January Artist Feature: Cellist Daniel Levin

Cellist Daniel Levin has been a major presence on the New York scene for nearly two decades as an active bandleader and as an innovative sideman. His quartet has been active since 2001, having released an incredible eight records, the most recent of which, Live at Firehouse 12, will be released later this month on Clean Feed. His new solo record, Living, will appear on Smeraldina-Rima later in the Spring.

Daniel has a number of exciting concerts coming up in January and February:

  • Jan 8, 7 pm – Duo with Henry Fraser at Downtown Music Gallery
  • Jan 31-Feb 3 – Duos with Mat Maneri in Norway
  • Feb 4-9 – Daniel Levin Quartet European tour begins in Munich with an appearance at Vinterjazz Fest in Copenhagen on Feb 8
  • Feb 10 – Trio with Torbjörn Zetterberg and Raymond Strid in Stockholm

Interview conducted with Daniel Levin via email, Sep 6-Dec 31, 2016

Cisco Bradley: How did you get into creative music?

Daniel Levin: Over the past few years, I have come to the realization that creating, building, and improvising are activities that are foundational to my identity — and that I have been deeply involved in them ever since I was a little kid. Being a creative musician is just another way for me to extend, deepen, and develop in these areas. I think that most kids are natural creators, builders, and improvisers, actually. Some kids find themselves wanting or needing to continue to create, build, and improvise in focused and intentional ways as they get older, and their identity eventually incorporates artistic or other creative pursuits as primary pieces of who they are and what they do. I’m one of those people.

When I was 19, I participated in a summer festival in Fort Meyers, Florida. The festival had a chamber music component and a dance component. For most of my time there, I was deeply immersed in rehearsing Mendelssohn’s 2nd string quartet. Then, one day, near the end of the festival, the organizers decided to bring the two disciplines together in one room, and they asked the musicians if anyone wanted to try improvising with a dancer. I volunteered. At first, I really had no idea what to do. The dancer started moving around, and I was trying to figure out what would go along with that. I remember that for most of that experience, I was confused and a little uncomfortable, and I can’t really remember what I played or thought. However, I very clearly remember what happened near the end: the dancer started to spin, very fast, and I had the idea of trying to match her spin by trilling way up high on the A string. She was spinning, I was trilling – then, I had something like a hunch that told me she was about to collapse on the floor. I went with it, sliding all the way down and landing on the open C string, with a very strong attack, precisely when she hit the mat. It was completely synchronized, and incredibly thrilling to me. I immediately saw that there was a way to make music that used information other than what was printed on a page, written by someone else. I could make choices about what to play based on what I saw and felt. I think that this was when the door really first opened for me to the world of creative improvised music.

CB: What did you learn from studying and playing with Joe Maneri?

DL: Joe gave me a tremendous amount. He was wonderfully encouraging and supportive of me as I took the first steps toward finding my own voice on the cello as an improviser. I came to him with really no vocabulary at all, and he helped me to start to build that by using several different approaches with me simultaneously. For example: we worked on composing melodies, and he helped me to analyze and revise them with a phenomenal level of attention to the smallest detail. Subtle changes could have earth-shaking impact in his world of music. This was something that has really stuck with me not only when composing, but also as a lens or frame that informs my improvisation as it happens. I’m sure that this was his intent – for the activity of composing to enhance my awareness of what choices are possible, and what the effect of those choices would be while improvising.

Joe also assigned me exercises that required me to apply rigorous formal criteria to freely improvised music. I found these exercises to be extremely challenging and frustrating, but ultimately, very beneficial. I learned through doing these exercises about the necessity to maintain a focus on two kinds of things simultaneously: tapping deeply into spontaneity, inspiration, and emotion; all the while skillfully applying strategic and formal techniques to help the music actually come across.

I feel like Joe Maneri was like a musical shaman for me, initiating me into worlds that otherwise would have remained unknown. I am so grateful to have had him as a mentor.

CB: You are perhaps most well documented through the work you have done with your quartet. How did that band come together and how has the music developed?

DL: My quartet has been up and running since 2001. The line-up when it started was: Joe Morris on bass, Dave Ballou on cornet, and Matt Moran on vibraphone. Matt is part of the current line-up, too. Along the way, there have been some changes: Nate Wooley replaced Dave in 2003, and then, in 2016, Mat Maneri replaced Nate. After making the first three records with Joe Morris on bass (Don’t Go It Alone, Some Trees, and Blurry), Peter Bitenc had that role for the next three records (Live at Roulette, Bacalhau, and Organic Modernism). Since 2015, Torbjörn Zetterberg has been in the bass chair, and is featured on the latest records (Friction and Live at Firehouse 12).

The first concert was at CBGB’s basement on Dee Pop’s Freestyle Jazz series. Dave Ballou got that gig for us, and I am so thankful to him for that. Deepop’s series was such an amazing thing while it lasted, and I was fortunate to have been able to play there a bunch, both with my quartet and with other bands. There were usually three or more bands per night, and there was a pretty strong culture of everybody hanging and listening to everyone else. The space was kind of awkwardly laid out, like a long alley, with the stage at one end and the bar way back, but it worked, because people would rotate between sitting very close to the music, listening intently, and hanging at the bar and socializing. Neither of these activities was ever in conflict with the other. It was a great scene and I miss it. Dee Pop did a tremendous amount of fantastic work with that series, and then later he had a good run at Jimmy’s restaurant on E. 7th street. I also played there quite a few times, both with my quartet and in other bands.

I began to form a vision or image of a special kind of quartet near the end of my time at New England Conservatory, probably around 2000 or so. The quartet formation has always been really important to me, starting with my deep immersion in string quartets as a young guy, maybe as young as 8 or 9. Being immersed in the works of masters like Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Brahms … I can’t even fully describe what that was like for me as I was growing up. To be deep inside a Beethoven string quartet – you feel his spirit, his mind, his soul. Those guys really helped to form what I would consider my first and foundational set of archetypal images for peak musical experiences in all kinds of music, but especially within the quartet format – and not just the emotional side, but the technical side as well. When you inhabit a great string quartet by one of the masters, you begin to understand how compositional techniques actually function, because you feel and experience their impact on your mind and soul. It’s a very immediate and powerful kind of understanding. Later on, when I began to study composition more formally, I was able to gain a different kind of understanding of how that music worked, in more of an intellectual way. But in a sense, I already had a very deep grasp of the techniques they were using – the compositional moves they made were already ingrained into my being, my identity, because I had lived so intimately with their music for so many of my formative years.

Yet, as rich and deep as those experiences were, they were not sufficient to provide me with everything I needed in order to create and express my own music. While the old masters gave me templates for the ultimate in sophistication, emotional range, nuance, integrity, strength, imagination, contrasts, independence and interdependence of lines, etc., their vocabulary was from a different time and place. I was interested in creating music that had characteristics that were similar to the templates they developed but with my own language. In order to do that, I needed other models.

The Joe Maneri Quartet was one of the most important contemporary models I encountered with respect to helping me to build the conceptual framework I would need to move forward. Their music connected to what I already understood intuitively about composition from the old master composers, but they were creating it spontaneously. They made some of the most devastatingly beautiful and powerful improvised music that I have ever experienced. The way their music developed and evolved was extremely sophisticated and nuanced, with phenomenal emotional range, pacing, contrast – all of the elements I had experienced with the old quartets, but in our time and place – Boston and New York in the late ’90s. I would say that the music that band made, along with the variety and richness of my experiences encountering that music and those musicians were the main ingredients in forming the second layer, or set, of archetypal images for musical experiences, building on the foundation I got from the string quartet masters I mentioned above.

Once I was able to form that second layer of archetypal images, I began to feel a strong need to manifest those images in my life by creating my own quartet music.

It’s been really fantastic for me to have had this band as a big part of my musical life for so many years. It’s a very special vehicle for me to be able to explore important pieces of my personal and artistic identity, and to create situations that enable me to express and experience things that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to. I am extremely thankful to have had the benefit of working with all of the people who have been part of my quartet through the years – especially Matt Moran, who has been there from the beginning.

I don’t think that my writing for my quartet has really changed fundamentally over the years. My process usually goes something like this: I start with a gesture that I can sort of feel on the edges of my awareness, then I go through the work of transferring/translating that into a musical idea, then I create the arrangement and additional material that supports the clearest and most effective expression of that idea, in the simplest and most economical way I can. Often, the gesture will go through a couple of different stages before it becomes sound. It might start out as a vision of a kinetic sculpture, with elements of various weights and sizes moving at different speeds and in a particular set of trajectories. Sometimes, I might begin with more of a mandala structure, with elements of differing character, energy, and maybe color, constellated in a particular arrangement that produces a specific kind of vibration or atmosphere. Recently, I developed a tune from scraping my fingers on a carpet in kind of a lopsided circle, using a particular kind of pressure and fluctuating speed; then I translated this tactile experience into a musical idea. There are a bunch of other methods I use and have used to create music for my quartet, but they are all similar in that the starting point is generally some kind of movement or activity that I either can see in my mind’s eye, or physically feel, which ultimately gets converted into sound. Someone else might see a significant linear development in my quartet writing – and I think it’s certainly possible that it’s there – but for me, it doesn’t feel that way. What is more significant for me with respect to the evolution of my quartet writing is the change in my perspective on the intention, process, and goals of the music, which has, in turn, influenced the choices I have been making about what kinds of tunes to write. For a couple of years now, I have focused on four primary types of tunes that have always been part of the quartet language from the beginning. These tune types actually work as a smaller set of archetypal images that function within the larger set of archetypal images that form the environment for my quartet to exist.

The four types I’m focusing on right now are provided below, along with some examples of each one that happen to be documented on recordings, starting with Don’t Go It Alone, all the way up through my latest record, Live at Firehouse 12, which is being released later this month. In looking at all of my quartet compositions, there many tunes that don’t belong to any of these four types, especially as you go backwards chronologically. All of the tunes I write for my quartet, whether they are one of the four types or not, have their own reason for coming into being, which usually is some combination of my desire to manifest a particular idea, gesture, feeling, etc. in a concrete way, and also to create a specific kind of space and atmosphere for the improvisation to take place in. It’s certainly possible that I may again perform some of the older tunes that are outside of the four types or write new ones that don’t belong to those types, but for the time being, I’m concentrating on these four types.

Lyrical Ostinato       

In this type, there is always a singing line over a repeated bass ostinato. Some examples of these kinds of tunes: Aquamarine, Chol, Old School, Soul Retrieval, Untitled, 209 Willard Street, Zolowski, Unfortunate Situation.

Line

This kind of tune is a single line of usually 3-6 phrases. The line is played in unison. Sometimes, the bass joins the unison line, but, more often, plays sparse counterpoint to the line. The line repeats several times, and the phrase lengths, motives, and melodic shapes are initially used by the group to construct the improvisation, until the form stretches out to the point where it is left behind, usually until the end of the tune, when it’s restated. Some examples of line tunes: Lost & Found, Oh Really, Dock, Wild Palms, Fleeting, Underground, Nervous.

Fast Launcher

These usually consist of a series of short phrases over a fast pulse in the bass. The material provided is designed to generate a lot of excitement and speed. The bass drives the improvisation forward, while the cello, cornet/trumpet/viola, and vibes collectively solo above. Some examples: Jumpman, Launcher, Action Painting, Bronx #3, Bronx #2.

Scratchy/Static:

This type of tune is designed to set up a very slow, almost timeless environment for the improvisation, and often uses elements other than pitch and melody as organizing elements, focusing more on texture, timbre, attack, physical gestures, etc.  An image I keep coming back to in connection with this kind of tune is of a rotary flour-sifter – the old-fashioned kind with a hand crank. When you turn the hand crank, a circular piece of metal scrapes against a metal screen. The friction isn’t consistent, but periodic: on each cycle or rotation, there is a point at which the metal piece makes full contact with the screen, and that’s the point that I think about as marking the beginning of each oscillation. The sifter in my mind is a little bit bent, so that there is always a certain amount of friction and scraping going on, not just at the start of the cycle. A successful scratchy/static tune will produce an environment for improvisation in which the development of the material takes place very slowly and patiently. Three examples: Glacier, Springtime, Whisper.

CB: How has your solo music developed?

DL: Not long after I started to improvise, I became very interested in the goal of producing an entire set of original improvised music, using just the cello. This was incredibly daunting to me for a long time, and it took me until about 2009 to be able to somewhat consistently produce completely improvised solo material that I thought could stand on its own. That was the year that I recorded the material for Inner Landscape, my first solo record, which was released in 2011. I had made earlier attempts, all unsuccessful. A couple of years earlier, I had gone into the Firehouse 12 studio and recorded about 3 hours of material, but none of it was worth releasing. Around the time I recorded the music for Inner Landscape, I seemed to be unable to produce anything even approaching convincing solo music, unless I was in front of an audience. In order to make the music strong, I needed the excitement and fear and adrenaline that I felt when I was creating music in real time, in a performance setting. It reminds me of stories I have heard about normal people miraculously being able to lift up a car to free a loved one trapped below – the adrenaline rush makes it all possible. Inner Landscape was made under these conditions – recorded live, in front of an audience. This is how my solo music was produced and functioned for a while. Then, about 3 years ago, a new concept for the solo music began to emerge. I started to imagine inhabiting a creative and psychological space that felt something like it might if you hiked deep into the forest, pitched a tent, then woke up the next morning, with nobody around for a hundred miles, and you decide to make little ritual sculptures out of leaves, twigs, and rocks. Just make them and destroy them and then make some more, little sculptures to please only yourself. This way of creating actually required that the live audience be taken out of the equation altogether. The trick for me in documenting this was to be able to establish and then really sustain that kind of creative and psychological space in the recording studio. Ultimately, I was successful in doing this, and my new solo record, Living, due out on Smeraldina-Rima in February, does a really good job of representing this new approach. It’s a major milestone for me in my development as an improviser and artist.

CB: What new projects and releases do you have coming up?

DL:

Records

Later this month, my newest quartet record, Live at Firehouse 12 is being released on Clean Feed. This is the first quartet record with Mat Maneri on viola. We recorded this at the culmination of a little Northeast tour last spring.

In February, my new solo record, Living, is being released on LP and CD on Smeraldina-Rima. As I mentioned above, this record signifies a big shift and development in my perspective about both the goals and processes involved for me in making solo music.   

Also in February, Spinning Jenny is coming out on Trost. This is a trio with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Chris Corsano. It’s the same instrumentation (cello, bass, drums) as my trio record Fuhuffah, which Ingebrigt plays on as well, but the music here is completely different: it’s totally collaborative. Also, there are no written compositions – everything is fully improvised. To make a bunch of this music, we used one particular concept, which was an image of three spinning, wooden tops. The idea was to allow for each of us to function independently as our own top, but also to interact with the other two in different ways – getting closer and further apart, bumping into each other, etc., all the while maintaining our own personal speed and path. This image helped us to filter what we were hearing in a particular way, and gave us an interesting place from which to make choices about what and how to play.   

In the Spring (exact date TBA), New Artifacts is scheduled for release on Clean Feed. This is a collaborative trio with Tony Malaby and Mat Maneri. It was recorded live at the great series Josh Sinton ran up until recently at Three’s Brewing. This band has done several shows around New York, and we’re planning to do a lot more in 2017 and 2018. It’s very rich and detailed music – pure chamber music improvisation. I love it.

Concerts

Some shows are coming up in New York and in New Haven with Henry Fraser, Chris Pitsiokos, and Juan Pablo Carletti in the first part of January; then, at the end of the month, Mat Maneri and I head to Norway for some duo concerts. Next, Matt Moran and Torbjörn join us in Munich to kick off a quartet tour around Europe. I finish up the trip on February 10th in Stockholm, in duo with Torbjörn. Later in February and in March, there are some concerts back in New York. One thing I’m really excited about these days is a new quartet that Brandon Seabrook put together with me, Henry Fraser, and Vinnie Sperrazza. He writes great tunes and I love the chemistry in the band.

CB: Thank you.

–Cisco Bradley, January 5, 2017

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