AMN Interviews

AMN Interviews: Keir Neuringer

tumblr_m9j3f7gYuS1rf6q6mo1_500Keir Neuringer has an intensely physical approach to saxophone improvisation, and plays analogue electronics and Farfisa organ as well. Although he was trained as a composer and jazz saxophonist in the US, he spent two years on a Fulbright research grant in Krakow. He then moved to The Hague, where he spent eight years, curating performative audiovisual art and earning a masters degree from the experimental ArtScience Institute. He currently lives in Philadelphia and continues to travel widely to present his work.

How did you get started in music?

“Musician” has been part of my identity since I was a child. Though they were not musicians themselves, my parents inspired my creativity. Listening to a lot of recorded music was part of the culture at home and whenever we were in the car. I was given violin lessons at age 3, started making up my own music on the piano at six years old, and began learning saxophone in public elementary school. There was a drum set in our house a few years later, and my parents gave me space and time to compose, experiment, and make a lot of noise. I was one of three friends in a tight-knit social circle during high school whose parents basically turned the basements of our houses over to us for rehearsal space. And the band director at my high school, Carl Strommen, was immensely supportive, encouraging me to take private lessons, to improvise, to write down my compositional ideas, to study music after high school. I wasn’t precocious, and I was never forced to practice any instrument. But I was raised with the privileges of access to instruments, lessons, and practice space, by people who thought highly of music and musicians. I’m deeply fortunate for all that!

Compare U.S. and European scenes for creative jazz – what are the pros and cons of each?

A generalization that I was able to make when I lived in Europe, from 1999 to 2008, was that there seemed to be higher quality gigs there, as I experienced it: better venues, better promotion, more eager and informed audiences, better remuneration for artists. I’m not sure that’s accurate anymore, for a number of reasons. I think the gap has narrowed between the US and Europe, not because things have improved here in the US, but because they have deteriorated in Europe. I’m thinking of what “austerity” means not only for artists, but for the socio-political culture’s attitude toward creative and life-affirming endeavors in general.

Whether we’re talking about cities in the US “rust belt” or in Poland or Holland (the countries where I lived), wherever there is a passive lack of support for (or an active antipathy towards) creative music, there are artists experimenting with great determination against heavy odds. One thing that always bothered me in Europe was that every so often I would encounter a lavishly funded project that had no audience and made no attempt to connect. I reject the idea that funded artists must “go after” the largest possible public and make work with the greatest mass appeal. On the other hand I dislike the idea of the artist living apart, coming up with ideas without any relevance to society, without any relationship to their neighbors.

How is the Philadelphia scene in particular? Are there enough opportunities for you to record and play?

I have been in Philadelphia for just over two years and I love it here. That doesn’t mean things are always great, but that I care about situations and want them to improve. Philly is a city with a deep and living history. We have the good fortune to still be able to go out several times a year to see Marshall Allen perform! Among some great local shows, in the last few months Ars Nova Workshop brought Ingrid Laubrock’s group to the Philadelphia Art Alliance, Fire Museum Presents brought Amir ElSaffar and Omar Dewachi playing Iraqi maqams in the garden of a tiny tea shop, and Girls Rock Philly and Bowerbird brought Techne (Bonnie Jones and Suzanne Thorpe) to present the results of an electronic instrument building workshop they led with young girls at The Rotunda.

And I’m still discovering new things about the scenes here, for better and for worse. With Philly, as at the national and international level, I am concerned about power and privilege with respect to who curates, who performs, who is welcomed as audience. How are women, people of color, and queer-identified people represented in creative music scenes? Do individual venues and festivals display singularity or conformity? Again, these are questions I ask about Philly, but also about anywhere else. There are certainly “enough opportunities” for me to play and record and curate as much as I want (within the extremely limited opportunities this culture allows for the avant garde). But I’m a white man. I’m not interested in being a member of a secret society. Who owns the clubs? Who books the shows? Who gets booked? Who feels safe and welcome at shows? Who runs the labels? Who decides on grant funding? If I could honestly answer each of these questions with a diversity of identities, I would be able to say that the scene is “good”. That goes for anywhere.

What led to your solo sax record, Ceremonies out of the Air?

The title comes from a passage in Cormac McCarthy‘s book The Road, about a parent and child navigating a post-apocalyptic landscape as the parent nears death: “Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”

I have performed solo improvisations since 1999 and I had been invited by a label to release a recording documenting my solo saxophone work as far back as 2001, but I didn’t feel ready then. In early 2013 my mother died after a long illness – she had lung cancer. I was her primary caretaker during her transition and the experience impacted me deeply. I recorded Ceremonies several months later, as a memorial to her, for a small invited audience. Ed Ricart, who runs New Atlantis Records, was interested in a solo record from me, and for this album I wanted a situation in which I could have complete artistic control of all facets of production, which he was able to offer. After I selected the music from the recording session (we used 79 minutes of the 120 that I performed), I sent it to Erin Rice, an artist and friend in Brooklyn who lost her mother a few weeks before my mother died, and supported me through my mother’s final weeks. Her artwork, with the image of my mother as a young woman peering off into the abyss of her painting, is integral to the record. The liner note is the eulogy I delivered at my mother’s funeral. And the track titles also refer to the overall concept, in some cases more obliquely. I have a strong preference for work that is conceptually sound.

How did you develop your the techniques that you employ on Ceremonies out of the Air?

There are techniques that I use that come from my conventional studies of the instrument, in both the so-called classical and jazz domains. But after I completed those studies I spent many years attempting to forget them, or at least forge a personal understanding of and voice on the instrument. I got interested in circular breathing when I first heard Rahsaan Roland Kirk‘s “Old Rugged Cross” as a university student in the mid 90s, and hearing and meeting Evan Parker a few years later inspired me to work seriously on the technique. Over the years I developed other techniques through the influences of other groundbreaking saxophonists – Roscoe Mitchell, Pharaoh Sanders, Khadri Gopalnath, for example – as well as Joel Ryan, Marek Choloniewski, and Michel Waisvisz – mentors of mine who pioneered electronically transformed sound. All along, I have been inspired by my peers – composers and improvisers in Krakow and The Hague, especially – who were developing their approaches alongside me. Among the most influential of these have been Rafal Mazur, the bassist and philosopher in Krakow, and Takuro Mizuta Lippit, the turntablist and theorist now living in Hong Kong, though I could name many other comrades whose collaborations fostered my technical development!

Who are some of the people you’d like to perform or record with in the future?

Oh man! I don’t want to dodge this question, but it’s difficult to answer without feeling like a kid in a candy store. I’ll say this: I had the opportunity this past spring to lead a band that performed William Parker’s music, with him, the drummer Muhammad Ali, and a few of Philly’s elder greats: Odean Pope, Dave Burrell, Marshall Allen, and Bobby Zankel. That experience did something to my playing and thinking that I’m still reeling from. So I’m certainly interested in connecting to elders such as these when the circumstances permit. There is also a long list of my contemporaries – some who I know and have played with, some who I’ve never met – that I want to get together with. Lately I’ve been wondering what it would sound like to get them all together in one room…

What are your musical plans for the next few months?

I have a few performances this fall. The bassist Shayna Dulberger and the drummer Julius Masri are joining me for two concerts in Philadelphia, on October 16 (at First Banana) and November 8 (at House Gallery 1816), and we’re planning to go into the studio later this fall. I’m also performing a solo at Downtown Music Gallery in NYC on October 19. Other than that, I’m writing – I honestly haven’t felt such a flood of inspiration to compose notated music for several years. There are a few different projects I’m working on – one for saxophone and strings, one for a small group, and one for a large ensemble of improvising musicians. These are all things that will get heard, in performances and recordings, over the next two years. Meanwhile, I’m planning to get back on the road in the spring – I have tentative plans for Europe, Mexico, and the US West Coast. I’ll be sure to let you know where I’ll be when plans solidify!

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