Monday, January 01, 2007

Marc Medwin

Previous to the inception of The Dixon Society, the prolific and eloquent Marc Medwin posted two articles for consideration by the think tank that is Bagatellen. These insightful articles and, more to the point, the undeniable reactions that followed were pivotal in the decision to create The Dixon Society and establish this unofficial outpost of the Institute for Black Music Studies Research and Performance.

It seemed somehow seemed pre-ordained that Marc should be the first Friend of Bill Dixon to be interviewed. Among other things, Marc talks about his path to Dixon and the hysteria he's encountered along the way.

Thank you Marc Medwin!

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The Dixon Society: When did you first hear Bill's music? What where the circumstances? What did you hear?

Marc Medwin: I didn't hear his music until after I'd heard about his ability to tell a story. It was probably about a year and a half ago, and I remember deciding that I'd better investigate this trumpet player at some point. I was doing a really deep study of Cecil Taylor's music, so I heard Conquistador, but honestly, I didn't really concentrate on what Dixon was doing there--I was mainly listening to Taylor, which I now see was a big mistake.

Then, I heard a disc of Taylor, Dixon and drummer Tony Oxley in a trio performance at Victoriaville 2002. That changed everything. I really listened to Dixon for the first time, but I also heard the other two musicians, whose work I thought I knew, in a decidedly different and entirely new context. This would have been last January when that happened. Do you want more detail on what I heard, or about anything else I've said here? As Dixon says so often, I just want to be clear.

Q: Tell us about the nature and circumstances behind your study of Cecil Taylor

M. M.: I first heard his music, or rather his music in contrast with his voice, on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz--this must have been in 1986, but we'll have to look that one up. I knew nothing about his work, and the only "free" "jazz" I'd heard to that point was some of Chic Corea's work with Braxton in the band Circle--the Paris Concert where they play Nefertiti. The upshot was that I wasn't entirely unaware of the language Taylor was using, so I continued to listen. However, it was his voice that really got me! On that occasion, he was very quiet, and I remember that when McPartland concluded a standard, I think it was Chelsea Bridge, he said "That was beautiful." What? How could you just say that when you played the ugliest, nastiest... except that voice, and those quiet passages...

So I had to think, and I didn't confront Taylor's music again until 2005, when I was ready to do so.

Taylor's music taught me how to listen on a larger scale, maybe something I should have learned from late Coltrane, and Dixon got me listening to details again. I first found Taylor's music easier to digest if I absorb, then later analyze specific moments. I have spoken with him on several occasions, and while he has been forthcoming on many subjects, the construction of his music is not one of them. I don't blame him.

Q: I know you are a piano player, and clearly you are well listened. Tell us a little about your personal involvement in music (then and now) and how you came to investigate Taylor's (and later Dixon's) music in 2005 when (in your words) "you were ready to do so?" What was going on for you in 2005? What were you listening to prior to
that time?

MM: You asked for it: You have to understand that music has, until very recently, been a very private experience for me. I certainly improvised as a child, but I very rarely showed anything to anybody. I never wanted to write songs, which is what I was always told you were supposed to do, and the few people I showed my music said it was fragmented, had no melody, was like a collage--you get the idea? So I was somewhat discouraged, thinking that what those fantastic musicians I was listening to were doing had nothing to do with what I was doing--I felt as if we lived on separate planets. One of my first musical heroes was Frank Zappa, because he got away with all that collage amidst some song structures and some extraordinarily complex music. Then it was Pink Floyd, Hendrix, King Crimson, Yes--mainly things in the "progressive" arena, until my next door neighbor introduced me to Fred Frith in 1986—that changed everything.

1985-1986 was a very important year for me, as I was given a decent stereo, had a Bar Mitzvah and was given gift certificates to local record stores by almost everyone. I got to explore, purchasing everything from Keith Jarrett to the earliest Muddy Waters recordings—you know those 1941-42 discs that Lomax made? They also were a formative influence on me. The stereo meant that I could hear details I'd never heard before, so listening became a different experience every time I did it.

The first jazz I really studied, moment to moment, was Duke Ellington—this would have been the same year, probably early 1986, when I found some LP reissues of the Cotton Club Material. I'd heard early Louis Armstrong, and while I noticed the similarities between 1920s Ellington and what Louis was doing, Ellington kept me coming back more frequently in those days. Black and Tan Fantasy really floored me--the chords in the bridge, the non-blues section, with the beautiful saxophone over them and the chromatic harmonies during the break before it is repeated--I can hear it all in my head any time I want. I'm talking about the RCA version, with that fantastic Bubber Miley muted trumpet! My studies in classical piano (oh how I hated them!) showed me it was Chopin quoted at the end of the tune, and I thought that was brilliant!

I should also give a big thank you to NPR, without whose late-night programming I'd never have heard the many things I now treasure. It was there that I first heard Ellington's Carnegie Hall concert of 1943, and the impact almost made me sick. Was this possible? Did the same person that wrote those "jungle" pieces write Black, Brown and Beige? Then I had to buy everything by Ellington that I could, and Emmerson Lake and Palmer just didn't do it for me in the same way. I'd come back to art-rock later. In 1986 and 1987, it was Ellington, King Oliver, Fats Waller, the Bennie Goodman Carnegie Hall concert of 1938, Chick Webb's band--that is, as much as I could afford by all these people! I remember buying things for my parents on holidays that I really wanted to hear so I could get away with it--for some reason, they did not look favorably on my buying records.

From 1988-1991, I was back into art-rock, but it was Henry Cow, National Health, Soft Machine, Gong--in short, things with more of a jazz influence. Then, in 1991, I heard the Bartok third string quartet under what we'll just call interesting conditions, and then it was an eight-year journey though classical music, beginning with Bartok and stretching out, simultaneously backwards and forwards.

It was only after I stopped taking piano lessons, when I went off to college that I began to enjoy playing. I have always been fascinated by electronics, and I pretended I was Jan Hammer that summer we both were at Berklee in 1989--one of the best summers of my life! Of course, my classical phase lead me to Varese, Xenakis, Ligeti (to whom I once sent five of my own compositions but got no response) and Nancarrow.

In brief, I took five years to get into musicology grad school after getting a degree in English. I got my history chops up, learned to play continuo voicings to realize figured bass, that sort of thing. I listened the whole time, Penderecke, Mahler, Schonberg, Sorabji--you name it I ate it up! When I entered grad school in 2000, I never thought I'd study jazz! I was going to do a dissertation on Messiaen, and I even got a proposal written and defended on the subject.

I've not spent too much time on Trane, because that's difficult to discuss. The first time I heard late Coltrane was on a weekly show that was dedicated to the Grateful Dead, who’s 60s and 70s work I enjoy very much. I don't even know what was played, but it was so disturbing to me that I didn't want to hear it--Duke Ellington was easier to take! In 1992, I was in a college class where the opening of Meditations was played, and I decided then that I needed to listen to this music at some point. All those shofar-fifths and that small melodic fragment exuding such power, springing up like a flower amidst the concrete rattlings, rusty janglings, tonal, even familiar, but so far away from recognizability ...

The time came in 1999, during the summer, when another neighbor let me borrow the Village Vanguard Master-takes, and India proved to be another of those formative moments. All that fantastic music, excitement and energy followed by about six people clapping! I went out and bought everything by Coltrane that I could find--box sets and reissues of all sorts; this was the beginning of a split in my focus. Here I was studying classical music, while this growing re-appreciation of jazz was brewing.

Grad school was ... well, what grad school is, an endurance test--exam after exam, papers, boatloads of reading nobody completes, let's be honest about it, and the masters thesis, which I chose to do on Coltrane! I never thought I'd do that, it was a blast, I thought I'd have two areas from which to create academic credibility--great!! Then the dissertation, for which I defended the Messiaen proposal in 2004--everybody was happy. Except me.

Just after defending that proposal, I got introduced to some local musicians, I started playing keyboards again, even in public, I began to write reviews and features for magazines, I started meeting musicians ... I love Messiaen's music to this day, dearly, but the rift between my studies and my passion was growing.

When I made the decision to switch topics in 2005, everything changed. I could dedicate myself, freely and without restraint, to the music about which I care more every day. I could study all aspects of it, from the earliest contentious utterances of the ODJB to Cooper-Moore's work for Hopscotch.

I studied Taylor's work in the same way I studied Sun Ra's--a hell of a lot of listening, try to pick out some things on the piano, skeletons of things at first and then try to speak the language as best I could.

Then came Dixon.

I feel now as if I'd been preparing for Dixon's work from the time I really became serious about music, and I'm not even sure when that was. His music demands as much repeated listening, study and absorption as he puts into it. The rewards match the effort. I should say here that at first, I enjoyed our conversations even more than the music. It wasn't until late March, 2006, that I heard, really and truly perceived the absolute genius in his solos. I was listening to disc 4 of Odyssey after a gig one night, and I had one of those moments of ... knowing? Revelation? Hard to describe to anyone that hasn't experienced it--it isn't like "Wow what a great passage" or "that piece went beautifully into the next." Best I can do is say, as I've said elsewhere, that I evolved, that something opened up and allowed me a larger perspective on everything I thought I understood. I tried to explain this to Dixon the next day, and his response was "You can't stop there. It's not enough to listen to Odyssey once in a while and have a moment or two of clarity." He was absolutely right--it was only the beginning of the very logical process of coming to terms with a body of work that exist in, of and for itself.

Q: Here is a list of the musicians you mentioned and the order in which you mentioned them.

Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Hendrix, King Crimson, Yes, Fred Frith, Keith Jarrett, Muddy Waters, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bubber Miley, Chopin, Emmerson Lake and Palmer, King Oliver, Fats Waller, Bennie Goodman, Henry Cow, National Health, Soft Machine, Gong, Bartok, Jan Hammer, Varese, Xenakis, Ligeti, Nancarrow, Penderecke, Mahler, Schoenberg, Sorabji, Messiaen, The Grateful Dead, John Coltrane, ODJB, Cooper-Moore, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Bill Dixon.

Q: Do you have a 'unified theory' on all these musicians? What was it about them and not someone else?

M.M.: No, I don't have a unified theory about them. I chose them because they seemed to fit the context of what I was saying to you at the time, and yes there were many others! Much of my time has been spent listening, and much of what I hear impacts me in some way.

Q: To put it awkwardly, do you consider Emmerson Lake and Palmer as being in the same (musical) phylum as Schoenberg, and Schoenberg with Fats Waller? What are your thoughts on the mechanism of influence?

M.M.: Not sure how to tackle this one except with yet another reminiscence. I once had an argument with several die-hard fans about whether the Beatles were the greatest musicians of all time--ever. One of my attempted rebuttals to this ridiculous proposition was that music history had to be taken into consideration. In that light, it would be very difficult to put ELP in the same musical phylum(?) as either Schonberg or Waller. Both composers engaged musical form on several levels, and while Waller will most likely continue to be remembered, by most, for some stunning pianism and infectious vocal delivery, his musical scope and vision far exceed such considerations.

Schonberg also wrote popular songs, but of course, they are dwarfed by his other accomplishments. As for ELP, they were far from the first power trio, not the first guitar-less trio, not the first to combine classical and rock forms, not particularly boundary-breaking in form or timbre ... you get my point. Yes I still enjoy listening to them, very occasionally.

Q: Who do you think are Dixon's influences? Who do you hear in Bill Dixon?

M.M.: This is a very difficult and complex question, and I'd qualify my answer by saying that I'm getting more familiar with his music every day, but it's all fairly new to me. Beyond that, I think it depends on what period of his work is under discussion. The first recording for Savoy, the Dixon/Shepp quartet LP from 1962, has a fair amount of tradition on the surface--I hear some Coleman and Mingus, even in the Bernstein interpretation! The four years from that record to Intents and Purposes saw an extraordinary shift in aesthetic, leading me to believe that even in 1962, Dixon's musical vision had really evolved far beyond his work with Shepp. As I've written elsewhere, the piece written for the Conservatory Orchestra of the University of the Streets suggests, or encompasses, or transcends, everything from Ellington to Coltrane's Ascension. It remains fragmentary, but the surviving material as I have heard it speaks to an expansion of Intents and Purpose's sound-world.

I am assuming familiarity with Dixon's work, so let me know what needs to be flushed out. After UOS, influence is increasingly hard to ascribe. To say that I hear Webern in the piece called Webern would be to say that I hear Bach in Webern's own string quartet. The voice is so original, so removed in a very fundamental way, that influence becomes, I'd say, a moot point.

Q: Do you have the same difficult ascribing influence with other artists as you do with Dixon? Can you name any other artists whose voice is as original or as removed as Dixon's?

M.M.: Tough call! Again, I invoke the nightmare of history! Better to say that I don't hear very many moving forward as restlessly as Dixon has been. Yes, the effects he uses remain the same and are used similarly, but what he's doing rhythmically and timbrally continues to evolve. I don't mean to sidestep your question here. I have spent the last few days considering the question of originality--Messiaen seems quite unique to me, as does Coltrane, and Coltrane did pursue a restlessly forward motion throughout his work similar to what I hear in Dixon--not specifically of course, but the idea of development, of ceaseless striving. Of course other artists fit the uncategorizable bill--AMM, Throbbing Gristle, Merzbow--where to begin?

Q: Do you have a favorite period of Dixon's work? A favorite album? If so, what about that period or work do you find exemplary?

M.M.: This answer is not a copout. Dixon's done so many fantastic things throughout the last 42 years that I'd have trouble choosing a favorite period or disc. That said, Papyrus is in constant rotation around here, both volumes, and the trio disc with Taylor and Oxley from Victo 2002. In these more recent recordings, Dixon can evoke a world with one note and the shifts in what I'm clumsily calling timbre from note to note are stunning.

I've never heard a trumpet sound like a flute before, let alone a tuba, and he does both. Lately, I've been listening to his playing on Taylor's Conquistador, and I'm convinced that he helps make that session what it is--great playing all around mind you, but if you'll notice, when it's Dixon's turn to play, everything recedes for him--really a wonderful moment!

Q: I know the receding moment of which you speak. Indeed, that moment encapsulates so much of Dixon's aesthetic, his strident originality and the reaction he so often elicits; shock followed by hysteria either for or against. As mentioned in the introduction, part of The Dixon Society's genesis stems from the reactions on to the 2002 Victoriaville recording as well as the reactions to your birthday posting. What is it about Bill Dixon that elicits such strong reactions? Can you think of anyone else who is treated (in the press, at least) in the same way? What do you make of Dixon's treatment by music writers and the press?

M.M.: When I first met Dixon, he told me how his work was ignored, trashed, underappreciated--not in that order--and I thought, "Certainly, another underappreciated ignored reviled musician, I'll file that under unfortunate." It's not that I didn't believe him; I just didn't think his case was unique. I do now. I started realizing that something was strangely afoot when I posted the little piece about the Victoriaville trio, and the reactions are still up, absolutely public. Of all the things I've ever written, none has gotten the kinds of comments that my Dixon pieces have received.

Why? Part of me thinks that he's spent so long making his opinions known, in no uncertain terms, that such reactions are, as you might say, a racing certainty. There's no guessing with Dixon, he doesn't couch his opinions in mystique or in eccentricity. He can be blunt, no, absolutely brutal, always a teacher at heart and an effective if ruthless one, and I have never had a conversation with anyone like him.

None of that should effect how his music is perceived, but I think that it does. My feeling is that we accept inferior music from others because they fit the social/political/racial/spiritual frameworks and modes of discourse we have fashioned to give ourselves comfort regarding this music. Let me say here that I'm no different—I don't like having my feathers ruffled any more than the next person, and Dixon's views and music have done so many times already. No, I've never seen anyone treated like that in the press--I looked. Oh sure, people get their stuff trashed and artists' best works are often misunderstood. This is different--it seems to me that many (you want names?) have attempted to white-wash Dixon's accomplishments, to erase them, to pretend that he didn't do what he did. They lie about it, they take credit for things they didn't do, and they label his music inefficiently, almost in some kind of anti-description mode...

Q: What do you think it is about the Victoriaville trio that elicits such hysteria? What do you think the 'triggers' are? How would you compare that recording to the rest of Dixon's output?

M.M.: OK, I've spent a lot of time thinking about this one. I was going to say that it's the fact that Dixon necessitates entrance into his universe, but every player does that, right? Nobody gives Cecil a hard time these days for releasing box sets of, shall we say, dynamically rigorous imponderables? They come to expect a certain aesthetic from him, and when it isn't forthcoming, they begin to squawk. So it's not that one musician takes the lead--it's something about Dixon's way of playing, something about the particular universe he creates that causes distress or rapture. Dixon's work has always involved a certain degree of space, of pregnant pause, but that has increased over the last fifteen years. Now, colored silence (isn't that Stockhausen?) has pervaded his work, becoming just as important a component of every phrase as is any utterance. In fact, the boundaries are blurred--witness Dixon's pitched clouds of air in the lower registers.

Taylor and Oxley's work with the Feel Trio presents an aesthetic with which Dixon simply refuses to engage. His playing has become self-analytical from moment to moment, each phrase (whatever it entails) carefully molded, judged and acted upon. Do I need to make it clear that I mean no dismissal of his spontaneity? On the contrary—it seems to me that Dixon has reached a crystal center of improvisation in which he is fully aware, analytically and emotionally, of every gesture. Such awareness is formidable enough to make those around you take notice and act accordingly, even two stunningly original talents like Oxley and Taylor. Again, do I really need to say that I respect both immensely? I'm only trying to come to terms with something I hear that goes beyond the stereotypes, negative and positive, associated with a trio date.

Q: What’s been going for Marc Medwin, and what's on the horizion?

M.M.: I gave a paper at the first International Society for Improvised Music meeting in An Arbor Michigan, Dec. 1-3, 2006. It was called: Sequences and Resonances: Improvisation and Composition in the Ensemble Works of Bill Dixon." People kind of came and went throughout my fifty minutes, which they did at all of the events, but I got some very nice responses to what I presented. It was a paper that I'd given at the local AMS in October, but I expanded it, incorporating other pieces and comparing the ensemble works with two tracks from November 1981--Webern and Another Quiet Feeling. The main body was an analysis of Orchestra Piece and Sequences, both from Considerations vol. 2

The other paper, coming up in March, will be presented in Leeds as part of the Leeds International Jazz Conference. It's going to be a study of the music written for the Free Conservatory Orchestra of the University of the Streets. I haven't written it yet.

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Thanks again to Marc Medwin.

Are you a friend of Bill Dixon? Have you performed with Bill Dixon? Did you study with Bill at the University of the Streets, University of Wisconsin/Madison or the Bennington College Black Music Department? We'd love to hear from you! Send an e-mail!



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