In Flow: Peter Evans Interviewed by Sam Weinberg

The improvisor and composer contemplates polyphonic pathways and reaching past the self.

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Peter Evans. Photo by Peter Gannushkin. Image courtesy of the artist

My first encounter with Peter Evans’s music, while in college, was similar to many sympathetically inclined listeners: completely aghast, bewildered, floored, inspired. Since then, I have fortunately come to know Peter well; we’ve split a number of bills and shared stories over countless drinks. In these conversations, I’ve always been struck by Peter’s continued seriousness about his work; his practice has no space for frivolity. His fifth and most recent solo record, The Veil (2018), captures him at peak capacity, completely in control of the polyphonic possibilities that smash our conception of human and sonic limits.

—Sam Weinberg

Sam WeinbergListening again to your solo catalog, I’m struck by your commitment to a fairly singular identity. I hear a process of refinement from More is More (2006) on through to The Veil. Along this progression what always sticks out to me are the cyclical, repetitious motives you have a brilliant way of introducing, recombining, and deconstructing. How do you think about motivic development in your work?

Peter EvansI see how in the solo projects my interests and concerns are evolving on a steady track this whole time, but it’s hard to analyze oneself on that level. The way I conceive of my compositional process—how I prepare and how I juggle the materials—has changed so much over the years. Around the time I made Lifeblood (2016), I was thinking a lot about how to make a more refined, complex type of unfolding texture; eventually it led me to this idea of having certain elements more or less fixed, while others would stay highly unpredictable. I thought an outside listener would be able to get into more of the details of the music if the macroscopic picture was somehow consistent. For example, the opening of Lifeblood’s title track is a twelve-note chromatic mode that repeats at the second octave. Within that environment, a lot can happen. There are mirror images of the same melodic fragment in different keys that I can toggle between, as long as each note remains in the same place. The more I’ve been diving down this path the more interested I am in the idea of not creating things but rather creating things that create. I practice certain musical environments that lend themselves to malleability, multiplication, variation, even self-destruction. Then in performance, I  simply set it in motion and let things happen. The surface result feels like a saturated, endless variation—something I personally love in art, and life in general.

When I made More is More I was thinking of creating formless mosaics of sounds; it wasn’t about motion or variation. After a few years of solo concerts in the vein of More is More, I thought that I should challenge myself to create concert-length pieces. Over the years there has been a lot of change. There is a lot of chicken-and-egg thinking in this process; it’s usually inaccurate to say: “I had such-and-such an idea and then preceded to implement it.” It’s more mysterious, murkier. The creative process blows this way and that, and one has to learn to go with or against the wind.

SWDo you know which cells you’re going to use in a given piece beforehand? In what way are those elements fixed, and how does their fixity give way to this flow state?

PELast year I got into Ivan Illich’s writing in Deschooling Society. I’ve been obsessed with a whole crew of twentieth-century, multi-disciplinary humanists. It’s a type of thought that seems out of fashion these days, but it really resonates with me. Illich’s book has an exegesis of the story of Epimetheus and Pandora in which he contrasts hope with expectation, equating the latter with Prometheus, the dominating nature of industrial capitalism, and the former with a spirit of openness and cooperation. I’ve been extending this dichotomy to creativity and life in general. I try to not enter an improvisation with the expectation that some certain thing will happen. From my experiences as a soloist, sideman, and bandleader, I’ve seen how destructive and unmusical that attitude can be. These generative materials are great precisely because they don’t quite lend themselves to a particular outcome. I can hope that certain things might happen and that I will be guided to interesting places, but that’s all. Only recently have I been able to articulate the process of preparation and performance like this. The more I read about “flow state” in religion, art, and philosophy, the more I see how remarkably different folks articulate it in very similar ways: intense preparation paradoxically allows one to forget about the preparation and exist in the moment, to let things happen as they should.

SWIn this flow you don’t lose yourself but instead somehow multiply; I find this polyphony really thrilling. Do you find that the more external elements (the microphone, the trumpet) engage in this multiplying and polyphonic development?

PEThe halo of sound that amplification provides certainly enhances the polyphonic possibilities. There is a feedback loop between the idea of becoming “multiple” and the idea of getting into a flow—Inayat Khan writes of something similar when he argues that self-annihilation is the act of passing through the self, not its destruction. For me to pass through the sensation of “I am doing this,” I have to find a way of playing where “I” goes away and becomes a jumbled “we.” In De Motu the saxophonist Evan Parker likens this to juggling. From the opposite angle: the Amadinda music of Uganda creates the sensation of a single entity made of several (usually three) performers interlocking and working together, playing at such a fast clip that the separate parts dissolve into one. These are all influences for me.

SWDo you see this type of thinking and preparation show its face in ensemble settings? I’m thinking specifically in terms of your writing for the Septet [Ron Stabinsky, Sam Pluta, Tom Blancarte, Jim Black, Mazz Swift, and Levy Lorenzo]. Are the compositions you write for others similarly generative?

 

PEYes. This process-focused thinking has helped me clarify my role as a composer as well. I’ve certainly done my time in “New Music” settings, and still do. But in terms of a template for creativity, the European-based composer-presents-his/her-composition-to-a-group-and-they-play-it aesthetic really doesn’t resonate with me as an artist. It doesn’t feel alive enough. I’ve tried my hand at it a few times, even successfully once or twice–I was happy with my piece for Yarn/Wire where I was told by people that it sounded like me—but currently, it fails to scratch my creative itch.

Back in 2015 I was lucky enough have the guitarist and singer Jean-Paul Bourelly join my band as a guest for a few gigs in Europe. After the shows were done, he heard my solo music and basically said: “Why don’t you get your bands to play that stuff?!”. After that I took a turn in my writing towards the fundamentals, giving musicians the bare minimum except in the rare circumstance when more is required. Sam Pluta has been grappling with a similar conflict; he’s a trained composer for the concert hall who also has his own language as an improviser. He uses the phrase “gradations of notation” to describe this idea of fixity rising only from necessity. If something needs to be written out—that is, if that will make the music come to life and make the players feel good—then write it out. Otherwise, let it be. And there is a huge range within that. Anthony Braxton, a major influence, is a great example of someone who could confront that full range. The same can be said for his peers in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

SWI want to talk about the dedications on The Veil and Lifeblood. How do they function for you? Similarly, your cover of Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge” on The Veil: It’s so thoroughly subsumed in your sonic language that one might not even realize that it’s “Inner Urge” until the end. What does highlighting this relationship between your work and the work of others do for you in the context of these records?

PEEvery track title on The Veil is directly linked to a musical approach, including the dedications. This is something new for me. For instance, I prepared a specific vocabulary for “Homo Ludens” that could reflect the synthesis of cellular recombination and ecstatic energy one hears in Cecil Taylor. It’s a double dedication; the title is from Johan Huizinga’s 1938 book and also an homage to Taylor, whose life and work share something with Huizinga’s notion of “the man at play.” 

“Inner Urge” came about as I’d found myself, in recent years, often using those harmonies: bright, Lydian major chords moving in thirds, whole steps, and half steps. I had never learned “Inner Urge,” so I thought to myself that if I love these colors so much, I should just play the tune! I went to the trombonist David Taylor’s house and ran some of The Veil material by him. He told me a story about playing “Inner Urge” in the George Gruntz big band while Joe Henderson was doing a tour with them. David doesn’t really play changes and would play some weird shit on the tune every night, and he said Joe was always super cool about it. Taylor also said something similar, that I played the tune like my own music. I thought I played it pretty straight forward: improvise on the form and changes, then play the melody at the end. 

SWI want to hear your thoughts on resonance, as it’s something I’ve been increasingly sensitive to with my own work, and feels like one of the distinguishing production choices on The Veil. I’m curious where that sound started for you—playing in resonant spaces, the tendencies of microphones, or somewhere else entirely? When I hung with Evan Parker he was talking about his penchant for playing in chapels for prime resonance. 

PEThe sonic space of The Veil comes from a combination of mixing myself with the mic and Weasel Walter’s mastering sensibility; he mastered Lifeblood as well, and I really like what he did. I think it’s the extreme compression rather than the reverb which gives it that jarring quality. I’m trying to create a synthetic space for the music to live in, and I’m not concerned with realism. Far too many recordings of classical, jazz, and improvised music suffer from a lack of imagination when it comes to production and, in particular, the lack of compression.

When I did my residency at Issue Project Room in 2014, I often practiced  with the full mic and PA set-up, crazy lighting included. I also did invite-only solo concerts at the end of each day, usually to an audience of Kevin Reilly and one to five other people. It was a great period of development for me, and it’s also where I really cultivated that “scary” and larger-than-life aesthetic for the solo music. I try to keep an eye on contrast however: I practice at home with no amplification, and I do acoustic shows as often as I can. 

I played a show with Evan last month at a loft apartment in Porto, here in Portugal. It wasn’t very resonant. I think his solo soprano playing has become so refined and detailed that too much resonance might ruin it. I think you and I are both fans of his early album Saxophone Solos (1975) which is super dry. Six of One (1980) is the one that hooked me—the combination of the music and reverb bring to mind Renaissance vocal polyphony, this idea that music is “filling the space.” Incidentally, the opening track of The Veil has almost no reverb. That was Levy Lorenzo’s suggestion; when I played him the recording, he wondered if the interplay of the different voices would be accentuated if there was no carryover from note to note, that is, no reverb. I might try to push this further.

Peter Evans will perform with Levy Lorenzo at Roulette in New York on April 15. His latest album, The Veil, is available through Bandcamp.

Sam Weinberg is a saxophonist and composer living in Brooklyn, New York. He will perform May 3 with Sandy Ewen at the Windjammer in Ridgewood, Queens.

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