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Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Interview with Myra Melford

Myra Melford. Photo: Brian McMillen

By Paul Acquaro and Stef Gijssels with Myra Melford

Paul (FJB): Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, it's nice to have a chance to talk with you and catch up with the work that you're doing. So, to start, you just played at the Big Ears Festival in Tennessee, how was it?

Myra Melford: It was great. I had a wonderful time performing. It was fun to be part of this sort of incredible extravaganza with these bands from all over. It's the only festival of its kind in the US that I know of. Maybe it's similar in some ways to the North Sea Festival or somewhere where you have a lot of bands playing and multiple stages and overlaps, which, you know, is a bit crazy. But on the other hand, it's a chance to really take in a lot of cool music. So, I was happy to be part of it. You probably know that I lost one of my colleagues recently. Ron Miles was an amazing musician and person and had been part of Snowy Egret from the beginning. So, I was just feeling a little down, for one thing, before we went into it, but I was able to have my long-time old friend and colleague Cuong Vu join us on trumpet. We dedicated the concert to Ron and we had really a great time performing. So, all in all, it worked out well.

Paul: You had recently released an album with this group, The Other Side of Air (2018) and a self-titled album in 2015 . Did you play music from the recordings or was there some new music as well?

Myra: From both recordings and because Cuong Vu was with us, I did one older piece that he had performed with me on a record called the The Whole Tree Gone.

Paul: Considering the circumstances, we're happy to hear that it went well. Now you are in Europe and we're speaking to you in Paris?

Myra: Yes. I'm in Paris in a place called Cité Internationale des Arts, which offers residencies for artists for different lengths of time. I'm here for seven months.

Paul: Is there an expectation that you write something specific for the residency? Or is it more, “here's a space for you to ...”

Myra: They're providing me lodging, a studio with a piano and that kind of thing so that I can have some time away from teaching and away from home to try to do some new, different kinds of work and projects. I will be touring and using the time to write a lot of new music and try some different projects with people over here.

I sent them a description about the projects that I'm currently working on, and I was accepted on the basis of that and, that is in fact what I'm doing. I will show my work in progress a couple times. I have a showing next week and then I'll do something closer to the end of my residency in August. As far as like a specific thing that I have to deliver, a score or a concert or something, I don't have that kind of pressure.

Stef: That's nice. It's interesting concept. It's pretty unique, I think. I haven't heard of it from any other country to be, to be honest.

Myra: Yeah. I wonder if something like the DAAD or, you know, some of those other residencies, expect something specific or if they're also like this, but this was great to find because I really wanted a chance to do a project I was already committed to.

Paul: So could we ask, what are some of your current ideas?

Myra: I have one sort of overarching project that I think conceptually, but also practically I've been able to fold a lot of other smaller things into. It's a project I'm calling, 'An Extravagant Joy for Cy Twombly.' I've been fascinated with his work, as you've probably seen, for a long time. And I could imagine various different ensembles that I can put together to respond to different works of art that he created over his very prolific and long career. And, this new project, Fire and Water Quintet, is say the first installment or the first part of that project and I'm writing new music for that band right now that we will perform in Europe later this month as we start touring, but while I'm here in Paris, I'm also doing a duet project with Joëlle Léandre under the same umbrella of this project. I'm writing some new for the trio that I play in with Miya Masaoka and Zeena Parkins, and that will be performed in Berlin next year.

So I'm trying to be practical as a full-time university professor and performer and composer. How can I kind of keep focused on one project, but have it apply to a number of the different groups that I'll be performing with over the next couple years.

Paul: So, one thing you mentioned is that you have a tour coming up this month...

Myra: Yes. This is with Fire and Water Quintet that has the new record out. We'll start in Oslo on the 28th of April and we finish in Podova, Italy on May 8th.  (See here for concert dates)

For the Love of Fire and Water Quintet (l-r): Ingrid Laubrock, Mary Halvorson, Myra Melford, Susie Ibarra, Tomeka Reid. Photo from Rogue Art.

Stef: How would you describe your latest album For the Love of Fire and Water? I mean, my opinion is it's much freer than your previous work, how do you explain that evolution?

Myra: I don't know if it's evolution or there's always been these two sides to my musical personality. I have to say so many of these things kind of grow out of necessity or expediency because I was doing a week at The Stone back in June of 2019, and the idea there is that you perform with a different project every night of the week for five nights. And I was doing a lot with current and past projects but I had one night open and I thought it would be it really fun to just play with a new group of people. There wasn't any time to rehearse, so the obvious thing to do would've been to get a group of people together and have an evening of free improvisations, solo, duos, trios, et cetera.

But then I thought, well, here's this chance to bring together a quintet of really amazing players and I could kind of organize or make a roadmap of orchestrations of who plays when, or maybe some processes that we might follow, like some simple rules that I could write down on paper that we could use as a focus for the improvisations. Then, I found a few sketches for music that I had been working on and had never finished. So, I thought, well, maybe this is a good chance to explore these, you know, this motivic material and see what happens. And it works so well that I decided to record and tour with the project. Then for the recording, I developed the composition a little bit more, but always thought of it as a suite, in other words, I wasn't thinking of it as individual compositions, the way I do for other projects.

I was really just trying to find a way to allow these amazing musicians, with a wonderful vocabulary of sounds and techniques and strategies that they use as improvisers, a way to harness that and organize them, but still give them a lot of room, give all of us a lot of room to just to just play more freely. It's somewhere in between something like Snowy Egret and the more open collective improvisations that I've been doing the past few years with Tiger Trio with Nicole Mitchell and Joëlle Léandre, or this trio with Miya Masaoka and Zeena Parkins. So, it's grown out of my recent experiences, but it was my first time actually putting on record as a leader, the breadth of this experience.

Stef: It's a an all female band. Is that a specific choice or was that due to circumstances?

Myra: It's a specific choice. You know, I realized in performing with these collective trios, which are also all female that, it's something not so much that I want to make a big deal about, it's not meant to be a gimmick or a way to sell a band, rather it's really a way to say, look at all these amazing women musicians. Despite the progress we've made as women in a male dominated industry, there's still a lot of inequality and lack of representation. Also, I just thought it would be fun to have a band that was all women, you know, in a way to not only support my colleagues and younger women musicians, but to say, look, this is really it's important that people recognize.

Stef: You've been a role model, I think, for female musicians for many years, like Joëlle Léandre was and Irene Schweizer. How do you feel today? I think there are many young female musicians coming up and being active in jazz and free improvisation.

Myra: I think it's fantastic, you know, and I think the landscape has really changed over the course of my lifetime and my career and that's very exciting and heartening. And yet, I guess as a result of the Me Too movement and recent developments in the struggle against racism in the United States and around the world as well as colonialism, I think there's a lot more people are a lot more vocal about the problems that still exist. I think it's important to recognize that we still have issues of inequality in this music, less women represented still, although that's starting to change, problems with pay equity and so on, and still issues of women encountering either harassment or sometimes more serious abuse. All these things still need to be addressed, but to get back to the earlier part of your question, yes, it's at the same time, very exciting that women are able to make this a choice for the way they live and their career and so on.

Paul: The new album is titled after a Cy Twombly series of drawings. What is it that attracts you to his work? How did you connect with it?

Myra: This series of drawings is called Gaeta Set and then in parentheses For the Love of Fire and Water, which is where the name for the music that I wrote came from, because it was in response to these drawings, but then also seemed like a fitting name for the band. I was introduced to Twombly's work in 1994 when I was living in New York and there was a retrospective, a wonderful and major retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art. I went to see it and it was all new to me, but there was something about it that got me excited and made me feel a kind of affinity or kinship with his expression. It kind of looks like how I like to play the piano to me.

Stef: OK. Can you be more specific? How is that?

Myra: Yeah, I respond to the energy. His work often has tremendous energy, the gestures, and the lines. It's very dynamic, and it's also a little bit quirky. I think the other thing that was important to me is that he - this is anecdotal, but I read that he used to practice drawing at night with the lights out, because at that point, he really wanted to connect with what it felt like, the gesture of making a line, as opposed to, you know, what it looked like per se. That's really how I relate to music. That's how I play the piano. It comes from a physical impulse. It comes from this sort of energetic impulse that I have to make a certain gesture that has a sound attached to it that I then respond to, you know, sonically, but also physically, you've probably seen me play the piano, I'm a very physical player. It's as much a kind of dance or movement thing that I'm doing, and I felt, I just felt that in the energy that comes off of his canvases, that regardless of the fact that he wasn't an improviser, he's able to capture that very free, raw energy that makes free improvisation and improvised music so exciting.

Stef: Is that the reason why you often also refer to nature in titles of albums or pieces you write?

Myra: Yes, I think so. I think so. Let me, I was just going to quickly add that when I see his work, I want to respond in music. You know, it's not so much that I'm trying to translate his work into sound, but it's the way that I can dialogue or interact with other artwork, to respond musically. If we take the elements, fire, and water, both of those things can be incredibly powerful, both destructive and life giving, and I feel like all of that comes into play in this music, you know, and because as improvisers, we're responding to the energy and the circumstances of the moment. I feel at least personally that I can fully harness the kind of energy that those elements represent for me. So yes, I think nature has been as an equally important inspiration in my music making. And that's not to say that everything is always this high energy thing. There are of course moments of stasis and calm and all of that, which we also find in the elements.

Myra Melford. Photo: Bryan Murray

Paul: You mentioned you want to react to his art when you play are there other artists who inspire you, maybe in other ways?

Myra: Yes, I think this kind of extra musical inspiration has always been a big part of my work. Early on, I was really taken by the rhythm of say the lines in works by James Joyce. You know, it was the imagery to a certain extent, but just the way he put words together and the rhythms that they suggested made me want to - I would use the word respond. It's not a big deal, but I would say respond rather than react, even though I understand why that seems like an apt word, but it's a kind of dialogue process. It's not so much that I want to imitate what I'm hearing or seeing, but that it really is like call and response, or I see this thing, or I read this thing or, you know, I've been inspired by architecture. I wrote a suite of music responding to an experience of being in La Mezquita which is a mosque, well, it's now a church that's in a mosque, in Cordoba, Argentina. 

I grew up in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, which, you know, his philosophy really inspired me, this idea of blurring the lines between the interior of a building and the exterior. It's made me think about musical forms that allow us to blur the lines between what's composed and what's improvised. I've also been very inspired by the artwork of Joan Miró, the Spanish painter, and did a big work a few years ago working with the text from Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy. I've worked with dancers and poets and so I think I'm constantly sort of having a conversation with these things.

Stef: It strikes me how Twombly and Miro have lots of open space in their paintings. Does that reflect your music as well? The pauses, the space between the notes, between the structures?

Myra: Probably more so the older I get. I think I've always had moments of calm, but I think that something I'm interested in exploring these extremes between a very open kind of environment and then one that's maybe sparsely populated with sound and ones that are very dense. And I think that really comes through, say in this series of drawings by Cy Twombly that influenced this work, and I think it comes through to a certain extent in the music. I hope it does. Anyway.

Paul: When you're teaching courses at your university, do you have these types of dialogue with your students? Do you talk about inspiration and artwork and other medium?

Myra: Yes. I talk about it, and I also have them do assignments and projects where they're asked to do the same. I mean, I'm very careful, I try not to impose, but I like to at least be open with them about my process and what inspires me and ask them to try a lot of new things as they're figuring out what their voice is and what inspires them or allows them to create new work.

Paul: I think that's really fascinating, because at first one may think, ‘oh, how can this artwork inspire music? Or how do I hear this artwork in the music or the style?’ but it is a fascinating dialogue. Thank you for expanding on this topic.

Myra: Sure, I would say, I'm not so interested that the listener makes a specific connection. I'm really more interested sharing that this is what inspired me. You could listen to this music on its own and whether or not you relate to the drawings or you make connections between the drawings is really not my intention, as much as creating a space, you know, for, for people to just become immersed in the music and have whatever it is that they experience.

Stef: Before performance in the preparation of the performance with the band that you now have, did you discuss Twombly's art at all before performing? How does that work to have them be part of the dynamic and the shared inspiration?

Myra: I shared the drawings with them. The score came in several parts, there was a text that outlined the different sections and what was happening or who was playing and whether or not there was some directions, or they were completely free to do whatever they wanted in those moments. And I gave them these written scores for places where we have notated material, and I gave them a set of the drawings. I said, these informed how I approached creating this vehicle for us to improvise, it's up to you, whether you respond to it or not. I've worked with amazing improvisers over the years who just do not relate to visuals, graphic scores for instance, and I've worked with other people for whom it's an important part of information. It's not so much that they're trying to read the drawing, but that it influences their mood or suggests something to them that influences the choices they make as they're performing. So, I really left it up to the players, but in talking with a couple of them, I kind of got that same set of responses. There were people for whom trusted that because I had been informed by it, there would be some aspect of this Twombly experience would come through the compositions and it wasn't up to them to interpret them. But for others, it was an additional piece of information for how they approached what they were doing, but not that they had to do. There was never a sense that we're going to try to perform this in any sort of literal way.

Paul: I'd like to swing back to the new album. For Love of Fire and Water, is on Rogue Art, which is a French label, so I guess it fits that you're in Paris and working with its music. Could you tell us a little bit about the music on the album? Like what, what should listeners maybe listen for in the recording?

Myra: I think there are several things that I really am excited about in this particular set of players, this configuration. The fact is that everybody has a very unique, well-developed sound on their instrument and a big vocabulary of things that they can draw on, expressive materials that they can use. The interplay, you know, everybody is listening so intently and constantly responding to each other, either very directly or obliquely, however those dialogues happen. There's constant interplay, which I think is a big thing to listen for. Then, in terms of this record, by listening to it as a continuous suite, as opposed to individual pieces, there's a kind of architectural sweep or - the terms for this are difficult - journey that you can go on from beginning to end, and I would hope people would get a chance to experience that.

Paul: I think there's definitely an arc, from beginning to end. There's an intro in which you have each instrument coming in kind of on its own and giving it its own space to become a part of the group. And then the outro, a very quiet, reflective song with a kind of a winding down of the energy. So, you have the beginning and end, and a lot going on in the middle.

Stef: I just wanted to say that your album is very coherent, but that's something you've always taken care of for most of your albums. The sound is the same, regardless of the piece, it's very coherent, almost conceptually, most of your albums have a kind of a core concept, core idea that you work on and play around with.

Myra: Yeah, I think that's true. And I think, um, this piece, this, this recording, this project maybe takes that a step further, you know, in that it's one long suite, although I've often created suites of individual songs, as you say, that have a beginning and end of their own. In this one, I was really trying to find a way to all of them so that we didn't hear them necessarily as individual compositions or songs, but really heard them as parts of this bigger whole. I think it grew naturally out of what I've done in the past but was an attempt on my part to take that a little bit further.

Paul: So, we're still in the midst of, or maybe we're coming out of, the pandemic situation. How did the situation affect you as an artist?

Myra: Well, my first reaction was like total disappointment. You know, I had all this work lined up that I had to cancel. I'm fortunate to have a full-time teaching salary, so I didn't have some of the same challenges and struggles that my freelance musician friends and peers had to deal with. But I had to deal with this total cessation of a big part of my musical expression, which is performing live, with a live audience. I was also in the middle of a busy school year, I was teaching a large enrollment class exploring what happens in improvisation across different disciplines and what can we, what are some of the core principles of improvisation that we can apply to different areas of our life, regardless of what field we're in. And I had this huge group of students that had been meeting in a large group twice a week with guests and all kinds of activities where they're experiencing improvisation in different forms, suddenly had to go online.

And, you know, it was kind of overwhelming and difficult for them, and challenging for me, to keep a coherent class going. How could I get to still be interactive in this very, at first, kind of sterile remote environment? So, I was preoccupied with that for the first few months. And then, I realized, wow, this is the first time I've stopped. Since I started my career in my twenties, I have never just been in one place. And that was, I think, very positive for me. It was hard, but it was great for me not to be traveling all the time and having to put out in that way that we do as performers. I really kind of took a break from everything. I kept listening to music and thinking about things, I knew I was going to be doing this project.

One of the things that got canceled was that we were supposed to record this music in June of 2020. So, I said, okay, well then this gives me some time to really rethink the project. What can I add to it? What do I want to take away from it? What can I edit out? What can I do to maybe try to make it even more coherent and add few more underlying structures that keep it all together? So, I worked on that, and I knew I was going to have a sabbatical the following year, so I made a number of grant applications and all the time sort of thinking about this larger Twombly project that I mentioned earlier. Then after a while, I started really working on my solo playing and trying to develop some new material, which I did.

Little by little, I sort of got back into doing things, did a little bit of remote playing with people, but I have to say, I wasn't one who took naturally to performing online. I'm not sure anybody did, but for me, I had all these other things going on, so it was less important as an outlet for me. I think it give me a time to be reflective in a way that I don't often have time for. As soon as I had the vaccination, last spring, I started touring and going out in the world again in May and haven't stopped since, so I'm back to my old ways, but I think, I think it really gave me a chance to recharge and reflect on what I was doing and how I want to move forward.

Stef: How important is an audience for you and what does it bring to your music?

Myra: You know, I'd like to say it's very important, because there's this energetic exchange that happens when you're in the same room with other living, breathing human beings that some of it I think is subtle. Some of it I think is happening on a level that we may or may not even be aware of, but certainly feeds me as a performer. And I feel like that's what I have to, you know, it gets back to the way I play the piano and how I relate to this music in a way it's all about energy and listening, and the exchange that happens in that, whether I'm playing solo or playing with other musicians, whether there's 10 people in the audience, or a thousand people in the audience, something about that exchange is what I find most nourishing, if you will, about doing this and, and most gratifying fulfilling. And so, I would say it's very important to me. And I think that's partly why I was, I understood people's need for music and to be able to get it over the internet was very important during that time. But for me, it never felt as satisfying.

Stef: Sorry to interrupt, I think we saw some live performances via Zoom and it's not the same, it's distant, you're not in the same space even. So yeah, it doesn't work.

Paul: We tried, everyone tried, I'd say

Myra: We all tried. We did the best we could.

Paul: Well, we certainly wish you a wonderful tour!

Stef: Yes, thanks for your time and good luck with your residency in Paris and your touring in Europe. And thank you. Thanks for the music. We really, really love your latest album.

Myra: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about all this. It's been really enjoyable.


Kreilly said...

Great interview. I love Myra!

Gary Chapin said...

I agree. I interviewed viewed her nearly 30 years ago around when she part of the KnitFac tour. Always a melodic powerhouse.