photo by Andrew Gill
April 20th, 2012
We’re here with James Falzone. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.
Very exciting. I’m going to go through your bio and your education. You have a Bachelor of Music in Clarinet Performance from Northern Illinois, a Master of Music in Contemporary Improvisation from The New England Conservatory; you’re currently a professor at Columbia College in the First Year Seminar Program; for chamber and orchestral works, your compositions have been performed nationally and internationally by chamber and chorale ensembles, orchestras and soloists. In 2006 you wrote a composition, and how do you pronounce this?
Beri’ah, which has been performed in Moscow, Latvia, the Kennedy Center and was premiered at the University of Denver. You’re the composer and librettist for a children’s opera called The Song of Roland. Your most recent orchestral composition who, if not ? is a mediation on the environment. When was that performed?
That premiered in 2010, and hoping for another performance soon.
Cool. You are a composer and arranger and performer with several acts in Chicago; Allos Musica, KLANG, Vox Arcana, The Flathead Collective, Le Bon Vent, Keefe Jackson’s Project Project, and you’ve released 13 albums with these outfits on your own label that you have called Allos Documents.
I should just correct one thing there-
Not all those records are on my own label. Seven are on my label and others are other people’s projects, on other labels like Delmark and Clean Feed and what not.
Gotcha. Ok. And then you’ve been the musical director at Grace Chicago Church since 2002, focusing on liturgical music. I know there are many other things; there’s been a lot of lecturing you’ve done, teaching, master classes, various things. Did I leave anything significant out?
No. It makes me tired hearing it. (Laughs). That all sounds like a pretty good indication of what I’ve been up to these past ten years or so.
On May 10th of this year, I’m excited because there is a show where you’re going to be playing a composition you wrote called Sighs Too Deep for Words, which was recorded a year ago at the Experimental Sound Studio, and is basically a 55 minute improvisational solo clarinet piece. You’re going to be playing that at the Comfort Station in Logan Square. I wanted to start there and get into the making of that piece and what goes behind it. I had a chance to watch the DVD, which is going to be available at the May 10th show, and basically, the concept is that there’s three chairs, three different musical personalities. Just to start off, what do those personalities represent?
Well, they’ll change every time. It’s totally an improvisation so it’s not like I have a specific way I’m going to play each time. It really is left up to the moment. But the three different personalities were a way of dealing with the problems of doing a solo improvisation. You know somebody, a cellist that I respect a great deal in town here, Fred Lonberg-Holm, who’s a colleague of mine and an incredible musician - he once said, I don’t know how serious he was about it, but he once said that he questioned whether it was possible to do a solo improvisation because improvisation deals with dialogue and interaction. He might not totally stand by those words, cause I’ve heard him do solo improvisations and brilliant ones, but he said it and it got me thinking that I think there’s something about it that he’s right. So that when you’re hearing the solo improvisation, part of what’s so fascinating about it is the conversation now between the person and themselves, you know, like their subconscious and their conscious talking to themselves. So I thought it would be interesting to take that a step further, and get a little schizophrenic and actually divide my personality and sort of inhabit some specific spaces.
So the 3 chairs, on the DVD, that it wound up being that particular night; one was this very controlled, centered, introspective feeling, right in the center.
Yeah, Chair #1, striking this Tibetan ritual bell and just coming back to like a stasis, a real center of gravity. The one on my immediate left (so the viewer’s right) is meant to be at the edge of my technique, playing so fast that I don’t even really know if I can control it. I also did a couple of things in that one where I put a mute in the clarinet which makes the acoustic nature of the instrument to where I can’t depend on it any longer. So I might put my fingers down on a note that I’ve been playing since I was 10 years old, and it might not be that note because the mute actually elongates the instrument, and it changes the acoustical properties. So it’s kind of messing with my head, you know? I’m trying to play really fast and furious but I’m putting my fingers down and I’m not getting what I think I’m supposed to get. It’s intentionally making me have to re-navigate what I’m doing as an improviser.
Then the other one, the far right one, is intended to also be at an extreme, but an extreme of volume and intensity. And I’m very high up in the instrument so I’m taking the instrument even higher than it’s necessarily scored for. I’m using harmonics and multiphonics to get upper partials of the sound. It’s pretty intense. I mean there are people in the audience who were putting their fingers in their ears. If it’s a small space, probably at Comfort Station, I’ll get the room ringing because the clarinet is capable of that. So those are the three spaces I’ve been inhabiting recently with this piece, but it is truly improvised. Though I have a kind of plan, a blueprint in my mind, it may end up being different kinds of voices that come out in those places. The general concept is trying to set up a way for me to have a conversation with myself as an improviser and to mess with myself, intentionally put myself into a situation where I don’t really know what’s going to happen. Which when you’re by yourself, as an improviser, you can usually guarantee that. I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to put my fingers down and it’s gonna sound like this, right? When you’re improvising with somebody else, you don’t know what they’re going to do, so there’s that element of surprise. I was making that element of surprise intentional.
Within myself. So I really don’t know fully what’s going to happen.
So, as a listener, something I got out of that, I don’t know how far off this is, but I felt like the first chair, the more meditative, controlled sounds, felt to me like the conscious part of your brain. Kind of what you present as an external human being, to people. I felt like as you got deeper into the chairs, chair #2 and chair #3, it was more subconscious, almost like layers; 3 being the deeper layer and 2 being the sporadic - what I’m thinking in my brain while I’m speaking to you, the things that are moving around.
That’s a good read. The center and centered voice in the middle is me trying to control things. The one on my right, when I’m at the top of the instrument and ringing bells while I’m playing and stuff, that’s kind of like splitting open my psyche and just letting it come out. I think I remember I had to stop, I was so exhausted in the moment. I didn’t really know what to do next. I had kind of just spent everything and I went back to the centered spot and re-gathered myself and tried a few more things. And it may seem like, “why would anybody want to watch that?” I almost feel that way too. It almost feels a little egotistical to do this but I believe in the beauty and the power of improvised music. And I think there’s something really special about being along on that ride.
So is it 100% improvised, that piece?
Well, I’m somebody who doesn’t think anything is 100% improvised. So the answer is, yes, but the answer’s also, no, at the same time. Even the great improvisers, John Coltrane or Charlie Parker or even somebody like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, somebody whose improvising in a very deep way, there’s always patterns and things that they’re falling back on and, in this piece, there’s certainly a kind of plan, a blueprint. It’s not going to sound the same, every time I do it.
So then what informs the differences when your improvising, from performance to performance?
Well, that’s a great question. It’ll be partly what I’m dealing with at the time, as a musician. So any improviser is sort of channeling what they’re working on, what’s in their mind, what’s in their DNA, what’s running through their brain. A lot of it will be the space. I’m playing the space. I’ve done it in a beautiful concert hall where I play a note and the sound reverberates for 10 seconds and that’ll make me play in a certain way. In that kind of a space, the very fast, fluid kinds of playing, you won’t hear that as much. I’ll go more with the longer tones. If it’s a real tight space, which Comfort Station is fairly tight, I’ll probably deal more with very small sounds, small gestures. And sometimes when you deal for a long time with small gestures, they become really big, right? When it’s that kind of an intimate environment, I’ll probably stick to the small gestures and see how they can really build upon each other.
Something else that I’m dealing with, with this piece, is intentionally long time. I try to make it 40 minutes or more. And that’s hard for me and I know it’s hard for the audience. I don’t expect everybody to stick along with me the whole time, but I’m really trying to indulge that in a way that one of my heroes, Olivier Messiaen was really interested in too - where you know this is going to take a while and there’ll be some moments that might not work but there’ll be some other moments that will, and let’s do it together, you know?
Are there any spiritual concepts behind this piece?
Yeah, absolutely. You know I am a person of faith and I haven’t ever really incorporated that into a, how can I say, a very centered way into any of my music (I mean outside of liturgical music). But in terms of my art music, other projects, it’s not like I’m trying to make “Christian Jazz.” That’s not my interest at all. I am interested in how music can, especially improvised music, act as a metaphor for spiritual life, which I think there’s a lot of connections there that I’m only now sort of really understanding. This piece really is intended to act as a kind of prayer. And so the title comes out of these great words of St. Paul, when he says the Spirit kind of interprets the sighs that we make, that are too deep for words, when we cannot say anything to God that is at all meaningful, whether because out of deep sadness, or frustration, or doubt, but that these just [makes a deep sigh noise] that these kinds of things that-
That they’re interpreted, that they’re brought to God somehow, in some mystical, magical way. And I thought, “man, that’s like my life” - in terms of being full of a lot of doubt and a lot of questioning. Like the name of a great Jim Baker record, More Questions Than Answers. To me, that’s always been a very comforting passage from the New Testament. That I could trust that these utterances are not as eloquent as people of perhaps deeper faith can muster, that I find these utterances are still worthy, worthy prayers that reach God. To me, my utterances, my sighs, come out through the clarinet, come out through music. And so to me, it’s a place where music kind of stops and prayer begins. And improvised music to me is really at the heart of that.
Why is that?
Well I think you’re seeing somebody at their most vulnerable. You know, you’re seeing somebody like when somebody’s expressing their faith - whatever faith tradition they come out of, whether it’s meditation or whether it’s prayer or whether it’s … the other day I was on the train and this man was praying the rosary. I just thought “wow, I don’t know why he chose to do it on the El but there’s something very profound about just watching him.” And the way I was facing I couldn’t really take my eyes off of him, and I just thought, “he’s in his own little world, yet he’s in ‘the world’, in his own small world.” When you see a Muslim bow to pray five times a day, facing east, I mean those to me are very vulnerable, intimate things and I think an improvised moment is a very vulnerable and intimate moment as well. I think of improvised music as very spiritual, whether the person is or isn’t, you know? I think that you’re at the kind of base of human expression when you’re hearing somebody improvise. When I go to the Hideout and hear Ken Vandermark play solo, I think I’m hearing somebody express that mysterious side of the human experience that to me is very spiritual. Ken wouldn’t call it that, I don’t think, but yet even people who I tour with, who might disagree with me in terms of those words, we all know that we’re doing something that’s deep. And you can feel that.
Do you think other genres of music, because jazz is heavily improvised music, do you think other genres don’t have that level of depth because they lack that component?
Well I think they’re certainly deep. It’s deep. I mean to me any kind of artistic, aesthetic expression is a deep thing and a spiritual thing. But I would argue that somebody playing a Bach Cello Suite - which to me is a high watermark in music, the Bach Cello Suites - somebody playing those suites, to me, still isn’t tapping into that spiritual side quite as much as maybe a blues guitarist.
WM: I could see that maybe because as a performer you’re playing somebody else’s stuff and when you’re improvising you’re bringing your own voice.
JF: And there are so many things happening when you’re improvising, you’re seeing the brain work at such a high level. Even a bad improviser, even if it sucks, it’s still really complicated what’s happening inside the improviser when they’re trying to make it come together. Somebody performing the Bach Cello Suites - what I’m moved by there is Bach, not the performer. Even hearing Yo-Yo Ma, or somebody, you know, really dig into it and play it beautifully - I mean I might love their playing but I’m still moved by what Bach wrote, not necessarily by the performance. Now that’s just me. Somebody else might disagree. That’s the composer in me recognizing what’s happening in those suites. When I’m hearing an improviser, I’m being moved by the person because they are spontaneously composing. The composition is happening right there before me in the performance, through the performance. And rock certainly has that. I think it gets clouded with other things, maybe sometimes a little over rehearsing and what not, but it’s certainly there, and in the blues. I’ve also been a big student of different world music traditions. I mean Indian music is probably the epitome of that. Arabic maqam music is also high up there.
Ok. As a writer, I want to get into how you approach writing. What do you feel are the cornerstones, or the most important principles you keep in mind when you’re composing, regardless of what the piece is? Are there principles that you take with you, no matter what you’re writing?
That’s a lovely question. I might have to ponder that for a few seconds before I answer because that’s a good one. You know it’s funny that you say this because I’ll have a hard time describing this, but very often in stuff that I’m writing, or creating as an improviser, or even with a record, I’m always thinking about form. Form. For instance, I just did it with this new KLANG record that’s coming out. This is a jazz record. There’s no story that’s involved, it’s just a straight up jazz record. But I purposely started and stopped with the same tune, two takes of the same tune, and I called one Prelude and one Postlude. And I didn’t even recognize that I did it again. If you look at my records they almost all have something like that, a piece that keeps coming back. And they’re often called Prelude, Interlude, Postlude, and I don’t even recognize that I keep doing it. I’m looking for a kind of arc.
A thread. And I am sort of traditional in that way. Maybe I could stand to take a lesson from some of my heroes like Morton Feldman who was more of a linear composer, where it wasn’t this grand arc going on, it was just this sound that then just stopped. And the next piece just picked up sound again. And Cage, John Cage is very similar to that. And I love that music, but every time I pick up the pen, metaphorically speaking, or make music, I’m often doing one of these circle things. So that, I suppose, is one. The other thing is a real attention to, what I’ll call … honesty to myself.
I can hear that in your stuff, for sure.
… even if I know nobody will like this but that’s what I’m liking right now. And that troubles me sometimes because I know there are things that I can do, I’m trained to do, that might make it a little bit more accessible but it doesn’t feel terribly honest. And we should talk about that in relationship to my church job. But going back to my own compositions, I would say form and honesty. And maybe one more technical thing: modality. I really have become a modal composer, which also goes back to Messiaen. And I’ve really come to embrace that. I’m not really an atonal composer.
That’s so good to hear. Because it seems like it’s looked down upon to be a tonal composer.
Yeah. But I’m careful not to use the term tonal.
Because modal to me allows me to set up my own modes, my own sound world that might be a little crunchy. It might be a little hinting towards atonality. It’s not major-minor scales. I love the church modes. Let me hang out with the Lydian mode for a day, and I’m a happy guy.
Is Dorian a church mode?
Dorian was a church mode. Absolutely. I’m also really interested in modes from all around the world, so maqam modes and raga, are very interesting to me. I’ve done some study with that. Creating my own modes as well, my own little sound worlds, even if they have elements of dissonance and atonality and so forth. So I would say, this is a great question, as I’m saying it I’m realizing how true it is: form, honesty and modality. That’s a nice name for a record, right there (laughs), or a book or something.
(Laughs). I like those principles though. I can hear those in your work. When you’re in the midst of the writing process, is there a particular struggle that you’ve had to contend with over the years? Something you come across each time you’re writing that you have to work through? Some people are really self-critical - that’s an example of one - and that can break down the creative process for them.
Well that’s certainly there. I mean, I am self-critical and in the last couple of years I’ve had some pretty large pieces to work on, like a big orchestral commission. There always comes a time, and I could be really far into it and I just think, “Oh my god, this sucks. I’m … in trouble.” (Laughs). I almost just used a really bad word right there. But you know I mean, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. This is really bad.”
And how do you work through that?
You just have to back off and I mean, here it goes back to faith. When I’m full of doubt I just have to remind myself of the reasons why this made sense to me over the years. So when I’m doubting a piece that I’m working on, or even a record, mixing a record and you’re listening to it and you’re like, “Oh my god, this is awful. Why did I think this was good? What am I doing? I’m spending all this money!” Or you send it off to the critics or whatever and you’re just biting your fingernails thinking, “I don’t know why I’ve done this.” So that’s there, for sure. We all experience that. And if we don’t then I need to hang out with those people. But more practically speaking, I would say that time, having the time to write right now, is one of my biggest challenges. You just saw who left here: three young children and a wife and I have essentially three jobs. This morning I was up at 25 minutes to 4 (am) to compose because that’s the only time that I’m going to have today. And not much got done, to be honest. I mean I probably won’t use anything that I was working on, but I was there.
Ok, so finding the time.
Yeah. I’m not a terribly fast composer, so I need some blocks of time - writing, go for a walk, make more coffee, go for a walk, write a little bit more. With how my life is right now, that doesn’t happen too much. You know somebody asked me a little while ago, for a different blog, they asked me, “What did you do in your life to obtain success?” I said, “I married well.” I married Deanne. She understands that I just need that time, otherwise it’s just not going to get done, you know? Part of composition is just sheer craftsmanship. I know how to put things together that are going to sound a certain way. Just like a painter knows that colors combining this way are going to look this way and sometimes the craftsmanship just takes a long time, you know? Another thing that I struggle with is to keep a voice going through all of it. That goes back to the honesty thing too, because I do have a lot of interests and I am schooled in lots of different things and I could easily become one of those arrangers for hire. I do get those gigs once in a while and sometimes it helps to pay the bills. But if I’m writing something that’s purely for the art of it, I want to make sure that there’s none of that sort of thing coming out, you know? That I’m really working at whittling it down to what’s essential.
So do you ever feel like the amount of work that you put into a piece can kill the authenticity sometimes? We’re talking about honesty being an important component to your writing. Or does it feel like work when you’re writing, being that you’re a full time composer?
Yeah, I never regret the amount of time. To me I think people could spend more time. I don’t mind having to keep on coming back to something.
The amount of work that goes into a piece, does that ever kill it for you?
No, it hasn’t yet. And not all of it takes that long. I’m kind of talking more about the larger pieces. I have this commission right now that’s not going to happen for another year, but I’m thinking about it all the time right now. I haven’t even put any notes on paper for it yet but I’ve got it kind of mapped out in my head already. So there’s a lot of time involved before the actual craftsmanship comes in. But other things don’t take as long. I wrote a tune for KLANG recently that was just sort of an afternoon affair. It works really well for that group. But that’s where I bring a kind of skeleton to them and then those great creative musicians make something out of it.
That’s the beauty of collaboration in an improvised context.
Ok, so I’m trying to tie in together a couple of things; your love for improvising and how you value authenticity and honesty in your music. Tying those things together, accessing a place of purity, where you feel like you’re a conduit for a piece your composing, do you feel like that always happens to you when you’re writing, or has it been a process for you over time, to get to that point where you feel like it’s coming through you as opposed to you manipulating ideas?
Yeah, that’s always a struggle. So if I’ve arrived at anything that looks like that it certainly has happened over time.
Over time meaning over a period of years or you’re talking about time spent on one piece?
Over a period of years, with maturity. And I would also argue again for craftsmanship. I hate to keep coming back to that. I think some of the times when things are most conducive, which is the root of conduit, is when I’m right at the center of what I can do well. You know?
That makes sense.
There’s no, “Oh what’s gonna happen if I do this?” I know what’s gonna happen, so I can just indulge the ideas and not have to worry about how is that going to sound.
The technique of it, right. As a performer, as a player, I have command of my instrument. I don’t have to think about the instrument in any way. It is a tool. It is now a perfect conduit for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes or crack a note but it’s like part of my being so I’ve tried to get to a place where composing feels like that too. You know, that’s when it’s really happening the most. That piece who, if not ?, which is not really recorded so nobody can really hear it, but that was a piece that had a really cool subject. It was a commission about environmental change. It was for a choir that I knew pretty well, a conductor I knew pretty well, and an orchestra which I had written for, so I could just really dig in.
There weren’t so many unknown variables.
Right. I could just allow ideas to happen. However, sometimes I’ve been challenged with things that are outside my comfort zone and I go for those too. I’m not afraid of those. And I think that’s really important sometimes. You break into some new territory that you never knew you were going to be able to discover. And I don’t mind saying that personally right now I am feeling a little restless with what I’m doing. I’m trying to get into something new somehow. I’m not quite sure what that is. I just feel like everything I’m doing right now, feels like I can do it, and that’s not such a good feeling. I want to be either playing with some new people or challenged in some new ways, or challenging myself in some ways in which I’m scared (laughs). Sighs Too Deep for Words is meant to do that. It’s meant to freak me out, like, “Really? You really want to go improvise for an hour in front of people? You idiot.”
And sustain their attention?
Yeah, “do you really think you can do that?” And so that’s one place I’m trying to push myself into. This new thing that I’m working on, a piece for string quartet for next year, I’ve never really written like a bat out of hell, totally energetic piece before, that’s not contemplative and modal. I’m trying to just make this piece just be like all out for five minutes and see what that feels like. I’m liking it, but it’s definitely not the normal sort of thing that I do.
Transitioning to performance. I think with some experimental music, it can feel like it has this air of pretentiousness or inaccessibility, from the listener’s standpoint because you feel like you’re on the outside and you’re not quite sure what’s going on. Something that I think is unique to you, that I’ve seen, is that although you’re doing experimental music sometimes with KLANG or other projects that you’re on, it feels accessible to the listener. I think that comes from a place of you being authentic in your presentation of it and there’s a sincerity in that presentation that the listener can buy into, which is really great. I’m wondering, in your performance, are you able to shut out external factors and access that place of authenticity when you’re performing, or is that something that is a challenge for you?
Yeah, you know I think I am pretty much able to tap into that space that feels like this is what I’m on this earth to do. I don’t need to be pretentious; I’m not too concerned about what anybody’s thinking. And it’s not to say I’m not self-editing what’s happening with a group or my own playing cause I certainly am. You know when I have the horn in my hands, playing music that I care about, I’m right in the sweet spot of what I’m on this earth to do. You know I had the great benefit of somebody in the New York Times liking what I do and he said, “James Falzone is a no nonsense clarinetist from Chicago,” and I thought, that’s right on. I’m just no nonsense. There’s nothing pretentious here. I’m not trying to impress anybody. I’m not trying to even entertain you, to be honest (laughs). I mean if it happens, great, but that’s not really what I’m thinking about. And maybe that’s why I still have stacks of records underneath the bed and they’re not selling terribly well (laughs). But, I think you’re right. I think I’m not trying to pull one over on anybody. I’m not trying to think that something that I’m doing is revolutionary. I don’t even consider what I do to be experimental, although I suppose some people would call it that. In my mind it’s really not, when you compare it to people who I work with from time to time who I think are truly doing experimental music much more hard to get into than some of the things I do.
You said you’re in that sweet spot when you’re performing, you got the horn in your hand. When did you know that you wanted to do this, that this was your thing?
Yeah, it was early for me. I would say 10, 11 years old.
Ok. And that was a definitive, “This is what I’m doing?”
Yeah. I mean it’s crazy. It’s funny because my 11 year old daughter feels that way about dance right now. She says, “When I’m on stage I just feel like everything is right in the world.” I mean I think she said those exact words. And I said “boy, do I know that,” because I can remember at 11, 12, 13 years old having some performance opportunities with different things at school and whatnot, and being like, “This is what I want to do.” And it’s interesting and it gets back to what your question is about because it wasn’t about being on stage. It was just that channeling what I thought was this, what I still think, is this incredible voice of creation to people through something that I have a talent in doing, just makes the world lock into place, you know? The world is kind of this shifting thing and then when I’m playing and really communicating in that way, it just kinda goes ‘schoop.’
Yeah, for at least that time, when it’s all happening. It’s all in the place where it should be and then it goes back to being scrambled up again. So this has been thrown around a lot, over the centuries, but is art there to bring order out of chaos? And for me there’s an element of that, for sure. So when I’m playing at my best, that doesn’t mean I’m playing well, I just mean that I’m playing in the setting that I really feel good about; whether that’s at church or at The Hungry Brain, or at some fancy concert hall, all is right.
Cool. So you’ve played a lot of different venues in Chicago. Are there any secret hidden venues that are your favorite?
Well The Hungry Brain to me is a good one. I think the Sunday night jazz series to me is a special thing. The Jazz Showcase has this thing on their wall that says, “Where Jazz lives in Chicago.” This is nothing to say bad about The Jazz Showcase, it is one of the great institutions of Chicago. But I would argue that jazz lives at The Hungry Brain. That jazz is kind of being revered at The Jazz Showcase, but it truly lives at The Brain, and on Wednesday nights at The Hideout, and at Elastic on Thursday nights, and at the Skylark in Pilsen on Monday nights, where it’s moving forward. You’re getting people trying new things out. You’re getting bands that have never been together before, somebody writes a couple of tunes and then they try it out at The Skylark. That’s not what’s happening at The Jazz Showcase or at Andy’s. Those places are there more for the tradition, which we need, but it’s like a museum in that way. We need museums and I go to museums and I support them. And I could use a gig at The Jazz Showcase. But you see what I mean. I’m also really excited about what’s happening with the classical music scene right now, carving out new spaces to play. I just did this John Cage Festival, two weekends ago, that a wonderful composer in town, Nomi Epstein, curated. She found the most creative places to put on this relatively inaccessible music. We did one concert at the Piano Forte Foundation, down in the Fine Arts Building.
On the 8th floor?
Yeah, it was fantastic. Great space. And there was probably, I don’t know, maybe 70 people in there, which was great. A great turn out.
That would fill it, right?
Yeah, people had to get turned away. And she also did some stuff in a gallery, so just finding creative places to put on music to me, you know that’s what it’s always been about. I love Orchestra Hall, I love going to big fancy concerts where Yo-Yo Ma’s playing, but you know when Schubert was composing, where was he performing that music? In coffee houses, in loft spaces, probably in something like a gallery, you know? It’s easy to forget that. Those guys were scrappy, new music people back in the 19th century just trying to find places to get their music played. So, to me that’s exciting to see that happen.
Have you ever thought about leaving Chicago? And what’s kept you here?
Well, I’m from here. I was born and raised in Norridge. Just outside of Chicago, borderland suburb, and had a lot of experience in Chicago. My parents were wonderful in taking me to all kinds of cultural things around Chicago when I expressed an interest in music they would bring me to jazz clubs, bring me to the symphony, they were incredibly supportive. And they had the means to do that, which was really special, so I’m grateful for that. My wife’s from Chicago too, and we moved to Boston, where I went to graduate school. You know there was a moment when it was, what do we do now? Do we move to New York, which all of my friends were doing, do we move to Europe, which some of my friends were doing, maybe get like a fellowship and go study in Europe for once kind of thing, or do we move back home?
And lay some foundation.
Yeah. And that was one of those times when it’s confusing and you’re not quite sure what to do. Boston’s a great city but it wasn’t really a place to sustain a career. And you know Chicago, for what I am interested in, it’s not like we were from Topeka, Kansas where there’s not really like an improvised music community. Chicago holds one of the, certainly one of the top 5 improvised music communities in the world, probably. So it’d be pretty hard not to have come back here for some time. And we had just had a child, family all around, and grandparents and stuff. So we made the decision to come back. I confess I doubted it because you know, with coming home when you feel like-
It’s not as romantic.
Yeah. I’m somehow regressing. But boy, I’ve had a wonderful 10 years here. It’s been really great and I don’t regret it at all, in hindsight. So many things that I’ve been able to do, I don’t think I’d be able to do anywhere else. For instance, teaching. I landed a teaching job and found that I really enjoyed teaching. That would not have happened in Boston or New York.
Yeah. In Boston you throw a rock and you hit somebody with a Ph.D. I mean here there’s great schools, but there’s just not as many people doing that sort of thing.
But I do think about leaving sometimes. As I mentioned, I’m feeling a little restless these days, and looking for something new and that could involve a relocation. But it’s not at the forefront of my mind, but it’s got to be an option. You know part of me being, for lack of a better term, “eclectic,” Chicago doesn’t necessarily like that. I think it’s a little easier to be a jazz guy, a classical guy, a pop guy, this guy, you know? It might be a little easier to have that career if you’ve got that label on you. So, 10 years hence now, maybe people respect me for the diversity of what I do but perhaps not to call me to be a specialist, doing this one thing, you know? I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I do notice that that’s happening a little more now. But again, the community of musicians that I work with are incredible and I love them all. The kinds of guys that I play with in KLANG, and in Vox Arcana and these groups. They all inspire me, they challenge me. I’ve been on the road with them a lot and I’ve learned from them both about music and about the arts in general. Most of the time that we’re on the road it’s people talking about painters that they’re interested in, or books they’re reading, or films they’re looking at. The continual need to challenge yourself as an artist, and to grow. That’s what I want to be around. And Chicago, I think, really has that in many ways that I haven’t even uncovered all of it yet. I’m amazed at how many concentric circles there are in this town. I meet somebody and I think, “How did I never hear about you? You’re amazing. Somehow I never even knew you were around.”
So what are you working on now, what are your thoughts to challenge yourself?
I have this thing going in my mind that I’m trying to put together, an octet for horns, so all saxophones and clarinets. And try to involve different personalities that normally would not play together. So somebody like an older statesman jazz musician and somebody like Dave Rempis and Jason Stein and just these great improvisers that I know, across generations and across styles, and create some graphic scores for them so that they’re not actually playing pitched material but just ways of interacting with each other that I think would allow them to be themselves, in terms of who they are as improvisers. I’m not actually notating anything for them, but it’s pitting them against each other in terms of their styles and their personalities.
That sounds neat.
It’s a little scary in a sense because that could be awful, or it could be really cool, I don’t know. So, I’ve been working on that a little bit and have some ideas for who would be involved.
Before we wrap it up, do you want to talk a little bit about the liturgical music that you write and the sense of honesty that you have when you’re approaching liturgical music?
You know it’s been 10 years now I’ve been doing this every Sunday with few exceptions. I find it an incredibly challenging thing to do because it’s service music. You’re there to serve other purposes than what you think is aesthetically interesting. So you’re there to serve God ultimately, you’re there to serve the people who are coming, you’re there to serve the wider church, and all of those kinds of issues and questions. So the honesty is not of then, about me. The honesty is about the service. So you have to constantly ask yourself, “Who am I serving right now? Am I serving myself or am I serving the people that this job asks me to serve?” And I have certainly failed at that, over the 10 years. I have sometimes felt it right in the moment. I remember at the very early stages of the church I wrote this little duet for violin and clarinet. It was a variation on a hymn. We weren’t more than like 4 bars into playing it and I thought, “Oh, this is really self-indulgent. This is not for them, this is just something that I thought was cool.” And I could hear it, I could feel it. I had to finish playing it. There’ll be sometimes when I might take an old hymn and I might try to re-harmonize it, and I just think, “Well that sounds cool.” And then I get done with it and we start playing it and I realize, nobody can really sing it now because it’s so complicated (laughs). It’s got all these fancy harmonies on it. There is an example of who am I serving when I do that. I’m serving myself and my own interests, and not the people. So there’s this constant balance going on. And that’s the same of anybody working in any kind of service music; whether it be film music, whether it be –
Advertisement, whether it be theater music. Over the years, that sense of honesty we talked about earlier has to be held in check or has to be referenced to what is being honest to each scenario.
That requires a bit of self-awareness; to be able to know when you’re serving your own self-indulgence, as a writer.
Yeah, there have been times when I really had to take stock. And there’ve been times when other people have told me, the pastor or the congregation has said, “We really didn’t enjoy that. That didn’t seem to work.” And I have to listen to those voices. Part of me just wants to say, “Do you know who you’re talking to? I’m a well-represented practiced clarinetist and composer!” (Laughs). You know, that’s what I might do if I’m playing at the Brain or whatever and somebody says, “I didn’t like that tune,” and I’m gonna say, “well then don’t come!” You know? I don’t care. Just don’t listen, don’t buy the record. But in this case I cannot say that. I have to be saying, “What didn’t work?”
And then there’s a theological aspect on top of that; the religious component to not just the service but God as well.
Right, and if we believe that music and the church is doing something more than just entertaining, if it’s actually teaching, if it’s actually representing doctrine and so forth, that’s some heavy, heavy stuff, and I take it seriously. So when I put something together for a church service, I really care about it.
Yeah, you can hear that.
I hope so. So, I think it goes back to being honest, but now it’s being honest to somebody else and some other group of people. And that is hard to do. But I’m in great company. Some of my great heroes; two that we’ve already mentioned—Messiaen and Bach, were both church musicians their entire lives. They had their lives outside of church, but they were always church musicians and they felt like it held them in check.
That’s interesting. I know as a professor your students are well versed in the indie and pop music scene. I’m wondering are there any present day musicians that you respect, that you’ve heard?
How about the one I don’t like, which is Bon Iver. Can I say that on record?
(Laughs). You can, and it will be well received.
(Laughs). You know I teach at Columbia, which is a very diverse population, and I am a real lover of Hip Hop.
I saw that you taught something about that.
Check this out: I taught a class connecting Medieval Epic Poetry to Hip Hop. And I think it was one of my great milestones, as a teacher (laughs). You know Public Enemy taught me about the world. I was a kid growing up in a suburb of Chicago and I had all the trapping of what you might expect in that world. And I was a student of jazz and so had a lot of black musicians who were my heroes, but there’s no lyrics in that music generally speaking. So when Public Enemy, I started listening to them and they would talk about Emmett Till or Malcom X.
Yeah, social issues. I had no idea what that was, so I would go look it up, or go to the library and learn about it. There was no google then so I wasn’t googling it. I’m not so up on indie rock, I have to confess. But I love hip hop and rap. So I’ll be able to sit down and talk to my students about the latest Kanye West record, or something like that. That’s where my connection to the students comes in. At Columbia that works out quite well because it’s a very urban fueled school with a lot of kids from the south and west side of Chicago who have grown up with hip hop. Part of this course I teach is looking at the arts and community and the arts and ethics. So I did a whole kind of overview of the digression of hip hop lyrics in popular hip hop; starting off with early rappers who really had a lot of social concerns and now it just seems like that’s gone. But in the UK, there’s a great scene of rappers in the UK who are still taking on those social issues. There’s this one guy named Akala that I just think is doing amazing stuff, just an incredibly articulate and brilliant guy and a great rapper. Another guy named Low Key that is a really interesting British rapper, who I think is actually getting like Ph.D in Political Science as well as his work as a musician.
We’re gonna go through a “lightening round” now. Favorite Tears for Fears song?
Oh. “Change.” You know that one? “You can change” --it’s got this great marimba solo on it.
I do know Tupac’s cover of “Changes.” Do you know that one?
Oh, yes. Well I’m pretty excited about Tupac coming back as a hologram. I’m hoping that maybe they’ll bring back like Howard Jones as a hologram, after Howard is no longer with us. So, yeah, I’m really excited about all of that.
So Kanye or Jay-Z?
(Laughs). Kanye for sure.
Favorite Bjork record?
Favorite Brahms symphony?
I’m not sure I have one. 2 might be up there. But I’m not sure I could put a favorite on that yet.
Brahms or Sibelius?
Oh, interesting question. Sibelius is quirky. I mean I like the quirkiness. And I compose using the software called Sibelius, so…
Well that’s my next question. Sibelius or Finale?
Oh yeah, Sibelius. A thousand times over, Sibelius.
But Brahms or Sibelius?
Yeah, I’m gonna go with Sibelius, just because of the quirkiness. Although Brahms wrote these lovely clarinet sonatas that every clarinetist has to play at some point.
His piano intermezzos for me are lovely. Gershwin or Copland?
Oh, neither. Copland’s got some brilliant moments but Gershwin I have no interest in at all. Copland I have little interest in, except for a few things that are beautiful. He’s an incredible orchestrator, and I love that about him.
Stravinsky or Prokofiev?
Prokofiev is really interesting. Stravinsky is amazing. But Prokofiev, I’ve stopped the car, like on WFMT and said “What is this?” I will pull over and stop, and then they say, “That was Prokofiev,” and I’m like how did I not know that piece? He’s stopped me more times than not, so I’m going to go with Prokofiev.
Abbey Road or The White Album?
I’m not a Beatles fan at all. Not at all. Not even remotely interested in The Beatles. They bore the hell out of me.
Old Testament or New Testament? (Laughs).
(Laughs). I want to go back to The Beatles first and make sure that on record I say that I have incredible respect for The Beatles. I know all the records, and of those two I would probably say The White Album if you pressed me. But it just, it just does not interest me at all. Good friends will take me to task about this. And it just, it doesn’t do anything for me.
Old Testament or New Testament?
Well I don’t think you can separate them, right? It’s one big story.
Favorite string instrument?
Well I don’t mean this to be pithy, but the oud, the Arabic lute.
Tonal or atonal?
Modal. Split the difference. Which one could argue is both at the same time or is tonal but it’s it’s own tone tonal world.
Well I really appreciate your time and being able to pick your brain.
(Laughs). Old Testament or New Testament? (Laughs). I love that one.