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Steve Swell: Appreciating the Avant Garde Today

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: But you're just playing whatever comes to your mind, wherever you want to go?

"Spontaneous Compositions"

SS: Exactly. And by listening to each other we string together what many people now call "spontaneous compositions."

AAJ: OK, let's say I'm your average Joe. I'm sitting in the audience, and I'm thinking, "What the hell are these guys playing!!?? I'm open-minded enough to give it a chance. Could you say what you are trying to accomplish when you don't have this familiar structure to work with?

SS: Well, to begin with, we're not thinking of those things. We're just trusting all the experiences musically and in life that we've had up to that point, and we're responding to each other in a sensitive way. Whether that sensitivity is raw or quiet, or whatever volume or emotion it is, we're responding to each other. Maybe one of us starts to play something and then I'll respond to it, and then -the main thing that we were just talking about -is the sound. And we're also taking into consideration the space itself. The sound of the space. The space in Kingston had very live acoustics, so I discovered that the softer I played, I could find some ideas that were more fragile and kind of deep, maybe sad in spots. And then we got pretty raucous at times! But I found with those live acoustics that I didn't have to play very loud to get a lot of emotion across. The space and audience are actually part of the band and the music.

A Comparison with Jackson Pollock's Art

SS: If you're an audience member who is confronted with this sort of playing, and say the music was entirely new to you, I'd suggest doing what I do when I'm exposed to a new kind of music. I close my eyes, and I just listen and let it take me from there. It's a bit like looking at a Jackson Pollock painting for the first time. He's dripped some paint in one part of the canvas, and then does something else in another place. It seems random, but then when you look at it for a while, it becomes meaningful and alive for you, as it has for so many art lovers.



With music, it's not all drips, you can hear some kind of melody, chords. It's very important to hear where it starts. You wait for the moment of the first sounds, and then you're ready to take the train on the journey with the musicians. Maybe stepping back and listening to the whole "picture" you might gravitate towards a specific sound or musicians and focus in on that. Many times listening back to something I did or listening to someone elses music I got turned on by a specific sound and don't recognize it then I go looking for its source. Where is that sound coming from? Who is making it? is the source two or more musicians making it? That's what I love about this music, discovering a unique sound or interplay of sound that is happening spontaneously.

AAJ: So that journey has something to do with the collective experiences of musicians and listeners. It's got some kind of structure underlying it. It's not total chaos. Like with Jackson Pollock, you begin to see how organized it is beneath the apparently random drips of paint.

SS: Of course! As raw as they may be to some, his paintings are beautiful. And the same thing can happen with a group of musicians with sounds. They're listening very hard to what they're contributing at each moment. And what you'll find is that a freely improvised performance will go through many different permutations. The musicians know how to move between the parts or movements to develop their ideas. So if you listen carefully, and with an open mind, you're going to have a very rich and rewarding musical experience. But you do have to overcome any prejudice that you have. You just have to follow along and see what you might be drawn into, just as you would with a new work of art of any kind. And with recordings, you have a chance to go back and listen again to see what else pops up. I discover new things each time I listen to one of them.

AAJ: Jazz is different from paintings, in that jazz takes place in time and can never be repeated, while a painting is "frozen" in time. It takes place in space rather than time.

SS: Yes, but you can think of jazz as a kind of "action painting," where you watch the artist or artists going through his or her process. Its fascinating for me to see, hear, be involved in that as a musician and/or listener. In fact, there's quite a bit of combined music and visual arts being done today. Jeff Schlanger creates paintings in response to the music as it's played. Another artist in New York, Bill Mazza, does computer generated colors and lines while the music is taking place.

AAJ: It seems that jazz has really entered the multi-media age.

SS: Maybe, but that's not my point. I was just making a comparison between visual art and music. For me, it's more than enough to focus on the music and how I'm relating to it. Listening with your eyes closed is sometimes very rewarding: let the music paint the picture for you. That is called "acousmatic" listening, sound one hears without seeing the originating cause, which we all do in some form or another.

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