but this you find very rarely, because there is an enormous challenge. You have to choose the samples that will work with that way first before you even get there. If you’re stuck with long loops then you’re fucked. What are you going to do? If that’s all you have then what are you going to use? And it’s very limiting. And that’s why I feel the role of the sampler in improvising has not lived up to its expectations in a way. It’s still mostly approached as a looping thing or as a wash. I really enjoyed working with Dave, but I cannot say I had the full experience of really playing with him they way I could imagine doing in some other context. That’s why Istarted playing more piano or organ and less and less sampler. I felt there are people who are very technological who really want to do sampler sampler sampler, and they’re not so interested in improvising or interacting as much and then it’s good for them, they should be the ones who are doing it and then I do it less and less. I hardly do it all at this point. I only do it if somebody particularly asks me to do it.
JR: And for a particular kind of...
AC: They know my stuff, they know some of the tracks I did with Roy or they know some of the ways I like to layer things and they want that. If they know they want that I’ll give it to them [laughs].
JR: In terms of sampling, there was a lawsuit that was just appealed [by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Nashville] that any samples used--
AC: They have to pay…
JR: Even if the sample is totally unrecognizable.
AC: Well, that’s something that sets back how the whole wave of this use of material could influence future music. I think it’s really unfortunate, but on the other hand, as I said, I’ve taken myself out of it. The next thing they will do is in jazz solos if you quote anything you have to pay royalties on it. They’ll go back to all the Charlie Parker records where he quoted Percy Granger and his piece "In an English Country Garden," if that piece is still in royalties. You know what I mean? It’s ridiculous.
JR: But then how do you feel when someone samples your record?
AC: It’s not a simple answer. I think what John Oswald was doing was really interesting. I think what Public Enemy was doing was really interesting. I think there were people who were doing major work and for me it was a terrible day for hip-hop when it stopped being the collage and started being the one loop that generated a record. I became totally uninterested in it.
JR: And now hip-hop is turning into in R&B bands with one guy with a turntable [in the background]…
AC: Well, that might be good, who knows? What I’m thinking of is “Bring the Noise” and “Fight the Power” and that unbelievable layering of sounds and samples. To me, it was something really new. And I love it. I love what John Oswald did in the early Plunderphonics. I always liked that stuff. One good thing about being the world we’re in is that most people never hear our records so we can probably get away with murder. But you know what happened, David Shea was working like that and somebody from the Ray Conniff Society heard one of Shea’s records and recognized a sample and wrote to Tzadik saying they have to take it off. They had the record re-edited, I think. I’m not sure which one they decided on, but that’s crazy, someone from the Ray Conniff Society hearing a David Shea record on Tzadik. Unbelievable. So Tzadik after that became a little more careful, a little more worried. The Bible Launcher record never came out for that reason. Do you know about that?
JR: No.
AC: 99 Hooker and his Bible Launcher record: he used samples from a minister, some crazy TV minister on the West Coast and they were really afraid everybody would recognize that. [The CD came out on Tzadik and then was withdrawn. It was later released on the Radical House label. ­Ed.] I believe in intellectual freedom, but I also believe in intellectual property.
JR: Another big case recently, James Newton suing the Beastie Boys because they had paid mechanical royalties but not composer royalties…
AC: Is that how it went? I forget…
JR: They paid the label to use the sample, but Newton wanted to be credited as a composer…
AC: Well, what do you think about it?
JR: I think, um…
AC: I couldn’t get all up in arms about it, let me put it this way.
JR: I think it stifles creativity. I think copyright law should protect from bootlegging.
AC: It’s one of these things where I can’t go black and white. I can say the Beastie Boys are fucking millionaires; they can pay James Newton whatever he wants.
JR: He wanted 3 million dollars or something.
AC: Well, they could have settled. But on the other hand, James Newton is also weird. I’ve heard stories about James Newton. Elliott Sharp told me they were on tour and they were talking about the hotel at some place and James Newton got pissed off at the promoter and said “Do you want me to show you a photo of my house?” as if to say “I live much better than you.” He’s got a wonderful teaching job and he’s got his life pretty set.
JR: Personally I generally like it when people use samples, so I don’t want to see that restricted.
AC: That’s what I want to say, but on the other hand, I don’t like it when people don’t… I don’t like the whole Haves and Have-Nots in general. I do like samples, I’ve used many samples and I hope to use many more. It’s one of these situations, it’s hard to say who is right or wrong.
JR: Well, what if the Count Basie Society sent you a letter?
AC: About the samples on “Johnny Come Lately?” Well, so sue me! I don’t know what I would do. I would say “that is what the track needed, fuck you, take me to court.” This is what I will say, without judging who is right or wrong in these court cases: sampling was a major step in moving music into the post-modern era and it’s been somewhat stifled for various reasons. It hasn’t found its masterpieces to the degree that one might imagine. Like there is no reason to compose a whole book of prepared piano after John Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes” [1948 ­Ed.]; it really wrote the book on prepared piano. After that, it is always with Cage as a template, the same way the music of Bach is the template of anybody writing fuguely, they are always referring to Bach in some way. Anybody who writes massive sonatas is always referring to Beethoven in some way. In this sense, sampling hasn’t really given its apotheosis and part of the reason is these kind of restrictions and part of the reason is the limitations of people’s minds. So the kind of people who generally do it… OK, what I really can’t stand, and this is really personal, is hearing a certain DJ who found Xenakis records or Ligeti records or Nono records--very interesting as sound material--and they use them to drop in under tracks.
JR: Did you hear that Xenakis remix record?
AC: I haven’t but I can say in general I haven’t been to a lot of evenings where that kind of thing has been going on. But for me, the way I studied this music and the way I understand this music is that sound is only one of the many things going on. Sound is one of the things, but there is a structuring of sound which goes beyond… In other words, there is a reason people think Xenakis is a greater composer than Penderecki and it’s not because Xenakis sounds are more interesting than Pendereski, there’s something in the meat of Xenakis’ music which is deeper than the meat of Pendereski’s music, ultimately something superficial about Pendereski and it took a while before people were at the point where they could hear it or notice it or understand it. It has a lot to do with sound being fetishsized as a thing in itself which is how... I’m not trying to be like Milton Babbitt or Charles Wuorinen and say that sounds are a necessary evil, but I am saying...
JR: There is more than just the sound.
AC: I don’t necessarily like the way they get used as materials. Something I feel is very superficial. Me, as a composer, whatever that means being a trained composer blah blah, I feel the potential in the use of this material is enormous but the way it is being used is very limited and something has to happen to take it further that it’s gone, but I don’t know where that is going to come from and I haven’t heard it happening.
JR: Something you mentioned ten years ago that I didn’t pick up on, you studied with Mauricio Kagel. Did you study with him at Harvad?
AC: I went to Yale, not Harvard. I took a seminar with him in the summer of 1981. And I recently interviewed him in Bomb magazine. [In 1981] we talked about the use of theater in music, the use of homemade instruments, what’s behind it--philosophical ideas, how to deal with performers, the way of dealing with the past. The past is very deep with Kagel. When he uses references, he does not use them in a casual way. “Ludwig van” is the great piece none of these DJs have made. “Ludwig van” is THERE to listen to and to figure out why does it work the way it does. And the reason it works it does is that every second of Beethoven references feels owned. It comes from Kagel’s incredible love and identification with that music. And that is why these borrowings can become so… inevitable. That is one way. Then there is the Cage way, as in Variations IV [1964 -Ed.] where he sets up so much material but then he has some sort of formal precept which he is not privledgeing one material over another, but at the same time the formal precept creates a non-casual way of unfolding that eventually seeps out in terms of itself, which is not to say I’m suggesting DJs start throwing the I Ching.
JR: And also Cage doesn’t care about what the material is, any record will do.
AC: But he does care about the form. For me, either you have an incredible relation with the material of you have an incredible relation to the form. But where Xenakis gets used as a sound effect, I’m not hearing either. I’m just hearing the groove and then they want to drop in something weird. And I’m not loving that.
JR: I don’t know how you can use Xenakis as a sample.
AC: Well, [DJ] Olive and others are definitely doing it and there great moments in what they do at the Thursday nights at Tonic, there are amazing moments. Both of them are really gifted, and they both have a great thing, I don’t want to take away from the work they’re doing, but I just have to say my own thing: music is a lot more than sonic events.
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Josh Ronsen
joshronsen (ate) yahoo (dote) com
2001 Brentwood
Austin, Texas 78757 USA