Perfect Sound Forever

Fred Lonberg-Holm

photo by Angie Evans

interview by Josh Ronsen

PSF: I found on the web that in New York you played in a klezmer band, but it didn't say what the name was.

FLH: There are different interpretations of that. If you really want to say klezmer as known as the man in the street, I did a few gigs with... and I wouldn't say I was in that band, I played some gigs with Frank London. Those were those kind of bands that exist for one night maybe. I played with Frank and then Anthony [Coleman] in the same night in two different clubs and that was at the peak of the debate between the two of them about what is Radical Jewish Music. But klezmer... Peep, my quartet in New York was referred to by people out of town as a klezmer band for some reason. Michael Attias was in that band and a drummer and a brass/accordion player. OK, you have a band with a drummer, a string player, a guy who plays some brass and some accordion, and a guy who plays clarinet and saxophone and uses some odd scales and they live in New York and some of their names are vaguely Jewish, some of them are Jewish...

PSF: Well, that's klezmer!

FLH: Yeah, that's klezmer, right? So then I was in a klezmer band. I was "leader" of a klezmer band.

PSF: But you didn't grow up listening to klezmer.

FLH: No one did! Didn't you read your interview with Anthony?

PSF: That's exactly what he said, that [klezmer] wasn't his folk music.

FLH: Totally not, and that wasn't any of those cats' folk music. They heard it in college.

PSF: That's where I heard it.

FLH: I heard it before college because I'm younger than them. The first band I was ever fired from?, the first band I was ever kicked out of was a stage band that Hankus Netsky was director of. I was eleven. He was really nice but I couldn't hack it, they were all a lot older than me and I just wanted to be in the band. He didn't really kick me out, he let me be the guy who moved the mic around on the stage for the soloist. He's one of the fathers of the klezmer revival. When he started making his klezmer records, I checked them out of course. So I had some vague-ass connection, but... no. There was no particular klezmer focus in my house.

PSF: So Peep was not a klezmer band.

FLH: No.

PSF: I'm not the kind of person who believes everything they read on the Internet.

FLH: Definitely don't. There's a bio out there that says I was a gun runner for the Algerian Resistance.

PSF: Dressed as a nun! You didn't write that?

FLH: No. The bio that it was drawn from was written by a friend who's very interesting, a very funny person [Ahmed El Moitasem], for a record of his. So that got posted somehow and other people started writing bios based on that and started expanding that bio. The only one that is still up is on the Zeek Sheck site. She kind of readapted someone else's adaptation of that.

PSF: How did you meet God Is My Co-Pilot?

FLH: Craig Flanigan jumped me on the street.

PSF: He recognized you from another band?

FLH: Yeah, he somehow recognized me. He kept bothering me on the street, "you gotta play with us." At first he was pitching it as God Is My Co-Pilot could back me up for a gig.

PSF: I haven't heard anything from them in a while.

FLH: They're pretty much history. Craig's got some other weird side projects that he doesn't seem to be pushing too much because I think he's in law school. And Sharon moved to Long Island quite a while ago to work with her mother in some sort of business. They [Craig and Sharon] haven't been working together for several years.

PSF: I actually first heard you on one of their records.

FLH: Some of them are better than others. This one [pointing to mention in Monk Mink Pink Punk #4], Puss02, I thought was a pretty good record.

PSF: That's a great record.

FLH: Some of their records I didn't like that I was on.

PSF: I'm trying to think of the song you're on, "Morton come home" or something.

FLH: "Morton gets the urge."

PSF: Was that about Morton Feldman getting the urge?

FLH: Maybe. Actually, what that is is a bad pun on a Frederic Rzewski' piece "Les Moutons de Panurge." 'Cause the piece is a rip off of that. It's like Cage's Cheap Imitation, cheap composition, it's the same thing where the head is a sequence of pitches: 1, 1 2, 1 2 3, 1 2 3 4, etc.. It only gets up to 6 or 7 [hums]. And then it's out from there. The Rzewski piece gets up into the 30s and has different pitches. "Morton gets the urge" is a bad pun and nothing to do with Morton Feldman. Now it's coming back to me. That's the reason that Craig used to pester me because he was working in a record store where that 7" came in, and I think he bought or stole the only copy that came in the store, but that was somehow my entry into grand society. I made that record when I still lived in California.

PSF: Under what name?

FLH: My name. One side is two solo pieces. The other side is 3 trio pieces. [ED NOTE- Michael Gendreau of Crawling With Tarts plays drums on this. "Morton Gets The Urge" also appears on the In Zenith CD].

PSF: What differences between Chicago and New York do you see, playing [wise]?

FLH: It's been so many years since I've lived in New York I'd be talking about a New York that doesn't exist anymore. And the Chicago I moved to doesn't exist anymore either. Like I said, I'm floating down a stream and I'm just doing what I can, reaching out and grabbing what I can, what I can reach and hold on to for a moment and experience. I've had a lot of luck. I have big webs between my fingers or something.

PSF: Do you like Chicago? Is it home now?

FLH: Yeah. I don't want to move anywhere if that's what you mean. I'm perfectly happy staying there.

PSF: Do you miss New York?

FLH: No.

PSF: Too busy, too crowded?

FLH: I miss the crowd, and I miss the slightly more busy-ness. I never had a problem in New York with being overwhelmed with so much stuff going on 'cause I was too broke and still would be to really be distracted and I've always lived in crappy neighborhoods where nobody would be surreptitiously wandering down the street and ring your doorbell and say "hey man, I was walking by, what are you doing, wanna party?" But on the other hand, it was like a library, anytime you wanted to hear something or see something unusual you could just open the paper and have your choice for the evening. It was never "there's nothing to do tonight." There's rarely nothing to do in Chicago, but it definitely isn't quite the same sheer volume of weird films, and dance and music and theater and art in New York.

But what I don't miss in New York... I used to joke that New York is a finished goods town and I was always more of a production development and basic research kind of guy and so when I went to Chicago, I felt a little more at home 'cause the idea of just making a project to see what it would be like to write some music with some people to play some gigs to develop your ears and your chops. In New York, everything is more goal-oriented driven, people are really putting themselves through hell to "make it" and since I moved there when I was 17 I couldn't say "I'm here to make it." I was just there to live there because it's great. You play gigs that were crappy gigs at a terrible little place and there would be 3 reviewers from Down Beat in the crowd. We don't need them there, they shouldn't be there. It's bad enough in Chicago that critics are around.

PSF: And they're all writing about this great new klezmer band...

FLH: No, they're writing "I saw this crappy band," and they were right, actually. They didn't write anything, they just mentally crossed you off. It's not so much I was worried about it. But really you should be in New York when you've got a thing together and then it's great I think. My friends who have moved to New York later in life when they've got their shit together and they've got an established thing, it's a cool place. On the other hand, when you're in your 20's, eh, it's all right, it's good. I wouldn't trade it for anything. I left reluctantly. The first year I was in Chicago, every time the wife and I would have a little argument I would think "fuck it, I'm moving back to New York." But as time went by, I was able to do what I wanted to do a lot more in Chicago than in New York.

PSF: Are there New York musicians you miss playing with?

FLH: Sure. There's people I wish I played with more. Right now the economics keep it tough. Sure, I could play door gigs any where, any day I want to, but I need to play a few bills, it's not like I'm going to get rich, but I'm not independently wealthy. I can't just live the glamorous life, the gadfly, the international dude. If I could it would be great. I'd play more with people like Anthony. I'd be playing in ABCRio with Anthony once every month if he wasn't busy. And a bunch of people. Michael Attias, I'm looking forward to playing with the two of them in a couple of weeks [April 22, 2004], two of the people I probably most miss from that scene.

PSF: Do you recognize this person? [shows photo of Lightbox Orchestra in action taken by Seth Tisue]

FLH: Sure, that's me. That's not even that long ago. Five years ago? I can name everyone in the picture, that's how recent it was.

PSF: How did you get the idea for the Lightbox Orchestra?

FLH: That's a long story.

PSF: Were you aware of Earle Brown's piece "Light Music?"

FLH: Yeah, yup, and Earle Brown's work in general is definitely an influence. I know about "Light Music" but have never heard it. From what I know, he's interested in different things than I am, but does use lights to direct the ensemble (in much more detail than the light box). I grew into it a little less directly from a particular person as much as... Well, I'll tell you the whole story, if you want to hear it.

PSF: I do.

FLH: When I went to Mills, part of my personal project was to integrate more my interest in composition and structure with my interest in improvisation. There was a lot of that going on in New York in the '80's of course but I was pretty dissatisfied with a lot of it 'cause there was a teleologic track that we'd all be on and sure here someone would improvise, then someone would play a duo, and then the band would come in with "this," and "this" could only be two minutes long, and then a minute of "that." And it always felt that the material would suffer from being looked down that way. A thing that I did get interested in and maybe learned something about from Feldman and it's always kept me going because I haven't felt a satisfaction that I'd like to feel is an understanding of scale. Feldman, all he talked about, well, not all, but a big thing he talked about in [his] last years was scale. If you read any of his essays of heard him speak, I'm not telling you anything new. When you have this fixed track, scale becomes a problem because maybe that improvisation should only be five seconds or maybe it should be ten minutes...

PSF: Depending on how good that improvisation is?

FLH: Yeah, or just what the music is like at that point, where the music is. So much is about scale. There is no such thing as a bad string of notes, there's no such thing as a bad note. There's a bad context, there's no such thing as a bad string of events, there's a bad place to stop that string. So we limit durations and fix material, you start restricting things so that improvisations isn't really improvisation. It's a lazy way of writing a complicated piece.

PSF: Just to fill in space...

FLH: You've left a lot of stuff out that you don't want to sit there and write all the notes out and you don't want to raise $20,000 so the musicians can have the time to learn how to play all these complicated little things. But you aren't really interested in improvisation because improvising in the true sense will derail your plans. So you get guys who can play complicated little things and they do a tasteful job. They know what it is...

PSF: Be "busy" here...

FLH: And they play a good "busy," and they know how to play nice lyrical [things]. You give then three pitches and they know how to work with that, it's great. I started making pieces where I was cueing section to section and more and more I got interested in cueing really small micro-sections and I kept waving my arms around and that's another issue about the Lightbox, we'll get to that in a moment. So I built, I didn't build, what do you call it when you program a computer? You program. I programmed a crude thing that made [numbers] on the screen, it was in BASIC, you hit a key and it would scroll up and have a big number, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. So I could write a piece with eighty units and each unit had a number, and as I advanced the computer that's when we'd advance the next event.

PSF: Each event was scored out?

FLH: Each event could be score out or then it could be "improvise here," but I didn't know in advance how long that improvisation was going to last, I could decide then, this needs to be twelve seconds, this need to be three seconds, or it feels like it, I don't know what anything NEEDS to be... But I was still locked into this track. How can I make it so I can have it more like Earle Brown's work where I can choose what's going to be happening? So I came up with a light cue system where each event has its own colored light and I can tell the group when the blue light comes one play the blue light material. That was nice, not unlike "Light Music," but then I said screw it, screw all this predetermined stuff, I'll just give each guy a light, when their light's on they play, if it's off they don't play. When I hold up a card before I turn their light on with a suggestion about a parameter or state of mind, they would observe that or they would think about it in their own way. I'm interested in how people interpret language.

PSF: Like?

FLH: Like "SLAM," the word slam. The other day I had the word Slam on a card and one of the guy's in the Tentet, 'cause we've done a couple of Lightboxes on this trip, and started playing blooby-blooby-blooby [ED NOTE- rough translation of percussion noises], I'm giving away who it is maybe, anyway, it was a whole lot of slams. "That's not a slam." "Yes it is." OK, it is. I've broken one of the fundamental rules of the Lightbox, which is I don't tell people how to interpret what I write up there. OK, for you a slam is different, so when a car slams into you it means they keep pushing you all the way down the street. That's not what I would have thought, but... The Lightbox grew out of a desire to get more flexible with material but it came from a compositional point of view rather than how do I take improvisation and draw it down to something I can control as much as I how I take composition and maintain control over shape, a structure, a relationship, and at the same time leave as many parameters as possible open. And some people who have been successful and interesting in different ways are Brown, Zorn and Butch Morris. Butch's solution is probably closest, and then also there is somebody, a much closer version to what Butch does, Walter Thompson.

PSF: Sound Painting. He did something here a few years ago on a bridge with fifty women in white dresses...

FLH: The spectacle is always a good thing... Those guys, I like what they're doing, but they're much more interested in the physical gesture and the transfer of gesture into a sound and the relationship of gesture to music. But I'm not such a gestural guy and I'm not so interested in that kind of thing. And the thing with Zorn's pieces, game pieces, I'm not talking about all pieces, I don't know all of his pieces, but especially "Cobra," which is the best known, but a also a bunch of the other ones, a lot more responsibility is in the hands of the players, which is great also, but it is a different state. In the Lightbox, I'm the dictator and I decide what is going on in a much stronger way.

PSF: No one is saying "give me a red light."

FLH: And we eliminate the part that I really hate about Zorn, about "Cobra" and some of the other pieces, is that it brings back so many memories, bad memories, of Junior High [School], and you get a bunch of people on stage and they're waving and the testosterone starts to go up and it doesn't have to be that way- there's performances of "Cobra" that have been super cool and everybody is thinking compositionally and trying to make a move that makes sense. But I've been in more than 20 Cobras on two coasts and I've never seen it happen.

PSF: I have some friends in Austin who are doing Cobra with weekly rehearsals. I haven't heard them yet.

FLH: It's about the energy, it's about the guerilla systems, it's about sniping, it's about forcing your agenda, getting your way across. It really has a lot of possibilities for making people look stupid. I've been there, I've even helped make people look stupid, and I've been made to look stupid, but some of the most memorable ones in my case have been when other people have been left to hang. That's good, that's great.

PSF: Like where you cue them to do something and don't stop them?

FLH: Yeah, or you stop them. They cue something and then somebody else cuts them, puts up Palm 1 to stop. This happened once, two guys were going to do something, man, and they were guitar and drums [hums rock music]. So, it's the intro and thre guys are thinking "this is going to be a rocking version," and then someone holds up Palm 1 and these guys weren't good enough to know how to override quickly and no one else overrode it and the black card came up and went down and the piece was over and these dorks had been played.

PSF: Do you take it personally?

FLH: Well, it didn't happen to me, if it had I may have taken it personally, "these guys hate me..." It's a problem with me in these pieces as a performer, the cello is a two-handed instrument, it's hard to make a signal and play at the same time. You can't do anything.

PSF: You need foot cues...

FLH: Yeah, Nose 1 with your toe. I'm not so limber. But "Cobra" is fantastic, it's resulted in excellent interactions with humans. I don't want to put it down, but that's not what I'm doing, like what I'm doing isn't what other people are doing, but everyone is still allowed in the Bush era to do what they want to do.

PSF: For the next couple of months at least. Similarly, you're on that record of Cardew's Treatise. The Austin New Music Co-Op performed it a couple of years ago. How did you approach it?

FLH: Like a Zeek Sheck gig. I don't know if you know her, it's half a joke. She's very interesting, but the music wouldn't give you any idea what I'm talking about. She, of the people I've worked with, lives in the most extreme fantasy land personal construct. It's not even a thing like some of my other friends who come up with amazing, crazy stuff and they live it out or whatever. She's not consciously contriving a fantasy world and then trying to act it out and then every now and then slipping out of it- she's just in it. Anyway, for her, everything is an opportunity, everything has a life, these things would all be people [points to table, umbrella, objects on table] and this person hates these people, and this person is trying to oppress these people, but these people, they are the freedom fighters, they live in a special land at night when we go to sleep and then they walk home to their place and they eat the aphids. She's a lunatic...

PSF: Can that be printed?

FLH: Yeah, but only if you say I love her. She's a lunatic and I love her. The point is, at first I was really trying to be an academic or trying to find some unifying principle for [Treatise], and we'd have long conversations with the group [conductor Art Lange, Jim O'Rourke, Guillermo Gregorio, Jim Baker and Carrie Biolo] and I would get more and more frustrated by how literal some of my interpretations were and at the same time how totally preposterous some people's interpretations were. How the hell do you look at that and play that? Jim Baker, I love Jim Baker, I'll say that right away, but Jim Baker would see a thin single line across the page and he hold the sustain pedal and play really huge clusters of whole tone scales in the low register of the piano and I'm "OK, I'm loosing my mind here." I lost my mind and then I just played the piece as if whatever the page said to me is what it said to me so I can't tell you now what it said, but the page was full of life and activity and strange scenarios and things. A thin line might actually be a [geometric] plane from the edge of the plane, and you can't see what's on the plane, but on the plane, it's rich with life and activity and craziness and I'm looking at it from the edge but I'm not really because I know what's going on top. If you could look at the page from the top, you'd see all this... whatever. You'd see some crazy shit or you'd feel that's really cold and sterile.

PSF: I think the record is very beautiful.

FLH: I'm happy with it. I like disk two better. That's what I've told its harshest critic yet, or its most respected critic, a person who's known the work for as long as I've been alive, as long as it's been written, a member of AMM, I won't say which one, told me he didn't like the record, and I said I like disk two better, and he said "Yeah, when I got to disk two I liked it better, but I thought I was beaten into submission." And when I saw him a year later- I think he told me he listened to it again and disk two was better. He didn't like disk one.

PSF: Was it Keith [Rowe]?

FLH: I don't want to say... but I like both disks, but I think disk two is where the grove gets on and the party starts going.

PSF: I played laptop on that piece, but I don't think I would have done it had I not heard the beauty of [your] version. It's almost an excuse for people to... wig off.

FLH: Nobody was doing that, I'll say that, that's why I didn't quit. Nobody was just fucking around, but I don't think we ever came up with a group rule. We read... did you read the long essay [Cardew] wrote? Terrible suggestions of interpretations...

PSF: I think I did.

FLH: Like if somebody ever follows all these rules and writes out a full trombone ensemble version of it...

PSF: My impression is that Cardew wanted you to translate the visuals onto the staff on each page...

FLH: That's not always there and the staff starts to warp a little bit.

PSF: To me, it looked like he wanted you translate it into traditional notation.

FLH: Yeah, and then you see what kind of transcriptions he was doing and if that's what he wants, I wouldn't want to be involved with that. If you play those at the piano and hear what it is, god, that's awful. What we did, we had a good time. I'm happy about it, and there's another one coming out. It's not Treatise, it's other Cardew pieces, maybe we did a few pages of Treatise.

PSF: With whom?

FLH: Carrie's still on it, Guillermo's on it. Jeff Parker? Also Amy Williams, Jan Williams' daughter, she's a composition teacher at Northwestern. She's on some of the cuts. I don't remember exactly who [ED NOTE: Jim Baker, Jeb Bishop, Michael Cameron, Lou Mallozi, Jen Paulson, and Warren Po are all on the CD] Hat Art has been really slow these days.

PSF: I'm excited by that. Not that it's Cardew, but that you've been doing things.

FLH: We're always doing stuff. Guillermo's got a new record coming out, which is on Hat Art also, which is a similar ensemble, different music obviously.

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