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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.
About Marilyn Crispell
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