Name: Massimo Magee
Occupation: Writer, artist, musician
Current release: Massimo Magee joins Eddie Prévost, Ken Ikeda, Massimo Magee, and Joshua Weitzel for their collaborative release Easter Monday Music, available April 8th 2022 via 577.
Over the course of his career, he has also collaborated with artists like Keith Rowe, Tim Green, Tony Irving, Michael Pisaro, Bruno Duplant, and Toshimaru Nakamura.
[Read our Eddie Prévost interview]
[Read our Takatsuki Trio Quartett interview, which includes Joshua Weitzel]
[Read our Michael Pisaro interview]
[Read our Bruno Duplant interview]
[Read our Toshimaru Nakamura interview]
If these thoughts by Massimo Magee piqued your interest, visit his official website. He also has profiles on Instagram, and bandcamp.
When did you first start getting interested in musical improvisation? Which artists, approaches, albums or performances involving prominent use of improvisation captured your imagination in the beginning?
My first and most prominent influence has always been (I say it this way because it remains my strongest influence) the free jazz of the 60s: John Coltrane’s late period, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and so on.
Up until I heard that music, no music had ever really gripped me except the French classical saxophone repertoire I was playing on the clarinet (lots of Messiaenic modes) and even that music I mostly enjoyed playing, rather than listening to.
Once free jazz exploded in my brain, though, it completely changed my perception of what music could be. It’s fair to say it changed my life.
Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?
I see myself foremost as a saxophonist (and clarinetist) but my relationship to my instruments is one of exploration, looking to draw from them the broadest range of possibilities that I can. The focus is on the expansion of possibilities; I want to have the broadest field available to me when I go into the moment of improvising.
This means looking at the instrument as material in the broadest possible sense: not just as a tube lengthened by closing holes and shortened by opening them to shape the vibrations of the reed, nor even just as a tube with closed holes to be opened along its length to shape the reed’s vibrations, but as anything from a primitive brass instrument, to a resonating chamber for feedback, to a hunk of metal.
Can you talk about a work, event or performance in your career that's particularly dear to you? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
It’s almost impossible to pick only one, but probably the single most influential piece of work on my development as an improvisor was my Collected Solos project, which I began in 2008 and finished in 2011.
In this, I resolved to pursue total improvisation through the medium of sound over a long period, knowing that it would be impossible to exhaust all possibilities but wanting to see what kind of journey such single-minded determination would take me on. It grew into a 26-disc set with an 87-page journal chronicling the development of my thoughts during that time.
The whole project is still available as a free download from the Internet Archive.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your collaborations? Do you feel as though you are able to express yourself more fully in solo mode or, conversely, through the interaction with other musicians? Are you “gaining” or “sacrificing” something in a collaboration?
As the Collected Solos project would suggest, I have done a lot of solo playing in my time. And I find solo playing very useful both as a meditative practice and as a way of testing myself or challenging myself to come up with something interesting without the ability to lean on anyone else.
But, for me, the activity that has the most meaning is still group playing: in its ideal form, group improvisation sets up an egalitarian, cooperative situation like a kind of radical democracy (away from its liberal perversions), instantiating an alternative model of socio-economic relations in a more autonomist vein. [This is not to get into the question of scalability].
The key to the relationship between solo and group playing, for me, is this: playing in a group improvisation situation involves being given tremendous freedom to ‘say’ whatever one wishes but, in order to be worthy of that freedom, the improvisor must make sure that they have something worth saying, and it is the regular discipline of solo playing that can help them to fulfil that responsibility.
This is different from practice or woodshedding, but can be related.
For you personally, how would you describe the relationship between a clear individual vision and cooperative results?
I believe one of the most important things a person can cultivate is a strong will, not mundane wilfulness or truculence but a deeper kind of true will. This translates into notions of self-control (potentially self-transcending self-control) but also the idea of the strong voice.
To me, the strongest egalitarian groups exist where each participant is fully, freely, and wilfully participating; that is, where each has a strong idea of what it is they want to say, how it contributes to what others are saying, and the situation of mutual trust and respect is such that they are willing and able to say it in full, in a dynamic and adaptive way.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
Part of my approach to the alto saxophone involves using it as a piece of metal to channel a feedback signal (this is different to using the saxophone’s body as a resonating chamber for feedback, which I also do).
The behaviour of this feedback signal through the instrument depends on the quality of the connection (which can vary as the instrument’s mechanism moves, or as different parts of the instrument are wired up) as well as on what other vibrations might be moving through the instrument at the time (either from my own manipulations including but not limited to blowing, or as a result of the vibrations from other collaborators in the room), as well as on what might be moving through the air around the instrument.
This extreme variability and instability leads to a sound which is unpredictable and uncontrollable, but nevertheless dependent on and produced through the material of the saxophone itself.
In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music and improvisation express and reveal about life and death?
My answer to this goes back to Derek Bailey’s ‘endlessly variable’ concept, but pressed into the service of perhaps a more metaphysical purpose than Derek might have encouraged.
Improvisation in music to me is the search for limitless possibilities within the material at hand (my instrument/s). The fact that this is possible and can be made into a way of life (which is not to say that every single moment of every single performance involves the discovery of something new, but rather that such discoveries do indeed keep coming) suggests a way of relating to the infinite which is not terrifying: a way of escaping time.
When I was younger and first coming into improvised music, I used to think a lot about infinity, and what the experience of it would be like - it is, after all, an unavoidable consideration when trying to wrap the mind around any kind of afterlife. All the descriptions of the ‘forever after’ that I could find seemed to describe it as some kind of endless extension of the kind of being we experience now, in time, and I found that prospect terrifying: the idea of simply living for ever seemed absurd and impossibly dull. Living in time as we do (being the only kind of experience we can consciously remember), the one certainty we have about our mortal existence is that everything fades, everything eventually becomes familiar, fully known, boring, and / or dies, until we ourselves do the same. The prospect of infinity under those conditions is a dreadful thing.
However, once improvisation came into my life and I realised the possibility of this kind of endless searching for (and finding) new realities within the same fixed piece of material, it showed me a way of relating to the infinite outside time that was not shackled by the kind of expectations handed to us by the experience of life within time - and it showed me this experientially rather than intellectually.
It is in that sense a way of drawing the experience of being beyond time into time itself.