+ 1, Guest Contributor, Lisa Mezzacappa, September 2016
Bassist / composer / bandleader, Lisa Mezzacappa. Photo: Heike Liss
Lisa Mezzacappa is a San Francisco Bay Area-based bassist, bandleader, composer, curator and producer. An active collaborator in the Bay Area music community for more than a dozen years, she leads her own groups Bait & Switch, the Interlopers, Nightshade, Eartheaters and the Lisa Mezzacappa Trio, and co-leads the ensembles BODABODA, duo B., Cylinder, the Mezzacappa-Phillips Duo, and the Caribbean folk band Les Gwan Jupons. Lisa has released her music on the Clean Feed, NoBusiness, Leo, NotTwo, Evander, Odd Shaped Case and Edgetone record labels, and has recorded as a sideperson for the Tzadik, Kadima and Porto Franco labels. She collaborates frequently on cross-disciplinary projects in sound installation, film/video, sculpture and public music/art. lisamezzacappa.com
The poetics of discomfort
The invitation to write something for the ROVA communique is a rare chance for me to find language for some of the musical processes I’ve been grappling with for years; gratefully, outside the context of where most of my words about music go these days: grants and promotion. To write about what I’m trying to do musically for those contexts, I have to step outside of the making and try to sculpt a companion piece, a Cliffs Notes version, to attempt to fit all the misshapen pieces together into some tidier whole. In hopes of inviting in some sense of wonder or curiosity from the outside.
But that is not where the work comes from. It comes from a messy, unfocused, overwhelming, brilliant, seductive and terrifying pool of sensations, ideas, gut reactions, intellectual concerns, moral ambiguities. From books and movies and authors and actors and landscapes and cityscapes and card games and family stories and road trips and great journalism and trashy comedy and hope and despondency and fear and a need to connect different pasts through to the present and into the future. It is one glowing thought that stands out among the others that begs you to pick it up and listen to it. And it always bubbles up from what is surrounding me in our musical community—it would be impossible to overstate the constant inspiration and influence I draw from longtime collaborators like Jason Levis, Randy McKean, Darren Johnston, Aaron Novik, Cory Wright, Phillip Greenlief, Aaron Bennett.
I’ve been thinking about the fallacy of the idea of “extramusical influences” in terms of what goes into making my music. It comes up a lot, since my recent projects are all wrapped up in crime novels, Victorian-era adventures, Italian vintage comics, ideas. And some seem to even self-consciously be about being about music, whether it’s Bartok and the Shaggs re-appropriated for an electro-acoustic improvising group, a drums and bass duo playing a Cecil Taylor solo, or a set of original tunes built from transcriptions of free jazz records. But I don’t think I’ve ever met an idea that wasn’t musical! It’s hard to explain, how the six months of library research mining obscure primary sources, or the nightly NASA tutorials clarifying some aspect of astrophysics, are just me composing.
I don’t think I have a choice of where the next music will take root. I’m not looking for a new idea or a new topic, life is just barreling past—isn’t the goal to consume as much great, important, worthy stuff along the way? And then there are some things that stick. The things that stick to me don’t usually get unstuck, until I peel them off in the form of music. None of these projects are about anything, there is no narrative, there is no problem and no solution, there are no real issues. I do not think that there need to be, for artwork to be relevant and vital. I am just trying to pass along—continue, amplify, bend, fracture—some of the vibrations I am receiving, and pass them along through organized sounds.
It’s taken me a while, getting older, to figure out why the idea of music as self-expression has never sat well with me. At its most true, music does nothing of the sort—it is so far beyond “feeling.” It is just you vibrating authentically in the world, there is no distinction between the message and the medium. And part of your job if you keep being an artist is to keep stripping away all the rest, the trappings, the baggage, the tricks, the artifice. To be most honest, so the sound is you is the sound. This is the most fun calling in the world, but also, for me it is deadly serious.
I didn’t go to Mills, but neither did I go to Berklee, so I’ve had very little musical dogma thrown my way from either direction. Sometimes that feels like a handicap, a little isolating to not be brought up in some school or camp, but mostly I think it’s been good to figure this out on my own, over a lot of years, mistakes, so many failures!
If I take a step back from all the work I’ve produced in the past 10 years, I notice this quest for the most unimpeded vibration has often found expression through self-imposed constraints. The great thing, and the horrifically painful and scary thing, about not being formally trained as a composer is, I have to create all the rules for each piece anew at the beginning of each project. It’s gotten to the point where each body of work has a completely different internal logic for how the music is researched, discovered, structured, assembled, inscribed. It is an extraordinarily impractical way of working; never quite at ease, the ground always shifting underfoot. But this forces me to keep reinventing myself, expand what I am capable of, develop new vocabulary, find some novel way of making connections between things that previously seemed distinct.
One of my favorite things about being part of the music making in the Bay Area is that there are so many of us joyfully, rebelliously, meticulously making up our own rules.
duo B. is a collaborative ensemble with drummer Jason Levis, that has always been about wrapping our heads, ears, instruments around impossible ideas. We used to have a long, running list of Things To Do With An Idea. We didn’t want to miss any, you know? It was about finding the rigor as an improvising group, leaving no stone unturned. Even if many of the ideas were impossible to execute or to hear, that didn’t matter. It was taking that directive seriously, going the conceptual distance. Our latest effort has been learning, inhabiting, re-sculpting, a (relentless) 45-minute Cecil Taylor piano solo. Again, impossible. Again, unbelievably rewarding in terms of the compositional/structural questions it has made us consider, the kinds of material it forces us to adapt to our instruments, the enormous gift of living so deeply inside Taylor’s musical vision. And all the important questions we have considered in wanting to honor this man’s greatness without copying him, appropriating him, reducing him to a style or a set of tricks.
For a suite of pieces called avantNOIR, I decided to let the crime novels of Dashiell Hammett and Paul Auster instruct me on how to score them. The lean language, the almost unbearable weight of place in Hammett’s San Francisco noir stories, and Auster’s New York Trilogy, made city streets and hotel lobbies and park benches seem hyper-animate to me. More alive than living things. Auster sent me, literally, wandering over the Upper West Side of Manhattan, making field recordings and photographing small objects to later be incorporated into an improvising game piece. Anagrams were created for character names and their aliases, which became melodies; seemingly inconsequential clues all added up into strings of rhythms with asymmetrical shifts in meter and accent.
Hammett made me fixate on the sinister drabness of domestic interiors, the games people play behind closed doors, the lure of character and fate. Musical structure in these pieces can be determined by things like which direction a character took on a fateful walk through the Fillmore, the route a getaway car drove after a bank heist, or the layout of pedestrian paths in Riverside Park.
The latest experiment is called Organelle; a modular composition inspired by scientific phenomenon (cell biology, archaeology, cosmology) that again has sent me back to the drawing board, as I figure out how to create musical corollaries to natural processes like cell death, radioactive decay, and the expansion of the universe. The score is mostly non-traditionally notated, because I want any improviser to be able to play it, whether they play a de-tuned guitar or electronics or bowed Styrofoam. It is scored for any instrumentation of improvisers—the idea is, it should work as a bassoon solo or a string quartet or a big band chart, as long as everyone involved is a great improviser. This one has been a roving laboratory, and so far this year, I’ve performed it with different ensembles in Naples, Rome, Cologne, and soon, Berkeley.
It has been fascinating research, not only in how to visually represent these scientific/musical relationships and structures in the score, but also in how to keep the composition open to the kind of collective wisdom that emerges from any given musical community. I’d like to not get in the way of how my Roman musician friends already like to play together, while still inviting them into this new architecture I’ve created for them all to inhabit. I want it to sound like the same piece over different performances, but still want everyone to feel there was ample room for their personality in a given performance. Organelle, of course, gets revised, rewritten, edited, expanded each time it is played by a different ensemble. And each time a new bit of science rolls across my staff paper….(this week, I’m really freaking out about the biology of the snapping shrimp (family Alpheidae), among the loudest animals on the planet….!)
Thanks for listening.