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15 Questions to Neil Haverstick/Stick Man

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I live in Denver Colorado, and overall, things are ok, but more on that in the answer to the next question. It’s been a good year so far in terms of my serious career as a composer; Guitar Player Mag featured me in their Feb 2007 issue as one of their “101 Forgotten Greats and Unsung Heroes,” and the May issue had a nice feature on the fretless fest I played in 2006 in NYC. But…

What’s on your schedule right now?
Well, my schedule just changed drastically this morning…I was doing the music for “Evita” at a dinner theatre, and I just found out the facility has been padlocked, presumably by the IRS; not sure yet. I was booked through early July, but it’s back to the drawing board. I knew this was coming sometime, but thought we might make it through the run…a bunch of folks are out of work now, it’s a big deal for the theatre community. But, on the positive side, I’m getting some calls for nice summer gigs, jazz and blues, and starting to send my latest CD, “Mysterious Female,” to mags and writers.

In your opinion, what sets “Jazz” apart from any other style of music?
Jazz starts with the groove known as swing, and it’s not so easy to get. I’ve played jazz for 30 years now, but I still don’t think I “live” there like some of the heavier cats I’ve played with. But, like Duke said, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” and that’s the truth. Lots of styles of music feature improvisation in the solos, for example, but the rhythmic feel is not swing. So, it’s more than just improvisation. My teacher, the late great alto man George Keith, once said that  “bebop is a way of life,” and I agree. Any genre of music is so much more than the notes you play, it’s a whole social/emotional/spiritual approach to life.

What does Jazz mean to you personally?
Well, again, it’s a way of life, and it can vary from person to person. And, of course, the word jazz may mean many things to many people. There’s “smooth jazz,” “jazz rock,” “free jazz,” and more. Are they all “jazz?” Does it matter? Again, Duke once famously said that there’s only good music and bad music; and guys like Miles Davis did not want to use the word jazz to describe their music…Charlie Haden just said the sane thing in an interview recently. So, if the big jazz guys don’t like to use the word, then it’s worth asking if it really means much of anything in a deep sense. Maybe playing profound music is more important in the long run than what you call it.

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
Boy, a big question. Of course, to respond honestly, it’s important to say that I can only comment on what I hear going on around me; in other words, there may be all kinds of great music out there that I’m not aware of. Thus, I’m always delighted to be exposed to artists that are doing interesting things. But, yes, overall, I think we’re in a terrible time for music (and art in general). Why? Jeez, again, a big question. I think part of it is just what can be called “the times;” for example, in the 1960’s, there really was some sort of incredible explosion of creativity, profoundity, and imagination. You had Coltrane, Hendrix, the Beatles, Ravi Shankar…stylistic boundaries were constantly being shifted and changed, there was a great deal of imaginative music going on.
   And, you had the civil rights struggles, resistance to the Vietnam war, a lot of social things that fuelled the music scene as well. Not to mention the invention of a lot of electronic thingies that really allowed musicians to experiment; fuzztones, the synthesizer, bigger amplifiers. I came of age then, and it was very exciting. Now, however, there seems to be a great lack of imagination, and an even greater lack of music that takes us to the deep spiritual/emotional places. Everything, in every style I hear, sounds sort of recycled, like it’s already been done before. Maybe it’s the corporate mentality dominationg the scene, but it’s also, again, the times. There’s not a sense of experimentation, and people seem satisfied with real mediocre music. I’ve heard some real popular musicians that literally make my skin crawl, I think it’s that bad. And, I also think the 12 tone equal tempered scale is extremely stale; it’s been played out, I feel, and we need to get into other tuning systems to freshen things up a bit..and that’s what I, and others I know, are trying to do with microtonal composition.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?
New is very relative of course…when I heard Jeff Beck play “Over Under Sideways Down” as a kid, I had never heard a guitar sound like that, and it WAS new, a guitar had NOT sounded like that before. The advent of electronic devices really did change music in an incredible way, allowing musicians to create sounds that had literally never been heard before. And there was more, of course, from Dylan’s lyrics to Coltrane’s sonic explorations which redefined how we hear music. I’m oversimplifying cause we could write a book about any one of these questions, of course. Today, I constantly hear the word “new” being applied to this indie rock group or how this dude has a new take on hip hop…but, I ain’t buying it, it all sounds very very repetitive and similar to these old ears.
   Again, I do think some of the microtonal guys are coming up with fairly creative things; listen to Jon Catler’s 64 tone blues, for instance, or Dan Stearns’ sonic landscapes; Ken Rubenstein’s last CD really will twist your ears, I still don’t know how he came up with what he did. And I’m sure there’s more; David Torns’ latest is a masterpiece, as is Hiromi’s new CD. But, overall, I think it’s on the use of non 12 tone tunings that we’ll start to hear really fresh sounding stuff…provided, of course, there’s good composing skills to match the tunings.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
Sound is the foundation of the Universe. It’s mentioned in many ancient views of the Universe from different cultures; the Universe is a gigantic sounding organism, I believe; the stars all give off radio waves, sound and frequencies are the very fabric of life. As musicians, I think we try to tap a teensy piece of those frequencies, the ones we can physically hear, and shape them into melodies. There may well be cultures across the vastness of the galaxies who have totally different ways of hearing than humans do; they may be able to discern frequencies that we cannot, and thus their music could be in a place we can’t even imagine. I’d love to hear music from other planets; and I think guys like Hendrix (and others) were actually in touch, on some level, with concepts not of this Earth. It’s a big Universe, to be sure, and there’s limitless possibilities for artists with imagination.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?

Not at all…in fact, a lot of my compositions come from messing around, just letting the fingers go where they want. Then, I try to find the good and interesting ideas, and “freeze” them, in a sense. Most cultures around the world rarely, if ever, wrote their pieces down…it was done aurally, musicians learned by ear from their teachers, then learned to stand on their own. It’s been said that composition is frozen improvisation, and that really works well for me. I feel sort of weird writing stuff down, cause my pieces are always changing over the years. I love to improvise, and when you study Indian and Arabic music, for example, that’s the whole foundation of much of their approach to music.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
I just want to play well, and try to communicate something of meaning through my music. Sometimes, even when you think you sucked on a gig, you actually may have played better than you thought, that has happened. And, you can physically play well at times, but have little depth, so it’s really sort of meaningless. I always tell my students to make my hair stand up, no matter if you play a few notes or a million. Simple, but if that happens on a gig, mission accomplished.

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?

Again…make my hair stand up, make me weep, teach me something, take me somewhere profound…literally, that’s what art is about for me. If it’s empty, sort of cutesy/pootsy intellectuall stuff, forget it. And, I hear that sort of stuff a lot these days; won’t mention any names, but there’s very well known composers who actually have very little substance to what they do. And, again, maybe it’s the shallowness of the times, hard to say. Without profound emotional/spiritual meaning, I’m not interested in any art, no matter how clever or “fashionable” it may be.

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?
Serious music can be popular, and popular music can certainly be “serious;” I don’t care what you call it, it’s gotta take me somewhere. And, that may vary from culture to culture, and time period to time period. Ravi Shankar has said that music, in India, was a path to self realization, same with Arabic and Chinese music. But, and I hate to say it, I think our modern American culture has dumbed music (and just about everything else) down to a level where it’s pretty awful a lot of the time. The term “cult of personality” applies very well here…you’ve got folks on American Idol, for example, that are dreadful singers, but NOBODY CARES, and they go on to be “popular” personalities, even though they suck bad. Nobody cares that they can’t sing…and a great artist can be totally overlooked because they aren’s physically attractive, for example. In fact, there was an article in the paper recently that talked about how if a female singer isn’t of model quality these days, they can forget getting a record deal. Jeez, how nuts is that? Art has nothing to do with physical appearance, but in these times, it sure does. And, I think that says a lot about how far from reality things are thses days.

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?
Art should express whatever the artist feels it’s that simple. There are no rules.

True or false: People need to be educated about  music, before they can really appreciate it.
Well, tricky situation…it certainly doesn’t hurt to be educated about anything one approaches in life. But, when you hear a piece of music, it affects you very directly, on many levels. So, if you don’t like Captain Beefheart’s music, I’m not sure that understanding how it came to be composed will help you like it any better. On the other hand, if you understand what the hell Charlie Parker was doing when he improvised, it just might help you realize the incredibly deep level he was coming from as an artist. And, of course, it very greatly depends on the level a person lives on in the first place. Guys that love 50 Cent may not get Bartok (although it’s certainly possible to like both, trying to make a bigger point).

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?.
Well, since we live in a culture where we all need a piece of paper to survive, I think musicians/artists should reap the financial rewards of their art, since they were the creators of it. Without copyrights, artists will be the first to get screwed out of $$$, so anything that protects the artist’s work, I’m all for it. As soon as we don’t need money to survive in this modern world, than I don’t care that much about copyrights. But, it’s important to realize WHO created a certain work of art, and give them the financial benefits (if any) that come from that. Musicians have long been ripped off by dishonest record companies and agents, and if copyrights help them with that sort of situation, then I think it’s a good thing. And, it’s also more than financial…being honourable in life is the foundation of a good person, so if you ripped somebody else off, and claim their work as your own, you have a big problem.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
Well, since I’m trying to get the microtonal thing happening, I would try to book as many people as possible who are exploring that world. Of course, the more $$$ I have to work with, the broader based it would be as well. With limited funds, I’d start with monster guitarists I know who are using new tunings; with more capital, I’d add other instrumentalists, and then bring in some folks to have a panel discussion on tunings (Erv Wilson, Wendy Carlos). And, if you know somebody with $$$ who wants me to do such a fest, lemme know…and thanks for letting me be a part of your forum…Hstick

The Gate
Acoustic Stick
Other Worlds
If the Earth was a Woman
Stick Man
Mysterious Female

Neil Haverstick/Stick Man/Microstick
Neil Haverstick at MySpace

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