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Alex Cline: Free-Spirited Drummer

By Published: March 9, 2009
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It was in high school that Cline also began exploring various percussion instruments. In his music, and his composition, he's as much a percussionist as straight drummer. He puts various instruments to work in wonderful ways, adding color and texture—sometimes stark noises that start to take the music in another direction.

Alex Cline

"It was a combination of a lot of those kinds of sounds being introduced into music at that time, in a fairly pronounced way," he says. "Miles was using Aierto Moiera and the Weather Report

Weather Report
Weather Report

stuff with Dom Um Romao; and Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders
and that whole post-Coltrane thing where there was a lot of exotic percussion being employed. The AACM, with all the unusual percussion instruments and people like the Art Ensemble Of Chicago
Art Ensemble Of Chicago
Art Ensemble Of Chicago

using a lot of gongs and all kinds of sounds. Then there were people I was listening to coming from the European scene who were playing jazz and free improvised music, some of whom had a profound influence on me. Most notably, a British percussionist named Frank Perry, Pierre Farve from Switzerland, Tony Oxley from England. People in the so-called avant-garde. All those guys. That really attracted me.

"My brother and I had both been obsessed with unusual sounds—different ways to make them and get sounds to happen. That's always been a fascination for both of us. The other thing was the funny noise aspect of that. For me, there became cultivated a deep appreciation and love for beautiful long, sustaining resonant sounds. The instruments that can produce those sounds have often wound up being some of my best teachers. Those sounds can demand that they be respected and employed in certain ways. Those are sounds and that is an approach that continues to inform a lot of my own musical ideas and find their way into the music that I make.

"This is one of the reasons that, early on, I got into giving solo percussion concerts, though I don't do much of that now. I really wanted a lot of those sounds to be able to be heard, unimpeded. Now I try to create contexts for them. At the same time, I still like playing the drums, whether it's jazz or whatever it is. (Playing percussion) is another side of what I do that's very strong. I try to combine it all somehow and hope it all makes sense in the end."

Cline attended Pierce College in Los Angeles and was an art student. He was still uncertain about his future, but his eventual goal was to become an art teacher. "That was a plan put into place before the music thing became so overwhelming. I could see the musical impulse was taking over. My inspiration was taking the form of music rather than the visual art medium. I took a break from going to college to figure out what direction I was going to decide to go. During that break was when I recorded my first three albums and did a European tour with Julius Hemphill. There ended my academic art career."

Cline's reputation got around and work grew. In 1979, Alex and his brother, along with pianist Eric von Essen and Gauthier formed Quartet Music, a group that had four recordings over its life and was awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. Some of Alex's compositions came to the fore in that group and he has also served as composer and/or performer for numerous modern dancers and dance companies in Los Angeles, including Margaret Schuette, Linda Fowler, the Momentum Company, Dance/LA, the UCLA Dance Company, Belinda Cheng's Auricle Ensemble, Oguri and Roxanne Steinberg (Body Weather Laboratory), and Open Gate Theatre. Visual artists with whom Alex has collaborated for live performances include Carole Kim, Yoshio Ikezaki, Kio Griffith, 2-Tu, and Norton Wisdom.

Alex Cline / Jeff Gauthier Goatette

He recorded his first album, the solo percussion double-LP Not Alone (9 Winds), in 1982. His first album as a bandleader-composer, The Lamp and The Star (ECM) was done in 1987. The Alex Cline Ensemble produced three more albums. Cline's compositions are also heard on recordings or in performances by Dennis Gonzalez, Shooting Stars and Traffic Lights, Barre Phillips and the Jeff Gauthier Goatette.

"The Alex Cline Ensemble didn't get to play that much. Quartet Music was extremely active for about 11 years. We played a lot of gigs. We had a huge repertoire of music, most of which, sadly, is not documented, " Cline says. "Eric von Essen wrote most of our music, but we all contributed compositions to that group. That group demanded that I put together a setup of instruments that was completely different than the one I used for anything else. It became a very strong collective unit. But during that time, I was still playing all kinds of music with other people that largely defined how I spent most of my time.

"At the same time, it might be said that the level of enjoyment and commitment that I experienced with groups like Quartet Music and other groups I was playing with in town—that was one of the reasons I never moved (from L.A.). That, and extra-musical reasons like the fact our family was here and things like that. I didn't ever feel a deep need to relocate because I was really enjoying and committed to what I was doing here.

"Now I don't travel much at all. I play here. I do a lot of different things on the west coast. But it's pretty rare that I get out of here."

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