Name: Steve Hirsh
Occupation: Drummer, composer, improviser
Current release: Steve Hirsh is one of the musicians on Chad Fowler-led Alien Skin, also featuring William Parker, Matthew Shipp, Ivo Perelman and Zoh Amba. The album is out via Mahakala.
[Read our Chad Fowler interview]
If you enjoyed this interview with Steve Hirsh and would like to know more about his music, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram.
When did you first start getting interested in musical improvisation?
I don’t think I ever considered improvisation to be separate from music. I came up in the late 60s and 70s, and there was an improvisatory aspect to most of the music I listened to. And when I began playing in bands, it was always understood, without any need for discussion, that improvisation would be part of what we played.
In those rock and roll days, and in the jazz I was beginning to listen to, the improvisation came in the context of songs. It was years later that I was first exposed to music that was purely improvised – composed in the moment. But once I started listening to that music, I understood what it was about, and when I finally had a chance to play it, I understood what I needed to do.
It was a natural progression.
Which artists, approaches, albums or performances involving prominent use of improvisation captured your imagination in the beginning?
In my early days, the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers Band. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever, Weather Report.
All these bands pointed in the same direction. It expanded outward from there.
Focusing on improvisation can be an incisive transition. Aside from musical considerations, there can also be personal motivations for looking for alternatives. Was this the case for you, and if so, in which way?
When I started playing drums I would get frustrated that I couldn’t just play music, just as if I were playing piano. In those early years, I had no understanding or conception of how you could approach that on a drumset. I am also easily bored, and often was unsatisfied playing drums in a traditional fashion. So I was always searching for a different way to approach the instrument, which often got me in trouble with band leaders.
Once I started playing purely improvised music, I started to understand how I might be able to just play music on the drums. This was a far more satisfying experience for me. Gradually, I gained confidence with my approach and became more comfortable playing this way.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to improvisation? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage?
Clearly, I rest on the shoulders of those that came before me and expanded the role of the drumset. And by extension, I am continuing the tradition of the musicians that inspired them.
My first main inspirations were Art Blakey, Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. Later, I was also deeply moved by Paul Motian, Hamid Drake and Roy Haynes, and more recently by Brian Blade and Bill Stewart, who have been expanding on that approach. But I listened to everyone.
I am unschooled and never formally studied any musician. But I listened and listened and listened, and absorbed what I could – mostly the feeling that different drummers created, but also various techniques. I studied out of books to help me learn how to recreate some of the things I was hearing. And since I didn’t have the skills or guidance to do things like transcribe and re-create what these drummers were doing, I wound up playing things in my own way.
For years I thought my lack of formal training and study were a deficiency but I have come to realize that my “failure” to learn “properly” was a gift that has allowed me to be myself and to find my own voice.
What was your own learning curve / creative development like when it comes to improvisation - what were challenges and breakthroughs?
While I have had some lessons here and there, I am primarily self-taught. I have not had any mentors or guides – I have figured things out myself, with the help of books and videos. Mostly, I have been in love with music as long as I can remember, and that love has been the primary driver of my development.
For many years my lack of formal training left me feeling somehow less than or inadequate as a musician. But at this stage of life – I’m 67 – I am comfortable in my own skin, accepting of who I am, aware of what I bring to the table, and mostly unbothered by my “deficiencies”. And that carries over into the music.
I have developed an approach to playing drums that works for me. This approach allows me to play music on the drums, just as I would on any other instrument. I understand that not every musician is looking for what I do, or even hears what I’m saying, and I’m perfectly comfortable with that.
A breakthrough for me happened a bit over a year ago. Chad Fowler, owner of Mahakala Music, and a saxophonist I met and began collaborating with at the beginning of the pandemic, invited me to New York for several days of recording. At those sessions I played for the first time with musicians I have listened to and been inspired by for years.
I was nervous beforehand, unsure whether we all spoke the same language , concerned about whether I could hang. But once the music started I knew I was ok. And the music from those sessions (the albums Sparks and Alien Skin) left me with no doubt about my place in the music. That, in turn, led to a new confidence in what and how I play.
And that new confidence has infused all the music I have made since.
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 play a standard 4-piece drumset with 2 or 3 cymbals. This is my instrument, and it is the only configuration I play. I made a choice some time ago that I would not augment this instrument with other sound sources, or add drums. I am in love with this instrument, and want to push myself to continue exploring its sounds, textures and possibilities.
I am very particular about my instrument and how it sounds. I have tried numerous different brands of drums and cymbals, in a continuous search for the sounds I hear. Whenever possible, I will bring my own set to a performance, even if there is a house kit available.
I am truly in love with the sounds of my instrument. I have learned to adapt to different types and quality of kits when I am traveling, but I have a sound in my head and that is the sound I am always seeking after.
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?
I approach every musical opportunity the same way – focusing on what’s happening RIGHT NOW, listening as deeply as I can.
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?
Like all musicians, I work with rhythm, melody, harmony, texture, denstiy, dynamics and color. And all of them are at play in every moment.
In reviews of records I’ve played on, writers refer to the rhythms I play. But that mostly misses the point. Rhythm for me is indistinguishable from melody. Any 2 notes create a rhythm and a melody – it’s just a matter of perspective.
I didn’t intentionally develop this way, but from listening to myself on recordings I came to realize and understand that what I hear and what I try to play is more like sax or piano lines, than the kinds of rhythms we usually associate with drums. There are times when I’m playing the drumset as if it were a marimba – picking out tones, following the melodies and harmonies that the other musicians are playing. Other times I might play in a more traditional fashion to create a reference point, and then deconstruct and rearrange the elements of that groove or feel.
And in that process, I can come up with elements that then become grist for new development, embellishment, modification and deconstruction. It’s a perpetual motion machine.
When you're improvising, does it actually feel like you're inventing something on the spot – or are you inventively re-arranging patterns from preparations, practise or previous performances?
It’s a combination.
I have a set of tools, language, and an approach that I bring to the table. These are the things I use to respond to the conversation that unfolds in the moment. I actively work to not be repetitive – to avoid cliches and and to find new and interesting ways to respond to the conversation and the music as it unfolds.
But I’m using the same building blocks. I practice every day and my goal for that is to continually expand the language at my disposal, and my facility for using that language.
To you, are there rules in improvisation? If so, what kind of rules are these?
The only rules for me are to listen as closely and intently as I can, and to interact with my comrades to create something meaningful and beautiful. Everything is available to me to accomplish that purpose. All the music I have ever heard, been moved by, conjured up inside myself, is available.
I use the language from different genres, but I am not limited by that language.
In a live situation, decisions between creatives often work without words. How does this process work – and how does it change your performance compared to a solo performance?
Playing this music involves a process of decision-making that happens in split seconds. I am fortunate to play with musicians who listen intently and who respond in micro-seconds. In fact, we listen so closely that often we anticipate where the music is going, and, in effect, meet in that spot. It is a magical experience, and the heart of what I seek in my musical encounters.
In some ways, playing solo is not different. I am listening intently to the music as it emerges, and following the trail, aiming to let the music lead me to where it wants to go. It is a conversation with myself and the music, that is fundamentally not different that the experience of playing with others.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? In which way is it different between your solo work and collaborations?
There’s no difference in the mindset I bring to solo and to collaborative work. It’s always about listening as closely as I can, and following the direction that the music presents.
Playing solo is more challenging, since the there’s only me offering ideas and directions. But regardless, I am always striving to listen more closely and be completely immersed in the music.
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?
It’s all the same ball of wax. Time is an illusion – there’s only now. And now. And now. And then it’s done.
Playing this music plunges us into that reality. The music is evanescent – it only exists in that micro-second – and then the next micro-second, and on and on. This is the reality, despite our efforts to grab and hold the music with recordings, scores, and all such. And at some point the music ends. It seems like it hangs in the air, but that’s just our memory of it. Just like life. At some point it’s over, and all that remains is that essence that those who remain hold on to.
It’s a reminder to cherish each of these moments. Our very existence is so wildly improbable. For me, the only attitude to have in the midst of this brief existence is love. And my goal every time I touch my instrument, is to manifest that and communicate it to the people I’m with. Our obligation is to the music, and the music requires us to be open and available to that love.
That’s the goal, at least.