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Fred Lonberg-Holm July/August Residency celebrating 20 years in Chicago
Stirrup (Fred Lonberg-Holm – cello, Nick Macri – bass, Charles Rumback – drums
Fred Lonberg-Holm is the Elastic Arts Musician-in-Residence this summer. He’s also the first subject of the Now Is Podcast, a new Chicago-focused music podcast, hosted by Now-Is.org, in which musicians are played music without knowing what they’re going to hear, and asked to react in whatever way they see fit.
On July 3rd, 2015, Ben Remsen sat down with Fred Lonberg-Holm in his house in the Ukranian Village neighborhood of Chicago, petted his dog, and played him eleven tracks by his friends, collaborators, teachers, and peers. This is what he had to say.
Interview with Fred Lonberg-Holm, by Ben Remsen:
To find out about Fred’s recordings and performances, check out facebook.com/LonbergHolm.info.
Music in the preview/trailer:
“Autumn Leaves” from the Fred Lonberg-Holm Trio’s album A Valentine for Fred Katz (Atavistic).
Music in the interview:
Intro: 3 note song — Seval
from I know you, available from 482 Music
Excerpt from String Quartet No. 2 — Morton Feldman, performed by the FLUX Quartet
from String Quartet No. 2, available from Mode Records
Tom Chiu, violin
Cornelius Duffalo, violin
Kenji Bunch, viola
Darrett Adkins, cello
Opus 23E — Anthony Braxton from The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton, available from Mosaic Records
Anthony Braxton, flute, alto flute, sopranino sax, alto sax, clarinet, contrabass clarinet
Kenny Wheeler, trumpet, flugelhorn
Dave Holland, bass
Barry Altschul, drums
Total Preparation — The Ex and Tom Cora from Scrabbling at the Lock, available from The Ex Records
Terrie Ex, guitar
G. W. Sok, vocals
Luc Ex, bass
Andy Ex, guitar
Katrin Ex, drums, vocals
Tom Cora, cello
Pointed Stick — The Flying Luttenbachers live at the Knitting Factory 9/1/94 from YouTube, but many Flying Luttenbachers releases are available from Weasel Walter’s Bandcamp page
Weasel Walter, drums
Chad Organ, saxophones and moog
Dylan Posa, guitar
Jeb Bishop, trombone, bass, casio
Jim O’Rourke, synth
Comme à la Radio — Art Ensemble of Chicago and Brigitte Fontaine from Comme à la Radio, available from Saravah Records
Brigitte Fontaine, vocals
Malachi Favors, bass
Roscoe Mitchell, flute
Joseph Jarman, oboe, saxophone
Leo Smith, trumpet
Lester Bowie, trumpet
Pithecanthropus Erectus — Joe McPhee’s Po Music from Topology, once but no longer available from Hat Hut Records
Joe McPhee, pocket cornet
Raymond Boni, guitar
Daniel Bourquin, baritone sax
Andre Jaume, tenor sax
Radu Malfatti, trombone
Francois Mechali, bass
Irene Schweitzer, piano
Mackle Music — John Butcher from 13 Friendly Numbers, available from Unsounds Records
John Butcher, reeds
excerpt from Part 1 — Die Like a Dog from Little Birds Have Fast Hearts, once but no longer available from Atavistic Records
Peter Brötzmann, reeds
Hamid Drake, percussion
Toshinori Kondo, trumpet
William Parker, bass
Queer Disco Anthem — God Is My Co-Pilot from The Best of God Is My Co-Pilot, available from Cargo Records
Sharon Topper, Craig Flanagin, and maybe others?
White Lightning — Henry Flynt from Back Porch Hillbilly Blues, volume 2, once but no longer available from Locust Music, which no longer seems to exist
Henry Flynt, violin
Snowflakes and Sunshine — Ornette Coleman Trio from At the Golden Circle, volume 2, available from Blue Note Records
Ornette Coleman, violin, saxophone, trumpet
David Izenzon, bass
Charles Moffett, drums
From the furthest reaches of the the internet, circa ’97. Thanks to Josh Ronson for resurrecting the “dead” file.
When we last left off, I was asking myself why I continued to improvise and listen to others improvise in spite of how much of it sucked (my work not excepted). I realized that it wasn’t clear to me except that there was something about the pure state that seemed so unobtainable that it created a vacuum that continued to pull me towards it.
You are quoted as saying you were against good improvisation.
Actually, I don’t really mind “good” improvisation. I just don’t see the point. Some people have referred to you as being a “good” improviser. Fortunately, not that many. When it’s said to my face, I usually end up getting called much worse things after I get done telling them off. For that reason I have decided to be a little less obnoxious to generally well meaning people although in this context I am not going to tone it down.
It always felt as if so much of what is recognized as being good improvisation, really wasn’t improvisation at all. Instead it was sort of a form of cheap composition in the sense that a logic structure, sounds and structure were pre-chosen and adhered to. What made it cheap was the lack of insight being demonstrated into even these simple forms. Of course, nobody wants to say “hey, come and check out my cheap composition gig, so instead they call it “improvisation” as though because they aren’t reading music, that makes it improvisation. That doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy the music they create. In fact by laying a few ground rules, the results are often better. Its just not improvisation at that point. I guess that when it becomes “good” it ceases to be improvised.
So why do you think people call it improvisation?
The excuse seemed to be that “we are all free” from some central dictator in the guise of composer and we collectively are making a “new” thing for you to listen too, one of which never existed before, but… in reality there were 20,000 just like it floating about already. Further, little of it is really “free”, usually at best it was a battle between their limitations and their selves (which I will agree, is often pretty entertaining).
So, is improvisation supposed to lead to a new thing each time?
Well, perhaps not, but let’s say for the sake of the argument, that it is. Obviously, there are only so many times we can pat someone on the head for thinking of the wheel and still allow them to think each time its different (“this wheel is made of rubber and is 13.5 inches diameter, a unique one!”…[laughs]). If one is going to make something “new” on the spot, hadn’t it ought to really be? This is why I refuse to predescribe what I will play as an improvisation. It might just end up being a rehash (people seem to like the rehashes best, even if they are called improvisations). I do have to consider the fact that the quest for the improvised state is a very trivial concern in the larger picture of things and certainly don’t demand that everyone share my passion. After all, if we all sat around dreaming about shit like this, well… who knows what would, or worse, wouldn’t happen. Thank god airplane pilots don’t ask themselves “is this a new way to land this plane?” No, fortunately, they know there is a right way to do it and they try to do it right every time. Of course, the issues for an improviser are very different from the concerns of pilots (I hope) and for me these issues are of the greatest importance. (One link between improviser and airplane pilots would of course be that regardless of how many people are in the plane/audience, they should both try to do what they do with as much integrity as possible. Could you imagine the pilot saying “well only three passengers, guess I can be lazy on this trip? It’s simply that the issues are different.)
So, what constitutes “good” improvisation?
As there exists many types of improvisers, each having different criteria, this question is almost impossible to answer. For the sake of this conversation, I will attempt to be as general as possible but will not concern myself with music where the performers are making up their parts under the awning of a “composition” no matter how loose it might be (not that there aren’t similarities). Of course, even within the realm of “total” improvised music (where no one is in any way directed or externally organized) there are still many schools of thought and will therefore describe attributes which can be used to describe many types of “successful” improvised music.
The “good” improviser:
avoids embarrassing himself and those with which she is playing
pays attention to everything going on around her
demonstrates that he is listening
plays things which compliment the overall sound of the ensemble
is not so loud she obliterates those around him
is in basic control of the instrument
keeps playing until she is sure those around him are through
tries to make sure the event (sound, section, piece, gig) was worth hearing
sets out to make a “piece” with beginning, middle, and end
refrains from timbres that are shrill or muddy
knows she is “bad” and that you are right to be “digging” it
does not waste our time with self indulgent tedium
contributes to the veneer that “this is serious”
does not rub our faces in our small mindedness and other less than excellent traits (which we, myself especially, have many of).
Of course not all these rules apply to all forms, but in the vast majority of popular (to whatever extent) and recognized (by more than a few fringe types) improvised musics adhere to most of these rules. By willfully disregarding more than a few of them, the improviser will probably quickly find a very limited group of people to play with regardless of the number of improvisers that exist in their town.
I would say that you are proof to the contrary. In fact I would say you are being disingenuous by saying these restrictions exist at all.
Well I try to bend a rule here or there but am guilty on some level of adhering to many of these tenets. Part of it comes from my immense need to be accepted and liked and part of it comes from my aforementioned small-mindedness. Hell, many of my best friends follow most of the “laws” to the letter. Also, while I might not have been shunned by the entire world, there are still quite a few improvisers who would do anything not to have to play with me (not that I am complaining). Anyway, the problem is not which rules we recognize, but the formulation and adherence to any rules. If the rule was that you had to start an improvisation by yelling the word “start” at the beginning, we would immediately recognize this as an autopilot activity and discard it. However, the rules that have developed over the past two decades in improvised music are not so audible, but so widespread that by now they should have been relegated to the composition department of major universities (in fact they have, with more and more schools accepting and encouraging “improvisers” to function within their confines).
Maybe we could back up a minute and talk about what improv is.
Well the first thing to obliterate from our vocabulary is the shorthanded “improv.” This term reflects a basic laziness that informs too much of the contemporary dialogue. Perhaps it’s good enough for the theater crowd, but musicians should have more respect for the discipline. I know that seems to negate what I said before about rules, but… like I said, my small mind is no excuse. Besides, by shortening everything to “buzz words” we lose contact with much of what words mean. Suppose from now on I only spoke in abbreviations? Wd u njoy ‘t? Evenly ud 3rd seas’n way ’till it’d b imposs 2 ascer m ming, kno? [laughsl Anyway, “what is improvisation?”. A friend of mine (who is a very established and respected “improviser”, once told me that when asked this question, he replied that “it was what people do when they lose the instruction manual.” A fine definition, too bad I have never heard him in the “open” give the slightest impression that he didn’t know all the features of his tools (both physical and sonic). If he did lose the manuals, it was only after having committed them to memory. Usually he falls back on a rather large bag of tricks that include about 20 “folk” styles, 18 “jazz” riffs and about 25 “noises.” Actually, I did once really enjoy a performance of his, but later he told me he remembered it as one of his worst gigs. But I am cool with this. He has a wife and kid and it’s not his fault that he has to use a marketing gimmick, and being hooked up to the “improv” circuit in Europe, well…its only natural. I just wish he wouldn’t continue to have to call it improvisation. In a better world he would be given the license to say its just _(his name here)_’s music and that’s that.
That takes me nicely into the next question I wanted to ask you. I heard you make some snide comments recently about professionalism. What do you have against it?
Well, I would hope that by now it would be clear that I have nothing against professionalism. I too would like to be one. I just think that our culture can not support what a real professional improviser would be about. We can, and do support professional entertainers, but this requires a certain amount of consistency in the “product” being “sold.” How can and why should an improviser be expected to “deliver?” And by deliver I mean put on a “good” show. Yet if she can’t, why would an audience of any significant number be expected to make a point of showing up? I go to lots of concerts expecting nothing (if 1 in 10 really works for me, I’m surprised and have to wonder if I am getting fat and lazy). Of course, my criteria are different from the average consumer, and this is as it should be. But most people don’t have that kind of obsession or patience. They work hard and lead complicated enough lives as it is, why shouldn’t they expect to be pleased with their decisions about what to do with their extra time and money? To make sure they leave feeling good, we fall back on the familiar devices that we know work. Of course, I also don’t think that we should have to support cranky obstinate types so they can go on with their private research. Ideally, we all have some personal investigations going on and who is to say which are more valuable? But this doesn’t negate the idea that “if it works, it’s obsolete.” [B. Marcus]
Seems like we have drifted a bit.
But I wanted to ask you about your solo work. You seem to refuse to call any of it improvisation although some of it seems to be just that. To top it off, you are traveling around playing in places that cater to improvised music and that present you as an improviser.
Well, I can’t be expected to control the presenters. I do my best to dissuade them, but… unfortunately, the barriers around different establishments are quite formidable. I would prefer to play in Carnegie Hall: “Lonberg-Holm plays Lonberg-Holm”; so would quite a few of us, but instead, we try to present our music where we can. Sure it’s the old “ghetto” trap, but when did I say I was an organizational/marketing genius. Of course, in the old fashioned sense of improvisation, I guess you could say that that I was doing just that. I don’t do “set” pieces. At best I know what the vocabulary might be for a piece and sometimes I sabotage myself in some way in order to make that vocabulary impossible and then have to find some other solution, but…I usually start with a small piece of material and build a structure for it allowing other materials in when the primary one is in need of some sort of support or antagonism. But, there just don’t exist enough variables in the one person situation to really justify calling it improvisation. Without another person getting involved (in my way?) I don’t encounter the kind of resistance that would qualify my work as improvisation. That doesn’t mean that I dislike playing alone, it just means that I have to remain clear that what I am not doing is improvising.
Did I ask you why you improvise?
Well, I touched on that in the opening. But I want to point out that I’m not a “hardliner”, improvised music is only one of many things I am interested in playing and listening to. Although, at its best, nothing can match the raw, dirty, beautiful ugliness of improvisation, I sometimes think that improvisation (as distinct from oral culture) is at a point right now where there aren’t many really interesting things that can happen (surprise?). The main thing right now is to not become defeatist and instead to continue the activity of improvising, critically evaluate it, and hope that we might make a major leap in the future. I wonder about the kids who come to gigs with their parents. Are they hearing the sounds only, or are they absorbing the underlying principles? What are these principles? Are they really what we want them to be? Will they reject it all? Or will they re-invent it?
Is improvised music worthwhile?
Perhaps not, but that is not of any real interest to me.