Craig Taborn performing with Kris Davis for the Syncretics Series at ISSUE Project Room, Brooklyn, 2018. Photo by Jason Isolini. Courtesy of ISSUE Project Room.
The jazz pianist and composer Craig Taborn and I have known each other for over thirty years but never formally collaborated until Jason Moran threw us together for a performance at the Park Avenue Armory in 2016 as part of the Artist Studio program he was curating. This solidified a continued experimental collaboration in dynamic sound, spatial composition, and critical philosophy. We both work as sound artists, extending and defining the term each in our own way and collaboratively, by taking the sounds as they come through the ears, the body, and through culture. A sound can be held in the hand and simultaneously felt traveling through space and history.
Spring 2020 dawned with a growing biological force that challenged and made use of the socio-political systems that sought to control it. At the time, I was scheduled to be in New York, and Craig in Europe, but we found ourselves among the ranks of the grounded and “home isolated” in the attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19. We connected, I from my studio in Oslo, and Craig from his in New York. This conversation is a small voice in a day of life that took place on April 15, 2020.
Camille Norment I spent some time trying to think of how to avoid speaking about the pandemic, since the vast majority of conversations I’ve had since February have been dominated by it. But then I thought instead we could accept the immersion and allow it to shape more of an ontological discussion.
Craig Taborn We’re in this.
CN Exactly. Everybody’s been talking about how to survive the isolation, but at the same time there’s been a remarkable heightening of connectivity through video conference platforms by the general population for social and entertainment purposes. What has your experience been—feeling more the isolation or the connectivity?
CT Well, you know me—
CN Yeah, I do. (laughter)
CT Because I spend a large portion of my time touring—interacting daily with audiences and the musicians I’m traveling with—when I’m home in New York I tend to keep to myself, just as a counter to that. Of course, I see people and hang out socially, but I live alone and tend to work on projects in a certain kind of isolation, so I haven’t felt this change as remarkably as I think some others have. A month into lockdown, it’s starting to feel long. I’ve definitely noticed the change in access to nature and culture. You can’t go to art museums. You can’t see live music. You can’t engage in physical space and congregate with other people. And I think as herd creatures, we feel that, but as you’re saying, a lot of that has been replaced by this online connectivity, which has generated a different kind of communalism. In the jazz community for instance, there have been so many streaming concerts and Zoom parties. I haven’t engaged with that many of those, but it’s been really interesting to see the pop-up concerts that people are giving from their living rooms and studios.
CN And these platforms have been there, of course, but largely underutilized, at least on a mass scale, for events we typically think of as necessitating physical presence, until now. I think this situation has revealed many aspects of ourselves, as human beings, but also the hypersystems we’ve created. There’s discussion about the timing of this pandemic in light of the crisis of the Anthropocene, as well as the inherent systemic social inequities in the ways that we organize our humanness. Perhaps more imminently striking than the virus itself is the awareness of its existence within and as a system, and its dependence on its environment. Fairly recently I’ve been rethinking some discussions that came out of the late ’60s around system aesthetics. At the time, the discussion largely centered on drawing attention away from the cultural object—such as a sculpture or a piece of music as an autonomous entity—and focusing more on how things are done and how they’re integrated across disciplines and spaces of production. That diffusion quite interestingly relates to the way we’ve been watching the spread of this virus around the world—the numbers, reliable or not, moving up and down and outward. But it also made me think about improvisation as a process and its results as a system rather than a musical object. Of course, this is not a new concept, but in considering improvisation’s determinant reliance upon a co-active environment, and the sheer “everydayness” of improvisation, I was wondering what your thoughts
CT Yeah, it’s an interesting feature of this moment because particularly in relation to the improviser music world, the template for some of this connectivity and the ways that people have engaged was already set up for almost twenty years. Really in earnest in the last ten years, there have been a lot of efforts to engage in remote, simultaneous concertizing with improvisers. These days it happens frequently—people in Japan and London and New York, for instance, doing a concert, which in its engagement is sort of an exploration of the possibilities of the technology to further that project, a communication between individuals to create something a bit more meta. This kind of virtual space was almost perfectly built for the quarantine situation.
When we engage with communication technology in our everyday lives, one of the biggest hurdles is just latency, being able to see if we’re in sync and responding to the same information at close to the same time. The pacing of thought and conversation is reliant on these different feedback loops. A lot of the same technology that is used to further, say, two musicians improvising with each other across the globe is also employed in evolving improvisational systems, generative computer systems that act autonomously.
In terms of how we’re adapting to the pandemic, there are some features of an improvisational approach: defining the shared terms that we’re dealing with in the moment, defining our modes of communication, the syntax, in relation to what’s happening in this really dynamic situation. I was thinking about it the other day, just how much we have been forced to improvise, as conditions evolve and there’s new information almost daily about how we’re supposed to be working in a global sense. And you see how quickly the system that we share reacts, and we make these micro-adjustments. The thing that really hit me was this sense of a global organism. There are things mandated by governmental bodies and so on, but a lot of the information exchange and effort really comes down to people choosing to engage. I don’t know about Europe, but in the United States there have been statements to governors saying, “Okay, we’re going to go into this lockdown posture.” But it was largely voluntary. They didn’t have to institute martial law to get people to stay home. To a large extent it was just, present this information, and then people made those decisions, in a group aggregate. I found that fascinating. As new information continually comes in, we’re adjusting, and that is really an improvisational function.
Craig Taborn and Camille Norment performing at the Park Avenue Armory, New York City, 2016. Photo by Da Ping Luo. Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.
CN And it’s interesting to see the differences across cultural boundaries. There’s a lot of discussion about the difference between what’s been happening here in Norway with social distancing measures, and the much more relaxed strategy adopted by Sweden. We share a long border, so the concern is direct. But also, the conceptual concerns involve what is gained and lost, and certainly who is sacrificed. There is still a lot unknown, and people are molding the same handful of factual information into very different shapes.
I’m very curious what will be left after this grand improvisation. What kinds of language will remain in place, and what new syntaxes will remain to continue these conversations? Will any of it allow us to maintain some of the softening of the damage to the environment that our social and production activity has caused?
You mentioned utilizing the same language that’s already been there. We’ve engaged musical aesthetic analysis in terms of systems for a long time. As an obvious example, Bach has often been spoken about in terms of the interlocking counterpoint systems of his composition. But I remember, oh, thirty years ago, this period of our listening to Steve Coleman and Cecil Taylor, and thinking about the expanded systemic structures of their music. Though with different aesthetic outcomes, each one engaged a dynamic architecture that employed both musical and extra musical systems; a structural coding of cultural symbols into music.
To build on ideas of structure for a moment, one thing I find in much of your music is this rhythmic structure that itself seems to implement generative systems within the improvisation, which itself is a system. So it’s kind of fractal in that way. Can you elaborate on your internal process within improvisation, the way you build phrases into other phrases, expand upon them, and collapse them again?
CT Well, I could say a lot of things. Recently I was listening to this interview with Cecil Taylor by Marian McPartland on Piano Jazz—that show on NPR where McPartland would interview other jazz pianists. And this one with Cecil Taylor must have been from the ’80s or ’90s. It was one of the more interesting interviews with Cecil, I think because he respected Marian McPartland’s musicianship. He was a lot more forthcoming about his process, in specific, technical terms. Like you noted, Steve Coleman’s approach is perhaps more structuralist or restructuralist, drawing on really specific cultural information sets. And then Cecil Taylor’s process may be about evolving more of a referential or symbolic system in which to engage as a personality, which would seem to be his thing. There’s still a lot of information, but it’s less about parsing those information sets than it is about establishing a kind of psycho-spiritual symbolic system and then functionally engaging with that to generate or move through an improvisation.
You mentioned fractals. A lot of how I derive rhythmic information has always come from a larger consideration of what exists in the sound space—actually just the entire aesthetic space—and recognizing patterns. The macro and the micro really do interact. Because everything extends from vibration in that sense, at its root, even pitch. All of those features, timbre, what have you, ultimately exist in relationship with periodicity and vibration, and they extend from that into a notion of perceived rhythm, for instance, in the sense of a beat. But it’s about where you apply or discern an object versus some other system. I think ultimately we get down to discerning, “Okay, I’m going to apply myself to this object at this resolution. At that point, I’ll consider this element as a primary feature or something that can be worked with.” But the way we work with it is often symbolic. I say that because you mentioned the Bach thing. I’ve read a number of things on the organizational aspects of Bach. There are obvious counterpoint features that he’s working with. But if you go deeper into performance practice at the time, a lot has a basis that is also liturgical. And the idea of Bach as an improviser was important.
We know that it was actually common performance practice for those church organists at the time to be able to compose and improvise, and that still exists in the organ tradition today. There’s a lot about what key applies to which feast day. And the key you’re in would have to relate to the text of the sermon and to the hymn that would be sung next. So in terms of symbolic systems and other things you use to orient how you are improvising or composing, there are always multiple levels that influence your purpose. That exists today through the example of someone like Cecil Taylor, who sought this other, extra-musical information to engage in musical improvisation. And I think it extends to really any aesthetic enterprise. So the improvisational condition, rather than being something special to music or theater or improv comedy, is actually a feature we all engage with. I mean, this is kind of a hackneyed, improviser-speak thing—”We improvise every day”—but it’s true. What we do with language in conversation, for instance, is inherently an improvisational act.
CN Absolutely. I brought up the “everydayness” of improvisation because historically, I think we’ve moved away from a natural, emergent use of improvisation, certainly musically. The experience of music used to be much more closely intertwined with the dynamic experience of life. We can pinpoint when, at least in Western history, we began to clamp down into a much more structured attempt to define and hold ideas onto the page. At least from my perspective, improvisation, evolving through jazz in particular, has really been its own enlightenment project and helped usher us back to something inherently human in the way we engage with cultural practice and even just social practice that we had perhaps restrained a bit too much.
You said something about the larger sound space, and that brings us to this concept of noise. It’s part of our being in the world. Everything gives off noise. How do you see it belonging to your palette? What does noise mean for you musically, if anything?
CT Well, from an aesthetic perspective, it’s not that useful for me. Any application of audition to sound, or by extension, any attention to information, will yield some kind of relationship to it that removes the implication of chaos or disorganization that is at the root of the notion of noise from the broadest cultural perspective. Noise is a thing that is not organized, that is not controlled, or that is unpleasant versus sound. Take any sort of noise, and if you just listen and address it, you’ll very quickly evolve some sort of relationship to it that creates order, pattern, etcetera.
But I do engage with noise in my work in the sense that, as much as there is this will toward controlling and structuring things in the music-making improvisational act, I try to allow certain elements their own sort of informational life. It’s the willful lack of manipulation, or even lack of trying to parse information from a certain field, let’s say. I’ll term that a noise space or an irrational space—something that I purposely try not to control volitionally. As a musician, there are so many things I can immediately parse: “Oh, I’m hearing these rhythms in the bass.” Or, “This sound is in this frequency realm.” I can instantly identify and taxonomically define features of a noise as an information set, which renders it not noise. But I’m aware of and really welcome more chaotic elements. And that’s certainly one of the things the noise music world is trying to engage: that which has been heretofore termed extramusical or nonmusical sound—or visuals or whatever.
I value that noise music posture. But it requires some diligence to not impose too much information on a noise because that can quickly render it “not noise” in my mind. And then that suggests too many ways forward organizationally in order to reveal those specific features of that sound, if that makes sense. And what you gain from that is a structure, which for some people is a resolution to the noise “problem.” But what you lose are the myriad other ways that the noise could be perceived. So it’s more a state of mind for me. Whatever this sound field is, it’s full of unparsed information. To me, that’s what noise is, something that’s not rationalized. And I think it’s invaluable to retain some relationship to the irrational because that’s the doorway to another kind of perception. In a way, noise is an asymbolic space. In my own work, I try to leave some noise, almost preserving it as some sort of abstracted object as opposed to seeking a developmental rationale for it.
CN That allows it to remain dynamic as opposed to static and defined.
CT Exactly. And in that sense, you are dealing with more of what’s actually there, or what isn’t there that you’re then allowed to imagine. Once you start parsing the information too specifically to arrive at some structural relationship, like pitch, that’s usually inadequate to describe what’s actually going on. As much as it’s the basis of—particularly Western—musicmaking to identify pitch, it’s a severe reduction of information. If you just say, “Okay, a C,” simultaneously it means everything—because someone with perfect pitch can hear a tone there—and also nothing because there’s no other information. What does that sound like? It’s an almost complete abstraction.
CN Because we’re curious creatures, we will always want to make sense of something, and it can be almost more difficult to try not to. That’s one of the challenges of listening; we’ve been engineered to anticipate what’s coming next and to look for patterns.
I’ve also been thinking of noise in relation to the pandemic, and the perception of it as this most unwanted entity. It is an unwanted noise for us, complete in its generative capacity. It’s an interruption to what we have constructed as our useful signals. And yet it is there; it’s quite loud; and we have to contend with it. And even more interesting perhaps is that we have actually facilitated it in many different ways, irrespective of how it came to be. We are responsible for transporting it around the globe. And going back to the Anthropocene—we are creatures of one set among many interlocked in this system of lifeforms and life-ish-forms. Noise accompanies all existence and can be said to largely define this point in our evolution. As such, it also allows us to question the normative frameworks we’ve created.
CT Absolutely. With the pandemic, I’m struck by the idea of this situation as defining evolutionary event in many senses, where it’s less that the virus is affecting the mass directly but that by virtue of the fact that it is recognized as a universal problem, it has initiated a global reaction. Because when we’re talking about improvisation, it has to be stated again, what we’re really just talking about is the way things are.
When I’m performing, I’m never thinking only about music. It’s often kind of the last thing I’m thinking about. I’m more aware of all of this, how we’re moving through this dynamic system. And referencing Cecil Taylor, I’m abundantly aware that that was his space. It was never just about the notes—those existed as an interface, a reference system that he could use.
I’ve had this discussion with Vijay Iyer often, and he always references Wadada Leo Smith in saying that there is a certain crew of musicians who are done with the term improvisation. There is a movement by these great improvisers to just get rid of this word because it implies things that are now beside the point. There really isn’t any endeavor that doesn’t involve improvisation. It’s just a matter of degree. Invoking that term brings with it this weight of associations that distance it from other practices, and I don’t think that really functions today.
Craig Taborn and Camille Norment performing in Resonance: A Sound Art Marathon at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2019. Photo by Malanda-Jean Claude. Courtesy of Walker Art Center.
CN I find it promising that those who are leading the way with music have decided that that word is not describing itself. It’s describing something historical perhaps, or an outmoded way of thinking, but it really refers to something that just is. Life itself is a constant negotiation between environments and entities, histories and ideas—a constantly reshaping improvisation. It’s fascinating how this evolutionary ontology is condensed into music.
I found myself drawn again to listen to Avenging Angel. I love that album.
CT Oh, thank you.
CN It’s one of my favorites.
Since we were talking about words—the use of them, their lack of use—I find it interesting the way the songs were titled and the prophetic constellations that they created.
CT I name the pieces after they are finished and in consideration of their programmatic position—in a way, the titling is the final stage of composition. And I intend the titles as invitations to extend the musical experience into other areas. But I would say that the works all have other, more secret titles: I often begin an improvisation with a word or phrase I say to myself to stimulate my imagination. The word is enacted or energized by the playing of the piece. It is a way in. And I think the titles used on the album are intended to do a similar work for the audience at the other end of the process.
CN The album embodies a holistic view with a single instrument. It’s quite profound in its ability to transgress time, space, and notions of this structural/non-structural tone that we’ve been discussing. Cecil Taylor’s “psycho-spiritual” symbolic system is somehow at play there as well.
CT Yeah. I think particularly the pedagogy of music in total—not even worrying about the vagaries of jazz or classical—still exists in this phenomenological state where it comes out of, as you were saying earlier, this notion of the object. That there’s this ideal thing, and that there’s a right way to do it. But ultimately being an improviser means that you are continually generating other things; you’re not moving toward anything absolute. You’re basically just seeking the condition to engage and do more—to live more. There is no end to it. I think in all of this, what is really being addressed is more how we as humans—as this complex macro-organism, this interactive system—engage with our environment.
I was thinking about this in terms of gaming recently. The online video game universe is about this notion of freedom, where you organize your engagement the way you want at any given time. That is basically a proxy for the improvisational experience in music. I want an open world experience with more options, more places to go and ways to do things. That’s what Ornette Coleman was seeking in terms of extending the received language of Charlie Parker. By introducing the possibility of not just extending the harmonic language of a tune, his move to liberating form was less about jettisoning structure and more about allowing the possibility for it to be reinterpreted in the moment based on need and desire.
CN So as the world is reacting to the pandemic, has any of this affected your own process or influenced your approach?
CT Well I was supposed to be touring now, but being grounded at home has created the space, much needed, to work on a couple of commissioned projects—an album of electronic music with my Junk Magic group and an orchestral work due in 2022. At this stage of development with both these projects I am seeking structure and reediting those structures so that I can find a form to the pieces. But as we have been discussing, the condition I am most comfortable with—and which is made even more poignant now—is that of continual change and the need to adapt to that change. So with the electronic pieces, I have been continually remixing them because I want some level of change, even in how they are being realized for a recording. And I think the orchestral work is going to take on this same quality, which is a technical challenge but one I am excited to encounter and see how far these things can be pushed. The question will be how to create systems within the pieces for the orchestra to improvise or be improvised upon without subverting the strengths of traditional orchestral process, which will mean everyone involved stepping out of their comfort zone to deal with new contexts.
So back to the notion of systems, with the pandemic, we see how the systems are being rejiggered almost daily to meet the needs of people and communities. In the course of a few weeks I’ve seen new cultural norms and rituals develop. At 7 PM every evening there’s the salute to the healthcare workers, with banging pots and cheering. I know that started in Italy, but I’m living it here in New York. In the last two weeks, it’s grown to people putting amplifiers in their windows and playing the guitar. It’s sort of a spontaneous act. I’ve been recording the audio every night because it creates this incredible sound. And it’s a fixed thing; it lasts five to ten minutes, these sort of improvisational symphonies. People playing stereo, singing songs, doing dances. That ritual has been going on for some time now. And you see how people say, “Oh, I know what I’ll do tomorrow,” or “Oh, I have a new idea! I’m going to do it this way.”
CN The 7 PM ritual is a grounding anchor, something people can anticipate as a moment of positivity each day. I’m happy that in these hard times we create the possibility to engage one another with such a simple, instinctive ritual. It’s a beautiful and meaningful acknowledgment of shared experience through the sonic.