Corbett at Groove Yard Records, Oakland, California, 2016. All images courtesy of the artist.
I signed on as a John Corbett admirer for life around twenty years ago after burning through his crucial compendium of essays titled Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein. At the time—and even now, albeit to a lesser degree—there were so few books dealing with free, improvised, and experimental music that this collection became an instant classic for its deep insight and astute analysis of some of the most supposedly difficult music around. An invaluable critic, long-time teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and co-proprietor of art gallery/publisher/record label Corbett vs. Dempsey, the man definitely knows how to keep busy. Our conversation occurred shortly after the late 2015 release of his essential new anthology Microgroove: Forays Into Other Music (Duke University Press). This new book is a must for fans of out music. For those who don’t know how or where to start, his forthcoming volume A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation (available this February) will be a perfect point of departure.
Andrew Lampert Preparing for our conversation I wrote down some thoughts, including this humdinger: “Just as an improvising musician strives to create new and different arrangements of notes and sounds in their conceptual, physical, and emotional reactions to the moment, so too must a critic of improvised music find ways to describe and assess this ephemeral form of musical composition and performance.” How do you maintain a style without falling into repetitions, particularly when writing about music that is often intangible or hard to address?
John Corbett I’ve come to a place in my life as a critic and writer where I’m less worried about the fact that writing about improvisation is different from improvising itself. There’s a little paradox in it, which is that as soon as you start to write about such music it’s like recording it—you take it from its ephemeral and contingent life and turn it into something inscribed, therefore making it into something not improvised anymore. Bringing that paradox to the surface was once a great concern to me, but I’m not worried about it now because I recognize they’re just different activities. I am interested in having some of that quality of quickness and agility of thought I’ve come to appreciate in great improvisers, and I think that’s also a part of the arsenal of writers I adore.
I think when you get deeply into the process of writing about, thinking about, and playing improvised music you realize repetition isn’t necessarily the enemy. Repetition is one strategy among many. Rote repetition, like playing a score the same way multiple times, is obviously not what improvising is about. But it’s not out of bounds to repeat—the idea of constant, total self-reinvention is an unrealistic ideal. There are certain syntaxes a player might tap into, even stylistic moves, and those aren’t necessarily anathema.
AL Right, it’s not a bad thing to have a—well, what would you call it?—a voice that comes through. I mean, I would know Derek Bailey from a thousand miles away. Writing is essentially different though, because it allows for revision. Something that comes about in an improvised moment can’t be dismantled and altered in subsequent drafts. When it comes to recordings of improvised music however, they are pretty much straight documentation. Some musicians will use a recording as the first step toward making new constructions, but often when we’re listening to, say, Peter Brötzmann records or whatnot, it’s like a document of the evening as it happened during a concert.
JC You could say that the first time you listen to a piece of recorded improvised music maybe it retains the same qualities it had when it was improvised. The second time, I think it no longer has that same feeling. The one thing that’s not there, once it’s recorded, is the notion of contingency as a shared experience of being in the moment of whatever is happening. And I think that’s significant. It’s a kind of phenomenological thing; it has to do with that notion of experience, a sense that the player and the listener are locked together in an instantaneousness.
AL Oh yeah. It’s also true that something which seems completely abrasive or hard to enter will often, with repeated listening, reveal formal structures that weren’t apparent the first time around. It’s similar in some ways to experimental film. For instance, there are certain films where everything totally washes over you. It’s an experience that you can’t quite rationalize, but then with each re-watching you pick up a lot of different moments of continuity, or fracture, or whatever, that constitute an overall structure, even if it was freely improvised in production. There are moments that give you a sense of direction.
JC I studied film as an undergrad with Mary Anne Doane and Michael Silverman at Brown University. Silverman’s Intro to Semiotics was a mind-bending class. We watched a lot of films, but we saw them all twice. He had this specific regimen for the way that you were supposed to watch, which I continue to think about whenever I’m dealing with recorded media of any sort. Let yourself be taken by it the first time through; let it do what it wants to you. But the second time, try to figure out how it did that. That second pass allows for figuring out structure, what strategies are at play, what kinds of materials are being used, how editing functions, etc.
I think the interesting thing about listening to live improvised music is that you don’t have recourse to a second pass, so as a listener you have to be listening and completely in the moment. But if you’re trying to do it analytically at all you need to have a second mind, which is sitting there trying to figure out: Okay, how does this version of what Evan Parker is doing relate to all the other versions that I’ve heard before? How does it relate to the other people he’s playing with in this concert? How is it influenced by them? How is he influencing them? How is it anticipating the way the piece might end? How is it relating to the way the piece started?
AL There were so many years during my twenties where I was going to concerts four nights a week and hearing improvised music daily. As an audience member, I was mentally right there on a high-wire act along with the performers. It got to a point where I reached a fatigue with certain artists—who were all fantastic, but overly familiar. I had to walk away. I don’t need to see or hear them anymore. With improvised music, I’ve always found that it’s draining for me as a listener, in the most positive way, because of that investment you’re talking about.
JC I think the myth that valiant improvisers come out and completely reinvent themselves from the ground up every night is a destructive myth. It’s a terrible falsehood. There are little things that are being continuously attended to and varied. But sometimes even great improvisers fall into routines and have a hard time playing themselves out of those patterns. I remember the first few times I saw Peter Brötzmann and Han Bennink play. I actually booked them as a duet. That was 1985, and then I travelled to see them play in New York on that same tour, two days later. Han had some identical routines in both settings, like comedy routines. At the time, I remember being very disappointed that he was using some of the same gags. Then later I realized it really has to do with how he uses the gags, and when, and what they’re there to do. The same gag can be used as a banal moment in the middle of an improvisation, and then it can be used as the crowning climax of another. Great improvisers will sometimes take similar material and use it in a surprising way. That said, I’ve seen other improvisers who just have a bag of tricks that they drag out. I find that to be more like a circus show.
AL Just spectacle after spectacle—
JC Yeah, little spectacles of what amazing thing this person has figured out to do.
AL But when improvised music hits a high level there’s a form of theater to it. I mean, the most memorable show I ever saw of Han and Misha [Mengelberg] was not musically the best. They were second on a double bill with Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron at Lincoln Center in this bizarre room upstairs above Julliard. Everyone sat at tables. Misha began by dabbling on the piano, never committing to any little motif or direction. Han was playing a pizza box, which I’d seen him do before, but then he got up and started playing the windows overlooking scenic New Jersey. I had seen him play a wall before, so this was a nice variation. He returned to his pizza box and they continued to ignore each other. All of a sudden Han violently kicked the box, and it went flying into the head of a seventy-something-year-old man. The breath went out of the room, Misha stopped playing and Han leapt over to check that the guy was alive. He grabbed a bottle of Perrier and poured the poor guy a drink then sat next to him laughing and babbling in some sort of nonsense language before eventually heading over to the drum kit. Then for the next ten minutes, he and Misha played this very sublime, very fiery piece.
As enthralling as it was to see live, the set would make a horrible record. It was a fantastic concert, it was as real and live and unexpected as anything I’ve ever experienced. It makes me think about how the recorded document often fails, or is lackluster. I mean there are a lot of improvised music records where I go: What is going on here?
JC There’s this segment of the interview that I did with Misha inMicrogroove, where he’s talking a little bit about free jazz and basically suggests that it just goes on too long. I said to him, “So maybe you think that music would have been good for singles rather than for LPs?” And he said, “Definitely, it was singles music.” And then he describes what his superior version of the Ornette Coleman double quartet record Free Jazz would have been: a record where you put it on and there’s nothing going on. And once you listen to it for five minutes you think, “Maybe there’s nothing on this record,” so you move ahead and then suddenly you hear music and say, “Oh! There is something on this record!” Then there’s another long segment where there isn’t anything. And what he’s describing is basically an ICP record [Instant Composer’s Pool, Mengelberg’s malleable group and record label, with Bennink], where there might be something really juicy, and then there might be these totally dead passages. I think it comes out of the same impetus that made him sympathetic to the Fluxus movement, in which art is some kind of deep questioning—a super-question-mark. Like, is there anything here? Maybe not, maybe there isn’t anything worthwhile, but maybe that’s good. Maybe something really contrary in spirit to the idea that every production ought to give you maximum value and high-caloric quality. It’s so against consumerist ideology to make a record that has a lot of diddling around on it. I appreciate that, somehow.
There’s something really counterintuitive about listening to a record where you expect that they put all this energy into making it—it’s hard to make a record, it’s not an easy thing, CDs are much easier to make—and the LP has these little sounds, you can’t tell whether they’re part of the noise from the record or noise from the people in the audience during the recording, or actually someone on stage doing something. There’s something really evil about that that I like. (laughter)
AL Evil’s a good word for it.
JC It doesn’t take the relationship between the producer and the consumer as a static concept. It sort of forces that relationship back onto itself.
AL Sure. CDs are easier in many regards, but still sometimes very difficult. They allow for the opportunity to have one eighty-minute-long track. They may be mesmerizing objects, but they are still often hard to engage with unless you fully give yourself over to them. I mean, I can’t imagine going into Weavers, the LP by Paul Lovens and Günter Christmann that you write about, and just dropping the needle in the middle. To engage with it is a real commitment, which is what I like about the crossover between the live show that you go to and just being alone in your living room. When listening to the record you still have to fully participate and give yourself over to the experience.
Seriagraph offset print of Sun Ra’s When Sun Comes Out, originally released by Saturn Records in 1963.
JC That’s totally true; that is absolutely accurate. For the most part, improvised music on record is of very little use as something to listen to unless you’re paying attention to it. It just aggravates everybody around you if it’s on in the background. I used to listen to Anthony Braxton records while I was cleaning my room. I’m able to do that. I don’t know what it is—some aspect of how I’m wired. I like the idea of just changing the atmosphere a little bit and even having it on quietly in the background and letting it do something to the room. But it’s interesting how, if you’re not paying attention, you get much less from it… and it may actually make things worse.
AL It’s hard to get things done when you play that music. One of my problems with getting older is that I rarely have the time to lounge in a chair and listen for fifty minutes or so to an album in full. Although giving yourself over to the music feels very much to me like watching a film in the theater versus watching at home on Netflix. I will watch a film at home over four or five nights, and any time I have to go to the bathroom I pause it. But when I go to the theater I hold it in. It’s that level of commitment that I like the work to arouse within me.
JC There’s the post-Fordist economy—that idea of having swing shifts and a much more flexible sense of how the workweek functions, and how entertainment interfaces with that. Of course then you give things up: your benefits, all sorts of things, important things. You can’t unionize. But even forgetting the political dimension, there’s something to be said for really subjecting yourself, allowing yourself to be taken over for a longer period of time. That notion of disciplining yourself to go see a concert: you sit down, you can’t leave, and if you get up to go to the bathroom you’re going to miss something. And that’s fine, that’s part of life.
AL So, I now listen to music with Spotify. It’s very convenient, but also completely context-free. There is an album title, but sometimes it’s perplexing because certain recordings are reissued under a thousand different confusing names, and the year they cite doesn’t line up with when it first came out or some such confusion. As a critic and liner-note writer, what do you think about context-free delivery of music? What do you think about the loss of the physical package?
Sun Ra’s Other Planes of There, originally released by Saturn Records in 1966.
JC Well, I mean, I recognize my own bias—I’m a material culture person. And I’m a record fanatic. I get a lot of information about the music not only from how it sounds or what’s written on the package, but how it’s designed, how many editions there are of it, what the various editions are, what I can glean about the relationship between the artist and the company that made it or the company that reissued it, all of those kinds of things. As a listener, you lose vital, even subliminal information about that stuff when it becomes part of a huge cloud of information that ends up getting dispersed willy-nilly or on the analysis of some kind of algorithm that says: “Oh, this person likes this, so they might like this.” And now we have access to non-linear searches—which is great, very helpful in a lot of ways, but you don’t have any way of getting back full contextual information. The big disappointment is that these machines are powerful and contain all sorts of information that would allow you to do just that. But when you have context-free music with no lifeline back to information that would give you a richer sense of where it came from, basic discographic info, what it is, who plays on it…
I wonder if we aren’t raising subsequent generations of people who won’t even know that those kinds of questions are questions to be asked. You have to be taught that you want to know about context; it’s really not necessarily a part of natural curiosity. I don’t use Pandora or Spotify, largely because—though I’m sure I would get interesting things out of them—I just find I’m much more interested in the small amount of thought that is required for me to say: “Okay, I’m gonna be in my car between here and work, I want to have something interesting to listen to, what am I gonna bring?” Discovering stuff in my own collection has made me stop collecting, really.
Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Urban Bushman, originally released by ECM Records in 1980. Cover image by Emilio Cruz.
AL Oh, tell me about that.
JC Well, I have a better record store in my own collection than almost any record store I can go into these days.
AL You said something in the book about that which resonates with me. I used to have a want list, but then I more or less found everything on it. And now I only want what I don’t know. And at the same time, truth be told, what I don’t know are half the things I already own.
JC I go looking now and then, but I get my real record collector jollies by talking to my friends who are rabid record collectors, like Mats Gustafsson. Just to emphasize: I’m not a record snob. I don’t really care if it’s vinyl or CD. The music is the most important thing to me, so if I can get it I’m happy. I’m not a vinyl purist.
One of the things that we’ve discovered as music fanatics in this period—and that the industry has figured it out too—is that they can sell you music multiple times. So the idea is that you think, “Oh, I have the LP but I need the CD that has extra tracks,” or “I’m gonna download this on my computer, but now I don’t have a disc drive anymore and it’s a pain in the ass to plug my external drive in. Well fuck it, I’ll pay ten dollars and just get another copy.” And so you end up buying it again. That was a punk rock and New Wave phenomenon that always irritated the crap out of me. I was buying all this post-punk vinyl, and if you were really dedicated you would buy all these singles and they would have an otherwise unreleased B-side. And then, if it was the band XTC, they’d make a B-sides record. Then all of the precious goodies that you had exclusively collected would be available again.
AL Also you were purchasing the identity of being a fan. To be a fan of the band means having all the 7-inches and the extra $14.95 compilation, whether it is because they’ve included one extra track or a photo booklet. It seems to me that in the digital era these analog, physical objects function more like yearbooks in a way. They are our nostalgia, our time-travel machines.
JC Well they’re there as totems of your faith. Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, which is my favorite record of all time, came out in so many different formats—you can get the original silkscreen version, black and white, you can get a red and blue version, you can get white on black version. I find that really interesting from a material culture standpoint—all the different kinds of paper they were printed on, all of that. To me that’s as interesting as collecting Warhol.
AL Yeah, well that brings us to your role as a gallerist. When I think about the connection between music and visual culture I feel like my early experience with record covers like Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica or Remain in Light by the Talking Heads helped prepare me for how to see. Did your affinity with visual and contemporary art always inform your listening over the years? Or do you think they developed on separate tracks?
JC I think they evolved in tandem. I was fortunate to have been turned on to visual art as a young person in a really open way. My father sat me down in front of a Dürer and a de Kooning at the same museum and said, “You may like one of these better than the other one, but they’re both by great artists.” And that set me off without the kind of bias that I think a lot of people have to work their way through—you know, that modern art is bullshit or whatever. But it helped me, also, probably in my listening, and I was interested in these things from an early age. Then I was lucky to hang around with people for whom all kinds of cultural activities were part of the same tapestry.
I was already booking concerts as an undergrad. When I went to graduate school in Chicago, one of my close friends was Ben Portis, who’s a curator in Canada now. He was working at the Renaissance Society, and I began organizing concerts there, so it became totally natural for me to have music and contemporary art together. I’d been teaching at the School of the Art Institute since 1988, then in the beginning of the 2000s I found myself thinking about moving out of booking music. At that same time, I started to become obsessed with what was going on in Chicago from a visual arts standpoint, asking myself why I knew so little about it. My friend Jim Dempsey and I started a conversation that turned into Corbett vs. Dempsey Gallery. We opened in 2004 and that was it—we were off to the races. What was funny is I really thought at that point: Well, this probably means I’ll be leaving a lot of the musical stuff I was doing behind. I didn’t know how I would reconcile it. I knew it wouldn’t eliminate my interest in music, but I thought maybe my engagement from an organizing standpoint would be largely over. And that has not proved to be true at all; as a matter of fact, it’s just shifted around how I’m doing it. I’m writing a lot about music these days, and we have a record label at the gallery…
AL I have a couple of them, and they’re great. The new ones you’re putting out are superb.
JC Thanks. It feels like those things are just congealing in a way that makes sense. When I was putting Microgroove together it became clear that some of the things I’d written that dealt with visual artists were connected enough with the rest of the book to make sense there. I included interviews with Albert Oehlen, essays I had written on Christopher Wool, essays on the visual art associated with Sun Ra’s record covers, and on Peter Brötzmann’s graphic work. It made sense to tie those things together in the book.
AL As a “former” record collector, how do you make a divide between being gallerist, collector, and curator?
JC You can buy many records for what it costs to acquire one small work of art. I just bought the Emilio Cruz painting used on the cover of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Urban Bushmenfor roughly what it would take to buy 1000 copies of the double LP. So, in a way, it takes less of my time to collect. It’s a different kind of feeling too, to be collecting things that are unique rather than things that are made in multiple or even mass editions. It comes with the responsibility to care for those objects, to make sure that they’re in an environment that isn’t detrimental to their longevity, those kinds of things. I think any time that you’re collecting art, if you take what you do seriously, you are acting as a shepherd for the work. You’re going to take care of it until it goes somewhere else. That may not be true of records. I mean, Jim Newman’s certifiably insane record collection went to Oberlin, so there are exceptions. For me, records are still usable objects. When I DJ, I’m not super fastidious—there might be a few records in my collection that I won’t bring to DJ with, but I’ll bring really valuable records and use them just as I would normal everyday records. They’re there to be listened to, they’re there to be put to use. Maybe that’s foolish of me, but I’m that kind of fool. I’m a collector anyway—to answer your question directly—I’m wired to be a collector, and the impulse to collect comes from the same place no matter what. I collected butterflies when I was a kid. Frogs, turtles, stamps, and baseball cards. Then records, then art. I think collecting drives the curation somehow, and also being a gallerist, which allows me to live vicariously through the collecting of others.
AL I remember hanging out with Jim O’Rourke as he was packing to move to Japan. He was selling his records and only saved like a tiny percent. I said, “What are you going to do? You’re not going to have these anymore.” And he said, “Oh, I can always buy them again.” And that always hung in my head as being such a perverse statement because the types of records that he had are what you spend a lifetime trying to find. You can’t really go out and buy them again. It was a cleaning of house, sure, but also a soul-cleaning at the same time. And whether it’s art or records we carry them with us as totems, as pieces that, even if they’re mass-produced, are special because we own them. It’s not retraceable, which I find so fascinating about collecting anything, the self-identification and the notion that, yeah, it can be passed on, but you’ll never get it back.
JC Collectors—we’re an odd kind of group, right? I think there’s a love-hate relationship that most collectors have with their collections because if they’re of any size and scale and weight the collections become an albatross. They’re a burden, they’re a joy—those contradictory aspects make the whole process of collecting a strange activity, and the people who do it are often complicated in their motives… I sold about fifteen punk singles when I was in high school. I always regretted it and even bring it up now regretfully. I basically never sold records since then.
AL I once needed money and sold my copy of School by Eugene Chadbourne and John Zorn. I shouldn’t have done that. I still think about it maybe twice a year. I consider buying it on eBay or Discogs, just because it represents this gap in my life—a mistake I made.
JC The records I don’t listen to are as important as the ones I do. They make up the library. At a public library you’re not constantly reading all of those books, but they’re there for you to be able to refer to, to show you the expanse of what has been done. Toward the end of assembling Microgroove, I wrote a chapter called “27 Enthusiasms” about the ways in which listening is a social activity. For me, it’s always been about show and tell. The notion of presenting something that will delight or provoke—that whole process is so central to my preferred listening situations. That’s why singles are so great because they’re really something you can just whip out and put on. You can easily have a half-hour listening session with someone where you play a few singles, sitting and talking about them. That’s as rewarding as a five-hour LP/CD blowout with people early into the morning. And I love that, too. Four people in a semi-circle listening together. Even the act of passing the cover around—that’s such an iconic image of the kind of socializing I thrive on.
AL I think about this again vis-à-vis Spotify because my daughter’s now three and we have a list on Spotify for her. If she likes a song we put it on the list, and every time a song comes up she always wants to see the picture even though it’s a little thumbnail. It’s still so important for her to see a picture with this music, to have additional information. I wish there were two sides to that picture; you can’t go to the back cover or inner sleeve. But there’s still that image-sound identification or the object identification that represents a complete experience with music.
JC Totally. It’s been foundational. Ultimately live music is the highest priority for me, but it’s also the hardest thing for me to attend. It’s almost like a different species of engagement. Music isn’t the same thing in those two realms. Since I do so much more listening on record than I do in concert, I always feel a little hypocritical when I say that live music is the priority for me, but it is. The most profound experiences I’ve had have been in person.
AL There is also stress that comes with being involved with the thing you love. You’ve programmed so much music over the years, and I’ve done the same in the area of film. In the case of live music the artist is always there. It’s one thing to program a Jean Renoir retrospective because you know he’s not coming. But to have the filmmaker there night after night, and to have to rely—like a musician has to rely on the quality of a PA or the acoustics of the room—on equipment, the particularities of a space, or any other factor can be overwhelming. The stress of that can just make you want to never look at film again, or listen to music again. It’s such a sacrifice—not a martyrdom but a sacrifice—for that which you love most.
JC Yeah, definitely. It would be like four o’clock in the morning, three nights a week at a club. My first thought of the day: “I wonder if the drum kit will be there.” And the last thought of the night, as I’m doling out the money, would be: “I wish more people had been here.” And in between would be usually about ten pints of beer or five or six whiskeys or some combination thereof, and I just began to realize that this is bad for me. I can’t take this much more, this level of stress, this level of concentration on the aspects of the music that are not the most important to me. I can’t do it. I have to get out of this part of the “business.” I booked JazzFest Berlin, which was about the top of what you could do at that point in my world, and I didn’t make enough money doing that to support myself.
AL You’re talking to an archivist who has preserved experimental films for seventeen years. I know what you mean. Being told, “Well, oh, you’re at the top of your field.” It’s like, “This is the top of my field? Oh my god.”
JC Yeah, I thought I’d crashed through the glass ceiling and I was still flying way too low.
AL I guess that’s the price to pay for being devoted to the, not only not-for-profit, but the no profit sector. The audience is very specific, the art or music is rather niche, and as devoted as you are, the likelihood of it gaining a status through your contributions beyond an extra ten people is pretty slim. (laughter)
JC Presenting improvised music or preserving experimental film, the one thing we can say is at least we’re not publishing chapbook poetry. There is at least one thing you can do that is even harder and has a smaller built-in audience. But the number of people in an audience doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of what’s going on. It’s not a badge of honor that there are few people, and it’s also not a mark of the devil.
AL No, it’s not a mark of anything.
JC Not long ago, I organized a concert for Glenn Kotche at the De Menil in Houston and it was packed. We had 350 people in the atrium of the museum and here he was playing a John Zorn piece that consisted of rice on the floor in upturned drumheads with little motorized cars running around them. Three hundred and fifty people totally rapt.