Perfect Sound Forever


Interview by Dave Reitzes, Part 2

PSF: You're playing arpeggios that are kind of interlinking.

Yeah, yeah, that one, okay. Yeah, that basically was just a riff and a rhythm that we just worked out in performance. We practiced some variations for that. I would take a certain rhythm and I would introduce certain notes, you know, I would give him a little sequence. I basically said, let's work out some minimalistic variations, keep African music in mind. If it's the same piece I'm thinking of, which I think it is. And we just fooled around with it a lot and came up with different variations in rehearsal. So that's basically improvisation, but with a very specific concept and a little written music.

PSF: Is that the way it usually works out?

No, everything's different. Some things are predominantly scored. Some things are nothing except for a verbal instruction, which could be as little as color or as much as giving him a group of notes and a rhythm and telling him what to do with it. Or sometimes just like chord changes on a piece of paper and a directional idea. Sometimes one part is completely written and everything else is improvised. There's a piece on an upcoming album with Matt Maneri where the piano part is written out totally and I just tell him to improvise over it. Sometimes I come out with a violin line written and I improvise the accompaniment. Some things are totally improvised, some things are totally written. How you go about putting a section together definitely determines the character of it. Depending on the character you're looking at, the methodology is different all the time.

PSF: In terms of the written versus improvisation issue, how would that apply with the Roscoe Mitchell duo album [Matthew Shipp Duo with Roscoe Mitchell, 2-Z (2.13.61/Thirsty Ear)]?

Basically for that album, we spent all day in the studio. I didn't give him any [music] -- his parts were all improvised. I planned a bunch of stuff I was going to do and I knew how he would react, because in rehearsals throughout the years with his group, I was kind of reacting on maybe sections of music he had written -- and of course I came up with his music. And then for this album I further abstracted that. Like, I would come up with parts that were based on parts I had come up with on my own in the context of his music.

PSF: Sort of filtering it through your own sensibilities.

Right, so then I further abstracted it and came up with a bunch of gestural ideas and piano parts based on that, knowing he would react in certain ways because we had kind of covered those areas accidentally in rehearsals or maybe, like, once in a performance and I remembered it. So I came up with something knowing that in a performance of this piece, this accidentally happened once two years ago and he reacted that way. So I scripted a piano part knowing he would probably react similarly. It was actually pretty interesting, because it worked! (Laughs) In that I would do certain things, remembering that just once I had fooled around with this in a rehearsal and he was just fooling around and he did that, and it kind of carried over to the recording date. He didn't know I was doing it. We laid a bunch of stuff out on tape and I would say, for this next section I'm going to do this, and I would play it, or just say something [give him a verbal instruction]. And it pretty much worked out like I thought it would. It was a pretty interesting experiment.

PSF: What do you think -- this is totally out of the blue, except from talking about Roscoe -- what is your opinion of Anthony Braxton?

Opinion? (Laughs) As a person? A musician?

PSF: Well, ah . . . (Laughs) What is your relationship to his music, do you think? Number one, do you listen to his music?

He's never really been a big influence on me. I've always found him a very -- how can I put this? -- an interesting transitional figure between the free jazz of the Sixties and maybe what occurs now. He's definitely a transitional figure that has to be dealt with, because he was the figure at a certain period. To be honest, most of his music that I prefer is his earlier stuff. Like For Alto; I love that album. And I love his first group with Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland, Barry Altschul -- I love that group. I'm not really that close to his music anymore. There's something about him that I'm definitely trying to escape -- just the psychological need for intense documentation. Maybe it's because I'm of a generation where I feel like putting out albums more like rock musicians do, and I'd rather have fifteen or twenty things in my bin over the period of a career that really count than have eighty or ninety albums. I have no psychological need for that. He seems to be someone that wants to document everything he does. I don't subscribe to that view. I understand that, being an Afro-American of his generation, I understand the psychological need for that. But it's just not where I'm at, which is why I'm trying to slow down.

PSF: I ask because when you talk about the convergence of jazz and the classical tradition, certain names come up. I think Cecil Taylor is one that comes up, and Braxton is another. And obviously they're coming from different places. And you also --

Well, I mean, you've got to understand for somebody in my generation trying to make a name for himself in the middle of this music, at a certain point, Braxton becomes a problem. Because a lot of critics that might not want to deal with me, for whatever reason, they harken back to him. I don't mean this in a pejorative sense to him, but for certain people he's sort of a nostalgic figure to hold onto. And for me, trying to really build a name for myself in the middle of this, in a certain way, my whole way of being has to be kind of a reaction against him, for a lot of reasons. There are a lot of reasons for that and it's not meant in any negative sense towards him. That's just the reality I had to deal with.

PSF: Do you feel like his style -- and I don't pretend to understand his style, what goes into his compositions -- but do you feel that his style of composition, number one, his graphic kind of notation and, I guess, number two, this sense of 'we're not going to just play a riff,' you know, 'head-solo-head' -- do you feel that his composition has anything to say to you?

No, I don't feel that there's -- okay, what you said, like, 'riff-head-riff,' and let's just say the composition that goes between 'riff-head-riff,' it's not being done in a thematic way that bebop does it, but it's encompassing whatever. There's a whole maze of going from A to Z in a non-Braxton group within whatever parameters. He alleges that there's all these structural things going on in a lot of his groups. You know, I don't really hear it. I don't mean that's bad either; I'm not saying it's not worth listening to from A to Z for whatever reason you want to listen to it. That doesn't mean his music doesn't have value. I'm saying I think a lot of people have dumped a lot of intellectual baggage on him and it's kind of worked for him, so he's allowed it to happen.

PSF: Do you think it impedes the process to sketch it out? You know, he presents the diagram: "Here's the composition." In a sense it gives the listener something to latch onto, kind of like a schematic of what the composition is.

Well, I don't believe it is, but anyway . . .

PSF: I couldn't swear it is. I don't think there's enough time in the day for me to study it and figure it out. I also don't mean this in a bad way. But do you think doing this, do you think it's pretentious?

Well, no. On one level -- I'm going to use this term -- if you look at black music, there's this archetype of the secret mathematician that existed back in Atlantis and you, as a musician, you're trying to discover this realm of these equations that kind of feed your music. That's an invisible archetype that's always been prevalent in this music, and it's most obvious manifestation is someone like Sun Ra claiming to be from Saturn and talking about the equations or whatever. You know, that archetype has always existed in this music and it's taken many forms. [Braxton is] just taking it in a different direction. A lot of what he had to do he really had to do at a certain time to survive, actually. He had to create kind of a persona and a character about him just to survive. By saying that, I'm not saying he's not sincere in his explorations, trying to figure out in his own artistic life where some realm of mathematics, some realm of aesthetics, some realm of graphics intersect. All I'm saying is I think there's been certain academics that have tried to bring Braxton into a certain thing and I don't know if he really fits there. I mean, I don't know. I don't know where he fits, to be honest. (Laughs)

PSF: David Ware talks about -- I think he uses the term "music of the spheres." He describes this kind of music that he aspires to, and in a way it's not too far from some of what you're saying. I mean, Sun Ra took it to an extreme.

But not in a sound world. He took it to an extreme of how he dressed, the philosophy.

PSF: Right. He made it a theatrical thing and he built songs around it.

And he made it camp so he could talk a certain philosophical thing. You couldn't look at him as being pretentious because it was funny.

PSF: Now, David talks about it and I understand it. To me, it's -- well, I don't know if I'd call it a philosophical way of looking at it, or --

Well, I think with David, what he's talking about -- On Cryptology, there's a piece called "Panoramic," and on that piece he gave us a whole set of riffs and rhythms, and we're free to go from one to another, connecting them, we're all playing at one time. And we're free to pick any part of the page and play these rhythms and these riffs, and then connect it -- you know, you can go from 'Z' to 'F' if you want -- and connect it, and then you're free to repeat one three times if you want to. So he kind of views music, where he's coming from, he has said that he has once heard in the back of his head this continuum, there's like a fourth dimensional idea, where the rhythm and harmony and the melody are all coming from the same place and they're all intersecting. And he's always in search of that fourth dimension, where they're all kind of rising from the same place in connected form and intersected at the same point, so it's kind of like this realm of pure mathematical orations that he's aiming for and his whole music is stretching for that coalistic type of idea. That's a very specific philosophical realm that David is always in search of.

PSF: I was told you're a Bowie fan. Is he someone who's impacted your music?

It's more a philosophical background. First of all, I just like his music. I'm of a generation of somebody who grew up listening to rock 'n' roll. Low really hit me very hard as a kid. I think the whole idea of that movie, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, and the whole idea of somebody from another planet who has this whole mathematical system in his head. That's not even that far from the whole Sun Ra myth. He knew of that archetype. And then the fact that he really views personality as a very malleable type of thing. There's a very well manipulated and aware schizophrenia that he plays with, in the fact that he fashioned his Ziggy Stardust character. When you look at the people he read, just where he comes from, the whole kind of space-age mythology he represents is just something I relate to a lot.

There are certain recording artists who can kind of bracket to me what a certain artist who takes a certain philosophical tack could be. He's an extreme of one sort. He, to me, has really delved into a certain way of manipulating his image as a recording artist and as a performer. Glenn Gould is another one. On another level John Coltrane is, too -- somebody that seemed to have a real utter sense of what the forces are that allow them to define who they were as a recording and performing artist. They understood what it meant to be in the studio, what it meant to be on-stage, as separate but related entities, and they really understood how to manipulate their image to the world. And those are three people who I think really manipulated things to a higher level, that exercised that intelligence. And they really understood the times they lived in. And how to really manipulate those forces, but it was organic, too, within who they were.

PSF: Is there a resistance among a lot of the musicians you play with to acknowledging these kinds of things in rock music?

Well, I don't talk to them about it. I mean -- there's no resistance with anyone of my age group. You take somebody like Matt Maneri, Joe Morris -- because they grew up with it, so their worldview is radically different than William Parker's or David Ware's, who grew up in an earlier generation. In fact, they might have grown up in that era and been kind of freaked out by the Beatles invasion, like an alien -- like the Beatles were aliens. Then there's definitely a difference in their worldview than someone like myself or Matt Maneri or Joe Morris, who grew up in a rock 'n' roll age. All of it is just life to us.

PSF: No, that's the way I feel. People from this generation can -- with work -- learn to appreciate the older music more easily than the older generation can go the other way. We'll probably find the same thing in twenty years ourselves; we'll probably be as unhip as anybody else. Well, not you -- I will be. (Laughs)

I don't know where I'll be.

PSF: Let me throw a name at you: John Cage. Does he have an influence on you?

Um . . . (Laughs) You know, the thing about John Cage I like more than his music is the fact . . . when it comes to music, Morton Feldman I like a lot more. But how could you not like Cage's energy? He's an American original of sorts. And he's funny. You know, what more can you ask from somebody?

PSF: I've been listening to a little bit of Morton Feldman recently. To me, if there are two extremes in music, yours and his have to be about as far apart as you can get.

As far apart as you can get. And in fact in his worldview there's probably a dogmatism of -- I can imagine an utter hatred for the jazz avant-garde. I know of cases of like, Coltrane being played for John Cage and he just wasn't dealing. They're worlds and worlds apart.

PSF: That kind of shocks you, doesn't it?

No, not at all. In retrospect, it doesn't.

PSF: You'd just think -- John Cage, in his approach to music, seems so open-minded.

Yeah, but it's not the case. I think the heavy rhythmic emphasis would probably be too much for him to deal with.

PSF: It reminds me -- I occasionally wonder what someone like Duke could have done with Eric Dolphy in his band, but then you wonder, would Duke have accepted him? You know, it's like asking, what would Duke think of your version of "Take the 'A' Train" (The Multiplication Table, hatArt).

I have no idea, nor do I care, to be honest.

PSF: Yet he screwed around quite a bit with some of his own compositions.

Yeah, but the thing is, people come from a certain generation and a certain whole way of looking at things, and you really do become a prisoner of your own world. What was once -- this is for anything -- what was once an open park becomes a prison, and that's just by the nature of it. At one point in your life you could have been as open as anything, but just the forces you have to deal with day by day in life over a certain period of time, you know -- everybody just gets tired. It's just part of the mechanism of age. I wouldn't expect Cecil Taylor -- I have no idea what he thinks of my music. I know him, but I've never talked to him about what I do. I could imagine that he could possibly hear it and his mind could just turn off because he doesn't want to hear it, because his struggles could have made him tired to anything he would have to deal with that would have to take him out of being who he is for a second to deal with it. I'm not saying that's the case; I'm just saying I can imagine a scenario like that. Especially for somebody like that. Once you have been through a struggle and you get somewhere, then you really are, like, bathing in the warm water of who you are and you just don't want to come out of that nice warm water.

PSF: This reminds me, I was having a discussion on an Internet newsgroup a couple nights ago, and someone had described you and the Ware Quartet as playing "Sixties music," and it's for just this sort of reason that I said, "I don't think they are playing 'Sixties music.'"

No, we're not. To address that question, because that obviously comes up a lot, are we playing 'Sixties music'? I want to say without equivocation that we are not, and I'm going to go as far as to say that the bottom line is, what we're doing in some ways actually is not even related to the 'Sixties music.' (Laughs) For somebody to make that statement you would have to take the individual players in the group -- well, first of all you'd have to take one of my albums or one of David's albums and you have to be able to say that this album sounds like [a particular] album from the Sixties and you're just not going to be able to do that. I mean, our albums don't sound like ESP albums, they don't sound like Cecil Taylor albums, Coltrane albums, Ornette Coleman albums; they just don't. They're light years, lights years -- something different. What that is, I can't exactly put my hand on. All I can say is that if you're going to say 'Sixties music,' you're going to have to find a pianist in the Sixties that sounds like me, and I really think you're going to have a hard time doing that. (Laughs) Anyway, that goes for the Ware albums and my albums.

I would say that the sound world created between the intersection of William's bass and my piano is completely unprecedented in music history. That's a completely original sound world. For somebody to say 'Sixties music,' you're going to have to find me an album in the Sixties where a pianist and a bass player -- and I'm saying this about my albums and David's, because William and I are on [both] -- you're going to have to find an album in the Sixties where a pianist and a bass player delve into the same area and sound like William and I do together. And you're just not going to find that. It's impossible because it doesn't exist. Case ended; that simple. (Laughs) There's something about how the sound between William and myself, how we suck into each other, it creates another dimension in and of itself. The intersection of that creates some type of gestalt that -- I don't know what it is; it's something above the both of us that creates this other dimension. I don't know what it is but it's something different, some kind of science fiction. (Laughs)

One thing is that our pulse moves at a very rapid level through space. I don't think there's any music of the Sixties that contains the pulse in the rapidity and the way we do it, with the strength and the concept, where the events all occur around the pulse and all have integrity in the middle of the pulse, with the control we do. They didn't play with the control, because I don't think they had the safety nets that we do. We know exactly where we're going at every second of the minute and it was all new to them. And that's not to denigrate -- I mean, some of the music created back then is some of the best music ever created. There's certain albums by Ornette, certain albums by Cecil, like Conquistador and Unit Structures, you know -- great albums of that period. But I do think that, if you look at what Coltrane recorded within the idiom of the avant-garde -- I mean, it's really hard to say what is avant-garde in Coltrane. To me, A Love Supreme is completely not avant-garde, but to some people that's the avant-garde. After that album, I think there's a lot of times in the Coltrane Quartet where they just didn't have the safety nets we have, they didn't know exactly what they were going for. And we really do. (Laughs)

And then some people are going to say, "Well, you're saying that it's codified." No, it's not codified, because actually in a certain way what we're dealing with is very fresh. And I don't know how to describe it, exactly what the parameters are, but I do know that there is a real sense that I'm never going to fall over the precipice, in dealing with the unknown that the, quote, "avant-garde," supposedly gives you. I really always know that there's something that's going to be created that's going to maintain the, quote, "compositional integrity," whatever that means, that some music of the Sixties might have lost in the vortex of it all, being really fresh and new. And that's not saying that what we're doing is codified because a lot of it's unknown to us -- what it's going to be, where we're going to go with it; it really is unknown. There's just a real confidence in the execution, both physically and gesturally and conceptually.

See Part 3 of 4 of our Matthew Shipp interview

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