Perfect Sound Forever

Between a Rock and an Experimental Place

Fred Frith

The convergence of rock and avant music since the 1990's
interviews by Jason Gross

Why do think that there seems to be an increasing convergence
between rock and avant-jazz/modern classical recently?

Fred Frith (composer/guitarist/author/teacher)

Partly economics: - the major labels are retrenching totally, and classical and jazz probably combined don't add up to more than 3% of total sales volume. And of that minuscule total the vast majority is from re-issues. So there is a tendency on the part of even established artists in those fields to see what else is going on. Then again, the classical and jazz worlds never reacted to the possibilities of the recording medium in the way that rock did. Jazz is built on the idea of being able to listen back to improvisation, so recording has been crucial to its development, and classical music used recording to try and make idealized performances. But very few have done what rock artists have routinely done for almost 40 years - compose (put together sound worlds) in the studio. They've just been way behind, and they finally woke up. Reich's publicists talk as if he invented the sampler, but we all know better! I think most of the really innovative and interesting music has been in the rock sector for a while, and even when it wasn't it was often recognised by rockers first - look at the Obscure label, for example..... Anyway most of the people I work with and identify with are working in areas that simply don't fit into useful genre definitions. They simply don't obtain any more.

Kenny Goldsmith (writer/author/DJ/archivist)

Years of avant pop artists like Sonic Youth have brought downtown aesthetics to the masses via pop music. Odd tunings are now de riguer for rock bands. So is noise. Then when a band like sonic youth releases Goodbye 20th Century the kids go out and buy it and then get exposed to John Cage and Pauline Oliveros. Lollapolloza fans convert to fans of the avant garde, just like when we were kids we heard The Grateful Dead playing Jimmy Roger's Big Boss Man and then found the original and we knew how much better it really was. Then we never listened to the Grateful Dead again. It's happening all over again, now with the avant-garde. Also Daisy Age hip hop incorporated noise and sampling in ways that referenced the avant garde but added beats to it.

David Grubbs (guitarist/singer/composer)

I think the two main reasons are that (1) reissues, archival releases, and the increased availability of obscure musics via the Web have made these musics more accessible, both materially and, following that, in terms of taste; and (2) the "ivory tower"-ness of contemporary classical music has probably never seemed less appealing to its practitioners. It strikes people as elitist and as belonging to a super-musty, extremely unattractive modernism.

Sasha Frere Jones (writer/musician)

Hip-hop. This kind of avant/rock collaboration started taking off in the early-to-mid '90s, when hip-hop was peaking for the third or fourth time. Sonically and socially, there wasn't dick most rock bands could bring to compete with hip-hop, and the smart ones knew it. So the smart ones looked elsewhere, to genres that would allow them some degree of looseness and energy (free jazz) or sonic possibilities (modern classical, dub). I think the social aspect was fumbled entirely. The trend in 90s avant rock lyrics was towards obscurity, introversion and elliptical suggestion. These are not essential strategies in hip-hop, or most great rock.

Paul Lansky (composer)

I think that the generation of composers between 45 and 60 are different from the older generation in the sense that they were at a very formative age during the 1960's and 70's when rock became something much more than merely 'popular' music. In recent years then, this group, reaching maturity, has been encouraged to dig more deeply into their roots, which resonate with this experience. I'd distinguish between rock, and 'avant-jazz' in this respect, however. Jazz was at a crucial stage during the 50's and probably has a different trajectory of influence. Improvisation of all sorts these days undoubtedly owes a debt to jazz, but I see the rock influeces coming from a different place and manifesting themselves in different ways.

Alan Licht (composer/author/guitarist)

It's a complex question, but basically I think rock musicians have recognized a kinship between the genres, between the energy of rock (specifically punk) and the energy of free jazz, the sound manipulation of psychedelic rock and that of modern electronic classical composition or of minimalism. In a way Jimi Hendrix, for example, was both a rock musician and an electroacoustic composer, with the way he treated his guitar with effect pedals and also in the production of his albums, and Sonic Youth among others have picked up on's a trickle down type of thing. (Of course Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner has a free jazz slant to it too...) I think this kinship has been evident all along but it lapsed after the 60s, and picked up again in the very late 80's and early 90's. Check out the Alan Silva interview in the February 2003 WIRE--he talks about Cecil Taylor sharing a bill with the Yardbirds, and Silva's own all encompassing view of psychedelic music. The Airplane et. al. were into Coltrane, Zappa loved Varese, Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith liked Albert Ayler, Charlie Haden jammed with the Minutemen, John Stevens & John Tchichai played with John & Yoko, Pierre henry & Spooky Tooth, Sun Ra & the MC5, etc. John Cale recognized the similarity between what the Dream Syndicate was doing with just intonation and the Everly Brothers' harmonies; Brian Eno recognized that pop producers in some cases were being just as experimental with the studio as musique concrete composers. The longevity of each of these performers, and of rock itself, has resulted in more detailed histories of their careers and rock's evolution, so these influences have also been better publicized as a result of that.

Josh Madell (Other Music Records owner)

Although on the one hand, this type of convergence has been happening since the 60’s at least (the Pierre Henry/Spooky Tooth collaborations come to mind, or much of Terry Riley’s work of the era), there is little doubt that the minds of many adventurous music fans have been expanding exponentially of late. I think much the root of that may actually be in Electronica, not Rock. As many rock and pop fans began to embrace the often-challenging world of experimental electronic music in the late 90’s, I think it prepared their ears for the worlds of avant-classical and improvised musics. Add to that the rise in interest in largely improvised psychedelia and Krautrock happening simultaneously, and the groundwork had been laid.

Howard Mandel (writer/author)

Rock and avant-jazz and contemporary classical music have had areas of overlap since the late '60s, at least -- largely because the audiences for the three genres are similarly interested in new sounds, adventurous musicianship, fresh ideas and energized playing. In the good ol' days, Zappa was an ardent and vocal fan of both Eric Dolphy and Webern, and Cage, too. Terry Riley's "In C" and "Poppy Nogood" appealed to everybody; psychedelics may have been an important link between the electronic music of Morton Subotnik and the attendees of the Electric Circus . . . the Jefferson Airplane experimented with free improv on After Bathing at Baxters, and the Beatles on Revolution #9, Miles Davis listened to Stockhausen, etc.

Forward-looking musicians are always examining musics beyond what they know and are commonly exposed to. I think that's happening again, or rather still, today. There may be cycles -- as when in the mid '70s art rock and fusion jazz became overloaded with classical mannerisms (I'm thinking Emerson Lake & Palmer, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin at their most overblown), resulting in a stripping back to basics from which emerged "new wave" and punk rock -- Elvis Costello, the Clash -- who rejected larding their musics with big arrangements but still employed other-genre tropes such as reggae beats. Jazz, too, consolidated with a back-to-basics movement given voice by Wynton Marsalis and others of the Art Blakey school. But those musicians, too, have sought inspiration beyond the basics -- Costello recording ever-more theatrically-influenced (Costello = Sondheim?) balladic works, Marsalis doing classically structured Blood on the Fields and All Rise. At the same time, contemporary classical composers now in their mature 60s, 50s, 40s etc (so they actually may get performed!) are children of rock and jazz of the '60s and '70s and subsequent decades: they want an audience, not an ivy-covered existence which has become increasingly unavailable anyway (upsurge of use of adjunct faculty replacing the formerly secure tenure system), so of course they use accessible forms and references. Besides, that's what they like, often as much as they like Mozart, Bach & Beethoven, sometimes even more than they like the drier contemporary academic musics of Elliott Carter, Charles Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, etc. They can already look at "classical" composers such as the minimalists Riley, Reich Lamont Young and Glass, and others such as Robert Ashley, Laurie Anderson, Todd Machover, for examples of "serious" composers who've incorporated "pop" elements. THis is no longer a new idea, though it may be a revitalized one.

Patricia Nicholson (dancer/coreographer/festival organizer, Vision Festival)

I don't know whether there is or not but-- artists in each age need to redefine art for themselves. They take from all that they have been exposed to. Also they value what is rare, what they need to work and stretch to achieve. the artist looks inside themselves and puts it all together or lets it pour out - the artist is a vehicle for their art. Then there is the value this culture puts on fame so artists want to combine with popular music to reach more people. After all "serious" art is very undervalued in this culture. except to a small extent museum art. there is always a greater love for dead art than living art. Then there is also the weird reality of the non-support of "serious black music" so it is not readily available. It is languishing in need of support and seeks it where it can.

The coming together for the rock type artist with avantjazz or classical music may come from a need to challenge and find greater expression and meaning in their work. The avantjazz musician usually seeks rock to find fame or greater audience numbers or to understand something that is inherently valuable in a popular musical trend. the classical musician seeks to be more time relevant with their music so they might look to popular or jazz forms

Dee Pop (drummer, Bush Tetras, organizer, Freestyle Event jazz night at CGBG's)

avant jazz is music we grew up with along side our rock records. at one point in time, avant jazz was lumped in with other counter cultural rock groups by media. so it was cool to like MC5 and Coltranes Love Supreme. I would also say as (some) rock groups get older they find the notion of rock silly and trite. i think they turn to the jazz aesthetic for a sense of "seriousness".

Ben Ratliff (writer, New York Times, author)

I just think that a couple of people came along who started doing things. I think something like this doesn't just happen magically. It's achieved by key people. I think one of those key people was Steven Joerg (Aum Fidelity Records and Homestead Records). Early on, he had this idea, that might not have become realized, that skate kids could be skating to free jazz. That was was his magic ideal. Why not? Anything's possible. He just kind of kept working towards that convergence of audiences, knowing a little bit about both sets of audiences.

To a certain extent, I think it worked. Just the precedent of seeing... Partially, it must have been the way he marked his records. He marketed them in an indie rock way, specifically to indie rock consumers. That was his background. I think that made a huge impact. Then, as a natural extension of that, you started to see bills that would mix genres like Other Dimensions in Music opening for Yo La Tengo. That became a sort of interesting new idea. Then Other Music came along and that kind of... at least in New York. For all I know, this could have been happening much more deeply in other cities like San Francisco. I can imagine that it encouraged the same convergence of different kinds of listeners. Somehow, this music was written about in CMJ and became part of college radio playlists. And it just became a way for free jazz groups to tour a little more, playing college campuses because the message of their music had reached the concert committee folks, where they previously only had put on rock shows.

But I also think that there's a finite audience for all this stuff. I don't really subscribe to the theory that 'when rock stars start performing on bills with Other Dimension in Music, then ODIM is really going to blow up.' I think that there's always going to be a finite number of people who are just really, really into music and challenging themselves. In the 70's, I guess those people were listening to Frank Zappa. The rock orientated people who are just total music heads. In the 80's, maybe they were listening to punk or something. In the 90's, I'm sure they were listening to free jazz.

But it takes a certain committment to really spend time with this music. I don't think it happens easily. So all the crossovers that are happening and the collaborations that are happening are very good for both audiences but I don't think that you're going to see huge numbers transferring from one kind of music to another.

Steve Reich (composer)

I can only speak from my personal experience. I have learned a great deal from jazz, listened with interest to certain rock things at different points in my life and apparently, it's been a two way street. There have been people going back to the Bowie/Eno days up to the DJ's around now who have gotten something out of 'It's Gonna Rain' and 'Come Out' or other pieces. That makes me feel great because some of these people weren't even born in 1965 when I did 'It's Gonna Rain.' And they're not people I knew personally. The whole Reich Remixed project went on with people I never met. It was only when the project was done and they started doing some promotion for it that I met DJ Spooky and Andrea Parker and Coldcut and Howie B and Mantronix and other DJ's on that album. You're writing an article and you want people to read it and show interest in it. I write music and when people who I don't even know and who weren't even born when certain pieces of mine really find something musically interesting in it, that really makes me feel... you know, there's people out there listening and not only just people but musicians in a field (that's) very different than mine. It's just a really really positive piece of reinforcement.

Brian Turner (WFMU-FM music director)

I don't think there has been an increase in the convergence, I think it just has been getting more attention as of late. It definitely has been going on for a long, long while. Many bands and artists, however, aren't easily defined in their recording aesthetic in terms of x+y=z. Take Simply Saucer's Velvets/Sun Ra/Stockhausen morphing, Can's ethno-plunder meets highbrow classical aspirations and pure desire to rock out, Savage Republic, the whole LAFMS scene, etc. etc. All surely had their own identity, but these bands were so far ahead of their time from the get-go that the whole picture was never really digested by large audiences until recently. Using bands like Sonic Youth and Stereolab as conduits to sort of help re-present ideas to a whole new generation, I think this in part might explain a larger scale of the observed convergence of rock and avant-jazz/modern classical zones. I also see the better availability of recordings thanks to labels/distributors like Alga Marghen, Cortical, Forced Exposure etc. as allowing people to explore further out than they previously had access to do, and this in turn really comes back in the new music that is being created.

Other interview subjects:
Pros/cons of convergence
Maintaing the integrity/identity of music styles
the future of rock/avant convergences

Also see the original Between Rock and an Experimental Place essay
and a partial listing of rock/avant collaborations since the 1990's.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER