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Stepping into another world

img  Tobias Fischer

It is often said that one of the fundamental tasks for any artist consists in uncovering truths and secrets hidden underneath the surface of things. In the case of Ascendant, their first album as a duo after years of playing together, Jesse Canterbury and Greg Sinibaldi have taken this goal verbatim. Performing a collection of ten pieces for saxophone and clarinet, Sinibaldi and Canterbury literally went underground, spending four entire days in the Dan Harpole Cistern, a vast, two-million gallon cylindrical concrete tank, which, as the press release by congenial label partner Prefecture Recordings informs, was "originally constructed as an emergency water supply for fire control for nearby Fort Worden". The performance in September of 2011 would turn out to be a deeply inspiring and artistically challenging document. Thanks to an epic, 45 second reverb time, the individual lines of the players stretched out into soft landscapes of reed resonance, occasionally overlapping with subsequent themes or gently fading away into soft clouds of echo. Sinibaldi and Canterbury consequently had to move with utmost delicacy and concentration, injecting each breath on their instrument with meaning – as on the breathtaking opener "Wade", for example, which takes on an all but spiritual significance on the strength of nothing but a handful of notes. It wasn't just the unusual space which injected the music with meaning, however. From a personal angle, too, Ascendant marks an important incision for the duo, since Canterbury left his long-time home of Seattle shortly after the recordings, forcing him and Sinibaldi to re-think their creative relationship. And yet, the album is just as much the end of a chapter as it is the beginning of something new. After all, now they've looked underneath the surface of things, Canterbury and Sinibaldi have no intention of allowing trivial concerns to stop them.

In this interview, we speak to Jesse Canterbury about his impressions of the Cistern recordings. You can also check out our conversation with Greg Sinibaldi about Ascendant here.

Ascendant occupies a special place in both your and Greg's discography. What were the origins of the project and how did it come about?
Greg and I were in a group together called Cipher, which never released an album but which did a number of great concerts. Really nice instrumentation - 2 violins, 2 bass clarinets, with me occasionally playing clarinet. Unfortunately the group didn’t last after one of the violinists moved to New York.
A few years after Cipher stopped playing, I was over at Greg’s place -- I’d brought over a piece I’d written for Cipher, and I had the intention of reworking it for some as yet undefined new project. I didn’t know what I wanted out of the piece though, so I was asking Greg’s advice. We read through it, recorded some of it, and he was pretty encouraging. Then I remember him saying sort of out-of-the-blue “we should do a cistern project!” It sort of surprised me because I was still thinking about the piece, like “hm maybe this part would go better here, and maybe an Ab works better there,” etc. But then we started talking and the more we talked the better it sounded, so we said ok let’s give it a whirl. The piece in question ended up being called “Dreaming in Two Million” on the album.

There are a few historical examples of recording in 'special' spaces, including Paul Horn's Inside the Great Pyramid and the Deep Listening Band's The Ready Made Boomerang. Were you aware of some of these pieces and did they, in any way, play into your considerations?
I do know the Deep Listening Band’s work. They have a recording in the cistern, actually and that’s a great album. Also, several musicians in Seattle have recorded there, so we knew about those albums. My parents had an album of Paul Winter doing his thing in St John’s Cathedral in New York, and I think he had a couple of other outdoor recordings.
So I guess yes, we were aware perhaps not of those particular recordings you mention but certainly of the notion of making a particular kind of music for a particular kind of space. That was definitely influential but I don’t think those recordings really played into our consideration much, except as historical background. I’d never done a “special space” recording before, and neither had Greg I don’t think. It’s not something that was particularly on my radar really as something I wanted to do.
But the more we talked about it, the better it sounded. One thing we talked about from the get-go was that in writing music for that space, we wanted to try to exploit the harmonic possibilities without giving ourselves over to playing echo games, which is always tempting in those kinds of spaces. That’s part of why we decided to record the way we did, with close-mikes and “room” mikes, so that we could have the reverb but not miss details. It made the sonic palette more flexible. The reverb is amazing but if that’s all there is to the music, it can wear a bit thin.

Ascendant contains both compositions and improvisations. With regards to the former, what was the writing process like?
I guess about one-third to half the music was material we’d written beforehand or for other projects, and the rest was composed during our residency. We really had no idea what it would be like in the space so we pursued a strategy of experimentation. The first day, we played lots of short things, mostly improvisations or snippets of pieces, and recorded with microphones in a variety of positions. At the end of the day, we listened, drew conclusions, and came up with new ideas for music. The second day was much the same, perhaps slightly less experimentation. By the end of the third day we were basically happy with our recorded compositions, and so the fourth day we spent ironing things out and improvising. I think that’s when we did the solo pieces.
It’s hard to be in the cistern for more than 4 hours or so at a stretch. It’s completely dark, and the atmosphere is dank and a little chilly. So we tried to be pretty focused while we were actually in there. Most of the actual writing was done in our little residence at Ft Worden State Park, though I think Greg wrote “Wade” in the cistern itself.

How do you see the relationship between the space and your creativity?
That's an interesting question, and certainly makes me think more generally about how the space we’re in affects what we do and how we think. It’s difficult to describe the effect of being in the cistern. You feel oddly detached, I guess because it’s so dark and there are very mysterious sounds coming from places you can’t see. But at the same time, if you’re down there with another person, you have to be physically close to that person in order to understand anything they’re saying. If you get more than 10 feet away or so, you have to speak loudly enough that the reverb rapidly muddies any kind of articulation or enunciation you might’ve had. So that closeness combined with the strange other-worldly feeling informed a lot of the music, I think.

I guess the most obvious parallel is being in church, at least the churches I knew as a kid, which even if they were small were still cavernous spaces with lots of reverb. My best experiences in church were of stillness and thoughtfulness -- the intimacy of meditation, I guess you could call it. But at the same time there’s a sense that there’s something else there. So maybe that intimacy informed a lot of the music. We certainly wrote music for the cistern that we would not have written otherwise.

Many have, in line with your impressions of playing in a church, characterised the album as having a 'religious' feeling. Do you have a plausible theory why spaces with long reverbs tend to evoke these sensations?
This may seem like too facile an explanation, but the simplest theory that occurs to me is that it’s rooted in a history of religious services of many kinds being conducted in large cavernous spaces. I guess the question then becomes why did people start holding religious services in such spaces? I think you could go many different directions trying to answer that question. On a fundamental level, perhaps it has to do with the power of religion and spirituality in general. Many of us have a powerful urge to feel that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves. Yet this something is felt in a very personal and individual way. Spaces like the cistern reinforce that kind of thinking just by their nature -- the physical dimensions of the space are large, but the sensitive response to any sound uttered in the space makes you want to be quiet, to turn inward to some extent. So the experience of being in such a space is one of looking inward. That’s what it does for me, anyway.

The debate about the respective merits of and the borders between improvisation and composition has been all but exhausted. More practically, though, since you're working with both - what are you using composition and improvisation for, respectively?
Great question and as you note it touches on an area with a long lineage of debate and discussion. I like that you say “more practically.” When I was first getting into new music and improvisation, I had a lot of long conversations with people about what it all meant and the political & economic aspects of what we do and so forth. Certainly those things are important but eventually you have to pick up the instrument and play.

To get back to your question, I think I try to use composition to provide a framework for improvisation. That’s a little too simplistic but it’s basically true. Improvisation is center-stage but the content of the “framework” is not of lesser importance. To put it in architectural terms (as has been done often), the composition is the structure, the improvisation is what you do when you live/work/play in the structure. How you move around, how you interact with other people, what you choose to do or not to do, all these things are personal expressions of one type or another, but they are governed and shaped by the structure. I guess a way to sum up might be that we are composing to provide a structure for improvisation. And improvisation is so important to how we live our lives and how we need to express ourselves to each other.

What were the recording sessions like?
The cistern is buried underground, near the top of a hill on the grounds of Ft. Worden. Our little residence was down near the bottom of that hill. So every day when we wanted to go record, we’d load up the car and drive up to the top of that hill. We needed to coordinate with the Ft Worden staff, and so this guy -- named Wade -- he would come up with his bulldozer to lift the ~1000-pound rock off of the hatch leading down into the cistern. After he did that, we’d spend about 20 minutes lowering all our gear by rope down about 30 feet into the cistern. The hatch is only about 2 feet square, so there’s no way to get yourself and an instrument down through the hatch all at once. So we had to use rope. Then once we were down there, we’d walk off towards the middle of the cistern where we had all our recording stuff set up (the first day of course we had to lower all the recording stuff, mic stands, cables, etc. as well). Then we’d get our instruments together, do a couple of sound checks, make sure batteries for the recording equipment were fresh, and start recording. At the end of the day, we’d essentially do all this in reverse.

One of the things that surprised me about being in the cistern was how humid it got. I guess it was just air trapped in there, maybe with water content from the ocean, which after all is just a few hundred yards from the cistern opening. Towards the end of a session, sometimes I would see water droplets on my instruments, and would begin to perceive wetness in the air.

Another thing I remember was that very first time getting down into the cistern. It was a little scary climbing down the ladder -- it’s a rusty ladder made of rebar, and of course standing out in the sun, you can’t see the bottom. So you climb down into darkness, and once you get past the threshold you can feel the open space around you but you can’t see anything, it’s just completely dark. Then as you get nearer to the ground, you can sort of see a surface down there, which you step onto sort of gingerly. Then you turn around and by that time your eyes are starting to adjust so at least you can see the 3-4 feet immediately around the base of the ladder -- this may include the nearest of the dozens of massive concrete pillars that support the top of the cistern -- but beyond that, it’s just total and complete darkness. And then the sound of course. So it’s like stepping into another world, like a dream.

As a visitor to a very similar place in Germany (the Gasometer in Oberhausen, where John Butcher performed, for example), I can attest to the fact that being present in the space and hearing recordings played back can be two very different thongs. How does the recorded version of the album compare to what you actually experienced on site? Also with regards to your frequent concerts, how do you see the relationship between a performance and its recording?
I think what we recorded is actually a pretty faithful rendering of what we experienced. You lose some of the details of the resonances -- it’s not as visceral and it doesn’t surround and envelope you like it does when you’re in the cistern. I think you can say similar things about a lot of live performances, though. A recording of a powerful player like Dave Holland or Peter Brötzmann is not going to be the same as a live performance, no matter what kind of technology is brought to bear.

I’m a little uncertain about the second question. In the specific case of the music on Ascendant, it’s likely we won’t perform it live, unless we rework the music in some way.  Those pieces really depend on the resonance and it would feel like a let-down to do them live in a relatively dry space. We talked about trying to do it electronically, with a surround sound setup and so forth, but that seems like a lot of work to do to reproduce something natural. I understand that very rarely Centrum will set up a performance at the cistern where the performers are in the space and the audience is seated outside, in the grassy area on top, and the sound is played through speakers surrounding the audience. That’s as close as it can get (I think only 4 or 5 people are allowed in the cistern for safety reasons), but it’s enough of a pain to set up that I don’t think it’s going to happen.

If you’re asking about recordings of live performances in general, I tend to see them as a documents, a more raw documents than the documents produced in the studio. I think it’s more useful for history or for study. I guess there’s a difference in my head between presenting work in a live setting and presenting work via a studio recording. I tend to be focused on different types of things.

I like listening to studio and live versions of the same tunes. It’s always interesting. For the studio version, I imagine that this is what is intended, probably as close as can be done. For the live version, I imagine that ok, when it’s time to play, this is what is happening. Which is closer to the original intent? Like this interview -- I probably would’ve given different answers if we’d done it live. And it’s not that they’re exclusive of each other -- just different aspects of the same thing, like turning a kaleidoscope.

I guess the purist in me enjoys the notion of the unsullied live performance -- once heard, never again. But I have a lot of recordings I really enjoy, so I can’t really live like that.

In a space with a 45-second reverb, you're not just playing in the present, but also with the past and conventional approaches can seem obsolete. What were some of the challenges of working within such a majestic space?
The challenges were many. I mentioned the purely physical and practical challenges above, like getting us and our instruments into the space. There were also issues with light, power for the recording equipment, where to put microphones, and so forth.

On a purely musical level, though, there were also many challenges. It’s very easy in spaces like that to spend a lot of time playing with the space. You shout or play a loud note, then listen and hear how the sound changes as it whips around the space and finally dies out 40 seconds later. Then, after that, you can maybe play five or six notes real fast, then stop again and listen to hear how the notes you just played in succession become a single chord in the space (being wind players we always envy pianists and violinists and others who can play nice clean chords anywhere on their instruments). Then, maybe you try playing a half-note trill way up high, and listen to how it becomes like a shimmering reflection in the space. You can do this type of thing for hours, and we did. However, for the music we recorded, we wanted to move beyond that, and that was a big challenge. We tried to take the sonic experiments we were doing & make them into compositions. We wanted these compositions to be part of the space and living in the space, but we didn’t want them to be subservient to the space, if that makes sense.

Does the space turn into a third musician as it were?
I would say that yes, the space does turn into a third musician. I think we both needed to react and change our playing in much the same way we would need to when playing with a new person. We had to gradually learn what kinds of things would work and what kinds of things wouldn’t work. Viewed as a third musician, the cistern has a lot to say.

I think it is possible to shape space -- one can make a space bright or dark for example, by what one chooses to play. That’s true for the cistern as well, though the process is challenging, and there’s a kind of give-and-take that you’d normally associate with another musician. 

On a more general level, why, do you feel, has space been so undervalued in western concepts of music, which always seem to detach it from the actual composition?
In the history of western music, I think it’s not always the case that the space has been undervalued as a contributor or at least supporter of the music, but I think a lot of bad things happened to music between 1850 or so and about 1960, maybe. A lot of good things, too, but some things happened that had the effect of closing minds and creating barriers. I’m probably getting my history wrong, but I think beginning in the 19th century we started seeing the rise of the “cult of the virtuoso” for lack of a better term, where music was slowly but surely turning into a circus act, like figure skating. Then there was the notion of the concert hall holding some kind of rarefied air, and at some point one could no longer clap after a great cadenza or a great symphony movement. The nail in the coffin was to some extent the advent of recording. The benefit was you could bring the concert hall to your house, where you didn’t have to wear a tie or whatever. The down side is that now you never hear mistakes, so the impression people get (musicians included) is that music is worthless unless it’s a hyper-accurate representation of what’s on the page. Likewise, people (again, some musicians included) think that playing worthy music is impossible for all but the most blessed virtuosi. So now people say the same kinds of things about their abilities in music as they say about math:“I’m no good at that” or “I don’t have a musical bone in my body,” etc. And for musicians who at least believe they are musical, all kinds of insecurities are created and this causes all sorts of problems. 

Anyway, all of these things have the effect of creating a sense of detachment from music, and of turning music into some kind of ideal of perfection on one hand (i. e. the score in the case of written music) and a physical object on another (in the case of recordings). Music is what is on my music stand or in my CD player, not something that’s in my house. Divorcing music from the space in which it is created is a natural consequence.

Ascendant marks the end of a chapter for you both. Do you nonetheless see any chance of this duo playing together again?
I sure hope so!I think we are starting to look for other cistern-like spaces where we could do something similar. It won’t be easy, because we live in different cities and have pretty different daily lives now. But I’m sure it’ll happen sooner or later.

Jesse Canterbury interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Jesse Canterbury
Homepage: Prefecture Recordings