Sunday, June 16, 2013

More from the Reid Anderson interview

Reid Anderson by Cristina Guadalupe
On June 18–19, musician and composer Reid Anderson will perform a new work called “The Rough Mixes” as part of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s “Liquid Music” presentation series curated by Kate Nordstrum. 

“The Rough Mixes” is an evening-length piece for chamber ensemble, percussion, electronics, and video. The chamber ensemble includes SPCO violinist and concertmaster Steven Copes, SPCO violinist Sunmi Chang, and Minnesota Orchestra cellist Anthony Ross. The percussionist is Jeff Ballard, currently a member of the Brad Mehldau Trio, Joshua Redman’s Elastic Band, and Fly with Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier. Cristina Guadalupe is the videographer. Anderson, best known as the bassist for The Bad Plus, will play electronics.

Until now, electronic music has been a personal passion for him, his "other life." You can hear bits of his work with electronics at the start of “On Sacred Ground,” The Bad Plus’s reconstruction of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” and at several points during “Made Possible,” their most recent studio album. But these are never performed live. On the road, the band remains acoustic. 

I spoke with Anderson by phone on June 4 for an article that appeared in the Minneapolis StarTribune on June 16.

PLE: Let’s start with your background and fill in some details. You were born in 1970 in Golden Valley, Minnesota. Where did you go to high school? Did you graduate from Curtis?

Reid Anderson: I went to Armstrong High School in Plymouth. I did graduate from Curtis [the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia].

At Curtis, you studied classical music. When did you turn to jazz?

I took a sort of unnatural path from jazz to classical music and back to jazz. I was interested in jazz first and foremost. When I was finishing high school, I was very much interested in jazz and playing electric bass; I didn’t yet have an acoustic bass. I thought I should take some lessons and contacted [Twin Cities bassist and educator] Gary Raynor. He said, “You should get an acoustic bass, come back, and we’ll start with basic classical techniques.” I got together with him and took to it naturally. Then he suggested I seek out Jim Clute with the Minnesota Orchestra. [Clute was the Orchestra’s associate bassist; he also taught at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, at St. Olaf College in Northfield, and at the University of Minnesota.]

I entered the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire with the intention of learning how to play jazz. To be a music major, I had to be in the orchestra, so I was doing that and studying with Clute. One day Clute said, “I think you could get into Curtis if you wanted to.” He had sent a couple other students to Curtis. I made that my goal. I really wanted to get to the East Coast, and I saw that as my ticket out.

I got into Curtis and was sort of a rarity there. I had only been playing bass for a year. Everybody else had been playing all of their lives. And I had no experience playing classical music – a little bit at Eau Claire, but on a very limited basis.  So I went to Curtis totally inexperienced and also a bit conflicted because I felt I was setting myself on a course I wasn’t sure I wanted to be on.

I couldn’t deny the fact that in my heart of hearts, I couldn’t see myself as a classical bass player. It just wasn’t the kind of creative space I personally need in my music-making. After three years, I told my teacher I wanted to graduate and leave. [By then] I had enough credits. I could have stayed another year but decided I needed to pursue this other thing in my life.

Up to that point, for the years I was in Curtis, I hadn’t even thought about jazz. Toward the end, I started thinking I’d better figure out how to be a jazz musician. I started playing around Philadelphia with some great musicians there, then moved up to New York, and the rest is history.

You have very little web presence. Even your article on Wikipedia is a stub. Why is that?

I’m not somebody who has the energy to put into that. Anyone who knows me knows that if you send me an email it could take me two weeks or more to get back to you. I want to put my energy into other things.

For a lot of artists I really like, there’s a lack of information out there. I find that appealing. We don’t all have to be fully exposed, fully knowable to everybody. These days, there’s a lot of pressure to have a Facebook page and a Twitter account and update your Wiki. I think there’s another side that’s also valid and to me more interesting.

This isn’t a personal philosophy. Maybe it’s just pure laziness.

Will “The Rough Mixes” be your first public performance as an electronic musician?

I’ll say yes. I did one little thing a couple of months ago where I made noises with a friend in a bar in Brooklyn. I was happy that when I plugged things in, everything worked. I considered that a trial.

What do you mean by “The Rough Mixes”?

It can mean a lot of things. Something happens when you’re creating anything that’s sort of that first draft. It always has something magical in it. It’s full of potential. I like that state of things. It’s a fragile state.

I don’t want to get too wordy or philosophical about the title. I just like the energy of those moments. Confluence happens, congruence happens, and something comes out of that. It’s all individual elements, and they’re completely indifferent to each other, but there’s a meeting point. I see it as a society where all of us individuals are doing things. We encounter each other sometimes and interact with each other and move on, but just because we move on doesn’t mean there isn’t some kind of larger interaction going on.

In the end it’s music, and music is abstract.

It’s an incredible opportunity to perform your first music in front of an audience, in a very public forum. It’s something I have worked on for a long time, but it’s high-risk.

I’m deeply interested in and have a real love for … I can’t say “electronic music” because that’s such a wide thing, but I love the potential of what you can do with those kinds of sounds. It’s still such new territory, but I connect with it personally.

You’ve said that Charlie Haden was your main inspiration for playing bass. Did you have a main inspiration for playing electronic music?

Yeah, of course. It feels clichéd to say this, but Richard James of Aphex Twin is truly the untouchable master as far as I’m concerned. That’s the music that really turned me on to electronic music, and I still find it deeply moving.

Talking about your influences is a funny thing. On a number of levels, you can’t be what you love. It’s a tragic situation. You just can’t do it, and you have to guard against it as well.

Have you had any teachers for electronic music?

No, I’m an autodidact. But pretty much everybody is. You can study electronic music, but the people who really are doing it, generally speaking, didn’t get a degree.  Electronic music is modern folk music. It’s something that everybody has ready access to.

What do you listen to?

I’m not a big music listener, but I recently bought a turntable. I have a lot of records, a lot of classical music. I’m pretty eclectic in my listening habits, when I do listen. Like everybody. That’s the most common thing in the world these days.

You’ve often said that your music with The Bad Plus is “part of the jazz tradition.” Does your electronic music belong to a particular tradition?

I really don’t think so. I have to admit I’m a total outsider in this world. I’m not part of the community of people making electronic music. I’m just at this lonely outpost, trying to do something that is personal and trying to find a way to do it. I don’t know if I would choose that option, but I have to admit that’s kind of what it is.

In an interview with Duke, you described “Rough Mixes” as “basically a chamber music piece – two violins, cello, drums – with electronics and video.” Why that particular configuration?

Since this is my first foray into this, I really wanted to keep it simple and contained. Just balancing those elements is enough.

Drums aren’t usually associated with chamber music.

Electronics aren’t, either. Jeff Ballard is going to be an important bridge between the strings and the electronics. He’s a great soulful musician, a great improviser.

Now that you’re working with strings, would you ever write for full orchestra? It seems a lot of jazz musicians are doing that lately.

Having come this far [with “The Rough Mixes”], I think it might have been easier conceptually to write for full orchestra. When you’re dealing with two violins and a cello, there are certain practical considerations. It’s not the sound of a full orchestra, it’s an intimate sound, and when you add electronics and drum set, it’s easy to overwhelm. I’m very conscious of that.

Have you felt any pressure to write certain things or in certain ways because you’re composing for classical musicians? Compositions for classical and jazz musicians can sometimes sound more like bits of music on parallel tracks than true collaborations.

That’s been my entire existence for the past year. It’s a tricky thing. I’ve come to this:  I’m not thinking of myself as an electronic musician, I’m thinking of myself as an improviser, a musician who’s very interested in electronics and how to incorporate that into live music-making. Because I know a little about the classical world, I want those musicians to feel very comfortable.

Are you asking the classical musicians to improvise?

Not per se. Some things are going to have to be sussed out in rehearsal, to see what everyone’s comfortable with. I’m not going to put anyone in a position that’s out of their comfort zone. It won’t be improvisation per se, but the way the music is set up … I mentioned “congruence” earlier. There are independent elements that aren’t concerned necessarily with the other elements around them, but their coexistence makes something. As a composer, your job is to set up the right conditions so it’s not chaos.

What do you want from the classical musicians?

I really only want people to play their hearts out. That’s all I require. I hope they’re challenged in an enjoyable way.

What has been the most challenging part of working on “Rough Mixes”?

This is all such new territory for me. Even though I feel the integration of electronics with live musicians is very much a part of the music-making quest these days, trying to come up with a personal solution from scratch has been … engaging. It’s all very abstract up until the point of performance. There are all these abstractions in the air. I’m trying to tether them down with whatever I can.

I see a lot of people out there trying to develop ways of performing electronic music live. One criticism of electronic music as a live art form – and it’s a valid criticism – is you just hit “play” and [the computer] plays a song, like a deejay playing records. That’s an oversimplification, but to some extent it’s true. The technology has reached a point where it’s now possible to be more interactive. There are a lot of people putting their energy and thought into how to do that. It’s still the Wild West, but it's full of potential.

Does it feel like you’re making live music?

Yeah, it does, because basically everything I’m using is something I built myself to do things I want them to do. Even though there’s so much incredibly capable commercial software out there, sometimes, oddly enough, there’s no easy or obvious way to do things that seem easy or obvious. I approach the whole process of making electronic music from my experience of being a live musician and improvising. I think, “What do I want to have happen here, and how can I make it happen?”

It’s not like putting your fingers on the strings of your bass – or is it?

It feels like that to me. Of course, the physical sensation, the tactile sensation is very different. But there’s still an emotional sensation.

I’ve heard people say that electronic music is cold.

It can be, but a lot of music is cold, not just electronic music.

What kinds of equipment are you using?

I have a computer, a couple of controllers, and a synthesizer with knobs and buttons. The computer controls everything. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the computer.

What can we in the audience expect to hear on Tuesday and Wednesday?

Generally speaking, this is music that unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace. There’s a certain amount of minimalism involved. I feel connected to the idea of minimalism, not in any dogmatic sense, but I once heard John Cage say, “Familiarity can breed love.” I like the idea of becoming familiar with something, of melodies you want to hear again, things you like better when you hear them again and again. Not to say this is a minimalist piece, because it’s not, but it certainly engages that concept. It’s definitely part of myself as a composer that I don’t attempt to deny.

Any closing words?

I’m realizing I don’t quite have my spiel together about this. But that’s what happens when you’re entering a new realm. I’m not someone who puts the words first and then does the work. I would rather do it in the other order. I guess that in a way explains my lack of web presence, too. It’s really important for me that the work speaks for itself.

There is one thing I will say about “The Rough Mixes”: Electronics is a part of this music. It’s not electronic music.


Reid Anderson’s “The Rough Mixes” will have its world premiere at the Music Room at SPCO Center at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, June 18-19. Tickets ($10 adults, $5 children) are available online or by phone at 651-291-1144.

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