Marilyn Crispell: Uncompromising Power and Grace

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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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
About Marilyn Crispell
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