Transcript of taped interview with Randy Raine-Reusch, May 2007
From his own website:
Randy Raine-Reusch is an improvisationally based composer, concert-artist specializing in New and Experimental Music for world instruments. An innovator interested in extending the boundaries of music, he has created distinct new performance styles on a number of world instruments from his collection of 700.
Raine-Reusch has spent over thirty years exploring the relationship of music to psychology, philosophy, and spiritual or religious practices. He studied at the Creative Music Studio in the 70's with artists such as Fred Rzewski, Jack Dejohnette and Karl Berger, before going overseas to study with master musicians in Australia, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma and the Philippines, as well as with "National Treasures" in Korea and Japan. As a result his music now contains clear influences from a variety of indigenous cultures and is heavily influenced by Taoism and Zen.
In his performances Raine-Reusch strives for a balance of virtuosity, innovation, and a contemplative depth of spirit, while retaining the essence of his instruments. His unique voice has led him to perform and, or record with the Tianjin Symphony Orchestra, Aerosmith, Yes, The Cranberries; Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster, Jon Gibson; Barry Guy, Robert Dick, Frank Gratkowski, Mats Gustafsson; Sainkho Namtchylak, Jin Hi Kim, and Issui Minegishi, the Japanese Iemoto, or Hereditary Grand Master, of Seikyodo Ichigenkin. As a solo artist, with his world beat ensemble ASZA, or with Chinese zheng virtuoso Mei Han, Raine-Reusch has performed at two WOMAD festivals, three World Expos, and on tours to Australia, Germany, Spain, Czech Republic, South Africa, China, India, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. Raine-Reusch’s performances have been broadcast nationally in China, Australia, Germany, Spain, Singapore, Canada and the United States, and he has appeared in five documentary films on music.
As a composer, Raine-Reusch has a distinctive voice, whether creating simple folk melodies or extremely experimental works that challenge both the audience and performers. He has premiered works ranging from large-scale site-specific extravaganzas, electro-acoustics, or realtime interactive computer works, to intimate chamber pieces for film, dance, and theatre in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, and Spain, including three World Expos and numerous computer music conferences.
Raine-Reusch was a consultant, founder of the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia; the consultant for Cirque du Soleil's Quidam; and the artist director of a number of other festivals and large-scale events. He has acted as producer on numerous CDs and CD ROMs on Canadian and international labels. He is a contributing editor for Musicworks Magazine and has recently written Play the World: 101 World Instrument Primer for Mel Bay Publications. He has been a guest lecturer in the fields of composition, performance, ethnomusicology, and psychology at prominent universities and conferences worldwide.
Raine-Reusch is a member of the Canadian League of Composers and an Affiliate of the Canadian Music Centre.
MH Before I jump into you, maybe you could give me a little recap of what you said yesterday about Tadao Sawai and his wife?
RRR Yeah. I don’t know the full history of Tadao, but I know that he started composing contemporary music for koto. I think he is the first to have dedicated his work to, and created a body of work dedicated to koto, because he was a koto player. So he was very interested in contemporary music. His wife, who’s a fairly prominent koto player in her own right, was a student of the Miyagi style of koto. Miyagi did some koto compositions in the 50s, and was the guy who made the koto orchestras
MH Let me stop you there for a second and ask you to fill me in on some things. Is that style the one you mentioned as being the one Miya Masaoka learned?
RRR Yes, I think so. The Miyagi style of koto was very popular and this was the style that was primarily taught in the west. There are other koto styles as well, so I am unsure what traditional style of koto Miya studied. The Sawais started their own school and now their students are teaching at prominent universities in the West, Wesleyan, Hawaii, San Diego… Many of Sawai’s students are making big names for themselves ..eg., Ryuko Mizutani
MH Since you have a general knowledge of how the music culture’s been working in China and Korea and Japan all three, I want to run by you a picture I got from interviewing Jin Hi Kim. In talking to Mei, I mentioned how Jin told me about a revival of Korean folk music, and you filled me in a bit more on how that worked, and how it didn’t work so well in China. Is what you’re telling me now about Tadao Sawai, or about anything else that’s been happening in the Japanese music scene, comparable or contrastable to that picture of Korea?
I’m curious, because I’ve heard Tadao Sawai in a duo recording with German bassist Peter Kowald, and other Japanese traditional musicians with other European improvisers, as well as Japanese butoh dancers with them. I saw how the butoh movement, though obviously quite different from the Korean folk music revival, was similar in its turn to archaic shamanistic roots and away from the paradigms and histories of civilization, the cultured, the scripted, the organized religions. It was that that they had in common with some of the improvisers I met in Germany. Miya Masaoka is a Japanese American who was brought up on piano, but turned away from it to play only koto.
So was there any kind of nationalistically tinged music movement in Japan, where they turned away from things American, or Western, or global, and went back into their tradition somehow?
RRR No, definitely not. This was a movement of individuals. You can do a search for Michio Miyagi on the web. I’m looking at a page on Ann Prescott’s site right now. So he’s the guy who started koto orchestras, and really contemporized koto music. Kazue started with him, she was one of his students. It was a movement or style that emerged from Miyagi’s instrument, and he was more of a Westernized guy, and went for things in his own right.
If you do a search for Tadao Sawai koto, there’s a nice biography for him on a shakuhachi site that will give you a good picture.
There was an interest kindled by Takemitsu’s use of biwa and shakuhachi in November Steps that has led to a large number of new works being written for Japanese traditional instruments. Was this nationalism? I don’t know, but it certainly became a movement of sorts.
MH I’ll do that. What I mainly wanted from you was the little story about how you took Mei to meet his wife, and they clicked...
RRR I had met Tadao in one of my earlier trips to Japan, and Kazue. Then he passed away, and Kazue has continued the school. I’d done a workshop at her school, and had interviewed and written an article on her for Musicworks magazine. In meeting Mei, and finding out what she was into, and her interests, I turned her on to some of the Sawai music—some of Tadao’s compositions, and also some of the pieces that Kazue played, because Kazue also commissions a lot of composers to write for koto. We wrote a grant proposal to the Canadian government, got the grant, to take Mei there; I set up a meeting with Kazue, and we took Mei off to Japan, ostensibly for Mei to study with Kazue (study koto technique).
Within two lessons, that changed. In the first lesson, Kazue showed Mei the basic techniques, had a nice demeanor, was very polite, blah blah blah. Mei played, Kazue was impressed. Kazue then gave Mei a piece to work on, and Mei came back and played it, and Kazue was just totally blown away, because none of her students could do that.
MH Was Mei a koto player at all before that?
RRR Never. First time her hands were on the instrument. The picks are different, the plucking style is different, the strings are much tighter—but Mei just bang! played it instantly.
MH But there must be some relation between the zheng and the koto then...
RRR Well, the koto came from the zheng.
MH Right. So she must have picked up on the similarities right away.
RRR There are many transferable skills, but, you know, I’m a multi-instrumentalist, so I can easily tell you that in a family of instruments, no matter how many transferable skills there are, there are also idiosyncratic skills that you have to learn, and often those are the challenge of the instrument. It depends on your brain make-up, and your brain-finger coordination how long it takes you to adapt and compensate. Some people never do, and some can do it fairly quickly; Mei was a person who could do it very very quickly.
We did the same thing two years ago, when we took her to Viet Nam. She met a woman named Fong-Bau. She is, of her generation, the top dan tranh player, which is the Vietnamese version of the zheng. Same thing...
MH I’ll tell you the little writer’s motif going on in my head about this. It’s an interesting story for me to use in the book, because one of the motifs is—and I talked to Mei about this in her interview—this whole idea of synthesizing things that have been split apart back into a whole. What’s interesting about your work, and what you do with her and others, is getting your hands on this wide variety of instruments that are all kind of historically related, in a way—which people haven’t really thought of in that way, because they’ve become separate over time and space. But for instance, when I reviewed Ume, I touched on this relationship between the first Chinese stringed instruments and the Western piano.
RRR It’s interesting you say that, because that’s exactly what I’ve always been interested in: families of instruments and the relationships between them. My particular style of playing zheng came in that kind of way. I got the zheng in Singapore, brought it home, took some lessons on it—and really was not inspired by the Chinese music I was learning on it. I just felt it could do more. I had heard some of the Sawai recordings, and thought I wanted the zheng to have the same power I heard in them. I had heard the zheng many years before that, many recordings of it; it just took me a long time to get to a place where I could buy one. When I finally did, and started to learn it, I just found the music for it too pretty. I just felt it could do more.
So I put it aside for awhile and let things gestate—which is something I tend to do a lot. Then I just picked it up one day, retuned the whole thing, and started to play. I tuned it to anything I felt like: different pentatonic scales, then non-repeating pentatonic scales, then whole-tone scales, four-tone scales—just messing around with it and finding different things. I developed a technique with which I could create an awful lot of power on the instrument, and that was a way of making the notes very stacatto, by muting the strings immediately after I pluck. It’s my own personal technique...which meant that I couldn’t wear all the picks on my fingers that most zheng players do. I had a pick on my two thumbs, but no other fingers, which is highly unusual. I developed this extremely fast stacatto style of playing. It was a style that Mei was quite attracted to.
Then I applied other things to it, too. I had gone to Korea, in 1987, and did some performances there. While there, I studied the kayageum, the Korean version of this instrument. So I’ve got all these kayageum techniques, which I also then apply to the zheng. So my playing style was influenced by those three different cultures, but all on related instruments.
MH One of the questions I had along those lines was, can you give me a sense of what makes them distinct? Since you’ve got a relationship with the zheng, koto, and kayageum, and the Vietnamese one, do you have a sense of what makes them distinct, and is that somehow reflective of the cultural distinctions too?
RRR That’s a topic for a book in itself. Simple distinctions are in the scales. Vietnamese and Korean scales can be similar to Chinese scales; the Japanese scale you tend to hear the most is a little bit more unique. Although it does exist in China, it is most often associated with the koto. Also, the koto has thicker strings, now tuned much tighter than most zhengs. You have different kinds of picks; the picks are put on in a different way, so you get a different feel between them. Each gives a little bit different sound, and a different force of playing.
Then there are some gestures, that are very, very distinctly Japanese, like having the two bottom strings tuned a fifth apart, and you play them together—kong-kong Ding!—one a fifth above the other. That’s a very distinctive Japanese sound that you would not hear in anything else. Just from that one gesture, you can identify a koto.
MH But since you’re an improviser whose project here is to—first you immerse yourself in the traditions to get familiar with the instrument and the traditional techniques and repertoire...and then you want to do something personal with it, and that cross-culturally...so I’m wondering if you have established, just in your own idiosyncratic mind and style and everything something like what is similar to what I know about other improvising idiosyncrats, so to speak. For example, the English improvisers post-Incus have been stereotyped as quiet, the Germans post-FMP as loud, the Italians lyrical. So when you decide you want to play a kayageum now, and the reason you do is because...? (as opposed to any of the other two you might have chosen).
RRR I can say that each instrument has a distinct voice. The dan tranh has very thin metal strings and a small body. It has a lot of sustain, and it traditionally plays pieces with very intricate bends and ornamentation of pitches. As the strings are thin, it is not good for powerful or aggressive pieces. There are Chinese zheng that are very similar to the dan tranh, but the zheng we play has metal strings wound with nylon, so they are stronger and can be played harder. It also has a much larger range, so the music can be fuller and more complex harmonically. It is not such as delicate sound as the dan tranh, but traditionally the zheng played quite light “pretty” pieces, with contemporary Chinese pieces becoming very dynamic and flashy, filled with difficult technique. Kayageum has raw silk strings that have a long sustain, but with a darker and musky sound. It traditionally has extremely wide vibrato and it has a very complex voice that makes it not as flashy as any of the others but certainly it is capable of being a much deeper instrument. The koto used to have silk string until recently, when they were replaced by nylon. The koto has a similar depth to the kayageum, but the Sawai style has tightened the strings a lot and substantially raised the level of virtuosity well beyond that of any other school. So in their style the koto is capable of amazing virtuosity, but has that very sharp short sound. It has lost the ability to express the intricacies in pitch manipulation in the sustain that the dan tranh or zheng has.
MH Do you consciously pick one instrument over another when you want to convey a certain mood.
RRR Well, of course. For me, these instruments are what using scales is for other people. People say I’m going to play in this scale, or use this technique, to get this. I’ll switch instruments for that. Part of my choice of instruments—rather the whole crazy thing of going around the world to study these instruments—is that I was looking for voices and expressions for things that I had inside of me. I would go to a culture and hear something, and that would be eighty per cent there, but not all of it. Then I’d check out the other families and hear a different voice, which was maybe 70 per cent there. So in my search to find music, I found things that were close, but didn’t completely pin it. So I started picking them up, moving them around, doing things that I wanted them to do, and then I could start finding my voice.
In picking up the zheng, for instance, I get expressions from the zheng that I can’t get from any other instrument. I have certain places I can go, freedoms that I have with the instrument that nothing else will match. If I then switch to kayageum, for instance—because I don’t really play koto very much—but I do play kayageum a lot...
MH That’s the question I’m trying to get at—why one over another? what exactly are the characteristics we’re talking about here that motivate your affinities and choices. For example, can you say something like the koto is wound tighter than the others, or whatever?
RRR Actually, it’s more of a conscious decision based on the fact that the people who are contemporizing the koto now are doing stuff that I would love to do, and they’re already well along the way of that. So I don’t need to do it, because I can just put on one of their CDs and feel totally satisfied.
MH So you’re looking to develop things that have yet to be more developed.
RRR Yeah, I’m wanting to hear things that satisfy me, and if I don’t hear it, I create it. I love sitar music, and I love sarod—and I don’t need to learn those instruments, because there are so many phenomenal players already doing amazing stuff.
MH So in a way you’re basically exploring out a niche as much as anything else, something that nobody else is doing?
RRR I’ve never thought of it that way. I’m not trying to carve a place for myself in the world as much as I’m trying to find in the world the things that make me feel really good. My motivation is really kind of selfish in that sense, of initially going after these instruments. I’m wanting to create a voice, to voice something I have inside of me, or find a voice for that, and say “Ah, that’s how I feel!”
MH To sort of widen the distinction I’m thinking of here, do you, for instance, pick up wind instruments for certain purposes that are unique to your body? sheerly physical needs to blow rather than pluck strings in a given moment?
RRR Sure. To go back to the kayageum, I love Korean music, I think it’s really wonderful, but when I got my hands on the kayageum, it was SUCH an expressive instrument, and in a far more intimate way than the zheng is. The zheng is a really outward, dynamic instrument; the kayageum I find to be more conversational, and a bit more introspective.
MH Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that, because on your CD Bamboo, Silk, Stone, that’s what you played most of the time, it seemed.
RRR Right. I love the vocal quality this instrument has, I love the kind of expression it has: a darker, smokier sound, in a way, and I really enjoy that—but I’ve always felt frustrated by what I’ve heard from Korea with it, because I felt that the instrument could just do far more things than it was. Also, the way the Koreans themselves were contemporizing it, I felt, took a lot of the soul out of the instrument, a lot of the potential. It became Westernized, and a lot of the subtleties were taken out.
MH You mean in the conservatories?
RRR Yeah, and there’s a famous composer and kayageum performer named Hwang Byung Ki, who made a big stir by doing these very mellow, so to speak, Western-type compositions. You know, he was an improviser as well, and he would do some improvs that were kind of wild and out there, which was pretty cool...but a lot of his compositions I felt took a lot of the fire out of the Korean music. But they were very interesting. But now that style of composition is becoming very big in Korea, and when you hear a contemporary kayageum, it’s heavily influenced by his music. The fire and passion that was in traditional Korean kayageum music is sort of dying away.
So I’ve taken my fire and passion—not that I consider myself a stellar kayageum player compared to some of the players in Korea—but I’ve found my own expression on the instrument, which I really like and enjoy. I find it really is a valid voice for the instrument, whether or not anybody else considers it that.
MH How was your experience with Jin Hi Kim, then? Did she respond well to it?
RRR Yeah, Jin Hi responded very well to my kayageum playing. She really enjoyed it. It was very interesting playing with her, because I realized something. You know, I’ve listened to a lot of people playing with Jin Hi, and I notice that a lot of people coming from the West will play with a sense of a four rhythm: or you cut it in half, then you cut it in half again, and so on. In Korea, even if they cut it in half, they still tend to play in kind of a triple meter. So you’ll play in threes, and if you cut it in half, you’re playing in nines, or sixes, or twelves, so you still have this three feel. Jin Hi has that, instinctively, being Korean, and growing up Korean, as a Korean musician.
Often, in her recordings you’ll hear her playing with a 3 feel, and the western musicians playing with a 4 feel. Unless they’re meeting in a sort of a 12 somehow, sometimes the two bump into each other. Some of her recordings that are phenomenal I think are because the people have just clicked into the three. So I consciously approached playing with Jin Hi with more of a 3 feel. So when I play with her, for me it’s very very easy, and quite wonderful to do. I really enjoy it.
MH To try and get to the gist of my question without forcing the answer...do you have sort of a general picture inside of all these different cultures that you didn’t have before? maybe as even sort of a stereotype? Like, the Chinese are this way, the Korean that, the Japanese another, the Malaysian, whatever. I mean, you say the instrument is intimate and smoky, and that’s one thing that appeals to you. How many other little such characterizations might you give me like that? I remember Mei saying something about the one-string instrument being the philosopher’s instrument, the ancient qin scholar’s?...
RRR Actually, in China it was the 7-string instrument, the qin, that was the philosopher’s instrument. I play a 1-string instrument, the ichigenkin from Japan, which is thought to be a descendant of the 7-string instrument qin from China. It also carries the same philosophy as the 7-string instrument qin does.
MH So when you play that, for instance, just as you are drawn to the smoky sound and emotional intimacy of the kayageum, do you in this instrument find a rarefied intellectual experience because of the sound and nature of the instrument itself somehow?
RRR I wouldn’t say rarefied intellectual, because it’s a deeply philosophical instrument. For me, that particular instrument is a powerful voice of that Taoist, Zen philosophy that I’ve inherently had my whole life. For me, this is the voice of sort of the depth of my soul. It’s a very powerful instrument.
MH So in other words, when you play it for yourself, you kind of use it in the same way it’s been used traditionally.
RRR Absolutely. That was my interest in the instrument; when I heard it, I went, wow, that’s the one, that’s it.
MH Can you tell me what it is about the mechanics of it, or the construction of it, that actually makes it be that? What musical thing makes it be that?
RRR the ichigenkin doesn’t have a resonating body. It’s a simple board with a peg and a string.
MH It sounds like the Pythagorean monochord.
RRR Well, yeah, but this is a silk string, rather than a gut string on it. And the method of playing it is not necessarily easy, but because it has this silk string, it’s capable of a wide range of very subtle, subtle voices. Extremely subtle. Making a tiny movement on this instrument, it can be...not necessarily heard so much as sensed. It seems to just cut right down into people’s souls. Often when I’m playing this instrument, people are coming up and going, wow, that’s just incredible; it just transports you. What are all the single physiological reasons for that, I’m not really sure; it just does. I think part of it is that it is the utmost of simplicity. You’re not doing wide tremolos on the thing, you’re not doing all these fancy techniques, it’s just the ultimate in simplicity, just bare bones.
MH That’s a good answer, I can understand that. I’m familiar enough with stringed instruments to know the feel of gut strings, wound nylon, and wound steel and so on. But the idea of a silk string...I’ve never even touched one.
RRR They’re raw silk, so they’re kind of like gut, but it has a different feel. And it is wound, so...it just has something very special to it. You know, part of the philosophy of this instrument is that it hides nothing. It reveals everything in the musician; there’s no way to hide, there’s nothing to hide behind. It shows every nuance of what you are as a performer. Any insecurity that’s there, any fear, any joy, any sorrow—all of those things are present in every single note you play. It becomes a very powerful expression, where every single note is an aspect of yourself.
MH So in a way, to master this instrument, or to play it to your own satisfaction, you’re working more on yourself as a person than you are on an instrument.
RRR Absolutely. It’s not about the instrument, it’s about this relationship with you and the world. This instrument also uses what in Japanese philosophy is essential in music, which is the concept of “ma,” which is the aspect of Nothingness that is full. The concept originally came from India, from the Golden Sutra: you find the sound in the silence and the silence in the sound.
MH Yeah, I remember this being a Sanskrit word root, too—ma, plus some other word...
RRR Right. When it comes to Japan, ma is used in Shinto religion to describe the space where a spirit lives, and it’s an infinite space inside a physical object. So you’ll see a rock, and a spirit lives in that rock, but if you could enter that rock, you’re in an infinite space. So there’s this huge sense of space with the note of that instrument. Then between the notes, when you stop playing that note, there should be this silence; but that silence is not empty, it should be full of everything that’s within that nothingness. It should be full of meaning, and there’s a held presence there. So you cannot let the silence drop within the sound, and you cannot let the sound drop within the silence.
MH This really does sound like the Tao—and also like physics, with all the space inside matter and everything.
RRR Exactly. That’s part of the essential aspect of this instrument, is that you’ve come to a point where you’re confronting all of those real things that are at the heart of our world, and our experiences, and our lives: the science, the physics, the spirituality, the philosophy—it’s all present in this instrument. That’s what makes it so powerful.
MH You said this Taoist philosophy is what’s been motivating you all your life. I’d like to go back into a little bit of that, because you include your early history on your website. I’m thinking of the part where you talked about reading all the books, and how the Japanese and the Chinese were your favorites even back then at age 12 and 13. Do you remember what it was about them then that you liked so much that made them your favorites? This was presumably before you ever started playing music much, right?
RRR Well, I was playing accordion and saxophone in the schools, but I didn’t find them satisfying, was searching for something, even at that age. I felt I was in the wrong body as a young kid, and I didn’t know why. I just felt that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and didn’t know what was going on. I always felt that way. So when I started reading texts on Asia, and Chinese poetry—the first Chinese poem I ever read, I went, Wow—this has something to do with me, I relate to this. So I just got as much as I could, and there were definitely aspects of me in there.
Again, though, I felt that something was not quite right, because I was a contemporary person living in a contemporary world, but there was definitely a lot of the Asian poetry and philosophy that voiced who I am. Everybody tends to think that I’m reincarnated Japanese, at this point; that must have been where I was last time.
My first ichigenkin teacher, Chie Yamada used to yell at me when I was playing. She would literally yell, “Why aren’t you Japanese? You should be Japanese! You play better—no—you play almost as good as Japanese.” She’d say, “You’re not white! You’re not white! You’re only white on the outside, you’re not white at all!” And she was so angry at this, and so regularly angry at this, that at almost every lesson she would break out into this.
MH That’s funny.
RRR She was dying of cancer when I was studying with her intensely. Her husband didn’t want me to study with her, one, because she was sick, two, because he didn’t want to waste her time. You know, I was a white guy; he just thought I was there for some kind of fun or something like that. But after she passed away, he gave me her instrument, which is a huge honor; and he told me that I had kept her alive, and thanked me for that.
It was a pretty powerful time. He said that I was her top student, of all of her students...and he introduced me, therefore, to this school in Tokyo, which is how I established my rapport with the school in Tokyo. When I went there, I came with this high recommendation from him. They were shocked to meet me, because when they met me, we would talk about the instrument, and I had all this philosophy. Part of the philosophy is my philosophy, what I had; part of it was what was given to me by Yamada-sensei (“sensei” means “teacher” in Japanese) because she taught me an awful lot about ichigenkin.
So I went to Tokyo, and I had already written a couple of graphic scores for the instrument. They were really shocked by me. A number of times they made what I consider the very typical Japanese comment: they’d say, “Randy-san, we are very, very sorry that you have come to Japan so late. We feel very, very bad, because the founder of our school, Tokuhiro Taimu, would have really enjoyed to meet you.” Well, he died in 1921.
Then one day I was introducing Yuji Takahashi, famous for playing some of the Xenakis pieces faster and lighter than anybody. [See http:/ / en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Aki_Takahashi] He was the top pianist in his day, and he gave it up just to be a composer. He likes to write for Japanese instruments; he’s quite a contemporary composer, and a very prominent one in Japan. He was interested in ichigenkin, so I took him to the ichigenkin school, to introduce him to the ichigenkin, with the hopes that he would maybe write a piece for them, because this would be really good for them.
They were wanting to know how to help preserve the instrument, and I said, well, get young people involved and have composers write for it. You know, it ups the profile. They didn’t know how to do that, so I brought Yuji over to help do that. While I was there with Yuji, I asked could I improvise a little tiny bit on the ichigenkin, to show Yuji some of the contemporary techniques on the instrument that I know; at least then, you can show him some of the notation, or help him devise notation for it, so he doesn’t make new things that are awkward for you. They said sure, so I sat down and did about a 3- or 4-minute improvisation...until the Iemoto (the grand master of the style) went—[gasps]
I don’t know if you know much about Japanese culture, but that is not a good sound in Japanese culture, at all. Immediately upon that, I stopped playing, just bowed my head and was still. Yuji immediately went and looked out the window, found something very fascinating that took his attention for a good ten minutes out there. The Iemoto, the hereditary grand master, and the Dai sensei, the head teacher, had a rapid-fire conversation, very heated, and finally they came to a decision. At which point, they called Yuji and I to their attention again. They laid out a big score on the table, and they said, “Randy-san, you have just played a number of the sections of this score. This is a score that is only show to the head teacher and the Iemoto; we don’t usually show this to students until they reach a certain point...but you’ve just played a whole bunch of these sections, so we need to show you what you just did.” So they went through for a good hour, pointing out “you just played this, and you just played this, and did this, this, and this—all these little things that I did, from a score written by the founder.
They were totally shocked. The next day, the Iemoto called me up. Her memory of this is a bit hazy now, but I remember it very clearly. She said, “Randy-san...uh, uh...how did you do that? How did you play those parts of the score?” So I’m thinking, well, okay: is she worried that I’m the reincarnation of the founder or something? Because there was this real trepidation in her voice. So I said, “Oh, easy—through improvisation.” I hear this big sigh, like, oh thank God; there was a huge relief on the other end. That would be very frightening for them, that this white guy is the reincarnation of their founder (laughter). It would be horrendous for a Japanese.
MH Is that part of their worldview, that they were even thinking that way? the possibility of a Tibetan-style reincarnation?
RRR I don’t know. I think because I had talked so much of the philosophy, and was so similar in my thoughts to what they knew of the founder; then I come along and play these bits of his piece...I think all those things came together with them thinking this is what’s gotta be going on, you know. Whether or not they believe in reincarnation at all, it’s just too many coincidences.
Then they asked me, “Do you think then that the founder must have improvised to find this?” I said, “He is a composer; yes, composers do improvise, in a sense, to find stuff. To get all those techniques—and these are quite a few extended techniques—he had to be experimenting on the instrument, and that experimentation is usually called improvisation. So yeah, I think he probably improvised. He probably made up pieces on the spot, or tried things out to write them down. Then the Iemoto said, “Then Seikyodo Ichigenkin (the name of their style) must include improvisation. Can you teach me to improvise?” I said sure. I started to teach her how to improvise, and we did a concert at the Canadian Embassy in Japan, in Tokyo, doing one piece in which both of us were improvising. We created a small structure and improvised around it. She took to it very, very quickly.
MH How many years were you with the woman first, who was dying?
RRR I’d gone and studied with her twice, only twice.
MH I’m trying to get us sort of a timeline of how your training evolved chronologically. Also, any book that you think might be good for me to read, that would fill me in on the general history of these countries and places.
RRR Garland’s East Asia book would be the best for the musical angles on all this stuff.
MH How do your pieces generally form themselves for improvisations and collaborations and so on? For instance, the things you did on Bamboo, Silk, Stone. Some of them would be your byline, another Jin Hi Kim’s, and another with the three of you...what’s the general modus operandi? I know you have graphic scores, but you probably don’t have a chart for every single thing you do.
RRR No, it depends on who I’m playing with, and on what musical style they tend to work with and where their comfort zones are. Often I will go to them, rather than make them come to me. It’s often difficult for people to relate to my instruments. Jin Hi was very easy, because I was playing kayageum. But I was playing prepared kayageum, which worked really well with her electric komungo that she was using at the time.
MH Yeah, I thought the sound was really good. It seemed like she was basically underpinning you with a lot of the electronic drone...
RRR Actually, surprisingly, there was such a blend of the two of us that unless you really know who was doing what, you can’t really tell who was who. A lot of people say, “oh wow, that’s you,” and I say, “no, that’s Jin Hi.” Or “that’s Jin Hi”—“no, that’s me.” It’s really hard to tell, because some of the sounds just...you think it’s coming out of one instrument, but it’s not. It’s kind of tricky. So it was a really wonderful marriage, I think, of those two sounds.
The preparations I used on it were alligator clips, and some chopsticks bound with elastics, little bits of them, which I put on the strings in different places. Different sizes, different shapes, getting different sounds; some are bound, some are not.
MH Did you get this whole idea of preparing your stringed instruments from John Cage? Or was that just something that was in the air, or what?
RRR I’d been preparing instruments for years, since I was a kid; I always did that, just naturally, just to get different effects.
To continue about improvising with other people, if I’m playing with people who are more structurally oriented, then we’ll work within the structure. If I’m playing with people who are free, it’s very easy for me just to play free. So with the ichigenkin master, we created a small structure that had a couple of cues of when to go here, and when to go there, and we played on that. A lot of the pieces that Mei and I do are that—a little bit more complex structures, but there’s a structure, kind of like a “head,” or cue points for who’s switching to what, and cues to different things, different motifs, then also places for just pure improvisation.
Playing with people like Barry Guy or Robert Dick, or Sainkho Namtchylak, it was just like pick up the instrument and go. They’re all very used to that, and so that’s very easy to do.
MH That’s what I figured was the modus operandi on Gudira. So again, my question was, what about with the titles afterwards? Is that the same process that we talked about already?
MH It’s the same thing I did with the Ume CD, I did it with the CD I did with Pauline Oliveros. I wrote a whole bunch of names, sent it off to everybody—usually the pieces were related to me—and they made changes, sometimes radical ones. With Gudira, I sent off a whole bunch of stuff, and it came back from Barry, saying “forget that, that’s too West Coast; I want something a little more out there.” So he was the one who came up with these Joycean titles like “Kokopelli Dook” and other made-up words. Barry went to Finnegan’s Wake, I think, and this is where he got all those terms from.
MH But all these titles came after the music?
RRR Yes. For Bamboo, Silk, and Stone, that isn’t true; some titles were thematic, like the “White Room, Three Shadows.” I did a series of improvisatory pieces for dan bau, which I called the White room series. I had one that I did at EXPO 88 Brisbane and EXPO92 Seville that I called “White Room, Three Balls Bouncing,” for didjeridu and dan bau, which I played simultaneously. On the piece I did with Jin Hi, I also played the kayageum and the dan bau at the same time, switching back and forth between the two instruments.
MH Would you characterize the dan bau as something of a Vietnamese version of the ichigenkin?
RRR No, I just think it’s the world’s ultimate whammy bar.
MH So the fact that it’s only got one string doesn’t make it like the other?
RRR No, not at all; it has nowhere near the same kind of expression. The expression of dan bau is really wonderful, in itself; it’s a stunningly beautiful instrument, but it’s so much lighter than the ichigenkin, philosophically.
Vietnamese music has this very floral kind of ornamentation that is very fast, very light, very fluid—and very tricky to get. When Mei was studying in Viet Nam that was one of the things, to try and get the Vietnamese style of bending strings. All their bends are quite complex, and very stylized. That’s the unique aspect of Vietnamese music, the very floral bends.
We never completed that line. The very idiomatic style of Korean musics is that you’re trying to create a cry; your notes are halfway between the cry of pleasure and the cry of pain. It’s just sitting right on that line. It’s that kind of passion—a deep, powerful emotion that comes to that point that’s refined to the point where pleasure and pain are poised right there on that edge, and you just ride that edge, and it gets very exciting.
Koto music, then, is very square; if you listen to the timing of it, it’s very, very square. It doesn’t tend to move around very much; there’s not as much expression there. Expression is all very confined and restrained, which is very much the Japanese culture. Koreans eat garlic and kim chee; they are a much more fiery people generally. If you watch the Korean Parliament on TV, you see fights happening. Buttons are pushed, and people are at each other. In braod generalities, that’s something of the Korean termperament, whereas the Japanese temperament is less passionate, more constrained, purposeful, which is very much in the music.
The zheng music tends to be quite light, but the problem is we don’t hear what the older zheng pieces sounded like, because it’s all been changed by the Cultural Revolution. The zheng music has become this trying-to-be-uplifting, show-offy kind of shallow stuff, as if to say, “Here I am, or here this is—look at the greatness of the homeland” or something like that. There are these kinds of pieces that sound like those Chinese army paintings look, with everybody in these poses. When we go back to the older zheng pieces, that’s where you start finding the depth of the pieces, and expression.
And in the qin music; listening to those pieces, you find that philosophical depth again, which you can see in the ichigenkin, and that’s where you find in China, by listening to the qin music, and some of the older zheng pieces. You find that depth again....
MH I’m curious to know if you actually taught Mei about things Asian, because you have a close bond with her, and you have the close bond with China and the other countries. Since you’re coming at it as a Westerner, and with your own involvement with her, is there anything that you’ve taught her as a native Chinese person about her own culture or history that she didn’t know before?
RRR I’d really love to toot my horn and wave my flag and say yes, I did, but the answer is no. Mei came with a lot of awareness; she was looking for this stuff herself, as I think she said to you; she was looking for these things even in China, something more. She knew about the old qin music, and I think she had an appreciation of it. I think coming here gave her the freedom to experience that even more, and to re-appreciate her culture from a different perspective. I was not so much a teacher of this as I was a support and reinforcement, because these are things that I believed in, and we found a commonality in that. Also, I had misconceptions and wrong information about China, which she was very quick to correct.
At the same time, I would express things from a deeply philosophical position, and I don’t know how much she related to that personally...but it seemed to come out of her more, and she was finding her voice in that...it didn’t seem to me that it was coming from me as much as it was coming from deep within her and her own experience. We constantly agree on these things; it feels like we’re walking down this road together.
MH It’s interesting to me, just on the surface of it how you’re a husband-and-wife team, and then there’s also Jin Hi Kim and Joseph Celli, and George Lewis and Miya Masaoka. It makes sense, I guess, but it’s something you notice, too. It seems like a good context to explore the depths of this particular kind of music, especially, when you think about what it’s about and what it requires. It’s sort of like deep-psychological exploration, which is what a serious relationship forces you into. And the Taoist, natural-organic approach to music-making is more like a healthy physical bond than a more socially scripted and determined one.
I was similarly curious about the histories of your childhood that you both revealed, in the sense that they both involved some sort of trauma.
RRR Oh, not some sort of trauma...
MH Well, sure, yours was extreme—you gave more information than she did—but she also mentioned the harshness of the music during the Cultural Revolution stuff that she grew up around, and how that drove her in the direction she went with the zheng—which brings up the whole question, you know, of what is the payoff for people who get involved with this music, and which kinds of people turn to it, and for what reasons?
RRR It seems to me that everybody in this type of music tends to be very much an individual. They all have their worlds that they create, and they don’t all meet together in those worlds. Sometimes they’re so highly individualistic. I find because of the instruments I play, a lot of people don’t know how to relate to me. If I was a saxophone player, yeah, they’d play with me right away; it’s easy, they can understand what I’m doing. If I come with a Japanese mouth organ, or a nose flute or something, they’ve got no clue.
There are a lot of biases. Some of the more senior players don’t seem to have a problem, but...I do run into a cultural bias. People are really excited that Mei will improvise on the zheng, because here’s somebody from China who can take her instrument beyond it’s usual role. Very few people relate to the fact that I’ve been playing the zheng for 20 years now, and have been doing contemporary music on it. Part of the reason is that they think I’m not good at it, because I’m white. I’m a Canadian guy playing a Chinese instrument. “You can’t really voice anything on this instrument.”
But as Mei said, when she first heard me playing this, which was the Gudira CD, she just went “Wow! I’d never heard the zheng do that before! That’s something!” First, when she said that, I knew that here’s a person with ears, because if she can, first, listen to a creative improv for the first time, and find something in it that’s inspiring...that’s a person with ears. Second, that she could hear what I was doing, where nobody else had ever heard what I was doing.
MH Well, she’s involved with the instrument too, herself.
RRR Yeah. But I’ve played my music for a lot of people who were involved with the instrument, and none of them cared—which is why when I first met her, I wasn’t interested in playing with another Chinese player.
MH Now that we’re on that subject, can you give me the fullest picture of what kind of resistances and attitudes you were referring to when you said that to her? I remember in your first email to me you said something about people being against you...and I assumed you meant the traditionalists, who didn’t want to see their instruments played unconventionally.
RRR No. I’ve fought an uphill battle for years and years and years. It’s not so much the traditionalists in Asia, it’s the traditionalists here—and they aren’t the traditionalists who are of the ethnicity of the tradition they’re trying to protect or whatever. It tends to be what I would call prejudice in the music scene as a whole.
MH How do you mean—world music, jazz, new music...?
RRR Yep, all of those. I’m constantly running into walls, and people who won’t give me the opportunity they’ll give somebody else, although often I’m the better performer, or just as good. It’s about what it looks like, right, it’s not about what it is. A Chinese woman playing free improv on a Chinese instrument is a lot more exciting than a white guy, a white male playing a Chinese instrument and doing free improv. People automatically assume that the woman is going to be better.
But you know, we’re both different voices. I’ve spent many years on this instrument; I have my own voice on it. It’s like Ornette Coleman and Peter Broetzmann have different voices on their horns. Who’s better? Some people say Ornette’s better, but I don’t know... Broetzmann’s pretty cool.
MH So that’s been a big part of your journey here, huh?
RRR From my perspective, these are expressions of my voice. These are my tools of expression. If somebody wants to use a paint brush, or somebody else wants to use a trombone, or dismantle the trombone and yell through the bell, and that’s the expression of their voice, then that’s fine. Just don’t deny me mine because of my race. People denied black people the chance to play their music because of their race. I’m certainly not going to say I’ve had the struggles of any black musician ever, but I’ve had my own struggles because of the fact of choosing the instruments I do, with my race, and sometimes even my gender.
MH What you’re saying really reminds me of what I’ve heard over the years—and experienced a little bit myself, too—from white jazz musicians I’ve interviewed, just because of the whole thing of, you know, you’re just not quite as good as the black guys. It’s sort of the same kind of mindset.
RRR Yeah, and it’s all idiocy. Pure lunacy. Are you saying that Benny Goodman should have never played an instrument?
MH But it has been a motif in the history of the music; it’s something you bump up against. Braxton’s never been like that at all, so I’ve been lucky to be exposed to the other side of it.
RRR The funny thing is that I’ve had a lot of bias about me playing an instrument here. But I’ll go to Asia and play that instrument, and people go crazy over it. Totally accepting the fact, and excited about it, that I’ve studied their instrument, learned something about it, can actually play. If I play a recognized piece, that’s great; if I play something wild and crazy, that’s great. They’re just very excited that I’m playing their instrument.
MH Did you see that film called Genghis Blues?
RRR I know about it; I never saw it.
MH Same kind of thing: a guy who fell in love with a foreign music, and connected with its original people. That’s very much what I want my book to be about: people who fall in love with music cross-culturally.
RRR Right. What is it that I’m doing that is so wrong in that? I’m not out there representing these cultures; I’m not saying “I am a Chinese musician playing Chinese music.” If I ever do play Chinese music, I’m usually playing it with a Chinese performer. I don’t present myself as the best at playing these instruments—far from it; I’m well aware of what great Chinese musicians are. There are, though, certain things that I have achieved—like on ichigenkin. I still haven’t learned all the traditional repertoire—I do have somewhat of an interest in it, but that’s not really my personal expression.
But I do have the philosophy of the instrument; I hold things that I’m still giving to the school in Tokyo; the current Iemoto is still learning things from me. I’m not so much in the teacher position now, I’m more of a consultant...but I feel that I can definitely go and represent this instrument onstage, because I can express something on this instrument that nobody else can. I’m not doing it as a Japanese person, I’m doing it as a person playing this amazing instrument.
MH It must be safe to say, though, that you also have allies in your work, because you’ve recorded with those various people who must be in your corner with this project, right?
RRR Yes—but it’s interesting to me that the people who see me for who I am, who can totally relate to what I do, tend to be some of the top people in the business. That’s not a comment about me as much as a comment about the kind of awareness you have to have to be one of the top people in the business. You’ve already broken down those barriers; you don’t see the world in the same way. A lot of the younger players—and I find this very much in Vancouver—they just don’t know how to relate to me, and they just don’t relate to me.
MH You think of it in generational terms?
RRR Yes...and in terms of once you’ve reached a certain awareness as an artist...I mean, talking to Pauline Oliveros, it was like, fine, I was totally taken for who I am. Pauline does that; she’s such an opening, welcoming person. Stu Dempster, Bill Smith...
MH What’s interesting to me about this for my book is that, in a way, I’m bringing in the generational element as being something that is bringing more cultures together. You’re talking about young people who are more against that, or conservative about it or something.
RRR Far more, I find.
MH Some of the other people I’ve talked to, it’s been more about the young people being the ones who are doing that more.
RRR Well, that’s just my experience; I’m sure others have different experiences and perspectives. It’s funny. I was booked to play with Barry Guy and Robert Dick at the Vancouver Jazz Festival. Russ Summers, who runs the label Gudira is on (Nuscope) is the guy who set this up; he had heard me play with Barry and Sainkho Namtchylak, so he wanted to put Barry and me and a horn player on the same stage. He originally wanted Vinny Golia to play with us, but he was busy, so he got Robert Dick.
Robert Dick didn’t know me from a hole in the ground. All of a sudden we’re onstage, and I’m sitting here with all these weird instruments, long hair, West Coast guy in a West Coast festival...a local kid. So he didn’t really know much about me. We played; it was a great set. I had said, “By the way, Robert, one of the instruments I’d like to play is the ney, you know, the Middle Eastern flute. Do you mind?” He said, “No, no; if it’s right, go ahead and go for it.” Because I didn’t want to break into his territory; I didn’t know who he was about these kinds of things. So after we finish, and all the applause and all that, he just turned to me and said, “Well—you’re no faker.”
So, you know, it kind of summed up the kind of biases other people might have on first sight, but in this case it was total acceptance; he heard me play, and said fine. So we’ve been trying to get together and do something since. We’re really wanting to play more together; I really connected well with him.
MH Yeah, I could tell on that CD; it was quite the romp. It’s just the kind of music most challenging to the writer in me.
RRR The first time I played with Barry—a guy named Eric Rosenzweig got me together with him. I think there’s a little story on my site about that. Eric had wanted to do this electronic thing, knew our work, and wanted Barry and me and Sainkho to play with their sort of miniaturized interactive video computer system thing, called. Fleabotics It was quite an exciting project, and it brought Barry and Sainko and I together. The first time I played with Barry, I just ran out of materials so quickly.
MH Yeah, he’s something.
RRR Oh! I was astounded. It’s like here’s me, who had regularly gone and walked through the Cascade Mountains or something like that—all of the sudden I’m facing the Himalayas! Woops, this is a different magnitude! I’d gone to the peaks of mountains before, but not that high. So I just went home and I just busted my butt, just trying to increase my palette by listening to as much as I could, just work work work work work...so that the next time I was with him, I could stand up and...but it was funny, though...with both Barry and Sainkho, I didn’t really come out.
These are two monsters onstage. You know what Barry’s like, he takes up 110% of the space. Not crowding it, that’s just what he does. There’s lots of room for anybody else, if you know how to move through it. And Sainkho did the same thing...she would sometimes bump into Barry, because she also was used to taking up all the space. So the two of them sometimes would fight (energywise); in our rehearsals, that’s what was happening. So I just started taking what Sainkho gave, and I would give it to Barry, and got what Barry gave and gave it to Sainkho. I would just sit there and translate for both of them, just to tie the two of them together; that’s just all of how I saw my role. We did two tours together, and that’s what I did. I pulled these two together to make us a trio. Occasionally I’d come out for a little tiny bit—30 seconds here, a minute here, nothing extended. Those two were onstage, and I was just tying it together.
It was really interesting. We played at the Victo festival in Quebec; it was the last stop of a tour, it was a big show—or maybe it was Montreal, one of those places. Anyway, there was all of this press from New York: a giant crowd of press around Barry, and a giant crowd of press around Sainkho...and there’s nobody around me. I just casually packed up my instruments and walked offstage...and there was Margaret Leng-Teng, the pianist who interpreted all the Cage scores; Malcolm Goldstein I think was there...and a number of other really amazing performers, and they just came up and said wow, good job, that was great, that was fantastic, you did excellent. It was only the musicians who saw me. For me, that was worth ten times as much as some press jockey coming up.
MH I’ve seen them together with musicians where there was no press around—Sainkho and Barry. Fame is just another funny thing in the mix there. You might have it someday more than you do now, and be sorry you do...
RRR It’s only useful to get me another gig.
RRR sent me an email after the first session:
Via Email, after phone interview:
A few things that I have been thinking about since the interview.
1. As I have said that I experienced a lot of backward racism on playing these instruments, and I must say that I understand this, as I think it is part of human nature and the issue of ownership. Some people accuse me of cultural appropriation, but this brings up issues of Dominant culture and Colonialism. I gave a lecture on this at UMICH Ann Arbor. Basically I don't represent the cultures these instruments come from but use them (these instruments) as my personal expression. I do this with full knowledge of the culture as I study the cultures. I carefully take the instruments forward into the future as I see it, while retaining many of their cultural aspects; so I don't try to take the instrument totally out of its context. And I always say that I will drop my instruments when Yo Yo Ma gets off the cello.
I believe one of the reasons that many people in the "biz" aren't quite sure about me is that I haven't made a name for myself first in playing a western instrument. Instead, I have always specialized on non-western instruments. That said, I did attend the Creative Music Workshop playing an Appalachian dulcimer. Most of the students thought it was ridiculous and scoffed at me, but all the teachers accepted me and pushed me to conquer any limitation of the instrument. I also show up at a gig with things that no-one has ever seen before, so that always seems to confuse the issue. But Mike, to put it frankly, I was never into this music to be accepted or to win a popularity contest. I choose these instruments as they expressed something in my soul. I played what I needed to, and if someone can ear it, great; if not, not my problem.
2. A very important part of my music is my sense of "spirituality", or how I interact with the world. I was born with very bad eyes, I was born into a often violently abusive family. I was born to a Scottish mother who always had a 6th sense about her (she knew when company was coming and would put the tea on so it was ready just at the moment when there was a knock at the door by someone just driving by). Somehow I have developed some extra senses that I don't talk about much, as often people don't believe that I have them, and they make people feel uncomfortable. I think because of my bad eyesight and abusive family I developed a way to sense what people were feeling without seeing them or hearing them. It is very strange, and not an easy thing to be aware of, because I am often aware of people's deeper emotions, even when they are not. These helped me anticipate potential threats, as I could feel if someone was coming to hurt me, even if I couldn’t see them. So now if someone comes up to me smiling I might be very wary of them if I am sensing something other than a smile inside them (maybe they just has a fight with someone or their taxes are due?), so often I was thought of as a bit strange as I reacted differently to people than everyone else did. Growing up with this was confusing and difficult, and it brought with it other awarenesses. I could sense many things that most people where not aware of; without my glasses, I saw things that other people couldn't, and had microscopic vision (I could see a eyelash on a screen door 100 feet away, yet I couldn't see even a single word on a book in front of me). Even with glasses I could not see things clearly (which is why staff notation is difficult for me, as the staff lines move and wave). I just saw the world in many different ways than most people. And still do. You would think this would draw me to the New Age folks, but what I saw and what they described never matched. I seemed to have a vision of the world that allowed me to see beyond our immediate reality, and so when I discovered the Tao Te Qing by Lao Tse, I finally found something that related to what I saw daily. My exploration of spiritual writings was intense and thorough reading every text of every major and many minor spiritual practices, and I still find the Taoist and some of the Zen approach closest to what I experience. As this is literally how I see the world daily, this is a big part of me.
The point of this is that for me improvisation is a very important part of how I relate to this world that I see. My eyes see emotions shifting and changing within people much like dried leaves or shifting snow in a windstorm. My ears hear a constantly shifting soundscape, in which even though there are patterns that seem to repeat, nothing is ever the same. If I play a written score, it seems that the world keeps tugging at the notes, wanting them to respond to the world around. With improv, I can dance with the world, the sounds the sights the feelings. I can respond to the inner feelings of my audience, I can move with the constant shifts in what I see, hear and sense, I can constantly ride the shifting eddies and currents that I constantly feel tug at my sense and soul. I feel that through improvisation I am fully engaging with the world, not just the one that most people live in, but the extended world that I live in and that the books on philosophy constantly allude to. Improvisation is a spiritual experience that is not intellectualized or mystified, but an immediate experience of the mysteries of life, alive and present in the room for all to share.
3. Because of my eyes, my musical training has big holes in it, and I have compensated. But these gaps have given me the freedom to embrace other musical cultures in a deeper way as they did not have to compete, or fight with what I had already learned from western training. My training on ichigenkin just seemed such a perfect fit, as well as many other instruments. Rather than specializing on an instrument, I became a generalist, which has proven to be valuable as I can see connections between instruments and culture that specialists miss or ignore. This has led me to be a consultant for museums, etc., and has led me to exploring the magic of instruments from some pretty remote places. A by-product of this is that I have seen that there is a deep drive in humans to make music and they will create instruments out of anything in their environment. In this rapidly shrinking world, we are seeing less diversity in music, and instruments are disappearing at an alarming rate. Flutes or lutes that only play one or two notes are thought of as useless, and yet their voices are so unique and speak music that no other instrument can. I try to find these instruments, and take great joy in voicing them and thrill to hear them speak. It is part of a life disappearing, yet when these instruments speak it is magic. Improvisationalists and especially those that continue to break the barriers of convention are the people that are keeping the diversity of life alive. And if you believe in Darwin, then diversity is essential for survival.
and this in response to my question about his CD with Pauline Oliveros:
There never were liner notes for that CD. These were all recorded using Pauline Oliveros' Expanded Instrument System (http://www.pofinc.org/EIShome.html). Pauline played accordion on all tracks, I played:
Thai khaen on Whispers in the Ears of Night
Vietnamese dan bau on Silence Echoes
Japanese sho on In The Shadow of the Phoenix
Thai khaen on A Thousand Quiet Mountains
I was an Artist in Residence at the Pauline Oliveros Foundation in upstate New York and Pauline showed me her system the first day, and on the second day we went in a recorded this cd. We had recorded everything but Silence Echoes before lunch, went out and had a good vegetarian mexican meal and then came back to record Silence Echoes. The piece was so hypnotic that everyone there, Pauline, myself, Paniotis (who was working the board) and David Gamper, all started to go deep into trance, It was David Gamper that realized what was going on as all our heads were slumped over our instruments and we were slowly stopping. David woke us all up before we melted into the ether!
What was exciting about this system is that it allowed us to bend the notes on our instruments, something otherwise impossible on the khaen, sho and accordion.
Notes on the instruments are on www.asza.com
MH The email that you sent me last, with the numbered paragraphs, kind of covers some questions I might have asked about those things that you addressed. I revised my notes here to get into more things...but whatever pops into your mind that you want to tell me, that I might not be aware of, feel free.
RRR Okay, well I don’t know the capital of Tanzania.
MH That’s good--because I don’t care. But just for a light and simple start, I was kind of curious about your name: Raine-Reusch. Is that what you were born with?
RRR Part of it. I was born with the Reusch part [pronounced ROOSH; ROYSH was the German pronunciation, ROOSH is the Anglicized.] The other part came when I was living in communes on Vancouver Island. People couldn’t pronounce my name, but they knew it started with an R...so they just started calling me Randy Rain, because every time it rained, which it does an awful lot here, I used to sit and play music. They just kind of equated that with the guy who was always playing when it rained—Randy Raine.
MH Going back, now, to those hippy days, I was trying to fill out the picture I got from your bio info, and flesh out some details. The period when you were younger, and, as you put it, learning how to survive on the lowest rung of the Western society by being self-reliant, and sewing your own clothes, eating out of dumpsters, and so on, reminded me of what Mei was saying about the Chinese musician living on the lowest rung of the Chinese society. I presume she was talking about back in history, not so much today...
RRR Well, I don’t know about that, so much; at one time, musicians were sort of revered, but they went downhill rapidly with the Chinese courts disappearing.
MH What I’m trying to get at with this is...since here you are, a North American who’s put in the position of having to invent himself in his life...you actually find yourself in a tradition that leads right into the activity of improvised music...or of the kind of music that musicians would be playing even when they’re way down on the low side of the social scale, because it’s that important to him. You’re involved with all these different kinds of musics from around the globe, and there’s something sort of universal in a lot of it in that sense, of the wandering mendicant, the beggar, the guy who does what he does because he has to do it. he loves it, but there’s really no reward in it, and a lot of resistance to it. Have you ever thought of it that way? as a path you wanted to be on for some reason? or did you think of it as something you just had to endure, and wanted to get out of as soon as you possibly could?
RRR I just thought this is where I was. There was just an acceptance of that, and that’s what life was. Coming from an abusive family, you don’t really think much of getting ahead in the world; there was never any drive or motivation to get ahead in the world. It was survival. Every day you got up, and just lived. I was young enough...sometimes it was kind of miserable—digging in garbage cans and sleeping under park benches is not always a pleasurable experience, especially in inclement weather...
MH You were going to say you were young enough; in other words, it was a little easier to endure because you were younger?
RRR I think so. But you do develop survival skills...or the fact that I would do anything to get a roof over my head and a hot meal. I found that I had some skills; I could do construction work, or chop wood or something like that for people; I could play music for them, and I could do some massage on them or something. I just had all these little skills developed. I could do some mending and sewing for them; I could tie ropes, so I could tie things up, or fix things...binding...and everywhere I went, I picked up another skill from somebody else, so that just added to the pile of stuff I survived with.
MH That makes me think of this question. In all your long history of dealing with these instruments, has the large part of it been anything on the instrument construction or repair side?
RRR Oh, constantly. I at one point went to an instrument-making commune to see if I could make instruments, and I found that I just couldn’t do it. Part of the reason was that every time I’d get into the rhythm of sanding and scraping, a tune would come to my head, and I’d sit down and play the thing. So I never got anything finished; it just took too long to make anything, so I thought, okay, this is not for me. But I used to hang out with instrument makers all the time, because they had the same inspiration that I had to play it, they had for making them.
MH Do you have that kind of relationship with your own instruments, though? Do you keep them maintained somehow?
RRR Yeah, I have to; I can’t afford not to. If there’s something really major, I’ll take it up to one of my instrument maker friends. But most of the cracks and things like that, I have to take care of, because most people haven’t seen these things before. If I’m in the country where an instrument is made, I’ll watch it being made, and see if I can pick up some little local tricks, so that when I take it home and I need to repair it, I know how to do it.
MH Moving into your experience as a massage therapist, how did that influence your experience of being a musician? I’ve devised a kind of a personal theory as a music scholar that I call the improvising body, and I know other musicians who think along the same lines—that when they go into just free improvisation, that it’s a music that the whole body expresses, rather than just the mind, or the neocortex, or whatever.
RRR Oh absolutely. One of the things about doing massage—and part of the reason I went to massage is that I have all these little extra senses that I talked to you about. So I could see things in people’s bodies. I sort of picked it up from a friend—actually traded music lessons for massage lessons, and that started doing quite well for me. Eventually, I managed to get myself to massage school after a couple of years of trying. While there, I found that the technique that I had been taught were exactly the same ones they were teaching at the school. So I knew that side of it, and all I had to do was learn all the academic side of it, which is pretty intense, all the names of the muscles and tendons...an intimate knowledge of anatomy.
While I was there, there was another guy there, and the two of us were sort of in the same position, so we experimented a lot, worked on alternative treatments, and learned alternative stuff, taught each other. I remember walking in a room one time and sort of glancing over at somebody’s body, and seeing these little tiny volcanoes all over the skin. Bright little volcanoes, like something was glowing and shooting up and all that. Then I realized these were acupuncture points, and I could see them all, clear as day...Christmas lights on a Christmas tree. I told him hey, I can see them—and he told me he had been seeing them for about a week—[laughter].
Going from the massage college to working in the Holistic Center with two MDs doing acupuncture, one night in particular was really interesting. They put a needle in the big toe, on the left side and the right side. There were about four people in the room, and I looked down, and saw this upside down arc going between the needles, of a really brilliant white bright light; it was a very thin line that formed a perfect arc between the two needles. So I thought, okay, this is just me; I wonder if anybody else can see it. I said to one of the other guys there, who was a psychologist, look down and tell me if you see anything. He was shocked; I said, if you see something, don’t tell me what it is. I asked a couple of other people in the room to do the same thing; look, and if you see something, don’t tell me what it is. Then all at the same time, one two three, okay, say what it was: and all said, upside down arc. So everybody saw it...which was for me, okay, that’s not just me; I didn’t suggest anything. I wanted to get an unbiased view, and everybody saw it.
I’ve had thousands of those experiences, where there are energies in the body that people are often unaware of, that a lot of people in alternative and mainstream healing are aware of, people in martial arts are aware of...
My ichigenkin teacher in Hawaii was aware of that, and she would constantly say to me, “ichigenkin is played from your hara, or your center—the dan tian in Chinese, or hara in Japanese—and I took martial arts for many years, so I was very aware of what the hara was. So I would play from my hara, and she would say “no, too high or “too low...forward a bit, back a bit,” and she would know exactly where it was; she could sense it.
Then Yuji Takahashi, the Japanese composer whom I interviewed for Musicworks magazine talks about how music is from a body to a body; it’s got nothing to do with sound, it’s got to do with energy that you broadcast from your body to another body. So a lot of his works were positional things, where you put your body in a position, and expressed, by playing notes.
I saw Rostropovich in a concert many years ago, when I was fairly young. I was in the back of the theater, had gotten there at the last minute. He was onstage. Very large theater, very large balcony; I’m in the second-to-the-back row; the orchestra starts playing, he’s crouched over his cello. It was time for him to start playing, and he sort of took a breath in, pulled his arms back, his shoulders back, drew and drew and drew his bow, and WHAM! goes the first note on the cello.
The front row pulled back; the whole front row, just jerks back. Then the next row jerks back, then the next row jerks back...and I’m watching this domino effect traveling all the way up the main floor, then coming up the upper floor...and it was going slowly! I mean he’s well into it, fourteen bars later, and this domino effect is still happening. I’m thinking, this is kind of ridiculous; I wonder what’s going on? When it finally reached me, I got one of these full-body tingles that you sometimes get in music concerts. So okay, I thought this is probably very subjective. I tend to be very critical of these things; I’m not a New Age guy who goes oh, man, this is cool, I see auras, you know? I actually do see them, but I don’t see them the way anybody else does. I don’t buy into that New Age garbage, I want to be as objective as possible.
So I thought, okay, this is a subjective experience; I’m seeing this thing and I’m getting a tingle, fine. So I don’t think about it, and it goes over me...then all of a sudden I get another tingle. What the hell was that? Then I see that it’s going backwards, down the balcony. It bounced off the back walls of the theater, and people then had the domino effect moving forward. It went three-quarters of the way down the balcony before it stopped. Just from his opening note. My explanation is that it was a wave of energy that he exploded, sent that tingle into the audience, it went all the way up to the back wall and came halfway down the balcony.
This is something that’s very common in Asian thought. In ichigenkin theory, as in qin, they talk about a note that’s played with the instrument in front of you but no action on the part of the musician is required to play music. The music is present if you know how to hear it. That’s all about energy. I sense energy in different ways than other people. For me it’s not mystical, for me it’s not magical or new agey, its real. I see people reacting to energy all the time. Often they’re not aware of it; often I am. Sometimes I’m reacting to things I’m not aware of, and then I try to figure out what it is. Then I realize—and I came to this conclusion—that the energy people talk about...let’s talk about an aura, because it’s really easy to explain.
Lots of people see auras around people. They say, oh, I see purple around your ears, and red around here; but another person sitting right beside them will say, no, I see yellow around their ear, and brown around their eye. Two people won’t agree. I often wondered why that was, because I clearly saw what I saw. It was very clear...but I wouldn’t agree with what those people saw. Are they full of shit? am I full of shit? Who’s bullshitting here?
Then I read a lot about Kurlian photography, which photographs the electromagnetic fields around the body—and then they change the voltage, and they get a whole different display. Aha—it’s about changing the voltage. It’s one person seeing it at a different voltage rate than another person. So everybody’s right; they’re just looking at it in a different way.
This is the very same thing about “energy,” and music in all this energy: it depends on what channel you’ve got the radio station tuned to, what you’re hearing and experiencing. It’s all about where you’re focusing and sensing. I may be focusing on a certain level and seeing a whole bunch of things; somebody beside me is experiencing it at a different level and doesn’t see anything that I do. So who’s got the “real” experience?
MH So it’s generally safe to say that your foray into body work complements and syncs up with your foray into music?
RRR There’s no difference whatsoever. And there’s no difference between any of that and my daily living. I’m an improviser; on a daily basis I react to the world with every breath that I take. My music is a dance that directly reacts to not just the soundscape I’m in, but the whole world-scape that I’m in at that moment, with every influence from every emotion that everybody in that room is creating the world around, and every sound there, every feeling, every sense, every sight—everything is totally involved.
MH When you stopped doing body work as a business, did you continue on in any kind of way as a masseur, or body worker, or anything like that?
RRR I went from doing it as massage into more of the psycho-physical aspect of it, because I realized very quickly I wasn’t dealing with just the physical body. I was dealing with an emotional body, and a spiritual body...and a lot of times people needed to deal with their emotional problems that were at the root of their physical ones, and unresolved. As I delved into other people’s emotional problems, I realized, well wait a second, I can’t help somebody else until I help myself. That took me into several years of very intense therapy, which is the best thing I could have done. In the meantime, I was still doing it as a nonprofessional business, but I still had some people I was working with—people who had very serious traumas.
There was one woman I worked with for over ten years, even as I was out of the practice, because she had very serious traumas, and I was the only person she could trust. I got her to a point where she could trust other people, then I passed her on to somebody else. I still use my massage skills to work on Mei a lot; she actually has very soft ligaments, so she was pulling ligaments all the time in her hands, so I’m constantly working on her.
So the bodywork style of it is sort of coming back a little bit into my life, in that who I am as this person with heightened senses in certain areas is wanting to have a voice again. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a New Age person, because this is a very real experience for me, and most people don’t know how to handle it, so...I still don’t know how to voice it in a way that people are going to not look at me as being a flake.
MH It seems like your work as a musician, through your website and your CDs and all, is presented as just another person who is making music out there, of a certain sort, as opposed to, say, someone who’s being a professional music healer, or therapist, or so. Having said that, do you see your involvement with music, thinking of all this bodywork too, as syncing up with the whole tradition of shamanism in the music?
RRR Yeah, there’s been a very conscious aspect of that. One aspect of my personality that I’ve sometimes very painfully become aware of is that fact that, to put it in a very blunt way, I’m a shit-disturber. Or a tree-shaker. I’m a catalyst for change. So often I’ll meet somebody and somehow just by the nature of who I am, or something that I say, all of the sudden just shakes them. I guess it’s because of the way I see things. I will actually see down to the core, and I’ll say something that refers to that core, something very deep in them—and it’s a shock for them. I don’t do it in a way that’s really assaultive or disruptive, but it has the same effect. It’s had that effect on organizations, where somebody will say something, and I feel there’s something hidden, and will say, well, what about this? All of the sudden I’ve revealed something that everybody’d been hiding for five years, which creates a big uproar. I’ve done that constantly, and unconsciously. I don’t try to do it, I don’t mean to do it, it’s just part of who I am.
MH I ask questions like this because, having been involved with improvised music for a long time myself, it seems to me that just by nature it’s dealing with subconscious forces, all the psychic forces, and is shaking things up—and, as we were earlier talking about the historically low social status of musicians... I recently interviewed pianist Vijay Iyer, who mentioned working with Wadada Leo Smith, who had said to him something to the effect that jazz musicians were the most hated people on earth. I’m thinking of the big picture here, and it seems like it goes beyond the role of the musician into the larger role of the shaman, who is traditionally both revered and feared, and despised and outcast.
RRR Exactly, because, as I was going to continue to say, what happens in the music is that often I’ll play something and people will have really heavy emotional reactions. Some people hate it, and...I’ve done many concerts where for some reason I have no awareness of, the first four rows are in tears, and I’m just, like, okay, what did I do? I’m certainly not the only musician to have this happen, but people will come up and say, wow, you just changed my life. That’s a regular occurrence.
I did a concert with Stu Dempster and Pauline Oliveros for New Music Across America here in Vancouver, where the audience was just literally glowing after the show. Most of our concert was in silence, but the audience just sat there and glowed; people have talked about it for like 15 years now: “that was the most amazing concert I’ve ever gone to.” So there are other forces out there.
I was told that the Chicago Art Ensemble was very aware of that. A lot of their workshopping, a lot of their tools—I like to use some of their tools in improvisational workshops...like playing a note for an hour solid—things that just push the limits of your awareness of music. Coltrane was aware of that. I think anybody that’s really been an improvisationalist understands that there’s a deeply spiritual aspect to it, whether they want to talk about it or not, or whether they’re scared of it, there’s something profoundly deep in it that just sort of touches the essence of what life is. You’re in the moment of constant creation, in that place where life is created, at that moment...you’re tapping into that energy. To do that you have to release everything about who you are.
MH Going through your period of being young and poor, through your period of being a massage therapist, and also trying to make a business of it...I was curious to read your account of how your business skills were poor...but then all of the sudden you’re starting to talk about how you traveled the world as a musician, and now you’re living from grants and so on. Can you tell me a little bit about how that more practical side of you has evolved?
RRR Before I answer that, I just thought of more I want to add about the other thing we were on. When I was living in Borneo, I was always interested in music and trance. I’d done some Sufi workshops and things like that, but I never quite bought into what trance was, until I put on this first Rainforest World Music Festival in Borneo. One of the groups I brought was the Melanau people, who live on the coast of Borneo, have always been famous for their super-spiritual stuff. They were considered the most powerful shamans in Borneo, and historically everybody, all the headhunters, were absolutely frightened of these people.
They’re now modern people, but still a lot of the old ways exist. When I went there, I had to wait outside of the house while they did a ritual to purify my presence there. They said that since they had modernized a bit, since I was known I was allowed to come in within an hour. Normally, I’d have had to wait for 24 hours before I could come in.
I was invited into the house, and we talked about music, and they had a nice little drum there...and I started to play it, just sort of lightly. The woman there told me I needed to stop. I asked if I was playing too loud. She said, no, the person next door goes into trance very easily, and if we start playing this music, she’ll go into trance, and it’ll be very hard to get her out, because she hasn’t been prepared for it.
So I’m going, okay, this is kind of interesting. Didn’t think much more about it. I recorded some people there; a guy had led an ensemble, and I invited them to my festival. He said, what should I do? I said, you do anything you want. He said, can I do this ritual that no one normally ever sees us do? It’s very powerful. I said, sure.
I thought he was going to bring 4 or 5 musicians; he brought 20 musicians, put them all onstage; they started playing...very nice. Then he came on—dancing around. He’s just a normal guy, but all of the sudden he looked almost gay, really pixie-like and very soft and fluid. I thought, this is kind of strange. He was really light on his feet, almost like he was floating around onstage, and it was very unlike him. They had put this giant sheet down for him to dance on. He starts taking dishes and breaking these very thick old porcelain plates, which fractured into a lot of very sharp pieces. He smashed about 20 of these things on the ground, danced over the top of them, picked up the four corners of the cloth so that it was all in a pile...and he jumped up and down on these shards.
At that point, everybody was absolutely in shock. There was no trick involved, this guy was actually jumping up and down on these broken plates. He came off...there’s no blood or anything like that. Everyone was just like, that’s impossible, that can’t happen. Either this guy’s a great magician, or something else happened there.
Half an hour later, I went up to shake his hand and say thank you...he seemed a little bit dazed...I shook his hand, and it was like putting my hand into a wind tunnel. I felt like I had to hold on for dear life; there was just a massive amount of energy, pushing straight up. I pulled my hand away, and I realized that’s how he did it. He just focused his energy up—and this had happened later, so he’s already coming down a lot—with such power that he literally went floating. He was levitating.
At that point, I realized that I’ve got some nice little abilities to sense things, but I don’t have that kind of training or that kind of power, and that is real. I’ve met a lot of the Reiki people, and the New Age people, and I’ve met a lot of the big leaders in India....none of them had the power of the guy that I met, not even a hundredth of it. Phenomenal, phenomenal man. It’s real, and still alive in the jungles around the world.
MH That was your reaction to my question about shamanism.
RRR Yes. It’s there, and that shamanism in that culture is always with music; it’s the music that takes you into it. Very real, and not New Agey.
MH Do you see something like that being a potential future for the music you’re involved in? that it might, if not in your lifetime, or this culture, logically lead to that experience?
RRR Music has a lot of different functions; that’s just one. Sometimes it’s celebratory, sometimes it’s to drive people into frenzy, sometimes it’s just to make them happy and forget their worries. If rap music is not somewhat trance-inducing, how come you go to a rap concert and everybody’s jumping up and down at the same point. It’s always a transformational tool.
One time I did a thing in an isolation chamber. I used to go into isolation chambers regularly, because I found the experience quite wonderful. In an isolation chamber, having been in it ten times or so—so I was really used to it—I hear something, and I say, oh, shit, someone’s got the radio on. This is terrible; these things are really good, but now somehow I’m hearing a radio. The moment I thought that, all of the sudden the song changed. When I realized it had changed, it changed again. I realized then it was music in my head...so I started going through myself to find where there wasn’t music in me. No matter where I went, in my thoughts or my senses, in every single cell of my body there was music. Every single pop song I’ve ever heard, every little country tune, every little jingle I ever heard...all of it was in me somewhere.
There’s an association with this. In some of the music training workshops, which I called conceptual music, I got people to play just a note from a certain part of their body, or just to play a note for a long period of time, and to find anyplace where that note resonates. Everybody would actually come up with a memory: that brought up this memory of that time, or this time. Little tiny fragments. All of these things seem to be triggers, symbolic associations of something in our past, like mnemonic devices. You can trigger anybody’s emotions if you get that little key to that time. You can do it with smell, touch, a word, or you can do it with music, which is part of the power of music. As we hear melodies, they take four or five or maybe a hundred of our different memories and meld them together. It can be an absolutely pleasant or altogether horrific experience, depending on what associations are triggered at that moment. So I could play you a song that would transform you, in a beautiful way, and the next person will be absolutely terrified, another enraged, another sobbing and crying.
MH One of the challenges for me is to represent music like this as a writer, imaginatively, as opposed to a merely rationalistic scholar, or a superficial journalist. So now that you’ve brought all that side of it up, why don’t you let me run a few things by you about your own music, your own CDs...and then you tell me what kind of memories or associations you have with them now.
MH Start with “A Sleeping Rain.” [from Bamboo, Silk, Stone, mentioned in the liner notes in conjunction with Randy’s meeting with John Cage.] Why is it called that, and what does it have to do with John Cage? How was the meeting with Cage related to that title, if it was...?
RRR I like to play with words, because they have symbolic associations as well. I try to find the element in the music and the element in the words that seem to work together well. That experience with Cage was a very powerful one for me, because he passed away just after I met him, and I felt that meeting him had given me permission to be who I was as a creative artist. Growing up in Vancouver, I felt so many restrictions, even in the creative community. We’re sort of an outpost, in a sense, especially in those early years, and things were a bit conservative, even in the creative world. Cage gave me permission to be who I was, just by his acceptance, and his way of being...his enjoyment in what I played for him. His enjoyment of the ichigenkin—he had a profound understanding of the ichigenkin when I played that for him. It was like meeting the man I consider to be my musical father.
MH Was he familiar with that instrument?
RRR No, he’d never seen it before. But the philosophy he totally understood when I told him about it. He was a very elfish-like man; a little bit of a trickster, eyes always kind of laughing, like he knew something you didn’t, and he wasn’t going to tell you. But he’s going to lead you right to it [laughter]. Such an interesting character, and always busy doing stuff.
When I played the ichigenkin, that part of Cage just disappeared, and all of the sudden in front of me was just a man who was in a very faraway place, just really sailing. When I finished playing, he just stood there. His eyes had a faraway look, and he just went, “beautiful.” And then the elfish-Cage was back again. But it profoundly touched him. That also profoundly touched me. I wanted to ask him, as I left to write a piece for ichigenkin—and we didn’t have that much more time, you know...he made lunch, Margaret Lang-Ten showed up, we had lunch, and he said “call me in two days; we don’t have enough time today, I want to spend more time...and he died the day after. So the day I was supposed to go see him, I couldn’t.
Margaret said I was the last person to play music, we were the last two people to meet and discuss music with Cage. Her meeting was just after mine, and for me, it was like Cage had called me to him, because I wasn’t supposed to meet him that day. I was going to call a week later; I was in New York for awhile, and I tried to call Jon Gibson and mistakenly called John Cage. So Cage said, when do you want to come? I said I could come later this week, and he said, any time is okay. So it ended up, come now. So I just hopped on the subway and went up. If I hadn’t, that experience wouldn’t have happened.
MH So why did you decide to call that “A Sleeping Rain?”
RRR These pieces for me contain many different things. One of the things that I see in the world is there are so many things that seem to be conflicting. I was talking about how two people will see the same thing, and say it’s totally different? And I found that it’s not different, it’s the same, they’re just looking at different facets of it. That’s what I see in the world all the time, that everything that you see that seems to be separate, or differentiate from things, all these impossible things...none of it’s impossible. Everybody’s experience is what they experience. We can’t agree on these experiences because we don’t have the awareness to see the larger picture, of how these are both the same thing from opposite sides.
MH One of the things Cage said that always stuck in my mind was one plus one equals one.
RRR Yeah. Well, I think one plus one equals absolutely everything and nothing at the same time. I fully believe that everything is, and nothing is. Nothing is everything, everything is nothing. It’s like a Taoist contradiction that is at the essence of everything. One of the old Taoist things is that if you can see a coffee cup sitting in front of you, the reason that you know the coffee cup is there is the space around it that is not a coffee cup. Once you realize that coffee cup equals “coffee cup and no coffee cup”, and that there’s a duality there, then you’ve become aware of that duality. Well, there’s another duality, which is that “that duality does not exist” the absence of “coffee cup and no coffee cup”. Precisely because you’ve become aware of it means that there is a space that you are not aware of. So that sets up a second duality, because now you’ve become aware of that duality. So it goes on ad infinitum; very quickly, following that line of logic, you no longer can conceive of it. That says to me that if I can find a logical system such that in two or three steps I can no longer conceive of it, it shows to me the limitation of my brain.
MH Now you’re saying this in response to “A Sleeping Rain?” Because a rain that sleeps is like a Zen koan?
RRR It’s like a Zen koan.
MH Then what about the White Room series of pieces you did?
RRR [laughter] Thank you for finding that, that was good. Forty-seven words, you said it in two.
MH Well, I hope I got it; I’m trying to get it here...
RRR Well, you got the intellectual part; I don’t know if you got the experiential part. Part of those is that I want to get the experiential part of the Zen koan. Part of it is that for me to say “a sleeping rain” somehow conjures something a little bit uncomfortable in people—they don’t quite understand it, but at the same time they do.
MH Let me tell you this story then. I never did meet Cage, but when I was at Wesleyan, I was involved with faculty composers Alvin Lucier and Ron Kuivela, who were legatees of Cage’s circle there, so to speak. For a class project with them as a student, I did a performance of Cage’s piece Ryoanji—
RRR I know it very well.
MH --I did it with a rebab player, a vocalist, and someone who was playing wood blocks to make the percussive sound. We played it for about an hour, just going through the score. At the very end of the piece—which was a pretty quiet hour, the way we performed it, slow, relaxed—just as we were playing the last little bits of the score, there was this big huge rain squall that hit the auditorium: a perfect climax to the piece. Swallowed us up. It was loud, one off those kind of squalls, beating against the windows. Sleeping rain, woke up.
So—White Room. What’s the story behind your choice of that image for a series?
RRR Because it’s an everything and a nothing kind of thing. It’s like, if you’re in a white room, are you really in a room?
MH So I guess we don’t need to go through all the titles, but you were telling me generally about the titles that you’re putting some creative thought into the words to make them kind of match the music somehow after the fact. Right?
RRR Well, it’s not just matching the music; it’s more that I’m trying to do with the words what I do with the music. I try to put the music in a place, with the words, to somehow give a transformative experience in some way, to take you out of where you are into at least a step into someplace you’ve never been before. That’s what I try to do with all my instruments. I study the tradition so that I can use that to open up into another world or another place, another sound garden, another experience with psycho-physical associations, a symbolic place or whatever, where someone has never been before.
MH The three CDs I got from you were the Bamboo, Silk, Stone, the one with Pauline Oliveros, and Gudira—and I guess you could throw Distant Winds in there too, although I’m focusing on you more than Mei here...so my question is, do you have a sort of a picture in your mind of each off these CDs as entities? as having an identity that you might be able to capture with a few words for each?
RRR Not so much, because what I see more than distinction is the thread between them. There’s a quality that the instruments that I bring to these have that you just don’t find in other CDs. Even if you listen to Jin Hi Kim’s CDs, they’re not the same thing as what you see in mine. You might be able to find some similarities, but if you go to Fred Ho, it’s totally different, or like the Far East Side Band, or Miya Masaoka—some people are using the same kind of instruments, but there’s something different there. Yet I find that there’s a common thread. For me it’s an elusive thread, but that’s what I like about it; I can sense that there’s something there that is almost like a kind of little emptiness. It’s like there’s a hollow tube through it all, or a breeze running through it that I can’t put my finger on, but I totally sense it.
MH That’s actually one of the first things I’ve noticed, now that I’ve been getting into this Asian stuff. The first thing I thought of after listening to a lot of it was time., Time seems different. There seems to be a lot of starts and stops that I’m not so used to...I can relate to it when I hear it, but it’s definitely something that jumps out at me. It’s not what I’m used to; I’m used to more flow and constant motion. Your music is very out there on the edge and improvised, sometimes, and it makes sense that it would mess with the flow time. But even when I listen to the traditional musics from China or Korea or Japan—like the solo CD Mei did, or Min Xiao-Fen’s CD of traditional pipa music, I just notice: someone says something...then they’re quiet. Then they say something...then they’re quiet.
RRR This is a very Asian aesthetic. It goes back to the Golden Sutra, the whole thing about sound and silence. There’s sound within silence, and silence within sound. You have to find the space in both. If you look at phenomenal Western improvisers, they know that. Bill Smith. Here’s a guy who’s worked for a long time in the traditional jazz world, and at the same time in the new-music world as William O. Smith. One of the first things I noticed at the recording studio, when I played with him, I went, ah yes, here’s a guy who knows what he’s doing. When we started to play, his instrument was in his lap. And his instrument stayed in his lap until he sort of picked it up, then put it down again. It took him a long time to get to the point of actually playing, and the reason was that he was choosing the moment. He was not scared of silence. He just used it really, really well.
MH That is sort of a big, broad characteristic of the way they do time and sound and silence in the Asian traditions, as opposed to the West.
RRR Yes...and Bill was one of the founding members of the Dave Brubeck Octet, and has been playing with Brubeck ever since. He’s a heavyweight; he wrote the book on clarinet techniques.
MH Brubeck is kind of a fore-figure of the jazz-&-world-music concept at the core of my own research here now, when you recall pieces like “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and so on.
RRR Bill’s been part of that. He and Brubeck were students together.
MH Did you ever think of your Scottish, Northern European-cum-North American background and cultural identity as anything other than something to escape?
MH The reason I ask is because you mentioned your mother as having a sort of a sixth sense, as well as yourself. And there’s this big tradition of northern-latitude barbarians—the Scots, Irish...the Celts—that has a kind of a pagan-mystical root tradition of its own, and I just wonder if you’d ever felt the need or desire to get in touch with that in a positive way, as you’ve done with Asian cultures and music.
MH The German side of my family I’ve never related much to. I can’t handle them, they’re too harsh. The Scottish side of my family I love dearly. But they’re Scottish, so there’s a lot of problems there. I take care of my mother, but I can’t say I have a great relationship with her. She thinks I do; I don’t. But her side of the family had more of an influence on me, I think; there are some of those mystical roots going back to Scotland that somehow come through. Every Sunday morning, my mother would put on military tattoo which is, you know, 800 bagpipes and 200 drums. Full volume on the record player, 8 a.m. Sunday morning—that’s what I woke up to for years and years and years. I think that did permanently affect me, because I do have a total fascination with drones. And, one of my favorite forms of music is pibroch, which is the classical form of bagpipe music. Very, very beautiful, especially heard from a distance; it’s just incredible.
MH It seems like a lot of the stuff you do on the sho, and the accordion maybe...or just that sound of the ancient organ sound, maybe...?
RRR Yeah, that’s definitely true, you can hear those roots of my childhood in that, and you can hear my fascination with that Scottish sound in there. There are some things. I’ve never been to Scotland, but all the pictures I see of it I can totally relate to.
MH I remember Mei saying something about a flutist who was half Scot and half Japanese?
RRR Right, and there’s also a guanzi and sheng player in town here who also plays bagpipes. He’s from China, and is playing in one of the pipe bands. There is a funny relationship there, somehow, I don’t know how, but there is a mutual attraction. A lot of those Northern British Isle people, like the red-haired people from Ireland, they all came from the Western edges of China originally. Wild tribes of red-haired people from Central Asia who got chased away everywhere they went, and they ended up in Ireland.
MH Anything about ancient mass migrations down songlines, so to speak, is interesting here. Jan Garbarek’s projects with early music had that element. I notice that some of the liner notes I’m reading about Chinese music practice compare its heterophonic ensemble styles to Celtic music, and some of it does indeed sound similar.
In conclusion for now, can you sum up for me how you morphed from a wandering mendicant musician into a person who’s making a living as a musician? did you finally get the business skills more together over time?
RRR Yeah, I had to. It was a long, and slow process to learn the business aspect. I was a typical artist, I just wanted to sit at home and play music, and I hoped that someone would hear me one day and realize how good I was, and I would become famous. Well, reality hit and I realized it was called the music business for a reason! I learned bit by bit, making lots of mistakes, and getting a lot of people pissed at me. Fortunately I had a lot of supporters as well, and over the years I have managed to learn to stay afloat. But I treat my career as a business. I get up and work a ten hour day at my office six days a week, just getting gigs, planning tours, writing grants etc. In Canada to survive in the biz you must wear many hats, so I am a producer, concert-promoter, writer, band leader, consultant…. All to stay afloat. Thinking back, it came through a series of girlfriends, actually. I had a girlfriend who balanced my checkbook, and started booking me into festivals. We had a very amicable parting, so she said she’d teach me how to do what she’d been doing. Next girlfriend got me past my writer’s block begun in high school. I couldn’t write a single line, and I used to dictate letters to her that she would write into a computer. Then she’d have me edit those, and pretty soon I was writing those. Then she left, and there were others, and they all taught me how to do all my business. Mei has helped me formalize a lot of my disparate bits of knowledge, so that now I’m doing a lot of university lectures and things that before I never did.
MH The woman helping the creative man...always a nice part of the picture. Anything else you’d like to throw in?
RRR One thing I’ve noticed is that every improvisationalist is different. It seems that we’re all sort of islands unto ourselves. In fact, I never found a community in Vancouver that I could play in, although there’s the NOW Orchestra here, and a lot of really good and longterm improvisers. I never felt a part of the community, because I was always working with different instruments. I would find common ground with people in Asia who were traditionalists, not improvisers. Then I started finding people I thought were very special, like Pauline Oliveros, Stu Dempster...I had a good connection with Malcolm Goldstein, although I don’t know if he feels the same connection toward me...but David Mott, a baritone player in Toronto, at York University...Yuji Takehashi in Japan...Cage. I found that there were these people who had a similar awareness and perspective close enough that I could relate to, and different enough that it was clear that part of the reason we were all improvisationalists and explorers was that we had such unique visions, and we all realize those visions in unique ways. Those unique visions are very, very special.
As a community, although it’s a very loose-knit community, we are continuing to renew the world. We’re like the Spring growth, we’re constantly creating the growth for the new music, and the new creation of ideas. We have a very important function, although we seem to be so marginalized, with everybody trying to survive in their own way, I think we’re essential not just to the survival of music but to that of humankind. We create the diversity that is essential for life to grow; without diversity, life dies.
MH Reminds me of the Derek Bailey quote about improvisation being something of a life wellspring. It’s certainly true that a lot of people who were later hailed for doing seminal work didn’t get recognized for it until after they were gone.
RRR Being seen—there’s a big issue. I was talking about not being respected on these instruments, and cultural appropriation and all that kind of stuff. Now I don’t even care about all that so much. I realized a lot of that for me was an issue of not being seen for who I am. I think of that when I watch the Oscars, how there’s a lot of people working in that business, and they don’t feel they’re being seen. It’s a big thing for musicians. Young players get out, saying, I just want to be heard, do my music...you just want to be seen – psychologically, emotionally, spiritually.
I think that’s the most important thing we can do as people, is just see each other. Everybody’s got something to offer, everybody’s got a voice, and we just need to see it and hear it.
MH Good note to end on there.
RRR So thank you for seeing me.
MH Thank you, Randy.