AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
Read the full unedited transcript of Hank Shteamer's interview
The interview took place on 23rd August at DeRobertis Caffe & Pasticceria, NYC
[Initial discussion of The Wire and other magazines]
HS: So do you go online a lot?
HT: No, I'm not a computer person. I get some e-mail but I try to avoid doing that. I don't really need to do it that much. I prefer telephone calls or fax.
HS: Yeah, I was reading an article where you said when you were living in India [in the mid-to-late '90s], you preferred to communicate only through fax.
HT: Yeah, right. You know, I never had time to sit down and get technically capable at the computer, and at this point, I don't really have the time now to go back and do that. And all that it's for is basically to write music and I don't need it for that. It could be of help, I'm sure I could find a way to use it but at this point I don't really need it. It could save some time. Things have changed now, especially with copyists. People don't copy so much by hand anymore. My copyist, his hands are getting bad from arthritic problems, so he'll take the scores now and put it in the computer and it gets printed out. It used to be all done by hand. And I copy a lot of stuff anyway, for Zooid, myself. I don't have to go to a copyist.
HS: Do you have a routine, or a daily practice of composing? Is it on a schedule?
HT: Oh, you mean, do I get up at a certain time? No, not really. Not unless I go away to an art colony, because that's the only place I can really control that. If I go to Yaddo, MacDowell or [inaudible], then you're just dedicated to what you have to do. At home, the telephone rings, UPS is at the door, you know, somebody's tub flooded upstairs, my daughter's got a stomachache, somebody's dog is going crazy. When I'm writing, I'm generally writing as long as it takes to finish whatever I'm doing and then I get back to just practicing, 'cause I don't practice that much when I'm writing. That's the problem. That's a very difficult thing to balance. It's difficult to balance those two at the same time.
HS: So do you have a daily regimen of practicing your instruments?
HT: No, not a daily regimen. I practice as much as I can but it's not like a daily regimen. Sometimes it's daily, but then I fall out of that and it's today, day after tomorrow, next day, miss a day. Only way I stay up like that is when I know I'm getting ready to do something and I'm going to rehearsal, then I more than likely will be on an everyday, just for the warm-up aspect of it, so I don't go to rehearsals not warmed up.
HS: I got ahold of the new record, and I've listened to it a couple times. I wanted to talk about the concept of the band. Can you tell me about how Zooid started, and what you were going for?
HT: Let me think back. Well I was going for another sound with the strings—that was the first thing, 'cause the original band had guitar and oud and cello; it had three strings. And then when Tarik [Benbrahim] left, the oud player, I brought in another cello player for a while and then I kind of like got down to one cello player with the guitar, you know, and then I brought Stomu [Takeishi] back on bass guitar. And I still use [cellist] Chris Hoffman occasionally, and he'll play with us for this premiere piece in October too. So it'll be three strings on that. But it was basically more of an acoustic string sound, and less of an electric sound. That had to do basically with the sound of the group, and then it was about finding players. But then I was moving away from doing what I was doing with Make a Move. That period was over, so it's kind of a transition period. The last record of Make a Move [Everybodys Mouth's a Book, 2001], that was on Pi Records. Some of that material is actually part of the new language that I play now. But that new language was not on the Zooid record [Up Popped the Two Lips, 2001, Pi]—the musical language I'm talking about—it was not on the Zooid record, but part of it was on the end of the Make a Move record. The reason for that is the amount of time it took Zooid, that we had to incubate this material to learn the language, so it took us about a year of rehearsing to get the language down, and for me to have enough new compositions in that language.
HS: So the previous Zooid record didn't incorporate this new language and the new one does?
HS: And can you talk a little bit about the language?
HT: It's an intervallic language. It's an intervallic language that's kind of like serialism. Serialism is like when you have so many pitches, generally 12 pitches, but you can serialize stuff with six pitches, seven pitches, whatever. But we generally think of Schoenberg and 12 pitches. Well, the language, the compositional language, the musical language, the harmonic, contrapuntal, melodic language is such that we move from one series of intervals to another series of intervals throughout a piece of music. So let's say the first series has five intervals in it, the next has seven intervals in it, the next has three, the next has such and such like that, on and on like that. And those intervals are what control everything at that time. They control the voice leading and everything: The harmony, the voice leading, the melodic line, everything is moving not necessarily with every one of those intervals being used, but that pool of intervals, and improvisation is coming from there also.
HS: Is it notated so that after a certain number of bars, you switch to a different interval?
HT: Yeah, right, right. It moves generally pretty fast. Generally, probably after about two bars it's changed. Or generally it changes bar to bar, but most of the time it's two bars. Actually, we have one piece of music where it's one set of intervals throughout the entire piece.
HS: I hear a little bit of a different sound on this album then on the previous Zooid album.
HT: Yeah, between that record and what we do now, if you've heard this group play since then, we never played that material again. We played tons of stuff, but any of that material from that first record, we never played that. It's not in the language, number one. See this language affords people to play in such a way where they're forced to play ideas rather than play licks and patterns and things like that, because the traditional harmonic stuff from the major/minor language is not there, so you can't play all that stuff that people generally play, so you have to create more in the moment, really fresh ideas in the moment, there's no formulas that you can apply in the moment. Playing formulas and stuff is one thing but that is not playing a musical idea, it's playing formulas and playing a whole lot of quasi-exercises and a lot of other things of that nature, and things that you've already been playing over and over, rather than being able to play right in the moment from your ear, based on the intervallic information available. So it doesn't sound like what other people are doing.
HS: Well, on the first Zooid record, I heard more of a head-solo-head structure, whereas on this new one, at the beginnings of the pieces, I didn't hear as much what I would describe as a head. Is that accurate?
HT: On some of them, it is, I think. I'm trying to remember. Yeah, the forms are different too. Like I said, you go back to that first Zooid record, you can't really reference that in terms of what we do at all. We left that and immediately went to a new language, and it's just that a whole bunch of time passed without the band being recorded again where you can hear it. It's like we've got a huge repertory that's been heard by people that come to hear us, and people in Europe have heard it. The compositional forms have changed too. What's going on at one moment, like you said, talking about head and improvisation, sometimes these things get mixed all at the same time. There's so many variations on what can happen in terms of the musical form. Like if some structural material is being played, it could be played at the same time an improvisation is going on. Or it can occur at a time when you're not thinking that it's gonna occur, so you don't really know whether it's structural material or not. You don't know whether you're listening to structured material or improvisation. Because the way that we create out of this intervallic information, there's such a uniformity so that you can't really tell so much what's going on with that. Generally with major/minor music, people play some kind of melody at some point, and then they have this harmony that's the basis of it that they improvise on, and they do all these different extensions and manipulations of this harmony, and you're quite sure what you're listening to at that time. Because it's like this one thing, then it's this other thing [Laughs], you know? It's this melody that they play, with a limited harmonic language up on it, and then it changes and opens up and the language gets more complicated harmonically sometimes, in terms of the person that's improvising. But the harmonies that we're playing, they're not major/minor harmonies. They're not thirds and things, so you're not sure what you're listening to. All you know is you hear a harmony in my music, but you can't really find it. It would be very difficult for you or any student to try to, you know like people do transcriptions, to try and describe it. It's too elusive. And it's the contrapuntal language, everybody's moving all the time, so just what is the harmony is questionable, 'cause a person could come back around to the same spot and they could be playing any number of things that fit within the intervallic possibilities. These are unlimited, whereas it's very limited what can be played in a major/minor system. You can only play just a very small amount of things. But every beat in what I'm doing, there could be different information that's changing. You're not even certain when we repeated anything.
HS: Well, sometimes on the old stuff, you can hear that a melody—
HT: I'm talking about the new, this record. That other record, you can't reference that. That has nothing to do with what I'm doing. That does not represent at all the language that I've been involved in with this band for a long time. The best reference is Everybodys Mouth's a Book, 'cause there's a few pieces on there that's in the new language, you see.
HS: Do you know which ones those are?
HT: Yeah. What is that? Oh God, I can't think of the name of those pieces right now. Hmmm.... That ballad that's on there, that slow piece, and that piece that opens up with the [Sings bass line] "Ba-dooba-dooba-doop." Yeah, I forget the name of that right now. It's about three pieces on there, I think. That's part of the language, 'cause those players have been with me for a long time and they have been working on the language. Generally things work like that, you kind of dovetail out of one thing into something else. But this record, like I said, even if you do recognize that something has repeated, you recognize it after the fact [Laughs]. Then you'll say, "Well, this must be in repetition now; this must be repeating now," but you generally can't predict it.
HS: Yeah, the consistency of each piece seems to be a certain tempo or groove, but other than that it was hard for me to tell where the composition ended and where the improvisation began. So that's an intentional thing?
HT: Yeah, of course.
HS: So in a way you're interested in giving the other musicians a lot of freedom, but also steering them out of their habits.
HT: Yeah, of course. 'Cause real creativity needs to occur not by playing something that you been playing over and over again and playing some variation of it, but to create something in the moment, right in the moment. That's creative improvisation. To be able to approach a musical terrain and you've got all these solutions for it, I don't consider that creative at this point. In retrospect, when I go back and listen to older music, it was fresh at one time, for the players that played it when they first encountered that music, you know, like Dizzy Gillespie. But now, institutions, universities, colleges and music schools have all come up with solutions that's been taught to all of the players out here, and they all have a way of approaching stuff. I don't consider that creative at all. See, the way that Johnny Griffin came at a piece, as opposed to the way Paul Gonsalves came at a piece as opposed to the way that Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis came at a piece, the same piece of music, you couldn't even compare. There was nothing similar. Or Don Byas, or anyone else. But now everything has been studied, catalogued, and made a methodology. It's a methodology now that's taught, and players learn these methodologies, and they're playing methodologies more than they're playing ideas.
HS: Along those lines, do you support the teaching of traditional jazz in schools?
HT: Of course. Yes, to a degree. I don't support the idea of people wasting a lot of time learning to play what somebody else played and get that into their system, and then they can't get it out. You need to understand what somebody else did, just to understand the history of what you're involved in. It's the history of anything, the history of writing, the history of engineering, the history of science. You need to understand what happened in this period, so you can understand how you move to the second period. You look at painting and frescoes and you see where perspective came in and where infinity came in. You need to understand these kinds of things in terms of a progression, but if you get stuck in one of these periods by trying to execute and get misled into thinking that you're actually creating in that style and period, I think you're kind of, like, misleading yourself. I don't really believe it's possible to do it, to play legitimate music from another period, because music is tied into social situations too. Social, emotional reality, and psychological reality is all connected culturally to any art form, and you can't jump back and place yourself—It's not like some kind of time capsule where you can go back and be in that cultural moment, which underscores social, psychological, emotional reality. Yes, you can learn on the surface how these things were, but I think it's a waste of time, a waste of a person who's trying to become an artist's time.
I remember when I was a kid and you used to have music lessons and there was that saying "Practice makes perfect." Practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent. You can practice the wrong way, it's permanent; you can practice the half-right way, the wrong way, the good way. All of it makes permanent; it does not make perfect. So you get all these musical ideas in your head and in your muscles. See, and things get into your muscle intelligence—it's not just on the physical muscles, but it's like a brain intelligence in your muscles too, that they tend to act on their own sometimes. They do what they have been trained to do, right? They've been trained to coordinate and move a certain way, so you end up in a struggle between what you wanna do in your mind and what you've already been practicing in learning how to play a particular type of music, you know.
So, back to that question, still: Yes, I support the idea, like people should learn everything they can about—I think they spend too much time worrying about jazz. I think that's a very bad mistake. I don't think they really need to teach jazz; I think they need to teach music. I think that the more serious problem is teaching jazz, 'cause they made it small; they pinholed it, made it very small and they qualified what they think jazz is. They don't teach anything about what I do. They don't teach anything about what Cecil Taylor does. So what are they teaching? So they've excluded so many people in the educational process, so what does that say about teaching this? See, if you're gonna teach Bach, you have to teach Wagner. If you're gonna teach Wagner, you have to teach Schoenberg. If you teach Schoenberg, then you're gonna have to teach Stravinsky or anybody else, or Varèse or anybody else. You can't exclude. In these jazz programs, they exclude. So what is a student gonna learn? A student is being fashioned and molded a certain way, rather than be exposed to what's the entire musical palette in so-called improvised music. And I don't really like the word jazz; I prefer creative improvised music, because there's confusion about what jazz means now. I think it's lost its meaning, and I don't think it's relevant anymore, that word, because there's too much confusion. I mean I just ordered a macchiato and she knew exactly what to bring me, you know. There's a basketball team named Jazz, perfume named jazz, festival named jazz—there's not one person on there that's improvising; everybody's a pop group or a rock group or some kind of quasi-something group, you know I'm saying? It's just too much confusion, and then people make films, documentaries, Ken Burns for one. He and the people that were his consultants, they give a picture of what they say jazz is and then exclude generations of people, whole schools and generations of people are excluded from it, and it's played nationally and internationally, and it's giving a idea of what jazz is. So that's why I say that word has really lost its meaning, you know.
HS: It's interesting that you say that, because just to take your example, how would somebody teach Cecil Taylor's music? Because he's sort of like a school unto himself.
HT: Well, you don't really teach it; you try to understand it. And you try to understand it from the outside in. You need to try and understand it from a distance, from as far away as possible. You have to kind of take a Zen, Eastern approach. You know, what I mean by that is a Western approach would be, like, you walk up to a flower and you wanna try to understand it, the Western approach would be to cut up the flower. The Eastern approach would be, like, "Let's just try to observe the flower and see if we can understand about the flower using all our senses and observation and try to be with the flower. Let's just stop being ourselves for a minute—after we observe it and everything, let's see if we can divorce ourselves from ourselves and be with the flower." It's like going up and hugging the tree. But to hug a tree successfully, one has to lose one's self to see if you can actually feel the tree. Can you really feel anything happening in the bark, in your touch? Are you experiencing anything after you get out of yourself in the tree? That example I'm making makes me think a lot of times, when I'm out—I walk in the morning and stretch and stuff, and I'm trying to hear my body, and I'm not just, like, walking. I'm really trying to see if I can really feel everything inside myself and everything outside on my skin, so I don't have earplugs in my ears listening to music. I don't know how to put earplugs in my ear and listen to my body, but thousands of people do it every day. I'm just not sophisticated or evolved enough to be able to do that.
So somebody like Cecil Taylor's music, you have to start from a distance. You start from a distance, you'll work your way inside; you'll start to hear musical information and you start to put that information down and you can hear where he's doing this, and you could say, What does it sound like he's doing? It sounds like he's playing some kind of cell here, some type of motive here. Is there some kind of dynamics that he's working with here? Shading? All these different things that one could learn, but not to the extent where you give it to the students to mimic it, to sit and practice what Cecil Taylor's playing, or play John Coltrane solos. These schools have kids playing John Coltrane solos. For what? I just really don't understand what the purpose of that is. What are they supposed to ascertain from playing something that was supposed to be a personal statement by someone? I think there's some confusion that has happened from the classical concept of teaching. You have to learn how to play the classical literature if you're gonna be a classical musicians, and there's no ifs, ands or buts about it, you have to be able to do it—you gotta know it. You're gonna play sonatas or concertos, you have to know these things. But you don't need to know anybody's solo, in terms of improvised music. So to spend all that time getting that inside of you, that's a waste of time, because what's gonna happen is you're gonna start mimicking that. See when you go to improvise and you've got that information in you, you're gonna start taking that information and playing it in some form and fooling yourself that you doing something [Laughs]. So I think that the approach to teaching this in schools, they're all backwards in terms of that. They really shouldn't be telling people how to negotiate going from a C minor to a so-and-so chord. I think this is very bad, you know. 'Cause, like I said, you listen to Don Byas do it, you listen to Paul Gonsalves do it, listen to Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis do it, all of 'em figured out a different way to do it, so they didn't have the same information in terms of that. And that's what we want to develop in students is a unique approach. How do you teach people in such a way that they can develop uniquely? That's the whole idea, not the assembly-line method. The schools are exercising the Ford Motor Company approach. I don't think that that's healthy; I think that's very unhealthy. Matter of fact, I know it's unhealthy.
I go around, and I listen to music a lot, live music. I hear a lot of young players. That's how I find so many players. I wouldn't call people's names, but they all play the same things basically. I can hear how so many players are doing the same thing. Come at a piece of music and everybody's doing the same kind of stuff, you know, and a lot of times when I talk to them I found out they went to this school, that school, so I says to 'em, "So that's where you got that stuff from?" [Laughs]
HS: I think I read something about how when you first started playing with Stomu Takeishi, he brought a few things to the table and you had to tell him, "Don't play like that. Get all that stuff out of your system." So do you feel like you have to untrain people who are playing with you?
HT: Yeah, kinda untrain people in a way, but more or less open 'em up, just kinda make 'em forget about this other stuff and try to see themselves fresh. See if you don't have a language and a terrain to put people in, in the first place, you can talk all you want about "Forget that" and other things. You got to be putting people in a situation where they can't even use that stuff that they had [Laughs]. That's the best situation. Then you don't have to deal with, like, "Don't do like this; don't do like that." Because, see, that's the last thing you really want to tell an artist, is "Don't do this; don't do that." Sometimes you have to do it, I mean, mostly when you're putting people together in groups.
[Points to a nearby table, where a man is talking loudly on his cell phone] Some very loud people. This is a result of that technology: the computer, the cell phone, the iPhone, people with stuff stuck in their ears. This is the result of people being totally unaware of dynamics now. And you know, you can't really be an artist and not be aware of humanity, I don't think. I don't think there have been any examples historically of any great artists that were not aware of humanity, of life on the planet. Right now, this is the most different period I've ever lived in, in my life, in terms of watching human behavior. This technology now is the only thing I've seen that's been equal to crack [Laughs]. Crack and babies wanting a bottle and the technology that people are addicted to right now are all the same. It's pretty amazing. And most people think that it's nothing, or they might think you're overexaggerating what's going on. Well, when your physical safety, security, reality is not even considered anymore because of your attention to technical instruments, I think that's pretty dynamic. When I see people step off the curb out into the street and they have plugs in their ears and can't hear a thing, and with tunnel vision looking in their hand, as if there's a genie in the middle of their hand, that phone. I would've had you meet me over there [Points to coffee shop across street], but that's not the place to have a conversation. Tarallucci's is the place I sit and have coffee a lot. We sit over there—there's some regulars that come over there—and the amount of accidents that we have seen, it would baffle you. The amount of accidents we've seen, or the amount of accidents that almost happen, you would think we were lying to you, or lying to any public official, and the amount of money that just falls in the streets when we watch people getting out of the taxi. Because the only thing that's educated now is their thumbs. The other four fingers are dead on most people's hands, 'cause all they use is their thumbs. Getting out of taxis with plugs in their ears and cell phones in their hands and a bag, and trying to get to they money, and dropping money and we sit there and call people, say, "You just dropped your money," and they can't hear you [Laughs].
This technology is also desensitizing to the body, to our senses. Nobody has recorded this, now. This is a new behavior, where people walk around with a baby carriage and they stick the baby carriage in the street, and they stand on the curb, with earplugs on. This is something, you could go back, I don't know, maybe seven, eight years, you didn't see that. You didn't see where a woman or man would stick their baby on the street and they would stand on the curb with plugs in their ears so that they can't hear what's coming or what's going on, and expose their baby to the traffic. This is the result of technology. And I'm not judging here, I'm just describing. But the sensitivity of people's bodies, people not even aware they're being touched. I've experienced that, like people with earphones on their ears and then their eyes are set up for the tunnel vision to their hand. You can brush people and they can brush you and they'll bump you and they never say "Excuse me" or even know that they've been touched now. And I find it very interesting, that now people will touch people and nobody pays any attention to it. I say, if I was coming along now as a antisocial young criminal, I'd get rich as a pickpocket [Laughs]. They're not feeling anything because of the technology.
Like I was talking about observing humanity. All these kind of things inform you, help inform what we start to see about indifference to social issues and political issues, how all these things have been impacted by technology. The whole shutting down, being unaware of who's listening to what you're saying, "I could talk around you," "I'm on the cell phone walking towards you and I've got earphones on, so you have to get out of my way." "I don't have to pay any attention to you." "I can drift left, right, down the center." So now social order has been totally corrupted and disturbed. The drivers now, we've got a group of people here driving taxis just in New York City that all speed, and they're all on cell phones too. So the negotiation around one to the other person in our society has completely changed. There's no respect. There's no breakdown in terms of the space anymore. "I don't respect your space, the fact that you're sitting right there beside me. I can talk all over you; I can bump into you. You have to pay attention to the fact that I'm on the telephone and I can't hear and I got plugs in my ears. So you should work yourself around me." You know? All of these things are very interesting now, and I don't know how to tell you how they could translate into what I do, but they do. That's not something I can tell you about, because I don't really know how that works, but it's something that stays in my mind when I'm working because I make choices too that seem to be a result of my sensitivity to different things like that. I make musical choices, in terms of creating. And it's very helpful, because it's a form of stimulation. It stimulates my thinking, you know.
I analyze myself a lot. You know when you're having problems writing, when you hit a wall, or when you got a bad traffic jam [Laughs], you're working. And I come out and walk around or sit and have a coffee somewhere and I look and see what people are doing, see how society is flowing, and then I come back to myself, and I see how I'm acting like that. I say, "I can see that, now let's see you." Let me see myself, and then I say, "Oh, see Henry, what you're doing? Why you stuck is because, like, you're doing something predictable." As soon as I can recognize the fact that I'm trapped in my own maze of thinking, my way of thinking, my regular way of thinking, then I can generally get out the situation, then I can generally unlock the traffic jam that I'm in. You know, it's like saying, you pick up that pencil and this paper and you start reading from left to right, you start writing from left to right. And you say, "Wait a minute, that could be the problem right now. I'm reading from left to right; I'm writing from left to right. Why don't I write from right to left? Or why don't I try from the middle out, you know?" That's like—I don't know if there's a term for it—it's a type of lateral thinking that allows you to get out of your own habits. And a lot of times, all I need to do is go outside and look at humanity, and then I get a reflection of myself, and I go back and say, "See, you got your habits too, Henry," you know? Then I can put myself in the dock! [Laughs]
HS: That goes back to what you were saying about trying to put your band members in a new terrain as improvisers.
HT: Right. Yeah, 'cause it makes it difficult for them to get back and do what they did before. It's hard for them to find, even to isolate that moment where they say, well, "Oh, I played this great idea; I'll play it again right here." I don't think so—it might be very difficult. The way this language works that I'm using, it'd be extremely difficult to do that, to find a moment to do that same thing you did the night before, or just a moment before, because you can't control what the rest of the players are gonna do. See it's not like the piano player or somebody is gonna lay down this block chord, this chord that's voiced this way, like 1-2-3-4, or 2-3-4-1, or 3-4-1-2, in terms of you being able to replicate yourself like that. And you don't really want to do that anyway, when you think about what you're about musically or aesthetically. You have to think about your aesthetics now too. What are you doing, just manipulating notes? What are you doing this for? What is the basis of your aesthetics? What is your concept in terms of what the music means to you? What are you trying to do with music? What does art mean to you? Is there some spirituality going on here? Or just what is this?
HS: That makes me think of a couple things. I know the name of this band, zooid, has to do with a cell or something inside a larger organism moving independently of that larger organism.
HT: Kind of like an octopus.
HS: It's an interesting theory, and it makes me think a little bit of the way Anthony Braxton organizes his bands, in that the players can access other compositions in the middle of a larger composition, like these little worlds that exist within the larger piece. Do you think ever think of parallels between your work and his in that respect?
HT: Yeah, on a very, very, very different level, I know what Anthony's talking about, how a lot of the cells that he uses in one composition, those cells can be found somewhere else, in another composition. These are cells that he's using. You know, you organize material on this table: We look on this table and we got flowers, we got sugar, we got sunglasses and we got napkins. Okay, and they're arranged in this kind of way. In chemistry, when you rearrange the molecular structure, you get something else, you know what I'm saying? So we just rearrange the molecular structure here and move it over here, and we could add maybe another item in, we could add a cup in, or maybe not add a cup in. Which is kind of like Chinese cooking too. You know the Chinese people cook with a base; they have A, B, C as the base. Then they throw in 1 and bring you out this dish. Then they say, "A, B, C" and they keep 1 in there and then they bring in 2 and bring out another dish. Then they say, "A, B and subtract C and leave 1 in there" and put something else in and bring it out. That's the same thing, so it's just what we see when we study chemistry, how the molecular structure can be moved around, so the cells that's here on this table, and then we get over to this table [Points to next table over, with similar items on it], they're related. So the players now can interlock these two tables, these two compositions. They can take from this composition, simply because those cells exist, you know. It's kind of like you have your mother, your father and these siblings—you all share these cells, this DNA. That's my take on the way Braxton is operating with these players, how they're able to access different compositions of his because of this cellular approach, this DNA-cellular approach that he uses. And that the cell takes preeminence over any so-called melodic material that he exposes in the foreground. He can expose some material to you in the foreground that you think is everything but is not everything, because it comes from a cell. The cell takes preeminence; the cell can't be put up in your face, because it has no real significance musically that way. The cell is something that has power. It has energy, power and possibilities in it. You exploit the cell by taking from it, but you can't put the cell as such up in a person's face: It's a background piece of material; it's not a foreground piece of material.
HS: All that you've been saying about analyzing your own habits and other people's habits reminds me a lot of how many times you've swept the slate clean and started over with a new band in your career. You've had so many different projects and you always seem to come to the table with an extremely new kind of instrumentation and way of improvising and method of composition. It's interesting to follow your career all the way back to Air, because it seems like every few years, you kind of want to shake yourself up.
HT: Yeah, hopefully, you know, you can do that. I hope I can do that again. It's like my next door neighbor, he just took a vacation over to Holland this summer, and then after he got back, he said, "You know, I think I'm gonna move to Holland." I said, "Wow, Mark, that's pretty daring at your age, at this time." "Yeah," he said. "One more adventure. Isn't a drag we can't have another adventure in life?" I said, "Yeah, I know what you mean," 'cause that was always the thing growing up: go somewhere you've never gone before, try something you never tried. Now the world has become so small. All the borders are down in Europe. You know, each country was an expedition in itself: different money, all kinds of different rules and circumstances. All this stuff with free trade, locking all these people into the same kind of thinking in places where you had independent thinking. So he said, "Yeah, one more adventure." [Laughs] I said, "Good for you."
But that's all you want, I mean, Elliott Carter, about a year ago I was talking to him; he had a concert, and I'm sitting in front of him, and I asked him in the course of the conversation what he was doing, and he said, "Something new! What else?" I said, "Damn, there you go: 99, 98 years old—that's it!" Something new, and his music has changed a lot in these last years; in this particular period of his life, as he approached 100, all of a sudden, the language got real thin, his music thinned out, and he just cut out a lot of things, and cut to the chase more or less, and that's really what you want to do, you know what I'm saying, to find a new way of expressing yourself, a new language. Because a new language is everything. When you can migrate to a new language, that's it. Because you can stay in a language for a very long time and create a lot. But you start to get weary, and all of your habits start to form like a big mirror in front of you. It's like the kids with the Transformers, you see the parts coming together like "Click, click, click." It's like this mirror starts to physicalize itself in front of you in time, the longer you stay in a language. And then you don't want to sit there, every time you come up, there you are in the mirror, you know. You don't want to be in a mirror!
But like I say, you can work a long time like that, but I think the artist that is really trying to challenge themself and be fresh will circumvent that. You have to challenge yourself in the end not to be a certain way, to replicate yourself, and you'll find a way. I mean when Stravinsky had worked the way he had worked, then Stravinsky jumped over into serialism. [Laughs] He had to do something! He had worked this ground and worked this ground and planted corn in this season and then had rotated, like, beans in the next season, and then he said, "Look, I could do everything: soybeans... I got to get out of this ground." And then a lot of people tried to attack him for going over there, but why? He needed fresh ground, so that he could be fresh, so that he could challenge himself. You have to do that. And as long as you're going forward, and it was going forward for him, and he had his own way of dealing with serial composition, so this is the kind of thinking that I have: Always be challenging yourself and going forward.
And these are not hasty things. When you find a language or a way to create, you should be able to create there for some time. If not, you need to question why you would create in this particular situation. You gonna drill here, get enough gold or enough oil here for a while, whatever you're going to get out of here. If you're gonna stay there, come up with something. That's the way I've treated my musical time from group to group. I work for as long as I work with one particular group, then when I feel like I'm at the end of the road, I automatically start hearing the next musical situation. I start hearing the next orchestration, the next group, what instruments and sounds, they just seem to come. They done it so far, I can't say that that will always happen; I don't know how long I'll be on earth, but that has always worked in the past. I start to hear a new plan or possibilities with certain instruments, and generally I'm finished writing music a certain way too. I don't have a history of going from this group to this group, playing any music that I've played before, or anything similar to it, but no one writes about that in any great detail, in-depth analysis of anything that I do, about that music. How the music of Air is different from the music of the Sextett, or X-75, or how that music is different from Very Very Circus. It's not like I just move on and keep doing music the same way. Generally, there would be no reason to change and get a new group, other than the fact that I was just dissatisfied that the group stopped functioning as a group. That's the only other reason to stop a group, when the group becomes mechanical and dysfunctional. They're not operating at the highest level. They're operating like it's a club, it's a job, it's an obligation, like they need to paid and all these things [Laughs]. Then there's no reason to have them anymore.
HS: Right now, have you started to have any ideas of what the next thing after Zooid might be?
HT: No, because the group that I have right now, I'm completely happy with the way the group is operating. It's operating just like it just started—the excitement. When you lose the interest and excitement—All you need to do is lose the interest and excitement in one person and you start to have a problem, and as a leader, you try to solve that problem, and you generally give people as much time as you can give them until you might have to let them go, and they could actually do enough damage to the group that you just have to let the whole thing go, because the communication, camaraderie and excitement can be destroyed very easily, and people have to be above all kinds of issues, I mean every kind of issue, every kind of human issue. Not to say that musicians do not have to deal with life in terms of paying their rent and all that, but you have to be above all that when it's time for music. When the group is not above all that, you haven't really got a group, as far as I'm concerned. You've got some people that function as as group, but they're not really a great group. There's a certain amount of abandonment that one must—The aesthetic that I come from, I'm not coming from any kind of Western kind of concept. This is about abandonment: You're completely into it, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. There's a requirement to be on a great basketball team. You can't come in there and have your mind on certain things and think that that team is gonna operate on the highest level. Those teams that we saw with the [Chicago] Bulls, people are operating damn near with blindfolds on, playing ball with blindfolds on. You couldn't even see the communication. The communication was so fast and so quick. That's where it has to be musically.
You see these young players now, they talk about great records. One reason they get caught up in the past listening to these great records was those great records had great communication in those languages. I had a guy in my house the other day that was helping me work on my papers and stuff, organizing a whole bunch of stuff—I got so much stuff—and I had a picture of something. Oh, it was a record of Miles in Chicago at the Plugged Nickel. He said, "Were you there?" I said, "Of course, I was there. Where else would I have been?" Younger players now, they don't be at anything. They don't be at anything! They say, "I can't afford this; I can't afford that." These people have 500 times more money than we ever had [Laughs]. It's amazing. "Oh, I can't afford this CD—I'll just take it and replicate it, download it, take it and copy somebody's copy of it. I can't afford that. I can't spend $55 to go see so and so." Why not? Who would you spend $55 to go see? You mean to say, if the Balinese company orchestra was here in front of you, or the kabuki theater was here in front of you, or Charlie Parker and strings were here in front of you, you wouldn't spend $55? If Horowitz got up to play, if Monk got up, you wouldn't spend $100? You're a damn fool—that's what you are. That's like, here's a guy wants to be a scientist, and it's a $50 lecture to get in and it's Einstein, and you're not gonna pay $50? What are you, stupid? What's wrong with you? What is it that you don't understand here? Did you miss something about one and one is two? [Laughs] Shit, you better get yourself out there and sell some hot dogs or something to get the money, or you better climb through the window. You gotta be an idiot.
This guy asked me, he said, "You made a night?" "A night? What you talking about, a night?" He asked me about Sonny Rollins, when Sonny Rollins was coming out of the street, and coming up and down into the club playing, and this kid said, "Did you hear about it?" And I said, "No, I didn't hear about it—I was there! What you mean 'hear about it'?" Coltrane concerts, he said, "You probably too young." "Too young?" I said. "What, 16? I was there! What are you talking about? Till 4 o'clock in the morning." I went to see Rubenstein; I used to sit up under all the great conductors in Chicago. You can't learn things about music looking at hillbilly music or somebody playing just jazz. You got to look at music. You know the world is too big.
And see black music, all of this comes from black music. Black music is the result of an interchange between African music and the music from the rest of the world, not just European music, all music. Wherever there's another culture that the African descendants that came to this country came in contact with, that becomes part of the language. Because the language that the African descendants have, they don't have that language anymore; they lost that when they came here. So they set up like a new language. This is a new language that's been created, out of bits and pieces of everything. So that's an important aspect of jazz that nobody talks about. Now when you understand that principle, that means you should understand that you need to be studying all music, and all people and all things, not just this particular genre of music. It's inconsistent with the whole history of it [Laughs].
HS: That brings up something you said in an interview once. You were talking about being stationed in Kansas and there was a lot of country music around you, and you made reference to having to "kill your limitations" and even though you weren't initially attracted to this kind of music, but you had to jump over that and give it a chance.
HT: Oh God... Yeah, I sure did. When I was in Kansas, out around Junction City [Laughs], every station. You turn on the radio and every station was country & western. Look, that could've been anything. Every station, I'm not good at the same thing on every station—I don't give a damn what kind of music it is. I'm not good with that. I mean I grew up listening to every kind of music on the radio anyway, but country & western certainly wasn't one of the things I was attracted to growing up in Chicago. I'd rather listen to Polish music or music from Serbia than listen to that, but I said, "Well, I can't listen to anything else. There's nothing else to listen to, other than playing records." I say, "Okay." That was a good exercise—that was a very good classroom, because I had to challenge my own limitations. I had to confront my own limitations about what I like. I said, "Well, I only like hot dogs." Say, well, "Here, here, here, here, here, try the hamburger." "No, I only like hot dogs." I'm just like, "Can you give me a hot dog with sauerkraut on it, or maybe mustard. You can even give me some baby hot dogs. You can fry 'em, boil 'em, broil 'em, steam 'em, stew 'em, but just give me a hot dog. So I just had to say, "Okay, drop it, Henry, drop it, drop it, drop it." And then I started hearing some things that musically was informative. And then I even heard some pieces that I liked, and I got much closer to understanding and being able to appreciate parts of that music that I had never been able to appreciate before, which certainly [helped] later on. 'Cause like years after that I had to go write a show in Cambridge, at Harvard, at the theater there, and I had to write some country & western songs [Laughs], and if I hadn't had that experience from the mid-'60s when I was in the army, I would have had a very difficult time. So the only thing I did when I got to Cambridge, I found a cafė. I don't know how I stumbled into it; I used to go in there and eat, and they had a jukebox, and they had a bunch of country & western songs on it. Old, too, 'cause the new ones are—after the Grand Old Opry, that's a whole other kind of thing, as far as I'm concerned. But like I would go there, listen and eat lunch, and then I would go back and write a bunch of music.
Unfortunately, I lost that music too, the written music. I've lost a lot of things. Now that I've been going over my things with these people that are reviewing all of my stuff, so much music that I've written has gotten lost: paper copies, tapes, from moving and living different places, you know, and leaving things in places. There was a place right around the corner here on 11th Street, used to be a storage place. These people went out of business and got rid of a bunch of stuff of Air. We had a trunk over there, and that was gone. Got up one day and they were going out of business and they had sold everything and disappeared.
HS: That must've been pretty upsetting.
HT: Yeah, but I mean people have stolen things. I've had three people tell me the same story, when they were moving and they came downstairs and put their records down on the street, somebody came down the street and [Mimics stealing sound] zoop, picked up those records, and I said, "I've done that one too." I lost a whole record collection like that.
HS: Since you had that experience with country music, are there similar genres today where you're like, "I'm not really into that but I have to push ahead and see what's good about it?" Like pop, hip-hop or anything that's on the radio.
HT: Yeah, maybe some of the hip-hop stuff. The hip-hop stuff—some of the stuff of people that use aspects of the hip-hop stuff or some popular people like Beyoncé or different people. They don't just go straight out with that. A lot of that, it just doesn't say anything for me. It's just too small a field of operation and, like, everybody's doing the same thing. It sounds like it's just... a very small field of operation. Now, understand, let's not put that on the same table that we're talking about the kind of music that I do. That's pop music. That has none of the criteria for being judged in the way that I'm judging what I do, and so-called "creative music" and music that is for people to listen to. Music is something that has an applicative base and people always forget that. You know, you don't play wedding music at a damn dance [Laughs]. The music that they play in a funeral home is not the music for a disco and not the music that you want to eat your dinner by. And people forget about these things. Certain music that you sit and listen to is to challenge you and to do things for you spiritually and mentally, you know, that it's not the type of music that is more for public consumption, everyday, all-day, any-situation consumption. So I make sure I make a distinction between pop music, hip-hop, whatever, 'cause I don't put it on the same level and plane as what I'm working with. It has a different purpose; it's for dancing and other type of things. It's like, you know, dessert is not the main meal, and people act like they're being respectful by not putting them on the same level. They're not on the same level! I don't have no problem about saying that. I'm not the one to decide the hierarchy: It's in the nature of the thing. It's in the nature of thing; it's not that something comes out of my mouth. It's in the nature of what's created. Like I said, the dessert is not the entrée.
HS: On the topic of pop music and art music being on a different plane, I think something that's very interesting about your work is the way projects like your Society Situation Dance Band from the '80s combine art music with a danceable kind of pop aesthetic. And that's one of the things that makes that music so exciting is that it works on both levels.
HT: See that Society Situation Dance Band, you see, I never tried to make a record—I never made a recording. I've been asked to make recordings, but that's not what that was for. That was for live dancing. You know, they don't even have dances anymore; they have people spinning records. When you spin records, there's nothing unpredictable that can happen. You can't have creative dancing when everything is known. You've got to have unknown factors in order for something really exciting to happen. People used to dance in this country, to live music. As a matter of fact, you had to have live music; that was the law. You had to have live music if you're gonna dance. So when I grew up as a kid, we went to dances, and it was live music. And I thought back on that whole situation when I formed Society Situation Dance Band. I said, I wanted to have something so people can experience how powerful the music can be and overwhelming, just to overwhelm the people. See 'cause I knew that people had never been in front of an orchestra like I had. Europeans saw it all the time. We played here in New York a few times but Europeans knew how overwhelming it was. They used to lose their minds when we played, see? So that was functional music. It was not music for listening; it was music that you were supposed to be able to react to. There wasn't nobody that was supposed to be saying anything to you. You jumped up and wanted to stand on your head or do a spin on your ass or whatever you wanted to do. It wasn't there for you to sit there and meditate on; it wasn't that type of music.
And I think all music is like that, just like everything else. It's like photography: You got photojournalism, you got fashion photography—it's for different purposes. And now we kind of cross these things in our conversations and try to put everything on the same level. You can't put everything on the same level. Everything is not on the same level. I don't know how this type of misthinking has come about, but you see it all the time, to talk about pop music as opposed to music that, you just want this music just to think, you want it just to be able to stimulate your thinking. That's what art is for. That's why you read the funnies, you read the comics. Well, if you read James Joyce, if you read Ulysses, that ain't the comics [Laughs].
Drew Jarrett [Photographer, seated at next table]: Have you actually finished it?
HT: Several times.
DJ: I've tried several times.
HT: Yeah, several times I've read it.
HS: But I think it's cool that even Zooid, which, like you were saying, has an extremely complex improvisational language, also has a very strong beat to it.
HT: Yeah, well some of it. Listen to the last track; there's no beat on that.
HS: Yeah, some of the freer pieces.
HT: Well, they're all free. It's just like, when you say it's got some kind of recurring beat to it: tempo, that's all that is. That's just one way to organize things that way. You can organize things with a tempo; you can organize things without a tempo. And, like, it's all about programming: You see, I tried to balance that, especially for a recording, I try to have a certain amount of tempo and nontempo things. A concert, I can do anything I want, 'cause it's just one shot. It's not recorded; it's not gonna be played over and over. But with something like this, you know, you try to control it in a different way, program it in a different way. But we have lots of music we just could start playing and do anything.
HS: We sort of touched on this, but I wanted to ask you about the gap between the last albums in '01 and this. Was it just a matter of teaching the players this new improvisational language, or what accounted for the long gap between the records?
HT: Oh, well, the gaps had to do with record companies [Laughs]. It don't have to do with that. No, I've been basically prepared to record. I could've made, what, four or five records, but that whole world has changed. I think by the time we turned into 2000, like everybody's talking about the demise of the newspaper, I think we're probably about to see the end of the record companies about now. Everything is in redundancy or demise at this point, it appears. I mean, you've seen my discography: I been on independent labels; I been on just about every major, big label. But they don't even exist anymore. And there's a lot of new people out here that need to be recorded, or want to be recorded. And record companies—the few that are left—they have to go with some of these people, naturally. And their budgets have changed. All of these things have come in since the end of the '90s into 2000, it's a whole other ballgame. That's why there hasn't been that many records from me. But also, I only make records when I have a record; I don't make records because somebody wants me to make a record. [To Jarrett] I used to have that camera.
DJ: Oh yeah? Yeah, it's one of my babies; I love it.
HT: Yeah, I loved that camera. I was crazy about that camera.
HS: Do you feel comfortable about your relationship with Pi?
HT: Yeah. Uh-huh—yeah.
HS: One other thing I wanted to ask you about: You were just talking about Joyce, but about writing, I was looking at the poems inside the 2001 albums—I don't know if [This Brings Us To, Volume 1] is going to have any text in it—
HT: No text.
HS: I really enjoy the writing in [the 2001 albums]; I think it's really fascinating. Is writing poetry something that you do all the time?
HT: No, there's certain times where I've done that to try to help kind of add something, to afford some kind of bridge to the music. Like a parallel world, not a bridge. I take that back. Like a parallel world, that is more like a parallel reflection, but, like, in an opposite way. Maybe in an opposite way, but not exactly in the way that the music is. So it is acting as a bridge, in a way, so it kind of gets you inoculated, so to speak, without having to describe the music, 'cause I think that's the worst thing in the world, to describe anything. I mean, have you ever went to sit down in a movie theater, and the person sits behind you who has seen the movie and starts to tell you every damn thing that's about to happen in the movie? Do you really enjoy that? I mean, some people now, they say, "Well, tell me what it's about?" I don't want to know what it's about. What the fuck do I wanna know what it's about for? If I want you to tell me what it's all about, why do I need to experience it? So that's why the writing on an album, it should never do that. I remember my literature teacher, when I was in high school or something, and we had to go up one at a time, and this one girl went up and said, "Now this poem is gonna be about so and so, and so and so..." [Laughs] and the teacher said, "Now wait, wait, wait. Lemme address the whole class at this time, so that we don't repeat this. I don't want anybody else to come up here and tell us what their poem is gonna be about. Read the poem." That's the whole idea with music and a book or a film or any work of art. I don't want to know about it; I wanna experience it. And I don't want no clues. And I think that the best enjoyment for people to get is for them not to have any clues and to be totally unprepared. Because when you're prepared, then all of your preconditioning and habits start to form a kind of way of thinking and receiving something and then you start to have expectations, and that's what you don't want people to have with art. You don't want people to have expectations, because expectations can stand in the way. You could fail to appreciate something over here that's good, great or whatever. Only reason you can't is you had expectations that this is what was coming. You were looking for a cup and this guy put a glass up on the table. So expectations is the enemy. It's the enemy of art, you know.
In the pop world, everything now is out in the open. There's no privacy; there's no lines between anything. That's why American people don't care if people spy on them. They don't care if the government listens, because there is no divisions between anything. That's why that guy can come in here and talk as loud as he did on the cell phone about, what, your wife's drawers was dirty? I don't really need to hear about your wife's drawers being dirty while I'm in here having coffee and tea. But this is what I'm talking about, where there's no more lines of distinction. And this is really bad. The films come out and the trailers—They got trailers that are as long as the movie. You say, "Well, what did I need to see the movie for?" So to tell you everything about it robs you of being able to appreciate it. So I don't think that the people in the film business really think of these as works of art anymore. Matter of fact, they're not works of art, because nobody can remember what they saw last year, anyway [Laughs].
HS: Well it seems like your work titles and your band names don't really describe the music necessarily but they're really exciting and intriguing and they make you want to know more. Like Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket or Spirit of Nuff...Nuff: It's like this whole strange world of language that's exciting unto itself. You must spend a lot of time on your titles.
HT: Well, sometimes. Sometimes they could come fast; sometimes they come over time. A lot of times I write music, and it's just like children and stuff. I was talking to this lady about how people have got a name for a kid they haven't even seen yet. People, they have the name, "This piece is gonna be so and so, and so and so." Well, how do you know that? Why would you do that? I think I remember my oldest daughter was born, the doctors kept coming out saying, "How come the baby doesn't have a name?" I don't even know the goddamn baby; what you talking about? How I can tell you the baby's name if I don't even know the damn baby? It's stupid. Give me time to find out who this person is and find out what their name is. I'll ask her what is her name and then she'll tell me [Laughs]. And if she doesn't, then maybe I can, like, come up with a name. But art is the same way, for me. I can even start sometimes with an idea: a sentence or a phrase or something that will lead me to start to create something and that will all get morphed, the words will all get morphed into something that would end up being a title. Some of them could've been this long [Indicates length with fingers], and after I start writing, on a concrete, physical level, writing music, then all this gets morphed down into something like this [Indicates much shorter length] from where it started. But my literary language, it's all mixed in with the way I write music. It's all a type of compositional language too. They're related, you know.
HS: Okay, that's not a bad place to stop.
HT: Yeah, you probably have enough material. They gave a preview of the record, right? That's basically good enough; get it from there. I could say whatever I want. Wagner used to talk a lot of shit but it was a whole lot of theoretical stuff that he never attained to, stuff that he wanted to see happen, but, like, he didn't get to that. You have to just down to the music. Talk is one thing, like the coach who says, "Yeah, the team is gonna do so and so." But let's see 'em play [Laughs]. Fuck all of the managers and the coaches: Lemme see 'em play. Lemme see 'em play. Put the opera onstage. Don't tell me all this shit, all these theories that you got. Put the show on; lemme see the production. All that don't mean anything. It's hope and wish—that's all that is. And it could be good hopes and good wishes, but our language is always a long way from anything that we produce, anything that we produce. The people at Cape Canaveral is the same way; they talk a lot of shit. But get down to what do we make and let it function, and then the conversation goes into what we would like to see and our hope and all of this kind of stuff. Scrap all that. Let's get down to the bare fact and the reality and see if it works.
'Cause language is a profuse, verbose, excessive thing in itself, and we're always trying to keep it down. I don't know when you was in school some of the stuff you had to read, but I remember some of the stuff we had to read. I remember when I first had to read Madame Bovary, I said, "Oh my God!" I thought I was gonna die. "The light pink perfume orange blossom smell of the aroma that pervaded the look on her lip"—I said, "Oh, at last, a lip!" [Laughs] "That's what we're talking about, a lip! At last!" All of these adjectives, that what language is. We're always wrestling with language, so it's always profusely more than what the subject