GERRY HEMINGWAY interview with Elia Moreti - published in Musica Jazz (May 2015)
The interview took place 19th december 2014, in Lecco, Italy
see the publised interview (in Italian) here
below is the full interview not all of which is in the publised article
The theme of this interview is “kernelings” and your solo work.
“kernelings” documents where I find myself currently as a solo artist; a central path of my work that began in 1974, just over 40 years ago. It also represents an expansion of my expression with the inclusion of my visual art along with my music.
You have been developing your solo projects since the '70s. Are you satisfied with the outcome of your long research?
I am only maybe temporarily satisfied; at least for me restlessness ensues usually within a short time after the completion of any major project. The long journey I have taken so far with solo work has been a strong theme among many artistic pursuits. The solo platform has traditionally been the musical area where I can most clearly identify and refine my central goals as an artist. One aspect is that, by it’s nature, it offers a journey of self-discovery, because it's just you and you have to come to an understanding of who are you musically and in other ways. As well, I often evaluate seriously why anybody would want to listen to my banging away on the “tubs” which, in my opinion, is an important question to ask one’s self. These two reflective processes are at play with each other.
It continues to be an interesting challenge for me to be able to enter and explore a musical situation that by it’s nature, draws a very transparent, you could even say, naked picture of who you are. When I was first listening to Wadada “Leo” Smith perform solo concerts in New Haven (where I grew up and where we first met), was when I discovered for myself that solo performance was a wonderful vehicle for both performer and listener. Listening to his concerts was a profound experience, powerful in part because it is a one on one thing, a very direct and intimate form of communication. Through the years I've been fortunate to hear many different solo performances. I'm not just talking about the musical area that I am personally developing. I'm also talking about classical virtuoso, musicians somewhere in the world playing an instrument by themselves in the street for instance. Musical experiences like these are very special to me, partially on account of this one on one dynamic. So I keep returning to this musical platform. A way of checking in with myself one could say.
Did you meet any other mentor as important as Wadada Leo Smith during the last forty years?
Wadada was certainly one of the more significant influences. I heard Oliver Lake solo very shortly after hearing Leo for the first time and this was also outstanding to me. I didn't really hear many drummers in these earlier years (1972-79) when I lived in New Haven, Connecticut. Though I did hear Max Roach give a solo concert, but then I was already aware of his solo pieces from recordings. I also listened to Papa Jo Jones do a solo performance in the mid-seventies. As my interest grew in solo performing I sought out anyone and everyone doing solo drums. I found recordings of Pierre Favre for example, as well Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille. I was and still am an avid collector of music, I even found the 10” LP of Baby Dodds “Talking and Playing Drums” on Folkways Records. I studied all these performances and recordings to gain an understanding of what had been done so far with my instrument. I strongly believe in being well informed. And I was part of community that was exploring solo music from many points of view, George Lewis’ Sackville recording for example, of course there was Anthony Braxton whose solos influenced so many of us interested in this area. In fact the solo composer/performer was a very hot topic in the late sixties, early seventies. I arrived in this musical scene in the early seventies. Braxton’s “For Alto” solo recording is from 1968, all this activity around solo music was happening fairly close together. I jumped on that bus, so to speak, I thought, “now this is an interesting ride.”
“kernelings”, released in 2014, is a collection of your solo work from 1995 to 2012, meaning a long process of creation: formal pieces, improvisation (something you never had presented on recording in a solo context), acoustic and electroacoustic music (sampling and triggering) plus a dvd with visual film art that you shot and edited all by yourself.
There is a part of me I put aside, that I touched once in a while in my creative life. I could have easily gone towards film earlier in my life, instead of music. I'm coming back to this visual art side of my interests more and more. I had a concept about the making of the film, more or less in the same world as my solo music. That said, the film is not about the solo music, like a documentary presentation. Rather the thinking behind the visual ideas I was able to realize in this film are related to the thinking in much of my solo music.
The dvd additionally offers a documentation of one solo work for cymbal, and as well it includes a multimedia piece I did thirty years ago to give a historical perspective.
Your way of expression is quite abstract.
I suppose when I use the word ‘film’ as the vehicle of my visual expression it may conjure a more narrative format for some people reading this. But that's why I also say it's a piece of visual art, and for me it works in some of the same “abstract” ways that we might relate to music as a listener.
It looks like there is a sort of dramaturgy in “kernelings” production as a whole. Is there any concrete thread in your poetic?
That’s an interesting question. To speak on the one hand to the solo work performances on the CD, I would say there is a bit of a thread in respect to the fact that I took a lot of care to arrive at a “story-like” kind of order to the recordings presented on the disc. For any recording I have made, sequencing the pieces is very important. It's similar to put together a concert program. So in this way I can relate to your choice of the word ‘thread’. I do care for the linear experience of the listener by weaving a kind of dramaturgy, like the movement flow of a modern dance for instance.
The visual art and the music complement each other. The visual art I'm presenting reflects what I'm thinking musically. Some people are more visually oriented and some people are more auditory, I thought it would be interesting for people to see something that visually reflects the way I hear. It was also a central interest in the formation of this production to offer a richer, deeper experience to my audience. The piece “kernelings” is one long (54 minute) piece in four sections structured almost like movements of a symphony or chapters of a book. It's complex and multi-layered in it’s design. To me, the creative process was very akin to my previous experience in making electronic music, examples of which you can hear on earlier recordings including the first LP Solo Works (the piece for analog tape on that LP is called “The Dawntreader”).
About electronic music, you often work with preordained (sampled or “tape” material), live processing and/or midi controllers. In Hymn Away some timbres, at least,remind me of Detroit techno music, of authors like Jeff Mills or Juan Atkins. Do you have any reference point in this context?
Not particularly in reference to this piece. Hymn Away is an elegy for my father who had just passed away when I composed the work and the theme of resonance was on my mind. When you hit the drums, it rings for a while, that's because the heads go up and down and there is the shell of the drum that's ‘holding” the vibrations as it fades away. This ‘holding’ of the vibrations could be seen as an analogy for memory. My concept in a way was to recall the memory of my departed father, who himself was involved in music all his life (though it was not his profession). Among other things I have many memories of him playing Bach on the organ (hence the double meaning of “Hymn and “Him”). Indeed memory is much like resonance in this way. The samples I developed for this piece sound very close to the regular acoustic drums, I strike both the sampler and the drums often at the same time. Perhaps this could equate to relationship, one being a part of another, such as a child who is part of a parent.
Which are your influences in electronic music?
I had an experience when I was very young hearing an electro-acoustic work of Luciano Berio, that was hugely influential in birthing my interest in electronic music. Of course I didn't know who Berio was at that time. My brother played the seminal work “Visage” by Berio to me and my family with the lights off and the fire place quietly flickering. For twenty minutes I took a trip with Cathy Barberian vocalizing away with Berio’s concréte & oscillatated concoctions. It was my first experience of having what I call a “transportive” experience in music listening, that is to say that I don't think I knew where I was when the piece was going on. I think I was taken somewhere. What a gift that was!
Shortly after, when I was twelve or thirteen years old I found myself playing around with reel-to-reel tape machines. My dad had a Wollensak tape recorder as well as some other tape machines, which I would experiment with, often putting the machines together with tape going from one to the other (to create tape delay). The interesting thing about this experiment is that I didn't know that this had already been done somewhere by somebody who knew what they were doing. I was just experimenting with these ideas and having fun.
I grew up surrounded by the psychedelic era, which was in full swing by the late sixties. Both of my brothers, who are 7 & 10 years older than me, were fully involved in this “Woodstock” generation, and so I was intrigued and inspired by them, their interests, and all that went along with this dynamic era, particularly the music. There was, for instance, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters who were early pioneers in multimedia experiences, often referred to as “be-ins”. Mostly though I was inspired by musique concréte, many of the greatest practitioners of which were Italian by the way. Then again there was also Stockhausen, and later the West Coast analog synthesis scene with composers like Morton Subotnik. I was super-excited about this music, and eventually I found myself in the Yale University electronic music studio when I was seventeen and eighteen years old, I made a friend who happened to be a student there, and there we worked with this giant Arp 2600, a massive analogue synthesizer with thousands of control voltage ports as well as 6 or 7 high quality Ampex reel to reel tape machines. I was in heaven, to say the least. So as you see, electronic music followed me the whole way in my musical life, pretty much as soon as I was playing drums I was curious about this form of music and technology.
The DVD also contain an interview, where you say that nature is an important resource for your poetry, creativity and imagination. How did Swiss nature and landscape affect you in the last years since you moved from the US?
I grew up in a rural environment, a suburb of New Haven, Connecticut, which at that time was surrounded by trees and woods. Before I moved to Switzerland I spent time as often as I could in nature, even though the majority of my life was an urban experience. I can recall being once on an island in Lake Huron and walking very late at night by myself and sitting and just listening the wind blowing through the trees and clattering the branches. These kinds of experiences were one of many musical inspirations or models for rhythmic, timbral and sonic organization in my music. In Switzerland I have nature in remarkable abundance and as well I live now very close to it in the city of Luzern. Moving there did affect as well as provide some of the content of my film. Much of my imagery came from my local environment of the past five years in Switzerland, though I had been filming all over the world for 10 years before my move to Switzerland.
You're a multi-instrumentalist.
If you look at my whole discography you will notice that I play melodic instruments on almost half of the recordings I've made, so yes although I am known as a drummer, I am in fact more like a percussionist. I have played some classical music in my career, playing in operas, symphonic works, through-composed chamber music, I did all kinds of challenging things as an interpreter of written music. However I have no formal classical training. I am completely self-taught on concert percussion.
Even if you're a multi-instrumentalist, in Solo Works you just play the drum set. Is there a specific reason for this choice?
I have recorded a couple of marimba pieces in the past, but I wasn't really satisfied with them. However more recently my mallet playing does show up in the film of “kernelings”. I certainly considered using mallet instruments in my solo music but I had enough to do on the drum set. It’s also a conscious decision to be consistent in the presentation of my instrument and also the evolution of the language I have developed for it. The language aspect of my drum music has deepened and refined over time, and part of that process has been my relationship to pitch oriented playing on instruments and in general.
To me May Bell recalls Javanese gamelan, while Ohwhoshegoshesay sounds like a West African song. How is your music affected by the music of other cultures?
I think it's a very understandable association you're making. I am informed and inspired by many cultures of music from many places and from many different historical periods for which I have collected documentation. Both of the pieces you mentioned are improvised pieces, so they were invented with no preordained reference. But I think any improviser and composer draws often and continually from the resources they have encountered along the path of musical research. Resources I have assimilated enrich my possibilities as a musician, so I'm sure I touch many, many things that might echo things a listener is familiar with. In the case of the Chick Webb solo, we know the direct reference. We know who I'm celebrating in my piece. It doesn't intentionally try to sound like Chick Webb. It's my way of wearing his clothing on my body so to speak, and I explore his traditions and language in my own unique way.
So you're an omnivorous listener because you want to be affected by other musics you listen to?
I believe you are affected by everything you listen to. One listens to lots of thing and you might not like some of it or you might have a variety of reactions. On the one hand we have the memory of these things and we have also what we thought about them and that also informs are decisions as musicians, our critical thinking. I do feel enriched by these sonic gifts I've encountered along the way.
You honor Chick Webb, while in the previous “Acoustic Solowork 1983-95” the piece For Buhaina is dedicated to the memory of Art Blakey.
That was a spontaneous solo that happened during a concert few days after Boo-Boo departed the planet. I saw him many times, as well I also met him on one occasion. I was lucky enough to have seen many of the masters at different points in my life. I am so grateful for how many I saw in person. OK I was too young to see Chick Webb, but I saw Jo Jones, Cozy Cole, Tony Williams, Philly Jo, Grady Tate, John Bonham, Clyde Stubblefield, so many great players. I sat next to Elvin Jones in a recording session, and as a teenager sat close enough in Slugs to feel the spray of his sweat as he churned out the most ferocious of swing. I just took this information in first hand. It was very important to me, and I made every effort to seek it out. My era was a fortunate one, because I was able to catch many of the previous generation before they were gone.
How do you relate to the relatively short history of the drum set?
I decided in my very first solo concert to pick four key innovators in solo drumming, people who innovated my instrument in the direction of being an instrument that could be called a solo instrument. You know the drums up to a certain point had really only this functional purpose of creating the foundation for musical invention and nobody really considered it a solo instrument. Piano, we consider it a solo instrument, guitar, we consider it a solo instrument, but in the era where I was coming up, saxophone, trumpet and other instruments were only beginning to break new ground as solo instruments and, as I said before, I got on that train. Chick Webb was one of the very first to solo in performance, he's very significant in this respect. So I picked him as a dedication on my first solo concert in 1974.
Who are the other three?
After Chick Webb, I did Max Roach, then Sunny Murray and finally Tony Williams. Those are the four I picked. I mean it's slightly arbitrary because there are other innovators of course, or you could argue that Max is less an innovator then Kenny Clarke. Indeed Kenny Clarke was really a ground-breaker, he was the guy who changed the nature of the drummer’s role from swing to bebop and he suffered for it, losing his steady work as a swing drummer. Innovation was never easy in a culture where there were very strict rules. Max Roach however innovated the art of solo drumming in the context of his band and eventually presenting solo concerts. He looms large in the history, and he certainly had a huge impact on me.
Sunny Murray was maybe less significant as a soloist but his innovation of letting go of the time keeping function all together is a huge milestone in the history of drumming. Sunny had a massive impact on the future of drumming and the role of the drummer in an ensemble. Because he did things that were outside the loop of what was acceptable for his instrument he had to have a strong conviction as his art was often not appreciated or understood at the time.
Tony Williams basically redesigned the tonality of possibility for the instrument. He combined many previous innovations, for instance he played “free”, even as he played in time, he reinvented how time playing could be thought of and he changed many things about the instrument including establishing a new set of technical standards.
Which are your expectations about the future of the drum set?
I wish to emphasize the artistry solo drumming. It becomes an area of concentration in my teaching of many students. A lot of my students play the instrument really well. They can do amazing things, sometimes even things I can’t do, but when they come to the solo, it's shows possibility but often falls short of expressing what I know is inside these players.
I take it as role both as a teacher and an artist to further this tradition of expression on my own instrument by continuing to produce solo recordings like ‘kernelings”. I feel like there's still a lot to do. For me it becomes a longer, slower and more thoughtful process than it was many years ago, and even then it took years of work and refinement to arrive at a publication. Now it seems to have become an even longer distillation process in locating the essence of what I want to say.
With this solo CD of ‘kernelings” I was trying to find a way to make a solo drum record that people would listen to more than once. It's also a general goal of mine for making any CD. But in the case of ‘kernelings” I was attempting to create something akin to songs for drums.
In recent years I sing more with my voice. I have started to sing traditional songs, with lyric, exploring my natural voice and my capacity as a singer. I'm slowly gathering up the capacity and courage to perform these songs more and more. It has become a part of my solo programming. I accompany myself with a sampler. I like the direct nature of singing and I see it as a part of the way I play as a drummer as well.
In 2002 you already explored this topic, the album Songs you produced with a very interesting ensemble, contained music and lyrics by you. Very good indeed, in my opinion.
I am glad to hear you enjoyed it, that was my first attempt of writing and producing songs, and I think eventually I'll go back to writing more. Right now though I'm singing songs by other people, instead of my own, partly as an explorative process, I'll eventually go back to writing more. Perhaps I am slowly moving towards being a singer/songwriter !
For now I just want to get to know my own (vocal) voice better. In being a musician there's a lot of self-discovery, or self-reflection and investigation. One peels off layers of one’s self as a process of getting further in touch with who we are amidst all we know.
You say that in kernelings you improvise some of the pieces. And you note that in previous solo recordings you only used compositions. My feeling is that you improvise with a strong formal structure in your mind, exactly as if you're composing in that moment. Can we call it instant composing? When you say you have these formal pieces, how does that differentiate from the improvised works?
I often stumbled upon the beginnings of my formal pieces, through my explorations and experiments as an improviser. I slowly assembled these threads into pieces that had formal structures. In other words they became pieces that I could repeat refining a structure that's more or less the same each time. The pieces where I just play something off the top of my head we can call those instant compositions, I suppose. That particular term, which I associate with Misha Mengelberg and ICP is a really good way of describing people who improvise that have compositional tendencies and certainly is a good definition of how I behave as an improviser. However I am also a composer. I write all kind of pieces of music and think in many formalistic ways. When I play I always have structural tendencies as a player, and sometimes I even fight these tendencies. I try to let it go, just to see where else I can go with my thinking, so that I can potentially break different grounds, different areas of musical invention.
The main point is that every time I improvise I work with memory and a consciousness of each thing that I play. I'm aware of the linear progression of where I start and where I go. In the moment I'm often concerned with the timing and phraseology of everything I do. Or I am concerned with how each elements fits in the overall harmony, and what the harmony is in any given moment. These things happen sometimes like this … I go and play one sound and then I'm ready, I allow that one sound to find something. I go to where that first sound is leading me. In this way I am assembling a form.
I think we should really be careful with the word composition, because composition is a slowly edited formal process, that requires a lot of time and is often not spontaneous in its nature. I'm working on a composition right now, every day. It's a piece for string orchestra and it takes a good deal of my time. It can take in fact hundreds and hundreds of hours of work to make ten minutes of composed music. That's composition, and that's not the same as instant composition or improvisation. On the other hand all the work I'm doing as a composer, nourishes other parts of my musical being. When I work hard as a composer the consequence is most likely that I don’t play or practice my instrument regularly. But when I get back to my work as a player I think my ideas for playing are enriched by the work I have done as a composer, of course then I have to get my chops back together!
Those two musical disciplines always work together for me; they complement each other. But I think it is important that we tease out these terms and make differentiations.
Do you think it would be possible to write down everything you play?
I have done it with a few older pieces, as a request from students analysing my work, it’s difficult but possible. It just takes a lot of time. It's not a high priority for me. I did use notation in my earlier solo work. You can see on the front cover of the “Solo Works” LP, the score of the piece “Black Wind”. Everything in that work was notated. Trance Tracks (available on “Acoustic Solo Works” and “Tubworks”) is an example of a piece where originally everything was memorized. I wrote it down later. Generally, all my formal pieces are or were memorized. The recordings, also serve as documents of the pieces.
I now come back to these older pieces as part of the material I use when I'm teaching drummers about how to develop a solo piece or approach to soloing. I often ask students to analyse one of my solo pieces. Its interesting to see how far their ears will take them in realizing how much detail shapes each moment of the content. Often they get only about 10% of it. So I train their ear to listen to more detail to understand how much of the content is intentionally shaped. That’s the first level, then you have to go deeper. I ask them “what are the transitions, where are the little details that are changing? What's the reason behind it and how and why do these transitions work?” Then we discuss if the piece is interesting to my student, maybe it isn't. This is also part of the process of everyone figuring out their own way of expressing themselves.
Would you like to explore other media in the future? For example, the performance language / body movement as you do with Beth Warshafsky.
My work with Beth Warshafsky is currently focused on interactive work. In particular the pieces, “Klangtisch”, and “Calling you” the latter of which is featured as one of the solo works on the CD of “kernelings”. You can find an interactive live version of that one online from a recent performance at Roulette in 2013. Check Beth’s Vimeo page, (here). On that page you can also a find a visual realization she created of my work for string quartet and sampler from the Tzadik CD, “Chamber Works” called “The Visiting Tank”. Our work together has evolved over a period of more than twenty years. Originally, we did many short pieces that started with an idea of hers or from discussions we had about many things and for which I created sound to go with the image she developed. Slowly a way of developing works collaboratively evolved from shared aesthetics as well as a mutual desire to find an interdependent relationship of image and sound.
What are your expectations as a video artist?
The expectations or should I say the desires are pretty high! I dream about larger scale work in film, because if anything got me engaged as much as music from the beginning, it's film. So I have many ideas, for now quite tied to my musical thinking and projects. But eventually I could imagine even narrative work in film.
The film project I am currently working on is a visual realization of a four-part suite for mixed quintet (the WHO trio + Terrence McManus – guitar and Michael Moore – reeds) that was performed twice in 2013 entitled “LSD”. I have good quality footage of one of those performances (at the Schaffhausen festival in Switzerland). I wish to combine this footage with a visualization of the piece, as there are many themes regarding perception, as well as displacement and dis-orientation that the music construction is developed from, that have many possibilities for visual realization without resorting to clichés of psychedelia.
You're teaching in Luzern Hochschule: how do you relate improvisation to teaching? Generally, what are your values in the context of education?
Teaching improvisation is an interesting discussion, and I'm quite involved in it at the Hochschule Luzern. I've been part of a team of people who have developed a bachelor level degree program in improvised music (webink about program). There are already a couple of institutions that offer a master degree in this direction, more along the lines of free improvisation.
The point is perhaps, that its time for us to reinvestigate jazz or improvised music pedagogy in a variety of ways. The jazz and classical training models are by now out-dated and as such they don't necessarily fit the future of music. More and more it seems that improvisation is an interesting topic for people to study in a more rigorous, process-oriented kind of way. It is time, in my opinion, to address what is a curriculum for teaching improvisation, something that is often not taught formally. Its often left up to the talent and individual capacity of anybody who might wish to pursue it or address it as part of their given performance genre. It's, as well, a very broad topic, which has many interesting applications well beyond music. For instance you can find online a page from comedian Tina Fey that applies some of the principles of her experience improvising theatrical situations and humor to a variety of business models.
So there is much to explore in developing the pedagogy of improvisation. There is for instance teaching ensemble improvisation. In this context there are topics such as communication, relationship, how you listen, what you hear, what and why you filter out some of what you hear, how you act independently, how you initiate, how you react. So there are many aspects to consider and explore. I think improvisation will hold a central role in the direction of future music education.
What are your core values in the context of education?
As time goes on and I get older, I feel I want to share with students the sheer joy of creating something. The possibilities for how one can make a life as an artist are really infinite. Every day I am grateful for all of what I have been drawn to and for the inspiration of so many experiences in the arts. It has shaped who I am. I didn't let anything stop me, or get side tracked worrying about the impracticalities of being an artist.
I understand being an artist is not an easy decision for anyone – you have to really want this life and there are sacrifices to make. As a teacher I understand a student has many questions, incessant questions often based on fear. I'm there to listen and offer possibility. Really listening to another human being is one of the most essential values I hold dearest in education and in life. I am also excited and inspired by many things; I really get into it, and enjoy to share my enthusiasm for many things! However I observe that some people are sometimes far removed from that what they feel passionate about, for various reasons, they put something between themselves and what it is that they care about. I just show people that if you really care about something and you really want to do it, you just do it.
Interview with Gerry Hemingway conducted in Lecco, Italia by Elia Moretti
Published interview in Musica Jazz (translated in Italian) here