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or a transcript below
15 Questions to BrainsMarch 14th 2012, by Tobias Fischer
We’re in California, Drew is in San Diego and Chris is in Oakland.
What’s on your schedule right now?
Our new album, Unloaded, is going to be released this month and we have a CD release show on October 16th. We’re also working on another album as a trio with computer musician Alex Christie. In further news, Chris and his wife just had a baby girl and he plans to start a PhD program this fall.
How would you describe and rate the music scene of the city you are currently living in?
The scene in the Bay Area is very diverse and there is an inclusive atmosphere of cooperation amongst musicians. In terms of aesthetics, however, our influences come more from the music scenes in New York and Chicago as well as the European free improvisers.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions or influences?
Our backgrounds are quite different: Chris began playing drums at age ten and was into jazz for many years, listening to lots of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Drew started playing woodwinds at ten and was influenced heavily by Roscoe Mitchell and Iannis Xenakis.
What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?
For us as a group, a key moment was when we approached Roscoe Mitchell of the Art Ensemble of Chicago about coaching us as a duo. During those sessions Roscoe showed us the ways in which we can rehearse as a duo, identifying concrete elements in our music and demonstrating how we can apply a compositional framework to what we do. He also worked us pretty hard and didn’t pull any punches about things in our music that weren’t happening at the time.
Keith Rowe once asserted that it is often certain people that “give one permission to do things”. How was that for you – in which way did the work of particular artists before you “allow” you to take decisions which were vital for your creative development?
Peter Brötzmann is a huge influence on both us in the type of uncompromising approach he has to his music. We certainly encountered many detractors who didn’t like what we played because it was fast, loud, and often technically demanding. At times like that it’s good to look to musicians who came before us who faced similar obstacles and stayed true to the music they wanted to play.
Derek Bailey was also very important in terms of seeing someone radically redefine the language of their instrument. This inspired us to look at the ways we interact and get beyond the traditional roles of our instruments to create a new vocabulary as a duo.
What are currently your main artistic challenges?
Everything! There is always so much to practice and improve upon and the more we play together the more areas we find for exploration and development. We feel good about the artistic direction we’ve taken but we never want to get to a point where we’re being complacent. We feel that everything you do as a musician can always be refined further.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
Improvisation and composition are two different ways of approaching the organization and development of musical material. In both cases the same concerns are relevant, such as the material you are working with, how you choose to develop it, the use of dynamics, orchestration, etc. The difference is that with improvisation those decisions have to be made in the moment and with consideration given to the other musicians in the group.
Ultimately, however, improvisation and composition should be viewed as two ends of a spectrum rather than two opposing approaches. Improvisers utilize compositional elements and draw upon ideas they have practiced and refined, and composers often use improvisational processes when writing music.
How important are practising and instrumental technique for achieving your musical goals?
Very important. You want to be able to play what you hear in your head, and without technique it’s impossible to realize your musical ideas. With Brains we often push the limits of our capabilities on our instruments and our work requires us to develop and refine various technical aspects of our playing. We believe not only in individually practicing but also in practicing improvisation as a duo. Sometimes this means working on specific pieces and at other times playing exercises to hone a particular aspect of our playing.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance?
It’s a constant feedback loop where all of the factors influence each other. We pay a lot of attention to the space that we’re in and how it affects our sound and the things we play. You have to alter your approach constantly and respond to the venue and the atmosphere on a certain day, and that’s what keeps the music exciting and fresh.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
We like to work with thematic material that is clear and compelling. Often we’ll start from a very small fragment and build upon that slowly throughout an improvisation. As long as we’re both clear on what musical elements we’re working with, we have the freedom to transform those materials and take risks with them. The idea of searching is a bit problematic, we like to be sure of our material before we play a single note on our instruments. If you think about improvising in a group as a conversation, it’s not possible to communicate if you’re not sure about the topic being discussed. If you’re searching in an improvisation, you’re never going to be able to connect with other musicians in an interesting way.
Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?
Those are good rules to start with, but you need a lot more than that to make good music. It’s really critical in a group that you completely leave your ego behind and ask the question “what does the music need?” rather than “what do I want to play?” As the group size gets larger there is also less need to play constantly, so being selective about one’s material is crucial and making sure that what you play is needed in the music and not self-serving.
Some people see recording improvised music as a problem. Do you?
With improvised music more than other music there is lot that is lost in the recording process. It’s still necessary to record and document this music, but recording cannot substitute for what happens in a live performance in front of an audience and being part of a concert experience.
Music-sharing sites and -blogs as well as a flood of releases in general are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What's your view on the value of music today?
The value of music today is as high as ever, if you look at how much people are listening to music, how many albums they have in their collections, and concert attendance. That people aren’t paying for recorded music online shouldn’t surprise anyone as people will always choose the cheapest and fastest way of obtaining something, but the fact that they are downloading and listening shows that it has a value.
There is no question that digital music has given the listener many more choices than they had twenty years ago and made it easier to be exposed to many new forms of music. While someone living in New York or another big city would have always been exposed to many types of music, the kid growing up in the middle of Nebraska now has the same access to music from all over the world as anyone else, and that’s a very powerful thing. What are needed now are sites such as yours that can guide the listener through the vast amount of choices and increase the chances that they find something of quality.
Please recommend two artists to our readers which you feel deserve their attention.
Sophie Agnel is really amazing in that she’s been able to depart so radically from hundreds of years of tradition on the piano and make it sound like an entirely new and otherworldly instrument.
The microtonal improvisations of Joe Maneri are not to be missed under any circumstances. His utilization of the 72 note pitch continuum is hauntingly beautiful.
Brains (Accurate) 2010
Gristle and Skins (Edgetone) 2011
Unloaded (Edgetone) 2011