Interview with Jon Mueller, Crouton Music, Spring 2002


Why are the violin and piano your instruments of choice? How did the relationship with them form?

I started violin when I was seven, because there was a peripatetic violin teacher who came to my primary school in Rochdale (twelve miles north of Manchester, England) on Friday afternoons. His name was Gerry Duffy, and he was terrifying! A ferocious, grumpy old Irish ogre, but he liked me, fortunately. I played in tune. (On my forthcoming album with Bruno Meillier I've entitled one of the pieces "Mr Duffy's Nightmare", since I'm sure he'd turn in his grave if he could hear how I play the instrument these days..) After that I auditioned for Bronislaw Gimpel and eventually studied with Rudolf Botta at the Royal Northern College of Music Junior School until the age of eighteen.
I took up piano when I was eleven. After about six years or so it sort of overtook the violin, as I had to spend three hours a day working on purely technical violin exercises (no pieces) and it kind of sapped my enthusiasm for the instrument, whereas on the piano I could improvise, and hence compose. I carried on with violin, eventually leading the orchestra at the RNCM, playing concertos and what have you, but after one spectacularly disastrous recital which was broadcast live on the radio (where I got lost playing unaccompanied Bach from memory - something I'll never do again, believe me), I decided to abandon any hopes of becoming Jascha Heifetz, which probably disappointed my parents (not that I had any illusions). When I went to University in Cambridge and afterwards at the Eastman School of Music, Rochester NY, there was no shortage of great players so I didn't feel encouraged to compete. I concentrated on composition instead.
I should say, at the risk of sounding reactionary, that the discipline of classical study, though horribly tedious for a bored teenager who wanted to do other things with his free time, was essential training and in retrospect not at all something I regret; I think I can only make the kind of sounds on the instrument I do now because I understand how to play it "correctly". You can hear that in the playing, I think (the same holds true for other improvising violinists who I admire.. Phil Durrant, Mathieu Werchowski..).

How did you end up in Paris?

After 21 months in the States studying for a PhD in Musical Composition on a Harkness Fellowship (1986-87), I had to leave the USA for at least two years as part of the visa requirements. Going back to the miserable rain-sodden post-Industrial wasteland of Manchester after three months in San Francisco was, as they say, culture shock. Since a girl I'd met in San Francisco was moving to Paris, I decided to follow her here. That was March 1988. I don't think my parents thought I'd be staying very long, as they kept sending on cuttings from newspapers advertising teaching posts (I'd been shortlisted for teaching positions at both Oxford and York, but didn't get the jobs - perhaps just as well.. there's something perverse about a 25 year old teaching at Oxford University). But I'm still here, fourteen years later.

What did school teach you about music that you didn't expect to learn?

In terms of curriculum, probably not much, since you know pretty well what you're going to be studying from one semester to the next, though I'd have to differentiate between what I did at Cambridge and the doctoral studies in the States: the Cambridge Tripos course is valuable and instructive, but without a system of credit hours and constant assessment, it's perfectly possible to busk on by and graduate without doing that much work. I ended up with a First (there were just four of us in my year who did), but I honestly only really started working seriously for it with three months to go! I spent the rest of my time at Cambridge running the New Music Workshop, which I founded in 1981, putting on concerts of music and poetry with friends, playing video games and generally drinking too much. At Eastman, however, where I think I did the fastest PhD on record - 21 months from start to finish, thesis included - I was really forced to work all the time, which is why I spent the next four years catching up on pieces I didn't have time to write while I was there. In my final semester I somehow managed to chalk up sixty credit hours. It was pretty intense. Going back to your question, of course some things surprised me: in retrospect I have no regrets whatsoever at having had to study the history of music theory, for example (though I'll admit I wasn't all that keen on 19th century Italian Opera). The biggest revelation to me in my studies at Eastman was atonal music theory, or set theory as it's called, and I was fortunate in that I had a great teacher in Bob Morris (now Professor of Composition at Eastman) who infected me - and everyone he taught - with enthusiasm. As an analytical tool it's streaks ahead of the vague gibberish that passes for music theory here in Europe. It also helped me to understand what was happening in my own compositions.

What has experience taught you that no degree could claim?

So, I'm the voice of experience, eh? My old professor at Cambridge Alexander Goehr would be horrified..! Let's just say that traditional graduate education in music in Europe and America is still hopelessly restricted to the canon of Western classical music, and has little or no interest in other musics, either ethnic or popular. As far as I'm concerned, studying the history of 20th century music without mentioning Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Eno, Neu!, Pere Ubu, John Zorn, Derek Bailey, Misha Mengelberg (the list goes on..) is pretty myopic. I spend most of my time these days listening to music that will probably never find its way onto a college syllabus (except perhaps in place like Mills College or Wesleyan, where I know Braxton teaches a Sun Ra & Stockhausen course).

What is beneficial about functioning as an individual player, as opposed to being part of an ensemble or group?

In fact I don't play (improvise) as a soloist. I suppose I could do something solo on piano if someone asked me, but I find I need the conflictual input of other people to bounce off - especially with the violin. Solo improvising can all too easily fall into tried and trusted "tricks", as Paul Lovens calls them. My admiration for those musicians who can stand up and play great solo sets without doing that - John Butcher comes to mind - is boundless. That said, I don't consider myself part of a group either, as such: there are certain line-ups I work with, namely the quartet (with Jean-Luc Guionnet on alto, Francois Fuchs on bass and Edward Perraud on drums - check out "Return of the New Thing" on Leo, CD LR 280, www.paristransatlantic.com/newthing) and I play with pianist Frederic Blondy, usually adding a third musician to form a trio: we've played with cellist Martine Altenburger, guitarist Jean-Sebastien Mariage, as well as Scott Rosenberg and Radu Malfatti). Currently the outfit I play the most with is a duo with Bruno Meillier (saxophones, keyboards and electronics), sometimes adding Fabrizio Spera (percussion, electronics) to form a trio.

Talk about some of the people you work with. How has their playing influenced yours?

I'm answering this with my improvisor's hat on (I'm happy to go on about composers I've worked with, if you like, but that's another story). Obviously when you're playing with Radu Malfatti you're not going to approach the instrument in the same way as you would playing with John Butcher! Radu's well-known for not playing very much.. Burkhard Stangl told me he played a one-hour gig with Malfatti in Vienna where Radu only touched the instrument four times ("but the tension was electric!"). It's rare in improvised music to start out with the idea you're not going to play very many notes: playing with Radu was one of the most satisfying and uplifting experiences I've ever had. It's so rare these days that you get a chance to really LISTEN.. On the other hand, gigging with John [Butcher] was also a total delight (we played a couple of gigs in a quartet with Edward Perraud on drums and Hans Tammen on guitar). Here's a man who's absolutely mastered his instruments and has the technical facility to be able to react at high speed to what's going on. We got into some hair-raising situations!
It's a pleasure to work with Bruno and Fabrizio and be able to sit down afterwards and enjoy a Gladys Knight album or an old Soft Machine track. I like musicians who are open to all kinds of music, even if what they play themselves doesn't necessarily reflect the fact. I feel awfully sorry for folks who can only listen to one style of music: imagine spending all your life only listening to Evan Parker.. even Evan doesn't do that. He's a big Burt Bacharach fan, by the way. John Butcher likes country blues, and Radu Malfatti digs Benny Goodman!

To what extent has the music of your youth influenced the work you produce today?

All this talk of "experience" and "youth" certainly doesn't make me feel younger, I can tell you - I may be 38 but in terms of being a performing improvisor, I'm just starting out, remember: I only started playing seriously again back in 1997, after a stint with a local rock group. What do you mean by "the music of your youth" anyway? The music I used to listen to before I went off to college, or the music I used to write myself in my teens? I suppose the honest answer is: "Enormously" - all musicians are influenced by the music they grow up with. The idea though that that belongs to some past time called "youth" is something I can't bear thinking about: the discovery goes on! "Youth" ain't finished! Every day I receive discs of great new music from people I haven't heard of before, and it all goes into the machine and affects what I'm doing, consciously or not. I'm sure the guys I was at Cambridge with who used to listen with me to Robert Wyatt, Terry Riley, The Specials and Alternative TV have probably forgotten those records and graduated to so-called "serious music"; I can see them sitting around reading Sunday newspapers with Schubert lieder in the background, while their old Rough Trade and Factory albums gather dust in the attic. Not me! (Though I love Schubert lieder too.) True, you change: the music I wrote between 1982 and 1985 was heavily influenced by Riley, Glass and Nyman, and I wouldn't be all that keen to have it performed today; likewise I don't get much pleasure out of hiphop anymore, though I certainly was way into the stuff ten years ago. Sometimes you go back and listen to some old stuff (yours or other people's) and squirm with embarrassment, but by and large the things I grew up with still sound good today: Ligeti, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Robert Fripp, the Buzzcocks, This Heat, Joy Division, The Smiths.

Explain how the Paris Transatlantic magazine came together and where you see it going.

Originally it was a real (i.e. paper) magazine called the Paris New Music Review, which was founded by American pianist Guy Livingston back in 1994. Guy also ran an outstanding new music group, the Newt Hinton Ensemble, and we met after one of their concerts. I started reviewing a few concerts for the magazine, and eventually ended up covering discs too. By 1996, most of the magazine's original writers had moved off elsewhere - Joshua Cody back to the States (he runs the Sospeso Ensemble in New York now), Derek Bermel to Amsterdam to study with Louis Andriessen, Guy's brother Hugh (an excellent cellist) to San Diego, even Guy himself who was then based in The Hague in the Netherlands. It was more convenient therefore to abandon the print format and run it as a web magazine, which is what Guy does to this day. I write the articles, send them off by email to Guy and he sticks them up there. The site (www.paristransatlantic.com) is visited some 25,000 times a month, so I suppose someone out there is reading the stuff. We would welcome other contributors though, if anyone wants to offer their services - I feel I'm suffering from a certain over-exposure..
This eventually led to other journalism: in 1998 Tony Herrington asked me to submit an article for The Wire (I think they were fed up of printing my angry letters and having to send me free CDs), and my pal Walter Horn put me in touch with Pete Gershon at Signal To Noise. I'm very happy and proud to be able to contribute to these fine publications - thanks to that, and to the wonders of email, it hasn't taken long to establish a real network of contacts all over the place, though my early rash promise to record labels and artists alike to review anything they send is spiralling somewhat out of control - my shelves are filling up fast!

You have a record coming out this year documenting an improvised recording in a subway. Can you give some insight into how the recording was made? Are the players actually moving? Was it completely improvised?

The recording was made in the Metro station Pré St Gervais here in Paris, on July 10th last year. I asked for permission to record there, and we went along at 10pm and recorded until half past midnight or so. I played violin, Jean-Luc Guionnet brought his alto, and Eric La Casa had a portable DAT recorder and a boom mic. We all moved around without any predetermined plan, going up the stairs, riding the elevators, walking the platforms. Everything was completely improvised, especially of course the involuntary participation of other passengers. I chose the station because it's very quiet (I didn't feel like wandering around with a valuable violin in a busy place late at night) and it's also the end of a Metro line, so the trains wait in the station before pulling out again. There's a very particular acoustic in the Metro which anyone who lives in Paris becomes very familiar with; the average Parisian probably spends more than three hours a week down there. Plus of course the Metro has also fascinated other artists (Beuys apparently spent his entire honeymoon in the Metro) writers (Queneau, Cortazar) and film makers. It's as much a part of Paris as the Eiffel Tower. The idea of what I call "environmental improvisation", getting away from the standard studio sound, is something I find interesting. There's a label here in France, Ouie Dire, which has released some fabulous stuff: Le Quan Ninh bashing his cymbals in a mountain stream, Martine Altenburger playing cello next to a pond full of frogs, another recording on a railway station platform in the east of France. It also ties up with Eric and Jean-Luc's field recording work in the group Afflux (an album is due out shortly on Ground Fault). For "Metro Pré St Gervais", I'm very grateful to Mike Bullock in Boston, who will be releasing the album on his new label Chloe later this Spring.

Talk a bit about the experience of recording with Arthur Doyle, how long was the session, interesting sidenotes, etc.

I owe a debt of thanks to my pal Jerome Génin at Fractal Records for introducing me to Arthur's music a couple of years ago (I wrote the liner notes for the Fractal album "Dawn of a New Vibration", with Arthur and Sunny Murray). When Arthur was here last summer I cornered him for an interview for The Wire (published in Wire #209, August 2001), and invited along to jam with me and Edward in Ed's basement. Edward and I were putting the finishing touches to our duo project, Rats, and his cellar was set up as a kind of studio. Arthur turned up (bang on time), asked for a glass of Coke, took his horns out and launched into "Noah Black Ark"! That was it! I knew the pieces, of course, but Ed was playing the music for the first time: you can bet the concentration was intense. What was most liberating for Edward and myself was the completely different energy involved in free jazz as opposed to the improv we were working on before Doyle showed up: with Rats, everything is ultra-tense, on the edge, like martial arts; when Arthur launches into one of his solos, the force is centrifugal, you're opened up, less concerned with split-second responses and more drawn into a rolling tide of musical ideas. We recorded six tunes direct to DAT, with three mics on the drums, one for Arthur and the violin through a funky guitar pick up, which makes it sound like some ancient oriental folk instrument. Then Doyle packed up his horns and disappeared! It was a pretty primitive recording (by Doyle standards it's stellar though), but hearing Arthur sing "O Lord hear my prayer for peace and keep me warm" made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. (I played a bit of it to John Butcher the next day while travelling down to Bordeaux to play that night, and he said: "They don't make saxophone players like this anymore.") I sent a copy of the tape to Byron Coley, who put me in touch with David Tibet - another Doyle fan - who I'm delighted to say will be releasing it on Durtro in a few months. Hopefully we'll have a few live dates as a trio when Arthur comes back here later this month.

What else is in store for 2002?

Bruno Meillier will be releasing our duo album on his SMI label, and we're trying to find a home for the recordings we made in St Etienne last December with Fabrizio Spera. I also hope that "Rats" will see the light of day soon, as well as a violin and cello duo recording I made last June with Greek cellist Nikos Veliotis. There are also projects on the go with Scott Rosenberg, Bertrand Denzler, Daniel Erdmann and Fred Blondy. I hope to be able to play with two of my favourite musicians, Bhob Rainey and Greg Kelley, when they come back here in May. In the meantime, there's a huge pile of new CDs to listen to. As Jean Paul Getty said: "Get up early, work late, strike oil." I don't know about oil, but there's certainly still plenty of great music out there to discover. I can't see myself stopping now - I guess that's what I mean by "youth"! I intend to stay young.


 

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Interview with Philippe Robert, Revue & Corrigée, June 2000 (French)

Interview with Noël Akchoté, Skug, June 2004

Interview with Noël Akchoté, Skug, June 2004 (German)

Invisible Emergencies RA Clip

Metro Pre St. Gervais RA Clip