Sunday, September 12, 2010

I was conducting a collision

I was asked by Pau Torres, musician and label head of Etude Records, to write a press release for guitarist Ferran Fages' soon-to-be-available solo record, Lullaby For Lali. We discussed the interview format as a means of providing an overview of Fages' musical activities, leading to a discussion of Lali.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the lengths Ferran went to in articulating his thoughts and feelings about his music in English. We had initially thought my questions would be translated by a friend of Fages. When this option fell through, we began [in July] the email exchanges that resulted in this dialogue. Ferran speaks Catalan. I do not. Happily, Ferran speaks English, though he is unaccustomed to writing in English. This created an opportunity for us to work collaboratively on expressing as precisely as possible his ideas about creativity, no small task. I want to thank him publicly for his effort and patience with my follow up questions and clarifications. Ferran's music, from my perspective, deserves a much wider audience, so my part in our collaboration was a privilege.

Talk about your origins a bit, and of your earliest experiences with music, as a listener and as a musician. You were born in 1974, in Barcelona. What do you recall?

My musical roots are not very exciting- nobody in my family shares my musical interests, and the music I heard growing up was basically my sister’s 80s pop. What I remember is the radio was a source of surprises, not for most of the music played, but for the occasional new sounds I was introduced to for the first time. I was captivated by presentations of classic literature, aired by a state broadcaster. Now I recall it as something that marked me.

The next thing I remember is making recordings with friends at home, using a tape recorder. At the age of 14 I built my own nylon-stringed guitar. At 16 I got my first real guitar.

After some time studying and playing, I realized that listening to new music interested me more than academics. At 21 I decided to study music, though my family didn’t like it. Despite taking lessons and studying music for two years, I consider myself a self-taught musician. A key moment was attending an AMM concert in Barcelona in 1995. At that time I wasn’t familiar with AMM, nor their sort of improvisation. It was a slap in the face! I couldn’t believe three old guys were creating such melodic noise.

Following the concert I bought Keith Rowe’s release, A Dimension of Perfectly Ordinary Reality. The internet wasn’t accessible, so I couldn’t get information about AMM music. That Rowe CD was a Bible for me for several years.

What do you think is present and relevant in the music you are making now that might be traced back to the seismic shock of confronting AMM and Rowe’s solo work? What did you hear specifically that opened up new possibilities for you as a musician?

Basically what shocked me was there was no separation between harmony and noise. AMM created a net in which the music integrated a very complex sound environment, at least that was my impression at the time. Nowadays I consider this a normal way to create music. This means that our ideas about music have much to do with the schools we have been in. The new possibilities were the use of a classical instrument with extended techniques, or the use of non-musical objects to produce sound. To understand this way of producing music was, for me, a rupture, and for some years I couldn’t find musicians to share this with.

So from that pivotal AMM concert, when you were 21 and just beginning guitar studies, to 2000, when you began collaborating with simpatico improvisers such as Alfredo Costa Monterio, were you focused primarily on just the guitar?

At that stage, everything I could imagine musically was via the guitar. Then I began to treat the guitar as a noise-generator, using effects, feedback and preparations. At the conclusion of the 90s I began to use turntables, tape recorders and a mixing board. So when I started working with Monterio, I hadn’t played guitar in over a year. He saw me torturing vinyl, with a great deal of feedback, and proposed we play together. A few months later we called our project Cremaster.

Cremaster’s activities were intensive, producing from the start a significant amount of documented work. Did Monterio share many of your musical concerns and approaches to sound when you met? Was part of the mutual attraction your shared interests in making strong music from noise, abrasive sounds, broken stuff and altered or prepared instruments?

Yes, we shared the same approaches from that initial encounter to this day. We have similar ways of thinking; Alfredo, like me, comes from a non-academic background. There are differences-he is 10 years older than me, so we are from different generations. We listened to different music and have different musical backgrounds. We have different ways of working as well. This is also important.

When we started to play together, our musical interests went beyond Cremaster. Around 2000 we started to play with trumpeter Ruth Barberan, forming the trio Atolon. There are some funny stories about us listening to our recordings as Atolon, unable to tell if it was Atolon or Cremaster. At the beginning of Atolon, I played electronics. If you listen to stuff from 2002-2004, our music was very harsh and noisy. Mainly it was made with acoustic instrumentation.

How frequently do you work these days within the Barcelona music community? How many of your activities are global?

Barcelona has a small scene for this area of music, and shows are not well attended. Sometimes you feel the scene is quite scattered. The lack of places to play makes it difficult to have a circuit of venues for this kind of music. Barcelona is not a cheap city anymore; it has become a trendy city, where spaces of any kind are closed to non-lucrative activities. There is not a meeting point for musicians and audiences interested in improvised music. What is making some work possible is the presence of a few individuals programming events with a larger perspective. Since I have been involved with the improvised music scene, I have been active in organizing concerts. The busiest time for me was from 1999 to 2006, when I was a member of the IBA collective.

The interrelationship of my work and the work of fellow musicians around the world makes sense of my job as a musician. Maybe in other kinds of music this isn’t so evident, but in this area of music the way to exist is to understand that the small local scene is a node within a larger network. We are not self-sufficient and the feedback often comes from very far distances.

You continue to be involved in a variety of performance and recording configurations- solo, duo, trio, some centered on melodic improvisation, some on noise, as well as other discrete musical identities- what can you say about these various contexts? Any personal preferences at this time?

I don’t have a preference between solo, duo or trio. It has more to do with whether I am playing in a project I am intimate with- Atolon, Cremaster, Ap’strophe [Ferran’s duo, since 2006, with zither player Dmitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga]- or whether it is a situation with musicians I have not played with before. The perceptions vary with each. Playing solo is of course different. It is the most dreaded situation, the most intense, where nothing you do is hidden. I like it.

How do you think about the dual roles of improviser and composer? What is distinct about these approaches to making music, and how do they overlap?

The question of the difference between composing and improvising has been a constant concern in my work since 2004. Prior to 2004, I treated them as two separate worlds. My path as a musician started with my playing anything I liked and was able to play. Then I realized music is a game of cards, and started composing.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by I realized music is a game of cards?

When I started to compose I didn’t know much about harmony. My intuition at that time was to work with developing chord relationships and combinations that I enjoyed a lot. I would take a chord on the guitar and move from there, trying various fret positions. The guitar is very visual when you are playing- you are able to easily memorize positions of the fingers on the frets. The same can be said with harmony- you can compose, understanding how it works, if you think of it as mathematics.

Around the 90s I made the transition to playing my own compositions. This was a difficult transition. Eventually I realized I was unable to defend my composed music with any conviction. In this moment of uncertainty I discovered free improvisation. To be an improviser you must be an intuitive and self-confident musician, and have developed a proper language. At that time I had none of this. Happily I met other musicians who taught me a lot, and I started playing with like-minded individuals. Soon I became interested in certain aspects of Reductionism. I am not sure this is the sort of improvisation I practice today, but there is a layer of this in my approach to playing and thinking about music. I am interested in improvisation as an introspective process of breaking through musical parameters. Now I understand improvisation and composition are two complementary creative mechanisms wherein I move with confidence. I am intimate with improvisation by dint of my generation and the aesthetic issues I have been interested in. Currently I feel more comfortable using harmonic material for composing, rather than abstract material. I think first of the overall structure of a piece, then focus on each part. The structure determines how the piece is shaped, which elements are notated. Also it gives me ideas about timbre and the different qualities of sound.

This work in the borderland between composition and improvisation is what we are doing in the Atolon trio. The idea of composition with an open form or improvisation with some fixed aspects is what I enjoy the most. It’s a powerful tool for learning and having a solid experience as a musician.

Let’s talk about your new release on Etude Records, Lullaby For Lali. I have listened to it many times-it is comprised of two sections, the first electric, the second primarily acoustic, each 17 minutes in length.

The first section, from my initial listen to my last, brings to mind Gertrude Stein’s line Repetition is not insistence. The first section is certainly repetitious and insistent, an example of your developing a piece along melodic and harmonic lines. There is, essentially, many reiterations of a fairly simple chord progression, until the second section where you gradually break down and attenuate this simple tune. As Lali progresses, it becomes increasingly abstracted, until it evaporates altogether. Is your current intention to return to the song form with the inclusion of many of the elements of abstraction, noise and reductionism folded into the song?

Well, your question is half of my answer. Lullaby For Lali came from two simple ideas [Lullaby-electric and Lullaby-acoustic] that I tried to put together. The composition process was related to the use of an editing program. This was a new way of working for me.

I work with repetition quite often. I like the analog of human repetition. It brings me to another kind of tensiĆ³n on which I build structures. To play and record the main riff of Lullaby-electric has been one of the most difficult and painful things I can recall. For a guitarist, with a simple sort of chord, you don't have any problem. The problem starts when you resonate all of the guitar with a 2 string chord, playing it slowly for nearly 10 minutes.

The same for the repetitive chord in the acoustic version. To be able to play one chord for a long time and have a purpose for this is my intention. It's something I admire in Morton Feldman’s work. His music is repetitive but never mechanical.

And you are right; one piece is harmony-based, the other is more abstract. Lullaby-acoustic changed and grew from the moment I completed the first version and sent it to Pau Torres [of Etude Records] for his advice. Lullaby-acoustic is the mixing of a long dissonant sound with bits of melodic sections.

For me it was a very pleasant situation, to mix elements from experimental and popular music together. I was conducting a collision. As I mentioned before, I am pointing to different directions.

As I have said to a few people, Lullaby For Lali is my pop record.

It’s pop music, informed by Morton Feldman, Scott Walker, surf-twang guitar and avant-blues. It is, perhaps most saliently, seductive and addictive listening.

It's nice you understand it like this. I'm not sure if all the artists you’ve cited were influences when I was composing Lullaby For Lali. What is certain is that all of them are pointing in different directions. When I was starting to compose Lali, I had in mind this idea- to point somewhere far but not to a specific point.

Ferran Fages home page

Etude Records

Honey On The Razor's Edge; my piece about Fages' solo work, and his duo projects with Ap'ostrophe and Cremaster

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