Interview with Ken Vandermark, Andrew Morgan and David Ryan


DR: What about risk, in terms of bringing those two worlds together? What is the role of risk-taking, here? This was something you were implying, Ken, earlier when you were talking about open structures with your trio…you talked about it almost like moving the musicians out of their comfort zone?

KV: That’s one of the problems with writing material for improvisers is that if you have a set structure for a piece then its human nature to solve a problem and then solve it the same way each time. So trying to come up with ways to not have an easily solvable problem in the material is an interesting challenge. And I think there are examples of how people dealt with this: Charles Mingus was famous for yelling at musicians if they repeated themselves; but maybe it would be more psychologically helpful if the pieces somehow enabled that, having a way of pushing against something, but having it undefined. In such a way that you have to consider what you are doing each time you approach it.

DR: Anthony Braxton had a nice line, where he said something like, ‘if a musician doesn’t make a mistake, then he is playing my music incorrectly’ [laughter] But does that figure with what you are doing with your piece, Andrew?

AM: How to write music that will catch Ken…not exactly off guard… but giving him something to react to…it is strange writing music where I leave one part blank as it were…a sort of staff that is empty, that is Ken’s staff. Like writing a concerto where the solo part is open. It’s how to create an environment that will give him something to react against. So every concert is an experiment: new blocks of music; new approaches, etc. This is the third time we’ve had the opportunity to do this, and it is different every time. We will do things tonight that we won’t do again, and learning as we go, how do we solve this problem that doesn’t have an answer. Trying out things and trying not to get stale…It’s very open ended…and not a very classical composerly way to think; normally you finish the string quartet, you bind it and tell people they’re playing it wrong if they go too fast in one section or whatever. The opposite to this kind of situation is one of the things I was most attracted to, that is, from the jazz or improvising worlds: the fluidity, the searching. Last time we played, Ken mentioned to me how he approaches playing, and he said something along the lines like he’s always looking for new sounds, a new approach each time he picks up his horn. And that is such a great idea: that every evening is an exploration. Tonight you’re not hearing something we have sorted out beforehand; yes, to an extent the music is written and we know what we are going to do…but tonight is a continuation of that exploration. That’s more interesting approach for me…a longer line of investigation. So it is a risk; when we performed this in Chicago there was a section of music that I had written that bombed, it was just rubbish! And…

DR: You’ve extended that bit for tonight? [laughter]

AM: [laughter] It is risky and I’d be very nervous doing this project with an improviser I didn’t know…I know Ken’s playing, I know his approach and I have managed to talk to him about the things that have inspired him: the classical music he listens to, the visual art references that he mentions from time to time. The more we talk, the more I can get into his head a little bit regarding what he might react to; what might create a sonic environment that he might enjoy playing against or over.

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