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Matt Roberts' Music Blog

Friday, August 19, 2011

Interview with Composer David Binney

(This post is part of an ongoing series where I interview composers about their process.)

Most would agree David Binney is one of the most original and prolific composers of small-ensemble jazz music working today. He's released at least one album a year since 1998 (perhaps not coincidentally, the year he started his own label, Mythology Records). He performs and records regularly with many of the most creative and virtuosic musicians on the New York scene. As puts it "For more than two decades, this exhilarating alto saxophonist has made a string of absorbing recordings as leader that have cemented his reputation as one of the most exciting and original musicians/composers in New York." (The same article went on to call his recent album Graylen Epicenter a "classic of our time" - six months after it had been released!) On a more personal note, when I interviewed myself, David Binney was the composer who I stated I most admired. So I was very excited when I got the chance a few days ago to interrogate him over Skype.  He was a little pressed for time - he had just flown to L.A. to begin recording another album.  But I'm very happy with what I managed to squeeze out of him in a limited amount of time, and very grateful that he made time for the interview in his busy schedule.

Check out his track "All Of Time" which opens Graylen Epicenter.

Matt Roberts: Your music seems very spontaneous in some respects, but when I look at your charts, they are very specific. How do you decide what is spontaneous, and what is pre-determined? How much does the music change after you bring it to the band, and how important is what the band does with it after you bring them the charts?

David Binney: Well, I'm pretty specific about the writing part. You know, I write out the voicings for the pianist usually, so when the written parts are played, they are usually played pretty close to exactly what I've written. After that, in the improvising sections, I leave it up to whatever the musicians want to do. If it is a chordal section, they can voice it however they want. I try to balance a very composed thing with a very open, free, or non-controlled environment. That's been my thing. I don't want to control the improvisation at all.

MR: What about the forms? I noticed with the charts on your website that the heads are all there, but the forms aren't, and sometimes your tunes have sort of complicated forms. Do those forms evolve when you bring the charts to the bands, or do you have them in mind already?

DB: With the stuff you downloaded, sometimes I leave the forms out, because the basic information is there, so I figure it encourages people to do what they want with the information.

With the band I have the arrangement all figured out. I usually know exactly what I'm going to do when I bring it into rehearsal. There are times when we play it, and I hear something and realize something needs to be changed, or that something doesn't work the way I thought it would, or whatever, but usually I have it all mapped out: “This is what we do, this is the tune.” - and at least we try it that way. With the band, I know what I'm doing, it's very controlled – except for the improvisation.

MR: What is your compositional process? Do you have a routine? Do you do it everyday? Do you have phases – for example, do you brainstorm and then edit?

DB: It's changed over the years. I used to write just to write, because I enjoyed it and I wanted to write music, but then I became busier, and now I find that I write when I have something to write for. I really only write now when I have a project – a gig, or most of the time it is a record. I was supposed to do that tonight - I'm actually out here working on a record. I'll just start writing because I'm writing for a record, and it usually flows pretty easily. But I don't go “Oh I have nothing to do, I guess I'll write some music.”

MR: So you don't write at a certain time or anything – just whenever you can fit it in?

DB: Kind of. For years I wrote late at night – like after midnight until six in the morning or something. It seems like now I write more often in the daytime. It isn't a specific time.

MR: And if you have an album that you're going to write for, would your first step be to brainstorm – come up with a bunch of themes and ideas – and then after you have a bunch of material thin it down, or do you just have an idea and go with it and write the whole thing... you know, is there any kind of sequence of stages in your composition?

DB: I usually start something and I finish it, and then I move on to the next thing. And then I get a bunch of those, and I weed out the ones I don't want to use. But the actually composition – I start something and then I finish it.

MR: I heard you are writing some stuff for string orchestra with saxophone and piano – is that any different? That would be a lot more notes on the page.

DB: Yeah, the stuff I've written for that is through-composed, so far – there is like 40 minutes of music with no improvisation and it is completely through-composed – it's like classical music basically.

MR: So do you need to have a more complex process to come up with that much material? Or does that happen the same way – you just write and it comes out?

DB: It's exactly the same process, it just takes longer because there is so much more writing. When I'm working on that stuff, sometimes I will write for eight hours and get maybe 30 seconds of music.

MR: So obviously for a lot of that you must be playing with things – there must be some brainstorming in that?

DB: Hmm... maybe a little. I basically put my hands on the keyboard and I just start writing. It just kind of flows. And when I feel like I'm done for the day, I stop. The next day I pick it up where I left off and continue. Within that, sometimes I might go “Oh, I need to bring this theme back in here, oh this would be good, let me take this thing and now put it in the cello part and speed it up or use a thread...” That's all part of the process.

MR: Do you believe in any essential principle of a good composition? Some quality that every good composition has?

DB: That's a hard one. I like every kind of music. I don't know. It's like that old Duke Ellington thing – you either like it or you don't. If you like it... cool. I don't have any kind of parameters on anything. I'm not sure if I have any rules for it – I seriously just think whether I enjoy it or not – if I like listening to it or not. I don't think of music in that way. I'm seriously not ever judging music other than if I like it or not.

MR: What composers do you most admire?

DB: Man, there are so many...

MR: It's a big question; what are the first that come to mind?

DB: Well, I guess Wayne Shorter for me, for jazz. Stravinsky, Aaron Copland... Pat Metheny, I always liked old records of his.

MR: Wayne was the first person you said – can you say what it is about Wayne that you admire as a composer?

DB: It just appeals to me somehow. I like the beautiful melodies and chords, and it's unique and memorable... you know, as everyone probably feels in jazz, I mean he's obviously a great composer.

There are so many... it's just beyond... Joni Mitchell, I love her tunes... I can't... it's just mind-boggling.

MR: What do you get out of composing – you've recorded almost entirely original music – why are you so focused on composing?

DB: There are a few records where I have some Wayne tunes, a Sam Rivers tune, a Monk tune, a couple Duke Ellington tunes... but, it's rare. I'm not against it – I was thinking about maybe doing a standards record in the next couple of years. But I like to compose, and the music that has been appealing to me usually has been new composition. I'm always looking for stuff that appeals to me and is sort of new in some way to me. So I guess I've always wanted to be that.

MR: Do you enjoy the act of composing, or do you get more pleasure over playing over your tunes, or do you get the most pleasure out of having the album done, or all of the above? What do you get out of composing?

DB: It would definitely be all of the above, but the ultimate thing for me is to create an album. When you have it, and it's done, and it's like “I made this thing that everybody listens to.” That's sort of the biggest thrill in music to me. But of course, live playing, which I do all the time, is so intense, and I love that too, it's just a different thing. But I think the most important thing to me is the albums.

MR: But do you enjoy the process of actually sitting down and coming up with stuff? Because for me, sometimes I don't enjoy that at all – I enjoy when it is over!

DB: I really like it, if it is flowing well, which most of the time it is now. Yeah, I really like it. When it is flowing well, the thrill of that is fantastic, because you get so excited about what you're hearing, what you're writing. I guess I really like it. But it's not that hard for me, composition has never been really hard.

MR: Why has it never been hard for you? Have you ever had a block?

DB: Maybe a couple of times, but nothing major. I don't know, it's just what I do, it's just what I love and what I do. It just happens. I don't have to force it, it's just me. Music is my whole life. It is the language I speak the best, so it's not that hard.

MR: Can you recommend any books or videos, anything I could go out and get, that's affected you as a composer?

DB: Well you know, I never studied any of it. I've never studied composition, I've never studied piano. I don't know how to play piano. I'm weird in that way. I just sit down – I know how to get what I want out of the piano, but I don't know how to play piano. Like if you put a standard in front of me, and say “play this tune” I couldn't do it. I could figure it out really slowly, and if you come back in five days I could probably slowly play though it. I mean when I'm writing I'm not thinking about key, or even time signature a lot of the time, or what the harmony relates to, or what the harmony is, or how the melody relates – I'm not thinking about any of that stuff. I don't know. I don't write down what the chords are. I'm just purely writing what I'm hearing. And then after the fact I figure it all out.

MR: So do you mostly write sitting at the piano with a piece of score paper?

DB: I used to do it that way, but once all those programs came along I started just writing into the computer because it allowed me to do so much more, since I'm not a piano player. Actually, I come up with the most ideas on the piano, because it just feels and sounds great to me. But, I don't have the facility to play something and then remember it and play it again, because I don't really know what I'm doing. So it was a really slow process when I did it with just piano and paper. Although I did it for years; like some of my early records – I guess my first three or four records - were written with just piano. But once the computer stuff came along, that just opened up everything for me. Because it would allow me to play something, like it, and immediately put it in, so I didn't have to know how to play it again.

MR: So you compose with a piano and computer now, right next to each other?

DB: No, I just have a midi computer into Sibelius or ProTools. So that it is all there instantly, so I don't have to remember how to play it. Otherwise it would be really hard for me.

MR: Are there any composition or compositions that you are most proud of, and why?

DB: Yeah, there's some that stand out a bit to me, just because I like them. Sometimes when you write something good and you feel good about it, I like it like a listener would like it. I can put it on and go “Oh, this is a good tune.” I can kind of detach myself from it. And that's probably because I don't know what I did in the first place until after the fact and I don't remember what it actually is, so I'm actually listening to my records, in a way, like a listener would. Except for the solos. But the actual composition, I really don't know what's going on. Because after I do it, I write it out, that's it. I don't remember what it is after the fact. I guess I can listen that way. And if I listen that way, I guess there are a few tunes that stand out. I mean, I like a lot of them, I don't put anything out I don't like. But, there are a couple tunes on my newest album – Graylen Epicenter – that I felt really good about. There are a few tunes that I've written that I haven't recorded yet, that I've written recently, that I really really like.

MR: So which tunes on the new record?

DB: I don't really remember the order... track four?

MR: Everglow?

DB: Everglow, yeah I really like that. I like the title track. I like All Of Time. I got into a certain kind of thing during this recent period that moves around a lot harmonically. Almost like in the sense of a modern Giant Steps vibe – I mean this stuff is going all over the place. When I'm soloing over that stuff, it probably sounds pretty easy to the listener, because it's kind of relaxed, but it's actually really hard! There's a lot of harmonic motion and it's through-composed. I think with track four – I think it's that track – it is four and a half minutes before anything repeats.

And then there is a tune of mine that I like, but it seems like everyone else always asks me about it. It is the most downloaded one. It's on a record called South, and it is called Out Beyond Ideas.

MR: Yeah, I love that tune!

DB: Everybody asks me about that tune. You know, I like it a lot, I don't think it's even close to [skype lost audio for a moment] now, but for some reason that tune resonates with people. There are a lot of other tunes I like. There's stuff on Third Occasion. But you know, I'm always trying to push it forward, so I guess some of my favourite writing I haven't recorded yet. It's been written in the last few months.

MR: You said you are getting into a thing where you are moving around a lot harmonically – do you enjoy that as a listener, or do you enjoy it as a soloist, having the challenge of playing over those tunes?

DB: Both. I like listening to music that moves around a lot. I'm out here [in L.A.] now doing a record that's completely different than anything I've ever done. People with either hate it or really love it – or they'll just be surprised probably. Because it is very electric, and very synth oriented and vocals, and all that stuff. We're just starting it. But some of the material has a lot of harmonic motion, even within this electronic, groove world. Which I like, and this guy I'm working with – Louis Cole – really likes too. We have similar tastes with kind of making groove or something more accessible in some way, yet still with a lot of harmonic motion. And it's really fun to play over, and listen to too. It doesn't always have to be that way for me, at all, but in this period I'm liking that a lot. I'm liking a lot of harmonic motion, and it is really fun to play over for me.

MR: Were there any really important moments, teachers, bands, or pieces of music that affected how you developed as a composer?

DB: There are certain people that I listen to that I think probably. Well teachers no, because I didn't study composition. But yeah, music that I listen to. That goes back to that other question. It would be almost the same thing. But I remember listening to Metheny records, a lot of ECM stuff back in the day, Jan Garbarek records, Bill Frisell, obviously Wayne, a lot of Brazilian music has influenced me really heavily - Ivan Lins, Jobim, Milton Nascimento.

MR: Did Brazilian music change your course? Was there anything like that – where you heard something and you were suddenly like “That's it!”

DB: I don't think it changed any course, it just added to the course I was on. And again, because I haven't studied the music, whatever it was – a lot of classical music - again classical music – Copland, Charles Ives, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Lutoslawski, Detellyou (sp?) – they really influenced me. L.A. Pop from the 70's and 80's. When I say influential, it is just the sound of it, because I never figured out anything. Sometimes when I hear stuff, I can kinda get that vibe without knowing what that is.

MR: You've said you didn't have any composition teachers, but did you study as a jazz performer – most of us study, like, harmony - your standard jazz harmony education.

DB: Yeah, I studied all the harmonic thing, and a lot of classical music, and did a lot of technical stuff. But the difference with me in that area is that I've never transcribed a solo. Or I've never memorized a solo. Not once in my life have I ever done that. I never memorized a lick, I never memorized anything to play through a two-five-one. Nothing like that. I just learn the harmony, and got technique. And my whole theory about that is that if you have technique and you know the harmony, there's no reason you can't play through changes without ever learning one solo.

MR: Just learning scales and arpeggios and stuff like that?

DB: Yeah, if you know the scales that you're supposed to play over any given chord, and you have technique on the instrument, you should be able to play through anything. That's the way I've thought about music, that's what I've done. So that's why people go “What are you playing?” They don't really know. Well, it's not anything that I've copied, because I don't know that stuff. I could listen to it and imitate it, in a way. If someone puts on a bebop tune and says “just cop a bebop vibe” I can get that, but it's not anything that I've learned or memorized. It's just assimilated, that sound in my head. But at the same time it's not playing by ear, I'm definitely dealing with all the harmonic structure. So it is kind of this in between kind of zone. I think it's very unusual, from just about everyone I've ever talked to. The way they've learned is just a different thing.

But it's never affected my composition because I don't think ever once – I've played tones of standards – but I don't think I've ever written a two-five-one in a tune. If I did it was accidental. But I don't really know how to play it on the piano so I don't think I've ever written anything like that.

MR: Do you have any goals as far as how you want to develop your composition and your music in the future?

DB: No, I don't have any goals with it, I just want to keep kind of moving forward. And everything I do, I want it to be forward motion. Something new, something I haven't done before.

MR: Just sort of following the next foot, whatever comes after what you just did?

DB: Yeah, and developing what I just did. If I'm really happy with what I just did, I might use the same instrumentation, but I still always want it to be a development of that. And sometimes, I just go completely left of what I've done. Like, I'm half-way done with this string record, which will probably be done in a year or so, now I'm recording this electric record, there will be other records with some of the same groups - you know, I think there will be another record with Blade and all those guys, at some point in the next year or so. So you know, I just keep my hand in a lot of areas. And that's what interests me, because I listen to so much different music. I don't want to just make the so-called “jazz record”. And yet I'm a player and I love to play, so I'm trying to bridge some of the more groove and electric and pop elements up to the way I write and the way I play with this new record. It's going to be drastically different, but I think – I know – I 'll be really into it. Maybe everyone else won't be, but I will.

MR: I've read in interviews how it is important for you that your music can be appreciated both by someone who's an expert in jazz and someone who is coming to it ignorant of all that – everyone can get something.

DB: Yeah, that's a goal. That's important to me. When I'm writing, I do think about that. I think about “It's not just for me, I'm doing this for other people.” I want people to like it.

MR: Not just jazzbos.

DB: Yeah, I want everybody to like it. I'm not compromising to do that, but I'm thinking about it. If I like it and it makes me feel good as a listener, I know that other people will like it. I can kind of tell when I'm writing what people will like and what people won't like as much. That's an important thing for me, I want as many people as possible to like the music. That's the whole point.

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1 comment:

  1. Awesome. I hereby abandon the guilt in not desiring to transcribe.