|An Interview with Glen Hall
By Armen Svadjian
Excerpts from an extended interview
(PDF of the complete text can be downloaded)
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The Invisible Art
A.S. What do you do in your music?
A.S. What do you communicate, and why is music the best medium?
G.H. Being in action.
Music is an exploration in dimensions of time, space and motion. Music is a doorway we can walk through to explore other dimensions.
Sounds seem to move, from one to another over time. But this is an illusion. Notes don't move; they happen and disappear, creating the perception of movement. So, music deals with creating the impression of motion in timetempos, rhythms, overall structures such as sections of a piece, which are sometimes called movements and in space different pitches and the registers in which they happen.
Music is invisible, right? It doesn't have any visual representation, any visible form. Of course, you can write music down, but that's not music. You can look at a CD, but that's not the experiencing of music.
Now, when I'm playing, I'm being myself: I'm 'being'. But I'm doing something. My being is in action. And that manifests itself through sound. Because it¹s invisible and it's intangible, in a sense, it's not some kind of a monument, something fixed and permanent. It's alive when it's happening. There's no music unless it's actually taking place. It doesn't exist in some physical form someplace where you can dig it out. It only exists when it happens. And, to me, it's best when you the listener are there when it's happening, when you're experiencing musicians' beings in action through the sounds they're making.
Also, the kind of music I play demands that I be present in the moment. Im not thinking about getting a cab, or taking the garbage out, or something like that. The music does not allow its musicians to go on automatic pilot. We all have to be right there, with the music as it¹s happening . . . which, personally, is good for me. It¹s my version of meditation, a very active meditation. And also, this music requires me both to keep my focus on myself but also to abandon myself, to let go of my self so that I can hear what everyone else is doing. What I do only exists in relation to what the other musicians are playing. That requires, if I¹m going to do it really wellat least in my estimationa certain selflessness. I¹m not a selfless guy, but this music allows me to get closer to selflessness than I can get in most other circumstances. This music isn¹t about a single person¹s idea of it; it¹s collective and it requires its participants to become subsumed in and by the process of making it. So, for me, it¹s a good thing, a type of self-discipline or self-development.
Motives and Frustrations
A.S. Would you say then that self-satisfaction is one of the main motives for playing for you?
G.H. Well, it sure isn¹t for the money, the fame or accolades, because you don¹t get any, or not much, at any rate. This, mostly, is a way of finding new things by exploring what I do and trying to knit them together, trying to find things I¹ve never found before, or new ways of looking at things.
When that happens, I know what it¹s worth. What it¹s worth to other people is not my main concern. That it is worth something to them, beautiful! And I know for a certainty that it is valuable to others. But my primary motivation in music is not directed towards others. It is self-exploration and self-development, so that I can find my way. Communicating the results to others, however, happens because I play with groups of musicians in front of audiences who pick up on these kinds of inner experiences.
For me, music is a test, and I don¹t always pass. That tells me something; it gives me experiential feedback. Then I have to go back, do my homework, and study for the next test.
A.S. Does it bother you that there is not a wider audience for the music that you play? Is it frustrating sometimes?
G.H. Yes, it is frustrating. If I were to develop a cure for Multiple Sclerosis, people would beat a path to my door. If I were to invent a fuel-efficient car, people would be breaking their legs to get to know me, be my associates, use my invention and make me wealthy. But in our North American culture, very few opportunities exist for the cultural or social rewarding of those whose efforts are directed toward self-expression, its expansion and refinement. Most people don¹t want to hear someone express himself. Instead, they want to hear what they¹ve heard before; they want their chosen, well-worn grooves¹. They want their habits fed, like addicts.
They want to be entertained. And I don¹t really resent that. I like to be entertained, too. Folks want action-packed movies, light-hearted musicals, diverting situation comedies. Well and good.
Music as Food
But that¹s like living on a diet of potato chips. It¹s not nutritious. It¹ll keep you going for a while. But if we¹re going to grow as human beings we need to have proper nutrients, both in our diets, and in our intake of perceptions or impressions.
Our bodies require food. If we don¹t get food for, say, thirty days, we die. Our lungs, blood and physical brains require oxygen. If we don¹t get air for five minutes, we die. Our consciousness requires impressions¹, experiences. If we aren¹t able to receive impressions, we¹re already dead. Each one of these things is a kind of food. Impressions are a nutrient for our consciousness. Perceptual impressions are simply not recognized or understood as another sort of food¹.
Our minds and beings grow in response to our perceptual diet¹, the kinds of music, art, literature, dance, philosophy, psychology and the like that we consume, that we expose ourselves to. And the music I try to be involved is intended to be a type of food¹ one, regrettably, people don¹t think of as being necessary. It doesn¹t mean that it isn¹t needed. It¹s just that, since people don¹t recognize this nutrient as being necessary, they aren¹t going to actively seek my music out, make me widely acclaimed and wildly wealthy, and put my picture on the cover of People magazine.
The Balancing Act
A.S. Are you trying to strike a balance between structure and improvisation?
G.H. I like improvisations to sound as if they¹re structured. They don¹t necessarily have to have a pre-existing structure. But when I play, I like there to be ideas that flower and fade, which produce a discernable shape or structure. The shapes are perceptible. There has been a change that has occurred. We¹ve moved from this part to that part to the next part. This approach comes out of the way I think about improvising. I think of improvisation as instant composition: composing in real time. Melodies, rhythms, textures, structures, these all emerge from ideas generated during improvisation.
When Sonora played at a festival, the artistic director came to hear us. Afterwards, he asked us how long it took us to memorize our pieces. He was stunned to learn that every note was improvised. We had to explain that our approach was to find and build structures on the fly. Because we actively listen for musical events that lend themselves to various types of development, we can collectively make these structures while we¹ve improvising.
A Doorway to Other Dimensions
A.S. The dimensions, the sizes, shapes and intensities of your music vary from big¹ to small¹, from very loud to very quiet, etc. Why is that?
GH. Musicians like to go for the big effect¹. Often, we blow our brains out, thinking that all this sound, all these pyrotechnics and histrionics will make a big impact on our listeners. But it¹s been discovered in biology, in creatures from sea anemones to humans, that very tiny impacts can have significant effects. Even the most gentle, subtle stimuli can provoke profound reactions. In part, this is why my compositions vary from full-tilt, leave-no-stone-standing-upon-another-stone, take-no-prisoners blowouts to delicate, ethereal, minimalist pieces that can only make themselves felt if the listener makes a conscious effort to listen very closely. The range of impacts allows for a greater range of expressiveness and for an overall movement between intensities over the course of a CD, a concert or a set in a club. That spectrum of dynamics, densities, textures tempos and the like opens the way for greater freedom and wider opportunities to explore sound.
Being able to move freely across that spectrumnot being locked into one mode or approach to playing or composingis something I¹ve been focussed on for a long time. In the liner notes to my first album, The Book of the Heart , I wrote about being master of the option¹, being able to go back and forth, in and out of structure, harmony, time. That concept is still very much a part of my thinking about music. I have faith that listeners, if exposed to a range of weak to strong stimuli in music, can go through a doorway that connects them to other dimensions in their imaginations, their consciousness, their collective unconscious. My music, in that respect, is an equivalence, or at least an analogy, to that movement from one dimension into another.
Comparisions True but Limiting
A.S. Why the comparisons to so many musiciansMingus, Ornette Coleman, Frank Zappa, etc.?
G.H. Yes, I¹ve been compared to Brian Eno to Wayne Shorter to Charles Ives. It goes on and on. I think that people hear in my music what they¹re listening for. In that sense, my music is a mirror for what they want to hear. The fact that people have compared my music to Carla Bley¹s or Ornette Coleman¹s is, on one hand, flattering. On another level, Mingus and Zappa and Carla and Ornette were formative influences in me becoming myself, musically speaking.
I can think of a few tunes that I¹ve written that, I would say, sound like Carla Bley or sound like Ornette Coleman. But that¹s because I¹m working with their vocabulary, although I¹m telling my own story.
The number of times I¹ve been compared to utterly different players , not in my compositions but in my playing, is, I find, astonishing. People hear Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Roland Kirk, Wayne Shorter, Albert Ayler, John Gilmore, Dewey Redman, Eric Dolphy, Stan Getz, Pharoah Sanders, Sam Riversan amazing arrayagain, the list goes on and on. All of those musicians I have listened to very deeply with my whole heart, because they played with their whole hearts. So it¹s not surprising that at moments some of their fingerprints might be apparent in my playing. No one I¹ve ever heard in 100% original. We all come from our parents¹, so to speak.
But I can¹t actually play like any of these people . I¹m unable to play in any musician¹s style for more than a bar or two of music. As a consequence, if people hear those things in my playing, they¹re imposing something on my playing that I¹m not actually able to put there. They can relate to what I do via those comparisons, but I¹m pretty certain that the reality of what those musicians are doing is not the center of what I am doing.
A.S. Do you find the jazz tag limiting?
G.H. No, not particularly.
It¹s a cliché to say that one just plays music¹. But, truthfully, I don¹t always play jazz. Certainly, in EAR-CAM, I¹m not playing jazz. In Sonora, there are virtually no jazz elements.
So, am I a jazz musician? When I¹m playing jazz, I am. When I¹m not, then I¹m something else.
Actually, I¹m always the same person (laughs).
I have respect for people who can speak various languages. That¹s sort of what I¹m doing. I¹m doing what I do, but I¹m translating my ideas, not into words, but into chamber music or sound art music or free jazz.
Non-human Elements in Music
I have two tarantulas, and I don¹t relate to them on a human¹ level. They don¹t express themselves in human ways, as we like to think dogs do, for instance. I can¹t anthropomorphize them. They don¹t smile¹ and ask to go for a walk. They don¹t ask to have their bellies rubbed. But one can communicate with them in other ways.
Sonora just finished recording a series of pieces based on radioactive elements. My instructions were that our rhythms were not to be human. Nothing you can shake your booty to. Think of patterns being emitted by elements, stones, particles. These things are not remotely human. Try to merge yourself with something not human and see what you can come up with. These things are part of our world. Why restrict our intuition and creative impulse only to that narrow bandwidth humanity¹?
Using these kinds of things as inspirations helps take us out of our habits. You can¹t play Berg¹s Lyric Suite licks when the subject matter is selenium.
A.S. That sounds like an out-of-body experience.
G.H. When it¹s working right, it is. The music takes me out of myself.
There are times when I feel like I¹m locked up in my body. Now, I¹m in no rush to die, but once in a while I¹d like to go on vacation from the meat suit¹. Music is a way of transcending the body. And I can tell when the music¹s going really well when I¹m not there anymore. Something else is happening.
Reality is an Illusion
A.S. Your pieces Alamout and The Book of the Dead on Hallucinations: Music and Words for William S. Burroughs talk about illusions of time and space. Is this a recurring theme in your music and your thinking in general?
G.H. Yes. It is my understanding that our perceptions of time and space make them seem absolute. But this appearance is the result of our physiology. Our eyes see less than a fraction of one percent of the electromagnetic waves we call light. In addition, physicists explain that matter consists mostly of space and is not solid. We can¹t see this; we can¹t experience it directly through our senses. Consequently, for us reality is actually a fiction, an illusion, and vice versa.
In those two pieces, I convolve concepts drawn from Burroughs, the Sufi poet Rumi, the Tibetan Book of the Dead and contemporary physics and the psychology of consciousness. I use language to allude to or to outright state this concept of non-absolute time and space.
In my compositions, I like to deal with the same concept, only using tempo, meter, pitch, rhythm, tonal centers, themes, motifs, and various sorts of patterns. In my music, tonality is malleable, not fixed, not absolute¹. Time speeds up, slows down; it bends¹ or stops. Ideas are stated and invert back upon themselves. My music reflects my understanding of the non-absolute nature of what we take to be reality.
Travels in Sound
A.S. Why do you do this (music)?
G.H. Perhaps one day, I¹ll have learned how to experience the reality of these concepts for myself. Maybe I¹ll experience their truth directly. In the meantime, I¹ll continue to make invisible art¹ and to explore the freedom music permits me to experience. Music allows me to walk through a doorway into other dimensions, to remain in my body and consciousness while being able to fly.¹
One thing I¹m certain of is that, if I am ever able to experience these things directly myself, I won¹t be able to tell anyone about such experiences or explain them in words. But maybe, somehow, I¹ll make music that can embody or indicate the possibility of the liberation of perception. The transcending of time, space, body and self. Meanwhile, I travel travel in dimensions of sound.
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