Composer, pianist, and improviser, Andrew Jamieson has been creating music that radically explores contemporary racial and religious topics to their full extent (such as white privilege in religious communities). In this interview we talk about the philosophy behind some of his most recent works, Heaven Down Here, and opera based on the Jonestown Massacre, and Heard The Voice, a solo piano work which enters into conversation with black spiritual music.
In the second part of the interview we talk about the relationships between religion and experimental music, mainly focusing in the etymology of the word radical (which comes from root) and how that idea can applied in relation to the exploration of music and musical instruments.
And for the third part of the interview Andrew goes into detail about how he managed to rise $8,000 USD to fund Heaven Down Here.
- Racial issues and experimental music
- Conversing with the other
- Religion and experimental music
- Developing new musical techniques and maximizing exploration
- How to rise $8,000 USD for a musical project
- Recommendations and Influences
[Racial Issues in experimental music]
Diego Villaseñor: Can you tell us about your latest works that revolve around religious topics: Heaven Down Here, your chamber opera, and your new release Heard The Voice?
Andrew Jamieson: Heaven Down Here is an avant-gospel chamber opera that had been formulating inside me for about six years. I, out of the blue, discovered Jim Jones and People’s Temple. It was something I knew nothing about until I was 21 or 22 years old. Suddenly I encountered the name of Jim Jones and the scenario of the Jonestown massacre in Guyana, in which almost a thousand people died from drinking cyanide–laced Kool-Aid under the leadership of Jim Jones. And then I found out more about this whole movement and the community that it represented. It was a movement that I could have identified with had I been around at the time, during the sixties and seventies. I mean that in so many ways: with the way they identified with progressive politics, with socialism, with antiracism and also because it was mostly a black community and movement. Jim Jones was white, but the count within the community was between 50 and 90% black. And it also had the spiritual component from where I, too, came out: the Christian tradition and particularly the black church.
At the time, I discovered this, I was an undergrad at Northwestern University, but my job was as a gospel pianist for two black churches in Evanston, Illinois. There, I became infinitely familiar with the theology and the worship practices, with the music, the energy and the rhetoric of the black church; and I saw all of that happening in People’s Temple. People’s Temple is their organization, which later became Jonestown, while under Jim Jones. I saw all of that happening in People’s Temple, you know, I just connected in so many ways. I had actually just finished a chamber-opera-oratorio called Goldsmith Of The Kingdom which I was performing in Northwestern University, and that summer I’m discovering Jim Jones and People’s Temple and saying “This needs to be my next opera project” . I let it ruminate in my mind for years. I would take notes about it and encountered books and sources about it, I took a class at Northwestern called “Religion And Social Change In The Black Church” or something like that. I took a lot of that information and I just let it sleep for a while.
Finally when I graduated from Mills and I had made connections in that area, with musicians and also churches who were interested in the theme, I got to work. I raised about eight thousand dollars at Indiegogo and worked on composing the music which was designed to sort of represent a certain perspective on the worship at People’s Temple. A lot of the music was based on pre-existing melodies and I would sort of rework them in radical ways to have them sound often cacophonous or the polytonal in the way of Charles Ives music. I made them into this dialogue that represents all the different tensions, the feelings of great hope and inspiration that people found there, and also the profound fear and, ultimately, the abuse and destruction that went on there. All those things interacting with one another, and I tried to use different musical elements from the original songs and mixed them with freely improvised dissonant playing, atonal composition, singing and dance.
Diego: What was it about the massacre that compelled you to write and to think about it, to get deep into subject?
Andrew: You know, it’s hard to read about what happened and recount the events in Jonestown in its last days, and not be taken by the drama of it: the way things started, and how he was preparing them for this moment and when he finally killed them. Just how everything built up to the final days when congressman Leo Ryan came and was shot… and then immediately after that, the massacre was under way. That drew me, in terms this is drama that deserves to be exploited in music. But also seeing so much of myself in that and thinking that it could’ve been me, it could’ve been me in Jonestown, you know. And even seeing certain parts of myself in Jim Jones as a white man who works with black spiritual communities now: navigating the power dynamic there, being aware that in a racist society, I ended up having this higher position or extra power without even trying to. Jim Jones had that and abused it, you know, and I was thinking about…
Diego: You needed to make it conscious?
Andrew: Yeah, I wanted to explore it, I wanted to see what I would discover about it. I learnt a lot and now I’m more conscious and articulate. I wanted people to share what I was going through, taking this project to the audience.
Diego: Do you think that the approaches and technics of experimental music that you used were useful tools for expressing that drama?
Andrew: I found them most useful in couple ways. One was related to the history of People’s Temple, they were actually very experimental in their identity. They were trying all these new things that really hadn’t been tried before, and unfortunately some of them were pretty terrible things like sessions of so called catharsis where Jim Jones would try to get people to talk about things in a new way, you know, with a lot of violence and abuse being perpetrated. There was experimentation too in parts of their ideology: men taking their wife’s last names, radical feminism, radical anti-racism which tried to turn the tables, racially, and get black people more power than white people.
To me that just has a lot to do with what we do as experimental musicians. We’re challenging the establishment and the expectations that we have in our society and our culture; we’re challenging them head on, we’re defying them. We threw out the idea of a time and key signatures, and the idea of pitch and harmony altogether. We threw that out, and come up with this radically new response solution to it, which turns everything upside down, in the way, I think Jim Jones was supposed doing… Part of what I wanted to do was to use this as a meditation and as a self critique; as a warning about what can go wrong, looking at the dangers of being an experimentalist, the dangers of throwing out the conventions of a society that isn’t perfect and is responsible for lot of injustice but also holds us accountable. It keeps us from going crazy like Jim Jones and keeps us from abusing others in the way that he did and having a thousand people that we have control over. The society and the conventions in our culture are designed to keep us accountable. And when we ignore and resist any accountability to society, we run those risks. I think being an experimentalist has great potential but also great risk and it’s important to explore all. I think it’s important to be experimenting, innovating and trying new ways of listening and performing, but we also have to be aware of that there could be unintended consequences to what we’re doing and that being uncountable isn’t the answer.
Andrew: First of all I think it’s important to acknowledge all the ways the experimental music really is innocuous. It’s important to acknowledge that you rarely if ever hear it at a major concert hall, there is not lot of money in it. Very few people make their living entirely off experimental music and many who do just don’t make much money and they’re living in ways that musicians who are even more conventional, wouldn’t be living in.
You know, few people think they even like it at all, it’s considered to be very inaccessible. Almost by design it can be a little bit inaccessible. And it’s thought to be designed to not reach the masses, but to be this really individualistic form of expression, very esoteric and intellectually rich. It’s so rich that you have to get through all of these different layers of these ideas of sounds, gestures and obscure traditions. We have to know all of those things in order to start, to begin to appreciate what’s going on, so it’s important to recognize that that makes it innocuous in a certain way.
However, I’ve been very interested in focusing on the work of composers of color in this country, particularly black composers. Many of them are also aspiring to this same kind of experimental aesthetic that I am as a white composer. People like Roscoe Mitchell, and people from his circles in the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), people who came out of that like Leo Smith, George Lewis and Antony Braxton. So we know that there’s this group of black composers who are aspiring for that. A small number have found certain kind of success but there’s always, always this push back by the white establishment to keep it as so.
Because with so many limited resources in experimental music, you know, with so many limits on who can get venue and what funding, I think it’s easy for us in the dominant culture to kind of cling to our position and to maintain our privilege to experiment. I think that we, usually subconsciously and unintentionally, end up shutting out people who aren’t part of our dominant culture. I have seen Roscoe Mitchell at Mills be dismissed by white colleagues and students. To be fair he’s not terribly an academic person but, it’s not just his academic rigor but his way of thinking and even sometimes his current music that gets criticized. And at the same time I think I can see the pressure that’s been on him to prove that he knows conventions and the traditions. All that in order to be taken seriously in a way that I wouldn’t so much. I am sort of given a free pass from people who automatically think that I know what I’m doing with whatever I do, while someone like Roscoe Mitchell, who’s far more experienced, still has to struggle for it. I don’t think we’re gonna have a thousand people die at the hands of an experimental composer, but I do think that for what power there is within the community, it matters, and needs to be used responsibly by who have it.
Diego: Yeah, there are structures of power even in sub-communities such as these.
Andrew: That’s what I believe, yeah, that’s an important part of my philosophy and my politics, and my aesthetics.
Diego: Maybe it’s dangerous to not be conscious of the trends that are dominant and hide this certain trends under the cover of experimentation.
Andrew: I think you have to be conscious, I think you have to know what they are but I think you can’t let them have too much influence and too much power. You have to always be looking out for alternatives to what is dominant. And that I think is one of the strengths of the experimental musicians, that we always are looking beyond to transcend the dominant culture in general, we’re always looking for alternative paths and I think that’s the real strength and that’s why I do what I do.
Diego: What was the response of the community, in the churches when the opera was performed?
Andrew: Well, I don’t think it was very easy for people to experience, although, many people were grateful to experience it. A few people, felt like the music was engaging in a way that they were very hesitant to tell me they enjoyed it. They felt they had to say “I don’t know if I can say that I have enjoyed this because of topic and I don’t wanna enjoy, you know, watching something that is alluding to, you know, the death of a thousand people”. They feel a little bit uneasy and guilty about that. But well, I’m trying to help them find a certain beauty in telling these stories that need to be told, and helping them discover truths that need to be acknowledged. To me that’s beautiful, to acknowledge what is difficult and painful, to acknowledge and I use that as healing.
A few chose not the come or had difficulties sitting through it, or in a couple cases were interested in participating and then began to back away from participating because they found it so difficult. One singer in particular told me she was really excited about being involved at the being but then she started backing away and when we finally talked about it she said -this is too hard for me, I take this really seriously and I can’t, I just can’t do it-. So, there was a lot of that happening, I think it sort of kept the project from going quite as far as could have. I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault, I don’t think it means that the music was not very good or that I was doing the wrong thing. I’m just aware that’s the reality of being human and processing grief is people need sometimes back away from it, keep a distance from it.
[Conversing with the other]
Diego: And what about Heard The Voice, it seems to be a very peculiar take on African American spiritual music.
Andrew: First of all since Heaven Down Here, I’ve been sort of dealing with a lot of the same material, a lot of the same issues: I want to engage in experimental contexts this African American church music which is so familiar and important to me.
But that’s continued to evolve. In the beginning I was groping around in the dark, trying figure out how on earth I was gonna bring these two things together, and recently it clicked. It occurred to me that this is a conversation. So Heard the Voice is about the voice that this spirituals represent. A voice of the experience of opression and a voice of the African cultures that influenced the spirituals, and also the voice of this transformative faith. And I recognize that that voice is not my voice. I don’t really identify with those things in the way that the writers of the spirituals did, it’s not my voice, but I can converse with that voice. Once I figured that out, I could take it head on. The title came form a line on one of the songs that I’ve arranged and dialoged with, which is “heard the voice of Jesus say, there’s said “remember the next one, the verse” but it’s about Jesus saying “come and fallow me and keep your hands on the plow and hold on, just on and keep remaining faithful to what you’re doing.” Because the voice that I hear this spirituals is not an innocuous voice, it’s a voice calling us to this great responsibility and the song “hand on the plough”, it’s all the profound implications of this calling. and
So that kinda illustrates what I’m trying to do with these spirituals. But on more technical aspects, I use the original melody as one layer and then I’m trying bring other layers into a conversation. And I’m trying to explore where is the common ground between them and when can they come together. But also where is the tension between them, when do they sound kinda awkward when they come together?
Diego: So, you have these two traditions, the African American tradition and the other which is maybe your own tradition and your own upbringing, and you’re trying to explore how they can interact and how they and create something new.
Andrew: Absolutely. You’ve got it. And as you said that it occurred to me that I really struggled with how I approached the process of arranging these; because I think that conventional ideas on making an arrangement intend to make it a single piece with a single statement and a single voice. What happens a lot of times, especially among white composers and arrangers, its that they’ll approach a music like this and use it, and try start to define what they think that song is and they won’t distinguish between how the song was before they arranged it, what material they knew before they arranged it and what they’ve added to it. A lot of people are not acknowledging what their contribution was. I find that kinda dangerous, when someone from the dominant culture is appropriating this music for their purposes because you know, we can’t trust them on being authentic. I don’t pretend to be true to the original intention of this music and I make that explicit.
I was worried about defining what this music is and end up having my own purposes and interests getting confused with those of the original music. I think that’s very dangerous so I take it very seriously, and work on distinguishing my own voice from the voice of this music.
Diego: I think that’s like a that shows more profound appreciation for the other music, because you’re not trying to pretend that you know it and it’s part of you, but you’re rather showing how you love it and how you can create with it. On the contrary you are representing the tensions between both worlds.
Andrew: Yeah, exactly.
[Religion and experimental music]
Diego: So, how do you view the relationship between religion and avant-garde or experimental music?
Andrew: I grew up hearing some of it in church, primarily in what we know as the Congregational Church and The United Church of Christ. Mostly what I heard came out of the European or European- American tradition, and I would hear these pretty out-there organ pieces by people like [Olivier] Messiaen, and so it always seemed a little bit natural that there is a place for this music and the church, to an extent. On the other hand I was always told that this music was weird and that a lot of people didn’t like it; so I was always a little bit afraid to go too far. You know, I still have that and I’m still afraid in a worship setting to go a little bit too far. But I really started to own the relationship between the two when I started reading Messiaen and John Cage.
I think before I read them I was a little uneasy about both sides of this equation, I was a little been uneasy about whether it can fit with people I was connected, and so I was uneasy about whether or not that was the best use of my energy on the one hand, and on the other hand I was uneasy about whether I was even identifying as religious. I mean, there’s a time as a young adult, I think where it’s important to really evaluate, where one comes from and ask big questions and I was doing that: asking very big questions. You know, about what can I really believe in integrity. And then reading Messiaen and seeing his deep faith (that he expresses differently than I do and has different values than I do) and seeing how he can express this faith with this very unique kind of music. And reading about all this imagery that he has in it, made me think “wow, that’s something I could do”. Regarding John Cage, I started taking on Buddhist practices before I was reading John Cage, and back then I was little unsure if the meditation that I was doing and the philosophy that I was confounding was really compatible with my work as an artist. And then seeing what John Cage had written about was inspiring: the experience of the silence and the experience of just letting things be and how using music is a way of cultivating the mind set, the same kind of mind set that Buddhist teacher, teachers were aspiring to.
Then John Cage, his spirituality, became very explicit influences on my music, especially for that years that I was on college at Northwestern. You know reading both of their work, John Cage and Messiaen’s really put me on this path that I’m still on. But now my interest isn’t always about expressing my own ideas, which is something I think both Messiaen and Cage were doing and I think that that was wonderful, because they were also trying to empower everyone’s perspective, in a community.
I am trying to bring and build sort of what a lot of communities of faith call building bridges between different communities. I come from a very progressive background which I’m still very committed to, and a lot of the churches that I worked with are on the cutting edge of integrating the LGBT movement, feminist movements and of course civil rights and others, into their spirituality. Unfortunately the church, in particular the church in United States is a force that fights all those movements. There’s still a racism in the church, and there’s a lot of very open unfair treatment of women in church, in the way the Catholic church still doesn’t integrate women; and even, other denominations that do, a women leaders faces challenges that male leaders don’t. And you know, we’re only now starting to ordain people who are gay, lesbian, transgender and many, many churches will still refuse to do that.
So we have these activist communities and we have these religious communities that are often at odds with one another and some a lot of churches that are trying to reach out talked about building bridges between various previously separate communities. And how someone with a foot in both worlds or somebody who loves both communities can be that bridge. So I’ve started taking that process and practice of building bridges and using artistic expression to do that, to build bridges between communities of faith and communities of artists.
[Is there ever something really new in music?]
Diego: So, did you get into experimental music because it is not too codified into certain type of practice, and so it can serve this idea of building bridges?
Andrew: Well, there’s a lot of openness and we’re reconstructing, we’re rebuilding and recreating in the most fundamental way and that’s what we have to do if we want to move forward, I think, as a community. One example, in this idea of creating something new, is that we are not limited anymore to this sort of formal concert setting. Experimental music challenges this kinds of ideas, you know, the role of the audience and I’ve been really drawn to audience participatory music which creates this common space and common ground which are reminescent to certain worship settings where people are singing and clapping along. And by the way, audience participation is very radically controlled in the classical music circles and the circles of the dominant culture and I think it’s wonderful that artists who come from that classical tradition are challenging that; people like Pauline Oliveros have created a space for audience participation and that’s what I’m really inspired by. However, other cultures that have been influenced by Africa, have been doing that for a long time. You go to blues or you go to jazz clubs you’ll see people are clapping and singing and even rock now has that, there is a lot of that jazz and blues influence in there too. So as I’m talking about audience participation as an experimental gesture, I realize that it’s this European cultural bias that makes that seem experimental.
Diego: I think that is very interesting, that experimental music seems to be experimental for us, for our culture, but on the other side it seems that these gestures and sounds, that are so new and attractive for us, have already been there for thousands of years.
B: Absolutely yeah, well that’s why I’m glad you’re interviewing someone like Jakob Pek, because what I get from him is this idea that when we do this crazy, weird things, we are actually connecting with something eternal and something you know, really old. And with him I’m always find myself reexamining “is this a new idea that I have or is this an old idea”.
However, you said one thing that I also wanted respond to, about how you say that to us these things look radical. Well, part of my background is also have spent a lot of time in high school, college and onward with this experimental music. It doesn’t really sound that weird anymore. Sometimes, Mozart sounds weirder to me then John Cage. So what does it even mean to be weird and what’s comfortable and what’s not. It’s easy, when we’re in these circles that we’re on, to kind of turn all this on its head, but it’s important to take a step back and acknowledge the unique perspective that we have.
Diego: Yeah. I was thinking about, our society… and conservatories and universities.
Andrew: Yes, they don’t, they don’t change very quickly, right?
Diego: And, you know there’s something that happened in many ways in avant-garde and experimental musics, for example as you where saying, that audience participations suddenly became part of our repertoires of techniques, it was a certain expansion of what music could be, but only for the perspective of western classical music; that was already happening in Africa and in many other cultures, and the same goes for many rhythmic, harmonic or formal “innovations”.
Andrew: Exactly, yeah, right, exactly.
Diego: So it’s interesting to discover that what we are finding and experiencing as new was already there, and in that sense certain ideas of what avant-garde and experimental music is can be misleading, namely that it is a collection of aesthetic ideas that break with western music of previous eras. To me that is a petrified idea of what that music is all about, I don’t think it’s about breaks at all. In fact, I think that what we are trying to do is to expand our own experience of the world and of our own being; and I think that that is something that for you can be a link between religion and music: because religion can be seen as this practice of growth, of expanded consciousness, of spiritual enrichment. And somehow avant-garde music and experimental music are also moving on a similar path that goes towards new experiences.
Andrew: And I think that in both of them you end up going back something old. Then again this is what I was associating with Jakob Pek, but probably I have this a lot in my own thinking as well, you know, some things are so old that they seem new. There’s a lot of radical Christians who think that if you go back and reexamine what was going 2000 years ago in the time of Jesus or even in another times, a long time ago with Jewish communities before Jesus, or Buddhist communities. You know, these things that were happening thousands of years ago, and if you really take to heart what was happening, it seems radical. And I get this feeling from music, again from someone like Jakob who’s saying -these things that we’re doing, they seem so radical but they are actually connecting us to our tradition from thousands of years ago-. What’s weird in that? And we can think about that in comparison with the traditions of music notation of classical music or the instruments that we use, and of twelve tone equal temperament tuning, all these things that are supposedly traditional. They’re quite new in the perspective of human history.
Diego: And then, you know, just intonation it’s really old.
Andrew: Yes, right. You see what I am saying, yeah. I’m going back to what’s old. They tell me that our word ‘radical’ comes from the word ‘root’, so even in so called movements ‘radical’, you know, radical liberation, radical feminism and womanism and radical everything that we have. If you semantically or linguistically go and look up what they’re talking about, you’ll see that they’re talking about going back to the root of the issue, they’re not talking about throwing everything out and trying to reinvent the wheel. They’re talking about going back to what underlies the principles that we all depend on, going back to those and getting rid of this other baggage of society.
Diego: And then it’s similar to the experience of people who are experimenting, what they might be going through as they play their instrument. One might just hold up an instrument and then explore it without any preconceived notions of how to play it. Then it’s about trying to understand what is that thing is. We forget about what it is supposed to be, and then we go to the thing, to what it is or can be. It’s like going to its root, right?
Andrew: Absolutely, yeah. That reminds me of one of my colleagues from Northwestern, Megan Beugger. She’s an up and coming composer who is devoting her career to redefining how to use these instruments and her’s is really brilliant work. We started on Northwestern together, and in our first year she was in a class that paired performers and composers together to create a new work during the course. She worked with a timpanist and a violinist, so she ended up with this duo and she was excited for a few moments and then said: -what on Earth am I going to do with a violin and a timpani!… how am I going to do anything that makes sense with this two instruments, what’s gonna happen?-
And then professor Aaron Cassidy said -well you know from my perspective and from the acoustic perspective and the composer’s perspective they are very similar: we’ve got this resonating body and this exciter that produces the vibrations; they both have them and you can use that as a common ground.- By the end of the term she had created a piece that used both instruments in that way: she would hit the violin with the timpani mallet, so it blured the line between the two. And it takes you to back to the root of what these instruments are, we have something that produces the vibrations [the exciter] and something that amplifies this vibrations [the resonator] and that’s what’s going on here. And you can hear that, I think, in all of the music that she’s done since then. You look at the instruments, not as what they have been traditionally defined but as what they’re actually are.
Diego: And back to religion, you know religion come from the Greek religare, which means to tie, which is somehow that idea. She’s tying back to the instruments, to the roots.
Andrew: Yeah, the tying, I think it is also associated with the ordering. We have the integration of everything which I think is a really profound interpretation of that, of that word and that’s what was going on in this piece, and we also have this sort of the ordering, giving you this structure, this format that allows you to do the integration. The problem with religion is that tying becomes more like bondage and restriction, keeping people from doing anything. So, it’s important again that one can really get back to the root, using this tying as something that will be liberating instead of something that’s confining.
Diego: Yeah. That’s what conservatism would be right: trying to fix a certain idea and preserving it as something that shouldn’t, or even couldn’t be changed. Like to try to think that the root of an instrument is the way it’s played in a certain kind of context.
Andrew: Right, as if Paganini defines what the violin is and Chopin the piano. I mean, you have to recognize that composers like them have profoundly shown you something about that instrument, about what I can do, but you have to look at them as the beginning of your own process with those instruments. You can’t look at them as being, you know, being a confining force. They were in their own historical and cultural context and you have to know about that in order to really understand what they’re doing and so it’s important to actually study their tradition, to understand what they were doing, but then it’s also important to use that knowledge to go beyond their domain.
Diego: Yeah, to be conscious of their contingency.
Andrew: Exactly and there’s contingency in terms of how the context was shaping what these great composers did, but that wasn’t their genius in their composing. It wasn’t these contingencies, these contexts, their genius was what they did with them and how they moved forward.
[Developing new musical techniques and maximizing exploration]
Diego: There were two phrases that I found to be very striking and attractive. I think they’re in the program notes of your albums but I found them on your website. One of them from Heaven Down Here says “composing this piece allowed me to meditate, I wanted to explore.” And the other says in Heard The Voice: “music touched me, I mean, it offered hope, renewal, peace and comfort. It may point me to new ways of thinking, living, feeling or being”. So, they are really interesting, especially the parts of talking about composition as a way of producing a meditation and then music as something that points out some new ways of being and thinking and living.
B: Well, you know, in Heaven Down Here I think the meditation is a challenge and I think that’s why it was so difficult for people to listen to, and I think that meditation is an element of what I was doing, but if you spend all of your time meditating on the suffering and abuse that happened there, then that’s an incredible weight that you shouldn’t always have to carry. I wanted to share what I was meditating on, so people could understand where I was coming from musically and I don’t think that that piece can be approached only as a meditation and I think it would be very demanding to use it as explicitly as a meditation, I think it would be very demanding emotionally. But I do agree, I would agree if you’re saying that meditation can come out of a particular kind of musical process. I would agree with that. And I would go back and look at John Cage and look at the ways that he talked. He said, he stoped sitting in the conventional Buddhist Zen way that he had learned because he realized that he could get the same effect in his mind by just listening. So, I think that’s important and I think, I aspired to get to that point in my work and naturally I always do.
Diego: What is really interesting to me is, it seems to like, okay, you choose a topic to compose and then that topic develops and you meditate profoundly upon it as you are doing this composition of the music.
Andrew: Yeah, developing of material is a meditation for me and I don’t know if “exploring” stood out for you as that was something that you were quoting but it’s something very important to my experience. You know, I mean there’s nothing more exciting for me than exploration. To be able to go somewhere I’ve never been before, it is very exciting and a very visceral because it produces a lot of adrenaline and a lot of excitement, you know, it feels like my mind becomes very active and it’s very satisfying. It seems that there is no end to what you can explore in music.
I’m committed to maximizing the sense of exploration in music and in the way that I’ve been creating, you know, like rehearsals, which for me are often very much about exploring, even more so than the performance.
You know, the composition of music dialogs in Heard The Voice, has been a process of exploration for me and my next step is going to be, to transform these pieces into duos, for two musicians: myself and someone else, and to actually have these two musical voices interact, to have that process be one exploration.
I’m also in a duo called Nine Fingers, with drummer Dave Douglas. It is actually an allusion to an African dance and you know, in our rehearsals we never quite know what’s gonna happen. We have a set agenda of the pieces we wanna do when we rehearse. But as we do it we explore many different ways of approaching a piece. And I think that’s very typical for an ensemble (especially in new music) who’s trying to reinvent their composition and also trying to reinvent their style.
Diego: You’ve talked about maximizing exploration, so what do you do to get the best results in this respect?
Andrew: When I explore, even whatever a kind of exploring I’m doing, you know… the risk is you never quite know what’s gonna happen. You know, the thing that frustrates me about exploring is that you don’t have control over it and it excites me but it’s also really frustrating to me not to have control over it so when I start to open myself to exploration, it often happens that I lose control and suddenly I can’t find the affects that I want. So, if I want to continue to explore, a particular musical element or idea I find myself quickly unable to remain focused on that idea because I end up in this other place.
Anyway, I think that what gives me the most success with exploring might be exploring a musical scale, taking a particular set of pitches and trying just to see how each, how they sound, holding the pedal down on the piano and playing. I think that it’s fair to say that it becomes as guided exploration, I have a map, I have a system that can give me some rules, guidelines about where I’m going. You know, it’s different, it’s different trying to navigate with GPS. I don’t find it exciting, I kinda resist doing that but, you know, I think there’s a balance you have to find. I think that’s what is about, I think there has to be a balance between having some guidance where you’re going and feeling you’re going in a new direction… and balance is really difficult. I think it’s all about balance, about not going too far off in one direction. Not ending up in a place that’s so rigid that you don’t have any options but not ending up in a place that’s so free that you just don’t know where you’re gonna go. I don’t know, it’s a tough question, I really don’t think I’ve answered it, but it’s really tough question.
Diego: What I was thinking, while you said this, it that one of the important things about exploring is to avoid getting frustrated because of exploring.
Andrew: Right, right, see what I mean. Yeah and how do you do that or can you even do that. I don’t know, maybe you know how to do that.
Diego: I have this idea that when going into a space that you want to explore, you have to kind of have a notion about where you want to go, because if you don’t have a notion and you are just wandering and wandering and wandering then you are going to get frustrated because everything will look the same.
Andrew: Well, I’ve meant to tell another story if you wanna put this in here.My parents are ministers, my mom especially continues to work as a pastor of various churches and growing up I have vivid memories of being about ten or eleven and my mom would go to meetings around Western Michigan in various places, usually churches. So I would go to these meetings and, you know, they tried to get child care or whatever, but for some reason I would end up taking the first opportunity to go and wonder around in this new church and explore. I would take that opportunity and I have vivid memories of walking around every space that was opened, and in a church that had a meeting going on and usually not much else, I kinda had it all to myself as a seven, eight or nine year old, you know. By the time I was nine or ten this was one of most exciting experiences in my life, but it’s funny that you’ve mentioned having a goal. In all of my experiences I remember wondering around in these churches, I wanted just to find where the piano was, because all I really wanted was to go and sit down and play the piano. You know, it’s a lot of fun just to see what’s in the building and to see what’s behind this door and that door but you know, at the end of the day I wanna see which one has a piano that I can go and sit down and play until the meeting is finished. And it’s funny, I never thought about it this way before. I have vivid memories of walking around in these new buildings and I have vivid memories finding a piano and sitting down and playing and my parents have to go and find me wherever was the piano to get me off and so now we could go home from the meeting and it’s funny, I never really connected them in this way before. But that’s kind of what was happening, I had a goal, I knew what I was looking for and the process of finding it was really exciting, and I don’t think I would’ve had this process and I don’t think that exploring would have been quite as a exciting if I didn’t have this goal of looking for a piano.
Diego: Yeah, I think that’s one of the key points. And then if at some point you get frustrated, then you can go on and do something else that’s also exploratory but that’s familiar too… a scale or a chord, perhaps. Or exploring something that you’ll already are in, like a process of exploration that can last for years. So maybe to find this balance is to find point between having a goal and searching and then, you know, when you just get blocked or stumble into a wall or something, simply go to do something else instead of spending your time fighting the momentary dead end.
Andrew: I like that. You know, I appreciate you saying that, I never quite thought about it that way, actually, because I can be very focused on what I do. So, I really tend to just always have this goal in mind, you know, and I never like to give up. So that can be very helpful to think about it as sometimes you have to let go because you know and trust that you’re going to get there eventually. If you go this other direction then you open up and prepare to finally get to where you were trying go before.
Diego: Yeah, sometimes it’s just that the mind gets tired of trying to break through a problem.
Andrew: That’s true.
[Rising $8,000 USD on IndieGogo]
Due to it’s very different subject this part of the interview has been published separately, and can found by clicking here.
[Recommendations and influences]
Diego: Just before we finish, what musicians would you like to recommend?
I also recommend gospel artists like James Cleveland, Yolanda Adams, Ricky Dillard, (these are just a few random examples) and Yvette Flunder (who is also the pastor of the church I belong to). A lot of musicians with a classical background will be particularly interested in the gospel pianist and composer Richard Smallwood.
Diego: What other things that have been influential for your art ?
Books like Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, Cheryl Sanders’ Saints in Exile and James and Rosamond Johnson’s books of spirituals were highly relevant to the work we discussed in the interview. And anything by John Cage. Rumi has been a bit of an influence for me as well, or at least an inspiration. Borges fits in there too, although I haven’t read a lot.
I’m not sure I have individual artists to name, but the quilting/patchwork aesthetic, both from Africa and the diaspora is important to me.
There are so many! I think most of them fall under the category of “theology.” My favorites are theologies of “liberation,” or anything that articulates the faith of the oppressed or people on the margins. Christian and African American or European American theologies are the most familiar to me, but that does not mean I find them any more “correct” than less familiar theologies. Buddhist thought is another influence.