All Antennae Up And Running: Joe Gallants Missionary Compositions
The word genius’ has lost all meaning in modern discourse, rendered empty by overuse. And, unfortunately, I’m about to become guilty of adding to the problem: I believe that in any given age there are a certain number of beings alive on the earth who possess the ability to take Art to a higher level, and, more broadly, carry the gene pool forward into a new understanding of the world and of consciousness. I like to call these beings geniuses.’ Whether visual artists, writers, performers, filmmakers, musicians, philosophers or saints, some of them get distracted by the world and never commit themselves to an art-life; others, because of their adventurous reaching into the future with uncompromising vision, fail to be recognized for what they are and live in an undeserved obscurity. It has been my blessing to encounter several of these transcendently gifted souls along the course of my wanderings, especially a handful working in the field of music.
For example, one such genius is this cat named Stew who heads up an outrageously great band called The Negro Problem. The depth of his talent surpasseth all understanding. Another is guitarist Max Verna, late of the Ominous Seapods. He tells a magnificently new story with his instrument, lifting off from the shoulders of Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman and rocketing furthur (Now if we could just get him to start playing the damn thing again!). I’m also currently keyed into a dude named Chris Rael who works pop miracles with his band Church of Betty. And let me hip you to this electronic music maestro named Dimitri Fergadis, AKA Phthalocyanine. All the heavens merge in him. One final supernova in my little constellation of geniuses is the subject of this interview: composer, arranger, musician, and porn impresario Joe Gallant.
When I first heard about Gallant’s music, it was described to me as “avant-garde big band music.” Although this cheeky description is in some ways accurate, like any label it fails to describe the breadth and flight of his compositions. Best known to Deadheads for his big band arrangements of the Grateful Dead albums “Blues For Allah” and “Terrapin Station,” Gallant has also created several non-Dead related music projects of unusual beauty. With his band Illuminati, he released “Skin” in 1990, an early effort which evokes the tone poetry of the impressionist composers Debussy and Ravel and draws upon the thrills and difficulties of transforming one’s life utterly, that period of transitional limbo and the entry into one’s true destiny. 1994’s “Code Of The West” takes as part of its theme the pervasiveness of the televised image and displays Gallant at a pinnacle of complexity, utilizing a fractious music that mirrors the densely prismatic reality conjured by the boob tube and other media.
Just released and available in stores now, Gallant’s new project, “Shadowhead,” finds him excavating new quarries in the nethersphere, a groovy, song-oriented arcade-form he’s dubbed “chambertronica.” Though all of Gallant’s music grows from an intensely personal vision, the songs on Shadowhead cull more openly autobiographical terrain than previous compositions, making for a more recognizably emotional excursion into the artist’s distinctive universe.
As committed as he is to music, lately Joe Gallant has made Adult Entertainment his maintime gig. With his website/porn-project Black Mirror Productions becoming an increasingly central focus in his life, Gallant has raised many an eyebrow among his friends and admirers. But have no fear, oh fearful music fans: Although erotic projects have taken brief precedence over symphonic ones, Joe Gallant continues to dip his quill into the juiciest muse and will go on composing sounds for as long as the divine spirit allows.
BS: How did music enter your life and consciousness?
JG: The big encounter was hearing a chamber ensemble when I was about 6 years old. They were playing a modern-sounding piece that was like an invitation from my future. I was completely transfixed. It was brilliant-sounding, like a laser lightsource. I took piano lessons at six, guitar lessons at ten, but I didn’t hear those instruments inside me enough to embrace them. The next big encounter was my first rock concert: December 30, 1971, The Band at the Academy of Music on 14th street. It blew my mind. I was thunderstruck by the exotic, gypsy-circus vibe, the patchoulli/pot smell, the lights, the awesome hippy chicks! The Band just rocked that night. I knew I wanted to be a part of whatever magic was capable of happening on a stage full of musicians.
BS: And how did you hook up with the bass?
JG: I started “hearing” the bass in Freshman year High School and started playing upright and electric at the same time.
BS: Which bass players have turned you on and inside out over the years?
JG: Starting in 1972: The bass player with Steppenwolf, and Larry Taylor with Canned Heat. Then a few months later, Phil Lesh because I completely dug his approach and tone. He’s the first of two bassists who changed and codified the course of my life, without a doubt. I had started trying to plunk out his bass lines on acoustic guitar the year before. Bruce Barlow, from Commander Cody is another important figure. On upright: Charles Mingus, Jean-Jacques Avenel, Alan Silva, Dave Holland, Ray Brown, George Duvivier, Charlie Haden. And, on electric, of course: Jaco Pastorius. What can you say? He changed it all up for all of us. In 1987 I heard my second most important bass influence: Anthony Jackson, a virtuoso who invented the 6-string bass. He’s become a friend and teacher. I guess it’s fair to say that if you want to hear where I really come from bass-wise, listen to Phil Lesh and Anthony Jackson.
BS: Which composers have particularly influenced your vision?
JG: First, Ingolf Dahl. His “Concerto a Tre” is my favorite composition of all time. Karlheinz Stockhausen, arch experimentalist, working in so many different genres. My favorite pieces are “Zeitmasse,” “Telemusik,” “Hymnen,” and the remarkable “Adieu.” I also like Schoenberg, Bartok, Berg, jazz composers like George Russell and Carla Bley and Cecil Taylor, a shimmering landing field of energy and ideas. Bach was a huge influence. Because I didn’t study formally with a teacher for the first six years of playing, I would read through the Inventions and Cello Suites and try to imitate that contrapuntal, chordal style on electric.
BS: Where did you take things from there?
JG: In 1975-77 everything happened. I became immersed in music and sound and exploration. I was going to NYU and cutting class and tripping and playing music every day and hanging with some of the most amazing freaks of my generation. We were on a MISSION to find the sound and the truth behind it and have a great time in the process. I went to a lot of Grateful Dead Shows, did lots of Dead listening, breathing “Seastones” like fresh oxygen. I was getting my head handed to me in jazz ensemble on a regular basis, with me the only available bassist in a room full of working NYC jazz heavies: daunting!! But a powerful learning experience. My first New York City gig was with David Peel on “The Underground Tonight Show,” Cable Channel D, in October of 1975.
There was a life-changing night of many freaks in a room, all passed out, and me playing the “Dark Star” side of “Live Dead” over and over, coming down from the rocky jagged cliffs of blotter. Though this might sound like cartoony Furry Freak Brothers stuff, it was a night and experience that changed my life forever, a moment of quiet, pure clarity, altering my aesthetic DNA, granting me rite of passage into a committed life of artistry.
These experiences are rare in this world, in this society. Whether it’s the birth of your child or the passing of a loved one or any experience that allows you to glimpse over the cloud line of daliy existence, they deserve the room to be understood and valued.
There was a new scene at places like CBGB—Television/Blondie/Tuff Darts/Ramones. I dug that a bit, but I really lived for the STRETCHOUT, the elegance and mortal coil poignancy of improvisation within a rock band frame. At the same time, I practically lived in Merkin Concert Hall (mecca of 20th Century chamber repertoire) to hear that other side of my aesthetic. I was also devouring authors and books and ideas, hearing amazing electronic music experiments, all antennae up and running. I began learning to write and arrange in a serious way. I was playing in a dozen groups, sitting on the edge of the bed learning Charlie Parker heads for endless hours. I heard Brian Eno lecture on Ethnomusicology—before the cheese-spread “world music” term took hold—at the First New Music Seminar. I was into Eno, David Bowie, went to a lot of Talking Heads shows.
Then I fell into a six-year heroin habit. I finished up at NYU and lived in my addiction for a few years, a downward spiral. After the first rush of vampire energy, you feel capable of anything in the world, and in truth it was a powerful mind-tool, for a minute. Then it’s selling your instruments, getting busted, life-threatening ODs all over the Lower East Side, emergency rooms, concussions in bathtubs and sidewalks, stealing works out of shooting galleries, using needles you find covered with dirt on the street, shooting toilet water, getting ripped off, ripping off, covered with green runny pussed-up tracks, never bathing, scaring away all your friends, no money ever, never eating, not caring. Ironically, I started Illuminati in this madness. Our First gig was September 20, 1982 as a trio (electric bass, baritone sax, flute/drums) at Tramps.
BS: When did you kick heroin?
JG: I got clean in March of 1985, weighing 110 lbs. on the scale in the hospital. Sobriety took root like a concrete foundation in my life in April 1985 and has been the reason I’m able to accomplish things and write music and make records and get up in the morning, a day at a time. It’s the reason there wasn’t a memorial service for me. I reactivated Illuminati as a trio of electric bass/cello/violin. And I started writing every day and gigging all the time. The band grew to a 16-piece by 1990 and has been that way since.
BS: Why the name Illuminati for your band?
JG: I decided on the name in May of1982, while living on East 3rd Street, deriving it from the word “illumination,” as used specifically in a text written by the philosopher Francis Bacon: “The first creature of God, in the works of the days, was the light of the sense. The last was the light of reason, and his Sabbath work ever since is the illumination of his spirit.” I wasn’t aware of the Robert Anton Wilson “Illuminati” books at that point. A friend turned me onto those books when I told him my choice for a name. I really didn’t get much of an initial impression from the actual writing in the books. It seemed too pothead wink-wink for such a seemingly important subject. But I was very intrigued and went on to devour information about the history and legacy of those ideas, which led me through studies of the early Gnostic tradition, Rosicrucian, Masonic and Knights Templar philosophies, and lastly into a very deep and ongoing interest in Alchemy. I collect and read as much on the subject as I can, buying texts wherever I travel and ordering books from all over the US and Europe on a regular basis. Illuminati’s music was always meant to be an expression of the spirit, at its metaphysical level, as well as being a continuing diary.
BS: How does “Shadowhead” differ from your previous projects?
JG: All of my solo CDs are very much about where I was at the time of their writing, gigging and recording. “Skin” (1990) was essentially a smaller-scale chamber writing/jazz disc, with a lot of melodic ideas and modernist string arranging, a bit on the poignant side, Ravel-esque, reflecting my love for my two French Impressionist heroes—Ravel and Debussy—in some of the harmonic aspects. Its music mirrors the period between 1987-90, when I was putting Illuminati back together relatively early in sobriety. It’s sort of tenuous and fragile, but well-crafted.
“Code Of The West” (1994) was a huge CD to make. It took two years to write, two and a half years to finish. It used 62 performers, lots of sound design, location recording, a cohesive text predominantly concerning the pervasiveness of televised imagery. It was a mammoth organizing and editing job. I wrote the text on my roof at night over the course of six months, and wrote 99% of the music in the dead of night after walking and vibing through Times Square on a daily basis, rushing home to sketch images like a painter. I really stepped out with this one, announcing myself to the world so to speak, full of new confidence in my craft. It was a great and exhilarating time for me, lots of blazing musical discoveries and awareness. It’s a very dense, highly orchestrated action-packed project, very nocturnal and soundtrack-y. It also has “Unbroken Chain” on it. I arranged it as a Christmas gift for the Dead (which I understand they enjoyed). “Code” ended up getting great press.
“Shadowhead” was written from approximately 1997-2000, when we were gigging a lot on the post-Dead jamband circuit. It reflects my need for music to play in between the Dead arrangements on that club/festival circuit, stuff that grooved. Most of the prior Illuminati stuff was made to be heard in NYC recital hall/gallery, sit-down settings. But it also had some rigorous writing. I found that my initial attempts at playing my older stuff was sort of met with bewilderment at the jamband gigs, a case of too much writing and not enough good-time groove. People’s attention spans didn’t seem ready for knotty post-Schoenberg chamber/jazz in those settings, so I worked up a body of groovy stuff that was a bit simpler in structure yet had interesting twists in the harmonic schemes. The best of that batch became the initial pieces for “Shadowhead.” My favorite pieces, stuff I wrote more for me than an audience, are “Shadowhead,” “Chrdquo; “Liquid Heart,” “Sparky,” and “Breath.” They’re part of a cool new style for me, sort of chamber/electronica. “Shadowhead” also has two song-tunes, with lyrics, something sort of new for me. I’m hearing new colors, and these are the first attempts. I feel like I can finally create a sonic portrait of a person or event or emotion, and have it feel evocative. I’m very proud of them. They feel mature to me as a writer, like a move into a real, individual voice. They’re like Giacometti stick-figures—stark but nuanced.
BS: What’s “Chdquo; all about?
JG: Chs named for Chraham, my dearest friend, former-girlfriend, confidante, ally (the inside cover of “Code of the West” shows us kissing on Greene Street, where we lived when I had a mammoth loft sublet in part of 1992-93). The piece is scary, like her, and evokes a number of genres in passing, like moodsvery dark but with a whimsical intelligence. I recorded it in my apartment last summer, and shaped it over a few weeks.
BS: “Liquid Heart” is incredibly haunting. Where does that one come from?
JG: “Liquid Heart” is a great burned-out comet of a piece, lots of surface tension and shadow. The string writing feels 19th Century to me, delicate gaslight, cold steel: “a liquid heart most pure, vile in its ascendance, black night-blood vessel…” (That’s sketch text from yet another story, “Saint Blood,” about a derelict madman who wanders Europe in the 15th century with the ability to turn solid objects into liquid with a prayer). I wrote his piece, “St. Blood” recently, and will perform it with Ice Angel [Gallant’s newest band] soon. as such, Liquid Heart is really a departure from Illuminati into Ice Angel. The textures are Ice Angel strings, guitars, throb bass, Gustave Doreyboard . . .
BS: “Breath” is singular in its sound and feel. I love the bleating orgasms. What’s going on in that song?
JG: “Breath” was conceived last fall, as a diary entry, referencing my involvement in the porn world. It’s actually a tribute to your town [Los Angeles] circa 1970: the mutant-surf drums, swinging organ and breathy chicks are my imaging of what it would’ve been like living in, say, Venice Beach at that time. The golden age of hippy headband porn, crocheted bikinis and airbrushed vans. Pacific Coast Highway and the setting sun over endless summer! The girl voices are from my shoots and a couple of porn tapes, chosen for their exuberance. This piece has a deliberately fuzzy, slightly unfocused mix, lots of grey air like a distant memory, and ends with the unsettling fadeout of a string trio (sampled from a piece I wrote for a theatre adaptation of a Dostoevsky story in 1992).
BS: And of course the CD opens with that stunning title track . . . Is there a story behind that one?
JG: Karen Mantler sang the lyrics (ah, there’s that Dorldquo;dark angels swarm in evening light, they come to you…”). She’s a fantastic composer/bandleader, and the daughter of legendary jazz composer Carla Bley. It was a great thrill to work with her, because she’s cool and smart and I’m completely in awe of her; also, she has the coolest voice and timbre around, completely dry and vibratoless, little-girl and gunmetal by turn. Sadly, one of the girls who sang the ah ah ah AH AH background chants on “Shadowhead” was killed execution-style several months ago: Jennifer Stahl, “Calamity Jen,” was recommended to me as somebody for that part, so I called her last fall, she came over and (along with blues powerhouse Lex Grey) laid it downno rehearsal, just sang great and split. Turns out she was a high-profile pot dealer who gave away a lot of it to cancer patients and the generally needy. Two scumbag nobodies did a bust-in ripoff at her place, threw her on the bed, blew her brains out and killed two of the four other hogtied people in the apartment (including a friend of mine—her hairdresser who showed up 15 minutes earlier to cut her hair, who survived a bullet in the head because of its trajectory). They called it the Carnegie Deli murders because she lived upstairs from it.
BS: Does the album as a whole have a kind of thematic concept?
JG: There’s no over-arching schematic, certainly not like “Code.” The only apparent unifying factor is that the pieces are somewhat shorter and more grooving, born of gentle necessity. I did, however, try to create an interesting flow to the CD. To my ear, there’s a slightly schizophrenic feel to “Shadowhead.” The pieces were written over a relatively short period, and two distinct styles are caught in tableau, like the caveman dioramas at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC—looking anxiously at the coming ice storms, their world about to change rapidly. I moved from the older-school horn/string architecture into my more recent “chambertronica” writing, and the reassessment is apparent . . . but cool to see, like a sonic road diary.
BS: Many of the Jambands.com readers are familiar with your Grateful Dead-related work. What attracted you to the Dead’s music, especially as a fitting trellis upon which to hang your arrangements?
JG: It’s unlikely that I would have become as committed an artist as I am, if I hadn’t been initiated into the multi-leveled codes of their music. It’s equally unlikely that I would have developed a restless, searching mind and awestruck spirit if I had not been exposed to their powerful social alchemy. The Grateful Dead collectively represent to me everything that’s good and strong and noble in human nature. I can’t stress strongly enough their importance and value as a musical entity, as a resonant earth-node in cultural history, and as a vehicle for the Search. Like Saul, thunderstruck from his horse in the dead of night and awakening as disciple Paul, I got their message in all its hues at an early age and never looked back—it was Time To Go. The Dead’s alembic contained it all: Rock ’n Roll, Country and City Blues, mountain music, whistling back-alley Burma-Shave Americana, rigorous 20th Century orchestral influences, terrifying dark psychological improvisations, jagged vivisectionist feedback, gentle Celtic whispers, flatfoot carny "Hey, Rube!" goofiness, Mideastern percussion textures. Like a canal city, their tributaries wend and twine.
Lyrically, few groups working in popular culture had words of such depth and poignancy to frame; a seemingly endless flow of profound and subtle imagery was available to them. Their lyricists spoke a poet’s understanding.
To witness the construction of cathedrals, listen to the epic improvs on “Live Dead,” “Europe ’72,” “Skull and Roses.” These are life-changing pieces of music, vital and unique. That they were capable of incredible music during most of their long history is a testament to the power of their earliest convictions as a band.
I’m certain that historians will eventually place the Grateful Dead among the most important performing-arts groups of the last century, and will recognize Jerry Garcia particularly as one of the most creative, intelligent and lyrical musicians in modern history.
BS: Do you have in mind any future projects involving Grateful Dead music?
JG: Only two that are appropriate at this time: I’ll do a live disc of the best of the 15 or so Dead arrangements that aren’t on my other four Dead CDs (a 5th, recorded live at Maritime Hall, was stillborn upon completion of the mixes). The second CD involves an “Anthem of the Sun” approach, utilizing aspects of live Illuminati multi-tracks culled from the last six years—huge group improvs, unusual blocks of ensemble writing, hot solos, transitional passages, etc., forging a dark alloy with an amalgam of trip-trance grooves, machine-noise loops and processed bass overlays—tentatively titled “Transitive” (or “Transitive Nightfall,” which sort of pre-tinues TC’s “Nightfall of Diamonds” disc). These two will have to wait in air-traffic rotation, because I’m now writing for my new band, Ice Angel, a septet that I can actually gig with and afford to take on the road. It’s the sound that’s been steampipe-clanging in my head for the past year like X-Files DNA neck-implant encoding. I’m very excited about it. But those two CDs will see the light of day in the near-distant future.
BS: It strikes me that your work is ideally suited to film scoring. Is that an outlet you’d like to pursue further?
JG: Yes, I live for that moment. I haven’t yet gone about making inroads into that world. I’m aware of the principal and peripheral participants, but I haven’t walked out of the woods into their campfire circle yet. Last summer, when I decided to take a break from Illuminati for a while, I looked poignantly back on the chapter of about 15 years of almost-daily writing, organizing, recording and gigging with a 16-18-piece orchestra, and jumped directly and daily into the not-disimiliar world of modern Adult Entertainment, a world that offhandedly demands, as most art/craft worlds do, focus, committment and attention to detail in order to see some success in it. As in the music world, there’s that greasy film-layer of jive dilletante non-action hustle (which is a painfully visible component of all the arts, unfortunately), so to do well and get known in it, you have to commit to it—financially, creatively, logistically. I’m spending time in that world now, with the same daily intensity as the Illuminati days. I’m grateful that you hear the cinematic aspects of my stuff. I agree that my music is suited to a film aesthetic, and as soon as the porn pieces fall into proper place, I’ll pursue scoring. There are a number of directors and film companies that I would be humbly honored to work with, on any level; I’ll contact them and everybody else who I think might be receptive, though as with any craft, one establishes one’s worth over time. I don’t expect miracles, but I plan on working once I start that engine up.
BS: What are you working on musically right now?
JG: In all my luxurious spare time, I’m working up another calling-card CD, called “Strings,”consisting of interesting string writing—2-part Neo-Baroque counterpoint through large-ensemble modernist writing—shortish pieces, cinematic, as a part of the presentation package for the film world. I’m about one-quarter through it, pre-revision.
BS: How much room is there for improvisation in your music when it’s being performed?
JG: I count on any players I work with to have surgical control over the written notes in front of them, certainly in a recording situation. My writing tends toward the challenging, with enough hairpin turns to require sectionals and full rehearsals in order to execute everything cleanly. In a way it’s similar to a bobsled team checking every inch of the chute beforehand, leaving nothing to chance that shouldn’t be, so the navigation can be lean, exhilarating and flawless. It’s a tremendously satisfying feeling to hear a piece played not only correctly, but casually perfect. A place is reached after a lot of performances where the different instrument sections begin to gel, the notes tend to disappear and the music emerges.
As far as improv: I grew up on a rich, eclectic gumbo of musical genres, including a steady diet of completely free improv, as listener and participant, a great form of ecstatic conversation that can leave the participants breathless with wonder, by its best definition. I’ve always been surrounded by players who love to improvise. NYC has a big, long-term tradition of free players in many genres, and my favorite west-coast groups obviously speak powerful improv like a native tongue. It’s a beautifully valid art and process that should be experienced , at least once, by every musician. An uncanny, fleeting telepathy occurs within the collective sound-pool when everyone is aware of everything, present yet transparent, listening and interacting, leaving holes, adding comments, building, going off to other musical rooms within the architecture. Why are some parties legendary, and others only OK? It usually has to do with the energy and eclecticism of the people present. A point is reached where one realizes, “Hey, this is a VERY cool party,” and that’s usually based on whom one has spoken to or heard in conversation or observed in/shared in revelry.
In perhaps three-quarters of Illuminati’s music there’s a place for group improvisation within the structure, usually utilizing a theme or riff or ensemble passage as a launching pad into improvisation (which either leads into another piece, or returns to the piece at hand). I really dig that organic approach for the ensemble, and I’ve found it works best if we work our way into an improv, rather than starting off with one. It feels more natural for us as a band. Though I respect the work involved (and have delightedly participated in) prompter/game-piece improv schematics, time-structure charts, etc, I tend to stay away from them for the band (I think I only used a brief improv flow-chart once for Illuminati, as an experiment; while it yielded the expected sounds, it felt academic against the 18-wheeler abandon of the group). Illuminati has such monster player/soloist/improvisers that improv-direction is unnecessary. To be completely honest, Illuminati group improvs are like cool vacation spots for me, giving me a chance to groove, and follow the leader(s).
BS: In your opinion what’s the most interesting thing happening in the New York City music scene these days?
JG: There’s no real high-octane launching-pad scene in NYC at the moment, where you feel swept up in a deep, spontaneous and fertile mission with people on similar explorations. Certainly nothing currently exists in Manhattan as an energy conduit, like, for example, Bebop in the ’40s-’50s, or Abstract Expressionism in the ’50s, or 1964-66 Warholesque, exploding-inevitable pop and happenings-into-the-free-jazz/‘politics of revolution. Remember when there was sincere talk of necessary change for real, from a lot of different corners, in the national air? There’s nothing now like the NYC Loft Movement of the late ’60s or Punk/New Wave/‘No New York in the ’70s-early ’80s, or the downtown, angular shriekback white hipster arrhythmia of the mid-’80s-The Present. These all began with ideas in fairly pure form, and became codified into scenes in a time of affordable housing (as necessary as laboratory Latin . . . work and prayer space, for committed working artists).
Astronomical rent increases in the mid-’80s, the arrival of yuppie-worship, Eurotrash and dotcom infection, the twisted cancerous fascism of the current mayor, and a generally distracted, disconnected national mindset (suffering from psychic hearing damage caused by the shrill desperate screaming hype of media) all helped kill or stultify anything as fragile (and potentially dangerous) as a new movement. None of the truly important scenes of recent history would get very far if they were just beginning today, in this climate. I don’t mean to sound like an old crank yelling at street signs, and I’m also not announcing anything that’s unknown here. These scenes had a very multi-disciplinary mulch bed in which to cross-fertilize—painters, writers, musicians, poets, mixed-media artists, responding organically to the culture, politics and economics of their time, as do all ground zero environments of spontaneous artistic commonality and shared awareness defining a SCENE, as seen for example in the dazzling alembic of post-Beat San Francisco and its historic, never-to-be-repeated development, 1963-69.
BS: That begs the question: How does a scene start?
JG: Traditionally, something is in the wind, then a few pioneers begin to follow their (possibly subconscious) impulses and give shape and sound to it. It’s then further picked up on by those with their ear to the ground, and codified when the numbers reach a defining critical mass. We are now in a most unusual era: so firmly are we in the lethal choking grip of media and its co-opting, trivializing irony-stance (unlike ever before) that whole chunks of hard-earned (postmodern) culture can be called forth, vivisected, and their most visceral essence re-created at will, then get thrown back into mass culture, which I believe in effect creates a subtle disorientation, and deliberate trivializing.
BS: How so?
JG: It’s better to make a young consumer aware of Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” than the words of Dr. Angela Davis, as a minuscule example.
BS: Or if not exactly “better”, many postmodern theorists would at least contend there is no inherent value difference between the two. It’s all just “text” to “play” with. What is the basic environment that fuels such a development in aesthetics and culture?
JG: All this co-opting is created in the safe, sterile environments of an ad agency idea-room, a network programming/development conference, a fashion-week retailers convention. What is it this week?: Let’s do ’70s Blaxploitation trash bellbottoms to tie in with your band’s new concept disc of Kung Fu/Asian cult film soundtrack reworkings, with Quiana shirts and some Dylan ’63 shades (replacing last week’s aviator frames, because Johnny Depp saturated it in “Blow”), so let’s grab an all-purpose Miles muted-trumpet sample (for urban streetcred/hipster right-on effect) and throw it on top of an industrial ’80s Gary Numan cut for the client’s SUV ad, Tibetan chant thing over a KC And The Sunshine Band vox sample. Tibetan monks were hot last year, but I’ve got a cool edgy campaign idea of a bunch of them smiling and holding my client’s laptop. Oh, how about Madonna copping a ’60s vibe with an Austin Powers soundtrack tie-in, pre-cowgirl cash-in-on-the-strippers-in-the-video thing. The Pollock shit is huge for 45 seconds because of the Oscars. Better do your gallery opening in alchoholic artist-angst psyche-splatters with some 1981 Basquiat (quick, his movie opens this week!!) badboy graf overlay. The Times is coming I’m sure. I faxed them three times.
We live in a time when public relations firms can keep shitsure talentless nothing losers like a Monica, a Roseanne, a Shoshanna, a Puffy in pathetically continuous media coverage, a time of absolute celebrity addiction and wanton emphasis on the trivial and inconsequential, all part of a subtle and deepening smokescreen to keep matters of human consequence and (traditional) importance placed further away from communal exposure and investigation. This is an incredibly bizarre juncture, in historic terms, of human communication and access to information, and the control of that information.
BS: Hence no “scene” to speak of.
JG: Again, there’s no hint of a huge new vibe, but I’ve been big into the club scene sounds for a few years, lots of different genres. I totally dig what a lot of DJs are doing, from the world-known superstars to younger friends with their decks. The levels have evolved even from a short while ago. There always seems to be a new deep thing going on in that world. There’s a great committment to growing and improving the depth of the sound, particularly in underground (as opposed to established) Hip-Hop. Some of my own favorite scenes have been tried-and-true for me for a quarter century, like the fantastic ongoing series of 20th-21st Century composers at such familiar haunts as Merkin Hall, Julliard’s Focus! series, Columbia University/ Miller Theatre Chamber and Visiting Artists series. Some of my favorite music on earth is from the Brotherhood of Gnawa, so I try to see them at the World Music Institute’s concerts when they’re here. There’s great music all over town, on any night. There’s always power and love and possibility in the air whenever somebody’s bearing down on his or her instrument, telling a story and speaking honestly.
BS: Have you ever thought about composing an opera? Are you at all interested in the form?
JG: Yes, I’m very interested and am chipping away at one as a (very) long-term project. What a great form, opera: a storyline illustrated through recitative and incredible virtuoso arias, propelled by ensemble vocal passages and compelling orchestral material. Very rich indeed, and completely varied in terms of presentation. Look at the serendipitous lyricism of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” the direct-stare energy of Puccini’s “Turandot,” the chilling pantonality of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” the bellwether hypnotic repetition of Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach,” for too-sparse examples. For approximately 10 years I’ve been sketching ideas for an operatic piece based on the life and transcendent death of a street addict girl. The first burst of this material is found in the aria in my piece “Black Watch,” on “Code of the West.” Back in the day, my Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood was wild and notorious for heroin and prostitution (this was pre-crack time, ’70s-mid ’80s). It was one of my copping places for dope, dilaududs, etc, ironically, often in front of the building where a few years later in humble daily sobriety I would eventually live, purchase two apartments over time and join the board of directors.
Around 1990 I was whizzing past my block in a car and I saw one of the regulars, a junkie chick waiting (very impatiently) for her cat, who was a no-show, from the look of her,
obviously dope-sick, clock ticking, all insect antennae quivering. It was pre-twilight, and the last sun spilling up the block bathed her in blazing gold, purple and red light. It became a burned-in image for me. I knew I’d work up a piece based on that impression, and filed away a few sentences of text. I was dating a girl named Margo at the time, and during a walk one night, I said, “Ah, what a lovely breeze,” which she said back to me in German. As I had previously studied the language for a few years, my mind snapped on the idea of casting in German the girl’s Dadaist thoughts, as she waits for her phantom lover-dealer: “Oh, what a lovely breeze! so pale, so true—my lover’s voice? It plays across all surfaces like shadow, and clings like tendrils to our fate. Ah, what a timeless caress! Is it the beating of wings? Or jets?” The mezzo-soprano aria is preceded by her lover coming belligerently through an alley door, electric sparks blazing, and whistling his motif as he walks slowly toward her. He stops in front of her during a diminuendo ensemble passage which thins to flute and cello, in which we hear a little orgasm sigh, the appropriate response for her character. The source of that sigh, in truth, was a DAT tape which a previous girlfriend requested that I make, of a night of our love-making. Rather than utilize one of the big roof-raising Wagnerian finales (entirely innapropriate for the scenario!), I opted for a very small, internal sigh from early in the evening. This isn’t meant in a smarmy way, merely to illustrate the variety of material (and the opportunities for using found-sound and collage aspects) that goes into the construction of a piece.
My continuing work on “Black Watch” begins the girl’s story at her birth, to a heroin addict mother. with shrill screaming and shards of sound around her, the baby, though not deaf, hears silence. Not an absence of sound, but Silence. Silence figures into my
personal psychology as the sound of love, and of the future. This is a very important motif for me, I think borne of my habit as a toddler of turning on the bathroom sink, sitting under it and going into a sort of trance state for as long as I could get away with it. I still find myself absent-mindedly doing the same thing, then slowly wandering unaware around the apartment with lunar-dust sound-imagery silting and aerosolling around my head until I realize, oh shit, the sink’s on again. Old habits are hard to break, especially if they’re good ones. The text segues directly into her present-day world, with periodic telling glimpses of her past. At the time of her mysterious death (perhaps deliberate/accidental overdose), on the sidewalk of 10th Avenue, at the hands of an unknown person (perhaps a friend or apparition), she falls into a dream in which the tar of 10th Avenue turns into a rolling black sea, and a remarkable pirate ship, a ghost ship bedecked with crow-black billowing sails and adorned with silver gleaming skulls against a sulphur sky. The dead crew and captain standing stationary on the deck, come for her.
Her aria is: “Come, whisper black sails, black as my mind, silent as my birth. come current, froth and roil, silver flash and elegant wind. I float in the womb of my mother, the sea. My thoughts are her creatures.Who speaks of love here? Who sings the voice in my heart?” Her mother rises out of the ocean and into the sky. A piece of possibly-incorporated text, which precedes the mechanism of her death: “Love knows not itself, only its ashen resolve . . . steel-grey dusk bleeds to night, pavement like a black sea. A 10th Avenue ghost ship— “The Wings and Anchor” . . . the city is a cracked diamond darkly glowing. Briefly, within psychic sightlines, wings over midtown. But of what nature? Of what consequence?” Well, this of course is a long-term project, scored for Illuminati-esque size and colors—better suited to my retirement—a time of leisure, tea, watchfobs, hobbies and gardening .
BS: Perhaps this is a silly question to ask someone who has dedicated his life to artistic creation, but I’ll ask it anyway: Does Art matter?
JG: Does life on earth matter? By grand design, humankind has one ancient hand deep in the boiling hopeless mud of the poignant, profound and impossible struggles of our earthbound history, while the other hand twists and grasps upward, longing and aching in purity and silent prayer for one half-remembered glimpse of our origin among the stars. Art is the schematic of our journey from a time before human thought, the topographical map of our earliest collective impressions. Art is a gift from our Creator. Without Art, life on earth would be unliveable, and would cease.