AMN Interviews

AMN Interviews: Gerry Hemingway

GHatCorneliabyJHwebDrummer / composer Gerry Hemingway has been at the forefront of creative improvised music for 40 years. His many collaborations include BassDrumBone with trombonist Ray Anderson and bassist Mark Helias as well as being a member of the Anthony Braxton quartet from 1983 – 1994. Gerry recently took time to discuss his career with AMN.

Gerry will be performing in New York soon:

Thursday January 30, 2014
Ibeam Brooklyn
Two Duos
Russ Lossing,piano
Gerry Hemingway,drums
Terrence McManus, guitar
Gerry Hemingway, drums
Ibeam Brooklyn‎
168 7th St, Brooklyn, New York

Friday, January 31, 2014
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium
7:00 pm
Digital Buddah
Jin Hi Kim – komungo
Gerry Hemingway – drums

Saturday, February 1, 2014
61 Local, 61 Bergen Street
Brooklyn, NY
Ray Anderson – trombone
Mark Helias – bass
Gerry Hemingway – drums

How did your career as a drummer begin?

Funny word career, it implies to me some kind of stability, like a job you go to with a clear set of expectations. I think like most of the people I found myself in the company of around 1972, music found us, and we were happy to be doing something we loved. What we also had was a lot of ambition fueled with a sense for possibility in what we were doing.

In my case I was not in the University, though many of the people I was associated with were in some stage of college education. I was oriented to the practical side of making living a musician from the earliest stages onward, and so I played any and every gig I could get. At 19 years old I was already teaching drum lessons, working in a school, in the theater, doing club dates and continually sorting out my affiliation with jazz by playing many nights with musicians far more skilled than me. But even at 17 years old when this all began my enthusiasm for experimentation, improvisation, and music composition was finding outlets and nourishment from my fortunate encounter with like-minded musicians who were in New Haven, Connecticut where I lived at the time.

How have your connections with AACM artists shaped your musical experience?

My primary connection to the AACM was Leo Wadada Smith. He lived in 1972 in Woodmont, CT, close to New Haven with his wife at the time Cathy Sinclair and their two children. I later heard somewhere that one of the reasons he chose Connecticut upon his return from Europe, was on the basis that Charles Ives was from there and he figured if Ives had found a way to develop his music there then he could as well. Whatever the reason that brought him there I was blessed with this encounter, musical relationship and friendship.

In the fall of 1972 George Lewis returned after a year off from college to finish his undergraduate degree in Philosophy at Yale University from a year of exploring music and in particular the AACM in Chicago and supporting himself with working on the slag pile. He brought with him compositions and concepts as well as many private recordings of everything going on the AACM at that time, which along with pianist Anthony Davis, bassist Wes Brown and eventually other players was repertoire we played often in these times. I would eventually meet via Leo, all the members of AEC and many other members of the AACM many of whom over time I would play with, including my eventual tenure with Anthony Braxton.

So from these early stages of musical encounter and continuing ever since the musical experimentalism which hallmarks much of the AACM’s work, was highly influential in supporting my own interests in this direction of music organization and invention. Leo, Bobby Naughton, myself and Wes Brown also modeled our own non-profit organization, the Creative Musicians Improvisors Forum which would eventually collaborate with the AACM on some events staged in Connecticut in the 1980s.

Some of your more recent releases seem to go well beyond the “jazz” of your quartet / quintet recordings – I’m thinking of Continuum as just one example. Have the changes and exploration in your career been evolutionary or due to a conscious effort on your part?

Well hopefully I have evolved as an artist after 40 years! My musical pallette has always been diverse, both as a composer and an improvisor. Not everything I have done is documented, and now so much of my work is out of print, that even my students are sometimes surprised that I played with so many different musicians and was involved in such a diverse array of musical initiatives over the past 40 years. I have always worked from many different positions of musical expression which in music ranges from completely through composed to entirely improvised. I am a diverse listener and diverse composer/performer. Also I am willing to take risks and try different things, which included at one point the creation of my idea of a pop record, “Songs” on the betweenthelines label (2002).

Despite being an American musician, you now live in Switzerland. Can you compare and contrast the appreciation of your music in North America versus Europe?

Historically I cannot imagine much of the musical culture I am a part of surviving without the interest and support of the European audiences and institutions. Europe has acted as the alternate home of American culture over a large span of time. However now that we are experiencing a process of globalization of many of the threads of musical culture I participate in, my roots as an American are maybe less important to audiences here. There are so many wonderful players spread across Europe that the previous attraction of promoters to the latest trends of NY, Chicago and other American based musical initiatives is on the wane, favoring more the innovations of European based artists. On the other hand it seems my diverse past experience on both sides of the Atlantic serve me well in these times both as a performer and an educator so I am personally having a good relation with the presenters and institutions here in Europe.

You’ve been recording and performing for quite some time. How do you stay motivated after so many years? Or is that even an issue?

As I see it I will never be able to accomplish all the goals I wish to accomplish before I am six feet under, but I will certainly try. I wake up everyday with a lot to do, and I am not just talking about all my desires as a creative artist. Life is wonderful and there is much to experience and appreciate about this planet. In some respects I see my role as an artist to be one that keeps us connected to that which there is to celebrate about life.

Given your experience in the creative music scene, how would you compared it today to how it was 10, 20, or 30 years ago? What aspects are better or worse?

I think the most significant change over time is the rapid growth of a global community of musicians who have much to offer us for the continuum as well as continued growth of musical expression. In part this is attributable to the increase of access and availability of institutional pedagogy in the realm of jazz and improvised music of which I am a participant. On the other hand the economic dynamics of the past 10-15 years have had the effect of slowing innovation and experimentalism in music, or at least peripheralizing it to the degree that the community of interest in this music is not commensurate with the musicians interested in new directions. In other words there is some tremendous music being developed for an audience that barely exists. At my age I also notice the reality of attrition. A good deal of people who have been interested in the music I perform are no longer with us. As well the dedicated promoters who have supported and presented musics I have participated in are also shrinking in part due to the hardships of economic viability. However, in the longer view, these issues have always been there for every generation of music and musician and so part of the creative life of an artist is the art of survival. I have total faith in the sustainability of creative music and its importance in world culture.

Can you point to an example or two of new music, of any style, that you find exciting and interesting? In other words, who is putting out really good music today?

There are a good deal of improvisers and composers who are revitalizing microtonality, mostly from the point of a view of spectrum or overtone, or from 1/4 or 1/8th tone tunings. Coupled with that is a reinvestigation of the possibilities of Renaissance Music in pre-tempered tunings both as vehicles for improvisation and fresh interpretation. I think pop artists such as Scott Walker, and the continued developments of bands and artists such as Radiohead, Bjørk etc… continue offering fresh and inspiring ideas. There are new structures on old foundations just about everywhere, one area I find interesting for example ‘cut up’ and ‘mash up’ in areas such as hip-hop and noise music. A good deal of my inspiration has always come from old scratchy records that I continue to collect, there are just some things in culture that don’t rust with age, or maybe better put offer new insights with the passing of time.

You recently had an elaborate solo show at New York’s Roulette. How did that come about and how did it go down?

Despite living in Switzerland I do regularly return to NY to perform of course, and the director of Roulette, who is a friend and a supporter of my work since that institution’s inception was interested in presenting my current multimedia solo work that included my ongoing collaboration with the visual artist Beth Warshafsky. This collaborative work constituted the second half of the performance. The first half was devoted to the premiere of a film I have working on for roughly 15 years and the occasion of this performance (November 21, 2013) finally forced me to finish the work. I think of the film “Kernelings” as a realization of my visual thinking developed and interrelated to much of what underlies my musical conception. As my solo music has always been a place to both challenge and crystalize my personal language as an improviser as well as a composer, this film opened a rich new aspect of what I can express. In a way the making of the film drove me to think about musical choices in a new way, and conversely the visual choices were continually thought through from a musical perspective.

To be clear the film was not a live performance. The sound on the film is primarily comprised of acoustic and electro-acoustic solo material, some of which you see as well as hear. The imagery came from many sources mostly my own material and camerawork but also some footage derived from archival resources. At the end of January this film is being released as part of a solo CD/DVD package on my own label Auricle Records.

The collaborative works with Beth Warshafsky began around the time I left the States in 2009 when I had the idea for Beth to compose some video pieces to accompany several of my electro-acoustic solo works. The original version of most of these pieces was premiered at the “Follow the Sound” Festival in 2010 in Antwerp, Belgium, with subsequent performances in Guelph, Ontario and Luzern, Switzerland. A key aspect of this presentation is the use of theatrical lighting which can allow for the visual isolation of specific musical elements. This is in part directed at bringing the listener into a powerful multidimensional experience that highlights the physicality and the rich orchestration of this solo music.

Also included on the program were two different interactive pieces where my live performance is part of the projected visual material. For the more technically inclined, this is a MAX/MSP interface (meaning designed by hand – not a company designed software) that has been in development for about 2 years which in several different ways at once processes the visual imagery of what I play on my instrument. Beth makes choices regarding some of the visual content and/or processing of that content as I perform, and as well my own improvisatory choices are also affected by what I see as I perform. Indeed, many forms of interactivity, which we think is quite unique in this area of multimedia presentation. It is a not a mashup or a ‘music video’, but rather a product of an evolving dialogue and understanding of the intentions and possible synergies of each other’s individual material.

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