Julius Vasylenko: Seeing Stars
"Another example of having access, this tie-in and links with, and meetings with Genesis P-Orridge's Throbbing Gristle, and Cabaret Voltaire, sort of Sheffield electro scene, prompted by Pere Ubu, people doing this sort of post-punk weirder stuff that I was getting into. I startedat that point I didn't play anythingto do performance art, with a group called Counterdance. It stared with a typical industrial sound coming out of the speakers, like a great wall of sound. The singer was a 'Clockwork Orange' getup. I was a dangerous scientist/clown. I remember the white lab coat with stuff spilled on it, probably beer! Clown's mask. And I was up this ladder, showing Playboy centerfolds to the audience. And shooting them through a toy gun, which I had set fire to. It got pretty bad at one pointbad in a good way. I was on the floor being kicked in the ribs. I got banned from the club, with which I later made amends.
"I decide to put my own shows on at Theatre in the Mill, a series called 'Laughter is Revenge': 'You're not going to let me down, I'm going to do my own thing, spend my time being creative.' So everything was happening at once, rehearsing Beckett and Pinter, putting together these performances. I was influenced by the Situationists, the way they tried to disrupt monotony and order. I had this good one, jumping head first divinginto trash bins. That was a good one. It disrupted things, caused a scene. Others would bring a pack of dogs into a shopping center (not vicious ones).
"I tried the saxophone once, and found it most agreeable! I was told by someone that for someone who had just blown into it for the first time, I had a remarkable affinity for it. I can't tell you exactly what I was doing, just blowing, probably. A sort of basement show, somewhere. I had stopped this sort of in-your face nihilst stuff. When you get older you get you want to be a bit more subtle...At one of these Laugher is Revenge shows, after I had just got my saxophoneyou couldn't see it, it was in this tube, it was invisible, it had all these other tubes sticking out of it. The audience could just see me going into this tube, and playing. I was playing it through these electronic boxes so it didn't even sound like a saxophone. I felt very at home with that side of things. It's like what's hidden and under the surface is just as important as what's seen.
"It was a way of controlling what was seen and what was not seen, and I liked the way people weren't sure if I was even doing anything. You couldn't see the sax and you couldn't relate it to anything, really. The art was in combining and recombining and turning things inside-out and nothing being clear. This was going on while there were visuals going on and movement going on. Mark was there, Mark Bromwich...He's gone back to his original Polish name, Bokowiec. You can Youtube him and find out what he's doing now, with his wife.
"And the library. It was there I found Stockhausen. And to find out Harry Parch existedthe hell with this establishment business, I'll do my own. And the minimalists, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. I was getting more reductivist. What I was doing was too brash, too violent. I'm not violent by nature. [Lukas] Ligeti, too, [Krzysztof] Penderecki. Under the influence of all these people, I realized that I wanted to cull from a very deep source. Then Anthony Braxton appears, and I knew the sax had to be front and center. And Art Ensemble Of Chicagothat was fusion, to me, in its best possible sense. It's language, isn't it, so I'm getting into different languages, speaking in tongues, reallywithout any sort of initial training from anybody. I haven't had any lessons to speak of, I'm completely self-taught. It became obsessive. I was filling up this reservoir, combining things. It takes years to find a voice, of course.
"The No-Wave scene from New YorkJames Chance, Lydia Lunchit got me playing again, wanting to form a band, throwing the mask off and the lab coatand still to be actually in your face; and to actually show the horn, take it out of its tube in the theatrical context. I was still in England, but it was a big prompt for me to go over there, which I did.
"I formed another band with my cousins, these great older cousins, that helped me at 12 and put me on the progressive path. The older cousin, Vic, picked up bass and played these great Bill Laswell-type lines. And the younger cousin, Eli, was doing Pat Place (of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks) type guitar, kind of jazzy but kind of not. No Wave had taught me to treat the sax like a grinding electric guitar, so I would throw in these hard-rock references, along with nods to various jazz styles, for example, the '60s Blue-Note style. And I've always thrown in ethnic referencesthat's the Art Ensemble of Chicago's influence. It might be sort of Balkan, Ukrainian, Gypsy music, even Japanese folk. Sometimes it's tongue in cheek. I've been known to throw in a few false endings, maybe a blues-inflected thing.
"I don't see the point in being just another good player. I would choose personality over mimicked technical prowess. It was weird in the beginning because I liked the mystery of not knowing what I was going to do. I didn't want things explained to me. There was a ritualistic aspect to what I was playing. It was a very personal thing. I knew the saxophone would be with me the rest of my lifethough I knew it wouldn't be exactly how I make a living. It was already a part of my life. It was always going to be with me. Whether it was ritual, or therapy, or exorcizing demons, or a healing force, it wasn't going to be tainted by having to make a living at it. It was deeper than that. Consequently, I almost didn't want to learn how to play properly. I wanted to allow for this window, where the magic would happen."
Vasylenko finally escaped Thatcher's Europe, (after a traumatic incident where he lost his horn), setting up shop in New York City in the late 1980s. After two years of the club scene there, and people either loving or not understanding his accent, he traveled to California, which was the "real escape." The highlight of this, as he avers, was meeting Sun Ra, and getting his blessing, at an outdoor festival in Sonoma in natural amphitheaterwherein Sun Ra assured him his sax would come back to him in one form or another. "You never know," he said. "Just be open, and it might come back. You never know, but you know..."
It did. A week after meeting the icon, he met a young woman in a used-clothing store, who was wearing a zebra-print top that matched his zebra jeans. She introduced herself as "Ra," short for Raziel; and invited him over and shared her collection of reed instruments. This was not ownership, but it heralded a long future of picking up many and various instruments of his own, the first of which was given to him by some skateboard kids. "It looked as if it had been run over by a lorrie," he says; but he straightened it out as best he could and it played. Years on, he has found and refurbished many left for trash. His bamboo sax he bought, though: they are made by a German expatriate located in Thailand and Vasylenko found a trove of them for sale in a shop in Rockport, Massachusetts.