The cross-pollination of noise and high-energy improvised music.
The first time I saw the drummer Chris Corsano perform live, it had been out of his usual element. Corsano, a beloved figure in the noise improv music scene, was on stage at Radio City Music Hall as Björk’s live drummer during her Volta tour. It was an unlikely juxtaposition of two master stylists: Corsano is the lion king of improvisational drumming, but there is no room for improvisation in Björk’s music. Somehow, it worked out. Last month, when I caught a live set with him and guitarist Bill Orcutt jamming it up at Baby’s All Right, the bombastic ecstasy of their performance had the audience whooping and hollering.
For Corsano, who has drummed on over one hundred records, it is easier to appear on an album than it is to record something independently. Such a statement is not something to be taken lightly. He has only recorded a small clutch of solo albums, including his grand experimental percussive record, The Young Cricketer (2006), and Blood Pressure (2007) which features no drumming at all. Cut (2012) is his latest.
This conversation took place on a stoop in Brooklyn in June of 2014.
Michael Barron Looking at your upcoming show schedule can be dizzying—you played here with Joe McPhee a couple of weeks ago, you’re playing with guitarist Bill Orcutt tonight, you’ll follow that with a performance with saxophonists Paul Flaherty and Mette Rasmussen the following week, and then you’re off to Europe for various dates.
Chris Corsano Well, I live in a place where the nearest person I play with lives two and half hours from me, so I’ve had to figure out some ways of making it work outside of the usual model of spending a week or two—or twelve—in a van with the same three people.
MB Like hitting the road with a stream of dates versus a customized schedule of one-offs.
CC Yeah, and sometimes it's a combination of both, depending on everybody's schedules—day jobs, other tours, etc—and the logistics of getting from points A to B, C, and D. I’ve had to become my own travel agent to make this all work, though I’m not a very good one. I just spend a lot of time on Kayak.
MB Are there people you will always say yes to performing with? Is it easy to keep those relationships going?
CC There are people I try to keep things going with on the regular, like shahi baaja player Mick Flower. But he lives in the UK and I don't, which brings things back to logistics—there's a lot of hours staring blankly at travel websites. But the nice thing is that it's possible, musically, to jump right back in where we left off, despite the months that pass in between tours—well, maybe not exactly in the same spot, because we've gone and done other things in the meantime, and hopefully have something new to say. But whatever ground we start back up on, at least we can hit it running.
MB So how often do you turn people down?
CC It's tough to say no, because for somebody to take the time and trouble to ask...
(A woman with a thick Brooklyn accent suddenly yells: "Nicholas, whatever you do, do not open that front door!")
MB That’s going in the interview.
CC Totally. With a sound clip.
MB Maybe you could use it as a title.
CC (laughter) But yeah, I mean, again, geography plays a big part in what I’m able to do, since I live pretty far from New York City. I’m also married; I have a life at home and another person who I care a whole lot about to consider when scheduling things. How far do you go towards being a “real musician” until you cease being a “human?” Maybe I turn a few more things down than I would otherwise. But some really good things have happened because halfway through writing a "Thanks, but ... " email, I’ve said, Fuck it, changed my answer from "no" to "yes," and played the show.
MB I hope you don’t take this personally, but you are inching toward mid-career. Do you see a younger generation emerging from the kind of the music community you’re involved with?
CC Yes, plenty. For example, Stine Janvin Motland and Mette Rasmussen are two people who I hadn't had the privilege of hearing prior to last year, and I think they're both great. Aging is a funny thing—it goes on whether you're aware of it or not. I never thought about my middle-agedness until I started hearing about new players and realized that I came up in an earlier generation—that I was no longer the baby of the bunch. Not that I think being older is better or worse—or necessarily more anything, for that matter. It's just one small part of a musician's context, that's all. But it's always exciting to get blown away by something new, even if it's just new to me and the rest of the world has known about it for years.
MB I certainly don’t see you as slowing down with age! One reason I’ve always been drawn to your work is the sheer physicality of how you play. As much as I like your albums, you’ve always been someone I’d rather see live because of the experience of seeing your entire body in motion. It's like a brutal modern dance.
CC I saw Cecil Taylor and butoh dancer Min Tanaka do a duo performance nearly twenty years ago. Now that was some brutally beautiful—or beautifully brutal—modern dance and music. There was such sheer force and grace in what each of them was doing that it's hard to describe it now. It left such a mark on me; I've been chasing the state of being that they put me in for those sixty or so minutes in my own music ever since. There are a few other performances that I saw around that time that really cracked my brain—shows by Test, and a particularly wild Flaherty-Colbourne quintet performance, for instance.
MB So how did you initially make your way into that community? Was it all word of mouth that you were a go-to drummer who could keep up with people like Paul or Joe?
CC I gave Paul Flaherty 13 Gauge/Klatzker-Corsano duo/Dieter Henkl, an LP that I had made with a couple of friends. Paul liked it, I guess, and asked if I wanted to play sometime. Records and tours followed, so that helped with getting out into the world a bit and meeting like-minded folks. It was awesome to see noise kids at shows freak the fuck out when they heard Flaherty. Paul and I were coming from these different backgrounds, but had similar intents, which I think made things work. I always believed in the potential of cross-pollination between the burgeoning noise scene and high-energy improvised music.
Speaking of which, John Olson from Wolf Eyes said he had a job a long time ago on a paint crew. He was working on a house that was up for sale and blasting a Flaherty-Colbourne record at full volume when the real estate agent showed up unannounced with a potential buyer.
MB I hope that helped seal the deal.
CC Right? But I do love introducing people when I think they’d get along, or at least appreciate what the other is doing. I have an upcoming gig with Paul and this Danish sax player I’ve been mentioning, Mette Rasmussen, who I met because she got in touch with me about playing a gig as a duo last year. When we first played, it got me psyched in the same way Flaherty’s playing does. I found myself struggling, in the best sense possible, to keep up with her constant flow of ideas and energy—just like I do when I play with Paul. So when Mette was coming back over to the states, I was trying to figure out a way to get the two of them to meet and play together since it might be a good pairing of musical ingredients.
MB Figuring out what things go well in a sandwich?
CC Ha! More like a fantasy baseball league.
MB Fantasy free improv.
CC Yeah, which is essentially curation, except that you often include yourself.
MB In preparing for this interview, I tried to listen to your entire discography, which, as I quickly found out, is nearly impossible. There are so many recordings with your name attached, many of them live. With all the improv and collaborations you do, is it important to you for those to be documented?
CC I was always more into the live thing, but when Flaherty and I started playing together, he was keen on recording what we were doing. He lives near Hartford, where there wasn’t and still isn’t much of a scene, so releasing records has always been a hugely important outlet for his music. I still lean towards live shows, but they serve totally different purposes. I don't feel a burning need to record and release every collaboration or show, but at the same time I'm not against having a body of recordings. The problem is that I'm living too long and they keep building up!
MB That proliferation of recordings seems a part of the culture of free and noise improv. Sometimes, the musicians themselves aren’t entirely sure how many recordings they’re on.
CC I mean, look at Merzbow. It’s like, Goddamn that guy has a lot recordings. Who’s heard them all?
MB Somebody somewhere probably has them all. Collecting is a fascinating mania.
CC Of course, the ultimate Merzbow collector would have to have the Merz-car. There’s only one.
MB I forgot about that. That’s the car his label rigged to play a Merzbow album non-stop, right?
CC Yeah. I do like the idea of an “edition of one.” I did a couple of one-off dub-plates and gave them to friends as gifts. I don't have a copy of either—or even the recordings themselves—anymore.
MB Would you ever want to gather everything? Maybe make a set?
CC I don’t think so. I like that a few things will inevitably slip through the cracks and get lost or forgotten. The type of completism that we are talking about here goes beyond typical nerdiness into something almost academic. Take Charlie Parker scholar Phil Schapp’s radio show Bird Flight, on WKCR in New York City: He raises obsessiveness into an art form because it's just so cracked. I was listening to him on the drive down and he was going on for like twenty minutes on some minuscule point.
MB Speaking of cracked, this reminds me of an article in the New York Times that came out a few years ago about this man’s quest to find jazz in every country in the world. I’m not sure if he was successful, but the article focused on an Ulan Bator jazz club where it was like a perpetual open-mic night. I love the idea of picking up an instrument, regardless if you’re a virtuoso or part of a group, to perform with others—of that impulse being a fundamental human desire. Perhaps the idea of improvisation is as well?
CC Well, at the very least, improvisation is one way where you can pick up an instrument and immediately make music with other people.
MB There is also a tradition of a virtuosic voice, though in improv its seems that the level of playing is such that its players seem to be on this egalitarian level of, as you say, struggling to keep up with one another. I’ve heard you described as a virtuoso drummer—is that a label you’re comfortable with?
CC It doesn’t bother me, but it’s not what I’m getting at with my playing. I’m trying to hit enough notes to make this cloud of sound. I’m not out to be an Olympian or win a medal of distinction.
MB Do you eschew the notion of virtuosity all together?
CC No, but I find virtuosity in subjective things like composition or tone selection or in types of noise to be more engaging than a musician who plays an instrument with such technical textbook proficiency that people feel compelled to somehow objectively categorize that player as virtuosic and good, even if he or she isn’t really playing anything compelling. “I really enjoyed the virtuosity of it” is about as un-punk a phrase as you can say—I would never use that word to describe something. And perhaps it's a mental limitation, but I still use the idealism of my 15-year-old punk self as a barometer of what I like.
MB So you still consider yourself punk, then—at least in terms of your ad hoc, DIY sensibilities, doing something with whatever means are at hand.
CC That’s what still feels important. And that seems to be what improvisation is about—making it up as you go with what you have available to you in the moment. It’s great to learn that self-determination didn’t start with punk and won’t end with it, either. It’s as natural to being human as the need for communion. That’s what drew me to the free improv scene. Flaherty was releasing his records himself before punks were doing it, without giving a fuck about commercial success or validation from a major label. It’s not about getting reviewed or having all these accolades; it’s about making whatever kind of music you want and maybe, if you so choose, sharing it.
MB The objects you use — items like notebooks, bowls, and beads — seem an important part of your playing, but not something easily noticed or appreciated on a record. I watched a video you made called “Famously Short Arms,” which is great, and I wondered why you only made that one video and not others.
CC I made about five videos while recording a solo album called Cut. Like a lot of other musicians, I was frustrated at the time with how bad a lot of live footage looked and sounded on YouTube. Camera-phone shittiness really saps the magic out of things. So, in the do-it-yourself fashion, I got a couple of cheap cameras, set them up over my set at home and hit record.
Would I make more? I’d like to, but since then I’ve had a weird block on recording solo stuff. I've already done a few solo records—probably more than the world will ever need. Also, there's something about fixing the sounds generated by these techniques and set-ups of blocks, bells, bowls, reeds, and so on onto LP or video or whatever medium. If I never record them, they can continue to exist in an idealized state, but only in my own head. Recording them means the ideas can go and exist in the real world as music, but at the price of my letting go of a notion of their ideal form. I'm just stalling until my legs and arms catch up a little and can get the execution of brain impulses closer to the ideal, maybe?
MB The album you made after The Young Cricketer had no drums at all. Did that come out of some sort of constraint-based exercise?
CC It wasn’t an exercise in constraint necessarily; it was just what I was feeling. I made that record because those were the sounds I was hearing in my head. The first solo record...it wasn’t like it changed the world, but it did change my little world. It was a first statement, and that’s a powerful thing—it gives context to everything that comes after it. Since there's no point in saying the same thing twice, I felt like the second solo record should be as far away from the first as possible, while still feeling honest to me.
MB To be a drummer making an artistic statement is rare.
CC It's a tough history to step into without feeling overwhelmed by the people who have come before you. There have been drummers way greater than me who've done solo records—Milford Graves and Sean Meehan are two people who loomed large in my head while I was doing The Young Cricketer. In a certain way, it was tough to not feel like, What's the point? But at the same time, it was like, If I don’t try to speak up now, I might as well never try to throw my two cents in. And how can I make this record a little different from all the solo drum records already in existence?
On the total flip-side, there are some drummers who've made shitty solo records, and there's inspiration to be found in wanting to not sound like them.
MB Like Phil Collins.
CC Well, I was thinking more in terms of avoiding the clichés of bad improvised and experimental solo drum records, but yeah, I wouldn't want to sound like Phil Collins, either.
MB Brian Chippendale’s Black Pus project has always interested me in regards to solo work. And obviously his drumming in Lightning Bolt is amazing. It’s not surprising that Björk ended up working with both of you on her Volta album. Have you ever spoken to Brian about that experience? It seemed astounding that two of the more punk-minded drummers I know would be on a Björk album.
CC Brian and I talked a little about how much of a kooky experience being on Volta was for us. He didn't play any of the live shows, which was too bad. I tried to get Björk to have him play on the gigs in New York City, but it didn't work out. I love Brian’s playing so fucking much. And if there’s one thing I’m really proud that I carry from that experience, it’s being on a record with him.
MB It seems like Brian’s greatest gift as a musician, for all his ability, is making people happy. On paper, that doesn’t seem like an easy task.
CC Brian’s found a way to be utterly himself, to push the boundaries of music, and to make people happy doing so. That’s heroic.
For more on Chris Corsano, including upcoming live dates, visit his website.
Michael Barron is an associate editor at New Directions and plays percussion for the band Megafortress. He lives in Brooklyn.