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Tom Christensen: Outside the Comfort Zone

By Published: July 5, 2005
AAJ: Yeah, and you guys are articulating the syllables of that phrase that's the poem's title [sings badly]: "Slee-ping with wo-men.

TC: The title of the song, "Asleep and Sleeping with Them, is just a line from the poem because I didn't want to call the song "Sleeping with Women and sound like—a pig, or something. In the poem that phrase, "sleeping with women, comes up like a riff—just like that figure you heard in the piece. But the actual saxophone parts in the beginning are exactly the same rhythm as the words in the poem. And then the melody of the tune: the first half of that melody is also exactly the rhythm of the poem. The first line of the melody matches "everything south of Naples. It's kind of technical, but that's an example of me trying to push myself outside of my comfort zone for composition.

AAJ: Speaking of your bassist and drummer, Kermit Driscoll and Satoshi Takeishi: I really like the way they accompany the soloists on "Guardians. It's subtle, but there's a certain independence. They don't obsessively follow the soloists, but they certainly aren't ignoring you either.

TC: Yeah! I know. I have to say, a lot of that's Kermit's thing. Kermit plays that way. He has this way of playing a dialogue with you and pushing you here and there, and doing it all with the utmost of taste and discretion. But he doesn't at all obsessively follow you. And Satoshi literally can do anything. If Kermit's doing that, Satoshi will do it too. And if Kermit decides not to do it—or if we're playing with Ben Allison or someone who does more following of the soloists, Satoshi would do that too, and do it so well.

AAJ: He's got good antennae.

TC: He's got great antennae. But yeah, Kermit did that a lot, and I thought it was great. He was really his own man. Kermit's a great kind of unsung hero.

AAJ: It seems that way.

TC: I guess he did a lot of stuff in the eighties with Bill Frisell, but he's around New York a lot and does all different kinds of work—and he's a great, great musician and a great person, too. Great spirit.

AAJ: We've talked a great deal about your other instruments, but I really like the two-tenor numbers on your albums. Getting back to "Guardians —which I think is one of your best ones—feel free to disagree, but in some way it reminds me of "Just to Play on Paths, even though that one seems like a pretty intentional Ornette hommage. There's something about the two songs that seems of a piece.

TC: Hmmm. That thought never crossed my mind, actually. Yeah, the solo sections, there's a certain similarity there because, you know, my solo is more of an intellectual kind of dissection of the melody in both, and then there's a kind of an interlude, and a calming-down thing. And Walt and Charlie both take it in a whole 'nother direction. Yeah, there is a similarity in the solo sections, I think, and then in the melodies, there's that kind of a note-y thing happening at the beginning and so forth.

AAJ: Your English horn—another great trademark of yours—is particularly nice on "Your Strange Son. I like the whole tune, though. It's got a slightly disquieting kind of uneasy beauty that does somewhat resemble the O'Hara poem ["To My Dead Father ] that influenced the song.

TC: That was an easy kind of thing to write; in fact, it was the first thing I wrote. I don't know that this is true, actually, but I was thinking that as a gay man and a poet in the fifties, [O'Hara] probably—I don't know what his relationship with his father was, but there's every chance that it wasn't completely easy. And the way he wrote that poem just made me think that maybe he was expressing how he could see his father's face in his own, and how he might not have known his father as deeply as he might have wished.

Whether that had to do with his lifestyle or his career choice, or his—whatever, I don't know. But it didn't even matter that much to me; it just got me thinking along those lines: do we really know our parents, and also that that amazing deep love that a parent has for his child and a child for his parent is really complicated. I thought about the maybe bittersweet aspect of that, and so tried to portray that in the song and to write a pretty melody that had the qualities, exactly, that you describe. A disquieting kind of beauty.

AAJ: Now we definitely have to discuss "Oranges from the new album, which is the multipart piece. It's interesting in many ways. All the musicians are featured at some point, and in all sorts of different configurations, but there's also a kind of zen austerity to the whole thing as well. Tell me how this piece was created.

TC: Well, it was hard. First of all, have you read [O'Hara's poem] "Oranges?

AAJ: I have not yet read that one, no.

TC: Good luck. It's crazy. It's a great poem, but it's really a complicated poem with a lot of literary allusions and strange, bizarre imagery. I knew it was one of his major works. I said, "I have to tackle this and figure out how to do it. I mean, "In Memory of My Feelings is a long poem and a complicated one also, but I chose to go at that from another angle—kind of the way Jasper Johns went at it, which is just to try to portray a vibe of the whole thing.

But "Oranges, I thought, well, I'm going to see if I can get into this. And it's challenging because I'm by no means an expert on poetry or art. So I took the poem to my English teacher buddy, who sat down with it and scratched his head, made a couple of notes on it. ... He said, "you know, you should read this poem just like you listen to a piece of music: just read it and whatever it means to you and however it hits you, that's one thing that Frank O'Hara wanted to get across. He certainly isn't writing only for people with doctorates in English lit. So I did that and I tried to take the essence of each piece [like Christensen's song, O'Hara's poem is divided into twelve sections, or "pastorals ]—what it meant to me and what it seemed to portray.

And when I sat down with him again ... we talked about it and figured out a little essence of each of the sections. There's twelve sections, and so I wrote a row, a twelve-tone row, and I used it on each of the twelve sections. And each section is based on some crazy permutation of a twelve-tone row—although I completely disregarded the general rules of twelve-tone composition in many cases.

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