The Art of Sky Gazing
Guitarist, composer, and interdimensional sonic shape-shifter David Torn has pursued a singular musical vision for more than four decades. His outré approach to guitar playing and electronic manipulation had already begun to fully crystallize by 1982, when he made his first record for the ECM label as a member of the fusion quartet Everyman Band. Torn had been mentored by Leonard Bernstein, studied guitar with Pat Martino and John Abercrombie, and performed alongside Don Cherry while honing his artistic aesthetic.
Three years later, ECM released a second Everyman Band album, a recording by Jan Garbarek featuring Torn (who also performed live with the legendary saxophonist), and an intimate guitar and percussion collaboration with Geoffrey Gordon. But it was 1987’s enormously influential Cloud About Mercury that established Torn as an undeniably consequential musical force. Featuring trumpeter Mark Isham, bassist and Chapman Stick player Tony Levin, and drummer Bill Bruford, the album interfused sophisticated polyrhythmic compositions with majestic melodies, transcendent atmospherics, and unbridled improvisations, resulting in an uncanny amalgam.
In 2000, melodic and textural material from Cloud About Mercury was incorporated into Madonna’s hit song “What It Feels Like for a Girl,” with Torn receiving a co-writing credit.
Torn’s music has graced myriad films, television programs, and advertisements, in part due to making hundreds of his textural and rhythmic loops and samples available via commercial collections in the early ’90s. But he has also scored major films such as The Order, Lars and the Real Girl, Everything Must Go, The Wackness, Saint John of Las Vegas, and That Awkward Moment, in addition to making significant contributions to scores by renowned film composers such as Carter Burwell, Howard Shore, Cliff Martinez, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Mark Isham.
Torn’s creative universe has continually expanded throughout the past quarter century, as he morphed from quirky singer-songwriter (Door X) to Fourth World explorer (What Means Solid, Traveller?) to electronica innovator as SPLaTTeRCell (OAH) to post-avant-jazzer (Prezens). Along the way, he has worked in various capacities with luminaries as diverse as David Bowie, John Legend, k.d. lang, David Sylvian, Jeff Beck, Laurie Anderson, Tim Berne, Tori Amos, and Donna Lewis.
After undergoing surgery in 1992 for a brain tumor that left him deaf in his right ear and faced with some daunting medical challenges, Torn ultimately emerged even more fervently dedicated to his muse.
Torn’s latest release, Only Sky (ECM), is an entirely improvised solo guitar opus recorded partially at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in Troy, New York, and partially at his home studio Cell Labs. The album showcases not only the depth, beauty, and intensity of the creative currents informing Torn’s improvisational impulses, but also his complete mastery of live-looping, an art form central to his expression, which he has been instrumental in evolving both artistically and technically since the early 1980s. Torn toured the U.S. in 2015 to support the record.
More recently, Torn has turned his attention to recording, producing, mixing, and mastering a dizzying array of projects. Highlights include mixing and mastering pianist Matt Mitchell’s Vista Accumulation; contributing a co-compositional track to Danish guitarist Samuel Hällkvist’s Variety of Rhythm project; mixing The Distance by bassist Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus; mixing and playing on the rock opera La Salvación by Argentinian vocalist Vicentico and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs; and producing, mixing, and guesting on an album in progress by saxophonist Tim Berne.
Torn has also completed the recording sessions for a lengthy upcoming piece with the working title “Sobyu Sogo,” which he describes as “a hybrid of compositional cells and attendant improvisations.” It features Tim Berne; Craig Taborn (piano, electronics); Ches Smith (drums, vibes, tympani); a string quartet comprising Amy Kimball, Tachel Golub, Martha Mooke, and Leah Coloff, extended to a sextet with electric guitarists Mike Baggetta and Ryan Ferreira, who played additional “string” parts written specifically to blend with the bowed orchestral instruments.
How did you arrive at the title Only Sky?
That’s actually the title of a photograph I took a few years ago, which was originally going to be on the cover of the album. I titled the photograph that because I like to do this sky gazing thing, where I look into the sky and use it, or let it use me, as a kind of meditation. I tend to have a hyperactive mind, so the practice helps me to let things be what they are rather than working too hard on stuff that doesn’t need working on. When I first began making Only Sky, by myself, it felt a little like the emotion reflected in that photograph. Some people assumed I was referencing a line from “Imagine” by John Lennon, but I’d actually forgotten all about that for some reason.
That crossed my mind as well.
No, it was really about that sense of openness. Even when I’m sky gazing informally, just laying on my back in a field and staring up at the sky, with clouds occasionally passing by, it is easy for me to slip back into being a kid. I used to lie on the beach listening to the ocean while watching the clouds pass overhead, and I’d drift off into imagination land.
I had a similar experience while sky gazing in Yosemite recently and was thinking how it can be sort of a metaphor for musical creativity.
I was thinking of the experience more specifically as a reference point for a perspective from which to make music. There’s a fine point there. For example, when it comes to my own music, I can theorize about it and justify it in a million ways both technically and aesthetically, but what is most important is the perspective taken while I’m doing it—the process rather than the musical outcome. Otherwise, there are a few places on the record where you have some scary ass roiling skies going on and they’re not something I’d want to be staring into for very long [laughs].
Nonetheless, even when you move into those darker, roiling cloud spaces, there’s still a kind of smoothness and continuity to the transitions.
During the recording process I felt it was critical not to push when that didn’t need to happen. Because you can find new things more easily when you’re allowing the things that you’re already doing to develop, and listening to them, and being part of them, rather than constantly manipulating them forward. Maybe it’s sort of like psychologically oriented systaltic motion? I let myself have this flow of listen, respond, but listen. Don’t just respond to what you imagine it’s going to become.
Some of the pieces were a lot longer to begin with, precisely because I took the waiting thing to an extreme. There were times when I’d be like 20 minutes into a piece that I felt really good about, and I’d get to a spot where I felt a little bit at sea, or maybe it would be something practical like I’d have to pee, and I’d just put the guitar down, keep the machines rolling, leave, and then return and begin playing again in my own time.
When using multiple looping devices that aren’t hard synched they have the potential to interact in unforeseen ways, perhaps creating random harmonies. Is that the sort of thing you are listening for as pieces develop?
I’ve developed enough skills with the devices I have that harmonic events are not something I let go of easily, unless I’m resorting to extending harmonicity with noise. For me, serendipitous things mostly occur in terms of rhythmic flow. There are multiple devices and each of them has it’s own internal periodicity, and it may not even be a steady periodicity. The Lexicon PCM-42, for example, isn’t nearly as stable rhythmically as, say, the Echoplex Digital Pro. It’s not crazy off the mark, but it’s awfully easy to change a pitch or change a rhythm, even by accident, with a clumsy foot or hand. So, yes, serendipitous rhythmic events are an example of what I’m listening for. In simple terms, when there’s that pause or rest state while I’m actively making music, but also actively listening, the big decision is when to willfully act upon what’s happening.
Can you provide a specific example?
A perfect example occurred at the Falcon in Marlboro, New York, during my solo tour last May. That was the first time I got this thing going by putting the two Hexe reVolver loop/glitch/stutter/pitch pedals in series with each other and using them as the accident makers. The maximum sampling times of each were set to one and two seconds, respectively, though the reVolver’s sampling times can be changed instantaneously to anywhere within its range. I seem to use a lot of really short, ever-changing loops these past years, some as short as single-digit milliseconds.
So, I was trying to make one massive rhythm emerge out of those two small, broken things by recording, rerecording, and modifying, one pedal into the other and going back and forth between them with both playing at the same time. To balance their volumes, however, I had to get down on my knees to reach all the knobs, so I’m on the floor and I’m playing and I’m sampling and resampling and re-triggering start/end times and otherwise whacking pedals and twiddling knobs with whichever hand was free when suddenly, as a result of having the sheer willpower to keep going and make it work, this gigantic, wicked-ass rhythmic/harmonic thing just locks into its very own place. I could feel it, and I have to believe that the audience could feel it in the room, too. It was like, “Whoa, now I’ve got some weird-ass, kicking rhythm section!” I immediately resampled the whole of that into the Echoplex Digital Pro, manually, but without listening to the EDP’s output, and without bringing up the level. Then, I transitioned out of the piece by crossfading from the pedals to the EDP loop, which worked beautifully.
I’d always assumed fancier and more expensive technology would be required to do that sort of thing, perhaps even involving a computer with need for a full-on visual monitor, mouse, and whatnot, , so it was really exciting to discover it could be done with what are fundamentally two supercool looping pedals.
You recorded four tracks in a large concert hall. What influence did the space have on your performance and the sound of the recordings?
It was huge [laughs]. The entire reason for recording there was to be influenced. I’d decided I wanted to record in a large space after doing a photo shoot for Guitar Connoisseur magazine. GC publisher Kelcey Alonzo wanted the shoot to take place in a space that looked “cinematic,” because that’s the way my music sounds to him, so we did it at Merkin Hall in New York. I asked if I could bring an amp and practice while they did the shoot, so they could get shots of me doing stuff and I could practice, because I actually find photo shoots kind of boring. So, I just played in this big space for about two hours without really talking to anyone and it was fantastic. I thought, “This is the way to make a record.”
It wasn’t possible to record at Merkin due to bureaucratic complexities, and a nice hall at Bard College and a funky warehouse in Kingston also didn’t work out. Then my friend Daniel James Goodwin reminded me about EMPAC in Troy, New York, and suggested I check it out. The ceiling is about 50 feet high and just by walking onto the stage and talking I could hear how phenomenal the sound was. We had a Pro Tools rig and Daniel engineered, controlling the mic preamps and other stuff from this little handheld thing and a remote PT controller that was onstage, behind me.
What was your recording setup at EMPAC?
I just used my normal stereo guitar setup, for that time. My dry amp in the center was a Fryette Sig:X head through a Bob Burt 2×12 cab loaded with old Celestion Blue speakers. I played through the clean channel. The THD Hot Plate Attenuator I insert between the head and the cab has a 1/4-inch line out that’s used to feed my stereo rack mixer, which is the main juncture for my looping devices, reverbs, and other rack effects. The stereo outputs from the mixer then feed a Fryette Two/Fifty/Two Stereo Power Amplifier powering Fryette Deliverance 2×12 and Bogner Goldfinger 2×12 cabs, in this case positioned on the sides of the stage for a really wide stereo field.
So, although the looping devices weren’t recorded separately, they were recorded in stereo apart from the dry amp, which wasn’t entirely dry; the “dry” amp had a Caroline Kilobyte Delay in front of it, and a Neunaber Wet Reverb in its effects loop. We put some microphones on the cabinets, a couple on the far sides of the stage, two about 20 feet from the stage, and also used two that were up in the balcony. Those balcony microphones were just phenomenal.
There are some huge reverb sounds on the record. Were they all created digitally, or are some of them actually the acoustic sound of the room?
The room sound is very much on the four tracks recorded at EMPAC, but it isn’t a cathedral sound like you’d get playing at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine or something. The cathedral-type sounds were produced using digital reverb to create those sounds within that amazing room, which actually has a sort of acoustic neutrality. That’s a big part of what appealed to me about recording there.
There’s considerable continuity between the sound of the pieces recorded in your home studio and those recorded at EMPAC. Did you use any sort of acoustic modeling to approximate the space?
Yes, to some extent. I used a couple of reverb patches I created in Native Instruments Reaktor to approximate the warmth that was produced by the particular coloration of the space.
What guitars did you play on Only Sky and why did you choose them?
Although I brought several instruments to EMPAC, including an old National acoustic and my Godin Multi Oud, which I played for three minutes. I wound up just using my Ronin Mirari with Foilbucker pickups in the big hall. I formed a very deep and immediate bond with that pink Ronin and I’ve been playing it since I got it. I might have played the Koll Tornado on one thing, but if so I can’t remember what it was. I definitely used the Koll on two of the pieces I recorded in my home studio, as well as a my D’Pergo Stratocaster-style guitar, and also probably the Teuffel Niwa on one track.
Didn’t you get another Mirari recently?
Yes, a blue one. It’s essentially just a refinement of the pink one, which was a prototype with prototype pickups built specifically for me. The blue Mirari is more or less a backup for the pink one, though it’s quite different.
Do you have a large guitar collection?
I don’t have a crazy guitar collection, just a floating guitar collection that changes. I do have a crazy fuzz collection, though, and a lot of amps.
Speaking of fuzz and amps, what did you use to get the various overdriven and distorted sounds on the record?
I only used two fuzz pedals on the album, both made by Paul Trombetta. I used a prototype of the Tornita to get some sort of grainy fuzz sounds and also Theremin-like sounds, and I used the Mini-bone in a few spots to get an octave below the note I’m playing. Everything else was done with the amp.
I really like the clarity I’m getting in the sound now, especially since Izzy Lugo at Ronin Guitars made me the Foilbucker pickups. I’ve fallen into this desire to have a combination of the worst sludge in the world and enough available clarity, so that if I’m playing something polytonal that’s got distortion on it, and I roll back the volume control on the guitar, I can hear the individual notes in the chords unless I’m just making a noise.
Having the Mirari has completely changed the way I look at amplifiers. I’d already been heading in that new direction for quite a few years, partly because of the film work. The trend has been toward using bigger and bigger amps, with less and less preamp gain and more volume from the amp itself, and then using attenuators to reduce the overall volume.
The PTD Tornita was custom built for you, hence the name. Briefly, what’s the story behind its development?
Paul Trombetta was already making a pedal called the Donita, which I really liked, and I asked him for a specific set of things from that fuzz, along with latching and momentary feedback footswitches and a big overhanging knob for the feedback control so that I can adjust the feedback range of the fuzz with my foot while I’m playing, since the feedback pitch within that range can be controlled with the volume and tone controls on the guitar itself.
Are there other pedals that you’ve had a hand in designing?
Well, as I recently commented to [boutique pedal maker] Ryan Kirkland before he sent me this amazing new fuzz pedal, I need to have a setting that retains all of the low end my guitar produces, since I am a de-tuner and often play without bass players. The way the low end shows up is critical. It can’t be crazy overpowering, but it’s got to be there. If kicking on a fuzz pedal causes all the lows to disappear, I’ll never use it.
One pedal that I did have a major role in influencing, however, was the Hexe reVolver DT/DX, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I really liked the original reVolver and made a lot of comments to Piotr Zapart in Germany about it. I kept saying, “Dude, I want one that does this and this, and let’s you control this, but doesn’t do that.” It was a really a specific list of things, but I thought we were only talking. Then, one day he posted a picture of this modified reVolver on Facebook that did a lot of the things I’d asked for, and he called it the reVolver DT. He said that he had been insane to modify an existing pedal instead of building something new, though, and that although he would build more pedals with the same feature set, they’d have a new architecture. So, at least in that case my feedback definitely had an effect.
You’ve also worked closely with amp designer Steven Fryette.
Yes, and that’s largely because we are friends and have developed an actual relationship. It started because I fell in love with his amps, and have been using them for a long time now. My favorite amp is the Deliverance 120, which I carry around here on the East Coast or when there’s a truck. I think some of the modifications I asked for in my original Pitbull 45 made it into that amp and also the Sig:X. I helped him a little bit in voicing the Deliverance, but more with the Sig:X, and the Memphis, and I was deeply involved with the aftermath of the amazing Aether combo. I also don’t think Steve would have ever considered making the Power Station [Integrated Reactance Amplifier] attenuator if he wasn’t sick and tired of watching me play every great amp ever through compromising attenuators, for practical reasons, and if I hadn’t kept ranting in his specific direction, “Someone needs to make a fucking attenuator that actually does what’s needed for the people who need it!”
Having a relationship with the people whose products you are using creates a feedback loop. And it is actually incredibly selfish because I get two things out of it: I find out really quickly when my ideas are stupid, and when they work, I get to take advantage of the results.
A good example of the latter would be the development of looping devices, which you’ve definitely played a role in.
I believe I’ve had a lot of influence on most of what you might call the classic hardware looping devices, following Gary Hall’s, and also Bob Sellon’s, modifications of the Lexicon PCM-42. I have two, including what I think was the first one made for sale. Gary modified to have up to 20 seconds of delay time, which was more than four times the stock maximum. One also has a reverse switch installed. I had some influence on the development of the Oberheim Echoplex Digital Pro in the early ’90s, as well, and I was a very active artist consultant for the team that created the original Lexicon JamMan during that same period. About a decade later I was involved with the Electrix Pro Repeater before the whole thing went belly up, and actually wrote a function chart for the next version of software, which unfortunately never occurred.
Also, although they aren’t really looping devices, I was involved with the Lexicon PCM70 and PCM80 multi-effects processors. I came up with an effect that came to be called “Shimmer” by combining a long reverb in the PCM70 with the octaves and stereo delays in an Ibanez HD1500. Then, when I got a prototype of the PCM80 I programmed variations on that effect, including big reverbs with feedback-multi-delays and pitch shifting in various intervals, into it. I’ve carried that PCM80 to every gig and recording session for 20 years, and it only just went down with a failed pitch card a few months ago. Miraculously, I located and purchased a NOS pitch card from some guy in American Samoa, and now I also have a PCM81 as a backup.
More recently I’ve been involved in an ongoing thread on the Gear Page about the state of current loopers. I think it’s an interesting read, and might be an even more engaging conversation for some folks who are okay with the difficulties of the “guitar forum” gestalt. I won’t get bloggy about it any more than I already do there, and on my Facebook page.
As far as looping software goes, when playing live I don’t want to be forced into carrying too much; it’s like I’m in a constant state of enforced slimming down. I don’t want a computer, a keyboard, a mouse, an audio interface plus cabling and/or some sort of other large physical interface so that I don’t have to mouse-around so much while I’m playing. I don’t want those things that remote me further from the more visceral aspects of actually playing the guitar and, really, those physical aspects of manipulating sound, in general. Back around 1996 or so, I reached my limit with normal pedals, voltage-control pedals, custom controls mounted on my guitar wired to variously under-responsive MIDI boxes with special cabling, additional MIDI controllers, and all the pre-programming and nightmare of MIDI reset when the power fades or goes down briefly. So, I progressively rid my rig of as many of the computerized add-ons as possible, which in most cases included MIDI.
That said, I’ve been consulting on a piece of looping software that I think is pretty superfreakingly cool, simple but powerful, and that I’m convinced will eventually be released commercially.
Are you still mostly playing with your fingers and occasionally using your modified Min’d picks?
Yes, exactly. I also use wooden and acetate picks on steel-string acoustic guitars sometimes, but most of the time I play with my fingers. When I’m playing live I usually keep the pick tucked under my pinky when I’m not using it, just for safe keeping and more efficient integration, even though I can’t play as well with my fingers with the pick tucked in.
Briefly describe the Min’d picks.
They’re made out of agate, and I’ve been using them since 1979. I didn’t like the original shape, so I had a jeweler cut them down, and he left one side unfinished. That very fine serrated edge creates just enough friction to enable me to bow with the pick by scraping it along the string, which is typically the high-E string. And by placing my finger gently on the string at the same time I can play all of the notes between the end of the fretboard and the bridge. I can also push the pick onto the string at a fixed position to create a moveable bridge while I’m bowing, which changes the scale length and the fret-to-pitch relationships, which, among other things, allows me to play unusually microtonal phrases.
Speaking of ancient gear history, the Steinberger TransTrem was critical to your sound in the ’80s. Briefly, how did you come to embrace it so thoroughly?
I originally got into it because I wanted to play a Steinberger guitar. This was very early on and when I spoke with Ned Steinberger he told me about what the TransTrem did and I told him that sounded impossible. I told him that in about 1973 a friend and I had figured out how to get pedal-steel-like sounds using only a standard vibrato bar. I had worked out where I could get parallel transpositions, as well as some interesting nonparallel transpositions, on a Fender Stratocaster. Well, Ned probably realized how crazy I was when I told him about that and maybe decided I was the right guy to check out the TransTrem. Ned is a genius and the TransTrem was revolutionary. I really dug it!
It largely defined your sound, though it might be more accurate to say that you largely defined its sound, as you were arguably its most accomplished proponent. Why did you stop using it?
It was a real tough decision. I had started playing guitars with the old-style bridges on them, which had gotten better, and I rediscovered the extra liveliness in the strings that had been missing for many years. Also, Allan Holdsworth explained to me that from an engineering standpoint there was a loss in the connection with the strings that had never been fixed. Then when I asked Ulli Teuffel to put one on a guitar he was building for me he said, “Ned is a genius and I love that thing, but don’t put it on my guitar. It’s going to add weight and you’re going to lose the sound of the string.” Ned worked on new versions but I never tried them because I just didn’t want to go back.
Let’s talk about a few of the tracks on Only Sky. The opening piece, “At Least There Was Nothing,” has an almost orchestral sound. Did you just improvise it straight through in one pass?
It’s in real time. I did edit out one section where I wasn’t playing for about nine minutes because I had left the room and just let the loops keep running while I was away. When I returned I started playing again and picked up the oud.
I also overdubbed two or three Ebow parts played on acoustic guitar at the very end because while mixing I realized that there wasn’t an actual ending. I improvised the parts 100 percent so they would have the same energy, rather than being written. And I did the same thing at the end of “A Goddamned Specific Unbalance” for the same reason.
I actually had to struggle with myself a little before I did any overdubs at all, because when I started out I had this grand idea about there not being any; but I wound up saying to myself, “Dude, you can do whatever you want” [laughs].
There’s a really huge amount of low end at one point in the piece. How did you get that sound?
I probably pulled the subs out of the recording. Normal engineers will roll off everything below 60 or 40 or 20 cycles while recording, but I tend not to do that, especially when I’m playing alone, so that those frequencies will be available later if I want to use them in the mix. You have to be careful not to push it too hard when you do that, or it will sound a little synthetic. But it isn’t synthesis. It’s just pulling the subs forward and equalizing the bottom to create a sounding tone. It is similar to using a sub-harmonic synthesizer, which I used to use while mixing all the time, but it sounds a little more natural.
In that particular case there may have been a loop that was dropped to half speed, lowered an octave, and then I’d have pulled the subs from that rather than the guitar itself. Those things can get really low, like 20 cycles low.
Is that the Tornita fuzz making the Theremin-like sounds at the beginning of “Was a Cave There”?
Yeah. I used the Tornita quite a bit on that track, but not in the way you would typically use a fuzz. I turned the feedback off and lowered the guitar’s volume control, which made these weird little gritty sounds in the loops.
On “I Could Almost See the Room” there are transitions between looped sections where it sounds as if you are just playing straight through rather than initiating a new loop. Are you switching between two loopers?
No, that’s a single ReVolver. There’s nothing steady state about the way I’m using it except that occasionally I’ll let it run for a little while before I alter it. Once I’ve recorded a loop, every time I do something else, like the stutter thing, if I want to return to the original loop I have to go back and recreate it. There’s no recall.
In a particular mode, however, once I’ve recorded the rhythm, as long as I don’t change the loop length I’ll be able to feel that rhythm enough to press the switch at the right time to get exactly that length or damn close. That means I can have a lot of variations on the same riff and then eventually return to it if I want to. One thing about the ReVolver is that if you set a limit to the length of the loop and hold the switch down throughout the entire cycle, it will automatically go to the maximum without releasing the switch.
One problem with looping is that it can be static, both in terms of rhythm and harmonic development. Introducing the sorts of variations you’ve described helps, but isn’t it still challenging to get past that inherent limitation?
It is indeed. But I continually try to push all of my looping devices out beyond that point. For example, unlike a [Electro-Harmonix] Freeze pedal, which does nothing except give you something to play over, the ReVolver allows me to continually create new structures. I’m also always manipulating the Lexicon PCM42 in real time, like changing the time and pitch constantly, even while I’m recording loops. Or I’ll use Square Wave modulation to create rhythms and then slow them down and speed the up without changing pitch, or modulate the pitch at the same time, etc.
I also use two or more loopers simultaneously. For instance, I might record a loop on the ReVolver and then record that into the Echoplex Digital Pro. And if the two loops begin to drift apart I might insert bits of silence, or new material, or random slices of the ReVolver loop at the input to create something longer and more rhythmically complex. And then I might multiply the length further, or divide it down to a very small thing that fits with another loop that’s playing, or purposefully doesn’t fit, so I have a new rhythmic cycle starting. And sometimes I’ll fade a looper out using my mixer, mess with it without monitoring the sound, or only hearing the sound in the reverb returns, and then bring it back in so that it’s a surprise. I’ll also manipulate the controls of pedals on the floor by bending over, maybe while simultaneously holding down a footswitch with one foot and reaching over to adjust the mixer. All of those sorts of things keep the music from becoming static. But, you know, all that said? Sometimes, going static is just the right thing to do!
What are some of the factors that determine the quality of a live improvised performance—be they physical, psychological, or even spiritual?
The whole idea of improvisation is that there will always be some elements of it that can’t be predicted or controlled beyond a certain point. You set up a stochastic process and then try to bend it to your will in some way in the hope of there being happy serendipitous moments.
Sometimes a performance can be compromised by something as simple as having the flu, which happened to me on my last solo tour. Things like the quality of the sound system and the responses of people in the audience can also affect a performance. But the main things for me are intention and focus. I need to know that beyond putting on a show—and it is a show, because you are performing for people—my focus is on the creative process and the music, and that I have made by best effort to remain present.
There isn’t any particular thing that I do. For example, sometimes I’ll have a drink before I play and I’ll just be killing it, and sometimes I’ll have a drink and I can’t get my shit together at all. There’s no magic formula. And that internal focus can also have to do with whether I’ve been practicing and whether my hands are unglue-y.
That’s a great word.
That’s a big one, right? I like to feel comfortable before going on. I like to know that everything in my kit is working. Everything. I’m famous for being insanely panicky about all sound checks at all times in every place. Everything must work before the doors open. Sound check to me is a ritual.
Like preparing a magical circle?
That’s what it feels like, this ritualistic thing. Knowing that I’m there for some purpose. I also have some expectation that my improvisation will be a journey. And as with any journey there should be some sightseeing, and we might learn something, and we should definitely feel something about where we’ve been. It’s all about being in tune. If you can start out by being in tune, you’re great.
Some time ago you practiced tantric yoga for a number of years. Do you still meditate and if so is your practice directly connected to your creativity and creative process in some way?
That is a really tough question with a particularly complicated answer. I would say that the effort that I expended in tantric yoga for a big part of my young life was super important for me to be able to maintain some kind of focus.
As a kid I didn’t have focus. I was scattered and thrown around like a little ship in a big stormy ocean by everything that came at me—socially, conversationally, and idea-wise in my own head. I was like this little flailing thing for a long time. That’s one of the reasons why I needed something at that time that required intense concentration. And one result that has stuck with me is that I can focus very intently on what I’m doing from an interior perspective. It’s really important and I don’t think I would be this person without a practice.
I have gone back and forth in my actual practice like a lot of people do; sometimes I practice meditation and sometimes I don’t. It has become threaded into my daily life, though not necessarily in a way that requires a lot of effort. There are times I’m practicing when I’m really not exerting any willpower. I might be doing something like walking or driving and I just fall into it. And that’s the same way that I write a lot of music. I might be gardening, and there will be music that goes along with it, but I’m still gardening.
Whatever drove me to practice meditation, and drives me to continue doing it, also helps me play music. It helps me to focus and be more open at the same time. I’d probably become a practicing Buddhist if I had the social makeup to be part of a group. But I don’t. I really hate taking directions from people except for very brief periods of time, and then only when they are geniuses and exuding love and generosity.
Given your ability to focus and pay attention internally, describe as best you can what is going on inside while you are improvising, particularly during those moments when you are really inspired.
It’s a multifaceted state that moves as much as the music does. The critical thing is to realize that I’m the music and at the same time that the music is me. I’m listening to it, but it’s me, there’s no separation.
Emotionally, I might be experiencing anything from fear to thrills. For example, I might be scared to death that the whole thing is going to fall apart. “What happened to that low note? I need that note. Okay, I don’t have enough time to look for it, so I’ll make a new one.” You know, all the fear-based stuff. And then there’s the excitement or rush that comes when you are really one with the movement of the music and that thrill can become overpowering. It’s less of a concern now that I’m an older and more experienced improviser, but it can still derail everything if I let it get the better of me.
All of these sorts of things, even the “positive” ones, are distractions. Feeling things is wonderful, but you can’t allow your feelings to prevent you from serving the music. And the same goes for thinking. The stream of thoughts can be very distracting, and we all have to deal with it, no matter how accomplished we are. Bill Bruford used to talk to me about the stuff that went through his head while he was playing, and although I looked up to the guy, and still do, I thought, “Dude, really? That’s what you were thinking?”
How does one cope with those thoughts and feelings?
You can’t and shouldn’t try to block your thoughts and emotions. But what you can do is let go and just allow them to pass by as quickly as possible, like a storm system or just a simple cloud that is blocking the sun. It’s going to go by, so just let it go, because you’ve got to play, or create. And that goes for playing music in general and not just improvising.
Does the sun represent creativity? And if so, is that something that is inside you that you are accessing, or are you interacting with something beyond yourself? Language gets a little squirrelly here.
The language is squirrelly because we’re bordering on talking about magic and spiritualism and things that are beyond our ken. On the other hand, we’re thinking human beings who live in a world that we look at and try to understand, so I believe it’s fair to talk about these things, as squirrelly as our words may be.
Having said that, I don’t know what the source is. I know that it’s me and I know that it’s not me. And I know that it’s good enough for me to be a part of it and feel integrated with it. But I also know what it feels like to become alienated from the music, and to experience that painful separation and distance that most musicians struggle with at times. That’s the scary part for me. When I look down at the instrument and it’s not part of my body, and I think, “What the hell is this thing in my hands? I can’t even remember how to play.” That happened much more when I was younger, but that alienation from the creative process is something that I believe all musicians and other artists fear.
But where does creativity come from? I have no idea. I do know that I have a need to say something. I know that all of the stupidity in the world makes me angry. And I’m angry about death. I’m angry about kids shooting each other and about people being hungry everywhere. I love all these people so much, it’s incredible. The sky is incredible. I don’t understand any of it. How could there be this beauty and horror all at the same time? And I think all of that is what we play with as musicians. It’s not the notes and it’s not the technology—it’s the connection to everything you perceive about the world that comes through in the music.
I wish I had an answer. Then again, as long as I can play and write I don’t really care whether I have an answer. I’m comfortable with the reality that there is a region that I cannot or at least do not understand with my intellectual mind.
Yeah, it is difficult to get your head around. In my experience, when the creative energy is really flowing, and I have enough presence of mind to notice, it is as if there are several distinct faculties in play. My thinking faculty—which is concerned with things like what happens if I step on a particular switch, or whether I’m playing okay—is very slow and plodding compared to the other things that are happening. My emotional responses are a little faster and more closely linked to the creative energy, so they keep up with it a bit better. And my physical body—fingers moving, when they aren’t glued—moves much faster than thinking or feeling. And there’s also something else that sometimes goes on, particularly during group improvisations, which is like some sort of collective consciousness. And when you really get absorbed into it, after it’s over you don’t even remember what happened.
I would say your recounting of all of that just now was 100 times clearer than anything I said in the last half hour, so we should shift the interview around [laughs]. I would add, though, that emotions and thoughts are often connected; you have an emotion and then you have a thought about it, or you have a thought and it makes you feel something.
And regarding that collective consciousness, in every one of the bands I’ve been in, after playing a set where something really meaningful happened in a group setting, we would just look at each other afterward and ask, “What the hell was that?” And that’s because we were involved in something that was about a voyage to those spaces that music can take you to.
And the audience also participates in the journey.
Yes, and more than that. I would argue that we musicians—especially those of us who are not primarily there to entertain—play a critical role in every culture and civilization. We expunge people’s demons and help them to remember that life’s not just about demons; that there are little angels floating around that you don’t necessarily see in this dimension all the time. I’m putting it in airy-fairy terms, but I think history supports my view.
Music isn’t medicine, per se, but it can enable people to have other perspectives on their lives by taking them to places they haven’t been to before and thereby refreshing or energizing them in some way.
I would never want to be anybody’s teacher—I don’t want a guru or to be a guru—I’m just saying that this is what we do as musicians. In the old days they said you were crazy and they’d put you in a hut and feed you and then take you out for the special events so that you could help everybody celebrate them [laughs].
It sounds as if you are describing a form of shamanism.
Yes, though when I talk about things this way I don’t think of myself as any form of shamanic dude. I’m a regular guy. I have a family. I have to pay my bills. I do the same things that everybody else does. But when I’m playing music I feel that some service is being done to the universe at large as I know it myself. I feel like somebody’s going to get something from it in the same way that I might get something from it, and that means growth, expansion, relief, new thoughts, new perspectives on life. That’s what it’s all about.
I hate to sound like it is some super-serious business or whatever, but music is about life and life is serious business. I sometimes feel that the kind of communicating we do now over the Internet and everything being kind of lighthearted and quickly flowing—“I like this and I like that and here’s my opinion about what I hate in life”—divorces us from the fact that we’re musicians. It’s not just about our struggle to succeed. It’s about our struggle to actually play music, too, and do something valuable with it. It’s always been that way. I don’t know. These are strange times, right?
Have you scored any films lately?
Things have really slowed down. It might have to do with the fact that getting work is something you need to be personally pursuing all the time no matter how many people are working for you, because the Hollywood scene is personality oriented in every way. It isn’t that I abandoned it entirely, but I’ve spent the last year or so doing things like working on a lot of other people’s records, touring and promoting Only Sky, and doing a bunch of recording including another entire record of my own.
There’s also the fact that the Hollywood scene has become increasingly difficult to work in since 2007. Budgets have been reduced, more people are competing, and more people are working for free. Another change is that the big guys are taking everything because they have teams. And when I say “everything” I mean it—all of the films and the TV shows.
I really love doing music for picture, though, because it forces me to use musical resources that I have but won’t use in any other situation. In the same way, if I don’t improvise, or if I don’t have a band that I’m playing with, I’m not using all of my musical resources. Then again, whichever thing I’m doing, I look at the other things and ask myself why I’m not doing them [laughs]. And the same goes for producing and mixing. Even if I’m playing a great gig I’m thinking, “Ah, dude, I should be mixing that record.”
Speaking of which, provide an example of your approach to mixing and producing.
Let’s take Tim Berne. He can talk to me about his very difficult music and I’ll give him my straightforward opinion and make suggestions based on the fact that we know and trust each other. Tim’s music is complicated. The writing itself is very complex, intense, and soulful, and it’s married to really deep improvisational communication. Tim’s writing is always unique, but the improvisations have also become increasingly unique as the band continues to play together, and on his latest record they are semi-orchestral in nature. He also made it clear to me that the door was open if I wanted to add anything, so I made a few subtle additions where I thought something in another range or with a different timbre was called for.
And so between the writing and the improvisations there’s this sense of, okay, what is this really supposed to sound like? Did I get the sound right in the room? And just a simple rebalancing of the music changes it, so you have a lot of different options sort of as an arranger, especially when it comes to the improvisational sections. With any project I ask what are they saying? What is the intention here? What do they really want to hear?
The influence of Jon Hassell is evident in your music, though not in overt or obvious ways. Describe your relationship to his music.
He’s a tremendous influence. Everything about Jon’s music validated something for me in my own music when I heard him play. We know each other, we’ve discussed music a lot, and we’ve discussed doing a project together at least as recently as two years ago.
What’s an example of his music validating something in your own music for you?
Well, I’ve had the North Indian and Arabic thing in my playing for a long time, though I didn’t really let it come out during the fusion years. Then, in the early and mid ’80s, I started letting it come out again. And the two foundations of it being an integral part of my sound were Don Cherry telling me to do it in 1979, and hearing Jon do it on his early albums on E.G. Records. Here was this guy who was a student of Pandit Pran Nath putting that into his trumpet sound and I just thought, “Right. I’m free. I can do this.” Realizing just what kind of commitment he had to his art really moved me.
Outside of the jazz world it was people like Jon, Brian Eno, and Terry Riley that really informed my musical concept and provided a greater sonic picture. I also heard Fripp and Eno’s No Pussyfooting album about the time it came out, which I found inspiring, but in terms of working with tape-loops Terry Riley’s A Rainbow In Curved Air had a far-greater impact. I was actually introduced to Terry Riley recently and one of the first things he said was, “Please, just don’t blow me, okay?” And I thought, “Right, I guess I’m not going to have any discussions with him, because I just want to tell him how fucking great he is!”
A lot of people don’t realize that the tape-loop setup used by Brian Eno and dubbed “Frippertronics” by Robert Fripp, had actually been used by Terry Riley years earlier. He called it a Time Lag Accumulator.
Yes, and that’s a real bugbear for me. I love Robert, and he’s an amazing guitar player and musician and human being, but he should tell people where “Frippertronics” came from, for historical reasons if nothing else. And that raises the larger point of musical history. For example, kids and other people should understand that without the early tape-loop experimenters in the ’60s there’s no hip-hop and probably no turntablism and certainly no minimalism, at least in the way it turned out.
Also, since we were talking about Jon Hassell. I attended a BMI panel discussion with director Duncan Bridgeman and film composers Stewart Copeland and Krishna Das last year. Duncan talked about his influences and the amazing sampling on David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and I took him aside afterward and asked him whether he knew that the sampling he was talking about was, in fact, done by Jon Hassell and not Byrne and Eno. I’m sure they did some processing, mixing, etc.—but the process absolutely reflects Jon’s own sound and was based on work that he’d already been doing. And Duncan said that he did know that and that he was sorry he said it the other way. I was afraid I’d put my foot in it by correcting him, but he was like, “Of course, you’re right” [laughs].
I sometimes feel that maybe I’ve had a broader influence on people than my career might reflect, primarily in the guitar world but also in the world of electronics. So, then I can briefly feel as if I’ve not received adequate recognition or success, buuuuuuut then I look at a freaking genius like Terry Riley or Tim Berne or Craig Taborn or someone like Jon Hassell and I think, “Dude, man, just shut the fuck up, already!”
Selected Facebook Question from Anil Prasad: Pesto or Marinara?
I was hoping that would be the question you picked because I love to eat! The thing is that I am a known pesto freak, and really a nut freak. However, for the past nine years I’ve had an intestinal condition that bars me eating whole nuts and seeds. So, while I love pesto, a simple marinara with fresh fire-roasted tomatoes is the bomb. Little bits of basil, salt, and garlic cooked with a tiny pinch of sugar. Aaahh!