RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Interview with Rent Romus

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or rip-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

In this interview, saxophonist and Edgetone-Records-founder Rent Romus suggests that the flood of music in the digital age is not a reason to worry about originality, but instead offers a unique chance to spread inspiring ideas and concepts.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
When I was around 7 or 8 years the piano was my main instrument. Although during the time I was learning to play written music I found myself improvising all the time not knowing it was different then playing from the page. Later picking up my mother’s saxophone I went directly to playing in school concert bands as well as listening to records checked out from the local library. I did a lot of listening in those early years. Upon discovering Arthur Blythe after being exposed to the master classes of Stan Getz at Stanford in the early eighties the most important thing for me was getting a good tone. I was not a great sight reader, nor did I aspire to sound like Charlie Parker, so it was not really on my radar to become a technical player.

I spent much of my college years on the weekends in the basement laundry room playing among the bicycles. It was a large concrete box where the echo was helpful in letting me hear back my intonation. Since I was never “formally” trained in music my original compositional process was not directed in any particular way. Melody was the most important part of the process where chords and other counter ideas were not. Many times then not my process was like throwing stones into the air and see where they landed. My voice has always been based on the feelings that music produces. Fire and ice, earth and wind, the technical always takes a back seat, its just a tool in the box.

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
It probably all started when I checked out The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One from the Library put it on for one minuet and promptly took it off and brought it back. That minute was enough, I have not been the same since. Of course I eventually went back and listened to the whole recording, realizing later that form and structure in the “traditional” sense was only a small part of what music could manifest. As well as Sun Ra other artists who have had an influence included Jim Pepper, Arthur Blythe, Oliver Lake, Ernesto Diaz-Infante, Bert Wilson, and Albert Ayler. The most important part is the sound they create, not how they play as much as as how they sound.

What's your own definition of originality?
Well, its not being commercial. As far as I’m concerned being commercial is the antitheses of originality. However, neither myself nor anyone else can really define what originality is. Sure there are those in various media circles that call out what they perceive as originality in music and art as “refreshing” or a “new approach” but before recorded music who really knows what people were creating. I figure what is original today is what no one living has experienced in over one hundred years. The only thing those of us who aspire to explore sound and art can do is be true to one’s self. Find that deep place in your body of memory where you feel most comfortable and express it outside of social, religious or political pressures to conform. In other words, to find one’s own originality it’s more of an internal journey that we all must struggle to find for ourselves.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
I don’t think in terms of “is this music original?” If I did I’m not sure I’d get anywhere. I think through my many years of work in the fields of free improvisation where you just have to play a concert with no preparation with so many wonderful artists that my perspective towards the value of originality is simply not something I think about much any longer. I’m not trying to be original nor commercial. I’m just doing and seeing what comes out.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
With the advent of computer programs the ease at which musicians can create is staggering. This phenomenon only enhances my own personal experience as a musician and helps to inspire my own compositional process. It also means as a world music community, we can challenge ourselves to find new ways to play music and create interesting ways to do that while helping to increase the speed at which new ideas propagate.

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
I have been writing music again using standard notation. My latest is a set of new pieces inspired by the ancient rune poems of the Kalevala from the land of my ancestors. All the melodies are derived from my thoughts about the stories as well as melodic elements that I have had rattling off and on in my head since I was five. Though I have had a chance to listen to traditional Finnish folks music recently which may have had some influence. I’ve mixed these six fully composed scores for a twelve piece ensemble embedded within six free improvisational scores based on the paintings of my musical and life partner Collette McCaslin a.k.a. CJ Borosque. So far its been a challenge to mix the two styles of composed and free improvisation and its been feeling pretty rewarding.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
My ideas come from everywhere. I get a thought, or read a book, or read a news article, or talk to a friend and things just pop up. Science Fiction has been a heavy influence as well as real horror stories like those of Poe or Lovecraft. There is never a lack of inspiration to be found. Sometimes I have no idea where an idea comes from, a melody or concept just appears and if I am lucky I am in a place to record it or write down for future use.

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
If it sounds like something else then it is. That would be my model...

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
Like any tool its not the reason for being original. The tools can help speed up or slow down the process. They can assist and maybe even enhance the technical execution, but the person, the organic interface is still key and will always be from my perspective.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
Free music software programs have been very helpful to producing more work then I would if I have to write it all out by hand.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
The only obstacle is buying into social norms for what music is supposed to sounds like. Freeing oneself from the programming of standard musical form is the first step towards finding ones original voice.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
I’ll never let technical or financial reasons stop me from making a vision manifest. There’s always a way unless you’re dead. As long as one can move and make a sound, the only limitation is in one's mind.

Rent Romus Interview by Tobias Fischer
Image by Peter B Kaars.

Homepage: Rent Romus