Perfect Sound Forever

Fred Lonberg-Holm

photo by Dr. Borg

interview by Josh Ronsen

The name Fred Lonberg-Holm has always been for me a ubiquitous forewarning of an interesting listen ahead. Maybe the late Tom Cora could come close to equaling the array of diverse musical situations in which to find a cello. From the guttersnipe buzz of God Is My Co-Pilot, to the tender searching of Anthony Coleman's "Selfhaters Orchestra," to the soaring pop of Jim O'Rourke's "Women of the World," to the intense focus of Pillow, to meetings with avant vocalist Jaap Blonk, to the wide range of styles, approaches and directions of Peter Brotzmann's Tentet. It was at an eagerly anticipated April, 2004 visit by the last group to Austin, Texas that allowed me to hear FLH in person. We spoke a few hours before the performance, else there would be a lengthy discussion of the engaging, exciting performances of what turned out to be a Ninetet show due to Mars Williams' absence. It his hard to believe this is the first in-depth interview with Fred, and going back through to edit for typos, I notice how much more could be discussed on every topic we touch upon. I hope to read, and hear, more from him in the future.

ED NOTE: The interview begins with FLH reading issue #4 (fall 1995) of the zine Monk Mink Pink Punk, created by the author of this article.

FLH: Did you interview Anthony [Coleman]?

PSF: Yes. You could not ask for a better interview subject than him.

FLH: I know. I played a lot with him back in the old days. I don't know how thorough your memory of Seflhater details are.

PSF: I didn't know you were involved with Selfhaters [Coleman's group exploring musical concepts of Jewish self-hatred].

FLH: Yeah, if you read the fine print, the credits, I'm on both records and did a bunch of other things with him. I've always had a really good time. I love that guy. He's coming out to Chicago later this month [April, 2004]. He's going to do more of an Anthony Coleman Sephardic Tinge-y trio, and then also [saxophonist] Michael Attias, he and I are going to play some sort of trio. Michael was also in the Selfhater Orchestra. I don't think it will be a Selfhater thing, but we'll play in Chicago and Kalamazoo.

PSF: Play in Austin!

FLH: Yeah, that would be great but the only reason we are going to Kalamazoo is that Michael is in residency there doing work on some theatrical piece. So he can come over to Chicago easily and we can go over with him.

PSF: Do you have material planned out for that yet?

FLH: Not yet.

PSF: Will he will go there the day of the performance and [rehearse]?

FLH: We'll see. I really don't know yet what we'll do. I've done totally free improvised gigs with him and gigs where there have been loose concepts, gigs where there was actual notated stuff. I've written some stuff that he's hacked and I've hacked some stuff he's written.

PSF: And you prefer working that way, always something different?

FLH: That's how I work, so I guess that's how I prefer to work.

PSF: What other things are you working on now?

FLH: Everything and nothing, the usual.

PSF: Anything you're really excited about? Besides tonight [Tentet show]?

FLH: I'm old now [42] so I don't get excited anymore about anything. But I'm excited by everything, or if I'm not interested in it, I don't do it, so... My datebook is upstairs so I can never remember all the ins and outs. Saturday night, I'm either going to play all of the Sarabandes from the Bach cello suites, of if Axel [Dorner, trumpet player] is in the mood, I'm going to play duos with him. You know we have a duo record and a trio record with Michael Zerang. He's in town right now doing some other stuff. He's staying in my house right now. When I get back is at the trail end of his trip, so we will see how he feels. He says he wants to play duets, but originally I was supposed to play Bach. One or the other, and hopefully anybody who gives me shit, I'll give them shit right back. Um... myriad things. A bunch of ad-hoc groups scheduled, they meet up from time to time. I've been doing more jazz-like cello trios, with a bass player, Jason Roebke, and different drummers, although focusing more on Frank Rosaly. And that's like swing and pop, we do some Syd Barrett and Cat Power and then we do some Monk and Ron Carter and Fred Katz...

PSF: Which Barrett?

FLH: The only one we're officially doing is "Arnold Layne."

PSF: That's a great song. I don't know how it works as an instrumental...

FLH: It works great! It's a fantastic cello tune!

PSF: Is it a "lounge" version?

FLH: It's swing cello! I don't know "lounge," but it's swingin'. That band is all about swingin'. I'm into that project. Pillow just recorded and we're ironing out the post production issues. We did a recording of a Brotzman piece, actually. I don't know if you know Pillow...

PSF: Yeah! I forgot you were in Pillow, but that's why I picked up the first Pillow record: Fred is on here.

FLH: We're not sure which versions we want to mix. We're still working that out. That's the other thing, from the outside, it would look like specific projects, but I'm just floating along like I've always done in my life, just going along trying to keep my ears out and trying to do whatever I can or whatever is going on around, working with what's there in the stream. Things are entering, things are leaving, things pop out as a finished thing, but I can't really think of them usually. "This is what I'm doing, man, this is what I'm hyping..." I've never had that temperament, that personality.

PSF: Do you ever look back over a year and say "this was a good year," artistically speaking?

FLH: I always hope next year will be better, no matter how good a year is. For me, artistic output is not a real measurable issue of this is good or this is bad: it is what it is. It's what happened when I continued to exist and continued to get up in the morning saying "today I'll work on music." When the thing is done, I'm not the person to say this is a good project or a bad one, or this year "man, you made some classic records," "your insights into the acoustic phenomenon known as music really got deep..." I don't know... I'm always hoping that next year will be the really great year.

PSF: How did you start playing the cello? You mentioned the Bach pieces: do you have classical training?

FLH: Yeah, I guess I do.

PSF: Did you love it, hate it? Were you forced into it?

FLH: I was too stupid to even know better. My parents: my mom was a brass player and my dad, he wasn't a freak, but he was a record collector enthusiast and an interested party in music. For a non-musician, he was a music fan. But they didn't know much about the rigors of playing music in that kind of way. My mom had a friend who had a cello and he got a Fullbright and he gave her the cello and then she was going to take cello lessons and she never did. But I was obsessed with the cello from the time that she got it, when I was three and every opportunity I had to either put my hands on it or get somebody else to play it, [was] a good day.

PSF: It's a fascinating instrument.

FLH: It's a great instrument. It's much later in the story, but when I was ten I found out through my school that they made small cellos because it was too big for me, so I got a small cello from the school. Inner-city schools [in Wilmington, Delaware] at that point there had a program for kids to take private lessons for fifty cents a week. All of a sudden, there I was, given a cello and given lessons for a sum that my parents wouldn't give me a hassle about. So I got to play and I played and I followed that. At twelve, I got a pickup for the cello and a little amplifier. I was playing jazz, for want of a better word, in the school stage band and in a little creative octet through the local music school, but I was also taking trumpet and piano lessons, and playing in jazz groups.

PSF: Did you have creative ideas back then?

FLH: I don't know. I mean, yeah, no. Doesn't everybody? Especially when they're kids?

PSF: I was bored with exercises; I didn't know what to do with anything...

FLH: Because of my father. He exposed me to prepared piano before I was taking piano lessons, so I was usually getting yelled at by my mom for being inside the piano, taking off the bottom panel - we had an upright - to get inside and bang on it, put thumbtacks on the keys, weave shit through the strings and messing around with the cello the same way. My dad built homemade guitars that were physically inept; they didn't have the frets in right places, didn't have the right gauge strings, they didn't have the right sized boxes. So he'd be frustrated and give them to me. So from the time I was little, I had a lot of totally useless sound-making instruments around, and then I was exposed to the synthesizer and tape recording and sound on sound stuff. So I was doing that simultaneously as taking classical lessons. But I always felt that the only way to have a life in music was to follow all those rules and do all that and so I kept doing it. I ended up in high school going to Julliard pre-college and then the Manhattan School. But as soon as I got away from home, I played in more bands and improvising and rock situations and after a couple of years, it was a waste of time going to music school. So I quit, and I quit cello and just played bass and synthesizer [ED: a Sequential Circuits Pro-1] and did music for theater and stuff like that. And then I went to school to study composition and they were going to put me in the choir and they cut me a deal if I played cello in the contemporary ensemble I could get out of choir. So I got a cello from the school and started playing the cello again. [I realized] I really liked this instrument. So I started playing again. The other thing I realized that unless I was going to have an academic life, the only way to even be a composer in the real world was to be able to participate in music with other people, not being independently wealthy, you know. So the cello was an access into a world that would otherwise have no need for another guy with a composition degree. [laughs]

PSF: When did you meet Morton Feldman [1926-1987]?

FLH: When I went back to Brooklyn College [in 1985]. Bunita Marcus was teaching there and I was lucky to right away, first semester, to have her for orchestration. I knew who Feldman was and I knew some vague bits of music here and there but I couldn't say I was thoroughly steeped in Feldmanism. She obviously was. So I started studying with her and we'd call up Feldman and ask him questions. Or he'd come to town and she's take me to dinner with him and "Oh, let me see what you're doing," or "Oh, I wouldn't do that." He loved to rewrite everybody's music. So then I had a few lessons with him when it was really "lesson" but for the most part it wasn't much more than he was the crazy old guy who lived around the corner and we'd wave as we walked by. He didn't live around the corner, but you know what I mean. He wasn't my official assigned teacher, but he was a teacher of everybody.

PSF: Some things on the Internet suggest he was your Teacher.

FLH: I probably would have never said I was [his] student ever except Barbara Monk [Feldman] told me after he died that he considered me and two other kids his "last" students. OK, then I guess I was studying with him. And I was, I just wasn't assigned... I didn't go to SUNY Buffalo and have Professor Feldman every Tuesday at eleven.

PSF: What did you learn from him?

FLH: Anything... I don't know...

PSF: He's almost a mythical figure.

FLH: I learned everything from Feldman. That's my biggest problem in life is that I learned so much from Morton Feldman everything else is a come down since then. I have to somehow smile and put up with a bunch of idiots who don't know... It's a horrible thing. [laughs]

PSF: But you also have some relation with Anthony Braxton.

FLH: I'm the only person in the world, in history to say he's studied with Anthony Braxton and Morton Feldman.

PSF: I noticed.

FLH: I was supposed to go to grad school and study with Feldman and he was teaching at UCSD and I'd even been out to UCSD to visit with him and have a lesson and go to some of his seminars.

PSF: These were lessons in composition?

FLH: Yeah, private, just classical lessons. "Let me see your piece, kid..."

PSF: "This is what you're doing wrong..."

FLH: Yeah, "you've got a knot in your shoe over here..." That's what he told me one day. So when he died and I wanted to go to grad school and study composition, I went ahead and applied to UCSD anyway, because Steve Takasugi, a pretty dear friend, was there. "Takasugi's there, he's studying with Roger Reynolds and Roger's real nice and I met him and he's interesting and I've been to some of his lectures and maybe I should just go to UCSD anyway." But also, as a backup I had applied to Mills, 'cause I was interested in Anthony's music. And since Feldman was gone, it was down to Braxton and Reynolds and they're both amazing thinkers in their own way. I wasn't interested at that point in whose music am I going to write as in "The School Of..." I was more interested in who's got the craziest way of thinking about construction.

PSF: That'd be Braxton.

FLH: Yeah, he beats Roger Reynolds, but they are both titans. So I go accepted to both schools and I got the same offer from both. UCSD was a little worse because it was a state school and I was out of state... So I just sat down with Reynolds' records and Braxton's records and had a showdown and Braxton won. So I went to Mills and worked with him for a couple of years and I'm glad I had Feldman and the training before I got there because he was definitely much more about concepts than tying your shoes.

PSF: And what brought you to New York?

FLH: I was already living in New York, from the day after high school in 1980 because that is where it was at. So then I stayed there until I went to Mills and as soon as Mills was done, I got back in the van and drove to New York and stayed there until it was either move to Chicago with my wife or stay in New York and not be with her. I had never been to Chicago before we moved there. She was going there either with or without me so I figured I'd give it a shot. I knew a little tiny bit about Chicago but not a lot. I kind of thought that Chicago was going to be like Omaha...

PSF: No!

FLH: I was in Omaha for the first time this winter and it was what I was thinking Chicago was going to be like. There's a creative community, there's interesting people in Omaha, but it is a small town. And in the New York-centric view, Chicago is a little thing out there somewhere.

PSF: Although when I left Chicago in '93, the interesting music scene exploded...

FLH: I was going to say that it really exploded when I got there [in August, 1995]. That's a joke. If you quote that...

PSF: This is not a joke: it exploded the day I left. [ED- Release of first Tortoise 7": 1993, release of first Tortoise LP: 1994, release of Gastr del Sol's Crookt, Crackt, or Fly: 1994, release of first Vandermark Quartet CD: 1993, release of the Coctails' "jazz" LP: 1993]

FLH: Sometime between when you left and I got there... In N.Y., we knew a handful of names. Chicago was better known to me as the home of some really freaky rock and roll and the improvising scene was like Anytown, Ameriaca. Yeah, I'd heard of Liof Munimula.

See part two of the Fred Lonberg-Holm interview

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER