CBGB at the Stereo Society
Johnny Reinhard interviewed by Tom Chiu
TC: You started as a bassoonist; when did you start composing, when did you write your first piece?
JR: Well, it was like my biggest secret—no one knew. I always wished I could create music of my own, but I couldn’t imagine any music in my head. I started bassoon late, in high school. I could read what people wrote—I was a straight musician.
TC: A straight musician?
JR: Well, unfortunately, I do believe that the conventional training for an instrumentalist confines them to just reading what’s on the page. They are not trained to come up with their own notes.
TC: What changed?
JR: Well, I became an improvisor for about twelve years, and that’s a kind of composition. You have to have the music in your head before your play it.
TC: How is that different from regular composition?
JR: Well, it is composition, but it is in real time. There is a different effect that you can achieve from longer focus.
TC: And composition is virtual time?
JR: I would call it frozen time. You get the form first and you can go back and edit. In improvisation, you formulate on the spot. I’m very pleased that I do both. If I did one or the other it would feel limiting. All my compositions have some form of improvisation in them, and because I write for people and not instruments, the amount of improvisation is designed for the specific players. I have a different relationship with musicians apparently, by being in the world of musicians. Somehow, there’s a much more immediate relationship that I have.
TC: And this is largely because you are a player, right?
JR: I think it’s mainly because I’m a player. There’s a telepathy, a communication between the players, for passing the music bowl around without anyone dropping it. When that happens, I can write a piece!
TC: Define your ensemble—how fixed is your personnel?
JR: Maybe the ensemble defines me. Starting a group is not always a conscious or intellectual choice, but often just a result of people doing something they enjoy doing together. There’s definitely a social aspect to it. Over the years, AFMM has become a laboratory for me to hear everything that’s being done. I feel fortunate to have a living ‘museum’ of music in my backyard. The availability of microtonal music has changed very much in the last twenty years. In the beginning I had to really hunt for every piece. Now I do nine-hour concerts! The planning of a whole show becomes one big composition to me. [Reinhard discussed tuning and other aspects of his aesthetic.]
TC: In Ellis’s cents system, the twelve chromatic notes of the traditional scale are divided into 1200 cents. What’s the relevance of that specific number?
JR: 1200 is the threshold of what we hear. Our ears can actually be finer than that. In one sense you don’t really hear melodically so easily, but you do hear the beating in the harmonic context.
TC: If our ears can be finer, we can hear more than the 1200 divisions?
JR: Well you can, certainly mathematically you can. But there are practicality concerns. There is vibrato on most instruments which fluctuates pitch a certain bandwidth. There is even something known as heart jitter, which for a vocalist means that you cannot sustain a single frequency. There is always some pattern interruption—there’s no sine wave in music, it just doesn’t exist.
TC: Outside of tuning, what are other characteristics of your music?
JR: I’m very aware of colors and how colors of different instruments balance. I’m very inventive with mixing colors that are not normally mixed, not just intervallically but timbrally. I think it comes from being a bassoon player. I’m very well aware of instrumental racism. Certain instruments are elevated because they are more recognizable, play in higher registers. For instance, with a rock band, one person—either the lead singer or the lead guitarist usually—ultimately takes over and runs the show.
TC: Does that mean you are into instrumental equality?
JR: No, I don’t necessarily mean that. But you just have to recognize things for what they really are, not for what people tell you they are. And when you look at an instrument that way, you can start to find a new spin for the notes.
TC: Your music also frequently contains a programmatic subtext—why?
JR: By using subject matter that’s more programmatic, I’m able to make a structure, a form, and tunings that fit the project of the single piece. Whatever the pragmatic difficulties of a traditional composer to put those sounds together, I don’t have that problem, because instead of searching, I just work with what’s available. The result is a product of the cumulative experiences of my family of players. Reinhard explained why his participation in his projects is necessary, and how that is more important than mass appeal.
TC: As a composer-performer, why do you need to be part of the process?
JR: When I was younger and was listening to the Glass or Reich ensembles, I was thinking to myself, how much of a feel does this music really require that forces it to be under the command of the composer who travels with it? Then I thought of it as a business decision, to be in control of the performances and be involved in them, whether you produce a sound or not. That the music became published and available for performance by other musicians was actually a very gradual process.
TC: Do your ensembles operate differently?
JR: My situation is even more extreme than their situation, because it is more than just a feel—it is an expanded vocabulary of intervals, a new harmonic language. When you do something that requires special interpretations as much as new techniques, there’s even less of the likelihood that someone can just look at the music and play it. You really want musicians who know the language and are already telepathically connected to it.
TC: This is why you want to be an active participant?
JR: This is why it’s necessary. It’s riskier for me to put my notation out and have someone play it without any direct input than to just make recordings and release them, where the recordings would be more accurate. And like the jazz world discovered, once the stuff is in the grooves, that plus the lead-sheet would give you what is needed to make the music. They go hand-in-hand—they are required together. I am looking forward to a day when people can just look at my music, check with a recording, and then play it. But so far there has never been a performance of my music anywhere in the world where I was not directly involved, even if it is just at the very beginning. It may be something as simple as minus-eighteen cents on top of a ‘B’. Then there is the interstylistic factor. I represent more than just the classical style; in fact for the last decade or two I do not think I have been known as a classical musician. I am often thought of as downtown, experimental, or transcendental. The labeling comes from the critics anyway. I have been labeled microtonal in the past, obviously, but that’s inferior for record stores because they cannot put all microtonal music in one category. It could be microtonal rock, microtonal classical, microtonal jazz—you just cannot separate it out. It really is all music and people just get uncomfortable or defensive when I say that. I would like to think that I am being inclusive and am bringing everything together.
TC: Does it bother you that your works do not have mass distribution, or that your works are not performed throughout the world?
JR: I don’t care about being known in that way. It just seems to be that there is a lot of neurosis invested in trying to be a professional composer who makes a living at it exclusively. If someone wants to do this for money, this is certainly not it. This is over and above a way of living—it is a way of life. A reality check is needed. I started late as a composer, and frankly, I was fortunate that I did not have that neurosis. I didn’t have anyone telling me how to get things published, how to network, how to make these committees with other composers—none of this happened to me.
TC: You seem to not be confined in any way…
JR: I am someone who is just so thrilled to have ideas that people react to, that I’m living in a ever-present present with my music. I don’t notice if it is being done and I am not there. I only know what is happening in my world. About this issue I couldn’t be happier. If something of mine is performed poorly or not the way I intend, that is a greater risk to me and more of a hardship than if it’s not done at all.
A champion of new music, groundbreaking violinist/composer Tom Chiu has performed over 200 premieres worldwide by influential musicians such as Ornette Coleman, David First, Wadada Leo Smith, Alvin Lucier, and Henry Threadgill, among many others. His discography includes recordings for the Chesky, Innova, Mode, and Tzadik labels. Chiu has created mixed-media works with choreographer Pam Tanowitz, audio-video artist Phill Niblock, balloonist Judy Dunaway, and avant theater troupe Mabou Mines. His original works have been premiered at venues such as Mount Tremper Arts, EMPAC, Noguchi Museum, Roulette, Walker Art Center, and the Museum of Moving Image.
As founder of the FLUX Quartet, he has led a pioneering group which has become “legendary for its furiously committed, untiring performances.” (Alex Ross, New Yorker) Chiu holds degrees in chemistry and music from Yale and a doctorate from Juilliard, and has presented concerts and workshops at Williams, Dartmouth, Wesleyan, and Princeton.
He appears frequently as a commentator on contemporary music and culture, and has served as panelist and consultant in a variety of artistic formats.