Innerviews - Music Without Borders
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Barry Cleveland
Fiery forays
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2004 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

Many musicians likely envy Barry Cleveland. He’s a renowned guitarist and composer with four solo CDs to his credit. He’s also an editor at Guitar Player magazine, a post that’s seen him jet across the United States to hang out with the likes of Jeff Beck, Adrian Belew, Eric Clapton and Ry Cooder. In addition, he’s the author of Creative Music Production: Joe Meek’s Bold Techniques, the definitive tome on the career of legendary ‘60s producer Joe Meek. To say his career in the music industry is multifaceted and rewarding is an understatement.

Volcano, Cleveland’s latest album, finds the San Francisco Bay Area-based musician exploring the nuances of rhythm. Drawing from a varied palette of traditions, timbres and tonalities, the disc bridges the impressionist leanings of his previous releases with a more audacious, kinetic approach. True to its name, Volcano is a fiery effort, full of propulsive grooves that are organically integrated into interweaving melodies and intriguing soundscapes.

During the Volcano sessions, Cleveland asked his sidemen, comprised of some of the Bay Area’s leading musicians, to rely on intuition when responding to his compositions. With backgrounds in jazz, folk and world music, the stellar cast, which includes bassist Michael Manring, bowhammer cymbalom player Michael Masley and percussionist Michael Pluznick, infused each piece with a myriad of influences and perspectives.

Cleveland’s two-decade association with these musicians ensured positive chemistry and a playful, creative spirit. That vibe can also be found in Cloud Chamber, an improvisational collective featuring Cleveland, Manring and Masley that straddles many genres, styles and moods. The band’s maverick and sometimes epic-length explorations are well-represented on Dark Matter, its 1998 debut CD.

Prior to Volcano, Cleveland released two other noteworthy albums: 1989’s Voluntary Dreaming and 1986’s Mythos. Voluntary Dreaming was an electronics-based album that found Cleveland performing on samplers and synths, as well as electric and acoustic guitars. It built upon the bent represented on Mythos, his debut CD released on Larry Fast’s highly-regarded, short-lived Audion label. Mythos took an ambient, layered guitar approach that mirrored the label’s minimalist aesthetic.

“We were inundated with material during the early days of the Audion label and a few of the submissions stuck out as being a cut above the rest and Barry’s was certainly one of them,” said Fast, a pioneering musician that helped shape the evolution of synthesizers in modern music. “What he was writing wasn’t the same kind of repetitive, formulaic thing that a lot of the electronic acts were submitting as demos. Barry’s music was creative and unpredictable. He offered a storyline and it was one that was significantly better than your average mystery novel in which you can figure it out by page three. With Barry’s writing, you couldn’t necessarily determine where it would go next, but it always went somewhere interesting without being jarring. Barry’s music also had a wonderful soundstage and soundscape. There was a certain clarity to it. It was clear he knew what he was doing with his writing and recording. It made for a very nice package. He’s a very talented guy.”

Voluntary Dreaming and Mythos have been out-of-print for years, but Memory and Imagination, a new double-CD collection, features most of the material, along with several unreleased pieces. Innerviews discussed the new compilation, Volcano and Cleveland’s many other musical pursuits in this in-depth conversation.

Tell me about the rhythmic approach you chose for Volcano.

Nearly all of the pieces are based on African and Afro-Haitian rhythms and the compositional process began with improvisation. I had been working with percussionist Michael Pluznick for a few years—he played on Voluntary Dreaming and I contributed some bits to his Where the Rain Is Born CD—and he gave me a DAT of about 30 all-percussion recordings to work with. I spent several months playing guitar along with the DAT, just improvising, and archiving the results on a cassette recorder. Over time, the rhythms became increasingly familiar and my improvisational responses to them more organic.

The guitar improvisations were typically fairly far removed from the music that traditionally accompanies these rhythms, yet they were often oddly integrated, occasionally in surprising ways. Sometimes, complete themes or even whole sections would emerge seemingly out of the ether. More often, simple riffs and rhythmic figures would materialize, then be absorbed back into my subconscious, only to reemerge later in mutated forms. Eventually, I chose nine improvisations for further development.

Another interesting aspect of the process was that most of the rhythms are associated with a particular god or goddess, and are supposed to embody that deity’s primary characteristics. I chose not to learn what those characteristics were initially, so that the rhythms themselves, rather than preconceptions, would influence the improvisations. Later, when we compared what I’d come up with to the traditional attributions, they matched up surprisingly well.

Describe the choice of sidemen on the album and how their contributions helped shape the music.

Most of the players are people I had worked with previously. I first played with Michael Manring when he participated in an entirely improvised “Living Room Concert,” recorded at my home by John Diliberto for his Echoes radio program in 1991. I was blown away by Manring’s astonishing technique and polyglot musical aesthetic—he is arguably the greatest solo bassist in the world—so naturally, I gravitated towards him when I began working on Volcano.

As for Manring’s contributions, I worked out simple bass parts for the songs either on the guitar or a bass synth, and created mock-ups, which I gave to him a few days before the sessions. On pieces such as “Makanda,” “Tongue of Fire” and “Secret Prescriptions of the Bedroom,” he played pretty much those simple lines, though he also added accompanying parts, usually improvised. On “Rhumbatism” and “Volcano,” where I had already filled up the low end with bass synth parts, he just improvised around them. Manring also played some great solos, such as the Ebowed parts on “Dervish Circles” and “Ophidian Waves,” and the breathtaking runs on “Rhumbatism” and “Volcano.”

Norbert Stachel—who was very active in the Bay Area music scene, but has since relocated to New York—became involved after the percussion, bass and guitar parts had already been recorded. Stachel plays all of the instruments in the flute, saxophone and clarinet families, and at the time he used to carry nearly all of them around in the cavernous trunk of an old car. I’d play him the basic tracks for each piece and suggest an instrument to record. After that, we would usually go out to his car, where he would dig around in the trunk until he found something else that might work. In several cases, he chose instruments that I would never have thought of, such as piccolo flute and contrabass clarinet, the highest and lowest of the orchestral instruments, both of which are used on “Rhumbatism.” Stachel also played the EWI [Electronic Wind Instrument], a woodwind synthesizer, and on “Black Diamond Express,” he produced the “train” sound that opens the piece by blowing into a conch shell.

I had performed and recorded with Michael Masley for many years. He played a bowhammer cymbalom solo on “Tongue of Fire” when the album was originally recorded, and on “Dark Energy,” towards the end. He also played three of his original instruments—Reed Slide, Lakota Slide and Phenix—on “Obsidian Night.” Masley’s parts were entirely improvised, and he nailed most of them on the first take, which is particularly impressive when you consider that he was recorded in a shower stall to get a natural reverb effect.

Lygia Ferra is now a pop singer-songwriter in Los Angeles, but she used to live in the Bay Area. Her part on “Secret Prescriptions of the Bedroom” was entirely improvised in what she calls Lygian—a “language” comprised of Italian, Iranian, Yiddish and other vocal sounds. Max Taylor joined her on “Dervish Circles,” which was originally going to be a vocal duet with actual words based on a poem by Rumi, but which became a real-time improvisation instead.

How do you look back at Mythos and Voluntary Dreaming?

They are very different recordings, each with its high points and low points. Some of the music is still interesting and engaging, and some of the pieces make me wince whenever I hear them. The music that I still like appears on disc one of the new two-CD compilation Memory & Imagination.

The title cut on Mythos, which runs 20 minutes and takes up the entire second side of the LP and cassette releases, was the culmination of a way of creating music I’d been working on since I was in my teens, and it remains one of my favorite pieces. The basic idea is to record lots of improvised tracks—more than you can possibly use—and find the combinations that work at various points. It is a very labor-intensive way of working, as you have to compare all of the tracks in every combination, but the results can be compelling. In the case of “Mythos,” since the piece runs so long, and we didn’t have automation at the time, I would sometimes get almost to the end of the mix and then make a mistake, necessitating having to start all over again.

At the time “Mythos” was recorded I had only recently met Michael Masley, and he and I improvised the basic tracks one afternoon at Spark Studios. I played guitar using a violin bow, an Ebow and various other devices—all running through two Revox A77 tape recorders configured for looping—and Michael played bowhammer cymbalom and a small xylophone. After the first pass, I wanted to get a deeper sound, so I slowed the tape down, transposing everything down a few steps and creating some huge guitar and cymbalom sounds. The remaining tracks were recorded using the slower speed as the base, providing a nice blend of timbres. We recorded additional guitar and cymbalom tracks, and later Bob Stohl and Kat Epple added several types of flutes, Lyricon and a variety of bells, cymbals and other light percussion.

The other pieces on Mythos were more composed and arranged, though some of the solos were improvised. It is somewhat ironic that Mythos was released on an “electronic music” label, as there are no synthesizers on about half of it.

When it came time to record Voluntary Dreaming, I was still signed to Audion, and I wanted to do something more electronic. I bought a MIDI keyboard with an onboard sequencer, and worked out the basic tracks for the pieces in my home studio. Then I took the sequences into Spark, dumped them into Performer, a computer-based MIDI sequencer, and we assigned the parts to various synthesizer and sampler modules. The synth tracks were then transferred to a 24-track analog recorder and the other parts—percussion, guitar, pedal steel guitar, cymbalom and voice—were added at Spark. I’m still happy with the majority of the pieces on Voluntary Dreaming. The album was scheduled for release on Audion, and an early mix of the title cut appears on the second Audion sampler CD, but the label imploded before the project was completed. Fortunately, I got another deal shortly thereafter.

Reflect on the heady days of Audion and getting signed by Larry Fast.

I performed at a benefit for WFMU in New Jersey back in 1984, where I met Richard Ginsburg, a DJ with a program called Synthetic Pleasure. I gave Ritchie a tape of Mythos, and he not only played it on his program, he offered to send copies to artists such as Brian Eno, Klaus Schultz and Larry Fast on my behalf. I received a very nice letter from Fast saying that Mythos was one of the most interesting-sounding projects he had heard in a long time, and that he enjoyed the music, but that he was only an artist and couldn’t really get me a deal.

About a year later, Fast was asked to become head of A&R for a new label being started by JEM/Passport Records, which had released all of his Synergy albums. The president, Marty Scott, wanted to create what he referred to as an “electronic Windham Hill,” in order to capitalize on the burgeoning new age genre. Fast contacted me and said that he’d like to release Mythos on the new label.

Mythos was one of the first three records released on Audion. JEM took out full-page color ads in Billboard, Musician and other mainstream magazines in order to establish the label, so I benefited from the heavy exposure. It also meant that my record got reviewed in quite a few important magazines, which was very fortunate. It was chosen as one of the 25 Best New Age CDs in Stereo Review, alongside such other “new age” recordings as Dark Side of the Moon, and received very favorable press in Option, Jazziz, Electronic Musician, CD Review, among others.

Things went very well for about a year. The label signed some great artists, and there were plans to combine Audion with the E.G. Editions label. But when JEM/Passport attempted to merge with Enigma Records, the word got out that there was a lot of funny business with the books, and a few weeks later they were out of business. Audion, Passport and several other sister labels were doing well, but they all went down with the parent company.

Tell me about the distance traveled between Voluntary Dreaming and Volcano.

When I recorded Voluntary Dreaming, I wanted to do something more electronic, to fit the format of the Audion label. I played all of the keyboard and guitar parts, and even a little percussion, so the CD is mostly myself and Michael Pluznick, with contributions from other artists on a few of the pieces. When it came time to do the next project, I decided to go in the opposite direction and not use any sequencing or synthesizers. I did wind up using a few synths here and there, but 95 percent of Volcano is actual people playing non-synthesized instruments, so it sounds completely different than Voluntary Dreaming. I still wrote all of the music, but the contributions from other players were far more extensive and significant than was the case on Voluntary Dreaming.

Do you have a specific philosophy when it comes to guitar playing?

I try to get unusual and interesting sounds out of the electric guitar, rather than striving to be the next guitar god. Besides using a lot of electronic processing, I also play with an Ebow, a Chinese Erhu bow and a set of Masley Bowhammers designed especially for the guitar. Then, once I have recorded the guitar parts, I often take great liberties in processing them even more, and sometimes what I wind up with is not really recognizable as guitar at all.

For example, occasionally people would ask me why there were so few guitar parts on “Mythos,” or even if there were any guitar parts at all. When I explained that about 60 percent of the sounds on the piece were created using guitars, they would often be incredulous. On Voluntary Dreaming many of the guitar parts are more easily identifiable, as the electronic sounds were produced using synths and samplers rather than processed guitar.

On Volcano, there is a fairly even mix of processed and more conventional guitar sounds. Since the pieces were composed while playing guitar along with the rhythm tracks, and I was usually using clean sounds at the time, I wound up using those same sounds on the basic tracks. There’s a lot of studio funny business on the overdubs, but for the most part, the basic tracks are clearly recognizable as guitar. Also, I wanted to use a wider variety of guitar tones than I had previously, so I played a PRS Custom-24 guitar in addition to my old Les Paul Custom. The PRS gave me a whole new palate of sounds, as well as a whammy bar, to work with.

On Disc Two of Memory & Imagination, all of the sounds, except for percussion, were produced by guitar—and many of them were very heavily processed, sometimes totally beyond recognition.

Tell me a little about your musical beginnings and pre-Mythos projects.

After attending a school band promotion while in fourth grade, I asked my parents if I could take saxophone lessons. My mother didn’t think it was a bad idea, but my father was very much opposed. Many years later, I learned that my father had attempted to play the sax when he was a boy, but that he’d never got much beyond annoying the neighbors. I pursued scientific interests instead—astronomy, entomology, toy rockets, etcetera—until I saw the Beatles and decided that “rock star” was a potentially more rewarding career choice. I got a ukulele when I was about 11, soon progressed to an acoustic guitar, and about six months later got an electric semi-hollow Japanese instrument. Soon, I was working out all sorts of pop and rock songs.

My first live performance was a solo gig at a junior high school “happening”—it was the ‘60s—where I played a noisy, mostly improvised piece of original music with my amp’s vibrato and spring reverb effects cranked way up. Next, I formed a band with three friends, and we played a lot of Zeppelin, Cream, Beck, Hendrix and other heavy guitar-oriented music. By the time I was in high school, I was playing in bars and clubs with much older musicians, and my musical tastes had expanded to include progressive bands such as King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Spirit and Van der Graaf Generator.

During my college years, I listened to a lot of ECM jazz—my favorites were Terje Rypdal and Barre Phillips—along with Mahavishnu, Miles, Weather Report, Oregon, etcetera. All of this music influenced my playing to some extent, particularly sonically. By the early ‘70s, I was using tape echo units, spring reverbs, fuzzes, wahs, phasers, flangers and anything else I could get my hands on. We even had a Mellotron in one of the groups I worked with. I also studied electronic music briefly with Larry Austin, where I was exposed to the music of Stockhausen, Subotnick, Schaeffer, Ussachevsky and other pioneers, as well as having a chance to fool around with modular Moog synths, tape loop racks and other esoteric gear.

When I left college in 1978, I joined an eight-piece funk and soul band called Devastation. There were three guys up front that sang harmony vocals and played horns, and a guy who played a Hammond B3 and a Fender Rhodes piano. I was part of the rhythm section. We played all over the southeastern U.S. doing mostly one-nighters, and although it was quite an education for a kid fresh out of college, after a year I was sick of touring, so I quit and moved to California.

In the early ‘80s, I began learning more about studio recording—producing some radio dramas among other things—and I worked briefly with several groups, including a new age ensemble called Emerald Web, and an improvisational instrumental duo with Michael Masley called Thin Ice. In 1981 I recorded an album called Stones of Precious Water that was released on cassette by a small Canadian label a few years later. Mythos was recorded in 1984, and was the first project I recorded in a professional studio.

You're in the unique position of being both a music journalist and artist. How has each experience informed your understanding of the other?

While I was writing for Mix, Electronic Musician and Onstage, I was mostly covering gear and recording, rather than interviewing artists. Since I’ve been an associate editor at Guitar Player, however, I’ve done dozens of artist interviews—though, of course, they are only with guitarists, and tend to focus on music from that perspective. Besides being able to pick the minds of some of the greatest pickers in the world, I’ve become more knowledgeable about how they view music journalists, and I’ve picked up a few interview techniques that I can use.

On a more practical level, I’ve come to appreciate the conditions under which music journalists operate—with the exception of those such as yourself, who operate independently of the corporate publishing industry—and that’s made it easier for me to understand why they do many of the things they do. When you’re dealing with extremely tight deadlines, attempting to provide balanced coverage across genres, and trying to keep the newsstand and subscription sales robust, it is necessary to have a very different perspective than you might have as purely a music listener. Conversely, having had my music covered and reviewed by journalists over the years has necessarily provided me with an artist’s perspective, making me generally more sensitive to the artists I write about.

What is your opinion of the state of music journalism today?

Music journalism is typically serviceable and occasionally excellent—but all too often it’s superficial, and in many cases, obviously affected by the restraints of the corporate publishing industry. My personal peeve is when lazy journalists who do not adequately research their subjects, or listen critically to the music being considered, unreservedly offer up half-baked and often sweeping evaluations. My advice to music journalists is to imagine that the artist is there with them in the room, and if their writing is critical of that artist, to be certain that they’d have the balls to read their work aloud to them before publishing it.

The composer Witold Lutoslawski once said "People whose sensibility is destroyed by music in trains, airports and lifts, cannot concentrate on a Beethoven Quartet." What do you make of music as a commercial conditioning device and its effect on the public's ability to appreciate this art form as a serious endeavor?

There are numerous factors that serve to diminish the average contemporary listener’s ability to concentrate in general, such as stress, diet, exercise, age and physical environment. I’m not sure how you would determine to what extent a particular case is related specifically to background and other programmatic music. And, given that concentrating on—or at least comprehending—Beethoven’s music requires some specialized education, the average listener would probably experience difficulty anyway. That said, I feel that overexposure to information of all types, sonic or otherwise, can lead to numbness and the inability to differentiate the useful from the irrelevant.

Viewed from a more positive angle, the use of a wide variety of musics in commercials and films, for example, can sometimes be educational. These days, the hunger for ever-more exotic sounds, often culled from the musics of distant cultures, can result in the expansion of the listener’s musical awareness. We live in a time when the borders between cultures and societies are becoming less distinct, and we are exposed to a wider variety of musics than at any other time in history. One result of this is the emergence of hybrid musical forms that incorporate elements from all over the globe, whether absorbed consciously or unconsciously, and I find that quite exciting. Volcano is an example of this.

What’s coming up for you?

I have recently converted my studio from analog to computer-based recording, and I’m exploring the many possibilities that technology provides. I’ve also been doing a lot of work with looping. I’ve stockpiled hundreds of loops that I hope to incorporate into my new works. I have several projects in the works—including a spoken word and music CD with Seattle poet Craig Van Riper and a second Cloud Chamber CD—but beyond those, I’m only starting to get an inkling of what’s to come. It’ll most likely be really noisy, though, whatever it is.

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