issue 20 :: September 2011

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INTERVIEW: Jim Denley


Australian improviser and multi-instrumentalist Jim Denley has been so active over the past three decades, I can't pretend I know a half, a third of it. But the part of his story I do know has been fascinating, most especially his work with Machine for Making Sense and the Splinter Orchestra, and recent duo records with Stevie Wishart, Scott Sinclair and Kim Myhr. And now that I have seen his trio Mural perform twice in Austin, that group with Ingar Zach and Kim Myhr has become incredibly important in my view of him. His Split Records can be counted on to document some of the most interesting improvising musicians in Australia. In August of 2011, I recording the following conversation we had after Mural finished playing. Our talk was brief and could have gone on for another hour to detail more of his history and evolution as an artist.
You were just telling me about a radio show where you interviewed music critics. What did you ask them?
I was trying to challenge them about music theory, thinking about music, sound theory, they are always a way behind what the actual practice is. That's what I have always felt. And I asked them, what can you tell us about what is happening now, or in recent years? Sometimes playing them records and asking them to tell us why that is happening now as opposed to never having happened before in human history.
Did they know what was being played, or did you tell them?
I just played them stuff. It was a bit of a blind listening test, but unlike a blind listening test in a music magazine, I was putting them on the spot: “what's going on there, you're a theorist, help us explain. And is it useful?” That sort of thinking. In the end, my conclusion is the historical insights can be absolutely wonderful, what they can tell us about Fluxus, or even recent stuff from five, ten years ago. But they struggle to say anything about Now, and I don't think anybody can say anything about what will happen. So then, if I'm interested in Now, I'm not sure what the point is, but some of the historical insights are fantastic, and it's great they do all this research. When I read their books I find out that [Antonin] Artaud worked with Edgar Varèse on an opera. They came to blows and it never realized [completed] in a truly collaborative form, but just the fact that those two guys were trying to work together is incredibly exciting. I've read loads of music books and I've never read that.
Probably because nothing ever became of it.
Yeah, but even the thought about it is sensational, that Artaud had that connection with one of the most happening sound guys of the era. Something did come of it: Varèse then went on to realize the work that he was going to work with Artaud. I guess there was a part to that work that was influenced by working with Artaud.

Varèse and Artaud in 1933.
I never heard of that.
It was the first time I'd come across that. It was in Fran Dyson's book Sounding New Media, but she goes into quite a long discussion about Artaud. Artaud seems to be, from the theorist's point of view, in terms of thinking about the voice, incredibly important, as is, say Burroughs. But neither of them are music people. So the histories are really fascinating.
And especially that Artaud didn't leave so much sound documentation. There are a couple of recordings of him.
I think on UbuWeb you can check out one of radio programs which was banned by French radio as soon as it was produced. It's strange because there is all this stuff about screaming in Artaud, and when you hear them, the screams in his voice, it actually sounds quite quaint, and if you compare it to the screams in experimental music in the last fifty years, it seems pretty tame.
Or even in rock music.
Exactly, if you compare it to Ami Yoshida or bands like Mayhem, the metal side of rock, that roaring male voice... I guess they're making the point that Artaud allowed that to happen. He opened up that space. I've never really thought about that.
With Artaud, you get the sense that he could have done so much more, but something was stopping him, maybe something inside, maybe the outside world at the time. And that's true for Varèse as well.
Well, we've got descriptions of his events by Anaïs Nin, she describes going to one of these lectures, and it is an incredible description of the event where he left the script and just screamed and writhed around on the floor for half an hour. The description is pretty amazing. Sometimes even if something isn't well-documented, if things are really powerful and they have enormous resonance, something comes through. Which is something we can all learn from... the number of bloody CDs out there... Maybe it is good to have the live event to have resonance beyond the recording.
And all we have is her description of the event.
Maybe it is better it is left like that. If we had a recording of the event we'd be going “it sounds quaint.”
It'd be all grainy, and scratchy...
I guess what makes somebody excited in 1934 is completely different from what makes us excited now. We might ask what all the fuss was about. Which would be unfair, because Anaïs Nin is telling us there was a lot of fuss, he created a real stir. In her mind, anyway.
Did you play in the Rothko Chapel last night?
Yesterday afternoon, in fact. That was better from our point of view because you could see the paintings really clearly, I mean, I had my eyes shut when I played, but I feel it is more interesting to the audience because they can look at us if they wanted to, but they could also sit there for fifty minutes and look at these amazing paintings. I think it is a better result.
Yesterday's show was recorded?
Yes, it was. And the previous one a year ago.
So the CD that just came out [Live at the Rothko Chapel (Rothko Chapel Publications)] is the recording from a year ago [and not from the previous day's performance].
Yeah. That would have been pretty quick.
I was confused; I guess I forgot you had played there last year. I was thinking “you don't want to master the recording first?”
I've never done that, just release something with no review. I think MIMEO did something like that.
Everyone submitted material, but no one listened to the mix before it was released. There are some rock bands who will record the show and then make CDr duplications as the audience is on the way out.
I remember being in New Delhi on a street corner, and some very nice man came up and asked if he could help. I showed him the map and he described how to get there, and then he invited me for a cup of tea. And I thought, “why not? Why be rude?” And then we got into a conversation and he found out I was a musician and he said “oh, musician, you have to come to this concert, this amazing concert happening tomorrow night, but you have to give me the cash.” But immediately I thought “Oops, is this a scam?” It wasn't a huge amount of money, the equivalent of twenty bucks, but it would have been rude to refuse, with him being so nice with the tea, but then he made the mistake, this was probably like ten or fifteen years ago, he up sold it, he said “at the end of the concert you will be able to get a CD.” I mean, it is now possible, but ten, fifteen years ago I thought “no, I don't think this is going to happen.” I told him “I think you're trying to scam me” and he sort of went away.
Did you see a lot of music on your trip?
Yeah, we're really interested in Rajasthani folk musicians, so we went to a place called Jaisalmer, on the border between India and Pakistan. There is some amazing flute playing from that region, so I was particularly interested in trying to suss out some of the flute players. I grew up listening to a lot of Indian classical music, but I actually find the folk music to be much more visceral.
Is it less strict than the formal rules of raga?
I don't know if that's the right word. I think some of the folk music is a lot more punk, I don't know if that is a word they would use, but the flute players from this region, they also sing a fundamental note and then improvise a melody over the top with their flute, but the voice they use is actually quite rough, it's not a Tibetan throat sound, but it is a very rough sound. It's more akin to what we could call noise music, noise flute, but with Indian melodic, intonational sensibilities, which clearly come from the Indian subcontinent. I was interested in it because it was so noise orientated. If flutes could ever be punk, these guys are punk. I guess flutes could never be punk.
You could put it through a Metal Zone pedal...
But these guys have none of that stuff, and they just do it with their voice, and I guess from a flute player's point of view, I've always looked to flute players around the world who use natural distortion or natural noise. Near Australia you've got the Papua New Guinean and the Solomon Islands. With ethnographic recordings I've always found the Shamanic flute music of the Amazon really interesting, and Japanese Noh Theatre as well. I've always thought of this idea we have in the West of the flute as a pure instrument. In other cultures it is almost the opposite.
In Noh Theatre it sounds like they are over-blowing, producing piercing tones.
And once again using their voice in an extreme way to produce all this noise in the music. The Hungarian flutes and also the Amazon flutes, I feel they have a spectral quality: they're not interested in a fundamental tone. They're interested in breaking up the fundamental tone, like when a light hits a prism. It seems to me that in a lot of shamanic music the flute is a metaphor for the everyday, which is the breath being revealed into the colors that are possible. So you never get any fundamental tone, you just get this range of harmonics.
And also spectral in the sense of ghostly, unworldly, the bridge between them and the afterlife.
I think that's why the flute signifies that, why the flute is used in that kind of shamanic sense because it can be a metaphor for breaking up normality into other realities behind the normal world or the everyday. I hadn't thought about that until recently. The technique I am using quite a lot at the moment with the balloon on the saxophone [a thin tube of balloon rubber is inserted between the saxophone and a mouthpiece], that is what I am trying to do, to mimic, not mimic, but be inspired by that shamanic flute music from the Amazon where the harmonic series is laid bare every time you operate the instrument. There's never a fundamental, there is no certainty. The sound is never atomized into solid things, it is always ephemeral and always chaotic.
Does the balloon lower the saxophone's pitch [as it extends the length of the instrument]?
You can get a low frequency, but it is more of a flapping, the rubber just flaps around. With this balloon, you turn the saxophone into a flute, because the air hits where you pinch the balloon, it turns it into the lip of a flute. I haven't looked into what it is doing scientifically, but it is definitely a flute sound. I find it interesting, I keep coming back to it. That's what I mean about having a theory about these noise flutes, because I keep coming back to the flute. I mean, it is the dagiest instrument in the world. I mean flute in jazz, the flute in rock... I mean there have been notable things that have been OK, but really it's a bit of a loss. I ask myself, “why do I keep going back to it?” Everyone says “You play the flute?”
Well, you could also tell them about the saxophone...
Yeah, if a cab driver asks me what do you play: “the saxophone.” But in reality I should say “I play the flute... with a bit of saxophone.”
How did you prepare for the Rothko Chapel performance, the one a year ago?
I think we all felt we were unprepared for it, because there is quite a lot of buildup to these things.
Had y'all been there before?
No. Kim in particular had a very strong connection with Rothko and he contacted the organization. It took a lot of convincing, so it was all down to him in that regard. But then there is a lot of tension because you're waiting so long, and then I got really sick, so the first version of it couldn't happen and we had to wait longer. By the time it actually happened, and we didn't have a lot of time before the concert. By then end we thought that we hadn't actually done what we were going to do. It's strange. But when we listened back to the recording, I think we're all really happy with it. I think we had done something. It is a very site-specific performance, and I don't think we were prepared for this. But this time [the 2011 performance] we had a much more relaxed time, a bit more time in the space before, we rehearsed the day before in the space.
Did you have an idea for a piece, or a framework?
No, we just went in... we did have a sense of scale. We thought we'd play for fifty minutes, but that's probably what we're doing at the moment, that's the scale that this group is used to playing. I guess improvised music groups become good at playing one sense of scale and not so good at playing other [time lengths]. It's funny; when we first started playing, the recording which is the first record [Nectars of Emergence (Sofa)], it's all six to seven, maybe a couple of nine minute pieces. They're all quite short pieces. We couldn't actually play for fifteen minutes or a long event. But the last year or so we've been able to do that. It took us three years to get to the point where we could play fifty minute pieces and be really happy with them. That is what we are good at doing now.
Is that just getting used to what the others are doing, giving them space?
Yeah, and allowing the time to develop as well. I'm in a number of other improvised music groups that tend to do certain lengths of things. It can be quite disruptive if you're at a festival and somebody says “do a fifteen minute set tonight,” or “do a twenty minute set tonight.” It can be hard to do.
Does the name Mural come from the wall paintings, or does it mean something else?

Jim Denley, Ingar Zach & Kim Myhr in Austin, August 28, 2011
It's always difficult to explain names because sometimes you want it to be ambiguous...
I was wondering if there was a Norwegian word Mural that meant something else.
No, but I guess in terms of a painting technique, it's something an artist has to do quickly on the plaster, so there's not much time to do the thing. I think it has to do with some kind of methodology; you do this thing quickly, you do it once, you do it freshly.
I just had the epiphany while you were playing that Mural is a word and not just the name of the trio.
That's what happens with band names after a while, if you know the music and you know the group, the word loses its original meaning and gets associated with the group. I feel that the original, not the contemporary mural technique with house paint on a wall, but the original way of painting onto wet plaster. It's a dangerous way to paint because you don't have much time to paint before everything dries and the colors are set. I see it as a spontaneous act for an artist to work like that, unlike oil painting where you can go back over things endless times, paint over figures. Maybe there is some connection with the original idea of mural painting, the freshness, the spontaneity. I didn't name the group. Do you want me to ask those guys why they came up with it?
How does your playing differ in Mural from your duos with Kim?
I think it is really different. In the duo with Kim I always use electronics and I think that is important because flute and guitar or saxophone and guitar... man, it's got to be the dagiest thing. It conjures up all these images of Debussy . Occasionally we do gigs where we don't have the electronics, and it still works, but I think the electronics and all the mechanical devices Kim uses, Kim uses the mechanical devices much more in the duo. When we first started playing with Ingar [Zach] we had this reasonably long history as a duo, so it was quite difficult for us to rethink the methodology and the ways of playing, which is maybe why it took us three years to get to the stage where we can play for fifty minutes convincingly. It's really different music. I think each group you play in, if you work hard enough, develops its own sound, or own methods. Interesting sounds, interesting durations... If you're really, truly improvising, composing interestingly within that group, then you should play quite differently in each group. I always get suspicious of improvisors who do the same stuff in each group that they play in. Every time you see them play, “you did that in your last band, didn't you, with an oboe and an electric bass player, and now you're playing with a harp and a...”
Don't these people affect you at all? Don't they change you at all?
And I guess there is some of that stuff where you have modular compositions that you play and then you just rearrange them in each gig and they're like a pack of cards that fall down in different ways. But I think you should have, not an entirely different pack of cards for each game... It is an interesting question. But in the duo, we both play really differently from in the trio.
What kind of electronics do you use?
Actually, I have contact mics on the saxophone, and then I have a lot of attachments on the bottom of the saxophone to produce a lot of percussive sounds. In the duo, the problem is there aren't a lot of sub frequencies, low frequencies. It gets a bit tiring, I think, for forty, fifty minutes just hearing higher mids and highs, so we were looking for ways to produce low frequencies. I get little bits of metal and put them in the keyguard of the saxophone which produces really low frequency sounds.
The last Machine for Making Sense CD came out in 2006 from material recorded in 2001. Is the group still active?
Not really. Three of us did a gig last year: Rik [Rue], myself and Amanda [Stewart]. Chris Mann is living in New York, Stevie Wishart is living in Europe. I think the group is sort of finished now. Rik is not well and doesn't get out to perform so much, so it was a big effort that he did something last year. The gig we did as a trio worked really well, we all enjoyed it. I think groups have a life sometimes, we did what we had to do. To me, the most interesting period of that group was with Chris in the 1990s, with the two voices in the group, the collision of the texts... With groups, you think you're doing something and then you look back twenty years later you realize what you were actually doing. That's when it was really happening, the interesting period. We kept on trying to approach the project [without Mann]... The project that human beings have always been doing is words and music together, but we were trying to do it in a way that made sense in an improvised music context. I don't think Song or Opera is a good way to think about that record [On Second Thoughts], but in a way it is like a little opera.
It sounds quite theatrical.
Yeah, as a live event it was very theatrical.
Are there any videos?
There is one video that someone made into a really beautiful film which I really like, but he doesn't want to put it on the net. So you can't see it anywhere. He wants me to release it as a DVD, but I've never released a DVD. But I don't know the circles, the distribution for visual stuff.
You mean getting into film festivals?
Yeah, it seems like a different world. I really like it and it's short, maybe thirty minutes edited from a longer gig that we did, shot with two cameras. He's done a whole lot of processing techniques on us, so it's quite psychedelic, so you see Chris Mann performing, but he is in a purple cloud with yellow edges.
What are you plans after this tour?
I've got a group in Australia called Embedded with three other amazing players in Sydney. An awful lot of the playing I've done recently has been in these ridiculous international projects, like this one, where one of them lives in Madrid and the other in Oslo, it doesn't make life easy. So I got this group with people in Sydney. It's great, we can rehearse once a week for the whole year and do little gigs around Sydney. We've been working on that for a couple of years and I think it is sounding pretty amazing. We've been invited to the Stone in New York next year in October. We're going to try to record later this year. The next project is under way. In Australia I do a lot of stuff outdoors, stuff on the Through Fire record, in the Budawang Mountains, that is happening where we do gigs outside.
No electricity.
Well, sometimes you can get battery powered amps and solar generators. We're not Luddites. If somebody needs electricity, fine. But it is easier not to lug around an amp, especially if you're going to take people on a walk in the Bush, maybe a half an hour, an hour from the train station.
I want to ask you about the Through Fire CD. You were out in the wilderness for 2 weeks... did you bring food with you, or were you hunting?
No! I actually found out later that the ranger in that national park could have dropped food to me by helicopter, they drop food to some of the workers who maintain the paths. It was fine to take a couple of weeks' food.
Like granola, or?
You want a list? [laughs] You know the Japanese mochi? That's really good to take; it's super solid.
Ingar Zach: Denley, are you ready to go?
We're doing an interview! Hey: Josh wanted to know, the name of Mural, how we came up with it.
Ingar Zach: […]
Well I didn't come up with it. Kim: was there any rationale?
Kim Myhr: I felt that we covered a lot of ground, and the gran cassa [the bass drum Zach uses] is pretty big, and also I think we develop pretty slowly, so we have a large scale...
What was the last question?
About the food. Because art/music is thought of as being useless, and here you are in the wilderness where you need useful things to survive.
It does feel really stupid, climbing around this fucking mountain with a saxophone. And you meet people who've got just something to boil their food, something for when it rains, and that's it, because you don't want to be carting around a lot of heavy stuff. And I've got a saxophone and two tape recorders... pretty stupid.
Could you learn music that would attract birds and capture them?
A lot of the playing I did was interacting with the birds, having a dialog, but none of that ended up on the record. I don't know if that's because I'm not very good with that dialog. Some of the singers I know in the north of Australia can imitate and have dialogs with all the local birds. These guys live in that environment for their whole lives, absolute virtuosos of bird mimicry. I've probably spent three months of my whole life in this mountain range, so I don't think I'm very good at it, compared to them. Some of the stuff I recorded where I am trying to do that sounds corny. I prefer where I'm interacting with the space but without obvious mimicry.
To close this feature, we present six minutes of a live recording of Mural at the Church of the Friendly Ghost from August 2011. My recorder was placed near from where the photos above were taken, so the music is heavily favored towards the saxophone; i.e. the mix sounds like how I heard the show. An additional two minutes of that show can be seen/heard on this YouTube video.
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