Interview with Saxophonist Sam Weinberg
CB: What was your entry into the New York improvisational/experimental music scene?
SW: The summer before my freshman year of high school, my family moved from Los Angeles to Nassau County, Long Island. Fortunately for me, that summer, my mom enrolled me in a jazz program at Queens College which impacted my path enormously, or if nothing else, exposed me to a number of things that I likely wouldn’t have sought out for myself. The faculty was comprised of a number of people who have gone on to be quite successful in NYC in the intervening years, and they approached the education in a somewhat unique way which concurrently exposed us to canonical jazz records and younger musicians, mostly living in NYC, all of whom were writing their own material. This made me aware of a host of people who I then began checking out live most weekends in high school – Tony Malaby, Tim Berne, Jim Black, etc. The confluence of seeing my teachers at the time play us their original music, and seeing these shows outside of that, made me want to write my own music, which I began doing around that time too – mostly kind of bizarre chromatic heads with vamps. At the same time I was checking out tons of records by John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Albert Ayler, etc. all of which I was getting en masse from the library and ripping onto my computer.
I left that program after a few years, but began studying privately with Bill McHenry most weekends in the latter part of high school. Bill was a big influence at the time and I still find some things I learned from him illustrative and useful even though I play nothing like him now. He was playing a lot with Paul Motian at the time, so I got to see them play together in a variety of settings, mostly at the Village Vanguard. I’m very glad for the experience of hanging with Bill and thank him for his perspective which he shared so widely and willingly with me back then.
I studied philosophy amongst other things in college and for a period thought I would pursue something in academia. I rightly realized that path wasn’t for me and decided I would move to NYC after college to play music with people, and certainly see a lot of shows. My taste in music while in college began to be a bit more outré and by the end I was checking out lots of Evan Parker, Jack Wright, Peter Evans, Nate Wooley, Travis Laplante, and many more and began to become aware of younger musicians in NYC operating in similar musical realms which appealed to me.
When I got to Brooklyn in 2014 I played a bunch of sessions and saw shows nightly almost for the first year I was here. It’s all worked out fairly well thus far.
CB: What has mainly informed your approach to the fierce, dense, noise improv of your band W-2 with Chris Welcome?
SW: I think it’s primarily been informed just by the activity of playing itself in that context and really trying to get inside the sound of his synthesizer. We had been playing duo for probably close to a year with Chris on guitar before we stumbled upon this and much of the aesthetic was already apparent upon first brush. Not to say that it hasn’t evolved, become more refined, focused, etc. but there was something ineffably special about the first session we did with it. I think we both knew we had stumbled upon something that we found unique, or otherwise worth pursuing.
I find a lot of the music that we play quite suggestive visually, and as a consequence tend to have some things I can see clearly in my head when we’re playing, which I tend to take from liberally. Putting those things into words might not do them justice but they’re there.
I try to emphasize clipped, glitched, torn, and abraded phrases with little by way of melodic material in this context. Playing this way with Chris so often, though, has certainly led a few of those things to leak into my playing in other contexts.
CB: How has W-2 been received by audiences? Does the type of venue play a role in contextualizing what you are doing?
SW: Although I don’t think it should be much of my concern to dwell on how’s it been received or the way in which it’s been received, I have been happy that people tend to react positively towards our performances. Chris tends to bear the brunt of the comments and questions given the novelty of the instrument he’s playing.
Fanatics, our Astral Spirits tape, received a few reviews that were both laudatory and which illustrated a lot of the concept well, and a smattering of others.
I’d also like to thank Nate Cross from Astral Spirits for putting the record out, investing some capital in the project, and allowing for our stuff to be heard by a much wider audience than would’ve before. It’s been nice that some folks have sought out either the previous W-2 records or some of my other work as a consequence of hearing that tape.
We’ve done a few tours now, and played in rock clubs, basements, attics, performance spaces, the works and it doesn’t tend to impact how we play tremendously. We did once play a session in what was briefly a completely barren room in my apartment and enjoyed getting smacked all around by the dense reverb.
CB: What compelled you to form BLOOR? What is your approach to composing for that band?
SW: BLOOR was obliquely birthed out of three years of playing with Jason Nazary and Andrew Smiley. I began playing with them in late 2014 or early 2015, but mostly all improvised sessions and shows. We played a few gigs in 2015 but it didn’t really stick for whatever reason. I had the thought of having a group with Andrew and Jason with perhaps more pointed a concept for a while and I finally sat down and wrote the set last summer.
I wrote all of the music for the band with these guys specifically in mind, but had a few other disparate compositional guiding lights – the late era, two guitar iteration of Harry Pussy and their torn and angular contrapuntal phrasing; the bands Arthur Blythe had in the late 70s on records like The Grip, Metamorphosis and Illusions; a bunch of other stuff too that I’m sure I’m forgetting. Gertrude Stein has that famous dictum that “There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence” and I thought about that often in these past few years, in many musical contexts but maybe most specifically with BLOOR. I think it’s completely true. How we perceive “the same thing” always differs with each successive perception of it; the context is changed immediately by the passage of time, and our experience with its previous iteration or “repetition”. I’ve seen this play itself out, or have otherwise projected it onto, most of the art that I’ve responded to in recent years – in Stein’s work itself; the films of Stan Brakhage where the “repetition” and re-contextualization of certain shots totally reframes your understanding and perception of it; the novels of Samuel Beckett which I’ve been getting back into lately, where the rhythms of even the most seemingly banal lists and activities go on for paragraphs and only increase in weight and impact as they proceed; a recent show of Richard Serra drawings, which was laid out in such a way that it felt that all of Serra’s recent drawings were in conversation with one another – with all the works ostensibly the same size, with many taking on similar forms, but all with subtle variations in texture, density, shape, and vertical or horizontal inclination.
I knew at the outset of BLOOR that I wanted a way to emphasize and tinker with repetition of the written material and for it all to have that insistent quality to it. That doesn’t necessarily mean in terms of volume necessarily, but rather playing with a conviction that each repetition means something, isn’t frivolous or superfluous, and is laden with as much meaning in the last phrasing as it is in the first. Andrew and Jason are both incredible at this, and specifically for Andrew, it’s seemingly his primary mode of operation – a highly focused sensibility, one which doesn’t see much use in abandoning something until it has been milked for all its worth. The set is constructed out of a group of small modular units which I wrote specifically to rearrange and reorder for each performance, or to have the possibility exist for such a thing. Usually the set is arranged in somewhat of a continuous suite with verbal or musical cues, improvisation, and certain small written passages acting as transitional tools between main themes.
I’ve learned a tremendous amount from playing with both Andrew and Jason and am humbled that they’ve spent their time rehearsing my music.If all goes to plan, we will go into the studio this spring, and the record will be released in the Autumn.
CB: What techniques have you developed in creating graphic scores for Maestro Day? What does Henry Fraser bring to that band?
SW: Maestro Day is co-led by me and Henry so he brings a tremendous amount to what we do as a group, and how I’ve conceptualized it since it began. I’ve improvised with Henry likely more than with anyone else, in a number of contexts, but mostly duo. We moved to Brooklyn around the same time, and have always lived relatively close to one another, so through these years we’ve gotten together and improvised quite a lot, talked about music, life, etc. The first Maestro Day gig was in December of 2015 at Rye and it was entirely improvised. Henry, Connor Baker, and Joe Moffett were playing together a bit at that time and somehow we had the idea to do the quartet. The gig was fun and there were a few moments that I thought were quite good but we didn’t do anything with the project at all until the following summer when Henry and I had spent a lot of time toying with leading a band together and discussing what form that would take. The first set that we played with composition was in July 2016 and it was entirely one piece, “C’s” by Henry, which contained some graphic elements denoting an arsenal of a few textures and respective dynamics and densities that were particular to each member of the group; some rhythmic grids we had derived from various spoken sentences; and a lot of room for individual solos.
The next 4 or 5 months we played a number of shows, rehearsed a lot, and refined and whittled that “C’s” piece in addition to adding more and more compositions. Each successive composition went through a host of changes and edits until we were all pretty pleased with what we had. We recorded the first tape “Tonight’s The Day” and then went on a fun weekend tour in 3 towns in Massachusetts the following week. Shortly after that, due to other commitments, Connor Baker couldn’t make a few gigs we had lined up, so we decided to forge ahead as a trio which we’ve been working with since. The trio format opened up the material we had been using with the quartet, and in line with how we had worked earlier, allowed for us to totally re-imagine the material we already had under our fingers which resulted in a set which was markedly different to the one we had before. We were able to perhaps get more timbrally detailed in our improvisational approach, make wide and often sudden shifts in dynamics, and yet sometimes possess a similar cathartic spirit that pervaded a lot of the music from the quartet iteration.
We’re now in the process of editing and reworking brand new written material for a trio set which includes some strictly notated passages, some tape collage and radio, with a lot of improvisation. The goal is to make the compositional aspects very subtle, integrating those things seamlessly and in ways we haven’t heard before. While sometimes for lack of a more efficient route we’ve dealt in some pieces which might be called “graphic”, I think for the most part the music has been imparted either verbally or aurally since the last thing we want is to be wedded to a piece of paper. All of these pieces have been things to be internalized and that’s been the idea from the outset.
CB: How did your solo collage work begin? Can you discuss some of the most intriguing found sound sources you’ve incorporated?
SW: I think it largely came out of some necessity I felt for sounds I was hearing that the saxophone couldn’t produce for me in any way that felt satisfying. I’ve been fucking around with tape collage stuff for years but it was always pretty private, often not very serious and sometimes kind of psychotic. In the winter of 2016 I was feeling a more definite need or some compulsion to be more creatively self sufficient. In a place like NYC, even when you have projects that you’re feeling good about, schedules, setting up shows, and generally being dependent upon others for your work can become somewhat of a drag. This was weighing on me particularly heavily for whatever reason at that time, and that’s when I decided to start making digital collages. I found it immediately rewarding and fulfilling in vastly different ways than I found improvising on the saxophone with others to be. It also created somewhat of an addiction, once I started really getting into it and exploring some of the infinite possibilities available to me through the medium. The roughly 9 months of work culminated in Liar’s Loosh, which is likely the album I’m most proud of to date.
I’m working on the next album now, and have about 5 pieces in various stages of completion. This’ll be quite different from Liar’s Loosh in that I’ve narrowed the sources to maybe 20 field recordings of mine, and on this one am more interested in decidedly exploiting aspects of our perception by configuring these limited number of sound sources in wildly different ways throughout the course of the record.
CB: Thank you!