issue 28 :: October 2017

previous contents next

Interview: Anthony Coleman

Anthony Coleman

This is the third interview with composer, performer, professor Anthony Coleman. Are you sick of him yet? I’m not! He remains fascinating, always working and evolving, finding new situations, directions and most importantly people to fill his musical life. And rest assured he is not doing what he was doing ten years ago, although everything builds upon previous projects and working relationships. If you wish to read the previous interviews, they are here (from 1994) and here (from 2004). This interview was supposed to happen during my visit to New York City in 2016, but I went to art museums and book stores with college friends instead, managing to speak to him for a few minutes back stage after a fiery performance of Marc Ribot’s Los Cubanos Postizos (photographed above).Anthony has been beyond generous with his time and information with me.

—Josh Ronsen
Thank you very much for talking to me again.
My pleasure.
For a second, weíre going to pretend that we had done this interview when I was in New York last year, so I am going to ask about the show I saw ďlast nightĒ with Marc Ribot [y Los Cubanos Postizos at Le Poisson Rouge]. That was just an amazing show. I was totally surprised; I shouldnít have been but I was surprised at its energy, at its joyful exuberance. Did you rehearse much for that show? Have you been playing with them a lot?

We’ve been playing that material now for almost 20 years, so at this point we just get together usually the day of the show because we’ve been playing that repertoire for quite [some time]. You know we made two records and we toured Europe a bunch, and weíve toured South America few times and weíve toured Japan a couple of times. So at this point, we have one sub [substitute], the drummer, sometimes we have two choices, but other than that itís always the same people. We can just fall into it pretty much.
I was just thinking those two records are so old now, it seemed amazing you were able to play that music seemingly so effortlessly.
Back in the day when we were making the records, we used to rehearse a lot for new repertoire, but at a certain point Marc moved on to other projects and as a result we became more like a party band in a way. Itís wonderful like that because itís pleasurable to show up and see each other and play together. At one point the project was a lot more, I guess you could say, conceptual in its orientation, but that changed. There was a desire to make a third record but it never panned out. We basically play the material from the first two records, and only the ones that flow, and the ones that are more conceptual in their orientation we leave out of the set at this point.
I want to compliment you again on that performance, I brought in friends from college and they both loved it.
Itís a blast for us if weíre happy and itís always a blast for the audience. We went to Colombia last year and that was really incredible. Itís always funny taking this music to South America since the roots of it are from Cuba and itís interesting to see how the South American audiences respond to it, and itís always been fantastic.
Iím sure they love to hearÖ I mean, the music sounds very authentic, it doesnít sound dumbed-down or white-washed. It sounds very groovyÖ there were people dancing and making out all around usÖ
Yeah thereís always a lot of dancing, itís really fun. But also in South America, I think I could say that weíve been, not the only one, but one of the inspirations to younger musicians who want to combine their interest in other musics with their national music. For example there is a really fantastic group from Colombia, The Meridian Brothers, an experimental pop band from Colombia and if you donít know them you should. Eblis Alvarez, heís a trained composer and then he has this band. But I feel a connection to what we do with some younger bands from Latin America and South America.

To switch gears, I want to ask about your record Freakish [piano solos of Jelly Roll Morton compositions, released 2009], specifically about the piano you used and how you decided to use that piano over every other piano in the world.
I wouldnít go so far as to say I did that exactly. I was working very closely with Andy Taub who engineered the record and it was his studio and it was the piano in his studio at Brooklyn Recording. Andy spent a bunch of time in New Orleans and had a lot of appreciation and sensitivity for what I was trying to do, so it was a real collaboration. I wouldnít have been able to do it in the same way had I not been working with Andy. So it is more based on that.

So he had a piano or he was able to mic the piano to get that soundÖ

He used an old Steinway, a beautiful old Steinway and he has a lot of vintage microphones. If youíre looking for a producer, an engineer who is going to disappear into the background, heís definitely not your choice. Heís a creative person and he brings that to the table. So it was more about Andy than the piano itself, although I needed at least a good responsive baby grand for sure.

So you didn’t think about using an upright piano? Did you research [what Morton used]?
First of all, if you listen to the really great records Jelly Roll didÖ for the Library of Congress [in 1938] he recorded on a Steinway. People tend to think of this music being played on uprights a lot and it probably was at a lot of gigs, but donít forget Jelly Roll was recording for Victor in those days, he was recording for a major label. A lot of his records were done on the same pianos that the classical performers would have recorded on.
I was wondering because the record sounds very fresh. It doesnít sound like theyíre museum pieces. Obviously you could tell the language is old, but when you hear people play that kind of music and itís very quaint...
Thatís exactlyÖ if I would have ended up doing it like that, I would have never put it out. In fact I’ve spent more time on this project than many things, re-recording, trying again and again. I definitely didnít want to get that kind of sound of the people who devote themselves to traditional jazz. I consciously wanted to avoid all of that. You know the [liner] notes that I wrote were based on the Borges story ďPierre Menard, Author of the Quixote;Ē I talked about the difficulty of trying to make these pieces new without reshaping them too much. But on the other hand, I didnít want to turn them into hip-hop or something like that. And on the other hand I definitely wanted to stay away from the vintage music specialist. There were a lot of things I had in my mind that I needed to do, and in trying to get close to it, I would sometimes find myself too close to one direction or the other and I just had to keep trying. So many of the pieces I recorded over and over again before I came up with the version that ended up on the record.
Is his music popular musicópopular music of his day? Is it historical music? Is it the foundation of jazz? Thereís so many ways we can think about it, and sometimes it wasn’t purely his music, he was also trying to preserve the songs he heard growing up.
Exactly and Iím interested in all those ways. It wasnít much of a stretch to want to do it because he was always a very big influence on me, in his relation to composition and improvisation and the way he navigated the space in between the two. The stretch was getting my playing in shape that I could actually do it, and once I had that, trying to find that space where it wouldnít sound like ďrevivalĒ but it wouldnít sound like I was pushing too hard to make it into some other thing. Thatís where the balance came in and that was very complicated for me.

How much room did you give yourself to work within his compositions?
For example, if you take a piece like ďThe Pearls,Ē he recorded it, I canít think exactly, but 5 or 6 times in his lifetime and I can always tell someone who kind of jives in terms of performing ďThe PearlsĒ when I hear somebody who has modeled their performance on just one of his recordings, because he changed it so radically. He improvised so much on his own pieces and especially in a piece like that, itís a great composition but he radically changed things when he improvised on it. I tried to get inside his head a little bit and tried to figure out what for him was essential, what can you not change, and because he changed so much, and then I tried to find what would be my version of that if I would operate within those margins. I always did a lot of improvising but I also tried to find out what were the bones, what was the architecture, what was the blueprint, what was essential. One of the great things that separates Jelly Roll from ragtime is the way he opened up those structures, and he loosened them in such a way that improvisation not only seems to make sense but seems absolutely necessary to those compositions. In a way, what he did was similar to what James P. Johnson was doing in the East Coast at the same time, but the big difference is that Johnsonís pieces were very piano-centric; they donít translate very well to improvisers who play other instruments. Whereas Jelly Roll had much more an ensemble orchestral conception. Even though I was playing them as solos, I tried to keep in mind the band recordings that he did and the way he expanded his pieces. I was always trying to push the pieces to the border of where I could push them without distorting them.
Was it difficult toÖ I don’t want to say he had a limited language at all, but just his era... Was it hard to remove yourself from the 21st Century and get into his harmonic structure?
Again, if you read the Borges story, the whole point of Pierre Menard was to rewrite Don Quixote from the perspective of being in the 20th Century. The story is funny if you read it carefully; every word of Don Quixote is the same but the words have different meanings because you’re reading them from the perspective of them having been written in the 20th Century. So I tried to keep that in mind, not make such a big deal out of it, but look at it like Ďwell I am living now, I’m not going to pretend that I’m not, what can I add that feels right? What can I take away that feels right?í One thing which is really funny: there are so many grooves in this world, there so many ways of playing 4/4 [time], but one groove that I will say, at least this is my experience, the New Orleans groove—the real New Orleans groove—the time field is something that I have never heard someone who is not from New Orleans play correctly. So at a certain point I had to give up that I would ever play that groove exactly right. It’s funny because you can listen to these amateur brass bands where nobody plays in tune, where no one is really a well-trained musician or anything, but they are from the streets of New Orleans and they play that groove perfectly. Forget about the Meters—of course the Meters are genius—but even second- or third-level bands that are coming out of the scene which the Meters came, they play that beat perfectly. After working on this for 5 years I realized I will never play that beat perfectly, so I just have to turn it into what it is that I am able to do and make that what I want to do. At first it is not what I wanted to do. At first I really wanted to play that beat perfectly but after a while since I’m never going to be able to do that I have to, like that Shakespeare term, ďmake a virtue out of a necessity.Ē
I wonder how much of that beat feel is due toÖ you think of those bands playing literally in the streets, marching or dancing. I’ve watched on YouTube some band in someone’s backyard and they’re all standing up and they’re all, not dancing, but there’s a physical element to their playing.
Yeah, it’s amazing, but for example, I also feel that with New York salsa and the way it derives from Cuban musicÖ and I have to say it was a lot easier for me to play a version of that rhythm than I feel I was closer to than Jelly Rollís [rhythm] and I think part of that has to do with the time proximity: salsa was happening, the major records of salsa, were coming out when I was in high school, so it was more part of my blood in a way, even though I never really played that music and I’ve spent much less time thinking about playing salsa then I have spent thinking about playing Jelly Rollís music, but for me the groove came a lot easier.
After talking about the piano on that record, I want to talk about the piano on the Mordechai Gebirtig record [released 2006].

That’s a funny story: we made that whole record in the Hit Factory in New York. It was one of the last sessions that was made in one of the most legendary studios, and John Zorn heard that whole session we did—it was amazing to do it in a state-of-the-art studio, state-of-the-art Steinway piano—and he just said ‘I don’t know, this session just doesn’t feel alive to me.’ Then I gave him the little recording that was done from the house in Krakow; it was a very good piano but it was not in the most perfect of shape, and I believe it was a Steinway but it was a Steinway that had definitely seen some action, let’s put it that way. It was a funky Steinway, and Zorn listened to that and said ‘what the hell, you can’t compare a studio in New York to something recorded in a synagogue in Krakow a block away from Gebirtigís house at midnight.’ I had to agree. So we jumped the whole Hit Factory session and put out the board recording from Krakow.

So there was a piano in the synagogue? [some Eastern European synagogues did not permit the playing of instrumental music. —Ed.]
The Jewish Culture Festival takes place every year and the funny thing, well it’s not funny haha, but one of the most paradoxical things about Krakow is that Hans Frank, the Nazi General-Governor of Poland, recognized the beauty of Krakow and his ideal was that Warsaw was going to be destroyed completely and Krakow was going to be preserved and that was also going to include all of the Jewish heritage sites, because after the war when there were no more Jews, there was an idea that they would start a museum of the vanished Jewish people, how they lived, what they did, and so every synagogue was preserved and every burial site was preserved. So there is a completely preserved Jewish neighborhood in Krakow, Kazimierz, and during the festival all of those synagogues and Jewish sites are used as venues for concerts.

So there’s a piano in there for the concerts.

Yeah, I donít know what happens during the rest of the year. Iíve played that festival four times and itís really an amazing experience.

What else have you done at the festival?
I did Gebirtig again another year, but I didnít want to do it exactly the same way so I did it with guests, whoever was at the festival I invited to collaborate with me. We did the same repertoire but did it slightly expanded. I played with Frank London with a project he has; we recorded a record Hazònos with cantorial music. I played there with Sanda Weigl whom I made a couple of records with, also I played there with my trio Sephardic Tinge.
Always trying something differentÖ
But the festival also wanted me to do something different, and then after I did Gebirtig for the second time which was in 2006, unfortunately I’ve never been back there. Or maybe I was there one more time in 2007, but I haven’t been there in the last 10 years. I do miss it; it’s very special to play there that often, but I can’t blame the festival because I’ve taken myself out of the preoccupation with Jewish culture in a way. I mean, I’m still involved in it to some degree but much less than I was.
I wanted to talk about your work as a professor as a teacher.
I’m full-time faculty at the New England Conservatory. I have been for ten years.
Do you like that?
I love it. It’s an amazing job. I’ve turned out some really interesting people that have gone on to find their space in this crazy world of whatever kind of music it is that we are involved in.
Are you a professor of Composition? Are you professor of Music Theory?
My department is called Contemporary Improvisation, so inside of that that can mean many things. I have a number of ensembles, and I teach classes that have to do with composition, and classes that have more to do with improvisation, and then I have classes that have more to do with you could call sociology. So I do a lot of things there, and then I put on a big spring concert which is always based on a theme. Last year we did Cardewís ďThe Great Learning.Ē
And I want to talk about that later.
I also did a concert based on Beckett, and I did a concert based on the relationship between Thelonious Monk and Webern so Iíve done a lot of interesting thematic concerts. More or less they let me do what I want to do. I definitely have people I need to talk to, but with those thematic concerts theyíve taken on many different roles. One a couple of years ago we brought in John Zorn to do a full day of his compositions. I coached everything before John came and he just came for the day and put the finishing touches on it. It was another great event many amazing events over the years, a few strange events but mostly great ones.
John Zorn is such an octopus of creativity, what did you focus on?

We did a lot of things. We did some of his chamber music, we did a couple of Naked City pieces, we did Cobra, we did Hockey, we did some of his rock-based pieces. We tried to cover as much as possible in a 3-hour concert. ... We also have Steve Drury at New England Conservatory who runs an incredible contemporary ensemble so he has programmed a lot of John’s more chamber orchestral music.

Is this a situation where students know who you are and then go to the school to take your classes because they are familiar with you?
Probably some of them, I get those lunatics, there are few of those, and that’s always fun and otherwise I’m just core faculty and they end up getting to know my work. Itís a combination because in our department we have about fifty students and they’re all interested in different things; there are those whose trajectory is a little closer to what I do—most recently I would mention Simon Hanes with his band Tredici Bacci and the work he’s doing with the trio Trigger which is working with Zorn now. I would go so far as to say he’s kind of a protegť but then there’s a lot of people that are more interested in American Roots music and people who are interested in free improvising and they tend to gravitate toward Joe Morris, and for the more Roots music, Hankus Netsky is the chairman of the department and he has the Klezmer Conservatory Band. He was very important in the Klezmer revival. There’s a large range of stuff that goes on and some of the people gravitate towards me and some of them just have to deal with me whether they like it or not. [laughs]
So theyíre forced to take one improvisation classÖ
Yeah, thereís a lot of freedom in terms of curriculum, but there are some core classes that you have to take.
Like an early music class?
There are some of those, but there is a vague concept but it is very clear to us thatís called Third Stream Methodology, because the department used to be called the Third Stream Department back when Gunther Schuller was president of the school and Ran Blake was head of the department. That name changed about 15 years ago to Contemporary Improvisation but it still exists in the Core Curriculum thatís called Third Stream Methodology. Itís taught by 4 different people and we each have one semester. I do one semester, Dominique Eade does one semester, Hankus Netsky does one, and I think Peter Row does the other. Itís a graduate-level class and we all do it in a different way. My way looks at improvisation as a global concept, not focusing on one idea of what improvisation means. I try to do something that resembles a survey of global improvisation. Of course we canít cover everything in a semester but we try to do the best we can.

So thereíll be a bit about Indian classical music...
Exactly. There will be a unit about Indian music. Actually on this Tuesday we will be doing a unit on Persian music. We have a fantastic doctoral student who is a Persian virtuoso and also studying composition at the same time, and heís going to talk about Persian improvisation which is something that has got more and more interesting to me over the last year. Persian music has started to fascinate me a lot, not so much the sound, although I really like the sound, but the way it deals with time. The time scale of Persian music is... I feel like for almost every kind of music in the world and Iím including long pieces by Morton Feldman, most music in the world I feel I understand the time scale and how the music uses time, but Persian music and its relation to time still feels mysterious to me and that fascinates me. I donít know if youíve ever heard a whole evening of a Persian concert, but its arc is very different from any other arc of music in terms of when it deals with stasis, when it deals with action, and the whole idea of climax is very different in Persian music than from any other music that I know.
Who are you listening to in Persian music?
There are the famous virtuosos like Mohammad Reza Shajarian who was a real opening point for me. I think it was MichaŽl Attias who told me that Shajarian was playing at Alice Tully Hall and I didnít know who he was but the way he said itÖ and I went to the concert. It was mind-blowing. Later he became a little more mainstream; he was a part of what was called the Masters of Persian music which was an all-star band that toured. It also had Kayhan Kalhor and Hossein Aliz‚deh. Actually Aliz‚deh was my first experience of Persian music in in 1990. I was playing with Marc Ribotís band The Rootless Cosmopolitans in London and we had a free night and we went to a concert of Persian music. It was Aliz‚deh and his ensemble. I had no idea what I was listening to but it was incredible. Those are some of the main figures, but I guess my favorite Persian music record is Mohammad Reza Shajarian with Mohammad Reza Lofti on a duo record called the Abu-Ata Concert. There’s something really remarkable in that record how it flows. I often fallÖ I wouldn’t say asleep but Iíd rather say I go into a kind of trance when Iím listening to it.
Iím always interested in music I donít know and someone says youíve got to hear this.
The Abu-Ata Concert is definitely a must; I’ll send the info to you in an email.

How do you deal with your students as individuals? Do you ever tailor the classes to their interests?

Well you have to; you do the best you can. Iíve had some incredible individuals that have gone on to do amazing work. I mentioned Simon [Hanes] but Eli Keszler, Ashley Paul... Since Iíve been there ten years, Iíve had some people that have gone on to make some really important music outside of... and hopefully I recognize their special qualities. I know I have in some cases and I probably missed a couple because we didnít connect in that way. My main interest in life is the relationship between composition and improvisation. Thatís always been the liminal space in which I live, where one is in the ascendance and one is in the descendance and theyíre fighting or theyíre arguing or theyíre making up or theyíre doing something or theyíre confusing each otherÖ so people who are interested in that are definitely the people I worked most closely with.
Do you ever get the chance as a professor to critique studentsí work? Are these classes where students present their work?
Thatís one of the most essential parts of my job, I would say, listening to their music and talkingÖ I should mention that beside my classes, I teach Studio which means I have a lot of private students, sorry to call them ďprivateĒ students, but weíre one on one all year long and they come in with their music and we talk about it. I try to say something thatís not too stupid. A lot of times what Iíll say is very oblique because a lot of times I have an oblique response. Iím not one of those people who says why did you choose B-flat here instead of B-natural. I can do that, but itís not my usual way of talking about their work Itís more talking about the big picture and goals. To give one example, a student brought in his music and it was very slow and very quiet and he had these little chords which were operating all over but it felt very tonal in a way and I said Ďone of the things you might want to consider is you think youíre writing Morton Feldman but youíre actually writing Gavin Bryars, and of course he didnít know Bryarsí music and the difference between Gavin Bryars and Morton Feldman is pretty big; the similarities exist for sure but it is a big difference and what I was trying to say, and obviously I went into it in more detail, you canít reduce Feldmanís music to a bunch of quiet slow events, thereís also a tonal system inside of it, even if itís hard to say exactly what that tonal system. You can read theorists who try to understand... they find coherence inside of Feldmanís harmonic language and then they try to codify it so they can write about it. Itís very resistant to that, but they know what it is and they know what it is not, they just have trouble analyzing it, but it has a particular kind of harmonic consistency. You can hear somebody [who has] the chords all wrong and thatís okay because I believe in the Harold Bloomian notion of misreading: the way you look at the model and what you get wrong about the way you look at the model is how you come up with your own vocabulary. In the case of this particular student, he didnít know the music of Gavin Bryars who came out of the scene a little bit later than Morton Feldman and in some sense was informed by the Cageian and post-Cageian music, so in a way there was a wheel that needed to be reinvented by, and I hate to use this kind of label, by early minimalism or by English music that was influenced by both Cage and early minimalism. Bryars was one of the people that had some interesting responses to that, and it makes sense that someone could rewrite Gavin Bryars without knowing Bryarsí music at all because they’re responding to the same set of circumstances: they hear Feldman but theyíre also living in a different time, a post-minimalist time, thereís a lot of rock music, theyíre playing all kinds of stuff, so itís clear why the harmonic language would be differentÖ So my job in that case is to say Ďyou have a model whose music you donít even know so maybe you should know it and you’ll see if it changes you.í
On the flip side of the question, what are you learning from your students, because Iím sure your students are bringing in things you donít know?
One of the things which is really important is the omnipresence of different ways of dealing with computer music, and what computer music means today as opposed to what computer music meant when I was a kid. Computer music when I was a kid was patch cords and constructing filters and envelopes. It was all very old school analog synthesizer, classic electronics studio, the Columbia/Princeton lab, or the earliest Xenakis pieces, and now the omnipresence of that language and its relation to whatís now called Sound Art and all of that stuff has created a different vocabulary and a different atmosphere for acoustic music. I feel like acoustic music is the same way that something can be influenced by something that it doesnít even know itís being influenced. I feel that acoustic music labors under a bit of a... I wrote a piece on my record You, the one I did for New World a couple years ago, a track for solo piano called ďMetonymies Of Pastness,Ē and what that title means: acoustic instruments were starting to feel like a metonymy of pastness even in just the nature of their existence as instruments, they felt like they represented something that was a signifier for the past. When I looked at a piano, it almost didnít matter to me anymore what you played on the piano, the piano just felt that way, just look at these beautiful scrolls and the carving on the piano and the craftsmanship that the piano represents. It started to feel very sad and old to me, especially when I was around a lot of people that were approaching music from the filter of sound art and electronics. I wanted to represent this in the piece, to use the piano acoustically but to speak to that in the use of overtones and ghost notes. That was me trying to deal with essentially the post-electronic situation on an acoustic instrument, and also from the perspective of someone who is a lot older. I also wanted to represent that in terms of where I was, where I am historically. I like that piece. To me, it definitely spoke to that [idea], and that definitely comes out of working with younger people.
Have you been inspired to look into [composing] computer music?
What I was trying to do in the piece, like I said, I was trying to do it without electronics.
You haven’t invested in Max/MSP yet?
No, but I think about it every day, and I think I just have to take the plunge. That is one of the downsides of teaching: you work so hard nine months out of the year and then when you get your 3 months... I’ve spent this summer vacation practicing the piano. That’s what I did. I was trying to become a better pianist because after I made that record, I don’t know if you’ve heard You; it has two really big solo piano pieces. One is dedicated to Butch Morris’ memory and the other one is the one that Iíve been talking about. I never put myself out there playing that much piano repertoire. Itís helped to create the situation where I want to work on that. I would love to learn Max/MSP. My kid knows Max/MSP, my girlfriend knows Max/MSP, everyone around me knows it.

You need to teach a computer music class and then learn it in the class...
Or I need to take a computer music class, probably more to the point. We have a wonderful computer music teacher, John Mallia and a lot of my students have worked with him. I don’t know if you’ve heard the music of Caroline Park at all, but she is someone who came out of our school and worked with John very closely. Sheís done some very interesting things, for example.
Theyíre just so many avenues into computer music right now.
I know itís amazing and if I do it, I donít want to be a tourist, I want to try and do it really well.
Oh, I know you would get acore idea or concept that you would flesh out.
That would be the thing. Okay, I had one student who said, we were listening to some of the early Xenakis music like ďOrient-OccidentĒ and he said Ďyou know nowadays you can make this whole piece in the studio in one day,í and I said Ďwell okay, thatís great, but then how come there arenít that many pieces that are on this level?í Thatís another question that a lot of people donít want to ask. Thatís fine that people can make it but thereís something about Xenakis: it doesnít matter if he was in an analog studio or digital studioÖ not that I want to be a proponent of the Great Man Theory or anything like that. It is true that Xenakis is Xenakis, but I have to say thatís not a popular attitude nowadays, for being in a post-canonical time.
My friend Rick Reed, he plays synthesizer, heís actually in New York right now for the memorial concert for Bill Erta last night, but thereís been a huge explosion of analog synthesizers and modular synthesizers and it seems like everyone has a system now. Rick always says Ďwhere’s all the great music? There’s all this great equipment, whereís the great music?í
[The Erta memorial concert] was connected to SHARE [an open-invitation audio/video collaboration group], and in SHARE the main point is that people show up and play together, and a lot of that aesthetic is almost a jam session aesthetic.
You just mentioned the idea of Great Men: letís talk about [Cardewís] ďThe Great Learning.Ē Whose idea was [to perform] that?

Mine. With something crazy like that... Iím not going to put something together like that if itís not my idea, thereís so much work involved, I have too much to do [laughs]. ďThe Great LearningĒ is epic. I had to do another spring concert and it felt like it was the right time, especially in terms of the socio-political aspects of it. It felt very relevant.

The Austin New Music Co-op performed all seven paragraphs a few years ago. Itís such a life-changing experience if you get into it. We were practicing every week for a while and then the concert didnít happen and we had to reorganize and re-approach it.

Why didn’t the concert happen?

I donít rememberÖ Maybe the venue fell through? We did one of the paragraphs outside initially and then we got a nice space and did it all in a church with a big pipe organ. Did you play the organ parts?
No I didnít. I directed. My whole role was directing and believe you me it was enough of a role.
As a co-op, we divided up the paragraphs, so no one person had to deal with all of it.
We did a little bit of dividing: we have a gospel chorus, an African-American roots ensemble and they organized Paragraph 7 because it’s all vocals so it made sense.
And they got into that listening to notes and singing the notes of the person next to you?
Thinking of those Scratch Orchestra text pieces of Cardew [and others], I didn’t think it would be something you’d be interested in. I was surprised when I saw a YouTube clip of you conducting.
Yeah, thatís what I’m saying, and of course there are some new problems that come up when you do it in a conservatory.
One piece that excited me in the Scratch Orchestra, was the one where in the group you have to elect a leader and then that leader’s sole job is to set up the next election.
I donít know that piece, if you have a text maybe send it to me.
Itís in the big compendium of scores.
Oh yeah, I have that book. If I ever do another one of these big things again I will probably do ďBurdocksĒ by Christian Wolff which was originally written for the Scratch Orchestra. I don’t know if you know that.

Has it been recorded?

Itís been recorded a couple of times: thereís a Tzadik record of “Burdocks,” and thereís a Wergo record as well. Itís definitely a must.

Despite all the work, did you have fun with ďThe Great Learning?Ē

An incredible experience! It was crazy it was great and we were able to bring some people outside of the NEC community to perform in it; it felt necessary. I didnít want it to be a pure Conservatory product; it seemed like that would be against the nature of the piece.
At that time Cardew wanted to bring in non-musicians into performance...
Exactly: for example in number 4, even if you are a trained musician, what Paragraph 4 makes you do is so outside of your experience...
...that you become a non-musician...
In a way, and the rigor of Paragraph 4... itís genius what he did in that, the layering of the hits in the held tones when youíre reading the text and the soloist who gets up in the middle of it with the scratching of the washboard-like instruments. Everything is so simple but it is chosen so perfectly that the way it works together is amazing.
Oh yeah, I performed two of the paragraphs: that was the other one I did, we pounded on the floor...
Yeah, thatís the one with the pounding on the pillows and scratching the washboard-like instrument, and the way those work together.
Yeah, yeah, thatís the piece for the pillows [laughs].
Itís so great, that piece. Did you watch the Japanese video of it? Itís really interesting, you might know this guyís work, [Adachi Tomomi] heís very fascinating. I’ve read about him, the way he did it was great. Iím sending you the [YouTube] playlist because thatís the world we live in... itís got the John Tilbury version, all the good ones, and also a couple of bad ones. Itís important that you look at the bad ones. I did a lot of research Ďcause you want to make sure you donít put only your spin on it, and where we live today that just doesnít seem like the way, to just do ďourĒ ďGreat LearningĒ and not give any shout outs to other people who have done it. Adachi Tomomi, heís very interesting, he did a great version, Paragraph 4 with him standing on stage, and everybody slamming stuff... We did the performance the way you do a performance: we looked at historical texts, we looked at records, whatever exists. I read a lot of Cardewís writings and tried to be as true to the spirit of ďThe Great LearningĒ as we could, given the fact that we are doing it inside the conservatory.
And following that, it canít be the Anthony Coleman version, it has to be of the group.
Yes, but of course I put my stamp on it because everyone puts their stamp on everything.
You probably did the most work, but you need other people, to be true to these projects, you need to have the input of everybody almost.
Absolutely, if people donít commit themselves to this piece, the piece does not happen.
Not only the commitment, but people have to bring themselves into it.
Whatís really great is that itís a very collective experience but it also gives a lot of agency to each person whoís working on it.
And sometimes people donít want that responsibility to do that, to bring themselves fully into it.
The people who didnít want it knew right away that they didnít want it and they stopped showing up and that was okay. We had enough people at the end. The more the merrier when it comes to ďThe Great LearningĒ but we had enough. Doing Paragraph 2 is very difficult unless if you have a lot of people because the drums have to play so loud and then the singers have to be able to be heard over the drums. Thatís relatively difficult if youíre in a beautiful acoustic space like where we were in Jordan Hall thereís drums are killing. You donít even have to hit them so hard because the acoustic space is so nice, youíve got the seven drums goingÖ we tried to have at least five singers per drummer, five singers is almost not enough so that means we had 42 people but even that wasnít quite enough, we should have had 15 singers for each drummer.
I think we had 20 singers in total.
Remember, there are several drummers and theyíre all playing through those different rhythmic modules... The recording of that piece by the Scratch Orchestra is very good.
Whatís New York City like these days for musicians?
Itís definitely different from what it was in the early Ď80s, and itís even different from what it was in the Ď90s. In the Ď80s there was so much activity and it was so cheap to live here, you could find a place and pay $200 or $400 a month and you could do that, it was possible. There were all these tiny ad-hoc spaces, it was amazing and in the Ď90s we had some focal points, we had Tonic and Knitting Factory. Now the scene is very dispersed but there is still an enormous amount of creativity. Iíve been going over the last few weeks to a lot of different spaces that are in places like Bushwick and Ridgewood; the scene has definitely moved to these previously very marginal neighborhoods of Brooklyn but inside of those, there are some fantastic performance spaces and there is some great music being made. There the problem is when you have so many tiny little spaces the audience is extremely dispersed. My biggest problem with the scene right now is not money and itís not creativity, itís the audience. Itís very difficult to harness the audience right now in ways that seem much more radical than they were in either the Ď80s or the Ď90s. I donít know about the 2000s. I was there but I canít say about the 2000s. In this decade, I really feel the problem is... I go to a show or I play in a show in Bushwick or Ridgewood and the show is incredible, I played a show the other night in a duo with Brian Chase—heís an incredible musician, most famous for being the drummer in the rock band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but heís an incredible improviser, heís a great thinker about Music and Sound, we have a wonderful duo, we havenít done it that many times, maybe 6 or 7 times—we just played in the space and the people who were there were just... and it was what you were talking about, a lot of analog synthesizers were part of the show, the audience seemed to appreciate it, but it is such a dispersed audience and you can understand if you look at whatís going on in a given night; thereís ten of these little places, each having some interesting show and how do you make the decision which one youíre going to go to? A lot of times I just stay home because Iím exhausted and Iím sure there are a lot of other people who are feeling the same thing and end up not doing anything. There is a lot of stuff, itís a ridiculous amount of activity. That hasnít changed, itís just the focus is all weird.
From Austin, Texas we look at Brooklyn as being a center of Art Rock or Art Punk, and I wonder if those audiences arenít interested in other things...
Oh theyíre not interested in other things. And they never were, but the way it was set up in the past it made it more possible... Everyone talks about the Hurrah, the rock club of the early Ď80s, but I can tell you having played in Hurrah with Glenn Branca, that what was interesting was the people on the floor for the gig and the people on the floor for the disco were often very different. The people on the floor for the disco would retreat to the back rooms and make out and stuff, and the other people would come and stand in front of the band, and then when the disco would start again—you know it was a good disco cause weíre talking 1980-1981, so B-52s, Talking Heads, so on—the mix was good but it was still a different thing. I was just out of grad school, so in a way I was a little bit of a tourist in this scene even though I was a part of it. There was a part of me that more observed it and I would just chuckle when I would see the people who would... we had mean names for that kind of audience, B&T people, thatís a horrible term, it means people who came to the city by way of the bridge and the tunnel, people from Staten Island or New Jersey and Brooklyn—in those days, Brooklyn wasnít hip. The B&T people would be hanging out in the back waiting for the disco to start again, and then all the hipsters, or our people, would be standing in front of the band. People romanticize that it was one audience that could take everything, but it wasnít necessarily true. Those spaces functioned in three or four ways at the same time, and they were genius at doing it. We need that, we need spaces like that now, but they donít exist.
Thatís a problem in Austin, too.
The audience is very stratified.
And not interested in exploring things outside of their niche.
But they donít have to be interested, they just have to show up! You canít make everyone interested. A lot of people show up for dumb reasons; they show up because someone tells them itís cool, they show up because they think itís cool. Tonic was a good place to meet people; you could meet people at Tonic even if you thought all this music was a bunch of fucking noise. You could get drunk at Tonic, and then they had free DJ shows in the basement, DJs with improvisers and that was a cool scene, and you could go there in the basement and hang out. You didnít have to be so deep [into it] necessarily.
I wasnít going to ask this but you brought him up: I just found out the other day that youíre on that early Glenn Branca record, Lesson No. 1. How did you meet Branca?
I met him when I was working at the SoHo Music Gallery, thatís my whole entry into the New York scene, it was the luckiest thing that ever happened. I got the job because my mother lived a couple of blocks away, the SoHo Music Gallery was this super-cool record store, I didnít even know how cool it was. I didnít have enough money to get my own place at the moment, I was crashing at my motherís which was a horrible nightmare. Everything that happened to me, happened because it was such a center, everybody came in and everybody talked. You met people just by being there. I met John Zorn there, but how I met Glenn is really funny. We had a lot of shoplifters and some of them were famous musicians, people who would shoplift records and try to sell them for drugs and stuff, and this guy comes in wearing a nice black jacket, but he looks so disheveled, his hairís all up, and Iím watching him kind of carefully because thatís what we did, we watched those kind of guys. I’m listening to Henry Cow because I was reading a lot, whatever there was about the New Music scene and especially Coda magazine from Canada because they were covering a lot of fringe music that was coming out of improvisation that was not necessarily coming out of jazz, some of it was even coming out of rock, and some people were starting to combine rock ideas with quote unquote composed ideas. I would read and when the manager was gone, I would just open up the records and listen to them. So I was listening to Henry Cow because I read it was Fred Frith, I don’t know anything about it, but Glenn came in and said,
ĎWhat are you listening to?í
ĎHenry Cow.í
ĎWhy are you listening to them?í
ĎI just got my masterís degree in composition, so Iíve heard that theyíre all these rock bands that are influenced by contemporary composition and this is one of the names that came up,í and he said,
ĎOh yeah that’s true there are a lot of bands that are doing it, but a lot better than this shit.í
ĎReally? Like who for example?í
ĎLike my band The Static.í
ĎThat sounds really interesting.í
ĎWe’re playing next week at Tier 3, why donít you come up, Iíll put you on the guest list.í
Tier 3 was the Forgotten Great Rock Club of all time. It was the best rock club that ever existed. [No, Lounge Ax in Chicago. ĖEd.] It was a listening rock club, which is something you rarely ever find. I tried to go there as much as I could, and I played there a couple of times. As many times as I went there, I didnít go there enough. It didn’t live very long and I looked it up: it only lived for a couple of years, but it was so important. Anyway, I went to go hear Static and they were doing their songs, I don’t know if you know the Static 45 with ďMy RelationshipĒ on one side and ďDonít Let Me Stop YouĒ on the otherÖ They were playing thoseÖ incredible. I said, Ďyouíre right, that shit is amazing.í So he asked me to play with him in this project and we made that record and then, unfortunately, what happened: he kept scheduling tours and I kept asking for time off from work and then the tours would get cancelled. Then finally the one time when the tour actually happened, I think it was the fourth time he did it, and I said Ďlisten, I have to stay and workí and that was the actual tour that happened, the one where they went around the U.S. through the auspices of the Kitchen and thatís what the Ascension came out of and thatís why Iím not on the Ascension.
Which is too bad, but you know what, itís fine. Working with Glenn, Glenn was not at all a collaborator, it wasnít like working with John Zorn. Glenn is the center of his whole thing, Glenn really plays the whole composer with a Capital C.
I donít know what heís doing nowadays.
Heís doing the same thing heís always been doing, making big symphonies.
You mentioned Brian [Chase], who else are you working with these days?
A lot of what I’ve been doing follows from my record You, that kind of music, whatever you want to call that kind of music. I don’t know what it is, Iím not going to call it Classical music, I hate that term, and I donít even think it applies to that music. I guess if I have to call it concert musicÖ whatever you want to call that...
Modern Composition is what I call it.
Yeah, and then the people Iíve been playing with besides Brian—and Brian is one of my favorites—Iíve been doing a lot of playing with Mat Maneri, I have a trio Iíve been doing with him that I really enjoy, I really love playing with him. I have a trio with another violist Tanya Kalmanovitch and Ted Reichman the accordion player, weíre playing next week, we play relatively often, weíve been trying to make a record, nowadays making a record is a whole drama in itself... I love that thereís an improv label in France that’s called Potlatch, because itís the greatest name. Iím so jealous that they came up with that name because potlatch is the perfect name for a record label in our day and age. The idea that you make things and basically throw them away shows how much you care about them, you care about the people (or the music) so much that you throw material objects away. Thatís so in the tradition of the classic Native American potlatch.

Mat Maneri
Mat Maneri playing in Austin, October 30, 2017.
Or the important thing is the making of it.
Exactly. I was talking to someone the other day: in the Ď90s we used to think that we were kind of movie stars and now weíre poets, because thatís what it is, you know, you never expect itís going to sellÖ Maybe once a year, a poetry book catches on, one poet a year catches on, and then there are all those other poetry books and they’re all sitting around. I know I have to take the initiative and put some of these projects out on record. I have to do it, but between teaching and... Every once in a while somebody throws me a bone; it was fantastic to make You, because You had an actual budget because New World has budgets. I was actually able to pay the musicians and record in a beautiful hall and work with an incredible engineer [Judith Sherman]. Sheís a genius. I don’t know if you know about her, she did all of the classic Nonesuch records of the Ď70s, all the Elliott Carter stuff. It was working on a very professional levelÖ and then to go from that to ad-hocÖ itís a little hard, but it is the reality of our time, and there are records being made, and there’s even some great records being made.
Theyíre just so many of them now...
Itís so funny that now that thereís no audience for them, thereís so many right? Tanya and Ted trio, thatís really great. I’ve been playing a lot solo, Iíve been doing some projects with my former student Simon Hanes, and some of his crazy projects and one of those is interesting because it involves Henry Kaiser. After all these many years of being in this world Iíve never actually met Henry Kaiser, but Simon comes from the Bay Area so he knows Henry from then, his father is also a drummer [John Hanes]. Weíve been making this kind of crazy record thatís fun. I really love the work I was doing with Ashley Paul but that sort of vanished: she ended up moving to England, luckily we put out that one DVD, luckily thereís some record of it. Thereís a DVD of my piece ďDamaged By SunlightĒ that came out on a French label. I think those are most of the big projects Iím doing. I feel like Iím leaving somebody out that I donít want to leave out... but... it must be some lovely person that Iím playing with and Iím forgetting themÖ I tried to make a list of all the records I actually bought in the past few years and it was pretty sad. There werenít that many of them, I mean with all the ones that are out there...
Then thereís a bunch of obscure things that are being released or re-released...
Well those are more likely that I will check out, letís put it that way, as obnoxious as that may sound. What were you thinking of?
You know that label the Numero Group? They’ve been driving around the country taking over coffee shops and selling directly to the people.
Oh, their records are really interesting, like the Lost Disco Music of Belize from 1975 or whatever. Didnít they just decide they’re not making any more CDs?
And just make LPs? There were many more LPs at their pop up shop than CDs. I bought the LP by Neila Miller, made from a warped acetate in the 1960s. She was a folk singer and wrote the song that became “Hey Joe.” I have one final question, thatís really not a questionÖ thereís a webpage called Discogs Dot Com where info about records is cataloged, you can buy them, you can sell them, and thereís a page for every label and every musician listed on every liner note, so I thought Ďhey Iím going to see what records Anthony Coleman is on lately.í And your name was listed on this Blackalicious record...
Thatís the Anthony Coleman from California, right? He must be on that.
I thought Ďwhatís Anthony Coleman playing trumpet on a Blackalicious record?í
Whatís funny about him, we play some of the same repertoire. Itís really weird when I look... one of the ensembles I have at school is an early jazz ensemble, and he is on YouTube playing some of the same songs that I do with this group, and that shit really fucked me up, you know, now weíve crossed over even in terms of repertoire.
So I fixed the Blackalicious listing where it now points to him, but youíre telling me I canít be totally judgmental on whoís doing what now...
Well ever since I saw he did a recording of ďIíve Found a New Baby...Ē Iíve got to meet that guy someday.
And I think youíre also listed as playing on Joss Stoneís first record...
Actually someone else asked me about that one. Iím sad I didnít play on it, but Iíll tell you what I played on recently, which is almost as good as playing on Joss Stoneís record, I played on this new Hal Willner compilation, I played with Marc Almond.
Thatís going to come out and Iíll mess up the whole thing because people will have remember itís not me that played with Joss Stone but it is me who played with Marc Almond [from Soft Cell].
And that was a fun experience?
Oh, he was great. Actually do you know who was even greater? I did two of these, I just donít know her work, Iím not up on contemporary pop, I wish I was, but she didnít know my work either... Emily Haines from Broken Social Scene, It was part of the same record, and Simon wrote the arrangement and J.G. Thirlwell from Foetus. It was really fun so thatís going to mess that Discogs thing up even further. And it is also very strange, the funniest one is the one with Iggy Pop, people always ask me what was it like recording with Iggy Pop and I ask Ďwhat are you talking about?í and hereís what it is: one night, and these were the days when this kind of thing used to happen more often, I guess it was in the Ď90s, Hal Willner called me up late at night and they were doing the music for Shortcuts and he asked me to come in the studio because it was an overdub that needed to happen on this track, it was missing something, so I came to the studio, a home studio in the middle of SoHo, I was half asleep, I didnít even know what I was doing and I donít know what I recorded. I recorded something and the singer on the track was Iggy Pop, so as a result I recorded with Iggy Pop, but I was probably not within several hundred miles of him. But I did it. I don’t remember it, but I did it.
Anthony, those are all my questions. I love talking to you.
Thank you, it was a pleasure.
I somewhat regret not living in New York City, itís kind of the mythical homeland of my people...
Yes it is that, but you got to keep the fires burning in Austin. You have to help Keep Austin Weird, right? Isn’t that what they say?
Yeah, weíre trying, itís hard, weíre growing, itís becoming hipster...
It was hipster when I was there the last time for the film festival, Iíve been there one time since the film festival, I was there with Ribot and the Border Music, but I was only there for the day because of a thing the next day with David Hidalgo. But when I was there for the film festival, that whole downtownÖ all those big bars. That was pretty hipster then.
Those were baby hipsters; theyíve grown up and multiplied.
Well theyíre taking over the world; we have to find a way to co-exist with them.
Yeah, get into their festivals.
So far Iíve had no luck, but Tredici Bacci has had luck, have you checked them out? You have to, theyíre very interesting. And they played at South by Southwest. They did it.
Photo of Anthony Coleman at top and of Mat Maneri by Josh Ronsen, other images have been pulled from YouTube and may be clickable for important video content.
previous contents next