Friday, March 24, 2017
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Michael Snow: making music in the now

The Canadian Creative Music Collective (l-r: Paul Dutton, Michael Snow, John Oswald). Photo by Nigel Dickson. Used by permission of the CCMC.The Canadian Creative Music Collective (CCMC) was one of the first Canadian professional free improvisation groups. Formed in the mid-'70s in Toronto to “play music that is fluid, spontaneous, and self-regulating”, it's never stopped.

The CCMC will make a rare appearance in Ottawa on Thursday, May 10, at the NAC Fourth Stage. The concert will also feature British experimental jazz vocalist Phil Minton, here both to play with CCMC, and to create an Ottawa version of his own Feral Choir project for a concert later in the week.

The only remaining founding member of the CCMC is Michael Snow. Although Snow has been playing jazz piano professionally for more than 60 years (his last appearance in Ottawa was in 2010 with percussionist Jesse Stewart at the National Gallery), he's far better known as a ground-breaking and world-renowned film-maker, sculptor, and visual artist, and for successfully defending his moral rights against the Toronto Eaton Centre when they tried to put Christmas bows on his sculpture Flight Stop. describes him as a “Central figure of the American avant-garde”. He has been awarded the Order of Canada (Officer in 1981, Companion in 2007), and the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts (Film) in 2000. editor Alayne McGregor spoke with Snow on May 4 about the upcoming concert and what listeners can expect, Snow's own introduction to free jazz and free improv, and how the CCMC helped introduce free improvisation to Canada. What was your first introduction to improvised music?

Michael Snow: Probably it was the Artists' Jazz Band. Because they use to totally improvise. Do you know about them? I knew that you played with them In the early 70s. 

Michael Snow: And they were all painters, basically. Gord Rayner, Graham Coughtry, Bob Markle. And it was very interesting. At the time that they started, I had been working as a professional jazz musician and making my living at playing jazz. They started to play at parties and get completely drunk and so forth and have a great time. But they were really folk musicians, in the sense that they couldn't play tunes or anything. They just made these imitations. Bob Markle liked John Coltrane, so he imitated the sound of John Coltrane, but didn't really have any musical connection with the kinds of things that Coltrane was doing. And yet it turned out to be sometimes very exciting. The Artists' Jazz Band actually made some extraordinary music – which was kind of interesting.

I'd become interested in trying to extend improvised … I was playing, in a sense, conventional jazz in the different idioms, starting in high school, actually. I've been playing quite a long time, since the invention of music (laughter). I think that's probably the first free improvisation that I actually got involved in, and I became more and more interested in extending it. And when I met the other guys for what became the CCMC we all shared this interest in trying to investigate totally free improvisation and so we started the CMMC. And I'm the only one left of the original group. Did you find you had to re-teach yourself on how to approach the music?

Snow: Oh yes. I'm self-taught originally, anyway: I didn't have any schooling [in jazz]. So what did you find you had to do?

Snow: All the idioms of jazz, starting in the beginning, were variations. I first started to be really interested in New Orleans jazz: the way jazz was actually first played. There were styles, but they were all involved in playing a tune, and then playing solos on the chord structure of that tune and on the melody, and then usually returning to playing the theme again. A lot of jazz performances are like that.

The improvisation part of it was sometimes in the ensemble playing in New Orleans jazz but also in the solos. But as the music evolved and went into its swing phase, it was still the same system of using the chord changes and the melody of a tune: strictly speaking, it was a kind of theme and variations situation.

But I … and I wasn't alone, there were quite a few people in the world who started to try to push improvisation in other directions and use other sources. I moved to New York in '62, I guess it was, and immediately came across some people who were free improvising and I listened and learned, so to speak, and got more and more involved in it myself, or at least in trying to find a personal method of improvising. And you actually had some improvisers provide a score for one of your films?

Snow: Yes, New York Eye and Ear Control, which I made in '64. It has an amazing soundtrack by Albert Ayler and Roswell Rudd and Don Cherry and Gary Peacock and Sonny Murray. It was a band that I chose: the trio of Albert and Sonny Murray and Gary Peacock existed: I heard them and then I added the other guys to it.

[Soundtrack at ] Did you give them any parameters to work with, or just asked them to...?

Snow: Their instructions were that it be totally free improvisation and as much ensemble playing as possible. Albert's tunes were very dominating, and I didn't want to make it a thing that would be built around his jazz. I wanted it to be as free as possible. What was the improv scene like in Canada when you returned to Toronto?

Snow: Before the Artists' Jazz Band there wasn't any. And the Artists' Jazz Band was not very public. Then when the CCMC started there was really no free improvisation in Toronto. Of course there were some good jazz musicians and there was jazz type improvisation: people like Archie Alleyne, they were all playing modern jazz, but there wasn't any completely open improvisation before the CCMC. So what was the reaction?

Snow: We started The Music Gallery in 1970-something, as a place to feature experimental music of all kinds but it also made a home, a concert hall for the CCMC. At first we played twice a week for a couple years, and then once a week for a pretty long time. The people that were in it came from various backgrounds: my background was jazz, but Casey Sokol is a classical pianist who became very interested in improvisation, and Al Mattes and a couple other guys had backgrounds in electronics and synthesizers. But we were all interested in improvisation, so it didn't start with an idiom of any kind. It started with, “What could be done with absolute improvisation.” What do you think was the long-term impact of the CCMC, in terms of getting more musicians in Toronto or Canada involved in free improv?

Snow: Yes, I think so, but it's not very publicly evident. For example, Casey Sokol teaches improvisation at York [University], and a lot of very good musicians have come out of his courses. But there's really no commercial existence for improvisation in Toronto. Free music never gets reviewed, and it's completely neglected, [although] there's a lot of very high musicians . Were there any groups that particularly influenced CCMC?

Snow: No, I don't think so. There really isn't. Aside from yourself, there's been a complete turnover in the membership of CCMC. How did the other members currently in it join the group?

Snow: [Saxophonist] John Oswald was part of The Music Gallery when it started, and he gravitated to … he was already a very, very original, experimental musician. And then eventually he joined.

The same thing happened with [vocalist] Paul Dutton. We used to have guests, of course; we'd play with all kinds of people. And sometimes it seemed that we would all agree that it would be nice to add that person to the ensemble, which is what happened with Paul. So it's been Paul and John and myself for quite a long time, at least 15 years. And [drummer] John Kamevaar plays with us sometimes too, who was also with the original band.

So it's gone through a certain number of fluctuations, but this trio has been in existence for quite a while: yes, it must be 15 years! Is it a coincidence that both you and John Oswald are also visual artists?

Snow: I guess it's a coincidence. He's recently become a visual artist, whereas I've been doing it for a long time. Yes, he does interesting things. Maybe it's the equivalent of the fact that I make music as well as I make visual art. I read in the interview you did with Jesse Stewart that you keep making music and making visual art completely separate. Is that still true?

Snow: Yes, they've always seemed to be completely separate. I have a video called Reverberillion which features shooting of the CCMC Trio and the music. Up until then, except for Eye and Ear Control, I didn't use my own music or improvised music at all in my films. When did you make that film?

Snow: Reverberillion is about three or four years old. It's based on – the sound is completely unedited – a long concert that we played in Berlin. And the images are all of the same group, but they're all from other concerts. There's a sort of play with juxtaposing: whether that sound that you hear is coming from that instrument, or whether it isn't. I don't know how to describe that, but it looks like a documentary, but it isn't. The sound is always from a different source. I read that originally CCMC played with a huge variety of instruments, but now you're stripped-down to just piano or synthesizer, saxophone, harmonica, voice. Is there some particular reason just to keep it to that?

Snow: [CCMC] started out with the philosophy of using any source at all, and played instruments that you can't necessarily play. I play guitar, but I don't know how to play the guitar. But I do play the guitar.

But, at any rate, originally we had kettledrums and we had two grand pianos, two Fender Rhodes electric pianos, and all different kinds of rhythm instruments. Each piece could be completely different depending on the instrumentation that developed. So that was part of the original aesthetic, was to use as wide a sound source, or have as wide sources available as possible. But then that was a little bit built on the fact that we had The Music Gallery, and all the instruments could be stored and could also be used for other concerts, like the tympani. Then we stopped playing at The Music Gallery, [so] that source or mine of instruments wasn't available anymore.

It wasn't any kind of sad decision; it just was moving in another direction anyway. Now it's Dutton using his voice, Oswald on sax, and me on synthesizer or piano. How did you meet [vocalist] Phil Minton?

Snow: We played together – a duet, actually – at one of the Images festival about two years ago, here in Toronto. I was asked to do something for the Images Festival, and I'd heard Phil and was knocked out by what he does. And somehow or other it was engineered and we played. I used my voice as well as the synthesizer with him. And Paul [Dutton] was in a group with Phil and a number of other vocal sound artists. They did a bit of a tour, and there's a CD out too of that group. So has CCMC proper played with Phil before?

Snow: No. So this Ottawa concert is the first time?

Snow: Yes. I'm really looking forward to it. He's really extraordinary. And having him and Dutton together should be pretty interesting. I was listening to a bit of his stuff, and he seems to be using an incredible ranges of textures and sounds …

Snow: He's fantastic. Dutton is good, too, but Phil is amazing. What features of the concert would you tell listeners to listen for?

Snow: Well, it's totally creative music. What you hear will never happen again. And it's really – this is funny advertising (laughing) – it will be as good as music can get, partly because of the fact that it is just happening right then and there, and won't ever happen again. Even if the same group came together again, the music would be different. So, I think listeners can feel and understand the in-the-now aspect of the music, and it's a very exciting thing. It's something that's in jazz in general, but in freely-improvised music, part of the excitement is that it's new to everybody, including the players. Do you have any start-off points that you might go from?

Snow: After playing improvised music for a long time, I always think of – and I think other people do – what are the possible combinations of this group? And sometimes it can be talked about to the extent of saying “Let's start with you two guys playing”, or something like that. But other than that, I think that you have to bear in mind that, for example, with this ensemble it will be very interesting to hear duets from the two vocal artists, and I will, in my position as a member of the ensemble, help to make that happen – steer it towards that. And it could be something that we agree to do, simply that Phil and Paul could start or something like that, and then the rest of us join in. That would be a very simple directive, but that would be the kind of thing we might do. How do you think CCMC fits into the current improvised jazz scene in Canada?

Snow: Well, we're very good (laughs). And also original. But I guess because of the fact that there's no paying audience or practically no paying audience, it never reaches a broader public. I was having a discussion with a friend of mine who isn't an improv fan. And my description of improvised music completely bounced off him: he didn't understand why you'd want it to be different each time.

Snow: That's an interesting thing. Live music is always a social occasion, and even if it's somebody that is playing Chopin or something like that, and there's a score, each time it's really is going to be different. And improvised music just makes that a factor in the music, that it's never been heard before.

That doesn't guarantee good music, but is the cause of a certain excitement that's involved in playing freely improvised music.

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