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Archive for the month “August, 2010”

A Conversation with Tim Daisy, part II

Please scroll down to the previous post to read Pt I of my interview with Tim Daisy.  Also, please visit timdaisy.wordpress.com for more info on Tim, including performances videos, complete discography, and his calendar.  Tim’s ensemble, Vox Arcana, is having an album release performance at The Hideout in Chicago tonight (August 11th)!

DM: Another record you put out recently is Light on the Wall (Laurence Family Records, 2009), which is a duo record with reedist Ken Vandermark.  It is a double LP with the first record containing duo improvisations, while the second is split between solo drum and solo clarinet improvisations.  Let’s just go for a straight comparison here: how would you describe the differences between Vox Arcana your duo with Ken?

TD: First of all, the thing that is most different is that the duo is all improvised while Vox has some written material.  That being said, because Ken and I play so much together, there are certain ideas that are floating around in our heads that come out when we play.  Second of all, I’m playing strictly drums in the duo.

DM: How much, if at all, do you and Ken talk about the music?  Are there conversations, say, when you are on tour about what worked and what didn’t?

TD: Oh yeah, absolutely.  Ken is one of the great communicators in this music.  We recorded Light on the Wall in the middle of our first duo tour, which was the most challenging tour of my life.  We did fifteen or sixteen gigs, most of them night after night.  To go out with just drums and reeds, to try to create night after night and not have any fixed material to lean on…it’s incredibly challenging.

We found ourselves getting into similar landscapes and territories and the challenge of that tour was to try and come up with new things.  I felt really good about some of the gigs but, for others, I didn’t.  My problem, sometimes, was that I’d be feeling really good about a gig one night and then get to the next gig and be thinking too much about the night before.  I’d end up repeating myself a lot.  It’s important, when improvising freely, to not get into this space.  It’s better to just get into a comfortable space where you’re really not thinking about anything.  The music was most successful when Ken and I were both in that headspace.  I started to repeat myself when I started thinking or worrying too much.  I really learned a lot and it was definitely the hardest tour I’ve ever played.

Towards the end of the tour, we recorded the live duo set, which is on the first record, at the Dragon Club in Poznan, Poland.  The second record, which consists of the solo improvisations, was recorded at a little theater called Estrada, which is run by Wojtek Juszczak, who’s been presenting creative music in Poland for years.  The theater was chosen for it’s great acoustics, but it was not a live recording, so there wasn’t an audience.

DM: While on the duo tour, did Ken struggle with the same musical issues that you did?

TD: Yeah.  He constantly does and he constantly talks about it–how, when you hit a wall, to break through it.  What he likes to do is talk about it, which helps.  In some situations, it’s just a different thing–musicians don’t like to talk about it, and I can respect that.  With Ken, though, it’s a constant search and a constant dialogue about what’s happening.  The lines of communication are completely open, and it really helps to knock that wall down.  When you’re on the road with one person for that long…it’s like being in any relationship–you have to talk about your frustrations or else it’s just going to build up and explode! [laughs]

DM: Ideally, because the music is freely improvised, it should change on a nightly basis and pay tribute to whatever specific environment in which you’re performing.  How do you feel about taking a general musical concept that really worked one night and trying to apply that to a different night on the tour?

TD: There are some things that do work.  I mean, with playing the drums every night, there’s going to be times where I’m playing a fast, open, floaty time.  There’s going to be periods where I go into medium time.  There’s going to be periods where I play a ballad tempo.  There’s going to be times where I play open, kaleidoscopic sounds.  There’s all these core ideas.  I have to use a lot of them night after night just because what else am I going to do?  There are certain fundamentals that just work well.

What do you do in addition to that, though?  That question for me, was the biggest challenge.  For instance, we might get into a space where I’m playing fast time and Ken is doing something over it.  If you did that the night before, how do you vary it?  That’s the tough thing for me.  Nevertheless, repeating those core ideas is totally valid.  It’s important to try and put a fresh perspective on it, though.

DM: The perspective of Ken and you on that tour, I’m sure, was very different from the audience on any given night because they didn’t see you night after night.  Or maybe there were some people who saw multiple nights?

TD: There were a few who would come to a gig in Krakow and then show up in, say, Warsaw.  That’s one thing that really inspires me–when people see a gig early on in the tour and then are able to come to a gig later in the tour and see how the music has evolved.  That evolution is something I’m really interested in.

In my opinion, though, the passage of time of tour doesn’t necessarily affect the music the way you think it would.  Just because you start a tour and you’re fresh doesn’t mean that your ideas are going to be the strongest.  By the time you get to the end of the tour, you’re really tired and you’re not going to be as focused–it’s not like that at all.  It’s some outside mysterious force and I have no idea how to control it.

There will be gigs where I’m super alert, I arrived at the gig with plenty of time to soundcheck, and I ate a fantastic meal.  Then, when we play, nothing is working!

I did a gig once with Ken where I was subbing for Paal Nilssen-Love in this group called FME.  This was back in ’02.  The gig was in Lexington, KY and we drove and showed up 45 minutes late because of traffic or weather, I can’t remember.  So I get all my stuff set up and my snare stand breaks.  I duct taped it back together and meanwhile, the audience is really nice, but they’re just sitting there, waiting for us to play.  I’m just tired and hungry and haven’t had any coffee.  Finally, we played, and it was the best gig of the tour by far.

I’m starting to figure out the more I do this that, psychologically, if you have less to worry about when you start playing, it at least puts me in a better space.  However, if I’m too comfortable, I start second guessing myself, you know, should I tune these drums again?  Then you go to play, and it’s not working right.

I have a really good friend, Mikolaj Trzaska.  He’s a fantastic saxophonist from Gdansk, Poland and we did a few duo gigs recently.  For the gig in Gdansk, we played in this old synagogue.  We had lots of time before the gig to relax because he lives there.  I just set my drums up, the room was beautiful, some people came…when we played, it just felt like we were misfiring.  You know how when you get into free improv land, sometimes you feel like you’re making all the wrong turns?

The next day we played in Bydgoszcz, Poland.  We had a long drive and not much time to set up.  I had a shot of vodka, we started playing, and the music just worked.  The acoustics in this club were really good, though.  It reminded me of when bands used to play on the floor of the Empty Bottle.  That vibe where the crowd is surrounding you.

How to control these factors of creative energy is beyond me.  I’ve had some of the best gigs where I’m ill-prepared and tired and I’ve had some of the worst gigs where I’ve had lots of time to prepare for things.

You’re also right about the audience perspective comment you made.  They don’t see us night after night.  To them, we’re not repeating ourselves.

DM: As a free improviser myself, I think it’s fair to say that this music can be more subjective than other types of music.

TD: Yes.

DM: Have you ever had this experience happen where you get off stage from a gig you didn’t feel too good about, yet someone comes up to you and tells you it was amazing?

TD: Yeah.

DM: It just reminds me that you can’t ever really trust your own perception.  You don’t know what it means.

TD: You don’t know what it means.  You know how you feel when you get off the stage, but it affects different people differently.

DM: Did you have an experience like this on the duo tour?

TD: Yes, definitely.  One of the things I don’t like though, is when a person in the audience will go up to the musician and say they enjoyed it and then the musician responds with something like, ‘really, you enjoyed that?’  Almost like he/she is asking ‘why?’  You can think or feel however you want to about the way you played, but don’t bring that out on the audience.  Thank them for coming, say thanks for the compliment, and that should be the end of it.

In any event, what you’re talking about did happen a lot.  Sometimes I didn’t feel the same way, but it’s the creative process, you know?  For a lot of people in the audience, I’m sure it felt new and fresh.  They enjoyed it, and that’s something to really be thankful for.  I’m a big fan of any kind of feedback.  I like positive feedback more than negative feedback, of course, but I’ve gotten plenty of constructive criticism and it helps.  I’ve had people say positive things and not so positive things and you just have to digest it all and roll with it.

There was one concert where someone came up to Ken and said, “That was a good concert, but not a great concert.” [laughs]  I can live without those kinds of comments, but if there are people who want to offer constructive criticism, saying something like, ‘Hey, I really enjoyed parts of that set.  What were you thinking about when you did this?  What was your approach to this?’ — I’m super open to that, absolutely.

DM: How do you find the balance, in an improvised setting, between responding too much or too little to the musicians around you?

TD: The worst situation to be in, in a free improv setting, is when whoever you’re improvising with is just responding to everything you do.  As an improvisatory tool to be used sparingly, that’s fine.  You have to hold your own ground, though.

The flipside to this is to not be listening and just playing, unaware of what’s happening.  Again, that as an improvisatory tool to be used sparingly is cool, as well.  You’re exactly right, though–it’s a space between holding your own ideas and, at the same time, offering a dialogue with the people with whom you’re improvising.

This changes with the number of musicians in the band.  For me, for some reason, the biggest difference in free improvising is between three and four people.  I feel the most comfortable in a trio, probably.  When you add one more person, it just completely changes everything, even more than solo to duo or duo to trio.  I’m not into numerology or anything, but there has to be something to that–three to four.  It’s just strange.

Nevertheless, my most successful experiences with free improvising is when everyone is holding their own ground but, at the same time, you can just tell they are listening.  Everyone’s got each other’s back.  It’s not a competition.  I might take something you do and mess with it.  I’m not going to play your idea back to you.  I’m going to come up with an abstracted version of it.  I’ll move it around and do something different with it.  That’s where it’s at.  You don’t want to be in a situation where you feel someone is clinging to you.  I’m sure I’ve been the clingy one before, too.

DM: Are there conscious points in time when you attempt to go one way or the other–interacting or not?

TD: That’s a great question.  In a completely free context, I don’t like to think about it like that.  Maybe subconscious points in time is a better way to think about it.  Because I’m in the moment, I might make a split decision to react, but I’m not continually thinking about.  I’m definitely not thinking about it before I play.  During the actual activity I might think about it a little bit.  I’m definitely not thinking like, ‘now I’m going to do this.’  It happens sometimes, but I try not to do it.

In a Vox Arcana composition, there might be a segment of pre-determined improvisation guidelines like ‘imitate the cello.’  In this case, the conscious decision has been made.  In a completely free setting, though, I always try to keep a clear head unless something has been talked about before.  There’s been some open improvisations in concerts where the group has talked about guidelines.  That’s cool.  However, if it hasn’t been talked about, I don’t want to think about it like that.  I just want to listen and, hopefully, engage in some kind of dialogue and make good decisions.

DM: On your solo pieces from Light on the Wall, which were all improvised, I noticed that you usually switched something around in your setup.  Was this to bring you into another frame of mind in order to distinguish the different improvisations?

TD: Yes.  That was a conscious decision.  First, I didn’t want  any of the pieces to be terribly long and, second, I kind of set up different landscapes for the different pieces.  I made loose guidelines for myself.  This piece, I’ll do mallets.  Next piece, I’ll scrape and use all these different kinds of objects.  This piece will be more “traditional” jazz type sounds.  This piece is going to be all with the hands.  That way, each one has its own character.  I didn’t setup anything other guidelines besides the initial idea, though.

DM: I really appreciate how, even within the landscapes you set up, it sounds like you’re mining one specific idea within that landscape in many of these pieces.

TD: Thanks.  Yeah, I wasn’t consciously thinking about a single idea, but that’s kind of how it came out.  During the course of an improvisation I’d start to notice a theme and then I’d just start working with and developing it.  That’s how I was feeling at that moment.

DM: Ken has some great moments on the album, as well.  When playing tenor, he seems to be very influenced by the funk saxophone tradition.  In his playing, there is a lot of that ‘riff mentality,’ which holds the improvisations together, to a certain extent.

TD: Yeah, it’s a nice glue.  I don’t want to speak for his playing, but I agree with you.  It’s one of many influences.

DM: I also really appreciate that, in a lot of the free duo improvisations, there is a pulse.  It’s a nice way to contrast the moments where there is no pulse.

TD: I like playing time.  It just adds another dimension to the music.  I’ve been to a lot of free improv gigs where I really like what they’re doing but, after awhile I think, ‘it would sure be nice to hear a pulse!’  It’s different for everybody, though, and it also depends on the situation.  There’s certain types of free improv that you don’t want to hear a pulse on, for sure.  I don’t think musicians should limit themselves though.  It’s just another tool at your disposal.

DM: Have you done any other tours as a duo besides the aforementioned trip to Europe?

TD: Well, not since then, but we did a tour in the States in 2007 to support an earlier, limited edition, CDR duo release called August Music.  That tour was fun because we were traveling in a big van, so I brought two drum kits along.  One was a standard jazz kit, and the other was smaller–a 13″ bass drum, two snare drums, and eight cymbal stands.  I had all my junk with me.  It was just a junk kit.  Ken was able to bring his bari, bass clarinet, and clarinet in addition to his tenor.  It was nice have these extra instruments to use as different landscapes for ideas.

The European tour was actually supposed to be a Vandermark 5 and Frame Quartet tour, back to back.  There wasn’t enough work, though, so we just made it a duo tour for most of it, and then did some Frame Quartet gigs at the end.

DM: This is a loaded question: do you see any advantages to touring in the United States over Europe?

TD: Certainly not the money! [laughs]  The money situation is pretty dire here.  That being said, I like playing in my own country.  I love the different cities in the United States.  I love driving between cities and seeing the amazing landscapes.  At the same time, seeing Cracker Barrell or the same fast food restaurants every 20 miles wears you down.

I don’t think there’s advantages to either one.  I think it’s just different.  Monetarily, you usually get paid more touring in Europe.  There’s, something about the States, though, that offers something different.  I don’t mean this literally, but there’s more room, in a sense.  It’s this huge country and it just changes your outlook on things.

I can appreciate the infrastructure here.  I’ve toured a lot in Eastern Europe.  To travel between two cities takes much longer there.  If you were to travel from Chicago to Madison, it would take you about two and a half hours.  There, that distance would take seven hours by train.  That can get annoying after awhile and will start to wear you down.

I like being in a country where I can speak the language!  I should know Polish, because I’m over there so much, but I don’t.  I should know German, too, but I only know very little.

I also still think that the level of musicianship in this country is higher here.  Maybe it’s because there’s so many musicians struggling here.  That’s subjective, though.  There’s dudes coming out of Norway, though, that are just frightening.  Berlin has an amazing scene, too.

DM: How do you feel about the improvised music scene in Chicago right now?

TD: Chicago is one of the unique cities in the world.  There’s so many people dealing with improvised music here, and there’s a fair amount of opportunity for you to present your work.  You’re able to present it consistently.  You may not get rich, but you’re able to do what you want to do and, more often that not, have an audience to listen.  It might not be a big audience, but it’s there.  That is something not be taken for granted.

Chicago is a big city, but it’s small enough where your projects will be noticed in the community.  In New York City, there’s three times as many musicians, maybe even more than that.  There are places to play, of course, but it’s so much more spread out.  There’s so many different types of scenes that I don’t think there’s really a core community there as much as there is here.  There’s 17 million things happening every night there.

You don’t want to get too small, though, because if you move to a smaller city than Chicago, there isn’t an infrastructure and there aren’t enough musicians.  So, I think Chicago has an interesting balance.  If you work hard, you will get noticed, absolutely.  It’s my favorite city.  I know I’m biased because I live here, but I’ve been a lot of other places.

The only other city I’ve been in that’s like Chicago is Berlin.  It’s a similar size and there’s a similar amount of room.  You’re not going to get killed on rent.  You actually have some time to think about music and art.  There’s a lot of strong musicians there putting groups together.  It’s a really strong scene.  Chicago and Berlin have a lot in common.

A lot of musicians that live in Berlin are from other parts of Europe.  They tour Europe and they can actually make some money.  In Berlin, like Chicago, you’re not going to make a ton of money playing gigs, but you’ll be able to do your own thing.

DM: Where have you seen improvised music go since you started participating in this music, and where do you see it going from here?

TD: One thing that I’ve noticed a lot is that more people, globally, recognize each other as improvising musicians now.  Maybe it’s because of the advances in technology.  Maybe it’s social networking.  I think that has a lot to do with it.

This is just a hypothesis, but I think, in the future, it’s going to be less about where you live and more about what you do.  We’re all improvising musicians.  We’re spread out, but we’re all connected.  We’re not Chicago musicians, New York musicians, Berlin musicians…we’re improvising musicians.

As far as where the music is going, a lot of it depends on living situations.  If New York gets any more expensive than it already is, I think it’s going to get even harder there.  There will be less chances for them to play just because clubs won’t be able to afford to stay open doing that kind of music.

Artists, however, are quick to adapt to challenging environments and this music will survive no matter what.  I admire my friends in New York who are able to do this because it’s not easy.  It’s not easy in Chicago, either, but it’s especially not easy there.

DM: Have you accepted improvised music’s position in popular culture, or do you feel that, if enough effort is put into it, it can gain a higher stature in society?  Or are you just not concerned with that at all?

TD: I’d like to say I’m not concerned, that I just want to do my art.  It’s an intriguing art form, and I care a lot about it, so of course I’d like to see it become more popular.  I don’t know what that really means, though.  I don’t think improvised music will ever be thought of as popular music.

I do see improvised music being integrated in small ways into pop music.  Take someone like Bjork.  She’s a pop musician and she’s doing really creative work.  She’s had improvising musicians playing in her band.  She’s shining a light on these musicians that many people don’t know about.

DM: I see that happening a lot more than it used to.

TD: I think so, yeah.  That’s really hip.  The idea, though, of an improvising group being part of pop culture…I don’t know.

DM: What about improvised music making victories on a smaller scale?  Like, maybe at some point, you’ll be able to make more money touring in the States.  That’s just one example.

TD: I don’t know.  I think it actually goes in cycles.  I moved to Chicago in the late ’90s and, back then, the Empty Bottle was packed every Tuesday and Wednesday to hear challenging improvised music.  Then it faded away.  It just goes in cycles.  A lot of it depends on different factors like club owners, etc.

This brings up a really good point.  I play a lot in Columbia, SC and it’s because of one guy down there who’s completely committed to presenting improvised music.  He gets a consistent crowd, too.  Whenever I go there, there’s always people there.  That can happen in a lot of other cities.  All it takes is one person.  It depends on how dedicated people want to be to presenting this music.

I can’t really predict what’s going to happen.  It won’t ever go away, though.  It’s a permanent  and integral part of our culture.

DM: Thanks, Tim!


A Conversation with Tim Daisy, part I

Photo by Krzystof Penarski

Tim Daisy is a drummer, percussionist, and composer who has been a huge contributor to the jazz and improvised music community in Chicago for over a decade.  I’m continually impressed and inspired by Tim’s dedication to his craft.  His productivity and growth are staggering and his open attitude towards music is very admirable.  Vox Arcana, Tim’s ensemble, has a new record out entitled “Aerial Age” (Allos Documents).  Scroll down to the bottom of this post to stream “The Silver Fence,” a selection from “Aerial Age.”  The release will be celebrated this Wednesday, August 11th at the Hideout.  Part II of our conversation will be published very soon.  Thanks for reading!

DM: Hey Tim!  Congratulations on the release of Vox Arcana’s new record, Aerial Age (Allos Documents, 2010).  This is a very unusual instrumentation.  How did the idea and the music come about?

TD: There were many different influences that commingle together to form this music.  I wanted to have a group that dealt with some of the things I had been thinking about and listening to, which, primarily, was the New York school of composers.  John Cage, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff…all these guys pioneered important techniques in American music in the ’50s and ’60s.  I was thinking about how to bridge these contemporary concepts and techniques with the freedom and flexibility of jazz and improvised music.  Being in a city like Chicago where there’s a huge number of fantastic musicians and improvisors, it wasn’t very difficult for me to find people that I wanted to work with.  The group was formed in 2007 with James Falzone on clarinet and Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and electronics.

DM: What, specifically, are some of the concepts of the New York school that you’ve used with Vox Arcana?

TD: One of them is called ‘open form,’ which was created by Earle Brown.  It’s a technique that has influenced many composers and musicians.  The general idea behind is that the conductor is free to shape the piece how he or she wants to with fixed modules.  The conductor chooses which module to play by holding up a number, while his/her other hand is free to control dynamics or other elements.

Brown also pioneered new forms of notation such as time notation, i.e. not using traditional note heads anymore.  One piece in particular, “December 1952,” uses horizontal and vertical lines to differentiate between notes.  The musician interprets the height of the line to be the actual pitch, the length of the line could be the duration of the note, while the thickness of the line indicates the volume or density with which to play.

Brown’s first famous ‘open form’ piece is called “25 Pages.”  This piece is actually 25 pages long and calls for anywhere from one to 25 pianists.  The score allows the conductor to order these pages in any way he/she sees fit.

Brown also pioneered techniques to give the performer more freedom, as well.  Before he became a composer, Brown was a jazz trumpet player, and I think his jazz background contributed to his concepts that gave more freedom to everyone involved.  Some of his pieces gave the performers the freedom to choose and vary the speed at which they played the music.

All the other composers I mentioned, however, formed new concepts that gave the musicians more freedom in different ways.  Morton Feldman, in his early career, used graphic notation.  He moved away from that, though, after a time, but came back to it later in his career.  Someone like John Cage, though, was very interested in giving more and more freedom to the musicians throughout his career.

One important thing to me is that these composers were all American.  It’s an American idea, giving more and more freedom to the performer.  It’s something to be proud of.

DM: It is notable that form, in the very traditional sense of the word, is not as much of a consideration to these composers or, for that matter, some of the visual artists (Jean Tinguely and Robert Rauschenberg) you mentioned to me before who also influenced Vox Arcana’s music.

TD: It’s a different way of thinking about form.

DM: Absolutely.

TD: I’m very much influenced by Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘combine’ paintings where he combines all these different elements–everyday found objects which he assembles on a canvas with, maybe, something that he’s already painted.  They’re basically collage pieces.  It’s hard to really call it just a sculpture or just a painting.  The idea of bringing all these different elements together is fascinating to me.  When each the elements are on their own, they might seem less remarkable.  Putting them together, however, creates a new synergy for the whole.

The great Swiss sculptor, Jean Tinguely did a similar thing where he made these gigantic, industrial, iron machines that move, make sound, and are composed of all these interesting and different types of objects.  One of Tinguely’s ideas was satire.  He was trying to expose this mindless, industrial, overproduction in our society.  If you ever get a chance to see it, there’s a fantastic Tinguely museum in Basel, Switzerland.  Many of these sculptures are just enormous, and many of them have a giant red button in front of them to push with your foot which sets the sculpture into motion.

A lot of the Vox Arcana music deals with similar ideas–taking these different ideas or modules and putting them together or assembling them in different ways and, finally, combining this with improvisation.  It’s fascinating and is something that keeps me going.  It’s why I do this.  I like seeing what happens when you involve the musicians’ interpretations of this music.

The other thing that’s important is that I have a working group of musicians that is playing the music.  I can sit in my apartment all day and write music, but if I didn’t have any musicians to play the music, it would be hard to keep going.  Especially when you’re playing out on the road with your band, the music changes drastically depending on many factors: whether we had anything to eat before we performed, if we’re tired, what the acoustics of the room are, and how the venue treats us.  All these things go into it, especially because of the improvisation element.  Nevertheless, these factors can contribute to how the written material is played, as well.

DM: It’s obviously gratifying and continually engaging to the musicians in the band for the music to change night after night.  Would you say this is the primary goal in how you’d like to affect your listeners?  To bring this element of surprise?

TD: I think so, yes.  My most  enjoyable experiences when listening to music are when I’m surprised and engaged.  Everybody, of course, has his/her own preferences when it comes to music.  I, personally, enjoy that element of surprise very much.  This is not to say I’m writing this music particularly for an audience.  You’ve been to many improvised music gigs–some times there isn’t an audience!  I’m very grateful when there is!  That’s one reason why Chicago is so amazing–we have these great opportunities to present this kind of music and there’s an audience for it.  It’s something to not take for granted.

As I’m assembling these pieces in different ways, some of them have a through line narrative and some of them don’t.  Some of them are assembled somewhat randomly.  Some of them are assembled thinking about different things.  I’m just thinking about working on this material in all these different ways and I know that some of it will speak to people and some of it won’t.  I’m not really concerned, though, about whether or not people are going to like a particular piece.

DM: Let me preface these next question with the fact that I really enjoy Aerial Age.  The compositions, group sound, individual playing, and recording quality are all wonderful.  How do you deal with recording this type of music in the studio?  It’s a very different environment than the live setting for many reasons.

My other question is how do you deal with, after making a record, the loss of the element of surprise?  Once you listen to and get to know any record, there’s no more surprises.  Since improvised music is so dependent on the element of surprise, does it still work when that element is taken away?

TD: I think of recordings as photographs.  We made this record in the winter of this year and we’re still playing a lot of these compositions, but they’ve changed quite a bit.  I tend to change structures and/or written material quite a bit just because I think different things make more sense at different times.  So, the recording is a way to present how we sound dealing with these compositions at this time.  It’s an archive, and I’m very interested in that.  I like to go back and listen to recordings I’ve done in years past and thinking about where I was, musically, at that time.

As far as going into the recording studio, there’s no audience there, so it does change the way you play.  In some ways, it’s more of a challenge because you don’t have anyone to bounce energy off of.  For me, at least, it makes it more enjoyable to play in front of people.

I will say this, though–completely improvised music, at least for me, is the most challenging type of music to pull off in the studio.  With Vox, because there are fixed structures and material, it does make it a little bit easier in the studio because there are some predetermined things that need to get done and you’re focused on those things.  In a way, that helps me, at least, because it gives me ways to deal with the improvising.  I can think about the written material and then base the improvisation off of it.

The other thing I really like to do when I record is to try to get all the sounds and setup done the night before we start recording.  That way, the next day we can go in and just play and only worry about the music.  We did this at Strobe with Nick Broste engineering the session.  For me, it was really low-stress and very enjoyable.  The acoustics of the room are really nice, the engineer did a great job…all these things were very important.  It was amazing.

Photo by Dave C Sampson

DM: Because of the nature of your composition style, there is very much freedom for all the musicians in the band.  What drew you to Fred Lonberg-Holm and James Falzone for this specific project and in what ways did they exceed your expectations?

TD: I was interested, in the very beginning, in having a string instrument and a clarinet.  For the string instrument, I finally decided on cello.  I’ve played with both Fred and James a lot.  In my opinion, one of the biggest strengths of this group is that they’re both incredibly strong and accomplished musicians, but are also pretty different improvisors.  They’re really coming from different places a lot of the time and I think they make nice foils for each other.  It’s great, though, that they both really understand where I’m coming from with this music.

They constantly exceed my expectations, absolutely.  They consistently offer constructive criticism during rehearsals and performances about some of the ideas and notations…ways of making things more clear.  I’m entirely grateful that they do that.

DM: You spend a lot of the time on this record playing marimba.  Is this the first time you’ve played out or recorded with it?

TD: No.  Years ago, I played it in Jason Ajemian’s, bass player and composer, Who Cares How Long You Sink band.  I played vibraphone in my own band, Sky and Lights.  I’ve been playing marimba for quite a long time, though.  This is definitely the first ensemble where I’m really using the instrument actively, and I’m starting to include it more and more in the compositions.  I’m just hearing it more in the music.

DM: I remember the first time I saw Vox Arcana, which was about two years ago, I was blown away at how great you were at the marimba.  I had no idea you even played the instrument.  You sound especially great on Aerial Age.  It doesn’t feel like a drummer playing a secondary instrument.  It feels like you’re really comfortable on the instrument and you do a great job of integrating it naturally into the group sound.

TD: Thank you.  It’s very important for me to not overuse it, too.  I’d like to think of it as just another color at my disposal.  It’s really important to me to think about the balance between the marimba and the other percussion.

I didn’t go to music school, but I did go to a community college, which is where I was introduced to the marimba.  My music teacher was trying to prepare me to go to music school, so he gave me all this classical music to learn on the marimba.  However, after I graduated from community college, I just decided to move to Chicago.  I still have this marimba, though, so what am I going to do with it?!  Now, eleven or twelve years later, I’m finally using it!

DM: I remember seeing you also using a modified drum kit with Vox, too.  Can you describe what’s going on there?

TD: Yeah.  Basically, it’s a snare drum, two floor toms, and a couple cymbals.  Then I also have all my other instruments: ash trays, cake pans, and other found objects.  These found objects, again, play into my interest in the visual art I mentioned before.  For future performances, I am going to start using this 15″ bass drum that I recently picked up.

DM: I’m assuming the reason for using the modified kit is trying to blend in with the unorthodox instrumentation of the band?

TD: You’re absolutely right.  This is a stripped-down group.  In most other situations, I’m playing a 4-piece kit with an 18″ bass drum, but for this group, I stripped it down a lot and even took out the bass drum and high-hat.

There’s different reasons for this.  A–it’s easier to carry around, especially since I’m using the marimba.  B–by putting limitations on myself, i.e. taking drums away, it makes me figure out new ways of dealing with improvising and executing things.  That was probably the main reason.

DM: Do you feel, because of these self-imposed limitations, that you play and respond differently with Vox Arcana?

TD: Yes.  That’s not only because of the kit, but also because of the nature of the music and the musicians that I’m playing with.

That’s one of the most fascinating things, really–chemistry.  I play with James in Klang, with Jason Roebke on bass and Jason Adasiewicz on vibraphone.  So, of course, the music is different and the chemistry is different.  When I take James out of that group and put him in Vox Arcana, things change radically.  I play with Fred in the Vandermark 5.  The same thing happens when I put Fred into Vox.  It’s fascinating.  I don’t know what really controls it, but it’s mysterious.

DM: Has Vox Arcana toured yet?

TD: We did tour last year.  We went down and played at the Museum of Art in Columbia, SC.  On the way back, we played in Lexington, KY, Somerset, KY, and Asheville, NC.  It was a short trip but it was really fun.  I was really inspired and I thought the guys in the group played amazingly.  We’re going to do another tour in October, kind of along the same route.  We’re also going to play at Thomas Moore College near Cincinnatti and do a workshop there.

DM: With these gigs on the road, were there certain environments in which you felt more comfortable?  How did this contribute to the music making?

TD: I’ve been playing for so long now that none of the situations were uncomfortable.  I used to get pretty uncomfortable if there was anybody at the gig at all…horrible stage fright.  That doesn’t happen anymore.

When we played at the Columbia Museum of Art, there were a lot of people there and they were all focused and listening.  That was very gratifying.  It made everything enjoyable and made it go by way too fast.

Photo by Patrick Wall at the Columbia Museum of Art

Video from the Columbia Museum of Art

We played at an art gallery with two rooms in Asheville, NC.  In the other room there were people talking.  I invite any of that background noise into the music, so it’s no problem for me, but it changed the way we played–knowing that some people are with you and some aren’t.  It just had an effect on the music.

In Lexington, we were playing in this tiny room.  There were about 40 people there.  Because the room was so small, it really felt like we were completely surrounded by people.  This was my favorite gig out of the tour because the people were so focused.  You could hear a pin drop.  There’s a lot of subtleties in the music that you may or may not get depending on where we’re playing.

DM: Yeah.  I assume it’s hard to really rock out with that instrumentation [laughs].

TD: [laughs] Although, we can get pretty loud if we want!  Fred can crank up his amp and I can start bashing!

DM: You’ve also cited saxophonist/composer Anthony Braxton as a big inspiration.  How has he influenced your improvising and composition style?

TD: It’s tough to say because he’s done so much amazing work.  It’s so vast.  The thing that inspires me the most is his fusing of European concepts with American jazz.  Particularly, he really investigated Cage and Stockhausen.  He did this years ago.  I’m also inspired by his intense focus, ferocity, and consistency.  He’s created such an immense body of work and it’s consistently great.

It’s tough to get into specifics.  Some of his ensembles I like more than others.  Some of his compositions I like more than others.  I’m a big fan of his group with Dave Holland, Barry Altschul, and George Lewis.  In my opinion, that’s some of his strongest work.  I also love his Creative Orchestra Music band and his duo record with Max Roach.

It would take hours, though, to talk about all the different ways he inspires me.  In a nutshell, though, having someone like that around just really gives you the confidence to keep going.  Knowing that he’s around and has been making this great and important music against huge odds for many years gives me confidence.  He’s been told an innumerable amount of times that what he’s doing is not valid, yet he keeps going.  It’s completely inspiring.

DM: Let’s touch on the Vox Arcana Aerial Age compositions.  “Blue Space, ” a ballad-like song, is a selection I really enjoyed because it is hard to discern what is composed and what is improvised.  Was this a goal in the music?

TD: Absolutely.  One of my favorite composers is Conlon Nancarrow.  He wrote all that player piano music.  He also wrote string quartets.  There’s one in particular which, in the second movement, has this beautiful canon.  I’ve listened to it so much because it is one of the most gorgeous pieces of music I’ve ever heard in my life, hands down.  This inspired me to write “Blue Space.”

The idea is that I came up with a melodic line and put it in three different keys.  Each of us starts the line at a different time and play it at our own tempo.  Everyone plays their line twice.  Then the bridge is an open improvisation based on the line.  When we’re finished with the improvisation, we go back and play through the line once, and then it peters out.  It’s basically an AABA form, oddly enough.  Everyone starts and ends on their own–completely independent.  So, the entrance and ending stagger.  After the last person is finished, I believe it’s Fred on the recording, I move over and do a percussion solo as a coda of sorts.

DM: I also thought that was a really interesting musical choice–ending the piece with a drum solo.  Well, I don’t want to call it a solo, but–

TD: No, but it’s a statement on percussion of what we did before.

DM: Yeah, I really liked that.  Another song I really like is “Winnemac,”  which starts with Fred manipulating his cello with electronics.

TD: Thanks.  Yeah, Fred starts with electronics and, at a certain point, James and I cut him off completely and play this brooding, dark melody.  After awhile, Fred creeps back in.  James and I have this melodic material that eventually turns into an improvisation.  Fred creeps back in and eventually overtakes what we’re doing and builds a wall.  James and I stop and Fred is left to finish the song in any way he sees fit.

DM: I especially like it because there is such a clear and concise idea for the song.  There’s not much to it.  It’s a nice way of injecting variety into the compositions on the album.  A lot of the other compositions have much more going on.

TD: Yeah, I like to think about the entire recording from beginning to end.  If I filled up the album entirely with these in-depth pieces, maybe that’s too much.  Maybe people don’t need to hear eight of the compositions that are kind of like module pieces where everything is changing so much all the time.  So why not put these songs in like “Winnemac,” where the listener can have a break.  In addition to that, I’m just interested in different ways of dealing with composition.  Some ways are simpler than others.

DM: I appreciate the challenge presented in the longer-form pieces, but I also appreciate the simplicity of a composition like “Winnemac.”

TD: Thank you.

DM: Although there are many shifting parts and fragments, a lot of the compositions  have thematic material that carries through from beginning to end.  “White Lines” is a strong example of this.

TD: Yeah, so in the beginning of “White Lines” are these octave leaps [sings the theme] with some sparse percussion interludes in between.  That’s the A section which leads into a trio improvisation.  This drops down to Fred playing a pizzicato line and James blowing on top of that.  I join in and then move into a drum solo.  After the solo, we go back into the octave leaps with a slight variation.  It’s a basic ABA form.

DM: I think a casual listener who, say, walks into a Vox Arcana gig, would appreciate the shape that this thematic material provides.  It’s safe to say that that shape, with a beginning and an end, can be comforting, in a way.

TD: For sure.  It’s like the Hollywood movie–you know everything’s going to be ok in the end [laughs].  There’s something to be said for form, like an AABA form–why do people use it?  Because it has a nice balance, structurally.  It feels right, in a certain way.

I am interested in that in my composing.  For “White Lines,” the melodic material is odd but the form is ‘traditional.’  Or, with a piece like “The Number 7,” which is the first piece on the record, there is not as much of a discernible form.

DM: The individual playing from everybody on the record is so strong.  Everyone’s personality shines through, but at the same time, there is a fair amount of give from everyone involved.  Specifically, on certain parts of the record, I remember thinking to myself that I’ve never heard James play like that before.  His clarinet solo in “The Number 7” is completely fierce.  It totally took me off guard.

TD: It comes back to chemistry again.  I’m convinced that if Fred was not the cello player in the group, James may not have soloed like that.  It has a lot to do with, not just the individual musicians, but who they’re playing with in the ensemble.  I’ve also heard Fred play a lot differently in Vox than in a lot of the other groups in which he plays.  These type of things keep me interested in improvised music.

DM: One thing I’ve always liked about Fred, aside from his completely individualistic and specific cello playing, is his completely individualistic and specific use of electronics!  He doesn’t sound like anyone else, and I really appreciate that about him.

TD: Yeah, it’s totally his own thing.  You’ve said it, completely.  When he’s improvising, when he’s doing electronics, when he’s playing acoustic cello, it’s Fred.  It just sounds like Fred and that’s something to be inspired by and to work towards.  Although he can sound different in these different ensembles, his sound still lies underneath, which is great.  That’s a goal for me–to have a personal sound whether playing tightly-structured or completely improvised music.

DM: Yeah, it starts to transcend the instrument.

TD: Yeah, somebody like Thelonious Monk had that.  No matter who he was playing with, you know it’s him.

DM: It’s important to note that Aerial Age is being released by Allos Documents, which is James Falzone’s record label.  I know James has a Klang record out on the label as well.  Is there anything else that he’s released lately?

TD: He’ll be releasing a trio record with himself, oud, and percussion.  I saw them at the Chicago Cultural Center and it was fantastic.  He also released a record a few years ago called The Sign and the Thing Signified which is really strong.  All of these recordings, including Aerial Age, can be found at allosmusica.org.

Vox Arcana will also be having a record release party on Wednesday, August 11th at The Hideout.

Click here for the Vox Arcana facebook invite for their record release.

DM: Was the initial plan to release the Vox record on Allos?

TD: No, actually.  When we originally recorded, my first thought was to give to my friend and record label owner, Laurence, in Poland.  He’s so incredibly busy, though, that I knew in the back of my mind that it would take at least a year to get it out.

After we recorded, I got an email from James saying he’d be more than happy to put the record out on Allos.  Right away, I just was like yes, of course.  It came out really quickly.

DM: When did you guys record it?

TD: We recorded it in January of this year.  James had all the packaging and manufacturing done by April or May.  It hasn’t been released until now because James’ publicist thought it would be a better time of year to get publicity.  I’m very grateful to James for getting all this done so quickly.

DM: Congrats, Tim.  I’ll see you at the album release on Wednesday!

Stay tuned for Part II of my conversation with Tim Daisy, where we discuss his recntly released duo record with Ken Vandermark, “Light on the Wall.”  In the meantime, go check out Vox Arcana’s CD release at the Hideout, this Wednesday, August 11th.  Also check out “The Silver Fence” from “Aerial Age” right here:

The Silver Fence

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