Guitarist and producer Chris Schlarb has been at the heart of creative, underground music in Los Angeles for a number of years. His involvement in bands like I Heart Lung and the fifty-member collective Create(!) has resulted in improvisational music of great imagination, no little dissonance and undeniable beauty, as witnessed on the outstanding albums Between Them a Forest Grew, Trackless and Quiet
(SAA, 2007) and A Prospect of Freedom
His first solo album, Twilight & Ghost Stories
(Asthmatic Kitty, 2007), a four-year project with recorded contributions from fifty artists, is a collage of field recordings, music and voice which exerts a strangely hypnotic effect on the listener. It may be too early to call it a classic of our time, but it is at the very least a work of tremendous imagination which connects strongly with the emotions and stirs memory.
Chris Schlarb took time out to talk with AAJ's Ian Patterson about this fascinating project, and speaks about his independent record label Sounds Are Active, the underground scene in America, and the power of music as a catalyst for personal change.All About Jazz:
Let's start with your first solo album, Twilight & Ghost Stories
, which is an unusual solo album in a number of ways, not least because there are contributions from fifty musicians. Can you take a deep breath and tell us how this album came together?Chris Schlarb:
I was going through a separation from my ex-wife, my family. She'd taken our children and moved away. I was still in the same home all of us had lived in. It was totally disorienting. I had basically quit my job, my entire family was gone. When you take out all of the things give you structure, order, you know, I honestly did not know what to do with my time.
Slowly, I cut off all interaction with the outside world. I was picking my kids up once a week at that point to see them, or I had them every weekend. But during the week I was completely alone and getting unemployment checks. I just totally stopped interacting with the world altogether.
And then a massive rainstorm came through town. You know, in Long Beach, California there aren't really any seasons other than summer [laughs] so when it started raining, and it rained for two weeks straight, a massive storm by southern Californian standards, the constant rain again altered the structure of my day. I ended up setting up two microphones, one on the north side and one on the south side of my apartment, and I just recorded forty minutes of rain.
When I went back to listen to the recording, which is exactly as it is on the album, I started thinking: "I could put something at twenty minutes, and then I could put something at seventeen minutes, and thirty-five minutes, and I started thinking I could compose one piece of music and throw linear time out the window, which was an interesting analogy for how I was feeling at the time because I had no centre.
So I sat down at the piano, which ironically had been given to me by my ex-wife's family, and interestingly, the first thing I really recorded was that kind of intro, that first section.AAJ:
That piano intro is very beautiful, and it sounds to me like rain.CS:
Yeah, maybe there was that kind of subliminal, sympathetic ear that came together with the guitar and the piano in that first section. It was interesting because I had actually tuned my acoustic guitar to a standard C tuning, so I was playing it in a tuning I'd never played before. And then I started messing around a little bit, and I recorded another piano part and another guitar part and then I brought them all together and that's really what you hear in that first section, parts recorded separately from one another.AAJ:
Would you describe this process as a kind of catharsis then?CS:
I didn't set out for it to be that but it definitely turned into that. I figured out over time that by asking all these different people to participate with me it was two things: in one respect it was an act of faith, I was hoping that people I had no relationship with would have enough faith in my idea, this construct that I was giving them, to send me something; the second thing was it was a way that I was able to interact with people and they wouldn't judge the situation I was in. I had stopped going to church, and I'd stopped mingling with friends because every time it was, "What's going on with your family? or, "What's going on with the divorce? I didn't want to have to keep repeating... you know?AAJ:
You didn't need to be reminded all the time?CS:
Exactly, and this was a way I was able to begin dealing with it. There are recordings on the album of my ex-wife in conversation with me, with our children, recordings of my wife Adriana, there are recordings of my children playing, my son's heartbeat is on there when he was still in the womb, and there's also a recording of my wife Adriana when she was a little girl.
There's commingling of all these things and at different times it was difficult to listen to these things, but I felt it was really important that history not be erased. So that, combined with all the music, is the underlying narrative.AAJ:
I've listened to the album a lot, and to me it sounds like an evocation of memory.CS:
Yeah, absolutely. In a weird way that's what the whole piece is about; it's about time and memory. There's recordings on there of my children playing this little wind-up pump-organ at around seven or eight minute mark, I mean, those are instruments that my kids were playing with. Then later on I have the music box that I took out of its casing and was playing the individual springs on it.
There's this weird concept that I've seen attributed to Frank Zappa, xenochrony I believe, and he used to do all these live recordings and then he would go back into the studio and overdub a guitar solo. He was constantly acting as though a piece was always in the process of being written. I found out about that a few months ago and I thought it was really interesting because it's a very similar idea, time is not a straight line here because not only was the piece composed out of order it was assembled and written completely asynchronous as if there was no beginning and no end and those things only happen because we really have no choice.
All these people were contributing parts to it and they had no idea where it was going to end up or in what context or anything.AAJ:
What has been the reaction of the musicians involved on hearing the final piece?CS:
Really, really encouraging and very positive. It's funny because maybe half the people on the album were people that I had never met before or had a relationship musically with them, and I'm really curious to know what they think now that I've been sending out copies of the record, because they heard from me once, maybe three or four years ago, and they never heard from me again. The next time I pop up it's like, "Do you remember participating...?
The feedback I got from a totally disparate group of musicians, like Bhob Rainey the saxophonist, who said it was a fantastic piece and said how much he enjoyed hearing his saxophone used in a completely foreign environment. Nick Rossi, who plays with Dave Douglas and Philip Glass, said it was a really interesting piece, and it goes on and on, I've been really happily surprised. It was really a wonderful experience from beginning to end.
I'm used to making, I don't know, maybe adventurous music that I'm not used to people connecting with on an emotional level, and that seems to be really happening with Twilight & Ghost Stories
. People are connecting with it on a deeper emotional level, and it's kind of allowing them to absorb all of these weird things that are in the piece.
It takes a lot for an audience to get past the unfamiliarity of the musical environment; they get hung up on live sounds or dissonant sounds, and I thought that would happen with this too, but it's not and it's kind of disarming [laughs]!
I was constantly heartened by people's willingness to give something of themselves, without really knowing; you know it could have been a total disaster [laughs]! I think about that every once in awhile; I really could have done something that all these people disliked, shot myself in the foot, you know, all these great artists whom I admire so much.AAJ:
You are promoting the album in quite an interesting way, could you tell us about that?CS:
We're doing a number of listening events across the country with the album in quadraphonic sound. I've just completed a quadraphonic mix, and the relationship between all these sounds and listening to it on four speakers is totally different. The normal mix on the record is very dense, there's a lot constantly happening; on four speakers all of a sudden it hits that space in a very different way.
You know, I'm looking forward to seeing how these listening events go because all the people I was giving copies of the record too, the people that were really connecting with it, were all telling me, "I went on a bike ride... or "I went for a walk. And I put it on my iPod, or "I was driving in my car and I had to drive for three hours, and I listened to the record over and over again. Every single time somebody was forced to focus on it, forced to listen to it, and I started thinking that if we had some listening events that's going to be the probably the best way for people to be introduced to this piece of music, hopefully in an environment where there aren't a lot of distractions.
So there's going to be events all over the country and at each listening one of the people who collaborated on the project will be hosting that event. I didn't want there to be any listenings in any cities where there wasn't going to be an actual representative. I got invited to a festival in Athens, Georgia, and I'll actually be performing Twilight & Ghost Stories
the same night all the listening events are happening all over the country.AAJ:
What are the challenges of performing this piece live?CS:
Oh man, I was actually really stressing out about that. I got invited to this festival, and as soon as they told me that they would pay for my ticket I thought, "absolutely, I'll do it, and I hadn't given a whole lot of thought into having to put an ensemble together, and I would only have a day to rehearse. So I got about four or five different musicians that lived in the area, and a few coming in from out of town.
I have a lighting box with five light switches, each corresponding to a light on an extension chord and each light will be assigned to a different musician so I'll be essentially conducting them with lights; I'll turn the light on when they're supposed to come in, so it'll be like a visual representation of what happened on the record. I want there to be a tether between the two, an audio-visual connect.