As a budding photographer, I was thrilled when guitarist Brandon Ross introduced me to Ralph Gibson through Facebook. It turned out that Ralph is not just a world renowned photographer, with work on display at the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the J. P. Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA, but also an avid guitarist, as interested in the future of the instrument as we are. He has published two books featuring the guitar, Light Strings and State of the Axe (with Andy Summers https://www.guitarmoderne.com/pioneer/the-andy-summers-interview). The latter could serve as an analog version of Guitar Moderne, with its photographs of and interviews with many of the same guitarists that appear here. The pictures in Gibson’s first book of photography, The Somnabulist, are like a dream, not necessarily linear, but very illuminating. Our conversation proved to be similar, wandering off on tangents, moving at oblique angles, but centered by a shared vision.
It was interesting going through State of the Axe because I’ve interviewed so many of those people myself. It was like visiting old friends.
What you are doing now is what State of the Axe did then. It would not be a relevant book now with the Internet—that’s what you’re delivering.
I think it was both prescient and still relevant. It was ahead of its time in that I’m finding interest in avant-garde guitar playing and avant-garde music in general has increased greatly in the last 10 years.
It’s about the definition of “a guitarist.” The limitations of the instrument are virtually nil. Many are using it as a signal generator, changing our current notions of virtuosity. You have played all your life, as have I, so you can run scales and modes, but there are guys who don’t work that way.
I have been surprised to find out how many people doing “noise” and other approaches that don’t have anything to do with standard guitar playing are, in fact, schooled guitarists, like yourself. They have studied jazz or classical and are thoroughly knowledgeable about their instrument, they have just chosen to move in this other direction.
As a photographer, I never wanted to make abstract photographs, but I also always wanted to photograph the abstract in things. I was never waiting for the “great event” to take a picture. I could take a picture of you on Skype right now and turn it into something if I really saw it clearly.
One of the chief characteristics of photography is its strong relationship to reality. I realized reality is to photography what melody is to music. I bounced that line off Philip Glass, and he said, “I could always do without melody, but I could never do without harmony.” Which was a really interesting answer.
In my compositions, I try to make abstract melodies, but I don’t want to go all the way over to complete noise. When I was working with Lou Reed, he was playing noise in his Metal Machine band. You go to the Stone for a noise concert and about every seven or eight minutes, something beautiful happens. They come together magically, like Butch Morris’s conductions. The rest of the time you’re just waiting, and it can be a very expensive wait. Have you ever experienced this?
I have, not with just noise, but with any free improvisation music. In those circles it’s sometimes considered part of the contract with the audience that you are there to witness them experimenting—succeeding and failing. But I find the best free improvisation doesn’t sound like experimenting, it sounds like music, like instant composition.
Returning for a moment to what you said earlier, if reality is to photography what melody is to music, what is harmony to photography?
That would be perspective. It is focal length, how you use the lens. If you look at my work as a photographer, you won’t able to tell what lens I used because there is never any distortion in my pictures. In the history of photography, more great photographs have been made with a Leica and a 50-millimeter lens, which is considered the normal lens for a 35-millimeter camera, a normal perspective. That’s not a wide lens; it is not a telephoto lens. It’s renaissance perspective, and it fits the frame.
I started shooting digital about four or five years ago. I had done a film with Lou Reed, Red Shirley, and Lou pulled me into the digital imaging world. Leica asked me to endorse a digital black and white camera, the Leica M Monochrom. I found that anything digital, be it music, communications, or finance, is compressed. That includes light and focal length. All my compositions are now done with a long, 135-millimeter lens and everything is compressed. The space and the light are compressed. You have no problem understanding compression of sound, we’ve got all kinds of compressors, in music, to prevent clipping at the high or low end, but to compress light is a radical idea. I did a TED talk where I discuss this at great length.
All these ideas came at me simultaneously while listening to great music, reading biographies of Webern and Schoenberg, taking pictures, making videos, and making music. I realized that we’re living in an accelerated time.
Let’s talk about the evolution of musical language. You could say to any cab driver, “Do you like Jackson Pollock’s painting?” And they’ll probably have an opinion because Pollock is not radical anymore. At the time, the “Rite of Spring,” Schoenberg and all the German guys were very radical. But it’s not so radical now; we can have an intelligent discussion on noise as a concept, or how we listen to noise. John Cage would be creaming if he heard this conversation: “At last, they understand.”
I saw Ornette Coleman in San Francisco back in the Eighties or early Nineties. During intermission, there were people hanging themselves from the ceiling with hooks through their flesh. Some people were outraged and left; most came back after the intermission. It occurred to me that, at one point, his music was having the same effect on people, but that wasn’t an issue anymore.
Sure. I heard Ornette in 1960. I was in art school in San Francisco. One of the students was a doorman at the Jazz Workshop and would let us in. I heard Don Cherry and Charlie Haden there around the same time. It was so frightening we wanted to hide under the table. We did not know what it was but we knew it was very strong and important.
I’ll tell you a story. In the Seventies, I had this really shitty, three-chord rock and roll band called Sex and Drugs, with Larry Clark, the filmmaker [Kids] and photographer [Tulsa]. We were living together. One time we see Ornette dancing to our music. We shut down the set. Ornette walks up to us and says, “You guys are sounding better.” Ten years later I’m sitting in Lucky Strike in New York and Ornette is there. Across the restaurant our eyes meet, he gets up, walks across the room and shakes my hand. The moral of this story is that maybe we didn’t sound that bad to Ornette.
He definitely hears things differently.
The most beautiful thing is that he got the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” the Guggenheim, and the President’s Medal. How did the establishment get the most radical dude in the world right?
It goes back to what I was saying before. It astounds me that enormously popular music right now can include artists as sophisticated as Bjork and Radiohead. It seems there is a shift in the zeitgeist. People are getting used to more and more radical sounds, and will accept them if presented in, for want of a better word, a musical way.
It’s exponential, music is really getting bigger, not smaller.
But more Balkanized. That’s one of the things that everyone’s dealing with when they say, “It’s hard to make a living playing music.” It’s not just because of all the distractions and people not paying; it’s also because there’s so much music, so many different kinds of music, that there isn’t much, what I would call, “water cooler music” anymore, where everybody agrees on an artist. When The Beatles came out everybody was into them, but now it’s divided up so finely it’s hard for any one genre, let alone one person, to become that kind of financially successful.
I know a lot of musicians who are having a hard time making a living. But more people are listening to more music than ever before. I think the answer is hanging in front of our nose somewhere, just like Über. That was an idea anybody could have thought of, but only those guys did. We’re going to see an answer to this problem before long. People are going to need the product, so somehow or other the musician is going to have to be paid.
Photographers are dealing with similar issues. These days everybody has a phone, so everybody’s a photographer. What’s your opinion about that?
In the Bauhaus in 1924, Moholy Nagy said the illiterate of the future would be somebody who did not know how to photograph—and he was talking about the wet dark room. Not even a hundred years later there is no longer any visual illiteracy in the world. However, the software that makes everybody visually literate also makes everybody’s pictures look exactly the same. This is the caveat when you’re posting 30,000,000 pictures a day on Instagram, or Facebook. It is just trash; it is just making me look better. I really believe that.
That’s interesting. I have a similar feeling about everybody making music now. I think it’s creating a more literate audience for music. The music school graduates and kids making beats are not all going to make a living making music, but they will all have a deep appreciation of what goes into making music. It’s similar to back in the days when every family had a piano in the parlor, and everybody played some, so they appreciated what went into making good music. By the late sixties and seventies that went away. There were fewer pianos in the parlor, and music was no longer taught as much in schools, so appreciation of what was good went down. Possibly the fact that everybody takes pictures now is making people appreciate good pictures more, because they know how hard it is.
Photography is big, but it’s small compared to music. Music is an integral part of every culture. If you play Bob Marley, no matter where you go, everybody is going to tap their toe. It’s the universal language. I cannot personally begin to understand or even come to an opinion about all of the musics of the world. It’s like Photoshop, it’s like anything, you just navigate your own personal path throughout this vast labyrinth.
I want to get into your work. You introduced yourself to me with the “Music for Lens and Guitar” video, which, for those who read this before checking it out, shows naked women from the neck down rotating and circling around each other. I found it matched up nicely with the looping nature of the piece, was that intentional?
Well, yes. My theory is that if you know how to photograph the figure and know how to photograph architecture, you can photograph anything in between. What you learn from those two subjects, you can apply to any other subject. I had all those girls at a photography workshop, and I had this piece, which I had done for a film. I knew was perfect for that video because it was so open ended, yet had a certain concrete quality. The problem I faced in that particular piece was I didn’t want the visual to be more important than the music, and I didn’t want the music to be more important than the visual.
If we talk about photography of the figure, and I say, shape, volumes, contours, shadows, perspectives, that all makes perfect sense. If I look at something I’m composing for the camera, I basically reduce it into shapes. Applying those same words to a musical construct, I hear my music as a bunch of shapes. Even though, in order to remember things, I write some phrases and chords down on the staff, I still hear music as shape.
I’m always trying to understand the relationship between my feelings for the visually abstract and my feelings for the aurally abstract. When working with my guitars, that’s what I’m doing. I’m constantly working on compositions. I make loops; if I like the loop I bring it into Logic and build up a piece that way. I have my pictures up in the wall and I look at them for months on end before I exhibit or publish them. I do the same thing with my loops and musical ideas. I make a phrase and eventually come to some form of emotional or intuitive understanding of what I’m doing. Nothing changes more than music, you can play something and listen to it a year later and how you respond is vastly different.
I’m working on my autobiography now. I’ve had a lifetime of professional introspection, trying to figure out what it is I’m doing. But if I knew what I was doing, I wouldn’t be doing it.
That is the classic artist situation, isn’t it? Getting back to that particular piece, the other thing that struck me was how the sensuality of the visuals was reflected in the music. I was curious about your thoughts about that, because sensuality is something I find missing from much of modern music.
Many years ago, I saw Death of a Salesman, Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, and Shakespeare, and realized that in theater, if the work was really dark and heavy, it functioned as art, while if it was upbeat and happy, it was a Broadway musical. I realized most of the music I was making was very dark—it still is. I struggle not to make dark music, but it’s hard to make something as serious, autonomous, and as exigent in upbeat work. When I did that video of those girls, I knew I had the perfect piece for it, and that the choreographic human quality would lighten the impact of the music somewhat.
There’s video of you doing your piece Ich Bin Die Nacht, which is dark but has jaunty Cabaret/Weimar style music.
We were going after that. I don’t know if you’ve been to Berlin, but you’re never far away from that Blue Angel feeling there. I had a commission to photograph in Berlin. I was getting more and more into music and wanted to make a video about my still photography and my music. That’s the first piece I made. I performed it in about eight countries. When I have exhibitions and workshops I often throw in a performance.
I was curious about your connection with Franz Kline, because in the video of your Burchfield Penny Art Center performance, you appear to be accompanying slides of Franz Kline paintings.
I had a show of the pictures from State of the Axe at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. They had that big Franz Kline painting. I always wanted to do something about Kline because the paintings are so fluid, you can follow them with a camera get the sense of motion that cinema or video calls for. That’s why I didn’t just shoot a bunch of stills of it.
I want to get into one more video that you did, New Surface2Surface. It seems to be about texture and juxtaposition.
Very much juxtaposition. That’s the longest and most complex video I’ve made. I’ve been reading a lot of Saussure on linguistics, and a lot of critical theory. I’m very interested in semiotics, and visual semiology is an area that informs me as a photographer—Why do we stop at red and go at green in almost every culture in the world; it’s almost as though you don’t have to teach that to a child.
When I put a picture of some fish over one of the forest, I’m triggering several references at the same time. When the eye sees forest, it doesn’t necessarily see fish. But if you put forest and fish together, what do the eyes see? And then if you put forest and fish and sound together, does the whole equal more than the sum of its parts? That gets me into a language I could not have accessed any other way.
There are some really interesting sounds on it. We were talking about gear a second ago, what do you use to shoot the videos and what are you using to create the music.
All of my videos are shot on a Leica, which has a video component to it. I’ve been working exclusively with Leica since 1961. The minute I had one in my hands I said, “This is like a Stradivarius; this camera can do anything I’m capable of asking it to do.” That eliminated that question. A lot of photographers get horribly smothered in gear, I call them photo weenies. And I never wanted to be a photo weeny.
As for my guitar, I’ve got 30 guitars. I’ve got a beautiful Gibson L5. But basically, I like playing the Klein. I just sold one, but I still have five Kleins. It seems to react to my thinking process more than other guitars. I find Les Pauls too heavy, arch tops too bulky, flat tops too stiff. I just love my Kleins. I am starting to get rid of guitars; I’m going to get it down to five or six. I gave a Gibson 125 to my assistant. He was broke and I said, “Just take that guitar and go sell it somewhere in the East Village and put the money in your pocket.”
Lou Reed told me to buy a Tone King amp, so I’ve got a Tone King, which I like a lot. I’m constantly messing with pedals. I never get to the end of my pedal sounds; about the time I start to understand what a pedal will do, something new comes around and I’ve moved on to another one.
I got this interesting new pedal, it’s called the Electro-Harmonix Super Ego. I wanted to have one chord fading out while another one was coming up. I can hit one chord and after the chord has resonated about 40% of its duration, and just before the attack fades, I very briefly touch the Super Ego. I can play another chord, and then turn that into the Super Ego chord; it’s an interesting effect. I love the technology of today because it’s all very positive and upbeat in terms of what I’m trying to do as a musician.
Another thing is that if I play guitar for one hour, for the first 59 minutes it doesn’t sound very good. At 61 minutes, I start to get that sweet spot where I’m squeezing the left hand very softly and the notes get clearer. I only get close to the tone I’m looking for after I play for an hour or so. I play finger style because I was a classical guy as a kid.
I perform once or twice a year when I get a gig somewhere. I’ve played the Stone, Roulette, and places like that. I project a video and then loop live in front of the video. The few times a year I perform, if I’m going to go up there ready to play a one hour performance, I have to practice for two days, pretty much all day. Very early on, I did a performance in Spain with my projections and it hadn’t occurred to me that when the projector went on, the house lights would go off. The first time I ever played, I was completely in the dark. I hadn’t prepared for that.
You said once you found the Leica you could stop looking for a camera. And you recommended that I get a 50-millimeter lens and work with that exclusively for two years. Many people would say you should find a pedal or two and work with them until you can wring everything out of them. But your process seems more about moving from sound to sound.
I can tell you why. I played classical as a kid and in the Navy, then I played three-chord rock and roll, but I always knew someday I was going to get serious. In my fifties, I took ten years of theory and harmony lessons, with Brandon Ross. It was like the door to Fort Knox opened. All of a sudden I had the foundation to voice all these ideas that had been building up in me for decades.
I learned how to start making compositions, but I didn’t know how to orchestrate the sounds I was reaching for emotionally. I immediately availed myself of every kind of pedal currently offered. I was the perfect consumer for the manufacturer because I was looking for something and didn’t know what. As my compositional skills became more precisely focused and I started to understand what it was I was trying to do, I started eliminating a lot of stuff.
In art you never know what you’re looking for until you find it. Once you have it, it seems so simple. This leads me to an idea that I’d had hoped to mention in the course of our conversation. There’s a lot of dissonant, atonal music that I like more in theory than in fact—and I play a lot of noise and free improv myself. It’s extremely demanding to listen to, but is very important in terms of driving the culture, extending the definition, enhancing the overall proportion. When you go to different cultures you often realize it’s the theory behind the fact that makes the greatest contribution. This is really true of architecture because you can’t build everything, it costs so much money.
I’m involved in critical theory because of the sociopolitical component of culture. There’s a PhD to be written examining noise, dissonance, atonality and the socioeconomic situation of the musician today. You cannot separate the direction music is going aurally from the way it is going financially. So many people are listening to music now and not paying for it, but if this many people were listening to music in the days of CDs, you would have needed a Tower Records on every street corner.
This brings us to what we call delivery systems. You and I are participating in a delivery system right now. I consider my music, my videos, my books, all part of a totality, which I call the delivery system. This is why I wanted to be on your site. I wanted to use the delivery system you are using to talk about the delivery system. How music is disseminated is the same thing as saying what the music is. This is a McLuhan idea.
“The medium as the message.” I buy into all of that to a degree. I think it’s valid and inescapable. I was just having this discussion with my wife the other day: How important is it that art be of its time; that it be an antenna to delineate what’s going around?
How can it not be? It just is.
My contention was just that: if it’s serious art it has to be. But getting back to what you were saying, there’s art that is for consumption, that may move you emotionally and stimulate you, and on the other end there are systems being developed, music that, like conceptual art, can be more interesting in the concept than the execution.
Right. For example, you have only once, used the term “pop music” and I have not used it at all. I don’t even know what’s going on in pop music. I don’t listen to it, it’s all I can do to keep with the stuff that interests me. I have come to one conclusion: the intelligence that attracts me the most is more and more lodged in contemporary classical music. It has all the architecture, skronk, abstraction, and intelligence I’m going after.
That brings me to a question. It seems there’s a lot of composition in your performances, but also some improvisation. Is there a ratio there? Is it all composed?
It’s very composed and rehearsed, but if I’m confident I’ve created the proper proscenium, if I feel that I’ve delivered what it is I’m attempting to do, then I will break my own rules. By and large, I’m unsuccessful because even the guys who are playing free are playing the stuff they practiced. Brandon Ross said it very clearly, “You can only play what you know how to play.”
Do you think it relates to the fact that your command of the camera is one thing, because you’ve done it every day of your life for many years, while though you have studied the guitar, you don’t perform every single day. Do you think if you played out more often, those improvisations would be successful more often?
I just don’t think that I’m that compelled to improvise. My photographs are very precisely structured, and I’m interested in structure. It just happens the musical structure I am most drawn towards sounds dissonant and atonal, which tends to categorize it as improv or industrial. I’m interested in that vocabulary of sounds, but not terribly drawn towards improv just because it’s improv. I have nothing against the people who do it. I listen to it, and I like people who are doing it. Brandon Ross’ band, Harriet Tubman is playing tonight, and even though they’re improvising a lot, I’ll recognize the tunes they’re playing.
Apropos of your interest in modern classical composition and modern improvisation, there used to be a band in San Francisco called Tin Hat Trio.
Oh sure, I know about them, absolutely.
I used to go see them all the time, and they were such amazing musicians they could improvise and you could rarely tell when the composition ended and the improvising began. That is a standard to which I hold myself and other performers in that genre. I feel that whether it’s composed or improvised it should have “internal logic.” If the internal logic in an improvisation is strong enough, you can go anywhere and take the audience with you.
That’s a good observation. I’m on YouTube every night listening to some guy do something, and talk about how they do it. What’s so beautiful about music is that everybody is looking for something, and the minute they find it they think, “That wasn’t what I was looking for.” And they start to search again.
A perfect example [of the opposite] is white guys playing the blues. They basically play licks, so you recognize the same pentatonic licks that everybody hits. Even Johnny Winter, or Stevie Ray Vaughan play the same licks, they just play them faster. But if you listen to the first generation, the Black guys, those aren’t licks.
They were inventing those parts. That’s the way I feel about bebop. I can’t listen to young guys playing bebop, because it sounds like licks they learned in music school, whereas, I was in a record store once when they were playing some bebop piano I really liked, and of course I found out it was one of the progenitors.
It’s always the first generation for everything. There are artists who work many years, take quantum leaps, and announce their theme. Derek Bailey would be a perfect example, or John Coltrane. Then there are artists who perform variations on other artist’s themes, and that’s your second-generation player.
There are photographers whose work you recognize immediately from across the parking lot, you don’t have to look at their byline. It’s called a visual signature. Photographers who have a visual signature know they do, and they know when somebody else is coming to them looking for approval by showing them a variation of that visual signature.
But culture, in the broadest social anthropological use of the word, is not about first generations. Culture is more about the variation on the theme. This is the first time I realized that, but it’s true.
It is true if you’re talking about mass culture, absolutely. First generation things eventually work their way into mass culture through the second and third generations. If enough people start copying Coltrane, or Ornette Coleman it becomes familiar, and all of a sudden it becomes part of the mass culture.
For me, music is like making love, like having sex. It’s a very personal thing that everybody does. Almost everybody has a relationship to music. You and I are so-called insiders, but we’re no different than anyone else who loves music on one level or another. That’s why I admire the giants, but I also understand they are just benchmarks along the way.
Getting back to the first generation thing, I’m curious what you think about the fact that at the same time someone like Coltrane came up there were plenty of second generation Charlie Parkers around, and second generation Dexter Gordons. What do you think makes somebody become a first generation artist—find that thing in themselves that separates them?
I could answer it very clearly in photography. Behind me is a signed, dedicated copy of the guy jumping over the puddle by Cartier Bresson. I was friends with Henri. As a young photographer, I would look at a photograph and it would give me a tremendous emotion, and I’d walk down the street and I would see something that would give me a strong emotion, and would take a picture. I’d realize later I’m responding to something in the picture I took that was similar to the picture I had originally admired—what we’ll call the first generation picture.
I became assistant at age 21 to Dorothea Lange, a very great photographer of her time, and then came to New York and became assistant to Robert Frank, so I worked with two very important visionaries. The only thing they taught me, and it’s a big part of American culture, was, “You must be original.”
If you go to the Louvre, you’ll see people sitting in front of the Mona Lisa copying her. Old cultures of Europe keep the culture alive by reproducing it, replicating it in many fashions and many areas, food, wine, fashion, music, etc. They celebrate the culture in, of, for, and by itself, and that’s how they teach.
America’s 200 years old; we ain’t got no culture. What we have is velocity and originality. The American dream included being original. We love originals in America, because we have no classical history, unless we go back to Europe. So if you look at the new world, South America, Australia, Canada there’s a lot original stuff. This is essentially what I’m talking about. We are a culture of originators, we are not a second-generation culture by nature.
What do you think makes someone become a John Coltrane, or become a Derek Bailey? As opposed to becoming a second-rate version of them.
They have no choice. The reason I have what I have in photography was that I was never satisfied performing variations on other people’s themes. And I brought the same attitude to music. The only thing I’ll play that isn’t my own music is occasional bossa nova classics with my wife, who’s a flutist and loves Brazilian music. I can hit the II, V, I chords behind her, though I find the rhythm difficult to master. I’m really, only interested in my own music, because it’s just me and it. And I’m really only interested in my own photographs.
What makes someone that way is probably different for every person. It’s really interesting when you see Derek Bailey play his big band standards. You can see the guy knew it all and left it behind, in disgust and dissatisfaction. I think the key word is satisfaction. I know people who just want to play like Johnny Cash, and you can go to country and western bars where they’re just playing the standards and everybody’s having a good old time. That just doesn’t give me a good time.
You were saying you would see something and realize you were photographing it in a way from a picture you’ve seen before. I’m curious how you made the leap to originality. Was it a process of attrition, of eliminating everything that might look like something else?
Well, no. I can answer it. I was in New York and already in Magnum at age 27, as a photojournalist, but I wasn’t getting off on the pictures. I was living at the Chelsea Hotel, staying up later, and sleeping later and later. I was listening to Villa-Lobos, and playing his 12 etudes for the right hand. I was reading Borges, and drawing closer to something personal in myself. Borges and Villa-Lobos took me to those kinds of sounds.
If you’re lucky, you get in touch with your inner needs, your inner sounds, your inner vision. This is what a professional artist does, it takes a long time. My first book was called The Somnambulist, it’s about a dream. I was 30 years old, two of my three Leicas were in the pawnshop, and I owed nine months rent at the Chelsea. The Somnambulist came out and three months later I had my reputation. It was in the very small field of art photography, but I was established. The one time I held out for total satisfaction as an artist was when I did The Somnambulist, and it brought me recognition. I was very fortunate to have undergone that experience.
I thought it took a lot of courage, but the people with real courage are those who continue working without that recognition. All I need is the courage to go into areas that I’m unfamiliar with, but I’m so used to being in over my head that it’s my normal dimension. If I’m not in over my head, I’m faking it. I believe any artist who knows what he’s doing is a fraud. This is why I don’t like guys who play blues licks over and over again and take bows.
I did a book called Political Abstraction last year, which I’m going to send to you. I traveled the world, and came back with pictures that look like I took them outside my front door in Manhattan, because I’m so shaped by my culture that it is now how I’m examining what I’m seeing. When I question what it is I’m doing, it is now through the matrix of, “Am I a product of Western civilization, globalization, and America?” What exactly are the shapes, and the motions, and the forms that have created my aesthetic.
Do you think it’s getting harder in photography, and music, and everywhere, to develop something new because of the burden of history, and the availability of everything that ever was?
Probably, but that’s no excuse. The history of art makes it abundantly clear that it’s impossible to be a great artist, but there are exceptions to the rule. In my bio I wrote, “All my artists friends think we’re better than we are, but that’s the only way to get better.”
What I love about music so much is that it is so amorphous, and so abstract, but at the same time the emotion is so powerful that it’s as concrete as a bullet. It pierces you so deeply. In my case, music takes me to places in my mind. All art does, but music has its own special place that I can only access with the music. When I occasionally create some of my own music and it takes me there, it’s more than worth the work, the effort involved. You probably feel that way too, right?
I think any artist feels that way about whatever they create. On one end, you’re never completely satisfied, but I also wonder about people who say they’re never satisfied at all. At some point you have to hit upon something where you can feel, “This is what I was going for.” That’s what encourages us to keep going. I have heard Pat Metheny say if he plays five minutes of something that sounds like real music in the course of a concert, he’s happy. You realize if he’s only happy with five minutes, it’s okay that I’m not happy a good deal of the time. But he is actually happy for those five minutes; you do have to recognize that point where you actually hit on something.
That’s true too. One of the things we haven’t touched on is that music is a performing art, which by and large needs a correspondent. I know the difference between playing for myself and playing my rare gigs.
I do a tremendous amount of public speaking. I’m constantly flying around somewhere, getting invited to give a talk, I use it as a way of photographing foreign places. I always carry my guitar. In my rider, I require an amp in my hotel room. It’s really easy to get amps, they’re everywhere. Everybody knows somebody with an amp.
Speaking of performance brings me to another question. I noticed in one of the videos, in addition to guitar, you play harmonica, you play electronic noise, do some vocalizations, and even perform dance-like movement.
That’s improvisation; it just comes over me. I started moving in the midst of a performance of Ich bin die Nacht and I always throw in a little bit of that when it dawns on me, it’s never planned. The number one preoccupation in music is how to create it. But once you know how to make something, the next question is how does it feel to be perceiving it. I’m very interested, as a correspondent of my own sound, how I perceive what it is I have made, or am making, coming out of my fingers.
Marc Ducret said the best thing to me: “Man, just let your fingers do it.” He is a monster player who just lets his hands do the moving. The only time I ever get anywhere with improvising is to not think about it and just let the hand move. I get a phrase and will then attempt to build a piece on it. But as you said, if I were playing out all the time I’d just let the hand go and see where it went. You have to be playing several hours a day to where all of a sudden you’re just listening to what your hand is doing.
And you have to be playing out a lot, because you can play all you want at home, but the minute you hit that stage all bets are off.
You can argue that you play better in public because you’re getting the energy from the audience. When I give my speeches and they clap, I come up with better ideas really quickly, ideas that I did not have, just based on the energy of correspondence.
What are you going to do with all this? Is this recorded?
It’s all recorded. I’m going to have it transcribed and I’m going to post it.