Monday, March 30, 2009

Andrew Raffo Dewar

Many of you know Andrew Raffo Dewar from the beginning moments of Bill Dixon's epic large ensemble release 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur. The Dixon Society got to talk to a very busy Mr. Dewar, who recently joined the faculty of the experimental New College at the University of Alabama.

The Dixon Society extends a hearty thank you to Andrew for taking the time to talk with us about Bill Dixon.

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

Andrew Raffo Dewar: The first recording of BD's work I heard was the LP "Live in Italy, Vol. 2" - I bought it at a Minneapolis record store (the wonderfully named, and now defunct, Oarfolkjokeopus) in the fall of 1993. I bought it because I was familiar with Soul Note as a label, and I thought the cover painting was beautiful. When I bought and heard the album, though, I wasn't ready for it. I'm embarrassed to say so now, but it didn't make a huge impact on me at the time, even though I was already listening carefully and learning immensely from other "parallel" work by Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Ornette Coleman, etc. (I had already, in high school, been blown away by bebop and the various periods of Coltrane and Miles Davis' work).

This brings up an interesting issue that most of us as music lovers and practitioners have no doubt experienced at some point -- the difference between hearing and listening, and how sometimes we aren't ready to really listen to something - the time isn't right. I think about Anthony Braxton's memories of not liking Coltrane and Parker's music when he first heard it as a small child - his ears weren't ready yet, he had to come to that music at a different time.

So, I was hearing Dixon at that point, but I wasn't *listening*. The first Dixon recording I really listened to was a beat up copy of the 1962 Dixon/Shepp quartet on Savoy that I bought at a record store called Bird's Suite in down town Portland, Oregon, where I lived for a year or so in 1994-95. That recording is beautiful -- the two Dixon compositions really moved me -- especially the intense, driving waltz of "Trio," with the amazingly abstract and rhythmically complex phrasing in the solos. I liked very much the rawness of the performances too -- their willingness to step just beyond what they could "reach" -- that has been an important lesson I am still learning from. I have great respect for and enjoy listening to clean, precise, technical virtuosity, but I am personally more interested in the exploration of the "unknown," the "surprise" -- what happens if I mess with my embouchure here? If I lift this pad just slightly, to allow an overtone or multiphonic to pop out...things like that. The "happy accidents" (I recently heard legendary film director Sidney Lumet talking about these "happy accidents" as a goal in his film making process -- a goal you can't force -- you can only set up a situation in which they might these things are, of course, being explored in many media).

The "lightning strike" recording of Bill's for me (and for many others, I'm sure) was "Intents and Purposes," which I first heard in 1995 on a cassette dub made by multi-instrumentalist Milo Fine for my friend and colleague, the wonderful percussionist Chad Popple (who is now based in Hamburg). That recording floored me, and really rearranged my ideas of sound and music, and what was possible. The combination of BD's sound-mass ideas for large ensemble, and Iannis Xenakis' concepts (which I was also discovering at the same time) has been one part of the road map for the aesthetic path I'm seemingly on now.

TDS: Are you as a visual artist moved by Dixon's visual art as you (as a musician) are moved by his music?

ARD: I love Bill's visual art, and in fact studied and wrote somewhat extensively about his work in my 2004 MA thesis at Wesleyan University. Though Bill does not like to conflate the two media (which I understand), I think my studies show that there is some conceptual overlap, particularly in the use of "modules" (Dixon's term) of activity in his work. Regarding Bill Dixon's impact on my own visual work, which has been focused on photography, I can't say there has been any direct influence - I'm very much conceptually beholden to the work of Aaron Siskind, perhaps even to the point of being called a "copycat." I just frame images I find interesting. I like finding abstract forms in shadows and everyday surroundings, and when I'm exploring new places.

TDS: Have you always played the soprano saxophone? Who or what led you to that instrument in particular?

ARD: There are several recordings I can single out as having led me, early on, to the soprano saxophone (in the chronological order that I first heard them)-- Pharoah Sanders' soprano solo on Alice Coltrane's "Journey in Satchidananda," (Impulse) Julius Hemphill's solo on "Concere Ntasiah" on the Human Arts Ensemble recording "P*nk J*zz," (Muse) Sidney Bechet's 1939 "Summertime" (Blue Note) , Lucky Thompson's soprano take on "In a Sentimental Mood" from "Lucky Strikes" (Prestige) and Steve Lacy's solo album "Remains." (Hat Art) Of course I had also heard Coltrane's soprano work, which is wonderful, but I have never liked his *sound* on the soprano -- will I go to "jazz hell" for saying that? I like a more open, "Lacy-esque" sound, that I think comes from Lacy's love for Johnny Hodges little-known soprano playing (Hodges had stopped playing the soprano by about 1941). I discovered that later, through Lacy's recommendation, and am convinced it is some of the most beautiful soprano playing on record.

TDS: Could you compare and contrast your large ensemble experiences with Anthony Braxton and Bill Dixon?

ARD: It is difficult to limit this subject to just a few words, but I'll try to be concise by focusing on two issues.

On "Autonomy":

On a structural/social level, Braxton's ensembles function in what he might call a "multi-hierarchical" model -- he often mentions the federal/state government hierarchy as a passable analogy for this, though it's more like a well-intentioned anarchy with a respected elder at the helm.

My two large ensemble experiences thus far with Bill Dixon were a bit more traditional in terms of the delegation of autonomy -- he was the director, we were the players. Each technique results in a very different sound-world, and I think both approaches are important to explore.

One interesting thing is that within those different forms of autonomy, each composer gives a very distinct set of possibilities. With Braxton, you could certainly improvise during the entire performance, as the system does allow for that -- but you'd be silly not to want to play some of the piles of wonderful, challenging music surrounding you! So, the sheer amount of notated material makes for a certain dynamic with regards to what you as an instrumentalist choose to do with your autonomy.

With Bill, on "17 Musicians..." he pointed at me at the beginning of the piece and said, "Play. Now." At that moment, I was completely free to play whatever I could come up with, but whatever it was, I had to do it RIGHT AT THAT MOMENT. During the rehearsal process for the piece, I was asked to play solos, and he let me know immediately if he thought it was on target or not -- this was his way of shaping and preparing me for what he would eventually call upon me to do in the performance for the "prelude" -- though it did take me entirely by surprise, nonetheless! At any rate, it is a very different kind of independence, though equally effective.

On "Reaching for the New":

In addition to personally taking part in two large ensemble pieces of Bill Dixon, I've seen rehearsal video of Dixon going back 25 years, and there are a few techniques I've noticed that he uses that are different than what, for example, Anthony Braxton uses in his ensembles.

Mr. Dixon seems to shape what he would like to happen by asking the musicians to move beyond what they can do through feedback in the rehearsal process -- in one case, going around the room and having everyone do an unaccompanied solo, which he critiqued -- e.g. "That doesn't belong to you, and doesn't belong in this room - try again"...

I've also seen him ask a pianist to turn around and play behind his back -- not for theatrical reasons, but as a pedagogical tool to get the musician to literally turn their back on what they know -- to reverse their thinking and get them to aim for what he has called the "center of a sound." In using this approach, which certainly can be difficult, egoistically, for musicians who either think they know everything, or don't like to be critiqued so openly and publicly, he lets you know that what he's hoping to do is to go for a thing that is not what you do, but what you might be able to do if you let go and reach beyond what you think is possible -- looking for what Braxton might call "the surprise".

Mr. Braxton, in my experience, is less "hands-on" in this process, though he always lets musicians know that they should embrace "surprise" and "mistakes," and not take the easy way out in their musical choices. One way those "surprises," or "new" moments are reached is through the collage techniques he employs, where any musician can introduce a piece at any time, creating many layers of determined indeterminacy (if that makes sense). Another way "the new" is approached in AB's work is through notated material that pushes you beyond your technical limitations (or at least pushes me beyond them, I can't speak for the many virtuosi in his groups!) through the sheer complexity of the music. He also creates "newness" through his use of the "language musics," which are really the sonic building blocks of his entire music system, which can be combined, layered, and multiplied into an infinite number of combinations.

TDS: "How, if at all, do you think Dixon's music is related to Jazz? How if at all, is your music related to Jazz? If neither are (in your opinion) related to Jazz, then what are they related to? What lineage do they come from, and where would that music best sit "in the record store?"

ARD: I absolutely think Bill Dixon's music is part of that continuum (Of course, my opinion on the matter doesn't hold a candle to the cultural capital held in the halls of Lincoln on this subject), though it is not bound by any definition of that tradition by any means! His music is its own world as far as I'm concerned, with many, many degrees of influence and inspiration that make up the aesthetic results. His exploration of timbre on the instrument is without a doubt tied to an aesthetic tradition that includes people like Ellington and his legendary brass section, but his interest in certain varieties of form is related to his enjoyment and study of Webern, Berg, and Elliot Carter's music, but is also equally informed by his visual color aesthetic.

Of course, the question itself is bound up in the snake eating its own tail (Ouroboros) kind of circular argument, because eventually we get back to the "What is Jazz?" foundation question, right? It's something different for everybody that claims the term --- but that's the beauty of it, in my opinion - that flexibility and breadth of expression. I do know that Bill has said on many occasions he wishes his work could just be called "music," without a qualifier.

Regarding my own music -- everything I do at some level is influenced by my idea of Jazz (which is likely broader than the "party line"), and my study and love of that music. That said, I don't think many would put most of what I do in that section of the record store. I try not to let my definition of any kind of music play too much of a role in how I'd like something to sound. In my creative process, I try to come up with ideas, sounds and forms (usually in my head, sometimes with my horn), and then go about bringing those things into the world -- not build a box and then find an idea that fits in it. I prefer to study something deeply and wait for it to percolate out in some other form; for my own music, I'm not so interested in a 1-to-1 mapping of influence and result, if that makes sense. For example, "that's my 'rock' project," or "my 'hip-hop' project" -- don't get me wrong, I love that music, and artists that explore those kinds of approaches, but I think I'm personally better suited to find my own way, cutting up the pieces that make up my collage smaller, so they become a bit more unrecognizable. I definitely go back and forth with this, though -- it's hard sometimes because you feel pressure to refer to or employ techniques and traditions that people (both musicians and audience) are familiar with -- a language they can speak -- but most of the artists' work I really enjoy decide to side-step that and create their own thing. That's not to say I'm successful at this yet, or that I'm somehow original or singular (I'm not). It's a life's work to strive for that; but that's what my intention is in more cases than not. I'm reminded of something Bill said during the rehearsals for what would become "17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur" -- he said something to the effect that the "old language, the old phrasing, won't work anymore - that's not what we're concerned with here" -- and I took him on his word with that and didn't try to play "Jazzy" (with a capital "J") because of the venue (NYC's Vision Festival) or an audience hungry for (to some degree) a specific kind of aesthetic experience... I simply did what I could to play Bill Dixon's music as I understood it then, and I tried to do it with my voice, in that moment, as honestly as I could.


Blogger Stephen Haynes said...

Parrhesia - clear, frank, fearless speech - is in short supply these days.

Andrew, as always, has a wonderful way of getting to the core of the subject, whether it be describing Dixon's work or making cross-disciplinary connections that reveal his own work.

The reader is directed to pick up a copy of Andrew's latest recording: Six Lines of Transformation, on Porter Records for a tone parallel to the clarity of this interview.

Also, look forward to the release, later this year, of Dixon's latest opus: a 2 CD/DVD set from Firehouse 12 Records that features a grouping of five trumpet/cornet players with cello, bass, contrabass clarinet, drums and percussion. Not to be missed!

4:18 PM  

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