by Luke Harley,

May 2008

For more than three decades Larry Ochs has been a key figure in the Bay Area experimental music scene, having worked with bands such as the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Maybe Monday, Room, What We Live, and the Glenn Spearman Double Trio. This interview was conducted at his home in Berkeley, California, a day before he was to perform with the Rova/Nels Cline Celestial Septet at Yoshi's San Francisco. Larry had been working on some Albert Ayler-inspired compositions, but took time out to speak to me while his wife, poet and academic Lyn Hejinian, tended to the grandchildren in the room next door.

Have you done much collaborating with Lyn over the years?

Only once, and that was a while ago, in 1976. It was fine, considering when it was done and who was doing it and what we knew and didn't know. We created extended pieces consisting of many sections. Are you familiar with early Art Ensemble of Chicago music? They used to do these extended pieces that seemed to have this dreamy architecture, a story thing that would start with sounds and small instruments, and then there would be a tune and then there would be drums. Very lazy or relaxed, like a landscape. So we did this long piece where we used bells, clappers, and bark sticks that we'd made for hand percussion. I was playing tenor sax mostly, with Robbie Yohai on electric guitar, Lyn had some writing to go with it, and there was another woman, Debra Fine [now fashion designer Debra McGuire], singing and reciting with her. All four of us lived in Mendocino County, but north of Willits, not on the ritzy and better known Mendocino coast; out in the sticks. We called ourselves Northern Fictions Consort. We did take it seriously; we rehearsed, and did a couple of performances. We did one at the Blue Dolphin in San Francisco that Jon Raskin thought was great. He said it really impressed him at the time. I enjoyed the process of working up the material, but this was "early work", and I'm glad there are no recordings. If it was 2009 this group would have a DVD or two on YouTube and two recordings out... which no one needs to see. But now I'm veering towards a touchy subject.

What motivated you to do it?

Well, we were living up there in owner-built cabins/homes and built our own studio, trying to run it off windmill-generated electricity – the windmill imported by the way from Australia – and we were experimenting, with life as well as with music and poetry. I think Lyn just said, let's try something out. Robbie and I also did pieces with Lyn's brother, Doug Hall, and his partner Jody [Proctor]. Jody was also living up there at the time. They were conceptual artists. We did at least one piece where they did a rap, simultaneous spontaneous monologues, and the two of us did music around that. Lyn was also involved. We were just experimenting, just figuring things out – seeing what worked and what didn't. At the time it was cool. I don't think I was even thinking about it as something major. It was what it was: 70s experimentation. You know it's hard for me to even think back that far.
Lyn and I came to the conclusion that basically the words and music thing was ninety per cent miss and ten per cent hit. When it missed it was awful, and when it hit it was OK. I'm not talking about singer-songwriters or rock music – that's another thing. But when you're starting to talk about poetry and jazz, or poetry and improvisation, it's just not my thing. I think they take away from each other. The music forces us – it's too strong.
I pretty much feel this way about dance and music too. For the most part, music colors dance too much. It's too powerful, and completely boxes in the meaning of what the dancers are doing. I suppose that's what most dancers want, but as an audience member, it's not what I want. Don't get me wrong, if somebody wants to pay me to write music for their dance, I'll go out there and try to make it work – I do love the challenge. But I have a very fundamental question about it. I didn't do it for a long time because of that – it was eighteen years between one piece and the next one.
It's the same thing with [Stan] Brakhage's films. I think he's totally right not to have music scores for his films. I just feel that, you know, ask yourself the question when you watch a film, and turn the sound off – of course a lot of films have talking and so you're missing that too – but if you were to put up subtitles and turn the sound off, well, wow, things change. That's the function of "film music" – in the sense when you put quotes around "film music" – to frame the picture so that the audience knows what's coming. It's unusual when it's used any other way. When it is used other ways it's really interesting for somebody like me, but that's not what most people are looking for. They're looking for the dun-dun-dun-daaaah (sings opening to Beethoven's Symphony No 5) – "danger" time, and action music and music for dark rooms and shit like that. That's the way it is, and that's fine.

Why is music so powerful and why does it overwhelm the other art forms?

What I'm really talking about is the fact that there are conventions in most music, and everybody knows them. Although I do a lot of music that does play around with conventions, I like music a lot better when you can hear it more than one way, and it works – the logic is there, there are more ways to make sense of it. That's one of the cool things about music without words – there are many possibilities. So if you put music as a background for something as abstract as dance... well, dance is an abstract art. What makes it interesting for me is the multiplicity of possible meanings, or the way you can see it in many ways.
But I think most dancers like having programmatic music behind their dance because that way the audience is more comfortable. There's a meaning to their work. Whereas if you take somebody like Merce Cunningham, who for years used John Cage, they just went at it. There wasn't any definite way to take it. Music and dance were both abstract. The frame was just much more nebulous. That made things really interesting – as opposed to going to see another avant-garde dancer using Country and Western music. If you hear Country and Western music, it just puts it somewhere. Why do that? Why work in an art form that's so open with possibilities, and then hire somebody to compose Country and Western music music for your work? It doesn't make sense.
Film music is different because it's actually being functional. Films are made to sell to a lot of people; you're trying to get a lot of people into a multiplex. So the music made is just about scaring them, or making them excited, or getting them involved in the action, love or drama, or whatever. Music's got to help that happen, and it's very good at doing that. It's very powerful. It's pre-packaged – people understand what it is within three seconds of it starting. You know where it's going, it takes you right in to where the filmmaker wants it to go. But when you think of someone like Brakhage who's really using film as an art form, not as something to sell or something with which to make a story, then the idea of having something loud, or anything conventional… you can see why he didn't want to use sound, and especially Beethoven, or anything like that. It's conditioned. You're conditioned to it in some way, so it closes down the way you look at the product.

Poetry can be abstract as well, and open up a range of meanings.

Absolutely. But when I think about Lyn's side of the poetry world, where it's wide open, it's hard enough just to be there with that. If you've suddenly got all kinds of other input at the same time, I think it's just going to drown it out. It's hard to make sense of both music and poetry at the same time. If they're working together, something's getting flattened out, something's becoming easier to understand when it probably shouldn't be.

Amiri Baraka is one of the people who's done quite a bit in terms of language and music, poetry and improvised music communion. He's of the view that music can actually bring out language, expand the meaning of words, if the musicians are skilled enough to do so.

Yeah, I'm not saying it's not possible. I'm just saying it's less likely, in my opinion, to be effective. When I think of Baraka and his stuff, which is so infused with social and political context, it makes more sense to me, because you can find music that speaks to that. I'm talking about a completely open-ended experience where the words are as allusive as what the Language poets put together. Roscoe [Mitchell] might work great with that, because his stuff can get so abstract. But it would be an accident, in my opinion. If it worked, it wouldn't work the next time. It's not that I wouldn't be into trying, but it's not something I would initiate. It's hard enough making things work, so why walk into a situation where you just think you're going to be fighting uphill the whole time?

So that old Mingus example, "Fables of Faubus", about Governor Faubus of Arkansas…

I don't have any problem with that. It's a great record. But that's different, I feel. But maybe I would say that, in that case, it's always most effective when the message and the music are really part of who you are, as opposed to, for example, somebody from a wealthy suburb becoming politically conscious and feeling that they want to be part of something. It's got to be inside you. All that stuff's OK and can work, it's just a question of who's doing it and why. Personally speaking, it's not for me in that direct way. I see all of my music as politically relevant, but it's more of a "conceptual" politicization.

Charles Lloyd once said, talking about music, 'Words don't go there'. (1) It's a quote Nathaniel Mackey – whom you know personally – has pulled out and riffed upon in his fictional work Atet A.D. (2) What are your thoughts on that? Is there something about music that is simply beyond the capacities of linguistic expression?

I would say that it's possible to talk it through, to try and get at it. We can talk about it until we're blue in the face. And I'm sure it helps. But the magic behind it is – yes, it's prelingual. In the end you really are trying to get at something that you really can't talk about. You can try and talk at it, around it, but in the end there is some real magic, some kind of connectivity that happens between the musician and that space up there. It works or it doesn't.

So when it works, is that some sort of ecstatic experience? How do you know when it's working? Because there must be a lot of times when it's flat, and then suddenly…

Yeah, the more you are in this world where you're trying to get something, to make it happen, the easier it is to know when it is happening. That's interesting. But at the same time, the more you've heard, and the more you've done, maybe it gets a little bit harder to feel like you've got it going for very long. Because you're not going to be surprised as much as you continue on the quest. Things that used to surprise you, you used to think "that's it" – you realize that that's not it. It's OK, but it's not it. At the same time, the more I get to perform, the more likely it is that some of that magic is going to happen every time. It depends on who I'm playing with.
We had this Electric Ascension (3) project, and we flew thirteen or fourteen people to Portugal, very stressed out, wondering if it was going to really work, even in terms of the flights. The people running the festival seemed very nice, but we'd never worked with them, and the run-up to the festival was crazy, so leading in we didn't trust these guys running the show – they seemed like they were going to blow the whole thing. We got out there and it was outdoors, and there was a lot of wind, at the soundcheck you couldn't hear anybody, I was burned out just from the anticipatory stress and flying there, and jet-lagged – everything was wrong. I walked off the soundcheck and I said, fuck it, it will just be what it is, let's just do the best we can. Four minutes after we started the performance, the thing took off and it never came down.
There's a certain seriousness of attitude and people being experienced and knowing how to make things work. But again, I'm trying to explain something that isn't really verbally possible. It's like you practise and work on the shit and just think about it, you're thinking about it. And at a certain point, if you're lucky enough, you get into situations where you take off, where you lift off. It's really the best word for it. Who can explain that? I can't explain it to you. You practise and you do all this shit and then you get out there and great music happens. Remember I'm not saying I'm playing a great solo – that's a whole other story. I'm just saying, did the music happen? There's plenty of really good performances and then there are these ones that are just like, wow. Everything that happens, in terms of the whole fabric, is just great – and you don't know why.

Which concerts or recordings would you single out?

Well, the one that I would single out is Electric Ascension (Atavistic, 2003). The album that's actually out is from the premiere, which was before the Portugal festival. I single it out because unlike many other great shows I remember, it's there, it's available. But what I was able to do while preparing to mix the show to CD was to dig into that live tape recording. It was recorded in multi-track, so I was able to emphasize certain things over others. Because when you're part of an audience at a show listening your experience is three-dimensional. You pick what you're going to listen to. You look at somebody and you say, wow, look what he or she is doing right now. When you're listening to a CD you don't have any visual. So the CD listener needs some help. Somebody has to point the listener towards what you're supposed to listen to, because it could be anywhere out there in the music. Because I was in the show, and because I knew that a collective magnificence had happened, I would go into certain three/four minute sections of that piece, and even if I couldn't remember how it had been that night, I would move things around in the balance/mix until it was smoking. Because I knew it was there. Whereas other times maybe you only record in stereo, so there's no mixing possible. Or you don't remember it exactly. Or you're not doing it – somebody else is producing the CD. Or it wasn't recorded at all. This was just a fortunate situation where everything worked out right.
The CD that I put out myself in 2005 [The Mirror World – for Stan Brakhage (Metalanguage)] is pretty great too. That was a really nice performance night. I knew there was a lot of great music making there, and I went in to the studio and really excavated the recording, sculpted the sound, in a sense – again – directing the listener by deciding what they would hear or the hierarchy of the hearing, and the response has been great in terms of the final mix.

I wanted to ask you about Glenn Spearman – could you talk about your artistic and personal relationship with him?

I guess I met Glenn sometime in the late 80s. I'm not sure exactly when. We started talking about playing together, and eventually we did. I guess the first concert was 1991. Might have been '90. I don't think it was before that. I was part of this group called Room, which was saxophone and percussion (William Winant in his first improvising band), with Chris Brown on keyboards and electronics. Sometimes we had Scot Gresham-Lancaster who sat out in the audience controlling the electronics and stuff. And Glenn had a trio. So we put the two trios together and had this Double Trio. We just thought it was going to be a free-jazz fun bash. We didn't really take it very seriously – I mean we took it seriously in that we wanted it to sound good: we were playing in San Francisco's Great American Music Hall so it wasn't like we were just going to go and fuck around! – but it was just going to be a thing, a one-night stand. Again, it was another example of my own hubris or my own not understanding the depth of some of these people's music, or this part of the music world, this free jazz thing. We learned that Glenn had real depth to his music, structurally interesting things going on that we wanted to delve into more. So the Double Trio became a working band for seven or eight years. We did four CDs together, a bunch of touring in Europe – not as much as Glenn or I would have liked, but some – and some performances in North America.
Glenn lived here in the Bay Area, and I would see him periodically. I wouldn't say we hung out a lot – outside of music I mean – but we did hang out some. He had the drug problem, which definitely colored things, but he never acted like a junkie or had any real problems around it. (For me, who was never into that kind of thing, I could never tell when he was strung out or when he wasn't. Even when the cancer was getting him, I thought he was just losing weight – we hadn't been told anything at that point – I thought, man, this guy looks really good, he's slimming down!) Working with him was frustrating at times because of that. He would get sick sometimes in the middle of a tour, and the tour would get fucked up because he was not one hundred per cent. But for the most part it was great, and I learned a lot playing his music. It definitely set me off in other directions that I am still investigating. It wasn't exactly my space at the time, but it was definitely a space I wanted to be part of. I wrote some music for that group that I really liked.

I was going to ask you about the differences between structured improvisation and free jazz, because you've written a little about if before.

Well first of all, if you're thinking about the conventions of free jazz, it really has at this point become a defined zone, the way that bebop or dixieland have become defined zones. But it would also depend who you're talking to, because there's more than one way to define free jazz. The convention is, I think, that there may be a written head or something discussed about how we're going to start the piece which is used as a jumping off point. And then everyone in the group – smaller ensembles, five, six or less, two three four five six – they play. When they're playing, everyone's playing together, they're listening, and the listening is serious. But ultimately it's very much about you doing your thing in the context of the group. It may not be swinging in the context of bebop but it's coming out of that and there's a definite energy and sound to it that you would recognize from recording to recording or live performance to live performance. That's it really. Which is fine – there's a ton of great music. A ton.
Now: free jazz could be thought of as a form of structured improvisation. What I'm talking about is a situation that doesn't necessarily sound like jazz or free jazz at all. Structured improvisation can go anywhere, incorporate ideas from any style of music, but it should be more specifically defined by whoever is organizing the piece for a band, or the piece that the band's about to play. It can incorporate aspects of free jazz but it can also involve any other forms or rules or whatever else you want. I don't ever want to suggest that it's better – it's not about better or worse – it's just another way. Maybe a later way. In other words, if a free jazz group said, OK, we're going to start off with this head, and then we're going to blow. And then right here, when I get to this cue, we're going to go into a sound form where we're just playing a texture – well now, I think you've moved away from the free jazz form and into structured improvisation. Because it's not to do only with what you feel and how you hear the music. Once one person/composer begins imposing preconceived sound events on a free jazz structure, then the piece moves from being purely free jazz to structured improvisation.
To me that's the limit of free jazz – it's very much an individual music played in groups so that there's more color. For example, if you're in Cecil Taylor's group, the music isn't going to be William Parker's – it's going to be Cecil's music and William's playing Cecil's music. But it's got a way, and it's going to go that way for an hour or an hour and a half. Sometimes people drop out, sometimes they don't, but when they're in, they'll be playing themselves inside the context of Cecil's music. Which is kind of what jazz is about. I mean jazz as a form is taking either a known piece of music and using the chord changes to create a structure over which the musician improvises – he or she puts themselves in this music – or it's somebody's original composition over which the musician improvises. Free jazz is almost without exception somebody's composition, but the form is this flow. There's a flow. And the flow happens in all free jazz. It's about energy propulsion, taking the music out, and that's where it goes for the most part. If, all of a sudden, other things happen, then it's structured improvisation. I'd say Cecil Taylor's early music certainly is jazz-influenced, but you could also say it's structured improvisation because there's written stuff all through it. Then they do some solos and various things happen. Whereas later it's really just the flow. To me that's what free jazz really is, and really he's one of the first guys. Or if you think of the Evan Parker Trio, that's free jazz, even though he's way far away from what Cecil does. It's very tight, they're really listening, they're totally into it. But it's still about flow.

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