BIG YEAR

Hello Friends.
2017 is going to be a big year.
I'll just leave a little tease for now.

 

 

Ex Eye will  have our debut record out in June, much touring to follow.

A History of Never Enough Hope, and some thoughts on composing for the band.

The first performance by a group called Never Enough Hope was January 29, 2005 at Open End (later called Av-Aerie). We played the next night at the Hungry Brain. But the beginning of the group is earlier, in Ann Arbor.

I played in a group called “Poignant Plecostomus” from 1996-1999. During that time we had a sister band, “Transmission.” Sometimes we would play together as the “Transplecostomissionmus Orchestra.” Often we’d have people beyond those two bands playing with us, too. We would share a bill, and all set up simultaneously on the stage, or floor, and trade off short sets. The crossover between a Plecostomus setand a Transmission set would be everyone in both bands playing together. Sometimes the off-stage band would join one at a time, sometimes we’d play a tune we all knew. I’d like to say we were inspired by the fabled MC5/Arkestra shows at the Armory, but we didn’t hear about those until after we were already doing these performances.
Ann Arbor at that time was a remarkably rich musical community (it may still be). There was an embarrassment of baddassery going on. There was a fountain of home-grown talent and the U of M music school had attracted a pile of seriously creative monsters. The Kerrytown Concert house was also hosting the cream of the international creative music community.

After PP stopped playing together and Transmission moved to SF there were three years of wintertime reunion-style performances. People would be back in town in December and January, and we would mount a show with everyone who was home. There would be a lot of improvising, and everyone was welcome to contribute written material. It’s these wintertime-reunion vibes that were the impetus for that first NEH performance. One year the show was called the “-tet Offensive” after the Brotzmann Ten-Tet, and assuming that we didn’t know exactly how many would be joining this particular –tet from song to song.

Also in 1999 I wrote my first long-form composition. Maybe it’s a stretch to say I “wrote” it. I improvised some guitar ideas in a recording studio, then wrote a few moments of material to accompany that improvisation. I certainly couldn’t write the notes down, being a recalcitrant non-reading guitar picker- I had to get help. It was called “Health and Happiness for the New Year” and I gave CD-Rs of it to friends and family.  The tune became a staple for the trio ‘hearing from the gap’ that I was playing in then, and remains a kind of template for the music I write.

In 2001 I moved to Chicago with Crush Kill Destroy. I was excited to take part in the city’s vibrant improvised music community and the creative rock music world. I especially liked what appeared to be the cross-pollination between the two scenes. The first performance I undertook in the improvising world was a triple quintet- 3x ea. Sax, Brass, Guitar, Bass Drums. The piece we played was a version of “Health and Happiness…”

In 2004 I decided it was time to re-create the wintertime-visiting vibes, and I invited friends who had moved all over the country to come to Chicago in January ‘05 to play some music with my new Chicago friends. Of the 16 members of the first Never Enough Hope, six were out-of-towners and 10 were living in Chicago. I hadn’t planned on conducting the ensemble (I really didn’t know what I was doing) but once we started rehearsing it was clear I had to. We played two shows and recorded the self-titled CD, aka “the Anchor.”

The next year I invited an even-larger group of friends to gather in Chicago for a week of events, January 10-15 2006. There were small group improvisations and three performances by the whole NEH ensemble. The group grew to 20, exactly half and half Chicagoan/not. After the performances we recorded what would become ‘The Gift Economy,” which was released in 2008.
We performed CD release shows in Chicago and in the Bay Area in 2008. Again the group grew, with as many as 8 saxophones and the addition of electric piano and accordion.

It had developed that we always rehearsed AT the venue we’d be performing at as a convenience to accommodate the number of travelers. In rehearsing for the performances at Av-Aerie we discovered that the band was above the daytime noise-threshold for the venues neighbors, and had to rehearse the tunes by singing them. It was completely nerve-wracking for me, but everybody in the band was fine. That’s also a running theme in this group.

The 2008 Bay Area shows- 12 Galaxies SF, Uptown Oakland, Secret Café Berkeley- featured a bay area specific incarnation of the band. Some folks did travel for the shows, but I tried to emphasize my friends in the area. We also did an in-store at the Berekely amoeba which was shut down because we were to loud.

In 2009 I assembled an exclusively Chicago-based version of the group. Doing this lost some of the summer-camp fun-vibes of the reunion-style ensemble, but it made rehearsal way easier. Nobody needed to catch up with each other, they all saw each other all the time.

In 2010 I started to write what would become “The Gravity of Our Commitment” without having a specific performance-date in mind. In the writing of the two other batches of material I always had a deadline, the gig was in three months. In 2011 I started to plan for a performance and recording in 2012, and started to finish up the pieces. The ensemble grew to 23, again half-Chicago half-not.

In 2012 I ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund the recording of the new pieces. We played one show on June 24. We spent the week ahead of the gig rehearsing and recording the new songs. In my calculations for the Kickstarter I drastically underestimated the length of the pieces, which were long enough to necessitate a double-lp, thus doubling the cost to produce the physical copies. I also made some mistakes in the recording process which increased the amount of mixing that needed doing. So it took three years until the record was actually finished.

On October 3, 2015 I gathered the group again in Chicago to play a record-release show for “The Gravity of Our Commitment.” This performance was especially reunion-y for me, as my family left Chicago a few months after the recording of  this record.
Now, this week, we’ll be mounting another Bay Area version of the band. And it just happens to fall on the 11th anniversary of the very first Never Enough Hope performance, January 29, 2016. This group will be entirely west-coast with one east coaster making the trip, and 20 of the 26 members hailing from the Bay Area.

Some Thoughts About the Composing.

Poignant Plecostomus was a complicated rock band that improvised and had violin in the mix; Transmission was a complicated rock band that improvised and had saxophones and clarinets. Maybe they were jazz/rock bands. Jazz for punks, maybe. When we all played together it was 2x drums, 2x bass, 2x reeds, guitar, keyboard, violin. That feels like a template for what I go on to do with NEH.

Plecostomus tunes were written by committee. Someone had an idea, or one bubbled up out of some improvising and we made it into a song together. We would say “where does this part want to go?” and see if we could go there. There were solos, and sometimes group improvising. We jammed a lot less than it appeared.

Along with members of both Poignant Plecostomus and Transmission I joined Bill Brovold’s band Larval, in 1998. Bill’s band was a minimalist-inspired prog rock band with horns and strings. Not much improvising. There was a lot of attention paid to texture and dynamic and density.

When Bill worked on songs with me it was a different situation than writing by committee. He needed a sounding board to complete his ideas, but in the end they were really his ideas. (I did write two songs for the group that are really mine, and there’s a couple things that are true collaborations.) It was deeply satisfying to be part of the process of realizing Bill’s ideas, and it’s nice to think that I provided some kind of fuel to his creative process. I half-consider this time as an “apprenticeship.”

After PP stopped I was playing in two other groups, Crush Kill Destroy and hearing from the gap. CKD was a complicated rock band with minimalist leanings. Less Prog- than either Larval or PP. There was a narrower goal, and that made the ideas come out with a clarity of purpose and similarity of sound and vibe that PP tunes never had. But the writing process was very similar; a band member would bring in an idea and we’d all work towards whatever came next. The material had an internal logic.

hearing from the gap was firmly in the “downtown” jazz vein- rock influenced, complicated, harmonically adventurous, including freely improvised passages. Material was written specifically for the strengths of the band members. Over time we developed this performance mode where we would do challenging, difficult, knotty material at the front of a set, or piece, and follow a trajectory towards something emotionally satisfying. “The Big Indie Rock Ending.” The improvising this group did remains a highpoint for connectivity, sensitivity and freedom for me.

So.

When I’m writing for Never Enough Hope these are the places I feel I’m drawing from. As I turn phrases or riffs or spaces or textures around in my head- or in a sampler, or on an instrument- I’m thinking “what would the rest of my band do with this” and “where does this part want to go.” Could it go anywhere like a Plecostomus song? Does it have a steely logic like a CKD song? Does it require the group to improvise to bridge disparate sections like a HFTG song?
Sometimes the sampler is “Toby” and I’m “Bill” trying to unlock the form that’s already contained in the idea. Sometimes I’m just dying to invite everyone I love on stage to make a racket, to throw the biggest party, to have two different bands playing at once.

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A list of sensations, ideas and quotes that are reflected in songs of mine.

The sensation of ones heart stopping during a routine stress-test and thinking – while fighting to remain conscious- “I have more stuff I want to do.” (that's a quote from Bill Brovold.)

The image of my pregnant wife strapped to her seat in an airplane, plummeting to the earth. Also that my imagining that scenario prevents that scenario from happening. Also that by repeating the words to the song I am keeping the plane aloft.

The smell of hot road and sidewalk after a storm, specifically in Ann Arbor. It doesn’t smell as good in Chicago or Virginia.

My wife tending to her garden.

The reliability of old friends.

The ebullient feeling of being in a room filled with friends, all happily talking. So much talking that you can’t make out any one conversation. Maybe also a little drunk.

Other people’s conviction that I am watched over by my dead dad.

A vision, had during an extraordinarily intense acupuncture session, of a white banner with “THERE IS PEACE IN THE UNIVERSE” written on it in purple ink.

The complete and unremarkable ordinariness of loving.

That the music loves me back.

Our cat, Penelope Albert Busbee Summerfield, curled up on my amp while I practice. (it’s warm)

“With the creation of beauty comes the responsibility of purpose.” – you tell me!

“It’s not music if there’s no Seduction.” – Terry Riley, for sure (arcana V)

“It’s only inches on the reel-to-reel” – Elvis Costello

“Ask the Idea.” –David Lynch

“No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve as it goes along, or that the whole object of playing is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it. It is the same, I feel, with the greater part of our lives, and if we are unduly absorbed in improving them we may forget altogether to live them.”  -Alan Watts

“Looking, listening, touching, smelling, in awe, aware and unaware, present and absent, breathing through your feet and your elbows, falling up, falling down, picking yourself up and dusting yourself off, screwingg up and giving it another shot, curious, persistent, questioning, optimistic, in it together, whether we like it or not. But in it.” –Fred Frith (arcana V)

Toby Thinks About Stuff, Somebody Else Puts the Stuff on Their Blog.

Hello Friends.

I've been flattered to have some ruminations included on the UCLA Musicology Review online.
You can check it out here .

On the Freedom Music

Since leaving Chicago in October ’12 I’ve been doing a lot more thinking about free music and improvising than actually playing or improvising. What keeps coming up for me is the definition of “free.” What it means to play Free Music, or to improvise.  To be fair, I’m borrowing the term “Free Music” from Joe Morris and his excellent book “Perpetual Frontier.” He uses the term as a broad umbrella that includes completely improvised music and totally composed music, and I like that idea.

I’ll start with my own definitions.

Free music is when you determine all the paradigms as you see fit. In real time while improvising, or ahead of time with a set of rules and structures. It’s just as free to submit to a composer’s or collective’s strictures as to improvise in as unstructured an environment as possible.  The other side of that is if you’re playing a composer’s music who “isn’t free” -who follows paradigms not of their own making- or if you’re in a collective environment following some assumed or tacit strictures (ie this is a “rock” band, this is “free jazz” as opposed to “European style Improvised Music.”) -those things are less free. Not Un-Free, or Anti-Free, just less than free. You can take that to its end where the music is adhering to a strict set of norms and biases.

Improvisation is thrilling in part because it may very well fail. That same tightrope-walking is there in “composed free music” or even in “Evan Parker Trio” music. If a group is making their signature music-call it whatever you want- and there’s no possibility of failure, then it’s not free. It’s not what you do or do not determine ahead of time , it’s that you take a meaningful risk.

Playing free music requires a deep commitment to the possibility of failure. You go on stage, -or on floor, or to your writing desk or whatever- and you are present and engaged and that’s good, even if the music doesn’t work that night. The other side of this argument is when a group of seasoned improvisers get together and “make improvising” without really committing to it. The music is improvised but there’s no danger, everyone is treading water. It’s not a matter of how measurably free the music or musicians are, but how committed and present they are.

“Free Music” for me means making music that is responsible only to itself. (I’m borrowing that terminology from a description of Harmelodics as “the melody is only responsible to itself.”) If you want to gather a group of musicians together and play spontaneously, great, that’s free. If you want to pick a group of musicians and write music for them without preconception, great, that’s free. Or with preconception, so long as it’s your own personal preconceptions.

Everyone is operating in relation to a particular paradigm, or multiple paradigms. Freedom for me is the ability to at any point regard or disregard whatever paradigm you like or make up. (You don’t have to always prove that you’re capable of doing that, tho.) That’s true in improvising and in composing. In my earliest rock band experiences, where we composed collectively, the process always included a moment where we would ask “where does the song want to go?” Never “where do songs always go” or “what kind of song is this” but “where does this song want to go.” Improvising has that at its core, too; let the music go where it wants to, where it’s going to go with as little meddling as possible.

Okay, so. I’m listening to the music, can I tell how “free” it is? Yeah. It’s like porn, you know it when you see/hear it. Improvisation on stage is a good analog. Actors performing a play interpret and bring to life characters from the page, like orchestral musicians (or even contemporary bebop practitioners).  Actors given no rules beyond “act here” can be truly improvising-if they don’t settle into paradigmatic characters and follow a prescribed story-arc-of the improvised play doesn’t turn into a 12-bar blues. The third option is to write a play with novel characters who encounter a series of events that feels genuinely unique. I know that “every story has already been written” -same with every melody- I think it’s the notion of being true to the idea, let the idea be as it unfolds.  David lynch says “Ask the Idea.” 

{For Lynch that means as he’s making his movie he keeps checking in with whatever the original inspiration was, the first image or feeling or whatever that got the ball rolling, that created the world we inhabit in his film. For me as a composer it means ask the song where it’s going, ask it what comes next, live in the feelings of the song and see what happens to me. As an improviser that might be the only thing to do. As an improviser we start playing and everything that comes after it should flow from that original idea; that we’re going to make music, that we are making music right now. }

You can compare graphic notation -or any kind of composition whose aural goal is music the level of potential disjunction so easily attained in free improvising- with improvising and be able to tell that one side is composed and the other is improvised. 

There’s a Jim O’Rourke quote where he says that the Evan Parker Trio isn’t improvising anymore, they’re playing  “Evan Parker Trio Music.” That notion, that a band has ceased to play “Improvising” and has started to play “this group’s music” is -to me- no criticism. In fact, it’s the highest praise. They are operating according to their own thing so completely that they self-define.

I think Led Zeppelin actually provides a good window into this idea. Led Zeppelin (one of my very favorite things) is a rock band. They play “Rock Music.” It doesn’t feel right to call what they do “Led Zeppelin Music.” That’s no dig. There are bands that are aesthetically or culturally rock music that the same isn’t true of.  I think the best of what gets called “post-rock” does that, Tortoise or Talk Talk. It’s not just that they’re transcending boundaries or grafting in concepts from not-rock-music, they’re operating according to their own internal paradigms. The term post-rock grapples after that notion, but tries to load on a bunch of extra crap; deconstruction and self-referentialism that’s not really the point.

Okay, great. It’s not just music that’s unshackled from meter and harmony.  So what, Toby? Aren’t you just saying that the music you like is mostly “Free” ? So doesn’t that make “free“ a synonym for “Good?”  Aren’t you just applying the term “free” where you mean “music I like”?

Sonny Sharrock said “Artists cannot be hampered by the restriction of taste.” (the whole article is here)  I disagree with him. I think taste is all you have. But maybe use a different word-Hunger. You have to go towards the sounds your ears are hungry for (or your fingers, or your heart.) To follow that metaphor, that’s why we need silence in improvising, why we need to stop and listen-we’re full. Or why we need to not improvise for a week or two here and there- we’re not hungry for it. I think this conversation is important because the Free-ness in music is like a vitamin, or exercise- it’s necessary and people don’t get enough of it.

Thinking about musicians and gentrification in the coming Gift Economy...

So, I'm reading this book "Sacred Economics" by Charles Eisenstein. I got into this dude after seeing this video on the youtubes. I got excited about "the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible." So I bought his book "Sacred Economics". Didn't have to buy it, it's available for free via creative commons, which will become more important in paragraph four. I'm gonna go on a bit about these ideas, some of which are complicated and maybe beyond my pay grade-I might not ever really grasp the ideas. I'm gonna try to keep it short and sensible.

He's got a lot of great ideas, a really positive outlook for humanity in a world where never-ending growth is no longer the driving force of economics, or of human behavior. Ideas like backing currency with things that are of social value, like clean air, or forests, or oil not pulled from the ground. Or of currency that loses value if you hang onto it- not his idea, a popular idea during the great depression, Keynes was even a fan of the concept- eliminating the notion of making money only by having money already. Totally against the charging of interest. Lots of love for the gift economy.

Eisenstein is really interested in restoration of the commons; put simply anything that exists in nature that humans codify and charge one another for ownership of, land, clean air, the electromagnetic spectrum, things that once had no owner and were/are arbitrarily made one person's property that they can charge other people to use. Here's where it gets to my life as a musician, and hence the writing of this post at all. Eisenstein includes human creativity in the commons. The thinking is that one human idea doesn't exist in a vacuum, that each idea is built on a the pile of the history of human ideas. He rejects pretty thoroughly the idea of intellectual property as based on this percieved fallacy-that I can own my idea which is in fact just my addition to a long string or wide web of human creativity.

So in that thinking, music, film, literature, acadmeic texts should all be available to everyone as the fruit of the entire history of human endeavour. Eisenstein has hard copies of the book for sale, and digital copies for free online. One could be compensated for performing one's music, for reading one's poetry, for speakin on your area of expertise but the computer file (which is basically free to produce anyways) should be considered part of the commons. (I think every musician with a computer has weighed in on the topic of file sharing so I'll stick to this idea here.) Now, I'm sympathetic to this viewpoint, I know better who and what I am indebted to in all my various creative pursuits than anyone. But I also feel a little put out, why do the musicians have to quit getting paid for what we publish before the doctors? Then it hit me, it is just like gentrification; the musicians are the first ones to move back into the crappy or neglected neighborhood (in this case the gift economy) and once we make it cool the other artists can move in. Eventually we will have made the nighborhood so cool that everyone wants to live there. You can thank us later.

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Summerfield Comes Alive!

Hello Friends. Welcome to my virtual living room. I'll have virtual beer and snacks arriving shortly.

There is a lot of music available here; some quite old, some relatively new, much not-properly released previously. I'll have blog posts and upcoming shows (maybe even a catalogue of old shows, if I can manage it.)

If you don't know me personally, feel free to check out the biography. Even if you do-maybe you can spot the inaccuracies included intentionally just so I can see if anybody is actually reading it.