An Interview

Dylan van der Schyff on The Definition of a Toy

The interview took place by telephone on February 18, 2004. Toronto writer Greg Buium spoke to van der Schyff at his home in Vancouver, B.C.

Dylan van der Schyff: The idea of making a product – having a real defined goal of what something’s going to be and then trying to realize that goal – to me, feels safer. Everything seems a little simpler when you work that way. But when you work in this collaborative way, whether it’s purely improvised stuff or with people bringing music along with them, you can end up with these results that no one could really have planned, for better or for worse. But in this case I think it seemed to work out mostly for the best.

Greg Buium: It’s almost harder this way rather than just telling the guys to come out and play.

van der Schyff: It’s a kind of an in-between thing. It’s a balancing act. You don’t want to lead things too much, but at the same time you have to lead things a bit in order to organize them. And also if there are some kind of unresolved questions you have to be the one to answer them. So in that sense, yeah, you have to be a bit of a leader. But these guys are all leaders in their own right. They’re all composers. They all know. They all have a pretty developed sense of aesthetics. So it’s pretty clear to everyone. Within acceptable boundaries everyone is pretty much on the same page about what’s happening and what isn’t.

Buium: But it’s your date.

van der Schyff: It’s my project because I put it together. It’s not my specific vision or anything like this. It’s my project because I created the space for it to occur, put it that way.

Buium: Still, it was your idea.

van der Schyff: It was my idea: the overall, general idea, the kinds of players, how things would go down. All that stuff was my idea. The specifics, well, those are different aspects of individuals taking the lead. Different parts are more collaborative, different parts are more composed. But the umbrella over it is me.

Buium: Where did this concept come from? Why these people? When did it first come into your head?

van der Schyff: I’ve been working with Brad for over 10 years. I know Brad’s playing really well. And when you work with people that you admire and that you respect you feel a responsibility to keep your relationship challenging. That’s part of it. You think of the people you know, you think of the people you work with, the people you admire and you think of how you can keep learning from each other. That’s one thing. Also I’ve been working with Michael and Achim a bit in Europe, in Achim’s quartet. We’ve been working a bit. Not much. But we all seem to enjoy working together. And we all seem to enjoy similar things about playing free, about playing structures and about stretching those boundaries and intertwining them. They all share a very strong jazz background – jazz harmony, jazz rhythms. They all share the same area they come from. That’s another reason why I put them together.

Actually, when it came into my head to do this I was in Chicago. I was at the Empty Bottle in October 2001 and I ran into Mark. [Van der Schyff had been in Chicago during a short tour with the trio Tigersmilk.] He and I were talking about a gig we had done [with Paul Plimley and Fran├žois Houle at the 1999 Vancouver International Jazz Festival] and we were saying it would be nice to somehow find a chance to play again, because I don’t know Mark as well as I know the other guys. So we said it would be nice to play again, and we kind of left it at that.

So after that I began thinking about all these connections: between Michael and Mark and between Achim and Michael. It just started coming into my head. I was on the plane going home. You know you go over your trip, you think of the things that happened, and I was thinking of Mark, and then I was thinking of the beautiful records he had done with Michael. And then Achim and Michael and then, “Hey, what a good group that would be. And, hey, what about Brad? Put Brad in there. What a great combination of people.” And I thought, “Well, with a group that big and with these guys that can all write so well why not get them to write something and try and do something that was artistically a kind of collaboration but would involve as many facets of their talents as possible. Without making it contrived in any way.”

Buium: It happened very quickly.

van der Schyff: Yeah, after I talked to Mark. I thought that Brad would really get a kick out of Achim and Michael. And I thought that they would really enjoy playing with him as well because they shared this jazz background and because they share a curiosity, as well, for music and the different ways it can be formed. And so I thought it would be a really nice combination. But when I ran into Mark I thought, “Hey, what a great band this would be.”

Buium: What was next?

van der Schyff: Then I sort of mulled it over in my mind for a bit. And then thought, “What would I ask them to do?” Then I thought, I’ll just ask each of them to bring a tune. Explain to them that we probably weren’t going to have a lot of time to get it together and tell them that I’d try to set up the infrastructure so everyone could get some money and make it worth their while. So that even if nothing came of it, we at least – hopefully – would have some fun and play some music and everyone would get paid and go home.

So I called everyone up [sometime in the summer of 2002] and they all seemed interested.

Buium: The connections are certainly interesting.

van der Schyff: Exactly. I couldn’t hear what it would sound like, but I knew there was a pretty good chance that things would work pretty well. And also the fact that they’re all such fantastic musicians from a technical standpoint. They’re great artists but they’re also great musicians: they’re all great readers, they’ve got great time, etc., etc.

So I called Tony Reif [owner of Songlines Recordings]. And Ken Pickering [artistic director of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival] agreed to present the band and to help put in money for some transportation. Achim and Michael were going to be at the festival for other gigs anyway.

Buium: What was the rehearsal schedule?

van der Schyff: We did the recording and then we did the gig. Really, it was a little bit of a crazy thing to do because we didn’t really have much time. One night, one day, then we went into the studio. No one had sent out the music in advance. I’d been away so I couldn’t really get a proper rehearsal space. So we ended up rehearsing at 1067 [a Granville Street loft and musicians’ collective] which has a shitty piano which was kind of a drag. The first night we went there and basically hung out: we went, we glanced at the music and drank some wine.

Buium: Did the guys explain the music or did they just hand it out?

van der Schyff: They kind of explained it and we played through it a bit and had some laughs. The second day we hit it a bit harder and worked through the stuff. The second day was harder work, trying to get it ready for the recording. It wasn’t quite as fun because rehearsing at 1067 in the daytime isn’t that enjoyable. But we got through it and we went and recorded it. And the recording went very smoothly.

Buium: How did it work with the improvisations?

van der Schyff: I’d already planned that we would do these trios. I really wanted to hear a duet with Brad and Mark, so they did that.

Buium: There are three improvisations here. Why those? Two trios and a duet.

van der Schyff: We did a few other ones but those ones seemed to be the most compelling and they also just seemed to work the best with the music that was around it. Achim and Michael and I started to do some improvisations and they just seemed to be going really well. So we did two or three of them. Really short. They seemed to work the best. That trio now is going to be touring in Europe at the end of March – because we just started doing that and it felt so fun.

Buium: Oh, it came out of this.

van der Schyff: Yeah, basically.

Buium: Why Mark and Brad?

van der Schyff: I just thought it would be a nice sound, those two guys playing together.

Buium: How many did they do?

van der Schyff: They just did one. That’s the first take.

Buium: You say there were others.

van der Schyff: There was one with Mark and Michael and myself, which was good, which came out really well. But there’s also that improv at the beginning of Achim’s piece as well and that one seemed better. There were a couple larger group improvs but there’s a lot of larger group improvising within the scope of the record, too.

Buium: So it seemed a little redundant.

van der Schyff: It did. And the record is long enough. I don’t really like these epic albums, you know, I’d rather leave people wanting a bit more.

Buium: The order is your creation.

van der Schyff: I’ll have to take the responsibility for that.

Buium: No Dylan van der Schyff tune.

van der Schyff: I had a silly graphic score that we played but I really didn’t like it so we threw it away.

Buium: People will naturally be saying, “So here’s the guy who organized the project and he doesn’t bring any music.”

van der Schyff: Well, you know, I didn’t really feel compelled to write anything for these guys because they’re all writing stuff. I write a little bit but I didn’t feel it was necessary.

Buium: They were cool with that.

van der Schyff: Yeah. Why wouldn’t they be?

Buium: Let’s look at the tunes. Some of the seem very difficult. You mentioned Achim’s tune, for example.

van der Schyff: Achim’s tune is difficult for all the reasons that you say something is difficult. It’s just hard to read. It’s rhythmically tricky, especially the first part. You also have to make these transitions, too. That’s where the difficulty of improvising within composed forms comes in – making the transitions. That’s the crucial thing. When you’re improvising within forms, how do you join them? That’s everything. That tune is, really, a lot about that.

Buium: After only a day and a bit of rehearsals, how did that tune feel?

van der Schyff: With that tune I think we were just happy that we managed to get a decent version of it, I mean as far as written material goes. It’s still not perfect but it flows nicely and I think you can hear the tune. You can hear the composition. Could it be played tighter and slicker? Yeah. But I think that the tune’s there and the improvising around it is excellent.

Buium: The more I listened to the record that’s something that amazed me about it. Take Brad’s or Michael’s tunes. They have these little tunnels of written sections that fall away, that sometimes drift into a duo improv, sometimes someone is quickly added, then backgrounds are added then all of a sudden another improvisation comes in. Tell me about Michael’s tune, for instance.

van der Schyff: The beginning part of it, what you’re hearing is basically what you get. Piano trio pitted against the melody.

Buium: What’s going on with time?

van der Schyff: Well this is the thing. You have these two separate things going on. So you have this melody going in one world, and this piano trio going in another. So the time moves back and forth and in and out and then it comes back for the melody.

Buium: What are they “in?”

van der Schyff: No, they’re not “in” anything. The beginning is basically in 4/4. Then the piano trio goes and we stretch the time. Then we come back in and we hit the time again and we play the head again. Then we stretch it again and play the head again. Then it basically goes into time for Michael’s solo. [Laughs.] Playing with these guys, if you’re going to just play rigid time you’re kind of missing out on a lot of what’s possible. So we play time, we don’t. We play it again. One guy might be playing time, another guy might be playing over top of it.

Buium: But how many little melodies are brought in?

van der Schyff: Three or four? Basically these three sections. There’s this piano section. And then it goes into a short section for Michael. And then it becomes a short thing with bass and drums. And then Brad joins that.

Buium: How easy was that to pull off?

van der Schyff: Well, it’s a very playful tune. Once you get the concept of it you can sort of make your way through it.

Buium: Did Michael say, “This comes in here, that comes in there,” or was it just left to evolve naturally?

van der Schyff: No, that’s pretty scripted that stuff. The whole tune is actually pretty scripted. Brad plays for a bit. And then there are these little backgrounds. And then there’s this whole section that basically involves this set of parameters where if Michael is playing clarinet you play softly, if he’s playing alto you play loudly. And then we all have these pairs of parameters. For example, someone must play either chromatically or diatonically. In my case, it would be a matter of rhythmic playing or free-rhythmic playing. So basically you have to go back and forth between these things. So when one person does one thing it affects what everyone else does. If I decide I’m going to play my rhythmic thing but Michael picks up his clarinet, I have to play quietly and rhythmically. There’s this whole little intricate scripted interplay that goes on.

Buium: Even Brad’s tune. This sounds like Brad, but after the initial line it feels free, something unusual in one of his compositions.

van der Schyff: Brad didn’t discuss it all. He just laid out the basic framework.

Buium: That opening line.

van der Schyff: Yeah, that opening thing. And just said, “Well, maybe, I’ll play and then you’ll play.” Even within that, it wasn’t like, “I’m going to play a solo.” It’s just more like, “I might just lead it a bit.” And then at the end I lead it a little bit. And then we just kind of go out. We’re all playing towards someone. So Brad has this little motive and these little key centres and stuff. But then the idea was also that you would just play towards someone – whether it’s Achim or Michael or me or Brad or whatever. Everyone is just playing around that person for a minute. Not like a “solo” really.

Buium: You’re focused on that improvisation for a moment.

van der Schyff: Yeah, a little bit more.

Buium: This isn’t a set of music, per se, is it? It feels like you’ve created something, that the CD needs to be listened to as a whole, a perfectly (and carefully) plotted piece of art. The shape isn’t a coincidence. You must have really sat down and thought about how all these things fit together.

van der Schyff: Yeah. It all depends on what your ability to handle difficult music is and your ability to handle stuff that’s familiar. There are certain things built into these pieces, certain amounts of tension and release, right. To place them in certain places where they’re going to mean something in the whole set, well, why not. To place a tune like Achim’s at the beginning would seem to be a bit too much, for example.

Buium: Why?

van der Schyff: For me. For me it would be. I wanted to place an improv at the beginning because it sets a certain tone for the record. Especially that improv. It sets a certain kind of happy sense of mystery.

Buium: Which leads into this incredibly playful…

van der Schyff: Very playful tune. Which is also a challenge to listen to. It’s a very long piece. And there’s this long, extended, fairly difficult section in the middle, although if you listen to it carefully, it’s also very playful.

Buium: It’s all playful, sure, but when you’re really listening you do wonder, “Whoa, what is going on here?”

van der Schyff: [Laughs.] Yeah, because it’s not just noodling around. Some of it may sound like noodling, but it might be intentional. It might be someone saying, “I’m going to play so diatonically it’s not even funny.” There are parts where people are doing that – just to make a point, you know. So it’s part of playing a game. That piece is like a game. The whole thing is like a game.

…Buium: And then the duet.

van der Schyff: And then the duet. Which is very straightforward, I think.

Buium: It is.

van der Schyff: Mano-a-mano. Man to man, just making some music. There’s nothing contrived about it. Nothing. So that’s exactly the reason why I put that there. Because you’ve been through this whole thing, you’ve been through this happy improvisation, you’ve been through this long, extended piece with a lot of colour, a lot of fun, a lot of shit to deal with, and then you have this beautiful, direct…

Buium: Very poised conversation.

van der Schyff: Yes. Now someone else might have put a ballad there. “Gaivotas Sobre Lapa,” perhaps.

Buium: But for some people that’s natural.

van der Schyff: But from another point of view you could say this duet serves the same purpose in a different way.

Buium: In a way, you’ve introduced yourself, Michael and Achim, you played a tune. Now you’re introducing Mark and Brad.

van der Schyff: That’s right. Exactly.

Buium: What about “Jacques”?

van der Schyff: “Jacques” is pretty advanced. There are all these different sections that we go through, straight down. And then we improvise through all those sections but at different times. Always ending on that last crescendo. You need to see a score for it. “Jacques” is actually pretty structured, it’s not really improvised. All those textures. It’s basically material you have to create at the very beginning and use that material all the way through to the end. Glissando things, pointillistic stuff, then these shots. And then you’ll hear a long slow crescendo with a cut off at the end. Then you’ll hear us start to play again. But basically what we’re doing is we’re using all this material that we’ve developed during the scripted parts and we’re playing all that material in our own time and in our own order. The first guy to finish his material ends up on this long, slow crescendo. And then others join him. Until everyone is on that note. And then we crescendo and end the piece.

Buium: It sure feels like you’re in the middle of the date, the heart of it, with “Queen of the Box Office” and “Siberian Elm and Furrowed Brown.” There’s a lot going on in those tunes, but they’re also jazz tunes.

van der Schyff: They definitely have that flavour to them. There’s something definitely Milesian [as in Miles Davis] about Brad’s. And there’s something Braxtonian about Achim’s tune.

Buium: Braxton hard bop.

van der Schyff: Exactly.

Buium: Why are those there in the middle?

van der Schyff: It just seemed to be the right place for them. I don’t know why, after “Jacques,” which is a total abstraction, although it’s a very controlled abstraction. It seemed time for something else. There’s a temptation to always go for contrast – I’ve done this, so I’ve got to do something different. But I’m more interested in creating a longer kind of arc and then finding your contrasts at the end of it. Or something new beginning at the end of it. So for me, there’s an arc with the trio improv and “Definition of a Toy.” And then there’s another kind of arc that goes from the duet, “Jacques” and down to the end of “Queen of the Box Office.” And then there’s another arc that maybe goes from “Siberian Elm” to the end of “Gaivotas.” And then “Broken” is kind of like a tag to me. That’s kind of how I see it. There are other ways you can draw them. Michael’s piece is kind of the end of the record. And “Broken” is kind of an epilogue. It’s come out of all these little arcs and it’s the end. In some ways “Broken” is a funny tune. It’s a strange tune. But in some ways it kind of sums up a lot of the other aspects of the whole record. It reminds me of other stuff that happened.

The thing is once you put these pieces down on a piece of paper, it’s like a puzzle. It’s like, “Well, this can only go here now.” And if I’m thinking this way and if I’m using this set of criteria, these aesthetics to judge this, then this piece can only go here.

Buium: It’s interesting that everything is so approachable. Things are often oblique, but these musicians still want to invite people in. Was this part of it?

van der Schyff: Yeah, of course, just listen to anything any of them have done. This music is not trying to exclude anyone. In fact, like you say, it’s warmly inviting people in to listen. Listen to Michael’s sound, and Brad’s sound: how friendly those horns are. How playful they are. And Mark and Achim, too. Just the sound they get out of their instruments makes you want to listen to them.

Buium: Because of that you trust them. Still, these guys ask a lot of people.

van der Schyff: They do. They draw you in and then they challenge you. Some other musicians you play with, well they don’t spend any time drawing you in they just get right down to it.

Buium: They just challenge you.

van der Schyff: Yeah. Which is fine, too, it’s just a different thing. But these guys have a way of playing that is kind of based on an arc. It’s about construction. For some improvisers it’s not about the construction it’s about the play. Simply. With other improvisers it is about the construction, but there’s the play in there as well, obviously. And these guys are real composers so they think along these lines, in the sense of these arcs, possibly.

Buium: Were you nervous at all inviting all these leaders and composers together?

van der Schyff: I have an enormous amount respect for all of them. Just a huge amount of respect for all of them. And I was very flattered and grateful that they agreed to do the project. Not nervous. My only regret is that we couldn’t have played more, a little tour. Maybe this record will make it happen.

Buium: This was just a really special event.

van der Schyff: If this is just a special event that we did and it just ends with this nice record then that’s fine. But I’d be happy if we get to play again. In the end that’s what this really was: I organized a collaboration. And I think I’d like to do more of that.