Newly published on the internet is an interview I did with Ysi Ortega of Stalker21 and Sergio Piccirilli of El Intruso. Both of these websites are in Spanish, and, not being a Spanish speaker, I answered in English. SO – here are my original English answers, just below the links to the Spanish version of the interview on El Intruso and Stalker21.
I profusely thank Ysi and Sergio for doing this, and you for reading! -m
When and why did you choose piano and what were your original influences both on piano and music in general?
There was a piano in the house from when I was an infant. I started messing around on it when I was 4 and started classical piano lessons at age 5. My earliest favorite music was the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, the first Led Zeppelin album. The Rite of Spring was big for me when I was 11 or 12. Jazz entered around that time also.
When did you begin to know that music would be your path?
Probably at age 14 or so. I definitely wouldn’t have predicted how it has turned out so far, but I knew that music was basically most of what I thought about.
How much time do you dedicate yourself to the piano? Do you have a daily regimen of practicing?
It totally depends on context. If I’m in a composing period then I practice very little – usually it’s one or the other in a given day. I’m trying to change that, just to see what is possible. If I have a recording or two coming up then I practice a lot more. A lot depends on what the upcoming gigs are, also: some bands have more demanding repertoire than others. Also I get calls to play some fairly complex music that demands practice time.
So it’s not always the same. One to two hours is ideal. I do find I need occasional breaks also, which can be hard to come by.
How would you describe the growth of your own versatility? Do you have any role models with respect to being able to fit in so many contexts while still sounding like yourself?
Versatility in the way that I think you mean it really comes from deep listening to all sorts of different kinds of music. I genuinely love lots and lots of music, not just jazz/creative improv/etc. That said, I’m not at all interested in being “versatile” in the sense of “playing lots of styles”, like the classic studio musician [though I have massive respect for studio musicians! It’s just not my path]. Though I do think that the more music an improvising musician absorbs and loves in a genuine fashion, the more likely that musician will fit into a lot of different musical scenarios, especially those which are tailored towards improvisers. Throw in the ability to read music well and the willingness to learn someone else’s compositions and the vistas open up exponentially.
Music comes from musicians creating it – so often musicians speak of music like they do nature, but musicians are in charge of music, not the other way around!
As far as “sounding like myself”, I realized quite a while ago that there is no other way, and that my best route was to resolutely devote myself to playing only what and how I want. In the years since then I’ve had the good fortune to be able to do that in the context of many different bands. I still feel the most free when playing in the context of my own groups, however, as it allows me to be my most idiosyncratic. No matter how well-intentioned any bandleader may be, there’s always necessarily a gulf between what the leader believes my “self” to be versus what I feel my “self” is. Of course I’m very happy to play and have played in many many groups in which this distance is very surmountable.
Musicians who always resolutely do what they want and expand their contexts, who are inspirational to me: Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, John Zorn, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, Tim Berne, Steve Coleman, Iannis Xenakis, Merzbow. Also musicians who resolutely refine and hone their context: Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, Morton Feldman. In a sense the two sides aren’t really two sides; people tend to get sidetracked by notions of style when the sources of inspiration change, or when the instrumentation changes, etc. To create a musical context for one’s self can mean all sorts of things.
With regards to the concept of language, as a result of your participation in various and diverse projects over the past 10 years, do you view yourself as having acquired a number of musical languages or having continually extended and expanded a single musical language?
I would say a single language. Everyone speaks a little differently with different groups of friends, with family, on dates, to strangers, giving speeches to roomfuls of people, to their life partner, at home, in public, in their sleep, under hypnosis. it’s possible to do this while still “being yourself”. Same goes for playing in many different bands.
That said, while i understand it’s convenient to speak of music being a language, I’m not sure I agree that it is.
Iannis Xenakis definitely didn’t agree: ”Music is not a language. Any musical piece is akin to a boulder with complex forms, with striations and engraved designs atop and within, which men can decipher in a thousand different ways without ever finding the right answer or the best one…”
Whether this applies to all music, I don’t know. But I lean fairly heavily towards the idea that language aspires to yet falls short of what achieving what music can achieve.
Does your improvisational process change depending on the playing situation? Are you thinking differently when you’re playing your music or with Snakeoil or another one?
The same basic principles of making music are always the same; what changes are the contexts. When improvising I always try and split the difference between what the music is telling me it needs and me telling the music what it needs. Sometimes it veers far in one direction or the other, for various reasons.
You are often working on several projects simultaneously, which could potentially be stressful. What grounds you? Do you have a practice that keeps you level?
Just trying to get enough sleep.
You play in so many bands in all styles and your projects cover a wide musical spectrum. Do you see these various approaches and projects as overlapping or more disjunctive?
Some of them are indeed overlapping in terms of personnel. If some projects lead me quite far afield from my usual activities, that’s often a very good thing. Even though I play in a lot of contexts that others consider “avant garde”, it doesn’t mean I don’t very much enjoy playing in contexts that are less that way, if the musicians are inventive.
You are currently working with different projects and groups. What urges you to express yourself in different contexts?
Making a living is a big part of it. But also the chance to work with and learn from dozens of musicians who I admire greatly is paramount. It inevitably enriches my musical thinking.
Let’s talk about the various ensembles you are working with now. I think the best place to begin is your long association with Tim Berne’s Snakeoil. How did you first meet Tim Berne, and how did you start working with him?
The long version of this story has been documented many places, but I first had phone contact with him in 1996 or 97; I wrote him a letter wanting to by some scores and he called me back. But we first worked together in 2008 as part of Ralph Alessi’s School of Improvisational Music in Brooklyn. The two of us had a rehearsal of maybe an hour in preparation for the faculty concert, and he immediately hired me at the end of it. We’ve been working together since then, in various different groupings and also quite extensively as part of Snakeoil. My association with Tim is a very proud and rewarding one for me, one that seems to have no end in sight, fortunately. I’ve been a huge fan since high school and to work closely with him and have him as a close friend is beyond rewarding.
What should we expect out of the next album of Snakeoil, “Incidentals”?
The lineup is the same as the previous album, You’ve Been Watching Me: the Snakeoil quartet plus Ryan Ferreira on guitar. David Torn plays on two tracks as well, and also produced the record. it’s probably the most “intense” Snakeoil album yet. I’d say its like Shadow Man but with lots of electronics, both from Ryan and David and also from me, and probably a bit more unrelenting throughout. Lots of high energy stretches, some softer chamber-type material. I also composed a small portion of one track. I think Snakeoil fans will be very happy with it.
What led you to play the music of Tim Berne on Førage, and how was your approach to his compositions?
Early on in our association, late 2009 I think, I played a solo concert of his music as part of a mini festival in Philadelphia devoted to his music. He was really happy with how it went and it became something we’d talk about off and on for years, and in early 2016 we decided to go for it and book studio time. With Førage I had free rein to choose what I wanted to play, with some input from him of course. I mixed and matched parts of tunes and had carte blanche to approach everything how I wanted to approach it, and voila, Førage.
Let’s talk a about your recent records with Kate Gentile’s Mannequins and Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse?
Kate has been developing her music for quartet for a few years now. She writes really fantastic music which manages to be accessibly challenging for the listener. There are lots of compositional moves that I’ve never heard anyone else make, even though at least some of her influences will likely be fairly apparent upon listening to it. Her piano parts are extremely challenging, probably the toughest music I have to play outside of my own – but it is very pianistic and idiomatic and ultimately really fun. Improvising in her band is the closest I get to feeling like I do when I improvise in my own band. I’m excited for her record to be out there because I think it will be quite eye opening for listeners of this sort of music, even for people who know her playing some.
I’ve been a huge fan of Steve Coleman’s playing and composing since 1992, when I got Black Science for Christmas as a senior in high school. Obviously he’s a figure of huge importance in music, one of the masters. Many of my friends and associates work with him or have worked with him quite a bit, and to be able to do so myself is incredibly satisfying, another dream come true for me. Getting to rehearse the Natal Eclipse music intensely has been extremely eye opening. Much of the music is based on orchestrations of his improvisations over various cycles and forms, and the way he orchestrates and shapes the music in time and space is incredibly inspiring and thought provoking, not to mention how he plays in the group. Plus as a person he is a dynamo of ideas, always interested in working on concepts, and very generous with his time and energy.
Let’s move on to more of your own specific work. What was the genesis of your next release: A Pouting Grimace?
Kate Gentile and I co-lead a band called Snark Horse in which we play compositions by both of us, with the common constraint being that the compositions are all one bar in length. One of the pieces I wrote for this project is called A Pouting Grimace. I liked the contents of this bar of music enough to feel inspired to compose a whole suite of music derived from it. The resulting album consists of 4 electronic and 6 acoustic or mostly acoustic compositions. The instrumentation differs from track to track but the core instrumentation includes 5 woodwind players, 4 percussionists, acoustic bass, and harp, in addition to my piano. The original one bar piece appears as a vamp in one of the tracks of the record, though I won’t say which one yet…haha.
When you’re composing a piece, where do your ideas come from? Do you have non-musical inspirations as well as strictly musical ideas?
Generally speaking, I’ve always had music “in my head”, so to speak, in the loosely abstract sense. So composing for me is usually some way to try and find a meeting point between whatever is commanding the most attention from my brain and some sort of abstract starting point: a group of pitches, a form, a rhythmic construct. Then I typically just put pencil to paper, improvising in very slow motion with my brain until I’m done. I find it much easier to compose once I know the instrumentation and the people who will likely be playing the piece, though this of course doesn’t apply in the same way to purely electronic environments in which I like to work.
I’m inspired by fiction and poetry, some forms of film, comedy, horror, surrealism, weird stuff, absurdity, etc: usually, but not exclusively, the sort of material that is often considered “avant-garde”, or was considered to be that at the time of creation.
Would you say there’s a core philosophy behind Fiction, Vista Accumulation, Førage and A Pouting Grimace – something that’s a common factor throughout your discography?
I’d say simply that I’m the uniting factor. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to create in a way that’s not encumbered by anything else but my own aesthetic desires. I’m sure if one were to analyze the compositions that they would find common tendencies and such, but I think any uniting factors are simply inherent in a somehow ineffable way. One thing I’ve noticed is that the music on these records – and in the case of Førage, the improvising and playing – is entirely consistent with the countless compositions which have existed mostly only in my notebooks since I was 10 years old, or in the tapes I’ve made of myself intermittently over the years. I’m just better at it now.
The final question: Have you ever asked yourself what is your mission as a musician? Do you have the answer?
My goal has always been to make the music I want to make, to make music I’d want to listen to and which doesn’t exist before I make it, and also to try and facilitate an environment in which I can maintain that state.