Beyond the Grave: An Interview with Graveyards
Where in the past genres have merged with each other (a lá indie-dance), they are beginning to truly burst their banks. As well as rendering infinitesimal subgenres obsolete and anal, it’s becoming totally pointless try to label this current generation of improvisers.
Ben ‘Hell’ Hall and Hans ‘Bunny’ Buetow are among this wave of artists who are scything a path between once disparate movements. Playing percussion and cello respectively they provide much more than just rhythmic support, this pair push both instruments beyond their ordinarily defined means. As well as comprising two thirds of Graveyards alongside Wolf Eyes’ John Olson and being members of Death Knell and Mêlèe, they run their own first-class label.
In this interview, Hall and Buetow talk very modestly about their collaborations, running brokenresearch and what it takes to improvise.
How did you each progress from learning to play your instruments to improvising?
Ben: I was just a half-assed drummer most of my life fooling around on other people's kits and drum machines. When I was a kid I would kind of hit anything in the house but we couldn't afford drums and they didn't really have a music program at my school. Then in the early nineties I got fairly serious into conga playing. I started studying it with a local guy and then the both of us started studying with Jumma Santos [aka Jim Riley] who played on Bitches Brew and with Kalaparush and Julius Hemphill. But I wasn't really satisfied formally or timbrally with the options and moved to kit when I was maybe 22.
Hans: For me, it was watching Ben play a concert with John Voigt and Kat Hernandez that got me to improvise. I went up to him after the concert and told him that although I had no idea what had just happened, I thought I liked it. He thanked me and told me that he'd always wanted to play with a bassist regularly, and so if I was interested, he would love to get together. In my mailbox the next day I found a couple of CD's, including Peter Kowald, which I listened to several times before returning it to him. I said I liked it, but couldn't begin to do what he did, much less think in that way. Next semester Ben invited me to a rehearsal, and because he was so much bigger than me I said yes. I remember having the moment driving to the rehearsal where I steeled myself up and said to myself that even though I might have no idea what was happening, or where to go, I would continue on without fear. So we hit with this great horn player Philip Wofford, and I looked from him to Ben and back for the first half a minute of the first piece. I could see them bouncing and fighting off each other, and loved it, but couldn't see where the space was for me or how I fit into it. So I took a deep breath, put my head down, and just started. I haven't looked back.
So do you two feel you play more 'with' each other or 'off' each other?
H: I would have to say both. We've spent a lot of time playing together, so we've seen each other at a lot of extremes. We have a sense of the general areas that the other might inhabit, so our possible collective universe is pretty big. I think that within that universe, it seems like a blurred line as to whether a decision is reactionary or complementary. We don't want to monkey each other, but we want to have some symbiosis in our ideas. We've done a lot of exercises in our practice to become comfortable with distance between us both with sound and ideas. I think that opens the relationship up to being able to be independent, yet linked by the information that exists in a piece.
B: Yeah, a little bit of both. In school we basically developed a ton of exercises and structures that helped us hear each other particularly in large group situations or in situations where people were playing their instruments or dancing in an improvisational setting for the first time. Because of Bennington's [College in Vermont] liberal approach to education, liberal in the sense that they are concerned with broadening a person's general experience and knowledge, rather than a person's technical or professional experience, we would find ourselves together and separately playing in ridiculously awkward situations. The default for most of the people who were at the top of their respective departments was not to suffer fools gladly but to bitch. So we still bitched of course but it seemed in our best interest to still try to end up with the most formally adept compositions possible, regardless of other parties listening, technical and/or compositional abilities.
Was this difficult?
B: I think many of those really difficult situations, particularly with 21 yr old kids who already thought they were improvisers (dancers and musicians) and that they had already begun their careers because they performed a single workshop piece in NYC, those paid the most dividends. Those people, men and women, tended to think that what they were saying was important so it became a matter of if someone plays constantly for 45 minutes and you don't agree with their choices how do you build off of that? Well in school we were playing together 10 -15 hrs a week and we would get to assess these different situations and try to figure out how to participate, make it aesthetically viable in our minds and not be all sour grapes about it.
How did you get together with John Olson?
B: Olson and I started playing together in 97/98. A local promoter introduced us at the Gold Dollar and as Olson says, mind you he was playing drums more then, "I had to check out the competition." He totally ambushed me that night because I showed up at his crib thinking it was going to be a traditional drums/sax thing and he has all of these homemade horns and amps and electronics. Basically, he tried to sonically bully me. I probably played louder, faster and longer that I ever had up to that point. I was still playing all of this traditional west African stuff and those dudes are real bullies and way into stamina playing the same rhythm really, really fast for two and three hours and showing each other up, real cutting. So as soon as I recognized that was the deal with Olson I had it locked. We went upstairs after the jam and talked and he was way down and I was way confused, having never heard anything like what we had just played. We've been down since then.
H: I met him at a bar I worked at. I was coming onto a shift where there was some dishevelled guy wearing goodness knows what – probably a little off. Wasn't too stoked to wait on him first thing in my shift, and then I heard him talk. Even less stoked to wait on him, because it made no sense at all. But then it turns out he not only knows Ben, but used to play in a band with him. He told me that it'd rule if we could jam. A year or so later we finally hit for the first time.
What do you think makes Graveyards work?
B: Thanks I'm glad you think it does but I'm not entirely convinced. And I'm not being coy I just think we've got a lot of work to do.
H: I have to agree with Ben on this one. I think there's a lot of work to be done on it. We're moving in a lot of new directions at once, and it feels like there's a lot of work getting done. I guess I could say that what makes Graveyards work is its restlessness and searching. That seems to be the consistent and most locomotive factor.
B: The stuff Olson puts out is kind of from the Wolf Eyes production perspective and therefore there is a lot of conceptual repetition though that's not always apparent because of the fidelity of his recordings. The stuff we put out it is usually culled from a lot of recording, probably 50 minutes or so for every 20 hours of recorded material. I'm happier with some of those things than others. And of course that's only the stuff with Olson that doesn't account for the Death Knell / Hell & Bunny stuff or Melee our trio with trumpeter Nate Wooley. To go back to the question – in terms of aesthetics Bunny and I have some really defined ideas about how we want to make music. As long as the making part of it falls into those constraints the actual sound product usually follows a certain trajectory that we'll be satisfied with to varying degrees. People like it and I can't be mad at that.
What release you've both worked on has been most satisfying so far?
B: As Graveyards, probably the new LP and CD that just came out, Bare Those Excellent Teeth 1 and Unmarked Graves respectively. The mastering on the LP leaves much to be desired since I'm playing my classical kit which includes a 33" tymp and a 54" concert bass drum and is basically all of this bass clef stuff that is low frequency and well-captured in the recording but got lost during mastering. And the Unmarked Graves stuff is much more recent and Olson is playing electronics on one piece and the stuff he does on electronics is absolute magic for me.
H: It's hard to say. I think that the first recording we ever did The Accuracy of Coincidence, which was a quintet record with percussion, flutes, and bass, was really a big moment for us. Ben and I had been working hard together laying down the groundwork for the systems we operate in now, and it was the first time that we were really put in a position to have to articulate those systems to other players in a concise manner. And then, even after we had explained it as best we could, we had to let go of the control and let each member of the ensemble act in their own way. It was one of the first real tests for the theories we'd been developing, and I think we'd both agree that it is an exceptional document of that time period for us. Besides the musical challenges, it was the first recording we'd done, which launched us into a whole new set of ideas and priorities in terms of documenting music and the elimination of the preciousness of individual recordings that comes from having ready access to recording equipment.
There seem to be a smattering of project names, is each name used to cover just combinations of personnel or different ideas?
H: I think it's an awareness issue, or at least an issue of intent. We concentrate a lot more on form, composition, and structure with our music than we do with vocabulary, so I think that focus requires us to approach each situation with a baseline of openness to the other players. With players who focus almost entirely on the vocabulary they might pull out during a piece, it doesn't necessarily matter who else is sitting with them in the room – they'll play essentially the same set of tricks regardless. They may flex some based on wide sweeps of information that require them to adjust, but in general they could be playing in any situation and their ideas would remain focused in the same way. With us, I think we're doing the same thing - bringing the same focus each time we sit down to play. Because our main focus is on the shared elements of a piece rather than the personal elements, however, playing with different people can create radically different music. So I think we try to maintain the same ideas of openness, listening and a concentration of form in any playing situation, but as different people move through the system, we have the opportunity to go places that we wouldn't get to otherwise.
B: A little bit of both. Basically the response mechanism between any given third and us is remarkably different because of what each person offers as an instrumentalist, improviser and composer. I mean the music we make with Olson vs. a local jazz guy like Joe Lijoi that we play with is almost different to the point of being unrecognisable in terms of formal elements even though they are the very same elements. But in any of those situations we would hope that they are going to sound largely different based on our ease of communication and compromise for the sake of the composition rather than for us as instrumentalists. Composition by proxy is a piece of cake when everybody has their game tight and has no issue in subverting their personal musical goals for the sake of the composition.
Have you had to defend your music against 'haterz' yet?
B: In school, but not really in the world. At this point we have a firm grasp of what we're doing, how to do it and how we arrived here. People in the game might say something but they don't say it to me. And the occasional show we play in an awkward bar setting is still generally well-received and again nobody ever steps to me saying we sucked or whatever. And even at that I wish they would if it was critical with something behind it.
H: In the free jazz/free improvisation scene there was a lot more chest beating and glowering, but now that we find ourselves almost entirely and happily ensconced in, for lack of a better term, the noise scene, people come at us with enthusiasm, openness and a genuine interest in a new extreme that they might not be familiar with. So unless people are whispering behind their hands, we haven't really had to settle any beef with anyone.
Can anyone learn to improvise well?
B: I think so but it’s definitely better suited towards some personalities. But then again we’d have to go back and define improvisation also.
H: We all improvise well. Anyone who speaks, walks, moves, blinks, or otherwise has any experience interacting with the world is a born improviser. Most of, if not all of our daily life is improvisation in some manner. We are constantly taking in information, assessing and evaluating it, and then responding to it in the same moment. I remember having the experience in college of walking through the cafeteria one day the wrong direction at a peak meal time. I was carrying a plate of food in one hand, and two glasses of something to drink in the other. I had my bag on with all my books, and was moving against the throng to get to a table. As I was moving and dodging, I remember very clearly having a realization of just how much information was coming into and being processed by my system at that moment. I had to deal not only with my own changing position in the room and the objects I was trying to keep upright and in my hands, but also with the changing positions of a crowd full of people or varying heights, widths, and speeds, each of whom had as much control over the space as I did. The most impressive part of my ability to move seamlessly through everything, though, was not just that I didn't bump into anyone, but that it wasn't a taxing manoeuvre. I could very easily have been thinking about my laundry, or my composition homework, or daydreaming about puppy dogs and rainbows, and still made it through that crowd without really paying that much active attention. To me it was a big moment to realize that we are all constantly improvising at every moment with every action, and the only challenge was figuring out how to translate that into music and put it on stage.
Your label, brokenresearch, is starting to pick up a lot of attention. The releases all look absolutely gorgeous it seems a shame to open them. Is that art-look an important aesthetic to you?
H: Very. We're interested in the idea that these are not just musical objects, but art objects of a particular type. They're all hand-made and numbered, so each one has slight differences from the other. We like the idea that we're making these objects or things that are personally important to us, and are then able to share it with people in a personal way. Feels like a handshake, almost.
B: Thanks again. My degree in school was in painting and printmaking because I had butted heads with the music department, so it all just kind of fits together in terms of the making of the object. Again I personally don't really think it's there yet but it gets a little asymptotically closer with each release.
What has been the most satisfying thing so far about the label?
B: Just making it happen. I used to be really deep into collecting and there are pieces that I still know nothing about and that completely fracture my skull and I really like becoming part and parcel to that continuum.
H: The most significant thing for me with brokenresearch is how it has helped change our concept of the preciousness of recorded objects. Before setting up our studio and having nearly unlimited digital recording access round the clock, the idea of making a record was a daunting, heavy task to be considered and undertaken with great care. Because we couldn't record absolutely everything and cull what we wanted to from that, there was a certain pressure that would build up around the limited recording time and resources we did have. Now that recording and practicing are synonymous, we appreciate the idea of making documents of what we're working through, culling down to the essentials of the ideas, and then letting them out into the world to get away from us. We aren't interested in hanging onto them as OUR RECORD THAT WE MADE. We think of them as what they are, simple documents. Living with that change of idea has really helped release a lot of pressure and make room for what we consider to be a healthier relationship with the impermanence of the product. It means that we don't have to hold onto what we've done in the past in the same way.
Can I ask what Jazz means to you?
B: Max Roach? No clue at this point. Wack answer I know, but I don't think about jazz much as a concept or type of music save for listening in a non-critical, feel-good let's-water-the-plants kind of way. Occasionally I'll hear some Joe Chambers or DeJohnette thing that I go in the studio and try to deconstruct it.
H: It doesn’t mean much. I really love some of the stuff that people sit me down in front of, but I don't seek much out on my own. To tell you the truth, I actually have a rather small base of musical listening from which to operate. I know quite a bit about some small things, but there's a huge range of stuff that I have just plain missed. One thing, for example, is that I've never heard The Beatles' self-titled album, and didn't hear Led Zeppelin until about two or three years ago. It just wasn't in my sphere, and I guess I was just too busy with what was in my sphere to go look for it. Jazz is sort of the same way with me. Personally, I'd rather put on a field recording of religious ceremonies in Ghana, or plough through a Mahler symphony or a Feldman piece as my default.
Aren’t you guys sometimes categorised as a subgenre of Jazz?
B: I don't really regard our music as being under the jazz rubric at this point.
H: I have a neutral relationship to jazz because of the time I spent butchering it in high school and college. Back when I played jazz, I hated playing the bass, which made me hate playing the music. I think that relationship still exists for me, because I have absolutely no interest in playing jazz. No RealBook stuff, at least. I still have a lot of latent bad feelings about student jazz, and unfortunately up to this point in my life that's coloured how I hear the jazz canon.
Do you feel that 'Free music' has become more openly accepted in the 00s than any other decade yet?
B: I'm not sure because I don't keep my finger on the pulse. If it is growing and we happen to be part of that then I'm thankful for the serendipity.
H: I haven't really listened to much free music in my life, so I don't have a lot of context with which to address that question.
Don't you class what you do as 'Free music'?
H: The most familiar classification for what we do is probably 'free improvisation', but at this point, it's a little hard to say where we fit into that idiom. Though we are improvising what we do, I wouldn't say that at this point what we put out can really be associated with free. We're much more interested in the ideas of emergent form as a method of spontaneous composition. We don't believe in true freedom within a piece, because there's always going to be some sort of constraints (be they self-imposed or pre-arranged) that act on ones decisions within a piece. So as we're playing, we're focusing on being able to recognize and respond to those forms in real time. For me, it feels much more akin to composition than to free playing, be because the issues that we're dealing with in terms of vocabulary and organization of sonic ideas seem to be more closely associated with that methodology than with 'improv'. Personally, I think that the term 'free improvisation' is a somewhat misleading moniker. Our friend and sometimes playing partner Mike Khoury has started to call what we do 'New American Improvisation'. That sounds much better to me. That or chamber music.
B: The best way I can explain how I think about it is pretty much the way I answer anyone who asks me what kind of music I play. I pretty much always respond "classical", then I tell them to imagine if the instruments were incredibly damaged or that the charts were partially destroyed and therefore illegible in places and that actually the people making it have only the vaguest idea of what music is supposed to sound like. I think the formal elements are there but our response to recognizable form is usually to first, slow it down, way down, and second, eradicate whatever sentimental musical notions of structure and resolution are left. Sentimental is important there because I don't want people responding positively because we play a piece that's all over the place formally and then we neatly wrap the ending up with one of maybe five classical endings and ten jazz/pop endings. That way people have these recognizable signposts to say, "Yes there it is! I had seen it as this confusing collection of elements but now that they have so neatly wrapped it up and placed a ribbon on it appears to be gift!" We were just on the road for nine days and the shows were not exactly great until last night at Greh's [Hive Mind]. Spencer Yeh [Burning Star Core] was with us on the tour and he said to us right after as we were packing, "Yep another perfect question mark." And there was no resolution and for me it was an effective piece of music.
So it’s important to you to feel like the music you play has no resolution?
B: I think, formally, that no resolution is perhaps one of the things that most interests me about all art that thing when it doesn't really stop inside of its own constraints. In paintings it's particularly obvious because as a maker and viewer you're often dealing with this frame and the idea of the frame that leashes the edge and my favourite paintings often seem to begin and end well outside the frame. That is so anti-resolution in my mind and I love that idea of the thing existing outside of that set of parameters and growing in my brain much like the many characters in books whose lives seem to go on and who I still wonder about. What are they doing now? And I think that's one of the best things I could hope for is that, particularly in a live setting, the sound kind of finds a place in a person and continues to resonate in there brains, bodies, etcetera. Way digressive and long-winded answer but I guess in regards to freedom I think a lot more about how to deal with imposed and self-imposed constraints in a constructive rather than reactive way and that in turn might appear as freedom but we are way, way, way into reins and restraint even though we are primarily improvisers. Restraint is the key word between us even though we are not always successful at exercising it.
Coming from Music Theory / College backgrounds, are you interested in the theories surrounding the emerging free/noise/drone music?
B: I think theory is great so long as it's appropriate. There is still a ton of Cage in what we do and Feldman, Stockhausen and Webern. Those are the ones that Bunny and I share. We are very into this book Zen Mind Beginner's mind, which may as well be treatise on how not to be a self-important, chucklehead improviser. That helps us a lot. But mostly I think in combination to certain approaches of Zen, it's just about voicings in the orchestral sense. But being a trio or duet, or better yet something short of an orchestra, we just try to maximize the voicings in our respective and collective vocabularies to allow for a sound that is both large and succinct at once. In that way I think we're basically just trying to pull out the largest dynamic, timbral, melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ranges so that we can use any piece of that at any time as a means to an end like any other composer making choices and drawing from the range of realistic possibilities. Of course we do this in a small group setting, which is where a lot of very particular silence and spaces arise in our music.
H: Very interested. It's interesting to see and be a part of a group of listeners and players who seem to be so focused on extremes, because it opens up a lot of space for people to explore. Because those three genres (which are all quite different) are already so much a synthesis of so many disparate idioms and backgrounds, there already seems to be a new set of standards and relationships emerging. It's quite an experience, for example, to be playing on the road with Wolf Eyes, and to have a warehouse full of people pack around our quiet, acoustic music and be just as intent and focused as when they're thrashing and screaming twenty minutes later to “Village Oblivia”. That sort of environment is exciting to inhabit because it leaves a lot of space for new ideas to be presented in accepted in a way that's going to start developing its own set of theories.
Can anyone learn to make good music?
B: It's like anything else, practice.
H: That's a very subjective question. I studied composition for a very brief time under Anthony Coleman, and he said to me once that he genuinely believed that by expanding his ideas of what music could be, he had lost his ability to evaluate it in terms of good or bad. For me, I'm finding that to be an accurate relationship. The more I broaden my concept of what organizations of sound can be considered music, the harder it becomes to place evaluative judgements on what I hear. And even if I did try to say what's appropriate or not, it's still just my taste, which is entirely subjective. So I think that anyone can make good music if they call it music and they call it good. After all, who am I to deny anyone their taste?
By Scott McKeating