IAQ (Infrequently Asked Questions): questions that first-time listeners might like to know answers to, posed to Patrick Zimmerli by Tony Reif in June 2000.
This interview was conducted by email and has taken its present form over a number of months, though in one sense it started six years ago when I first heard and wondered about Pat’s music, and has grown out of many enjoyable discussions I’ve had with him since. One of the things that Songlines regularly encourages from artists is statements about their work, but most are content to let the music speak for itself — which of course it should. Words can never substitute for the experience of music, but they can deepen one’s response and understanding, and there seem to be few opportunities for jazz musicians to ponder questions about their art at length in public. We welcome comments: email email@example.com and perhaps we can create an ongoing artists forum on the site.
1) How do you come up with those strangely beautiful melodies for your Ensemble? Could you talk about chromaticism in relation to your melodic world?
Well first of all, notwithstanding the debated status and meaning of the word “melody” among avant-garde musicians, it’s hard to imagine a composer who wouldn’t be gratified by having his or her melodies called beautiful. I do conceive of all of my music as melodic, though often in a highly quirky and unusual way. And yes, it’s chromatic all right! In my more adventurous pieces, I like to go for maximum color, which to me means churning through the full chromatic range at a healthy clip. The idea is to create a kaleidoscopic landscape of constantly changing mood and emotion, with melodies that are continually taking unexpected and unpredictable twists and turns, that push the imagination to its limits.
Of course the source of melodic inspiration is very different from piece to piece, depending on what the idea is. Often I set myself some rather exotic parameters within which to work, and then find melodies within those parameters that appeal to me. This can be an arduous process, since one always wants to come up with the best possible line. But then there’s always going to be the one you conceive in the shower, or while jumping up and down in your kitchen on a break (Earth came to me that way, for instance).
I should mention that, through all the extreme chromaticism in my music, I try to honor the harmonic implications of the tones. For me every note carries harmonic weight — I love harmony and wouldn’t ever want to lose the sense that it’s there, lurking beneath the most experimental passages and keeping them grounded, even though the harmony may be flying by extremely quickly, as in Hemispheres, for example. In some music, you might find, in the context of an F scalar center, say, the notes D and Db constantly being interchanged, to the point where they are divested of harmonic implication. I try to avoid this in my writing — if we’re in a context of F, even briefly, fleetingly, and you hear a Db, it means a change of tonal area, a progression toward something else. I try to invest my melodies with intense directed motion, where the introduction of each tone has tonal function and meaning.
Finally, a word on melodic leaps. People have asked me why my melodies tend to have large melodic leaps, sometimes to the exclusion of linear motion. For me, melodic leaps have potent metaphoric and emotional value. They signify a kind of reaching, questing feeling. You know, wide-eyed wonder at the immensity of the universe, struggle for self-transcendence, that kind of thing. It’s ultimately traceable to my romantic notions as to what music should be, namely an expression of a sense of hope, of infinite possibility.
2) You use some serial procedures in composing. Could you elaborate on how these or other methods help you in generating novel melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic content?
No, I wouldn’t really want to. It’s not just because serialism has become such a dirty word these days, that it has come to symbolize the cold and cerebral in music, achieved at the expense of emotion. It’s more to do with the fact that my compositional techniques, the means whereby I reach my ends, are private, personal, involve my intimate relation to — what shall I say, the world beyond, the expansiveness of nature, the supernatural. It’s a little crass, in the end, interrogating a composer about his procedures — it’s a little like asking someone what their wife looks like naked.
3) You obviously like complex music, and the rhythms of some of your pieces seem quite difficult. When you work out these rhythms, do you think about how the players can make jazz with them, how they can make them swing (in an unconventional way to be sure)? Do they succeed, or is “swing”not the right word? Kevin Whitehead said in a review that your music doesn’t swing, but he obviously thinks of it as jazz anyway.
First of all, I wouldn’t say that I like complex music to the exclusion of all else. Complexity can take many forms, for one thing: there’s the moment-to-moment complexity of a Milton Babbitt score, say, or the rich accretion of details over time to be heard in Mozart — or even the subtle complexities of production in much of today’s hip-hop. So yes, I value all this complexity and subtlety, but also the kind of simplicity, purity, and directness that can be heard in some of the most affecting music from Brahms to the Bee Gees. I wouldn’t know of a way to call More than a Woman complex, for example, but it certainly has a sublimity that most music, complex or otherwise, couldn’t even dream of.
But what I personally write in an “art music” context (not the only context I am involved in) does tend to the complex. As for whether it will “swing” or not, whether we will be able to “make jazz” with it, I hold no claims whatever on either of those terms. The word “jazz” is one whose social and political connotations I am uncomfortable with, certainly one I don’t feel would be appropriate to attach myself to. Of course in my training as a “jazz” musician I studied what it was to “swing” in the traditional sense, the correlation between the minutiae of rhythmic placement and a certain emotional intensity, let’s say. But I doubt if, even in my best mimetic days, I ever really swung in that way. Oddly enough, considering the rhythmic intricacy of my music, I would say that rhythm is my “fourth function”, to crib a Jungian phrase (Jung held that the human is constituted of four poles — the emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual/intuitive. Your fourth function is the aspect of life that you’re least gifted in — but, perhaps because of that, you tend to work hardest and be most interested in that aspect of yourself. I would correlate Jung’s four functions with the following four aspects of music, respectively: melody/harmony, rhythm, form/structure, and sound/tone quality). But perhaps more to the point, the musicians I work with share my musical background to a large extent, so we tend to feel things together in a certain way. If that can be called swing, then I suppose we achieve that. That’s why I think it’s important, and is always the case in the best music, that people of the same background play together, there being so much of the unconscious, the intuitive, at work in the musical process.
4) Improvisation is usually thought of as an essential element of jazz. In your compositions for the Ensemble you leave space for improvised solos, yet in most cases the soloist must create his part in relation to a complex weave of written parts for the other instruments. I wonder then whether improvisation is serving some different purpose in your music than in more conventional jazz. Should the listener be able to tell when someone is soloing? More generally, what do you see as the purpose of improvisation, both for the composer/performer and for the listener?
I’ve been known to rail against improvised music, which tends to degenerate into an excuse for laziness, for musicians to play things that they already know in no particularly thoughtful or interesting order, or things that are gratuitously quirky, or to indulge in what a nonmusician friend of mine calls, with the precision of the naïve, “fingering exercises”. Though some improvised music is compelling, the words “freedom” and “creativity” have too often been invoked as self-aggrandizing philosophical justifications for some of the worst music I’ve ever heard. Being around the Knitting Factory and other avant-garde bastions, I have been subjected to this kind of thing to an inhuman degree. More and more, as I hear more vapid blowing from jazz musicians of every stripe and am subjected to pretentious explanatory twaddle, I have reacted against unfettered improvisation and sought increasing specificity in my own work, where solos are carefully circumscribed. I also became more and more interested in Western “Classical” music past and present, where everything is generally written out.
All that said, though, I am definitely an improviser. I’ve had the opportunity of working with plenty of classical musicians, people who can perform feats of sight-reading that an improvising musician couldn’t touch, but who don’t necessarily understand what they’re playing on a deep level. That is definitely not how my mind works. I need to understand what I’m playing before it can come through — and I love to make it up as I go along. I am just as miffed as the next guy when I hear someone play something with great beauty and conviction that they do not seem to understand at all.
There’s also a certain intensity that you feel when something is being created on the spot, a certain heat coming off the stage, that’s very rare in non-improvised contexts. Also, given the age we live in, with absolutes in disrepute and so forth, I’m very comfortable with the idea that my pieces can be different from performance to performance, that their very reality is mutable and contingent. Thanks to my working with jazz players, I can attain this epistemological state of grace in a natural, integrated way, unlike a lot of “aleatoric music”, where the mutability and contingency tends to be rather arbitrary, not well-worked-in to the musical discourse.
Of course, the interdisciplinary nature of my music is one of its practical assets. I can be very derivative and seem exotic at the same time. My work in the Ensemble, for example, occasionally has very direct sources in the contemporary classical genre, but the fact that it’s written for jazz instruments and that we’re blowing makes it sound completely different. Similarly, my Piano Concerto is overtly Brahmsian at times, but throw in a percussionist and have the pianist blow a bit, and it’s a whole different world. When I write “straight” classical music, people don’t tend to be as interested.
As for the poor listeners, whether they should be able to know who’s improvising when in my music, I’ll be honest — I don’t mind them guessing a little. But the whole point of my work is to transfer a jazz sensibility into some very exotic realms. The head-solos-head form is the structural basis of all my pieces for the Ensemble. But it wouldn’t make sense for the musicians to play things that would traditionally cue the listener to think “oh, this is a solo.” If Ben started playing some traditional bebop licks over Sand, for example, the result would be absurd. Ben’s solo on this piece (his is the first after the head) is meant to be very sparse and moody, and not very soloistic in that it’s devoid of virtuosity, that it doesn’t really stand out from the background. I’m really interested in that idea, solo as accompaniment. It’s sort of like Ben’s riding a magic carpet in that solo — he can hang back, because the soundscape that he’s moving through is so dense and varied.
5) What does the word jazz mean to you in relation to your own music and playing? Is your music defined as jazz in large part by the instrumentation and the particular qualities of expressiveness that the players bring to it, or are there more abstract formal/stylistic elements that make it jazz from the beginning? What can jazz learn from “contemporary classical” music and vice versa?
Well, I went into my thoughts on “jazz” a bit in #3. I could go on endlessly about the ramifications of that word, musical, social, political, and otherwise, but rather than do that, I’ll just point to the possibility of doing it as a sign that the term is damn overloaded with baggage. Recognizing, however, that it is not so overloaded for the average listener — and turning the other cheek from the extramusical implications — I would say yes, that my music is defined as jazz largely by instrumentation and expressive qualities, as well as the omnipresence of improvisation and the head-solos-head form. What’s written is by and large somewhat sketchier than your typical contemporary classical score, though of course wildly less sketchy than most jazz charts, and is essentially an outgrowth of very traditional, standard jazz practice.
As for the interaction between jazz and contemporary classical music, I was under the impression that the latter was a constant source of material for the former. From Ellington’s relationship with Debussy through McCoy Tyner’s borrowings from Hindemith, jazz has constantly and consistently co-opted basic materials from the classical music of the previous generation (beginning with Ravel and increasing up to the present, there has also been a good deal of influence in the opposite direction). In this sense I have always considered my music, which borrows heavily from what was new in contemporary classical music about a generation ago, to be “historically correct”.
6) How would you like the music of the Ensemble, and your music in general, to affect people?
Ideally, with fascination — by which I mean enough interest to go back to it a few times, because only then will it start to reveal its hidden treasures. At that point, some laughing, some crying, some excitement and perhaps even inspiration would be the best I could hope for.
7) How long generally do you have to rehearse your compositions before the musicians are able to play them as you would wish? What qualities would the ideal performer of your music have? Who are your favorite performers (jazz or otherwise)?
There never seems to be enough rehearsal time, in life. For my first CD, we developed, rehearsed, and performed the music for five years before recording it. And two years later, after having performed and rehearsed it even more, we briefly kicked around the idea of recording it again! We did the new CD in two sessions, rehearsing intensively for periods of several months before each session, and prior to those periods we had played the music in public on and off for a year or two. Did any of this lead to a complete mastery of the material? Sadly not. But what emerges, I like to think, from this slavering of attention over every detail, as well as the overall effect of the music, is a sense of intense commitment, of us being totally involved and committed to the music.
Why, you wonder, does it take so darn long to rehearse? What’s wrong with us, that we need so much time to put a few pieces of music together?
Well, first of all, as jazz musicians we are unschooled in the extended rhythmic/harmonic vocabulary of later 20th century concert music; that is, we aren’t used to having to subdivide the beat in so many unconventional ways, or playing intervallically rangy melodies which are often instrumentally challenging as well. So just getting the notes and rhythms down takes much longer than it should. Often we start off with “sectionals”, where I sit with individual members of the band and we work on their parts. Then, once we know what we’re doing individually, we have to put it all together, to be able to understand how our parts fit in to create the whole. That’s a big challenge, and if this music is virtuosic in any way, I think it is in the ensemble playing, the way we learn to play together despite the paucity of standard rhythmic cues coming from the other instruments. Timing is crucial, as well as an absolute awareness of what everyone else is about to do.
But these are just the technical elements of the music. Once these begin to fall into place, we’re ready to start really working on the piece. You have to remember, given the overwhelming amount of technical detail, it’s easy to lose the sense of why the music was written, what it might mean. I work hard on communicating this to the musicians in any way I can, using mental images, unlikely musical references, or even, at last resort, interpretive dance. During this stage of the process we also work on concepts for improvisation. This is another great challenge, since we were all raised in a tradition that calls for us to play a certain standard thing over certain chord changes. The challenge is to get away from that way of improvising entirely, to find things to play which comport with the musical context at hand. I think preparing to improvise is a crucial and sorely neglected aspect of the musical process in jazz, one that every improviser should go through no matter what the piece he is playing over, even if it’s Stardust. Think: what kinds of ideas would you like to express in this solo? How would they be most effectively, most economically presented? These questions take on special importance when the musical context is as rarified as mine is.
As for the ideal performers, I have had the honor of working with some tremendous musicians — indeed I feel my sidemen in the Ensemble to be as good as they come. If I had to abstract the most important qualities in a musician that I could think of, though, they would be:
beautiful tone quality — wide range of tonal control, and a great ability and willingness to blend with other instruments.
very methodical approach towards rhythm and other technical aspects of music &endash; excellent fundamentals and the patience and discipline to learn music thoroughly.
Genuine sensitivity, openness, and humility. Willingness to listen in a subtle way, ability to play supporting roles and interact spontaneously with others in a way that doesn’t always call attention to oneself.
Commitment. Willingness to go the extra 300 miles on the music, to really consider what it needs, to inquire as to what its nature is and to do everything possible to support that nature.
I think of the musician’s task as primarily to serve, be it the enjoyment of listeners or the glorification of a higher power. Most musicians that I respect have that attitude — they ask not what music can do for them but what they can do for music.
8) What is the role of novelty and innovation in (your) music? Do you think of yourself as a jazz iconoclast?
For better or for worse! I haven’t been able to fit in to any of the various sub-milieus of jazz, and I certainly don’t know of anyone else whose musical aims are remotely the same as mine. I don’t really think that my music can be said to sound like anyone else’s, despite a variety of discernable influences. I say this not to boast — in fact it feels pretty lonely. I wish there were others working towards similar things, who I could identify with.
When I was younger, in my teens and early twenties, I was very much concerned with originality, but as I get older I’m becoming less interested in setting myself apart, at least in that way. More and more I just want to write good music &endash; I’m confident that my personality will come through, and that I couldn’t help it if I tried!
9) What is the role of music in general in our time? Of art?
Well, I doubt if I’d be the one to ask, since the answer varies so much from person to person — and certainly the role of music in my life is considerably different from the norm, both historically and socially. In fact, I’d have to say that in no other time of human existence have there been more different kinds of roles for music to play in society. Music has historically been an integral part of social rituals, and nowadays there are incredibly numerous social rituals in which to take part, from “moshing”, whatever that is, to tribal rituals of indigenous peoples to background music for everything from weddings to grocery shopping to elevator rides, not to mention music for all manner of Judeo-Christian religious services (though I suppose those would fall under the category of indigenous tribal rituals). Then there’s the new entertainment media, TV and movies, which have their own proprietary forms of music, which coexist with the music of their antecedents, theater, ballet, opera. On top of all this there’s another possibility for experiencing music, one that’s just begun in this century — that of private listening. Countless thousands or millions of people are staying at home, customizing their musical experiences, repeating them over and over, getting into music on a much deeper level than was possible 100 years ago. This has been the crucial factor in the dramatic rise of art music, of music for music’s sake, in our century.
I say that there is a dramatic rise in this genre — some might think that, on the contrary, there has been a drastic drop-off. But I feel that this is an illusion. After all there were very few composers who wrote music exclusively for its own sake prior to 1900. Certainly most famous figures in Western art music did not. The real onset of music for its own sake came with Beethoven and his preternatural sense of self, though he, too, wrote a good deal of music for various functions, from opera to dance. This was however a time when self-consciousness was quietly beginning to infiltrate Viennese music — when the Viennese were beginning to look at music not simply as a pleasurable experience, but as an exalted art form. That idea had nowhere near the widespread acceptance in Beethoven’s time that it does now. Gradually, through various exponents, from Brahms and Wagner to Schoenberg and Schenker, it was mutually agreed that these Austrians were not simply the leading musicians of their day but great deities whose work deserved worship, and whose technical “advances” were to be outdone be succeeding generations vying for the genius mantle. Here, really, was the onset of art for art’s sake — music became not an entertainment for the living but a dialogue with the dead.
With, as I mentioned before, the advent of the recording, music could be studied with ever greater rigor by succeeding generations, increasingly sophisticated and abstruse techniques could be mastered, studied, built upon. But of course the broader musical public, which continued to want and need for itself more traditional forms of music for more traditional uses, continued to be satisfied by completely different music.
So art music became this strand of musical experience, increasingly remote from the everyday lives of nonmusicians. Sophisticated theories abounded, there was endless lore, and idealistic musicians in great numbers spent hours in solitude, on their solitary journeys to mastery. I myself am every bit the product of this uniquely contemporary process of development.
I might try to defend myself by saying that I have tried to keep sight of the fundamental values of music through all the mad complexity, the originality, and so forth. In fact this is true and if you listen to my CDs at least 50 times and have a good background in jazz it is bound to become obvious to you. But I should make this clear: my music is meant to be listened to many times, absorbed, struggled with, interrogated. If you put it on your CD player once, with no previous experience of similar kinds of work, you may well leave unsatisfied. My music is meant to inspire and encourage, but not, generally, on a mass level, a communal level, but rather on the level of the individual.
10) What music and art of the past and present has particularly inspired you?
My musical experience has been long and wide, and I’m encountering and absorbing new things all the time. Of course I began as a normal child of my time, listening to disco and pop-R&B-type stuff in my early youth, the Jackson Five and so forth. My parents listened to classical music though, and my brother was a piano prodigy, so I was exposed to the classics at a young age. In the early eighties I began to stray from the pop art forms to jazz, as my musical appetites began to transcend the norm, as my musical experience became more private. Eventually I stumbled on to, or was led to, Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Wayne and Sonny, and the genre of contemporary acoustic jazz in general, which I began to tear into with great interest and passion. This was in high school.
At the end of my senior year a friend gave me a tape of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, which marked the beginning of my investigation of contemporary concert music. I went from Bartok’s greatest hits through Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, and finally, in a quite sensible progression, on to the post-serialists, Babbitt, Carter, and to some extent Boulez and Stockhausen, among others. This music began to become more important to me than jazz, since there was such a long but to me deeply rewarding learning process involved.
I should mention that although I listened to as much jazz as I could as a teenager, my main enthusiasms were for the music of the ’40’s to the late ’60’s. I didn’t listen too deeply to Ayler, Pharaoh Sanders, and that crowd — I didn’t even get into Dolphy until later — and listened still less to people like Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, or Arthur Blythe, artists to which critics have sometimes considered my music indebted.
Anyway, these days I’m back to classical music, as I’m involved more and more with orchestral writing. I’m also somewhat into earlier big band music these days, especially “light” music, which has some incredibly creative and subtle arrangements sometimes. What else? I’ve been widely exposed by friends to all manner of ethnic music, but have never become too personally interested with any of it, though of course you can hear playful allusions to, say, North Indian music or Gagaku in Sand, for example.
You also asked about other art that has inspired me. I have had a long-standing interest in literature, and my interest in dance has been discussed, perhaps to an excess of abstraction, in Twelve Sacred Dances. But, like many modern composers, I have been most deeply influenced by contemporary visual art. Some years ago I became intensely interested in the work of living artists, Roy Lichtenstein (he was alive at the time), Eva Hesse, Ellsworth Kelly, David Salle, Richter of course, Gunter Förg, Pat Stier, everybody. I could talk at great length about the connections between my work and visual artists, but I’ll restrain myself to a few short examples from my first CD, Explosion. Hemispheres was my Pollack piece, with contrapuntal webs splashed in all directions across the canvas of time; Where Have I in some ways emulates Rothko’s meditative, monolithic oeuvre. Rings would be — what, Al Held or something, with his preoccupation with 3-dimensional structures, geometric mobiles thrusting in and out of the pictorial space? Lichtenstein I think about when I arrange standards — he was so incredible in that, by the latter part of his career at least, he could paint anything, from old master paintings to cartoon characters, and it would have his own personal stamp, it all had a unique perspective that came from being funneled through the lens of his own worldview. He had amazing confidence in that worldview, and a tremendous freedom as a result.
People think of Lichtenstein as an ironist, a conceptualist primarily. On the contrary, I think of him as a formalist, nearly unconcerned with content. I like to imagine that he only used his benday dots and comicy vibe so people who couldn’t appreciate the painterly attributes of his work would still get it, that he’d be able to continue getting paid on a high level to make his work. His canvases are marvels of spatial balance, very ingeniously created, endlessly inventive, beautifully wrought. I think he was only really concerned with formal, pictorial problems, in the end.
But I digress — I wanted to say one more thing about the art analogies. I’m not alone among composers who feel an affinity with the visual arts. Many of us have derived inspiration from the visual medium, and chafe at the fact that modernism in music didn’t catch on as it did in the visual arts. But I think that there are very important reasons that modernist aesthetics were more tenable in the visual medium than the musical one. A painting doesn’t take time a fixed amount of time, as a piece of music does. If you don’t like a painting, you can look at it for 5 seconds and then move on. If you don’t like an exhibit, you can leave after 5 seconds. For that matter, if you don’t like an entire museum you can bail in an instant, and no one will care. The same is decidedly not true for a concert experience, where you have to sit there, no matter how miserable you are.
Art music generally requires sustained attention, something fairly difficult for most listeners to conjure even when it’s Mozart they’ve paid to hear. So it’s difficult even when it’s simple, and added complexity associated with modernist music is simply too demanding for most people. Furthermore, music surrounds you, engulfs you. If you’re in a room with a picture you don’t like you can simply turn around so you’re not looking at it. But if you’re in a room where there’s music being played that you don’t like there’s nowhere to go but out. This makes distressing music a lot worse, as an experience, than distressing art. To top it off, as Bernstein has noted, music is by its very nature abstract, ineffable. You can paint a picture of a smiley face, on the most basic level, and know what it purports to be — but what is the melody to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, absent the words, “of”? It is a pure abstraction. It signifies nothing. So music is already born in a state of abstraction, it is by nature ineffable. To inject mind-boggling complexities into a medium that is already difficult to understand is to consign oneself, I fear, to a lonely, practically listener-free existence.
But don’t you think that just because of the nature of music as a thing-in-itself, “abstract” music (which necessarily retains its concreteness, at least in performance) can sometimes be more approachable than abstraction in the visual or literary arts, where representation and signification are always somehow involved in our experience of the work? Even if the underlying structures of modern music are inevitably less evident to listeners than its more immediate qualities, even if your attention wanders and the “memory-form” of the piece you create for yourself is vague, the experience itself can still be powerful and transporting on a first listen.
Well you bring up an interesting point, one that was central to the Brahms-Bruckner controversy of a little over a century ago. Jan Swafford talks about it in his biography of Brahms. For Brahms, music without form was nothing &endash; there was no meaning in individual moments, but only in the way they were connected together, in the way things developed and were transformed. This is why he so detested Bruckner’s music, which he felt to be formless and vapid. Bruckner, for his part, grasped that moment-to-moment beauty could stand in for formal tightness. And he was proved right — with the public attention diverted from the Viennese tradition, the audiences forgot about such things as sonata form. Nowadays, as Swafford pointed out, people go to the concert hall with no knowledge of form, simply to revel in the sheer surface beauty of the music — even of Brahms’ music!
And yes, my own stuff has been predicated on the idea that you’re going to be lost, that you’re going to be left with no choice but to experience things from moment-to-moment, unless you really dig in and investigate the structure (in which case you will also, I hope, be rewarded). Fortunately there are a few folks who are intrigued with this kind of thing. But to reward a large number of listeners, your moments better be beautiful in a very standard, traditional way, which Bruckner’s are, I guess (I never got much from his music personally).
11) Musically, where do you go from here?
As you might sense from my previous responses, I’m beginning to have my doubts about art music in today’s society, about music that “makes sense” historically at the expense of the layperson’s understanding and enjoyment. The fact that intelligent, deeply thought-out music of talented, hard-working artists is met with complete public indifference really bothers me — and I’m not one to cast the blame onto ignorant, sadly undereducated audiences. After all, if the musical public of, say, Vienna in the early 1800’s was more musically literate than our current audience (and even this is debatable), their literacy came about through self-motivation, not through the benefit of any superior education system. Something amazing was happening in music at that place and time, and people naturally wanted to get involved. It was the music that led to the learning, not some disembodied educational crusade. And no amount of forced education can compensate for the fact the avant-garde music of this century has not inspired a similar interest within today’s general populace.
I can continue to write music for the smallest of audiences, for a very tight circle of musicians who are able to understand and enjoy what I’m doing on some level. But in a way I feel that to be selfish. Ideally my musical talents would be used to serve, to give others pleasure. Right now I’m doing that on a very small scale, but I have plenty of opportunity to do it on a much larger one. I’ve got more of a stylistic versatility than you might think, which gives me a broad choice of genres in which to work. At this point I have released three CDs worth of “innovative” music in the jazz mould &endash; I have created my own genre, my own style. While I’m very proud of this accomplishment, to continue to work in that style would be merely to become a stylist, to appropriate another’s ideas (in this case, those of my previous self). But if I’m going to be a stylist, I might as well do it in a style that will be of interest to more than just a few musicians.
So it is that lately I have been striking out in different directions. I’m experimenting with actual, standard classical ensembles, writing traditional-sounding String Quartets and Concertos. At the same time I’ve been involved in a studio project that combines high-end, adventurous programming and sampling with acoustic instruments. I just recorded Scott Colley and Satoshi Takeishi on one such track and it’s extremely interesting. The music is very simple in some ways, it’s a bit “street” influenced, even.
I’d also like to write some things involving the human voice, both choral pieces for traditional choirs, and song-type things for more contemporary, pop-style voices.
It’s true that I don’t feel my work in the past to have been broadly viable, but as I think about all the musical situations I can take my training and experience and ideals into in the future, I find it to be incredibly exciting. I’ve deeply enjoyed the work I’ve done in the past ten years, and I’ll still continue to be involved in my little “Zimmerli”genre to the extent that it’s desired of me by some subset of society (two European groups have in fact commissioned music in this style from me). But I greatly look forward also to the many new and interesting things that I hope to be able to do as well.
I think my main strength as an individual is that there is a fundamental purpose to my musical existence — my work is grounded in highly developed aesthetic and philosophical ideals. Those ideals — integrity, creativity, hope, idealism, and ultimately the fulfillment of the self through art — can be communicated in any genre. If I want to be inspiring to as many people as possible, I simply have to find a context where these ideals can be more readily and universally appreciated.