Spaces of Collaboration: An Interview with Ken Vandermark
Written by Stevphen Shukaitis
Ken Vandermark is a musical polymath. Since emerging from the Chicago music scene in the 1990s he has taken part in a huge number of projects, constantly expanding the boundaries of free jazz and experimental music. His approach varies across project, managing to merge together a keen sense of composition with passionate and fiery improvisation. Vandermark is one of the few musicians who works seamlessly across musical genres and approaches, managing shifting full out post-punk improvising, to challenging forms of jazz composition that led Mark Corroto to compare him to Duke Ellington. Vandermark plays in his own ensembles (such as the Vandermark 5, DKV Trio, and the Resonance Ensemble), as well as collaborative projects such as Lean Left (with drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and members of the Dutch punk band the Ex) and Peter Brötzmann Tentet.
I first came across Vandermark’s work through the frequent performances he has made at Café Oto in London, which has become a major venue in the past five years for experimental music. This interview was conducted in September 2014 when Vandermark was in town for a residency performing with Eddie Prévost and John Tilbury from the pioneering free improvisation AMM.
Stevphen Shukaitis (SS): Your performance last night with John Tilbury and Eddie Prévost was really amazing, especially for all the kinds of subtle nuances of sound and texture explored. But with how hot it was, and with the windows being open, the dance music filtering in added another layer to that which was more than a little unexpected.
Ken Vandermark (KV): Normally that stuff kind of annoys me because you’re trying to concentrate and you’re trying to be specific about where you do things, whether it’s completely improvised or not. And you have to listen very acutely to recognise all the components of what’s going on, especially if it’s completely improvised. And the environment has a big hand in what you choose to do, the acoustics of the space, the interaction with the audience, the presence of the audience. And then the sound in the room, not just the acoustics but what’s happening in the room. I find it extremely irritating when photographers leave their click on their shutter on, especially on digital cameras where that’s absurd. There’s no reason for it.
But to answer your question, with the music that I play in a context with John and Eddie and other improvisers who work in a more… ambient is the wrong word because it implies too much status and too little motion, and there’s a lot of motion in the music that Eddie and John do. But I think of it more in terms of a “John Cage experience.” When that background stuff was happening and these noises were happening, I let it go because these long stretches of silence that sometimes happen in the music that John and Eddie do that unless you’re in some super rarefied environment, which is basically non-existent, there is going to be sound happening in those spaces. And I learnt to enjoy that aspect. That’s part of what’s happening in the music – and you let go of the control issue on that.
I find it worse, actually, with other kinds of improvising because there’s another dynamic… not a dynamic in terms of volume, but another set of interactions happening. And the environment, even though it affects the music, it’s not so much a part of the music in some ways, if you know what I mean. There’s so much space in what John Tilbury and Eddie Prévost do together that the environment is going to be present in that space. Whereas other kinds of improvising where there’s a lot of activity, a lot of volume. Let’s say if I’m playing with Lean Left, if we stopped and suddenly someone was taking a bunch of pictures in that gap, it would be like “ah man, you’ve just undermined all this activity that we’ve done.” But with John and Eddie, it’s like “okay, that’s the environment we’re in right now. That’s part of the space and the space is part of what we’re doing.” The nature of the music is incorporative of the space, if that makes sense.
SS: That’s really interesting. It reminds me of a performance I saw by Keith Rowe a few years ago at the Stone in New York City. And similar to last night it was quite hot, and the venue didn’t to turn the air conditioning on. At the same time outside the venue’s door there was a really drunk woman who was being asked to be quiet but her response was to keep yelling “fuck your performance!” In some strange way I think Keith Rowe actually really enjoyed this, and he started responding to it, and making it part of the performance.
KV: There’s nothing else you can do in that situation. You’ve got to interact with them on some level. To be antagonistic to it just… it takes everything out of the music at that point. In those situations… an ambulance going by and all these kinds of ambient sounds when you’re living in the city and playing in a room like Café Oto or The Stone, which have, kind of, equivalent spaces. It’s a storefront, you’re on the street, that stuff is going to be part of what happens sometimes. If you’ve got a drunk, belligerent person screaming fuck you right outside the window, if you get frustrated by that and say “okay, well, now I’m not going to play until that stops,” you’re not facing the reality that you’re not in a pristine concert hall. It’s more realistic to just contend with the environment if you can. I’m not always good at doing that but last night, I was enjoying myself so much I said “okay, fuck it.”
SS: In certain ways what you’re describing sounds like different approach to composition, much like John Cage, through embracing that indeterminacy, seeing what happens, and following those flows.
KV: Yes, exactly. And if you incorporate that stuff then it becomes another element, another layer of what’s happening. And that can be really useful. Years ago John and Eddie they were playing with Keith Rowe and sometimes he had the radio going and it would pick up some almost random pop tune in the middle of a performance with AMM. I found it to be akin to that last night, where you’ve got this heavy beat going and it has nothing specific to do with what we’re playing and yet it has everything to do with what we’re playing because it’s all to do with the environment we’re playing in. And that’s very conditional music, it’s about the condition of the space, the environment itself I think, in a way that some other kinds of improvised music are less so.
SS: In that sense it makes the space itself seems much more important then often thought, or at least that I’ve thought of it. During an improvised performance it’s almost as if musicians don’t just collaborate with each other but everything around them. It sounds like you’re talking about collaboration with the space itself.
KV: Absolutely. If I’m playing solo, the space becomes the duo. The environment, the acoustics of the space, what I can and can’t do on the instruments becomes a major factor in how I play. And that’s true in duos or trios or ensembles, whatever size. Those elements of the environment are going to change my choices. In some rooms, if they’re really dry acoustically, there’s a lot of overtones that I can’t utilise that I was able to utilise yesterday. If the music is extremely loud, there’s a lot of things that I can’t do that I could do yesterday at the concert. Those conditions completely change my choices and that becomes a big factor in how I play, what other people are hearing me do, how they bounce off it, what they’re going to be doing too with the space.
The environment is the extra element that’s a big contributor with completely improvised music. When you’re playing pieces, you’re almost imposing the compositional framework on the environment and you’re trying to navigate the implications of the pre-composed materials in a performance that involves improvisation and meet the needs of the composition, whatever the environment is about. I’ve played in spaces with large groups where the acoustics are unbelievably reverberant and it’s really hard to hold the music together because with a drummer, it’s bouncing all over the place, all these people playing. It’s like a chaos in the room. But you’re supposed to be playing these written pieces and you’ve got to adapt to that. And in a sense, you’re imposing the requirements of the piece on a space that’s not suited to it because that’s where you got booked, that’s where the gig is. If you’re doing something completely improvised, even if it’s the same group, the way that group would play in a totally reverberant space to a completely dry space, the music would be highly different.