Spaces of Collaboration: An Interview with Ken Vandermark


SS: Do you believe it would be possible to build a sense of politics from the process of collaboration? Could you build a sense of politics from improvisation?

KV: Yes, for sure.

SS: The reason I ask is because I asked Joe McPhee about this and he was quite hesitant because… his music, he doesn’t like to theorize what he does so much and doesn’t want to add that approach to it.

KV: Yes, and I completely hear him and respect his point of view on it. What counts is the result and I think that the interpretation or subjective thinking about music and politics, you can make an argument for it and against it but the end result is if the music’s any good or not, not whether it’s political or not. And I think there’s been some really terrible music made that’s highly political. The politics don’t give it quality. If the music is great then maybe the political stance of the players becomes important to the person listening but it doesn’t mean that the music’s good or bad. I don’t think you can divorce art from its time period. I think it’s participating in its time period and maybe projecting a lot of things that are forward in point of view. People talk about innovators in the music or in the visual arts, writing, whatever, and they were ahead of their time. I think that there’s a good description to say that they’re actually so of their time, no one could really realise it because when you’re in the middle of a time period, you don’t really even see what’s going on.

Great artists are more accurate and astute – by the time the society’s caught up with them, we’re in another paradigm. What I’ve found, without going into it in a heavy way, is that music is part of the politics of the time, whether it wants to be or not. It depends on how the makers of it want it to be perceived. But I think the real central thing is the quality of the music. The first Liberation Music Orchestra record, that’s one of the rare examples for me of music that’s very specifically political which is also an amazing document of music. That’s an incredible record. Or Coltrane’s “Alabama.” Those are obviously very politicized pieces of music and yet, if you knew nothing about the context or the background for those pieces or that album, in the case of the Charlie Haden recording his taking inspirations from songs associated with the Spanish civil war, the music is still extraordinary.

SS: Is that something to do with comparing the different, let’s say, context where music is created as opposed to actively responding to and trying to intervene in that context? For instance there’s an interview with Brötzmann where he talk about his playing in the context of Germany after the second world war, and how its intensity and even possible brutality is a necessary part of responding to that context. Thus his style of playing is not simply an aesthetic choice, but very much an ethical response that comes out of attempting to deal with the horrors of that situation.

KV: Yes, that’s the kind of thing I mean. I think it would be strange to think that if you had lived through that process and seen the things that had happened, that you would not, somehow, even from an intuitive, organic standpoint be affected by it and have that affect your work. Even just psychologically, to not be affected by it, you would have to do something so severe to it, it would be an artificial result. It would be a contrivance to say “the war didn’t happen.” And I think it’s the same thing… I haven’t had to live through a war situation at home. But definitely, there is a war situation going on related to the United States right now. That affects me. I don’t know… I can’t say specifically how it affects the music I make other than I’m very aware, or as aware as I feel I can be of what’s going on related to that set of conflicts that the US is involved in… the other conditions that are going on around the world. I travel a lot, I see a lot of things, I talk to lots of people. All of that information affects the music I make. But it’s not so simplistic as a cause and effect: “I heard a horrible story today so I’m going to play a sad, angry improvisation.” That’s ludicrous. It’s much more complicated than that. On one hand it affects me but I would like to think that there’s more going on than just a simple cause and effect. A versus B equals C. There’s a bunch of things happening in there.

SS: It’s more like something operating subconsciously or just affects your overall approach, how you understand the world and interact, more then a clear and direct effect.

KV: Yes, I would say it’s the way I consider the arts in general, that it’s an organic process. There’s conceptual aspects to it, there’s a lot of thought, there’s a lot of discipline, all these things, but the things that I’ve worked on and the things that I enjoy, there’s an organic way that the creators deal with inspiration, things that have influenced them and how they process that and transform it into original work. In the case of some people like Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker, it totally changed the kind of music I’ve been involved with. In some cases, it’s not so radical but they still make really unique music. I like to use the example of Stan Getz, I love Stan Getz’s music but it’s certainly not as radical as Evan Parker’s music or Jimmy Giuffre’s music. Well, without Stan Getz living, there would have been this whole way of playing the saxophone that never existed, you know what I mean? And that’s important too.

A real artist processes all these kinds of things, influences and inspirations in an organic and intuitive way and using their intellect, using all their facilities. The cultural and political environment is a factor too. You can’t just say “I’m about art and only art. I examine the history of art and I practice my instrument and I play music and I’m here in this narrow, little world and then all this stuff happening outside of that doesn’t exist.” That’s really artificial. Rather it’s a multi-layered set of experiences that affect what happens.

SS: I find it quite interesting how on your website you include a list of influences, and there’s not just musicians but also painters, artists, theorists, and film makers. And you’ve brought together a whole set of different quotes you’ve pulled together from various people who have inspired you and that you work from.

KV: I see it as all interrelated. It starts with the music coming up. I was, and still am, really fascinated with the history of jazz. I’ve made the necessary choice to not associate myself with jazz anymore because the word jazz has been so denigrated by its usage in the United States connected to the media and the Lincoln Centre definitions of what it is and what it isn’t. But I learned really early, especially when I went to college, people didn’t listen to the kind of music that I was listening to that I met that were my age. They all listened to rock and mostly SST bands and the bands on Sire and Slash. I didn’t know any of that stuff, I didn’t know about the Minutemen and what not. And I found that if I wanted to talk about music, I needed to find out about that stuff. I found out that what I was really a music fan, not a jazz fan. And then once that happened, it also opened up a lot of doors in terms of all these different kinds of genres that are connected to music. But then that opened doors to the realization that it’s not just about music, it’s about creative activity and I get lots of inspiration from filmmakers and writers, painters, photographers and the way that they deal with solving creative problems and how they went through the process of figuring out what they needed to do as artists, as individuals.

And that’s been a big part of my passion, finding out all these kinds of things because it’s all interrelated. The medium is different. I work with sound. Samuel Beckett is one of my biggest heroes and he worked with drama and text but the way he worked really has affected the way I think. And getting to work with John Tilbury is a perfect example of the impact of how Beckett’s methodology, particularly in his theatre work, and talking to John Tilbury about it was really illuminating. John has built performances around his work.

SS: I saw John give a performance of some Beckett works here at Café Oto last year.

KV: I didn’t realise that, he talked to me about doing that.

SS: He did last year. I was here for the performance of Worstward Ho that was really good.

KV: I have utter admiration for John Tilbury and to get to talk to him about his relationship to Beckett and think about the musicality of Beckett’s theatre work and also his literature, but also in particular the plays and how that relates to Morton Feldman and how that relates to John Tilbury’s improvising strategies. There’s a direct correlation there for John, very specifically, and maybe me more gently, those kinds of relationships about reducing means sometimes. Last night I played very differently than I do with a band like Lean Left. Both of them are completely improvising ensembles but the materials are absolutely opposite in a lot of ways. That’s an example of how another way of working, another medium, theatre, has affected my thinking and the world of sound, of music. And that’s true of other things as well, especially cinema, because I think there’s a lot of correlations in the way I think about music and the way I think about cinema and looking at film and my interest in that.

All these things are interrelated. I to try to represent that as much as possible which is really the whole meaning behind all the dedications on the pieces that I write. It’s not that these pieces are supposed to somehow replicate the work of another artist with musical material, it’s more to say “hey, this person had tremendous impact on me and maybe with the hope that someone would check them out too,” which I learned from researching Anthony Braxton. In Braxton’s work, he talked about all kinds of stuff I didn’t know anything about and I went and checked it out. Like Stockhausen. I knew of Stockhausen but I hadn’t really looked at his music very much. And Braxton cited how important Stockhausen was for his own work and I’m thinking “well, I’m into Braxton so I should check out Stockhausen,” which was revelatory and totally amazing. It’s like those kinds of linkages, those kinds of connections, in that case with music but it works through other art forms too.

SS: You can see something similar with other artists who take the same approach, for instance like Mats Gustafsson or the Ex who start from a particular genre or style, but then bring in all kinds of other influences and develop them into something new.

KV: Yes, I mean, the connection between the Ex in Ethiopia and music, I wouldn’t have anticipated, not knowing about Terrie’s [from the Ex] history specifically. I knew he had travelled all over the continent of Africa, but the impact of seeing Ethiopia on that trip transformed a lot of his thinking about music and what he wanted to do and the way the Ex have incorporated those ideas into their own music as the acts and how they’ve worked with Getatchew Mekuria over the years. And the success of that music is really a hybrid that is the Ex and is Ethiopian music, somehow it’s in balance… that kind of thing is so rare.

Usually “world music” is the worst of both worlds. It dumbs down the source material from another place and also dumbs down the people that want to explore it by “westernising” it. And somehow, the Ex were much different in how they approached it. I have loved that band for years and when I saw they had made this album, Moa Anbessa, before I heard it I was kind of nervous, not knowing that they were… all the work they’d put into it, I was ignorant of all that and then when I put the record on, my response was “holy shit, this is a complete success.”

SS: Maybe it works so well because they’re developing ideas with Getatchew rather than just tacking him on to what they do.

KV: Absolutely. It was a collaboration. I know that they were interested in his music and that’s why they brought him to Amsterdam, I think it was for their 25th anniversary and Getatchew played with the Instant Composers Pool. But the stuff that he got really excited about was hearing the Ex and he went to them and said “I want to work with you.” There was like a meeting of minds right from the beginning there.

SS: It sounds a bit like the story about Anthony Braxton seeing Wolf Eyes play for the first time and thinking they were great and going to buy all the records off the table, chatting with the band after the performance. Then a week later he goes to a gig and says “can I play with you?” And the album of that performance is really interesting. I wouldn’t think to put together Wolf Eyes and Anthony Braxton but it actually works really well.

KV: When you think of Braxton’s background going back to the 60s and all the stuff he’s seen and done and all the electronic music he’s been involved in and his own experiments… maybe it’s not that a stretch after all. He’s got a radical mind, in the best sense of that.

SS: Sorry if this is a silly question but I’m curious why you’ve never played with Tortoise.

KV: I’ve played with guys in the band but never with the group. I’ve worked primarily with Jeff Parker and John Herndon but a lot of the guys in the group, I wouldn’t say that I know them well but I know them a little bit to varying degrees. But I think their interests in music are really different than mine and me working with Jeff and John in Powerhouse Sound was connected to me hearing them in a project that they were ideal for, in terms of John’s drumming and dealing with grooves, which was what group was about, and Jeff’s guitar playing and his… the variety of possibilities in the way he approaches guitar was perfect for the ensemble. But I think that my interests in music are really divergent from theirs and so it’s not surprising to me that they Tortoise wouldn’t work with me… even though we live in the same city and we’re aware of each other.

Like John McEntire, I think he’s an amazing drummer. This goes back a ways but I remember seeing him play with Gastr Del Sol and his whole approach to time and… it was so fascinating. He’s amazing but I usually ask people to play with me when I “hear them” in a context. As great as John is and as generous as he’s been at times… I’ve borrowed equipment from him and he’s always been helpful to me whenever I’ve asked, but there hasn’t really been a proper context yet. Maybe that will change. And I can’t speak for them but I’m guessing it’s… they maybe feel the same way. Hopefully they like some of what I’ve done but they don’t necessarily hear it in the context of what they make which, of course, makes sense.

SS: It’s always seemed to me that there was something quite special that happened in Chicago in the mid to late 90s, both in terms of the music played and how it brought people together across different kinds of music. But it also seems like that has moved on, or maybe moved around, to a different, perhaps more international context.

KV: You mean the kinds of activity that were happening there? Just the interactive collaborations between different genres of music and that. Okay, I understand what you’re saying. Yes, I would say that’s true. That was a really great period and I don’t like to look back because I’m more interested in what’s forward but in my own activity… the perfect example is working with the Ex and them inviting me to play with them. That’s a perpetuation of activity that I was doing in the 90s but it’s just not happening in Chicago now, it’s an international thing.

But in the 90s it was a really great period in Chicago because lots of the ‘rock musicians’ were going and checking out what the improvisers were doing and vice versa and it was a situation… a central situation in Wicker Park, it was like a gentrifying neighbourhood, not unlike this neighbourhood around Café Oto which is already changing radically in the last couple of years, the same kind of thing happened in Wicker Park in Chicago. There were a lot of musicians living in that neighbourhood and a number of rock clubs… not just rock clubs but also an improvised music club called The Hot House; they also had ‘world music’ too. They were all in one set of a few blocks and that’s where a lot of stuff took off. It was all in the same backyard. It was like, you just went to the corner and you checked out what band was playing. It was a very easy set of influences or interactions happening and that’s how I ended up playing with the guys in The Jesus Lizard because Duane Denison kept checking out the Vandermark Quartet and asked me to play with them because we were doing a weekly gig. And it was just this proximity factor. And now I think that’s really changed. The people that were open to those kinds of collaborations got maybe more focused on what they were doing. Like the guys in Tortoise for example. They’re still doing music and doing things and playing with different kinds of people but their net of activity, maybe like mine, has expanded outside the realm of Chicago.

And I think you’re right, there’s less direct… there’s still lots of collaborating going on but I think it’s more within genre rather than cross genre. And for me personally, the most exciting stuff is completely open door and I like working with as many different kinds of situations as possible, as many different aesthetics as possible. And I guess in part, me being fortunate enough to come to Europe a lot and play with Europeans and establish relationships with European musicians, most of them connected to improvised music on some level, that’s sustained that kind of excitement for me. And because I’ve been away from Chicago for the last decade in particular, seven months or more per year, my “back yard” is much bigger. And I’ve found those kinds of interactions that I found in Chicago in the 90s when I was there all the time on a different kind of scale. But I still pursue those things because I think they’re really rewarding and create very interesting new kinds of music and new hybrids of music.

But I see your point and I think that kind of activity happens in certain periods, like a flash point, and that flash point moves to someplace else. And it depends on open minds, a lot of intensity, in proximity. You have to have a tipping point, you have to have a critical mass of activity, of super creative people. If they live on their own somewhere or off in the boondocks, they may do great work but it’s not going to rub shoulders with other people doing the same thing and upping the ante. One of the good things about the 90s in Chicago is that in addition to what was happening there, that was the beginning of a lot of cross pollination with Europeans coming to Chicago for the first time, in a large part because of John Corbett who was booking stuff and knew all those musicians. For the first time on a regular basis Peter Brötzmann came to Chicago; John was really, really early in that whole process and when the Empty Bottle improvised music series started on Wednesdays, John and I were booking that and John was the connection to all the European musicians and a lot of the North American musicians who hadn’t played in Chicago very often and certainly not in a rock club. And he convinced them to come and the experience was so positive, they kept coming back and the word got out. That was a really great decade, an amazing decade in retrospect but there was a duration limit on that. John could only do it for so long, the interest of the club only lasted so long, and then things change. Activity like that, at that time, you’re right, it goes to different places. Berlin’s been amazing for a long time but that’s changing. Now in Amsterdam too. Now there’s a lot of young stuff going on in Amsterdam which is super exciting. So yes, it moves around and you’ve got to follow it where it goes.

SS: I’m guessing that’s part of why you collaborate with so many different kinds of musicians and push yourself. One of the things you said last night is that when you play with Eddie and John, you feel like you’re almost in over your head but that sort of challenge really is really enjoyable.

KV: Yes, I feel like I’ve tried to do that my entire life, if people are willing to work with me. AMM, now with John and Eddie, they’re specialists in a very deep field of activity in a way that I am not. When I’m playing with them, it’s like… it’s a tightrope walk for me. And then there are people who work with electronic music like Christof Kurzmann who are specialists and know things I don’t know. And when I work with them, again, I feel like I’m in over my head. But by putting myself in those contexts and working with the best people in their field, if they are willing to give me the chance to try to wrestle with it, it pushes me the hardest and I learn the most. And I am not a specialist, I’m a generalist… I don’t know what the correct word is. I’m interested in way too many different things and I’m not… not to suggest for a second that John and Eddie or Christof Kurzmann aren’t interested in a huge amount of things either. I love getting a chance to play with the Ex and work with their music and then a week later, play with John Tilbury and Eddie Prévost. And I like everything in between.

SS: An interesting comparison might be between your playing and Mats’s. Mats’s has a particular approach of trying to see how hard he can musically hit you, in terms of intensity of playing, while I would say your approach is much more agile and adaptable.

KV: Of course, yes. The expression of my curiosity and the path of it works in a different way than Mats’s. And I think there’s a lot of range of what Mats’s does but it’s also a different set of interests and aesthetics that he wants to work with and he… I wouldn’t hesitate to say that he would be more effective in those areas, the high volume intensity. He’s developed a lot there that I haven’t worked with in the same way. But I like loud things too, I love playing with Lean Left. I always feel – and I’m not being disingenuous about this, I’m being honest – I always feel that I’m at a disadvantage almost always with the groups I play in and that’s a good place for me to be because it forces me to come up with new things to do.

I remember a few years ago, playing with Lean Left here at Café Oto and after the first set I had to go for a walk because I just… all the resources I had as an instrumentalist and as an improviser, they just would not work in that setting because of the nature of the playing. Andy and Terrie, they come from such a different background and the way they approach improvising is so removed from the histories of ‘European improvising,’ like out of England or even out of Holland with the ICP, or out of the German school. It’s a totally different thread that incorporates rock aesthetics with open improvising and radical sound and volume. Everything I would try, it just didn’t work, the phrasing didn’t work. It was really… what’s the word for it? Shattering. I was like, what am I going to do? I have to play another set with these guys and I have to tour with them. And I just had to start from zero. I had to just re-think the whole thing, re-think the instrument, re-think the way I approach the instrument. And that’s how you learn, that’s how I learn, through that kind of confrontation and that was a real confrontation.

SS: There’s a quote from Deleuze where he says that creators create their own impossibilities and then basically deal with them.

KV: That’s a great phrase. That sums it up much more effectively than me. That sums it up perfectly. That’s a great statement.

Stevphen Shukaitis is Senior Lecturer at the University of Essex, Centre for Work and Organization, and a member of the Autonomedia editorial collective. Since 2009 he has coordinated and edited Minor Compositions ( He is the author of Imaginal Machines: Autonomy & Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Day (2009, Autonomedia) and editor (with Erika Biddle and David Graeber) of Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations // Collective Theorization (AK Press, 2007). His research focuses on the emergence of collective imagination in social movements and the changing compositions of cultural and artistic labor.

Originally published at

1 2 3