Sergio Picirilli & Gerry Hemingway for El Intruso Magazine (published article)
Fall 2008 (reprinted here in English by permsission of El Intruso)
Sergio Picirilli - With regards to the concept of language, as a result of your participation in various and diverse projects over the past 20+ (actually 30 + ) years, do you view yourself as having acquired a number of musical languages or having continually extended and expanded a single musical language? (i.e., are you multi-lingual or in possession of a deep, broad vocabulary?).
Gerry Hemingway - The former primarily, though both descriptions have a place in describing a fundamental property of my musical offerings. From the beginning as a listener I remained curious and open to that part of the record store that was a mystery. It was not long before I could legitimately be considered an omnivore when it came to what interested me in the world of music. Perhaps what opened my ears more than anything was listening in the early seventies to a very broad range of 'folk' and 'indigenous' traditions of music from all over the world. I was so interested in this area of music that I sought out teachers in South Indian and West African drumming and started a radio show at the Yale University radio station devoted to this area of music. But it was also my early desire to be a musician who could pay his rent that led me to play commercial gigs of all varieties, and with it encounter the cultural conditions for which different musics function.
Just having an interest in many things and a willingness to learn the languages from any tradition seemed natural and neccessary for a commitment to music. I was inspired by those around me to explore a very broad sound vocabulary as a way to redefine my instrument's expressive capabilities. I took the time to take an inventory of this library I had developed around 1980 and from there developed some of the language areas I would explore in my solo work. Shortly therafter that process led me to zero in on limiting my orchestral choices in order to more fully develop each aspect of each instrument and or primary component (skin, wood, metal etc) in my arsenal. The choice to stay with a basic drumset plus a few addendae started in the late seventies when I realized the impracticalities of schlepping percussion equipment. From time to time however the inclusion of electronics in my setup would raise the bar on equipment needs.
Sergio Picirilli - From among the many gifted musicians you've played with, who has provided the most challenging environment and/or satisfying creative relationship? (Note: don't feel that you have to limit yourself to one musician. Another way of asking this question may be: Who have you learned the most from working with? What is it you've learned?)
Gerry Hemingway - Anthony Davis first offered challenges in learning to interpret original compositions. This extends to this day where I now regularly perform in his large scale opera and orchestral works. He and the experiences he created that I was a part of, inspired me to explore creating my own large scale (orchestral) works as well as extended composition. Leo Wadada Smith was an early inspiration, his Ahkreainventions redefined the way I heard rhythm and was aware of space. Of course the long relationship with Anthony Braxton was catalytic in many respects. Though Anthony's music was ceaselessly challenging, I was somehow ready for it from the very beginning. His languages, and that of many of his AACM colleagues was one I spoke by the time I joined the quartet, having been absorbed for over a decade with this wellspring of creative invention. Among many aspects, Anthony' concept of an emphasis on collective playing both in the compositional ingredients, often modular in their structure, mixed with a regard for individual soloing, often accapella was a model which I thrived in and in my own way employed in my own ensemble leadership. Each one of these great musicians taught through the experience of performing their music the value of complete commitment.
Sergio Picirilli - In "Improvisation: It's Nature and Practice in Music" improvising guitarist Derek Bailey includes the following quote from saxophonist/improviser/composer Steve Lacy: "I'm attracted to improvisation because of something I value. That is a freshness, a certain quality, which can only be obtained by improvisation, something you cannot possibly get from writing. It is something to do with the 'ledge'. Always being on the brink of the unknown and being prepared for the leap...If through that leap you find something then it has a value which I don't think can be found in any other way...What I write is to take you to the edge safely so that you can go out there and find this other stuff." I'm sure you've seen this before (although many El Intruso readers may have not) and am certain you may apply a similar philosophy to your own work. If so, are you capable of differentiating between your identity as an improviser and that as a composer? Why or why not?
Gerry Hemingway - Well I am capable of differentiating but I am also from a point of view in music that looks for an integrative outcome to these inter-related methodologies. I totally understand Steve's term 'the ledge', where the mental state of the player and listener feel truly in the moment. As I play pure improvised music in a number of settings I can relate that when its going well you feel as if you are guided to do what you do by some other force. The immediacy and interdependency of connectedness is a big piece of the discussion. When whomever you are improvising with and/or the ears that have come to witness invention are present, a player most often wishes to succeed in creating something worth listening to. A sense of tension ensues as hopefully a very acute sense of listening occurs along with the dance of initiation and reaction.
So what does composition have to so with all this? Firstly I would not be half the improvisor I am if I had not studied, explored, and developed composition to the degree that I have. We have discussed the term languages earliar, it is these languages that inform our choices as improvisors. The more we understand the capacity of structure forinstance the more we value the unique musical outcome that composition can provide. For me structure is a musical element inherent to composition, and one area often where open improvisation can not match the intellectual rigor of well crafted composition (though I would also be first to say that I have participated in improvised music that has extremely elegant structure - all depends on the chemistry and foreknowledge of who is playing).
Sergio Picirilli - As a follow-up (and hopefully precursor to some questions about composition), Mr. Bailey also relays an anecdote in which Mr. Lacy is approached by composer/improviser Frederic Rzewski and asked to "describe in 15 seconds the difference between composition and improvisation." Since this interview is being conducted via e-mail, I can't practically restrict you to a time limit (or spontaneity). However, in 40 words (or less) could you describe the difference between composition and improvisation?
Gerry Hemingway - alot of time crystalizing a music and its conditions from what one hears / hearing music in realtime and embracing its natural conditions
Sergio Picirilli - How do you perceive the relation between planning and spontaniety in improvisation?
Gerry Hemingway - as equally valid methods, seperate and combinable, at play in inventing any music of any quality. In other words, planning has a role as a methodology in making improvised music as does spontaniety.
Sergio Picirilli - Do you "practice" for an improvisation, and what are your general thoughts on the idea of "practicing" for improvisation?
Gerry Hemingway - The improvisor's art is an accumulative discipline. On the one hand all experience plays a role in shaping the resonance of what we improvise. On the other hand technical preparation can also involve sharpening the articulation of our expression, making deeper and more fluid engagement a possibility.
Sergio Picirilli - In your opinion, what are the biggest myths and misconceptions about improvisation? (i.e., this should be answered from both pro-improv and anti-improv perspectives).
That it's quality is governed by its rules, that it has no rules, that it cant have a groove, that it does not need harmony as a primary cohesive force.
Sergio Picirilli - How do you evaluate an improvisation?
Gerry Hemingway - primarily how engaging it is as an experience. That could be from the player's side and/or the audience side. Though a player by neccessity has to relinquish objectivity making their judgement conditional.
Sergio Picirilli - What is it, according to you, that makes one improvisation better than another?
Gerry Hemingway - The level of tension and concentration the music engenders in the ears present to witness and/or create the invention. Judgement of this effacacy is to varying degrees mitigated by a listener's ability to be present. I've also noticed that sometimes the player can not be the best judge of a music's success because their critical faculties are in a kind of state of suspension while in the act of playing. On the other hand the player has a kind of unique perspective. In my own experience I (as well with others I have played with who report that they as well) observe a heightened state of awareness that comes part and parcel with a sort of Zen state of receptivity or neutrality. This state has a quality, hard to define that gives one a kind of sixth sense of how things are going. Almost always if such a moment is recorded, playback confirms this sense of what is happening and what is not.
Sergio Picirilli - I've noticed the word "composer" used more and more in jazz. John Doe is a "saxophonist/composer", Richard Roe is a pianist/composer , etc.; you are referred to as a drummer/composer." Do you think this indicates some shift in attitude, a new respect for that part of the music?
Gerry Hemingway - respect for composition? I wasn't aware that composition was in need of additional respect!? Isnt the institution of Improvisation, which in reality doesnt exist, desiring credibility for its survival as an art form? Actually I am more concerned that the term composer is used far too liberally for people whose effort to organize sound lacks any rigor or depth. It seems to me everyone is a composer and that I think has a tendency to undermine the discipline of composition with less than worthy works.
Sergio Picirilli - Describe for me your compositional process. Do you feel your compositional process is it cognitive, emotional or is it intuitive?
Gerry Hemingway - Composition begins for me when I can hear in the silence something I would like to capture and share. Creating that idle space in the throes of other responsibilities is half the battle. I have become used to creating composition in tiny windows of work time I find often while travelling. My process varies, often employing different sensibilities before reaching a finalized state. After initial ideas and cells emerge sometimes when least expected the majority of the process is compositional craft that I have developed over time, coupled with enough time (my most precious commodity) to attend to the detail writing demands.
Sergio Picirilli - Let s go back in time Would you please tell the El Intruso readers about where you were born, raised, and what your earliest musical memories are? Did you feel that you had to be a musician for a family tradition?
Gerry Hemingway - I was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1955 as the 14th generation of Hemingway's based exclusively up to that point in New Haven. One wing of the same family broke off in the late 1800's and moved to the Chicago and delivered us the Hemingway everyone knows. It seems from very early on I really enjoyed listening to music. I can distictly remember getting my first 45's and spinning the radio dial to listen to music (the radio was - and still is - an important gateway to other culture for me). My Grandmother was a concert pianist in the early 1900's, was reviewed in the NY Times but submitted to socities norms and raised my father and his sister. My father was always very passionate about music. As a teenager he would pull out his mother's manuscripts, study them, and teach himself to compose music, writing four orchestral works starting at age 14. He eventually went to Yale University splitting his degree between business and music (his father railroaded him into following his life's path of banking - which he did as a profession albeit half-heartedly it seemed to me) studying with Paul Hindemith while at the University. He remained involved in music all his life, seeing/hearing just before his death his early orchestral works performed by the New Haven Symphony and the premiere of my first orchestral work with the Kansas City Symphony, "Terrains". My fondest memory of him is listening to music together, even though when younger I couldnt get with his passion about Bruckner. He and my mom were very tolerant of my musical interests which involved many trips when I was as young as twelve years old to see bands such as Hendrix, Cream, Butterfield Blues Band etc... I also sat with my Grandma many times after her husband passed watching the New Haven Symphony as she had a lifetime subscription and was treated with respect by the New Haven musical community. She contributed greatly to musical education in New Haven as well, being one of the founders of the Neighborhood Music school, which exists to this day.
Sergio Picirilli - How old were you when you got your first set of drums?
Gerry Hemingway - 11, prior to that I had to make due with a snare and a cymbal for a year before graduating to a full drum set. I still play this same drum set.
Sergio Picirilli - Do you consider the drums to be a physical extension of yourself or is it simply a tool? As follow up, is there a tactile pleasure for you while playing the drums? (i.e., in addition to the sonic qualities is there also a distinct satisfaction with regard to how the instrument physically reacts to you or vice versa?)
Gerry Hemingway - My attraction to the instrument was multisensory. The drummer two grades above me in grade school, Robert Golia had the absolutely coolest drum set and when he got the feature to play "Wipe Out" by the Ventures at the school assembly my life's path was stamped into my system. Drum sets, even the smell of them, were like being Odysseus drawn in by the the Sirens of Faiakes without any hope of avoidance. I have never lost this visceral connection to the instrument, it is part of who I am and I often feel most complete while playing it.
Sergio Picirilli - Are you always in control? Did you find yourself playing things you didn t expect?
Gerry Hemingway - it is a skill to be able to discover the unknown in that which you have developed so much control and finesse. It is mostly a matter of desire coupled with an open ear.
Sergio Picirilli - Please, update us on your most recent activities
Gerry Hemingway - http://www.gerryhemingway.com/news.html
Two new releases on my own Auricle Records label, duos with John Butcher (AUR-7) "Buffalo Pearl" and Thomas Lehn (AUR-8) "kinetics". Lots more recordings in the works, a new cd by the WHO trio (with Michel Wintsch & Baenz Oester) is due out soon on Clean Feed. Just released as well a trio Mauger with Rudresh Mahanthappa and Mark Dresser on Clean Feed. Have recently finished a new recording of duos with Ellery Eskelin, and also guitarist Terrence McManus. And I am working on a new solo recording as well. Doing a lot of teaching privately and also on the faculty of the New School in New York City where I teach World Music and Contemporary Jazz History as well as running an ensemble that is about process called "Sound in Time".
Sergio Picirilli - You've got so many things going on. Do you ever get tired?
Gerry Hemingway - Every day I am filled with energy to try to get on top of the many things there are to do. I never get it all done and consequently I rarely get the rest I really need. And I am a parent along with my remarkable wife Nancy of a 16 year old and that, for anyone who is a parent will understand, is very rewarding and often alot of work and sometimes a real challenge that can make the career of music look like a day at the beach.
Sergio Picirilli - To conclude: What is it that attracts you towards musical experimentation?
Gerry Hemingway - a belief that music and life depends on innovation for survival. It's the innovators I have always been most inspired by, their amazing determination is what makes life on this planet so worthwhile.