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Lou Cohen: Opening the Door

Gordon Marshall By

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AAJ: Even if they're atonal, your pieces always have a pleasing lyrical quality to them. I'm not sure how you achieve that.

LC: I don't know either. I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to.

AAJ: A human quality, I think...

LC: I don't know exactly what that is, but when I write music I always think about the whole piece up front, and I have some idea about what the structure is going to be, so it has a kind of a shape. Usually there's some place in the piece where there's a climax. So maybe that's what you're hearing, I'm not sure. I usually make sure that there are some consonances: unisons, open fifths, things like that. Maybe that's what you're hearing.

Then I had another breakthrough. I told a friend of mine that I was writing electronic music. He was a member of the MIT Gamelan orchestra. He introduced me to another member of the orchestra who wrote electronic music, and that was Ken Ueno.

He's probably in his early 30s right now. He was Ph.D. candidate at Harvard at the time, and since then he's won some major composition prizes-the Rome Prize and the Berlin Prize. But at that time he was still just an aspiring young composer. We got together a few times and he told me some of what was going on in the electronic music world. I had no idea who was doing anything, or what was going on. Everything I was doing was completely on my own. He invited me to come to a concert at Berklee [College if Music, in Boston], where, he said he was going to perform a piece of his. So I went to Berklee, where he had a part-time faculty job, and he got up on stage with Tim Feeney and Hillary Zipper. And they played this incredible piece. And there was no score, no music stands.

AAJ: It was improvised?

LC: Yes, but I didn't know that. I was thinking: how did they do that? Then he told me that they were going to play the piece at Harvard. So I went to hear it again, and it was completely different. And that's when I found out it was improvised. Up to then I had never dreamed of improvising "noise." Because when I got introduced to "noise," through Cage, there was no such thing as improvising-Cage was totally against it, and nobody else I knew at that time improvised. What you did with noise was, you organized it, using random methods or other methods, but you did not introduce your own personal taste into the process. The way Cage was using it, he was trying to get the music outside of himself, he was trying to get himself outside of his music, which was one of the reasons he was using chance processes.

But here, at Ken's performance, there were people who were expressing their musical feelings with sound and noise. It was like a breakthrough for me. I had no idea anybody was doing this. And then I discovered there was a whole community of people doing it, and I had never known anything about them. So I began to meet them. I organized a few concerts myself at [Cambridge, MA venue] Zeitgeist, and I brought Tim, Ken and Hillary in. And they brought in Jack Wright and Vic Rawlings. One thing led to another and I got to know more and more people. And I became part of this lively community of people who were working with noise and it was just wonderful. So it's like I was born all over again.

AAJ: Anthony Braxton talks about the "post-Cage-Ayler continuum." I never realized they were so different in their approaches, Cage being anti-expression and Albert Ayler being so radical in self-expression. What is your relationship to jazz?

LC: When I was in high school I played a little bit of jazz, I wouldn't say Dixieland jazz, but otherwise, no. I knew about John Coltrane in the '60s, but I wasn't very interested in what he was doing. For me, the thing about jazz is: you don't hear jazz unless you hear drums. And that seems like such a limitation-it makes so much of jazz sound the same, so it didn't interest me. There wasn't enough freedom in it for me, so I was never very much interested in it. And besides that, I was interested in composing. So, jazz musicians, as a rule, don't play "compositions" or if they do, it's a very loose idea with improvisation, and I was writing computer music that got burned into a disc. Once on a disc it wasn't going to change. So I don't feel any connection to jazz, really.

AAJ: But you do improvise, so you must respond to it in some way if you're an improviser? whether you reject it or whether you're responding to it?

LC: There's a tradition of improvisation in classical music. And it goes way back. Almost all the great composers of the 19th century could improvise, and did, and they were famous for it. And I've improvised plenty on the piano. But it's sort of classical style music. So improvisation is nothing new to me. But improvising "noise" was new. But in a way, it's the same for me. And you're not limited to the structures that I see in jazz. Besides the fact that almost every jazz group has a drummer, the other thing that's the same is that there is usually a riff-a tune-and then each player gets a solo, then they come back to the tune at the end. So the structure is almost always the same.

AAJ: That's changed since the '60s, like the European school: saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist Derek Bailey.

LC: I'll have to listen, but I'm not aware of that. One of the things that's strange for me is that I cut myself off, or I wasn't in touch with so much that was going on, for so long. Except for now with what I do in this improv community almost everything that I do is on my own. There are very few composers for example, who I can talk with-I don't them and they don't know me. There are actually just two now: one of them I just met a few months ago (Noah Creshevsky.)

AAJ: Christian Wolff, he's still alive isn't he?

LC: Yes. He's at Dartmouth. He's retired. I haven't seen him in a long time. The last time I saw him was right after Cage delivered the Norton lectures at Harvard. I went to those and Chris was there. We got in touch then and I went to visit him once, but he went off in a different musical direction and we don't have much in common. I saw him once when he was here. He spent some time at NEC [New England Conservatory] for awhile, he organized some concerts-they had a "Christian Wolff" residency. So I saw him then also.

AAJ: How do you feel about taste in musical self-expression? These were things that Cage was against?

LC: I don't have any problem with self-expression at all. There's a lot that I learned from Cage, but that doesn't mean that I did everything the way he did. He was a great influence on me, and a lot of times I think of him as my father. But that doesn't mean that I write like him, or that my music sounds like his, or that I believe in what he believed in. But at the same time, he made a lot of things possible for me, artistically. He really taught me how to compose. And there are some very important things that I learned from him that have nothing to do with Cage's music. They have to do with what he knew about music.
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