AMN Interviews: Brian Drye – Part 2

This is part 2 of Monique Avakian‘s extended interview with Brian Drye, founder of the Ibeam Brooklyn. Part 1 is published here.

Part Two: Networks of Support and Opportunity

by Monique Avakian

imagesBrian Drye, you’ve been running Ibeam since 2008. What’s challenging? What’s inspiring?

Challenging is the day to day boring stuff that no one would notice, like taking out the garbage, making sure the rent is paid and the lights stay on. It’s not that any one of the tasks is difficult, but when you put it all together, it can sometimes be overwhelming and other times pretty uneventful. It’s inspiring to see artists forming ensembles and working on their craft at Ibeam. It inspires me to keep working and search for my own voice as a composer, bandleader and instrumentalist.

What prompted you to start a creative music space in the first place?

I was looking for a place to teach lessons. It was as simple as that. I never intended to open a creative music space originally but that’s what it ended up becoming.

Have you achieved your original goals?

Yes – My original goal was to make the space functional for musicians and teachers as a place to work and create music comfortably and without distractions. It is a unique space, and I’ve worked hard to make it work and keep the bills paid and the space open with top level gear that is maintained. Beyond that I never had a grand plan, so now that the space is working and operational, I can look for the next goal and see what the space can achieve.

Would you describe Ibeam as a mirror, fuel, a magnet or unified field? (Please elaborate).

It’s all of those things in different capacities at different moments. There is no perfect space and Ibeam allows for a certain type of interaction between artists that is different than a club or a concert hall. It’s a mirror of the scene of creative musicians, but of course it’s not complete. But looking through the archives, it’s an amazing snapshot of artists, established and up and coming that are working in NYC. All of that fuels the scene and is a cog in the wheel of other DIY spaces and venues across the city. It’s a magnet for traveling groups who might find it difficult to book a gig in a venue without knowing the owner and hanging out all the time.

I’m particularly interested in how you are organized – is Ibeam a cooperative? A DIY group? A bee-hive? Some sort of syndicate? What are the advantages and disadvantages of your organizational model?

Ibeam is currently a for-profit business. Although the profit is tiny, it operates as such. It’s also a collective in that each member of Ibeam contributes to the space in exchange for using the space for rehearsals, concerts and teaching. The advantage of having one owner is that I get to make the decisions quickly when things need to happen. It’s helpful to not have to have a committee for every little decision that needs to be made. That being said, having a committee would be really helpful in creating a larger vision for the space. It’s too much for me to run it on my own and continue developing the vision. I would need to turn over the day to day operations to someone else and focus on the vision of the space. The members are really helpful, however, in bringing great work to Ibeam, great concerts and keeping a level of professionalism to the space that would only be possible with such a great pool of musicians. That is a unique structure made possible by the amazing pool of talent and unique artists in Brooklyn.

It seems really important for the larger culture to start to examine not only Ibeam, but other successful collaborative entrepreneurial models as well. What other groups/leaders on the scene should we be aware of, and how do you work together?

Ohad Talmor from Seeds is extremely dedicated to having an outlet for creative music. Occasionally we meet and discuss challenges and ideas for how to improve. He is currently partnering with the Jazz Gallery as they are mentoring him. I believe that there may be a future for Ibeam as well to partner with a larger organization that can help provide resources to keep it a vibrant space that lives on and grows in vision and scope.

P71358771-300x225Are there historical or international models of social/economic affiliation that influenced the founding/evolution of Ibeam?

Well, that’s funny – because one of my original thoughts when it came to having concerts was that I know how hard it is to get a gig in NY. At least it was really hard for me starting out, and I thought Ibeam would be a great place for young musicians to book a show. There are so few places to perform these days for creative music, and it seems that since I moved here in 1997 that the number of venues that would even allow this type of music are diminishing all the time. And the function of this music is often suited for a concert environment where the audience comes to listen without distraction. Certainly John Zorn’s club, The Stone, is a major influence on Ibeam as a space dedicated solely to music. Brooklyn has become, and will be for a long time I believe, the area most closely associated with cutting edge creative music. I’m not an expert on those trends, but I know that most nights of the week I’m performing in Brooklyn and very rarely in Manhattan.

In addition to high levels of independence and motivation, I observe that many musicians have a well-developed sense of empathy and firm sets of social skills. Do you think musicians have something special to offer the rest of society in terms of social and economic leadership?

I guess I can agree with that. All musicians have an amazing amount of grit and discipline that is required just to play an instrument, let alone be a bandleader or compose their own music. Jazz is an especially social music so musicians are forced to interact in order to learn about their craft, observe and communicate with artists. Music is still and always will be a social art since you need an audience to authenticate the work, and it has to happen in real time. I’m attracted to musicians who spend less time complaining and more time reaching for solutions to the issues of creating their art and producing it for an audience. iBeam is an answer to that in a way – instead of complaining about less venues, the musicians get together and just create one.

Some people are aware of these radically shifting times for musicians; others are clueless. How can the general public better care for and support musicians? How can we work together to raise an awareness that translates into concrete action?

Hmmm…that’s a great question. I think the simple answer to that for me is education. And it has to start at a young age and has to teach young people about the value of music in society and the value of musicians in society. This means putting working musicians in front of children and teachers all the time and turning students on at a young age to music that is dynamic, handmade, risky and challenging while still being entertaining and fun!

What’s the next step for Ibeam and/or the jazz scene as a whole? What developments do you see unfolding into the future?

The next step is to tap the resources of other great organizations that present creative challenging music such as Roulette and the Issue Project Room. I also see an opportunity for more engaging musician residencies where artists can present their work for several performances in a row.

AMN Interviews: Brian Drye – Part 1

imagesIn a follow up to our interview with Brian Drye last year, Monique Avakian digs into more detail with Brian, regarding his music, musical path, and viewpoints. Currently, Brian is the founder of the Ibeam Brooklyn.

Part One – Music and the Man

By Monique Avakian

I read in All About Jazz that you are a teaching artist for Carnegie Hall as well as a coach and mentor for music educators throughout the city. How do teaching and mentoring influence your artistic trajectory and vice-versa?

Yes, I have been a teaching artist with Carnegie Hall for about seven years, and currently I’m working with music educators in NYC giving them feedback and assistance with their strengths as educators and finding out where they can use some help. Teaching allows me to constantly explore new music and approaches to learning music that I would not be able to explore on my own. Being open as a teacher has helped me become more open as an artist. Additionally, Carnegie Hall employs amazing musicians and artists and it’s inspiring to be a part of the work they do there. I’ve had the opportunity to work in struggling communities, homeless shelters and with up and coming high school musicians. One of the most important residencies I participated in was the American Roots program which was focused on African American spirituals. I feel that working in that program ignited a passion for song and connecting to community that has been influential in my own work.

I read in Cisco Bradley’s, Jazz Right Now, that you moved to New York in 1997 – where were you before that and how did your earlier musical and personal experiences build a foundation for you to make that leap?

I grew up in Rhode Island with a musician father who didn’t push me too hard, but was extremely supportive of my efforts to become a musician. I made my way to Miami for music school and then immediately landed in NYC basically because I was obsessed with the music that was happening in NYC at that time in the “downtown” scene at the knitting factory. I grew up in a small town in Rhode Island and was always hungry for Jazz music. In Miami we played all the time but outside the school at that time there wasn’t much going on. I spent 3 months in the Lower East Side in 1997, and I knew there was absolutely no other place to be. I heard music every single night for 3 months, blew all of my savings, and I still to this day don’t regret it. It was my “backpack across Europe” moment.

Bizingas* new (and second) album, Eggs Up High, is coming out with a CD release show at Threes Brewing on November 3, 2015. Biziangas is a group with no bass player and a heavy infusion of electronic experimentation. How did that set-up come about, and musically what does that mean for the group?

I had just met Kirk and we started doing some sessions. I met Ches Smith and invited him to play with myself, Kirk and Jonathan Goldberger at an East Village rehearsal space, and I knew that was the right band. I’d been already playing with Jonathan and we had a chemistry, and I knew that this was the next version of the band. I had an original version of the Bizingas band with a different drummer and Jon as the guitarist. It was supposed to be a trio and then I realized with Kirk in the mix, it would possibly free me up to play keyboard which is something I’d been wanting to incorporate into a band for a long time.

Is Bizingas some sort of punk band?

We’re not a punk band. We are an art-rock, free-prog, jazz quartet.

The threading arc between Bizingas albums seems at once recursive and expansive – as leader and composer, do you spend a lot of time working on creating links between albums, or does long-term compositional threading happen more organically for you?

It’s more organic I guess. I know that there is definitely an element that makes a particular composition more of a Bizingas tune. I feel that this record actually comes the closest to that aesthetic. I purposely did not write a whole bunch of new music, but rather tried to focus on those Bizingas type tunes I already had and supplement with a couple new ones. The first track on this new Bizingas record is Hawaii and I wrote that in 1999. Probably one of my first compositions that I wrote in NY and it was never recorded.

What is poetic about sonic exploration? I see that you recently played live at The Stone with avant sonic composer Annie Gosfield

Annie is amazing BTW….

Do you ever feel that you might get trapped inside of the spectacle and gadgetry of electronics?

No, I love electronics and electronic sounds. I don’t always feel like it’s so easy to blend with electronics, but I like the challenge as a horn player to make it work.

You also play in several other configurations regularly: with your dad, Howard Drye in Drye & Drye, with Mike McGinnis and Sean Moran in The Four Bags, with Kirk Knuffke, and with fellow trombonists, Jacob Garchik and Curtis Hasselbring…How do these situations cross-pollinate and inform your musical development?

Jacob and Curtis are two of my favorite trombone players, and I am super lucky to be in their company. They are both my heroes on trombone and everything else. Mike and Sean I’ve been playing with since I moved to NY, and Kirk is a brother–we have a connection and sympatico that is very unique.

How does your work with Slavic Soul Party, Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars and Banda de los Muertos influence your projects and artistic trajectory?

All of these bands you mention are first of all huge influences for me. Slavic Soul Party was an immense resource for meeting so many great musicians and cutting my teeth playing music for dancing. Plus getting to study music outside of jazz has been really helpful in opening me up to so much music from around the word. Frank London is a very special musician, a great showman and an inspiring leader to follow on the bandstand. And again, Banda is all about dancing, digging deep into cultures beyond my own, getting to experience that first hand through the music and playing with all my close friends. I am very lucky to be a part of all of those bands.

Technically, I’ve always been struck by your speed and accuracy on the trombone, especially when playing with other trombonists and horn players super rapidly in unison, with a stellar example being Track 4, “Along,” on Eggs Up High. What kind of techniques allow you to play at such an accomplished level? Is it a matter of practice hours or more of an overall mindset? And when you compose, do you push pieces to include room for such maneuvers?

Well – first of all – thank you. I don’t think of myself as a technically impressive player, but I do believe that anything is playable on the trombone. I don’t limit myself to what the trombone is supposed to do. In fact it took me a long time as a younger musician to accept all the great things a trombone can do so well naturally and the lineage of all the amazing trombonists. I do think it’s mostly a mindset in addition to some practice hours. I still put a couple hours a day into the horn, and I feel like I practice so much better these days than I ever did before. I still feel like I get a little better every day at the trombone. The trombone is a lifetime commitment just to improve slightly each day.

I notice that you also play piano and that you have a fondness for the organ. Do you think there’s enough funk in jazz these days?

I love the piano, and in my next life I’m pretty sure I come back as a jazz organist and that’s it. And no – I think jazz needs to still be more dirty, funky and gross. As Roswell Rudd says, it’s the “Fuzz” (the mystery) that makes it sound good!

As a musician and as a teacher, do you consider yourself a traditionalist or a radical?

Neither – I love traditional and radical and everything in between. There is a time and place for all of it–A time to rebel and a time to join. Without that balance it’s all pretty boring to me.

How do you encourage your students to develop a firm sense of fearlessness when improvising?

Well – I don’t prep them. We act first, and then we think later. I think that’s the first step. Later on you learn to think first and act and that’s much harder. I feel like I’m always struggling to act first more.

Is it important for rising young jazz musicians to gain command of complex meters in composition and improvisation? What do you advise in terms of study and approach here?

Yes, of course – learn all of it – but don’t worry if you can’t do everything that you want to be able to do. I’ve been playing this mixed meter flamenco tune for two years and even recorded it already with my chamber group, The Four Bags. And today I discovered that I could finally play it effortlessly. The struggle is great if we can appreciate that it will pay off in ways that we may not be able to quantify for many years.

How can a young person prepare for success in the jazz world today?

Move to NY, meet as many people as you can, play hard, work hard, practice well and don’t beat yourself up. Stay positive. That’s the hardest thing to do as a jazz musician.

And last, but not least: Can you speak about the evolution of beards in Brooklyn? You and Kirk Knuffke are really trend-setters in that regard, aren’t you? I’m not sure you guys get enough credit for that…

Hell, yes! I’ve had a solid beard since I was about 22, and when I met Kirk, I knew we were going to be friends based on his beard. I shaved it once since then, and it was traumatic for me – so I think it’s here to stay!

 {Part Two continues the discussion with a focus on Drye’s music venue, Ibeam Brooklyn}

Bizingas: Brian Drye – trombone / keys / compositions, Ches Smith – drums / electronics, Kirk Knuffke – cornet, Jonathan Goldberger – guitar

“Once” video, Bizingas:

Eggs Up High:

Bizingas 2010 album review by Troy Collins at All About Jazz:


AMN Interviews: Michael Zerang

DamageZerang41Michael Zerang is a Chicago-based musician, composer, and producer, who has been active in a wide variety of musical endeavors for over 40 years. While loosely associated with Chicago’s free-jazz circles, Zerang has participated in theater, dance, and other multidisciplinary forms, and appeared on over 80 recordings. He recently took some time to answer a few of our questions.

How did you get started with music? Was it something that appealed to you from early childhood or did it evolve later?

I had always been an avid music fan since childhood. When I was 16 years old, I hitchhiked across the country to California and up through Canada for 4 months. During the first week, I witnessed a concert by Rahsaan Roland Kirk at Keystone Corners in San Francisco. He blew my mind so thoroughly – actually altering my DNA – that I decided right then and there that I would pursue the musical arts for the rest of my life, especially the exploratory aspects. It was such a transformative experience for me that it has been driving me ever since.

You have been involved with the Chicago music scene for quite a while. How has it changed from, say, 1980 to today?

When I was coming up in Chicago in music in the late 70’s and through the 80’s, the art scene was much more holistic in that you’d have painters, poets, theater artists, performance artists and musicians all inhabiting the same spaces and scenes. In a way, it was a much richer environment to develop in because of all of this cross discipline. These days, each of these fields has their own spaces and audiences, and it’s harder for young artists to be exposed to the broader art practices. There are benefits to this, but I did gain a valuable insights from all of the cross fertilization of the arts.

With respect to free jazz and outside music, what are the differences between North America and Europe that you see as a performer? For instance, is the level of involvement and appreciation different?

The European scene has always been funded better, allowing for the possibility to actually make a living from exploratory arts practice. The audiences in Europe are great since they have had such a rich artistic heritage. That’s changing a bit these days due to economic considerations, but it’s still easier than in the USA. On the other hand, American artists, especially African American artists, have brought a music to the world that is awe inspiring and so vital, even through difficult economic and cultural situations. On balance, I’m glad I can straddle both worlds, as well as other regions of the world.

Aside from performing and recording, what other musical activities are you involved in?

From the beginning, I have been a composer, mostly in collaboration with other live art forms such as theater, dance, puppetry, etc. This has given me a completely different approach to music making and I have learned so much from working with these other disciples that I could not have by just working as a musician. I still am involved with these collaborations in my capacity as a composer to this day, and still gain insights that I couldn’t get otherwise.

coverYour two recent releases, Hash Eaters and Peacekeepers and Songs from the Big Book of Love seem to be companion pieces. How did these recordings come together?

Michael Zerang & the Blue Lights is a new project that came from my desire to compose music that dealt simply with rhythm and melody. I have been involved for over 25 years as an improviser, mostly dealing with extended forms and techniques. This band is much more straight ahead. Songs from the Big Book of Love contains eight original compositions that I fashioned for the players involved – Mars Williams, Dave Rempis, Josh Berman, Kent Kessler and myself – all frequent and longtime collaborators. Hash Eaters and Peacekeepers contains three additional original composition and three arrangements of Middle Eastern tunes that were favorites of mine since childhood.

Are there any musicians left that you would really like to perform or record with, but still have not?

The list is too long! But I am always looking to make new connections and collaboration. I’m not done yet!

Any advice for young, upcoming jazz / creative musicians?


Aside from your European tour with The Blue Lights, do you have any other upcoming events, performances, or releases that we should know about?

I am also touring with Survival Unit III, Joe McPhee, Fred Lonberg-Holm and me, in Europe this fall to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the band. I will be performing at the Music Unlimited Festival in November in Wels, Austria as well with Joe McPhee, Christoph Kurzmann, Isabella Duthoit, performing a tribute to Ornette Coleman, and I will end the year with the Winter Solstice duo Concerts with Hamid Drake that marks our 25th anniversary on December 21, 22, and 23.

AMN Interviews: Lukas Ligeti

5389294442_65b8ed8367Composer and percussionist Lukas Ligeti will celebrate his 50th birthday with two nights of premieres: June 14th at Roulette, and June 11th at the Austrian Cultural Forum. The concert series opens June 11th at the ACFNY, with performances of Lukas’ solo and small ensemble works (performers include Thomas Bergeron, Candy Chiu, Jennifer Hymer, Ben Reimer, David Cossin, and others), and premiere pieces for Lukas’ new classical/indie rock band, Notebook. The festival culminates June 14th at Roulette featuring Lukas’ music for chamber orchestra. Program includes several world premieres, as well as U.S. and New York City premieres, performed by the fresh, contemporary-collective Ensemble mise-en conducted by Oliver Hagen, pianist Vicky Chow, and others.

Recently, he took time to answer a few questions from AMN.

You are a truly international composer and performer, in the sense that you have followings on at least three continents and have been influenced by the music thereof. How did you develop this global approach to music?

My whole life story, even my family history, has predestined me to exist less in any specific culture than in the spaces between them. I was born in Austria to parents who had fled from Hungary. But, being jews, they were not entirely clearly Hungarians, either – not, at least, since having experienced the holocaust. Also, as an aside, my father [avant-garde composer Gyorgy Ligeti] grew up in what is now Romania. At birth, I was without citizenship, a Geneva Convention refugee who had never himself fled. I became an Austrian citizen and grew up in a country that was somewhat foreign to my parents. Having lived briefly in California and started elementary school there, I then returned to Austria and went to an American school there, growing up among expatriates from all over the world. I studied in Austria and eventually immigrated to the U.S.; now, I’m a dual citizen, with two citizenships acquired by naturalization. In the meantime, I began spending much time in Africa and started feeling very much at home there, initially in the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, and now also in South Africa, where I now have a second home. And in music, I started late and by listening to any style imaginable, so as opposed to most people, I don’t “come from” classical or jazz or whatever else.

In particular, your recent work has been influenced by African music. How did you get introduced to the sounds of that continent?

My first exposure to African culture was very unusual and not at all musical. My grandmother had a small but significant collection of African sculptures, which I fell in love with. Later, around the age of 20, I started listening to African music through a variety of coincidences: cassette-swapping with my father; a girlfriend who had grown up in Malawi; lectures by the ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik at the University of Vienna. The latter in particular provided some input that made me change my thinking about music completely, at a point when I was still very new to music and had few or no ingrained habits or beliefs. And this African music, initially particularly from Uganda, became a fundamental influence in my process of forming a voice of my own. Then, 7 or 8 years later, I started going to Africa, and my first trip there, an invitation by the Goethe Institute to the Ivory Coast, was similarly life-changing and embarked me on an ongoing path of collaborating with African musicians.

The first time I heard your music was on the recording from the avant-jazz-rock group Kombinat M. You have gone from using a more traditional drum kit at that time to experimental electronic percussion today. What has driven this evolution?

I still play a regular drum kit; my most recent gig the other day was playing straight-ahead jazz, and I much prefer the drums to electronics when I free-improvise. But I built myself a little computer back in high school and have been interested in electronics ever since. After practicing drums for a few years, I decided it was time to bring technology into the game, but I wanted to preserve / expand the technique I’d acquired rather than jettisoning it through electronics. I didn’t want my playing to become disembodied or static, or to just play a computer keyboard. I was interested to see how my drumming technique and my listening would change through electronics. I continue to play both traditional drum kit and electronic percussion.

When you have some time off, what do you listen to? Are there any composers or musicians you have discovered recently?

There are always new ones… at the moment I’m so busy preparing for my upcoming concerts that I don’t have a clear mind to say which are my most recent favorites. I listen to music from all over the world and from all stylistic orientations and time periods.

How did your 50th birthday celebration performances come together?

The Austrian Cultural Forum in New York had long wanted to do a feature on my work, and my 50th birthday seemed like a great opportunity. And for me it was a wonderful chance to present a wider cross-section of my classical compositions, something I don’t often get a chance to do. I’m not part of the mainstream, I guess, so many outlets for presenting work that welcome other composers seem to be closed to me.

What else have you got coming up in 2015 with respect to releases and performances?

My most important activity later this year will be a move to Southern California, where I’ll join the faculty in “Integrated Composition, Improvisation, and Technology” (ICIT), a new and innovative Ph.D program at the University of California, Irvine. I’m very excited to join one of the few academic programs in existence that have a truly experimental focus, open in all directions. Among other activities will be a repeat of my June 14 roulette concert in South Africa with musicians from there and a residency at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw to develop a site-specific piece.

AMN Interviews: Devin Gray

bio-page-picDevin Gray is a New York based drummer and composer who is carving out his own path through that city’s rich creative music scene. He has performed and recorded with innovative musicians of contrasting styles and backgrounds such as: Tony Malaby, Gary Thomas, Ingrid Jensen, Dave Burrell, Dave Ballou, Michael Formanek, Nate Wooley, Stephan Crump, George Garzone, Chris Speed, Drew Gress, Sam Rivers, Ralph Alessi, John O’Gallagher, Ellery Eskelin, Kris Davis, Ted Rosenthal, Uri Caine, Dave Liebman, Andrew D’Angelo, Vardan Ovsepian, Bill McHenry as well as many others.

In 2012 he released his first album as a leader, Dirigo Rataplan, and on June 9th, his second offering, RelativE ResonancE, hits the shelves.

Read our review of RelativE ResonancE.

What were your formative years like? How did they lead to your current endeavors?

I have been very fortunate to have somehow ended up in some really inspiring places and situations in the last ten years or so. When I was just starting high school I was exposed to great musicians (and New York City based) teachers at the Maine Jazz Camp. That inspiration lead to me going to undergraduate music school at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, where I was also very lucky to be around great musicians and teachers, and to create some strong lasting musical relationships. I then decided to continue to study in the masters program at Manhattan School of Music. Directly after that I moved to Brooklyn in search for the musical communities I’d been craving. Since then I’ve just kept working on playing, composing, and experiencing music as much as possible.

RelativE ResonancE is different in many ways from Dirigo Rataplan. Can you explain the different approaches undertaken for each of these recordings?

Dirigo Rataplan was like here is some music I wrote and spent some serious time working on, let me bring it to these amazing players, not say too much, and let’s just make music. Though I did have certain compositional ideas and events that I wanted to have happen. I also felt comfortable enough in knowing how to approach those guys in a way that I felt was responsible and honest to the integrity of the music. That idea plus some life experiences is Dirigo Rataplan to me. I am endlessly grateful to those guys and for that situation.

RelativE ResonancE is a slightly different zone for me although it’s coming from a similar space as Dirigo. This recording has more composition than Dirigo and even more structure to it. I’m always thinking about what will be fun for me, the music, and the players. What is it that I really like to do? I like studying combinations of music, compositions, styles, energies, attitudes, and personalities. I like thinking ahead about certain things with my music, and I like to dream of situations and reactions. It’s kind of like inspiration musical day dreaming for me.

Much of RelativE ResonancE has to do with me wanting to create situations for people, ideas, and platforms for expression. I’ve been writing music with this group in mind on and off for around four years now. I kept experimenting and finally came up with these concepts which I felt strongly about. It definitely took some time for me to be comfortable (musically speaking) with realizing what I had to throw myself into with this project. I’m always pushing myself to be a better player and bandleader, and some of the pieces on the record are more challenging for me as a drummer.

In my mind this record has more compositional “styles” going on then Dirigo. Three of the pieces are a little more “normal” functioning (City Nothing City, In the Cut, RealtivE ResonancE (for Tadd Dameron), and the other five pieces (Notester, Jungle Design (for Hannah Shaw), Transatlantic Transitions, Search it up, and Undo the Redo) are closer to the way I like to hear and try to express myself through music. The first of those five pieces (Search it up) was originally inspired by a piece of Iannis Xenakis, which the Dirigo band played on some gigs. I later adapted it for this group because there was something about it that was pulling me quite strongly in a direction that my ears and heart likes. The other pieces have numerous sources of inspiration within the compositions, and to me the results are kind of like free improvisation but somehow more centered.

Are there any unique aspects of being both a drummer and composer that have informed your works?

I’m always thinking about this…it really started when I took up playing / practicing and trying to perform on vibraphone years ago in college. Being in a group and getting to play melodies, and taking melodic solos? that was very different, exciting, and informative for me. But the most important thing I learned form that, or the thing that flipped my switch for the first time was hearing drums, and playing with different drummers but as another instrumentalist… That was kind of mind blowing for a while…really hearing what drummers would/could do from another position in the room/on stage…wow. It gave me and still does SO much more perspective on what drums can / could / “should” / maybe / sometimes sound or feel like. I learned much more about musical energies that way… Having that experience and carrying that information around with me changed the way I hear things as a drummer and composer very much still to this day.

That being said, I am more aware of what I do as a drummer that can fit or go against musical ideas, I feel comfortable knowing when I want to experiment in certain ways or not with out (hopefully) crashing something. But even as I write this I find me not agreeing with myself…its more like I still need much more experience doing all of this, and I do feel lucky that I hope to have MANY more chances and trying to be responsible with music.

Over the years the more I compose music, the faster at relating to it I’ve gotten. Certain parts of my process has sped up, and I view it like practicing and gaining more experiences and knowledge which in return pushes me into new spaces. I also feel slightly more informed when I’m improvising and composing what I like and dislike and want more or less of, I think in the end hopefully you get better at making decisions in music…

For RelativE ResonancE, I composed drum parts! Five out of the eight pieces have drum parts! This is kind of new to me, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it honesty. But it was fun, and a lot of them I composed on the kit, and edited later.

When (if?) you have any free time, what do you listen to?

I just bought Guerrilla Toss, and Karlheinz Stockhausen (studies I / studie II/ gersang der Junglinge / Zyklus Ffur zwei Schlagzeungernon on vinyl. I’ve only listened to one so far, and can’t wait for more time to investigate more deeply.

I like listening to recordings people give me when I’m traveling. It’s always fun and inspiring to come back and have a piles of people you got to meet and hang with and know first, and then get to check out more of what they’re up to.

Is there anyone in New York (or elsewhere) that you’d really like to play or record with?

In New York, Anthony Braxton
In Berlin, Alexander Von Schlippenbach
In Paris, Eve Risser
In Stockholm, Bobo Stenson

I’ve done some recent trio playing with Joachim Badenhorst and Kris Davis, Richard Bonnet and Tony Malaby, Andrea Parkins and Frank Gratkowski, Dave Ballou and John Dieker, Drew Gress and Kris Davis. Those were all different and really inspirational, and I’d love get those captured at some point.

Tell us about what you’ve got coming up in 2015 with respect to releases and performances, including but not limited to the CD release performances for RelativE ResonancE.

I am very excited to play at Greenwich House Music again on June 13th. It’s becoming a home for me and my music. I love what Bradley Bambarger is doing for the music community in New York with his Sound it Out series. This will be the series’ 100th show and I am honored to be apart of it! I’m hearing that the new CD will be basically free if you come to the concert. I am also very excited that it will be a double bill show with Matt Mitchells group with Speed, Tordini, and Dan Weiss!

As for 2015 and 2016 there are some exciting things in the works. There are some more TBA RelativE ResonancE gigs, some performances at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival this summer, some hopeful Dirigo Rataplan gigs in Europe, a gig with Dave Liebman, in NYC I’m playing at Jazz in Central Park and the Bluenote in July. More gigs in Berlin with many different groups and more TBA august Europe dates in August. Spring has another Europe tour with VAX, new trio gigs and tours in France, sideman gigs in Germany in the fall, and NYC projects and gigs with old and new friends. Things are moving forward and gaining traction and I’m feeling good about all of it. In the end, I’d say, please just connect with me and say hi!

AMN Interviews: John King

jk_new by Anna FinkeFresh off a residency at New York’s iconic Stone, versatile composer John King will be premiering a piece for six pianos in that city on Friday, May 22nd & Saturday, May 23rd, 8pm, at the Knockdown Center, 52-19 Flushing Avenue, Maspeth, NY 11378. He took some time to talk to AMN about his background and works.

Tell us about your history. How did you get interested in music originally, and how did it lead to your current output?

I always begin with my first live music concert which was the Muddy Waters Blues Band playing at the Guthrie Theater in my home town of Minneapolis. I was 14 or 15 at the time and can clearly remember the raw energy, the excitement, the power of the music. I had been playing electric guitar in some bands, but from then on I threw myself into Chicago blues, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, and then some of the rock’n’rollers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry. By the time I was a junior in high school, I was playing in 2-3 bands, had added Jimi Hendrix into my influences and with that came a whole new approach to improvisation, experimentation with sound, like that….At the same time, I was realizing there were other aspects to music which I hadn’t connected with, and very much wanted to, so a friend and I began studying 16th century counterpoint, I added violin and piano to instruments I was studying and I began to “compose” little pieces in those early styles – canons, fugues, chorales, even a short concerto for piccolo and orchestra! When I was a senior the school orchestra performed the concerto – my first big “concert” after playing many clubs and small venues around Minnesota. From there I studied composition more formally with a professor from the University of Minnesota, and he introduced me to the “classics” – Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, and even into the 20th Century with Debussy, Schönberg, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Cage, Boulez. And I was trying my hand at writing pieces with those composers as models. I did not go directly to college from high school but did those studies in the “gap year.” Then I applied to CalArts where I went for 3 years, graduating a year early and where I studied with Morton Subotnick, James Tenney and Leonard Stein. After graduating, I moved to New York where I settled in, writing more “uptown” music at the beginning, but then finding my way to the downtown improv scene, and also had the opportunity to meet John Cage after sending him a cassette tape of some of my music, and him writing back saying he wanted to hear more, after which he commissioned me to write my first piece for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1985. I owe a great deal to that long association with the artists, composers, musicians and dancers of the MCDC from 1985 to 2011 when the company ended. And along that way I was also working with various ensembles, string quartets, singers, other dance companies and at each stage exploring new ways of working, conceiving and imagining sound.

Your use of instrumentation is quite varied – do you start with an idea and then choose the instruments on which to express it, do you choose the instruments first, or is the process more complicated than that?

Of course, if the piece comes from a commission, then I’ll go with that instrumentation, and if it’s my choice for written music I often use the string quartet as my basic ensemble….which can be expanded to other colors as well. I’ve written pieces for string orchestra, percussion quartet and full mixed large orchestra for conceptual ideas that seemed to need realizations with those sonic colors. In about half my output I use live electronics which are like parallel compositions to the live acoustic music it is processing and transforming. When improvising or working in an open sonic ensemble I play electric guitar, electric viola, oud and recently ngoni.

Given the diversity of your compositions, your influences are hard to pin down. Are there any in particular that can be called out?

As I said before I think Jimi Hendrix as an explorer of sound, an experimental approach to the sonic moment – he was a big early influence. Then John Cage, who was doing more or less the same, but with different materials….also Mort Subotnick, David Behman and David Tudor for their approaches to electronics and live electronics as compositional systems.

How do you integrate indeterminacy into your composition, especially the operas?

For many years now I have been interested in time and its organization, so in the operas indeterminate aspects were used to organize time/duration/ordering of materials, as well as locations on the stage, orchestral parts, live video elements, choreographic uses of the same space shared with the singers. As a friend described it, I was constructing a massive “traffic cop” to say when/what/where singer A would sing “aria X” and then if that were happening, where/what/when/for how long dancers could share the stage with the singer, where would be the possible entrances/exits for the singer/dancers. It sounds very chaotic but when we did the opera “Dice Thrown” at CalArts, the collaborative team were very skeptical at first when I described the manner in which these parts came together, and came together differently for each performance. But then in the end, we did 3 performances, each different, with all these changing parts, arias, movements, choruses, video, stage design, live electronics, orchestral elements – all shifting for each show, yet everyone knew exactly what/where/when to perform and it all worked seamlessly and quite beautifully, without there needing to be any “director” besides a chance-determined “traffic cop.”

In 2015, do you think there still is a meaningful dichotomy between composer and performer?

My main teacher/mentor at CalArts, Mort Subotnick, used a metaphor about a composer having 3 “cycles” in the overall arc of working; first the “composer” has the ideas and concepts for the work; the “performer” realizes those ideas, whether by writing out the parts or playing the parts herself/himself; and then there is the “audience” or listener of the work who then determines how close to the original idea the realization and the performance of the work actually is. His idea was that then the “composer” re-evaluates the entire previous work’s cycle and that, then, informs the next work taken on. And this cycle continues. My reflection on this is that there really is NO separation between composer and performer, that there is a constant shifting back and forth between the 2 aspects of sonic imagination and creation.

John King Knockdown Image onlyTell us about your upcoming performances in New York. How did they come about and what should we expect?

The next concert I have is taking place at the fantastic Knockdown Center in Queens, a multi-disciplinary 50,000 sq. ft. space with amazing sightlines, acoustics and atmosphere. The work is titled “Piano Vectors for 6 pianos in a large space” – there will be 6 amazing pianists: Jenny Lin, Laura Barger, Taka Kigawa, Ning Yu, Tania Tachkova and Joseph Kubera performing on 6 Steinway 9-ft concert D grand pianos placed throughout the Knockdown Center space. The 6 pianists are each soloists in a way. They each play similar material but perform this material within what I call “time-vectors” – durations of time which are randomly determined and which cause the musical material to be compressed or expanded based on the individual decisions of each performer. So again, at each performance the materials will take on different shapes and be placed in time and space at varying points. The audience will be encouraged to move around the space, being close to or very distant from the pianos and therefore be active participants in how they experience the time/space/sound of this composition.

What other projects, live or recorded, do you having coming up?

I have a piece written for the wonderful soprano Ariadne Greif being performed at Pioneer Works May 30th, as part of the Ferus Festival 2015. It’s a new piece called “of all the stars the most beautiful” which is the entire text fragment of a poem by Sappho. This is one of many pieces Ariadne will be performing that evening as part of her “Dreams and Nightmares” project. I also have a premiere in November, for the Mannheim Ballet (Germany), for mixed women’s chorus and string quartet, using texts based on the themes of time found in T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” And sometime in the fall, a recording of my piece “ars imitatur naturam” for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus will be released on their “Black Mountain Songs” CD.

AMN Interviews: Guy Barash

barash_homeGuy Barash is a modern classical composer. His works include orchestral, chamber, vocal, and electroacoustic compositions, as well as music for theater. He has also incorporated text in various settings and arrangements. His recent release, Facts About Water, was a highlight of 2014. Recently he took some time to answer a few questions.

I understand that you developed an interest in music very early in life. How did this interest begin for you?

Since childhood, back in Israel, music has been a big part of my life. Neither of my parents is a professional musician. However, they both played an instrument, and there was always music playing at home. At the age of four I wanted to play the violin. So I did. For almost two years, my mother and I took weekly Suzuki violin sessions. Then I wanted to play piano, too, and started taking lessons. At the age of 11 I decided to add guitar to the mix, and then bass… I started my undergraduate studies in music composition right after high school. At the University of Haifa I met the composer Arik Shapira. He became my first composition teacher: harmony, counterpoint, aural skills, solfège, orchestration, what not. The Nadia Boulanger style. Through chorale dictations, and endless fugues and other exercises, that was the only way into the secret world of great composers! Oy.

I admit, though, it taught me discipline, which is a trait that can be very helpful for composers. More importantly, Shapira was the one who really introduced me to electronic music. After spending some time in studios, learning basic techniques, I became his assistant. In the few years prior to moving to New York I realized all of Shapira’s electronic scores. I learned so much from this process. I personally recommend that every young composer spend some time as an apprentice. This is the best way to learn.

My first piece was a tape piece. A dark, acerbic electronic miniature for the end of time as we know it. So much teen angst! But fixed media didn’t satisfy me. I discovered Max/MSP and whole new world of sound opened up. I began experimenting with the possibilities. And they were endless. Through these experiments I refined my sound world, my approach, and my style. Whether I’m writing for electronic media or for traditional instruments without any processing, “electronic thinking” informs both my palette and my perspective.

In 2008 I moved to New York for graduate studies at NYU Steinhardt. Among my most influential teachers were Joan La Barbara and Morton Subotnick. That experience liberated me and my writing in ways that I’m just starting to understand. You grow up learning invaluable skills, imitate your teachers, your idols, but then what? How does a young composer establish a unique voice? It was then when I found that small seed that could grow into my compositional language.

Were you immediately drawn to modern classical music, or was that passion developed over time?

At four I unfortunately hadn’t discovered modern music. The first time I remember hearing modern music was at around the age of 14. One day I arrived to a guitar lesson and when I entered there was a Stockhausen record playing. It immediately caught my attention, and we spent most of the lesson talking about what the hell this was! That was basically the only good thing I took from my guitar teacher. But hey, that’s big!

Your music seems primarily composed.  Do you incorporate elements of improvisation as well?  Can you discuss your compositional approach in general?

I am particularly interested in exploring the juxtaposition of improvised materials with composed ones. For example, in some of my works you can hear one instrument, or even a section improvising while another is playing composed materials. That provides the frame, or the limits for the improvised material. Sometimes, for instance in my piano piece Talkback IV for piano and computer, you hear one hand playing composed music while the other is playing freer gestures. This is the source for some of my favorite textures.

However, even my improvised sections have their rules and limitations within themselves. I am constantly looking for new ways to convey, and graphically represent improvised sections, and their limitations, in a way that will really encapsulate the type of improvisation and its characteristics. Basically to create a bank of improvised events. It helps me refine the process that I described above, to hear the improvised elements more clearly in order to anticipate what will work well with certain composed elements.

Your use of time is interesting – various foreground and background voices seem out of synch at times, but in a natural but disturbing way.  How did this style develop?

The perception of time in general interests me. And specifically in music, the way we feel time passing, the sense of pulse, synchronicity, and how all of these relate to each other. I play on these things, the expectations that make us believe we can measure time, or even feel when sequences or events are synchronized or not. It also relates to the subject of memory, which is something that I am now exploring further in my music. I think it started from searching for new ways to create the sense of polyphony. The juxtaposition of free and notated materials, and the interplay between foreground and background create the illusion of polyphony.

You have been curating performances at several New York venues of late.  How did that start and how is it going?

I have been curating the Eavesdropping concert series for over five years already. Originally, it started at The Tank and lasted there for three years. Then I moved it to Spectrum two years ago. I do it completely voluntarily. I believe there is a lot of value in having a place for more adventurous musical explorations within the new music scene. I try to trigger a conversation between composers, performers, and audience members. I choose settings like Spectrum, that are more intimate, in order to bring these, the components of a lively contemporary music community, closer together. It’s a healthy dynamic that we need to nurture.

The series, Eavesdropping, keeps evolving every season. Next year I am thinking to have more workshop-like installments where audience members could actually participate and learn something new.

893coverYour release, Facts About Water, is quite involved thematically.  Can you expound on its pieces and the meanings therein?

The album, Facts About Water, captures a small yet important fragment of my artistic journey. It is a snapshot of a cycle: inspiration, reflection, creation that started one day at the local bookstore as I was looking for text to set to music. I came across the poetry of Nick Flynn, which began a new cycle. After playing with his words for a while I had the idea that this exploration can evolve into a bigger project.

I reached out to Nick without knowing too much about who he was and what else he wrote aside from the poem Imagination) that moved me; it had a rhythm that immediately translated into music. After a quick chat on the phone we decided to meet. What I didn’t know was that this meeting in a Brooklyn café one evening in the Fall of 2008 would develop into the ongoing fruitful collaboration that it has.

At the time he was working on a new book. I had the fortune to see raw materials, to get a rare glimpse into Nick’s process. It inspired me deeply. We started working on Proteus, an evening-long multimedia oratorio that explored central themes in post-9/11 American life. The piece was premiered at Galapagos Art Space, and presented again at The Tank alongside video projections by Jared Handelsman and Brendan Byrne. Concurrently, the same raw texts grew into Nick Flynn’s second memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb, in which he includes many water references. This is something that resonates with my aesthetic. Water is the source, and I usually start composing a piece with a very simple thematic material that provides the source from which the larger structure evolves. A series of prose-poem like miniatures, fragmented chapters, assemble the memoir.

One of these fragments is Facts About Water that provided the title for the album. I find the title very ironic. Water is something that’s always changing, transforming, while facts are constant, fixed, dogmatic even. To me it is a metaphor to forcing rules on things that don’t want to follow them by nature.

In my first string quartet, Wrong Ocean (the title is also from The Ticking is the Bomb), you can hear multiple layers or sequences of sonic events, that at times may sound conflicting, but constantly want to synchronize. All within a microtonal environment that can feel very disorienting to both the performer and the listener. It reflects the state of mind that I was in while writing the piece. At the time I was going through a personal process that was somewhat confusing and disorienting. It redefined the way I see and perceive things, transformed me in a way. I think Wrong Ocean really captures the transformative quality of that moment in time.

Originally, Blind Huber was an audio-visual rendition of seven poems from Nick Flynn’s second book of poems. In his book, “Flynn invites us to consider the intricate geometry of the beehive. Our guide to this new world is Blind Huber, loosely based on the eponymous eighteenth-century beekeeper whose fifty-year obsession uncovered most of what we know today about the hive.” I derived my structural and textural palette for this piece from the geometry of the beehive and the sonic environment within and around it. For his video projections, Jared Handelsman had documented a yearlong cycle of honeybees around the Catskill Mountains.

The piece was commissioned by Electronic Music Foundation with support from Jerome Foundation, and premiered at Greenwich House. Seven Testimonies is based on early versions of Nick Flynn’s poems from The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands. The poems, as Flynn describes in his endnote, “are redacted versions of the testimonies of seven Abu Ghraib detainees.” In the original Proteus oratorio they were separated into seven ritornellos that served as the Greek chorus. Proteus is a monologue for male voice and electronic processing. In Greek mythology Proteus is an early sea-god. He can foretell the future, but will change his shape to avoid having to; he will answer only to someone who is capable of capturing him. In the piece, with compositional and electronic means, I am trying to portray the shapeshifting quality of Proteus, to capture him.

Facts About Water was produced by Elliott Sharp and released on Innova Recordings in May 2014.

Let’s talk influences.  I hear George Crumb and Fred Lerdahl.  Am I close?  Which composers have played the largest roles in the development of your approach?

György Ligeti, Luciano Berio, Iannis Xenakis, and Gérard Grisey had much deeper influence on my aesthetic. So did Jimi Hendrix, Velvet Underground, Pixies, and the Tiger Lillies, whom I used to listen to a lot as a teenager. And John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and Wayne Shorter as well. In my music I always try to achieve the rawness that they had in playing so naturally.

However, my biggest influences are extramusical: film, poetry, and visual art have had a significant role in defining my aesthetic. We artists are all trying to solve the same “problem”. It is more interesting to me to see how artists from other disciplines approach it. I feel like I can learn more from them.

What do you have coming up in terms of performances and releases that we should know about?

The next installment of Eavesdropping is Sunday, May 17th, 7:00pm at Spectrum. Kate Dillingham, an avid proponent of the music of living composers, will present a versatile program featuring works for cello and electronics, including my most recent Talkback, which I wrote for her. For those who can’t make it, here is the recording from the premiere:

In the past two years, as part of my fellowship in the American Opera Projects’ Composers & the Voice program, I have been developing a new opera, Alice Invents a Little Game and Alice Always Wins (Libretto: Nick Flynn). It is about homelessness, and I am now looking for a new home for it.