Back in May, when I was on tour with Damon & Naomi, I had a chance to talk with writer Matthew Horne for a couple hours in Carrboro, NC. A piece of that conversation has been published on Tiny Mix Tapes, but there was also a preliminary back-and-forth via email where some different things were discussed. We thought it might be nice to include those emails as a supplement, so here they are:
MH: How did you originally become interested in improvised music, especially in the form you now play, whether solo or with Greg Kelley in nmperign?
BR: I got a saxophone when I was ten and played songs by the Bee Gees and Huey Lewis in the public school concert band. When I was in seventh grade, the school started a tiny, extracurricular “Stage Band” that did stuff like “Watermelon Man” and “Baby Elephant Walk”. We sounded absolutely horrible, but the music was way cooler than what the concert band was doing; so the next year, which involved a switch from middle school to junior high, I started playing in the Jazz Band.
Now, I grew up in a white bread suburb of Philadelphia called Hatfield. There wasn’t much of a jazz culture around town, so the only thing I really knew about jazz came from the music we were playing in the band – things like “In the Mood” and these generic tunes with names like “Groove Avenue”. All the solos were written out, and no one looked at this phenomenon with what I would now consider to be the appropriate degree of consternation.
So, I’m getting to the point, here. One day, this band director, who dealt primarily with the ninth graders, took me aside and basically said, “Hey kid, you know there’s this thing called ‘improvisation’ where you get to make up stuff as you go along. Maybe you should start taking some lessons with me.” That sounded like the coolest thing ever – making it up as you go along. So, I started taking lessons.
Of course, by “improvisation”, this guy meant “jazz improvisation”. His name was Don Klein, and he looked a little bit like Doctor John and was a mean, bluesy player who called other musicians “cats”. He taught me the fundamentals of theory and got me transcribing solos by Paul Desmond and buying albums by John Coltrane. When he felt that he had no more to teach me, he referred me to Larry McKenna, who was the main jazz saxophone teacher in Philadelphia. In just a few lessons, Larry taught me the mind-blowing theory behind bebop – stuff like the tritone substitution, which is really amazing if you’re a bit of a theory geek, which I was.
This was high school by now, and I seriously doubt I would have gone this far with the saxophone if I hadn’t been introduced to improvisation. I loved the ethos behind it and the challenge of playing complicated, theoretically crazy stuff off the top of your head. I was also pretty competitive and wanted to be the fastest, most intense improviser in town, which turned out to be not all that difficult in Hatfield.
I needed to get my ass kicked, and I finally did when I went to this program called the Governor’s School of the Arts in 1989, which was basically an elite arts summer camp for high school sophomores and juniors. This was my first experience hearing people my age really tear up this music. They were so much better than me, it was pathetic. I learned a lot, really quickly, playing with them, and I had all the requisite enlightenment experiences one has when you take a bunch of talented high school art misfits and isolate them in rural Pennsylvania for six weeks. This was the point when I knew I was going to focus on some kind of aesthetically challenging music for my “career”.
But “improvisation” still meant “jazz improvisation”, to me. So, I ended up studying “Studio Music and Jazz” at the University of Miami. I was a little disillusioned, at first, because the people at Miami made it seem like they had reduced jazz to a science, and there was a kind of pecking order that revolved around fulfilling this scientific criteria. The older students who were the best players were generally dicks and also seemed completely miserable most of the time. People talked about “getting a boner” when things were “really swinging”. They talked about practicing licks in twelve keys until you “made them your own”. They all sounded kind of similar and had little interest in things outside of “burning solos”, “chicks”, and weed.
I was, admittedly, a little bit idealistic at the time. But I was also beginning to realize that I didn’t get into jazz for the jazz, I got into it for the improvisation.
Eventually, a small group of us at Miami started exploring different ways of improvising. We would each go to the library and check out the craziest music we could find and tape it. I had all these cassettes with stuff like Anthony Braxton on one side and Xenakis on the other. We would get together and teach each other songs we lifted from these tapes. We got heavily into Ornette Coleman and really studied the logic behind what he was doing. I transcribed Ornette solos and developed my own understanding of Harmelodics. I took a 20th Century music class, and when the teacher was about to play Webern, he said he had to close all the windows and take the phone off the hook because if we missed one note, we’d miss the whole piece. That was a remarkably seductive concept, to me.
I started thinking about how, even when we played “free” music, we were still playing notes and scales and dealing with rather primitive forms. We were listening to all of this Schoenberg and Stockhausen and Elliott Carter – this music with big forms and wild orchestration. Why shouldn’t we open the structure, timbre, density, etc., to improvisation? I started working on solo improvisations and then duos with this piano player named Dave Siegel, who had an amazing ear and wasn’t tied to the jazz language.
I knew absolutely nothing about “non-idiomatic” improvisation. One day, a DJ in Miami named Harry Nixon told me that I sounded like a mix between Ornette Coleman and Evan Parker. I checked out the only Evan Parker CD they had in the library (“Process and Reality”). I liked it, but at that point, it was one thing I liked among many.
When I was finished at Miami, I got the hell out of there, because that was one city I really didn’t want to be in. I had an apartment in New York, but I was spending most of my time in Philadelphia because I had a teaching studio and was playing out five, six nights a week. I played with all of these amazing jazz players – Edgar Bateman, Mickey Roker, Uri Caine, Byard Lancaster – and I ended up working with a band led by a very young pianist named Orrin Evans, who I think has made a decent name for himself in jazz circles since then.
It was a fantastic time, but I eventually came to realize that there wasn’t going to be anything but jazz for me in Philadelphia. I wanted to keep pushing these ideas about form and timbre, but everyone around me just wanted to swing. One night, I ended up talking on the phone with this guy who went to the Governor’s School with me – one of the people who kicked my ass – a guy named Dave Zoffer. He was getting a Masters at New England Conservatory and was talking about these crazy improvisers there and about how he was studying with Paul Bley (a hero of mine). I decided that I should go to NEC and study composition, so I would better know the things that went through composers’ minds when they wrote these massive pieces with complex forms and textures. I really just wanted to be a better improviser.
So that brought me to Boston. It also brought me to Joe Maneri. Joe had the entire history of Western music bottled up inside him, and he had a pretty strong idea of what the future should be – a 72-note, equal tempered, microtonal octave. A lot of people in New England had these sorts of ideas, but the thing about Joe was that he talked about all of this heady stuff like another person might talk about a ham sandwich. Admittedly, a really great ham sandwich. Like, a killer ham sandwich eaten after a week of nothing but lukewarm water. He was just so earthy and genuinely excited about music that you couldn’t help but be sucked in by his enthusiasm. He made these compositional concepts I was grappling with actually seem soulful. You could improvise with him for thirty minutes, and he’d be able to tell you everything that happened and what you were thinking at key moments and what details you missed and how all the sections weighed against each other. Then he would tell you that a new Renaissance was about to happen and that most people were already dead and that you should buy a plant and that if that plant died it meant that you were dead.
He would always tell you that you were beautiful. He said that when I started studying with him, I was 96 years old, and now I was about five. He said that neither of us were geniuses – we were charismatic mystics.
I learned a ton from Joe and started playing with his son, Mat, who, at the time, was a, uh, complex person. But Mat was a great player, and I did a bunch of shows with him at the Knitting Factory. My first tour (aside from some crazy pop stuff I did in Bolivia in 1993-94) was with Mat and a drummer named John McClellan. They were both in, uh, complex phases of their lives, but the music was great. We made a record together, but it never came out because of them, especially Mat, being, uh, too complex. I decided that I wasn’t going to work with people who were complicated in that way anymore, which was fine, because it was around this time that I met Greg Kelley.
Greg was at every “out” music show in Boston. He looked like he was fifteen years old. I never heard him play. I didn’t even know he played music. I ran into him and Dave Gross, who was doing a lot of booking and festival organizing at the time, in the revolving door of the Marriott hotel in Kendall Square, which you pretty much had to go through if you got off the T at Kendall and wanted to go anywhere besides MIT. Dave told me that I should play with Greg; that he was a badass trumpet player. I didn’t believe him.
I saw Greg play months later, and I realized I was a schmuck. It was just amazing. I told this drummer/singer/pianist/dancer Masashi Harada, whose influence and general presence in Boston warrants an entire book, that we should play with Greg. We did, and it wasn’t very good. Masashi said that Greg and I shouldn’t play together. We decided to give it another go. We eventually realized what was holding us back:
The problem was that Greg and I both had “chops” and both played with a lot of intensity. Because we were young and “just going for it”, the music would always wind up in some kind of chattery climax. But neither of us really wanted to make music that sounded like that. We wanted something more mysterious. We wanted to convey a kind of violence that was less overt and human, more threatening and supernatural. And I, of course, wanted my complex forms. Years later we were told by a guy that our music was not transcendent, it was immanent. That was the idea. We had to work at it, and the other musicians we were playing with – people like James Coleman, Vic Rawlings, Liz Tonne, Mike Bullock, and Tatsuya Nakatani – were also moving in this direction. All of which is to say that I was finally realizing in broad terms how I wanted my music to sound and finally internalizing these ideas so that they could be improvised, and that it was really this weird little community in Boston that gave a voice to these concepts and allowed them to mature.
MH: You’re currently affiliated with Loyola New Orleans, correct? How did you get involved with the university? How has an academic position impacted your performance career, specifically has being involved with a university affected your outlook on your music or altered your performance methodology?
BR: My girlfriend got a tenure-track job teaching philosophy at Loyola, and, around the same time, a position opened up in their Music Industry program. It turned out that I was a good fit for this position (someone with broad experience in music and internet technology, who can also speak to young musicians). On top of that, the program is run by John Snyder, an incredibly supportive, energetic guy who produced a ton of great albums and ran the way-ahead-of-its time record label, Artists House. So, even though I had been planning to spend some time adjusting to New Orleans and deciding what my next steps were going to be, career-wise, I took the job – a decision that I do not regret in the least.
I haven’t noticed any particular effects the university has had on my music, but being in this particular department has led me to think more deeply about how music of all kinds fits into our society – how it may or may not be valued (and what form that value takes). It seems very clear to me that the narrative surrounding a given style of music (or a specific musician or label) has an inordinate amount of influence over the way the music is perceived: When I like a particular piece of music, what type of person does this make me? What social groups do I connect with when I share my musical tastes? Does the character of a particular artist represent someone like me or someone I’d like to be? There is a fluid kind of mythology at work, here, one that even loosely provides rites of passage as a person gets older.
We see this narrative manifested in loyalty to certain labels, in the cassette revival, in the success of deluxe packages and planned scarcity (limited editions, handmade packaging), etc. This kind of extra-musical force is probably as old as the concept of music, but I wonder if we’re beginning to completely bypass or obscure the story the music itself is telling – if we’re losing our ability to “read” the music.
I might be prone to this type of worrying, so I’m not about to make a pronouncement that we’ve arrived at a new low in our perception of music. But I’m looking at more music-friendly ways for dealing with this narrative. Like, this upcoming BSC release is going to come with a book full of great writing. And I’m pretty much done making a web-based music player that allows timed commentary (like SoundCloud, with some extra benefits) and can be populated with all sorts of valuable information about how certain sounds are being made, what kinds of decisions different musicians are encountering, how themes are being developed and undermined, etc.
Maybe most importantly, I’m starting to work with younger musicians in more workshop-style settings. I’ve seen how powerful this can be in places like Houston, where Nameless Sound has been doing weekly workshops for young people for about a decade. Some really fine improvisers have come out of Nameless Sounds’ workshops (Maria Chavez, Sandy Ewen, Juan Garcia, etc), and a supportive, local community has grown around experimental music, in general, there.
Of course, all of these ideas like “supportive community” are completely un-sexy, even in the alternate universe of experimental music. But I kind of don’t care. I’m tired of “sexy” and “cool” – as concepts they create stiff, paranoid human beings, and they help deprive us of the means to express complicated ideas. Experimental music has its own “cool” (which is especially visible now in the hard turn against so-called EAI), but I’m doing my best to pretend it doesn’t.
MH: You seem to both have a very large web presence (I even found a video of seminar you taught relating to this at Loyola) and be willing to share a significant portion of your music online without charge. While several individuals involved with similar musics as you also are very online oriented (Jon Abbey, for example), few seem as willing as you to share their published music as freely as you. Why do you offer this availability and how do you think it has impacted your ‘career’ as a musician?
First off, I’m just getting started with online content. There’s a lot that I want to do, and I especially want to get beyond posting and promoting just my own music and start creating more robust connections between musicians. I’ve said it elsewhere, but I think that curation will be the next big step in web technologies. And I say this in part because online curation is already happening everywhere it can – Facebook, Twitter, blogs, FMA, etc – but there’s no platform that specifically encourages and rewards curation.
Now, my personal view is that most of us are craving opinionated, personal curation – we want the sense that a smart, charismatic human being is behind whatever recommended playlist we’re hearing. But, there’s undoubtably going to be a future for algorithmic curation, a la Pandora, as well, where the algorithms get a little smarter and more interesting as time goes on.
Either way, experimental music is not going to have much of a future in this curation model if the music isn’t available to the platforms doing the curating. Both personal and algorithmic curation take a lot of time and require a good deal of data. If we prevent access to our music by being precious with our formats or stingy with our copyrights, we may benefit in the short term because our product is “special”, but we’ll recuse ourselves from the broader conversation that could eventually connect our music with more people and more ideas.
On a personal level, I’m also just trying to get my ducks in a row – I want my “body of work” to be properly available and easily accessed. The process of resuscitating some of these older releases and sitting them next to new ones has helped to remind me of some of the motivations for doing this music in the first place, and it’s also helped me to hear it as one, constantly evolving piece. I feel like I’m beginning to see more clearly what should come next.
MH: I recently read an interesting back-and-forth between Eddie Prevost and a file-sharing blog operator (found here: http://freethemusic-olatunji.blogspot.com/2011/04/download-and-share.html) about free downloading. What are your thoughts on the matter? Do you share Eddie’s sentiments?
BR: I basically agree with Eddie on the matter of this conflict between the desire to disseminate the music freely and the reality of costs of production, etc. Music-as-product has never been a neat fit in capitalist economies – all of these copyright and licensing instruments are a bit convoluted and difficult to enforce, and the determination of a dollar value for creative acts is often fairly arbitrary. Things kind of made sense when manufacturing was brought into the picture, because there is a clear cost to manufacturing that standardizes prices and makes sense in the language of the market. Obviously, the internet has changed this landscape, and, even though there are still concrete costs to producing a recording, those costs vary wildly between recordings and can often be applied to multiple projects (microphones, software, an instrument – anything that can be reused). So, how much, if anything, should a digital download (or stream) cost, and can there be anything like a fair standard for this “product”?
Which puts us back in the awkward position of trying to value creative activity in a capitalist framework. It’s very square-peg-round-hole, right now. What does appear clear to me is that the role of the “label” has changed – it’s no longer enough to shell out some money for reproduction, send out review copies, and pay the artist in CDs. Labels that operated that way are disappearing very quickly in this environment. The labels that are still surviving have been successful at creating (here it is again) a narrative around their releases – they are good curators and have an identity that groups of people come to trust.
But even that’s not enough, anymore. I think that small, experimental music labels stand a chance of succeeding only when they look at the long term sustainability of the artists they represent, and this can only be done when a label is no longer just a label but is a kind of culture that connects artists to other, receptive cultures. The label becomes publicist, manager, context-creator, booking agent, educator – whatever role is appropriate for distinguishing its roster from the morass of music freely available from just about anywhere, 24-7. This is way harder than just ponying up for manufacturing and making sure that distributors pay on time. It’s harder than having a cool web site that takes credit cards. It’s a big commitment, and it makes sense that fewer people are willing to take on this commitment.