Joe McPhee: Artistic Sacrifice from a Musical Prophet
AAJ: You once called your music "Po music." Can you describe it?
JM: I found Dr. Edward De Bono's book on his philosophy with regard to lateral thinking. It's a concept of looking at problems in various ways and trying to find solutions by thinking outside the box, which is a term I don't like, but it works. The term "Po" is a language indicator to show that provocation was being used that you shouldn't take what is being used as fact, but simply provocation. And the object is to move from a fixed set of ideas in order to discover something new.
Let's say you are driving north, and you come to a big hole in the road, and you have a choice of detours. You can go to the west or you can go to the east, but you have to get around this hole. But that also means that you may have to go north or south to get around it. Well, you know where you want to be, so you do whatever you need to do to get to there. The process of these detours helps you make discoveries, and those discoveries are important. They may not be what you intended, but you can use some of that information, and when you get there, you are so much richer, you've got more to deal with. And so I began to use that concept.
For example, I made a recording of the Sonny Rollins composition "Oleo." I am not a bebop player. I love the music, but it's not my music. It's not from my time. So the recording was definitely not bebop, but something else, and that's what it's all about. It's about moving to another place and examining the possibilities: a Possible, Poetic hypothesis."
AAJ: How do you come up with different foundations in order to improvise from?
JM: Well, I take it a step further. For 10 years, I used the title of "Po music." It would say, "Joe McPhee, Po Music, blah, blah, blah." My ultimate goal was to always have my name be that language indicator. Don't take me for granted. Don't think that what you've heard is what you expect to hear. I have no idea what it's going to be, and you have even less. So when you come, it's going to be whatever it is. Expect the unexpected, that's all I can say.
I like music to move through improvisation, and I improvise when I choose the people I am going to play with, and the rest comes from that. I know somewhat what they are going to do, but sometimes it's me that gets invited to play, and I am the random element. They don't know which Joe McPhee is going to show up. It could be the saxophonist, the trumpet player, the clarinetist, or maybe I'm going to sing; who knows. All that you would know is that whatever is going to happen would be like nothing you else you have ever heard before.
AAJ: Are most people open to that?
JM: Most people? I can't say most. But often they are. [Laughs.]
AAJ: But you can usually tell?
JM: Oh yeah, you can usually tell right away.
AAJ: Do you sometimes purposely head in a different direction?
JM: Sometimes I might, if I feel like stirring up the pot a bit. But I try to keep in mind that it's not about me, and I'm not supposed to be making a mess.
As an example, when playing duets with Peter Brotzmann, I never know what's going to happen, because we never talk about it. We also have a great deal of respect for each other, and he doesn't put me in a box and say that you cannot do this or don't do that. We get on a stage and get it on. This is our time, and we have an opportunity to do something, so let's fucking do itall bets are off. And I like that; yeah, I do.
I'm an incurable romantic, too. I love ballads. I like sappy ballads and emotional things. It's awful.
JM: For me, it's like walking naked on the edge of a razor blade. I know who I am, where I am, and I know that my time here is limited. I just put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. I trust my senses to tell me if the ground is secure.
AAJ: Despite the many various directions you have taken in music, improvisation always seems to be at the core of it all for you. What is it about improvisation that is so important? Why does it have such a significant place for you?
JM: Improvisation is a fantastic way of extending my childhood. Children are inherently great improvisers until they go to school, where this ability is taught out of them so that they can conform and fit in.
Pauline Oliveros taught me a lot through her philosophy of "Deep Listening," listening with the complete self. Listening is extremely important to improvisation, and in group contexts even more so, if that's possible. She maintains that we listen in order to hear, we hear in order to interpret the world around us, and that babies are the best listeners.
Improvisation allows me to process everything that I've learned over my lifetime, in real time, to come up with new ideas in the moment. It is a process which happens so fast that it is beyond thought. In fact, thought slows things down. It's even more amazing when this happens within a group context. A word of caution is in order, however. Knowing where to start is easy, but, as Ned Rorem said, knowing when to stop is not.