Category Archives: Interviews

Interview: William Parker & The Inner World

“Well see, now the point of it is…the credo, the aesthetic is: we play music to save the world, we play music to give, we play music to uplift the soul and the spirit of people and we do not fail….thats the way we do it, uh huh, uh huh…so thats the mantra always” – William Parker

“all these things about decisions, what to do, when to do it, will be resolved when you get deeper and deeper and deeper into music, into yourself, into the inner world of secrets, the inner world of confrontation that show you the voicings of the real chords that make things come to life” – William Parker

In conversation with Mike Bjella

William Parker plays the bass and many other instruments from around the world. When around William the universe seems to settle in. I studied with William a few years ago and we never exchanged many words. We would make music and part ways. Years later, I sat down with William at Casa Del Popolo. 

Mike Bjella: Last time I saw you, it was at the L’OFF festival in Montreal with Marianne Trudel and Hamid Drake. When improvising, I hear many musicians trying to create an aesthetic – consciously perhaps..and with you and many of your cohort, there seems to be no attempt to create an aesthetic…something just emerges through the process..there is sometimes little cohesion, and that is the allure for me.

William Parker: Well, probably In the 70′s when I was playing a lot with Ensemble Muntu, there was a point where the idea was to play and build energy until you were kind of lost in the music. And one afternoon we were playing at Ali’s Ali, Rasheed Ali’s club, and I hadn’t really broken through to really find my voice, where I was helping to take the flow of music…I was kind of following that flow and I guess to some extent I was helping to create it but I wasn’t aware of it. And what happened was I broke through with an arco solo…I found a voice on the instrument through that…

I also got to the point where I stepped into another world inside the music and was really lost in it and I got the idea of trusting, not trying to make something happen, but to know that I was inside the elements that helped to make things happen, and I had to trust the elements and just let things flow…but I was never trying to make something happen, just a lot of energy and a lot of spirit and it was just overtaking me. and after 20, 30 years of doing that, in the 90′s, it got the point of just following, relaxing, following the flow of the music. Not trying to regulate impulses but follow impulses without thinking, relying on intuitive movement rather than planned or controlling the music…also listening in an intuitive way, because listening was so important but it wasn’t so much hearing what you were listening to in a normal way, but hearing in a very  intuitive way.

So you were turning corners but you didn’t know which way to go except that intuitively you were told, go this way, go that way. But I didn’t really see clearly nor did I really want to know clearly where I was going because I didn’t want to get to the wrong place. I wanted to be at the mercy of the flow of the music.

So I don’t try to plan anything except I know in my heart that the music has gotta take off and elevate to reach it’s highest point of flow and I wanted to just relax and learn how to do that. So after all those years, you learn to be yourself but not be aware of what you are doing at the same time you are doing it, like we do this and then this, from this rhythm to that rhythm…you don’t wanna get there, cause then you become a cliche, it becomes planned, not intuitive..but if you stay open it can always reach a point where you don’t know where it’s gonna happen next but your not afraid to go there.

MB: So, you’re ceding control.

WP: Exactly.

MB: Is that a purely musical practice or does it coordinate with other aspects of life?

WP: Well, I like to use maps, I like to have a sense of where I’m going, when I’m going to get there. It’s only really done in creativity, in music or writing, composing, putting music together and getting a sense of – how do you put music together that works every time? You are aware of what you are doing and at the same time it is a mystery. And thats how I approach the whole idea of composing, putting music together…today we did a combo of written sketches and open sketches…later on I wait till the impulses come in and I edit like a film maker edits ’till I feel it is really in the zone where it is vibrating at it’s highest rate and then it is ready to go, to get off the shelf and go where it goes.

MB: Sometimes there seems to be this underlying intention to let go, you know, and it is a fragile mechanism, you try to hard to let go and it’s not there anymore.

WP: Well see, now the point of it is…the credo, the aesthetic is: we play music to save the world, we play music to give, we play music to uplift the soul and the  spirit of people and we do not fail….thats the way we do it, uh huh, u huh…so thats the mantra always, but we don’t’ say were gonna do this before we play, we just know it inside, you know. And you trust the unknown and your able to do it. If you don’t trust the unknown and try to control it, something might be lost in the translation there.

MB: Are there certain musicians that awakened you to this mysterious giving element?

WP: In the middle of playing music, you find out who can go with you and who can’t. You know, I played with a lot of musicians but as far as going to the deepest place, I’ve gone there with Milford Graves, Rasheed Ali, Charles Gayle, William Hooker, Other Dimensions in Music, my own bands, Cecil Taylor, Kid Jordan, Peter Brötzmann…with certain people the music travels… space waves as they say..and go to the deepest part, but you have to play with musicians who when they get there, they are not afraid. You cannot be afraid. If you are afraid, the spirit runs away. David Ware has an album called ‘Surrender’ and that is part of it. Thats another person I should mention, David S. Ware…when he was alive, we went there a lot. And you can go there with anyone, it’s just a matter of letting go and surrendering to the moment. Not trying to control the sunrise or even worship the sunrise but letting it be and become part of it.

MB: I read you book, “Who Owns Music” and I’ve been playing music and writing words simultaneously and I find that for me..there is a base element to creation, and then there are these different streams of the mind maybe or rather of the soul…one towards music, another towards words…I wondered if there is a differentiation for you?

WP: You know, I’ve put more time into music and it’s a separate thing. When I get called to write linear notes, I do it, but right now…mentally it’s not in the forefront until i’m doing it, whereas music is always in the forefront even when I’m doing writing. But when writing comes up or I’m writing a new Idea or article about something, it’s right there, and it’s an extension of the music, thats where it came from. I used to write plays and poetry before I started writing music, because I knew how to write, not how to play music. But I always wrote because I thought I had something to say and when I have something to say I write.

And you find if you write every day, you always have something to say. Just noticing things and writing that down….. photographing through words and articles of poetry. You look at the sun and you write a poem about how beautiful that sunrise or sunset is. So you are photographing the experiences and sharing it through words.

MB: I’m interested in the mechanism that makes decision or allows decision to be made. In that flow, it feels like I’m not making decision when I’m in there…something else is more coming through me…do you have thoughts on that…free will?

WP: Well, thats when your training comes up. You take up martial arts, boxing, any sport..you train you body to throw a ball, move to the left and right, block a punt, and it’s the same thing with music and art – through creative training, you train your body to respond to impulses which will tell you when to do something creative, how to do it, how not to do it…it’s just a matter of trusting these impulses and doing it…and whatever answer you don’t have, it will come to you through the music, through writing, through living, meeting people…I mean some one can tell you right off what it is, which is one thing, but the other thing…it’s a flow where the work itself where the work itself guides you into it and guides itself in you and out of you and through you all at the same time, leaving you much more whole than you were before you started….

So as far as decisions…how do you know whether to put your left foot before your right foot? Your body lets you know…your ears let you know..just thinking about music, your training your self, when you listen to music. Transcribing solos – but the idea was, sing the solo, don’t transcribe it…be able to hear it and sing it…putting it on paper is one thing, but to hear it, sing it, live…all these things about decisions, what to do, when to do it, will be resolved when you get deeper and deeper and deeper into music, into yourself, into the inner world of secrets, the inner world of confrontation that show you the voicings of the real chords that make things come to life. There are certain voicings that you have to be able to hear. And part of that is knowing when to stop studying, when to stop searching…there is a point when you have to stop searching..you gotta realize that it’s right there. You’ve got it, you’ve found it. And if you keep searching, your gonna loose it.

MB: I was just talking to a friend about the problem of trying to improve…it feels similar.

WP: naw, forget about that, I mean, you’ll improve. You gotta do whats right for you, but I mean, every day Coltrane used to fall asleep with the horn in his mouth. He’d do a gig, practice in between the gig, go home and practice until he fell asleep. I mean….you have to practice…a time and place. I think we have to be able to hear ourselves and know when we are growing and have confidence in the fact that we don’t see any progress, because sometimes when you don’t see any progress, progress has left us already, or it’s gotta come back around…it’s a fleeting thing…guys say, “I sounded good” ….yea, you sounded good six months ago, you should have quit while your ahead…you gotta know when things are balanced. I’f you’ve got an obsessive personality, you’ll never be balanced…Some guys used to come to me from the symphony orchestra and I told them, you know more music than anyone ever knew in the history of music. Leave it alone! There is nothing else you can know except forgetting what you know and playing.

MB: Analysis can paralyze.

WP: Yes, let it go. There is a large imperfection in perfection…and thats what makes it perfect. Nature’s perfection is different…nature’s perfection is a little off. And once you realize that, you know you are right on. Nature’s perfection…off to the left, off to the right, thats how it flows.

MB: I’m curious about the credo you mentioned…is it constantly shifting or is there a truth to it that has weight, holding it in place.

WP: It doesn’t shift although sometimes I make music with people where it is a real struggle to get there…all you can do is do your best every night to get there…and if the rocket ship doesn’t take off, you have to get a motel for the night [laughter] and say, I did a great job, but help didn’t come.

MB: Houston didn’t come through.

I find that the place of finding the flow, collective credo is there much of the times and sometimes when it’s not, there is this desire or longing to be in that flow place. Was that part of your process?

WP: See I wasn’t looking for it, so I didn’t have that problem..I didn’t know what I was looking for…was I trying to get from A to Z, sought music, get something grooving, what ever that was…trying to start, make a statement and finish…I was just going with the natural flow of things.

I find that most people don’t have a clue but they aren’t dissatisfied. You see, the people that are dissatisfied are the ones who are closest to it. The ones who are not dissatisfied have no idea what’s going on. They just think everything is ok and things should go on like they are.

MB: They haven’t tasted the sweets.

WP: Let’s just say you had a sax player like Kenny G. Not Kenny G, we know he’s a different guy but like Kenny G. Lets say Kenny B. Kenny B really thinks that man, he’s happening. He doesn’t question what he does. He gets those cheques, puts the money in the bank and just keeps doing it and doing it. And when you say to Kenny B, “Kenny, man, can I tell you something?” “yes.” “you aint happening, you aint been happening the last 20 years.”  And this guy says, “you’re crazy, I wouldn’t be on top if it wasn’t happening.” But it’s not happening. Some people don’t have a clue what planet they are on as far as if what they are doing is happening. You know, when landlords raise your rent, they don’t know whats happening [laughter], they’re just doing that to try to make money.

The bad thing is that a lot of people are not aware of how they impact other people’s lives…and you have to be aware. So the thing is, people really don’t know the difference nowadays. You have american idol and all these shows where people are singing and they have a formula and it is just a formula for making money..nothing to do with music or art, just to be a pop star.

MB: Do you feel an element of creating something that helps people..is that part of the process?

WP: You are always trying to help people through sound, through music…hopefully they will like it, eat it up, feel it, become it, but you don’t really have any control over that, over people understanding what you are doing. They might not ever understand it…all you can do is do it.  Those people that understand it probably understood it before you showed it to them. But the hope that maybe you can kind of inspire or bring something out.

MB: It’s happened to me so many times.

WP: Pharaoh Sanders…there was a conference with Pharaoh Sanders and another musician on a panel. One guy was very articulate about his music and Pharaoh just said “I just play what I feel” and every answer was “I just play what I feel, I don’t know about theory and this and that and all that, I just play what I hear and play what I feel”…and that was beautiful. You know we all have a tendency to over intellectualize, over-worry, over state the cause when it’s very simple. Your car stops and the first thing you check is whether it has gas in it.

Check out William Parker’s website, and some samples of his solo bass, because you can’t stop listening...

Interview: Ian Ferrier

Ian Ferrier, poet, musician; curator of the monthly Words and Music event at Casa del Popolo; organizer of the annual Mile End Poets’ Festival; collaborator of the music, poetry and dance project For Body and Light. Klara du Plessis and Isis Giraldo talk to Ian about poetry, music, and the Montreal arts scene.

Klara du Plessis: Maybe we can start by talking about your history in music versus your history or education in poetry, Ian.

Ian Ferrier: Well I used to do both until second year at university. I was in this music class sitting with these three guitar players around me, all of whom were to various degrees much better players than I was, I thought, and all of them were also to various degrees much less articulate than I was and didn’t think about much other than music. So I decided at that point that I was probably more of a natural for language-based stuff. This didn’t mean that I dropped music, but that from then on I concentrated on language-based stuff.

KduP: When you say you were able to “articulate”, do you mean expressing the theory behind your music or writing lyrics for it?

IF: It’s like what comes easy to you. It’s much more natural for me to work with language than it is to work with music. Even though I love both of them. I could work for the rest of my life in music and get to a pretty amazing level, but not to the level of someone who starts off and that’s the level their brain works at already. My brain really works for language and image, it always has.

KduP: So did you develop gradually, starting with music, then writing lyrics for your music and then writing more poetry per se?

IF: It was music and poetry, and then I dropped music for ten years to just do writing.

Isis Giraldo: What were you writing?

IF: I wrote my first book when I was like 19.

KduP: Poetry?

IF: Yeah. And then when I got out of university I started doing journalism for journals and newspapers and stuff, and then I ran a company that did documentation for computer companies. Pretty much since that time I’ve been doing a little bit of teaching, I teach once a week, like a writer-in-residence gig at Concordia. But pretty much full-time on the [creative] work that I do.

KduP: I kind of hate the concept, but I guess there is some distinction between stage poetry and page poetry. I’ve heard you perform poetry with music, but do you still write poetry that’s meant to be read from the page or is meant to be published?

IF: Yeah I think so, I don’t differentiate. The thing about performance is that it only goes by once, pretty much, you know.

KduP: Every time you perform, it’s different.

IF: Yeah. Well that’s true on the page too, but on the page you can stop and examine the poem and think about it, whereas with performance your only choice is to go back to the beginning and hear it again. I mean CDs help a lot or MP3 or video.

The original reason for oral literature was so that people would remember their stories of what happened, people would go from place to place and tell what happened, tell their own mythologies. And often they would sing them or present them with music. And so they’re very deeply connected, voice and music. And today we use the same tricks, we use choruses. Something starts, then there’s a segue and a return. And it’s all about what you can understand in real time in contrast to page time when you’ll always have the choice of going back.

KduP: When you experience a performance, your memory of it might not be 100% accurate, while if you’re reading a text on the page you can go back again and again and again towards a more analytical interpretation.

IF: Yes. All of these things are imaginative anyway. The image you build won’t be the same as the image that Isis builds. And for me that’s one of the huge great things about music and poetry, it allows you to take your own inner self-experience and make that the piece too. If I say “giraffe”, what each of you imagines is a different thing.

IG: I want to direct the conversation toward your music, poetry and dance show [For Body and Light]. I thought it was really cool and just want to know how it came to be.

IF: It took a while. It started about two years ago. I got this residency at Banff to do spoken word. At the time I was doing the kind of show that you saw, for voice and music, or voice, music, video, and every time I did it somewhere I would have to explain to the presenter what it was, which was a real drag because I would say, like, it’s a multi-media spoken word show and what does that mean, you know.

KduP: That’s a medium that’s really only developing now though. Probably partly because of your work.

IF: I don’t know, maybe. If I say, oh I’m doing a dance show, everybody goes, oh OK, and they think they know what they’re getting and then when they do get it, they like it. The problem that remains though, is that I’ve discovered that dancers get paid less than poets. So this idea that I had is a road, maybe to fame, but not to fortune.

KduP: Do you see dance as being a kind of three-dimensional illustration of the text, or do you see it as being interpretative, or do you see it as being a collaboration between the three different media?

IF: It’s like if we go back to the three giraffes. If you’re watching the performance, I don’t want you to ever have to think that what you’re imagining is being focused on one image. I want you to have what you imagine. And have the dance be something that either resonates with that or conflicts with it maybe, but doesn’t exemplify. It’s more like creating the atmosphere with the soundtrack and the images, and then everyone is in the same space, the dancers live in that space, the audience lives in that space. But it’s not exemplifying, that was the one big rule. Because I really hate it when somebody says, oh we’re going to go on a voyage on a ship and then they present a picture of the ship, and I’m going, fuck, that’s not my ship! I had a perfectly good ship in my mind.

KduP: In a way, you were inviting your audience into your show at the point when you pointed the spotlight at us. It’s like this awkward moment when I’m like, I can’t see, it’s shining in my eyes, but also makes me realize, oh the spotlight is on me, I’m as much a part of this performance as the dancers or you are.

IF: Well hopefully. I don’t like being an audience member. I like going to shows where I come out thinking there were really interesting ideas and if that idea were mine, this is what I would do. I much prefer the idea that we all participate.

KduP: Yet at the same time, it didn’t feel invasive. I’ve also been to performances where I feel like I’m being forced to participate.

IF: Yeah that’s not fun either. Although some people seem to be good at that, they get everyone to sing along or something like that.

IG: Talking about interdisciplinary projects, it’s hard to translate one art form into another art form, or to get more than one art form to say the same thing. I found that really challenging when working on Medusa [Shaved] because there are such different languages. Even if the dancers interpret what you want perfectly, their movement and just the reality of their art is going to say something different. So it’s cool that you have a take on collaboration that keeps the fusion open.

IF: Well yes, we did a lot of work on that. For a time between when I initially decided to do that and when we actually started collaborating there was about 8 months when we were working at Body Slam—a voice, music, dance improv project—you know, just trying to figure out how that worked. And it was only after doing that for maybe 40 hours of shows and stuff that we said, oh we want to do more choreographed stuff. Stéphanie [Morin-Robert] and I. By that time we understood the environment pretty well. Plus I now understand the way her mind works. It seems easy now, but it was probably a lot of work just to figure our togetherness out.

KduP: It’s about meeting the right collaborators, getting to know each other’s minds.

IF: I still remember the rush when that first started to happen, when the image I was thinking of would get resonance back. It was fantastic! I totally love doing it, it’s so much fun! Gorgeous to watch.

IG: Maybe you could talk a bit about the way you paint a picture with your words, how you work, how your writing style makes words come to life.

KduP: Your writing is very evocative.

IF: I started writing the way I do probably in my 20s. The closest description would be like film, the poetry is the image content and the music is the soundtrack. So you get the whole environment, except that it’s you who does the imagining.

KduP: In a way your poetry has also become musical. If you’re working with different media, I’m still trying to get at the degree to which they start to overlap or integrate. I’m putting words in your mouth! But maybe your poetry has taken on an evasive quality of music rather than having a very linear narrative?

IF: I see them connecting more on an emotional level than on a structural level. It’s like that chord sounds like how I feel when I say this, it’s kind of true.

KduP: That’s almost synesthesia.

IF: Yeah kind of like that. Like when I play the first chord in that dance performance I’m transported to that place, there’s a sense of loss, exploration too. The music comes second for me.

IG: So your 20s were spent working. You were also teaching. How was the journey to where you are now?

KduP: Getting to the gritty questions!

IF: What was I doing, drinking and going to parties, traveling. It was only really in my 30s that I starting doing this stuff, the stuff I do now.

KduP: When did you start having the series at Casa [del Popolo]?

IF: In 2000, so it’s been 14 years.

KduP: The series has really become a cornerstone in the Montreal scene.

IF: It’s super fun. This weekend is going to be great. I love the collaboration between Mike [Bjella] and Simon [Labbé]. And Guadalupe [Muro] is fantastic.

KduP: I saw her perform elsewhere, she leafs through a book as rhythm for a song.

IF: She was at Banff at the same time as I was articulating all this dance stuff.

IG: This is something I’ve asked people in the past, the idea of drive, or losing artistic drive, how do you keep that fresh and how do you keep yourself going after doing it for so many years?

IF: Well I hate stopping because it’s so hard to start again. Usually I’m doing five things at once and one of them is in the foreground, but as it starts falling away there’s already something else.

IG: Have you ever had a moment in your life when you felt that there was nothing propelling you toward a next project?

IF: No hope? Yeah totally. When I got to the end of that documentation company, I had no idea. I’d already trained my brain in journalism which is about going somewhere and figuring out the story but it’s not about you, you know. And then there’s documentation which is about figuring out the logic , but it’s not about you. So the turning back to being about you took me quite a long time, it was very painful. Especially when you’re just starting out and you don’t know to trust your own soul and your own vocabulary, so when it stops it’s really awful. It’s like, oh I’ve got nothing. Whereas once you’ve had nothing 42 times or 60 times, you know that after there’s nothing there’s something, this makes it easier. It gets easier with time, at least I find that in my own life. I trust that even though I have no idea how to do something, that I will be able to do it.

KduP: Do you ever find that if you have different simultaneous projects that they conflict or that you have different languages that you use for different projects?

IF: Lately it’s all become the same thing. The only project I did differently recently was when I started working with Geneviève Bujold, who’s a simultaneous deaf interpreter. And we were doing simultaneous conversations, one in poetry and one in sign. But for me that was the same as the other stuff I do.

KduP: That’s fantastic! So it’s almost like language becomes dance through gesture.

IF: Exactly. Plus I could speak in English or French, she didn’t care. It’s beautiful to watch, especially once we started staggering it so that when I’d finished talking she’d still be talking, and you’d just watch her hands. And I found a great word for river in Quebec sign language [he moves his hands in parallel slalom towards the interviewer].

KduP: How am I going to transcribe that?!

IF: Two hands waving together. Because I’ve been doing this for a long time, I don’t take on projects unless there’s a reflection of what I want to be doing anyway. And I used to think when I was younger that I have to work with the best musicians and with the best dancers or the best writers regardless of personality, but I’ve discovered that that’s totally not true. And that the only thing that works for me is working with people I really love, people I find amazingly fantastic and attractive, then I like working with them, they like working with me, everybody’s happy and it works really well.

IG: Have you ever encountered some heavy personalities to deal with?

IF: Oh yeah, before I made that rule. Sometimes you’d work for a year on something that would come to nothing. It’s pretty easy to determine chemistry. We learn that just from social interactions. If you like somebody and you trust them, those are good things to go by, you know.

KduP: This is not a question, but more of a compliment, you’ve become a kind of mentor figure for the local scene, in terms of providing a space and a context in which to perform.

IG: Oh yeah, providing opportunity.

IF: You guys are doing the same thing, that blog [Écho] is fantastic. Listening to Mike talk with William Parker. William Parker is so fucking great. I still remember doing a show at Casa and he saying about music: “It’s like your brain melts…!”

IG: When I talk to older musicians it seems like there used to be a lot of places in the city for music, like maybe in the 80s or something, now it’s transferred mostly to the web, but there aren’t that many physical spaces anymore. It’s important that there are a few people in the city who still provide opportunity because this kind of thing has gone down tremendously. It’s hard being a young artist. It’s a labyrinthine world, where you kind of need to do a lot of different things.

IF: Well I found that to always have been true. But there is less money now, it is harder that way. What you guys [Résonance] do is exactly the right thing to do. You have the space, you can invite people who you want to see, you can write commentary on what’s going on. And that kind of thing drives itself.

The nice thing about having a space is that you can still allow yourself to be attracted to the stuff you already like. It’s a natural function of that, that you’d still support these. But I can also sit through anything for 15 minutes. And so there’s a big wide open window at Words and Music [Casa del Popolo series] for people who want to do something, as long as they do it for a short period of time, then let them do it and see how it turns out. What is their level of dedication? Do they need this chance because they’ll come back a second time and their work will be much better? And if what these people do is fun, then they bring their own audience, and they bring their own mind to the event.

KduP: Are there figures that really inspired you or new spoken word poets or musician you feel one should really watch out for?

IF: Well yeah, there’s tons of stuff, I like what you do! Kaie Kellough is a super fantastic language brain. Cat Kidd is, well you’ll see, we’re doing a show together the 29th[May] to launch her newest record and it’s fantastic. She’s been working with the same DJ, tech guy, Jack Beets (aka Jacky Murda) since her first record, and now it’s been 15 years and it’s stunning.

IG: Do you find that Montreal is a good platform for the arts because there are so many going to school here, there is so much flux?

IF: This scene is really, this is the best you get! Right. What you guys have here is the best you get. I hope you realize that.

KduP: In terms of Résonance or in terms of us?

IF: In terms of you, in terms of what goes on here, in terms of taking what you do and bringing it somewhere, in terms of the input like being able to read that blog, talk to somebody, once a week see something that really inspires you, wanting to go to more stuff. This is the best. And as for Résonance, I love this place, that’s why I’m here all the time.

Check out Ian’s website, For Body and Light and samples of previous musical and dance collaborations!

Ian Ferrier is one of the core writer/performers in the North American performance literature scene. His work is known across Canada, in New York and in Europe. Rooted in poetry, his live performances are an absorbing blend of whispered and spoken word and trance guitar. His signature is the quiet, compelling voice at the centre of every piece. Ian Ferrier co-founded the poetry/music label Wired on Words, which won public radio’s Standard Broadcasting Award in its first year. He is a founder of theCanadian Review of Literature in Performance the Mile End Poets’ Festival and Montreal’s monthly Words & Music literature show, now in its 14th  year.  A winner of Canada’s Golden Beret Award for lifetime achievement in spoken word,  Ian Ferrier has released three CDs and a book, all of which can be heard from time to time on CBC—Canada’s national radio station— as well as on public radio stations in the USA and Canada. He resides in Montreal, where he creates voice and music works and performs with the dance company For Body and Light.

Truth, Creation and the X-Files: Interview with Aaron Kruziki

By Mike Bjella

Aaron Kruziki is one of my favourite musicians and people. We hail from the same town of Stevens Point, WI – although we didn’t connect until we found ourselves living in New York City in 2008. 

Aside from the Zodiac Ensemble (a collective group we both play in), Aaron leads a band I love called Education Reform and is a member of Andy Milne’s Dapp Theory. Aaron is magical crusader for connection and truth. He sings and plays saxophone and keyboards. 

Mike Bjella: When I listen to your music, it has this wondrous and mystical quality that for me is very broad….expansive. And with Education Reform you are writing words and using Lesley Wheeler’s words. So I was curious about the abstract quality of your music versus a specific message.

Aaron Kruziki: It’s interesting that you bring up the mysticism aspect. I do think about the spirituality of music and, I guess, how it pertains to my own spiritual growth or upbringing. I grew up Catholic and always heard music surrounding religion. I thought that religion was this organized thing and music accompanied it and spirituality was the same thing as religion: community and friends and studying the bible.  When I first met Deb (Bassist Karl McCommas-Reichl’s mother), I started to think – although music is a part of church maybe spirituality could come through the music. I started accompanying masses on piano and organ and I found that playing both piano and organ during Christmas and Easter and special times, the spiritual idea or feeling I got was directed from the music, not the congregation itself, and it started to make me more aware of music being a spiritual thing.

When I started in college I got tipped off to a book called the Mysticism of Sound and Music (Hazrat Inayat Khan). It’s an amazing book about how music and sound itself is a mystical, spiritual experience. I thought about that a lot as I read that book, and I guess spiritually speaking, music is my spirituality, my religion. I feel most oneness with god when I am able to free my thoughts completely through sound.

MB: It seems as though there is an underlying political component to your band, in a way. Education is a word that can be taken a lot of ways. Education reform or ‘let’s change what’s happening, tangibly’…or, when I think of education, I think of re-educating my mind, or de-assimilating. Are either of those things more pressing with this band?

AK: Education reform started from awareness of my own teaching in the elementary school setting. I wanted to make a statement about what I was seeing and how kids were being raised and my own opinions, etc… So I guess, in a way the songs are meant to breed awareness of how we think about educating ourselves, but also the de-constructing of our preconceived notions of what education is and how we were taught….’from, what ‘The Man’ put down on upon us!’…[laughter]…..and search out the truth.  As Fox Mulder says, ‘the truth is out there.’ [laughter]

MB: The truth thing is what interests me the most. For me, I’m always going through this process of trying to break out, or something. Part of my life I’m in this place of understanding, accepting.. and for me that is what truth is. And music is one of the major ways I’m able to access that truth.

AK: It puts you in the moment?

MB: It can, or I can already be there and go to make music at that point. There are different shades of being and some are in accordance with some kind of flow and some are fighting, or not accepting the truth.

When I hear the melodies that you write, there is this feeling of awe or wonder and I know you must have accessed a place of truth when writing those melodies..it is so apparent to me when I hear them. Do you find that it is a finicky head space when you go to write music?

AK: Man, it can be finicky and it depends on the flow. I happened to write a lot of that music when I was un-employed and had a lot of time to think, maybe too much.

So, I felt that I actually composed under a microscope in a finicky way. And it’s odd and beautiful and amazing that you feel that way about it. And maybe there is a juxtaposition there, maybe the harder it is to write something, the easier it is to come across as having wonder, etc? I don’t know. I guess it depends on your personal situation.

My own particular process… If I can find the flow it becomes less finicky. If I can find the time in the morning, when my head is the clearest, I can rid myself of my thoughts and compose purely. At the time I wrote that music I was thinking of some techniques from school (New England Conservatory), composition techniques, lines that I’d be learning from Ben Davis of Cuddle Magic and Alec Spiegelman. I had a lot of different components to work with and a lot of new things I was thinking about and it magically worked out but it definitely was a struggle at times. But as far as being finicky yes, I feel that often.

You experience the same thing?

MB: Sometimes it’s finicky even when I’m there in the flow. It’s not always a sweeping thing. But there is still something about the mechanism in our minds that is discriminating and making decisions, however that is happening,…for me it oscillates between being really fast and decisions making themselves and then sometimes it takes a while, difficult decisions, and then something just pops up, and that’s it…not sure why, infinite variables…it varies greatly for me.

AK: And sometimes it’s like pumping water…you ever been to one of those old fashioned water pumps? You pump it a couple times to prime it and through that effort all of a sudden the water starts to flow and maybe the compositional process is a similar thing.

MB: Why are you making music? Is there a state of mind that you find yourself reaching down and hunkering down in?

AK:  I think that it’s a question that one asks himself every time they pick up the pen or their instrument either subconsciously or consciously. We’re doing this mechanism that makes us feel a certain way and for a lot of people it’s initially about the feeling, and I don’t always think about it consciously, but sometimes I do. And sometimes when I’m listening to music I’ll get a certain feeling and I ask myself, why that was a pretty outstanding feeling, why am i feeling that way? I don’t usually have an answer but it’s fun to raise the question, wouldn’t you say?

MB: Yea, [laughter]…Yes indeed.

AK: I wish I had the answers but i feel like the older I get, the more questions I have.

MB: Give me answers! [laughter] Whats a Sun Bear?

AK: The Sun Bear is the answer to all of life’s questions.

MB: When you are writing words, do you feel similarly to writing notes?

AK: Great question, No… notes come easier, words come harder. I feel like I’m much more analytical when it comes to words that I write and that’s why I love working w/ Lesley Wheeler’s words… the words are already there and they are already perfect…[laughter] They don’t need to be changed at all.

My own words… that’s probably the thing I’m most self-conscious about…the notes I feel much more comfortable with…maybe sometimes too comfortable and I guess sometimes it’s easy to include a lot of notes.  Sometimes I think I write too many notes and it makes it too complicated. And in that mindset, words are also over-analyzed so I try not to think about it too much.  It’s just dumbing it down or editing it to a certain degree. But at the same time, sometimes in a very rare instance I’ll think of a phrase of text that fits so well musically that it dictates what the melody should be. And a good example is Lesley’s poem, little flowers.. at the very end, last stanza…”How well we let our selves be trained, is only a reflection of how much we love our master.”

MB: mmm hmm. For me when I’m writing words for any reason I feel another thing where the words are a tangible reflection of what is happening in my mind. Whereas tones, there is more of a translation thing. Right? I’m experiencing these things. I’m experiencing life from my vantage point and then I want to express myself through music and somehow I’m putting that into tones and when improvising it’s more of a meditative thing where I’m not analyzing. But when I’m composing, there is an element of that. That translation mechanism is something I’m pretty interested in. And in the wondrous scenarios, I’m turning it off and the neurosis is gone.

AK: We both practiced a lot, went to music school, both studied jazz and have a certain inclination towards improvisation… mystically speaking. Improvisation is probably closest to that for us, for me at least, maybe for you too. It’s not like I’m a writer per se or a poet that I feel closer by writing words… maybe Lesley gets a similar feeling when writing words as when we play a long tone with one another.

MB: So we have this creation mechanism in our mind. There’s this desire to create something. And we do it however we are going to do it…visual, words, whatever.

Well you know, some times there is this thing, ‘lets get to the root of creation, the root of creation sounds pretty grandiose’. And then there is this underlying knowledge of ‘everything is happening as it happens’ and for me the creation happens when the analysis turns off and something else kicks in, and it feels really, really vital.

Last summer when we did a Zodiac Ensemble tour, I really felt that thing you were just talking about, that kinship with others. There’s this personal artist, personal voice thing, I’m an artist and I’m going to express my existence in this way. And that sometimes seems relevant and important to do. But then sometimes when you are with a group like that, where it is super fun and nothing is really serious except the music, the artistry. It just happens. And it has nothing to do with everyone going into their mind, it has to do with losing the individual. I learned a lot on that tour about making music.

AK: But maybe what we’re talking about is the difference behind individual creative thought, where I am the artist and I shall create and it’s lofty at times and people who are not artists look into the creative world, and they see artists as egotistical, out for themselves. I never heard the term ‘douche-bag’ artists before I moved to NYC and it kind of opened my eyes to every hipster artist…I had never heard that before, but I think it does exist and if someone is gonna be too much of an individual that they aren’t willing to look outside themselves and see that creation, it’s all just recycled. I mean, there is no such thing as an original idea, or an original human… We are all recycled beings who have recycled parts and the thoughts that we think are recycled and the music that we compose has all been written before.  People that may think that they are solely an individual might have their heads too far up the capitalist ass-hole of individual thought. It may be an ‘American’ way to think about it, but it’s also dangerous because you start to forget the fact that we come from the same recycled umbrella.

AK: The intangible, even though music and sound is a vibration, a tangible thing, the intangible qualities raise the most important questions, raise the most openness and that is what I would love, if everyone could walk away from a song from Education Reform and if even one person can come away with that openness, that is what the reform really is…reform from reform. Reform from a controlled way of teaching and learning…which is in it’s own right important…we live in a society that is bureaucratic. I think it is important for everyone to some point in their lives get away from the confines of traditional education. That’s why these abstract things are so vital to talk about but they are kind of hard and lofty to talk about. In my mind, I wish people wouldn’t feel that way and would just be open about it, not closed off…I feel too many people are closed off when you start talking about abstract things…either people lose interest or are uncomfortable. But fortunately we are doing it…

MB: Yea, everyone is dealing with their reality the best they can….it’s a double-sided thing how I want to go in the street and yell, check out life! Lets wake up! And the other side of it is, it’s pretty fucked up in a way…there is a judgmental side to that, or a wishing things were different side. It’s an interesting little fragile battle in my mind…nurturing this sense of wonder in an honest way that doesn’t feel forced…you just want to show some people something that is really cool, you know, and it is sometimes tricky to do, especially when self-conscious about being righteous.

AK: which is what I think a lot of people are afraid of. If they choose to be overtly righteous then they’ll be deemed as douche bags but just do away with that and know that everyone in there own right, since we are all connected, is going to be righteous, and that’s ok…

MB: I look at Trane or Hendrix or certain other folks…there is nothing self-righteous…it’s such an abstract message but the power of the tones comes through searingly harsh and truthful. I think those folks were able to really look deep into this thing we are talking about and centre themselves in this message where they are encouraging others to love and feel.

AK: And to find part of the truth…the truth is out there.

MB: It’s everywhere.

AK: You have to excuse me, I have been watching ‘The X-Files’…

Check out Education Reform.

Interview: Spectral Music and Hip-Hop – A Conversation with Erik Hove

This conversation between musicians and composers Erik Hove and Isis Giraldo took place in June 2014.

Isis Giraldo: Why does spectral music draw you in so much?

Erik Hove: I guess having listened to a few things that I found particularly striking kind of set me on that path.  The first was listening to Gerard Grisey, who is kind of the grandfather of spectral music. He’s one of the main guys in the 70′s who started doing it.  A friend of mine sent me Gerard Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques.  He didn’t say anything about it being spectral. I had never heard of spectral music at that point, I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning that at any point in my education. So I listened to it and found it just great.  All of the things that I like about scored composed music. Sort of like a whole sound world, and like a very worked out structure.

Yeah, actually the first piece I was really drawn to was the Prologue.  A lot of people talk about Partiels, that’s sort of an iconic spectral piece because it’s built on the low E on a trombone.  It’s amazing sounding and also it’s very instructive if you’re interested in spectral music because it’s just the partials transcribed and assigned to the orchestra. So then, in a way it’s amplifying the higher partials of the trombone but it’s still just the naturally occurring partials. So you get this amazing cloud which is microtonal and somewhat reminiscent of Ligeti’s clouds of microtones, but it’s the harmonic spectrum so even the dense clusters have this harmonic quality that’s really beautiful.

The prologue is also based on the same pitch information, as far as I recall…. It’s a solo piece for viola.  It kind of does this expanding figure that keeps repeating and expanding and gets more involved as it goes along.  When you hear it at first, if you listen closely you might hear a bit of a dominant-seven sound but the way he moves it around it’s not as obvious as Partiels.  I just remember thinking it sounded amazing and checking out more of Grisey’s stuff after that.

It also appealed to me as a jazz musician, like a solo piece that takes a figure and then expands on it.  It’s a similar way of thinking.  Or when you solo… taking a figure and playing around with the different permutations of it.  So then that kind of lead to the other figure who was pretty instrumental which is Steve Lehman. He was the first guy to use spectral techniques in jazz music.  And again it was the same thing.  I can’t remember if I knew it was spectral, I think I just heard Steve Lehman’s new thing at the time and I was like ‘wow that sounds awesome!’

It also spoke to a lot of things I was interested in already. I was really into the M-Base collective in the 90′s and studied with Greg Osby and took masterclasses with Steve Coleman. I believed very strongly in that being one of the major steps forward in terms of jazz music and improvised music and black American music generally.  And Steve Lehman definitely comes out of that kind of school.  He doesn’t sound exactly like any of those guys but you can hear he’s checked out M-base music and holds them in high regard. And that octet even though it’s considered to be spectral jazz, theres like an undercurrent of an organizing beat sort of thing….

He’s also a hip-hop head, which I also am, so you can hear sort of an M-base thread….but not exactly the same.  So in a way it was like another step forward from this thing that I was already super into.

The pitch content struck me right away, like you notice immediately that the tunings are not standard tempered tunings but they sound harmonic.  Before you know what it is you hear that it makes sense but that it’s different from what you’re used to.  And I liked that, I’ve always liked that.  That’s something that I seek in music.  Not just tuning specifically but just that feeling of hearing something new and not knowing what it is, but knowing that it’s not just random sounds, although that can be appealing as well… But that there’s some sort of concept or thought process of organizing information that’s clear and apparent to the listener.

That’s what I liked about hearing Steve Coleman for the first time as well. As a jazz student in the 90′s, who had spent his time learning the history of jazz as best he could and learning how to navigate those kinds of chords changes and standards, there was a similar thing, the same feeling. Steve Coleman has this symmetrical concept, so it’s all chromatic but it’s all perfectly symmetrical. And that’s not necessarily clear when you first hear it. But you hear that there’s a logical approach that he’s using, some sort of concept or musical logic at hand, and you don’t know what it is, you just know that there’s something there.  Those are the big ones that I can think of off hand. But that’s a common thing that I liked.

I think in the composition world, like scored classical music, that’s a thing that you encounter more often because it’s like almost each piece has its own internal logic.  Maybe not every single piece but a lot of highly regarded pieces will have the composer doing a lot of research in any number of directions  and writing a piece based on a particular central concept and flushing it out musically.  So if you read an analysis you might know what that concept is, but if you just listen to the piece you don’t necessarily know what it is but you can hear that there’s something.

Sorry to cover such a wide span…

But yeah, that’s kind of the general thing that brought me to spectral music. And just the standard thing where you hear something you like and you want to check it out more, or you want to emulate it in some way.  I mean I believe quite strongly in not deliberately imitating, but there’s no way that you can completely avoid your influences, like anything you listen to will wind up in your music. But you don’t want to just redo what someone else has done, which can be a problem in jazz.

So that was something that I tried to keep in mind the whole time I was studying this, like I really admire Steve Lehman’s music but I don’t want to sound like him.  Luckily my saxophone style is quite different from his so right off the bat I’m going to go in different directions than he might, but even in the type of writing I did. I have one piece that I dedicated to him.  It was initially called Partials vs. Lehman, where I used a similar sort of almost overly straight-forward technique in terms of spectral harmony, where I just took a low Eb of my own instrument and then took a short band of the spectrum and orchestrated it for my ensemble, but then I wrote a sort of Lehman-style beat pattern, without trying to rip him off too much.  I had him in mind when I wrote the piece so that was my one thing to sort of nod to him, since he was the first guy to add it into jazz music.

But I really loved the sound of it and the technique of it and the philosophy behind it . Like reading about Grisey, there was a lot of emphasis on the natural world, and natural sound, the physical properties of music and the listener, the way the listener perceives music.  And that being an important focus for the composer, to keep in mind how the listener perceives your piece.

IG:  Is that like versus the tuned system?

EH:  Well…. somewhat, but also versus serialism, like spectralism was in some ways a reaction to serialism. With serialism, the emphasis is on the structure, the thinking is that if everything makes sense structurally then the piece will automatically be satisfying to the listener because the structure is without flaw.

There’s a bunch of brilliant serialist pieces but overall… there’s a quote by Ligeti that’s something along the lines of, after a while, everything sounds grey. It doesn’t sound the same, but it all sounds kind of similar.  Like all the parameters are being pushed around so that there’s no repetitive recognizable thing at all. Which can produce really interesting music but after a while the overall texture can become too similar.

I don’t wanna delve too much into it, ’cause obviously those techniques are also valuable.  But I think it became a bit of an orthodoxy where you had to conform to these techniques of serialism. So then spectralists were reacting against that, they wanted to create something sensual that was pleasing to the listener, but at the same time maintaining this goal of compositional rigour where there’s like all of this work with underlying theory that makes perfect sense but then the actual music sounds… not necessarily beautiful… it doesn’t always have to be beautiful, or pretty…

IG: Just attractive.

EH: Yeah, or striking.

IG: Before you discovered this whole spectral scene, did you have as much of a drive to write music?

EH: I’ve always written music, but I think I write more now, it definitely has given me more drive…but I wouldn’t say that it’s just spectral music.  When I went to McGill to do my masters I wanted to just study composition generally. And my ensemble I wouldn’t consider it to be a spectral ensemble, I just use some spectral techniques and have a few pieces that rely on them heavily.  But I was influenced equally by other composers like Ligeti, or Sciarrino, he shares a lot of ideas with the spectralists but he’s not considered a spectral composer. There are numerous others, just a lot of interesting and amazing music over the last 30 or 40 years. And it’s a world I got fairly into over the last few years but I still consider myself a neophyte, like I’m still learning, and I’m just trying to check that stuff out and familiarize myself with it well enough that I can bring it into my jazz writing and music with some currency.  I think the whole spectral thing  pushed my desire to learn more and to bring those concepts into the jazz world, and it definitely acted like a catalyst to write more but it was one of a few things.  I was kind of already going in that direction.

IG: What about the relationship with hip hop? What are the similarities between the two influences?

EH: I’ve never thought about the similarities.  I think they’re just two realms of music or musical….. communities…… nah community is too narrow…. I guess its a large international community, in both cases.  They’re both musical occurrences that I’ve found inspiring over the years.  Hip hop I’ve been listening to since I was about thirteen.  I just listen to too much different stuff to consider myself solely influenced by it. But hip hop is still one of my favourite types of music and I find a lot of similarities between hip hop and jazz. I think that was fairly common in the 90s, like jazz musicians that listened to hip hop and drew parallels between the two types of music. Sort of like personal expression, like you have an  MC…. that’s similar to a jazz soloist in terms of storytelling and expressing an individual voice.

IG:  And it varies so much on intonation, voice, and phrasing and language.

EH: Yeah.

IG: As I don’t know much about spectral music, and I’m learning just listening to you… in spectral  music, is there a focus on a groove?  Or is it mostly focused on harmonic movement?

EH: It’s not only harmonically based. It’s basically just analyzing a sound to derive information which you use compositionally…

IG: And what’s happening rhythmically?

EH: I have to look into it more… there are pieces by Grisey for percussion that wouldn’t necessarily use strictly harmonic information.  I think you can apply the information that you derive in different ways, it doesn’t have to be only harmonic. Or for example I have a piece where I have layers of increasing rhythmic values that correspond loosely to harmonic frequency, so the harmonic information is assigned rhythmically instead in terms of pitch. But the harmonic series is not the only information that you can get out of analyzing the sounds through various means. There’s also a lot of importance placed on time and duration.

In fact the composers that we’ve described as spectralists don’t describe themselves that way. It just became the thing, the term that people use to describe them. In terms of rhythm…I think you could apply, in terms of time, like the way a sound unfolds, and the various things that happen as it unfolds over time.

IG:  I guess the reason that comes to mind is when I hear your project, rhythm seems to be an important part.

EH: Yeah that would be more of the hip hop thing I think, and the M-Base thing. Or like electronic music too. Even metal.

IG:  What do you find to be so compelling when there’s a consistent beat through your music?

EH: I’ve always found that’s something you have to be sort of careful about because… on the one hand it could become monotonous, but on the other just having a repeating beat can be really compelling. There can be a trance like quality to it or a steadiness to it, but I find that works better with drum machine oriented music because that flawlessness in a way is self-effacing.  It can be less interesting but it can also have a musical function. Whereas when you have a drummer play the same groove over and over… it can be super heavy and it doesn’t have to erase itself, and it doesn’t seem to change but it does over time, there’s always gonna be some minute difference that makes it interesting over time.  When you hear a really good groove drummer you don’t get bored of what you’re hearing because it feels good, it sounds good.  So thats partly it.

Jazz music has elements of that, they don’t organize the drums that way, it’s more the bass that holds things down rhythmically and the drums add commentary,  and so when you’re incorporating popular beat structures you have to think how you’re gonna work it.  The other thing I find appealing is getting into odd time signatures.  Often a beat will function like a clave, and if you get more complicated rhythms it makes them a little more intelligible.  LIke if you have a swing rhythm it can be a little harder to follow. It still can be successful musically, just because it’s less easy to play off of, it doesn’t mean it’s not gonna be good.  But sometimes it isn’t as good….. there are guys who can do it, like Ari Hoeing.  There are guys that are so comfortable with any time signature in jazz drumming that it sounds musical.  I think that’s where the music is going but it’s sort of becoming niche, like it’s going in all different directions.

I mean…. I’m just influenced by hip- hop because I love hip- hop.   So I just have that.  I have one piece where I didn’t even try to draw from hip hop but the clarinetist in my band said it reminded her of Tribe Called Quest.  And when she said that I could immediately think of the song that she was talking about, but I didn’t deliberately do that. Really it was just the bass line I wrote was reminiscent of a certain Tribe bass line.  And I’ve been listing to Tribe Called Quest for like twenty years or whatever, so it’s not surprising.

But it can serve a utilitarian purpose as well…. ’cause I’m more interested  in something that interlocks in different ways.  So having written out the part will facilitate playing it, and it will also help to line things up compositionally. Like some of the jazz musicians we talked about are very adept at taking those rhythms and improvising over them and having them be super clear.  Which is wicked.  But compositionally you sometimes need to it to be locked down because you have to synchronize the band.

I also just like how that music sounds, and that way of approaching it as an option.

IG: As a composer and a performer,  what do you think about intellectualizing music rather than feeling music?

EH: I’m not sure that I agree that there’s a dichotomy. Personally I think that everybody “intellectualizes” their music in some way, as much as possible in terms of preparation, whether in terms of composition or in the way you play.  Like you put an immense amount of thought into it behind the scenes, but then you just play.  I guess…. people are unnecessarily divided on that front.  And no matter how complex the music might be, when you’re playing you’re just listening and you’re just putting it out there, and you’re only concerned with the sound and the energy in the room.  Like sometimes I think about that in terms of concerts, like a successful concert is something that is created by the audience and the musicians.  It’s something that happens with everyone in the room.  The musicians are the ones creating sound, but you can play brilliantly and it doesn’t have the same effect as when there are people listening closely.

IG: Do you think that’s the meaning of performance?  Like if you can really have a show where there is no wall between the audience and yourself and there’s true communication… beyond practising or being skillful at your instrument.

EH:  Yeah it’s like everyone’s brain in the room is lit up.  Thats what you aim for but I think it might not happen every time in a given performance, and it still might be a successful performance on a lot of other levels you know?  So it’s something that I don’t think about too much in terms of aiming for, but just something that happens when it happens and hopefully it happens often.   As a musician I just listen and immerse myself.

But to go lack to your initial question.  That’s why I was saying it’s a false dichotomy.  Like there’s people who don’t read and play only things that they can hear, and they still are intellectualizing certain parts of their music, they’re still putting a lot of thought into it, they’re just using different avenues.  I think that you just use whatever methods are comfortable to you in terms of what your upbringing is as a musician.  And I think you can only gain by learning more of those types of tools.

For instance, there’s amazing music happening all over the world without sheet music.  Where there’s just a strong and in depth oral tradition.  You can still have stuff that’s immensely complex it’s just approached in a different way.

In a way written music is a shortcut.  Which can be great ’cause it can get you quickly to a musical result without spending the time teaching it to that person until it’s orally ingrained. And the better somebody gets at reading the more quickly they grasp it just by reading it, understanding it.  But ultimately the goal is the same, where both the listeners and performers are completely immersed.

IG:  Can you pinpoint a moment where you where like realized this music’s power?

EH: I can’t think of one off hand.  For me its more of a overall kind of thing….where you combine all of your experiences over time and it becomes this amazing thing.  Like there’s a thread in my entire life where it’s been a source of stimulation and wonder. And so different concepts I’ve gone through address different parts of that.  And usually it’s more of a cumulative effect like when you see something amazing and you think about what was amazing about it.   And you see something else and think about what was amazing about that.

IG:  Where do you see your music going, or your compositional process going currently?

EH: Well I have currently been writing more music for the ensemble you heard.  We’re recording an album next month after our performance (at Suoni Per Il Popolo).  So I’ve been writing new stuff that will eventually be another album. The stuff that I wrote in the past,  there’s places that seem boxed in, like it could breathe a little more, maybe develop a little more.  So I’m trying to continue with various elements thats I’ve been working on but develop them so they flow a little better, I also would like to expand them a little further and so that’s where my effort has been recently.  I did rewrite the old pieces a little bit, some of the little things that bothered me.  But instead of putting too much effort into redoing those old pieces I’ve just been trying  to correct some of that stuff in my current writing.  And just go a little further.  Like in terms of spectral techniques, we talked about the harmonic series thats kind of just one element of spectral technique. I want to like learn more and apply them more.

IG:  And whats the general intention… or energy that you’re trying to push out there?

EH: I guess something that is stimulating?  Something that is trying to express my own musical voice, and to present certain things that I find important in the music I listen to. Part of it is trying to find a place for my saxophone playing. I’ve spent years developing an individual voice on the saxophone, so in a way one of the things I’m trying to accomplish is to find an ideal setting for my own playing.  As a composer that can be a bit limited but as a saxophone player that’s kind of what my goal is. I’m also trying to satisfy two goals, where I’m trying to expand my capabilities as a composer but I’m also trying to do this thing where I’m not trying to write music that is solely composed, and I’m not trying to write music that is solely improvised. I’m trying to mesh the two.  And there’s a whole bunch of people doing that, and so I’m trying to exist in that community of that music that is composed and improvised and free and structured, and has all of those elements at play but work in a coherent cohesive way.

And just stylistically trying to juggle various things, like I’ve been operating within the jazz tradition for years, and I still try to maintain those roots but also reflect on my love of hip-hop and my love of composed scored music, and electronic music, or pop or rock… any music that I have listened to and enjoy.  Obviously genre labels are somewhat limiting but it’s about the various ideas, and ways of organizing music, and recognizing what people that I love and respect do, and trying to weave those into the types of things that I do.

Interview: Ellwood Epps

This interview happened while travelling home from the Montreal launch of Ellwood Epps and Yves Charuest’s new Record, ‘La Passe’. Most of the conversation took place at Arahova Souvlaki, while significant portions also took place at Fairmont Bagel, on the 365 du Parc bus, and the René Lévesque night bus. Ellwood Epps is in conversation with Nicholas McGrath.

Nicholas McGrath: You just got back from a tour across Ontario and you’ve been spending time working on your music in New York, how has your perspective on music changed during your time away from Montreal?

Ellwood Epps: There are very unique things happening in Montreal musically. I think of certain people here I play with or hear playing and think, “Wow there’s no one else like that.” Montreal is a great place to make things happen, musically and socially, in terms of there being a scene. It’s still a very cheap place to live compared to other places in North America, arts funding is good, it’s a magnet for artistic talent.

NM: These are all environmental factors. What about the people themselves in Montreal?

EE: It’s hard to separate these two, there’s no other city in Canada where the scene for improvised music is growing at this rate. It’s hard to put numbers to it, but in the last 10 years I’d say the improvised music scene, in terms of players, is probably 4 times as big, don’t quote me on that. I don’t see this growth in other cities. I’m from Toronto, I’ve lived in Guelph, spent a week at a time in Vancouver, and those scenes aren’t growing at that rate or at all. In Montreal there are more people playing, more people involved in presenting the music, and perhaps more people attending shows.

NM: How do you explain the scene’s growth in Montreal over the last 5 or 10 years?

EE: What Quebec is culturally. I would hazard to guess that the notion of separatism or nationalism or whatever you want to call it, whether that’s on the frontburner or the backburner, it’s always on the stove and that means that if you do something that is not mainstream, even if it’s not commercially viable as an artist, if you’re in Quebec and you’re doing it, there is a certain interest in promoting that, because distinct art is part of a distinct culture.

Montreal is a city with cheap rent and funding, which means that the musicians who arrived on the scene here in the ‘70s and ‘80s haven’t left and are still playing. I’m thinking of people like John Heward, Jean Derome, Guy Thouin. In Toronto this isn’t the case. It’s hard finding someone who’s over 40 to play with. There’s a whole generation of people who left Toronto for various reasons. And a lot of them ended up in Montreal, like Tom Walsh, Lori Friedman, Rainer Wiens. Montreal’s a place people come to and don’t leave.

NM: We’ve been talking about how many of the improvised music communities are small or self-contained, maybe they also have their own tendencies in sound?

EE: I just did a tour with Yves Charuest of Hamilton, Guelph, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, a pretty small tour. Each place was different, the style of presenting a show in each place is different. But I’m not sure that there’s a particular sound. For example, we played in Hamilton, which I think is a nascent scene, there is some history for creative music there, but it’s not a long one like Montreal or Toronto. The scene depends on touring musicians to contribute and have an exchange with local people.

NM: But is it possible to visit a city like Toronto and then talk about the musical differences that you observe in the scene there?

EE: I come from Toronto and I still work with a lot of people from there. It’s hard to say if there’s a Toronto sound. Toronto is a much bigger city. The opening set for Yves and I was a really great trombone duet with Heather Segger and Doug Tielli and I don’t think you could have an improvised trombone duet in Montreal because I just don’t know that many great trombone players there, whereas I can think of many in Toronto. It’s hard to say whether it’s the city that makes the sounds, or just the facts, the demographics – there are so many musicians, or the musicians are from a certain generation…

NM: To change gears, I’m curious what is actually happening when you are on stage playing? Sometimes people talk to me about improvised music and they want to know what is happening in the mind of the improviser. What is the relationship between listening to your fellow musicians and the extent to which you carve your own path?

EE: That’s what performing is, those two things, in a way. I feel like lately listening gets over-emphasized in terms of being a performer. Because of course listening is crucial. I’m not just reading a part in front of me. If I were doing that I could hypothetically not be listening to what’s happening around me and just watch the conductor as long as I play my part, everything might be OK, it’s not quite that simple obviously.

But in improvised music, the part that I’d be reading is actually the other people on stage and the people in the room, and the room itself, the circumstances, musical and otherwise. So listening is crucial, but the energy it takes to create or to channel music that is coming from wherever music comes from, that takes up so much energy that you can’t devote all your energy to listening. Tonight I was playing with one other person, I’m standing close to Yves, but I’m not sure what percentage of what he’s doing I can really hear, I can’t hear any of it as well as you can if you’re in the audience, it would be impossible because I also have to put energy into producing sound of my own. Ideally we’re not only playing what we think would be interesting or cool or virtuosic. We also have a responsibility to the music that is just happening. And this is a very, very fast process.

When I’m playing with a 5, 6, 7 piece group, I might be on one end of the stage and there’s a violin player on the other end of the stage and I can’t really hear what they’re doing because the room just doesn’t work perfectly. And my attention is already divided by 7, listening to myself and the other 6 musicians. That’s my listening and my listening is only a small percentage of my total energy. It takes energy to stand up and hold the instrument, it takes energy to blow through it. I have to respond to what I’m doing, my thoughts – am I getting tired? is it time to reach for that mute? is it time for me to stop? ah do I need more rosin on my bow? ah shit I just dropped one of my drum sticks! All the thoughts we’re having, oh I just noticed so and so walk into the room. I wonder what’s for dinner? Ideally, we’d never have any of these thoughts, but we’re human and we do.

NM: You’ve done a lot of work opening opportunities for people who want to start playing improvised music, you’ve helped people get together and you’ve given numerous workshops for new improvisers. Generally, what is your advice to people who want to start playing improvised music?

EE: They should play it no matter what, they’ve got to find a way to play with other people. Go hear the music. Know what’s being done and where you stand in relation to what’s being done. Go to shows with your instrument. Go to Cagibi with your saxophone case, carry your bass around if you have to. You’ll meet people. Someone will say, “Oh is that a clarinet?” and you’ll say, “Yes!” Your instrument is your business card.

NM: You’ve been saying play no matter what, and find people to play with. Is it possible to play this music alone? Or practicing, can you practice this music alone?

EE: Solo should be the exception, because what improvising is, is dealing with what’s around you in the moment. But you have to do whatever you can to stay in shape. Playing with records is phenomenal. Playing with humans is much better, but you can also put on the radio and when a country song comes on, you have to play with it. Anything you haven’t done before, that’s an opportunity to improvise. Ultimately if you really want to develop musically, you have to do it with other people. It’s like life, life is a collaborative thing.

 

Ellwood Epps (Montreal/New York City) is an improvising trumpet player, and one of the leading lights of Canada’s creative music scene. He has performed with Steve Lacy, William Parker, Josh Zubot, Henry Grimes, Jean Derome, Le Quan Ninh, Joe McPhee, Butch Morris, John Butcher, and Marshall Allen, and appears on more than 50 recordings. He has appeared internationally at the Stone, CBGB’s and The Jazz Gallery (all in New York), the Guelph, Vancouver, Halifax, and Toronto  Jazz Festivals, FIMAV, Festival of New Trumpet (NYC), Earshot (Seattle), Suoni Per Il Popolo, and the Off Festival de Jazz (Montreal).

Epps cofounded l’Envers in 2008, through which he has presented over 500 concerts. In the same year he also cofounded the Mardi Spaghetti series at Le Cagibi. He is also the director and principal teacher at the Studio d’Improvisation de Montréal since 2009, presenting an ongoing series of improvised music workshops, including guest teachers like Henry Grimes, Lori Freedman, and Jean Derome.

Ellwood is active with several working groups: the longstanding Pink Saliva (an electric band with Michel F Côté and Alexandre St-Onge), Land of Marigold (with Josh Zubot), his sextet Rosasharn’s Dream, Niolas Caloia’s Ratchet Orchestra, and in duet with saxophonist Yves Charuest. 

Interview: A Conversation on Hip-Hop with Jahsun (Kalmunity Vibe Collective) and Brahja Waldman

Brahja Waldman, Isis Giraldo, and Jahsun talk about Hip-Hop in January 2015.

“Because they didn’t do anything to uplift Hip-hop culture. They took one element that was popular, the rap element and on top of it they took one element of the rap element that they thought was marketable for their own purposes.”

“It’s like this general move away from show tune music that has this chord, and this chord, and this chord, and this chord, and then has a bridge, and then another bridge, and then a coda, its all this stuff we don’t need. Let’s just keep this one five second moment, ‘cause it’s the best thing about that song, and let’s distill it into a loop.”

IG: The most straightforward question is, how hip-hop and hip-hop culture are related to improvising, and to the culture that surrounded jazz in the 60’s?

Jahsun: Hip-hop is like a rising search you know. I think that’s what jazz was as well. It was almost like taking the popular music of the time and pushing it. Expanding on it. Adding to the tradition. And I think that that’s what hip-hop did too. It samples from music of the time. You know, breakbeat, like the DJ Kool Herc story, how he was the man that officially invented hip-hop. Through his parties hip-hop was born. People were just playing tracks that people loved to dance to, and what happened is that they invented this breakbeat art, like this section of the tune where a drum break would happen, DJ’s started extending. Calling the b-boys out to dance, hence the birth of the loop and the birth of the b-boys. So it was cultural music and I think that’s what jazz was, and as everything else it grows and people add to the tradition. In that sense I find they are related.

The improvisation aspect… I guess if you listen to hip-hop today you might not hear the improvisation but what it came out of was ghetto youth not having instruments, so the essence of hip-hop is improvisation because that’s how they came up with sounds. Like they didn’t have music so we’re gonna take bits of this record and start using turn tables as instruments. So to me that’s improvisation in its highest form. Like let’s make this happen even though we don’t have the tools or the instruments. They sample jazz so there’s a lot of even tighter resemblances. But again, the reason why those things are samples is because those kids were using their parents’ records. They had some jazz, some James Brown, they had some avant garde music. Especially in the 60’s, the Sam Cookes, and the soul music. And I know that sampling is sometimes seen as stealing. When you don’t give credit to the person you’re taking from. But there is some value in just passing all those songs on to the new generation. I just wish it was done in a more clear way, so that everyone understood where the music came from.

But I love sampling. I think it’s some of the coolest collage art. And it’s influenced production everywhere. Even like soundscape stuff. We don’t talk about it, the different genres it influenced…. it’s a heavy art.

BW: Yeah I like what you said about the search because I often think about the explosion of genius that happened in the late 50s into the 60s, and of course jazz had been around for a while but it started to sound like something completely different. And it was really a search for what is possible within this music. And everyone in their basement studio trying to come out with the freshest new way to approach this music and not knowing or having the answer of what is possible. Now we know… this is possible. That’s what early hip-hop represents to me. They are discovering the sound. It’s being discovered, and there’s so much creative expression within that. It’s like these elements, these sounds, these samples, are gonna be the freshest sound. And so many people were doing that, and they’re all coming up with things that rival in greatness. It’s like this collective genius. It’s like the incandescent lightbulb, like suddenly there’s a glimpse of what’s possible and people clamoring to make it happen. I guess Edison gets the credit but he wasn’t the only guy on it. Fortunately in music people get to share the credit.

And I guess going back to the lineage, I think about how music or jazz music in the 50s has a lot to do with Miles Davis slowing things down, opening things up making chords last for longer periods of time with more repetition. And then, the younger generation picking up on that, like Herbie Hancock, and Sly and the Family Stone, and soul music giving way to funk and Parliament, and all that being sampled in hip-hop, except maybe removing the bridge. It’s like we don’t even need the bridge. Let’s open things up even more, and even more repetition.

It’s like this general move away from show tune music that has this chord, and this chord, and this chord, and this chord, and then has a bridge, and then another bridge, and then a coda, it’s all this stuff we don’t need. Let’s just keep this one five second moment, ‘cause it’s he best thing about that song, and let’s distill it into a loop.

I think growing up hearing hip-hop, my ears are trained to agree with that approach. When I listen to that older music I might want to hear a moment repeated as well… and it just passes. Which is also a beautiful thing! That’s when I was first listening to Eric Dolphy it was so spontaneously beautiful and creative. I wanted to naturally hear an idea develop. But Dolphy is already onto something else, and there are all these moments that just don’t last. It’s ephemeral, and my ears got trained into appreciating that. Or listening to Ornette’s music or Monk’s music. That realization changing the way I hear everything. It’s different than them trying to repeat things but failing. So there’s a different way that you can listen. And I think for me as a musician that’s my life’s work, to play my instrument, and learn how to listen to music.

IG: That’s the thing that gets me about samples. Because a lot of times, they’re sampling stuff backwards, and in a different way what you are hearing on the original recording. So the way they’re listening is really unique. It’s not just like there’s this chord progression and then this one, and we’re gonna sample in that order. It’s like, oh what happens when we flip it and start it on the third beat. It’s like listening through a weird filter.

Jahsun: And I wonder if a lot of beatmakers are conscious of that. Or if they’re just looking for sound, you know? I think that’s really it. It’s like a moment that you want to have repeated. It’s a sound. Let’s get that.

Especially back in the day, sampling was so chunky. They were using a lot of different tracks to make one song. Now you have just one sample and a lot of production on it. But if you listen to a classic De La Soul album, its genius. First of all, classic album, Paul’s Boutique, Beatie Boys…just the instrumentals, I don’t know who their beat maker was, I know Hurricane worked with them. But you have pop culture, the beats, plus they sample themselves. It’s like a collage. Again, the business of it gets in the way of the creative aspect. But you know you gotta respect it if you are taking people’s music. That’s why I come back to it. I’m for the artists sampling, I just wanna find a way that benefits the artists that created it.

IG: I agree with what you’re saying. I’m just playing devil’s advocate. We all sample stuff all the time, music is just sampling. You’re regurgitating sound that you heard before, I just think you internalize someone else’s sound and you adapt it to your own thing, unless you are quoting something note for note, I feel like it really becomes something else. Because half of the time when I’m hearing a hip-hop track, I don’t always know what they’re sampling.

BW: To me, no one knows the sound. Like if someone wanted to sample me than wonderful! If they wanted to credit me, even better, not because I wanna get paid or something, I don’t need praise, but… I want to be a part of it. If my name is there than maybe I can plan your next tour… (laughter). I just want to be in the loop. In a sense it’s like…oh well can I be part of this community?

Jahsun: Yeah, why not say who you sampled. I don’t know, I think that actually makes the community stronger, because you are in the community just by the fact that they sampled you, but it’s not known. And to me too… for the kids that are listening to hip- hop and wanna do their research, it leads them to a bag of beautiful music. You know if you listen to mad-lib and the shit he samples. These are some beautiful records and other trips, and that’s what kids need. It needs to inform them. That’s what hip-hop always did, it informed them lyrically but also musically. Where they come from. At least in the States. I think that should continue. ‘Cause today’s stuff is rough. But the underground is doing some crazy stuff. Hip-hop is there. There’s rap. They’re just not getting as much exposure.

IG: Yeah I wanted to touch on that. Like classical music gets so zoomed in on sometimes and I found playing classical music growing up I was like, where is the creativity? But now I feel like the same thing is happening to jazz. But when it was being played back in the day, it was being played by black Americans in a really racist environment. It was charged. Now, we’re learning how to play the blues at a 10am improv class in university. With hip-hop it’s something that people are still exploring. It hasn’t been institutionalized.

Jahsun: Hip-hop is young. It’s old enough for people to know its not a fad. And in it’s teenage fragile years it’s been corporately sucked on. I don’t know what’s gonna happen with that aspect.

IG: Do you think that’s where rap starts coming in? Like the things that are associated with rap. Things like pimping culture, the money, the cars, and all these things that are tied to consumer based culture within music.

Jahsun: I entirely think that it’s a corporate thing.

IG: More than a cultural thing?

Jahsun: More than a cultural thing. Not that it doesn’t exist in the culture. It exists in the culture. There are people who are poor and getting a little bling gives them that sense of value, and they’ve never had that before. Unfortunately you can sit back, even me you know? Sit back and be like “yeah” but they have to treat us differently you know? yeah I can say that but I’m not in their shoes. And there is a reality that there’s a certain side of Hip-hop that is that. So when you have a little bit, you put it out there. And that competitive aspect is there. Living in the street, that storytelling aspect has been there. But there’s been other things as well. It’s always been a full community of music. Until the corporate world selects an element of that, and says well this is what we’re going to mass produce you know what I mean?

I still believe it’s part of racist America’s white supremacy idea. And if white kids are buying this Hip-hop there’s no way they’re gonna just put positive images out there you know what I mean? You’re gonna buy? ok, but you’re not gonna convince my kids to be like you. So it’s gonna be criminality that we’re gonna portray, and it’s twofold. It keeps us separated from the criminals. Although it still backfires because kids still gravitate towards the bad boy thing but in general it keeps the kids away, and second of all it creates a climate to continue imprisoning these young black men. It gives them the criminal profile in everyone’s mind cause you’re mass producing this stuff. That’s just my opinion. But I do think it does have an effect. Regardless.

If you travel out of America, and you go to India, the first thing an Indian man tries to do to connect with you is like “yo yo.. thug”… and you’re like “oh shit”, this is what they think I am… and so you realize that image is affecting what people think. If the positive stuff is not being pushed on a mass level, then we’re all under the same image, like this thug, drug selling, shooting up… whatever is hip today. So I truly believe that’s what it is.

Because they didn’t do anything to uplift Hip-hop culture. They took one element that was popular, the rap element and on top of it they took one element of the rap element that they thought was marketable for their own purposes.

IG: I don’t know anything about the statistics of this. But just from my perspective. This whole “thug” mass production image, has influenced so many things. Things like fashion, the types of cars people drive, slang, and I’m sure a lot of money gets spent on this image and lifestyle that is being advertised and pushed by the corporate music world.

Jahsun: Yeah it’s influenced everything. And the thing is, I saw this interview with a cipher of these young rappers right, and, the guy was like, “ok, give me some conscious shit, give me some conscious shit”, and these brothers were on point. Like deadly, deadly. And they went around and all of them were saying stuff that was sensitive to what’s going on in that world, not just conscious, like spiritual, but like really knowing what’s going on in their neighborhood and how it affects them. And then he goes “alright give me some gangster shit”, and they flipped, to saying killing this many people…. and super violent lyrics and he’s like, “what do you guys like better?” and they said “You know, we like the real stuff. But the real stuff don’t sell. This is what they want us to do… so we learn this.”

So you know… there’s a lot of kids that are playing the game to get paid.

BW: Yeah they wanna get the record deal.

Jahsun: Yeah. They need to eat. So it’s either spit up all this conscious stuff all day and hang out in the corner, and run away from cops, or I could get a record deal. So I’m not saying everyone’s like that. But the perpetuation of it is due to the fact that, if that’s what people are signing that’s what the income is that’s’ what the business is, and if you wanna be in the business that’s kind of what you gotta do. And you see it all the time.

So I can’t not think that it’s by design. But just listening to the culture, you want it to keep breathing, turn off your radios. Make the ratings drop and keep to underground hip-hop, cd’s, records. If you’re into it.

IG: I really like the idea of music that is going to stick around and has stuck around, is music that has been controversial at some point. The Rite of Spring, Mozart, Charlie Parker etc. And I wonder what the next thing to happen to this music is. If it’s going to soar, and stand up for itself or digress into a fad and become a way for, as you’re saying, continued separation and not recognizing the positive associations of hip-hop and all that comes with it.

Jahsun: Well… Ok I don’t know that much about classical music. But it is a music that has been institutionalized for a long time. And jazz has been institutionalized, not for that long but you can see the difference, and it’s changed things a lot. And I think what happens when you institutionalize something is… well… something living and breathing… institutionalizing it kind it in a sense. In the way we’ve done it. Because they have jazz in a capsule in school. And it’s alive. So how can we say what it is? You can say what it is up until this period. But what is it today?

In terms of hip-hop I don’t know because jazz was the big popular music of the time, but the time we’re talking about that was kind of a repression thing that people didn’t know what to do with, so it wasn’t grabbed by popular culture like hip-hop is today. So it’s kind of taken a different path than the music we’re talking about.  It depends on if it gets institutionalized, what they institutionalize, will they institutionalize the crap that’s on the radio? or real hip-hop culture?

There’s people like KRS One. He’s a great dude, just check out his speeches online ‘cause he gives you good history of hip-hop, and a different perspective. Someone who lives and breathes hip-hop and was there when all these changes happened.

IG: Do you find it’s hard to find your own voice going through the cookie cutter system?

BW: If something is good like jazz or like hip-hop it’s going to attract a lot of money, or maybe no money (laughs) depending. But it’s going to attract students, and people… the force is too great! But it’s still your responsibility as an artists to try and find something new.

I hear people play old Cole Porter tunes beautifully. To hear jazz played in a really conventional way can be beautiful. But I don’t feel there’s enough of a connection amongst the community. You know it’s even hard to find people to play Thelonious Monk tunes. People who truly feel it. And if you truly feel it, that’s a whole different conversation.

So it’s like, what did you grow up listening to? What’s our common ground? If we’re both trained musicians, how can we relate? Popular culture is no longer informing jazz. There are disconnects. And I think that has a lot to do with how people improvise together freely. Let’s just make sound, texture, let’s see if we can get along. Let’s see if we can have a conversation with sound… Or you can be a composer and indoctrinate people into your sound, but there’s not always time for that. You gotta be fast, you gotta have a conversation. So yeah…

As far as finding a voice, that’s always the challenge, I listen to everything I can get my hands on. Try to not rip anyone off, try not to just go with an arbitrary zeitgeist, but stop and think. Also my limitations have a lot to do with it. I can’t do a lot of things other people do, so I do what I can do.

Brahja Waldman on Stravinsky and Charlie Parker:

Living in the year we live in. So much has been done. What do have left to explore? Well, I think a big thing we have in this millennium are these collaborations we have. You would never hear that Stravinsky and Charlie Parker make an album together. Even though Stravinsky was in the audience. They were listening to each other, and feeding off each other though the worlds were so divided. There’s a famous story of Stravinsky being in the front row seats, and Charlie Parker quoting “Firebird” in the first few notes of his solo. And Stravinsky in delight raising his hands “hahaha” and just loving it. I think if we’re going to get anywhere new, it’s bringing these worlds together. You know making a Stravisnky / Charlie Parker record, which, now, any hip-hop producer could do by sampling, but also from living artists getting together. Like Q-tip and Kurt Rosenwinkle. did with Heartcore.

Brahja Waldan on Producing:

I was thinking about what you were saying about living in your old apartment. And it occurred to me that hip- hop and electronic music really shifted the focus to the producer at least to what would have been referred to in the past as the composition of the music. We haven’t even touched on the mc’s or the rhyming, but I think a lot of that is the acknowledgment that people had, that in order to create something new we needed to recycle some of these things. So for you to sit between what your roommate is hearing and what your neighbor is playing how those sounds can intermingle. Well a DJ can do that and a produce that. That’s a new method of composing, and you can call RZA a producer or you can call him a composer. ‘Cause instead of working with an Ab, he’s working with a sample. This is his pad, these are his set of colors.

On Live Drums:

BW: Maybe we could talk about how you approach playing? Wow you approach performing hip-hop beats…the sampling that goes on, along with a live performer. I’m just curious how you try to get everything crisp on a live kit?

Jahsun: I just grew up on that you know? So that’s how I hear drums from the 90s & 2000’s. Obviously with acoustic drums you know, they don’t all sound the same so I try to tune them. Obviously it’s stacked, it’s stacked with something, a tambourine, or what’s the production layer, you try to imitate that. Or stacking cymbals to make them a little dryer and chunkier. A dryer tighter sound in general. So not so open sounding toms too… well… I like open sounding toms personally ‘cause there’s a lot more variety. So make sure you have something you can throw on and change the sound of the kit. ‘Cause my stuff is kind of open.

BW: Really? What about the bass drum?

Jahsun: The bass drum’s a little tighter I use the one at Résonance but I just give it a nice big boom. It sounds great many ways, and many sounds. In terms of the playing, it’s all about incorporating space in your beat. Like play a space. Play a pause. Even in your beats, to make it feel sampled…. just trying to… I’m not a technical drummer…. but just placing silences you know what I mean? So that you feel you loop. And then a lot of displacement… slight displacement… slight displacement.

BW: One  last thing I would say…..the rapping will gain more and more respect as a part of the poetry scene. Even though there’s a clear delineation between poets and mc’s and where they may come from. You can also trace it back to black arts writers and poets like Amiri Baraka, and speaking about the stuff that’s hard to hear. I love Motown and beautiful lyrics but it’s dealing with subject matter that’s easy to digest. Like love and heartbreak. Who’s been saying the other stuff, what’s the voice of the people that live in struggle. Hip-hop has taken that role like David Henderson

Also UMBRA… black arts community group of publishers, musicians, poets, thinkers, getting together. Amiri Baraka was part of it. I was listening to a panel of him talking about 2pac. I don’t know how much he listens to hip-hop in general but I know he has a special love for 2pac and talking about bringing it back. And trying to claim it as something that goes back to this lineage that would go back to black arts and all that.

Jahsun: Yeah 2pac was definitely a revolutionary rapper. He was just two sided you know? Like he had his thug side, but he had a hard life and that would sometimes really bust out. But he was also super political, super smart, super involved in his community, not a rapper that you could say he wasn’t giving back. The dude was always in his community trying to fight youth on the street. And his lineage you know. His mom was a black panther, his uncle a political prisoner. So he definitely has a lot of that link and that knowledge and he put it in his raps. He also put a lot of thug stuff. He was honest, and he wasn’t trying to be glorified. But people glorified him. He put out everything. His diary. His thoughts. He was an artists’ artist.

Check out…

KRS-One (self titled)
Ghostface Killah (Wu-Tang Clan): Iron Man GZA (Wu-Tang Clan): Liquid Swords
Kool Keith: Black Elvis
Digable Planets: Blowout Comb
Mobb Deep: The Infamous
Public Enemy: Fear of a Black Planet
De La Soul: Buhloone Mindstate
De La Soul: Stakes Is High
J Dilla: Jay Deelicious
Wu-Tang Clan: Enter the Wu-Tang 36 Chambers Nas: Illmatic