|An AAJ Interview with Kitty Brazelton|
Ask ten people to define the word "freedom" and you're likely to get ten different answers. Thoughtful definitions will envelop political, social, spiritual, and artistic ramifications. A good thesaurus should provide you with nearly 30 synonyms, an examination of which should cause one to re-think, or at least broaden, one's own interpretation of "freedom."
Of course, when it comes to music, "freedom" is generally used to describe the creative liberty to which a musician is entitled in order to realize an artistic vision. A composer might describe freedom in terms of autonomy (or control) over a piece of music, determining precisely what is played, when it is played, how it is played, etc. An improviser might describe freedom in terms of being allowed to play anything at anytime, the only constraint being what is appropriate to the moment, or conversely being liberated from specifics that might be proscribed via composition. Again, it's an issue of control.
Both are legitimate viewpoints (unless taken to extremes) and many fans of jazz would readily agree that the most satisfying results (and consequently maximization of freedom) occur from a healthy blend and balance of both composition and improvisation.
But now consider the next logical step in musical freedom, namely the deliberate blurring and mingling of genres to allow stylistic freedom to co-exist with compositional and improvisational freedoms. This particular manifestation of freedom has historically been more problematic to comprehend as it forces re-examination of musical values. Is it jazz? Is it rock? Is it classical? What is it?
Although the inclination of the music industry (including journalism) to impose labels and categories has certainly established artificial limits upon stylistic freedom (limits which may often exceed those set by musical tradition), it is equally true that limits are frequently self-imposed, originating from the confinement of creative imagination.
One musician who clearly does NOT constrain the power of imagination is Dr. Catherine Bowles "Kitty" Brazelton. Her list of activities reaches nearly legendary, if not outright mythical proportion.
Kitty Brazelton's career as a musician has encompassed nearly 30 years. Initially inspired by the free jazz explorations of late-period John Coltrane, the musical terrain she has explored includes psychedelic, progressive, and pop rock, and "new and unusual" American chamber music. This diversity culminates in her current bands, the electro-acoustic rock nonet Dadadah, the 21st-century medieval quartet Hildegurls, and digital-punk trio What Is It Like To Be A Bat?.
While she is probably most widely known as the founder, leader, composer, and singer for Dadadah, Kitty Brazelton's impressive (and lengthy) list of works spans opera, music theatre, orchestra, choir, amplified ensembles, chamber (for brass, woodwinds, strings, piano, percussion, and vocal groups), and computer and analog electronics.
For these works, Kitty Brazelton draws upon everything from plainchant to funk, whether writing for her own bands, or for pop singers (Terence Trent D'Arby, Joan Jett, and Madonna), librettists (Heather McCutchen, Denise Lanctot and Billy Aronson), choreographers (Beth Leonard, Eduardo Zeiger and Philadelphia's Group Motion), and contemporary new music ensembles (California E.A.R. Unit, Relache, Absolute Ensemble Orchestra, Double Edge, Manhattan Brass Quintet, and twisted tutu).
Kitty Brazelton earned a doctorate in composition from Columbia University in 1994, and as a music educator is a composer-at-large at the Columbia University Computer Music Center, has been invited to give composition workshops at numerous American universities, has taught music history for New York University's Paul McGhee Division since 1996, has worked for the Lincoln Center institute as a Teaching Artist since 1990, and has been Composer-In-Residence at LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and the Performing Arts since 1997.
Dr. Brazelton's other activities include having been producer-curator of the Women's Avant Fest in 1997, and service as a member of the College Music Society's Committee for Music, Women & Gender, and NARAS's '99 Grammys-In-The-Schools panel.
She has received grant funding from Meet The Composer, American Composers Forum's Composers Commissioning Program and the Jerome Foundation, Opera America and the N.E.A. and has participated in music composition grant panels for Meet The Composer, American Music Center, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and Massachusetts Cultural Council.
Dr. Brazelton has performed at Lincoln Center Festival, the Bang on a Can Marathon, Joe's Pub at the Public Theater, the Whitney Museum of American Art , the New Music America Festival, USArts-Berlin, the Knitting Factory's New York Jazz Festivals, and frequently at NYC's venerable punk rock club CBGB's.
(Whew. Easy to see why The New York Times Classical Fall Preview '99 calls her "one of the brighter lights of the downtown scene.")
Of LOVE NOT LOVE LUST NOT LUST the latest cd from Dadadah, AAJ modern jazz editor Glenn Astarita writes: "...So, how do we classify Love Not Love Lust Not Lust? ...Ms. Brazelton's new recording has conjured up an alluring and at times fascinating series of pieces, which meld disparate musical elements, yet it all seems axiomatic and natural...Ms. Brazelton's originality and deeply personalized commitment to her craft should entice those who appreciate the purveyance of new frontiers whether it be rock or jazz...finely crafted compositions and exemplary leadership illustrates how it all seems effortless and unconstrained. Highly recommended! * * * * 1/2"
To help commemorate both the upcoming (January 7-8, 2000) performances of "Kitty Brazelton in 3D!!!" by Dadadah at HERE's Culturemart 2000 Winter Festival as well as the recent release of LOVE NOT LOVE LUST NOT LUST, Kitty Brazelton graciously took time out of her hectic schedule to talk to All About Jazz. This interview was conducted via e-mail during Oct.-Nov. 1999
Thanks to Ann Braithwaite of Braithwaite and Katz Communications for help in facilitating this interview and for continued support of All About Jazz.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ: Your bio states that your one of your earliest musically gratifying experiences was "playing Coltrane inspired songs on flutes and guitars with teenage girlfriends in a band called Battleship." Considering the time period (I'm assuming latter '60's) this is highly surprising, more than a little bit puzzling, and definitely refreshing. What attracted you to Coltrane as opposed to the Beatles, Monkees, or other popular music groups? What was it about Coltrane that inspired you? What Coltrane recordings did you find to be inspiring and why?
KITTY BRAZELTON: I can't say as I ever liked the Monkees a little too cute. I liked Burt Bacharach songs, Motown, the Four Seasons when I was 9 prior to the Beatles' invasion. I didn't dislike the Beatles really I sang the songs and when we divided them up I always took John (extension of Barbie games I guess) but I didn't dig the screaming part that seemed sort of demeaning. I couldn't imagine caring that much about someone I had never and would never meet. I liked the Stones from afar and bought some Stones LPs I think.
Later teens, I was remotely interested in early psychedelia I liked Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth and had a Donovan record and a Leonard Cohen one...I liked the Blues Project but nothing really got to me as much as I thought it should. I saw other people my age buying lots of records and I just wasn't that moved.
So when I heard about John Coltrane from a friend's older brother who I thought was too cool, the thought came to me that this was a kind of record I could buy. And I did. And I loved A LOVE SUPREME and went back and bought more and then ASCENSION which I didn't get at first but was really challenged by I grew into it later. Because I really liked what I was hearing I went and bought records by guys that were playing with Coltrane. I developed quite a nice little Impulse catalog. Pretty much by myself the cool older guy was long gone there was nobody to talk to about it.
Around that time for many other reasons a Baroque flute teacher who forced me to improvise ornamentation where it wasn't marked a school play where a crucial prop was missing and I had to improvise to save the plot my love for singing folk songs and adding improvised harmonies my best friend who was writing her own Joni Mitchell-esque songs and I was jealous I stumbled into improvising on my flute and the world fell open.
Suddenly I thought I might understand what Coltrane was doing and I became determined to play like him. But I knew little about harmonic or rhythmic conventions and as I've said before, jazz just wasn't an open avenue for a blond girlchild in the late '60s/early '70s.
So I got my folk-guitar playing girlfriends and my classical-flute playing other girlfriend and we would go down in the basement of our dorm and just play for hours and hours no talking lots of cigarettes. I knew it wasn't quite Coltrane so I would try to shake things up by playing very dissonantly. Playing sweet harmonies seemed just too pat and predictable to me after a while no fun.
I even got so some of Coltrane's more mellow 4th-y stuff wasn't crunchy enough for me I definitely feel that way about people who cop that stuff without his genius phrasing nowadays and in the early '70s I heard a lot off spin-offs minus the man too and it got tired even though they were great players (Alice C., Leon Thomas, McCoy) so I got so Ascension was what I needed to hear.
AAJ: The '70's finds you playing in psychedelic rock sextet Phaedra and progressive rock quintet Musica Orbis, the '80's finds you in metal/pop band Hide the Babies, while the 90's find you in "new and unusual" chamber music ensemble Bog Life. Could you please elaborate on each of these bands? (e.g., how and why they came to be, influences, relevant personnel, etc.)
KB: That's a large question!
Phaedra was my boyfriend's band. I met him through jamming nice way to pick up a girl I guess I kinda held him to treating me as an equal so after attending miles of gigs as a groupie, when some of the others decided it would be real cool to have a flute player in the band, I said yeh, even though he was a bit uneasy about it. I then fell in love with the drummer who was learning to talk after being hospitalized for 6 months for tripping everyday. We had a very regimented menage a trois for a year I don't recommend it.
Phaedra had been a frat band and then flower power hit it and many of them fell in love with the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. We did a lot of cover stuff of the era. But my initial boyfriend, the keyboard player, was a music major and got into Beethoven and Hendrix and jazz and twelve-tone stuff and would bring in all that into our jams. Meanwhile our bass player liked to play Bach on the bass and the drummer was into Tony Williams, contemporary classical percussion, Stravinsky he turned me onto that wonderful pre-Mahavishnu record DEVOTION, one of my favorites of all time.
The drummer lover discovered that I was writing songs and persuaded the band to do some. That was pretty threatening to the keyboard lover I'm afraid although he was quite civil about it.
The band came a-cropper as bands do when it got a big record deal offer. No one could agree on anything after that.
So me and the drummer took off and he started helping me do my songs. During all this, thanks to piano-man's encouragement, I'd become a music major and discovered all sorts of things! Medieval music wow ! why hadn't anybody ever told about that stuff ? And serious serialism was a trip too I loved listening to crystalline interlocking facets it felt like someone was finally caring for my ears. But I hated any classical music written between 1600 and 1900 and refused to do my music theory homework because I felt tonal harmony was brainwashing. I'd do what I could retain for the duration of being in the classroom and then outta there.
So I decided to start my own band, doing the kind of music I liked no Grateful Dead yes serialism, motets, free jazz, and Led Zeppelin kinda rock because I liked that alright and then the songs I was setting were what they were (as they continue to be) so I had to reconcile that. So that band was Musica Orbis 1972-79.
M.O. sorta lost some of the more experimental aspects as it went along and I always felt I'd wimped out somehow. But it was very successful and combined enough elements I was satisfied. In M.O. I learned about performing and how much I loved that improvisation. I learned about being a bandleader how much I love bands what a weird fascinating organism. Writing for a band, bringing out what individual people can do so they shine, how the parts grow to build the whole the dialectic of that. Still absolutely magnetizes me.
I love reading about Ellington and in one of my textbooks (I teach music history college-level) a well-respected music scholar explains why he's downplaying Ellington's contribution as a composer in deference to his bandmembers and I just think man how little you know about it being a bandleader IS being a composer, and then some epithet for this musicological ivory-tower ignorance get out and play and find out!
Musica Orbis died after we'd been touring for two years nationally and were making enough to salary crew, pay off a loan for our mobile home but not pay ourselves some of us were on welfare and we came home to out-of-the-loop social lives. Our bass player decided to quit after 7 years of loyalty we auditioned replacements and everyone who came in the room had more energy than anyone there so I decided on euthanasia and fired everyone it took them a while to adjust to my mercy but they ultimately did. A few months later a guy came to me starting a new label and said we were perfect for what they were doing they'd thought of us when they started it and hoped it was Windham Hill.
So we'd probably be doing a wealthy public television circuit in limos or something if I hadn't committed group hara-kiri.
But the problem for me was that I was again too constricted. Things had gotten awfully pretty musically as you might suspect if it was Windham Hill, right?
Around about this time I met this obnoxious music writer, Lester Bangs, who was drunkenly talking about "music of the people." I also met guitarist Robert Fripp, whom another music writer who was sort of managing M.O. had brought to visit us in our country commune. Fripp told me every song had a "pocket," every person had a "pocket" and every band had a "pocket" and maybe my pocket and the band's pocket didn't match very disturbing he envisioned me with upright and piano and a sort of chanteuse stance it's funny I have a duo with a composer/pianist where we do a take-off on that I don't think I could do it straight.
Anyway, I decided that I was sick of the "avant-garde," that it had become a kind of shtick to combine odd instruments and genres and concepts, and that the only gritty and challenging thing for me to do as a Cambridge intellectual was to go to Jersey and make garage music a Lester. I joined some bar bands and covered UFO, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Babies, Foreigner, Aerosmith, Rush...
Along the way I found myself a talented but NOT-conservatory-trained guitarist with a wonderful "pocket" and I forced myself to co-write with in no more than three chords using an extremely teensy word-palette which included elements like "boy" and "girl" and so on. And I studied the shit out of what was pop and loved the metal guys because they reminded me of classical chamber players so rigorous and serious.
Left my husband (only acquired in my fit of grief over mercy-killing my band-baby Musica Orbis) for my new guitarist and came to New York and drank and drugged my way into all sorts of loneliness and depression. 7 years of "major label" showcases, MTV-like videos, people ripping off our songs (I had a song about being like a virgin you figure out the rest) but being too big for someone with no money to sue, horrible contracts where you authorize someone to drive a truck over you and give away 200% of your income it was barren plus there were never any women to play with (as in the old days) and if I let any of the guys know I knew how to put harmonies and rhyhms together well it was not a good idea band-wise my partner had to be what Diedre Murray told me was called a "straw-man."
So again big changes. I found myself going back to school, initially as a way to get some money to live on and then because I was so starved for the ideas you could actually talk to someone about music! I realized I had come to hate being onstage and that I was responsible. And I ended up in A.A.
Hide the Babies, my rock band, and all the drugs and the hate and the pop music business fell away as I got sober. What I was left with was an incredible amount of studio and songcraft no lie, I've learned how to write for orchestra using the ideas I learned overdubbing our pop songs and the pop melodic discipline is great you have to be concise and powerful and memorable good idea.
I think I'm almost up to the present, aren't I?
I started Dadadah on a whim to do some music for a friend choreographer. That was ten years ago and it's still here. In Dadadah I kind of did what I wanted to do in Musica Orbis. I humbly returned to the avant-garde world but I brought my pop along with me, along with my serialism, my free jazz and my psychedelia.
Bog Life, "new and unusual chamber music", and the end of your question. Bog Life died maybe we'll do something but it ain't happening right now it couldn't compete with Dadadah in my affections. But it was a neat collection (oboe, harp, marimba, double bass, my voice and an operatic baritone) and concept and my first time really performing classically I've written classically but as a performer I'm really a rocker I guess.
"New and unusual chamber music" I guess I'm writing all the time. Like the piece for the California EAR Unit which I hope you'll get to hear. I'm interested in bridging the gaps in the languages.
AAJ: As follow-ups, what did you learn from all of the above experiences that has carried forward into Dadadah and/or your other current works?
KB: Everything has carried forward. Dadadah is a composite of Musica Orbis in the '70s (which was already a composite of earlier acid rock days, folk influence, free jazz, contemporary classical and medieval interests) and my '80s heavy metal days. All the music I write is informed by past experience there is no exclusion of anything. It would be easier maybe to talk about what I've added. Or maybe subtracted.
With Dadadah, the big new thing for me was the brass and using a horn "section." As a rocker I'd never liked horn sections, just as a singer I'd never liked vibrato. Both of these dislikes I've since outgrown.
What I didn't like about pop horn sections was that they were so peripheral. They seemed so ultimately music-biz gratuitous. Why make 3 or 4 people stand in the back and play one note every once in a while? It seemed inflationary devaluing the musician.
So I decided to use horns differently. I put them at the core of the sound in Dadadah. I replaced what a rock band would have done on keyboards or guitar with horns. You can hear this all over the first cd RISE UP! and on the new cd LOVE NOT LOVE you'll hear it particularly on "Around You" and "Soul Kiss." On "Waitin' For Ya Baby" you'll hear me use horns in a takeoff of the pop punch approach I always am suspicious why I dislike things so I make myself go back and deal with them that's what WFYBB represents.
After 10 years working with a horn section, too, I've learned a couple of things.
One, horns love to play in sections, and there's some magic that goes down between even the most disparate horn players (and I've had a few!) when they play rhythmic passages "section"-ally and it's great something not to miss out on as a composer.
Two, brass CAN'T play as continually as guitar or keys they have to rest.
I really learned about brass r & r needs working with trumpet in my brass quintet "Come Spring." The first movement "Dogwood Petals & Hormones" has the first trumpet in high register over and over with no substantial break until the 2nd movement. I wrote it for the Manhattan Brass Quintet and if anybody's going to be able to cut it, it would certainly be Wayne DuMaine who is fabulous. Live he had to take some of it down an octave. But they recorded it as written and it will eventually come out screamin' on a cd they're doing with Lyris Hung and he put it right up there all of it bless his heart actually he and Kevin Cobb may have traded licks and covered it that way. I'm going to rewrite it for when they do it live next.
[I think this is a good way to answer your "and/or current works" part of the question so I'll continue.]
Luckily I had showed the 1st movement to MBQ before I went ahead and wrote the other 3 movements so there are no further endurance tests. And I had a blast taking everything I'd learned in Dadadah about brass. I had so much fun writing the quintet and so much to say I had to force myself to stop.
I wrote MBQ's Greg Evans a funk-noise French horn solo to try to show what I now know to be true about the horn that it's one of the most timbale versatile instruments and yet one of the most tightly typecast when we think of horn we think of that heroic sound? Just the tip of the iceberg. In early Dadadah, I had the good fortune to work for several years with Tom Vainer who is an absolutely fearless extender of that instrument. I now work with Mark Taylor who extends the horn in a whole new way. It's been a privilege.
Trombone-wise, Chris Washburne (who helped me start DDD and is why there is brass in that ensemble at all) has taught me and taught me and taught me. He's asked me for some chamber pieces. I wrote him a duo which he hasn't premiered yet (when Chris?). But I put a lot of my Chris-knowledge into a solo piece I wrote for him and cd soundtrack called "La Vida Como Una Tromba Larga" which is really strong piece which we hope to record soon in the studio so I can put it on my eventual chamber-music cd.
I asked Chris Wash to come over to my studio and record some Chris-sounds he likes to make little short squeals and sighs and pops and blurts and even twirling part of the slide mechanism and dinging different parts of the bell. Then I made a cumulative rhythm track for him of these sounds. Live it sounds like he initiates them because he plays each sound first and then the cd echoes him. There are also melodies he'd recorded for me which I processed in CMIX (granular synthesis, comb-filtering, ceres and a few other methods which can be found up at the Columbia University Computer Music Center where I am an occasional guest) and got these gorgeous big trombone whale chords out of. I also took the air sound from our home recording session and magnified it and filtered it chordally. So...even the air he breathes is in Chris's piece.
In the brass quintet, tuba was a new animal for me. I understood the brass embouchure via horn and trombone, but the depth of the sound and presence of tuba was new. But again I've had the opportunity to work in Dadadah with tuba-ist Bob Stewart subbing for my bass-player so how could I not learn about tuba? This past year or two too, I've had a composition student who's a jazz tuba player Jesse Dulman who I suspect the world will be hearing from he won last year's Down Beat Extended Composition by High School student award. I always learn most from my students.
That's enough about brass and my learning process just trying to give you a picture of how all the influences run together into one big muddy river.
Other addings ?
I think the biggest thing to mention is that as of the 90s and Dadadah's adding brass to my compositional quiver, I felt I was ready to write for orchestra. I'd written for all sizes of strings, and harp (and guitar) since Musica Orbis and wrote two string quartets at the end of the 80s.
Woodwind-wise: I began life as a flutist and worked with oboist Libby Van Cleve (another excellent player writing a book on extended oboe techniques as we speak) in Bog Life another group I had in the early 90s giving me insight into double reeds. I'd been working with single reeds all my life (hell I was married to one! (1980-82)). So that was the woodwinds.
Percussion I've always written for. In fact my first composition was for vibes.
So I completed my first symphonic "Woman's Works" in '94 I still haven't heard it though. I hope someone will play it someday I think it's a pretty cool piece.
I have heard a couple of other large pieces I've written since then: Absolute Ensemble played "Sleeping Out of Doors" a 14-minute semi-concerto for piano in 98. This spring Bob Stewart's jazz orchestra played 44-piece "Getting In & Out Of Trouble." Both worked quite well.
The real addition has been that I'm no longer afraid of any size instrumentation or length. In fact, I'm delighted. The more the merrier.
What DON'T I do anymore?
think I have to stay in one groove from beginning to end of a piece or the drummer will get mad at me
think I better not be dissonant or audiences won't like it
think I better not be tonal or audiences won't like it
keep everything under three minutes so it can get on the radio (not a bad idea actually maybe I better try this again "From Her Story" is 19 minutes long and it's one of the best tunes on the new cd but will anyone be brave enough to put it on the air?)
think I have to keep my "classical" music separate from my "pop" whatever either of those are
think I better not say I wrote something or the men in the band will quit
think I better not tell men in my band what to do (still working on this) or women
Oh well. That should give you some idea, right?
AAJ: A series of questions on how you view yourself as a composer (please feel free to re-sequence and/or merge these questions as necessary):
Can you differentiate between your personas as "pop", "rock", "jazz", "contemporary classical", or "other" composer? Why or why not?
KB: Personae (sorry I love Latin).
I can't differentiate because I'm not that in control. I envy people who can compose neatly in marketing categories. I can't. I don't hear music that way. It's all blurred together and it comes out however it wants to.
I wish I could write straightahead pop or straightahead jazz and then my distributor would know where to put me in the store and then the jazz djs at radio stations wouldn't say "oh I gave that to the rock guys" who then say "oh I gave that to the jazz guys it's not for us."
Given the state of music machinery in America, I don't encourage anyone to write between-the-cracks music. Actually the niche that's been most receptive to me has been new classical music. But still Dadadah's too un-classical for them they hear the song format and think "pop". The stuff I write for chamber groups works out due to instrumentation and context. Seems all the same to me but those surface elements make a big difference to people.
I don't know. I can't write what I don't write. I just hope things change. They seem to be slightly. Meanwhile thank god for the web. Amazon.com seems to have BOTH my released CDs and some very awful RealAudio samples of the first one [listen on my website for better quality I just put 'em up! www.kitbraz.com then go there]
AAJ: You've been quoted as describing yourself as an "American vernacular" composer. Could you please elaborate on that?
KB: "American vernacular" means languages indigenous to American culture I mean musical languages obviously so jazz, rock, folk, Latin hybrids... not Western European classical idiom. When you say composer it implies a certain classicism that you perhaps at least use notation although I don't see why one can't compose just fine without notation but that's the implication. I try to contrast that expectation by adding on the "American vernacular" element.
My purpose is political, as well as selfish of course. I've been teaching surveys of Western Euro music at the university level for ten years now. Why is that the main and primary music course American universities offer? We see jazz and sometimes rock in the curriculum but they tend to be electives or sidelined in some other way.
This is not the only medium in which we as Americans sideline our own musical culture a musical culture which has influenced the rest of the world more fundamentally than any other culture in history we can now recognize jazz as an "art form" because we've sterilized it and museum-ized it now that rock is dead I assume that will happen to it too in a decade or so. How about hip-hop or rap or even scarier Latin pop? Don't let that stuff into the parlor of aesthetic respect!
Along with this lack of cultural self-esteem, we crush the natural decentralization of ongoing cultural creativity with the numbing omnipresence of short playlists on radio and MTV (and in supermarkets!), categories in record stores, niche-marketed magazines with predetermined subject material. We limit our intake to what we already know! How can that promote creativity? I laugh when I see that "Think different" ad you better not!
Over and over when I was in the pop biz, I'd get a bite from a major or some other dealmaker if I seemed similar to someone already out there the music business rewards cloning not originality (pop, jazz, classical they're all the same).
And people regular people hear that way too how many times has someone insisted I must have listened to the latest pop vocalist because I sound "just like her"! It's more logical that someone 20 years my junior sound like me rather than the other the other way around most logical that we sound nothing alike but have crawled up amphibious out of the same river, just at different times but that's the way people hear.
AAJ: How would you define the word "totalism"?
KB: I took "totalism" from Kyle Gann who said he took it from Mikel Rouse. I was afraid Kyle would just apply it to a few people he happened to like and the term would just disappear.
I felt and feel that I am not alone in reacting to the music around me by attempting to synthesize and resolve the separations. I hear young composers all over trying to do this. How can we not? The wonderful thing is that everyone's solution is different. Like a bouquet of flowers. Each person has chosen different elements to combine or combines them in a different ratio. So while we are totalizing we are not homogenizing. The variety and flavor are rich and vast. Exciting!
AAJ: Edgard Varèse refused to be categorized as an "experimental" composer saying that by the time his pieces were completed, he was through with experimentation. Would you consider any of your work to be experimental? Why or why not?
KB: I understand Varèse's objection to the pigeonhole although the word "experimental" in particular doesn't offend me. Sure I'm experimental. Ever so. I hope.
I have a problem with the word "eclectic" which is why I started trying to use the word "totalism." "Eclectic" implies that things have been drawn upon which are disparate it implies that the natural thing would be to leave these elements apart that the elements should return to their separate identities after the "eclecticism" is done toying with them. It essentially marginalizes what we so-called "eclectic" composers have worked so hard to accomplish.
I think that the word "experimental" probably carried a similar sting in Edgard Varèse's time. It marginalized what he was doing. Made it dismissable by the general public. I think he quietly tries to show through his reaction how centrally his work is intended. He is telling us that it's important that we listen. And he was right.
AAJ: Which is more important to you: technical improvement and refinement or incorporation of new musical vocabularies?
KB: I'm not sure I understand you. Technical improvement and refinement of my compositional style? Those sound like performance terms.
I don't really think about craft. I know I depend on its continuing improvement. I am only aware of it in that it's easier to do things I try to do. The interface between imagination and implementation is more fluid.
New musical vocabularies. I am very careful that my vocabulary be mine that I only use musical elements I've come to have a relationship with. I recently became fascinated with Caribbean and Latin dance rhythms as they combine with hip-hop and other more norteño grooves for my 4th-of-July opera "Fireworks" commissioned last year by American Opera Projects. I was nervous about it because I'm not Latin just a another gringuita and I'd didn't see what right I had to these languages. But I'm an American and these languages are part of my daily experience (especially living in NYC's East Village! You have to be culturally deaf to think noise-jazz or death-thrash are the only thing you're hearing around this neighborhood).
When I allowed myself to include these elements I remembered my adolescence in Mexico and the hours and hours of dancing to mariachi and marimba bands. That I had a 10-string guitar from Chamula (a community in the highlands of Chiapas whence the Zapatistas) which I used to spend hours playing to myself thin unbound wire strings which cut your fingers and wooden pegs which never stayed tuned.
AAJ: What areas of your composing do you feel need improvement?
KB: Right now I'm feeling a great need to improve the transmission of my ideas.
I need to reach for more polished performances. This fall I decided to rehearse Dadadah more carefully than ever before and require memorization. I took 4 tunes off the CD and turned them into a theatricalized show with the astute help of director Valeria Vasilevski. Meanwhile Valeria has worked with me to refine my performance. She stopped me from running all over the place constantly. So I build to full-Kitty force as the show progresses. And I stand still and sing. Vocal production is much improved. What a concept!
I also need to put out more on disc. Who doesn't? But no, I need to get out a cd of instrumental pieces without me singing so people start to understand that it can be said without words, a cd of Hildegurls, a cd of a my computer music, a cd of What Is It Like To Be A Bat?...and then I have a couple of ideas for things that would make great cds...etc.
AAJ: Turning attention to Dadadah, what are the similarities and differences between RISE UP and LOVE NOT LOVE LUST NOT LUST?
KB: Material for RISE UP was written from 1989-1991. Seeds of the song portions were written, some of them, as early as 1981. Recording, mixing and mastering were complete by late spring 1992 (final mixdown 8 1/2 mos. pregnant). After a year of rejection, Russ Gershon of Accurate Records agreed to put it out in 1993. The cd was released in May 1994.
Material for LOVE NOT LOVE LUST NOT LUST was written from 1993-1995, recorded during 3 days in August 1995, mixed for over a year until early 1997 expense and illness slowed me down. I shopped it for a year and a half receiving all rejections and had resigned myself to self-manufacture and distribution when I received an email from Angelo Verploegen of Challenge-BUZZ in August 1998. The cd was released in May 1999 in Europe and July 1999 here in the US.
Those are the ostensible differences. But that doesn't tell you much does it?
RISE UP embodies the energy and ideas with which I started the band. I burst from the straitlaced rock world back into the freedom of the cross-genre avant-garde.
With LOVE NOT LOVE LUST NOT LUST I am thinking and listening to this animal I've created. A lot of the band seemed to crave the songs and structure I was importing from the rock world into their downtown improv world. This wasn't where I was coming from but it was where they were coming from and they were now a living being brought to life by me I needed to listen. The composition is the ensemble as the much as the music you write for it or as my buddy Phillip Johnston says: "composing IS contracting." (He was actually one of the ones that was gravitating towards the songs.)
Most of my songs not all are about romantic involvements. RISE UP has love songs but they have no strong focus. The real underlying theme that seemed to emerge as I made the cd was my recovery from alcoholism and the birth of our daughter Rosie. My husband Howard Mandel's cover shows a giant baby scaring a Godzilla-like creature along the NYC skyscape. His liner notes also reflect our thinking at the time.
LOVE NOT LOVE LUST NOT LUST on the other hand has a very strong romantic obsession as its focus. Coming out of a post-partem depression, I found myself rejuvenated by a powerful extramarital attraction. Howard was incredibly understanding and it ultimately empowered our marriage in ways I would never have expected. Except for "From Her Story" which was composed in 1993 and deals with issues of recovery from alcoholism and sexual abuse, all the songs on LOVE NOT LOVE LUST NOT LUST were written between February and July of 1995 and derive from the feelings I was experiencing at the time. They're all about obsession whichever way you slice it. And the title too.
The theater piece which Dadadah and I have developed from this repertoire centers around obsession and recovery.
AAJ: Are the pieces for Dadadah written and arranged for this specific set of musicians or are they simply composed for the specific instrumentation? Please elaborate.
KB: The music for Dadadah is written for the specific musicians at the time. But I write everything out pretty thoroughly because we have minimal rehearsal time. So when I have musician turnover, temporary or permanent, I find it adapts pretty well to the next player. In fact I find that the group itself seems to have its own personality which remains consistent even when the personnel changes.
In general as a composer, I've found it best to write as specifically as you can for musicians. If it fits one musician really well, chances are it will fit another really well too, even if that's not exactly what you would you write for the next one. I think there's tremendous value in the intimacy of detail you put into it which can never be lost.
AAJ: What creative outlet does performing/recording/composing for Dadadah provide for you that your other areas of work do not?
KB: Dadadah provides a very "creative" outlet for my money! Wow is it expensive!!!
Seriously, I love the range of color, the power and expressiveness, the virtuosity, the expert fluidity of transfer between improvised and composed idioms which this group of players has. I love to perform and I get to do just that without reservation in the context of Dadadah. I love the personae of the individuals and combined group persona it's absolutely delicious to me as a bandleader even when they give me a lot of backtalk. The spirit of the group is indomitable. I would love to go see a band like this I think it would be totally energizing.
Tell everyone to come see us do this theatricalized show in January (7-8 at HERE in NYC). It will project all the exuberance I'm talking about and more.
AAJ: Your project/composition Hildegurls pays homage to early composer Hildegard Von Bingen. What other women composers have inspired or influenced you (either living or dead) ? How or why have these been influences or inspirations?
KB: I would like to claim more influences by women composers than I can. I think that's due in part to the fact that I was exposed to so few as a student the pantheon that gets taught is primarily male. In jazz, I think it's very similar. Even if there were a woman Coltrane would I believe her? Would you?
Of late I've been exposed to a lot more women composers so I am being influenced now in mid-life. Today I heard Joan Tower speak. She has a wonderful earthy cogent message. Tania Leon is someone I respect tremendously. And Eleanor Hovda has influenced me a lot over the years she sat on my dissertation defense panel.
Many of my colleagues and peers have influenced me. In fact that's probably my greatest relationship with other women composers. I saw my friend composer Chen Yi today she is effervescent and does so much to help others.
My colleagues in Hildegurls: Eve Beglarian, Lisa Bielawa and Elaine Kaplinsky I have great respect for. My partner in the band What Is It Like To Be A Bat? Dafna Naphtali is quite impressive. My partner in Womens Avant Fest, Maura Bosch, is very strong.
I have invited many women colleagues to showcase on my concerts and concert series and I will continue to promote women in music however I can. Womens Avant Fest by the way is a dream I hope to bring about one day: a multi-city festival which features as its centerpiece a marathon involving emerging and established women musicmakers from all genres who are involved in the cutting edge of whatever their beat.
I feel very strongly that it is important that women support each other and be in solidarity. If we don't believe in each other how can we expect to build the credibility we give our male counterparts.
For my part in the building of credibility as concert curator or composer, I am not interested in women's ghetto-izing themselves nor in preserving a victim attitude. I am not interested in excluding men (I love men!). I just want to help bring about a world where it is possible for a woman to be seen as an equal contributor on the deepest level. Where a woman can be a Coltrane or a Beethoven a Nadia Boulanger who isn't relegated to midwifing the compositional talent of others a Betty Carter whose riffs are studied as carefully as any by Bird or Pres where we remember the name and oeuvre of women composers, tin pan alley songwriters, instrumentalists past their lifetime as we do their male parallels.
Then perhaps women like me born in a few generations will be able to answer your question: YES and have a nice long healthy list of names to fire out at your descendant which will stretch back generations into the past.
AAJ: As a follow up, you've composed pieces with the titles of "Tribute to Sun Ra" and "Ornette In Vietnam". Have Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman been influences on you? If so how? What other male composers have inspired or influenced you (either living or dead) ? How or why have these been influences or inspirations?
KB: I love Ornette. I think I understand harmolodics but there's no guarantee my claim is true. I started life as a wind player and thought a lot about carving different paths through the harmonic air with my melodies where notes would come to be bent to take on different meanings. I still think about this. I fantasize that Ornette thinks about some of this when he plays. And more. It makes me feel less alone to hang onto this fantasy. I hear it in some wind players or a beginning of it and not at all in others.
Sun Ra. I came of age in Philadelphia where on my 21st birthday my boyfriend took me to hear Sun Ra and the Arkestra. We were the only people in the audience and they came off the stage and surrounded us. We took the next stop to Jupiter.
My tribute to Sun Ra May 30 1993 was the day he died. We started with a lecture-demonstration by Alan Dorfman on the Music of the Spheres. Alan organized the audience into groups representing each planet. At the core of each group was a musician with an instrument to play the tone of each planet and lead the audience to hum that note. Composer Johnny Hoppe sculpted planet-hats out of styrofoam for the musician leader. Then Dadadah came on and played with Rashied Ali and trumpeter Robert Rutledge and a whole contingent of other East Vil musicians (violin, mandolin, oboe, ukulele, and more) and played compositions based on Ra tunes co-planned by me and Sun Ra expert sax-ist/composer Allan Chase. Then we opened into a giant blues where anyone could play but we had to play in our planets simultaneously and in the key of each planet. All of this in an inflatable-filled CBGB's. Definitely space was the place. And Sun Ra passed on while we were playing. I think Rashied found out and told me and I announced it.
AAJ: What non-musical influences would you cite and why?
KB: My marriage to Howard. The birth of Rosie my daughter. And my 11-year recovery in AA.
Why? All have opened up new vistas I never thought possible. And every time my music has responded grown beyond my wildest dreams.
Childhood influences: my parents support of the arts (my father bartered medical care for art and my mother ran a contemporary art gallery which supported local painters). My enrollment at a school which valued originality above all (despite my whining now about not fitting into any categories). My grandmother who believed I could be the standard-bearer for my generation (I come from a long line of poets and writers) even if I was a girl this was a pressure as well as a support.
None of these early influences were musical per se because I wasn't a musician. Music was about the last thing any of us expected me to go into. I didn't get bitten by the bug 'til pretty late.
AAJ: With regards to other current projects, could you please elaborate on "punk digital" band What Is It Like To Be A Bat? ?
KB: What Is It Like To Be A Bat? is a trio I put together in '97. Me, Dafna Naphtali and Danny Tunick. It was conceived as riot grrrrl-ish so Danny is happy to be an honorary woman that's the kinda guy he is.
Danny plays drums is a punk drummer and a contemporary classical percussionist.
Dafna sings, plays electric guitar and improvises live radical ambience processing on her laptop with Max MSP software driving an Eventide delay unit. All at once!
And all at once I'm responsible for: singing, playing electric bass, playing CD and DAT soundtracks intermittently (our concept of "movable tectonic plates" so we are not tied to pre-recorded timing) and a sampler the sounds of which are generated by me in non-real-time up at the Columbia Computer Music Center in CMIX. I comb-filter and granular-synthesize guitar amp hum then Dafna's and my humming and mix 'em. I weave scraps of outtakes from rehearsals and recording sessions via which we prepared the music back into the music so we're playing us playing us playing
We incorporate ambience itself as musical material. We thrash like a punk band then stop suddenly and listen to the reverb, thrash again and stop and it's dry no reverb. Then we hard-cut into a madrigal I wrote about the similarity between obsession and vacuum cleaners Daf and I sing while Danny plays the other 4 voices on the sampler.
It's pretty passionate and dada-ist all at once. The name comes from a comment by a linguist named Thomas Nagler.
It's more indubitably avant-garde than Dadadah. It goes after some of the unlive issues raised by computer music and solves I think very well. What Is It Like To Be A Bat? is anything but dead sounding.
It's smaller because I was having so much trouble getting Dadadah on the road and feeling very frustrated. There's no jazz at all in it really maybe Daf who does some jazz vocal licks occasionally but there's tons of improv and comprov. In this case it's important to mention the composed side of it because a lot of people get fancy powerful equipment and get so awed by it that all they do is noodle. We try to keep the human element over the machine.
What Is It Like To Be A Bat? will play at Newfoundland's Sound Symposium 2000 this summer and has a few concerts and workshops at colleges up and down the East Coast this spring.
One really great thing is that Dafna collaborates with me on running it. As opposed to Dadadah where it's all my baby. Man am I grateful to her!
AAJ: What other projects can be expected from you during 2000-2001?
Jan. 7-8: Dadadah and me in "Kitty Brazelton in 3D!!!" at HERE's Culturemart 2000 Winter Festival.
February: What Is It Like To Be A Bat? on tour
February: tba workshop of my opera "Fireworks" commissioned by American Opera Projects; libretto by the amazingly deft Billy Aronson
March 26: Participating in another downtown-composer-scene Phil Kline extravaganza where we deconstruct our favorite rock song
April 13-15: Participating in a neat new workshop/composition concept at the Kitchen I write a piece for their new "house" band (big) along with 2 other composers from strikingly different backgrounds. It's like the Bley Jazz Composers Orchestra. The open rehearsal is part of the show.
July 5-15 What Is It Like To Be A Bat? at Sound Symposium 2000
More "Kitty Brazelton in 3D!!!" if I can book it
Fully orchestrated premiere of "Fireworks" for the 4th of July or thereabouts if not in 2000 then definitely for 2001
Hildegurls in Portugal and/or London
Women's Avant Fest whenever I can raise the funding and get someone to help me administrate it (a few venues interested but want to have my infrastructure in place first)
What Is It Like To Be A Bat? in the incredibly reverberant and bizarre Anchorage under the Brooklyn Bridge
KITTY BRAZELTON DISCOGRAPHY
LOVE NOT LOVE LUST NOT LUST (Buzz ZZ 77605)
RISE UP ! (Accurate Distortion AD 1003)
with Musica Orbis
TO THE LISTENERS (Longdivity LD 1)
with Bog Life
NEW AND UNUSUAL CHAMBER MUSIC (Longdivity LD 2)
as a composer
Various Artists THE ALTERNATIVE SCHUBERTIADE (Emergency Music CRI CD 809)
Elizabeth Panzer DANCING IN PLACE (oodiscs oo56)
twisted tutu (Eve Beglarian and Kathy Supové) (oodiscs ooXX)*
Kitty Brazelton TOTAL KITTY (Longdivity LD X)*
note: the Longdivity recordings are only available directly from Kitty Brazelton
* - catalogue numbers unknown at press time
more information about Kitty Brazelton can be found at: