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Interviews

An AAJ Interview with Larry Ochs

By Published: February 28, 2009
AAJ: On Nov. 18-19, you conducted a workshop and solo performance at Cal Arts. What aspects of SOLO improvisation do you find to be a) the most appealing or useful and b) the most difficult or problematic? Why?

LO: I'm not a practitioner of solo music, not now, not ever, so I'll skip this question altogether. (In fact, I ended up playing at CAL ARTs with a student rhythm section). Or I could say to (a) the most appealing thing is to listen to others do it well. And the most useful aspect of it was to understand—as I got into playing—all the possible language extensions that existed on the saxophone. It's also a way to really hear the idea of continuity of thought in music.

AAJ: Do you consider the saxophone to be a physical extension of yourself or is it simply a tool? As follow up, is there a tactile pleasure for you while playing the saxophone? (i.e., in addition to the sonic qualities is there also a distinct satisfaction with regard to how the instrument physically reacts to you or vice versa?)

LO: I'm an artist whose tool of choice is the saxophone.

When I'm in my studio practicing, I can get off on the tactile aspects of the saxophone. But that can only really occur when there's no one else around to listen to or to influence the music, as the physicality of the instrument has nothing to do with making music. (However, in the context of certain pieces I have written for sax quartet, I have employed some of these physical areas particular to saxophone—or to tenor saxophone, or sopranino.)

AAJ: With regards to the concept of language, as a result of your participation in various and diverse projects over the past 20+ years, do you view yourself as having acquired a number of musical languages or having continually extended and expanded a single musical language? (i.e., are you multi-lingual or in possession of a deep, broad vocabulary?)

LO: I'd say the latter. While listening to musics from all over the world and being influenced by them compositionally and otherwise, as a player I've tried to understand my own strengths and interests and to focus on developing those areas, as opposed to becoming a musician who could plug into any musical situation and make it happen. I never felt there was the time to do that, as I didn't start playing saxophone until I was 21. (I did play other instruments in elementary and high schools). Looking back, I know that my attitude was not a correct one, but I'm also not sorry about where it's led me, and I do wonder what my musical life would be if I'd been amenable to studying all musics from the start. If I'd taken a more standard path, I can't be sure I'd have reached the place I'm at now. But then it's a completely irrelevant matter at this point because here I am.

AAJ: In "Improvisation: It's Nature and Practice in Music" improvising guitarist Derek Bailey includes the following quote from saxophonist/improviser/composer Steve Lacy: "I'm attracted to improvisation because of something I value. That is a freshness, a certain quality, which can only be obtained by improvisation, something you cannot possibly get from writing. It is something to do with the 'ledge.' Always being on the brink of the unknown and being prepared for the leap...If through that leap you find something then it has a value which I don't think can be found in any other way...What I write is to take you to the edge safely so that you can go out there and find this other stuff." I'm sure you've seen this before (although many AAJ readers may have not) and am certain you may apply a similar philosophy to your own work. If so, are you capable of differentiating between your identity as an improviser and that as a composer? Why or why not?

LO: Here are the Webster's definitions: To compose = to form by putting together; to create by mental labor a form for a piece of music. To improvise = to fabricate out of what is conveniently at hand.

I think both of these definitions are problematic. Improvising, for example, is certainly mental labor. It's x parts heart and soul, and at it's most inspired it's 100% free, but the mental labor required to reach the most inspired state of bliss while absolutely un-measurable is also without doubt significant. At the same time, one composes out of what is at hand. You can't compose with something you don't have or don't understand. So—number one: I completely agree with Lacy's quote; number two, the separation is only a separation in terms of time allotted to either discipline, The overlap is both conceptual and real.

Also: when I improvise, I'm also composing, I'm looking for a form to emerge from the improvisation. I'm not all that interested in moment-form or process-form.

I also think that the growth potential for improvised music is much higher at this point than is the same for composed music, but that's I think another subject. But in the past few years I've been questioning the value of composition, except as a facile way to get at an area, to focus a group. My feeling is that—at this point in time—there's an extraordinary set of improvisers worldwide who have immersed themselves in the art of improvisation for a several decades, and all the people I'm thinking of have looked at the art from at least a few different angles. And they have worked with composition openly as well. And now, if you work in a small ensemble of these veterans, the more freedom you give them, the more revelatory the music can be.


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