A gracious, articulate and often funny and always fascinating interviewee, Mark Stewart, guitarist for Bang on a Can All-Stars since the group’s inception in 1992, spoke to NUVO on a Thursday two weeks before the All-Stars Sept. 25 performance at Loeb Playhouse. Besides discussing the way in which the All-Stars approach pieces by any given composer, he also chatted about his work as an instrument maker and educator, calling himself a cross between John Cage and Pete Seeger, or alternately, a musical Johnny Appleseed.
NUVO: Can you talk about what special guest Glenn Kotche will be playing with the All-Stars?
Stewart: He’s a very creative musician and he’s going to be doing some duos with our drummer David Cossin as well. But the two pieces that he’s written for us are certainly a departure from Wilco. I’m always reticent to give too much of a description, because it’s so much fun for folks to receive things without having some kind of a verbal idea or mental image of what they should expect. But they have a certain kind of neo-classicism about them that is very satisfying. But you throw a word out like that and it means different things to different folks. Certainly, you’re not going to be hearing Prokofiev, so it’s not neo-classic in that sense. There’s a certain kind of structural rigor about them that’s fun, and they have a kind of modest exuberance that’s also really satisfying.
We’re doing piece by Lukas Ligeti, who’s again, a composer we’re really happy to be working with. This is a piece he wrote for us a couple of years ago for the People’s Commissioning Fund concert. It’s a really fun thing we do every year here in New York. We’re a non-for-profit organization; of course, we rely on the generosity of people and foundations and grants and things like that to do the work we do. We don’t make commercial music, and so, sometimes we ply our trade by getting others that are interested in supporting us to do just that — support us. And we came across this idea a number of years ago that, when you send money into Bang on a Can, instead of getting a tote bag or a free CD, you actually get to commission a piece of work, a piece of music. So all the people who send in supportive checks for this particular project get their names on the score, and they get to see a rehearsal of the piece and feel like they’re part of actually making a piece of music, commissioning a piece of music. And it’s that direct. You send in $5 and you get your name on a score. You send in $10 and get you name on a score. And so we call it the People’s Commissioning Fund concert. It allows us to commission works from composers that are outside the standard boxes. There are certain people who understand the fundraising world and the commissioning world, and who are part of that world, and then there are wonderful musicians who are outside that world. We think those people that fall in the cracks should be heard as well. Traditionally, these are funds that are used to commission folks who normally wouldn’t get commissions in the standard commissioning and funding world. And Lucas is one of those folks. He is a composer who has spent a lot of time in West Africa and is a wonderful percussionist himself, so his work reflects that; there is the counterpoint and polyrhythmic nature of the thing, the fact that there are threes and fours and twelfths and sixes all going on at once, is certainly a reflection of his time spent in West Africa. At the same time, in no way could you look at it and say this is a derivative work; it’s a work that just reflects the remarkable pan-African and pan-Western world that Lucas has lived in.
We’re doing something by Brian Eno. We’re doing the first of the “Music for Airports.”
NUVO: What were the challenges in scoring that piece for a live ensemble?
Stewart: It’s kind of the opposite of the normal thing; usually the widget replaces the man, and in this case, the man replaces the widget. I say that with a little bit of tongue in cheek but it’s essentially true. We took what was originally a process piece that was done in the studio using studio techniques and tape loops. It wasn’t something that was recorded live. It was assembled in a very artful fashion. And we essentially transcribed it for people. It was essentially a labor of love; we all grew up loving “Music for Airports.” So it wasn’t an idea that we were improving it in any way. We were actually kind of paying homage and we were also wanting to live in that sound world. We felt like it was just going to be a pleasure to play that piece, and that’s where it came from; it was really just an organic thing. And it turned out to be this yummy successful project and Brian felt the same way. He initially gave us the all-clear when we were doing it but was not involved in the project at all. And afterwards, when we sent him a recording, we received a very heartfelt letter from him, and he has since attended a number of performances in Europe and taken the composer’s bow at the end of the piece. We’ve had wonderful hands with him backstage and at meals. And he’s, of course, an extraordinary fellow and is genuinely touched by our sincere care and delight in playing his work. And of course the response from audiences is really lovely as well. So it was kind of the opposite way: you’re always hearing about the machine replacing human, and in this case, humans stepping in where machines were, and it having a really delightful aesthetic resonance. So we’ll be doing “1:1,” the first movement of that, which was written by Eno and Robert Wyatt.
When we premiered this at Hampstead airport in London, Robert Wyatt was there. He’s just as extraordinary a brain and aesthete as Brian Eno, but in a completely different style; he’s almost like the buccaneer to Eno’s ambassador. And just a wonderful style of putting words together. They asked him, “What’s freedom is music?” One of those questions: how do you answer that, right? Well he had an answer. He said [in Irish accent], “When I come to a concert, the first thing I’m doing is looking for the way out; I’m looking for the exits. Look at this place. It’s filled with exits! There’s exits everywhere; it’s made to get out of. That’s what I call freedom in music.” He’s so connected, and it was just a delight and honor to spend that day and get to meet him. We’re the kids: we’re the next generation. And that’s what Brian wrote in his letter. He was very moved, actually moved to tears the first time he put it on and listened to it. And he was very surprised that he was so emotional. He was like, what’s going on here? Why am I having this reaction? And he said — this was Brian — he realized it was a present at the birth kind of feeling; that here he was, this piece that he had given birth to, and here it was all grown up, here it was a number of years later and look what it was doing. He felt a kind of paternal pride and satisfaction in the achievements of his offspring, and I think Robert felt the same way. I say this not with a puffed-up chest or in a prideful fashion: we all felt intense satisfaction that we had done what we had set out to do, which was to honor and extend this piece into another realm, and that was the glow we felt, as opposed to a prideful glow; we felt that we had done what we had set out to do, and that it was indeed an honorable thing.
What else is on this program: oh, we’ve got “Worker’s Union” by Louis Andriessen. That’s something he wrote for his Citizen Band in the ‘70s in Amsterdam. It’s a really interesting piece that’s different every time you play it. We all read from the same score but our interpretation of the score, of course, is going to be slightly different. It’s a rhythmic unison, but the notes are left up to the performers. But the shape of every line is clear, so we’re all describing the same topographical landscape, but it is unique to our instruments what range we’re playing in and what notes we actually choose. Oftentimes, after people hear this piece, they say, “Let me see this score,” because the execution is so precise, but it’s clear that something is going on; there’s something of an aleatoric nature even though it’s not aleatoric. Clearly were involved with making choices, but the fact that we can make choices with such precision is a little startling and that was the genius of Louis’s score. Of course, he’s such a pitchman, that there’s something about that, in the years to come, it was such a hit, that was so irritating to him, because he doesn’t choose the pitches for you: you choose the pitches. But the topography: when you go up and how you go up and what a line is and when things split into two parts: all that is very clear. Essentially instead of a five-staff — the standard staff — there’s one line, and that’s the middle of whatever instrument you happen to be playing, and then the notes go up and go down, or hold steady in relationship to that line. So where you are on your instrument is entirely up to you. And it’s a real rabble-rouser; it’s a great concert piece.
NUVO: How often do you run into pieces that have a sort of chance or improvisatory element, and how often are they through-composed?
Stewart: These days, I’d say maybe 70/30: 70 where every note is given to us, and then maybe 30 where there’s either a lot of improvisation or elements of improvisation. But I’d say about 70 percent of the time where it’s like Beethoven; it’s pretty clear what the composer wants us to do and we do it, of course, putting our spin on whatever it is. And then about 30 percent of the pieces we play these days have some element of improvisation.
NUVO: And has that changed over the past 20 years?
Stewart: Yeah. I think when we started out it was almost completely notated. Gradually, as we’ve been together and grown together as a band, we’ve had composers come in who say, We want you to improvise, and we looked at each other and said, There’s no reason we can’t do that. There’s some pieces when we’re improvising in a vernacular that’s pretty clear. When we do Ornette Coleman’s pieces, clearly there are things that come out of the modern jazz vernacular. When we do Tan Dun — that’s kind of an interesting thing, because I wouldn’t say that we try to function in a kind of Chinese improvisatory vernacular, but somehow those sounds tend to get in there, just because of the nature of the piece. I guess the piece itself really shapes the vernacular: sometimes it’s a very personal vernacular, and sometimes you can say, oh, there’s a little bit of a funk or a jazz thing creeping in. I think we try and see where we are, where the landscape is, and try and be true to that as much as possible. But these days, there’s so many different kinds of improvisation, as there always have been, so improvising doesn’t always mean jazz or doesn’t always mean blues; there’s all sorts of musique concrete and noise and textural things. There’s lots of different ways to approach improvisation these days and we try to avail ourselves of as many as possible, depending on the task at hand.
NUVO: To change direction a little bit, I’m wondering what kind of new instruments you’re working on and if you could talk about that side of your work?
Stewart: I’m always picking up some piece of junk out of a dumpster and seeing what it’s going to be, what it wants to be. Sometimes it feels like I’m rescuing an instrument from it’s fate as a piece of junk or as a piece of a house, or scaffolding or something. Recently, gosh, I’ve just been touring so much that I really haven’t been able to spend much time in my lab with Igor, coming up with the next Promethean answer. But I guess I’m bringing a bunch of things out in the Midwest — I know I’m doing something in Krannert. I’m bringing out a bunch of instruments that I variously describe as plumbing instruments, different instruments that are made from materials that are more commonly associated with plumbing, whether it’s copper, PVC, or ABS materials, even cardboard. I have a collection of very simple instruments that make really satisfying noises, and for the most part, they’re easily made by just about anybody. My personal ethos is that I feel the word musician is too often used to discourage people from participating in their birthright as soundmakers. So the instruments that I make and that I play tend to be instruments that encourage people to participate in their birthmark as soundmakers; I’ve got a little bit of Johnny Appleseed thing going on with sound. For me, it’s really like John Cage meets Pete Seeger: the world is a symphony — that’s the John Cage part — and the Pete Seeger part is, you wanna join in? What I’ve found is that when you make an instrument that’s easy to make, that’s easy to play, that has a really attractive sound one way or the other — not necessarily beautiful, sometimes they’re hysterical, but it’s attractive in its hysteria — but if you make one that entices people to play, and also doesn’t inherit any system of order or demand to be played in any particular vernacular, people take right to it, people just jump right in and start finger painting with sound.
So I’ll have a bunch of those with me, whether they’re friction mallets, these wonderful superball instruments that you rub on anything whether it’s a window or a wall or a car trunk or a washer/dryer or a piano lid. Or a slide flute organ, which I’ll probably bring one that has three slide flutes hooked up to one mouthpiece, that again is just waiting for anyone to play on it; I’ve never heard anyone make an uninteresting sound with it. Or whether it’s a PVC saxophone that I call as chaladoo, which is like the hermaphrodite of instruments — if you play it one way, it’s like a bass clarinet, and if you play the other way, it’s like a digeridoo. All three of those instruments are very simple to play and very satisfying. And they tend to make their own pieces; these aren’t instruments that are meant to replace traditional orchestral instruments. These do very idiosyncratic things and they do what they do perfectly. I guess that’s my thing: I find something that does a thing, and I let it do that thing. That would be my working definition of instrumental music: find out what an instrument does, and what you do upon it, do that, and music comes to emerge.
NUVO: And to borrow from your own terminology, you distinguish between microsonophones [those that create a “micro-,” or tiny sound] and macrosonophones [a “macro-,” or louder sound], and it seems like the instruments that you’re bringing along are microsonophones, and won’t supplant traditional orchestral instruments but will be satisfying to whatever one person picks them up.
Stewart: Yeah, public and private music. I think too few people these days have private music, and probably the most trite example — not trite to do, but trite because it’s what everyone talks about — is singing in the shower. Or walking down the street and humming to yourself. If there’s a problem with the iPod and it’s massive jukebox, it’s the fact that it’s replacing one’s own private music with other people’s public music. There’s so much satisfaction to be taken in private music, and to give someone the gift of themselves — that’s what any parent or any teacher wants to do for their students or their progeny or their friend. That’s the best thing you can do for anybody is to give them themselves. There’s a little bit of that missing these days, as people don’t realize how much of themselves isn’t around when they don’t find joy in their own music.
NUVO: So do you think there’s even less private music at this point? It’s been heading that way for more that a century, since recording technology first developed.
Stewart: Yeah, I think actually that putting technology into people’s hands, with Garage Band, allowing people to be creative in recording music; I think that there’s elements of that that are just wonderful. But just simple pleasure of making sound, and just non-American Idol glory…you don’t have to embody some unbelievably narrow-minded idea of what music is, the idea that someone in the early rounds gets on American Idol and does something that is just bizarre, and they’re told that that’s not music, and that that’s not singing; that’s completely false. What’s really being said, and what should be said, is that’s not the highly stylized and fairly narrow version of what passes for pop music stardom these days; that’s what that is. And that’s fine — that’s completely cool to say that — but to say something like that’s not singing or that’s not good or somehow valid; that doesn’t pass for that particular highly stylized music making, that’s an accurate statement. Instead because there’s something attractive about humiliation — apparently we love to see someone publicly humiliated — it’s couched in these other terms. And people have been told that their whole lives. When I was teaching college courses, when I was a college prof, I’d be teaching a beginning guitar class, and there was always someone from the general college with a class full of music majors who would raise their hand when they found out we were going to be singing, and they’d say, I’m going to have to resign from the course, I’m going to have to drop out. And I’d say, Why? And I always knew what the answer would be: They’d say, I can’t sing. And I’d always say, Who told you that. And there was never a moment’s hesitation. They’d would tell me who and when. It was usually when they were about seven or eight years old, and it was either a teacher or somebody in their family or extended family. And they said the person’s name and they said when it was; there was never a moment’s hesitation. That was a day that lived in infamy in their own hearts. And there they were, being chased out of the Garden of Eden yet again, at the age of 19 or 20; they were finding out again, no, you are not welcome. And I would just smile, because I knew — I just knew — what was going to happen. And I would say, “Well, I’m here to tell you that the original diagnosis is not correct.” They never lasted a week without finding out that, not only could they sing, they had a lot to sing about and they had plenty to offer. I felt like a miracle worker, but of course I knew I wasn’t. I felt like one watching these people find out that it was bullshit; they were absolutely welcome. And then sometimes within a month I has to tell them, “Sing just a little quieter but feel just as exuberant.” They had a lot of time to make up for.
One day I’ll heal the world.
NUVO: You mention playing the role of Johnny Appleseed with your instruments. It also seems like the Bang on a Can All-Stars play that same role, playing in places like West Lafayette or Indianapolis pretty recently, bringing new music to places where there aren’t groups performing that repertoire.
Stewart: Without using the word evangelist, we do believe there’s gold in these them hills, and we do delight in showing people that this stuff is accessible, not because it’s watered down but because it’s really human stuff; it’s really visceral, lovely and powerful music that you can get on board with. Things that are labelled esoteric get labelled that for reasons right and wrong, and we do delight in pointing out all the wrong reasons.
NUVO: Can you talk a little bit about the Bang on a Can Marathon?
Stewart: The Marathon conceptually is all about giving people a kind of an immersion experience. The idea is not to come and sit there and hear every single thing. The idea is to come, sit, listen until you’re feeling full, go out and talk to people, have a snack or a meal, breathe some fresh air, go pick up your kid from school and bring him back; live your life, come and go and sample a variety of things. It’s like a wonderful feast where you’re not asked to be at the table all the time, because sometimes you want to walk and talk to people about what you just ate and drank. It’s an opportunity to hear lots of different things. That being said, some people come and just try to hear as much as they can, because there’s so many wonderful things. I found that, even before I was a member of Bang on a Can, and they started doing marathons in the mid-‘80s…I was a fan of the organization before I was a member of the ensemble, because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear things together and to hear wonderful works and wonderful groups. When we do marathons around the country and around the world, we always take advantage of the macrobiotic sonic fare of the localities, because it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to hear what’s going on around the world and to make contact with wonderful…there’s wonderful music and wonderful musicians everywhere. There’s no shortage. We are the opposite of musical snobs; we’re never surprised but we are always delighted at the plethora of talent and enthusiastic masters that we find all over the world. And the fact that they’re not in New York or they’re not on your iPod is something thrilling; people are doing their work and they’re doing it well everywhere. It’s a real pleasure and honor to make contact with local folks everywhere; it’s a treat for us.
NUVO: I’m wondering how your avocation as an instrument maker plays into your work in Bang on a Can with more traditional instrumentation?
Stewart: Sometimes it asserts itself. I’m not an ambitious person in the traditional sense of the word. Or maybe that’s a fancy way of saying I’m a lazy SOB. I don’t ever force it and it just finds its way in at different times. I guess if I was really on it, I’d have codified my entire orchestra of instruments I’ve built, and I’d be making sure that Bang on a Can commissioned works for these instruments, but I just haven’t done that. Every once in a while, a composer will come along and say, “Hey, I want to come to your lab.” And then when they come to the lab, they say, “Oh, I want to use this and this and this in the piece I’m gonna write for you guys.” And I’ll say, “Yeah that’s fine.” And other times I’ll say, “Well, if you’re interested in having this tour, don’t be too ambitious because it’s really hard on a budget to take everything everywhere.” There’s sometimes when it works its way in, and there’s sometimes, if there’s instrument has its freedom built into it, I’ll grab an instrument or two from my laboratory and insert them when it feels appropriate. I guess the short answer is not as much as one might think. The feral nature of my instruments is part of their attraction to me, and efforts to domesticate them have so far been unsuccessful; they haven’t asserted themselves.
NUVO: That’s compared to someone like Harry Partch…
Stewart: His whole microtonal thing was so specific and so profound that it needed the kind of organization he gave it and that kind of commitment. He was ambitious in an extraordinarily specific way. There was a remarkable purity about his aesthetic because it was so Pythagorean, for crying out loud. I’m a little more in the found object world. I’m as big a Harry Partch fan as you’ll ever find; in fact, I played in Newband for a summer and was offered the chair as their cellist years ago. I did all my schooling on cello and studied at Eastman — did that whole trip. But the idea of being a cellist on a fretless instrument playing 47 or 43 tones per octave was terrifying, and I said, “There’s going to be a better man than me, Gunga Din,” and regretfully declined. But I love Harry Partch and what a tremendous thing, but that ain’t me, and that level of instrumentation isn’t me.
NUVO: The All-Stars have used some of his instruments though?
Stewart: We’ve sponsored Newband and we’ve had Newband as our guests. The group, Bang on a Can All-Stars, have done lots of microtonal music, but to my knowledge, we’ve never played, as a group — the sextet — have never played with the Newband. But we’ve done lots of microtonal music with other folks who have certainly studied Partch, and who use those methods of microtonal organization, whether it’s mean tone or just intonation — Arnold Dreyblatt and Glenn Branca are two that leap to mind.
NUVO: So you guys are basically a conductor-less group, but I notice that one person is usually keeping time?
Stewart: We all give cues and I’d say the person who gives more cues than the rest of us is always Evan Ziporyn, the clarinettist; he always seems to be in a position, and he also has an amazing mind — he has a conductor’s mind and just takes in the score — so he’s an incredibly facile cat to rely upon. But we share duties; in any given piece, the cues can be thrown around to different folks. If there’s a piece that really needs a vigorous type of timekeeping, it often gets assigned; there are several pieces where I’m assigned that, probably the majority of those duties go to Evan and then there are lots of moments where things get passed around. Sometimes the groove takes care of itself, and other times when we have to do some internal conducting, and there’s other pieces where we’ve had a conductor. And there’s some pieces — the Eno for example, not the one were going to do — where the way it was written is in relation to a beat that has no audible pulse in the music, but the way that we write it, it relates to a beat. In those situations, we don’t want people to see the beat, because it’s really kind of counter-intuitive to the music and kind of distracting. And so we’ll use a click for that, so that we all hear an absolutely impassive click track, and then we adorn that pulse with a decidedly unrhythmic, ambient music. So that’s a little bit of a magic trick, but we’ve found that’s the best way to do it, given the shortcomings of modern notation and the lack of telepathy.
NUVO: Do you think it’s consistent with the conceptual background of a lot of modern music to not have a conductor, to not have one person putting his own stamp on the music?
Stewart: It just makes for better music making. Sometimes a conductor is just what the doctor ordered, but to the extent that you can get away without a conductor in a chamber group, it’s always better.
NUVO: Would you say that, in general, the Bang on a Can All-Stars try to assert a particular sound on each piece, or efface themselves behind whatever piece, or a little of both?
Stewart: I think we try to find out whatever that piece is and then bring it to the surface, but we do so in a way that could be described as old-fashioned, we do so by throwing our personalities into the piece. There are moments when effacing is completely appropriate. There are other times when being wildly personal with it is really what it’s about and, in fact, what the composer wants. A lot of people write for us knowing who we are, and wanting Mark Stewart to be Mark Stewart, and Evan Ziporyn to be Evan Ziporyn. The thing that’s groovy about the music we’re playing is there is something very human, ultimately, about the experience, and no matter what you do, it’s performance art; you’re faced with the necessity of delivering the score sonically, and in delivering the score sonically, you’re going to have to do things physically to make that possible — How am I going to accomplish this? Aside from guys like Jascha Heifitz and Janos Starker, whose technique is so inhumanly remarkable, there’s a certain amount of struggle going on to just get things out, and that’s just being sincere about the demands of the music and playing one’s instrument. But consequently, sometimes what goes on onstage is very dramatic, because we’re really having to deal with the necessity of a difficult piece. We don’t set out to say, watch us conquer the mountain, sometimes that’s what’s going on. And sometimes there’s drama and that drama is real, and let’s face it; that’s a gas to see. When you see someone really getting in there — getting their hands dirty and succeeding — that can be a very compelling thing indeed. We never do it for its own sake but when you’re dealing with a piece of music that nobody knows, you’re really trying to find out what it is, so it’s really an exploration. It’s kind of like, “Hey, you want to go spelunking? Put on your miner’s helmet, keep your head low and let’s go!”
NUVO: Have any pieces proved so difficult that you’ve been unable to climb the mountain?
Stewart: I think there’s one that we’ve revisited a couple of times and that the composer has rewritten for his own ensemble, finally acknowledging that it’s just impossible. And there’s another piece I remember — it’ll be nameless — it was a wonderful piece, and I hope we’ll get back to it someone. And another piece that was just so poorly written in manuscript that it was just impossible to read. The composer was very upset with us, but I’ve never shown it to anyone who didn’t say, “Oh, my God!” It was right before the software came out that everyone could use. The tempo changed every bar and the meter changed every bar, and that combined with his highly idiosyncratic, florid, swashbuckling penmanship, it was impossible.
NUVO: Could you even attempt to sum up the repertoire that the group has amassed over the years?
Stewart: I’d say soup to nuts. Everything from what they used to call squeak fart to rock and roll, and just everything in between. It’s a remarkable variety. It’s so funny when people come to a Bang on a Can concert or say, “What’s Bang on a Can music?” It’s like, geez, there’s just no short story. It’s really hard to do a sum up on that. Have you got a month? We’re just continuing to survey the landscape to find things that we think our worth hearing and won’t get heard without our help.
NUVO: Any new projects for Bang on a Can?
Yeah, we’re going to Bali to work on this wonderful project with a Balinese shadow puppet master. That’s next spring or early summer, and that’s really thrilling to go to the source of that tradition. We’ve worked with him here in the States on some stuff, but actually going to Bali and extending that relationship is going to be very exciting.