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Questionnaire: Jesse Kudler (2007)

November 2, 2010

1. Have you got any formal musical training, and what do you draw from it now?

I have a B.A. in Music from Wesleyan University (in Connecticut, USA). It’s a liberal arts degree, though, so it didn’t really include any conservatory-type training or anything like that. I’m pleased to say that I can barely read music, and I can’t really play any conventional instruments in a “serious” fashion. I studied computer music and experimental music and things like that, and I also played in the gamelan. A large portion of my “musical training” at the time included other kinds of playing and listening, going to lots of concerts, researching music on my own, DJ’ing on the radio station, etc. Before that, I took guitar lessons for a long time. My mom signed me up for classical guitar when I was a kid, because I said I wanted to play guitar. Later, I switched to “rock guitar” and started learning a little bit of theory.
It’s hard to say what I draw from that now. I’m probably reacting somewhat against things I saw at Wesleyan that I really didn’t like at all – a lot of very busy improvisation, sometimes in thrall to Anthony Braxton (who was a professor there – when his compositions said “improvise,” people apparently read that as “go nuts!”). My initial interest in quieter or sparser or less “busy” music may have had something to do with experiences with high-energy players. But also listening to Bernhard Gunter and the first Pita record and things like that.
Aside from that, I learned a lot of very specific and useful technical things from Ron Kuivila, and I learned about a lot of significant works from Alvin Lucier, who taught several 20th-century experimental music seminars. I think about Lucier’s music a lot to this day – that really perfect balance between austerity and beauty; it’s often almost stately.
All that is just part of the picture. I’m sure I take just as much or more from all the informal stuff: concerts, listening to records with friends, talking and thinking, actually playing, seeing music I don’t like, etc.

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 play guitar, on a table, with objects and devices (metal junk, vibrators, clips, fans, etc.). I also often use a small analog synthesizer. There’s also a contact mic, another oscillator, a mixing board, and several effects pedals. Lately, I have been using radio and cassette player a lot as well. I play in stereo.
Not sure what my relationship towards this junk is. Highly ambivalent? The use of guitar of course refers to my childhood and adolescence as a guitar player, but I also have a conscious interest in really trying to get away from any ideas of instrumental competence or comfort. Even within the context of my current setup, I change things a lot, adding or subtracting specific pedals, losing or gaining guitar preparations. I’m never sure if what I use matters or not – if it’s the relationship with the instrument I’m exploring, or whether the instrument is just in the way. Derek Bailey has a good discussion of this problem in his book “Improvisation.” I am always temped to jettison the guitar, but something keeps me from losing that vestige of acoustic sound production and it’s attendant associations.

3. What is it that attracts you towards musical experimentation?

One of the troubling things about my attraction towards “experimentation” is that it feels a bit too nakedly in the capitalist mode – I’m trying to do something that will stand out in the “marketplace.” But that’s the truth, more or less: cursedly, I’ve heard so much music in my time, and I’ve really gotten a bit jaded. The things I respond to seem to exist for some reason, and I want my music to do the same. Ideally, it’s there more than “just because I can” or for “artistic expression,” but because it’s part of a dialogue with the audience that I feel is necessary. That said, it’s important that the music comes from a place of honesty. I am more interested in raising questions, or engaging in some kind of experience with the audience than in making statements.
I think the “honesty” part is paramount. This feels like the music that I should be making and want to make. At the same time, there are all kinds of sneaking suspicions and concerns creeping in: about self-indulgence, about making essentially bourgeois art for a mostly privileged (in the States, at least: white, college-educated, male) audience. This gets into larger questions of how and why art functions, and I suppose that’s the point. I hope!

4. Why are you involved in improvisation, and how do you perceive it?

I don’t really know how to explain how I “perceive it.” It’s just there; I certainly was improvising before I was aware of the genre of”improvisation.” I’m involved both because I’m inherently interested in the aesthetics of improvisation, and because it’s a working method that I find useful. Even when I’m working on composed music, it feels improvised in some sense – it’s sort of put together on the fly based on what I think works, not on some kind of prescriptive plan.

5. How do you perceive the relation between planning and spontaneity in improvisation?

I think it’s easy to lose some of the useful possibilities in improvisation with excessive planning – whether it’s wanting to use certain techniques or sounds or having some concrete idea of where you want things to go. It always seems to me that these kinds of plans distract from really hearing and experiencing the music as it is; it adds another overlay that I usually perceive as distance.
That said, I am much less of a purist than I once was. I am not opposed a priori to some kind of plan – it can make sense in certain situations. And I often find that playing with a group or project privately before a first public meeting can help establish common ground and get some of the crap out of the collective system. Several minutes of fumbling around, or doing really really precious “tentative” playing at the beginning of a performance is no longer interesting to me.
For the more regular projects or partnerships I’m involved in (most notably, HZL and Tweeter), I don’t even necessarily have to think of it as improvised music. The group is the composition, in some sense. Without even necessarily talking about it, we have developed some kind of collective music or collective identity. We have some rough sense of how things will go. I find this useful. And, in some respects, freeing. I would rather play HZL music than generic improvisation or “EAI” or whatnot. Enough things are understood or taken for granted that we can then move beyond that.

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?

I personally don’t practice at all. The closest I might come will be playing with some new pedal or device and getting to know it. I very rarely will just play music by myself, but that doesn’t feel like practicing. That said, I play very regularly in private with a pool of local people and sometimes out-of-towners. Sometimes these are one-off get-togethers and sometimes they are in anticipation of specific concerts. HZL played quite a bit when we first got going.
I don’t have general thoughts on practising for improvisation. I understand that musicians who play instruments that call for breath control, or more precise muscle control, probably want to work on these technical things. I don’t know what one does specifically to practice for improvisation – beyond just improvising. If you want to expand the definition of “practice,” I do spend a lot of time listening to recordings of my concerts and playing sessions, listening to other music, reading, and thinking about all this stuff. I find listening to recordings very helpful – it’s easier to hear the “big picture” and how your sounds fit in and how the piece moves than in the heat of the moment.
I notice that I think less and less about specific sounds. Partially, I have already staked out a lot of my vocabulary, and partially I think more about technique than the exact sound (i.e. production over precise result). I have a more general sense about high/low, fast/slow, loud/quiet, clean/dirty, etc. Sure, there’s room for actual experimentation. But groping around for sounds is boring as hell.
Lately, my primary concern as an improviser is on placement of sounds and development of pieces. Creating a piece of music that works, or is interesting. There is too much emphasis on specific sounds and instrumental technique and on “being a good player.” I wonder if this is perhaps a holdover from the values of jazz or classical music? People focus so much on the relationship with the instrument, rather than the relationship with other players, or the group’s music. I generally get incredibly bored with “great” instrumentalists who just want to make crazy sounds with their instruments. I could name names, but I won’t. It’s always exciting to stumble on some exciting new sound in a performance, but it’s much more challenging and fruitful to figure out how these sounds function, and how to arrange a compelling piece of music on the fly.

7. How do you evaluate an improvisation? What is it, according to you, that makes one improvisation better than another?

In some sense, I have no idea. Sometimes it feels great, but the audience seems indifferent. Sometimes it feels terrible, and the audience loves it. Sometimes a crappy performance sounds beautiful on a recording. If I’m trying to select recordings to use for release, it matters to me, but a concert is over when it’s over – no sense in obsessing. Even though I probably do! I like an improvisation that feels truly improvised but also purposeful. It’s nice to feel like everyone is listening and paying attention and not being too egotistical. It needs to feel honest.
Other than that… it sometimes seems a matter of just my mental state, or my focus. Often, a really good performance feels almost effortless, or like what athletes might call “flow”: it almost feels like I inhale, the performance starts, I exhale, and it’s over. This is fairly rare.

8. When you are recording for a release, does the awareness of being recorded influence your playing, and in what way?

Not if it’s a concert. In the “studio” (basement, living room, bedroom), I usually know I will edit things later. So there is more freedom to take risks I might not take in a performance, or to keep going for a long time, even through crappy passages. To me, I want to play well, but it’s also just generating material to be reviewed and edited later. I’d rather have more.


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