Brian McWhorter, as well as being one of my greatest teachers, and who is responsible, quite seriously, for changing my life, is a tirelessly creative trumpet player whose activity in music is matched by few in the music world today. I asked Brian to speak with me for about an hour about the trumpet, teaching, the changes in the music world, and his ideas about his own creative mission.
In today’s music world, the definition of a musician is rapidly changing. I’ve found Brian to be very thoughtful about how hes work as a music teacher can address these changes. Music students today are stepping into a much different marketplace than they were when conservatory curriculums were designed. Music schools are beginning to adapt, but it is up to the student to create his own employment and his own scene in whatever music he chooses to pursue. Brian’s comments on this issue are thoughtful and inspiring.
We also looked at the idea of a “renaissance” in trumpet playing. We are in the midst of significant upheaval in the music world, so it can be hard to separate a trumpet renaissance from a music renaissance in general, indeed, the two are intimately related. Musicians aren’t rewarded for being able to step into a studio or an orchestra as they once were: the jobs simply aren’t as plentiful as they were twenty or even ten years ago. Instead, we are beginning to see trumpet players who have developed a compelling and personal approach to the instrument getting more recognition. Though, as Brian notes in the interview, the level of conventional trumpet playing is on the rise as well, and this is a good thing for the instrument. Conventional trumpet playing is defined these days by very stiff competition, but that is the subject of a different interview.
We talked quite a bit about the unconventional trumpet players who are re-creating the instrument: Nate Wooley, Arve Henriksen, Peter Evans, Ron Miles and many more. The range of sounds possible on the instrument are being rapidly expanded, and the possibilities of music-making on the instrument are also increasing. The jury is, perhaps, still out on the idea of the “trumpet renaissance”, but it is clear that it is a very exciting time to be a trumpet player.
Another striking part of the interview is Brian’s extensive use of the language of business when he’s talking about music. Brian refers to a musician’s “product” as his ultimate goal. In his view a player must develop his product, focusing on the quality of his music from an objective standpoint, and also develop a belief in the value of his music. The interesting thing is that Brian isn’t talking at all about a lowest-common-denominator type of marketing. Having a conversation with or seeing a performance by Brian reveals a deep, spiritual approach to music: his music is not just fun and games. (Though sometimes it looks that way.)
So, one must rearrange his ideas about commerce and music. Normal supply and demand economics break down when we look at music: there is a glut on the supply side of the equation, and only a few exceptional musicians really enjoy a great demand for their music, yet more and more musicians enter the market. So, musicians must think about cultivating a sense of value for their music both in their own minds and their audience’s. I think this approach, and I encourage you to read all the way to end of the interview because Brian says some very insightful things, shows that perhaps unique music can compete on an open marketplace, but requires devotion and unending effort from the creator of the music. The most important thing to note, though, is that we must believe that our music does have value, even though most musicians aren’t rewarded financially for their hard work. Musicality and solid technique are not the only qualities a musician must possess: his music must come from the heart.
You can hear Brian play with Beta Collide this Thursday, June 24th, 2010 at Cowfish in Downtown Eugene. Look at the Oregon Bach Festival website for more info. Brian will also be performing this Friday, June 25th with Michael Ward-Bergeman, a British accordionist, on a triple-bill with myself, trumpeter and electro-acoustic musician Jeff Kaiser at the Jazz Station, 64 W. Broadway, Eugene, OR. 8 pm, $5 Cover, All Ages.
Brian McWhorter is currently Assistant Professor of Trumpet at the University of Oregon and also Professor of Contemporary Music at the Manhattan School of Music. Previously, he held positions at Louisiana State University (Trumpet & Jazz Studies), East Carolina University (Distinguished Guest Professor) and Princeton University. Along with Kevin Cobb, Brian continues to co-lead the Integral Trumpet Retreat.
Along with Molly Barth, Brian is the co-artistic director of Beta Collide – a new music group that blends leading-edge improvisers and contemporary musicians. Brian is a member of the Meridian Arts Ensemble – resident chamber music ensemble at Manhattan School of Music – with which he has recorded for Channel Classics, 8bells Records and Innova Records. He has also worked with Elliott Sharp’s Orchestra Carbon, Continuum, American Brass Quintet, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, American Sinfonietta, The Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra, The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Mark Applebaum, Bill Dobbins, John Zorn, John Cale (The Velvet Underground), Mark Gould & Pink Baby Monster, Anne Heaton, Nini Camps, and The Sharp Things. He has recorded for a variety of independent films, PBS Television shows and NPR broadcasts.
Douglas Detrick: Let’s talk about your work as a teacher. How has your teaching changed over the years in response to the way music has changed outside of school, or perhaps in school as well?
Brian McWhorter: Well, I think music in school has been mainly my focus, most directly, because I think the pedagogy and curriculum at every school that I’ve taught at has been largely a theoretical approach to music. So, music as study, essentially. And there’s certainly a place for that. I definitely don’t want to ignore what that part of learning music is about. I’m reacting a little bit to that because I think its useful for more students, most of my students here, to have some semblance of an applied approach to music as it exists in culture. Not just the study of music as it has existed in culture in previous times. That’s interesting to me, and I’m trying to bring as much of that into my studio and to the students that I come into contact with as much as possible.
I wouldn’t have thought that that was going to be my role when I got into academia. It really was that I got into academia and I saw that there was this particular slant. Its an old, old approach, its been going on for a long time. And there have been people like me, who have tried to fight it to some degree, who have tried to bring in an applied pedagogical style. But I think this approach is what is most interesting to me, and is most valuable for the students. So, I don’t feel a student study music and then you go out and not know what the scene is like. I feel they should actually dive into elements of the scene, actually practice the scene. And then it’s a natural fit if you want to go into the scene. Even for music teachers, and probably half of my students are music education majors, its important for them to have an understanding of what a music scene is like.
I don’t know why that hasn’t been a conscious question in the past. Perhaps it is and I just don’t know it, but I don’t get the sense that it is. So, even with them, and maybe even more importantly with them, I try to give them some idea of how music is being consumed now, as a portion of their curriculum. So, that’s what has changed the most for me since I’ve been in academia.
DD: I’m wondering if you feel that the way the music industry has changed, how its much more decentralized, with less studio work and things like that, how does this effect the trumpet in particular? Do you think those changes effects trumpet players more than other musicians, or in a different way?
BM: Well, in terms of the system of how trumpet players used to get work, its not only decentralized, it’s also destabilized. So, the system has a modicum of resemblance to what it was twenty years ago, even ten years ago, but it’s hardly at all the same. For instance, ten years ago it the idea was that if you were a really good player, that if you were in the upper one percent of players in the country, the mantra was move to New York or move to L.A., or Chicago, or one of these big towns where there was presumably a lot of work. And ten years ago there was.
My experience ten years ago in New York was that there was more work than there were players. This was prior to 9-11. I don’t know L.A. at all, but I’ve heard similar kinds of stories. People could come into New York and there would be stuff for them to do. Its not like that now, its not like that at all, but that’s not to say that there isn’t work, its not to say that there isn’t some avenue, but the resemblance to the old paradigm is totally gone. I think there’s a broad agreement about that, even though the same systems exist with auditions for orchestras and things like that, and freelance scenes are somewhat similar to what they were, though they are tightened up to the degree that they bare little resemblance. Nevertheless, I think the music of trumpet players is being consumed more than ever, through a variety of different kinds of things. Ten years ago YouTube was nothing, ten years ago Facebook and Myspace, well Myspace…(Laughs)…Myspace kind of came in and out. But, actually Myspace was a really interesting try. It was certainly more popular than Facebook.
DD: Well, it was meant to be more broad, it was meant for everyone rather than just people in college.
BM: Right, that’s a good point. And it was definitely more music-centric, and Myspace still is more music-centric than Facebook. But anyway, I think more music by trumpet players, and by all musicians in general is being consumed now than ever. Again, it just has to with this idea of ‘are we expecting the old paradigm?’ Or, are we open to these different avenues for expression? And if we are, then it’s more possible to get your music out there. I don’t know if, in terms of numbers, its at all possible to make a living that way. You put these things up and you saturate the scene or the internet with your stuff, and I think some things would come up for players and there are certain examples of this, you know, people who have made their entire identity using the internet. And with some it’s distasteful, beyond belief, but still they made their identity and they are still known and get gigs as a result of those kinds of things. No one carries a business card any more, right? That’s an old paradigm thing, but if you have a couple of videos up on Youtube those generate much more buzz than a business card.
DD: What values do you think a trumpet player needs to have going forward in today’s music world? Maybe think about someone who is fresh out of school and is looking to be a musician, what sort of things would this person need to do?
BM: Do you mean to the end of making a living in music?
BM: Because that’s a very specific thing.
DD: Well let’s go there and then we can go in a different direction.
BM: I think there are other possibilities, but let’s go there. I think if someone wants to make a living playing music now, they must have an enormous amount of patience, and Nate Wooley is an example of this. He just kind of planted himself in Jersey (Jersey City, NJ) and just waited, and a scene just kind of evolved around him while he was there, and it took ten years. Now that’s one route, and he’s the only person I can really think of that could do that. He was doing all sorts of things to just to make it work, waiting tables, etc. I remember his first few years in New York and he had a few gigs, but a just a few. And then he just started to go and go and go. And he’s one of the few players in that scene who turns down gigs just to balance his lifestyle.
So, it’s that or you have to have an insatiable resilience to self-promote. Because its hard, because you can make ten calls, you make a hundred calls for gigs or to make connections, and you don’t get any calls back. That hurts, emotionally. It’s really hard on your emotional body. The people that survive are the people that just keep going in that area. And it can be a slow track, or it can be a fast track, it just depends on the person. But aside from that, I think, in terms of the business thing, the other side of this, or, the other thing I wanted to mention, is that whatever the product is has to be something useful to the culture: it has to be useful in some way. It has to appeal to somebody, it has to serve a purpose. And I know that sounds like some kind of cold business thing, but I think there are more valuable musics than others. I can’t help but believe that.
Of course, not getting calls back makes you question whether or not your shit is valuable or not. But, and I’m gonna get a bit cheesy here, if in your heart you believe that what you’re doing is the right thing, then that is very valuable. Then you just keep pushing. Keep knocking on the door, keep making the calls, keep putting things online, just keep doing it. So, its this resilience, this patience for self-marketing, its this belief in having a good thing….and, is there anything else? I don’t know. I guess it’s also just that once things do start happening, it’s a matter having resilience for the critics. I don’t mean professional critics, I just mean people. When you do something that people really don’t like. I mean when you do a show and there’s two people in the audience. It’s another painful process, and I don’t think we talk about that enough.
DD: How do you approach that as a teacher? Those things are bound to come up when a student blows it on an audition for university symphony or something like that…
BM: It depends on the student. I have some students that I start channeling my grandfather, and I say ‘You’ve got to get back on the horse.’ And some other students are more enthusiastic about their product than they actually have the skills for. So then we have to talk about ‘well, good enthusiasm, but let’s work on your horn playing.’ so that what they are hearing actually comes across.
Generally how I approach that is just by keeping an open channel about that kind of thing. Some people fail an audition, they’re not selected, they don’t win, or whatever it is and it’s a really painful thing. They’ll come in here and just start crying. That’s tough, and its real and it’s also exactly how the music scene is. Its cut-throat, or at least feels cut-throat sometimes. I don’t think it’s easy in any scene. Every scene has its particular challenges, but it’s interesting to note the differences. The free music scene, a scene that Bill Dixon really helped create, has its own particular challenges as opposed to bebop, right? Breaking into the bebop scene in Chicago or New Orleans, for instance…it’s a very different thing. And then opposed to the free-lance classical or semi-classical thing, like broadway, that’s a different thing. And they all have their emotional pitfalls in terms of trying to break through.
So, it comes back to those same two things. The first thing is knowing that you have a really good product, knowing that what you’re expressing is something you’re honest about. And then hopefully what you’re expressing resonates in some way with the culture. And then, secondly, there has to be this tenacity to push it. The alternative is you believe in the product, and you’re just going to play and if anyone listens, fine, but if not, that’s also fine. But making a living in music? That’s akin to winning the lottery. You have to really get a lucky break playing on the street corner. And that’s actually a reasonable way…
DD: Its worked for some people…
BM: It has worked for some people. I think about that all the time. The pushing aspect of it becomes very tiresome. And that’s the reason for existential crises. We push and we push all the time with nothing in return. We try to express, express, express or do, do, do and nothing comes back saying ‘yes’. Its like heroin….(Laughs) Its like you get a little bit of a buzz every now and then…I don’t know anything about heroin, I really don’t. But, its like a drug, it really is. You go for it, and go for it and you get a little bit of a buzz and that keeps you going for the next month, or year or ten years until you get another buzz.
DD: I think your creative work is really interesting because you focus on high quality, of course, but also speed, variety and adaptability. You work in lots of genres, mediums and formats, different types of music, different types of trumpet playing, and play to different audiences. There are a lot of questions that come up when one notices this, but the first that comes to mind is what keeps you moving? How do you keep moving at this pace?
BM: At first it was just an unconscious energy that I had. I’ve since tried to slow down in some ways, but I’ve realized it doesn’t work for me. And now I know why, and now it’s a conscious pace. The reason is that I just have so little patience. And that honesty and confidence that I was talking about before is very fleeting for me. I think that’s been a hard one for me to swallow in terms of my own musical life. I’ll believe in a musical product for a very short period of time. There’s nothing that will motivate me for a six month long project, or a year-long project, or a ten year project, for that matter. I guess it’s okay. I mean, I hope it’s okay. It has its drawbacks. But I don’t know how else to proceed. I’ll fall in love with a certain kind of music or a certain kind of project, and if I don’t move on it very quickly its over. And, for whatever reason, I’ve had some success in marketing that, or, I guess, in it being consumed in the culture. Some people are okay with that. I think some people are quite annoyed by it, and that’s totally fine too. But it’s really a personal thing. I wish in some ways that I would love, say, jazz, all my life. I look at players like that and I’m so envious. But I listen to jazz for a little while and I love it, and then I become completely disillusioned by it. And I know its part of my process, and maybe, eventually I’ll start settling in on just a few different kinds of music where that really means something to me.
There was something recently that came up, and I’m not going to tell you what it was, but I was as moved as I’ve ever been in my life by a certain kind of music. And it totally consumed me and I had all these ideas for projects. It was very hard in a certain kind of way, because it’s a very emotional kind of music, very revealing in a way. And that can be hard to get into, which is why a lot players don’t do that, don’t bring in the emotional side. It becomes difficult; there are challenges to that. But I really loved it and it was inspiring more to me than almost anything…and then one day it was just done. Completely. Now I can’t listen to that music.
Now, people will psycho-analyze this and will be able to tell right away what my limitations or tendencies are… Look, in music we have to have those limitations be right up on the front, I think that’s the allure of certain kinds of musicians. But, I realized fairly recently that I’m not going to be the kind of person that’s going to be able to go on the road with a certain kind of show for years and years and years. I can’t do that. I much prefer getting a call for some kind of gig and it being totally up in the air until the last minute, and then working furiously to try to put together some sort of project. I like that pace, and it keeps me interested and actually I think it contributes to a certain kind of musical energy on stage. I’m not saying it’s the best, but it contributes to some form of musical energy that I like. But I’m not sure I would go to any of my shows. (Laughs)
DD: Do you think you were just naturally predisposed to that kind of approach? You seemed to say as much.
BM: Yeah, I think it was. I think it was my nature, also I think I work well under those circumstances. It’s sort of a natural thing for me. But also it was a valuable thing for me in New York because I would get calls at the last minute. The initial calls I would get were always at the last minute. That’s the same for almost anyone entering a scene. The first calls you get are to sub for someone, or to put on a show when no one knows what to do. So, I was that guy, and I liked it. I can’t say, though, that the allure of having something really steady isn’t appealing. It is very appealing. Its tough though, I’m not a distance runner.
DD: Some other people, mostly non trumpet players, have remarked to me, in a totally off-hand and non-scientific way, that we’re in a trumpet renaissance. They’re generally talking about players like Nate Wooley and some others. How do you feel about that idea? Do you think there’s any basis to it?
BM: Well, in that scene, with Nate Wooley, Taylor Ho Bynum and Peter Evans, and there are others that was sparked a lot, of course, by Bill Dixon. But, Bill Dixon didn’t have the audience of someone like Dave Douglas. I think Dave Douglas actually did a lot for that scene. They did a lot to open up this idea of making sounds on the trumpet as a lexicon instead of notes. I guess that’s the simplest way to put that. It’s hard because it really deals with the abstract.
But, yeah, it’s amazing. What we’re seeing now with these sorts of players is a level of sophistication that did not exist in someone like Don Cherry’s lifetime for instance. It’s just a much more highly evolved language now. And I don’t mean to be disrespectful to Don Cherry at all, because I do have tremendous respect for him. But the scene around him then I just don’t think we can say was as sophisticated as it is now, not only in terms of lexicon, but also in terms of audience appreciation for the music. And also we’re seeing the value of that music in a different way. It’s not so much a reaction to another scene. It’s now its own scene, and that’s a beautiful thing, I really think it is.
DD: It seems that this music has its own tradition now. In the past the music seemed like a reaction to other musics, and to the culture of the time in general. But now it has really come into its own as a tradition.
BM: I think that’s exactly right, its come into its own. And I think all the players in that scene may have started developing that lexicon as a reaction to something. But on its own, I think, with all these players, it is really its own very special scene.
And that opens up another topic, just about trumpet in general. I think in some other instrumental scenes, like in violin or piano, they might lament the days around the turn of the last century in terms of prodigious talent, or sophisticated musicianship. Certainly there are more virtuosos now, in any instrument, but I think in piano and violin I always hear that there are more virtuosos now, but there just isn’t that level of sophistication, or that amazing musicianship that existed maybe a hundred years ago. I don’t know. But, it could very well be true.
But in the trumpet, it’s different. It’s a new instrument, especially relative to piano and violin, but the musicianship is at an all-time high. And I see that as just going up. I’m not saying that there’s somebody you can compare to Miles (Davis) or to Louis Armstrong…I’m not saying that. But in general, we’re in a much more highly evolved trumpet state. It’s an awkward sentence, but you get what I’m saying. There more of the most amazing artists on the instrument than there have ever been. You could also say it’s a renaissance not just in that scene that we were talking about but also… Pop music probably has more trumpet in it than ever before. I don’t know any numbers on that, but it feels that way to me.
And even in classical music…I mean, the orchestral players that we have now…well, I don’t really care to listen to most of them. Well, I do wish that we had some of the stars of the scene that we had thirty or forty years ago. There were some amazing players. But also in trumpet solo playing with Hakan Hardenburger and Eric Aubier, these players that are just sounding terrific on this repertoire that could not have been played forty, fifty years ago. So, in every aspect of the field I think we’re really evolving. Orchestra is…well, I don’t know. We could talk about that, but its kind of a different scene. Its maybe the most stagnant scene of all those that I mentioned. But, just in terms of physicality, what some of these players are able to do on the instrument is just astonishing. Really astonishing.
So, yeah, I would buy that.
DD: Yeah, I would too. Something really interesting about the trumpet is that it has such a broad range of sounds that are possible. With the violin we have a broad range of sounds, but compared to the range on the trumpet I would say it’s not really that broad at all. Then I think of some people, like Arve Henriksen, a Norwegian trumpet player who is…
BM: Doing some unbelievable things on the horn.
DD: Unbelievable, yeah.
BM: Some of it is so striking that you would never guess that he’s playing a trumpet.
DD: And the same with Nate (Wooley), he can do an entire concert and not play a single sound that we’d call a conventional trumpet sound. I think it is really exciting to be playing an instrument where there is a lot of new territory being uncovered and questions being asked and answered, but with new questions coming up constantly.
BM: It doesn’t seem at all like we’ve reached a plateau with what’s happening on the instrument. People are popping up all the time who are doing incredible things. All the time. But, it presents some difficulties. I think of Henriksen and I think, ‘I just can’t do that’. But, then that’s also the same with Phil Smith. I can’t do that either. Between the conventional players like Phil Smith, Mike Sachs, Dave Hickman, Allen Vizzuti, then the unconventional players like Bill Dixon, Nate Wooley, Henriksen and to some extent Nils Paetter Molvaer, the range of sounds is hard to fathom. And I really think you’re right. I don’t think there’s any other instrument that presents a similar breadth of possible sounds that the trumpet has.
And I think the other thing that becomes clear is that the trumpet is much more of a personal instrument. Different trumpet players are embracing their different physical issues with the instrument. Like if a player is made to play a very conventional sound, then they embrace that and develop it even more, like Mike Sachs, Phil Smith, Allen Vizzuti, Dave Hickman, all these types of players. But if there’s a physical thing that produces a strange sound, like Nate Wooley, Henriksen, then they embrace that sound and develope a lexicon around that possibility. And so, in that way, given the whole range, you see a real personal approach to the instrument.
This is what makes it difficult in contemporary music. Writing for contemporary music as a composer can be very difficult. I get a lot of music written for trumpet, usually not written for me, that ask for some bizarre, unconventional, or even conventional things, that I just can’t do. It presents a difficulty in that genre for the system of writing music. It’s almost as if you have to write for the person, and not the instrument. It’s not a bad thing, but it makes it difficult because the majority of pieces in the contemporary music scene I just can’t play because of my own abilities. Its not that I don’t want to, it’s just that I can’t do it. I’m sure that eventually there’ll be players that can do all these things. Wouldn’t that be something?
DD: The trumpet has been associated with jazz, as long as jazz has been around. And certainly the trumpet has been around longer than jazz, but the whole American musical landscape has been influenced by jazz. Not in a concrete, stylistic way, but in background things that we don’t immediately hear. I think this idea of a personal approach to the trumpet is a great example of this. The value of a unique sound, rather than a canon of conventional sounds is an example.
BM: The bands that exist now that are trumpet-centric are more now than ever. And I think of, you know, Cuong Vu, Dave Douglas, or even people like Waddada Leo Smith who put out records with a band doing their compositions. Or even Ed Harkins, the records he’s done. Have you heard these records? These records with Steve Schick and Mark Dresser down at UCSD. Unbelievable. Cuong Vu is another great example of that. Or Ron Miles. These are composers that are putting out their music with a band that they’ve assembled. So, again, its about this personal approach. And there’s more of that now than ever. So, that’s a really interesting thing that’s happened now. You can go to any city, any big city, and find probably ten records by trumpet players in the last year. Certainly mostly on indie labels, but that’s a huge thing. History books will be talking about that. They won’t know where to find the records (Laughs) but they’ll be talking about it.
DD: There’ll be copies that no one paid for on people’s hard drives. So, what sorts of things do you see yourself doing in the near future? Any idea?
BM: Well, I’m trying to push Beta (Collide) right now, and we have a certain product in mind right now and we’re trying to make it go. I really like that a lot. May main goal with Beta is to put on shows that focus not our own music, but a pluralism of styles, as opposed to a relativism that is so easily gotten into by new music groups.
DD: What ideas are behind that approach for you?
BM: Well, we’re trying show how all these styles commingle to make up what is contemporary music. I’m not sure if always comes across that way, but that is our intention. And, it has created some interesting things. With Beta, with the amount of talent in the group, what’s interesting for us is to push a virtuosic ensemble sound in this country. We’re trying to be a really virtuosic group that does things that are hard to put together, because the talent level is extremely high.
But, we also acknowledge that the idea of a contemporary music group is a dead idea. It’s been over for some time, even though there are maybe more now than ever. It’s a modernist tool to approach contemporary music. So, we’re trying to enact a post-modern idea of the contemporary music group, but a little more evolved. Because post-modernism on its own just leads to relativism.
The idea of pluralism is a fascinating idea to me. Its hard to get into it at length now, but we’re trying to explore the idea that there is meaning behind these different compositional styles, that they can commingle in interesting ways, and not just be put in a random order. The other thing about the modern contemporary music ensemble is that the public just doesn’t want anything to do with it. Hardly anything. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. So, we’re trying to find niches into culture in more meaningful ways. We don’t want to just put out a record, but also put out music videos. And not just put out music videos but use a variety of different kinds of artists working in different kinds of mediums. It doesn’t just feel like we’re doing multi-media, like multi-media for multi-media’s sake. That sucks! Multi-media for multi-media’s sake sucks. It just feels like nothing. It’s a perfect example of relativism. Just bringing people on to do different things doesn’t mean anything. A film is a great example. Even a very conventional film. All these artists come together towards a very particular goal, to tell a narrative, and they use their art to sell that narrative or abstract idea in a concerted way. That’s pluralism, as far as I’m concerned.
DD: What sorts of things are on your mind when you’re conceiving of a project for Beta?
BM: Its funny because for Beta opportunities will come up for concerts, so then given the resources, in terms of money, who can we afford to bring out, what can we afford to do. Those are the first concerns always. And I jump in assuming that we’re going to be able to put together a show that’s worthwhile. I don’t think we ever reach our ideal. In order to reach our ideal we’d need a million dollars per show. I think that’s true for everybody.
Then we figure out the personnel that we have available to us, and then we can figure out what music makes sense given the space, or given the parameters of the festival or the situation that we’re in. And then we aim to create a show where we present music that represents a lot of different kinds of modalities in contemporary music-making. From sound-based lexicons, to highly determinate kinds of modalities. The American experimentalism to the European avant-garde. These kinds of juxtapositions. I love that, I love hearing that. I don’t think we hear it enough, frankly. I hear whole concerts of European avant-garde, it makes me want to puke. I hear whole concerts of American experimentalism and it’s the same result. But, somehow there’s an interesting dynamic between the two.
Also, it has to be short. (Laughs) Because I just tire of stuff like that being pushed down my throat. But that’s an interesting juxtaposition. I guess that’s a good way of putting it. What’s interesting to me is the juxtaposition of these kinds of pieces, or these kinds of ethics or these kinds of lexicons.
DD: Do you feel that those two schools of music were going for a similar thing, maybe through different methods?
BM: Yeah, absolutely. European avant-garde and American experimentalism is a great example. American experimentalism was highly indeterminate, and European avant-garde was highly determinate, but they were still going for similar gestures. Or, at least, it seems that way. But the methods that each used led to very different results. Maybe I shouldn’t say very different, because I wouldn’t say I could hear the difference when I listen to those two things. But I think the effect on the musicians is radically different and the effect on the audience is radically different, and I think the reason is that musicians are experiencing something different. If you hear an improvisation that’s very complicated, dense, and crazy, the audience feels a certain thing because they pick up a vibe on stage. If you hear a piece by Brian Ferneyhough (A British composer of highly complex music.) that is crazy, dense, and complicated it might have very similar musical effects, but the musicians are really worried and full of anxiety. That comes across to the audience. And I think that’s part of his intent, to create that sort of thing.
DD: To push the musicians.
BM: And to push the audience. With improvisation that’s not always the intent even though the musical lexicon may be very similar. A lot of how we perceive concerts is not in the notes or even in the lexicon but in the meaning behind it, the motivating force behind what is being said. In a conversation you can have ten different people say ‘how are you doing?’ and have ten completely different, implicit meanings. So, you could have something by Ferneyhough and something by Earl Brown, juxtaposed, something like this. They would produce very different results even though the musical lexicon may be very similar. So, that’s something of what we’re trying to do.
Other than that, I’ve been doing much more solo stuff than I’ve ever been doing. It’s more interesting to me now to play with orchestra, and some things have actually popped up as possibilities to do very conventional solos in front of orchestras. That’s more attractive to me now than ever. I would never have done that five years ago, even two years ago. Not to mention the rest of my life. But, now that sounds very interesting because some of the things that I’ve learned in the music that I’ve made are that it almost doesn’t matter what kind of music it is. Thinking about the other ideas we talked about, it really almost doesn’t matter. As long as your intention is to please the audience, to make some sort of beautiful event happen for an audience. Or to make a strong, bold statement with whatever kind of music you’re playing. I’m interested to see if that’s actually possible.
DD: Earlier you used business language, or maybe economic language, to talk about music. I’m wondering what kind of inspiration thinking about economics gives you, or maybe thoughts about the new sorts of businesses that have come into being recently.
BM: Well, for most of my life as a, if I can dare say, as a creative musician, I wanted to just ignore the business side of things. I really did. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I was in art to be in art, you know what I mean? I wanted to ignore it but living in New York, where the stress of just making enough to eat is a real, tangible anxiety, I had to make some sacrifices in terms of my own musical honesty. There were certainly sacrifices I made just to get food on the table. I absolutely prostituted myself. I had this dream of making a living in music, and I did it in New York, but I think most people would say that the majority of what they do, even if they’re doing their own thing, is not always stuff that they want to do. So, that was a driving force, and now with kids, it’s gone to eleven in terms of how I think about the business.
It really is a business, or at least there’s a business side of it, and I realize now that if I’m going to continue a life in music, because I’m basically supporting my kids with this bizarre field, that I have to be somewhat business-savvy, and try to do the best that I can in order to support my kids. Otherwise, if either I don’t believe in my product, like I talked about before, and I don’t think that its useful, or if I don’t have the tenacity or the patience or the resolve to just keep pushing my work out there, then I quit. And I think about quitting music every day, as I think most musicians do. (Laughs) It’s always a fantasy. Though I certainly don’t want to push to the degree that it is thought of as disingenuous. And we all know about artists like that. It’s a fine line. But I do think that those artists that we think about as being disingenuous with their publicity often don’t have a happening product. We don’t feel like it’s an honest expression from this individual. I really do want to make music that is… I feel like all of us want to be liked. In capitalism, being liked has a direct…
BM: Yeah. And it sometimes comes early or late. Who knows how it comes, especially in the monetary end of things. With all this internet stuff, it’s almost like a breakdown of capitalism in the music industry, which is an interesting side of it. But it leads to, or hopefully leads to some sort of monetary benefit. But I do want to make music that is meaningful in culture. I really do, I really do. And, given certain strengths that I have, or perceive that I have, or just certain things that I have available to me, I think there are avenues available that I can go at, hard, and try to get better at making money in music. I think everyone wins. I have to believe that. And I have to believe that with you too, or any of my students, that if they have a product that they really believe in, if its an honest expression, a meaningful expression to culture, that if they push and they make it happen, everyone wins. Even thought we often feel like its disingenuous to push hard, or its selling out to push hard, or any of those emotions that come up when you’re trying to sell a product, because that product is us. Its our own karma, I suppose, that we got into this field for altruistic reasons, or maybe selfish reasons, and the we find ourselves at some point in our lives having to market in what feels like a dirty, dirty dynamic. (Laughs) So, I do believe that when it comes down to it, everyone wins if I sell hard.
And, there are better projects that I sell. There are better things that I try to push out there. There are more meaningful things. I’m trying to hone in on those things. I don’t want to do anything, and I’ve quit many things that start to feel like they’re not that way, or they don’t represent that honesty or that integrity, even though they’re financially rewarding. I don’t want to be part of that. But I do think that, at the end of the day, musicians who have a product that they really believe in, everyone will win if they push hard for that kind of thing. It’s unfortunate that our system, the way it is, relies on musicians sacrificing themselves to push their product. As opposed to in Mexico, or Europe… Mexico is an unbelievable example, where the government does more to push music than the people do. And there’s more music happening there than here. It’s amazing. But that’s a different economic/government system. Here it’s really in our hands. And I think that we’re often told that music doesn’t mean anything, and we feel that because when we push our music we don’t get anything in return. There are all these negative possibilities. But I think its part of the path that if we really do believe in it that we have to push and trust that it’s going to make a better place and that everyone will win. If there’s more culture, it’s better.
DD: So, to press on this even a bit more, the message could be to find this product that you believe in and push that, and do what you have to do along the way, but keeping that focus is really the important thing in pursuing music. It seems like that would reinforce all the other things we’ve been talking about. If you’re in a place where you’re still developing the idea of your product, then keeping that ultimate focus would be one of the most important things.
BM: Yeah, but its funny because I don’t think I could say that any of my products have been quite that evolved, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt that clear focus. I think that it’s all a work in progress. Especially students coming out of school. I think it’s hard for them to fully believe in what they’re doing.
DD: That’s true. It’s not a straight path. It’s not really a path.
BM: But, I think if my heart is really in the right place with what I’m hoping to do with music… Put simply, I’m really trying to build a better culture, a more vibrant, more plural, more expressive, more inclusive culture. Those goals are set with me. I’m not always super conscious about those goals with every project but they are in the back of my mind. So I trust that those things are the driving impetus for most of my work. And I try to recalibrate when it doesn’t feel like they are. And then I push and I get beaten down and I push. Then I beat myself down and then I push. It’s hard in this country, it’s probably hard in every country, but I only really know this one. But, if you really push, even if it is a work in progress, if those goals are set then everyone wins.
But, of course it has to be in the ball-park of quality and meaning in order to be something that, for me, would pass the test of being relevant. I’ve seen tons of quality shows that meant shit. And I’ve seen a lot of meaningful shows that don’t have the quality that, while I’m able to ascertain the meaning, it can be lost in translation to many others. So, the objective and the subjective have to be in the ball-park and that’s why we rely on teachers, and critics to some degree and our friends and our loved ones to help us hone in on that expressive, honest product. Its simple problem, but I’m saying in a really complicated way.
DD: Its sort of simple.
BM: The business side of this thing that I’m trying to put out is simple. The idea is if you have the product, you just go. If you’re trying to create something better, you just go. And its too bad, to me, that the people that often have the product and have great intentions are often the ones that are left on the cutting room floor. Often. Maybe more often than not. Our culture isn’t designed to just look for those types of people and lift them up. Wouldn’t that be something? That just doesn’t happen. Not even in pop music. It’s really the people who self-promote this kind of music-making that might get their foot in the door.