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Marc Ribot: That's the Way I View It From New York

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AAJ: You're the producer on that session; Francois Lardeau and Bill Mulvey at Tonic were the engineers. You were responsible for the record's sound; it's vital and has that low-end rumble, especially Henry's bass. I like it because it's not all that dry—it doesn't sound like a nineties Van Halen record, but it's not strictly dry. I hear some studio wetness that I like. What sort of sound were you going for?

MR: First of all, I was going for an analog sound wherever possible. I forget whether the board was Neve or what. But for me, sound is another element of composition and in a way, the most important one. In listening to the Ayler stuff, one of the things I get out of it is the sound. So I wanted the sound to have the aspect of Ayler where it feels like a live recording, whether it is or not. So there's no overdubbing. We didn't go for absolute separation, which made it hard in the few places we wanted to do edits. You can do edits, but if someone played a clam, it's in there. [Laughing] Usually me.

So we set up a lot of ambient mikes, and that's probably what you're hearing more than studio reverb—those ambient mikes. In all Albert Ayler pieces, there's a lot of dense sound, and it's dense sound often playing on triads—on things that produce harmonics. You want to get those harmonics in the room. With complete separation, they would take place in the room of the person listening. But it's a different thing when you record those things in the room where it's occurring. It's a special thing. So we used a lot of ambient mikes and went for that. You're correct in noting that I'm usually a fan of pretty dry production. I didn't try to make it particularly lush, but the feel of being in a room—that's what I was looking for. Sonically, in terms of equipment, I went for tube technology, Neve-type stuff, because I like it and because it's a link to the sixties. It's a reference to the sound of the original recordings. We did record digitally, I think—but there really is no more tape. To me, this is an incredible situation. I question, if this can happen, how much we care about our musical culture. Tape should be an option. It's one thing deciding not to pursue that aesthetic, and another not to be able to.

AAJ: I think most of the remaining tape on earth is here in Chicago at Steve Albini's studio.

MR: Yes, Steve Albini had the foresight to stockpile it. Having said that, tape even back in the day—the day being a year ago—was expensive and a luxury item not to be had on records of this budget. But you can make sure you've got a good transistor/tube board, tube compressors—the rest of it can be good. You can master to tape.

AAJ: Let's go back to your 2003 Tzadik Scelsi Morning album. This is a collection of chamber pieces composed by you and performed by a variety of players, from three- to six-piece groups. The title pays tribute to composer Giacinto Scelsi. I think all these tunes were composed for dance pieces by either Wim Vanderkeybus or Yoshiko Chuma. Could you give me an overview of your intentions with this stuff?

MR: Well, they were two very different dance pieces. Yoshiko gave me a very basic conceptual theme and said, "write x number of pieces. I like working that way; it was really fun. And that's what came up with her section of this, and then we performed it live. In Wim Vanderkeybus' case, I was composing to an existing dance, so it was a much more difficult process, and I did a terrible job—so much so that that I ditched the original recording and we went on tour and did some dates with them, then rerecorded the live thing after having worked with it. So I was able to salvage that piece and the results were what you hear on the record. It would be a mistake to say that the whole record is Giacinto Scelsi-influenced. In fact, I would say that one piece is.

AAJ: Just the title track?

MR: Yeah. However, the rest of it is very composed—even though there is room for improvisation, it's more through-composed than most of my other stuff. And I was very happy with that record.

AAJ: Let me ask you about that title piece, which is one of my favorites. There's a sort of anxious loveliness to it, long groans from viola and clarinet against the bass until that melody line appears, which is then passed around by the instruments. I love the instrumental textures of that song.

MR: Yeah, we had Jill Jaffe on viola and then she later doubled some of her parts on violin. On the basic track, we had Ned Rothenberg playing clarinet and he later added parts on bass clarinet. In addition, there's a rhythmic tension in that piece because there was a guitar part playing a regular arpeggio in time, and they were playing along with it, and then we removed it—mixed it out. So the motor is missing; you hear the things that were being driven, but not the driver. That's a technique that's used on a couple other tracks; there's one track in the Yoshiko pieces where I put people through the horror of having to wear headphones and listen to me clicking and counting.

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