Interviewed by Takeshi Goda and Akira Saito for JazzTokyo.com
Conducted August 2017
JazzTokyo (JT): It’s been 5 Years since you first appeared in Brooklyn Improvised Music Scene. How do you think your mindset has been changed since then?
Chris Pitsiokos (CP): While my aesthetics have changed substantially, my artistic goals have remained relatively constant. I believe that artists can attain something universal through intense introspection and intuition. In this way, I believe the personal and the universal are often the same. (Given current trends in anthropology, sociology, and identity-politics-obsessed left and right wing American politics, that seem to deny the existence of any kind of universally shared sentiment, this is an unpopular stance.)
I also believe that in ensemble playing, the compositions should allow for the greatest amount of freedom possible for each of the performers to express their unique musical voices. In this way, each performer is forced to stand on his/her own and express his/her own interpretation of the personal/universal through the music. If one performer fails in this, the whole piece can fail. These have basically been my goals for the last five years, and I believe they will continue to be my goals.
JT: Both of Chris Pitsiokos Quartet and CP Unit have a guitarist. What is your intention to have guitar in you group?
CP: The guitar itself is not important per se, but I have felt that I need four instruments at least to realize my compositional ambitions. Much of my music involves 2-part counterpoint in two sets of unisons, and that is only possible with at least four instruments.
JT: I felt an element of so called Free Funk originated from Ornette Colman′s Prime Time. Are you conscious of Harmolodic theory?
CP: You are exactly right. Ornette Coleman’s prime time bands have had a monumental influence on my ensemble music in the last several years—particularly their approach to live performance. Their live performance at Stadtgarten, which you can see on YouTube, is unbelievable. In particular, each performer’s ability to maintain autonomy as a unique voice, while coming together for collective music making, is challenging, and few, if any ensembles, have attained the same level of perfection in that regard.
Harmolodic theory has been described in several ways by Mr. Coleman—In the Atlantic box set he proposes one thing, on the back of some versions of Dancing in your Head he proposes another, and there are also some interviews. It is not always consistent, but what he has to say about it is always inspiring.
Ornette Coleman & Prime Time feat Jamaaladeen Tacuma – Cologne 1987
JT: On the other hand, how about the influence from 80′s No Wave and 90′s John Zorn ?
CP: John Zorn is a huge inspiration to me. He has a knack for bringing influences and people together from disparate communities onto the same stage. There are many people who claim to do this, but few actually do. There is a huge amount of talk about breaking down barriers, blurring the line of genre, etc., but usually when journalists talk about this it is complete BULLSHIT. Zorn is one of the rare musicians who actually does that work. I find it hugely inspiring. I should also mention that I owe a huge debt to noise music of the 90s and 2000s, which is largely independent from the New York so called downtown scene. Bands like To Live and Shave in LA, Wolf Eyes, Merzbow; people like Kevin Drumm, John Wiese, C Spencer Yeh, MV Carbon, etc. All of that music is at least as important, if not more important than the NYC Downtown.
JT: Tell me your thought on 80s/90s NY scene and its influence on the current NY scene?
CP: There is clearly a lineage there, but unfortunately I believe that the lineage has more to do with copying what musicians in the 80s and 90s did rather than carrying on the spirit of what they did. In other words, the style of music might sound similar, but the spirit of invention and experimentation is largely gone.
I have had the great fortune to hear many private bootlegs of performances at venues like studio henry and studio rivbea from the late 70s and the knitting factory from the early 90s onwards. Many of the improvisation that happened in the late 70s in New York are more advanced and interesting than anything happening now. Most of the improvisation happening now is, at best, a faithful reproduction of what was happening then—there has been very little progress on a wide scale. There are of course musicians doing great things and really pushing into new ground like Tim Dahl, Henry Fraser, Nate Wooley, C Spencer Yeh, Philip White, but on the whole I don’t see much new stuff happening. New York in general is pretty conservative in its tastes, I think. Some of the best American music I have seen has been in random small-ish towns while touring the US—music performed by relatively unknown musicians, in towns that are not normally considered bastions of the arts.
I encourage people to check out what is going on in Denton Texas—basically any project that Rick Eye is involved in. Because of the internet, and in general the accessibility of information, some small towns have now become bastions of weirdo music. In a lot of ways, what is coming out of Denton, Texas is fresher than what is coming out of New York. Seems like there is really cool stuff happening in Buenos Aires, too.
Bukkake Moms – Last song at their last show.
Problem Dogg Gets Cut off at Abbey Underground
JT: I think I’ve heard of Bukkake Moms, one of Rick Eye’s projects. To me, what Rick Eye and his colleagues are doing sounds more primitive, more Lo-Fi, more out-of-tune, more no-wavy than what is happening in big cities like New York. They remind me of so-called “garage punk scene” happening in the mid-late 60’s in local cities all over the States.
CP: Well there is certainly noise rock lo-fi stuff going on in New York as well, but generally I haven’t seen as much interesting stuff like that going on here. I have never been very interested in categorizing music according to superficial genres. What is interesting about bukkake moms and gay cum daddies (with whom i toured in the spring) is the density of information, the strong presence of multiple musical personalities expressing themselves at the same time towards a shared goal, and the general commitment of the players to create something singular and truly new–which can really only be created if a lot of work is put in collectively. The music is not slick, it’s not sleek – it’s organic, raw, cathartic, and uncompromising.
JT: What inspired you on over dubbing / multi-track performance on ‘Four Alto (dedicated to Anthony Braxton)’ on “Valentines’s Day”?
CP: I am interested in difference tones and otoacoustic emissions. Difference tones occur when two pitches interact in an acoustic space and create a third tone. Otoacoustic emissions are sounds produced by the ear itself, when it receives certain sounds. When I play solo saxophone, the fluttering sound that you can hear is an otoacoustic emission. When several saxophones are overdubbed, difference tones and otoacoustic emissions are even more pronounced.
JT: Including ‘Four Alto’,“Valentines’s Day”sounds more melodious, ambient, drone, calm comparing with your 1st solo album “Oblivion/Ecstasy”. What’s your intention and/or motivation to make such a change in style?
CP: It’s probably just indicative of where I am in life right now. I find myself gravitating more and more towards melodicism, space, peace, etc. Lately I listen to a lot of Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
JT: I thought tracks such as “Kettle of Birds” reflected your experience to learn classical saxophone with Fred Hemke. What is your intention?
CP: When I write music or perform, I work from the inside out, not the outside in. In other words, I start with the raw materials and create something out of them in an intuitive way. I don’t often think about where things come from; I don’t often think about macro form; I don’t think about genre; I am not a conceptualist. So in that sense I don’t ever have an intention apart from expressing my own unique voice and creating systems that encourage others to do so
JT: What is your approach when you play another leader’s project?
CP: I don’t work as a side man often. In the case of Nate Wooley, I agreed because he is one of my heroes, and I trusted that I would be happy with his musical direction. If someone hires me to play a gig they know that they are getting the artist Chris Pitsiokos, and not just a saxophonist, and I intend to give them just that. If I get the sense that they don’t want the artist, and they want just any old saxophonist, or if I get the sense that they want to impose their own vision on me, I am not interested.
JT: In Nate Wooley’s “KNKNIGHGH”, Nate intended to update the traditional free jazz quartet. Do feel similar about this? If so, can you please name some artists you think of traditional free jazz (no need to be a quartet)?
CP: What I find interesting about KNKNIGHGH is the mode of interaction. I won’t go into details, but basically any one of the performers can contribute to determine the macro form of the piece. In other words, it empowers side men like me or Brandon or Dre to make formal decisions about the music in real time. In this way, it subverts the normal composer-performer relationship. This is very much in line with my goals as a composer, and Nate and I have spoken extensively on the subject, both in our private conversations to each other and in public interviews and other publications (see my entry in Zorn’s forthcoming book Arcana VIII). I don’t really understand exactly what he means about updating the traditional jazz quartet, but personally I don’t really find a need to update an old form of making music, and I don’t really like the term free jazz (Ornette Coleman didn’t like it either).
JT: How about collaboration with vocalists, such as Paige Johnson-Brown (of Cutout Lover) and Lydia Lunch?
CP: My approach to working with vocalists depends on the vocalist. With Paige I gave her some musical directions about the style of her delivery, but never any direction about the content of her lyrics. By the way, I am no longer working with Paige due to musical differences.
JT: Do you plan to collaborate with Lydia Lunch in near future?
CP: There is nothing planned right now. Last time we collaborated Weasel Walter, Tim Dahl and I provided interludes to her spoken word pieces for a four-performance residency at the Roxy Hotel in Manhattan. That was fun.
JT: Please tell me how do you feel about collaboration with Tamio Shiraishi.
CP: Working with Tamio is a challenge, but a gratifying one. He is very limited in what he can play, but is also a very special performer in the sense that he can do something immediately recognizable and has discovered a field of expertise that no one else has. There is a lot of nuance in what he does, and a lot of people miss that because most modern performers are so focused on versatility and virtuosity, and not on perfecting a single skill. While the restless among us feel a need to be versatile, it is not a virtue in and of itself.
JT: You’re planning Sax Quartet October Danish tour with Matt Nelson, Louise Jensen and Tamio Shiraishi, which sounds very interesting. Tell me about the Quartet.
CP: This saxophone quartet is some of the most unlistenable music I have ever heard—and I mean that as a good thing. It is so irritating and harsh, even more so than Borbetomagus. The alto saxophone is a very annoying instrument. Four of them playing loudly all at once is tremendously annoying, and that’s why this saxophone quartet is interesting to me. It’s basically the brain child of Louise Jensen, who organized the tour in Europe.
JT: What do you think of Japanese Music Scene?
CP: Merzbow has been a major influence for a long time. Of course I like Tatsuya Yoshida, Makigami Koichi and Otomo Yoshihide’s music as well. I can go on and on. In general, for a country of its size, it has produced a remarkable number of fantastic artists. My initial observation is that it is an odd mix of conservatism and progressivism, culturally speaking. It seems that Japanese musicians have no qualms about appropriating something from another culture and making it their own—Makigami Koichi of course is a master of this. I most likely am about to learn a great deal more about them in September. I really also would like to learn more about what young people in Japan are doing. I am very honored to be working with some of the founding members of the Japanese avant-garde on this tour but ultimately it is important for me to see who the young people are as well. I hope I will be introduced to some.
JT: Please tell me about joining Hikashu’s recording session in New York. How did it happen? How did you feel playing with Makigami and Hikasu?
CP: That is a funny story. Makigami told me he was going to be in town, without mentioning why, and while he was here I emailed him, asking him what he was up to and if we could meet up. He told me “we are in the studio right now—want to come down and play?” Of course I said yes and the next day we were making music together. We will perform on September 17th at Jazz Art Sengawa—I am very excited about that.
JT: You will tour Japan with Tatsuya Yoshida. Tell me about how you think of Tatsuya.
CP: Tatsuya is a phenomenal drummer and we seem to share many interests such as virtuosity, composition, rhythmic complexity, and noise. I have never met him, but have tremendous respect for him and can’t wait to make music with him.
JT: Please give me your comments on the following to-be-collaborators:
-Yoshihide Otomo (guitar, turntable)
Otomo is undeniably one of the most important experimental musicians in the world. My comments about Zorn bringing together people from all communities and genres also apply to him. It is a great honor to perform with him.
-Sachiko M (Sign Wave) Sachiko M
I didn’t know I am performing with Sachiko until now. Well that is very exciting news. When I perform on the saxophone, especially in the higher register, I am often interested in producing something like a pure tone. Lately I have also used sine wave drones in some pieces—so I think that this will be great.
JT: Do you plan to perform multi-track solo performance like ‘Four Alto’?
CP: I haven’t decided what I will perform for the solo sets yet. In general my solo performances are sort of like throwing myself off of a cliff. I don’t decide what I am going to do until I am doing it and once it’s going there is no turning back. We will see
JT: Some people say “Music needs to evolve”, and others say “Music could be recycled from the past”. What do you think?
CP: This is largely a semantic argument—of course one cannot escape influence, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot break new ground and navigate new landscapes. The pop music world has often been interested in revivals, or recycling old music quite deliberately. The folk revival of the 50s and 60s, starting with Pete Seeger and extending onto Bob Dylan and Neil Young, is an example of this. Today, bands like Daft Punk often use sounds of electronic music of the 70s like Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream. Zorn is known for taking influences from throughout history and using them in his music. There is a big difference between using materials for one’s own creative purposes, and naively just playing music from the past and thinking that it’s new. Content is not necessarily important. Bob Dylan and Neil Young offered a completely fresh perspective on folk music. They are geniuses. They would make good music no matter what idiom.
JT: Please tell me about your thoughts on the way of so called “New Generation of Jazz/R&B/Hip Hop” such as Robert Grasper and Flying Lotus etc.
CP: I am not really interested in it at all. I’m not passing judgment on it. There’s probably some good stuff. It just doesn’t interest me.
JT: Do you plan to keep New York as your activity base?
CP: Probably not. I don’t know where I am going to move yet but it is unlikely I will stay in New York much longer.
JT: Are you interested in collaborating with musicians from other countries, Asia, Africa and Oceania as well as Europe and Japan?
CP: I would love to. I have a particular interest in Latin American musicians and would like to go to Buenos Aires. I am hoping to make this happen in 2018. Mexico City also seems to have some interesting stuff happening.
JT: Thank you. We’re looking forward to seeing you soon.