Over the past two years I have been pursuing my musical goals with more focus, specifically on my commitment to “free music” and improvisation. I caught the free jazz bug early in life and it has continued to be a fundamental force in my musical life. One of the things that has become more clear as I continue to perform music is the gradation within any artistic medium or genre.
An example is “painter”. You meet someone, it turns out that they are a painter. Once you determine that it is “artistic” painting, not house painting or interior painting (an art in itself), what do you really know? Do they work in oils, watercolors, acrylics, natural pigments…? Do they paint people, landscapes, futurist fantasy, naturalist tableau…? Are they working in an established tradition, or school? Otherwise all you know is that they apply paint to a substrate and consider it to be their art.
Music is the same, and might be even harder to pin down. When people hear that I play music they first ask if I am in a “band”. At any time that answer could be “no”, “several”, “yes, kinda”, or “I am a band”. Either way, it is almost never the kind of band they are thinking of, rocking out Mustang Sally to beer-soaked Hartford fratboys. Even if they have a broader conception, they might not get that my band does not have “songs”. In many ways each artist can be considered their own genre. Even if I have been highly influenced by Zappa, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra, Last Exit, and Charles Mingus? Those artists have produced an incredibly broad variety of musical art (OK, maybe not Last Exit 🙂
I have made this statement as a idee-fixee regarding musical influence: “I love what Mingus was doing in 1964, but he never had to worry about being influenced by Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix”. And he didn’t. I do. All the time.
As a result I spent most of my life playing improvised music and avoiding those influences. Starting in the late 90’s I began to examine and embrace those influences, and act out on them in live performance. I took advantage of an opportunity to play the music of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), and that led to opportunities to delve into the music of Frank Zappa from the performance end of the operation. In there was the opportunity to play “indie rock” with The Sawtelles, and get exposed to a huge array of “indie rock” music that was incredibly diverse. All through that period I was digging deeper into my early influences. The huge array of “unreleased” and “re-issued” Sun Ra recordings continues to be a wonderland of freaky jazz. Getting my ears around the music of Kawabata Makoto and his various Acid Mothers Temple projects was equally revelatory. Stuck in the middle of this period was a seven year string where New Haven Improvisors Collective was my primary outlet for improvisation and structured chaos in music.
I also found out that I have certain skills and priorities that can conflict with musicians at the more “laconic” end of the spectrum. One way in which I have found myself separated from my peers is in my insistence on urgency and timelines. I will literally lay out rehearsals in terms of “we have X rehearsals, totaling Y hours, until date Z to prepare this band”. I believe that results do not happen accidentally, especially when learning to play the work of other composers. Nailing a version of a Frank Zappa composition is not done by accident. Jamming and getting “close” will not suffice. It is my inner Project Manager reaching into my artistic life and getting all pragmatic on the process.
As well, I am aware that each musician I have met and worked with has a very personal set of motivating concepts. Some want to be “the guy”, in the spotlight performing technically difficult material with seeming ease. Some want to validate their love for the party lifestyle. Some want to control others’ actions and occupy the head chair of their personal musical fantasy land. Those motivations are always underlain by other needs, experiences, compensations… And, for better and worse, exposure to those people has allowed me to better understand my own desires and motivations.
That decade of self-education was the densest and most exciting I have experienced. It allowed me to expand my performance opportunities and abilities, and develop a small but exciting network of like-minded muso nutjobs. It allowed me to do something I have done on a regular basis since I was a boy: throw it away and start over.
Not unlike the abstract painter, I feel like there are plenty of other people to participate in the music equivalents of hyper-realism, landscape, portraiture, pop-themes, etc… I have the desire to make music “on the spot” and leave the world of highly structured compositions to other musicians. Following this approach is not easier, at least not in my experience. Just as a Motown band needs a bass player versed in Jamerson, a free music ensemble needs to have members who are versed in the confidence of their ears and reflexes. That is much easier said than done. It is definitely not “easier”.
My current attempt at this musical pathway performs under the name “Fuchsprellen“, an old German word for “Fox Tossing”. You can look it up, or take my word for it that it was a blood sport of 16-17th Century royalty in which small woodland creatures were introduced to a walled compound where royalty would use cloth straps to launch them into the air. This was typically fatal for the animal. But the sheer absurdity of it struck me in a way to use it as a name for my band. It also sounds bad-ass.