Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

An Interview with Soprano Saxophonist Bhob Rainey

Many of the concepts, philosophies, and even extended saxophone techniques embraced by Bhob Rainey are ubiquitous in the world of free music. However, to call Bhob a free player, would marginalize the uniqueness of his sound-based concept.

During our interview he was kind enough to share his insightful soprano–centric thoughts on micro-tonaility, playing solo, and the impetus behind his eight-piece electro-acoustic ensemble, BSC, and his most recent book/album, MANUAL.

It’s rare to find someone who plays the soprano saxophone exclusively. But your situation is even more unique since you play the curved soprano. What made you decide to play this type rather than the straight soprano?

BR: I had played a straight soprano for some time, but I was attracted to the slightly darker, less goose-y sound of the curved horn. Later, as I started working more with multiphonics and non-standard techniques, I preferred the resistance that the curve brings, as well as the flexibility of the more compact size. Ultimately, once I settled on the Yanagisawa, I stopped worrying about the equipment and focused more on making it work for me – as long as the instrument isn’t getting in the way, the music will happen. Anyway, I can’t really afford to be buying a bunch of saxophones and mouthpieces all the time.

I know that you studied microtonal music with Joe Maneri while at NEC. Were you already into micro-tonality before you moved to Boston?

BR: No, I really didn’t know much about it. I was interested in various post-tonal approaches, from Harmelodics to serialism to spectralism, but I hadn’t encountered much music that was specifically micro-tonal.

As we all know, playing notes from the 12 tones of equal temperament (12 TET) is a challenge to play in tune on the soprano. How did you go about learning to playing 72 TET notes in tune?

BH: I started by singing. I would sit at the piano and find the “middle” between two half-steps. When I felt that I had that sound internalized, I would move to smaller intervals. Eventually, I got some scores by Joe, Ezra Sims, and Julia Werntz and sang excerpts from them – very slowly! I would compose my own melodic phrases – just short pieces, like a sketchbook – to get a feel for navigating melodies and rhythms in this “pitch continuum”. I suppose I was trying to discover the music that was native to this particular division of the octave.

When it came time to play micro-tonally on the saxophone, I decided that I wouldn’t consult any fingering charts. I let my ears guide me, and my fingers eventually found their way. It was, in a sense, like learning a new instrument, and the process reinvigorated my interest in the saxophone. There was a certain impossibility to playing this music; I couldn’t see where it would lead. I was attracted to this unknowing.

In the process of expanding the tuning of the instrument, I was also encountering all sorts of interesting timbres. The saxophone, being conical, reacts in non-linear ways to changes in fingerings, and these timbral shifts were extremely compelling to me. So, I began working systematically with timbre as well as pitch. Of course, multiphonics were popping out left and right, causing this crazy intersection of micro-tonal melody, harmony, and timbre.

Meanwhile, because Joe had planted the idea in me that alterations in tuning would cascade into alterations in every other musical component, I was trying to be extremely open to what these sounds and melodies wanted to do. I didn’t want a catalog of techniques that I then threw into any old music to make it exotic. So, I moved slowly, and I listened. I kept writing fragments of music, and I also let the sounds lead me where they seemed to want to go. It was like an exchange between intention and surrender, which, for me, became a rather productive approach to music-making.

SN: Did you find it made your pitch better overall? It seems that after playing the 72 TET chromatic scale, the 12 TET chromatic scale would be a piece of cake?

BH: Sure, but it also makes playing equal-tempered music in real-world situations kind of frustrating. You might want to sharpen a fifth just a little bit, but if there’s a piano in the group, you know it isn’t exactly going there with you.

SN: When listening to the way that blues players use micro-tonality, they seem to be using these non-Western tones to make their music more expressive and soulful. However, when I hear players with more of a European classical aesthetic, it can often sound the contrary. Do you think presenting micro-tonality in such a sterile context gives it a bad rap as being music that’s cold and over intellectualized?

BH: I think that maybe the term "microtonal" is enough to make people feel intellectually belittled. I could refer to a style of music that uses "functional modality" as its harmonic system, and most of the Earth's population would immediately lose interest despite the fact that I'm talking about pop music. Similarly, you mention blues players, few of whom I can imagine considering their music to be "microtonal." They may be engaging viscerally with the whole sound, leading them away from equal temperament now and then, but they aren't playing quarter tones in any practical sense.

So, is there terrible microtonal music out there? For sure, but I don't think that coldness or intellect are chiefly to blame. Maybe the intellect takes over (or seems to take over) when that visceral connection is lost – when one forgets about sound in space and time and how that sound reaches ears and minds. But when that connection is maintained, can't coldness be emotionally powerful? Can't intelligence inspire?

SN: You seemed to have made a switch from being a micro-tonalist to a sound artist. Or do you feel that your sonic vocabulary is just an extension of microtonalism?

I don’t think much about being micro-tonal, anymore, or about being a sound artist. For the most part, when I make music, I’m thinking melodically and structurally (of course, harmony and rhythm are integrated in this thinking). This is pretty basic, music stuff, until you get over the idea of melody as a set of notes of specific durations that follow one another in time. The way I see melody (and maybe I render the word somewhat meaningless when I use it this way), it can be a succession of timbres or dynamics or envelops or silences; it is basically a set of sonic events that are both discrete and interdependent, creating the illusion of larger events. And, although these sonic events succeed one another in time, they can bring different time-senses into that linear procession – a “weathered” timbre can have a weighty past; a weak dynamic following a strong one can evoke a deep lapse; a crescendo may be entering the present tense while a decrescendo might invite reflection on previous events; etc. If there is one thing that keeps me interested in making music, it is probably this play of times-within-time.

I’ve often said that most players end up being musicians or artists. Musicians are those who pursue a career, and artists being those who pursue a musical vision. And there’s overlap, of course. How do you see yourself?

BR: I’m just someone who is interested in reality and who happens to have had a decent musical education. I mostly want to encounter significant ideas and smart people, and music has been a fundamental way for me to do that for most of my life.

SN: I was once asked the question of why so many soprano players like to play solo? What is your take on it?

BR: It’s probably because no one wants to play with them.

Seriously, it’s probably more to do with the type of person who becomes a “soprano player”. Unless you’re planning to play sickly sweet melodies with a lot of reverb, you’ve probably chosen the soprano because it is odd, difficult, and less historically codified than the other saxes. And you probably have some issues that you need to work out on your own. The solo setting allows you to do that with a certain amount of clarity.

I know that I became interested in playing solo when I became interested in (Anton) Webern specifically, the idea that maybe every note he wrote was of the utmost importance. It’s hard to improvise with someone else and have that degree of weight to each sonic event. So, I tried it on my own. It’s still hard.

SN: Are there any special things you do to prepare for a solo saxophone concert?

BR: In general, I just try to stay in shape. Ideally, I like to have a good amount of time in the venue to get used to the quality of the space. Solo or not, at an improvised performance I am making music in a real space at a real time for real people, and I’m trying to be highly aware of the idiosyncrasies of that environment.

SN: Who are some of your influences on the soprano? I imagine most of your influences extend far beyond your instrument.

Yeah, that’s tough. If I had to be honest talking about soprano players that have influenced me, I’d have to mention Jan Garbarek, and I don’t want to mention Jan Garbarek. I’ve worked with some great musicians who have influenced me more than any signpost sax players, but you could list the typical sax heroes and be sure that what they did matters to me.

SN: When I listen to Jan Garbarek, I hear someone who has mastered the art of creating a musical experience for the listener just from his sound. What was the biggest lesson would you say you learned from him?

BR: I think that's a great observation and totally spot on. My attraction to Garbarek was not all that different from my attraction to Musique Concrete (a form of electroacoustic music that utilises acousmatic sound as a compositional resource). It was about how much a single sound can convey – not merely a note within some continuum of other notes, but a vast expression of velocity, pressure, space, tension, time, etc. I wanted to be able put forth, with a single gesture, something quite complex, and, for better or for worse, Garbarek opened some doors to that possibility on the saxophone.

SN: What was the inspiration behind BSC? Did it happen organically, or did you decide one day that you wanted to form a band with these particular musicians?

BH: It was a little bit of both.

First of all, these musicians had been working together in various groups for a few years before the BSC was formed. We were all friends and were all sharing common musical goals. Meanwhile, throughout the greater improvised music world, there were occasionally efforts to put together large ensembles, often in line with a utopian view of "free" improvisation. Typically, these large ensemble performances played out in one of two ways: 1) totally "free" and a complete mess, or 2) loosely structured with cues or texts or scores that allowed for some improvisation but kept things reined in. The problems with 1) are fairly obvious, and generally the satisfaction derived from such endeavors was limited to them being "interesting" and "challenging". The problem I had with 2) was that it really was moving out of the realm of improvisation and into indeterminacy.

I have no problem with indeterminacy, but a question was being left unanswered: is it possible to overcome (or at least mitigate) the pitfalls of large ensemble improvisation without a composition, however indeterminate, coming to the rescue? Could formal and compositional techniques be internalized in such a way that they could be deployed with the same spontaneity with which improvisers deploy the sounds on their instruments? These weren't new questions, really, but I wanted to put them to the test. I also wanted the possibility of making denser music through improvisation.

So, since this group of people in Boston had developed a fresh kind of music together, and since we were friends and could handle real criticism of each other's work, it seemed that the possibility for dealing with the challenges of large ensemble improvisation was presenting itself. I had a clear idea of who I wanted to be in the ensemble, and I called Greg Kelley to tell him about it. As it turns out, he had just booked a gig with nearly the same people. Clearly, something was in the air.

With your book/album, MANUAL, what made you decide to put these two things together and not sell them separately? Did you every worry that one would negate the other, or just the contrary?

BH: A major impetus for putting the book together was to plant the seeds of a practical, empirical discourse on the music we had been doing, to foster a way of talking about it that was insightful and accurate but not too riddled in jargon. I wanted the possibility for the book to be put to use, not only to make more music but to make other things – other art, other communities, other relationships, and other approaches to listening. I wasn't at all worried about this somehow destroying the mystery of the music. I knew that it could only enhance the listening experience, make it deeper, open up unexplored orientations to the pieces. And the music could only clarify or illustrate the ideas being worked out in the book.

SN: In closing. Is there any advice you’d like to offer up and coming soprano saxophonists looking to follow a similar path?

Don’t do it! And, if you’re compelled to ignore that advice, Do it! And, while you’re at it, surround yourself with people who challenge and frustrate you, people who will call you on your schtick. It is far too easy to get caught up in your ability to do something well, but most people ultimately won’t give a shit about that – they’ll want you to reveal something great. Don’t let your efforts get in the way of that revelation.

No Idea Festival 2008 Bhob Rainey, Greg Kelley, Sean Meehan from no idea festival on Vimeo.

Bhob Rainey - A Desert of Consolation (from Two Bites of a Bitter Sweet) from Bhob Rainey on Vimeo.

Bhob Rainey’s Equipment:

Instrument: Curved Yanagisawa Gold Soprano

Mouthpiece: The Missing Link (custom)

Ligature: Vandoren Optium

Reed: Vandoren Java 3