David Torn: A Lifetime of Improvisation in Non-Improvisational Settings


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AAJ: You have a brand new recording under your own name, Prezens, which is your first on the ECM label since the 1980s. I think this is going to be my favorite record of the year, and I think it's your best album yet. This is your first since your Splattercell recording project in 2000, and the first under your own name since your solo record What Means Solid, Traveller? from 1996.

Before we talk about the music, tell me why you made your first record in many years, and how you ended up back on ECM. Was the music made for them, or did you just hand them a record you'd done and finished yourself?

DT: I made a record because [altoist/composer] Tim Berne has been busting my ass since 2000. And he and I are really, really good friends, and we spend a fair amount of working time together. We became incredibly good friends probably around '97 or '98. We don't live near each other, but we did a lot of work together and we got really tight. God bless him, he continues to bust my ass about not being a performer. For that Splattercell record [OAH, Cell Division, 2000]—when I made that record, I thought, "Okay, I'm going to try one more time to make a record that I like and see if I can maintain a relationship with a label and not get screwed.

And [laughing] it didn't really work. I didn't get as screwed as I had been in the past since I left ECM, but I have been just beleaguered by the recording, and live performing and touring things. I can't handle it. You put so much into this stuff, and touring is so hard, and I have other skills and other interests to pursue. Really, everything in America conspires against the musician, to make musicians not able to perform in their own country and not be able to sell records that are not of the mainstream—not without making sacrifices that I was no longer willing to make.

But there was Tim busting my ass, and it kind of coincided with something else that was happening a couple years into our relationship. I did a score—I'm going to cross subjects here. Around 2003, I did my first real studio picture, on my own, not as a session player, not helping somebody else out, not addending [sic] someone else's score, but doing my own. That was a film called The Order. And accidentally, [ECM label head/producer] Manfred Eicher, or someone at ECM, heard the score before the film was released. I don't know how that occurred, but it was a good several months before the film came out.

So I got a call from ECM saying Manfred had heard the score from The Order and wanted to know whom to contact to put the score out. That was a mixture of a small orchestra with some strange instruments, voices, some of my instrumentation, and electronics. He wanted to put it out as a record, but he was incapable of getting it from 20th Century-Fox, who owned the materials once they had paid for the score.

AAJ: And who probably had no intention of releasing the music themselves.

DT: No, they did. I had told the vice president of music at Fox, "Don't make a deal without talking to me, because I know a lot of people in the record industry. And Manfred was a little bit late in coming to them, and they—without telling me, because they don't need to—had already made a deal to release the music. It was released, and it's still in release.

So Manfred couldn't get that score, and he was frustrated. So he had someone at ECM call me and say, "Do you want to talk to Manfred? So we spoke, and the conversations with Manny were very, very pleasant; it was like all bygones were bygones, and here we were in the present, and let's do something together.

So I told him, "What I'd really like to do is be able to continue the movement of writing for mixed orchestras, something for the ECM New Series [the label's series concentrating on serious composition, both early and contemporary]. And he was like, "Oh, definitely. We can definitely do this. He wanted some more material, anything I'd recorded. I said, "Well, I only have demos of orchestra material, and if I send you notation, you can't read it. But he was really positive.

Now, at this time, I was working a lot with Tim, and Tim and I had begun playing these improvised gigs. At his insistence. I did a gig with him and [drummer] Bobby Previte. I'd also begun to work with Tim in the studio on a pretty regular basis. He makes a lot of records, and Tim's records are often truly records in that they are live performances that sound terrible, and it was always my job to make them sound good.

AAJ: That is a job at which you have succeeded.

DT: Thank you, sir. Now a conversation with Manfred Eicher is something that goes on for some period of time. It's not like we make a decision in one hour that on August 22nd, 2005, we will do a recording. It's not like that; it's a process and people's schedules change and you have to be flexible. And in the middle of this waiting period with Manfred, Tim and I—again, at Tim's insistence—began playing a lot together.

And I was having an absolute fucking blast. I only had one rule: I only wanted to do pure improvisation in front of an audience. I didn't want to do tunes. I sat in front of a computer all day rewriting other people's tunes, writing my own pieces of music, organizing things. I just wanted to play with people who wanted to play.

And this group began to slowly grow out of Tim's group [drummer Tim Rainey, keyboardist Craig Taborn, and Berne work together as Berne's band Hard Cell]. So here I was talking about this orchestral record and how daunting that would be. So I thought, "Hey, why don't I make a record that's like what we're doing? I think there was some point where this band got together, played a gig or two, and it was just unbelievably fun. And besides being fun, it felt amazing. We played at the 55 Bar.

AAJ: Oh, the world's best club.

DT: No, the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn is the world's best club.

AAJ: Well, world's second-best, then.

DT: Well, yeah. And there's a great place in Montreal, too. So we played this gig, and I listened to the live recordings, and Tim and I starting talking, and I said, "I'm going to try to shift this recording project over to a band. So I got back to Manfred and said, "Why don't we hold off on this stuff? I've got this band, and you should definitely hear it.

So I sent him some tracks. I mastered the really terrible-sounding live tracks from the first and second gigs we played. I picked nine or ten contiguous minutes, four or five of those ten-minute sections from four or five different sets, and didn't do any doctoring of the material at all. And Manfred said, "Absolutely. Yeah, go ahead.

I said, "I'd like to do the record here, either live in a club or maybe in the studio. He said, "However you want to do it. Why don't you just make the record? Just start making it, and as you're making it, send me a piece or two. Which I did. So, as they say in Hollywood, it had been "green-lighted [laughing], and it just proceeded from there. It took a few years to kind of figure it out—I was just really fishing.

And Manfred and I would talk on the phone: "It's kind of amazing that we're getting back together after 20 years. It felt really natural to me. Here's a guy who, whatever his output has been since, absolutely earned my undying respect in 1973 or 1974. Whenever. And he's still putting out records that blow my mind—especially the New Series for me. Have you heard the Tigran Mansurian string quartets? Unbelievable stuff.

So it felt really natural and, yes, I ended up making the record myself. For Manfred and for the band and for myself, I took my time with the material. We recorded everything on the record—all the band material—in two-and-a-half days in a studio in upstate New York. It was great fun, although a very different vibe from the band live, because there's no audience to interact with, and the energy and environment are different. It's not a live improviser's environment. It's a studio. You don't feel people; you don't feel a room.

I had chosen a room, for myself, that had some amount of separation, but was a big room so that I would be able to ditz around with some of the material in the studio a little more easily, if I wanted to do that. So it was a different environment, but we got an incredible amount of material. I think we recorded something like ten hours of material, and it was the dauntingest task of all time to go through this material and decide what I was going to choose from it to work on.

I did three pieces, including one piece that was completely live. I think I did some overdubs myself at the end of it from a club date that we had done. So I sent those three pieces, handed them to the band, and said, "Tell me what you think. Two were the band, and the other became track two of this record ["Rest & Unrest ]. I married the pieces together, kind of made a little movie, made it float together well. And the band loved it, and Eicher loved it. And then I just finished the record—again, in a very long time, because of the choosing of the material.

Prezens Is a Real-Time Recording, Mostly
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