Andrew Raffo Dewar is a composer, improviser, woodwind instrumentalist and ethnomusicologist, currently holding the position of Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts in New College and the School of Music at the University of Alabama.
He has performed or recorded with Matt Bauder, Anthony Braxton, Taylor Ho Bynum, Eugene Chadbourne, Bill Dixon, Milo Fine, Jessica Pavone, Gino Robair, John Shiurba, Aaron Siegel, Alan Silva, Matthew Welch, Davey Williams, Jack Wright, and many others.
The latest release of his Interactions Quartet is being released by Rastascan Records on July 15th.
Your compositions have a sense of space that sounds carefully planned out. Is this indeed intentional on your part?
Very much so. I think negative space is essential to understanding and placing objects, musical or otherwise, in relation to one another. It can lend a clarity and definition to the objects you want to highlight, or, alternatively, you can use the objects to frame “empty” spaces. For me, my interest in the structural use of space as integral to a music’s form is also related to my understanding of the Japanese concept of “ma,” or “spaces between” that give shape to a whole. While I am by no means an expert on Japanese culture, “ma” is a concept I identify with — as I interpret it, it is the idea that so-called “empty” spaces are charged with meaning, not only in their relation to the objects they surround, but as objects themselves. It’s like that black and white op art piece many of us have seen, where you can see either a vase, or two faces looking at one another, depending upon what you read as negative space, foreground, and background. There are infinite ways to hear form in music, and how you interpret spaces between sounds is one of them. The trick as a composer and performer is making those spaces meaningful and crucial to the music’s energy and form — in music, I think of artists like Watazumido, Morton Feldman, Thelonious Monk, Salvatore Sciarrino, Roscoe Mitchell, Steve Lacy, and many others as role models for this approach.
How does your holding an academic position impact your writing and touring? Are you tied up with your work, or does it provide you the freedom to pursue your goals?
This is a complicated question, entangled with all kinds of issues, the most potent of which for me is not my holding a job as an academic, but the socially constructed and enforced hierarchies of artistic “importance” and “relevance” tied to geography and market forces that I think undermine and limit aesthetic discoveries. The short answer, though, is both yes and no. While I am not out touring as much as many of my friends and colleagues who are full-time musicians, nor do I have quite as much time to devote to composing and playing as them because of my “day job,” I can say that 100% of the music I compose and perform is exactly the music I want to be doing (though of course not everything is successful). The freedom to make only the music you want is a luxury many do not have, but it is very important to me, and one of the main reasons I decided to pursue this path. Another issue this question raises is that there is actually very little paid touring work these days for people working outside or between established genres and idioms (and even within more “marketable” genres the pickings are slim). To put it bluntly, I have yet to turn down a paying gig to perform my music because my teaching job got in the way — there are simply too few paid performing opportunities to support the huge number of talented artists active today — it’s a pretty serious and complicated problem. By removing myself from some of these more market-driven issues, I have found, if not “freedom,” at least something approaching a reasonably healthy balance of economic necessity and artistic exploration.
Some of your music seems informed by Anthony Braxton. Can you describe your relationship with him and his music?
Braxton has been one of my primary mentors, and I’ve performed and recorded professionally with him since 2005, so his inspiration has, obviously, been profound. One of the main reasons I decided to go to graduate school in 2002 was to study with Braxton and the other incredible faculty at Wesleyan University, where I took advantage of the full tuition waiver and teaching assistantship I received to complete an MA and PhD. Braxton’s work, which I’ve been listening to and learning from for just over 20 years, has been most influential to me through its breadth of curiosity. What do I mean by “breadth of curiosity”? His work is kaleidoscopic in its reach — from string quartets, to marches, to pieces for 100 tubas, four orchestras, seven trumpets, or one saxophone — and it mostly exists outside and/or between traditional genre boundaries, while still being deeply informed by them, and yet all of that wide-ranging music (once you become familiar with his musical language) sounds like Braxton’s music. So, I would say that Braxton’s most powerful influence has been to challenge me to explore that paradox of creating a musical world that is simultaneously so broad and exploratory as to be uncategorizable by traditional measures, and yet still singular and identifiable as my own. As one of my other mentors, the great Steve Lacy, succinctly said, “follow the music wherever it leads you.”
Do you compose with the intent that anyone will perform your pieces, or are they primarily for your own use?
It entirely depends on the piece. I have music that I only perform with musicians I am familiar with, which are usually more open-ended in form, and I have other works written specifically so any musician could perform them — which are most often through-composed. I have recently become a bit more adventurous and/or reckless with score-making for the unknown performer, though. For example, in the summer of 2013 I made a series of six found-object graphic and tactile scores titled “Material Music” at the Elsewhere Museum in Greensboro, NC, which are wide open to interpretation. Anyone (including dancers) can use them as scores to guide a performance — or they can be appreciated simply as visual works. The premiere performance actually transformed the assembled audience into the orchestra. We had a group discussion about how they would interpret and perform the score, and I then conducted them through their specified interpretation, and that was the piece! Info on “Material Music” here: http://www.goelsewhere.org/material-music/ ..and NPR-affiliate WFDD did a nice radio piece on these works, too: http://wfdd.org/post/meet-artist-composer-saxophonist-educator-andrew-raffo-dewar
What about your early history? How did you become involved in music?
I’m originally from Argentina, but we left a couple weeks before the 1976 military coup. My earliest vivid musical memory is hammering away on my grandmother’s upright piano at age 5 or 6. I lied to her and told her I was playing a song they taught us in school — but in hindsight I realized I was improvising. That’s my first memory of feeling a powerful connection to music-making, and in some ways I think that’s the embryonic place I still try to return to when performing. I studied and played trombone in the public school band in Minnesota from 4th through 9th grades, largely because my father was a talented trombonist as a young man so we had one in the house. During that time, I simultaneously picked up the guitar to play and tour in rock bands, sang in school choir, performed in plays and musical theatre productions, etc. before I bought a lovely, overlooked and very underpriced Buffet C12 clarinet for $180 in a pawn shop in Minneapolis and proceeded to fall head over heels for woodwinds. After moving to New Orleans for a period in the mid-1990s, I swapped the clarinet for the soprano saxophone, which is the instrument I’ve played more or less exclusively since. My broader, global musical education includes studying Indonesian music off and on since 1995 (primarily the flute and vocal music of West Sumatra, and Central Javanese gamelan), performing with an Ethiopian Oromo immigrant group in Minneapolis in the early 2000s, and most recently, beginner-level study of a few styles of Ghanaian music during a two-month trip there in the summer of 2011 assisting with my wife’s research.
How did you end up gravitating toward the avant-garde / creative music?
There have been a number of “watershed” moments that led me to this music, but here are three vignettes:
I took part in a high school exchange program in Russia during the winter of 1991-92, and heard an incredible and raucous saxophone and drum free jazz duo (the saxophonist also doubled on piano) accompanying an experimental ballet performance near Novosibirsk, Siberia, where I was studying, and that music was so powerful and moving to me that I couldn’t get it out of my head (still, to this day). I wish I knew who those musicians were, because I would love to thank them!
During my first year of undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota, probably early 1994, some of my musician friends and I (a couple of whom now perform in the successful experimental rock band Deerhoof) came across the work of Minneapolis-based master multi-instrumentalist Milo Fine (who has become one of my important mentors and collaborators). The inspiration I received from his music, and his incredibly committed work ethic encouraged me to dive deeply into more exploratory music.
Hearing the Sun Ra Arkestra around 1994-95 in Minneapolis, shortly after Mr. Ra’s planetary departure. The band was processing onto the stage, and the great Marshall Allen came right up to me and played an otherworldly solo, inches away, looking directly into my eyes, with the same incredible energy and focus he demonstrates to this day. It was simultaneously overwhelming and hugely inspiring, and at that moment I knew without a doubt I wanted to dedicate myself to this music.
Any releases or performances coming up in 2014 that you’d like to talk about?
My new “Interactions Quartet” CD of my compositions is being released by Rastascan Records on July 15th, featuring the great Gino Robair (percussion, analog electronics), John Shiurba (guitar), and Kyle Bruckmann (oboe, english horn, analog electronics). I have another forthcoming album with this quartet, a 45rpm LP featuring my composition “Strata (2011)” that should be released by Porter Records in late 2014 or early 2015. I am also recording an hour-long piece with this quartet in the Bay Area this fall; “Ekphrasis Suite (2013),” a 2012 Chamber Music America/Doris Duke Foundation “New Jazz Works” commission. There is a wonderful improvised trio session with myself and two great composer / performers, Anne LeBaron (harp), and Andrea Centazzo (percussion, electronics) that will hopefully see the light of day this year, and another trio recording with Steve Swell (trombone) and Garrison Fewell (guitar) being mixed right now that is a follow-up to our 2013 CD “Estuaries” on the Italian dEN Records label. Finally, I have three duo recording projects currently in process; one with experimental poet Hank Lazer to be published in 2014 by Torre de Letras in Cuba as a book of Lazer’s poems with a CD of our duos, one side of a 2-LP set of duos with German electronicist Phillip Schulze, who I’ve been working with since 2004, and a third duo project with virtuoso guitarist Davey Williams, who I’ve been working with since I arrived in Alabama in 2008.