Carl Testa is a composer and instrumentalist originally from Chicago, who now lives in New Haven, Connecticut and performs in New Haven and New York City. Carl has studied with Anthony Braxton and Alvin Lucier, and has performed with Anthony Braxton, Aaron Siegel, Anne Rhodes, Andrew Raffo Dewar, Mwata Bowden, Avreeyal Ra, Ernest Dawkins, and many others.
Tell us about your history with music. How did it all start and what led you down the strange path to adventurous sounds?
I grew up in Chicago, IL. My mother played guitar when she young, my dad played keyboard and electric bass. My sisters both played instruments (flute and guitar). I didn’t really become interested in music until 8th grade or so. At that point I had found my dad’s electric bass in the attic and started to mess around with that. In high school I took up the upright bass and became more involved in jazz and improvised music. The turning point for me was seeing a performance by Mwata Bowden’s Jazz X-Tet at the University of Chicago. That music was so new and exciting, yet familiar in some ways. I promptly decided that I had to learn more about that music. That led to conversations with Mwata and seeing numerous performances by Mwata Bowden, Tatsu Aoki, Fred Anderson, Douglas Ewart, Ernest Dawkins, Steve Berry, Nicole Mitchell, and David Boykin. I eventually enrolled in the AACM School of Music during my final year of high school and became deeply involved with music. It was at Mwata Bowden’s suggestion that I look into Wesleyan University to study with Anthony Braxton. It just so happened that my dad had gone to Wesleyan and was already pushing me in that direction.
You’re both a composer and an improvising instrumentalist. When you write or play, do you find that there’s a great deal of mutual influence between these two sides of your work, or do they generally stay within their own domains?
There has always been a lot of mutual influence between improvisation and composition for me. In a way, my identity has struggled with trying to figure out whether I am a composer or improviser or both. I don’t tend to write for other musicians where I’m not involved in the performance. At this stage, I much prefer to be involved in performances of my music (so more the composer/improviser) as opposed to writing pieces and sending them off to be performed. I feel the need to be actively involved in the execution of music whether that is in the organizing of performances, composition, or performance. A composition can come out of an improvisation, or an improvisation can come out of a conceptually organized composition that provides a context for it. For the most part I suppose I think about unknown elements and most of my compositions and improvisations have these unknown elements. It is those elements that I feel help me get to the next piece or the next performance.
Among your recent projects is a collaboration with dancer Rachel Bernsen. How do approach the integration of the music with the movement? Do you rely on composition and arrangement, improvisation, or some combination of the two?
Rachel Bernsen is a choreographer and dancer. My wife Anne Rhodes and I have worked with Rachel for five years now on a few different projects. For each project, Rachel has a different approach to creating movement and music that work together. For one of her pieces User, Rachel, Anne, and I improvised over and over with no set idea. We gradually began to focus on a set of ideas that gradually morphed into the piece. Once Rachel felt like the music and the movement had enough of the material she wanted, she began to structure that material into a piece that was fixed in structure but had improvised elements. Rachel worked on a piece called Waver with me a few years ago. This piece incorporated electronic music and computer-controlled lighting as an accompaniment to the dancer. I tried to think of this piece as having all of the elements interacting as if the dance was music and the lighting was music. I designed the music and lighting to complement each other, not by mimicking or syncing up with each other but by offering contrasting elements that create a whole when considered in context. I wanted the dance to work the same way, so I gave Rachel a set of concepts to improvise upon for the different sections of the piece. I had some general ideas of where to be and when and what kind of states I wanted her to evoke, but for the most part the choreography was Rachel interpreting my musical language into a movement-based language and at the same time interacting with the electronic sound and lighting backdrop.
Your most recent solo release, Iris, is a set of pieces for double bass and interactive electronics. How does playing with real-time electronic manipulation change your relationship to the bass—or doesn’t it?
The music on Iris was developed over a period of two years or so. It started with experiments in granular synthesis that date back to my piece Pull from 2007. The idea for the music was that I wanted to create an electronic framework that I could use to input (record) sound into and then generate lots of music from that sound within a live performance. The music is generative in a sense because I don’t know exactly how the electronics are going to process the sound, so it purposefully creates some unknown elements within the composition. This is a strange place to put yourself as a composer and improviser because you are aware of the compositional framework but not necessarily how it is going to play out in performance. So the relationship with the instrument does change because it starts to feel like you are playing two instruments. The choices I make on the bass effect the electronics and the choices I make with the electronics effect what I do with the bass. Depending on what the electronics are doing at any particular moment changes the role I should take on at that moment. If the electronics are processing textural sounds, then I can either blend in, or contrast with it by playing a melodic line. If the electronics are playing a melodic line, then I can step back and function in a traditional bass role. I really think of it as playing within a freely improvising ensemble with a catch. I can interact with the electronics in the same way I would with an ensemble. The catch is that there is this feedback loop where what I play directly effects the electronic sound. So it is similar to an ensemble but obviously a different context.
A two part question here. What inspired you to organize the Uncertainty music series in New Haven? And how do you find New Haven as a place in which to pursue adventurous music and related arts?
The Uncertainty Music Series is inspired by musician-run spaces for experimental music and the AACM in particular. When I lived in Chicago, I would organize shows for my groups at various venues. The Candlestick Maker (Michael Zerang’s performance space) was one of them that was open to me as a young guy that knew nothing about anything. The AACM’s example of organizing your own performances was also very important to me. So when I moved to New Haven, I was looking for opportunities to perform and possibly set up some kind of regular performance. Bob Gorry’s New Haven Improvisers’ Collective held their workshops at Never Ending Books (a donation-run bookstore and community center). I asked Bob to ask the owner of Never Ending Books (Roger) about starting a monthly series there. Roger agreed to an initial run of 3 shows in early 2007 and then agreed to do a monthly series starting in September of that year. Initially it was just a chance for me to have a performance of original music every month, but it soon became more open to the larger community and started to serve as a way to connect the creative musicians in New Haven to the larger community in the region.
I find New Haven to be a great place to pursue my music. I think as with any place you live, there are certainly pros and cons. The music community is very supportive overall and New Haven is strategically placed as far as being in close proximity to large Metropolitan centers like New York, Boston, and Philly. The fact is though, that New Haven is still pretty small (pop. 120,000) so the number of people interested in niche music is limited in the immediate area. Nevertheless, I feel that through the support of the community that is here, the Uncertainty Series has been able to sustain a small, but dedicated group of listeners. I still feel that a lot can be done to generate more interest in experimental, improvised, and electronic music in the area. The Uncertainty Series will have it’s 7th anniversary this September and move into it’s 8th year. As we approach the 10 year mark I need to either have the series end gracefully or morph into a new venture. We will have to see what happens.
Your wife, Anne Rhodes, is also an accomplished experimental musician. Do the two of you collaborate often, or mostly work independently?
We do collaborate often, most notably with Anthony Braxton and his Tri-Centric Foundation. We also have a long-standing duo project called Bruxism that does performances occasionally. We have also collaborated on a short theatre piece called Spectra that I wrote in 2011 that features her in the sole role. I do think it is important to have independant projects because we spend so much time together that musically it is also good to have individual outlets for creative work. I am grateful that I have her to bounce ideas off of and to get her feedback on vocal writing. She has worked a lot with composers on new pieces and she understands what works for vocalists and what doesn’t work. So when writing new pieces that involve voice I always run the music by her. And most the time I am also lucky enough that she agrees to sing my pieces ! :)
What have you got coming up in terms of releases, performances, and other things?
My wife just gave birth to our son Florian Nicholas Testa, so we both have taken a break from performances. But I do have some performances and new projects coming up soon. The first is this Thursday, May 1st in Cambridge, MA as part of the WMBR Ampersand Series. I will be playing the music from IRIS opening for the The Outnumbered featuring Charlie Kohlhase, Jason Robinson, Josh Rosen, Bruno Råberg, and Curt Newton.
This summer I will be performing on a number of shows with bassist Mario Pavone and his new Street Songs project. That album will be released on May 6th and we will be playing a bunch of shows to support it. It has been wonderful working with Mario and Dave Ballou. I just try and soak up every opportunity and learn as much as I can.
I also have a duo project with the guitarist Christopher Riggs that has been in the works for a while. We play as a duo with guitar and bass and guitar and various electronics. Chris lives in Chicago so we don’t get the chance to work on this project very often. But I am hopeful that we will find some time this Summer or this Fall to come together and record a release.