Europe and U.S.A.
i moved to berlin in february 1990. this came after several years of touring
back and forth across the united states in a van, playing at small clubs,
bars, non-places and getting in the process of all this movement very
very tired. hence the move to berlin. europe was not something new to
me at that time and, in fact, right before moving to berlin i had just
finished a 50-date tour of europe. it was just great to get out of the
united states, the reagan era and all that: total repression on a subtly
psychological level and, well, in general, bad vibes all around. berlin
was like a breath of fresh air. i moved to east berlin and immediately
got involved with the east german improvisers as well as checking out
the burgeoning techno scene, which was really kicking at that time: there
were clubs popping up everywhere; and not just mega raves, also small
storefronts where not more than fifty people fit. it was a great time,
a real sense of joy and urgency in the air--like something new and different
was finally happening.
i didn't get back to the united states for a few years, but when i did
i realised that i liked it again--especially los angeles, which when i
left, i absolutely loathed. i'm at the point now where i could easily
imagine living in the united states again--which may now be bad timing
in light of current political developments.
last summer i had a small tour in the united states, playing at a couple
of festivals and also some small clubs. i felt like the music scenes in
the cities i played in--chicago, san francisco, los angeles--were really
open, lots of cross-pollination between different factions (jazz, electro,
improvisers, etc). i miss this in europe, sometimes. in fact, the only
city in europe where i've recently experienced a similair approach is
vienna, though i'm sure this exists elsewhere and i'm just not aware of
in general, i would like to play more in the southern and eastern regions
of europe: italy, spain, portugal, greece, hungary, poland, etc. i feel
that the organisational structures in these regions are more flexible
than in central and northern europe, where everything is so regimentally
organised down to the last detail. chaos and uncertainty are also good
things (in the right doses, of course).
a few years back i played in istanbul with arnold dreyblatt's group «the
orchestra of excited strings.» it was so refreshing to play to an
audience which had no pre-conceived notions of what we were going to do;
and to see them react on a level which, as far as i could tell, was nearly
devoid of much of the intellectual excess baggage so often cluttering
up peoples' imaginations in western europe. david moss also played on
the festival and it was the first time seeing him perform--and i've seen
david perform many times--where no one clapped after he finished a piece:
nothing against david here! it was just that the people were maybe a bit
startled...but hey: he was great. and so i clapped and then everyone else
clapped. it took a small spark.
well, i like living in europe. there is a lot happeing here for the kind
of work i am doing--my music, installations, etc--but i miss the warmth
and friendliness of americans, which may sound like a stupid thing to
say in light of the current war in afghanistan; but on a personal, face-to-face
level i would have to say for me that it's definitely more groovey in
america. it's all a matter of reference, i guess. like a friend of mine
from berlin said, who was recently visiting the united states for the
first time: that continent is not for me!
the use of emerging technology has become a bigger and bigger part of
my work over the years. what is important for me, though, is that the
technology does not become the focus of my work. what i am interested
in is sound--organised and non-organised; not in the use of technology
to accomplish this. with what i do, i want the technology to be transparent.
i'm not interested in people getting distracted by the technology i am
using; i want them to concentrate on the sound, which may or may not be
determined by a certain software, hardware, etc. people often come up
to me after a concert and ask what software i am using, etc.--i can understand
their interest but, on the other hand, i think these sorts of questions
are totally irrelevent. technology is just a tool and in and of itself
does not determine for me what i do.
this also holds true in the realm of acoustic playing. i am a drummer
and for me what is important is not to dazzle people with fantastic playing
technique, but to do something which moves them emotionally, which maybe
transports them to another place--if only for a moment. all the years
of practicing on the drums seems so foreign to me now, though i can't
say that this was a waste of time--it wasn't--nor do i regret it. i am
only happy to say that all this practicing never became the focus of my
aesthetic as a musician. i was always more interested in the sound of
the drums and how their sound could transform the music which they were
being played in. one of the first times when i really "heard"
the drums, really thought, "wow, what a great sound" was ed
blackwell's playing on an eric dolphy record, live at the five spot (volume
1, i think)--because here i could actually hear the person on the drums,
their warmth and presence; and this lifted the music on the record to
another level for me. i was obsessed with blackwell's sound, and not merely
because of his sound, per se, but because of the musical joy it contained.
years later i had the great pleasure to meet blackwell and he was, as
a human being, exactly as the sound of his playing had led me to believe
he would be: warm and happy and kind.
Personal Sound Grammar
this is an unendingly interesting topic for me because i have often asked
myself, "where does my own musical syntax come from?" one critic
pointed out to me that one of my solo cds marked a certain influence from
my years (1994-99) playing in arnold dreyblatt's group--a music often
labeled "minimal." i thought about this a while and then one
day i came across an un-released solo recording of mine from 1990, which
was aesthetically very similair to the later solo cd this critic was referring
to. and then i began to think about how, as flannery o'connor once wrote,
everything which rises must converge--which is to say, at some point,
sooner or later, like minds meet, similair sound grammars, approaches--whatever
you want to call it--eventually come together. and still, i couldn't answer
for myself, or anyone else for that matter, where and how my aesthethic
has come about; especially when i think about the scattered and disparate
influences which have contributed to my sound approach. i've never consciously
worked on this--often i've come across a recording or heard a concert
where i've thought, "ah ha, that sounds like something i would do..."
and, of course, there is nothing else to say about this because ideas
are floating in the air, whether one believes in synchronicity or not.
and it is in fact a shock when you stumble across someone else doing something
which seems so familiar to you--as if you could have done that yourself.
the first time i heard a recording by z'ev i felt this way--not jealous
or robbed, as if to say, "oh i could've done that" or "he's
copying me" (how ludicrous to think that!) but more like "yeah!" and then come the goose bumps up and down your spine because that sound
is just so familiar, like a ghost kicking around somewhere in your house
calling out your name in your own voice...
i can say for a fact that as a teenager i only had one hero--actually,
i am not big on heroes but i am big on inspiration and this one friend
of mine, who i went to high school with, was very inspiring. one day he
just vanished. this was around 1975 or so. i didn't see him for around
six months and then he just re-appeared, as suddenly as he had vanished.
his hair was cut really short and he had some pomade in it to make it
spikey--this is a point to mention because, like i said, it was 1975 and
i was living in the san fernando valley, going to north hollywood high
school: popular teenager styles entailed long hair and interest in bands
like queen, peter frampton, steve miller and, at the better end of the
spectrum, led zeppelin (who i still like to hear! john bonham was one
of my favorite drummers), as well as large american cars with big tires
and engines, trips to the beach and drag racing--so, with short hair and
an earring! now, an earring may not sound so radical these days but let
me just say, this friend of mine, whose name i have in fact long ago forgotten,
was the only person i knew back then, and certainly the only person in
my school, with an earring. and he suffered for it, believe me.
so, where had he been? to london! and what had he done there? he'd played
bass in a band and hung out in the nascent punk scene. i just thought
this was the absolute coolest! there i was, some alienated kid stuck in
the flatlands of the san fernando valley: sun-baked, brutally monotonous.
and he'd been to london...! wow...the world had become a different place.
my education is a bit strange and, as i am wont to do, i have to laugh
at myself about it. after finishing high school i went to the university
of california at los angeles where i studied african history and music.
i spent three years at u.c.l.a. and then went to the university of london
for one year where i basically hung around in clubs and started playing
the drums. here too my formal musical education began with john taylor,
my first drum instructor and a very kind man. i went to him once a week
and spent the rest of the time playing in an abandoned basement kitchen
of the school cafeteria. this room's walls were completely covered in
tile and the sound was horrendous--really loud and brutal reverb. everything
always sounded like the big beat, like the ventures trapped in an echo
my informal musical education started a few years earlier and came to
me via radio. radio has as far back as i can remember been one of the
main conduits for musical information and revelation in my life. as a
child, i basically got introduced to music riding around los angeles in
my mother's car and listeing to am radio--the radio was always tuned to
khj, which played the top 40 charts. sitting in the car and listening
to music always brought the sounds into the context of the space we were
moving through: the light, the smell of the air, the sound of the tires
rolling across the ground. music became something which had a place for
me, ushered in an ambience. even today, some songs are irrevocably linked
to cetain spatial memories for me--and this all comes from growing up
with pop radio in a car city.
later, the radio brought me as a teenager my first big lessons in non-formal
musical education: punk. the first time i heard this music was on rodney
bingenheimer's show on station kroq. i had a similair feeling to when
my friend returned from london. it was like a revelation and the world
seemed to open up before me.
more non-formal musical education ensued in the clubs of los angeles,
where i started to go around 1978. there was so much happening and such
a wide variety of different groups to see that i found myself three or
four times a week going to a different show, and then when not going to
hear live music i hit the record stores. in london, too, i was primarily
sopping up musical resources in the form of club hopping and fanatical
back in los angeles, my history degree finished, i continued studying
the drums with billy moore, who had been something of an all-around, and
very successful (his gold rolls royce attested to this...) session drummer
in los angeles. two things i remember him saying: "there's a method
to my madness" and "stevie wonder will kick your ass on the
drums" (which is, of course, absolutely true...having recently heard
«inner visions» again). billy moore gave me more of what john
taylor had started in london, which is to say technique. i was interested
in jazz and improvisation but was mostly playing in rock bands, which
was also great. basically, i was just happy to be playing!
i soon found that the best education, the most to be learned, was not
when i had a lesson but when i just hung out with someone i found interesting,
be it a musician, an artist, writer, auto mechanic, whatever. i have learned
more about music from certain musicians without even once talking about
music with them--just hanging out. to feel how they approached life gave
me more insight into their music than if i'd read a whole book-length
interview with them.
i once published a short-lived (one issue!) literary journal in los angeles
and through this fell into correspondence with one of the writers who
i had published. his name was jesse bernstein. he often called me on the
phone and we talked about everything but literature--and from these calls
i learned so much more about his approach to writing than if i had read
all his books (which i think i had).
still, despite this knowledge i kept on furthering my formal musical education.
in berlin i studied arabic percussion for one year with syrien oud player
fahran sabbagh; and later i had a grant from the city of berlin to study
iranian percussion in paris with madjid khalaj. after this my formal musical
education had come to an end and since then i haven't had any more music
lessons--at least nothing taught to me in a course or by a teacher.
well, i assume here this means "musical" roots--which would
have to be pop music. i was born in new york city in 1960 and one of my
first musical memories is seeing the beatles perform on television. as
a toddler "i wanna hold your hand" was definitely on my hit
list and i had a girlfriend name "michelle," which, of course,
was another beatles song.
my family moved to los angeles when i was four. i grew up with the california
sound, which for me means light and airy music, thinly veiling some very
dark and foreboding emotions--i realised the latter only much later when
i developed a consciousness about what i was hearing (and was finally
able to understand the lyrics!), but in the beginning when the beach boys
sang about good vibrations or the mamas and poppas about mondays or dionne
warwick about san jose or glen campbell about galveston or or or or...well
those are my early roots. and to this day i still love this music and
listen to it sometimes.
my first big musical revelation after this came with punk and i guess
i could say that it was during these years (1976-1979) that i realised
what live music could be. what really impressed me about punk was the
negation of heroes--which, of course, became a farce when one looks back
now at all the heroes there actually were--and the disolution of barriers
between performer and audience. let's face it, at the first concert i
ever went to as a kid--yes touring on their «roundabout» album--there
was a distance between the group and the audience greater than the grand
canyon. i was sitting about a million light years away in the back of
the auditorium watching some ants move around on a garishly lit roger
dean stage--talk about alienating!
so punk was cool. i mean. anyone could get up on stage. and anyone could
play. even if they couldn't play, per se. which made it even better because
this meant playing music was suddenly in reach of everyone. the stadiums
collapsed--well, not really, but for a short time it seemed like they
didn't matter anymore.
the last of my roots, took root, so to speak, during my stay in berlin:
techno. for most people, i suppose, techno was about dancing and having
a party. well, i like to go dancing too, but what i also found when i
went to these clubs, and especially the smaller clubs like elektro, friseur,
panasonic, etc was that the music was in and of itself just great to listen
to. i have always been a great fan of american minimal music--steve reich,
tony conrad, la monte young, terry riley, charlemagne palestine, just
to name a few--and for me techno had a lot of the same qualities. what
i particularly found great was the repetition--a loop could go on forever
and there was nothing strange about it; in fact, often the longer it went
on the groovier things became and the more tension there was in the music.
for me it just seemed like the perfect blend of many elements which i
had really only encountered before in some ethnic musics and american
minimalists. plus it rocked!
i'd have to say that sound and literature have always been more determining
factors in my life than visual art, though there is one experience which
stands out and which for me was a real turning point in how i perceived
i was living in london and one day went to the tate gallery. i don't know
how it is now there, but at that time they had one room where only paintings
from mark rothko were hanging. i went into this room and i instantly entered
another state of consciousness. ok, ok, i know this sounds very romantic
and probably exaggerated, but in truth i immediately felt so calm and
so sad, to the point that i started to cry. and this was for me a strange
experience, because normally sadness is not paired with being calm. but
there i was, feeling really soothed but crying all the same. these were
the big works of rothko where fields of color appear to hover in front
of the canvas. i sat down on a bench in the middle of the room. the paintings
seemed to wash over me and i felt swept away in the dark hues he had used.
i don't know how long i sat there, but when i got up i had to leave the
gallery. i couldn't imagine looking at any more «art» for
that day, and, in fact, for a long time after this i didn't go to any
more galleries or museums. i guess, in a way i didn't want to corrupt
this experience, this memory...
An Enlightening Piece of Music
well, this is certainly a tough one, and i picked it...i will have to
choose the first experiences which come to mind, for if i sit here and
sift through all my memories i will never write anything...
there is a live album of the velvet underground, «live 1969»
where mo tucker is still the drummer. on the song "rock and roll"
tucker does something very simple at the end, switching from ride cymbal
to cow bell. the cow bell is high pitched and much more percussive than
the ride cymbal, which naturally tends to wash out a bit acoustically
in the midst of all the guitars chugging away. playing the cowbell seems
to pull everyone in the group together and give the music a focus which
it hadn't achieved through the rest of the song. her gesture is so simple,
just changing from one playing surface to another, but in doing this she
transforms the whole sound of the group and, as steve lacy puts it, «raises
the bandstand.» it may seem mundane to say this here, but in this
song mo tucker vividly showed me how even the simplest alteration in one's
playing can affect great changes in the music.
another piece of music, or rather here, piece of experience in music,
would have to be an al green concert i saw in 1987. i am a huge al green
fan, even if i haven't heard much of his music now for many years; but
even taking this into consideration, i would never have been prepared
for what transpired at this concert. this was his «comeback»
tour and he had--ostensibly--renounced secular music and was devoting
his concert program to gospel pieces. well, after his set he came back
to the stage for an encore. and what did he sing? «let's stay together.» the effect was tremendous. i have never experienced such a wave of goose
bumps move across my body. it was as if i had become one giant goose bump.
something akin to a surge of electricity moved through the auditorium--around
1000 people were there--and i literally felt my hair stand on end. women
rushed to the stage and began throwing all manner of clothing at green:
bras, panties, blouses...and flowers. loads of flowers. body guards in
front of the stage had to push the women back. it was like a riot. never
before had i experienced the power of music, of sound so strongly, so
clearly and so beautifully.
in 1989 i was on tour in europe and playing a concert in zürich.
there was nothing special about the evening up to the point our concert
began, and even as we played there seemed nothing out of the ordinary
going on: just another concert, not bad, groovey...but nothing ground
breaking either. a good time. there was one piece in our set where, in
james brown's words, «they gave the drummer some,» which meant
i had a solo. actually, i am not one for drum solos, unless, of course,
the solos are pieces (like the solo cd of acoustic drumming i did), but
in the context of the group i was playing with, a drum solo seemed to
fit in and so i was playing solos, night after night. this night was something
different, though. as i went into the solo i blacked out, which is to
say i disappeared from my own consciousness--i had the feeling that i
was floating above my drumset, looking down on myself. and then, as suddenly
as i went away, i was there again, leading the band back into the song.
after the concert everyone in the group was coming up to me, saying how
great the solo was, how they hadn't heard me play anything like that before,
etc. and i couldn't remember any of it--not one bit of what i played.
i know that otomo yoshihide talks about music without memory; and i'm
sure he is referring to something else. but for me, this was my music
without memory; and it demonstrated to me that what lies in the unconsciousness,
what is devoid of our bag of tricks and clichés is so much richer
and truer to ourselves and what we really want to express as musicians
(or artists, whatever). i felt sad, in a way, because i had tapped into
something and i had no way of knowing how to return. it was like i went
through a portal and now that portal was gone. memory of what i did was
also gone (or was never there), but what remained was something more akin
to a residue of memory--the recollection of a feeling, of an event which
resides not in our consciousness but perhaps only in our dreams.
the last enlightenment or, maybe better stated, epiphany was the first
time i played a concert with the orchestra of excited strings. this was
in prague in 1994. up till the time we actually went on stage for this
concert we had only been rehearsing, and not with a very good p.a., either.
the sound check before the concert was like our rehearsals--good but not
exactly rocking. everyone was trying to save their energy for the concert
that evening. with the first piece of the performace i was absolutely
thunder struck: the power of the music was immense; this had nothing to
due with volume--though we didn't exactly play softly--but more, i think,
with the tuning system arnold was using (just intonation) and the confluence
of all the upper partials and different timbres. sounds appeared which
weren't being played: sirens, wind, bells, high whistling--all from the
mixing of different tones, incidental to the actual notes being played.
it was truly psychedelic and really moving. i felt like i was spinning
around in a tornado of sound, rising higher and higher above a dense cloud
of surging overtones. unforgettable!
what can i say about it? error. what could be more important? i mean,
getting it "right" is certainly an issue, something to be considered
and not a bad thing in and of itself. but often getting it right is built
upon a road of errors. not to say that i seek errors--this would be beside
the point; and, anyways, the more one seeks the less one finds. when an
error arises, especially in the context of music and sound investigation,
i am more often than not pleased that it has happened: and this encompasses
everything from malfunctioning software to being injured and trying to
play despite of it. the latter is actually a good case in point, which,
strictly speaking, isn't necessarily an error but it is certainly something
unexpected happening (and it certainly was an error which led to me injuring
i was in tokyo recording with toshimaru nakamura for the second repeat
cd. one week before i had had an accident and completly ripped up the
ligaments in my left ankle. the end result was i couldn't play the hi-hat.
i was lopsided, so to speak. my balance as a drummer has a lot to do with
having two active feet on the ground--and in this case it was just one.
it has been said that necessity is the mother of invention and on this
day truer words had never been spoken. i ended up playing in a much simpler,
refined fashion than i otherwise would have. the strange thing was, at
the time of recording i wasn't really pleased with my playing. i felt
compromised by my perceived limitations.
it wasn't until a couple of months later, when i received a mix of the
session from toshi, that i heard the music for what it was: great! at
the time of our recording, disappointment clouded my perception of the
music. in fact, i had relegated the session to write-off status. but when
i heard the mix months later...wow! it really opened me up to thinking
about my playing in a new way. and to this day repeat's second cd («temporary
contemporary») is one of my all-time favorites. but what a price
to pay...it took over a year for my ankle to fully heal.