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Originally published in Resonance #7.1 (1998)
by Phil England

You have a new record coming [Eureka] out on Domino in Europe and Drag City in the States. What’s the idea behind it?
It’s kind of like Gastr del Sol’s Camoufleur but with a little bit more warmth. There’s a lot of songs on it and it’s much more arranged. It’s not that much like Bad Timing.
Big group playing?
One song has 60 people playing at the same time, a big choir of people doing this Ivor Curler song..
They’re all local musicians presumably that you can call on easily in Chicago?
Yeah, there’s no big guest stars or anything like that. It’s all basically people that I play with in town. I play on their records and they play on mine. That big happy family in Chicago that people probably hear about. There’s a lot of steel pans, a lot of strings, a lot of horns. More percussion and singing than on Camoufleur. All the multiple voice arrangements that were on that record—it’s mostly like that. A little more friendly and more... dark. It has its points of pathos, I hope.
What’s your working process for these pieces? Is there a consistency between these three records in terms of work processes? Presumably Bad Timing started with the guitar figures.
I was originally going to make Bad Timing as a guitar record. I wrote all the songs and went on tour for somebody, opening up playing these things to see how the audience reacted. I recorded the guitar things at once. Then I thought, ’I don’t want to make a record like this.’ Doing arrangements was what I was most interested in. I decided I should do them for my own records instead of always doing them for other people’s records. At a certain point I decided I didn’t want to work on the record any more, so I let it lie. But this one is heavy on arrangements. There’s also more stuff that’s only three or four minutes long rather than big ten minute things.
Are all the parts written before people come in?
Yeah. Also I usually write them keeping in mind how people play. For instance there’s a couple of different drummers on the record because I know this guy that just plays like Nick Mason and I wanted exactly that 1968 Pink Floyd kind of drumming. And another guy plays bossas perfectly. So a lot of it has to do with the people who play and how I arrange it. Some of it is just straight arrangements and I have people play them regardless of how they play.
More music then.
Yeah. I’ve said everything I wanted to say with that other type of music. Whatever enjoyment I got out of making tape music I get now out of working on other people’s records or doing remixes. After Terminal Pharmacy I found I had nothing left to say in that area. I just don’t like doing things over and over. By the time I’ve put something out it’s pretty much what I wanted to do and that sparks what I want to learn next. That’s one of the main reasons why I didn’t want to do Gastr del Sol any more: it was becoming automatic. I’m not into that way of working. I just don’t feel honest.
You’re not being challenged any more?
If I’m not being challenged, I don’t see the point in doing it. That’s why I tend to quit things a lot. It’s not because I’m difficult. Once I’ve learned how to do something I don’t understand why I have to keep doing it. I like it when other people do that. I like hearing Cecil Taylor make thousands of records but it’s just not for me to do. I’m not making a judgment about it.
Has the new record indicated directions for the future?
I’ve already started working on the next one. I’m trying to find this weird hybrid between Roy Harper and early Sparks. That’s what I’m really interested in right now. I’m really fascinated by early Sparks. I love the lyrics. And I really like Roy Harper. It’s only recently that I’ve felt that I’ve moved from really loving this stuff to feeling an actual affinity to it. I like working on something until I feel it’s actually me instead of just aping something. That’s why I hate the old records, because I’m trying things out, putting out my experiments to the public. I might as well do it in private and make a report!
How did you come to work with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company?
About two years ago I got a fax from Takehisa Kosugi, I guess he was asking in Japan about younger Americans who were doing stuff. There’s this guy who runs a shop in Osaka who suggested me because I have a past in this sort of stuff. So they brought me out to some place in Massachusetts for a week for a series of concerts to test me. I guess he thought I was okay because they’ve had me back since and I’m basically his assistant now. I do everything as long as I’m free. I enjoy it. I admire Merce’s work a lot, I have since I was a kid. I’m no big dance fan but he still makes good stuff. I just like his aesthetic. I like how he’s still changing. I have no moral problem with them. And in general the music’s been really good. Sometimes I have problems with some of it but more and more they want my input on that, which is nice.
So originally you were playing with David Behrman in that?
The first one was with David Behrman which was exciting because he was a real childhood hero, That Leapday Night record was a huge influence on me. So I got to work with some exciting people: John Tilbury, Christian Marclay, Thurston Moore.
It’s always been you, Kosugi and someone else?
And you’ve had a lot of input on the players..
Yeah, he gives me more and more.
So how many days are they on the road out of the whole year?
A couple of months total. I’m off to Japan with them tomorrow for about a month.
The night I came to the Cunningham company’s performance at The Barbican in London, was the music for the first piece Microcosmos by Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta?
The "ping" piece? where the sounds went all around the room? If you saw the book that came with the piece, it has fifty pages’ explaining the profoundness of his one sample. It’s like the stock sample on an EPS sampler and the first time I heard it I thought, ’oh, boy.’ That’s the danger of that world.
It was more, what I expected of the aesthetic though, knowing that he’d worked with Cage and Tudor for so many years. It was the first, time I’d seen Merce Cunningham (except for on TV) and I was surprised how densely choreographed it was. I was expecting a lot more chance operations and indeterminate procedures.
Well there is in the second piece, the Barbican Events piece. What he does is goes through his whole catalogue and he throws the dice and picks various scenes from various dances. "So first you’re doing this with this person and then you guys are doing this simultaneously." That happens every night so they’re different every night. I don’t know how his dancers remember his entire catalogue. But they do. The last one is with Kosugi’s music piece, Wave Code A-Z, and that’s a newer dance (Scenario). I wasn’t so big on the costumes. The new dance (Pond Way) that’s with the Eno music, New Ikebukuro (for 3 CD players), is really good, the dance is awesome. It’s filled with ideas, stuff that really gets your mind going.
Most of his pieces have music that has become associated with it?
Yeah, usually he commissions the music at the same time.
And that tends to stay like that?
Yeah. With Barbican Events, the music is different every single time. And Kosugi’s never played that the same way either, he has a set of cards which he shuffles every night.
The score for Barbican Events just determines who plays when?
It’s up to the people to change it every night. I try to use completely different source materials every night, Last night we did the Cage piece, Four (6) for the dance Rondo, and that came out great. It was the best version of it we’ve done since I joined. It was really good. And it’s a really good dance too. It’s actually a tough piece. It creeps up on you how really tough it is, to really stay on top of it. I really try to do it right. I don’t like slacking off. It’s easier to be casual during the Events. You’re supposed to do solo pieces but I find sometimes that people start listening to each other and improvising, but I try not to. Because that for me what’s interesting about that stuff is that you start throwing things together that doesn’t relate to the normal logic people use in music making. Things happen that wouldn’t happen in any other way. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just different. That’s a place where it happens.
I was bemused by the richness of the music. I was surprised by it all. I really enjoyed it. I was just expecting a lot more austerity from both the music and the dance.
When I started it was still kind of austere. And I was terrified to use funny stuff. When I started doing it the dancers freaked out, they loved it. Stuff like that gives them an energy. They don’t like the New Agey stuff and they don’t like the austere stuff, it doesn’t spur them on. Also it doesn’t spur the mind on when you’re watching it. Too much abstract sound after a while means nothing.
The John Barry music initially felt completely out of place.
I’ve always been tempted to just play a song. I’m still not comfortable enough to feel that I should do it. I’m always afraid I’d get fired if I did something like that. I use a lot of The Spice Girls stuff. I’d say about half the work I’m using is The Spice Girls and Alanis Morisette. I mean, I do stuff to it. It’s harder to get something else out of that stuff than the sound of a squeaky door or something. It takes more work. But the Bond thing was on a CD. It’s something I made on computer, it’s the first 30 seconds of something from Diamonds are Forever.
Your set up in that is a CD player and a computer?
Yeah, though mostly I’m using a minidisc player. And it’s all just stuff I’ve done on the computer. Mostly I’m just playing the computer.
You’ve been working with that quite a lot because you did this tour with Christian Fennesz and Peter Rehberg.
Yeah, we’ve just finished our second one. That’s fun. All I have to carry around is my Powerbook which doubles as something to keep in touch with my e-mail. I’m not interested in playing guitar. I can pick it up and play it, so what? With the computer, every night I learn something new about it and slowly I’m writing my own software. I’m using some stuff I wrote myself, some commercial stuff and some hacker software by the Mego people.
How do you three set up on stage? Is there an analogy to the Farmer’s Manual set up where they’re able to send signals to each other’s computers?
No, we haven’t done that yet.
It’s three separate lines into the mixing desk.
It’s funny because it’s closer to improvising than anything else. They’re brilliant people and I love traveling with them. It’s a really refreshing thing compared to some of the touring I have to do. We have a lot of fun. They’re actually the only group I tour with. It’s a lot more fun outside the shows than during! Though it’s always fun to do the shows because it’s really a challenge to try and not do something I did the night before.
What is the software you’re using?
All the popular ones: Supercollider, LiSa, Soundhack, Peak, Pro Tools, Sound Machine - which I really just use to play sound files. I just started using MSP a bit. Supercollider is the Farmer’s Manual language.
Are you writing stuff from scratch or are you just modifying?
I started by modifying and I’m learning from that. I have the manual but I haven’t worked all my way through it. Supercollider is a weird language, kind of machine code-y. I can tell that MSP is easier, but I want to learn Supercollider first. A lot of the work is done offstage too. Trying to make new soundfiles every night.
Going back to the musical side of Cunningham’s dance company - that’s quite a radical turn around. Because John Cage was quite adverse to improvisation.
That’s why I try not to improvise in the Events piece. Ideally in that piece we’re supposed to play solo pieces. But already with Kosugi there was a shift because he has a past also as an improviser. He has an interest in improvising that Cage didn’t have.
Eddie Prevost’s playing seemed very passionate at one point. And I know he takes issue with the whole Cage thing because of Cage’s anti-improvisation stance.
Right. I think also because Eddie Prevost was there I moved even farther away from that and tried to be more on/off. I don’t want to do things for my own personal interest but to serve the overall interest. It always changes.
I remember the comments you made in The Wire last year caused a bit of a rumpus in the improvised music community.
They were taken out of context. People read stuff into it. These magazines never get it right. I never said that these people don’t deserve to be paid. I’m an American and I’m under the age of 30, I grew up in a country where there never was any money for this. And you go to Europe and you can get paid a thousand dollars some times. It still feels wrong. You don’t deserve anything because of the idea that, this type of music is any better than any other type of music. That’s what bugs me. This type of music is not better than The Spice Girls, John Fahey or Nick Drake. All music has a certain purpose and it appeals to a certain group of people because they’re interested in that purpose. Whether it’s entertainment or whether it’s to learn something profound in life or to be mentally stimulated. The good stuff does what it does in what it’s trying to do. And of course The Spice Girls are going to make more money. In America everybody understood what I was saying, it was something that was in the back of people’s heads. I don’t like the exclusivity. Great music is made by plenty of people, not just experimental folks. And this crap about major labels. The argument is so tired. The greatest albums ever made were on major labels. Song Cycle (by Van Dyke Parks) is on Warner Brothers. I’ve been treated better by some major labels than by some independents. Some independents are just as much crooks as anybody else.
I think my beef with the majors is that they represent such a stake in the world. Somebody like Time Warner is much more than a record company.
You can’t divorce yourself from big business — every CD you make Phillips is being paid. I know people that feel that they are separating themselves from big business, but being naive about those things is more dangerous than trying to work with an understanding. And there is something to be said for the argument that, for example, Sonic Youth is doing good by being on a major label. They do expose kids to stuff that they wouldn’t otherwise hear. So I think there’s room for both aesthetics. And you’ve got to have room for The Spice Girls, who put on one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Completely unironical, it was really good. It was great. I was really impressed. I went expecting to have fun for semi-kitschy. semi-ridiculous reason and I was shocked. The show was great. I saw two of the best shows in my entire life in the past two months - The Spice Girls and Roy Harper. Awesome.
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