Friday, August 15, 2014

Interview with Stan Lunetta

UPDATE (March 2016)

I was very sad to learn today of Stan's passing on March 3rd. In my interactions with him he was jovial and courteous, and his presence will be missed by many. The text below is my original post in 2014.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Stan Lunetta in July 2012 while I was researching the New Music Ensemble. Lunetta, who retired in 2008, had been an active performer, composer and teacher since the 1950's. He played percussion with Larry Austin in the New Music Ensemble in the 1960's, assisted in the publication of SOURCE magazine, experimented with homemade synthesizers in a distinctive style which is still imitated today, and was the principal tympanist for the Sacramento Opera for nearly thirty years.

In our conversation, we talk about his work with Larry Austin, his studies with John Cage, his performance at ICES 1972, his love of Thelonious Monk, and many other topics.

Stan Lunetta; image from Wikimedia.

Lunetta has granted permission for only this publication of the interview: share this blog post as a link, but please do not share the text without asking permission first.

Can you tell me about the Concert Jazz Quintet?

My participation in things like that started in the Concert Jazz Quintet and went on into the New Music Ensemble, and then went on into Amra/Arma: three different kinds of improvisation. The CJQ was myself (I played drums), Richard Maloof (who later went on to be Lawrence Welk's bass player), Robert Schilling (who has unfortunately passed on) played piano; he was a wonderful pianist. And the horn players were Wayne Johnson, who still lives here in Sacramento, and Brian Bredberg, who we've lost contact with; whether he's still alive or not, nobody knows.

The Black Hawk. Photo: SF BayView
At the time, in Sacramento, there was a lot of jazz playing. There were jazz clubs, actually: after-hours jazz places. Everybody in the group wrote songs that the group did. We gave concerts at a small theater here in town, and we'd do all these pieces, and the newspaper would come and review it; that sort of thing. We went through quite a lot of different things using some free improv, some very structured, some pieces that were just plain... old blues-type things. There was a lot of freedom. In those days you could go to San Francisco and go to the Blackhawk or the Jazz Workshop or various clubs like that, and see all of the major jazz players that existed. Somedays you could go to San Francisco and see Thelonious Monk at one club, Miles Davis at another club, and Charlie Mingus at another, all on the same night. Those days are gone. So that's sort of what that group did.

When was the group founded?

I'd say... late 50's. Because we were all working musicians, doing casuals, dances, shows, this and that. And the group didn't last a real long time. I've still got copies of the charts that we wrote.

The newspaper clippings on your website date mainly from 1962. Is that when things were taking off?

Yeah. I think we started in the late 50's and kept working at stuff until we got something happening. It never morphed into anything famous and wonderful.

Are there any recordings of the CJQ?

Yeah. I've got some on reel-to-reel that I'm afraid to touch. I don't have a reel-to-reel player either, but I'm afraid that the minute you tried to play them that the tape would disintegrate. Wayne Johnson, the saxophone player, may have some, because he was also a recording engineer.

What brought the CJQ together?

I guess, just on casuals. Someone would call you to play a gig, and you'd meet people, and find that you have things in common. At least Wayne and I, and Bob and Richard were attending the State college, so we knew each other from there too. We also grew up in the same neighborhood, sort of.

When did that group end?

Around the time that the New Music Ensemble thing started [summer of 1963]. From the time that the CJQ faded into nothing, we did various things that were involved with the people at UC Davis. Larry Austin and myself, Art Woodbury and his wife had a little jazz group. Art's wife is a really good jazz singer. Then Wayne would be in and out of that. Then when the NME began, those same people (Austin, myself, Art Woodbury, Wayne Johnson, Pat Woodbury [Billie Alexander]) and a couple other people from the University who came and went, like Jon Gibson. I'm sure Larry told you lots about what the New Music Ensemble did, but it was the next step up in improvisation, in that the group practiced improvising.

Stockhausen. Photo: The Guardian
One year at UC Davis, we had Stockhausen for a semester, and John Cage for a semester. During Stockhausen's semester, he couldn't believe that we were just improvising stuff. He said, “No, you must know what you're doing. You must have planned this out.” So we're doing this one concert, and either myself or Larry said “Okay Karlheinz. You pick who goes up next, and we'll go up and do a piece.” And so [Stockhausen] says, “Okay: you, you, you and you.” Those four people started to walk out on stage to do the piece, and he said “Wait, you come back... and you go up!” He did everything he could think of to make sure that we didn't know what we were gonna do. And then the group went up and did the piece. We came back down and Stockhausen said, “You're still lying to me.” He didn't believe that we were improvising. So the New Music Ensemble was really good at that. We would give concerts where we would just go there and say, “First piece; second piece; third piece; fourth piece, etc” and then whoever wanted to go up and play would do that. By then, we had such a group mind that we could do that without any problem.

Then after that group, the group Amra/Arma was yet another type of improv, because I played nothing but electronics in that group. I played electronic instruments that I designed and built. We had three drummers and a bass player, and we did these ritual pieces. And that group went to London in 1972 for the ICES festival. Our concerts were all-improvised, but it was improvised according to a ritual, sort of based on Robert E. Howard, the fantasy/science fiction writer, on things that he said in his books. So we would do this Hyborean ritual, so to speak.

It all had to do with the drummers interpreting what was coming out of the electronic things. We would always start the ritual with me going out on stage in this wizard costume, and slowly patch together the synths, so that they were playing something. We would set up four channels of sound so that it would surround the audience. Then the drummers would join in when they felt it was time to play. So when you go from the Concert Jazz Quintet at one end, which was doing jazz songs, and then you get to the New Music Ensemble in the middle, which was doing free improvisation with kind of a group mind, and you get the Amra/Arma group on the other end, which was doing these rituals based on all of these factors which, once set in motion, the piece is sort of self-determining... it's an interesting journey!

Can you talk about how you met Larry Austin?

Larry and I go back a long, long ways. I graduated from State college, then I thought I was going to be a school teacher, and I realized, “No I don't like that.” So I went back to playing bars and things like that. When the Concert Jazz Quintet was active, I was starting to write music. So I decided to study composition at UC Davis, where Larry taught. And that's where we met.

What did you learn from him?

Larry Austin.  Photo: Issue Project Room
Oh, a lot. Our families were very close together; we got fellowships at SUNY Buffalo, and Larry and his family and our family went there. We lived in Buffalo, and Larry's family lived on the other side of the river in Canada. All we had to do in the fellowship was write music and get it performed. So we worked together a lot. We would discover things together about composition and such. Like that piece of mine, Spider Song: I was into comic books at the time, hence the Spiderman aspect... the idea was, since Larry and I worked together so much, our communication was really good. So the idea of the piece was that on stage, we would write this piece, multi-track record it, and give a performance. That was the whole piece. Before we ever did it, I explained the piece to Jeff Karl, who was one of the Amra/Arma drummers, and he illustrated how it was supposed to work. So the part that's in SOURCE was actually the first realization of the piece: it was realized first as a comic book.

We did it at one of the small concert halls of Carnegie Hall, and Larry and I wrote a piece called Carnegie Hall, with real corny lyrics like “Carnegie Hall, we're havin' a ball,” and all that sort of stuff. While the piece was being written on stage, we had slide and movie projections of Larry and I writing the piece as well. So it was like a time-travel thing, because you saw us in various guises: we were really there, and were slides and movies of us doing the piece. And then we had Jan Williams, who was one of the fine percussionists in the Buffalo Philharmonic, and also taught at the school... he went out into the audience and get a row of ten people, bring them up on stage, and say “Okay, Stan's going to try to do the drum part, and Larry's going to do the bass part...” and he'd take everyone back and bring another row up and explain to them what was going on. So it took place in and out of time.

Larry was gone on sabbatical for a year. Did Stockhausen and Cage replace him?

No, he was there when Cage and Stockhausen were there. Larry went to Italy on a fellowship for a year. There are two records that the NME made; the second record was made at the time that Larry was in Italy. The NME at that point didn't have much of the craziness that it had when Larry was there. Then when Larry came back, it got crazy again.

What kind of musical influence was he to the group?

Well, Larry was the one who would try anything. He wasn't held back by convention. Not that anybody else was; but a lot of times you are and you don't realize it, and it takes someone like Larry to point it out. He was the one who would break the barrier. Whereas other people would be a little more careful.

What do you remember about Billie Alexander?

Well that's Art's wife: Pat Woodbury. She was a good jazz singer. Larry and I, Art and Pat had a band where I would play drums or vibes, Larry would play bass, Art would play piano, and Pat would sing.

Richard Swift. Photo: SF Gate
Can you talk about studying with Richard Swift?

Richard Swift was much more academic, but a really marvelous person. There was this group of performers who made up the New Music Ensemble who were all composers in one sense or another. Dick played piano, I played percussion, Larry played bass and trumpet, Art Woodbury and Wayne Johnson played various woodwinds, and Pat Woodbury sang, and Robert Bloch played violin. That was the basic group. Jon Gibson was in it for a time, as was John Mizelle. Both of them are pretty well-known as new music people. Dick was always the more academic person, but he was a wonderful improviser. He didn't play jazz, but he was a good improviser.

One time we went to San Francisco to go see Miles Davis' group. Cannonball Adderly was in it at the time. My wife and I, with Dick, we went into the club; Cannonball sees Dick, and we didn't know this, but he and Dick had been in the Army together. Cannonball is not, what you would call a quiet person, and he's a big dude. He puts his saxophone down, runs off the stage, picks Dick up and swings him around in circles. I guess he hadn't seen him in a long time! It was a completely different side of Dick than you would see in the University where he was “Professor Swift”.

Like I said, the New Music Ensemble was a real family.

How did the NME transition from an improvising group to a group that played new compositions?

Well, Larry and I and Pat were doing dance and combo gigs, and I'm not sure when the NME became what it was. John Mizelle and myself were both studying composition. We were the composition master's degree guys. So Jon and I got composition lessons from Larry, from Dick Swift, from Jerome Rosen, from Stockhausen, from John Cage. But I was also part-time faculty at the time. So we were working together at all sorts of things. We would get together practice improvising, like “Let's do a 30-second piece.” And we'd go back and listen to it and say “My god, it was a minute-and-a-half!” Or, “Let's do an avoidance piece” where you try to play when no one else was playing. Or, “Let's try and do a piece where we all play together at the same time, and then there's silences.” We had all sorts of exercises like that that we were doing. We all learned all sorts of things like that.

Could you talk about your studies with John Cage?

Well that year at UC Davis when we had Stockhausen for a semester and Cage for a semester, we had David Tudor for both semesters. I had a lot of time with David because he's such a marvelous person. Wonderful piano player. We did pieces by Stockhausen and pieces by Cage. When Karlheinz was teaching the composition classes, it was almost like a charicature of what people think Germans are like! Everything was really complicated, and he nailed down everything about everything, detailed notes, this and that... Cage's classes were just the opposite. We talked about a lot of things. He has this one piece called Water Music which is for piano. It's not hard to do the piano part. The art department (which was next to the music department) was going to flood this one room in the building and then have it be a water art display. So when John found out about this, he said “Ooh, Stan! Do you want to go do the Water Music piece? We can take one of the old uprights in the music building...” and I said “Yeah, let's do it!” And the music department said, “No no no, we don't want to damage the piano.” So we didn't get to do it.

A few days later, they were going to have a concert in Cage's honor at the music department. A noon concert, not a big deal. Before the concert, John and I were having a cup of coffee next to the creek, and I said, “Hey, shouldn't we be getting over to the concert in your honor?” Cage said, “They wouldn't let us do the piano piece, so I'm not going to go to their concert.” And then he laughed. He was a wonderful teacher; he had all sorts of ways of looking at things that other people didn't think of.

At that same time, we were doing SOURCE magazine, and we published the silence piece [4'33'']. I was in charge of that portion of the magazine, so I talked to him a lot about the silence piece. People don't really understand the silence piece; people always do versions of it that are really not what the piece was meant to be.

Performance instructions (left) and page 1 (right) of Cage's 4'33''.
Full score available at Hyperallergic.
To you, what is the silence piece about?

Well, he points out that in a Rachmaninoff concerto, near the end of the piece, when the pianist has this big ol' honking cadenza, and then when the cadenza finishes and he lifts his hands up in the air to bring the orchestra back in... there's this moment of silence there that's really tense, and it's part of the music. Then the orchestra comes back in and “bango!” The silence is essential to the music. What John wanted to do in the silence piece is to articulate silence, but not with sound. Everyplace else in music, sound articulates the silence. If there's silence in a piece of music, it's articulated by sound on either end. So the silence piece is 4'33'' of silence, and there are three specific-length silences in that four minutes and thirty-three seconds. They are separated by unmeasured lengths of silence. So between the first two silences, there's a silence that's unmeasured. So how do you articulate the end of the first silence, the beginning of the second, and the one in between? I think what John liked about things like that is, “Yeah, how do you do that?”

David Tudor used to perform the piece with two stopwatches: one for the total length and one to measure the individual silences. Then he would silently open and shut the keyboard cover of the piano, to articulate the silences. Then people got into hearing what was in the silences... but still, trying to find a way to articulate the silence without sound hasn't yet been solved.

The version of the score in SOURCE seems to be lesser-known.

Right: the one published in SOURCE is the original one. I may be mistaken, but what I've always remembered, he sent it to someone as a birthday greeting. That's exactly what it looked like. The original score was duplicated in SOURCE magazine.

Can you talk about the relationship between improvisation and composed elements in your work?

We all (at least Larry and I) tried to include improvisation into what we wrote. For instance, I wrote an orchestra piece that the Philharmonic here did, and it had all sorts of things in it that were improvisatory in nature, even though the overall piece was more-or-less through composed. But there would be things like, telling the trumpet player “If the flute player is playing something soft, try to drown it out.” Or, “Play a bunch of fast notes, but avoid Eb.” Or things like that, that would give people a task that was improvisatory in nature but would be controlled in certain ways. In Larry's piece for three jazz soloists and symphony orchestra, we had lots of stuff that was written, but also places where we could improvise.

When did you start building electronics?

Probably in the mid-60's. I couldn't afford a Moog or a Buchla, or things like that. Here in Sacramento, there was this nice old guy who had an electronics surplus store. Bud Kocher was his name. His store was in this shack on Franklin Blvd. He had all kinds of stuff: resistors, capacitors, transistors, and chips of all sorts. I don't know where he got them, but a lot of them were unidentifiable. He would sit there behind his counter and [classify them]: “Oh, this is an up-down counter. Oh, this is a ...” Things that he had figured out, you could get for a buck; things that he hadn't figured out, you could get a handful for a buck. So I would get stuff from him.
Lunetta with one of his synthesizers.
Photo: Time-Tested Books

I started out making an oscillator, then a ring modulator, then I got more into the digital stuff. If you Google “Lunetta Synths”, you find all sorts of people who have carried this thing on; now they know more about this stuff than I do. But they're all called “Lunettas”, which is... nice. People make all sorts of versions of the stuff that I did. I've still got all the stuff, although I don't really use it. And some of them, like the cube thing that I built, which was a really good synthesizer, but now I look at it and thing, “Hm, I wonder what that switch does.” Unless you keep up with it, you don't remember. And since nothing is labelled... I took it apart and tried to figure out what everything was, but it was pretty much a failure. But it still works! It still makes noises.

So for the Amra/Arma shows, would you have machines like that playing independently, and the group would improvise based on whatever these machines happened to do?

Sort of. What would happen is that I would have this big wall of boxes which all would make various sets of sounds, including this one obelisk that looks kind of like the Transamerica building in San Francisco (except I made this before that building, so I didn't copy the building.) I would start sounds going, and once certain things got underway, that would set the tone for what would go on after that. We would have segments where there would be fixed things: “Okay, when we get here, we're gonna do this kind of thing. When we get there, we're gonna do this kind of thing.” But not anything really specific. One section would be rhythmic, another arhythmic, things of that sort.

At the start, maybe I would get a little sequence of tones from the back-left speaker, and it would echo to the front-right speaker, then I would make something else come out of the others, until there was enough happening for one of the drummers to decide, “Okay that's enough, I can add to that.”

Who else played with Amra/Arma?

That was myself, Ken Horton, Kurt Bischoff, and his brother Karl. Kurt's son, Jerrich Bischoff, is making a name for himself. Then Jeff Karl, who has passed on; he was the cartoonist. It was a close-knit group. Both Kurt and Ken were students of mine, and Jeff was a student of mine. So it was three of my students, a bass player, and me. But at that point they had all progressed beyond being students, and were colleagues.

Poster for ICES. Thanks to HPSCHD.

Did Amra/Arma make any records?

No. On my website, there's a little recording. It sort of reached its peak when we did that trip to London in 1972 at the ICES festival, which just had its 40th anniversary. That festival was really crazy because it was put on by Harvey Matuso. Harvey testified before Congress and said “Yeah this guy's a commie, this guy's a commie...” and he called all these people commies back in the McCarthy era. Then after he caused all sorts of trouble, he put out a book that said, “Haha, I was lying all along.” So, not a real reputable character. He was married to Charlotte Moorman, an English composer, who was famous for burning pianos, or pushing pianos off the top of buildings, things like that. So they put on the ICES Festival, International Carnival of Experimental Sound. Just about everybody was at that. Stockhausen was there, Cage was there, all these people had their pieces played. Charlotte Moorman was there, she played a cello made out of ice while she was naked. There was an article in WIRED magazine about the ICES Festival anniversary. That was the last big thing that Amra/Arma did; I think after that, we stopped playing, went on to other things.

For us to play at ICES, I had to bring all of my electronic gear. I couldn't just go there and borrow some synths. Getting them back from England, we got off the plane in Toronto, got the equipment, put it in the car, and drove it to the United States through Detroit. The guy at the border said, “US citizens?” We said “Yeah.” “How long have you been in Canada?” We said, “Eh, a couple hours.” He said, “Okay, go on through.” Inside the car was all this bizarre electronic equipment. Nowadays it wouldn't get past any border!

Did you have contact with the San Francisco composers, like Pauline Oliveros, when you were at UC Davis?

Yeah. Pauline and Mort Subotnick, and Ramon Sender. Yeah, Ramon is famous for figuring out how to get certain music programs to work on the Mac in the early days. And Don Buchla was there; I think the original Buchla synthesizers are still at Mills College.

But yeah, the San Francisco Tape Music Center: we had a definite connection with them. At that time, it was called the Tape Music Center, because all the electronic music people were doing there was on tape: manipulating tape! In one room there were all these tape recorders, so you could go from the first one to the eighth one, and do time delay, looping stuff back on itself, splicing tape in different ways... Their stuff eventually moved on to Mills College.

I think Pauline is still kickin', her website is still up. I did hear something from Subotnick a long time ago. Where Ramon Sender went, I don't know.

Were the recordings of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry influential to you and the members of the Concert Jazz Quintet?

Yeah, definitely. People like that opened things up, like “Oh! You can do that!” Of all the jazz people that were happening then, the most influential to me was Thelonious Monk. He was so outside of everything else; he was the one that I really admired. Nowadays, if someone is interested in whatever's going on, you don't get to go see it. I used to play at nightclubs here in Sacramento, and we'd take a break and the cook left some food out that the musicians might get, and if you go to the Jazz Workshop, you see Thelonious do the same thing.

One time, Miles' group was playing. It was a slow night, Miles wasn't even playing, he was just sitting at the bar, drinking a glass of champaign. This was before he got into the next stage: he was still wearing a suit and tie, and being very elegant. Philly Joe Jones was playing drums. Miles decided, “Well nobody's gonna be here” so he left. Then Philly Joe said to me, “Okay well, Miles is gone. You wanna sit in?” So I got to sit in with JJ Johnson, and that time Wayne Shorter. When Miles was there, Wayne never got to solo, because he hadn't learned the ropes yet or whatever.

One of my favorite records from the period is Thelonious Monk Live at the Blackhawk, 1960.


Were you at that show?

Might have been. We saw him there then, yeah. It was interesting to watch Thelonious play, because there were lots of things that he did that were just so... I don't know whether he was a savant or not ... he sure did some neat things.

I wish I could have seen him play.

Yeah. That's why I say, maybe you could only see these people at a big-deal kind of concert. Although... the English group Gentle Giant... the guitar player and the bass player from that group were doing a van tour, playing up and down the West coast, stopping in various cities. Not necessarily big cities. They stopped in Sacramento, and played at this relatively small club. It cost ten bucks to get in, they did a whole set, they did all sorts of really neat stuff. And that doesn't happen enough anymore.

Lunetta in 2005; photo by Noisebridge

Lunetta's website contains a wealth of information about his past projects, including newspaper clippings and rare photographs. Drop by for a visit!

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