Sunday, May 06, 2007

Matt Weston

For years now Matt Weston has endured the consequences of being technologically and aesthetically ahead of his time. When released, Matt's recording Vacuums had precious little antecedent, resonant to but a few. Now it's called EAI, and everyone is feeling good about using their big words to talk about it.

Since that time Matt has not been idle. A consummate percussionist/musician/composer and bright light in the unincorporated anti bullshit league, Matt Weston graciously answered the Dixon Society's questions.

Thank you Matt!

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The Dixon Society: When did you first hear the music of Bill Dixon? What were the circumstances?

Matt Weston: I first heard Bill Dixon at the Music Faculty Concert at the beginning of my freshman year at Bennington College, Fall Term, 1991. He was playing in a trio with trumpeter-composer Arthur Brooks and percussionist Gary Sojkowski.

Q: Where were you in your musical development?

A: Even though I'd been playing drums since I was 8, I was more interested at that time in playing guitar and bass and writing and recording songs. I recorded something like 30 or 40 songs over the previous three years, and since I could only see myself continuing along those lines, I didn't see how any music studies at Bennington would fit into that plan, but various records and events conspired to start derailing me from this path.

Every college music program I'd investigated would have just compounded the sterile agony of being The Percussionist in An Orchestra. I'd had enough of that in high school. On my one visit to Bennington prior to attending I heard nothing whatsoever about Bill Dixon or the Black Music Division (in past or present incarnations), and was instead encouraged to sit in on a class taught by Lou Calabro (I've often wondered how many prospective students were deliberately steered away from sitting in on Bill's classes -- because it's no secret that the administration was/is racist). It was a thoroughly depressing experience: theoretical cleverness for its own sake seemed to be the paramount concern, whereas actually saying something (or, more importantly, challenging the students to say something) was not on anyone's radar. And every student in the class was roundly affirmed, no matter how half-baked their ideas were. The actual execution of said ideas didn't even come up -- I was later to learn that writing unplayed/unplayable, and therefore unheard, pieces was something of a Bennington Music Division tradition in pointlessness. That night I attended a vocalist's senior concert. I was absolutely floored at how fundamentally mediocre it was, and my hosts agreed with me, basically saying that the music division is something of a joke. I asked my hosts if that vocalist would be allowed to graduate. "Of course," was their reply. So I had no intention whatsoever of studying music at Bennington. I didn't even bring my drums freshman year.

Q: What music had influenced you previously and how did Dixon's music sound set against that backdrop?

A: As for what music influenced me previously, it's difficult for me to be concise about that. The first music I remember hearing was The Beatles Second Album and the Count Basie Trio's For The First Time, which I heard around the same time. From that point on followed that influence (I didn't hear them as musics that were necessarily distinct from or opposed to one another, and they weren't introduced to me as such). When I started playing drums the only way I was able to learn was by listening. I obsessively played along to records -- some of the more significant ones were the MC5 compilation Babes In Arms; the first Clash album; the Replacements’ Let It Be; the Jimi Hendrix Experience's Are You Experienced; and, on a couple of occasions when I felt particularly adventurous, the Who's Live At Leeds). I was always able to play something that a teacher played for me, but had a hard time making sense of written music, the archaic hurdle of which is still something I've never come to terms with. Anyway, once I started listening to the Who, my fate was sealed. In fact, the line from the Who to this music is ridiculously clean and direct: as instrumentalists they ignored (as opposed to actively fought against) their traditionally-prescribed roles. Plus, there was this absurd level of awkward, unselfconscious drama. In certain ways, these were the qualities I looked for in music (consciously or otherwise) from that point on. The Who led me to the MC5, the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, Husker Du, Green, James Brown, and later Public Enemy. After I became immersed in This music, I started re-connecting the threads; it turns out the MC5 wanted to sound like Albert Ayler, Hendrix wanted to be Coltrane, and Pete Townshend was a huge Sun Ra fanatic.

I had spent the year or so prior to Bennington living in a tiny apartment in Chicago, working full time, and trying to make a go of the band I was in (I was playing bass guitar, singing, and writing the songs). We went nowhere much faster than I thought we would, and I was at loose ends in terms of what I'd be doing musically. However, during this time, there were a handful of records that dramatically opened me up to new possibilities.

One was the Stooges' Fun House, something my brother insisted I listen to (he had actually tried to get me to listen to Albert Ayler a year earlier; for whatever reason, I just couldn't hear it). There was nothing unfamiliar-sounding about it; after all, at that point I'd already duly digested Sonic Youth's Sister and Daydream Nation (for which Fun House was essentially the jumping-off point). But when I heard the song "L.A. Blues" I immediately thought, "OK. I haven't heard this before. And this is possible." Soon after that I listened to Pere Ubu's Dub Housing (again, foisted upon me by my older brother). I actually hated this record the first time I heard it; I loved it immediately thereafter, and realized that something was happening. There was a thread that had worked itself through all of the music I'd previously listened to (the Who, James Brown, the MC5), and was currently listening to (Public Enemy, the Stooges, Pere Ubu...add Stevie Wonder's 70s works in there, and Television's Marquee Moon), and I had this incredibly strong sense that it was leading me somewhere. I had no idea where until I heard Bill Dixon. At that moment everything perfectly and dramatically fell into place; every connection that needed to be made for me was made the very instant I first heard Bill Dixon. It was one of the only times I'd ever experienced this: I heard exactly what I needed to hear at exactly the moment I needed to hear it, and yet I'd never heard anything like it before (I had a similar reaction to the Charles Gayle - Hugh Glover - Milford Graves - William Parker concert of October 16, 1991). It was as challenging as it was distquietingly familiar. I remember Arthur Brooks characterized an early encounter of his with John Coltrane's music as "like opening the door to the sun." It was like that. Everything I'd ever played and listened to...hell, just everything, period...led directly to that moment. I remember that time at Bennington as being rainy a lot, and as usual I was constantly annoyed by everything, but I felt this sense of almost unbearable excitement and anticipation -- I immediately thought, I'm here for four years, it starts right now, and I'm gonna work as hard as I possibly can to get the most out of this situation. The moment I heard Bill Dixon I made the decision that THIS was what I was going to do, and I tried to remove myself as much as possible from anything that might distract me from it.

Q: Initially you were so underwhelmed with the music offerings at Bennington College that you didn't even consider musical study. Later, you liken a faculty concert by Bill Dixon to "opening the door to the sun." What do you make of the extreme difference in effect? What was it about the un-inspiring music of Bennington College that made it so un-inspiring? What made it so anti-motivational?

A: I couldn't see any difference in the way music was being taught at Bennington from how it was being taught at my high school. Bennington was supposed to allow for that which wasn't allowed in more "traditional" institutions. And the only non-traditional thing I could see in the Music Division was the fact that students were allowed to slide by without being able to compose or play anything; in essence, without learning anything, much less being challenged. The Black Music Division was the polar opposite of this. For Bill, encouraging students and challenging them was the same thing. He wrote and structured pieces around how we played, around our strengths and weaknesses -- this sort of thing did not exist, at any level, in the Music Division -- no one in the music division listened, and none of the students were encouraged to listen, so it was this hopeless vortex of near-comical nothingness.

Not only did Bill expose scores of students to areas of music we hadn't experienced before, it was something that simply did not exist in any other educational institution. And despite being one of the only academic divisions at Bennington to actually take the school at its word (in terms of educational philosophies), the racist Bennington administration did everything they could to prevent the studies of this music from being acknowledged at the school.

Q: How would you compare Dixon's pedagogical methods to the 'norm' as you experienced them at Bennington College? Were they different? Were they more or less effective?

A: My Music Division classes were frustrating. I got into an argument with the Composition teacher about rap. He said, "You really think that's music?!" All I could think was, here we are in the middle of the most seismic revolt in the history of popular music, and you're actually questioning whether or not it's music? And you're my teacher?! As such, the only Music Division class I took was the Composition requirement my freshman year. It seemed like the only thing we were encouraged to aspire to was this base level of "cleverness." At the same time, I was taking Improvisation with Bill. Initially there were a few familiar signposts – lead sheets, standards – but it was taught from a completely different and much more challenging perspective than I’d experienced before. In fact, the one thing I remember from the first classes was the weight and respect with which this music was spoken of and taught. And Bill was incredibly sensitive to whatever level of facility or knowledge the students were at. Unlike the teachers in the Music Division, Bill didn't treat the students as interchangeable automatons. He went to great lengths to force us out of our clichés and bad habits, and to instill confidence in us while not coddling us into complacency -- that's a tricky tightrope to walk, but Bill always maneuvered it expertly. We were also forced to face up to certain things. For instance, he would ask someone to play a solo. Afterwards he’d ask, “Now, did that sound good to you?” He was teaching us to become our own best critics.

Q: What was Dixon's ensemble like? What was the instrumentation when you were there? How were they structured?

A: Let's see if I can remember. Shawn Gould played piano, Mollie McQuarrie played soprano saxophone, Stanley Zappa played baritone, Shannon Jones was the vocalist, I think Mark Leonard was the bassist that term, Dimos Dimitriades was playing alto saxophone, and Vincent Carte and Kip Mazuy were both playing guitar (Bill always used to say to them, "You should play like one instrument, you should be like harps"). I believe trumpeter Mark Sutton and bassist Chris Lightcap were also in the ensemble that term. Vocalist Jonathan Bepler sat in once or twice, and Marco Eneidi sat in a few times. On one occasion we were joined by saxophonist Jack Wright and guitarist Justin Perdue. And Arthur Brooks sat in frequently. Now that I think about it; that was by far the largest Ensemble during my time at Bennington.

I vividly remember my first Ensemble class. I was completely lost and frustrated. I was thinking, "What the fuck? I've listened to John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler records hundreds of times; I should know what to do!" (And one thing that really stuck with me from this class session was when I tried to play some standard Free Jazz Drums over a high-velocity saxophone solo. Bill said, “OK. There’s nothing wrong with that approach. But they did that in the 60s and we don’t have to do that anymore.”) Nothing I did worked, I couldn't find my space in the music, and I was getting really down on myself. At the end of class I was putting my drums away, and Bill must have seen the obvious discouragement on my face. He smiled and said, "You'll get it. You'll come along." I can't tell you how much that meant to me at that moment. He heard something in his students that we didn't always (or often) hear, and constantly encouraged us to bring that out. The next night's class was a wonderful blur. Everything was working in the group, everything clicked, and at the end of class Bill gave me a look as if to say, "See?"

Q: Bennington College enjoys the mystique of at least being hospitable to, if not actively fostering all that is avant-garde and radical in arts and letters. Your description of the music division seems to suggest the exact opposite. How was Dixon and Dixon's work perceived by the larger college community while you were there? Would you say the college was helped or hindered Dixon and the Black Music studies?

A: For the most part, Dixon and his work (and, by extension, that of his students) were under the community's radar, at least while I was there (1991-1995). When it did get noticed, the reaction was not only overwhelmingly positive, but there were torrents of questions, mostly along the lines of, "How long has this been going on at Bennington, and why didn't we find out about it earlier?!" Needless to say, the school did less than absolutely nothing to make the community aware of Dixon and his work.

Bill was completely ignored by the administration which, as I understand it, was actually something of an improvement over previous years in which the administration, in all their barely-veiled racism, was overtly hostile to Bill and the Black Music Division. All of the faculty I happened to talk about Bill with were sincerely awed that he was a part of Bennington. Whenever Bill played a concert on campus or made a presentation the room was packed. Members of the administration were conspicuous by their absence. As Bill and Arthur Brooks often said, the Black Music Division took the administration at its word (vis-à-vis the educational philosophies of Bennington) and received nothing but hostility in return

Q: What was playing duets with Dixon like? Was there a noticeable, qualitative difference when playing duets with Dixon than with other musicians?

A: By the time I was a senior, even though I'd done a fair amount of playing with Bill in Ensemble classes, I was still struggling with how to fit (or not) with his approach. The uniqueness of his approach and his use of space doesn't make percussion accompaniment easy. About five minutes into our first duo tutorial session I experienced a sudden and profound change in how I approached percussion. It was like irrevocably stepping over a threshold. The force of Bill's phrasing somehow pushed me into a completely new, but somehow familiar, area of playing. I brought this new approach into my other playing situations (not like I had a choice; the change in my playing was permanent, and I couldn't have gone back to my previous approach if I'd wanted to). Playing duets with Bill was an experience that I have yet to encounter in any other duo situation. I noticed that some other musicians in this music were unable to escape the approach of overtly playing with the other musicians; I was getting less and less interested in what I was hearing in groups like the Schlippenbach Trio, where the musicians seemed to make a point of almost mimicking each other, repeating each others' phrases, and "catching" things. There seemed to be this idea that the best way to show that you as a musician were listening to what the other musicians were doing was to repeat exactly what they were doing; the conversational equivalent would be something along the lines of "Stop repeating everything I say!" "Stop repeating everything I say!" I was completely spoiled by playing duos with Bill; I naively assumed that many other musicians would be interested in attempting something outside of what was fast becoming codified as The Genre Of Free Improvisation.

Q: Of the drummers with whom Dixon has performed, who is your favorite? Do you have a favorite Dixon recording?

A: I get different perspectives from the different percussionists he's played with. I remember I initially disliked the drumming on Intents and Purposes, and that was due to my own narrow biases at the time -- some of it just didn't fit in the traditionally accepted sense, and of course now I realize that that's the beauty of it. I always felt that Freddie Waits was incredibly sensitive, as was Laurence Cook. The first Bill Dixon record I heard was Son Of Sisyphus, and Cook's playing on that played a significant part in my early development as a percussionist in this music. I would say my favorite percussionists who've worked with Bill are Marc Levin and Bob Pozar (my dad, as it turns out, had seen Pozar in a trio with Bob James and Barre Philips in the early 60s in Michigan). They have this simultaneous jagged and cascading quality that I've always liked, and their sound is very deep and broad. As much as I love Tony Oxley's work, and as much as it's inspired me, I sometimes find myself wanting to hear a certain breadth -- maybe it's just something as simple as low sounds -- that I don't hear in his playing. That shouldn't be interpreted as a criticism, though. He's got a beautiful sound, just one that I'm personally not attuned to. That said, my favorite Bill Dixon records are Vade Mecum, the two volumes of Papyrus, and Intents and Purposes. I should also single out "Winter Song 1964 : Section III, Letter F [Alternate Study]" (from the Bill Dixon 7-Tette record) as it's a stunning look into the future of Bill's work, and of this music, the way he smears his phrases across bar lines and pitches (all the more remarkable considering the embouchure trouble he was having at the time).

Q: What are your thoughts on the recording with Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley

A: The Dixon/Oxley/Taylor record...I remember when I returned to Bennington after the summer of 1992 Bill was incredibly excited about the duets he'd played with Cecil. He played video of two of the concerts for our class, and it completely fulfilled every expectation you could have about such an event. The sharpness of their focus was almost unbearable, and the way Bill's phrasing challenged Cecil revealed a new dimension in Taylor's playing, a different angle on his sensitivity. I only heard a brief (about two minutes or so) piece from their still-unreleased studio session, with Cecil playing either prepared piano or inside the piano or both; I seem to recall Bill describing it at the time as "very beautiful, academic lines." I think I see things in more dramatic terms, and it was one of those quietly overwhelming works along the lines of Cecil's version of "This Nearly Was Mine." The Victoriaville concert struck me as just as beautiful as the previous Dixon/Taylor duets I'd heard, and the only complaint I have about it is the occasional "catching" of phrases that Tony Oxley engages in. But that's a minor criticism. The negative reaction to this record, particularly by one Nate Dorward in Cadence, made me wonder if Bill had run over Nate's dog or something -- Nate and other critics seemed to have a personal vendetta against Dixon for challenging the orthodoxy of Free Improvisation.

Q: What’s coming up for Matt Weston?

A: I have a percussion + electronics single coming out this spring, and an album coming out in the fall. I feel like the album is something of an antiquated format, and this will be my last such work. From that point forward my releases will be singles or EPs. I'm planning a brief solo tour in the summer and a more lengthy tour (which may or may not include Europe) in the fall. In my recorded work I’m focusing more on multiple overdubs and electronic processing of live percussion, and in my live performance work I’ve been working on erasing the line between percussion and electronics (as well as working on circular breathing, relating to something I learned from Tatsuya Nakatani). My work in Barn Owl continues (with guitarist Chris Cooper and bassist Andy Crespo), somewhat sporadically; the language we've developed no longer needs the constant fine-tuning it needed in the past, and our work now seems to benefit from relatively extended absences. I'm also continuing as a guitarist in Thrillpillow, which is posing constant challenges that I'm learning a lot from.


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