Very sad news about the death of Philip Jeck. A lovely man who created his own unique music. Below I’ve re-posted an interview I did with him when he collaborated with The Merseyside Improvisers Orchestra for the concert we did together.
Philip Jeck was interviewed by Ged Barry in The Capstone Theatre, 28th October, 2017.
GB. How did you get started in music?
PJ.I always loved music from a very young age. I learnt a little bit of guitar, some piano as a teenager, but I wasn’t very good and, what I could play wasn’t interesting to me. I did have another talent though, I could draw and paint, and I knew from an early age, 6 or 7 that I was going to do asomething in the arts. I don’t know why that was because there was no history of that in my family.
So I went to arts college, Dartington college of Art. They also had a theatre and music department and you were encouraged to collaborate, well actually part of the curriculum was that you spent one day a week in another department.
GB. What a brilliant idea for collaborations and insights into different disciplines. What else can you say about Dartington?
PJ. Well one thing that I took from it was that you were always encouraged to tackle anything that you were interested in, to go for it, and really explore it. Maybe it wouldn’t work and it would go wrong. I always think if you can’t fail at college, you never can, can you? So I got a love of doing stuff that was in the moment, performance art and physical theatre. Also any visiting theatre group that came to the college, you didn’t have to be in that department to be able to go to their workshops. I went to some fantastic workshops, Carolee Schneemann, People Show and all sorts of stuff, which I think informed and still informs what I do.
GB. What about the music department?
PJ. Yeah there was a music department but I had no confidence in my musical ability at that time and it wasn’t until much later through DJing and it morphing into what I do, were music really took over. I’m still in contact with quite a few people from Dartington. I left there in 1973, so it was a long time ago, so I’m still connected to quite a few people. But I know some didn’t enjoy that experience, they wanted more of a technical training. I did a foundation course, but some of them came straight from school. An Arts foundation course teaches you how to print, photography, learning colour theory. So I think some felt they wanted more from the course. People generally had a good time but they weren’t so enamoured with it as me. I liked the tutors and I was game for anything that was offered, I’d have a go at. I’ve done some work in colleges and I’m amazed sometimes how unenthusiastic some students can be, and they say, “why should we do that”? “How’s it going to help me get a job”? I say I’ve no idea but just give it a go, and if you don’t like it and you can explain why, that’s fine by me. But if you’re really wanting to go out a be a professional artist in any field you’ve got to be game for anything really, and if you want to progress you’ve got to be in it, see stuff.
GB. What about the visual arts, how did they influence in what you do musically?
PJ. When I make stuff, it’s there. It’s not a simple as saying. I’m doing a collage, but there’s elements of that, or I think of stuff as colour, the sounds I use. So I sort of paint with it, in some connection with painting and the sound.
GB. Do you think not having a traditional music education has helped in any way?
PJ. Yeah, because I’ve developed it myself, it’s my own language I’ve developed. Sometimes people ask me to do workshops, I say I can come and play stuff but I’m not going to be able to teach this because you can only do this if you’re me. You would do it in your own way and all I can talk about is how you’ve got find your own way of playing it. You see it with Turntablists, they’re all different, in the same way no 2 guitarists are the same, Hank Marvin to Jimi Hendrix, they’re different and good on it.
GB. So what did you do after Dartington?
PJ. So after I left college I spent a lot of time not knowing what I was going to do, but I kept drawing and painting and did jobs. I worked in a roofing company for about 3 years and all sorts of other jobs. Then when I moved to London in about 1978. I started mixing with people that were involved in the LMC (London Musicians Collective) And people involved in performance art and dance. I started going to clubs and getting into the disco stuff of that time and saw Grandmaster Flash, not Hip Hop, though I did like a lot of that stuff. But it was disco stuff, they’d have 2 copies of the same record, looping it, and in the break you’d keep going for as long as you could.
And then I went to the USA to New York in 1979 and saw some really good people doing this and I thought maybe I could do a bit of that. So I bought quite a lot of 12 inches and I started out playing around with that and I played warehouse parties in London, cause we lived in a warehouse then. Then it moved on because I was meeting improvisers or people working with electronics and I started working with them. So I started moving away from 4 to the floor disco and started mixing all sorts of different records into what I did.
GB. How did that develop into your sound? What you do?
PJ. I suppose my big break was working with a choreographer in London in the early 80’s. He’d saw me play and asked if I wanted to do some stuff with improvised dance. It super took off, it was Laurie Booth and he was quite hot at that time. He had an agent who started getting work all over. The first gig I did with him was at the Zap Club in Brighton and within a few months we were playing really big venues, opera houses and stuff, which was crazy. I actually worked with him for 6 or 7 years on and off, and I sort of developed what I do, developed my own language and own way of working with record players and a way of making sound that I was satisfied with. I also got paid to do it on the road and found out what worked and what didn’t, through being in front of an audience. These were people who were coming to see a performance or a contemporary dance event, so in a way the focus wasn’t completely on the music and in that way it was quite nice it wasn’t completely about me, and in a way I had more licence. Later on Laurie was funded to have a company and he was working with some interesting designers and artists and one that I met was Lol Sargent, who was a film maker. It was that moment when the CD department of a record shop was bigger than the vinyl and the digital was taking over, so we thought we should mark this in some way and that was the beginning of doing Vinyl Requiem which was for 180 record players.
GB. When you were working with Laurie Booth was your music composed or improvised?
PJ. Early on it was completely improvised. Then when he started having a company, then there was stuff that became set, there was improvised stuff among it, but more and more stuff became set. So then I sort of had to compose, and find a way of scoring it so I could remember what to do. I also still play with people where I have to fix it, some people who I play with I’m given free licence to improvise. With Gavin Bryars for example I’m told, you can do what you want here, but not there.
GB. So you’re given a time frame?
PJ. A time frame or all the way the way through. I met him first on a new version of The Sinking Of The Titanic in 2000 with the Italian chamber orchestra Alter Ego, and he didn’t know me then but then later on he had 2 string quartets in it, and one was made up of his children. One of the daughters when looking at the score said, “I’ve just seen your instructions on the score, there’s a bell at the start, and then after 80 mins stop, with nothing given in between”.
GB. Wow! That is quite a open score.
PJ. I’d be doing it a long time by then so I had a lot of freedom. I’ve also done a lot of stuff were it’s set, so when it’s done like that, I need to rehearse. That’s good with the dancers because they rehearse a lot and I’d be there with them for a couple of weeks every day. I’d make notes, and in those days I used DAT, just to have a guide track, so if anything went wrong, I had that and I knew where I was again.
GB. How do you start a piece? Have you got a working method?
PJ. When I play a solo concert, one of the things I’ve learnt is don’t take too much stuff, don’t take too many records, because you then just get confused, too many choices. Funny enough like one of the pieces we did before with MIO was with limited choices. So I take a lot less records than I used to, which is a lot less to carry. I also get very nervous before I play so what I do is set up something that I’m going to start with. I’ll already have sampled the record that I’m going to use on the Casio and taped one of the keys down so I don’t loose the sample. So all I have to do is sit down and push the faders up and for that first 30 secs with just that the nerves dissipate, they don’t disappear completely, but I feel good about playing.
GB. So having a starting point is important to you?
PJ. It’s the first mark on the canvas, on the page. If you’re going to anywhere it’s good to have a start. I always found that I could never work on a blank canvas so I used to size it and then do a wipe over it, but mix other paint in it so it was like a dirty canvas, so it wasn’t a naked world, it was a world that already existed, but it was somewhere where I could start.
GB. Just going back, I’m quite surprised you said you get nervous before you play.
PJ. If I’m doing a composition with an ensemble or an orchestra, then I’m really nervous and I’m convinced I’m going to do something wrong.
GB. That’s never left you?
PJ. No it’s not as bad as it was but I’ve got all sorts of tricks I use, and notes, I also have musicians sometimes giving me cues.
GB. What about improvising and playing with Improvisers?
PJ. Yeah, yeah, I’ve done a lot less recently. When I lived in London I used to do a lot more, often the promotor would ask me to do it. And sometimes there was 3 or 4 really good acts on and then it would be ruined by a terrible improvisation, because sometimes those people aren’t Improvisers so it really shows and it’s awkward. So unless I know the people I say no, if I know them as improvisers that’s fine and if they’re good then they’ll have some sort of sensibility that I can connect with.
Here with the MIO there are people who are very experienced so you’re in safer hands. I think to be a really good improviser you really have to listen, you haven’t got to follow the score, you’ve got to make a score. Be sensitive not only to your own thing but everybody else’s. Knowing when not to play is as important as playing. I prefer people who leave too much space rather than little. Though sometimes when you have a 15 or 20 min set with people blowing their brains out it can be amazing, but only for that and not for an hour. Sometimes when you’re playing loud, well you can only get some effects by pushing it. So it’s just about breaking up, you get some funny things happening, like guitarists turning their amps up, because you can get some amazing things by doing that and you have to push it, overdrive it. Going back to the Vinyl Requiem one the interesting things was we had about 180 record players, probably only in the end about 150 of them really worked well. I thought we’d have moments when they’d all be playing, but actually working on it, once it get beyond 30 or 40 playing, whatever you played, it was the same. It was really hard to hear any difference, so I almost never went over that number, though I did have a moment when every record player was playing, but generally not. It was more about moving the sound from one side to another, it was very spatial, but more than 40 it was really hard to tell what record you were playing.
GB. It that because our brains can’t process it or it became white noise?
PJ. Yeah it almost just got to white noise, and there was some dissonance between the players even using multiplying copies of the same record.
GB. Have you got any methods or strategies you return to when playing?
PJ. Sometimes I choose a record not knowing what it is and I just drop the stylus. And whatever it is, it just starts me off somewhere else. It generally works because maybe I’ll only use it for 30 secs or 5 seconds, but what it does, is you get a drive of adrenaline and your brain starts working faster again. It becomes interesting again, or a problem that you have to solve. It doesn’t happen often but sometimes I feel I’m just doing something and I need to go somewhere else, or I need to work with something where I don’t know what’s going to happen, it asks the question, what do I do now? It’s a good way of working, it wakes you up.
1st March 9pm. The Caledonia. 22 Caledonia St, Liverpool L7 7DX
6th March. 7pm. Melodic Bar and Coffee Shop, Constance St, Liverpool L3 8HB
Clockwise from top left
Ged Barry: Tenor and Baritone saxophones
Nick Branton: Bass Clarinet
Michael Metcalfe: Drums
Pablo Sonnailon: Double Bass
Ged Barry: Tenor and Baritone saxophones
Nick Branton: Bass Clarinet
Michael Metcalfe: Drums
Pablo Sonnailon: Double Bass
The composer Alvin Lucier has died aged 90. I remember going to a concert of his in London when I had just begun listening to experimental music. I was sitting there not wholly convinced whether or not it was for me. I certainly was interested in experimental music and free improv, but some of the music sounded unlike anything I had ever heard before, like something from another planet. When the musician came on and started playing a triangle, (Lucier’s composition, Silver streetcar for the orchestra) I was sceptical to say the least. After a minute or so as I was quietly enjoying the sounds, when something went flying past my head. Then it happened again, frequencies from the triangle were bouncing all around the room, darting past over me. I sat back in my chair and enjoyed the shower and later left to check out more of his beautiful music. RIP Alvin Lucier.