Part 2

Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

My life is a bit of a roller coaster trying to balance family, teaching and running a microtonal Institute (Planet MicroJam) at Berklee College of Music, freelancing and trying to record, release and perform my own music. I feel like I have to employ guerrilla practice habits - only focusing on the essential, only working on material for upcoming projects. I do miss being able to just jam for the fun of it, but there are other rewards. An unforeseen dynamic was that I was able to learn from and experiment with students on a very high level. Berklee has been the workshop for the experimentation with new microtonal systems over new grooves that students bring to the table since they have their ears to the ground and know about current and future ideas and trends. I always heard about teachers saying how much they learn from their students, but I had no idea of the wealth of insights when working with former students like Utar Artun (experimental Turkish micro modal ideas, he now also teaches at Berklee), Giorgi Mikadze (new harmonies based on the microtonal choirs from his native Republic of Georgia), MonoNeon (who's inventing his own "Southern Soul Micro" sound) and Yazhi Guo (who wants to add improvisation back to traditional Chinese music), just to give you a few examples.

Could you take me through the process of improvisation on the basis of one of your performances that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?

I'm going to repeat a bit of what I said about FLAM!BLAM! Pan-Asian Microjam! dedicated to JDilla and Olivier Messiaen because the continuum between Improvisation and composition is embedded in a few other aspects that I organically employed in this piece:

  • from through-composed sections that alternate with strict structured improvisation to completely free improv parts
  • from Eastern elements like Chinese Suona (Oboe) and assorted Chinese/Asian percussion, Gamelan sounds, Indian slides, ancient Japanese court music elements (Gagaku) to Western composition, groove and improvisation concepts
  • from moments with strict meter to sections that are rubato
  • an organic blend of acoustic instruments (suona, violin, drums, percussion) mixed with electric microtonal keyboards, fretless guitar and bass in different colorful groupings
  • live performance/recording to programmed and triggered electronic ambient samples
  • sections that have a clear tonal center in contrast with those that do not

In this context I'm very proud that I was able to get players to do more than switch between the two gears of composition and improvisation or "head - solo(s) - head". Besides the aspect of structured improv as an alternative to just playing parts and outright soloing, there was the additional element of improvising backgrounds and counterlines that were based on real-time triggered birdcall samples.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

First of all I'd like to say that shit happens ;-) I've been in "the ideal state" and sounded terrible and I've also been in a terrible state (sick or jetlagged, or it's just one of those days when nothing goes right) and have gotten on stage and everything clicked - go figure!! But barring the "shit happens" scenarios, I generally like to load myself up with musical and creative gems that help me write and play. I love art, especially painting, and often swoon at some of my favourite artists like Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, Picasso, the German Expressionists and more. As a matter of fact my last record MikroJazz (Gerschlauer/Fiuczynski/DeJohnette/Garrison/Mikadze on RareNoise records 2017) is based on (mostly German) expressionist art. There are no specific paintings that we tried to compose to, but I'm always thinking that I would love to have microtonal harmonies that sound like the colors in an Emile Nolde painting for example. Here's where I launch into a kind of creative arcadia. I have no way of explaining it, I don't understand how it works and I'm now old and experienced enough to enjoy the fact that I don't understand anything about it. All I need to do is get my ego out of the way and let the magic do its thing without me interfering. It gives me a feeling of being in tune with infinity and comfortable with the mysteries of the universe.

How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?

Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?

Allow me to combine these two questions, because there is a lot of overlap. I mostly use Sibelius, Garage Band, ProTools and Sonic Visualizer. Sonic Visualizer is software that lets you see the wave file of a melody and measure the pitches down to the cent. Microtonalists have divided a half step into 100 units that they for some reason called 'cents'. This is where machines excel and this technology allows me to see exactly how a microtonal line behaves, be it in a Turkish music context, for example, or if I'm microtonally transcribing bird song melodies. In contrast, once I've figured out how to play a line and have studied the microtonal theory, I eventually completely ignore knowledge and technology and let my heart do the exact tuning of a line (just like any blues player). Ultimately I return to the source of why I was interested in a particular microtonal melody and that's because I was moved by it and inspired to find out more and analyse how it worked in detail.

Any composition I write may be done very old school with pencil and staff paper and that's the end of it. Other times I may write something in Sibelius, which allows you to write with 72 notes per octave. I may write a passage, bounce this to disk and drag it into Garage Band. I may program a drumbeat underneath in Garage Band and bring this to rehearsal to demonstrate what I want. Sometimes I record the band playing these passages and then import rehearsal recordings back into Garage Band and then might write stuff on top to experiment with new ideas or edit different sections together to see how they sound. Sometimes that's it or the process keeps repeating itself. So my writing process can be very basic or have several layers of technological steps interwoven into it. Once something is ready to be recorded I use ProTools. Sometimes a take is perfect and then that piece will proceed to mixing and mastering. On other pieces, ProTools functions not only as a recording and editing tool, but it can be part of a kind of "post-production composition process" where I can add other parts from other takes that I didn't consider before, move things around and/or pitch-wise microtonally re-harmonize parts and more. It becomes an additional composition tool.

In general I take advantage of the things technology does best like precision where you can see a file down to the tiniest frame, microtonal analysis, multi-tracking, perfect metric time etc and then I turn this around and in the end use technology to record or enhance the things humans do best like soul, feel, lyricism or purposely playing out of time (like slightly dragging verses in a pop tune, nailing the time in the chorus and slightly rushing the bridge so there's a stronger rhythmic resolution when the final chorus comes back), intuition (spontaneously reacting to a soloist and in a split second changing the course of the music), groove (the uncanny ability to play a rhythmic pattern that gives one an inexplicable feeling of hope) and more ...

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?

I would love to only play in beautiful spaces and have had memorable experiences playing in old tall and narrow Italian theatres or playing in an ancient roman amphitheatre. These are amazing and inspiring places that literally drip with history and tradition, but more often than not I have to deal with grungy clubs with bad acoustics and bass traps etc. Sound-wise I find that especially electric instruments have to be able to EQ in different ways and adapt to the room. But more important is that in an environment with poor sound I have to try to be in a Buddhist frame of mind where a beautiful lotus (music) can grow out of mud (shitty performance space).

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?

This will repeat something I said earlier and for me it is sight. I'm not synaesthetic where I see colours when I listen to music, but painting has had a major impact on my music. I love expressionist and fauvist painting and some of their influences like Ensor, Munch, Gauguin, Van Gogh … etc ... My current release MikroJazz - Neue Expressionistische Musik (co-led with Philipp Gerschlauer on RareNoise Records) is inspired by (mostly German) Expressionist painting. The jagged forms and intense colours put me in a certain state where I want to create. And to be sure, painting and drawing are mediums where I have no talent and actually no interest in participating on my own, but it is something that's vital to my music.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

I used to just do music to create music, but since I'm integrating elements from different areas of the world like jazz and groove music, classical microtonal harmony, Middle Eastern, Indian and east Asian melodic inflections I'm starting to realize that by default this can take on social and political aspects.

Usually when I explain what kind of music I do, people respond in 3 different ways, either: a) "cool, I want to hear that" or b) "....hmmmmmm.......I'd have to hear that first" or c) " No, that's not what I'm into".

But when I explained this to a student from a politically oppressive country he said: "wow, the freedom you have here!!" I was stunned and I wanted to cry when I heard that. Here's someone who could go to jail or suffer who knows what consequences merely for being creative and I was shocked to think how I take this completely for granted. So even though I don't plan on being some kind of musical freedom fighter, I understand that, just by freely mixing music anyway I want to, this can be viewed as challenging to some who do not want independent thought or creativity.

It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?

With the world being more and more interconnected on the internet, music might take on less of a personal approach and instead could be created by many 'cooks' at once as in online real-time multi-person gaming events. Musically it would be less about the individual and more about the collective improvisation/composition. I'm thinking maybe a John Zorn "Cobra" game approach on a massive online scale. In "Cobra" the composer (actually prompter) only guides the collective improvisation through cues that come from individual players. The result is a very democratic real time composition that at some point may not have a beginning or end and is led by a collective force versus the individual composer. John Zorn may go down as the most important "composer" for music in the future that he never even wrote!!

Previous page:
Part 1  
2 / 2