Larry Ochs

photo courtesy Peter Gannushkin

Interview by Luke Harley
27th May 2008


For more than three decades Larry Ochs has been a key figure in the Bay Area experimental music scene, having worked with bands such as the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Maybe Monday, Room, What We Live, and the Glenn Spearman Double Trio. This interview was conducted at his home in Berkeley, California, a day before he was to perform with the Rova/Nels Cline Celestial Septet at Yoshi's San Francisco. Larry had been working on some Albert Ayler-inspired compositions, but took time out to speak to me while his wife, poet and academic Lyn Hejinian, tended to the grandchildren in the room next door.

Have you done much collaborating with Lyn over the years?

Only once, and that was a while ago, in 1976. It was fine, considering when it was done and who was doing it and what we knew and didn't know. We created extended pieces consisting of many sections. Are you familiar with early Art Ensemble of Chicago music? They used to do these extended pieces that seemed to have this dreamy architecture, a story thing that would start with sounds and small instruments, and then there would be a tune and then there would be drums. Very lazy or relaxed, like a landscape. So we did this long piece where we used bells, clappers, and bark sticks that we'd made for hand percussion. I was playing tenor sax mostly, with Robbie Yohai on electric guitar, Lyn had some writing to go with it, and there was another woman, Debra Fine [now fashion designer Debra McGuire], singing and reciting with her. All four of us lived in Mendocino County, but north of Willits, not on the ritzy and better known Mendocino coast; out in the sticks. We called ourselves Northern Fictions Consort. We did take it seriously; we rehearsed, and did a couple of performances. We did one at the Blue Dolphin in San Francisco that Jon Raskin thought was great. He said it really impressed him at the time. I enjoyed the process of working up the material, but this was "early work", and I'm glad there are no recordings. If it was 2009 this group would have a DVD or two on YouTube and two recordings out... which no one needs to see. But now I'm veering towards a touchy subject.

What motivated you to do it?

Well, we were living up there in owner-built cabins/homes and built our own studio, trying to run it off windmill-generated electricity – the windmill imported by the way from Australia – and we were experimenting, with life as well as with music and poetry. I think Lyn just said, let's try something out. Robbie and I also did pieces with Lyn's brother, Doug Hall, and his partner Jody [Proctor]. Jody was also living up there at the time. They were conceptual artists. We did at least one piece where they did a rap, simultaneous spontaneous monologues, and the two of us did music around that. Lyn was also involved. We were just experimenting, just figuring things out – seeing what worked and what didn't. At the time it was cool. I don't think I was even thinking about it as something major. It was what it was: 70s experimentation. You know it's hard for me to even think back that far.
Lyn and I came to the conclusion that basically the words and music thing was ninety per cent miss and ten per cent hit. When it missed it was awful, and when it hit it was OK. I'm not talking about singer-songwriters or rock music – that's another thing. But when you're starting to talk about poetry and jazz, or poetry and improvisation, it's just not my thing. I think they take away from each other. The music forces us – it's too strong.
I pretty much feel this way about dance and music too. For the most part, music colors dance too much. It's too powerful, and completely boxes in the meaning of what the dancers are doing. I suppose that's what most dancers want, but as an audience member, it's not what I want. Don't get me wrong, if somebody wants to pay me to write music for their dance, I'll go out there and try to make it work – I do love the challenge. But I have a very fundamental question about it. I didn't do it for a long time because of that – it was eighteen years between one piece and the next one.
It's the same thing with [Stan] Brakhage's films. I think he's totally right not to have music scores for his films. I just feel that, you know, ask yourself the question when you watch a film, and turn the sound off – of course a lot of films have talking and so you're missing that too – but if you were to put up subtitles and turn the sound off, well, wow, things change. That's the function of "film music" – in the sense when you put quotes around "film music" – to frame the picture so that the audience knows what's coming. It's unusual when it's used any other way. When it is used other ways it's really interesting for somebody like me, but that's not what most people are looking for. They're looking for the dun-dun-dun-daaaah (sings opening to Beethoven's Symphony No 5) – "danger" time, and action music and music for dark rooms and shit like that. That's the way it is, and that's fine.

Why is music so powerful and why does it overwhelm the other art forms?

What I'm really talking about is the fact that there are conventions in most music, and everybody knows them. Although I do a lot of music that does play around with conventions, I like music a lot better when you can hear it more than one way, and it works – the logic is there, there are more ways to make sense of it. That's one of the cool things about music without words – there are many possibilities. So if you put music as a background for something as abstract as dance... well, dance is an abstract art. What makes it interesting for me is the multiplicity of possible meanings, or the way you can see it in many ways.
But I think most dancers like having programmatic music behind their dance because that way the audience is more comfortable. There's a meaning to their work. Whereas if you take somebody like Merce Cunningham, who for years used John Cage, they just went at it. There wasn't any definite way to take it. Music and dance were both abstract. The frame was just much more nebulous. That made things really interesting – as opposed to going to see another avant-garde dancer using Country and Western music. If you hear Country and Western music, it just puts it somewhere. Why do that? Why work in an art form that's so open with possibilities, and then hire somebody to compose Country and Western music music for your work? It doesn't make sense.
Film music is different because it's actually being functional. Films are made to sell to a lot of people; you're trying to get a lot of people into a multiplex. So the music made is just about scaring them, or making them excited, or getting them involved in the action, love or drama, or whatever. Music's got to help that happen, and it's very good at doing that. It's very powerful. It's pre-packaged – people understand what it is within three seconds of it starting. You know where it's going, it takes you right in to where the filmmaker wants it to go. But when you think of someone like Brakhage who's really using film as an art form, not as something to sell or something with which to make a story, then the idea of having something loud, or anything conventional… you can see why he didn't want to use sound, and especially Beethoven, or anything like that. It's conditioned. You're conditioned to it in some way, so it closes down the way you look at the product.

Poetry can be abstract as well, and open up a range of meanings.

Absolutely. But when I think about Lyn's side of the poetry world, where it's wide open, it's hard enough just to be there with that. If you've suddenly got all kinds of other input at the same time, I think it's just going to drown it out. It's hard to make sense of both music and poetry at the same time. If they're working together, something's getting flattened out, something's becoming easier to understand when it probably shouldn't be.

Amiri Baraka is one of the people who's done quite a bit in terms of language and music, poetry and improvised music communion. He's of the view that music can actually bring out language, expand the meaning of words, if the musicians are skilled enough to do so.

Yeah, I'm not saying it's not possible. I'm just saying it's less likely, in my opinion, to be effective. When I think of Baraka and his stuff, which is so infused with social and political context, it makes more sense to me, because you can find music that speaks to that. I'm talking about a completely open-ended experience where the words are as allusive as what the Language poets put together. Roscoe [Mitchell] might work great with that, because his stuff can get so abstract. But it would be an accident, in my opinion. If it worked, it wouldn't work the next time. It's not that I wouldn't be into trying, but it's not something I would initiate. It's hard enough making things work, so why walk into a situation where you just think you're going to be fighting uphill the whole time?

So that old Mingus example, "Fables of Faubus", about Governor Faubus of Arkansas…

I don't have any problem with that. It's a great record. But that's different, I feel. But maybe I would say that, in that case, it's always most effective when the message and the music are really part of who you are, as opposed to, for example, somebody from a wealthy suburb becoming politically conscious and feeling that they want to be part of something. It's got to be inside you. All that stuff's OK and can work, it's just a question of who's doing it and why. Personally speaking, it's not for me in that direct way. I see all of my music as politically relevant, but it's more of a "conceptual" politicization.

Charles Lloyd once said, talking about music, 'Words don't go there'. (1) It's a quote Nathaniel Mackey – whom you know personally – has pulled out and riffed upon in his fictional work Atet A.D. (2) What are your thoughts on that? Is there something about music that is simply beyond the capacities of linguistic expression?

I would say that it's possible to talk it through, to try and get at it. We can talk about it until we're blue in the face. And I'm sure it helps. But the magic behind it is – yes, it's prelingual. In the end you really are trying to get at something that you really can't talk about. You can try and talk at it, around it, but in the end there is some real magic, some kind of connectivity that happens between the musician and that space up there. It works or it doesn't.

So when it works, is that some sort of ecstatic experience? How do you know when it's working? Because there must be a lot of times when it's flat, and then suddenly…

Yeah, the more you are in this world where you're trying to get something, to make it happen, the easier it is to know when it is happening. That's interesting. But at the same time, the more you've heard, and the more you've done, maybe it gets a little bit harder to feel like you've got it going for very long. Because you're not going to be surprised as much as you continue on the quest. Things that used to surprise you, you used to think "that's it" – you realize that that's not it. It's OK, but it's not it. At the same time, the more I get to perform, the more likely it is that some of that magic is going to happen every time. It depends on who I'm playing with.
We had this Electric Ascension (3) project, and we flew thirteen or fourteen people to Portugal, very stressed out, wondering if it was going to really work, even in terms of the flights. The people running the festival seemed very nice, but we'd never worked with them, and the run-up to the festival was crazy, so leading in we didn't trust these guys running the show – they seemed like they were going to blow the whole thing. We got out there and it was outdoors, and there was a lot of wind, at the soundcheck you couldn't hear anybody, I was burned out just from the anticipatory stress and flying there, and jet-lagged – everything was wrong. I walked off the soundcheck and I said, fuck it, it will just be what it is, let's just do the best we can. Four minutes after we started the performance, the thing took off and it never came down.
There's a certain seriousness of attitude and people being experienced and knowing how to make things work. But again, I'm trying to explain something that isn't really verbally possible. It's like you practise and work on the shit and just think about it, you're thinking about it. And at a certain point, if you're lucky enough, you get into situations where you take off, where you lift off. It's really the best word for it. Who can explain that? I can't explain it to you. You practise and you do all this shit and then you get out there and great music happens. Remember I'm not saying I'm playing a great solo – that's a whole other story. I'm just saying, did the music happen? There's plenty of really good performances and then there are these ones that are just like, wow. Everything that happens, in terms of the whole fabric, is just great – and you don't know why.

Which concerts or recordings would you single out?

Well, the one that I would single out is Electric Ascension (Atavistic, 2003). The album that's actually out is from the premiere, which was before the Portugal festival. I single it out because unlike many other great shows I remember, it's there, it's available. But what I was able to do while preparing to mix the show to CD was to dig into that live tape recording. It was recorded in multi-track, so I was able to emphasize certain things over others. Because when you're part of an audience at a show listening your experience is three-dimensional. You pick what you're going to listen to. You look at somebody and you say, wow, look what he or she is doing right now. When you're listening to a CD you don't have any visual. So the CD listener needs some help. Somebody has to point the listener towards what you're supposed to listen to, because it could be anywhere out there in the music. Because I was in the show, and because I knew that a collective magnificence had happened, I would go into certain three/four minute sections of that piece, and even if I couldn't remember how it had been that night, I would move things around in the balance/mix until it was smoking. Because I knew it was there. Whereas other times maybe you only record in stereo, so there's no mixing possible. Or you don't remember it exactly. Or you're not doing it – somebody else is producing the CD. Or it wasn't recorded at all. This was just a fortunate situation where everything worked out right.
The CD that I put out myself in 2005 [The Mirror World – for Stan Brakhage (Metalanguage)] is pretty great too. That was a really nice performance night. I knew there was a lot of great music making there, and I went in to the studio and really excavated the recording, sculpted the sound, in a sense – again – directing the listener by deciding what they would hear or the hierarchy of the hearing, and the response has been great in terms of the final mix.

I wanted to ask you about Glenn Spearman – could you talk about your artistic and personal relationship with him?

I guess I met Glenn sometime in the late 80s. I'm not sure exactly when. We started talking about playing together, and eventually we did. I guess the first concert was 1991. Might have been '90. I don't think it was before that. I was part of this group called Room, which was saxophone and percussion (William Winant in his first improvising band), with Chris Brown on keyboards and electronics. Sometimes we had Scot Gresham-Lancaster who sat out in the audience controlling the electronics and stuff. And Glenn had a trio. So we put the two trios together and had this Double Trio. We just thought it was going to be a free-jazz fun bash. We didn't really take it very seriously – I mean we took it seriously in that we wanted it to sound good: we were playing in San Francisco's Great American Music Hall so it wasn't like we were just going to go and fuck around! – but it was just going to be a thing, a one-night stand. Again, it was another example of my own hubris or my own not understanding the depth of some of these people's music, or this part of the music world, this free jazz thing. We learned that Glenn had real depth to his music, structurally interesting things going on that we wanted to delve into more. So the Double Trio became a working band for seven or eight years. We did four CDs together, a bunch of touring in Europe – not as much as Glenn or I would have liked, but some – and some performances in North America.
Glenn lived here in the Bay Area, and I would see him periodically. I wouldn't say we hung out a lot – outside of music I mean – but we did hang out some. He had the drug problem, which definitely colored things, but he never acted like a junkie or had any real problems around it. (For me, who was never into that kind of thing, I could never tell when he was strung out or when he wasn't. Even when the cancer was getting him, I thought he was just losing weight – we hadn't been told anything at that point – I thought, man, this guy looks really good, he's slimming down!) Working with him was frustrating at times because of that. He would get sick sometimes in the middle of a tour, and the tour would get fucked up because he was not one hundred per cent. But for the most part it was great, and I learned a lot playing his music. It definitely set me off in other directions that I am still investigating. It wasn't exactly my space at the time, but it was definitely a space I wanted to be part of. I wrote some music for that group that I really liked.

I was going to ask you about the differences between structured improvisation and free jazz, because you've written a little about if before.

Well first of all, if you're thinking about the conventions of free jazz, it really has at this point become a defined zone, the way that bebop or dixieland have become defined zones. But it would also depend who you're talking to, because there's more than one way to define free jazz. The convention is, I think, that there may be a written head or something discussed about how we're going to start the piece which is used as a jumping off point. And then everyone in the group – smaller ensembles, five, six or less, two three four five six – they play. When they're playing, everyone's playing together, they're listening, and the listening is serious. But ultimately it's very much about you doing your thing in the context of the group. It may not be swinging in the context of bebop but it's coming out of that and there's a definite energy and sound to it that you would recognize from recording to recording or live performance to live performance. That's it really. Which is fine – there's a ton of great music. A ton.
Now: free jazz could be thought of as a form of structured improvisation. What I'm talking about is a situation that doesn't necessarily sound like jazz or free jazz at all. Structured improvisation can go anywhere, incorporate ideas from any style of music, but it should be more specifically defined by whoever is organizing the piece for a band, or the piece that the band's about to play. It can incorporate aspects of free jazz but it can also involve any other forms or rules or whatever else you want. I don't ever want to suggest that it's better – it's not about better or worse – it's just another way. Maybe a later way. In other words, if a free jazz group said, OK, we're going to start off with this head, and then we're going to blow. And then right here, when I get to this cue, we're going to go into a sound form where we're just playing a texture – well now, I think you've moved away from the free jazz form and into structured improvisation. Because it's not to do only with what you feel and how you hear the music. Once one person/composer begins imposing preconceived sound events on a free jazz structure, then the piece moves from being purely free jazz to structured improvisation.
To me that's the limit of free jazz – it's very much an individual music played in groups so that there's more color. For example, if you're in Cecil Taylor's group, the music isn't going to be William Parker's – it's going to be Cecil's music and William's playing Cecil's music. But it's got a way, and it's going to go that way for an hour or an hour and a half. Sometimes people drop out, sometimes they don't, but when they're in, they'll be playing themselves inside the context of Cecil's music. Which is kind of what jazz is about. I mean jazz as a form is taking either a known piece of music and using the chord changes to create a structure over which the musician improvises – he or she puts themselves in this music – or it's somebody's original composition over which the musician improvises. Free jazz is almost without exception somebody's composition, but the form is this flow. There's a flow. And the flow happens in all free jazz. It's about energy propulsion, taking the music out, and that's where it goes for the most part. If, all of a sudden, other things happen, then it's structured improvisation. I'd say Cecil Taylor's early music certainly is jazz-influenced, but you could also say it's structured improvisation because there's written stuff all through it. Then they do some solos and various things happen. Whereas later it's really just the flow. To me that's what free jazz really is, and really he's one of the first guys. Or if you think of the Evan Parker Trio, that's free jazz, even though he's way far away from what Cecil does. It's very tight, they're really listening, they're totally into it. But it's still about flow.

photo courtesy Matthew Campbell

What do you mean by flow?

It means you have a conception of where you're going to start from. You go. And within the going, you're really working with things you want to work with in the context of what the rest of the band is doing. That's different from structured improvisation, where the composer or the organizer of the piece is saying, I want the music to sound like this. We're going to try and get this happening. We're going to work within these parameters and these limitations in these five minutes, and then we're going to move to this. And then in the next five minutes we're going to have this written material or this conceptual thing going on. In free jazz it's much more stream of consciousness. But the stream of consciousness is conditioned by a set of understandings that may not be spoken, but are either leader-derived or collectively derived over time until there is a band convention. And once a free jazz group's played together for a while they know where they're starting from, they know the world of sound they will inhabit as a group – and they go into that flow right away.
So there's free jazz and there's free improvisation. Maybe when you think of free jazz you think of Cecil Taylor; when you think of free improvisation you may think of the British improvisers, because their thing is more influenced by European new music – sound for sound's sake, texture, and much more delicate stuff a lot of the time, there's a kind of pointillism to it. But they're different apsects of the same idea to me, as opposed to music with some kind of compositional convention wrapped around it.
The definition of what an improvising artist is doing can get complicated, and pretty murky. I think if you really wanted to sit down and bracket it out, and say this music goes here and this goes there, you could do it to a degree. I mean, it's not like you're talking about Indian ragas and Bach. Free jazz and free improvisation aren't that far apart; all these things overlap a little bit. It's a little vague, and that's part of the reason for all of the terms. The people trying to write about it need to have boxes so that it makes it a little bit easier for them to explain what it is that we do.

So with Rova you do structured improvisation?

Yeah. Absolutely. I would say we've never done free jazz, not really. Even Ascension, which is kind of a free jazz piece. There's the beginning of free jazz, because you're blowing on something and then it takes off. But on our arrangements of Coltrane's Ascension, what we did was orchestrate exactly who was going to play, though we didn't tell them what to do. The composed music as well as the live music leading into each section pretty much influenced where a lot of the sections went. Because of the way it was set up, there were all these sections that came out – in other words, there'd be a head and some group improvisation that was absolutely based on the music. And then it would take off. There'd be an electric guitar, [Nels] Cline, playing with the drums and bass and electronics. Free jazz, indeed, in that five minutes. Cline was expressing something of his own in the context of that music. But it's a little different because it's bracketed between this group blow-out and the next thing that was going to happen, just an electric violin with effects – electronics, two electronics players and violin. If we were doing pure flow, that couldn't happen; by orchestrating this in, you've just turned the piece on its head. And we threw a bunch of those orchestrated events in there, just to see what would happen when they got propelled out. It's like thinking about a rocket that's been shot up in space, and the written music is the booster. And then it falls away and it's just, wow, we're out here, out beyond gravity, now what are we going to do? How are we going to keep it up here? So every so often we would reinject the fuel by bringing the head back. Something like that.

So how has improvisation developed since Coltrane's Ascension?

Wow, another small question (laughs). I would just say that over the last forty years, many more people, because they were excited by that music that they heard, decided to get involved in some way. Even though they didn't understand what it was. They spent a lot of time experimenting, listening – not only to the records that already existed, but listening to what they were experimenting with, and trying to understand what it was. Over that period of time, a body of understanding, or let's say a language – a way of working, an understanding of what it meant to actually improvise without set rules, without the standard forms – began to emerge. In other words, not as a rock musician, not as a jazz musician, not as an Indian musician within the rules of Indian music. Just to improvise with sound. To listen to it, make sense of it. We understand things that they didn't even know to ask questions about back then, when Coltrane got five saxes, two trumpets, two basses, piano and drums together for the first time. It was completely theirs but also completely new. We just know more now; it's not new.
What we did with Electric Ascension would never have occurred then – I mean, half the instruments didn't even exist then. It has absolutely nothing to do with us being better than them – forget that. What they did was incredible, especially given the time. But we had an advantage, because we got to hear them. Anybody who comes after you learns. We learned what worked and what didn't. We had all this time to take other things we've learned from other experiences, the advantage of being able to ask ourselves what would happen if we took something from this experience and tacked it onto that? How would that make this piece be kinda cooler? Again not better – but how could we make it go somewhere else?
In 1995, with Rova we released our version of Ascension on Black Saint. It was the 30th anniversary of the original recording. We did an acoustic version, with the exact same instrumentation and, I believe, the same arrangement, with one or two small changes – the order of soloists was definitely different, and maybe there wasn't a piano solo, I can't remember – but basically it was the same piece. It sounded really good, and we realized that Ascension was actually a great composition. Not just this blowing thing, but a deep composition. We had a great time that night at The Music Hall and the audience was blown away, four or five hundred people. I think we did it really well, but in the end, while the experience was meaningful to all of us, it didn't take us anywhere new.
Six or seven years later we decided do it again as a part of the Rova 25th anniversary. It was great fun, almost like a nostalgic thing. But when we started thinking about it, we thought, we're not going to play it that way again, what are we going to do? We started thinking about how we could make it more contemporary and cool, maybe push it somewhere. We took our experience in other areas of improvisation and added musicians we thought would help us bounce it to a really exciting place we'd never been to, as opposed to trying to recreate what we'd already done before. That's how the 2003 show was first conceptualized.
I think you want to always be hewing your own path, not rebuilding the tools. Coltrane and his men already gave us some ideas, some tools, some ways in. We took their way in and we moved beyond it, made a right turn or a left turn somewhere. Saying, we'll check this out. And once you get onto your own path, you're in – that's it. This is another aspect about these kinds of conversations, or even talking about the music: there are times when I have no perspective anymore. I'm just going down my path, and I've been doing it for over thirty years. No matter how much I try to shake my own thing up, reading books or listening to music or whatever – in the end, when the piece is done, it's one of my things. It's not like I'm suddenly doing something completely different. That's really how it works. With improvisers, you're always trying to create a better jumping off point, an easier way for great music to happen. It's almost like, OK that spaceship was good, but man, there must be stronger fuel around here, or how can I make it lighter. You know, really that's what it's about, it's cool. I often wonder whether composition is really necessary anymore – thirty years ago when we started, we didn't get how to lift the music off. But everybody we've been in this with since the 70s and 80s knows what to do now. So composing is like trying to create platforms that just get out of the way as fast as possible. Push it that way, and let it loose – if you've got the right people, then get out of the way. It's interesting and very exciting to be a part of.

That's reflected in your scores as well. You have durations and the odd melodic motif, but not much else.

Well, it depends. Generally that's what I like to do at this point. I'm kind of worried about this Ayler-dedication piece that I'm doing at Yoshi's tomorrow, that maybe I've overwritten it. The more written material you have, the more time it takes to make the thing feel spontaneous. Because everybody has to have that written material become part of them.

Miles Davis once described musicians as "scientists of sound". I know that Lyn, having read Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky and others, is interested in science and its relationship with language, and trying to push language in a direction closer to science. Is that how you see what you're doing, except with tones rather than words?

Yeah, I like that. I think that's it. Scientists are definitely into magic. When they're really doing research, they're trying to take what they understand and reimagine it, reconfigure it so that something that didn't make sense before eventually does. I think the similarity is real. But ultimately scientists are much more able to explain what it is they figure out than we musicians are.

Your music has been influenced by Albert Ayler, the soulfulness of Ayler's music. I'm just wondering about soulfulness, and what the soul is, how it's expressed in music?

Pass. (laughs)

Let me put it another way. There's a clear delineation between the body and the soul that goes right back to Plato, even before, but there's been a suggestion by some critics that in African American art in particular, there's not the same separation. That the soul is transmitted through the body, in a lot of the raspiness of the playing, the blues shrieks, honks, that sort of thing. I'm wondering if you'd agree with that, as an exponent of saxophone shrieks and squalls. I'm wondering if you see that as an expression of the soul.

Yes, I guess I do; that's why one is "touched" by the music. When the hair on the back of your neck stands up at the sound of Pharoah Sanders' tenor moan, it's maybe one soul touching another… I don't have anything profound to say about this. It's an area I don't really like thinking about. But certainly we're trying to touch people in a place that's deeper than, you know, having a nice meal. And that's all coming from inside in some way. At the same time I'd have to say that these sounds are available now – they're part of the palette, the vocabulary, just as pitch is part of it. So I use them. It doesn't make sense to just limit what you do to pitch any more. On a saxophone especially, this is doubly true. If you play piano that would be one thing, but the saxophone has all this space between the "notes", and all of these interesting saxophonists out there, some of whom are only playing sound. I feel that's a whole area that I need to have. But I don't like to lose pitch entirely because I like the connection between pitch and shrieks – pitch being the vibe and shrieks being the soul, that kind of thing. They contextualize each other. In that way maybe I'm a little more traditional than a John Butcher, who's really dealing most often just with sound and the physics of sound and seeing what he can manipulate on his horn.

photo courtesy Matthew Campbell

In your article Devices and Strategies for Structured Improvisation (3) you talk about a primary goal being "to tell a story and/or to create a mood, feeling or environment". This idea of telling a story on an instrument seems to gesture towards some sort of referentiality using tones. Richard Strauss is once reported to have said he could describe anything using musical tones, including a teaspoon, if he wanted to. I'm wondering if you can comment on the denotative capacities of musical tones, or at least their connotative capacities?

Well again if you think about how music is being used in most situations, it's being used to contextualize a situation so that people understand what it is they're about to be told. I think for the most part that's what music is used for. It's either that or ritual – and ritual's all about making people feel comfortable, or re-energized. Certainly I think that's there. But my own compositional thing is very much mixing that area with the more abstract in a way that is not really possible for me to relate verbally. Again, it's going down that path that I'm on. I can't get off it at this point. I can't do what Richard Strauss did – I'm not going to compose within a set of conventions where everything's completely understood before the first listening. You know, we're going to go from here to here and there's going to be an arc and there's going to be a story line and that's the form.
A storyline helps me sometimes to organize long pieces, but I try hard not to create anything that has too much of a definite progression. I may be thinking about certain things, but I like to leave the form open to reordering; I wouldn't really want to have anything going on form-wise that's obvious. When I'm thinking about how a piece is going to be arced, I generally try and arc it in a way that's a little unconventional. Maybe have the heaviest moment happen early, or the most intense part right in the middle. Or have a piece that starts slowly and ends real slowly. Right now I'm composing imaginary soundscapes for films that were never made by specific filmmaker heroes of mine, pieces for the current quintet version of the [Larry Ochs] Sax & Drumming Core. Maybe in those pieces I do have a specific arc in mind, though for the most part I prefer to see what happens as a given piece develops in repeat performances.

But do you think musical tones can get as close as words can to describe things?

Nope… Strauss was exaggerating a little bit. But maybe he could do that, his music generally being programmatic. Especially I think music for theater, or symphonic music, it's very often inspired by the picture.

Jon Raskin gives you art works to play along to…

Right. And Steve Adams too – the graphic scores of Rova. But in the case of these pieces, each and every take is a new piece, a new interpretation of the picture. I guess if you heard three takes back to back you would recognize similarities, sure. Their art is nice to look at too, although you don't have the slightest fucking idea where that music is coming from just by looking at it (laughs)! There are all kinds of rules and concepts or back-stories that we're given to think about. It could, I think, be just as easily described in words as far as the musicians are concerned. But I like the visual thing, because it's in a way easier to remember the rules – like, I'm going to think about this kind of thing, that's what this part of the graphic score signifies, as opposed to having a sentence saying, Part One is going to be like this. I mean I think he's onto something. Or you could say the pictures are so abstracted that they could go any way – it all works. One thing we're finding is that these visual scores are easier to explain to musicians outside the band than a set of rules in words only. The visual signifiers are very effective.

To return to Nathaniel Mackey. There's a scene in his latest book Bass Cathedral (4) where two musicians – one a trumpeter, the other a saxophonist – are in a shop in Los Angeles, trying to get the perfect mouthpiece. They have this conversation with the owner about how difficult it is to get that sound that makes one so unique as an instrumentalist. They start talking about how Pharoah Sanders is famous for his sound, and one of the guys says that these days he thinks that's just basically blowing that beautiful rich sound and the occasional prolonged squeak, and then that's enough for the audience, everyone goes home happy. Then the other guy says that's actually not enough, that sound is more than that, it's to do with choice of notes, it's articulation, all sorts of different things. I imagine this is something you've thought about at length. I'm just wondering what you think it is that constitutes someone's sound, what it is that makes someone unique as a performer?

We could talk about that for a couple of hours. But that is a great summation – it's interesting that [Nathaniel] wrote that. I would go to any Pharoah concert (if it was free), sit down for ten minutes and go, thank you, it's great to hear that. And then I could leave. Because at this point his group's music is not that interesting to me. But the guy's sound, what's coming from him – it's fantastic. He does do that now – he coasts for a while and then he just turns on the jets, puts it out there, and it's still as amazing as it used to be. Then he brings it back and plays jazz. And he's still a great jazz player. But the thing that excited all of us at the time was that we didn't know where his sound was coming from. And it would go on for an hour. It was fantastic, it was the times, it was the 60s, this energy thing was happening, things were blowing up. Sanders seemed to be expressing the times through his sound. It's still there today, coming from such a deep place in him, which is awesome, but the context he plays in now is not as compelling for me personally.
I feel that ultimately you've either got the sound or you haven't. You have to recognize it and work on it. You can make it better or worse. You have to make room for it to come out. If you're lucky it comes out pretty much right away, but then you may not hear that it's there, or not be confident enough to bare "the sound" in public, and end up reverting to something more conventional. Again, it's really hard to talk about. You have to work on all the things around the sound, so that when you're in the moment where it's time for the sound to come out it will come out, you can get it out there. Then you can work with it and keep people mesmerized and yourself interested.
I'd be willing to guess that Pharoah found his sound very early in his life. He had this unusual vocalization through the horn. It was there for him. Then he had to spend a lot of time getting the more mundane musical stuff together, so that the two things could support each other. I don't know for certain, but I think that was also true for somebody like Archie Shepp. I think his sound was already there very early on. The first time I picked up a saxophone my sound was already there. The first day I picked up a saxophone, people thought I was a saxophone player. I didn't understand then, but it was there – it really was. For me it's always been about managing to figure out a context for it to sound good in and how to expand the sound, make things more interesting for myself. And just how to play; to know and to not be afraid to put the sound out there. Then how to play with people, and learn to be a musician. How to make other people in the band sound better by playing one way and not another. But finding a saxophone that sounds better, improving the sound of the saxophone itself – it's a different world now. Mouthpieces cost $500 a piece, so it's pretty hard to have a flight case of them to check out and toy around with. Nobody can afford to do that any more. People who have seven or eight of them to mess around with have somebody sponsoring them. Nobody can buy those things any more. Back then when Coltrane and Sanders were carrying bags of mouthpieces around, it was a different world.

We've talked about the legacy of Coltrane. He got asked this question not long before he died – where do you see the music heading these days?

(Laughs) No idea. Everything's happening. I don't think it's heading – I think there's this giant circle, with so much going on, all happening at the same time. You're turning around seeing this, this, this, this and this – and it's all out there, all connected and cross-fertilizing. There's a band that's got these five influences, another group that's got these twelve influences, or a piece that's got Balkan, African influences, electronica, rock music, chords from Bach. Take a group like Radiohead. I mean there's just everything. Then there are all these young people who don't even know how to play conventional instruments but who are making and organizing sound and figuring things out. And there are all kinds of influences that aren't musical at all. The possibilities are endless.
At the same time, I guess if you're worried about anything, it's that there's just way too much crap – how is anybody going to find their own space or the interesting influences that inspire discovery when so much non-essential stuff is being thrown at them? It's not clear that you need to think artistically or philosophically, or improve musically. I worry that there's so much useless information that people won't be able to find the right information any more, or won't recognize the real deal when they see it. But I think that's probably better than it all being a big, deep secret that only a few people are privileged enough to get exposure to, while everyone else misses out. That's scarier.

1) Qtd. in Art Lange and Nathaniel Mackey, 'Editor's Note' to Moment's Notice: Jazz in Poetry & Prose (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1993), p.ii.
2) Nathaniel Mackey,
Atet A.D. San Francisco: City Lights, 2001.
Arcana: Musicians on Music, Vol 1, ed. John Zorn (New York: Granary, 2005), p.326.
4) Nathaniel Mackey,
Bass Cathedral (New York: New Directions, 2008), pp. 27 - 36.

photo courtesy Claudio Casanova / AAJ Italia

Ochs headshot on homepage by Stanimir Ivanov. See also other interviews of related interest with James Finn, Jim Giardullo, and Ned Rothenberg.