SB: What were you listening to as a child? Were any of your parents into jazz?
NR: My father was a big jazz fan. Billy Holiday for him was like Marylin Monroe for a lot of little boys, he was in love with her. He also played a lot of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and the whole swing generation. He wasn't a musician, but he was a fan, and he grew up in Boston, and he used to hang out with jazz musicians in the Boston area, not so many super famous, but he went and heard all those people live: Duke Ellington, Billy Holiday, Chick Webb... In those days, you could go for 25 cents, which was a lot of money at that time, but in the 30s you could go to a place like Howard Theater in Boston and you got to see Chick Webb and his orchestra, you saw a movie, a live show, and you got to see, perhaps, Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb (in fact he saw her), there was dancing, for all Sunday afternoon, for just one quarter. That's the generation he grew up in. My mother is a classical musician, amateur, so I grew up listening to her playing Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven on the piano. I think that my musical talents such they were probably came more from her side, but my musical taste from my dad. Still, I play Bach almost every day, so maybe that does have an influence. My very first instrument was recorder, when I was six - you know, all little kids start with recorder - then I played clarinet, then I played saxophone, then I played flute (and then I played shakuhachi).
SB: When did you start getting interested in playing improvised music yourself?
NR: When I was 12 or 13 I started trying to play blues, and rock in little bands. I was not any kind of prodigy. By the time I was 18, I was playing a gig on the weekend - playing jazz standards. At the same time my friends and I were listening to the Art Ensemble of Chicago and having free sessions in people's houses in and around Boston... I was always into black music more, that included both jazz and, in terms of the pop-music, I was into Motown, and Stax, and R&B stuff. Certain groups - like Led Zeppelin - I only really would've heard that stuff fifteen years ago, which seems like a long time, but what I'm saying is by the time I listened to that music it was already kind of classic rock. I wasn't a fan of Led Zeppelin, or Pink Floyd, or any of this stuff at the time that it was happening. A little bit, you know, The Beatles, a little bit Traffic, few of those groups I knew, King Crimson... But this wasn't my music. And when I went to college, it was all very funny, because - you know how everybody listened to The Grateful Dead? This was huge madness. These kids would listen to The Grateful Dead all day, and we would get together, we would all smoke marijuana, and I would bring John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus, and Art Ensemble of Chicago, and I would say "Listen to this!" and they would all go "Oh, yeah man... Cool... Let's listen to "Dark Star" again!" [!] And then they'd put on the same Grateful Dead record they had listened to three hundred times. And they were so excited by The Grateful Dead because they were improvising! "These guys improvise, man, they can do anything." And I'm listening to the music, and I'm, like, "They're doing a very particular kind of imp...", I mean, they canít do anything, they just do what they're doing. I was, like, "But, no, these guys are doing a much freer... than your...!" I could never make them understand... For one thing, one of the big differences, I think, is that the kids of that time who were into people like AACM, and European improvisers, or even into people like Mingus, Ornette Coleman (like most of my friends) were all musicians Ė and did have some understanding of what they were doing, whereas these kids who were all into The Grateful Dead, it was all sort of magic, they couldn't understand they were basically playing I-IV-V, I-IV-V chord progression over and over again. Actually, now that I grow old, improvising is everything, and I can appreciate The Grateful Dead more now than I did back then. Because then I was, like, "But, guys, you don't get it! [!] This is very limited!" But there are a lot of very limited improvisers now that I think are great. Oh, and the one rock musician that we were all listening to was, of course, Jimmy Hendrix, he had total creativity. He was very blues-based in a way, but he was a giant the way, I'm sorry, Jerry Garcia would never be. I'm talking about musicians here - I think lots of people were into him because he was charismatic, but people were into Jim Morrison because he was charismatic, but to me Jim Morrison as a musician was nothing much, but Jimmy Hendrix was a giant, like Coltrane or Charlie Parker. Janis Joplin is another one, she had that kind of stature to me.
SB: When did you move to New York?
NR: I stayed in Boston until I was 18, graduated from high school, and went to Oberlin outside Cleveland, where they have a conservatory and a college together - which is nice because you can study music at the conservatory and at the same time take academic courses at a very good college, and that was important to me. But it's kind of isolated - an hour outside Cleveland, and in fact there wasn't such a strong jazz program there. I was there three years of four, for the third year they had a program where you could spend a year in New York and get credit like you had a year at Oberlin. So I went to New York, I apprenticed with the singer Joan LaBarbara, Bruce Ditmas the drummer, and I also spent some time with Warren Smith in his studio, and I used to go then to Charles Bobo Shaw's place... I got a feel for New York that year, 1976-77. It was also kind of scary for me because I was still learning my instruments and taking lessons with different people, taking some classes in the Manhattan School of Music and staying uptown near there - and upstairs from me was a guy named Bill Blount, a great virtuoso clarinetist who was playing alto saxophone at that time in Buddy Rich's band, and he used to practice together with Bob Mintzer, a very chopsy saxophonist. So these guys would be playing, like, the Slonimsky book - they would play this way [!] and then they'd turn over the book [!], play it backwards and play it upside down, and I'm sitting there playing my long tones on the flute, going "I can't believe I think I might be a musician ". It was very intimidating. But anyway, I did my junior year there and went back to Oberlin. There was a lot more improvising in the scene that year, there were a bunch of people there who were doing electronic music and all sorts of different things - and I put together a group with Bob Ostertag and Jim Katzin, and we came to New York together. And we got this gig at the end of the year going to Europe with Anthony Braxton. He was out at Oberlin on a residency and he picked me and Bob and a trombonist, and... two trumpet players - five of us he took on tour in Europe because we were good enough musicians, we could improvise. So, first we met people there, then we came to New York. I was going to go to New York anyway, because in '78, Iíd finished school, and I went to New York with my girlfriend who is now my wife, and we got an apartment in SoHo, which at that time was still full of artists and musicians; now it's full of clothing shops...
SB: What was the musical situation in New York at the time?
NR: The loft jazz movement wasn't totally dissolved then, but it was ending. Everybody loves to talk about musical scenes, how they have influences on this musical movement, or that one - but you know, in fact, things in a lot of big cities depend on real estate. The whole thing of 52nd street and why that happened when it happened, was because there were at that time little cheap brownstones at 52nd street, and they all had little clubs in the basements, and later, that was of course ripped out, the scene was really ended by the real estate people. And the same thing with this loft jazz movement, these places became too expensive, and the real estate began to take over the thing, and people ended up being dispersed. But at the time when I moved there, you could still rent a little basement somewhere and have performances there. The period that was ending there was certain kind of post-jazz African-American scene. But it was going on for a while, I mean, Sam Rivers had Studio Rivbea going up to, I think, 1980-81. There was Environ which probably closed by 1980, there was a place called Soundscape, there was... oh, this place Julius Hemphill had, I'm forgetting the name, that's a long time ago... I got there as this scene was shifting and at the same time there were some young musicians who would later become the downtown scene: John Zorn, Eugene Chadbourne, Elliott Sharp, myself, Wayne Horvitz, Tom Cora... And we were also playing in lofts, basements, there was this place in Morton street that a guy named Mark Miller had , a lot of people played there. There was a guy Georgio Gomelsky who was a manager for The Rolling Stones, who bought a whole building in Chelsea, and we used to play in this place, which was called Zu Space, and that was where people like Bill Laswell were hanging out. So, this was the Ďgenesisí time for this scene that I'm associated with. People would play and somebody would come to a gig, and I think Bob heard Eugene play somewhere, and Eugene said "Come to this gig I'm doing with this guy John Zorn", and we went to this gig John and Eugene did, and then they showed up at our gig, then we went to Zu, and Eugene was playing with Tom Cora then, and Toshinori Kondo was there and so on. If people played in a way that you found exciting, you wanted to check them out. You know, music is just like relationships, you meet a group of people, there are certain people you're interested in, you call them up and you have dinner. So, we all became friends. When I think of where those different people have gone... I know, myself people associate, I think, with Zorn particularly, because he has gotten so famous, they associate his aesthetic with a lot of this music, but what I do is completely different from what he does. What Wayne Horvitz does, even though he plays a lot with John, is completely different from what John does. To me it's much more different than, say, the loft jazz thing: if you look at Sam Rivers and Oliver Lake, and Henry Threadgill, there was more of musical unity to what they were doing. Because you've got also remember that it was just a beginning of a kind of eclectic sensibility. One of the big influences, and everybody always thinks about influences being something close, one of the big influences that was happening in the late 70s was that the music world was expanding - you could go to a record shop, and you could get records from Indonesia, and from anywhere, Africa... You know, ten years before this was a specialized thing, you had to go searching in a research library, and there might be one thing, but by 1980 that was an explosion of stuff, which is still influential today. So we weren't just listening to each other, we would listen to all sorts of stuff, and Tim Berne, and John Zorn, and Anthony Coleman, Anton Fier - they all worked in a record shop, and we used to all go over there and just go through stuff and listen to things. And there were a lot of very famous people who came over, Paul Simon discovered all this South African shit by going to this record shop. It was a big time of music coming in from all over the world, and it might be American music, it might be something from the Bahamas, or... Now when you look at the jazz age that happened before, those people didn't have access to what we have today. Charlie Parker and all these guys that played at Minton's, ok, they were all listening to Stravinsky and all. One thing is, true musicians, any time, listen to anything they can get their hands on. But if you look at the amount of stuff that they can get their hands on, that in the 40s or the 50s it wasn't close to what was happening in the 70s. And, of course, it's still happening now. But, now, in my opinion, a lot of it is a kind of commercialized musical tourism. But at this point, in the late 70s, it was all like [!], it was all wide open and nobody had to meddle with categories. I might go home and listen to an African thing, and then to a Brazilian thing, and then some jazz, and then to one of my friends, and then practice. And what happens then is, you know, is a very different feeling, than somebody who is putting on all the favourite jazz heroes, and then maybe some classical music. When I hear that Charlie Parker was listening to Stravinsky all the time and that stuff, I can hear that. But still he had very limited options. He could listen to western music, and he could listen to jazz music, and this was what was open to him. So, I think one of the reasons why the music that came out of the downtown scene was so different, it's because we were listening to much more than just each other.
SB: How come you started playing solo?
NR: In 1978 I made a record ["Early Fall"] with these two guys - Bob Ostertag and Jim Katzin - it was a group called Fall Mountain, which was on Eugene Chadbourne's label, Parachute. This group broke up, no problems personally, but two things: Bob got into politics and went to Central America, and Jim, the violinist, had a stroke at age 25, which was really shocking, and he couldn't really play anymore. This group had some success, I mean, we went to Europe a couple of times, and Robert Fripp had come to one of our concerts and said something very nice in a paper, and Fred Frith had said nice things. So, we had some success, and for some 21-22 year old kids it was good, but then it all suddenly broke up, and I was kind of left to my own... So I just practiced, I mean, I did a lot of practicing and that was the period where I developed all these solo techniques that I do. I think, things happen for a reason... There was a crisis at that point, it's like "Am I going to be a creative musician, or am I going to..." Because the other thing that was kind of open to me was to play Broadway shows, and work on my doubling. And I was playing some shows at places like the Public Theater. But the thing about that kind of life is... I felt like, well, I might as well be a teacher, be anything. I mean, it's not very creative. So, in the period where this band broke up and I didn't have a group to play with, I started practicing and I found something that I liked, that was solo music. You practice a lot, you try to get pregnant, creatively. And I did. And that was about a six- or seven-month period of work, and then after that was done, I had that infantile solo music, which was on the second side of my own first record, "Trials Of The Argo". And I played some concerts then, and people were, like, "Wow! This is what you do!". And then I sent that record to a few people in Europe. Especially in Holland - I have to thank those people - I was invited to play a bunch of concerts, and from 1980-81 to 1985 probably 50-60 percent of the performances I did were solo. I made three solo LPs ["Trials Of The Argo", "Portal", "Trespass"], and was playing mostly alone. Although, during this period I was still doing occasional gigs with various people, I was playing John Zorn's large pieces, with New Winds, which was then a quintet... I was doing some things with dancers... But I was getting this small international reputation with the solo music. I wasn't getting invited to play in any other small groups as a sideperson. And I think that was partly because especially at that time I really wasn't a jazz player... Now I feel I have managed to unify my jazz roots with this other music I do and keep my own voice, but at that time there wasn't much connection. That's something that's actually taken me the last 15 years to pull that all back together again. These days can integrate some more jazz idiom into what I do and still make it sound natural. I think on the "Intervals" record you certainly hear it. One thing is that, you know, this is my background and as you get older you stop trying to hide where you are coming from. I don't care that I will never be able to play like Cannonball Adderley who was actually one of the reasons I never played a lot of mainstream jazz. I would just listen to someone like Cannonball and say "My God! It's so great, it's so..." When I was in my twenties I would listen to something like that and say "Why would I ever play jazz, when this guy can play it all?" A lot of young players are struggling with the things that they can't do, as opposed to embracing the things that they can do, and trying to grow organically from that place, they're like "Oh, man, I have to practice all this... If I can't play 'Giant Steps, I'm no good!". Well, try to play 'Giant Steps', do your best, but only certain people are going to be able to play any art trying to play that way. That was something that Coltrane made for himself, and it's a very particular thing, and certain people can thrive in this kind of harmonic language, and for the rest of us it's a kind of great exercise. You want to push your limits, but you also want to love your limits. So, while I'm going in many directions all the time, I'm trying to keep track of my personality within that. And now I play in certain ways and only Ned Rothenberg plays like this.
SB: What kind of challenges do you encounter in solo playing?
NR: You see, for me, solo playing has become a very natural kind of center of what I do. And the challenges of it are very clear - that's what makes it easy in a sense. Because I'm not trying to conquer the world every time I play solo. Sometimes with a large project you're trying to write a great piece; in solo, I feel like I'm just trying to make a few good transitions. That's really what it is about. I'm trying to create a program with variety. Tonight I'm going to play one piece probably, 10 or 15 minutes solo, and that's really quite simple, because I have so much material that it's just the matter of selecting and not doing too much. The transitions are always the challenge to me, because the material is all there, I have thousands of things, thousands of pieces of the material and variations of that material that I generated over 25 years. What makes a good performance different from a bad performance is if everything is speaking really clearly, and whether I'm able to make a successful form. Because I'm always trying to generate form, compositionally, even if there is no preplanning, even if I'm just improvising. And then sometimes when I'm lucky I'll still find some new theme: "Oh? What is that?" [!]. What's really exciting is when I find a few new things, and I find some good transitions, some interesting ways to evolve this sound into this sound, to play this sound with this rhythm and then change the rhythm and then maybe bring in a different melody, and make it go... a new way to get from A to B to C. When I do a full solo concert, when it's 2 hours, and it's only my music, then there's the whole question of programming and variety, that each piece really has its own place, and its own statement, and there's not too much repetition. I like repetition in music, but I don't like repetition where that clarinet piece you played in the first half set is just like the clarinet piece you played in the second half, or the saxophone piece you played in the second half is just a translation of that same material you played on the clarinet. Sometimes that happens, sometimes I get stuck in places, the bad solo concert is when I keep getting falling back into the same little patterns. So, with the solo music, the challenge is always there, but I have to admit it's something very comfortable for me - I've been doing it for so long, it's not like a musician who plays in a million groups and then all of a sudden somebody says "OK, you have to play a solo concert" and then they're like "Wow, what am I going to do??!" - it's something I've done thousands of times. But if I didn't feel any challenge, then I'd be in trouble, the music would start to sound very boring. When I get to a point when I'm so popular that I'm playing 350 solo concerts a year, then maybe I have to look at it, but this is still music that is only known by a very small section of the world, so I don't have this problem yet. I still only do 25-30 solo concerts in a year, it's certainly not too much to have to worry about staying fresh.
SB: Could you touch upon techniques that you use?
NR: Breathing is by far the most important thing. When you do techniques like circular breathing, everybody thinks "Well, circular breathing, that's just the technique to keep the wind going..." but the basic breath, just having the air going in and out of your body in a powerful way, so you can really control it, this is the thing that I have to check every day. People come and study these extended kind of techniques with me, and if they don't breathe right, we have to work on that, and sometimes I get very frustrated, I say "You can't do circular breathing because you don't breathe right yet".
SB: Do you teach a lot? Did you meet any promising young players, somebody you might work with in the future?
NR: I like to teach. I teach mostly privately. I've taught at a variety of schools, but mostly I haven't had an appointed position. I go and I do a residence, like I did a few times in my old college Oberlin, where I went for 4-5 days, to give master classes. I've taught some kids at the New School in New York - the students, these are older kids, they're 21-22-23, and they can study with a variety of teachers. Some of them are very good. And then sometimes Europeans will come just for some lessons. I was in Europe last Fall and there was a young Austrian guy, Georg Gratzer, we arranged the lesson in Vienna, and then he came to New York for one, and the kid is going very good I think. He's one of these guys who really could do a lot of these techniques, he would pick them up very-very quickly, like almost "IT TOOK ME A YEAR TO DO THAT, NOW HOW ARE YOU LEARNING THAT IN TEN MINUTES, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!!" [laughs]. I don't know if there's big interest among young people on the whole in creative music, I mean I think the music they're interested in is not very creative to be honest, but among young musicians, I think, there will be some really good players in the next period, and maybe there will be again more of an understanding of the depths of a good music in the future. As far as playing with younger musicians, it really depends on the chance you get to work. I've certainly done that in Japan, where Uchihashi made this festival, "Festival Beyond Innocence", and invited lots of different musicians, I've got a chance to play there with a lot of different people. Sometimes they invite me, there will be a project in Moers with these young players from Cologne [Nils Wogram quartet], I don't know their names, I've just got a list before I left. In LA I played with a bunch of people who were from the Cal Arts Group. But then, there are dozens of people of my generation I have long history with, and also there are still lots of people of my generation that I've known for years whose playing I love and I'm just getting to work with them. When I go back this time, I'll make a concert with Marcus Rojas, the tuba player, and David Tronzo, the slide guitar player. They're both of my generation, but it's like they're guys I know for years and I wanted to work with, so... The advantage there is that it's both fresh, but we share a kind of perspective...
SB: You mentioned that until '85 your own projects were almost exclusively solo. What happened after that?
NR: Around '85 Semantics with Elliott and Samm Bennett started - that was a real ĎNew Yorkí band, and that band worked a lot. And in Europe I continued to play... I never had a European band - I used to be invited for improv concerts in the European free improvised scene. Then, by '85 I started writing the Double Band music. We say "necessity is the mother of the invention" - I started the solo music because all of a sudden I was left on my own, and I needed to come up with something, and I was playing by myself, and I managed to find something by myself. By 1985, to be honest, I was tired of touring alone, and this was not so much for musical reasons, this was partly social - it's very lonely to just go around in a train and go from one town to the other, and people can be very nice, but you are basically alone all the time. And as much as it's nice to be playing solo and to have such control, it gets very hard to surprise yourself on a musical level too, you know. I talked with Evan Parker about this, sometimes you feel like "Wow, I found all this great material but I'm just chipping away in this mine, I've got all the gold out now, I'm just trying to find a little more gold, but the mine..." You need some fresh input, and the fresh input you get from other musicians, so I began to write music so that I could play with other musicians, and at the same time I got invited to do more things not just in Europe, but '85 was when I first went to Japan and while I played solo there, I also made connections with different Japanese musicians. And, it's funny, sometimes you play with American musicians for the first time in a foreign country. I played with Leo Smith in Japan, I never played with Leo in the US except with Anthony [Braxton], actually. So, yeah, all sorts of different connections happened in their time.
SB: Around that time you took part in the "Man in the Elevator" sessions, right?
NR: Heiner Goebbels, I think, wanted to work with Americans on that. I think he had the idea of having an American band together with this German theatrical presentation. And also, he did the session in New York. And I believe his first choice was Zorn. I think Zorn was unavailable, I think Zorn said "Why don't you ask Ned?" and that's how I got there. Before that the way Heiner knew me was by the Semantics. He set up a couple of Semantics gigs at the Botschkop in Frankfurt. I like that record, and I liked my playing on that record, which is not something I always say. And I'm playing some good tenor on that record - I don't play a lot of tenor. But it was just a record date, meaning I went in, I didn't record with very many other musicians, mostly I was alone there with Heiner, listening to the other's tracks, the take was all down on tape. He also invited me to play on the tour, but I couldn't go due to some circumstances, so he did the tour with Dietmar Diesner, who is a genius replacement I think. I didn't see any of these concerts, but if you know the piece and you know Dietmar, and the way he looks, just theatrically, I'm sure he was much better than I could be - he is a German saxophonist who has these incredible looks, he's big with a bald head, he plays the soprano saxophone, he looks kind of like an East German border guard, you know, "tough guy" [!]. Arto Lindsay and some other people told me about the show, said he was really amazing in the show. So, maybe for Heiner it was very good to have me on the record and Dietmar in the show.
SB: One would expect Alfred Harth play in those concerts...
NR: No, Alfred Harth didn't play on the tour. '88 was when this record was made, right? I don't pretend to know much what went down between Heiner and Alfred, but they stopped working together, and I think it was around this time. As for Alfred, he is not someone who I know very well, but I have seen him in Korea a few years ago, he's living in Seoul - he came to a concert and we had a nice time. Alfred gave me - was it Alfred? - no, no, it was this guy from Portugal who gave me that record ["waxwebwind@ebroadway"] that Alfred had made in Portugal, playing kind of standards, and I thought it was beautiful, I really enjoyed the playing. He sounded almost like a free music Don Byas.
In Korea, I did a couple of solo concerts and played with this guy Kang Tae Hwan, you should hear his playing! The Korean scene is very small, just a few people, but this guy Kang is really something special, he is so isolated playing his weird kind of music - he's playing a little bit like Evan Parker and me, but you got to imagine, he is older than Evan, and he was doing this in Korea at the time when it's a dictatorship and the music scene is almost nowhere, and this guy is playing this weird music - that's something really great, courageous. With Kang, I also did a couple of tours in Japan.
SB: Getting back to New York, could you please elaborate on your work with Semantics?
NR: Well, Semantics, it was good, but I donít quite like the sound of those Semantics records. There were some live gigs that to me were much better than either record we made ["Semantics", "Bone Of Contention"]. But I think a lot of musicians will tell you this. There's nothing terrible about that. There are certain musicians, to me Sonny Rollins comes to mind, who - as great as his records are - none of his records gets close to some of his live gigs. Anyway, these were two important relationships with Samm and Elliott - we did four or five tours in Europe, and I think it was a successful thing of its type. I think that that group was mostly about rhythm - the most important things that were going on were rhythmic things, and some of the rhythmic ideas I got in that band ended up developing into the Double Band stuff. And it has influenced the solo music, for sure. One of the other things that influenced me, when we're going back to that period of what we were listening to in '78, of course I would listen to people like Steve Reich, people like Philip Glass and Terry Riley, but also I was into Indonesian gamelan, and African music, like Chad, a lot of these minimalistic large groups. And the thing that always interested me was how you could combine this kind of droning repetition with more freedom. Because when I played, like, Terry Riley's music or... some of this music, I was always finding the music interesting, but I'm a player - and as a player, if you play something like a Steve Reich piece, basically, you canít put your soul into it, all you can do is fuck it up. What I wanted was to find if music could have this kind of pulse-setting interest, but have some very spontaneous things happen, and also have some rough edges. And yeah, with Semantics, we were after some of that, for sure. Samm was coming from a very African thing with his rhythmic approach. And Elliot and I were both... there was something very joined about what we were doing, Elliott with his "hammer on"- type of guitar playing and me with this circular breathing polyphony.
Do you know that Semantics was supposed to tour in Russia? The reason we didn't go is that Samm had some other work. I really don't remember why it was, but in any case, Elliott and me, and Tom Cora, and Peter Hollinger (a German drummer, played with Slaughterhouse - good drummer, he's associated with a kind of European free jazz scene, but he's really very much a rock drummer)formed a one-time band. This was one of these important early tours, because it was '89, and, I mean, ROVA saxophone quartet had been here, of course, but it was one of the first western improvising groups to tour in Russia. I remember we played a gig in Tartu, in Estonia, and it was the first western band of any type that had ever played there. I think one thing special about this group is that while all the other groups that came - ROVA certainly had been together for years, Cassiber also, FRAME (that was the name) was really put together for this tour. And it was, maybe the first Ďone-offí improvising band that toured in Russia. There was a big audience. The music was high and low, as you can imagine. We did, I think, about six concerts. The first concert was in Vilnius, the thing I remember about this was the electricity was really bad, and Elliott had this MIDI rack, and before we went on stage his stuff all started by itself from a voltage surge, it almost seemed like some rock-and-roll performance thing, because weren't ready to go on, and all of a sudden: [!]. "Well, I guess we go on now?!!" Anyway, we played there, we played Riga, Tartu, Moscow, and we played in Kiev, and think I'm missing one. We didn't play in Petersburg, I would have remembered that. The Moscow thing was a hilarious story. Melodia, the state record company of the USSR wanted to record it. They showed up with a whole truck, a mobile 24-track recording studio, and while the other guys are soundchecking, because I'm the one who didn't need much of a soundcheck, just a microphone, I go to the truck to try to make a Ďdealí with them. What we had said over the telephone was: "You make the record and give us a couple of hundred copies", and that would be because they say "We can't give you hard currency". We thought that was going to be the agreement. But they said, "Oh no, we have a problem with that, we made a record with Paul McCartney, and people copy and sell these records", and I'm, like, "I don't think you have that same problem with us"! But anyway, finally they said "We can't do that". I say, "Then what can you do? What do you offer us to make this record?". And they talk with some people, and I remember this because that was the first time when I met Nikolay Dmitriev. [Nikolay (Nick, Kolya) Dmitriev Ė Russian music critic, journalist, festival organiser, instrumental in bringing most of western imrovising musicians to Russia in the past 20 years as well as in introducing a number of remarkable Russian musicians to western music community, producer and enthusiast of avant-garde jazz and new music, who died two weeks before this interview at the age of 49 - SB] And I liked him immediately. But he was sitting there and he got all red. He was not involved: he was not arranging anything [on that particular occasion], he was just being a translator. And he looked up at me and he said "They're offering you 1 kopeck for every LP they make". "1 kopeck, you mean - half a cent?" [laughs] And he's, like, "Yes". So, they want to make 1500 LPs and they want to offer us $7.50, and he was just, like, red, like, totally embarrassed. And I said "Well, we can't do it then, can we?". And he said "No, I don't think you can" [laughs] And so, I laughed, and the truck left. And the funny thing, is now, today, I wish we had done it. Because it was really quite an event, we were playing and people were screaming "FREEDOM!" [!] I mean, it was really a wild concert.
But I always remember meeting Kolya, and I should say I'm thinking a lot about him because he just died, and it's very strange for me because my whole connection with Russia was through him. I mean, not that I don't have any other friends, but he was the one who always made the things happen. We have this children's story about the Little Red Hen, the Little Red Hen says to all the other animals "I'm going to make some bread, who will help me plant the wheat?", and they all say, "No, we won't, you go plant the wheat". So, Little Red Hen plants the wheat. "I'm going to make some bread, who will help me to water the wheat?" - nobody helps. It keeps going until "OK, who will help me eat the bread?", and they all say "O! We'll all help you eat the bread!". He was the one doing everything... There are lots of people, not just in Russia, who like to listen to music, like to write about music, but there's a lot of pain and hard work when you talk about making the stuff happen, making the concerts happen, making everything work, and this guy had such positive energy and understanding about how to do that, he was making the bread from scratch, all the time. And it was very important for him to do it here, he could have left, I'm sure, at some point, and done it some place else. Anyway, so, I always remember meeting him at this truck, in this Melodya truck in 1989, outside this place we played in Moscow. I hope that people have observed what he did and somebody will pick up - we say "pick up the ball". In the short term it has to be much worse, he was doing everything. I know his wife Lyuda is saying "I'm going to... Nick would want me to work". And there will be people who try, but I can only wish them the best and wish them luck. I would hope for some young people. If you can organize successful concerts of creative music on an ongoing basis, you probably also have the skills to make a lot of money, because all business is organizing. That's what business people who get rich do, what they can do that people who don't get rich can't, is they can organize things. Sometimes because they're corrupt as well, but even if you're corrupt, it's because you can organize and make connections. And Nick was somebody who could organize and make connections, and in fact was utterly uncorrupt, utterly strict. He could deal with any kind of people, he could deal with corrupt people, he could deal with people who didn't know anything, he could put all this together. And I'm sure that if he was not so interested in this quite non-commercial music - say, if he was interested in organizing dance parties - he could have done something much more commercial and made a lot more money. Getting back to what's going to happen now - I'm talking with some of the people with CEC, and they're like, "You know, there are people who are all very concerned what's gonna happen in Russia now with the scene without him. And we would like to help some people continue..." I think, that in fact there's a little opportunity now, if people are smart, if you have young friends that have initiative to try and continue this work, now it's the time where people who were giving money to Kolya to do things - they're are looking for somebody who wants to do it. Now it's the time for somebody to seize this opportunity and say "Look, I'm going to try". But of course, if nobody does anything for a few years, people will begin to forget and become idle. The problem is will there be somebody who wants to do this kind of work who has the same kind of skills, but isn't already off doing something else. What happens in this music even in the US, is you get these young people who, like, start managing bands, or they start writing about the music, they start organizing things and they're very good, and then they burn out. I'm not trying to say that everybody who wants to eat the bread should be able to bake the bread. Everybody who likes to eat, doesn't have to be up to cook, but some people have to be up to cook.
SB: We had such a "central" person here in St.Petersburg as well, I mean Sergey Kuryokhin...
NR: I knew Sergey, the first time I played with him, was probably... I'm guessing about '92 and '93. He came to New York, and he was sponsored by some... I don't know who these guys were, they were like some CIA guys, because these two guys with him didn't know anything about music, they were, like, from Utah or something, but they were sponsoring him, and this I'm sure had to do with CIA, because somehow they wanted to nurture anything that was radical, and maybe, I'm thinking, it was actually about 1990 or something, but anyway he came over. He came to the Knitting Factory, he invited different people to play: he wanted to play with Zorn, and he wanted to play with me, Elliott, Bobby Previte... He was playing like improvised Rachmaninov, or something. And we have all just stopped, because what he was doing sounded very complete, it's like "What are we supposed to play with improvised Rachmaninov?" But he's like "No! I want to make this kind of clash!". And that was something very different from what we were interested in, because we were trying mould something, together. Music for us wasn't such a political statement really. But of course, we grew, and he grew, and the last time I saw him - I think in '95 in St.Petersburg - he came to the concert, but I didn't know he was sick then. He died in '96 but he was sick only for about five months, right? This heart thing. So it must have been just a few months before. But it was interesting - first of all, he spoke English much better, because he really learned a lot of English between 1990 and 95. And, so, we could sit and talk and we talked about the changes we have gone through. He said "Now I'm ready to make music". And I felt like, you know, he was a very, very good musician, but he had to fight so many political battles. The music had to be a vehicle for so much. He said very nice things to me, about the concert, you know, "You're just playing music, and it's OK". And I said, "Yeah, that's all I'm ever doing". But sometimes I feel the same thing, sometimes it's like it's not OK to just play music, you have to be making a social statement as well... And I think it's very normal in Russia with the whole history and everything: that the music has to make a social statement. I don't know if I'm wrong, because I only have an impression from a couple of conversations with him, but I felt like he had finally... Well, I know he was involved with politics and all this other stuff, so maybe he put his social thing in one place, and he was going to do music in the other? I don't know. But there was an appreciation he showed me just as a listener at that last concert which is very different than the interaction we had before, where he wanted to kind of confront the New York scene in this funny way. But then, getting back to Kolya, you can't really compare Kolya with Kuryokhin, because Sergey was also a musician, a creator, he was making something, and he could involve a lot of people... People compare him with Zorn, seems that's because they both have these vehicles where they can involve a lot of people in their work. Musicians, we all have to be egotists to some extent, we have to be selfish to some extent, in order to say "This is my music, and I am worthy of this". Sergey has to say "I am worthy to be the central point, and make these happy things come together". It's quite another thing to say "I want to make this scene happen, and it's not about me". With Kolya, it was never about him, what he was doing. With Zorn and Kuryokhin, they do a lot of great stuff, but still it is always about them, and what they are doing. And if they could involve other people and those other people became known through that, then it's great, I'm not trying to make them some kind of dictators, but it's a side effect of their personalities. Kolya was somebody who is even much more rare, who had the skill to cook with things but was completely selfless, just happy to make them happen. And in fact, a lot of guys who aren't musicians, who are promoters, the worst kind of stuff that happens is when these promoters who have no musical skills at all want to make it about them. Then you get this thing when these people call you up and say "You know, I have an idea for my festival, I want you to play with this guy, and that guy, and you should do this kind of music". And I won't even mention names, but this kind of stuff happens to all musicians, and we're, like, "If you wanna give me a gig, then you call me up and tell me you want me to play, and I'll tell you who plays - you don't call me up and tell me who I'm playing with." Because you're not a musician, you're a promoter. If you want to say to me "There are these musicians available, which would you like to work with?", then OK. Same thing with record producers. Without mentioning names again, there are record producers, who have done some very great work, but they really make work about themselves more than the musicians. And, OK, you know, it was a certain point, if a guy has the vision and he makes some music... I'm not saying everybody has to be a composer. But there are some funny situations, that's all I say... And Kolya was just so open, and when you saw the stuff that he was listening to, what he was interested in was just incredibly wide. And I think, in fact, he'd listen to more stuff than any musician... Just because we actually don't have space for that much, we're trying make our own music [laughs] And he would stay so positive all the time, because, let's face it, people in Russia like to complain, they're very good at complaining. And they have lots to complain about, if I lived in Russia... [laughs]. But this guy didn't complain! He would tell me problems, he would say "Well, I'm trying to do this, and it's a problem because of this and this, but I will get it."
SB: Do you have any plans of reviving some of your earlier projects, like the Double Band, or New Winds?
NR: The Double Band is coming together to perform in Moers this year, but really just because the record that we did in '96 ["Parting"] is finally to be released [by Moers Music]. That makes some good occasion to do it, but I don't know if we will go on with the Double Band, because really that music was of the time, and with Thomas' [Chapin] death and everything that was kind of finished. But now I'm getting the chance to do it with Marty Ehrlich and some other great musicians, I think if we have a really good time, what I might do is write some new music for this kind of ensemble, but it will be a little different, it will be more chamber music and less funk-rock. We'll see. New Winds is not so active really, we did all these records ["The Cliff", "Traction", "Digging It Harder From Afar"], and did some stuff with Herb Robertson and it was that record ["Potion"], and now Robert [Dick] and Herb are around in New York and every once in a while we might get together and play, but... I'm myself more interested these days in playing mixed instrumentations, as opposed to all these horns together - that's not something I've been doing lately. But, partly - we try to stay creative, but we are also just jobbers in a sense, if some festival - in Russia or wherever - would say "We want this group that we have heard", we'd come and play, but none of us is actively pushing this project right now. But there are some new things that are going to happen.
SB: Are there any new recordings underway? What is your attitude towards documenting your music?
NR: When it comes to improvised music, freely improvised music, I don't listen to so much of it on recording, I really like to listen to it live, as a spectator. And as a result, there is some improvised music that I put out on CD, or other people have chosen to put out on CD, and I'm happy with it, especially if it happens to be really strong (I think the record I made with Evan Parker ["Monkey Puzzle"] is really strong), but at the same time most of the stuff - I mean, I have thousands of tapes of gigs - and most of it, it's fine, they were good gigs at the time, but I don't need to put all this out. I have a very different attitude towards making CDs from some of my friends, people like Evan, or Elliott Sharp. Their attitude is: CDs, or LPs, they come out, people only really know them for a little while, and then it's over. It's as if it were a magazine. It's not like each one is perfect, it's just so people know what you're doing. But for me, there's something permanent, they're gonna sit there, and so I'm much more fussy about them - to me every time you make a recording it's a kind of final statement. I like that if I'd made a recording - maybe I didn't produce it, maybe it's on another record label - but if I wrote the music, or I was the force behind getting this music released, that this will stand up. I mean, I love it when somebody says to me "You know, that record you made with Paul Dresher ["Opposites Attract"] in 1991, I still listen to it". I love that. As opposed to "Oh, yeah, I really like that record you put out in '95, I wonder where that is now, I've got to look in my collection, maybe I should listen to it", i.e. where people basically buy a record, listen to it for a couple of months, and then they never put it on again. I hope it's not pretentious to say that I want the music to have a classic role in the listener's life, meaning, I see them listen to the same records, some of the same records of classic jazz, or... I mean I listen to Pierre Fournier playing Bach cello suites, I've listened to those forever, I've listened to Aretha Franklin forever, I would like to make records that people would like to listen to periodically, forever. And I think that takes a certain responsibility of making a real finished piece. To me, a lot of the records that are made as kind of magazines, they might have brilliant stuff on them, but the listener has to pick it out. It's not like "here is a recording, this is my piece and I'm staying behind everything on this". At least that's what I would like to do. I worked with different labels, and it's very hard for them to do a better job than you can do yourself. So, for something like solo music it's much better for me to put it out myself. I distribute it to a few places, and then I sell at concerts, and keep control - I want it to look it in a certain way, I want it to sound in a certain way. Like "Intervals", I made this record, and it's not a magazine, this is not just a document of a certain time and place, and a certain performance, this is my solo music at this time, and I will stand behind this. As far as my other projects, we have a new group with Samm and Uchihashi Kazuhisa, the Japanese guitarist, called R.U.B., which is I think very interesting, we have a CD out ["Are You Be"] on Animul, which is my label. The next few things I'm going to release are a duo with Masahiko Sato, a great Japanese pianist, that also is going to be released in Japan on EWE Records, but in Japan it's such a little insulated scene, that this is a kind of deal that I'm happy to make when they pay for the session and they pay me, and I license the tape from them, and I will release it for the rest of the world. Hopefully, that will be out by about September. On this duo CD which we made with Sato I do [!]. Do you know what it is? It's "Round Midnight"! But we do it like a honkyoko [traditional solo shakuhachi piece].
SB: You seem to have a special liking for Monk. At least, he is the only classical jazz composer whose music you have ever recorded...
NR: It's not like I've done a whole lot of Monk, just a few of Monk's pieces, but somehow it fits into my own thing... Monk somehow can connect into anything... I think that's possible because Monk as a composer stands almost outside of jazz. It's kind of like Bach. Ellington is a genius composer, but he is the embodiment of his age. And what anybody can play by Ellington will always sound within the age. But somehow I can picture somebody in the year 2500 playing, I don't know, maybe "Criss-Cross", and whatever they're doing in 2500, it will still be Monk, and it will still be whatever idiom he's doing, something I hope we can imagine, and it will fit together. There's something about the fact that it's so basic. One of his pieces that I do on the Sync record ["Port Of Entry"], "Misterioso", it's just sixths, major and minor sixths [!]. It was such a genius to do that... Then there's this record session that I'll do shortly after I'll get back [from St.Petersburg] - with Mark Dresser the bassist and Michiyo Yagi, a great koto player, she is on CD on Tzadik ["Ghost Stories"]. That may be the same deal, we may have a Japanese release and a release on Animul. And there's a couple of other things that I'm thinking about putting out, but I don't put out too much stuff. One of the things that's happening now, another big change from earlier times, is that now everything can be recorded in so much higher quality, this isn't like Charlie Parker being recorded by Dean Benedetti in the bathroom, or something like this. Everybody has a digital tape recorder, and - you're gonna put all this stuff out? There's already so much stuff! Then there is this whole nostalgia thing and re-trading the old stuff that is going on all over the world right now, I don't think it's a particularly strong time for creative music all over the world. It's a big time of returning old things, repackaging, it's almost like the whole thing that happened with CDs and then DVDs, there's so much material now, we are drowning in material, and drowning in musicians, and so everything is being packaged, repackaged... How many times are you gonna put out "Kind of Blue"? Absolute classic record, but it's like a lot of repackaging being done. I'm hoping that it gets better again. Anyway, I'm just not one of these people who wants to put out 12-15 CDs a year. I want something that will stand the test of time. I have to admit there have been gigs I did where you have a magic night, and then you feel like "Oh, shit, shit, now I wish we have recorded that, I would put it out just the way it was", and there are some recordings that are out there, that I might still put out, that I remember very fondly, but you have to listen again after all these years.
On the other hand, people are always setting these [free improvisation and composed music] up as kind of opposing forces, but to me they're not opposing, they're two different routes to your expression - two solutions to the problem of how do I express myself as a musician. And sometimes I've played freely improvised pieces that sound like they were written out note for note. When I was in Japan last year, I played a duo with a bass clarinettist Gene Coleman, this was in the middle of a festival where most of the people were playing, like, noise and turntables, and contact microphones [!], all this stuff. And we got up there with two bass clarinets, and because we have all this vocabulary, everybody was like "My God! It sounded like it was written out note for note!", and I know what it was, it was partly a reaction to all this chance music that was going on. I can get up with most good harmonic improvisers, and what I'm talking about here, people who actually hear what they're gonna play. Meaning they can whistle, they can sing a line before they play, and even if they play [!] they actually are hearing that as they go, as opposed to just doing something and then listening to what happens. It's just what most people do with computers and contact microphones. They don't really know exactly what they're gonna get. I'm not criticising, but that's not me. When you say that composing and improvising are two different things it's not always for me, because in both cases I'm trying to hear. I'm trying to hear what I'm going to play. And no, I like to surprise myself, and sometimes things come out that I wasn't expecting, but they always come out when I'm trying to hear something past what I'm doing, and still when it comes to rhythm, harmony, I'm a very old-fashioned musician in some ways, and this makes me a little strange in the scene that I come from, because the sonic vocabulary of what I do is often very avant-garde, and there are always very strange sounds in everything, and people say "Well, it sounds like electronic music, it sounds like this..." but the way I make it is really very old-fashioned, I'm just trying to hear it and play. So in a certain sense it's no different than Coleman Hawkins trying to hear a different way of playing "Body and Soul". But, obviously, if I use a harmonic framework or write something it's very different than... And who I am improvising with: this is going to completely change it, for instance I'm improvising with another bass clarinetist, and we're using all this joint material, that's a very different thing from tomorrow when I'll get up with Catherine [Jauniaux]. She is a singer, and what we share is something very different, and the last time we played together, we played trio with Barre Phillips the bassist, and I imagine tomorrow will be very different, because he won't be there, so it'll be two instead of three - it's a very different chemistry. Then when we go to Moscow, I'm hoping that Volodya Volkov would play, and this will be another chemistry. One of the differences in composition and improvisation, not the main, but one of the big differences is the time it takes - if you spend all this time writing something and then you perform it, you want to document that, because you put all this advance work into it. With improvising, I get up with somebody, I play and... I'm going to play again with somebody else tomorrow, and if it was really something special, and the sound is really good, and the recording, then great. Certainly I have plenty of records of me doing freely improvised music, but... Yeah, they're not opposed, they're two facets of the same thing. Especially because I'm a musician who is just in a sense - whether I'm composing in advance or composing on the spot - I'm just trying to hear.
SB: What do you think of improvising with larger groups?
NR: I've done that, but I'll be honest with you, five is almost the maximum for me. I mean, if the music is organized in some way, say, Zorn organizes his game pieces, or Butch Morris, or Anthony Braxton who was in fact doing this kind of conduction thing with us back in '78. There are things you can do, to organize larger groups - there are ways of organizing that can be interesting, but for me it's much less successful. One thing I should say, I'm across the board in with all kinds of music, much more into the intimate setting. I love Bach, I love Beethoven, but [when] I listen to Bach - I listen to cello suites, violin suites, viola da gamba, things with harpsichord, I almost never put on Brandenburg concertos. I listen to Beethoven, I love his piano music, I love his string quartets, I almost never listen to his symphonies. I love Chopin, I never listen to Wagner. I don't much care for Mahler. Big massive things. With jazz, I love to listen to small groups, I almost never - as great as Ellington was - I don't put on big bands very much. You know, I mean, Mingus to me was almost the biggest group, 8-, 9-piece groups. I love late Coltrane but I don't listen to "Ascension" as much as some people do, there's too much going on at the same time. I'd much rather listen to him play duo with Rashied [Ali],["Interstellar Space"]. And I did this record "Power Lines" with a 10-piece group, 10, 11, I don't like the group to get so big that I canít always hear every instrument individually, what it's doing. It's just my personal kind of interest. And in terms of playing open improvisation, I find more then, like, four or five people... I loose track of what's going on. It's hard to be fully present for me. You can have the Company, Derek Bailey's type of set-up, where you have 8 or 9 people, and you're gonna play a couple concerts, and you are gonna play different combinations, and that's fine. But the thing of 8-9-10 people getting on stage and all playing together at the same time, to me, the only time it really works is when the people self-edit and don't play too much. And then what happens is that you end up with trios and quartets anyway. But for 7-8-9 people, or even more, to all play, literally make sound at the same time, to me it's difficult. When everybody thinks they got a solo, you get too much happening and it's a mess.
This opposite thing which is happening now, the whole thing of playing very little, to me what it is - it's a kind of contemporary improvised John Cage music, and to me, that's very repressed improvisation. I've heard some really beautiful things of this kind, but the problem is that when you listen to a whole concert of it, after two hours you're really bored. I can appreciate the fact that everybody is listening really closely all the time, and nobody is pushing their ego on everybody else, and that's very important to them, and I understand the reason for that, but at the same time, THEY DON'T FUCK! And I like the music to... I like something orgasmic in music, and there is no orgasm. To me the solution is: you just don't have too many people. I mean, I might sit there for a while and just play some little sounds, we might do that for 5-10 minutes, almost nothing happens, but then all of a sudden: [!]! You know, something really BOOM in your face happens! And we don't know beforehand that we're going to have this certain austere repressed thing, or keep it the whole time. At the same time we don't know beforehand that we're not going to just go crazy. To me it's much riskier, anything can happen. But the only time I'm comfortable with that, and I'm being honest, is when I'm with people who are also sensitive to that, and there's not too many that we'd loose control of it all. In any kind of conversation when there's even one person who just has no sensitivity to what everybody else is feeling, it's all fucked up, it's no good, you know, because they will fuck it all up. So I do understand the motivation behind this kind of keeping space in music, if music doesn't have enough space, it's a problem. I just like to be able to create any shape any night, and this shape could be something really dense, or something really spaced-out, and it can all happen in the same concert. To me, the most important thing is - and this is again where I'm kind of old-fashioned - I like music that has a very large variety, and that's another big thing that most of the European improvisers do that is very different from New York improvisers, in that they don't want it... it is something that comes from Derek Bailey - the idea that we [Europeans] won't do anything idiomatic. That means that we won't play a chord change you can hear, won't play rhythmic pattern that you can hear, we won't play any pulse. But of course what happens is that they create an idiom out of what they are not going to do. Derek Bailey wrote this book about how he's doing non-idiomatic improvisation, and then he wrote about all these idiomatic improvisors, like Paco Pena, and Indian improvisors. But Derek Bailey - who is a great musician - is absolutely idiomatic, his rules are mostly negative rules ("I won't do this, I won't do this, I won't do this...") and then you know what comes out? What he will do? What he will do is play arhythmically, inharmonically and with lots of attention to sounding space. All very nice things, and he does that masterfully, but if he doesn't know that's an idiom then he's fooling himself. And, so, these people, every time they try to avoid idiom, they create idiom. And I just think players in New York, even though we are all very different, we acknowledge that, we are much more comfortable with the fact that it's all idiom anyway. We are people in society, we're going to play things that sound like other things. Which means if I want, after I play nothing but [!], if I wanted to suddenly play a 12-bar blues, I can do it. Because I can play a 12-bar blues. So, fuck it, if I want to play I'm going to do that. And of course it has to do with who I play with, whether I'm being sensitive. I'm not gonna play a 12-bar blues tomorrow with Catherine, because it's not her thing. That's not where our things are going to come together. On the other hand I might play something based on a kind of rock thing, you know, I'll do what seems interesting. And that means I might play something that relates to some idiomatic thing, or I might not. When I'm playing together with Marty Ehrlich or Tim Berne, or somebody like that, we're all saxophone players - we're gonna use that. And to say "I'm not going to use any of the saxophone history", it's crazy. Even Evan Parker, as much as he has his own thing, when he plays with Steve Lacy, he plays like Steve, because he wants to play something where he can share something. Steve can't play like Evan, Evan can play like Steve, so OK, let's make the music we can make together. This makes sense to me. So, I will - I like to let anything happen, and to get back to your original question, I just find that that happens rarely with a large group. The only way I could imagine that happening would be if a large group of people really committed to playing a lot together all the time, so that they knew each other intimately. And there are some things that I've heard - usually in smaller cities like in San Francisco - they're kind of interesting, but in New York it doesn't happen, because in New York we're too much all over the place all the time, every day is playing with different things all the time. When I did one large project at the Moers festival, with, like, 10-12 people, I learned that it's difficult because I had 10 to 12 great improvisers, and the problem was just to keep them off of each other's... keep from stepping on each other. And what happened was I created different small groups to play. Anthony [Braxton] and Butch [Morris] do this thing where they conduct, and that's a kind of composition, because if you tell all these people to play a drone (Zorn does the same thing in his game pieces), you can have ten people and if eight of them are all doing [!], one of them is [!], that's a very composed articulate set-up, that's not just like something that's gonna happen by chance. What I hear these days in large groups is usually somebody is organizing something to make the stuff work.
SB: When did you start playing shakuhachi?
NR: I started playing shakuhachi with a Dary John Mizelle who was teaching composition at Oberlin, back to when I'm 20. He played what I would call "naive shakuhachi", he built an instrument himself, and taught himself, but it was the first time I'd heard this instrument, and the I heard some of the records of the masters he told me about, and the music really moved me, and it was very interesting: it was full of colour, full of very particular personal kind of melodic movement, and full of space. It was very much the opposite of the music that I was making, which was very busy and lots of rhythm all the time. I am still very strongly attracted to it, and I think it's always interesting to explore what you're attracted to which is the most opposite of what you do. I started playing it and I studied in New York with this guy Ralph Samuelson once I got there in 1980, and I played it for 7 years before I played it in public, and it was really just a kind of personal project, a personal meditative project, because this instrument was originally designed for meditation, not for performance. But finally I got to go to Japan and study (I got a grant) and meet musicians. Oh, and the other thing, what happened was there was a drummer in Japan, Sabu Toyozumi, who John Zorn told me about, he said "This guy is interested in your playing, and if you wanna go then we will maybe arrange some concerts". So the first time I went over there was like in 1985, I went over there for only a month, and Sabu made some concerts and we played with a bunch of different Japanese musicians, and Barre Phillips was over there, the bass player. Then I got this grant, so then in '86 I went there for 6 months, I studied some Japanese, and for 6 months I was up there to study with two very great shakuhachi teachers, Katsuya Yokoyama and Goro Yamaguchi. Goro Yamaguchi was the ĎLiving National Treasureí at that time. Yokoyama sensei is a great shakuhachi player played Takemitsu's "November Steps", this piece for orchestra, biwa and shakuhachi. The biwa player was one of my favorite musicians who have ever lived, Kinchi Tsuruta. If you ever saw any of the films that Takemitsu did for Kurosawa, they're playing on these. Anyway, Yokoyama is known a lot from this scene, and he was also a student of Watazumi-do who was an old Zen monk who played shakuhachi, and also an amazing player, amazing person... So, anyway, I lived here, I had an apartment and I lived in Tokyo for six and a half months, and during this time I met a lot of different musicians. And how you get at anything, by being there... I played a lot of concerts, I played with some non-Japanese musicians: I played with Leo Smith, Hans Reichel, Peter Kowald, Fred van Hove, I played with all sorts of different people, and also with some great Japanese musicians - Yuji Takahashi, Masahiko Sato, around then I first met with Uchihashi, who was very young, just started that group Altered States. And Zorn was there some of the time, we did a few duo concerts in Japan. After that period, I've been going back, sometimes there were a few years I didn't go, but generally I go every year or every other year.
SB: How would you compare the past and present-day Japanese scene?
NR: The Japanese scene is still very busy, but in the late 80s and early 90s, this period when I was there, it was a kind of Golden Age, but we didn't know it. There was money from - the most obvious source was department stores. At that time, Japan was really on top of the world economically, and all the department stores had a concert hall and a musuem. I would do a one week tours up and down Japan, playing only in Seibu department stores in their concert halls - very nicely produced concerts fully attended all the time. People who were working at these stores knew all musicians and everything - it was a nice time, you could get a lot of work. Nothing paid incredibly well, but it all paid, if you did five gigs in a week, you could do fine, sell a lot of CDs. Then what happened is economics in the middle of the 90s began to crash, and the thing about all this money was Japan doesn't have taxes to where the company can write this off, this was actually in the advertizing budgets, you know, "Come to Seibu for the great concert!". Once the companies started to go into financial distress, this was the first thing that they cut, because it wasn't really a money-maker, of course. It was really for prestige. And all these companies, even up to today... And if you go to Japan now, there are homeless people in Tokyo, this rich city, but in the Ueno Park in Tokyo there are hundreds of homeless people living in a tent city. So, what I would say is there is still a scene in Tokyo, there's still the Pit-Inn, there are still some clubs where a lot people are playing, there's still a lot of improvising music going on, there's just nobody paying for that anymore. People like Otomo and Sachiko, or Uchihashi, the ones who can run around and play in Europe and other places, they are doing this. And they are playing those few gigs that pay there. When I go there, I manage to make a little money, but it's much harder to put together a group of gigs that pay well for this kind of music. The venues that are paying are this much more kind of mainstream jazz kinds of things.
SB: What are your experiences with performing in Europe?
NR: With Europe there's been more of a constant - I've been coming to Europe since 1980. I've never lived anywhere in Europe. Iíve found what happens in Europe is they get very interested in you in certain countries and you play a lot there, and they get a little tired of you, and you maybe start playing in another [place]... Then, again, there is economics, for example nobody is going to Germany like they used to. Germany started this foreigner tax on all performers. For an official gig we're all now 60 percent more expensive than we were just a few years ago, and we don't get any of the extra money. France has been very protective for a long time like that and had these taxes, and they've always been very inclined to its French musicians. I've played in all these countries, but each of them has their own little scene, France has never been very open, Germany has been, but becoming less open, certain countries like Holland and Belgium have always been quite open but those are the countries where I played a lot in early 80s, and I think they had enough of me for a while, then I didn't play there so much in the late 80s and early 90s, and now I'm starting to play there again. I've never played in Italy till about 1990, and now Italy is the best place for me. And maybe that's because they never invited me in the 80s. It comes and goes. It's amazing how you go to a certain place... I went to play in Bordeaux, France, they're asking me if I'm a disciple of Joe McPhee! I know Joe, he's a nice musician, but in Bordeaux, France Joe McPhee is like Miles Davis! And then you go somewhere else, and nobody even knows who he is. It's very funny! When I play, there are certain cities where I get a fairly big audience, and because I've played there over the years, the audiences develop. In Karlsruhe in Germany, there are certain people who were interested in me for a while, and I used to play there a lot, there was 300-400 people for a solo concert, very nice. But then you were at some other place, and it's only a couple of hundred kilometers away - nobody knows who you are. So, Europe is always kind of ebbing and flowing, and as much as we don't feel like this music is in the mainstream, it's of course very affected by real economics; when the cities have money to throw around, then it comes out and all of a sudden people show up and say there's some money for some concerts, and you make the concerts. And when nobody has any money... One of the things that's a little sad in Europe, especially in places like Germany and Austria, not that the audiences are not there, but they're getting older. Of course, you want to play for your contemporaries, but you want to get the feeling that young people are coming also. Sometimes you play in Switzerland, in Austria or in Germany and you get this thing, "My God! This audience is so old". In Russia, in Italy, particularly for me the young people are there, which is nice.
As far as the actual situation in Russia, it's hard for me to say exactly how it is, because I don't have a view from the grass roots, I was always working with Kolya, and he was making very nice presentations for me, it always seemed quite strong in terms of the audience. And people seemed interested. I guess, what I'm saying is I have a pretty positive view, but maybe it's not so typical. I've been in Russia five times - in '89, then, I think it was '91 (maybe '92?) '95, '97, '99 - and the big thing that happened over the years is this music has lost its social aspect here, which is just normal, because when I came in '89, it was a big deal, and the people were screaming "FREEDOM!" and at the same time it was a very fresh thing, and it dealt with the whole fact of the society opening up and getting a chance to hear this kind of music, and now it's kind of "Oh, what are you gonna do? Anybody can play crazy sounds". I think that listeners have grown up, they're not just exercizing some new political right to come to a concerts, they wanna hear what you're gonna do. As for Russian jazz and new music scene, I have some impression of it, but it's mostly through Nick. Clearly, there are St.Petersburg guys, and Moscow guys. Not so many women. (By the way, I was in Israel a few weeks ago and I played with Ganelin, it was the first time we played a concert together, which was very nice.) But yeah, with Russian musicians it is a bit of a diaspora. So many people have left and gone somewhere.
SB: How about Sainkho Namchylak? Was she still in Russia when you met her for the first time?
NR: No, Sainkho I didn't meet in Russia, the first time I met her to shake her hand was in Nickelsdorf, Austria, must have been just a year after she came there. She was living in Vienna, and this was this big group with Peter Kowlad and Butch Morris, they made a good CD for FMP ["When The Sun Is Out, You Don't See The Stars"], but the concert that they did there was a little difficult, it was a classic case of too many people on stage, and the sound guy didn't know who is... I could hear only a little. I could tell she was amazing, but it wasn't too easy to hear. And afterwards, I was rehearsing downstairs for this concert I was playing with Burkhard Stangl, the guitar player, and they all came into the room, and the feeling in the room was like [!] because they weren't happy. Sainkho was upset, and Butch Morris was upset, whatever. And we're just rehearsing, we catch this kind of chill from them. Anyway, I didn't know her but I knew she was something powerful. And then the next time, it was really by chance I guess, the following Fall, which I guess was 1990-1991, I was doing solo concerts in the southwestern part of Germany, and it was a festival outside Stuttgart, in a place called Manufaktur, and it was a double bill, Sainkho was doing a tour with Connie Bauer, the trombone player. I played solo and then they played duo, and it was the first time that she heard me. Then we played a little bit at the end, together - they invited me to play. And afterwards she - her English at that point was still not good, nothing nearly as good as it is now - she said, "Do you know, I feel a great connection with you". And of course, for me that was the first time to really hear her alone in this room, this incredible cackling voice, it was very exciting. So, I said "Great, we'll look for a chance to do something", and the next Spring I had one of these projects at Moers where I got to invite a bunch of musicians, I invited Kazue Sawai from Japan, and Robert Dick, and Carlos Zingaro, and Jim Staley, and Keiji Haino [and Le Quan Ninh] - and Sainkho. And we did all these improvs in these concerts, and that was nice. And then this guy Pies Knussel who was always working a lot with Russia and Switzerland, he made a tour that next year for us as a duo. And from there we did 5-6 duo tours, and one tour in the States I set up, and Kolya did some things here, although we had this one where I came all the way here, and she was stuck in Tuva, and I did them all solo even though it was supposed to be with her. Anyway, this whole relationship over these 5-6 years, I put a CD together from recordings of those concerts ["Amulet"], and it was a very strong period of music, by the end of it it was finished in the sense that I think Sainkho really... To work duo, just with woodwinds - it's not like with a piano player, or guitar player, it's not natural accompanying instrument, it's really about dialogue all the time, as opposed to instruments that can make a kind of environment for a singer to sing in. And so I think for Sainkho at the end of that period it was hard for her vocally to work, she had to sing hard a lot. Now occasionally I play with her group, as a kind of guest, but it's different, it's her stuff. I think the music we did was of the time, and I think it was strong, and I think it's well represented on that CD. Over the years, she made three duo CDs with woodwind players, one with me, one with Evan ["Mars Song"] and one with Kang Tae Hwan the Korean saxophone player ["Kang Tae Hwan/Sainkho Namtchylak"]. And I made the CD with Evan, and Evan has played with Hwan, and I have played with Hwan, a little incestuous thing [laughs]. And I think it's all quite interesting. Someone might really do some analysis. If you compare the way I played with Sainkho, and the way Evan played with Sainkho, it's completely different, because Sainkho and I played for years and years together, and basically came up with a repertoire of pieces that we did, it's almost like composed music. And Evan and Sainkho, it's very much just improvisation, if you want to explore this thing, but they have this very particular stuff, Evan has this high thing that he does with soprano, that matches up with Sainkho's voice in a very particular way. I really liked that record, I found that record very fresh, the one they did. Evan hates the cover of that record so much, that he doesn't even want to look at it, it's like "Evan, it's OK. You don't like the cover, but the music is great..." [laughs]. In any case, it's just different ways of working. I think I could say that I'm the only person from this improvising scene that Sainkho has ever worked with over a long period of time where we've put together a kind of actual repertoire, and done it for a while, as opposed to just improvising. Because if anybody is improvising, the other thing that is different, is it has a certain life in terms of the amount of time you do it, and the amount of time you get together. I did some concerts with Sainkho kind of the way that Evan did, but that was tours at the beginning. And if you keep playing together all the time, just free all the time, after times it's hard to go on, after a while you just get to the point where you hit a wall. And that's why we make pieces and work at pieces. Sainkho and Evan I think only played together maybe ten times, so it's still fresh, and they can probably get together tomorrow and that will still be like the first time. Sainkho and I, now, probably if we have played little enough, then we probably could do a concert of just improvisation, and it would be fresh like we never played together. Maybe it'll happen tonight, who knows.