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Questionnaire: Reuben Radding (2007)

November 2, 2010

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

I came to New York in 1988 as a rock musician and quickly became disenchanted enough to go take composition lessons. Later I studied contrabass with Mark Dresser for a few years. I do draw on my training, all the time, but I also had been a musician for a long time before. I grew up in a very creative community of like-minded musicians in Washington, DC., and I learned vast amounts about making music, recording, and touring from them.

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?

My main bass is a 100 year-old no-name Hungarian. It’s a dark reddish brown, and a dark sound as well. It’s a little big for me, but I’m addicted to its tone. To be a bassist you have to really be in love with the whole thing of it, carrying it, the difficulties of it. Strangers on the street will see you lugging this monster around and say “I’ll bet you wish you played the flute,” but we really don’t. There is a special feeling of power playing bass in an ensemble. You have a great affect on how everyone else sounds.

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

I used to resist the word “experimental,” because it seemed to imply that what we do isn’t intentional or is only about the process, rather than the product. Nowadays I very much embrace the word “experimental,” for many of the same reasons that I previously distrusted it.

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

As a music-maker, and as a listener, the stuff that really feels alive to me is usually improvised. I first experienced group improvisation as a songwriting tool in my youth (rock bands), and it always felt to me like the songs we made from our improvisations were inferior to the jams themselves. There is something to me about being in the moment, to be creating, rather than merely performing.

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

All improvisers have our bags of tricks we rely on and sometimes we lean on those, sometimes not. Hopefully not. I used to be more interested in devising strategies and alternative scores, graphic or text-based, to fuel improvisations, but I think this has had more to do with the desire to have a music I could call “my music” than anything else. Ego stuff. I may not be 100% finished with composition, but hopefully not for purposes of careerism. It’s hard not to be frustrated with all the support out there for new composition, while improvisation receives nothing, but it doesn’t make me run to the pen. I’d much rather play a bad improvisation than a bad composition any time.

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 practice technique on my instrument, and since I make my living as a freelance bassist, I usually am practicing music I’ll be playing that week for gigs, but I don’t generally rehearse improvisations. I used to worry about repeating sounds and ideas in my improvisations, but less now that I’ve come to realize how valid it is, or perhaps how little it matters.

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

A difficult question! No one knows how to decide to make a good improvised piece of music, and what that would consist of, but most will agree when they’ve heard or taken part in one. It seems to have a lot to do with form and freshness.

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

I don’t think this affects my playing much at all. I began recording at the very beginning of being a musician and almost 30 years later it is what it is.


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