Category Archives: Evan Parker

For Evan Parker’s 70th Birthday, a 2010 DownBeat Feature

The sui generis master soprano and tenor saxophonist Evan Parker turns 70 today. I’ve been enthralled with his music for several decades now, and have had several opportunities to interact with him, initially in 1990 through the auspices of Ben Young, who organized what I believe was a ten-day festival of his music, and allowed me to participate in an on-air interview. In the early aughts, on assignment from Jazziz, I interviewed Evan and photographer Thomas Struth (it wasn’t published). Then, in the winter of 2009-10, I wrote a long profile for DownBeat framed around  a long residency at the Stone. The piece ran a little shorter than I would have preferred, and for the occasion, I’ve offered a director’s cut, a bit more lugubrious than the final copy, but more thorough.

* * * *

 Evan Parker Article, Downbeat, 2010 (Early Draft):

“I believe that when you’re playing freely with other people, it helps if you know what they’re about, that there’s a life in that relationship or set of relationships that underlines the group, that there is an ongoing discussion, as it were, or dialogue. The notion of the ideal group improvisation being something that happens once, and then you say goodbye, doesn’t make any sense at all.  You have nothing to judge it by; there’s no point of reference. It can be acceptable in a context, which has not to do with the specifics of any of those people’s work, but simply the background of the context. Of course, every relationship has to start with the first hello. But I’ve found it necessary to terminate some relationships fairly soon after they were started.  I’m trying to be wiser about all of those kind of things, and not to initiate new projects simply for the sake of working or keeping busy, but to have a reason behind it.” – Evan Parker, 2003

Forty-five years into his career as a professional improviser, saxophonist Evan Shaw Parker remains a  perpetual road warrior, pursuing a lifestyle—on the move at least six months a year, long rides in cars or trains or airplanes from one destination to another, irregular sleep and meals, less than stellar accommodations—that could wear down most artists half his age. Yet Parker, who turns 66 this year, embraces the sacrifice of itinerancy with the enthusiastic attitude of a circuit-riding preacher or union organizer of days gone by whose imperative it was to deliver the message in person.

Parker travels not to praise the Lord or organize the masses, but to find as many contexts as possible in which to present his sui generis conception of the saxophone. He drew first principles from the innovations of the ‘60s avant-garde—John Coltrane and Albert Ayler were Parker’s window into the use of multiphonics, overtones, and circular breathing—and grafted onto this aesthetic bedrock the harmonic extremities of European post-12-tone modernism, a global array of scales and intervals drawn from Herman Helmholtz’s authoritative lexicon, and independent fingering and projection techniques associated with playing the Scottish bagpipes and the launeddas, an ancient three-pipe Sardinian reed instrument. He’s refined his language with micronic precision, developing his ability to articulate and develop two or three simultaneous lines in a sort of musique concrete counterpoint.

“A lot of material is completely in the muscles and in the nervous system—there’s no effort to control it, no effort to think,” Parker told me a few years back of the way his imagination functions as he plays solo. He describes a process analogous to ars memoria, the medieval system of memorizing large systems—and also the oral traditions of preliterature cultures—by placing objects in familiar places. “I enter that room where the music is,” he said. “I can do almost anything to open the door, then I look around until my attention lights on some particular place and I know roughly where I am. I look again. What is this place about?  What is new?  What didn’t I find out the last time I was here? I stay until something happens, and takes me somewhere else.  Not really leading the music, but following it where it seems to be going.”

Even by his standards, Parker took on, as he put it, “an exceptional schedule” over the last three months of 2009, bringing his tenor and soprano saxophones to an extraordinary array of encounters. There was an October duo in Barcelona with Catalan pianist Agusti Fernandez and workshops and concerts with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton in Cannes and Paris. A two-week tour with the Schlippenbach-Lovens trio included engagements in Berlin, Ulrichsberg, Prague and Brataslava, where Parker also found time to play a recital with Alvin Lucier, a concert with the Globe Unity Orchestra, and a gig with the electronic unit Groovetronic. He guested with the out-trio Marteau Rouge in Tours, Paris, and Brussels; navigated composer-cellist-electronicist Walter Prati’s processed structures with a medium-sized ensemble in Milan; triologued  with regular mates John Edwards and Tony Marsh at London’s Vortex, where he has a monthly hit, and with keyboardist Stephen Gruen and drummer Philip Marks in Liverpool.

Prior to all of these events (directly following a 3,000-mile, 7-gigs-in-7-nights tour with extended techniques sax master Ned Rothenberg that had begun on the West Coast and ended in Montreal), Parker presided over an audacious first-two-weeks-of-October residence at the Stone, John Zorn’s Lower East Side venue,where it was evident that he listens as attentively to others as to the voices deep within him. Directly after a seven-hour drive from Montreal to New York, he launched the event with a solo recital executed with characteristic derring-do, followed an hour later by an avuncular duo with synthesist Richard Teitelbaum in which Parker, playing soprano saxophone, created instantaneous acoustic responses to Teitelbaum’s assorted burbles, birdcalls, critter onomatopoeia, virtual percussion, swoopy waves, Bachian cello, celestial harmonics, and prepared piano pings—they ended spontaneously on the same pitch.

Such energy and acuity belied whatever exhaustion Parker may have felt, and he delineated the harmonics with such precision that only the most educated ear could discern that he was playing with a stock mouthpiece, having recently left his three painstakingly customized ones on a train. But to wallow in self-pity was not an option, and Parker would carry on. Hunkered down three blocks away in a small flat on Avenue D, he took on all comers, two shows a night of one-shots with partners representing vastly different predispositions and ways of thinking about music.

In the opening section of his meeting with Fred Frith, Parker projected droll tenor responses to Frith’s Dadaesque antics on lap guitar (he brushed it as though polishing a shoe and prepared the bowed strings with a tin can and chain metal); then unleashed a jaw-dropping unaccompanied interlude on soprano before rejoining the dialogue with with vertiginous intervals and audacious unisons; then uttered a long tenor drone which Frith somehow complemented with more prepared bowed strings.

Earlier in the run, before a house so jammed that the fire marshals cleared it before they were done, Parker and Milford Graves played a five-part suite marked by incessant rhythmic modulation and dynamic ebb-and-flow. After Parker unleashed Coltranesque torrents in the tenor’s lower register in the second movement, he switched to a balladic seven-note theme that received intense theme-and-variation treatment. Graves’ slow rolling tom-toms that crescendoed to jet-force, propelling Parker into a multiphonic whirlwind. An hour later, with George Lewis on trombone, laptop, and interactive electronics with which to modify and manipulate the pitch qualities of Parker’s soprano saxophone lines, Parker—his face beet-red, his embouchure visible as a dimple-line running 45 degrees from nose to jaw—went with the flow, circular-breathing to create a feedback loop of chirps and crackles and waves.

To honor Thelonious Monk’s birthday came a few nights later,  Parker, Matthew Shipp and William Parker played an informed 55-minute abstraction of “Shuffle Boil,” interpolating other Monk fragments at various points. “If they’d jumped on the tune at the very outset, well, it would have gone another way,” Parker said two days later over a lunch of roast chicken, tostones, and rice-and-beans on Avenue C.  Salt-bearded and bespectacled, with a barrel chest and thick soccer legs, he wore a charcoal shirt, black jeans and black loafers, and carried a just-purchased copy of Robin Kelley’s new Monk biography. “But they played ambiguously in relation to it,” he continued. “The point is to do it in such a way that it’s there if you want to hear it, and not there if you don’t want to hear it. It’s raw material. It’s a free choice. When you say you’re playing freely, it also means you are free to play things that you absolutely know and things that are rather predictable.”

Parker related that for his sixtieth birthday, outcat pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, a constant associate since the latter ‘60s on such Eurocentric projects as the Globe Unity Orchestra and a long-standing trio with drummer Paul Lovens, most recently documented on Gold Is Where You Find It [Intakt], had presented him with a handwritten folio of Monk tunes, transposed for saxophone, that also contained a drawing of Parker (Schlippenbach refers to his mild-mannered partner as “The Bishop of Faversham”) topped with a Bishop’s mitre,

“I’ve since got the official book, which Steve Lacy told me was accurate, and I’ve been trying to memorize them all as an homage to Steve,” Parker continued. “When I was here as a teenager I heard his School Days band at a Bleecker Street coffee shop called Phase 2. At the end of the first set, Steve said to the audience, which must have been five of us, ‘We’d like to remind you, ladies and gentlemen, that we play requests; the band will play any tune by Thelonious Monk.’ On his way back to the bandstand, I said, ‘Mr. Lacy, I’d love to hear “Four In One.”’ He said, “Uh-HUH”—and they played ‘Four In One’!

“Since then, it’s become almost a rite of passage to get to grips with those things, to play on the structures or just use them as study material. Monk had a very rigorous approach to constructing a line, a melody, which Steve distilled in his own work—systematic combinatorics of limited interval types in order to bring out their inherent characters. There are a thousand ways to define what we mean by a fourth, a major third, a minor third. The material goes beyond scales and arpeggios—the idea is to get it to fall under your fingers in a way that you’re not simply playing from the riff book. You have to hear your way through, know what is the underlying cliche and how to disguise it. I make the analogy with the armature in a sculpture. A sculptor might use a steel frame underneath to hold the clay in certain positions which otherwise it wouldn’t hold. But it’s not the armature that’s interesting. It’s the form of the clay. Without those things it’s just…formless might not be the word, but lacking in structural integrity.”

[BREAK]

The weekend after Parker left town, in an odd quirk of scheduling, the Abrons Center on Grand Street, a half-mile south of the Stone, hosted a two-day festival dedicated to the legacy of Incus Records, the label that Parker, Bailey and Tony Oxley co-founded in 1970. After Oxley departed a few years later, Parker and Bailey—who died in 2005—served as co-directors. They ran an efficient operation, producing some of the seminal documents of European free improvisation. They split on acrimonious terms in 1985, with Parker keeping possession of his own copyrights and master tapes. Since 2001, he has been bringing back into print—along with new material by himself and various associates—on Psi, his imprint, which now boasts a catalog of over 60 items.

“It functioned quite well for a while,” Parker said. “But it’s very hard for two people to agree about everything, and we didn’t agree about everything. In fact, towards the end, we didn’t agree about anything. I wasn’t happy being treated as though I was number-two in a situation where we should be equal. So I just thought the best thing to do would be to take my ball and go home.”

This was all Parker had to say about the rift. “Derek is no longer here to speak up for himself,” he said. However, George Lewis, who was close to both, offered some observations.

“Derek was a very forceful personality,” Lewis said. “He was a little curmudgeonly, very determined and single-minded. That attracted a lot of people. At the same time, uncompromising people like that tend to have very few friends, because people can’t handle it for long periods of time. But Evan seemed to be a person who could handle that, and was able to mold things that Derek did to his own requirements. Derek was very private; part of him would be very suspicious if he thought people liked it too much. Whereas I think Evan is more comfortable with being liked. Being loved, really—people love both these guys. They were together so much that when they finally stopped being together, it was wounding not only to them, but to the larger community.”

Parker was willing to discuss the ways in which his and Bailey’s respective personalities played out in their musical production, “Maybe the most crucial difference between Derek’s approach and mine is that I’m interested in a much more adaptive language, a much more flexible sense of musical persona,” he said. “The main job is to select the relevant material, much more of the material that I use to represent myself, the music masks that I use to play behind, or through, varies with the context than Derek’s. ‘Mask’ is a much more complicated idea than simply a disguise, something to hide behind.  Think of the way masks are used in African music ritual. The mask is a particular chosen projection of identity.”

Unlike Bailey and most of his contemporaries from the first generation of European experimental improvisers, Parker chose to embrace American jazz as a lineal, if often hidden influence. “It’s just where I come from,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I don’t know about Boulez and Stockhausen and Xenakis and all those other things. But in shaping the idea of personal direction, the point that Coltrane got to, especially in Interstellar Space, is a kind of defined place. Even the idea of kind of multi-linear approach to soprano is derived from thinking about certain things Coltrane was doing on the longer solos on “My Favorite Things,” where he’s sort of hinting at two lines and keeping two lines going. There’s an enormous lack of modesty involved in thinking you can do anything past that, and you have to be aware of this. But through practice and effort and concentration on what makes your direction YOUR direction, there are some corners left to work in.”

Told that Rothenberg had remarked on his “whirling” time feel, “with a pulse that tends to breathe in a kind of ebb-and-flow,” Parker described it as his “default mode,” citing not only “the work I had to do to play with John Stevens,” the British drummer with whom he made much music in the ‘60s and ‘70s (“it was a baptism of fire”), but also “the constellation” of the New York Art Quartet with John Tchicai and Milford Graves, Milford’s duo with Don Pullen, the Coltrane-Rashied Ali duos, the Jimmy Giuffre Trio. “These were the very last bits of concerted influence, where you feel, ‘Ok, these are the materials that I must learn to deal with,’” he said. “After that, it became essential to deal with what John Stevens was doing, what Derek, Paul Rutherford, Paul Lytton, Barry Guy, and all the people associated with that first generation of London-based free improvisers were doing.”

Parker’s simpatico for the American—or, more accurately, New York—context stems from the summers of 1962 and 1963 when, by dint of a free flight enabled by his father’s position with BOAC, the predecessor of British Airlines, he was able to see his musical heroes on their home turf. Ensconced in a YMCA on 34th Street, he bought records by day and haunted clubs and coffee houses at night. In addition to the aforementioned encounter with Lacy, he heard Eric Dolphy with Herbie Hancock at Birdland, Cecil Taylor’s trio with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray at Phase 2 on Bleecker Street, Carla Bley in duo with Gary Peacock.

“Coltrane was always out of town, so I didn’t hear him here, though I’d heard him in England in 1961,” Parker recalled. “But to hear Cecil Taylor before he came to Europe for the first time, to hear Dolphy and Herbie Hancock before Herbie went with Miles—I’m not going to forget those things. From that point, New York was the center of the world as far as the music I was interested in.”

[BREAK]

“I’m ready for a break,” Parker said at the beginning of February from his home in Kent, referencing his recent travels. Over a month or so of down time, he would work on “thinking about how to practice, practicing, organizing for the label and for events coming up.” Most important among the latter, he said, were several concerts with his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, a project that he has documented since 1997 on five ECM CDs, increasing the number of participants from six to 14 on the most recent iteration,  The Moment’s Energy, which includes Rothenberg on clarinets and shakuhachi, Peter Evans on trumpets, and Ko Ishikawa on sho, a reed-based Japanese mouth organ, an orchestra’s worth of real-time electronic processing vehicles. In distinction to the prior ECM dates, Parker used the studio as another instrument, remixing and realigning the  materials of the real-time version to construct a final document. It’s the latest development in Parker’s ongoing investigation of digital media as a tool to transcend the limits of what he can do with the saxophone.

“What works for a concert is not necessarily what works for a record to be played in people’s homes,” Parker said. “It’s partly to do with dynamic range, partly with what Manfred Eicher  calls dramaturgie. You don’t quite know the circumstances under which the record will be played. So the idea of modifying something in response to that is no longer a kind of heresy for me. It’s just part of the work, and if people want to discuss it and take positions for or against, well, that’s fine.”

For all the audaciousness and fire that he projects through his horn, Parker’s extraordinary chops have brought him trouble with members of the “avant-garde police,”  who have accused him of being a sort of overly technical, non-interactive Johnny-one-note more concerned with attaining individual transcendence than dialogic interaction. Bailey’s biographer Ben Watson, a doctrinaire Trotskyite, most memorably expressed this critique with the shit-sling, “the totalitarian afflatus of [Parker’s] technique steamrollers specific ambiance, turning his music into the kind of dependable commodity required by promoters and applauded by the general public.”

Lewis addressed this issue in a more nuanced way. “Derek liked to smash genres together, people from different traditions and practices,” he said. “Evan was starting to do this as well, but then he broke away from it. Now it’s reached a new level where he is content to be at the center of his own world than ever before; he’s found ways to make music that bears his stamp, music that’s him,  through the medium of improvisation. It’s not being an improviser that’s important. It’s what Evan’s music is.”

For Parker, who developed Anarcho-Socialist leanings during university days, philosophical materialism coexists in pragmatic equipoise with his investigations into the mysteries of shamanism, as he denotes with his label’s name.

“I juggle those things every day,” he said. “I’m very encouraged by current developments which are more related to finding consensus on the solution to specific problems, and less concerned with building an overarching ideology that purports to solve all problems at a stroke. Shamanism, by the way, is one of the ways that you can solve some of those small problems. It’s metaphysics, but it’s also practical. Spiritual is material, too. If you define materialism as to recognize the way things work, then we have to include psi phenomena, the things which physicists can’t explain.”

Parker himself found it difficult to explain the criteria he uses to decide what constitutes a successful performance, and what to release and not-release, either on his label or others. He had not yet found time to evaluate his massive output at the Stone, which was professionally recorded and line-mixed. “It would be crazy not to release some of it, but I want to make sure I do it properly.”

“It’s a total response,” he added. “It can be a good idea sometimes to wait a year or more before you listen, otherwise you just reinforce the memories of the struggle that was involved, which may affect your objectivity and not be at all important in the bigger picture. It’s easier to be positive about some solo thing that you feel came out well. Everything else is complicated about expectations about what other people may or may not do. All I can say is that if I think that the thing is a failure, I have no problem leaving it on the shelf.”

He remarked that he had worked for a decade on Time Lapse [Tzadik],  a critically acclaimed high-concept unaccompanied suite in which he juxtaposes unaccompanied and overdubbed solos, an endeavor he launched in 1991 with Process and Reality [FMP]. “I wanted to give John something special,” he said.  “I had to think and plan something that wouldn’t disappoint John, who I think of as a man with very high standards, both ethically and aesthetically,” Parker said. “It’s not that I would set out to disappoint anybody. But in John’s case, it’s a case of ‘Among roses, be a rose.’”

He added that he had taken similar care with House Full Of Floors,  his 2009 Tzadik release, on which Aleks Kolkowski, playing Stroh viola, cylinders, and musical saw, joins Parker, guitarist John Russell and bassist John Edwards on a pair of quartet  improvs—on the final track, the trio responds to a Kolkowski-generated wax cylinder of their playing.

“John proposed the New York event, and we negotiated the programming,” Parker said. They met in 1978, the year Parker first came to the U.S. professionally, doing 29 solo concerts in 33 days, and remained in touch ever since.

“It was a highly memorable two weeks,” he retrospected. “New York was always a special city for me, from its mythic origins to my first experiences there as a young man. Every time I come back, I get a feeling that I don’t get anywhere else in the world. There’s an incredible community of players to draw on. And John’s support for the venture allowed me to be among friends. The Stone is absolutely my kind of space, like a non-denominational chapel of music. There’s no frills. It’s a room where you can play some music and some people can come and listen.”

[---30---]

Leave a comment

Filed under Article, DownBeat, Evan Parker

A Conversation with Evan Parker and Thomas Struth

To conclude this evening’s program at the Vision Fest,  the sui generis English saxophonist Evan Parker will perform in duo with pianist Matthew Shipp. They began performing together four or five years ago (see Abbey Road Duos [Treader-2007]), and present an interesting matchup. (If memory serves, they last played together in NYC during Parker’s month-long Fall 2009 residency at the Stone; it was Thelonious Monk’s birthday, and, joined by William Parker, they played an informed 55-minute abstraction of “Shuffle Boil,” interpolated with other Monk fragments.)

To represent the occasion, I’d like to share an interview that I conducted with Parker and the German photographer Thomas Struth in February 2003, when Struth asked Parker to play a solo concert at the Metropolitan Museum to mark the opening of a 25-year  retrospective of his penetrating, multi-perspectival work. I pitched Jazziz on setting up a conversation with the two protagonists in an endeavor to find correspondences in their process and praxis. The conversation transpired in Struth’s suite in the Hotel Surrey, over Restaurant Boulud. I thought it was pretty wonderful, but for one reason or another, Jazziz decided not to run the piece. Eight years later, here’s the transcript.

* * * * *

Evan Parker-Thomas Struth (Ted Panken) – (Feb. 10, 2003):

TP:    Since you’re both traveling right now, and in New York, can you speak to the way that venue affects your process?—How Mr. Struth prepares either setting up the photograph or taking the picture, Mr. Parker’s preparations for the concert.

THOMAS STRUTH:  As you were talking, there was actually something else I was thinking.  The first time I heard Evan in Nimes, and what struck me most and what I see in relationship from my side listening to Evan’s music, is that it seems to me as something which is directed towards the future, or something which is using the past, in a way, and using other material or other experiences he has had, but then transforming into something which to me felt spontaneous, like a big enthusiasm or a big exhilaration of emotions in a rather charged way, which fits very well into the feeling of the moment, of this time.  If you take a stretched portion, not like today or tomorrow, but the end of the millennium… A force to go on or to find a kind of energy for tomorrow in a broader sense… That was my feeling about it.

To return to your question, it may be a little bit hard to explain.  Because in my case, as I go along and I meet certain people, then I collect impressions, I collect advice(?) or I collect phenomena that I see, not only around the world, but also in my apartment when I read the news or when I talk to friends, and say, “Have you heard that this or that happened…”  So it’s a constant experiment to get some things together which lead forward, in a way.  I mean, this may be in the most general sense: Something that you need to stay alive, or to stay actively alive, and to bring links or to link within your own world something like a network of several other people and several other places on the globe to make it feel more stable and more interesting and more energetic.

EVAN PARKER:  Several of the images in the catalogue are from New York.  Is that true?

THOMAS STRUTH:  That’s true.

EVAN PARKER:  I’ve certainly seen photographs of yours in New York.  And you spent a fairly long period, a year, and have made many visits over the last twenty-five years…

THOMAS STRUTH:  Yeah, I had one stay… When I was 23 years old, I got a scholarship from the academy where I studied in Dusseldorf to study in New York for six months, and I extended it for another three months.

TP:    Where did you stay?

THOMAS STRUTH:  I stayed in various locations.  With friends on Crosby Street, and then the Hotel Arlington on 25th Street, between 6th and Broadway, at $60 a week, bullet holes in the elevator door and stuff like that.

TP:    Evan, when did you first come to New York?

EVAN PARKER:  Well, in 1962, because of these famous free flights in connection with my father’s job.  So I came in ’62 and ’63 for about two weeks each time, and never left Manhattan.  I only went to record shops, art galleries and jazz clubs — book shops a little bit.

THOMAS STRUTH:  It’s very easy never to leave Manhattan.  When I was 23, I left Manhattan for the first time after six months, but only for a day’s trip to upstate New York in upstate New York, and then I came back.

TP:    Evan, you’ve said that the only thing that really affects you is the sound.  You close your eyes, go with the sound, and it takes you on your journey.

EVAN PARKER:  Yes.  I will have to listen to these recordings to see whether there’s anything else going on.  Because when I listen back to the solo concert that I gave nine years ago in New York… If you remember the solo concert with Anthony Braxton at the Greenwich House of music, when I listen back to that, it sounds fairly manic.  There is an energy.  That famous New York energy has come in, and maybe I’m doing a lot of things at twice the speed that I would normally do them, or would normally have done those things at that time.  So it was a significantly energized performance.  When I listen to the recording of this recent concert, I may have some similar observations.  But as far as it felt at the time, it felt like, yes, the main consideration is the acoustic, and then of course the response of the audience was very warm, and so I felt at ease and unpressured, so it may be slightly different from the previous situation.

TP:    Mr. Struth, this may be a naive question.  But does your process of seeing change… Apart from considerations of light… Well, maybe that’s part of it.  But do you see things differently in Tokyo or Shanghai or New York or Dusseldorf?

THOMAS STRUTH:  Well, the way of seeing I think stays the same, except for when I am starting on a new project, or I have an idea that needs to be visualized in front of my inner eye and I don’t know yet what it might become, and then I have to see something which I haven’t seen yet.  In that respect, it happens very often to me that when I come back to a place, like my own home town or New York, where I’ve photographed already a lot, then it seems I just reject to want to see something professionally.  In New York, it’s very hard for me to make a second guess or to make a second discovery.  For example, in New York, most of the pictures in which I am in the central perspective on the streets are from ’78, and then in ’92 I tried to do one street similar to that one, which I hate.  When I looked at it, it felt like imitating.  You can’t turn the clock back there.  Then I was very happy, in a way, to do that Times Square picture, which I did in ’99, and which happened because I’d been thinking and looking at Times Square for ten years or so.  So one day I thought I just have to take a camera down there, and see what’s possible in terms of angles and lenses.  Then I found the NASDAQ building, which wasn’t like a milestone, in views of buildings, where the building is an old building, but there’s a video screen.  So I liked that kind of intersection of one more intense historical moment.  Maybe in 25 years we’ll have another one hundred video screen buildings in Manhattan.  Who knows?

TP:    I think the picture was at 6:51 in the morning.

THOMAS STRUTH:  That’s right.

TP:    Evan Parker often has to play a concert, say, in Nimes, take a train somewhere else, go into a place without knowing it and just do the concert — react instantaneously.  For example, with the Times Square photograph, did you case it the day before, go there and come back the next morning?

THOMAS STRUTH:  Yes.  I went there like three or four days in a row.  I didn’t think of that location, but I was thinking of a more general Times Square view.  Which I did.  I did two or three other pictures with much more information actually in the frame and many more billboards, but they were kind of boring in the end, because they… You cannot represent the speed, in a way, in a photograph.  Even if you take something like this French photographer, Latigue, who photographed like the old racing cars in the early ’20s or so, somebody who some would say depicted speed… But you can’t do that.

TP:    Evan, is it helpful for you to know the room in which you are playing?  Does it make a difference?

EVAN PARKER:  The classic problem is that you get your chance to check the room before the audience arrives, and then when the audience is in, the sound is usually significantly different.  So unless it’s a very big, high ceiling, like a church or a cathedral or a very grand atrium somewhere…

THOMAS STRUTH:  Was it like that here, at the Met?

EVAN PARKER:  Not so much.   The bigger the space, the less obvious the effect.

THOMAS STRUTH:  For me, it was very striking sitting in the audience.  I think I’ve never heard a saxophone sound being transported to the audience with the reflection of wood… The whole side and the ceiling and the background of that stage is wood, and it has such a warm sound, almost like a woodwind instrument.

EVAN PARKER:  Yes.  It’s very funny, because when the plans were being made, I asked about what would the space be like, because if I’m not performing in the gallery situation… Which of course, would not be possible in the Metropolitan Museum.  But I didn’t know the internal arrangements there.  So I assumed it might be something like a lecture theater, such as they have at the British Museum and in different places.  I thought, well, that would be rather dry and difficult.  So I just asked, “Can I play in a resonant space?”  Then they explained that this place was rather purpose-built for music, was rather okay acoustically, and Itzhak Perlman had played there, so it should be okay.

[PAUSE FOR COFFEE AND MADELEINES FROM BOULUD DOWNSTAIRS]

TP:    I was asking Evan if he’d tailored your process in any way to meet the demands of your life as a traveling, troubadour type of musician.  I know that’s not the way it always is.  But is there any element of that?

EVAN PARKER:  Well, actually the solo music doesn’t really fit very well with the average situation where I play.  So I’m trying more and more to make sure that the places are appropriate, and not play solo in a dead room.  Because it can very quickly just… You listen to the sound of somebody working hard, but nothing happens.  Steve Lake said something about “the higher magic.”  When the higher magic comes in, then it goes to a different place.  And I would like always to be able to produce that euphoric circumstances.

THOMAS STRUTH:  Your music always makes me wonder about things like memory.  We spoke about that before, how when somebody plays like you play (and I guess I believe that you’re the only who plays like you play, as far as I know), on one side I’m always wondering, as you play, how you project what you would play, or do you have like a scheme also that you project into the future of the piece.  I always have the feeling that you don’t do that very much.

EVAN PARKER:  No.

THOMAS STRUTH:  And we talked about the memory backwards, of moving the imagination towards the next eight minutes or so, or the memory of the listener… I talked to somebody else about that after the concert, and I came to the word “surrender.”  The fascinating thing to me, listening to your music, is that the only way to really receive it is surrendering.  I talked to some other people, some people from the Goodman Gallery who I invited to come and talk about the concert, who have no idea or very little about jazz, and came.  They were all completely out of their minds.  They said, “We never heard anything like that!  This is totally great!”  They were very happy, in a way.

But the question for me would be what do you think, or what do you sort of pre-draw in your imagination as you play?

EVAN PARKER:  I don’t know what it is.  A lot of material is completely in the muscles and in the nervous system, and there’s no effort to control it.  There’s no effort to think especially.  There’s only a process of entering that room again, that place where that music is.  I open the door.  I can do almost anything to open the door.  But then the door is open, I’m in the room, and I’m looking around, almost like those “ars memoria” things you’re sort of hinting at, the old medieval system of memory with placing things in different… Going into a familiar location, and you’ve placed objects in memorable places, on the table, by the window, over there on the cupboard — and so on.  Then my attention wanders until it might light on some particular place.  Then I know roughly where I am.  Then I look at it again and see: Where is this?  What is this place about?  What is new?  What didn’t I find out the last time I was in this place?  And I stay there until something new happens or until SOMETHING happens, and takes me somewhere else.  I’m following.  Not really leading the music, but following it where it seems to be going.

It’s got something to do with memory and the future.  In fact, the next ECM record, with the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, is called Memory Vision, and then there’s a subtitle, Staring Into The Time Code.  So you’re onto something with that memory thing.  But it’s like memory and anticipation.  Vision in the sense of a vision of the future.  The fact that this place now is always “where are we now”… Of course, that’s the moment where the experience happens, or focuses.  But it has no meaning unless it’s about the past, and has no prospects unless it seems to talk about the future.

THOMAS STRUTH:  I think that the improvisation of music the way you do it is very unconscious.  It’s almost like looking at the unconscious, sitting in the first row… I found that very rare.

TP:    I was sitting in the first row, and I was watching your hands.  Your left hand was doing very different things than your right hand in a patterned way.  The right hand was very fleet and virtuosic and the right hand was percussive. So I was correlating your hand movements to the multiphonic lines in a way I hadn’t had a chance to do before.  I don’t know if that translates to a question. But there seems to be something ancient in the process, as though you’re using ancient fragments in a ritualistic sense, and then building them up unconsciously in the manner Mr. Struth is referring to.

EVAN PARKER:  I find a lot of correspondences with traditional musics, especially bagpipe music.  I think somebody mentioned the Scottish tradition, but also the Launeddas tradition of Sardinia.  It’s two melody pipes and a drone, so three separate pipes.  It must be a very ancient instrument.  Some people say that’s the aeolos as depicted on Greek vases from 1000 B.C. maybe, the oldest pictures of these kinds of instruments.  There the left hand-right hand thing is very specifically separated.  There’s a pipe for each hand and then a drone.  It’s not that I’m imitating Launeddas music, because I was well-established on a path of possibilities before I heard the Launeddas music.  But I feel an affinity with that kind of stuff.

TP:    In assimilating the music, did you get an idiomatic experience with it?  Do you need an idiomatic experience with these areas before incorporating them into your vocabulary and language?

EVAN PARKER:  Well, I’m not sure whether incorporation is the appropriate way of describing it.  Because usually, these musics are very, very much tied up with the absolute specifics of the construction of the instrument.  And of course, the simpler that construction is, the truer that probably will be.  The launeddas is just made from cane and a free reed, but the hole of the reed part of the mouthpiece is in the (?) cavity, and it’s the front end, the furthest away from you… It vibrates from that end, like this.  So the whole thing is inside the mouth.  Three of those reeds.  It’s quite a thing.  So the specifics of that produce a very particular music and a very particular sound.  Then the fact that the two hands each have a pipe of their own, and they play in different keys by changing the pipe.  So each launeddas player travels with almost an archer’s…

THOMAS STRUTH:  Ted, what you mentioned in observing Evan is also what I was observing.  I had the impression that you were playing two soprano saxophones at once, and even sometimes you can link what you see and what you hear, but certain lines that are only linked with the left hand and certain lines that are only linked with your right hand…

EVAN PARKER:  That’s how it works.  It’s a way of breaking the column in different… To have the column be long, then the right hand needs to be involved, but when the right hand is involved the left hand can still break the column.  That’s the whole basis of so-called multiphonics.  But multiphonics as a classical term only refers to vertical structures; not chords really, but some can approach the quality of a chord.  In the restaurant, they played the Coltrane record “Harmonique.”  An excellent choice.  So it was a reminder that Coltrane produced several rather consonant multiphonics.  But most multiphonics, by their nature, are rather dissonant, and that harshness for me is not always appropriate.  But if you can somehow rhythmically articulate different elements of that vertical structure by breaking the column rhythmically from right to left and so on.  It’s really like taking a vertical structure and spreading it, so that it takes on these stranded characters where you can listen to movement in maybe three different registers, two different registers… Maybe if everything is going really well, you can say arguably there are four registers there.  But if it gets to that point, then it’s like the centipede and how does the centipede know how to walk.

TP:    What you’re describing in a certain sense is how you project your voice into a machine or a construction or a technology.  And no photographer can express their vision without technology.  Can you talk about the various ways in which your vision depends on technology and the ways you work with it?

THOMAS STRUTH:  I think the apparatus I use is not so important except for the fact that it’s a large format negative and a large format camera, so anything between 4″-by-5″ and 8″-by-10″, and the possibilities of shifting of the lens and the negative level towards one another, and keep the vertical lines vertical and keep the perspective vertical.  But other than that, I think just the tool, which is very normal, and not of greater significance.

For example, sometimes amateur photographers or photographers ask me what kind of film do you use or what kind of lenses do you have.  And as a technician, I really feel like an amateur, in a way, that I learn it by doing it, and not so much by learning it from a technician.

But I feel a similarity in this character, to open the unconscious or to react when I just… When you photograph, it’s as much a matter of what you don’t photograph as what you photograph.  So as long as my eyes are open during the day, there might be anything that might interest me, and the difficult task is to say “no-no, no-no, no-no,” for five months, and then eventually you open your intellect or your memory or my heart in some way to just notice when something strikes me, and then put it into a certain order that makes it useful for what I want to talk about.  So I think that’s more the question.  Because I usually don’t photograph that much.  It can happen that I don’t take a picture for seven months or so.  just when there’s nothing to say or when I don’t…

EVAN PARKER:  But these various files, or themes, as it were — the street, the family, the jungle, the flowers, the museum, the churches, the exteriors of grand buildings, the interiors of grand buildings:  Do you keep each of those as a file that can be added to at any point?

THOMAS STRUTH:  Well, some of them. I believe the street is just such a fantastic location for me, and the family as well.  I think that I will always be interested in going back to the street and going back to the family subject.  Whereas, for example, with the flowers I feel that… There are something like 75 or 76 flower pictures that I’ve published, and that’s it.  My feeling is that was just one purpose, and that gave me the energy to do it, and that’s it.  Or the Paradises.  I have the feeling it’s a kind of statement about something, and maybe I have 25 like that now; there’s only a need maybe for another one or two or three, and that’s it.  Or the museum photographs.  I think that was a particular statement, and you could read a whole set of photographs as one piece.  With the Paradise, maybe I entered a new or deeper range of reflection about how people are or how I am.

TP:    In a way, you’re talking about a personal narrative.  When you speak of the various files, it’s as though you’ve constructed an ongoing story, just as in jazz people are said to be telling a story.  Evan, to what extent does that notion of narrative exist with you?

EVAN PARKER:  All I know is that I play until I reach a sense of completion, and that may be that there’s a narrative structure involved in that.  Somehow there must be a sense of…you arrive at a sense of completion inside a particular performance, but obviously leaving scope to come back to all of those things, and revisit them the next time you need to.  Maybe it’s a little like…you could see a parallel with Thomas saying, “I’m finished with…” I can think of one specific technical thing in my life where I’ve finished with it.  It’s very easy to describe.  There was a period when I used… It sounds very primitive, but it was actually quite controlled.  I was using my teeth on the reed in order to produce very high overtones.  This was especially from the Monoceros period and some years after that.  That way I could generate different sounds in a fairly resonant room; I could get low frequency things moving around reasonably under control.  I’m not saying that those things don’t happen any more, but they don’t happen in the obsessive way that they did when I first discovered the phenomenon.  So in a sense, that series is closed, that file is closed.  So there could be parallel.

Caroline and I were talking about what is this going to be about today, and I said: “I don’t know. I’m not trying to make life difficult for Ted, but I can’t always see any connection except there is some work there.  There’s a nice guy that I’m beginning to know better than when I first met him.  I thought he was a nice guy the first time I met him. Okay, great work.  Nice work.  Let’s hope some reasonable… Okay, so we have the basis for a friendship, but what can you say best?”

Caroline said, “Well, I wonder if he’ll touch on the fact that you’re both quite obsessive?”

TP:    Are you obsessive?

EVAN PARKER:  Well, there is this business of worrying away at things until something comes out.  I think maybe Thomas has got the same thing, that you worry away at a subject, and it constantly returns to the same kind of material.  Each return illuminates the previous.

THOMAS STRUTH:  That’s right.

EVAN PARKER:  So that the more the set unfolds, then the more correspondences and reflections you see between… “Oh, this is in Dusseldorf and this is in Naples.  Very strange.”  Or ‘this is in London.”  You become an expert on, you know, London in the ’70s or Dusseldorf in the ’70s.  None of these places exist any more in that way.  Times Square doesn’t exist in that way any more.  It’s a kind of archaeology.  But the obsessive collection of all of those things reveals facets from place to place, and correspondences and differences.  I can see an obsessive quality there, and if someone said, “Well, your stuff is okay but it drives me mad,” I could also understand that.

TP:    Of course, one could incorporate both responses to you given what time of day it is.

EVAN PARKER:  We saw Part 7 of the Frederick Rzewski piece.  He has an 8-hour piece called “The Road,” and he says he was thinking about certain kinds of Classical works which are intended primarily as an experience for the player, and they’re not primarily designed to be listened to by anyone else.  They’re very much about that connection between the player and something written down, and the experience of trying to interpret that.  But I found that very interesting to listen to, and almost a privileged kind of relationship to be allowed to listen to something that was so personal.

TP:    Are your processes that personal?  Is the fact that there’s an audience almost an accident?

THOMAS STRUTH:  I feel very strongly that if I wouldn’t invest a personal interest in my work, if nobody would look at it, or there wouldn’t be the energy in the pictures… Many people say they are so “zachtlich,” very neutral, but I don’t feel like that.  I feel there is a lot of emotion, and I feel if that part wasn’t in the pictures, nobody would look at it.  I often have the feeling when I meet people who know my work and I don’t know them… I have a tendency to ask “What do you do?”.  I ask the other people because I feel a priori that I have my pants down for a long time already for a long time!  So please give me a break and let me know who you are!

But that’s a very interesting question as well.  Because I think that’s all over in every art field.  All art works survive not only when there are not only personal investments in them, but also general humanitarian aspects.  Because if they are like that, then it’s only personal art.  It’s like a drawer who does these odd drawings, but it’s just like that person’s world doesn’t reach…it doesn’t allow it to go step into the tram and ride with the person for a couple of miles.

EVAN PARKER:  Another thing that occurred to me that I think we talked about: Thomas has almost colonized certain sets of visual experience.  So now you can look at something and think, “that would make a great Struth.”  We saw that coming up, looking down into the Whitney.  There was an opening down there, and then there was a loose grid of lightbulbs and a number of heads all looking in the same direction.  Then we thought, “Yeah, it’s a Struth.”  The same thing cropped up in the discussions about Paul Haines, that there’s a strong temptation to try to use words the way Paul Haines used words in his poetry and in his letters and all that.  It’s a mark of the auteur, and Thomas certainly has that.  And I hope that I have that, so it’s possible to say, “Ah, that sounds like Evan Parker” or “That looks like Thomas Struth.”

TP:    But the most obvious visual analogy of Thomas’ work to the shape of your lines and sounds are these later pictures, like the Tokyo Crossroads or the Uffizi or the Chinese Harbor, where there’s incredible, almost fractal sense of motion, everyone is moving in all different directions but there’s a certain unity to it. Just the density of the information and the flow of imagery.  Obviously, these are ineffable qualities, but I think one can state a relation.  Has there been a distinct move on your part in the past decade towards incorporating much more information?

THOMAS STRUTH:  Yes, I think so.  I was very fascinated, maybe sort of starting when I started to go to Asia, to Japan and China particularly, to include complex structures into one picture, and to increase the amount of narrative in one frame.  Sometimes also the opposite, like taking a landscape in Nevada just with a blue sky and flat rocks, sort of!  That’s the other end of the scale which interests me a lot, whether you can…even though these pictures might be, as images, pretty banal and having been seen very often, whether you can say something new about it, or whether you can transport the stillness of the imagery.  But you’re right, because there are certain…I’ve made milestone pictures for myself which are very full of information and very remplis.  It’s like a metaphor for excitement or obsession.

EVAN PARKER:  The Japanese and Chinese street scenes, not the street photographs, but the street scenes with people, activity and information.

TP:    And Tianenmen also.  Even though there aren’t that many people in it, there are so many layers of activity going on, it’s a wonderful metaphor for the social strata of the city.

EVAN PARKER:  I wanted to complete the idea of fractal replication.  The usual kind of parallels are branching forms or cloud forms or mountain forms or cliffscape forms.  These are the kind of things that we’re used to the idea of self-similarity in different levels of scale.  That’s what we think of as a fractal quality.  But when you come into those urban street scenes, especially at the level of graphics… The printed word can be six feet high, or it can be less than a millimeter high somewhere inside your wristwatch, and then on down into the detail in chips… The scale.  The fractal scaling of the urban landscape is just as evident, in a way, as in natural forms.

TP:    This may be another one of these overly general questions.  Do you see your music as an urban music?

EVAN PARKER:  Yes.  In fact, it sometimes feels rather strange to try and do it in the country for a few friends or something, which sometimes happens.  It’s not needed there.  Somehow, it’s needed in the urban situation, can do good work in the urban situation.  If you’re away from all of that, then somehow there’s no reason any more.

THOMAS STRUTH:  But what would you do then?  What would you rather do then?

EVAN PARKER:  [LAUGHS] No, I’m happy.

THOMAS STRUTH:  I look at someone like Steve Lacy, who plays solo saxophone, but has this rather slow…like sculptures and sort of rock garden, or these very slow movements… When you gave your little song, at the encore, it was so funny to hear him play…

TP:    Your wonderful landscapes and paradise photos notwithstanding, I get a feeling of you being very much a son of the city and having an unfailingly urban perspective.

THOMAS STRUTH:  That’s right.  For me, it took a long time… I was born in a city, I grew up in a city, and most of… [END OF TAPE SIDE] …it’s my feeling that the concept changed my idea of what life is about or what people are about.  So I think it’s a big perspective or reaction from cities…

TP:    I also get the sense from the files you discussed, or the broader typologies of your photographs, that there’s a constant process of learning how to be an existential human being in a city, how to deal with it, how to deal with the layers and layers within which you operate.

    A lot of musicians say that one difference between visual artists and musicians is that visual arts is a solitary experience — the artist in the studio with his canvas or in the darkroom with the negative and the print.  Music is a social experience — except, of course, when you play solo.  Is the process of music-making palpably different for you when there is company?

EVAN PARKER:  Well, especially when you’re improvising, if you’re playing with other people, then it’s a completely different activity than in playing solo.

TP:    In what way is it different?

EVAN PARKER:  Because there’s the work to find material that corresponds or interacts with those other players in an interesting way.  Playing solo, that whole issue is just not there in the work.  Then the thing becomes about, as I said, revisiting your own material and reconsidering it from trying to see stuff from a new angle or present it in a new light.  So it’s quite a different activity.

TP:    In any sense, do you think  that your most serious work is the solo work, or are they just different entities with different rules of engagement?

EVAN PARKER:  Well, I do believe that when you’re playing freely with other people, it helps if you know what they’re about, and if there’s a reason beyond the moment… If there’s a life in that relationship or in that set of relationships that underlines the group, that there is an ongoing discussion, as it were, or dialogue.  The idea of the ideal group improvisation being something that happens once and then you say goodbye, doesn’t make any sense at all.  Although, of course, every relationship has to start with the first hello, I’ve found it necessary to terminate some relationships fairly soon after they were started.  I’m trying to be wiser about all of those kind of things, and not to initiate new projects simply for the sake of working or keeping busy, but to have a reason behind it.

TP:    In one of the essays in the catalogue, the writer says: “Struth considers the specific historical, psychological, phenomenological and social conditions that structure the appearance and representation of his subjects,” which sounds a little like knowing who it is that you’re improvising with, and that “making a photograph is mostly a process of understanding people or cities and their historical or phenomenological connections,” which also speaks to what Evan was saying in relation to freely improvising with a partner.  Any comments?

THOMAS STRUTH:  Especially with the portraits, if I don’t have an idea who I’m looking at, or who is it that I’m looking at, then it’s very hard for me to judge when I see the picture is it something or is it nothing.

EVAN PARKER:  That’s it precisely.  You have nothing to judge it by.  A recording of an improvisation between people who have never played together before, there’s no point of reference.  It can be acceptable in a context, which has not to do with the specifics of any of those people’s work, but simply the background of the context.

THOMAS STRUTH:  That’s right.  For example, there is a book about some photographer… I don’t know who it is.  But somebody took family photographs around the world, maybe in the past two or three years, and then there’s a big book, and you go through… There are hundreds of families in the book from all nations.  Then they are actually very much like sort of the people looking into the camera.  It’s a family group.  But for me, when you look closely at the book, they’re just looking into the lens and smile, and it’s completely without meaning, in a way, because it’s mere superficial collection of these people.  I don’t mean to be arrogant, but you don’t know what to do with it.  It’s just like saying, “Okay, you have Campari, you have champagne, you have this-and-that, but what is it for?”  And you know and you sense that the photographer could never have connections with all these people.  It’s impossible.

TP:    So in a certain way, that social context comes forth through the negatives and the prints.

THOMAS STRUTH:  The lens.  Yes, absolutely.  It comes through the attitude.

TP:    And it becomes embodied in the sound waves.

EVAN PARKER:  I think so.  Yes, you get something like… There’s been an explosion of people interested in documenting their efforts at free improvisation, and some of it now is generic…you just have to call it generic free improvisation.  There’s for the moment no reason beyond that generic for it to exist.  Okay, that’s not to dismiss the problems involved in establishing a voice or having a reason or a set of motivations to play.  But it would be very remiss for me to underestimate those problems and the work needed in order to transcend the generic.  I think that also touches on something that Thomas was saying, and talking about… You know, this superficially seems to be the same thing.  It’s a family in front of the camera.  But actually, the more you know about the work involved in doing that, then the more you can see that this doesn’t have quite the same substance.

THOMAS STRUTH:  That’s the thing that interests me very much.  I find it kind of a task or a challenge, that I find someone to… I mean, the thing that people would tell when they look at photographs or movies, that they would be able to read more directly the attitude or the intention which is incorporated within the image and behind the surface.  Just look at it, and you feel…you see what you see just as information, but you also see the person who did it in a photograph.  And I feel that’s very important for music as well.  Because when you start to compare saxophone players or guitarists, or you listen to several people who play in a similar genre, then you’re in this attitude or this attitude, then that attitude…

Of course, because photography is all over the place, in newspapers and magazines and everywhere, it’s also more you’re seducing… Like, I spoke to somebody a few days ago that I’m struck that you get so used to seeing the retouched faces on magazines, that sometimes I wind up in a crowd of people in the evening, I see all these faces with their scars and their mistakes and that sort of thing, and you think why do all these people have this ugly skin… But that’s normal.  You get so used to seeing these retouched images.

EVAN PARKER:  Well, that corresponds to the highly edited classical recording.  These days a typical classical recording might have an edit once every 6 seconds, on average.

TP:    With Pro Tools it’s easy to do that.

EVAN PARKER:  Well, even before Pro Tools they were.  And that time is shrinking.  I don’t know what they’re looking for with that.  Fortunately, there are other tendencies as well.  There are warts-and-all kinds of labels.  But the very high profile kind of thing.  There daren’t be any hint of a mistake.  So even when you have the most fantastic players, there’s still this high level of editing and… I don’t know, maybe Glenn Gould is supposed to have been obsessive about that.  So I’m not sure what you’re listening to when you listen to Glenn Gould.  I often wonder whether he just said that that’s what he did, and the truth is that he wasn’t such an obsessive editor of his own work.  But certainly, knowing engineers that record in the Classical field, then this figure of every 6 seconds, every 10 seconds…

THOMAS STRUTH:  It’s amazing.

EVAN PARKER:  It’s an astonishing thing, that you’re listening to something that has no basis in any physical reality, except this mosaic of fragments, each of which is perfect.  It’s an idealization, in the same way that a retouched photograph of a model is, and then you see real faces and you think, “Oh, where have all those beautiful people gone?”

TP:    Are your photographs all done in the camera?

THOMAS STRUTH:  Yes, all of them.

TP:    So this image on the front of the catalogue was done in the camera.

THOMAS STRUTH:  That’s right.

TP:    So what Evan is talking about is similar to the process that you actually follow in executing your vision and putting it out there in a big museum show.

EVAN PARKER:  These are the rewards for persistence.  He is finding some parallels.  This is very interesting.

TP:    Well, I think we can actually end.  Well-done, both of you.

3 Comments

Filed under Evan Parker, Interview, Jazziz, Photography, Tenor Saxophone