What's New?
The PoD Roundtable
moderated by Bill Shoemaker

What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.

The panelists for this roundtable include:

Mark Dresser Mark Dresser is a composer and bassist renowned for his pioneering techniques, including unconventional amplification systems. His current collaborations include Trio M with Myra Melford and Matt Wilson (a review of their debut CD can be found in Issue 14), a duo with Roswell Rudd, and a trio with Rudresh Mahanthappa and Gerry Hemingway. He is Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the International Society of Bassists and the Advisory Board of International Society of Improvised Music. Dresser has appeared on over 100 recordings, one of the latest being Herb Robertson's NY Downtown Allstars' Real Aberrations (Clean Feed).

Ed Harkins Ed Harkins is a composer and trumpeter who, as he details below, has worked in experimental music and multi-discipline collaborations for over 40 years. He has recorded works by Iannis Xenakis, Roger Reynolds and Robert Erickson; his improvising is featured on Glossarium (Nine Winds), a 1998 album with Vinny Golia and Bertram Turetzky. He has performed with artists ranging from Vinko Globokar to Little Anthony and the Imperials. One of Harkins primary research activities is the study of rhythm. In the early 1970's he designed and built, with Rob Gross, a programmable rhythm sequencer and designed a computer program for rhythm input. In addition to his distinguished tenure at UCSD, where is he is Professor Emeritus of Music, he has taught and lectured on complex rhythms internationally and has written a book on the subject, referenced below. Additionally, he has published a Maynard Ferguson discography.

Steven Schick Steven Schick has championed contemporary percussion music as a performer and teacher for the past thirty years, commissioning and premiering more than one hundred new works for percussion. Schick is Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego and a Consulting Artist in Percussion at the Manhattan School of Music. The former percussionist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Schick is founder and Artistic Director of the percussion group, red fish blue fish. In 2007, Schick became Music Director and conductor of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus. His book on solo percussion music, The Percussionist’s Art: Same Bed, Different Dreams, was published by the University of Rochester Press; recent recordings include The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies by John Luther Adams (Cantaloupe Music) and a 3-CD set of the complete percussion music of Iannis Xenakis (Mode), which was reviewed in Issue 10.

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Bill Shoemaker: The term “community” has significant elasticity when applied to musicians working in experimental contexts. By and large, geography is no longer a factor in establishing community, and there’s no issue in a musician being a member of multiple communities. You are members of communities that are essentially nomadic, requiring you to travel to sundry locales to meet your counterparts, develop materials and give performances. Certainly, there are challenges to working this way, but it also promotes an urgency to focus on the work at hand. At the same time, you are members of one of the more stabile types of music communities – a university music department; and not just any university, but the University of California at San Diego, a university with a specific, robust history of experimental music. The development of the material documented on House of Mirrors began before Mark joined the UCSD faculty, and then continued after his appointment. How has the transition from having to travel to work with each other to having real proximity to each other, and the infrastructure afforded by UCSD, (re)shaped your collaborative processes and the development of this material?

Ed Harkins: I am much less nomadic than Mark. I have always been associated with academia though usually on the experimental edge. Historically, I have been known primarily as a “New Music” trumpeter at Yale, with Ralph Shapey’s Contemporary Chamber Players in Chicago, the University of Iowa, and at the New England Conservatory of Music and UCSD as a faculty member. Though Mark was at UCSD when I came in1972, it wasn’t until he was a graduate student in the early 80’s that I began to carefully witness his special gifts.

House of Mirrors (HOM) consists of much notated material organically interspersed with improvisation. This material began with Mark’s interest in a pedagogical book of rhythms I was writing. He was intrigued with the rhythms and asked if he could put pitches to them. I agreed and picked a bunch of the rather difficult rhythms that I thought had some potential for us. Each of us developed the material separately and then one of us would periodically make the cross-country trip, work feverishly and round-the-clock for a week and then do a performance and recording. I think we experienced the positive urgency of which you speak. We did this several times and there were several incarnations of the material between 1999 and 2006. The primary development after Mark began at UCSD in 2004 was the important addition of the exceptional UCSD percussionist Steve Schick in ’05. It will be clear from the recording that each of us enjoys coaxing a wide variety of sounds from our respective instruments.

UCSD is indeed special and yes, it has a hearty reputation in music experimentation. As a matter of fact when I came to UCSD, and for the next six years, I was a fellow at what was known as “The Center for Music Experiment” – like Chicago and Iowa, a Rockefeller supported music research unit. As a personal example of the importance of this venture I became a member of the Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble (1973-83) and in 1975 co-founded with UCSD’s Philip Larson, a performance duo called [THE]. I had background in neither voice nor theater. It was with EVT and [THE] that I have done most of my travel. It is noteworthy that UCSD appreciates the importance of travel for performers and also financially supports research projects in the arts. I became a UCSD faculty member in 1978.

The positive aspects of Mark joining us at UCSD are clear. They include the ease of getting together as well as the communing with world-class performers, composers, improvisers, technologists, scholars and the availability of state-of-the-art equipment with generous time in the recording spaces (the stunning recording and mastering of HOM was done by Tom Erbe). It was an honor and loads of fun to work with Mark and Steve.

Mark Dresser: You're right about the meaning of community now having a new elasticity, especially in the digital age where access is relatively affordable and prevalent. Since moving back to San Diego from New York in 2004 to join the faculty of UCSD, my contact with my community of friends and colleagues in NY, surprisingly, has not waned, it has expanded. I stay in close contact by cell phone, email, IChat and SKYPE. I make it a point to return to the East coast and Europe several times a year to perform, record, and hang. I also regularly communicate and collaborate in quasi “real time” with artists worldwide, virtually. My artistic community, now for the first time, is less defined by physical proximity but, rather by the regularity and depth of communication; those with whom I share my ideas, aspirations, and music.

Another aspect influencing the necessity to rethink “community” is purely practical- the difficulty in traveling with my own bass. This started before 9/11, with restrictive changes in European train travel baggage policies, and has dramatically worsened in the last six years due to heightened homeland security, mistreatment of musical instruments by TSA, and the tightening of airline travel allowances. The huge carbon footprint left by frequent air travel also adds an ecologic aspect to this discussion. Or to paraphrase Fats Waller “My feet’s too big!” One of the great joys of being a musician is to travel the world, meeting new friends and sharing one’s music.

My interest in exploring the possibilities of “telematic” (i.e.: internet performance) is therefore, based on the pragmatic need not only to maintain, but to expand my community. It is an experiment with aesthetic, artistic, and social concerns and potentials. Since fall 2007, I've been involved in a telematic performance research project, which includes interdisciplinary artists from UCSD and a group of musicians from Rensalaer Polytechnic Institute, led by Pauline Oliveros with Sarah Weaver, and an ensemble from Stanford University, led by Chris Chafe. It has been a fascinating artistic and social experiment with surprisingly positive musical outcomes and potentials. I can’t underestimate how having institutional access to the state of art technology and the technical expertise and support from CRCA at CalIT2 in UCSD has facilitated this experiment. For multiple reasons, my hope is that what has begun as a privileged experiment will have the potential to become an accessible and viable performance venue.

One of my earliest experiments in long distance collaboration began in 1999. House of Mirrors began when I invited my friend, colleague and former teacher, Ed Harkins to collaborate with me on a project. His ideas regarding rhythm and notation had deeply inspired and provoked a lot of compositional ideas for me over the years. The ideas behind House of Mirrors were notions about time, timbre and improvisation. Ed and I would get together a couple times a year switching back and forth between Brooklyn and Encinitas, beginning in 1999 when Ed handed me a book of rhythms to study, assign pitch, and orchestrate. Each collaborative step would last for three or four days at a time. We'd share each stage of newly composed and arranged aspects of the piece; rehearse, revamp and then perform. This process went on for several years.

One might think that being in the same city would aid in the collaboration. From my point of view, it was the distance that intensified the collaboration, because during those three or four days of rehearsal, with months of preparation in between, we’d completely dedicate ourselves to working on the piece. Once I moved back to San Diego, it made total sense to invite our colleague, the great multi-percussionist, Steve Schick. All the composed materials in House of Mirrors had already been completed before I moved back to California. Essentially, we handed him a score and he invented his own part. Our collaboration started as a short performance, but immediately switched to a recording focus. The rehearsal process was more similar to the type of experience I’d have in NY- three busy people finding precious time to focus on a project, and then off to the next appointment. But, the advantage of being affiliated with UCSD is obvious; access to gear and the talents of great people, like Tom Erbe, who recorded and mastered our recording; great in house recording facilities, and support from Michael Bernstein, the former Dean of Arts and Humanities as well as the music department.

I don’t take this support for granted. It is in great contrast to my life in NY, where I scraped by with limited resources. What hasn’t changed, however, is the will to collaborate, the joy of creating music together, and the effort, time and commitment it takes to make the music worth listening to.

Steven Schick: While it's true that our notions of "community" have expanded radically due to traveling and more particularly because of connections via Internet, I feel strongly that this new "tele-community" is and should be an addition and not a replacement to traditional meanings of the word community. I may feel special kinship to colleagues working in my specialty in Sydney, but nothing replaces the people who live where you live and raise their families where you raise yours, work where you do. Sometimes truly local options offer interesting cross-wirings you wouldn't otherwise get. When you have the whole world to choose from, you often choose things that are very like what you are already doing. I have not made my life's work in improvising, so I might not have worked closely with Ed and Mark had it not been for the fact that we live in the same place. I am really grateful that the opportunities afforded via shared space allowed me to have this experience.

The House of Mirrors experience was in most ways a departure from my usual work as a percussionist. For starters I came into the project in mid-stream. Mark and Ed had been working together on the rhythmic materials for some time and had already developed a language and way of addressing them. The first problem for me was becoming conversant in that language. Another early difficulty came also as a result of their having worked together for a long time: the musical space was already quite full (as you would expect since they had performed the pieces together). The first question for me was how not to become the just the rhythm section to their already full-bore performance. The first avenue to explore was musical color. Even if I "just played along" but did so with a new palette of colors and texture I found that space started to open up for me. At first the colors came from a bag of tricks that I suppose every percussionist has -- bowed cymbals gongs and cowbells, among others -- but soon enough, as you would expect with gifted musicians like Ed and Mark, they began to respond with their own new colors. My response was to push things a bit farther with water and air sounds, scraping and rubbing texture and interesting (I hope) harmonic combinations of gongs and temple bowls. You might expect that a percussionist would first want to dive into the fascinating and quirky world of rhythm that HOM offers, but my first access was through sound and texture.

Improvisation then became less of an iconic activity (Improvisation with a capital I), and much more of a stance that allowed unprecedented freedom with preconceived materials. The process was normally that we took a page of pure rhythms -- sometimes these had already been elaborated as melodies in earlier Dresser/Harkins collaborations -- and began playing with them. Rhythm was usually the sacred thing, the thing we wouldn't change, but everything else was up for grabs. We would play the rhythmic material at extreme tempos, on weird instruments, cut and paste it at will. I began to wonder what would happen in the world of classical music performance (where my real roots were) if you took that attitude towards a Stockhausen solo or a Beethoven symphony. Why not play the second movement faster than the first; maybe we would learn something? So soon HOM became not just a concert/recording project, but an ongoing invitation to rethink the avenues of address to the basic material of a score. The proof of this lies in the fact that I often have trouble remember what the music we made sounds like -- I am always surprised when I hear our recording and often don't know who was playing what -- but the method of working and our interactions throughout the entire process are crystal clear in my mind.

In short for me, HOM is about looking up, seeing who you are living with, and then making art with those people in a way that suits that situation. In the fast-paced world of professional music making where we rely on the protocols of common practice to save time, where we log on because we don't have time to visit, where we accept the "way it has always been done" because … well, we're not sure why, HOM is slow food: home cooked, not rushed and it can't be found in a cookbook.

Shoemaker: To extend the cuisine metaphor: Because a body of work like House of Mirrors tends to be recorded once, if at all, you are the only three who really know the evolution of the “recipe.” Even though you may consider your work with this material to be ongoing, you now have this recording where what was the most recently developed aspects of the work stand side by side with the bedrock materials. Can you point out instances where the music on the CD has changed little from its inception and where it has changed a lot?

Harkins: Some notated material did not change appreciably (besides adding Steve’s art to the mix). Much material changed incrementally. It was occasionally necessary to delete a piece we thought couldn’t work, but since we began with a surplus of material this was not an issue. I do remember adding a piece and we certainly re-orchestrated material and honed decisions regarding who improvises and for what musical purpose. The other familiar, yet substantive change was the increased fluidity that comes from several performances of the challenging (problematic ratios, odd meters, tricky tempo relations, difficult leaps, etc.) passages. Thus this recording is significantly faster, smoother and truer than earlier performances. I should add that, though the notated portions affected what ensued, all this talk may skew, and be at variance with, what goes on in the recording, with the majority of the music being improvised.

Dresser: There are basically two types of pieces in HOM: Those with notated materials and improvisation, and others that are entirely improvised. The bedrock material is the notated material that was in place before Steve joined the process. It has changed little, even though Steve’s contribution has undoubtedly added an extra layer of richness. The improvisations in the first type of piece were interwoven within the notated material. Of course those improvisations changed with each performance and recording take. In this model there are several improvised orchestrations, which now seem indispensable, like the solo introduction by Steve splashing water in a bowl with a floating gourd foreshadowing the rhythmic material of one of the notated pieces.

There are several pieces that are entirely improvised. For example, one for two belled trumpet, and prepared bass. This orchestration identifies the piece but not necessarily the content. As we haven’t performed the piece since the recording, I’m not positive we would perform the same orchestration, but my guess is we certainly might. I would listen to the whole recording the next time we are preparing to perform. The recording would remind me of past orchestrations and arrangements.

In a real way the recording itself becomes the auxiliary score and a reminder of the past performance practice. Looking at a future performance, all the details of the improvisation would be different, but the novel orchestrations very well might be revisited. The dramatic change in the “recipe” is the interaction of three creative musicians instead of two.

I wouldn’t rule out new orchestrations being developed as a result of pragmatic choices being made having to do with limitations of travel and lack of access to the same percussion instruments at distance.

Schick: One of the most interesting aspects of this project for me was the layering of materials whose practice was fixed and concrete with other materials that could change with the whims of the moment. For me then, listening to the recordings has an archeological flavor. Some layers, especially rhythms and Ed and Mark's pre-existing duos, were "permanent," part of an immutable substrate. As such these elements seem to have stability upon listening that gives the recording the sense of being "something particular" (and not merely a given instance of interactions among the three of us.) Other layers bespeak mutability, representing things that changed from day to day and lend an ephemeral aura to the final product -- my use of water sounds and instruments, some of Ed's sounds, and Mark's reworking of rhythmic materials as a part of his improvisations come to mind. These more ephemeral moments suggest that the directions we took in the studio were only some among an enormous number of possibilities. It's like passing a house with a door slightly ajar and glimpsing the potentials inherent in other pathways and choices. Is there any question more mysterious than: "What if I had chosen this pathway, this life? What would I be like if this were my house?"

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