|Mike Tamburo playing gongs at Crown of Eternity|
Mike Tamburo has been a fixture in Pittsburgh's experimental music community for two decades. He's played in the bands Meisha and Arco Flute Foundation, performed and recorded mountains of solo music, and ran the New American Folk Hero and Sounds Eternal labels. Along with his wife Gallina, he also hosts yoga classes and sound healing workshops in his home studio, Crown of Eternity. He'll bring his spiritual approach to improvisation to Crucible Sound #6, this Thursday October 10th at Modernformations.
How did you get interested in improvisation?
Looking back now, I started improvising before I knew what improvising was. I received my first tape recorder when I was 5. From that point on, I was always capturing the moment on tape. These recordings ranged from field recordings, to "radio plays", to me chanting my telephone number, to the sounds I made in the bath tub, to a capella love songs, to me holding down all of the keys on the chord organ, to a whole lot of really hokey stuff I am sure. I got a real thrill out of listening back to whatever it was I just recorded. I learned clarinet and pretty remedial drumming in elementary school. I was only allowed to have drum pads at first because of the noise, so I feel like a lot of the sexiness of being a drummer was not instilled in me. I yearned for something else.
My folks got me a guitar with a speaker in the body and some Casio keyboards. They sent me to guitar lessons for a few weeks, but the teacher was pretty drugged out and would just leave me alone for 50 minutes of the hour-long class while he scored with the money that my mom gave him. I spent a lot of time while he was gone making noise, probably out of frustration. The speaker inside the guitar would feed back if you turned it up the whole way. I remember liking that and playing with that a lot.
By the time I was in middle school (1990), my tastes had taken me through metal and into hardcore, punk and alternative music. I listened to WRCT pretty obsessively at the time and I was exposed to so many sounds. I became aware of other people improvising around then. I was also first exposed to Sonic Youth around then as well. They were very much a gateway band for me back then, directing me to so much cool music. I really loved the noisy sections they played and fantasized some pretty fascinating scenarios as to how these sounds were being made.
What did you imagine they were doing?
Well I was pretty green at the time still so it is a little hard to remember. I remember seeing a picture of Thurston and Lee Rubbing their guitars together. I am not sure if that is what I imagined was happening in all of noise parts. But that thought was there for sure. My speaker guitar had a floating tremolo bridge and was sensitive to feeding back. And I had of course found some of the higher pitched sounds that you get from playing behind the bridge. I thought they wrote a lot of that first record by playing everything behind the bridge. I also imagined they were just tuning and detuning their guitars a lot of the time. It seemed so controlled though. I had never heard guitar like that before. It was so alive and powerful. I was very attracted to it. I wanted to know how they got those sounds. I did not really understand how to use dissonance to create tension, I just knew that I loved what they were doing.
My first Sonic Youth albums were Daydream Nation, Evol and the self-titled EP. They are all really different from each other. After reading some interviews I learned that there was tuning manipulation going on and distortion, but beyond that I am not sure. I had no idea that they were shoving drumsticks and screw drivers into the strings and just torturing their guitars – probably not until I saw The Year Punk Broke did I understand what was going on. It was all very mysterious to me – especially the self-titled record and parts of Evol. Needless to say, I spent a lot of the 90s with drumsticks shoved in my guitar. I also was way into alternate tunings. I still am; in fact, I hardly know standard tuning.
Around this same time I learned how to bounce tracks between tape machines. I would record myself reciting pretty overly-emotional poetry onto one tape and then I would improvise textures and other sounds over top of it. I would bounce between that tape recorder, my Dad's 2 track and the audio coming out of the VCR. It was way lo-fi and very in-the-moment. These were probably the roots of me looping and improvising by myself as well.
As all of that experimentation was going on, I decided that I wanted to be the lead singer or the lead poet or perhaps just the center of attention in a band. I still only played clarinet and remedial drum pad and terrible guitar at the time. I was best at the clarinet, but I had not yet realized how cool the clarinet could be. Plus it was not sexy. I found some other kids to play with and I became the lead singer. We were playing in kind of a Janes-Addiction-meets-the-Butthole-Surfers, mixed in with some other alternative schmaltzy styles or something like that. It was very "120 Minutes"-sounding. We were writing our own songs though. In a few of the songs I had almost Jim Morrison/Perry Farrell-esque vocal improvs (in my mind at least) where I would sing/talk stories or poems and roll around on the floor. It was all very dramatic. A lot of that was improvised, and to my 15-16 year old self, it was a thrill to do that in front of people.
I started getting instruments other than clarinet right after this band broke up, maybe 1993-ish. I got a Telecaster, a bass, real drums, my first 4-track and a Digitech PDS pedal with infinite sustain at this time. This is when I started improvising in earnest, and I also started looping using answering machine tapes through the two track. I probably started improvising out of necessity because I was not necessarily proficient on any instruments. I faked it pretty well though and learned to play just enough to fill up 4 tracks and make them sound like something.
Do you think a lot of improvisers are faking it?
In Kundalini Yoga we have a saying that goes: "fake it until you make it." I feel like that can be applied to a lot of non classical forms of music as well. I personally would just play what I could and what served the song or the moment and as time went on, I kept getting better and better at my instruments and at understanding music. I do not feel like it invalidates the music I was making in high school because I did not understand music the way that I do now. What I think is the most important part of making music, composed or improvised, is the heart, the vision, and the passion.
A few years back I was on a huge tuning kick. I guess I still am to some extent, but my perception has changed. I was also a little more arrogant than I am now (hopefully). I remember having a conversation with one of my friends (a New American Folk Hero artist in fact), and I said something to the extent of tuning being the key to all music and that if you did not understand tuning, you did not understand music. He kind of kicked me into place a bit, first by saying he knew nothing about tuning and he just turned his tuning pegs until it sounded good to him. He secondly told me that it simply was not his interest and that he was focusing on texture, time and very slow builds. Had he not told me that he knew nothing about tuning, I would have not known because what attracted me to what he was doing was how he was working with texture, time and the dynamics. His intention is what really came through. After that my concept of musicianship changed once again (as it has thousands of times). I started to become more interested in how the “space” of the performance was held, among other things.
To answer your question more directly, I think that every person working in sound and music today has a spark that builds inside them and pushes them to do what they do. You can not fake that. It does not matter if I connect to their music or not, I admire anyone who goes out and plays music in front of people – especially if they are ready to put themselves out there and have pretty much no idea what is going to happen.
So if improvisation was a way for you to keep working at music-making, where did you go from there?
In 1993 I met Manny Theiner and I allotted him the role of musical Taste Police in my life. He turned me onto a lot of really cool music and some really great ideas about sound and performance. I joined another band that was a little more experimental called Eskimo 88. At this point I would say I really started to know where I wanted to go with music, even if I could not quite play it yet. I started playing drums, singing and playing the clarinet in this band. We were doing some improvising and also a lot of composing.
I started writing little one or two page zine manifestos about how everyone should play music and how people should be inventing their own music by any means necessary. I was into the Riot Grrl movement and I was really into the japanoise scene and had become aware of John Cage. It just seemed like anything was possible with music and sound and that improvising, making noise or trying to play something you did not know how to play was way more punk rock than 90s era punk rock could ever be. At this point improvising felt like a social movement to me.
I started playing noisy guitar with my friend Cary Toasa on drums as often as possible. Having the drums behind me freed me up so much. I started entering some really beautiful "in the moment" spaces. I became way more interested in instrumental music then. My desire to sing melted away. It was all really raw, but I started to know that feeling that playing music in the moment gives you and I have kept this going in one way or another ever since.
I wrote my 12th grade English thesis on the history of improvisation in jazz music. I am sure that propelled me in some way as well. I remember I was wanting to experience the fiercest aspects of human emotion. Seeing live free jazz at the time did just that for me.
What kind of stuff did you cover in this thesis? Do you have a copy of it anywhere?
It has been probably about 15 or more years since I’ve read it. I imagine that it is in my mom’s house somewhere. I spent a little bit of time talking about the history of jazz and started my real analysis from Duke Ellington’s bands on through the electric fusion records in the 70s. I was really interested in how the soloists changed throughout the years. I was also really interested in how the group dynamic evolved. There was a really interesting progression from the big bands to the quartets into the electric groups. It was such a living evolution. I was really interested in structured improvisation vs. total all out freedom. I was leaning toward all out freedom then and I am more into hearing improvisation on a theme today.
To be honest, in hindsight a lot of my first opinions for the paper came through reading about certain records and what milestones they were and then hearing the recordings after reading about them. There was a lot of anticipation and expectation. Some of them totally stood up and some of them fell short for me. Some of them were such milestones for certain authors and I think it was a time and place kind of thing. Other records like a lot of the Sun Ra, Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Art Ensemble records delivered on every level. The authors I was reading for my research said they were from out of this world and I definitely believed it to be true when I heard them. They were other worldly to me – some totally spaced out, some just raw human emotion.
Some of the records took some time to actually really hit me. Not to say I was lying in my thesis, because I was speaking more historically than personally. For instance, I had read so much about Ornette Coleman’s ‘Free Jazz’ album. I had really built this album up in my mind – two double quartets completely improvising – one in each speaker!!! HELL YEAH. Reading about it I assumed it was an all out onslaught a la Borbetomagus. I love this album now, but when I first heard it, I thought it was kind of tame and sounded like there was some structure going on there. It did not necessarily sound completely free to me. By this point I had Borbetomagus records, I had seen the Boredoms live, I had RRR tapes. It was not as shocking to me then as it was in 1961. For the paper I was able to put it into context of the times though. At this point in my life I would always choose that record over any Borbetomagus record, but at that point I was just looking to have my mind blown. I wanted to be surprised, even shocked.
What probably affected me the most about doing that paper was learning about the spiritual evolution of these musicians. As they got deeper into the sound they got deeper into themselves. There was a sense of finding an uncharted depth of the soul in a lot of that music. It was like they were trying to tune into the cosmos. It still moves me – especially the horn players. I can almost hear their consciousness changing as they are pushing all of their air into those tones and those screams. So much wisdom and pain can be heard. It is very yogic to me.
I feel that since then I have looked at my music in much the same way. As my music changes, I feel like my entire life philosophy changes as well and vice versa. As my consciousness evolves, my music evolves. I am not sure if I would believe in God or spirituality or ecstasy had I not experienced these truths through playing music. There is a certain point where everything just falls away and I am completely in the moment riding the wave of sound. It could be anyone making the music because the part of myself that I generally attribute to being the doer has completely left the building. There is just the sound, the moment and the feeling of complete awe. Those are my best nights. It happens for me more when I am playing solo than it does in the group experience. When it does happen in the group experience it is even more beautiful. It is like we have gone off into creation together – perfect symbiosis.
I record almost everything I play. I can listen back and see what my personal development was at the point when I made the recording. It is beautiful to me.
What kind of live free jazz were you seeing when you were in high school?
Watershed 5tet was pretty big. Ben Opie really shook it up for me. His tone was amazing and he could move from something very structured to complete freedom so effortlessly. There was something really magical about that band – especially because I got to see them a number of times.
40 Stories was like that for me as well, though in a completely different way. I saw them a bunch of times and the combination of Micah Gaugh and Kevin Shea just blew me away every time. CMU was bringing in a lot of great music at that time. I had seen Ken Vandermark a number of times. I remember an awe inspiring performance by the Steel Wool trio, where the drummer just kept taking it to the next level. Awe inspiring! I had seen Charles Gayle, Sabir Matin, Cecil Taylor, Matthew Shipp, David S. Ware...there were so many good shows.
I feel fortunate because for me at that time in Pittsburgh it was just so fertile. I went to see almost everything Manny was hosting – jazz, experimental, indie pop, noise. It was a great education.
Your bands Meisha and Arco Flute Foundation seemed to reflect that eclecticism.
When I gave up vocals, it allowed me to really get deep into the sound current. It also allowed me the opportunity to get lead singer/band leader syndrome out of my head (it took a long while actually). I started writing a ton of music that eventually led to my collaborations in Meisha and Arco Flute Foundation, and at the same time I kept recording a lot of solo music on my own. With Meisha it was easier for me to be very structured most of the time and then have some parts that were improvised. I think I was much more focused on collaborative composing then. By the time Arco Flute Foundation came to be, we were writing a lot of our parts through jamming. I think having such a fantastic drummer (Jeff Komara) really freed me up a lot. My focus as to what I wanted to experience playing music really grew during those years. I feel like Arco was pretty much 50/50 between composed music and improvised music. We were just always pushing each other further out. We pushed each other in Meisha as well, but for me Meisha was all about beauty and AFF was about chaos.
All of my music started out improvised at one point though. Some things I just remembered better than others. After those groups grew apart I have been playing primarily solo (though still collaborations here and there, especially with Matt McDowell) and that has been a whole different vibe.
Do you prefer improvising in a solo setting or improvising in a group with other musicians?
It is pretty situational for me. I like them both for different reasons. They can also bring up issues in my personality and thought processes that I have been working on for years. I am definitely the most comfortable improvising alone. My playing can be fairly idiosyncratic and sometimes it can be a little nerve racking trying to fit my ideas with other people’s ideas. Sometimes it works out perfectly and turns into real magic.
It is a lot easier for me to let go and flow when I am playing alone. When I work on my Brother Ong project, I find that my vision is very complete and I feel exhilarated by the experience nearly every time – especially live. I am very clear in my intention before I play and I am generally improvising within a certain number of limitations – such as fixed tunings and scales, what pedals I am using, what instruments I am working with, etc. I love tuning my 36 string zither and using only 5 notes on multiple strings. Can I play for an hour using only 5 notes and keeping it interesting? Can I play for half an hour using only three notes?
Before I play there is definitely a lot of mental work going on, but usually it is not so much a plan, but more finding the strength to give myself permission to just do play. Beyond that, I make sure that I am in an ideal state of mind for being open to creativity (usually a yoga set and meditation before hand gets me there). Once I begin playing I am generally in a state of allowing all sounds. Whatever comes up, it comes up for a reason. I don’t freak out if I get a surprise in my loop. I either try to see where it will lead me or it acts as an indication that it is time to change what is going on. It took me a long time to not feel attached. It is amazing how much one second of a 40 minute set can affect me when I am attached.
I play a lot of different instruments and each of them gives me a different feeling when I am improvising. The hammered dulcimer is probably the instrument that I improvise best with. There is something about bringing rhythm and tone together that just propels me into some really interesting moments. I think it is also usually the best listening experience for the audience. Sometime I just like to drone on with my other instruments. Those “songs” definitely create a space and put people into a certain state of mind that I am very much an advocate of. When I start playing the dulcimer, it really brings the room together in a completely different way. First of all I experience a ton of adrenaline as I play it. I usually have a minute or two where I am just burning it off so that I can get my hands steady. It is not quite shredding, but I guess the closest that I can get to that sort of thing. Finally when I get in the pocket and my hands are really able to articulate what I am hearing inside my head, my entire consciousness changes. I feel like the audience starts traveling with me and as I discover some new idea or nuance they are right there with me.
I suppose improvising is not really supposed to be about comfort though. When it is working best, playing with someone else can really take me to some new spaces that I may not have found on my own. I have had some amazing experiences where I am really in the moment with another musician and our forces combine perfectly in a state of listening, responding and mind reading. It is one of the highest experiences I have ever known as a musician. That is what I yearn for with another musician. When it is good it is really good! It can also go completely the other way, especially if I am in my ego and unable to let go.
I do love collaborating with others even though I play solo most often. Perhaps it is a control issue, but I find the results to be better if we are improvising with an intention or in order to compose or if we are improvising on a theme or a set of limitations. It is easiest for me with a plan. Sometimes a key is all I need. I often like having a band leader or being the leader myself. I love being an accompanist as well. I am most comfortable with knowing my role in my collaborations. Then I know how to listen. I know how to respond.
My favorite way to collaborate/improvise is usually in a duo. There is something about just putting my ideas together with one other person that really appeals to me. I love bouncing ideas off of someone and entering into a complete understanding with them (or at least trying to). I also really love hearing someone's vision and right then know how to help take it further. I find that the interesting mind-reading moments happen a lot easier in a duo. I really do not like noodling and being aimless, which often happens when I am playing in larger improv groups. Being in a situation where only one other person playing usually keeps me really on my toes in both listening and in playing. I am able to leave enough space for both of us to be heard.
From time to time over the last three years I have had the opportunity to be one of the backing musicians for a few different mantra singers/bands. It is really beautiful to do this and also very punk rock in a way. It is like a giant loop repeating again and again that just builds up an ecstatic force over time. It is amazing to play into 500-2000 people chanting. It is amazing to play into 10 people chanting too! Playing this sort of music is really opening for me. I have been making mostly instrumental music for most of my life. In these collaborations I am playing more to support the chant. It is not about me at all really. I am really happy to help support the mental space that happens for everyone chanting. It is a great service. I have never really rehearsed before these performances. I am lucky if I have a chord chart when the song begins. Sometimes my dulcimer is in a completely different key and I figure out a way to serve the song by just playing the two notes that I do have that work with the song. My wife and I have also started a psychedelic mantra looping band that is really far out and fun. Some of my parts are totally written with that, but I always leave space to allow the moment to really takes me.
I am also all about complete freedom in improvising, but sometimes in my experience it has worked better in theory than in practice. It is still totally exciting for me even if it does not work. I guess as my tastes have grown or perhaps as I have gotten more comfortable with what I like/do, complete chaos does not interest me quite as much (especially not as much as when I was growing up). I try to keep it from ever getting to that point, or if I do bring it there, I try to allow it to be just one color in the entire pallet of sounds.
There are so many things that can go not as planned when playing with others. This is a lot of the fun but at the same time I find that the feeling of non-attachment that I get when playing alone is a lot more difficult for me get into when improvising with others. I think it is mostly me really. Sometimes I can be very guilty of being a selfish musician as far as space is concerned. Sometimes I just let the loops or my volume take over because I am not really listening to what everyone else is playing or I feel like my idea is best or whatever little power trip might come up. I hate when that side of me comes out and I definitely am a lot more careful about it now than I was 10 years ago. It is a good lesson for me.
I am aware of my improvising indiscretions and I am in the process of healing a lot of that now. I think this healing has been the result of improvising with my wife so often. We have been playing metal instruments together for almost the last four years: gongs, singing bowls, bells, etc. It is fairly safe for me to say that I do not approach these instruments from an ego space. It is something completely different for me. The first reason for this is that we have a clear intention of what we are doing with the gongs and the bowls. The second reason is that my wife has been helping me to soften up a ton. Creation is so feminine in nature and in the past I may have approached some of my collaborations with some really intense competitive vibes. The third reason is really just the nature of the instruments. The sound of the instrument is the experience. My job is simply to excite the instrument and allow it to do what it does best: vibrate. If I come at it trying to show off, it usually sounds terrible and loud and it is not pleasing for anyone. Playing with Gallina has brought me into a space of sacred improvisation. It is completely in the moment and completely elevating. I find it very easy to be in a neutral state of listening and responding to how the entire room is vibrating. It is like the instruments just tell us what to do. I think I really needed that in my life and looking back at my life as a musician, I was probably always on this trajectory. It is cool to be here now working in this space. It is just total sound and vibration. My entire body shakes, my entire house shakes. People lie on the floor when we play and they just feel the sound. There is no better form of listening to me than to just be still, close your eyes and allow the sound to envelop all of the senses.
You can listen to 20+ albums for free on Mike's Bandcamp page, including his latest release, "Presence."