An Interview

Patrick Zimmerli (III)

Infrequently Asked Questions #3 with Patrick Zimmerli, conducted by email from September to November 2004

Tony Reif: Phoenix is quite a different project for you than our previous CDs with the Patrick Zimmerli Ensemble and your collaboration with Octurn. From the Ensemble we have the rhythm section, Stomu and Satoshi Takeishi, although here Sato is playing electronic percussion and triggering samples along with his acoustic percussion kit. You’re playing soprano saxophone now exclusively rather than tenor as in the Ensemble. Then we have piano, which I think you haven’t had in a group of yours since the 12 Sacred Dances, and string quartet, which obviously comes from the classical music side of your composing. What was the inspiration for this group, this music? Do you see it as both a departure and a continuation of your composing and performing up till now?

Patrick Zimmerli: Well, I played soprano saxophone exclusively on The Book of Hours, so that’s nothing new. The tenor is an instrument with a lot of baggage for me–we got together at quite a young age, after all–and after many years of alternating love and antagonism, hope and despair, ugly, knock-down-drag-out fights followed by attempted reconciliations, we decided it was best that we lived apart. I’m certain that one day we can become friends again, but for now I think we still need time to heal.

The Book of Hours also featured piano, so there’s no major shift there either. I have a long relationship with the piano, as anyone who knows my early work will realize. In fact my first record, Shores Against Silence, recorded in 1992 and never commercially released (samples of which are at my website,, featured a phenomenal contribution from none other than Kevin Hays, with whom even at that time I’d been already collaborating for several years (we met in 1986). Also I’ve written two piano concertos. So the use of piano is not new for me, and having Kevin on the record along with the ensemble-veteran Takeishis and some of my newest musical friends, Scott Yoo and his soloists from Metamorphosen, makes the whole thing feel like a “this is your life”-type project. Even Peter Nashel, another longtime friend and collaborator from the commercial/film world, got in on the action, contributing an arrangement of “Clouds and Machines.”

The presence of Don Sickler on the record fits in perfectly with the walk-down-memory-lane schema. I met Don at Columbia as a freshman in college, also in 1986, and have worked with him on and off ever since. Don is known for being a straightahead guy exclusively, but that label couldn’t be less deserved. He’s a very open-minded musician with experience in a very broad range of music. He’s deeply versed in classical music and quite knowledgeable on the topic of new music as well. Don was really in for the count on this project. He spent many long, long days in the studio, helping to make it happen.

I feel Phoenix to be my most mature, fully-realized work to date. It is an effort to synthesize all the aspects of my varied musical experience–an experience which reflects the state of music today, at least from the instrumental perspective. We have an incredible breadth and variety of music at our fingertips, from the complete, rich history of jazz to the complete, rich history of classical music to the incredible range of electronic music and ethnic musics from all over the world.

Unlike many of my recent compositional efforts, Phoenix is not one long, continuous piece. It’s a SET of pieces, offering a set of perspectives, of discrete responses to the contemporary musical landscape, each with its own discrete point of view. It’s like having a bunch of people in a room, each speaking basically the same language, each with strong opinions. The room might get loud and some quarrels might break out, but if you appreciate each person for the individual strength and interest of their particular worldview, it can be quite an interesting party!

The first and unifying piece, which appears in three parts and provides the record’s punctuation, as it were, is quite cinematic in its influence, as well as evoking a kind of minimalism. Yet it has saxophone— 3 saxophones, in fact — and percussion, which give it a feeling of intimacy that springs from jazz, that you wouldn’t otherwise find in this type of music.

Then suddenly you have “Away from You,” which offers a completely different outlook. It’s electronic, with not only the theme but a lot of background material that becomes more prominent as the piece progresses. Then there are the strings, which play an unusual role–first melodic, they become part of the rhythm track in the chorus. The form and feeling of the piece are poppy, yet there’s a jazz sensibility underlying the whole thing, particularly in the saxophone part, which has a decided “swing” to it, and of course there’s blowing at the end. So you have jazz, electronics, pop, and classical all in one piece, but combined in a way that’s completely different than the first piece.

Next there’s “Wunderlichen Stadt” which feels very classical at the beginning, with the contrapuntal figure in the strings, offset by an ominous reply in the “Ensemble,” Sato and Stomu. But that piece breaks out into a jazzy groove, and later there’s an improvised section, followed by a very classical climax and denouement. So classical, jazz, and pop are present in each of the first three pieces, but the weighting of elements is totally different in each piece; and that pattern pretty much continues throughout the record. I think it provides a nice means of providing both continuity and contrast.

That said, it’s not as though my earlier style is not present. It is simply one of the aesthetic regions that I explore, one of the ingredients to be put in the stew. Witness, for example, “Gnosis Crisis,” which is just a straightahead pop tune, very mainstream I’m sure, were it not for the quirkiness of its melody, its use of contrapuntal strings as a background figure– and the small matter of its breakdown section, where the saxophone plays a figure that leaps wildly in a way that would not be out of place on Explosion.

The idea that to be experimental music can’t be appealing sonically, that it has to exist within a narrow tradition of unpleasantness and ugliness and heightened expression, is itself long out of date. What is subversive? To me one of the most subversive pieces on this record is “How Insensitive.” Though non-musicians couldn’t possibly understand this, many of my close musician-friends have expressed shock at this arrangement. Why? Because in our Knitting-Factory upbringings we are taught that at every moment one must insert something novel, something that aggressively asserts one’s originality. This arrangement calls that idea into question. What if you just play it straight? What if you just let a beautiful tune speak for itself? What happens? Well, you might not like the result, but then that’s the price of experimentation, isn’t it?

This record has elements of popular music, a genre from which I can’t escape–can you?–and in any case I wouldn’t want to. There’s so much interesting stuff going on in pop music, so many dedicated, searching people doing things in an idealistic, visionary way. The record partakes of that, and I’d love it if it strikes a chord with people who are into pop as a result. But in subtle ways, the record takes nothing for granted. For example, “Feel” starts out as a simple melody in the piano, and goes on to follow a basic pop format. It feels like the game afoot is the creative admixture of electronic and acoustic elements, which is true (we did some pretty wild things on the surround mix of this one, by the way); and the climax at the end has struck some as predictable. But what of the ending, the atonal roulades in the piano that feel like they should fade out but somehow keep not going away? In essence a free-jazz solo, in duet with electronics, has been grafted onto the most stylistically conservative piece on the record, in a way that you might not even notice if you’re not paying attention. That to me is artistically interesting, conceptually provocative.

What I’m aiming for, in all these pieces, what I’m struggling toward, is a contemporary, aesthetically viable, pan-stylistic art music. That to me is a music that feels good, that is rich and inviting in its sound and harmony, that draws a listener into its emotional journey, but that at the same time doesn’t lapse into predictability, that remains fresh and vital and intellectually alert.

It’s such a difficult thing to achieve, that balance between listenability and interest, between tradition and novelty. But it is the quality that all the very best music from every genre past and present possesses, and I think it’s well worth striving for.

TR: Do you have a particular audience in mind for this music? Is this a genre-busting sort of project or does it seem to you to fit into certain more-or-less well defined musical niches? Would it be fair to characterize this group as a bid for wider recognition?

PZ: Around age 20, I made a decision: I was going to learn the English language. That meant writing down every word of whose definition I wasn’t completely sure, and then painstakingly committing the definitions to memory. When reading people like Nabokov, Pynchon, Shakespeare, and Eco, which I was at the time, that meant a lot of trips to the dictionary. I made them, and soon enough was able to pepper my conversation with words such as “anacoluthon,” “mytacism,” and “spissitude.”

Latterly I abandoned this project, however, and I think with good reason. If you use words like this routinely the amount of people with whom you’re going to be able to communicate is going to dwindle. To me the crucial point is this: message is absolute, but language is relative. That is, what one wants to communicate is this abstract object, this a priori thing, which can then be given form in innumerable different ways. If you speak the message in Chinese to a Frenchman, they might be very impressed with your knowledge of Chinese, but they won’t have the remotest clue what you’re trying to say. Your best bet when trying to communicate with a Frenchman is to speak French.

I feel that it’s true with music as well. There’s a message underlying my music, but I don’t want to exclude listeners by the language I use. With the ensemble I really feel like I was excluding people. Of course this wasn’t intentional on my part, but it did reflect a lack of awareness on my part of just how deeply I had probed into the abstruse corners of musical possibility. Non-musicians had no means of entry into the work. Musicians understood, at best, that they were French and I appeared to have quite a mastery of Chinese. As an artist with something to communicate, that wasn’t enough for me.

The language, the tools, are in the end completely secondary to the message. That’s why I think it’s so silly when people ask me why I don’t use polyrhythms in my music anymore. Polyrhythms are just a technique, a tool, utterly meaningless in and of themselves. What makes music important is the message it imparts, emotional, philosophical, whatever. I always stressed this in Ensemble rehearsals. I always wanted to get beyond the notes and rhythms (which of course we first had to master thoroughly) and get to the meaning.

What’s ironic is that in the very act of introducing pop and commercial elements into the music I’m having the precisely opposite effect that I would want to have if I were “selling out.” This music completely defies genre, and that will work against it in the marketplace, where music is sold exclusively by genre. Would I be happy if my message were more widely appreciated and understood? Absolutely. But my music does not function in a commercial way, just as I for better or for worse am not a commercial type of person. The music is fundamentally about openness, awareness, understanding. That’s not a message most people are interested in hearing. Most people look to music for a reinforcement of their values, and this music argues with your values, calls them into question, and asks you to consider alternate points of view, no matter who you are.

TR: I’m interested in the treatment of the strings. I believe you rehearsedquite a while with the string players, who are all excellent classical music performers, to get the kind of feeling you wanted…

PZ: The process of rehearsal, and indeed of the entire recording, was quite collaborative. Scott Yoo, my friend and colleague with Metamorphosen, is at this point very experienced with my music, and we’ve worked hard at finding ways of communicating the effect I want to classically-trained musicians. In general, classical musicians, especially string players are not experienced in playing groove-based music, as much of the music on Phoenix is. Scott did a good job communicating what was required in language that they could understand.

Also, Sato did some wonderful work with the electronics, contributing quite a bit to the sound of the record. We really took time and developed the electronic parts through many stages, starting with some little ideas I came up with in my home studio, and ending in the mix at Kampo, where we used their outboard gear to bring the electronics to the highest possible level of complexity and interest.

TR: There are a variety of moods on the record, and obviously some of the tunes are “poppier” while others are more melancholy or reflective. Much of the harmony is clearly defined and straightforward, but there are still touches of the old chromaticism on a number of tunes and one or two that are almost classical in feel (not exactly contemporary classical to my ear, maybe closer to the 2nd Vienna school). I know that harmony is something dear to your heart as a composer. Can you give us some insight into your compositional approach as it relates particularly to harmony and melody on this record? Might as well throw rhythm in there too…

As with style, harmony is given radically different treatment on the various pieces on the record. Harmony is generally my favorite aspect of music, so here I allowed myself varying degrees of color. I really admire the way in pop music, and a lot of classical as well, much mileage is gotten from simple means. Often one harmonic quiddity will form the basis for an entire piece. In some of the pieces I experimented with this effect.

Harmony is most limited in, for example, “Beginning,” which really has one chord in the A section and one chord in the bridge. And “M” is basically a drawn-out cadence, where the harmony is born from a couple of notes, an interval. In the straightforward poppish tunes, I do strive for some kind of harmonic originality, however subtle. Take “Away from You,” for instance. The verse is built on an Ab pedal, with two chords alternating back and forth, V-I. But the V chord has both the third and the fourth in it (a voicing that was popular among the 2nd

Viennese school, incidentally), making it an unusual sound for the context. “Clouds and Machines,” also a two-chord facture, is interesting in that its simple motive, F-C-F-F-C-F, is immediately reinterpreted in Db, and the tonic key of F is only reached at the bridge.

On the other side of the spectrum you have pieces like “Wunderlichen Stadt” whose harmonies defy easy categorization, as they are arrived at through contrapuntal treatments of the basic, undulating motive. The “jazz” section is very colorful harmonically, featuring all kinds of thirds and fourths progressions in different combinations, and seeming to modulate endlessly. In the blowing the progression is repeated four times and subtly varied each time, as the strings build in the background toward the climax, which is the one of the most harmonically extended moments on the record.

By the way, I’m talking a lot in technical and stylistic terms about this project, but the real origins of the music have nothing to do with that. It really had to do with my reconnection to Europe and the European aesthetic that I experienced as a result of my Octurn project. I went to Belgium for three weeks and of course tussled with the musicians over there–we were at odds on a number of issues–but in terms of the way of life, the emphasis on culture, and the general vibe, I was really profoundly impressed.

Culture in Europe is so much more a natural part of people’s lives, so much more integrated. Here in the States it feels quite either-or, like you have the mainstream of American culture and then these maniacs who pay no attention to it and go off and do their own thing. There everyone has an interest in the arts.

I met some Germans while over there and wound up going back to visit Hamburg, and that was an incredibly inspiring experience for me. I found that city to be quite beautiful (it’s the inspiration for Wunderlichen Stadt, incidentally), and the people over there were so interesting and deep and relaxed and I had a completely new energy when I returned home, as if I had a new life, and I started to write all this music that was for me completely different than what I had done previously. And for the next two years I developed the music, and gradually got others involved, and that’s the story of how Phoenix got started.

TR: This is a much more highly produced record than any of your previous ones. Some tracks have many overdubs, and we’ve also mixed it in multi-channel as well as stereo for release as a hybrid SACD. What do you think these additional options bring to the music?

PZ: The studio is obviously an incredible creative tool. The electronic medium is an unbelievably fertile area for creativity. I recall recently reading a jazz review in a prominent newspaper where a musician was taken to task for having spent too much time in the studio. Now what was that silly reviewer thinking? There’s been so much interesting stuff done in the studio, from the tradition of academic computer and tape music to the many immense subgenres of modern electronic and film stuff to even things like Steely Dan. How could spending too much time in the studio possibly be artistically detrimental?

On this record we do a lot of overdubbing, not just to thicken the sound, but to make for strange and interesting textures. In “M,” for instance, the saxophone plays a melodic figure at the beginning. I played three passes in the studio, and they all happened at slightly different times, so in the edit, we decided to leave all three in. I think it’s a really haunting effect, with the saxophones eerily echoing each other. It’s a creative accident that wouldn’t have ever even been thought of in the purely acoustic medium.

There’s a freedom to working in the studio context that can lead to some very interesting results. That’s also true of the surround mix, where we did not shy away from acoustic adventure! In “Beginning,” at the front where the saxophones are playing the incessant trilling figure, we used a chaos-pad-like thing to get each voice to dart around the sonic field in ways that really heighten the anxious feeling we were going for on that track. Throughout the record we did stuff like that, really letting our hair down and having some fun.

TR: Phoenix will have its first public performance at New York’s Jazz Standard on January 10, and later in the year there’s a plan to feature Phoenix in a week-long series of concerts you’ll be programming there. What’s the concept of the series, and how do you see Phoenix developing as a performing ensemble beyond that?

PZ: I’ll leave that question right now because we have a couple of formats we’re thinking about. One involves singers. I keep swearing that I’m going to work with singers, I hope soon! I’ll keep you posted.