On Wednesday, March 23, Ars Nova Workshop presents a trio performance by saxophonist Wally Shoup, violinist/electronicist C. Spencer Yeh, and percussionist Ben Hall at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery. Shoup, who is also a visual artist and writer, has worked with many leading experimental musicians, including LaDonna Smith, Evan Parker, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Nels Cline, Reuben Radding, and Chris Corsano. Based in Seattle since the 1980s, Shoup helped organize the city’s first Improvised Music Festival. An early explorer of the relationships between free jazz and noise, Shoup frequently collaborates with Yeh (Burning Star Core) and Hall, two young artists who similarly traverse the margins between categories. ANW caught up with Shoup for a brief conversation about the Improvised Music Festival, improvisation as liberation, and his upcoming LP, Lunar Roulette

There has been a lot of press recently about Seattle’s jazz scene. What changes have you seen take place since your arrival in the mid-1980s?

Players are getting younger and more adventurous.

Can you talk about your involvment with the annual Seattle Improvised Music Festival? Did you play in the festival debut 26 years ago?

The Seattle Improvised Music Festival is the longest running festival of its kind in America. I played the initial fest in 1986 and continued to play and help organize the next 18 festivals. Since that time, Gust Burns has been the primary organizer. I played at the 25th Festival in 2010.

You've written about the connections between free jazz and punk music. How has punk inspired your saxophone playing?

The Stooges’s Fun House was a huge influence. It helped me hear the saxophone in a new way, equal to the electric guitar in its power.

On Monday, March 21, at the Clef Club, jazz luminaries will unite for a benefit concert to celebrate Philadelphia saxophonist and composer Odean Pope. This all-star event will help raise funds for Pope, who has struggled with Bipolar Disorder for three decades. We hope you will be able to join us for this very special night of music and to help a local hero who has been a vital fixture of Philadelphia’s jazz community for over 50 years. For more information on Pope’s battle against Bipolar Disorder, please read Friday’s Philadelphia Inquirer article by Annette John-Hall.

In addition to comedian, author, and jazz advocate Bill Cosby, award-winning poet Sonia Sanchez, and a set by the Odean Pope Saxophone Choir with Ravi Coltrane, the 13 ensembles performing will include musicians Reggie Workman, Kenny Barron, Bobby Zankel, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Pat Martino, and Duane Eubanks, to name only a few.

For the complete line-up, please refer to the Ars Nova Workshop event page. Tickets for the event can be purchased here, and all proceeds go to the Odean Pope Fund.

On Roscoe Mitchell

On Thursday, March 17, Ars Nova Workshop presents Archer Spade and Drew Ceccato performing the work of Roscoe Mitchell, a founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). For this special night in ANW’s Composer Portrait series, Archer Spade, a duo of Philadelphians Nick Millevoi (guitar) and Daniel Blacksberg (trombone), will unite with Drew Ceccato (woodwinds), who is currently studying with Mitchell at Mills College. The trio will be performing four compositions by Mitchell: “Marche,” “L-R-G,” “Cards,” and “Nonaah.” In anticipation of Thursday’s free concert at The Rotunda, ANW asked each trio member to reflect on how Mitchell has inspired their work.

Nick Millevoi
The first time I saw Roscoe Mitchell perform was at an Ars Nova Workshop concert at the International House in 2005. The music played that night was most certainly some of the highest energy music I've ever witnessed. It was among a handful of concerts where I'll always remember something special and unexplainable happening in the room that can never be exactly repeated. Mitchell remained so focused throughout the concert, and at one point took an unaccompanied solo where he played patterns, while circular breathing, that truly defied any notion I had of what was possible on saxophone or in improvisation. Ever since, I've been seeking out music with that kind of purity and intensity. I feel the same energy projected from the quartet version of “Nonaah” on the Nessa release, Nonaah. While the notes in the opening five-beat pattern repeat for several minutes, the energy and force that each player brings to the piece with each repetition creates a web-like effect where each performer is pulling and pushing on the others, creating a music that seems to happen beyond the notes. Every time I've listened to this piece, I've heard something else in it, and I strive to bring this kind of energy to our own performance.

On Friday, March 11, Ars Nova Workshop’s three-day Composer Portrait: Fieldwork series begins. Following interviews with drummer Tyshawn Sorey and pianist Vijay Iyer earlier this week, today we share a conversation with saxophonist Steve Lehman. Lehman’s 2009 recording Travail, Transformation, and Flow was praised for creating a dialogue between spectral harmony and jazz - the daring work rightfully earned a spot on numerous critical year-end lists, including the top position in New York Times’ Best Jazz Albums category – and proved the young composer's deep appreciation for GZA’s Liquid Swords. He has worked with innovative artists such as Anthony Braxton and Dave Burrell, written pieces for large orchestra and chamber ensemble that have been performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble and Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin, and, as an educator, taught at Wesleyan University, Columbia University, and The Royal Academy of Music in London. Following Saturday’s presentation of Fieldwork in trio, on Sunday, Lehman’s Nos Revi Nella will be performed by JACK Quartet.

You’ve said before that it’s the social aspect of making music that engages you most: who is playing is more foundational than the notes or structures created. What’s unique about the who of Fieldwork?

Fieldwork is a perfect example of that idea of "figuring out personnel" as a crucial compositional step. Both Tyshawn and Vijay have an incredibly unique perspective on performance and composition. So, as a result, every piece I bring to the group ends up being transformed in a lot of crucial ways. Even more than that, I think all three of us make a conscious effort to conceive of music for Fieldwork in a way where it can only really be executed and brought to life by this specific group of individuals. 

On Saturday, March 12, for the second night of Ars Nova Workshop’s Composer Portrait: Fieldwork, pianist Vijay Iyer, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and saxophonist Steve Lehman will play in trio. The following night, pieces composed by Iyer and Lehman will be performed with the JACK Quartet. As Pitchfork wrote in a review of Iyer’s 2010 release, Solo, “Vijay Iyer is, simply put, one of the most interesting and vital young pianists in jazz today.” Consistently earning positions on critical year-end lists (New York Times, The Wire, Village Voice) for his work as a group leader, Iyer has also worked with Roscoe Mitchell, Amiri Baraka, Wadada Leo Smith, John Zorn, and George Lewis. For this interview, conducted last week via email while Iyer was in Europe, ANW asked him about Fieldwork’s creative risk-taking, hexis and autoscopy, and the piece he’ll be performing on Sunday with JACK Quartet.

In an article called “Uncertainty Principles,” you put out the following call to fellow musicians: “Let us all vow to put ourselves at maximum creative risk whenever possible.” Can you talk about how Fieldwork situates itself in risk?

The group overall has a composerly orientation, which means we focus on formal elements, orchestration, and ensemble dynamics rather than just foregrounding ourselves as "players" and "soloists." And yet the concept of improvisation, in the sense of making choices in real time, lies behind every sound the group makes. It's fair to say that aesthetically we all challenge ourselves, pushing our own limits of what we think music can be. Just conducting ourselves in that way - moving away from a closed or finished sensibility with the composed repertoire, and towards an open, always-developing conception - means that at some fundamental level we don't know what's going to happen in a given performance. But this is also what it means to be improvisers: to develop, refine, and execute techniques for navigating through possibilities; in other words, to perform risk.

As far as the music world is concerned - or maybe I should say specifically the music business - there's a certain risk involved in just being a collective. The system operates by singling out and lifting up individual personas and creating a "rising star" narrative around them, which can often thwart the egalitarian ideal of a collective. I'm just glad that we've made it this far with the group, which has existed in its current form for over six years.

In the liner notes for Solo you talk about two concepts: autoscopy, which I understand as providing a sort of self-reflexivity, and hexis, understood as comportment in the active moment. In short, how one holds oneself (disposition, attitude, character, etc) is accessible through the autoscopic glance. You specifically mention the hexis of composers such as Thelonious Monk and Sun Ra. Can you discuss these concepts in relation to Fieldwork, namely the hexes corresponding to Steve Lehman and Tyshawn Sorey or, if a legitimate category, the hexis of the group?

One of the traits of this band (though it is not unique to this band) is that each of us leaves traces of ourselves in the music. For each piece, regardless of who wrote it, there is the instrumental part as it is notated, and then there is the part as it is played; there is in all cases a deliberate difference between the two, and perhaps you could locate that difference in our individual hexes. That includes the ways in which each of us plays (or often in my case, doesn't play) a notated part, as well as the ways in which we elaborate and expand upon it. Each of these involves choice, and therefore personal narrative, and therefore a trace of bodily experience. For, the act of improvising is as much a bodily act as it is a purely musical one. It's easy to forget since we listen to so much recorded and otherwise disembodied music, so it bears reminding that all of these sounds ultimately come from the physical actions of people in a real-world environment! And, by design, there is an incorporation of players' bodies (or you could say "personal sound") into the aesthetics of the music.

Following the trio performance on Saturday, March 12, the next night you’ll be performing Mutations I-X with the JACK Quartet. One of your conceptual aims for the piece is to move away from a pejorative view of mutation – that which is abnormal, impure and dangerous – and toward a conception of life as being constituted by mutation. Can you elaborate on this idea and specifically talk about how these concepts are realized in the music?

In particular, the idea is that evolution consists of the situated, sustained interaction of multiple, slightly different expressions of similar genetic material, where those differences are caused by mutation. "Situated" means immersed in an environment that can include interdependent and mutually interacting (or "competing," I suppose) entities.  There's a brutality to it, but there's also an aesthetic quality to it, because it allows for the emergence of order and even beauty, often in the most unlikely places. In particular it's not only the "best" things that survive over generations; more generally, things simply persist whenever they are able to find a way to do so, for however long the situation allows.

Mutations I-X is kind of a big piece constructed out of a large number of small and disparate fragments, so these mutation concepts are reflected in multiple formal elements. For example, there are samples of a string quartet playing non-pitched, "wrong" sounds which then get incorporated into the electronic and ensemble textures. There are also musical motives and ensemble passages that transform gradually in real time into "abnormal" versions of themselves and then become "normalized" - a tactic that at least goes back to Bach, if not earlier. There are motives interacting with warped versions of themselves, as well as interactions between things that sound "human" or lyrical and things that sound "non-human" or mechanical, and transferring of the logic of one instrument onto another. There are sections in which improvisation interpenetrates notated passages, and there are sections that involve the execution of an algorithmic set of instructions. Certain ideas appear, disappear, reappear later in deformed fashion, transform, persist, and simply vanish.

In the program notes you mention humans as “embodiments of change.” Are we also agents of change, or always improvisers within structures? Is improvisation a structuring force within the piece or is it a response to structure?

It is true that we (that is, humans) generate structure as improvisers, but we are never "outside" of structure either. It's true that we build things, and we often identify traces of a human presence in remnants of built things; we act upon, transform, and often destroy our surroundings. But we are also constituted and constrained by forces and factors around us, elements that truly make us who and what we are. My point with that line was to describe our genes as a record of our ancestors' mutations, which make us literally the embodiment or "expression" of that record.

How do you think Composer Portrait: Fieldwork is important for the trio and also the larger narratives of contemporary music?

It's a landmark for us to have our ensemble considered not just as yet another avant-garde jazz band (since we usually disappoint people who come expecting that) but rather as an ensemble connected to the more specific and broader American tradition of experimental composer-performers. To me this includes artists as diverse as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Davis, Wadada Leo Smith, John Cage, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Pauline Oliveros, La Monte Young, George Lewis, Yoko Ono, Frederick Rzewski, Steve Coleman, Butch Morris, and many others. Though such artists are often discussed separately, they have much in common in terms of their approaches, methods, and influences, and neither the standard jazz narrative nor the standard "new music" narrative can fully account for them all.  So I'm grateful to Ars Nova Workshop for allowing us to complicate the picture a little and present a more thorough version of ourselves.

To learn more about Vijay Iyer and Fieldwork, please see the event pages on our website, where you can also choose between two ticket options: $12 for single events and $30 for a 3-Concert Pass. Below is a summary of the events, all of which will take place at Old City's Christ Church Neighborhood House Theatre (20 North American Street).

Composer Portrait: Fieldwork
March 11, 2011, 8pm | Tyshawn Sorey’s For Kathy Change
March 12, 2011, 8pm | Fieldwork
March 13, 2011, 6pm | Free Public Discussion with Fieldwork + The New York Times’ Nate Chinen
March 13, 2011, 8pm | An evening of chamber works by Vijay Iyer and Steve Lehman performed by JACK Quartet

Composer Portrait: Fieldwork has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Music Project with support from Chamber Music America’s Presenting Jazz Program, funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

This Friday night, March 11, Ars Nova Workshop begins its three-day Composer Portrait: Fieldwork series with a performance of Fieldwork drummer Tyshawn Sorey’s composition, “For Kathy Change.” Inspired by Kathy Change, an American performance artist and political activist who killed herself in an act of self-immolation on the University of Pennsylvania campus in 1996, Sorey’s ensemble includes trombonist Ben Gerstein, pianist Kris Davis, cellist Okkyung Lee, and guitarist Terrence McManus. One of the newest stars of New York's creative music scene, multi-instrumentalist Sorey is an active composer, performer, educator and scholar who works across an extensive range of musical idioms. As a percussionist, trombonist and pianist, Sorey has worked nationally and internationally with his own ensembles and those led by Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Coleman, Wadada Leo Smith, and Dave Douglas. ANW caught up with Sorey to talk about the relationship between musical theory and practice, Fieldwork’s “open form” compositional approach, and his motivations for composing “For Kathy Change.”

One of the objectives you’ve articulated is the creation of a system where, simply put, academic theory and musical practice co-exist. Can you elaborate on this?

My body of works (as opposed to the term “system,” which has proven problematic for me, given its somewhat subjective nature) seeks to incorporate learned theory into the expression of life experiences. This most certainly isn’t the first time that this has happened; this is not a new concept – in fact, nothing’s “new” in my opinion. For, to understand what my work consists of, in terms of its objectivity, we have to look at the fact that since the beginning of time, this line of thinking has existed among many traditions in the East and in the West, if not all of them. 

In my works, the “academic” musical axioms and the world of genres that defines the music of our time do not mean much to me; I never, ever compose works utilizing theory alone. Nor do I think of style when I am writing music. In other words, I do not compose works specifically for purposes of proving any theoretical arguments, or to invalidate any music that does not utilize “advanced” compositional principles. To put it simply, I like to compose music in the moment – in the way that I imagine and hear it. That is not to say, however, that there is no room for one to analyze my work in theoretical terms. In this sense, my music is no different from any other form of creative improvised music. All of my works employ an expansive range of compositional techniques ranging from twelve-tone theory to so-called “jazz” harmony – and nearly all of my works allow for performers to improvise (sonically expressed life experience shared in a given context) within varying contexts. So “free music” would be the best term for me to describe my work: composed and improvised elements in a composition are unified (this makes up for the “music” part). The “free” in free music would define the flexibility pertaining to contextual dynamics in the music; the music can function anywhere from a “jazz club” setting to a concert hall and can be performed by anyone. In my mind, there is no necessity for the venue, the type of musician, or the context to define how the work should be appreciated anyway.

Some of the music I compose is not necessarily performable only by trained musicians or any certain kinds of musicians. In fact, I have found that composing for such a musician sometimes has a tendency to invite unwanted limitations to the music due to the superimposition of tastes (and ego) on the part of the performer.  That is to say, in these cases, the purpose and intent of the music often becomes misunderstood. My music is not classical, it is not jazz, it is not Western art music, and it is not Eastern art music. The music is not a style, in the way that we speak of what style “is.” However, it is a unification of concepts derived from these musics and their respective philosophies (most notably, Zen) in addition to my life experience – the human experience, both on a practical and metaphysical level.

If teaching a course on a single critical theory text chosen for its practical value for composers and improvisers, what would the text be and why?

It would be the Tri-Axium Writings, a three-volume series of texts on music by Anthony Braxton. These books discuss many of the common misconceptions inside and outside of the marketplace that surround creativity in manifold ways based on gender, and race, as well as the reality of what has been going on in the music business during the past several decades. Here we are in 2011, nearly 30 years after these books were published, and amazingly (and perhaps unsurprisingly) enough, these misconceptions remain with us, for the most part, anyway. As far as I am concerned, this collection of books is very relevant to what is going on today, which is what I think the music itself is about anyway.

You’ve spoken about how particular ensemble arrangements and modes of writing open unique “area space logics.” Can you say more about this concept and how it’s realized specifically in Fieldwork?

When we speak of area space logics, we could be referring to a number of things. “Area space logics” would therefore not be the correct term to define my way of composing pieces for Fieldwork. I think that what you are referring to is the concept of “open form,” which applies in nearly every single composition in the Fieldwork book of works.  By open form, I am referring to working with a set of materials while incorporating improvisation in real time. The music is largely improvisatory in its very nature, in that even the “forms” for the compositions vary from performance to performance. We compose music having this aspect of form in mind. Sometimes we do not even play full versions of certain compositions. Concerning my music for Fieldwork and other groups that I compose for that navigate through open forms in this manner – this is okay, because even if all of the composition hasn’t been performed, the composition’s identity remains the same – not only in sonic terms, but also in terms of the meta-reality that exists in each experience of the performance.  By this, I mean that the assemblage of Fieldwork in and of itself is a significant compositional means for the development of these works. I consider this as much a part of anyone’s composition as the schematic material that we utilize creatively in real time, which is only one aspect of the work.

Often thought of as being sidemen, sidewomen or mere time-keepers, drummers are under-represented as composers. Do you think this bias is rooted in the jazz tradition? Can you name one contemporary drummer-composer whose work you think is forcefully dismantling this structure?

I can name many drummer-composers who are not only under-represented as composers, but who are also under-represented as complete musicians. This bias, for a long time, has existed not only in the so-called jazz tradition – but also within that, this argument is applicable to bassists. However, very briefly, to answer the second part of your question, one drummer-composer who for decades has consistently dismantled this structure is Jack DeJohnette. He is a prime example of a complete musician in the highest order.  This great man has quite an extensive compositional output – a huge catalogue of works, and I find it a bit disturbing that there are hardly any opportunities to see him performing his own music. Here is a contemporary musician whose catalogue of works extends all the way to the mid-1960s, and we still do not get to hear enough of his own music. I have no idea as to the reason for this, but I think that the fact that we as drummer-composers still face such predispositions in 2011 is incredible.

However, the good news is that we are now in a period where there is a fast-evolving lineage of contemporary drummer-composers who write just as well as anybody, if not better than those who are not drummers! People like Marcus Gilmore, Ches Smith, Tomas Fujiwara, Joey Baron, Kevin Norton, Mike Reed, Susie Ibarra – they, among many others, are producing some fresh and vital music that is relevant for our time (not to mention how brilliant they are as human beings and as musicians). We can also see that there is a growing community of drummers who play more than one instrument, which I especially value. Multi-instrumentalism informs their playing and their compositions on a musical level, which contributes to their brilliance.

I look forward to seeing more drummers’ music released and documented as correctly as possible. I hope to see the day when a lot of these drummer-composers get to take their groups on the road and/or are able to perform their work as often as they can, so that they can continue to evolve their body of works – even if it is for a single context, that’s fine. I am not saying that all drummers must write a symphony or an opera or anything, but if that is what they want to do, that is great! What I am saying is that drummer-composers should perform more of their work (or have their music performed by other groups) as often as possible. Speaking for myself, I have no intention on leaving this planet with nothing to show, as far as my work goes. I have been composing for well over ten years now, and I cannot afford to continue being limited by the “drummer-as-sideman” trap. It is a tough fight, but someone has to go through with it. How else can people become familiar with the totality of the drummer-composer’s output?

Tonight you’ll be playing a piece called “For Kathy Change.” When did you first hear about Kathy Change and how did she inspire this piece?

For Kathy Change is a work performed in one movement, totaling around three and a half hours in length, and I feel that this is probably some of my strongest work yet. I can get into the technical details about the composition, but I would rather not because I think it’s besides the point of the piece and I would prefer having the listener create their own emotional experience when listening to the work. Kathy Change is an inspirational figure for me, and I wanted to dedicate my composition to her for that reason. During my studies at William Paterson University, I became aware of Kathy Change’s work. At that time, I had been studying drum set and composition with Kevin Norton, a fabulous drummer-composer whose work I greatly admire. Actually, he was one of the first people at the University to encourage me to compose and perform my own music and to present it as correctly as possible. Anyway, he composed an extended work in 2001 that was also dedicated to Kathy Change – Change Dance: Troubled Energy (incidentally, this extended work also features Steve Lehman on saxophones). Coupled with the fact that I loved the music, I also became interested in learning about Change’s life – to find out what her vision was for the world and her vision was expressed in manifold ways. And since I feel that music is reflective of experience, the work that Change put forth is no different from this line of thinking; her art and writings also reflects her experience – not only her experience, but she shared the opinions of many people on this planet. She had a unique way of demonstrating how she viewed the world and its complexities through her performances and demonstrations.

People all over the world who have learned of Kathy Change, especially Pennsylvanians, know that Change was never afraid to stand for what she believed in; she was a true lover of freedom. She only wanted the world to improve for the benefit of humankind. Kathy Change was a genius, in my opinion. She believed in transforming the nation and the world in a positive direction – her beliefs were only for the good of the people. And I think it’s quite surprising that in 2011, 15 years after her death, not that many people know much about the contributions brought about by this courageous woman.  So for me, music is not separate from any other art. Nor do I feel that it is separate from the reality of what we experience, and Change is a perfect example of that.

What about the ensemble members and their group dialogue made them the right choice for this performance?

My collaborations with all these members go back over 10 years. I met Terrence during the first year of my studies at William Paterson University, who is a few years older than I am. His knowledge of different musics and guitar playing inspired me in some way to continue in the musical direction I was headed at that time.  But we never got to play together until a few years later, and since then we have played many projects together – some of his and some of mine. This brings me to Ben Gerstein, with whom we also have a collaborative project, 3-O. It’s an improvising group featuring Terry on guitars and electronics along with Ben and me on trombones (sometimes on other instruments).

Gerstein was someone I knew about through my relationship with the drummer-composer Dan Weiss (another one of the most brilliant musicians of my generation). I met Ben in 2002 at the 55 Bar in New York City, where I heard his Collective play concerts of all-improvised music. Ben and I share extremely similar values as regards improvisation, composition, art, film, and other matters. Through my knowledge of musicians, composers, and filmmakers he was interested in at that time (him and I share a deep appreciation of Morton Feldman and Elliott Carter), we would usually talk about music and whatever musical projects we were up to after his sets. Then we finally got to play together for the first time in August 2004 with saxophonist/composer Tony Malaby. We collaborated on many occasions since then (Ben is also a member of my quartet w/ Cory Smythe and Thomas Morgan). And, until summer 2009 when I moved up to Connecticut, there would be times where we would spend all day in his apartment listening to and playing music together. I miss those days because this was a great period of study and musical growth for me and I’ve never really had the chance to initiate this kind of study with other people. It’s always a pleasure to have him as a colleague and as a friend.

I first began playing with Okkyung in Butch Morris’ New York Skyscraper concerts that were held in the summer months of 2002 in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We have been playing together in various configurations since then, and besides her wonderful musicianship, she is an amazing human being, which manifests itself in the music!

Kris Davis is one of my more recent collaborators and I had no doubt whatsoever that she would be the perfect fit for interpreting this composition. We have a collaborative trio, Paradoxical Frog, which also features Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones (we also have a CD released with the title of the same name). Actually, I think it has been over two years since we’ve first played together. Moreover, in my history of working with her in Paradoxical Frog, I never had to communicate anything to her about how to play my music. She always plays it correctly, and she never plays it too correctly, which I love!  I, too, share the sentiment with Anthony Braxton that if the music is played super correctly, without any kind of risk or fun in it, without the musicians putting themselves into the work, then it was probably played wrong.

Kris and all of the other musicians I mentioned above are all very sensitive to the needs of the music and they serve the music ego-free and agenda-free. They are all very easy to work with, and they bring a lot to the music, not to mention the fact that they are all brilliant composers in their own right. So, I am very fortunate to be in good company.

How do you think Composer Portrait: Fieldwork is important for the trio and also the larger narrative of contemporary music?

This composer portrait series is very important because I think that it represents a broader spectrum of the work that we do as composers and improvisers. This will serve as a demonstration to the fact that it is valid to have an extensive musical makeup and to not produce work confined to a particular frame. We, as a collective, celebrate an approach to music that transcends genre – which I think has a lot to do with our musical makeup. It almost seems that even the term “contemporary music” is becoming a genre, and how this is being defined is problematic. In this way, I do not see my work in any context as such.  Nevertheless, besides that, I think this will be a great event for the music community in general. Not often is it the case, especially in “creative music,” that young artists in this field can have their works performed on this level. I mean, to have works performed by ensembles like Wet Ink, ICE, JACK Quartet – this is quite an amazing thing, and it is rare that events like this happen for young composer-performers like us who are working in multiple fields. But, we know now that in 2011, where it seems nearly impossible to put together a weekend of concerts like this, it can be done. On that note, much gratitude and thanks to Mark Christman and Ars Nova Workshop for making this event possible. I am most certainly looking forward to next weekend!

To learn more about Tyshawn Sorey and Fieldwork, please see the event pages on our website, where you can also choose between two ticket options: $12 for single events and $30 for a 3-Concert Pass.  Below is a summary of the events, all of which will take place at Old City's Christ Church Neighborhood House Theatre (20 North American Street).

Composer Portrait: Fieldwork
March 11, 2011, 8pm | Tyshawn Sorey’s For Kathy Change
March 12, 2011, 8pm | Fieldwork
March 13, 2011, 6pm | Free Public Discussion with Fieldwork + The New York Times’ Nate Chinen
March 13, 2011, 8pm | An evening of chamber works by Vijay Iyer and Steve Lehman performed by JACK Quartet

Composer Portrait: Fieldwork has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Music Project with support from Chamber Music America’s Presenting Jazz Program, funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.


On March 11-13, Ars Nova Workshop is pleased to present Composer Portrait: Fieldwork. These three nights of live music will provide an intimate glimpse at the collective and individual work of three widely celebrated and critically acclaimed composer-performers: pianist Vijay Iyer, saxophonist Steve Lehman, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. “A jazz power trio for the new century” (NPR Fresh Air), Fieldwork exemplify the new generation of forward-thinking jazz artists who are pushing the boundaries of creative music in unparalleled directions.

The opening night will feature the work of Sorey, who will lead an all-star ensemble in a performance of his work, “For Kathy Change.” The following night will include a trio performance by Fieldwork’s Iyer, Sorey and Lehman. In the third and final showcase, following a 6pm public discussion with the trio led by New York Times music journalist Nate Chinen, Lehman and Iyer will present pieces written for string quartet. For this very special evening, Lehman’s Nos Revi Nella and Iyer’s Mutations I-X will be performed with the world renowned JACK Quartet.

To learn more about Sorey, Lehman and Iyer, please see the event pages on our website, where you can also choose between two ticket options: $12 for single events, and $30 for a 3-Concert Pass.  Below is a summary of the events, all of which will take place at Old City's Christ Church Neighborhood House Theatre (20 North American Street).

On March 5, Ars Nova Workshop presents a performance at Vox Populi by trumpeter Nate Wooley, violinist and electronicist C. Spencer Yeh, cellist Okkyung Lee, and percussionist Paul Lytton. With expansive avant-garde affiliations – noise, jazz, free improv, downtown – Wooley assembled this quartet "to see if a collision of forward thinking practitioners of each of these histories will create something greater than a well-thought out musical fusion." This Philadelphia concert is the third stop on a Wooley-Lytton US tour, where the duo will be teaming up along the way for diverse collaborations with Ikue Mori, Peter Evans, Ken Vandermark, Chris Corsano, Matt Moran, and Joe Morris, among others. Taking a break between recording and live dates in Europe, ANW caught up with Wooley in Lisbon, Portugal to talk about his recent and upcoming work, and the motivations behind this unique new quartet.

Your 2009 release with David Grubbs and Paul Lytton took its name, The Seven Storey Mountain, from a Thomas Merton book. What about Merton compelled you to name the album after his text?

Every religious tradition has a group of people that stand outside of it in one way or another. Usually they form some sort of mystical subset of the codified tradition and that has always been very interesting to me. I did a lot of reading when I was younger of these people: St. John of the Cross, Sri Ramakrishna, St. Teresa of Avila, and others. Of all of them, recently at least, I have been most affected by St. Augustine and Thomas Merton. Not necessarily about their religious beliefs, which has always been beside the point, or at least only academic to me, but because of the way they choose to talk about their belief and their faith. Augustine's Confessions and Merton's Seven Storey Mountain are both incredible documents of their path to a relationship with God. Fine, that is great, but what is interesting to me is their incredible honesty about who and what they were before and while on that path. I've always thought it was strange that certain people are presented as being wholly formed from birth. Obviously this happened with religious figures in the past, and now I think we do it with celebrities, movie stars, musicians, writers, and so on. We are rarely presented with their work as it has developed and been aware of their mistakes, their missteps, their dead end paths. 

So, when I was presented with the opportunity to do a piece for Dave Douglas' FONT I wanted to do something that would allow me room to try something that might fail but would be an honest representation of where I was at a moment in time. That was where the release came from. It was successful on some levels, unsuccessful on others, but I like how honest it is. I've always loved drone and ecstaticism, and this piece encompasses those elements that I don't really use anywhere else. The piece is 7 segments long. The first segment is that 2009 release and the second will be released in June on Important Records featuring C. Spencer Yeh on violin and Chris Corsano on drums. We are recording and performing the third segment on March 11th at Issue Project Room as part of my residency there this year, and I'm really excited because we'll have both trios present, Corsano, Lytton, Yeh, and Grubbs, as well as Chris Dingman and Matt Moran playing some heavy church bell action.

For Creek Above 33 with Paul Lytton you both created mind maps. What was this process and how did it create a shift in your playing and thinking?

Well, the recording wasn't motivated by the mind maps as much as the reverse. We had finished the record and Evan Parker asked us for liner notes. Paul said he preferred to do a mind map, as he had been thinking about his relationships to trumpet players over the years and was interested in trying to trace that work to the present which includes me and Peter Evans. I think it was an interesting exercise but ultimately kind of ironic as I have always thought that duo has no overt connection to a historical context that I've ever come across.

I tried not to look at his mind map to tell you the truth. I am too prone to hero worship and didn't want to necessarily obsess on the connections between Paul and someone like Kenny Wheeler or Leo Smith. So, if the mind maps had any effect on our relationship and how we play together it is that it has made me more aware and diligent about distilling all the past listening and musical connections I've had into a voice that is personal and honest.

In your description of the quartet playing Philadelphia March 5, you describe C. Spencer Yeh has having an “outsider’s perspective.” Can you elaborate on this?

Well, in Spencer's case, I'm thinking of that term, "outsider" in two ways: one, he's outside of the hardcore free improv/free jazz/jazz/downtown NY/whatever that is a social scene in a way. Partially because he has been in Cincinnati doing most of his work until recently but, more importantly, he just has a voice and sensibility that is outside of that circle. He works more in a contemporary art world, to my thinking. His playing, even in improvisation, is very conceptual on a certain level, very visual and the way he engages is not the typical conversational or contrapuntal kind of way that someone who came up in jazz would play.

Also, I think of him as part of an "outsider" tradition. I think this is my own definition of "outsider art" which is not in keeping with the real definition. I don't mean someone like Henry Darger in that sense of outsider, but someone that has found a specific way of dealing with their art, and their output that is not necessarily in line with everything else that is going on around them. The way Spencer composes records, his collaborations, Burning Star Core, his solo playing, has found a way to be successful musically while being "outside" even an avant-garde norm and I think that is a real testament to his vision as a musician. In a way, that's what this quartet is, not just Spencer: a grouping of people that have found ways to deal with a certain mainstream, be it jazz, improv, noise, rock, whatever, and have found that their voice is slightly off center, but have chosen to embrace that and try and continue forward using that information to make some interesting music.

You’ve mentioned before that you conceptualize group improvisation as articulating social structures. How does this group express this concept?

I think the way a group works very clearly mirrors the way a social group works. If you think of four people walking from point A to point B, there are certain natural ways that it will split itself up. At moments they will walk four abreast, sometimes in groups of two, sometimes three and one, etc. Each of those combinations may or may not be accompanied by feelings of tension or relaxation as it relates to the personalities of the people involved and their desires to compete, feelings of inferiority, fears of being overlooked, or fears of being discovered.  All these things work together, along with the natural terrain that you are travelling over to naturally shape the way the group walks and relates to each other.

The same is true in improvised music. At its best, the groupings change depending on all these personal attributes: sometimes all four are playing seemingly unrelated music, sometimes people drop out or choose to support a strong solo voice, and so on. Sometimes it's a battle; sometimes it's boring because there is no tension. I think it's a particularly interesting idea in duo as there is nowhere to hide, nowhere to escape the conversation. This quartet, I think, will be an interesting example because of a shared, but not implicit, history and the different worlds we are coming from. Certain moves that may be very relaxed for Paul or I, coming out of jazz, may create more tension for Okkyung and Spencer, and vice versa. The different musical traditions we're coming from creates a much different terrain than we are used to travelling, to continue the above metaphor.

You have a handful of upcoming releases. What should we be on the lookout for?

It's tough. I really view recordings as documents of a musician over time and so when a record comes out I am usually dealing with something further down the road and, beyond the impetus to revisit projects and do work with them, get out and let things evolve, that a new disc affords, I don't think a ton about it. There are a couple of things coming out this year that I think are interesting in that they are a departure for me, or represent something that I've been interested in that hasn't necessarily been available on recording yet. One is (Put Your) Hands Together, which is a jazz quintet record on Clean Feed that just came out and is my first real jazz release as a leader. That has me totally frightened in a good way. A long form tape piece called The Almond will also be released in the fall on Pogus Records and it represents a certain way that I've been dealing with solo trumpet in the past year, so I'm happy to have that come out as well as I'm moving on to new things. Other than those, there will be the new SevenStorey Mountain on Important Records and some new stuff with Peter Evans, a split 12" solo LP on Dead CEO and an amplified duo record on Carrier Records.

Nate Wooley, Okkyung Lee, C. Spencer Yeh, and Paul Lytton will play on Saturday, March 5 at Vox Populi Gallery (319 N. 11th Street, 3rd Floor). For more information about this concert, please click here.


Clouds Moving

On Wednesday, February 23, Ars Nova Workshop presents the Anat Fort Trio at Philadelphia Art Alliance. The group dialogue between pianist Fort, bassist Gary Wang, and drummer Roland Schneider has been ongoing for ten years, and this deep relationship is evident on 2010’s spellbinding ECM debut, And If. In a 2007 interview with All About Jazz, Fort made the following comment about the trio: “The music is sometimes so subtle that you really need it to be there with no extra sound—then anything else can just disappear. I think that really demonstrates our concept, because we kind of weave in and out of each other's worlds. It's like the trio has its own universal consciousness, so to speak. We kind of swim in it together.”

Opening and closing with two nods to frequent collaborator Paul Motian, And If is a book of ten introspective compositions that produce lush, graceful and warm worlds of oceanic sound. On pieces like “Clouds Moving” and “Minnesota,” the trio presents vast open spaces that welcome healthy moments of gentle, and at times melancholic, contemplation. This robust conception of space is a vital constituent of Fort’s voice as a composer and musician. In addition to her excellent sense of humor, the following quote from the same interview makes clear that space is something she’s willing to fight for.

“But I never really consciously specify to myself, ‘Here I would like to have the solo continue the form,’ or something like that. I don't really think so consciously about it, but it's definitely my goal in this, and really, in every other tune: to compose in the moment. So whether the composition is very specific or not, I'm really into the moment. I'm not into anything that happens in the moment—I'm really into making a coherent statement. I really try to be clear to myself in what I am trying to say.

And I think that's why, a lot of times, I don't play so much. Because that's just how it works for me. I need the space. I really, really need those rests that you were talking about. That's really something very important to me. And sometimes it's hard to get musicians to understand that. And even if they understand that, it's really hard to get them to do it. I can't even tell you how many conversations I've had— even with Ed Schuller—where I've said, ‘Hey, leave that space alone. Don't play there, okay? I really want that open.’ And then he plays there anyway! He says, ‘Yeah, but I can't just play what's written. I have to make my own statement with it. Well [laughing] make your statement quiet! I need the space.’ And I totally understand where he's coming from. He just wants to somehow play the tune, and sometimes the tune is very sparse—whether it's this tune or some other tune. But it's always an ongoing—not battle, but issue— that I have with some musicians.

And I think the more I grow, the more I need more space. So if, in the beginning, I needed it every once in a while, now I need it even more. And I need the musicians to go with me, or it's just going to be [laughing]—it will be—a battle!”

Anat Fort Trio will perform on Wednesday, February 23 at Philadelphia Art Alliance (251 S. 18th Street).


On Tuesday, February 22, Ars Nova Workshop presents the Celestial Septet, featuring Rova and the Nels Cline Singers, who kick off their 5 date tour at International House Philadelphia. For those living outside the city who would like to experience this special concert, be sure to sign up for the free live webcast at this link. We'll see everyone else on Tuesday! ANW was able to catch up with Larry Ochs, a founding member of Rova, for a few questions about the quartet’s past collaborations, their history with the Nels Cline Singers, and the last time they were in Philadelphia, when ANW presented Electric Ascension.

Rova has worked with an overwhelming number of artists since forming in 1977. What’s one of the critical collaborations that really pushed ROVA in a new creative direction?

I’ll start by saying that it has been an incredible privilege to have a means for inviting all these great artists to work with us. If not for the non-profit status and the foundation support we were able to get, none of this, well, most of it, could not have happened. I’m sure that John Zorn and Henry Kaiser and Fred Frith, Alvin Curran, a few others along the way, would have done projects with us ultimately, but in the end you want to honor the art by paying for the artists’ time and work. Back to your question.

I don’t think there has been one collaboration that pushed Rova in a brand new creative direction. Rova was born pushing the limits in many different directions and we tended then and continue now to invite performers who work similarly and who will be open to pushing and being pushed. But I would say that over time many of these collaborators and collaborations accreted information, purpose, ideas, new ways of organizing music for improvisers, and an air of confidence in what they did that built up our own confidence, our own abilities, and our own projects, if that all makes sense. You can go right back to the shows with Margaret Jenkins Dance Company in 1980 or 1981, or to Kronos in 1984, where we wrote the music and got them to be a little bit comfortable with improvisation. But probably the first shows that really ratified what we were up to were those with Anthony Braxton in 1986, and then again in 1988. We thought that these shows would be a real challenge, but instead Braxton’s music and Braxton as the fifth member of the quintet felt completely “right” immediately from the first rehearsal. His positive energy, legendary in improvised music circles, his playing on our pieces, and our playing in his was a real shot in the arm that absolutely confirmed what we were up to. Certainly I could also point to later compositions from Alvin Curran, Wadada Leo Smith, and Barry Guy as pieces that really had a fresh form that we were intrigued by, too. But there were many others, and all taught us something,  in one way or another, so it’s almost unfair to single certain ones out. 

Are there any artists with whom you haven’t yet collaborated but would like to?

Way too many to name. The thing is that “real time” and the reality of our music universe are real limiters on all these collaborations happening. The reality is that you just can’t do a big project unless there’s some money for that to happen, and finding sponsors gets harder all the time, given the cultural climate and the fact that “there is no money” for the arts anymore, not to mention that there is no money for education, infrastructure, and for anything else that might benefit the average person. Oh sorry, there is money for “security” and for making sure you don’t do anything wrong in your own home. Forgot about those.

How did the Celestial Septet initially come together? Does the group lineage extend beyond Rova: Orkestrova’s Electric Ascension project?

Rova met Nels a long, long time ago. I think the people in Wilco don’t want us to tell you how long ago because then their fans might figure out that he’s not such a young rocker, though absolutely rocking. Steve Adams has been playing with Nels in Vinny Golia projects since the 1990s, at least. Scott Amendola and Trevor Dunn first worked with me and Rova in 1998 on a long work of mine called “Pleistocene,” a concert that included pieces by Adams and Raskin working with an eleven piece ensemble including Kaiser, John Schott, Lisle Ellis, Mike Patton, and Willie Winant. Scott has played with me for ten years in Larry Ochs Sax & Drumming Core and with my band Kihnoua since 2007. He’s also part of Steve Adams’ trio with bassist Ken Filiano. Nels of course really hooked up with us in a big way in 2003 for Electric Ascension which continues to occur more or less biannually in festival performance somewhere on the planet. I forget that Devin Hoff was the bass player for the Singers until just last summer. Devin actually had a shorter history with Rova than Trevor, playing with us in Vancouver on Electric Ascension in 2007, and then in the septet until this series of shows. Trevor has played Electric Ascension two or three times including the Philly show, and he and I have also worked in a band called ODE with Lisle Ellis and Mike Sarin. And Mr Bungle, with Trevor on electric bass, did a collaborative performance with Rova in the 1990s.

Given all this intermixing, and given the nature of the two bands playing for you in the Celestial Septet, it was almost “natural” for this collaboration to happen. And it happened in a very relaxed way when, in 2006, we performed on a double bill together in Berkeley, CA. Steve Adams arranged a piece by John Coltrane as an encore to the concert. That music was so cool that we determined that night to compose music specifically for this septet and then reconvene “someday,” a day that turned out to be May 28, 2008.

What can audiences who have never previously experienced the Celestial Septet expect?

Nice writing, strong compositional forms, great playing, and both beauty and rocking energy. There’s also some real magic in the fact that 5 different people, working independently of each other, brought in compositions for the band to play prior to the 2008 show, and that these pieces all seemed to fit together so well in the sets played. One thing they have in common is that all the composers (except Nels himself!) wanted to hear Nels do some shredding somewhere in their piece, so you will get a lot of electric guitar in the shows. This is not a free jazz band nor a free improvisation band. It’s more conventional in a certain way. We have themes and melodies, and compositions that seem to tell stories.

When was the last time you played Philadelphia? Any fond memories?

The last time for Rova was Electric Ascension in 2007. That zoo is always a great scene in which to hang. The Philly show was the first for Andrew Cyrille and Trevor Dunn, and I love having the privilege of being on any stage with Cyrille. I always learn something. And I enjoyed Trevor telling me after the concert that right in the middle of his bass-drum duo with Cyrille, he thought, “Holy shit, I’m playing a duo with Andrew Cyrille!!” It was early February 2007 and the weather wasn’t bad. We’re bringing sunshine this time, both to the inside and outside of the International House.

The Celestial Septet plays on Tuesday, February 22 at International House (3701 Chestnut Street).