Friday, June 29, 2012

Conversation with Mayo Thompson: Part One

On December 26th, 2011 I had a conversation with Mayo Thompson about the origins and early work of the Red Krayola. I was particularly interested in the musical "logic" used to record the album Coconut Hotel. I suspected that the Red Krayola was essentially exploring "free improvisation", contemporaneous with groups like AMM and Musica Elettronica Viva. I discussed the album in a presentation at the 2012 International Society for Improvised Music conference in Wayne, NJ, using information from this interview.

45 years ago today, the Red Crayola (Mayo Thompson, Fred Barthelme and Steve Cunningham) played at the Angry Arts Festival near Los Angeles, CA. On July 2nd, 3rd and 4th 1967 they played sets at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival in Berkeley, CA. (These performances were documented on the Drag City release Live 1967.) This seemed like an appropriate time of year to publish the interview. Mr. Thompson has agreed to this publication only; please do not distribute this interview without specific permission.

Special thanks to WCBN-FM Ann Arbor whose facilities I used. Thanks also to Alex Belhaj who
engineered the recording of the telephone interview.

Conversation with Mayo Thompson
Part One

What were some of the musical influences for the Red Crayola? The liner notes in the recent reissue of The Parable of Arable Land mentions the influence of modern art and philosophy.

Modern art and philosophy are large subjects. I'd like to know who isn't influenced by modern art in that sense. These guys – they write fluff, and it misleads people and there's nothing you can really do about it. There is no such thing as a straight-up story about what happened, because memory plays tricks on you; it's just not possible. All I can tell you is that, as far as influences, we listened to everything that was going on. If we got a whiff that they were ahead of us we ran to it to find out if it was true or not.

Can you give an example?

Albert Ayler, Bells, ESP-Disk 1010, 1965
Grateful Dead – the psychedelic band. We ran out and bought their album the minute it came out. Boy, were we disappointed. That was a trip to nowhere. We'd been there. We left there. Then, when we heard Hendrix on the other hand, that put [an end] to any question of our pursuing virtuosity as something we had to have in place in order to be able to exchange ideas with people. It was never an aim. One worked in relation to influences in various ways, that's the point I'm trying to get at. Albert Ayler was an influential figure. If you wanted to do something that had some intensity to it, you had to rise to the level of Bells. Or you had to rise to the level of [John Coltrane's] Ascension, where it starts out with like 9 of the heaviest tenor players in the whole wide world goin' [imitates Ascension]. So there were those kinds of influences.

If you're talking about music that one loved as a child, that's a different question; what shaped one in those kinds of ways. Can you narrow it down?

If someone listened to the first or second Red Crayola record, they may not immediately think of Albert Ayler or John Coltrane as an influence on it. They may however think of the 13th Floor Elevators, for example.

The Elevators certainly would have come in for a look. We compared ourselves to the Elevators as far as innovation; we thought they were trying to innovate. We had no idea what they were really doing. We thought that everybody was innovating, and we were sadly mistaken. It turned out that very few people were innovating at all; that most people were interested in spilling their guts in terms that they were capable of, and that was the end of it.

So you saw yourselves as separate from most of what was going on?

We found that the concerns that we began with had little to do with the concerns that other people began with sometimes; in greater respect when it came to the form and stuff like that. We were certainly shaped by the “zeitgeist” or some crap like that, but we felt our difference, and we insisted on it in those days. I don't anymore, I'm looking for inclusion these days. [But] that was also going on at the time. That's how we “found each other”, shall we say. But we didn't run it like an elite, like make fun of other people and act like they were stupid or something. We were rather in pursuit of some stuff that it turned out not too many other people were in pursuit of. If any. We met those who understood. John Fahey understood that we were pushing it around and trying to find out what novelty there was left in the form, if any. He had gone back and gotten the very beginnings – he represented “American music”; we called him “the Master of the American rolls”. When we met him, there was agreement that the tradition played a role, and we saw ourselves as coming out of something, and on our way, taking material as we found it and trying to do something with it. The classic confrontation.

In a 1996 interview with Richie Unterberger, you describe Coconut Hotel as "the most extreme version of the logic that we could conceive of at that time". Could you say more about the "logic" of the Red Krayola?

We found that logic played a role in our thinking and in nobody else's. It was very simple to operate within parameters; to set up formal problems and work the logical parameters as they appear. Say you want to put some scrutiny on the idea of instruments. You find that on that record. So we start with, “This is a guitar. It has six strings. They are usually not tuned like this. They're played like this, but they usually don't sound like this.” [“Free Guitar”] is an exploration of the guitar as a set piece, as a trap, as an instrument: a thing that produces a certain kind of sound. There is no generic commitment to anything on that record. Idiom is deployed … not at all. There's no quotation in it, as such, there's merely instantiation. And so, expectation and anticipation become quite abstract. You don't sit there and wait for a chorus. If you're waiting for the chorus, you'll find out after so many minutes, "Doesn't look like there's gonna be a chorus here." That kind of stuff; that's what I mean by logic: creating a logical environment in which you set up a number of operators, you specify relations between them, and the results are what you might call facts. Where logic itself is turned into a kind of score.

I'm not claiming we were doing something no one else on Earth was doing. People were being more perspicuous about it. There was a bunch of stuff that came up called “process art”, where people focused on the art of blah blah blah. But we were not proceduralists in any strict sense. What we were interested in was the sounds that came out of those situations; the physical sensations that they generated. This stuff was played as music, it was not played as a technical notebook.

So these were not just manifestations of some concept or idea; you were consciously making music?

To me, those are one. I don't have to be holistic about my content part of it to recognize that that's just how that thing works. Even if I set out to be the most technical, dry-boned person in the whole wide world, someone's gonna say “Oh, a Beckett play.” Or something like that. Let's say I set out with some kind of concept in mind, that the work is an illustration; I might try to do that, [but] it's not illustration in the purest sense of the word. I'm not sure that that's even possible, because it's been my experience in music that the materials are resistant. You don't always find what you're listening for. What you find is what you hear. And then what you do about what you hear … is where it happens for me.

How does form play into that?

Say I've got a song in E. I know that the fifth is a B, and I know that every blues song in the whole wide world has been played this way, and I know that there's been a blues man who said “We don't flat our fifths, we drink them,” and that the Bb is “the Devil's chord”. I am fascinated by this effect, because it's against the grain. Precisely because everyone says “That's a cheap trick man, don't do that.” Me, I love a cheap trick. So I want to find it there's anything in a cheap trick. Because it sure as hell jazzes me. So I've got a problem: I've got something that jazzes me that everyone else says is against the rules. So that kind of stuff comes into it too. It's personal.

I don't have Mozart's problem; nobody's gonna sign off on my score. I don't have to modify it because I've got a temperamental soprano who wants some extra stuff in her Don Giovani aria. That's fun; I've clawed my way into that world where I've worked with that kind of stuff. But I don't have something that is a “sonata”. I don't have something that is an “etude” or a “prelude”. I'm not really familiar with the terms and where they come from. I know the music, I've been listening to it for a long time, but I don't really recognize forms as definite things. I could maybe say … hang on a second. [pause]

I don't really know how to answer your question. Form plays a role, I've seen that it makes a difference. But I've approached it rather by “structure”, let's put it that way. Where other people have form, I have structure. And in that structure might be something that's linked, acoustically, historically, with something that is formal; something that sounds like a blues. I've built my own structures.

Would you consider Coconut Hotel to be “free form” music?

It is formed, but it is free of historical form. It is not driven by an organized will to express something definite; something pre-existent; something scored; something notated; something that can be done again and again and again provided you have the means and the people. Free form means “this ain't never gonna happen again. We're about to have an experience that will not be [had] ever again. I'm not making any claims about form. It's an oxymoron at best. We didn't coin it, it was coined by Leland Rogers, [the producer for The Parable of Arable Land]. The guy was looking for an advertising slogan. That was his form; that was his description of what we did. I just clung to it because I'm a nominalist; kinda like Hobbes says to Aristotle, “That's very good professor, we can work on that when we come to the induction effect, but what I wanna know is, what are we gonna call it today?” So I'm just going on what we're calling it historically. What it winds up being called, I leave to posterity.

What is the relation of the Familiar Ugly to the Red Crayola?

The Familiar Ugly was an organization that accompanied, or enveloped, or just happened while we played. It was part of the phenomenon then. They were undirected. Open-numbered; any number above one. If you had the Red Crayola plus one person on stage, that person was the Familiar Ugly. If there were five, or fifty, up to an indefinitely large number. When we started the band, Barthelme and I and we looked around to see if we could put together a “band”, to take it to the level where we could actually see if it worked. Both of us could see that it had assonance – people liked it, liked the “noise” we made. When we met Cunningham, we also met Bonnie Emerson and Danny Schacht, and we played as a five-piece. It was alright, it could have gone on, but we were becoming a regular band: doing covers, the things driving the formal expressions were idiomatic, and genre-ridden. That was getting problematic. We were trying to write material, and felt that the only forward was to generate fresh material, which had some sort of novelty to it so that we would be satisfied and remain interested in the problem, in the hopes that there would be some popular assonance there and see what would happen. And eventually this conversation led to somebody else joining the band, and then somebody else joining the band on one night, and we looked at each other and thought, “Hm.” So when you start a conversation, people who can participate will.

And here they were, my goodness, what are we gonna do? this band could get to be … if you pursue a notion of culture along the lines of family resemblance, pretty soon everybody in the world will be in this band. That's … okay, but we want to be able to direct the thing to some extent. So we withdrew to a trio: Cunningham, Barthelme and I, and told the rest that it was over as a band. That we were gonna pursue this other line, which was that we were not gonna be bound by conventions. We didn't actively say this, but it turned out that we were not gonna be bound by conventions. We weren't gonna make the same record twice. With the first record, we felt that we had proven what point we felt there was to prove about chaos, organization within it, and its relation to chaos; how it demonstrates chaos, and at the same time can be counted at an interval as some … later we discovered the notion of “data”, and some data take the form of information, which is a better, easier way of explaining it.

So with the first record, we generated musical data; we made data under the premise of music, and asked the question, “Is it?” Then we put some stuff in there by convention, and traditionally we'd say “Yes, this is at least a try at music.”

Can you clarify the difference between “data” and “information”?

The Red Crayola, The Parable of Arable Land
International Artists, IA LP-2, 1967
“Data” is input, and what happens in the black box turns data into information. And that's the output. You process the world as it occurs to you, including unconsciously, and every other way, all the way up to the point of processing information like, “President Obama is on his way to Chicago.” At the same time you're also processing: “The sky is blue,” “I love you dear, I'm gonna be at lunch tomorrow”, millions of things are going on at the same time. Little differences make all the difference in the world, and those are the kinds of things that we would treat as forms. The tiny differences, the nuances between this and that. So the first album demonstrates that there is something that is song, and there is something that is organized “chaos”, and Free Form Freakout is put into the realm of “Freakout”, so that the people who are performing will know what it is that people will be listening to it under the rubric of; that it belongs to a cultural sort of thing so it gets a free pass, to some extent. You don't have to organize everything from the ground up, like they do in abstract art. There's a lot of money in that, and it's all a lot of fun, but we didn't really care to pursue that way of doing it. We liked the colloquial and the vulgar.

So the Parable takes care of that business. And then it was like, “Okay, what next?” And then we took what logical point had been made: sound as music, sounds of musical instruments, played not in musical ways; treated as instruments for expression. The only organizational principle is that people see what's happening and hear what's happening around them. It's always music minus r plus 1; you're listening to some phenomenon and you think “Listen to that. I wonder what I contributed to it.” Well there's one way to find out for sure: stop playing. That's the only way I know to find out. Stop playing. And that's demonstrated also in Parable: you make one sound, that's fine. You can isolate one sound, but you can't do like you can on a painting. On a painting, you put one mark here, and leave a little bit of space and you put another mark. In an acoustic space, if you put two sounds, those sounds are already interfering with each other if they're simultaneous. You can play one and turn it off; you play another one and then turn it off. Then you add those two sounds differentiated, then you play one and then you play the other one at the same time; then you have a different kind of relation. All of that stuff comes into play.

Then we go to a recording studio. Recording studios are kinds of museums in a way, technological museums. They have sound making devices and recording devices that go back to the beginnings of our ability to do these kinds of things. If they're a good recording studio. And we happened to be at a really good one, run by a first-class guy Walt Andrus. And he knew right away what was up with the acoustics of it, and put up 8 microphones. We only had mono capacity in those days, there was no possibility of multi-tracking. That's live, the sound of all that stuff on Parable.

The Red Krayola, Coconut Hotel. Drag City DC62, 1995
So when it came to Coconut, we had the idea, “Well, let's stop the drums. Let's get rid of the pulse, the beat, as such,” acknowledging all the while of course that there is a beat implicit to music, no matter whether somebody's pounding on it or not. Because the stuff happens in time, and duration naturally plays a role. Morton Feldman: you can sit there and put the stopwatch on and if you could figure out how he was counting the seconds, you could predict that piece eventually. Any one of those minimalist pieces you could work it out.

We were also constrained by what we saw had gone on. We saw Cage and Tudor and those people as having exhausted the potential of smartypants farting around with means of production. And we thought, “This is the end of it, there's nothing after this music-wise.”

Were you frustrated about this?

No, happy.

Why was that?

To us, we relished midnight because it meant the day was over; you never had to live that motherfuckin' day again.

So what came next?

There's also no singing. There's only two uses of the human voice on [Coconut Hotel]. I sing in there some nonsense metaphysical line about “There is no reason why not”, you know, pretentious stuff, and Frank Davis moans into the headphone, [imitates moaning], he's got on a pair of headphones, not over his ears – one of them it over his mouth, and as you know a headphone is a microphone. The speaker is a microphone. He was yelling down this headphone line, sending it to a tiny little Fender amp which he's got in his hand, and he's walking around between these to microphones, back and forth. And something is going on in his mind – I don't know, and it turned out to be some strange drama when you throw in the koto and the water pouring.

And then we confronted the issue of repetition. That piece [“Water Pour”] is just duplicated; it happens twice. That's Mozart: he writes you a section, and he plays it to you twice. Then he goes onto the next section and plays that one for you twice. So that the stuff is imprinted in some way, and the second time through, you have a different relation to the anticipations and expectations and so on, and what you have is very satisfying. That's at the level of … the brain's love of symmetry and pattern. He delivers it like nobody's business, synthesizing Bach and baroque with one hand, and with the other hand making himself a cheese sandwich or pouring himself a glass of champagne.

So all that stuff was done for us; all we had to do was just add to the sounds, which were built into the instruments; we didn't have to do much there either. There were a bunch of keyboards there, so we got going on them. There was a pump keyboard, an electric keyboard, an amplified keyboard, and so on, so all the permutation aspects were at work. The musical qualities of the sounds they produced are the overarching criteria of expression. Not monkey business. And where there is some figuration, it's not worked to thematic ends, merely [as] individual events. So you take the guitar going [sings steady quick rhythm], playing these 16th notes. Then there's another guitar which is free, to play something that simulates a melodic relationship of something over a rhythmic ground. So it sounds like “guitar music”. Lo and behold, it is guitar music! It's as mundane as that.

So we thought that “Everybody's thinking about these kinds of problems. Everybody's thinking about the fact that everything has been done. Everybody's thinking about how the material that Schoenberg founded was handed off to Cage and Stockhausen and they handed it off to us, and here we are, and this is about all that's left.”

Do you feel like music is still at that state?

No, I don't think anybody cares about that kind of thinking. That's what I found. Endgame is an end in itself, and it only counts to the people who are prepared to play it. Otherwise, nobody gives a damn. We all know that life goes on. Ob-la-di oh-blah-blah. Bloody hell.

I think that these are still interesting structural facts. One can mediate one's production in more and less thoughtful ways and come up with stuff that has novelty to it; the novelty doesn't depend on “I am unique and nobody else can do this but me, and I did this and that's new. And that's genius because nobody else could do this.” It's not a dependency on the primitive. And that's the fly in the expressive ointment for me: the boring fact is that I can't do anything other than what I do. I wish I could. If I could be somebody else, boy I would have been. It's only projective, that's all. There's no escape. The aim in the 60's from my side was, “Is there any way other than having to do this the way that it's usually been done up 'till now?” Gee, no. There's no way out.

(in conversation with Matt Endahl on December 26th, 2011)

Part Two coming soon.

No comments: