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Mark Feldman: His Own Music, His Own Sound, His Own Aesthetic

By Published: January 29, 2007
AAJ: You certainly don't sound like any sort of egomaniac to me, that's for sure.

MF: Well, I think it's good when I hear it, but I am surprised. But I wonder how the hell I did it; it almost seems like someone else. Then, when you go out and play, you have to forget about all this technical stuff.

AAJ: And then you forget about that experience and it's back to practicing.

MF: Then it's back to practicing. I guess someday I'm going to find more of a connection between practicing and playing. Then maybe things will work out even better—I don't know.

AAJ: Speaking of Masada Recital—that pulls us into talking more about John Zorn, with whom you've collaborated in a variety of settings. He's obviously a pretty looming musical figure. These groups you've played in like Masada Recital, Masada String Trio or Bar Kokhba Sextet approach his music as interpreters of his compositions, which are somewhat flexible forms. Sometimes, he's actually conducting the groups. It's interesting to hear a song like "Abidan performed by the String Trio as opposed to Masada Recital. What attracts you to his pieces and what do you think they bring out of you as a musician?

MF: Basically, he demands a really high standard of exactness, and so [laughing] I'm just trying to get there and do it. What it brings out of me, I don't know. I know that after working with him, my ideas about clarity and precision became much more clear and precise. I really see his mind—he's so clear. And that's really what's so great about his music. It's so clear. The intent of his music is so clear. So as a performer, I think you're just trying to perform on a level where you're not screwing up enough to get in the way of that.

And I don't mean that his music is precise in the sense of it being just technical. It's precise in its intent. It's never like, "What's he going after here? You never say, "You know, I was with him up to this point, and then I didn't know what he was going for. You like it or you don't like it, but it's really clear what he's saying. From the beginning to the end and that's true of everything he does, from his string quartets to his tone-poem pieces like "Duras and down to the Masada tunes. It's all really clear. Which sounds simple, like, okay, "Just be clear. But when you really see it demonstrated to you—it made a big impression on me.

AAJ: This has nothing with what you do now, but I'm interested in your pre-New-York, 1980s career as a Nashville player. I know you did a lot of touring and recording with country guys like Willie Nelson, Ray Price, George Jones and Jerry Lee Lewis.

MF: Well, with some of those guys, it was recording, and with some it was touring. I toured with Loretta Lynn for a year on the bus. That was 120 concerts in 365 days, plus the travel days. We were on the kind of bus with the bunks—you don't see them so much in New York. You get out into South Jersey, and you'll see them. Those kinds of big buses where it'll say "Conway Twitty on the side.

AAJ: Well, tell me what it was like touring with Loretta.

MF: Well, it was funny. Her son was in the band. I sort of chopped up the players in Loretta's band into two categories: lifers and non-lifers. Lifers were people who were definitely going to be there for the long haul. Then there were people like me, who were just sort of there out of a kind of happenstance. They didn't want to do this their whole life. And I remember the first day I was on the job. Her son and I went into the men's room, and he turned around to me while standing at a urinal and said, "This is where we pee. I forget his name.

AAJ: It was nice of him to take you under his wing.

MF: Well, I felt like he was trying to tell me, "I know you're not one of us. You're here from Time Magazine or something. It was just spooky when he said that. And the road manager was a member of the American Nazi Party. But her business manager was Jewish, so it all really ran the gamut. I felt like it was a combination of being in the army and being a truck driver, except that instead of carrying a gun or driving a truck, I had a violin. It was army-like in the pecking order and seniority vibe about it, and also in the scheduling. And it was truck-driver-like in that every seven hours, I was eating in a truck stop—and I felt like I had the right to use the booths that said, "For Professional Drivers Only. I had kind of earned that status.

So it was really a truck-driving, army-like experience, and I saw so much of the country, which was really great. I played a place in Georgia that still had a dirt floor; it was this open-air place with a roof and these old kinds of electric fans. And a dirt floor. I played a place in Louisiana that had a tree growing in the middle of the dance floor. All these things I would never have seen. I feel like I definitely learned about America and since I came from Chicago and later moved to New York, I ended with a whole viewpoint about Americans that's much broader than if I had stayed in Chicago or New York.

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