Tag Archives: improvisation

Fox Tossing, and other musical concepts

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.

Fuchsprellen follow-up and thoughts on 2012

As luck wold have it we were jumped by a snow storm on December 26, resulting in a cancellation of the Fuchsprellen gig at Best Video in Hamden. The forecast called for aout an inch, maybe, and mostly rain, and we got half a foot of snow instead. That is typical of southern New England, where the rain/snow line can be fickle and turn a drizzle into a whiteout in short order. Good call by BV to shut the tig down. The roads were a complete mess.

The rescheduled gig went down on January 3, but I am counting it as a 2012 event. Because I can. The folks at Best Video have done a super job of retooling one of the best video rental shops in the state into a video/cafe/performance venue, and the kicker is that their performance area sounds great. That has a lot to do with the baffle effect of the video racks and the false beams in the ceiling. Anyhow, thanks to Hank Hoffman for making it happen.

The whole event provided a symmetrical closing to the year-that-was. The project that was to become Fuchsprellen kicked off in January with Peter Riccio and Me playing a duo set on a snowy night, when the gig should have been canceled, at Never Ending Books. We followed that up with a short run of gigs based on my sample/synth/guitar setup and Peter’s drum kit. That led to a run of shows and workshops with New Haven Improvisers Collective, which gave me some time to think about my own projects while still playing and performing. And that led to expanding the instrumentation, which allowed me to cut back on the scope of my live rig, and created space for additional voices. The culmination was was having Richard Brown sit in on sax, alongside Stephen Chillemi on various reeds and percussion (including vibraphone). My live rig? Animoog for iPad, with Moog Filtatron for iPhone, run though a Mackie mixer to the house PA. Delightfully minimalist. The results were beyond my expectations and I believe that the stage has been set for a noisy and productive 2013. I like it like that 🙂

Coming Soon: Fuchsprellen clips on Soundcloud, and a Fuchsprellen EP on Bandcamp.

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Stockhausen on Ice

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New Haven Improvisers Collective ran through a suite of Stockhausen pieces for the January workshop. The forms were taken from the composition “Auf den seben Tagen” (From the seven days). The pieces are very open to interpretation, thankfully, and the group really dug in and did some fine work. Jeff Cedrone, Paul McGuire, Peter Riccio, Bob Gorry, Nate Trier, Me, and Bill Beckett on “infinite nothingness”.

File Under “Coincidence”

After composing the previous post I opened up a Cecil Taylor CD (Trance), lent to me by my friend Peter Riccio.  I read the liner notes, written by Erik Wiedemann in 1963… As I got to the end I could not help but laugh:

“If a man plays for a certain amount of time – scales, licks, what have you – eventually a kind of order asserts itself.  Whether he chooses to notate that personal order or engage in polemics about it, it’s there.  That is, if he is saying anything in his music.  There is no music without order – if that music comes from a man’s innards.  But that order is not necessarily related to any single criterion of what order should be as imposed by the outside.  Whether that criterion is the song form or what some critic thinks jazz should be.  This is not a question, then, of” freedom” as opposed to “non-freedom” but is rather a question of recognizing different ideas and expressions of order” – Cecil Taylor to Nat Hentoff, Downbeat magazine, February 25, 1965