Roy Nathanson: Auditory Circus
AAJ: The University of Wisconsin Geology Museum sponsored "The Rock Concert: a Celebration of Time," which also became an album (in 2005). How did this commission come about?
RN: I have a friend named Vicky whose childhood friend was this guy Joe Skulan, who runs that museum. They were looking for somebody, they have these amazing things happen in science, but nobody can actually perceive them. So they had this idea...
They just found this piece of geological material in the west of Australia... Zircon, a piece of a little pebble. With this new kind of dating they had been able to date it to 4.4 billion years ago, before that the oldest piece of geological material had been 3.8; that the earth had cooled enough to allow things to harden. That means that they were wrong, they always thought it took 500/600 million years for the earth to cool... I just think it's really cool to think about. It is an amazing difference.
So I wrote a piece that talks about how we perceive numbers and talks about how we perceive time. When you were born...that's the farthest you know. So I would talk about how when my mother sent me out to buy stuff at the drugstore that was to me 3 billion years ago. And we have this character of my science teacher that we locked in the closet and he gives you the real deal on objective time. I tried to compare these things and also, in the composition, to juxtapose different time fields and different actual metrics things against each other. So that it became kind of a meditation on time basically.
AAJ: The album is a sort of skewed valentine to the daily life of youth and their concerns. It has great seemingly divergent ideas, which flow into one another linked together through the idea of this ancient pebble and your old neighborhood in Flatbush in Brooklyn. It seem as if with the nature of memory and time you could keep adding movements to the piece despite it being associated to some extent with your youth. Are there tracks or ideas, which came to you after the fact?
<RN: No, not really... it's just like a poem. When it was really about was the fact that I just moved back this neighborhood that I had left. When I had left it was after all these tragedies in my family and so in my mind I had left it when I was 12/13 years old, every thing was great and then I left. And now I came back and it was 40 years later, it was crazy.
It was also connected with that idea of that crazy pagoda, which is a real thing. That pagoda was really there when I was a kid and you would walk past the house and the lights were never on. And you pass it now and the lights are never on. It's really freaky. That was a strong enough image for me to think about, memory in transition, and the fact that it was made of rocks.
So then it was hilarious, and actually there's a funny story connected with that: the guy who made the discovery and the guy who developed the dating system for the rock (from the University of Perth in Australia), came to the concert. So the two of them are sitting there and I have this kind of slapstick scene at the end where they can find the rock. He was freaked out that the dress rehearsal, he was like he did not want us to put the thing on. He said it was disrespectful. I think we had to do something where we didn't use his name or I can't remember what... When people saw it, they loved it; and there was a standing ovation and he was like the first one to stand up.
One thing that's weird in my life is that I am always doing these gigantic projects that you can never do again. But that's one of the nice things about things teaching now and having this kind of domestic life, having different expectations... I try to have some idea or something; then I do it. For years, I was railing against how marginalized this kind of music and art that I was doing was.
I remember when I was teaching at this elementary school around the time of those grants and Blondie had this reissue... and I did a record in 1998. The secretary of the school, who had seen me and knew that I had been on tour with Debbie for four years by then says to me "Hey I see your friend Debbie Harry got back in the music business." It's like what we do just is not even the music business. It's not even what most people define as music.
AAJ: In 2001 you were commissioned by Public Radio International in association with WNYC to create the radio play You're the Fool. This too is connected with time and memory. You play on of the main characters named Jay who is dealing with among other things, his father's Alzheimer's...
RN: If you look at the discography between 2000 and 2006, I really don't even have a commercial record but I did a lot of stuff on The Next Big Thing. It's originally recorded for WNYC, which is New York public radio and then it is syndicated on PRI. It was all over the country, but it didn't get to every city. It was on for like four years and I did the theme song for it. They commissioned me to a whole record and then commissioned another sax quartet; so instead of doing records I was on this show with a guy, Dean Olsher... I did a lot of stuff on that show. It was a great thing, but it's done now.
AAJ: In your mind when creating these types of works is it separate for you and your artistic identity from the more musical "you?"
RN: It's pretty much one big whole body now. In fact until very recently, that was what was interesting about the Dolphy thing, I feel like I finally freed myself. For the last five or six may be even eight years, I feel like I don't really feel like I can play music without attaching words to it in some way. I can do it but it doesn't feel like it's the full deal. Now I've become so saturated with that idea and that identity of it, that it's kind of easier for me to defy them now, than it ever was before.
AAJ: I have noticed that you have all sorts of commissions, do you ever find it restricting because you are expected to work upon a certain theme?
RN: The theme is not restricting, but the rules can be restricting. Like: the Jazz Passengers are more famous than Sotto Voce, so I would get a commission for the Jazz Passengers but I wanted to use different instrumentation because that's really what was correct for the piece but the people who grant the commission don't want that; they want you to use that instrumentation. How do you know what the hell the instrumentation is until you write the piece anyway? The thing about it is that there's so little money for commissions and stuff, for art commissions; compared to Europe. It's one thing that you're going to get $30,000.00 to do something, I'm not complaining, I have gotten my share of stuff, but getting $5,000.00 for something that's going to take six months to do... you can't pay your bills or do anything like that and have so many restrictions, it's just ridiculous.
AAJ: Memory is an interesting terrain in that even though we may know what inhabits this mental landscape the location itself always seems to change as we grow older... the memory continues to morph. What is the appeal for you of using youth, memory and time as a muse?
RN: We just went on a family vacation. I went to Washington DC with my ten year old kid. I was in Washington in 1971 demonstrating against the Vietnam War and saw some friend of mine get bashed over the head and get 50 stitches. I was there and playing a blues album with Charlie. I was there playing the 9:30 Club with the Lounge Lizards. I went through seeing the same place with totally different identities. Now I'm walking around the Washington monument with my wife, with the camera... walking around with all the tourists.
Usually, I personally I can't really enjoy things at the moment. I can only enjoy them through memory; which is kind of a problem with me. I actually had fun...we were with this other family, our friends and she is always pissed because basically I practice all the time and work all the time; I'm a workaholic. So it took three days away and I barely did anything, which is amazing for me. I liked it at the moment but I still like it better in retrospect.
Memory is like the window of art. It's the biggest window of art because it's a way of organizing; it's the way of controlling and organizing. I used to love the Lawrence Durrell stuff and also the Oliver Sacks stuff was great. I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, I love all that stuff... Also, if you've had real tragedies in your life, all of your life then becomes about how you organize memory.