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15 Questions to James Beaudreau

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Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I’m very well, thanks. I’m writing to you from my small studio at my home in New York City.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I just finished a recording session this afternoon with songwriter/guitarist Philip F. Lynch. We’ve been working on an album of his songs and guitar pieces for a few months now. It should be released in 2007. I’m also spending time regularly recording my own work, and have started the (long) process of reviewing and compiling recordings that will eventually make up my second album. Aside from that stuff, I’m booking gigs, doing my daily guitar practice, working a day job, and getting married next month! It’s been busy!

What or who was your biggest influence as an artist? Do you see yourself as part of a certain tradition or as part of a movement?
That’s a tough question, because I’ve been influenced by so many people. When I was a teenager I took lessons from a Long Island guitarist named Larry Meyer. Larry had been a student of Lennie Tristano and had lots of great stories about him, and what his teaching was like. Larry was – still is, I’m sure – a fantastic bebop guitarist. He would improvise these perfect choruses over standard changes, and I’d take them home and learn them. Each one was like a new composition – and some of them did in fact become tunes that he would play live. I think I got some of my sense of syncopation from him. Andrew Hill, Bill Dixon, Derek Bailey, Captain Beefheart, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Joe Morris, Lou Harrison, John Fahey, Harry Partch: all of these people have helped me. I haven’t been influenced by them in terms of style, per se, but by their confidence and strength, and the beauty of their work. Listening to them confirmed that I needed to explore my own sense of music without regard to what other people say should or should not be done.

I don’t see myself as part of any particular tradition or movement. I sometimes think it would be nice to feel like a part of a tradition, but I don’t, and you can’t force that sort of thing. Well, you can, but it’s probably not a good idea.

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?

I don’t feel like I’m part of any music scene, so it’s hard to say. In local terms, I know musicians who do good work: rock bands, songwriters, improvisors. Beyond that, there’s also a lot of good new stuff at the record stores, too. There’s certainly no crisis in terms of a lack of exciting creative work being made available.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?
I don’t think in terms of “new” very much. I’m just excited there’s so much great music to explore. My daily listening tends to span decades as a matter of course. But I don’t want to avoid your question. It seems to me that groups like No-Neck Blues Band and Jackie O Motherfucker, among others, are doing something new in combining a group improv mindset with rock band instrumentation and energy. Other groups have done it before – Can comes to mind, and No-Neck made the connection with the German rock movement of the 70s clear through their collaboration with Embryo this year. But it seems to me that it’s not been done before in just this way, with the urban, hard electric element brought by the new groups. Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that music made in 2006 should be different from music that came before, or from music that is contemporaneous, but from different locations. Unique people, in new environments, produce necessarily new music. Unless the goal is to copy, in which case it’s still different from the original, no matter how precise. These groups are just one example, there’s a lot of exciting music being made today.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
Composition is the act of manipulating sound; from the extremes of mid-20th century serial procedure in which every element is carefully controlled, to John Cage’s 4’33” in which the only thing provided is the frame. I don’t mean to suggest that those are immovable brackets, though. One could define one’s moment-to-moment experience of sound as listening to a composition, maybe. But that seems like a lonely option, since there would be no way to share that “composition” in the way that we think of sharing the experience of music. I like frames, anyway.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?

I consider all of my improvisations to be compositions. Some good, some bad. Beyond that, I’ve also taken some improvised material and taken it apart and put it back together using compositional techniques. There are four pieces on my album Java Street Bagatelles that I composed that way, but I haven’t been using methods like that since. Straight improvising is a more enjoyable way to work. Editing is another method of composition that I sometimes apply to a recorded improvisation. In fact, when it’s called for, it’s possibly my favourite part of the process of making a piece of music. My brother is a film editor, so it must run in the family!

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

A good live performance for me is one in which I’m relaxed and focused. My approach is very simple. Arrange the amplifier and chair, find a comfortable balance, and play. I do use some musical techniques to try to get into a mindset where I can experience the situation in a relaxed but alert way and play well, but I’ll keep them to myself!

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?

I wouldn’t draw a border. I think what music is depends on the intent of the music-maker, and how the music is presented.

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?
“Serious” is a word that some people have used to describe their musical tradition as superior to others’: the opposite of “serious” is not “popular,” after all, but “trivial”. So there is a meaning to the term, but I don’t subscribe to it.

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?
The duty of an artist is to be honest with him/herself, to work, and to persevere. The result of that can be beneficial to other people too.

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

False. Exposure to the music, obviously, is necessary for a listener to appreciate it, and some willingness to listen. That’s all.

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?
If everything ever recorded or composed were suddenly public domain it wouldn’t affect my work at all, so it’s difficult for me to answer. Obviously it would be an entirely different story for sampling sound artists. Of course, people are mashing up copy written material into new compositions anyway.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
(You’ll see that I put some thought into this, creating bands, resurrecting others, etc.) Day One: Jeff Parker, Richard Youngs’ Ilk, Circulatory System, Bill Dixon Quartet (w/ Tony Oxley), Jackie O Motherfucker. Day two: Martin Wellham’s Forest, Tom Rapp’s Pearls Before Swine; Vashti Bunyan with Devendra Banhart; Alec K Redfearn & the Eyesores, Robert Wyatt. Day three: The Geographers (Clive Bell and Sylvia Hallett), Gush, Andrew Hill, No-Neck Blues Band, K-Space, Alice Coltrane Group featuring Sonny Greenwich. Day four: Slapp Happy (w/ Fred Frith, John Greaves, & Chris Cutler), Volcano the Bear, Gang Gang Dance, Comets on Fire, and Magma. Day five: solo guitar sets from Roger Smith; Jim McAuley, Bert Jansch; then The Bill Fay Group; and finally -- big finish -- Bob Dylan.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
Magnum opus, no. But I hope I can make a few small good things.

Java Street Bagatelles, 2006 (Workbench)

With The Billy Nayer Show:
Goodbye Straplight Sarentino, 2003 (BSG)
The American Astronaut, 2001 (BSG)
Return To Brigadoon, 1999 (BSG)
The Villain that Love Built, 1998 (BSG)

With Grand Mal:
Love Is the Best Con In Town, 2006 (New York Night Train)
Bad Timing, 2003 (Arena Rock)

James Beaudreau

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