Anthony Coleman by Michael Goldberg

BOMB 96 Summer 2006
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Anthony Coleman playing prepared piano at the Krakow Festival, 2005. Photo by Bogdan Krezel. Courtesy of the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow.

Interviewing Anthony Coleman was an illuminating experience for me. I’d heard him live once and was impressed with the brilliance of his playing. The interview covered his jazz and improv roots. His interest and knowledge of Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton is way deeper than my own. God! He made whatever interest I have in them feel superficial—much chagrin. His composer chops are equally impressive, and now that I’ve listened to the records he’s made for Tzadik, including SelfhatersThe Abysmal Richness of the Infinite Proximity of the SameMorenica, and Sephardic Tinge, I can’t wait for more. His latest, just out and also from Tzadik, Shmutsige Magnaten: Coleman Plays Gebirtig, was recorded live at midnight in Krakow‘s oldest synagogue, a few steps from the legendary Yiddish composer Mordechai Gebirtig‘s birthplace. Coleman has infused these once-popular compositions—Gebirtig died in the Holocaust—with traditions developed from the American avant-garde. It‘s a virtuoso rendition.

Michael Goldberg AnthonyI’ve been listening to the five discs of yours I have all day today. I would characterize your musical approach as combining honesty, imagination and technique. I realize that you have multiple career expectations; you’re writing so-called classical music—

Anthony Coleman Although I never use that word.

MG It’s the only word I have for it.

AC  Chamber music—I’m writing fully notated music, or mostly notated, for classical performers, but I never call it classical. It’s a translation of my idiom into that form.

MG I feel as if your compositional ideas were fully forged by 1992, at least the parameters of those ideas. As you’ve been shedding these original concepts, deconstructing them, you found a very different form. Do you have glimpses of what this will be?

AC  I have glimpses. I’m trying to move forward all the time.

MG I understand; I’m a painter. I find that although I have an image of where I’d like the work to go, my progress is two steps forward, one step back, one step forward, two steps back. I find painting endlessly frustrating and irritating and that’s what keeps me going. Do you feel that somewhat?

AC  Totally. I’ve always liked Beckett’s statement: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

MG I read an interview with you in Signal to Noise, Spring 2006. I was curious about the doctorate program you decided to do after music school—

AC  I got a Master’s degree.

MG What was the idea, to teach?

AC  I don’t know. Generally speaking when composers get advanced degrees, it’s in order to teach.

MG I thought it was to keep you off the streets.

AC  That too. (laughter) I enjoyed my undergraduate years; I liked being in this crazy musical milieu where stuff was happening all the time. New England Conservatory had a jazz department, a lot of contemporary music, and then what they called Third Stream—they don’t call it that anymore—people who were neither jazz nor classical and were looking for ways to express ideas about language that didn’t fit into either one but took some influence or form from both. I was thriving in that atmosphere. I wanted a couple more years of the same. So I applied to one grad school—Yale. It was an I Ching thing; if I got in, I would go, and if I didn’t get in, I wouldn’t go. I got in, so I went.

I didn’t understand that the Master’s track is almost like going to business school. It’s toward a particular goal, this idea of making a career, especially in teaching. The relationship between composers and performers was separated, almost like a labor versus management situation. There was a fear of criticizing things. People would go to seminars and they wouldn’t open their mouths. The whole point of a seminar is for people to talk freely about other peoples’ work. I was shocked.

MG How come you stayed the whole time?

AC  Just to fuck them up! (laughter) They would have to get rid of me; I wasn’t just going to leave!

MG You mentioned the vocabulary of late-twentieth-century composers.

AC  Yeah, which is what I studied.

MG Did they teach Earle Brown or Christian Wolff or Morton Feldman?

AC  As part of survey courses of movements in twentieth-century music—not really as important music. A couple of loony faculty members at New England Conservatory paid some attention to them. I do remember a concert where some of Feldman’s multiple piano music was played. It’s not like it was never played; we’d all heard Earle Brown’s Available Forms because it was the first important piece that used modular thinking.

MG Earle was the musical director of a series of records that came out in the ’60s and early ’70s—

AC  On Time?

MG Time-Mainstream. I did a cover for one—

AC  Oh, really? Which cover?

MG Luigi Nono.

AC Wow! I’d love to see it. I have a bunch of those. I have the one with the Cage Fontana Mix.

MG That’s a classic.

AC I had a friend, Lee Hyla, an excellent composer, and one time at his house I saw the score of Feldman’s Last Pieces on his piano. I groped through the sheets and I found what was happening in terms of language really interesting: one sonority, another sonority, another, without any particular thing tying them together. Feldman crept up on me over several years. I can remember all the steps: the Multiple Piano pieces in this one concert; the Last Pieces on Lee’s piano; and Michael Tilson Thomas—in my first year at school, maybe ’73—programmed Cello and Orchestra.

MG Terrific piece.

AC It blew me away.

MG I knew Morty quite well. Funny man. He was a big, robust, earthy guy, and he composed this music that was so ethereal and quiet. I’ve got stories about Morty—

AC You told me a great one about him making out with this beautiful woman on Brighton Beach. He became an incredible influence, but much later.

MG And does Cage fit?

AC There’s a similar trajectory of little things gradually seeping in and at a certain point, the influence getting through. When I was a senior, in 1976, Cage wrote Renga With Apartment House for the Bicentennial. Six composers were commissioned for the six major U.S. orchestras. We had the International Society for Contemporary Music festival in Boston that year as well. I was an usher at the concert hall at NEC and I sang in the chorus, so I participated in a lot of this stuff. There were boring, academic composers from all over the world and I realized that I was studying to become one of them. (laughter) The more of these concerts I heard, the more I was like: This is my life? Then there was this Cage piece. It was divided into three levels of activity happening more or less at the same time. One were these line drawings of Thoreau’s; Cage made realizations of them for the strings, so the strings were playing shapes. Then there were four singers, each of whom represented Americans who were here in 1776. There was a Sephardic cantor, a black spiritual/bluesy singer (Jeanne Lee), a Native American singer and somebody singing Appalachian music. The singers came in and went out according to certain procedures. Sometimes you’d have all four singing their music at the same time, sometimes you’d have just one. Then you had small groups of three or four players from the rest of the Boston Symphony on the hall’s floor. Each of these chamber groups played different realizations of popular or folksongs of the time.

MG Sounds like Wallace Stevens.

AC It was wild! It was more anarchic because all these things were happening at the same moment. Then when the emotional moment happened, it would come out of nowhere. It wasn’t set up the way we were taught as composers to unfold our ideas and go toward a point. Here the points just emerged. I said, “This is it. This is what I want to do. I’m not interested in anything I’ve been doing up to now.” I was your typical 20-year-old: very, very impressionable. This made me think that everything I was doing was—

MG Was full of shit.

AC Yeah. So I went to my teachers and said, “What about the Cage piece?” And they said, “It’s not that good—what is it?” Or, “It’s like a Warhol Brillo box. It’s just publicity and advertising.” And I was thinking, No, it’s not, but okay, if you think so… I mean, you’re my teacher, but you’re wrong. I had this huge turnaround.

Many people who study composition start out as improvisers in jazz or rock, working in bands on music that is not particularly notated. They hear some crazy and wild music and they want to figure out how it works; they hear a piece by Charles Ives or Cage or whatever, and then they want to be able to do that, but it comes out of a visceral impulse. It doesn’t come out of an impulse to construct something so much as to create a kind of sound. Eventually they learn the techniques of how to create that sound. But they get far away from the dream of having that direct relationship with the sound itself. That dream goes down the drain—it’s awful.

MG You’re talking about surface. There’s an equivalent in painting. You saw it primarily at the end of the ’50s when Abstract Expressionism was dying. The individual painter put a lot of activity onto a canvas hoping to recognize something in all that activity that he could hang a painting on. It’s so wishful.

AC It started out as an expression of a particular emotion and it became an academic fad. Almost before it began, right?

MG Very quickly. I consider you both a composer and a piano player.

AC How I see the two has a lot to do with the moment that I’m talking about. I had gotten away from the initial impulse to be a musician, and this Cage piece opened that up again—I wanted to participate as a player too. I had lost touch with it because I was writing music that was way too difficult for me to play.

MG Truly?

AC Totally, I was not trained as a classical pianist yet I was writing music for classical players.

MG You’re using that word.

AC I’m writing music for classical players, not classical music. (laughter) I’m writing for people who are trained to play hard contemporary scores. But I started to investigate what had happened in music since 1945 from another vantage point, the post-Cage as opposed to the post-Webern or Babbitt or (Elliot) Carter. I read Notes on Music by Steve Reich where he said that he knew that he wanted to participate in his music as a performer. For him to be a part of it, he was going to have to change the velocity of his music. It made him think about space in a different way and a lot of things that led to early Minimalism. I guess with Glass it’s the same, but he never wrote anything so clearly polemical. Still, they both had ensembles that were bands. It all made me want to play again. I played a lot in high school, but when I started composing, I played less and less until I was hardly playing at all. I moved back to New York after grad school. The first two gigs I did were one with John Zorn and one with Glenn Branca.

MG When was that?

AC 1979. I was looking for a kind of improvising that would express what I was working on. I didn’t want to do what Steve Reich was doing. I came from a jazz background. And I loved Cecil Taylor, his sonic world felt very close. But I was also interested in something closer to what I was hearing in Cage. With Cage, so much of the surface is not pushed. It’s so not about pushing.

MG Cecil Taylor reminds me of Jackson Pollock. Most artists look at other art to steal from it. Jackson Pollock presents a dead end. You can’t steal from Pollock, except to make little Pollocks. Taylor presents the same kind of problem.

AC I totally agree. That’s what I felt. I couldn’t figure out what’s beyond Cecil—

MG The one artist who was able to take from Pollock is Helen Frankenthaler. It’s a totally different kind of art, but she cuts the attitude from Pollock and that was quite priceless. So there must be pianists out there—

AC Well, for example Don Pullen.

MG Terrific.

AC He would never admit it. People would mention Cecil Taylor to him in interviews and he’d freak out. He was saying that the real cats come up in sessions and play the clubs, and Cecil didn’t do that, so he’s not really a jazz musician. A ridiculous critique.

MG Talking about Cecil, he did play in a club.

AC Don Pullen meant that Taylor didn’t do the jam sessions. That whole jazz mentality—jazz as a form of the Wild West. Charles Mingus said that if Charlie Parker were a gunslinger, there’d be a lot of dead copycats. (laughter)

I was looking for something different. When I came back to New York I met John Zorn and the musicians he was working with were all working off a form of improvising that seemed to have answered many of my questions. It didn’t necessarily answer them in the way I would have, but there was a style of improvising that seemed to be a combination of jazz, contemporary classical music and noise-oriented rock, and some things from the more radical members of the Art Ensemble in Chicago and the AACM. I was like, Wow, these people are all working on the thing that I’m working on, except they’ve figured it out! It’s funny because I wasn’t even sure that I liked this music when I first heard it, it was so abrasive, but at the same time it was doing this thing that I really wanted to do.

MG A number of the Masada recordings go into swing.

AC We’re talking 25 years ago. It’s a very different scene now. In fact, I don’t feel as much a part of it now as I did then. It’s not going as much in the direction of things that interest me. This is what happens with scenes and movements. When you listen to the music of the so-called New York School—Christian Wolff, Feldman, Cage, and Brown—the connections are much clearer in the beginning than later. After Cage had gone more in the conceptual direction, basing his pieces on chance operations and Feldman was going in the direction of longer and longer pieces that were guided by the ear with a few key sonorities, Feldman came up to Cage and said, “I miss you in your music.”

MG A beautiful statement.

AC Late Feldman and late Cage are radically different as opposed to earlier when they were spending time interacting. It happens.

MG I want to talk to you about Sander Gilman’s book, Jewish Self-Hatred. I’m a Jew too, and I had that problem. I changed my name to Michael Stuart, legally. The first 9th Street show in 1952, I was painting with the name Michael Stuart. After about nine months, I realized that I was never going to be Michael Stuart, so I changed my name back to Michael Goldberg, again legally. Bill DeKooning used to go around New York saying: “That Michael Stuart’s really something. He changed his name to Goldberg.”

AC (laughter)

MG You talk about Jewish influence in music. I’m not quite certain what the hell that means.

AC If you just say it like that, then I don’t particularly vibe with it either.

MG As a Jew, your background comes to your music all the time—you can’t escape it. But I don’t see anything particularly Jewish that I recognize. I’ve been listening all day to the beautiful CD of Mordechai Gebirtig’s music that you did in Krakow. I find your playing stunning. It’s the same concert I heard you play live. I’ve thought about it in relation to whatever identity I feel as a Jew and I don’t relate to it that way.

AC I don’t have any problems with that. There’s a whole story over the last 25 years of recognizing… I’m going to keep this short. Many people are very interested in this phenomenon and have been doing Master’s theses and Doctorals—

MG Frankly, I’m not terribly interested.

AC I can tell, which is why I’ll keep it short. One of things that defines this Downtown scene, this group that I came into in 1979—Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Fred Frith, et cetera—is this love for finding the boundary between noise and sound and music. Another thing that defined it was the attempt to incorporate everything and to question notions of unity. For example, when you hear early Steve Reich, the unity really bangs you over the head. It’s a very important precept for him. He talks about Ghanaen drumming, Indonesian music, Coltrane, and the Beatles. But when you hear the music, all of those things have been subsumed to such a point that they’re inaudible.

MG Yes, you don’t get it.

AC What we were trying to do is something very different. We wanted the seams to show. We were ready to risk incoherence. So many things were incorporated with their elements sticking out. But it was interesting that so many of the improvisors and composers were Jewish, and they were using elements from everywhere: Africa, Indonesia, Italian film music, Japan…. People started asking that, given so many of this group were Jewish: What kind of music was relevant to that, other than the typical racist Liszt/Wagner thing? You know, where they say that Jews take from every other culture and don’t bring anything of their own.

The Klezmer revival happened right around that same time, and we became aware that, at the same time that early jazz and Delta blues were happening, there was this very funky Jewish music too. I know Klezmer sparked me, Roy Nathanson, a bunch of people. We’re talking mid-to-late ’80s, a little bit before the Radical Jewish Culture movement actually got its name. Looking back at that time, I can see that Jewish music was missing altogether from my vocabulary. Now it’s been incorporated and I don’t need it to be more than that. It’s part of my palette, and I’m fine with that. I can sleep at night.

MG I read a quote recently from Hale Woodruff, a black painter around New York in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. He’d been invited to a show of black American artists at the Whitney and he wrote to Lloyd Goodrich, the director at that time, that he didn’t want to be part of a show like that. He wanted to be part of a show of American artists, period.

AC I totally understand that.

MG I do too. But it’s a moral position.

AC It’s one I don’t share, but understand. I’ve participated and still participate in these Jewish culture festivals and I try to make something which is not just completely Dada-like: here’s my Jewish music; I’m going to bring in a New York salsa band and we’re going to play really loud; it’s New York and a lot of Jews play it, so it’s New York Jewish music. To me that’s silly. It could be interesting to somebody who wants to really thumb their nose, but I’m interested in making a connection. I’m interested in themes….

Secondly, I’m one of the only people who come from the Radical scene that still goes to these festivals. So I feel that my participation helps keep it from all turning into a sluggish, sentimental cry-fest with the keening clarinet and violin. At a certain point I don’t care, but when I get invited I feel like I want to make my little statement. Even if it’s not that radical, it’s radical compared to what else is going on.

MG I want to get to Duke Ellington.

AC It’s amazing how you know what you’re interested in so young. When I was 12 and we were doing black history in school I became fascinated with Scott Joplin and the whole notion of this black American pianist who came out of a popular tradition—Ragtime—and decided to make an art form—concrete works—out of it. The notion of a body of work was not secondary to him; it didn’t just so happen that he wrote out all those pieces. He had a philosophy around them. That idea led me to Jelly Roll, which led me to Duke, which led me to Monk, which led me to Mingus, which led me to Cecil Taylor. By the time I was 14, I knew that I wanted to be a part of the Afro-American jazz composer-pianist lineage. I was really only interested in the black lineage. If there was a white lineage, I didn’t know about it. Later I realized you couldn’t leave people like Lennie Tristano out—

MG You can’t leave Bix Beiderbecke out.

AC Certainly not! Well, you know the racial politics in this music has always been really intense.

MG It seems to be getting much better recently.

AC It gets better, and then it gets worse. I used to talk to Don Byron about this a lot. Don is a very intellectual and conscious artist. He grew up in an extremely mixed milieu. He went to the same high school I did. There was a mix of all kinds of culture: classical music, jazz, Latin music, whatever. You grow up as a New Yorker in that music and you want to be perceived as somebody who has the possibility to be engaged with whatever you choose.

MG That’s an awfully good point.

AC But people don’t do it. They perceive people in stereotypical ways. It still happens. And then, of course, the reaction to that is often really incoherent too. Like, Stanley Crouch got fired from JazzTimes for saying that the reason Dave Douglas is so famous is that white critics feel more comfortable writing about him because they can hang out with him.

But I can’t pretend that I don’t have any understanding of where Crouch is coming from. This kind of inchoate, raging, response—I have to mention that I love rants. If my music could have the perfect form, it would be somewhere between the form of a rock and the form of a rant.

MG My first art teacher said that a horse’s ass was the greatest form possible.

AC That I understand. It’s symmetrical in a particular way. But there’s an idea of symmetry equaling form that I’ve tried to challenge. There’s been a lot of work in that direction, like the people who talk about fractal thinking, which has led them to see that things that look very arbitrary have elements of form that can be used and analyzed.

MG Tell me how you got into Duke.

AC When I was 12 years old—all this stuff happened when I was 12—around the corner, this architect, Al Henriques, had this enormous collection of Duke Ellington 78s, and I was friends with his kids. Al saw that I was very interested in the 1920s and ’30s, so he allowed me to take the 78s home to copy and they started taking over my life. I started to dream them! My first couple years of high school, while kids would be tripping and listening to the Grateful Dead, I’d be tripping in the Lincoln Center Library with headphones on. And there’s that moment in the Black and Tan Fantasy where “Tricky Sam” Nanton is playing trombone and meanwhile Barney Bigard, underneath the melody, is slowly crescendoing and at the same time glissing up a whole step—that was my psychedelic music. It was so psychedelic how he went from the background to the foreground and meanwhile the tone is slipping.

Duke had this whole gestural language that stamps his music so strongly; it became my language. I wasn’t interested in writing notes; I was interested in having the whole surface be this growling, glissing thing. It wasn’t until much later that I heard composers coming more from the contemporary classical tradition that also had a constantly inflecting surface. That was the thing in Ellington that really got to me: it’s constantly throbbing; things don’t just sit there. Notes are not just notes; each one of them has this whole life and gesture. The dynamics of the sound blew me away! So that summer my parents asked what I wanted to do for my birthday. I told them I didn’t want anything, except to see Duke Ellington. We went to see the Ellington Band at the Rainbow Grill at the top of Rockefeller Center—

MG I saw him there too.

AC Did you? At this time?

MG Oh sure!

AC Johnny Hodges had only one more year to live so if I hadn’t gone then I would never have seen Hodges, I would’ve never seen Lawrence Brown. They were in the band for just one more year. I got Hodges’ autograph, which was very exciting. Then, for the next three or four years, I followed the Ellington Band constantly and tried to take apart the sounds—

MG You were playing jazz then too?

AC I started studying with Jaki Byard then and going to hear jazz five nights a week. I don’t know how I ever graduated high school. In the summer of 1972, Duke Ellington gave a seminar in Madison, Wisconsin. Every member of the band gave master classes and Ellington gave several. Around that time, I started writing a lot for the Jazz Big Band in school. I had this girlfriend who would come to rehearsals and she’d say, “You got all this Monk, Duke and Mingus stuff going on. But I hear some other things that I think would be good for you.” She was studying composition at Manhattan School of Music. She played me Bartok Quartets, which changed my life, and early Cage prepared piano music which changed my life too, and Ives symphonies. Then the world got confusing. The path got messy. It stayed messy. I was 16, so the path has been really messy for 35 years. I go through crippling periods of doubt.

MG Who doesn’t? You’ve got to doubt yourself.

AC Serious periods of not being able to do it. Beckett has this other great quote: “The more Joyce knew the more he could. He’s tending toward omniscience and omnipotence. I’m working with impotence, ignorance.” The people who are working with some idea of potency, they tend to keep landing on their feet all the time. You don’t feel the doubt so much in their work.

MG Are you very busy? You certainly can play without a bass and drums because your piano playing is so percussive.

AC Yeah, the really new thing for me has been playing solo tours.

MG Do you like that?

AC I love it. Plus, you make more money that way. I did a solo tour and none of the gigs were that fantastic. Then I saw how much money I had at the end of the tour and thought, I’m never going on tour with a group again!

MG In terms of your composing, is there an underlying belief in something bigger than yourself? I’m leading up to this idea of transcendence in the very American way of Thoreau—the idea of getting close to God through your work.

AC I haven’t thought about that as much as I’ve thought about trying to get close to language. Berio says: “Without the dream of a common language, music cannot exist.” When classical music was in its heyday, so many boundaries of the language were given. You worked with it in some sort of frame and, when that’s taken away and everybody’s style is their individual thing, there’s a bit of terror because there’s no frame for any of it.

MG I’d like to talk about one of the discs you did for Tonic. The one you call Morenica, solo piano playing, which is very percussive. What’s your keyboard technique?

AC I’ve had issues with the piano. I never used to think about the piano per se. It was always just a way of getting to certain kinds of musical ideas. As time goes on, I care much more about the way piano sound is produced. In fact, my project with Jelly Roll’s music is bringing me to that point, because the percussive sound, when you’re playing solo, can get old pretty quickly. Piano sound is all about weights and balances and the next things that I do are going to be particularly clear in this respect. I have so much of Jelly Roll’s sound in my head as an idealized vision of how I want it to be, based on having lived with that music for so many years. When my sound doesn’t correspond to what I hear in my head, I’m very unhappy. So I’ve ended up working on that project longer than I’ve worked on any of my own music. Morenica was, for me, a big step. I have a lot of nuance in my writing, so I tried to figure out why I had issues working with the same level of clarity and intensity on something that is physical, like actually perfecting the playing of an instrument. I started trying to create on the piano the illusion of a steady state like on a clarinet or a violin with a really fast drumming on one pitch. It seemed to really work on the Sephardic tunes particularly.

MG The Sephardic Tinge group is quite beautiful. One that I really listen to a lot is “Our Beautiful Garden Is Open.” You mentioned in another interview that a Feldman piece was only exciting when it was finished, which I don’t quite understand.

AC What I meant to say was there is not the need to divert you by changing what’s going to happen every five minutes.

MG Ah! That’s very different.

AC I’ve worked with certain players engaged with radical ideas about sound, but not radical ideas about time. They have their eye on the clock and they’re always worried about losing the audience. I’m interested in looking at the difference between language and form in this respect.

MG When you say “language,” what exactly do you mean?

AC Jazz, free-improvisation, noise—we engaged with a lot of different things.

MG I want to tell you something.

AC Yeah?

MG Looking at you—you’ll never be black.

AC (laughter) I was a very different person when I was 15.

Mike Goldberg, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist painter, began studying with Hans Hoffman in 1941 before serving as a paratrooper in Burma during World War II. His work is in the permanent collections of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the De Cordova and Dana Museum, among others. He currently resides in New York, where he teaches drawing and continues to paint.

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Originally published in

BOMB 96, Summer 2006

Featuring interviews with Bernard Piffaretti, Liz Larner, Tony Oursler, Kimiko Hahn, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Park Chanwook, Anthony Coleman, Jesper Just, A.R. Gurney, William Forsythe.

Read the issue
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