This interview with Wayne Horvitz was conducted by email during July 2014.
Tony Reif: What’s the history of the Royal Room Collective Music Ensemble? Is it in any sense an outgrowth of the New York Composers Orchestra West/Washington Composers Orchestra? Anything you’d like to say about the musicians on the record? Are they mostly people you’ve worked with for a long time? I’ve noticed that in some past performances you’ve had different musicians in many chairs. Is the Seattle jazz community a rich resource for this band?
Wayne Horvitz: It really is not an outgrowth of the New York Composers Orchestra. Despite some tonal and rhythmic content, the NYCO really behaved like a normal Jazz Orchestra. Forms are set, solos are set, and the writing is really dependent on a set instrumentation. If Trumpet 2 and Tenor 1 don’t turn up you can’t really do the gig. With RRCME the arrangements are very modular on purpose. That way if a friend is in town that is a great cellist I can add a cello part, or if a trumpet player doesn’t turn up we can still play the tune.
Also all the music for the NYCO was conceived originally in “large ensemble” configurations. All the music for the RRCME was originally for smaller groups and then expanded. Actually RRCME is in many ways like Zony Mash. Both bands were originally set up as weekly, local gigs at the same venue as a way for me to a) explore something that was new to me and b) play some music on an “off night”. And in both cases, over time, they became significant projects.
TR: In the notes you talk a bit about how you developed your own version of “conduction” based on Butch Morris’s approach to conducting improvisers. Could you go into more detail? For example, the different types of signals or other methods of communicating your ideas to the musicians; how you typically use these techniques to spontaneously recompose or elaborate the compositions; whether you have particular strategies that you tend to use with particular players; how much leeway the players have to interpret your conduction (or, perhaps, occasionally ignore it and do something else on their own initiative if it seems to them it would work better with everything else that happens to be going on at that moment?). And how do your methods (and music) differ from what Butch did?
WH: Well, Butch created a whole world, and it was his life’s work. For me I am first and foremost a composer, and I use a very modified version of conduction to essentially reconstruct my own compositions, which were written to begin with. Butch was using the improvisers’ language set to create totally new music, it was really a fairly radical approach, although not without some precedent. Not so with what I am doing. In a sense you could call it a system for spontaneous arranging more than spontaneous composition. It was exciting to me in that it could be very free and malleable at some points but at other times could also work up a riff-based music similar to the music of Mingus or even Basie. Harmonically it was very gratifying to constantly be re-inventing the arrangements. Even when the players misinterpreted hand signals things would happen that could be taken advantage of and developed.
One interesting historical note is that in some ways I am doing now what Butch started doing and then abandoned for his more “pure conduction” approach. In the 80s David Murray had a big band that Butch would conduct, and he would work with David’s charts, and break things up with those charts as a starting point. Later we made a CD for New World records that took his own tunes and used a similar approach.
TR: You consider Butch as a mentor. You worked with him quite a lot in NY in the 80s (including some beautiful small-group recordings). And there’s a touching memorial to him from you online. Anything you’d like to add to that? One of many things that struck me about that piece is what you say about how Butch’s inclusiveness encouraged a broader sense of community in New York in the 80s, and how one of his conduction pieces sounded “like vital contemporary music [that was] comfortable in its own skin”. How with the RRCME have you brought about a level of comfort among the musicians, and a playfulness and responsiveness, that hopefully leads to that kind of result?
WH: It turns out jazz and avant-garde and experimental musicians are just as closed-minded as most people, maybe more so, and in the 80s in NYC there were a lot of scenes, and a lot of boundaries were drawn. Some were aesthetic and some were more along lines of class and race and all sorts of ideas about identity. I don’t want to overstate this, because the opposite was true as well. It was really amazing to play at The Kitchen and CBGB and at Sam Rivers’ loft and at the Public Theater and at Danceteria, and to hang out with Frank Lowe and Tom Verlaine on the same day. But Butch was particularly broad-minded, and he heard the potential that comes from bringing people together from all sorts of different places. And I think he was just a social animal, and he liked people! You’d be surprised how rare that is sometimes.
TR: Are there any criteria you’ve used to select pieces of yours for conduction, and decide how to treat them in performance?
WH: I try to find pieces that can easily be broken down into a variety of motifs and can be easily deconstructed and reconstructed. Tunes like “Prepaid Funeral”, “Disingenuous Firefight” and “A Walk in the Rain” are particularly suited for this. But as the band has developed I bring in pieces that have a variety of approaches, and some barely use the conduction process at all.
TR: What’s the idea behind the Redux pieces that end “side A” and “side B” of the record?
WH: Well I actually wish there were a few more of these, and there will be in the future. Basically they are more “pure conduction” except that I asked the musicians to have the score with the motifs from a specific tune available, but we did not play the arrangement per se.
TR: If you were to list some composer/arrangers who have, directly or indirectly, influenced your arrangements here would it include such names as Ellington, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan? And, maybe more in terms of collective improvisation and the conduction process, Zorn, Braxton, George Lewis, Misha Mengelberg? Other inspirations?
WH: Well, all of those references are artists whose music I love. And the fact that I was involved in many if not most of Zorn’s game pieces at the same time that I was first working with Butch certainly helped me develop an alternative approach to creating structure live. Only after the fact, in other words after I started putting the band together, did I really start to hear a similarity to someone that you did not mention, and that is Charles Mingus.
I love Mingus’s music but I never considered him an “essential” influence the way I do say Cecil Taylor or The Art Ensemble of Chicago, but it kind of makes sense. Mingus’s up-tempo tunes often took fairly simple riffs and “re-purposed” them in all kinds of ways. And then he loved ballads, as do I.
TR: You’ve done some conduction with non-Seattle musicians – you did a great set here in Vancouver with an 8-piece group, and I gather you’ve done some European gigs as well. How does working with a smaller group affect your approach, if it does?
WH: Well I’ve done it with larger groups as well, and you just adjust a bit a let it rip. I love doing it with student ensembles, particularly if they are good! Even in a music as “open” as jazz it is amazing how excited players are that the music REALLY can change at any moment, and how hard it is to get them to drop assumptions about “soloing” or “comping”. Sometimes I find it almost discouraging. I mean early jazz was a very collective music, and a lot of that was re-discovered in the 60s, but the forces of conformity and personal virtuosity keep prevailing. But mostly I just find it inspiring, and I always leave the bandstand feeling better than I did when I got on it.