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Constant Questioning

img  Tobias Fischer

When Jeremiah Cymerman moved to New York in his early twenties, he wasn't just changing places. For the aspiring composer, improviser and clarinetist, the move was a decision in favour of a new life. From now on, Cymerman would be consumed completely by the search for exciting new forms, personal modes of expression and unheard sounds. It was a life dedicated entirely to sonic exploration and he would spend it reading and learning about music, experiencing it first-hand as an audience member in clubs like Tonic, publishing it on his 5049 imprint, talking about it in his podcast and finally shaping it himself as a tireless performer. In 2008, his debut In Memory Of The Labyrinth System, an apologetically radical tour de force through the clarinet's expressive palette, showed plenty of the elements that would come to define his future style – albeit, as he would point out himself, it still lacked a clearly defined vision to hold the cornucopia of ideas together. It would take until his third full-length Fire Sign, before all of his tools and techniques were fully in place. The album, published on John Zorn's Tzadik imprint, would not only prove to be a creative breakthrough, but also feature the first recorded trio collaboration with cellist Christopher Hoffman and drummer Brian Chase. As a trio, Cymerman has now teamed up with Hoffman and Chase under the Pale Horse moniker for a 40-minute eponymous album of the perhaps sparsest, most reduced and yet maximally expressive music he's ever recorded. Defined by the band as 'dark ambient' and yet strangely accessible, the LP marks a natural progression for Cymerman. After all, as much as his compositions seems to go against most listener's expectations, building fences around his work has never been his intention. Instead, what counts is making the personal underneath the uncompromising surface audible: There is a life of experience embossed into these fragile textures, which anyone can relate to.

How would you describe the scene for explorative music in New York at the moment?
I don't really know what to say about the greater "scene" in New York. To be honest, I actually take issue with a lot of what I see as careerism, competitiveness and glad-handing right now and I'm not sure how much of a "scene" there really is. Things actually feel very fragmented and cliquish to me. I maintain close relationships, both musical and personal, with a lot of people who I think of as being true visionaries, people who are in touch with a creative momentum that is exhilarating just to witness and be around and If I can somehow be a part of that, I am honored. As far as scenes go, I place just as much importance on being there for a friend who is experiencing a profound life experience as I do as working together to realize a musical project. I also place a lot of importance on being around and talking with people who have been working at it for a long time, people who for decades have been making sacrifices to realize musical visions with craft and sincerity. But I don't go out and schmooze very much, simply because there is a social component with which I am not always comfortable. Most of my social interaction these days takes place entirely around the podcast, which actually feels really good to me - most people that show up to do the podcast bring a certain amount of openness and authenticity that is like a direct shot in the arm of human interaction.

If musicians engage in podcast activity, it's mostly for PR reasons. You, however, seem to be doing it with as much passion as working on a new piece of music.
Well, I'm not so sure that doing something with passion and for the sake of doing it and doing something for promotional purposes need necessarily be mutually exclusive. I have been doing the podcast because I love talking to people and because I think there is something valuable in artists sharing themselves publicly. But as it turns out a lot of people are also getting to know me through the podcast, which has been very helpful in selling CDs and bringing people out to shows. It's also really nice to give people the opportunity to get to know me on very accessible terms. I think a lot of my records and performances can be very alienating for some people. They're very abstract and often avoid a lot of conventional musical gestures, but that doesn't mean that they're coming from a place that is any less emotional, heartfelt or sincere than something that say a blues- or pop musician might do. As I play more concerts, as I write and record more music and as I produce more episodes of the podcast I can see more clearly how these things all inform one another and are beginning to resemble a body of work. It's exciting and I feel satisfied that when taken as a whole these things are a pretty honest reflection of who I am.

In 2008, you released your debut album In Memory Of The Labyrinth System. What were your compositional challenges at the time?
At the time I was really just trying to figure out this language for the clarinet that I was working on. The process of making that record was a revelation and I will be forever grateful to John Zorn for pushing me and encouraging me to make it. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I was working on something that was both unique and specific to me. I'll always treasure the eight month period during which I made that record despite the fact that when I listen to it now all I hear are mistakes and things that I wouldn't do again. To me that record is like the sound of a cave man, drawing shapes on the wall, trying to put a language together. It's a really extreme record and in hindsight, I think that it needed to be. For me to develop the tools with which I work, both on the clarinet and in the studio, I really needed to bust them open and see how they work. In Memory Of The Labyrinth System, truth be told, is not an album that I would recommend to a lot of people unless they were curious about my personal growth and where certain aspects of my work began to take shape.

It would seem most people were first drawn into your work by your third full-length Fire Sign.
Fire Sign is my favorite of all the records I've made and I think the main reason for that is the way it was made. I spent almost a year on it, but without the knowledge that I was actually making a CD. Most of the music on it came during a time when I was feeling very unsure of myself and staying in a lot. It was the first time in many years that I had been working on music just for the sake of working on music. I didn't have any plans for it ever seeing release, I was just making these sketches of cut up pieces to keep busy and all of a sudden I realized that I had almost forty minutes of music that felt really unique. I played it for John Zorn, just to play it for someone who's ears I trusted, and he wasted no time in saying that he wanted to release it. I went into the studio a couple weeks later and made the final piece, "Touched With Fire", and four months later I was holding copies in my hand. It still feels surreal. When I listen to that record I get very emotional. It feels very raw and  it feels like the first record that I've made where I was really working with a refined set of tools that were unique to me. Every time someone buys that record, or I give a copy away, my tail wags a little bit.

How did the astounding "Burned across the sky" off that album come together?
"Burned Across the Sky" is my favorite piece of music that I've ever made. It was written in dedication to someone who I loved very much and feels, to me, like as pure a musical expression as I can possibly make. The inspiration for the piece came directly from William Basinski's "Disintegration Loops". The structure of the piece is pretty simple - I wrote a very simple 6 bar phrase that loops until it fades away and on top of it, I blow my guts out on clarinet for ten minutes. There's really not much more to it than that. Sometimes the most simple things are the most effective. I am very happy to say that I will perform this piece during my Stone residency in November 2014.

Already on Fire Sign, you worked with Christopher Hoffman and Brian Chase. How did you go from this first collaboration to Pale Horse?
Brian and Chris are two of my favorite people to play with and they both are very supportive as musicians. They are the kind of guys that will always have your back and be open to ideas that you present them. There are plenty of musicians who, if presented with something like "Pale Horse" would snicker. Not these guys. There is trust there and it allows me to feel comfortable with trying things out. I hope that this band gets to tour.

On Fire Sign, we recorded the aforementioned seventeen minute long "Touched With Fire", which was comprised of small sections of very loose material that I had prepared in advance, that I then spent three weeks editing and re-shaping into the end product. It was an awesome experience but it wasn't a band experience- it was a composer working with musicians to realize the vision of one person. With Pale Horse I came up with a way that I wanted us to improvise: Chris and I chose certain fingerings that would result in the most wrong way to play certain pitches and are basically just playing unisons. The improvising happens in the space around those notes so it's much more subtle and took a lot of restraint. With Brian I gave him free reign and told him to do whatever he wanted. We recorded section to section but it's still just a document of three acoustic instrumentalists in an improvised setting. That being said, there is a lot of expressivity in the mix of the record. All of my records feature super detailed and micro mixing, but as where the past records had a lot of intense editing and other sonic stunts, this is more of an "honest" mix, warts and all, with focus on the performance.

Do improvisation and composition lead to substantially different results for you?
I don’t know … I mean, there of course specific qualities and characteristics associated with the each process, but ultimately (and hopefully) they're just two ways to get to the same place: a fully realized and complex musical vision. As a craftsperson I think it's important to not only have the tools to realize your vision with clarity but to also know when and how to use which tools. I think too often musicians might choose to deal with one over the other for perhaps reasons that aren't necessarily musical but for me the conversation of improv vs. composition isn't really something I think about at all, ever. I'm much more interested in hearing people discuss music making practices in more nuanced and practical terms.

I find it interesting that you've referred to the Pale Horse album as 'dark ambient'.
Well, on a surface level I think it's a pretty accurate description. It is dark and it definitely has an ambiance. One thing I am working towards right now with my music, is making music that speaks more broadly to people. Not that Pale Horse is an accessible record by any means, but I like the idea that if you want to engage deeply with it, there is material there to allow you to do so but if you want to just put it on and enjoy the mood of it, you can also do that.

I also think describing it as dark ambient, on some level, might have been my way of preemptively apologizing for the music. I was and still am nervous that no one is going to like the album and in a way my fear about that is based in how stark it is. There is a LOT of space on the record and all of the musical statements are really naked. In that sense there is a real vulnerability to the record. I tend to really dress things up with electronics and special effects and this record is really a step towards making music that is perhaps a bit more natural.

What kind of qualities do you associate with electronic and acoustic means respectively?
This is an interesting question and an aesthetic one that I battle with constantly. I’d say above all else, I put a huge emphasis on all of my work having a certain amount of what Elliott Sharp describes as “sweat equity”. Even when I am working on really intense studio compositions that utilize micro editing and mixing and other forms of radical studio approaches, I rarely use any presets or programs that would do any of the work for me. In that scenario I use Pro-Tools as merely a highly efficient tape machine - it’s only the device for the recording. My primary concern with incorporating electronic components into my work is to serve the function of creating a sonic environment in which the music lives. So to answer your question more directly, I find the balance between the acoustic and electronic in my work to be a constant question of if these two things serve one another. The focus and challenge is on being an adept instrumentalist who also has access to a set of modern tools that can serve as an accentuation of creative expression.

Jeremiah Cymerman interview by Tobias Fischer
If you enjoyed this article, perhaps you'll also like our interview with composer Toby Driver.

Homepage: Jeremiah Cymerman
Homepage: 5049 Records / Podcast
Homepage: Tzadik Records