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Joe McPhee Interview

By Published: June 16, 2005

AAJ: [following a brief discussion about dance together with music] I've recently become really attuned to that side of music I think after watching certain musicians that seem to have this element of dance as sort of an inherent part of what they're doing, and I'm thinking in particular of Barre Phillips and also Toshi Makihara—it seems like there's really an incredible crossover between the music and the dance, and there's an elegance in the movements. Are there any musicians that you've experienced that with yourself?

JM: Cecil Taylor. He's very much into dance and movement and so on. But then, you know, he's interested in, I think, that element which combines or brings together the architectural thing and the music, and these forms and moves and shapes and so forth that dance presents, I think is like architecture in motion as far as I'm concerned.

AAJ: Architecture in motion—hmm, that's nice; I like that. I was actually thinking about sculpture in motion when I was seeing Toshi's solo performance the other day, where he was exploring all the different things you could do with those basic pieces of metal and things, you know—taking them apart and moving them around.

JM: There's a reference in that "Eroc Tinu" [poem written by Joe that appears in Intervals: the Poems and Words of Musicians, edited by Hershel Silverman and Steve Dalachinsky] to dancers, but the reference is to deep sea dancers, and there I'm referring to the middle passage and slaves being thrown off the ship and that sort of thing. But there's another poem—I don't know if it's in there—called "Tree Dancing", and "Tree Dancing" is a little poem about something I observed one time as a storm was approaching. I was sitting on a porch at a friend's house. Across the field, you don't see the wind but you can see the effects of the wind through the trees. And there were these tall trees that looked like the long legs of dancers, and as the wind came through, it was like these fingers that came through and began to move, and they started to move like that and sway, and as the wind became more violent they moved back and forth and they looked like these dancers with incredibly wonderfully choreographed movement, so my poem was because—as it was also becoming night, and there was a full moon—it goes like this:

when the moon is high
and the air is a fresh light green,
They do.[chuckles]

AAJ: [echoing] They do.

JM: Trees dance.

AAJ: That's beautiful. Thanks.

Actually, talk about poetry and dance—what about the visual arts? I'm quite curious to hear what you think about that.

JM: Well, I've always been influenced by painters and so on. Craig Johnson, who started CJR records—he was a painter—he is a painter—he lives out in Seattle now, and a very friend close of mine, Alton Pickens, who taught at Vassar College in the Art Department there—he passed away in 1991—he was a marvelous painter, and some of his pieces are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. And a couple years ago, I did a program dedicated to him, sort of celebrating his life and his art, at a place called Merkin Hall in New York, and I had what's called my "wind and string ensemble"— Dominic Duval, a cellist named Monica Wilson, Rosie Hertlein on violin—Dominic played an instrument called a Hutchins bass, which is on Dream Book, and Joe [Giardullo], and we played music in which there was no written parts, only prints of Alton's work, and descriptions of his work that I gave, because he lived at my house, actually, for maybe 8 or 9 years. He had an accident and fell down some stairs and became sort of paralyzed, lost his memory, had this amnesia and so like that, and I sort of looked after him—that was another reason why I didn't do any recording for a long time. And around the time that happened, my mother was very ill with terminal cancer, and I was looking after him at his place—his apartment and so forth—and running home—I was also working at a factory at the same time. So it became very difficult—life became very difficult, and Alton was living in a place where his landlord wanted to turn his place into some commercial space or something, and it became so difficult I just moved him in to live with me, and so my mother died and so on like that, and to help him kind of regain his memory and get back to—because he had a studio and he got back eventually to working in his studio and painting and so on. We had many conversations about art and about philosophy—he was an extraordinary person, and, in fact, when I went to Europe the first time, we stopped in this little bar to have a beer and he said "Well, what are you going to do in Europe?', and I said "Well, I'm going with a synthesizer", and he said "What's that?". I said "It's an electronic instrument; it has these wonderful possibilities", and he looked at me and he became more and more agitated, and he said "Well, what does it do?". I said "Well, it can do this and it can do that and so on", and he was furious; he stormed out an went back to his studio, and he said "When it can make some music, you come back here and tell me something, but possibilities—don't tell me about possibilities", and he put on a Pablo Cassals recording of Bach cello suites from 1939—it's an amazing recording, and we sat and listened to that and so on, and he said "Now, play something for me", so I put on an Albert Ayler recording with "The Truth is Marching In"—he loved it; he said "Now that's music—you do that". So that's why I told you when I went to France and we ended our tour and went to the American Center, I played "The Truth is Marching In" because it was at his place. That's how that's connected.

JM: But I also like cooking, because for me it's the same process. But then you deal with taste, and this also involves improvisation, because I can take basic ideas in various cultures and various cuisines and so on like that, and I try to remember what it was I tasted and what went into it and try to approximate it and then to move away from or come closer to it, and so I'm a very good cook—and then I can give it to people and it's like a concert.

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