Ken Vandermark: Raw and Refined
AAJ-e: Indeed, different listeners come away with different impressions. While a work fully explained loses at least some of its mystery and wonder, does it trouble you if your work isn't understood in the way you intended? Listener interpretation does seem like a double-edged sword.
KV-e: There really isn't anything I can do to regulate how a listener hears the music, nor would I want to if I could. Part of the responsibility for the creative process is placed on the audience. In an ideal situation the listeners are willing to take open-minded risks when listening to what we do. When that happens, I feel confident that their impressions will make sense relative to whatever reference points they bring to the experience.
AAJ: Can recordings misrepresent what's going on in a band? I remember reading somewhere that Ornette was upset because his saxophone was mixed too far up front on one of the Atlantic albums. On a similar note, with Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Coltrane is recorded at a volume that puts him up front. But if you reduce Coltrane's volume on the left channel to balance with the drums, it's much easier to hear the whole band firing on all cylinders.
KV: It's interesting you mention the Coltrane and Ornette stuff in this way because I just got back from Boston doing some work with Luther Gray and Joe Morris, and Luther was talking about the same thing about the Ornette Atlantic records and the John Coltrane Impulse records in terms of the drum levels; that he found them to be significantly lower than they would be in reality. And certainly Elvin Jones was a very, very powerful drummer and I think that, in a sense that music was developed and performed in person, it was designed for that. You know it's not studio music it's performance music. And I think the live albums that exist of those groups can be very helpful in maybe perceiving the balance between the instruments maybe more realistically in some cases, as they would be in performance. I mean that One Down One Up recording that just came out, you look at the photographs of John Coltrane and Elvin Jones at that club, at the Half Note, basically playing right into each other about two feet away at the most. The volume of that and the blend of that is going to be, I think iquite a bit different than it gets represented on the records.
All that kind of stuff, for me personally, is interesting because the music that Coltrane was writing, I think without question, was developed with Elvin Jones' percussion playing in mind, his drumming in mind. That's why he ended up deciding on Elvin Jones, I mean he tried other drummers who are fantastic drummers, and he was obviously looking for something only Elvin Jones was able to provide. And later he made other changes to the rhythm section as his music changed so I think that the kind of density, the polyrhythmic characteristic of Elvin's playing, the volume of Elvin's playing, were all part of the aesthetic that Coltrane was dealing with and writing for.
It would have been amazing for me to see that group play live and actually experience what it was and then, you know I could listen to those records and translate those experiences to the albums and maybe have a shorthand to the actual experience, you know what I mean?
AAJ: Oh yeah you're not alone, I missed out on live Coltrane too.
KV: Yeah, [laughs] a lot of us did.
AAJ-e: How did Hoxha come about and does this project have a future? Why was the band named after Enver Hoxha?
KV-e: The band was put together by the bassist in the group, Torsten Mueller. I really hope that we can do more work together; the opportunity to work more with that quartet would be fantastic. Dylan van der Schyff was in touch about some possible work in Europe next spring, so we'll see. Torsten named the group so you would need to ask him for the full reason behind the ensemble's name.
AAJ: I caught Hoxha's Seattle show last year and one of the things that struck me was Paul Rutherford's extended technique, he had me sitting there with my jaw open. But this was less evident in the recording of the following night in Portland. In fact, it seems like the band was maybe going in a different direction than the night before. Could this have something to do with the recording's technical limitations?
KV: Well, I think with that group, since all the music was improvised, the performances from night to night change pretty radically. The gig that you saw was quite a bit different in nature than the one that got released. And that's the thing with the recordings, even when you're working with material, composed material, pre-composed materialhowever you want to call itthe music changes a lot from performance to performance and I believe it should, otherwise the people involved aren't really trying to improvise. So there are people taking risks, musical chances and whatnot, if they're really pushing themselves. For example, if you listen to the music of the Mingus group with Eric Dolphythe live recordingsyeah they're playing basically the same collection of tunes, but the way they re-investigate from night to night makes everything sound, not just fresh but it's like a new look on a similar set of material. When you're working with a group that's improvising from the ground up where everything is essentially spontaneous decision-making and all the structures are organized on the fly, to me the groups are going to sound quite a bit different from night to night if they're looking for different ways to play.
In that particular group I think we had maybe four concerts, maybe five concerts on that, on that trip on the West Coast in Canada and the U.S., and that was the first time the band had ever played. I mean, I'd never played with Paul Rutherford before, I'd never played with Dylan van der Schyff before, I'd played with Torsten a couple times many years earlier, so for me it was really walking into a brand new situation each night. Part of that meant, well what can the group be about? What can we do, what do we play, how do we change? So I don't find it very surprising that the music was so different from night to night. And for me personally, that's kind of the goal actually, whether I'm playing compositions or improvising completely.
I can understand on the one hand if you've seen the group and then hear the recordings and say, "hey, wow, there's a real difference here," and maybe for your own interests in the music, you found the performance that you saw to be more to your liking, I'm certainly not going to argue with that [laughs], but I think that a couple of things happen; one thing that's going on is that by seeing the group live and not to harp on this too much but, you're also seeing the interaction live. You're seeing, you're hearing not things through a recording, but the way they sounded acoustically in that room. The way the sound would travel around in that room, the way we looked, the physical actions connected to the sonic actions, and all these thingsthat's why I love live music. That's why I like to play and perform so much and do so many concerts because all that stuff is so fresh. The freedom to look for something new each night is the reason why I play the music I do. So that's one thing, I think that the live experience has such a big impact on the way the music is received. And then also, the nature of the recording that's been released. I'm sure the most interesting thing to me would have been if you could have seen both concerts. And the response and the perception of the music by seeing both of the concerts, I'd be very curious to see what your perspective on it was then, because some of the power I think you're suggesting on the concert you saw was connected to the live aspect of it. That's why I wish there were more chances for all these groups to play more than one show in a town.
AAJ: Some of the subtleties, the nuances that went on that night, I suspect they just wouldn't translate to recordings. You only have so many decibels to work with and you're bound to lose some of the details that you'd hear in person.
KV: I agree. I've spent a long time listening to the music I'm working with, playing it, seeing it live, listening to it on albums, and it's taken me years to try to appreciate the way the music gets organized by membersyou know, the people who play completely free music, and start off understanding the music of Evan Parker or Derek Bailey. It took a long time to get to it to where I could hear it as I hear it now with a sense of understanding. I think that with completely improvised music, the signposts, the reference points for people who are maybe more familiar with the mainstream of jazz, the things that they're going to connect to are not self-evident off recordings. In a live situation however, a lot of the relationships that they would see in a more conventional, let's say jazz performance, are there too. They can see the, the visual communication, the cause and effect, the transfer of information in a way that's very difficult to assemble from only hearing a recording. And I know for a fact that the music that's been in an unconventional and pushing boundary lines was...it was always easier for me to get to the experience when I could see it live. It was much quicker for me to receive the information and make the conceptual shifts in my thinking necessary to get to the music, and then I can go back and listen to the recordings and get a lot more out of them. And that's after spending a lifetime listening to this kind of music, you know.
So I think that the subtleties you're talking about in terms of a live performance, there's a lot to that and I think with music that people are unfamiliar with, the more times they can see the thing live, the better off they're going to beto realize how essential the basic characteristics of music are to music that's freely improvised or music that's organized by compositional techniques that are set up before the performance.