Marilyn Crispell: Uncompromising Power and Grace

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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With the ECM recordings, I like the idea of playing things so slowly that you are almost suspended in time.
Her notes crash like waves at sea on a stormy winter's night; they gently float and slowly fall like early morning mist; yet it's the silence—the silence between the notes—which provides the haunting poetic beauty that is the music of pianist Marilyn Crispell.

Lloyd Peterson: Is there a decrease in listeners for creative music today?

Marilyn Crispell: I think jazz is under fire—the concept of jazz. I have noticed a change in Europe since the walls came down that a certain amount of interest has seemed to move away from that arena. Whereas in the States, where it hasn't been as prevalent or understood, there seems to be more interest and open-mindedness towards it, but I could be totally wrong. But it's also very hard to be objective when you're in the inside doing it.

LP: Are people looking for things that have more depth or creative and artistic value?

MC: Things do tend to move in cycles and there are always people who are more aware of things than others, and unless a global catastrophe happens, the majority of people continue with what they're doing. I don't think in general it's that easy to find out the truth about many things, and a lot of people don't bother because it's all they can do to keep their own lives together. And it's very possible that people will get tired of all the backward-looking imitation stuff and become open to something new. I know that when I play in this country, I get a very good response. Almost across the board really. I mean, I cannot think of anywhere where I haven't and there is kind of an openness and warm heartedness. I find people very receptive, and in most of the country, there's no "we've heard it all before" attitude. And people are always asking, "How come we haven't heard this music, where can we find the CDs and where can we hear more of it?" I really think it's about educating people and making the music available. If it's not available, they don't know it exists and they can't appreciate it because there is no way to hear it. I feel very lucky to be on what I consider a major label because it does allow more people to hear what I'm doing. There are also people who are not in that position, who are great musicians and do not get heard by the majority of the people here.

LP: Does society today have difficulty with creativity that is not easily explained, understood or identifiable?

MC: I think we like to romanticize the past and I'm not sure human nature has changed all that much. If you look at what's happening politically, socially, and economically in the world right now, it's parallel to what's happening in the art world in general. I think our culture is very much shaped by a corporate marketing mentality and that's part of the reason this music isn't appreciated here. Therefore, it's important for musicians to take the music into the schools to kids who are very young and still impressionable, who are still too young to know that they are not supposed to like something. I also wish there were more national touring programs combining education and concerts. More of what they do in Europe where they are really proud of their artists and try and educate young kids. Basically, we spend money on what we think are all the important things (necessary to sustain our physical life, pay the rent, etc.) and if there is something left over, maybe something is given to the arts and that says something about our mentality. The arts are considered frivolous here, but I know someone who worked with kids in Harlem and brought a lot of kids off the street through painting activities and taking exhibitions around the country. It's given the kids a chance to express themselves and learn and receive respect, and that's just one example. People in Western culture think that only something material and tangible is worthwhile and things having to do with the spirit or the soul are not considered important. There again I'm making a separation. Everything has to do with the spirit or the soul. Everything has to do with it, including the things we think of as separate from it. I think there is also this other phenomenon happening where this glut of information is out there which perhaps wasn't the case thirty years ago. There's an overwhelming amount of information available, so unless people are introduced to something or something catches their attention, they're probably not going to be interested. When I pick up a newspaper, unless there is a photo with something in particular that catches my attention, I'll tend to just glance through it. Or when you walk into a supermarket and there are thirty different brands of some product, you feel like walking out and not buying anything. I also think the computer age is overwhelming us and zillions of people putting out CDs or selling their own CDs online. It's hard to keep track, and how are you supposed to find out about anything? It almost starts to feel homogenous.

LP: Have we become a society more of a visual society and place less emphasis on various aspects of sound?

MC: I would doubt that. David Bowie said that the eyes are hungrier than the ears and that's part of what opera and the theater are all about. I don't think anything has changed or has become more visually oriented. I think we have always been visually oriented. In a certain sense, sound is a more abstract thing. You can collect a painting and look at it for the rest of your life, but with music, the true nature of sound is very ephemeral. It happens, it passes by, and then it goes out into the eaves somewhere and keeps traveling on. When I first started playing music, I never wanted to record. I never wanted to freeze the sound. However, I have been very influenced by recorded music even though my intuitive feeling was, play it and let it go. I think more than saying that we are a visually oriented society; we're a materialistic society. So if there is some-thing that you can have and own and touch, maybe you are more likely to pay attention to that or spend money for that than on something that will be gone. Of course you can own a sound recording, but the music is still not as tangible as a painting. Thus the artists themselves become commodities; they are just used to make money, often in our society.

LP: Is what's happening in creative music too forward-thinking for society today?

MC: Bach said that there would always be a limited number of people who could relate to some of the best stuff ever made, and he was talking about his own music. I kind of believe that people who are meant to be drawn to anyone's music in particular will find you or will hear you through word of mouth or from the radio or by accident. I think that's always the case, all of the time, and I don't think it's too forward-thinking. They say that the reflection of the time starts with visual arts and then it goes down through other arts. And I think what's happening now, and what's been happening since the late '50s, early '60s, is the deconstructed reflection of what's been happening in the modern world. But I also think there is now movement to begin reconstructing and that's just something that I feel. I don't really separate this time from other times as it's all connected. But I do think things are changing faster because of technology, and again, there are a lot of worldviews like that of the Tibetan, the Hindu and Hopi, which talk about the different cycles and ages of man of creation and destruction and supposedly we're in that downward phase of one of those cycles called "Kali Yuga." And when things go faster, and faster and faster, everything is gone and then a new cycle starts. Many people feel there is a big spiritual rebirth happening. I see a lot of that on the Internet and here in Woodstock; there are a lot of people involved in that. A change in the way people are using their minds, not just practical technological but maybe more intuitive. The feminine side is starting to emerge to balance out some of the stuff that's going on in the world, which is pretty macho stuff.

LP: Are traditionalists having a difficult time accepting that a music form considered "American" now has international and diverse aspects within it?

MC: I think people want to hang on to something that has historical significance and validate themselves by doing that. There certainly is a validity to the history of jazz having its roots in blues and Black music and it would not have existed without that. But most of the history of jazz is integrated, and it has always been open to other influences and other ideas. It's about creativity and doing new revolutionary and evolutionary things, and now all of a sudden rather than being a living process of change, it's become a rigidly protected museum piece. Whenever someone has to defend or protect something that way, they are usually concerned about giving up some kind of power, rather than having the security to feel open and let things happen. To my mind, and who am I, nobody can say that jazz is this or jazz is that. But people like Wynton Marsalis and Ken Burns have been very successful in convincing other people of exactly that. As far as I'm concerned, I'm ready to say that I don't play jazz and to hell with it. I just play my music, although I consider jazz to be a primary influence on my playing. Music is one of the most intangible of the arts as opposed to a visual art that you can see, touch, and hold. It's very ephemeral. It's there and then it's gone. It's a universal language that doesn't need words to communicate, so it's a pretty powerful medium. It has given birth to a lot of other forms and possibilities that we now call traditional jazz but were not considered traditional jazz in their own time—by the way.

I have wished for a long time that somebody would do a film called the "The Lost Decade." About the lost scene in the '60s and all the incredible creative music that happened at that time. A lot of these people are not paid attention to by the mass market, but as far as I'm concerned, it was one of the most brilliant periods of the music. I can't mention everyone's name, but people in particular who come to my mind with whom I've had personal contact are Cecil Taylor, Oliver Lake, Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, George Lewis, Sun Ra, Wadada Leo Smith, Billy Bang, Abdullah Ibrahim, Reggie Workman, Anthony Davis. There are just so many and I don't know where to start or end. I also don't want to leave the impression that these people are overlooked or ignored, but in other cultures, they would be considered national treasures and I don't feel they have received the support and place they deserve.

LP: Does the global situation today affect you artistically?

MC: Things can get so bad that you can sometimes feel as if you are butting your head against a wall. Have you ever seen the film My Dinner with Andre? It's a great film and the guy who made that film, Louis Malle, talks about times like these, where it feels impossible to do anything. And rather than waste energy fighting it, he retreats to underground pockets of light. Things do tend to turn around, but I think that because we live in a technological age with so much information available; people are overwhelmed. It's not like the old days where you'd go to the concert and were able to hear this music. Now, people can just put on a CD. And everyone is putting out CDs and you can burn them at home. People are overwhelmed by a glut of information, which I think can have an effect not only on me but also on many other performers. I feel like being an artist is a political statement in a certain sense. Just by the very fact that you are being an individual and you are doing what you do and not bowing to big market corporate influences and are being true to your soul. You are trying to put something real out to the world and people do hear it and I know it affects them because people tell me that it does.

LP: For many, music is a way to get away from all the garbage that surrounds us.

MC: I think the arts feed the soul. They are a very important part of our society equal to technology and science. There is a great book called "Care of the Soul" by Thomas Moore. It's wonderful and he talks about the place of art in everyday life, not just by going out to galleries and to museums, etc. There are aesthetics and beauty in everyday life.

LP: Do you connect to any of your music spiritually, politically, or socially?

MC: Spiritually. It's interesting because these are all just words and music is something that happens on a very instinctive level. And though I don't necessarily work within those contexts, I do feel that it does come from a spiritual place and is very connected with that for me. If music doesn't reach me emotionally, then I'm totally not interested in it. And there are techno wizards on their instruments who just don't get to me at all. As a friend of mine recently said after a concert, "It was brilliantly forgettable. There was nothing in it that curled around my heart and stayed there." And I thought that was a very beautiful way to put it.

LP: Cecil Taylor said that "Music has to do with a lot of areas which are magical rather than logical; the great artists rather than just getting involved with discipline, get to understand love and allow the love to take shape." How much of your music is from logic and how much from this other place that Cecil Taylor describes?

MC: You do music as a whole person, with your intellect and your heart. Everything. And I also totally relate to what Cecil says about love. And I agree with him about magic. For me, performing is like a ceremonial ritual, almost akin to a kind of Shamanism.

LP: Do improvisers have a unique ability or awareness of what's all around them?

MC: I think everybody has that awareness.

LP: Is it on a different level perhaps?

MC: Perhaps different levels of being connected to it. Cecil Taylor gives another great quote when asked about practicing. He said that he practices when he's walking down the street or going shopping. In other words, his whole life is his art. He doesn't separate them. To perceive life as art and everything in life as the teacher. People tend to make a separation between those in the arts and other people, and I feel that's a mistake. In many non-Western cultures, music is very much a part of everyday life and it relates to every aspect of life. There is music for work, healing, celebrations; there is music for everything. I guess what I'm trying to say is that anybody can have an awareness to look at life as art in whatever it is they do, even if it is something that is not traditionally thought of as artistic. Anything that you do can be art if it's done with a particular kind of awareness.

LP: Do women and men create differently or does it have more to do with individuality?

MC: I think it has more to do with individuality. I have said for years that I don't believe in men's music and women's music, but I think if you are a woman, you are obviously playing women's music. If you are a man, you are playing men's music. We all have masculine and feminine elements and people like Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett play some very feminine lyrical stuff and there are woman who play some very hard-ass stuff. Women have babies and that takes incredible strength. There is this tendency to think of women as weak and frail little flowers and men are these big strong I mean you can fill in the words here. I don't know if we create differently but I wouldn't think so but there are people who believe that.

LP: When you compose, are you envisioning what you want the music to do for the listener?

MC: I'm trying to figure out what concept is trying to formulate itself and I try to find a way to express it and this is on an intuitive/intellectual level. I'm thinking in terms of what I hear and what I want to put out and not how it's going to affect somebody or what they are going to think of it. I think you do something that is intrinsically yours and that's your gift that you have to give. If you are trying to modify it in some way to impress or please someone, then it's not going to be a pure expression.

LP: What do you look for from drummers and bass players and how much of it has to do with their rhythmic approach with each other?

MC: I'm looking for people who are very versatile and have a background in traditional jazz but can also cross lots of borders. People who are aware of more contemporary developments in improvised music and can relate to it and not just say, "Oh, I'll play free," but can really relate to it from the heart. People who are sensitive and know how to listen. People who can relate to what I'm doing and respond in a way that makes sense and with respect.

LP: Can you explain your relationship with time in the musical sense?

MC: First of all, time is a very complex thing. Anthony Braxton talks a lot about pulse feels, which is kind of like a heartbeat. You have your own rhythm and if you are playing a phrase that has a pulse feel of its own and if you are playing with "intention" within that pulse feel, for me, that has a sense of time. In fact, one of my favorite things is to play simultaneous but different things, like say the bassist and the drummer are playing the feel of a certain time. 4/4 time. I like to be able to fly on top of that and go in and out of it and come back to it. It's like they are laying down a carpet of time that I can weave complex patterns over. I think African drumming is also a concept that has very complex time. I am not a free jazzer who abhors playing in a time, 4/4 time or whatever (laughs)—contrary to what some people think.

LP: Don't you just hate the term "Free Jazz"?

MC: I really do, and avant-garde, I hate even worse. Because most of the stuff that is happening now is not avant-garde; it's been happening since the '50s. There is very little new stuff that I'm aware of.

LP: I was just having this discussion with a friend who owns a music store and we were talking about how to categorize the section within avant-garde. Where does it start and end? Like he said, "Do I start with Charles Mingus who was avant-garde when he originally hit the scene?

MC: Charlie Parker was avant-garde during his time and people didn't know what to do. They couldn't dance to it, or at least they didn't think they could. It wasn't the big-band stuff they were used to. He was an intellectual, an explorer, and was way out there. Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) wrote a book called Blues People and talks about how jazz is a process of change and how it's traditionally been a revolutionary music which always comes up from underneath and upsets the status quo. He talks about African music and music from other countries and the differences they have with the Western world, and that's really about process. He says that here, you do something and then you put it in a museum and look at it like an icon. So it becomes like archeology and becomes an archive rather than a living, changing process.

LP: How has your musical thinking evolved from your earliest compositions up until now?

MC: I use to be a composition major at the New England Conservatory, so I think there is a sense of form in what I do. But I think playing with Anthony Braxton had a big effect on me as far as his sense of sound and silence and also just learning from his compositional methods. I became much more aware of the importance of space and silence after playing with him. The presence of space is important in order to be able to define phrases. If you listen to Cecil Taylor for instance, you hear a lot of space between those phrases and notes. Prior to playing with Anthony, I played lots of notes, all of the time. Continuously, without much of a break. It was about total energy and kind of revving up and flying off the planet. When I first started playing, I wanted to impress everybody, which is a common feeling, kind of immature. That has changed over the years. Previously, you were talking about the importance of sound. I would also say feeling and not just sound, but I think it's about melody and feeling and very much about energy and intensity. A lot of the stuff I have been doing with ECM is more about an inner intensity rather than an outer one. I feel there is a connection between the two states—wild energy and extreme introversion—two sides of the same coin. I do both and feel like there is an organic connection between them— an integration between them. With the ECM recordings, I like the idea of playing things so slowly that you are almost suspended in time.

LP: I like music with the use of spacing that creates tension, it invites anticipation.

MC: I agree. I'm a very intense person. I am all about intensity. (Laughs.)

LP: How do you create tension in your music?

MC: I think tension is created with unusual harmonies, melodies hanging in space, rhythmic complexities, the tension and release of melodic lines.

LP: How much of your compositional approach would you say comes from musical intellect versus intuition or instinct?

MC: I think separating the two is a very Western concept. It's not like we have one body that has a mind and the other one that has intuition. It's all together in one brain. (Laughs.) There is a description of a state of mind, which is compared to the tuning of a string. It shouldn't be too loose nor too tight. It should be just right and in perfect balance. This concept is used to describe a state of mind when you are doing meditation. With all the music I've played, heard, and studied, there is a sense of composition and form. There is an intellect at work, guiding the direction, although the direction seems to be mostly dictated by intuition and then guided by intellect but not too tightly. Sometimes I'll start out with an idea to play some-thing and it just doesn't seem to be happening, and what I usually do is just let the music go where it wants to go. But before, when I was talking about time, and I used the word "intention," I think that that's a really important word. Really, really important. Carlos Castendos talks about it. Anything you do and anything you are trying to focus on requires intention and that makes all the difference between something working or not working. I think, first of all, you need to have the intention to focus your mind in a way, which is very aware, very pointed, and very relaxed. It's almost like you are standing back and letting something happen but at the same time that sense of form, which is internalized, is guiding things. It's very difficult to describe.

LP: Is it possible to put into words what you are trying to do with your music today?

MC: I would take it apart phrase by phrase and show the contour of the line and how I've worked within whatever time frame I'm using. About how one line leads to another. I would also talk about sense of form and germs of the ideas and how melodies come to me and how I work them out. Mostly, I'll have people do this on their own and I'll work with them on ideas on how to express themselves, find out what they're about, what they want, what they hear. I also try to work with intention because a lot of times people are nervous and not really into what they are doing. They'll just play something but there is no intention behind it. It's just something they can do like ironing a shirt or taking a bath or whatever. But the intention, the focus, is not there. I've even heard very skilled musicians do that.

LP: What do you see for the future of creative music or for yourself personally?

MC: I tend to be optimistic and feel that people are creative beings. Our souls are creative and there is a hunger for that. I also think the future of jazz will always be affected by that hunger. I think the pendulum is swinging pretty far to the right but things never stay the same—they always change. It's anybody's guess what's going to happen. I mean people are still playing Bach and renaissance music hundreds of years later. Maybe they'll be playing traditional jazz a hundred years later. That's fine. The attitude that exists towards change and progression and what it's called—who cares. I just know that I was very influenced by what I would call jazz. By John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra. People who brought improvisation into contemporary Western classical music, which is an important synthesis.

LP: Do you have a common philosophy that you try to impart on young students ort musicians?

MC: Just to have the courage to be true to your own voice.

LP: What have you learned from the risks that you have had to take?

MC: I have done things because that's where my spirit or inner feelings led me and I have always followed my intuition that way, but I haven't particularly looked at those things as risks. I've pretty much always have done what I have wanted to do and have hoped that people will like it but I haven't done anything based on what anyone might think.

LP: Where do you get your inspiration and who are the people that have influenced you the most?

MC: Everything I hear inspires me but I definitely came into this music through Coltrane. I was inspired by Cecil and Abdullah Ibrahim and, to an extent, Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner and there are also the following European trios: the Bobo Stenson trio with Anders Jormin and Jon Christensen; the Joachim Kuhn Trio with Danile Hunair and J. F. Jenny-Clark; the Barry Guy, Evan Parker, and Paul Lytton Trio and also Anders Jormin as a com-poser. Additionally, African and Indian music along with other world music also are influences along with baroque classical stuff that I'm very, very into. Many con-temporary classical composers. But Coltrane was the first and foremost inspiration for getting into this music, period. Playing in Anthony Braxton's Quartet was a very, very important part of my musical life and just my life actually. Working with someone who had these kind of concepts very much influenced my sense of space in composition. The quartet was like a family and it was good to have the opportunity to work with such incredibly creative people. It was a very profound ten years or so of my musical life.

LP: You sound very appreciative of those around you.

MC: I'm trying to make more of an effort to be aware of things in a different way and to appreciate things today because they may not be here tomorrow. To appreciate the distinctive qualities of each person and each thing. Everybody is so involved with themselves. They go through daily life not noticing a lot of things or don't have the time to notice a lot of things. I think about this because my parents are both in their late 80s and I'm very aware that I won't have them forever. In many ways, they have been a factor in my thoughts and in my awareness. I'm very aware of the impermanence of things and the ephemeral nature of life. (Note: Since the time of the interview, Marilyn's father passed away and she dedicated her recording, "Vignettes" to his memory.)

LP: Do you have a philosophy or some way of looking at life that you would be willing to share?

MC: I think that kindness, sensitivity, and awareness of the world around you are important. Life is like a dream in the sense that it's real, yet at the same time, it's compared to a reflection of the moon in the water. The reflection is there, you can see it; you can touch the water but the reflection is really ephemeral. And the real moon is like the basic mind, which is non-conceptual. The search for truth is important; seeing beauty in all forms—an acceptance of all of life. The beautiful, the ugly, the sad and the happy. Don't be afraid to follow your spirit and your dreams—don't let anything stop you.

Selected Discography: Sibanya (We Are One) with Louis Moholo-Moholo - Intakt Records, 2008; Vignettes, Solo Piano, ECM, 2008; Phases of the Night, Intakt Records, 2008; Storyteller, ECM, 2004; Ithaka, Intakt Records, 2004; Amaryllis, ECM, 2001; Odyssey, Intakt Records, 2001; Complicite,' Les Disques Victo, 2001; After Appleby, Leo Records, 2000; Nothing Ever Was, Anyway, ECM, 1997;

With Anthony Braxton Quartet Willisau, Hat Art, 1990; Quartet Bermingham 1985, Leo Records, 1991; Anthony Braxton Qtet (Victoriaville 1992), Les Disques Victo, 1993; Anthony Braxton Qtet - Twelve Compositions (Oakland July 1993), Music & Arts, 1993

With London Jazz Composers Orchestra (Barry Guy) Double Trouble Two, Intakt Records, 1998

With Barry Guy New Orchestra Inscape Tableaux, Intakt Records, 2001

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