Interview with John Levin
Day of Collisions
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #515, 16 April 2005. In the WGDR studio. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:14:25–1:57:15].
John Levin is an improviser, electronic musician, wind player and composer based in southeastern Vermont (US). His music reflects his interests in analog synthesizers, medieval polyphony, drones, early minimalism, and free improvisation. His most recent recording, Nobody Goes That Way, was released by Spirit of Orr in 2006. In the mid-1980s he studied at Mills College in Oakland, California, where his teachers included Anthony Braxton, Kenneth Gaburo and Larry Polansky. In addition to performing music, John enjoys his local farmers' market, red wines from the Côtes du Rhône region, and cheese from just about anywhere.
[Kalvos] So John Levin’s here, welcome to Kalvos & Damian, as always!
[John Levin] Well, thank you very much, it’s good to be back.
[K] We’re going to play something we’re going to talk over, is that what you told us? Let’s do that, what do we have that we’re going to talk over? I love talking over things.
[JL] We’re talking over one of many homemade CDs which is simply labeled Tweak Live at the Weathervane. This dates probably from about six weeks ago.
[K] I have to ask you… how you’re doing, after we last…
[Damian] We should preface this, because there’s been a…
[K] I last saw John at a performance of the Vermont Symphony, where they were playing a piece of mine, and not long afterwards, you had a… conflagration.
[JL] A major catastrophe. The residents of 32 Main Street in Brattleboro were awakened by the fire alarm going off at ten of six on the morning of Saturday, December 4, 2004. People were out in the hallways saying, “Get out, get out, it’s real.” I threw on a pair of sweatpants and a shirt and sweater, grabbed my car keys and a pair of flip-flops and headed downstairs, and there were pieces of molten glass drifting down from the second and third floor. We all got out of the building out on the street and looked at it, and saw flames coming out of the windows, and we all realized in our hearts it was the last time we were going to see most of what we had to see in the building.
[K] Except, as they say, the shirts on your backs. It was really one of those cases.
[JL] It turned out later on that the wreckage coughed up more than one initially would have been led to imagine, watching it go from the parking lot. I got back in a month after, and during the lunch break of Renaud Bros. Construction who were doing the demolition, I had about 25 minutes to get back into the front room, where all of my tapes, CDs, scores, instruments and everything else was. In that 25 minutes, I had to make the horrible decision of… which of the children do you save? [Laughter]
[K] Oh, you mean, they simply weren’t going to let you in at all, and you just had to slip in and grab stuff?
[JL] Yeah, they were freaking out because it was semi-illegal for us to be in there, because we weren’t bonded and insured by Renaud’s bond and insurance, and if the floor or the roof had caved in or something bad happened to us we could have sued them, so it was sketchy for us to be in there.
[K] That became known in the legal trade as Renaud syndrome.
[JL] Well, I sure had it on that day. But I got out some scores, which for me is interesting, because I don’t do a lot of notes on paper music, but I got some scores out, and I got out…
[D] And these were all recognizable, they had not been destroyed by the conflagration?
[JL] Yeah, they had not been destroyed. And also all of my master tapes, my half-inch and one-inch master tapes from my Mills College days were in this built-in wooden thingy, and they survived. I don’t know how well they survived, because they were baked to a temperature of probably about 1000 degrees, and then cooled off. So who knows what happened?
[K] Well, we do that with tapes, just to make them work again.
[JL] But also, a little wooden Renaissance alto recorder survived, and it survived in open air, it survived a fire, and then it survived in the open air sleet, snow, freezing rain, temperatures in the ’teens, temperatures in the thirties, and it was intact. It’s really funny, because there was this one corner where the two Arps were, the Arp Odyssey and the Arp 2600, and where all my old LPs were. When the firefighters were fighting the fire, they couldn’t put this corner out. It wouldn’t go out, and when I finally got to see that corner, it was nothing but a toppled pile of bricks and soot. So it was kind of like the big locus of what I thought was the big core of my existence was absolutely obliterated.
[D] So, do the fire-people think that’s what started the fire? The Arps?
[K] [Laughter] The Arps?
[JL] No, it wasn’t like a bum power supply in a 32-year-old analog synth that caused the building to go down. Well, it’s also strange: the week after the fire, a friend of mine at work was so distraught by this event that for a week he just blew off work and surfed the web reading about Arps. He surfed eBay, and he found the exact same 2600 that I had, and he bought it for me.
[K] Ooh, ooh, yes, alright!
[D] Well, can you tell him that we’re in desperation too? [General laughter]
[K] We’ll get back to your tale. Let’s listen to some of this music, and we’ll be back.
[D] Do you want to explain any of it first?
[JL] Sure. Tweak is a duo, it’s myself and Charlie Schneeweis, and Charlie’s been teaching electronic music at Marlboro College down in Marlboro, Vermont, for a couple of years. Last fall, he said, “You know, I’m doing all this stuff with electronics, and you have all this old electronic stuff that you don’t go near anymore, and it’s time for you to get it out, and it’s time for us to do something with it.”
We listen to #1 by Tweak (John Levin and Charlie Schneeweis), recorded live [0:21:15–0:32:10].
[D] So, talk about this. What are we hearing?
[JL] Okay. This is definitely me, playing a Moog… See, there’s this new place in Brattleboro which is called the Weathervane, and Charlie and I performed there every other Tuesday. So every other Tuesday, we take two old Moog Concertmate MG-1s… made by Moog, under contract to RadioShack. So while it says “Realistic” on the backside, in tiny letters on the front side it says, “Moog Music.” And this has sort of become the vintage retro analog synth for the low-budget eBayer, because they’re only about $350 instead of say, $700.
[K] It’s very funny, because when you mentioned this off-mic I said, “Oh, I recognize that immediately,” because there was a guy locally who ran the RadioShack who had one, and I had to fix it. It was just a nightmare to fix, because there was crumbly stuff inside… you mentioned the same stuff, the terrible foam that was crumbling off, and the contacts were bad. It was really difficult to fix. Got it fixed, though.
[JL] Yeah, so every other Tuesday, we trod out these two MG-1s and I use a Line6 DL4 Digital Delay. Charlie also plays an Alesis airSynth. Have you ever seen this thing? It’s a little box about six and a half by six and a half, and it has a little plastic dome in the centre of it. It uses sort of garage-door technology, an electric eye. It’s like a Theremin, you wave your hands over the little plastic dome, and it changes the pitch and amplitude of these 32 little preset sounds. Charlie also plays laptop, and a Roland SH-32.
[K] What does he use on his laptop?
[JL] I don’t even know, I’ve never asked him. I’ve never looked. The Roland SH-32 is a digital synth, but again, it’s got all these knobs and sliders and dials on it. Because we do all this knob-slider-dial music, we decided to call ourselves Tweak. So anyway, every other Tuesday in Brattleboro we do this, and anywhere from 8–20 people show up, and they sit around drinking coffees and Belgian beers and red wine and talk in the background.
[K] So what is it with vintage synths? This is all of a sudden a real interest that has arisen. I’ve noticed it because there are vintage synths being recreated in hardware as well as software, and there’s a whole virtual school of vintage synth users. Only the sounds, if not the instruments themselves.
[JL] Yeah. I think it all started with techno, I think that had a lot to do with it. What was it, the Roland TB-303 or something? It was this little bass synthesizer that was used on a ton of house and techno tracks in the late 80s, early 90s. That kind of got the ball rolling. I have stuck with it all these years because I don’t like punching in parameters on little LED screens. I work at a computer all day long, so I don’t like working with a computer at the end of the day. I like knobs and sliders.
[K] You like the physical nature of moving the controls and actually having them respond to what you do.
[JL] Yeah. Also, over the years, I had sort of developed this weird personal vocabulary which is all about oscillators going out of tune. [Oscillators in background music suddenly shift in tune]
[K, D] Oh, there’s one right now!
[D] Oh, we love it!
[K] Well, how many people are doing this? Have you seen kind of a movement towards this…
[D] A Moogment.
[K] …a Moogment, aside from the techno world? How is that happening?
[JL] Yeah. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of improvisers who have billed themselves as free improv people working with analog electronics. So it’s kind of infiltrated its way a bit into the musique actuelle and free improv universe. Well also, Moog decided to reissue the Voyager, which is like a reissued Minimoog, which is all analog.
[K] And it is all analog, it’s not digitally emulated inside? It’s actually analog circuitry?
[JL] Yeah. There are digital aspects of the signal path, because it can store patches. But the filters are analog, the oscillators are analog, everything is analog. There are manufacturers who are making analog, and at the same time there are musicians who are… trying to make analog. I got really inspired — I think it was around 2002 — we went down to this place in Easthampton, Massachusetts called the Flywheel, and we saw Cor Fuhler, who’s from Amsterdam. He’s part of the whole Amsterdam scene, he’s a composer and pianist, and he did a whole set on a modified [EMS] Portabella, and it was just amazing to see someone do a whole set of improv using this little ancient suitcase synth, it was great. So I said, “Well, if Cor Fuhler can do that, why can’t I?”
[K] It’s interesting, because a generation or two has gone by since these instruments were first issued, and I think there’s a lot of experience in how to use electronic sound effectively, part of which was fueled by the digital era. We learned a lot of ways of working, and sounds we could make that we could then take back to this hands-on method of using the analog synths now. I think it’s really a revelation in the quality of improv now. I mean, we used to do improvs with our instruments and with some friends’ instruments in the 1970s, and I have not dared to listen to the recordings. I would bet that we simply had no clue as to the depth of possibility at the time.
[D] Well, there was also a lack of talent involved.
[K] Well, that’s… a given, but even with that, we could do better today. [Laughter]
[JL] It’s interesting that you mention the 70s. It’s been happening for a while, but the 70s are really being mined. In pop music in particular there are lots of rock bands that are mining the 70s, and I think that has a lot to do with the analog revival as well.
[D] Also, the people who used to be the rock bands of the 70s are coming back, because they can’t find anything else that they can do.
[K] [Laughter] Let’s listen to some of this. Is there another cut following and we can just let it go, or do you have something else we should hear?
[JL] Okay. A while ago, I was reading some music history book, and I noted that [Terry Riley’s] In C was first performed in November of 1964. When I’d been living out on the West Coast, they did a 25th anniversary performance of it, then they did a 30th anniversary performance of it, and I got it into my head, I thought, “Well, when 40 rolls around, I’m going to organize a 40th anniversary performance of In C in Brattleboro.” I invited my entire email list, and I got an ensemble together of about 15 musicians, which is less than the number that Terry says you should have in the score, but it was enough, so we forged ahead. It was a really remarkable combination of people. There were professional musicians, there were rock musicians, jazz musicians, classical musicians…
[D] What sort of instrumentation did you get?
[JL] There was one synthesizer but I don’t remember what it was. Two recorders, one flute, one clarinet, one violin, two trumpets, French horn, cello, metallophone, percussion, piano, synthesizer, and probably something I’m forgetting. Oh, and an electric bass. We didn’t have a lot of rehearsals, and everyone was at different levels of ability, so it’s got some rough edges, but it has a certain kind of charm that I really like. The other thing about it is that the whole process of putting this performance together was very interesting. I hadn’t realized this when you start out, but rehearsals of In C, if you do it collaboratively, turn into a little town meeting in a way. You know, you play the piece through and then you sit back and talk about how it went. You say, “Well, this would work better,” and personalities emerge, there are controlling personalities and there are mellow personalities, there are intermediate personalities. It becomes this… it’s like an…
[D] It’s an organism.
[JL] Yeah, it becomes an organism.
We listen to the beginning of In C by Terry Riley, from a performance organized by John Levin [0:43:44–0:52:06].
[K] You said [you organized] about 20 for this?
[JL] It was about 20 people. For Brattleboro, this was a good sign. About 60 people showed up for the concert at the Vermont Jazz Center, which is in Cotton Mill Hill, which used to be the Dunham shoe factory. There’s a couple of performance spaces in that building, and they had just enlarged the space. Imagine this big warehouse space. I was talking earlier about the sort of town meeting hall style of putting together a performance of In C, and how there was a lot of discussion about how to do the piece. One of the musicians said, “Rather than sitting up on the stage, let’s surround the audience.” So we did it with the musicians in a circle facing inwards, looking at each other across the audience, who kind of sat in the middle.
[D] Where was the time-keeper?
[JL] The piano, the pulse, was onstage.
[D] Also, the woodblocker?
[JL] The woodblocker was sort of at six o’ clock if the piano’s at noon, on the other side.
[D] Okay. We’re about coming into the home stretch.
[K] Yeah, we’ll get ahead a little bit here, because you said there are some interesting events taking place towards the end.
[JL] Yeah, the last five minutes. I’ve listened to this a lot, and I like those. Also, everyone listens to the beginning, but does everyone always make it through to the end?
[K] Not awake! [General laughter] Including the performers. Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble tried this, didn’t they?
[D] Yes, I think we made it through in 36 minutes, or maybe even less.
[K] Yeah, you couldn’t wait to get it over with.
[D] Right, there was a different feeling about it.
[K] And I also heard the world’s worst performance of this. I don’t know, were you there? The absolute most hideous performance of In C I have ever heard was done by Kronos Quartet and Electric Phoenix.
[D] Oh, that was just… dreadful!!! It had no purpose!
[K] They had the voices of Electric Phoenix singing the part, and the Kronos Quartet. Talk about something that did not work. From the beginning to the end, there was not a moment that it functioned as a piece of music.
[D] No, it was all glitz.
[K] It was personality of the performers, but the music never sounded through it, and the singers were each bellowing their little lines and being cute, and Kronos was swooping and diving like they do.
[JL] In their matching outfits?
[K] In their matching outfits, and it didn’t seem like voices and string quartet were going to work for the piece. It just didn’t feel like it was going to happen, and when we got there, it was almost as dreadful as some other performances we’ve seen at the Flynn Theatre recently. So let’s listen to this untrammeled by our voices, the last six and a half minutes of In C. I wondered if you named the group, did you call it something?
[JL] Oh, no. We just called it the 40th Anniversary Performance of In C. The audience was very enthusiastic about it and the players were really into it, so it was a very positive experience for everyone. When it was over, the players said, “You know, we should get together and make a contemporary music ensemble to do more pieces like this,” but nothing ever came of it.
[K] Everybody ran, yeah.
We listen to the end of In C by Terry Riley [0:55:57–01:01:40].
[JL] The other thing I’m remembering about this thing that made it really memorable was that it was two days after the election. So everyone in that little corner of that little blue state was really… we were all real zombies. [K, D laughter] In “Z”. When it was over, so many people said, “That was just what I needed after the election. I had to go and see something that was that kind of far-out, heartfelt and different.” For 42 minutes, it really cheered people up.
[K] Well, it was an interesting performance, that’s for sure. Instead of that strict minimalism tempo, the tempo was flexible. Some players broke the strict rhythm and flowed against it, and the character of it was very personal.
[JL] Yeah, I agree. All the personalities made it what it was.
[K] So to change the topic again, how do you, as an artist, bounce back from your fire?
[JL] Well, the first week is the most interesting week, in a way. That’s the heroic week, in which you just have to get through the anxiety and the sleeplessness and everything else, sort of put your life back together. After that heroic week, what comes back is the sort of despairing period of time, which seems to last quite some time. The other thing that happens, which I feel was really true for me, is that in that moment, when you’re stripped of all your possessions and your passport, everything that you think identifies you, and you’re left with just who you are as a person, in that time you sort of find this weird kind of confidence that you didn’t know that you had.
Beforehand, I was always kind of half-apologetic about my work, in that sense that, you know, “I’m a minimalist, I work with drones, I work with old technology, I work with tonality, and it’s weird music that I’m afraid no one is ever going to understand.” I always approached it with this half-apologetic, “Oh, here comes John the weird composer again, isn’t that too bad,” that kind of thing. And after the fire, it’s like I don’t care anymore what anyone thinks. I don’t care. You come out of the event as a whole person, and after it’s done, you don’t care what someone thinks. What’s important is your intention, and your sincerity, and if that’s there, what other people think doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t really answer your question, but as to how you keep moving forward… the main impact that the event had on me was to make me realize that the important thing is to do it, to be sincere and to believe in oneself, and not worry about all the other stuff.
[D] Do you think it changed since Ill Wind [Ensemble]? Has your output differed?
[JL] Charlie and I had been doing these Tweak performances at the Weathervane, these every-other-Tuesday performances before the fire, and then we started to do them after the fire.
[K] How long was the wait, before you started doing them again?
[JL] The fire was on the 4th, and the first gig was December 29th. The first time back, actually, was with the Odyssey off of eBay that didn’t work. I hadn’t even played it before I plugged it in, but that’s another story. But anyway, there were a couple of Tweak performances after the fire that were dark, more sombre, more aggressive, more noisy, more chaotic. So it did seem like there was this period where there was this dark thing going on.
[D] But Charlie was obviously part of this. Was he reflecting you, or were you just over-burdening, or over-balancing the performances?
[JL] Oh, it’s hard to say. I may have been. We had this expression in the Ill Wind Ensemble and we use it in Tweak too, which is “pulling focus.” It means that moment when you’re improvising and you’re afraid that something interesting isn’t happening, so you decide to do something interesting. We call that pulling focus, so it could have been just me pulling focus, but it could have been his response to the event as well. He was one of the first people I called, I woke him out of a pretty sound sleep on a Saturday morning at 6:30 to tell him that this was happening. He and his wife showed up within a half an hour, as did my friend Tom.
They were the two people that I called, I got them out of a sound sleep, and they were both there within a half an hour. So Charlie was one of a handful of people who stood with my wife Sarah and I as we stood in the Brattleboro Food Co-op parking lot and watched the place go up. He shared that experience with me, so it was probably mutual.
[K] You were right online immediately afterwards, because I think I heard from you that evening.
[JL] Yeah. Sarah and I had very different approaches to dealing with the disaster. Her approach was to go very inward, and I had a more extroverted approach, where I got online and sent emails to people, because that was my way of saying that it happened.
[K] You know, John McGuire [see interview in this issue of eContact!], a composer from New York who’s been a guest on our show a couple of times, had a fire about a year ago, and it was an equivalently massively destructive fire where he lost his life’s work. His nature is one that is so quiet and so laid back that there was never any evidence of there having been a fire, in the way his life seemed from the outside. His work, similar to yours, exists only in one copy in a sense. You work with a lot of electronics and had all these master tapes. John does a lot of electronics but he scores it all in ink. So all the ink scores, including the one he’d been working on for several years were lost in the fire. So it was really a very strange year, because composers don’t tend to have these massive events happen, and to see the way in which each of you reacted to these events was amazing.
Let’s listen to something else, you’ve got some more Tweak cued up for us.
[JL] Yeah, this is another Tweak: Live at the Weathervane, and I believe this track also features myself, Charlie Schneeweis, and a performer whose last name I don’t know, but whose first name is Devon. Devon lives in Bellows Falls, and one of the things that started happening when we started doing these Tweak performances at the Weathervane is that people started to come out of the woodwork. Devon is a circuit bender.
[K] Oh yeah, circuit benders are amazing. Go on, explain this, this is really quite funny.
[JL] Yeah, I don’t know how long circuit bending’s been around.
[K] It’s been around since the beginning, it’s just that it acquired a name in recent times, as a second generation of people started doing it.
[JL] It’s taking commercial electronic devices, opening them up, re-soldering them, putting new circuits in them, and basically turning them to purposes for which they were not otherwise built, you could say. There’s a guy in Brattleboro who has a circuit bent Speak & Spell or See ’n Say. I just found these guys on the internet (I forget their website) who make a circuit bent television. It has an audio input jack on the side, and you plug your audio signal in, and the TV just makes these oscillating patterns. But there’s this huge warning on the site that says, “Kids, don’t do this at home,” because opening up a TV… there’s a lot of juice in that thing. So, circuit bending goes back to Michael Waisviz at STEIM, he did a lot of that. So anyway, this guy Devon just shows up one night. He read about us on the web, and he just shows up. He has a Casio MT-40, just one of the most basic Casios you seen, and it’s got little leopardskin decals on it, but it also has extra knobs and sliders, plus little screws that are somehow tied in with galvanic skin response. So Devon showed up with this circuit bent Casio MT-40 and we just said, “Come on up here and plug it in, and see what happens.” [Laughter]
[K] We used to have the early little tiny Casio sampling keyboard. What was that called?
[D] The SK-1.
[K] Yes, that’s right! We got one of these for the school that I was teaching music at at the time. This was 1985, I think? I stripped the keyboard out and replaced it with contacts, so that we could do windchimes or swordfights or pads, you could cook up anything that made two contacts with this device, sample stuff, and then with the contacts, play. No matter how you wanted to do it, with whatever you wanted to do. As I said, with sword fights, two or three kids would be wired to the swords, each side would be one contact on the keyboard, and you’d have this great cacophony of sampled sounds exploding from the speakers, from their playing. It was a lot of fun, it was great. Certainly long before it was called circuit bending, but lots of fun.
So he showed up at your concert, and this is the result?
[JL] This is the result.
We listen to #2by Tweak (John Levin, Charlie Schneeweis and Devon) [1:14:45–1:28:25].
[D] So do you want to again recap what we’re listening to?
[JL] We’re listening to Tweak: Live at the Weathervane, somewhere in January 2005. This is myself, Charlie Schneeweis and Devon on circuit bent Casio MT-40. Charlie’s playing I think a little Roland SH-2, and I’m playing the Realistic Concertmate MG-1. Realistic on the outside, Moog on the inside.
One of these days, my Odyssey will come back from the repair shop and then we’ll be back in our original formation. That’s what I usually play when we do these things.
[K] Describe the Odyssey, it’s a fascinating-looking thing.
[JL] Yeah, the Odyssey is about 18 inches deep by about 24 inches wide, and it’s got a little short two-and-a-half-octave keyboard on it, and it’s a really classic analog synth. It has two oscillators, one filter, two envelope generators, it has a ring modulator, sample and hold, and a low-frequency oscillator. That’s it, but it’s just enough. It’s laid out in this very interesting way, so that you don’t have to use any patch cords. The most desired connections you want are already pre-routed. Whoever laid it out really know what they were thinking. I don’t know, it just lends itself to making very interesting patches very quickly.
[K] How are the patches made?
[JL] With little sliders. The whole panel has got sliders, so every control is subject to a slider. If you have, say, your modulating oscillator 1 with sample and hold and an ADSR, there’s a little slider to control how much envelope generator or how much sample and hold is whacking the oscillator. The two oscillators can control each other. What I like about it is that I can make little self-regulating patches. I can make these patches where everything is modulating something else and you can just kind of walk away from the whole thing, and it’ll play itself for ten minutes and continue to be interesting.
We listen to more of #2 by Tweak (John Levin, Charlie Schneeweis and Devon) [1:31:15–1:36:32].
[D] About two and a half minutes from the end, you had your own Götterdämmerung there, the gods were in flames, there were some banshees, and I heard the Valkyries all disappearing in flames. There was some anger there.
[JL] There was. That’s truly one of the more “industrial” works in my repertoire. [Laughter]
[D] Yeah, it doesn’t come across sweet and calm the way some of the Ill Winds did.
[JL] Yeah, no, that’s a definite out-take, or something different.
[D] You were letting the pus out.
[JL] Yeah, that’s a real… yeah. Definitely. After I heard that thing, I said, that’s clearly… “That’s about the fire.”
[K] We were talking about the music off-mic, and we were talking about talking over the music. What is it about talking over this music?
[JL] Well, the context in which it was made, at least the Tweak music, is all made in a situation where most of the audience is talking over it, because we are sitting in a bar and we’re playing this music. I think it’s kind of the thing where we love it if someone wants to pay attention to it in its absolute entirety, but if someone simply wishes to pay attention to it when they choose to and then not pay attention when they don’t want to, that’s okay too.
[D] Do you ever riff off the conversations? Can you pick up any of the conversations and then include that into your piece?
[JL] No, I don’t think so.
[K] Yeah, I was going to say there should be microphones on the tables, and start mixing it in.
[JL] Yeah, that’s a good idea. You could have conversationally-triggered devices, so that every time somebody says…
[K] Oh, CTDs, yes! [Laughter] We’re going to hear a piece that’s just yours.
[JL] Yeah, this was made…
[JL] It doesn’t have one.
[K] That’s always a problem, we insist on titles from you each time, and every time you come back to the show, you say, “Oh, this doesn’t have a title.” You have not learned!
[JL] See, the Latchis marquee… the Wilder Building was next door to the Latchis Theatre, and when I made this piece, I went downstairs and I looked at the Latchis marquee, and said, “Whatever’s on the marquee is going to be the title of this piece.”
[K] Barbarella. [Laughter]
[JL] [Laughter] They were playing a movie about camels in Mongolia, they were playing De-Lovely, the Cole Porter movie, but I can’t remember what the third one was, so the title of the piece is I think something like Camels in the Doorlight Delovely.
We listen to by Camels in the Doorlight Delovely by John Levin [1:40:04–1:46:26].
[D] Do you take visual cues off of one another? How do you improvise? What is it that leads you to start at one point, and there’s some evolution that occurs during the course of the piece? I guess it’s listening to one another, and as you say, [pulling] focus? I don’t hear any focus-pulling here.
[JL] Well, this is just me, so…
[D] So you can’t pull it from yourself.
[JL] So you can’t really pull focus on yourself. When I was working with this piece using the Odyssey, there’s this weird way in which I feel like the instrument itself is the score. I think I stole that idea from Gordon Mumma, but I’m not sure. There’s a way in which I feel like the instrument is the score, but the thing is that you rearrange the instrument every time you approach it. Every time you approach the instrument, you put the sliders in a different place, and what comes out then leads to you figure out where you’re going to go with it next. So you create an initial sound, and you listen to that sound for a while, and you say, “Okay, I want to change some parameter of that sound,” so then you change it, and you wait to see what happens, and then you decide you want to change something else. On some level, the changes are dictated somewhat by your mind and what you intend to do, but there’s another level at which the hardware takes over. Frequently the hardware will make some decision for you.
[K] For our listeners who are not understanding what that means, particularly analog synthesis is unpredictable in a lot of ways because the knobs and sliders to not have a replicability. You can’t say, “We’re going to enter the number 21.67 which we used last time,” as you might do in a digital unit. You’re turning the knob to where you thought it was last time. But because of the sensitivity and interaction of so many possible settings, it is almost impossible to replicate. It is, in fact, impossible to replicate what you had before. So when you make one change, it may not entirely be the result you had anticipated. So you can go from there.
[JL] And in playing with other people, there is this conversational thing that happens. It’s a different timeframe. I mean, with the Ill Wind Ensemble, the conversational timeframe was much faster. Someone would play a phrase and someone else would play a phrase. In Tweak, the conversational timeframe is a lot slower, because it takes longer to shape a sound. It can take up to three minutes sometimes to shape a particular sound, so then the other person hears that evolve and then they do something in response to that. So the it’s still like playing a game of tennis, but it’s a very slow-moving one. [Laughter]
[D] You don’t have to run for the cross-court as quickly.
[D] What did happen to Ill Wind Ensemble, by the way? Just bring us up to date, or what happened? Didn’t one leave?
[JL] Eric [Boyer] picked up everything and moved to Idaho. We carried on for an extended period of time as a trio, and if someone calls us up on the phone and says, “We want you guys to show up and play somewhere,” we do it, but we’re not actively looking for opportunities to perform. Then also about half of my instrumentarium, of course, was collided.
[K] Yeah, of course. So where are you headed from here? Not this afternoon, but artistically. What’s the next step? Are you still in an extended recovery period, or have you started totally afresh?
[JL] Well, the interesting thing about the fire is that it happened at a point where I was sort of starting afresh, in the sense that the kind of music you’re hearing in the background was music that I had been thinking about making for a long time, but I had sort of stopped doing it for various reasons. In the summer of ’04, a friend of mine, Stuart Wright, who runs a space in Brattleboro called The Loft, said to me, “I want you to get off your butt and finish some pieces, and do an all-electronic concert at The Loft.” I said, “Stuart, that’s ludicrous, I don’t want to do this stuff in public,” and he said, “I don’t care what you think, you’re gonna do this show.”
He forced me to make a date, so I think it was September 23 where I did this show at The Loft, where I took the Arp 2600, took the Odyssey, and did three things. I performed a piece live in real-time on the 2600, I performed a piece live in real-time on the Odyssey and the delay, and I also made a tape piece using the Odyssey multi-tracked. It was not necessarily thought through, because it was a multi-tracked improvisation in response to myself, but it involved pitches and decisions about pitches. So it was another 17-minute piece that I made over a period over a couple of months, and I played it once in The Loft for this audience. That piece I think was the first really good piece that I had finished and completed in a style that was both what I had used to do and a style that was what I’m currently doing, and a style that I’m looking forward to the future of doing. I made it, I presented it, and it was taken out of my hands.
[K] What a concept. I can’t imagine, I absolutely can’t imagine.
[D] Do you remember the piece Sidewinder by Morton Subotnick?
[D] I think we’re hearing little snippets of it. Just little nods of the old electronic cap.
[K] The Sidewinder drone filter.
[JL] Yeah, but I remember how I made that piece. So I know what I did, and I know I can do it again. It’s just that I need to get back to that universe again. So that’s my plan to move forward, is to go back to working with electronics, with the old analog electronics.
[D] Think you can have it ready by, say, September 17?
[JL] I’ll see what I can do.
[D] Ooh, yes.
[K] Our guest has been John Levin, back with Kalvos & Damian for the third time, I believe?
[JL] This is correct.
[K] Thanks so much for coming all the way up here to the studios from way down the banana belt of the mountain.
[JL] Thank you so much for having me.
We listen to more of Camels in the Doorlight Delovely by John Levin [1:54:16–1:57:15].