Manafonistas

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The Guitar (1) – I have a Martin 12-string that my father gave to me. (…) It’s an old guitar, now. It has a peculiar internal resonance, as though it has a small concert hall inside of it. I try to bring that quality out by stringing the guitar in double courses. In other words, instead of stringing the 4 lower strings with octave courses, I string them in unison. It makes it a lot harder to play, but with double courses I can draw out overtones if I’m willing to really physically engage the strings.

 

The favourite guitarists? It’s not a discovery often made, no matter how much guitar music hits your ears. Neil Young, wizard – electric. Ralph Towner, wizard – acoustic. Yes. And when I heard Steve Tibbetts for the first time, it was a revelation: Northern Song (1981) followed by Safe Journey (1984). All those singular albums, among them Big Map Idea (1989) and The Fall Of Us All (1994). 

I’ve been returning ever since. Always returning.

Tibbetts‘ albums only appear sporadically. You wait in anticipation for the next one. Some very interesting side projects pop up on other labels along the way, while in the meantime ECM always offer a kind of constant companionship. (It’s worth noting here that Northern Song was the only album produced by Manfred Eicher – no introduction necessary.)

A unique sound-world created from St. Paul, Minnesota. A guitar sound you recognise after seconds, never formula. The thrill comes from just listening, and letting  go. And now, LIFE OF. Steve Tibbetts, Marc Anderson, Michelle Kinney, the inner circle. What made me quite so addicted to this music? Honestly I’ll never really know. This confession of not-knowing puts a bigger smile on my face than evocative pictures of distant worlds. 

 
 
 

 
 
 

Michael Engelbrecht: Steve, at first, this photo with the turkeys … a walk through the woods?

 

Steve Tibbetts: This is my back yard in Minnesota.The turkeys arrive around 9 in the morning and cluster outside, gobbling. They are out there right now, talking to each other. There is a bird feeder above them, hanging off of a balcony, so they scratch around in the snow and leaves looking for bird food. The turkeys are quite tame, and they associate our bipedal primate family with food, so they sometimes come running and making sounds when they hear the back door open. Sometimes rival gangs of turkeys go to war in our back yard. It is really something to see and hear. At those time their raptor past is revealed. 

 

Michael Engelbrecht: LIFE OF is vintage Tibbetts, all compositions are credited to you, I think, for the first time ever. It is more on the quiet side, like NATURAL CAUSES, but with its own darknesses and edges.

 

Steve Tibbetts: Yes, it’s of a piece with the last album. They’re relatives. 

 

The Guitar (2) – The frets on my guitar are worn almost flat. There are some tiny intonation issues and places where strings buzz against frets. I took the twelve-string to Ron at St. Paul Guitar repair. He looked the guitar over. He picked up the guitar and sighted down the fretboard. He said, “The frets are flat. There might be some buzzing or intonation issues. Do you like the way it sounds?” I said, “I love the way it sounds.” He handed the guitar back over the counter to me and said, “Then I won’t fix it for you.”

 

Michael Engelbrecht: Looking at the titles, they seem like a collection of people from your life and times. What made you combine the pieces with certain names?

 

Steve Tibbetts: A lot of the songs have a similar feeling to them. I let them cross-pollinate. In order to more easily distinguish them I gave them names a few years ago, and I used the names of friends and family.  Some of those names started influencing the music.  It was a little spooky, but I played along with the process. Some names have more than one reference in my family. For instance, there are several women named „Alice,“ two named „Joel,“ and so on. One of the Joels died last year, another is still living. This sort of thing can give the music a peculiar resonance. „Half of ‚Joel‘ died,“ I might think to myself. This is typical of the managed insanity inherent in the artistic process. It is good to use any upwelling of meaning and emotion you can find, but you have to maintain due diligence and stay sane. 

 

Michael Engelbrecht: „Life of Carol“ – is there a story?

 

Steve Tibbetts: No story, I’m afraid. It’s just another guitar circling, circling.  

 

The Guitar (3) – I try to play the guitar for one or two hours before recording. Something needs warming up. Maybe the back of the twelve-string needs to be physically warmed up, or my fingertips need a certain pliability. At some point the guitar settles down and the little concert hall inside opens for business. I like the physicality of playing 12-string. I don’t use a pick. If I’m drifting off to sleep at night and feel my fingertips throbbing I know I had a good day.

 

Michael Engelbrecht: There‘s a kind of discreet tension between some more introspective moods, carefully developed dynamics – and the haunting picture on the cover with the „army of cats“. 

 

Steve Tibbetts: Yes, just open up the back door at the right time of day and you’ll see turkeys and ghosts waiting and staring. 

 
 
 

 
 
 

Michael Engelbrecht: Are you making use of meditation or other tools to stimulate creativity?

 

Steve Tibbetts: The process of creativity is really hard to talk about: where does creativity come from? How does artistic vision and inspiration arise? It is a nearly tangible experience when inspiration finally does come to visit, but it’s still very ephemeral and vapor-like.  To go one step further and talk about a meditative influence on the creative process would be a bridge too far, I think. One can only speculate. An interesting thing however: sometimes an apparent spiritual or creative awakening is not at all meditative or serene in its manifestation. Look at „A Love Supreme“ or, especially, „The Inner Mounting Flame.“ There’s a kind of violence there that seems exactly right. Be leery of anyone who speaks with authority about practices of meditation and their impact on the creative process. Be afraid, be very afraid.  

 

Michael Engelbrecht: The music seems to be more centered around sound and texture than around melodies, for example. It seems to circle around an invisible center …

 

Steve Tibbetts: Part of that is my being easily satisfied with circular musical logic. When I worked in Southeast Asia I got used to music that didn’t really go anywhere. It always folded back on itself and it seemed right that it did so. I wish I could compose a piece of music with real changes and progression but I don’t really know how to.  

 

Michael Engelbrecht: Your love for your acoustic 12-string guitar is a life long affair. It is a familiar sound that never gets too familiar …

 

Steve Tibbetts: I remember an interview many years ago with Nana Vasconcelos where he talked about the berimbau which is, as you know, a 1-stringed instrument – a bow, a wire, a stick and a shaker. He said he found new sounds every day on the instrument. I feel the same way about this 12-string. There’s always something new, or something old that refines itself. I can’t take credit for a good sounding instrument.  

 

Michael Engelbrecht: There‘ s such a special balance between the rhythmic parts of the music and the drone fields (of sampled sounds, Michelle‘s cello sounds etc.) Remember Miles Davis, in his electric period 69-75, also had, inside the whirlpool of energy, those stop-and-go passages inside the music. Of course it is a very distant parallel, but in your pieces here, one can also observe a lot of moments where the music seems to hold its breath, stand still, before moving on, and back again …

 

Steve Tibbetts: Yes, I have a copy of „Get Up With It“ at the studio; „Rated X.“ Badal Roy plays tabla. I think that may have been more Teo Maceo than Miles. It’s always special when a great artist works with a visionary producer.  

 

Mixing – The small concert hall in the guitar encouraged me to seek out a large concert hall to mix the album in. The Macalaster College music department kindly let me bivouac in their concert hall for an evening. I set up two pairs of mics: one in the center of the hall, and one pair in back. It worked well to allow a room’s ambience to settle around the piano and percussion. The natural acoustics of the hall helped the guitar settle into the piano.

 
 

 
 
 

Michael Engelbrecht: Apropos piano, you have played that instrument on „Natural Causes“ for the first time. Was the reason for that to keep the spirit of the beginner awake who has, according to Zen teaching, at times more fresh choices than the highly virtuoso & professional „approach“?

 

Steve Tibbetts: I just wanted to be able to read music a little bit. I read a review of a book about Bach’s „Musical Offering.“ As I recall, the book titled „Evening In The Palace Of Reason“ concerns a challenge from the King of Prussia to Bach. The King presented Bach a theme, a melody, and tasked him with improvising a fugue from it. Bach took up the challenge and played a 3-voiced fugue. The King’s request to create a six-part fugue ex tempore could not be fulfilled by Bach, because the Royal Theme was too difficult for that. The „Musical Offering“ contains a 6-part fugue, elaborated on desk. When I read that, I thought, „Even if I saw the music I wouldn’t be able to understand what Bach had done.“ I wanted to understand. So I began studying with Susana Pinto and she taught me Bartok‘s „Mikrokosmos“ and Bach’s „Inventions.“

 

Michael Engelbrecht: I keep circling, too, a bit. Listening to „Life Of“ you can easily feel something brooding, some darkness, a certain twilight zone. Is the origin for these sensations unknown – or somehow graspable? Echoes from all those „stranger things“ you experienced in Asia?

 

Steve Tibbetts: There is sometimes a sort of credulous enthusiasm to believe in „stranger things“, as you say, especially in Asia. Nonetheless there does seem to be a certain permeability to the fabric of reality in some places in the world. A friend of mine called it „thinness.“ You can look for that in music and art as well. You listen and there is a quiet collapse of duality, self and other. This might sound terribly exotic or over-thought, but if you watch your mind when you listen to music you might witness a kind of melting.

 
 
 

 
 
 

Michael Engelbrecht: After all these years, you and the percussionist at your side, Marc Anderson, did develop a kind of „secret language“ in the studio, not always easy to understand for people you start working with. But Michele Kinney is long enough part of your „inner circle“, I think.

 

Steve Tibbetts: No secret codes. Michelle can make her cello sound like a distant electric guitar feeding back through a Marshall amp. Tony Iommi-style.

 

Michael Engelbrecht: Haha, echoes from Bach and Black Sabbath within a minute. Now, Steve, living in Minnesota: did you follow those cold winter chills that were part of the three seasons of „Fargo“ (I love them!), and the original movie by the Coen brothers? Do you have a favourite TV series at the moment?

 

Steve Tibbetts: Yes, there is definitely a Minnesota way of being that I have grown to love. Very Norwegian, taciturn, reserved. I moved here from Wisconsin in 1972 and this is my home now. I like the way people are here, and I like the devotion to arts, education, and the liberal politics of this state. Some great political figures have come from Minnesota: Al Franken, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy, and especially Paul Wellstone. And, mhmm, Favorite TV series: politics and the Scandinavia mindset probably figure into my enjoyment of „Okkupert.“

 

Michael Engelbrecht: I know you have quite a big ECM collection. What was the last discovery or re-discovery inside the new or old ECM releases? I personally re-discovered that wonderful Shankar album „Vision“ with Jan Garbarek and Palle Mikkelborg. When I played it on air, the needle died a slow death and added weird distortions to Garbarek‘s high notes.

 

Steve Tibbetts: I don’t have to re-discover the first 300 albums in the ECM catalog; I’ve never really left them! I have „Dis“ on now, as I write this. Brooding, dark, just the way we like it.

 

Michael Engelbrecht: Wow – this is a lovely synchronicity. Yesterday, on the day you wrote this, I felt the urgent need to listen to an ancient ECM recording, I haven’t heard in years and that didn’t leave my turntable for weeks when it had been released deep in the last century. „Witchi-Tai-To“ from the Jan Garbarek-Bobo Stenson quartet. On the opening track, the Carla Bley-composition „Air“, his sopranino sounds sharp like a tool for cracking ice. Listening to that record now, I‘m still stunned, and not so much on memory lane. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Steve!

 

The End – I still think in terms of albums, even in terms of album sides. I lined up the songs, left to right, and worked with the running order until it seemed to hang together or make some sort of story. I played the ending of every song with the beginning of every other song until a plot started to reveal itself (this is what happens when you work alone—musical plots reveal themselves). Here’s how it ends: The kids went to college. Their parents were sad for a little while, then fine. Ellen lived and is in remission. Grandma died. Grandpa was sad. Everyone else lived as happily ever after as could be expected.

 

The End (2) – The texts about the guitar, the mixing process, and „the end“ were taken from Steve Tibbetts’ Life Of-page. Steve’s landscape photo belongs to the „thin places of the world“ he’s talking about, and is from Ramagrama, near Lumbini, 2015. This assembly is a truely manafonistic work: thanks to „Joey“ Siemer for fighting the devil in the details, and his sensitive, delicate and tactful design that allows linear and non-linear reading. Thanks to Ian McCartney for giving my small introduction the right groove and sharpness. Thanks to my late English teacher Dr. Egon Werlich who inspired my love for English language and culture (I still have in mind what he told us about the Beatles song „When I’m Sixty-Four“ – and I never got a better introduction to the works of Samuel Beckett (on an existential level, no smart-ass knowledge). Thanks to Hans-Dieter Klinger for cross-checking the Bach anecdote – Steve asked for this. Hans Dieter, former music teacher, once invited Keith Jarrett to play a solo concert in his school in Kronach (German hinterland), and still remembers well how carefully Manfred Eicher had placed the microphones. A week later music history was in the making – The Köln Concert happened! And, to be circling one more time: thank you for LIFE OF, Steve – „Where-am-I-music“ of a rare kind!

2018 6 Jul

Conversations with Aby (1)

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Multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, lover of free improvisation, and music therapist Aby Vulliamy takes a long look back to first musical revelations and „non-musical“ sounds from an old clock in the hallway to birdsong. She gives  insights in her love and learning of instruments, and how someone encouraged her to trust her voice to sing. I really  didn‘t know much about her musical life when I first contacted her. Simply being fascinated with her viola and rare vocal contributions on the last two installments of Bill Wells‘ fabulous National Jazz Trio of Scotland (Bill has a knack for special voices!), and reading about her therapeutic activities, this was enough for me: a starting point. 

The diversity of her musical activities goes way beyond the viola and vocal moments on Bill‘s albums, but sometimes a small snippet, the bending of a note, are enough for stopping you in the tracks. I would be very surprised if she didn‘t have David Darling‘s „Cello“ or the early albums of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra in her record collection. Also, I do think (after our first „conversation“), she must certainly be in love with Kate Bush’s song „Mrs. Bartolozzi“ – and, talking about ancient, worn-out instruments, she followed the link leading to  my recent interview with Steve Tibbetts –  and „Life Of“ will soon have another listener in Glasgow. 

Aby Vulliamy also thinks back  of growing up in Hull. A town that I only know from the history of lucid dreaming. Psychologist Keith Hearne made his famous discovery concerning ocular-signaling from the lucid dream state on the morning of 12th April 1975, at Hull University’s sleep-laboratory. He communicated the data, and other examples, to Professor Allan Rechtschaffen of Chicago University. Much later, Stephen LaBerge, at Stanford, produced similar work.  In following conversations  I will (and do write this with a big smile) try to raise her  interest in the subject. By the way, when these conversations will come to an end, her debut album will  have been released, in October, on Karaoke Kalk. 

 
 
 

 
 
 

  1. One record or two that put a spell on you and made you feel this music will accompany you for a long time.

 

I remember hearing Keith Jarrett’s Koln concert for the first time maybe in my late teens, and just being blown away by the fluency and energy of his piano improvisation. Someone made me a cassette tape of it, and I kept it for about 15 years until my tape player broke. It’s the only music I could ever listen to whilst writing essays or reports – somehow although I loved it, it didn’t distract me like all other music did, it helped give me momentum and energy and focus. I remember listening to a Charles Ives piece years later and finding some of it familiar, and realising that Jarrett references it in his Koln concert, and I’m sure there are many other references in there too.

Abdullah Ibrahim’s Water from an Ancient Well has accompanied me for a long time too. My dad once said the trombone sounds like a bull elephant and it often makes me tearful when I hear it. Also Ibrahim’s duo as Dollar Brand with Johnny Dyani (Good News From Africa) will stay with me throughout my life, I’ve no doubt; it’s their liberated vocals and intuitive connection with each other, I love it.

 

  1. What was the 1st non-musical sound experience in childhood that had a deep emotional impact?

 

I’m not sure there is such a thing as a non-musical sound experience? Everything can be viewed through a ‘musical lense’, it’s just whether it’s received as such by the listener.  People say to me ‘I’ve not got a musical bone in my body’ but we’ve all got a pulse, we’ve got a unique tone of voice and particular pitch range, we have a natural walking pace etc. All communication is based on the elements of music; rhythm, tempo, timbre, melody, pitch contour etc. We are all musical beings.

Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells used the clicking of a car indicator as the opening sound which dictates the rhythm and pace of the first track on their brilliant 2nd album, The Most Important Place in the World. We had a beautiful old grandfather clock (since stolen) in our hallway when I was growing up, and it’s background ticking and hourly chime structured my childhood, making me feel safe. I would always be subdividing the rhythms in my head, or practicing 3 beats over 2 etc.

There must be millions of examples of ‘non-musical’ sounds being incorporated into music, or inspiring composition. Washing machines are musical; I often find myself humming harmonies or singing along to the drone of the washing machine. I can often hear different frequencies the more I listen to simple drones. Birdsong is of course music, it has plenty melody and repetitive rhythmic patterns, although birds don’t get any publishing rights. I love Messiaen’s crazy birdsong inspired organ pieces, and of course Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending. Melodies from birdsong feature in loads of folk music.

 

  1. How did your private surroundings (the town you grew up in, family, friends) inspire your love for music?

 

I grew up in Hull. Its a very special place, home to some beautiful people. But it gets so much bad press and has some terrible statistics in terms of life expectancy, teen pregnancy, addiction problems, poverty etc. It’s the end of the line, and I think it’s quite hard to get bands to include Hull on their tour schedule, although Paul Jackson of the very special Adelphi Club has single-handedly changed the lives of many local music-lovers and musicians by persuading a fabulous array of touring bands to make the detour to Hull.

Music was escapism for me. I grew up in a very busy household with my 3 brothers and 1 sister and many visitors. I was shy and quiet and not assertive, but when I was practicing my Khachaturian on the piano I was like a different person! I loved the Russian composers, they’re wild and intense. My piano teacher used to enter me into the competitive music festival, at the magnificent and overbearing Hull City Halls, which seems like a terrible idea (music as competition?!?) but in fact I think it helped me a great deal with performance anxiety – I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? Now, music is a social thing for me and it has been the way I’ve made new friends in each new city I’ve moved to. I need to play – after water, food, shelter, love – I’d soon go mad if I didn’t play music.

My mum and dad are music lovers but not musicians themselves. All 5 of us siblings played instruments at various points; 2 brothers played double bass, one played cello, my sister played clarinet, and we had the piano too. What a fabulous ensemble that would have been! But we never played altogether, sadly. My sister and I did some duets far too occasionally, which was always a treat to me.

My dad’s dad was a brilliant pianist and I inherited his beautiful faded black baby grand piano when he died. I feel sad I never became accomplished and confident enough to play the wild Rachmaninov duets that he wishfully shoved in front of me when I visited him.

My mum, despite having 4 other kids and a household to run and studying for a degree etc etc, would sometimes spend her precious time sitting beside me whilst I practiced the piano, coz she knew that it helped me stay focused and motivated, so she did it despite all the other demands on her attention. A gentle, quiet but incredibly powerful and generous gift.

 

  1. Tell me about your main instruments. Love at first sight, just classical training? And, a propos  viola, a special  record that made you fall for it? Just let your thoughts flow, I keep quiet, in listening mode:)…

 

Piano is really my main instrument. All of the songs on my upcoming album were written on the piano, although there are several short viola ‘interludes’ on there too. I had my first piano lessons aged 4, with a music student we referred to as ‘Julie Fingers’, who charged 50p per lesson.

I started on the violin when I was 7, and was given free lessons at school, on a borrowed instrument. I soon switched to the viola. It suits me so much better; it’s deeper, more mellow and rich to my ears. The violin and viola sit so close to the player’s ear, and can sound so jarringly tinny and reedy there; too many high frequencies for my sensitive ears. The viola suits my personality much better than the violin. In orchestral music it’s often hard to discern the viola, you only notice us when we screw up. But we have a really important role to play, supportive and containing; the fabulous Swiss band I play with, Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp XXL recently played a gig without me, and the band leader said it felt out of tune without the viola! Its often the glue that holds parts together, quietly but enrichingly.

 
 
 

 
 
 

My parents bought me my viola when I was about 10, and my mum kept apologising, fearful that I would experience it as a pressure and expectation. I love that viola so much! I still use the same one, and though I’m often surrounded by musicians who’s instruments cost 10’s of £1000’s more than mine, I feel safe and solid with my trusty old viola. It’s like an extension of my body- it’s getting a bit old and battered but it’s strong and resilient and full of instinctive memories.

I think at first I just went along with the music lessons I was offered, but didn’t initially feel very moved by the music, strangely. People were encouraging, and I knew I was lucky to get free lessons at school, so I kept going with it. I’m gutted that nearly all music services in British schools have to be paid for now, so that learning an instrument is only for children with families who have spare money. I believe that the opportunity to learn an instrument as a child is one of the most powerful and influential experiences available; it could be key to solving some of the major societal problems we face; intergenerational poverty, unemployment, demoralisation, depression and addiction. The Big Noise project which is now well-established in some of the most deprived communities of Scotland (based on the Venezualan El Systema model) has far-reaching goals and some amazing statistics and research showing how the discipline, team-work, mutual responsibility, co-operation, shared purpose of music-making have a huge influence on positive development in terms of self-worth, self-awareness and social conscience. At the same time, making music is a form of self-expression and communication that can process feelings that are otherwise too strong and disturbing, and can provide an intimacy that it is hard for some people to access using just words. Learning music enhances so many crucial skills; academic (particularly maths) and life skills such as self-esteem and communication skills, it’s crazy to deny children this. For the tricky teenagers, that I work with as a Music Therapist, music can be a form of expression far more powerful than words – a place where they can feel heard and understood and accepted and valued for who they are.

I started with classical music on both piano and viola. Although I know how lucky I am for the opportunity to learn classically, I sometimes regretted the limitations of a purely classical training, when, aged 17 or so, I began to make music with my friends who had taught themselves to play guitar, bass, drums, and I lacked their confident spontaneity, intuition and creativity. It took time to gain confidence to stop relying on the safety net of music notation and theory, and to just listen and trust my instincts in response. Now I’m very grateful to have both, the theory, reasonable technical knowledge, and instinct/sponteneity.

I think I was 13 when I joined the City of Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra. I remember sitting at the back of the viola section, going through the motions and not feeling very connected to the parts I was playing, when suddenly the 100-piece choir began to sing behind me. My hair stood on end, I felt the force of their voices, my whole body vibrating, the feeling of being part of something immensely powerful. I think this was the first time I was wholly physically and emotionally moved (blown away) by music. I wish I could remember which piece we were playing – I’ve got a terrible memory! I know Verdi’s Requiem has given me the same overwhelming feeling since.

My dad got into jazz when I was a young teen, so having provided the obvious musical foundations of a 70’s child (Bob Dylan, the Incredible String Band, Bonzo Dog Dooda Band, Van Morrison, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits (almost exclusively male line-ups I now realise) he then began playing Abdullah Ibraham and Keith Jarrett as previously mentioned, Brotherhood of Breath, Dudu Pakwana, John Surman, Annie Whitehead, District Six, Jessica Williams, Colloseum (Tanglewood 64 – I played that when I was in labour with my first daughter. I love men singing, and in this case they’re using their voices as instruments, just ‘bah’ing the melody – it’s ace) etc etc. Brilliant stuff.

 
 
 

 
 
 

I also loved Funk/Northern Soul in my later teens. I joined my first band at 18, playing folky-style viola over guitar-based songs sung and played by my friend Shelley’s dad and his pal. Also a funk ensemble with me and my teenage friends as the rhythm section (I played ‘the Beast’ a ridiculously heavy old electric organ) and my friend’s Social Worker parents as the horn front line. We initially called ourselves ‚The Funkateers’, but decided to add an extra prefix every time we played a gig; we got as far as ‘the Almighty Allstar Funkateers coz gigs were hard to find in Hull and it was time for the younger generation to buzz off to university. And now I’ve come full circle, playing in another (much better) band making tongue-in-cheek claims of superpowers since the ‘Tout Puissant’ of Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp translates as Almighty (All Powerful). It is a very powerful band, the music moves people psychologically and physically, but the power to connect and move is in it’s collectivism and shared emotion, not a reference to a higher being.

The violinists / violists that influenced me are perhaps obvious; my dad subtly introduced me to Stefan Grapelli and although I loved listening to him, it never occurred to me that if I practiced hard enough I should eventually be able to play over changes fluently (Grapelli-style was unachievable but I could definitely improve my fluency). I wish I’d started practicing that earlier, because I’m still not fluent and confident over changes, and there’s no excuse really. My dad also pointed me towards Billy Bang, the ganster-turned-jazz violinist, who’s self-taught style of jazz improvisation was absolutely liberating and unique. I don’t understand why it’s still so unusual to include improvising strings in jazz front lines, they can add such different textures and sounds to the same old wall of saxophones that so many band leaders opt for. Saxophones are beautiful, but why not add something a bit different?!

John Cale (and Velvet Underground) and Laurie Anderson were a revelation and stopped me from wishing I’d learnt a funkier instrument than the viola – their music was immediately accessible for me, and although massively inspired and unique, didn’t feel technically out of my reach. More recently the free-improvising violist Mark Feldman is an obvious person to pick out, and my good friend and improvising mentor, Seth Bennett’s double bass playing is a massive source of inspiration.

I love free improvisation. I know some people find it too disturbing and un-nerving, and I was the same at first (I thought of it as musical masturbation – a self-indulgent exposure in front of an audience), but now it’s free improvisation that makes me feel most alive, to listen to and to perform. The spontaneity, fluidity, the emotional roller-coaster of intensity and dynamics (volume, speed, texture) makes for breath-taking unpredictability, moving through tension and resolution (or non-resolution!), tenderness and aggression, beauty and ‘ugliness’- it’s absolutely liberating. Stephen Nachmaninov writes really beautifully about free improvisation in his book Free Play. Good free improvisation is the ultimate music for me, though I love a lot of differet genres and I fully understand that it takes time to learn how to access and enjoy free improvisation.

In relation to some of the free improvisation I love, the piano-based songs on my upcoming album are very conventional!

When I moved to Glasgow, Scotland, in 2004 it was amazing how quickly people began inviting me to play. I knew only my partner George Murray (trombonist) when I moved up there, but Daniel Padden and Peter Nicholson (The One Ensemble), Chris Hladowski (Scatter, Nalle, The Family Elan), Hanna Tuulikki (Nalle), Bill Wells (NJTOS) and Stevie Jones (Sound of Yell) welcomed me with huge generosity and facilitated many brilliant learning opportunities for me. It’s such fertile and open-minded creativity that thrives up there – people inspire and nurture each others’ musicality with such generosity. There is such potent possibility to jump between genres (and therefore to stretch yourself and learn more). I wonder if it was partly because as a viola player I inherently offer something slightly different to the proliferation of traditional/folk violinists in Scotland. I played in indie, pop, jazz, folk, free-improvisation ensembles, and I did music for theatre/dance, performance art etc and I learnt tonnes.

 
 
 

 
 
 

In Glasgow I also began singing, having always been far too self-conscious to open my mouth- I was too shy and easily embarrassed. It was Hanna Tuulikki who cajoled me into singing with her trio Nalle with Chris Hladowski in 2005/6. I was terrified at first but she insisted and I’m so glad she did. She’d kneel on the floor with me, our thighs touching, sometimes using walkie-talkies to distort the sound, often letting her voice slide fractionally below or above my pitch to create oscillations between us that disorientated and connected us at the same time. It was precarious and exciting.

Not long after that, with his National Jazz Trio of Scotland, Bill Wells began rearranging traditional jazz and folk songs and writing original songs, often leaving the voice brutally exposed, and often at the very bottom of my vocal range, where it’s hard to get a sound out at all, let alone to control the sound of my voice. These were utterly terrifying gigs where my knees shook as much as my voice wobbled. Often the lyrics were devastating and I feared it (and I, as a nervous wreck) would be just too much for the audience to cope with; too raw and fragile and exposed. I’ve learnt that some material is supposed to feel precarious, it wouldn’t work if I could sing it confidently, and audiences generally cope!

I’m well aware of how extremely lucky I am, to have had opportunities to learn several instruments (including lessons on piano, viola and flute), and to have met so many beautiful generous talented musicians who’ve shared musical space and skills and opportunities with me, stretching me and inspiring me to learn more, take more risks, experiment more. For a long time I thought I couldn’t self-generate music; that I was dependent on other musicians to initiate and give me something to respond to and that my main skill was my ability absorb whatever was thrown at me, and come up with creative ideas in response. It took me by surprise when my piano-based songs emerged, and although I’m really proud of finally producing my own material I’m also keen to convey that my new album is not the whole of me, and there is lots more very different stuff to come in the not-too-distant future.

 
 

 
 
 
Big Map Idea, the sixth Tibbetts album, is a set of hypnotic compositions with dreamy depth and texture, quieter than most of the other Tibbetts/Anderson compositions, but with not nearly as much quiet introspective space as Tibbetts‘ third album, Northern Song. To some, this might have a darker mood than others, but I find it a refreshing and enjoyable set of tracks.

„Black Mountain Side“ begins the album, it’s a significant improvement of the Jimmy Page track first heard on Led Zeppelin’s first album (although I love the way it works as a lead-in to „Communication Breakdown“ on that earlier album). As usual, the percussion here and throughout Big Map Idea is top-shelf. The ensuing tracks are largely based on excellent percussion and acoustic or subtle electric guitar layers.

Part of an interview of Tibbetts by Michael Engelbrecht included in the liner notes of the CD describe Tibbetts use of sounds from the natural environment: „There are a lot of possibilities in sound; possibilities of boredom and of entertainment, there are possibilities of sound actually tapping into your memory and uncovering something with potential, with energy. sounds unlock a flood of emotions … So you can go into the field, into the arena, out into the world with a tape recorder looking for sounds with coherent harmonic content, good rhythmic content, or emotional content. When you bring these sounds back into the studio and record them on to one track of your recorder, those sounds will inform the music you’re making around them: An emotional situation will inform the music. You can use these sounds as a skeleton, as a scaffolding for a piece of music, as a mold for a piece of clay. In the end, if necessary, you can pull the sound away and let the music exist on its own.“ He later adds he and Marc arrived at this approach because they „were bored with recording in the studio.“

5 brilliant TIBBETTS albums:

– Safe Journey
– Full Moon Dogs
– Big Map Idea
– Northern Song
– Natural Causes

And, well, in fact there are 6 fantastic ones (the other ones are „only“ good):

– A Man About A Horse

Hi Michael!  All well, and heading to Tibet.  Fun!  Still pursuing the Dream Yoga you introduced me to in a bar in Dortmund many years ago, no success yet!  Photo is from Kailash, 2009.

Here’s a review I like:

Compilation: Acoustibbets/Elektrobitts/Exotibbets by Steve Tibbetts. So I got a cover letter from Tibbets, saying he’d mastered this 3-CD set from analogue tapes of his 12 CDs and he didn’t know what he was going to do with it. Well, how about selling it and receiving remuneration for your jaw-dropping artistry? I know, I know. In 2011, only Wall Street deserves remuneration for the great service it provides to mankind. Brilliant, one-of-a-kind guitarist/composers should starve with the rest of us. Even so, I think that if the Ventures had gone to the Himalayas right after they first heard Dick Dale, and if they’d learned to play instruments made from dried yak intestines stretched over the femurs of Abominable Snowmen, and then contemplated Miles Davis’ navel for 20 years in a mountain monastery…if all that, then they could have been Steve Tibbetts, and Steve Tibbetts could have had a big hit with“Walk Don’t Run.”

Cheers,

Steve

2009 Kailash north face / -Lott

At one stage in the making of his fantastic album „Natural Causes“, Tibbetts included an acoustic version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Villanova Junction” in his track list, but ultimately felt it didn’t fit the album’s flow. The orphaned track has since been posted by Steve on YouTube, and can still be heard there.

The journey towards ‘a result’ on “Natural Causes” was, as Tibbetts freely admits, a halting one. The artist’s final assessment: “I have a real fondness for the whole thing, similar to a fondness you’d have for a three-legged cat you’d adopted. You don’t drive your kids to the pet store with the intention of buying a three legged cat, but if one hobbles up to your door and you feed it, you might eventually grow fonder of that cat than a regular four-legged one. It’s like that.”

Hier ist das „virtuelle Interview“, das ich mit Steve Tibbetts anlässlich seines Albums „Natural Causes“ machte.  Er sitzt daheim in seinem Studio, liest meine Fragen,  und erzählt.

Tibbetts Interview (mp3)

Guitar Triggers-02 (mp3)

2014 7 Mai

Soon here: „LIFE OF“

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An interview with Steve Tibbetts (to be posted on May 15).

The record (ECM) will be out on May 18. 

 

Once upon a time, in fact, after the release of his last album called „Natural Causes“, Sean Kutzko wrote: „I’ve noticed a curious trend with me whenever Steve Tibbetts releases a new CD: I immediately freak out at the news, order it as soon as possible, and then wait for it to arrive without trying to learn any more about the release. When it finally arrives, there is a very conscious period of time when I hold it in my hands and wonder just what I’m going to get. It’s kind of like in baseball, when the runner rounds third and you realize there’s going to be a play at the plate. There’s a very fun couple of seconds where you know you’re going to see something exciting but you don’t know exactly how it’s going to turn out. I love that about Steve’s CDs.

The other thing I’ve learned since Big Map Idea was not to make any initial reviews on the CD. Whether acoustic or electric, Steve’s music is exceptionally rich. It takes time to digest. Natural Causes is a definite shift from The Fall Of Us All. Yet the album is pure Steve; No track drove this point home to me more than „Chandogra.“ At :18 into the piece, as the acoustic guitar sets the theme, there is a two-note wisp of haunting guitar that definitively sets the mood as Tibbettsian. The rest of the piece features the mood of Marc Anderson’s frame drums, cymbals and other incidentals coupled with Steve’s thumb piano and stream-of-consciousness lines and hammer-ons. There is no other duet that has such a signature like Tibbetts and Anderson. Like Northern Song, there’s a lot of space between the notes here. It’s beautiful; enjoy it several times, and you will come to see that nobody else could have possibly made such a recording as this.“

 

2013 5 Okt

The Copycat Discussion (Eno vs. Sylvian)

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When I talked to Brian Eno in 1993 mentioning the name of David Sylvian I got a response that definitely showed no sign of amusement. Had Sylvian been stealing ideas and artists, a copycat in action? Sensitive matter! Facts: Brian played with Robert Fripp creating classics like NO PUSSYFOOTING or EVENING STAR (side one), later David invited Robert to play with him, for example, on GONE TO EARTH.

Brian collaborated with Jon Hassell creating some desert island discs (POSSIBLE MUSICS, DREAM THEORY IN MALAY), and then, well, David contacted Jon for some collaborative efforts that resulted in some decent work.

Though David’s ambient works were underrated in their era (PLIGHT AND PREMONITION), they never came close to the classics Brian Eno had produced in the 70s, and later on. DISCREET MUSIC, MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS, MUSIC FOR FILMS, ON LAND, APOLLO, THE SHUTOV ASSEMBLY … Holger Czukay crossed their ways, too. So sorry, Brian was, again, the first. This may produce raised eyebrows. Or is it only a question of age? And today? Brian Eno was always fond of spoken word pieces, and recently, well, both artists published (or contributed to) albums with spoken words. But a milestone of spoken word deliveries had been, without doubt, created by Eno & Byrne, a long time ago, MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS.

Now, how to judge this? Both artists profit from collaborations, both artists released brillant song albums in the 70’s (Brian, ANOTHER GREEN WORLD, for example) and the 80’s (David, BRILLIANT TREES). I think there was inspiration in the air, and David transported areas of Brian’s music in his own territory. With good taste and a certain amount of cleverness. Was there a special competitive climate between artists in England? Sylvian had to get rid of the restrictions the early albums of Japan have shown. At least TIN DRUM offered some exits. And Eno was probably a role model for Sylvian in the way one could reconcile the avantgarde and the pop world without sacrificing visions. Eno was the one who opened the ambient landscapes, and Sylvian followed on his tracks.

Change of the scenery. Twentyfirst century. NINE HORSES in parts, and BLEMISH and MANAFON and MANAFON VARIATIONS for sure were fucking great albums by Mr. Sylvian. They rank among his best works ever. No Eno inflluence could be detected. And no ECM connection either. David had always loved to have ECM artists being part of his songs, from Kenny Wheeler to Steve Tibbetts. Even Terje Rypdal was asked. That has stopped, too. In recent times, and because of different reasons, David even stopped singing. His hard core fans are not amused. It is always a good sign when hard core fans are not amused. See Scott Walker. See Talk Talk. Nostalgia is a trap. And inspiration is fair enough, no copycats in action. Though Sylvian learned his Eno-lessons, no doubt about that. Brian, by the way, studied Steve Reich’s early works en detail, and drew exciting conclusions! (ME)

– – –

I always wondered why DS never mentioned Brian Eno in interviews, but …

From my point of view there is a fundamental difference, not only in the songwriting, but also in the experimental/ambient music of those two artists, that could in a way be compared to the difference between Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane: it’s a difference in spirit.

There are secular coolness, cheerful playfullness and easy-going humour in Enos music. David Sylvian however used electronics to point out a certain auratic/traumatic drama in “the difficulty of being” (J. Cocteau) and in personal, spiritual searching.

Does Eno like Sylvian’s songwriting? I do. (JS)

– – – 

I don’t think that Eno likes Sylvian’s songwriting, especially the early solo-albums. On one side, we have the atheist Eno, on the other the „spiritual searcher“ Sylvian. (Though his masterpiece MANAFON was released in the aftermath of doubts and disbelief.) The lyrics of „classic Sylvian“ (Brilliant Trees, Gone to Earth, Secrets of the Beehive), too, belong to this category of artists searching for self-recognition and wisdom, a totally different approach. In fact, they have far less common ground than the line of artistic „soul mates“ they’ve invited to their albums might suggest.

And the singing? Two worlds, too. Here, on Eno’s part, the sharpness and dark wit, the undermining of wrong romanticism, and – simultaneously – again and again a yearning quality (listen to the song „SPINNING AWAY“). There, on Sylvian’s paths, a melodramatic attitude, a certain amount of pathos (never easy to handle), mythical sub-texts, religious metaphors. But, all of that changed since BLEMISH. So, maybe, Eno would possibly like this new late turn in Sylvian’s career. Because of the courage to attack the old formulas. (ME)

– – –

Blemish, then Manafon, Wandermüde (name is program) and actually the Kilowatt-Hour declare an intention to walk on that path between music and anti-music. Walking this fine line between the neither and the nor means: filtering or making music that includes a contra-pole, something different than music. There has to be an exit.

This is, how i interpretate Sylvians work in recent years: music as an antidot for outworn harmonies, sweet melodies and obsolete clishes. These are swan songs, it’s farewell-music – with a slight destructive touch. But something remains from the Brilliant Trees and Gone to Earth albums up to the present works: an atmosphere of subtil desire; romanticism, mystizism and (scuse me) … narcissism – even though in a homeopathic dose.

David Sylvian uses electronic effects to create more or less „mystic“ moods, as he ever did. To compare it with Eno again: one drives the screw in, the other one drives it out. Here stays the introverted and depressive subject: Orpheus with the blues. And on the other hand it is the objective, more relaxing sound: drifting through time & space … spinning away. (JS)


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