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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.

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