RJA board member Eric Neel recently caught up with Myra Melford to ask about her approach to ensemble play, improvising, spirituality, and politics.
Thanks for joining us, Myra. Let me start by asking, what should we be looking forward to on January 26th?
There’s going to be a lot of variety. Marty Ehrlich and I have a duo recording out [Spark! (Palmetto, 2007)], so we’re going to play some of the music from that. And then we’re going to play some of the music from the new Trio M record [Big Picture, Cryptogramophone, 2007]), which is me, Mark Dresser, and Matt Wilson. And then we’re going to do some things as a quartet, which we haven’t actually ever done before. Because we’ve all played together in other contexts it should be very fun. We’re going to mix up who’s playing, and explore a variety of material. We are all pretty well versed in anything from free improvisation to playing each other’s original music, which is often tune-based, and so there will definitely be compositions, and tunes, and there will be improvising on the tunes, too, things that could go way out, and things that at other times may not.
You’ve always been involved in a number of ensembles simultaneously. What draws you to that kind of constant variety, to those different scenarios?
It’s one of the things I thrive on. Every musician brings something different to the bandstand, and as an improviser a lot of the joy is in being confronted with new situations, or new approaches, or new perspectives on material you already know. When you’re playing with different people, different combinations, it can go in a different direction, and that’s what’s really exciting to us as improvisers. Keeping it mixed up, and playing with people who approach the music differently is just really exciting for me.
Within that mix-up, how much do you depend on familiar relationships, in this case with Marty, Mark, and Matt?
Long-standing relationships in my experience provide . . . there are things that can happen in the music on a kind of telepathic level the more you play with people. The great thing about my relationships with these guys is that we’ve grown together and on our own, and now we have in many ways a shared history that has become a shared aesthetic, and that basis can just make real magic when it comes to improvising together.
That said, sometimes the first meeting with someone can be equally exciting. There may not be that surefootedness all the time, where you know what someone is likely to do, but it can be just as magical to discover, to be in that moment of discovering for the first time.
Your music seems to live on an edge between something melodic and perhaps familiar, and something restless and adventurous. What intrigues you about that edge?
You’ve said it very well. I’m constantly playing on that edge. Sometimes I’ll push it a little more one direction or the other, but I’ll always find myself coming back to that place where the different sensibilities can actually come together. It’s the tension some times that really makes the music alive for me.
As you explore that tension, your music has sometimes been described as ‘percussive,’ ‘explosive,’ even ‘aggressive.’ Do you feel those things?
I hear the terms very differently. “Percussive” to me sounds like a musical, sonic, maybe visceral description of the music. “Aggressive” connotes a certain emotional quality, and I would say for me the music is more the former than the latter. I like a very physical approach to playing. I’m a very physical player. It’s almost . . . sometimes I almost feel more like I’m dancing than playing, and the music that comes out is a result of the movement I’m engaged in as it is the result of something I’m hearing. At the same time, that physicality is often, for me, very joyous. I don’t think of it as aggressive so much as exuberant, but everyone has their own take on it. For me it really comes out of a joyful place, and a love of that kinetic energy that goes into playing.
You mention dance, and it invokes for me your willingness to jump, to cross some unpredictable bridges, to perhaps bring together genres, tempos, and sound families that one might not typically think of in combination. How is the jump or the bridge important for you?
I think of it as my adventure. It doesn’t always mean something loud, or atonal, or of a dense texture. For me, it’s just that willingness to go out on a limb that makes the music. There are times where that means I’m taking it somewhere “out,” and there are times where I ask myself, “What if I do a really meditative, spacey thing here, and then introduce some other, unexpected element with it?” I’m kind of always synthesizing opposites, I think, things that don’t really go together, trying to juxtapose them and find out something new about each one by putting them together in a different way. That’s where the juice is in the creative process for me.
You’re a student of poetry, and someone who has engaged in some pretty profound spiritual exploration as well. How do those things infuse what you’re doing musically?
That’s at the core of it for me personally. Improvising for me is a kind of spiritual practice in the sense that my goal with it is the same as my goal as a meditator or a practitioner of yoga, where the ultimate thing is to transcend duality. It’s that place where the music and the listener and the musician become one that I’m always pursuing, always seeking. Ultimately, you know, playing music for me is part of a spiritual practice. The ultimate goal is to move away from any sense of duality or separation or any of that stuff that would distract me from just being completely at one with the music or the musical experience.
Is that pursuit of “being at one” also a part of your working through so many different ensembles and combinations, to keep unsettling the ground beneath your own feet so that you don’t become too attached to any one way of being or one identity?
Yes. Exactly. That’s a huge part of it, and then, too, can I always come back to center, from that adventure, can I come back to make myself a vehicle for whatever music wants to happen, rather than trying to make it play to some preconceived idea?
How do you know that “center”? What is it like to be “back to center”?
I think when I was younger I would often happen upon it. But now it’s something I try to nurture, that relationship with the other players, that edge and balance. And when I’m not in that state, I think about what I can do, whether it be physical or emotional, to help me be in that state when I’m playing. It’s something I cultivate in my preparation more now than I used to.
You’ve said elsewhere that some of your music corresponds to your politics, to your feelings as someone who is against the war. How does that ethic translate into an aesthetic in your mind? Does sound have a politics?
That’s a good question. In a sense everything is political, of course. All of the choices that we make and the things that we create are certainly cultural and personal statements, and in a sense also represent how we see ourselves in relation to our world, which is also political, right? So, I think for me what I’m doing is sharing . . . I think this gets back to the spiritual question we discussed . . . along with the sense of oneness comes a sense of inner peace, and it can manifest in different ways for different people but ultimately that inner peace is what I’m trying to manifest through the music. If I can be in that state, and convey that through the music, then that’s my part in trying to make a more peaceful world.
That’s interesting in that some of your music, in its adventurousness, doesn’t immediately connote peace. There’s sometimes something vertiginous about it, something not quite chaotic but certainly something that moves away from known forms. How does that sound, that feel, relate to peace for you?
I think a sense of peace can arise even in the eye of the storm. There are times when I’m entranced listening to Cecil Taylor, times where I start to feel like I’m no longer even in my body, like I’m just in such a state that I don’t feel the boundary between me and the physical world around me. So even though it can be extremely tumultuous, it can bring up a sense of peace in me. I think I feel that playing, too. Sometimes some of my more intense playing is really a way of creating tension as a reflection of what I experience is happening in the world, and then looking for a resolution through the music.
Where do you go from here? Beyond these latest recordings with Marty, and Trio M, what shape does the future of the work take for you?
I’m thinking about the next projects I want to do. I’m in the early conception stages of a solo project I want to do in which I’m going to collaborate with an artist in Sacramento who has a bunch of drawings and paintings I really love. I’m in the process of writing the music I’d want to play in conjunction with those drawings and paintings, something where I would somehow project those images as I play. I’m also working on a large-ensemble project that’s going to be based on some writings, some poetry by Arab women, as well as some pieces from a book called “Literature from the Axis of Evil,” stories and essays from North Korea, and Iraq, and various so-called enemies of the U.S. I’ll be looking at their literature, and working out some pieces for a large mixed ensemble that would have both western and non-western instruments, and would have some written forms and would also have a lot of structured and non-structured improvisations within it. I’m imagining music I could do with any number of ensembles; perhaps have a west-coast version, a group in New York, and maybe travel with it and just put together musicians wherever I go.
Typically when you compose and imagine such a concept, do you do the way Ellington used to do, and imagine particular passages being ideally suited to the voices of particular musicians you’ve worked with?
Yes. I really started doing that very intentionally with the group I had called Same River Twice, with Dave Douglas, Chris Speed, Erik Friedlander and Michael Sarin. As I was writing that music over a period of a few years, I felt myself writing for what I heard them doing, and I still do that with my small ensembles. I think this larger ensemble thing, I’m more interested in writing a body of music that has a certain flexibility to it, so that any number of people could play some of it and it would still work. It’s a new way of working for me.
As you work across various media, incorporating visual works, poetry, the instruments of divergent cultures, are you conscious of asking your listeners to stretch, to do more?Yes, and you know I’m not interested in doing real literal engagements. When I’m working in conjunction with something visual or something literary, it’s much more about being intuitive, it’s the sense of this sound having some relationship to this piece or art. Somebody else may have a completely different understanding of that relationship than I do, and that’s also valid. It’s not like I’m trying to get people to see things my way, or to see a particular thing. It’s that I’m trying to get people to open up, and maybe just to look at things differently.