Interview with Steve Lehman

Saxoponist/composer Steve Lehman’s most recent album, “Travail, Transformation, & Flow,” will be released on Pi Recordings in early June. Steve recently completed a tour of Portugal with Dual Identity, a group that also features Rudresh Mahanthappa, Liberty Ellman, Matt Brewer, and Damion Reid. Other upcoming events include two world premieres- Steve’s “Baltimore/Berlin” (a piece for mixed quintet) by the critically acclaimed new music ensemble ICE, and his new work for percussion quartet will be performed by So Percussion as a part of the Columbia Composers Concert Series.

RB:You’ve been collaborating with a close-knit circle of musicians for some time now, and both your own quintet with Jonathan Finlyason, Chris Dingman, Drew Gress and Tyshawn Sorey and Fieldwork, co-led by Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorey, and yourself, have been long-term commitments. How does collaboration influence your music?

SL: Well, it’s probably the most important aspect of my involvement in music. The more I think about it, the social aspect of music making is really what keeps me interested and excited about music. Getting to work with all of the people you mention. Getting to know them as individuals and getting to work with a circle of musicians who really represent the state-of-the-art as composers and performers. This is what keeps me going…I know I shouldn’t need anything, at age 30, to keep me going…but I do! In addition to that, the more time I spend thinking about composition and actually writing new music, the more I realize that in the music I’m most interested in being involved with, the most important compositional step is deciding WHO I’m going to work with. Not what notes I’m going to write or what structures I’m going to design…that’s essential too, of course….but the WHO of it always seems to define everything else.

And I think that’s true in a lot of music, including music that doesn’t call for improvisation….it’s just not talked about as much…and sometimes it’s even intentionally removed from the conversation in a kind of artificial way.

RB: Regardless of who you are working with, your compositions exhibit a balance between specificity and freedom. Can you shed some light on how you develop platforms for you and your collaborators to interact?

SL: Sure. Though, I feel obliged to gently point out that if this phenomenon exists in my music, it’s not regardless of who’s playing the music….in fact is has everything to do with who’s playing the music. Of course it will sound differently, depending on who’s performing. But if you look, for example, at the list of drummers I’ve performed/recorded with in the past 5 years….these are people that are total individuals, yet they’re also people that have a fair amount of overlap in terms of their aesthetic and their musical points of reference….people like Nasheet Waits, Pheeroan akLaff, Eric McPherson, Tyshawn Sorey, Damion Reid, Karl Jannuska, Elliot Kavee, Gerald Cleaver…and on and on.

RB: I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that the people you choose to collaborate with don’t shape your compositional perspective. Rather, I was trying to tease apart specific relationships from your approach to writing. While there may be a lot of overlap between the musicians you perform with, the thing that strikes me is the extent to which they are “total individuals”, and I’m wondering how you go about creating that balance in different situations.

SL: In terms of developing compositional platforms/structures for the people I work with…I think this is the greatest challenge for composer/performers working with models that incorporate improvisation. That is to say, the challenge of composing music that will provide performers with enough agency to make the music come to life and be greater than the sum of its parts, while simultaneously challenging them to play in new ways. And for me, ideally, every aspect of a given composition should be connected to that initiative.

Like a lot of people, I’ve explored a bunch of different strategies for addressing that compositional problem and hope to continue doing so. But it’s hard for me to jump in with a blanket statement about my entire compositional output. Maybe we could talk about a specific composition.

RB: Analog Moment, perhaps?

SL: OK. Well, in “Analog Moment,” which was written in 2005 and then recorded in 2007, I think I was mainly thinking about the implications of setting up a series of overlapping rhythmic grids that would allow improvisers to kind of “grab on” to one or more streams of rhythmic information in negotiating the compositional space of the piece. There’s a kind of fast bell pattern that is constantly morphing and never repeating….and then that sequence of durations is also present at half-speed. Then there are longer blocks of time that work as a different kind of marker which last between 3-5 seconds (a time span often referred to as the “perceptual present”). And then, as a result of these overlapping layers, another aspect of the piece emerges, which is the exploration of musical foreground/background and how those boundaries can be transformed.

I was happy with how that piece ended up emerging in the context of that quintet, because I really felt like every aspect of what everyone was playing was really informed by all those different compositional components.

And in a way, the built in difficulty of internalizing the form and structure of the piece kind of ensures that.

RB: The instrumentation of both that quintet and the new octet is relatively acoustic, with the exception of the microphones and amplified upright bass. What is the reasoning behind this decision?

SL: Well, I’ve certainly done my fair share of of work with electro-acoustic formats at this point….both in live performance and in post production. In the music I write, the instrumentation almost always emerges out of this original question of WHO it is. So, for example, Jonathan Finlayson is on both the quintet and octet recordings, not because he plays trumpet, but because he is Jonathan Finlayson. It’s just that simple. If he played MPC or was a laptop improviser working with Super Colider or Max or Ableton or whatever, I’d find a way to integrate that into my work. Perhaps not with this specific ensemble, but definitely in some kind of way. And that has a lot to do with why I tend to gravitate towards a certain kind of instrumentation when working with acoustic instruments. It would be great to find a harp player, or a viola players, or a cellist who had (1) developed a personal language on his/her instrument, (2) was capable of internalizing demanding compositional forms and rhythmic structures as an improviser and (3) was intimately familiar with the work of people like Andrew Hill, Henry Threadgill, and John Coltrane…..but I just haven’t met that person yet. They may be out there, but I haven’t been fortunate enough to cross paths with them yet. And in the end, the people with these types of backgrounds end up playing a certain collection of instruments…..trumpet, trombone, saxophone, vibraphone, guitar, bass, piano, drum set, etc.

RB: Your most recent work, Travail, Transformation, and Flow, is being publicized as the “first fully realized exploration of spectral harmony in the history of recorded jazz”. Tell us about spectral harmony, and describe how thinking about music from this perspective has augmented your perception of musical organization.

SL: Well, spectral music is hard to talk about succinctly. As a gross simplification, one could perhaps say that spectral music is largely concerned with the project of using timbre and the physical properties of acoustics as models for a variety of compositional techniques. And of course, timbre is something that is often thought of as an isolated parameter or a musical variable in and of itself, but it’s actually composed of a multitude of interacting phenomena. The way our ear is able to know the difference between a clarinet and a trumpet doesn’t simply have to do with the overtones of those given instruments, and the loudness of each individual harmonic…but also with the attack of the sounds of those instruments and what happens to all of those partials over time.

The work on Travail, Transformation, and Flow is basically my most recent attempt to figure out what’s most relevant about this compositional approach for me, and also to think more deeply about the implications of spectral music on improvisation. Composer Tristan Murail is sometimes cited describing spectral music as “an attitude about composition more than a specific collection of compositional techniques.” And I think that’s pretty fitting…..he should know, since he is the “father-figure” of spectral music along with Gerard Grisey. So, for me, the question then becomes “What about that ‘attitude’ could be most relevant to my work with improvisers and my work with various rhythmic devices?” And this is a project I’ve been working on since 2001 and has kind of been accelerated since I started studying with Tristan at Columbia University in 2006.

RB: It was very interesting for me to read this excerpt from a lecture given by Mr. Murail, particularly the part in which he spoke about the interests of his predecessors, Xenakis and Ligeti, and how that relates to the organization in much of music today: “Xenakis thought of sound masses, in which individual lines — i.e., the notes played by the performers — were not necessarily that important. What was important was the structure of the mass of sounds”.

While I am by no means intimate with the principles behind the spectral harmonic approach, I can say that timbre is a variable that many listeners are paying attention to. The first thing that came to mind when I heard the opening seconds of “Echoes” was the shimmering sonorities achieved by the layering of multiple well-chosen samples, as seen in the music of Madlib, Four Tet, RZA and RJD2 (who performed at Oberlin last night). I wasn’t surprised to learn that you cover “Living in the World Today” at the end of the new record. However, I would be interested to know what you perceive the relationship to be between spectral harmony, hip hop, and other forms of “popular music”.

SL: Yes. And certainly a lot of the ideas and aesthetic preoccupation driving spectral music have been in place since, at least, the beginning of the 20th century. And Tristan has always been very quick to point out compositional precedents to some of his ideas in the work of people like Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, Scriabin, Messiaen, Stockhausen, Ligeti, and on and on.

In terms of the connections to experimental hip-hop, I think this intense preoccupation with timbre and the “fusion” of sounds could be viewed as a pretty strong connection between these two very different areas of composition. After that, it goes without saying that the individual techniques, and, of course, the social milieu are going to be very different, for the most part. And as a consequence, the resulting musics sound very different and evidence very different aesthetic affinities.

There’s also the fact that a lot of the early spectral techniques emerged out of composers trying to re-create sounds and techniques from electronic music in an acoustic setting.

RB: Right…I was certainly also interested to note how Mr. Murail’s explorations of feedback loops had played an important role in his development of the spectral approach.

SL: Yes. Though, I think the use of the feedback loop model was specific to one of his early pieces…title is escaping me…and not so much a thread of continuity in his work…but you get the idea…certainly stuff like frequency modulation has been important.

RB: I believe the piece is called Mémoire/Erosion (1976).

SL: Yup! That’s the one.

RB: Tell us, what are some of the implications that the spectral approach has on improvisation?

SL: OK. Well, the simplest example to talk about is the idea of spectral chord changes. On the piece I sent you, Echoes, I basically treat harmonics 8-16 of a given fundamental as a mode to improvise on. So this means I have a scale with some tempered pitches and then some pitched adjusted to the nearest quarter tone…namely harmonics 11, 13, 14 and 7, if I want to use that one. Then I have different techniques for moving from one spectra/harmony to another. That in and of itself was a lot of work. Just getting comfortable with those new scales/modes. And then there’s larger areas and questions connected to the idea of improvising with timbre and/or orchestration. And a lot of that gets explored on the octet album. In some ways, it feels like scratching the surface, but I’ve been really excited by the results thus far.

RB: Well, “Echoes” certainly sounds like you are on to something!

SL: Thanks. That makes me happy to hear.

That’s actually a really challenging piece for us to play, because of the difficulty involved in the rhythmic alignment amongst the 8 players, and the combination of that with the execution of 1/4 tone pitches on the trumpet, trombone, tenor and alto at different times. It was a real gift to be able to record it for Pi with that group of musicians!

RB: I was listening to it yesterday evening while preparing for the interview, when my housemate, who is a Latin American Studies student, dropped in. She was floored by the sound and couldn’t believe that it was being created by acoustic instruments.

SL: Very cool. Yes, a lot of people have pointed out that the piece has a kind of electronic sheen to it. I also have to give enormous credit to Liberty Ellman, who did an exceptional job mixing the album.

That phenomenon is present in a lot of Grisey’s work and of course Murail’s as well. They are such master orchestrators. They seem to be able to achieve almost any sound they want from acoustic instruments. In one class with Tristan, he played us a recording of running water in a river, and then his orchestration of that sound. It was simply astonishing. I don’t think I’ll ever get to that level as an orchestrator, but the information I’ve already gotten from working with him, has been totally invaluable.

RB: I can only imagine….In general, I know a lot of people who would really enjoy “Echoes”, and probably Murails music as well, but who I don’t expect to discover it. From the perspective of a college student, I think that there is a remarkable amount of interest at this point in time among young people in music for musics sake. What are your thoughts about how to reach out to new listeners, and what kinds of tools do you think would help you get your music into their ears?

SL: Such a good question. Certainly, I always try to hold my music up to the standard of music for music’s sake. My hope is that (at least some!) people will hear my music and be able to relate to it without having any knowledge of what compositional techniques it employs, etc. Some of that, ideally comes across in the sounds themselves, anyhow. The sound of the harmony, the amount of work that each player has put into his instrument.

In terms of outreach, it’s a tough question. I don’t know what the answer is, in terms of getting more people interested in my music. What I have seen is that, remarkably, the better I get at defining the specifics of MY music and what keep ME interested and excited about music, the more other people are able to relate to it. But there is of course this on-going concern of the creative music community becoming either (1) increasingly insular, or (2) explicitly marketplace oriented.

The other thing I’ve tried to do is to use my affiliation with Columbia University to share the incredible resource of that institution with other people. I feel very fortunate to be there and to be receiving multi-year support from them. So, whenever I get an opportunity, I try to encourage my friends and colleagues to take advantage of the institution as well, provided it feels relevant to them. Damion Reid has been participating in a wonderful weekly Rhythm Seminar in the composition department….HPrizm from Anti-Pop Consortium was participating in George Lewis’s computer music seminar last semester, and on and on. It’s getting easier for people to access all of this kind of information on their own….but it’s still not as easy as it should be.

RB: One of the things that I’ve heard older musicians mention often that differentiates improvised of today is the relative lack of ability for ensembles to work together. Billy Hart recently noted the fact that he used to perform in ensembles that worked consistently for months at a time, and it really calls into question how musicians today can achieve that kind of rapport with each other without those kinds of opportunities. How have you and your collaborators dealt with this issue?

SL: Yes. It’s a huge issue and really an obstacle. I think you just do the best you can. You just psyche yourself up to get into extended concentrated periods of rehearsal like Fieldwork does…and I’m sure other groups do as well. Or you draw from working together in other contexts. On the other side, there seem to be more and more musicians capable of internalizing massive amounts of information in incredibly short periods of time. Something that used to takes weeks to learn now takes hours. So that tips the balances a bit. But there is no substitute for regular performance with a consistent ensemble. That’s for sure.

RB:Of course, this is yet another extremely broad question, but I feel compelled to ask it anyway: What do you hope to achieve by making and performing music?

SL: Actually, that one seems pretty clear. For me, making music and performing music is simply about connecting with other people, finding out about myself, and trying to find some sense of meaning as a result of my own experiences and my shared experiences with my colleagues and everyone else who feels they can relate to the music I’ve involved with.

RB: Wonderful! Thank you so much for doing this…

SL: My pleasure.