Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Interview with tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE — Part 2

tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE performing his "Banned Names" at Howlers on June 22, 2013 as part of the Tommy Amoeba Birthday Party / Church of the SubGenius Devival. Photo: Rev Ivan Stang
Here's part two of my interview with "MM 26" mastermind and Crucible Sound #4 participant, tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE (and here's a link to part one in case you missed it).

One of the things that's really striking to me about your work is this willingness to engage with an absurd level of detail and complexity. And of course that absurdity kind of lies on the surface for those that won't engage in that level of detail. You mentioned silliness earlier, and I know that there's almost a prankster element to a lot of things, at least on the surface of them, that you've done in the past. One thing that turns a lot of people off about "serious music," and especially "serious improvised music," is the self-seriousness of it. I don't find that to be the case with your work. While it is very serious work, and requires an immense amount of dedication and virtuosity to be able to accomplish these things, there is still the presence of that kind of absurdity. Can you talk about why that matters to you or why that's interesting to you?

Actually you've hit on a very key point, and I appreciate that. That's a great question because…well first, I'd like to bring up Mauricio Kagel, another one of my favorite composers. There's a composer who has a great sense of humor. I don't know if you've ever checked out his movies, but they're just genius from my perspective. They're very very funny, they're musically extremely interesting, they're virtuosic, and they're extremely inspired. There's no good reason from my perspective why inspiration has to be serious, except that a lot of the time, people are afraid to be anything other than serious. Because if they want to be taken seriously in the classical music world, for example, where I am definitely not, then they generally have to present themselves as serious. If you present yourself as being a prankster, then you're not going to be put on a level with Beethoven or whatever…which is understandable to a certain extent. But I prefer Kagel over Beethoven for example, although Beethoven is great too, I've developed an appreciation for Beethoven in recent years.

One example that I always bring up about the importance of absurdity, or just humor, in my life is that I dated a girl in 1984 who was partially blind as a result of diabetes. We did this piece where I was her seeing-eye dog. I crawled around on all fours with a dog mask on, and with a leash, and was her seeing-eye dog in England. That was certainly absurd from most people's perspectives, including my own. But the thing was that we were trying to make light of her losing her eyesight. She wasn't born blind. To me, of course, that's a horrible thing, to lose your eyesight, or to be maimed in any way is a horrible thing, very hard to deal with. I'm not sure I could deal with it. But if you are going to deal with it, it would probably help enormously to have a sense of humor about it, so you can turn it on its head, essentially. And that's what I think a lot of absurdity does - it turns things on their head so that you can have a new relationship to them. And that's useful not just for dealing with hardship. It's useful for just having a fresh perspective on anything. People get into a rut of being unable to think about things from multiple angles. Absurdity just blows that out of the water. So I almost feel in a way that if things aren't absurd that they're not being twisted around in enough angles for a person to be experiencing them fully.

The original super-8 film of tENT's "Neoist Guide Dog" participation in the 8th International Neoist Apartment Festival in London in 1984 as shot by Pete Horobin. Made in conjunction w/ Gail Litfin.

One thing that you were describing to me was a concept for a kind of absurd homemade instrument that you were preparing for Crucible Sound #4. Can you talk a little bit about that and where the idea came from?

Thirty years ago, I made a drawing. It's a life-sized drawing, or maybe even a little bit larger than life-sized, taken from an acupuncture book. It's a front and back chart of a gender-neutral, or at least male-looking but penis-less, figure with the acupuncture lines on it and some notations about specific areas of the body or whatever. And I was participating in the 6th International Neoist Apartment Festival in 1983 in Montreal. I took this chart with me. I hung it up on a wall. I had friends who were doing these blowdart performances at the time. They had turned me on to using just a glass tube with a nail with a cigarette filter on it as a dart. So I gave this speech as a part of this festival where I explained that if you were being approached by someone on the streets who was perhaps going to attack you, you could use this blowdart to assess what their problems were and administer acupuncture at a safe distance in order to try to protect yourself. And then in the case of this chart, since it looks like a guy but it's missing its penis, my appraisal of his problem was that he was born without a dick so I decided to blow the blowdart into the penis area in order to give him a dick in the form of the blowdart, in order to solve his problems so that he wouldn't attack. That was the basic text of the whole thing. I used that drawing, which is quite a nice big drawing - I mean it's not anything fantastic from a draftsman's perspective, but it's an accurate rendering - I used that drawing for that performance once, and then I never did it again because I had the philosophy of only do a performance once in order to try to keep yourself fresh, on your toes, do something completely different the next time you do something. But I've had this drawing, I've literally been carrying it around for thirty years, and I was thinking it would be fun to do something with it again.

So I am currently building a frame so that I can have it be free-standing, rather than attached to a wall. And I have ten contact mics. I'm thinking of taping these ten contact mics to specific points on the body from the back. And then playing the paper to activate the contact mics, which will then do various possible things, but will somehow go through a sound system. Now a part of the idea is to take a portable PA and move it around in front of the acupuncture chart so that there's feedback between the contact mics and the speakers. And then try to get that to vibrate the paper, which then becomes a form of absurdist biofeedback, a faux medical procedure. In a sense it's still a reference back to the original blowdart performance - "Acupuncture &/or Ear-PIercing," as i think that original performance was called.

Since I haven't gotten to the point of making this or even trying it out, I don't really know how well it's going to work, how much I can get the paper to vibrate in the ways that I'm imagining it to do, etc. So if I don't get it to work in that way, an alternative is just to have the contact mics going to a pitch-to-MIDI converter which then goes to my other electronics - a sampler and a wave-table synthesizer, most likely, and then just have the playing of the chart trigger these sounds. I'll try the feedback thing because I like the directness of the relationship between the object…It's mainly something that I think is going to be fun to interact with on a visual level because the figures on the acupuncture chart are the same size as me, so it's something I can fuck around with maybe using percussion instruments. I just bought some brushes, which I've never had before. It's a standard percussion tool, but they're pretty much fun to play around with. And playing with the paper might be fun. So that's basically it, but it remains to be seen whether I have it built in the next week, whether I have it working the way I imagine it, or whether it's a total flop.

At the first Crucible Sound, Ben Grubb brought some homemade instruments, Margaret Cox was playing lots of things she made herself, and Kenny Haney was playing some homemade electronics. So it seems like it's something that people are naturally bringing to this type of event. And I wonder what it is about homemade instruments that you feel drawn to? 

The obvious thing, to refer back to what I was saying about free improvisation earlier, is that if you want to try to do something fresh, it helps to even get away from pre-existing instruments. I play a lot of pre-existing instruments, but as our mutual friend Unfinished Symphonies and I have talked about (he plays guitar, keyboard, percussion, etc.), he says that it's typical for a guitarist to just get into these grooves of different things they practice all the time, and they get good at doing them. 40 years ago I had gotten to the point where I was practicing a fair amount and trying out different types of scales, not just major/minor, whatever I could come up with, and I've experimented with tunings, and so on. But still there's a tendency towards muscle memory. To move one's left hand, in my case, to fret, up and down the neck in various ways, etc. But if I had something that I'd made new that presented me with a different set of rules, then I would have to come up with a different way of playing it. And then of course the hope is that it would sound dramatically different from pre-existing instruments too.

I've played with a fair amount of people that make their own instruments, Neil Feather certainly being the most accomplished of all these people, and I like Neil's instruments a lot. But there's also a tendency with people who make instruments to make them in a sense within the pre-existing families of instruments: stringed, wind, or percussion. My proposed acupuncture chart doesn't really quite get away from that. But it gets away from it more than if I were using a stringed instrument. Now I liked Ben Grubb's thing that he did with the stringed instrument, but it was still basically a slide guitar, by his own admission if I remember correctly. I don't say that as a criticism, because it's still a great thing that he did and that was a beautiful night, I loved that night, but I am much less interested in making a stringed instrument than I am in trying to make something new.

When I was a teenager I did a drawing that was maybe 1970 or so, that was of a guy playing an instrument that I imagined I someday would build. And the instrument was a sort of square with holes in it, like a 4'x4'x1/2" piece of wood or whatever with holes in it, with harmonica reeds or various things that could be activated by wind that would be located over the holes. And on the other side of it the player would do something like run a vacuum cleaner set to going out along it by sort of wiggling along the holes in a squiggly fashion or whatever so that the conventional playing procedure for activating those devices would be somewhat bypassed because the player would be concentrating more on the motion that they'd be making over the holes with the pneumatic tube than they would be in trying to play specific notes. That's probably not even a good description of what the drawing represented, because I did it at least 42 years ago. But I remember it being something like that. So even at that time I had the idea of trying to bypass normal instrument technique for the sake of producing a different sound collage, what I've been calling "concrete mixing" for the last 30 years maybe.

That was one of the things that I really enjoyed about that first Crucible Sound was that I remember Margaret mic'd herself chewing into an apple. Of course I love things like that. And once again, Cage can be referred back to because he was one of the pioneers of doing that mic'ing of small sounds and bringing them to the forefront…not to concentrate entirely on Cage since there are a zillion other interesting people out there, but since we started off with him. I mean, I love Xenakis too…

Stockhausen with "Mikrophonie"...

Yeah that's an incredible piece, that's really one of the most beautiful things I've heard in my life.

Last question: one of the goals of Crucible Sound is to cause unexpected music to happen. What do you think are the factors which cause unexpected music to happen? 

Well, everything that we've already been talking about, especially a willingness to have that happen with the players. There's been one tendency in free improvisation that's maybe a minor tendency, and I'm really out of touch with a lot of free improvising so I can't say what trends are happening these days, but to do things like deliberately play instruments that you can't play, that you're really bad at. Now in a sense that doesn't create an unexpected thing because the result generally is that, if you've never played a trumpet or an oboe before, and you try to play it, you're going to end up with a squeak or whatever and very little else.

Last night when Elisa and I were doing Titin for the fourth part of the movie version of Titin, I set up my electronics for her, which she doesn't play, and had her sit down at those. I explained some of the parameters of some of the things that she could do, and then I did the piano part. Prior to that, she'd done the piano part and I'd done the electronics part, so for her it was like being put into a very sophisticated playpen and then seeing what would happen. Because she's a very intelligent person who's open-minded and has skills and the ability to focus, etc., she plunged right into it with a serious classical musician's dedication, and I was listening to her playing and things were coming out of there that I wouldn't have necessarily expected that I really liked a lot. And she wasn't even sure how she was doing it, and I wasn't sure how she was doing it, and it wasn't necessarily earth-shattering. It wasn't like suddenly the voice of the devil came and spoke to us. It was more a matter of "oh, that's really nice, what is that?" Some clicking thing that had come into it but that I really really liked, especially just because I wasn't expecting that at all.

I usually put an extreme amount of work into creating samples. I used to put an extreme amount of work into programming other electronic devices, but now I'm pretty much focused on the sampler, and one of the things that I do is make it so complicated that, even though I have a pretty good memory for things and I create these scores for myself that I can consult as charts, it's unlikely that I could stay completely on top of all of the possibilities that I've created for what happens when these samples are played. So then, the fun part of it for me is to plunge into it and start playing them and then suddenly have something there that I really wasn't expecting and to try to magnify that moment and luxuriate in it.

But of course, we could be much more far-reaching here and say "well if you really want to make unexpected music, be drugged unconscious, have a blindfold put on you, and be left in a mine somewhere," or whatever, I don't know. Don't follow that example, people who are reading this! Do not follow that example! The point is that I've often made a point of criticizing both myself and others for thinking that we're really going all the way with things when we're really not going all the way at all.

I've had a preoccupation in my life with psychopaths, for example. I consider myself to be a psychopathfinder. I often have thought in conversations, in bars for example, that if there were a psychopath listening, what the person conversing was saying might really get them into trouble. Because the psychopath might take it seriously and take it to the level where one's physical well-being is not taken into consideration as a factor at all. I'm not condoning this, mind you. That's not the idea at all. I have strong feelings about actually working for the common happiness among people. But the point is more that people should be careful about the language that they use because in a way sometimes you get more than what you are actually wishing for. For example, if I were to show up at ModernFormations, and everybody were in there, and I had a wrecking ball outside, and I brought that wrecking ball into the front of the building, that would be really unexpected. Somebody might get killed. My examples all must seem so draconian, and I really don't mean it that way…

There's a famous Hanatarashi performance where they did exactly that. They got all the people gathered in the space and Eye came in and just started destroying the building with people inside of it. 

That's interesting. I'm not familiar with that at all. The thing is, I don't think everything needs to be so violent. The violent examples are good for dramatic purposes, but I'm just using them for dramatic purposes. I would never want to put a wrecking ball through a building with people inside. I wouldn't want people to get hurt. That's not the point. I'm just trying to make a graphic example. My point is more like…sometimes people want things to be unexpected, but they want them to be within certain parameters that are not always conducive to unexpectedness. So to use less dramatic examples, at the upcoming "MM 26" release event, our friends will all be playing instruments that they're familiar with, and that they're virtuosic at, and we may bring some unexpected things out of those combinations etc., largely as a result of your structuring of having it be people who haven't played together before. And I'll no doubt enjoy that thoroughly. But if we really wanted to be unexpected, we would not use instruments at all. We would not even necessarily know who was going to be there. We might all try to do something that would completely surprise everyone else, like show up, again I'm trying to use non-dramatic examples, something that isn't destructive for a change, and say something like cater the meal with an 8-course catering with some 200-year old bottle of incredible wine or whatever. That would be totally unexpected! I would enjoy it, I'm sure. Or someone could just sell stock in their latest enterprise or whatever. Or they could give free legal advice. There are all sorts of things that could happen that would be unexpected. I don't think that we're going to go there.

The point is unexpected music

But then there's the whole expanded definition of what constitutes music or sound or anything else. Fluxus, which I love, certainly succeeded in expanding those notions. George Brecht's pieces for polishing a violin...there's a lot of genius along those lines. Really, while we're hoping that something unexpected comes out of it, we're also people who actually just love music and who want to create what we feel is great music. I think for me personally, I'm hoping to get more than that out of it, in a sense. I really like the CD, I think it's great music, and I would wish that other people would like the CD and think it's great music. I would be happy if we felt that we'd succeeded along those lines.

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