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Raymond MacDonald: Man with Two Brains

Duncan Heining By

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"I see my work—performing, composing, psychology, researching, writing, teaching—as one activity," he argues. "I don't draw clear demarcations between my work as a musician and as a teacher. I use some of the same strategies that we use with GIO -for example, conduction -when I'm working with young children who've never played any music or with experienced classical musicians interested in improvisation or when I'm working in hospitals. And I use those same strategies in my own compositional work. It's better to say that my career operates in two contexts, which help each other out—teaching and performing. When I'm travelling to play concerts or record, I can also give lectures and discuss my academic work. And, often if I get invited to a conference, if it's somewhere I have a contact, I can also play concerts as well."

At the same time, the range and amount of activity, with which MacDonald engages astonishes. We mentioned at the beginning the Hung Drawn Quartet. Of their two albums to date, only Hey There You Hosers is still available. It is a warm, witty record performed by four musicians who are also great rhythm players. Though the group has now broken up, MacDonald tells me that he continues to work with tenor saxophonist Graeme Wilson (a GIO stalwart), both "academically and musically" and he adds, "Graeme is one of my most important collaborators. He has been a huge part of my career since 1990 when we were busking together on Sauchiehall Street!" (laughing)

When David Byrne's manager phoned in 2002 asking if MacDonald would be interested in providing a track for a film soundtrack, it was the HDQ that seemed the most obvious candidate to meet Byrne's requirements. "I got a call out of the blue one day from David Byrne's agent," he says chuckling at the memory. "The woman said, 'Hallo, I work with David Byrne. You're on his wish list of Scottish musicians he'd like to work with. Are you okay for lunch on Friday?' I said, 'Yes, I can. I am available for that particular lunch!'" (laughing)"

Byrne was working on the soundtrack for a film by director David Mackenzie, Young Adam starring Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton. When MacDonald met Byrne and Mackenzie, the director told him, "I like Charles Mingus and here's a scene in the film we'd like you to do the music for." It turned out to be quite a controversially graphic sex scene involving tomato ketchup and custard.

MacDonald continues, "I watched it and the images of the scene and the situation itself were quite discombobulating. However, when David Mackenzie said, 'Do you think you can do something with that?,' I did have the presence of mind to realise that the correct answer was 'Yes. Yes, I can do something with that.' (laughing) So, David Byrne said, 'Hire whoever you want and be in the studio next Wednesday for a six hour session.' And David McKenzie said, 'Oh, I really like "Haitian Fight Song."'"

Having decided on using the Hung Drawn Quartet, MacDonald added George Lyle on bass and Stuart Brown on drums. The way the music was recorded involved each musician having both MacDonald's arrangement of "Haitian Fight Song" and a monitor playing the custard and ketchup scene.

"So, they had the music that covered that aspect from point A to point B," MacDonald explains, "but could also step out of the music and respond to what was happening in the scene." "It was lovely working with David Byrne," he continues, "because he would just come in occasionally and say, 'Can we have a bit more of that and a bit less of that?' He was just very encouraging. I had only met him for half an hour and gone away and done the arrangement and I was worried that I might have got completely the wrong end of the stick and they might have wanted something totally different. But it just so happened that I had picked up on the right elements."

MacDonald continues to collaborate with David Mackenzie, along with 2011 Turner Prize winner Martin Boyce on a project that explores art, music and film. "So, we have been travelling quite a bit developing sculptural work, sound work and film in different contexts," he tells me and I just wonder where he finds the time.

All play and no work...

MacDonald describes pianist Satoko Fujii, with whom he has now worked on many occasions, as a "powerhouse" and as "one of the hardest working musicians around." Rather begs the question as to how one might describe Professor Raymond MacDonald, academic, teacher, saxophonist, jazz musician, free improviser, band leader, composer and auteur. I ask how he came to collaborate with Fujii and her trumpeter husband Natsuki Tamura.

"We set up a performance and a recording session in Glasgow. I picked up Satoko and Natsuki from the airport and within an hour we were in the studio making the CD Cities (Nu-Jazz 2009). To just meet someone and within a couple of hours be recording with them and to be happy with what we produced was an exciting adventure and a testament to the power of improvisation as a meeting place for collaboration and the negotiation of ideas. I've been to Japan a few times now and Satoko has been really helpful in setting up all sorts of interesting collaborations."

One hugely successful collaboration led to the album Buddy (Textile 2008), featuring the Raymond MacDonald International Big Band. MacDonald had, with Fujii's help, played with a large ensemble on a previous trip. On his next visit, he asked her if she could fix a band and book a venue and engineer, so they could record the concert. It was a stellar band with Fujii, Tamura, pianist Alister Spence, tuba player Gideon Juckes, Lloyd Swanton from the The Necks on bass and on guitar the great Jim O'Rourke. MacDonald continues the tale,

"Jim O'Rourke was interested and available. Alister Spence was in Tokyo. All the musicians invited were available. Rehearsals were about giving people a sense of the geography and the sound world of each piece and also to be sure that the signals and communication was clear. I had a set of twelve pieces and I had given myself just ten or fifteen minutes to rehearse each one. Once, I had an idea a piece was going to work, I'd move on to the next piece. So, what you hear on the CD is actually the first time the band had played the piece in detail. (laughing) I picked eight or nine pieces from the rehearsal put them into two sets and then just let whatever happened happen."

Buddy is one of my favourite free improv, large group albums. The stars were truly aligned that night. Whether written, conducted or freely improvised, its eight tracks stretch from the eerily beautiful to the darkly humorous in a way that remains focused and concise. The album is, to use again MacDonald's own words, "a testament to the power of improvisation" with a wonderful sense of completeness and integrity. MacDonald is particularly fulsome in his praise for Jim O'Rourke.

"Later in the concert, Jim O'Rourke's amplifier was feeding back due to a dodgy connection but he uses that feedback to really great effect. He is a unique person. He is also one of the nicest musicians I've worked with. But he doesn't travel outside of Japan. He is very careful about what projects he commits to. I spoke to him about this. He said he doesn't want to release any CD unless it's absolutely saying something new. He is such a generous person and self-effacing as well. He kept asking, "Is this okay?' I said, 'Jim, what you're doing is marvellous. (laughing)"

Art of the duo...

MacDonald first met Alister Spence, when he visited Australia for "academic reasons." "I would play a couple of gigs with Alister and then every couple of years he would organise a European tour with his trio and I would join them as a guest," he tells me. "Gradually, the collaboration became more serious and we produced a duo CD -Stepping Between the Shadows (Rufus 2012) and we have a trio CD Sensaround -Isotropes (hellosQuare 2014) with Shoeb Ahmed on electronics. Shoeb is a really pivotal member of the group and we just toured recently."

Lloyd Swanton plays bass in Spence's trio and, given the connection with the Necks, perhaps the minimalist approach of Stepping Between the Shadows (Rufus 2012) should not surprise. Yet, that is also definitely one aspect of MacDonald's musical oeuvre and one which lends the album an elegiac, almost ambient quality that is very affecting. Unsurprisingly, the pair have plans for future partnerships, including a further big band project next year in Japan with Fujii and Tamura.

One of the tests of any horn player is their ability to play in duo situations. And MacDonald is a great duo player. One hears this in every such situation in which he finds himself. Listen to the duo albums, Flapjack (FMR 2006) and FR280 (Iorram 2008), with guitarist and GIO member Neil Davidson, who also features on Cities and another quintet date of note Aporias (Creative Sources 2005). Listen also to Delphinius & Lyra (Clean Feed 2007) with Gunter Baby Sommer.

In duo, there is no place for loud, big egos no place for self-aggrandizing. The equal expression of both musical personalities is essential, leading, at best, to a music that is more than the sum of its elements. In a way, it was what Freud saw as the difference between "primary and secondary narcissism." The former is part of normal, healthy development but the latter excludes the possibility of real emotional engagement with another person. It is just this point that MacDonald echoes when, for example, he says of Davidson, "The soundworlds and textures that Neil develops when we're playing together are wonderful to work within. I love working with Neil."

Increasingly, however, the most important such setting for MacDonald lies in his work with the great Marilyn Crispell. We may allow MacDonald a certain hyperbole, when he says, "I must admit this—and I don't want to sound grandiose -working with Marilyn has changed my life. She's an incredible person and an incredible musician." They met at Paul Bream's Festival 'On The Outside.' Bream's practice was to invite twelve musicians from around the world and then place them in different combinations over the course of the festival. One such combination involved MacDonald and Crispell. Even before they played together, MacDonald tells me that he felt an instant affinity with the pianist.

"Both our fathers had died recently and we had this conversation about our families and our connections and I just felt this rapport," MacDonald says. "I think Marilyn has this effect on people generally. She's such an open person and so warm and generous that I made this really close connection. We have been working together ever since. I've been lucky enough to tour with her a couple of times. Last year, I went out to the States and we played in Woodstock, New York and Baltimore. I don't want to sound overly dramatic but working with Marilyn has made me reflect on the key people that have influenced me."
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