LARRY OCHS: An interview by Alexander Kan
from November, 1990 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia
Rova Saxophone Quartet's 1983 Russian tour, with its incredible political
and cultural tension and as much incredibly intense human contact amidst the short,
post-detente, pre-perestroika, cold-war spell, almost immediately acquired a nearly
mythical status. The myth though was materialized in a Hat Art live release and
a TV documentary -- both appropriately entitled Saxophone Diplomacy.
We all -- Soviets and Americans involved alike-- knew that Rova had to come back.
After long and painful talks with clumsy, inexpedient and not quite generous Goskonsert
(the officuial Soviet touring agency), the two weeks-ten concerts-seven cities tour
started on November 18, 1989 with a performance at Leningrad Autumn Rhythms Festival.
After Leningrad the quartet played in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Tartu, Moscow and
A lot has changed. Altoist and flautist Andrew Voigt left the group. Among other
more serious musical and personal issues partly discussed in the interview, this
posed a problem of name. The V in Rova dropped out. Some people speculated whether
Rova should look excusively for a saxophonist whose name started with a V. Fortunately
or unfortunately the three remaining Rovas didn't have time to be concerned with
trifles like this, and the replacement they found -- Steve Adams -- perfectly fit
into the group in every respect but the name (unless, as the group mentioned, you
change his name to Stee Vadams). The group has matured both musically and socially.
Six years ago we were all euphoric in our attitude towards music (primarly new)
as an almost universal means to uplift the spirit and to achieve togetherness. Not
that we lost that belief or have become cynical today. For we certainly have become
more professional in our attitudes and busier in our commitments. Six years ago
I was with Rova for every day of their tour travelling with them from Leningrad
to Moscow, then back to Leningrad, then to Riga. This time, although I'd been involved
in setting up the tour, I had to leave the country (to go on a tour of Germany and
Austria with Orkestrion, a new music group from Volgograd) shortly after Rova arrived.
So I was just at two first concerts and unfortunately missed the best (according
to Larry) gigs in Moscow and Kazan.
After the tour was over, Larry Ochs -- the tenor, sopranino, acting manager, executive
director, one of the prime composers and the O of the Rova Saxophone Quartet
stayed in Leningrad for another week. I came back to town a day before Larry and
his wife, poet Lyn Hejinian, had to leave for San Francisco. Right in time for the
farewell party and for this conversation with Larry about the tour, the current
Rova, Larry's new group Room, and what not. --Alex Kan
LARRY OCHS (of Rova Saxophone Quartet and Room) An interview by
AK: This is the last day of Rova's second Soviet tour which I'm sure has been
as exhausting as the first one. I'm wondering about your impressions of the tour
LO: There were two major differences between this tour and the first one. The first
difference was that this wasn't the first one so I kinda knew what to expect in
terms of the physical place, in terms of coming to Russia, whereas the first time
all I had seen were the black and white TV images, as well as having read some books.
The second time is never like the first time; that's just the way it is. And the
second major difference was that, when we hit here the first time, it was 1983,
and now it's 1989. It's been a long six years for this country; there are major,
major changes here. The first time we came, our tour was more of "an event": no
American new music group had ever toured before and no jazz group for years, and
this was, as far as anyone knew, the only tour that was going to happen for God
knew how much longer. There was no end in sight to the political situation as it
stood in 1983; that was the impression all of us, Soviet and American had, when
we were here. This time , most of the musicians and artists are now trying to make
a career in the Western sense of that term -- as opposed to East European sense
of that term - which just means to stay alive. Now there's the potential to make
Western currency with your art, or to try to become a rock star as Grebenschikov
has tried to do. So, in fact, on this trip everybody was out of town just as if
we'd gone to New York. So this was much more like a normal West European tour which
in a way was disappointing at first. But then, after being here for a while, I realized
that it's a very positive development. Which is to say that Rova never meant to
be a Saviour coming to town with a message. As a performer it feels very nice to
feel the audience leaning on everything you say. But really, in terms of the "real
world", the situation here is moving in the right direction now...... And also,
just as a viewer of the society, I had a much more meaningful experience this time
than I did last time. This is much more real; I've been here for three weeks and
I had a chance to spend a week in Leningrad after the tour when there was no pressure
-- just kind of be here and really get a feeling for the city and some of its problems.
I loved it the first time, and this was nothing like the first time, but I'm glad
AK: What about the musical aspect of the tour?
LO: Well, musically, among other developments, Rova is much stronger at this point
of time than we were in 1983, and we had a new member join the group last year.
Since Steve Adams joined, we haven't had a chance to record our music, and we actually
have quite a few pieces that are more than ready to be recorded. So it was really
nice to be able to come here with Bob Shumaker, who was the recording engineer for
our first record in Russia. This time he was actually sent over by New Albion Records,
rather than coming on speculation. It was really nice to get some pieces that were
ready (or more than ready) to be recorded on tape in a live format. I frankly prefer
live recording, although the studio sound is generally better: it's bigger, the
saxophones sound bigger; you can get that big sound whereas live it's a little bit
more difficult. We were recording direct to digital so the quality is excellent,
and I'm really happy about that. So musically I feel, at least as far as Rova went,
it was a good tour; on the other hand, I'm kind of disappointed not to have made
more and better contacts with musicians this time. One of the reasons we really
wanted to come back was that, the last time that we were here, we made so many wonderful
contacts with people and, really, that's kind of rare when you're touring the West.
In the West, it's more like you get to your gig, you play, you get the money, you're
going back to the hotel. . .but, when we came to the Soviet Union last time, in
just nine days we met so many wonderful people. I didn't see most of those people
this time -- that was too bad: you know, I expected to meet and to talk to a lot
of new people. When you're playing the West you get paid, in the Soviet Union you
don't; so the other aspects of touring other than the material ones become more
important. So that was disappointing from the musical point of view. Also, in Leningrad,
we went to the Autumn Rhythms Festival, and I was expecting to hear a lot more experimental
music than I did. Part of that problem was that our plane travel got messed up,
and we didn't get to Leningrad until the greater part of the festival was over,
but still I was kind of surprised: I thought the festival itself would be a little
bit more adventurous.
AK: I was just to two Rova concerts in Leningrad, but from what you told me
and from what I heard from other people, I know that you didn't try to play some
of the more ambitious, big scale compositions Rova has been playing recently: the
Terry Riley piece, the Alvin Curran piece. Why is that?
LO: We had a concept before we came that we would be playing one set, and than Tarasov
would be touring with us and would be playing with Greg [Goodman] for half an hour
and with a couple of the guys in the group as a quartet or a quintet--we thought
Tarasov would be bringing a bass player -- for another half a set or so. This meant
that Rova would have only one set each concert. Now, the Alvin Curran piece is totally
impractical here because it involves computer electronics- so that was out; the
Terry Riley piece is an hour long: if we played that, that's all we'd play on that
particular night, and, unless some promoter specifically requests that piece, we
don't play the Riley because we feel that most people are interested in hearing
us do improvised music. Terry's piece is 85% notated; it's a beautiful piece, but
it's not what we're about. Even though it was written for us (we comissioned it),
it's not like Alvin's piece or the stuff we did with Braxton or the Threadgill piece
or some of the other pieces which really feel like they were written for Rova --
whereas Terry's piece feels like it could have been written for any saxophone quartet.
AK: Any saxophone quartet . . .
LO: Yeah, there's probably a saxophone quartet, maybe a classical saxophone quartet,
that could probably realize that piece a little bit more easily than we can because
it's 85% notated and that's not our strength. On the other hand, there is improvisation
involved in that piece and so - who knows? - maybe it's better that somebody like
Rova plays it, I don't know . . . In any case we're playing just one set in a country
that we haven't been to in six years and may never return to again; so we want to
play a set of our own pieces. And the third thing is that New Albion Records wanted
a CD from us of live music, and we really wanted to record pieces that we think
are very strong and that have been waiting to be recorded for quite some time. The
last Rova record was in January 1988; it's been a while, you know. . . .
AK: You don't count the one with Braxton?
LO: No, I mean Beat Kennel. The one with Braxton was a quintet lp and one of the
pieces on there, The Aggregate, was on Beat Kennel, and one side was Braxton's stuff;
so there's only one piece on there that has been written in the last two years.
So when Tarasov dropped out -- he had to go to Germany to fulfill a contract --
we just decided that we'd go after seven or eight pieces. And also when we came
here last time we were playing pieces that were at least 15-20 minutes long, predominantly,
whereas at this point of time we only have one piece like that we're doing a lot.
. . .
AK: The Unquestioned Answer.
LO: Right......Most of our pieces at this point are 10-12 minutes or less; that's
just a function of this time period, it's not a reflection of where we are at now.
AK: Do you mean the function of this time period at this particular place:
the fall 1989 Soviet tour? Would you be playing the same set of pieces if you were
touring, say, Western Europe, not Russia?
LO: Oh, yeah, we'd be playing the same repertoire. We do have pieces by Fred Frith,
and this Threadgill piece, and we would have played them if we had been playing
2 sets each concert or if we hadn't been going after the New Albion CD. Which brings
up an interesting point: In 1983 we really had a concept of what we wanted to do
here. We really felt that, except for you and maybe a few other people, nobody in
Russia had any idea of where we were coming from musically, so we thought that we
should play mostly pieces with lots of energy; then people would at the least get
involved with the energy even if they didn't understand what was going on musically.
Whereas, this time this wasn't a consideration; we just played what we are playing
right now. There were a couple of gigs where we got to the city and we felt: "this
audience will be "beginners," let's start the concert with one or two relatively
easy pieces." But that was about the only concession we made, and we had a couple
of concerts where we started with what people might consider our most cerebral or
difficult piece, just to do it and just to see how it went, and it went fine, really
well. It seems that, if you give people the thing they fear the most first, they
won't worry after that. People come to hear jazz, and we give them Bruce Ackley's
The Freedom of Information which is a piece of relatively abstract music. When the
people got with that, they had no problems whatsoever for the rest of the night.
AK: Do you think you were getting an adequate reaction from the audience?
LO: Oh, the response was really good. It was funny though: there were a couple of
places -- I think either Riga or Talinn and also Leningrad where the response was.......well,
you know, before we came to Russia in 1983, everybody said: "Look, just don't be
surprised if there's no response, because it's not cool in the Soviet Union to applaud
really loud. If the audience shows that kind or response, then the authorities will
not let this music happen again so it's better to pretend: 'Oh, it's interesting'
and to just sit on your hands." But inside they'll be loving it. Well, instead,
in '83 the response was outrageously enthusiastic. But this time in one of the Baltic
states -- and we played twice in each of those cities --it was kind of like what
we were told to expect last time. The response was. . . almost like we were playing
in a library..... but then, after the concert, people would come in to the backstage
area or come up to us in the restaurant or whatever and just say: "It was real great!
What a great concert! Thank you for coming." So everything was upside down this
time, you know. But basically, in Vilnius, Moscow and certainly in Kazan and I think
in Talinn the response was really positive.
AK: What about the two . . . four . . . how many? concerts you had with Tarasov
LO: Yes, we did three concerts with Tarasov and Greg Goodman: piano, drums and four
saxophones. We'd arranged a little bit of a structure because Tarasov actually really
wanted the structure there. We'd given him some written music that Rova was doing
which he would play -- he's perfectly capable of reading composed music. And so
we kind of had a beginning and maybe a couple of "islands" of composed music in
the middle of a largely improvised structure that we'd just cue in at certain unspecified
points. And, of those three concerts, I think two of them were great; the second
of the three was kind of more in the tradition of free jazz, and wasn't really that
interesting. I don't think as a listener I would be that interested in it; there
was, however, a lot of energy, full out the whole time. I had a great time playing
the concert, but often the blowouts are not as interesting listening from the outside
as they are from the inside.
AK: Do you intend to include any of that stuff on the upcoming record?
LO: Not on the CD; that's a Rova CD. Like I said, we haven't had a record out in
. . . But this record won't come out until next winter, so it'll almost have been
three years. (editor's note: Rova actually will release a quartet CD/LP on Sound
Aspects called Long on Logic, featuring the pieces of Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser
in July of 1990.)
AK: So the record won't be as much a documentation of the tour but just like
a new stock of Rova works.
LO: No, it will also be a documentation of the tour because it's really going to
be what Rova played on the tour as the quartet . Some pieces we played on the tour
, but it'll be a real documentation of the tour. The Tarasov stuff I would say we
would definitely send out and see if somebody wants to pick it up, maybe Sound Aspects
AK: Tell me something about this New Albion Records. I realize this CD is
gonna be your first American release since Metalanguage.
LO: Yes, that's right.
AK: Which is sort of an important step. I know that all new jazz and new music
musicians keep justly complaining about an American record industry that's ignoring
them, and you haven't had an American release for years. Now there is a label which
picks you up. What kind of label is it? This is a new name for me and I'm sure for
most of the people.
LO: New Albion Records is a label that's been around for most of the Eighties. Foster
Reed is the owner of the label, and he started out being exclusively interested
in New Music -- by that I mean composed music. The early people he put out were
like John Adams, early John Adams, who now of course is being recorded by Nonesuch
and has some major works out that are very well received, Morton Subbotnick, who
worked on compositions involving electronics, and the vocalist Joan LaBarbara. Foster
recently put out works by Lou Harrison, who's not very well known except in the
United States -- a California composer of John Cage's era -- and he's put out I
think a CD of John Cage, a couple of Morton Feldman CDs. Recently he started to
become interested in improvised music, and he's released a CD of solo Anthony Braxton
as well as works by Alvin Curran, who's pretty well known as a New Music composer
but also works as an improviser: he played with Lacy and Musica Electronica Viva.
Recently Alvin wrote a piece specifically for Rova called Electric Rags II. This
is a piece for four saxophones and interactive computer electronics. He wrote us
thirty, three-minute pieces. In any given performance Rova plays between 10 and
30 of these pieces so the piece could be half an hour, it could be 45 minutes, it
could be two hours, it could be five hours because you could play the pieces more
than once. In September 1989, we did six performances of this piece, and we played
it then at a lenghth of an hour and a half; we didn't play all thirty pieces because
there is one piece called Corny Island -- every piece is three minutes and each
has its own title, and the Corny Island piece is just written ideas for improvisers
to play off of. In the performance we had duo Corny Islands and four solos so there
were six conceptual pieces and then we played 24 of his notated pieces. By notated
I mean maybe they were 75%-80% notated and then there was some improvising fitted
in in each piece. So the pieces were in these three-minute sections and it just
goes right by with the electronics adding all sorts of interesting sounds and effects.
Alvin is out in the audience with the computer electronics housing this very innovative
program that I couldn't possible describe, but just doing beautiful alterations
of and additions to the saxophone sounds -- it's a very powerful piece-- and it
was an absolutely great experience doing it for a month. We essentially started
rehearsing it with him on September 3, the first performance was on September 10
in Atlanta, and then we did six performances including three in San Francisco which
lasted over that whole month. It was just great; it's been really great working
with other composers on their pieces...... it's been really exciting and this was
one of the best experiences of all. So Foster Reed of New Albion came to one of
these concerts, and really was excited too, so he's putting that out by June of
1990, and the CD from the Russian tour will come out later in the year.
AK: So you're really in it with New Albion.
LO: Yeah, we are. Well, New Albion is not a major label, it's not distributed by
Warner Brothers the way Nonesuch is distributed by Electra-Asylum, but it's an American
label and it's a step in the right direction. Last March we recorded three pieces
by Fred Frith and one by Henry Kaiser that we felt were more accessible than the
things we'd been doing. The three Frith pieces were written for Rova and Henry's
piece was a piece he's done himself that he arranged specifically for us. And I
loved them, all four pieces I really love. We thought, because there was more melody
involved and Henry's piece even feels kind of rock oriented to me, that we could
get these on an American label. And the fact that they were by Frith and Kaiser
who have some notoriety in rock circles we made us think: " OK, maybe somebody will
pick this up." Well, I sent this music out to major labels I thought might possibly
be interested and a couple of European labels with good distribution in the United
States like ECM, and there was no interest whatsoever. At that point I just said
to myself, you know,Rova still doesn't equal "commercial potential"........... this
is not the moment when Rova is going to break through on any kind of a major label.
So we've just let it drop. (The Frith and Kaiser pieces will be released on Sound
Aspects in late May.) But then this piece of Alvin's came along, and I knew that
New Albion was interested in Alvin's work, so I called Foster about that and he
said he'd be interested in putting that out. Bob Shumaker, who was recording Alvin's
piece and who's a friend of Foster's, mentioned that he, Bob, was interested in
going to Russia with Rova. See, I hadn't mentioned the Russian tour to New Albion
because I just didn't really think they'd be interested in a Rova quartet - record...........just
didn't seem that was something they would want...... But Foster called me up to
say that this live Russian CD was a great idea: "Let's do it; I'll send Bob over
there." So that's what happened.
AK: So, this is a step.
LO: Yeah, I think this is good. Number one, this guy is into our music and that's
always a good sign, and number two, he's in San Francisco and that makes the situation
much easier for me to work with than with somebody in New York or in Europe. I've
got much more control over what happens. So I'm happy with the situation.
AK: Since Rova was here last time there was a major change in the personnel.
Well, I mean when we are talking about small groups like a quartet, when one person
is changed, that's a major change, especially for a close-knit group like Rova has
always been. I don't want to go into personal details, but could you just try to
sum up what happened with Andrew Voigt, what were the reasons for the break and
how do you feel about the new member?
LO: Well, in reverse order I feel really good about Steve, he's real conscientious,
he writes really interesting music, and he fit right in. Andrew left just thirty
days before a major tour. I went to LA..... luckily he just happenned to be down
in Los Angeles which is more or less close to San Francisco, and I flew down there
with the written music wondering if he would be able to deal with that.
AK: You'd known him before?
LO: Yeah, we'd known him. He'd been in Your Neighborhhod Saxophone Quartet which
helped immensely as he had real experience playing in a saxophone quartet. He was
also working with a new music group, which meant that he could read music, and we
had to do this Terry Riley piece on that tour and that was our major concern: to
find somebody who could read notated music and improvise, and he just fit right
in. And Steve had some real strengths: he was the baritone player in Your Neighborhood
Saxophone Quartet which means he was the rhythm guy, he had to keep the rhythm,
and so we ended up with two guys who really understood how to keep the rhythmn together
instead of one. Before it was just Jon holding down a solid rhythm on baritone while
everybody else enjoyed themselves, floating around the beat. Now we had two. And
so it was a real help for us and a certain strength that we picked up. As far as
Andrew leaving the group went, I mean, I don't want to get into the personal thing
either, but basically, as an overview of what happened...... it was simply that
it'd been ten years and there were certain concepts and interests that the three
of us had that Andrew wasn't excited about and there were certain things he wanted
to make a major priority that the other three of us were less interested in; so
we were just growing apart, and it was time for the relationship to end. I guess
the main thing was that the other three of us were really happy with these collaborative
projects and all the time that they took (and they take a lot of time), but Andrew
wasn't. He wanted to be doing his own music or the group's own music.
AK: You mean the collaborations you did with other people, with Braxton, etc.
LO: It wasn't that he didn't enjoy playing with Braxton, he did. But in terms of
priorities, we'd spend a month with Braxton, then three months later we'd have to
be ready to play with Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser and there was a lot of work involved
in getting all those pieces together. We'd not only be committed to doing concerts
in San Francisco but also we were telling people in Europe we had pieces by Fred
Frith, Alvin Curran, etc. Andrew really only wanted to do his own music, but there
wasn't time to get to it. And it wasn't that the others didn't want to do it; it
was just that we had all these other commitments, and finally there was a kind of
a blow-up. At that point we had to look around immediately as we had this tour;
we got Steve for the tour, and the tour went really well. Steve went home to Boston,
and he decided that there was enough really interesting work with Rova that he would
make a commitment to move out to the Bay Area.
AK: So basically you don't think that the group has become any weaker?
LO: No, I think that really the rhythmic capacity of the group is stronger, and
the ensemble sound in fact is tighter than it was at the time Andrew left because,
at that point, the ensemble sound was suffering from the dissension in the group.
. . .
AK: Yeah, that's clear and that makes it. ........... How do you feel about
the general musical situation in America today?
LO: To me, things couldn't be too much worse and still be anything at all. I have
to say that I feel like Rova has generated an awful lot of really exciting projects
through the PreEchoes series -- all these collaborations have been really far out;
we've got some really great product. And we've gotten it out: we toured and recorded
with Braxton, we were in Germany with this Japanese martial arts group that we collaborated
with in San Francisco first (and that's going to be televised in Germany too), and
it was a great piece. It wasn't a real innovative thing, but it was alot of fun,
and I think the music really happened. And this thing with Alvin plus the commissions
for Threadgill to write us a piece, for Robin Holcomb and Chris Brown (who's in
Room). We have other commissions: John Carter and Jack DeJohnette are writing pieces
for us. So I feel like we're really starting to generate some repertoire for saxophone
quartet that's gonna live beyond Rova. Even though it's written for us, there's
plenty of improvising saxophone quartets everywhere. Every time we go somewhere
there's a new one, and I think that saxophone quartets........ you know: I hope
and I think that fifty years from now this is gonna be a real recognized genre,
just the way the string quartet is. It's developing right before our eyes at this
AK: And you don't feel jealous of the competition from the others?
LO: No, not at all. Number one, there's almost nobody. . . Your Neighborhhod Quartet
and Kolner Saxopone Mafia had a tendency to get into spaces that we do but almost
nobody else really does, and if they do, we're five years ahead of them anyway,
they're just catching up.
AK: You were one of the first, if not the very first, weren't you?
LO: It's not even that we were one of the first, it's just that the groups that
came into being at the same time more or less as us . . . like the World Saxophone
Quartet. . . I mean there is a place where we intersect with the World but basically
we're really different. It's different music. You know: it's like saying that there
should be just one bebop group. All these saxophone groups are different, there's
alot of musical possibilities with the saxophone quartet, and different groups are
exploring different areas of it.
AK: Do you mean the more groups like this that are around, the wider the medium
LO: I hope so. When we came into being I didn't know that the World Saxophone Quartet
existed; they started about ten months before, and the word kind of filtered to
us about two months after we started. Of course, we knew about them individually,
but we didn't know they'd started a quartet. And I thought at the time, oh this
is a great thing for us, it'll make it easier for everybody if there's more groups.
It hasn't really worked out that way. Rova and the World Saxophone Quartet and the
29th Street Saxophone Quartet have gotten most of the action (and maybe Itchy Fingers).
Everybody else is like a . . . . there's not alot of business out there for saxophone
quartets, but I think it'll get better. The economic story is something else again,
but musically we're creating alot of material for saxophone quartet: all these works
we've commissioned plus many of the sixty or more works that Rova has created will
be able to be played by other people. And I think this thing is going to continue
whether or not Rova is still around. I don't know; it's been twelve years and we'll
just see how much longer it goes. Generally the improvised music scene is in a very
sick state, and so there is a sense that Rova, even though we've accomplished alot
the last couple years, and even though we feel real good about it, there's always
that sense that, at any minute, we could disappear. The bottom could just drop out
leaving no venues to play and no funding in the United States, no money to play
for and no way to get from California to the East Coast. Because, you know, if we
had to depend on places like the Knitting Factory, coming from San Francisco we'd
be dead. So most of the places we play are funded, and it then doesn't really matter
now much of the audience there is except for the fact that, if you get paid a really
fair fee by an organization that's funded, and only one hundred and fifty poeple
show up, you're not coming back for at least five years because there's lots of
other groups they want to have. So if you can't economically guarentee a good wage,
you're in trouble. Right now the scene, I mean the audience, for improvised music
is shrinking, and in the United States it was never very big to begin with. It's
certainly shrinking in Europe; it's shrinking everywhere. That could change. Braxton
seems to think it's going to, Alvin Curran is sure it's going to -- I hope they're
right. But then again, in 1989, Rova actually did some fairly extensive touring
of the United States for the first time in a couple of years. New York we could
always play in; Chicago has always been a good city for us; normally, we can get
to a few major cities besides San Francisco, but basically that's it. This year,
though,we not only played New York City, but we actually played in Rochester, Troy
and Buffalo, which are smaller cities in New York State. We played in Atlanta, Georgia,
two cities in Tennessee, New Orleans, Houston, Texas; we got around to a bunch of
places -- the audiences, however, were tiny. I mean it was great to go but it was
clear we couldn't say: "OK, see you next year," because the economics of the situation
make that impossible. And I don't get any sense in the United States like things
are going to change anytime soon with public education getting worse and worse and
the mass media becoming more and more interested in selling a simpler product. All
that means is that there is less and less exposure to alternative possibilities;
we're rapidly getting back to 1952 in the United States. As fast as they can, they're
getting back to Mom and Dad and Dick and Sally and Spot. Which isn't to say that
people like me and Braxton etc., are going to disappear -- we're not going to because
this music is our life.
AK: Are there new people coming in?
LO: Yes, there are, but very few.
AK: I mean like a generation, not like separate individuals.
LO: No, I don't think so. A new generation of listeners,no.
AK: Of musicians?
LO: Of musicians?. . . I don't live in New York City. In New York there's always
more happening, so maybe I'm out of touch. But I would say no. I would say that
most of the musicians that are coming up now -if they are into alternative musics
at all- they're more post-punk -- it's more an alternative to commercial rock than
it is an alternative form of music -- and the concept of improvised music is a little
bit vague to them. Look, honestly, I don't really know the answer to that question.
I do what I do and I'm not spending alot of time wondering about what younger musicians
are doing, but if the audiences are any indication, I wouldn't say that things are
really developing in directions I'm primarily interested in. That isn't to say that
there aren't younger musicians who are fed up with popular music and looking for
alternatives, but their alternarive selections are not ones that I'm particularly
enamored of. I think that the most interesting music on the planet at this time
is improvised music in all its forms, and I don't hear alot of new stuff. I don't
get word of alot of younger musicians who are adding vocabulary to this form. But
the people who are around are not going anywhere. I just think that, certainly in
the United States, our time just hasn't really come yet. Plenty of mainstream press
guys are into it: like Francis Davis or Kevin Whitehead ,or people that write for
Down Beat and other jazz periodicals. . . . These people are totally aware of this
music and they write positively, but as far as the general public goes, I don't
think so. The Knitting Factory is doing well but that's one little place in one
major, huge city. So they get eighty people every day to go see alternative music
in the Knitting Factory. Unforunately that's impressive -- you know what I mean?
That should not be impressive, but it is. That says alot for what's not going on.
On the other hand, Rova in San Francisco has been doing this PreEchoes, these collaborative
projects since '86; it's now 1989. I would say that maybe except for one concert,
everyone of them has been really exciting, and the people who've come have really
been excited by what happened. And yet our audience has, if anything, shrunk over
those four years. If Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser came and did it again with us,
if John Zorn came and did it again with us, we'd have a big audience. But it hasn't
got to the point where people just say: "Oh, great, Rova is doing another collaboration.
Let's go and see what it is even though we don't know who their current collaborators
are." But if we'd been doing the qualitative music we've been doing for the last
three years from 1966 to 1969, we'd be filling the theaters. At that time, people
had money to check things out. It was in the air to go check new things. It's a
much more conservative period now.
AK: Aren't you just being nostalgic -- the glorious late 60's?
LO: Maybe that's true, but I feel that was a period of time in the United States
when it was socially acceptable and a popular notion to expand one's horizon and
look for things that were "weird" and go do them even if you didn't know what they
were. In the 1980's, the dollar doesn't go nearly as far, people work harder and
earn less money in terms of real wages, and so that factor plus the fact that it
is not a socially popular thing right now to expand one's horizon, make it much
more difficult to develop a wide audience for less commercial, adventurous (experimental,
if you will) music. Anyway, that's the only explanation that I have.
AK: You once said in an interview that, apart from the musical motivation, there's
always been for you a kind of social and political motivation to be doing the kind
of music you've been and still are doing. And from what you are saying now I can
see that this point is still very much valid for you.
LO: Well, it is and it isn't. You know this is one of the first interviews I've
done in a long time. Unless I can't avoid it, I've been turning the interviews over
to the other guys in Rova because I've kind of gotten confused. . . . I don't know
if "confused" is the right word. . . At this point I am less certain about my motivation
for doing this music. And it's not that I'm not motivated to do it - I am - but
I'm so inside the process, and I find it so fascinating from a strictly musical
point of view, that I'm not really sure I need to know how important this music
is politically or socially. But it's also in a way not so important a question,
because this music has kind of become my life. This is what I do, and that's my
reason for sticking around. In a way, it's more important now than it was before.
So when you asked that question about how important that is politically and socially.
. . . I don't know; it's much less clear to me now than it was ten years ago.
AK: And it's probably much less of a concern.
LO: It's much less of a concern. I'm in it for the long haul, and I'm pretty sure
I'll be dealing with music and musical concerns for a long time and there'll be
times I hope when doing this kind of music is something which is really of interest
to a larger audience and there will be times when it's even thinner than it is now.
But I hope that I will be able to continue. People like Derek Bailey . . . or even
Ornette, who's certainly in a nice period now.... everybody has periods when they
disappear for a while. And it's not that they stop being musicians; it's just that
the audience, for whatever reason, thinks that they're not involved at that time.
AK: You just mentioned Derek Bailey. Since the mid-80's probably, there is
a certian feeling among the new jazz community that the spontaneous free improvised
music Bailey was the strongest proponent of had somehow exhausted itself: lots of
musicians started looking for alternatives. Many, especially black musicians, have
come "back to the roots." Many in New York -- Zorn is probably the prime example
-- are experimenting with various compositional forms with the obvious nod towards
rock, and even Rova has been playing more and more of the composed music: not just
originals but music composed by other people -- something which is totally antagonistic
to the very concept of spontaneous self-expression in the form of improvised music.
So is there a way for the improvised music to develop within its old frames or is
what has happened and is happening inevitable?
LO: You brought up three or four things here. So let's try and take these issues
one at a time, although, the issues certainly do overlap. OK: taking the last part
first: in jazz, let's hope that change will always be inevitable. An idea (such
as free improvisation) is proposed and developed over a period of time, and when
that idea, in its pure form, begins to become part of the common language, it's
only natural that new musicians on the block would go one of two ways with the practice.
Either the younger musicians will choose to keep to the pure form or , when coming
into free improvisation with their own sets of influences and interests, will choose
to use elements of that practice, and combine free improv. with existing forms from
other musics that they know and love. So in the case of so-called free improvisation
and my own work, you have to look at the timeline of events. I'm from San Francisco.
In the seventies, the free music scene was very vital there, but there were not
that many strong (and ultimately) committed free improvisers in the Bay Area. Towards
the end of the seventies, the improvised music scene in its pure form needed an
infusion of new blood. Rova's answer was to create compositional structures to frame
the improvisations. We wanted more control over the direction that any particular
piece would take. We still (then and now) use free improvisation as our laboratory
for discovery, but we refuse to reject the possibilities that come our way from
studying other peoples' musical sounds and musical ideas. In his own way, someone
like John Zorn has done the same thing. First with the game pieces, then with the
song forms. Alot of people are dismissing Naked City as a sell - out, but that is
total nonsense as far as I'm concerned. Almost every piece they do is a severe and
intensive distillation of elements drawn from Zorn's experience with all kinds of
music, certainly including free improvisation. I think people are pissed off that
Zorn has fun or something. Or that he is making some money. Isn't it ok for somebody
to make money? Wouldn't it be nice if we all got paid to play the music we believe
in? So, why is it that, as soon as someone becomes relatively popular, that he becomes
immediately suspect? When Zorn put out Locus Solis in the early part of the eighties,
nobody paid any attention probably because it was released on a small label, but
that lp - an absolutely hardcore improv lp - was a forerunner of the Naked City
stuff. Well, I could go on and on about this, but John doesn't really need my help;
if anything, it's the opposite. So let's move on. Has free music as proposed by
Mr. Bailey and Mr. Parker among many other great European improvisers run out of
gas? Ridiculous idea, man. New musicians look for alternatives because it's in the
nature of the so-called jazz idiom to look for alternatives. Despite the tendency
of younger musicians in the eighties to ignore all the developments since "A Love
Supreme," and despite the fact that the popular media has erased the memory of the
Black Free Jazz Movement and (in the USA anyway) never paid any attention to the
European developments of the sixties and seventies, and has, in the eighties, dismissed
the work of, for example, Braxton, Mitchell, or (the '70's) Lacy, as an abberration
of that period, nevertheless, jazz embraces the idea of "change"; that is: development,
or as Braxton put's it: restructuralism. The stylists and the traditionalists have
the upper hand right now. In the USA at least, the powers that be (or want to be)
are doing their best to institutionalize Jazz and cut off any concept that the future
of jazz might include any concepts deveoped after 1963 (and they would exclude SunRa
or Ornette or Cecil's pre 1963 work). But they will ultimately fail. Already a place
like Berkley School of Music is perceived by many, including some of its own teachers,
as a place for the living dead. Go there to learn and come out obotomized... institutionalized
to death...... which is a dramatic way of saying that, if you want to pursue music
as an art form, go study with Braxton at Mills College or go to NYC and join in
the public arena. If you want to make money with your music or, if you in fact genuinely
enjoy formula music, go learn how to do it at Berkley. But for me, music will always
be an art form of exploration and discovery, of improvisation and surprise. But
getting back to somebody like Derek Bailey, you're talking about somebody who's
got a very definite vision, and who has pursued that vision through thick and thin,
just the way Ornette has with his vision or Braxton has with his. These people will
continue to continue. And, had there been any real support for this music called
free improvisation either in schools or in the media, we would see more "free musicians"
and just the numbers would lead to exciting new developments. Remember however that,
in the sixties, the idea of spontaneous improvisation as a form, as art-in-performance,
was truly brand new in the jazz world, and you and I as younger people with virgin
ears, so to speak,were knocked out by the very idea of this music; it's not surprising,
then, that writers of our generation might now say that this music had exhausted
itself, because that first rush of discovery was never experienced by them again.
And, of course, it can't be, if you get what I mean. The first time can only happen
once. But if you go to a place like England where there still is a concentrated
(around London) and relatively large group of improvising practitoners, you see
new faces periodically in this scene. So: I expect this music to continue to grow,
but slowly, because there aren't many musicians committing themselves exclusively
to the discipline, and also, because, growth takes time in uncharted territory;
but it's that "frontier" aspect that makes the discipline exciting. And I feel like
we in Rova also have a definite vision, as does a Zorn or a Frith, an Alteena or
a Lindsay Cooper, or any of the other musicians who love free improvisation but
choose to formally express themselves using compositional devices of varying types.
Room really works the same way because Room's music, like Rova's, involves structured
improvisation. As I already mentioned, when I came onto the music scene in the late
Seventies, this was a time when I was responding to free music in a sense that I
was interested in incorporating structure or compositions that would contextualize
the ideas that we developed in free improvisation. I didn't feel, at the time,that
what we were doing was denying the strengths of free improvisation. We weren't saying:
"OK, free improvisation has reached a dead end, so let's take it somewhere else."
I was just taking it somewhere else that I was interested in, and this is what I've
continued to do. I love to spontaneously improvise and just get up with free improvisers;
it's something I find very satisfying to do occassionally. Finally - and you see
how all these areas overlap - when Rova started getting involved with other composers
we did it for several practical reasons. First, it wasn't until '84 or 85 that I
began to face the fact that Rova would be a part of my life for an indeterminate
period. Up to that time, I always expected that the group would fold "after the
next tour." Now, to keep the group alive had always involved alot of rehearsal,
etc. So, time was and continues to be limited for outside activities. But it was
clear to me that I needed input from other artists, and since I couldn't go out
and work with anyone formally, then the next best alternative was to invite them
to collaborate with Rova. Secondly, in the mid-eighties, Rova had been touring for
6 or 7 years. Promoters weren't interested in another Rova concert, so we began
to see the need to have special projects that we might be able to get hired to do.
Third, in 1984-85, Rova hit a dry spell compositionally, so it was clear that we
could help ourselves by trying to get friends and/or musicians we loved to listen
to, to write music for the group. So these three factors led to our commissioning
works from (chronologically) Braxton, Frith, Terry Riley, Henry Threadgill, Alvin
Curran, Robin Holcomb, and Chris Brown ,John Carter, and Jack deJohnette. I hope
I didn't leave anyone out....and we are very interested in getting works from Europeans,
but, so far, the grant money for that has not been forthcoming. Now I feel that
we are a much better group musically because of all the challenges that we have
met, and our own compositions have grown and I think definitely as a result of playing
other people's works. Not to mention the direct collaborations, where we created
music with synthesists Richard Teitelbaum and David Rosenboom as a sextet, or with
Frith and Kaiser, again as a sextet, or with Butch Morris and Zorn using larger
ensembles, or the quintet thing with Braxton, and finally, the great piece Jon Raskin
and I wrote for Rova plus the martial arts drum troupe, San Francisco Taiko Dojo.
AK: Ok, I think that this is gonna be the final question. Since I am a Soviet
journalist and we are in Leningrad this is about Soviet improvised music, Soviet
jazz. You've had some experience with it both as a performer -- you played with
the Ganelin Trio and others -- and as a listener. For some time there was a certain
fuss about Soviet music. What do you think?
LO: There are certainly some excellent musicians here, the guys in the Ganelin Trio,
this duo that I heard in Leningrad (the Leningrad duo Gayvronsky and Volkov), very
beautiful stuff. But from what I've heard on record, I feel that the Russian scene
is a developing situation, not a situation that is substantively leading the way
towards new areas of music that I have never heard before. I think that the Ganelin
Trio was really important and has a lot of recordings that are really great, and
as individuals they are still doing some pretty interesting music. But if I talk
about the Soviet scene as far as improvised music goes, I think that most of the
excitement has been generated by Western p.r. people and not by the musicians, not
in terms of recordings. It is happenning here, but it's not happenning here in any
more vital way than it is in other countries. I wouldn't want to be ranking it,
but just thinking about Eastern Europe, there's been more music that excites me
from East Germany than there has been from Russia. But this is a vibrant cultural
climate, and events are occurring here now in a very dynamic way; when political
changes of this magnitude occur, thay always produce cultural changes of the magnitude
that could lead to some really exciting developments through the next period, something
that I definitely plan to stay in touch with.