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Music and the Creative Spirit

Ken Vandermark: The Passion and Ascension of a Brilliant Mind

By Published: April 28, 2009
LP: Cecil Taylor said that, "Music has to do with a lot of areas which are magical rather than logical; the great artists, rather than just getting involved with discipline, get to understand love and allow the love to take shape." How much of you music is from logic and how much from this other place that Cecil describes?

KV: That's a really, really good question. When I'm writing and composing, I would say that that process is kind of coming from an unconscious place. I guess the place Cecil is talking about is magical because I don't really understand it too well and I don't really want to. I feel fortunate that this music comes to me and I'll leave it at that. When I'm writing a new piece, I believe in the unconscious or subconscious way that my mind works. There is a deeper level beneath my conscious understanding and there is also a part of my mind that is not working consciously in a way that I can articulate where a lot of this music comes from. It's something that's really mysterious without getting too romanticized about it, but I think Cecil Taylor's description of it as being magic is appropriate. People talk about artists being conduits to something else and that's another way of looking at it. That whole aspect is perhaps the most important element in the process of trying to be creative because that's where it all comes from. It's the source in terms of organizing themes, making arrangements, organizing structure, and let's say the architecture of a composition in terms of how interactive it gets with the players. With the pieces I'm working on, I'm not writing from the idea of a system, as I don't have a system that I use for composing and arranging, even if I'm using logic within the pieces after the initial steps. It's more that each individual piece sets up its own set of parameters, meanings, and needs. So I really deal with the composition on an individual basis, which is also connected to the individuals that play the pieces. When I'm writing the pieces, nine times out of ten, it's for a specific ensemble and the people who are going to be playing it affect the character of the piece. The arrangement, materials, architecture, and structure of those pieces are affected specifically by the way that piece sounds to me and how it needs to function as a piece. It isn't like an overarching sensibility where I do these ten things for every piece and then it's done.

LP: When people listen to creative or improvised music, they have difficulty getting by the complexity of the music, in order to get to the emotional element of the piece. Yet within your compositions, there is an emotional element without compromising the music that people can relate to.

KV: It's hard for me to say because there is no way for me to be objective when I'm in the middle of the process. I'm not writing the pieces to please or expand the audience. I'm trying to write these pieces to challenge the players and to expand the possibilities of what I am hearing myself. And hopefully I'm getting to a place where there is more clarity in the ideas and that may be connected to what you are talking about—emotional communication. A band has to play with clarity, a lot of passion, and have an emotional connection to the music that they are playing. It has to be important to them that they are playing this music that has something to say about them as people. An audience can feel that whether they understand or don't understand the material or the history and that has been my goal. To try and create bands and musical situations where that happens.

If you are at a concert where people are there to hopefully have an open mind about what they might experience, you can communicate to them and have an impact on their experience. If the band is not doing its job, which to me is being clear, being connected to the material, and having something to say, then you can't expect the audience to walk away with an impression that they have experienced something that had meaning because the meaning isn't being projected from the band. All of these things you are talking about are really crucial to the overall broader picture of accomplishing of what I hope to do—what I see as the possibility to present improvised music to a much broader audience.

LP: Where does your inspiration come from or what influences your creativity?

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