Interview with Will Montgomery
1. There is a long and a short answer to your question
A. The short answer is: in July of 1997 I moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area (the ‘Bay Area’ is what everyone calls S.F, Oakland, Berkeley and Marin County). About a month later Bruce Ackley got a call from the musician-organizer of the so-called "3 rd Annual Free Jazz Festival", asking Bruce to put together something for the the festival. Bruce called me, Raskin and a baritone player whose name I forget - I think it was Pete Best - and we all rehearsed for the month of October. Then the festival (which was called ‘free’ because it didn’t cost money to attend) was postponed until February 1978. At that point the bari player (Tony Blaise was his name actually) dropped out because he had to return to college studies. Andrew Voigt showed up in town and was invited to join by Raskin, who also volunteered to be the baritone player for the festival concert. Little did he know he’d be playing baritone for the next 20 years --- We all thought this was just going to be one special concert and then we’d forget about it. So Raskin borrowed my old (very old) baritone.
Meanwhile, we now had a few months to work, and in that time we developed some pretty cool shit. In fact, I was so blown out by the tapes of the first February concert that I suggested we continue playing together and record sometime later in the year. By June of 78, thanks to advice from my sister’s boyfriend at the time (drummer Charles Bobo Shaw), we’d been invited to the Moers festival for 1979,and that was really the thing that set us up, having something so far in the future to keep working for. (Plus,it was the late seventies when the independent record ‘thing’was really coming to be accepted - what with the emergence of New Music Distribution Service in NYC - so it was a natural extension of the music that Henry Kaiser and I started the record label: Metalanguage. Once we had our own label, the carrot of recording also stimulated or encouraged continuing the music.]
Well, not a particularly short answer, was it? The truly short answer is in there: Bruce got a call, invited us to take part, we played, we liked it, we kept going.......The longer version would include the fact that Bruce and I had known each other since the early seventies and, even though I had moved from San Francisco to Mendocino county in 1972, we kept in touch especially in regards to lps by people like Braxton, Mitchell and Lacy. It was probably Lacy’s Emanem lp "Saxophone Special " with Lacy, Potts, Parker, Stevens, Bailey and Waiswisz that most encouraged or spawned the sax quartet idea. People always mention Barxton’s Fall 1974 album with the one piece for sax quartet (which we later recorded ourselves). I’m sure that piece was in the mix too as we spent alot of time thinking about Braxton at that time. Also: Bruce had been in choirs when he was younger too, and (even to this date) I think it’s fair to say that drums etc are not his favorite instruments to play with.
There was also a very vibrant improvised music scene in San Francisco at that time – Raskin and Ackley were very active in it - but by the late seventies, it was beginning to wear a little thin for alot of us. Mixed in with the good music was an awful lot of self-indulgence and lack of structure without the kind of skill levels prevalent in Europe, so that the so-called free music was often times awful. I think Bruce and Jon were both interested in having a group that was more rigorous on the compositional end of things than what they were doing at that time. So all this played into how we got started.
2. What are the major musical developments the group has been through in the 20 years of its existence? How did the replacement of Andrew Voigt by Steve Adams change things?
Some of this question might be better answered by you or a listener going thru the music chronologically. Just as an aside before I answer: after 20 years, all I'm sure about is that the music is very strong as a body of work. Is it important? Is it revolutionary? Are there group tendencies, or goals, direction? I'm inside of it now, way inside. I've hacked and hewed this path thru the musical wildeneress and I'm way down this road now. Everything seems really logical, easly understood, and it seems to me that almost anything we do now should be perfectly logical, exciting and ought to be loved by any audience. I know Raskin feels this way too….This of course is disproven daily: we still play for small audiences often; it’s still not real easy to book tours even though we get an awfull lot of good press….. So we must still be an art music group. All this is to say that I enjoy what I do and yet have a muddied view on how it works in the context of "Music" with a capital M.
anyway...........here’s #2: When we first started, it’s fair to say that everyone in the group was interested in creating a unique group voice. This wasn’t so much stated as evident in our praxis. We would spend hours, sometimes going overnight to a warehouse space in San Francisco, doing free improviations, analyzing them, replaying ideas that were interesting to all of us. And 99 times out of 100 the interesting ideas were those that surprised us* --- thus we were weeding out the expected and nurturing the new and unexpected. So I’m not sure we ever stated it quite that directly, but we were adamantly intent on extricating anything that sounded like ‘x’ or ‘y’. It had to be ‘our thing’. We didn’t throw out the concept of melodies, for example, but most melodic material was at most ‘inspired by’. We wouldn’t have allowed any overt imitation into the repetoire at that time.
Another thing we focused on was interesting structures to frame the improvisations. We took our inspiration from Braxton and Mitchell and the contemporary composers we were listeing to - or reading. For example: Messiaen’s writngs and the interviews with Stockhausen; we didnt usually borrow ideas so much as get ideas for our music after reading their ideas. Eat,digest, regenerate. (I could talk more about influences, but...space considrations....)
I think that this adamant stance began to be compromised in ’83 ( I don’t mean that to sound negative - maybe there’s a better word ). By that time we did have a group sound, and we had accomplished alot already. At the same time, the effect of cutting off the roots was that we were drying up a little, losing momentum. Then the lp Favorite Street happenned. This was the project involving the four of us in re-arranging Steve Lacy’s music for our sax quartet. Certainly, anyone familiar with the original pieces would say that we tore them apart and really made the music Rova’s. (Although all the reconstructing we did was, we felt and still do feel, in the spirit of Lacy’s music.) But Lacy’s jazzy melodies on The Dumps and The Throes were part of that lp and they were the beginning of our incorporating more traditional material into the music.
By the 84-85 period, which I kind of see as the end of the early period --- or perhaps the culmination (We recorded The Crowd for Hat Hut in Amiens in summer '85. That was definitely the ‘final statement’ from the early period, but it might have been recorded a little too carefully; listening to it now, as much as I'm impressed by the ideas and the writing, it might not make as strong a musical statement as the live Saxophone Diplomacy lp recorded for hat Hut on tour 2 years earlier in the USSR) --- we were working on a series of pieces called ‘Sports’. These were pieces with overt rhythmic and melodic concerns and were intended as opening and encore pieces. Not a major thing, but the move towards inclusion of more "familiar music" was now in place. Of course we were getting this together because it was fun, not because it was "familiar," but the effect was the same.
In June, 1986 the Ganelin Trio came to the US. This was the first tour of a Soviet jazz group in the US. I was in touch with their US management, and as they very much wanted to come to San Francisco to play with Rova, we were able to get them here for expenses plus a a nice but affordable fee. The event dovetailed very nicely with Rova's evolutiion and marked the beginning of a second stage (although of course these things don't begin or end with any certain point in time; all things swirl round and overlap. It's only later - looking back - that we can note these convenient historical markers).
Anyway: In 1984 we more or less had flattened out. Our momentum was slowed. It had been 6 or 7 years already and there was concern about new ideas. The group sound was in place. It seemed clear to me that we needed to stir it up in some way. It was also clear that if we were to continue giving this group top priority musically, and basically to the exclusion of other personal projects, that - well I felt I needed to be getting direct input from other musicians just to feed the idea - mill. We’d collaborated with Kronos in 1984 on a couple of major pieces written by Voigt and myself; a discussion during that collaboration between me and David Harrington led to Rova’s going non-profit. It was this very unmusical development that allowed us to apply to the city government for money to bring Ganelin in, and that was the real beginning of a series of collaborations with many artists we admired. From 1986-1988 I personally put (too much) energy into organizing a slew of collaborations, and Rova was able to present to San Francisco for the first time John Zorn’s Cobra, Butch Morris’ conduction process, Braxton’s Composition 129 for sax quintet, a sextet of Rova-Kaiser-Frith, a sextet of Rova plus electronics (Teitelbaum/ David Rosenboom), a major work composed by Jon Raskin and mysaelf (mostly by Jon) for sax quartet and Taiko Dojo (Japanese drum) ensemble. We also were lucky to have a major New York funding plan administered from 1988 on that gave money to contemporary US composers to write music. Thus all the commissions applied for. Between the writing from outside sources for quartet and the performing with the likes of Zorn, Frith, Morris, Braxton and Curran, our palette of compositional and improviational tools widened considerably, and we’re still exploring the ramifications of all that activity (which continues to this day. Most recent collaboration with 4 Turkish drummers live in Istanbul in March ‘97)
In 1988, Andrew left the group and Steve Adams joined. One of the reasons Andrew left was that he really was not interested particularly in the new direction towards collaboration. We inevitably had less time to work on our own material. But sometimes less ends up being more. Steve came in from the more eclectic Your Neighborhood Sax Quartet. He brought his abilities and interest in more jazz- influenced writing, and his skills in reading down music and rehearsal organization helped when we got into other people’s stuff. He also is a much more rhythmically solid player than Andrew. That gave the group 2 very solid rhythmic players (he and Raskin on baritone, who in the past has given rhythm workshops for non-percussionists, and likes to sit in the train tapping out seven against nine). Which is to say that there’s ‘time’ and there’s ‘sense of time’. My ‘sense of time’ is excellent but my "time" is less than perfect.
So Steve's entry dovetailed with musical developments. Securer in our own voice, we now felt more comfortable taking that voice and applying it to works by other composers . And our own pieces have in the past 8 or 10 years become, I think, more inclusive of the various musical possibilities.
The most recent evolutionary development has been a re- exploration of the free and the loosely-structured improvisational areas. We’re analyzing the music again and looking for new wrinkles in our improvisational areas, as well as documenting the material so that - if we can arrange it - we can take the music into the public schools and create a mini-curriculum called "improvisation in everyday life"
We have always got to balance the desire to compose with the need to freely improvise, both in rehearsal and on the road. Because we usually like the compositions we are given and because the funders usually require a certain number of performances anyway, there’s a desire to perform the works, which sometimes takes away from the time we’d be performing or rehearsing free -music. Especially in the 1995 -1997 period when we recorded seven cds, the free improv was getting squeezed out. In the past 8 months though its made a strong comeback. And as I said earlier, these stages of development don’t turn on and off at a particular moment. So we may be moving towards a time when the freer material is dominant again. I personally feel that this band’s freer playing is so strong now because - on a good night - we all hear each other so well and have such a fluent and deep mutual langauge that the music absolutely plays out as if composed anyway, but in ways we could never design.
Second set of questions from Will Montgomery
1. Playing in the USSR and then collaborating with the Ganelin Trio in the States - obviously a major breakthrough given the politics of the time, and interesting to hear that it was a musical watershed. Were there any particular cultural or political or musical concerns within Rova that brought this about?
On a personal level, Russia had always been a major fascination. When I was in seventh grade, my main"report" that year was on the USSR. I visited the Embassy in New York City, and I remember the propaganda magazines and the strange pictures of Communist youth corps types, etc. I always wanted to go there. Later on the great fiction writers I read from Russia created a mystical image that made the country even more intriguing. When a letter came from the so-called Leningrad New Music Society in 1981, I began immediately looking for ways to make a trip there by the group possible, although I don’t think I really thought it could happen. So the first impetus was fantastical more than political or musical. But there also was - ultimately - a real desire to make a cultural connection. No new music group from the US had ever toured there officially.
We brought with us several poets and writers, a music critic, a video crew, a couple of film makers, a dancer. So we were definitely - by 1983 - trying in our little way to offset the classic US/USSR confrontational stance: that was the period when Reagan was calling USSR the ‘evil empire’. When I called the US State Dept. looking for assistance to go there, the asst. secretary I talked with started calmly explaining why they wouldn’t help, but by the end of a three minute statement he was literally furious, yelling into the phone that "ok, we won’t stop you from going but we sure as hell won’t help you get there.".......I didn’t call back again. (We were also sure that our home phone was eventually being tapped, but who knows......)....... Before we got there, we of course knew about Ganelin and Kuryohkin, but we met so many interesting painters and musicians and writers, amidst a really difficult political climate. The first trip was truly a great one. And we felt that our band of artists really impacted there. To this day collaborations continue amongst artists who met at first on that tour.
2. "Improvisation in everyday life" sounds fascinating - the kind of music you deal with is so often considered to be nothing to do with everyday concerns. Can you say a little more about this project?
We’re just figuring this one out ourselves. There’s an innovator in education here in the states who has been aware of Rova for years. In the past 18 months we have been having monthly discussions with him about our process, and he’s intent on designing a course of study with us that will be used as a model for what he calls "cross-curriculum" study, teaching kids how to communicate in a group situation, how to better problem-solve in a fluctuating, unstable environment, how to listen better, etc. These are all the things that improvisers do in their music (although in our lives we sometimes have the same problems as these kids, don’t we?). So we’re kind of going from the specific discipline to a very broad description of what it is we do in order to draw the students in --- or something like this ----
3. WSQ have been around about the same amount of time as Rova but have received considerably more attention. What do you put this down to? Is it, for example, something to do with the perceived difficulty of the "compositional rigour" you mention?
You’re the music critic; that’s your department............. WSQ has actually been around for about 6 to 15 months longer than us, unless you include Fall ‘74 with Braxton, in which case ....... I just think that 1) three of the four had reputations outside the group before they formed (2) these guys played their butts off (3) the music they played was far more "in the tradition" of Ellington and etc, and thus would "naturally" attract a wider audience; (4) Nonesuch, Nonesuch and Nonesuch. You can’t overemphasize the impact a major label can have on the "success" of a group; (you also can’t overemphasize the impact a major label might have on the group in other less positive ways.)
From our side, let’s face it: we’re an art music group, drawing inspiration from some of the same sources as WSQ, but not our SOUND, so the non-familiarity of our sound makes it somehow less inviting to the general public.
Other theories could be equally valid..............
4. You've commissioned pieces from an extraordinary range of people: Henry Kaiser, Alvin Curran, Fred Frith, Terry Riley, John Carter... What new challenges have some of these set, and in what directions have they pushed Rova's own work?
(I thought I answered this in question 2 in 1st batch.)
We’ve learned alot; I can only, however, speak for myself on this question. I’m sure the other Rova dudes would have additional points on this question -- the first thing I learned was that our musical "way of working" was not idiosyncratic to the four of us, or exclusively to saxophone quartets: that our way of composing and making music could be adapted and taught to other musicians. And/or it was nice to know, and continues to be nice to be reminded, that we don’t work in a vacuum. There really is a movement working in this music; it has a broad base geographically, and practitioners come from many different countries and social /educational backgrounds and sets of beliefs. And, particularly out here in the San Francisco area, the numbers of participants and listeners slowly but continuously grows and gets better. We’re winning. (.......... right, Anthony??) And I’ve learned alot just working with all these interesting people. Obviously, their ideas would later on inspire some of our composing or strengthen our resolve to keep on making this music even in the face of the problems attached to making it. Rova works from a much broader palette than we did in the early period, and that can at least be partially attributed to our work with other composers.
Third set of questions
1. Could you describe some of the various "gaming" techniques used by ROVA, and the thinking behind them?
Will -- this question is REALLY a whole interview all by itself. We’ve this past year spent alot of our limited rehearsal time analyzing our music, or rather, discussing devices-as-structures that we use in some of our pieces, looking for ways to open the structures up -- or redefine them ; or look at them from another angle so as to see fresh meaning -- but really: to get into this briefly is to provide an inadequate picture.
The "games" began almost immediately as we constructed pieces early on that we called "trobar clus" after the Provencal musicians of the middle ages who constructed their "trobar clus" for the musicians’ enjoyment, hoping no one else would understand them (... or something like that; it’s been awhile....). Rova was looking for "other" ways to organize sound, having been impressed by the writings of (or interviews with) composers such as Stockhausen and Xenakis. Coming from alot of free music and song forms, we wanted to find something less obvious and looser but still well-constructed to work within. The trobar series culminated in ‘trobar clus 10’ (1982-3) which later was renamed ‘The Crowd’ (also the name of the LP/CD from Hat Art, first released in ‘85), but this concept eventually died as the forms became too constricting, or overly-defined. So we started looking for ways to take the same language and have a more open form. I can’t remember the exact development that led to the form we called "Maintaining The Web Under Less Than Obvious Circumstances", but we did formally create this piece for a quintet collaboration with Zorn in 1987. Essentially, and to be brief, we took ideas or parameters, gave them a name and a visual cue, and allowed any of the musicians to cue in any of these "sound-events" whenever they heard it. With or without Zorn’s involvement, this tended towards rapid changes from one cue to the next; it’s still a great piece although we haven’t played it in many years.
Our latest area of concern is to take some of those same sound events (or ideas or musical fields/areas) and - after listing some 20 of them for possible use, to play them in an order also determined by the players, but this time only one player at a time is allowed to cue in an event, taking turns consecutively. Our intent was to dramatically slow down the cue-changes setting up more of a flow of events. we call this "piece" Radar.
In between the ‘Radar’ era and the ‘Web’ era, we had a piece composed by Steve Adams called CAGE. Dedicated to John Cage, it consisted primarily of about 10 cues such as "do something else" // " play what he’s playing" // "stop playing altogether" // "cut what you’re playing in half "(in terms of density) // "play outside outside" // ‘’ play a background" //. And unlike "Radar" and "Web" one could cue the other players but one could never determine what rule he himself would follow. (Another difference is that in"Radar" the areas that are cued in are specific in terms of the expected Kind Of Sound - Area we may hear with a given cue, but how we achieve the sound or one’s hierarchical position in the group-sound is not determined by the cue. In CAGE, hierarchical role is usually the main thing determined by the cue.)
In all these "games" however, the making of a musical piece is the primary concern. If the audience needs a rulebook to "understand" the music, then we’re wasting our time.
2. You've been concerned that it shouldn't just be you out of the group answering these questions, though for practical reasons that was the path that we went for. The idea of four strong voices is a key part of the sound, of course, but when you all discuss things doesn't the fact that so little music is off-limits to Rova present problems when it comes to deciding where to go next? How are such decisions made within the group?
No; the broad palette we work with only makes life easier --- but we don’t decide where to go in the broadest sense. As I’ve said, we’ve hewn our path for 20 years now; we’re way deep down that path at this point, and we take things as they come along that path. But everything in it "makes sense" one way or the other. And when we want to eliminate some area of concern, we just throw it away for the moment, but not necessarily forever. From year to year, certain concerns get covered while others get ignored. Then when the balance has been out long enough that the area being ignored gets noticed, we move the focus back towards what’s been ignored and let something else go for awhile. And as far as the 4 voices being strong, someone yells a little louder for a minute and we go off and deal with his concerns for awhile. Which seems fair because we’ve all been working on somebody else’s needs for the period just before that.
We do plan out how we’d like things to go for about a year in advance, but we’re usually more ambitious than time allows for, so projects or broad goals take longer to accomplish.
3. Steve Adams once described the group as poised "between precision and wildness". Is this the basic tension that motors ROVA forward?
I suppose this is true but it’s kind of an oversimplification. We always know where we are no matter how wild the music might seem. I also believe at this point that there’s no such thing as wild music. We improvise with a field of INTENTION. Sometimes we intend to make it seem like we are going to blow up the performance hall.
4. A lot of the musical boundaries that ROVA set out to smash have dissolved over the last 20-odd years. Does this make things easier or harder?
This last question: we’re not trying to make or break history. I feel like we’ve created a unique voice in improvised music as a group. And I feel that we’re - right now - one of the strongest groups in the world at what we do. I’m proud of the accomplishments; it’s been alot of work staying focused. But the actual music making is the easy part, and it will probably continue into the unforeseeable future unless extra-musical tangents knock us out -- which happens to so many groups. I guess we’ve been lucky. I saw in downbeat (or equivalent) this month where producers for Blue Note and GRP and Koch Int’l are all moaning about the lack of full time groups to record; moaning that they now only record bands made up for the recording: "No one can afford to keep bands together anymore." What kind of statement is that coming from industry insiders who make the situation what it is......?? --- But the music continues to expand outward; we never believed in boundaries anyway, and I’m sure we can take partial credit (very, very small %) for the boundary smashing; it all means a thing whether it swings or it doesn’t---
Those are the last of my questions. If there's anything fundamental that hasn't been touched on at all feel free to address it. I look forward to your response.
Response to Coda:
Improvisation is the most important element of my musical activity. Although I am a composer and prefer, in general, to present structured performances for public consumption, I hope that all compositions act as springboards for discovery, to be realized by the creation of "new music" that is defined by the feel, or rules that the composer creates for a particular piece.
In 1967 I quit playing music. I loved to listen to rock, I loved to listen to jazz, but I didn't like the hierarchy, the pre-determined roles, the idea that one person is the leader, and everyone else supports that. Later I came to be completely bored by these forms of music - by the forms themselves, not necessarily the sound--which is to say that I still enjoy listening to my Lester Young records, but please don't ask me to go to a concert of live musicians playing this music. I guess it was that time period - I needed then, I need now new forms, new structures all the time. I must admit that totally free improvisation, while enjoyable to play and (perhaps especially) to listen to live, in the long run is, for me, less than satisfying because there is no form or structure to take home and think about. In other words, my art needs to be a reflection of what I think about on a larger scale, and what I'm always thinking about (well, always concerned with) is how to restructure society so that it's a more interesting (and perhaps lively, exciting, fairer etc.) place to be.
Is this clear? ......Anyway, in the world as it is, we all need to be able to improvise.....and we all need to be thinking how our actions relate to those around us; how to make the whole greater than the sum of each individual contribution......