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.
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.
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: