September Artist Feature: Jeremiah Cymerman

Clarinetist, improviser, and sound artist Jeremiah Cymerman has emerged over the past decade as a key figure on the improvised music scene in New York City. In his work, he displays an interest in improvisation, electronic manipulation and production, and a variety of compositional approaches to solo and ensemble work. He has worked closely with John Zorn, Toby Driver, Mario Diaz de Leon, Brian Chase, Christopher Hoffman, Evan Parker, Nate Wooley, Joshua Rubin, Anthony Coleman, Matthew Welch, and others. His records have been released by Tzadik as well as his own label, 5049 Records, among others. His podcast series of interviews with fellow musicians has illuminated the work of nearly one-hundred of his contemporaries and forms a major contribution to the music archive of improvised music in New York and beyond.

Cymerman’s group Bloodmist just released a download-only live recording titled Chaos of Memory available here. They will be debuting new work at H0L0 on Friday, October 6, at 8 pm.

Interview

Bradley: What path did you follow to become an artist and musician?

Cymerman: My first instrument was the electric bass. I’m the only musician in my family or any of my extended family. No cousins, no aunts, no uncles. No one in my family plays an instrument except for me. Music has always definitely been an escape for me. As a listener, that was certainly the case.

I got into recorded music at the exact same time that I got into playing music. My mom bought me a 4-track when I was 13, shortly after I got my first bass, so my initial concepts of music and sound production were intrinsically tied not only to the presentation of sonic ideas but also what role it plays in the musical dialog itself. I started making tape pieces when I was really young largely because isolating myself in a world  of recorded music has always been absolutely essential to my well-being. Those two things have always been explicitly connected. I think a lot of people see recorded music and performed music as being kind of two separate things and to me they’re one and the same.

Bradley: It sounds like it’s a deeply personal experience for you.

Cymerman: Absolutely. I think music is for most people who devote their life to it or who make it their main sense of focus.

Bradley: Were there particular artists that sparked it for you early on?

Cymerman: Yeah, definitely. And still today. I mean, when I was a little kid, when I was maybe 4 or 5 years old— Are you familiar with the musician Laraaji? He’s a very, very heavy artist. He’s been improvising in electronic music, but also using Indian instruments, all through a very sort of hermetic and mystical lens. He was actually my babysitter when I was a little kid. I grew up on an Ashram in upstate New York and was around a lot of sitar and tabla music. My mom was involved with a lot of, for lack of a better term, New Age and World Music events so very early on I went to concerts with Mickey Hart and Jimmy Cliff and stuff like that. And so as early musical experiences those are very important to me and they still are. Then as a teenager, the first music that I got really into were sort of different strains of metal and hardcore, bands like Dead Kennedys & Circle Jerks, Sepultura & Slayer.

And I’ve always had, it’s less and less now, but I’ve gone through periods of hero worship where I get really into a particular artist, maybe too much into them. I’m more conscious of it now and it happens less now but certainly at different parts of my life certain artists have been really important to me. And that could be anyone from the Beastie Boys to Albert Ayler… and more recently, certainly in the last 15-20 years, it would be artists like Evan Parker, Jimmy Giuffre, John Zorn, György Ligeti, Morton Feldman, the Melvins, Lee Konitz, Lester Young, John Coltrane. These are artists that I really spend a lot of time with listening to and really try to absorb as much as possible from. These days, the artists from whom I draw the most inspiration, I am happy to say, are my peers, people like Nate Wooley, Charlie Looker, Mario Diaz de Leon, Toby Driver, Peter Evans, Matt Bauder, Brian Chase, the list goes on…….

Bradley: You said you started playing electric bass. Did you move on to other instruments pretty quickly?

Cymerman: Yeah. I mean, despite the fact that no one in my family is really a musician, weirdly enough, there were some pretty random instruments in our house like a small wooden Indian flute and some different percussion instruments djembe, doumbek, and frame drum and stuff like that. There was a harmonium in our house and a zither. I played with that stuff a lot growing up. There was, and still is, a Mini Moog in my mom’s house. Weird shit.

I started playing clarinet at 17 or 18. I had begun to take a greater interest in, all at the same time, 20th century composition, free jazz and Jewish music. I told my mom that I wanted to play clarinet and she found a friend of hers who had one sitting in her closet and she convinced her to donate it to me. And once I started playing clarinet I put the bass down completely. Though I give my mom a lot of grief, almost always, she has always been enthusiastic about my musical adventures and has been as generous as she could be in helping me to procure my instruments and tools.

Bradley: Were you taking private lessons?

Cymerman: No. I mean, I never took lessons on the bass. I was completely self-taught. When you’re getting into an electric guitar or electric bass, from the perspective of loud heavy music, it’s not so common to study formally. It’s more of a social activity. And so by the time I started playing clarinet I had certain ideas that I was already interested in and wanting to explore. I took a few private lessons but most of that was sort of to look at sound production and fundamentals of the instrument. On the clarinet I’m self-taught, in as much as one can be self-taught, while engaging with other musicians. Whenever I play with other people I’m constantly learning.

Bradley: Where did you grow up?

Cymerman: I spent the first part of my life on an ashram in Upstate New York about 45 miles north of the city. On the ashram, I was exposed to lots of different Indian music. And then I lived in Georgia from age 12 to 21. I lived in Athens, I lived in Atlanta, I lived in rural North Georgia where I went to high school.

Bradley: What was your next step after high school?

Cymerman: And I went to college for about a year and a half but, honestly, I kind of knew it wasn’t for me at the time because I didn’t have any money. I was going to a not very good school and I sort of felt like, if I’m not going to a good school, I’m not studying anything that’s interesting to me, and I don’t have any money, why should I stick around? So I dropped out and got a job. Eventually, I went back to school and studied audio engineering and music production and I completed that program. So my educational background is in music production and audio production.

Bradley: Right. And then you came to New York after that?

Cymerman: I finished a program in Nashville, TN in 2002 at SAE, School of Audio Engineering where I was taught how to record big country sessions. After that I moved straight to New York City.

Bradley: Who did you kind of link up with here in New York once you arrived? It’s such a huge scene and there’s so much happening I’m just curious how you got situated in the city.

Cymerman: Well, for me, it was easy from a social perspective in that several of the people that I grew up with on the ashram, who I never really lost touch with, were living here. As a kid, every summer I went to a liberal arts camp in Connecticut and all the kids that went there were pretty much in New York City. And I maintained a lot of friendships there. So I had a pretty vast network of friends living in the city.

None of them were musicians though. And for me as a musician, I came to New York City specifically because I wanted to be involved with the scene of improvisers and composers that was centered around Tonic, the Knitting Factory etc. I moved here in 2002 so the Knitting Factory was still doing a bit of those kinds of shows but that scene had already pretty much migrated completely over to Tonic. I specifically wanted to be involved with that stuff.

And so when I moved here I didn’t know any musicians and I’ve always been a pretty shy person, so I was just going to shows a lot by myself. The first musician that I met who I’m still good friends was Jamie Saft who’s a keyboard player and a record producer. At the time, he had a recording studio in Park Slope in Brooklyn and almost all of the sessions that were taking place for Tzadik were happening there. A lot of the sessions for other sorts of Brooklyn jazz musicians were happening there as well. I asked him if I could be an intern at his studio, which I think for him was sort of unusual and strange because his studio was in his house. It was a professional studio but it was still a home studio. So he didn’t really know what to do with that. But for a period, I would go to his house a lot and hang out in his studio and he would just kind of show me stuff, the pro tools, and talk to me about making records and slowly I kind of began to meet people. 

The first musicians I met, first musicians I played with in New York were people that I met through placing ads on Craigslist. Pathetic. There were a lot of really bumpy experiences along the way. It took about two years of living here before I started meeting people who I shared something with musically. Eventually I started playing with Butch Morris. There’s a musician who I think is still around, Ty Cumbie. I met Ty because I was working at a restaurant on the Upper West Side and he was looking for places to book his series and he walked in one day and said, “Hey, I book improvised music and you guys have a backroom. Can I use your backroom?” And we got to talking. He only ever did one show there but through us talking he had my contact info and he had put together an ensemble for Butch for his series and he included me in it. And that was the first time that I met Nate Wooley and Chris Hoffman and James Ilgenfritz. And these are people who I’m still involved with. And that was the start of when I was meeting people that I could collaborate with.

Bradley: I’d like to talk about your most important projects through the years. I know you’ve done quite a lot and you’ve recorded quite a few records. So, from 2004 onwards, what were the main projects that emerged in the years that followed?

Cymerman: The first group that I put together in New York that made music I still stand by was a trio with cellist Chris Hoffman and vibraphonist Nick Mancini. Nick is in LA now. I met these guys playing with Butch. We put together a trio of improvised music. About six months earlier I had recorded a bunch of solo music. And by solo music I don’t just mean solo clarinet. It was really pretty strange, but also cringe inducing stuff with lots of overdubs, keyboards and noise and all kinds of stuff. And I sent it to John Zorn who I’d already gotten to know. And he wrote me a really thoughtful email and said “Look, you know, I can’t do anything with this right now with Tzadik but keep going and put your own stuff out.”

So I had this trio with Chris and Nick and we made a record in my apartment just one afternoon and I made 30 or 40 handmade copies of it and I would just give it to people. I don’t think I’ve ever sold it. I would just give it to anyone who had asked about it. There were little drawings on it. It was actually a really cool document. And with that group and with that recording I ended up getting a gig at places like The Stone. I sent a copy to John. I said, “Hey, I followed your advice. Here’s this handmade document.” and he immediately responded, “Hey, you guys got to play a gig at The Stone.” and, you know, he recommended it to other people. We played at Issue Project Room back when it was in the East Village as well as at Anthology Film Archives and a lot of the places where, at the time, all the different series were happening – Elixir Juice Bar, Freddy’s Back Room, etc.

For me that was a really exciting time because the music felt really consistent with what I was thinking about at the time. It was the first time where I felt like something had really come together and had sort of exceeded what my initial  ideas were and, I learned about recording a document, finishing it, and the pleasure in sharing that with people.

And then after that I started working. John gave me a job working at The Stone and that was another opportunity for me to meet a lot of people. That’s where I learned a lot about music. Being around music that much, getting to know people and then meeting new people to play with but also just being there all the time and observing how people conduct themselves at rehearsal and at sound check. Maybe someone’s playing there one night and only two people show up and how do they handle that situation or someone in the band is behaving inappropriately. It was like graduate school for me.

And through that, I met people like Matt Welch. We actually made a duo record that’s coming out sometime in the next few months. He is another person who has been important to me. He is a really studied composer and musician and has been really generous in helping me sort of bring my ideas together in a more cohesive and well-executed way. It was around that time I started working with Matt a lot. Through Matt I became familiar with people like Jessica Pavone and Mary Halvorson. And I had a pretty close relationship with them for a while.

Nate Wooley is someone who over the years has become one of my best friends and we’ve made four or five records together in different settings. To this day I’ve got 6 to 10 musicians that I’m really close friends with and these are the people that I work with on pretty much everything I do.

Bradley: So it sounds like developing like a deep level of trust and common purpose allowed that all to happen.

Cymerman: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s 100% that. I think it’s that first and foremost.

Bradley: I think the first record of yours that I heard I think were solo records. Could you talk about some of your solo projects?

Cymerman: The first solo concert I played was in 2005. I’ve talked about this before. It was a pretty miserable experience.

Bradley: Really?

Cymerman: At the time I was friends with Peter Evans and Nate Wooley, both of whom have, as you know, embarked on really admirable approaches to solo music over the years.

And I think there’s a really clear distinction between musicians who look at performance solo as something they’re going to be doing as a major part of their output for their entire lives versus people who it’s just one part of their output.

But I can only tell it right away and I knew early on that, similar to Nate and Peter, similar to Evan Parker, similar to Ned Rothenberg, similar to a long line of people, that I wanted it to be something that I was going to be evolving over the course of my entire life.

I think consciously I knew that meant I would have to do it regularly, that I would have to devote a large portion of my creative thinking to that, in a way like a standup comedian does. They develop an hour’s worth of material, document it, and then like start over on a new hour.

I’m actually proud of the fact that I was cognitive of that early on. And I think certainly being around people like Peter and Nate helped that. You know, Nate is a few years older than me and he’s been a very good person to sort bounce ideas off of.

And so the first solo concert that I did, it was certainly at a period of time where I didn’t have the most refined sense of what I wanted to do. I’ve been practicing some stuff, I got on— you know the concert lasted for like 5 minutes. Honestly, 5 minutes. There used to be a place called Goodbye Blue Monday in Bushwick.

Bradley: It was actually quite nearby where I live, three blocks from my house, but it closed in 2014.

Cymerman: Goodbye Blue Monday was a great place to play because you could go up and really do a 5-minute set. They would book a million things a night and the audience was always small, so it was very low pressure. But Peter Evans happened to come out to hear me play. I walked off stage completely embarrassed and I asked him, “What should I do? That was horrible.” His advice for me, which is really good advice, was, “Look, you played for 5 minutes. You weren’t happy with it. Put together 5 minutes of really solid material. Make that your goal. Put together 5 minutes of really solid material and from there try to go 10 minutes.”

And so simultaneously I was working on two different solo  approaches, both involving an electronic component. One solo approach was creating a live sound environment. I knew I wanted sound come from the PA. I knew I wanted there to be a really ethereal quality, and that reverb and delay would be an important part of that color. And then simultaneously I was working on a recorded approach which was about really close mic’d sounds and really rapid sort of edits and cut ups.

So the first solo record I made actually came out on Tzadik and it was a series of cut up pieces where the very last piece on the record thousands and thousands of edits and it’s like super glitch … almost like musique concrete.

And while that was happening I was doing lots of solo shows. At one point I did 30 shows in a row, like 30 shows in 30 days. For me it was a troubling period of time because while the recorded stuff that ended up coming out on Tzadik, called In Memory of the Labyrinth System was a really strong statement of meticulously hyper edited cut up pieces, the live performances were getting better and better but also further and further from what was on the record. The two things really didn’t speak to each other at all. I had figured out how to make records that I thought were compelling and I was also figuring out how to do solo clarinet and electronics concerts that I thought were compelling, but the two worlds were a million miles apart. And for a long time I had an existential crisis and challenge of how do I make these things talk to each other and have it be one thing. I wanted the recorded music to sort of breathe more and be more representative of what I was doing live but I wanted what was happening live to have more of that articulate nature that the recording had.

Bradley: I never heard anyone talk about that kind of divide and working to bridge it. That’s interesting.

Cymerman: I’ve always felt like the stuff that I can do in the recording studio … especially with my laptop at home, if I don’t put a set of restrictions on myself there’s a part of me that says I could do anything. I could make these crazy sound collages.

And that is important to me and something that I enjoy doing but I don’t want to do that anymore if it isn’t sort of based very much in the  performative aspect of what a musician can do.

So I haven’t made a record again like In Memory of the Labyrinth System. Each record has had some very specific studio approach but they’ve all been very clearly centered around the idea of musicianship first and musical dialogue that happens between musicians, even if it’s a solo record.

Bradley: You’ve mentioned Nate Wooley quite a few times. I’m wondering if you can talk about him as a musician and talk about some of your collaborations, some of the records you’ve made together.

Cymerman: Nate and I have made three records together.

Bradley: He was on Fire Sign I think, right?

Cymerman: Yes, he was. We made a quartet record with Peter Evans and Matt Bauder and we made a trio record with Evan Parker.

What can I say about Nate is that he’s one of my closest friends. He is one of the few people I know who I find to be as astonishing as a musician as they are as a person. I really credit a lot of my growth as a creative person and as a musician, and personal growth, to my relationship with Nate.

There was actually a period of time where we were both working dead end office jobs and neither one of us were very happy and we would basically both spend  the entire day on G-Chat just sort of talking shit about music, life love, relationships, books. We don’t talk as much as we used to just because we are both really busy but that was a period of time where I learned a lot about music with Nate.

Nate is someone who I met pretty early on. He was pretty new to New York as well. He’d already been here for a couple years when we met. But he’s someone whose music I admire very much and whose approach to creativity and self-expression I admire very much. And the fact that he sort of willingly and enthusiastically participates in my world is a huge vote of confidence. 

And I would say that about all the musicians I’m close to. I would say that about Brian Chase. I would say that about Toby Driver and Mario Diaz de Leon and Charlie Looker and Matt Bauder and Peter Evans. These are the musicians who I really feel closest to and I’m as interested in everything they do as I am any musician whose work I love.

Bradley: How did you move from recording In Memory of the Labyrinth System to your later solo work?

Cymerman: It was a period of time of trying things, keeping what worked and throwing out what didn’t work. There was a period of time where I bought a gigantic guitar amplifier and I was trying to do stuff with that and there was a period of time where I was doing lots of graphic scores for a small group.

In a way it’s been very pragmatic. It’s been a matter of like listening back to something I’ve done and literally writing down what I like about it and what I didn’t like about it. Being sort of honest with myself about, what my musical strengths are and what needs improvement.

Early on, when I was hanging out at Jamie Saft’s place a lot, I gave him a tape of some stuff I recorded the year previous when I was living in Nashville and it was literally like all the music was stuff I made on keyboards but I was using keyboards to play parts of other instruments, almost convincing the listener that someone was playing the French horn or something. He listened to it and he said, “Look, it’s cool but it’s not—  if all you had is a 4-track and one microphone and a clarinet, like just use that. Just do the biggest best thing you could do with that. Don’t try to convince people that you’re making an orchestra record with keyboard.”

And that’s something that really stuck with me, to look at what I have around me and trying to do the most with it that I can. So if that’s with a laptop and a clarinet, then I’m making a solo record because that’s what I have to work with. Maybe I can make a small ensemble record with two or three musicians that I love and trust – that’s literally how the band Pale Horse started. What else can I do with my laptop and my musical relationships? Okay, I may have to start a podcast. That’s something that I can do. I know that I can do that.

For a lot of years I wanted to put together a Jimmy Giuffre-inspired project and I was hitting a wall because I can’t play like Jimmy Giuffre. But once I began to sort of accept that I can play my own way, it was a huge sense of relief, when you stop trying to do things that you can’t do … For me that was a like a big revelation. It sounds really dumb and simple but it took me a lot of years.

Bradley: I don’t think it’s dumb. Because I feel like I think a lot of people grapple with that. They’re trying to sort of figure out where they are in it all.

Cymerman: When I sit down with the clarinet, to go back to your original question, I’ll practice for a while, maybe I’ll like a cool sound, just a little sound, a little tiny fragment of sound. I’ll begin to look at that tiny fragment of sound and ask, what can I do with this? And that’s my approach to everything I do.

Bradley: Let’s talk about your band Pale Horse. How did that band come together?

Cymerman: So Chris is someone that I’ve worked with most consistently in New York City. You know, at this point he knows what I want when I’m putting a project together. We really have a shorthand at this point. And he’s someone I love working with.

Brian Chase and I had started playing duo and we developed something very quickly that was very intuitive. I made a record called Fire Sign for Tzadik. Basically, the way that that record came together I had completed three pieces of music.  I gave them to Zorn. He was  really into it. He said, “Look go make one more piece of music and this is a record.”

So my idea was to do a piece for cello and drums with Chris and Brian. We did a short session in the studio, recorded a bunch of small ideas -30 seconds to two minutes -that I knew I was going to be then putting through my lens of editing and processing. I think we did like four hours of me sort of directing these improvisations with the two of them. It was just a crystal clear moment of realization that we speak a really solid language and I feel they have a really good understanding of sounds that are attractive to me.

Bradley: You’re talking about the piece “Touched with Fire” I believe, right?

Cymerman: Exactly. From there we actually played a couple of trio concerts but just did straight up free improv where there were good moments but it still didn’t really have a cohesive element to it. A couple years later someone had contacted me about doing an EP for their label. There was no budget and it was going to be a limited release kind of thing and I got the idea, let me get Chris and Brian and we’ll do the same approach to that studio piece “Touched with Fire” but I’ll play clarinet, too, it’ll be a trio.

And we got into the studio and I had an idea of what I wanted the music to sound like and very quickly we sort of landed on this way of playing sustained ideas and it just sounded like alien music to me. It was really exciting! I heard all these possibilities in the music and knew that it would be something to which I’d want to devote more time and energy than just one EP.

So we’ve made two records. I hope to make a third one soon. And both records were kind of the same thing. We focus on an idea for two minutes or so at a time. It’s all sort of based around tension with no release. Chris and I play matched pitches. The original idea was let’s play these long sustained pitches and the pitches are going to be played as incorrectly as possible. I’m playing with this fingering where there will be a central pitch but no matter what it’s going to be played a little flat, it’s going to be played a little muted and that just kind of became our default approach.

And now we play concerts, we don’t talk about anything, and it’s just a very intuitive process of playing get an idea, let it die, start a new idea all kind of based around this limited vocabulary of like warbled pitches.

That band, for me, is the closest that I’ve come yet to having a unit, a band where I regularly try out my ideas. I don’t even know how this came together but this is what I would want to listen to.

Bradley: You recently released your second Pale Horse record as well as Badlands. Were there ideas that you were exploring with each of those specifically?

Cymerman: The first one was a really special record to me because it came together in a subconscious way. We did the session, got home and I listened to the stuff and I thought I don’t know what this music is, don’t know where it came from but I love it!

And so for the second record, we played a bunch of shows and had a way of playing together. I don’t really ever want to make a second record with a group unless I know that it’s going to somehow be an improvement upon the last one.

So with that lens one thing that was different with that, I knew that we were going to do overdubs. The first record is just the sound of a trio playing. The second record there are four or five clarinets playing at once, same with the cello and drums. I was thinking very specifically about a couple of movies that I was really into, that I was sort of imagining this being a soundtrack to.

Bradley: Can I ask what specific movies?

Cymerman: Well, Badlands, a Terrence Malick movie. And then also There will Be Blood, the P.T. Anderson movie.

Bradley: That’s really interesting. Because I have to say when I listened to that record, I really saw landscapes. I saw wide open spaces. I just thought it really brought a lot of images to mind.

Cymerman: And that was a very conscious effort to have that be the place that it takes. I don’t know if this is important to the conversation or not but, the first Pale Horse record was done at a place that is not a very professional studio. And for Badlands I wanted it to be like we did it at a really nice studio with a great engineer and the improvement in sound quality is leaps and bounds better.

And then at this point I have two records that I think sit really nicely side by side with each other. There’s an improvement from the first one to the second one. But both records are short.  They’re about 30 to 35 minutes long each with two pieces on each record both, you know, about 15 to 20 minutes long for each piece. At this point that is the identity of this band.

We’re going to make another record and the next record will have some additional musicians on it but still, I’m thinking in terms of a short record, 35 minutes probably with two pieces.

What’s fun about this band and about this music is that… like that’s a short listening experience, 30 to 35 minutes, but it all happens at a very slow pace so the sense of time is a little bit skewed. I feel like when I listen to that music I don’t feel like I’m bored at any point and when it’s over at 35 minutes I don’t feel like it was short.  I feel like what’s interesting about that music is as a listener you sort of  adjust yours sense of time around it.

Bradley: That’s actually really interesting, because when I listened to it I definitely didn’t feel like it was short. It never even occurred to me how long the record was.

Cymerman: Yeah, Badlands is 31 minutes long.

Bradley: To me, it seemed like a very patient record. You didn’t cut it off short. I feel like it was the right length for what it was. What other projects do you have right now?

Cymerman: I’m finally finishing my next solo record. It’s called “Decay of the Angel” and at this point, I’ve literally recorded and recorded it four or five times. For some reason I keep feeling the need to go back and tweak and re-do it. It’s getting into some dark Howard Hughes terrain and I think I need to let it go. I’ve also got a new clarinet quartet with percussion that has some pretty exciting shows coming up at Firehouse 12 and Roulette.

In November I will be recording a second quartet record with Peter Evans, Nate Wooley and Matt Bauder. We did a record called Sky Burial like four or five years ago, that was a series of live concert recordings from Roulette that I did a pretty exhaustive amount of editing on. For the second recording, I’ll take a similar approach to the production, but it will be a proper studio recording with lots of close mics and really extreme, in your face sounds.

That same month, my trio with Mario Diaz de Leon and Toby Driver, Bloodmist, will be making our second studio record. Our first record came out in 2016 and already feels like it was recorded a million years ago. Our concerts have gotten to a really special place and I am hoping to catch as much of that in the studio as possible. We just released a live download only recording that I think demonstrates that.

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