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Interview with Jeremiah Cymerman

img  Tobias Fischer

One goal of Jeremiah Cymerman's 5049 Podcast is to arrive at a deeper understanding of the thoughts, processes and philosophies behind the work of some of leading artists currently living in New York. The other, it would seem, is for Cymerman to arrive at a deeper understanding of himself. Most of the hour-long conversations, of which, at the time of this article, there are already fifty with a new one being published each week, deal with the personal paths that lead musicians to where they are today, to the myriads of seemingly unrelated details and biographical dots that eventually connect to form a coherent language, a recognisable style, a personal voice. And just by asking questions, sharing his ideas and revealing the occasional anecdote, Cymerman is painting a portrait of himself as a passionate, infinitely curious and ambitious artist, as a composer and clarinetist equally open to acoustic and electronic means, as an instinctive thinker with an open-mind yet a very clear concept of what he wants in and out of music. Contrary to many of his colleagues, he doesn't just share his triumphs, but the moments of desperation as well and perhaps that is what has makes his work, to date comprising of five solo albums as well as a duo and a trio record, so fascinating: You can always hear the struggle of creation, the questions between the bars, the impulse to keep searching after the last note has died down. To some, this may indicate failure. To Cymerman, it's what keeps him going.

Why has the clarinet has remained the ideal tool to express your personal vision of music throughout all these years?
At this point it's just a matter of it being the instrument that I play. I love the clarinet and I value my relationship with the instrument but that's really about it. I have been thinking a lot lately about learning to play tenor sax but I also realize that perhaps it might be a bit late for me. That being said, I think anyone who has a long-standing relationship with an instrument has a really valuable tool for personal and emotional expression at their disposal. Once you sign on to spend your life with an instrument, you now have something very consistent in your life, almost like a mediation practice. The clarinet has been around for hundreds of years and will always be the clarinet. I can develop my practice with it over a lifetime but I'll never be the best clarinet player in the world - there's no such thing. No matter how hard I work, there will always be more to learn and areas where I can improve and there will always be other players who are so good at what they do that it makes me want to just quit. You just have to keep working, working, working and become appreciative of the fact that it's all about the journey and not the destination. I think that's a very humbling and comforting thing to realize. Having a life-long relationship with an instrument can be a real source of growth and understanding.

You've described yourself as a self-taught musician. In which way, are you finding, has this created a different perspective from that of 'classically trained' instrumentalists?
When I was younger I had a much more macho attitude about being a self-taught musician, as if people who went to music school or took lessons were soft or somehow less real. Later it turned into an intense inferiority complex as I began to be surrounded by really talented and technical musicians who had all this theory and could do things that were way beyond my grasp. I began to really feel nervous around other musicians and I became really hard on myself, to a degree that became crippling. It's really only in the last year or so that I've begun to let go of all of that and just accept that I am a creative person who does things the way that I do them. I think that to this day I am working with a handicap - there are so many areas of my musicianship that would have really benefited from formal training, but all I can do now is try to grow as much as I can.

Would you say that extended techniques are about arriving at a personal expression or rather a form of research to you?
I used to place a lot of importance on extended technique and working exclusively with what I thought were proprietary sounds, which seems utterly preposterous to me now. As Oscar Wilde said “I’m not young enough to know everything.” The older I get, the less I separate these different aspects of music-making and the more I just focus on my approach to music-making as a practice in being mindful and present. To that end, if I am working with people who are really adept at making more sound based textural music, I will rely more heavily on those extended techniques, but if I’m playing with someone who wants to swing, I hope that I have the chops to meet them at least halfway.

What was the first time that you realized you might have found your own voice?
While I can certainly pinpoint moments in my growth, and the last few years has felt very fertile, I'd say that I’m still on a journey to find and refine my voice. Sometimes the challenge is less about finding one's voice and more about having the confidence and self-belief to honor that voice.

What's your take on the relevance of influences and inspiration?
That's a tough question to answer. I think on one hand, having access to so much information leaves you as an artist with a lot less excuses for making something that might be derivative or not fully realized. For instance, a few years ago I had this idea to put together a quartet that would play jazz with a country twang. I was getting really excited and making notes and thinking of people I wanted to get involved and then I discovered the Bill Smith record Folk Jazz. That record came out in 1961 and is executed on a level of musicianship and creativity that I still can't even begin to approach. It's a flawless musical statement and discovering it stopped me in my tracks and made me ask myself, having heard this record, would the world need my jazz interpretations of folk music? And the answer was no, at least not at that point in time. So we have lots of points of reference that are always available to us and I think as artists we need to be in touch with them and take some responsibility in how and what we are contributing. On the other hand, it's important to not let the weight of tradition stop you from moving forward with your ideas. There's a lot to learn from seeing an idea all the way through to completion and I think you become much more adept of a craftsperson by taking part in the full process of creative realization.

Quite a lot of your music seems to occupy a space many would consider threatening, sinister and ugly. What's your concept of beauty?
I would definitely say that I am drawn to and inspired by intense emotional experiences and I think that is something that is reflected pretty clearly in my work, but I do think that a lot of people have weird and perhaps misguided notions about concepts of “dark” and “light”. More accurately I don’t think that these are things that can be defined in objective terms. I mean, look at a record like Coyote by Kayo Dot. That record changed my life for the better and has brought me to tears numerous times. It’s a tough record, with a deeply emotional narrative that demands that the listener be willing to open themselves to being vulnerable and allowing themselves to be taken for an intense ride. The key here is that for some artistic and musical statements to be made most effectively, sometimes them listener needs to show up with more than just their ears. This kind of listening experience is not for everyone, but I do think that for people willing to engage on that level … well, I think they’re in for a treat.

Countless artists have refused to exorcise their demons in fear of loosing their creativity - is it the same for you?
No, not at all. Honestly I feel like so much of the music that I've released has been based in dissonance and feelings of sadness, angst and despair, that I am really beginning to wonder if I even have what it takes to make a piece of music that is tonal, well-constructed and perhaps enjoyable to a large group of people. Seriously. A lot of non-musicians in my life have this idea about me that I don't make tonal music because I see it as some kind of weird sell-out type of thing and nothing can be further from the truth. Currently, I am working a lot on my harmonic sensibilities and writing some new music that I hope reflects that. Right now, I’m working on a piece to premiere and record at the end of the year that will be consistent with my previous work, but will certainly embrace more conventional musical structures. I hope that I develop new tools along the way that I can synthesize into my musical voice but I don't ever want to spend too long in the same place. Things get stale very quickly and if your creative practice isn't growing and expanding then maybe it's time to move on to something else.

Many artists use music to control the chaos inside their head. In your work, meanwhile, the chaos just stays intact. Why do you think that is?
(laughs) I don't know. My life is kind of chaotic I guess, but ask anyone who knows me - even though I am cranky, I think I am generally a pretty fun person to be around.

Actually my wife might disagree with that …

Jeremiah Cymerman interview by Tobias Fischer
If you enjoyed this interview with Jeremiah Cymerman, you may also like our conversation with him about his discography and new trio, Pale Horse.

Homepage: Jeremiah Cymerman
Homepage: 5049 Records / Podcast