Questionnaire: Howard Stelzer (2007)
1. Have you got any formal musical training, and what do you draw from it now?
When I was in middle school (14 years old or so) and high school, I used to play tuba and bass guitar, but neither one particularly well. I dabbled in trombone and baritone horn, but knew even less about how to make them do anything useful. My dad was a trombone player when he was young, so his horm was around the house while I was growing up. I thought of it more as a toy than as an instrument, which is a healthy way to think abut it, I suppose. I have also played drums for a few unfortunate rock bands, not that playing them has increased my ability in any measuarble way. I don’t think I draw much from any of this experience other than that I’ve attempted to play music for some time, and only succeeded once I stopped using a conventional instrument.
2. What kind of equipment/instrument do you use, and what is you relationship towards it? What do you think lies behind your choice of the equipment/instrument?
I mostly use cassette tapes as my instruments, but also cassette players (walkmans and other hand-held and portable varieties), a standard vocal microphone, a few effect pedals (distortion, which I use to give some gain to the mic, and a delay pedal, which I use sparingly), sometimes a plastic horn that I bought on New Year’s Eve last year, and now a small synthesizer or two (one made by Shawn Royal and one by Jessica Rylan). Tapes, however, are the focus of all of my music, generally with 3 to 5 tape players used at a time.
My relationship with tapes is mixed; because I’ve been focusing on them for more than ten years, I sometimes feel very frustrated and limited by the narrow range of possible sounds that tapes can be goaded into producing. But it’s usually just when I’m sick of banging my head against this particular wall and want to throw tapes away for good, that an idea appears and I find something new to say. Those moments are fantastic.
As for what lies behind my choice of tapes as an instrument… well, there are a few things I could mention. One is that I like how cheap and disposable cassette tapes are. I can abuse them until they break, then throw them out and get new ones. I don’t have to worry to much about how I store them, because they aren’t precious. If they get eaten by a tape deck, I don’t care. Tapes were easy for me to experiment with when I was young, so my initial excursions into abstract music were done by recording sounds onto tape and observing how the medium changed what I was trying to capture. Another thing that I quite like is that the cassette tape is a loaded object within experimental-type music… it has its historical place in mail art, cassette culture, the birth of home studios and independant music publication and distribution. I also just enjoy the sounds of warbling tape.
3. What is it that attracts you towards musical experimentation?
Not sure really… I just like music, and this is the music that seems natural for me to make. I’m also a big collector of records, tapes, CDs, so I love it all. Not just improvised music, but also noise, musique concrete, post-punk, synth music, whatever.
4. Why are you involved in improvisation, and how do you perceive it?
Improvisation is, for me, simply a strategy for composition. Ideally, I don’t think it should matter if music is composed in advance or on the spot, as far as what the result is. But I’m involved in improvisation for a few reasons. First of all, I was very much influenced by the friends I made when I moved to Boston back in 1998, who were all improvisers (in particular: Bhob Rainey, Greg Kelley, David Gross, Mike Bullock, Vic Rawlings). Playing with them and talking with them about music affected how I think, and led to some real formative experiences. I started out playing messy noise, but began to think in gestures that are connected to a body, to rethink my tape machines as intruments and to develop the range of subtleties that I’m able to express with them.
5. How do you perceive the relation between planning and spontaneity in improvisation?
For my own work, I typically perform with a few ideas in mind, but my gear (and my body) will ultimately do what it wants. My plans have to change depending on what sounds come out of the speakers, and how much control I lose due to crappy equipment resisting what I’m attempting to do with it.
That said, I see no inherent value in spontaneity for its own sake, as an ideal in itself. My interest is in the music, and if a player needs “freedom” (however that is understood) in order to create good music, then of course that’s fine… but if rules are put in place, or certain gestures are planned, or phrases repeated or written out, then that’s fine with me as well, so long as the process serves the finished music.
6. Do you “practise” for an improvisation, and what are your general thoughts on the idea of “practising” for improvisation?
When you improvise, do you use sounds that you’ve already “tried out”, and how much room is there for actual sound experimentation?
When I started improvising, my friends and I would talk a lot about what we were doing and why… within The BSC (an 8-person group that I’m in) we’ve had some great constructive discussion about strategies, pitfalls, and management of improvisation… I’ve found this to be worthwhile. Conversation seems to take the place of practice for me, which I like because my gear takes time to put together and can be a pain in the ass to lug across town (along with an amp or two), set up, then tear down while my friends who play horns wait around for me to coil up all my cables.
In my solo performances, I definitely use sounds that I have used before. I feel no need to be constantly new at every concert. That utopian idea of improvisation as being pure free expression is not at all interesting to me… I just want to play good music, and that can be a variation of a piece I’ve played before, or not.
7. How do you evaluate an improvisation? What is it, according to you, that makes one improvisation better than another?
Any music should be held to the same standard… it should work as a finished piece, whether it’s improvised or composed, live or recorded. I hate to listen to improvising groups try to figure out what they’re doing while I’m listening to them. I enjoy definite gestures, and don’t find jams or rehearsals interesting.
8. When you are recording for a release, does the awareness of being recorded influence your playing, and in what way?
None, actually. I’ve pretty much stopped publishing music that’s only a recording of a live concert. I used to do that, but not anymore. That mic-in-the-room sound of a group fiddling around is never anything that I want to put on my stereo at home, so it no longer seems appropriate for me to represent my work in a way that I wouldn’t want to listen to myself. My current releases are nearly all compositions, even if they’re composed from sounds made in performance. So if I’m recording a concert, I’m rarely thinking about it in terms of making a recording. It’s more to get source material that I’ll use later, or to reference when composing later on.