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15 Questions to Tom Heasley

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hi. Doing ok here in Los Angeles.

What’s on your schedule right now?

I’m currently promoting the new cd, setting up solo concerts here in LA, trying to get reviews and airplay. I’ve been invited to be a visiting artist for the brass workshop class at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) this fall – I’ll go up there in the next few weeks to play and talk about what I do. The head of the brass department there is a trumpet player who I met earlier in the year and who took a liking to my recordings. I’m also slated to be a featured musician in a new opera by Anne LeBaron being produced here at REDCAT in December. Two pieces from my first cd have been licensed by BBC Television and should turn up in a documentary they are producing for a fall release. A film director in LA heard me on the radio and contacted me about doing some soundtrack work, but he’s out of town on a long shoot right now. We’ll see – I’d like to get into some film scoring, for the right films with the right directors. David Toop invited me to participate in one of his upcoming projects, which I’m looking forward to. Some guys in Belgium – 48 Cameras is what they call themselves – have used my recordings in assembling some songs for an album to be released this fall. They’ve done similar things with Charlemaigne Palestine that I liked. I’m thinking about some new projects of my own, how to finance them, where to record them – stuff like that. 

What does music mean to you?

I used to like the quote I once read by Felix Mendelsohn that went, “Music is that which is too specific for words” – I still like it!  Music soothes me, lifts me and transports me to better places. The act of creating and performing my music engages my entire being as nothing else does. It is the thing that I seem to be here to do. Performing for audiences has been a way of life for many years.... I didn’t release my first cd until after 30 years of such activity. Finding my own voice upped the ante quite a bit – I have pretty much been performing my own music exclusively for the past 6-7 years. The concerts have evolved into very deep communion with both the muse and audience. The audience is a crucial aspect of music for me. 

In which way, would you say, is your personality reflected in your music, what makes it different from that of other artists?

I think that everyone’s personality is reflected in their music or music making. Those things that make my music different are the very things that make me different. I don’t think it is arrogant of me to say that I think that my approach is less tainted with things that influence most musicians. I have been pretty much of a loner most of my life. No matter how loudly they protest to the contrary, most people are trying to impress (and be accepted by) their teachers, their colleagues, themselves, critics, someone... I simply wish for the music to be what it wants to be. I am a conduit for something that I don’t fully understand and that comes from someplace that... that I can’t point to on any map. 

I can say that, in terms of both personality and compositional choices, I reached a point where I chose to accept the idea of doing pretty much what comes naturally, regardless of whether it goes counter to prevailing winds, or fits into any category which might make it easier to get work from people who are more interested in theories than actual sounds.... 

I was just reading part of an article in the New York Times that included an interview with members of Pelican, a great band. One of the guys wears Def Leppard T-shirts and gets asked “Is that a joke?” – like, he couldn’t possibly like THEM, you know?.... I had a basket full of recordings ready to pay for at Amoeba Music in Hollywood a while back – a guy who works there and knows me, saw a one dollar ZZ Top clearance tape and practically exclaimed, “You’re buying a ZZ Top tape?!!”  ZZ Top happens to be a band that I missed until fairly recently, I didn’t give them a second thought, ever. I saw a concert film not long ago about the blues, can’t remember the name, but I was surprised that they turned out to be among the more engaging and electrifying performers. The older I get, the more open I am to the peaceful co-existence of things that most people find mutually exclusive. I’ve always been something of the odd man out, in many ways. For instance, I love Yes. I doubt that there’s a course in prog rock at Mills College, where I did a lot of experimental music. I also like Evan Parker a lot – one of the things I most admire about him though, is a comment I read in a Cadence interview years ago – he was asked what he listens to, I think – anyway, his reply included the remark that he would always be interested in what Joni Mitchell might be up to in her work. She happens to be one of my very very favorite musicians, but not necessarily popular with other Evan Parker fans I’ve met....

A question closely related to the former: 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?

Probably my biggest influence would have to be Frank Lloyd Wright – primarily for his philosophies regarding organic creation and individualism. I also am an admirer of Howard Stern – I think he is a much more interesting and gifted improvisor than most ‘serious’ musicians. Incredibly creative. No, I don’t really think of myself in terms of a tradtion or movement... I do think of myself as part of a certain artistic lineage...

How would you describe or characterise your composing process?

In my case, you can’t separate the composing from the performing. Maybe, at such a time that I begin to write things for people other than myself to play, this aspect will change and evolve. Ansel Adams once said that the photographic negative is analogous to a musical score (virtually nonexistent in my case) and that the print is the performance. It wouldn’t be an Ansel Adams if it were printed by someone else. Yet, composers are generally in the business of writing something that they routinely turn over to anyone to perform. I could never begin to notate the subtle nuances and changes that I contend with during a performance. Of course, many gifted composers have written music that stands up to these various levels or qualities of performance. I think it really odd that some composers – lots of film music people are among the guilty – are content to turn over the duty of orchestrating to someone else. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the paintings that I especially love by Mark Rothko are those that did NOT involve an assistant on a ladder with a paint roller – then again, maybe those ARE my favorites – the only rules are what works. 

A lot of compositions that I hear seem hugely compromised and limited by the necessity of having to be written down, as specifically as possible – the vast majority of what gets communicated in music is beyond the notes. Most performers are content to play the notes as perfectly as possible. The notes are not the music. The music is created or re-created, using the notes. I have sometimes equated a performance to riding a wave, i.e., surfing. Can you imagine someone preparing to surf by writing out a diagram, specifying how they will ride a wave – how far in this direction, for how long, etc.? They’d probably fall down real fast – I think a lot of music falls down real fast. By being the solo performer of my music, I am in complete control and can make changes and create completely in the moment, making adjustments as I see fit.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
I’d rather hear a good sound than a bad composition, for one thing...

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
Probably the single most essential ingredient to a good performance for me is emotion. My approach involves a large amount of trust and confidence in the fact that I can be a vessel for this music. Every concert is a tabula rasa. It grows from nothing, into something hopefully deep and beautiful.

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
Where the various music scenes most concern me are where they affect whether I work or not. It was great to record a session for the BBC in London last year – I hadn’t even ever sent them a promo copy of a cd! However, back here in LA, world-famous KCRW music director Nic Harcourt has chosen not to add any of my three cds to their library. So, it gets me invited to record for the BBC, but it isn’t good enough not only to be played on his precious program, but even to take up space on their precious library shelves. He hosts a show called ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic’. He, and his program, are known the world over as being highly influencial and able to ‘break’ a new artist or band. In the hands of Harcourt it (MBE) has become mostly an endless parade of singer-songwriters, most of ‘em not very good, and half-baked bands with no depth. That show hasn’t been eclectic in years and that guy wouldn’t know eclecticism if it kicked him in the nuts. At the risk of sounding bitter, I’ll single him out as being a kind of person who is very detrimental to the art of music. He is certainly not alone, of course.

I do all of my own booking myself, and have to personally deal with all of the misunderstanding, lack of imagination and rejection involved in the process. The crisis for me is personal, having to do with the disparity between how people respond to my music and my concerts (which is really great) and the fact that it is such an uphill battle simply to be heard live – and to be able to support my family with my artistic contributions to this society.

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?

I think that copyrights are very important – look at all the greedy assholes out there who have no shame, that would not only be happy to reap the benefits – and royalties - of someone else’s creation, but who would even take credit for it. 

I’m not an expert on copyright law, e.g. the concept of fair use... but I suspect that Joseph Cornell might get flack for using something with a brand name in one of his boxes today – or collage artists such as Kurt Schwitters or even Picasso and Braque.

It’s like there can’t be a middle ground – I see on the one hand a John Cassevettes film where they allow you to see that a beer is a certain brand for realism’s sake and on the other hand in today’s world, and in different hands, the same scene would become an advertisement – literally.

I am somewhat ambivalent about these issues as I think they are far too complicated to accomodate hard and fast rules and laws. I have been quite entertained by John Oswald’s work, which has gotten him involved in issues of copyright. I also think that some people simply are lazy and not particularly creative or imaginative, and they should pay the piper for his samples if they like his bass line so much...

Some feel there is no need to record albums any more, that there is no such thing as genuinely “new” music. What do you tell them? Is “new” an important aspect of what you want your pieces to be?
One thing, I happen to think my music probably qualifies as new on a number of counts. But regardless of how “new” it is, I hope it is good. I think we all should be a little better attuned to the quality of something – the sound of it - rather than the idea of it, or what it is or isn’t.

Personally, I think there is a need to record better albums, with better sound. One of the first people that raved to me about the iPod, in the same breath said that the sound quality isn’t the same as a cd, but...... I think it is unfortunate that the digital era has caused the vast majority of listeners to be satisfied with facsimiles... people have become desensitized to the qualities that make music nectar for the soul... I’m all for downloading, saving plastic and all of that, but only when the sound is an improvement, not a compromise. God, I wish I could afford to record to tape...

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

I think that the primary duty for me is to put out quality material. If you expect people to get in their car, give of their time and money to come hear you, then you have a duty to serve them the best meal possible at a fair price and in a great ambiance. Who wants to go to a restaurant and pay too much money for bad food and bad service, in uncomfortable chairs at a table that is dirty and wobbly – but that might have been “written up somewhere” by some critic who was impressed by some aspect of their philosphy of eating...

As for the political part of your question, I think this is an individual issue, to be responded to by each person in his or her own way. Many years ago, I was arrested at the Pentagon with Father Philip Berrigan. I had written him a letter after reading his ‘Prison Journals of a Priest Revolutionary’. He invited me down to Baltimore to hang and participate in an action. We chained the doors shut and poured our own blood on the doors and walls. I spent the night in D.C. lock-up with a guy in for armed robbery and learned just how bad coffee can be the following morning. Berrigan and his wife, excommunicated nun Liz McAllister, took turns doing things that they knew would land them in jail, so that one of them would always be home with the kids. I learned a lot just sitting with him watching the evening news. Eventually, I guess I decided that I would prefer not spending my life in jails, and turned back to music... of course, I could wear that on my sleeve – which in the context of the Bush Empire might actually be somewhat fashionable in some circles...

Art cannot BUT exist in a political context, and have dialog of some sort with it. Personally, I tend to get bored with those who seem to need to spell it all out – of course, spelling it all out might get you a nice grant or adulation from simple-minded people.  I was just thinking of overtly political art that transcends the banal and opportunistic.  Eugene Chadbourne and Krzysztof Penderecki come to mind.  Penderecki’s ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’ would be great music regardless of the title. I’m sure untold shit has been written to ‘commemorate’ 9/11, “in response” to this terrible act...

I have been something of a casualty vis a vis the musical-political scenes, or wars, if you will, simply for not fitting into any scene that I’ve ever encountered and for being outspoken about what I hear and have experienced out there. I don’t need the FBI knocking at my door for writing decadent music – I’ve got plenty of musicians, presenters and critics willing to censor my work and hinder my ability to conduct my business in a free market place.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?

Interesting. Where? What kind of budget? Let me see here...

My approach would be to present people who I either like for being great and who may be world-famous, e.g., Neil Young, as well as to present people unknown to most, but who have something special to share with the world. I’d like to do some research into who the people are that are “the greatest ones you’ve never heard”, and give them a hearing. I’m not sure what Kath Bloom is up to these days, but I’d probably give her a gig. I heard a piece by a composer named Marek Choloniewski last year at a museum. Amazing. I had never heard of him. I’d like to hear more. I’ve never experienced Bob Dylan live and would like to do so.
I’d like to have a single venue, so that you don’t have to miss hearing someone in order to hear something else. Enough vendors of good, reasonably priced food that people wouldn’t have to spend hours in lines to obtain.
I would want free and easy, well-organized parking and clean restrooms. I would want everyone to be very comfortable and for the sound to be of the highest quality.
I’d want to have a wide variety of great music. I would want to hear some great orchestral music along with everything else, for instance. Composers might be Ligeti, Scelsi in addition to Barber, Copland or Resphigi. Michael Tilson Thomas would be on my short list of conductors – maybe he could re-visit John McLaughlin’s ‘Apocalypse’ as well.

As important as the music programming to me would be the quality of the experience in every conceivable way. I’ve seen many great performers under inexcusably bad conditions.

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 tend to be suspicious of the phrase “sound art”. Much of what I’ve experienced – usually in a museum – would be more appropriate for a junior high science fair. The idea of “not being music” seems to forgive their complete lack of artistic substance. Again, some of this stuff looks really good on paper and can be written up really nicely for proposals of one sort or another.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
Yes, I do – my great american symphony.

Where the Earth meets the Sky (Hypnos)
On the Sensations of Tones - Ambient Tuba (Innova Recordings)
Desert Trytptych (Farfield Records)

Tom Heasley

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