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Lou Cohen: Opening the Door

Gordon Marshall By

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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.

AAJ: People look at Cage as rejecting all convention, and I guess that's not the case. If he taught you how to compose that must mean that he was carrying on a lot of conventions that you would have thought he would have rejected.

LC: He did reject a lot, but at the same time he had his own standards. Maybe some people don't know: Cage studied with Schoenberg, and with other Viennese composers. He studied with Henry Cowell. He studied with Virgil Thompson. And he wrote 20th century classical music, when he started out in the '20s and '30s. He wrote music just like everybody else did. It was unique but it wasn't like what people think about when they think of Cage now. Not these incredible, "anything goes" types of events at all. It was music written down, note by note on a page, just like everyone else was doing. So he did a lot of that and he knew a lot about it. He had this interest in Satie and, in many ways, Satie was a very conventional composer. He had unconventional views which Cage was fond of, but he essentially wrote dots on a page like everybody else did. And Cage could play that music and he did. And he promoted it as well. So he came from the tradition of classical music. And when he performed he put a suit on, like every other classical musician did, and went out on the stage, and he bowed, and he took applause (if any was available) and he started the piece, and he played the piece, and he finished the piece, just like everybody else.

AAJ: So what are your other influences? What did you start off listening to, and what do you listen to now?

LC: I started off listening to classical music when I was 11, 12. What I listened to was Beethoven, Mozart, Copland, but then one night on the radio I heard a piece by Bartok which had a big impact on me: "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta." In that piece there's a striking moment in the slow movement where a percussionist hits a repeated note, probably on a xylophone. The repeated notes begin slowly, then speed up, then slow down again, with nothing else going on, and then there's a drum roll or a tympani roll at the end. It was very dramatic and completely different from anything I had ever heard before. There was no rhythm-it was a gesture. And it was a gesture that involved no rhythm, no melody, no harmony. It opened up this possibility to me that music might not have rhythm, melody or harmony. Of course the Bartók music moved in a different direction after that, but the impact on me remained.

Later on I got exposed to the Schillinger Method. Joseph Schillinger was a Russian musician who came to the U.S. in 1928. I learned about Schillinger from Carmine Coppola, who was the father of a high-school roommate of mine. Besides his musical training, Schillinger had a mathematical background. He taught privately and also by correspondence courses. His most famous pupil was George Gershwin, but many of his other students were also famous: Benny Goodman, Oscar Levant, Tommy Dorsey. Also Henry Cowell, who later was one of Cage's teachers. Schillinger's methods allowed musicians to write music quickly, which was a big advantage for composers of Broadway musicals and Hollywood movies tracks. He provided ways to generate music with mathematical methods. And it was decent music.

One of Schillinger's disciples, by the way, was Lawrence Berk, who taught the system in Boston from 1945 to 1954. He then went on to found the Berklee School of Music.

Anyway, the whole idea that mathematics could be used to generate musical ideas, musical patterns, that was a big influence. Later, through Ken Ueno, I learned about Iannis Xenakis, who also wrote a book describing his mathematical methods. So that was a big deal for me.

Since then, the biggest influences have been the people I play music with, all these young, wonderful people. I listen to the many, many ways that they make music, the many different ideas, I don't know where I'd be without them. They've really changed my world.

AAJ: You're a very responsive player. When you play with Vic Rawlings you play one way, that sort of contrarian, bitter style, the audience-be-damned way, and then with Andrew Eisenberg, his music is very extroverted, an easy-going guy, you're very approachable when you play with him. I notice you really fit into your context very well.

LC: I like to play by listening. Maybe that comes from the days when I accompanied people on the harpsichord. Often there's a soloist, and the harpsichordist's job is to be the rhythm and support section. But I like to play with people, I like the idea of making things happen together. I like to listen and do what they do, or sometimes take the lead, but usually I try to feel my way, and see what they're doing and do more of that.

AAJ: Tell us about the wiimote.

LC: This started from my interest in Csound. Csound is very important to me because it's given me a way to combine computer programming, mathematics and music, all rolled up together. I was very interested in Csound and I tried to start a Boston Csound User's Group, in order to swap information with other Csound users around here. One of the biggest names in the dissemination of information about Csound is Richard Boulanger, who teaches at Berklee. He was the editor of the Csound Book. He offered to provide a place for the Csound Users Group to meet-at Berklee. As it turns out, I didn't find anyone around here who knew more than me about Csound, except for Richard Boulanger.

There were no other users who I could learn anything from. But I gave a number of presentations at Berklee, and he gave me the wiimote as a gift. It's made by Nintendo and it's a game controller. Richard had figured out how to link it up to Csound. At first I wasn't interested in doing that, but one day I looked at a videotape of me performing on the laptop, and it looked like I was doing my email. Also I remember this clearly: I was doing some duos with James Coleman, who plays the Theremin, and at the end of each of these duos, people would come up and look at the Theremin. Nobody was interested in what I was doing. They had no interest in what was on the computer screen, for example. I realized that although it ought not to be this way, what audiences see, matters. Audiences respond to what they see.

So here I had the wiimotes and I wondered if I could do something with them that was similar to what I had been doing with the mouse, and people would be able to see what my gestures were. I worked on that and it turns out that it's way better for me than what I was doing before. It allows me to be much more responsive to what else is going on. The way I was doing it before, I was moving the mouse around on the screen very rapidly, but I couldn't start and stop things fast enough. There are a lot of musical gestures that were very hard for me to do before that are easy to do on the wiimote. The wiimote has buttons on it, so I programmed it so that when you press a button a note starts, and when you release the button the note ends. It's so logical-it took me a while to figure that out, but it makes sense. And there are two wiimotes (one is called "wiimote," the other is called "nunchuck"), so I can control one note's start and end with one, and another note independently with the other.
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