ROVA appears with Steve Lacy Quintet at Wheeler Aud., U.C. Berkeley, Oct. 10 at 8:30, and at Montgomery Theatre, Market & San Carlos, San Jose, Oct. 16, with Evan Parker-Derek Bailey & Kaiser-Kondo-goodman.
a conversation with the ROVA SAXOPHONE QUARTET
Transcribed and Edited by john gruntfest Berkeley, CA 6/20/80
I knew the Rova to be hard working, sincere, intelligent, and to have strong views about what they did, so I figured the interview form would work well with them. I also felt that they believed in many of the things about music which I believed in. We did the interview spontaneously, and the form arose during my transcription. The headings for each part express the essence of what is talked about. I also wanted to keep my participation to a minimum and allow them to express themselves fully. I suggested areas which the headings refer to, and they talked as deeply as they could about what they believed. My thanks to them for an inspirational session. Also I'd like to thank the EAR staff and especially Loren Means, who have given me the opportunity to write and even encouraged me in these endeavors. --John Gruntfest
I Personal Notes
Larry Ochs: I played trumpet when I was a kid. I began playing sax when I was 20-21 and am basically self-taught. My original inspiration occurred while waiting to get a job as a Disc Jockey. I was listening to Otis Redding on record and I said to myself, "When I did I want to be playing sax with Otis Redding." He was already dead but I got the sax.
Bruce Ackley: I never played an instrument as a kid but I sang from the age of eight through high school in church choirs and the glee club. I wanted to play an instrument, but they didn't have a band in the Catholic schools I went to. I was listening to jazz in the Sixties, especially free jazz, and I wanted to be a participant, not just a listener. Someone lent me a sax and that was it. It was an alto, although I wanted a soprano, because after hearing Coltrane's My Favorite Things I flipped out. I had also listened to Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles, but jazz completely dominated my listening experience.
Jon Raskin: My father was a band teacher and I started playing when I was very young. I started on clarinet, but I wanted a sax. When I got old enough, I got one and played in the orchestra, marching band, stage band, and jazz bands in high school and college. I also played in rock 'n' roll bands at high school dances. I listened to Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Count Basie, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart. When I moved to San Francisco, I got introduced to the music of Archie Shepp and others. This was mid-and late Sixties. I worked with New Music at Johnson College in Southern California, and studied theory with Barney Childs and Allaudin Mathieu. I also worked with John Adams and the New Music Ensemble at the San Francisco Conservatory, which was a more conceptual approach to music, and studied a little with John Handy.
Andrew Voight: My father was a swing-style drummer who liked big band swing and classical string quartets. I began clarinet in third grade and switched to flute in high school, and began to improvise out of the classical realm. I started to hear jazz and picked up a C-melody sax. I had heard a lot of Ellington, but it was Coltrane who made me want to play the sax, especially his later albums like Om and Meditations. I met Raskin through the New Music Ensemble, and also studied with John Handy. I studied with Roscoe Mitchell for a year.
LO: It seems to me that I got Muzaked to death by the school system, which is why I quit trumpet when I was eighteen. I wasn't playing music or hearing anything that I liked. When I got the sax, though, I had some idea of how I wanted to play, so I sort of groped my way through the sax. I wasn't buried under technical fundamentals, as I was on the trumpet. I think there are two things which are important: the ability to play an instrument, and the ability to express yourself. A lot of time, expression is sacrificed for technical ability. I practice and try to remain expressive in my playing. I look for new mistakes or whatever to be creative with.
II The Group Process
BA: That's an interesting concept, hearing the mistake and trying to imitate it. Hearing some illegitimate sound and having it happen again instead of suppressing the flaws and mistakes.
JG:How do you deal with keeping this kind of freshness alive with the group and especially when you play in public?
BA: We do a lot of free improvisation. Every week one of our rehearsals is free playing, and we do a fair amount of free improvisation in public.
JR: Our rehearsal schedule is broken up into three parts: a day that we work on individual compositions; a day of free playing; a day of working conceptually. We find it important not to neglect any areas.
JG: So you need an interaction of disciplines, yet you dropped the Cowell Hornpipe, and now don't seem to have any song forms represented.
AV: We felt there were plenty of other groups of all kinds dealing with that. We did an American Indian song, but that stuff did not seem to hold our interest.
BA: I did not want us to become an eclectic group, and I think there is a penchant for that to happen, that is, to develop a broad range of things rather than to develop a specific group identity. So, while we get into a lot of information, we are not eclectic but rather we work within a certain framework and try to get as much variety out of it as we can.
LO: Each one of us is after his own identity as a player, and our own identity as a group.
III Identity, Vision and Process
AV: It starts with four distinct attitudes and approaches. As we work harder the four separate entities become stronger. We learn each other's concepts and areas, and have arrived at a point where there is a lot of overlap.
JG: What happens when you come together and everyone is in a new area?
JR: It generates new pieces for me. When I hear something new, I think about it and try to incorporate it.
LO: A lot of our ideas come from our free playing.
BA: We'll play free for a while, and then talk about what we heard, and then we'll play some more, so there is musical and conversational communication.
AV: We can recreate general areas, and we are trying to be more specific and use a specific area as the basis for an improvisation.
LO: Our music deals with layers of information. Our music is orchestral in this sense. There are all kinds of information coming out in the sections. The pieces are carefully worked out improvisations characterized by multiple levels of information.
JG: what you are talking about, then, is a counterpoint of ideas rather than of specific musical lines...
BA: That's exactly what is happening. We try to have four complex areas at once or four individual personalities at once. I would contrast it to the jazz experience where each player can be isolated according to function and sound: bass player, piano player, etc. Jazz also emphasizes solo capabilities, where we try to focus on the music as a whole rather than on a particular soloist or instrument.
LO: That's a better way of putting it. We deal with pieces of music, and whatever makes the pieces work are the problems we have to deal with.
BA: the pieces flow out of the improvisations, and the improvisations come from the pieces.
LO: The pieces also come from what we listen to outside the group, such as Messiaen, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Steve Lacy, etc.
JG: It seems that especially among free improvising groups, there has been an emphasis on group sound rather than individual soloists, and this seems to reflect a change in social attitude.
BA: I think it does. There is no leader in Rova. It's a co-operative effort, and that is significant in itself.
JR: Rova is a group of fifteen instruments with four people playing them, and it excites me to be able to create for this diverse body of instruments. When I play, I can be the soprano end or the baritone end. We can switch roles and play different parts of the music, which is very freeing. We can play specific compositions and at the same time give the individual the opportunity to do what best fits the situation, and follow his own emotional initiative.
IV The Individual Creative Process
AV: My main composition for Rova, SS Dolphin P Remptt, was inspired by a boat of the same name on dry dock near Pier 51 on the S.F. waterfront. This was under the Bay Bridge, and we used to practice nearby. It deals with sound-silence equivalents. I also use such timbral devices as the difference between our four alto sounds. There is a Renaissance device called hocketing which is also used, where each person adds one quarter of the melody, and in this way creates an unplanned group melody. The musical ideas were there first, but the inspiration came from the boat and my romantic vision of having this boat when it was not on dry dock but out in the S.F. fog and the sounds and feelings behind that.
JR: Flamingo Horizons is based on an Ernst Haas photo. It is an aerial shot of birds flying away from a lakeside in Kenya, and while I was looking at it, it gave me this idea of vertical and horizontal rhythms because it's airborne and these birds stand on the shore line and go up swarming around this huge lake. There are always some on the ground and some in the air, a moving mass, thousands of huge pink flamingos. It could be abstract or concrete. So I worked with this idea: horizontal rhythms where everyone is set up in a different cycle--4/4, 6/4, 7,9--a repeating rhythm which comes together down the road, but set so you can hear everyone's part. It is supposed to be African derived, and we get into the energy and cook it. The vertical rhythms are after a middle bridge and are like linear chords where you play your own feel and time. This gives a different and more random-sounding sense of rhythm. The piece develops into fields with different worlds in them and we come together on a repeated note and then go into another field.
BA: In the Concerto for soprano sax and the rest of the quartet, there are some basic ideas that I plug into the group, and the group helps me put them together. The composed ideas developed this way fit just like a glove when we play. The piece was inspired by a dancer named Valda Setterfield, who got me to think about two different areas happening at the same time. I play a modal area on soprano with some outline of ideas for myself, and the trio goes through schemes which go against me. The soprano sounds different in the different contexts. 3 x 60 Degrees is a composition dedicated to Eugene Chadbourne. It is a trio in which the underlying concept was to create a composition and improvisation where things changed really rapidly. I am dealing with this in my own playing, where you begin to set something up, and rather than following it through you change. You play something and fail, and go with the mistake. You keep tripping yourself and keeping yourself moving. It is changing constantly, and becomes circular like an arc. You follow the curve. This reflects how I think we can live most successfully, which is to be resilient and ready for whatever is coming at you.
LO: I like to have some kind of feeling in my pieces, and get moved one way or another by social and political things. Exiles was inspired by reading about a Russian writer who happened to be exiled. Musically, the term "exiles" is used this way: we play through a theme and then the four of us play in a limited area of our horns. I play within an augmented fifth in the middle of my horn. John plays low end of baritone. Andrew and Bruce play alto and soprano. We do not cross into each other's area, except maybe at the top or bottom of each area. Everyone plays melodically, and is instructed to listen so that the ideas fit together like a gauze of sound. At the same time, each one of us throws out exiled musical ideas such as a note or sound that is not part of the specified musical area. Each person plays a 10-20 second exiled solo which stands out from the pattern we have built. This section is slow and sad. The next part is formed by a timbral chord and builds into a ball of sounds. So you have a giant block of sound, and each person shoots out exiled sounds: the notion of individual expression in the midst of an homogenized cultural context.
V Political and Social Implications
LO: The common definition or expectation of political music is a music with a clear, usually vocal message; music that preaches. Obviously our music is not political in this way. My own feeling in 1980 is that people must come up with creative and innovative solutions to very complex problems which have complex causes. When the world situation is worsening at an accelerating rate, when we need people to deal with the problems, we find America seeking out the past, the Forties and Fifties, when things were "great." everyone is feeling overwhelmed, and rather than facing up to the fact that the system does not work and dealing with that, we find people saying, "If I am just left alone, I will be OK." This is incorrect. So our music is often intentionally dense. We throw layers of information, or music, at the listener, and if you are able to hear it, enjoy it, make sense out of it, then maybe we are helping the listener to deal with all the layers of information that are being thrown at him or her in daily life. I read of an African who said that he "was going to listen to some music in order to refresh his mind after his long day's work." Well, we want to keep people awake and we want to "refresh their minds" with our music. When people are being sensitized rather than being desensitized, they will not be able to put up with all the bullshit and change will hopefully occur. It is time for people to dig more, not less.
BA: We are trying to perform in a traditional format, audience and performer, but without pretensions. We want to get away from the mystification of the musician. We want to be diligent ourselves and inspire people to do something themselves. We want to stimulate the audience's own creative energies. We like to play in front of as many different types of people as possible. Our task is to have a radical perspective, to challenge the status quo, and to be in the mainstream of American society, not just in the avant-garde camp. AV: We want to make the role of the artist in society into a functional political weapon. The artist has been put on a pedestal or portrayed as a lunatic. Instead of simplifying the music in the guise of communicating with the people, we say, "Look, we are people just like you, no different from you."
JR: I don't feel my music has anything to do with politics. It is part of my daily life. I want to play music and advance my own personal skills, and express the things that come inside me from my everyday life. You are of this world, so you put something back into the world. People eat the music, and if it is good food it will give them energy and make them healthy. I feel part of that process. Let me also say this: money is part of lie. Transactions of goods and services are made say through money. If I am going to exist, I need those goods and services. So if you are an artist, you cannot put yourself in a negative relation to currency. We are trying to elevate the music to a place where it is worthwhile for the society to support it.
LO: I worry about that economic reality, because the truth is that creative music of any kind is basically going unsupported, and that is why you see so many people playing solos and duets, because they cannot get enough money to support a working group.
BA: Here we are lucky because one can be poor and get by on part-time work. There are a lot of people who work part-time and develop other skills, and they are trying to make a transition from what they initially did as an avocation to doing it as a vocation. People are trying to sell these skills which they have developed. Also, the market is now glutted with people doing very sophisticated types of popular music, and part of that sophistication is that it is plugged into the mass communications system, and that in turn is plugged into the way this country works. So for us to try to make a living and get some recognition is very difficult. I think it takes a long time to capture the attention of people brought up on slickly-produced and easily-digestible art or music.
Alto saxophonist-composer John Gruntfest here makes his third appearance in Ear. he has also participated in the first and third Ear Salons. pp. 4,5,8