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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Russ Rowland, courtesy of the artist.

When he was a child, saxophonist Michaël Attias had what one could categorize as an auditory hallucination while in bed with a fever. “Suddenly, I started hearing all of these different kinds of music happening all at once,” Attias remembers. “It was an amazing feeling, like all boundaries had dissolved and the walls of the room had melted.” Inspired by this experience, Attias has cultivated a practice of polyphonic multiplicity in his work as a saxophonist and composer.

At The Jazz Gallery this Tuesday, June 11, Attias will convene his nine-piece ensemble, composed of similarly-adventurous improvisers drawn from his community of improvisers. Attias’s work contains nine musical “moments,” merging distinctly-notated sections with guided improvisations. We caught up with Attias by phone to talk about these compositions’ evolution, listening to dense music, and drawing inspiration from the work of Anthony Braxton and Paul Motian.

The Jazz Gallery: I’d like to start with a bit of a superficial question—why did you want to put together a group of this size after focusing on 3 and 4-person groups more recently?

Michaël Attias: One of my first groups in New York was a sextet, and I had an eleven-piece group that played at The Stone a few years ago. I’ve written for big band, and I’ve written an orchestra piece for Anthony Braxton’s Tri-Centric Orchestra a little while back. I’ve always dreamed of working with larger groups.

For this group, nine is a special number—three times three. The core of the group is the trio Renku, which has been around since 2003 with John Hébert and Satoshi Takeishi. Over the years, we’ve expanded, plus one or plus two. We did a recording with Tony Malaby and Russ Lossing about ten years ago. So that’s the core—the trio triangulated, a triple Renku.

TJG: Strikingly, the group also has a lot of pairs in it. What’s the significance of that for you?

MA: It has two strings—bass and cello—two brass, two reeds, two percussion, and one piano. The piano kind of offsets the paired energies. Polyphony, multiplicity, many things going on at once—that extreme of the music has always attracted me. As a child I had a formative experience that you could categorize as an auditory hallucination. I was six or seven years old in bed with a fever. Suddenly, I started hearing all of these different kinds of music happening all at once. It was an amazing feeling, like all boundaries had dissolved and the walls of the room had melted. I’ve heard music in dreams like that, too. When I later heard music by Mahler and Ives—big orchestra pieces, multilayered music, sometimes with really contradictory things happening—it was like hearing the music that I had imagined. It connected me to that fever dream.

TJG: I’ll say that I’m personally drawn to this multiplicity, but I think for some listeners, it can be hard to parse multiple, contradictory streams of music. When you’re listening to this kind of richly-layered music, whether it’s by Ives or Anthony Braxton, what’s your mindset? How do you put yourself in a space to take in that kind of music?

MA: One thing that’s really important is balance. Like if there’s too much at one point, there should also be not enough at another point. I’m also really drawn to music where almost nothing happens. I like the experience of listening to a single line, with moment-by-moment attention.

But in terms of listening to music with a lot of activity, I read once that trance happens when you can focus on five things at the same time. When following four things, there’s still a guiding self-consciousness, aware of itself and aware of the four things happening. But when the fifth layer gets added, it’s as if that self vanishes and becomes pure attention.

You were talking about Braxton’s music—that’s also a formative example for me, playing in his orchestra. I got to play duo with him, in a quartet. The orchestra music, was truly a kind of trance music (this was before the period of what he called Ghost Trance music). People might describe his music as being really brainy or intellectual—and that dimension is obviously there—but what I think he was looking for is a complete immersion, and breaking down the divides between the rational mind and irrational mind, intuition, being able to negotiate challenging notation, improvise while counting, improvise without counting, improvise with shapes, improvise with specific pitches or specific directions. Sometimes those different activities are counted and repeated. Some of them are not counted and constantly evolving. Some can be more textural, some can be more melodic It was about navigating all of these binaries and erasing them until you become a field of activity and awareness. There’s a sense of ritual about it.

When I’m listening to polyphonic music, the question for me is whether you’re willing to lose yourself. I remember seeing Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time at a festival in Spain and it was a wall of sound. It was so loud and dense and intense. And then I closed my eyes and it was like the wall receded and I could hear things happening in multiple layers at the same time. It was really amazing. The wall can be a little bit prohibitive and push you away, but then you break through it and something opens up. I love that experience. I feel that all of the players in this band are comfortable with this experience and are available to navigate it.

TJG: In your compositions for the group, how do you shape the continuum between simple, static music and dense, multiplicitous music?

MA: Let me think… How do I say this briefly?

The first concert that we did was last summer. I just had this series of pieces. Some were pretty written-out with a very clear grid, and others were much more sketch-like. I then left it very free for how we got from one to the other. The idea is to have an uninterrupted set of music.  It was a great experience, but when we played it again at Roulette in December, I thought that I could actually give the players more freedom if I decided ahead of time how the transitions would work. I made a pretty specific, but simple kind of flow-chart for the concert with the ins and outs of the notated material, basically deciding who was playing and how the crossfades would happen. I didn’t need to dictate the content, because all of the players are comfortable improvising from material you’ve already played, or improvising toward material that you’re about to play, or making something completely out of the moment that’s not related, but is needed at that particular moment in terms of texture and balance.

This is the case in all of the groups I lead, but I really try to vary the kinds of muscles that are being engaged. It’s not always about the same ability or skill or consciousness. The music can go from non-vertically aligned gestures to things where everything is very aligned and the counterpoint is strict and laid out. And within the pieces, there are different zones. It’s about going across this imaginary break between your rationality and intuition.

This idea goes back to Braxton, and to Paul Motian too, in a different way, that when you’re reading, you’re already improvising. And when you’re improvising, you’re scripting what happens. The written text is never the final authority.

TJG: I think that this idea brings up an interesting interrogation of the relationship between improvisation and chance. In a simplistic way, improvisation is seen as a chance-based activity—we’ll just fake it and see what happens! When you talk about interpreting notation as an improvisational act, it’s less about the chance elements, and more about integrated, real-time decision making. Whether you’re using grid-oriented western notation, or another kind of symbolic representation of sound, you’re presenting a performer with information that assists in their real-time activities.

MA: It’s about activating different states of being. If I’m hearing a groove, if I’m counting it, and I’m deciding where to place my note in time, I’m improvising in the sense that I have to make it real in that moment. Even if the notation is really specific, things might go “wrong”, or things might go in a way that’s not expected. Or often there could be an entirely improvised layer happening simultaneously, and I have to be aware of it and relate to it while I’m reading. And then sometimes if I’m really in the zone while improvising, I’ll feel like I’m receiving dictation. If I’m really in tune with the moment and listening hard, then things will happen in this decisive way. If I’m really true to this moment, then there’s only one thing that can happen.

The different kinds of notation are there so that all of the players—including myself—never get stuck in either only the counting-reading mode, or only in the free, eyes-closed, going-off mode. With the different kinds of notation, we’re able to keep going back and forth and achieve a kind of expanded consciousness. I think the audience feels that, too. It’s not just about us on stage. It’s about all of us in this collective experience. All of the things that we know will happen in the performance, act as higher and higher trampolines to jump off from into the unknown. If we’re always starting from ground zero, we can’t jump very high, I feel like. So the writing is there to create a portal into something even more unknown, to not rely on habits.

TJG: I got to meet George Lewis at a music festival, and he spoke about improvisation outside of music, getting into this improvisational mindset, how improvisation works cognitively. One thing that was really interesting to me was when he spoke about improvisation as a reaction to some kind of emergency situation. In real life versus music, that can have really high stakes and put you in a certain emotional state.

MA: Yeah—it’s dangerous! If you’re really improvising, of course there’s an element of danger. If you don’t feel some kind of danger when you’re playing, I don’t think you’re really there with the other musicians or the audience. There’s so much that’s coming from your body, from your mind, from your heart, from your blood, from your central nervous system, from your ears. The danger of whatever failure means to you, or of revealing something intimate and powerful that you don’t know about yourself. If playing a piece of music is just about manifesting your mastery of something, I don’t think that you achieve true mastery.

When I think of mastery, I think of seeing Leroy Jenkins in a solo concert. For the first ten minutes, it wasn’t really clear that the man had ever seen a violin before. It was so strange and beautiful and naked and then it became magical, larger-than-life, and the fragility was the source of his power. He was a total master, of course, of time, space, sound, of the complete musical event. Your smaller mastery can get in the way of that, because the larger thing includes what you don’t know, while the smaller thing only includes what you do know.

When you plug that coefficient of the impossible or the unknown into what you do, then it’s scary. But it’s also potentially really beautiful and real.

TJG: It reminds me a bit of this quote from Wayne Shorter where he said that jazz means “I dare you.”

MA: That’s right on. It’s the courage of Wayne Shorter. It’s the courage of not doing. I remember seeing him at Carnegie Hall and he was just standing there for a long time, holding his soprano and not playing anything. And then he would throw a sound into the pool and let it ripple through the band. It was amazing, that patience and that mastery to not show off and cheapen the moment.

I feel that there’s a contract with the listener of how much value am I giving to what I’m doing at any given moment. That value can be changing, because again, it’s a question of balance. Because if you start overvaluing and fetishizing every moment, the music becomes precious, you lose forward motion, and that can be a dead end. But then if you’re creating a million things at the same time all the time, then everything starts to lose value in the economy of the music, you lose presence and detail, and that’s another dead end. There’s never an answer that’s good for every moment. There’s only an answer that’s good for this particular moment. And that’s true whether you’re dealing with fully notated or fully improvised music. Whether it’s notated or not is not the crux of where the music happens.

TJG: I want to go back to that question of notation or representation for a bit, especially in how notation can act as a trampoline into further reaches of the unknown.

MA: Sometimes you write something down because it’s a song and you want to record that song. A song can be made out of sounds and textures and breaths and silences, but it has to have its own life. It’s not just about my will. Hopefully I’m not just pushing things around, but while I’m writing, I’m listening to the song that’s emerging. By itself, it can have its own balances and nutrients and vitamins and elements, which then will feed the players and allow them to go beyond themselves.

When I think of Paul Motian, you’ll have a chart of one of his tunes, and there’s hardly anything there. And yet so much music is provoked by what is there. Part of that I think is that they are songs, they’re organisms. Monk or Wayne Shorter or Ornette—they write pieces of music that are like viruses. They do something to you. You ingest them and they develop a whole life inside of you.

TJG: Along those lines, I’ll try to imagine what it would be like if one could experience time as a fixed dimension. How would different pieces of music sound and feel, in terms of being able to experience every performance of that piece at the same time?

MA: Yeah! Every few years, I get back into the work of Buckminster Fuller. He had a term for that. It should be taken with a grain of salt and sense of humor, but he called it a  self-interfering pattern of integrity. Describing a knot, for example: it can be made of any material, like a rope made out of hemp or cotton, but the knot as a self-interfering pattern of integrity exists independent of all those things. The human body—we ourselves are self-interfering patterns of integrity processing all different kinds of chemicals and light and food and thought and music. And I think pieces of music are like that. It’s what Fuller called “synergy”—the behavior of a whole system that can’t be predicted by the behavior of its parts. Like, how do these particular notes end up being, “Ruby My Dear?” I couldn’t have predicted it by those chords or those notes by themselves. Something happens, and suddenly, that’s what it is. So I love that idea, of every performance of a piece coming alive like that.

I once saw Martha Argerich and Ivry Gitlis play Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata at Carnegie Hall. The violinist, who was over 80 at that point, was taking so many risks in the performance—pitch-wise, time-wise. This piece that I thought I knew was now completely strange and unknown. People were walking out because they couldn’t take it! He would play really sharp and then find the pitch, and go really under it. And Martha Argerich was a total genius—whatever happened, she integrated it. It was dangerous. I was on the edge of my seat, not knowing what was going to happen. It doesn’t mean you want every performance of that piece to be like that, but that feeling that it’s on a tightrope is really necessary. It has to be made new in the moment. You’re bringing breath and blood in the moment to something that would otherwise be a dead text. If it’s alive now, it will be alive forever. But if it’s not brought to life now, then it will never be alive.

The Michaël Attias Nine plays The Jazz Gallery on June 11, 2019. The group features Mr. Attias on alto saxophone, Tony Malaby on tenor & soprano saxophones, Kenny Warren on trumpet, Ben Gerstein on trombone, Kris Davis on piano, Christopher Hoffman on cello, John Hébert on bass, Satoshi Takeishi on percussion, and Eric McPherson on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $20 general admission ($10 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.