An Interview

Patrick Zimmerli (II)

IAQ2 (Infrequently Asked Questions, continued)
On the U.S. release of The Book of Hours in October 2002 I emailed Patrick Zimmerli some questions about the project, hoping to continue the discussion we began with the IAQ on Expansion. As ever his responses make for interesting and sometimes provocative reading. Any comments are welcome and will be forwarded to him.
Tony Reif

1.) This is your first “little big band” project. What inspired you to write for a larger jazz ensemble, and specifically this already-existing group, apart from the fact that they approached you (more or less out of the blue) with a commission? Were you thinking about any of the performers when you were composing or just the instrumentation available? How did the idea of The Book of Hours as an hour-long suite emerge and develop (I understand Octurn only commissioned a 20-30 minute piece)?

The germ of the idea came as a result of an earlier commission, from Guillaume Orti on behalf of his group Kartet. I had been writing a lot of suites and I wanted to write one for Kartet in three movements, but for some logistical reason that I can’t recall they were or I was unable to do it. But somehow Bo van der Werf, the spearhead of Octurn, got wind of my desire to do a longer-form piece, so he approached me with the idea of writing a three-movement suite for Octurn, of about 30 minutes length. He came up with the instrumentation, including the double rhythm section idea.

I was fortunate to know a few of the members of Octurn from prior experience, which definitely influenced my writing of the piece. Guillaume was the person I knew best – he was an early fan of the Ensemble and had actually transcribed some of the music from Explosion. He came to New York and sat in on an Ensemble rehearsal a few years before, and he gave me some discs of his playing so I became familiar with his work as well. I knew Guillaume was going to want some adventurous music, and “Afternoon,” which features him, is the most rhythmically complex and technically demanding piece in the suite.

Bo, too, as I knew from many conversations with him, was also looking to have his horizons broadened, so I wrote him a challenging solo, “Noon,” which is also full of polyrhythmic intricacies and whose improvisation is based on a twelve-tone array.

It’s hard to explain my concept of array improvisation except to say that it’s a very constraining way of working that produces musical results that sound free while in fact being very controlled. But to really attain any degree of flexibility within the system takes a ton of work. Bo did the work, and to me the results are one of the high points on the record. But Bo really struggled with the whole concept of array improvisation, as anyone would on first exposure. I remember the first time I brought Ben Monder a piece based on array improvisation, he really hated it. The reason musicians don’t like is that it insures that they play exactly nothing that they have ever played before. And while there’s a lot of talk among jazz musicians about wanting to play something completely fresh and so on, not many really want to do it – they want to play what they’ve spent precious hours of their lives in a practice room shedding, understandably enough. Of course I personally would say that all that stuff has to be thrown out the window if you’re really going for the best musical result, for the very reason that you are so attached to it, you can’t evaluate it objectively, and so it tends to obscure larger and more important musical issues.

To be fair, array improvisation does tend to steer one down a certain very abstract, modernist aesthetic road. It’s also very much involved with pitch and rhythm and melody, and not about texture or sound per se, which separates it from a lot of other free music. I find it to produce an incredibly appealing, unique sound, but I am in the minority among musicians in this viewpoint.

Anyway in Ben’s case he never did warm to the piece I gave him, “Array of Light #2” (though he really sounded unbelievable when we rehearsed it) so we never performed it. But he was eventually able to reconcile himself somewhat to the idea of array improvisation, and his solo in “Sand,” from Expansion, is array-based.

As for Bo, although he wound up playing “Noon” to my deepest satisfaction I don’t know if he ever grew to love it, but then Bo is also a great straightahead Bari player, and I wanted to give him some room to show off that side of himself, hence the extended solo in “Morning.”

The rest of the band I was familiar with to varying degrees. Chander Sardjoe I had met before; he was a member of Kartet, Guillaume’s band. I first met him after I had completed the commission for Kartet, in the form of a piece called “Waves,” which is based on an incredibly intricate series of polyrhythms. Chander was passing through New York and called me, so I invited him up to my place. I’ll never forget the sight of this tall, somewhat awkward Indian-looking guy appearing at my door, formally dressed in some sort of blazer, and tapping out these rhythms with incredible ease and accuracy – I had never heard anything like it!

Chander became one of my favorite members of Octurn. I would learn that perfectionism was not his only strong suit (or should I say main blazer). He’s got an incredible idealism, an old-school, uncompromising intellect, and an indomitable spirit that make him a pleasure to be around. He too was going to want some challenging stuff and I wrote a lot of the more rhythmically intricate parts of “Dawn” and “Morning” with him in mind.

Of the other members of the group, I had heard StZ├┐phane Galland as a member of Aka Moon, whose CDs Guillaume had given me, and many of the others from Octurn’s CDs. So I knew that the entire group would be very grounded and proficient, but also adventurous.

As to the length of the piece, I recall thinking that, as a change of pace, I would write many short movements, instead of three long ones. But inevitably some of the short movements became more involved, and at some point I remember realizing that things were getting out of hand, so I called Bo and warned him that the piece was doubling in length, and asked if that would be okay. Bo, being by nature one to applaud creativity and elaborateness of all kinds, was very enthusiastic and encouraging at the time, though as logistic realities began to assert themselves nearer to the actual gigs I think he came to regret it.

2) A. Were the Interludes part of the original concept? You say in the CD’s notes that their melodic material references “A Love Supreme” and yet the Interludes are much more “classical chamber music” in feeling than the named Book of Hours pieces, which on the surface at least are some of the jazziest you’ve done. In some ways the Interludes are closer to the music on Explosion and Expansion than to the named pieces; and if the latter are constructed with the same rigor, they certainly seem jazzier, because of their generally lively, more emphatic rhythms, the range of instrumental color available with the full ensemble, the language and articulation that the ensemble and soloists bring to the playing, etc. B. In any case, by including a rather wide range of material in the suite, it seems you’re once again begging the question “What is jazz?” in order to blur distinctions and propose a broader personal definition as a jazz composer and performer. But since you are also very active as a composer of contemporary classical music, maybe the question I should ask is: C. do you feel your relationship to the jazz tradition has changed in any way in the process of creating The Book of Hours? D. I’m wondering what the terms “jazz,” “classical” etc. mean to you in practice as a composer, or are they more like constraints that one imposes on the music in order to get it performed and marketed to an audience? If so, is there a price to pay? E. How are expectations of the jazz world different from the expectations of the world of classical music in your own case, and how do they shape your work?

The Interludes were indeed part of the original plan. My first concept was to organize the movements into an arch form. I knew I wanted fast pieces to bookend the suite (with a slow, ruminative coda), and I wanted groove-oriented pieces as well, and at the core of the work, the two saxophone solos. Between these movements, most of which were going to involve the full ensemble, I wanted to have little contrasting movements with more intimate instrumentation. Originally the Interludes were planned to grow and shrink in orchestration to complement the arch form, but that approach felt too simplistic. At the same time, as the piece started turning out to be longer than I had planned, I realized I would be better off omitting one of the interludes altogether. So the form evolved as follows:

Original plan:
Sax Solo (Bari)
Sax Solo (Alto)

Final movements:

You’re right in a way about the Interludes being akin to my earlier music, in their harmonic makeup and lack of traditional jazz rhythms. But I should make it clear that in my work I’m not proposing any definitions of what “jazz” is. I’m just dealing with the circumstances at hand. When Octurn asked me to write a piece, I knew from the instrumentation and from their backgrounds that it was going to be a jazz piece, in the sense that the writing would be less development-oriented, there would be a general orientation towards groove types of music, and there would be room for improvisation. Jazz to me is sectional, whereas classical music is narrative. The Interludes are more classical in that sense, it’s true, and they were the most difficult movements for the ensemble to pull off as a result. Their primary function in the suite is as a means of contrast, and I think they accomplish that without being too far outside the aesthetic realm of the other movements, considering their harmonic vocabulary and the degree of syncopation and asymmetry in the phrases. They certainly aren’t there in order to propose some definition of something or to stretch the boundaries of a genre, much less as a means of marketing! I’m simply writing from the totality of my experience.

As far as the expectations of the jazz and classical worlds, they are indeed disparate. Jazz musicians familiar with my old work seem to want me to be a ruthless avant-garde innovator, in the same manner that fans of Sinatra want to hear him croon his classics over and over (except that arguably I was never a ruthless avant-garde innovator to begin with). The classical musicians I work with, who are obviously less aware of the specific jazz mores that we learn as students these days, appreciate the spontaneity and vitality of my music, while appearing to admire its “classical” qualities and solidity of construction as well.

Generally classical musicians are much less uptight about aesthetics than their jazz counterparts (this they have in common with the majority of casual listeners, who simply want to enjoy some nice music). Partly it’s because they aren’t making up the notes they play, so they have less of an investment in what notes they actually are. I respect the commitment jazz musicians have to what they play, but they take it to ideological extremes sometimes. In jazz you have groups who will commission you for a piece and then cut out a few bars if they don’t find them sufficiently “hip” or “advanced,” or otherwise in line with whatever silly aesthetic they are boxed into at the moment-I mean literally they’ll just skip bars here and there! This would strike a classical performer as utterly preposterous. Classical groups I’ve performed with are eager for my input; jazz musicians often refuse requests I make. Is it any wonder that I often favor the company of my classical brothers and sisters?

3) The process of rehearsing The Book of Hours, taking it on the road in Belgium for eight performances, and then recording it in two days, was a concentrated one for music of this complexity- it all happened in less than a month, as opposed to the year or longer that the music of Explosion and Expansion both took from first rehearsal to completion of recording. In fact the music of the Book of Hours is somewhat less difficult to perform, but still I know you provided the musicians with plenty of challenges, particularly given the time available (apart from the written material, the soloists for example were sometimes given specific rhythmic and melodic requirements for their improvisations). Looking back over a year and a half later, what were some of the high points (and some of the low points), and how close does the record come to your ideal performance? If you could do it again what would you do differently?

The main hurdle I had to clear with Octurn was earning the trust of the musicians. My Ensemble had worked together for many years and during that time, slowly and not without major bumps along the way, we evolved a relationship of complete trust. I can ask the members to do anything and they will try it, no matter how much short-term dissonance it creates with their aesthetic perspective.

I think I’m a bit of a shock for the typical, or even the not-so-typical, jazz musician working today. I have opinions and manners and methods that are not at all the norm in the jazz world. As a result, when I come into a situation where there are a lot of people with strong ideas that are different from mine, and especially when there’s a general aesthetic consensus, it takes a while to persuade people that my ideas have some validity.

I was brought up in jazz, just like everyone else, and studied and practiced that music very intensively. But I have grown to differ with almost every fundamental tenet of the jazz religion, from the traditionalist to the avant-garde branches. I’m uninterested in virtuosity per se, I dislike extended solos that most post-Coltranites indulge themselves in (having taken plenty of gratuitous extra choruses myself in earlier days), and I’m very suspicious of ideas like “expression,” “creativity,” even “interplay.” I mean it’s music, isn’t it creative no matter what? This isn’t banking here, we are all creative artists. Originality is nice, but even by that most people simply mean to bang others on the head who are not operating within the same context of influence that they are. To take an extended solo on a saxophone over some droning or harmonically ambiguous stuff in the rhythm section, including a lot of tricky patterns and “interesting” lines, is to be influenced in an extremely direct way and on a very basic level by Coltrane, even if you’re playing totally different things than he did on a note-to-note basis. It’s no more “creative” on the broadest level than, say, reading down Ellington charts the way they do at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Personally I’m much more interested in offering up an aesthetic experience, in music that conveys mood and emotion to a listener, than in quantifying originality or creativity.

Further problems arise from my methods of teaching people complex rhythms. My approach is very grounded and methodical and has worked for me many times, but there are always going to be people for whom it’s too deliberate to be immediately palatable. That is, most jazz musicians like to rely on feel, a kind of rhythmic intuition, and understandably so, since feel is such an important part of music, mine included. But for some of my more complex material, it’s essential to break things down and understand them completely from an intellectual perspective first, and internalize them starting that way. Only once the complexities are internalized and mastered can you be free enough to incorporate your natural feel.

If I had it to do again, I’m not quite sure what I could’ve done differently, other than obviously to make the piece shorter and easier to play. As I didn’t realize while writing my piece, there were many other pieces that Octurn was trying to play as well on the same series of concerts, some of them very difficult (some of them very interesting, too – in particular Geoffroy de Masure, the trombonist, had some very ambitious pieces on the program), and what with my piece being as big as it was, there was just way too much music. In future I will probably be better-behaved in terms of sticking to prescribed lengths for commissioned pieces, though overall I can’t say I’m unhappy that The Book of Hours exists in the form that it does.

4) Your new group, Phoenix, is rising from the ashes of the Patrick Zimmerli Ensemble; it includes three of the four performers of that group (yourself and the Takeishi brothers) as well as a string quartet, classically-trained pianist, and a vocalist if you can find the right person. It would appear that this band will incorporate both jazz and classical worlds equally in its make-up. This is really a continuation of question 2: how are you thinking about the process of give-and-take between individual voices, each with their particular sounds, styles and abilities, within your musical concepts for this group?

Well I am always trying to bring together all the disparate strands of my musical experience, and Phoenix is no exception. Phoenix is an attempt to broaden my palette one step further, in that it mixes jazz, classical and popular musical influences. But ultimately, as with anything else, you choose a medium and then see how far you can take it. The strings can play in ways that are traditional for a quartet to play in, or they can play in ways that are traditional for a pop string section to play in, or then they can play in completely untraditional ways, and then there are all kinds of things in between that you can ask them to do. Same goes for all the other voices of the group. You just do as much as you can within the given medium.

One thing I will say that’s special about what we’re doing with Phoenix is Sato’s contribution on percussion. A lot of the pieces have a sort of pop-music framework, and Sato has constructed these electronic rhythmic textures using a very industrial, artificial-sounding palette and then triggering them with his sticks on these drum pads he has. The result is a very intriguing combination of the artificial and the natural, and is a wonderful extension of Sato’s own very distinctive musical voice.

5) Much of what is called avant-jazz today is taking inspiration from various world music traditions, from avant-rock, from electronic and ambient music of different kinds, etc., voraciously building it seems on the “non-idiomatic” investigations begun by jazz improvisers in the 60s, which themselves were often inspired by world music and contemporary classical music (Coltrane for example, looking to India and perhaps also to Cage for ways beyond the habitual). You seem a resolutely non-technological musician and pretty focused on western art music traditions. Have you been listening to some of the things that are happening in the intersection of (un)popular music and jazz, or world music and jazz, and if so is there anything there you find interesting?

I’m not so resolutely non-technological-at best I’m technologically challenged. As for new jazz of any kind, you know I really have my head in the sand. I’m not unlike Kenny G with respect to listening to music ( for an extremely amusing, if rather counter-factual, take on jazz history). But I’m sure there are good things out there and would love to hear them…