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).


On Tuesday, February 22, Ars Nova Workshop presents the Celestial Septet, an extraordinary union of the Nels Cline Singers and the ROVA Saxophone Quartet. Hitting the road for only 5 concerts, this first date of the tour marks the septet’s Philadelphia debut. Given the significance of this epic collaboration, ANW and local webcast production team will be offering a free live webcast of the concert to audiences outside Philadelphia. Please follow this link to register for the webcast.

Local audiences can purchase tickets to the event at International House here. Stay tuned for an interview with ROVA coming shortly. Meanwhile, check out a brief history of the septet below. 

Whether providing ripping solos for indie rock heroes Wilco or improvising with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Nels Cline ceaselessly lives up to his reputation as “the world’s most dangerous guitarist” (Jazz Times). The Nels Cline Singers, with drummer Scott Amendola and newly appointed bassist and frequent John Zorn collaborator Trevor Dunn, is Cline’s avant-jazz power trio. Their fourth record, 2010’s Initiate, was praised for its “spacious and highly textured, simultaneously beautiful and discordant instrumentals” (NPR) and deservingly made the top 25 on the Village Voice Jazz Critic’s Poll.

“Visionary all-saxophone ensemble” (New York Times) the ROVA Saxophone Quartet has been at the forefront of creative music for over 25 years, earning numerous commissions and awards, and working with artists such as John Zorn, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Currin, Terry Riley, and Henry Threadgill. Featuring four furious saxophonists – Bruce Ackley, Steve Adams, Larry Ochs, and Jon Raskin – ROVA has been praised by audiences and critics around the globe for their unrivaled and profound contribution to the trajectory of experimental music. Uniquely reflecting the quartet’s deep understanding and appreciation of jazz and avant-garde musics, from The Art Ensemble of Chicago to Iannis Xenakis, the ROVA experience is one of celebration and innovation.

The seeds for the 2008 creation of the Celestial Septet were planted when, in 2003, Nels Cline joined ROVA Orkestrova for a series of performances of John Coltrane’s legendary free-jazz record Ascension. After only 4 concerts the Celestial Septet disappeared, and then reemerged in 2010 with the release of a stunning self-titled record. “Free from stylistic restraints,” Point of Departure’s Troy Collins wrote of the New World Records release, “they fuse elements of primal free jazz, visceral rock conventions, aleatoric meditations and austere classicism into a series of unorthodox compositions that balance formal structure with unfettered improvisation.”


Wave Lengths

On February 17, Ars Nova Workshop presents a free concert at The Rotunda with William Hooker's Two Sides of Now and Norwegian duo Vertex. Tonight (February 11) on WRTI’s premier jazz program The Bridge, host J. Michael Harrison interviews William Hooker. Broadcasting live at 10pm (EST) from WRTI’s headquarters at Temple University, you can stream the interview here.

Along with Dave Burrell's Echo, Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, and Sunny Murray's Sunny's Time Now, drummer William Hooker's Is Eternal Life is one of the greatest documents of the early free jazz movement and the Loft era. Crossing genres and mediums, from poetry and music to visual art, Hooker has not just adapted to the changing currents of creative music, but has been a pioneering figure. His recent collaborators include musicians from diverse scenes including Sonic Youth founders Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, as well as turntablists like Christian Marclay and DJ Olive. The work of this foundational improviser and composer continues to be explosive and forward-thinking, and for this concert he'll be joined by guitarist Dave Ross and trumpeter Matt Lavelle, who have worked with William Parker, Daniel Carter, Rashid Bakr, and Sabir Mateen. 

Making their Philadelphia debut, Norwegian electroacoustic duo Vertex will provide an opening set. Their debut album, shapes & phases, was released last year on Ingar Zach's renowned SOFA label, and was mixed and mastered by leading Italian experimentalist Giuseppe Ielasi. This is a very rare appearance – 1 of only 5 East Coast dates - by this improvising unit that mixes lowercase drones, noise, and indefinable electronic blips to create delicately swirling soundscapes similar to groups like Supersilent, Koboku Senju, and Emeralds. 

William Hooker's Two Sides of Now and Vertex perform on Thursday, February 17 at The Rotunda (4014 Walnut Street).


Rhys Chatham has played trumpet since the early-1980s but it’s still appropriate to recognize his new Brass Trio as a significant sea change. Known for organizing terrifyingly large ensembles with up to 400 guitarists, the pioneering composer who has found a common thread running through punk fury, minimalism, and avant-garde jazz displayed the strongest trumpet work of his career on last year’s stunning record The Bern Project. On February 13, Ars Nova Workshop presents the Philadelphia debut of the Rhys Chatham Brass Trio, the freshest realization of the celebrated composer’s ceaseless forward momentum. Having just arrived from Paris for only 4 U.S. dates, ANW caught up with Chatham to talk about his trumpet turn, the new trio, and his upcoming record on Northern-Spy.

So, as a song title from The Bern Project asks, is there life after guitar trio?

I had just come back to trumpet after taking a hiatus for a number of years, so on the album I'm playing guitar as well as trumpet. The album's producer really wanted to call one of the tracks "Is there life after Guitar Trio?” so that's what we did. We've been playing G3 in various formats for over 30 years now. For many years, I played it as the finale of each of our concerts. Guitar Trio really was my life. I was even going to put a version on the new release of brass playing that's coming out on Northern-Spy Records, but my girlfriend said, “Rhys, enough already!” I took her advice and did that album with just brass. It was a good idea. I mean, after, there's gotta be life after Guitar Trio, no?

Guitar is likely the first thing that comes to mind for people when your name is mentioned. Do you see your recent turn to trumpet as a sharp trajectory shift from your past work or as building upon it?

My brass and guitar work have always been on two parallel tracks. I started playing trumpet in 1983 when I realized that I was losing my hearing from playing too much loud guitar music. I decided it would be better to play a softer instrument. I had just made a piece for choreographer Karole Armitage called “For Brass,” which was a brass octet with drummer Anton Fier. I kind of fell in love with trumpet after that. The only thing was, the damn thing takes ten years to learn how to play. As soon as I realized this I decided to continue with my guitar pieces, but I practiced trumpet at home until I was ready to play out. 

By the mid-1990s, I was ready. My training as a composer comes out of the classical tradition, but my training as a trumpet player came exclusively out of the jazz tradition. I had to learn all my major and minor keys, how to play over iim7, V7, I changes in any and all tempos and any and all keys. Basically, I learned how to do what every trumpet player is supposed to know how to do.

My first album as a trumpet player was released during the mid-1990s by an electronica label called Ninja Tune. I had kept all my distortion boxes from my rock days and applied them to trumpet. I was playing over heavy electronica grooves. When the guys at Ninja Tune heard it, they said, “Wicked guitar playing, man!” They thought it was an electric guitar! The album was a success and with the release I had defined a personal sound on trumpet: a trumpet which sounded suspiciously like a highly distorted electric guitar. So in that sense, the work I was doing on trumpet from that period built upon my experience as a guitar player.

Who are some of your favorite trumpeters and what about their approach and voice has influenced you?

All trumpet players spend many years finding and refining their personal voices, so there are many trumpet players I like and who I've been influenced by. In terms of my own voice on trumpet, I was particularly influenced by two people. I liked the way Don Cherry played during the glory days of free jazz, and on the minimalist composition side of things I liked Jon Hassell's work. In fact, a good description of the way I currently play is "Don Cherry meets Jon Hassell meets Bill Dixon.”

I always enjoyed playing over changes during my student days, but when it came time to play out on my own, I found them too restricting and preferred Don's free approach to things. So I took this route and developed my own way of doing it. Jon Hassell was the first player to use a harmonizer as part of his sound, so in one of the pieces the Brass Trio is going to play at Ars Nova Workshop, I use a harmonizer as a kind of tribute to Jon. Jon and I also both come out of the same background. When I played during the early-1970s in La Monte Young's group, the Theater of Eternal Music, Jon was in the band, too. That's where I met him. We also both studied with Pandit Pran Nath, the singer, whose work has greatly influenced and formed both Jon and myself.

You’ve cited Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi as an influential force when you first started playing trumpet. How has Iommi’s guitar work translated into your playing?

I always wanted to be able to play as fast as Tony Iommi on guitar and I tried and I tried and tried. But it never happened for me because a guitar has so many frets on it. I could never figure out where to put my fingers. Trumpet is much easier, because it only has three valves. I found that my problem of having less than average digital dexterity didn't prevent me from playing really, really fast on trumpet. So it wasn't until I played trumpet that I could play as fast as Tony Iommi. I was so pleased.

You’ve worked with guitarist David Daniell and drummer Ryan Sawyer in your guitar ensembles. How did you know they were the right pieces for your brass trio?

Well, for one thing, as you mention, I've worked with both of them in other contexts. I've been working with David for years: he's the concert master of my 100 and 200 electric guitar pieces. Ryan was playing percussion at the Crimson Grail performance we did at Lincoln Center last year, and was a real pleasure to work with. I listened to a selection of the wide range of styles he is capable of playing, so that clenched it. We asked him if he was available and he said “Yes!”

But I have to back up a bit to answer your question properly. During the 1990s, I had developed a voice on trumpet that made use of heavy distortion and loud volumes, like I said. It sounded not unlike a distorted electric guitar. I took a break from trumpet for a time and about three years ago I decided to return to it. However, I didn't want to play the same way I did during the 1990s, so I set about defining a completely new style. When I currently play trumpet, I go through a number of delay devices, which have become part of my instrument and sound. While during the 1990s my trumpet was loud and distorted, for the new work I decided to go for a more pure trumpet sound, using no distortion at all. Also, I make much wider use of the range of the trumpet: a technique which came out of the work of Bill Dixon. Using looped long tones give the pieces their flavor of early minimalism.

Later on, I heard a recording of one of David Daniell's pieces, and discovered to my surprise that he, too, was working with delay devices in his set-up, and also working with looped long-tones. So I asked him to play in the context of one of my brass pieces. He asked me what I wanted him to play. I said, "Just play what you would normally play.” The work that we were doing was that close, he made sense as the guitar player to work with.

Last week it was announced that you signed a two record deal with Northern-Spy, and the first one will be out in April. What can you tell us about it?

The first record with Northern-Spy, called Outdoor Spell, marks a real break from my past brass releases. When I returned to playing brass a few years back, I spent almost a year defining a complete new way, at least for me, of playing trumpet. No more distortion, no more wah-wah pedal, just pure trumpet, making use of its entire range, from the lowest pedal tones to high triple Cs. Outdoor Spell is the first release where we can hear this new style. The first piece has me on voice and trumpet. The second includes a Cuban percussionist that I know from Paris named Beatriz Rojas. And the final piece included the French improvisor Jean-Marc Montera on electric guitar and Kevin Shea on drums. Jean-Marc I've played with for years in France. He's also worked with groups as diverse as Sonic Youth and Patti Smith. He's essentially a free player, but he’s conversant in nearly all styles of guitar playing. Kevin also plays with Mostly Others Do the Killing, Peter Evans Quartet, and Talibam!

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

The last time we played in Philadelphia was at Ars Nova Workshop! We had a great time there and the sound system was really good. I think I was playing guitar in the context of a group called Essentialist. We had a blast, and I'm looking forward to visiting you guys again!

Rhys Chatham Brass Trio and Chris Forsyth will perform on Sunday, February 13 at International House (3701 Chestnut Street).


Philadelphia guitarist Chris Forsyth opens for Rhys Chatham Brass Trio on Sunday, February 13. A member of boundary-pushing, outsider trio Peeesseye and caretaker of the Evolving Ear imprint, Forsyth builds upon a firm foundation of minimalism, blues, improv, and psychedelic rock while always articulating new sonic terrains. In preparation for his performance, Ars Nova Workshop spoke to Chris about his recent tour with Tetuzi Akiyama, his upcoming Family Vineyard album Paranoid Cat, and Chatham’s influence on his work.

You played several dates late last year in duo with Japanese guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama. Was there a particular moment during your improvisations that stands out? Where the dialogue seemed to optimally connect?

I love the dynamic of touring with another artist because you get to hear them every night and see how their practice evolves (or doesn’t) each night. I've had great experiences traveling alongside other artists and sharing bills with them, like Steve Gunn and Ignatz and Es, as well as with bandmates in Peeesseye or Phantom Limb & Bison, where we'd be largely improvising or developing material every night together. But with Akiyama it was a combination of both, since we were each playing solo sets as well as duo sets most nights. He's simply one of the best guitarists I've ever heard and his breadth is really astonishing. That's one of the things I most respect about him.  He can make magic happen with the most abstract sound-oriented approach as well as straight up finger-picking or blues playing. He could probably jam with a squeaky door hinge and it'd be compelling. I think his "straight" playing - which is actually totally bent - is woefully under-documented, at least as far as I'm aware. Someone please put out an Akiyama solo finger picking record! I don't think he differentiates in a hierarchical way between idioms - he just kills. That's inspiring to me.

How does Paranoid Cat depart from and/or build upon your last record, 2009’s Dreams?

Well, in my mind, it's the logical extension of what Dreams started, which was the very simple notion of taking pieces I'd been playing solo on tour and fleshing them out in the studio with some very talented collaborators and friends. Over the last year or two that I was in Brooklyn (2008-2009), I was also experimenting with some band lineups, playing gigs with Peter Kerlin on bass and, initially, Ryan Sawyer on drums, and then, a little later and more consistently, with Mike Pride on drums. I've been playing with Mike off and on since 2000. These dudes all have rock n' roll hearts, but also totally sophisticated conceptions of music and big musical personalities. They know the power of a simple idea, they don't need a ton of direction, and they think fast.

But running a band is hard, especially when people like these guys are so busy, so I took these tunes that I've been playing live on tour and demoed them (an early, much shorter, acoustic version of the song "Paranoid Cat" appeared on the Imaginational Anthem IV: New Possibilities comp on Tompkins Square last year), and then went into the studio and slowly built up the tracks, often starting with me and Mike Pride's drums as the basic track. I overdubbed organ, bass guitar, and percussion myself.  Then I either conducted sessions with people who I thought could bring something to the pieces - Marc Orleans on pedal steel, Hans Chew on piano, Nate Wooley (another longtime collaborator) on trumpet - and farmed out some of the tracks to others to simply add stuff on their own - Koen Holtkamp's synths, Jaime Fennelly's harmonium overdub, and Shawn Edward Hansen's organ playing especially. On the basic tracks and the overdub sessions that I supervised, everything was largely done in just a few takes.  This whole process took about 18 sporadic months - six months of generating material and live woodshedding followed by six months of recording, followed by six months of waiting for the record to come out! The record was finished in August 2010. So, now that the record is done and the music is all there, I plan on doing gigs with a band lineup of this and other material. That's my main focus for 2011: a quartet that can play these pieces as well as improvise and make things happen on stage.

Like your past releases, both solo and with Peeesseye, Paranoid Cat features a diverse cast of collaborators. Do you see these musicians as conversing from distinctive aesthetics or as already occupying the same, albeit less obvious, musical continuum?

I don't know. I suppose people like to break things into formats that can be more easily digested, but, as I said, these people all have such broad conceptions of music that I see it as being all one thing. No one with any real depth draws their influence from a shallow pool.

You’ll be playing this show with organist Don Bruno. Is he a member of the new quartet you’ve assembled?

Don's a really brilliant multi-instrumentalist. One of the most astute musicians I've ever known. We have really deep roots and played a lot of music together in the early to mid 1990s - real formative experiences, psychic trekking. We've only recently started playing together again after a hiatus - I did some more trekking and he did some trekking and we ended kind of in the same place as we were when we left off, except I think we're both much better trekkers now. He'll be playing organ and synth alongside Mike Pride, Peter Kerlin, Hans Chew (piano), and I for some shows around the time of Paranoid Cat's release, including a live set on WFMU and a record release show at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, both on March 18. I'm in the process of setting up a Philly show for the group as well. In addition to Don's keyboard playing, I imagine he and I will also be doing some double guitar stuff as set lists develop and gigs get booked.  It's exciting.

Tonight you’ll be opening for Rhys Chatham, whose guitar ensembles you’ve participated in. How has Chatham influenced your own musical path?

Rhys's influence extends so far because he's been influencing people for so long that the people he's influenced have influenced other people. It's exponential. As far as my direct experience with him, sure, playing in the Crimson Grail guitar army for two successive years (including the rain-out year) kind of blew my mind. Some of it is that thing that I love so much - embracing the variables of having lots of people doing something that is essentially simple. Brilliant, but simple.  It's control, but it's also open to the accidents and collisions of the player's interpretation. So, even though it's a composed piece and purely an extension of his personal vision, there's improvisation and differences in every performance and the players’ individual idiosyncrasies are exploited. There's magic there. I love that.

Chris Forsyth and Rhys Chatham Brass Trio perform on Sunday, February 13 at International House (3701 Chestnut Street).


Planet Y, a Philadelphia duo consisting of Buchla Music Easel master Charles Cohen and guitarist Yanni Papadopoulos, will provide an opening set for Acid Birds on Friday night at Kung Fu Necktie. This is a very rare appearance by Planet Y, whose sole recording, 2007’s Space Station, is available in mp3 format through Thrill Jockey. Papadopoulos, well known as a founding member of Steve Albini-recorded power trio Stinking Lizaveta, spoke with Ars Nova Workshop in preparation for Friday’s show. Also be sure to check out the recent post by Pitchfork's Altered Zones about Cohen and Planet Y.

Stinking Lizaveta embrace metal and jazz. Often shoved into opposite corners of the sonic landscape, most people miss the overlap of these two categories. What are people missing?

Jazz and metal share a heroic quality. John Coltrane wanted to be a superman of his instrument in the jazz idiom. He destroyed jazz to recreate it. Similarly, Black Flag’s Greg Ginn aspired to be a superman of punk, and destroyed punk with Family Man. The "shredders" of jazz and metal are of the same mind, that's why Bill Laswell worked with Buckethead and Tony Williams in Arcana.

What metal record would you recommend to a jazz fan? What about a jazz record to a metal fan?

To a jazz fan I would recommend Leviathan by Mastodon; to a metal fan, Iron Path by Last Exit.

When did you meet Charles Cohen, and what was your first impression of the sounds he was making on the Buchla Music Easel?

I first met Charles at a noise festival called "Infest" at the Killtime in 1994. I thought the Music Easel perfectly expressed zen.

In Planet Y you play a dg-20 Casio digital guitar. How does this instrument compliment Charles’ Music Easel?

I send out a time code, so we are magically in synch. All our sounds are synthetic.

Planet Y released only one album, 2007’s Space Station. Are there any plans to release another?

I'd love to do another record.  It will happen.

What should new visitors to Planet Y be ready for?

Alien landscapes.

Acid Birds and Planet Y perform on Friday, February 4 at Kung Fu Necktie (1248 N. Front Street).