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dvd on 07/06/2012 at 01:00PM

Higgins and Hillmer Go In On It!

Photo by Nate Dorr

Sam Hillmer (saxophonist of ZS) and Patrick Higgins (composer, guitarist) discuss the roles of tradition and technology in their projects, Diamond Terrifier and Bachanalia.

Sam – can I fluff one of these? 

[takes a cigarette;  they’ve been talking about musical foreground] 

Patrick – What’s your conception of the relation between saxophone and electronics, as far as foreground and background in the Diamond Terrifier project? It seems to me like the saxophone is generating simultaneously foreground and background, and the two become importantly inextricable.

S – Yeah, yeah. That’s some spectral shit, where the sound of the sax is happening and then the electronics are happening, almost inside of the sax. And there is some loop work going on as well: that’s working towards embracing the MC model. 

Patrick Higgins

P -  That’s what I’m working on for Bachanalia, building loop tracks that are simple harmonic pedals, just one chord that floats, emerging beneath the performance so that the work played over it may or may not always agree with the pedal, but produces continuous moments of contrapuntal or harmonic tension. Not necessarily a part of the composition, but a result of the fact that you’re insisting on one chord underneath it the whole time.  So it provides a “backing track” but also disrupts the performance as the static harmony begins to disagree with the moving melodic line.

S- Yeah, I think that’s a cool quality, the quality of a backing track absorbing the function of the band.  In SOCA music or in dance hall music there’s a hip parallel there… hip, but thoroughly understated [laughs] between the way in which thoroughbass absorbed the tradition of polyphonic music.  In the Renaissance, when polyphony was the primary vehicle, the Florentine Camerata come along and knock that shit out with a foregrounded melody.  All of that which would have been executed by a polyphonic choir realization gets absorbed into a thoroughbass instrument.

P - So now it's like electronics conceived as the new thoroughbass model for solo performance.

S – That’s why it is hip to do that in Bachanalia, to have a backing track.  Bach is at the end of that trajectory.  Open modal polyphony getting codified through chanson into vertical organization and that vertical organization arriving in thoroughbass with the Camerata and Monte Verde and just ditching polyphony.  Suddenly cats were rolling with a lute player.  It used to be just like choir and no one is sure what the foreground and background is, then all of a sudden these cats nix that and role with a lute player. Singer…lute player. It has a similar vibe to the calypso, steel drum band shit to electronic rationalization of that sort of tradition, to soca singers going off with a backing track.  So to bring your Bachanalia project to this place, with Bach being at the end of that conversation where thoroughbass went, putting a backing track under that is some deep, spiral folding-in-on-itself shit.

P - The compositions I'm playing are written as these self-sufficient solo works that operate symphonically in the sense that even when Bach is composing for a single line, it’s always implying ornamentation and orchestration in a way that is not immediately present; there's always a suggestion of a harmonic basis, even if you're just hearing a single line.  So the electronics allow you to toy with that, shift that around, exploit that, undermine and amplify that.  There will be certain points where there's a whole line that is suggesting some kind of pedal point underneath but not present in the playing, so by allowing the electronics to provide a new note underneath, it is re-contextualizing something that is already suggested but isn't there.

S - Or providing something that it's not suggesting.

P - Yeah, just coming into conflict: counterpoint as disagreement.

S - That conversation we had in that hotel room on tour...There's no original performance of Bach!  The original is a set of instructions.  And so each subsequent realization is a trope on this thing that existed first as a series of instructions on how to go about making an experience.  That baseless quality is so deep.

P – Yeah. We were talking about the impossibility of “covering”.  There's no original performance that you're copying in these works.  That music is fundamentally detached from any original performance.  The work is just the inhabitation of a framework.

S - There's a deep connection there between the mechanics of realizing a score and the mechanics of doing a live set of a backing track in that the sense of an original performance versus the constant possibility of variation which in Bach exists because each new performance is a variation on a stated intention but that intention isn't stated musically.  It's stated semantically.  The parallel between that and MC/DJ culture is a sense of an original performance, but the original performance function is an invitation to new creative work vis-a-vis remix.  And I like that because I like thinking about sheet music as technology.  That idea is lost.  The idea that when you're working off of sheet music or working with an instrument, you're working with technology.  That's so fundamental to the purist attitude which is like 'we're doing this song on period instruments and we're keeping it how's it supposed to be' but at the time, that was just some new fly shit to get.  Or even with a new tuning system, it's all technology.  

P- At another level, Bach was a technician.  He was literally an organ technician.  he invented and modified instruments to handle his music.  There's a fundamental connection between the style of writing and the apparatus

S- The emphasis on technology is so liberating.  Seen from a contemporary point of view, in terms of social mileu:  What kind of person gets into Bach or Beethoven?  It's all shrouded in this period dress, activity and behavior.  That becomes crystalized and people think 'this music means this' .  Dancehall has nothing to do with Bach.  But seen from the point of view of technological innovation,  that shit is just smooth space.  Somebody just made up this way to get you to move your fingers around.  It's like gears.  They put this thing in front of you and you're programmed to be able to respond to it to provoke a reaction.  That attitude provides a through line from classical composition to DJ culture.

Sam Hillmer

P - From that perspective, technology is a disruptive force.  In that it makes a perfect "traditional" performance of a Bach piece impossible when running it through a whole contemporary electronic apparatus or interface.  That the electronics end up interrupting the performance is built into my project.  The disturbances from delay, distortion, loops, or harmonic pedals underneath change the way you have to play.  You can't play it the way you're rehearsing it acoustically, or how it's supposed to sound, which leads to creating new sounds from old music.

S - It's deep.  The introduction of the modern, technological voice in the Bachanalia project simultaneously disrupts the sense of tradition while also making the performance of the Bach more true to the actual spirit of the music in that it's embracing technology in a way that is most meaningful in terms of the execution.  Good job Higgins!

P - Thanks man.  [laughs]

S - For the saxophone man: the saxophone needs some new shit!  Either there's going to be some new way to do this, or people are going to stop doing it.  

P - One thing I've always found really appealing about the Diamond Terrifier project is the way that it's a profound celebration of the saxophone while almost not being a saxophone project at all.  It almost doesn't feature the saxophone, per se.

S - That's my whole mission!

P - Which I think is immediately clear in the performance.  You don't feel that you're watching a saxophone.  You're forced to confront the sound as separate from the tradition of the instrument.  Not what is intended by the practice of the saxophone.

S - It's so extreme, the extent to which social convention surrounding the idea of genre comes to bear on the practice of a musician.  You play the saxophone, so you're pushed into these settings which are completely arbitrary.  Why should a 13 year old saxophone player play with a rhythm section?  It's arbitrary.  A 13 year old saxphone player should play over Nikki Manaj or Maroon 5 or whatever they're into!  Why wouldn't you just do what you're into?  But that is so strong.  

P - Yeah, genre constraints and expectations of the instrument…  I remember a guitar teacher when I was 12, studying jazz guitar.  He never assigned that I study other jazz guitarists but said to listen to saxophonists’ phrasing.  To play the guitar better, listen to how other instrumentalists deal with their improvising.  That is a way around the trappings of improvising like a jazz guitar player.  Listen to a sax player instead.  Don't check out Pat Martino, but check out how John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy handles the same tunes.   As a contemporary, practicing saxophonist, how do you improvise in a style that doesn't suggest, or isn't encumbered by saxophonism?

S - I remember when I was in college reading Bertrand Russel’s  'History of Western Philosophy' and he's talking about Aristotle.  Extolling Aristotle, saying how deep a cat he was.  At the end of Aristotle,  the thoughts are so earth-shatteringly deep that for 400 years after, there's no real advance in philosophy because people are just riffing on Aristotle.  I feel like that's what has happened with the saxophone vis-a-vis Trane, Ornette  Coleman in America, Evan Parker in Europe.  Even though those guys with the most profound aspect of their practice, it’s the limitless, boundless creativity with reference to their instrument.  The effect of their work has been to foreclose on creativity.  'And now you will do this!'  Fuck that.  Not fuck them, but fuck that.

P - It ties into the notion of invitation we were talking about earlier.  Those kinds of incredibly genre-defying, genre-elevating innovations, at some point, cease functioning as invitations to extend the work and become codified as styles of playing.  All of a sudden, there are all these music school cats that can play like Coltrane, but it's not an invitation to take on the same challenge, which I feel is what produces work like that to begin with.

S - Don't play like Coltrane, do what Coltrane did.  That's a tall order. [laughs] Look at innovations in other genres.  I'm from DC, when Bikini Kill came out…forget it!  They literally didn't play those instruments before they started that band.  Yet it's a defining moment in punk rock when Bikini Kill starts playing.  Fugazi were ruling the roost, when suddenly there were these bad-ass chicks looking at the fret-board, playing some sinister, cryptic shit.  The music didn’t come from expertise. [laughs] I don't know where it came from.  But it doesn't come from being awesome.  Saxophone is in bad shape. Guitar is doing so much better than saxophone.  Jimi Hendrix…burning!  But it's not like everyone is trying to sound like Jimi Hendrix.  Dustin Wong is literally playing right now, upstairs.  People love Dustin Wong - he doesn't sound like Jimi Hendrix.  Why is that?

P - I think the guitar, in the 20th Century, became deeply associated with a lack of technique, in a good way. I think the guitar's lack of a deep classical foundation is interesting.  It's a relatively young instrument.

S - Well, saxophone has the same property:  a late 19th-Century instrument.

P - Yeah, but at the same time, you can't really learn the saxophone without knowing you're playing  a B-flat.  That's part of the saxophone.  You can learn guitar, without ever knowing you're playing a B-flat.  

S - Yeah, the guitar has a user-friendly, populist quality.

P - It's innovative qualities stem from being able to pick up this instrument and get into it.

S - yeah if you just pick up a saxophone, it's like..

P - You're a bust! [laughs]  Well, there's also this cultural mythos around the guitar as this renegade, unlearned but brilliant innovative instrument.  You know, the Robert Johnson mythology - he sells his soul to the devil and becomes excellent. Could you ask him about guitar technique?  No.  But could he sit down and blow you're mind? Yeah.  And I feel like there's a deep component of that in what is excellent about the guitar.  

S - This is one of the things I try to do, man.  There are examples of saxophone players that are great artists but not great saxophone players according to normative standards of greatness vis-a-vis the saxophone.  But a lot of the cats that play in Ethiopiques are my favorite saxophone players.  But from the point of view of Sonny Rollins or Trane, they're not even on the fucking map.  But still, that music is so heavy.  Or like Beefheart, Beefheart's saxophone playing is so on point.  But obviously not part of the conversation of the technical excavation of the saxophone as far as notes and pitch are concerned.  But ok, the deepest wisdom-tradition of the saxophone, people get really attached to these sheets of sound that cats like Sonny Rollins generate. People get attached to that and even free players like Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler, there's still this sort of connection to that quality of lots of notes.  It's almost like photo realism versus impressionism.  You still have this sheet of sound which is like topography, but you don't have the notes so it sort of lifts off from that.  The actual deepest tradition, in my opinion, is the tradition of making a sound on the instrument.  Playing a note and having it being like 'holy shit'—like one note that devastates.  That's some shit to get into.  

P - That's also like the Diamond Terrifier project. 

S - Yeah, I don't play a lot of notes

P - But deeper than that, inhabiting a single pitch as a way to produce depth and to produce sheets of sound without the profusion of notes.  That's where technology, spirit, intonation comes into it.  

S - The sound gives you the spectrum. That just doesn't get old.  Just hearing a sound in space, or in a projected space, digitally.  And then hearing the kind of different composite attributes of that sound brought to the foreground and recede in the background while other things come into the foreground all inside that one sound.  That shit is everywhere.  It's explicitly present in Western art music, but it's everywhere.  It's in every type of music.  It's so heavy.  And nature gives that to you.  There's this Marc Bolan interview on the deluxe edition of Electric Warrior.  They're interviewing about his poetry.  They ask 'what do you think about when you're writing poetry' He's like 'I mean, om, is the funkiest boogie that's ever been laid down, I mean, that's that." [laughs]


Catch Patrick Higgins this Saturday, July 7th at The Stone (2nd St and Ave C, NYC), where he will perform Bachanalia and a special duo set with drummer Greg Fox. 8pm set.

Sam Hillmer the Diamond Terrifier will be at The Stone this Sunday, July 8th with a host of wild collaborators, including Mick Barr and C Spencer Yeh. 10pm set.

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mezcalli on 07/07/12 at 04:10PM
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