The world of ambient tuba
interview by Malcolm Humes
(July 2005)"..It just kind of started creeping into the music." - Tom Heasley
Ambient Tuba: these are two terms you probably never heard used together before unless you've already heard of Tom Heasley. His music gets labeled as ambient but he comes from a background fusing improvised jazz and contemporary classical music. When you find a tuba player that used to play speed riffs from Allan Holdsworth songbooks and jam with foghorns on the San Francisco Bay, just about anything can happen. Before going solo, he shared stages in live performances with Gunther Hampel, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Eugene Chadbourne, Malcolm Mooney, Don Preston, Pauline Oliveros and Leo Wadada Smith to name a few. Then there's the CD's he appears on with Chadbourne, Mooney, Robert Rich and Alvin Curran. He's gone some places few, if any, tubists have gone before.
Using just his mouth, a tuba and a homemade plastic didjeridu, Tom creates sonic landscapes using system of live looping and layering that's otherworldly and has to be heard to be believed. As far as I know, there hasn't been another tuba player to head off into merging tuba, voice and didjeridu with active electronics and live loops. Everything you hear in his solo work was created in real-time, in one take and with no overdubs aside from the live digital looping and effects processing during the performance of the CD's. Hearing Tom live in concert you experience just what is on the CD's, with everything you hear coming from his mouth, lips and vocal chords.
Tom covers a territory no one appears to have charted that perhaps owes as much to modern composers and minimalists as to the ambient music scene of more recent years. This isn’t surprising, when you consider that he has played with a roll call of eclectic folks, and is also a knowledgeable listener of jazz, fusion and contemporary classical music and a guitar aficionado with an encyclopedic library of guitar gods lurking in his grey cells. He bridges the gaps between composing and improvising, carefully crafting each piece live.
I've known Tom for over 15 years but I moved away just around when he got more active in the San Francisco improv and new music scenes. Next thing I knew Tom was releasing solo CD's and heading off on solo tours of the U.S. on tuba and didjeridu. We’ve never really talked much about his music and I always had some curiosity about where he was coming from and where's he's headed next.
Tom Heasley's third solo CD - Desert Triptych (on FARFIELD Records) - was released in July 2005. It's a departure of sorts for someone who already has gone off into a universe of his own with two previous CD's of solo "Ambient Tuba." He breaks from his past as he leaves his primary instrument for the last 20+ years behind on this one.
This new CD captures Tom during his second solo tour and features didjeridu, voice and electronics (no tuba) in live recordings from NYC in '03. As with the previous two CD's, we find Robert Rich mixing and mastering the recording. Desert Triptych suggests a desert road trip via the CD booklet photos and tracks named after a road sign. And it is a journey, documenting just some facets of Tom's solo tours. We hear a slowly-shifting rich textural landscape with a lot more harmonic color than you might expect could come out of just one guy's mouth in real-time. Since this was recorded Tom has gone on to perform on the BBC and is working on various other projects including a rehearsal workshop of Anne LeBaron's current opera WET.
PSF: So... Ambient Tuba? And solo experimental tuba concert tours of the USA? These seem to be pretty off the wall for people not that familiar with tuba music, and probably even more so to people very familiar with the tuba in its traditional roles. It's about as far from a marching band as you could possibly get.
Funny, yes, I think you're probably right. I've toured three times: 2001 (three months), 2002 (two months) and 2003 (two months). Last year, I couldn't afford to tour, but I went and recorded a session and interview for the BBC in London. My music is making its way into an upcoming documentary over there is a direct result of that trip.
PSF: Ambient music is probably an overused term these days that has lost context or meaning with so much of it out there. I get the impression some people may see the "Ambient Tuba" as a gimmick or think it's something anyone could do.
Same as "Jazz" or "Classical," don't you think? I'm not so concerned with labels. Famous jazz musicians have objected to the word jazz. "A rose by any other name..." I turned to Robert Rich one day in the studio as we listened to something I had just played and asked, "What is this stuff?" "Ambient," he said, mater of factly. When Innova was putting together the artwork for On the Sensations of Tone, I was asked if it was OK for them to put "Ambient Tuba" on the cover. I could care less. I think the proof is in the pudding, and that very few people, having heard the music, would think there was anything gimmicky about it. But to just hear the phrase, I'm sure that many might. I'm sure it has worked both for and against me - when the woman at CBGB's in New York heard the words, she booked me instantly.
As far as it being something that anyone could do, I'm sure that some people may still think that anyone could have painted a Jackson Pollock or a Mark Rothko. Just because art - visual or musical - is not conventionally representational, does not mean it can be created without imagination, technique and, in the case of the above two artists, genius.
I'm not trying to get a gig at the local experimental music series. I'm not concerned about whether I pass the Tuba Bar Exam. I'm not concerned with much of anything besides being a vessel for this music. In so doing, I have been very fortunate in the responses I have received from people for the past four years. People's lives have been deeply touched by these recordings - and the emails attesting to such feelings are some of my most prized possessions.
PSF: I'd imagine you probably have a problem with selling the Ambient Tuba as serious music, especially to the academic new music and improvised jazz circles you've played in?
Actually, I'm not so sure that this is a huge problem. It is mostly a hard sell to people who haven't heard it, or cannot conceive of it. I mean, is my concert schedule commensurate with what I have to offer audiences? Not by a long shot, but it is growing all the time. People are constantly discovering the music and will continue to do so.
The reaction to my recent Meet The Composer concerts in Santa Monica was extremely gratifying - the beginning of an audience of true believers here in Los Angeles. Great things are happening and the music is being heard. I haven't toured in two years, but during that period the music has been heard by more people than ever.
Recording a BBC session/interview last year had a huge impact on my career. I haven't had much occasion to even use that word before ('career'), but it finally applies. I like the fact that recognition and appreciation of the music seems to come from all quarters - not necessarily as much as I'd like from certain quarters, but from a greater diversity of listeners than that which most music aspires to. I'm not so interested in quantity of listeners as I am in quality. There are some great listeners out there!
PSF: I came across some web site listing you as an influence along with Brian Eno and Jon Hassell.
It's a tremendous feeling, to have thrown this stuff out into the ether, and for it to have gotten around enough to be influencing other artists and composers.
PSF: So what led you to go into live looping your Tuba?
For some time, I had this desire to use delays, or loops. I just had a feeling that there was something there I could work with. A particular piece of gear came out in '98 or '99 that was in a price range I could think about - the Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler. The best $250 I ever spent. I had been going to some Phil Keaggy concerts in the late 80's and 90's (he's also from Youngstown, Ohio) - they were always solo shows and he would do quite a bit of beautiful playing with himself using a JamMan. I didn't know how or even if things like that would work with a tuba, but I knew I wanted to enter that realm.
PSF: What tools do you use now?
Well, besides my lovely Mirafone tuba, and some pieces of ABS pipe I fondly refer to as didjeridus, I mostly use reverbs and delays in my processing. I tend to keep it fairly simple, finding a nice sound environment to work with, and not really pushing lots of buttons or making frequent changes for effect. I suspect it's time for a new phase of experimenting...
PSF: It's easy to see a connection from the tuba drone layering to didjeridu drones.
I had gotten a didj in the 80's in L.A.. I never really did much with it then, but there was definitely a kinship to brass wind instruments. For instance, what I use for a 'mouthpiece' is straight off the shelf of the plumbing department of a hardware store. The rim and diameter are almost identical to that of my tuba mouthpiece. I hadn't touched a didj in years until meeting Stuart Dempster. He was playing ABS pipe, so I figured I needn't be ashamed that I didn't own a "real" didjeridu. I still don't.
PSF: When did you start processing and looping?
It all began around the time that I first met Pauline Oliveros and Stuart Dempster. One of their other co-conspirators was the late, magical, Joe Catalano. We performed one day in February 1997 together and he stuck two mics down my bell, each going to a different reverb unit, while he attended to keyboard drones and subtle tweaks to my processing. There was no turning back after that. I had waited for this for a long time...
PSF: I remember years ago you'd tell me about practicing Holdsworth solos and songs from transcriptions in an empty warehouse, which always struck me as a bit off the wall for a tuba player. The transition from that era to playing solo with electronics and looping is an interesting leap from lots of notes and melodies to a much slower mode of playing.
Yeah, I know what you mean. In one sense, I think I just settled into being myself. It's funny sometimes to think of all the hours I logged trying to play scales and patterns on the tuba as fast as humanly possible. Maybe I'll get back to that sometime... Not to downplay his influence or disparage the man, but I used to be particularly interested in Allan. He was my favorite musician for about a ten year period - something many, I am sure, thought odd. He's a rare individual in an art form that punishes true individuality as much as any other business.
PSF: How did you shift from fast to slow, and from performing other people's scores to creating your own works?
What's the saying - "The more things change, the more they stay the same"? While I have gone through many meat-grinders and been around quite a few blocks (musically and otherwise) where I am now has more to do with coming 'full circle.' Rather than seeing my descent into deep ambiences as a contradiction or contrast to, say, playing Allan Holdsworth licks, it actually feels more like finally falling into place my own place - unencumbered by any opinions other than my own as to what music is about for me.
PSF: So what started you down that path to working alone?
Paul Dresher gave me the green light to do a solo show at New Langton Arts in San Francisco back in 1999. I wasn't doing looping yet, but I had a bad microphone and a decent Lexicon effects processor. Feeling on the verge of 'something,' I wasn't quite ready to go it completely on my own for an entire program so I enlisted the aid of local experimenters Garth Powell and Tom Nunn. Most of our playing was jamming, groping, searching, fairly 'idiomatic' free improvisation, Bay-area-style.
There was one piece on the program that I did solo, and that was very minimal and very slow. It almost seemed "not enough" at the time, but I liked it, as did other people, and yet I wasn't completely convinced it was worthy of being called a composition, even though it was the only piece on the program that had been "written." I remember staying in a motel along the ocean a night or two later, and looking out at the sea in the morning - something I love to do, and am endlessly mesmerized and fascinated by - and thinking that the nuances in movement, texture, the subtle undulations and the endless variation of water play within a certain 'sameness' was perhaps what I was looking for in music. At least, it served to justify and clarify to me (in my mind) what I had done with that piece at New Langton. And in retrospect, it would seem to have definitely opened the door a bit to what I do now.
About 8 months later, I was looking at music magazines at Tower Books and noticed a review of the Line 6 DL4. It had one of those typical advertising blurbs saying, in effect, "with this thing, you can go out and make that solo album all by yourself." Fact is, I took to the DL4 in a very personal way and played live with it a few months later for the first time, at a little Indian restaurant in La Jolla. The gig was booked as a duo with a guitarist from L.A.. When he bailed on me, I decided I'd try the looper solo, even though I hadn't really worked out anything with it. I just had been having fun messing around with it a little bit at the house. The performance that night was a successful enough experience that I scheduled a set at the Luggage Store in San Francisco for January 2001. Two months later, I went into Robert Rich's studio and recorded my first CD, Where The Earth Meets The Sky, during two afternoon sessions.
PSF: How consciously are you layering tones and chords in your live looping?
Would it make sense to say that I do so hyper-consciously? It's what I do, and I do it very carefully - once something goes into the loop (at least the way I work) there's no taking it back or erasing it, so I had better be pretty conscious on some level of what I'm adding to the mix at each instant. I have sometimes equated it with keeping one's balance on a surf board.
As for live experimentation, it is true to an extent, but it is also the case that I am referred to by many as a composer these days for good reason.
PSF: Tell me more about overtone singing, what it is and how you use it.
It involves manipulation of the vocal cavity, the embouchure and aperture - the mouth! - in such a way as to bring out the harmonic overtones of pitches. It's harmonic overtones that you're hearing in the high whistling-like sounds you hear in Tuvan throat singing, and it's how the high harmonics are created in Stockhausen's "Stimmung." It was another piece of Stockhausen's that was my introduction to the technique, through a trombonist named Steve Frank, while he was a graduate student at Youngstown - he and his wife taught me both how to throat sing and how to bake some good bread. I don't really remember how or why it worked its way into what I'm doing, but possibly I saw it as an adjunct to the harmonics that are generated simply in the process of processing the instruments electronically. Like my voice in general, it just kind of started creeping into the music.
PSF: Tell me more about your classical background.
Well, that started when I was ten years old in a small town in Ohio called Champion. I was a trumpet player to start with. For eight years I took lessons, played solo trumpet with the various school bands and participated in regional solo and ensemble contests. I had my mind set on playing that instrument for the rest of my life. I was never strictly classical like some kids, though - my first trumpet idol was Herb Alpert, followed by Doc Severinsen. Then, in around 11th grade, the trumpet parts started getting higher, and rather than fixing my problems with playing high notes, I was told I'd "have to" switch to a larger mouthpiece (instrument). This went hand in hand with moving to a new, larger school system, where they already had solo trumpet players in place, a couple of years ahead of me that had no trouble with the high notes. I was the new guy in town, so if I wanted to go to the show, I'd have to bring a tuba.
PSF: Didn't you do some formal symphonic work over the years too?
I joined the Musician's Union in 1973 or 1974, in order to sub for my teacher for some performances of "Madame Butterfly" with the Youngstown Symphony. I doubled on bird whistle! Over the years, I did a lot of that as a freelancer - Santa Barbara Symphony, Burbank Symphony, Napa Valley Symphony, Santa Rosa Symphony and Santa Cruz. Eventually, the Berkeley Symphony called a few times, the Oakland Ballet, Oakland-East Bay Symphony, etc.
PSF: What tuba players were influential on you?
Mostly, other tuba players influenced me to do something other than what they did! My teacher in Youngstown, John Turk, received a Grammy for his solo CD, played a recital at Carnegie Hall, and was one of the finest tuba soloists, ever, period. He just retired from the university. I remember really liking Joe Daley's work with Sam Rivers - the tuba trio albums, back in the 80's, when I was a "young jazz musician" in L.A.. She used different guys, but the tuba parts that Carla Bley wrote for her band were very innovative - and knowledgeable of what the instrument was capable of. I loved a guy named Harvey Philips (the guy who gave us the idea of Tuba Christmas...) who played in the New York Brass Quintet and many other groups as a freelancer. He was a very melodic, lyrical (soulful) player. He retired from Indiana University not too long ago. He probably did more than any single person in the past to proselytize for the tuba with every waking breath and gesture.
PSF: At what point did you find yourself headed away from conventional tuba playing?
While I was still in Youngstown, I'd say - that 70's show. I was always a little out there.
PSF: How did you get from that into improvising?
Some of the contemporary stuff I worked on with my teacher involved some improvisation. I campaigned to get into the very excellent jazz band that was directed by a guy named Tony Leonardi. He was doing a lot of Thad Jones music, a lot of which had either a tuba part or a fifth trombone part which I could play. We had one of the better bands in the country, actually - went to festivals where we would be the requested back-up band for people like Bill Watrous. We won competitions. I would be off looking at architecture or getting stoned when the bus was ready to leave... I also used to hang out and share chemical enhancements with people who liked to noodle around on instruments when the mood struck.
PSF: Were you playing in bands, just screwing around with friends, or performing live as you phased from band stuff into the improvising jams?
Way back in the beginning? Improvisation wasn't something that was really talked about, much less done. I wanted so badly to be able to 'play changes.' I transcribed a Charlie Parker solo, note for note - one of his versions of "Down Home Blues" - and the director of the band was so impressed that he had me play it with the band at a concert. That's about as far as my 'straight-ahead' jazz playing got. I just could never get with the program - the methodology if you will - of practicing certain licks over certain chords. There's got to be a better way to teach jazz. The other, more free improvising, didn't really amount to that much, just screwing around with friends.
PSF: So how did you end up from that to playing with Charlie Haden in California?
I hitchhiked west in 1980, on my way to San Francisco, actually. My last ride picked me up somewhere outside of California, on the way to Cal Arts, where he was going to be a student. I don't remember why I never made it to San Francisco at that time. I decided to check out L.A. I had sold my tuba back in Youngstown and was fairly despondent about music and life in general. About two years later, a new tuba came into my life, as they have, from time to time.
In Los Angeles, I attended a dance performance one night. There were some guys from Vinny Golia's crew improvising with some dancers. I approached them afterward and the bass player, Roberto Miranda, said "Vinny's been looking for a tuba player." Not long after that, I was getting together regularly with Vinny Golia and pianist Wayne Peet at Wayne's house, where we were doing trio improv. After a while, we did a few gigs and I played in a couple of Vinny's larger ensembles, too.
Also, around that time (1982-1983), I was getting together with an L.A. woodwind player who I had met during smoke breaks of a jazz "rehearsal band" that met at L.A. City College. His late wife sang wordlessly. I still have those tapes and they still sound pretty interesting. She gave us a name, Bob Off Shore, after a scene in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Something about the world's population having reached a point where some were relegated to bobbing off shore...
These are the things that gave me the confidence to approach someone like Charlie Haden.
PSF: How did you actually connect with Haden?
In 1983, I was listening to the radio one morning and Charlie Haden was being interviewed about an upcoming gig with a newly formed west coast unit of the Liberation Music Orchestra. Ballad of the Fallen had just been released and was getting good press. He mentioned all the usual suspects, but when he got to the tuba player, I couldn't believe it. The guy had no place in that band, in my opinion. I was the man for the job, and I called the radio station and said as much to Charlie. He probably got a kick out of that. He took my number and said that, if something happened, he'd get in touch.
A day or two later, the tuba player - he's presently the "first call" guy here in L.A. with 300-400 film dates to his name - called me at midnight. It was the night before the scheduled gig. He said that Charlie told him I called and that he had a film date which, of course, he couldn't pass up (I mean, who would, just to play in the only fucking band in town that mattered!). So, I went over to Charlie's little place (he was living in a little one-room pool house on someone's property in Brentwood) the following afternoon. He talked me through the parts and said I didn't have to solo if I didn't want to - "Oh, yeah, I want to..."
PSF: Who else was in Haden's band at that time?
It was incredible. Besides Charlie on bass, there was the late great John Carter on clarinet - that right there would be more than enough, but there was more... Bobby Bradford was playing cornet, Marty Krystall was playing tenor sax, and Milcho Leviev was playing amazing piano and was the music director as well. He's not very well known, but William Jeffrey was playing great drums. Oh yeah, there was a great trombonist named Doug Wintz, who I believe long ago hung up his spurs and found gainful employment in the computer industry. I was sorry to hear this some years later, as he was one of one of the most musical trombonists I've ever heard.
PSF: What did you learn from it?
First, I learned that I could (as I had been told one day by a conductor back in Youngstown) "go anywhere and play with anyone." Second, I learned that I needed meaningful music to play. Gigs and money are fine, to a degree, but if there isn't something artistically substantial, then, then I lose interest real fast. Ken Kesey said it best one time on the David Letterman show. "If it ain't art - fuck it!"
PSF: So you went to New York?
I left L.A. in January 1985 for my long awaited and fantasized-about move to New York City, to what I thought would be an artistic and musical Mecca - heaven, if you will. Good thing they have so many great museums and galleries there. I played a few gigs ranging from orchestral to jazz to avant-garde. I did an interesting performance at an art gallery with composer Charlie Morrow that included Don Cherry - I played conch on that one.
I also did two gigs with the Gunther Hampel band, which included his wife, the singer Jeanne Lee, who passed a few years ago. It was a little bit weird, and I started hearing about my name being on posters for gigs I didn't even know had happened, much less that I had gotten called for. I wasn't really interested in playing with the guy after the second time, but, especially when you're new in town and not an established name (or maybe even if you are) you're supposed to do all the crap you're called for. As soon as you start saying no, you seem to lose your place in line for the good stuff. At least that's one of the dynamics I've always seemed to encounter anywhere I've been.
PSF: I seem to recall your mention of Howard Johnson in New York.
Howard was protective of his turf when I hit New York. So was everyone else in town! But I like Howard. He is one of the few who have made a positive impact on the general public's perception of the tuba through his work with Gravity, Taj Mahal, the Saturday Night Live band, Jack DeJohnette and many others. The Gil Evans Band was playing Monday nights at Sweet Basil in Greenwich Village. It was being led by trumpeter Miles Evans (Gil's son). One night I introduced myself and he invited me to sit in sometime or to come to a rehearsal or something. I told Howard Johnson (it was 'his gig') this and he seemed uncomfortable with the idea. At that point, I was interested in keeping on Howard's good side. Red Callender in L.A. had sent me off with a dinner of black-eyed peas and ham hocks (delicious!) and had spoken to Howard about me. Bobby Bradford had given me some names of people to look up. I thought everything was going to be fine.
Anyway, I never did take Miles Evans up on his invitation, out of deference to Howard, and I've often regretted that decision. When I called Bob Stewart one day, he pointed me in the direction of Dixieland (the D word) and I told him I wasn't really interested in that (and of course, the gigs I was interested in were the more high-profile gigs that he and Howard and Joe Daley shared - like the Gil Evans band, the Carla Bley Band, etc.). He said, "Well, then you won't work, period!" He was pretty much right.
I reached another of the lower points in my life and ended up selling my only horn again, before leaving town and heading back west in 1986, briefly in L.A., then up to the Bay Area in I guess late '86 or '87. While in L.A., Bobby Bradford gave me a horn that had belonged to Red Callender that had been entrusted to Bobby to find a proper home for. I was able to take it to San Francisco with me.
PSF: So you ended up living in San Francisco?
I liked San Francisco, the fog, Cafe Trieste, living in North Beach, playing my horn either on the roof of the hotel I lived in, or playing with the fog horns. I was temping by day in a law firm downtown.
PSF: I loved the foghorns when I first moved there. There was one foggy Sunday when had been sick and sleepless for days and I heard the horns from miles away. I felt mysteriously drawn down to catch the dawn in the fog by the Golden Gate Bridge. I made a recording of the waves lapping with the foghorns and. It was one of the first environmental ambient recordings I did, and with a little reverb added it sounded amazing. I thought maybe I heard the influence of foghorns in the way some of your didjeridu pieces build and drift. Remembering my experience there reminds me of your talking about the ocean as an inspiration.
I used to love playing at Aquatic Park, listening to the foghorns, sometimes playing off of and with them a bit - definitely a connection. A connection that is permanently lost now - I was really disappointed when they went 'electronic' or digital or whatever. The difference is huge. I was reminded recently when taking early morning walks on the beach during some days when they even had the foghorns on out at Venice/Marina del Rey beach... same little, squinchy, electronic sound that is SO far from the richness and depth of the old ones - I'd really like to know where the old ones went and purchase one or two... interesting that you heard that in the didj recordings, hadn't thought of that, but you're right, there is a similarity in sound. The second partial that I get on the didj (playing it like a tuba) is a G# (to the C# fundamental) - I think the foghorns up there were pitched at an 'A' - pretty close timbrally.
PSF: And then you ended up involved with some of the Bay Area improvised music folks?
When one of the guys at the law firm heard I was a musician and had played with Charlie Haden, he said he was in a group that would love to have a tuba - the Clubfoot Orchestra. I worked with them on their first soundtrack - The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - but all they could think to let me do was to double the baritone sax parts. I kept asking for a little piece of a melody now and then, but it never happened, so I lost interest and when they asked me to be an official member, I declined.
The tuba I had was an old-fashioned 'bell-front' recording tuba - like you see in old pictures. I guess they were made that way for projection in the big bands that used them - even symphony orchestras used them a long time ago. I took mine up to a Napa Valley Symphony audition one year - around '90/'91 probably - and even though I was behind a screen, they said, "That's nice, but why are you playing a sousaphone?" They said they would put me on their sub list with the understanding that if I was called I would show up with a symphonic instrument.
About a year later, I was hit by a car while walking across Geary St. (in a crosswalk, on a green light), by a driver who wasn't paying attention. I got enough money from that to buy a used tuba - the one I still play. After that, I brushed up my classical chops and did some freelancing.
PSF: I know you played in a Chinese Funeral Band there. I always found that a funny image.
That was one of the gigs that presented itself to me while living in San Francisco. There were times that I loved it. It consisted of a little brass choir with a couple of drummers. Sometimes, standing still, especially, it was possible to make some nice music. I especially remember times that we'd stand in a narrow street, surrounded by tall buildings - the acoustics would be amazing. Or walking through/underneath an overpass out in Oakland... what a sound. Unfortunately, people (the musicians, that is) weren't really there for the music. I got tired of it and stopped taking the calls.
PSF: Sometime in the 1990's you hooked up with Malcolm Mooney of Can?
I occasionally went to jam sessions with members of Pluto, MX-80, O-Type, etc., over a period of about a year. Malcolm was present at several of those. I would compare Malcolm a bit to Joe Catalano in that he was one of these guys who made sparks fly, just by virtue of his being in the room. All he had to do was "read the phone book" and I'd have more than enough to work with - hard to explain.
Eventually, one night, things clicked in a big way for me and the music of Can. I found my place. It was a very inspired night. I was on my knees, crying through the tuba. Of course, the microphone was plugged into the headphone jack on my tape recorder. The next night we played at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco and sometime later we did a set at Beanbenders. That night, I stayed on stage to play the second set with Leo Wadada Smith. No amplification whatsoever for either set. That night could have been the end of my career! Trying to be heard in those bands without any amplification left my lips pretty lifeless for the better part of a month.
I never got into the studio with Malcolm and that is kind of a shame.
PSF: You played with Eugene Chadbourne sometime around then too?
Well, we played a duet in San Francisco one night. I was one in a long line of people that came on stage briefly to do a little improvised duet with him. Sometime later, I received a call from Eugene from out on the road somewhere. He asked me about playing some gigs of his Insect & Western music, and he also asked me if I could book a duo gig for us anywhere, as he had a Friday night that he was not doing anything. The chamber ensemble gigs went well, and he even took the recording of my solo at Beanbenders and spliced it into an epic performance that he released on Leo. The guy's a genius, and funny as hell.
At some point, I also met some of the improv scene people, pianist Matthew Goodheart, the late Glenn Spearman, Marco Eneidi and others. Glenn was a beautiful cat - a huge loss to music. I remember playing a little solo acoustic improv set at Beanbenders in Berkeley and later in the evening jamming a bit on stage with a gamelan orchestra - that was kind of nice, timbrally speaking. So, I got to know and play with a lot of those folk for awhile.
PSF: And you connected up with the Mills Contemporary Music Center folks too?
In 1996, I had been going to a slightly different kind of rehearsal band, at Mills College in Oakland. Instead of Basie and Bill Holman, we played tunes by Cage, Ashley and others. I was asked by Alvin Curran to play on his faculty showcase concert that recently turned up on a CD of Curran's on Tzadik. That was followed by the Deep Listening Band experience. There was also a visit to Mills College by another very interesting trombonist/composer, James Fulkerson, leader of the Barton Workshop in the Netherlands. He did some beautiful playing with delays that also added fuel to the fire that was burning.
PSF: And you had a heart attack around then in the late 1990's?
Anne LeBaron invited me to come to Pittsburgh to perform with her Phantom Orchestra (a quintet). A woman came to me afterward; introducing herself as a psychotherapist, saying that she was moved to tears by my solo, in which she claimed to have heard a lot of pain and suffering. I also played with Loren Mazzacane Connors in New York at the Knitting Factory during that tour. The trip had been very stressful, and a month after arriving back home, I had a heart attack at the age of 41. That served as a major wake-up call in more ways than one and I'm sure that the experience hastened my development.
PSF: I know we share some interest in Jon Hassell - was he an influence on your music?
I love his music but he wasn't necessarily a big influence, not like Stuart Dempster, for instance, whose In The Great Abbey Of Clement VI was a huge influence on me while I was still back in Youngstown. At the time, I did not even know Hassell's name, other than to notice it in the credits to Terry Riley's In C.
What did influence me was something Jon said to me one day on the phone, about ten years ago or so, one of the wisest things anyone has ever said to me, "Welcome the closed doors - the ones that open will then be that much more specific." Again, an individual, in a world populated with... other things. So, in that way he is a tremendous influence.
Probably, since you asked, I'd have to say that Mark Isham is actually the bigger influence on the sound of my music than Jon Hassell. His soundtrack to Alan Rudolph's Trouble In Mind was a masterpiece. I revisited it not too long ago and remember actually being surprised at the similarity to some of my playing when I've put the tuba in the foreground, all wrapped up in a wash of electronics. Good stuff.
PSF: How about loopers like David Torn and Robert Fripp? Both would seem to be an obvious influence in the field of live looping.
Robert Fripp? A key album for me will always be Eno & Fripp's Evening Star. As for the looping, I think that Fripp's Let The Power Fall definitely was something that attracted me to the idea of playing with loops, not because of the loops, but because it was music that I liked very much done by a single person and using technology that perhaps could be adapted to the tuba.
David Torn wasn't such a big influence necessarily but, of course, he is brilliant. 'Door X' was in my walkman a lot back around 15 years ago, but I wouldn't really call him a strong influence. Not like Ry Cooder, whose soundtrack to Paris, Texas had a profound influence on my life. I already mentioned Phil Keaggy, but let me do it again. In my opinion, Phil Keaggy is one of the most musical beings ever to grace this earth.
In around '83 or '84, I first discovered the beautiful music of Daniel Lentz. I purchased his 10-inch Cold Blue release, After Image from the Tower Classics Annex on Sunset Blvd., where I was working a day gig. He called his use of delays and live-multi-tracking, "cascading echo systems." Really beautiful stuff, now available on CD. I was really in love with that music, and when I had a chance to meet Daniel, it led to me selling off a large chunk of my record collection (I was leaving town) and giving him a down payment on a commission for a solo tuba piece, which is now coming to fruition some 21 years later. Something else in my life that has come full circle. I performed on wine glasses on a piece of his up in San Francisco a couple of years ago.
PSF: How'd you connect with Pauline Oliveros? You sound familiar with her music since way back. Were you exposed also to her ideas about Deep Listening?
Are you sure it's ok to use the term Deep Listening? You know PO has that phrase 'trademarked.' I'm thinking of registering "deep cleaning" and "deep sleep," and a few others... One evening, standing outside the ensemble room at Mills, I was speaking with Stuart Dempster and some freeway traffic noise got both of our attention, and Stuart said, "That's what deep listening is all about."
I came across the eponymously titled Listening Band 1989 release on New Albion (on cassette), back when I was living in a hotel in North Beach. I bought it because it had Stuart Dempster's name on it. I listened to that cassette a lot. Other than that, I had a sense of a vibe about Pauline, but I didn't really know her work. I mean, I listened like everyone else to that 'seminal' Odyssey album that had Steve Reich's "Come Out" on it - I never have liked that album.
I had just done my first concert with the Mills College Contemporary Music Ensemble and the next concert was going to be devoted to Pauline's music. I incorrectly assumed that she would be playing with us! Anyway, she showed up for a rehearsal eventually, and I had made the decision to do the gig, even if she wasn't on board. A Deep Listening Band appearance was scheduled at the college as well - part of the 30th anniversary machinations of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills. Tom Buckner was flown into town, etc., etc. That was my first Ramon Sender Barayon experience - he would later figure in my life in very warm and helpful ways - when he popped out of the belfry in a clown suit and make-up, wielding an accordion - that was a great moment.
I met Pauline at the rehearsal she came to. Just as I asked her when Stuart Dempster would be arriving in town, I heard him play a note down the hallway - I still get goose bumps remembering the moment. They were going to rehearse later that evening. I told her that I would be willing to play any role she might assign me for the upcoming 'big show.' She replied that she would in that case turn me over to Stuart. So, I met the man, and we went into the big hall and played a little bit. He then went to his rehearsal and I followed. At some point, Stuart or Pauline - I don't remember which - motioned to me in a way suggesting that I should get my horn out... I proceeded to have an experience unlike anything I had experienced since a certain night with Charlie Haden, twelve very long years ago.
After it was over, Stuart paid me one of the best compliments that I could ever wish to hear, and Pauline took me to her office, ostensibly to get my contact info - she then proceeded to create one of her Portraits for me, pieces that are generated by the computer based on biographical information such as date and time of birth, etc. Stuart said later, "She doesn't do that for everyone." What a lovely night that was. Things happened fast after that - I was invited to be on the concert and was given (or was supposed to have been given) special distinction in terms of where I was placed, my time on the communal microphone, and so forth. She called me one morning and wanted me to get my bio to the person who was printing the program. I felt like I had arrived, again. Most of the 'extras' on that concert weren't even listed in the program.
When the big dress rehearsal came, it was kind of dry and lots of 'choreography' and tech stuff going on. I was impressed that Pauline had the perspective that allowed her the comment to me at some point, "Kind of a let down?" Well, the concert itself was pretty much a let down as well, but not entirely. I didn't really get my moment. And I drooled over their laptops and processing capabilities and wanted to be able to do the same.
PSF: Ramon Sender was also a critical part of the San Francisco Tape Music Center that spawned early works by Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Terry Riley and Steve Reich to name a few, before it got absorbed into the Mills College CCM. To me he's one of the most intriguing because he went off to start a commune, and then pretty much disappeared from the new music scene.
At a time when I wasn't getting many opportunities in the Bay Area, I walked into Noe Valley Ministry one day to see if I could talk someone into letting me play there. Ramon Sender was working in the office. It turned out that Ramon was the Administrator there. And Ramon invited me to do a night at Noe Valley Ministry. After my first concert there, he invited me back to perform at the inauguration of the Ministry's Labyrinth (painted on the floor of the sanctuary) in 2003. Ramon published a book not long ago and just released a CD too, of some old stuff - I saw a review just the other day. Great guy - completely removed from politics of the new music wars.
PSF: Tell me more about your working with Robert Rich, and how you connected and came to work with him.
It must have been around '95 or so, that a friend in San Francisco - who was not in the habit of doing so - gave me a tape. It was Stalker, by Robert Rich and Lustmord. I was only vaguely aware of Robert at that time.
In early '97, when I had a tape of a performance with Joe Catalano that I thought was pretty good, I sent it around to various people. I used to do a fair bit of that over the years. I got a call from Tom Waits many years ago, because I had sent him some tape or other of my work that I just had to share with the world (mostly other musicians that I liked and thought I might like to work with). So, that was something I did a lot of for years. I thought the tape with Joe was really good - my first real foray into processing the tuba.
Robert was one of the few people (Anne LeBaron was another!) who wrote back and said to keep in touch and so forth. Then, he moved back to the Bay Area and set up a studio in Mountain View. I started taking him things to burn onto CD's - DATS of concerts and so forth. We spoke about possibly collaborating on some things. I traded some tuba playing for studio services at some point. I'm on a couple of his discs as a result.
Then, I started the solo looping gigs. After taking the recording of the January '01 concert to him thinking that it could be a live album, he suggested that I record a studio album instead. Two afternoon recording sessions (and two more to mix) at Soundscape produced the material for Where The Earth Meets The Sky. The first piece from On The Sensations Of Tone - "Prelude" - was from those sessions as well. "Thonis (On The Sensations Of Tone)" was recorded live on-air in Philadelphia directly to DAT. When I got back to California, I took it to Robert to master.
Robert has exceptional ears, exquisite taste and Jedi-like production skills. It was very easy to work at his studio and, more importantly, to get a really great recorded sound. I'm also quite grateful to Robert for having suggested that I send the first CD to Mike Griffin at Hypnos, which resulted in my first album coming out within a matter of months (and 40 years...) I didn't have a clue as to how to release a CD myself.
For the new CD (Desert Triptych), everything was recorded live in New York, but more high end. A 24-bit multi-track recorder was used. So, there were tracks to be mixed in addition to the mastering process, both of which were once again handled by Robert.
PSF: Knowing the depth of your history I think really puts a perspective on your music that is probably hard for some to reach though the packaging and the music.
I think the new package is far and above the nicest one yet. After the first release, someone asked me if the next one would look less new agey. The Earth CD definitely might have reached more people if it had looked differently or been released on a different kind of label - but it did reach many kinds of people, and continues to do so. I thought about this potential to fall into the new age abyss, as I pondered Mike Griffin's offer to release it. I decided that night that the music would rise to the occasion.
PSF: I know the touring was probably far from lucrative given the state of improvised music in all but major cities in the USA and even then it's prone to small audiences. I see even well known musicians I know who are seen as successful at times struggling to make a living from CD sales and touring. I know this has been a labor of love for you, and trying at times. Is working solo, outside of the system, really sustainable? Where do you go from here?
I'd like to put together a way of getting financial support and private commissions through my Web site. I look at Fripp and his membership club thing, Bowie's selling stock, a female jazz composer, Maria Schneider, has a site with buttons set up for people to contribute at various levels... these things are models to some degree of what I'd like to set up.
PSF: You've worked with a wide range of other musicians, particularly improvisers. Are you seeking out new collaborations?
I get asked this a lot. Yes, I still love to collaborate. I did "seek out" David Toop recently, on the recommendation of my new friends at the BBC who made the suggestion when I was in London last year. They thought a re-mix of my stuff might be a good idea and suggested David. David wasn't so keen on the re-mix idea ("too obvious") but responded very strongly to the CD's and has since invited me to contribute something to one of his upcoming projects, possibly for David Sylvian's label.
My friend composer Daniel Lentz is currently writing me a piece which I hope to premiere in New Mexico later this year, then record. His good friend Harold Budd may collaborate with the two of us on a project. I'm involved with a project being assembled by a composer in Belgium who has collaborated with Charlemagne Palestine. Steve Lacy once made a tuba arrangement of a piece of his which I told him I really liked. I'd like to get around to realizing that one of these days.
Recently, tracks from Where The Earth Meets The Sky were licensed to BBC Television to be used in a documentary; I am told the director loves my work and wishes to use my music extensively throughout his film.
I am sure that other directors would also love it and I would love to collaborate with some of them. I'm talking with a film director who recently bought my CD's after hearing me on KPFK radio. He asked whether I'd be willing to be involved in a film score. I'd love to be involved in a Ry Cooder soundtrack.
A dancer here in L.A. recently wrote me and said that she loved my soundscapes and asked if she could choreograph one of them. I had been wondering when or if I would make contact with the dance world. How quickly we forget - I worked live with some dancers in Tampa, Florida a couple of years ago.
I really dug playing the music of Can with Malcolm Mooney a few years back and I would love to make some more music with him. The CD that was released with me on it tells less than zero percent of what really went on; good CD, but it was made prior to when I really found my place in that music.
I still love playing orchestral music when I get the chance. If Michael Tilson Thomas ever records Gershwin's "An American In Paris" again, I'd love to get hired just to play the tuba solo. And I'd love to work with Joni Mitchell, or Seal, or Neil Young/Crazy Horse - and countless others.
The problem of course, is that it's hard for people to imagine a tuba player in these contexts. Just like it would have been hard to imagine my 'ambient' albums before they were made. I know what is possible - or at least am confident that something is possible - and it can be very frustrating to try to communicate or sell the idea to people, so I've pretty much stopped - the people that need to find me, and vice versa, will.
PSF: So the new CD was recorded live a couple of years ago. What are you up to now?
I'm actually in the midst of a very interesting collaboration with harpist/composer Anne LeBaron, who now teaches at Cal Arts. She first heard me play a solo piece of my own at a festival in January 2003 and spoke to me about an opera she was writing - she spoke of having me begin the opera with my music, to set the tone... We didn't really talk about it again until recently, when she got a grant and set up a workshop/fundraising performance. It is evolving into a very interesting collaboration, where I get to improvise (you always get to improvise with Anne!) So, in this opera called WET ("water is the new oil..."), I get to create loops, bring them down and up in appropriate places, switching from acoustic tuba to processed didjeridu, I'm singing a lot - it's turning into a very interesting project for me. The world premiere of the finished opera will be at REDCAT in downtown L.A. in December of this year.
PSF: Do you plan to record another solo CD in Robert Rich's studio if the Desert Triptych CD is well received?
Quite possibly. I gave the world premiere of a new tuba piece last weekend - "Dream of Zatoichi" - which I would like to go into the studio to record. "Dream of Zatoichi" would go nicely on a CD with two pieces I recorded last year in London for the BBC Radio 3 program Mixing It.
PSF: You mentioned interest in exploring the artistshare.net model used by Maria Schneider that allows various levels or participation and behind the scenes interactivity with the audience.
Yes, I just contacted Artist Share about possibly connecting with them - they seem to have a viable business model for musical artists - unfortunately, they charge way too much for their services, at least for me at this stage of the proceedings. I have sometimes thought of the inequities between the remuneration and financial support base of a musical artist as opposed to, say, a painter. A young up-and-coming painter, sculptor, etc., might easily sell a few works in a show that would amount to far more money than I've received in the last four years since my first CD was released. I did three solo tours and now sit here deep in debt because of it.
What I see so far of Artist Share's primary focus is very much in line with my present goals - "offering access to the creative process as a product rather than simply selling an item." I like the idea of fans participating (as with) in the funding of a new release, and of being intimately involved in the process of creation. I feel very close to the people who have written over the past few years expressing their feelings about the music I have put out. For pretty much all of my adult life, I have desired to be an artist - not just another musician. It is far too easy for high-quality musical work to be underpaid, undervalued, taken for granted and the like (not to mention, just plain stolen).
I have quite a few ideas for projects that I would like to realize. Some of them require much more studio time than I can usually afford, and the services of musicians who tend to want to get paid. I'm also speaking with John Zorn about a possible release on Tzadik. I think the response to Desert Triptych is going to be extraordinary, from what I gather already, a week before its official release. In my early efforts at promoting the recording, I am finding people who are fans in places I didn't even know exist. There are people who have been waiting for this. I feel I'm playing the best tuba of my life right now, and I'm still just getting warmed up for the show. There are so many things I'd like to do before I go, you know? Maybe a duo album with Sonny Rollins...
I'm doing more and more interviews and radio appearances all the time. I hope that I'm at a point where various presenters, bookers will start calling for some better gigs and some festivals appearances.
Anne LeBaron's opera has some work in progress performances and premieres in December 2005. See www.wetopera.org for more info. Tom Heasley's third solo CD - Desert Triptych - was released in July 2005 by Farfield Records. His website, www.tomheasley.com, lists upcoming performances and offers sales of Tom's CD's. Thanks to Aaron Ximm for photos
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