This interview with Ryan Blotnick was conducted by email during July 2009.
Tony Reif: The music on Everything Forgets is played by two different groups, a mostly NY based quartet featuring six-string electric bass and an acoustic-bass trio that’s 3/5 of the group on your first CD Music Needs You. Could you tell us how this came about, and what you learned about producing and recording your own music in the process?
Ryan Blotnick: The original concept for this album started with some gigs I did in London with Peter Van Huffel, Robin Fincker, Jeff Williams and Simon Jermyn. It was my first time playing with Jeff and he was thrashing away on a borrowed rock kit. Simon would lay down all kinds of loops and samples and then groove out and it had this kind of 70s rock vibe mixed with a more modern ‘Icelandic’ soundscape kind of thing. I had met Joachim in Copenhagen and was floored by his clarinet sound, and his whole circular breathing concept, so I put the quartet together and we made a demo with mostly free-form stuff.
Meanwhile I had a weekly trio gig in Brooklyn with James Ilgenfritz and John O’Brien and we were rehearsing a lot and I wrote some music for that band where I could play the melody and chords at the same time. When I brought some of those tunes to the quartet session it became apparent that it was really meant for trio, so we ended up doing a lot of improv in the first quartet sessions, and then recording the trio stuff at the end of a Spain tour with the ‘Music Needs You’ rhythm section.
TR: In your quite philosophical liner note for this record (which can be read here and on your website but was left out of the CD packaging so as not to affect listeners’ first impressions) you write:
“When the melody is restated after the solos, it takes on a new meaning based on what’s been established in the improvised section. This push-and-pull of statement, abstraction or forgetting, and restatement gives us the sensation of movement in music. It is this kind of movement that conveys thoughts and feelings to the listener, the feeling of being moved…..The process of selecting the best takes, editing and mixing them, and weaving them together to tell a story was an experience not unlike what the brain does as we form memories. Moments in time can’t be repeated in real life; but the ability of music to recreate thought, emotions and the feeling of movement through time is truly astounding.”
It’s always interesting to consider the perceived “content” of music, the images and associations that surface as people listen to and make sense of a piece and give it some positive or negative meaning or value for them (or perhaps it leaves them indifferent). These responses of course can involve relating it to other music or artistic creations, as well as personal experience of any kind. It’s a fascinatingly subjective topic, and because your music really touches me I’m curious to know more about how you think about emotion and storytelling in music. So here are some questions:
First: how more specifically did these ideas about music and memory affect the story you were going for in the long process of sequencing the record, including the break between side A and side B?
RB: I listen to a lot of music on vinyl and one of the things I really like is that at the end of a side you are left with this absence of music and it puts you in touch with the fact that you want (or need) to hear more. Then you have to physically get up and flip the disc and basically say “I want some more music now.” I think this makes the B side that much more interesting, and there is also a certain kind of commitment involved. Usually the A side is more flashy and meant to draw you in, and then the B side is more adventurous. A lot of the music on Everything Forgets is very demanding on the listener, so I have shortened some of the freer pieces to a minute or two, and offset them with the lighter, more rational trio compositions. When I hear live music I am content to sit through long pieces with no apparent direction, but I think an album should be more concise and structured, even if it is presenting free music. As [engineer] John Raham said while we were mixing, ‘the act of pressing eject on a CD is so destructive,’ so I wanted to organize the music in a way that people could listen to a half hour of intense music and feel like they had completed something, like a chapter. I want people to think of Everything Forgets as two albums really, and maybe even take the time to really absorb Side A before moving on to Side B.
TR: By “the feeling of being moved” do you mean to include (by analogy at least) a sense of physical movement and places associated with different mind-states – walking in the Maine woods say, as opposed to walking in Manhattan – or do you mean the kinds of dramatic/narrative movement and forgetting/remembering/anticipation that for example sonata form is working with, involving modulation away from and a final return to the home key? And if so, are you working with structures and harmonic development used by classical and romantic composers as well as jazz in your own composing?
RB: I meant to suggest the feeling of being brought to a different emotional state, like at the end of a book or movie. But I think this kind of movement is also closely related to physical movement and vibration. Music is one of the most subtle types of movement that we can pick up on, and it can be used to evoke other kinds of movement in the brain and in the body. Just like some music makes you want to dance, other music makes you think or feel a certain way. I think good music engages all the different chakras, or energy levels in the body. Even if it isn’t dance music you are dancing in your head to it. It is building up expectation on a bunch of different levels, within the beat, the bar, the form. I never got too involved with Sonata-Allegro form but I don’t think it is too far from the typical jazz form, with the improvised solo sections taking the place of the Development. My music is written pretty instinctively, using the sense of form I’ve picked up from playing jazz and other styles. I did spend a couple of years listening to a lot of Romantic and Baroque music and absorbing what I could. Still, I think when I modulate (or digress to different keys) it has more to do with Stevie Wonder than Shostakovich.
TR: When you perform these tunes now do they still conjure up the “residue of experience” of the events and feelings involved in their creation, and if so how do those memories affect your interpretation and playing? Do different pieces have different emotional states that in some way you’re trying to evoke in the listener, or are you operating on a more abstract – or maybe I should say concrete – musical level (especially when you’re improvising)? You also write in the liner note that playing with great musicians you experience a release from the world, a feeling of hurtling through time – similar I think to what Jerry Granelli calls “this wonderful sonic adventure always on the edge, and always in the wonderful world of nowness.” How do you, as a performer working with other musicians performing your music, immerse yourself in the now while maintaining some direction and control (or ideally, as everyone internalizes the music, would that become unnecessary)? Does remembering or thinking about anything while you’re playing just get in the way?
RB: Some of the compositions on this album are very personal. I will write a song when I am feeling a certain way, and playing it usually brings me back to that state. Sometimes the way you feel about things changes though, and then you have to find a new personal connection to the song. As long as you connect to the song and play honestly what it makes you feel, I think you are doing it justice. So a song starts from a certain emotional state, but isn’t confined to that – it keeps on changing.
Being a musician involves a lot more thinking than popular myth would have us believe. But the goal is to train yourself to be able to deal with a number of things subconsciously while playing music. When the elements of rhythm and harmony are already there without too much effort, consciousness can turn to the conversation that is going on between the instruments. I guess you have to think just hard enough that you don’t mess up, but not more that that. During a solo you get to drift a little further out into your own world, and then you come back in and support the rest of the band.
For me it helps to have a starting and ending point, and a chord structure, to make the music clearer to the listener, and to maintain direction. As the bandleader I’m responsible for making sure that the overall form of each tune comes through. But once I have communicated it to the band in rehearsal, and they have internalized it, it is a shared responsibility. I spend a lot of time simplifying my tunes as much as possible so that the band can reach that level quickly. These are all one-pagers, like on Music Needs You.
I think ideally a band can be so ‘immersed in the now’ that the sense of direction or control becomes unnecessary, or at least subliminal. That’s what I hear when I listen to the masters. The most important thing is just to listen. Then there can be a conversation, and it moves forward without much effort.
TR: When you listen to performances or recordings of other music (whether jazz, rock, classical, world music or whatever), what typically is happening to you – are you more an analytical listener or a free association one? And listening to other improvisers at work, what’s it like as a musician to identify with that feeling of freedom and openness in the moment – does it mainly or only happen at live performances, where you’re participating in the space and time of an event? And how does that feeling mesh with other, content-related emotions that the music evokes?
RB: I listen to a lot of recorded music very impulsively. I use it to control my emotions and sometimes I just need to hear Aretha Franklin or Neil Young at a certain moment. Live music is completely different, because you don’t know what you are going to get. You just have to go with an open mind and hope for the best. Last month I was at the Village Vanguard for four sets of Bill McHenry’s group with Paul Motian, Ben Street, Andrew D’Angelo and Duane Eubanks. You couldn’t help but hear all the beauty of those great musicians. The other show that was like that for me recently was Soren Kjargaard’s trio with Ben Street and Andrew Cyrille. When I see musicians play with that much grace and openness it is really uplifting; it makes me feel good about being a human being.
When I see a great show it will often stay with me for some days, and I will reflect on it after the fact and learn a lot. I try to incorporate what I’ve learned into my practicing and playing somehow. Like right now I am working on a certain kind of phrasing that I got from listening to Andrew Cyrille. He plays phrases that sound so natural, kind of like speech. I also transcribe and learn other people’s music to figure out what is going on there.
TR: Getting back to the specifics of this record, are there any tunes here that have interesting stories connected with their composition (like your notes for Music Needs You go into)? And what about the Benoît Delbecq dedication, “Dark Matter”?
RB: I don’t really think the stories are of that much importance, but I would say that a lot of the tunes were inspired by concepts I heard in other people’s music, to which I am very much indebted. I can hear Michael Blake and Eivind Opsvik in “Mansell,” Bill McHenry in “Mainstream I,” Ned Ferm and Rob Stillman in “Ned Ferm,” Benoît Delbecq in “Dark Matter,” Sonny Rollins in “Sonny Song” and “Ballad for a Crumbling Infrastructure,” and Skoúli Sverrisson in “Business Class.”
TR: You’ve used the term ‘postjazz’ to refer to your music (on the analogy with postrock). As a (post)jazzer, what do you think about the current state of jazz – where it’s going, what’s good or bad about the music and the business that the term ‘jazz’ is used to categorize and valorize. In the end is it more of a help or a hindrance for young musicians today?
RB: I think genres are used to turn music into a product, which is a necessary evil if musicians are going to reach a larger audience than their friends and family. Thanks to the term ‘jazz’ I’ve been able to bring my music all over Europe to clubs where people will pay money to see someone they might never have never heard of, based on the fact that it is supposed to be ‘good jazz’. So that term seems to be working in my favor. I am only hesitant to call Everything Forgets a jazz album because of the composed tunes there is only one with a swing feel, and the improvisation concept on the freer stuff has very little to do with jazz and more to do with avant rock or new music. I feel like the vibe on this album is almost closer to a Led Zeppelin album than a Charlie Parker album, although it is clearly coming out of the jazz tradition. I have a lot of friends that don’t listen to jazz but have gotten into my music so that gives me hope that I might be able to reach a broader audience with this album.
TR: What are some of the directions you’re exploring currently in your music, where do you want to take it next?
RB: I want to write some stuff that has that really heavy group hypnosis vibe, like when you hear some of Mingus’s bands. I also want to explore the other direction, toward more spaciousness and air in the music, and also a kind of trancelike bluesy Mali thing, like Ali Farka Touré. I want to put together a really dynamic show that the band has completely memorized and tour the world without sheet music.