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15 Questions to Jim Mcauley

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hi....I’m doing well, though it’s hard to be too jubilant living in America in 2007. As a country we’ve been guilty of some pretty shameful behavior in recent years. Anyway, my wife nika and I live in Los Angeles with our younger son Jonno and a cat named Mumzer. I am happy to share my thoughts about music & hope you’ll indulge my long-windedness (you’ve posed some pretty deep questions!). And please know that any opinions expressed are subject to change without notice.

What’s on your schedule right now?

I’m currently mixing some duo material that I recorded a couple years ago with the amazing violinist Leroy Jenkins and more recently with jazz bassist Ken Filiano. I was just awarded some grant money to complete this project so I’ve decided to record some additional tracks with drummer Alex Cline and hope to release a CD of the best of these duets by this Spring. Of course I’m always working on my solo playing and seeking out new venues to play. There’s not much enthusiasm for new music in the LA clubs (and it’s generally overlooked in the media), but I do have some gigs lined up.


In your opinion, what sets Jazz apart from any other style of music?
I attended an Earle Brown class at USC in the mid-‘70’s and can still remember him saying (in reference to contemporary improv and his “open form” pieces): “It’s ALL jazz.” I would reverse that definition, namely, “jazz is all of it,” meaning that it encompasses many of the supposed dichotomies of music: cerebral/visceral, tonal/atonal, composed/improvised, concert hall/dance-hall (“serious” vs. “popular”). Jazz just transcends all those categories. And as Anthony Braxton has pointed out, jazz is uniquely able to assimilate western classical traditions as well as other “world musics” without sacrificing its essential nature. So what sets jazz apart is that it is not limited by stylistic considerations; the only mandate is to improvise and make some reference to jazz roots, ie, the blues in its many forms. Beyond that, “jazz” is hard to define, but some possible points of departure might be: the sound of human beings expressing their humanity... America’s non-elitist art that allows the listener to share the moment of creation with an that continues to surprise and refuses to be caged, despite the efforts of some to codify it into some kind of staid “tradition,” art which certain musicians feel compelled to pursue even though there is no expectation of financial reward or recognition.......and, for those who like their definitions circular, jazz is the kind of music that jazz fans listen to.

What does Jazz mean to you personally?
Jazz & improvised music have always been the most reliable source of musical and spiritual nourishment in my life, both as a player and a listener. Jazz uplifts and inspires me.


What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
The only crisis is in the minds of music industry accountants! The current music scene is the most vibrant & vital that I have experienced in my lifetime. I’ve lived long enough to see the futurists’ predictions of my youth come true, albeit in unexpected ways. YouTube is giving everyone their 15 minutes of fame and MySpace is a virtual realization of McLuhan’s “global village”. And the postmodern practice of appropriating others’ music and subjecting it to remixing, sampling or mashing-up is a perfect example of what Pete Seeger calls the“folk process.” Even with--for lack of a better word--”serious” music, there’s an unprecedented potential for building community within very narrow areas of interest. If you’re a die-hard post-minimal spectralist, there’s a forum, a blog and probably a distribution network catering to your every desire! In terms of popular music, our newfound ability to personalize our musical environment without depending on mediation from corporate entities has created a new generation of listeners with voracious ears, open minds and easy access to every imaginable kind of music. As a musician and composer, it’s thrilling to know that my work can potentially find an audience with people from all over the world. (Personally I’m aware of people as far-flung as Portugal, Australia and even China are listening to my “Gongfarmer” album.) So, no, there is no crisis in the music scene for listeners or independent music makers. Of course, inevitably the powers that be will find a way to rein in--or reign over-- all this freedom, so we should savor the moment!

What does the term “new” mean to you in connection with music?

Career suicide! After all, it wasn’t THAT long ago that the LA Phil snickered while playing John Cage. And just recently a concert here featuring prominent avant jazz players was a such disaster in terms of media interest and, consequently, attendance, that the sponsoring organization had to stage a benefit to re-coup their losses! There’s no commcercial advantage in being “new.”
But as a descriptive term, “new” can simply mean “recent.” Any broader meaning--like “original” or “unique”-- runs the risk of attaching a value to a piece of music which may or may not be warranted. And in our post modern world, even “original” and “unique” become suspect categories. If Sondheim is correct that the art is in “putting it together” then what’s unique is the matrix of life experiences (influences) that your art reflects.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
Sound is the key element of my improvising process. When students ask me how to deal with musical dead-ends in their playing (that inevitable point when inspiration runs dry), I tell them to focus on the sound of what they’re playing--not simply the pitch or duration, but the texture, the feel, the weight, the timbre of the note. Those qualities will usually reveal a direction for the improvisation. So my compositional process is very concerned with sound. And maybe this is where improvising and classical instrumentalists part ways: jazz musicians tend to be obsessed with their personal sound, whereas classical players strive to satisfy the composer’s intent, blend into an ensemble sound, or master the traditional skills of technique and interpretation. These two different approaches to mastery has to affect your relationship to your instrument and your musical outlook.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?

Although it’s practically axiomatic that “improvisation is instant composition,” I think the distinction goes deeper than that. An interesting thought experiment: imagine transcribing, say, a Derek Bailey improvisation then having it played by a classical guitarist as if it were strictly composed. The difference in the two performances might represent the difference between improvisation and composition, or at least the limitations of notation. In other words, improvisors tend to dwell --revel, even-- in the regions of music that are most difficult to strictly notate: multiphonics, irregular beats, dynamic shading and all the non-traditional sounds associated with extended techniques. Improv is essentially a player’s process. Composers spend their time honing their ideas; improvisors spend their time exploring the expressive potential of their instrument. In my own composing, I try to bring some of those improvisational values to the score: I’m interested in finding different ways to communicate my intention to the performers, in exploiting the idiomatic qualities of their instruments and making use of the player’s individual strengths and idiosyncracies. And I think it’s important that the score be fun to play. Of course, in real life composition and improvisation are two ends of a continuum, and fortunately we don’t have to choose sides. A lot of my favorite music has elements of both.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?

Improvising in front of an audience is about as existential as is gets for musicians. Since my music is not genre-driven, it is constantly defining itself in performance. In general, I think any good jazz or improvised performance must contain elements of genuine discovery and surprise for both the player and the audience. As a listener, I want to be drawn into a performance, to become fully engaged in the moment. I also like to sense the performer’s delight in the physical act of playing and connecting with their instrument, even if it’s a laptop computer. As a performer, I try to avoid the two major sins of improv: self indulgence (that is, forgetting that there is an audience) and falling back on my default stategies (what clarinettist John Carter once called “back pocket material”). Getting into that creative “zone” is like a zen discipline and has to be practiced right along with technique. Also it’s important to develop material which is flexible and abstract enough to be nearly endlessly explored. Ultimately, I’m enough of an idealist to think that if I’m getting into a performance, the audience is getting into it as well.

A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as music. Would you draw a border and if so, where?
Everyone has the right to draw their own borders, but it seems like a pointless endeavor. I thought that after Cage’s 4’33” that “what is music?” debate was put to rest, but I guess the human species loves to draw distinctions. I don’t even believe in borders between genres of music, because borders inevitably beget more borders. For example, when I was briefly involved with the microtonal community here, I quickly discovered that they were not a unified group, but a collection of sub-groups, each defending their preferred tuning system: just intonation, 19-tone, 31-tone, etc. As if their music weren’t already marginal enough, they had created new boundaries and allegiances! I guess I feel no personal need to champion some category of music; I’m comfortable with letting others draw borders. Most categories are just marketing tools to attract your music’s demographic--at one of our local record shops my music is filed under “black-metal/experimental,” which is probably as meaningful a label as any.

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?
Not empty words, but not really “types of music” either. I think those two terms refer to the fact that we experience music in different contexts and listen with different levels of attention. If you hear Beethoven coming over Muzak in a shopping mall, is that serious or popular music? Maybe it would make more sense to talk about “serious listening” instead. That serious/popular distinction is also a product of our times and our culture. For instance, many of the Renaissance pieces that we now present in concert halls were originally popular songs and dances. Opera, one of the snobbier manifestations of “serious music,” was once considered popular entertainment for the masses. As I’ve already mentioned, jazz is an art music which transcends the dichotomy of “serious” and “popular”. And many traditional non-Western cultures would not recognize that distinction, either (at least before the globalization of pop culture). An Indian raga, for example, is improvised classical music which is also popular in the sense that it appeals to large numbers of ordinary people.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?

Music, like all art, is primarily about human communication and thus implies an obligation to one’s audience. Any extra-musical factors such as political/social relevance are entirely optional. Although I am a political being, I sometimes get suspicious when composers overlay their music with political or social significance as if the importance of the ideas somehow enhances the importance of the music. That kind of currency is unearned in my opinion. Music should move us on its own merits. That’s the beauty of non-verbal communication. When I was studying with Frederic Rzewski at CalArts, one of our assignments was to compose a one minute tonal piece. I wrote three chords--tonic, dominant, tonic (20 seconds each!)--accompanied by a ten page thesis explaining the deep significance of this masterpiece. I detailed all the convoluted serial procedures involved, the intricacies of the structure, the use of chance operations, its historical and political significance, etc. Of course the point was that none of this made the music itself any better!

True or false: People need to be educated about music, before they can really appreciate it.

I would like to believe that music bypasses the brain entirely and goes directly to the heart and feet. I know that I personally prefer to experience a new piece of music “blind”, without any prior knowledge or expectation as to genre, origin or the identity of the performer(s). But I also know that the listening experience can be greatly enriched with a little musical knowledge. And here I have to make a distinction between technical knowledge, ie, music theory, and historical knowledge (or “context”). If a piece of music requires a theoretical understanding to be appreciated, it runs the risk of being overly cerebral or, worse yet, “interesting” (the composer’s dreaded adjective). But it’s important to have a sense of historical antecedents, to know who influenced whom, and, in this era of sampling, what’s new and what’s recycled.

Imagine a situation in which there’d be no such thing as copyright and everybody were free to use musical material as a basis for their own compositions would that be an improvement to the current situation?
It’s not hard to imagine such a situation since copyrights are--in the overall scope of music history--a relatively new development. Using others’ music for your own purposes is at least as old as the Renaissance, when church music & secular music borrowed from each other (much like gospel and R&B). And composers from Bach onward have re-worked other composers’ themes to create original works. My stance regarding copyrights is that if money is to be made from a musical work, that money should go to the work’s creator, period. This basic principle gets clouded when publishers, record companies, lawyers, etc., enter the picture. How ironic that those who scream loudest about the sanctity of “intellectual property” are the business people who never create anything on their own (and have an unsavory history of ripping off the real creators). Because corporate greed knows no bounds, this copyright issue can reach absurd and scary proportions. For instance, American agricultural concerns have literally copyrighted basmati rice, so that Indian farmers now have to pay licensing fees to grow the same crops they’ve been growing for centuries. And I recently heard that bio corporations are even copyrighting human genes in the name of intellectual property! Getting back to music, it’s clear that we need a new copyright paradigm to accomodate our post-modern sensibility as well as the possibilities inherent in digital technology. It wouldn’t take much to improve on the current situation. ‘Til then, let the lawsuits continue!

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
As artistic director I would book only musicians who are deceased. This makes for a great marketing “hook” and also guarantees that I don’t slight any of my living musician-friends. We would have to begin with two men who were the soul of LA’s creative music scene: John Carter (clarinet) and Horace Tapscott (piano). Their earthly presence has been tremendously missed by the jazz community here. Then a guitar trio of Derek Bailey, Lenny Breau and Sonny Sharrock. It would be great to hear them searching for and discovering common ground. Next up is James Brown (since this is a fantasy, all the musicians are at the peak of their careers), warming us up for the main event: a battle of the bands between the Sun Ra Arkestra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, both in their classic line-ups (these are of course mixed groups: living and dead together). Then two great keyboard improvisor/composers, J.S. Bach and Thelonius Monk, each perform a set. And finally, Nina Simone comes out to envelop us in the warm soulfulness of her voice. Next year, all guitarists! Jimi Hendrix, Mississippi John Hurt, Joe Pass, Slim Harpo, John Fahey, Django, Leadbelly, etc, etc......

Picture by Steve Elkins

Gongfarmer 18 (Nine Winds) 2005

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