LARRY OCHS with JOAN JEANRENAUD and MIYA MASAOKA
Fly Fly Fly
music for saxophone,
cello and koto
Interview with Larry Ochs by Alexandre Pierrepont
Alexandere Pierrepont: At the beginning, what were the dreams, the ideas, the acquaintances - and then the rationale for starting such a trio?
Larry Ochs: If it feels right, go for it. And stay with it. Here I had a situation where I wanted to work with Joan; I love the cello, the sound of it, and I had never really played much with a cellist, and I'd wanted to work with Joan since 1984, when Rova performed for one week as a sax and strings octet with her group, Kronos. So this collaboration was way overdue.
Rova: Arts, which is Rova's non-profit organization, was producing a show for May of 2000, and in that show each of us four Rova members was commissioned to produce a project. So I was afforded the opportunity to create whatever I wanted. I decided to write a piece for a chamber group (the piece eventually called «Heart of the Matter» after a painting by Magritte). I also wanted the piece to be an acoustic piece, and I thought two strings and sax would be a nice combination. In the trio Maybe Monday (that Miya and I perform in with Fred Frith) Miya hooks up her koto to a sophisticated computer electronics set-up. Seemed like this would be a nice chance to work with her «pure» acoustic instrument. Plus: Miya and Joan were acquainted already, so I knew that the two of them would find some great musical terrains to explore.
The rehearsals in 2000 for the first performances were fun; the process was fun. When the process itself is fun, there's a real motivation for continuing the musical relationship. When one can imagine traveling with people and hanging out with them, that's another motivation (for me anyway). And both Joan and Miya were very open to getting involved with the cueing systems and improvisational ideas I like to compose with. It all clicked.
But ultimately, composing for improvisers means finding ways to harness the talents of given players. And it means working «with» [as opposed (perhaps) to «conducting»] the players. Thus - speaking for myself - I have to work with musicians whose musical vocabulary has a potential to take the music and make it work (even better than I imagined it) and /or whose vocabulary and way of working will push me as a player/composer to higher ground. There are definitely musicians around the globe whom I have heard perform once or twice that I would love to work with. People who, when I'm listening, I think: «wow; if there were just an opportunity, we could really make some cool music together.» For example, I have always loved electric guitar, but I've found that my saxophone playing and electric guitar tend to cancel each other out rather than work together. But I always felt, from first hearing Fred Frith play, that there was a space the two of us could occupy together that would be special. And 18 or 20 years later that proved to be very true, from the first downbeat on. I think there's an intuition that tells you that good music is going to come from a certain situation. And you have to learn to trust it.
How do you explain that so many creative musicians nowadays need to get special commissions in order to perform and do their work.
I like to believe that the «work» would happen with or without the commissions. I'm sure that's true. Art is in your blood (or it's not). Once you release the genie, there's no rebottling it. And one has to attend to this genie (or «muse») most days. I mean: it's what my soul wants (and needs) most to do in life: be creative with sound in some way each day, even if it's just listening to or thinking about it. Otherwise I get disagreeable.
On the other hand, most all of us need income to pay the bills, so those projects that get funded end up getting priority, and/or there's nothing like a real deadline to help bring a piece to fruition. Deadlines are generated by gigs or exhibition dates, and those gigs exist because there's money to be spent and earned. However, I also believe that great artists would produce a lot more great art if they were freed from the obligation of writing grants, hustling for concerts, and/or starving. That's not an opinion; that's a fact. But that's not going to happen.
It has often been said that in this music the human being, body and soul, the improviser, is in many ways more crucial than the instrument he or she is playing. Especially since we are now used to all kinds of groupings. But still: tenor and sopranino saxophones, cello and koto. Weren't you looking for the very special sound of such an unheard association, even before you began to play together?
Multiple answers: The tenor saxophone was invented to double the cello in the orchestra, not to be a jazz instrument. I used to love to try and play the Bach solo cello sonatas on tenor. And I knew that cello/tenor could sound great together. I'd been working with the koto for a while. I knew that the koto could act both as a textural partner with the sopranino and cello and also as a rhythm instrument like a piano. Secondly, this trio came together in San Francisco, where The World Music Center was presenting music from Asia in the 1970's and 80's, where collaborations between Western and Eastern instrumentalists and composers have been taking place for half a century. This is the home of Lou Harrison, of Harry Partch, of Henry Cowell. Pauline Oliveros and Terry Riley started working here. So, to be honest, this didn't seem at all «special» to me in that sense of «sound.» It's in the air here (and many other places at this point.).
On the other hand, I do feel lucky and privileged to be playing music with Miya and Joan in a trio. I knew that both players were open-minded, that they'd work enthusiastically on whatever I suggested and help develop the skeletal ideas into full-fledged pieces of music. Maybe I was surprised at how quickly it all seemed to fit together. So all in all, I'd say that the human beings involved were most important to my suggesting this trio formation.
What were your cueing systems and improvisational ideas for this trio? Are these compositions, written for improvisers, part of what you once called «evolving structured improvisation?»
No. (Well, we might think of Track 4 this way, but not the others. Here's why:) An «evolving structured improvisation» would be a piece that starts from «anywhere» and evolves based on the sound-determinates and the order that cues are made from the agreed-upon cueing system. That is: without the cueing system Ð if the sound-determinates are the only factors determining how the piece evolves Ð you basically have «free-improvisation.» «Evolving structured improvisation» needs a cueing system. (The cues could be aural or visual.) While certain cues, which I call «sound-specific cues,» basically cue in predetermined sound areas, an evolving structured improvisation does not have to include predetermined sound areas every time the piece is played.
Each piece on this CD has different tactics for the improvisers to work with. Track 4 is a graphic piece; it is a time-line giving each player a series of concepts that she/he will work with. Sometimes we are all in the same conceptual area, most of the time not. But how fast or slow we work through the timeline is up to each player. This piece once lasted 30 minutes in concert.
Track 3 (Heart of the Matter) combines notation, time-lines, graphic instructions and visual cueing. The visual cues are adapted to this trio from cues I've used before with Rova and the Drum Core. As we speak, I can't remember creating cues specifically for this piece, but there might be one or two. Graphically, there are several event-series within which the players must create «simple» or «complex» sound events. Working out what «simple» means to me took the most time. Getting the pacing of the events in each series to happen at different rates is also tricky. There are three main improvisatory sections here, woven into the written and graphic materials. The first involves quick cueing of solos, duos, and trios; the second involves quick changes (theoretically) of density and rhythm; the third is «open» but includes both of the first two improvisational areas plus notated material. (So this piece does not qualify as an evolving structured improvisation because the order of the sections has been composed in advance.)
I'd say tracks 1 and 2 are fairly «traditional» really. Written material sets up a certain field of sound and one, two or all three players take off, retaining the feeling of the field. Just who leads and who follows or sustains (or doesn't play) is pre-determined.
Whatever the vocabulary or the system, I also feel that there is a rare lushness in this music, both a delicacy and a strength, even a state of hallucination sometimes. Is creating drama an important aspect of the way you understand The Art of the Improvisers?
If I was told I must pick my favorite 20th century composer, I would (reluctantly - because there are so many interesting ways to put music together) pick Iannis Xenakis. His music really speaks to me. Yes: the music is constructed. It's - as far as he seems to have been concerned - very much based on theories of probability and usually the discussion of his music is clinical. To read the books he wrote you would think that the music itself would be very cold. What makes him a hero is that the passion in his life and (perhaps) the inspiration for many of his works suffuses every moment of his music. He takes no prisoners. The music grips the listener (this listener).
I love all kinds of music, and I would say, (again: if pushed to answer) that I do NOT consider drama to be a «necessary» aspect of the art of the improviser. I don't hear drama in Derek Bailey's approach to free improvisation, but I do consider him one of the truly great ones, and I love listening to him live, making everyone around him sound better. (Here's another «statement» that could get me in trouble because if you put DB with Bill Laswell and Tony Williams, the «drama» is palpable at all times). But for myself, I would say: yes. For me drama does play a role. No matter how hard I try to create pieces that don't include that, or start from «clinical» premises, I always find myself drawn, finally, to including that sense of drama somehow in the piece. But some of the greatest composers - Feldman for one - don't deal with it, and some of the greatest improvisers really don't either.
I prefer thinking of it another way though. I've said this before here but it can't hurt to repeat it: I like setting up the improvisers so that when they cut loose from the composed (or structured) props, their own talents and intuition are challenged/ inspired/ to produce something a little bit original each time they play the piece. Both Joan and Miya play from the heart as well as the mind, so we as a trio are certainly in search of this «rare lushness» you speak of, and I'm glad you hear it the way you do.
Talking about Magritte, there is this painting by him entitled "The mysteries of the horizon" (1955), where you see three identical figures in a blue open country by night, watching in different directions, with three moons above their head...
I thought I had 98% of his art in books here, but I don't have that one, although I can see it in my mind! The horizon represents the unknowable. And yet, we all can imagine going over/beyond it; wanting to do that - hoping for some kind of magic just over that line that we can take back with us. In both «Heart of the Matter» on this CD and «The Secret Magritte» (Black Saint, 1995), I have the musicians all working off recurring sound-objects, and by re-contextualizing those sound-objects each time that they are re-introduced into the music, I hope that the music allows us to hear/imagine the sounds differently each time; that some kind of magical inspiration will occur for the listener.