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Interviews

Joe McPhee Interview

By Published: June 16, 2005

AAJ: Actually, you're still playing with Boni, and it looks like there are some CDs going to be released now for the first time...

JM: Yeah, most recently we did a series of—well, it was a project that Boni wanted to do for a long time, and all the playing, we've done, and we've played duets in concert; we've never recorded duets. So there's a label in France called Emouvance, which put out some of Boni's stuff, and he got them to agree to this project, and while I was there he said, "you know, we're gonna go on tour and we'll do a whole bunch of recordings and see what happens." Well, they turned out quite wonderfully, and instead of just being one recording, I think there's enough for maybe [starts laughing] four—I don't know—at least—[laughing] maybe more. You know, because they're all different.

AAJ: Before we get too far from our discussion of instruments, actually, I want to ask about a few of the other things. I guess the two instruments that really would stand out here in terms not belonging to the same families as the instruments you typically play would be, on one hand, the didgeridu that you play sometimes—I guess your PVC didgeridu—and, on the other hand, your breath controller instrumentÃ?—?your MIDI instrument.

JM: Which one—where shall we begin. Let's begin with the Casio DH500 MIDI instrument, because that precedes the other one. Casio made these saxophone— sort of electronic saxophone-looking things in the early 80s, and they were supposed to be fun, and accessible to a lot of people, and they were. There's one called a DH100 which is pretty common—you can find them in used shops and all—because they don't make them anymore. The DH500, the big one that I have, is fairly rare. I found it in like Sam Ash music shop or something in New York—in White Plains, New York, and they were in a big pile—not a big pile; there were a few of them there—and I thought, "wow, that's interesting. It looks almost like a saxophone: it's bigger than the other one and it seems more saxophone-like than the other one—more possibilities—so I bought it. Well, it has it's own speaker in it, and it's also MIDI, and it can drive other things, but I particularly like the strange sound that came out of it—more theremin-like, but not exactly, and it has portamento, so you can bend pitches and so on like that, and I liked the kind of science fiction sound of it. I use it with its own sound, because, you know, trying to make it sound like a piano, an organ, or a saxophone is sort of ridiculous—why do you want to imitate some other instrument; just let it be whatever it is, and try to see what I can use it, and I've used it with Pauline Oliveros' band; I was commissioned to do a piece with that band, and it begins with that Casio, to sort of set the mood. You can amplify it and play it with guitar effects, and I like that. The PVC pipe didgeridu—I played a real didgeridu on a recording with Jerome Bourdellon called Novio Iolu. Jerome has a didgeridu, and I liked it. The PVC pipe one—it seemed to me—was very practical because I could cut it into sections and assemble it; it would fit in my luggage; it doesn't weight very much. A real didgeridu is quite heavy, and you can't cut it up, you know; it's just the way it is. And I could also change the pitch of it slightly by varying the lengths of the pipe. It's limited. As you remember, when Harold Smith played the instrument in Philadelphia, it was extraordinary; it was powerful—I've never heard such a sound. [Harold Smith, who appears on some of McPhee's early recordings as a drummer, showed up unexpectedly with a massive didgeridu on July 26, 2000 at a Philadelphia concert by McPhee with Dominic Duval and Bobby Zankel. They hadn't seen each other in over 25 years, and Smith joined the group at the end.] It showed me therefore the limits of my PVC thing, and I had to like, you know, do something about that! I also changed the shape of mine, so that instead of playing it straight out from my face, it's more like in the shape of a saxophone; I have a bent neck and so on like that. And I'm going to play through some processing, some guitar-processing stuff, and add some little tricks to it, and I call it my "didgEridu"—"E" for electronically processed sounds", and I can manipulate pitch and add some kind of maybe rhythmic things to it—I don't know exactly what it's all gonna entail, but it's fun to play with. Well, my 50-CD set with didgEridu will probably bring all this out [laughter].

AAJ: [referring to a performance at the Red Room in Baltimore on April 1, 2000, with Joe Giardullo and Jerome Bourdellon] That Baltimore concert was—there was so much tension hanging in the air with every note, because—I think in that particular room there's a sense in which everyone trusts each other; people are there because they really care about listening. I wonder if maybe, as a musician, there are certain performance spaces where you feel more comfortable really letting go, or, you know, really losing yourself to the moment?

JM: Well that's a situation where I try to be as often as possible, because I don't want any constraints—I don't want to think about anything—like I said: the thought process will slow you down. It's very important to hear what's happening and to have a sense of the people you're playing with. And there's a lot of trust there—it's, again, akin to walking naked on a razor blade: you walk very carefully; you can do it, but you have to be careful in where you put your down and how you do it, and be respectful of other people—they can knock you off and you'll be cut to shreds, you know. That's what it's all about—not interesting to me, but, some people—that's what it's about—seeing if you can cut somebody up or whatever—these kind of competitive things—I'm not interested in that. And with Joe and with Jerome it's not competitive; it's sharing.



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