Between Precision And Wildness - interview by Will Montgomery
The Rova Saxophone Quartet came together in the San Francisco Bay Area in autumn 1977, and were originally formed for a one-off local festival performance (a 'free jazz' festival so named because admission was free). Pleased enough with the gig to want to go on, the first solid line-up coalesced when Andrew Voight joined Larry Ochs, Bruce Ashley, and Jon Raskin, replacing the original baritone player - the Pete Best of the story. By May 1978, they had been invited to the Moers Festival for 1979, lending a common aim which really established the group. Meanwhile, Ochs had started a record label, Metalanguage, with Henry Kaiser, and the recording possibilities gave an additional stimulus to the quartet's music. In the 20 years of their existence they've become renowned for their imaginative integration of composition and improvisation, their blindness to musical boundaries, and for the diversity of their many collaborators.
What was the thinking behind the original group?
LARRY OCHS There was a very vibrant improvised music scene in San Francisco at that time, but by the late 70s it was beginning to wear a little thin for a lot of us. Mixed in with the good music was an awful lot of self-indulgence and lack of structure without the kind of skill levels prevalent in Europe, so that the so-called free music was often awful. I think Bruce and Jon were both interested in having a group that was more rigorous on the compositional end of things than what they were doing at that time.
How did the group develop from there?
LO When we first started, it's fair to say that everyone in the group was interested in creating a unique group voice. This wasn't so much stated as evident in our praxis. We would spend hours, sometimes going overnight to a warehouse space in San Francisco, doing free improvisations, analysing them, replaying ideas that were interesting to all of us. And 99 times out of a 100 the interesting ideas were those that surprised us - thus we were weeding out the expected and nurturing the new and unexpected.
Another thing we focused on was interesting structures to frame the improvs. We took our inspiration from Braxton and Mitchell and the contemporary composers we were listening to or reading about - for example, Messiaen's writings and the interviews with Stockhausen; we didn't usually borrow ideas so much as get ideas for our music after reading their ideas. Eat, digest, regenerate.
I think that this adamant stance began to be compromised in 83 (I don't mean that to sound negative - maybe there's a better word). By that time we did have a group sound, and we had accomplished a lot already. At the same time, the effect of cutting off the roots was that we were drying up a little, losing momentum. Then the LP Favorite Street happened. This was the project involving the four of us in re-arranging Lacy music for our sax quartet. Certainly, anyone familiar with the original pieces would say that we tore them apart and really made the music Rova's. But Lacy's jazzy melodies on 'The Dumps' and 'The Throes' were part of that LP and they were the beginning of our incorporating more traditional material into the music.
By the 84-85 period, which I kind of see as the end of the early period, or perhaps the culmination. We recorded The Crowd for Hat Hut in Amiens in summer 85, which was definitely the 'final statement' from the early period. Listening to it now, as much as I'm impressed by the ideas and the writing, it might not make as strong a musical statement as the live Saxophone Diplomacy LP recorded for Hat Hut on tour two years earlier in the USSR. Anyway, we had begun working on a series of pieces called 'Sports'. These were pieces with overt rhythmic and melodic concerns and were intended as opening and encore pieces. Not a major thing, but the move towards inclusion of more 'familiar' music was now in place.
In June 1986, the Ganelin Trio came to the US. This was the first tour of a Soviet jazz group in the US. I was in touch with their US management, and as they very much wanted to come to San Francisco to play with Rova, we were able to get them here for expenses plus a nice but affordable fee. The event dovetailed very nicely with Rova's evolution and marked the beginning of a second stage.
Another thing is that we'd collaborated with Kronos in 1984 on a couple of major pieces written by Voigt and myself. A discussion during that collaboration between me and David Harrington led to Rova's going non-profit. It was this very unmusical development that allowed us to apply for money to bring Ganelin in, and that was the real beginning of a series of collaborations with many artists we admired. From 1986-1988 I personally put (too much) energy into organising a slew of collaborations, and Rova was able to present to San Francisco for the first time John Zorn's Cobra, Butch Morris' conduction process, Braxton's 'Composition 129' for sax quintet, a sextet of Rova-Kaiser-Frith, a sextet of Rova plus electronics (Teitelbaum/David Rosenboom), a major work composed by Jon Raskin and myself (mostly by Jon) for sax quartet, and Taiko Dojo (Japanese drum) ensemble. We also were lucky to have a major New York funding plan administered from 1988 on that gave money to contemporary US composers to write music. Hence all the commissions applied for.
Between the writing from outside sources for quartet and the performing with the likes of Zorn, Frith, Morris, Braxton and Curran, our palette of compositional and improvisational tools widened considerably, and we're still exploring the ramifications of all that activity, which continues to this day.
In 1988, Andrew Voigt left the group and Steve Adams joined. How did this affect the nature of Rova?
LO Well, one of the reasons Andrew left was that he really was not particularly interested in the new direction towards collaboration. We inevitably had less time to work on our own material. But sometimes less ends up being more. Steve came in from the more eclectic Your Neighborhood Sax Quartet. He brought his abilities and interest in more jazz-influenced writing, and his skills in reading down music and rehearsal organisation helped when we got into other people's stuff. He also is a much more rhythmically solid player than Andrew. That gave the group two very solid rhythmic players (he and Raskin on baritone, who in the past has given rhythm workshops for non-percussionists, and likes to sit in the train tapping out 7 against nine). Which is to say that there's 'time' and there's 'sense of time'. My 'sense of time' is excellent but my 'time' is less than perfect.
So Steve's entry dovetailed with musical developments. Securer in our own voice, we now felt more comfortable taking that voice and applying it to works by other composers. And our own pieces have in the past eight or 10 years become, I think, more inclusive of the various musical possibilities.
The most recent evolutionary development has been a re-exploration of the free and the loosely-structured improvisational areas. We may be moving towards a time when the freer material is dominant again. I personally feel that this band's freer playing is so strong now, because - on a good night - we all hear each other so well and have such a fluent and deep mutual language that the music absolutely plays out as if composed anyway, but in ways we could never design.
We're analysing the music again and looking for new wrinkles in our improvisational areas, as well as documenting the material so that - if we can arrange it - we can take the music into the public schools and create a mini-curriculum called "improvisation in everyday life".
Can you say a little more about this project?
LO We're just figuring this one out ourselves. There's an innovator in education here in the States who has been aware of Rova for years. In the past 18 months we have been having monthly discussions with him about our process, and he's intent on designing a course of study with us that will be used as a model for what he calls "cross-curriculum" study, teaching kids how to communicate in a group situation, how to better problem-solve in a fluctuating, unstable environment, how to listen better, and so on. These are all the things that improvisors do in their music, though in our lives we sometimes have the same problems as these kids, don't we?
Playing in the USSR and then collaborating with the Ganelin Trio in the States - it was obviously a major breakthrough given the politics of the time, and it's interesting to hear that it was a musical watershed. Were there any particular cultural or political or musical concerns within Rova that brought this about?
LO On a personal level, Russia had always been a major fascination. When I was in seventh grade, my main 'report' that year was on the USSR. I visited the embassy in New York City and I remember the propaganda magazines and the strange pictures of Communist youth corps types, and so on. I always wanted to go there. Later on the great fiction writers I read from Russia created a mystical image that made the country even more intriguing. When a letter came from the so-called Leningrad New Music Society in 1981, I began immediately looking for ways to make a trip there by the group possible, although I don't think I really thought it could happen. So the first impetus was fantastical more than political or musical.
But there also was - ultimately - a real desire to make a cultural connection. No new music group from the US had ever toured there officially; we brought with us several poets and writers, a music critic, a video crew, a couple of film makers, a dancer. So we were definitely - by 1983 - trying in our little way to offset the classic US/USSR confrontational stance: that was the period when Reagan was calling USSR the 'evil empire'. When I called the US State Dept looking for assistance to go there, the assistant secretary I talked with started calmly explaining why they wouldn't help, but by the end of a three minute statement he was literally furious, yelling into the phone that, "OK, we won't stop you from going but we sure as hell won't help you get there." I didn't call back again. We were also sure that our home phone was eventually being tapped, but who knows Before we got there, we of course knew about Ganelin and Kuryokhin, but we met so many interesting painters and musicians and writers, amidst a really difficult political climate. The first trip was truly a great one. And we felt that our band of artists really impacted there. To this day collaborations continue amongst artists who met at first on that tour.
Could you describe some of the various 'gaming' techniques used by Rova, and the thinking behind them?
LO Will - this question is really a whole interview all by itself. Let me give you a couple of examples. We just released, on Rastascan, a CD of 'Maintaining The Web Under Less Than Obvious Circumstances' [see Morphological Echo] which was recorded six years ago, and is six 'takes' of that piece; a piece originally designed for a quintet of Rova plus Zorn for a concert here in 87, which we continued to perform for four years before recording; it was a piece with hand signals, three dimensional objects, cues, and so on, that cued-in games. We now have a piece called 'Radar' which is similar in that all material is cued-in games, but the games and the procedures are quite different and make for a different result. These two games pieces sandwiched a piece called 'CAGE' that was composed by Steve Adams which took the choice of what one does in the game out of the individual's hands. We all had the option in 'CAGE' to direct the other musicians but not ourselves; and that's another interesting game in and of itself (it has been incorporated now into 'Radar'). I guess I could also say that the games are used to make music. Period. If the music isn't comprehensible without the rules, then it's not worth the effort.
Steve Adams once described the group as poised "between precision and wildness". Is this the basic tension that motors Rova forward?
LO I suppose this is true but it's kind of an oversimplification. We always know where we are no matter how wild the music might seem. I also believe at this point that there's no such thing as wild music. We improvise with a field of intention. Sometimes we intend to make it seem like we are going to blow up the performance hall. R
Cinema Rovaté (Metalanguage, 1978); The Removal Of Secrecy (Metalanguage, 1979); Daredevils (Metalanguage, 1979); As Was (Metalanguage, 1981); Favorite Street (Black Saint, 1984); Saxophone Diplomacy (Hat Hut, 1985); The Crowd (Hat Hut, 1986); Beat Kennel (Black Saint, 1988); Long On Logic (Sound Aspects, 1990); Maintaining The Web Under Less Than Obvious Circumstances (Extraplatte, 1990); This Time We Are Both (New Albion, 1991); From The Bureau Of Both (Black Saint, 1993); Ptow!! (Victo, 1995); The Works Volume 1 (Black Saint, 1995); The Works Volume 2 (Black Saint, 1997); Morphological Echo (Rastascan, 1997)
w Anthony Braxton, The Aggregate (Sound Aspects, 1987); w Alvin Curran, Electric Rags II (New Albion, 1990); w The Ganelin Trio, San Francisco Holidays (Leo, 1993); w Terry Riley, Chanting The Light Of Foresight (New Albion, 1994); Figure 8 (w 4 other saxophonists), Pipe Dreams (Black Saint, 1994); Larry Ochs (w Guy, Ellis, Crispell, Brown, Winant, Adams, Ackley, Raskin), The Secret Magritte (Black Saint, 1995); Lawrence Butch Morris, Testimony: Conduction 11 (New World, 1996; live 1988); Ascension (1995 live recording of John Coltrane's 'Ascension' w Spearman, Douglas, Malik, Robinson, Ellis, Brown, Cremaschi) (Black Saint, 1997)
This interview was first published in Rubberneck 26, December 1997
Text © Rubberneck; photo © Rova