The Girl Who Cried Champagne
Somehow Carla Bley manages to maintain her status as an international superstar and an elusive cult figure simultaneously. From the festival stages of Europe to the spinet-like piano in her modest studio at home, Bley follows her own tunes wherever they lead her. On the scene for almost fifty years—the earliest dated composition I'm aware of is "Donkey," written in 1958—and turning eighty in May, Bley still composes and records new work. This May, ECM will release a new recording, Andando el Tiempo, for her trio: herself (piano), Andy Sheppard (saxophone), and Steve Swallow (bass). Since I first talked with her in 2009, she has won several international prizes, has been named a Jazz Master by the NEA, and received Honorary Doctorates from the University of Toulouse and the New England Conservatory of Music.
Carla Bley—born Lovella May Borg in Oakland, California, on 11 May 1936—is a composer, pianist, arranger, collaborator, conductor, and bandleader. For over half a century, her closest musical colleagues have included the greatest artists in modern jazz. She witnessed the birth of “free jazz” in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, and became a member of the Jazz Composers’ Guild in 1964. She co-founded the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra Association, an independent institution created as a venue through which composers could write pieces for large ensembles. She co-founded New Music Distribution Service, a non-profit business that remained operational for nearly twenty years. Bley has, to date, released twenty-eight recordings as a leader of her own compositions, and has contributed (as composer, pianist, arranger, conductor, and producer) to no fewer than sixteen other recording projects over the course of her long career; she also co-founded WATT Records, and has maintained a partnership with the European label ECM Records for decades. Her eclectic, eccentric, mind-blowing "jazz opera" Escalator Over the Hill (1968-71) still stands alone in its pioneering fusion of memorable themes, improvised jazz, hard-driving rock, and bizarre poetry. Simply put, Carla Bley is a national treasure.
On a sunny Monday in March, I sat down with Bley in the kitchen at her and Steve Swallow's home in Willow, New York, to talk about her new album, touring, recent American politics, and her feelings about turning eighty.
[What follows is the full transcript of my interview with Bley, on March 21st, 2016. An shorter version of the interview appeared in print in the June 2016 issue of Keyboard].
It's so nice to see you again.
That's right, I had forgotten who you were!
I realize that you don't usually like people to acknowledge your birthday or to make a big fuss, so I was a little surprised when you agreed to do this interview. This is a big milestone your fans aren't going to want to ignore. So how do you feel about turning eighty?
Oh don't say it! [Laughs.] I'm proud. I didn't ever want to say a birthday before now because it wasn't as . . . monumental. It wasn't glamorous. I think turning eighty is very glamorous. I would like to think that it would be shocking to people to know that this is what eighty is like. Except for the fact that I recently fell off a ladder and I have to use a cane, so I look a little more like eighty than I did a couple of months ago. And also I've got to say that I agreed to something even worse [than this interview]: There's a birthday celebration which is going to be used as an excuse to have a press party for the new album coming out, and it's at Steinway Hall. And I have to sit and answer questions from the public about being eighty, so I'm just trying to, you know, think of things to say.
Do you have ways to prepare yourself?
Well luckily we're going to play. They're bringing Andy Sheppard over from London, and we're going to do a trio tune. And we're going to get to do a piece I just finished, that I'm just finishing, at this moment, that I worked on the last four months. And so I'm so excited to get to play it, it's called "Copycat," and that's the theme of it, somebody plays something and you have to play it after them, or, your take on it. So it's more than just music, it's got this . . . amusing . . . or I hope that it's amusing, maybe it's embarrassing . . . thing that you can hang onto if you don't like the music.
What do you think people will ask you? And who do you think will be there? Who's organizing it?
ECM. I know that there are several journalists who I know, and like, that are going to be there. And I guess whoever else they rustle up. And Steve will be there on the stage with me. They were trying to get you to do it, but I said you live in California! But they might still call you . . . so . . .
When is it?
May 11th. On my birthday. It's a big birthday deal! They're trying to surprise me with things. You know, it's like "Queen for a Day"?
Or: "This is Your Life!"
"This is Your Life!"
They'll bring back all of your pals!
Yes that's what I think they're trying to do. And I'm supposed to be amazed . . . and delighted! But I'm going to be embarrassed. I'm going to be horrified.
But you said you feel it's glamorous to turn eighty. Why would you be embarrassed and horrified?
Because I haven't celebrated a birthday since I was eight, and I don't know exactly what to do. And when you're horrified, . . . .I remember once being horrified at the age of eight by my friends hiding behind a wall, and as I walked down my back steps, jumping out and saying "happy birthday!" And I think I fell down. I think I must have been very angry.
But I tend to say things that are alarming but I don't really feel them. I actually feel quite lucky. Just where I live makes me feel lucky. And the fact that I have a partner who forces me to write music, who constantly says if I’m not up there at the piano, he's going to get a chain and lock me to it! It's really true.
Would you not do it otherwise?
[Thinks.] I can't imagine not doing it . . . wow! The mind boggles. And what I could do if I wasn't constantly writing. I know what I would do: I would learn to be a better player. I now practice every day, but it's only for about thirty minutes, usually it's the Brahms exercises, the Brahms piano exercises, which I think are so beautiful. I don't mind playing them again and again. Sometimes after I practice, I still hear them in my head. And I'm pleased to hear them in my head. It's not as though they're annoying at all. So I recommend them to everyone.
I read on your website that you decided not to perform anymore.
That's not true at all. That's the only way a musician can make money. And I tour as much as they make—as they let me.
Do you think of your "player self" and your "composer self" as different people? Or are they integrated?
Now I think they are integrated. I used to think they were completely different. But I think when I take a solo, I sound like the piece I'm writing. And that's something that I appreciate in other people. A musician that plays the tune, instead of just turns on the switch, and plays whatever that person is interested in at that moment. That would not be the case if I had Charlie Parker in my band, I wouldn't even want him to play the tune, I would just want to hear what he was working on. But the regular humans, I appreciate when they say, "oh, this is a tune built on the cycle of fifths, so I'm going to play off of that," or "this is a tune that brings back the Roaring Twenties or the Roaring Thirties, so I should play more back . . . taking from history." Or, "that's a beautiful ballad, I'm not going to take it in an up tempo or turn it into double time" . . . don't try to get artistic with it, just try to play a beautiful solo. So that's not something I ask people to do, but if they do it, I appreciate it.
And so I do it to myself, and I say play the tune, just play the tune. And then I say if I could just play the tune, I wouldn't have to be a writer. I have to work on it because I can't play quickly. I can't think of things that please me. So I will take a solo and more often than not, I'll reach a place where I say, "that's not working." But I learned from other musicians, that that's a wonderful place, a place to get to, where you're going to do something totally unexpected, and make something out of it. Maybe you made a mistake and you played and F# instead of an F, so that means, that's a wonderful thing to do, and you can just keep doing that, play around with that. I had a trombone player, Gary Valente, and for many years, he would play one note during his whole solo, and even when it didn't . . . I would say, "OK but when he gets to that thirteenth bar, he's going to have to change from a C# to a C! It's not in the chord!" And he wouldn't do it! He would keep on that C# and it made me so happy! So in other words I try to do it right, and I try to make people do it right, but I'm happiest when I do it wrong, and when the people playing my music do it wrong. Not "wrong," but . . . not the way it's supposed to be, let's say. Something that pleases me would be something that surprises me. Except that I could be horribly surprised! By someone who wasn't talented or couldn't make something out of it . . . continued to play something that didn't sound good without changing it. So I can be horrified, but I can be mostly pleased, when someone plays something where I say, "why didn't I think of that? I'm glad that person is playing!"
I might as well say Andy [Sheppard] right now. Andy is my band. Steve is always with me, in every band, so I get to be surprised by Steve before the tune is played in public. We're playing downstairs a lot, just the two of us. We play the tune like the rhythm section, to get it ready for the soloist, although we solo too, but . . . Andy's really our crowning glory.
Actually this was one of my other questions. I wanted to ask you why you love writing for this particular trio. And now you're sort of answering it without my having asked it.
I don't love writing for this trio! I want to write for a big band. I have to write for the trio. So I said, okay, that's the reality. I can tour with three people. I can't tour even with my favorite drummer. Three is the most I can do, and pay the guys I'm touring with well. Otherwise I have to say, you know, it's on the cheap, times are bad . . . and I don't want to say that. So I only have a trio. So this has been . . . I think I've only worked with trio for . . . how many years now? Well, I still worked with Charlie Haden . . . and I heard that you were at the last concert!?
And you didn't come and say hello to me?
No, sorry! I didn't dare try to find my way backstage. Actually that was another one of my questions . . . you're jumping ahead to all my questions. I was going to tell you that in the last couple of years I was at two of your performances, you probably didn't know. One was at that Liberation Music Orchestra concert in California, and the other was the trio, almost two years ago, at that little jazz club in Dachau, Germany. I was wondering if you—and I think I know the answer to this question—if you still see a difference in the reception of your music in the United States and in Europe or the rest of the world? And if you encounter different attitudes about jazz, or about your music in general?
And what do you think?
I think yes!
Yes! I don't like to be predictable, but I have to say yes. We're not playing in the States at all anymore, even if it's only a trio. We don't exist. Steve still works in the States, even on the West Coast. Actually, I'm doing a concert in Chicago with the Liberation Music Orchestra.
Labor Day. And we did one in Detroit last year, without Charlie. It's not going to be one of those Mingus Dynasty things. It's just a couple of . . . since I've been writing new music for that band, that record will be coming out next. We made the record already, with new tunes, and a new tune I wrote for Charlie after he died, and a couple I wrote before he died, and a couple I wrote thirty years ago that go with the theme of the album. It's an environmental theme. Because that's what Charlie was most interested in at the end. He's on two of the tunes. It was the last Liberation Music Orchestra concert we did, which was in Brussels. No—Antwerp. It's live, and it was luckily recorded on thirty-two tracks or something, twenty-four at least. So we were able to mix it. Because it was a terrible live mix—not terrible, sorry radio people, it was a decent mix.
So you do have a large group you're writing for.
Yes, but not anymore. That's it. But I'd already written stuff. And I might not even be playing it in Chicago because Steve won't be the bass player, and there will be an acoustic bass player, and the tunes don't work for acoustic bass. A couple of the tunes were written specifically for Steve, because he was who Charlie wanted to take over his place in the Liberation Music Orchestra. But Steve is always working and we can't get him! And he's busy . . . unless you ask him two years in advance.
So why do you think it is that you don't perform more here, what is it that the rest of the world gets that we don't get?
Uh . . . I don't know.
Do you think it's a kind of exoticism?
There's a lot of history of Europeans preferring the Americans in jazz. And it's not just me . . . within Europe, the French don't listen to the Italians, the Italians don't listen to the Swedes, the Norwegians don't tour in . . . I was going to say Turkey, but no one tours in Turkey anymore! But you know what I mean. The Americans really have the caché that gets them the gigs in Europe. But you'd have to talk to an agent. And my agent now tells me what I can do and what I can't do. And I do that. I do whatever he says.
But, aside from that, another really great thing that is happening is that this June my piece for big band and boy's choir is being performed and recorded. Did I tell you about that before? It was performed before, at the Moers Festival [Germany]. After that I thought it would get recorded but we just couldn't get it together. A Swedish big band said they could do it but they couldn't do it. The boy's choir just isn't a tradition in Sweden as it is in Germany. I need a German boy's choir. Or I could have had an English boy's choir, that's what I tried to do, I have a friend in London and I said, "get me a boy's choir and then I'll use the big band that you manage to pull together," and he couldn't get it going. And I tried a bunch of radio stations, and nobody bit. Except finally the NDR [Norddeutscher Rundfunk] bit. I don't want to sound like they're going to die now that they bit, because I'm not a hook. I think they'll be glad they did it. It's the NDR Big Band, plus the boy's choir from a choral academy in Hamburg, I'm not sure what the name is.
What is the text for the piece?
I wrote it myself.
What's it about?
It's about learning French! And it's called La Leçon Française. And this is one of the things where I helped myself learn French by writing an opera in French.
Is it in French?
Yeah. Well no, it's half in French. The other part is learning, in English, it's about students. It's a day in the life of English speaking students learning French. But you know in opera—it's not an opera, it's an oratorio. Or maybe you can tell me if it's an oratorio. Is it an oratorio?
Well, what's it consist of?
[Laughing.] Uh . . . big band, and . . . boy's choir!
Oratorios are outside my time period! I think you can call it whatever you want.
Big band and boy's choir!
Are there solos?
No. Yes: big band solos!
No vocal solos?
I originally planned it with Rebecca Martin as the teacher but I can't afford her. I can't afford anyone! The big band is free! The government pays for it! The NDR is free. The government pays for it. This tells you a little about the United States government. They don't pay for any music stuff like that. Or I would have done it in New York.
It's ironic that you've been named the NEA Jazz Master.
Yeah . . . well they did pay me nicely for that. And they even paid me to play one six-minute song at the celebration.
"Ups and Downs." And it turned out really good. I practiced for months, my piano part.
Why did you choose that?
Steve chose it for me. He said: "That's all you can play! You can't play one of your new pieces! You know that! Just play some old favorite!" And so Steve chose "Ups and Downs." So I practiced it and we played it in the basement for months, and I finally got to the point where I could play a decent solo on it.
Did you really do it as a solo?
No, it was played by me, Steve, Billy Drummond, and Tony Malaby, who I knew from the Liberation Music Orchestra, and who's as different from Andy Sheppard as night and day. But played it totally great. Totally different and great. And my solo, I lucked out, man! My solo just killed. One chorus. Killed it! I played it as if I'd spent months writing it! And I didn't, I made it up on the spot!
Was it recorded?
Yes, you can just go to NEA Jazz Masters 2015 on the web, you can hear my speech and you can hear me play on "Ups and Downs." It was wonderful! But you see how hard I have to prepare? It's because I wasn't raised a player. I mean, I wasn't raised anything, I raised myself. And if I had known that I would be a player, I would have done what everyone else did and gone to Berklee [School of Music] or something. Learned to play! I never learned!
This is one of my other questions. One thing I learned when I was working on my book and I was just really immersed in your music, and I had done the interview and was trying to sort out your life story and stuff, one thing that really fascinated me about you is your relationship to notation. And you told me back then  that you never really learned to improvise, as a young player, that you learned to read music, and that you were really fascinated by the notes on the page, and you were curious about people who write notes on pages, namely, composers. So I wonder if you can talk a little more about this tension between being a composer who writes notes on the page and the need to play also . . . just how has that evolved for you?
Well the other category would be people who read notes on the page.
Which you did, from a very early age.
Right. But I didn't know about making up notes. If they're not on the page, where are they? Where are the notes? And so I had to get people to do that for me, all my life, and all I did was play little lines that I had already pre-conceived. I had cheat sheets written for all the chord changes . . . I still can't read letters and numbers very well. And playing by ear was something my father really disapproved of. He was my piano teacher. And he said those were the devil's people, people who played by ear. Making it up wasn't right! Specifically jazz. As soon as he found out that I was playing jazz he disowned me. He said jazz is the devil's music. Just listening to it will lead you astray. You will start drinking, you'll have sex, you'll wear lipstick, you'll dance in a short skirt! He never got over it, he never saw me play live, for fear of seeing me take my clothes off! I dedicated a piece to my father once but it was never played. But he played hymns, he played religious music. Not religious music like Messiaen, but he just played hymns. And he made up his own parts. Nobody would have written down that stuff. He would take a hymn and do variations on the hymn. He would make them up! But he didn't consider that jazz. But everything that happened to me that was not normal I value so much. Because I've turned out to be a person who does not qualify for anything but either people finding me interesting or shocking or different or . . . I don't care that I can't do it like other people. I'm glad I can't.
I'm glad. We're glad! A lot of people are glad.
The last time we talked you told me that you had gotten more conservative, musically, that when you were younger you did a lot of experimental things, and really radical recordings, and that as you got older you wanted more and more to write traditional jazz. Is that still true?
I know that I had been saying that. But I don't think it was ever that I wanted to be anything, I just was what I was. I would have loved to play like . . . Bud Powell. I couldn't, so I didn't want to. I think I was just protecting myself. And when I played free it was so full of rubbish. You could get a good moment, but . . . the things you'd have to do to get that good moment . . . it was like playing in Fresh Kills Garbage Dump. That's what my solos used to sound like, like trash! But anyway . . . that's all I could do.
I listen a lot to your Jazz Realities record, with your solo at the beginning of your piece "Doctor."
I haven't ever heard that!
Your solo is very linear, it's like one line, there's very little left hand, and I always thought it must have been influenced by Ornette Coleman, his melodic thinking, getting away from the harmonic changes.
That's another question, remember that. But the piano that starts in "Doctor," that's not improvised, that's totally written out note for note.
Can you prove it?
Wouldn't I want to do the opposite? To prove that it was improvised? Wouldn't that be monumental? It's written, it's a head. [Sings.] It's totally written, it was written in Vienna, early sixties. I soloed later in the piece.
Coming back to this question about traditional jazz, and what you were able to do in the past . . . how has your thinking about composing changed?
I still want to play like a great piano player would play. I want to play like Keith Jarrett. I think maybe he's the greatest improviser in general, not only in jazz, but in general improvisation, what that guy is doing is . . . . I can't believe it, that that's coming out of him in an improvised way. If it was me, I could do it maybe for two minutes. I would either give up, or do something horrible, and have to stop. That’s the way my solos used to stop. Only when I made a terrible mistake, thinking there was nothing to say anymore except, "I'm sorry." So I just stopped playing at the end of every solo. And Gary Burton would be saying, "you should end every solo with a flourish!" So anyway, if I could play, like, say, Larry Willis . . . I'm thinking of all the piano players with an incredible touch . . . Larry Willis is a totally great piano player. A lot of the guys I used to have in my band played piano better than me.
But Ornette Coleman was such an influence. My solo piano pieces, Romantic Notions, have been recorded but haven't been released. There are two or three pieces in there where Ornette Coleman was a direct inspiration. I recorded them, they're perfect. It took me a long time! All of them are about twenty minutes. I need something else to go on a CD with them. I said to Steve, "What about the Songs for Impaired Left Hand?" And he said, "Don't be ridiculous!"
I play those pieces, the Romantic Notions.
Well, I wish I could at least give you the recording so you could hear what you're doing wrong!
How do you know I'm doing something wrong?
Because there are certain things that everyone who plays them does wrong. It's been played by a lot of people, and it's been recorded by an Italian guy. Totally wrong.
What do you think was wrong?
Expression. Too much expression. I don't like expression.
Well maybe you shouldn't have called them Romantic Notions.
No, "romantic notions" means something that's not true. You know, like you have this romantic notion, and . . . oh my god, just get over it!
Let's talk about the pieces on your new recording, Andando el Tiempo, which is going to be released a couple of days before your birthday in May. There's some heavy subject matter that you describe in your notes for the CD booklet. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Sure. And I even talked about that live, on our last tour. I said what it was about, because I thought it was a nice handle. I like to help the audience out if I can. You know, in the audience, one half of the couple wants to come and hear me, and the other half of the couple would prefer to go hear Henry Threadgill or something, or even a different kind of music altogether. So I try to think, if I were in the audience, what would I enjoy hearing. But I recently heard someone explaining things before a performance, and I thought it was really pretty disgusting. So I don't think I'll ever do that again.
What did they explain that was "disgusting"?
Romantic things, definitely: "this is a meadow," "there are flowers blooming," and "my sister was there and I love her so much . . . " and I thought, "whoa, I could never do anything like that!" I mean, the music was wonderful, but the announcement made it sound like something I would not do. Maybe that's why I wanted to announce this, because this is horrible.
Well it surprised me because your other recordings don't usually include explanations.
Manfred [Eicher] asked for them. I must say, for the ECM recordings, I just do what he tells me. He chooses the takes, he chooses the tunes, he does everything, and I just sit there and play the piano, and I'm so happy doing that. That's why I want him to be at La Leçon Française, because I know he'll be so valuable for me there. He won't freak me out. I don't like to decide where the microphone should be hung. When Steve does that, he's not playing the bass. And I want Steve to play as good as he can play.
I wanted to ask you specifically about Manfred Eicher, who I know you've worked with for a long time, and what he brings artistically to the recording process for you?
Well I haven't worked with him for a long time. I never worked with him until the first trio album . He's distributed all my albums, but he's never had anything to say about any of them, the content, the performance, the roster, the genre, nothing. Not until the trio album. I did that because I wanted to just give myself a handicap. I said, I spend all this time making records, and I make sure everything is just like I like it, and I think there's something a little boxy about that. I feel my playing is a little boxy, and my tunes are a little boxy, and I get whatever I want, and I want somebody else to tell me what to do. And I think I might learn something. And so I went into that, and Steve knew about it and agreed totally and Andy was cool with it, because Andy can also do anything, he can go into a record date without even being shown the music, or told what the tunes are, and sound great. And I'm the opposite. I have to study in advance. So he was fine with it. Steve thought it was a wonderful idea.
So we just sat there, what should we do? And he [Eicher] said, "well what have you been playing?" And we said, "well we could play some of the tunes from the tour we just finished." He said, "good." And then he said, "have you been playing "Vashkar?" And I said, "as a matter of fact, we have been playing "Vashkar!" So I said, "OK, we'll do "Vashkar." And then he said, "how about . . ." and he just kind of chose the music. And I thought. "what?! This is wonderful!" But then we filled it out with some of the other tunes. But we understood that he had a plan, and the plan was things he had heard as a developing ear, that were really important to him. And we were able to give him quite a bit of that, older songs, things that had been recorded before. I don't believe that was any new music on that first album. And there's no old music on the second album.
I'm giving you an example because I think a lot of musicians would not like to have somebody tell them what to do. And in my case it was fascinating. He wouldn't even ask us . . . he chose the recording venue, the hall, it was a radio recording hall in Lugano, he chose the date, he chose the engineer. We got there, and we just sat down, just like . . . normal people! And we played some stuff, and he'd say, "oh yeah." And some songs, he wouldn't say no, he just wouldn't include them. We narrowed them down to the things he wanted, and then we just played them as well as we could. And we couldn't correct anything. And they were mixed instantly. We would go into the control room and he would play it, it would already be the take he had chosen, and we would say, "sure, okay!"
But there was one note that I played wrong on "The Girl Who Cried Champagne." A bass note. I was playing behind Steve's solo. It was an ostinato. The note, let's say it was a B flat. And you play that every time [sings the ostinato], I played it for three or four minutes during the bass solo. And then one of them was a B natural. I just missed it! So I said, "I can't live with that! I missed that note, you've got to fix it." And he did, but he just did it by changing the pitch of that one note. That's what you can do nowadays . . . change that note to a B flat. And I knew that this was paining him, because he likes to do things that are natural. He likes to have the mistakes in there, it gives more of a personal style. But he did that for me, and I was so happy. But he chose the title, he chose the photograph, of just me and not the trio. This was all true for the old and the new album. For the first one it was a shock, but this time I knew what he was going to do. The photos were chosen by him, the photographer was chosen by him. Do you get the drift? Everything was Manfred except that one note, which he gave up for me.
So you were saying you decided to explain the subject matter of the title piece, Andando el Tiempo, to your audiences.
He wanted me to. I was explaining it while performing but I wasn't going to put it on the album. I was telling the audience. I would do it in French, I would get a few words out in German, I didn't try to do it in Swedish, excerpt for a few words [says a few phrases in Swedish]. But you know, words like "addiction" are kind of universal. I mean, in the western European languages.
What do the titles mean?
"Sin Fin" means "without ending." And I checked that with Tony Malaby who speaks Spanish and he said that's correct. And that's a good title for what you're seeing. Then the middle one was a William Safire title. It wasn't even a title . . . I guess it was a title. "Potación de Guaya" was . . . a potion of grief. It's ancient Spanish, so you can't even look it up on Google. They do it but they don't do it right. It's very ancient. My Spanish friend, Jorge Rossy, who we play with in Steve's band, said he didn't know it. And Tony Malaby didn't know what it meant. But it means "drink of grief." And the word "drink" was crucial. Anyway, that was a William Safire phrase that Steve Swallow read in William Safire's column when he was alive, and always liked, so he wrote it down with this beautiful list of titles he keeps, and he gave it to me.
We should say, first, that the three-part piece Andando el Tiempo is about being addicted to something. And I don't mean music. I mean one of the things that makes you feel happy when you're sad, or high when you're low, it's about being addicted. And a friend of mine had that happen and I watched the whole thing, and it was on my mind, I felt so sad. Sometimes when I'm really sad I write a piece of music, because it helps. And this helped a lot. This helped while it was going on.
And the third piece?
The third one was the hardest one, "Camino al Volver," which means "back to the beginning." Road back to the beginning. And I meant it that he went back to who he was before what happened to him happened. And to me that's the beautiful happy ending. And I know that it's never permanent, is it, when you have a problem like that? But so far, so good, it happened quite a while ago, and so far, it's lasted.
What about the overarching title, Andando el Tiempo?
Andando means "go," and Tiempo means "time." Passage of time, passing of time.
Tell me about the other pieces on the new CD. What about the Mendelssohn reference? And the title Naked Bridges/Diving Brides? Why did you choose that particular Paul Haines poem?
The title came later! First I started to write a wedding present. I had a commission for the piece, and I said, "I don't know what to write," and then I thought, "Andy's getting married, or got married, and this would be a good way to give him a present." So I said, OK: weddings, cascades, throwing things, good luck, . . . you know, just a bunch of stupid things. And finally I came upon this poem by Paul Haines. I didn't like the "diving brides" part, but I liked the rest. "Sparkling albumen," I looked up "albumen," and . . . egg whites!
What does it mean?
Oh man! I think it means semen! I imagined it as sparkling . . . sparkling, . . . never mind! It had a sexual reference, in addition to "egg whites," and I think that's what Paul Haines meant, because he had a dirty mind! All poets do! Composers do too, if they like dirty poets. Anyway, I thought about that poem, and I thought: cascades! That means chords going downwards. How about two hands at once going down? Cascades. It's something I've never done before in my life, to use other stimuli.
The bass-piano duo in the middle of the last track is really beautiful.
Isn't it? You know, that's all Mendelssohn. He wrote [sings the wedding march], and that's what people play as they give up their single life, as they walk down the aisle. So I said, "wow, those are good chord changes." And so I analyzed it, and me and Steve played on it, and Steve took the most beautiful solo, and it was just exactly Felix Mendelssohn's chord changes, A minor over F#, B7 . . . [Shouts question to Steve about first chord in the wedding march.]
Steve Swallow: [in the background] That's like an F# minor seven flat five.
F# minor seven flat five . . . half diminished . . . a very jazz-like chord. Right out of Dizzy Gillespie [sings Gillespie tune].
[Bley offers me a glass of cold water from their well]
I know that Steve has had a huge influence on your ability to improvise, as you told me last time, but I wondered if your daughter Karen [Mantler], who is also a fine pianist and composer in her own right, if she's had any influence on you, as a pianist, or a writer, or in your musical thinking? Or maybe you don't want to answer because she's in the room?
Yes! I owe it all to Karen!! Everything I ever wrote was . . . [Laughter]. Ideas that I stole from her . . .
Karen Mantler: [in the background] I always suspected that.
Well, you know what she is? She corrects all my mistakes.
Do you mean on paper, or in your playing?
On paper. She's my copyist, my assistant. She also has been to school, she knows things I don't know. She went to Berklee.
Mantler: I'm like Mozart's Salieri. Didn't he transcribe Mozart's Requiem while Mozart was on his deathbed?
And completed it, supposedly?
Karen could do that. She knows me, she'll tell me, "that's a wrong note," or, "that note's not the way it was on page four, you've got to put it the same way." So she's my proofreader, also. And she also did this booklet for La Leçon Française, did she give you one? She does the art work . . .
Did you want her to go to music school?
I stupidly did. I mean, I thought it would be great for her to go to music school. I should have gone to music school. I didn't go, because I didn't want to do anything that was normal, or expected of me. So I retained my ignorance until this age!
So when she was in school, did you surreptitiously learn things that she was learning?
Yeah. I did. About percussion in particular, she has books about it. And she also plays a lot of instruments. She started on . . . drums! But . . . I feel self-conscious talking about her if she's here.
OK. We can move on. The last time I saw you, you were about to release the recording Carla's Christmas Carols, and I love that album, and I was just curious how it did.
You know, it didn't provide me with a way to tour every Christmas, I thought, "now we'll get to tour every Christmas because these things just come around and around and around," but there's like nine people in the band, you can't bring that many people on the road. Particularly not if one's a tuba player. I mean that was the hardest thing, that damn tuba.
So it was a strategic marketing plan that failed?
Uh . . . no. It was a fear of . . . the reason I wrote the Christmas carols was, they were a commission by the Essen Philharmonie, by the guy that was in charge of that there—Michael Kaufmann. He said, "anything you want to do, I'll pay for it." And I thought, "oh god, I'm sure I can never write another note of music on demand." So I said, "there's something I've always wanted to do"—and it was true—I always wanted to make a Christmas album. And I have a folder at home—really large folder—full of all my favorite Christmas ideas. And I thought that's what I would like to do, and it would be using a brass quintet, and me and Steve, and I forget, at that point I might have wanted a string section or something. And so he said yes, perfect. He got fired, by the way, a couple of years after. Because that's the way he was, he let me do whatever I wanted to, and he let other people do whatever they wanted to do, too. And he just spent too much money. But he was such a find, such a sponsor.
Interesting that it was in Germany again.
Yeah, in Germany again. Those people are musically advanced. Oh yeah, they had Wagner and those people.
Do you like working there?
Yes, I do. I do prefer southern countries or exotic countries, but when I get to Germany I just let my breath out, I just go, "aaahhhh." It used to be you couldn't get a good meal in Germany, when I first went, in the fifties? Or sixties. There'd be an Italian restaurant next to the church. And that's where you'd have to go, just head for the cathedral. And maybe you could get an Italian meal, because you could not eat the German food. But now, man, they eat everything. And they're nice people.
But about the Christmas carols. That's how they came into existence. It wasn't because it was a way to make money, because that would have been a tremendous failure. We did it the first time in Essen, and then we did a few gigs after that, and then there was a tour, but I don't think it made money, I think it was a losing money tour. But that's okay, I'm up for that occasionally. But my agent said no, it's too many people. We could definitely do Vienna, we could definitely do . . . Prague. And that's all, we don't have any more gigs, you can't just do a tour, you have to have a couple of weeks of solid gigs, night by night, or you can't do it, you can't tour nowadays. So we never got a single tour after that first one. First one was five countries in five days. It was beautiful. It was like: "Capitols of the World." Each day a different country. It was wonderful. But we could never do it again. The Manhattan Brass Quintet did them here. Lew Soloff was in that band, and I think I knew a couple of the other guys too. And they did them, but they did them too slow. I find that people do my music too slow. Always. It's like, 'cause I'm a girl, I "feel" more. I have more feelings.
What a "romantic notion"!
Really! So I think that they do the music a little slower, a little more expression, because . . . I think it might be a gender issue. I haven't had any other gender issues at all. Never from a musician or anything. But they play my music a little slower when they record it.
And you think it's because they think, somehow intuitively, that it should be more expressive?
I think they think it should be more gentle. Like how their mother would do it. No rough edges. Much more like child-rearing, a lullaby . . . don't you think that's true? I think it's true. Even some of my best friends are playing them too slow.
Don't you tell them?
Yep. If they're my best friends I tell them. I say: "That's too slow, man!" I told Lew, too, I said, "that's too slow! It's supposed to be peppier than that!" And he said, "oh, I didn't think about that." So when I do it, it's all exactly like I like. When someone else does it they make it too slow. But how many times has that happened? Not that many times.
Do you have any advice for young composers today? The world is so different now from when you were first starting out, musically, and in every other way. What advice would you give to one of my students who wanted to be a composer?
I would say, "GOOD LUCK." And with the expression in my voice, I meant it [emphatically], "GOOD LUCK." I just recently said that to someone, someone who wanted to be a composer, I said, "GOOD LUCK." Oh no, it was someone who wanted to be a gardener, I would say the same thing to a gardener. Someone said, "I'm going to have an in-ground garden down here, and boy, I'm going to raise my own kale . . " and I said, "GOOD LUCK!" It's really hard, there's too many invasive species, like worms from Europe, and mosquitos from India, and if people have just walked off an airplane, they're bringing things that are pathogens for the plants and the people. It's terrifying, isn't it? I think it's going to happen a lot sooner than everyone thinks, that we're going to get plagues. I know that the Zika virus right now is the current plague, and if they can get this fixed, fixing the male mosquito so that they can't reproduce, and the woman doesn't get a baby every time they have sex, they're going to maybe get it in hand, but I think it's like eleven months until that's going to happen. But we pretty much got Ebola under control. A lot of death on the way, but . . . I think that gardening is going to be harder. The farmers are going to have a harder lot. And if the farmers have a harder lot, and the governments don't help the farmers out, and if . . . oh forget it, I'm giving you a speech about the wrong subject.
I would say to young composers there's nothing you can do about it, you have to write music, and . . . oh man, lo siento mucho. You could have been a dentist, for god sakes!
Is there anything musically happening in the world today that you keep track of—new groups, composers, styles—anything that you're really into that you try to follow, or that influences you?
Steve particularly likes Rihanna. She's sort of like the Ornette Coleman of the pop world. She's not playing changes, she's not even playing time. She's got her own drummer going in her head, and a lot of great drummers around her too. But they're all sort of . . . walking without a crutch. It's really interesting. Personally, I adore Lady Gaga. I adore everything she has ever done. I want to play the organ like she does, with one foot up on the stool. I adore her!
Did you see the halftime show of the Super Bowl?
No. I hear that Beyoncé is incredible! And she has done . . . uh . . .do you realize I'm talking only about women? That's just a coincidence? Anyway I hear that she's done stuff about the conditions in the music world and all kinds of protests and stuff like that. Man, I'm so happy. She's gotten political.
Do you have a TV here [in Willow]?
We do, but we don't down there [winter home]. That's why we haven't seen the Super Bowl. Karen recorded it for us.
You told me before that when you go down south for the winter you always take something to listen to, some complete something-or-other. What did you listen to this winter?
Gordon Beeferman! We think he's really wonderful, so talented. A great young pianist, and composer. We can really relate to what he's doing. But one year it was Beethoven, one year it was Shostakovich, one year it was [Charles] Wuorinen . . . I don't know if you know who he is . . .
Yes, I know who he is.
Thank god, you're the only other person on the planet who knows who he is. To me, the piece Blue Bamboula with Garrick Ohlsson playing it, it's the best piece of piano music in the world. But it has to be Garrick Ohlsson. And from the first moment you know who the composer is and you know who the piano player is. To me, that's really great, you can do that with Philip Glass, still, you know instantly that it's him. And there's very few people that . . . well you know when it's Ornette Coleman, immediately. You know when it's Bird immediately. You know it's Horace Silver. Or anything by the Count Basie band, but those composers are Tin Pan Alley, mostly. But the band, the way it plays, and Count Basie's playing . . . Count Basie's playing, certainly, as a pianist, for me: very, very, very influential. And the other pianists: of course Thelonious Monk, from the first time I heard him when I was seventeen. That was it for me.
Was Thelonious Monk a big influence on your piano playing, or your composing?
Big influence, on everything. And Ornette, like you said. Because I worked in jazz clubs, for maybe three years, at that age where you take in music and it becomes your favorite music for the rest of your life. That's when I was working in jazz clubs, you know, in the cloakroom or wherever. And that's where I heard a lot of Count Basie, a lot of Thelonious Monk, a lot of Horace Silver, and just fell in love with the music. But I liked jazz from a very early age. Lionel Hampton was the first jazz group I ever heard live. And Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker was the second. And so those two kinds of music stayed with me for a long time. Lionel Hampton had a lot of great players, and had a sense of humor.
But of course, Miles Davis is the greatest player—musically, in any vernacular, in any format, in anything. Miles Davis is maybe the greatest musician that ever lived. Because to me, the improvising is just the miracle . . . that jazz exists is such a miracle. How could that happen? How did something like Ornette Coleman exist? How did Charlie Parker become Charlie Parker? Where did that come from? You can trace that back and there's nothing like him. For me, it's the magic of not knowing what's right or wrong, that's the part of the magic that I have access to. I don't know what's right or wrong. I still ask Steve everything.
Is there notated piano music that you really love? You mentioned the Brahms exercises.
Piano music. Since I play piano, I'm so critical. I can find something wrong with the best piano players on earth. I just don't like the way they played that phrase. I just don't like the expression. That's why I like Keith Jarrett because of the way he plays Shostakovich. You can tell that he knows how to play Shostakovich. I don't think Shostakovich played . . . it's like walking. When you walk funny, . . . it's like a lot of trained classical piano players walk funny. They walk like a ballet dancer [gestures]. Why would you want to walk like that? You're not going to get anywhere that way. And they do things, little expressions, I can do it right now as a joke. Why not walk like you walk down the street? Why not walk like you're living in the hood somewhere? There's some walking going on there! Or why not walk like Monty Python's silly walks? All of these things . . . but to do ballet, it doesn't make any sense to me. I don't enjoy it.
So is Garrick Ohlsson one of your favorite pianists in general or just for Wuorinen?
In general. I just really like the way he plays, he really socks it to you. And I really like Richard Goode for Beethoven. He really plays; he works up a sweat. He plays really down to earth.
Do you have a favorite Beethoven sonata?
No, but I have a favorite Shostakovich piece, which is String Quartet No. 8. I also like Bartok's String Quartet No. 5. I like . . . Sister Sadie! No, no, that's a different world.
But we're talking about the way piano players play. The way Horace Silver plays can't even be imitated. It is so full of blood. It's just life itself. It's the blood pumping through him, as he plays, I can't believe how life-full it is. Horace Silver, ah. But only for about five years, his first five. Or Milt Jackson, his touch, his phrasing, I'm fussy about phrasing. But I'm trying to think about piano, I don't like guys who put too much . . . Steve loves the guys that I hate, and sometimes sneaks one on me. And I just say, "ugh!" And I just try to bear with it. He just loves really classical piano playing. And I just like sort of the modern guys.
Is there anything you would have done differently in your career, given what you know today?
I think I've said it already: I would have practiced the piano and realized that playing the piano is not something you just do to the best of your abilities. Playing the piano is something where you have to pursue your level of ability for miles and miles before you are of any use to anyone else.
That's a good answer! Looking back, do you have a favorite project, out of everything you've ever done?
Always the last one. And my new piece "Copycat" is a laugh riot. I really love it. I hope it's good, I hope other people love it. But before that it was "Time/Life," the piece for Charlie, before that it was the entire La Leçon Française, I think that is going to work out well. The boy's choir is on my mind.
Why did you choose a boy's choir?
They don't have as many gestures as an adult choir.
That's sort of like Stravinsky, in his Symphony of Psalms, he took out the female voices and high strings because they were too warm, he didn't want that expressive warmth.
I didn't realize that. It's my favorite piece on earth. I could live on a desert island with only that piece. And that influenced my oratorio, totally! The beginning. I just hear that first phrase, that loud chord, that's why I used the big band: BAM! It was so influential.
Are there musical projects that remain unfinished or unfulfilled for you? You talked about things you just finished recently, but are there things you always wanted to try that maybe now you'll take the time to do? What's next?
There's a piece called "Roller Coaster" that I cannot get played or performed. It was written for a friend of mine, her name is Donna Dennis, and she's the kind of an artist who builds things. The last thing she did was about the Coney Island roller coaster, and it was called Coney Night Maze, and it was parts of the old building of the actual old roller coaster on Coney Island, and she built an entire house—five-sixteenths smaller than a house should be—and she liked the idea of me writing a piece of music that could be played at the opening, which was at SUNY Purchase. And so I said OK, but we have to find the money to do it. So I wrote it for her, a chamber group, all written out except for the piano and bass, they solo on it. I did it in Graz, Austria, played by students, so it wasn't played according to what I had imagined. So that's my undone thing. That's the only thing I have right now.
A year ago I would have said oh there's ten projects, but now I've got them all done. It all takes a long time. La Leçon Française is four years old already. I wanted to get it done for the whole four years and I just couldn't manage it.
Do you have any predictions for the upcoming election?
I don't think Trump's going to make it. I'm a little afraid of him not making it, because I think he would be so ludicrous, that he would be stopped from doing any real damage. People would just laugh. And I realized this morning, that that "wall" between us and Mexico—I'm laughing, sorry—that's like the gated community phenomenon, isn't it? But it's like a whole gated country. That's what those guys want to have happen, the Trump fans. They want to live in a gated country. They're terrified of anybody who is from another place that does things differently, they don't want to eat any weird food that doesn't taste like something they don't recognize. I mean, okra's really slimy, you know?
I've been looking at your piece "Local Okra."
I changed the name. It's now called "Team Sports."
Because it was too slimy of a title. It's got to go. It's a slimy title, man.
But . . . I just love Obama so much. I'm just going to miss him so much. He's so perfect, and what he's done is small time, because real progress is small time. And what he's done in a small time way is so important. I don't care if he didn't close Guantanemo, he got it closer than it was before to closing. And when you're working with so much opposition, there's nothing big that you can get done. And you shouldn't. This is a democracy. You have to compromise. And the other people who don't want you to do something have to have their say. If you want a democracy you're going to have to put up with some real weird things. So I think that it won't be Trump. But if it's any of the other Republicans, I fear that even more. So I'm for Trump.
Are there a lot of Bernie Sanders fans around here?
Well I gave him a lot of money. I'm going to try to keep him going. And Steve, too. He'll have trouble getting things done, but I hope he's president. I would trust him with my life. He's so presidential, and everything he says is so inspirational. But those things are big, and I don't think he's going to get them done. But I don't care, I'm still supporting him, and I'll vote for him and all of that. Yes, I hope Bernie Sanders is the next president.
So here's your last question: when Steve makes you go upstairs to compose tomorrow morning, what will you work on?
I have no idea. Do you realize that? Is that an opportunity or what? It's an opportunity, and it will be horrible. It will be frightening. I know I can never write another piece. Ever.
We'll see about that. Thanks for your time, and happy birthday.
Pianist and musicologist Amy C. Beal is Professor of Music at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has published three books and many articles and essays on the history of American and contemporary music. Her monograph on Carla Bley's life and work was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2011.