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Vic Rawlings: Hardball

Gordon Marshall By

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Another project, from 2004 and as yet unreleased, is with Howard Stelzer of Intransitive Recordings. Stelzer's instrument is the cassette tape recorder, on which he floods dense sonic lakes that echo as if in a cave. He favors the vintage and battered-up in his arsenal of devices and has a collection of tapes with found and collected sounds. He fast-forwards and slows these on the machines. It can be brutal or ethereal, just as nature itself. Stelzer is a younger and more iconoclastic listener than Rawlings, although the average audience member might find his actual art to be smoother more accessible than Rawlings.' There is promise of a palatable pairing of contrasts between the two artists.

All About Jazz: What do you value in music, and in particular, in the concept of music as you redefine it in your own work?

Vic Rawlings: That is a huge question! In short, I look to music as a heightened chance to be present in the moment; I feel that when I go to a show or when I play one. If it's good and happening then there's nothing else in my mind—that's a welcome respite! I can get that mind frame happening at home sometimes too, but it really kicks in when there's an audience.

It's also a heightened chance to get on the level with people—the other people in the band or the people who have come to see what the band's going to do. Everyone knows if it's happening or if it's not really there—it's like church in that way, but a really great experience of community.

I'm referencing "music" when I do my thing on the cello and the electronics—there's all the elements of music there. The fundamentals are unavoidable—that's OK. I'm not really hoping to make something happen that's not music in the absolute. Time is time. It's always there. Events have duration and density, repetition or not.

AAJ: Is there a relation between the abstract work you do on your CDs and the banjo and guitar work you do in other contexts?

VR: It's all music, of course, which is to say that it all happens in time and is there to be heard....I have never met a good musician who is absolutely narrowly focused on one sort of music. Everyone has many interests; I'm not exotic in this way. Look at the record/CD/mp3 collections of interesting people, and you'll find a lot of variety, likewise with musicians. Many people play a certain thing in public, but let other music happen in other settings or privately.

To clarify: I play and professionally teach a few traditional pre-bluegrass styles on the banjo. I use tunes, actually parts of tunes, as starting places. It's always seemed to me that any music is the experience of the sound of those instruments that make it. I like the sound of the banjo, so I play it. I don't tend to play tunes faithfully or go to jam sessions; I'm looking more to simply play the instrument itself; the music brings a lot of other things with it that I'm less interested in.

This stuff is true on the guitar also, but somehow I'm more drawn to the guitar as a performance instrument. I've had honky-tonk/country bands, and I love metal and lots of other stuff; I will do that again when the time is right. When I started playing, I remember thinking it was just so I'd be able to control the guitar tones that I had been listening to on record, that it would be cool to learn to be able to make sound happen! So in the very beginning, my attraction was to tone.

AAJ: What is the role of technique in your work?

VR: It is a necessary evil. This is something I tell my students: the real trick of being a skilled craftsman is avoiding things that require a lot of skill. Translated into music, the best sounds are made by people who are not working very hard. This sounds counterintuitive, but there's the irony: real skill lies in intuition and knowing what do to when your sounds don't come out as expected. That's the birth of good phrasing...I try to reduce my use of specialized techniques to nothing. I see obvious use of technique as most often being obnoxious, fundamentally boring and very old-world in the sense that it introduces hierarchies that are easy to quantify. I certainly hope it isn't a talent show when I play. I am always attempting to simplify my approach. I admire players that do not need to rely on any sort of exoticism to make their music happen. If it takes extreme measures to create, there is likely an easier way to do it.

All of this said, I might explain my technique as knowing the materials, the objects at hand—how to position the amp so the right feedback happens, how to wire things so they are easier to work with, what instrument to use to get that sound. I remember working on a soundtrack with a friend back in the '90s. We needed a continuous sustaining sound; I went to do a drone on the cello—big mistake. My friend suggested we use something else that didn't have to stop and change directions, like a cello bow—so obvious! I was so lost in the instrument that I forgot what the music was. I try to remember this moment. Technique is often simply finding the right tool.

To be fair, I did learn a lot of techniques that I use from a rather excellent cello teacher about how to use the bow, so there's definitely technique that goes into making things sound right. Even when bowing the tailpiece or a big piece of metal junk clamped to the bridge, the same stuff I learned—how to hold/touch the instrument to get a big sound—comes into play. But it's also true that someone who wanted to play my instrument and sound like me could pretty much do so with not much difficulty.

AAJ: Or is it work, rather than a form of play? A voyage of discovery or a reckoning with obstacles?

VR: All of that. Good question. At some risk I'll say it's often meditation—a focused time, an attempt to maintain a thought while being open to all of the things that are going on.

AAJ: Does environment form you as an artist?

VR: Hmmmmm—yes. Of course. I could write a book on this.

AAJ: How far do you look into the future?

VR: Yikes! First I hope to continue to support myself as a musician and teacher. I'd love to tour more and teach more students that are dedicated and generally get to spend more time with good people who are committed to doing good things. I try to remain in the present here and now, but I do look a tiny bit into the future—a year or two; beyond that, it starts to feel grandiose.



Selected Discography


Vic Rawlings & Mike Bullock, On That Which is Best and the Best That Can be Done Under the Situation (Fargone, 2006)

Vic Rawings & Mike Bullock, Fall of Song (Chloe, 2003)

N.R.A., untitled (H&H, 2003)

N.R.A., s/t (Audio Dispatch, 2003)

Tim Feeny & Vic Rawlings, In Six Parts (Sedimental, 2007)

Mawja, Studio One (Al Maslakh, 2007)

Mawja, Live One (Al Maslakh, 2007)

Vic Rawlings et al., Refrain (Creative Sources, 2008)

Photo Credit

Photos by Seth Tisue

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