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Lou Cohen: Opening the Door

Gordon Marshall By

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AAJ: So you can play two notes at a time?

LC: Actually more. There are two notes at a time if they are short. But if I set things up so that a note plays for a long time after it's started, then I can start another, and another, and another, and they will all play together. So I can play many things at once, in certain situations. But two notes at a time is actually a lot if the sounds are complicated to start with.

AAJ: What is the relationship between spontaneity and premeditation in your work?

LC: I like to have some kind of structure when I improvise. I like there to be sections, something agreed-upon. First we're going to do this, and then we're going to do that. I prefer that because it gives me something to aim for. So instead of just being intuitive, I can think ahead about where I'm going, what I'm doing, and I can think about where I'm going to be next and how I'm going to get there. I think this makes the music more comprehensible to an audience. It makes it more comprehensible to me. I don't mind doing things on the spur of the moment, but when it's all over, I don't know what I've done. If there's a structure then I've got that in my head from the beginning, so when it's all over then at least I feel that I know what happened. A lot of people I play with prefer no structure. So then I just go with the flow, and do it their way. One of the reasons I like to play with [dancer] Joe Burgio and his group is because he likes structure. These are structures within which you can be free. So you do "this" for awhile, but what "this" is, isn't so spelled out. It's a certain sequence of events, or a certain way of responding to other people, but not necessarily spelling out whether you should play loud, soft, or busily, or quiet.

AAJ: With Joe Burgio, with a structure, is there a give-and-take between you and his dancers?

LC: Yes, here's an example: one of things we do is "lead and support." To keep it simple, there might be two dancers and two musicians. So, dancer "A" will be the leader, musician "B" will support the leader (dancer "A.") The next dancer, "C," will support musician "B." And the last musician, "D," will support dancer "C." So each person is supporting someone else, which means that you're responding to what they do and making them look good or sound good. But what you do depends partly on what they do, but partly it's your own choice what to do to make them sound or look good. So that's a structure, but it doesn't dictate that you play loud or soft, or for a certain length of time, or rapidly or slowly, and yet there's a structure. It just dictates who you play attention to and what your intention should be when you play.

AAJ: You play music that is experimental, atonal. So many people find that disagreeable. Why are some of us so attracted to that kind of music?

LC: I don't think this is true for me, but for some musicians there's a kind of rebellious thing going on. A kind of "up yours" thing. I'm not in that category. I don't feel rebellious any more-I might have when I was 20. From my perspective, over the years the range of acceptable sounds, the palette, has expanded, just because each composer, each musician, has pushed the boundaries a little bit. So there are more and more sounds that have become legitimate. The people who don't like these sounds are the people who either haven't been exposed to it, or they have some preconceived idea of what they're supposed to like.

I have a friend, a colleague of mine for many years, and he had a subscription to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Any time they played new music he would complain to me. He had an expectation of what he was supposed to hear at Symphony Hall, and he was not about to expand that expectation. He grew up being told "this is the kind of music you're supposed to like." That's what I imagine is going on with a certain class of people, usually non-musicians, by the way. But it's really taste. There's lots of music I don't like, for that matter. Even though I like noise, there's various kinds of music I'm not interested in at all. Some music doesn't do anything for me, or it seems repetitious, or it doesn't seem original, and other people love it, in fact most people love it. There's no accounting for taste. You've heard that phrase: "That's what makes horse races"? One thing I know is that there are a hell of lot more people who like noise, or tolerate noise, than than there used to be.

It's really different now than when I first started making noise. 20 or 30 people in a room may not seem like much, but compared to when I first started in the '60s, that's a big deal. And they all stay there to the end. And they pay to hear it. None of that was true when I started.

AAJ: One thing I've noticed is that when there's a shift in taste, there's often a turning away from the old things.

LC: In order to embrace something new, you have to reject something else?

AAJ: Picasso got bored with Da Vinci.

LC: That probably was true for me when I was younger, but it isn't now. I can remember when I was learning 12-tone technique and embracing new music (or what was new music in the late '50s, early '60s), I had no patience for Tchaikovsky or Brahms or most 19th century music. But now when I listen to Tchaikovsky I get tears in my eyes. All the way back, I love the entire Western music tradition.

I forgot earlier to mention my other important music teacher-Alan Kemler (aka Avram David.) I had written a short piece of music for a friend of mine, and he had hung the score on his wall. Kemler saw it there and when he first met me he told me that I was headed in the right direction but I still had a lot to learn. I took lessons with him for about a year and half. And I learned a lot of things that Cage wouldn't have taught me. Maybe Cage was required to do counterpoint and harmony exercises when he was studying with Schoenberg, but he didn't teach those things at the New School.

So I learned how to analyze pieces, how to do counterpoint, harmony, how to use the strict 12-tone technique, some orchestration. All that was important because it gave me a basis for teaching myself more later on. And I use it all, I always think about those techniques. I always think about classical counterpoint even when I play music now on the wiimote. It's time for some low sounds, it's time for two things happening at the same time, it's time to hear two things together. All that comes from my classical training.


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