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Tom Christensen: Outside the Comfort Zone

By Published: July 5, 2005
AAJ: You're allowed.

TC: Yeah, I mean, whatever. It's not a school assignment [laughing]. So I took it apart; some were based on a retrograde, some were based on imposing two retrograde inversions that were a tritone apart, some were based on only half of the row. So I basically picked kind of a style for each one and then I tried to tailor them to make a twelve-movement piece.

AAJ: That sounds like that would be the hardest part.

TC: It was; it was hard to find ways to join them all together. So, for instance, there's one that has a bunch of Asian themes in it—that's the wood flute one— so I looked into some Korean music that has this really great sparse kind of thing going on. So I took some of that, and did other things to portray violence or scary monsters [laughing] or lust—whatever. There were all kinds of different moods.

So the poem itself has, to me anyway, this kind of wandering quality through it and it's not a poem about exactly one thing, as far as I can tell. In fact, Grace Hartigan painted twelve paintings called "Oranges 1 , " Oranges 2, "Oranges 3, and so on, and each one of those seemed to me to be a capturing of one element. She did the same thing, in other words, painting-wise, that I did musically.

AAJ: I haven't seen those; I'm going to have to look those paintings up

TC: They're hard to find, actually. She's not exactly the most well-known painter in the world, but she was one of the people around that time painting a lot, and a good friend of Frank O'Hara's. So that's where "Oranges come from. But I really spent a lot of time trying to make that work. It was very hard.

AAJ: It does seem hard, and of all the songs on New York School, it seems like the one where it would be hardest to declare, "this is good and I think it's finished.

TC: Absolutely. At some point, I had to say that, and we played it; I thought, well, we'll just play it on the gigs, and we did a little tour and a bunch of concerts, and I would ask the guys after each gig, "did that suck?

AAJ: [Laughing] It's that kind of song where you're not quite sure!

TC: Yeah, I don't know, and I still actually don't really have an answer for it. That was actually the one for me that was the most difficult thing to put together and to do that way. But, you know, when you challenge yourself sometimes, you get your butt kicked a little bit.

AAJ: Sometimes, yeah. Did you record it straight through?

TC: No. I know we recorded the first five [parts] together. Wherever there's a little break we kind of stopped for a second so that we could get a real intense blast on each thing. But most of the stuff on the record, we actually recorded straight through or with very few things; you know, the head might have been a little better on one and we used it. We did do a bit of overdubbing on "Sleeping. We fixed a couple little things, but most of all, we'd played it a lot. Of all the records, I think this one has the most cohesive rhythm section feel and groove.

One tune that I really like on the CD is "Further Digressions. It's based on both the poem [Frank O'Hara's "Further Digressions on Number One and the painting [Jackson Pollock's "Number One ]; the poem is about Frank O'Hara's kind of joy that he feels on seeing this Pollock painting which is hanging in MOMA in New York. And there's actually two paintings: there's one called "Number One, there's another one called "One Number Thirty-One.

When I was writing the music, I had to go out to Queens, because MOMA was shut down; the New York branch was closed for renovations. The actual painting Frank O'Hara refers to in his poem was in Berlin, so I looked at the other one. They're very similar, and again, I didn't feel it was important to be absolutely literal. So I went to see this painting called "Number One that's in MOMA, and there was no one out there in Queens, so I was able to sit for a very long time in front of this painting and try to get at the structure—something that I hadn't necessarily done with Pollock before.

Even though I had really enjoyed his stuff, I hadn't looked at those drip paintings and looked for an underlying structure. But in fact, with this one, there really was. It was basically lines and dots in four basic colors. And I was surprised at how absolutely organized it really was.

So I tried to make a piece, then, using that structure of dots and lines, which is where the dots come from in the rhythm section part and the lines come [from] in the horn part— which is kind of a reversal of a traditional rhythm section/horn thing. Then I tried to write some sections, especially the section at the end, to represent the sort of freewheeling, improvisatory, joyous qualities you feel from watching Pollock paint like that—or looking at the painting.

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