Playing on the moment's edge
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1998 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
Last February, the Reuters news service ran a story that asked "Is there dark matter in this galaxy?" The piece described dark matter as that which "cannot be seen by conventional means but which makes its presence known by its effects on gravity." While the existence of dark matter is a topic of heated debate amongst astrophysicists, five renowned Bay area musicians have used the abstract concept as a very real springboard for a spatial odyssey in improvisation.
Dark Matter is the title of the debut CD from that quintet. Known as Cloud Chamber, the group is comprised of guitarist Barry Cleveland, bassist Michael Manring, bowhammer cymbalom (a Hungarian hammer dulcimer) player Michael Masley, cellist Dan Reiter and percussionist Joe Venegoni. The disc is an entirely improvised, all-instrumental outing that eschews conventional musical thinking in order to pursue spontaneous and unpredictable directions.
Cloud Chamber straddles many genres, styles and moods in its free-spirited and sometimes epic-length explorations. The group incorporates elements of world music, jazz, classical, ambient, noise rock, progressive rock and even a touch of punk angst. Featuring shades of Frank Zappa, Dmitri Shostakovich, Brian Eno and late-60's Miles Davis, Dark Matter possesses an unclassifiable sound that truly embraces the idea of music without borders.
The group's musicians have shared the same aural gravitational pull throughout the '90s. The genesis of their musical relationship goes back to a Bay Area musical retreat known as 'The Lodge.' From early 1991 until the mid-90s, The Lodge was home to a series of improvisational music gatherings featuring virtuoso players from around the world. Cleveland, Manring, Masley, Reiter and Venegoni were regular participants in those sessions, the first of which was recorded for Echoes, a program aired on many National Public Radio stations across the United States. Elated at the possibilities of taking their improvisational leanings to the next level, the fab five decided to form Cloud Chamber in 1995.
Cloud Chamber's members all possess an accomplished and varied track record. Cleveland has released two critically acclaimed discs of intricate, processed guitar soundscapes and currently serves as an editor at Mix Magazine. Manring is acknowledged by many as one of the most innovative players to ever pick up an electric bass—something his four solo recordings and collaborations with Michael Hedges, Alex Skolnick and Henry Kaiser attest to. Masley and his one-of-a-kind shimmering, spectral cymbalom sound graces several solo releases, as well as famed albums by Ry Cooder and Garbage. Reiter's career has been equally diverse, having performed as principal cellist with the Oakland Symphony Orchestra and on recordings by legendary Indian musician Ali Akbar Khan. Venegoni also has several CDs to his credit and has composed music for several independent choreographers and dance companies including Janice Garrett and The Gash/Voight Dance Theatre.
In the spirit of Cloud Chamber's music, this interview is a free-flowing exchange of ideas. It presents a diverse range of opinions and viewpoints that illuminate the mindset and creative process of this unique and fascinating ensemble.
What does the word improvisation mean to each of you?
Masley: It means playing on the moment's edge. It's the truest-to-life form of music because it involves the least amount of preparation and control—you're letting the moment decide how it flows and unfolds. In a way, it's a collaboration with the moment. Your ego isn't as involved as it is with a composed piece because you don't know what's going to happen. It's a collaborative surrender.
Reiter: Improvisation is what's happening during this conversation. What Michael just said has inspired me to the next comment and that's exactly what happens when we play. Improvisation is a devotional space that I like to get into and an exercise in being in the moment as much as possible. It's about having no fear of what you're playing and a healthy disrespect for anything gone wrong, as well as taking delight in anything that went right.
Venegoni: It's 'start, keep going, keep playing until you stop.' For me, it's just a really fun and playful thing to do. It's also a challenge to figure out how to make everything fit together because everyone is always bringing in something new and unexpected—something different to play off of.
Manring: People often think of improvisation as meaning jazz improvisation, but I'm interested in the greater meaning of the word. I'm interested in the idea of improvising not necessarily notes, but phrasing, dynamics and articulation. For me, the thing that makes improvisation important is that it's so directly connected to the moment. I think it's a very necessary form of musical expression that's existed in all cultures through time, but Western culture has sort of kept it hidden. It's so responsive and it's a great way to work with people. It opens up deeper possibilities for dialogue.
Cleveland: Our method of improvisation ignores tradition and haphazardly, we clash traditions. We're pulling a rabbit out of a hat each time when we walk onstage or sit down and put on the tape recorder. We have no idea what we're going to play at all. And there are no guarantees that something great is going to come out of it. Yet often enough, something does that's really exciting, new and truly creative, and that brings you back for more.
Describe the chemistry of the group.
Masley: One of the things about this quintet is that it's an extension of long-standing friendships and that really enriches the premise of improvisation. We enjoy each other's company and Cloud Chamber celebrates that enjoyment musically. We participate equally moment by moment. It's like a conversation in music in which we don't even talk about a key—we just jump in, a groove appears and we board it like a train. Each of us has a different enough and similar enough personality that there's a really good working balance there.
Manring: When you get together to play with any musicians, you're searching for common ground—a language everyone can speak. One of the fascinating things about being involved with improvisation is that language can take place immediately. I can play a phrase and if it is recognized or interpreted in a certain way, it can be reacted to in a certain way. Our common language is that we all have this interest in creating music with as few boundaries as possible and using improvisation as a vehicle for exploring and experimenting.
Cleveland: There are parallels between what we do and a spiritual discipline that has to do with putting your conscious mind, habits and conditioning aside and allowing something more significant to come through. That's an exciting thing, especially when you're suddenly swept away and you do something you wouldn't have consciously conceived of. It's particularly thrilling when these five people do it simultaneously. There's something that takes over that's much bigger and authoritative than any of our individual personalities. There's something magical there.
Reiter: With this group, there's the music of your conscious mind, and then there's your subconscious mind having some conflict or conversation with you—just like in a dream there are tremendous amounts of images that don't make sense, but miraculously can if you look at it as a whole. We try not to worry about things that aren't perfectly tightly knit. It's about building a conversational piece of music in which we play as a series of individual duets within the group.
Venegoni: It's great fun. It really does have an element of enjoyment and adventure. You don't know where you're going to end up. If you end up in a dangerous place and somebody falls, everyone else jumps. [laughs] Cloud Chamber has a good camaraderie that goes beyond the music too.
Masley: None of us feels dominated by a foreign agenda or a leader of the band. This is about as pure a democracy as you can get creatively. You feel like you're in it for yourself and everyone feels like they have a personal stake in it, yet it still operates as a group. We all feel free to contribute whatever and whenever.
What philosophies shape how a typical Cloud Chamber piece evolves?
Cleveland: We've all grown up in the 20th Century in which we're exposed to many different types of music consciously and unconsciously all the time. Music is in the environment, on television, on radio and on city streets. That music seeps into your aesthetic and without thinking "I'm going to interject an Indian lick here or a Chinese scale there," you may find those elements just arising mysteriously. It's not as if we're playing world fusion music in which we take a phrase from some tradition and superimpose it artificially onto another—like putting a sitar solo in a pop song. Cloud Chamber draws from a really broad cultural palette. To me, it's world music beyond the sense of music from some place you don't live—something that combines a global aesthetic in which the individual order of things begins to break down. You know, there's something different about a group just playing because they love to play, rather than trying to prove a point or work within a tradition or trying to reproduce someone else's compositions. There's a freedom here. It's dangerous, it's exciting and it's an adventure.
Masley: It's all about language and one of the wonderful things about language is that you can invent a simple sentence with absolute confidence that it's never been said before—that's something George Carlin once pointed out. The vocabulary of music is a little different. There's borrowing—even stealing—and melodic stuff resurfaces sometimes, but when the five of us improvise, a completely unique cultural product emerges because we're all bringing our life history and personality into it without any preconditions. In some ways, we become instruments of the instrument. In fact, the five of us become one instrument with a semi-conscious force ebbing and flowing through us.
Venegoni: We all have unique life experiences and we all bring that into Cloud Chamber. We've all been around for a while now and it's wonderful to be able to pick and choose from different areas of your life and use it in the music. It's five people acting as one composer and some incredible things come out of that compositionally—some really remarkable passages. I used to play a lot of sports and it's the same kind of thing. You'd never know how the game was going to go. There's something happening that you've never seen before and are not going to see again.
Manring: Cloud Chamber is really an ensemble built on taking as many chances as possible. In most musical situations, you have a set of parameters that you're working with that are pretty well-defined—some chances can be taken, but the scope is pretty set before you. With Cloud Chamber, that's not really true. We originally got together just to create music that has no borders. It's about taking chances and not being afraid of music. Our capitalist society is always concerned about breaking rules and having intentions that might be interpreted badly by others, so it's nice to work in a different mode of operation in which you're only thinking about the possibilities of music—what might happen.
Reiter: Each one of us is almost playing by his own rules. We get together without trying to play in a particular rhythm or by any previous rules. We're trying to establish the music of the 21st century—it's a new tradition. Improvisation is a very old art and we're not inventing a new form here. We're just playing the music we want to play and I wouldn't want it any other way.
What were the challenges in translating music of the moment onto a fixed medium such as a compact disc?
Cleveland: The initial debate was whether we should try to maintain the purity of the performances or consider overdubs and re-recording parts. For this CD, we chose the material from 20 different tapes and ultimately pulled everything used from two tapes of our strongest sessions. We chose not to embellish or overdub and there were significant disagreements over the choice of music. One person's favorite piece was sometimes the most expendable for another. Sometimes those positions changed too—it wasn't static. Some processing and massaging were done to bring up the production standards for a commercial release, so it didn't just sound like a big jam session.
Manring: I think there is still an of-the-moment quality to the music on the CD because it's a first realization of that music. Although it doesn't have an of-the-moment quality when the listener puts it on in terms of the date it was recorded, it has an of-the-moment quality of being spontaneously generated. It's hard to say what it is about that spontaneity that's significant—there's just a certain magic to it. When you listen to something for the first time, you never listen to it quite the same way after that.
What types of listeners do you think Cloud Chamber will appeal to?
Masley: Parolees, outpatients, friends, Romans and countrymen. [laughs]
Venegoni: Sophisticated hipsters. [laughs] It's just a very broad cross-section of listeners that are open to a lot of artistic possibilities.
Manring: This music really doesn't make any compromises for the listener. It's challenging and explorational—it's music without any wrong notes and it's really asking a lot of any listener to pay attention for an hour. This isn't music that works particularly well as background music or functional music. It's not music you'd dance or party to. It appeals to listeners interested in being challenged and open to the idea of hearing something that's new, unique and different.