Monday, December 28, 2009

The Lithium Rush

In the Bolivian Andes lies a vast salt flat that may shape the future of transportation.

Nearly four kilometers above sea level in the Bolivian Andes lies the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. But there is more to this ­surreal, moonlike landscape than meets the eye. Flowing in salt-water ­channels beneath the surface is the world's largest supply of lithium--and, possibly, the future of transportation. Lithium is the key ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries that will power the electric vehicles that will soon be rolling off production lines worldwide. Demand for the metal is expected to double in the next 10 years, and Bolivia, with an untapped resource estimated at nine million tons by the U.S. Geological Survey, is being called a potential "Saudi Arabia of lithium."

The 10,000-square-kilometer Uyuni salt flat (salar in Spanish) extends to the horizon in all directions. These days it's a breeding ground for pink flamingos and a draw for curious tourists, but in prehistoric times it was once an immense lake. Water falling in the Andes still flows here, and as it works its way over volcanic rocks toward the salar, it picks up minerals, including magnesium and lithium. Baked by the sun, the water becomes a mineral-rich brine that flows under the salt desert's crusty surface.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sounds Heard: Peter Evans—Nature/Culture

Editor's Note: Follow the source to its original site and hear a track from Evans amazing double album.

Trying to describe Peter Evans's trumpet playing pretty quickly leaves you scraping the bottom of the superlative bin. To anyone who's seen him play, phrases that would otherwise sound like just more breathless, context-free hype ("the greatest trumpet player of our time," "superhuman") feel just about right, and yet they only capture part of what Evans, at the age of 28, has already accomplished. Taking off from the solo performance aesthetic of saxophonist Evan Parker, Peter Evans has devoted his early career to the cultivation and refinement of an exhaustive and totalizing virtuosity.

Nature/Culture, a new double-disc release on Parker's Psi label, offers some surprises though: in addition to the expected jaw-dropping technique, Evans proves to be an electronic musician of uncommon vision and restraint, and a first-rate composer. It makes no sense to pigeonhole him as some Steve Vai-esque technical freak of nature (comforting as that may be to the less gifted). Peter Evans is one of the best musicians of his generation, and Nature/Culture is both a summary and documentation of his achievements so far, as well as a rich, rewarding, and deeply musical album.

Technique as Technology

In classical performance practice, technique as it impacts a player's sound has developed towards a model of maximal tone, minimal noise. Key noise, breath noise, changes of bow direction or hand position, and any other audible evidence that behind the sound there's an actual human body are treated as technical problems. The ideal is the erasure of the body's "imprint" on the sound.

On Nature/Culture, Evans puts forward a powerful and possibility-rich inversion of this model: rather than suppressing noise, technique can be the ability to modulate the noise/tone balance with maximal range, variation, and subtlety. Not only are the noise artifacts of trumpet playing not de-emphasized, they're amplified, both literally (on disc 1, with the use of an additional microphone positioned by his head), and metaphorically. Evans's basic vocabulary ranges from angular post-bop lines to "traditional" extended techniques (multiphonics, circular breathing) to a collection of radically original timbres and gestures that hover in the ambiguous middle of the noise/tone continuum.

Evans's mastery of extended techniques on trumpet is complete and unprecedented. More astonishingly, it's also combinatorial—not only can he play pedal-tones on piccolo trumpet with total fluency, he can also flutter-tongue them. While circular breathing. For minutes at a time.

This level of technical craft allows Evans to completely transfigure his instrument, to denature and reconceive the trumpet from its basic physical and acoustic properties. Here is where he truly separates himself from the many of his peers in the free improvisation scene, as he's developed an integrated concept of performance that binds together his technical discoveries into a larger metaphorical framework. For Evans, the trumpet serves as a point of intersection between the human and the technological, and his treatment of the instrument (while allowing for references to historical styles) is primarily abstract and analytical. The trumpet, voice, and microphone are treated as equal partners, as if the metal tube of the instrument connected smoothly to the flesh tube of the vocal tract through a composite vibrating membrane of lips and mouthpiece. The larynx serves as an auxiliary oscillator that distorts or ring-modulates the sound when engaged. The valves of the trumpet are gates and switches that shorten and lengthen the overall circuit, redirecting signal flow. The microphone, most often inserted into the bell of the trumpet as a kind of paradoxical "amplifier mute," provides abrupt and vertiginous shifts in auditory perspective. In fact, one gets the impression that Evans has set up a sonic network of sufficient complexity that its response to an input is intentionally difficult to predict or control (especially when that input is often at the highest possible gain). For this reason, while his performative godfather is clearly Evan Parker, aesthetically he seems to be exploring territory first touched on by David Tudor's hardware feedback networks, in which a high-energy signal is sent through an intentionally labyrinthine circuit, with chaotic and unpredictable results. When, at a recent live solo performance, Evans played a piccolo trumpet through the mouthpiece of a C-trumpet into a microphone, this image took on an even more concrete and visible form.

As his aesthetic is already heavily indebted to electronic gestures and timbres, Evans's use of actual electronics is appropriately subtle— utensile rather than prosthetic. Nature/Culture is divided into a live disc recorded in one take and partitioned into tracks after the fact, and a studio album in which Evans exploits the compositional possibilities of recording technology. On five, the album’s only instance of overt studio manipulation—and one of Nature Culture's strongest tracks—overdubbing serves a dramatic, orchestrational function. Four-and-a-half minutes into the piece the sound of a bucket-muted trumpet suddenly bleeds out into a corona of duplicates, a Niblock-style drone-cloud that saturates the remainder of the ten-minute track without calling direct attention to the sudden flip into artificiality.

The lightness of his touch with electronic manipulation reinforces the sense that the technology itself is not quite the point. Technique is the real tool, and it's the imitation of technological processes and effects, rather than any specific hardware or software, that spurs him to extend the limits of the possible. The result is all the more impressive, and sidesteps the most common trap of the instruments-plus-electronics genre (chez Boulez, anyway): the moment anything is possible is the moment we stop caring. Struggle, fallibility, and risk have to be part of the equation.

Performance as Practice

Watching Evans perform live, it's clear that, for all his monstrous prowess on the trumpet, he still insists on playing at the absolute limit of his own technique. His virtuosity isn't of the sweat-less, no-hair-out-of-place variety; rather, he's always stretching to go a little further, to add one more layer, to avoid repeating himself (though like any seasoned improviser he has a set of go-to gestures and finger patterns).

When pursued with this degree of dedication and restless intensity, the act of performance becomes a kind of practice, an inexhaustible "path" that offers an image of perfection and a series of concrete steps that can be taken to approach it. Solo performance clarifies this dimension even further: there's no one else to blame if something goes wrong, no other artistic impulse with which to negotiate. For the performer, playing solo is an unmediated encounter with the self. In turn, solo free improvisation (especially on a monophonic instrument) escalates the terror-level of this encounter to its highest pitch. To watch someone overcome the implicit threat of this situation gives you a pleasure similar to watching great athletes succeed under tremendous pressure. You feel proud of your species.

Yet this kind of cultivation, in expanding the limits of the possible, also redefines what it means to be human. Evans's mastery of extended circular breathing subverts the periodic, breath-determined phrase length that serves as one of the basic, subconscious signs of humanness in music; this in turn allows him to deploy a truly electronic aesthetic as one of several stylistic poles in his solo performance. Thus what might seem at first to be a kind of macho gimmick turns out to be a crucial part of the music's deep structure—an aesthetic necessity that drives the technical innovation, rather than the reverse.


While the spastic energy of Evans live performances is inevitably somewhat muted on record, the first (studio) disc of Nature/Culture compensates with a fresh focus on composition and formal rigor. Several of the tracks stand on their own as coherent, inventive, and compelling pieces of music that reward repeated listening. the chamber, an 11-minute timbral study, focuses almost exclusively on the sound of multiphonics overdriving a bubble-shaped harmon mute. Evans's sense of pacing and proportion is mature and unhurried; at several points the music yawns into silence, and he seems perfectly comfortable allowing it the space to rest and breathe before resuming the thread. A similar degree of sensitivity enlivens Nature/Culture b, a kind of duet with controlled feedback, and the year's clear Grammy frontrunner in the "Best Use of Key Clicks/Valve Noise" category. full, an explosive piccolo trumpet freak-out, achieves an atomized, kaleidoscopic polyphony that's dazzling, overwhelming, and not a second too long. It's exactly the result the second-generation of New Complexity composers attempt to achieve again and again. That Peter Evans, simply by going about his artistic business, happens to viciously pwn this particular clique can only be another check in his column.

While Nature/Culture can't truly replace the experience of seeing Evans play live, as a document of a phenomenally gifted young player operating at the top of his game, it's tremendously rewarding. And inspiring, too: even as it deftly summarizes what Evans has already accomplished, it also shows him opening up new compositional, technical, and aesthetic possibilities for future exploration. The work isn't done yet, in other words. Though when you can do just about anything, "What next?" becomes a much more complicated question.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Secrets Within Cosmic Dust

At the threshold of a sterile lab at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, I pull on a white clean-room suit, a surgical cap and mask, booties and latex gloves. My host, a mineralogist named Mike Zolensky, swabs my digital voice recorder with alcohol to remove flakes of skin and pocket lint. He doesn't want any detritus to contaminate the precious dust in the room.

Once inside, Zolensky retrieves a palm-size glass box from a cabinet. The box holds a rectangular chunk, less than two inches across, of eerily translucent material. I lean in and squint at it but can't quite focus on anything. Zolensky turns off the lights and hands me a laser pointer. The red beam reveals thin streaks in the chunk that start at its surface and penetrate fractions of an inch, like the traces of tiny bullets. "Those are the comet impacts," he says. "It's beautiful to look at."

The tracks were made during the world's first—and only—attempt to chase a comet and bring a bit of it home. The NASA mission, called Stardust, sent a spacecraft to Comet Wild 2 (pronounced "VILT-too") on a seven-year journey that ended in 2006. It brought back the only material—other than moon rocks—taken directly from an extraterrestrial body.

Scientists expect the comet dust to yield clues about how our solar system and planet were formed. Earth has been through so much in its 4.5 billion years—volcanoes have erupted, mountains have risen and fallen, heat and water have chemically transformed rocks time and again—that scientists have trouble getting their hands on the earliest possible geologic evidence in what might be called showroom condition. It has all been buried or altered. In contrast, comets, which are about the same age as Earth, are pristine relics. "There's nothing left on Earth's surface that's nearly as old as these bits of crystals and minerals," says Carlton Allen, astromaterials curator at the Johnson Space Center. A comet, he continues, harbors the "starting material for our solar system, the stuff that came together to make everything we see."

Comets originated on the outskirts of a vast cloud of gas and dust that coalesced into our solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago. Crystals of ice far from the Sun gradually combined with dust to form trillions of comets, which have orbited slowly around the Sun ever since in a deep freeze far beyond Neptune. Only when gravity from a nearby star or some cosmic disturbance nudges them do they approach the Sun; then we see streams of gas and dust as the ice vaporizes—the signature tail.

The most famous, Comet Halley, is barely ten miles across, but it produces a beautiful tail tens of millions of miles long when its looping orbit brings it between Earth and the Sun every 76 years. (Earth will see it again in 2061.) Asteroids, too, are ancient, but most orbit between Mars and Jupiter, where the Sun has baked them for billions of years. Most of them are dense and rocky, some even metallic, shedding pieces that sometimes land on Earth as meteorites.

The travel plan of NASA's Stardust sounds like a Buck Rogers adventure. Swing far past Mars to within 150 miles of Comet Wild 2, which streaks by at 13,700 miles per hour. Catch fragments without destroying them. Travel back to Earth and drop a capsule into the atmosphere for a blazing nighttime re-entry over Utah. Parachute to the ground without crashing. "We were scared up to the last second," Zolensky says. "We still can't believe it really worked."

For all the impressive rocketry, the mission's most significant technology may have been the strange substance that caught the comet dust. Called aerogel, it's the lightest solid ever created. A slab the size of an average person would weigh less than a pound. A scientist once let me crumble some in my hand; it felt like brittle talc. Yet aerogel is tough. It's made of silica compounds arranged in an elaborate web that can snare particles plowing into it at up to six times the speed of a rifle bullet. The spacecraft carried two aluminum collecting trays shaped like oversize tennis rackets. Each tray held about 130 rectangular pockets filled with aerogel blocks smaller than ice cubes.

In the clean room, Zolensky returns the aerogel chunk to the storage cabinet and removes a bolted aluminum case. Inside lies an entire comet collection tray. It's worth about $200 million. "I'm always nervous about this part," he says. "I try not to drop it." He places the case on a stainless steel table, unbolts it and lifts the lid. "Air flows down from the ceiling, so the rule here is that we never stand over the tray," he tells me. Even with the mask on, I am acutely aware that I must not sneeze.

The aerogel cubes, tinged lu­minescent blue, look like puffs of breath exhaled on a winter morning and frozen solid. The laser pointer reveals scores of tracks marring the cubes' surfaces and interiors, some like sharp pinpricks, others like splaying roots.

A few dozen cubes are missing from the tray. Zolensky and his colleagues have cut out hundreds of small sections of those cubes. They remove an entire particle track by poking a pair of sharp glass fibers into the aerogel, a process that takes up to a day. The extracted piece looks like the clipped corner of a fingernail and has a particle at one end.

Seen through a microscope, the particle Zolensky shows me is jet black. Astronomers once pictured comets as gently disintegrating "fluffy ice balls." Then detailed photographs revealed that comets' outer rinds are blackened crusts, charred by the radiation of space. Ice and dust spew through fissures in the crust, eroding the comet's interior with each orbit. The Stardust samples—messengers from the inside of Wild 2—show that comets are dark through and through.

Under higher magnification, the dust particles look like exploded popcorn kernels. Stardust scientists were surprised to find that some of the comet's grains are made of minerals that form only at extremely high temperatures. It appears that these grains arose close to the Sun, inside the orbit of Mercury, in a blast furnace far removed from the calm, cold margins of the solar system where comets now drift.

No one had expected that the hot ingredients of the inner solar system mixed with the cold outer solar system billions of years ago. "It's a remarkable result," says planetary scientist Michael A'Hearn of the University of Maryland. "It's causing us to rethink how things got put together." It may mean that wind or radiation from the newborn Sun was stronger than expected, propelling the heat-forged grains deep into the solar system, where they merged with ices and frigid dust into comets.

The collection tray also captured evidence suggesting that comets may have helped seed life on Earth. NASA researchers found traces of glycine—one of the amino acids that make up the proteins in all living things—on the aluminum foil lining the sides of the aerogel cubes. The discovery, confirmed this past summer, suggests that comets contain some of life's basic molecules. Comets and meteorites colliding with the young Earth would have spread such compounds, possibly providing the ingredients for the Earth's first cells.

Stardust wasn't the only comet mission. NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft slammed a probe into Comet P9/Tem­pel 1 in 2005 and found that the crust was rigid but the layers underneath were weak and powdery. A European mission now en route, Rosetta, will try to land on a comet in 2014, scoop up some icy dirt and analyze it on the spot.

After we strip off our clean-room suits, Zolensky takes me downstairs to see the mission's return capsule. (It is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum.) The cone-shaped shield that protected Stardust's cargo during its fiery re-entry is about a yard wide. There's some dirt on it, Utah mud from the landing. The capsule's surface, a carbon composite mixed with cork, is burned and yields slightly to the touch. The spacecraft flew three billion miles—the most distant traveler ever to find its way home.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Proton Beams Are on Track at Collider

Physicists returned to their future on Friday. About 10 p.m. outside Geneva, scientists at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, succeeded in sending beams of protons clockwise around the 17-mile underground magnetic racetrack known as the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest and most expensive physics experiment.

For physicists, the event was a milestone on the way back from disaster and the resumption of a 15-year, $9 billion quest to investigate laws and forces that prevailed when the universe was less than a trillionth of a second old.

The collider was designed to accelerate protons to energies of seven trillion electron volts apiece and smash them together in tiny fireballs in an effort to replicate and study the conditions of the Big Bang.

The first time protons circled the collider, on Sept. 10, 2008, the event was celebrated with Champagne and midnight pajama parties around the world. But the festivities were cut short a few days later when an electrical connection between a pair of the collider’s giant superconducting electromagnets vaporized.

Subsequent work revealed that the machine was riddled with thousands of connections unable to handle the high currents required to run the collider at its intended energy.

Physicists and engineers have spent the past year testing and making repairs. While they have not replaced all the faulty connections, they have patched things up enough to allow the collider to run at less than full speed.

Calling the past year’s work a “Herculean effort,” CERN’s director for accelerators, Steve Myers, said the engineers had learned from painful experience and understood the collider far better than they had before.

CERN’s director, Rolf Heuer, said in a statement, “It’s great to see beam circulating in the LHC again,” but he and others cautioned that there was a long way to go before the collider started producing the physics it was designed for.

When the collider begins to do real physics next year, it will run at half its original design energy, with protons of 3.5 trillion electron volts. The energy will be increased gradually during the year, but it could be years, physicists say, before the machine reaches its full potential.

Thousands of the troublesome junctions will have to be rebuilt during a yearlong shutdown in 2011, and engineers have to figure out why several dozen of the superconducting magnets seem to have lost their ability to operate at high intensities.

The delay has given new life to the collider’s main rival, the Tevatron at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois.

If all goes well, CERN says, the protons will start colliding at low energies in about a week.

Those first collisions will occur at the so-called injection energy of 450 billion electron volts. The machine will then quickly step up to 1.1 trillion electron volts, which is just above the energy of the Tevatron.

CERN is hoping to achieve that landmark as a symbolic Christmas present before a short holiday shutdown.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Reality Is A Dream

Near Geneva, Particles Finally Come Together With a Bang

A screen at the European Organization for Nuclear Research showed the collision detectors inside the Large Hadron Collider.

Call it First Bang.

The Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest and most expensive science experiment, produced its first collisions on Monday, said scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, outside Geneva.

Seemingly making up for lost time after years of disasters and delays, the collisions came only three days after engineers had begun shooting the subatomic particles known as protons around their 17-mile underground racetrack. The physicists announced that they had succeeded in making the beams collide, producing what they called “candidate collision events” in the giant particle detectors in the collider.

The collider has been built over 15 years at a cost of $9 billion to accelerate protons to energies of seven trillion electron volts apiece and then slam them together in an attempt to recreate forces and particles that reigned during the first moments of the Big Bang. But for much of that time, the only things that have gone bang in the collider were magnets and other components, most notably in September 2008 after the first time protons circled the collider.

When the beams began circulating again on Friday, CERN officials said they expected the first collisions to happen in early December.

“It’s a great achievement to have come this far in so short a time,” CERN’s director general, Rolf Heuer, said in a news release. “But we need to keep a sense of perspective — there’s still much to do before we can start the L.H.C. physics program.”

In the control rooms of the collider and of the four giant particle detectors, built and staffed by thousands of physicists who have the job of interpreting the data from the beginning of time, there were cheers and Champagne.

Michael Tuts of Columbia University said he and his colleagues were “ecstatic at the news.” But the most important scientific results from the collider are still far in the future, scientists said.

Monday’s collisions were basically a test of the collider systems’ ability to synchronize the beams, in which bunches of protons travel along at nearly the speed of light, and make them collide at the right points. The protons were at their so-called injection energies of 450 billion electron volts, a far cry from the energies the machine will eventually achieve.

In the next weeks before a holiday break, CERN hopes to increase the proton energies to 1.2 trillion electron volts apiece, which would make the hadron collider officially the most powerful in the world, eclipsing the Tevatron (900 billion electron volts) at Fermilab in Illinois.

Early next year the first runs devoted to physics research will start at 3.5 trillion electron volts — half the original design energy. To get near 7 trillion electron volts, the engineers say, the machine will have to be shut down a year from now for a lengthy period of repairs and other work.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tristan Perich

Tristan Perich performing Dual Synthesis, 2009, with harpsichord and four-channel one-bit electronics at bitforms, New York. All images courtesy of the artist and bitforms, New York.

Tristan Perich’s first digital release was not available on iTunes. Titled 1-Bit Music, the album manifested exclusively in the form of a single 8K microchip and the requisite hardware to transmit its program of songs to the human ear, mounted handsomely onto a traditional CD jewel case. The tour found Tristan drumming along at breakneck pace to its rough-and-tumble lo-fi big-beat electro pop. His newest, purely electronic offering 1-Bit Symphony is a bold take on the antiquated form, and for his upcoming tour, he’ll accompany his microchip on the harpsichord. The work exists in the tradition of late Romantic composer Charles-Marie Widor’s grand organ symphonies for a single player, still very much in vogue 100 years ago. What the orchestra lacks in numbers is compensated for with deft execution of complexity or stark simplicity, demonstrating the range and possibility of the instrument. Perich’s work is a relentless cascade of counterpointing textures and cutting sheets of tone, with enough baroque pomp to escape the trappings of post-minimalism. The listener stops recognizing the sound of bleeps and bloops and engages with it as music for any instrument, or perhaps as music for pure sound itself. Over the past five years, Perich has investigated several contexts for one-bit instruments in various electro-acoustic arrangements, bringing weight and dimension to an aesthetic associated with Nintendo Game Boys and digital watches. I’ve always wanted to know what brought him into this unique world that seems to come from our collected childhoods. His process unites a geeky crush on algorithms and systems with all the bravura and romance of Peanuts’ tousled Schroeder at his toy piano (though Perich’s hair is more of a wiry shot). It’s an intricate and rewarding style, with a touch of wit and art-world paronomasia.

—Nick Hallett


Nick Hallett I want to talk about sound and I want to talk about music, but let’s start with how you found one-bit technology as a means to create both.

Tristan Perich When I was in college at Columbia I took a class that was an introduction to the world of new media art. Douglas Repetto taught it.

NH Douglas Repetto has been rated one of the world’s sexiest geeks by Wired magazine.

TP (laughter) Awesome. Then the next year I did an independent project with him, exploring kinetic art through microchips and motors, creating musical interfaces and programming microchips—working with chips and generating sounds—and really liking it. The conceptual part was fleshed out later; over time I realized why I was interested in the sound.

NH So what was it? One-bit sounds have a loaded history, certainly for people over the age of 30 who experienced the dawn of consumer digital culture and have those associations with early digital Casio watches or greeting cards that played Christmas tunes. Does the sound carry any of that nostalgic baggage for you?

TP It carries a lot of that baggage, and it’s funny because my watch alarm just went off like two minutes ago—another one-bit sound. It’s such a part of video game culture and my youth, and now it’s part of the sound palate of the world around us.

NH What exactly is the appeal of the one-bit sound? The actual acoustics? The cultural theory behind it? What’s the joy of programming the chips?

TP On one level, it’s just straight up the sound. The pieces from the first album are all very driving.

NH How did you figure out what kind of music you wanted to make?

TP Around 2004, Fischerspooner held a great salon at the Deitch Projects space in Williamsburg. These were weekly events with piles of free beer, and they tried to do interesting performances and art installations. It felt exciting.

NH New York was exciting around that time.

TP Well, I think it’s exciting now.

NH True, but there was a particular energy that lasted for a few years after September 11 that has been unmatched since.

TP That energy was pretty top-down, though; it was sponsored by the art world and the music industry, but still super-raw and fresh and cool.

NH Well, Fischerspooner had just signed a million-dollar record deal. It was definitely the twilight of the record industry. Anyway, the salon …

TP I was so into electronic music at that time, and I was asked to perform. I think I played piano for a video piece I did, and it was there that I got the inspiration and the idea of actually putting a microchip in a CD case and writing music for it. I had an early prototype that I would bring around and play for people.

NH So it came about as an art idea as much as it did a musical idea?

TP I think so.

NH Maybe what was leading you towards this path was the idea of creating a physical object.

TP That’s a good way of looking at it. There was a sense that it was sort of meant for mass production. Early on, I wanted it to be the same price as a CD—the same object, the same case, but with the innards swapped out. Almost disguised as something you would usually consume and you wouldn’t even know until you opened it up that it was a microchip. So yes, kind of an art statement.

NH Did you see it as a pop album?

TP Not at all, but I wanted to engage that pop aspect of culture at the same time. There was music inside of me that wanted to be pop music, but I also wanted to have some challenging noise pieces that wouldn’t fly by pop-music standards.

NH Did you see this in relationship to Pop art?

TP No, I was critiquing mainstream production values and the consumption of music. Cantaloupe Music was interested in it, so I moved back to New York, started going to the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, and started doing some shows. I think this was the fall of 2005.

NH Which is when I met you.

TP The first show was opening for Dirty Projectors at Tonic; that was when I decided to add drums on top of it—a performance version. That was me throwing myself into the Big Beat electronica world.

Five Linear Constructions, 2007-2009, installation for five-channel one-bit video and cathode ray televisions. Dimensions variable.

NH I interpreted the first record to be a pun on Gameboy and eight-bit music in that it was something of a one-upmanship by being even more primitively executed. I’m curious, was that intentional or were you trying to establish an initial connection with the chiptune music movement?

TP I don’t even remember what the first chiptunes show I did was, but I immediately found myself fully in that scene. There was a sense of people saying, “Tristan doesn’t need the other seven bits—this is one-bit music!” So the one-upmanship was perceived, but I don’t think it was ever intentional. After all these eight-bit artists, to see a one-bit artist come along, regardless of the intent, is perceived as a response. But that was part of the fun, that there was a little commotion going on. What’s cool about that scene is that it is a scene, where everybody knows each other.

NH You’ve had composer chops since long before you got invested in one-bit sound. When did you start to transition into a more, um, elegant sensibility, one that engaged with your inner composer, your inner Schroeder?

TP When I first started performing, I wanted to add to music and drums with additional tracks. I never got around to it, partly because the pitch system of the first album is totally arbitrary and has no grounding in the tonality our ears are used to. Cantaloupe did a label showcase at Tonic, and I played a piece that was for electronics with a baritone sax on top of it that my friend Argeo Ascani played. That was my first glimpse at what I really wanted to get into: scoring music for acoustic instruments with electronics. At the time I hadn’t really fleshed the ideas out; he was playing into an amplified microphone and the electronic part was the noise: glitchy, bleepy stuff that I was doing on the first album. Over time, this settled down so that the electronics and human musicians would be playing parts that were similar in scale.

A year later, when I was down in Texas at the Aurora Picture Show, doing the festival you put together, I was also finishing the ten-violin piece, which was really the second piece I wrote, it was kind of like 0 to 100, in a way.

NH I remember coming back from Texas and maybe a week or two later going to the Tenri Institute and hearing that piece for the violins. It was a different world from what you had done two weeks before.

TP In Texas I worked through the concepts but hadn’t really written the music. But that ten-violin piece, “Active Field,” was such an obvious structure. First movement: violins. Second movement: electronics. Third movement: violins and electronics. It was a statement of purpose for a new direction, definitely a different world from the stuff with the drums … I learned to drum from listening to DJ Shadow and the Chemical Brothers.

NH So Big Beat is a real influence to you?

TP Absolutely, it was some of the first music that I got really excited about and it was essentially where my interest in non-repeating beat structures came from. When I was finally able apply it to lo-fi electronics, that felt like my statement, you know? Electronics are so primitive and physical that pairing them with the most visceral acoustic instrument—the drum set—was the most direct presentation of that idea I could do. In a way, all the other music I’ve written since is a less pronounced reiteration of that theme. When I moved from drums to more traditional classical instruments, it was like writing for other musicians, a return to the classical tradition of the scored composition and a move away from improvisation, which the drum stuff was rooted in.

NH What’s the relevance of improvisation to you, as a composer?

TP It’s a hugely important part of the writing process. I’m a pianist, really, and most of my ideas come from my improvisational approach to the instrument. Playing is a way to spew out musical ideas before refining and distilling them into lines of music that ultimately get employed into compositions. I think also improvisation is an interesting window into a non-improviser’s mind. Raw material can say a lot about someone’s sensibilities. You wind up doing things that other people might not be able to do. This issue of complexity theory actually comes up a lot in my work; if you want a line of music to have a certain amount of complexity, it might be more practical to convey the gist of it and have it be improvisational rather than write down every note. I’m dealing with this idea for this harpsichord piece I’m writing now. It’s going to be dense, long, and intense, and I’m trying to figure out what the best mechanism for me to perform it consistently will be.

NH I also think that in post-Zorn New York, improvisation plays such an important role in the experimental music scene; it’s almost frowned upon if you don’t improvise. You’ll see artists who will make a point of saying, “I’m a composer, a performer, and an improviser.”

TP I totally do not consider or call myself an improviser. (laughter)

NH Neither do I. But at the root of it, every composer is on some level an improviser. That’s how you generate an idea.

TP This is a great way of looking at it. My musical ideas always come from some sort of self-expressive improvisatory moment, which highlights an important distinction between the way I work compositionally and the way algorithmic artists work, where content comes not from artistic improvisation but from an algorithm. There’s a difference between process being part of the inspiration or the tool set that you have and process being a determinant.

NH What’s the relevance of algorithms to listeners of music and lovers of art?

TP Algorithms can unlock the amazing beauty of systems. I have a scientific interest in systems. I’m constantly amazed by chaotic processes and things that nature creates, how quantum mechanics percolate up from the sub-atomic level to the world around us. I’m going to make some enemies by saying this—

NH You gotta make enemies.

Machine Drawing (2009-10-22 9:50 PM to 2009-10-27 10:50 AM), 2009, pen on paper, 50 × 76.5 inches.

TP The machine drawings I do are an intersection between these two ideas, because the algorithm is important to the actual drawing, but the drawing is defined by its compositional structure. I create the structure at the outset, then the drawing itself is executed by a computer-programmed pen. It’s like the actual movement of the pen is algorithmically generated. But say I tell a performer, “Play this with vibrato.” Vibrato itself isn’t something I’ve scored to the microsecond; it’s kind of an algorithmic addition to the performance. So my interest in algorithms comes from executing simple processes that could easily be done by hand with machinelike precision, without making mistakes and with infinite endurance. As the algorithm becomes spontaneous or does something unpredictable, I become less interested in it. I like the algorithms as rote executers of very simple ideas, essentially.

NH You use the term “low-level” quite a bit in talking about one-bit music. By working in such low-level terrain, things take on very organic qualities. You’ve talked about that as an allure to the one-bit sound world. So it seems like you have an interest in baseline procedures and mechanisms that can be replicated through very simple programs and machines.

TP In high school I got really into theoretical and quantum physics, and was reading books as often as I could about the subatomic world. These theories weren’t always necessarily the truth, but they described wonderfully creative systems. The simpler they got, the more interesting. It would be nice if you had just one rule of the universe, but as a consequence of one rule, thousands more can be deduced, and that’s a really beautiful idea about reality. It’s also a beautiful idea in the world of pure math, which I was also really into. I was reading books about algebra and the foundations of mathematics, where you build up the entirety of mathematics from just a few axioms. I also got into the work of Kurt Gödel—his incompleteness theory and how anything true can ultimately be explained by mathematics.

NH Did you ever read Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach?

TP Of course. Although, have any of us actually finished it?

NH I didn’t. And I took a course on it in college. (laughter)

TP A friend of mine took a course from Hofstadter and said that his requirement for geometric proofs was that they can’t just be true—they also had to be beautiful, which is very Hofstadter.

NH I love that.

TP Gödel said that any formal system either has internal inconsistencies which collapse on themselves or that there will always be things outside the system that you cannot explain. Recently, these ideas have been seriously important for me in thinking about the nature of machines and particularly how randomness illustrates the difference between a machine and a biological brain, for instance. A machine can be perfectly random up to a point, but if you ask someone to write 100 random numbers down, they’re not actually going to be statistically random because the human brain falls into patterns. Machines are perfectly random until they run out of memory; then they just loop. Any machine has a finite limitation, which is ultimately probably true of our brains as well, but it’s a different kind. So I’ll have machines carry out instructions to the point of reaching a mechanical abstraction of process; that’s when you enter a new world with its own limitations.

NH So how do you wrestle this geekier side, this interest in machines, with the part of you that’s just trying to get his feelings out through music? Or are they one and the same?

TP Well, I don’t need to wrestle much.

NH You don’t think they’re at odds?

TP It’s a good question, and it has a lot to do with this new album I just finished. I find meaning in beauty, a resonance in beauty, and I’m attracted to beauty in music. It doesn’t mean our sense of beauty doesn’t change; I think the role of artists is to push the idea of beauty forward.

NH But there’s a standard prototype out there for artistic and sonic beauty, I think.

TP Although it’s always evolving or at least widening, right?

NH Well, the world is always changing.

TP Good point. (laughter) I think my compositional work is constantly going in two directions: toward austere statements of an idea and toward direct representations of melodic or artistic feelings. The pendulum swings back and forth. I’ll write a piece where the entire thing is eighth notes or something, versus, for instance, the new album.

NH I just listened to it for the first time yesterday. We’re talking about simplicity and austerity, yet you’ve forged an intensely complex listening experience!

TP Yeah, well, it’s kind of a new direction. A lot of thinking went into this follow-up album because four years have passed since I did the first one. I’ve made a lot of scored music but haven’t done much that’s purely electronic since. I wanted to write a long-form composition for two-channel electronics. I ended up thinking about symphonies, about the idea of a symphony of electronics that’s played on headphones. I wanted to address my issues with the symphonic form—polyphony, density—so in that sense I was looking backward a little. Musically, the agenda was to do something that would shift between being accessible and sort of … fun, I guess, and would then suddenly become a very austere sound world.

NH I’m curious about the idea of it being a symphony when there are no instruments other than the electronics. So the thing that brought you to the term “symphony” was the form of the symphonic work, as opposed to any other kind of large-scale work?

TP Yeah, the multi-part movement—the “complete” work.

NH Are you misleading your listener by calling it a symphony?

TP I don’t think a symphony always implies a string orchestra anymore.

1-Bit Symphony, 2009, source code, custom circuit, CD jewel case. Edition of 50.

NH I guess what I’m trying to ask is this: in the same way I felt like the first record was almost a pun on chiptune music, is this one a pun on the idea of the symphony?

TP This is what a symphony means to me. It’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about this.

NH It feels like you’re calling into question what a symphony means in the 21st century. No one really writes them anymore; it’s an antiquated form.

TP A symphony is archaic, and I like that. I keep calling myself a traditionalist. I’m sort of resisting interactivity in my art and I’m resisting algorithm in my music. I’m ultimately insisting on predetermined notes being written on paper.

NH Do you feel like you have detractors in the multimedia or electronic music world as a result? I don’t think the composer or the artist is doing a good job unless he or she is pissing people off.

TP Nah, I’m not pissing anyone off. One of my main concerns is trying to operate in a system that’s essentially anti-emulative. Maybe this goes back to our conversation about chiptunes; I’m trying to work in a system defined by itself. Now, of course that’s impossible, but the one-bit waveform is so degraded, so low-fidelity, that it really can’t be used to sample sounds from reality. If the history of electronic music had a trajectory where a goal was being able to electronically reproduce the sound of a violin—

NH That idea is over. I’m hopeful that people are past that. Cory Arcangel has talked about how a lot of artists who use industry-standard software applications are playing second fiddle to the technology they’re using. The software becomes the art.

TP Yeah, it’s a criticism I hear all the time, for example with Max/MSP music. Tools are important; the more we understand the tool, the better. That’s why I work with my own hardware and write my own software. For the new album, I rewrote the software in Assembly Language, which is a programming language that fewer and fewer people use as time goes by, but it’s also the language of the machine itself. Any instruction I write in Assembly Language is directly interpreted by the machine instead of being compiled into the code by other software. So I’m working with the raw instructions that the machine executes, getting one step closer to the flow of electricity through the microchip.

Conceptually, it’s pretty much the same as a laptop on stage being used by a musician. There are two kinds of machines: machines that directly represent their task, like a lawnmower—it’s a lawnmower, it doesn’t make you coffee—then there’s a second order of machines that have a level of abstraction built into them. That’s what computers are. I like this; that abstraction puts me back to when I first learned about the foundations of math, building systems of logic from very simple statements. I’m using logic to build simple structures that, when they’re executed, create certain pitches. The other thing about the one-bit sound is that it’s not being fed through a digital analog converter.

NH It’s pure.

TP And as soon as you work with a digital analog converter, there’s a weird translation that takes place. I’m trying to remove all those levels of translation.

NH Get straight to the human ear.

TP Right, I think the way I use electronic speakers is fundamentally different than how speakers are used by a laptop musician, for instance, where sound waves are sent to the speaker and the speaker acts as a metaphor. I’m treating the speaker as an object, a machine.

NH It seems like an instrument to me.

TP Yeah, exactly. In most music played through a speaker, the speaker is not an instrument; the instrument is recorded or synthesized at the computer and the speaker’s job is to perfectly reproduce its waveform. I’m not interested in that. I want the speaker to be the soundmaking device itself. The fifth and final movement of the new album, its final movement, ends on a static chord; it’s something I’ve been exploring since “Active Field,” where there’s this moment of stasis—time isn’t slowed down but information is, events are. This last cluster just plays indefinitely until you turn off the machine.

NH Kind of like the locked groove at the end of the vinyl.

TP It’s so funny you mention this, because I totally missed that until Warren Fischer also made the comparison.

NH But I think the reference you’re seeking is on a much more basic level.

TP Something expressive, I feel.

NH The Joy of Coding? (laughter)

TP It’s like the infinite as a static quality instead of a looping pattern. A locked groove is a looping idea; what I’m interested in is having the indefinite moment be stasis. The algorithm is very present in that, but it really steps both to the background because it’s so uninteresting! Nothing musical is happening anymore, but it’s the perfect expression of indefinite process, exactly what an algorithm is. It’s just frequencies that the machine is indefinitely putting out. This led me to think about how an album is a recording; a CD is an audio waveform on a disc or an MP3, a record of an event. In order for a recording to exist, the thing it’s recording must have happened and concluded. But if you have something infinite, it never finishes, so you will never have a recording of its full expression. It can’t really play forever and we can’t listen to it forever—things fall apart—but it’s about this potential expression.

NH Sure, it’s also about the act of turning it off.

TP Yeah. So, maybe these are the enemies I’m going to make. In that final movement, the algorithm is not generating any more content. In some generative art there’s this idea that the program will always be generating new things. But I don’t like that idea. For me it was the opposite. The album has to end somehow, so in a way it was actually a way of solving that problem.

NH It was a functional solution. So how will your third chip end?

TP I don’t know. I don’t even know if I’ll make one.

NH Maybe a secret track?

TP There was a secret track on the first one! Didn’t I tell you about that?

NH No!

TP If you connect two pins together the right way when you turn it on, it plays a hidden track. I don’t think anybody knows about that.

NH Oh, well, now we’re getting somewhere.

TP Anybody who actually tries to read the source code would figure it out. It’s sort of my test, I guess.

Perich will be playing at Galapagos in Brooklyn on December 18 at 8 pm.

Nick Hallett is a composer and vocalist based in New York. He is the co-curator of the Darmstadt new music series, which celebrates its fifth birthday with a celebrated annual reading of Terry Riley’s “In C” on November 30 at Galapagos Art Space, and then mounts a festival of “Essential Repertoire” at ISSUE Project Room from December 3–5.


Monday, November 23, 2009

By Happy Accident, Chemists Produce a New Blue

Blue is sometimes not an easy color to make.

Blue pigments of the past have often been expensive (ultramarine blue was made from the gemstone lapis lazuli, ground up), poisonous (cobalt blue is a possible carcinogen and Prussian blue, another well-known pigment, can leach cyanide) or apt to fade (many of the organic ones fall apart when exposed to acid or heat).

So it was a pleasant surprise to chemists at Oregon State University when they created a new, durable and brilliantly blue pigment by accident.

The researchers were trying to make compounds with novel electronic properties, mixing manganese oxide, which is black, with other chemicals and heating them to high temperatures.

Then Mas Subramanian, a professor of material sciences, noticed that one of the samples that a graduate student had just taken out of the furnace was blue.

“I was shocked, actually,” Dr. Subramanian said.

In the intense heat, almost 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the ingredients formed a crystal structure in which the manganese ions absorbed red and green wavelengths of light and reflected only blue.

When cooled, the manganese-containing oxide remained in this alternate structure. The other ingredients — white yttrium oxide and pale yellow indium oxide — are also required to stabilize the blue crystal. When one was left out, no blue color appeared.

The pigments have proven safe and durable, Dr. Subramanian said, although not cheap because of the cost of the indium. The researchers are trying to replace the indium oxide with cheaper oxides like aluminum oxide, which possesses similar properties.

The findings appear in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mystery 'dark flow' extends towards edge of universe

Galaxies going places (Image: NASA/M.Markevitch et al/STSCI; Maggellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe et al)

SOMETHING big is out there beyond the visible edge of our universe. That's the conclusion of the largest analysis to date of over 1000 galaxy clusters streaming in one direction at blistering speeds. Some researchers say this so-called "dark flow" is a sign that other universes nestle next door.

Last year, Sasha Kashlinsky of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and colleagues identified an unusual pattern in the motion of around 800 galaxy clusters. They studied the clusters' motion in the "afterglow" of the big bang, as measured by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). The photons of this afterglow collide with electrons in galaxy clusters as they travel across space to the Earth, and this subtly changes the afterglow's temperature.

The team combined the WMAP data with X-ray observations and found the clusters were streaming at up to 1000 kilometres per second towards one particular part of the cosmos (The Astrophysical Journal Letters, vol 686, p L49).

Many researchers argued the dark flow would not turn up in later observations, but now the team claim to have confirmed its existence. Their latest analysis reveals 1400 clusters are part of the flow, and that it continues to around 3 billion light years from Earth, a sizeable fraction of the distance to the edge of the observable universe ( This is twice as far as seen in the previous study.

The dark flow appears to have been caused shortly after the big bang by something no longer in the observable universe. It has no effect today because reaching across this horizon would involve travelling faster than light.

One explanation for the flow would be the gravity of a huge concentration of matter, but this is very unlikely. Within the standard big bang picture, massive cosmic structures were "seeded" by random quantum fluctuations, so overall, matter should be spread evenly.

There could be an exotic explanation. Laura Mersini-Houghton of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, thinks the flow is a sign of a neighbouring universe. If the tiny patch of vacuum that inflated to become our universe was quantum entangled with other pieces of vacuum - other universes - they could have exerted a force from beyond the present-day visible horizon (see "Nosey neighbours").

Yet despite the new findings, the existence of the dark flow remains disputed. Charles Bennett, principal investigator of WMAP says the cluster analysis is not statistically significant. "There is no evidence for the large-scale dark flow, using all of the best data available."

Nosey neighbours
Was our universe once entangled with a neighbour? The observation of "dark flow" in galaxy clusters was predicted in 2006 by Laura Mersini-Houghton of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and colleagues. She proposes that the effect occurs because our universe was once influenced by neighbouring domains (

Mersini-Houghton reasoned that if a force exerted by other universes squeezed ours, it could generate a repulsive effect that would impede the shrinkage of matter into clusters but not leave an imprint on smaller scales. "This skews the distribution of lumps so they are not the same in all directions," she says. "There is a preferred direction - the dark flow."

She also predicted in 2006 that there should be two "holes" - regions with fewer galaxies than expected. Sure enough, there does appear to be a hole - the so-called "cold spot" identified by the WMAP probe. The hole is a very large region of space where the afterglow is cooler than average. However, its cause - and even existence - is disputed, and Mersini-Houghton's hypothesis remains controversial.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Monday, November 2, 2009

Don Cherry, 1978

Friday, October 30, 2009

CDMS looks for finger prints of axions

The finger print that CDMS is looking for: the expected solar axion event rate in a germanium detector depends on the energy of the axions and the position of the sun in the sky. The position of the sun is plotted as time of day.

The theory of strong interactions, known as quantum chromodynamics, predicts that matter and antimatter behave slightly differently, a phenomenon known as CP violation. However, CP violation has never been observed in strong interactions.

In order to save QCD from this dilemma, theorists predict the existence of a particle known as the axion, which barely interacts with matter. While the particle fixes the CP violation problem, experiments have not yet detected any axions.

According to theory, an axion could emerge when a photon traverses a very strong electric or magnetic field. The core of the sun would be a perfect region for the creation of axions. The particles would immediately escape the sun and some of them would travel through Earth.

The Cryogenic Dark Matter Search, which takes place deep underground in the Soudan Underground Laboratory in Minnesota, has searched for axions and set new limits on the properties of these particles. The result made the cover of the Oct. 1 issue of Physical Review Letters.

The primary goal of the CDMS collaboration is the search for weakly interacting massive particles, which are candidates for dark matter particles. But its germanium and silicon detectors, which operate at 40 milliKelvin, are also extremely sensitive to low-energy X-ray photons and hence serve as axion detectors as well. Solar axions that traverse the CDMS detectors would coherently scatter off crystals in the detectors, akin to X-ray Bragg scattering off crystal planes. The interaction probability depends on the energy and the incident angle of the axions.

Determining the incident angle required the precise knowledge of the orientation of the detector crystal planes, which are located a half mile underground, with respect to the location of the sun — a daunting task. Fortuitously, in 1999 the Fermilab Alignment Group had measured the absolute geodesic true North in the Soudan mine to within a few millidegrees of accuracy. The directions of the CDMS crystal planes are also precisely known.

Still, CDMS scientists had to correlate the two measurements, a challenge since the detectors are located inside a vacuum vessel and buried within a massive shield to protect the detectors from background noise. Ultimately, CDMS scientists determined the direction of their detectors relative to the sun to within three degrees of accuracy.


Friday, October 23, 2009

Maryanne Amacher (1943-2009)

The music world lost one of its most bizarre characters today, and I say that with the utmost possible affection. Maryanne Amacher was an amazing composer of sound installations, who occasionally taught courses at Bard. I first encountered her in 1980 at New Music America in Minneapolis. She had, as was her wont, fitted an entire house with loudspeakers, and the staff was in a state of jitters because at opening time she was still fine-tuning. She was an incredible perfectionist, and there was no overriding her exacting judgment. Years later I interviewed her for my history of American music. A Stockhausen student, she was absolutely inscrutable, so intuitive that pinning facts down was an insult to her spirit. My first ten questions having elicited no specific information, I finally asked whether her original sound sources were acoustic or electronic in origin. Her answer: "I really can't say." She was vagueness personified. Yet she was an incredible artist, and my son thought she was the best electronic music teacher Bard ever had. She typically wore bright red overalls and aviator goggles, and I'd be astonished if her wiry frame weighed 90 pounds. After one semester with her, one of my colleagues - an artistic and sympathetic soul, but I understood his frustration - said, "I feel like I'm on the set of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." She did dress a little like Snoopy. She lived in a huge old house in Kingston that was cluttered wall to wall with papers, tapes, and technical equipment, among which one walked gingerly through narrow paths. You closed doors carefully, for fear the entire soggy house would fall down. But she was some kind of genius, and her sound installations, better appreciated in Europe than here, had to be heard to be believed. Like La Monte Young, she had an ear that one struggled to emulate. She absolutely lived for her art. I heard a few weeks ago that she'd had a stroke, then from Pauline Oliveros that she was in a nursing home, and today she passed away. I do hope her work is well documented, because it is absolutely unique and inimitable. We will never hear her like again.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Antiproton Discovery

When the Bevatron switched on at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the fall of 1954, it was the largest particle accelerator ever built, capable of producing energies upwards of six billion electronvolts.

The Bevatron's energy range wasn't chosen arbitrarily, but was specifically picked to provide the right conditions for creating antiprotons, then-theoretical particles as massive as protons but with negative electric charge.

When the Bevatron's first antimatter experiments started that summer, there was a mood of anticipation: Anxious experimenters jockeyed for time on the machine, principal investigators exchanged bets on whether or not antiprotons would be produced, and others just looked on hopefully.

One Bevatron research team made it to the front of the fray. Led by Emilio Segrè, the group's work was divided between two experiments. Researchers Owen Chamberlain and Clyde Wiegand would try to identify antiprotons by determining the masses and charges of particles produced by slamming protons into a fixed target. A second group, led by Gerson Goldhaber at Berkeley and Edoardo Amaldi in Italy, would record the collisions on photographic emulsions and look for the star-shaped energy bursts expected from proton–antiproton annihilation.

Anticipating Twitter by five decades, Wiegand placed a blackboard near the Bevatron's entrance and posted daily updates on the group's progress.

This snapshot shows that as of October 6, 1955 at 4:30 p.m., the group had detected 38 negatively charged particles with the same mass as protons. The ratio at the bottom of the board shows what the researchers were up against: these 38 sought-after antiproton signals had been sifted from a pool of nearly two million particle events.

Wiegand, an avid baseball fan, also took the opportunity to publicize the standings of the ‘55 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The score in the upper-right-hand corner may reflect his loyalties: Bums 4, Yanks 3.

The researchers spent two weeks making sure their findings were sound and defensible. Then, at an October 19 press conference, they announced that they had found the antiproton. The discovery earned Nobel Prizes for Chamberlain and Segrè in 1959.

The Bevatron kept producing physics for nearly 40 years, until the beam shut off in 1993. Demolition of the structure began in July and will take until 2011 to complete.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Quantum computers could tackle enormous linear equations

A new algorithm may give quantum computers a new, practical job: quickly solving monster linear equations. Such problems are at the heart of complex processes such as image and video processing, genetic analyses and even Internet traffic control. The new work, published October 7 in Physical Review Letters, may dramatically expand the range of potential uses for quantum computers.

The new quantum algorithm is “head-smackingly good,” says computer scientist Daniel Spielman of Yale University. “It is both very powerful, and very natural. I read the abstract and said, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”

In the new study, Aram Harrow of the University of Bristol in England along with Avinatan Hassidim and Seth Lloyd, both of MIT, propose that large datasets of linear equations could be encoded in quantum forms, such as the spins of nuclei, individual atoms or photons. Such a system would allow quantum computers to handily solve problems made up of billions or even trillions of variables (such as the x’s, y’s and z’s that plague algebra students).

“Solving these gigantic equations is a really huge problem,” Lloyd says. “Even though there are good algorithms for doing it, it still takes a very long time.”

A trillion-variable problem would take a classical computer at least a hundred trillion steps to solve, Lloyd says. But with the newly proposed algorithm, a quantum computer could solve the problem in just a few hundred steps, the researchers calculate.

Strange quantum mechanical principles that operate on very small scales give quantum computers their immense number-crunching power. One of the strangest physical properties, called superposition, allows a single quantum bit of information to represent both a 0 and 1 at the same time, while a classical bit can only represent either a 0 or a 1. Performing a mathematical operation on a single quantum bit, or qubit, is like doing many operations simultaneously, says Lloyd. “You don’t have to read all the data individually — you can read aspects of them all at once,” he says.

Lloyd and his colleagues plan to test the algorithm in the lab by having a quantum computer solve a set of linear equations with four variables. After that, Lloyd says he plans to look around for “more fun problems to solve.”

Spielman says that this newly proposed algorithm is exciting because it hints that quantum computers may have many more hidden talents. “It’s given me a lot of hope for quantum computing,” he says.


Monday, October 12, 2009

John Zorn: The Working Man

Think of John Zorn, the American composer, alto saxophonist and conceptualist, as a juggler. Zorn keeps aloft a plethora of radically different projects while also heading up his own label (Tzadik) and acting as artistic director at the Stone, his own cutting-edge performance venue in Manhattan’s East Village. A restlessly creative spirit with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy, Zorn is, at age 55, experiencing unprecedented productivity in a career that dates back to the mid-’70s, when he began experimenting with like-minded improvisers and musical renegades on Manhattan’s Lower East Side who, together, forged an alternative movement that would be identified by critics as the “downtown” scene.

“I feel like things are really flowing now, like I’ve hit kind of a peak and I’m riding it,” confessed Zorn during an interview at the Ukrainian restaurant Veselka, a favorite East Village haunt for artists, thinkers and assorted bohemians. “I’m riding the wave and the wave is taking me further. People have told me that with Virgos, your life is like a crescendo. It begins and it slowly gets better and better and better. What better life to have?”

On a Tuesday morning in early February I met Zorn at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village for a dress rehearsal of “Astronome: A Night at the Opera,” his audacious and powerful new musical/theater collaboration with renowned playwright and avant-garde theater pioneer Richard Foreman. A mind-boggling visual explosion featuring a relentless flood of psychedelic, dreamlike imagery and sacred Jewish symbolism, it is fueled by the unbelievably intense soundtrack of Zorn’s Astronome, performed by his extreme hardcore noise trio Moonchild (Joey Baron on drums, Trevor Dunn on fuzz bass and Mike Patton on wordless banshee-scream vocals). The music is so loud and intense, in fact, that warnings are announced before each performance at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, along with offers of free earplugs for the faint of heart. (The production was filmed for future DVD release which will be available on Zorn’s label Web site,

That Friday night I attended the U.S. premiere of Zorn’s new Masada sextet, an expanded edition of his long-running Masada quartet (Zorn on alto sax, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass, Joey Baron on drums), augmented by outstanding pianist Uri Caine and Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista. This group, which combines elements of the classic Ornette Coleman quartet with the Eastern European flavor of traditional klezmer music and Jewish sacred music, is undeniably in the jazz camp, albeit traveling on its own unique tributary off the mainstream. Their invigorating sextet set at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side, marked by some stellar individual soloing and an uncanny group-think, represented a new level for this band that Zorn formed 15 years ago. Caine brought aspects of both Cecil Taylor and Bud Powell to the table while Baptista colored the proceedings in typically wacky and intuitive ways, resulting in a decided raising of the bar over all other previous Masada performances.

The following night, Saturday, Zorn debuted new material with his surprisingly accessible group the Dreamers (Kenny Wollesen on vibes, Marc Ribot on guitar, Baron on drums, Dunn on bass, Jamie Saft on organ and piano). While Moonchild may be in the ultra-extreme zone and Masada may come across as challenging to the uninitiated, the music of the Dreamers is relaxed, engaging and downright delightful. A blend of pop, exotica, funk, surf rock, minimalism and world music crafted as little three-minute melodic gems, it is the yin to Masada’s yang.

It’s hard to imagine that the music I witnessed on these three separate occasions over the span of a week was conceived by the same mind. And yet, it’s only the tip of the iceberg for the remarkably prolific Zorn. As the head of Tzadik (since 1995), he also shepherds new bands onto the label, providing them an outlet and nurturing them under the auspices of his Radical Jewish Culture series, Film Music series, New Japanese series, Oracle Series (promoting women in experimental music), Key series (promoting notable avant-garde musicians and projects) and Lunatic Fringe series (promoting music and musicians operating outside of the broad categories offered by other series).

And then there is Zorn’s own incredibly rich, pre-Tzadik legacy: an extensive discography of well over 100 recordings as a composer of string trios and string quartets, film scores, game theory pieces, chamber pieces, classical works and meditations on Jewish mysticism, British occultist Aleister Crowley and pulp-fiction author Mickey Spillane (1987’s Spillane), as well as tributes to figures like Ennio Morricone (1986’s The Big Gundown) and projects as a leader with the bands Naked City, Painkiller and Spy vs. Spy (which performed hardcore renditions of Ornette Coleman compositions).

Some of Zorn’s jazziest playing on record can be heard on such recordings as 1986’s Voodoo by the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet, 1988’s News for Lulu and 1992’s More News for Lulu (featuring interpretations of tunes by Kenny Dorham, Sonny Clark, Freddie Redd and Hank Mobley), as well as recordings with the great early ’60s Blue Note organist Big John Patton. He also makes a cameo appearance alongside his all-time alto sax hero Lee Konitz on the 1995 set The Colossal Saxophone Sessions, playing a version of Wayne Shorter’s “Devil’s Island.”

In 2006, Zorn received a MacArthur Fellowship grant (a five-year grant of $500,000 to “individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future”). And in 2007 he was the recipient of Columbia University’s William Schuman Award, an honor given “to recognize the lifetime achievement of an American composer whose works have been widely performed and generally acknowledged to be of lasting significance.” He was more than deserving on both counts.

Zorn has also edited a series of books titled Arcana: Musicians on Music, which contain essays by various colleagues including Derek Bailey, George Lewis, Bill Laswell, Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, Nels Cline, Fred Frith, Wayne Horvitz, Marty Ehrlich, Vijay Iyer, Elliott Sharp and dozens more. The fourth Arcana book is due out this spring, as is a new recording by the Dreamers, their third on Tzadik.

Notoriously leery of interviews, Zorn nevertheless granted this sit-down and subsequent photo shoot for JazzTimes. He was unusually forthcoming and positively bubbling over in anticipation of the opening of “Astronome: A Night at the Opera,” which, as of our interview, was scheduled to run through April 5.

I spoke with Zorn a few days after his gig with the Dreamers at the Abrons Art Center.

JazzTimes: Your output over the past 30 years is staggering.

Well, I’ve been busy. I guess it’s really hard to stay current with what I do because I put out like five, eight, 10 CDs a year. Most people who try to write about what I do just don’t have any sense of the scope and the range. And even if they were given a pile of 25 CDs or something, a lot of them just aren’t equipped to deal with something that’s as far-ranging as the Crowley String Quartet performing “Necronomicon” on the Magick CD and then to what you saw with Richard Foreman, the Astronome project, really heavy rock, to jazz-based music with people like Dave Douglas and Joey Baron, to the film scores to the Dreamers and on and on. There’s a lot of different music and unless you’re open to all that and acquainted with it in the first place, it’s just going to go in one ear and out the other.

JazzTimes: I read somewhere that this is all the result of what you call “an incredibly short attention span.”

Well, that’s just some 1980s hype where Nonesuch Records was attempting to sell me as some kind of postmodern phenomenon. It’s their job to sell product, and in order to sell product they need to market you in a certain way. But I don’t think that that is a very intelligent analysis of why someone likes a lot of different kinds of music. It’s not a matter of having a short attention span, it’s a matter of living in today’s world and being a curious, creative, open-minded, intelligent individual who appreciates greatness for its own sake without putting it into any kind of academic or cultural box.

JazzTimes: And what you bring to it is this incredibly intense focus, which is a rare commodity these days.

That’s who I am. For instance, I just got off the phone with the census bureau and they asked me how many hours do I work in a week. And my answer, basically, was I work 24 hours a day. Even when I’m sleeping I’m working. I’m talking with you, I’m working. I get up first thing in the morning, the computer goes on, I’m answering e-mails. I go out to lunch, I have a discussion with someone, it’s about music, it’s about art. I go to a museum. Even in the cab I’m on the phone doing business. I’m always working. My life is making work. That’s why I’m here. People are surprised that it’s possible to get as much work done as I do. It’s very simple. I choose to work. I don’t go on a vacation. I’m not interested in that.

JazzTimes: I found it very revealing the other day when we were sharing a cab ride and I made some reference to Seinfeld.

Right. I’ve never even seen it.

JazzTimes: And I remember thinking when I said that, “He probably doesn’t even have a TV.”

Right. Well, this is actually not so difficult to understand. The world is filled with distractions, and we understand why it’s good for the government, especially in an administration like Bush’s, to bamboozle people and keep them distracted from getting together and saying, “Wait a minute! What is going on here?!” I choose not to be distracted. I figured out, I guess sometime in the past 20 or 30 years, exactly what it was that was very distracting about our society and what was stopping me from making work. And I managed in a very simple way to cut that out. I’m not sticking my head in the sand; I’m just eliminating anything that gets in the way of making work. That means a lot of sacrificing, even to the extent of, you know, having a family. You have kids, you have to devote half your life to your children to be a correct parent. I can’t do that. I am devoted to my work. So my children are the compositions, the records, the performances. And my family? That’s the musical community. And that’s why it’s not an unusual thing for me to create the Stone or create Tzadik. That’s what a father would do to put clothes on the back of their children or make sure they get to a good school or protect them if they’re being bullied.

I’m here to help the community that nurtured me. And that’s why no TV; that’s why I don’t read magazines or newspapers. I focus on the art that I’m doing. That’s my gift for the world; that’s why I’m on the planet. I’m not a hard-liner and I understand how difficult it is to survive in this world, but at the same time I think the reason I created Tzadik, the reason that the Stone had to happen, the reason that these Arcana books are coming out, the reason that I continue to create work to the extent that I do, is because I created my own avenue.

JazzTimes: I got the impression from seeing the Dreamers the other night that you’re a guitar maven in a certain way because you seemed to take such great delight in some of Marc Ribot’s slashing guitar solos.

Well, I’ve worked with some amazing guitar players in my time: Fred Frith, Arto Lindsay, Bob Quine, Derek Bailey, Henry Kaiser, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot. Right there is kind of like a history of experimental guitar in the 20th century. Those are great names; these are really amazing players. And I’ve always had a very close relationship with guitar players.

JazzTimes: Did you ever have a personal connection to guitar? Did you ever play the instrument yourself?

Yeah, I used to play it when I was a kid, sure. We all played guitar. I played bass in a surf band. I learned Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys tunes on guitar. I was really into surf rock when I was like 10 years old. So sure, I played guitar, bass and all like that. And in a way, the guitar is what the violin was in the 18th-19th century. It is the voice of the people; it’s a very important instrument. If you’re going to be a composer today you have to understand not just what the guitar can do but what the electric guitar can do, because that is one of the new instruments of the 20th century, along with the drum set and the electric organ and the saxophone, and now, the turntable. These are new instruments and you need to include them in your language. It’s here, it’s available.

If Mozart were alive today, believe me, he’d be incorporating all those instruments and writing for them. And he would also be listening to all this different music that is around. It’s not an unusual thing for a creative person to be interested in creativity. People who grew up at the time that I did, in the ’60s, we loved all different musics. We loved rock, we loved jazz, we loved classical, we loved world music. We had a hunger for anything new. We’d make little mix tapes on cassette that had all these different styles of music. That was like a very special thing. We’d play them at parties. Now, that’s normal, that’s the iPod shuffle. Everybody listens that way now. So in that sense, we have really succeeded. It’s like our generation, our kind of impetus of loving all these different things, that is kind of the new way to listen to music.

JazzTimes: It’s true.

And one thing that I have to say, which is interesting on kind of a socio-cultural level of how this music has been misunderstood-understood, marginalized-glorified, this is a new music. There is a music that is kind of post-’60s and that music is a very pluralistic music, a music that incorporates and accepts all these different influences. These people that we’re talking about, whether it’s Fred Frith, Marc Ribot, Wayne Horvitz or Uri Caine, these are people that love all kinds of music and listen to all kinds of music. And they had access to all kinds of music and created something with that, with all their loves. And it’s a new music. Maybe Uri’s a little more in the jazz camp coming out of Philly with his background, maybe Fred Frith is a little more in the rock-folk camp. Everybody has different roots in different places. Ultimately, I thought of myself as more of a classical musician who then got involved with different kinds of players.

But the music is not jazz music, it’s not classical music, it’s not rock music. It’s a new kind of music that was loved by people like yourself and other writers who were on that scene in the late ’70s-early ‘80s. You loved this music, you were stimulated by it, it said something to you because it came from your experience. But where can you write about this music that you love? What are the outlets? The only outlets were jazz magazines. Even though it didn’t belong in that tradition or in that format, it was the only format that there was. So I feel like that created a deep misunderstanding in what this music is. People started judging this new music with the standards of jazz, with the definitions of what jazz is and isn’t, because stories about it appeared in jazz magazines. And now I’ll do a gig at the Marciac Jazz Festival and I’ll get offstage and Wynton Marsalis will say, “That’s not jazz.” And I’ll say, “You’re right! But this is the only gig I’ve got, man. Give me another festival and I’ll play there.”

JazzTimes: Well, he couldn’t possibly have said that about Masada.

Actually, he said it about electric Masada, which, admittedly, is pretty out there. It has elements of [my game piece] “Cobra” in it, it has elements of my conduction kind of stuff. Plus, Ribot and Saft really take it to a little more of a rock area, and there are always some structural elements of classical in there. Some people want to try and define it and say it’s related to Third Stream.

JazzTimes: What you’ve created with Tzadik is a label identity that is like ECM or Blue Note, Prestige, Windham Hill, where if there were any record stores left, Tzadik would have its own bin.

Well, that’s a thought. And a lot of record stores do have a Tzadik bin, which is kind of one way to do it. We have almost 450 records on our label already and there has not been one dedicated article or feature in any United States magazine or newspaper on this label. Is that incredible? And of course the answer is simple: We don’t send review copies out, we don’t play the game, we don’t kiss ass, we don’t put ads in newspapers or magazines, and if we don’t scratch their back they’re not going to scratch ours.

JazzTimes: And yet you have cultivated this pretty sizable audience around this label.

Some of our records sell 40-50,000 copies. And it’s a worldwide audience. Of course, some sell 500 copies. But it’s structured in such a way that the ones that sell help the ones that don’t sell. So we manage to stay afloat in kind of a socialist paradigm.

JazzTimes: Bruce Lundvall has the same scenario happening at Blue Note, where the successful million-sellers like Norah Jones help the more esoteric projects.

He continues to do what he believes in and it works in the marketplace. I was never a believer in applying for grants. I don’t like to put my hand out to somebody and say, “Please help me.” I just went and did what I did and I managed to survive in the marketplace. I understand how some people can’t do that and need the grant process, but I find the grant process itself is so demeaning. Immediately, it’s like you’re asking daddy for a handout, you’re being judged by people who have no right to judge you, and if you do get the grant it’s usually half the money you asked for two years too late. By that time, you’re already onto something else.

I’ve seen artists on Tzadik who tried to get grant proposals through to make a more ambitious record, and I’ve seen new records get completely derailed for five years. In one case, I said to an artist, “Look, I’ll give you a little extra money. Let’s find a way to do it just on our own.” And he said, “No, I want to do it right, I want this extra money. Let me wait.” And I said, “Well, what if you don’t get the grant?” Five years later we’re still waiting. And the fact is, he’s already on to another thing.

JazzTimes: What is the average budget for the records you do on Tzadik?

At first it was just always $5,000; now we’ve gotten a little more flexible with it. Now if someone breaks even on their first record we’ll give them $6,000. If they break even on their second record we’ll give them maybe $7,500. If they break even on their third record, we’ll up the ante a little bit. But if their first album doesn’t break even we either reduce the budget or say, “Let’s wait until this one sells more and then we’ll do a second record.” But we try to be very economical in the way we work because we can’t afford not to. The music we’re making is meant for the world; it’s meant for everybody to enjoy. But I’ve learned that some projects that I do, like the Dreamers, will do very well. We’ll sell 20-30 thousand copies of that because it’s popular music that people can really enjoy. But if I’m going to do an esoteric project about Aleister Crowley with the “Necronomicon” string quartet or something that’s really more challenging, which I’m compelled to do and these artists are compelled to do and the world needs, I’m not so naive as to think that that’s going to sell 30,000 copies. With a younger unknown artist, something esoteric like that will sell 500 or 1,000. With me, maybe it’ll sell 5,000, but it’s not going to sell 30,000. And that doesn’t break my heart anymore because ultimately this music is for the few. It’s meant for everybody, I want everybody to love it and enjoy it as much as I do, but I can see that that’s just not possible.

JazzTimes: So business is good with Tzadik?

As the music industry crumbles before our eyes and major companies are now going belly-up and people aren’t buying CDs, Tzadik is standing like a fucking oak! We have very modest sales, we break even every year ... maybe make a little, lose a little, but we basically break even every year. So we’re still standing here and sales are pretty consistent. We did really well this past year. People that believe in this music purchase this music.

JazzTimes: Let’s talk about the Dreamers. I was delightfully surprised by this group. Where is this charming music coming from?

Well, it comes from my love for music that does delight and charm. I am a big fan of Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, the pioneers of exotica. I’ve been a fan of that music since I was young. It was part of my upbringing; it’s there. You can hear elements of it here and there in my music over time. You hear it in Bar Kokhba; even in things like Godard and Spillane there are moments that sound like that. This Dreamers project, I think, was bringing together all of these beautiful musics that I love, from world music to surf music to exotica music to different kinds of funk and blues. I put all of these things together and created something that, for me, was meant to charm and delight.

JazzTimes: And you did it within these three-minute little gems of melody.

Yeah, little instrumental gems. You and I grew up at a time when there were instrumental hits. Henry Mancini, Jack Nitzsche, Miklós Rózsa—they did film scores but they also had hits that were played on the radio. But the concept of the instrumental hit has almost completely disappeared because greedy record executives understand that vocal music is going to sell five times or 10 times more than instrumental music. That’s just the way it is.

JazzTimes: I think the Beatles phenomenon made people in the industry go a bit crazy. They saw the money that could be made with vocal groups.

It did indeed. And I don’t know whether the Beatles themselves are responsible for the disappearance of instrumental music. I wouldn’t put it that way. Because at that time, “The ‘In’ Crowd” was an enormous instrumental hit for Ramsey Lewis, Max Steiner’s “Theme From a Summer Place” was enormous. There were tons of great instrumental hits back then. Maurice Jarre’s “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago was a hit, “Telstar” by the surf band the Tornados was an enormous hit in 1962.

JazzTimes: Al Hirt, Duane Eddy and Herb Alpert all had instrumental hits in the early ’60s.

Yeah! This was music that was backed by record companies, promoted by record companies, who were just trying to make some money. And they managed to make money with that music. And were fine with it. Now they’re just not gonna waste their time with it when they can make so much more money with a vocal performance. So instrumental music doesn’t have the same impact on our culture that it used to, and I’m sorry about that. It still has an impact on me, though. I devote my life to instrumental music and the Dreamers is just another form of instrumental music.

JazzTimes: You mentioned Martin Denny and some others as having an impact on you growing up. What about Burt Bacharach?

Of course! Most of what he did was vocal but harmonically he was way advanced, and also in terms of time signatures, he was always experimenting. And he had a few instrumental pieces that were absolutely wonderful that I love. Sure, Bacharach is absolutely an influence. There are so many influences in the Dreamers. And again, each piece is kind of a unique little thing, its own little world.

JazzTimes: I thought I may have also heard some MJQ and Dave Brubeck influences in there too.

Yeah, Ramsey Lewis and Booker T & the MGs, the Meters. These were all amazing instrumental bands. You can hear some of that influence in there as well. So you know, the Dreamers is a charming project of beautiful music. And it’s been very successful. It’s a kind of very beautiful world that I hadn’t dealt with before, but elements of “Cobra” or Electric Masada are still in there.

JazzTimes: The sound of the Dreamers is engaging rather than challenging, like Masada.

You don’t always have to challenge the audience. Sometimes you want to challenge the musicians to keep them engaged in what you’re doing. And that’s something that’s always been at the forefront of my modus operandi. I don’t just write music, I write music for musicians to play. I want them to be psyched about what they play. I want them to be engaged, because if they’re bored, the audience is going to be bored. I want them to be on the edge, to be surprised, to be delighted. I want to have fun up there. Ultimately, it’s all about love—if we love each other and we love what we’re doing, some of that love is going to go into the audience.

JazzTimes: You have already released several volumes of Masada CDs since 1994, but you’ve really taken it to another level with this new sextet edition of the group.

I think you’re right. I think that the concert you saw the other night was one of the best concerts we’ve ever done. It’s like the old joke with the Masada quartet: “What was our best gig? It’s the next one.” Because it was always getting better. But I felt like we kind of hit a plateau a little bit with it in 2007 and I said, “Well, maybe the quartet is really done. Maybe we’ve accomplished what we can accomplish. Maybe it’s time to put this to bed.” And then I was asked by the Marciac Jazz Festival to put together a slightly larger group. They asked me what if I added a couple of people to Masada and I said, “I can’t add anybody to the quartet. The quartet is the quartet, that’s what we do.” But then I thought, “Well, if I was going to add someone I would probably ask Uri and Cyro.” So we tried it at Marciac and it was unbelievable. We didn’t even have any rehearsal time. I just passed the charts out and said, “OK, just watch me because I’ll be conducting. Let’s just do it.” And it was one of those magical clicks on the bandstand that sometimes happens. So yeah, this band is taking off again. After 15 years of doing this music, we can still find new things.

JazzTimes: And certainly Wynton can identify this new Masada sextet music as jazz.

Absolutely. With Uri’s presence, that is clear. It’s the most jazz-sounding thing I’ve ever done.

JazzTimes: And that connection to Ornette’s quartet, which comes in and out.

It’s in and out. Maybe it’s not there as much as it used to be. I think there’s as much Miles in the approach with Dave and Uri and in the way the group kind of breaks down to a single solo piano once in a while, or trio sections within the context of the group before coming back together. There’s always a lot of surprise there. So, yeah, it is definitely stronger in the jazz tradition with Uri in the band. And I think Uri and Dave have a really strong hookup. They’ve worked on a lot of projects together and Uri has also played in Dave’s quintet, so there’s some magic formula going on there. And then you add Cyro Baptista to the mix, crazy Cyro with all his sounds. I’ve been working with Cyro for 27 years and he never fails to surprise me from night to night.

JazzTimes: I remember you guys doing a duet at your former club the Saint back in 1981.

There you go! Yeah, man. And this is another thing that I think is important to mention is the longevity of these relationships that I’ve had with musicians. When I find someone to work with, we continue to work together because we believe in the same things and we love doing what we do. If Bill Frisell were still living in New York, I’d be working with him still. But he moved out to the West Coast and it’s just too hard to get together. So it’s been Cyro since ’81, Joey Baron since ’84, Dave Douglas since ’94, Uri more recently, and then you’ve got Ribot, Greg Cohen, Mark Feldman, Erik Friedlander, Trevor Dunn, Mike Patton … these are all people that I continue to work with. It’s a tight community; it’s a real community. It’s a community the way we see the bebop community was in the ’50s or the existentialist community was in Paris or the abstract expressionists in the ’40s in New York, which was a community of people that got together, that talked about art, that were inspired by each other and that created a very strong artistic statement that had impact on the society. We’re doing the same thing. We’re living in the same area, we’re meeting all the time outside of musical situations, we’re talking, we’re communicating.

This is a real scene in the best definition of that word. It’s creative, it’s inspiring, there’s less competition and more encouragement. Marc Ribot is delighted when I do well. I’m delighted when he does well when he does a project. It’s good for everybody. When Ribot’s onstage, I want him to play his best. I’m not trying to throw banana peels under him to slip so that I can smoke him onstage. That’s not the point. We’re all focused on music and we all want each other to sound as good as we possibly can sound. And when I get people in my projects, I feel like they sound the best that they can sound. They’re killing! And that’s what I want, that’s what I encourage. And that’s what the compositions are meant to do.

JazzTimes: You know who you sound like now? Joe Zawinul. He would say the same thing, man. He’d always say, “My band, I put this band together for these guys to be killers!”

That’s right. And there’s a lot of other people that don’t think that way. The band is about them. They’re the leader, it’s all about them; they don’t want anyone to sound better than them. So they keep them under wraps, they push them down, they don’t give them solo space. They don’t let them express themselves. You need to have a certain rein on people so that the compositional integrity is kept intact. You know, there’s a frame around a composition and there are things that belong in the frame and things that don’t. And it’s the bandleader-composer’s job to make sure that everything fits. But the most important thing is to keep that balance, where everything belongs but the players are injecting themselves into the work and doing their best. Duke Ellington was a perfect example of that.

JazzTimes: And Frank Zappa.

Yes, though Zappa in the earlier years. Then it got a little different for him. He got more and more into control. For me, in his later years, his best record is Jazz From Hell, where it’s all done on a Synclavier.

JazzTimes: Yeah, I think his comment at the time was, “At last, I’ve found my perfect band.”

There you go! It’s him playing everything. Well, I don’t think that way. Because the lesson I learned from Zappa was that you treat your band members like royalty. You give them as much money as you can afford to give them on the road, the best situations in the hotels, treat them to meals, thank them for their work, appreciate their creativity and just thank your lucky stars that they’re in your band working with you.

JazzTimes: I’ve read that Ellington loved his band and always treated his musicians well.

I think that’s really one of the secrets of making great music that is not unique to the 20th century. I think Mozart understood that, I think Bach understood that. I think that great composers were performers and understood what it was like being in a band. And they wrote for players who could get onstage and feel excited about what they were doing because they just looked fucking great doing it. No one wants to look like a fool onstage; you want to look good. You want to play music that makes you look good, and I think composers understand that too. And the ones that have a sense of the performer side of it are the best composers, the ones that came up in a band. Ellington never stood in front of a band waving his arms; he was playing piano, he was part of the group. When Steve Reich came up, he was always playing percussion in his group and still does in a lot of cases. Phil Glass too. They understood what it was to be a performer, and that made their compositions so much more deep. That’s something I never wanted to lose.

JazzTimes: And here you are about to turn around another Dreamers project in just a few months.

It’s very easy to do. You just do it. I’ve been lucky but I’ve always thought pragmatically. When I was starting out 35 years ago, I worked with the few people that I knew—Polly Bradfield and Eugene Chadbourne. Then [trumpeter] Toshinori Kondo came along, Tom Cora came along, Fred Frith came along ... all these people slowly began entering the picture. And as we got to be friends, then I kind of expanded my ambitions or my vision. But I never dreamed of doing an opera on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, you know? I’m not someone who wants to write something and then have it sit around for 30 years. I want to write for the people I know, I want to make something that’s possible, that can be made. So I worked with whatever I had at hand. And I made it work. And at first it was the game theory pieces (1980’s Pool, 1982’s Archery), because I was surrounded by improvisers. Then I got to know people like Bill Frisell and Joey Baron, who could do anything. So then I created music like Spillane or Naked City for musicians who could do anything. Then I got to know Fred Sherry and a bunch of classical musicians and I started writing more classical stuff. I think the job of a composer is not just to write music but to write it for musicians who can get onstage and present it to an audience in the best possible situation. Following it through is part of a composer’s responsibility, to see that that child is nurtured in a proper way and is presented to the world in the best possible light. You know, you educate the child as well as you can so that they can go out prepared to deal with this cruel and pernicious world we have. Same thing when you create a piece of music. I don’t really believe in the idea that you just write it and then you put it on the shelf, the way Charles Ives did. I write it for people I know, I get the best people to do it, I find the best possible venue, we rehearse it the best possible way and then we present it to people in as pure a way as possible. And now I feel like what needs to be added to that equation is also a kind of education of the audience. I think it’s important to speak about the music, to make it understood or possible for it to be better understood. Which is why I started these Arcana books, this series of books that have musicians writing about music. There’s four volumes of those already.

JazzTimes: In the tradition of Art Taylor’s Notes and Tones?

And so many other people who collected writings and put them out there for people to help get an insight into how an artist or how a musician thinks about their work, their life, their relationship to the world. Because I think there’s way too large a gap between the world and the artist. I feel like we live in parallel universes and there’s really very few instances where a bridge is created to cross that divide. But I feel like that’s the writer’s job, in a sense, to create that bridge so that there can be understanding. But it’s a difficult world for writers now. Where can you place a piece? Who will give you enough space to do something really intelligent and insightful? You have to churn out these small little pieces on a deadline. You don’t have time to really do the research or speak to the artist or do the thinking through.

And even if you do, what they want, what sells best, is a hatchet job. It’s rare that I’ll read an insightful introduction to someone’s work that steers the younger audience toward something that they may be curious about that really may change their life around.

I would say it came about in a very natural and organic way. It just kind of happened.

JazzTimes: Similar to your encounter on the street in the East Village with Richard Foreman, which led to Astronome: A Night at the Opera?

Same thing. I’ve known Richard since 1974 when I first went to his theater and just flipped over what he was doing there. A friend of mine was in the play and they’d let me into rehearsals, so I’d watch his procedure. I stayed at his theater during the day so I could practice the sax, and I answered the phone for him and took reservations, I took tickets at the door. So I’ve paid my dues with Richard Foreman. He’s one of my heroes, one of my mentors. And I’ve known him for 35 years but I never thought about collaboration until way, way after I met him ... 30 years or more later. We met on the street one day and he said, “Why don’t you write me an opera?” And I said, “Well, maybe I will.” And whenever I’d see him for the next year or so he’d say, “Hey Zorn, where’s my opera?” And I finally was convinced, “He really wants it! I’m gonna write it for him. And it’s gonna be amazing, it’s got to be. I can’t go to him and give him something that’s weak. He’s my hero.” So with Lou connection to him goes way back. I was at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable events at the Dom on 8th Street back in 1967 when I was like 13, 14 years old, and I saw Velvet Underground there. So Lou was one of my heroes for a long, long time.

JazzTimes: So you had a chance encounter with him on the street?

Yes, that’s exactly true. What happened was we got to know of each other a little bit, I think, because of (producer) Hal Wilner. Hal included me on his Kurt Weill record (1985’s Lost in the Stars) and Lou loved my piece on it (“Der Kleine Leutnant des Lieben Gottes“). And Hal came to me and said, “Lou heard it and he said, ‘Wow, that track was amazing. It’s like turning the pages of a book...each page is something new.’ And I thought, “That’s a really beautiful way of saying what’s going on in that arrangement.” Because I was doing my block style thing on that piece with the radical jump-cuts. So there was some kind of connection there. But then I’m not gonna call him out of nowhere ... "Wow, he likes my stuff. I’m gonna go send him a package.” You just don’t do that, you know? But then in 1992 I asked him to perform at the first Radical Jewish Cultural Festival in Munich. I called him out of nowhere because he kind of knew who I was at that point and I said, “Lou, I want you to do a set at this Jewish festival. Would you do it?” I think I might’ve even had Hal do it because I was shy. And Lou said, “Yes, I’ll be there.” So he performed at this Jewish festival I put together with Ribot and a bunch of other players. And it was amazing. Laurie Anderson was playing at the same festival, and I had known Laurie for years, going back to the old Kitchen days. And at the airport we were all there together and I said, “Lou, I want you to meet Laurie Anderson.” So I introduced them, actually. Then they became real tight. They’re married now, it’s the love affair of a lifetime. They’re so incredible together. So there’s another kind of little connection. Anyway, in the early part off 2007 I was coming out of the St. Mark’s bookshop, I saw Lou across the street and I said, “Lou! How are you, man? It’s great to see you in the East Village. You look great!” And he just got a big smile on his face and we just started talking. We talked about Michael Dorf’s upcoming 20th Anniversary Knitting Factory concert at Town Hall and I said, “Are you gonna do that?” And he said, “Yeah, actually.” Lou said he would donate profits to The Stone, so I thought maybe it would be cool. And I thought, “Well, if he’s donating profits to The Stone, that’s a great enterprise. So I’ll do it too. Then he said, “Maybe we should do something together?” And I said, “Yeah, you could even just read poetry or something and I’ll just play behind you.” And he said, “There’ a real tradition to that. That would be sweet.” What eventually happened on stage was I sat in with his band. And it was not even planned. It was, “Well, we didn’t rehearse anything, we really shouldn’t do it. If you want to play with me you’re welcome.” And right before he went on he sent someone over... "Hey John, come over to the dressing room with Lou.” And Lou said, “Why don’t you just play on one of the pieces. It’s in D minor.” So I played and ... boom. We clicked and he loved it. That’s where it started. I sat in with him again at the Highline Ballroom, which was great. I was supposed to play two songs, I went to the soundcheck, I ended up playing almost a whole set. Then we did a duo improvised concert (January 10, 2008) as a benefit at The Stone and he invited Laurie to sit in with us. And then bit by bit it happened very slowly and very organically. So you could say our relationship started back in 1966 when I saw the Velvet Underground play at the Dom. And it just took 40 years to get to the point where it is now. When the time was right, it happened.

JazzTimes: Have you and Lou recorded together yet?

We did a benefit CD for The Stone (Issue Three on Tzadik), which was a recording of a live gig. And I also asked him to put guitar on a piece of mine on the Music for Children record. It’s kind of a wind machine drone piece and he loved it. He’s the master of feedback and drones, so I had him do that. He was just going to play on the climax, the last five minutes of a 20-minute piece. But he said, “I want to play on the whole thing. I love it. I’m so inspired. Let’s do it.” We recorded at his house ... boom! It was done. And then the Song of Songs thing also happened. I was doing a project setting the Biblical “Song of Songs” from the Old Testament, the “Shir Ha-Shirim,” to music. I created a vocal backdrop with five female voices singing and I wanted two people reading the text from the “Song of Songs” (the allegorical representation of the relationship of God and Israel as husband and wife). And I wanted two lovers to recite this so I asked Lou and Laurie. I said, “You know what? You two are the perfect lovers to read the “Song of Songs” in this piece. And they said, “We would love it.” So we did it down at the Abrons Art Center, the place you saw us play a couple of nights ago. We did that last February, 2008. They loved it. We took it to Italy. You know stuff just kind of happens. It’s not any kind of weird machination, it’s just all very organic and it’s growing at a very slow way. And it feels right. I don’t want to take advantage of anybody and I certainly don’t want them to feel taken advantage of. So these are going to be things that happen, you know, when the time is right. And they’ll be little special events in themselves.

JazzTimes: And you continue to nurture all these different relationships over time.

Lou and I, you seems like we text message back and forth or speak almost every week now. We go to lunch when we can. I’ve been to his house many times to experience what his world is, and he has an amazing world and great people working with him and for him. It’s a whole organization how he has it worked, and it’s very inspiring. Because you know, I basically do everything myself. But through him I’m learning that it is possible to find people that can really help. Like Kazunori (Sugiyama) is someone who really helps out with Tzadik. Without Kazunori there wouldn’t be a Tzadik. So yeah, the thing with just happened very slowly and it feels good.