Interview in El Intrusio
Tell me about your family background.How did you get started? Who were your initial inspirations?
My parents are not musicians. I don't think anyone in my family is a musician, except my grandmother has a great appreciation for it. My brother played the drums and piano growing up, but doesn't any more. I don't have any memory of this, but my parents told me that when I was three, I started asking for a violin. I must of seen one on television or something. When I was 5, I was still asking for a violin. At that time, they asked me why I wanted one and I answered that I liked the sound. They thought that answer was respectable enough so mother began taking me for violin lessons. I remember having many teachers growing up and not totally settling in with any one of them. One passed away, we moved, I switched to viola when I was 13, etc.. There really wasn't anyone who stands out in my mind as having too much impact one me as an instrumental teacher. I started playing piano when I was 8. In high school, I had a piano teacher who was pretty strict, borderline mean. I responded well to her no-nonsense approach. I think she was probably the most productive teacher I studied with. Throughout Jr. High and High School, I played in County Orchestras and Baroque Orchestras. I really liked playing the instrument, and it was Classical and Baroque music and those performing situations that were presented to me. I didn't listen to this music much on my own however, except for Beethoven on occasion. I was raised on Classic Rock, at least that is what was always on in our home. There kind of always was a divide between what I was playing on my instrument and what I was listening to on my own.
How about your musical upbringing, why did you choose the viola?
When I was in 6th or 7th grade, I wanted to switch to the cello because I was attracted to the lower timbre. Viola obviously made more sense.
You've had all kinds of influences in your career, including jazz, soul, classical music and others. Why don't you talk a little bit about your history and how it all sort of comes together into what makes Jessica Pavone.
I was a very frustrated conservatory student in college. I decided to go to music school because I really wasn't very interested in school at all. Not going didn't seem like a good decision, so I thought if I went to music school, I'd be into college. I think at that point I thought that maybe I would play in an orchestra or something when I grew up. I think that I thought music school would be creative, and I'm sure in some places it is, but not where I was. As I became more immersed in "training to be an orchestral musician," I realized that not only did it bore me to tears, I didn't really identify with that role. The divide in my training and my interests was growing deeper. My school was very departmentally segregated. I wanted to check out other things like composition and jazz, but it didn't really seem possible given my strict curriculum. I don't think I had the confidence or spare time even back then to forge ahead and explore these things on my own. It was a very frustrating time for me and I was actually on the verge of quitting music until my last year of school when I met some musicians that were studying at Wesleyan with Braxton and I began making music with them. A whole new world opened up for me and I remember feeling like I found what I had been looking for... although, in reality, I'm not sure I really knew exactly what I was looking for... but, just knew that I was so much more stimulated by what was going on down there. I had the opportunity to experience, for a short while, the Liberal Arts approach to music, which in some ways is more healthy than the conservatory approach. I generally feel like since then, I am self taught. Sure, I received a solid foundation for technique and general music language, but since then I explore my interests on my own as they arise, and that sometimes changes over time. Around that time, just post college, I decided I wanted to write music, so I began experimenting with different ideas. I have been composing now for about 10 years, and I keep learning by doing it. As I grow older, what I want to write changes and how I want to write changes. I did go back to school recently and earned a Masters Degree in Composition, which in many ways was as equally disappointing as undergrad. I'm just not a school/organized education person. In more recent years, I have been learning by transcribing music. I think that is the best way to learn about music. Right now, I am mostly transcribing Otis Redding tunes and the solos from Ellington's Indigos, because that is what I am interested at the moment. A little while back, it was Hank Williams fiddle solos. By doing this, these languages assimilate into my language in their own unique way and broaden my personal vocabulary. I still take the occasional lesson, almost always in jazz. I didn't come up playing the jazz tradition, but feel like I identify with it and am mostly working with musicians from that tradition. It has been difficult starting to learn a new tradition this late but I am learning so much by trying. It is a really different way of thinking about music than how I was brought up to think about it, and I'd be curios to where I am at with it in 10 years. I also find that I learn so much by having really close friends who are musicians to discuss ideas with as well as going through the process of putting together a body of music and having a performance of it.
How would you describe your chosen profession as a musician, what is your drive?
My drive? That is hard to put into words. I feel like music, as well as life, is an eternal discipline. I think that my practice of music transfers into other practices in my life. I have a yoga practice, an exercise routine. I am a creature of habit. I like to do things consistently and see the progress that occurs over time. I revel in the realizations that come with the constantly of doing "things". The physical challenge of playing an instrument as well as the mental efforts. I like to decide on a project and watch it grow over a year or two, however long it takes, and and see it to completion. In some ways all music is a work in progress so completing a project may be just realizing it to a check point and putting it away and taking it out again in a few years. The process of creating music, or creating anything, really drives me. And of-course, playing a concert is great. It is like a mini reward for all of your hard work and effort. The profession of being a musician is an interesting one. I feel like I wear many hats, I am a composer and an instrumentalist. Within being an instrumentalist, I play 3 + instruments. I also teach private music lessons and spend a good deal of time "managing my career." I book most of my shows, get press out, organize rehearsals etc. No two days in any given week are the same. Some people think that because I work freelance, and don't go into a job every day, that I don't really work, but it is quite the opposite. I am pretty much working 7 days a week, and since I do much of the work from home, there really is no escape from it.
How did you meet Anthony Braxton?
I met Anthony in the time period that I spoke of earlier, when I was playing with musicians in Middletown towards the end of college. That was around 1998. I stuck around there until 2000, which is when I moved to NY.
So let's talk about Anthony Braxton, who I guess was a big influence on you. Now, frankly, a lot of listeners don't understand Braxton's music, can't relate to it. How do you explain the fact that his audience is usually restricted to fairly limited circles?
Well, there is a great deal of music out there that I don't seek out either. I've never gone to Madison Square Garden to hear a concert although millions have. I don't think there is really an answer to that except that people have different tastes. Some of the largest audiences I've performed for have been with Anthony Braxton. I understand what you mean about it not being top 40 radio, but nothing I am involved with is. That is the difference between art and entertainment.
I'd like to ask you about a couple of your experiences. You just described Anthony Braxton, so we'll continue chronologically. Taylor Ho Bynum, how'd you come into contact with him, and what'd you get from that experience?
Taylor and I were both hanging around in Middletown in '98. Well, he was a student there and I was hanging around. I believe we met and at least knew of each other, but hadn't worked together back then. In 2002, my boyfriend was attending the Graduate program at Wesleyan so I was back up there a bunch. Taylor was living back in Middletown at that time because he was in graduate school at Wesleyan as well. That is when we really got to know each other and I started working with him shortly after that. The first project of his I participated in of his was the SpiderMonkey Strings in '03. Shortly after, he moved to New York, and started putting together his sextet. When he first moved to New York, he was living in my old apartment, and I remember going over there to play with him. There is actually a funny connection in the Braxton septet. Mary, Chris, Taylor and I have all lived in the same apartment. Chris owned a house in Brooklyn before he moved to Berlin and rented rooms out to all three of us in pretty close succession, but never at the same time. Taylor and I are now both collaborating in the Thirteenth Assembly with Tomas Fugiwara and Mary Halvorson. We combined our two duos to form a group. We play four set concerts of our duo materials, Taylor's trio material, and as a quartet with us each contributing tunes to the band. Taylor is a force of nature. I have never known anyone who can take on so many things at once and pull through with flying colors. He never ceases to amaze me. I have been working in his bands for about five years now and we've been traveling all over the world together with Anthony for the past 3 years. We've been through quite a bit together, both musically and logistically. Touring, especially overseas, can lead you to some rather insane escapades.
About some of your collaborations: What was it like working with William Parker and Butch Morris?
Butch Morris was one of the first people I worked with when I moved to NYC in 2000. I played in some of his conduction orchestras that were being organized by the JUMP festival. It was a great thing for me to be involved with at the time. We made some good music and it was a fun. Having just moved to the city, I met a bunch of musicians that way. I've worked more recently with William and that has always been really great. I recorded the Alphaville Suite with him in '07, which consisted of his quartet and four string players, and performed and recorded Sunrise over Neptune with him at the Vision Festival in '07. There is something really organic about working with him. He is really laid back, generous and kind as a leader. Rehearsals were always at his home, in his living room. There was always tea and snacks around. I really dig his vibe. Playing music with him has always felt like a family affair.
Let's take a look at your schedule. You went to Portugal and Switzerland with Anthony Braxton. You went to Canada in December last year with Thirteenth Assembly and you will go to Belgium and Holland in April with the Taylor Ho Bynum Spider-monkey Strings, in May you will play in Germany and Austria and in August and you will do the same in Spain and Portugal, etc. How do you manage, organizing it all?
All of the gigs you mention here, I did not take part in the booking process. There were agents who organized everything so all I had/have to do is show up! Well, actually, The Thirteenth Assembly booked the December tour, but between the four of us, we each booked two gigs. But, yes, like I said earlier, I wear many hats and have a really disciplined and organized calendar that I mark up way in advance. For example, I know that for the Germany/Austria trip in May I will have to bring in a new tune for the Thirteenth Assembly and possibly a new one for the Mary and Jess duo, so I actually mark days in my calendar when I will write these pieces. It isn't the most organic way of being creative, but it is the only way I can get everything done. I also have to mark off weeks where I will spend more time practicing than writing, depending on what gigs are coming up, and vice versa.
You also lead and co-lead different bands. That requires lot of imagination, highly developed skills in conceptualizing and composition. How do you manage so many different musical personas?
I definitely have to focus more on one project rather than another based on what is coming up in my schedule. I have a wide range of musical interests, so over time, I am developing new projects that satisfy my curiosity about different music. For example, before I started working with The Pavones about three years ago, I hadn't transcribed a soul tune. Now, I do it all the time. It has integrated into the repertoire of my musical practice. I spoke earlier about how I schedule into my calendar when I am going to write for certain projects. If I am focusing on one thing at any given time, I need to let others go temporarily.
Let's talk about some of those projects. I think the best place to begin is your long association with Mary Halvorson.
I met Mary in the summer of 2002 when she first moved to NYC. That fall, I moved into the neighborhood where she was living and we became friends. As we were developing a friendship, we also developed a musical relationship. We were making dinner together at least three or four nights a week in that period and decided that it made sense to play music together as well. The first time that we played together, we each brought two or three little sketches to play. To both our surprise, we brought in almost the exact same sketches. I guess there was a strong sign from the start that we were kindred spirits. We continued to write these sketches and rehearsed together once a week. The rehearsals were always really casual. We'd make dinner, play music, then maybe rent a movie or something. Our music in many ways is just an extension of our friendship. We played in little clubs and bars in Brooklyn throughout 2003 about once a month. We were rather consistent. Weekly rehearsals and monthly gigs. The music has developed and changed over time and in some ways feels like the closest thing I have to a diary. Certain pieces of ours, remind me of different periods of my life, or of certain things that were going on at the time in our lives. We don't rehearse every week now, or live in the same neighborhood, but we still hang out all the time and rehearse when we have something coming up. We now also work in other projects together; Anthony Braxton's bands, Taylor Ho Bynum's Sextet and The Thirteenth Assembly.
I'm curious about how you are involved with Quotidian,...No Way to Say Goodbye and Imaginary Folk
In 2005, the chamber music collective, Till by Turning, asked me to write a piece for them. That was right around when I began my masters in composition, so I decided to use that time to create this piece. It is a suite in four movements and I composed one movement each semester. I began work on it in fall of 2005 and completed it in the spring of 2007. It wasn't the only thing I was working on at the time, which is part of the reason why composing it spanned almost two years. The concept for the piece stems from a belief that the shifting balance between light and dark, as well as other environmental changes constantly affect us regardless of how conscious or aware we are of them. Our external environment has a direct effect on our moods and feelings and therefore, in a sense, has ultimate control over all living beings. The four movements are; Hypnopompic, Post Meridiem, Weight of Dusk, and The Darkest Hour, and they examine four temporal landmarks that occur within each single day. Since the primer of Quotidian in May of 2007 at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, it was released by Peacock Recordings (www.peacock-recordings.com) and Till by Turning has continued to perform the piece, including a 3 day stint at different venues in Chicago in January of 2008.
Upon completion of Quotidian, I was most satisfied with the results of Post Meridiem, the "afternoon" piece. It was inspired by American folk song and composed to explore informal music played for oneself in the middle of the day in contrast to formal evening concerts. In addition to an interest in folk song's simplistic beauty, I believe that one's ability to accompany themselves in song is one of the more natural expressions of music. The form of Post Meridiem is that of a chorus/verse structure within a chorus/verse structure. Instead of alternating between the two, they meld and deconstruct into one another.
I decided that I wanted to continue writing string music based on these ideas and starting a regular working string band was going to be my approach, rather than following the model of being a composer writing for a group that is somewhat detached from its performance. I also wanted to create a body of music that could keep expanding, in the way a band expands its repertoire over time. So, I decided on the instrumentation of violin, viola, cello, and double bass, and I would be the violist. I felt that the addition of a double bass would give the music more flexibility - in that I could more easily draw from a folk music influence: create a bass line, use pizz.... against bowed strings, etc. The idea more being that I am writing "songs" for a "classical" ensemble. This is, in a way, not too different from what I do in my group with Mary.
Another tremendous influence on this group is Leonard Cohen, hence the name "...No Way to Say Goodbye," taken from a Cohen lyric. The title track from On and Off (with Mary Halvorson) is also a piece I wrote inspired by Cohen. On and Off was influenced more directly by his writing - I tried to arpeggiate the chords in that song the way he would on his guitar. In creating this body of work, Cohen's influence has less to do with wanting to sound like him or create songs in the way that he does, but more to do with this deep, unexplainable feeling I get from listening to his music. I feel like, in sense, he is giving me permission to live outside of this world. It is a hard feeling for me to explain in words, so I wanted to try to create that feeling in sound. I am also avoiding the use of traditional chorus/verse structures. While definitely borrowing from that formal idea more than the idea of composing a string quartet in sonata form, I am at the same time playing with different approaches to that form. As I continue composing for ...No Way to Say Goodbye, different influences and interests have been creeping into my writing as I inevitably change over time. Most recently, Beethoven has revisited me and my past winters addiction to Twin Peaks has Angelo Badalamanti visiting as well. I have completed about 8 pieces for ...No Way to Say Goodbye and plan to continue composing for it.
What was the concept behind the Walking sleeping breathing?
I began work on Walking, Sleeping, Breathing in the Winter of 2003-04. I was particularly lonely that winter so I decided that it made sense to compose some solo music. Walking was the first piece I wrote and upon its completion, I decided to write a collection of pieces that highlight functions essential for survival but easily taken for granted. To a certain extent, a great deal of my music is inspired by nature and the natural order of things, especially ones to which we have no control. These pieces and Quotidian are good examples of that.
The pieces are indeterminate in nature although composed to an extent. They are only meant for performance by the composer, me. Around that time, I was taking occasional lessons from Leroy Jenkins who lived a quick bike ride away. We were mostly studying solo music. I learned his solo pieces, I played these pieces for him and we also improvised together a bunch. In 2007, the Paris based label, Nowaki, expressed an interest in releasing something of mine, so I wrote breathing, which hadn't been completed up until then, to finish up the series. Breathing is the most indeterminate of the collection and uses effects pedals, which I hadn't owned until 2006.
What future projects do you have planned?
I plan to continue working with ...No Way to Say Goodbye. I'd like to write a few more pieces for that group and play more so that I get the performance level up. The pieces still feel like babies. Once they mature, I'd like to make an album and do some touring with that group. Mary and I are finishing up our 3rd record, and if all goes as planned, we will have a new release in early 2009. The Pavones are at a place where they are ready to record and I am going to start looking into that this summer. I've been really interested recently in transcribing some of Sun Ra's earlier big band music and think that what I learn from that may seep into my new writings for The Pavones. I want to spend a most of time this summer practicing, transcribing, and probably taking lessons. I composed a great deal of music since the fall and I need to take some time off from composing and focus on my other discipline, playing.
Why don't you talk about writing and the process of writing-I guess some of your tunes came from different places, different times, so just how you write, how often you write, etc. Are you a composer of habit or chaotic habit? When do you create your best work?
Yes, my tunes do come from some different places. I spoke earlier of my inspirations for ...No Way to Say goodbye, and that Quotidian and Walking, Sleeping, Breathing were inspired largely by nature - but the music I write for the Mary and Jess duo and the Pavones are not (inspired by nature). So, it depends on what I am writing for that particular day where I am drawing my inspiration. I would definitely consider myself a composer of habit. For example, when I was getting the music together for the first few ...No Way to Say Goodbye concerts, I would write a quartet a week. I then took a week break, and went back and spent a week making revisions. I did that twice. In the time around October and November of 2007, when I wrote the first four pieces, and the time around January and February of 2008, when I wrote the next four. I would start out on a Monday coming up with initial Ideas and sketches and that would usually take all day. A big part of composing for me is doing the dishes or taking a walk or a shower. I'd sit in my studio and try to come up with something, but quite often found that it was when I'd step away to take a break, for a shower or to mail a letter, that an idea would strike me. So, I get a ton of house cleaning done when I am at this stage. I actually have a song for ...No Way to Say Goodbye called Housework, inspired by just that. Reading Paul Auster Novels when I am in this period usually helps me as well. The main character is usually a writer and is often paralleling a similar universe, taking walks around Brooklyn while trying to come up with his inspiration for the page. It gives me a sense of camaraderie during a rather solitary task. Sometimes I'd get something written on Monday, but usually very little. I would almost feel stuck most of that time, but didn't realize that the piece was actually living inside me until Tuesday morning, when I'd wake up, and it usually came flowing out. Between Tuesday and Friday, I would craft the piece. If I work teaching lessons, it isn't until after 2pm or later, and that works out great for me, because I do my best creative work in the morning. I hardly if ever do anything creative at night. My brain doesn't function like that at night. When I began writing for The Pavones, I wanted create a situation where I was playing bass, because that was a skill that I wanted to develop. I started bass in high school, but never owned one, I always played the school bass. So after 1994, I didn't touch a bass again. In 2002, a bass player friend who was quitting, gave me his and I started up with it again. I also wanted to write for horns because I hadn't written much for them before and wanted to learn how. Initially, I was drawing from many different influences, but over the three years that I have been writing for the band, I have pretty much settled into my routine of exploring my fascination with Booker T and the MG's. I love how the songs are so simple, and what makes them sounds so good is the subtle ways the chords or notes are played and the clever ways in which the notes are placed in the music. A formula that I've been working with most recently with that band is transcribing the bass, guitar and some of the drum parts from certain songs, and then rewriting melodies for the horns and adding in solo's and things. The players that I chose to work with all have such individual voices and approaches that it doesn't end up sounding like a Stax cover band. The band will be playing an soul inspired ostinato and Peter Evans will be blowing his super human textural trumpet chops over it.
Let's talk about The Pavones. In this Project we can find all your influences but at the same time all the guys in the band are some of the new "voices" in the new creative music. Is hard to compatible that?
I love the players in this band! There have been many people to come through, but I've finally settled on a general line up of, Peter Evans, Matt Bauder, Michael Attias, Brandon Seabrook, and Harris Eisenstadt. I love how they all add their own personal style to the music. It would be so boring otherwise, if they just read the charts down the way I wrote them. The music is relatively simple and relies a great deal on feeling, which they all have so much of. Each of thier approaches to the music is really different from one another's which also makes it interesting. I chose these musicians for their skills, but also because they are all close friends of mine. I need to work with people who I feel a personal connection to. I've worked with most of them in other projects and hang out with them outside the band stand as well.
Do you feel more satisfied by creating a vision on your own or is it more important to you to have people around bringing their own ideas?
I am less of a fan of collaboration and more interested in leading a group, or being involved in group where someone else is leading and I function as a side man. If I have a vision for something, I most likely want to do it my way and know exactly what that is, or figure it out as I am enduring the process. In some ways to me, collaboration equals compromise and it isn't something I necessarily seek out. The two groups that I am involved in that are collaborations are the Mary and Jess duo and the Thirteenth Assembly. In both groups each person contributes thier own pieces to the band, the music is not written together. That works for me and is probably the closest I get to collaboration. Although it has been helpful to bring in a piece and get suggestions about it from the group, I find that in the end, I want the final decisions about my work to be made by me. I may change how I feel about this in the future, but don't really see any true collaborations in the immediate future.
Do you feel equally/less/more inventive and creative when you play a piece composed by someone else (a standard for example) than when you play your own compositions?
I love playing music composed by other people just as much as I love writing it myself. Playing someone else's music is such a learning experience. Its always interesting to me to see the way someone else approaches the composition process. I often find myself comparing the way they write to the way I write. In some ways, the more different it is than my writing, the more interesting. I'll think about how I would never write like that and it helps me to understand why I write the way I do. I do think as an interpreter of a music, you can still add a great deal of your personality and style to it.
Long debate has developed over the past century to decide whether music was a "mimetic" art: do you feel your music "re-presents" something else than sounds (feelings, visions, ideas, states of things)? If yes, what does it represent?
For me, as an artist, I take in all of the music around me, and life experiences, and they meld together and are expressed as one in my own personal voce. I can't deny that I am influenced by a lot of the music that I listen to, but think that even if I recreate it in anyway, it is going to be unique because it gets mixed in with my blend of personality and comes out as a new and different thing. I do think that music does represent other things besides sound. I spoke earlier of the unexplainable feeling I get when I listen to Leonard Cohen. There is also an Air tune, the second track of Mail (R.B), that just makes me want to melt into the floor. It evokes a feeling in me, and I think it is meant to. When I listen to certain music that I've written at different times, I can hear what was going on in my life when I was writing it.
Another aspect of the creative process is the nature of its source. Many times, creative people tell you they don't know where the idea came from. It's as if they believe there's a source beyond themselves. Sonny Rollins told me that at a certain point, it's not him that's playing-something takes over. This source, whatever it might be, has different names in different disciplines. In psychology, we call it the unconscious. Literary people call it the Muse. Zen Buddhism calls it transcendence. And Western religion calls it God. But all agree that there's something beyond the conscious self. So I wonder, do you feel the inspiration comes from a source outside yourself, or you feel it's just you doing your thing, constructing something interesting' Like a furniture maker putting together a chest of drawers, and so on.
I believe in both. I think there is a balance of the two operating in me. I spoke earlier about how I craft a song, but I also spoke of my Monday ritual when I clean the house, pace around and look to the muses. I think that an idea with no skill can't develop into anything, and skill with no idea is equally doomed. I get most of my greatest ideas when I am doing a really mundane errands, so they are coming from somewhere. I definitely believe in greater forces beyond our vision, and there isn't really an answer to what it is except that it is there.
A few more things before we close. First of all, does the music business inhibit your creativity? Like the club owner who says, "I only want you to play such and such." Or the record label which only wants to produce what sells. From what I hear, the music business is getting more and more difficult. Do you have some ideas about what could be done to create a better climate for the creative musician?
I have personally never encountered a problem like that, although I know that they exist. I have self released some albums and in doing so, I had complete control over their artistic vision. I think more musicians are doing that these days as well as opening up clubs, writing blogs, and so forth. Musicians now are much more than instrumentalists and composers.
What about your general perception of creative music, where's it going?
Hmm, where is it going? Well, as long as there are creative people, there is going to be creative music. I feel like this is more of a business question. True, surviving as a creative person in America is getting harder and harder, but if you are true to your art, then you suck it up and do it. You find a way.
Sometimes a stupid question can make a good answer. The last question I usually ask is, "What do you want to say to people?" This is your chance to say whatever you want-your soapbox.
I could go on about the environment, but I am not one to be preachy. I just think that people, myself included, need to think outside of their immediate surroundings to a larger picture and about how their actions are effecting the balance of the universe. I think health, nutrition and education are three of the most important issues that need to be addressed. One shouldn't have to make an extra effort to eat clean food, it should just be provided, in all food stores, and not at 3 times the price.